Non-Normative Books: Why You Should Read Them and a List to Get You Started

In an increasingly globalized world, it is baffling that the US’s mainstream books are so overwhelmingly homogenous–by which I mean white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant or Catholic. International travel and communication is getting easier all the time, and we can see how countries are becoming ever more closely linked. For an example, just look to the European Union. Not only is the world becoming smaller, but the United States itself is becoming increasingly diverse, with the Census Bureau projecting that the white majority will be overturned by 2043, and sooner for younger age groups. The population of minority children under the age of five was 49.9% in 2012 (NBC News).

Photos by Martin Schoeller

Click on this link to read an article by Lise Funderburg for National Geographic, with photos by Martin Schoeller, to have a powerful visual experience about what exactly these stats mean.

What do these statistics mean? They mean that the publishing industry is behind the curve. They mean that it’s past time for some change.

Currently, the industry’s labeling system is such that books that feature non-normative characters are labeled as such. Books featuring black characters and communities are relegated to African American & Black or Multicultural sections. So are books dealing with gay/lesbian themes. You name it. Everything is set up so that the non-normative features are highlighted. The implications can be dangerous and we are left feeling that anything non-normative is “the other” and therefore not worthy of our time and energy because the author or the characters are outside the mainstream. What could they possibly have to say to the “rest of us?”

I would argue that this is a dangerous and limiting practice and attitude. There is an underlying assumption that those books that are left–overwhelmingly “Literature” featuring male WASP characters with male WASP authors featuring themes especially relevant to male WASP people–are what is “normal.” Within WASP culture, even women authors are too often shunted off into “women’s fiction” so that only the men are left. (Read this article for an all-too-common example of this practice.) This trend mimics that of the male, WASP-dominated publishing industry, long seen as the arbiters of what makes “art” or “good literature.” All of this is to say that our books, a vital part of any culture, is excluding and even looking down upon a large and growing chunk of ours.

It is important to read and support these non-normative books. Towards that goal, I have compiled a list of 10 books that are worth reading for their own merits, but especially so considering their content and/or authors. I am embarrassed by how hard it was for me to come up with this list and how many people are not represented. As such, I whole-heartedly welcome any suggestions for further reading.

  1. Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler
  2. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  3. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
  4. The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
  5. First Test by Tamora Pierce*
  6. The Sowing by K Makansi
  7. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  8. King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
  9. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  10. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

There are a couple of great resources that are continually tackling this very issue if you are interested in joining the conversation:

* While Tamora Pierce has certainly created a world with lots of cultural and ethnic diversity, the one thing that made me choose this book (and series) in particular out of all her others is that this is one of the only books I have ever read that has a main female character who is seen as fat, stocky, mannish, and even ugly in a world that prizes women who are the opposite. As someone who has always struggled with weight, body image, and self esteem, I can’t tell you how refreshing and inspiring it was to have this kick-ass character to look up to and with which to connect.

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How Hats Help with Writer’s Block

In the entire sum of my years of writing, the biggest problem that I’ve faced (and continue to face) is that of fear holding me back. There is this sense of perfectionism, this idea that if I can’t do things perfectly, then why should I do them? There is this intense feeling of trepidation; I love writing so much and it’s such an integral part of my identity, where would I be if I “failed”?

Does this sound familiar?

Luckily, I love writing so much that I’ve developed some techniques to help work around this self-sabotage. I’d love to share one of them with you now.

The idea is both simple and silly enough to battle these always serious and sometimes draining emotions: hats.

Hat Collage with Watermark

I got the idea from Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). He uses hats as a way to get himself in the right mindset and to signify to him that day’s approach.

When I tried his trick, I saw the merits of his avenue, but I saw additional possibilities, as well. Above and beyond using hats as a way to get my mind in gear, I’ve used it as a way to get outside myself and even to establish a closer connection with my characters. Different hats have different characteristics, so they can be used to consciously focus on qualities you want to channel, embody, write about, or some combination thereof.

I’ve included a collage of personas as examples. As a writing exercise, consider giving them names and traits you admire or to which you aspire. Give them a a fear or a flaw to see how they handle it and see if you can pick up any ideas from them.

1. Veronica “Ronnie” the cowgirl is tough, stubborn, down-to-earth, and endlessly optimistic. She loves all animals with a passion and has a fear of heights. She fell out of a tree when she was 9 trying to save a baby bird. Since then she’s tried to get over her fear by hiking mountains and is building her way up to rock climbing, something she’s always thought looked fun but has been too afraid to do.

2. Melanie lived a sheltered life, which makes her continuing transition into college a bit of a struggle at times. Her main goal in life is to be a singer, but she has terrible stage fright. In fact, she has acute social anxiety. She is fiercely proud of her younger sister and looks to her for inspiration. Melanie is a romantic who tries not to let disillusionment upset her.

3. Marie’s parents are both college professors so she has sailed the world during sabbatical with them in their family sail boat. Her parents pushed her into pursuing a medical career but she yearns to do something in international relations. Marie is organized and always planning.

4. Drífa is a shield maiden who lived in the 8th century. She protects her son and village with courage, determination, and skill. She knows her worth, is never afraid to stand up for what she believes in, and isn’t afraid to work to get her way. Drífa has a long memory and is determined to confront a demon from her childhood.

How Hats Help Pinterest

5. Reba is a quirky extrovert and is often taken less seriously than she deserves. Her childhood home life wasn’t the greatest and she currently doesn’t talk to her mom. Because of this she is independent and reliable but has trust issues and only has one or two close friends.

It goes without saying that this exercise doesn’t have to be done with hats. A broach, a watch, a scarf, even an object like a pen or typewriter, can serve similar functions.

Please let me know if this article helped or if you’ve thought of something to add. I would love to hear from you.

Book Review: The Nightmare Affair

The Nightmare Affair Cover

The Nightmare Affair is a YA book about Dusty, a 16-year-old girl who has recently discovered that she has magical powers. More specifically, she is a Nightmare, or a person who feeds off of people’s dreams, off of their souls.

The book starts with her breaking into the house of Eli, a hot boy from her old high school, to feed on his dreams. Of course nothing goes according to plan: Eli dreams of a murder that comes true, and Dusty is the only one who can help him find the murderer.  The two are forced by the magical world’s police to become a crime-solving team to avenge the death of a classmate and to stop the killer from striking again.

The Nightmare Affair is a highly enjoyable and quick read. Mindee Arnett has created an engaging world with amusing and relatable characters, most especially our narrator, Dusty. Arnett has a fresh take on the paranormal aspect of her book, though she perhaps relies too heavily upon other genre conventions such as a magical boarding school and a weak love triangle.

While these (overused?) tropes certainly affect the quality of the book for those seeking a more innovative experience, I found the mixture of old and new to be comforting and delightful, if predictable.

4.0 stars

What are your thoughts? Are magical, gothic boarding schools overdone? What about the love triangle? Or are they justified, classic staples of the YA genre? Why? Are they effective? What are some elements of YA that you wished were less repeated? More explored? I’m interested to hear from you!

Book Review : Annie

Annie Cover

1 star

This is the second-worst book that I’ve read all the way through. (The first was Native Son and was required reading for a class. Not. Worth. It. I should have taken the bad grade. It haunts me.) Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out why I finished Annie. I started because the plot sounded delicious: two brothers, one girl, everyone hiding from the law… Overall, the experience was like extreme, self-imposed tickle torture: barely bearable with a pleasurable twist, á la masochism. The pleasurable part is a beautiful concoction of one part terrible writing (ergo there is hope for me as a writer in this industry), one part (unsuccessfully) breaking genre stereotypes (but, still, it’s thought-provoking), and one part good-ole’-fashion train wreck fascination. The fact that I’m poor and shelled out €4 for the book probably has something to do with it. I am going to get my money’s worth. And, deep at heart, I’m the type of reader who, when she decides to read a book, reads the book. Period. All the way through. No matter what.

There isn’t a single positive thing I can say about this book. And I’ve wracked my brain trying to come up with something. The closest I can get is that it has indirectly brought my friend great entertainment because, believe you me, she has been frequently updated on my reading progress.

One could argue that the book has to have some redeeming quality to get such a strong reaction from me, but the strength of my reaction comes from an affront to my sensibilities as both an experienced reader and writer. The book doesn’t affect my emotions as strictly a person who feels compassion for the characters. Okay, I am upset that such a soup of all my favorite tropes was less Panera broccoli cheddar soup and more sewer water.

So without further ado, let me break down the issues for you.

  • The actual writing is terrible. There isn’t a consistent narrator—the book continually switches from first person to third person omniscient and back to a different first person—sometimes within the space of a two-page spread. There are multiple jarring time lapses, ranging from six months to three years. The author seems to be confused as to when a question mark or exclamation point are appropriate. Actually, the finer points of punctuation, in general, seem to escape her and, let’s not forget, her editors. I’ll let you enjoy the following gems without commentary:

“She gave a weak smile, now he would start to remember.”

“’Yes, sir. Is Matt’s son.’”

(This is a three-year-old talking.) “’Oh, but you’re always so busy… So I decided to take Polly instead, and Charlie.’”

“’They’re off to ‘market,’ she mouthed. ‘I’d best be sharp and find somewhere safe.’”

“’Aagh. Aagh. I’m poisoned. I’m poisoned. I’m done for. God forgive me for me sins… Tha’s lucky. Tha could be lying dead. How stupid thou art, Annie.’”

  • The accent is distracting and a bit over-the-top, not to mention inconsistent. That three-year-old talking above? That’s the son of the woman talking in the other examples. What really drives me up the wall, though, is the way the accent is dealt with later in the book, after the main character, Annie, has a more “proper” accent. Obviously, when the character is under stress, she reverts back to her original accent. And the author points it out. Every. Single. Time. As if the reader doesn’t notice. Or even if the reader doesn’t notice the first time, they generally catch on by the second or, you know, tenth time.
  • She kills off a main character. And Toby is not only a main character, but he’s also a potential love interest. You. Don’t. DO. That. In. Romance. Novels. This, along with some other factors (she has a works cited page before the prologue), makes me think that Wood was aiming for a more historical fiction novel with romantic elements. However, Wood follows every single other romantic novel convention, including the way the book is packaged. (A side-note about the packaging: who thought it was a good idea to write the blurb in passive voice?) It’s fine, even commendable, to include less savory aspects that would be prevalent in a setting. But she undermines her efforts by giving her character modern sensibilities in regards to those seedier aspects.
  • Okay. This one’s a total—there’s no other expression for it—clusterfuck. So, at the start of the book, Annie is a mother of three children. She’s forced to leave them because she thinks they will be better without her. Fine. Jolly. Cheers. However, half way through the book she decides to go and find them. She spends one day trying to find them, and then gives up for another decade. She then proceeds to start another family, in the process forgetting about her two boys. But she can’t forget her only daughter. So she goes back, after twenty years to find out what happened to her children. Annie forgetting her boys is brushed off as her having this mystical knowledge that they were both dead. And she finds out about her daughter. But then she doesn’t go to see her. And in the process of forgetting about her first two boys, she has the GALL to tell a semi-foster child (Rose) that, as it comes from Annie’s own personal experience, Rose will never forget her first-born child. But, you know, there will be others. Pat, pat on the head. Annie’s new family is presented as this happy ending, but the reader can’t buy into it because Annie is a pretty terrible mother by modern sensibilities. One can’t even argue that she’s a fine mother by her time period’s standards because Annie is presented, as mentioned above, as a woman with modern-day values.
  • The book promises two payoffs: a happy conclusion for Annie romantically, and a reunion with her abandoned children. We don’t get the latter, which sucks the first of its strength. As such, at the end of the book the reader doesn’t feel that Annie has overcome any of her flaws. Yeah, she’s stumbled into a better life for herself, but has she earned it?

Ultimately, this book fails because there is disconnect between Wood, her publisher, and reader expectations. The book, as is, can be better served if it were marketed primarily as historical fiction. Even then, the book needs some work, primarily by beefing up the other storylines—especially Matt Linton’s—to make it less romance-centric. However, if Wood’s ultimate goal was to produce a romance novel, a major overhaul is needed, requiring more changes than I’m willing to outline here.

Obviously, I do not recommend this book, unless you are looking for an example of how not to write romance novels. Instead, I would point you towards Judith McNaught for romance novels of a similar period.

Book Review: Suddenly

Suddenly Cover

Suddenly is a story about four doctors in practice together in a small town in Vermont. The book largely deals with the results of one of the doctors, Mara, committing suicide.

I appreciated the way Delinsky tackles mourning; it occurs in waves and manifests itself differently in each of the three doctors. Their grief is this tangled, gnarly thing that forces them, and the reader, to look at their friendships, romances, and lives in new ways.

That being said, there are a couple of MAJOR issues with this book.

1) Most troubling is a sexual encounter that is clearly rape but is portrayed as not being so. The man (one of the main characters) barges into the apartment of his hookup, against her will, corners her against a wall, and proceeds to rape her. To not put a too fine a point on it, the penis comes into contact with the vulva, one of Vermont’s definitions of rape.* At the end, when she threatens to prosecute, he says “what happened just now wasn’t rape.” Her reply: “Maybe not in the end, because, you’re right, you know the buttons to push.”

Let me make this crystal clear: HE RAPED HER. Even if she had orgasmed (which she hadn’t) it would have been rape. At no point did she consent. On the contrary, at every point she tells him no, commands him to stop. WHAT HE DID WAS ILLEGAL. According to the Vermont Statutes on sexual assault*, he was breaking the law. 

I am not saying that rape shouldn’t be a topic of conversations; quite the contrary. What I am saying is that by Delinsky having both characters say it wasn’t rape, with no indication anywhere else in the book to the contrary, Delinsky is giving the reader the idea that the situation wasn’t as serious as it was. It is harmful to perpetuate the idea that rape is not, in fact, rape, and that people that really have gone through a similar experience don’t have recourse for action.

2) At another point in the book, our male romantic lead enters the home of the main female romantic lead. She, too, continually says no, and he, too, continually ignores her and enters her house, against her will.

Answer me this: WHAT IS SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT THE WORD “NO?” We are capable adults. We mean what we say. So if we say no, take us at our word and DON’T DO WHATEVER YOU WERE ABOUT TO DO! It is highly disturbing that Delinsky portrays these situations in such a light. It is not okay for anyone to invade anyone else’s personal space without consent, whether it be private property or one’s own body.

3) I recognize that Delinsky probably didn’t have control over her cover; however, it deserves mention. What race would you say that baby is on the cover? White, right? Guess what race the baby is in the book. Indian. That is not an Indian baby on the cover. There is, sadly, a word for this practice: whitewashing. This is when a cover portrays a non-white character as white. Read this article for a discussion of why this is a big issue that needs to be addressed.

Because of these issues, I can’t recommend this book.

1.5 stars

*With sexual assault laws being different from state to state, I researched the specific laws concerning the state in which the book takes place, though he raped her by definition of every state in the United States.

Book Review: Defiance

Defiance Cover

Defiance is a rather dark book about a young woman trying to find her father after he fails to make it home on a courier mission in the wilds, which is haunted by this underground creature called the Cursed One (basically a dragon). The package he was carrying is something that her town’s dictator desperately wants.

Life is complicated for our heroine, Rachel, having grown up in a society that represses basic freedoms for females and makes them dependent upon their male “Protectors.” However, her father’s raised her to be able to hold her own in this world by being proficient in weapons, camping, and tracking.

Rachel is forced to join up with Logan, her father’s apprentice, her Protector after her father’s failed return and (surprise surprise) her long-time crush, to try to find him and the mysterious package he failed to deliver.

Defiance is told from the alternating viewpoints of both Rachel and Logan, two people with vastly different thought processes. This adds nice layers to the story by looking at everything through such different lenses.

Pros are characterization (I mentioned it above but, with the exception of the dictator, every character is well-drawn), some of the descriptions, and pacing. The society is also interesting to explore.

Cons include the bad guy, predictability, and some interactions between Rachel and Logan.

As concern’s the villain: he’s a straight up bad guy. We don’t know why. He’s just entirely evil for the sake of being evil. It would be nice to add more layers to his character so the reader can understand more of his motivations.

Additionally, the two tragedies are a bit predictable. The second one seemed unnecessary, as well as eliminating some very interesting options the author could have worked with if she’d chosen a different route.

Overall, some of the personal monologues and dialogues between our main characters are stretched—either through repetition, inconsistency, or melodrama. I’ve written more on this below, if you’re not afraid of spoilers.

SPOILER ALERT

 The whole wavelength controlling the Cursed One’s movements seemed a bit far-fetched to me. I can understand one wavelength aggravating it and one making it go away, but different wavelengths making it go right or left? I don’t buy it. Besides, if there were some bond created between beast and human, there would be so many delicious issues and implications and things to explore.

Some of the thoughts relating to Rachel and Logan’s relationship were repetitive. But perhaps even bigger of an issue, and overall my biggest problem with the book, was the way the author had her main characters flip-flop over Rachel’s identity. They would talk about irreparable damage and her never being the same and her becoming something else. Then a second later they would be all “hold onto the hope, you’ll always be this wonderful person.” I can understand this coming from Rachel alone—she goes through a LOT in this story and would obviously have issues with incorporating that into her identity. However, Logan’s waffling is less understandable and forgivable to me.

SPOILER ALERT OVER 

Overall, as the first novel written by this author, it’s a good start. Defiance is the first of a series and I intend to read the second novel. This is a good book to read for anyone who enjoys stories with a lot of action and romance.

3 stars

Book Review: The Pirate Next Door*

The Pirate Next Door Cover

If I were to sum up this book in one word, it would be “inconsistent.”

I would only recommend this book to fans of this particular writer or someone not interested in reading the best-written romance novels out there. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good… er… trashy romance novel as much as the next person. And I ultimately did enjoy reading this book. But potential readers should approach this book with certain (read: low) expectations. The crux of my issues came down to character inconsistencies and clichés. While Ashley’s main characters are complex, interesting, and, for the most part, relatable,  rather too frequently they act in an odd fashion, breaking either from previous characterization, historical inconsistencies, or any rational motive. (I’ve documented specific instances below, if you’re not afraid of spoilers.)

For those of you readers looking for a better-written romance, I would point you in the direction of: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon; Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë; or anything Jane Austen. For romance novels requiring less commitment, there is Nora Roberts (her Jewels of the Sun trilogy is my favorite), Judith McNaught (Almost Heaven was the first novel of that kind that I’d ever read, and therefore has a special place in my heart), Jeanine Frost, and Bridgette Asher.

SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT

My main complaints come at the beginning and ending of the book. So, without further ado…

The book stretches the reader’s belief right from the get-go, with our heroine, Alexandra, rescuing the hero, Grayson, from death by hanging. I appreciate what the author is trying to do by establishing Alexandra as a brave, does-it-herself kind of person. And yet I find it improbable that a lady, in London, in 1810, would a) enter a bachelor’s house uninvited in the middle of the night (especially when a big to-do is made about his house being opened to the public later in the book) instead of notifying authorities, and b) let him “ravish” her after saving him. Especially when the intention is to portray her as being a person who can stick up to the men. And it being established that she’s so well bred (in fact, the granddaughter of a Duke). AND in search of a new, respectable husband. (I don’t give one fig that she’s a widow. In fact, it makes the situation worse. She knows about the birds and the bees, more or less, and still lets Grayson roll all over her. Literally. In front of her servants.) And then this whole nonsense about Grayson “commanding” her to sleep naked. And her complying.

See what I mean? Inconsistent.

Then the rivalry between Grayson and his arch-nemesis, Ardmore, is revealed. For people who hate each other so much, they sure spend a LOT of time in each other’s company throughout the book. They even have mutual employees. Strange. The first time Grayson rescues Alexandra is improbable, as well. For as much as Ardmore hates Grayson, and the trouble he went through to abduct Alexandra, Grayson literally walks away with her while Ardmore stands by idly. In this instance I’m thinking the author was trying to ramp up the tension by seeing our main characters successfully defeat greater and greater obstacles. By having this scene happen so early in the book, the order of magnitude is thrown out of whack.

If you manage to ignore these issues, you’re rewarded with some smooth, enjoyable reading for a while.

Then the writing gets rough again.

I believe that a lot of the end-of-book issues could have been resolved either by the elimination of Burchard, or her (his? it is unclear what the character’s preferred gender pronouns would be) consolidation with other “bad” characters. The way s/he acts immediately before his/her death is cliché and improbable in the extreme. For someone so interested in cultivating the enmity between Grayson and Ardmore, s/he is sure quick to make it easier for them to work together after her/his detailed explanation of everything s/he’s done to goad them on, evil-villain-speach style. Ultimately this is the unfortunate incident of the author trying to wrap things up in too nice and pretty of a bow.

In summation, I wouldn’t be quick to write Ashley off as a poor writer. She has good instincts and admirable intentions. I want to emphasize that I DID ENJOY this book, for all of my dissecting and criticism. Her book merely suffers from not enough editing.

2 stars

*The book appears to have been re-released as of April 2012 (and with a MUCH better cover, might I add.) My review pertains to the first edition, published in 2003.