Review: Karelia Stetz-Waters – The Admirer (N)

The Admirer

Karelia Stetz-Waters

Helen Ivers has just become president of a tiny little college on the strength of her ability to fund manage and drag the college with her. In truth its a place Helen can escape to, since her life has spiraled beyond her control since her sister’s suicide. All she wants is to forget. Instead she comes face to face with a mystery in the form of two human legs shortly after her arrival. In a town where she is considered an outsider, its hard to know who to trust, especially when she can’t even trust her own mind.

It’s immediately clear that Helen is trying to escape something, and throughout the reading its clear that she is haunted by what happened to her sister. She doesn’t let that stop her from trying to do what is best for the college. Though she seems to face opposition from all sides, its clear she is used to being in a position dealing with the various egos of those around her.

I know it was supposed to be a sense of mystery with the killer, making it hard to tell who the killer was right up until the big reveal. But from roughly halfway through the book it seemed obvious to me who the killer was. There was a sense of age to the character that ruled out many potentials. And there were other clues that Helen herself missed in conversations.

The denied romance aspect was different. I haven’t really read many books that have that so well written. Normally its a token resistance then onward into a relationship. Here the tensions between Helen and Wilson is clear and stays throughout the novel. Even when Helen gives in there is a degree of withholding herself. It was a nice change to read.

It was a good read with solid psychological thriller elements. I did find the early sections from the killer’s point of view left my head reeling and that feeling of discomfort stayed with me. The later killer scenes didn’t have nearly the same feel. But the sensation of the hair standing up on the back of my neck from those earlier pervaded through my reading. Overall, I’m giving it 3 stars. It was a good read but not 100% my cup of tea. That’s more about me than the book though, if psychological thriller is your jam definitely give this one a go.

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: Kalynn Bayron – Cinderella is Dead

Cinderella is Dead
Kalynn Bayron

Sophia has been preparing for her debut for her whole life. Or at least, her parents have been trying to prepare her. Every girl may go to the ball three times and be chosen by a man – or her life will be forfeit. Sophia can see through the facade though, and she doesn’t want to be chosen by a man. She wants to be with Erin.

I liked the new twist on the Cinderella fairytale, but some elements left me feeling disappointed and short changed. I was happy that I had a lesbian protagonist. I was happy that she didn’t instantly fall for her new female friend… but that she lusted over her. Who doesn’t want something that is forbidden? I feel like that love was really just lust, and that’s far more preferable to insta-love.

I would like to know where Sophia got her blackness from. The kingdom seems tiny and racially white, so where did she come from? I get that she doesn’t fit in, and I get that that resonates with many people of colour at the moment. My problem is that the world that Bayron has built in this novel is too small to have more than one race of people. The ‘Kingdom’ itself just seems to consist of one large town?

I didn’t understand the ending with the Fairy Godmother. What did she get out of the status quo? Living forever doesn’t seem like a fabulous thing to me, particularly if you’re isolated. Also, the ending made it seem like if you can just topple the Man at the Top, everything will be breezy. It’s not that easy though. You can’t just make a hole in the power structure at the top, and expect everyone to come to the new system. I wanted to see more – how will this new way of living go? What other countries might they learn about?

Ultimately the ending let me down and I kind of regretted spending my time reading it. A light-hearted and unfulfilling novel. I can only hope that this author’s worldbuilding skills improve for her future novels – and if she’s still writing queer fiction, I’ll be reading it!

Bloomsbury | 1st September 2020 | AU$15.99 | 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: Phil Stamper – The Gravity of Us

The Gravity of Us
Phil Stamper

Cal’s going to make his FlashFame feed support his career as a journalist, do an internship at BuzzFeed and get a free ride to college with a full scholarship. When his dad is selected to become an astronaut of the Orpheus Twenty Cal’s plans are derailed – going to Texas isn’t in his ideal future! But with a cute boy in the picture, maybe something about this summer might not be a waste afterall.

The cute cover should give this away as a gay fiction. The recommendation statement on the back from Becky Albertalli says this book is a ‘story I didn’t I know I needed’. And she’s right! I didn’t know that I could be excited about a somewhat futuristic space voyage – but it turns out that there really is a current program to have humans on Mars by 2032. Thus I can confidently say that this is NOT science fiction.

The single paragraph devoted to his final high school year seems a bit perfunctory. I’m not complaining, because there are plenty of teenage fiction novels out there that cover high school and being gay well. At the same time though, I felt like that could have added a bit more depth for the protagonist, who seems to exist in his own little bubble most of the time.

I struggled with the sense of time passing. Perhaps instead of boring chapter numbers, a handy chapter date would have been more useful. This lack of time made their romance feel instant, and their feelings insincere. What I did appreciate was that Leon’s depression wasn’t cured in an instant by falling in love (lust?) and neither was Cal’s mom’s anxiety completely treated by therapy.

There seems to be a growing interest for novels about space and mathematics. I’m loving it! From avoiding meteoroids (Learning to Swear in America), to general astrophysics (The Square Root of SummerΒ andΒ Stargazing for Beginners), I’m excited for what will happen next. 4 stars for this one from me.

Bloomsbury | 17th March 2020 | AU$15.99 | 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

Review: Gabby Rivera – Juliet Takes a Breath

Juliet Takes a Breath
Gabby Rivera

Juliet is going to take the summer to find herself. She’s just come out as gay to her parents, she wants to be a writer, and she thinks she’s a feminist. Enter Harlowe Brisbane – the ultimate authority on all things feminism and lesbianism. Surely if Juliet lives with Harlowe some of her empowered feminism will rub off, right?

This has no plot, and yet Juliet manages to get herself into trouble. She makes every bad decision that she possibly can, and forgives far more easily than I wanted her to. In a way that perhaps makes her more relatable, yet somehow things just work out for her in the end. Juliet can somehow do no wrong? Her flow-of-consciousness interspersed with passages of Harlowe’s doctrine didn’t do any favours to the feeling that I was just floating and being told the story, not shown it.

Because I’ve gradually been expanding my own queer and feminist language I understood the pain that Juliet was going through. What I did have a major problem with though was that you basically had to have a vagina to be considered a feminist. Having recently read Trans* Like Me, I felt like this novel undermined non cis-gendered people (cis-gendered means basically the gender you were assigned at birth matches the one that you identify as).

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but one of the few swear words I just 100% can’t stand was the major cuss word of this novel. Every time I hear it I feel a bit dirty, and reading it just made me feel the same. I felt honour-bound to finish this novel though because it had a lesbian protagonist, but I felt uncomfortable the whole time. I don’t even want to type it!

We need more novels with underrepresented lesbian women of colour and maybe this novel is for some people. Maybe it could empower other people. It just wasn’t for me – a white, slim, cis-woman lesbian with a hangup on a particular swearword. I read it the moment it came in the door, but put off reviewing it for over a month. 3 stars.

Penguin Random House | 19th September 2019 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Rainbow Rowell – Wayward Son

Wayward Son
Rainbow Rowell

Simon’s defeated the enemy and found true love. So why can’t he make it off the couch? Bunce and Baz are going to college and experiencing life, but Simon just can’t face it. What’s the point when you’ve achieved your life aim? Bunce stages an intervention – a road trip across America is just what they need.

Rainbow Rowell’s novels are usually a 100% love from me (Fangirl and Eleanor and Park). In fact, I often feel urged to reread Fangirl (has it been 5 years since I reviewed it already? wow!). When I saw this one in the publicity catalog I even told the publisher that I’d possibly kill to get my hands on it. With hype like this, and the avid fan following Rowell has, I had high expectations.

Somehow the nature of this novel is that you don’t become too attached to any of them, and unfortunately that’s what made Rowell’s other novels speak to me so deeply in the past. At one point a character was introduced and I wondered how they could possibly be relevant if they get mindwiped! Overwhelmingly I felt like there were too many characters that I needed to care about, and so I felt myself caring less about them overall.

You wonder at first what the main plot point of this novel is going to be. Surely it can’t just be following two magicians, a werewolf and a demon across America in a convertible? Nope! It’s not! But Simon, Bunce and Baz unpacking their feelings around having overcome the enemy from Carry On could have had more air time. If child soldiers are a theme that Rowell wanted to address, and PTSD, I wanted more of it. Less ‘fluff’ somehow. There’s being lighthearted, and then there’s just blatantly brushing off problems.

I found myself underwhelmed by this novel. I don’t know whether it’s because I hadn’t read the first book (oops) or that there was something inherently lacking in it. I don’t really understand why Simon is so confused about his relationship with Baz all of a sudden. I do want to go back and read the first book to see what I missed, and maybe identify what I really needed to know to enjoy this novel to its fullest.

Personally, I’d keep the wings. There are some other issues that are left unaddressed, such as Baz’s inevitable non-aging compared to his friends and how he’ll deal with that in the future. And Bunce’s overwhelming nature of, well, being Bunce. The novel ends on a cliffhanger, but I’m just not that excited for the third. 3 stars from me.

Pan Macmillan | 24th September 2019 | AU$17.99 | paperback

Review: Audrey Coulthurst & Paula Garner – Starworld

Starworld
Audrey Coulthurst & Paula Garner

Sam’s a withdrawn artist with one best and only friend in the world. Somehow Zoe, a popular cute girl, enters into Sam’s universe through one of Sam’s paintings. Sam and Zoe aren’t sure they’ll be friends, but together they can escape into another world outside their complicated families.

The *star talk* of Zoe and Sam’s fantasy world together didn’t actually set me on fire (pun intended). I was more interested in their complicated emotions and cute ways of showing they cared. For example, Sam’s mom packs her a lunch in foods that are colour coded and divisible by four (which I personally find a very odd manifestation of OCD – but who am I to judge?). Then they share and make crazy flavour combinations.

Look, I’m not sure whether this novel was trying to take too much on or not, but there was certainly a whole range of things going on (so many that I wondered that it had to be set up like that – as in, I’d never expect a situation like this in real life). There’s Sam, with her Aspergers and OCD mom, and then there’s Zoe who is adopted with a severely intellectually disabled brother. Too many themes in one novel? Oh, and then add some true artistic skill and a queer angle just for good measure.

That being said, I liked this novel. Mainly because it had me ugly crying at one point, and it was JUST SO SAD. Sam, my heart broke with yours. Not as relate-able as perhaps Our Chemical Hearts or the dangerous art of blending in, but still good. If I had one teensy complaint, it would be that the ending left me feeling cold and empty. That’s what keeps me from giving this five stars, despite the emotional wreck that it left me in.

Walker Books | 1st July 2019 | AU$24.99 | paperback

Review: Orlagh Collins – All the Invisible Things

All the Invisible Things
Orlagh Collins

It’s time for Vetty to move back to London, 4 years after her mother’s death. Living in her childhood home is difficult, but what is worse is no longer seeing eye to eye with Pez, her best friend. Have Pez and Vetty changed too much to be friends anymore? And can Vetty be honest with herself and everyone else about who she likes?

What I really liked about this novel was that the main character wasn’t automatically understood by everyone around her. Nor did she automatically know whether to shave or how to behave with other teenagers. Being a teenager is all about not knowing yourself yet and having to experiment and experience life, and Vetty gives a window into that world. Collins does a fantastic job of communicating Vetty’s insecurities in a way that still lets her be a person.

Despite Vetty’s mother dying, Vetty isn’t too put upon by her dad in terms of having to look after her little sister. I found their interactions to be strangely touching and very realistic. Discussing safe sex with your little sister isn’t really something many teenagers look forward to! I did expect more in terms of grieving from Vetty though. Losing a parent is a major life trauma.

Hmm, I’m not sure about the title of this one. What invisible things are we talking about? I tend to think of invisible things as imaginary things such as fairy tales and fantasies. You won’t find those here. I guess the secondary story line with Pez’s addiction is a hidden and private problem? I’ve not yet come across a fiction with this particular addiction, so there’s something new on offer here with that too.

I can’t believe the final school year subjects these UK kids can choose! Photography and History? Not a trace of math or simple English? Only three subjects. And it appears to be a bit optional whether you do it or not. I complain about the Australian system, but I guess at least we get a few more well rounded students.

This novel ended too soon for me. I felt so-so about No Filter (3 stars due to its luckluster romance), but this one looked promising. Indeed, I really enjoyed it. Complicated story line with multiple plot points and an actual fear of someone dying or something really bad happening? Tick. 4 stars from me, and I’d consider a reread (except Beautiful Broken Things gets first dibs).

Bloomsbury | 1st April 2019 | AU$14.99 | paperback