Anything But Fine by Tobias Madden

I had quite hopes for Anything But Fine and the first few chapters promised a ya coming-of-age in the realms of The Sky Blues, Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, and You Should See Me in a Crown. As the story progresses however I found myself growing weary of the unnecessary miscommunication. If you are a fan of Netflix teen comedies/dramas, Anything But Fine will likely be your next favourite read however, if you prefer more nuanced characters and more realistic scenarios/dynamics well, this may not deliver.

Set in Australia Luca Mason, our 16-teen-yr-old narrator has dedicated his life to ballet. His hopes of being accepted into the Australian Ballet School are thwarted after a bad fall results in a broken foot. After his doctors tell him that he is unlikely to ever be able to dance again Luca is more-or-less booted out of his fancy private high school. A lost and confused Luca distances himself from his ballet friends, three girls who do not seem to truly understand the irreversible consequences of his fall. At his new high school, Luca is befriended by Amina, an affectionate, dorky, genius. Luca also falls hard for Jordan Tanaka-Jones, the school’s handsome, popular and allegedly straight jock.
While the novel does rely on insta-love Luca’s crush/obsession with Jordan did strike me as fairly believable. Luca is a horny teenager whose life has recently experienced an unwelcome drastic change so he decides to focus his attention on the seemingly unattainable Jordan. Luca’s dad, who is still grieving the death of his wife, Luca’s mother, tries to reach out to Luca and talk about how his ballet-less life is affecting him but Luca is quick to shut down this conversation. He spends most of his time daydreaming about Jordan and only on occasion allows himself to think about ‘what-ifs’ where he is able to dance again or has never fallen in the first place.

Some positives: the writing was fairly engaging and there were even some well-delivered moments of humor. I appreciated that Luca was portrayed as flawed. He makes mistakes, he is rather self-involved, a bit desperate when it comes to Jordan, and could be a more attentive friend/son. The author also shows that while he is often at the receiving end of homophobic ‘jokes’ and verbal abuse, he has a lot to learn about other people’s experiences. He does grow aware of this and works to improve himself, which was nice to see. Amina, for 70% of the novel, was a very sweet lovable character. Yeah, she had the type of personality that is often given to secondary characters in teen movies, so some of the stuff she does/say is a bit ott but overall it kind of worked (or at least it did until that scene…). She had her own arc, which made her character more rounded.

And the negatives (spoilers ahoy): we are told that Luca’s raison d’etre is ballet and while he does now and on occasion think about I didn’t really buy into this aspect of his character. Look, I get that he would avoid thinking about it too much but surely he would notice how different his everyday life is now. He only comments on this once or twice which isn’t entirely credible. Like, the guy dedicated most of his life to ballet, something that requires a certain amount of devotion. He would have been performing/practising daily and followed a strict diet etc., yet he seemingly adapts to his new life with no problem. Also, while he does one time acknowledge to his father that he is in pain due to his foot, the author seems to gloss over his physical recovery. He has physio but those scenes are all about developing his romance. I just would have liked for ballet (or lack of ballet) to play more of a role in his story. As things stand, we are told he love(d) it but there were few scenes showing this. His former ballet friends are portrayed in a very mean girl way. And sure, there are girls who behave like they do but I did not appreciate that Lucas is dismissive of them from the start. He uses certain terms that were low-key sexist and the story doesn’t challenge any of them. Even the popular girls at his new school receive a similar treatment, and even Jordan and Amina dismiss them and imply that ‘popular’ girls are promiscuous/bitchy/and-other-negative-descriptors-almost-exclusively-used-for-women which seemed a bit out of character if I’m honest. Also, while I am a fan of media that falls under cringe comedy, and I am aware that one’s teen years may be filled with plenty of embarrassing/awkward moments, here there were several scenes that just seemed gratuitous. I am not keen on adult authors going out of their way to embarrass their teenage characters. And here we have a major plot point involving a character doing something very unbelievable and utterly embarrassing themselves and the people around them. Amina has a crush on Jordan and suspects that Lucas is hiding something from her, possibly something that has to do with Jordan. Lucas tells her he has a girlfriend but Amina doesn’t seem to believe him and decides to declare her feelings to Jordan in front of his teammates who have bullied her and Lucas. Why…why would she ever do such a thing? While I am willing to believe that she would confess her feelings to Jordan despite Lucas’ attempts to stop her, I didn’t believe that she would do it publicly and seemingly on the spur of the moment. Her refusal to listen to Lucas’ pleas not to go ahead with her plan also struck me as inconsistent with her characterization so far. Sure, she is shown to be a tad naive and very wholesome, her fangirling over one direction comes across as a tad childlike at times but she is also portrayed as empathetic and in many ways more mature than her peers. I struggled to reconcile her actions at that party with her character. She’s obviously turned down and made fun of by the one-dimensional-jock-goons. Both Jordan and Amina take it out on Lucas, which wasn’t entirely fair. In fact, this whole section strings together scene after scene where Lucas is made out to be an ‘awful’ guy. The boy is not perfect sure but I didn’t think it was fair that he was blamed for so many things and rather than communicating/explaining himself to Amina, Jordan, or his dad, he just chooses not to. After being blamed by Amina and Jordan for making her embarrass herself, he inadvertently outs Jordan to his homophobic teammate. In an attempt to warn Jordan about this he forgets that he and his dad are meant to be celebrating his mother’s birthday (i think it was her birthday). Rather than explaining what was going on, he lets his dad think he is simply ‘boy obsessed’ and too busy to care. The dad also insinuates that Lucas ditched his old ballet friends, and the boy doesn’t think of telling him that said friends mistreated him and were racist to Amina.
Now, onto the romance. Jordan was a slightly one-note character, and I am a bit tired of lgbtq+ YA novels where the lead falls for the popular and ‘totally straight’ person who isn’t ready/or sure they want to come out. But rather than discussing this with our protagonists, they make them feel ashamed of who they are. While Lucas does call Jordan out, he is ultimately made into the bad guy because hey ho he outs him!!! Like…ugh. I am not a fan of that plot point, at all. It would have been more suited to a show like Glee or something. But here it just comes across as totally unnecessary. While I do acknowledge that the author does allow both Jordan and Lucas to have valid opinions on the whole being ‘out’ and dating someone who is not ‘out’, towards the end he seems to just dunk on Lucas. Amina too after that whole confession-gone-wrong thing is angry at Lucas. Surely, the following day or whatnot, once she learns that the two were in a secret relationship, she would understand why Lucas couldn’t tell her? Best friends or not, Jordan told him he wasn’t ready to be out, so Lucas respected that. And Lucas even tries to stop her from making a fool of herself…and she blames him? Argh. The drama and miscommunication really annoyed me.
I would have liked for this book to be less focused on the romance with Jordan and more on Lucas’ character growth. His personality was not particularly well-defined, and I would have liked some moments of introspection where he truly thinks about ballet, what it means to him, etc. His character instead is more or less defined by his crush on Jordan, which ultimately does his storyline a disservice.

I’m sure a lot of readers will love this but I am just not a fan of the latter half of the novel.


my rating:★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the ‘every-elderly-woman’, ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka’s playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Archer by Shruti Swamy

Throughout the course of reading The Archer, I was painfully aware that I was in fact reading a novel. That is to say, I did not think this was a particularly ‘immersive coming-of-age’ story, quite the contrary. Almost every line I read struck me as contrived and as attempting (and failing) to be eloquent and adroit. This novel reads like something that should have stayed in drafts or that would have been okay if it had been some sort of MFA project. The verbose and trying-too-hard-to-be literary language was distracting and unimaginative. The main character and her environment felt inconsequential, the narrative more intent on showing off its supposedly ‘lyrical’ prose (which, you guessed it, in my eyes, was anything but). Banal, shallow, and repetitive ​​ The Archer was not for me. If you enjoyed this novel please refrain from commenting on things along the lines ‘you are wrong’. If you want to read this novel…eh, I guess I should remind you to check out more positive reviews.

The Archer begins with a 3rd pov that gives us an overview of the childhood of our protagonist. The narrative year tries to make it so that we are seeing things from the pov of a child, but it doesn’t quite pull it off. Vidya lives in Bombay during a generically historical period. There is Father Sir, Brother, The Mother, and briefly Room-Not-Mother. Vidya has to look after Brother and has to be obedient and respectful towards her elders. Nothing much happens other than some lengthy descriptions about objects or feelings that amount to absolutely nothing. Vidya is devoid of personality because we all know children don’t have those…anyway, one day she sees a Kathak class and wants to learn this type of dance. The Mother eventually dies (i think?) and Vidya is given even more responsibilities. Father Sir plays almost no role, his presence relegated to two or three scenes. The narrative begins switching from a 3rd to a 1st pov, in a painfully artificial attempt at mirroring Vidya becoming aware, through dancing, of ‘the self’.
There is a time skip and the story is narrated by Vidya herself, who is now at university. Once again the narrative is very much all telling, no showing. The author will dedicate a paragraph to describe the flesh of a fruit or the shape of a shoe but spend almost no time fleshing out the secondary characters who soon enough end blurring together. Vidya has a predictable half-hearted relationship with another girl, but because neither of these characters struck me as real I could not bring myself that they would care for each other.
Another time skip and Vidya is married to this generic guy. We learn nothing about him, nothing substantial that is but the author will inform us of the smell of his sweat and his cologne. K. Then we get the predictable pregnancy where Vidya learns that the body is abject.
I just found the language so profoundly irritating. As I said, there are very few scenes actually happening in ‘real time’ on the page. Vidya mostly recounts to us stuff that happens, taking away the immediacy of that moment/scene. There is also very little dialogue so that we spend most of our time just listening to Vidya’s voice. Yet, in spite of the pages and pages she spends navel-gazing, I did not feel as if she was a fleshed-out character. She was an impression, a generic girl who grows up to become a generic young woman. She’s often painted as the victim, but I felt no sympathy towards her.
The prose was full of cliched descriptions and platitudes (“ the scars on her skin making her legs more beautiful instead of less”). There were so many unnecessary words. Time and time again Vidya felt the need to say something backwards (on the lines of ‘it was not that I was sad’). Or we get passages like this: “Something else had been lost, many things had been lost, perhaps everything had been lost, the girl I had been felt far away, though I had come to school to be rid of her—the sad, motherless girl with dry ugly knees and a dark ugly face: that girl, I could not remember her as me, I could only remember her as though I watched her from somewhere outside her body;”. Rather than just saying things as they are, the author will refer to things such as Vidya’s ‘true voice’, or lazy descriptors such as ‘tomorrow-feeling’ and later ‘girl feeling’. Time and again Vidya will not say what she thinks or feels directly. She will preface whatever by saying ‘and so’, ‘perhaps’, ‘it seemed to me’, and then go to say ‘it wasn’t y nor was it x but it was z’. All these words end up amounting to nothing. They did not make Vidya into a more credible character nor did they bring to life her surroundings/experiences. Yet the author will sacrifice character development to these prolonged acts of introspection that actually don’t reveal anything about this character.
This was a bland affair. The best thing about this novel is the cover/title combo. Its contents left much to be desired. I’ve read far more compelling novels about fraught mother/daughter relationships (You Exist Too Much and The Far Field) and I wish that Vidya’s Kathak practices and her relationship with her teacher could have been the focus of the narrative.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Gut-wrenching and haunting Indian Horse depicts the horrific realities of residential schools, as well as racism and discrimination in 1960s Ontario. This is the third novel that I’ve read by Richard Wagamese and, while Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were no walks in the parks, Indian Horse’s unsparing bleakness and distressing content make those two seem like light reading material. In spite of how upsetting and chilling this story was, Wagamese never sensationalises his characters’ suffering nor does he include graphic and or painful scenes as a cheap way to ‘shock’ his readers. He writes with such empathy and compassion that I found myself unable to tear myself away from Saul’s story.

Indian Horse opens with Saul Indian Horse, who is Ojibwe, being in a treatment centre for his alcoholism. He then begins recounting his childhood, of the early years he spent with his family ‘on the lam’ back in the early 1960s in the wilderness of Northern Ontario after his siblings were taken, kidnapped really, by the so-called ‘authorities’. His parents are heartbroken and survival is difficult, but, compared to what is to come this part of his life seems like a vacation almost. Eventually, Saul is also stolen and taken to a residential school. Wagamese is unflinching in his depiction of the horrors that occur in residential schools such as the one ‘attended’ by Sault. Words like horrifying or brutal do not succeed in conveying the monstrous actions and behaviours of the people in charge of these schools (mostly nuns and priests). The corporal and psychological violence they inflict on their ‘charges’ are abhorrent, stomach-churning, horrific. Their anti-indigenous teachings see them ‘punishing’ (read: abusing) children for speaking in their native tongue, or for expressing non-Christian beliefs or for merely acknowledging their reality (that of having been forcibly taken from their families and communities).

Saul finds solace in hockey. When Father Leboutilier notices how skilled Saul is on the ice he encourages him to keep on playing, tutoring him along the way. Saul temporarily plays with a ‘midget hockey team’ but resentful white parents and their children are unwilling to see him ‘take’ the spotlight and soon enough he’s out of the team.
Eventually, Saul leaves the residential school and goes to live with the Kellys, an Ojibway foster family who wants him to join their community’s junior hockey team. Over the following years, Saul and the rest of his teammates are subjected to many forms of discrimination, from the racist slurs other teams and their fans throw their way to the everyday discriminations and ‘roughing’ up they are subjected to. Saul initially refuses to retaliate when opposing players pull dirty tricks which actually earns him the contempt of his own teammates, who view his decision not to respond to violence with violence as passive, cowardly even. Later on, Saul is scouted by the Toronto Marlboros where he’s yet again a victim of discrimination. As time passes Saul decides to abandon hockey and develops a taste for drinking.

Whereas Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were very dialogue-heavy and in many ways read like long conversations (between the characters, between humans and the natural world, between past and present), Indian Horse is a more quiet work that is far more introspective in nature. Saul’s recollection of his childhood and teenage years is permeated by a sense of sorrow and loss. From the traumatic experience of being separated from his family to the horrifying realities of residential school and the later abuse he was subjected to once he began playing hockey professionally….this is not a fun or nostalgic foray into the good olden days. Wagamese captures in painful clarity how much Saul struggled with the abuse, violence, and racism he experienced growing up. He conveys these experiences through his younger eyes, so that we too, feel as confused, hurt, and lost as he did. The loneliness he feels is truly heart-breaking and there were times that I struggled to keep on reading. But, as I said earlier on, Wagamese never makes a spectacle of his characters’ suffering. He’s matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting Saul’s difficult life, making his experiences seem all the more real.

As with Wagamese’s other novels, the narrative incorporates various Ojibway teachings, and here we see just how powerful they are in that they tether Saul to the culture he was so violently ripped away from. Much about the tone of the novel brought to mind one of my all-time-favourite novels, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. While they do portray very different realities, prose and tone-wise the two share a similar quality. Self-forgiveness is a crucial part of both of these novels, and both authors demonstrate extreme empathy in the way they handle trauma, loss, and addiction.
If you are a fan of Wagamese, or Sáenz, and you are prepared to have your heart broken (and possibly stitched back together), you should seriously consider reading Indian Horse.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

DISCLAIMER: If you are thinking of reading this novel I recommend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers (such as Brandann Hill-Mann’s review). I didn’t hate this book it but I would be lying if I said that it didn’t really, really, really frustrate me (because it did).

I would have enjoyed this more if it hadn’t been for Daunis being the definition of Not Like Other Girls.

Nancy Drew meets Winter Counts in this YA debut. The cover (look at that BEAUTY), the premise, the overwhelmingly positive reception, all lead me to believe that I too would love this. Fifteen-year-old me probably would have (loved it that is) but I am now at a point in my life where I am tired of reading books that elevate girls who are Not Like Other Girls and shame Other Girls.

Firekeeper’s Daughter follows eighteen-year-old Daunis, the daughter to a white mother, who happens to belong to one of the most ‘powerful’ families in her town, and an Ojibwe father. Understandably Daunis has always felt like an outsider as she is not an enrolled tribal member. Daunis feels deeply invested in her Native heritage and throughout the novel, we see her observing many Ojibwe customs and beliefs. Time and again she has to reconcile herself with the knowledge that white people such as her maternal grandparents see her Ojibwe side as “a flaw or burden to overcome”. There are also those within the Sugar Island Ojibwe Tribe who view her as white, not truly part of their community.
After witnessing a murder Daunis becomes entangled in an FBI investigation. Daunis agrees to help their investigation hoping to put an end to prevent drug-related deaths. A coming-of-age tale meets a slow-burn mystery-thriller that touches upon many serious and relevant issues while also including a not so unnecessary romance subplot and Riverdale-levels of drama.

Before I move on to what I didn’t like in this novel I will mention a few of the things that did in my opinion work. Angeline Boulley does a stellar job in bringing to life both Sault Sainte Marie and Sugar Island to life. Throughout the course of the story, Boulley celebrates Native, specifically Ojibwe, practices, beliefs, and history. Daunis is clearly proud of her Ojibwe heritage and this is wonderfully reflected in her narration. There are a lot of terms and expressions in Ojibwemowin, and that made Daunis’ world all the more vivid. I also appreciated that the story doesn’t shy away from showing the ramifications of colonialism, the everyday injustices faced by indigenous individuals and communities, the consequences of substance abuse (without wholly demonising drug abusers), how harmful stereotypes about indigenous cultures and peoples are, and how disrespectful cultural appropriation is. Through the mystery-thriller storyline, the narrative also explores drug trafficking and violence against indigenous women. Additionally, the story had a nice body-positive message which is always a nice surprise. And Granny June. She was cool, probably the only character I liked.

I will take a leaf from Daunis (who is list-obsessed, because like all sciencey people she likes facts & logic) and list my various criticisms ( SPOILERS BELOW ):

1. Daunis being Not Like Other Girls. She excels at science, loves sports (BIG BOY sports like hockey, none of that girly bullshit), hates lipstick and makeup, doesn’t wear skirts (puh-lease, she isn’t one of Those Girls). Daunis is also FLAWLESS. You read that right. And please don’t @ me saying that she makes some mistakes in her investigation. She is not a bloody detective. She’s 18. No one expects her to be Hercule-bloody-Poirot. If she makes any injudicious choices these are nullified by the fact that she is ‘always’ acting from a good place. She cares TOO much (about her community, her loved ones) and wants to protect those around her. How is that a flaw? So she doesn’t trust the two undercover FBI agents and begins running her own investigation. I mean, how is not trusting the law enforcement a flaw? She’s a bit quirky but that makes her all the more special (here we have the love interest saying to her: “I love how you see the world” bleargh). Curiously enough while the story tries to show how harmful misogynistic and sexist attitudes/mentalities are we have our female lead either slut-shaming Other Girls or making incredibly judgmental comments about them. She calls Other Girls, for example, the girlfriends of hockey players ‘parasitic‘: “I won’t be a wannabe anglerfish, trying to latch on to a guy who is already taken.”. Other Girls are vain, they care about their looks, they go after guys who already have girlfriends, they have fake friendships with each other (not like Daunis and Lily), they are catty, superficial, stupid, girly, you name they are it. And at first, I genuinely thought that this would be Daunis’ ‘flaw’. The storyline would have her realise along the way that she is acting just like those men she dislikes so much…but no. Ah. As if. Daunis was right all along, time and again Other Girls are shown indeed to be horrible (we have the basic white girl with her inappropriate dreamcatcher tattoo or cruel Macy who does Daunis dirty). And why does Daunis always blame Other Girls instead of the guys who actually do the cheating? Because her dad cheated on her mum? Give me a break. The same happened to me but I am certainly not out there whining about ‘anglerfishes’. Grow up Daunis. The only person who points this out is a Bad Guy so his comment is moot. How convenient. Worst of all, for all her specialness (Daunis is sciencey and sporty and look now she is involved in an undercover case and falling in love with a handsome and mysterious stranger) she was just such a dull character.

2. The jarring dissonance between the tone of Daunis’ narration (which makes her come across as being 14 rather than 18) and the story’s content (which include murder, drug abuse and trafficking, sexual assault, kidnapping, and many other clearly YA and up things). On the one hand, we have Daunis’ referring to anything related to her role in the FBI’s investigation as Secret Squirrel (the first Secret Squirrel lesson #1 was actually funny, “I am not paranoid, but the men listening to me are”). Secret Squirrel appears 36 times in the book. One too many if you ask me. Anyway, we have this silly squirrel nonsense that seems more suited to a Middle-Grade novel and then we have a rape scene. And don’t even get me started with the Guy Lies. Bah! Sometimes juxtaposing a cutesy protagonist with a story that has mature/serious content can work (I’m thinking of Harley Quinn) but here…it just did not work for me. Daunis’ childish language brought me out of the story.

3. The thriller storyline. It is Riverdale-levels of overblown. And yet also incredibly predictable. Who would have thunk it, the golden boy is not so golden! I am shook. This is the third book I can think of that does a similar not so shocking reveal. The baddies are so cartoonish it was just plain ridiculous. They had their villainous monologues in which they gloat as they explain their scheming to our heroes. Come on. Most of the ‘twists’ were either entirely predictable (Levi) or just OTT (the coach is also involved!).

4. The romance is low-key questionable. Yeah, she’s 18 but the guy, Jamie or whatever his name is, is 22. And an FBI agent. Working on this drug trafficking case. His main quality is that he is hot. He’s got abs, which our Daunis checks him out all of the time (a tad creepy if you ask me), he has a handsome face but no wait, he has a facial scar. Wow. Doesn’t that lend him an air of mystery?! He also pinches the bridge of his nose, all of the time. Their chemistry…wasn’t there. It seemed way too quick, insta-love sort of speed. Daunis acts like she doesn’t like him or trust him but she never shuts up about him or the feelings he makes her feel (butterflies and all that). To be fair, I liked the note the author ended their romance on (Daunis calling out Jamie for ‘needing’ her when the guy clearly needs some alone time). Jamie was boring, a generic YA male love interest (✓ mysterious past ✓ hot ✓ Not Like Other Boys).

6. Daunis’ parents are very…undefined. The mother is sad and sometimes talks to herself (revealing SECRETS). And yeah, the father is dead by the start of the story but it would have been nice to know his character, really know him.

6. The dynamics between secondary characters were vague. Don’t Daunis and Levi share an auntie? Yet Levi and this auntie two never seem to mention each other or have scenes together (and if they do they certainly don’t give us an impression of their relationship).

7. The time period…why was this story set in 2004? I still don’t get it. A way out of having characters use the internet? Search me.

8. Chapters ending in cheesy cliffhangers.

9. The lists.

10. The only gay character is dead. O-k-a-y.


If you liked this novel, I’m honestly kind of jealous. I so wanted to like it. But much about it just did not work for me.

my rating: ★★½

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The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons

“He wasn’t sure if parents had limits to their love, but he was worried that one day something would push them too far and he’d find out.”

After a horrible experience at his old high school Spencer Harris is ready to turn a new leaf. He’s Black, fifteen, a bit of a nerd, and good at soccer. His new private school offers him the chance to start over, and, despite his initial desire to ‘lay low’, he finds himself joying the school’s soccer team. No one at Oakley knows he’s trans, and while Spencer is not ashamed of who he is, he doesn’t want to re-experience the bullying and harassment he was subjected to at his old school.
While Spencer becomes friends with the other boys on the team, his budding crush on a fellow team member and the fact that he joined the team after his parents explicitly forbid him to…well, these make his life a bit more complicated.
Things take a downward turn when Spencer is benched due to a discriminatory law.

Isaac Fitzsimons’ prose is the classic YA coming-of-age kind of fare, simple and readable, only occasionally coming across as a wee bit green (some lines of dialogue here and there, maybe a phrase or two: “They lost the game that day, but Spencer gained a lesson he’d never forget”). I appreciated how inclusive this book was. In addition to Spencer being trans, we have queer, gay, autistic, and non-binary characters.
Spencer comes across as a realistic teenager, sometimes prone to angsting over this or that, being a bit self-involved, or giving his parents a hard time,. We can also see how hard it is for him, how anxious he is about people accepting him for who he is. He was a really sweet kid and I really admired that he speaks up about the gender-neutral bathrooms and for being so supportive towards his younger brother.
I also liked how uplifting the story was. It made me smile more than once and I am so happy that Fitzsimons didn’t let his story follow the path of many other lgbtq+ YA book (usually a character is outed) and that he actually made his mc’s parents into more than one-dimensional characters. The authors keeps a good balance between Spencer’s character arc and the romance subplot.

This was a really wholesome book. We have a cute romance, as well as good family and friendship dynamics, and the author includes realistic and current issues in his storyline. There may be the odd cheesy moment but I could have not cared less (if I wanted 100% realistic stories I would not be reading anything ever).
This is clearly a novel with a big heart. The author treats his characters and their struggles with empathy and understanding. If you are a fan of Kacen Callender or Julian Winters you should definitely consider giving The Passing Playbook a chance.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Split by Laura Kay

minor spoilers below

To be honest, The Split was a wee bit disappointing. Not only did the MC got on my nerves big time but most of the characters came across as very one-dimensional and the narrative’s attempts at humor were puerile. On the plus side: a sapphic rom-com in which the main tension does not originate from our MC or her love interest’s queerness. While the author does acknowledge the realities of growing up gay the story is not about queer suffering. Which, dare I say, was refreshing?
Sadly, the author’s characters leave a lot to be desired, characterization-wise. Our narrator is twenty-nine-year-old Ally who after quitting her teaching job has been in a bit of a slump. When her longtime girlfriend breaks up with her Ally leaves London, taking her now ex’s cat Malcolm with her, and seeks refuge in her hometown of Sheffield. Her dad, also a teacher, is incredibly understanding and supportive of Ally but also encourages her not to spend her days’ longing for her old life and ex. She reconnects with a childhood friend, Jeremy, who is also recovering from a breakup. It is Jeremy who ‘ropes’ Ally into taking part in a half marathon partly in the hopes of getting back to her exes partly in hopes of winning them back. Ally sends many emails to her ex, and their exchanges were painful. Ally offers idealized visions of their shared history while her ex sends emails that came off as entirely unconvincing, voice wise at least. I just didn’t buy into her. Kay tries to make her seem kind of mean and logical, but, for the most part, her emails were the equivalent of an actor flatly reading some not-so-great lines (she also delivers the really clichèd line: “you were in love with an idea of me”).
The story follows the usual romcom formula, which I wouldn’t have minded (after all I am a fan of some of Kinsella’s books), but, jaysus, Ally was unbearable. Okay, her moping and being pathetic about her ex is ‘understandable’. But, I am so tired of female protagonists who are the embodiment of the Not Like Other Girls™. Other women in this book care about clothes, the way they look, their diets, but Ally hates vegetables, loves donuts, wears old knickers, is sometimes a slob, etc etc. The author’s relentless attempts at making Ally into a relatable character end up making her into yet another Not Like Other Girls™ girl. Her ex and her new gf are vegans, they fake-care about the planet, they exercise. Ally likes take-outs and brownies and vies running as torture. Ally’s attempts to force her ex to travel to Sheffield were…cringy? Creepy? The worst thing about this book is the way Ally treats Jo. Jo doesn’t have a personality other than being younger than Ally, into running, and beautiful. Ally is immediately attracted to her and their relationship might have developed into a cute romance but no, I guess we can’t have that, Ally decides to use Jo to make her ex jealous. She crosses many lines and by the end, the narrative excuses her behavior by saying “oh well, good people make mistakes”. Except that Ally is not good. Yet, the narrative casts her ex into the role of villain, painting Ally as merely ‘misguided’ as opposed to manipulative and exploitative.
If you were able to enjoy this, I’m happy for you. The above review is expressing my personal thoughts towards this book and I am afraid that these were less than favorable.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½

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The Bright Lands by John Fram

At first, I was intrigued by The Bright Lands: a small town in Texas, missing teen(s), possible evil entities…I kind of expected it to be a modern take on Twin Peaks by way of Stephen King. Sadly, however, The Bright Lands never delivers on its intriguing premise. The writing leaves a lot to be desired, the dialogues are at best clumsy and at worst embarrassingly clichéd, the characterisation is sparse and tends to rely on tired stereotypes, the storyline is unfocused and unnecessarily convoluted, and the supernatural elements felt out of place.
The novel doesn’t really have a protagonist. We jump from character to character, without gaining any insight into who they are, most of whom are indistinguishable from each other. We are first introduced to Joel Whitley, who is in late twenties and lives a nice apartment in New York. He gets a series of texts from his younger brother, Dylan, who happens to be the star of his football team, if not their small town’s golden boy. Worried for him, Joel returns to his hometown of Bentley. Joel is understandably not keen to return to his homophobic community, especially after what happened before he left.
When Dylan disappears Joel reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark who still hasn’t forgiven him for ‘misleading’ her. Dylan’s teammates and his girlfriend are clearly hiding something, and there are rumours about a place called ‘the bright lands’.
Many of the town’s inhabitants begin to have nightmares hinting at some sort of Big Evil.
Joel never felt like an actual person. We know he’s gay and that his brother is missing. Other than that? Not much. His life in New York for example is only vaguely alluded to (only in those instances in which Joel notes that he now has plenty money) and his relationship with his mother is non-existent (for the matter she only has a cameo here and there…weird given that it is her son who is missing). He mostly reacts to things for plot reasons, but he really has 0 interiority.
The football team and cheerleaders are one-dimensional. They speak in clichés and their motivations are lazily unconvincing.
The adult men in this town are a similar shade of rugged bigot, the women and the girls instead are ‘badasses’.
What I’m getting at is that the characters were utterly ridiculous. Which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that I was supposed to take them seriously.
John Fram tries to incorporate in his story topical themes such homophobia (which reigns supreme in Bentley), racism, police incompetence and corruption…but the way he addresses these is questionable. Suggesting that all homophobes are actually closeted gay or bi-curious men…is yeah, not great. The novel’s portrayal and treatment of queer men leaves a lot to be desired.
There is a lot of not telling, not enough showing. Chapters end in predictable cliffhangers, usually with a character learning or seeing something important, and it takes sometimes a few chapters before we return to that character and we get to read what all the fuss was about.
The latter half of the novel is utterly ludicrous. I can sort of see what Fram wanted to do…but I can’t say that he manages to pull it off. For one, I just didn’t buy into it. Second, the whole supernatural subplot was laughable…and this novel was meant to be a ‘horror’? Mmh..
The Bright Lands lacks emotional weight. The characters seem really unfeeling, or perhaps they just don’t register that they are feelings things such as anger or grief. They merely go from A to B.
This was a bland novel….and I’m not sure I will approach Fram’s future work.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr — book review

529493.jpgThe Necessary Hunger, Nina Revoyr’s debut novel first published in 1997, had the potential of being a great YA book. In many ways this novel was ahead of its times. Set in Inglewood, L. A., in the late 1980s The Necessary Hunger is narrated by seventeen-year-old Nancy Takahiro, a Japanese-American all-star high school basketball player. Nancy, who is a lesbian, falls hard for Raina Webber, an African-American all-star guard from a competing school. Raina, who is also a lesbian, is in a relationship with an older girl.
When Raina’s mother and Nancy’s father get together, things get a bit complicated. Nancy, who isn’t used to sharing her home with anyone other than her father, has to get used to the presence of two other people. Her massive crush on Raina further complicates matters.

There were aspects of this novel that I really liked such as Revoyr’s approach to sexuality and race. There are quite a few gay characters, and their sexuality is never made into a big deal. While stories about coming out and/or exploring your sexuality are certainly important, it was refreshing to read a storyline that casually revolves around gay teens. Nancy’s sexuality is never made into an ‘issue’.
The novel also has a great sense of time and place. Revoyr’s Inglewood is vividly rendered. From the graffitis decorating some of the more run down buildings, to the ever-present threat of danger (government neglect results in gang violence, drive-bys, carjackings, burglaries). Acquaintances of Nancy drop out school, get into drugs, go to prison. Life isn’t easy. A sense of solidarity unites Inglewood’s various residents and both Nancy and her father navigate Inglewood with ease. When Raina and her mother move into their house tension arise. Inglewood informs Revoyr’s discussions about class hierarchies and social / race relations (particularly interracial relationships).

Sadly, readers merely ‘overhear’ these more interesting conversations. Nancy is a snoop, and she will often sneakily listen to other people’s conversations. For all her navel-gazing Nancy’s character lacked interiority. She’s defined by her love for basketball and her obsessive feelings for Raina. Although other characters aren’t distinctly three-dimensional, they at least had a semblance of personality. Nancy was a not very profound bore. The narrative tries to emphasise that she’s looking back to these events, by making her reflect on ‘what-ifs’ or the significance of a certain moment, but this technique added little to the narrative.
While I knew that this would be a novel about basketball, I wasn’t expecting pages and pages of basketball games. Perhaps if I had been more interested in the characters or if I had felt that these game had some sort of stake…but readers know from the beginning that unlike her teammates Nancy will have plenty of college offers. Raina is often reduced to the role of ‘object of desire’. Nancy’s feelings for Raina never struck me as genuine. It seemed a classic case of ‘physical attraction + jealousy/awe’.
At times the writing seemed quite dated (for example Nancy uses the word ‘schizophrenic’ to describe her room’s decor).
Nothing remarkable happens. Nancy is often a mere observer in the novel’s more compelling moments. A lot of the narrative is dedicate to Nancy’s ‘yearning’ for Raina….and the ending was incredibly underwhelming. What was all that for?
All in all The Necessary Hunger strikes me as a rather mediocre piece of fiction. It had the potential to be a really thought-provoking read but it just felt flat to me. There were also so many cheesy lines that were probably meant to be taken seriously.

My rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars

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We Came Here to Forget by Andrea Dunlop — book review

42202020.jpgFor the most part We Came Here to Forget was a somewhat inconsistent read. Perhaps this is due to the two timelines, one which follows Katie Cleary as she grows up, and the other one focuses on the aftermath a personal tragedy. In order to escape from her unbearable existence (one in which she has just lost her friends, boyfriend, and career) Katie ‘reinvents’ herself as Liz Sullivan and travels to Buenos Aires.
Although we know that something bad has happened between Katie/Liz and her older sister, we don’t know the details until the very end. This choice, rather than creating suspense, frustrated me since I predicted what had happened (there are a few things that could make a whole family so infamous)…the timeline focused on the past provided little insight in Katie’s relationship with her sister and her parents. It was mostly telling rather than showing. The parents are only occasionally mentioned, and Katie’s sister, who should have been the focal point of this timeline, is rendered through vague descriptions and observations that usually allude to her later ‘crime’.
The present timeline provided a more nuanced and interesting story. Liz’s struggle to reconcile herself with that ‘bad thing’ and her own ‘fallout’ gave her character an emotional arc. Again, I think that revealing earlier on what happened with her sister would have allowed for even more depth but alas…this narrative was for the most part enjoyable. Although Liz initially struggles to adapt to her new surroundings, she soon falls in with a group of people similar to her: they have all left their ‘baggage’ in other countries. Perhaps the male characters came across as less nuanced than the female characters and their personalities too were somewhat same-y.
Kate/Liz’s love interests added little to the story. Luke had scarcely any lines, and remained off page for the majority of the story. Blair was also a character who remained in the sidelines until he makes a predictable appearance later on…Gianluca could have been an interesting character but he ended up being merely a plot device for Kate/Liz’s character development…throw in an oddly detailed and unnecessary sex scenes and there you have it: a mixed bag. Is the novel about family? Not really. Mental illness? A bit. Love? Occasionally.
It was just too inconsistent for my taste and I will be approaching Dunlop’s future work with caution…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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