Aug 28, 2015

To Edinburgh! (Also links)

The Elephant House, Edinburgh
This weekend I’m off to Edinburgh, where I’ll get to enjoy the very last of the Fringe and Book festivals. After that I have a week of travelling that will take me from Scotland to Brighton, Salisbury and Bristol among other places (for, um, reasons). My September plans also include a few days home at my parents’ and a week in Barcelona and Madrid, which means blog posts might be scarce for the next little while. I’ll be back eventually, though, and I know I’ll have plenty of books to tell you about when I return (Mr Fox! I’ve read it at long last it’s so brilliant why didn’t I listen to you sooner?). There will also probably be plenty of off-topic travel photos because they make me happy.

Also! I now have in my possession some of my most anticipated books of the year (the new Patrick Ness, the last Discworld novel, plus Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, which I really should have read sooner), and I’m fretting about the fact that I won’t have a lot of time or emotional availability to enjoy them properly for the next month or so. I know this is a good problem to have, but still. The Shepherd’s Crown alone merits me clearing my entire schedule. There will be a bit of time in trains and things, though, so you bet I’m taking them along on my adventures.

Sorcerer to the Crown, The Rest of Us Just Live Here and The Shepherd's Crown
I’ll leave you with a few links, most to do with libraries because they take up a lot of my headspace:
  • From “Evidence on the use of volunteers in libraries and on volunteer-run libraries” [PDF]:
    The National Federation of Women produced a report in 2013 based on the experiences of 13 volunteers from seven different community-managed libraries. It refers to the piecemeal approach that is being taken by local authorities to this and points out that not every community will be equally able to take on the running of a library, thus exacerbating inequalities:
    “....only certain communities have the resources to effectively set up and run a library and we are concerned that the proliferation of these models could effectively lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ of library services with the creation of a two tiered system of library provision that undermines the benefits of skilled and trained library staff and under-estimates the role that they play in both delivering an effective public service and supporting communities”.
    It raises the issue of inequality in another way: it describes how in one community where the library was taken over locally the book stock was updated to reflect the largely middle class demographic and while this was popular with many of its users it raised the issue of whether those who had less resource or capacity to organise might not see their needs met. “If the needs of a community are not being adequately evaluated then access to the library could be significantly restricted for a large proportion of the population”.
  • Visiting libraries is the most popular activity in the UK. It’s good to see some actual data that chips away at the convenient notion that library closures in the UK are a sad but inevitable result of the fact that nobody needs them anymore in this brave new world of widely available technology, rather than, you know, a deliberate political decision.

  • Speaking of which: Libraries – “isn’t it all on the Internet?” Nope.

  • Access, enclosure and authority: Ambition Beyond Libraries Being Open. This article is excellent as a whole, but here’s my favourite part:
    Bulk buying pre-catalogued best sellers, chosen by corporations, shared among every other library service in Britain, and aiming at the middle ground (as the vast majority of public library services including Birmingham now do) similarly buys into a false virtue of customer choice. In both instances circulation metrics, and a problematic understanding of “customer needs” have come to be valued above sensitive, community focused, challenging, collection development. This is not said out of snobbishness. Not only has the effective outsourcing of the key library functions of acquisitions and cataloguing resulted in job losses for library workers and a downgrading of the profession, it also creates the risk that library collections come to reproduce the societal oppressions that are evident elsewhere in society. Where subject librarians cease to exist, the book lists of small radical publishers pushing out diverse work on race, class, sexuality, and non-western cultures are very unlikely to be scoured and ordered from. Where designated BAME, LGBQI+, or ESOL (for example) library roles get deleted – as they have been across the country – those groups receive a piecemeal at best level of support. Likewise, where outreach reader development work in libraries ceases to exist, that connection between the library and its community is severed, and those users who aren’t white middle class educated and lack traditional confidence and digital literacy miss an opportunity for education.
    I think about this all the time.

  • Barbara Fister on that recent New York Times Amazon piece:
    Amazon is simply a highly visible exemplar of a philosophy that emphasizes individuality, ubiquitous surveillance through data-mining, a belief that competition is the natural order of things, that enabling the consuming of things as quickly and as cheaply as possible is our highest calling, that there is no such thing as enough productivity, and that a handful of visionary leaders understand this and we should either be one of them or should at least fall in line. Librarians say we value privacy, but now we routinely send information from use of their webpages to Google because Google Analytics is free and awesome and Piwik is free and hard, or so we've heard.
    (...)
    But so many of the fundamental values embedded in the business practices of tech giants whose platforms have become fundamental to the exchange of information today are hostile to library values which include access for all, social responsibility, democracy, diversity, lifelong learning, the preservation of culture, the public good, privacy, and intellectual freedom. Yes, service is also a library value. But service based on our values is not the same as delivering consumer goods more quickly and cheaply than the competition. The more we conflate consumerism with service for the public good, the harder it will be for public institutions like libraries and universities to do their essential work.
  • Liz Chapman on Improving LGBTQ* provision in your library: why and how to do it.

  • Similarities Between Anti-Suffragette Posters and Anti-Feminist Memes. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty.

  • Bitch Media interviews Zen Cho about Sorcerer to the Crown. I really need to make time for this book.

  • This GIF set of John Lewis on The Daily Show made me cry. Read March, everyone.

  • Some lovely cosplay pictures from the midnight launch of The Shepherd’s Crown.

  • Elizabeth Minkel interviews Rebecca Stead about her new book (which I can’t wait to read): “In real life, there are always more than two doors”.

  • We stand on the shoulders of queer and trans and POC and female giants. Many are still around, still writing! We can't let them be erased.

  • All the Dragons in the World – The Depiction of Sexual Abuse Exposure and Escape in YA Literature.

  • Lastly, next year I need to make sure the weekend in Hay-on-Wye I’ve been planning in my head for year actually happens.
Enjoy the rest of the summer, or winter if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ll see you soon.

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Aug 26, 2015

Second Quarter of 2015: Best Books I Didn't Blog About

First Quarter of 2015: Best Books I Didn't Blog About

We are — somehow — nearly two thirds of the way through the year, which means it’s time to do what I did at the start of May and tell you briefly about the best books I read during this second quarter but didn’t have the chance to blog about. It would be great to write about them in more detail, but these quarterly review amnesties are working out well for me in terms of time management, so here we are again. Some very quick thoughts, in about a hundred words per book:

Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn:

Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
The best word to describe this one is painful. It tells the story of a teenager named Andrew Winston Winters, and it’s the kind of narrative that makes you wonder whether or not the seemingly inexplicable events you’re reading about are supernatural in origin. The more you know about the story going in (and I knew a fair bit), the easier it will be to arrive at an answer, but this doesn’t rob it of its extraordinary power. Charm & Strange is (spoilers) one of the most chilling depictions of the psychological consequences of abuse I’ve read, and is certainly a book that will stay with me.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton:

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton
I don’t know why I didn’t write about The Philosopher Kings when I loved it just as much as The Just City. Like its predecessor, it’s concerned with people wondering how to live and how to love (in the broadest sense of the term), and it resists cynicism even when the answers they try out cause unforeseen problems. Trying to do better, these books tell us, is a worthwhile endeavour even if we don’t always get it right. Also, the story Walton has been telling takes a very interesting turn at the end that has me eager to read the final instalment, Necessity.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn and Unicorn on a Roll by Dana Simpson:

Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson Unicorn on a Roll by Dana Simpson
Read these books! They were sold to me as “Calvin and Hobbes, but featuring a girl and her unicorn rather than a boy and his tiger”, which is kind of apt but doesn’t really get at why Phoebe and Marigold Heavenly Nostrils are such a delight. Lauren Faust puts it perfectly in her introduction to the second volume, though. She points out that Phoebe is a realistic, human, well-rounded portrayal of a little girl, and says the following of Marigold:
Vanity, the supposedly “feminine” personality flaw usually assigned to antagonists and villains, is turned on its head. Yes, Marigold is vain, but she is caring and attentive, she keeps her promises, and though she reminds us all that every creature is basically beneath her magical majesty, she certainly doesn’t treat anyone that way. She is riddled with self-love and is utterly unapologetic.
Yes to all of this. These comics are gently subversive, very funny, heartwarming, and an utter joy to read.

Phoene and Marigold by Dana Simpson

Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen:

Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
The moment when I really got into this book was when they introduced the cat. Predictable, right? But seriously, the cat and her fate are symptomatic of Boy in the Tower’s emotional core. This post-apocalyptic children’s novel is nothing like Station Eleven, and yet I liked them for similar reasons: the version of surviving the apocalypse they put forward is one based on collaboration, community, and often overlooked skills, rather than on exceptionalism or individualistic heroics. I was also interested in the protagonist Ade’s mother, whose recovery from trauma is described with sensitivity and care.

Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara:

Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara
Journalist Mary O’Hara travelled around the UK interviewing people who have been directly hit by the austerity measures introduced since the 2010 general election, and the result is this book. Austerity Bites is as horrifying and angering as you’d expect, while also offering a much needed counter-narrative. It puts a human face to issues that are all too often discussed in the abstract, which makes them harder to shrug away. The chapter about how government cuts have particularly hit people with disabilities — and how disabled activists have been at the forefront of resistance from the start — is especially eye-opening.

Ms Marvel Vol 3: Crushed by G. Willow Wilson, Mark Waid, Humberto Ramos and Takeshi Miyazawa:

Ms Marvel Vol 3: Crushed by G. Willow Wilson, Mark Waid, Humberto Ramos and Takeshi Miyazawa
Unsurprisingly, Kamala Khan continues to be awesome. In Crushed, we watch her develop feelings for a family friend she hadn’t seen since they were both much younger, wonder what she wants, deal with disappointment and heartbreak, and spot coercive behaviour that disrespects her humanity a mile off (which isn’t always easy when you’re a young woman surrounded by narratives that legitimatise it). I love Kamala’s intelligence, kindness, and increasingly solid sense of who she is, and I love this series’ heart, humanity, and excellent character development more with each new volume.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link:

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
What usually happens when I read short story collections is that I end up really enjoying a few and not remembering the rest in a lot of detail (probably more of a sign that I shouldn’t read them back to back than anything else). The thing about a Kelly Link collection, though, is that even the stories that aren’t my favourites will worm their way into my brain. “The Summer People” was the highlight of Get in Trouble, but all these stories — with their wide array of genres, impressively realised worldbuilding, hints of Shirley Jackson and Grimm, and amazing prose — are worth reading.

On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard:

On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
Aarti summed it up perfectly when she said that in this science fiction novella, “there is no villain. There are just people with different perspectives who misunderstand each other and want different things”. In a world inspired by Vietnamese culture, two women with very different roles and forms of power — Mistress Quyen, who handles the day to day running of the space station where the story is set, and LĂȘ Thi Linh, a magistrate fleeing war who arrives as a refugee — slowly gain a better understanding of each other. This is a thoughtful, nuanced story that makes room for conflicting experiences without requiring one to trump the other.

Rat Queens Vol 2 by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch and Stejpan Sejic:

Rat Queens  Vol 2 by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch and Stejpan Sejic
Aww, Rat Queens! While it’s possible that since I last wrote about it the “favourite new comic” spot in my heart was stolen away by Lumberjanes, that doesn’t mean I don’t also adore this series. Volume two is just as filled with humour, adventure and fun as volume one, and the character development continues to be great. We learn more about Hannah, Betty, Violet and Dee’s pasts and we continue to see just how much they enjoy being a team and fighting side by side. These ladies truly care about each other, and that’s a big part of what gives Rat Queens its heart.

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova:

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova
A sensitive, perceptive, charming comic about life in middle school, friendship, and collaboration. Penelope Torres has just started at a new school, and due to her fear of being singled out by the local mean kids she turns on the one person being nice to her on her first day — shy science geek Jamie. Penelope regrets it straight away, but she feels it would be too awkward to apologise. As her own art club gets involved in a feud with the science club (of which Jamie is a member), the two slowly find their way past Penelope’s mistake and to a genuine friendship.

Dragons Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre:

Dragons Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre
And we finish with another great instalment in a series I adore. Much like Giants Beware!, this is a humorous fantasy adventure that defies stereotypes with charm and wit. Tomboy Claudette continues to be a budding warrior ready to run at threats with a sword to save her loved ones; her traditionally feminine best friend Marie remains smart and capable and diplomatic; and her little brother Gaston struggles with an identity crisis but embraces his talents as a chef and magic user in the end. Together the children save the village of Mont Petit Pierre, and make unexpected friends along the way.

***

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

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Aug 19, 2015

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Persona by Genevieve ValentinePersona takes place in a near and not improbable future where the worlds of politics and PR have become entirely indistinguishable. Nations are represented by Faces, celebrity ambassadors whose charisma sways public opinion, and who are themselves stage-managed by their handlers; the media is expertly manoeuvred; and paparazzi (known as Snaps) can sometimes make their fortune by coming across information that disrupts the carefully controlled narratives that are presented to the world.

Suyana Supaki is the Face of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation, a nation compromised of what was formerly Brazil and Peru. Suyana is Peruvian and one of the Quechua people; she was discovered and sent into training at a young age, after she and her mother were arrested at a protest march. At the start of Persona, Suyana is a C-list Face: not quite famous or influential enough to have much of a say, and in the process of negotiating a public relationship with Ethan, the Face of the United States, which would be beneficial for her image and his.

However, her whole life changes when someone attempts to assassinate Suyana: she manages to escape, but she doesn’t know whether even her own handler is behind the attack. Suyana has some secrets she’s been guardian closely, and their discovery is all too likely to turn the International Assembly (or someone within it) against her. She forms an unlikely alliance with a Snap named Daniel Park, a runaway photographer with secrets of his own; together the two attempt to survive in the streets of Paris and to find out who is after them both. The tense present-day scenes are intertwined with flashbacks where we learn more about Suyana’s and Daniel’s histories and how they shape their current motivations.

I suspect that in the hands of many writers, a concept like Persona’s — celebrity culture and politics have become closely entwined — would propel a lot of commentary about the shallowness of such a world and all who inhabit it. Readers familiar with Genevieve Valentine will probably not be surprised to hear that this is not what she does. Yes, the system orchestrated by the International Assembly is all about public persuasion, much like our own, but within this system there are good, intelligent people who take their jobs seriously and want to make a difference. I liked that Persona explored the depth of skill that goes into public presentation — anything from clothes to makeup to demeanour — without ever buying into the troublingly gendered notion that such skills are inherently frivolous. There are many ways to manipulate public perception, and it shouldn’t be just one that comes under scrutiny.

To go back to what I was saying earlier this week, I’m interested in stories about resistance within very constrained systems, and this is something Valentine excels at. I’m also interested in examinations of how much people feel they can afford to risk and why, which is largely what Persona turned out to be about. This novel is a gripping political thriller (I read it in a single day, which hadn’t happened in ages), and at the same time it’s a story that, against the odds, carves out small pockets of political agency for the woman at its centre. Suyana (spoilers ahead, so beware if you mind them) turns out to be involved with Chordata, an organisation devoted to ecological resistance, and uses her role as a Face to quietly but effectively support their activism. Hers is the sort of resistance that often gets overlooked: perhaps not the final shove that topples an unfair system, but the kind of essential groundwork that leads to the first few cracks in its foundation.

Throughout the course of the novel, Suyana has cause to think about different forms of defiance and how even people who seem invincible and entirely in control can be more vulnerable than one would expect:
Suyana felt someone in Grace’s position might be bold, and defy what everyone expected. But the dynamics of power were only obvious in retrospect, no matter how high up you went. And since Suyana, at this time yesterday, had been letting Oona the stylist deep-condition her hair for her meeting with Ethan, she had nothing to say about what people were willing to do when they had to.
Another thing I liked were all the unlikely alliances Suyana forms during her time as a runaway Face, particularly with other women. Grace, the UK’s Face, is not someone Suyana ever believed she could trust, but she surprises her at a crucial moment.

Speaking of trust: Persona is in many ways nothing like Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, one of my favourite reads of last year, and yet there was something about Suyana’s emotional restraint that really reminded me of Jo. Here’s an apt summary of the kind of emotional space Suyana occupies:
Suyana didn’t know if it was worse to let someone get one over you, or to throw away real feelings. It seemed such a sin, not to believe the truth when it was handed to you; it was a rare enough thing.
Both Suyana and Jo are women placed in extremely difficult positions that mean they can afford to give very little. Trust seems like too much of a luxury from where they’re standing, and the reader is allowed to see exactly why. So when it comes, then, it means everything, no matter how subtle its manifestation. Valentine writes her characters in a way that imbues small moments and gestures with all the meaning they merit. There’s so much between the lines in her novels; so much that isn’t quite being said but that we’re allowed to glimpse.

Persona ends with a moment of triumph that feels genuine and earned, and hints ever so subtly at a better world to come. There’s a dark side to it too, and yet — much like Kristen with her tattoos in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven — Suyana resists its banalisation.
(Some things she hadn’t forgotten. There were things she knew about the way a blade cut through the body that would never go.)
They read it too: The Literary Omnivore, By Singing Light, you?

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Aug 17, 2015

Reading Notes: Fun with DC

Reading Notes: Fun with DC

This is not a post I expected to be writing even as recently as a year ago. Although I’ve been a reader of comics for ages, for most of that time I stayed away from superhero stuff — more because I found it daunting than anything else. However, as some of you will have noticed, I’ve spent the past year getting acquainted with Carol Danvers, Kamala Khan, Jennifer Walters, Ororo Munroe, Hope Summers, and so on. I can trace the changes in my reading habits to Comics and Super Women Week at Lady Business, as well as to the ascendency of Panels and to Memory’s excellent My Year with Marvel feature. Suddenly there were all these people with similar interests to mine telling me exactly where to start, which made this vast, formerly unapproachable story universe much easier to navigate.

Yet even after I started reading and enjoying superhero comics, I remained somewhat wary of DC — this despite the steady diet of Vertigo comics I devoured during my formative years. I think some of it was because of my (probably largely unfair) fears about DC being Super Serious and Dark and lacking Marvel’s sense of fun — the kind of stuff Clare describes so well in this post, though I fully realise that goes for the recent movies rather than for the comics. (To be clear, I like serious and I even like dark; I just resent the implication that the two are one and the same.)

I was glad, then, to have the chance to put these assumptions to the test and see what current DC comics are actually like with these three recent releases, all of which sounded right up my alley. I stuck to the same principles I followed with Marvel (follow characters I like; focus on my pre-existing interests; don’t worry too much about allusions to things I don’t know anything about), and I’m happy to report that the experiment was a big success. A few quick thoughts:

Batgirl Vol 1: The Batgirl of Burnside by Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher and Babs Tarr:

Batgirl Vol 1 Batgirl of Burnside
The Batgirl of Burnside follows Barbara Gordon as she moves to a new area of Gotham (kind of the local equivalent to Hackney, by the sound of it), gets to know her new roommate, and attempts to get back to her graduate research. Things soon take a turn for the complicated, though, when it emerges that someone other than Barbara is using the Batgirl identity to tarnish her reputation. Also, there just might be a sinister side to Barbara’s seemingly innocent research project, one she’ll have to confront before someone gets hurt.

The good, of which there’s plenty: this comic was really easy to get into, despite my complete lack of background knowledge when it comes to the history of Gotham City and its inhabitants. It probably helped than it’s personal and small-scale rather than epic, which tends to work better for me in general: the story is largely about a twenty-something making friends with other women, going on occasional dates, and trying to navigate her work, the world in general, and her place in it.

Also, predictably I loved the number of women in this story. I was especially interested in Barbara’s complicated relationship with her friend Dinah: it’s full of love and angst and support and non-gendered conflict, and it culminates in a lovely hug scene that made me very happy. Now I desperately want to read Dinah’s upcoming solo Black Canary series. (She’s in a band and they’re going on tour! Enough said, right?)

Lastly, I loved the art and the fact that the bright colour scheme goes with the comic’s fun, pop culture-infused feel in a way that doesn’t ever feel artificial or rammed in.

The bad, which is sadly also a big deal: one of the storylines in The Batgirl of Burnside is mind-bogglingly, horrifyingly transphobic. This was discussed around the time issue 37 came out last year, but I somehow managed to miss it all, possibly because I wasn’t following comics news as closely. The Mary Sue puts it perfectly here:
The problem with Batgirl #37 is that it felt lazy. What could have been an incredibly intriguing arc about stolen identities and the complexities of trying to establish yourself had been reduced to a tired, harmful trope which (unsurprisingly) stung many people within the community. While we don’t know how Dagger Type identifies, or even where exactly the team is going with the story, this presentation of the character paints an awful picture of drag queens, trans women, and non-binary people alike. It props up the trope of the “crazy, unstable drag queen / trans woman”.
Fortunately the creative team behind Batgirl appears to have listened, and apologised shortly after the comic came out. So here’s to a future with more of what makes this series so enjoyable and no more random transphobia.

One last thing: my lack of DC knowledge also meant I didn’t know at first that Barbara Gordon was formerly a disabled character, who was “miraculously cured” as part of DC’s New 52 relaunch. This is disappointing for a number of obvious reasons. I would love to read more about Barbara’s time as Oracle; Gail Simone’s run of Birds of Prey is now also on my comics wishlist.

More pretty art:




Gotham Academy Vol 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy by Becky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher and Karl Kerschel:
Gotham Academy Vol 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy
Gotham Academy is about Olive Silverlock, a student at Gotham City’s most prestigious boarding school. Olive has had a strange summer: something big she can’t remember happened, and now she’s finding it hard to get back into the usual routine of school. Olive has also become withdrawn, and for the most part she avoids her friends and her ex-boyfriend Kyle. But Olive is put in charge of showing new student Maps Mizoguchi (who just so happens to be Kyle’s little sister) around; before they know it, the two are sucked into a school secret involving an old secret diary, a possible ghost, hidden passageways, a sealed off building on campus, and mysterious strangers.

This book in one word: awww. I mean, it’s gothic and deliciously atmospheric, but in a really adorable way. It also makes use of plenty of story devices I love, and I mean this in an entirely positive way: Gotham Academy successfully combines haunted mansions, ghost stories, mysteries and school stories to create something with a unique feel.

Also, it has girls collaborating to solve a mystery, plus friendship and plenty of feelings. I love how Maps doesn’t give up on Olive even though she’s having a hard time, and I love how we get to watch her open up slowly and rebuild her trust in the people around her. At the end of Welcome to Gotham Academy, Olive has found a place among her friends. This doesn’t mean her struggles are over, but hopefully it means they’ll be a little easier to weather.

The story this first collection introduces has ties to the wider mythology of Gotham City, but remains accessible for a newbie such as myself, whose context mostly comes from pop culture osmosis. Also, did I mention how much fun this book is? More, please.

Look at the lovely art:






Catwoman Vol. 6: Keeper of the Castle by Genevieve Valentine, Garry Brown and Lee Loughridge:

Keeper of the Castle is probably the best of these comics, but it was also the most challenging. It’s certainly the darkest, though as I explained above I don’t find that a bad thing in itself. It’s also by Genevieve Valentine, who has quickly become one of my favourite writers, so of course that sooner or later I was going to have to pick it up. As it turns out, it does something that I’ve come to think of as very Genevieve Valentine: it places a woman within a very restrictive social system and then explores the bits of agency and autonomy she manages to carve out for herself, and the uses she puts them too. This is something I’m very interested in: the fact that very few of us are either completely free agents or completely restricted. There’s a degree of nuance in how people experience their own lives that usually goes unacknowledged, and I like stories centred around that. (Expect more on this when I get around to writing about Persona, which will hopefully happen soon.)

I was a little nervous about using volume six as an entry point to a series I knew nothing about, even after being told this issue introduced a new creative team and marked a transition for the series. I’m happy to say I was fine, though: this post has some very useful information if you want to do your homework (and also an excellent pitch for the series), but if you just start reading you’ll pick up the context in no time. The premise is this: Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, has become the head of the Calabrese mob family, which means she’s in the position to be the overall Crime Boss of Gotham City. Selina intends to use her new role to make things not quite as terrible as they would be if someone else was in charge, though she’d be the first to acknowledge that may not be what it looks like from the outside. And of course, she has to expend an awful lot of time protecting her new position and ensuring the other Gotham mob families remain loyal to the Calabrese — a task whose cost is sometimes very high.

The various issues that form Keeper of the Castle are framed by quotes by and historical facts about women in positions of power they had to defend at all costs — Lucrezia Borgias, Elizabeth I, Ching Shih, Cleopatra — which not only set the tone for the story but highlight what it’s doing thematically. Keeper of the Castle is, I think, a good example of me feeling doubtful about a pattern while really valuing an individual story that embodies it. Please bear with me as I attempt to articulate a complicated and half-formed thought: I’m wary of the cultural capital stories about people who do dark, often violent things in the name of preventing greater evils seem to enjoy. I’m especially wary of the sense of inevitability we shroud them in, and of how easily this fits with a certain view of the world, or with cultural narratives about the one true way to exercise power, achieve success, or effectively stop terrible threats.

However, it would be unfair to say that this series doesn’t engage with these questions. Additionally, our world currently (which, again, is not the same as inevitably) puts people in thankless, impossible positions with alarming frequency, and as long as we continue to celebrate stories about what it’s like to be in their shoes, I want these stories to be about women, too. I want to see stories where women seize power and do it well; stories that chip away at the idea we’re “naturally” gentler and softer (even if these are traits I personally value). I especially want stories where women are able to claim the same sympathy we extend to ethically ambiguous men without even pausing to think about it. I want to take a long, hard look at the circumstances that make them believe dark deeds are the only way, and watch as they attempt to live with lingering questions about whether this is really the case day after day. So far Valentine’s Catwoman is excellent at this, and this is something I value a lot.

Also, Selina’s relationship with Eiko Hasigawa, a member of a prominent Yakuza family, was absolutely wonderful. Not only for the sexual tension between the two (which culminates in a kiss scene that, importantly, makes Selina’s bisexuality a part of the Catwoman canon), but also for the role Eiko comes to play in Selina’s life: she’s the one who expects better of her, and who thus reminds her that perhaps she can do better after all. Whether this is something Selina can afford in Gotham City remains to be seen.







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Aug 16, 2015

Sunday Links and Comic-a-thon

Pile of comics including Maggie the Mechanic, The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S., Ooku vols 1 and 2, Supermutant Magic Academy, Unicorn on a Roll and Dragons Beware next to Willow figurine
Willow says hello.

Good morning, all. I didn’t have the best of weeks, but I’m hoping to make up for it today by having a mini comic-a-thon with a few friends. I have a lot of comics and graphic novels I’ve been meaning to get to; spending the day reading and lounging and chatting strikes me as just what I need before facing the week ahead. Other than that, I’m now counting the days until my upcoming travels. Two weeks from now I’ll be in Edinburgh — I can hang on until then, right?

Links that caught my attention recently:
  • Here’s a useful list: Books to Help Kids Understand the Fight for Racial Equality.

  • From Let’s Talk About Gender Baby:
    What does it mean that something is socially constructed? To say that something is socially constructed means that its existence is dependent upon social relations and the contingent meanings that we create. In other words, we construct it and give it meaning through our social actions. That something is socially constructed does not mean that it is “not real,” but rather that it is depends on social relations for its existence. There are plenty of things that are socially constructed that people consider to be real without questioning it such as money, marriage, national borders, and even language. Similarly, gender (and race and class) are social constructions—their existence arises out of and depends on social relations. So when someone makes the argument that “race is a social construction, it’s not real,” what they are actually saying is race is a social construction and it is not a meaningful biological trait for humans, which carries with it the hidden assumption that only biological traits are real (and, I have to note, saying race isn’t real can do serious damage as it can lead white people think that color-blind racial ideology is appropriate—if race is not real, why do I need to pay attention to it? But race is real, it is a real social category that affects people’s lives in tangible and biological ways).
    Emphasis mine. I’ll never get tired of seeing this crucial yet often forgotten point summarised effectively.

  • “The business of feminism is surely to challenge sexist attitudes—to work against prejudice, not around it.” Deborah Cameron for president of everything.

  • I hereby join the rest of the world in being ridiculously excited about Marvel’s upcoming Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.

    Moongirl art
  • Here’s Frances Hardinge being amazing as always and highlighting exactly what I loved the most about The Lie Tree:
    As a woman, rebelling would have been very hard indeed. You would need a will like a Sherman tank. It’s hard to have faith in your own opinions, when everybody you respect believes something else. And even people who do believe in themselves can get worn down if they’re faced by endless snubs, rejection, ridicule and obstacles. Defying all the silly social rules might seem like fun if you’re only faced by a tutting maiden aunt or a red-faced fuming guardian. But what if scandal might break your parents’ hearts or destroy your sister’s chances of a good marriage? And what if everyone tells you that disobeying your parents or your husband is going against God?
  • Smart Bitches, Trashy Books reviews The Diary of a Teenage Girl. I’ll probably not be able to catch this in cinemas, but I’ll certainly keep an eye out for the DVD.

  • Danielle Fuentes Morgan’s amazing piece We already know: white liberal racism denies Black personhood articulates something crucial about the problems with urging defiance from a position of safety and privilege and with disregard for the real risks people face:
    My daughter’s face flashed before my eyes, in a split second, and I left. I allowed myself to be disrespected to keep my family and myself safe. I sacrificed my dignity in an effort to protect my life. I am struck even now by the fact that I left without my personhood respected to save my physical person. These are the choices people of color have to grapple with every day. I was able to choose to leave. Sandra Bland was not afforded that option.
    (…)
    Anti-racism isn’t simply about avoiding hoods or the overt language of slurs. And it certainly isn’t about proclaiming yourself a liberal or a progressive. It’s about examining every situation and every interaction and dwelling in your discomfort with the prejudices you hold. It’s acknowledging that your view of what is best for another group holds less weight than what they know to be best based on their own experiences. And, most of all, it is about decentering whiteness from the narratives of the lived experiences of people of color. Otherwise, I fear all of our marching has only led us full circle.
  • The Charge to Be Fair: Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay in Conversation.

  • I haven’t read the book in question, but this David Graeber quote (via Boing Boing) rang true, and strikes me as the subtext of many discussions about replacing library staff with volunteers:
    I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it.
  • Ethel and Ernest is going to be an animated film! The stills look gorgeous.

  • Europe shouldn’t worry about migrants. It should worry about creeping fascism: “The rhetoric of the racist, xenophobic fringe has been adopted by the political mainstream in a way that is no less upsetting for being entirely predictable.”

  • Lastly, I usually save my music gushing for elsewhere, but new Joanna Newsom is kind of a big deal in my life:

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