Book Review – ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ (#2 Creekwood) by Becky Albertalli

Another coming out story from the Simonverse… .

Genre: Y/A, Contemporary, Romance, LGBT

No. of pages: 352

Leah Burke—girl-band drummer, master of deadpan, and Simon Spier’s best friend from the award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—takes center stage in this novel of first love and senior-year angst.

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually on beat—but real life isn’t always so rhythmic. An anomaly in her friend group, she’s the only child of a young, single mom, and her life is decidedly less privileged. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And even though her mom knows she’s bisexual, she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends—not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture in unexpected ways. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high. It’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting—especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended.

Many of my book friends did not like ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ but I thought it was a comical romp through coming out.

Maybe if so much time hadn’t passed, and I was comparing it to ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,’ then yes, I would have rated it lower. For this sequel, we follow Leah coming to terms with her bisexuality and crush(es). We get all the comedic timing that was in the debut of this series, though I have to admit our protagonist fell a touch flatter. I think because we never get any deep exploration around the relationship with her mother (and mother’s new boyfriend,) or any resolution to the issues these two share. It’s all very perfunctory. Also, with ‘Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ we get how Simon and Bram’s relationship affect the gang – and the larger circle of friends they share. Again, we don’t get this exploration in ‘Leah on the Offbeat.’

Leah is a very private, closed-off, and sarcastic protagonist. She’s confident but self-depreciating. So it makes a bit of sense that the plot is a little reserved. We get teen angst, but it felt understated in comparison to ‘Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda,’ but again, it fits the character profile of Leah. I loved how she is sensible. Practical. Considerate of others. Too often in YA we get self-righteous or self-absorbed protagonists who’s character arc is the realisation of their small worldly view, or selfish actions affecting others… not so in ‘Leah on the Offbeat,’ it’s kind of the reverse. Leah learning to take care of herself, and become a little selfish. Letting others in.

It’s a testament to what happens when someone gets bullied for the colour of their skin, their weight, their sexuality, or any other challenge a person may face. They build up walls to protect themselves. In this case, Leah keeps everyone at a distance and deals with the world through sarcasm and dry wit. It’s hard to let people get close to you again because your heart is still in pain from the past.

We get a lot of Simon and Bram and see the progression of their relationship. It fill in the gap between ‘Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ and the television show ‘Love, Victor.’

Leah on the Offbeat’ is easily predictable, falling into the trope contemporaries are famous for, and I’m not mad at it – it’s the reason I picked up the novel in the first place. I’m glad I had left so much distance between reading this and the debut of the series to let it have headspace in its own right. Becky Albertalli has an expert writing style that really gets into the head of an angsty teen facing personal obstacles around love and identity. I would have loved her to delve into the subject of bisexuality and the stigma the label faces in the wider community, or even bring in more support for Leah from the bisexual community in the story.

There are many missed opportunities in the narrative, but overall it was a hilarious tale of a girl overcoming anxiety and embracing her sexuality while on the verge of that tenuous time when we graduate high school and the fear of losing your friendships as everyone scatters into adulthood.

Overall feeling: A little flat, but cute.

© 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 – ‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski

Enlightening personal history of identity, country and family.

Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction, War, History

No. of pages: 400

Magda Szubanski’s childhood in a suburban migrant family was haunted by the demons of her father’s life in wartime Poland. At nineteen, fighting in the Warsaw resistance, he had been recruited to a secret counter-intelligence execution squad. His mission was to assassinate Polish traitors who were betraying Jewish citizens to the Nazis. The legacy of her father’s bravery left the young Magda with profound questions about her family story.

As she grew up, the assassin’s daughter had to navigate her own frailties and fears, including a lifelong struggle with weight gain and an increasing awareness of her own sexuality. With courage and compassion Szubanski’s memoir asks the big questions about life, about the shadows we inherit and the gifts we pass on.

Magda Szubanskiis one of Australia’s best known and most loved performers. She appeared in a number of sketch comedy shows before creating the iconic character of Sharon in ABC-TV’s Kath and Kim. She has also acted in films (Babe, Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet, The Golden Compass) and stage shows. Reckoning is her first book.

Magda Szubanski is an impressive woman and a magnanimous writer. Her style is beautiful, melancholic, and haunting. I was bursting with pride and envy upon reading her memoir – her writing skills are first class.

I’m not big on memoirs or autobiographies, but frequently pepper them in my reading schedule because I like to take in a wide breath of writing styles and subjects. ‘Reckoning’ first attracted me because Magda has been the one Australian actress/comedian that has been a constant with me throughout my life. I was always amazed at her work, her humour, her skills in all the endeavours she put her hand to. Then as I started to get into the memoir, I discovered that we were kin on so many other levels. Her father is Polish and served – and survived – the war; my partner is part Polish, descendant from the royal family, and served in the NZSAS, and some of the atrocities he has lived through quite frankly scare the bejeezus out of me. Magda counts herself as a part of the  LGBTQIA+ community as do I, and issues pertaining to identity, coming out, admonishing over labels and perception I can fully relate to. The loss of loved ones – check! And trying to navigate the world as a woman in male dominated industries… need I say more. Though in having said all that, ‘Reckoning’ heavily deals with history and identity of a country which was just about wiped off the face of the earth. A people who only have a history of pain, death, and displacement.

Reckoning’ is a lot to digest. It’s full of a time of humanity at its worst, mixed together with Magda coming to terms with her families role in that period, and, like a heavy sweater, something she drags around with her, trying to fit in today’s society. So I had to put this down a lot. It was emotional, difficult, and confronting subject matter. Distinctly Australian and nostalgic. But also triggering. It brought up all my insecurities again, as Magda faced hers,  and had me reliving precious childhood memories that I don’t even have the opportunity of sharing with family again because they have all passed on.

We also get snippets of her professional acting career; and not really a behind the scenes feel, but a glimpse into her emotional and mental states around those events. I loved how this is not anything like the memoirs I’ve recently read from other famous female actors and comedians. In comparison those are fluffy, feel good pieces, where ‘Reckoning’ is a soulful powerhouse.

This memoir feels more like a love letter to her father, and the Polish people. It’s about her discovering her heritage and using that as a lens to confront her own identity. Though this writing was completely unexpected, I can say with all honesty this memoir is the best of this genre I have read to date. The only down side is that it may isolate some younger readers and can get a little bogged down in history. But this is definitely a memoir I will be recommending to everyone.

Overall feeling: I stand with you…

© 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.

Picture vs. Page – The Danish Girl

I have mixed feelings about the novel ‘The Danish Girl,’ I love the representation but once you start to get into the novel you find the representation is nothing like it should be. The story and historical setting are well crafted, but the psychology, physiology, and medical treatment around Einar/Lili are grossly fantasized. The author has little understanding of transgender, intersex, sexual orientation, sexual identity and what is means to live the experience any of these.

The first situation describing Einar and women’s clothing in the book was romanticised to the point of fetishism. I know Einar is meant to be transgender, but the description felt off – not really the type of experience a true transgender woman would have. The continual descriptions of Einar being small, tiny, frail, and acting in a passive way and how Greta was tall and the dominant of the pair painted a picture of them having swapped gender roles in a spiritual sense. I wasn’t quite sold on the characterisation – especially for the time period. I know this is based loosely on a true story, but it is obvious the subject matter has been romanticized and written from a cis white man’s viewpoint. In the film, Einar is obviously fascinated by women’s clothing but resistant at first, and is pushed into it by his wife Greta – who is played to ‘see’ Einar as feminine, her artistic eye breaking through the façade to view who Einar really is. Though, this is juxtaposed later when she starts to resist and pressure Einar for acting on their feelings. Like it was okay at home, as long as it fit her comfort level. But at the narrative progresses her thoughts transform after witnessing the pain Einar is in, and having conversations with Lili.

I get a strong sense like there is a mix of multiple personality disorder, fetishism, an intentional lens from the author of the novel that misses the mark on what it means to be a transgendered woman on so many points. The story had me squirming and uncomfortable. In the film they play a lot more to mental illness rather than identity – and Einar doing research to find his/her answer from medical and psychology journals alone.

The casting of Eniar/Lili was way off. The actor in no way represented the portrayal of Lili from the novel. Eddie Redmayne’s physicality in no way captured the character of Lili depicted in the novel. The actor reinvented the character for the film version, and while Eddie Redmayne is an exceptional actor, this character should have been played by a transgender actor. Having a cis gendered male play the part, contributes to negative stereotypes many have of male to female transgendered individuals – that they are playing dress up. Seeing Eddie Redmayne dressed and presenting as male in the public eye, as opposed to a transgender actress who lives the experience and presents as female, would help dismantle inappropriate myths spread about transgender individuals. There were an important points made like this in the Netfix documentary ‘Disclosure.‘

The film lacked the transition and personal history of Einar/Lili. Lili is born of drag in the film, where in the book she already had the physical attributes of Lili and did not need to learn how to be female, but embodied that side of her personality inherently.

In the movie it seems no-one is fooled by Lili – that she doesn’t ‘pass’ however in the novel it is much the opposite case. Again, the whole notion of ‘passing’ shows how little the author, and film producers of ‘The Danish Girl’ really understand about the transgender experience.

The movie shows a fully masculine Einar transitioning into Lili, a transgender narrative; where the novel shows in intersex Einar confirming her gender. In the film – 2 operations are required for the physical transformation, yet in the novel 3-4 operations are required (and include something medically impossible.) In the novel Lili goes back for a uterine transplant, where in the film she goes back to have a vagina constructed. This was so not representative of any type of gender confirmation surgery all I can do in reaction to this is a *facepalm*

The novel presents more of a dichotomy between Einar and Lili, like they are two separate people, but the film it is more Einar realising and wishing she could be Lili.

Lili\Einar is intentionally deceptive and selfish with a lot of their actions both in the film and the novel. Both the film and novel do injustice to the character when they deal with being transgender. There is more to a person than a single aspect. We go from a dynamic character, to a two-dimensional character. 

It’s hard to resolve this story with today’s understanding of being transgender and the setting of Coppenhagen, Paris, and Dresden in 1920-30’s. There are so many misrepresentations and inaccuracies I was quietly enraged.

The novel did feel altogether too long – Ebershoff frequently meanders with flowery language and asides of landscape, backstory, daydreams, and the like. It does match the dreamlike quality of his beautiful writing, but slows down the pacing of the story incredibly. I can see how this style of writing is best matched for historical fiction though.

The reveal of Lili later being intersex in the book confirmed my suspicions given the mostly feminine stature and physical attributes. And the journey of Lili’s operations for gender confirmation surgery are gruesome. Though while interesting reading and set a tone for the novel, feel poorly researched. Even for the time, medical operations and the healing of the human body afterward do not span the length of time described in the novel.

My opinion on ‘The Danish Girl’ (both film and novel) was a hodge-podge of concepts that were not thoroughly researched around identity, mental disorders, and medical knowledge. Though, like the art that Einar and Greta create, ‘The Danish Girl’ is merely an interpretation on Lili’s story. It’s is viewed through different lenses of the characters of the book. Like anecdotal histories, it is warped, interpreted and skewed by the narrator. And adapted by movie producers, again a little insensitive to the transgender experience.

Some notable instance where the film and novel diverge, is that Lili does not get caught going to naughty places in the novel by Greta. And most importantly, Lili does not die at the end of the novel, it ends on a hopeful note, even in there is a symbolic description that could be interpreted as her dying, though it does not describe a traditional death. It’s more a symbolic freeing. She has been set free to live her own life. The prospect of marriage. The scene in the book is of a boys kite breaking from its tether and drifting towards Lili and up into the sky, maybe depicting her rise to heaven. In the film, its Lili’s scarf that Greta is wearing, accidently blown away into the sky and Greta saying ‘Leave, it, Lili will find it.’ So the film depicts a certain death and the novel leaves it open to interpretation.

I have to admit actor Alicia Vikander as Gerda (Greta in the novel) was too short, petite and pretty in comparison to her literature counterpart. But Alicia Vikander was outstanding in her acting chops and is the standout in the film.

Regarding Lili’s first kiss: Lili was a willing participant in the novel, even excited about it, but in the film it was awkward, almost abusive, you could see she was pushing herself. I don’t quite understand the relevance of the scene in the film – they were trying to infer that she didn’t want to kiss because the gentleman whom she was entangled with thought of her as a man… again the tone of the film is that Einar is in drag, seen as a man. Where in the novel, Lili is a fully realised woman.

Greta/Gerda was much more supportive and accepting in the novel, she seemed more jealous and emotionally distraught in the film like it was a choice between Einar and Lili. In the novel Greta admired Einar’s feminity and softness. She lived for the opposite of societies norms. She was a rebel. So again we see the depiction of Lili’ transgenderism through different lenses of the same character, one where it is embraced, and the other where it is viewed as harmful.

In the film the nosebleed from Einar – symbolising a menstrual cycle happens only once; where in the novel it was happening a lot, even from downstairs (it is never stated exactly, but I’m assuming from Einar’s bottom – again this makes no medical sense.)

 The line “Lesbienne” is said from two men instead of children in the film, followed by the men harassing Einar/Lili in the park, and then physically assault her. This violence is not in the book, the scene is meant to show how Einar/Lili is passing as a woman.

Ultimately even though this is a fascinating story and character study, the novel was flourished with a heavy hand and I found myself putting the book down frequently because I was getting a bit tired. I almost wanted the narrative tied a little more to history, to events to ground the story. The characters are really well developed but difficult to relate to and even to love. They are all selfish in their own way and live out of step with the real world. Though in saying that, this creative bubble Greta and Einar lived in was the only environment which could have nurtured Lili in taking her first steps into the world.

I don’t really want to recommend this novel (or film) solely on the amount of factual inconsistencies – this read more like a fantasy novel than something based in historical significance. David Ebershoff admits in an interview after the publication of ‘The Danish Girl’ that the representation of Lili’s transgender journey in his novel is not representative of today’s transgender population and is purely fictional… I’m not sure if that is ignorance, damaging, or laziness. Why would you want to create a character based on actual events and not have the core motivation of that character also based on factual elements? It’s misrepresentation at its core. I would have preferred an ownvoices author’s take on this subject matter.

I feel like the film completely missed the tone and intention of the novel. It’s great to have the representation, but both the mediums that present this story are different creatures. The film feels like it is a tragic story that punishes the Lili for becoming a woman, and feels like Greta (Gerda) is the protagonist; whereas the novel made me feel like Lili was the protagonist who pushed the envelope too far – the untested exploratory surgeries – when she could of lived a fulfilling life without needing to bear children… The film is more realistic but loses the hope the novel had, and the book lacks the realism.

In the novel, Lili was living life as a woman, was in a romance and about to relocate to New York and get married, where in the film, there was no romance and she died before getting to live any aspect of her life as a fully realised woman. I feel like both film and novel, were a disappointment. It is so easy to research the facts, and have conversations with members of the transgender community to ensure that this kind of story does not harm, if unintentionally.

© 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.

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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 – ‘Guardian’ (#2 Proxy) by Alex London

Teen dystopian with diversity.

Guardian (#2 Proxy) Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Science Fiction, Dystopia, LGBT

No. of pages: 352

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In the new world led by the Rebooters, former Proxy Syd is the figurehead of the Revolution, beloved by some and hated by others. Liam, a seventeen-year-old Rebooter, is Syd’s bodyguard and must protect him with his life. But armed Machinists aren’t the only danger.

People are falling ill—their veins show through their skin, they find it hard to speak, and sores erupt all over their bodies. Guardians, the violent enforcers of the old system, are hit first, and the government does nothing to help. The old elites fall next, and in the face of an indifferent government, Syd decides it’s up to him to find a cure . . . and what he discovers leaves him stunned.

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This duology has me falling in love with Alex London’s writing and imagination. Not only do we get representation of a minority group (GLBT, POC) but a dystopian world to rival many that have dominated the YA genre. I can’t believe these books have been sitting unread on my shelves for years. ‘Guardian’ was a great read, but not quite up to the excellence of debut ‘Proxy.’ I was still engaged as a reader but upon completing the book I did not feel it had as much of an impact on me as the debut of the series. While the story unfolded organically, I did feel the omniscient POV pulled me from the story frequently.

Like ‘Proxy,’ ‘Guardian’ felt like a road trip book, protagonist Syd attempts to once again get to some place against a faction in power to free the population from an oppressive rule (and save their lives from a virus.) We see Marie stepping in as his protector/squad member again. And a new addition of Liam as a love interest.

Guardian (#2 Proxy) Book Review Pic 02 by Casey CarlisleI don’t think I saw too much character development from Syd. Being fallible seemed to play a big part of his story, but that had already been brought up in ‘Proxy.’ Instead it seems he starts to wrestle with his guilt and whether or not he is deserving of happiness.

Liam felt a little one note. He definitely embodies the mind of a soldier, but I wanted more inner torture to come out after the events he’s lived through and done… that kind of stuff would mess up anyone. I wanted more vulnerability (in private moments) to shine through. I feel it would have rounded him out as a character and not just a stereotypical protector.

I didn’t feel like Marie went much of anywhere. She helps move the plot along at some points, but again I was questioning what she was even doing there. Her determination to stick to a cause still feels out of step with the narrative. I think a great opportunity to juxtapose the philosophical themes of the novel were missed out in using her as an alternative point of view, or a sounding board.

It did feel a little formulaic, following the same path of ‘Proxy.’ I was hoping it would divert from this template, but still an entertaining read nonetheless. The first half, like the debut, felt a tad slow in its pacing. There are some great action scenes, but it takes half the book to set up the scene and get all the characters in place to drive the plot forward.

I really love Alex London’s writing style, but I’d love to read more following a different form of plot/story and see him start moving the plot forward in the early chapters.

I pretty much hunched-out the ending very early on – but not quite – there was a little twist to it that I had not guessed… and that added a great surprise. There were also a few other elements that I did not see coming. Overall, ‘Guardian’ gave me more surprises than ‘Proxy,’ but it let me down in the structure of the plot, pacing, and it needed a bit more spice for the characters. I needed something to balance out the bleakness in the world of ‘Proxy’ and machinations of introducing new characters and plot points.

I think as a sequel I was expecting more complexity, a higher intensity of challenges faced, introduction of a more emotional connection with the characters; but it was more of another episodic adventure following our protagonist. I can definitely see its appeal to the YA market.

Again some grammatical mistakes London’s editing team overlooked : missing words, words out of place. A little frustrating. I hope they up their professional game and let this author really shine.

I am going to download the finale short story form Alex London’s website because there is no third book in this series. Mainly because I did not get the level of completion I wanted. I don’t think it’s going to address the big questions, philosophical questions in the subtext, but merely wrap up the future of the main characters – which would be nice. As ‘Guardian’ ended as abruptly as ‘Proxy.’

Still a great read I’d happily recommend.

Overall feeling: totally didn’t suck

Guardian (#2 Proxy) Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Guardian (#2 Proxy) 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 – ‘Proxy’ (#1 Proxy) by Alex London

Teen dystopian about selling personal debt that raises some interesting questions.

Proxy (#1 Proxy) Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Science Fiction, Dystopia, LGBT

No. of pages: 384

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Knox was born into one of the City’s wealthiest families. A Patron, he has everything a boy could possibly want—the latest tech, the coolest clothes, and a Proxy to take all his punishments. When Knox breaks a vase, Syd is beaten. When Knox plays a practical joke, Syd is forced to haul rocks. And when Knox crashes a car, killing one of his friends, Syd is branded and sentenced to death.

Syd is a Proxy. His life is not his own.

Then again, neither is Knox’s. Knox and Syd have more in common than either would guess. So when Knox and Syd realize that the only way to beat the system is to save each other, they flee. Yet Knox’s father is no ordinary Patron, and Syd is no ordinary Proxy. The ensuing cross-country chase will uncover a secret society of rebels, test both boys’ resolve, and shine a blinding light onto a world of those who owe and those who pay. Some debts, it turns out, cannot be repaid.

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A great hook. ‘Proxy’ is fabulously paced with some great action scenes and kept me riveted from start to finish.

A minor issue I found around the main characters becoming a little annoying over time. I wanted them to grow. Become a little more mature in the light of the challenges they faced. When certain reactions and tone of their narrative became repetitive it impeded the chance to establish a strong emotional connection, and destroyed some relevance to me as a reader.

However, I liked that ‘Proxy’ wasn’t focused on a romance storyline and had a gay protagonist. But I wanted a bit more of a personal connection with Syd other than him just trying to save his life. I wanted some fun and anxiety to make him more relatable, heck a fart joke would’ve make a huge difference.

Knox was bothersome through most of the novel and I wasn’t quite convinced of his motivations, I feel there could have been a stronger underlying motive added to give more strength and conviction to his character. He felt superfluous- until he wasn’t. I understand he starts out as superficial due to his every whim being catered for, but I wanted a stronger sense of drive for his character – social status, street cred, ambition – something for me to really sink my teeth into.

Proxy (#1 Proxy) Book Review Pic 02 by Casey CarlisleI enjoyed the aspect of teens struggling through a world they didn’t want to be in, wanted to rebel against. I think I was craving that stronger emotional connection to the characters and their mission. More angst. Less triviality. Something to really hammer home the bleakness of the world on an emotional level.

I did find myself questioning Marie’s presence. It felt a tad fabricated at times. I guess it boils down to ‘Proxy’ being a plot driven story and therefore the character driven part is the weaker aspect of the novel. You can feel the author’s hand guiding the story.

The amount of gore, murder, and senseless killing definitely painted a desperate picture of how brutal this world is. The cutthroat struggle for survival, you can definitely see Alex London’s experiences as a journalist reporting from conflict zones supporting this story.

Loved the world building and technology, the class structure. I have questions about how the world came to be, how it developed into what it is, and how things will go after the cliff-hanger at the end of ‘Proxy.’ Now keen to read the sequel ‘Guardian’ asap.

Themes of class, race, power, and sexuality were a great addition to this narrative, but some of it felt disjointed in a technologically advanced civilization. Like gay discrimination just seemed a little redundant. And with the level of genetic manipulation and technological intervention through bloodwork, there would have been a larger evolution in self-expression/adaptation/specialisation to link into the class structure. How beauty standards of today expressed in the novel wouldn’t necessarily be the same in the world of ‘Proxy’ with all this technology at their fingertips. Like more extremes of genetic manipulation and integrated technology would express wealth and stature, and therefore some of the wealthy could seem almost alien.

Alex London’s writing style was effortless, I was able to slip into the imaginary world easily and only got pulled out from some grammatical errors – which his editing team at Philomel Books let him down on. Words out of place or missing. Maybe between 5-10… I feel like London deserves much better.

Wonderfully unpredictable. Though I guessed the twist very early on. It was just a very bumpy ride. Thoroughly enjoyed this – one of the better dystopian novels I’ve read in a while in YA. An active protagonist.

Overall feeling: mildly impressed

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

Proxy (#1 Proxy) 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 – ‘Freakboy’ by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

A queer book in prose!

Freakboy Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Poetry, Y/A, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, LGBT

No. of pages: 448

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From the outside, Brendan Chase seems to have it pretty easy. He’s a star wrestler, a video game aficionado, and a loving boyfriend to his seemingly perfect match, Vanessa. But on the inside, Brendan struggles to understand why his body feels so wrong—why he sometimes fantasizes having long hair, soft skin, and gentle curves. Is there even a name for guys like him? Guys who sometimes want to be girls? Or is Brendan just a freak?

In Freakboy’s razor-sharp verse, Kristin Clark folds three narratives into one powerful story: Brendan trying to understand his sexual identity, Vanessa fighting to keep her and Brendan’s relationship alive, and Angel struggling to confront her demons.

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Freakboy’ kinda didn’t go anywhere – but that matches the aesthetic of some forms of poetry, or a story told in verse, they are about a moment, a feeling, not a story.

Some of the formatting of the pages was interesting. Like stanzas posing a question forming a question mark on the page. Or the shape of a bowling pin when the character is at the bowling alley.

I’m not a big poetry reader. I usually avoid it. But this kind of poetry was okay to read. Though I did stall at the beginning of the novel a number of times, and even stopped around the 80 page mark to read another 2 books before picking it back up again. I think it took a bit for my brain to kick into gear with this style of writing to follow the three different perspectives and grasp the narrative.

We don’t get much character development – it’s more of a snippet in time. We follow Brendan as he starts to explore his gender identity; Vanessa – the least interesting character – just struggling to hold on the Brendan as he pulls away; and Angel, a transgender female at the Youth Centre who reaches out to help Brendan… and has many flashbacks of her past. And that’s it. It doesn’t really go anywhere.

Freakboy Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

This also reads as a book written by a cis gendered person. Like they are using it to educate other cis gendered people. Which is not a bad thing. It’s executed pretty well and I’m all for representation in literature. But there is a big difference when it comes to the soul and tone of the novel in relation to its authenticity. Own voices novel are much more nuanced, and the characters are about much more than just their gender identity. To further is argument the author mixes up gender identity with sexual identity, and uses the incorrect pronouns throughout given that it is told in past tense and should reflect the protagonist’s genuine gender expression. Big, obvious things like that would have been second nature to an own voices author and avoided in the narrative. But everything is a learning curve, and who knows it may be intentional to reach a larger cis gendered audience.

The prose does feel denser than regular contemporary fiction – as with most poetry – and rich with symbolism. ‘Freakboy’ may look like a long book on the outside, but this is poetry, there are less words to a page, more space to shape the stanzas on the blank surfaces, so it will feel like you’re flying through the novel if you’re not stopping to ponder and resonate with the words too often.

It’s a good book to read in that it is accessible. You don’t have to be a big lover of poetry to understand ‘Freakboy.’ It is simple in its themes and message. It represents a marginalized community beautifully. So while I have strong opinions about some of the content, ‘Freakboy’ is breaking through some walls and giving a voice to people who previously had little to no representation. I guess this is a tentative recommendation from me. I value the message, the representation, but don’t quite gel with the delivery.

Overall feeling: Torn between two worlds

Freakboy Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Freakboy 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 – ‘Highway Bodies’ by Alison Evans

A zombie apocalypse Aussie style!

Highway Bodies Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Horror, LGBT

No. of pages: 376

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Who will you rely on in the zombie apocalypse?

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Bodies on the TV, explosions, barriers, and people fleeing. No access to social media. And a dad who’ll suddenly bite your head off – literally. These teens have to learn a new resilience…

Members of a band wield weapons instead of instruments.

A pair of siblings find there’s only so much you can joke about, when the menace is this strong.

And a couple find depth among the chaos.

Highway Bodies is a unique zombie apocalypse story featuring a range of queer and gender non-conforming teens who have lost their families and friends and can only rely upon each other.

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Once I got into ‘Highway Bodies’ I could not put this book down – I stayed up until 3am to finish it, and every tap, scratch, and spook noise from outside my widow and I’d freeze like I was living in a zombie apocalypse too. Having lived in Melbourne, Australia for over 7 years, it was great to recognise many of the landmarks referenced in this novel. And it was additionally a breath of fresh air to read a story where cis, straight-gendered people were the minority. ‘Highway Bodies’ has a lot going for it.

Told in three alternating perspectives from differing groups of teenagers as they witness the initiation of a viral outbreak from a meat processing plant, turning the population into flesh eating zombies. One of the narratives in particular is expressed in dialect slang – which is jarring at first – I didn’t like it so much, but then as the novel progresses and you get used to it, it really shines through and separates this perspective or Eve from the other two. Eve is transgender and flees from his home after his father turns and attacks Eve’s mother and brother. There is a lot of gore in ‘Highway Bodies’ think ‘The Walking Dead’ starring a diverse group of teens.

Highway Bodies Book Review Pic 02 by Casey CarlisleDee leads the second narrative, a member of a rock band renting a house in the countryside while they practice and write new songs. Dee identifies as bisexual and we see many expression of genders and sexuality in her bandmates and throughout the novel. After the power cuts off and they cannot access the internet or get cell service they venture into town to find bodies everywhere, the whole town slaughtered. It doesn’t take them too long to run into their first zombie.

JoJo is our final non-binary protagonist, one of a pair of fraternal twins from a previously abusive home. Their mother is a nurse and after she returns to work and does not return home, JoJo and sister Rhea sneak to the hospital to investigate. Finding their mother, turned, and amongst a horde of caged zombies from a military presence.

After that things really to go hell in a fight for survival: from the zombies, the elements, and other survivors.

It took me a bit to click to what was going on with the switching of narratives in the beginning, it’s not until 50 pages in that you get a sense of the rhythm of ‘Highway Bodies’ and after that the pace and tension keep increasing right up until the end. I enjoyed Alison Evans writing style much more in this novel than I did in her debut ‘Ida.’ ‘Highway Bodies’ has a gruesome realism befitting the dystopian landscape. I found myself invested and caring about these teens plight. The conclusion is a bit of a one-two punch, but satisfying.

The three things holding me back from awarding a perfect score for this novel were the fact I didn’t know what was going on initially with the switching of perspectives. Maybe some chapter titles to let the reader know whose story we were following would have been helpful. The other was the affirmation of gender pronouns to be used when characters were introducing themselves to each other. I get the practicality of it, but in the setting the dialogue did not feel natural and true to the characters… but it is only my opinion. I would have liked to have seen a more intimate setting, or a correction to make this scene feel more authentic. And finally, though there is romance in ‘Highway Bodies’ it wasn’t given enough time to develop to a point for me to really get into the couplings. They were cute and I was rooting for them, but it missed some angst or something.

I have to applaud the representation in ‘Highway Bodies’ it helps raise awareness and give a voice to minority groups. I’m enjoy experiencing a world through the eyes of someone other than a straight white cis-gendered protagonist.

I liken this to Mindy McGinnis ‘Not a Drop to Drink’ it has the same level of brutality, a survival story – and as such is mostly predictable. You want the protagonists to stay alive and make it to the end of the novel; but the journey there has many unexpected turns. ‘Highway Bodies’ is one of my most favourite zombie apocalypse reads to date. And I can’t recommend this enough.

Just some trigger warnings for younger readers for assault, violence, gore, murder, and you know general zombiness.

Overall feeling: Aussie Awesomeness!

Highway Bodies Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Highway Bodies 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 – ‘Symptoms of Being Human’ by Jeff Garvin

Living in the grey.

Symptoms of Being Human Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Contemporary, LGBT

No. of pages: 335

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The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?

Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. The thing is…Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in uber-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s so-called “normal” life.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s REALLY like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.

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This was a difficult book to read. Not because of its writing style or plot, but because of its content. Bullying is a big thing for me. I don’t like it and it triggers strong reactions in me. I experienced many of the challenges our protagonist Riley faced, and other challenges he faced in this story are completely alien to me. But the bullying and assault thing… I just wanted to grab a taser, jump into the world of ‘Symptoms of Being Human’ and zap all of those horrifically behaved teens. Such a satisfying image in my mind of those bullies twitching on the ground and wetting themselves *rubs my hands together in evil glee* How human beings can treat one another at times is simply unbelievable.

This novel deals with some amazing issues around identity and orientation. Even themes of gender roles. I loved the philosophical discussion that ran throughout the course of the story. At times my head hurt for Riley and the struggles they face. ‘Symptoms of Being Human’ has a great deal of information for any reader who relates to being in the grey parts of the gender spectrum, or whomever wants to learn more about the concept. It really was an eye opener. But I think that this aspect was part of the story’s drawback. Some of the narrative felt forced or guided by the hand of the author to illustrate an important aspect of being gender fluid. The novel gives full exposure to the gender expression dial, and as such, loses a touch of realism.

As a former high school teacher and someone involved with the LGBTQIA+ community; having spent years at university studying psychology and using those tools in the workplace to help youth, the situations and topics in ‘Symptoms of Being Human’ are invaluable, but at times felt like tools to bring light to a perspective or issue. So it’s got me juxtaposed between applauding Jeff Garvin approaching this subject matter, and wincing at how some parts of the story don’t feel authentic to the narrative.

I also didn’t get that emotional punch I was waiting for towards the end. Something about the conclusion felt somewhat… clinical rather than passionate.

Symptoms of Being Human Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

Riley’s arc over discovering who they are and coming out against adversity makes for an interesting read. I especially enjoyed how they made new ride-or-die friends in Solo and Bec. Their trio of friendship really drives this story.

I also appreciated the roles Riley’s parents play, as well as that of Riley’s therapist. They all added support and safety for Riley to begin this journey of self-discovery that we don’t usually get to see in YA. Though I think the trend is starting to change as older opinions fall out of favour to be replaced by inclusive (woke) attitudes.

I can’t say I got any surprises from this read. I predicted the storyline within the first five pages, but the beauty of ‘Symptoms of Being Human’ comes not from a derisive plot, but from the themes and content. It ‘opens up a conversation.’

Jeff has some great wit in the narrative, and I found myself wishing for more. I also was hoping for more angst. Though he can really build the tension like nobody’s business, seriously, I felt my muscles coil up and they did not release until I finished the book. I don’t think I’ve experienced a read quite like this. So top notch in tension with his writing style, but a tad dry; I feel a bit more humour would have livened it up more. But who knows – that may have been intentional to highlight the seriousness of the themes posed in ‘Symptoms of Being Human.’

Definitely something I’d happily recommend, I’m glad to have had the experience.

Overall feeling: I feel like and intellectual now.

Symptoms of Being Human Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Symptoms of Being Human 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.