Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Transphobia: Deal with it and be a gender transcender by j wallace skelton

Published January 15, 2017 by Lorimer Publishing

Who do you think you are? Part of identity is how people experience their gender. Transphobia is intolerance of any part of the range of gender identity. This accessible, illustrated book offers information, quizzes, comics and true-to-life scenarios to help kids better understand gender identity and determine what they can do to identify and counter transphobia in their schools, homes and communities. Considered from the viewpoint of gender challengers, gender enforcers and witnesses, transphobic behavior is identified, examined and put into a context that kids can use to understand and accept themselves and others for whatever gender they are—even if that's no gender at all!

This is an excellent introduction to gender identity and expression, aimed at middle school grades and above, with comics, examples, quizzes, and lists of do's and don'ts that challenge readers to question assumptions about gender and sex, stereotypes, and the use of pronouns or chosen names. A short and accessible book, the illustrations take care to show diversity in gender, ethnicity, and abilities and the back of the book has links to further resources, such as helplines, other books, and organizations - though the information is Canadian-oriented, given that the publisher is Canadian. Transphobia: Deal with it is a timely guide that should be in every library, and also makes a great starting point in the classroom for discussions on gender (the publisher has a free teaching guide online).

I was given a electronic ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, thus the formatting of the comics and sidebar information was off, making following along with the accompanying text difficult. At present only a print edition is available for purchase.

Rating: 3 Stars

Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

Published May 10, 2011 by Candlewick

Fifteen-year-old Virginia Shreves has a larger-than-average body and a plus-size inferiority complex, especially when she compares herself to her slim, brilliant, picture-perfect family. But that’s before a shocking phone call — and a horrifying allegation — about her rugby-star brother changes everything. With irreverent humor and surprising gravity, Carolyn Mackler creates an endearingly blunt heroine who speaks to every teen who struggles with family expectations, and proves that the most impressive achievement is to be true to yourself.

Young adults may find this book, originally published in 2003 and before the advent of smartphones, technologically quaint (teens write emails and speak to each other over the phone!). However, the voice of Virginia Shreves is still contemporary and spot-on, as she struggles to reconcile her body size, her best friend's move across the country, a potential romantic interest, and the recognition that other people may not be who they appear to be. The book also touches upon issues of eating disorders, self harm, and date rape, some more lightly than others. While the pacing is uneven (in the middle of the book, I wanted to shout, "I get it! Some people around her treat her really poorly!"), ultimately the novel ends on an uplifting note, and teens should find the narrative relatable and realistic.

Rating: 4 Stars

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Published October 28, 2014 by Dey Street Books

Do you want to get to know the woman we first came to love on Comedy Central's Upright Citizens Brigade? Do you want to spend some time with the lady who made you howl with laughter on Saturday Night Live, and in movies like Baby Mama, Blades of Glory, and They Came Together? Do you find yourself daydreaming about hanging out with the actor behind the brilliant Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation? Did you wish you were in the audience at the last two Golden Globes ceremonies, so you could bask in the hilarity of Amy's one-liners?

If your answer to these questions is "Yes Please!" then you are in luck. In her first book, one of our most beloved funny folk delivers a smart, pointed, and ultimately inspirational read. Full of the comedic skill that makes us all love Amy, Yes Please is a rich and varied collection of stories, lists, poetry (Plastic Surgery Haiku, to be specific), photographs, mantras and advice. With chapters like "Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend," "Plain Girl Versus the Demon" and "The Robots Will Kill Us All" Yes Please will make you think as much as it will make you laugh. Honest, personal, real, and righteous, Yes Please is full of words to live by.

I like Amy Poehler. I like that she is unapologetic about her ambition and work ethic, and I appreciate that she acknowledges that competition between women can be healthy and push us to achieve more, but she also isn't about pitting women against each other. I appreciate her honesty, her vulnerability, and her willingness to admit mistakes and speak hard truths. There is a lot to like about this book—the highlights in my Kindle ended up filling 9 pages.

Some favorite highlights:
"So here we go, you and me. Because what else are we going to do? Say no? Say no to an opportunity that may be slightly out of our comfort zone? Quiet our voice because we are worried it is not perfect? I believe great people do things before they are ready."
"It’s called Yes Please because it is the constant struggle and often the right answer. Can we figure out what we want, ask for it, and stop talking? Yes please. Is being vulnerable a power position? Yes please. Am I allowed to take up space? Yes please. Would you like to be left alone? Yes please."
"That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her! Not for me."
"This essay is about apologies, and I have learned an important part of apologizing is not making excuses." 
"Anger and embarrassment are often neighbors. Sometimes we get defensive about what we feel guilty about." 
"Let’s end by pointing out all the positive ways you can scare yourself and feel alive. You can tell someone you love them first. You can try to speak only the truth for a whole week."
"Either way, we both agreed that ambivalence is key to success. I will say it again. Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look."
"Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I’m proud that Mike Schur and I rejected the idea that creativity needs to come from chaos. I like how we ran our writers’ room and our set. People had a great time when they came to work on our show and that mattered to us."
"Your ability to navigate and tolerate change and its painful uncomfortableness directly correlates to your happiness and general well-being."
"Let me take a minute to say that I love bossy women. Some people hate the word, and I understand how “bossy” can seem like a shitty way to describe a woman with a determined point of view, but for me, a bossy woman is someone to search out and celebrate. A bossy woman is someone who cares and commits and is a natural leader."
Clearly, there are many great observations in this book, and many of her words are especially inspiring at this point in time with current political and social issues. Unfortunately, I found it hard to get engaged in her book. This was a book that I easily read a chapter at a time, instead of devouring like I usually do. Perhaps this is because I've never watched Parks & Recreation, and am unfamiliar with the Upright Citizens Brigade. It's hard to get really engaged when much of the narrative is about media that I'm unfamiliar with. In contrast, I recall Bossypants by Tina Fey to be easier to read, and laugh-out-loud funny, while Yes Please was more of a "yes, that is what the world is like!"

Rating: 3 Stars

Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: Undeclared by Julianna Keyes

Published February 27, 2017 by Julianna Keyes

Kellan McVey is Burnham College’s most prolific athlete, partier, and ladies’ man—and that’s just how he likes it. Returning to reign for his third year, he wants nothing to change. Then Andrea Walsh shows up. 

It wasn’t too long ago that Andi and Kellan were lifelong friends, mortal enemies, and, for one hot summer, more. Then Kellan left and Andi stayed behind. 

Kellan thought he’d moved past that last summer’s heartbreak, but with Andi sitting next to him in class, befriending his friends, and battling for the same once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity, he’s starting to remember why he hated her…and why he loved her. 

Kellan has a long list of reasons that falling for Andi again is a terrible idea, though every new moment together challenges that theory. But Andi’s all too familiar with Kellan’s love ’em and leave ’em approach—and she’s found someone else to get serious about. 

Burnham’s campus king has never had to fight for a girl, but if he wants Andi to give him another chance, he’ll have to do the one thing he’s never had the nerve to do: admit it. 

Julianna Keyes writes characters who are not always likable, but always complex. In Undecided, one of my favorite books of 2016, we were introduced to the ancillary character Kellan McVey—who, as much as he induced the slapping of palms across foreheads, was also charmingly endearing: at once a big-hearted devoted friend, yet also clueless and self-absorbed. I finished reading Undecided wanting more from the Burnham College universe, and curious how Keyes would tell Kellan's story. What would Kellan's character arc look like, given that he often seemed to have the depth of a espresso cup?

After spending his first two years at Burnham College "living life" until he was diagnosed with an STD and needing the help of a list recorded in a bathroom stall in the student union to identify which of his 63 sexual partners he had contracted the infection from (because in his memory, many of his partners were nameless and even faceless), he decides to become "Kellan 2.0. All the fun, none of the gonorrhea" when he runs into his childhood best friend and rival, Andi, on campus. Undeclared is a second chance romance between these two, but the focus of the novel is on Kellan acknowledging his feelings for Andi as he wrestles with the age-old college quandary of figuring out who he is and who he wants to be in relation to who he thinks he should be, and less on the actual rapport between the couple.

On a side note, the secondary characters are great, particularly the storyline involving Kellan's good friend, Choo. While at first I thought it was a rare miss by Julianna Keyes at naming a character, in the end, her handling of his name and character was spot on—I'm sure her experience living in China informed this hilarious sub-narrative. Keyes is an astute observer of life, which is seen in this introspective yet funny portrayal of college life.

Rating: 4 Stars

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review: Unrequited Alice by Sarah Louise Smith

Published March 16, 2017 by Crooked Cat Books

A Bridesmaid really shouldn’t be in the love with the groom…

I stared at my suitcase, contemplating the following three facts:

After months of planning, it was finally time for Hannah’s hen weekend.
In just one more month, she’d be getting married to Ed.
I really had to fall out of love with Ed before the wedding.

A bridesmaid really shouldn’t be in love with the groom… but Alice just can’t help herself. Ed is her perfect man, and she can’t get him out of her head.

Until she meets Toby – who offers to help her move on. But what if he’s just setting her up for an even bigger fall?

In Chinese there is a concept called yuan fen (緣份), defined as "predestined affinity or relationship" - yuan (緣) means "fate" while fen (份) means "a share or a portion." While often used to describe romantic relationships, this concept that "two people can be drawn inexorably together through an innate connection in the universe" applies to any relationship--and the focus is always on the bond which draws two people together, not what they may be fated to accomplish together. There's also the related expression you yuan mei you fen (有緣沒有份), indicating that two people may be fated to have attraction to each other, but not have the destiny for the relationship to continue for the rest of their lives.

All this to say that Unrequited Alice is an exploration of yuan fen -- Alice clearly has yuan with Ed and Toby, but which one does she actually have yuan fen? What I liked about the novel is that Alice is very much aware that she ought to get over her extended crush on Ed, that it's not good for her sense of self or for her relationship with her oldest friend, but the novel also acknowledges the very real emotional and physical response one has to people in our lives. Yet despite sometimes finding herself in sticky situations, Alice always acts with grace and self-awareness. Sometimes there is a connection between people, but one or the other isn't emotionally available at the right time or there are physical obstacles to a relationship; relationships can be complicated!

What didn't work for me was some of the dialogue, which sometimes had a character speak overly long and thus came across as unauthentic. In real life, exchanges between people are often shorter, with pauses of breath and interruptions, and so I found often it jarring, taking me out of the narrative. To be fair, though, this may be a owing to the author and characters being British, whose speaking patterns are different from Americans.

Rating: 3 Stars

I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Published April 7, 2015 by Balzer + Bray

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

I was worried at the start of the book that Simon would be annoyingly neurotic, like a character from a John Green & David Leviathan novel, but Simon ended up being a sweet young man who consciously tries to become more self-aware and be a good friend. So many (perhaps all?) of the side characters are richly developed; they are real. There's no caricature of a "bad guy" - even the antagonist has his own character arc, growing into someone I could sympathize with. I think the author's background as a practicing psychologist shows through in that the dialogues between teens serve as a model of how we should communicate with each other, and in a way that isn't contrived at all.

Great characterization, healthy and realistic relationships between the narrator and his friends, teachers, and parents as well as a discussion of heteronormativity and white identity as an underpinning of society. Lovely, lovely coming of age coming out story.

Rating: 4 Stars

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Books Read, November - December 2015

Note - This was originally posted on another blog of mine, and has been moved here (March 8, 2017).

Bossypants by Tina Fey - Hilarious, sharp, and incredibly smart. I had to stop every few pages to look up various pop culture references. If I had read this in a physical format, instead of on my Kindle, I would have finished the book with a dried up highlighter. Tina Fey is awesome. But you knew that already. Rating: 5 Stars

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan - This book has appeared on a lot of "best of" lists for teens, but I didn't particularly care for it. It's told from the alternating perspective of two teenage boys, both named Will Grayson. Even though the voices of the alternating narrators were different, it still took me a chapter or two to realize they were different. I like that it's LBGTQ-friendly but in the end, meh. Rating: 2 Stars

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock - Another Kindle First that seemed promising...but didn't really have an end. There are three interwoven narratives spanning several centuries: one in the past, one in the present day, and one in the future. But they didn't intersect enough to be compelling. So, I didn't find the plot compelling nor the characters compelling. Theres not much left to care about in a book. At least I didn't stay up late at night reading to see what happens next...the nice part of the book was that I learned a bit about composition and color in a painting. Rating: 2 Stars

The BFG by Roald Dahl - This is the first chapter book that I read to my son. He was a little wary at first (a giant! a little orphan girl possibly in danger! ugly giants with gruesome features and even more fearsome names!), but was soon pulled into the narrative. Frobscottle! An excellent introduction to chapter books thanks to my dear Roald Dahl.

Where We Belong by Emily Giffin -  After my first Emily Giffin book, I was eager to check this book out from the library and was not disappointed by this, yet again, character-driven well-written novel. It could be cliche, but it isn't. Rating: 5 Stars

The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary - My son's second chapter book. I thought he would enjoy this even more than The BFG, as he seemed more intrigued by the premise of the book, but he was stressed throughout much of the reading. He seemed to think that Ralph was constantly in imminent danger. Also, perhaps the more old-fashioned dialogue made it a bit harder for him to follow along. I, however, thoroughly enjoyed reading it to him.

Big Girl Panties by Stephanie Evanovich - Ugh. I wanted the literary equivalent of a sugar cookie. This was another poor quality candy bar. How can it be a New York Times bestseller? I disagree with Booklist's assessment that it is a "funny, clever, and well-paced read," although I wholeheartedly agree that it "lacks polish" and "sends mixed messages about body image, self-esteem, and seeking male approval." Totally unrealistic characters - I do not believe for a second that a woman who was driven enough to escape her emotionally distant family and small-town upbringing to attend Brown would be content to just stay at home, shop, and work out with her hot trainer. As soon as I was done, I returned the book. Blurgh. Rating: 1 Star

Smart Girls Get What They Want and How Zoe Made Her Dreams (Mostly) Come True by Sarah Strohmeyer - I finally got my sugar cookies! Both are quick reads featuring smart, funny heroines. Unsurprisingly, all the romantic interests are tall, not necessarily dark, and handsome. But they're enjoyable and well-written. Smart Girls Get What They Want is the stronger of the two, as the Zoe book has some plot holes. But both are great vacation reads. And I love having books that feature female heroines that are worthy of emulation. Rating: 4-5 Stars

Fangirl and Attachments: A Novel by Rainbow Rowell - Oh Rainbow Rowell, how I love thee novels. Kudos for writing fiction that features characters with real bodies in real situations with real interests, who don't have to look like they must also be Abercrombie model-worthy to be so likable. Thank you for legitimizing interests that may be considered alternative or fringe, but aren't really. You root for fan fiction writer super-geek Cath (Fangirl) and sensitive Lincoln (Attachments) to overcome their anxieties. You're thrilled that the protagonists don't hew to tired traditional gender stereotypes. These are the books whose passages I bookmark and read and re-read. Rating: 5 Stars

Someday, Someday, Maybe: A Novel by Lauren Graham - Gilmore Girls was one of my favorite TV shows, and I loved Lauren Graham's work on the show. So I was intrigued to find out she had written a novel. Here, I think all the accolades are well deserved. It's well-written, light, warm, and charming. The plot is well paced. What's not to like? Rating: 4 Stars

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy - From the author of Side Effects May Vary, I think this second book is a stronger work than her first. I like how it portrays and challenges issues like body size, self-acceptance, and beauty pageants. And, I now know how to walk in high heels like a queen. It's so much better than Big Girl Panties. But it didn't quite click with me. Rating: 2 Stars

The Trouble With Flirting and Epic Fail by Claire LaZebnik - A search for more sugar cookie novels (hey, it's the holidays!) led to these two books. Again, both are quick easy reads that are fairly enjoyable. Epic Fail is a loose adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, while The Trouble With Flirting is another Jane Austen adaptation, this time of Mansfield ParkEpic Fail seemed to be quickly written and poorly edited, as I came across at least a couple of typos. Also, as a huge fan of Pride & Prejudice, I found this version to be boring. While it was modernized nicely, I knew what was going to happen and the details itself weren't particularly compelling. I thought The Trouble With Flirting was a much stronger work and a lot of fun. Rating: 2-3 Stars