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

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© 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.

Transgender and intersex protagonists – are they represented in the mainstream literature yet?

Trans and Intersex representation in mainstream literature Pic 01 by Casey Carlisle

Is there still a lot of discrimination or is it just fear and dysphoria? Or is a thing of the past?

I had this idea a couple of years back after beginning to read more diversely, and with the latest coming out and worldwide publicity around Nikkietutorials, curiosity of how trans and intersex protagonists are represented in mainstream literature is back in the forefront of my mind. We even have what I think is the final season of ‘I Am Jazz’ which has just started airing and a trans character in ‘Supergirl.’ I also loved the representation in shows like ‘Pose’ and ‘The Fosters.’ Just to mention a few – so there is definitely an accepting and welcome addition of transgender and intersex representation in the mainstream media – but I wanted to explore it further and take a look at the publishing industry (and my own personal reading habits.)

Trans and Intersex representation in mainstream literature Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

There is also the concept of ‘own voices’ books, written by transgender and intersex authors – which can be a more authentic representation of their own community and experience. I’ve read novels with leading characters who identify as transgender or intersex penned by cis authors, and I must admit it’s very hit or miss with how I enjoy the narrative. Half the time they are a tiny bit offensive or dysphoric without meaning to be. It says more about the authors’ education about this niche community that it does about someone who has actually lived through the experience. And thus, the novel reads like its demographic is skewed towards enlightening cis gendered readers. Deep discussions with members of the LGBTQIA+ community always praise the efforts and inclusion on the surface, but if you have a deep discussion with these readers, the details are often off-base.

If you search for the terms transgender or intersex when looking for your next read you will typically get a list of non-fiction titles. Socio-political or psychological focused papers, autobiographies, and erotica. Where are all the great stories that just happen to have a transgender or intersex protagonists that are fiction which are not revolved around coming out, transition, or sexual intimacy? Believe me, they are out there, you just have to really look. The only place I was able to find a decent collection of current releases are from blogs or Listopia on Goodreads. And if you compare the lists to general fiction current releases… the average transgender and intersex list sits at 100 books, the average general fiction list in anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000. Which boils down to a 4-10% representation on the current market. Which is an interesting figure because that is what psychological journals are quoting as the percentage of people identifying as transgender or intersex in the real world as a general benchmark – whether that is accurate or not today is a different debate. But it felt like a significant correlation. Looking through my own library (which is skewed by the availability of literature and available funds to purchase books) sits at approx. 5% (up from 4% in 2018) out of a 22% share of LGBTQIA+ titles.

I am definitely thankful for the changes in attitude to transgender and intersex characters. Twenty years ago it was rare to read a novel with their representation, and if they were present, they were usually treated as evil, a freak, a sex worker, or the comic relief. The ending of their storylines usually culminated in tragedy too. It was dehumanizing. The trend is definitely skewing towards greater representation, more realistic, well-rounded characters, and positively ending storylines.

I do have to say that there is a great deal of acceptance out there. And it warms my heart. People are people. Love is love. We are seeing that reflected in representation in our publishing material, film and television, and the wider community in general. Yes, there are still opposing voices, but as loud as they get, their manifesto is getting tossed out the window in favor of a more inclusive and accepting environment. And something makes it feel like we are heading for that Star Trek future.

So what does it all mean? I think is shows how society’s attitudes are changing, how that change is reflected through representation in art and culture, books and movies. It’s allowed for the discussion and importance of own voices literature. It is also opening doors for other minority groups into inclusivity. It leaves me feeling positive for how the human races collective consciousness is evolving, and how we are getting a wide array of poignant reading experiences.

Trans and Intersex representation in mainstream literature Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

What was the last book you read with a transgender or intersex protagonist? Can you add to these titles of new and upcoming books with transgender/intersex protagonists?

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© 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

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© 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 he faces. ‘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 he is and coming out against adversity makes for an interesting read. I especially enjoyed how he 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

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© 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 – ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ by Casey McQuiston

A fairy-tale and ‘Madam Secretary’ mash-up.

Red, White & Royal Blue Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Contemporary, Romance, LGBT

No. of pages: 236

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What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales?

When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius—his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse.

Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through?

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Red, White & Royal Blue’ is an amazing debut and definitely a sneak attack for me. I picked it up because of a number of friends raving about this book and jumped in with no prior knowledge other that the blurb.

I’ll get the downsides out of the way first. The main drawbacks for me as a reader was a little bit of the swearing, and some of the intimate scenes between the two main leads – I’m okay with these devices if they add something to drive the plot forward, or build an atmosphere. I don’t even mind a few graphic love scenes here and there just for titillation and fun (I’m no prude) but after a while it becomes tedious.

The second big thing was exposition and pacing. Primarily the pace of the novel was dragged down by frequent descriptions, history, or lengthy scene setting. They were kind of relevant to the story, but not essential, and left the book feeling longer than it needed to be.

McQuistion’s writing style is edgy and humorous, and she is at an expert level in building tension and angst. I devoured this book in two sittings and had tears in my eyes over half of the time. It is a tenderly sweet and emotional ride. I wasn’t sold too much on the third person point of view though, it didn’t feel like it had been honed in, there was a lot of unnecessary repetition of words in the sentence structure. So the flow wasn’t quite there for me.

As with contemporaries like this, we are rooting for the leads to end up together, so there is always that sense of predictability in this genre. But, not knowing much about the plot before I went it, and the cutesy, sweet cover art, I was expecting a Hallmarky type rom-com… I did not predict the amount of difficulty, tension, and long journey the characters had to navigate. Maybe that is less about predictability and more about my misguided assumptions from the cover alone.

Red, White & Royal Blue Book Review Pic 02 by Casey CarlisleMcQuistion builds great fleshed-out and realistic characters. I did not like all of them, a few I wanted to reach into the pages and punch in the face. And others I wanted to hug, (or steal all for myself,) which is a great testament to her craft of storytelling. I was so wrapped up in their lives that I forgot about the outside world. The only times I got pulled out of the story apart from the occasional exposition, was when my eyes were too blurry from tears, and I had to stop and calm myself down.

The hate-to-love trope is overdone, but I really enjoyed it in this story. Especially when we get diverse characters. Mixed race, mixed nationalities, and mixed sexual identities, all wrapped up in political machinations.

Alex our brash and workaholic son of the President of the United States reminds me of every young gun upstart we see in political and legal dramas. I didn’t particularly connect with him, but I appreciated him as a character and cared about his story. The growth and story arc of his is point of view, is what this tale follows. We begin to see a softer side slowly emerge from Alex as he begins to explore his options in life and love.

Henry is by far my favourite – he’s the prince charming fantasy. Regal, polite, a legacy steeped in family history. The kind of things I enjoy in a man. I would have like to have seen a bit more of a comical play on the clash of cultures; I feel there were a lot of missed opportunities that may have lightened the load in certain parts of the plot. Henry too evolves as a character and you get a real sense of how each of our two leads influence each other.

Definitely a much more serious and realistic story than I was expecting. Totally engrossed in the novel and will happily recommend it to anyone.

I thought the cover art was cute and on trend with the manga-styled format that is popular right now, the colour choice really grabbed my attention, though I’m uncertain it projects the tone of the novel.

Overall feeling: A wonderful (and emotional) surprise.

Red, White & Royal Blue Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Red, White & Royal Blue 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.