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]

The Light of the World – Ellen Simpson

Light of the World CoverFirst Published: December, 2015
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eva is coping with the loss of her grandmother, Mary. When she finds Mary’s teenaged diaries, she has a mystery to unravel about a girl called Wren and the light of the world.

This wasn’t quite the novel I expected. It sounded like it’d be more epistolary, but the diary entries and other documents are scattered through occasionally. It’s mainly a standard narrative in structure. What I did expect were the two contrasting love stories. One is in the past, as Wren and Mary fall in love at a time when such things weren’t very public. The other is Eva meeting Liv, who works at a local bookstore. Along with Liv, the other bookstore workers are Theo (the owner) and Al (his son), who help Eva uncover more information about her grandmother.

Eva is depressed and has previously attempted suicide. The early part of the book is the hardest to read from this perspective, as her family did not react well. They fell into labelling her as selfish and cowardly. As it begins at Mary’s funeral, and then sorting Mary’s apartment with Eva’s parents, there’s no rest from this atmosphere. It makes Eva think about her suicide attempt, and also means Eva isn’t exactly the best version of herself. She’s very judgemental and quick to anger at the people who attend the funeral. Once her parents disappear off, things do calm down. Eva has her own space and isn’t constantly being forced to push back against her family’s reactions.

There are things I liked about the handling of depression. Medication is shown as something positive, rather than something to be avoided. Eva isn’t a different person when she takes it. She’s just a person who is better able to cope with daily tasks. There’s also discussion of generational differences in handling depression. Her older relatives don’t like to talk about such things and certainly wouldn’t want to admit they needed help.

There are some relationship hierarchy terms used with Mary and Wren, such as debating whether they are more than friends. Overall though, the narrative doesn’t devalue friendship. It’s not all about Eva falling in love with Liv. It’s important that Liv and Al are Eva’s friends. Eva’s time at the bookstore is about finding a support network, and overcoming her past issues making friends, rather than being a story about romantic love conquering all. This is a refreshing change from books that jettison all other relationships once the romance starts. Also, none of the relationships mean she suddenly doesn’t have depression anymore.

The identity of people in relationships is left open in some cases. Eva is bi (stated directly) and Liv appears to be a lesbian. But Eva is hesitant to assume an identity for Mary or Wren. At first, I wondered if this was going to be about not liking labels, but it was more that Eva acknowledged it was hard to know how people in the past would identify, and easy to erase by assuming. An example would be bi erasure by assuming Mary must be a lesbian based on one relationship.

There are a couple of Jewish supporting characters. The first, Elsie, is from Mary’s diaries. There’s very little about her, other than she seems something of a social rebel who doesn’t feel like she fits in the Jewish community. The other is Al from the bookstore.

Al has a grandmother from Ethiopia, who moved to Israel, then to the USA. She married an Ashkenazi Jewish man. The other side of the family are white. He’s described as someone who is clearly non-white, though in an ambiguous way. He’s Jewish in a casual does-the-major-holidays way. A more complex mixed race identity is a realistic thing that doesn’t get touched on much in fiction. However, it does come with a few microaggressions, like Eva assuming his family aren’t from the US (the “where are you from” discussion gets old really fast), and making special note of how his skin looks in the dark whenever the lights go out.

Religion and belief are mentioned, though the narrative doesn’t confirm or deny any particular religion. It’s more that the light of the world has been mentioned in many cultures, sometimes with religious connections. Eva’s family is agnostic from a Catholic background. She’s generally open to believing stuff and not hostile to people from other religious backgrounds.

The pacing didn’t entirely work. The beginning moves slowly, only really getting going once Eva’s parents leave her alone. The end moves very quickly, skipping over scenes that would have explained a lot. An example is Eva is apparently told something of the origin of the light of the world in a conversation, but this conversation is not shown. Instead, she offers the reader a few words to sum it up. I’d have liked to read that conservation, as it sounded important.

A few things didn’t work for me. The light of the world is repeated a lot, to the point of it being distracting. Using gross to describe women in relationships wasn’t something I liked, though I acknowledge there may be cultural differences in this being used as a cute saying between friends. Gross really only ever means bad things to me. The pressure to drink alcohol from Liv also stood out. She doesn’t consider reasons why Eva wouldn’t, other than age, and presses Eva about why she hasn’t been to such places. In Eva’s case, the main reason was social isolation, but there are a lot of reasons why someone might not drink or want to be in places where alcohol is served. There wasn’t much pushback about this in the narrative.

I enjoyed this more by the end than I thought I would. I didn’t like Eva’s early interactions with her parents, but there are fewer of those as it gets going. I did like her finding support with the bookstore crew. It’s a quieter take on urban fantasy, with a focus on personal stories and how the supernatural elements impact them. Note that it does describe suicide and that the historical love story is tragic. However, the book’s present is a lot more hopeful.

[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]

Power Rangers (Film)

Alternate Titles: Saban’s Power Rangers
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Film
Main Creative Team: Dean Israelite (director); John Gatins (screenplay); Matt Sazama (story); Burk Sharpless (story); Michele Mulroney (story); Kieran Mulroney (story)
Main Cast: Dacre Montgomery; Naomi Scott; RJ Cyler; Becky G; Ludi Lin; Bill Hader; Bryan Cranston; Elizabeth Banks
First Shown: 22nd March, 2017
Available: Cinemas

Five teenagers find coloured coins, which lead them to an alien spaceship. It turns out they’re Power Rangers and only they can save the Earth from Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

This reboot of the franchise shows the formation of the first team of human Power Rangers. Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is the Red Ranger and the leader of the group. Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is the Pink Ranger and a former cheerleader. Billy (RJ Cyler) is the Blue Ranger and is a nerdy tech genius. Zach (Ludi Lin) is the Black Ranger and is a carer for his sick mother. Trini (Becky G) is the Yellow Ranger and a loner. They come together by being in the same place at the same time, where they find the coins that give them their powers.

Consequences are important in this story. Jason is introduced with a prank gone wrong, which leads to animal abuse and reckless driving. It’s lucky that no one dies. Kimberly has also behaved badly towards others. Initially, it looks like her former friends are being randomly mean to her, but it becomes apparent that she did something to cause that reaction. There’s no magic to put things back how they were, but it is possible to rebuild. It also shows a more grey approach to characters, where generally decent people can do awful things.

The rangers all start out as strangers to each other. There’s a lot of friendship building going on. Jason and Billy get the most development time. I also liked that Kimberly and Trini are shown hanging out, and offering each other support, after Trini’s initial distance from the group. It’s interesting to see how different friendships develop within the group.

There’s some suggestion of romance between Kimberly and Jason, but it felt natural that they’d identify with each other, given their situations. It also doesn’t go beyond a few looks and comments. There may be a kiss in the trailer, but this isn’t in the film, which is a good choice. I’m all for a bit more slow building in relationships.

I had mixed feelings about the camera angles used. There’s a lot of switching around views on things like car chases. It does create the feel of confusion, and the difficulty in staying aware of surroundings, when in such a situation. I did generally like the sets and shooting choices, but this one was a little difficult for me as someone who gets motion sickness.

There are a number of differences in the casting compared to the original series. Jason is the only remaining white character in the new team, though I’d note that he’s also the leader and the one set up as the initial character the audience meets. I realise this can come from a place of trying to get through the system, where a film with an apparent white lead is more likely to get funding, but it’d still be nice if this wasn’t needed to play the system.

In general though, the group is more diverse than the original series. The positive is that the new casting means Billy is African American, Trini is Mexican, Kimberly is South Asian and Zack is Chinese. This does broaden it out from the source material, and avoids having the Black Ranger as the black character, and the Yellow Ranger as Asian. The negative is that Trini used to be played by a Vietnamese actress, and there are no new East Asian girls in any role, so that’s an area where representation was lost. This is always a difficult issue, as the change will mean some people will see themselves who wouldn’t have before, and some won’t see themselves the way they did before. It’s a problem with media in general lacking diversity, that any such changes can have a big impact. This film is what it is in terms of who is shown, but I’d hope they’ll consider continuing to reimagine characters. I would love to see them consider an East Asian girl for the new ranger hinted for the sequel.

Billy is autistic and states directly that he’s on the spectrum. He describes himself as having a different way of thinking, rather than describing himself in negative ways. There’s a lot that I related to with Billy, from the tendency to monologue during difficult tasks, using scripts to introduce himself, and not liking to be touched. It’s also notable that he’s black, as portrayals of autistic people are often white people. This relates to wider problems, such as the underdiagnosis of black autistic people and issues faced dealing with groups like the police. It’s important for people to realise that autistic people can be anyone.

Trini is queer of some description. Zack guesses she might have girlfriend problems, based on her reaction to him assuming she has boyfriend problems. It’s uncertain exactly how she identifies, and the feeling I got was she was questioning. She’s figuring out labels, which aren’t the ones her family want for her. There are arguments both ways for having a clearer statement. On the one hand, films often avoid using the words, so it’s nice when it is made clear. On the other, this is the first section of a longer story, so it’s possible they’ll pull off questioning turning into figuring things out.

There were bits I didn’t like. The opening scenario with the prank was my least favourite part, because it felt like I was supposed to find it funny. It’s pretty hard to find something funny when it involves an unhappy animal.

Another part I wasn’t fond of was Kimberly stripping down to a bikini as Jason watches without her knowing. This is so she can swim, and if she’d later shown her awesome swimming/diving skill, it might have fit. But this isn’t shown again. I’d compare that to Trini, who is a hiker, being the first to figure how to use her powers to move quickly across terrain. There isn’t a similar swimming/diving moment with Kimberly. There could have been, given the locations used. So she appeared to be in her bikini in order to be seen by Jason.

There’s some throwing around of terms like crazy and lame, though the crazy part is more a description of the rangers rather than their opposition. Rita is mainly described as evil, rather than crazy.

The armour designs do have the thing where the girls get rounded breast plates and the boys get angular ones, though at least their armour covers them equally. The exception is Rita’s armour, as apparently the more evil a person gets, the sexier their armour and the less skin it covers.

There’s a little bit of swearing, some sexual references, and violence. It does take care to have monsters raised by Rita as the main opponents. In other words, opponents that aren’t sentient. The scariest parts are down to Rita, who threatens and murders people. That could be a little heavy for younger viewers, though most in the suggested range of tweens and up should be fine. I’m noting this because the original series was aimed a little younger, which some may not realise when deciding on this film.

I was pleased they did actually say, “It’s morphin time!” It may be a small thing, but I will never forgive Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer for not including, “To me, my board!” Some catchphrases really need to be there.

It was a fun film. It had the colourful action expected from the franchise. The serious aspects covered a range of issues that teenagers can face, without getting too heavy. Combined with the diverse cast, it means a lot of children and teens will be able to see themselves, as well as enjoy the action. There were some scenes I didn’t like very much. There are also a few things I hope they develop in the sequels, such as Trini’s identity story, and how they cast future rangers. I will be on board to see where it goes next.

The Gauntlet – Karuna Riazi

Gauntlet CoverFirst Published: 28th March, 2017
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Farah and her friends get caught in a magical game. They’ll have to win challenges if they want to escape.

Farah is a quiet and analytical sort of person, who comes from a family that play a lot of games. I liked that she is Bangladeshi and a practising Muslim, who wears a hijab. This is treated in a positive way. Her friends have known her for a long time, so there’s no hostility or questioning from them (there’s some from the children from Farah’s new school, but this isn’t shown in detail).

Some of the side characters are fun, such as the giant lizard, but I wasn’t really feeling Farah’s two friends. Part of the issue was the time limit on everything they did, so there wasn’t the sort of downtime where they could talk to each other. There’s an added distance because Farah hasn’t seen them for some time and doesn’t know what to say.

When it comes to the gameplay aspect of the story, the book delivers on its promise. The game world is an elaborate clockwork construction with multiple layers. The children have to play games, solve puzzles, and all the while keep an eye on the bigger stakes. Due to them looking for Farah’s younger brother, Ahmad, there’s time for exploration of some of the world’s secrets. It’s very imaginative with a steampunk vibe. Though again, there were points where things rushed by rather quickly, as the characters weren’t in some areas long enough to really get a feel for them.

My biggest issue was with Ahmad. He’s a seven-year-old with ADHD. Before ADHD is mentioned, I thought he must be dying, because the family avoids upsetting him and doesn’t set any boundaries for him. Farah is expected to go along with anything Ahmad wants. She has to play with him instead of her friends and she has to let him win every game. Ahmad has to have presents on anyone’s birthday, though still demands to open and own Farah’s presents. When she stands up to him, she knows she’ll get in trouble if he throws a tantrum, as though it’s unreasonable for Farah to want things for herself. This is blamed on ADHD, when it’s really about how the family react to Ahmad. Added to this, Ahmad’s mind is described as maze-like, as though he’s an unfathomable puzzle to be solved. I wondered if all this might be addressed later in the book, but it isn’t.

I was down with the steampunk game, the people that lived inside it, and the overall puzzle-solving plot. I liked Farah as a main character. However, Ahmad’s treatment made me uncomfortable. It also felt like the pace moved a bit too quickly in places.

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