Review: None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

Enter to win a copy of I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above or Victoria Aveyard’s The Red Queen in OKPotato’s April Giveaway!


Here at OKP, we are desperate for diversity in the YA genre because:

A) We remember what it was like looking for representation of ourselves when we were in high school, and

B) It seems to be the genre that could reach the widest audiences with the most promising results (i.e. acceptance, understanding, and continued diversification).

So imagine my shock at discovering an upcoming YA release about an intersex teen written by an Asian-American novelist-slash-surgeon.
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None of the Above
is the debut novel of Ilene Wong Gregorio, a practicing MD who was inspired to pen her first YA work after helping her first intersex patient through the initial diagnosis. Though she never found out what happened to this patient in the long-run, Gregorio posits a journey from discovery to the beginnings of acceptance (self and societal) for the protagonist of her story, high school senior Kristin Lattimer.

Kristin is a pretty typical YA protagonist: white, straight, able-bodied, pretty, and reasonably popular. Everything seems to be going more than well — college to look forward to, a big win at Homecoming — until Kristin’s first time with her boyfriend, Sam. The pain during the first attempt lingers long enough that Kristin goes to her gynecologist, who discovers that Kristin not only lacks a uterus but has male gonads (or testes) and has XY chromosomes, not XX.

All these factors seem to point to the fact that Kristin has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), one of many different forms of intersex. In short, she is not distinctly male or female. In Kristin’s case, she presents outwardly as female, but has male sex characteristics internally.

The story follows Kristin as she grapples with what this diagnosis means and how she identifies with herself with this new definition. She must learn the different between chromosomal sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And she must deal with “coming out” to her family, friends, boyfriend, and the peers who once voted her Homecoming Queen.

Intersex representation in fiction, to say nothing of YA fiction, is basically non-existent, so it’s hard for me to review this book without that in mind. Gregorio handles Kristin’s internal conflict realistically and well, juggling her inability to self-identify with the need to move towards knowledge and acceptance of her condition. You can see more in the above video, “What It’s Like to be Intersex.”

(More on the book behind the cut.)

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UPDATE: We’re Still Alive

Hi, readers.

Life and its myriad related emotions has momentarily swamped Chebk and myself. We’ll be back tomorrow with our regularly scheduled programming. We thank you for your patience.

rugrats
Best regards,
Cheri & Chebk

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (NO SPOILERS)

Today is Celebrate Teen Literature Day where we celebrate the Young Adult (YA) genre and the reading opportunities it offers teens and adults. Chebk and I have returned to the YA genre with the advent of this blog, hoping to explore diversity in this age bracket in particular. We’ve had a lot of disappointments tempered by some wonderful surprises, such as Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe or the upcoming None of the Above.

Keeping up with the many YA releases is harrowing, but it seems to be a good gauge of what readers are flocking to and which premises peak their interest most. One of the more highly anticipated YA books of 2015 has been at the top of many lists for months now: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. (Which you can enter to win a copy of by leaving a comment here!)

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Enter our giveaway!

Red Queen follows pickpocket Mare Barrow. She is jobless, unskilled, and living with the rest of the poor Red citizens in her rundown village. Her world is divided into Reds and Silvers: the workers and servants living in the dirt and being sent to the frontlines of war, and the elite ruling class gifted with inherent superpowers ranging from superhuman strength to controlling the natural elements (fire, earth, water, metal, etc.)

In an effort to save her childhood friend, Kilorn, from mandatory conscription into the army (only those with jobs can avoid it), Mare ventures into the Silver world only to wind up masquerading as one of them in plain sight. A series of mishaps lands Mare into the lap of royalty, engaged to a crown prince, and always a second away from someone finding out that she not only grew up among Red citizens, but that she is one herself, through and through.

Breakdown of Red Queen's cover by RT Book Reviews.
Breakdown of Red Queen‘s cover by RT Book Reviews.

Right off the bat, let me just say: The diversity in this book is negligent to non-existent, which is extremely disheartening considering the story’s basic premise of societal divisions. However, where the story’s summary didn’t exactly grab me (we’ve seen this rags-to-riches, internal seething over inequality before), Aveyard’s writing did.

A trend in YA writing that I have noticed is the tendency to favor story and action over word choice and style. For fast-paced books like The Hunger Games or Divergent, we are not meant to notice the writing so much as the content. Aveyard is a writer’s writer, using lush descriptions and choosing her words carefully to set scene, tone, and character. She evokes the muck and mire of the Stilts, Mare’s hometown, just as effectively as the sterile, beautiful, and terrifying palaces and marketplaces that belong to the Silver nobility:

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Writing Diversely: Disabilities

REMINDER: Don’t forget to join our April Giveaway to win a copy of The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard or None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio! Just leave a comment here.


Netflix recently released their original series, Daredevil, which chronicles a Marvel superhero who becomes blind following an unusual accident. A blind protagonist is unusual enough, but the superhero status takes representation of disabilities to a new level.

It is therefore appropriate that the website is making changes to accommodate vision-impaired viewers by adding audio description features that will describe “”what is happening on-screen, including physical actions, facial expressions, costumes, settings and scene changes.” Other Netflix original series, such as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, will also be getting audio description tracks in the near future.

Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil.
Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil.

Disabled characters in TV shows, films, and books are generally viewed as more accessible protagonists than other diversity we’ve discussed (sexuality, race), but the truth is that a lot of that relies on the types of stories these characters are allowed to portray. Most representation relies on showing these characters overcoming or adjusting to their impairment (a la Quasimodo in Hunchback of Notre Dame or Jake Sully in Avatar).  As this article mentions, historically disabled characters are often used as plot devices to prop up able-bodied main characters (Tiny Tim redeems Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, deaf and mute Chief Bromden and stuttering Billy Bibbit bolster Randle’s heroism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

The best representation of disabilities, from visual or hearing impairments to paraplegia, seem to have one thing in common: Letting these characters be complex people first. Their disabilities are included and integral but not all-encompassing. For example, Toph from Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, a girl who is hilarious, loyal, a frankly frighteningly-skilled fighter, and also blind.

Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Some things to keep in mind when writing a disabled character is that you are writing from an able-bodied point of view. Without meaning to, you may be establishing an ableist perspective that your reader can then perpetuate, no matter how well-told or beautiful your story.

  1. A disability is not a flaw.
    Nor is it something to be overcome. Most people with disabilities will spend the rest of their lives with said disabilities and — here’s the shocker — odds are they are not going to spend every second of every day wishing they were “normal.” The disability becomes the norm for them. There are obviously still going to be difficult moments, difficult days, even difficult months, but it does not make these characters weak or any lesser than able-bodied characters.That said, your character is allowed to have more flaws than just their disability. They are allowed to be more than the Noble Suffering Hero(ine). Any character who tells your protagonist that they are awesome, beautiful, and incredible despite being [insert disability here] should be deleted immediately.
  2. A disability does not have to be an entire storyline in and of itself.
    Fleshing out the background of a disabled character will inevitably involve the origin of said disability (born with an impairment, involved in an accident, etc.). It is part of understanding your character, their motivations, and their arc. However, storylines that follow a character “overcoming” a disability generally tends to cater towards an able-bodied audience: it shows how they navigate the world and how they “suffer” and their frustrations, until a catalyst occurs that forces them to work at being somehow “better” than their disability.The main problem with these storylines is that it invites pity from able-bodied audiences. It either intentionally or unintentionally makes them think, “Thank God that I’m not [insert disability here].” It also gives them the feel-good ending of “Well, those people are going to be fine because they worked hard.” Applying this attitude towards actual disabled people results in sentiments such as, “Well, if you just change the way you think about your disability…” or “If you just tried harder…” which does nothing to alleviate ableism in society.

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Editing: A Journey

A long, long time ago, in this galaxy right here, I thought editing was for saps.

a long long time ago

Throughout my life, I’ve been a decent story teller. When I was younger, I’d come up with extravagant (highly questionable) lies that I could tell for days and days, adding to the story with each telling. This has made it fairly easy for me to carry on conversations, write essays, and most importantly for my education years, write any kind of paper that was required of me.

I have an accessible tone and I’ve always known that certain words and the way they’re used can set the scene i.e. the difference between ghost stories and a story about bunnies and sunshine.

goldylocks-and-the-sunshine-bunnies

The myriad of A’s achieved on all writing assignments (done in the last minute because I am an extreme procrastinator) convinced me that I could not improve upon any of my first drafts and that first drafts were completely acceptable as final drafts.

I was wrong.

tumblr_inline_n5clvbB16D1r64lalIn this second life of writing that I have found myself in, I am learning that there is nothing more important than learning to edit. I say ‘learning,’ because believe you me, I’m still in the fledgling stages.

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(Don’t) Write Like: Veronica Roth

For the entire month of March, I read and reviewed Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy (Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant) in anticipation of the release of the Insurgent movie (I also reviewed both films). Anyone who has been following any of these reviews knows that I have had somewhat less than lukewarm feelings for the series. And yet it continues to haunt me.

A lot of it has to do with the series unreached potential. Despite all my complaints and vendettas, there is a lot to like about Tris and Tobias/Four and even parts of the confined world they inhabit. Tris and her struggle with sacrifices is both brave and admirable, and after the creepy almost-abusive tone of their relationship in the first book, Tris and Tobias navigate their relationship in realistic and mostly healthy ways. …But, so much of the world-building and general writing leaves so much to be desired.

And therein lies the haunting. I’m not seeking to lecture on what Roth could have fixed; that ship has sailed and she’s got the billions in her pocket to soothe any regrets she may have concerning her story. But as I go forward in my own novel-writing endeavor, the ghost of Divergent’s flaws have risen, begging me not to make the same mistakes. (Sorry, Veronica Roth.)

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So here’s what I’ve learned from the writing and world-building in the Divergent series:

  1. A solid foundation is key.

A large part of the reason why Chebk even stopped reading the first book in the trilogy had to do with the world-building. It’s evident in the first twenty pages as Roth explains the entire foundation for her society, breaking communities up into personality traits: Dauntless (brave), Erudite (smart), Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), and Candor (honest).

The traits chosen do not make sense for an actual society, especially with the division of labor that seems to render large populations fairly useless. (We are told Candor are lawyers, but also told that basically nobody breaks laws and also that each faction handles disputes internally. …So what the hell do the lawyers do all day?) Once a reader starts picking apart the world of a story itself, there is little you can do to fix their belief in the characters and plotlines.

I admit I have been fairly lax in some of my own world-building, expecting readers not to question certain aspects or to fill in the gaps themselves. Reading Divergent has made me take a second look at how I am designing my world and its boundaries. Believability is key.

  1. Be consistent!

Part of adequate world-building includes follow-through with every aspect of said world. Readers will catch on to inconsistencies, which take them out of the story.

For example: In Divergent, Abnegation members are allowed to fall in love, marry, and have children. Yet we are told, through Tris, that many Abnegation members also do not have friends because they are not supposed to form ties that could keep them from being selfless for society’s good. My thinking is that spouses and kids form stronger ties that could keep people (especially people like Tris’s father, who works for government leaders) from being selfless.

Another inconsistency is in the varied personality aspects we see in all characters anyway, Divergent or not. Part of that is poor world-building; it was doomed to fail from the start with the division traits chosen. Part of it is simple character inconsistency.

My novel rotates between six character perspectives. Keeping each character consistent and unique is a chore that I regret half the time, but I have a renewed sense of the need for both to keep a reader interested and invested.

Let's play a game: How many do you remember?
Let’s play a game: How many do you remember?
  1. Control the size of your cast.

In the same way that Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight suffered from a bloated cast by the end of her series, Roth tends to introduce side character after side character with reckless abandon. The result is a mire of confused names and identities. This is even more egregious when Roth kills them off in swathes and we, as the reader are meant to feel something besides, “Who was that again?”

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Writing Prompt: I Start, You Finish

Cheri and I have this amazing, superhuman ability to modulate our writing tones to match each other’s. Okay, so not much of a super power, but still, it’s pretty cool. With that, we did another prompt where we got a prompt from the Banana Bunch (umbrella in the desert) and both started a story. Then after 15 min, the other person had to finish it. This was one of the stories we came up with:

Desert Umbrella

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The desert people of Gartha were known for their ornate, delicate lace umbrellas. They would go down to the villages in the tropics hundreds of miles away to sell them as their living. The otherwise simple folk did not use their own creations for their daily life of herding and migrating to the next waterhole, but rather worked long into the cold nights on their masterful creations.

Each desert family had their own series of designs that they would imbue into their works. The best of this small travelling group was known as the Vabishne family — and it is with their youngest that the story begins.

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