Book Review: With The Fire On High

with the fire on highWith The Fire On High
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
388 pages
Published May 2019

With this book, Elizabeth Acevedo has solidified her position as one of my must-read authors. The Poet X was EXCELLENT, and this one is every bit as good, which is awesome, considering the wildly different formats of the two books. The Poet X was a novel in poem form, being the collected poems of a teenage girl. This book is a more traditional novel, written in prose. It loses none of the lyrical, enchanting quality of Acevedo’s writing, however.

With The Fire On High centers on Emoni Santiago, a teenage mother struggling to graduate from high school on time. When a culinary arts elective is offered during her senior year of school, she takes it despite feeling like she should be spending her energy on her daughter’s future instead of realizing her own dreams. The elective opens up an entire world for her, however, taking her from whipping up magic alone in her own kitchen to being recognized by talented chefs as having something special. The added hours spent on cooking begin to affect her other responsibilities, however, and Emoni struggles to balance everything in her life, a fight that is very nearly upended by the new, very cute boy who just transferred to her school.

Emoni deals admirably with the vast responsibilities of being a parent, the complications of her own somewhat unusual home life (she’s been raised by her grandmother after her mother’s death and her father’s absence), and the pressures of high school. Especially a school where she spent freshman year pregnant. Rather luckily, her daughter’s father goes to a different school, so at least she doesn’t have to deal with him every day.

Similar to The Poet X, the book deals with the intersection of black American culture and Puerto Rican culture, a combination I’ve been seeing more and more in Young Adult. (Well, The Poet X was Dominican, but they have very similar worries, mostly revolving around feeling “not black enough.”)

I loved Emoni, I loved Malachi (the cute transfer student), I loved Abuela and Baby Girl/Emma. I even didn’t mind Tyrone too much. For being a player, he was trying to do right by his daughter. Acevedo has such a talent for characters. Angelica (Emoni’s best friend) and her girlfriend were a delight, too.

If you see a book by Elizabeth Acevedo, pick it up. You won’t be disappointed. I can’t wait to pick up her next book, which appears to be another novel in verse called Clap When You Land, due out next year!

From the cover of With The Fire On High:

Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions, doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen. There, she lets her hands tell her what to cook, listening to her intuition and adding a little something magical every time, turning her food into straight-up goodness.

Even though she’s always dreamed of working in a kitchen after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she’s made for her life – and everyone else’s rules, which she refuses to play by – once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.

From the author of National Book Award winner The Poet X comes a dazzling story of a girl with talent, pride, and a drive to create that keeps her fire burning bright.

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Book Review: Gender Outlaw – On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us

gender outlaw2Gender Outlaw – On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us
by Kate Bornstein
Memoir / Nonfiction / Gender Theory
299 pages
Published 2016 (1st edition pub. 1994)

This book has one of the best forewords I’ve ever seen. Bornstein explains that since 1994, when the book was first published, language has changed a lot, and terms that were used regularly then, like transsexual, are highly offensive now. So she has heavily rewritten the book to change the language, but she goes on to say that language is an always-changing thing, and in five or six years this edition, too, might be offensive in the language used. Then she apologizes for that. My favorite lines are one of the last paragraphs of the foreword:

Now, if anything you read in this book makes you feel bad or wrong or small and weak, then please know that I said something wrong. This book was written many years ago, and the culture I wrote it in is not the culture in which you’re reading it. So, if you find anything to be personally insulting, please accept my apology and keep reading with the knowledge that your identity and how you express your gender are correct only when you feel they are correct.

It was a wonderful note to start the book on. I just loved “if you are offended, if this invalidates your identity, then I AM WRONG.” Bornstein transitioned in the 80s, and has been an outspoken advocate of queer and trans people most of her life. She is definitely a figure in queer history that more people should read about.

The rest of the book is every bit as good as the foreword. Bornstein absolutely destroys the concept of gender in this book, dissecting it and looking at all the parts and pieces to attempt to figure out why society is so set on the binary system. She more than makes her case that gender is a spectrum, not an either/or. And not just a spectrum between “more male” and “more female” but a colorful kaleidoscope of gender expression and identity. She does not shy away from sensitive topics like surgeries and anatomy. She talks to the reader like she’s your favorite outrageous aunt, sitting in the family room gossiping over heavily-spiked tea.

The formatting was occasionally confusing; she has the usual justified text, but then she has left-aligned passages (usually quotes from other people) and right-aligned passages (side-bar like content; I’m unclear if these are notes she made on the original text or what, but it generally clarifies or alters what the main text is talking about.)

I would HIGHLY recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about gender issues. Bornstein has an incredibly entertaining way of writing, and she loves to challenge what we think of as gender.

From the cover of Gender Outlaw – On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us:

“I know I’m not a man . . . and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m probably not a woman, either . . . . The trouble is, we’re living in a world that insists we be one or the other.” With these words, Kate Bornstein ushers readers on a funny, fearless, and wonderfully scenic journey across the terrains of gender and identity. On one level, Gender Outlaw details Bornstein’s transformation from heterosexual male to lesbian woman, from a one-time IBM salesperson to a playwright and performance artist. But this particular coming-of-age story is also a provocative investigation into our notions of male and female, from a self-described nonbinary transfeminine diesel femme dyke who never stops questioning our cultural assumptions.

Gender Outlaw was decades ahead of its time when it was first published in 1994. Now, some twenty-odd years later, this book stands as both a classic and a still-revolutionary work – one that continues to push us gently but profoundly to the furthest borders of the gender frontier. 

Series Review: The Conqueror’s Saga

and i darkenAnd I Darken / Now I Rise / Bright We Burn
by Kiersten White
Alternate History
475 / 476 / 416 pages
Published 2016 / 2017 / 2018

I’ve heard a lot about this trilogy, but it was a close friend of mine gushing about it that finally brought it to the top of my reading list. Much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I wish I had read it sooner, as the entire trilogy is excellent. It’s a dark trilogy – it’s based on Vlad Dracul, not Dracula, and it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of his story. Except in this trilogy, it’s her story. And I Darken tells the story of Lada’s childhood alongside her brother, Radu. How their father left them with the Ottoman Empire’s sultan as hostages against his good behavior. How they found a place there and started to grow up and possibly even make friends, or at least allies. It specifically details their friendship with the Sultan’s son and heir, Mehmed.

now i riseThe second book, Now I Rise, covers the early years of Mehmed’s reign as sultan, and the siege of Constantinople. Most of this book is spent on Radu, as the siblings are doing different things in vastly different places at this point. We still get glimpses of Lada’s life, but Radu is definitely the star here, which is good, as I like him much more than Lada.

I don’t think Lada is supposed to be liked. She is vicious, and brutal, and while you can see where the brutality comes from, and why she thinks she must be this way, it’s still not exactly an easy trait to like. I much prefer Radu and his unusual marriage.

The third book, Bright We Burn, brings Radu and Lada back together again. There’s not much I can say here, for fear of spoiling things, but it is an epic and satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

bright we burnTaken together, these three books are an epic story. They span the length of the Ottoman Empire, involve love affairs with powerful people, hidden passions, and bastard children. There is blood and death and plague. Cities fall and fortresses are built. The story is true to the bones of Vlad Dracul’s history; gender-swapping Vlad into Lada was an absolutely inspired bit of storytelling.

There’s no magic in these books, so it’s not exactly fantasy, it’s alternate history, but it reads like fantasy. Swords and shields and sieges and medieval politics.

If you like epic fantasy, and don’t mind a bit of brutal combat – if you like Game of Thrones – you’ll like these. I loved them.

There’s a good bit of LGBT rep – Radu is very gay, and Lada is aromantic. There’s also a lesbian pair.

From the cover of And I Darken:

NO ONE EXPECTS A PRINCESS TO BE BRUTAL.

And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend – and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against – and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point. 

From New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White comes the first book in a dark, sweeping new series in which heads will roll, bodies will be impaled . . . and hearts will be broken.

Book Review: Juliet Takes a Breath

juliet takes a breathJuliet Takes a Breath
by Gabby Rivera
Young Adult / LGBT / Contemporary Fiction / Feminist
264 pages
Published 2016

Ohhhhhh my. This is a short book, and a quick read, but MAN is it great. It tackles racism, microaggressions, white feminism, coming out, “it’s just a phase!”, polyamory, breaking up, trans-exclusive language…and so much more.

The plot revolves around Juliet’s summer internship with an author in Portland, Harlowe Brisbane. Many of the chapters begin with an excerpt from Brisbane’s fictional treatise on feminism, Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. One of these excerpts in particular took my breath away:

Read everything you can push into your skull. Read your mother’s diary. Read Assata. Read everything Gloria Steinem and bell hooks write. Read all of the poems your friends leave in your locker. Read books about your body written by people who have bodies like yours. Read everything that supports your growth as a vibrant, rebel girl human. Read because you’re tired of secrets.

Juliet reminds me a lot of me when I was detaching myself from Christianity and the conservatism I grew up with. Devouring books, learning about historical figures that I should have known about and was stunned that I’d never heard of. So I totally understand her wonder and shock at an entirely new world opening up before her.

Through Harlowe and her primary partner, Maxine, Juliet learns about polyamory. It’s a remarkably good example; even though Harlowe and Maxine have their issues, their arguments are reasonably healthy, and despite disagreeing on some topics, they still love each other and say as much.

In Harlowe, we have an example of a white feminist who tries to be intersectional, at least a little, but can still be blind to a lot of her own microaggressions. Maxine, her partner, is a woman of color, as are most of the other characters in the book, so Juliet has lots of opportunities to see how white feminism can be ignorant of issues and blind to its own faults.

As a white feminist myself, I took this portrayal for the warning it really is. I do my best to lift up voices of color by reviewing books by and about minorities on this blog as often as I can. I try to be as intersectional as possible, but I know I will make missteps, and I can always be better. But this book is a reminder to keep trying, and the consequences of fucking up.

From the cover of Juliet Takes a Breath:

Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff. 

Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle?

With more questions than answers, Juliet takes on Portland, Harlowe, and most importantly, herself.

Book Review: The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic

rules and regulationsThe Rules & Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic
by F. T. Lukens
Urban Fantasy / Young Adult / Romance / LGBT
287 pages
Published 2017

I loved this book. The wit is dry, the action easy to follow, the confusion of the main character absolutely warranted (Mermaids? in Lake Michigan?!), and it’s just wonderful. And it stars a bisexual teenage BOY. Male bisexuality could use more visibility, so this made me really happy. I picked this book for the M/M for Pride; I was really excited to find the main character is bisexual! It was a great surprise.

Bridger (an unusual name, but it fits him) is a senior in high school with a crush on his next door neighbor. He plans to go to school far away – Florida – where he can just BE himself instead of having to come out. But for that he needs money; so he answers an ad for an assistant doing….well he’s not sure exactly what. When he finally demands answers, he learns the truth about the world of myth and magic, and things snowball from there.

He wrestles with keeping it secret from his friends – because really, who would believe he saw mermaids in Lake Michigan? At the same time, he’s trying to wrap his head around his attraction to Leo, star football player, who just might like him back, and how to tell his mom he’s bisexual.

I loved Bridger, and his best friend, Astrid, who will kick the butt of anyone who looks wrong at Bridger, and Leo was an absolute dreamboat. I also want to know more about Pavel and his companions! I really really hope the author writes more books in this world, because I want to read them!

From the cover of The Rules & Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic:

Desperate to pay for college, Bridger Whitt is willing to overlook the peculiarities of his new job – entering via the roof, the weird stacks of old books and even older scrolls, the seemingly incorporeal voices he hears from time to time – but it’s pretty hard to ignore being pulled under Lake Michigan by . . . mermaids? Worse yet, this happens in front of his new crush, Leo, the dreamy football star who just moved to town.

Fantastic.

When he discovers his eccentric employer Pavel Chudinov is an intermediary between the human world and its myths, Bridger is plunged into a world of pixies, werewolves, and Sasquatch. The realm of myths and magic is growing increasingly unstable, and it is up to Bridger to ascertain the cause of the chaos, eliminate the problem, and help his boss keep the real world from finding the world of myths.

Book Review: Ship It

ship itShip It
by Britta Lundin
Young Adult
375 pages
Published 2018

Claire’s an obsessed jerk. Let me just get that out ahead of everything else. Claire is one of two viewpoints in this book, and I won’t even call her a protagonist, because Forest, the male viewpoint character, is FAR more sympathetic. Yeah, he’s a touch homophobic at the beginning of the book, but he learns. Claire, on the other hand, has one goal that she’s obsessed with and Will. Not. Let. It. Go. Single-minded determination can be a great thing, but Claire doesn’t see or understand the harm she’s doing in pursuing her goal. The few times she does see, she doesn’t seem to care. Sure, she’s sixteen, but holy crap, girl. Maybe, when people tell you a thing can’t happen, you should stop and ask them why instead of stubbornly insisting it CAN happen if only they’ll let it.

Let me back up slightly. Claire is a superfan of a show called Demon Heart. In the show, a demon hunter and a demon-with-a-heart play off each other in what the fans see as a romantic manner. This comes as a huge surprise to at least one of the stars of the show, Forest Reed, who plays the demon hunter. Forest has a rather disastrous interaction with Claire at a Q&A (he’s an asshole about her question, which is about the two characters being gay) and the show decides, in order to salvage things, to have Claire travel with them to the next few public appearances, since she’s a big name in the fandom. Forest sees this as a job he has to put up with for a paycheck. Claire sees this as a chance to make her ship real, and goes to – well – ridiculous lengths to convince the showrunners and stars.

Ultimately, Claire is right that representation is incredibly important. And she’s probably even right that showrunners and stars should take risks with their careers to bring that representation to screen. But she’s such an asshole about it that I can’t even cheer her on. She’s even kind of a jerk to Tess, the cute fanartist she meets at the first convention (and keeps running into at the ensuing cons).

Claire aside, I actually enjoyed the book. There were a couple of twists at the end that I very much enjoyed.

One bit I did NOT enjoy was Tess identifying as pan “because bi means two.” That definition of bisexual – that it’s binary, only attracted to men and women – is biphobic and has NEVER been true. Bisexual means attracted to your own gender and others. That first definition tries to make bisexuals seem transphobic, and I’m frustrated that it persists. So it’s disappointing to see the statement made in the book go unchallenged.

There’s also an anxiety-inducing scene late in the book that I can’t say much about because it’s a major plot twist, but if you have issues with intimidating men, maayyyybe skip this one.

There is quite a bit of representation in the book, between Tess, the pansexual black girl, Claire, a questioning/queer white girl, and Forest, who is definitely questioning his sexuality, and learning about gender and sexuality representation issues from Claire. Oh, also Caty, a studio assistant, who is bisexual. (But who clarifies, unnecessarily, that she’s attracted to boys and girls.)

So I’m quite torn on this book. I liked it, but it has issues.

From the cover of Ship It:

Claire is a sixteen-year-old fangirl obsessed with the show Demon Heart. Forest is an actor on Demon Heart who dreams of bigger roles. When the two meet at a local Comic-Con panel, it’s a dream come true for Claire. Until the Q&A, that is, when Forest laughs off Claire’s assertion that his character is gay. Claire is devastated. After all, every last word of her super-popular fanfic revolves around the romance between Forest’s character and his male co-lead. She can’t believe her hero turned out to be a closed-minded jerk. Forest is mostly confused that anyone would think his character is gay. Because he’s not. Definitely not.

Unfortunately for Demon Heart, when the video of the disastrous Q&A goes viral, the producers have a PR nightmare on their hands. In order to help bolster their image within the LGBTQ+ community – as well as with their fans – they hire Claire to join the cast for the rest of the publicity tour. What ensues is a series of colorful Comic-Con clashes between the fans and the show that lead Forest to question his assumptions about sexuality and help Claire come out of her shell. But how far will Claire go to make her ship canon? To what lengths will Forest go to stop her and protect his career? And will Claire ever get the guts to make a move on Tess, the very cute, extremely cool fanartist she keeps running into? Ship It is a funny, tender, and honest look at all the feels that come with being a fan.