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.