Book: Angel

Cliff McNish
2008 (Lerner)

Angel tells the story of three teenagers. The first is a girl who has believed herself to be destined for greatness and connected to angels all her life, but who has taken that belief to the extremes only allowed by mental illness in the past and is now recovering. The second is her older brother who is regularly bullied, but never mentions it. The third is a girl who has always been overprotected and homeschooled, but is now being thrust into the public school system and doesn’t quite know what to do other than believe that her guardian angel will protect her. Their stories intertwine and angels, of course, play a big part, but the plot is rather more complicated than can easily be explained (there really isn’t even a description on the inside flap or the back of the book itself).

I thought that this book was odd. The concept of the angels was incredibly interesting and the writing was excellent, but I just didn’t enjoy the story. I disliked all of the major (and most of the minor) characters throughout the entire book, which isn’t always a problem, but without the plot to support that it just doesn’t work for me. And the plot just wasn’t there on this one. It was a little too convoluted and felt too pointless and too helpless for too long. I realize that feeling of helplessness was part of the intention of the book, but, again, when that drags on too long without the story to support it the story stops being interesting or enjoyable to read and becomes almost painful.

I really felt like there was potential in the idea behind this book and the author is clearly very talented (I would consider reading other things by him just based on how good the writing was), but this was not a good book. I can see it being interesting for a discussion of interpretations of angels or something, but short of that I would stay away from it.

- Publisher’s Description

- Cliff McNish’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Inside the Shadow City

Inside the Shadow City
Kirsten Miller
2006 (Bloomsbury)

One day Ananka looks outside her window at what used to be a park in the center of New York City only to find that it is now a rather large hole and no one seems to have noticed yet. Her attempts to explore this hole aren’t especially fruitful, but they do eventually lead her to a girl who introduces herself as Kiki Strike. This unusual girl recruits Ananka and a variety of other talented 12-year-old girls to help her map the underground city that the hole only hinted at. And that is only the beginning of The Irregulars’ story!

This is a pretty amazing book. I enjoyed it immensely for any number of reasons. The characters were all fantastic. The girls were all interesting and exciting multi-dimensional characters whom I feel like I’m just beginning to get to know. The plotline kept me guessing until the very end and the pacing was perfect to keep my attention. These were the types of girl characters that I wish I’d found when I was a kid! If you know what Shadowrun is, picture that only with teenage girls (two runs with everything that goes with them – from planning to property damage and even a Johnson who disappears with the payoff).

I really liked how this book was written. It is told from Ananka’s point of view and most chapters end with a “how-to” guide of some kind. My favorites were probably “How to Prepare for Adventure” and “How to Take Advantage of Being a Girl”, but most of them were brilliant. The voice stayed consistent throughout the book, even though Ananka aged two years, but that made sense since the frame story stated that she was writing this all after the fact from her extensive notes and memory.

I can’t wait to read the second book (which I’m waiting for in paperback next month). I highly recommend this book! It a fun, fast-paced read and I could even seen boys enjoying it. Definitely check out Kiki Strike!

- Publisher’s Description
- Official Kiki Strike Website
- Ananka’s Blog

- Buy it from Amazon

A Response to Ars Technica on the Portrayal of Women in Media

Ben Kuchera reported today on Ars Technica that the Women’s Rights Committee of the European Parliament has issued a report in which they make the assertion that women aren’t portrayed very well in electronic media, including video games. They’re asking for this trend in stereotyped portrayals to change. I think that’s awesome and well overdue. I wish our government here in the United States would ask for something like that instead of alternately ignoring the industry and screaming about it being terribly dangerous in some nebulous and unclear way.

Kuchera goes on in his article to discuss this statement about the portrayals of women in video games. He claims that it’s an unfair statement to make and that the Parliament is incredibly vague about what they’re asking to change. I’m sure they are vague (you’d be hard pressed to find a government document of this nature that isn’t vague), but they aren’t wrong. He states that the videogame industry is getting better in their portrayal of women, and I would agree with that, although I don’t think I think they’ve made as much progress as he does.

Where I really take issue with him is his claim that videogames are no worse than movies in this area. He says “The truth remains that, in a movie rental establishment and a video game store, it’s just as easy to find games that treat women well as films, and that should be applauded.” This is simply untrue. There are games that “treat women well” (or at least portray them realistically and respectfully), but they are not so easy to find.

If you walk into a video store, it’s pretty easy to find a movie that portrays women pretty well. They’re the movies that are marketed to women. The romantic comedies, the sisterhood-type bonding movies, and the heartfelt family dramas all have many, many titles with realistically shaped actresses, realistically flawed characters and competent women who aren’t always ordering their lives around a man. There is a good smattering of such characters in just about every other genre of film as well. I’m not saying film is perfect, because they absolutely have a long way to go in their portrayal of women, but good women characters and female-friendly stories are not unheard-of there. They’re just not nearly as common as they should be.

If you walk into a videogame store, you’re going to have a harder time finding a game with the same qualities in gender portrayal. First, you have to find a game with female characters, which is not always as easy as it sounds. Then, you have to find one where they are both realistically shaped and clothed. This is extremely difficult, especially if the box art is most of what you have to go on. Finally, you need a character with depth. This is very hard. Even if her whole story revolves around the men in the game, she must stand alone as a person and be believable or she’s little more than cardboard. It’s a rare find in a videogame. Alyx Vance is one in a million. Portal is downright unique.

So I’m thrilled about the report from the EU. I’m glad that Kuchera wrote his article bringing attention to it. I have to say, though, we haven’t come nearly as far as he’d like to think. The EU is very right in the seriousness of the issue. This is a big issue. It’s bigger than we usually want to admit and it’s something that should be talked about and that we should be working to change.