November + December Book Haul and Life Update!

Hello, friends! It’s been a little while since I’ve posted a personal entry, so here’s a book haul on the non-queer YA fiction I’ve read and recommend over the past two months. Luckily, I have a technical writing job that makes listening to audiobooks during work easy so I’ve got a good variety of recommendations this time around. Hopefully a few of these catch your interest!

YA:

  • Romancing the Dark in the City of Light by Ann Jacobus (3/5 stars): This novel follows troubled Summer Barnes after she’s caught in a deadly pull between her best friend and self-harm. I actually found this book at the Dollar Store, which often has books from the clearance pile at Barnes and Noble, and decided to take a chance on it. It was a powerful read with a unique take on mental illness in that it personifies suicidal ideation. Though a little darker than most YA fiction, I felt like it made for a quick and compelling read.
  • (Don’t) Call Me Crazy (4.5/5), edited by Kelly Jensen: This anthology features personal essays from a variety of YA authors, artists, and other creative personalities on mental illness. If you’re looking to feel less alone about your own struggles or understand others with mental health issues, this is a vulnerable and uplifting read. I especially appreciated Libba Bray’s essay on obsessive-compulsive disorder. As someone with OCD, it meant a lot to read one of my favorite authors as a teen speak openly about her diagnosis. Probably one of the best YA releases I’ve read this year.
  • Meet Cute (4/5), edited by Jennifer L. Armentrout: Another compelling YA anthology but this time, short stories about first meetings between couples who are “meant to be.” This book really does have something for everyone. It’s genres range from contemporary to sci-fi and the stories feature plenty of LGBT and POC protagonists. It’s a quick read for sure but also full of fun, wholesome love stories.
  • Get Well Soon by Julie Halpern (3/5): After Anna’s sent to a teen psych ward for depression, she opens up with her fellow patients in a way that moves her towards healing. This was an ultimately optimistic take on dark issues like body image, suicidal ideation, and sexual assault. The book balanced these topics with equal amounts of heart and humor to keep the story hopeful. Although I wasn’t a big fan of the writing style, the plot overall seemed like it could be powerful for teens in similar situations.

Non-YA:

  • Lose Well by Chris Gethard (5/5): Comedian Chris Gethard shares his strategy to overcoming a fear of failure and making the most of what you’ve been given. By far the best self-help book I’ve read, especially for creative types who are trying to figure themselves and their career out. I mostly bought this book because his podcast Beautiful/Anonymous is one of my favorites but this book was really well-done. The balance between advice and personal stories especially made it enjoyable and hilarious in a purposeful way.
  • Zealot by Reza Aslan (3.5/5): This book offers a unique analysis on the historical Jesus and his connection to political turmoil in ancient Jerusalem. From a historical and a theological perspective, this book felt incredibly well-researched. I found it fascinating as someone who’s interested in both spirituality and ancient history, and it offered a more complex portrait of Jesus than what’s seen in mainstream Christianity. Equally intriguing for Christians and non-Christians alike.
  • Night by Elie Wiesel (4.5/5): The author narrates his experience as a concentration camp prisoner during World War II and it was harrowing. Stories like Elie Wiesel’s are especially important to keep in mind as World War II drifts further and further into the past to make sure humanity never commits such atrocities again.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (5/5): This book tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief following the death of his young son, who’s stuck in-between the land of the living and the dead in his tomb. Experimental and strange but oh man, I loved this one. It reminded me of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman but a little darker and more philosophical. If you’re looking for a weird and heartbreaking story, this one’s worth checking out.
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller (3.5/5): Fun fact: I was assigned this play for a college class but never actually read it. But hey, now I have so that counts for something, right? This one I listened to in one sitting at work and it was a chilling story. Though most people know that Miller wrote about the Salem Witch Trials as a comparison to the Communist Red Scare, I think it’s just as relevant today as it was then. Made me want to read a nonfiction book on the history of the Salem Witch Trials that I’ve been meaning to check out, so maybe there will be a review on that in January!

And, in bulleted form, a few life updates:

  • Got to see a live show of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and it was equal parts spooky and fascinating.
  • Sent out my first batch of beta reader chapters for my YA novel! Hoping to edit it through the winter and start querying in the spring so fingers crossed!
  • Hit the two month mark at my new job. It’s been challenging at times to transition from freelance work to an office job but I love my coworkers, the work, and the company’s mission. Ultimately, I’m happier than I’ve been in a while and grateful to have a fulfilling job.
  • Got back on testosterone after a two month hiatus while switching insurance. Getting back on it was very much a relief. I’m thankful to live in a time and place where healthcare for trans people has improved so much. Sometimes I forget how lucky that is, but it’s been one of the greatest blessings in my life to feel comfortable with my body and with who I am over the past two years on T.
  • Just watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with my partner’s family and was blown away! The art style, the characters, the emotions… if you haven’t seen it yet, I could not recommend it more. Such a satisfying and well-done film. Ugh, guys, it was so good!

What book that you read in 2018 made a strong impact on you?

LGBTQ YA: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Note: When I initially started reviewing books, I had assumed that I would never read a perfect 5/5 book. The Miseducation of Cameron Post proved me wrong.

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Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Author: Emily M. Danforth

Rating: 5/5

One sentence summary: After coming to terms with her sexual orientation while living with her conservative relatives, Cameron Post is sent to a gay conversion therapy center in rural Montana.

What I loved: This book centers around two major milestones in Cameron’s life: first, her realization and path to self-acceptance of her sexual orientation, and then her time coping at a gay conversion therapy center for about a year. Both are important stories to here and, from what I can tell, both relatable and real.

Cameron discovers she is lesbian when she’s twelve years old, as she and her friend Irene kiss in a barn. Soon after, her parents die in a car crash. Because Cameron was raised in a heavily religious environment, she believes that her sexuality caused the car crash as a punishment from God. Queer teens who have been raised in a religious environment might relate to this misplaced guilt, though perhaps not in an overwhelming loss like Cameron. The first quarter of the novel is about her guilt process as she explores her faith and eventually finds peace with her sexual orientation.

But even though Cameron herself no longer feels like her sexuality is wrong, she still lives in a repressive place. Her issues are not over just because she feels no more internal pain, and once her conservative Aunt Ruth learns Cameron’s openly gay, she sends her to a gay conversion private school.

Having to deal with these two pains (first coming to terms with yourself, and then living in a hostile environment) is a feeling many queer teenagers can relate to, and I think the way Danforth handles it is important for teens in this situation to read. Personally, I’ve never been to a gay conversion therapy center, nor do I know anyone who has, so I can’t attest to the accuracy. Danforth herself grew up in Miles City, Montana (the setting of this book) and used some of her experiences to create this book’s environment, which creates a very realistic and fair depiction.

Nobody in this book is a “bad guy,” not Aunt Ruth, not the people at the conversion therapy center, not Cameron. That is the best part of this novel. Cameron, while our protagonist, doesn’t always make morally positive decisions. Aunt Ruth shows genuine concern for Cameron, even if a bit misguided. Even those who run the gay conversion center believe they’re doing the right thing, regardless of whether we as readers agree with them.

Sometimes in LGBTQ YA, it’s easy for authors to paint an “us vs. them” mentality with those who do or don’t support LGBTQ rights, but life isn’t that simple. Generally people aren’t trying to hurt others. We’re all going through life with unique perspectives, trying to understand others as well as ourselves. This book is wonderful because even though it could easily have made Cameron innocent and flawless, and it could have made those who don’t understand her cruel beyond understanding, it doesn’t. It makes them human. I feel like that is important for anyone to read and understand.

Quote: “Maybe I still haven’t become me. I don’t know how you tell for sure when you finally have.”

Recommended? Yes! Very much so. Everything about this book is well-done: the writing, the characters, the story itself. Like other recommends, I might advise this more for older teens (15-up) because this book does contain some mature themes (sex, self-harm, conversion therapy).

Next up:  Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

YA Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Another Friday, another YA book review! Now that I have a good rhythm for these reviews, I’m hoping to add more content to this blog: as a tentative schedule, I’m planning on personal posts for every other Sundays and creative writing posts for every other Wednesday. Wednesday will be the first one. Ideally this will help make the content a little more varied and related to my own work as a writer.

Until then, enjoy this review of All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven!

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Title: All the Bright Places

Author: Jennifer Niven

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of a bell tower and team up on a school project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, saving each other from their inner demons in the process. But some demons are harder to fight than others, and Finch struggles to keep from losing himself (and Violet) to the darkness inside his thoughts.

What I loved: This book is narrated from the perspectives of both Violet and Finch, alternating by chapter. Both characters have distinct voices, and it’s enjoyable to inhabit their perspective (if only for a little while). Though dealing with similar troubles, Violet’s voice is very different from Finch’s (and vice-versa). This can be a little hard to pull off when dealing with multiple POVs in a book without making one more interesting or combining both into an indistinguishable blob.

Many YA books deal with depression from a first-person perspective, but less focus on the effect depression can have on the friends of those dealing with it. Violet and Finch’s relationship is complicated, and although she loves him a lot, ultimately she can’t take what he’s dealing with away through dates or kind words. I think this is a good message to send, even if it’s hard to hear: depression is more than just a feeling. It’s serious, and treatment involves more than holding hands and wishing it away.

What Violet and Finch go through is so hard, and it’s hard as a reader to experience their struggles with them, but it’s real. While some themes in this book may be triggering (mentioned more later on), portraying painful situations in YA can be important because it helps those who experience them feel less alone. The way Niven writes them is respectful and done with a lot of taste. I especially appreciated that she listed resources for readers with the depression at the end of the book, too.

What I didn’t love: Although this book is beautifully-written and handles difficult topics well, I had a few concerns about its portrayal of depression. Sometimes it felt like the characters glorified mental illness as something that made you deep or quirky rather than a serious thing that needs treatment. Adults in the book are largely portrayed as clueless and unable to help, which seems like a bad message to send if a reader is struggling with depression.

Sometimes Finch felt more like a concept than an actual human being. Although his character was intriguing, his actions seemed more like a vehicle to talk about depression than a person with multiple dimensions. If he was a little more relatable, I think it would be easier for readers to understand him and see depression as a real concern rather than a quirk or romanticized illness. I still enjoyed his character but felt like he could have been more believable.

Quote: “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”

Recommended? Yes, but with some caveats. This book is definitely for older teens. Not only does this book include themes of death and suicide, but the way it handles these topics is a lot more open but also graphic than some YA books. If death and suicide are triggering subjects for you, this book might not be the best choice.

This book especially reminded me of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (which I personally love a lot). Readers who also enjoyed this book might appreciate the similar ideas and feelings in this book, especially since All the Bright Places is strong enough to stand on its own.

Next up:  The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

LGBTQ Representation in YA: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

Note: As you can see, I skipped a week on blog posts and book reviews. Last Tuesday after staff meeting, my co-workers and I went on an impromptu adventure to IHOP in the wee hours of the night. I figure responsibilities are important, but what’s life if you can’t enjoy yourself every once in awhile?

So I took the week to read some YA books and prepare to start up reviews Tuesdays and Fridays from now onward. This one is another LGBTQ YA book that explores memory and the role it plays in defining us, as well as what causes us to love who we love.

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Title: More Happy Than Not

Author: Adam Silvera

Rating: 4/5

One sentence summary: In the near-future where memory erasure procedure Leteo provide relief from traumatic events, 16-year-old Aaron Soto contemplates undergoing the surgery to “straighten himself out” if it means he can find bliss in ignorance.

What I loved: This book deals with brutal themes: suicide, homophobia, and inner shame are all treated with respect but also a rawness that almost hurts to read. Aaron discovers his sexual orientation in a repressive environment. Through developing a close relationship with his friend Thomas, he unravels emotions that he fights so hard to understand even as he wants them to disappear. Readers who came to terms with their sexuality as a teenager may find Aaron’s fear and confusion relatable, albeit hard to swallow.

In a word, More Happy Than Not‘s writing style is “gut-wrenching.” Despite a near-future setting, the turmoil Aaron faces internally and also from his loved ones reads so vividly that the reader is thrust into his emotions and deals with them alongside him. If you’ve been in a situation like Aaron’s, struggling to understand a sexuality or gender identity you never asked for, you may find the writing style punches you in the stomach in a way you’ve felt before. It’s hurtful but almost healing.

More Happy Than Not deals with hard questions, both questions that Aaron faces as he unravels who he is as opposed to who he thought he was. I grew up in a religious community that has come a long way in how we treat our LGBT lay members. While compassion and acceptance is taught more often than not, I still remember as a young teen when my relatives swore that gay people can change their orientation and, as this protagonist longs to do, “straighten themselves out” via therapy or just flat-out denial. I used to think I could do this with my gender identity. It still hurts.

For that reason, I think I understood why Aaron wanted so desperately to erase his sexual orientation from his memory, if it meant he could live a “normal” life. His friends are less-than-supportive and even violently homophobic. Coming out, for him, was not only shameful but unsafe. If a procedure gives someone a chance of escaping such painful discrimination, even if it means no longer being you, who wouldn’t find it almost too good to be true?

In Aaron’s case, it is: meaning that not only does Leteo promise to erase his inner fears, but it is quite literally too good to be true. Memories define us, but there is so much more to us. Silvera explores their fragility and whether you can erase something so central to someone as their sexual orientation, as well as what consequences that may have. It’s dark, thought-provoking, and unafraid of shying from conflicted and painful emotions (both for his characters and his readers).

Quote: “Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.:

Recommended? Yes. Especially recommended for those who enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as this book explores similar connections of memory, personality, and what love is. Silvera gives the idea a unique spin by incorporating sexuality into the mix.

I would probably recommend this one for around 14-up because of how openly it discusses teenage sexuality, bullying, and suicide. Younger readers may not be ready to deal with these themes, which can get a little dark, but older teens could find their discussion cathartic if they have gone through similar challenges. If any of these themes are triggering, however, it might not be the best choice.

Because I enjoyed this book so much, I looked to see if Adam Silvera has written anything else, and he has: his novel History Is All You Left Me was published in January. Requested from the library and added to the list!

Next up:  All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven