24 Nov 2015

Dive Into Diversity: OzYA Recs

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Diversity in lit is taking strides. We’ve seen some great titles released just this year and it’s a movement that is still going strong since We Need Diverse Books was launched in 2014. But here in Australia, there is still a gaping hole when it comes to diversity and we still have a way to go. I’ll be the first admit that Australian authors are some of the best, but this is one area where we need to improve on. Aussie authors including Ambelin Kwaymullina, Sarah Ayoub, Rebecca Lim and Gabrielle Wang have previously spoken about this issue. Book reviewer Danielle Binks has also written posts on the subject, hearing from Erin Gough and Eli Glasman.

We’re having conversations and getting people thinking, and that’s a great place to start. In the mean time however, we have some brilliant diverse titles published and we need to do our bit by supporting the books we do have at our fingertips. So today I’d like to welcome my good friend Rachel (blogger @ The Tome Travellers) to the blog, who has a list of awesome recommendations to share with you all. Get your TBRs and wallets ready and don’t forget to link up you reviews below. Happy reading!

P.S. Attention Int'l friends: If you're having trouble finding these, Fishpond ships internationally, so you can shop to your hearts content! (I am a terrible enabler...but supporting the Aussie industry. I'm sure it all balances out.)
Whisper by Chrissie KeigheryAugust 2011
Whisper is about a teenager, Demi, who went profoundly deaf about 18 months prior to where her story starts off. I can’t even remember why I decided to read it, but I’d never read a book about deafness before and I wanted to fix that. I’m so glad I did, because I was so invested all the way through and it makes me sad that this book is so underrated. It’s a moving story about Demi navigating all the things teenagers struggles with – there’s some family and friend issues that are beautifully dealt with - and coming to accept herself as a deaf person and realising that it’s not a bad thing, it’s just who she is now. I really, really liked it (in fact, writing this little paragraph right now is making me want to re-read it something fierce) and I think it’s a perfect candidate for the quietYA hashatag. Chuck it on your TBRs, please and thank you.

Grace Beside Me by Sue McPherson - 2012
Fuzzy McCardell ‘Fuzzy Mac’ is an aboriginal girl being raised by her grandparents in the small country town of Laurel Dale. Her story starts off in the year 2007, the year of Kevin Rudd’s national apology to the stolen generation. So while I personally didn’t connect to the story all that much, I loved Fuzzy. Her voice was so unique and fresh – I adored her observations and descriptions of the people in her life, the quirky and unique people of Laurel Dale. In fact, I’d say the final page of this book is probably the best final page I’ve read all year, so I want you all to read it, and experience it for yourselves.

** Nona and Me by Clare Atkins was published this year, but as it’s told from the perspective of a white girl living in an Aboriginal community, I thought Grace Beside Me was more appropriate for this post as it’s written by an Aboriginal woman with an Aboriginal MC.

Alex As Well by Alyssa BrugmanJan 2013
Alex is a 15 yr old who was born with both female and male parts. Her parents chose to raise her as a male but she has always felt like a girl. After an incident at her current school, she decides to start fresh in more ways than one - she moves to a different school and also starts dressing as a female. It’s been a few years since I read this book now, and I’ll be honest when I say it wasn’t one I loved. I liked and enjoyed it at the time, but much of the story has faded from my memory and I don’t know if I want to read it again (please keep in mind this is only how I feel – other bloggers I know loved it). I want you, dear reader, to read it though, because it features an intersex MC. I’ve never EVER read a YA featuring one, which only emphasises that we NEED books featuring MAIN characters that are representative of every sexuality that LGBTQIA encompasses. I believe Alex As Well has been published in the US and it’s of course available in Australia, so please seek it out and read it, it’s an important one.
The Boy’s Own Manual To Being A Proper Jew by Eli Glasman - July 2014
As you might guess from the title, Yossi, our MC, is Jewish. He’s also gay and desperately doesn’t want to be. Mix that with Yossi meeting Josh, the new, not-very-religious (and also gay) boy at his school and you will get thoroughly sucked into this endearing YA story about a boy figuring out how his sexuality fits into his faith and vice versa. Although I know next to nothing about Judaism and I was a little confused at times, I ended up devouring this book in one day (it’s in no way preachy, by the way, more that it’s just a lot of information to take in) and I’m so happy that this book exists because it’s a book about sexuality and faith, particularly Jewish faith and again, it’s something I’ve never seen in YA. I want everyone to know about this book and I feel like so few do (both in Australia and internationally) and that frustrates the hell out of me. So if you’re reading this, please, GET YOUR HANDS ON IT HOWEVER POSSIBLE AND START READING IT NOW.

Laurinda by Alice PungNovember 2014
Lucy is a Vietnamese-Australian teenager growing up in the relatively poor suburb of Stanley in Melbourne. At age 15, she is granted a scholarship to an exclusive private school for girls, Laurinda, and is drawn into the world of the elite upper class and into the web of the Cabinet, a trio of girls who rule the school. So essentially, Laurinda is an exploration of class and racial prejudice; it’s about Lucy existing in an environment where people constantly seek to remind her that she is lesser/doesn’t belong because of where she lives and who her parents are, and it’s so well done. I enjoyed the interesting format – the book is split into the four school terms and it reads like Lucy is writing a series of letters to her friend, Linh. Two other things:
1. If you’ve read Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers - for me, Laurinda brought back some of those feels.
2. There is no romantic element, which I find to be so rare in YA these days (not saying there’s anything wrong with romance in YA, of course, because I can’t live without romance in my YA).

The Flywheel by Erin Gough - February 2015 
Okay basically what you need to know about this book is that it has A LESBIAN MC. Do you know this is the first lesbian MC I’ve come across in Aus YA and it’s 2015? THAT IS TERRIBLE. I mean, I’m sure there is others, it’s just that I haven’t read them/come across them yet (Bec did tell me about Pink by Lili Wilkinson when we were discussing this) but holy lesbians in Aus YA, Batman, we need more of them. Anyway. This book is so, so charming and adorable and sweet and funny (I loved the Marx Brothers references) and is essentially everything you want in a contemporary YA. It’s about Del, who has an all-consuming crush on Rosa, a flamenco dancer from across the street. She basically drops out of high school after being bullied and ends up running her Dad’s café, The Flywheel, when he decides to stay away longer than planned on an overseas trip. Chaos ensues. I think one of the things that’s so great about The Flywheel is that Del is already out and comfortable with who she is. That’s important for queer teen readers to read, just as reading about characters that are still struggling with their sexuality and identifying with them in that way, is. I can’t recommend this book enough, and I believe it’s being published in the US next so year so if you come across it, please please please read it.

Cloudwish by Fiona WoodSeptember 2015
Vân Uoc is a Vietnamese-Australian teenager attending Crowthorne Grammar school on a scholarship. She’s a dreamer. She dreams about making it into an arts school and Billy Gardiner. She makes a wish. And suddenly, Billy starts to notice her. Is it magic? Can wishes really come true? I can’t decide which of her three books my favourite is, but I think it’s this one? And to be honest, it’s hard for me to properly articulate why I loved it so much. I think a lot of it comes from how much I adored Vân Uoc and the achingly real portrayal of first love Cloudwish explores. I was surprised at myself actually, because I was well and truly swept away on a wave of FEELINGS (and normally. my cynicism butts in and ruins things). I love that Fiona wrote a book with Vân Uoc as our MC, because I absolutely loved her voice. Trust me when I say that you want this book in your life and you want it in your life NOW.

Other books that deserve a mention: 

9 Nov 2015

Review: Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler

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Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler
November 17th, 2015 · Spencer Hill Contemporary
Source: Author
Format: eARC
Page Count: 348
Reagan Forrester wants out—out of her trailer park, out of reach of her freeloading mother, and out of the shadow of the relationship that made her the pariah of Charytan, Kansas.

Victoria Reyes wants in—in to a fashion design program, in to the arms of a cute guy who doesn't go to Charytan High, and in to a city where she won't stand out for being Mexican.

One thing the polar-opposite best friends do agree on is that wherever they go, they’re staying together. But when they set off on a series of college visits at the start of their senior year, they quickly see that the future doesn’t look quite like they expected. After two years of near-solitude following the betrayal of the ex-boyfriend who broke her heart, Reagan falls hard and fast for a Battlestar Galactica-loving, brilliant smile-sporting pre-med prospective... only to learn she's set herself up for heartbreak all over again. Meanwhile, Victoria runs full-speed toward all the things she thinks she wants… only to realize everything she’s looking for might be in the very place they've sworn to leave.

As both Reagan and Victoria struggle to learn who they are and what they want in the present, they discover just how much they don't know about each other's pasts. And when each learns what the other’s been hiding, they'll have to decide whether their friendship has a future. 
In the words of Vic: Tia Maria! This is one fabulous book.

I'm not usually a fan of dual narration, but Just Visiting made it work so well. Normally it would take me a while to find my groove and adjust to two voices, but I sank into this book like a fluffy marshmallow and didn't give it a second thought because I was too busy turning the pages. Apart from jotting down a note as to how well the POVs were written, of course.

The diversity in the book is just SO GREAT. Truly. It's weaved in effortlessly and as always, you can see that Dahlia has done her research. For one, Victoria is fluent in ASL because her mum is deaf and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this done in a YA novel before. It was great and as much as I enjoyed it, I think I would have loved this particular aspect even more now that I’ve discovered the TV show Switched at Birth, one of my latest obsessions. (And hey, on another note, you should totally check out that show.) It also includes a cast that's diverse in race (Victoria is Mexican and one of the love interests is Indian) and socioeconomic class.

I already liked the girls, but I really came to love them when we got to delve into their pasts. This fleshed them out and allowed us to get to know them; where they've been and where they're going. Reagan and Vic are both very different and I think this is also why they complement each other in friendship and from a reading perspective. They both offer something different - to each other and for the reader. They aren't without their flaws, but they care for one another so much. It’s a beautiful friendship and the kind I love to see being represented in YA.

More reasons I love JV? I won’t spoil it, but there's this scene that deals with contraception and it's handled so well. Some authors might have simplified it or skipped over it altogether; I know this because I remember reading this scene once that was so dismissive of the subject it’s stuck with me, even though the book hasn’t. But Dahlia does’t take the easy route and has handled the subject with such grace. You’ll know it when you read it.

To sum up: Just Visiting is for you, if you like:

- Well written stories with heart and humour
- fleshed out characters
- books brimming with diversity
- awesome friendships to ship

Basically, what more could you want in a book?

P.S. I'll be hosting a Twitter party with the author to celebrate the release next week. Come for some fun, a Q&A, book chatting & more. 

Save the date:
8PM EST on the 18th (US)
 9AM AWST on the 19th (AUS, WA)
Not sure if you'll be able to make it? Check your time zone here!

Use the #JVParty hashtag to join in. Hope to see you there!

28 Oct 2015

Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

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What We Left Behind by Robin Talley
November 1st, 2015 · Harlequin Teen Australia
Source: Publisher
Format: ARC
Page Count: 416
From the critically acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves comes an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love isn't enough to conquer all.

Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They've been together forever. They never fight. They're deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college—Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU—they're sure they'll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, their relationship will surely thrive.

The reality of being apart, however, is a lot different than they expected. As Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, falls in with a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.

While Toni worries that Gretchen, who is not trans, just won't understand what is going on, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in Toni's life. As distance and Toni's shifting gender identity begins to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together? 
I had such high hopes and expectations for What We Left Behind. I’d liked Robin Talley’s debut, but since historical isn’t my thing, I thought I’d love her latest. It sounded like a sure thing and it’s disheartening to be sitting here writing a negative review. Beware: ranting ahead.

Of course, I certainly don't claim to know everything about the LGBTQIA+ community and their experiences, so these are just my thoughts and what I took away the book.

I like that it discussed gendered pronouns. It's the first time I've seen it on the pages in YA and that was great. But that’s the only thing about this book that worked for me.

It’s really disappointing that for a book I hoped would be free of stereotypes, it was full of them. Not in just secondary, uneducated characters, but in the way Toni thought too. He was always stereotyping people he didn’t know and judging them, which got really old fast.
So I show Carroll yearbook pictures and tell him more about my friends back home. He’s shocked by how many gay people went to our high school. I think it was partly because it was an all-girl school," I say. “Going across the street to the guys’ school was so much effort. People got lazy.” pg 56
Problematic much? Turned gay because they're lazy? Really? Also:
Ebony and Felecia are both black, and Joanna is Vietnamese. I felt a little weird at first, like I was boring next to them. Then I remembered that I bring in the LGBTQIA diversity angle, so I was still contributing. pg 293 
Oh no, you didn’t. So being of a marginalised group is “contributing” and if you're not, you're boring? Wow… Note: this is only two alarming excerpts of many.

The thing I found most problematic though was how the author completely misrepresented what it means to be genderqueer. Transgender and genderqueer are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. They’re not one and the same; they’re not interchangeable. For the author to basically depict that they are? I found that really damaging. I get that Toni was still questioning things and trying to better understand herself and what she wanted, but I feel the author did a major disservice in confusing the two and making them interchangeable when they are NOT. I feel this book was supposed to introduce people to the term genderqueer and instead it became a transgender book. And it’s not to say we don’t need books with transgender characters because we do, but I was just really let down with how things were handled here.

I think what makes me most disheartened is that people are going to pick up this book and take away a confusing, conflicted message. This may be their first time learning about genderqueer and transgender terms and the whole book was largely stereotypical. There’s enough stereotyping and erasure in the world when it comes to the LGBTQIA+ community, but I didn’t expect that from this book. We *do* need genderqueer characters, but we also need for that to be good representation.

P.S. I highly recommend this video, which explains genderqueer so, so well.

22 Oct 2015

Review: Cam Girl by Leah Raeder

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Review: Cam Girl by Leah Raeder
November 3rd, 2015 · Atria
Source: Publisher
Format: ARC via Netgalley
Page Count: 320
Vada Bergen is broke, the black sheep of her family, and moving a thousand miles away from home for grad school, but she’s got the two things she loves most: her art and her best friend—and sometimes more—Ellis Carraway. Ellis and Vada have a friendship so consuming it’s hard to tell where one girl ends and the other begins. It’s intense. It’s a little codependent. And nothing can tear them apart.

Until an accident on an icy winter road changes everything.

Vada is left deeply scarred, both emotionally and physically. Her once-promising art career is cut short. And Ellis pulls away, unwilling to talk about that night. Everything Vada loved is gone.

She’s got nothing left to lose.

So when she meets some smooth-talking entrepreneurs who offer to set her up as a cam girl, she can’t say no. All Vada has to do is spend a couple hours each night stripping on webcam, and the “tips” come pouring in.

It’s just a kinky escape from reality until a client gets serious. “Blue” is mysterious, alluring, and more interested in Vada’s life than her body. Online, they chat intimately. Blue helps her heal. And he pays well, but he wants her all to himself. No more cam shows. It’s an easy decision: she’s starting to fall for him. But the steamier it gets, the more she craves the real man behind the keyboard. So Vada pops the question:

Can we meet IRL?

Blue agrees, on one condition. A condition that brings back a ghost from her past. Now Vada must confront the devastating secrets she's been running from—those of others, and those she's been keeping from herself... 

When I saw Cam Girl on Netgalley, I couldn’t resist. I’ve read rave review after rave review when it comes to Leah Raeder’s books, ever since Unteachable released in 2013 and caused a storm of hype and frenzy. While I didn’t fall head over heels for her latest, I can see her book appeal. Her writing alone is gorgeously intoxicating.

The characters are incredibly flawed and real. Sometimes I’ll read a book where the characters seem like puppets; their words not their own; their actions forced. This is not the case with the lead or its secondary characters. Veda comes right off the page, her emotions vivid enough to touch, her voice all her own, as does the rest of the incredibly diverse cast. POC, physical disability, characters who ID as Bi, Gay and Trans. It’s all here.

I didn’t know what to expect with Veda working as a cam girl and I didn’t give it any thought when I went ahead and requested the book. I don’t have an interest in reading about sex work, but I thought the author handled it very well and depicted that camming can be more than objectification.

I wasn’t a big fan of the twisty suspense, as I felt it started to drag on as the story progressed. But I must say: the last 15% was INTENSE. Like, stop breathing, stop reading, catch my breathe intense. Well played.

I’d heard wonderful things about Leah Raeder's prose and I can confirm: her writing is just as good as everyone says it is. It’s lyrical, lush and lovely to read. But Cam Girl as a whole? I didn’t really connect with it. I liked it, but I didn’t love it and it's not that I can even really fault it. I really think it's one of those it’s-not-you-it’s-me situations. Maybe it’s because I’m happy reading YA and that I don’t have that pull to read NA, at least not yet. I do know that if I do want to venture out in the future, for something dark, edgier, I’ll be looking up Raeder's other titles. Her writing alone is enough to venture back for.

Are you a NA reader? If you're familiar with Leah Raeder: what's your favourite titles of hers?

15 Oct 2015

Mini Reviews: None of the Above + Written in the Stars = Diversity FTW

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I read None of the Above and Written In the Stars earlier in the year and loved them. These books are incredibly diverse, unlike anything I’ve ever read and character driven page-turners. I would have loved to written a full review for each of them and given them the spotlight they deserve, but I was enjoying them that much I just wanted to sit, enjoy them and skip note taking. So I did. Nonetheless, I highly recommend them both! Here’s why I loved them and why YOU should check them out before the year ends:

A groundbreaking story about a teenage girl who discovers she was born intersex... and what happens when her secret is revealed to the entire school. Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between. (Goodreads)

None of the Above broke my heart and then mended it. This is the first book I’ve read about intersex and I thought it was handled so incredibly well. Before None of the Above, I knew a bit about intersex, but not in great detail so reading this was eye-opening and informative.  Kristin’s voice is great and hooked me from page one; she’s a character you really can’t help but wish the best for. Despite picking this up in a book slump, I couldn't put this down and finished it in a little over a day. You can't help but be pulled in by Kristin's story and all that she's going through.

The bullying Kristin experiences made me angry. It’s not that I expected supportive, warm and fuzzy reactions from everyone, but it was disappointing and saddening, yet unfortunately not unrealistic. The bullying Kristin experiences and her own inner turmoil was heartbreaking to read, but the support she did receive was great. As for the romance, it was lovely and sweet, but most importantly, it didn't overtake the heart of the story. Ultimately, this book made me wish people were more understanding and open minded because it would truly make the world of difference. I’m glad this book exists.

This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny? (Goodreads)

Written in the Stars was one of my most anticipated titles and it certainly delivered.

This was like watching a nightmare unfold, one that poor Nalia can't wake up from. But what's really terrifying is that for some girls, this is a reality; this has happened and continues to happen. When you stop and think, it’s not only heartbreaking, but incredibly scary.

Looking back, I think I was expecting an honest, terrifying look at forced marriages, and while I got that, I also got much more. The author doesn't hold back and has written an intense, bittersweet story that is well worth the read.

As the ending neared, I was so invested, my stomach was in knots wondering how it would all end. It’s a nailer-biter of a book to say the least and kept me on the edge of my seat more than any thriller I’ve read this year. That truly is a testament to how well-written this is and make me excited to read more by Aisha Saeed.