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]

Dead Air – Michelle Schusterman

Dead Air CoverSeries: The Kat Sinclair Files, #1
First Published: 1st September, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Penguin Random House

Kat Sinclair’s dad gets a new job presenting a ghost-hunting TV show. Kat goes with him and starts a behind-the-scenes blog, but there’s more going on than she ever imagined.

Kat is dealing with family issues. Her mother has left. This gives Kat the freedom to find her own style, such as finally being able to cut her hair and wear horror t-shirts. She also gets on a lot better with her dad and grandmother (from her mother’s side). But at the same time, she’s angry her mother left. The children Kat meets on the set also have their own family issues to face. The parents here aren’t shown as one-sided evil people or as always getting it right. They’re realistic families trying to figure things out.

The internet features prominently. Each chapter opens with things like emails, blog posts and forum comments. Kat writes her blog as well as staying in touch with friends and family. It covers the positive things, like people being able to share their interests. It also covers the darker sides, of death threats and obsessive fans. I liked that it handled those issues without making it sound like the internet was the start of them. Kat’s own grandmother had a stalker when she was younger. The tools change, but there will always be people who take it too far.

There is a dash of the supernatural here, but the heart of the story is really the people, rather than the ghosts. Kat has to deal with Oscar, who is about her age. They’re both being homeschooled by the show’s intern Mi Jin. And there’s the whole issue of why the show has such a high turnover of hosts. The mystery unfolds at a reasonable pace. It was obvious to me long before it was to Kat, but that does mean it’s something the reader can figure out.

One of the crew, Lidia, has a congenital heart condition. She has a pacemaker, takes medicine, and has seizures. I did have concerns that this might be written off as having a supernatural cause. Seizures often get shown as something mystical rather than actual seizures. That doesn’t happen here. Some things might aggravate her symptoms, but it isn’t suggested that her heart condition was due to anything other than natural causes. However, I wasn’t fond of the plot requiring the triggering of seizures, as in reality, there’s never a good reason to do this.

Kat is biracial, with a white mother and black father. Her father is the one who appears the most in the story. Mi Jin is presumably Korean American based on her name, though it isn’t stated. There’s a gay supporting character. Generally, these things are handled with a light touch. The plot isn’t focused on them, but they aren’t missable.

This is a fun ghostly adventure, with references to classic horror films, and some new creepy tales of its own. There is some discussion of death (the ghosts tend to have died in bad circumstances), death threats and related violence. It’s handled at an age-appropriate level.

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

Dreadnought – April Daniels

Dreadnought CoverSeries: Nemesis, #1
First Published: 24th January, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Danny is transgender, but she’s scared about telling anyone. When the superhero Dreadnought dies and transfers his powers to Danny, suddenly she gains her ideal body. Now everyone can see she’s a girl, so keeping it secret isn’t going to work anymore.

There are some pacing issues at the start. Dreadnought’s history is included as one long chunk of explanation, rather than sprinkling it in. Fortunately, this isn’t a common thing in the book and the pacing does improve.

Danny has social issues to face, such as the reaction from her parents and going back to school. She catches the attention of the local superhero team, which Dreadnought had been part of before his death. She also meets another young hero, Calamity, who has a very different perspective. Calamity is Latina and her family haven’t been treated well by the authorities, so she doesn’t trust the local team. Danny and Calamity’s relationship was the best part for me. They’re marginalised in different ways, which impacts their approaches to being heroes. Right from the start, Calamity is worried about the police and other authorities. This is something that Danny hasn’t really had to think about, as being white shields her from a lot of it.

The new supervillain is introduced right at the start, when Dreadnought is killed. It takes longer for anyone to figure out what she’s up to, as it isn’t the sort of plot the heroes are expecting. This opens up a larger mystery that will undoubtedly be the rest of the series.

I found this book very heavy, as there’s a lot of bigotry. Danny is called a variety of slurs, from ones aimed at trans people to ableist ones. She’s frequently misgendered. Her parents are abusive, and were before she transitioned, so that only gets worse. The result is Danny believes she’s a terrible person and constantly berates herself about being stupid and worthless. Then there’s the hero who thinks Danny is trying to infiltrate womankind and likens being trans to being a rapist. Some readers going through similar issues might find comfort in seeing someone else facing this, but some might find it too much.

Disability is touched on, though not in depth. Prior to getting superpowers, Danny has some hearing loss. This isn’t really explored outside of mentioning it was the case, which struck me as odd. Crowded places sound very different to me if I have something boosting the sound. An amputee appears later, but those scenes are too brief for me to have much to say. I expect that to be more relevant in the next book.

Though I thought it was a reasonable story, the binary way it approached gender didn’t work for me. Danny has internalised the idea that girls and boys have to act in set ways. Girls do this, boys do that. Girls have emotions like this, boys have emotions like that. There are a few quick references to maybe not everyone fitting this division, but it’s worded as though they’re rare exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, the narrative did challenge things like the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, the pressure to starve to stay thin, and other things like that. In those cases, Danny comes around to realising she’s internalised bad things. The gender stuff doesn’t get that realisation. A particular moment of discomfort is when a girl says she was forced to learn about makeup as the only girl in the family, which Danny thinks sounds wonderful without any reservations. This is no different from Danny being forced into playing football by her dad, as it’s all about enforcing expected gender roles, but it isn’t framed as a problem.

There are positive things about the book. It shows a trans lesbian teen coming out on top despite abuse and intolerance from the people around her. The larger mystery being set up for the series looks interesting. I only wish it’d not been quite so rigid when it came to gender.

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

Tales from Perach – Shira Glassman

Tales from Perach CoverSeries: Mangoverse, #5
First Published: 19th July, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a collection of short stories linked to the main novel series. The original edition contained five stories. I read the updated edition, which also contains two stories previously published as Tales from Outer Lands. I haven’t read the novels, though mostly the stories worked on their own and had self-contained plots. An exception was “Every Us”, which came across as more of an extra scene for people who know the characters.

“Rivka in Port Saltspray” is the strongest in terms of standing alone. Rivka needs money, so ends up taking on a job to rescue a woman. I liked that Rivka and the woman she rescues use their shared faith to communicate: they don’t speak the same daily language, but do know the same stories and prayers. This is also the odd one out in the collection, as it has a fair bit of violence.

The rest of the stories had a generally lighter tone, though I didn’t always react to them in that way. There are microaggressions and threats, which made the stories where they appeared rather more uncomfortable. The one that particularly didn’t work for me was “Aviva and the Aliens”. It’s otherwise a very silly story about hungry locust aliens. But the aliens have all the same attitudes as the men on the planet below, so there’s a forced marriage threat. It changed the tone of the story with a jolt.

I enjoyed the domestic focus of many of the stories, such as running a business and family celebrations. “Take Time to Stop and Eat the Roses” was a particularly fun story, about two children gathering flowers to surprise someone. There’s some interesting fairy lore in this one too.

Many of the characters are queer. This includes trans, bi, lesbian and gay characters. One story has an asexual aromantic supporting character. I appreciated seeing these characters getting to have happy endings. I also liked that their Jewish faith was shown in a positive light. Religion was part of their daily lives.

There’s a lot to like here, but I felt there was an overall mismatch between how I reacted to the stories and what was intended. These are billed as being fluffy, which I could see for some, but not for others. Situations where rape is threatened, leering and microaggressions are all things I find decidedly non-fluffy. It’s not graphic, but those themes are there in some stories.

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

Sword and Star – Sunny Moraine

Series: Root Code, #3
First Published: 21st May, 2016
Genre: Space Opera / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Riptide / Anglerfish

The rebel fleet is recovering after a major battle, but more losses are to come. This puts a strain on Adam’s relationship with his husband Lochlan. Meanwhile, Sinder has a plan to get rid of the rebels and save the Protectorate.

The book is told from the perspectives of several characters, though Adam is presented as the main protagonist. Adam is a former member of the Protectorate. Lochlan is from the Bideshi, a group of space nomads. The rebels are made up of a mixture of both. Previously, Adam had been accepted by the Bideshi and trained by their Aalim (people with powers) to use his own powers.

The core of the story focuses on character relationships. A lot of time is spent recovering from attacks, with the tensions that arise when the initial rush of action is over. I liked the general idea of that, but I wish it hadn’t mainly been romantic relationships. Friendships and other family relationships were pushed to the side, such as someone’s children being conveniently absent and only mentioned in passing. It was that odd feeling of a community made up of a series of couples, rather than having a range of relationships.

I did like the political elements, as both sides have to make alliances and plan strategies. Sinder’s sections were particularly good for this, as it explores the ways he convinces himself the end justifies the means. He enlists the help of Julius, an exiled Bideshi, and tries to ignore that there might be very good reasons for the exile.

The worldbuilding had some elements with potential. Bideshi ships have a forest inside and an alien race appears briefly. Those things didn’t appear as more than background detail though.

The characters are various races, such as Lochlan and others of the Bideshi being black, though culturally things are pretty Western. The story of Abraham is told in detail and Western history is remembered. But other cultures are down to a few names and a forgotten statue. The main relationship is two men, though the other relationships are men and women. So there’s some diversity, but not perhaps as much as I’d hoped.

Some areas aren’t handled well at all. The Aalim are blind, which is connected to their abilities. It uses the common trope of them having magical sight. Their blindness was also constantly reinforced, in a way that felt very othering. The characters couldn’t appear without some reference to them being blind. Their eyes were blind eyes. When they looked at things, it was emphasised that they weren’t really looking, because they were blind.

Julius is albinistic. He’s described as having unnaturally pale skin, and that it’s disturbing when he’s dressed in white as that matches his skin. It could be argued this is from Sinder’s perspective, but the narrative also reinforces it as being true. Julius has supernatural abilities gained through violent means (some of which is shown graphically). He’s portrayed as an irredeemable monster. This falls into the stereotype of the evil albino, with a side helping of blaming his evil on insanity.

There were other things that didn’t work for me, like describing Adam using his abilities as though it was rape, Lochlan almost hitting Adam, and the general white saviour feel of Adam’s story.

It’s not a bad science fiction story. I liked the political parts and the interactions between the antagonists. It could appeal to someone who likes a strong focus on romantic relationships during difficult times. But the parts that didn’t work for me really didn’t, to the point of putting the book down for long periods.

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