The Heartbreaker Bisexual Character

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I covered bisexual stereotypes in 2016, but I’m still seeing books with harmful portrayals of bisexual characters. So here’s another post.

There’s an interesting trope I’ve seen crop up in a couple of books I’m read recently, where a bisexual female character (or one coded as such), shows interest in a lesbian character, perhaps even kisses her, before doing something to break her heart, be it suddenly rejecting or cheating on her.

The two books I’m using as examples are ones that I have read personally, one I’ve reviewed and one I have not. At the time, I tried to look past the biphobia and focus on the story and succeeded to a degree, but I’ve only become more frustrated the more time passes since having read them.

These two books are Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan and As I Descended by Robin Talley. I have reviewed the latter and, to be honest, my review was more positive than the book deserved. I should probably fix that. I’ve already knocked a star off my original Goodreads rating.

In both these books, the heatbreaker isn’t specifically called bisexual but the implication is clear. Both books also carry other forms of biphobia aside from this trope. The endgame love interest of TMAHACSF dismisses the label of bisexual (“Can’t some things just be?”), and the protagonist of As I Descended, while “probably bisexual”, is not “all-the-way gay” like her lesbian girlfriend. In addition, the “heartbreaker” of the latter story is described as “not gay enough” (p. 34 of my edition, provided because I found it while looking for something else). Gross.

So, even if a more charitable reading of the portrayals of Saskia from TMAGHACSF and Delilah from As I Descended is possible, they don’t deserve it.

Saskia is a new student at the protagonist, Leila’s, school. Leila is one of very few lesbians there and, naturally, develops a crush on Saskia. Saskia, of course, strings Leila along, kisses her and then has sex with one of Leila’s male friends. When Leila dares to be upset, Saskia continues to force her way into her life, even kissing her without her consent multiple times, calling her a lesbophobic slur and outing her, all the while calling her a “predatory lesbian.”

In As I Descended, the King Duncan of this Macbeth retelling, Delilah, is the first girl Lily ever kissed. Naturally, Delilah then blew her off right afterwards (pp. 95-97 in my edition). Bonus points? It had just been a “fun little experiment” for Delilah and that she was “flattered” but “wasn’t gay.”

This isn’t to say there has never been a bisexual, or a straight person, who has behaved like this. However, with positive on-the-page bisexual rep in fiction still lacking, these kinds of portrayals are in supremely bad taste. We’re no more likely to manipulate, cheat and break hearts than anyone else. Continuing to write us like this perpetuates these stereotypes, which, as I’ve pointed out in my other posts on biphobia, contribute to real-life issues that we face. Honestly, I never want to see a straight/gay/lesbian author tackle these tropes ever again. Clearly, the majority of them have proven they’re incapable of writing us without stereotyping us. Until an author proves they’re capable of doing that, I don’t trust them touching these kinds of characters, even if they don’t intend to be biphobic, because intent means fuck-all when it comes to harm caused.

I don’t care whether they meant the character to be bi, or just a shitty heterosexual, because the result is the same in the end: the implication that a person who shows interest in multiple genders cannot be trusted. Hell, having a “straight” character (but, let’s be honest, this is rarely stated) behaving like this carries a gross little implication that bisexuals aren’t even bisexual at all. That we’re just confused straight people, hurting the “real queers” on the way. I’ll give a bi writer the benefit of the doubt if they choose to play with this trope, but even we’re not immune from internalised biphobia so it could go wrong even then.

In short, don’t fucking use this trope. Work on writing non-stereotyped bisexuals instead who don’t hide behind “we don’t need labels” or “not gay enough” bullshit. I don’t even want to see a promiscuous bisexual character unless there are equivalent bi characters who are not, and even then I don’t trust a non-bisexual to do it in a non-offensive way.

(Shoutout to Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost for not screwing up bi rep. She’s not bisexual, but she seems to have managed to NOT write horrible stereotyped portrayals of us so far. So it’s possible. Far From You by Tess Sharpe is also good bi rep that actually uses the word, and is ownvoices at that.)

What biphobic nonsense (heartbreaker trope or not) have you read recently? Spill the beans in the comments.

Review: The Hate U Give

32613366Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.

Man. This book. Everyone needs to read this book. Not only because it’s important, but because it’s a damn good read as well. Angie is one talented human being. Sometimes, when a book is as hyped as  much as this one is, it fall short of expectations. That is not the case here.

This is the kind of book we wish wasn’t necessary. But black people, especially young black boys, are still being disproportionately murdered by police. This book addresses the common arguments justifying these murders–saying he was a thug, pretending he had a gun when he was unarmed, that he threatened the officer when he didn’t–and slams the heck out of them.

Despite what some reviewers have said, this book is not anti-cop. Angie specifically made Starr’s uncle a police officer to offer a more nuanced perspective, that there are good cops, but often their power to do the right thing is limited. Uncle Carlos is suspended for (justifiably) punching someone while the officer who shot an unarmed black boy is coddled by the force and the public. This book isn’t ragging on cops. It’s shining a light into real, institutional problems that have a body count.

This novel also touches on other issues surrounding race, including racist microaggressions and how the people affected by them are painted as overreacting, thereby dismissing the pain caused. Tied into this is the issue of toxic friendships and how Starr felt the need to alter her personality to fit in at her majority white school so she wouldn’t be stereotyped.

Angie’s novel is also a good read in terms of characters and plot. I adored Starr’s sometimes dysfunctional but always loving family, and the sheer joy Starr found in her parents’ loving marriage was fantastic to read. They had their drama, of course, but at the end of the day it was obvious that Starr’s family cared for each other. The same goes for Starr and her white boyfriend, Chris, who made mistakes throughout the novel but was constantly trying to learn and do better. I also live for white people jokes, in all honesty.

Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give doesn’t provide easy answers, because there are none. If you’re looking for something that ties it all up in a neat, comfortable little bow, this book is not for you. But if you want hard-hitting truths, amidst plenty of heart-warming family moments, that doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of the issues of racism and police violence, this is an incredible read.

Marginalized Book Bloggers You Should Be Following

I thought I’d share this in case anyone who reads my blog was interested in following more diverse book bloggers.

Bookishness and Tea

Since I started blogging, I’ve read many, many blogs and found a lot of lists of favorite blogs, but in the year and a half, I have read zero largelists of marginalized bloggers. (I’m sure a few exist, but none that I’ve come across or seen being promoted.) That’s where today’s post comes in. On Twitter, I asked for bloggers that were a part of a marginalized identity to link their blog if they wanted to be included so that I could compile this post.

This is nowhere near a comprehensive post. Instead, it is only the beginning, and I hope it grows and grows.

Why are marginalized book bloggers important?

We can read books with characters of the same marginalized identities and promote them with even more fervor because we saw ourselves in them.

We can read books critically and point out flaws and problematic aspects in the representation.

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Review: The Flywheel (aka Get It Together, Delilah!)

19488665Seventeen-year-old Del drops out of high school when her romance with another girl goes horribly wrong. Preferring chaos to bullying, Del makes it her mission to save her dad’s crumbling café, the Flywheel, while he ‘finds himself’ overseas.

Accompanied by her charming troublemaker best friend Charlie, Del sets out to save the cafe, keep Charlie out of prison, and maybe get a date with Rosa, the beautiful flamenco dancer from across the road. But when life is messy enough as it is, can girl-on-girl romance ever have a happy ending?

This hilarious and accident-prone novel is about how to be heartbroken and how to fall in love; about rising above high-school drama and wrestling with problems that are (almost) too big. It speaks directly to teens and assures them that they’re not alone, and does it all with an abundance of heart.

This book’s coming out soon in America under the title Get It Together, Delilah!

I didn’t like this book. At all. This really disappointed me because I kept hearing good things about it. So this review is basically just gonna be me complaining about everything.

First of all, this book was published in 2015. While it’s possible the author wasn’t aware of anti-ableism discourse, the fact remains that words such as “crazy” and “insane” are used repetitively throughout the book and that is not okay. There’s also a scene where the word “anorexic” is used as an insult regarding someone’s appearance. Also, given the author doesn’t tend to describe characters’ races unless they’re characters of colour, I have no real choice but to assume the protagonist is white. This makes her use of the term “powwow” to describe a meeting incredibly crappy and appropriative.

I also didn’t like Delilah, the protagonist, all that much. Or her friends. Or anyone except for a handful for supporting characters, really. I also felt that, while Delilah did a lot of crappy things, she was punished for those that weren’t actually an issue (not wanting to lie under oath, being angry at the girl she sorta-kinda dated for pretending Delilah was stalking her so the whole school treated Delilah horribly and in a homophobic manner), and got off easy on the things I felt were particularly terrible (her impatience with Rosa, verbally thrashing people). Delilah actually started feeling guilty for being angry at the girl who ruined her entire high school existence. Was I meant to applaud her for that?

And don’t get me started on the homophobia and lesbophobia. Oop, never mind. Off I go anyway. I get it was part of the plot and the author is queer herself, but it was… too much for me. I honestly think it was excessive. Some of it came from the antagonist (creepy “can I watch” nonsense) but he was already a terrible person without having to go that extra step. I’m not normally all that sensitive to queerphobia written into books, but there was so much that I almost stopped reading on multiple occasions.

I’m not sure if I was supposed to sympathise with Delilah and her friends or not. They were so terrible at times that I couldn’t bring myself to care about them. I finished this book through sheer force of will. I almost wanted Charlie to go to jail because what he did was so ridiculous and I can’t actually believe he tried to force Delilah to give false evidence for him.

Delilah also kept claiming the whole way through that she’d dropped out of school to take care of the cafe and not because of the homophobic bullying, but it was so painfully obvious that it was. It took the entire book for her to admit that and I’m really annoyed about it. Maybe that was the point? If so, it was poorly executed. I also wasn’t rooting for her to get the girl, because I didn’t think either of them even deserved each other. Delilah deserved more than someone she’d have to sneak around for, and Rosa deserved better than someone who would angry at her for wanting to come out slowly. They weren’t compatible.

Basically, I don’t know how I managed to finish this book.

EDIT 14/3/17: It’s been brought to my attention that I dropped the ball on an offensive part of the book. Hamish’s dreadlocks, which are described as being a “nest of unwashed hair” that contain “spare change, perhaps? A family of mice?” Now, I interpreted Hamish as white since his race wasn’t described, unlike the few characters of colour there are in the book. However, that means the dreadlocks are cultural appropriation and they’re never called out as such, even if Hamish is a villain. Just having him be a villain isn’t enough. It is possible that he could be black since it was never stated otherwise, but then the description of his dreadlocks as dirty is incredibly racist. I err more on the side of him being an appropriating white dude, but no matter which way you slice it, this whole thing with his hair is racist.

Callouts, Bullying and White Fragility

Fellow white people, we need to talk. I doubt the people who need this most are going to read it, but it’s worth a shot.

People get defensive when they’re told not to uncritically support a problematic book. We’re accused of ruining authors’ careers, bullying readers, mobbing innocent people minding their own business. People of Colour, especially Black and Native women, face the brunt of it.

One of the books regularly called out for racism and ableism is Carve the Mark, written by bestselling author Veronica Roth. She’s still a bestseller. She’s fine. We haven’t ruined her career. See also, though the author isn’t quite as famous: Nevernight. (Sidenote: don’t harass anyone whose articles I’ve linked. Don’t be that person.)

The thing is, no one has the power to stop you reading what you want. But when you promote harmful books without even a warning, you are complicit in the hurt they cause. Telling someone a book is problematic–and, if they won’t stop supporting it, the least they could do is be upfront about it–isn’t censorship or bullying. We’re trying to protect the people who could be harmed. This extends to behaviour inspired by these books: posting triggering images, appropriating cultures, using racial slurs, etc. Maybe my priorities are wrong, but the health and safety of marginalised people is more important than the comfort of the privileged.

Now is a good time to discuss white fragility, because the majority of people engaging in this defensive behavior are white (I’m not qualified to comment on those who are not). This paper from the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy is worth a read, given the (white) author Robin DiAngelo coined the term. I have the attention span of a gnat, so I read it in small chunks over time, but even reading a little would be valuable.

In writing this post, I also referred to a number of articles by People of Colour, including this article by Marcus Woolombi Waters, a Kamilaroi man from one of the many Australian Aboriginal groups. I also drew from articles by Monique Judge and June Eric-Udorie, who are black women from the US and UK respectively. Some of you might recognise June Eric-Udorie’s story about how she tried to address a lack of diversity on a publishing industry panel, which resulted in the (white) organiser becoming defensive.

White fragility is the extreme stress response that white people experience when our privilege is called into question. Our upbringing has insulated us from having to think about race, rendering our own race in particular invisible to us even while we reap the benefits. Being forced to confront our privilege is an uncomfortable feeling, one that often results in excessively defensive behaviour.

Judge talks about the circumstances that allow white fragility to have such a foothold:

What those privileges mean is being above reproach and critique and being able to feel safe and comfortable in all spaces, wrapped within a bubble of whiteness.

The result of these circumstances, Waters describes thus:

White fragility leads to feelings of insecurity, defensiveness, even threat. It creates a backlash against those perceived as the “other.”

When our comfort as white people is challenged, often we become defensive, accusing those who call us out of attacking or bullying us. Politeness doesn’t make a difference. This can happen even when the callout is as gentle as can be. The pain we’ve caused marginalised people, especially People of Colour, is pushed to the side.

“But why didn’t they just message the person privately instead of calling them out publicly?” There are two issues with this: 1. You don’t necessarily know they haven’t. Sometimes they do that first and it doesn’t work. 2. Not all people are comfortable with private conversations for a number of reasons, including the fact other people cannot tap in if the conversation gets out of hand.

There is a pattern of trivialisation regarding the issues we’re called out on. Dismissing the issue as “drama” seems to be the order of the day. The thing is, it’s never “just a book” or “just the internet.” The behaviour being called out is part of a long-running pattern of marginalisation woven into the fabric of our society. Trivialising the issue allows white people to feel justified in our anger. Calling out something deemed trivial seems like an overreaction because we’re not accurately interpreting the severity of the hurt we’ve caused. Also, microaggressions are a thing.

There is a trend among those resisting callouts, citing that it aggravates their anxiety or other mental illness, while ignoring that many People of Colour attempting to talk to them are also mentally ill. I’ll refer you to Claribel Ortega’s twitter thread as she is far better-versed in this matter than I am. This is only the first tweet, but please read the whole thing. It’s much shorter than the blog post you’re currently reading.

It’s worth looking at DiAngelo’s list of what causes severe racial distress in white people and therefore sets off defensive behaviours. It puts the “you’re bullying me” arguments into perspective, given they tend to be in response to callouts that fall into the categories below:

• Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);
• People of color talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge to white racial codes);
• People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort);
• People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations);
• A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge to white solidarity);
• Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white liberalism);
• Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism);
• An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy);
• Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
• Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

We need to be aware our discomfort is not comparable to the suffering caused by racism and other forms of bigoted behaviour. If someone says you’ve hurt them, listen. If you’re angry or upset, take a step back and cool down before reacting. Mistakes happen but we need to apologise and change our behaviour so it doesn’t happen again.

The excessive stress response that stems from white fragility has consequences. When our discomfort is treated as more dire than marginalised people’s pain, especially that of Native and Black women, we create an environment that punishes them for speaking out. As Eric-Udorie notes:

For many black people, there comes a point where our silence, rather than our visibility, seems to be safer. When we do speak up, it rocks the boat, and often our disruption comes at a cost.

We need to remember that People of Colour don’t owe us anything, not education, not patience and certainly not forgiveness. If we screw up, that’s on us. Expecting people we’ve already harmed to perform additional emotional labour is unrealistic and smacks of entitlement. Rather, we should listen, learn and do better.

Callouts are designed to protect people at risk of harm. We don’t do them for fun, or to tear other people down. At the end of the day, especially in the YA book community, we’re trying to protect marginalised teens who deserve to be safe.

Review: Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

31447601It’s the start of Jordan Sun’s junior year at the Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, she’s an Alto 2, which—in the musical theatre world—is sort of like being a vulture in the wild: She has a spot in the ecosystem, but nobody’s falling over themselves to express their appreciation. So it’s no surprise when she gets shut out of the fall musical for the third year straight.

Then the school gets a mass email: A spot has opened up in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s elite a cappella octet. Worshiped … revered … all male. Desperate to prove herself, Jordan auditions in her most convincing drag, and it turns out that Jordan Sun, Tenor 1, is exactly what the Sharps are looking for.

I received an electronic copy from the publisher and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Books about characters cross-dressing to get into places they can’t reach as their own gender are always a bit of a risk. Movies like She’s The Man are wildly cissexist and therefore insensitive towards transgender people, which is frankly unnecessary. But I’ve heard good things about this book and had been assured the subject matter would be handled sensitively.

The first thing that jumped out to me was the rich writing style. Riley Redgate has a real talent for description and figurative speech. The narration and dialogue is filled with humour–from the clever to the downright puerile because hello teenagers–in a way that feels totally organic. I kept reading more than I intended at a time because it kept sucking me in.

I also really related to the struggles of attending a performing arts school, as a musical theatre kid myself, especially that feeling of never being the best everything and being shunted aside because of things you can’t change about yourself. I have the opposite problem to Jordan in that I’m a ridiculously high soprano who doesn’t belt (or dance particularly well, and therefore was never going to be a certain teacher’s first choice for anything), but I could definitely still relate to what she was dealing with.

Jordan has such a rich inner world in a way that is sometimes missing from novels, in that there’s so much going on with her that she keeps to herself. Her struggles coming from an impoverished family were raw and hard-hitting and, as a non-American, I appreciated how well it was explained how the restrictions on these particular welfare programs often mean they don’t help the people in need as much as they should.

I also related really hard to Jordan coming to terms with her bisexuality. It’s something I still struggle with a little bit, and other people’s attitudes about it (which is addressed a tiny amount in this book) are a part of that. The whole thing about there being signs that you don’t take for what they really are until much later also really resonated with me.

This novel has a diverse set of characters across ethnicities, sexualities, religions, class and also a character with dyslexia. As I said earlier, I was a little nervous how the cross-dressing angle would be handled in that it’s very easy to disrespect trans people while doing so. Jordan does become aware of this quite early on, which eased some of my concern. She also has an opportunity to do something later in the book that would’ve been a massive betrayal of this but chose not too, which I was glad to see. However, that moment came after an accidental reveal involving nudity which can be a common and not-so-good trope for showing a character is trans, so I’m not 100% comfortable with it. I’ve yet to see any other complaints on this front at this time of writing, so I don’t know if I’m being too nitpicky. My opinion of this, given I’m cisgender, is not entirely complete. Overall, it does seem Riley Redgate has done a good job on this front, with the exception of that trope I’m unsure about.

This book also tackles issues of sexism and toxic masculinity. Jordan feels alienated at times from the boys in the a capella group when they make some off-colour comment or an inappropriate joke relying on sexism for the punchline to work. As time wears on in her disguise, she becomes more aware of the particular pressures of masculinity, as well as that old chestnut “man up.”

People who’ve been following me for a while will likely be aware I have a lot of trouble with m/f pairings in stories, being that it’s very easy to fall into the same old cliché sexist nonsense. I didn’t have that issue in this book. The pairing grew organically out of friendship, so there was no instalove to grind my gears. I’ve seen claims that there’s a love triangle in this book. There isn’t. I don’t know where they’re getting that from. Jordan has an ex-boyfriend and kisses one other character, but I’d hardly call any of that a love triangle.

The characters were rich and multi-dimensional and I really got the sense that I knew them, especially the members of the a capella group. And it was clear, even before I read the acknowledgements at the end, that the author knew what she was talking about when it came to a capella groups and singing in general–which just made the singing-related jokes even funnier because of how truth-based they were. All this resulted in a rich, entertaining novel that is funny, relatable and heartwarming.

Review: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

ashala-wolf“There will come a day when a thousand Illegals descend on your detention centres. Boomers will breach the walls. Skychangers will send lightning to strike you all down from above, and Rumblers will open the earth to swallow you up from below. . . . And when that day comes, Justin Connor, think of me.”

Ashala Wolf has been captured by Chief Administrator Neville Rose. A man who is intent on destroying Ashala’s Tribe — the runaway Illegals hiding in the Firstwood. Injured and vulnerable and with her Sleepwalker ability blocked, Ashala is forced to succumb to the machine that will pull secrets from her mind.

And right beside her is Justin Connor, her betrayer, watching her every move.

Will the Tribe survive the interrogation of Ashala Wolf?

I haven’t read many books by indigenous authors, let alone those from my own country, so I was glad to have an opportunity to read this.

Getting into the book was a little difficult in that it felt like I’d just been dropped into the middle of something with little explanation. The reason for that became clear as the story continued, since Ashala didn’t really have the full picture of what was going on, either. The main pairing in the novel seemed like a typical (and horrible) relationship where the male character was a completely dreadful person who undeservedly receives redemption from the female character. Fortunately, that actually isn’t the case.

The twist in the midst of the story came as a surprise but it made everything that came before it make much more sense (and also made me stop hating the main pairing).

A lot of the worldbuilding appears to have been based on the Dreaming, while still making enough sense to readers without any knowledge of Aboriginal spirituality. Ashala Wolf’s connection to her ancestry also makes her uniquely qualified to fight the government’s oppression of people with supernatural abilities.

I also found the use of loaded terms such as Illegal (to mean people with supernatural abilities) and Detention Centre (where those caught alive are usually held) to be an interesting commentary on contemporary Australian issues, in that Australia has a long and horrible history in our treatment of asylum seekers and putting them into what have been called detention centres. The Question–“does a person with an ability belong to the Balance?”–takes on an additional kind of meaning with these parallels. Are these people really a threat to our way of life the way our politicians like to claim? No. They’re not. Just as innocent people with supernatural abilities in this book don’t actually threaten the environmental “Balance” the in-story society is attempting to achieve in the wake of an environmental disaster of humanity’s own making.

All this, in addition to the twists of the plot and characters, made for a rich reading experience.

The one thing about this book that I couldn’t stand, however, was the ableism. Early on, the language was more casual and mostly directed inwards while Ashala Wolf was questioning her own perceptions. But then, during the scenes leading up to the climax, it shifted from poor use of language to something far more insidious. Pretty much every villain in the story is described as crazy or unstable, often while they’re about to commit an act of violence. One character was petulant and possessive while another was grief-stricken. Those things were enough to push the characters to behave the way they did without having to throw mentally ill people under the bus. It is worth noting this book was published in 2012 and therefore doesn’t have the benefit of the more recent dissemination of activist discourse, but it’s still difficult to read and could very easily hurt people regardless of the author’s knowledge at the time. I hope Kwaymullina’s subsequent books don’t rely on this kind of writing.


Review: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

27969081Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

I fall to my knees. Shattered glass, melted candles and the outline of scorched feathers are all that surround me. Every single person who was in my house – my entire family — is gone.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange markings on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

Beautiful Creatures meets Daughter of Smoke and Bone with an infusion of Latin American tradition in this highly original fantasy adventure.

Labyrinth Lost is a really engaging story with a fully-realised magic system that draws from real-life Latin American traditions and cultures. It also has a gorgeous cover. I mean, look at that thing.

The protagonist, Alex, is terrified of her own magic. And pretty much of her own shadow, though, given the horrible things that have happened around her since she was a child, it’s understandable. Nobody wants to be attacked by possessed creatures or have a corpse fall on you, much less when you’re a child. So while I felt the actions she took to remove her own powers were highly irresponsible, I can understand why she thought that was the only option she had. Her godmother, who should have been around to teach her but had died too early, wasn’t around to guide her and she shied away from any kind of magical training, leaving her knowledge woefully limited.

There is a love triangle in this book, but it’s not the typical ‘girl loves two guys and has to choose between them’ kind. Alex is bisexual, though the word isn’t used within the text given she’s still figuring out who she is, and one love interest is a boy and the other a girl. Alex, still in the process of awakening to her own orientation, picks up on her feelings towards the female love interest much later than the reader does. The female love interest is also funny and adorable and I love her.

Zoraida Cordova has a lovely writing style; not too flowery, but still rich and beautiful to read. She has a knack for description and I want to learn how to write like her. This book is an education in how to cultivate a gorgeous yet non-invasive writing style. One section that really grabbed me is from near the end of the book, about Alex’s mother:

I look at her face. The smattering of gray hair that she’s named after each of us, the crow’s-feet at the corner of her eyes. Other brujas get glamours to hide them, but my mom never does.

It’s just so endearing. Alex’s mother doesn’t feel as real to me as her sisters, but I imagine that’s by design given the woman was a single mother who didn’t get to spend as much time with her children as she would’ve liked, busy being the sole breadwinner in the family.

Just before the climax, one of the characters does something absolutely deplorable and I was honestly afraid that they would be forgiven for it, no matter how badly that character knowingly screwed things up for Alex and her entire family. The decision Alex ultimately makes I definitely feel is the right one.

There were a few little things I didn’t like about this book. First, the repetitious use of the phrase “bipolar eyes” to describe a character whose eyes couldn’t decide between green and blue. I hope Cordova learns it isn’t appropriate to trivialise an actual mental illness in that manner and avoids it in the rest of the books in this series.

There are also a few uses of “crazy” here and there, but it might be up to individual readers to decide whether they find the uses offensive or not. I’m not an authority on the matter. One use is to describe the protagonist’s “crazy Uncle Julio” who is an eccentric older man who likes to talk conspiracy theories. There is an occasion Alex uses it to describe herself when she could be genuinely worried she is imagining a voice she’s hearing. Just thought I’d mention it in case it bothers anyone.

One of the characters also uses the phrase “man parts” in a cissexist manner to assume a statue of someone is male. She is somewhat corrected in that the Deos don’t really fit the male/female binary.

The problematic aspects were fairly limited, but I thought they were worth mentioning to people sensitive to them could either avoid them or prepare themselves in advance.

Overall, I really loved this book. The way it ended has me excited for the sequel and where it could all be going next.

Review: Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember

unicorn-tracksAfter a savage attack drives her from her home, sixteen-year-old Mnemba finds a place in her cousin Tumelo’s successful safari business, where she quickly excels as a guide. Surrounding herself with nature and the mystical animals inhabiting the savannah not only allows Mnemba’s tracking skills to shine, it helps her to hide from the terrible memories that haunt her.

Mnemba is employed to guide Mr. Harving and his daughter, Kara, through the wilderness as they study unicorns. The young women are drawn to each other, despite that fact that Kara is betrothed. During their research, they discover a conspiracy by a group of poachers to capture the Unicorns and exploit their supernatural strength to build a railway. Together, they must find a way to protect the creatures Kara adores while resisting the love they know they can never indulge.

I wish this book had been my first read of 2017, because it is vastly better than what my first read actually was. As such, I’m counting this for my Diversity Bingo 2017 free space square, rather than the racist trashfire that originally had that honour.

While the society of Nazwimbe–an analogue for South East African culture as The Bookavid notes–where Mnemba lives is patriarchal, the other nation, Echalend, that Kara hails from is much the same, only in a different manner. I was glad the author was careful to point this out so as to not paint Nazwimbe as some kind of backwards society. The book is full of lascivious men and there is a near-rape, in addition to Mnemba being a rape survivor from events prior to the beginning of the story, and it would have been all too easy to have tarred a South East African-based nation all with the one brush.

The worldbuilding wasn’t particularly expansive, but I felt it served the purposes of the story. Julia Ember has a knack for succinct but effective description and for conveying worldbuilding information with limited words. The magical wildlife was woven seamlessly into the environment.

I also felt–in my admittedly limited knowledge–that Mnemba’s experience as a rape survivor was handled delicately and realistically, and the way her cousin Tumelo offers her a way out of her village where it happened adds an extra layer to his character rather than him just being the one-dimensional greedy tour guide that he easily could’ve been. It’s an interesting contrast, given many characters who would be considered more “moral” were powerless to provide Mnemba a way to deal with such a stifling environment. Tumelo, unlike some of those characters, understood that she had to get out.

In terms of the plot, I did feel it was a little unbalanced in favour of the first section of the story. It dragged here and there and the end was rushed. The romance between the two women was a little underdeveloped. I wouldn’t quite so as far as to call it instalove, but it wasn’t far off. Fortunately, I liked both characters anyway so it didn’t bother me too much. The plot and romance issues could have been solved if the book was a little longer. Kara did get on my nerves every so often, I will admit.

What I really liked about the way Kara was written, however, was that she was a beautiful and athletic fat woman. She was allowed to be loved not in spite of her weight, but because it was just another part of her that Mnemba adored. The only judgement comes from Kara herself, talking about the way her homeland views her weight in a less positive light than the residents of Nazwimbe do.

Overall, this was a good book that could’ve benefited from having a little more space to develop. I’m still giving it a high Goodreads rating because I really enjoyed reading it.

EDIT: I neglected to mention that the word “crazy” is used once in this book. It’s the only incident of ableism as far as I can tell, but I’m not disabled and therefore not an expert on that.

Review: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit

Joanna Gord28003097on has been out and proud for years, but when her popular radio evangelist father remarries and decides to move all three of them from Atlanta to the more conservative Rome, Georgia, he asks Jo to do the impossible: to lie low for the rest of her senior year. And Jo reluctantly agrees.

Although it is (mostly) much easier for Jo to fit in as a straight girl, things get complicated when she meets Mary Carlson, the oh-so-tempting sister of her new friend at school. But Jo couldn’t possibly think of breaking her promise to her dad. Even if she’s starting to fall for the girl. Even if there’s a chance Mary Carlson might be interested in her, too. Right?

(Note: all page numbers are from my hardcover edition and I spoil some plot elements late in the review when I’m talking about Mary Carlson getting away with shit)

I wanted to like this book. I’d been excited to read it for months. On a basic writing level, there’s nothing wrong with it. The writing style is easy to read and the protagonist’s voice is fairly strong. I also really liked the peach motif that cropped up here and there, usually tied to sumptuous descriptions that made me kinda hungry.

However, I find I had a lot of issues with the book in terms of structure and prejudice. I’m not an expert on racism, being a white person, but the more I think about it, the more it seems so obvious that I don’t understand how so many people have missed it.

My first issue circulates around the one and only black character in the entire book, Gemma. As far as I can tell, the author is white, and Gemma’s manner of speech was very stereotypical. I almost wanted to keep a tally of how many times she prefaced a sentence with “girl” or threw in some other awkwardly-executed AAVE grammatical mannerisms.

Page 70:

“Because, girl.” Gemma growls. “Our dance parties are epic.”

Page 140:

Her eyes narrow and it’s like I can hear the “Oh no he didn’t” loud as a bullhorn.

Page 150:

“Girl, don’t you lie.” Gemma is straight to the point.

Page 187:

“Girl.” Gemma is attacking a slice of veggie pizza.

There are undoubtedly more examples. These are just the ones I noted in my Goodreads statuses.

I know it’s not just a quirk of being southern since, with the exception of some really uncomfortable AAVE appropriation coming from Jo and her friend, Dana, she was the only character who consistently spoke like this. If the representation had been more varied (as in, Gemma wasn’t the only black character in the whole book), it wouldn’t have been as much of an issue.

EDIT: Jay Coles also pointed out that this perpetuates the “sassy black girl” stereotype, which I should have noted originally.

Sidenote: we as white people need to stop saying “yaaaas” (which Dana says on page 22). Can we stop appropriating from AAVE already? Please. My crops are dying.

Unrelated to the racism of the dialogue, I also hated that Gemma’s attempts to invade Jo’s privacy by getting into her phone were treated as a silly little quirk rather than a horrible thing to do.

Biphobia also rears its ugly head in this book. The most blatant occasion is on PAGE THREE where Jo, the lesbian narrator, says:

I nod toward the late twentyish, early thirtyish bi-curious cougar Dana had been flirting with before she deigned to check up on me.

There’s no good reason the word needs to be there as it does not impact the plot in any way. As a bisexual, this is a word I never want to see again because it is used to invalidate bi women’s queerness as just a phase she’ll grow out of once her so-called curiosity has been sated.

I also had issues with the plot, especially after the mid-point of the book. Honestly, most of the drama could’ve been solved with one basic conversation. Jo’s internal freakout over thinking Mary Carlson would be angry to find she was lying would have been nothing compared to what ultimately transpired because she just would not communicate. Seriously. One little conversation explaining to Mary Carlson why she couldn’t come out and so much of the drama would’ve been resolved before it began.

And don’t get me started on Mary Carlson trying to force Jo out of the closet. That was not okay, even if Jo wasn’t being entirely honest at that point. And yet Mary Carlson isn’t criticised for this. Jo is the one who is forced to apologise for lying and Mary Carlson gets away with everything, even though it was horrible of her to try and force Jo to out herself before she was in a position to do so. They’re living in a judgemental small town in the South, for God’s sake. You’d think she’d know better.

Also, the rival love interest was such a flat, cardboard villain. At least give her some complexity. Come on. Just because she’s an antagonist doesn’t mean she has to be a horrible human being with absolutely no depth or redeeming qualities.

When things weren’t being ridiculous between the main couple, they were pretty cute together. I also liked the development of the relationship between Jo and her stepmother, even if I didn’t think the stepmother should’ve gotten away with as much of her low-level homophobia as she did. But all that cuteness was often punctuated by these issues so ultimately I couldn’t like the book as much as I wanted to.