Saturday, November 8, 2014

GRACEFULLY GRAYSON



Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonski
 
Pages: 208
Date: 08/11/2014
Grade: 5
Details: Juvenile Fiction ages 10+
  Received from Hyperion
            Through Net Galley
Kindle

The blurb:

“Grayson Sender has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: """"he"""" is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender's body. The weight of this secret is crushing, but sharing it would mean facing ridicule, scorn, rejection or worse. Despite the risks, Grayson's true self itches to break free. Will new strength from an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher's wisdom be enough to help Grayson step into the spotlight she was born to inhabit?”

My thoughts:

In this review I will be referring to Grayson as ‘they’ because neither he nor she feels 100% appropriate. This is my personal interpretation and not meant to offend or confuse anybody. This gender issue doesn’t surface in the book itself since the story is told in the first person from Grayson’s perspective.

Up until recently twelve year old Grayson had been able to look in the mirror and see who they should be rather than who they were. Lately the strategy hasn’t been working anymore. No matter how hard they imagine and pretend all Grayson sees is the reflection of a boy rather than the image of the girl they really are.

Having lost their parents at a very young age, Grayson lives with his Aunt, Uncle and two cousins. Because Grayson holds the secret of their identity close, they haven’t been interacting with other kids their age for years. The happiness when it seems that Grayson may have found a new friend after four years without, broke my heart.

“(...) until I feel up to explaining to Aunt Sally and Uncle Evan that I have plans with a friend for the first time since second grade”.

When Grayson auditions for the female lead in a school play and gets the role it appears to be a dream come true at first glance. It isn’t long before reality comes crashing in. That reality is very well dealt with in the book. It’s not all pain and soul searching. Grayson’s life is far from easy but it isn’t unbearably heard all the time either. It would have been easy to turn this story into a tear jerking drama; easy but lazy and unsatisfactory for the reader. The way the story is told I got a wonderful appreciation of the shifts taking place in Grayson as they balance between the joy of being allowed to portray a girl and the fear of making themselves the focus of ridicule and bullying.

“Everything keeps flip-flopping back and forth, from bad to good, over and over again. Sometimes everything is light. Other times, everything is dark.”

It would have been very easy to dislike, if not hate Aunt Sally but a lot of her reasons for wanting to stop Grayson from taking the female lead in the play have to do with her worrying about them (and his cousins) getting bullied in school. Having said that, it got a bit harder to feel sympathy for her once she reflected on how Grayson’s choice would reflect on her parenting skills. Still, all those fears on Sally’s part are undoubtedly worries every parent of a transgender child would have. What did bother me though was the fact that especially the adults in this book were a bit one dimensional; either understanding and supportive or the opposite. While that may work very well for the age group this book is aimed at (and I’m not even sure about that, it’s easy to underestimate kids), it left me rolling my eyes once or twice.

I really appreciated that this book ended on a positive but not miraculous note. Grayson has come a long way but the author doesn’t suggest and the reader doesn’t walk away with, the illusion that all Grayson’s problems have been solved. This is the (very difficult) start of a complicated journey. Grayson has taken the first steps and, we are led to believe, found the inner strength to be true to their real identity. Nothing else is promised.

It was hard to read this book without comparing it to ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio and I don’t mean that in a bad or derogatory wayl. Like ‘Wonder’ this book deals with a youngster who doesn’t quite fit in because they don’t conform to the norm. In both books the main character has to face their otherness in relation to the rest of the world and both characters manage to come out on the other side maybe not so much victorious but definitely intact and empowered.

“(...) when I look at myself in the giant floor-to-ceiling mirrors, I finally see myself the way I’m supposed to be - my inside self match up with my outside self. And now, everyone else will finally see it too.”

Overall this was a wonderful book I’d recommend to any reader aged 10 or over. Understanding otherness is something we can’t teach our kids or ourselves early enough.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

THE HAUNTED MAZE

THE HAUNTED MAZE by Theo Fenraven

Pages: 75
Date: 01/11/2014
Grade: 4.5
Details: Novella
Own / Kindle

The burb:

“Still in his twenties, Percy Callendar is one of the richest men in the world. In an attempt to find the future love of his life—and because he likes to have fun—he builds the ultimate haunted house and assembles a select group of men to go through it. 

Sage Donovan, owner of a fledgling IT company, is the seventh applicant to receive an invitation. He figures completing the maze—something no one has done yet—will guarantee fame and maybe fortune, and he immediately accepts despite having a little problem with anxiety. 

Witches, spiders, ghosts and ghouls are the least Sage has to deal with, because before the night is over, he will face his deepest fear, changing his life and Percy’s forever.”

My thoughts:

They say good things are worth waiting for. I’m not the most patient of creatures and waiting for Amazon to get their act together and release ‘The Haunted Maze’ was very frustrating, but...I have to admit it, well worth the wait in the end. Talk about building anticipation...

Theo Fenraven amazes me. Every time I start one of his books I find myself diving into something completely new. This author doesn’t repeat himself, he flirts with genres and then moves on to the next one, always flexing his artistic muscles and pushing himself and the reader to extend their boundaries. Of course the amazing aspect of this flexing is not so much that he does it, but that he not only gets away with it but manages to own each of the genres he tackles as well as put his personal spin on it.

It’s hard not to fall for Sage. He’s presented as an honest, good and reliable young man who wants to do and be the best he can be. His perseverance when faced with his deepest fear was described so well I almost experienced his anxiety as well as his determination to overcome it.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to think or make of Percy. His scheme is, of course, utter madness and yet there is something sweet and almost innocent about his hope and belief he might find a man who will love him in the middle of a haunted house.

The same is true for Richard, Percy’s lawyer and friend. I couldn’t quite pinpoint him. Like Percy he sounds impersonal and ‘big business’ a lot of the time. And yet there are these gestures and casual remarks suggesting both men might be basically good. This of course makes the characters more interesting and realistic. While having a clear cut distinction between sympathetic and despicable characters can make a story easy to read, it rarely makes a book or the characters in it fascinating. And if Percy and his haunted house are to be described as anything, fascinating would be the word to use.

Once Sage enters the Maze the story blew me away. The various scenes, the different kinds of horror and the puzzles he has to solve were all cleverly thought out and presented so well it was possible to visualize the creatures and monsters. Sage’s internal conflicts as a result of rationally knowing everything he sees and experiences is fake and the very real fear he experiences regardless, was recognisable and made him all the more realistic. His internal dialogue as well as the comments he makes to Percy, who he knows is observing him, added a wonderful touch of humour to the story and put a smile on my face on more than one occasion.

I loved how Theo Fenraven managed to portray a burgeoning relationship between two characters who spend most of their time apart from each other. Initially the only interaction between Percy and Sage takes place without face to face contact, through short conversations over the intercom. And yet, despite the lack of direct contact the reader is in no doubt these two men are getting to know and appreciate each other more with each new horror Sage faces.

I really don’t want to say anything else about the story. Exactly what imaginative horrors Sage runs into and how he deals with them should be a surprise to the reader. The same is true for what happens when Percy’s carefully laid plans are thrown into turmoil. Reading this book is very close to visiting a haunted house. The reader, like Sage, has no idea what to expect next. Each turn of the page may bring a new surprise or shock, just like turning each corner in a haunted house would bring you face to face with something else to make you startle and scream. Very well done, Mr. Fenraven.

The Haunted Maze, despite its title, is a love story, be it that we only get to see the very early stages of the romance. In most books that would result in me wishing the story had been longer. The Haunted Maze didn’t leave me feeling disappointed though. By the time the story ended I’d seen enough of Sage and Percy to believe it was possible for them to be something special together. This was one book in which how they got to that point was far more interesting than what might happen afterwards could ever be.

As always – and I do seem to reflect on this in every review of books by this author - the writing in The Haunted Maze is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. I’ll never understand how Theo Fenraven manages to create such vivid pictures with so few, yet very carefully chosen, words. Reading his books is pure reading delight for me and I can’t wait to see what he’ll be coming up with next.

Monday, October 27, 2014

THIS BOOK IS GAY

THIS BOOK IS GAY by James Dawson
 
Pages: 271
Date: 07/09/2014
Grade: 5+
Details: Non-Fiction
            Received from Hot Key Books
            Through Nudge
Own

The blurb:

Former PSHCE teacher and acclaimed YA author James Dawson gives an uncensored look at what it's like to grow up as LGBT*. Including testimonials from people 'across the spectrum', this inclusive book explores everything anyone who ever dared to wonder wants to know - from sex to politics, how to pull, stereotypes, how to come-out and more. Spike Gerrell's hilarious illustrations combined with funny and factual text make this a must-read.


My thoughts:

“LGBT people are strong. Because we have to be.”

The author’s note says:

“This book is Gay is a collection of facts, my ideas and my stories but also the testimonies of more than three hundred amazing LGBT people who shared their stories in July 2013. I conducted an international survey from which many of the quotes are taken, and also carried out more in-depth interviews with some selected participants.”

“Whether you think you might be LGBT or think you’re straight but have questions or you’re anywhere in between, this book is for you.”

Sometimes you read a book and find yourself wondering why it took so long before someone wrote it. Occasionally you come across a book and you’re grateful to have the opportunity to not only read it but also to be in a position where you can tell others about it. ‘This Book is Gay’ is such a book.  

This book was written for young people who may find themselves questioning their sexuality or afraid of what the conclusions they’ve come to are going to mean for them. And as such I think it is brilliant. The author tackles every aspects of the LGBT spectrum, doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths but doesn’t turn this into a sob story or a scary tale.

In fact, what I liked most about this book was the fact that while the message was serious, the tone in which it was shared was light-hearted and comforting. The message was loud and clear; while your life may become more complicated when you come out it will result in you being true to yourself, and ultimately, that is the one thing all of us want.

The drawings in this book, combined with the author’s voice keep the tone light and the message loud and clear. The personal testimonies shared throughout give this book an intimate feeling while showing that there are no one-size-fits-all answers or solutions. What is true or works for one person may not be the best solution for another, and that too is fine.

This book should have pride of place in every (school) library, should be given to all kids once they reach the age where sex and sexuality come into play. In fact, I would advocate putting this book on the curriculum of secondary schools. After all, as it says in this book, while kids are given all sorts of information about heterosexual relationships, other options are rarely mentioned. Imagine how it must feel if you are a teenager who is not attracted to the opposite sex, or a teenager who is not sure about their gender identity. I’ll go one further and say this book would probably make things a lot clearer for the average adult too.  

I would like to think ‘This Book is Gay’ could be another step towards that world in which sexuality and gender stop being an issue and all of us can be free to be who and what we are, without fear and discomfort. It is in that spirit that I applaud this author on a job very well done, and thank him for writing a well conceived and brilliantly executed book.

I don't usually show the same cover twice in one review but today I will, just to show how many quotable passages I came across. In the end I had to limit myself to the quotes I started and ended this review with. For all the other good bits (and really, this book is one huge good bit) you'll have to read the book.


Who do you want to be? There’s only one rule; always be true to yourself.”

THE SPINNING HEART



THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan

Pages: 156
Date:  27/10/2014
Grade: 4-
Details: Reading Group Read
Library

The blurb:

“My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down.”

In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.

The Spinning Heart speaks for contemporary Ireland like no other novel. Wry, vulnerable, all-too human, it captures the language and spirit of rural Ireland and with uncanny perception articulates the words and thoughts of a generation. Technically daring and evocative of Patrick McCabe and J.M. Synge, this novel of small-town life is witty, dark and sweetly poignant.

Winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2013
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013
Winner of Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2012

My thoughts:

Gosh, I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. It contains rather sad and depressing, although insightful and sharp, snapshots of the lives of inhabitants of a small village in the west of Ireland. The area has gone from riches to rags after the fraudulent local builder who provided the jobs and prosperity, goes broke and flees the country. These people suffer in similar yet very individual ways through the recession following the building boom.

The character’s stories are bleak. There is no real hope, nothing to look forward to and no solution in sight. On top of and compounded by the economic doom are the personal issues these characters deal with; guilt, depression, confusion, desperation, lack of love, loneliness, the list goes on and on and not a single characters appears to be happy.

Of course this town is a microcosm of Ireland. The stories show how individual actions affect a whole community in sometimes surprising and unexpected ways. They also point how even in the midst of a group of people we have known all our lives we can be completely alone and isolated. As such it is very clever and very well written; all these characters have their own voice and their own issues, even if they all stem from the same source. I admire how the author managed to tell several tales through the eyes and mouths of twenty characters all of whom only have one (shortish) chapter dedicated to them. I’m impressed that twenty different voices managed to result in one coherent story. Unfortunately my admiration for Donal Ryan’s skill doesn’t result in affection for the book he’s written.

I prefer my stories character driven rather than event driven. The glimpses of lives I got were not enough to satisfy my curiosity. Not that I felt I wasn’t given all the information I needed to follow the story; I think it was all there. What I needed in this book and didn’t get was just one happy section; for one character whose life wasn’t filled with pain or despair. They say ‘bad news sells’ and this book feels as if it’s trying to prove that rule. For me though bad news only leaves an impression if it’s contrasted by good news. Only blackness renders me almost blind to what I’m reading and the messages I’m supposed to find in the words.

I can’t help feeling the author took every issue known to men and decided to put them all in one, 156 pages long, book. While it gives us some beautiful scenes and touching quotes, it also leaves us overwhelmed by the misery of it all.

“You’re some fool, she said with her eyes. I know I am, my red cheeks said back.”
“She saw more in me than I knew there was.” - Bobby about his wife Triona

“I don’t care, though, if he can never feel the same pride in me that I know he used to. I just want him to remember how he loved me. I want him to know I’m still his little girl.” Mags, after she’s come out to her parents.

To summarize: this book is well written with the numerous individual voices clear and distinct. It is also very clever in that it tells a full story from an almost endless amount of angles in such a way the reader isn’t really aware how it all connects until they are nearing the end of the book. However, none of that mitigates the fact this is a very depressing tale.