Social Intercourse (Book Review)

social intercourseI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: sometimes impulsively picking up a book you’ve never heard of majorly pays off, and sometimes it really doesn’t. The latter is true with Social Intercourse by Greg Howard. I thought the punny title and creative cover indicated an equally clever novel within the pages, but unfortunately Social Intercourse is primarily a hodgepodge of tropes and clichés slapped together in uninspiring ways to create a novel that is somehow both nothing new and actively annoying.

What’s it about?

Beck is out and proud, and Jax is the star quarterback. They don’t have much in common until Beck’s dad and one of Jax’s moms start dating and they unite for the purpose of breaking them up. Between scheming against their parents’ new romance and helping plan the community’s first Rainbow Prom, Beck and Jax find themselves falling in love.

What’d I think?

Warning: This review contains spoilers. I’ve kept them vague and nonspecific, but they are not separated out from the rest of the review like normal. Also, there’s some ranting.

I’m a character person. I want to care about the characters I’m reading about. I want to love them. I want to care that they get together/save the day/survive high school/etc. I don’t mind if they’re bad people as long as they’re well written and I care about what happens to them. Antiheroes can be awesome, but it’s a problem when characters are awful and the writer doesn’t seem to know. Based on what other characters tell us about Beck, he’s a sweet guy. Based on what we see him do, he’s a bitchy asshole who thinks he’s better and hotter than the rest of the world. Based on what other characters tell us about Jax, he’s a hot quarterback. Based on what we see him do… yeah, he’s just a hot quarterback. He narrates half the novel. He’s a closeted bisexual. He was abused as a child. And yet after all that, the most descriptive thing I can think to say about him is that he’s a hot quarterback.

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Ramona Blue (Book Review)

ramonda blueBefore grabbing Ramona Blue (by Dumplinauthor Julie Murphy) from the library, I’d only heard good things. A few chapters in, I went to Goodreads to read some more reviews and found tons of people talking about a controversy. Having now read it, I don’t think Ramona Blue deserves either the high praise or the censure it’s received. I liked it, but it’s not a story I feel called upon to widely recommend.

What’s it about?

Ramona Blue is a big personality living a life that is increasingly too small for her, both figuratively (she feels trapped in her small town but doesn’t have the money to leave) and literally (her family has been living in a tiny trailer since their home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and now her sister Hattie is pregnant and the deadbeat father is moving in despite the lack of space). Ramona is determined to do her best with what she’s been given, even though she knows that providing financially for Hattie will keep her from achieving her own goals. Things get even more confusing when her childhood friend Freddie comes back and she finds herself attracted to him, despite identifying as a lesbian.

What’d I think?

Since it’s what pretty much everyone talks about when they talk about this book, I’ll start with the controversy. Yes, a major storyline of Ramona Blue is Ramona, who had previously thought of herself as a lesbian, falling for a guy. However, this is not a novel about a young woman being “cured” of being queer. It’s confirmed throughout the novel that Ramona is bisexual, and that her feelings for Freddie do not erase or contradict her feelings for girls. The characters who suggest otherwise are summarily shut down. Ramona’s journey to discovering her sexuality is actually really well done, and while I can see why it might upset some people—I was worried early on, which was why I went to Goodreads partway through the book—any hurt feelings are going to come from the reader, not the writer; Murphy treats the sensitive subject matter with tact. Also, for what it’s worth, the storyline is inspired by Murphy’s own experience.

dumplinI do wish, however, that Ramona had a better love interest. I enjoyed reading Dumpin’, but I found the romantic interest boring and unworthy of the heroine’s attention. My response to Ramona Blue’s Freddie is the same. For all her talents, Julie Murphy can’t write a male hero who holds my interest. Freddie is very bland, and when he’s not bland he’s the tiniest bit smug and homophobic. When Ramona first tells him that she likes girls, his first instincts are to 1) be offended she didn’t tell him earlier 2) ask how she knows and whether she tried guys first. At another point, he takes Ramona to a pool and challenges her to a race, even though he’s been swimming competitively for years and it’s literally her first time swimming laps. Like, seriously, dude. You’re so desperate to win that you set up a competition that could literally only be an embarrassment for your opponent? Classy. And yes, he does mature a little as the story goes on, but he has so little discernible personality that it’s hard to see these as bad moments from an otherwise good guy.

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Fan Art (Book Review)

fan artEven though I’d never heard of it before, I thought I’d enjoy Fan Art by Sarah Tregay. I love stories about fans and fandom, and as a general rule I’ll read any one that I come across. Unfortunately, Fan Art is not at all what I thought it would be, and it surprised me in the worst kind of way.

What’s it about?

Jamie, a high school senior and the art editor for the school literary journal Gumshoe, has a crush on his best friend Mason, but doesn’t want to come out to Mason for fear that it will ruin their friendship. When he advocates for a comic drawn by a lesbian classmate, he clashes with his Gumshoe coworkers who don’t want to include unabashedly queer content in their journal; he worries that his enthusiasm might push him out of the closet.

What’d I think?

When Jamie delivers Challis’ graphic short to the Gumshoe staff, there’s an intense debate about the merits of the work. One of the editors is violently homophobic, but most of them are just concerned that the comic has no plot:

When we finish, Michael collects the pages again. “It might just be me, but there’s no plot, right?”

[…]

Holland stifles a giggle. “It’s a little fluffy, but gay boys are popular.”

This is a very meta conversation. I’m not going to give Fan Art much credit in this review, but I will give it some here. At least in this conversation, it’s quite self-aware. Everything that Jamie and the others discuss here may as well be about Fan Art itself. It’s fluffy. It’s gay. There’s no plot. Even the specifics—which I won’t list here, as they’d require specific discussion of the climax, which is too spoilery—apply perfectly to Fan Art. Of course, we’re supposed to agree with Jamie when he argues that Challis’ comic—and by extension, this novel—is about love triumphing and coming together with someone despite cruel classmates. But I don’t agree with Jamie.

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I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Book Review)

i am not your perfect mexican daughterI don’t remember when I first heard about Erika L. Sánchez’s novel I Am Not Your Mexican Daughter, but it’s been on my to-read list for a long time. I considered buying it almost every time I went into a bookstore for the past year, but I never did and eventually got it from the library instead. Thank goodness I did, because I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is not nearly as good as I expected it to be.

 What’s it about?

After her perfect sister Olga is mowed down by a semi and killed, Julia finds herself in a precarious position in her family. She is not the well-behaved girl that Olga was, and now that Olga is gone, that is causing even more problems with her parents, whose heartbreak is exacerbated by frustration with Julia. But then Julia finds something in Olga’s room that suggests that, maybe, Olga wasn’t the perfect Mexican daughter everyone thought she was, either.

What’d I think?

If I had to summarize the problems with I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter in one sentence, I’d go with it tries to do too much. The first half is more or less coherent. Julia is a loudmouthed troublemaker who clashes with her mother; when Olga dies, Julia feels guilty because she is partially responsible for Olga being where she was when she was killed. I was invested. I wanted to know what secrets Olga was keeping, and I felt for Julia (even though Julia can be extremely judgy and obnoxious) because her mom is hard on her. Then the second half of the book hits, and it’s almost like Sánchez made a bet with someone about how many topical issues she could cram into I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter without addressing them in any real, significant way. Aside from dealing with grief, loss, death, and the pressure of familial obligations (all of which are done more or less well), the novel tries to juggle, to varying degrees and with limited success, all of the following:

  • Race/racism
  • Classism
  • Immigration
  • Mexican gang violence
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Suicide
  • Teen pregnancy
  • Abandoned dreams
  • Abortion
  • Sexism
  • Religious homophobia
  • Rape
  • Parental abuse
  • Dating across racial and socioeconomic lines
  • Virginity
  • Extramarital affairs
  • The plight of undocumented immigrants
  • Fat shaming
  • Self-harm
  • Eating disorders

It’s too much. No book has to tackle every single topic, and in my opinion it’s better to ignore something than to handle it badly. A lot of the things listed above are dipped into only briefly (for example, Julia’s friend has a pregnancy scare, goes to an abortion clinic, gets yelled at by pro-life protestors, and finds out she isn’t pregnant. This storyline takes up about one page, which is simply not enough for any sort of difficult topic). Other items on the list are just done really badly.

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The Mysterious Benedict Society (Book Review)

benedict societyI’m still between library trips, so I reread yet another one of my favorite books from childhood. It’s been a while since I read The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, which is a shame, because it’s a great book. A bookseller at a tiny little independent bookstore recommended it to me when I was around ten or eleven years old, and she did an amazing job, because The Mysterious Benedict Society is all but perfect.

What’s it about?

Reynie is an orphan and, despite his loving tutor, feels lonely and isolated. When he finds an advertisement in the newspaper offering special opportunities for gifted children, he decides to give it a shot. After a series of tests, Reynie meets the jovial Mr. Benedict, a kindhearted genius who needs a team of children to go undercover to the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, a mysterious school with a nefarious purpose. There, Reynie and three other brilliant children (Kate, Sticky, and Constance) must find a way to defeat a brilliant but evil man who has developed a machine capable of brainwashing the world.

What’d I think?

Now that I’m older and have read more, I recognize patters across the books that I especially like. The first many times I read The Mysterious Benedict Society, I hadn’t really figured out exactly why I do or don’t like something. Now I do, and I can see very clearly why this book was and is one of my favorites.

Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance are a great team. They’re all great characters individually, but they really shine as a group. Early in the novel, the children complete a number of tasks, and their unique problem-solving skills are put on full display. Sticky is has a memory like a steel trap, but he’s anxious and lacks practical knowledge. Kate grew up in the circus and is incredibly athletic and hilariously resourceful. Reynie is incredibly clever; he excels at puzzles and riddles and is the natural leader of the group. Constance, too, is extraordinary in her own way, and her own way is very different and manifests itself largely in insulting rhymes. Despite their differences, none of the children ever expresses anything but love and respect for the others. There’s no inferiority or superiority between them; they’re in awe of each other’s abilities, but they admire those abilities rather than covet them. Instead of resenting each other’s shortcomings, they adjust to fill in any gaps. Even when they disagree or when Constance is at her most irritating, the children have each others’ backs, one hundred percent. Everyone should have a friend group like the Mysterious Benedict Society.

And the adults are great, too. At first glance, it seems like The Mysterious Benedict Society is a typical the-kids-are-all-orphans-and-there-aren’t-any-adults book. It’s true that the kids don’t have parents in the strictest sense, but it’s absolutely false that they don’t have families, and the adults are essential to the novel. The titular Mr. Benedict is brilliant, kind, and complicated. He’s a present character, always there to lend a hand or give advice when necessary, and the other adults are equally helpful and attentive. Most adults in kids’ books are evil, neglectful, or dead; that is so not the case here, but they don’t steal the limelight from the young protagonists. See? It can be done!

There’s also a refreshing lack of enforced gender roles. The Mysterious Benedict Society is totally free of sexism. Even the villainous Mr. Curtain makes no distinctions between the sexes, and absolutely nothing is made of the fact that Kate is the action hero of the series while the boys are quieter and more studious. There’s no romance or any implication that there might be. It legitimately does not matter that Kate is a girl or Sticky is a boy or whoever. You could gender swap every single character in this book and the difference it would make is entirely negligible. There are prominent black characters, and Sticky suffers from extreme anxiety, both of which make this book much less homogenous than many others intended for this age group.

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Which Witch? (Mini Book Review)

which witchEvery once in a while, it feels like time to revisit some of my favorite childhood books. Between trips to the library, I decided to reread Eva Ibbotson’s Which Witch? It is one of my all-time favorites; in youth, I read it so many times that the cover literally fell all the way off and has been reattached with packing tape. I was a little worried about rereading a book I loved so much, because it would be heartbreaking if it didn’t live up to my memories. Thankfully, my heart is fine; Which Witch? is just as delightful now as it was then.

What’s it about?

When the dark wizard Arriman the Awful grows tired of waiting for a successor, his advisors suggest that he get married and produce an heir. Even though the idea of marriage horrifies Arriman, he agrees to it because it’s starting to look like no young wizard is coming to take his place, despite the promises of a prophetess. In order to ensure a lineage of darkness, Arriman must marry a dark witch, specifically one from the local coven. A competition will decide which of them is the blackest and most worthy to become mistress of Darkington. All the witches want desperately to win the competition and Arriman’s hand, but none more so than Belladonna. There’s just one problem: Belladonna’s magic is white, so she has no chance of winning the dark contest… or so she believes before she meets an orphan boy and his very special pet worm.

What’d I think?

Which Witch’s strength lies in its ability to mix tones apparently effortlessly. There is a lot of humor, but parts of the book get very, very dark (the witches all perform black magic; most of them aren’t very good witches and their magic is therefore somewhat lackluster, more silly than scary, but the primary antagonist performs a spell so creepy I’m surprised it didn’t give young-me nightmares) and there are some adult themes as well. The characters deal with aging and several of them struggle with feelings of uselessness and obsoleteness. Not many children’s books kick off with a main character discovering a silver hair and contemplating their own mortality. But it works.

In my opinion, the best kids’ books are the ones that acquire more layers when they’re reread with more age and experience. I still read books intended for middle schoolers (I was a librarian until last year; now I’m a bookseller, and I still work with kids and books, so keeping up with what’s popular is necessary), and some of them are painful to get through. I can still see why kids would like them, but once you reach a certain age you realize that there’s not much there beyond a surface-level plot. The really good ones have everything that “adult” books have (themes, character development, side plots, etc.), just written more accessibly for younger readers. Which Witch? is one of the best.

There’s not much else to say about Which Witch. I love it. Arriman is a delightfully immature hero. At times, he’s a petulant baby, and the narrative (and the characters around him) are entirely aware of it. It’s hilarious that he’s the darkest wizard out there and his servants regularly roll their eyes at him because he’s having a temper tantrum because a baby kraken sat on his shoes. The witches are great, too. Everyone’s great. Eva Ibbotson is a master of the eccentric fantasy character ensemble. Each character is distinct, but they’re even more potent as a group.

Also, there will never be a time when “I know he cometh not from the north, you dolt” is not funny to me. I’d forgotten about that line, but once I reread it I remembered all the times I quoted it out-of-context when I was younger.

What’s the verdict?

Eva Ibbotson is fabulous. I spent half my childhood reading her books (specifically reading Which Witch? and the equally charming The Secret of Platform 13) and I can’t recommend her work strongly enough to fantasy fans. Which Witch? in particular has a great mix of lighthearted humor and darker, more dramatic material. It’s the fantasy literary equivalent of a dating game show, and it is incredibly fun. It may be intended for children, but that didn’t keep 25-year-old me from loving it as much as I did when I was actually a part of the target audience.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

 

Naturally Tan (Mini Book Review)

naturally tan queer eyeTan France’s memoir Naturally Tan is a fun, light read, full of funny anecdotes and fashion advice. It is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from Queer Eye‘s fashion expert.

I’m a big fan of Queer Eye; I’ve watched a lot of interviews with the Fab Five on YouTube in addition to all the episodes, so some of Tan’s go-to stories were familiar to me. There are a lot of stories in Naturally Tan that don’t come up much in interviews. I suspect Tan was given a lot more freedom content-wise in his book. While he certainly has a snarky side on the show, it is much more apparent in Naturally Tan. He’s humorously sarcastic throughout, and there’s a wider range of emotion. He doesn’t have to be positive and uplifting one hundred percent of the time, although he still is for the most part. He talks freely about the difficulties of growing up brown-skinned and gay, and doesn’t shy away from anger and bitterness. When Queer Eye addresses race and racism, Karamo is usually the one to talk about it, so I assumed it wasn’t a subject Tan was comfortable discussing. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Naturally Tan. There are lots of anecdotes about racism and about the pressure and responsibility to represent the underrepresented in media. There are some heartbreaking stories, and honestly it’s amazing that he turned out as nice as he did.

queer eye

It’s worth mentioning that Tan is not a writer. I suspect Naturally Tan was, in large part, written from narration. It sounds like a story that someone is telling in the moment, not a story someone has written. The grammar is correct, but the writing isn’t particularly polished, and the organization isn’t as tight as you’d except from someone making a career off the written word. Since Tan, generally, isn’t making a career off the written word, it’s totally fine and I bet the audiobook version—which Tan narrates—is even better, as it would sound more natural spoken aloud than in print.

Unsurprisingly, my main takeaway from Naturally Tan is that Queer Eye fans will love it. It’s interesting to read about Tan’s pre-Queer-Eye life and about his husband, neither of which really feature on the show (though I do think it’d be fun to let the husbands cameo). Biographies aren’t my usual thing, but I enjoyed this one.

At the Edge of the Universe (Book Review)

the edge of the universeI’ve read and review several of Shaun David Hutchinson’s books this year, and the next one on the list was At the Edge of the Universe. There are major similarities between his novels, and while they’re all good, reading them all in such close proximity was probably a mistake. I’m still going to read the rest of what he’s written, but I’m going to let a little more time pass this time, because at this point I know that I’ll like them, but there’s also only so many times in a row I can read a high-concept apocalypse story with an ambiguous ending.

What’s it about?

The universe is shrinking and Ozzie is the only one who remembers. When his boyfriend Tommy vanishes from existence, Oz is determined to find him even if everyone else—including Tommy’s mother—thinks he’s insane because, for them, there never was a Tommy. Still, Oz is determined, and as time passes he realizes that Tommy is not the only disappearance. As the universe gets smaller and smaller, things vanish, the past is rewritten to accommodate it, and no one else has any idea that it’s happening.

Still, the world being rewritten does not stop life, much as Oz might wish it would. Oz’s best friend Lua is on the brink of making it big as a singer, and Oz begins spending time with Calvin, a weird boy with more than a few demons and who Oz is powerless to help.

What’d I think?

I feel I should start this review with a trigger warning. This novel covers some difficult material, including self-harm, domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape, homophobia, racism, and mental illness. It’s done well, but this is definitely not a feel-good book.

When I wrote my review of The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, I concluded that:

apocalypse of elena mendoza“Shaun David Hutchinson is an excellent writer with big ideas. The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza is a high concept novel that forces its readers to grapple with questions of faith and morality along with its protagonists. The intense internal focus makes this a story that stands out amongst the many end-of-the-world narratives. It’s populated with extremely well-written characters who break stereotypes and feel extremely real, and who are so compelling that they mostly make up for the fact that the novel is so hyper-focused on asking difficult question that it offers few answers.”

Swap out the titles and replace “faith” with “toxic relationships,” and that may as well be the concluding paragraph for my review of At the Edge of the Universe. When you’re dealing with the very fabric of the universe, it makes sense that the questions get so big that they defy concrete answers. I don’t hate a lack of concrete answers, but after three books in a row without any, I’ve started to wonder if the ambiguity is less an active choice and more the result of an author who has painted himself into a corner with ideas that are too big to be restrained for logic.

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Book Club: The Nickel Boys (+Mini Book Review)

nickel boysI usually love to read, but occasionally I’ll come across a book that, for me, doesn’t work on any level and it takes me a whole week to read 200 pages. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is one such book. I’m stringently opposed to DNFing, but if this weren’t for a book club, I would have been sorely tempted to toss it and not look back. Historical fiction isn’t my go-to genre, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Whitehead and I very much expected to be impressed by his writing.

Unfortunately, I had a hard time connecting to the characters. The Nickel Boys doesn’t seem to know if it’s the story of one particular Nickel boy or all of them collectively. As a result, the narrative seems to lose track of itself. There are full chapters that focus on characters who are window dressing at best.

Any novel that takes place in the aftermath of the Jim Crow laws is going to deal with intense racism and other unpleasant subject matter, but fiction has an obligation to be more than a depiction of historically accurate suffering. That suffering has to be connected to something. A sense of hope. A call to action. Compelling characters. Empathy and understanding for the suffering. Anything. The Nickel Boys left me with a sense of despair and hopelessness.

It’s somewhat difficult to follow. It jumps forward and backwards in time and skips around to different characters, some of whom have not been introduced before and who never appear again. As far as a I can tell, there’s no reason for the time jumps or framing device except to set up a twist that feels pretty emotionally manipulative.

I’m glad to be done with The Nickel Boys. That being said, having discussed it at book club, I now have a much better understanding and appreciation for it. The best thing you can do if you disliked a book is to discuss it, because often that’ll open you up to different patterns of thinking. It’s not even always that someone else says something that you find yourself agreeing with. Sometimes it will just be people mentioning things you’d forgotten that allow you to reshape your thoughts in a different context. I still can’t say that I liked The Nickel Boys, but once I was released from the emotionally exhaustive work of reading it, I realized there’s more to it than I first realized.

Note: this review has been updated (10/29/19)

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