Saturday, July 29, 2017

Book Review: Blind Spot by Laura Ellen

Hello friends! I woke up at 6:15 this morning for NO REASON and with boundless energy. I have no idea where it came from, but I'll take it. Here's a review of Blind Spot, a YA mystery/suspense novel by Laura Ellen. 

I found Blind Spot from an interview with the author on Disability In Kidlit. Their site does great stuff and you should totally check them out. 

Protagonist

Blind Spot is the story of Roz, a teenager with macular degeneration who is put in a Special Education class for the first time -- and then has to solve the murder of one of her classmates. She has a blind spot in the center of her vision, where everything is blurry. Despite living with this for most of her life, it was never diagnosed and she's been in mainstream class her whole life. Roz is initially angry and offended to be put in Special Ed; she feels like she's being singled out and doesn't like the "disabled" label. However, after a suicide of a disabled teen in the past year, the class is now mandatory for all disabled students. 


Text: Blind Spot, Laura Ellen. Tagline: "What you can't see might be murder." Review quote at the top reads: "An utterly believable mystery, gritty with high school drama and shot through with suspense...A captivating read, right to the last page." -- Carol Plum-Ucci, author of 'The Body of Christopher Creed.' Image: A close-up of a girl's eye looking out past the reader, with some jagged lines crossing the top and bottom of the cover. Everything is tinted blue, image and text included.

Mystery

On her first day in the class, everyone is paired up with a partner who's supposed to act as a homework-buddy-slash-support-system. Roz gets paired with Tricia, a girl who deals with drug addiction, PTSD, and, in her somewhat sarcastic words, "emotional disturbance." When Tricia is found dead, Roz may have been the last person to see her alive -- during their fight. And she doesn't remember the rest of the night. 

I'm not tagging Tricia's death as a spoiler, because it's on the summary and the first page of the book. However, throughout the story we get to know Tricia, and her death really has an emotional impact. Roz and her friends try to find the killer. As events unfold, however, Roz starts to worry that she might be the killer.

Romance

The teens in this novel felt authentic to me. Roz is extremely excited to catch the attention of an older, popular boy -- her first real boyfriend -- who, surprise surprise, turns out to be an unrepentant pile of shit. He emotionally manipulates her, showering her with affection only to drop all communication for days, only to mack on her at the dance. Roz, thankfully, finally realizes what a dick he is, but only after about a ton of drama. Even then, her physical attraction to him doesn't totally disappear -- she still finds herself thinking how cute he is, and is frustrated by that. I thought that was pretty realistic. 

The love interest of the book is Roz's study buddy -- but don't worry, there's a ton of drama there, too. They're constantly sniping at each other, having misunderstandings, sweet moments which are interrupted, and arguing before finally getting on the same page. 

The Character I Hated

I wanted to STRANGLE Roz's Special Ed teacher. He is an example of 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions.' While he does want Roz to be able to accept her disability and work with it rather than fight it, he starts going about that in ways that first cross the line and then turn straight-up abusive. Furthermore, he's a shitty teacher in other ways. For his class's "career development," he organizes a series of unpaid jobs. Hiring disabled people for less than minimum wage or for no money at all is practiced widely in the U.S. Predictably, the students are hurt and angry. They rebel, which is a fantastically satisfying part of the book. 

Some Things I Didn't Like

One thing I didn't like was that it was unclear whether the teacher still had his job by the end of the book. He should've been fired. He's awful. 

Blind Spot also spends a lot of time on the issue of consent and relationship abuse. These, I felt, were important topics to address in a book for teens where drugs and roofies are involved. One thing I didn't like is when we find out Heather slept with the guy Roz likes while she was drunk. The way Heather described it, "it just sort of happened" and she wasn't fully in control -- while, I'm pretty sure, the guy was sober. If you are sober and have sex with someone who isn't, that's rape. While the book did address other parts of this subplot, and did a decent job of handling consent elsewhere, it never addressed the problem of consent there. It's never framed as rape.

Finally, some of the kids from the Special Ed class are excluded from the final plot to try and catch the killer. The abled kids, Roz, her physically disabled friend, and others who are not intellectually disabled decide that it would all be too much for the intellectually disabled kids in the class to understand, and that they don't want to get their hopes up only to have them crushed. This is infantilizing and goes against the message from other parts of the book. It's fairly common for non-intellectually-disabled disabled folks to still display forms of ableism towards intellectually disabled people. While this happens in real life, I didn't like it much and wished the book would have done more to challenge those assumptions.

Some Things I Liked

Roz begins this book with a lot of internalized ableism. She stereotypes her classmates, is furious to be labelled disabled, and tries to hide her disability whenever possible. By the end of the book, she's started to overcome a lot of that internalized ableism. Internalized ableism is something many disabled people deal with, and I thought Blind Spot handled it pretty sensitively. 

Roz also has to deal with abled expectations of behavior. For instance, when she is being questioned by police, she has to put in an effort to look them straight in the eye -- because otherwise, she looks shifty and guilty. But, her macular degeneration means that she can't look someone right in the eye, because that way, she can't see them. Roz is constantly being mistaken for shy, aloof, or shifty because of how she uses her peripheral vision to see people's faces. The author has macular degeneration herself, so this is an ownvoices work that captures a lot of the experiences an abled writer would probably miss. (You can read an interview with the author here.)

I liked that the book had a fair range of disabilities represented in the class, and that each of the students had a personality and goals beyond a stereotype. I particularly liked Tricia as a character, even though her fate saddened me. I won't give away too much, but Tricia is an example of how the system failed her and her family. I think she'd have been much better off if authority figures (including the teacher) didn't intervene to try to """"save"""" her by "doing the right thing." 

The ending may frustrate some with its odd lack of closure. I thought it was a satisfying way to close things off. 

The suspense in this was also through the roof. I was simultaneously cringing and on the edge of my seat flipping the pages, desperate to see what would happen next!

Overall, I would give this 4/5 stars. It's a great read. I got very into the characters and totally absorbed in the story. I recommend it to those who like mystery and suspense.

[Trigger warnings for this book include: death, ableism, drug and alcohol use/abuse, emotional abuse, descriptions of past sexual assault, discussion of suicide, physical assault, kidnapping, apartment fire.]

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Review: But Not Up Here by RoAnna Sylver

For today's review, something a little different: a book of poetry! I don't review poetry often (or ever? not on this blog, anyway) but I do read it pretty regularly and I love poetry, so. When RoAnna Sylver, author of Chameleon Moon and generally cool indie writer person, asked if people were interested in ARC's of But Not Up Here to review, I was excited.

but not up here cover.png

But Not Up Here: poems about remembering in neon is a book of poems about grief, loss, and survival. It's a beautiful collection and, as a plus, the cover is gorgeous as well. 

The subtitle, "poems about remembering in neon," references one of the poems in which the speaker talks about Michelangelo's paintings. For years, the poem says, we thought he painted in drab and muted hues -- until art restoration and new technology revealed the bright colors he really used. The speaker of that poem says that anyone who looks at them would think their memories of the lost person are like his paintings -- drab, damaged by time, water (like tears), etc. But instead, "With you and me, / As with him and his rainbow-hidden centuries, / Our world was neon." Many of the poems, this one in particular, speak to trying to move on from a loss when memories are still fresh and seems like the lost person ought to be there. 

The rainbow is a recurring image; Michelangelo's centuries are "rainbow-hidden," the poems are sprinkled with bright colors and images, and at one particularly memorable point the speaker notices the rainbow in a slick of gasoline on a puddle. The clash between glorious color and descriptive imagery and the pain of grief and loss seems counterintuitive at first. We tend to associate death, grief, and loss with black and grey tones. But these images work within the collection to convey the overwhelming nature of sensations -- whether it's emotional sensations like denial and anger or sensory images bewildering the speaker as they try to deal with the fact that Earth can be beautiful and hold life and color even after they have experienced such a personal loss. 

The poems do not necessarily offer an answer for how to move on -- and in many cases, "moving on" and acceptance don't seem like a desirable goal. Rather, memory and letting the loss live and accepting what that does to someone emotionally are the focus of the poems. Towards the end, resolution comes about in several poems that focus on the future, on growth and incorporating loss into one's own survival. The book ends with the lines, "Years later, I can breathe. / And that is enough." 

The book is structured with five poems that are titled with the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, each with a separate poem between them. Then there is a series of other poems that close out the work. Not everyone moves through the five stages in order, but they are both somewhat universal and yet, in this book, deeply personal as they explore the relationship between the speaker and the lost person and their particular circumstances. 

Sylver's style is breathless with long sentences, lines and sometimes paragraphs reaching to the edge of the page. This allows a lot of lyricism but also conveys a certain desperation to many of the poems. In other poems, the long lines and sentences make it feel more conversational, especially when the speaker is talking to the lost person. When the lines break up into shorter segments, it's more noticeable. 

Sylver also uses form with italic and bolded words. I liked this because the italicized and bolded words usually fit well with the rhythm of the line. It makes you think, why is this section italicized? You "say" the lines differently in your head when they are bold. I believe poetry should be read aloud, and these italicized and bolded words both let a reader know that they are being emphasized for some reason -- and let someone who is reading them aloud demarcate a difference in the way the words should be said. 

In addition to the beautiful imagery and style, much of this book is harsh. In terms of content, it deals with some tough topics. In terms of style, imagery, and words, it also veers towards harshness and pain when necessary. It is a moving collection of poems about grief and trauma, and I definitely recommend it. 5/5 stars.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

No, I haven't been around, sorry not sorry

I haven't been around here lately and that's for very good reasons. 

If you're a friend or I know you, I'm very happy to take your email or message. It may take me a little bit to get back to you, but I will get back to you. But if we are friends, don't propose me any new projects or fun activities unless I propose them to you first or it's something we talked about ages ago, like the book club/book swap idea I chatted with someone about a while back. Because I will not be available right now. I wish I was! But I won't be. 

If I have some kind of contract or agreement with you, you are of course very welcome to check in with me about how the work is going. At this point I don't have any of those contracts with anyone except the nonprofit I volunteer for. And despite some weird technical difficulties on my end, I'm trying to get that work done asap. The only other people I should be hearing from are authors who I beta'd for if they have any questions on my feedback. Thassit. Zip. The end. 

If we don't have a contract, I'm probably not going to reply because I am not available right now. For example, I have a backlog of reviews I want to get out.

I do wish I could churn out reviews daily. I also wish I could follow up on that invite to write for a blog or do a guest post, or submit something to the several horror mags I've seen taking stories right now, but I can't do that either. In conclusion, I am not writing for nearly anything right now -- including myself -- unless it's the aforementioned nonprofit, and this makes me EXTREMELY SALTY with myself and with life in general. I'm not really reading anything at the moment either unless it's purely for escapism. Even then I've had a hard time concentrating. Reading and human-ing in general isn't fun right now for Very Good Reasons. 

I'm not available. The doctor is OUT.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: The Kingdom of Oceana by Mitchell Charles

I received a copy of The Kingdom of Oceana for free to review from the publisher. So, here's my review!

Image result for the kingdom of oceana book

The Plot

The Kingdom of Oceana is told from the perspective of Ailani, the teenaged second son of the king of Royal Island (Hawai'i). One day, he and his brother Nahoa are exploring, when Nahoa dares him to go to a forbidden spot above a waterfall. There, they encounter a tiki head with a strange, malevolent power. Their encounter shapes their destinies, and that of all the island kingdoms of Oceana, forever. 

This is a classic coming of age tale set in ancient Hawai'i. Ailani struggles with feelings of rivalry, jealousy, and friendship with his older brother Nahoa, who is bigger, stronger, more confident, and seems destined to become the next king. As we see from Ailani's perspective, Nahoa is frequently nasty, borderline abusive towards his younger brother. Their relationship is fascinating as it dances the line between normal sibling rivalry and toxicity. Ailani's main character arc is coming to accept himself for the person he is, rather than always trying to define himself in comparison to his brother. 

Court Intrigue

Trouble plagues the different kingdoms in the form of international tensions between Ailani's father and the king of Pearl Island, which has become rich but corrupt. Pearls, in Ailani's culture, are sacred and magical gems; but Pearl Island has perfected the practice of creating manufactured pearls. This has created a deal of wealth for them, but also increased the wealth gap and made their king want more wealth, power, prestige -- even empire. 

As a son of the king, Ailani is taken on a diplomatic mission to Pearl Island to try to resolve their differences. There, he befriends Momi, a princess, and together they unearth the corruption, cruelty, and sacrilege which have given Pearl Island much of its power. Ailani's father Haga doesn't believe that going against the natural order of things and discarding their beliefs is worth it just to achieve material wealth; obviously, the King of Pearl Island has a different outlook. Tensions rise and Haga is given an ultimatum: they have to submit to the rule of Pearl Island, or face war.

The depictions of the different kingdoms, their practices, and the figures controlling power are all detailed, engaging, and frankly a delight to read. 

Magic

Another conflict is the resurgence of evil magic and the undead, caused by Ailani and Nahoa's disturbance of the tiki. The framing of magic in this book seems at first very black and white: there's light magic (good) and shadow magic (bad). But as the book goes on, we see that things are not necessarily so cut and dried. I was a little wary at first to see the strong opposition between light and shadow magic. It didn't seem to reflect the interplay between the two, the grey areas, that exist in many belief systems (and fantasy magic systems!). 

However, by the end of the book, we've got light and shadow sorcerers coming together, each using different kinds of magic, as well as the introduction of something called luminescent magic -- the way energy flows between and throughout light and dark through all of the world. In the end, Ailani also has to embrace the shadow magic when it's needed if he wants to be victorious. 

I personally would differentiate a bit between magic and spirituality as portrayed in the book. Magic appears to be a certain thing only accessible to some people, whereas spirituality -- finding one's spirit animal, sensing spirits, talking to animals and spirits throughout the world, accessing the spirit realm -- is a part of the world open to everyone (albeit sometimes under very specific circumstances, such as the vision quest Ailani and Nahoa must undertake to find their spirit animals). There's a lot of overlap between the two, but it was handled well in a way that I, at least, found easy to understand. A lot of this is based on Indigenous beliefs, and the author appears to have incorporated real spirituality and beliefs into a fantasy setting in a sensitive way. I don't practice those beliefs, so I can't speak with authority on this topic. 

The Setting, Characters, and More

This all, gratifyingly, takes place in a pre-white-people world. While the author is not Hawai'ian, you can read more about his research process and where he drew inspiration on his website.

I also appreciated the fact that Puhi, Ailani's friend who is a Little Person, does not get a "magic cure" in the end. At one point, spoiler, he has his finger bitten off by a zombie. While magic saves his life, someone asks if another act of magic will restore his finger. The answer is no. That was a small thing, but quite gratifying considering how most fantasy uses magic to fix every disability, injury, or even minor inconvenience. 

One thing that I did not particularly like was how the fat characters, notably the King of Pearl Island and his corrupt alchemist, are described. Several metaphors about their greed, coupled with the descriptions of their physical fatness, draw distasteful parallels between their corruptness/wealth/greed and them being fat. Fat characters, particularly fat corrupt royals and such in fantasy, are often coded as evil, and their physical appearance stands in for their metaphorical "hunger" for power.  

The settings are a delight to read and you feel like you are actually there. Also, Ailani, being Hawai'ian, uses Hawai'ian words to describe the important things around him even though the book is written in English. When a new Hawai'ian word is introduced, there's a linked footnote to a definition at the end of each chapter. At the definition, another link takes you back to your place. Once a word has been defined the first time, it's never footnoted again. So, the book doesn't presume that you do know the words, but it doesn't assume that you don't, either. This was a FAR more organic way of using Indigenous terms in an English-language book than doing something like having Ailani stop to explain what they mean in the middle of his thought. 

More About Sibling Rivalry, Because I'm A Sucker For That

I found the sibling rivalry one of the most interesting factors in the book. Ailani and Nahoa are the main pair of siblings, but there's another pair (not revealing because it's a major spoiler) as well as a historical pair of brothers. While the rivalry themes mainly center around brotherhood, other family dynamics are explored as well. For instance, Nahoa and Ailani's mother clearly favors Nahoa, while their father seems more fair in his treatment of the brothers. 

And while the book handles themes of sibling rivalry, it also doesn't show just one cut-and-dried way to resolve -- or not resolve -- it. While we get to see the good sides of Nahoa, his bullying is never excused as just a misunderstanding. This is an important contrast to the other pair of brothers, whose toxic relationship IS just based on a misunderstanding. 

As for female characters, there's Luina, who is younger but already learning to become a master of seafaring and navigation. I did wish she played a more prominent role in the climax of the book, but she dropped out of the plot at some point. Ailani's mother is a more troubled, but complex, character. She has abrupt mood swings and is easily swayed by promises of wealth and pretty things. However, it's hard not to sympathize with her unconditional love for even the bullying Nahoa, or with her being upset when her husband leaves to journey for weeks or months at a time. 

Finally, there's Momi, the princess of Pearl Island. There's a minor love triangle, but it's pretty clear who Momi prefers from the start. I feel like a lot of plots concerning coming of age are wrapped up with "and the hero gets the girl," but The Kingdom of Oceana didn't do that. Momi plays an important role in helping expose corruption and get rid of the evil magic, and in the end, it's understood that Momi and Ailani will continue their relationship. However, there's not a gross moment when she gifts him her love as a prize, as we sometimes see. Actually, the end of the novel focuses on a mother's grief, and Ailani trying to mend things with her and make things right within his own family. 

One thing that helped with avoiding this trope is that the ending is definitely ambiguous -- there's certainly room for a sequel and more trouble down the line. Another thing is that Momi and Ailani establish their relationship earlier on, and are able to work as a team to help everyone in the finale. They're equals and I appreciated that. 

Cover and Title

I wasn't particularly enthused about the cover art or title, to be honest. The cover art is pretty, but I like to see characters or action on the cover myself. Like a significant scene such as Ailani, Puhi, and Luina on the wa'a going into the mists, or something. Maybe I'm weird. You might like the cover. It didn't really tell me all that much about the book that the title itself didn't. You can read more about the title art and artist here. 

As for the title, it reads to me like something out of a history book, almost signalling a nonfiction work. This is probably just me being weird. If not for the blurb, I'd also be a little unclear on genre; I was initially unsure whether this was purely historical fiction or fantasy, or historical fantasy, or whether it was a purely fantasy world just based on Polynesian and Pacific Islander culture. Just so you know, it's historical fantasy (set on Earth in the past, but with fantasy elements). At least, that's how I understood it!

Final Thoughts

I'm not Hawai'ian and have never even been to Hawai'i, so I can't speak to the book's authenticity of setting or comment on how it uses culture. I'll leave that up to reviewers who are. The author does talk about his process and people who helped build the book on his site, which I've already linked. I personally found this an overall delight to read, the descriptions a sensory marvel, the characters well-drawn and developed, and overall it's a gem of a find if you're looking for indies to read. 5 stars.

Monday, April 3, 2017

We Fuck Up Sometimes (I fucked up this time)

Thing you may not have known about me: I volunteer for a local civic action group. I'm one of the coordinators. 

And, as you might expect, it's been a learning experience. In other words, we done fucked up. I done fucked up.

There was a rally held in support of veterans' rights which a friend of ours organized. To support this event, a fellow coordinator from my group wanted to hold a sign-making and mission-clarifying logistics event. We normally book events at a local library, but they were holding a book sale in the rooms we use all the days we wanted to hold it.  So, my fellow coordinator proposed the meeting be held upstairs on the second floor of a local restaurant instead. 

I wasn't super thrilled about this. I wanted to assert that, especially since the event was focused on veterans -- and many veterans live with disability -- that it would be better not to hold the event at all than to hold it at an inaccessible location. I did point out the inaccessibility of the venue and suggest another one. The other venue, my fellow coordinator pointed out, was smaller and didn't have very good lighting. They said we'd just livestream it. 

I was still not OK with this, as it would have barred disabled veterans and disabled people in general from attending and participating in a meaningful way. A livestream lets people watch along at home, but doesn't let them give input in real time. On a topic which was discussing their -- our -- lives. It felt like a case of "abled people to the rescue" doing stuff on behalf of disabled folks, yet without their (our) attendance and input.

But, I also didn't want to overstep or alienate or come across as angry. They had veterans in the family, it was clearly important to them, and I was feeling the pressure of having to organize this thing SOON because deadlines were approaching. I was working through a cloud of brain fog due to pain and exhaustion and wasn't sure whether this was the hill I wanted to die on. Wasn't sure if I had the spoons -- or even the right -- to stand up for myself and people like me.

So, I let it slide. I took the easy way out. I fucked up. I could have had a difficult conversation with my friend. I could have put my foot down. Instead, I wrote a public apology for the event, said it would not happen again, and requested input from people on the page as to how we could not fuck up like this in the future.

The event happened. I've been feeling gross about it ever since. And today, someone publicly responded to my request for feedback. 


My first reaction was to wince. Then, as I read on, feeling their anger, their anger started to feel validating. It validated my own feelings of frustration and anger. It made me really examine my guilt over asking for equal access and my fear of expressing it -- this internalized idea that I was seeking "special treatment." Or raining on the activism parade with my pesky concerns about accessibility. I knew this couldn't be OK with everyone, that I was surely not the only one with a problem like this, and it was great to see that critique expressed.

Expressed by a person who clearly seemed so much more courageous than me.

My second reaction was shame. Didn't I get involved specifically to prevent situations like this? Didn't I get angry because the Women's March refused to offer a wheelchair-accessible route? Didn't I insist that the other coordinators include ability in our mission statement after they left it out in the early days? Aren't I tired of disability always being the last thing activism thinks about?

Yes, obviously, I am. But when push came to shove, I let it slide. I done fucked up. Why, I'm wondering, did I do that?

I could blame it on the brain fog or on the rushed nature of the thing but the truth is, it was because I felt uncomfortable. Because I didn't want to stand out, to lose friends, to alienate people or to suggest that I was ungrateful to the restaurant owner who'd offered the venue. I didn't want to say, "I'm here, I'm disabled, and I and people like me have needs. We should be allowed to exist in public spaces. We want to participate fully in events which can determine the course of our futures."

I wrote earlier in this post that "It felt like a case of 'abled people to the rescue' doing stuff on behalf of disabled folks, yet without their (our) attendance and input." The truth is, abled organizers DID have "our" input. They had me. I WAS in a position to advocate, to take the hard line. I pointed out the problems -- but I let it slide when I should have gone farther.

This thing is bigger than me. Bigger than my personal discomfort. I need to learn to trust my instincts, listen to my gut when something feels squicky and point it out. To be unapologetic in stating problems or calling out, to push allies, and to stop excusing myself when I fuck up.

I done fucked up. Apologies don't mean much when a thing has already been said and done, but I CAN promise to do better. To be angrier. To stop feeling guilty about pushing for accessibility, and to really work to overcome my internalized ableism.

This is all relatively new to me, and as such, I'm going to fuck up. I've fucked up in the past on many occasions. I'm sure this won't be the last time I fuck up. But I can make every effort not to fuck up again on this issue. Because this thing is bigger than me, and personal discomfort can't be allowed to get in the way.

I fucked up. I'm sorry. And I'm going to commit to doing better -- being better -- in the future.