Showing posts with label high-school. Show all posts
Showing posts with label high-school. Show all posts

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding


Rating: WORTHY!

Subtitled "and the best burger in Los Angeles" this book tells the story of Abby, who is working a summer part time internship at a fashion store called Lemonberry not far from where she lives. Normally the store takes on only one intern, but the manager, Maggie, is expecting a busy summer and so takes on two this year, and therein lies the problem - the intern often gets to stay on at the store as a paid employee (how that works given that they;re already staffed isn't gone into), so it means that Abby in in competition with Jordana Perez, on whom she soon discovers, she's crushing.

If you don't like cute, you won't like this because this is a very cute relationship. But that said, it's also quite stereotypical. I've read too many YA novels where there's the girl and the bad boy, and while this is an LGBTQIA story, Jordi is definitely the trope bad boy, short-haitred, dressed in black, in complete contrast to Abby who wears bright colors, often with a fruit motif. It turns out that Jordi isn't as bad as she's painted, so there is an out, but it still seemed a bit been-there-done-that to me: Abby the femme with Jordi the butch. It's right there in the names! it would have been nice had they been named against stereotype, and the fact these these contrasts between them were never really explored was a minor problem for me.

Another contrast is that Abby is overweight and Jordi is far from it. Some reviewers have outright described her as fat, but I don't like to use that word, especially in a case where we never really get an idea of exactly what body type Abby has. Ultimately, it's not important what body a person has if they're healthy and are getting some exercise, but it felt like a bit of a betrayal in that Abby seems far too comfortable in herself for the real world, and we never really get any feeling that she's had a hard time for her body.

It would be nice if that was everyone's case, it really would, but it's not, so this felt a bit unrealistic to me especially set as it was in a teen/high-school environment. Literally everyone accepted her and no one ever had a remark about her? And this is when she's hanging around with jocks because her best friend is dating one? It seemed a bit too sunshine and rainbows, especially in an era of a shameful presidency where crassness and crudity and rampant misogyny, homophobia, and racism is positively encouraged. The book was published only this year, so yes, the author knew, and I was sorry she didn't do more with that.

That said, I really loved Abby for her humor and wit, and for her observations of life around her and even for being scatterbrained at times. Her relationship with her best friend Maliah was a solid one, and even what she develops with this new guy during the course of the story - one of the jocks, named Jackson, or Jax for short. He was pretty cool despite being a dick on occasion, and be warned there is an ulterior motive!

Abby seems to be fine with how she is, but there seems to be a lot of reference to her body in spite of this. She mentions it quite a lot in contrast to her profession that she's happy with how she is, and this isn't gone into either. Nor is her mother's shameful behavior towards her which seems inexplicable and particularly with regard to the kind of person Abby grew up to be.

Abby got her internship because she is a blogger with a lot to say about fashion for plus-sized women. Jordi got the job because of her photography and it's this which causes some grief later in the story - a plot point I found to be a little on the thin side which is ironic give the subject of the story! Once she and Abby begin dating, Jordi starts takign lots of pictures of Abby, and Abby never objects or questions to what use these might be put, not even when she realizes that Jordi likes to show the world how she sees it, and that she has an upcoming show at a local public display area.

Warning bells should have rung in Abby's head, which is sad, because they don't and this makes her look a lot less astute about trends and signs than she's been shown to be to that point. I'm not usually good at picking these things out, but even I could see exactly what was coming from a mile away.

The blurb tells us that "...when Jordi's photography puts Abby in the spotlight, it feels like a betrayal, rather than a starring role." Yes, Abby is the star of Jordi's show. This is not a spoiler because it's no surprise whatsoever. This is followed by the truly dumb, trademark question that utterly moronic blurb-writers cannot seem to keep themselves from asking: "Can Abby find a way to reconcile her positive yet private sense of self with the image that other people have of her?" Hell no! The world will explode in a nuclear holocaust! Hell no! She's met a hot Internet celeb, and fallen in love, throwing Jordi over. Hell no, Abby is so offended by Jordi's pictorial that she's scared straight and starts dating Jax. Seriously? Of course Abby and Jordi will end up together - it's that kind of story. Duhh!

Book blurb writers must have a truly abyssal view of their readers' intellect to pose imbecilic questions like that. And they're so frequent, especially in chick lit. What does that say about how publishers view their readership?

Abby's reaction to Jordi putting her into the spotlight seemed disingenuous to me, and it completely betrays the relationship far more than Abby whines that Jordi has betrayed her. Grow a pair Abby! Her reaction is far too dramatic and written solely for the purpose of breaking them up so they can have a tearful reunion later, and this smacked of amateurishness to me. It read t this point more like fanfic than ever it did a professionally published novel.

This is the part of the book that I did not like and which seemed much more unrealistic than any other part. Some people have called out Jordi in their reviews, for her behavior, but she's behaving true to character. It's Abby who is willing to betray Jordi and her supposed love for this woman, over a thing like this which could easily have been resolved instead of discussing it with her. This relationship is doomed, trust me!

I think it would have been a better ending to have had Abby realize that she had overreacted, and had her go to reconcile with Jordi only to find that Jordi refuses, because Abby had betrayed her by showing such a ready willingness to completely ditch her and turn her back on her over a simple misunderstanding. That's how I would have ended this one.

I have to say a word about the fashion element too! On the one hand this book shows Abby as being very stylish and dressy, and on a budget too (although Abby never actually seems short of money, Where she gets it all goes unexplained). I have no problem with Abby wanting to be stylish and having an eye for it. She can be anything she wants. Even the anorexic, self-indulgent, fatuous and shallow world of fashion is waking up - begrudgingly and far too slowly - to the fact that people come in other sizes than Bulemic Zero.

But it bothered me that Abby (and the author) had nothing much to say on this topic. Just saying. It's this and the magazines, and Hollywood, and TV which contrive to make women feel ugly and poorly dressed, and unsexy and worthless, and it's shameful. This is why I have no tolerance for the fashion world. Its sole purpose is to make women feel inadequate and out of date, and thereby inveigle them into endlessly dieting and spending money they don't have on the endlessly updating latest fashions, and it's criminal, misogynistic, and disgusting. Women have enough to contend with in the academic ad business worlds without piling this on.

But all of that said, this book was cute and for the most part told a story I really liked and enjoyed. I just think that the predictable break-up was far too predictable and for the most predictable of reasons, and this betrayed the story. Plus I am not a huge fan of predictable! A little bit predictable yes, because it's comforting, and we can use a lot of that under this presidency, but not so glaringly so! That said I commend the novel as a worthy read overall.


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Emily Carroll


Rating: WORTHY!

The last thing (and only thing prior to this) that I'd read by this author was the pretentiously titled "The Impossible Knife of Memory" and I hated and DNF'd it. This graphic novel is based on Anderson's first novel, and it's actually pretty entertaining and amusing. It's about this dysfunctional girl in high-school and her thoughts and observations on the world around her, which is pretty much what the other book was about now that I think of it, but I like this one a heck of a lot better. It does make me wonder though, if Anderson is something of a one-note author.

We don't learn until well into the novel what exactly happened to high-school freshman Melinda Sordino, which all-but rendered her speechless. It's pretty obvious though, as the story moves along, that she was raped by a senior and has become so shut-down by the horrifying experience that she can barely articulate anything, much less tell what happened to her.

The story is a strong one, but I can't help but feel that the real tragedy here is not so much what happened to Melinda, as it is about how society failed her so comprehensively once she had been assaulted. None of that is explored in this - at least not in the graphic novel, which I'm forced to assume is representative of the original.

So many rape stories have been explored, but so few of those pursue how the victim was failed by everyone around her. This would have been a perfect vehicle for that. I'm sorry the author wasn't more imaginative.

The story was amusing and Melinda's caustic observations of high-school life are amusing, but in some ways the story itself is one-note because there is very little to leaven this dull, leaden bread. I can understand how every day might well feel the same flat gray to her, but that's no excuse for an author to risk making the reader feel the same way about every page!

The ending is also a little trite and convenient. I don't imagine many people who have been raped find this magical catharsis so quickly. That's not to say they don't or can't heal.

However, overall, I did enjoy this and managed to read all the way to the end without feeling I should ditch the volume, so I have to declare this a worthy read despite its flaws.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Valiant High by Daniel Kibblesmith


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a lightweight and fluffy story of some of Valiant's superheroes as they were in high-school, but it's not Superboy - far from it. It was fun and light, and active, and well-drawn and scripted, so I had a good time with it. It was really nice to see Faith in her element and to see her respected and treated as a human being, not as a weight problem, which I've never seen her as anyway. The other characters I confess I was not familiar with - or if I ever was, I've forgotten them.

The nice thing about this is that it's a PG-13 kind of a story so anyone can read it. There's some high-school jinks, some kissing, some action, and cartoonish violence, the occasional oddball fantasy creature, but there's nothing I wouldn't let my kids see. Not that they're very much into comic books! The main protagonists are Amanda "Livewire" McKee and her best friend, Faith "Zephyr" Herbert, and Faith never looked more present than she does here bringing hope and charity wherever she goes. Amanda is pretty cool too, but I'm a Faith fanboy what can I say?! I recommend this if you're into the Valiant hero world at all.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

I Have the Right To by Chessy Prout, Jenn Abelson


Rating: WARTY!

On May 30, 2014, at the venerable St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, eighteen-year-old athlete Owen Labrie went with fifteen year old Chessy Prout - who had been previously warned by her older sister about this very same boy and advised to steer clear of him - to the mechanical room in the attic of the math and science building on campus. The consequence of this excursion was three misdemeanor convictions: statutory rape penetration of his under-age victim with hands, tongue, and penis, and also of a felony: using a computer to lure a minor for sex. He was was acquitted on three counts of felony sexual assault, apparently because their age difference was less than four years, but on his conviction on the other offenses, he was sentenced to a year in jail, five years of probation, and he was required to register as a sex offender for life.

These are the legally established facts since that night. The accounts of each party in the events naturally differ, but that night and its aftermath is the subject of this book. Note that my review here is not of that night or of what happened, or of either party, although I do believe the author's account, not the defendant's except in where it coincides with the author's.

There are a paltry and pitiful handful of women who have concocted stories of assault, but they are negligible, especially when compared with the massive number of women who are assaulted in one way or another, but who fail to step forward for whatever reasons of their own. So this review is only of the book which describes these events. Not the events themselves.

The Goodreads blurb of the book begins, unsurprisingly, by saying, "A young survivor tells her searing, visceral story of sexual assault, justice, and healing in this gutwrenching [sic] memoir." but I beg to disagree. There is no searing. There is no gut hyphen wrenching. There are over 360 pages of which the first eighty-some is pure fluff and irrelevant to what happened except in that it reveals what a sheltered and privileged existence the author led prior to returning to the US from Japan where she grew up.

In those 360+ pages I am not counting the prologue or the introduction; I never read those things. I assume the fluff is due to the publisher-assigned co-writer, Jenn Abelson of whom I've never heard. She's a newspaper reporter. From my reading of this, I was forced to conclude that those who can, write, while those who can't, co-write, and by co-writing, I mean add upholstery wherever they can. In my opinion, this was a serious mistake in this book.

The blurb repeatedly mentions sexual assault, but from the description given post page ninety, this was not assault; it was out-and-out rape. Why did the publisher's blurb writer not have the guts to describe it as it is? Perhaps because there was no conviction on the charge of rape? The victim (or survivor, but I do not play with words when it comes to something as serious as this) uses the word rape and that's what I will use. The problem is that the book itself is larded with so much fluff and stuffing that it diminishes what was a horrible attack on a naïve and culturally defenseless girl who quite simply did not know how to handle what happened to her and got precious little help.

I get that this was a series of confusing events and that she had nothing by which to get a handle on them, but in hindsight which was how this book was written, I think a little more hard-writing and a lot less "purdying-up" would have served the author - the real author - far better than what we got. She should not have been playing second-violin in her own story, and I find it as surprising as it is inexcusable that a professional journalist pussy-footed around so much.

The victim's worst enemy after the rape was herself, because she maintained a pleasant, jokey, even flirtatious relationship with her rapist for several days, exchanging humorous and polite texts before wising-up and ceasing contact with him. This is how thoroughly confused she was. An assault like this will do that and worse to a person, and sometimes juries simply don't get that, especially if they've never had anything like this happen to them - and the defense team, rest assured, will try to have dismissed any potential juror who has.

The author's sister was about the only one who seemed to treat the rape as what it was, and literally punched the guy. I'd like to read her story! As far as the author was concerned, her writing (or Jenn not-so-Abelson's writing) made it feel like this whole thing was just one more relatively minor event between finals and a pep rally.

Contrary to what the blurb implied, it was virtually robbed of any real impact because of the way it was written. And contradictory elements in it did not help. At one point, in the same paragraph, the author (one of them) bemoans being an anonymous victim (which given that she's a minor is required by law) and then a sentence or two later, rails at being outed on an Internet message board! She cannot have it both ways. As it was, she outed herself later to commendably speak up about sexual assault.

In another similar contradiction, she makes a big deal about praying to her god at one point, something which is a proven waste of time since this god did nothing whatsoever to help her, and then later rails at a rabbi for forgiving her attacker! Excuse me, isn't the author purportedly a Christian: an adherent of a teaching that explicitly instructs that we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and give our shirt? No Christians actually do that in reality because they're hypocrites, but this means that strictly speaking, according to her religion she should have forgiven her attacker too, and let this go. Let me make it clear that I do NOT advocate that at all. She did the right thing - eventually - by pursuing it through legal channels, but she cannot then rail at the rabbi or claim to be a true Christian.

The decision to let her go back to the school after these events was in my opinion ill-advised, and although I did not read on (I quit this book after chapter fourteen, around page 155), I do know it was doomed to failure because in that kind of culture, all that happens is that she becomes victimized even more. People were already dissing her, calling her foul names, and trying to trivialize what had happened. People whine about an athlete's life being ruined without stopping to think for a minute how much more the girl's life has been taken apart at the seams and more.

In this age of #MeToo, I live in hopes that this cluelessness about rape and sexual assault is changing, but the tendency in the past has been to favor the male version of the story rather than the female. This is par for the course in these situations, especially if the male in question has some sort of celebratory status, such as in the case where he is on a sports team, and especially if it's a successful sports team. And it's not just guys. I've seen cases where women have come down in support of the guy rather than the victim of an assault. More young girls need to be educated on this topic - seriously educated and quickly educated, and they need to be encouraged to come forward, because every time a guy gets away with this behavior, he's thereby encouraged to repeat it.

But the end of this attitude is the hope. The reality in this case is that I cannot recommend this book not because of the story it tells, but because of the ill-advised way in which it's told. It's so poorly-written and it constantly highlights what a privileged existence Chessy Prout led, which contrasts sharply with her convicted attacker who was far less privileged so I understand. Instead, it should have focused tightly on what happened, and investigated a real possibility, if this is to be judged by other such tragedies, that there might be a sorry litany of similar assaults when the truth comes out.

The book should have begun with the assault and then went on to discussing how often these thing happen on campuses like this one, and what could be done to prevent them. The New York Times has an article (or did at the time I posted this) about serious sexual misconduct at this same school. Maybe the second half of the book did investigate, but I lost all faith in it. After plowing gamely through the rich upholstery of the first half, I had zero interest in reading on and for that I apologize to the author. None of this was her fault.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall


Rating: WARTY!

Errata:
This novel was as bad as it was illiterate:
p75: "She's the youngest of six boys."? She is the youngest of six boys? How about "She's the youngest of seven; the other six are boys"?
"Fifty frames a minute and the shudder speed’s unbelievable" p174 Shudder speed? Maybe fifty frames a minute is what makes the shutter shudder?
P180 use of ‘you’re’ where ‘your’ should have been employed. This author teaches writing? No, she relies on auto-correct. Creative auto-correct!
P232 “His bicep bulges” That last 's' is in the wrong place! Once again YA authors the word is biceps Unless you are specifically referring to a single one of the attachments to the upper arm, one of which is the short head, the other of which is the long head, then what you're talking about - what we normally called the muscle that bulges when the arm is flexed as in strong-man posing - is the friggin' biceps, you ill-educated morons. But maybe she was writing creatively?
"Su rounding" p243 As in Su rounded by idiots? Okay I've given up on the author, but did this book not have any editors? Bueller? Anyone? There were enough people mentioned in the acknowledgements. What the hell did any of them do? Did none of them read it? Were they all so gushing that it was a LGBTQIA story that might have a chance of selling that no one cared if it was any good or even spelled correctly? Even a piece of lard like Microsoft Word will catch many of these things. Or was it creatively-written by hand and typeset ye olde fashioned way? It's leaden enough that it could be such a piece of fool's cap sheet.
The author can't do math. We learn that the team is averaging 2 games per week, but after three weeks they’re 10-0? Does the author teach creative writing or creative math! Creative writing! LOL! All writing is creative if it's done right!

This was, thankfully a book I did not pay money for, but borrowed from my excellent library. It began well enough, but at the time I didn't realize how bad it would become because I did not know that the author taught (guffaw) creative writing. Anyone who teaches creative writing or who has passed through a college creative writing course is guaranteed to write god-awful novels in my experience.

The first cliché was the bullying. Barf. I skipped that. Notice that I didn't say 'inexcusable cliché' because bullying of LGBTQIAs is rife, and that's what's inexcusable and needs to be stamped-out ruthlessly along with all other forms of bullying. But turning it into a trope high-school bullying story is not going to help because it cheapens the problem by making it blatantly, painfully (I'm talking about the reader, not the character) obvious. Like there's no other kind. Ever. And as if once were insufficient, our main character gets bullied twice, in two different states! Two for the price of one! Limited Offal! Buy into it now! Yawn. Barf.

Next up is the inexcusably clichéd fiery green-eyed (JEALOUS, get it?) redhead. Yawn. Barf squared. Wait, what is it you teach, Bridget Birdsall? I forget - was it clichéd writing or creative writing? There is a difference, you know.

Taught writing isn't taut writing; it's trope writing, which brings me to the trope boyfriend being telegraphed from twenty-thousand light years away. Barf. Yawn. Clichéd or creative? Clichéd or creative? Anyone?

Next up is the sport, because your student has to be sports or arts. You know there's nothing else in the entire school curriculum worth writing about, in "creative" writing, right? Sports includes the clichéd dancer, and arts includes the clichéd image maker. Oh, wait, we have both! The main character is a basketball player and her love interest is a photographer! But all Alyx wants to do is be a girl.

But wait - how can she be a girl? Yeah she's quite literally intersex, having one testicle and one ovary, and one penis and one vulva, but that's not the issue here. The issue is that, never having been a girl before - always living as a boy, despite feeling like a girl, Alyx, who happens to have a magically unisex name complete with totally weird spelling (this in a family which boasts an 'uncle grizzly'), magically transforms into perfectly ordinary girl in the short space of time it takes to travel from California to Milwaukee!

I-80 sure is educational isn't it? God Bless President Eisenhowitzer! Ike 80 provided her with a cute feminine wardrobe too, so she felt completely at ease among girls from day one at her new high-school! She has no issues or problems learning to be a girl among girls. She has only issues with PTSD from the bullying in her old school. Hmm!

It might not have been so bad had Alyx been likeable, but she was so self-obsessed and so selfish that she simply wasn't likeable. She was annoying at best. At one point, at a party, her fellow newbie and possibly best friend Roslyn is so out of it that it scares Alyx, but rather than watch over her friend or take her home to make sure she's not abused, Alyx is quite ready to abandon her and run home? Friends don't let friends get friendly drunk.

At Christmas, Alyx gets gets a brand new smartphone replacing the one which was damaged when she was beaten up in Cali-floor-ya. Almost immediately, she purposefully kicks it off her bed onto the floor because she doesn't have any friends! That's what a shrewish ingrate she is. Likeable she is not. This is called creative unfriending, in case you wondered.

I don't mind a weak female character who learns to be strong, but Alyx never does. She's a weak-assed wuss to the very end, caving again even in the last few pages to make a magical ending in which her mortal enemy who treated her like shit for the entire novel, and screwed her over every chance she got, is forgiven by means of Alyx rolling over one more time for a certifiably Disney-esque ending. And I do mean certifiable. Was the author embarrassed by this ending? Is that why it was flash-Frozen-over?

I'm sorry, but this story SUCKED. It was awful and was exactly what I would expect from a creative writing pogrom. Some might argue that this is better than nothing, but the intersex community deserves so much better than this creative nothing.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Saints and Misfits by SK Ali


Rating: WARTY!

I had mixed feeling about this throughout. On the one hand I liked a lot of the writing, but on the other, the plot and the main character were a real problem. In the end, the ending decided me against favoring this.

I read a few reviews of this to see if I was way off-base or on-point and it seems I was the latter, not the former. Although many people liked this, those of us who did not, seemed to have similar issues with it. My problem was not with the presentation of Muslims, because I don't have a fixed idea of what Islam is like or what any given Muslim might do.

Some of those who are Muslim seem to have a problem with Muslims who are represented in ways which are different from their own narrow idea of what a Muslim should be and how one should behave, but such people are forgetting that above and beyond everything else they may or may not be, Muslims are people just like the rest of us, and they do smart and dumb things, brave and cowardly things, rational and irrational things, exactly like the rest of us do! readers and writers who fail to grasp this are limiting themselves chronically.

There was a lot of bandying about the 'hashtag own voices' bullshit in the reviews I read, but this seemed like such a reflexive, if not knee=jerk, label that I laughed at it. It still comes down to the antique notion of 'write what you know'. If people wrote what they know, there'd be no science fiction, because we don't fly around the galaxy or time-travel. There are no magical super heroes. Stephen King never went into another dimension and met a gunslinger. John Grisham was doubtlessly an attorney, but he never was involved in the specific cases he wrote about, and his books really aren't about the practice of law. They'd be boring if they were. JK Rowling never was an eleven-year-old boy, much less a wizard. Suzanne Collins never entered a dystopian death match. Write what you know is nonsensical. My advice is to write what you can get away with and make it as real as you possibly can.

I do not have any time for religion and especially not for organized religion which is a bane of life on Earth. I don't care what people privately believe. It's none of my business as long as they're harming no-one and not trying to impose their beliefs on others, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good story about people of faith or about the 'battle' between good and evil. I was interested in reading this one not because it was written by an author who writes on Muslim topics in Canada, but because it was, I thought, a story about rape and I was curious as to how it was treated in the context of Islam.

It turned out that the Islam part was irrelevant; it was bait and switch. The story told here was no different from how the same novel would have been had the characters been Christian, Judaist, Hindu or atheist! So the Muslim context was in effect nothing more than a niqab flimsily covering what everyone knows is underneath anyway. And that segues into a definition of these outfits. What's a hijab? This is my understanding - which I admit may be flawed, but in general simple terms, a hijab is what we in the west would call a headscarf. So why even call it a hijab? Well, a hijab tends to actually incorporate a scarf which wraps round the neck.

A burka is full head-to-toe covering. Strictly speaking, a niqab is a face veil, but it's often viewed as a complete head and shoulders covering rather like what Ronan the Accuser wears in Guardians of the Galaxy as it happens. That overall ensemble may or may not cover the face, but the tendency is for the face to be covered leaving only the most alluring part of the face visible - the eyes, which to me is hypocritical, but then, as I said, I have no time for hidebound traditions. I think people who blindly follow a set of rules laid down fourteen hundred years ago, or two thousand years or more ago, are morons, and it seems a lot of religious adherents agree with me since the majority of people tend to practice a very relaxed version of their religion rather than the original, usually much more strict path.

For example, all Christians are hypocrites in that they claim to follow what Jesus taught, but very few actually do. I don't believe there ever was a Jesus Christ, miracle-working son of a god, but if there had been, he was a Jew, not a gentile, and he practiced Judaism, not Christianity! He taught Judaism, and he came only for those of the house of Israel. No Christians practice Judaism. None of them is really a follower of Jesus; they're followers of Paul, who very effectively derailed what Jesus purportedly taught. His name wasn't even Jesus for Christ's sake! It was Yeshua, so anyone praying in his name is calling on the wrong guy unless they're praying to Yeshua (which is what we in the unsubtle west call Joshua)!

But let's talk about this book. The main character is Janna Yusef. She's a young Muslim in school and she wears a hijab. To me the hijab is an abuse of women. The Koran, as I understand it (which may be wrong!) talks about modesty. That talk applies equally to men and women, yet today all the onus is of course on the women of Islam to cover themselves lest they excite and incite men. There is no onus on men to quit being such lustful dicks. It's all on the woman, and so conveniently is the blame should something go wrong. Repeatedly we see attacks on women for immodesty or for wanting an education; we never see attacks on men. This is a fundamental flaw and weakness not only in Islam, but in any religion where women are isngle-d out negatively, and it needs to stop.

So one problem with this novel (and to be fair with several other such novels I've read) is that this this author fails to explore any of that. Like her main character, she simply accepts status quo, aka subjugation and repression. That was one problem with the novel, but the Islam novels I've read accept it; none of the main characters even question it, much less rebel against it. That was a problem with Janna. She had an nice sense of humor, but she was such a limp character, and she never changed except for one brief irrational and completely out-of-character spell near the end, which was too little, too late, and therefore entirely ineffective. No justice was delivered because she was so retiring and subjugated. To me this was badly written.

So what happened to Janna? This was another problem for this novel. It is entirely unclear what happened until close to the end. Was she raped or was she merely threatened with a violation - which is bad enough, but nowhere near as bad as an actual rape? The novel doesn't make this clear until near the end, so Janna's reaction to it is entirely out of proportion, and it is nonsensical. Before I go on, let me make it clear that for me, it's the victim's choice how they react to something like this. Those who have been violated are entitled to react in any way they want, but that said, they also ought to bear in mind that if they're accepting, or at least passive and retiring after something like this, then they're encouraging the violator to repeat-offend, and this is a problem because if they get away with it once, there is a big compulsion to try it again and another woman becomes the victim.

For the longest time while reading this I was bothered by Janna's reaction - or more accurately, an almost complete lack of one, because on the one hand she was persistently referring to Farooq, the man who did this, as a monster and living in near-terror of him when he was around, yet she never reported it. On the other hand her terror disappeared when he was out of sight, and she was going about her life as though nothing bad had happened. She was even obsessing on another boy in school who was not a Muslim. This felt inauthentic to me.

I've never been raped or violated in that way, but I have had events in my life where I've felt threatened, and I tend not to be able to let those things go, especially not in the immediate aftermath. I still remember them and in (fortunately!) an increasingly mild way relive them. I assume that others - to a greater or lesser degree - go through a similar process. Perhaps other people are able to let things go better than I am, but I doubt everyone is, especially after an event like Janna experienced, so this almost complete lack of any kind of real traumatization on Janna's part was unrealistic in my book.

The only time she had any issues was when Farooq was in proximity. The rest of the time it was like nothing bad had happened, so we were bouncing back and forth: was she raped, which would explain why she saw him only as a monster, in which case why was she not more traumatized than she was? Why was she not angry? How could she become interested in another guy so quickly? Or was she merely threatened with rape, which would explain some of her behavior afterwards, but not all of it?

I think the author failed in not describing the event better. No one in their right mind wants 'juicy details' of something like this, and maybe she intended it to be ambiguous, but for what purpose? I saw no purpose to it. In my opinion this was a writing fail, so let me clear this up now and reveal that there was no rape. There was a serious violation in that Farooq pushed her down on the couch and was trying to put his hand under her sweater when he was interrupted, but that was it. That was bad enough, and it was unacceptable and should have been dealt with. It wasn't. Again, this was a writing fail.

So my problem with this was that it was really much ado about nothing. Not that what happened was nothing; it wasn't, but the way this was written meant the writer sadly treated it as nothing for the almost the entire length of the novel! It didn't work. Nor did it matter about the Islamic veneer. It really played no part in the story. It felt like it was just set decoration - those background objects in a movie which people tend to see but pay little attention to. So I didn't get why people focused on this, rather than the poor story-telling. It was serious misdirection. That's not to say you can't have a novel where Islam is just a background. We do need more like that: a quarter of the world's population is Islam, but you'd never know it if all you read was novels published in the USA by native authors!

From that perspective, there was another character, Sausun, who was far more interesting than ever Janna was, but we got nowhere near enough of her. There was another character named Tats who was also more interesting, but we got precious little of her, too. In fact, even 'Saint Sarah' was a more interesting character than Janna. Her wedding to Mohammed) which was in the very early planning stage in this novel) would have made a better story than this one.

Why the author didn't chose to write about one of these people instead of Janna is a mystery. So for me the novel was a fail for all these reasons, and despite the fact that, for a while, I was liking it. Having finished it now, and found that there was no justice and a lot of the side stories simply fizzled out, I cannot recommend it. The book would have been better and a lot shorter had those red herrings been ditched. It would have packed more punch had it stayed focused on the central issue, and had Janna been less of a limp biscuit.

This brings me back to the 'own voices' bullshit. I think this novel was in part a fail because it was written by a person who was intimately familiar with the Muslim faith. I think if a non-Muslim writer had written it, we would have had a better story, in the same way that say, a Hindu writer had written about a Christian character, or a Muslim written about an atheist. I think if you are a person of faith writing a story, even if your intended audience is others of your faith, you have a duty to think at least a little bit outside the box if you want to tell a really good story. Otherwise what's the point? A better Muslim writer would have seen that and given us a great story, so this one wasn't any such story and I was sorry of it, because it could have been so much better had it been written even just a little bit more wisely and with more clarity.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim


Rating: WORTHY!

This is ostensibly a high-school romance story, but it offered so much more than that. It begins during Shabnam Qureshi's last week of high-school and extends into her last summer before college starts. She is nominally a Muslim, but that speaks more to her heritage than her practice, because she really doesn't practice her faith. The story is more about cultural and religious clashes and about how foolish a first love can be.

Shabnam meets Jamie, a charming, romantic guy who easily knocks sheltered Shabnam off her feet. Because of her sheltered upbringing, she has very little experience of boys and is therefore easy prey for the much more worldly Jamie, who seems a bit 'off' right from the start. While Shabnam is falling in foolish teenage love with him, he's more in love with the idea of an exotic and potentially forbidden femme than ever he is with her for herself, and she is far too inexperienced to see this.

In a way, they have a lot in common: they are both very shallow in their own way, and they both purvey a big lie to the other. The difference is that Shabnam is potentially a much deeper person than ever Jamie could hope to be, and as the story progresses, we see this blossoming in her repeatedly. Shabnam knows she lies, Jamie is too selfishly in love with himself to see that he's a living embodiment of a lie.

On the topic of lies, too many YA novels betray their main female character by insisting that she be validated by a man. I detest novels like that. This was not such a novel. It was about girl power and female friendship and it was the better for it. It was also about culture, religion, and conflict between generations, and in some ways I felt it risked cheapening the very message it was trying to send: about the riots and slaughter in India during partition, by tacking those on to this story.

The Brits are often blamed for the problems they caused in India as they should be, but at least they treated all Indians with equal disdain; they didn't single-out any one ethnic group or religion for abuse, whereas during partition, every religion turned against every other religion, which is one reason why I detest religion. It's divisive by its very nature in its arrogant and unprovable assertion that 'we're the chosen ones and you're doomed to hell' or whatever. That said, the injection of the parts about partition were not overdone, so it didn't feel like a lecture, nor did it disrupt the story, and it did get the word out about an historical tragedy that's been largely forgotten today.

Lending more weight to what is an already heavy subject, Shabnam is also at odds with her once best friend Farah, who is far more deeply religious than is Shabnam, but Farah has her own take on her religion. She approaches it in a far more fluid manner than many other people, adapting it to herself as much as she adapts to it. She's a lot more brash and brave, wise and mature than is Shabnam, and she was my favorite character, but I am often in the position of finding the side-kick more interesting than the main character in YA novels.

This is very much a high-school romance, YA novel, but that said, it's leagues ahead of the usual poorly-written, crappily-plotted story that's out there. That's why it won't sell as well as the others, because the bar is so low in YA books, and this one clears it so handily that it's going to be way above the head of an embarrassingly large number of YA readers. That said, this novel, like many YA novels, does fixate on music which it seems to me, is far more the author's addiction than ever it is the character's. This music will date this novel, so I paid as little attention to it as I did the poetry. The music and the poetry were both overdone and contributed nothing to he story. There was more wisdom came out of Farah's mouth than came out of the mouth of the poets and songwriters featured here!

Shabnam betrayed Farah when her friend chose to start wearing a hijab, but Farah failed to give Shabnam advance warning of her unilateral decision, and this is what caused the rift. Shabnam is embarrassed by Farah's change in habit (as it were!), and Farah feels betrayed by her friend's distancing of herself and her lack of support. They do maintain a prickly contact with each other especially since Farah is the only one Shabnam can turn to over her romance. Farah is often warning her friend about it, but Shabnam won't listen because she claims that Farah doesn't know Jamie like she does. In the end, it turns out that Farah actually knows Jamie better, even though the latter two have never met.

Some reviewers have chastised this novel for its lack of portrayal of Islam accurately, but those reviewers make the blind assumption that everyone practices Islam in exactly the same way and no-one ever makes foolish teenage jokes about aspects of it. I don't know a heck of a lot about Islam, and I am not religious myself. I think it's a serious mistake to blindly put your faith in the scientifically ignorant dictates of relatively primitive people from some two thousand or more years ago, but I do know people, and at least I have the decency to regard practitioners of religion, misguided as they are, as individuals, and not as a monolithic block of clones. Every walk of life and every religion has saints and sinners, and I would be surprised if Islam is somehow fundamentally different given that its practitioners are people just like the rest of us!

One thing which did strike me as odd was the whole hijab issue. My understanding is that it's related to modesty (and in this regard, both men and women are supposed to be modest), so I find it interesting that Farah, who considered wearing it to be pretty much a tenet of her faith, made such a big deal of wearing brightly colored and patterned hujub (the plural of hijab, although most westerners use 'hijabs'). I'm against forcing women to do something which men are never forced to do, but I don't have a lot of time for religion, and especially for rigid and blind religious practices, but that's not my point here.

Note that there is a spectrum of covering for females in the Muslim world from the least which is the hijab, or headscarf as we in the west would call it, to the most, which is the full-body burka. Farah wears only the headscarf and it's that term which is used in this novel for the most part, but the ones she wears are colorful and she also dolls them up as elaborate fashion statements. This whole practice was never discussed other than to mention it, but it occurred to me that this was rather hypocritical in that it can hardly be considered modest to wear such bright colors and to sport designs so elaborate that they can only succeed in drawing more attention to a woman than would otherwise be drawn!

In fact, I'd go further than that, because if the purpose of wearing a hijab is to avoid drawing attention, then wearing a hijab or any such garment in the west fails because it draws more attention! If they were to be rational and consistent (which religion is not, admittedly) then they would wear such things only where the majority wears them, and dispense with them where the majority does not wear them, because this is the only way that they would truly blend in instead of standing out! I know it's not quite that simple, and that modesty and means different things to different people, but in this particular story, Farah seems to be flying in the face of modesty by wearing the things she wears in the style she wears them. This was never raised as an issue, which I felt betrayed the whole point of Farah's choices.

That and the fact that the author doesn't seem to know the difference between tread and trod (the past tense of tread, as in 'take a step', is trod, not treaded, and tread and trod are not interchangeable!) are the only complaints I had about this. Farah was awesome and kick-ass, and I'm tempted to think a whole novel about her (her first year in college would be a great place to stage it) would be a worthy read, but that feeling is tempered by the fact that her power perhaps came from the fact that she was a limited exposure character, and if she had a whole novel to herself it might ruin her(!), unless the writer was me! No I'm kidding, I want to say unless the writer was particularly adept at her craft, which has author seems to be, so maybe it would work. But for now, I thoroughly recommend this as a worthy read and I plan to read more by this author.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sadia by Colleen Nelson


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

The story is about displaced and immigrant Middle-East young Muslim girls in Canada. Sadia Ahmadi is fifteen years old. She and her family left Syria when her father got a teaching post at a University in Winnipeg, which is the capital city of Manitoba, a Canadian province. Winnipeg sits some seventy miles north of the North Dakota-Minnesota state line. It's cold up there at this time of year! it's 5° Fahrenheit, or minus fifteen Celsius as I write this! The average low in January is minus twenty one! Even in August it doesn't breach eighty (25°C), and it's down to the fifties (12°C) at night. Call me a wuss, but that's way too cold for me! You have to be tough to live in Canada!

By moving when they did, Sadia's family missed the Syrian civil war. Sadia has some mixed feelings about the move and her new homeland, but she gets a real education as to how lucky she is when Amira Nasser, a refugee, ends up at Sadia's school having left everything behind in Syria to escape the not-so-civil war. Now she's in a strange land with different customs and language and she's expected to integrate and learn. Sadia is assigned by her school (Laura Secord High School) to help her get up to speed. Laura Secord is (or was) a real person - a Canadian hero of the 1812 war.

But the story isn't about Amira; neither is it about Sadia's best friend Nazreen Hussani who originally hailed from Egypt. Instead, these two are rather employed to represent the trope angel and the devil sitting on Sadia's shoulders. Amira is very much a traditional Muslim girl. Nazreen is a rebel who removes her hijab and conservative clothing as soon as she gets to school, replacing them only before she leaves to head home. Sadia has issues with this and while she tries to maintain their friendship, she also feels increasing tension, dissent, and distance between herself and Nazreen. She feels pulled between these two extremes, yet tries to find her own path.

The thing which seems to erode the rough edges, and bring all these girls together is basketball. It is Sadia's passion. She has the chance to be on a co-ed team which enters a small tournament. Everything seems to be going great until the finals, when one of the teams objects to Sadia wearing what is a suitable outfit for a strict Muslim girl to play a sport in public, but which the opposing team finds objectionable, and which we're told is contrary to the official rules of the game.

On a point of order, it really isn't. The problem is that there is a slow turn-around time for professional publishing houses - a lag between the author finishing a novel and it being published. I don't know when the author wrote this or how long it was between her signing-off on the finished copy and the publishing date (which is this month) but as it happens, the rules in basketball got changed early last year in Canada to allow religious headwear (with certain restrictions), so I chose to assume that events in this novel took place before that date! Full disclosure here: the publisher, Dundurn, is the largest Canadian-owned publisher, and I am on their auto approved list on Net Galley, for which I am grateful since I tend to like what they publish.

Just as importantly, a young girl named Amina Mohamed of the Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg came up with a design for headwear that meets both Muslim restrictions and basketball regulations. In the novel, it's Nazreen who comes up with this idea. There's no acknowledgement to Amina, so I'm wondering if this book was locked-down before that item got into the news. Perhaps in future editions, the author can acknowledge Amina Mohamed's accomplishment.

The story itself, though, was well-told and moving. It did bring to the fore the issues Muslims have when trying to live in Western society and stay true to their faith: the restrictions, the difficulties, the prejudices and the outright racism in some cases. I'm not religious at all, so some of these issues struck me as trivial, but that's certainly not how they feel to people who are invested in faith, so I let that go, but what did bother me is that there are deeper issues which the author did not explore. The most outrageous of these is the appalling gender bias that seems to go hand-in-hand with far too many organized religions (and not a few disorganized ones as well, for that matter).

If the purpose of covering a woman's body is to prevent inciting passions, then it seems to me to be doomed from the off, because when a woman is completely covered, doesn't that in a way inflame an embarrassing number of the male half of the population with curiosity and desire to know what's under there? Of course you could argue that no matter how a woman dresses, but this is actually the other half of this problem: while all the pressure is placed upon women to tone down their dress (whether it's Muslim dress or even western dress as it happens), none is placed upon men to tone down their behavior and it was this which the Quran addressed first!

The whole idea of covering a woman up isn't only an insult to the woman, it's also an insult to the men in its implicit assertion that they're so lacking in self-control that women need to be hidden under blankets lest their very appearance cause the men to become serial rapists. That whole idea is absurdist and wrong-headed to me and says far more about the men who promote these ideas than ever it does about the women who have suffered and continue to suffer under this oppressive and cruel patriarchal hegemony.

The Quran is quite explicit in terms of modesty, but this requirement did not so much address clothing as partition between the genders, and it does not apply solely to women! It applies to men, too, yet in this story, we find no issues raised over the boys, only over the girls. I thought this ought to have been delved into a little. What;s good for the goose is worth taking a gander!

Why must girls wear a head covering (which technically is a khimar, 'hijab' having a more general meaning) and not the boys? I think there is some mileage to be had there, especially when telling a story of this nature. On a related, but slightly different topic, one of the things Nazreen did in her little rebellion against conformity was to wear (when she did wear them!) very colorful Khumur (the plural of khimar).

Personally, I have no problem with what women wear (or don't wear!), it's their choice, but I can't help wonder how making a Khimar more attractive meets the stated purpose of the garment in the first place, which as I understand it, is to promote a modest appearance. Isn't it less modest to make yourself stand out? Indeed, in western society, wearing a Khimar in the first place is rare enough that it makes a woman stand out more than if she went bare-headed, so this seems to me to be in conflict with the whole purpose of a head covering if it's to detract from attention! That's all I'm going to say on that topic, although I certainly reserve the right to go into it in some future novel of mine!

On a minor technical issue, and prefacing this by saying that I'm not a basketball fan and I certainly don't pretend to be an expert on rules: as far as I know in regular play, once a basket is sunk, the ball goes to the other team! There's no rebound to be had and you certainly can't try to score again. So when we read that Jillian scored a trhee-pointer and then "Allan grabbed the rebound to shoot again" I had to ask: what rebound? There's no rebound from a sunk basket! And even if there were, you can't just grab the ball and shoot again! The possession devolves to the defending team. I'm thinking that the author was conflating regular play here with taking a free throw during which - if the ball rebounds - a player can grab it and take a shot. But like I said, it's a minor issue and we all manage to let a few of those get by if we're honest!

So in conclusion, the novel felt maybe a little young for high school, but then the students were only on the cusp of the high school experience, so perhaps I'm being too judgmental there. Or maybe just mental! I felt there were some issues with this as I've mentioned, more in the omission than the commission, but overall, the novel was a worthy read and I recommend it, especially for the intended age range.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh


Rating: WORTHY!

Being a big fan of well-done plays on words, I loved the title of this book and I also loved the book itself. It was a smart, well-written and beautifully-plotted work, and the main character was a strong female who is a good role model. She's is very withdrawn when the novel starts, but comes out of her shell naturally and admirably as the story grows.

Bea (Beatrix) is a schoolgirl poet of Taiwanese extraction, but she is painfully shy, and sensitive to people noticing her. She tries to be invisible but she also wants to be involved with the school paper for the experience, yet she doesn't want her poetry to appear in it! In short, she is trapped in a strange maze of her own making, and she needs to find her way out. It's fortuitous then, that she starts forming a friendship with an autistic boy (maybe Asperger's) who also works at the paper and whose ambition she learns, is to navigate a private labyrinth.

He likes to keep files to help him categorize things, and he's very precise in all his thoughts and behaviors, so he lectures Bea on the difference between a maze and a labyrinth. Since the labyrinth is private and no one is allowed in there except the family which owns it, he is a bit at a loss as to how to go about it, although very exacting in his plans where he can make them. Bea discovers a secret that will give them an 'in' to the labyrinth, and this is where things begin to unravel and Bea really needs to step-up to save the day. She does not fail.

I love the way Bea is very physical about her poems - mostly haiku which were fun - writing the words in the air before her as the poem materializes, working through the beats and the rhythm. Unfortunately, this gets her noticed, so she starts writing them in invisible ink and posting them in a hole in a wall in the woods near the school. It's only when someone starts writing back that she is jolted out of her private world. So she is dealing with her shyness, her loss of a dear friend who now seems to be hanging out with a new crowd, and the arrival of new people in her life with whom she does not know how to interact.

I loved the characters in the newspaper office, and how they were very individual and slightly quirky and how they all interfaced with one another. I am glad the book did not say 'quirky' in the blurb because I immediately walk away from books that do and tell them to go jump into Lake Woebegone as I leave, but this was just the right amount of quirk to appeal to me without being idiotic or painful in how hard it was trying. The story was wonderfully-written and well-worth reading.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Oima


Rating: WORTHY!

This is an interesting story about a school bully and a deaf girl. Shoya's problem is boredom, but instead of finding benign ways to deal with it, he resorts to destructive ones - picking on other children and doing dangerous stunts like jumping off bridges. Shoko is a girl who is deaf, and consequently her speech is impaired. She is new to Shoya's school, and she communicates by writing in a notebook, and encouraging others to use it to write questions to her.

Shoya immediately starts picking on her because she is such an easy target for him, especially since she has such an accepting and friendly disposition, and she never retaliates. His behavior is abominable, but the thing is that very few people in the class treat Shoko with respect and consideration, not even other girls. Shoya's behavior is the worst though, and even as his friend start deserting him and abandoning their juvenile practices as they mature and pursue academic interests more studiously, he never does.

Inevitably, Shoya goes too far and Shoko quits the school. Several years later, they meet again. This meeting is where the story begins. All the rest is flashback, and since this is a series, the story is never resolved in this one volume. On the one hand this is why I detest series as a general rule, and why I dislike flashbacks. On the other, this series - at least this introductory volume of it, was not so bad. The art was a bit too manga for my taste, but on the whole, not bad, and the writing was enjoyable, but all this can ever be is a prologue. I detest prologues!

So while I may or may not pursue this series, I did enjoy this one volume despite my reservations about such efforts, so I recommend it, and I may well get into volume two as time and opportunity permit.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo


Rating: WORTHY!

If I Was Your Girl is a novel about a mtf transgender character, written by a mtf author, and amazingly featuring a mtf cover model, Kira Conley. Now there's a trifecta. Normally I pay little attention to the cover because they're all glitz and no substance, and they have nothing to do with the writing or the author unless she or he self-publishes, but in this case I have to shout-out for the model, and the photographer, and the publisher! Way. To. Go!

The novel tells the story of a teenage boy Andrew's decidedly bumpy transition to a teenage girl coolly named Amanda Hardy. There is a lot of controversy over the author who (as Travis Lee Stroud) was accused of rape and abuse by his partner. I was aware of none of this when reading (actually listening to since this was audio) the novel, and at the time of posting this, I am not aware of any judgment on those charges, so for me the author remains innocent until proven guilty.

Let's not forget either, as many seem to have, that even guilty people can change! The author's note at the end of this book - read in her own voice on the audio book - would seem to suggest she's not as bad as she's been painted in some quarters, and also offers a slightly mitigating perspective if these accusation are true. Besides all that though, my reviews are about writing, and about whether a read is worth my time or not, and based on these precepts, this review goes ahead as planned! To do less would be to refuse to read or review, for example, Mein Kampf because Hitler was a psychopath, or any other such book. The US, it seems, thrives on worshiping books written by bad people while ignoring too many of those written by saints, but since this was a library audiobook, I don't have to worry if my money went to the wrong person!

Amanda is, in true YA trope tradition, the new girl in school. She's nervous, with her transgender secret and having been abused in her/his previous existence, which accounts for a lot of her current personality traits. All she wants to do is get through her senior year quietly, graduate, and get out of the south altogether. She fails in this endeavor (at least by the time the book ends) because she falls for Grant, one of the jocks on the school team. Here's where my first problem came along, and it wasn't because high school romances are largely juvenile and meaningless.

Sometimes a person does end up marrying their "high school sweetheart" but such cases are rare because a person that young can't typically make intelligent choices with something which will so intimately affect their life, and the sad thing is that they do not realize it! No, the problem was that Amanda doesn't appear too smart. She rejects her own best advice about not getting involved, and she welcomes the attention from Grant.

They start dating, despite Grant throwing-out warning signals because of his unexpected and unpredictable coldness at times towards her. Worse than this though, is that she tells him nothing of her history. To me, this was a betrayal of someone she supposedly was developing strong feelings about, but that wasn't the biggest problem. You can argue, for example, that he had a right to know that she cannot have children, but the problem here was not what her history was, but what has the potential to happen if she isn't straight with him from the start. And yes, she's straight, she's not gay! Gender and sexuality have nothing to do with one another! She never seems to think for a minute that this southern boy might react negatively to what she has to reveal or that others might treat him differently when they discover he's dating someone who was not born a biological female. That seemed selfish to me.

The story is written in a way that makes her father out to be a hero, and there are some tear-jerk moments here, but the fact that he hits a kid - a full on punch in the face, too - is what turned me right off him. He didn't even hit the right kid, which would still not have reprieved him, but it was also the circumstances of the punch which made me feel this could have been written better. Amanda was there before it happened and the most natural thing in the world is to yell "Dad, it wasn't him!" but she never does this, and that, to me felt completely unrealistic. This is one reason I didn't quite buy her dad's complete turn-around at the end of the book. It felt false.

But I'm no more judging the book on one or two events in it than I'd judge an author on one negative report no matter how much currency it's garnered for itself, so overall I consider this book a worthy read, and for me one of the best features about it was the audio version read by the talented Samia Mounts (who I understand is also a member of the LGBTQIA community! Quadfecta!). She did a spot-on job of delivering this story and made it all the more listenable. I recommend it.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Bad Machinery the Case of the Team Spirit by John Allison


Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this review is based on an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Bad Machinery is exactly what it says! It's totally bad-ass and hugely hilarious. But let's not confuse the case of team spirit with a case of liquor! These kids are only middle grade after all. This book, one of a series, is set in a Grammar school in England, and it's a locale with which I am intimately familiar having attended one myself. The story is set in Yorkshire, where my parents were born and raised, and I grew up next door, in Derbyshire. Non-Brits may need some remedial assistance on the lingo, but most of it isn't hard to understand. The graphic novel is evidently composed of webcomic dailies.

I adored this story. Every one of the characters is one I wish I had known at my own school, but alas and a lack of them was what plagued me there. Charlotte Grote, Jack Finch, Linton Baxter, Mildred Haversham, Shauna Wickle, and Sonny Craven are the weird, whacky, and charming students dealing with assorted life crises in their own peculiar ways. Sometimes their agendas conflict and other times they align.

The big deal is that a Russian owner of the local soccer club is trying to demolish houses to build a new stadium in their place, but this Russky seems to have pissed-off the mother of all bad luck, as becomes apparent when a satellite crashes onto the football pitch in the middle of a game, and assorted other disasters befall him. Plus Mrs Biscuits is also Russian, but not interested in rushing anywhere. She refuses to move from her home which sits, of course, right in the way of the Russian's plans to raze the land and raise a stadium. Two of the girls decide to make her the subject of a school project.

Each character has their own cross to bear. Shauna's, for example, is her slightly dysfunctional younger brother whose favorite non-word is BORB. Linton is plagued by his overly attentive mother and his fear that the beautiful new soccer stadium may never materialize. Sonny's father misses his own brutal grammar school days which appear to have been the inspiration for Michael Palin's Ripping Yarns, specifically the episode titled Tomkinson's Schooldays. Jack suffers an older sister who attends the same school and dispenses remarkable advice like, "It's a good idea to shave off your eyebrows" and "be sure to wear eye-shadow for gym." I fell in love with Charlotte though, disgusting as that is, since I'm old enough to be her father, but her sense of humor completely slayed me. She is the queen of bizarre observations and off-the-wall comments such as when she wants to discuss the procedure for extracting mothballs from moths.

The story meanders delightfully and abstrusely towards a satisfying conclusion. The art isn't spectacular, but it's serviceable and it got the job done for me. I haven't read any others in this series, but I fully intend to correct that oversight, first chance I get!


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Extra Credit Epidemic by Nina Post


Rating: WORTHY!

Errata:
"What will be doing on the phones?" (missing 'we')
"quiet, hereas if the media got a hold of it…" (whereas?)
"Van take the two steps down into the scoring pit and Taffy handed him a jacket from a bag." Wrong verb tense: 'took' required

This young-adult story began like it might be headed into science fiction territory, but it wasn't - it was just a really strong start to a fascinatingly fresh novel about a high-school senior who is anti-social and bordering on OCD, and who is obsessed with working in epidemiology which is, according to Wikipedia, "the study and analysis of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations."

The student, with the unlikely if not hilariously sweet-toothed name of Taffy Snackerge evidently has some good reason for her behavior, but this isn't really discussed in the novel except for hints that she was always this way. She has awesome parents who are out of the picture only because they're away travelling, so they play very little part in the story. Taffy is therefore home alone, and although she doesn't wear skirts, she does believe in skirting the rules at school which is, you just know it, going to get her into trouble with the prissy vice-principal.

One of the science teachers, Van Brenner, used to work for the local epidemiology department until they downsized, and now he's teaching science at the school and advising Taffy despite, or perhaps because of her rebellious streak, as she mounts her own investigation into a salmonella outbreak. The problem is that Brenner wants her to work with two other students, one of whom is a bit of a princess, so Taffy perceives. The other is a guy who apparently won't stand up for himself, and who really doesn't like science, yet Taffy is forced against her will to form a team with them and nail down the source of this minor outbreak of sickness which the local health department seems unable to pursue.

The first issue is that they all think they should use Taffy's home as their base of operations. They have calls to make to pursue their investigation of the incipient epidemic, but in this day and age of ubiquitous cell phone use (and each of these kids has one), this sounded lame to me. Why do they need to be at anyone's house?

This was a minor irritation - and nowhere near as irritating as the fact that the author evidently feels that italics have been for too long out of work, and absolutely loves to employ them at every opportunity. That itself would not have been so bad, but Kindle's crappy conversion process for their smart phone app rendered every italicized word in a smaller font and very faint, making it really hard to read. Additionally, it doesn't italicize superscripted words, so when I read "1st Offense: Minimum Two Detentions," all of it was italicized except for the 'st' after the number 1 (and the 'nd' after the two and so on). Fortunately, the story started out so strongly for me that I was quite willing to overlook these issues.

It was this strength and power which carried the story all the way to the end for me. Taffy is a go-getter and flatly refuses to let any obstacle stand in her way, including a vindictive vice-principal who has more vice than principles. She forms a relationship with the other two despite her dysfunctional social qualities, and she even begins learning how far out on the edge she is as she's slowly, but surely reeled back in by Taylor, with whom Taffy forms more than a friendship. Both Taylor and Gabriel are characters in their own right and don't let taffy hog all the center stage. The whole story is beautifully done, with smarts, with humor, with a sly sense of the absurd, and with a really good story underlying it all.

I would really love to know what triggered the author to come up with the idea for this one! It's been a long time since I've read anything like this, and this was a welcome breath of fresh air after reading what feels like far too many stories of late which start out well and go to hell. This one had everything I look for in a novel, including a truly strong female main character, and a curiously endearing title. I'm not a fan of series, but I would definitely read a follow-up novel about Taffy & Co if there ever was one. I recommend this one unreservedly.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Smart Girls Get What They Want by Sarah Strohmeyer


Rating: WORTHY!

I seem to have entered a period of really bad books that fail to gain my attention (apart from the initial discovery, where the blurb made it seem like the book might be really interesting). Fortunately, I happen to have access to a really excellent public library with awesome librarians, so my mistakes cost me very little! I can DNF these experimental reads/listens without impoverishing myself. All Hail Public Libraries!

This is how I came to have yet another trope YA novel in my hands and one which appears, yet again, to be written by a female author who seems to dislike women. I mean, if she didn't, then why would she characterize them like this? Not to be confused with Mary Hartley's The Smart Girl's Guide to Getting What You Want, which this main character could have probably benefited from reading,Smart Girls Get What They Want is your typical YA story of the nerd and the jock, 'forced' together in a ridiculous fashion and falling for each other notwithstanding some heavy-duty reasons why they should not. This much I knew from reading only the first chapter.

The author makes the classic mistake of imbuing her main character with her own qualities, views, musical tastes and perspectives, even though she is old enough to be the main character's mother, if not grandmother. Thus we get references to the Rolling Stones and other anachronisms. That's not to say that no seventeen-year-old girl can quote lyrics from The Rolling Stones - only that it's so highly unlikely that it really kicks a reader out of the suspension of disbelief. What, there were no bands to which a seventeen year old might listen to and quite from? Or is the author simply too lazy to look them up? In this high-tech age, it's not hard to look up the bands to which teens might listen, and find the lyrics to a song or two by them. Or make up your own bands and lyrics. Or simply not have her quote a lyric, and thereby lend her a little more inventiveness and originality if you want your readers to really dig her. And this wasn't the only anachronistic reference.

The story is ostensibly about three friends, but it's really about only the first person narrator, and the friends (so-called) are given short shrift as ever. They're really more tools than friends. Because it's first person this gives the impression that she's all about herself an no one else, which is another problem with first person PoV. Genevieve (aka Gigi, LOL!) is the privileged, spoiled rotten MC, and Bea and Neerja are her 'friends'. They realize that Neerja's older sister was a nobody at school, perhaps because of her position as the smartest person in the class. The three decide they don't want to be that way, but Gigi's plan is derailed when she gets accused of cheating on a chemistry exam. How the teacher managed to grade the tests and discover the similarities before the students even left the classroom is a mystery. I can only assume time passed, but it was written so badly that it looked like as soon as they got up to leave the classroom, the teacher was calling them back with the graded tests already on his desk!

She didn't cheat, but because the jock's answers, including the extra credit question, are so much like hers, both of them were tarred with the same cheating brush, and the jock is such a selfish dick that he turns it all into a joke. Gigi is supposedly this go-getter girl, but she fails dismally to defend herself, and the school "discipline" hearing is such a complete and utter joke that it lacked all credibility for me. The school didn't even contact the parents about this. This is all so unbelievable as to really throw the story out as far as I was concerned, although I did read on for a while to see if it offered any hope of improvement. It just got worse. At this point I not only detested the jock, I detested the main character. This is never a good sign.

It wasn't believable for several reasons, the first of which was that the jock seemed out of place in the AP chemistry class. Not that no jock can be smart by any means, but that this particular one seemed like a complete jerk from the start and the author offered no rationale whatsoever for his even being in this class. Secondly, the ball-buster of a teacher who summarily accused them of cheating on his test was right there in the classroom. Are we supposed to believe that never once did he look up? Never once did he see this pair and notice that the jock was cribbing? Bullshit! It wasn't credible. This is amateur stuff. Thirdly, Gigi had already proven her academic chops and integrity over several years, and it just didn't sound likely she'd automatically be even suspected, let alone accused, found guilty and condemned without a trial. Her guilt is assumed throughout by both this teacher and the principal! This was done so ham-fistedly. They didn't get forced to take a new test to see who was cheating and who wasn't?

Clearly, the sole purpose of all this ridiculousness was to artificially throw these two together in a chemistry project, where they could fall in love. Why would Gigi even be remotely attracted to this selfish jerk who got her into all this trouble? I was so disappointed. It's not like this was a self-published first novel from a new writer! If it had been, it would likely have been rejected, but once you have your foot in the door, all the rules cease to apply to you, don't they?! I expected a lot better from someone who supposedly already had some writing chops, and I thought a female writer ought to have served her female character a lot better than she did in the portion of this I could stand to read. This novel was nonsense and trash.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

One Night by Melanie Florence


Rating: WARTY!

This is a very short (~90 pages) novel/novella, which tackles the tired old story of an unexpected pregnancy during the last year of the main character's high school, but it brings nothing new to the table. While it began as an idea that was pregnant with possibility, in the end it was miscarried by caricature, trope, and writing that offered no sense of injustice or outrage, and an atmosphere which was too thin to breathe deeply. It felt like I was reading an anti-abortion flyer generated by some fundamentalist religious organization. The story is supposed to be one of a series aimed at reluctant readers and all I could think is that it made me reluctant to read this because it did nothing to draw me in and engage me. If it had not been so short, I would never have considered reading it to the end.

We're told, not shown, that main character Luna Begay is smart, but her every behavior contradicts this claim. Not that she does anything outright dumb like getting drunk, although she does accept a drink from a guy she doesn't know. But none of this matters regarding the rape. She is drugged and raped, period. The issues I had with her lack of smarts came afterwards, and while on the one hand it's her pregnancy and she's entitled to deal with it however she chooses (within reason!), I was disturbed to see that her course was seemingly mapped out in a smooth and straight line without any hiccups. This, to me, was entirely unrealistic. it felt like form day one, including the rape, she was on a smooth water slide right into the delivery room, and traveling at the same speed you would on a water slide, too.

For example, she never went through any trauma at all after the rape. No anger, no recriminations, no tears, no suicidal thoughts, no serious consideration of the implications of raising a child as young as she was, no crazy behavior. Any of this would have been realistic and perfectly understandable, but instead of any of this, she sailed through the whole thing with barely a hiccup. It simply didn't make for credible reading to me, and it felt like what was an horrific crime was simply swept under the rug.

Luna's robotic acceptance of the fact that she had been criminally assaulted was another issue. Her refusal not so much to bring charges, as to not even consider bringing them, was entirely unrealistic. If there had been, for example, even so much as a brief discussion about what it might cost other girls if this guy, who has all the hallmarks of a serial rapist, was allowed to get away with it, and then she had chosen not to go ahead with it, that would be one thing, but to not even seriously consider that was wrong in my opinion. It made her look selfish, thoughtless, and not very smart.

Another problem I had was the passage of time. It was unrealistic. It felt like one night she was raped, and very the next day at school she was experiencing morning sickness. Morning sickness can kick in disturbingly early - such as two weeks on, even - but there was no indication of the passage of any time. It honestly felt like the very next day she was throwing up already. Then she was suddenly fifteen weeks pregnant and in the next breath, six months pregnant! It was way too fast to even absorb, let alone have the character deal with it. Worse, she wasn't dealing with it. Again, we're expected to believe she's smart, but the last thing she considered was that the rapist had impregnated her.

When she finally visits the doctor for the first time, she's told she's put on twelve pounds. Seriously? This is her first visit! How does the doctor have any clue how much weight she's put on? This goes to how fast this story moves, which is way too fast for its own good. It moves irrationally and impractically fast. So fast, in fact that there's no time to set a scene, create an atmosphere, or even to have anything important happen! All we get is superficial and shallow, with a chat here and there, but no real discussion, and no attempt at education, no options on the table, and no description of anything that would affect the senses, which left me feeling robbed of a good story for a young woman who is undergoing her first pregnancy. Morning sickness isn't the only thing someone who is pregnant experiences!

Luna is native American, but she frequently described herself as aboriginal, which sounded really odd to me. it was only when I realized this novel was published in Canada that it clicked. This is a term used to describe Inuit and Métis people in Canada, but I'd had no indication from the novel that this was set in Canada. I commend the author for writing about a minority, but this only made things worse in practice. I know that native peoples have been and too-often still are treated abominably, and that Inuit and Métis alike have not been spared this, but the way this was presented here was that these people (Luna and her sister Issy) were openly and freely abused in their high school, and nothing was being done about it.

Frankly I'd be shocked if things were truly this bad in Canadian schools. Perhaps it's true, but I can't believe it's as bad as it was depicted here. This is one of the things which for me contributed to a lack of realism and turned the characters into caricatures rather than real people. it was just so egregious that it was laughable, and worse, it made what happened later - that one of the abusers suddenly turned around 180 degrees in her attitude - totally unbelievable. We were given a reason for the change, but I simply couldn't buy that someone who had been so viciously hateful would change so completely in the space of one short week.

This Canadian setting made the lack of descriptive writing all the more stark. No matter which month we start the story in, after six months has passed in Canada, you're going to be seeing some notable changes in weather, but we never got any indication of that here.

There was one more oddity! In the back of the novel is the copyright information, which dates the copyright to 2017. I'm not sure how you copyright something in a year which hasn't arrived yet! I want in on that. The page tells us the novel was originally published in 2017! Amazing! The publication date given at Net Galley is 1/9/2016, which is more realistic! But I want in on this copyrighting the future deal! Where do I sign up!

I appreciate the opportunity to see the advance review copy, and I wish the author and the publishers all the best with this series, but it wasn't for me. I can't in good faith recommend a story which for me fails a reader in so many important ways.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli


Rating: WARTY!

I had mixed feelings about this novel as I read it. For me it started out looking like something I was not going to rate favorably, and I'll get into that, but over time it started winning me around to regarding it much more positively, but towards the end it really went down hill, and I can't view this as a worthy read for a number of reasons.

So what was wrong with this novel that made me rate it negatively? The first thing is the obvious thing: this novel was published in 2015, yet there is this idea underlying it that being gay is a big deal. It isn't! It isn't even a big deal, generally speaking, to come out as gay. If it was written twenty or thirty years ago, then I could see that this novel might have had some value. but not in 2015.

There really isn't anything here to make it necessary for Simon, the protagonist, to hide what he;s all about, yet he is hiding even from his closest friends. The other side of this coin is that in the real world, for any given individual, it might well be a big deal to come out. Personal circumstances, the community in which they live, their parents' attitudes, and a host of other things could well contribute, even in a relatively enlightened age, to creating difficulties in being who you truly are in public, but really, Simon wasn't in this category. He was just cowardly, and that was one of many unlikable and unsavory traits he had. Indeed, he really was a bit of a jerk and I never felt like I wanted to root for him. All the holes he fell into, he dug for himself.

Simon is sixteen and has known for some time that he's well and truly gay. He has no doubts - and no problem with it, except in that he hasn't come out to anyone. Well anyone but this one person - he assumes it's a guy - who attends his own school, but with whom he's been corresponding through emails. Both parties have remained anonymous throughout these exchanges, so although they know they are schoolmates, they do not actually know which schoolmate the other is. This lends a certain intrigue and interest - and perhaps danger - to the proceedings.

This is also where his problem begins, because he fails to log out of his email account and another schoolmate, Martin, gets on the computer right behind him, and is able to read Simon's emails. He even takes screen shots, and then blackmails Simon into giving him an intro to Abby, a close friend of Simon's and a girl for whom Martin has the hots - so we're given to understand. For a long time I thought that Martin was actually Simon's anonymous email friend but it soon became clear that he wasn't. Simon completely caves to the blackmail and then goes into it half-heartedly, thereby pissing off his blackmailer, and then he spends an unwieldy portion of the novel whining to himself about his predicament. It doesn't make or entertaining reading.

One review which I liked on Goodreads made the point that the book encourages online love affairs. I disagree. Besides, all online relationships aren't doomed to failure. If they were, I wouldn't be married! OTOH, I was not a teen when I got involved online, and both parties proceeded cautiously and honestly, becoming reliable friends first and only evolving into something deeper later. But these things can go bad, and especially for inexperienced teens, we do need to sound a note of caution, not only about falling for someone you really don't know, but also about misrepresenting yourself online as teens and adults can do. We do get a brief explanation of how Simon and "Blue" came to interact, but not how Simon knew for sure that Blue was a gay guy as opposed to an obnoxious old man or a mischievous teen female or whatever.

Another issue I had with this was that Simon was the clichéd gay drama student. I didn't see the point of that. There was far to much cliché - the supportive sister, the supportive hot female friend, the supportive mail friend, the unexpected discovery of a boyfriend, and so on. There was no reason whatsoever why he needed to be a drama aficionado or in a school play. It could have been a sports event, or a science class, or gardening club or anything. I thought this was too trope, too pathetic, and insulting to gays, like they're pointless if they aren't actors or hairdressers. Honestly?

Not a lot really happens in this novel, be warned. It's pretty much the hum-drum of everyday high school with the backbeat of a closeted gay, so there's nothing new here, nothing extraordinary, nothing different. Some of the relationships were dynamic and interesting, even amusing a little, but overall, nothing special. I didn't think much of Simon's two best friends, an overweight girl named Leah, and a video-game addicted boy named Nick. I felt they let him down badly when they failed to inform him of something really important, yet there was never any fall-out from this. I didn't get that at all. Conversely, Simon treated Anbby and Leah like crap, and there was no blow-back from that either, so this was entirely unrealistic. Simon pretty much dumped on everyone, got away with everything, and went unhindered and unobstructed through the novel like a Mary Sue. He never had any really serious problems, yet he whined all the time. He abused his friends, gave very little, and never opened up to them about anything. For as little as he knew (or really cared) about his friends, I had to wonder how he considered himself a friend as opposed to an acquaintance.

Simon had a full and rich family life, with two sisters and an intact pair of parents, which is becoming a rarity in YA. It was also nice to finally get a high school depicted in YA where rampant bullying is non-existent and where, when a case of misguided bullying under the flimsy guise of humor does occur, it is flatly not tolerated by the school staff. Yes, Martin was bullying Simon, but no one knew about this beyond the two of them, so this wasn't an issue in that regard. So on those scores, the novel was refreshing, but pretty much in everything else, it failed dismally. I can't recommend it. And be warned you'll meed an insulin shot to get through the last few chapters. They were disgusting.