Backlist Review || Wild by Hannah Moskowitz

Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog. To see more of my reading life, add me on Goodreads!

Wild follows high school graduate Zack, who’s training for a 100-mile marathon while caring for his 12-year-old sister and their mom as she deteriorates from her early-onset Alzheimers.

There are almost no white/straight/non-disabled characters in this book.

Zack, our main character, is a bisexual Filipino guy, and his girlfriend Jordan is a bisexual Jewish/Guatemalan Deaf girl. If that didn’t sell you, for some reason, Zack’s friend Chelsea is also Jewish, and Zack’s little sister Gin is a 12-year-old lesbian.

Something I really appreciated was how nobody questions anyone else’s sexuality—not even Gin, who’s super young, but just is gay. Nobody tells her that she can’t possibly know yet when she’s never had sex. Nobody tells Zack or Jordan that, since they’re now in a “straight” relationship, they’re no longer bisexual.

This book presents an honest representation of life after high school.

Zack and his two best friends are out of high school now, but none of them really follows the traditional path. Zack’s taking classes at community college so he can be around for his sick mom and little sister. His best friend Max is taking a gap year to “find himself”—and it’s not really going so well. Max’s girlfriend Chelsea is the only one attending a 4-year university, but she’s had to scrimp and save from her minimum-wage jobs just to afford to go.

All this was in the background, but I really appreciated the portrayal of the realities of being 18 or 19 and trying to figure your life out. Not everyone finishes high school and goes right on to a traditional college—and that’s okay.

Zack’s family situation is heartbreaking: his mom has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and he’s tasked with caring for her as well as his sister Gin. Although he could easily have become an unrealistic Hero Kid character, Zack really struggles with the situation he’s tasked with. He’s angry and bitter about having to care for his mom, who’s barely there at all and slowly digressing further as the book progresses. At one point, Zack goes on a rant at his mom about how unfair it is that he has to deal with her at all. He’s flawed—but it’s realistic. No 19-year-old should have to take care of his mom and sister, and Zack’s reactions are raw and true to life.

I really enjoyed the storyline that follows Zack as he trains for a 100-mile marathon in the wilderness of Tennessee mountains. In the beginning, it kind of seems like a quirky, unrealistic thing for him to do, but as we get to know him, it becomes clear that running is Zack’s way of trying to escape his circumstances. His now-absent father tried and failed to finish the marathon, so Zack’s hiding his running from his mom as well. It’s clearly his only time that he gets to be away from dealing with his home life. When he finally gets to the marathon, he starts to realize his own reasons for doing it, and ultimately he has to accept the ways he’s avoided responsibility in the past.

By far my favorite part of this book is the relationship between Zack and Jordan.

I loved that the book starts with an established romance: they’ve known each other for years and have a solid relationship, albeit one that depends on texting and chatting online. The romance plotline follows Zack as he learns that Jordan is Deaf, and as the two struggle to stay together despite the obstacles of distance (both physical and communication-wise).

There are several things to love about this. For one thing, this is a YA book that follows a relationship beyond the moment of them getting together, something that is so rare for some reason. It’s so enjoyable to see realistic struggles—because that’s how real relationships are.

On top of that, both characters are bisexual—which isn’t defined by the fact that they’re currently in a male-female relationship. Words cannot express how much I needed this story for that aspect alone. I’m bisexual and in a relationship with a guy, and my experiences are rarely accounted at all, much less still considered queer. I know I’m not the only one who needed this book.

The biggest obstacle for Zack and Jordan is one of communication. Zack takes it upon himself to learn ASL and it’s no easy task. Hearing readers get to learn about Deaf culture through Zack, from the way Deaf culture prizes blunt honesty, to the ways words and grammar change between English and ASL. I loved his little commentary about how translating his thoughts into ASL automatically makes the statements more up-front and honest—he can’t hide from Jordan when he’s talking with her.

I can’t speak for the accuracy of the Deaf rep, as I’m not Deaf, but anyone reading this book will notice that Hannah Moskowitz clearly put in the research for this story. Despite the fact that both characters recognize the near-impossibility of a Deaf/hearing relationship, they’re willing to make it work, which is such a positive thing to see. Zack and Jordan are there for each other in difficult times, even when they’re fighting. No matter how hard they have to work at being together, they know it’s worth it.

Wild was an easy 5-star for me because of the nuanced way it tackles multiple complex issues, to the way bisexuality is handled, to the Deaf representation. Despite the hard topics, it was ultimately an uplifting story about two people struggling to make their relationship work, no matter how much it takes. I highly recommend Wild to anyone who wants to see what a real loving relationship looks like beyond the initial stages.

Find this book:
Goodreads | Amazon

Have you read Wild or any other books by Hannah Moskowitz? What’s your favorite book with disability rep? Let me know in the comments! Until next time,

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Backlist Review || Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog. To see more of my reading life, add me on Goodreads!

Genre: YA Contemporary
Diverse Rep: Chinese-American + bisexual
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Noteworthy through NetGalley in exchange for a review. This did not in any way affect my joy in reading this book.

Jordan Sun is a junior on scholarship at the prestigious Kensington-Blaine Academy for the Performing Arts. She’s just been locked out of a role in the school musical for the third year running. Why? Because she’s an Alto 2, while most parts require a higher Soprano range. What’s a girl to do? Cross-dress and audition for the elite all-male a cappella group, the Sharpshooters, obviously! (And nail it.) Now, she’s living a double life, pretending to be a boy while watching her girl self fade into the background. But how long can she keep it up? You’ll have to read to find out.

It’s going to be really hard for me to write a review of Noteworthy that isn’t completely gushing because I absolutely loved this book. Jordan’s slightly sarcastic, highly observant, constantly questioning voice sucked me in from the very first chapter. Her internal monologue sounds exactly the way I felt as a teenager. I was really intrigued by the idea of a modernized cross-dressing plot that addresses gender as a social construct.

As she tries on a masculine identity, though, Jordan struggles with feelings of guilt: she wonders if she’s being disrespectful toward the trans community by using their advice to put on what’s essentially a costume for her.* Riley Redgate doesn’t shy away from these conversations, but shows how Jordan’s desperate transformation isn’t that far off from what any of us would do to get what we want. Isn’t high school all about trying on different identities and personalities, performing the part you think will help you fit in?

It’s made even more interesting by the detailed way Redgate constructs the Kensington-Blaine boarding school environment. Jordan is surrounded by rich kids constantly so she finds it hard to relate to them. She hasn’t made a lot of friends, since she spent the last two years isolated in her relationship with her ex—even more reason that she longs to belong with the guys in the Sharpshooters.

Part of why this book is so amazing to me is the grace with which Redgate tells a story that’s all about (say it with me!) intersectionality. Jordan is Chinese-American and from a working-class family; her dad is a paraplegic who recently got totally screwed by the health care and disability benefits system. She’s also figuring out her sexuality: she thinks she’s bisexual, but she’s never had the opportunity to figure it out, as she was involved in a long-term heterosexual relationship through the end of the last school year. Even the side characters are diverse, from her childhood friend Jenna to her new friend Nihal.

There’s a lot going on with this book, but Redgate manages to make all the pieces fit together and feel natural. The various side characters are fleshed-out with their own personalities and quirks. Even Jordan is surprised at how complex each of the Sharpshooters are in real life, and she realizes just how quick she is to judge rich kids by their clothes and status objects rather than who they are inside. This isn’t a political book, though, but a reflection of the complex diversity of humanity—it’s beautiful.

*For a more in-depth discussion of the cross-dressing conversations in this book, I highly recommend you check out Shenwei’s review.

I don’t have anything negative to say about Noteworthy, but I do have a few caveats for any potential readers:

This is not a bisexual “coming out” story. While Jordan does identify as bisexual, this is not the crux of her story. As someone who discovered my own bisexuality at the ripe old age of 22, I really appreciated the nuanced way Redgate handled this. So many stories with bisexual protagonists fall into the trap of “proving it.” As a girl who’s only ever had heterosexual relationships, it’s easy for people to say “well how can you really know if you’ve never been with a girl?” and while Redgate addresses this, she doesn’t spend half the book making a big deal out of Jordan needing to have a relationship with a girl to “prove” her bisexuality. It’s how Jordan identifies, and that’s enough. Even better? None of the other characters make Jordan feel bad about this. This is like some sort of bi paradise, let me tell you.

This is not a really romance-heavy story either. Jordan is dealing with a lot of stuff—namely, pretending to be a dude—so she’s not really wandering around having feelings all over the place. When she does have feelings, she works really hard to push those down. A lot of the early backstory deals with her ex-boyfriend, Michael, and the other romance takes a while to build.

The plot is music-heavy. As a former music nerd (and long-time fan of Glee—there, I said it), Noteworthy really struck a chord with me (teehee). The musical camaraderie is real and tangible and heartwarming, but if that’s not your thing, this might not be the book for you.

Ultimately, Noteworthy is about the age-old quest to find where you belong. Sometimes that place does fit into neat categories of boy-girl or gay-straight. Sometimes in order to find where you belong, you have to take big risks and let yourself transform. In the end, for Jordan, it’s worth it—and so is reading her story.

find this book
Goodreads | AbeBooks | Book Depository

Have you read Noteworthy? Do you have a favorite book set at a boarding school? Let me know in the comments! Until next time,

Review || We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog. To see more of my reading life, add me on Goodreads!

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: #OwnVoices queer rep

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

28243032You go through life thinking there’s so much you need…

Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

We Are Okay is the kind of short novel that you could read in a matter of hours, but it sticks with you long after you’ve put it down. The story follows college freshman Marin, alone in her dorm room over winter break, as her best friend Mabel arrives from California, forcing Marin to confront her grief over losing her grandfather.

Nina LaCour’s poignant writing about grief is amazing.

This is my second read from Nina LaCour and I was not disappointed. She has a real gift for using simple language with beautiful descriptions. Every single word matters, and each one works together to create emotions in the reader. For a short book (it’s about 230 pages), I never once felt that things were rushed or not dealt with adequately.

Although the main storyline takes place over the course of three days, it’s mostly about Marin’s grieving process. Right before moving to New York for college, Marin’s grandfather drowned. Since then, she’s worked very hard at essentially not confronting her feelings, for reasons that become clear as you read the story.

This isn’t a plot-driven book whatsoever. Instead, it’s emotionally driven by Marin’s thoughts, memories, and grieving process.

The alternating past/present storyline develops Marin’s character both before and after losing Gramps.

If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for this narrative style. While Mabel struggles to get Marin to talk about her feelings in the present tense section, the past narrative follows Marin as she graduates high school and enters her final summer at home in San Francisco. In these sections, we get glimpses of her relationship with Gramps: mostly, the two keep to themselves, valuing each other’s privacy over sharing intimate details.

Marin never knew her mom, either, as Claire died of a surfing injury when Marin was too little to form memories. In the present, Marin struggles to grieve her grandfather, despite feeling a wide variety of feelings about their life together.

This isn’t a story about queerness.

While I read this book for the lesbian rep, We Are Okay isn’t really about being queer. Marin likes girls. She and Mabel were romantically involved over the summer—but the story isn’t about their relationship or Marin coming out.

I actually really enjoyed this aspect. Neither of the girls uses labels for their sexuality, either because labels aren’t important to them, or because it never comes up. While you can pretty easily read Marin as lesbian, Mabel is now dating a guy. As much as I would’ve loved to have the words “lesbian” and “bisexual” used, I did appreciate that Mabel’s decision to date a guy after dating a girl isn’t questioned or subjected to any sort of biphobia.

Ultimately, this is a book about grief, and about family—whether it’s your biological family, or the ones who bring you into their fold when you need it most.

overall: We Are Okay is definitely one of my top reads of 2017.

I could’ve read this book in one sitting, but I really tried to savor every word. It’s definitely one I’ll read again at some point. The deceptively simple language combined with the raw, honest portrayal of grief, made for a heart-wrenching experience. For anyone who’s lost someone close to them—or even someone experiencing serious depression—I think this book will help you feel less alone.

—find this book—

Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

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Have you read any books by Nina LaCour, and do you love her as much as I do? What is your favorite understated, underhyped YA book? Let me know in the comments!

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Review | The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember

Genre: YA Fantasy | Diversity: bi rep | My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“I was through living a life driven by others.”

34181737The Seafarer’s Kiss follows 19-year-old Ersel, a blue-haired mermaid who wants more for her life than society’s prescribed role of baring children. She risks everything to rescue and aid Ragna, a human woman who’s survived the destruction of her village. Ersel must decide what she’s willing to give up in order to gain the freedom she desires.

This f/f Little Mermaid retelling has been on my TBR for ages, which is why I picked it for the first selection of the Gay Book Club I’m starting with two of my coworkers. I was pleasantly surprised that this reads more like Ursula’s story than Ariel’s, but I’m not mad about it. It’s clear that Julia Ember did her research when it comes to the mythology behind her story; reading this inspired me to look into this more.

Ersel’s voice is incredibly believable as a young rebellious mermaid. For anyone who’s ever disagreed with authority, her feelings are incredibly relatable. In the beginning, Ersel wants nothing more than to escape her home and explore the world—which is pretty much exactly how I felt at 19.

This is mostly a story about Ersel’s personal growth, from a selfish young person who will sacrifice anything to get what she wants, to someone who fights for her community and the people she cares about. In the beginning, when she first meets Ragna, Ersel really admires the human girl who’s fought her way through everything just to survive. While she dreams of escaping, Ersel doesn’t really have any experiences aside from exploring ruined human ships with her best friend Havamal. As the story progresses, though, Ersel has to step it up and take responsibility for her actions—even when it means admitting that she’s seriously screwed up. For that reason alone, I really appreciated this story.

However, I wasn’t as sold on the romance aspect of the story. I picked up this book for the f/f romance, but I wasn’t really convinced by Ersel and Ragna’s romance. They spend very little time really getting to know each other, and then they’re separated for a good portion of the book. When they’re reunited, it’s as if no time has passed. I really wanted to read more of Ersel’s feelings, what drew her to Ragna and what made her believe in their love. As it stands, it all happened really quickly and I don’t feel like I got to know Ragna all that well.

The characters are portrayed as being complex people who make mistakes and then learn from them. Although Ersel resents Havamal at the beginning of the story, and he makes a huge mistake that costs Ersel her place in her community, he eventually comes to see the error of his ways. Similarly, Ersel hated the “mean girl” character, only to discover that she, too, has a complexity of emotions and desires. With the possible exception of the king, the true villain of the story, everyone is blurring lines in one way or another.

Another great thing about this book is the normalization of bisexuality among mermaids. In fact, the king encourages mermaids to make love to each other in order to make them more receptive to touch and therefore (hopefully) more fertile. It’s more of a big deal that Ersel’s with a human than that she’s with a girl. On top of that, Ersel talks about being fat in a way that comes across as completely natural and beautiful, which is really nice to see in a book for teens.

When it comes to Loki, the god of lies, my impression is more complicated. Loki uses they/them pronouns, which was really refreshing to see. Again, this is viewed as just the way it is, rather than an abnormality. I found Loki’s character really interesting, too. Despite the fact that they compel Ersel to do questionable things to get what she wants, I don’t really buy that Loki is the villain of the story. Depending on how you read Loki, though, it’s problematic that the genderfluid character comes across as villainous with questionable morals. Since I’m cisgender, though, I defer to other reviewers on this subject, and would urge caution for non-binary readers.

Overall, do I recommend?

This was such a fun book to read that really kept me guessing. I appreciated the complexity of the characters and the way everyone in this story seems to blur the lines in one way or another, from Ersel’s bisexuality to Loki’s mischief that ultimately helps Ersel grow as a person. I’d definitely recommend this to someone who wants a book with queer characters where their gender/sexuality doesn’t define them and is taken for granted.

find this book

Goodreads | B&N | Book Depository

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Have you read this book or its sequel? What did you think? What are your favorite retellings of fairytales or mythology? Let me know in the comments!

Review | The Gentrification of the American Mind

The Gentrification of the American Mind: Witness to a Lost Generation

Author: Sarah Schulman (2012) | Genre: Queer Memoir | My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Goodreads Synopsis:

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In this gripping memoir of the AIDS years (1981–1996), Sarah Schulman recalls how much of the rebellious queer culture, cheap rents, and a vibrant downtown arts movement vanished almost overnight to be replaced by gay conservative spokespeople and mainstream consumerism. Schulman takes us back to her Lower East Side and brings it to life, filling these pages with vivid memories of her avant-garde queer friends and dramatically recreating the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a political insider. Interweaving personal reminiscence with cogent analysis, Schulman details her experience as a witness to the loss of a generation’s imagination and the consequences of that loss.

My Thoughts

Part memoir, part socio-cultural analysis, The Gentrification of the American Mind is a thought-provoking book that’s a worthy read for anyone who cares about queer issues. Schulman compares the gentrification of New York City from the 1970s-90s with the erasure of queer history of the AIDS crisis. Rather than sticking to a strict academic need to prove her arguments, however, Schulman takes the reader on a meandering journey of her experiences at the time, as well as the conclusions she draws from it.

Gentrification, as Schulman defines it, is the concrete replacement process that homogenizes at the expense of the existing culture. She talks a lot about a spiritual gentrification, where people without representation are alienated from the process of social change. In this way, she explores the diminished consciousness, particularly of young queer people, when it comes to how political and artistic change happens. 

Despite being such a short book, at only 180 pages, there’s a lot to unpack. Schulman connects the loss of political activism of the AIDS years with the ways that gay culture itself has become gentrified. Rather than seeing a queer identity as inherently political, she argues that many young queer people fight to assimilate into heterosexual cultural norms. In fact, she’s quite critical of the fight for gay marriage and adoption rights, since she argues that’s not what being queer is all about. While I don’t necessarily fully agree with her, she brings up important points that I feel like nobody really talks about anymore.

The most powerful chapter, for me, talks about the erasure of gay literature—especially lesbian literature. While I’ve made a point to seek out queer writing in recent years, the fact remains that it’s something one must seek out. There are no out lesbian writers on the bestseller list in this country. Queer writers often publish through smaller presses or must resort to self-publishing; it’s incredibly hard for a queer writer to actually support themselves financially through their writing. As Schulman states, “our literature is disappearing at the same time that we are being told we are winning our rights. How can we be equal citizens if our stories are not allowed to be part of our nation’s story?”

Every young queer person needs to read this book.

Even if I disagree with certain aspects of Schulman’s argument, this book promotes a way of thinking that’s disturbingly absent in visible gay culture today. We need to understand our history if we’re ever going to move forward in a more radical way. The personal is inherently political—if we can remember it.