Posts Tagged ‘sexism’

Book Review – One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Rebecca Stead, Rita Williams-Garcia has a natural feel for how kids think, feel, rationalize, and worry. This story, told in first-person by 11-year-old Delphine, tells a politically charged tale in highly personal terms. That’s what attracted me to it, and the fact that I seem to be continually seeking books and media that I’d want my hypothetical children to read, to be be sensitive, informed, and politically aware.

Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, travel to Oakland for a month in 1968, to reconnect with their estranged mother Cecile (who goes by Nzila now). Within a few short pages, we understand Delphine’s position, a girl who has taken on responsibilities far beyond her years because of one parent’s absence. Vonetta is a performer who craves attention. Fern is vulnerable and innocent. Delphine shepherds both through social and emotional minefields — little realizing how much she also could use some love and guidance.

This would be enough for many a juvenile novel, but Williams-Garcia foregrounds this family drama against the broad backdrop of social justice. Almost by osmosis, the story introduces the reader to the racial and sexual politics of the time, to the Black Panthers, and the complicated social landscape that these young African American girls navigate. Through Delphine’s eyes, we learn different strategies for surviving a racist society. Back in Brooklyn, the girls’ grandmother Big Ma, who raised them with their father after Cecile left, takes an approach of accommodation and assimilation: the girls must always be on their best behavior, polite and unobtrusive, especially in the presence of white people. The Panthers and Cecile, however, are assertive. At the Panthers’ freedom school, children are taught their civil rights — lessons we hardly think are affecting cautious Delphine until she stands up to a shopkeeper who assumes the girls are thieves. Overall, the book deftly illustrates subtle shifts in Delphine, as she learns about and tries out other points of view and ideologies, coming closer to her Panther teachers Sister Mukumbu and Sister Pat.

Cecile, however, is the center of the novel as she is the central focus of the girls’ trip — and indeed, as her absence has been the central influence on much of the girls’ lives and experience. For most of the story, she is as mysterious to us as she is to her daughters. Why did this woman abandon her children? Is she just selfish, as Big Ma maintains? Slowly, we gain insight. After Delphine insists that they cannot eat Chinese take-out for another night and Delphine will cook for her sisters, Cecile relents and allows Delphine inside the kitchen, which she uses as a work space for her printing press. Here, Cecile comments that they have been fighting for freedom, while Delphine seems eager to put on a yoke again. In that simple line, we begin to grasp Cecile’s longing for self-determination in all ways, for herself as well as her daughters — but, failing her daughters, she’ll take it for herself. Later, when Cecile reveals more about her youth, we understand her even better. Here is a biological mother who isn’t willing to sacrifice all for her children. And, in the character of Delphine, we’re asked to reconcile our feelings for her with support for sexual equality as well as racial. It’s a delicate issue for any author to raise, let alone in a story for young readers, and Garcia-Williams handles it with great humanity. Cecile, a poet whose rejection of any servile position also led her to reject family responsibilities, is the counterpoint to Delphine, who up until now has accepted both her grandmother’s model of black womanhood and family ties with an almost Christ-like submission. Without simplifying the issues, the evolution of Cecile and Delphine’s relationship over the novel brings both closer to a place where responsibility to other people does not have to mean accepting a socially inferior position.

Did I mention the book is funny? While never shying away from the seriousness of the Panthers, racial injustice, and police repression, the characters are real people who do real and ridiculous things. It’s a pleasure to read. Much of the enjoyment comes from the kids’ imperfect understanding of Panther ideals, and the way Delphine comes to turn resistance techniques against the reigning power in her life — her mother. The story also gives us insight into the less dramatic moments of organizing and social movements: cooking free meals, folding newspapers, posting flyers. And the small moments that build relationships and seed political consciousness, like when “Mean Lady” Ming, who owns the Chinese take-out, turns out not to be so mean, but just a person trying to survive in an economically depressed neighborhood. A person not without compassion.

Highly recommended, for kids and adults.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Book Review – Delusions of Gender

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create DifferenceDelusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this three-part book, Cordelia Fine dissects the prevalent idea that men and women’s minds are biologically different, and that these inherent differences — not the special structural exploitation of women, or deep-seated cultural expectations — explain gender inequality. It is obvious from the title and from Fine’s often snarky prose where she comes down on the debate, even before you read the evidence she marshals. But given that my gut tells me that any inherent male-female mental difference is hogwash, I was curious to see whether this intuition could stand up to any scrutiny.

It can. In the first part of Delusions of Gender, Fine considers the metrices of something like, say, empathy, or scientific aptitude. Clearly responding to the famous contention of then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers that men are naturally better at science, Fine shows how academic performance can be manipulated in men and women simply by making gender — and all the cultural expectations that go along with gender — salient in a group of students’ minds. Women, for instance, do worse on math tests after watching commercials of women doing stereotypically female activities, like vaccumming or doing their make-up. Men do better on empathizing tests when a reward that men are culturally expected to value — money — is offered. Even something as subtle as asking a test-taker to identify themselves as male or female can introduce what sociologists call “stereotype threat” to the results. Without these subtle reminders of what one is expected or supposed to do, men and women show remarkably similar abilities in all kinds of tests.

Interestingly, awareness of one’s gender affects a person’s perceived strengths and interests. So, when asked to rate their verbal and math abilities, for instance, teenage girls tend to rate themselves better at verbal and worse at math than their actual grades would suggest. Teenage boys tend to report that they are better at math and worse at verbal in just the same way. Furthermore, when someone believes they are strong in a particular skill, and that people “like them” are part of a particular academic program or industry, they are also more likely to identify an interest in that arena. All of this, as Fine says, is to illustrate the way that the human mind is context specific: a person’s skills, self-perception, behavior, and interests all depend on what social identity (they perceive) is expected of them at the time.

Fine goes on to present studies of real-life marriages and businesses in which women are seemingly showing their “true selves” — in contexts that constantly tell them that traditional, stereotypical feminity is expected. Most startlingly to me were studies of housework: in male-female relationships, regardless of whether both partners work outside the home, how many hours, and how much money they make, women do more of the domestic work. This isn’t, Fine argues, because women inherently care more about dirty dishes, but because the cultural wiring of gender expectations is so deep that both men and women perceive housework as feminine. When that association contradicts their consciously held beliefs about gender equality, both men and women rationalize: she does the laundry because she really enjoys it; she tucks in the kids because her brain is hard-wired to be more sensitive. In interviews with opposite-sex couples in which the female partner had left the work force to stay at home, both partners reported that this was her choice, and that the male partner would have been supportive of her either way. But when asked how she might have kept working — i.e., if he took over some household responsibilities, if he cut back on his out-of-the-home work hours — overwhelmingly, the interviewer found that the male partners had made no concrete offers to help her keep her job.

It’s precisely the idea of hard-wiring that Fine turns to in the second part of the book. Neuroimaging studies have been used by pop-psychologists and single-sex educators to prove mental differences between men and women. Yet, as Fine explains, PET scans and fMRIs only show which areas of the brain are particularly active in any one moment. Researchers then compare images of a subject’s brain at rest (the control) with images of the subject’s brain during an activity of interest (say, listening to a sad story). These changes presume that the control image is accurate (the subject isn’t overtired, sick, or thinking about the misfortunes of their best friend); that the results are reproducible with other subjects; and that the results will be the same with the same subject at a later date. Because the techonologies involved, however, are relatively new and expensive to administer, most neuroimaging studies simply don’t have the statistical data to back them up. Sample sizes are small; experiments aren’t repeated over and over again as they would be in other branches of science. The images also aren’t easy to interpret in a clear one-to-one way between biological event (part of the brain lights up) and mental event (person is empathizing, analyzing, etc).

Furthermore, definite biological differences between men and women — such as levels of sex hormones — have not been reliably shown to cause or even correlate with mental differences, skills, or behavior. Indeed, the cultural obsession with documenting differences in men and women, Fine argues, may blind researchers and their audience to the overwhelming similarity of male and female minds. There is nothing in the universe so like a male brain as a female brain, and vice versa. And some biological differences may in fact be diverging paths to the same destination, not the biological basis for social distinction. Women, for instance, tend to have smaller bodies than men, and proportionally smaller brains. In Victorian times, this size difference was held up as definitive proof of women’s lesser intelligence. Nowadays, the justification is more nuanced: men’s brains tend to light up in specific areas in just one hemisphere of the brain during a task; women’s brains tend to light up in both hemispheres, regardless of a task’s nature. This has led to the theory that men’s brains are more specialized, supposedly explaining men’s superior spatial skills; women’s left-right-hemisphere activity supposedly explains their better verbal skills (gender differences that, we remember from Part 1, disappear when stereotype threat is neutralized). But, when neuroimaging subjects are separated by brain size instead of by sex, researchers find that a more generalized brain response is simply part of the way smaller brains work, regardless of gender. Instead of both-hemispheres-in-use being something uniquely female, it is something characteristic of brains, male or female, on the smaller end of the size spectrum — and means nothing whatever about intelligence or skills in the real world.

Another biological difference is hormonal. Developing male fetuses experience an extra wash of testosterone at six weeks of gestation. This has been argued by some to explain the particular “systematizing” nature of male minds; but some females also experience extra exposure to testosterone in utero, a condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). Such girls are born with ambiguous or male genitalia, even though they are genetically female. They have not been documented to be more analytical or mathematical than other girls.

CAH girls have, however, shown a stronger preference for “male” things like trucks and sports, and less interest in “female” things like pink dresses. This, Fine argues, is likely, at least in part, the result of socialization from parents and peers, the topic to which she turns in Part 3. A parent herself of two sons, Fine takes on the notion that parents can raise their children in gender-neutral ways, and still see inherent gender differences assert themselves in a child’s interests, toys, friends, skills, and ambitions. Using studies of birth announcements and expecting mothers who know — or don’t know — the sex of their child, Fine argues that even progressive parents have culturally-determined expectations based on their offspring’s gender. Parents express more pride in birth announcements for boys; more happiness in birth announcements for girls. Expecting mothers speak more soothingly to female babies in utero, more forcefully and in lower tones to male babies. This continues after birth, when parents spend more time “babying” their infant daughters, apparently expecting infant sons to be more independent.

Young children in fact quickly learn not only through what parents say, but what parents do — and teachers, day-carers, relatives, peers, etc, etc. Unconscious clues about what toys to play with, what colors to wear, and how to primarily identify oneself (think of all those birth announcements, “It’s a Girl!”) tell young children not only that gender matters, but what’s expected of the members of each gender. Even if parents take herculean measures to treat their child in a gender-neutral way, to anesthize them to gender lessons in television, books, and advertizing, once a child reaches school-age, peers quickly socialize one another into doing what’s appropriate for their gender. Often this can be perfectly blunt: “Boys don’t wear barretts!” “Girls don’t play with guns!” Studies of preschool children show, for instance, that peer pressure strongly influences their play choices. When no one is around to watch, little boys will play more with dolls; little girls will play more with fire engines. Children are also sensitive to gendered coding: when My Little Ponies were masculinized with butch haircuts and scary teeth, the boys in one study were happy to play with them. Little girls in the same study were entranced by pink guns and purple plush army helmets, suggesting that children care not so much about the content of their toys, but that they be perceived playing with the “right” toys for their gender.

Is it possible that young children are so socially sensitive? Fine leads us through a compelling thought experiment: what if it were possible to tell, before a child was born, whether it would be left-handed or right-handed. What if the child’s clothing, room, and toys were color-coated: pink or purple for left-handers, blue for right-handers. What if direct forms of address, and storybooks, all used the label “left-hander” or “right-hander” to distinguish some people from others? “Go play with those other ‘right-handers.'” “Good morning, ‘right-handers and left-handers!'” “Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful ‘left-hander…'” What if the adjectives applied to left-handers were about appearance, while right-handers were always shown doing useful work outside? You get the idea. In such a world, how could children avoid the lesson, never directly stated though it might be, that there was something fundamentally important and inherent in the difference between being a right-hander and being a left-hander?

Finally, Fine leaves us with a plea for skepticism, a plea for honesty in science and science reporting, and a plea for awareness. We may not, she argues, ever achieve a world in which there is complete equality of men and women in all industries, in all social levels, in childrearing, in respect and value. We should not, however, accept that what we currently have is as close as biologically possible.

***One final note on the animal rights front: Fine does discuss a number of animal studies in Part 2, both to show the fluidity of gender in other species, and as examples of studies that sexists use to prove the naturalness of gender. Those who know me know that, as a vegan, I don’t condone animal experimentation, whatever we may or may not learn from them. To her credit, Fine explicitly notes that animal studies have an underlying contradiction:

“Working from an implicit we’re-all-God’s-creatures framework that we do not apply when it comes to the right to not be killed and eaten, enjoy access to education, or drive a car, there’s a tendency…to assume that what goes for the rat can be readily applied to humans.” [emphasis mine]

In other words, animal experimenters argue in the same breath that animals are enough like humans that experiments on them can teach us something about ourselves, and that animals are different enough from us that we can ethically do whatever we like with them.

View all my reviews

Book Review – The Shining Girls

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For different reasons, neither time-travel stories* nor serial-killer stories hold much attraction for me.  Curiously, by combining the two tropes in The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes creates something that is more compelling than either.

Although we meet a wide range of characters in the decades-spanning story, the plot centers on Harper Curtis, a sociopath from Depression-era Chicago. Harper stumbles onto a House significant enough to deserve that capitalization. Its doors can open on any time in the House’s history, between the late twenties until 1994. While the House’s former occupant used this feature to make a pile of money gambling (like you do when you discover you can travel into the future and check box scores and lotto numbers), Harper uses it to stalk specific young women in different decades, take an object from their lives — like a cigarette lighter or a baseball card — and gruesomely murder them. Sharing the spotlight is Kirby Mazrachi, the one girl who survives Harper’s attack. Beyond the ridiculous conceit of the time-hopping House, Beukes otherwise plays it very straight and naturalistic, making the characters and historical world as real as possible.

Harper, ultimately, is little more than your standard boilerplate serial killer. Step 1) tortured animals on his parents farm. Step 2) graduated to maiming his brother. Step 3) murdered a small-time thug in Al Capone’s gang, and realized this is the kind of thing that turns his crank. Beyond that, his reasons for killing are not explored or explained — and probably shouldn’t be, for what he is. He’s the bad guy. He’s scary. Really scary. You win, Lauren Beukes. You can write a pretty f*cked up dude. But it’s the way he commits his murders and avoids capture that actually create interest and tension for the reader. A time-traveling killer can escape to another decade, can return to the crime scene days or years before the crime took place, can meet the victim as a child if he wants, or jump forward to after the crime and read the papers to find out how he did/should do it. Harper’s victims live sometimes generations apart (although all live in Chicago or nearabouts), and his evolving MO, from quick and vicious stabbing to elaborate arrangement of the victim’s internal organs, does not appear in linear fashion to the detectives on his cases. How could it all be the work of one man? And even if it were, how would they find him? None of the prime-time TV profilers I know would put it together, either.

Enter Kirby, whom Harper attacks in 1989, near the end of his career chronologically but just midway through a spree that only lasts months for Harper. On the slimmest of chances, Kirby survives. After two years of post-traumatic stress and knowing the man who hurt her is still out there, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Lacking the funds to hire a private investigator, she instead takes a journalism class at her college, gets an internship for The Chicago Sun-Times and attaches herself to Dan, a former crime reporter. He was demoted to sports when he started uncovering corruption in the police department. Under the guise of a journalist, Kirby gains access to old police evidence, news archives, lawyers’ offices, and prison cells, and slowly puts the puzzle together, linking the objects that Harper steals from each victim and leaves on another.

Subtly, the story becomes about more than horror and more than time travel. Using varying POV chapters — from both Kirby and Harper’s perspectives, along with a wide cast of other characters, including the other murder victims — Beukes creates a panorama of Chicago history as well as the history of women on the frontier of their gender. Harper is attracted to each of his victims because she is, in his mind, “shining.” While what makes someone worth of this description is never explicitly said, each woman pushes boundaries in her own time: one is an African American riveter during WWII, one is the first female architect in an all-male firm (plus she’s a lesbian plus she knows communists!), one is a transgender showgirl. Etc. Etc. Without being heavy handed about it, Beukes lets us understand the weight of history and societal structures hemming in her characters, while they at the same time display the pluck to challenge them. That goes not only for gender (obviously a major theme here) but also class and race. The two African American male characters in the story (one a drug addict, one a prisoner, albeit for a crime he didn’t actually commit) are stereotypical and pat, without offering much in the way of analysis. But the attention that Beukes gives to the circumstances and journey of the female characters shows a much fuller understanding of the ways and means people end up doing what they do. And when an author casually drops in lines about blockbusting and police torturing witnesses, I have to believe she has some lefty-social awareness. All of the POV characters are working people, struggling more or less to get through the day with their dignity, and occasionally to do some good in the world.

Kirby herself is a loveable badass. Socially awkward after her ordeal — described in detail in one nightmarish chapter — she barrels her way onto the newspaper staff, wearing punk rock tee shirts and plying the librarians to help her with day-old doughnuts. The comradely relationship she develops with Dan, who’s somewhere between romantic prospect and mentor, was the novel’s most compelling, and enjoyable, aspect for me. But that’s probably because I kept imagining Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now! in Dan’s role. Dan both tries to help her track down her almost-killer and to dissuade her; he both doubts her emotional stability and yet wants to give her the respect that she lost when she became a poor-little-crime-victim. Indeed, the women-pushing-boundaries theme is most evident in Kirby’s story. Most crime dramas sideline the victims (often women) while valorizing the police (often men) who hunt down and catch the bad guys. In making Kirby both victim and detective for this story, Beukes lets her protagonist maintain agency while still being vulnerable. We worry for her. A lot. And we wish we were as gutsy and smart as she is.

The utter failure of police to find Harper, of course, could be excused by the sheer inconceivability of time-traveling. What plausible character, other than Kirby, could believe it? But Dan’s disillusionment after his years on the crime beat, and the locking up of two young African American men for one of Harper’s crimes, offer an implicit criticism of the criminal justice system. One reason crime stories rarely work for me is they tend to read as pro-cop, pro-prosecutor, pro-prison, and pro-death penalty — neatly resting the problem on the shoulders of an individual criminal and his (it’s almost always a him, isn’t it?) bad choices, while offering the state and its justice system as the solution. In other words, the system works; the bad guys get their comeuppance; the good guys win. At the end, The Shining Girls did have a similar effect — I was far more worried about somebody taking out Harper than about someone making sure trans girls feel safe living openly or scientist girls are getting jobs and research money in equality with their male colleagues. Of course these problems are harder to resolve in a 400-page novel. They are also expressly political, while the conflict of would-be-victim versus sociopath is not.

Interestingly, the way Beukes handles the paradox problems with time travel also has an apolitical cast: Harper, in traveling through time, is entirely constrained by what he has done before (in his own past as well as the chronological past) and what he will do (in his own future and the chronological future). Harper closes all his own time loops; for instance, he travels back in time to murder the House’s original occupant, so that he can discover the body in the future upon his first entrance into the House (which he knows he will do, of course, because he has already done it). The fatalistic feeling that he can do no differently compliments his identity as a sociopath: there is nothing he, nor anyone else, nor community or society, can do about it. No one, and nothing, is to blame for his crimes. Unless you want to blame fate. Time-travel and serial-killer story turn out to be simpatico.

I can’t say, though, that The Shining Girls isn’t a page-turner. If it ultimately didn’t quite satisfy the political questions it raises, I nevertheless stand in awe of the pacing, characterization, and research that Beukes has achieved. After her last novel, Zoo City, and this one, I’m eagerly anticipating her next fiction.

View all my reviews

*Unless we’re talking Dr. WhoBack to the Future, or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Apparently there has to be an eccentric older man with a signature accessory and/or a teenage boy involved.

Book Review – Dead Witch Walking

Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows, #1)Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up the audio book of #4 in the Hollows series on a whim, and the writing and cosmology was intriguing enough that I’ve decided to start from the beginning and read the full way through.

Harrison’s urban fantasy, so far, is an entertaining, breezy read, but the character development, world-building, and plotting is far superior to other urban fantasies I could name, which also feature plucky heroines with supernatural abilities and a weakness for fashion. Maybe I just appreciate Harrison’s Rachel Morgan most because she’s into combat boots and leather pants instead of pink dresses and clip-on hair bows.

Harrison creates a believable, alternative Cincinnati, on an earth where a world-wide plague (somehow spread by genetically modified tomatoes? That part I’m a little fuzzy on) wiped out 10% of the human population. After “the Turn,” as everyone in the book refers to it, supernaturals stopped hiding their existence from humans. This includes vampires, Weres (as in -wolves, but other types of shapeshifters too), witches, pixies, and fairies. A couple generations later, modern day Cincinnati has an uneasily mixed population, and two agencies are tasked with keeping the peace (really, keeping the supernaturals from victimizing humans too much): the human-run FIB, and the supernatural IS. Rachel is a mid-twenties witch working as an agent for the IS, a “runner” as they’re called here. Chronically bored with her job and fed up with her asshole of a boss, she decides to quit, and takes two of her co-workers with her: Ivy, a vampire, and Jenks, a pixie, to open their own private firm. This doesn’t sit well with her boss; apparently, the IS is not the type of job you can just quit. The last runner who tried it wound up dead, and sure enough, Rachel immediately faces a variety of cleverly designed supernatural assassination attempts. Gotta love a story where the feds are the bad guys — or at least the very, very morally ambiguous guys.

The plot revolves around Rachel avoiding these threats, finding a way to pay off her IS contract, and her developing relationships with Ivy, Jenks, and a human named Nick, who’s probably more than the mild-mannered librarian he claims to be.

The narration is first-person from Rachel’s POV. I was concerned when her first order of business was describing her outfit, which led to a lame joke about guys assuming she was a hooker. However… if you can make it past the first section, Rachel becomes more likable as her problems mount and humanize her. There’s not only the physical threat of IS assassins, but more practical problems like moving in with new roommates. The fact that the roommates in question are a vampire and a pixie adds layers of charm and intrigue. Ivy’s character has lots of possibilities for future storylines, and Jenks is often hilarious — and poignant. The problems (and advantages) of being four inches in a world designed for six-footers are written with a lovely plausibility — as are most supernatural elements of the world. It’s a complex and layered place, with varying types of vampires (living high-born, living low-born, undead), and differing branches of magic. Harrison is skilled at giving just enough exposition that the plot can move forward, without making things too convenient or too complicated for readers to follow.

There’s some interesting thematic debate about good and evil, vis-a-vis White magic versus Black. In keeping true to trope, Black magic is more aggressive and damaging — killing its target, for instance, rather than sending them off to a nice sleep. But the doing of Black magic also has a higher cost: in earth magic, that means the sacrifice of a living animal; in Ley line magic, some damage to the doer’s soul that must be repaid at a later date. Rachel, who uses earth magic, firmly places herself in the White camp, telling us she’s never killed anyone or any animal for or with her magic. It’s interesting the way this conflation of evil with killing animals works its way through the story. Later, when Rachel is placed in the position of killing a rat or probably dying herself, she rejects the idea of killing “even a rat.” There’s no pro-vegan statement here (given the good guy characters’ penchant for wearing leather and eating bacon on their pizza, described with nary a pause), and yet there’s a latent, undeveloped concept of animal rights. The strong distaste for destroying another life is central to Rachel’s morality — a morality which is challenged, to be sure, and probably shall be again in later books.

Most of the other urban fantasy stories I’ve read in the plucky-girl-narrator genre fall into a depressing cycle, with a few strong male personalities who control the heroine’s life and choices, and (when presented as a love interest) get disturbingly rapey. Dead Witch Walking avoids those missteps. Rachel does need a lot of saving and protecting in the story, but it’s as often Jenks or Ivy who come to her aid (or her elderly neighbor Keasley, as far as I can tell the only person of color in the story) as it is her love interest Nick. Rachel is self-aware enough to criticize her “damsel-in-distress” attraction to Nick, who, refreshingly, isn’t physically domineering and, in Ivy’s estimation, “a geek.” He and Rachel actually meet by joining forces to save themselves together, not through him saving her.

Fundamentally, it’s Rachel who is responsible for her own fate. Her decisions drive the plot forward: first in leaving her job, second in investigating a local councilman and CEO. Her voice is also smart, if headstrong, and she matures over the course of the story, learning from her mistakes and improving her working and living relationship with Ivy and Jenks. Ivy is a planner; Rachel is a by-the-seat-of-your-pants doer. By the end of the story, Rachel’s come around to appreciate Ivy’s point of view and talents, and Ivy stops insisting that Rachel stay home and be safe.

If there is a character who’s trying to control Rachel’s life, it’s Ivy, not Nick. Their character dynamic is reminiscent of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, or Sookie Stackhouse and Vampire Bill: vampire attracted to young woman, wants both blood and sex, tries to make decisions for her while professing selfless concern for her well-being, skirts (and often crosses the line) between lover/friend and stalker/rapist. That Ivy is female creates an interesting question for readers: will we respond to Ivy more positively than a male vampire, and will we think Rachel is less of an idiot for sticking around? Ivy challenges the easy woman=victim, man=attacker mindset that feminists and non-feminists alike are socialized to accept. That Ivy is presented as absolutely terrifying to Rachel (in moments) and also genuinely a good friend and a trustworthy ally, for me achieves the moral ambiguity of the “good vampire” much more effectively than Edward Cullen or Bill. I suspect it’s because I don’t also automatically see her relationship with Rachel as emblematic of the patriarchy. That isn’t to say, however, that Ivy isn’t morally ambiguous: her attempts to control the object of her affection are still bad and her motives in supporting Rachel aren’t all unselfish. It’s just easier to admit that the good qualities mixed in are, indeed, good, without feeling like a sexism apologist.

I am so looking forward to reading the rest of the series. More Jenks! More Ivy! More Ivy’s mom! There’s promising stuff there. So put down that Charlaine Harris! Pick up Kim Harrison!

View all my reviews