Book reviews, LGBT Books

Book Review | Autoboyography & Summer of Salt

doublereview

I’m doing a joint book review because at the end of the day, both of these are YA coming-of age (and coming out) novels, which have nothing in common besides that, but have both left me feeling all warm and cosy inside.

Autoboyography

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“Three years ago, Tanner Scott’s family relocated from California to Utah, a move that nudged the bisexual teen temporarily back into the closet. Now, with one semester of high school to go, and no obstacles between him and out-of-state college freedom, Tanner plans to coast through his remaining classes and clear out of Utah.

But when his best friend Autumn dares him to take Provo High’s prestigious Seminar—where honor roll students diligently toil to draft a book in a semester—Tanner can’t resist going against his better judgment and having a go, if only to prove to Autumn how silly the whole thing is. Writing a book in four months sounds simple. Four months is an eternity.

It turns out, Tanner is only partly right: four months is a long time. After all, it takes only one second for him to notice Sebastian Brother, the Mormon prodigy who sold his own Seminar novel the year before and who now mentors the class. And it takes less than a month for Tanner to fall completely in love with him.”

This book managed to do something a lot of its peers (contemporary coming out novels) didn’t, which was telling me a story about LGBT youth, that I, as a gay person, saw a lot of my own thoughts and feelings in. I’m pretty sure that as a teenager I actually said a lot of the same things Tanner did, and shared, and still do, many of his feelings towards religion. It’s so hard to capture that, and a lot of straight people never quite get it, the instinctive flinch that goes through any gay person when someone says they’re religious. To this day my first thought is, “how to end this social interaction as fast as possible and get out of here” when that happens. I’m lucky to have been raised by pretty agnostic parents, in a house completely devoid of religion. You’d think that would make me a lot less prone to experience extreme dread at the mention of any and all religions, but the only thing it did was show me that religion provides the people who hate me and my brothers and sisters convenient and socially acceptable arguments to keep hating us.

I think there are no people braver than LGBT people who voluntarily associate with organised religion, their sheer mental and emotional fortitude is astounding. That will never be me, however. Some wounds never heal. For this wound to have any hope of closing all the religions of the world would need to acknowledge the harm they’ve done to the LGBT community, and that’s something I never see happening. So I’ll keep my safety distance.

Sebastian, is one of those innocent people deeply harmed by religion. He was raised Mormon, and it’s honestly heartbreaking to read about his beliefs, because they are so sincere and beautiful, but as the story progresses we learn the love his religion professes is completely conditional — and so does Sebastian, eventually. More harrowing, is learning that his family’s love is just as conditional. That if he can’t be a perfect Mormon man he can’t be their son either. Coincidentally, that’s where some of my only criticism of this book shows up. I think the author fumbled the ending. Mild spoilers ahead: We know things aren’t completely resolved between Sebastian and his family, but not to what degree. We learn that he is no longer participating in one aspect of the Mormon religion, but we don’t know if he still considers himself Mormon, if he has found a way to be both gay and Mormon. I would have liked to see both these issues addressed clearly, but I can also see plenty of people being more forgiving of this open-ended aspect, considering the relationship side of things got a clear resolution.

Speaking of the relationship — I loved it. In so many YA books I love both characters, but I’m completely uninvested in the relationship, or the book completely fails to make the relationship interesting (see: Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda — Am I supposed to care about Simon’s relationship with a guy whose identity I don’t even know? A relationship that only exists through e-mails???). Not here, the dynamic between Tanner and Sebastian was gripping from their first interaction, and the stakes were very real from the beginning. There were a lot of factors working against them, and it all worked very well to build tension, without ever falling into the cloying clutches of melodrama. The way Tanner’s very tolerant family was against him having a relationship with a Mormon boy, for his own protection, was very interesting, but also very believable. It’s common knowledge that extremely religious parents only want their children to interact with other equally religious kids, but it’s often ignored that non-religious parents aren’t that keen on their kids drinking any sort of religious kool-aid either. I know my mother wasn’t. It’s an interesting discussion, and while not overt the book makes the subtle argument that both sides are wrong.

All I can say is that I loved this book, some passages made me truly emotional, it’s a story that I’ll probably remember for a long time, and one of those books I desperately wish I had when I was younger. I appreciate the message that sexual orientation is a part of  the self and a building block of identity in a way that can’t be removed and put in a box. And the very sound argument that if a god exists their ability to love probably transcends the man-made social limitations of religion.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Summer of Salt

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Georgina Fernweh waits with growing impatience for the tingle of magic in her fingers—magic that has been passed down through every woman in her family. Her twin sister, Mary, already shows an ability to defy gravity. But with their eighteenth birthday looming at the end of this summer, Georgina fears her gift will never come.

An island where strange things happen . . .

No one on the island of By-the-Sea would ever call the Fernwehs what they really are, but if you need the odd bit of help—say, a sleeping aid concocted by moonlight—they are the ones to ask.

No one questions the weather, as moody and erratic as a summer storm.

No one questions the (allegedly) three-hundred-year-old bird who comes to roost on the island every year.

A summer that will become legend . . .

When tragedy strikes, what made the Fernweh women special suddenly casts them in suspicion. Over the course of her last summer on the island—a summer of storms, of love, of salt—Georgina will learn the truth about magic, in all its many forms.

Speaking of books that made me emotional. I swear if I hadn’t read these two weeks apart I’d think I was just going through a sensitive phase or something, because they both left me feeling tender in some long forgotten place. Which I suspect is the part of me that didn’t have any of these books when I was in middle school or high school and instead had to read adult books (often tragic) to get any sort of LGBT rep. Unlike Autoboyography, Summer of Salt isn’t a straight up romance. It’s a magical realism novel about family, friendship and a girl’s relationship to the whimsical island she grew up in, and that she loves, and how that can be suffocating.

The atmosphere of this book is delightful, I wish By-the-Sea was a real place I could visit, because I could almost smell it, it was so vivid, and not because things were overly described, but because Leno is so good at evoking the mood and feeling of the setting. The weather played a big part in the book, and you could feel the way it affected the characters, which was not only apt considering the plot, but helped bring By-the-Sea to life without having to name every rock. I also liked how many of the characters were characterised by the spaces they inhabited, either by seamlessly fitting in or by standing out. The feeling of whimsy and wonder was sustained through pretty much the first half of the book, at which point things slowly start to unravel. And quaint, beautiful By-the-Sea starts fraying at the edges.

I really enjoyed how the island reflected the mental state of the characters. This is a small, close-knit community where everybody knows each other, and while that can be comforting — Georgina is an out lesbian and no one on her little island bats an eyelash — it can become claustrophobic, as soon as the people who’ve known you all your life turn their back on you. This book did a really good job of making this island the kind of place you’d love to visit but would think twice about moving to. It’s so outwardly charming and picturesque, but places like that can be eerie in a way that is hard to describe, Leno managed it. It isn’t that By-the-Sea hides some awful corruption, or inhabitants that are all twisted an evil, it’s a place like many others, where people judge their neighbours too harshly, but at the end of the day they are reasonable people who actively want justice to prevail. It’s just that this sort of picture-perfect, just odd enough to be exciting, type of place can lure you in and never let go. And there’s a whole lot of world out there, especially for an 18-year-old girl.

The family dynamics in this book were phenomenal. Georgina’s relationship with her sister was beautiful and heartwarming, her devotion and unwavering belief in Mary’s innocence was wonderful, and her determination to save and avenge her brought some of the most intense and heartfelt moments in the whole novel. Their mother could at times feel a little distanced from their daughter’s lives, especially considering what happens to Mary in the second half of the book — but this is somewhat mitigated by the magical realism aspect of the story.

I was deeply invested in the romance for the first half of the book, at which point it gets put in the back burner and then develops a lot faster than what I would have liked. That’s why I say this book is not a romance, a romance exists, and it’s adorable, but by no means the linchpin of the book. I still loved to see Georgina’s and this girl’s relationship develop, and how Gerogina’s awkwardness and often clumsy interpretation of social cues only made her more endearing. It was sweet, I would have liked it to be explored more, but the book is ultimately about the relationship between the sisters and the island where they live, and I appreciated that aspect a lot too.

The awful thing that happens to Mary is predictable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a mystery to the reader, only to Georgina, and the people of her little island who would never consider for a moment something like that could happen in their little community.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, there are some slight plot-contrivances, and one character’s constant tiredness that is never explained properly, as well as a few other instances where conflict isn’t totally resolved, but overall those didn’t detract from my enjoyment. This is a book about the strength of the bonds between siblings, between friends, and the ways tragedy doesn’t break us. Maybe things got resolved (in the legal front, at least) a little too cleanly, but I won’t fault a book for imagining a reality better than our own.

Rating: ★★★★
Author: Katrina Leno
Publisher: Harper Teen

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Book lists

Books I’m afraid of

books i'm afraidI should probably start by clarifying these aren’t horror books that I find really scary, but books that have been on my TBR or my shelves for years, and that for one reason or other I’m too afraid to start reading. I’m interested in these books, but I also find them daunting, for whatever reason.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is the book that motivated this whole list, really. It’s been sitting on my shelf for around three years and I still haven’t found the courage to start reading it. I picked it up on a whim without knowing much about it. After reading up on it I realised it dealt with some hard themes, like child abuse, paedophilia and rape. That made me reticent to read it because those are issues I tend to steer clear of — I realise the importance of writing about them, but often I find them too upsetting. I can deal with them being one part of a character’s journey, but reading a whole book about the traumatic life of a character who these things constantly happen to, feels like more than I can handle. Recently I also learnt, that what happens to the protagonist, Jude, is more similar to a trauma conga line than to the actual experiences of a survivor. Apparently that was Yanagihara’s intent, to exaggerate Jude’s abuse to grotesque proportions in order to start conversations, and highlight the horrific nature of all sexual violence. I’ve read that some people think it has the opposite effect — they can’t take the events seriously because they’re so exaggerated. I’m very unwilling to read a book dealing with such sensitive subject matter if there’s a chance I won’t find it respectful. On the other hand I know some people really love this book, and found it absolutely moving and that’s why I haven’t completely given up on it.

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

This is another book that scares me for some of the sensitive themes it deals with. Like with a Little Life, there’s paedophilia in this one, and rape, and child abuse, and at least one severely mentally-ill character who I’m not sure won’t be vilified. So that’s the main reason why I’m reticent. I really have to think long and hard before delving into books like these, and while I have in the past, they were usually recommend  by people I trusted and who knew how important it is to me that these topics be dealt with in a sensitive manner, and not exist merely for shock value. If I remember correctly I bought this book in some type of book fair, it was buy 3 for 10€ or something and I picked this one up randomly just to have three books. I haven’t touched it since, and I’m not sure I ever will.

 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

To be honest I’m scared of this book because of its size. It’s 1000 pages long, and while I usually like large books, in this case it seems a bit excessive for the premise. This is a fantasy book, but not high fantasy, so the length is more daunting than exciting. This is also set in Victorian England which is probably the time period I hate the most, it’s been beaten into the grave. I can’t find it in myself to care about it. Books either focus on how dreary things were for the poor and marginalised or sing praises to British Imperialism — and while I can sometimes stomach the former and deal with the overdone cliches, I have no patience for the latter, and I’m afraid this book will focus on exactly that. So, those are the reasons I’ve been putting it off for years, because while parts of it sound exciting, I’m afraid it will be a slog to get through on top of being set in a time period I really could not care less about.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

29056083Well this one is easy. I love Harry Potter and by all accounts this book will ruin that. A well-intentioned family member gave it to me as a gift, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it myself. I know the whole plot and I guess I could say this one is actually horrifying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And’t that’s my list of intimidating books (and one legitimately scary). I’d be interested in knowing if some of you own similar books, that feel like unclimbable mountains for some reason. Ping me back if that’s the case, because I love this kind of list. And also if you have any arguments why I should read any of these books please let me know!

Book reviews, LGBT Books, Murder mystery

Book Review | Instinct (Murder Games)

instinct book review

by Howard Roughan and James Patterson — This book was the literary equivalent of being told to enjoy the view while travelling on the Shinkansen — a pointless and nausea inducing effort.

“Dr. Dylan Reinhart wrote the book on criminal behavior. Literally–he’s a renowned, bestselling Ivy League expert on the subject. When a copy of his book turns up at a gruesome murder scene–along with a threatening message from the killer–it looks like someone has been taking notes.

Elizabeth Needham is the headstrong and brilliant NYPD Detective in charge of the case who recruits Dylan to help investigate another souvenir left at the scene–a playing card. Another murder, another card–and now Dylan suspects that the cards aren’t a signature, they’re a deadly hint–pointing directly toward the next victim.

As tabloid headlines about the killer known as “The Dealer” scream from newstands, New York City descends into panic. With the cops at a loss, it’s up to Dylan to hunt down a serial killer unlike any the city has ever seen. Only someone with Dylan’s expertise can hope to go inside the mind of a criminal and convince The Dealer to lay down his cards. But after thinking like a criminal–could Dylan become one?”

If perhaps you are under the impression that the “nausea” has anything to do with grisly murders and gore a-plenty, I’m sorry do disappoint. I mean literal motion-sickness nausea, because this book doesn’t know when to take a breath. It’s so fast paced that absolutely no part of the plot has any chance to leave a lasting impression. The characters are like socks in a washing machine, powerless to do anything against the whirlwind that rinses and spins them (gently, though, because nothing of consequence ever happens to a main character in this kind of pulpy crime fiction).

I picked up this book by the graces of the Goodreads’ algorithm that analysed my twin interests in both murder mysteries and LGBT books, and spit out this: Instinct by James Patterson and Howard Roughan (Murder Games, in previous editions). Credit where credit is due, the book belongs to both of those categories, it just isn’t any good.

The protagonist, Dylan Reinhart is a wisecracking criminal behaviour expert. Riveting. The put upon detective who has to deal with said wisecracks  is Elizabeth Needham who is “headstrong and brilliant” and all too happy to play second fiddle in her own investigation, for no discernible reason. They are both terribly bland, I finished this book yesterday and I remember almost nothing about either of them.

Dylan has a husband, we find out his name through the most pointless, self-indulgent, “ain’t we funny”, scene I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading. Dylan’s husband’s name is Tracy, and we find that out through the contrived actions of a disgruntled adoption agency representative, being confronted with the supposedly female name on her case file and the man in front of her. It was insufferable to read. It’s a lucky thing you can’t dislocate eyes, because I was rolling mine so hard it was a real concern at points. Ironically, the thing I liked best about this book was the representation. Cheesy scene aside — which I’m willing to attribute to a generational gap, older people might call it funny, anyone under 30 will call it cringy — I thought it was fine. There wasn’t much detail about Dylan and Tracy’s life, but they seemed believable enough. Tracy was a little thin at times, but all characters besides Dylan and Elizabeth (and even her…) were less developed.

By far my biggest gripe with this book was the pacing. Every chapter was at best 3 pages long, and each chapter ended either in a cliffhanger (the insufferable mid-dialogue kind, in which the conversation continues in the next chapter with absolutely no change of setting or tone) or with a witty one-liner that was reminiscent of early 00’s cartoons reminding you to tune in next week.

Most of the pertinent information Dylan and Elizabeth discover is the kind they have a hunch on, or some witness says something that lights the proverbial light bulb over their heads. What this means is that the reader has very little hope of figuring the mystery for themselves, because there aren’t any clues in the actual text, as a consequence the characters seem a lot more clever than they are. The ending does tie things up in a bow and call back to previous events, which makes it marginally more satisfying than the entire book up until then.

I finished this book before having time to digest half the things that were happening. It’s completely unremarkable and I’m fairly sure I’ll have forgotten everything about it by next week. I recommend it to everyone who is about to embark on a long-haul flight, because the break-neck pace is sure to make it go by faster.

Rating: 2 stars
Authors: Howard Roughan and James Patterson
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company

Book reviews, LGBT Books, Young Adult

Book Review | The gentleman’s guide to vice and virtue

gentlemans guide to vice and virtue

by Mackenzi Lee — It’s been a while since I’ve read historical fiction, one of my favourite genres when I was younger, later to be replaced by fantasy, and now only revisited when it’s set in Ancient Greece, by far my favourite historical period. Anyone can tell by the cover that this book is not set in Ancient Greece, though. That’s okay, because it’s not really historical fiction, either.

Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this year-long escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue‘s biggest quality is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. When I say this isn’t historical fiction I mean it in the literal sense, the author sets the time period as “17–“, as in vaguely 18th century, I’ve seen reviewers place this book in the 19th century, others further back, it obviously doesn’t stick to anyone’s mind, nor are there any defining characteristics to tether it to the reality of a specific year, or even an age. I find I don’t have a problem with that.

This is a mostly character driven, coming of age story, with a romance at its centre. The time period is merely a backdrop to the character development, and it works well with the tone, the themes and the narration. The protagonist and narrator, Monty, is a privileged young man from a wealthy family, whom he doesn’t particularly like, and feels mostly detached from. His closest relationship is with his best friend Percy, and at the beginning of the novel the two are set to go on their Tour of Europe, before settling into their respective roles in society. They are to be accompanied by Monty’s sister Felicity, who is going to be dropped-off at a “finishing school”, a type of institution that mostly teaches wealthy young ladies good manners and little else.

The three of them embark on an adventure of increasingly unlikely proportions, which at one point includes pirates — this is where the humour of the book serves it best, because if this was trying to be an accurate depiction of the Tour, it would crumble under the ever increasing shenanigans.

I liked all of the characters, who were all very different. Monty is superficially charming and has a brand of caustic humour that he uses to mask his deep insecurity about his bisexuality, as well as his distrust of the high society people he’s expected to interact with. On the other hand, Percy who is half-black (and from what I read elsewhere, based on the real person Dido Elizabeth Belle), is unfailingly polite and cordial because he’s aware of just how tenuous his social standing is. Felicity shares some of her brother’s fiery temper but is also constrained by her role as a woman in a deeply patriarchal society.

While the issues of inequality and discrimination were addressed, and some of the character’s growth dealt exactly with overcoming biases about themselves and others, and challenging a deeply flawed society, this was done with the heavy-handed approach typical of Young Adult books — which is to say with a lot of exposition through dialogue. Monty, as the audience stand in, was often the most ignorant of other people’s struggles and only focused on his own. This resulted a lot in characters having to explain to him that “other people have problems too, you know”. It would have been better, and more satisfying for him to realise that on his own, through the events of the novel, instead of having to be told. His moments of introspection often followed a talking down from either Percy or Felicity.

I liked the romance, I was rooting for both characters and wanted them to end up together pretty much from the beginning of the novel. But some of the romantic conflict felt a bit forced in my opinion. There was one situation at the end, where both characters are apparently happy and have sorted out all their differences, and then a single conversation completely throws them out of sync. It wasn’t totally believable in my opinion, but at least it didn’t overstay its welcome, and the issue didn’t drag for the sake of building up angst.

Overall, I enjoyed myself with The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, it was a fun light read, that I finished over the course of two days at two different, but equally beautiful, river beaches. I have to admit I was more impressed by the landscape and crystalline waters than by the book. But it was still whimsical and heartwarming, and perfect for reading under the shade of  an oak tree that’s probably been around since the 17–‘s.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books