Review: Tobias Madden – Anything But Fine

Anything But Fine
Tobias Madden

Lucas’ life is wrapped up in ballet. Ballet is his whole life – he practices and practices and lets his schoolwork slide. Terrifyingly he slips and suffers a potentially career ending injury that also causes him to suffer the teenage fear of changing schools and losing his scholarship.

I’m not sure how I felt about Lucas’ relationship with his OT (occupational therapist). I also wasn’t 100% sure why he wasn’t seeing a physiotherapist? And honestly, it sounded like he would have also benefitted from seeing a psychologist. As many Australians would know though, mental health isn’t a ‘done thing’ and finding appointments is hard. Lucas’ dad is lovely and supportive though.

Starting at a new school is hard for anyone, but try being gay and on crutches in a small rural school. I think this novel is quite a realistic view of high school and homophobic people. Also, Lucas’ new friend is Muslim, and we also see some horrible Islamophobia. Oh! And don’t forget parental expectations for medical school. There’s a lot packed into this novel, and you won’t be disappointed.

The teenage love story is cute, but also filled with respectful relationships and understanding parents. There’s a few ‘racy’ scenes here, but nothing too blushworthy to a teenage male (from what I know about being a hormonal teenager, anyway). You’ll find it slightly less, um, provocative than Jack of Hearts (and other parts) for example.

This is a worthy addition to teenage queer fiction. It hits all the right notes about consent and waiting until you are ready, while also sensitively exploring the problems of high-school and jock culture. I’m giving this 5 stars, and giving it a pride of place on my shelf. I look forward to seeing more from this author.

Penguin Random House | 31st August 2021| AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

Girls of Paper and Fire
Natasha Ngan

Lei has been blissfully unaware of the wider society – apart from a raid that took her mother 7 years ago. When she is selected to become one of the king’s eight concubines she doesn’t feel it’s an honour and dreads serving a king brutal enough to order the complete destruction of villages. Lei doesn’t know how she will survive – but when she finds herself falling in love, she realises that there is more to life than serving and hating.

In a beautifully realized fantasy setting, it’s a love story, and yet at the same time other things are going on. To start with Lei isn’t that keen on being chosen – but decides to make the most of things to protect her family. I loved her fiery spirit, even if the early pages of the book were all a bit boring as they focused on the concubines getting to know one another.

I found the ending a little disappointing. Honestly, it would have been better if that particular character had died, because I could see where a power gap could still occur. For example, the mysterious shamans. What was their reasoning for keeping the balance of power stable? What did they get out of it?

Many reviewers have said this should come with a trigger warning for rape and abuse. I think it’s fair to say it did come with a bit of notice about that, as the beginning pages of the novel (at least in my copy) were links to rape and abuse hotlines for people who were in such terrible situations.

I picked this up at the library because I was pretty sure I’d seen other bloggers raving over it! I saw that there were the first two books on the shelf and promptly googled it to check how many books it was going to be. Unfortunately for me, it’s a trilogy and the third book isn’t published yet! I’ll give it four stars, and worry about reading the third when it comes out (probably again borrowed from the library).

Review: Kalynn Bayron – This Poison Heart

This Poison Heart
Kalynn Bayron

Briseis has a gift that is held in check by Brooklyn lack of green spaces. Her ability is to cause plants to thrive – even the deadly poisonous ones. After a rough year at school (trying not to cause the plants in her teacher’s windows to grow vigorously), Briseis is hoping to spend the summer helping her moms run their flower shop. Instead, she finds that she has inherited a rambling estate and garden from her birth mother.

I was a little hesitant to read this novel, because I had enjoyed Cinderella is Dead right until the disappointing ending! Once I picked it up though, I was hooked. Bri’s character was fleshed out and her feelings obvious. I didn’t mind the so-called ‘slow burn’, I liked getting to know Bri’s family, circumstances and normal behaviors before she was tossed into a new world of plants, poisons and family secrets. Add in some Greek mythology and there was a tale I wanted to keep reading.

Other reviewers have complained that the author doesn’t use words such as lesbian to refer to Bri’s moms. I actually appreciated that! It’s not like every straight couple in other novels are said to be straight! Equally, it’s not stated that Bri and her moms are people of colour – it’s up to the reader to pay attention to the little nuances in physical appearance and habits to realize this (although this is probably given away by the beautiful, luscious cover art).

Let’s talk about the ending in general terms at least. Did I like it? No, no I did not. I honestly felt as if the publishers had told the author “Hey, we think this will be a big hit, make sure you prepare to write a sequel.” So then Bayron was required to leave it open! In the end, I didn’t like the way the antagonists showed up as there were too many holes in the reasoning.

Ultimately my take on this novel is to go buy it! But without knowing when the sequel will come out (or whether this is a duology/trilogy etc.) try to go into it realising that you’ll have to be patient to see the next installment. I’m not patient! So it’s four stars from me (to be updated if the second book is as fantastic as the first).

Bloomsbury | 29th June 2021 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Phil Stamper – As Far As You’ll Take Me

As Far As You’ll Take Me
Phil Stamper

Marty has always been the shy kid in the background, and he’s been happy like that. Being gay in Kentucky with a conservative community and Bible throwing parents isn’t exactly the best place to make waves. Marty decides to make the life he wants happen – he’s flying to London in order to play his beloved oboe and find a place to belong.

Did someone say that we needed more diversity in queer fiction? Even if they didn’t, this novel is a worthy addition to any gay teen’s bookshelf. It’s an accessible, friendly novel about Marty finally getting to live the openly-queer life he has always wanted since age six. The romance is a bit ugh, but I liked that it didn’t come to an obvious conclusion. Thank you, Marty, for not being a complete idiot.

I have suffered from anxiety in the past, and I could completely empathise with Marty that crowded spaces and new places freaked him out. However, the couple of times where he seemed to have a panic attack, and then had his new friends calm him down didn’t ring true to me. Thus, the ending to the novel seemed too neat.

Did I read this too fast, or something? I barely even picked up Marty’s disordered eating before his friends did. Yes, he seemed a bit obsessed about foods, but at the same time I felt like maybe it was harmless. I think that my sense of timing was off. The twelve weeks of summer seemed to go past faster than I realised. This was a complaint I had about The Gravity of Us as well.

I think that the blurb on this novel lets it down. I don’t think that Marty’s homesickness ever gets that bad, and he seems to be coping with his anxiety mostly ok. Also, I didn’t really get a sense of him running through his savings. And again, if it was so expensive to live in London, doesn’t that just mean that he should live at home with his aunt a bit longer? Certainly in Australia you are often expected to (or expect to) live with your parents for a while after you graduate high school.

I was very keen for this novel to come and I started reading it in short order. However, I took breaks in reading it because some parts just seemed too real and upsetting. I’m not sure that’s a complaint – just a comment that this book could potentially be triggering for some people. I won’t read it again, but I’d highly recommend it for any musically inclined travel-hungry teenager, gay or not. 4 stars from me.

Bloomsbury | 9th February 2021 | AU$15.99 | paperback

Review: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – Fighting Words

Fighting Words
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Why does Suki scream in her sleep? That’s the question Della wants answered. Suki has always protected Della since their mother went to prison and her boyfriend took them in. The girls find themselves in foster care, but it’s still not right. Della is determined that now she’ll support Suki – even if Suki doesn’t want her.

Let’s start off by stating that this is not an easy read. This is a terrifying read. It is not comfortable or comforting. You’re going to want to put trigger warnings on it for suicide, bullying and child sexual abuse. This is an #ownvoices novel from this author, and the authenticity of the writing is heartbreaking in parts. It lead to this being a compulsive read for me.

I was slightly confused by these characters, and their interaction with others. I think the girls were people of colour? And that they were able to be recognised by others in their community as needing help. It’s painfully clear that the foster care system isn’t fair to people of colour and that children’s knowledge of the system can be a rude awakening to fairness.

This novel highlights the sad truth that the foster care system is often understaffed in terms of specialist help for children and teenagers that have been abused. The people that foster in the foster care system can also be lacking in terms of compassion fatigue’ (it’s an official term). Working with traumatised young people can be difficult and unrewarding.

I unfortunately read an eBook copy of this, and I can almost statistically support that I like novels less when I have to read them on my laptop. With this in mind then (and the fact that I read it quite a bit ago now) I’m giving this novel 4 stars.

Text Publishing | 1st September 2020 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: LC Rosen – Camp

Camp
LC Rosen

Randy used to be a steriotypical gay teenager. He’s fallen in love though with a straight-seeming guy who seems to date (and hurt) a different person each summer. Randy wants to be noticed and be the one who gets to keep the guy. But will changing himself into a buff and masculine gay teen mean that he misses out on all the things about camp that he used to find fun?

This book hurt me, because it had so many steriotypical ‘gay male’ behaviours in it. The main character is a normally flamboyant gay male who wears nail polish, sings and dances hilariously and isn’t sporty. Normally I hate steriotypes, but they are usually known for a reason. The fact that Randy’s head space shows his personality regardless of his outside presentation is important. Many gay people act straight to ‘pass’ as normal, and it’s nice to have a protagonist who can show what that’s like, and how hard it is.

I could have cried at some points in the novel. Randy/Del had so many feelings, and he shared all of them with me! Maybe I would have liked to have something more from Hudson’s side of the story, but it was good to have some brief perspectives from older queer individuals and their shared life experiences.

It would be so cool if there were gay/queer retreats like this in Australia. Or maybe there are but I missed the window to attend one. Anyway, it’s good to know that there are options for gay teens in the USA, because it seems like their environment is a lot less tolerant of queer individuals compared to Australia.

This book has very leading text on the cover – “Putting the ‘out’ in the great outdoors”, “Top or bottom?” and “It’s time to bunk up…” What was cool for me was that the first copy I had of this had rainbow colours behind the Penguin publishing penguin (instead of the regular orange). Now I’m wondering if there are other books on my shelves that have it.

A worthy addition to young adult queer fiction. I very much liked the first novel from this author, Jack of Hearts (and other parts) and I was excited to read this book. When this novel walked in through the door I got started reading it almost immediately. Unfortunately, I didn’t review it right away… I was prompted to write this review when I received a second copy! 4 stars from me, and I’ll definitely try to pick up the next novel from this author. I’d also be keen to see some more young adult lesbian fiction by #ownvoices. Also, a book such as this one should be made compulsory reading in the Australian curriculum – enough Tim Winton, guys, let’s see some gay fiction.

Penguin Random House | 2nd July 2020 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Alison Evans – Euphoria Kids

Euphoria Kids
Alison Evans

Iris has never had friends before, other than the faeries that live in their backyard. Babs has trouble staying visible thanks to the witch who cursed her. The boy hasn’t found a real name yet. Can magic and friendship keep them safe?

I’m not really sure how old these kids are. Teenagers? I thought that I read somewhere that they are in junior high, but they certainly seem to have a lot of freedom in school for that. I’m a great believer in the power of education, and they don’t seem to spend much time at school! The only class they seem to do is art, and while I think it’s really important for expression, it’s not the only way to express yourself.

The perspective swaps between Babs and Iris were made doubly confusing once the two humans became three humans, and the pronoun ‘they’ was used for both Iris and the three of them. I had trouble remembering which one was Iris (neutral gender plant sprout with witch potential) and which was Babs (trans-girl fire spirit that disappears with witch mother?). ‘The boy’ doesn’t even get a name until a powerful witch helps him find it! And what is up with his dad? I couldn’t decide if the dad was accepting or not, because the boy doesn’t always wear his binder (take with a grain of salt and always do your research before getting a binder).

Having three gender queer teens in a single year level, let alone school, is very rare. That alone would have been enough for the novel to process. Then make one of them a plant spirit that talks to faeries with two mothers (one of which took time off work to look after her while she was a plant/seed baby?), and the other a cursed fire spirit. Just for good measure, toss in a cafe owner/worker who is also trans and a trans-boy without a name.

What does it mean that Babs is made of fire? Can someone be more specific for me please? So much about this novel seemed unfinished, and I don’t think it was just because I had an ARC copy. I think too many themes and too much was crammed in.

I didn’t like the way Babs’ depression was treated. Ok, so they went to the special understanding GP, but then they just talked about it, and she was magically cured almost immediately? Talk about setting unrealistic expectations. Oh yes, also that the boy is able to just go to the GP to get a script to stop his periods. In my experience, it’s never that easy.

I wanted to love this novel, for the fact that it is a #ownvoices novel. But I couldn’t. I at least finished it but it was a struggle. It wont be coming home with me from vacation and I’m not giving it to any gender queer people I know.

Echo Publishing | 1st March 2020 | AU$19.99 | paperback