Book Review – ‘The Problem With Forever’ by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Taking your life back can be hard… but it’s easier with a hunk at your side.

Genre: YA, Contemporary, Romance

No. of pages: 474

A story about friendship, survival, and finding your voice.

Growing up, Mallory Dodge learned that the best way to survive was to say nothing. And even though it’s been four years since her nightmare ended, she’s beginning to worry that the fear that holds her back will last a lifetime. Now, after years of homeschooling, Mallory must face a new milestone—spending her senior year at a public high school. But she never imagined she’d run into Rider Stark, the friend and protector she hasn’t seen since childhood, on her very first day. 

It doesn’t take long for Mallory to realize that the connection she shared with Rider never really faded. Yet soon it becomes apparent that she’s not the only one grappling with lingering scars from the past. And as she watches Rider’s life spiral out of control, Mallory must make a choice between staying silent and speaking out—for the people she loves, the life she wants and the truths that need to be heard.

A realistic tale of child abuse survivors attempting to live in the real world, finish high school, and reconnect.

To summarise my roller-coaster of feelings while reading ‘The Problem With Forever’ : a little long. Pacing was good. Nearly ugly cried at the end. Some melodrama (as expected). Loved the characters and character development, felt fresh from JLA, not a lot of surprises, but an enjoyable read. Shocked me once.

It’s been a minute since I’ve read anything from Jennifer L. Armentrout, I think I’ve been avoiding her titles because at times her writing feels too melodramatic and over-angsty. I actually love those elements in a story, but many times after reading one of JLA’s books I got the impression that it was heavy-handed (and sometimes repetitive) with theses story elements. ‘The Problem With Forever’ felt like a refreshing take for Armentrout in the context of my reading experience. I guess removing any science fiction or fantasy elements, we get more of her core writing skills with character development and dynamics. Admittedly I’ve only read a handful of her steamy contemporary romance stuff at present, so it’s hard to draw that comparison. But overall I really enjoyed ‘The Problem With Forever’ showcasing a unique protagonist, Mallory ‘Mouse’ Dodge attempting regular high school after years of home-schooling and dealing with the mental and physical aftereffects of abuse.

This was paced really well, but at times felt like it was dragging, or the story a little too long; but I think that comes down to the author liking to indulge in the romance and angst (and sometimes repeating a lot of what is already established) typical of YA and JLA’s writing style. But this did not detract from my enjoyment of ‘The Problem With Forever’ that much.

I enjoyed reading about a protagonist who was attempting to grow and push herself, to start using coping mechanisms for her PTSD, anxiety, and depression and get out in the world, function efficiently rather than living cooped up inside and away from crowds. I did get a sense of the love interest, Rider (ugh, that name) playing protector too much, like she was broken and needed a saviour. Setting up a premise of Mouse conquering her fears only to have Rider swoop in many times rubbed my skin the wrong way. I would have liked to see him in a more supportive role than the man who comes in to fix the problem… I don’t mind a damsel in distress moment, but as long as it is not set up as a repeating trope.

Rider is that cool, bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. JLA loves this trope, I see it a lot in her books. It’s a fun fantasy, and at least he wasn’t being mean or aloof ‘for her own good,’ and even though I cringed a bit at this trope, Rider grew on me as we see more and more of his motives come to light. The fact he has his own demons to wrestle from the same childhood abuse redeemed his character in my eyes.

You get the sense of some real underlying research into child abuse, mental illness, and how children cope, adapt, and it’s repercussions in later life. I would have liked to seen more practical advice and support presented in the narrative, but the story was pretty solid. It goes without saying that there should be a big trigger warning around child abuse for ‘The Problem With Forever.’

Mouse gets bullied – there is an element of girl warfare we see all the time in high school, it adds some great tension, and a worthy antagonist for the story, but something about Rider’s excuses, Mouse’s tendency to brush it off, and Paige (said antagonist) felt a little two-dimensional, painted as the villain a little too heavily. We also get a lot of holding back of information, and misunderstandings to amp up the drama which lost a little bit of realism for me.

The plot is fairly simple, though it has a great reveal at the end which really squeezed my heart. Jennifer L. Armentrout’s writing style is breezy, lending to a quick read despite its 474 page length. As with most contemporary romances the plot was easily predictable, but it is a satisfying ending that wraps up the plot points nicely. I’ve seen chatter on the blogs about wanting a companion novel following Ainsley (Mouse’s bff from home-schooling online) and Hector (Rider’s foster brother) and I can see the opening for that – their story is left up in the air, and I’d be down to read that book if it is ever written and get more of a glimpse into Mouse and Riders future.

An interesting, heart-wrenching, realistic contemporary that I thoroughly enjoyed. Definitely recommend this one.

Overall feeling: She’s back in the saddle

© Casey Carlisle 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Heartstopper : Volume Three’ (#3 Heartstopper) by Alice Oseman

Love is in the air with a field trip to Paris.

Genre: Y/A, Contemporary, Romance, LGBTQIA+, Graphic Novel

No. of pages: 384

 The Heartstopper gang go on a school trip to Paris! Not only are Nick and Charlie navigating a new city, but also telling more people about their relationship AND learning more about the challenges each other are facing in private…

Meanwhile Tao and Elle will face their feelings for each other, Tara and Darcy share more about their relationship origin story, and the teachers supervising the trip seem… rather close…?

This volume of ‘Heartstopper’ just upped the adorable factor! We start to get developed side characters and their own arcs, there’s more complexity in the plot, and Charlie and Nick are facing greater challenges. Again this is not a self-encapsulated story, rather just an episode in the growing closeness of Charlie and Nick.

The representation is handled with kitten gloves, but does not water down the fears minority groups face. ‘Heartstopper’ still manages to encapsulate that innocent charm from the previous volumes.

’Heartstopper : Volume Three’ deals with more issues around Nick’s coming out to a wider circle of people, and the pair heading off on a school trip to Paris. There they also start to address intimacy, and how far they are willing to go… and getting close to using the ‘L’ word. It’s nice to read a story that builds the relationship at a more realistic pace and have frank honest discussions about becoming intimate, and comfort levels. It feels like such an intelligent approach and is a great example for today’s youth. I’m sick of the trope when teens get into relationships and weeks later (sometimes much sooner) they sleep together and it’s a magical experience and like a love they could never imagined. That is so unrealistic and robs the characters of being able to grow the foundations of real (loving and intimate) relationships.

Queer relationships from others characters in Charlie and Nick’s immediate circle are also getting air time in the narrative, again giving examples of the many different hues of the rainbow. Tao and Elle. Tara and Darcy. Mr. Ajayi and Mr. Farouk.

We also get a touch on the bullying that Nick suffers from his older brother, and I’m interested to see how the family is going to handle this issue. There is a little more about Charlie and his eating disorder. And the friendship dynamics the pair face in their separate friend circles. There is a lot to unpack from these graphic novels – Such a master of subtext and frank observations on the issues raised.

I’m loving the complexity and scope of this series now, and am eagerly ready to jump into Volume 4. Also with all the updates coming in about the screen adaptation by Netflix with casting and shots from filming on set, I’m incredibly eager to see what they churn out. Looks like we are getting eight 30 minute episodes, but no release date as yet.

Again, ‘Heartstopper : Volume Three’ was another quick paced tome I finished in about an hour. So sweet. I’ve become a major stan.

Overall feeling: Gushing over this!

© Casey Carlisle 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Heartstopper : Volume 2’ by Alice Oseman

A gentle tale of discovering feelings.

Genre: Y/A, Contemporary, Romance, LGBT, Graphic Novel

No. of pages: 320

Nick and Charlie are best friends. Nick knows Charlie’s gay, and Charlie is sure that Nick isn’t.

But love works in surprising ways, and Nick is discovering all kinds of things about his friends, his family … and himself.

I liked volume 2 more than the debut. There is still that overwhelming cuteness in the narrative that simply captures your heart. Nick and Charlie are adorable innocence personified.

In this sequel, we see Nick and Charlie grow closer and come out, forming friendships with other LBGTQIA+ youth. Where Vol. 1 deals more with Charlie’s anxiety over his feelings for Nick and worries about getting his heart broken; this edition deals with Nick coming to terms with his feelings and coming out to those close to him. It’s all about Nick sorting things out in his head.

Again another quick read, and it’s getting me to like the graphic novel medium. I recently heard that there is a screen adaptation underway, and I am really excited to see that comes to fruition.

The plot isn’t all that complicated, we get some resolution to an issue, but this is really an episode in a much bigger tale. So don’t expect any theatrics or magical reveals, ‘Heartstopper’ remains true to its core about LGBTQIA+ representation and the story of Charlie and Nick navigating the world and their relationship. We do get new introduced elements which will no doubt get explored in following editions of this series. And it all got me hooked!

The presentation of this story in graphic novel form lends to a fast paced storyline. It took me just over an hour to complete the novel in full. And ‘Heartstopper’ has got me wanting to venture into Alice Oseman’s back catalogue.

Again, the story is easy to predict, but we do get a few little bumps in the road that I did not foresee that were a joy to read.

There’s not a lot to say without spoiling or repeating what’s in Volume 2, it’s a sweet progression of Nick and Charlies love for each other that I found endearing. Love the rainbow representation and I’ll recommending this to all my friends. It’s also accessible to younger audiences, not only because of its medium, but because it tackles issues of identity and community in a gentle way.

Overall feeling: Beautiful.

© Casey Carlisle 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Heartstopper : Volume 1’ by Alice Oseman

Heart-warming innocence.

Genre: Y/A, Contemporary, Romance, LGBT, Graphic Novel

No. of pages: 278

Charlie, a highly-strung, openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a cheerful, soft-hearted rugby player, meet at a British all-boys grammar school. Friendship blooms quickly, but could there be something more…?

Charlie Spring is in Year 10 at Truham Grammar School for Boys. The past year hasn’t been too great, but at least he’s not being bullied anymore. Nick Nelson is in Year 11 and on the school rugby team. He’s heard a little about Charlie – the kid who was outed last year and bullied for a few months – but he’s never had the opportunity to talk to him.

They quickly become friends, and soon Charlie is falling hard for Nick, even though he doesn’t think he has a chance. But love works in surprising ways, and sometimes good things are waiting just around the corner…

I was encouraged to pick this up from many, many of my friends recommending this. I’m not one to read a lot of illustrated novels, but ‘Heartstopper’ is charming in its innocence. We meet Charlie, an out gay year 10 student who gets paired with a year 11 student, Nick in peer group for school. They become friends and need to learn to navigate their new feelings and what they mean. Charlie is determined not to fall for a straight boy, and Nick is surprised by his attraction to Charlie.

‘Heartstopper’ is cute! The story is paired back and sticks to the main storyline without too much dramatics. I’ve read manga in the past, where it’s melodramatic and packs a lot into the narrative – ‘Heartstopper’ keeps the main couple in its crosshairs from start to finish. In this fashion, I found the novel to be a little, well, plain. I wanted stronger emotion and some more plot. But I guess that is the charm of ‘Heartstopper,’ it’s a light romance of two boys finding each other in high school.

We get some character development from both boys, it’s not a lot, but enough to have me invested in their story and I have already ordered the rest of the published volumes to find out what happens next.

The illustrations are expressive and have a stylistic grungy aspect to set it apart from the common manga fare. I kind of wanted a more finished look on the page though – but that is a personal preference on my behalf. ‘Heartstopper’ is a happy addition to my library.

Because of the graphic novel treatment I flew through this novel in about an hour, the scenes weren’t too emotional and the characterisation in the illustrations didn’t really have me starting at the page to soak up tone or additional undertones in the scenes. This is paired back, simple, fitting of quiet and understated Charlie and Nick’s slow burn relationship.

It ends on a cliff hanger, so be prepared to invest in this series as a whole.

If you like queer stories and graphic novels without all the melodrama than this one is for you. Excited to hear it is being adapted for a Netflix series and eager to see their take on Charlie and Nick’s story.

Overall feeling: First kiss angst!

© Casey Carlisle 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Attitudes in the book blogging community

There are some outliers that make the experience of sharing love and support for fellow writers very difficult.

I love reading. I love sharing my thoughts on what I read. I love recommending great novels. I also love sharing my experiences with writing and tidbits of information around writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. For the most part the online community is greatful and supportive. I have delightful conversations and garner knowledge from other bloggers on their own journey.

In dealing with a wide sample of the population we get a plethora of experience, knowledge, and attitudes.

Helping younger bloggers and writers elevate their content. Provide more critical reviews and recommendations, more insight into the craft of writing is what I consider what this community this community is all about.

One of my biggest dislikes has been the spam, the unsubstantiated emotional responses (*cough*trolling*cough*) and professionals coming back to members of the community with cold, threatening attitudes because they are trying to monetize and ‘own’ the content that a multitude of bloggers are posting for free. Granted it’s a small minority of the community at large, but it exists and can have an enormous impact on the person targeted with this type of behaviour.

I’ve personally had my content plagiarized. And it takes nothing to reach out to the instigator and politely ask them to either take the post down, or link it to your original material. There is no need for threats of lawyers, being rude, or charging them money for using your content. After all, you can contact the hosting service if they are in breach of copyright (WordPress has its own guidelines and governance regarding this) and the material can be taken down as a last resort. Or ultimately there is the registrar, the DMCA, or even google. (I have previously written a post with step-by-step actions about these topics here.) There are always steps to take other than a heated emails with no response.

On the other side of the coin, I have myself inadvertently breached copyright. In researching an article, I copy and pasted material into several documents for reference later offline, and to link to when I wrote and published my article. However after writing my post, I accidently deleted the finished article, and saved one of those source material documents under the title… and then it was subsequently scheduled to post. So what was published were notes cut and pasted without context of someone else’s material. Plagiarism out right. So embarrassing. A lesson learned in triple, quadruple checking the line-up of scheduled posts. I received an email the next day of a threatening nature. Granted it was my mistake, and I was able to find my original article and upload it in place of the mistakenly published article – the in-question material having only been live for 10 hours. However, this time I expanded on the topic, researched more and made it even better. The thing is, if I’d received a better toned email, I would have admitted my mistake, altered the article and the owner of some of the source material would have been credited and given a lot of hype in the article – benefitting us both. But instead I found alternate source material – who don’t require a paid subscription to access – and much more examples. My newly edited article was infinitely much better, and all reference to the nasty emailer removed. They missed out on engaging any audience funnelled from my publication just because of their attitude. I would have responded to a nice email… but I don’t reply to threats. You don’t get results for inciting negativity. You can escalate the issue for importance sure, but keep it neutral in tone. I hesitate to mention, that even after I had uploaded the correct and finished article, removing reference to the emailers original content, they continued to harass me to the point I had to block them on all of my social media accounts. This person clearly did not check the updated article, or check her tone. I wanted to issue a public apology, I wanted to contribute some of her material as inspiration for my article, but after the bullying nature and threatening nature of their correspondence (from a professional in the industry mind you,) I’m doing what my mother always said. Ignore the bullies and eventually they will find a new target to annoy.

I guess with a background in teaching – you learn a bit about reacting to attitudes; a little about conflict resolution. But with the rise of social media we are seeing a lot of this clapback mentality. Off the cuff posts, tweets, DM’s, emails designed to hurt, scare, or embarrass the target when you could take a night to sleep on the matter and craft your response more maturely. It’s hard to make this point in a world where sensational content trends regularly. Cancel culture, online bullying, clickbait, response videos, apology videos… they are big business in the news cycle. We are seeing more and more inexperienced (and some who rightfully know better) falling into this trap.

It’s a form of bullying, of hate culture, of negativity that stalls the growth of our community and the publishing industry as a whole. Sadly this is not going to go away. The only way we can start to change attitudes is to not react, or react appropriately. Know appropriate ways to respond to threats. Know the avenues you have available to protect yourself online.

Granted I don’t see this bad behaviour happen a lot within the book blogging community, but it does happen; and when it does it can really impact you.

Anyway I thought this was an interesting discussion to bring to the blog – have you experienced any of this type of behaviour? How did you deal with it? Have you made a faux-par with copyright or plagiarism, and what did you do to make amends? Do you think information around the craft of writing, editing, publishing, and marketing should be widely free and accessible to anyone online, or is it something that should be paid for?

© Casey Carlisle 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Parrotfish’ by Ellen Wittlinger

A cute story of a transgender male finding his place in the world…

Genre: YA, Contemporary, LGBT+

No. of pages: 294

“Last week I cut my hair, bought some boys’ clothes and shoes, wrapped a large ACE bandage around my chest to flatten my fortunately-not-large breasts, and began looking for a new name.”

Angela Katz-McNair has never felt quite right as a girl. Her whole life is leading up to the day she decides to become Grady, a guy. While coming out as transgendered feels right to Grady, he isn’t prepared for the reaction he gets from everyone else. His mother is upset, his younger sister is mortified, and his best friend, Eve, won’t acknowledge him in public. Why can’t people just let Grady be himself?

Grady’s life is miserable until he finds friends in some unexpected places — like the school geek, Sebastian, who explains that there is precedent in the natural world (parrotfish change gender when they need to, and the newly male fish are the alpha males), and Kita, a senior who might just be Grady’s first love.

I feel a little conflicted with ‘Parrotfish.’

This novel is a great tale of learning how to accept change. It tells an experience, but maybe not a well-researched one of a transgendered FtM teen. But I think this represents more about learning to deal with how life evolves. How we grow up. How our needs and wants shift as we progress through like. No-one and nothing stays the same forever. It can be scary. It can be exciting. ‘Parrotfish’ illustrates a small slice of some of those things and how a group of family and friends adapt to the evolving situation.

I also liked how it approached bullying and relationships. It was a little romanticised, but kept the scenes grounded in reality.

The big thing I enjoyed is that ‘Parrotfish’ stayed focused on the human being, and did not try to force identity defined or authenticated through a romantic relationship. Too many times have I read a coming out story of a protagonist affirming their gender identity only to have it given weight, or rewarded with a love interest – when neither need this validation, or are about love. They are about the self, and I think ‘Parrotfish’ bulls-eyed this tone intelligently.

I didn’t get any gut-wrenching feels or angst typical from this genre; and to be honest. I preferred this. Family, friends, and teachers all play and important and active role in Grady’s growth.

Parrotfish’ did feel too short. Like a drive-by toilet paper attack, it was quick, made its point and was gone just as quick. I will say I did not expect to laugh as much. Especially towards the end of the novel. I’m really impressed with Erin Wittlinger’s writing and will look into exploring some of her other titles in the future.

It was a bit hard to predict the path of the story. Obviously there is the theme of self-acceptance, but apart from that, given the more composed tone of Wittlinger’s writing style, I only had notions of what would eventuate, and they changed from chapter to chapter. I was never certain of what was going to happen. ‘Parrotfish’ ends on a positive note and was a sheer delight to read. I’ve read many novels dealing with a protagonist transitioning from female to male, and this one really grabbed my heart. It feels more inclined to the younger end of the YA demographic to help educate and increase awareness of people who struggle fitting in to rigid gender norms. The attitudes of the cast vary in their outlook to gender and sexuality as well in an un-obvious way that I found charming and delightful. I certainly wanted to go to high school with this gang of odd-balls.

I’m actually really proud to add this to my library and can see myself revisiting this story again.

Much of what I mentioned above is a typical straight cis-gendered response to ‘Parrotfish,’ but if you pass a more discerning eye over ‘Parrotfish’ you see elements of bullying and discrimination are greatly watered down. The internal torment and doubt someone like Grady faces is nearly non-existent. So too are the discussions over changing gender identity and sexual orientation… a mish-mash of coming out as a lesbian and then as a transgender male. In fact, I know most transgender men may find this story insulting and diminishing of their experience. Which plays into the need for real voices in this genre. So while ‘Parrotfish’ feels like it is a story given the ‘Disney’ filter from a cis-gendered heterosexual, I think it will add awareness and help start a conversation for those ignorant of the pressures transgender men growing through high school face; but it by no means represents the true experience.

I’m glad for the representation, the cute and funny story, but a little saddened for the misfire in the full picture of life a transgendered teen lives through. But given that ‘Parrotfish’ was published back in 2007, we will find there are more authentic stories out there now, especially coming from own voices authors.

Kita’s portrayal can also be seen as problematic. Yes she is a great ally, but as a love interest she is somewhat fetishized. Also, being set up as a love interest, and then the way the story was resolved adds to judging the worth of a transgender man… it felt icky.

So, if anything, ‘Parrotfish’ has stirred feelings (both good and bad) over transgender representation in literature, authentic or not, and the need for own voices in this genre. Which is a plus in my book – inciting a conversation over a minority that faces a great deal of discrimination. Though ‘Parrotfish’ at is a core is a fluffy, humorous tale and has a great theme that is well worth a read.

Overall feeling: Loved the story if a little conflicted….

© Casey Carlisle 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘I’ll Give You the Sun’ by Jandy Nelson

Art, identity, and secrets all mix into this masterful contemporary.

I'll Give You The Sun Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Contemporary, Romance, LGBT,

No. of pages: 371

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“We were all heading for each other on a collision course, no matter what. Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story.”

At first, Jude and her twin brother Noah, are inseparable. Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude wears red-red lipstick, cliff-dives, and does all the talking for both of them. Years later, they are barely speaking. Something has happened to change the twins in different yet equally devastating ways . . . but then Jude meets an intriguing, irresistible boy and a mysterious new mentor. The early years are Noah’s to tell; the later years are Jude’s. But they each have only half the story, and if they can only find their way back to one another, they’ll have a chance to remake their world.

Page border 2020 by Casey Carlisle

This was a surprise read for me. I had heard great things and noticed a lot of 5 star reviews but I kept away from all of that as much as I could. All I knew about ‘I’ll Give You The Sun’ was that the main protagonists were fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, where the male grapples with his identity.

I think the biggest surprise for me was the interconnectedness of this novel. Just about every point, seemingly irrelevant or not, has meaning. A symbolism, a prophecy, a reason for being. And because of that this novel has a strong interwoven web of plot and arc that kept surprising me at every turn.

And Jandy Nelson’s writing style was a delight. Such a lovely turn of phrase where the narrative deals a lot with art – Jandy’s writing was akin to art itself without being egotistical.

I'll Give You The Sun Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

Told in alternating perspectives by our two leads – the twins: Noah, 3 years in the past, and Jude, his sister in the present. I think the theme that is most heavy in the narrative and rings true for all the characters is that we are all fallible and struggling to find our way through this messy life, and find that safe place where we are expressing our true authentic selves. Add into that all the dramatic and familial themes that can happen like love, sex, sibling rivalry, coming of age, the deconstruction of childhood innocence, and ‘I’ll Give You The Sun’ really shines.

Going into this novel with little prior knowledge I guessed at the main plot fairly early on, but it was never solidified as the diaphanous nature of symbolism and art weighing heavily on the narrative, there was always some doubt. But those early guesses came to ring true, but there was so much subtext and many, many arcs that grew around this main thread which provided such serendipity. I was transfixed.

There was one spot about halfway through the novel in a chapter from Jude’s point of view where the pacing lagged a little, but in hindsight it was setting up a number of plot points for the rollercoaster ride to the conclusion.

I’ll Give You the Sun’ wraps up nicely, a bitter-sweet ending with a strong sense of hope. It’s been a while since I last got a book hangover from a contemporary, and I highly recommend this. It has a delicate hand on some difficult topics and an interesting lens through which to view the world. I treasure this reading experience.

Overall feeling: My reading just leveled up!

I'll Give You The Sun Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

I'll Give You The Sun Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlisle

Critique Casey 2020 by Casey Carlisle

© Casey Carlisle 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Stand-off’ (#2 Winger) by Andrew Smith

Now this is how you do a sequel.

Stand Off (#2 Winger) Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

No. of pages: 401

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It’s his last year at Pine Mountain, and Ryan Dean should be focused on his future, but instead, he’s haunted by his past. His rugby coach expects him to fill the roles once played by his lost friend, Joey, as the rugby team’s stand-off and new captain. And somehow he’s stuck rooming with twelve-year-old freshman Sam Abernathy, a cooking whiz with extreme claustrophobia and a serious crush on Annie Altman—aka Ryan Dean’s girlfriend, for now, anyway.

Equally distressing, Ryan Dean’s doodles and drawings don’t offer the relief they used to. He’s convinced N.A.T.E. (the Next Accidental Terrible Experience) is lurking around every corner—and then he runs into Joey’s younger brother Nico, who makes Ryan Dean feel paranoid that he’s avoiding him. Will Ryan Dean ever regain his sanity?

Page border 2020 by Casey Carlisle

This was a solid sequel. Many of the issues that I felt were brushed off or lightly resolved in ‘Winger’ have been addressed in ‘Stand-off.’ Especially the impact of Joey’s circumstances on our protagonist Ryan Dean. This finally felt like a more realistic reaction  – even if I didn’t altogether like the narrative lens, it gave me everything I was looking for.

So too was a lot of the toxic masculinity that was rubbing me the wrong way… though I understand it is very accurate to what teen boys are like in a boarding school environment, it was quite confronting to me as a reader.

There are themes of friendship, family, grief and loss, and consent; the latter which I thought handled so intelligently for the demographic. And the attitudes towards diversity are much more dominant in ‘Stand-off’ to symbolically bring the universe back into balance after the discrimination and bullying we get in ‘Winger.’

Stand Off (#2 Winger) Book Review Pic 02 by Casey CarlisleThe narrative is very age appropriate for our protagonist. Ryan Dean has definitely grown up since ‘Winger.’ As a result I found the writing style much more palatable.

The only thing I was certain of in ‘Stand-off’ is that I would see some form of resolution to Joey’s departure… and we got that. So I guess it is a fairly predictable plot, but there were many tangents and new characters that made a very interesting read. Add to that Ryan Dean’s distinct individual form of narration, and you have an engaging read that keeps the tension and pacing right to the end. I managed to complete reading ‘Stand-off’ in two sittings. Which is a great feat considering its 400 page length.

It’s a fun coming of age story and definitely had me shedding some tears in a few spots. I didn’t really “get” the humour – as much as it missed me in ‘Winger’ too… but that’s okay. Different strokes for different folks.

I’d definitely recommend this for younger male readers.

Overall feeling: Pretty good *two thumbs up*

Stand Off (#2 Winger) Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Stand Off (#2 Winger) Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlisle

Critique Casey 2020 by Casey Carlisle

© Casey Carlisle 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ by J.H. Trumble

Great issues, but losing relevancy in today’s market.

Don't Let Me Go Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: N/A, Contemporary, LGBT+

No. of pages: 352

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Some people spend their whole lives looking for the right partner. Nate Schaper found his in high school. In the eight months since their cautious flirting became a real, heart-pounding, tell-the-parents relationship, Nate and Adam have been inseparable. Even when local kids take their homophobia to brutal levels, Nate is undaunted. He and Adam are rock solid. Two parts of a whole. Yin and yang.

But when Adam graduates and takes an off-Broadway job in New York–at Nate’s insistence–that certainty begins to flicker. Nate’s friends can’t keep his insecurities at bay, especially when he catches Skyped glimpses of Adam’s shirtless roommate. Nate starts a blog to vent his frustrations and becomes the center of a school controversy, drawing ire and support in equal amounts. But it’s the attention of a new boy who is looking for more than guidance that forces him to confront who and what he really wants.

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Don’t Let Me Go’ was struggle that was a struggle to read. Mainly because it deals with bullying and discrimination. It’s not the lightest topic for a contemporary romance. Also, a number of aspects contributed more to my dislike… A storyline that jumps around the timeline was disorientating. A whiny and jealous protagonist Nate. I found the first quarter of the novel, well, boring. I hate admitting this – ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ has some great reviews and was recommended to me by someone I trust. So, I think aside from triggering themes, this is just not the method of storytelling that I related to.

After that first quarter of what ended up as me yawning and putting the book down for a break a number of times, we get a few chapters on bullying and teachers acting inappropriately (*cough* discrimination *cough*) It felt old. Like it had been written in the 80’s, though it was released in 2011. I haven’t read many other contemporary novels dealing with a gay protagonist published in 2011, but other genres published in this year with gay characters did not have this level of hate and discrimination. Yes, the characters faced adversity, but being gay and dealing with discrimination was not all they were about. Additionally, being an educator in high school for over 10 years – talk about a personal slap in the face with a wet fish at my profession.

Don’t Let Me Go’ did nothing particularly new. I had trouble connecting with the story or the characters. It went from the two leads groping, to campaigning for gay rights. There was no evolution or character development. Maybe I waited too long to read this? Contemporaries we see being published today are much more sophisticated.

Around the halfway point we start to see some intelligent discussion around gay rights through Nates activism in high school. The bullying had taken the forefront of the narrative and while I value the tone of the narrative, the situation again, feels dramatized and unrealistic. Like harkening to an age passed. So I felt the hand of the author pushing the story along. Add to that the jumping around the timeline and we get a loss of the organic feel to realistic fiction.

Don't Let Me Go Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

Granted the story, writing, and pacing improved dramatically after the halfway point, but it felt like it took so long to get there. And that’s all this story seems to be about. Dealing with hate, ignorance, and bullies. There’s elements of friendship and exploring identity, but I wanted more multifaceted characters. Sure they’re gay, but what else are they? It left ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ feeling two dimensional. Like the author was writing this story to illustrate the negativity gay youth faces.

I did like how it attempted to change perception and educate its readers in the last quarter of the novel. But for me – and what I like in a contemporary – is to connect and relate to the protagonist, get wrapped up in the angst, get invested in their story as they overcome adversity… and well ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ lost me through jumping around the timeline and focusing on a single issue instead of developing the character and using many of their life experiences to draw me in.

I feel like this novel is either an educational tool to highlight the treatment of gay youth in unevolved places, or for a demographic of young gay men… but having said that, attitudes are much different today towards gay youth. We see a lot more community support, and frankly I’d be concerned this novel would scare some. It didn’t deal with the issues in a constructive manner organic to the story.

I’ve read so many fantastic LGBTQIA+ contemporaries that tackle the issues raised in ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ in a much better way while still telling a multifaceted character driven story, that I feel like I’d skip recommending this title in favour of many others. I may give J.H. Trumble one more chance with a title from later in her catalogue: ‘Just Between Us’ is her latest release, back in 2013, but nothing from her in the last 7 years. I’m not holding out much hope.

Overall feeling: Fizzled and faded away.

Don't Let Me Go Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Don't Let Me Go Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlisle

Critique Casey 2020 by Casey Carlisle

© Casey Carlisle 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Winger’ (#1 Winger) by Andrew Smith

A masculine approach to some heavy themes.

Winger (#1 Winger) Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

No. of pages: 439

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Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids in the Pacific Northwest. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.

With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.

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A realistic contemporary coming from a uniquely masculine protagonist.

Winger’ was a challenging read for me. On one hand, the narrative is quintessential for our protagonist Ryan Dean ‘Winger’ West. Short satirical chapters resounding clearly from his fourteen year old brain as he navigates private boarding school, playing rugby, bullies, girls, and having a best friend who happens to be gay. The writing style is perfect for the main character and the target market. It deals with themes and issues expertly through this lens.

Alternatively, it was really hard for me to swallow all the toxic masculinity and immaturity. I just about tore my hair out. But this is my personal choice – I tend to shy away books that blatantly wave these flags in my face. Understandably, as difficult as it was for me to stomach, if you set foot in any private boys’ boarding house, you’ll find this atmosphere front and centre.

The other thing that had me going ‘hrmm’ was the plot twist at the end. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t know how it affected the protagonists journey… he’d resolved and changed by this point. Then, in the aftermath of the event, I don’t think it was dealt with sympathetically. It felt an emotionless observation. And while it did affect Ryan Dean, it did not seem to have a resounding permanence. What was the lesson learned? How did it change him? Maybe we’ll explore these themes further in  the sequel ‘Stand-Off,’ but I failed to see what its inclusion in ‘Winger’ was apart from shock value and driving home the theme of toxic masculinity, bullying, and homophobia.

Winger (#1 Winger) Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

The characters were summarily interesting, but not altogether complex. I did not really find myself investing much in any of them… apart from maybe secretly shipping Ryan Dean and Joey. But, even considering ‘Winger’s’ length and simplistic plot and character outlines, the development and world building was fantastic and held up the story. So too did the witty anecdotes, short chapters, and large formatting of the hard cover. So ‘Winger’ was a relatively fast and easy read.

There is a certain type of dry immaturity to the humour in ‘Winger’ that would really appeal to a certain type of reader, and while it was hilarious in some spots for me, I did not find it as funny as I was expecting. I guess as an older female, all the young teen boy amusements were lost on me. In fact I was in danger of my eyes falling out of my skull from the excessive eye-rolling.

All in all, ‘Winger’ was an okay read for me. I’d only recommend it for younger male readers, or those looking to experience a new perspective. I appreciate this novel for all its merits, but it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable read. But I will finish the series with ‘Stand-Off’ as I am curious to see how author Andrew Smith addresses the themes presented towards the end of this novel, and whether protagonist Ryan Dean grows because of the experience. I’ll be very disappointed if it is another journal-esque account of boarding school and fails to address the damaging attitudes of Pine Mountain boarding school.

Overall feeling: Teen boy tunnel vision.

Winger (Winger #1) Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Winger (Winger #1) Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlisle

Critique Casey 2020 by Casey Carlisle

© Casey Carlisle 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.