Monday, July 16, 2018

#CBR10 Review #36: Autoboyography by Christina Lauren

It seems like I've been on a bit of a YA romance kick this year, and I think it's because there is nothing quite like a sweet story about first loves. And this thoughtful novel by writing-duo Christina Lauren delves not only into this area of young love, but also largely focuses on what it means to grow up queer in a largely religious area that doesn't support this facet of humanity.

Autoboygraphy is largely from the point of view of a teenager named Tanner, who moved about 2 years earlier to Provo Utah: back home, he was openly bisexual with both his family and the community there, but upon moving to this largely Mormon city in Utah, his mother has urged Tanner to be careful about outing himself, after her own negative experiences with the church in the past. While a bit stifling for Tanner, this is all well and good until the mentor for one of his writing courses that graduated the year before strikes something in his heart: this being Sebastian, the local bishop's son, who immediately has a rapport with Tanner, who now can't help but complicate things in having his heart flow out onto the autobiographical pages of his writing assignment.

What we have here is a story about attraction, falling in love, and all the complications that can come with it. In this case, we have a boy who is secure in his sexuality but feels the need to stay closeted where he is, paired up with another who is exploring his own sexuality in relation to the religion that he grew up in and continues to surround himself with; looming over all of this is the constant threat of accidentally being outed in a place and situation that neither boy really wants to deal with at this time, but also the wondering about whether or not they want to stay secret and how much this may be harming them internally.

Something I love about this novel is how thoughtful it is, and how it manages to balance both the fun rapport between the two boys and the deeper more serious conversations they need to have in order to understand exactly what their relationship is and what it means to each of them. One of the things discussed that I really appreciated was on the subject of bisexuality and how this is often perceived by others; in many of books I've read in the past where the protagonist has had attractions of multiple genders it has been boiled down to "I like kissing girls and I like kissing boys and that's just how it is" which is a great way to feel as an individual, and I wish it really were that simple. But here we actually get to see some more of the complexities and misunderstandings a lot of people have being discussed.

There is also a strong feeling portrayed in this novel of the overbearing nature to the Mormon church, as well as that of being on the side of supporting those queer people who are affected by the oppressiveness of it. Yet the authors do not make an outright villain of religion or the Mormon faith: while we see the struggle and feel for what Sebastian is going through, a point is also made to explain why he feels drawn to his faith and what it provides for him in terms of prayer, family, and sense of larger community. 

All of these aspects develop into both a meaningful yet sweet story. The only thing that I really have to complain about is how the story unfolds in the later sections of the novel. After being from Tanner's point of view for almost the entire novel, we suddenly switch to Sebastians; this at first is a little jarring but ultimately I think the reader benefits from seeing his thought process in regards to his faith and relationships. And then, because of how effective it is, I wish there were more from Sebastian's viewpoint, either throughout the novel or at least more during the closing sections. There is pretty pivotal moment for Sebastian near the conclusion which we see the leadup to but not the ultimate action and confrontation for, which I believe would have really rounded everything out rather than switching directly back to Tanner's POV at this crucial moment. 

That said, I very much enjoyed Autoboyography; there are many layers to this young adult story that are very well-balanced in my opinion, and and I would not be surprised if I found myself looking to read it again in the future. 

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, July 12, 2018

#CBR10 Review #35: Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

I could see this book being involved in some good classroom discussions. I can also see certain communities resisting this, and not for the right reasons.

From what I can see, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ body of work consists largely of novels dealing with current events and social commentary, aimed at children, and Ghost Boys is no different: in this novel, we follow the spirit of a young black boy named Jerome, after he has been shot by a police officer while playing with a toy gun. Jerome’s spirit both recounts the events leading to the incident, as well as follows his family and the trial surrounding his death. This is where he meets the daughter of the officer who killed him, as she tries to understand her father’s actions and look towards making things better in the future. Jerome also meets the spirits of other young black boys who have been killed over time due to discrimination and racism, most notably Emmett Till from 1950s Mississippi.

The novel brings up real-life events, such as that of Emmett Till, Trayon Martin, etc in relation to this fictitious tale, which illustrates the point of the story very clearly. It also acts as a conduit for increasing further real-world discussion with the intended audience. Being that the anticipated demographic is young, the writing of the novel is clear and the themes are present in a very direct manner without much subtlety, but I don’t think this is too much of a negative factor here: it opens up a few different layers to examine in regards to police violence and racism that I think are clearly presented in order to promote discussion and change.

The only thing, though, is that after all these incidents, I can see this novel as seeming like it’s preaching to the choir for people of color: this understanding of police brutality and systematic discrimination is needed more in predominantly white communities, but I could see these ones as being those that reject this novel for their preferred narrative.

Alas, there is also a peaceful factor to this novel, and a sense of hope that perhaps in the future things will be better as more people come to understand and change. But of course the question ever is, why can’t things just be better now? In any case, Ghost Boys as a novel for young people is real, heartbreaking, but also not completely one of despair. It shows that there is undeniable injustice in this world and urges the reader to recognize this and not just brush it aside, in the hopes that we can all change for the better, and hopefully our future generations will have less to fear as they grow old if only we can learn and teach along the way.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

#CBR10 Review #34: The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Coincidentally the second piece of media released recently that I've taken in having to do with the historical figure of PT Barnum; one more and it's a pattern. But in The Mermaid, the story is not per say about him, but rather about a fictional recounting of a mermaid who finds herself in his exploitative employ (inspired by the infamous Fiji mermaid hoax). But despite the magical elements therein, this novel is more of an introspective exploration of personhood, freedom, and human cruelty.

The Mermaid begins with what almost comes across as an old legend told about one of the inhabitants of a small town: a mermaid (Amelia) who wanted to explore the world and ended up leaving the sea, only to find love and a quiet home amongst the people there. But just as she longed to see more than just the sea, she eventually also wants to see more of the world of humans beyond her small coastal village, and ends up sought out to become a new exhibit for PT Barnum's museum in New York. Here, she learns more about the ways of the human world, and finds herself not liking all that she sees, once again wanting to leave the place she initially sought out but found was not ultimately right for her.

The action and plot of the novel very quickly tells almost a whole story in itself within the first section, only to then drag on a bit through the major center, and then quicken up at the end again. This didn't leave a lot of breathing room or time for development during this back section of the novel, where many of the changes of heart and development of major relationship changes took place. Despite this, however, the progression of the story made sense and the conclusion felt nicely wrapped up, if perhaps a little quick to come to at the end.

One of the major strengths of The Mermaid is how many issues of humanity are touched upon, illuminating certain hypocrisies and things about our North American world which don't entirely make sense or do any good: we see the dynamics and gendered roles of women versus men, the differing of others in harmful ways, the wanting to push one word and truth of religion upon those who are happy as they are, exploitation from people who just want to make money off of others, etc etc. This is often taken up through the voice of Amelia herself, as she tries to learn about human life but struggles to see why certain things must be the way that they are, though of course we also see this through the cruelties and manipulations of PT Barnum (while technically a historical fiction novel, I'd wager this portrayal is pretty accurate of him).

While I did love the way these topics were woven into the story, however, a major sticking point for me with the novel is almost a sense of distance between the characters and myself: glimpses of their inner selves and introspections would come to light only to be quickly snuffed out. And within a novel that doesn't per say have action ripping through every chapter, there could have been a way to develop more of a connection with the reader. In particular, Amelia is our conduit throughout the novel (though the point of view does switch from time to time), and we are to understand she is different and a sense of how she understands things is somewhat developed, but there is a bit of an impenetrable coldness there. This coolness of Amelia is mentioned by other characters, but I feel like as the reader trying to break into her point of view, this was a bit frustrating when it extended to myself. Perhaps this was just me, but I think it is a case of a distance in the tone of the writing? It's hard to explain.

Ultimately, this is a lovely story about finding freedom and navigating the strange waters of humanity. But it all seemed to clip along without letting me totally in a wall in the way. Nonetheless, still enjoyable and not a difficult read by any means, and I may be inclined to take a look at some other novels by Christina Henry to see if it's just the writing style that doesn't grab me, or if it was the story and characterization all along.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, July 2, 2018

#CBR10 Review #33: The Art of Starving by Sam J Miller

Upon first seeing the title of The Art of Starving, I thought there could only be two major things it would be about; either following the trials of a person struggling through famine/poverty/war, who struggles to survive these hardships while literally starving, or it would be some romanticized tale of an eating disorder, possibly with some “love heals all” thrown in there too which I’ve seen far to many times when regarding stories about mental illnesses. But while perhaps The Art of Starving is closer to the latter, it definitely isn’t a sanitized or pretty thing: this novel is ugly, which is ultimately both a strength and a weakness for it.

In Sam J Miller’s acknowledgements at the end of the novel, we see him mentioning his own eating disorder as a teen, and reminiscing about how seldom this is recognized in teenage boys vs girls, hence the subject for his novel here: The Art of Starving is about a teenager named Matt, who suffers from an eating disorder, but this is only one piece of the puzzle and pain of his life. We see Matt enduring the homophobia and loneliness of his small-town life, the shame of seeing yourself compared to those who exist in a higher socioeconomic class, the fear of his single mother losing her job, his family history with addictive behaviors, and most pressingly for Matt, the loss of his sister in his life after she has seemingly run away from home. Matt is convinced that someone hurt her, causing her to run away, despite the brief contact from his sister stating that she is okay from time to time. Matt’s desire to find his sister thereby comes directly face-to-face with his eating disorder through that fact that when Matt starves himself, he discovers new abilities and heightened senses that he thinks he can use to find out what really happened to her. And I know you may be thinking, “Superpowers through starving yourself? That sounds… problematic,” because that’s what I was thinking at first too! But rather than make it seem like these powers are a good thing, the novel delves more into their implications for Matt, and how he chooses to use them.

What I really got out of this novel was a story about anger, pain, and trying to hold on to some form of control in this world that no one has any sort of power over. It’s not a pretty thing, and I am glad in some ways that Miller does not shy away from going deeply into Matt’s anger and destructive thought process. But this is also where this novel is difficult to read: not because it is bad, per say, but because it is hard to get through. It’s kind of similar to what I’ve heard from a few people in regards to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, in that it’s difficult to get inside the head of someone who is destroying themselves. It is painful and can bring up a lot of different emotions, none of which are good. I found this here with the character of Matt, as well, as he slowly destroys his body, and tries to explain why he is doing what he is doing; I wanted to shout at him to stop his quest to hurt those he held any sort of anger towards, as well as scream “can’t you see what you are doing to yourself??” at him over and over again. But clear as day, presented within Matt’s narrative point of view we see the distorted and obsessive thoughts, the ones so hard to break out of no matter how much we might recognize they are destroying us. I understand what’s going on, but man is it frustrating to witness.

In many ways, this novel is a lot to handle, and there are a lot of subjects to deal with. I wouldn’t say it was a pleasing read, but also wasn’t a bad one. But there were some things that maybe could have been finessed a bit more for my liking. One small aspect was the predictability of certain elements, so then the reveals weren’t so impactful (though to be honest, I didn’t find these leadups too distracting from the novel overall, just one of them which seemed like it was supposed to be a big twist or turning-point that I saw coming from a mile away). But one of the bigger issues I had in this novel in particular was the subject of the superpowers: it goes to a bit of a bizarre place, and while there is maybe some ambiguity as to whether or not Matt actually had some sort of abilities, or if it was just delusions. I think the consensus at the end is that he did develop some powers, but they are hard to understand the nature of and how this fantastical element really is supposed to fit within the narrative or thematic context. It’s just a bit of a bizarre mix of such down-to-earth and human themes, then paired up with the supernatural.

So in the end, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about The Art of Starving. Because it is so real and compelling, yet also so frustrating and difficult to take in all that destruction and pain; and then it also throws you on a bit of a bizarre loop at the end as well. But I loved the themes presented, and think for the most part they were handled well. Matt’s issues are not solved with a quick fix, and they aren’t pretty or quirky. They are dirty, and recovery is shown to be a hard process: love doesn’t solve all your problems, and sometimes people have their own issues or have trouble sticking with people when they are deep in their own. Sometimes we can’t stop something once we’ve started, and clinging onto your secrets seems safer than revealing them, no matter how they destroy you.

This novel is a strange ride, both following certain tropes I’ve seen many times before, but also super unique in a lot of ways as well. I can’t say that I loved it or hated it, but I cannot deny that there are a lot of strengths to be found within. I  definitely feel like it would be worth a reread in the future. But I leave you now, with this quote near the end of the novel which truly struck me:

“Being better isn’t a battle you fight and win. Feeling okay is a war, one that lasts your whole life, and the only way to win is to keep on fighting.”

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Saturday, June 30, 2018

#CBR10 Review #32: We Stand on Guard by Brian K Vaughan, Steve Skroce, and Matt Hollingsworth

A fitting read for Canada Day weekend, huh? We Stand On Guard is the graphic novel of Brian K Vaughan, with art by Canadian artist Steve Skroce, and colouring by Matt Hollingsworth. Focused on a future after the bombing of the White House, Canada and America find themselves at war with one another. Canada is almost completely occupied by American forces, with most Canadian citizens working in labour camps for resources to be sent down south to the American people. But of course, there are those who will resist, and continue to resist in both subtle and overt ways to stop whatever injustices they see happening. This is where we meet a group of freedom fighters of the direct-action variety; their fight is the one the novel focuses on, and the whole thing plays out very much like what I’ve seen in many a post-apocalyptic anti-establishment movie.

In all honesty, I can see why this graphic novel works for a lot of people, and the artwork has a definite polish to it that some other works I’ve read don’t have. But in a way, it almost lacked a bit of character because of this. The story, as well, seemed to play out in a reasonably predictable way, with a few interesting twists thrown in there. But there also seemed to be a lot of moments just added for gritty shock, or surprised explosion after surprise explosion, which by the end was tiring to me.

I guess I also didn’t quite grasp anything deeper than the surface explanations for the war: the relationship between Canada and the US is a complex one, and here I didn’t feel like this was being too represented beyond just wanting to show a militaristic, boom-crash fest. Then again, it is in a fictional future, so who is to say what the realities would be at that time. Unfortunately, the story of We Stand On Guard didn’t grab me in a way that I would have liked, and I found it to be a good concept but an uninspired execution.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

#CBR10 Review #31: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Just as a number of readers before me have also done, I came to read Treasure Island after recently flying through the tv series Black Sails  (I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I quickly came around and loved it by the end), which is a prequel to the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Although, I didn’t realize this for quite an embarrassingly long time, but then, all my previous engagement with the story has been in the form of The Muppets adaptation or Disney’s Treasure Planet: I thought it was just generic and well-known pirate names being used in the show! I mean, real historical figures are included in there as well! But in any case I felt like a doofus when I finally figured out the relation to the novel that has endured over time in its portrayal of pirates and how their iconography continues to be identified and understood today. It is therefore, a credit to Treasure Island in how it has defined the notion of pirates and their genre throughout the ages: the story itself focuses on a young boy named Jim Hawkins who ends up on an adventure with a crew (including one, John Silver) to recover the hidden treasure of an infamous old pirate, Captain Flint.

But just like other novels I have read that have been adapted in other forms that I have seen/read before, there is always the facet of comparison that comes into play, here. And in this case, I almost find the original source material to be lacking in some ways when I think of the other versions of this story I have seen before, for a few reasons: first and foremost, the language and manner of telling in this novel was difficult to get into. In particular, terms and phrases are used that I had not even an inkling as to their meaning, but trudged through anyways hoping to make sense of it in time. As well, the manner of the narrative is in a very matter-of-fact retelling of a story, which on the one hand is good in pursuing action and gives it a more classic oral-history feel (as if someone is retelling the tale of their youthful adventures by a campfire or something like that), but ultimately left me completely disaffected by a lot of the characters. Jim Hawkins, who is the main narrator of the story, seemingly goes through motions and decisions without letting us into who he is or why he makes these choices. I hardly got a sense of him or any other character and their motivations, which ultimately is different from how I have felt in other adaptations: John Silver, in particular, seems to have more of a paternal vibe in some, while being more fun but mischievous in others, yet here I didn’t get what he was about at all. And perhaps it was also me trying to figure out how this version of John Silver connected to the one we left years earlier at the end of Black Sails, but it didn’t quite work for me in the novel.

However, in mentioning to one of my friends recently that I was currently reading Treasure Island, we got into a little discussion of how we felt about it and she said that she remembered loving it when she was much younger, though hasn’t read it recently. It made me think that this novel really does perhaps seem aimed at not per say a younger audience, but one that just wants to read about an adventure and not get into all that other stuff. I personally want more characterization in order to understand them and their decisions more, but not everyone does. And as I mentioned earlier, this novel is really set up to be an adventure, and that it is with twists along the way.

For me, in the end, Treasure Island turned into an extension of what I had already been engaging with: seeing what happened to these characters years later, though a lot also definitely happened in-between these two timeframes presented. It was ultimately an exercise in discovering how one piece of media and its interpretation came to relate to the other. And while not everything from Black Sails connects exactly, a lot of the tales of the pirates you see in the book are somewhat vague or up for interpretation. In a way, it reinforces the idea presented at the end of the tv series that in the end we simply become the stories told about us: what is real and what is not does not matter, so long as it is a captivating tale that endures over time. And that is what this novel has done, as I said right near the beginning of this review. So despite a few bumps along the way and some difficulties in getting into the language or connecting with the characters, there is something compelling about Treasure Island and its narrative of a young boy on a new voyage with those from the stories he’s been told, and learning the realities behind the myths that grow so big you may not even see them as people any more.

And of course, who would I be without plugging my own artwork, because lo-and-behold, I have made two companion pieces of James Flint and John Silver from Black Sails. Which, as I mentioned, is totally related to this review and my reading of the book in the first place!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]