Review: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass book coverThe title of this book pretty much tells you what it’s about: bullying. But it’s about more than that, too, and it didn’t feel like an issue book to me.

Tenth grader Piddy (short for Piedad) Sanchez keeps a low-profile wherever she is. She’s just started out at a new high school in Queens, having moved with her mom from their old apartment in another part of the same borough. She’s befriended (sort of but not really) by an irritating girl named Darlene, who tells her that Yaqui is after her. Piddy doesn’t know why, but she eventually figures out it’s because Yaqui’s boyfriend leered and catcalled Piddy. Somehow this is her fault (…) and she deserves to be beaten up, according to Yaqui and her gang.

Piddy really just wants to be left alone to do well enough in her classes, work her Saturday job at the hair salon where her mom’s best friend, Lila, works, and occasionally visit her best friend, Mitzi, who has moved out of Queens. She also wants to learn about her absentee father and has an odd friendship with one of the boys from her old building. But things with Mitzi get awkward as Mitzi has made new friends at her new school and Piddy feels left behind. She also learns some things about her father that complicate her relationship with her mom. Then, Yaqui won’t let this thing go, and it haunts Piddy. All of this makes her start acting out a little, against everyone, including her mom and her friends. When Yaqui’s threat finally comes to a head, Piddy reacts understandably, basically going off track because she feels like she has no allies. She struggles with figuring out who she is as a result of this—does she want to try to be tough to fight back, or just be herself—whoever that is, exactly?

In the end, the school finds out about the bullying and they come to a very realistic solution that isn’t really fair to Piddy, but works. She also sorts things out with Mitzi and the subplot with Joey also resolves realistically.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is a sympathetic portrait of a girl with a fairly complicated life. She successfully navigates this rough chapter of her life and the book has a very positive ending.

Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish book coverStarfish is the story of Kiko Himura, a 17-year-old Nebraska girl with a Japanese-American father and an obnoxiously white mother (who’s a total narcissist, but the way). Kiko’s mom has belittled her her whole life for not being “beautiful” like she (the mom) is. By beautiful, she means blonde and blue-eyed. Because Kiko takes after her father physically. To white people she’s too Japanese, and to Japanese people she’s too white. It’s not just her mom—the kids at school make sure she thinks this, too.

Unsurprisingly, Kiko’s anxious and lacking in self-confidence because she believes it all. She also thinks she’s responsible for breaking up her parents. When she was young, her uncle did something to her and she told her mom, who didn’t believe her. Still, Kiko thinks her parents were fighting because of this, and then her dad left. She’s got an older brother and a younger brother, but they’re not close. So she feels guilt on behalf of both of them, too. Kiko’s mom really is a piece of work. She’s so horrible that she’s almost unbelievable—but not quite.

Kiko’s a very talented artist and has applied to an elite art school in New York as her escape plan. But when she doesn’t get in, she’s distraught. And she’s hamstrung by her anxiety. But she’s lucky enough to run into her old friend, Jamie, who’d disappeared from her life when she was eleven and sort of broken her heart. Jamie invites her to come to California with him and she decides she’ll look at art schools out there. Jamie helps her ease out into the world. With a long overdue stroke of good luck, she meets a well-known established artist who takes her under his wing. By chance, he is Japanese-American too, and he helps her connect to her Japanese heritage for the first time. She and Jamie get closer, but there’s something that’s keeping them apart, too. She’s staying with him and his parents, and his parents are fighting and Jamie won’t tell her why. Eventually, everything comes to a head in a way I didn’t expect (but absolutely worked) and we see Kiko coming out of her shell.

This is a solid novel that will appeal especially to mixed-race kids, I’m guessing. The references to art throughout will also be particularly to those artistically inclined. But anybody can enjoy it for showing a girl finding her way.

Review: Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell

Everything Beautiful book coverRiley Rose is an atheist, a cynic, and quite the rebel. She’s also fat, but she’s determined to make that irrelevant to her life. Her mother died a few years before the book opens and her dad turned all religious and acquired a super-Christian girlfriend. Riley is a bit of a party girl, and when she gets in trouble for breaking into a pool with a bunch of friends, her dad’s solution is to send her to church camp. Obviously.

From the beginning, she plans to be uncooperative and hate all the ridiculous religious people. She says she will “go as a plague” and try to make life miserable for everyone else. She arrives and quickly makes a minor enemy out of her cabin-mate by stealing her bed. Things proceed from there about as you’d expect. Most of the other campers think she’s sinful and therefore a terrible person. But what Riley doesn’t expect is to make friends with a very odd girl (who “performs her ablutions” on the regular), an odd brother and sister pair, or meet a boy she likes even better than her current boy-of-the-month.

When she firsts sees Dylan, he’s wheeled himself onto the stage at the camp and when she throws a sprig of lavender at him, he eats it and she sees a kindred spirit—someone else who’s lost, moody, superior, and charged, as she thinks of herself. It isn’t until she gets in trouble at the same time as Dylan—not with him, just at the same time—that they start getting to know each other. As punishment, they’re tasked with clearing out a house of a recently dead old man’s possessions.

I liked Riley and rooted for her, though I didn’t really identify with her. She isn’t necessarily a very nice person all the time, with all her rebelling. But she’s still interesting to follow. Dylan is also cool to watch—he’s a little enigmatic for a while, but we start to get him more as Riley gets to know him. There aren’t a lot of books with characters in wheelchairs out there, and I learned some stuff from this book (note: do not touch someone’s chair). It’s also entertaining to watch Riley sort of move toward having faith in something—I didn’t take it that she became a Christian, but rather that she started to develop faith in the world, something she’d lost before. The ending is a little vague in that we’re not sure that Riley and Dylan will see each other again, but it’s clear that they’ve each changed as a consequence of meeting.

If you like reading about rebels, you will probably like this one.

Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

My Heart and Other Black Holes book coverThis is a quiet book about depression and how it can seemingly take over a person’s life and entire perspective, and then how to get away from it.

Aysel suffers from depression, which she imagines is embodied as the “black slug” in her stomach. She also worries that the apparent mental problem that caused her father to murder someone might also live inside her. The only solution she sees is to kill herself, so she searches the internet for a suicide partner. Finding one close by in a boy named Roman, the two of them come up with a plan—a date, place, and method. The rest of the novel focuses on their growing relationship and how it changes Aysel.

Aysel’s a different kind of character. She’s still into classical music, like her dad taught her to be, even though she thinks she might hate her dad after what he did. She’s also a bit of a physics nerd. She isn’t close to her family, mostly because she thinks of herself as fundamentally different from them, even though she lives with her mom, stepdad, and half-siblings. She also feel different from everyone around her, partially because she’s Turkish (her parents came over to the US from Turkey), but also because she doesn’t know how to connect with other people. She’s clearly damaged and her depression has taken over. Roman’s also damaged, but his comes from a single act of negligence on his part that resulted in a tragedy. He can’t live with himself even though it wasn’t really his fault.

Warga handles Aysel and her depression without making the book itself to depressing. There are even some light moments. This made me laugh:

I don’t admire many things about Stacy, but I have to admit it takes some ovaries to talk to your physics teacher like he’s a puppy.

In general, Aysel’s voice is very believable. She comes across as a little younger than a lot of sixteen-year-old protagonists out there, but I think it fits because of her social isolation and inexperience with relationships.

My Heart and Other Black Holes provides a good look into the mindset of a suicidal person, so it could easily be used both to be related to and to be a teaching tool.

Review: My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins

My True Love Gave to Me book coverIt’s probably a little odd to be doing a review of a holiday short story collection several weeks after the holidays ended, but since when did I claim to be normal. Besides, I started reading this before Christmas.

This nice collection focused mostly on Christmas experiences, but there were a lot of creative interpretations of that in the twelve stories, many of which came from big names. Rainbow Rowell’s “Midnights” was one I’d read (and loved) before. In it, Mags and Noel meet at a New Years party one year and the story focuses on their friendship over the years by showing us the subsequent New Years parties. It’s a sweet little romance. Next comes Kelly Link’s “The Lady and the Fox.” This was a creative one involving a ghost, but it didn’t really resonate with me (though I know a lot of people who are big fans of Kelly Link, so it’s surely just a matter of personal taste). The next story is “Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Peña. I quite liked this one. It’s about a down-on-his-luck (i.e., completely and utterly broke) college student house/cat-sitting for a friend who meets a college girl from a very different background. It’s really about how they connect.

In “Polaris Is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han, a human girl is living amongst Santa’s elves at the North Pole. She has to figure out who she is despite being truly one of a kind in her surrounding. How do you figure out who you are when you’re different from everybody else? Stephanie Perkins’ “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” features a video maker and a guy with a great voice. It’s also a sweet little romance—with a bit of angst in it—that I quite liked. In “Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan, a Jewish boy dresses up as Santa to give his boyfriend’s little sister one more year of believing in Santa. It's sweet.

“Krampuslauf” by Holly Black was kind of strange. Black does that well, though. I suppose it’s about wishing things into being. In the next one, I first have to say, kudos to Gayle Forman for naming her fictional college the University of Bumfuckville, which she does in, “What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” It’s a nice story about finding your place among strangers—and not making stupid assumptions about people. “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire is a funny story about a prankster kid who accidentally burned down a church’s barn, where they stored everything for the annual Christmas pageant, and ends up helping pull said pageant off against all odds—and making a friend in the process.

Kiersten White’s “Welcome to Christmas, CA” wasn’t steeped in Christmas spirit, but it was a nice little story about appreciating and helping the people around you, whether you want to be where you are or not. And also psychic cooking. There’s that too. The next story, “Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter, deals with the unexpected consequences of two girls switching identities. Sometimes home can be found in the most unlikely of places. The final story in the collection is “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor. It’s about believing in yourself to the point that you manifest exactly what you need, with the help of a little magic.

There’s a good variety of stories in here so some should appeal to you. If you’re missing the holidays, pick this up to get back in the spirit.

Review: Girl Gone Viral by Arvin Ahmadi

Girl Gone Viral book coverI stumbled across this book at Barnes and Noble and was really excited by the blurb. Supposedly, 17-year-old Opal Hopper is a big coder—she creates virtual reality worlds and so on. I thought this would be really interesting because a) girl coder and b) I wanted to see how the author makes coding interesting.

But this is one of those cases where the blurb doesn’t match the book very well, as she doesn’t really do much coding. Her friend Shane does the majority of it to create their channel on WAVE, the biggest virtual reality platform in this near-future story, while Opal becomes the accidental star of the channel. Opal, Shane, and their friend Moyo have teamed up with Kara, actress and fellow student at their challenging boarding school (PAAST), to compete in a contest by the company that runs WAVE. The prize is (among other things) meeting the company’s founder. Opal is convinced that the founder knows something about her father’s disappearance, and she has been trying to talk to him for 7 years, with no success. So she’s pretty desperate to win the contest, and that takes up the majority of the first part of the book. Kara is normally the face of their show, but when she ends up with food poisoning, Opal takes the stage and rather unintentionally starts something big.

Because Shane hacked some personal WAVE data and gave it to Opal, and she explored the data and discovered that people have empathy for a famous movie star with a reputation for breaking down in public. Now, the data scientist in me is quite skeptical about her managing to do this over a weekend (that’s not how data science works), but okay, I can suspend disbelief enough to go with it. Anyway, with Opal on camera, things explode from there.

While I did like the book, it wasn’t what I expected. It’s set in a technologically advanced America where virtual reality and augmented reality are the norm. But in a lot of ways, it doesn’t feel that different from our world, especially with the politics that seep into the story in surprising ways. But the most unexpected thing was Opal herself. I liked her even though she was nothing like I expected, as she turned out to be pretty self-absorbed and selfish at times and played some unpleasant social games. But she was interesting and I enjoyed seeing her grow and finally understand what happened to her father. The book ends a little abruptly after she finds out and I wondered what was going to happen next. Sequel, maybe?

This is a sci-fi book, but it’s pretty soft sci-fi, as it doesn’t focus on the technology—it explores the social impacts instead. So a lot of readers should enjoy it.

Review: You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

You Bring the Distant Near book coverI think this book came to me through a book club I’m in and I’m glad because I loved it. I’m not quite sure why I love books about identity so much, but I do—it’s probably one of the reasons I like YA so much.

You Bring the Distant Near is, as I mentioned, all about identity. That is racial and ethnic identity, but also everything else that makes a girl who she is. It’s really about four girls—sisters and their daughters—but the mom/grandma has a few scenes that add a different perspective to the story.

We start off with Sonia, at eight years old in 1965. She and her sister, Tara, live with their parents in Ghana. In this scene, Sonia’s mother (Ranee) ruins a swimming race she was going to win, which reveals quite a bit about both of them. But then the book jumps forward to the mid-seventies, when the family moves to Queens. Both Sonia and Tara settle in well enough. Tara channels Marcia Brady to fit in as much as possible while Sonia embraces the feminist movement. Then they move to New Jersey, where Tara finally gets her official start in drama. The story jumps ahead two more years, when they are both nearing real adulthood, and continues until we see them married. Then we jump to 1998, where we meet Sonia’s daughter Chantal and Tara’s daughter Anna. Chantal is as American as can be and when Anna comes over from Mumbai to go to high school with her, it’s a real struggle for Anna because she’s used to life in India. By the end of the book, Chantal and Anna are grown but their futures are yet to be decided. Possibilities are everywhere.

Okay, having written all that, the theme of identity may not seem obviously present, but it’s absolutely crucial to everything that happens. Ranee is distrustful of anyone who isn’t Indian (preferably Bengali) or white, which is a challenge for her in Flushing, Queens. Sonia hates her mom’s racism and her restrictions that keep Sonia basically locked up in the apartment. Tara’s always looking for her identity by trying on different personas, Twiggy the British model and Marcia Brady to name a couple. She’s able to manipulate her accent how she wants. Both she and Sonia push against their mother’s idea of who they should be to be good Bengali girls. They fight against what they perceive as outdated traditions at their father’s funeral (I don’t know the right word), shocking all the Bengalis in attendance. When we get to Chantal and Anna, the struggle for identity is even stronger, particularly for Chantal because her father is black. But it’s there for Anna, too, who wants to hold on to her own Indian identity even when in America. The final question of identity comes into play with Ranee herself, an interesting surprise near the end of the story.

Although the story jumps ahead at several points (which I don’t always love), it’s told in chronological order and is easy to follow. And as I’ve implied above, the characters are all complex and interesting. I personally most identified with Sonia, but any reader should be able to find one of the girls to relate to. The character arcs are clear even if there isn’t a strong plot that spans the whole book (I don’t think one is necessary).

I think anyone who enjoys exploring identity will enjoy this book, but it will especially appeal to Indians and other people who have strong ties to countries other than the one they live in. It’s a well-told story.

Review: Dryland by Sara Jaffe

Dryland book coverI read this quiet book in just two days, which says something because my reading pace has slowed to a crawl at this point (I’m still 14 whole books behind on my Goodreads challenge).

It’s 1992 and Julie is a slightly lost fifteen-year-old who doesn’t really like anything. Her best friend, Erika, is far more engaged in more typical teenage pursuits than Julie, like boys. Julie’s older brother was a highly competitive swimmer who almost qualified for the Olympics and disappeared from Julie’s life to move to Germany afterward. It’s not clear that she technically misses him, but it is clear that his leaving has unmoored her. She follows Erika around for lack of anything better to do—hitting the arts and crafts market, watching skater boys, and doing yearbook at school. At yearbook, she meets a couple of other girls, Alexis and Melanie. Alexis seems to take a shine to Julie, offering her snacks and inviting her to join the swim team. Early in the book, she also meets Ben, an old friend of her brother.

Julie does join the swim team and Erika joins with her. But Julie, ever-unmotivated, struggles in practices. She can’t seem to keep going and randomly stops in the middle of her swims. Erika, who’s got a crush on one of the other swimmers, talks her into going to some parties. All Julie wants to do is leave, but then things get surprising and complicated with Alexis. She hangs out some with Ben, who never comes across as a creepy older guy for reasons that become clear later and actually seems to fill a role her brother might have formerly filled.

Throughout the novel, I wondered if she’d ever find out what was up with her brother, if she’d get over whatever was keeping her from trying at swimming, and what would happen with Alexis. Because the possible lesbian overtones are there from the beginning, though it’s clear to the reader that nothing is really clear to Julie.

The book does a few interesting things, craft-wise. For one, there are no chapters. And Jaffe doesn’t present dialogue in the conventional way. It appears without quote marks, often embedded in paragraphs. This gives the entire story a stream-of-consciousness feel (though I’m not saying it goes far enough to actually be stream-of-consciousness). The prose is subtle, lyrical, and full of great imagery. It’s also set in Portland, Oregon, which adds a dreary backdrop to the story (which sets the mood perfectly).

I recommend this to anyone who wants a thoughtful coming-of-age story. It will especially appeal to older readers who remember the early 90s, but younger readers will also appreciate its rawness and honesty.

Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter book coverThis is a really interesting and unique book. It’s steeped in Mexican-America culture, but not really in a positive way—the main character, Julia, basically hates every aspect of it. To me this was interesting because one of the reasons she hates it is that she can’t navigate it well—she’s socially awkward, but not in the “standard” way (at least this was my take on it). No, she says and does the wrong thing for her culture, which might be okay in white American culture (though definitely not always).

The book opens just after Julia’s older sister, Olga, was killed when she accidentally walked in front of a moving semi. Julia is of course upset by this even though they weren’t particularly close anymore. But what has a more direct impact on her life is the way her family is handling it—her mother has completely withdrawn and her dad is as silent as he ever was. What’s more, Julia figures out that there was more to her sister than anyone thought, but she can’t figure out what was going on.

As things get back to normal, we can see that Julia’s still not okay, but it becomes clear that it’s not really about her sister. Her mother is incredibly controlling and doesn’t let Julia do much of anything. She’s supposed to want to stay home like any good Mexican daughter should want (and like her sister). But Julia’s “different”—as her mother puts it when she’s being nice about it—and wants other things out of life. First, she wants to be a writer and has befriended her English teacher, who thinks she’s one of his best students ever. She wants to go to college. She wants to go to an occasional party and maybe have some friends, even though she’s as awkward about that as she is with her family. Her mom doesn’t want any of those things for her.

One thing I have to mention is that Julia isn’t necessarily very likable. She’s not nice or very appreciative of the people around her and she generally says what on her mind without thinking much about it first. But as I’ve said here, she’s an interesting character and I did care about what happened to her because in some ways she's making the best of a bad situation (one that's bad for her, not necessarily everyone).

I think this is an important book because it teaches about a culture in a way that doesn’t sugar-coat things. It also addresses depression (which I didn’t expect, honestly—I knew we were skirting the topic but I thought that’s all we’d do). Julia’s a character worth getting to know, even if you’re not going to necessarily want to be her friend.

Review: The Radical Element (A Tyranny of Petticoats, #2) edited by Jessica Spotswood

The Radical Element book coverThis book is a collection of short stories set in various points of US history ranging from 1838 to 1984. The stories are all about girls bucking the system in some way, but those ways vary widely over the book. The stories are all realistic except for a couple that have some magical realism elements. The stories also run the gamut on the diversity spectrum, including girls of several different religions, several protagonists of color (and different ethnicities, too), at least one lesbian, one character in a wheelchair, and another on the autism spectrum.

“Daughter of the Book” by Dahlia Adler is about a Jewish girl stuck in Savannah, Georgia in the mid 19th century, where she’s forbidden to do the one thing she really wants to do—study. She’s restricted by both societal expectations—she should be sewing etc.—and actual religious limitations—women and girls were not allowed to study the Talmud, which is what all the men and boys around her were studying. I could definitely relate to her desire to study and would have felt as stifled as she did if I’d been in her situation, but the devotion to religion is definitely not something I relate to. Still, I enjoyed it.

The second story is “You’re a Stranger Here” by Mackenzi Lee. This one is about the early days of the Mormon community, starting right after Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed when the Mormons were in Nauvoo, Illinois. The main character works as a printer’s apprentice and she has to protect the original Book of Commandments. It’s an interesting story about a Mormon teen not entirely sure about her community and what she does for it, anyway.

“The Magician” by Erin Bowman is about a girl in the wild west of 1958. She’s masquerading as a boy and has become a card shark, getting all the newcomers who came to town. She doesn’t know her history but has an enigmatic note that leads her to believe she might have family in California. The story’s about how she’s going to get there.

The next story is “Lady Firebrand,” written by Megan Shepherd and set during the Civil War.  The main character is in Charleston, South Carolina visiting relatives. Unbeknownst to the confederate family, she’s not just some “pitiful girl” in a wheelchair. No, she has real skills and puts them to use at night disrupt shipments of commodities. She can’t do it without the help of her free black maid, however. This was one of my favorites of the collection.

Next comes “Step Right Up” by Jessica Spotswood. It’s set in Tulsa, Indian Territory (this was pre-statehood for Oklahoma) in 1905. The main character dreams of joining the circus as a high-wire walker and needs to make it happen because of family issues. I liked this one, too, even though the circus is historically sort of evil.

“Glamour” by Anna-Marie McLemore is set in LA of the 1920s. It’s an interesting one that uses a small dose of magic to make a point about the rampant racism of LA then (and hints to now). The main character is desperate to be one of Hollywood’s stars, but she’s Mexican so that would never fly. She uses some family magic to glamour her face so she looks white but has to deal with the consequences.

The following story is “Better for All the World” by Marieke Nijkamp. This one’s set in 1927 in Washington, D.C. It features a girl who’s clearly on the autism spectrum who wants to become a lawyer. It starts with her attending a trial over the forced sterilization of a woman deemed mentally deficient and identifying with the woman because of her own “differentness”. So it’s personal, but she’s also interested in the proceedings. She meets a young man at the court and he challenges her (though she challenges him right back).

“When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough” by Dhonielle Clayton is the other story that uses magical realism. The premise is that the main character and her family have eternal life by consuming moonlight. But she’s not sure that staying under the radar is the right thing to do since it’s the middle of World War II. They are black and her family feels like there’s no reason to get involved in a war when America treats black people so badly. She has to decide what to do.

“The Belle of the Ball” by Sarvenaz Tash is set in Brooklyn in 1952. The main character dreams of becoming a humor writer even though that’s no easy task for a girl of that time (or of any time, really). The story is steeped in I Love Lucy references, which I’m sure some people will love (they went over my head). The main character’s mom is set on her being presented at a debutante ball. So she has to go through all that, but it doesn’t keep her from seizing an opportunity to get noticed as a writer.

The next story is “Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave” by Stacy Lee, which is set in Oakland, California in 1955. This one deals with a girl from Hawaii who is of mixed descent, including Chinese and Japanese. She is going to audition to be the face/mascot of a sugar brand even though she knows what she’s going to face in terms of overt racism.

Fast forward to the early 1970s for “The Birth of Susi Go-Go” by Meg Medina. It’s set in Queens and features another stifled girl with a conservative mom. She’s dreading the upheaval that will happen when her grandparents arrive from Cuba. But she ends up using that moment to redefine herself instead of getting shoved to the side like she feared.

“Take Me With U” by Sara Farizan is about a teen girl from Iran staying with family in Boston during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. She feels so out of place and just hangs out with her six-year-old cousin. She meets a hip girl from an upstairs apartment and gets introduced to all kinds of music and it really opens up her world in ways she’d never have expected. This ended up being one of my favorite in the collection, too.

Overall this was an enjoyable book with a bunch of very different stories. But they all remind us of how much we share in common despite the time period and who we are. If you’re a fan of historical YA or YA short story collections, this one should make you happy—especially if you like to see girls empowering themselves.

Review: Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay book coverDarius the Great Is Not Okay is a unique book. Darius is an American kid whose mother is from Iran and whose father is Teutonic stock, and he is under treatment for depression. You don’t see a lot of YA featuring boys of color with depression, so I was curious to see how this one would play out. Also, most of the book is set in Iran, which is cool—I’ve only personally encountered one other YA book set there (not that I’ve looked extensively, but still).

Darius doesn’t fit in in Portland, Oregon and feels second-rate even in his own home. He does have an eight-year-old sister he adores, but his relationship with his father is rough. It’s clear from the very beginning that that causes him the most grief. Almost as soon as we’re first introduced to his father, Darius refers to him by his first and last name—Stephen Kellner—which is jarring. But he does this repeatedly, making it clear that he feels distant from his father.

In addition to things being difficult with his father, Darius has a bully (who also gets the first/last name treatment). He has one friend at school, a Persian girl. But she’s full-Persian rather than being “Fractional” as he thinks of himself, so he feels less than her. Interestingly, Darius has been on medication for depression since he was twelve, and that doesn’t seem to faze him much. He’s not 100% comfortable with it, but it doesn’t bother him as much as the other things do. His father also has to manage his own depression, so they’re very matter-of-fact about it. (I should mention that the depression representation is very good.)

Darius has a Skype relationship with his family back in Iran. But when it becomes clear that his grandfather’s brain tumor is getting worse, his family decides to visit the country for the first time. This is when the story really gets started—it’s the first time he really feels at home, after meeting his family and becoming friends with a boy named Sohrab from down the street, but he still has a lot to learn about his family, friendship, and himself.

Sohrab is a great friend to Darius and the two of them really bond. Darius spends most of his free time with him. It’s an interesting relationship from an American perspective, because Sohrab is very tactile. That’s realistic for a male relationship in Iran, even though it feels a little like there might hints of a romance between the two for an American reader. There are also hints that Darius’s “difference” might include being gay, but this never goes anywhere substantial, which made this a nice book about genuine friendship and family. Iran turns out to be where Darius finds himself and finally comes to an understanding with his father.

If you want a book about depression, or one about a kid who doesn’t fit in, or one about a half-Iranian kid going to Iran for the first time, etc. try this one out. All in one package. It’s very good.

Review: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Juliet Takes a Breath book coverJuliet Takes a  Breath was recommended to me by a friend for being something you see very little of. It is about feminism for queer brown girls, with white feminism and privilege being criticized freely and often. So, as a white person, it can be hard to read. Much of the criticism makes sense; some of the things that the white women in the book do are realistic and I can see how they’re irritating or worse, even when they’re well-intentioned (though not all the instances in the book are). Despite the general sense of uncomfortableness that surrounded me while I read it, I liked it and found it engaging.

Juliet is a short, chubby puertorriqueña from the Bronx. She has just finished her first year of college and now has a white girlfriend she’s in love with. She has decided to come out to her family at the dinner table the evening that she’s leaving to start an internship for a feminist author in Portland, Oregon. She doesn’t know how it’s going to go and she’s distressed when her mom basically hides from her at the revelation. She leaves for her internship and is thrust into the wild world of Harlow Brisbane.

Harlowe’s the author of a famous (fictional) book of New Feminism called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, which has done well in certain circles. Not long after Juliet arrives, Harlowe gives her a seemingly impossible research task. Soon after, Juliet meets a male nudist in Harlowe’s house who makes her feel inferior in her queerness by asking challenging questions. She learns Harlowe’s in a polyamorous relationship with a black woman named Maxine and they all go to a writing event for women of color where white women are allowed to attend but not speak. Juliet doesn’t get why the white women must remain quiet until she overhears a couple of them talking.

From here, Juliet begins her research at the library and gradually gets exposed to more and more challenging and confusing ideas about gender, sexuality, race, love, and more. There is a crisis with Harlowe where she does something that makes Juliet feel objectified and Juliet flees to be with her older and wiser cousin in Florida. The cousin helps her finally start to understand all the confusing ideas she’s been bombarded with in Portland. Juliet comes back armed with knowledge and we see her come into her own with the women around her.

As I mentioned, the book will be challenging for white readers but still very much worth the read. But it’s not written for white people; it's for for young queer people of color and it will ring true, I am sure. It was first published in 2016 in paperback by a small press but it looks like it’s being reissued in hardback in September, probably because it’s done relatively well. Check it out.

Review: Aspergirls by Rudy Simone

I don’t often review nonfiction. But I thought it was worth it for this book, which could be relevant and helpful to a lot of teen girls (and adult women, for that matter) like me. I’ve never been diagnosed with Asperger’s*, but reading this makes it pretty clear that I’d qualify. In the past when I’ve looked at the symptoms lists, it didn’t ring true—but that’s because (like most everything in the medical community) they focus on how the condition presents in boys and men (you know, the default human). 

Simone’s book is comprised primarily of personal anecdotes from her and other girls/women with Asperger’s and her commentary on the significance of those. She also gives out quite a bit of advice. Near the end, the book started feeling a little pseudo-sciency to me, particularly when she gets into some of the stomach issues and how to deal with them, because she doesn’t do a thorough scientific analysis of it. This isn’t really meant as a criticism of the book as a whole; I just found that I didn’t put as much trust in that part (I am just very cynical when it comes to anyone recommending a certain diet). 

Aspergirls book cover

Since this is nonfiction, I’m going to go through the chapters and comment on each a little instead of giving a more general picture. Each chapter contains Simone’s anecdotes and commentary followed by Advice to Aspergirls and then Advice to Parents. For the purposes of clarity, I’ll use AS for Asperger’s syndrome and NT for neuro-typical, as Simone does. 

1. Imagination, Self-Taught Reading and Savant Skills, and Unusual Interests: Simone talks about how people with AS love information probably because it anchors our thoughts. A lot of AS girls teach themselves specific skills, even reading, and may have unusual abilities in certain areas (though this isn’t that common and it isn’t uncommon for AS girls to have learning disabilities, too). One thing that was particularly interesting to me is that autistic kids have been found to have higher fluid intelligence but not necessarily higher crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to see relationships between things that aren’t obviously related. I do this all the time, sometimes confusing people with my connections. Crystallized intelligence is more traditional intelligence—the ability to learn stuff and use it. One really interesting point was that while many AS girls develop obsessive interests just like AS boys do, they tend to be in the domain of more acceptable things (books, art, music, animals, etc.)—all of which are “normal” for many girls. She says we “want to fill our minds with knowledge the way others want to fill their bellies with food” (p. 23). As someone working on her fifth degree with plans for a sixth, I can certainly relate to that. 

2. Why Smart Girls Sometimes Hate School: In a word, bullying. It is true that AS girls don’t have the social skills of NT girls. But even outside of that, most AS girls actually don’t love school despite having a love of knowledge. It’s too structured and doesn’t let us focus on the areas that interest us. Simon says that “Aspergirls do not thrive under scrutiny if it has the slightest bit of hostility in it” (p. 31). I can relate to this very well. I wither when people judge me, which I hate but I’ve never been able to get past this tendency. 

3. Sensory Overload: Simone points out that it’s not really true that AS people feel less, as was previously though, but that instead we feel things much more intensely. This is where sensory overload comes in. As people are often deeply disturbed by things other people don’t even notice. I know that the more people I’m around, the more uncomfortable I get—especially as the noise level increases. I hate sudden loud noises like balloons popping. Though I think I’m lucky because I don’t have too many sensory issues. A lot of AS people can be bothered by many sounds, sights, and even tactile sensations. 

4. Stimming, and What We Do When We’re Happy: I only heard of swimming fairly recently. It’s short for self-stimulatory behavior. This covers things like rocking, clapping, twirling, and hand flapping, all things AS people can do when they’re overwhelmed (and sometimes when they’re happy, too). I’m a chronic pen twirler. Not sure if it’s stimming or if it’s just a thing I do to help me think (I swear I think better with a pen in my hand). 

5. On Blame and Internalizing Guilt: We all know that boys and men rarely question themselves or blame themselves or internalize much of anything (other than “emotions other than anger are bad,” of course). This is one significant way AS girls are different from boys, because we do blame ourselves for our ”weird” behavior that we can’t control and subsequently start feeling guilty about it. But even more importantly, this blame often comes from external sources, when people think AS girls are behaving that way on purpose. 

6. Gender Roles and Identity: This was one of the most interesting chapters to me because Simone says that most AS girls don’t get gender roles and often shirk them. This is partially because we like to wear comfortable clothes (sometimes due to the skin sensitivity some of us have). But this also extends to identity in general, with a lot of AS girls being rather chameleon-like. Some simply don’t have much of a sense of self. I can certainly relate to this as I despise the expectations people have based on gender. It has always driven me crazy that while it’s fine to recognize there are differences between men and women, generalizations don’t apply in every single case.

7. Puberty and Mutism: This chapter touched on puberty, but was mostly about mutism. Mutism is the situation where an AS girl is simply unable to speak and often even think. I’ve been there before. It’s bizarre and frustrating. 

8. Attraction, Dating, Sex, and Relationships: I skimmed this chapter, but one thing I did get out of it was that while a lot of AS girls aren’t remotely interested in romance, others are. Those who are are prone to becoming obsessed with the object of interest and coming across as stalker-y. Another point is that because we don’t experience romance in the same way, many of us marry early or because it’s “time” rather than because there’s a real connection with the partner. Breakups are often worse for AS girls because of the break to a routine. 

9. Friendships and Socializing: It’s true that AS people tend to lack social skills, so common socializing is very difficult. But it also means that it’s hard to maintain friendships in general. 

10. Higher Learning: College is kind of a mixed bag. Some AS women do really well because of the routines, focus required, and opportunities for learning, but most others struggle with sensory overload and managing all the aspects of college life. Simone talks about the importance of trying to get assistance from the school (such as through the Office of Disability Services) if necessary, but also that many of the support services are very lacking and the people are often uninformed. 

11. Employment and Career: Simone says that a lot of AS women struggle in this area because of lack of education or qualifications. Additionally, getting jobs in the first place can be difficult due to the social skills problems. She emphasizes the importance of AS women trying to establish themselves in good jobs, especially since many stay single and can’t rely on someone else to support them.

12. Marriage and Cohabitation: I also skimmed this chapter because it isn’t relevant to me.

13. Having Children: Ditto.

14. Ritual and Routine, Logical and Literal Thinking, Bluntness, Empathy, and Being Misunderstood: Routine and even rituals are a way for AS girls to control the world around them as much as possible. Simone also talks about how literal thinking can sometimes make problems for us. I know for me that when I read, I’m very literal. Symbolism usually goes flying over my head and I cannot enjoy poetry. Bluntness is another area that can be a challenge. Simone points out that AS girls often feel misunderstood because whatever we said bluntly or understood literally was not intended to have the impact it did on the other person. 

15. Diagnosis, Misdiagnosis and Medication: A lot of AS women have never been diagnosed because the medical community is slightly clueless about AS in women, as opposed to men. Many AS women have been diagnosed with various mental illnesses and often prescribed medications based on that, when it completely misses the mark. Many women don’t find out they have it until their child is diagnosed. 

16. Depression Meltdowns, PTSD, and More about Meds: Apparently “meltdowns” are a common occurrence in people with AS. This chapter talks about depression ones. These are extreme depressions that take over an AS person’s life temporarily and can be caused by a variety of things. Simone does address the fact that AS people are prone to depression that can be treated by meds. 

17. Temper Meltdowns: This chapter is basically about the temper tantrums that AS people sometimes have. They can be triggered by almost any sensory overload and can manifest in many different ways. AS women are more prone to crying than men, but the meltdowns can be violent or just excessively phrased or acted out. However they occur, they are usually embarrassing after the fact and women especially are considered crazy, whereas men are more often forgiven. I can relate to this one, too, as (especially when I was younger), I would be triggered by something and be instantaneously overcome with this intense rage. I never was violent toward other people, but I destroyed plenty of my own things and also would say horrible things to people. All very humiliating. 

18. Burning Bridges: When you say horrible things to people, they don’t want to be around you. As mentioned earlier, a lot of AS women have trouble keeping relationships up and this can be extended to not just keeping them up but ruining them. But Simone also talks about how AS women “start over” repeatedly. Cut off all ties with the old life and start afresh. I can also relate to this one—over and over while I was in college I would decide it was time for a change and I would move, change jobs, and either go back to college or drop out of it. 

19. Stomach Issues and Autism: Apparently some people think that autism in general is caused by stomach problems during early formative months. There are also several diets that are supposed to help with autism. I’m a skeptic. 

20. Getting Older on the Spectrum: Simone talks about how most AS women stay single so money can be a challenge. So can loneliness and health problems. But otherwise, most stop caring as much about what people think of their unusual behaviors. But also, in some ways, older women are allowed to be more eccentric. 

21. On Whether Asperger Syndrome is a Disability or a Gift and Advice from Aspergirls to Aspergirls: I didn’t read this one because Simone started off by saying she preferred the term “differently-abled” over “disabled,” which I can’t stand. This seems to me like a term that non-disabled people have come up with to try to make disabled people feel better about themselves. I find this insulting. I mean, you should own it. 

22. Give Your Aspergirl some BALLS: Belief, Acceptance, Love, Like, and Support: I didn’t read this one either. 

23. Thoughts and Advice from Parents of Aspergirls: Or this one. 

There are also a couple of appendices which listed the symptoms of female AS and then the main differences between male and female AS. These are good. 

* Yes, I know it’s not technically a diagnosis anymore, but I think it is a different enough thing from more challenging cases of autism spectrum disorder, so it’s a valuable distinction. And people have a sense for what you’re talking about, even if they don’t get it exactly right. 

Review: Dramarama by E. Lockhart

Dramarama book coverFirst, I have to say that Dramarama plays heavily with stereotypes—namely Gay Best Friend and Theatre Geek. However, it’s not a bad thing at all because Lockhart brings both to life so effectively.

Sarah is a big-time musical theatre fan in a small-time, boring Ohio town. When she meets Demi at an audition, she finds a kindred spirit and the two of them become inseparable. Demi, who is black and (closeted) gay, gives Sarah her stage name—Sadye. They are classic theatre kids—overdramatic, enthusiastic, and physical. When both of them manage to get into a summer program at an elite performing arts school, they’re ecstatic. And off they go.

This is where things get interesting, because they’re separated into different dorms and soon their friendship is going to be tested. Demi fits in immediately. He’s able to be comfortably out of the closet and he just explodes into the talented performer he is. Sadye struggles more. She’s sharing a room with three other girls, two of whom really intimidate her, while the other she views as desperate and uncool.

Sadye’s friendships with her roommates develop and she watches them succeed while she feels like she’s not doing as well as she should. They are all taking classes and preparing for two different shows, one of which is early in the summer and so comes pretty quickly. Sadye enjoys that even if she didn’t get the most important role. But everything starts to get complicated as the summer progresses.

Really, I couldn’t relate to either Sadye or Demi, as I couldn’t be more different, but that didn’t make them uninteresting characters. Sadye is wonderfully flawed. She’s not always likable, as she does some unpleasant things, but we can see where those actions come from and we empathize. She’s a very realistic teenager.

The ending of the novel surprised me a bit. It didn’t happily tie everything up. I mean, it tied everything up like it needed to, just not really happily. There was element to it that I felt was a little out of the blue and maybe not the best possible ending, but it didn’t make me not enjoy the novel. Also, Demi didn’t behave quite like I would have in the ending. Still, much of the book was fun because of the characters and setting rather than the plot itself.

One other little thing that was kind of fun for me is that all the kids admire Kristin Chenoweth. (Sadye is distinctly not Kristin-ish, being rather tall.) Kristin is from Oklahoma and graduated from Oklahoma City University, where I’m doing my MFA (it apparently has a great musical theater program), so that was a little cool.

If you’re a fan of Lockhart, you’ll want to read it, even though it’s different from her others (actually, all her books/series are different from each other). It would also be enjoyable both for kids who grew up a part of the theatre world and those of us who only observed wryly from afar.

Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

Girl Mans Up book coverGirl Mans Up is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. This is the first gender nonconforming girl I’ve really seen in a book (I’m sure there are others, but I haven’t encountered them) and I was really excited to read Pen’s story. It reminded me in some ways of what I’m trying to do with my own book Ugly, even though Pen is different in a lot of significant ways from my protagonist.

Penelope—Pen to everyone—Oliveira is one of the guys. Her best friends are Colby and Tristan and they’ve been friends for years. They’re all gamers and Pen’s the best among them. But there are some things that aren’t perfect—another boy named Garrett has been hanging out with them and he loves to push Pen’s buttons (and everyone else’s).

…that one over there who’s sort of a girl, I don’t know, I can’t tell anymore.

Colby and Tristan have always been fine with who Pen is, but Garrett is obsessed with the fact that she’s a girl who prefers the company of guys and doesn’t really look like a girl, except for her very long black hair, which she keeps pulled back in a pony tail all the time.

Pen explains Colby’s loyalty system to us early on. Guys have each other’s backs and all serve a role in a friendship. Pen’s primary role—other than being a gaming companion—is to get hot girls to talk to Colby. This was a little weird to me, because I didn’t see how he didn’t have enough confidence to just go up to them himself. But still, this is how he does it. He’d point to a girl he wanted and tell Pen to go work her magic. Said magic is effectively manipulating the girl into trusting her—and then Colby, so he could get what he wanted. It’s awkward and Pen doesn’t realize what she’s really doing because she has really bought into the whole guy system. Colby’s a real piece of work, although it takes her a while to see it.

Pen’s got a secondary issue to deal with, too. She comes from a very traditional Portuguese family that immigrated to Canada, where she’s grown up. She has a very supportive older brother and the two of them are considered black sheep by their own parents and the rest of the family, all because Pen is not a “good girl” (i.e., a girly girl) and her brother doesn’t want to work in the factory with all the other men—they don’t have the required respeito (respect) for their elders. I love the conflict that Pen’s family provides, especially her mom, who’s pretty horrible but totally believable. Everything Pen does to be herself is interpreted as an intentional insult to her mom and family.

When Colby tries to get Pen to go after a girl who Pen herself is interested in, things go weird and different. Pen’s arc is really to learn to folly of Colby’s guy code and the value of female friendship and it takes most of the book for that to work entirely out. Along the way, she comes to understand herself better and she also learns to stand up for herself in ways she doesn’t at the beginning. At the start of the story, she’s pretty passive, despite the fact that there is a lot for her to fight against (and for).

The book is well-plotted and all the major characters are deeply drawn. It’s told in first person present tense, which makes it feel really immediate and intense throughout. It’s great. There’s lots of very colloquial (but not overly slang-y) teen speak which felt real to me:

“Dude, I’ve known these guys longer than I’ve known you, so you can suck it”

There’s also lots of interesting stuff done with the fact that the older ones among Pen’s family are not native speakers of English. Girard includes “broken” English that feels very real (and I really think not mocking). Her mom says:

“I no yell. Listen. You cut you hair, you get people laugh.”

It works well. There’s also a lot of actual Portuguese in the book, as Pen and her family speak it, even if Pen isn’t as comfortable with it as English. This is handled very effectively to give the book a particular flavor without distracting the reader.

I haven’t given much of the book away because I think you should experience it the way I did, as an unknown entity. But you should go read it—it will open your eyes to an experience that is probably different from your own (and if not, it will be refreshingly familiar and real). It’s really an excellent book. No wonder it won an award and was a finalist for another.