Catch-Up Round: There There and Running with Sherman

There There by Tommy Orange

Genre: contemporary literature/ Indigenous

I read it as a(n): paperback

Length: 294 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This novel highlights the lives of 12 people and how they intersect at the Big Oakland Powwow. There are people whose lives have been ruined by alcohol, drugs, the murder or suicide of loved ones, and somehow they still manage to keep going. There is an underlying discussion about generational trauma, especially among the Native tribes. There is also vast systemic racism, which impacts people in so many ways, sometimes in ways no one even is aware of. 

This was a short but powerful book. It was a fast read as well, but not an easy one. It is hard to read about the suffering of others and to know how very privileged you are by comparison. 

I always love reading about a culture I’m not that familiar with. Even though I live in the Southwest and there are several different Native American tribes in the area, I don’t know anyone personally who is Native. My exposure to actual Native culture is mostly confined to the occasional powwow I go to and reading books written by Native authors. 

Definitely recommended!

Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall

Genre: nonfiction

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Length: 12:13:03

Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Christopher McDougall and his wife, Mika, are tired of living in Philly so they buy a place in Amish country and basically now have a hobby farm. One of the neighbors tells McDougall that one of the members of his church needs help and that he’s an animal hoarder. McDougall goes with his friend to the hoarder’s farm and they rescue a little donkey who was severely ill, standing on horrifically overgrown hooves in filthy straw in a tiny stall. McDougall and his friends and family rally to take care of the donkey, who they name Sherman, and eventually he gets better. Then McDougall learns about donkey racing. 

This was not exactly what I thought it would be. I heard about it in an article I read somewhere recently and I thought it was about the Born to Run guy teaching the donkey how to go running with him, like you take your dog running with you. I had visions of a fuzzy donkey trotting alongside McDougall on the road and it is something I would desperately love to see. But no. Apparently there is a whole community of donkey racers who, from what it sounds like, allow their donkeys to drag them up hills and mountains in some kind of hard core trail running crossed with Mountain Man stuff. Much like running a marathon, it doesn’t sound at all fun. 

I thought this book was only OK, partly because I misunderstood the premise of running with Sherman and partly because it kind of dragged in a lot of places. There wasn’t as much about Sherman as I would have liked; instead, there was a lot about the people involved, the training involved, the stories of the people involved, and I just didn’t care that much about them. I stuck through to the end because I did want to see how Sherman did in his big donkey race in Colorado, and parts of it were funny, but overall I thought it was just mediocre.

Mona at Sea

mona at seaMona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James (Website)

Genre: contemporary fiction

Setting: Tucson, AZ

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Aida Reluzco

Source: public library

Length: 08:02:00

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Mona Mireles is a 23-year-old recent grad. She has her degree in finance from U of A in hand and a posh job lined up in NYC. Then the recession hit and Mona, like millions of other people, found herself jobless and living back at home with her parents. Cue the angst and entitlement.

I don’t like to be hard on authors, especially debut authors. It is scary to put a large piece of yourself out there for all and sundry to read. It takes a lot of bravery. But this book… there was not one character I cared about, most of them I outright disliked, and it kind of highlights many of the reasons why so many people don’t care much for Millennials. 

Mona is a whiny little bitch for all of this book. She seems to think she deserves to get her dream job right out of college, with zero actual working experience in her field. She whines that she HAD a job lined up but it evaporated when the recession hit. So instead of her fancy job as a hedge fund whatever, she winds up with a minimum wage job at a call center trying to talk people into giving a donation to some charity or other, which she thinks she is too good for. Guess what, peaches? Same thing happened to millions of people, most of whom probably had a lot more usable experience than you. I hate to be insensitive, or sound like a Republican, but you’re not special and the world owes you fuck-all. 

To deal with her angst, Mona likes to do self-harm. She cuts her thighs, where it is easy to hide. But since art is her True Calling, not finance that she just spent 4 years in college working towards (and honestly, how did she go from art to finance? There was very little discussion on that, so it felt like a Plot Twist for the Sake of a Plot Twist), she doesn’t just cut. She is carving a Mona Lisa face into her leg. So, ok. I have no experience with cutting and to my knowledge, none of my friends ever did either. But I have read other books dealing with self-harm by authors who are open about their own self-harm experience. This read more like it was written by someone with a weird vicarious interest in cutting rather than by someone who actually knows what she’s talking about. If I’m wrong, then I am sorry; I do not mean to belittle her trauma. But I just don’t buy it as written. She made it sound cute. If the author has a history of self-harm and this is how she refers to it in her own head, ok. But if not, then it seems really patronizing to those people who do have issues with self-harm and it feels like it minimizes their pain and experience.

All of the characters were shallow and uninteresting in general. I didn’t really find any of them that believable. Maybe I just didn’t care about the plot and that translated into not caring about the characters. I don’t know. Either way, this one wasn’t my cup of tea.

Sadie

SadieSadie by Courtney Summer (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: YA/ contemporary fiction

Setting: Cold Creek, CO/ various other shithole small towns 

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 336 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sadie is the story of Sadie Hunter, a young woman who goes missing and is presumed to have run away. However, when it is clear that she has run off after her little sister was horrifically murdered, radio personality West McCray takes an investigative journalism approach into the situation with the intent to make a podcast similar to Serial. He learns that Sadie took off with the intent of finding her sister’s murderer.

This was a fast read and I really enjoyed the format. The chapters switched back and forth between Sadie’s POV and the podcast transcript. I think it kept the story from getting too terribly overwhelmed with the unrelenting hopelessness all the characters carry with them. I’m so incredibly privileged that I don’t have to live in a shithole town with crushing poverty, a rampant drug and alcohol problem, and where the best jobs are working at a gas station. How do people not want to get out of that? It has to be a totally foreign mindset because I think I would do anything to get out. Get a job at Starbucks or Walmart, places that will help you attend college. The lack of interest even to try is beyond me. 

Anyway, Sadie’s story is tragic and heartbreaking and I wouldn’t wish her life on anyone. I usually love a good, ambiguous ending but in this case, I did want to know more. The book left me feeling unsatisfied with the end, as though the novel was incomplete or that the author just got tired of writing and ended it. Even adding in a small clue of some kind could have made it more properly ambiguous. But on balance, I liked this book and think it’s something a lot of young folks would benefit from reading. It’s a great example of how fiction helps to build empathy.

Catch-up Lightning Round: The Language of Hoofbeats, Hellworld, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods

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The Language of Hoofbeats by Catherine Ryan Hyde (Website | Twitter)

Genre: contemporary fiction

Setting: Easley, CA (fictional podunk town)

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Kate Rudd and Laural Merlington

Source: my own collection 

Length: 10:27:00

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I liked it more than the typical 3-star book but not as much as a 4-star. So, 3.5 stars! I’m so smrt. 🤪 A lesbian couple, Jackie and Paula, moved to a small town with their adopted son and two foster children. Across the road from their new digs lives Clementine, the town shrew. She hates everything and everyone and blames it on her daughter’s suicide which, frankly, I think is totally valid. I would hate everything and everyone, too. But she apparently was always like that and she ends up driving her husband away and her treatment of Comet, her daughter’s horse, causes Star, Jackie and Paula’s troubled foster girl, to run away with him. Various dramas ensue and in the end, Clementine decides to be nice, just like that, and everything turns out bright and shiny.

For a piece of fluff, this was good. I liked the kids and their histories and I think it was nice that they weren’t written as all escapees from Hell or a mental asylum, nor that they automatically fit right in and adapted to being a foster kid. I thought Jackie and Paula were well developed enough that they were different on the page, but overall they were fairly one-dimensional. Clementine had development, but I didn’t find it all that believable. Still, she was the most richly-depicted adult in the book, a character you love to hate. I would read more by this author, though I’d probably get it from the library rather than spend my own money on it.

Hellworld by Tom Leveen (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: horror

Setting: mostly Tucson, AZ

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 297 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This was a fast read. I like to support local authors and I bought this one and another of Leveen’s books at a local book festival a couple years ago. So that was fun. He is a delightful human being from what I could tell. And I did enjoy this one, but I generally have a very hard time with most horror. Not because I get spooked – I don’t. It’s because I can’t suspend my disbelief. It’s why I don’t like werewolf or zombie or even sexy vampire stories all that much. They simply aren’t believable to me. Why I have a hard time suspending disbelief for horror and not for the billions of SFF books I’ve read over the years, I have no fucking clue. 

That said, I really liked the vast majority of this book. It was told in a sort of back and forth timeline, the same characters living in the moment for one chapter and then the next chapter being set X number of days, weeks, or months ago. I thought the characters were nicely developed for a genre novel. That’s not shade – genre novels don’t focus as much on character development, but these characters all felt like they had a history and experiences that made them people, not just templates of people like you find in a lot of genre novels. The crux of the plot is that four teens lost their parents a number of years ago while filming a show that sounds similar to Ghost Hunters. They were exploring a cave in the Arizona desert and never came out. The kids go gallivanting off to find them, but whoops! Instead they accidentally open an ancient ark of some kind that lets out gigantic monster bug things that can shoot lasers and fireballs and they start annihilating nuclear power plants, hospitals, schools, and news organizations. You know. Kind of like the Republicans want to do.

I’m not entirely sure the whole story isn’t actually an analogy about the GOP, in fact…

The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods by NK Jemisin (Website | Twitter)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: The city of Shadow, in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Cassaundra Freeman

Source: my own collection

Length: 11:25:00 / 16:58:00

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

(The Broken Kingdoms) A blind artist called Oree takes in a homeless man who glows. She can see some things like magic and the homeless man, who Oree names Shiny since he won’t tell her his name, throws magic all over. Also, someone is murdering godlings and now Oree is smack in the middle of it thanks to her act of kindness. Shiny happens to be Itempas, so you know things are going to get weird.

(The Kingdom of Gods) The gods of the Arameri are finally free and now they’re pissed, but they’re also all that is keeping the world from descending into unending war and annihilation. Good times. This one is told from the perspective of the godling Sieh, who has been changed into a mortal and is aging in leaps over time.

As always, crazy rich world-building and awesome characters in both of these books. I will want to read them again one day, only with my eyeballs, because the narrator was what kept these from being 4 star books. Her voice was too calm and unchanging and I found myself bored of listening to her. Once, someone ripped a heart out of someone else’s chest with their bare hands – and I missed that at first because there was just no emotion or anything to indicate exciting action in her voice. 

I really love Jemisin’s writing. It’s so complex and descriptive. She takes familiar fantasy tropes and turns them on their head. Some people might think that is heretical but I think it’s brilliant and it makes for a wholly new reading experience. One should never assume she will let the good guys win or allow a happily ever after in her books. I really, really appreciate that. She has said that she set out to subvert the genre and she has been successful in doing so.

My Sister’s Keeper

my sister's keeperMy Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: Providence, RI

I read it as a(n): MMP

Source: my own collection 

Length: 500 pp

Published by: Pocket Books (2004)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

**Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and smack a great big SPOILER ALERT on this whole review. Read at your own risk, you’ve been warned**

Thirteen-year-old Anna Fitzgerald loves her sister, Kate, who has a rare form of leukemia. But that doesn’t mean she is willing to donate a kidney to her on top of everything else she’s already had done to her. Anna was born via in vitro specifically so that she could be a donor for Kate. To be fair, her parents only wanted to use her cord blood to help Kate and everyone thought that would be the end of it. Turns out, it was only the beginning of years of blood, bone marrow, and other body part donations to Kate. Now Anna is suing her parents for medical emancipation, for her right to control her own body, even if it means Kate dies as a result.

Somehow I have missed the Jodi Picoult fandom; this is the first book of hers I’ve ever read. I can see why she is so popular! I sat my ass down and read this entire 500 page book in one day. I found her writing to be engaging and the story compelling. I look forward to reading more of her books in the future. 

The appeal of this one was how easily I could see and sympathize with all sides of the situation. There is so much to talk about regarding medical and scientific ethics. I don’t think anyone know what they would do in certain circumstances until they found themselves in it. I’m not sure I would have a whole other baby on the off chance their cord blood was curative. But then I also don’t have a child with a rare, treatment-resistant form of leukemia, either. Maybe I would have had baby after baby until one was a match, or gone the route the Fitzgeralds took and basically had a designer baby who would be a perfect match. I just don’t know. And neither do you, unless you’ve already lived it. 

I am not sure what I would feel about discovering that the cord blood only worked for a while and now the leukemia is no longer in remission, thus needing to turn to the younger child again for more blood and platelets. Or for that to be the constant situation. Or to have both children in the hospital because one has leukemia and the other is recovering from whatever else was done to her to donate blood, marrow, and other body fluids to the other. 

I really don’t know what I would do if my child was guaranteed to die without a new kidney, but might not make it off the table even if she did get her sister’s organ. I don’t know how to weigh the almost-certain death of one child against the life-long risks associated with losing one kidney for the other child, not to mention that the kidney donation itself is a major surgery with many weeks of recovery time required. 

And poor Jesse! Who is Jesse? He’s Anna and Kate’s brother. Yeah, his parents and usually his sisters forget about him all the time, too. I’d act out if I were in his shoes. I don’t need to have lived the same experiences to know at least that much. 

The parents of these kids were given the short straw for sure. But so did their children. This isn’t Never Let Me Go or The Unit. We don’t breed or keep people for the sole purpose of giving other people their organs. I know they only thought they would need Anna’s cord blood. But it still feels morally wrong to me to have a baby even for that one-time donation. I think if I were that kid, I would probably feel very used and mostly unwanted, that I was only here because of that and otherwise, they didn’t want me in the first place. 

I liked the lawyer, Campbell Alexander, for taking on Anna’s case for free, partly because of his own lack of control over his body and partly because Anna refused to take no for an answer. He did his job and won her case and then had to use his new Power of Attorney over Anna in the most heartbreaking way. This ending, BTW, was entirely different in the film version of this book, which I watched after I finished reading it. The movie ending sucked. The book’s end was so much more poignant. I can’t fathom why on earth the screenwriters would change it.

In the end, I loved this book for its multitude of ways it got me thinking. The fact that it was written in such an engaging and easy manner, with characters who I cared about, made it that much better. I am looking forward to reading more books by Picoult. That’s one good thing about coming to the party so very late – now I have a plethora of her books to choose from!

Dark Matter

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: several different variations of Chicago

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 342 pp

Published by: Crown (26 July 2016)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jason Dessen is a physics professor at a small college in Chicago. Years ago, he’d had a promising future as one of the brightest young scientists in the world. He gave it up, though, in favor of living a quiet life and making a family with his wife. Then, he gets abducted and ends up in an alternate Chicago, looking at an alternate life. Now he has to figure out how to get back to his actual life in his own reality – or decide if he even wants to. 

This was a fast-paced, fun read full of “what ifs” and hypotheticals. It makes you think about the choices you make in your life and ponder the consequences of having chosen one way over another. What happens if you, as Jean-Luc Picard once did, start pulling at the threads that make up the tapestry of your life? 

akata warrios

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 477 pp

Published by: speak (3 Oct 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny Nwazue is a Leopard Person, AKA Nigerian witch. In the aftermath of defeating the evil masquerade Ekwensu, Sunny is spending her time studying with her mentor and learning how to read her magic Nsibidi book. She soon learns of an existential threat to humanity, centered in the town of Osisi, which exists both in reality and in the invisible spirit world. Sunny goes on a quest to save mankind, aided by her friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and her spirit face, Anyanwu.

Okorafor’s characters are ALL delightful and well developed. I fucking love Sunny and her friends, and am fascinated by the intersection of history, myth, and folklore that these books portray. The adventures and challenges Sunny faces are crazy fun to read and show kids overcoming obstacles, learning to be independent, becoming supportive friends, and strong leaders. Love it! Rumor has it that there’s a third book in the works for this series; I really hope that is true and that it will come out sooner rather than later. 

Eleanor Oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 327 pp

Published by: Pamela Dorman Books (9 May 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Eleanor Oliphant is a woman struggling with other humans. She appears to be on the spectrum, is highly structured, dislikes being touched, and generally prefers her own company. Sometimes I wonder if I, too, am on the spectrum. I identified with Eleanor in some very uncomfortable ways. Anyway, a wrench is thrown into her routine when she meets Raymond, an IT guy at her work who insists on befriending her. They share a further connection when they both assist an elderly man who faints on the sidewalk. That connection impacts them both in ways no one could have predicted. I don’t mean romance. That’s boring and predictable in most books. This isn’t that.

I loved this book. One of my top reads of 2021 so far. Eleanor has a terribly sad history, which readers piece together slowly with tidbits of information parsed out over the course of the book. Raymond is a proper good guy you can’t help but like. The novel is about the various ways we can destroy ourselves but then usually we get by with a little help from our friends. 

Girls in the Garden

Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell (Twitter, Insta)

Genre: mystery, I guess

Setting: London

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 313 pp

Published by: Atria (2 July 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

This was a solid meh for me. I enjoyed it well enough to finish it, the writing was fast paced and held my attention. But it maybe wasn’t a mystery? Especially since the answer is literally in the title? I figured this out like in chapter two; I think it would not come as a surprise to anyone who has been or lived with teenage girls at any point. Teen girls can be real assholes. 

That said, I didn’t hate this book at all. Just wasn’t surprised. I do plan to read other books by this author. Maybe if there are ones that aren’t centered on teenage girls, those will not be as easy to solve. Plus, if they’re all set in Britain, I’m down for that. I’ll read just about anything set in Britain.

Love After Love

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud (Twitter)

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: Trinidad and NYC

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: public library 

Length: 327 pp

Published by: One World (4 Aug 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Betty Ramdin is a young widow raising her son, Solo, on her own. Like, solo. In need of a little extra income or help, she takes on a boarder, Mr. Chetan. The three of them become their own unique little family until one day, Solo overhears his mother telling Mr. Chetan her darkest secret. Solo, like the little shit he is*, takes off to NYC to live with his paternal uncle as an undocumented immigrant. Mr. Chetan becomes the glue that tenuously holds the family together, until his own secret comes to light.

I read this for my book club, which is good because on my own, there is no fucking way I would have even looked at a book titled Love After Love. It sounds like a romance. I do not do romances. I’m glad I read it because it is on my top books of 2021 now. All the characters were richly developed, even if they were little shits. It was also interesting – and sad, sometimes – to see a glimpse of life in the Caribbean. Would definitely read more by this author!

*Solo isn’t a shit because he is undocumented. I am in favor of granting amnesty and Social Security numbers to everyone who wants to be here who doesn’t otherwise break the law. Solo is a shit because he is a spoiled, myopic asshole who could use a good ass-kicking.

When We Were Vikings

When We Were VikingsWhen We Were Vikings by Andrew David Macdonald (Website)

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: unspecified town/city in the US

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 326 pp

Published by: Scout Press (28 Jan 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

When We Were Vikings is the story of Zelda, a young woman on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum. She lives with her older brother, Gert, but attends classes and group activities at the local community center. She is a Viking enthusiast and views most things in life through the lens of Viking culture, literature, and their honor code. She discovers that her brother is dealing drugs and dropped out of college and so she decides she needs to help contribute to the family’s treasure hoard to help Gert make ends meet. Throughout all her experiences, Zelda encounters people ranging from the very best to some of the worst imaginable. She uses the things she has learned about Vikings and one’s own tribe to help her navigate the challenges life throws at her with courage and honor.

This was a super fast read and an engaging one, although I felt there were hardly any likeable characters. Zelda was certainly likeable but Gert was pretty much a loser even though he honestly was trying. He’s one of those people who can fuck up a free lunch. Gert’s friends were the worst in just about every way possible. Anna, Gert’s on-again/off-again girlfriend who Zelda calls AK47, is a good person and tries to look after Zelda, but she seems conflicted about what is best for HER and it was frustrating to see. So in general, I didn’t care for the characters here except for Zelda, who I genuinely enjoyed. 

There was a lot of good discussion around word use throughout the book. The word “retarded” was used a lot, negatively by Gert’s loser friends and some others we encountered. Zelda, though, would sometimes use it about herself as a way to take back the power from people who would use it to hurt her feelings. She said that owning it and using it herself makes it less powerful when someone else tries to use it against her. I can see that argument, but it still sucks that she even has to. 

There was also a big plot point centered around sexuality and cognitive disability. Zelda is on the FAS spectrum but is very independent, is able to hold down a job, and have her own apartment. However, her friend Marxy, who is initially her boyfriend, has Down syndrome and is far less able than Zelda. It is not likely he will ever have the ability to live on his own, for example. His mother and AK47 agree to work out a time and place where Zelda and Marxy can have sex because they are adults and want to give it a try. I know people with cognitive disabilities can and do have perfectly healthy sex lives, but I confess that part of the story was a little uncomfortable for me. It seems like some kind of abuse, even though intellectually I know that isn’t necessarily the case. This article on cognitive disability and sexuality helped me have a better understanding. 

On balance, I enjoyed this book because it gave me a lot of things to think about. I think it would make a terrific read for a book club. I didn’t like a lot of the actual plot or characters but the parts I did like were sufficient to outweigh any real dislike I had of other elements. 

Favorite lines:

  • In my dreams sometimes I think that Mom died and became a Valkyrie, that one day, when I am in a battle, she will take me with her to Valhalla (14). 
  • My favorite Viking saga is a legendary one called the Hrølfs saga Gautrekssonar, since it has a powerful king who is also a woman, named Đornbjörg. She kicks many asses and is so strong in battle that people don’t care that she is a woman (40).
  • The box wasn’t very big. That didn’t mean it wasn’t a powerful gift, since small things can be strong… (48).
  • I practiced each of [the sword fighting moves] in the basketball court outside of the apartment until it got dark, pretending that Grendel, who is the most monstrous villain in the Viking story Beowulf, was in front of me. One of the things I’ve learned is that Grendels can hide inside people, pretending to be human beings until they decide to attack (61). 
  • The library is a very heroic place to work because librarians help people get stronger brains. They also help people who are homeless by giving them food in cans that other people put into the cardboard box by the door. … I knew that [Carol] had to be a fuck-dick in the interview because you have to prove yourself worthy of being a librarian. You cannot just be a librarian without overcoming obstacles (151-152).

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

23866536Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: contemporary/YA

Setting: Atlanta, GA

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Michael Crouch

Source: my own Audible collection

Length: 6:45:00

Published by: Harper Audio (7 April 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Simon Spier is a gay high school junior who isn’t out yet. He has been having an online flirtation for the past several months with another boy he knows only as Blue. Simon is usually really careful with when and where he emails Blue, but one day he got careless, accessed his email from a school computer, and before he knows it, Martin, one of his classmates, has screenshots of his emails. Martin says he won’t share the emails with the whole school IF Simon helps him get a date with Simon’s friend, Abby. Blackmailing – what can go wrong?

This was an absolutely delightful novel. I admit I don’t read a lot of LGBTQ+ literature – not because I have a problem with it at all. I don’t. It just isn’t on my radar as much, which I think is ok since I’m not really its intended audience. That said, I am actively trying to add more LGBTQ+ books into my literary diet. I also very rarely read anything remotely resembling romance, and when I do, it’s either an accident that I somehow missed in the summary that a book is a romance, or it’s for a reading challenge. But this book got so much hype that when it was the Audible daily deal, I decided to get it. It only took me like 2 years to actually get around to listening to it.

Simon reminded me of a couple guys I went to high school with. He’s friendly and witty and in the theatre club. He’s not the most popular guy in school but is far from the least popular. His best friend Nick is on the soccer team. His other best friend Leah is a kick-ass drummer. They’re the typical teenagers – generally excitable, think their parents are lame, and hyperbolic about the events of their lives. Except for Simon, he has reason to be hyperbolic. Not only does he have to worry about getting outed by Martin, but Blue’s identity is also on the line. 

When I really look at this plot, not a whole lot happens. It’s a bunch of teenagers doing teenagery things and having all the feels about it. But it is really so much more than that. The underlying theme is to challenge the status quo, to undermine the assumption that straight is the default. Simon wonders why everyone doesn’t have to come out, whether they come out as straight or gay or bi or anything else. And he’s right. Straight shouldn’t have to be the default. Cisgender shouldn’t have to be the default. We badly need a shift in the way we think of sexuality and gender identity because being so narrow in our mindset and definitions is causing real harm to real people, not just characters in a fictional book. 

If I have any gripes about this book, it’s that everything all turned out very neatly. It seemed kind of unrealistic. Simon is a good kid. Leah, Nick, and Abby are all good kids. Blue turns out to be a good kid. Even asshole Martin turns out to be a good kid in the end. Basically everyone gets the HEA ending. So it was a little too cute for me in that regard. I like dark and twisty stories, which seem more real than the perfect ending. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad things turned out well for all the kids. It just seems like it was too easy. But it didn’t stop me from giving this a 5 star rating or it being among my favorite book I read in 2020! Even with all the cuteness and teenagers.

Fence, vol. 1

Fence vol 1 coverFence vol. 1 by CS Pacat (website, Twitter); illustrated by Johanna the Mad (Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: contemporary literature/YA

I read it as a: graphic novel

Source: public library

Length: 112 pp

Published by: BOOM! Box (31 July 2018)

Nicholas Cox is something of an outcast, the illegitimate son of a retired fencing champion. He wins a scholarship to Kings Row Boys School, where he will fight to earn a place on the fencing team. Failure to make the team will result in losing his scholarship. To his horror, he discovers that not only is his half brother Seiji Katayama attending Kings Row for fencing as well, he is also his assigned roommate. Nicholas and Seiji have only met in competition, where Seiji defeated Nicholas by a huge margin. Volume 1 leaves off with the tryouts for the fencing team still ongoing.

I really enjoyed this one. I don’t often read graphic novels, but I picked this one because it fits the bill for two Read Harder tasks, and I like fencing. Not that I’ve ever done it myself, but I think it’s cool, and I have a friend who used to be a competitive fencer. It is maybe one of a handful of sports I can watch without wanting to scrape my eyeballs out of my face through my ears. I generally hate sports. 

I liked the diversity in this book, though it seems that every student at Kings Row is queer, which kind of throws the stats off a bit, I think. But still, I love  the way they all interact with each other. Seems believable for a boarding school. Also, there are lots of kids who are people of color, not just all rich white snots. 

I loved the tidbits of fencing information scattered throughout. I know nothing about it at all, so that was just interesting to me. An educational graphic novel, this. 

There is a lot of simmering romance between several characters, mainly members of the fencing team. I saw that a lot of people ship Nicholas and Seiji, but unless there’s something I missed, they are half brothers so that totally grosses me out. Pair them up with anyone else, but I’ll skip the incest, thanks. 

I plan to read all the rest of this series. It was a delightful surprise for me. 

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

47163589The Bookish Life of Nina Hill* by Abbi Waxman (website)

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Contemporary fiction

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Emily Rankin

Source: my  own collection/Audible

Length: 9:03:00

Published by: Random House Audio (9 July 2019)

Nina Hill is the only child of a single mother who never told her anything about her father. Imagine Nina’s surprise when she receives word via lawyer that her father has recently died and has a provision for her in his will. Along with suddenly gaining a dead dad, Nina also learns that she has a huge extended family. To introverted book nerds like Nina, that is horrifying. She likes her life just the way it is, with her job at the neighborhood bookstore, her trivia team, movie nights, her cat Phil, and solitude to read to her heart’s content. Nina’s world is thrown into upheaval as she learns to navigate a world in which she isn’t alone and has people who she can learn to lean on.

I enjoyed this book as a light, fluffy read. It wasn’t mind-blowing, it didn’t make me reevaluate my worldview or anything, but that’s ok. It was what I wanted it to be. I liked Nina – identified with her a great deal, actually. As an introverted, self-confident book nerd who prefers my own company to anyone else’s, I get where she’s coming from. I thought it was great of Waxman to show an introvert who is self-confident. So often, introverted characters are also insecure in some way or lack self-confidence, as though introversion and insecurity go together, which is bullshit. By the end of the novel, Nina does learn how to embrace a more open and spontaneous life, but I like that she struck a balance between learning and exploring new things about herself and not losing herself in the process. Nor did anyone, like her boyfriend or family, make her change who she is. I HATE when that happens, whether in books or real life. It could be my indifference to most humans speaking, but I just can’t imagine or believe stories where, for example, a super introvert becomes the life of the party and loves it by the end of the book, and changes to make another person like a lover happy. I would not change my basic nature for anyone else. Nope. Fuck that. I am who I am, take it or leave it. So seeing Nina find that good balance is affirming, at least to me, on a deep level. 

I also liked that Nina was a confident and strong woman who also deals with anxiety. I also check that box. My anxiety isn’t as bad as Nina’s was portrayed, but my brain sometimes just doesn’t shut up and it can get overwhelming. Pot helps. So does Xanax. But I appreciated seeing a character like her who could have anxiety and not be depicted as completely unhinged, unbalanced, hysterical, fragile, or whatever else is so often inaccurately associated with women generally. I do think some of her coping mechanisms weren’t the healthiest. I get wanting to be alone to freak out in private, but sometimes being with people who care about you is better. 

Nina listed her Five Perfect Things in the book. Hers were: books, cats, dogs, honeycrisp apples, and coffee. Then she said that everyone has a different five perfect things. I think mine are:

  1. My imperfect daughter
  2. Books
  3. Apples with peanut butter (also honeycrisp for me)
  4. Tea
  5. Dogs 

I could add another, rainy days spent at home, since technically my daughter isn’t a ‘thing’, she’s mostly human. 

What five perfect things would you choose?

 

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