Friday, February 27, 2015

Twelve Months of Diverse Books

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign last April really brought home to me that understanding others, and others understanding me, is of vital importance. Diversity should be emphasized more in our reading, thinking, and dialogue. We need to build empathy, overcome our ignorance, forge relationships, and fit others into our worldview.

My reading list, and my social media posts, have changed to reflect this. As a part of this ongoing challenge to myself, in January I signed up with the Dive Into Diversity reading challenge hosted by Rather Be Reading and Reading Wishes.

The 2015 Dive Into Diversity Reading Challenge

Each month I'll review one of the books I've read with diverse elements of race, gender, sexuality, religion, culture, or mental or physical abilities. January was so busy with the queer posts that I forgot to get my review out to you. So here's two for one.

The Fiend Queen
LGBT Fantasy by Barbara Wright

In the first of the series, The Pyramid Waltz, Princess Katya Nar Umbriel is a roguish princess who appears interested only in flirting and breaking hearts. But surreptitiously she hunts traitors, protecting her family's crown and their secret. The Umbriels are part Fiend, having taken the evil creature's magic into themselves in order to weaken him. Spells keep them from acting out their evil, magical side. But if the spells break, they become mindless murderers. And that's precisely what one traitor wants to see happen.

Meanwhile, Starbride has been sent from her country to be a courtier, but she's often ignored because of her darker skin and different culture. She wants to help her people gain more rights under Umbriel rule. In the process, she catches Katya's eye, something the traitors Katya's hunting don't miss. They put Starbride in their sights, endangering both her and Katya while still plotting to turn Katya's family into the monster they subdued.

This series is fantastic. There's no other way to say it. It falls in the epic fantasy genre, but the books are short, quick reads and there are only four of them (boohoo!). Instead of having a roll of hundreds of characters, Barbara Wright focuses on a few stellar ones, to good effect. I fell in love with the side characters as much as the protagonists. The worst thing about reading The Fiend Queen (book #4) was finishing the series.

The series treats all sexual orientations as ordinary. Nobody is appalled that Katya's always chasing women. It's fun to see that be the norm. Wright also tackles racial and cultural clashes, as Katya's and Starbride's people don't get along. We see what happens when one nation conquers another and adopts or overwrites their customs, history, and beliefs. It's a fantastic study of macro-level world issues told through two people's story, with a riveting plot that keeps you turning the page.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
LGBT Young Adult by Emily Danforth

On the day her parents died, Cameron Post was kissing a girl. When she comes home and hears the news, a deep sense of guilt sets in. Is this the universe punishing her for the kiss?

Cameron's conservative Christian aunt Ruth comes to take care of her. As she enters high school, Cameron explores the feelings inside of herself while coping desperately with her parents' death. She attends church with Ruth, and likes it but doesn't fit in. She has a crush on one friend, then falls in love with another.

When she's finally outed as a lesbian, her aunt sends her to God's Promise, a Christian conversion camp that is supposed to make her straight. There, she finally faces her identity and shame, and weighs the costs of accepting or denying her identity.

I raced through this book. It's a unique narrative style with a very compelling story. Cameron's teenagehood is fraught with questions, uncertainty, and people all at odds because everyone is figuring themselves out. It felt real, certainly true to my growing-up experiences. Cameron has friends, some very close, but she is always a bit of a wanderer, never fully feeling that she belongs.

It's also a good story about ex-gay ministry. Cameron makes some good friends and experiences being deeply loved at God's Promise. But everything has strings attached too. It's so invisible some characters don't see it. She can't have outside contact with friends or family for the first three months. She has a script for when she talks to donors on the phone about how Jesus is changing her. She's supposed to stop liking women by now, start experiencing change.

I can't say the picture Danforth paints is a harsh one. It's more complex than anything. Good things with bad undertones. People being honest, but hurting themselves when they do. Everything feels upside-down, which is pretty accurate of life. Good people have good intentions that still manage to hurt people.

In the end, the message against ex-gay ministries is clear, but Danforth doesn't crucify any of her characters for what they do. Cameron doesn't necessarily throw off religion, either. She has no problem with believing; it's more like religion has a problem with her. That's very true to many queers' experiences.

This is a great read for anyone who can read with an open mind and heart. There are no clear good guys or bad guys. There's just messy, realistic life. It will build your empathy for queers and those involved in ex-gay ministries. Readers will come away with a greater love and compassion for their fellowman. That's always a good thing.

Word count: 912.