Review: Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good
By Whitney Gardner
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers on March 13, 2018

Chaotic Good is a seemingly lightweight book that deals with some serious issues in a sensitive way. It takes on sexism, toxic masculinity, online harassment, and gender roles.

Chaotic Good Comps14.inddCameron is having a rough summer. She’s just moved to a smaller town from Portland. She hasn’t made any friends yet, she’s bored, and she’s being harassed online. Cameron is a talented seamstress who makes her own cosplay costumes. She recently won a contest, and when she mentioned publicly that she doesn’t actually play the game she made a costume from, the online abuse starts. She’s called an attention whore, pathetic, and other far less printable things. She visits the local comic book store looking for some costume inspiration. Unfortunately, the guy who runs the place is a sexist jerk, who says her boyfriend won’t like the comics she’s picked out, points her to the “girl section,” and belittles her taste. But it’s the only comic book store in her town, so she decides to borrow some of her twin brother’s clothes and return disguised as a boy, hoping to avoid the sexist scrutiny.

The whole thing goes perfectly. She’s treated well at the store, and ends up being asked to join a Dungeons and Dragons group. She’s happy to make friends, and it becomes harder and harder to come clean about her true identity.

This book is really great. It takes on serious issues, but also manages to be really funny and poignant. Cameron masquerading as a boy has a very Twelfth Night vibe. There’s some romantic confusion: Her new friend Why falls for her in her boy guise, while she’s interested in another guy, Lincoln, and her brother Cooper has a thing for Why. Being a boy gives her a sense of safety and security. As she says:

“Two stoners nod at me as I leave the park. I nod back and keep walking. Normally, I’d be a little bit worried. Worried that they might follow me, or that they might have bad intentions. But I don’t feel nervous walking alone in my boy clothes, and I realize this is why I kept it up so long. This feeling of inevitability, of unquestioned acceptance. It was addicting. Comfortable. Easy. At least I thought it was.”

She’s under so much pressure in her female body, and her boy persona is a welcome relief. And even though things become very complicated, it’s really hard for her to give up the masquerade when it makes her feel safe, something she’s lacking because of the aggressive harassment.

The online harassment that Cameron endures is awful, and when she tries to defend herself online, it gets much worse. Her phone number is posted and she starts getting death threats. It’s really hard to imagine how anyone can think that death threats are a appropriate way to express your annoyance with a young woman who made a costume from a game she didn’t play, but given what happens when a woman dares to express an opinion online, this all feels unfortunately realistic. As Cameron says,

“What did I expect? I expected to post some photo ops and get stupid reaction gifs from my friends. Not hundreds of pages of abuse, not death threats growled at me through my phone.”

I wish I could say that the character of Brody, the comic store manager, is too over the top, but he’s pretty realistic. He’s a classic “nice guy” who thinks that women owe him something just because he’s polite to them. The author does a good job of making Brody three-dimensional, and ultimately, we see that his behavior is rooted in fear.

My only complaint is that the ending wraps up perhaps a little too neatly, but this is a minor quibble and didn’t affect my enjoyment overall.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

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My Reading Goals for 2018

It’s a new year, and it’s a clean slate for reading. I failed in many of my goals for 2017, so I’m going to try to be realistic about what I’d like to read in 2018.

I would like to read more nonfiction. I have a big shelf of science books, and I hope to get to at least a few of them this year. I’m hoping to read at least three nonfiction books.

I want to read some classic novels. This goal obviously didn’t work out for me last year, but I’ll try again. I think part of the reason I didn’t make last year’s goal is that I just wasn’t that interested in the five books I chose. I think that if I choose books I’m more interested in, I have a better chance of achieving this. I’m going to aim for three classic books. I have some titles in mind: Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights (I’ve read it before, but not in many years), and The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

I would like to try to read fewer books than in 2017, emphasizing quality over quantity. We’ll see how that goes. In 2017, I read 125 books. This year, I’ve set a Goodreads goal of 75.

I’m hoping to post more on this blog. I did better in the second half of the year, and I want to maintain that momentum. I need to get back to the original purpose of the blog, re-reading my childhood favorites. I would like to alternate re-reads with new books.

Best of 2017 and My Reading Year in Review

Here is a short list of my favorite books of 2017. I read a lot of good books this year, and it was hard to pick my favorites. I’ve broken my list down into books published this year and books published before 2017. If I’ve reviewed a book, it’s linked to the review.

Published in 2017:
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater
A Million Junes by Emily Henry
The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
This is a stunning book of short stories. The tales aren’t retellings, but there are some obvious influences (The Little Mermaid, The Nutcracker, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel). Bardugo subverts fairytale tropes and the stories all take unexpected turns. The book is also beautifully illustrated.
Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick

Honorable Mentions:
Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray
The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
A gut-wrenching book about a teen with mental illness. It’s hard to read at times, but so worthwhile.

Books published in other years:
This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
This one is a savage little gut punch about what it means to be a monster. Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel in 2018.
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Even better than the first book in the series. A gang of misfits tries to pull off the con of a lifetime. The plotting is beautifully done, and the characters are diverse and memorable.
Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
It’s historical fiction in the guise of a fairytale, and like all of Marcus Sedgwick’s YA books, it doesn’t feel very YA.
10 Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby
A collection of essays about books by a very funny writer. Highly entertaining.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I first read this book when I was 16, and it had a massive influence on me. I re-read it this year, and found it still just as powerful (and it hits awfully close to home at the moment).

Honorable Mentions:
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Rowell’s Fangirl is one of my favorite books, but I had put off reading Carry On. I finally got to it this year, and I loved it. It’s sort of the queer Harry Potter story you’ve always wanted.
Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare
I was a little wary about yet another Shadowhunter series, but this one is really good and packed a serious emotional wallop.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
This was a re-read for me, but it had been many years. I had forgotten how funny and clever this book is. It’s probably not most people’s favorite Austen, but it ranks highly for me.

I had such grand plans for what I was going to read this year: lots of nonfiction, diverse books, a pile of literary fiction, and those five classic Victorian novels. And I mostly failed. I read very little nonfiction, no literary fiction, and none of the classic Victorian novels. I did manage some diversity in terms of POC, LGBT, and mental health representation. I could still do better, but at least that’s something.

Honestly, this year was a rough one in terms of the world, and when you wake up every day and check the news to see if we’re at war with North Korea (or lately, which public figure has been outed as a sexual predator), reading becomes an escape. I read a lot of YA fantasy. Sometimes, it’s good to escape into another world.

In terms of quantity, 2017 was a good reading year. I read a total 125 books. The majority of these books were young adult, which accounts for my getting through so many. Fifteen were re-reads (I’m trying to finish up various series I’ve started but not finished, and this sometimes entails re-reading earlier volumes). I am also a fast reader, and this year, I tended to prioritize reading over other activities.

 

On Not Finishing Books

As part of keeping track of books I read, I’ve also started keeping track of books I don’t finish. When I was younger, I used to try to slog through any book I started, but nowadays, I occasionally give up on a book. According to my list, which I’m pretty sure is an underestimate, I started six books that I didn’t finish in 2016. I’ve already given up on one book in 2017.

Sometimes, I just don’t like a book and I give up, guilt-free, after a few chapters. But more often than not, I just don’t click with a book. Objectively, I know a book is pretty good, but for whatever reason, I’m just not feeling it at that moment, so I stop reading. It’s along the lines of “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Occasionally, it’s the timing that isn’t right. I decide I want to read a book, so I put it on hold at the library. Sometimes, the book is available within a week or two, but sometimes, it’s a couple of months, and my interest in the book has waned. Sometimes, you’re just really feel like reading a YA fantasy dystopian zombie novel, and then two months later, not so much.

The majority of the books I abandoned last year were ebooks. I think I find it easier to abandon an ebook since I don’t have to actually look at it again. An abandoned physical book will sit on my shelves, and occasionally I’ll see it and think that I need to get back to it. I do think the physicality of reading an actual paper book is a very different experience than reading an ebook, and although I read a lot of ebooks and I enjoy the convenience, physical books are still my favorite.

 

2017 Reading Goals

Having looked back at 2016 in my last post, now it’s time to set some reading goals for 2017.

I want to go for quality over quantity. There are so many books I want to read that I often feel like I’m in a race to finish them all. I’m probably never going to finish all the books I want to read (and that list is ever expanding), so I need to accept that and just enjoy what I have time to read.

img_3132

A small fraction of my to-read list.

I would like to work on my current to-read list without adding anything new to it. I honestly don’t know if this is possible for me, because I’m always coming across more books I want to read, but I’m going to try.

I want to read more diversely. Something like the Book Riot Read Harder challenge is a great idea, although I know that I would get frustrated trying to check off that many boxes. Still, I think even trying to hit a few of these goals would encourage me to try different things than I would normally read. (I just don’t see myself reading a book about sports, but I think I may have a nonfiction book about figure skating on my shelves. It’s a sport.)

My husband and I have come up with a reading project that we can do together. He’s been reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and he mentioned that he’s never read any of the books the characters (Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and Allan Quartermain) are taken from. I’ve only read one, so we decided we would try to tackle all five books this year: Dracula, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and King Solomon’s Mines. It should be an interesting challenge (I don’t read much nineteenth century literature these days, unless it’s Jane Austen, this so will definitely be a challenge for me). I think doing this with someone else makes it more likely that I will actually make the effort to complete this.

I want to continue my 2016 nonfiction streak. I already have several nonfiction books in my to read pile. I’m already well into one nonfiction book, Ten Years in the Tub, which is Nick Hornby’s columns about reading from the Believer. It’s fantastic and hilarious, and I’m ripping through it in no time. It also made me realize that Hornby has several book sI haven’t read yet, so they promptly went on the to-read list. Sigh.

2016: My Reading Year in Review

At the end of the year, I like to look back at what I’ve read. I use both Goodreads and a Google doc to track my reading, and I have different totals: 83 on Goodreads and 111 by my own accounting. The discrepancy is because I re-read a lot of books this year that were already counted on Goodreads. You can change the date read, but if I had already read and rated a book on Goodreads, I didn’t bother with updating the entry.

Why so much re-reading? In a few cases, I read a book, intending to write about it on the blog, but by the time I got around to writing a post, enough months had passed that I felt I needed to read the book again. I also just enjoying re-reading old favorites, and it somehow feels like less of a commitment than starting a new book.

I tend to set yearly reading goals for myself. Sometimes it’s a formal goal, like in 2010, when I decided I would read a poem every day for the whole year. (I achieved that goal, enjoyed it very much, and haven’t read a single poem since. Sigh. Perhaps it was too much of a good thing.) Sometimes, it’s a less formal goal. In 2015, I sort of vaguely decided I should read less YA and make more of an effort to read some adult, literary fiction. I did pretty well with that goal, so I decided to carry it over into 2016 but aim for nonfiction. (I used to read a fair amount of nonfiction, but I hadn’t read any in recent years.)

I read 22 nonfiction books in 2016. Seven of the 22 were science, and seven were about Antarctica. I’m glad I set this goal, because it helped me rekindle my dormant interest in Antarctica (and in particular, Antarctic exploration). My re-fascination with Antarctica was triggered when an acquaintance mentioned doing scientific research in Antarctica, which got me thinking about icebergs. A few weeks of considering white polar wastelands made me delve into my polar exploration shelf. The other nonfiction books were a mixed bag: self-help, history, current affairs, literary criticism, and memoirs.

The rest of the 83 books I read (I won’t count the re-reads here) break down as follows:

Children’s books: 27
Young adult: 23
Adult fiction: 10

If you combine adult fiction and nonfiction, that’s 32 books, so I suppose I did ok at reading books for grown-ups.

The most important book I read this year is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s not exactly a feel-good read, but it’s important and should be required reading for all Americans. I’m very glad I read it and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who’ll listen.

I’m delighted that my nonfiction goal led me back to Antarctica, and I enjoyed all of the books I read on the subject, which includes one novel, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge. I have more Antarctica on my 2017 to read list. There are so many books on Antarctic exploration that I’m not going to run out of reading material anytime soon.

The books I enjoyed the most this year were:

Radiance by Catherynne Valente
Your Inner Fish by Neil ShubinThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
The Lake House by Kate Morton
The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
Alone on the Ice by David Roberts
Remarkable Creatures by Sean Carroll
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Mandy by Julie Edwards
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Quality-wise, it was a pretty good year, and I can’t recall any major duds.

Next up: 2017 reading goals.

 

80s Flashback: An Introduction

When I first envisioned this project and blog, I pictured myself reading the classics of children’s literature: Anne of Green Gables, Harriet the Spy, and so forth. But when I started making a list of books I enjoyed as a child, I quickly realized that not all of them were what you’d call classics. For every Little House on the Prairie or Are Your There God? It’s Me Margaret, there wimg_2821as a Sweet Dreams romance or a Dark Forces book.

These books may not have had the most literary merit, but they were still a part of my life during a very formative period, and I thought it would be interesting to revisit some of them. I also enjoy these books for the aesthetic value of their covers–I can’t get enough of cheesy 80s young adult covers (check out the matching turtlenecks on the couple on the top left, neither of whom look like they’re in high school).

Although I’m calling this series 80s Flashback, some of the books were written in the 70s. But if I first read a book in 1980 or later, I figure it makes the cut. I’m going to concentrate on books I read as a kid, but I may branch out into books that are new to me, so if you have any favorites, please recommend them. (I’ll give priority to anything with a cheesy cover.)