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Book Review: Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera

Image of a digital book cover. A neon purple palm tree against a dark purple background. The title is in white across the trunk of the palm tree.

Summary:
Lit by the neon glow of Miami, this heady, Spanglish debut novel follows a Colombian teenager’s coming-of-age and coming out as she plunges headfirst into lust and evangelism.

Uprooted from Bogotá into an ant-infested Miami townhouse, fifteen-year-old Francisca is miserable in her strange new city. Her alienation grows when her mother is swept up in an Evangelical church, replete with abstinent salsa dancers and baptisms for the dead. But there, Francisca meets the magnetic Carmen: head of the youth group and the pastor’s daughter. As her mother’s mental health deteriorates, Francisca is saved and falls for Carmen, even as their relationship hurtles toward a shattering conclusion.

Review:
I’ve been learning Spanish off-and-of since I was nine or so, only getting more serious in the last few years. I thought this delightful mix of queerness, Miami, and being an evangelical teenager would be the perfect match for my first dive into a Spanglish book. It absolutely held my interest with its unique and engaging storyline.

I was raised varying flavors of Evangelical, so the thing that struck me immediately when reading this was how easy it was for me to decipher certain bits of Spanish just from what my own churches said. (Out of curiosity, I double-checked with a dictionary, and I was indeed correct). The depiction of Evangelicalism is just so spot on. The only thing that seemed odd to me was the idea of baptizing a dead baby – major plot point of the beginning of the book. I’ve literally never heard of this being done in any Evangelical church. But an aspect of being Evangelical (non-denominational) is each church interprets the Bible in their own way, so I gave this a pass as being a quirk of this particular church that seems to be largely made up of converts from Catholicism.

What was most engaging to me about the book was Francisca’s slow sexual awakening. How she’s not sure if what she’s feeling when alone with Carmen is Jesucristo or perhaps the Espíritu Santo or perhaps something else? This all leads up to a scene between Carmen and Francisca that I found absolutely simultaneously erotic and moving and yet they don’t actually do anything sexual. What this book does a great job depicting, actually, is how emotional and spiritual intimacy can hold so much more realness than sexual touching.

There are also two chapters in the book dedicated to Francisca’s mother’s teen years (Mami) and Francisca’s grandmother’s teen years (Tata). I found myself with much more empathy for Mami than Tata after reading these. But I also appreciated how they demonstrated the spiritual and relationship struggles across generations.

One thing that did turn me off from the characters was how the whole family seems to have a dislike for animals (as in living animals, not as in they don’t eat them). This just…confuses me. How can you dislike all animals? For Tata, the dislike extends beyond mere preference in a way I couldn’t forgive. With Francisca, I tried to brush her dislike of the local ducks off as general teenage grumpiness, especially at being uprooted from home in Bogotá, but after seeing how Tata was as a teenager, I suspect it just is the way the family is. I’m a big lover of animals, so that made it harder for me to relate to the characters.

Some reviews dislike the unanswered questions in the book – like why did the family have to leave Bogotá? I forgave this because it’s narrated by a teenager. When there’s upheaval in the family life of teens, many of them won’t go into great details about it. They’ll just be like – this is happening and it’s terrible. So I found that to be quite authentic to the teenaged narrator’s voice. Someone else pointed out that they never go to school in Miami. I would say…school is never discussed. But the more I think about it, the more this makes sense to me. The church is all-encompassing to Francisca. Of course it’s all she talks about to us. It’s all that matters. Nothing important happened at school. In contrast in Bogotá her entire life was school because school was also the church for her, as she attended Catholic school. It makes sense to me.

My experience of this book as a Spanish language learner was that it was just the right mix of things I understood, things I could guess from context, and things I had to look up (many of which turned out to be Colombian slang). I can’t guess what your experience would be if you are bilingual or routinely speak Spanglish yourself. I’d be interested to hear your experience if that describes you. Did you find the Spanglish authentic? If you don’t know any Spanish, I’d say that you can still get the jist of the story without looking up every single word, but you’ll miss some of Francisca’s sense of humor and personality. It might be worth looking up at least some of the longer sentences or repeated words (which are usually swear words) to get some context.

Overall, this is a unique read with a fun setting and a well-rounded main character. I didn’t always like her but I found myself rooting for her nonetheless, and I enjoyed practicing my Spanish along the way.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 240 pages – average but on the shorter side 

Source: library

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Book Review: Solo Dance by Li Kotomi, translated by Arthur Reiji Morris

Digital book cover. A bird drawn in a red outline has black legs that turn into thorny branches coming out of it. The book's title is written along two sides. The background is light purple with dark purple thorny branches on it.

Summary:
Cho Norie, twenty-seven and originally from Taiwan, is working an office job in Tokyo. While her colleagues worry about the economy, life-insurance policies, marriage, and children, she is forced to keep her unconventional life hidden—including her sexuality and the violent attack that prompted her move to Japan. There is also her unusual fascination with death: she knows from personal experience how devastating death can be, but for her it is also creative fuel. Solo Dance depicts the painful coming of age of a queer person in Taiwan and corporate Japan. This striking debut is an intimate and powerful account of a search for hope after trauma.

Review:
This is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful read that I couldn’t put down.

The story starts with Cho in Japan. We learn what led to her emigration from Taiwan through a combination of flashbacks and her rereading her own college journal entries. Cho is a writer who has been obsessed with death from a young age. But she also went through a devastating trauma. The PTSD from that event destroyed her budding relationship with another young woman and haunts her to this day.

I think it’s important for anyone considering this book to know coming into it what the devastating trauma was. It’s central to the book and can be quite triggering for some. Cho was raped by a stranger who specifically targeted her due to her same-sex relationship. Although Cho does encounter kind and understanding people who validate how wounded she is from this experience, there are others who expect her to just get over it. Worse, some people blame her for it. She feels shame for what has happened to her. While this is realistic, it is painful to read about.

So this book is about many complex things. It’s about how Cho was obsessed with death from a young age. Why is that? Is it ok to feel that kind of emo way? It’s also about the systemic exclusion of queer and trans people. Cho also travels the world and sees how queerness and Pride and love exist in many countries. While she wants a sense of belonging, just what is the right way to belong is a question left for the reader. Ultimately, though, this is a book about trauma and healing from trauma. How trauma isolates a person, even when other people try, imperfectly, to reach out.

It’s easy as a queer westerner to get caught up in what queerness means in the west. It’s important to dive into what queerness means and looks like in other cultures in order to better grasp how we might create a community that’s more inclusive of all types of origins and experiences.

Although this novella is challenging, it’s also beautiful. If you feel ready to engage with the realistic trauma depicted in it, I encourage you to pick up a copy.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 149 pages – novella

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Good Eggs by Rebecca Hardiman

Image of a digital book cover. A man stands at the top of a road with his hand like a visor. The road curves down the cover and shows a woman with a bag and items falling out of it all down the road.

Summary:
When Kevin Gogarty’s irrepressible eighty-three-year-old mother, Millie, is caught shoplifting yet again, he has no choice but to hire a caretaker to keep an eye on her. Kevin, recently unemployed, is already at his wits’ end tending to a full house while his wife travels to exotic locales for work, leaving him solo with his sulky, misbehaved teenaged daughter, Aideen, whose troubles escalate when she befriends the campus rebel at her new boarding school.

Into the Gogarty fray steps Sylvia, Millie’s upbeat American home aide, who appears at first to be their saving grace—until she catapults the Gogarty clan into their greatest crisis yet.

Review:
This crossed my radar as a “feel good” read, and I do think it fits that bill, although I could see it potentially not being feel good to some readers.

This is told in third person from three different perspectives – Aideen, Millie, and Kevin. All three are flawed characters. Aideen is easily swayed by those around her, being drawn into other people’s shenanigans. She also has a hot temper and feels very overshadowed by her twin sister. This is even more easy to empathize with when one sees how Kevin treats her. (He really does treat her differently than the other three children).

Millie shoplifts. It isn’t treated by any of the characters in the book as kleptomania but rather as “attention seeking” behavior. She’s also very reticent to admit to needing help and very much doesn’t want to end up in an old folk’s home – something she’s convinced Kevin has planned for her. Overall, I find Millie very sympathetic.

Kevin is having a midlife crisis spurned on by his chosen career field changing so much that it feels to him as if it is vanishing. (His job certainly has). Do I have sympathy for him wondering how his life and career ended up like this? Yes. Do I have sympathy for him immediately pivoting to considering an affair while his wife is working hard at the only income in the family? No. Do I think he’s at the core of most of the family’s problems? Yes.

But that’s what I think works so well in the book. The problem isn’t that Kevin doesn’t have a job. The problem is that Kevin isn’t living up to his very important other familial roles. As a parent equally to all his children. As a loving spouse to his wife in the time she has outside of work. And as a child to his mother who’s lonely after his father’s death and very afraid of how old age is going to turn out for her now. He starts to develop an understanding of all of these women’s perspectives over the course of the book, but it’s subtle. And that’s what I like about it. The book is really just a – hey here’s a few months in this family’s life – picture. It just so happens that those few months change Kevin for the better, and thus change the whole family for the better too. Put another way, it’s a book about a house with a bad foundation and what happens everywhere else and then, oh look, how much better it is when the foundation is fixed.

So to me it was a feel good book. I do think some readers might be so bothered by Kevin’s mistakes and Millie’s trials that they lose the good overall vibes of the book. But if you’re ok with a flawed family then this is in general a feel good read.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Good House by Ann Leary

January 25, 2022 Leave a comment
A digital book cover. The peak of the roof of a yellow house with a cardinal on it in the snow.

Summary:
Hildy Good is a successful realtor in her small town on the North Shore of Massachusetts. She’s also a grandmother, dog owner, and divorced. She’s also recently back from rehab for alcoholism from an intervention her two daughters staged for her. Hildy is not an alcoholic, but she went along with the whole thing to ensure access to her grandbaby. Inconveniently now, she must continue to pretend to abstain in public and suffer through parties sober until she can get home to a glass of wine or two in the evening. She also begins to befriend a newcomer to town she sold a very expensive home to – Rebecca. She is obsessed with horses and her one-time psychiatrist. When a cluster of secrets become dangerously entwined, the reckless behavior of one threatens to expose the other, with devastating consequences.

Review:
The North Shore of Massachusetts is a really fun and unique place, and this book artfully and realistically depicts both that location and the unfortunate realities of alcoholism, especially as it is seen in the older generation. I particularly like that alcoholism in an older woman is featured.

Hildy clearly thinks the story is about her own ability to be a successful businesswoman in the face of encroaching real estate chains and her daughters’ “ridiculous” belief that she’s an alcoholic putting a damper on her socializing. She also likes her new friend Rebecca but can’t understand why Rebecca and her psychiatrist care that Hildy knows they’re seeing each other. The thing is, the reader can clearly see that the real story is about Hildy, alcohol, and the havoc she’s wreaking across her own and other people’s lives. But the story isn’t heavy-handed about this. It comes across as this is the day to day life of this woman in this North Shore community. It’s just her day-to-day life is impeded by alcohol. Occasionally at first, but ever increasingly as the story progresses. It’s a slow burn of moderation quantifiably not working.

My absolute favorite scene in the book is when Hildy has a bottom moment and goes out to walk her dogs the next morning. She’s uncharacteristically angry at them and berates them verbally. Normally she loves these dogs to pieces. She gets to the shore, sees a heron, has an ah-hah moment, and breaks down crying. What was so gorgeous about this to me was how real this moment is. Being hungover and doing something ordinary yet suddenly connecting to something higher than yourself and realizing you’ve really messed up. But it was bittersweet because I just knew this wasn’t Hildy’s bottom yet. (Even a person with no addiction experience would realize this as it does not occur anywhere near the end of the book). But Hildy doesn’t realize it. You think all it will take is one powerful moment but in fact it takes so much more than that.

The book does not shy away from the worse features of late-stage alcoholism, and these come to a head alongside other issues in the town at the end of the book. I really appreciate that it goes there.

What kept me from loving the book is how Hildy treats her love interest. Not when she’s drunk. But when she’s sober. I know no one is perfect, but it really saddened me to see how she treats this lovable old New England man. Is it accurate to how I’ve seen men like that treated here? Yes. But I wanted a bit more escapism in that regard in my read. For me that held me back from complete love.

Recommended to readers looking to visit the North Shore or see the trajectory of alcoholism in an older main female character.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 292 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Arctic Curry Club by Dani Redd

January 4, 2022 3 comments
Digital cover of The Arctic Curry Club. Features a brown skinned woman holding a dish in front of a table of three people (three white, one brown skinned) in the snow. A house and a polar bear are in the background.

Summary:
Soon after upending her life to accompany her boyfriend Ryan to the Arctic, Maya realises it’s not all Northern Lights and husky sleigh rides. Instead, she’s facing sub-zero temperatures, 24-hour darkness, crippling anxiety – and a distant boyfriend as a result.

In her loneliest moment, Maya opens her late mother’s recipe book and cooks Indian food for the first time. Through this, her confidence unexpectedly grows – she makes friends, secures a job as a chef, and life in the Arctic no longer freezes her with fear.

But there’s a cost: the aromatic cuisine rekindles memories of her enigmatic mother and her childhood in Bangalore. Can Maya face the past and forge a future for herself in this new town? After all, there’s now high demand for a Curry Club in the Arctic, and just one person with the know-how to run it…

Review:
Fun destinations, delicious descriptions of homemade Indian cuisine, and a plot that you think is going to mainly be about a boyfriend but then isn’t. This book was a real treat!

Maya starts the book out as one of those women who has lost her own identity and just kind of follows her boyfriend around in his life. Not great! But it soon becomes apparent that she’s struggling like this due to mental illness (anxiety) and childhood trauma. When challenges begin to arise, Maya surprises by rising to them, and in delightful ways. I was pleasantly surprised by the trajectory of the book. I started it out thinking I was going to be reading a romance and by the end I felt like I read a story about self-actualization. It kind of reminded me of Talia Hibbert only without the steamy scenes. Plus, Maya is biracial. She’s half Indian and half white British.

The handling of mental illness in this book is really adept. There is a perfect combination of sympathy but also the realization that, even with a mental illness, you have to self-advocate and push yourself. I especially appreciated that getting set up with a therapist on Zoom (due to being in the Arctic) was featured. But do take the trigger warning that some traumatic events are briefly described that feature some of the darker sides of mental illness. They are a necessary part of the story, but they are there.

The settings of the Arctic and India were both wonderfully written. I truly felt like I was in both places – the good and the bad! I loved the juxtaposition of the two as well. The descriptions of the food were divine, leaving me hungry. Finally, I found myself rooting for Maya as she found footing in her career.

Overall, this was a fun reading trip to two interesting locations, featuring lots of delicious sounding food, artful and realistic depictions of mental illness, and a gal who’s about herself, rather than changing for a guy.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

December 29, 2020 Leave a comment

Summary:
17-year-old Enchanted Jones has been making it work at her new highschool in the suburbs where she’s the only Black girl. She has a good reputation on the swim team, and she takes care of her little siblings after school while her mom and dad work to afford their kids’ private schooling and their new house. But what Enchanted really wants to do is sing – an idea her parents aren’t too fond of. When she goes to a reality tv show audition, she meets R&B singer Korey Fields. He takes a shine to her, but that might not be the good thing she thinks it is.

Review:
I read this book in less than 24 hours because I simply could not stop thinking about Enchanted and needed to find out what happened in her world. This book both manages to be about important issues but also doesn’t feel like it’s an “issues” book. It’s Enchanted’s story, and that happens to involve today’s issues because today’s issues are real.

This book is about a lot of things, but many of the things it’s about come right back around to how society treats Black girls. How we treat them like they are grown up, when they are still children. This book beautifully depicts how truly adolescent Enchanted is – something that many of our adolescents are not allowed to be but Black girls especially. Enchanted is interested in boys and has feelings about them but she also loves Disney movie night with her little siblings. She has big dreams of stardom but she also just misses seeing her grandmother and swimming with her in the ocean. She has typical adolescent breakthrough moments of realizing what you saw and thought was beautiful as a child might actually be something else. This book asks us to believe girls, but to believe Black girls especially, because so many others will just look at them and say “oh they knew what they were doing, they were grown.”

The book is also about how wealthy abusers groom girls and take advantage of their wealth and power to separate girls from their families. The abuse depicted in this book is realistic and depicts emotional, sexual, and physical abuse and could be a trigger, so please do note that. That said, the author depicts just enough abuse for us to know what’s going on, but it never feels gratuitous or unnecessary.

While this is YA, it has important content for adults too, especially if you regularly come into contact with adolescents. Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: White Ivy by Susie Yang

Book cover for White Ivy, featuring a Chinese woman from the nose down.Summary:
Ivy Lin isn’t sure of much of what she wants and never has been except for one thing – she wants Gideon Speyer. She fondly remembers his birthday party when she was 14 that she sneaked out to attend. Her parents pulled her away, sent her to China to visit relatives, and had moved to New Jersey by the time she got back. As an adult first grade teacher in Boston, Ivy runs into Gideon’s sister once again, and while she’s uncertain about what she wants most of the time, she immediately begins the work to get to be around and date Gideon. But does she really want only Gideon?

Review:
I went into this thinking it was a thriller based on the blurb that I saw – I wrote a different one for you that I think more accurately reflects the book. I would call it a contemporary story of the dark directions life can go when facing systemic and internalized issues. I would call it most comparable to Valley of the Dolls only featuring only one main character instead of many.

This is a strong own voices book. The issues Ivy faces as someone who immigrated at a very young age (and also spent some time being raised by her Grandmother in China waiting for her parents to send for her) were touching and felt real. The representation of systemic racism Ivy faced was subtle but woven throughout her life in such a way its insidiousness came across.

The author is also unafraid of pointing to the issues in the Chinese immigrant culture as well, particularly at the negative response to mental illness. This of course is not an issue limited to Chinese immigrant culture – I struggle to think of a culture that handles it well. However, I mention it as a way to say that the author did not present Ivy’s Chinese immigrant family as perfect. Rather, the problems in that family and in the broader culture as a whole twisted together to lead her down her path.

I don’t think this book is getting as much buzz as it should be. It’s a fun, different take that also brings diversity to the genre of contemporary women’s fiction. (I dislike calling it that but also there’s not a better term I’m aware of the communicates the genre I mean).

If you like reading contemporary women’s fiction with a twist of thrills (but not too many thrills), give this a chance. Especially if you’re looking to diversify your reading list or simply to find a Chinese-American leading character.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok (Audiobook narrated by Angela Lin)

February 12, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok (Audiobook narrated by Angela Lin)Summary:
Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.

But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

Review:
There is so much that is wonderful about this book. The incredibly depicted settings of both Chinatown and ballroom dancing. The finely nuanced and richly complicated relationships. The new adult struggles of finding and being true to yourself while still relating to your family of birth. You don’t have to be first-generation American to relate to Charlie’s struggles to reconcile her childhood world with the world she knows now. In some ways I found this to be a Chinese-American version of Dirty Dancing, and that’s a big complement since Dirty Dancing is one of my favorite movies. I also particularly enjoyed seeing a single father realistically deal with his two daughters. He sometimes does wonderfully and sometimes fails them, and their fights are realistic and full of honesty.

If you’re curious about the audiobook version, Angela Lin does an incredible job. Every single character has their own voice and her accents are full of nothing but realism and respect. It was like a well-produced radio program.The praise this book is getting is well-deserved, and if you want to immerse yourself in Chinatown, dance, and new adult issues, you don’t even need to read my review further. Just go get yourself a copy.  But I do need to talk about what didn’t work for me.

*spoilers*
Charlie is dyslexic, and her father never allowed her school to officially diagnose and treat her, which led her to have poor grades and struggle with many typical entry level white collar jobs such as being an administrative assistant. Lisa in contrast is an excellent student who works after school at their uncle’s Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. Partway through the book, Lisa starts to have nightmares and wet the bed. She’s also been selected to apply for entry and scholarship to a highly selective private school, though, so Charlie thinks it’s probably related to that. I think the vast majority of readers will be able to quickly figure out that Lisa is being molested at the clinic. There are just way too many hints. Lisa doesn’t want to go to the clinic anymore after being good-natured about it. She starts getting jealous of Charlie whereas before she only wished for good things for her sister. And honestly bed wetting and nightmares are extremely typical symptoms of molestation.

But I don’t dislike this plot because of how obvious it was to me. I also fully acknowledge these terrible things can and do happen in otherwise average families, and I’m not against these stories being told. However, I do think it was a poor fit for the tone otherwise of the book. It felt like the idea was that there wouldn’t be enough conflict between Charlie and her family without this extra problem. Like Charlie wouldn’t have been at all worried about her sister or about leaving her family behind somehow without this other problem. I think that’s underestimating Charlie and underestimating how hard it can be to grow and change and become different from your family of origin. The rest of the book is so full of beauty and energy, whether it’s in Chinatown or in the ballroom dance rooms. Then this plot comes in and it just feels like it doesn’t belong. While I feel incredible empathy for people in Lisa’s situation, I came to resent her presence in the story because she felt kind of like olives being stuffed into a delicious lasagna. It’s not that olives are bad; it’s just that they don’t belong. I think that these were really two separate stories, and they should have been told separately.
*end spoilers

In spite of these feelings about the dual plots, I still really enjoyed the read and would happily read another book by Kwok in the future. I also think this is a great example of a new adult read that’s mostly about the emotional experiences of your early 20s. Recommended to anyone looking to get immersed in Chinatown and ballroom.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Run by Kody Keplinger

February 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Run by Kody KeplingerSummary:
Bo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and a mama who’s not exactly sober most of the time. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Agnes Atwood has never gone on a date, never even stayed out past ten, and never broken any of her parents’ overbearing rules. Rules that are meant to protect their legally blind daughter—protect her from what, Agnes isn’t quite sure.

Despite everything, Bo and Agnes become best friends. And it’s the sort of friendship that runs truer and deeper than anything else.

So when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnes doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities, and—worst of all—confronting some ugly secrets.

Review:
This book would have wound up as a Disappointing Reads Haiku except that I actually didn’t have high expectations for it going in. The description didn’t appeal to me that much, and I had a feeling I might feel lukewarm about it. So why did I read it? I heard one of the two girls was bisexual, and hurting as I am for bisexual literature (it’s hard to find just from book descriptions), I’m willing to give most of it a shot if it sounds even moderately appealing. I do like stories of unlikely friendships and representation of less than ideal parenting situations (the realistic kind, not the fantasy kind of conveniently dead parents). I also liked the representation of not just bisexuality but also someone who is legally blind. I found the writing to be clunky, though, and the ultimate plotline to be a bit puzzling, rather than moving.

Agnes is written better than Bo. The depictions of her over-protective parents, what it is to be legally blind but not 100% blind, how others treat her, particularly in her church as an angel and not as a regular person, these were all great. The author is herself legally blind, and you can really tell. I’ve read many books about blind characters by people who were not themselves blind and the depiction was nowhere near as realistic as in this book. I think it speaks a lot to why own voices literature matters.

This realism doesn’t come through in Bo though. Bo reads like a two-dimensional caricature with the quick correction that oh hey I know I’ll make her bisexual but not a slut and that makes her seem sensitively written. Bo whose family is known in the small town as the trouble-makers, the no-goods. Bo with rumors spread about her and no-good drug-addict mom. Bo who, unlike Agnes, doesn’t speak mainstream English but mostly just in the sense that she says “ain’t” a lot. Bo who’s terrified of foster care so runs when her mom is arrested again. What bothers me the most about Bo (this may be a minor spoiler) is the book seems to think it gives her a happy ending. Like everything is ok now. But it’s clearly not. Speaking as a bisexual woman who had a less than ideal living situation in rural America in her teens, nothing about Bo strikes me as realistic. She reads as fake. She sounds fake. Some of her actions themselves are realistic but there’s no soul behind them. It might not have stuck out so badly if Agnes hadn’t been so well-written or perhaps if I wasn’t able to relate to well to who Bo was supposed to be.

One of the lines that I think demonstrates this problem that I couldn’t stop re-reading is below. It should have made me happy because Bo actually says the word “bisexual.” (Very rare in literature). But I was just irritated at how fake it all sounded.

“So … you’re all right with it, then? Me being … bisexual, I guess? I ain’t never used that word before, but … you’re all right with it?” (loc 2359)

It bothers me on two levels. First, rural people don’t just decorate their sentences with ain’t’s and double negatives. There’s more nuance to the accent than that and also Agnes and her average blue collar parents would have the same accent as Bo (they don’t). Second, I’ve never in my life heard a bisexual person speak about themselves this way, and I certainly never have. The number of times Bo asks Agnes if she’s “ok with it” (this is not the first time) is unrealistic. You know as soon as you come out if someone is “ok with it” or not and you deal and react to that. You don’t just keep wondering. You know. No amount of inexperience coming out would make you not know.

If Bo had been written as powerfully as Agnes, this would be a very different review, but since that’s not the case I have to say my dislike of the representation of Bo paired with my like of the representation of Agnes left this an average read for me, and it certainly won’t be a piece of bi literature I’ll go around recommending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah MoskowitzSummary:
Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.

Everywhere she turns, someone feels she’s too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere— until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?

Review:
Etta is a character I wish I had been able to find in fiction when I was a teenager. She’s unashamedly herself, even when it hurts or it involves some floundering. She’s from a small town with dreams of the big city. She just doesn’t fit in her small town. She is so very real because she is so many intersectional elements at once. Most important to me is that she’s bisexual (and she actually SAYS the word), but she’s also female, black, and suffering from Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOs), where the name of the book comes from.

What’s so great though is that, even with being all of these things, her main point of conflict actually has nothing to do with any of them. She desperately wants to live in NYC, and she sees a contest to get into a musical theater high school in NYC as just the chance to do that. She has a huge dream, and that is something any YA reader can relate to. So even if the reader happens to not relate to Etta on anything else (and honestly, who cares? kids like Etta have to reach really hard to relate to most of the literature out there so it’s about time the mainstream kids have to as well), but even if they don’t relate to her on anything else, they should be able to relate to her on this adolescent experience of The Big Dream.

I loved that Etta is allowed to be the person she is without speaking for All Bisexuals™. She very clearly presents herself as a bisexual person who is not representative of all bisexual people beyond the being attracted to more than one gender thing. I also appreciated that the complexity of the queer community is shown. Etta talks about being pushed into being an outsider by both the straights and the lesbians because both of them kind of just want her to “pick a side.” The book begins with the lesbians being angry at Etta for dating a boy. They’re acting like she was a “fake lesbian,” and this is how Etta feels about that:

And bi the way, I was never a lesbian, and I told the Dykes that all the time, but there isn’t a Banjo Bisexuals group or whatever. (location 54)

While a lot of the book eloquently deals with Etta’s sexuality, it also takes time to talk about race and racism. I lost the highlighted passage but essentially Etta is talking with a friend and discusses how hard it is to be part of so many minority groups and how she can never hide being black but she can hide being queer, and how that means she can never escape racism. On the other hand, she also points out how exhausting it can be to constantly be reminding people of her queerness. No one denies that she’s black but people keep trying to take her bisexual identity from her. It’s a non-preachy passage that introduces the complexities of intersexuality to a YA audience.

Finally, there’s the EDNOS. The best part about this is the book come in when Etta is in recovery. Most books about eating disorders come in during the downward spiral, but Etta has already gone to treatment and is working in recovery. We so often don’t get to see recovery and how messy it can be in literature, but we see it here. We get to see how mental illnesses don’t just go away, people just have strategies for staying in recovery.

There’s a ton that’s good about this book, but I must say that I did think the level of partying could sometimes be a bit over the top. While obviously not all kids are straight-edged I was a bit skeptical of the level of partying going on in Small Town USA (including high schoolers getting into a gay bar repeatedly). Perhaps what struck me as a bit less realitic, actually, was Etta’s intelligent and put-together mother who is clearly caring being somehow out of touch about the partying going on, whereas Etta’s sister is 100% aware. It wasn’t enough to truly bother me and I do think on some level some YA readers expect an unrealistic set of partying situations just for the interest level but in a book that had so much realistic about it, it just struck me as a bit out of place.

Overall, this is a great addition to contemporary YA with an out and proud main character and a timeless plot of a small town girl with big dreams. I requested it at my library to be added to the collection (and they did!), and if you can’t buy it yourself, I highly recommend you doing so as well. It bring so much different to the YA table.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge #miarc
Specific Illness –> EDNOS