When Dimple Met Rishi – Sandhya Menon

Dimple CoverFirst Published: 1st June, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Romance / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Dimple is heading to Insomnia Con, a summer course with a contest to design an app. What she doesn’t know is Rishi, the boy her parents have arranged for her to marry, will also be there.

I liked Dimple’s relationship with her family. There’s tension between her dream of a career in computing and their dream of her marrying a nice Indian man. Dimple faces not being seen as Indian enough by Indians due to growing up in the USA, or American enough by white Americans because she’s Indian. This is also contrasted by Rishi, who has a different approach to the conflicting cultural expectations.

Unfortunately, the edition I read had all Hindi words in italics. This included direct speech and words like salwar kameez. I’m not fond of this formatting choice at the best of times, because it serves to emphasise and other anything that isn’t in English. But in this case, it made the first section a nightmare to read, due to the volume of italics sprinkled throughout. This is a publisher choice rather than an author choice, but I’d hope they’d consider revoking italicising privileges for the book formatter when it comes to the next edition.

There are things I liked about the romance. Dimple and Rishi genuinely like each other and get along, rather than hating each other and only dating because they think the other is hot. The issues they’re navigating are mainly about figuring how things will fit with their lives.

However, there were some things I didn’t like. Dimple hits Rishi frequently. Not realising that playful punches are too hard is something I had issues with as a teen, so I could relate to that (though it wasn’t cute or funny, which is how the book portrays it). But when Dimple wanted to punch him because she was angry, that was something else. I don’t find it cute when someone wants to hit their partner to hurt them, whether they manage to pull back from striking them or not. There are also other instances of ignoring boundaries, such as pressuring Rishi into eating something he doesn’t want to eat. There’s some pushback when she invades Rishi’s privacy, but overall, it’s shown as a good thing to ignore people’s boundaries because it’s for their own good.

The romance also means everything else stops. The plot is gone, the family relationships move to the background, and Dimple’s friendship with Celia isn’t particularly explored. I’d hoped for more of a balance between the elements.

This wasn’t the book I expected when it came to the overall theme. Coding is Dimple’s passion, yet it’s minimised throughout the book. There’s a discussion about Dimple’s app idea, and after that, a few token references here and then. In contrast, Rishi’s passion for art does have development. He’s shown drawing and going to art events. The art aspects of the course are the ones that get the most time, such as the photography icebreaker and the talent show. It’s much more of a book about art than one about computer science, which wasn’t what I was hoping to read.

The lack of time spent on the app development had another issue due to Dimple’s idea. She wants to make a reminder app for people who have medication to take, which will work as a game with rewards. This is based on her dad finding it difficult to remember to take his medicine as a diabetic. She doesn’t discuss this with her dad, and no disabled people are involved at any point in the process, which means it’s based on what she’s assuming people need. Non-disabled people having control of resources for disabled people is an issue, so it doesn’t sit well here.

Being marginalised can mean facing microaggressions and bullying constantly, particularly in spaces dominated by more privileged people. The book tries to tackle this, but I have mixed feelings about how this turned out. Dimple is on high alert for signs of such behaviour, often assuming the worst before it happens. This is a realistic reaction to being in an unsafe space. But the narrative is arranged so that Dimple is never wrong. She never lashes out at someone based on an assumption that doesn’t turn out to be true. When she assumes a group of people are obnoxious based on their appearance, it turns out they’re really terrible. When she assumes someone is going to cause issues about her name, that person does indeed end up causing issues. I’d have liked to see some nuance here, in that assuming the worst and reacting aggressively will mean sometimes getting it wrong and having to smooth it over. I don’t count her initial reaction to Rishi here, as that was a case of reacting to behaviour that appeared threatening, rather than assuming he would do something like that in the future based on his clothing.

The strength in representation is that Dimple and Rishi are Indian and Hindu. The other areas are mainly on the side, as they’re supporting characters rather than the main characters. Dimple’s dad is diabetic and her auntie uses a wheelchair. Dimple’s friend Celia is bisexual and half Dominican. Celia does stray into some bisexual tropes, such as being the one with the active sex life and her relationships with boys being shown as much more serious (in other words, it’s just a phase for a girl to be interested in girls). I would also have liked to see other girls (including other Indian girls) who were at the convention to code. As it stands, it had a not-like-other-girls vibe, as the two other girls shown don’t appear to be heading into computing professions.

There was also the issue of small jarring references which could easily have been cut and kept the story exactly the same. For example, the evil rivals are compared to intersex people at one point as an insult, by stating they have micro penises. Also, Dimple criticises the use of “Aight” by saying no one she knows uses it unironically. There are things to be said about a rich white boy using AAVE to sound cool, but criticising him for not sufficiently making fun of AAVE is not one of those. And for my last example, the line where Dimple notes Rishi is “dressed pretty sanely for a psychotic attacker”, because obviously creepy people are all psychotic and insane. There were enough small things like this to bother me. I’d have liked it better if no marginalised group appeared only as a punchline or an insult.

This was a light read with a few funny moments. Though there were some things I didn’t like, I thought it was okay in general. I’m not really the audience for romances that only focus on the romance, so the lack of development of the contest plot and the non-romantic relationships were big downsides for me. This will appeal to fans of contemporary romance, but will likely be a disappointment for those interested in the STEM angle.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Noteworthy – Riley Redgate

Noteworthy CoverFirst Published: 2nd May, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jordan Sun has failed to get any parts in school musicals because of her deep voice. When she sees an advert for all-male a cappella group the Sharpshooters, she disguises herself as a boy and auditions as a tenor.

I’m generally not a big fan of books where someone pretends to be a different gender. It’s not uncommon for such books to use trans themes in ways that are comfortable for cis readers, but not so great for trans readers. Which might raise the question of why I wanted to read this one. The answer is Jordan’s deep voice. I wondered if she might be intersex, and therefore, if the book might tackles issues of binary sex. I was also interested because the musical world is very strict on the idea of sex binaries when it comes to voices, so it seemed like a good setting for such a story. The book didn’t really do what I was hoping, but those were my thoughts behind why I wanted to read it.

The plot revolves around training for an a cappella competition, with the hopes of winning a place on a tour. I wouldn’t say it’s the primary focus though, as it has more of a character focus with Jordan getting to know the other members of the group. It’s generally paced well, noting that it is the sort of story with a slow pace. Where it falls down is the pacing after the competition. It feels as though the book was intended to be longer, but ended up with just a few scenes trying to cover everything.

The two characters with the most development are Nihal and Isaac. Jordan becomes close friends with both. Nihal is a kind person who has a few similarities to Jordan, such as studying outside of the music school. He’s a Sikh, Indian American, and gay. Isaac says things without thinking regardless of who it hurts, which I was supposed to find funny and endearing, but just found obnoxious. He’s Japanese American. In both cases, Jordan discovers things about their lives and families. She describes what they look like clearly. I left feeling I had a good grasp of these characters.

Erik, Jon, Theodore (nicknamed Mama) and Marcus had a defining character trait but not a lot else. Erik’s main feature is he’s short and looks very young, whilst having a deep bass voice. Jon is very rich and turns out to be dyslexic, which is mainly noticed because he was held back a few years when he was younger. Jordan notes he’s a slow reader, but it’s not portrayed as meaning he can’t read, which makes a change. Theodore is initially introduced as carrying wet wipes around and liking clean surfaces, but he didn’t get enough development to judge if that connected to any non-neurotypicality or not. He’s fat and the book mainly avoids shaming him for that, outside of someone outside the group being nasty. Marcus likes political stuff and I have no real image of what he looks like. In general, characters in this category were light on description, so I ended up trying to piece it together from odd comments. I’m unsure about things like race.

Trav is the musical director of the group and sits somewhere between the two in terms of development. Jordan doesn’t get to know him that well, but I did remember him as a distinct character, whereas I was forever getting the vague characters mixed up. Trav has anxiety. He’s described as having dark skin at one point. That’s often used as a way to say a character is black without saying they’re black, which I think may be the case here.

It’s odd how the book has some characters who are described very clearly and some who are so very vague. Isaac and Nihal get described repeatedly, but I was left searching through for descriptions of the others. I may have missed something, as the references were spread out and infrequent.

I did like that the characters aren’t perfect and there’s pushback to imperfect things they say. For example, when one has this thing about women loving alpha men, it isn’t just Jordan who thinks that’s nonsense. Theodore is given a nickname he hates, which Jordan takes for granted, until realising Nihal won’t use the nickname because he was asked not to use it. However, something that didn’t get any pushback was using moron, which sticks out particularly when there’s a dyslexic character who has a reasonably chance of having been on the receiving end of slurs like that.

The strongest area for me was the class representation. Jordan is from a poor family, who were made poorer after her dad was in an accident. It talks about some of the issues with being poor, such as benefit schemes not allowing people to save money, thus ensuring they stay poor. There’s the intersection of her family being Chinese immigrants and the system being designed to make sure they never entirely manage to get things together. She also feels out of place in a wealthy school environment where most people come from middle to upper class backgrounds. It’s something I can relate to, as going to university was a big struggle for me, because no one else in the family had ever done it. Things people took for granted about university culture were very alien to me.

Jordan is clear that she’s cisgender from the start. She does question her gender and presentation, though decides she’s a cis girl. Questioning gender isn’t something restricted to trans people, so I liked the general idea of this. Though I’d note it’s not necessary to do the whole girl-disguised-as-a-boy thing to do so.

There is an attempt to address potential appropriation of trans experiences in the text, but the way it’s handled didn’t work for me. Jordan considers how trans people might feel about what she’s doing, and whether there might be unintended consequences for trans people if she is found out. It could mean increased attempts to police people’s gender, for example. That passage showed some thought about it, but the trans people she mentions as knowing (one trans girl and one genderqueer person) are minor references. Acknowledging that something might be erasing or appropriating trans experiences does fall rather flat in a story that doesn’t have prominent trans characters. Acknowledging it is really only the start. It also felt that outside of that genderqueer reference, gender was mainly handled as a binary. Jordan has her real girl self and her fake boy self, with nothing between, so the mention of a non-binary person is a blink-and-miss-it moment.

I’d note this binary gender vibe also got into the book presentation. The pre-release version I was given had male and female symbols on the cover. These were mixed with notes that came out of two different singing mouths. I wasn’t fond of the use of the binary symbols, but they were in all different colours, which suggested a spectrum. They were also mixed together, as each mouth had both symbols. The official release cover turned all the male symbols blue and the female symbols pink. It made one mouth have all the male symbols and one all the female. It also added extra copies of these symbols to the chapter headings. It’s like between pre-release and final release, someone decided to up the binary to the max. Authors with large publishers don’t control their cover or book design, but it doesn’t stop these decisions potentially impacting people who pick up the book. It also makes it very clear how the publisher views the story.

Jordan is bisexual and had a long-term relationship that fell apart. I liked that it challenges the idea of a first partner being the one forever and touches on the problems of getting too focused on a romantic relationship. Her whole world revolved around her ex-partner, which meant when things fell apart, she didn’t have any close friends and was left struggling alone. It was a more realistic portrayal of love than the idea that everyone meets their one true love as a teenager and friends are no longer required.

The new potential love interests weren’t so great. They changed their level of interest depending on whether they thought she was a boy or not. In other words, the most important thing wasn’t who she was as a person, but what they assumed about her body. I didn’t relate to any of this. I’m sure this does match some people’s experiences, but I just found it a bit freaky that someone would stop/start loving you because you’re not the gender or sex they assumed. I couldn’t really get behind a relationship that formed on that basis.

I wasn’t fond of the way gay characters were handled, because it does veer into the unhappy gay thing. Given the references to how many queer people the school was supposed to have, I’m sure one of them could have had a happy ending.

On to what I was hoping to find, Jordan does have traits that could mean she’s intersex. Her voice is deep enough that she puts on a higher voice at school, she’s tall (and taller than other women in her family), has a small breast size, has facial features like her father, and started puberty early, which all together can be pointers to being intersex. But this isn’t discussed. Not even at a level of considering that she doesn’t fit in the sex binary very well or that such a binary exists.

The book does touch briefly on musical attitudes to vocalists, but this isn’t taken all the way. It’s not acknowledged that she wouldn’t have felt the need to do something like that if she’d been recognised as a tenor in the first place. Rather than simply not casting her in anything, her teachers could have suggested she auditioned for the male roles. The focus is strongly on judging Jordan’s reaction to the system, rather than the system. Even when someone makes a positive judgement, it’s still missing why she ended up in that position. She still gets reclassified to a contralto, because women are contraltos and men are tenors. Which makes no sense as a position as she had been singing as a tenor with no one considering she was anything else for months, so it can’t be argued she had a different tonal quality to a tenor. But even Jordan doesn’t comment against this.

This book is a tricky one when it comes to recommending it or not, as it does some things well, and others not so well. The cast is diverse, including multiply marginalised characters, but there are odd holes. Like having a character who appears to tick off all the boxes for being intersex, but never mentioning it. Or mentioning a trans girl and a genderqueer person when there are themes about gender identity, but not actually having those characters appear. Or being vague about the black character being black when the Asian characters have their races clearly stated. It’s one of the better books I’ve read dealing with the trope of a girl disguising herself as a boy, but I didn’t feel it really rose above the common issues of that trope.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

I Don’t Like Reading – Lisabeth Emlyn Clark

First Published: 21st August, 2017
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Forthcoming

Harry doesn’t like reading, because he finds it difficult. It turns out he’s dyslexic.

I wanted to read this picture book as I’m dyslexic, so I was interested in how it presented that. This is the new edition of the book. The old one has a boy called Lloyd, so they’re easy to tell apart.

There were things that I related to in the book, like the worries about reading out loud, and the difficulty of trying to write things down. I also benefit from tinted backgrounds for reading (yellow/tan is my preference). But some issues meant it didn’t really feel like the story was for dyslexic children. The pacing is one of the issues. Someone struggling to read needs something to hook them very quickly, which doesn’t happen here. The build is slow and is likely to frustrate a child who finds reading difficult. Seeing multiple layers of teachers and specialists may be realistic, but it would have benefited the pacing to go straight to Harry meeting the final one.

The layout also reinforces my feel about the intended audience. Some pages are fine, but some have weird writing where all the fonts are mixed up. The words sometimes overlay pictures and appear in odd places on the page. It looks like an attempt to show non-dyslexic people what reading might be like for dyslexic people, which is not helpful for a dyslexic reader.

Some wording choices gave this the feel of something written by an educational specialist aimed at non-dyslexic parents of dyslexic children. One is referring to dyslexia as having a dyslexic profile, which sounds very clinical. Another was Harry’s comment that he was told “it just means I have to try harder”. It’s not unusual for non-dyslexic adults to tell dyslexic children that they’re lazy and aren’t trying hard enough. I cringed when I hit that part.

There’s a repeated statement about it being okay because dyslexic people can be clever and successful. Harry is said to be a very clever boy. This falls into the idea that disability is great as long as it’s offset by being exceptional. This is not a comfort for the dyslexic child who is not exceptional.

I also would have preferred an ending that showed things improving for Harry, but not looking like a complete solution where he can read with no problems. I was around fourteen before I finally got the hang of spelling. I was in my mid-twenties when I figured out organisation and study skills (a lesser discussed aspect of dyslexia, as it doesn’t impact young children). It was my late twenties before I reached the point of being able to write at a professional level. Today, I still need regular reading breaks and I still hit writing I just can’t process. There does need to be a balance between encouraging dyslexic children that they can learn things and minimising their problems. It’s a long road, and even when we’re great at reading and writing, it doesn’t mean we’re not dyslexic anymore.

This book tries very hard. It’s clear research went into things like how words could look to a dyslexic person and reading strategies. It shows finding things that work for Harry, rather than stating there is one method that works for everyone. But it feels too much like it’s a book aimed at adults who think it’ll be educational, rather than one for children. The layout choices are a dyslexic nightmare, but may also be a struggle for other children who are still learning to read.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

When We Were Alone – David A. Robertson (author), Julie Flett (illustrator)

When We Were Alone CoverFirst Published: 1st March, 2017
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A young girl helps her kókom (grandmother) in the garden. She asks her kókom questions, and the answers go back to the time when her kókom was sent away to school.

This book deals with the history of residential schools for Native American children. The focus is on the attempts to stop the children from practising their culture. They weren’t allowed to have long hair or speak Cree at the school. Everything they were not allowed to do was to make them like everyone else (in other words, like white people), but the children fought back in small ways by doing the forbidden things when they were alone.

The story of the school is told through the young girl asking questions, such as asking why her kókom has long hair, and being told about the school cutting the children’s hair. This makes it a generally positive book, as her kókom survived and is able to live as she wants. However, there are also hints that it’s not all in the past. The girl doesn’t face being taken away from her family and community, but she lives in a world where most people in the media will be white, and someone like her kókom is seen as different. There’s that unspoken implication to the questions of the pressure still being there, because those questions wouldn’t be raised if the girl’s family was considered to be like everybody else.

The pictures look like collages, with additional painting and drawing for detail and texture. It creates a bold and colourful feel, which works well with the theme of the girl’s kókom dressing brightly and not being afraid to show her culture. My favourite page is the flying bird with the Cree text around it (the words repeated from the main story), as it feels like a celebration. Despite all of the attempts, the girl and her kókom are free to speak as they want to speak.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quiet and subtle handling of the topic. The art and story are a good match. It is perhaps a little too subtle for readers who don’t already know the history of the residential schools. For example, the text doesn’t make it clear who made the children go to the school. This could be something to discuss with readers after finishing the book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Actual Sunlight

Actual Sunlight CoverDeveloper: WZO Games Inc
First Release: 2013
Version Played: PlayStation Vita
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Evan Winter is depressed. Nothing has any meaning anymore, but he gets up for work anyway.

This game is about depression and suicide, based on the game developer’s own experiences. It’s mainly told through text transcripts. These can include imaginary therapist conversations or chat show appearances. Between these sections there are pixel art locations which Evan can explore, uncovering more comments about his life.

There aren’t any happy endings here. Evan has internalised a lot of bad things about himself, and nothing that happens causes any change in that. He hates himself because he’s fat and sees that as a reason why no one will love him. He feels alone and as though his life is worthless. He does things like watch porn (not shown in the game) and play games to take his mind off things, then hates himself for it.

Evan has a lot of prejudices and is highly judgemental of the people around him. He doesn’t believe he has privilege as a white man, as his life is hard and he doesn’t feel part of a community. At the same time, he shows some awareness of the issues faced by others, such as realising his workplace is very white and discriminates against talented non-white people. There’s also a woman with a chronic illness, who he almost manages to empathise with, but not quite. In the end, it doesn’t feel to me as though the game world reinforces Evan’s view as being correct. It’s more that he has a narrow perspective and he doesn’t see much beyond himself. Though that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant to read for someone on the receiving end of some of his comments.

Actual Sunlight Screenshot

Image Caption: Evan, a small pixel art man wearing a red scarf, is standing outside an apartment building. The building has glass doors. Against the wall is an ATM, popcorn machine, lamppost, rubbish and trees/flowers. Ahead is the road with a streetcar stop.

As a study in depression, this game does a good job. Evan’s thoughts of worthlessness go round in endless cycles. He constantly thinks about jumping off the roof. When the destinations in the lift pop up, the option for the roof is always there. It’s clear from the start that things aren’t going to get better. Evan has no support network to notice or care that things are falling apart.

This is one of those games that could be exactly what some people need. Seeing someone else facing similar issues can help people. For others, it may be too much, particularly the frequent suicidal thoughts and lack of hope. There is also a message from the creator encouraging young people not to kill themselves, but at the same time, suggesting once people get to their late twenties it’s hopeless.

The game lasts about an hour and doesn’t have a lot of interactivity. It plays more like a short story with brief game interludes. I found it somewhat interesting, but it’s not something I’d want to replay. I always felt a certain distance from Evan because of his level of privilege. I’d never be in his situation, not because it’d be impossible for me to be depressed, but because it’d play out very differently based on my other marginalisations.