memoir

Book Review: How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

One more book down from the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and also one off my TBR (no worries, though, I’ve added like five more books since then, so it’s in no danger of getting smaller…). For this particular prompt, I needed a book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics, and the Goodreads group for this challenge pointed out that How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones (Simon & Schuster, 2019) both fit the bill and was on my TBR. Magic!

Saeed Jones, the son of a single mother, grew up in Texas. Growing up Black and gay in the South is no easy feat, and as he begins his own adult life, he struggles deeply with identity: who he is, where his sense of identity comes from, who his mother expected him to be, who his grandmother tried to force him to be, who he really wants to be. For too long, he uses sex as an escape mechanism, one that allows him to ignore the question about the things that define him, but always, always, he’s pulled back to the love his mother gave him, even through the pain of losing her.

This memoir is difficult to sum up. Saeed Jones writes about the struggle of living at the intersection of being Black and gay, but it’s more than that. His memoir is about identity, the difficulty in defining our images of ourselves amidst all the conflicting messages we receive from our families and the many cultures that surround us. Case in point: while Saeed’s mother raised him as a Buddhist, he spent summers with his very Christian grandmother, who had a very different idea of who her grandson should be than her own daughter did. His resulting search for identity, one we all go through to some degree as we transition from adolescence to adulthood, is fraught with challenges, ones that cause pain to both himself and others. Perhaps some of this is inevitable, but Saeed’s story makes it clear that it doesn’t have to be, that accepting people for who they are and allowing them to be themselves would lessen a lot of that pain considerably.

There’s strong sexual content in this book, along with multiple scenes of homophobia, and the serious illness and death of a parent. Go easy on yourself if these are things that will be difficult to read about right now.

How We Fight For Our Lives is a quick read, since Saeed Jones’s writing flows like water, but it will leave the reader with a lot to think about concerning who we are and how easily we’re able to define ourselves. If your transition from childhood to adulthood was a smooth one, where everyone accepted you at face value and allowed you to be who you needed to be, read this to learn how privileged you were and expand your sense of empathy.

Visit Saeed Jones’s website here and here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird

With interlibrary loan not being available (and it won’t be for the foreseeable future *sob*), it was getting time to make changes to my reading challenge picks. I’m so grateful to Goodreads for making groups available where readers can discuss challenges and identify different picks for different prompts- makes things a LOT easier for me! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge has a prompt for a book by a trans or nonbinary author, and after a little searching and checking my library’s ebook database, I settled on Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird (Tiller Press, 2019). I love memoirs, I love nonfiction, and I love learning and especially learning about how to be a better ally, so this was a perfect choice.

Jackson Bird was assigned female at birth, but it became clear early on that this was a label that didn’t fit him well. Living in a very conservative area didn’t lend well to giving him the terms for what he was feeling, and he grew up in the days before ‘transgender’ was a common term. With the exception of an episode of Oprah and a heavily stereotyped Adam Sandler movie, Jackson’s education on all things transgender was as limited as anyone else’s of that time period, something that caused him considerable distress, as things do when you feel that alone.

Forcing himself to conform to female gender norms only compounded his gender dysphoria, and after the internet worked its magic and introduced him to more information on the topic, Jackson began the long, slow process of physically transitioning to the gender he’d been all along, finding love and support from his family and friend group along the way. Though not without difficulties, his journey made him realize he needed to help others along the way as well, something he’s forged into a successful career via YouTube, TEDTalks, and other well-known media outlets.

This is a GREAT book. If you’re transgender or questioning your gender and are interested in learning more and need to feel like you’re not alone, this is the book you need. If someone in your life has come out as trans and you want to learn more and understand how to be a better friend and ally, you need this book. If you keep hearing about transgender people and trans rights on the news but those headlines and malicious, hurtful jokes by family members constitute the entirety of your knowledge on the topic, this book is your primer. Go pick up a copy now.

Interspersed with chapters of his own story of coming out and transitioning, Mr. Bird includes educational sections that define terms and their proper uses and provide more in-depth knowledge on both issues that affect the transgender community (ie, how to purchase and use binders, how to prepare for top surgery, how to navigate employment as you transition) and how their friends and family can be better allies and work to make the world better and safer for their trans loved ones.

Mr. Bird’s story is one of bravery- not without its bumps in the road and its moments of self-doubt, but what story lacks those? His dedication and conviction, both to living his truth and to educating others, is admirable; I wish I had even a sliver of his courage. It seems as though he’s been extraordinarily fortunate in that his family and friends supported him and stuck by his side throughout, though it’s not difficult to tell why; Sorted is written in a style that makes his outgoing personality and friendliness apparent. You’ll be wishing you could hang out with him within a few chapters.

Sorted is a fast read- with as engaging as it is, how could it not be???- but it’s one that will stick with you and will have you speaking up the next time you hear someone making a crack about trans people. Jackson Bird is one of those people you’ll be sticking up for, and he and every other trans person out there deserve it. Don’t leave this one off your list; you’ll come away enlightened, educated, and determined to be better for trans people in every aspect of your life.

Visit Jackson Bird’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Check him out on YouTube here.

fiction

Mrs. Everything- Jennifer Weiner

There’s been a huge amount of buzz about Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, 2019), and, having read six of her other books in the past, I knew I’d eventually get to this one! And as luck would have it, it came up as a suggestion for PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge for a book that passes the Bechdel test (wherein two women must have a conversation which is about something other than a man, and which was named after the cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, a fact I didn’t know about until just now!). This book passes that test in spades and is an all-around fabulous read.

Mrs. Everything covers the entire lives of sisters Jo and Bethie Kaufman, born in the baby boom of post-WWII America and coming of age in the turbulent 60’s as the world writhed and changed around them. Jo, the elder of the two, is athletic, always at odds with their mother, and understands early on that she’s different from other girls. Bethie, a people pleaser and their mother’s clear favorite, changes trajectory after the terrible aftermath of death of their father and struggles to find herself and her place in the world. The sisters’ relationship ebbs and flows, internal and external pressures playing a large part on how they relate to and support one another. This is an opus, a love letter to all the women out there who do their best and can only try, fail, and try again.

(Content warnings exist for molestation by a family member, rape, abortion, drug use, homophobia, disordered eating, difficult parent/child relationships, cancer, and death.)

There are a lot of themes running throughout this book, and one of them is the changing role of women in society over the years. Jo and Bethie’s mother had almost no choices in life; Jo and Bethie had more, but still nowhere near acceptable; Jo’s daughters have far more, but it’s still not enough, and the novel ends acknowledging that while women have come so far, it’s absolutely not enough, that men are given passes in parenting and the career world that women aren’t even thought of being granted. Jo makes an astute observation that both she and Bethie kind of fell into their lives, rather than making active choices to create the lives they wanted, and I have to wonder how true that statement is for women in general today. It certainly was for me.

There’s a lot of sadness in this book, as there is in everyone’s life. Jo, whose attraction to women can’t ever really be lived out in the open in her young adulthood, lives what feels like only a half-life, struggling to find a place for herself while taking care of her beloved children and the husband who, as time goes on, feels like less and less of a safe haven. Bethie’s entire self nearly disappears after being molested and raped, and she flits around the world, trying to both lose and discover herself and realizing she can’t run from her pain, nor can she force her sister to live more authentically. It’s all one step forward, two steps back for the Kaufman sisters, a tale as old as time and one that we’re still seeing today.

Despite the sadness, this is a view of two very different lives over a turbulent period of time, a time of growth and a time of difficult realizations. Jennifer Weiner writes with clarity and insight, and even when the subject manner is painful, her tone is light enough that Mrs. Everything is a comfort read, like hearing stories from your own beloved friends and sisters. This was the perfect book to follow up my last read, Dahlia Adler’s His Hideous Heart, an anthology of Poe retellings. I desperately needed something that made me feel hope again, and this fit the bill well.

Have you read this or any of Jennifer Weiner’s other novels? Are you a fan? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Visit Jennifer Weiner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Let’s Call It a Doomsday- Katie Henry

I’ve loved Katie Henry ever since I read Heretics Anonymous last year, so I was super excited to read Let’s Call It a Doomsday (Katherine Tegen Books, 2019)- as soon as I learned of its existence, it went straight onto my TBR, despite the fact that its pub date was months in the future. I’ve been looking for it at the library for ages, but it had always been checked out (which is good! I never mind waiting; I’m happy that other people are enjoying the books I too want to read, and I always have a list of books I want to read that unfurls, rolls out the door, and heads for the Pacific Ocean, so, you know. No hurry). But this time, BINGO. It was in, and into my stack it went.

Ellis Kimball is obsessed with the end of the world. Nuclear disaster, earthquake, massive snowstorm, fires that wipe everything out, plague, she knows them all and she’s prepared for each scenario, keeping go-bags stashed at home, in her backpack, and in her locker. But her obsession is affecting every part of her life, including her family, and it’s after a session with her new therapist that Ellis meets the mysterious Hannah, who claims to have been having visions of the end of the world- visions that involve Ellis.

Buoyed by her acceptance into Hannah’s friend group, Ellis helps Hannah search for a young man she refers to as Prophet Dan, all the while preparing for the massive snowstorm that Hannah claims will bring the end of the world as we know it. But things get a little more complicated when Prophet Dan’s identity is revealed, and Ellis’s need to inform the world of its impending doom becomes urgent. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but faith, new friends, and the family who has been there for her all along might just be the answer to avoiding certain doom.

There’s so much to love about this book. Katie Henry obviously knows well what it’s like to live with anxiety (if not personally, than through excellent research and a deep sense of empathy), because there were quite a few times I was reading along and stopped to chuckle because Ellis sounded so much like what my brain does when I don’t stomp it back down. Her fears aren’t necessarily mine, but the thought processes are so similar, along with the constant negative self-talk, that I understood her well- though there are times when she and her mother, who is frustrated by a daughter she doesn’t understand and doesn’t know how to help, get into it, and Ellis eventually handles it in a more understanding and mature way than I would have. If your anxiety does center around disaster scenarios or the end of the world, however, Let’s Call It a Doomsday might either help or set off your anxiety, so please be careful.

I loved that Ellis’s faith and religious life- she and her family are active members of the LDS church- is woven into every aspect of the story. Family Home Evening is discussed multiple times, her family’s lax (so she feels) attitude towards food storage plays into her fears, multiple scenes are set before, during, and after church services, and how her religion may add to and help her anxiety is a huge theme throughout the novel. It’s not too often that you read stories where a character’s religion just is, without the novel having any ulterior motive, so I really appreciated this look at a religious teenager doing her best to live out her faith because of and in spite of her mental health challenges.

Hannah’s friends are great people; they’re smart, helpful, kind guys who protect the members of their group well, and this is demonstrated in multiple scenes, starting off when Ellis is warned in the beginning about Hannah having been through a hard time recently, and later on when Ellis overhears one of the boys trying to get Hannah to back off of something she and Ellis are doing that’s affecting Ellis negatively. The scenes with the guys were some of my favorites simply for eliciting such warm fuzzy feelings of friendship and trust. Tal, especially (who made me realized that the singer Tal Bachman’s first name is actually Talmadge, which I’d never considered before!), elicits a lot of warm fuzzies. The book is worth the read alone because he’s such a great character. That said…

I didn’t care for Hannah at all. I figured out her schtick almost immediately, and while I felt for her, she seemed too manipulative and sneaky to care as much about her as I did everyone else. To me, it felt like she was using Ellis and taking advantage of her anxiety to further serve her own needs, and that left a terrible taste in my mouth. Had I been in charge of the story, I would have changed how their friendship stood at the end, but I also understand why Ms. Henry let it play out as it did, and that didn’t change my enjoyment of the book itself.

Let’s Call It a Doomsday is a great read, to be read with some caution if you struggle with anxiety, but overall, to be enjoyed for the story of growth and self-acceptance that it is. Since it was published in August, it fits the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book published during your birthday month, so I can check another one off that list!

Visit Katie Henry’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Full Disclosure- Camryn Garrett

It makes my reader heart so happy when books on my TBR match up with prompts in reading challenges. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to learn about new books and new authors; that’s the whole reason I participate in these challenges! But I’m also deeply invested in taming my TBR beast and keeping it under control (*nervous laughter* let’s not talk about how many books I added to the list this month…), so it made me ridiculously excited to find Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019) on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge list for the prompt about a book featuring one of the seven deadly sins (lust, in this case). I added this to my TBR the second I learned about it last year and this was the first time it’s been available at the library when I’ve checked for it.

Simone Garcia-Hampton is doing her best to settle into her new school. She’s made two new best friends and has been named the director of Rent, the school musical. It’s a big change from her last school, where, when word got around that Simone was HIV-positive, the ostracism and hatred, even from the parents, was too much for her to bear and she was forced to leave. She hasn’t told anyone from her new school yet, not even her best friends, but Miles, the handsome lacrosse player, is making her think that someday soon, she’s going to have to speak up in the interest of honesty and full disclosure.

That day may be sooner than she wanted. Simone’s been receiving threatening letters in her locker, letting her know that someone out there is fully aware of her positive status and doesn’t want her hanging around Miles. If she doesn’t break things off with him, her secret will be out of the bag. Simone’s scared, angry, panicked…and worried about what being HIV-positive really means for a long-term future with someone she loves.

I loved this. Camryn Garrett’s voice is fresh and modern (there’s an offhand comment in the book where one of Simone’s friends talks about her dog eating her DivaCup, and I love that menstrual cups are well-known enough amongst teenage girls for this to appear in a young adult novel!), and Full Disclosure is well-researched, timely, and important. I’m old enough to remember the days when HIV was a death sentence, sometimes a rapid one, and the fact that Simone is able to take a single pill per day and live a completely healthy life, her viral load eventually becoming undetectable (undetectable viral load means the virus is untransmissable, as the novel states many times), seems pretty miraculous (yay for science and the hardworking researchers who made this possible). HIV, when treated, is more of a chronic condition these days than the harbinger of doom it once was, and Ms. Garrett really drives that point home in a novel that feels vibrant and alive. It’s education that doesn’t feel like education; it just feels like a really great story, with the added bonus of learning an awful lot about what daily life with HIV looks like.

Despite being HIV positive, Simone is just like any other teenager, worrying about sex and relationships, her future, friends, her teachers, her responsibilities at school, and her parents’ relationship. Though the story centers around her condition and what it means for her immediate and long-term future in terms of romantic relationships, she’s no different than her friends with her concerns and cares. Her best friends, who belong to the school GSA (one is…I can’t remember off the top of my head if she’s lesbian or bisexual; the other is ace- my first time seeing an ace character in a novel, which I appreciated!), are loving and accepting in all ways, and Miles, Simone’s love interest, displays more maturity and acceptance than his parents. As a parent, I understood their concerns, but very much appreciated Ms. Garrett’s showing that younger generations are often far more easily accepting of difference than adults are. I see this often in my daily life, and I work hard to fight it in myself. I don’t ever want to stop learning, stop understanding new information, and become stuck in my ways and refusing to grow and change with the times. The kids are alright, I think, and I’m hopeful for when my son’s and daughter’s- and Camryn Garrett’s- generations take charge.

I’m so looking forward to reading more from Camryn Garrett in the future. Her voice is fabulous, and her characters are so complex and full of life. Her ability to craft a story that demands the reader’s attention while cramming them full of important information is #goals all the way. Keep an eye on this author, folks- only seventeen years old when she sold this book? She’s amazing, and she’s here to stay.

Visit Camryn Garrett’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Red, White & Royal Blue- Casey McQuiston

On occasion, I hit up the library without a list for something to read- anything to read, save me from the dreaded reading slump!- and on really cool occasions, a book that I’ve seen all over the book blogs appears before my eyes on the shelves. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019) is one of those books. It was everywhere on the book blogs this summer and I see Casey McQuiston on Twitter almost every day, even though I hadn’t followed her until now (but y’all do, so well done there!). I hadn’t added this to my TBR, but it was kind of on my mental TBR, like, “I’m not going to specifically request it, but if I run into it, I’ll grab it.”

I ran into it.

I grabbed it.

I LOVED IT.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is the politically ambitious, college-age son of the first female American President. He’s driven, mischievous, and a little lonely- and he cannot STAND Henry, the British prince with whom he’s been crossing paths long before his mother took office. Henry is stiff, proper, everything you’d expect a royal to be, and his very presence drives Alex up the wall. After a disastrous moment between the two of them during the royal wedding reception, their respective PR teams force them into a very public faux-friendship in order to mend fences between the countries…and when Alex gets to see the Henry behind the royal fa├žade, the real Henry, Alex discovers he actually likes the guy. Really likes him.

And that’s when, to Alex’s major surprise, their friendship deepens into romance.

Suddenly, Alex finds himself in a cross-country intrigue, pretending his growing love for the handsome young British royal is nothing more than an international bromance, but the two are in deep. If knowledge of this gets out, it could spell disaster for both the royal family and for Alex’s mother’s upcoming re-election. But how can they hide something that feels so perfect?

(This is possibly the worst summary I’ve ever written, so please don’t let that deter you from reading the book. It’s amazing and sweet and fun and adorable and really, one of the most joyful books I’ve read in ages.)

I don’t read a lot of stuff that gets super-hyped, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I dove into this book, but I absolutely wasn’t expecting to find one of the sweetest, most adorable love stories I’ve ever read. I loved every last thing about this- Alex’s status as first son, his surprise love interest being a British prince, Alex’s sister and friend group, the White House staff, his divorced parents’ relationship, the political intrigue, the heartfelt optimism of all of this, it all added up to a deeply enjoyable reading experience.

Alex and Henry together are an entire swoonfest, and Ms. McQuiston has penned an entire masterclass on witty banter between the two of them. They’re sharp, snarky, and clever together, making one of the most perfect, well-matched couples I’ve ever read in my entire reading life. Her dialogue flows so naturally that every conversation in this book felt like I was stashed away in the corner, eagerly listening in on something actually happening in front of me. This is one of those amazing books that absolutely transports the reader, and with its heartfelt optimism, it’s the perfect escapist read when real-life politics and international scandals become too much.

Alex’s sister and friends (and Henry’s friend as well) are fabulously well-written characters, but I have to say, my favorite character here was Zahra Bankston, the President’s deputy chief of staff, who (barely) kept Alex in line and swears like a sailor in the most creative manner. I so appreciated her snark and her barely-contained irritation with Alex. I’d hate to be in her crosshairs, but she’s absolutely someone I’d want on my side.

Goodreads says that Ms. McQuiston is currently working on another rom-com featuring two girls and possible time travel and I’m already dying a thousand deaths; I adored Red, White & Royal Blue so very much and I loved Ms. McQuiston’s style, so I’m ready to fast-forward to the point where this new book is in my hands and I have some quiet time to sit and devour it whole. Three cheers for finding a new author that I absolutely love!

Red, White & Royal Blue has been optioned; whether it’s fully developed and winds up on the big screen remains to be seen. I’d absolutely go see it, but I’m not sure any adaptation could do full justice to the wonderful novel Casey McQuiston has gifted to us all.

Visit Casey McQuiston’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.