The DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend by Kody Keplinger

duffBlurb: Seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper is cynical and loyal, and she doesn’t think she’s the prettiest of her friends by a long shot. She’s also way too smart to fall for the charms of man-slut and slimy school hottie Wesley Rush. In fact, Bianca hates him. And when he nicknames her “the Duff,” she throws her Coke in his face.

But things aren’t so great at home right now, and Bianca is desperate for a distraction. She ends up kissing Wesley. Worse, she likes it. Eager for escape, Bianca throws herself into a closeted enemies-with-benefits relationship with him.

This book gave me acid reflux. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

I’ll say this now: To all the girls who ever felt lesser, who didn’t feel beautiful, who felt like they could have been better, you deserve better than Bianca Piper.

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Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins

rebel belleI love analyzing books with a critical lens and unpicking all of its philosophical, sociological, and psychological themes.

But once in a while, I find a book that I just can’t critically analyze. Rebel Belle is one of those books, and you know what? That’s not a bad thing at all.

Rebel Belle is a mix between a magical/supernatural comedy, centering on Harper Price, a stereotypical Southern belle who becomes a reluctant magical protector of an just-as-unlikely boy. It’s a cute story, one that is a visual blend of pink frills laced with magic and action. Living in a place far removed from the American Deep South, where antebellum fashion and the Southern accent were more likely to be silly, satirical representations, I suppose it made the book funnier from a outsider’s perspective.

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Red Rising by Pierce Brown

red risingWith its themes of oppression, revolution, resistance and war, mixed in with an analysis of how war and all its hues impact the human psyche, and battles of strength, cunning, and wit, Red Rising is the young adult dystopian novel that I’ve been waiting for. And it was bloody fantastic.

People say that this book likens to The Hunger Games. Both have a similar feel: Oppressed protagonist becomes an unlikely hero as they become mechanisms of resistance and subverts of their power-hungry oppressors. But whilst The Hunger Games explores dehumanization and society’s obsession of reality television (both valid points to make), Red Rising explores the machinations and enduring effects of colonialism, and the military-industrial complex.

Whilst The Hunger Games is about how Katniss became a symbol of resistance with open defiance against the Capitol, Red Rising is about how its protagonist, Darrow, subverts the Society by penetrating the ranks of his oppressors by becoming one of them. Though I say this with bias because I am not a fan of The Hunger Games (though I see the importance of its themes), I prefer the subtle approach of Red Rising. There are so many opportunities to explore a variety of ideas and themes, and Pierce Brown takes every opportunity to flesh them out. Furthermore, Brown is a better writer; far more engaging, sophisticated, and thoughtful.

But enough of The Hunger Games and more on Red Rising. It tells the story of Darrow, a lowly Mars miner who is a Red, the lowest caste in the universe’s now highly stratified society. Humankind has now colonized other planets, and the workers of Mars have been tasked to mine helium-3 to make terraformation in Mars possible.

I salute you. I love you. The helium-3 that you mine is the lifeblood of the terraforming process … And soon, when Mars is habitable, when you brave pioneers have made ready the red planet for us softer Colors, we will join you and you will be held in highest esteem beneath the sky your toil created.

… Or so they have been led to believe.

And isn’t that the most cruel and most beautiful lie of all? To be told that all your hard work will be worthwhile in the end, never mind your peers lost to poverty and death, that it will be celebrated and that you will one day – but not today – rise above your suffering? Never mind that those who oppress you are those that ultimately gain, and that the freedom you yearn will only be when you are no longer a viable, useful being? So long as you work hard, you will be rewarded at the end — this is called the Protestant work ethic, and Weber, in his book, asserted that this work ethic is attributed the widespread of the system that depends on inequality and exploitation to function: capitalism.

Red Rising explores a variety of themes that are both intriguing and necessary. Red Rising is set mostly in the Institute – a place where the top-tiered Golds are put to the test and examined to earn apprenticeships and sponsors. The Institute is all at once a game of warfare, a test, and an education. But the Institute is more than that. The Institute is also an institution of ideology and indoctrination. It doesn’t educate, per se, but it teaches society’s best the ways of combat and warfare – not peacemaking, not demokracy (as they call it), but lessons that propagate militarization and social Darwinism.

This aspect is Brown’s narrative on how some institutions instill ideology and rhetoric in its people is not just any ideology or rhetoric. It is the Society’s rhetoric. The best soldiers aren’t those who fight the best; the best soldiers are those that believe, deeply and truly, that what they are fighting for is right. That is what the Institution is trying to create: soldiers who are dauntless in the Society’s belief system.

There is an interesting ongoing analysis of how Darrow’s physical transformation to enter the Golds ranks begins to affect who he is underneath. Though Darrow is the champion of the Sons of Ares, a spearhead in a revolution, he finds friendship and unlikely siblings with those who would be his enemies, he discovers how dark and deep the human psyche can descend in the face of adversary and desperation, and he finds both glory and dangers in leadership. More so, Darrow slowly learns that there is never just leading an army because you call yourself a leader; to lead is to find the balance between loyalty, respect, and fear. Darrow makes mistakes, some that are very costly and set him on a path of failure, and added on top, he must wade through a cesspool of deceit.

Brown analyses how war and conflict affect people and their connections with others. Red Rising has betrayal – a heck load of it – and there are complex relationships between Darrow and a multitude of characters; how their personalities conflict, their ideologies and worldviews collide in some places and align in others, where and how characters earn or place their loyalties, relationships founded on co-dependence or necessity, and even how valued and close friendships can be torn apart in moments of truth. (And now is the perfect moment to mention that if you have read Red Rising, you should also read Art of War by Sun Zi.)

Red Rising is a fantastically written book. Sure, Darrow is a bit of a Gary Stu and he does come out on top, but I believe books like these should be approached as something metaphorical rather than something literal. Sometimes characters in such dystopians are representations of something – whether an ideology, a group of people, or even something as simple as a belief. Red Rising is that sort of book. The writing is subtle, but the themes are not. For that, this book may not be enjoyable to some, but I loved Snowpiercer, so, I suppose you can see my taste.

Oh, I loved this book so much. It was so wonderful, so thrilling, and incredibly exciting. Even when there was nothing happening plot-wise, they were instead moments when Darrow became introspective and observant. And honestly, Red Rising is my kind of book, and I can’t wait to read The Golden Sun. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

Note: Thank you Aentee @ Read at Midnight for recommending this book! I don’t know how you knew I’d like it, but I LOVED it. Thank you!

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: Red Rising
Book Series: Red Rising #1
Author: Pierce Brown
Publisher: Del Rey Books

Let’s Talk About: ‘Strong Female Characters’

As a feminist, I love seeing a diversity of characters in books or movies. I love seeing female protagonists. I love seeing characters of colour. I love seeing characters that are genderqueer or fit into the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I love seeing characters with disabilities. In other words: I love it when I see a diversity of characters.

As someone who doesn’t see herself in mainstream media often (as in, seeing Asian female characters), having diversity for the sake of diversity isn’t always enough. I want diverse characters, but I also want them to be complex and well-written; characters that break the mould, characters not written according to their stereotypes, characters that embody the idea that difference can be celebrated and respected in writing.

But today, I’m not really talking about diversity. Today, I am talking about ‘strong female characters’.

I’ve put quotation marks around the phrase, not because I don’t believe in the ideal, but because I think our thirst for ‘strong female characters’ has created an over-simplified blueprint of how female characters ought to be, and any female character that doesn’t meet these specifications are dismissed as weak.

What do I mean by ‘strong female characters’ anyway? ‘Strong female characters’, as inferred from numerous reviewers on Goodreads, may be characters that:

  • are ‘kickass’ or ‘badass’ – in attitude, appearance, or ability;
  • are able to physically fight;
  • do not need rescuing;
  • assume a dominant position in a group; and
  • outspoken and assertive

Looking at the list, I can see why these traits are so appealing. (Heck, they appeal to me too.) These traits are born from the want for something better than the stereotypical, negative portrayals of women. Where women are portrayed as the ‘damsel in distress’, namely being weak, physically unable to defend themselves and therefore need rescuing from a stronger (often male) character, are in subservient positions (often serving men) – anything that shackled us or perpetuated the idea that women can’t do it. Who can blame us for wanting characters that defied these sexist beliefs? Characters with these traits empower us, and there is no fault in that.

And yet, the ‘strong female character’, and what it has become today, troubles me. It troubles me when I see reviewers or fellow women automatically dismiss a female character because she does not meet the criteria above, or are too quick to celebrate ones that do.

‘She showed x, y, z moments of weakness!’ Bad female character. ‘She can’t defend herself! She needed saving!’ Bad female character. ‘She was so scared and she was useless!’ Bad female character. (Exaggerations, but you see my point.)

What worries me is our inability to move beyond the ‘strong female character’ archetype; that we should expect female characters to have these characteristics, and anything less is not worthy of our attention.

This isn’t about our expectations and imposing them on writers. This is how we, readers, perceive and define what ‘strength’ means. This is about how this idea of ‘strength’ is putting a constraint on how we can portray female characters. This gravitation towards a better representation of women is important for feminism and its allies, but the repercussion is that now we seek a very narrow archetype of women that does not represent every woman. 

The problem I have with the ‘strong female character’ criteria, specifically the one I listed above, is that it is tied very closely to ideals of masculinity. Look at the media and you’ll find that, more often than not, male characters are:

  • assertive
  • in dominant positions
  • do the rescuing
  • can fight a physical fight

(Sound familiar?) There is nothing wrong if a woman has these traits, but it is such a small, narrow slice of what women could be.

So my question is: what if a woman isn’t all those things? Does that make her weak? Does that automatically make her a bad character?

I really hope not.

What if ‘being assertive’ is perceived as disrespect in some cultures? Does that make the female character weak if she remains quiet? Of course not, and it shouldn’t be perceived that way. And should having a moment of being assertive be perceived as ‘character growth’? Not always, lest it be a eurocentric narrative.

Needless to say, every woman is different. Every woman has their own history, their own past, their own memories, their own aspirations, their own beliefs – the list goes on. All women are unique beings that are constantly growing and changing. It is unfair to expect women, and in extension female characters, to have all of these ‘strong female character’ traits all the time. It’s unrealistic! It’s silly. Strength may be physical strength, but strength can also be compassion, it can be bravery, it can be facing their fears, it can be forgiveness.

This is what I want: I want more than ‘strong female characters’.

I want female characters from a variety of backgrounds, that have a variety of histories, ideas, attitudes, and personalities. I want female characters to show moments of weakness in the face of adversary to show their own version of strength. I don’t really care if they are ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, but I want female characters to be written so that they are human – deep, complex and adhere to their imagined cultural context, their past, their age, their experiences, their ideologies or anything that makes them them, so that we can empathize with them or dislike them for their character, rather than their portrayal as a woman.

More so, I want to learn something from these female characters. I want to empathize with them, feel their pain, and feel their joy. If a female character is strong all the time, what is there to learn from her strength? Is it not through weakness, adversary and our mistakes (no matter how much we regret them) that we grow, learn, and change as human beings?

I want authors to write female characters with flaws without fear of their readers dismissing the characters as weak or bad. Real flaws, like being a coward or being selfish (in which they would hopefully overcome), not flaws like unable to dance or clumsy.

I want well-written female characters with depth and complexity, that show the beauty of humanness, and inspire us or change us.

Thanks for reading such a long post! I think this post may be the start of a new series, in which I write about topics (related to reading, of course!) that interest me. Let’s Talk About… sounds kind of catchy!

If you have any thoughts or comments, please share in the below! I’d love to hear your thoughts, and this is open to debate and discussion!

To end this post, do you have any characters (not just female characters – any!) that inspired you, changed you, or made a big impact? Share in the comments below!

The Leveller by Julia Durango

levellerBlurb: Nixy Bauer is used to her classmates being very, very unhappy to see her. After all, she’s a bounty hunter in a virtual reality gaming world. Kids in the MEEP, as they call it, play entirely with their minds, while their bodies languish in a sleeplike state on the couch. Irritated parents, looking to wrench their kids back to reality, hire Nixy to jump into the game and retrieve them.

But when the game’s billionaire developer loses track of his own son in the MEEP, Nixy is in for the biggest challenge of her bounty-hunting career.

I grew up with video games. I started with the cute kids games like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot, and have since ventured into games like Final Fantasy VIII, that introduced concepts such as moral relativism and war to me when I was only eight years old (and is now one of my most precious and loved games). Games are an awesome medium; not only are they a place to lose yourself in an immersive world for those treasured moments of escapism, they are also a place to have fun, explore, discover, learn, and feel.

I could go on and on about how much video games mean to me, but to put it in a succinct sentence: I love video games, and from that, I’d like to say I know video games.

So when I read The Leveller‘s summary, I thought, ‘Heck yes! Finally a book about advanced virtual reality!’ I was excited. I picked up The Leveller as soon as I could so I could, hopefully, relive the excitement of discovering a new virtual world. Conveying this concept with words rather than visual media – and be convincing – would have been a challenge. But it’s not impossible. So I hoped.

Instead, The Leveller was a disappointing read that fails to have any depth. The virtual reality, known as the MEEP, is a shallow portrayal of what virtual reality could be. There is nothing about the MEEP that is compelling or complex, and, as far as I can tell, nothing unique or interesting about it either. Have a look at the likes of Log Horizon, .hack//Sign, and Sword Art Online* who, in varying degrees, explore the psychological, sociological, and interpersonal questions that come with being part of a virtual reality.

What does reality mean? Are my feelings authentic in the virtual world? Are the things that affect us and move us in virtual reality ‘real’? Is virtual reality a dimension of reality or not real at all? Granted, I do not expect The Leveller to answer all of these questions in the short book that it is. But I do expect virtual reality in itself to be explored to a degree. Unfortunately, The Leveller misses that opportunity. There is no depth, there is no substance, there is no point of discussion because it doesn’t raise anything.

The world itself is superficial and, worse, boring. Durango includes all the buzzwords that could give us a feel of what a gaming world may look like – ‘inventory’, various weapons like the ‘grappling hook’ and the ‘mage staff’, the ability to enhance one’s looks through customization of their avatar – but it lacks any essence. So what if you have those features? They ultimately meant nothing, just decorations on a facade with nothing behind it. After reading The Leveller, I had no understanding of what the MEEP was. Instead, it was a confusing mess of the Sims and an adventure RPG with no unique identity, with the occasional fantasy reference.

Here, I wish I could say there was a redeeming quality in the book, but for me, there was none. Everything in this book is lacking, which is a real shame because Durango is exploring such a complex, underrated subject that, I am sure, many people can relate to. The characters were flat and stale, built with every cliche and trope imaginable. Some of their one-liners or attempts at humour made me cringe. (And I have a dry and good sense of humour; I laugh at anything). There was nothing unique about the characters either, and because of that, they are entirely forgettable.

This book tries to be deep, but before it can explore the ideas it introduces, it moves on immediately and doesn’t even dwell on the possibilities. The main character’s recklessness might have caused fatal circumstances; the confusion of having intimate feelings in a virtual reality; the possibility of using technology and fun to systematically manipulate a large group of people — all of these ideas were introduced, but never developed. This book had potential, and it is a shame that it didn’t take advantage of it.

My advice? Even if it’s a quick read, skip this book, and watch Log Horizon or Sword Art Online* instead.

* word of warning: Sword Art Online is an enjoyable anime, but it does have a lot of problematic elements, such as its very problematic portrayal of young female characters, and unapologetic, incessant fanservice, as with most animes that are written by men for boys. It is not blatant, but subtle and may make you feel uncomfortable. Still, it explores some interesting ideas.

Rating: 1/5

Book Information
Book Name: The Leveller
Book Series: The Leveller #1
Author: Julia Durango
Publisher: HarperCollins