As you may know June was Pride Month and so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read books with LGBTQ+ representation as well as reading along with Penguin’s Pride Book Club that they’re doing throughout June, July and August.
The first book in the book club was ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ by Emily M Danforth. The story (as you may imagine) follows a girl called Cameron Post who is coping with discovering her sexuality. The story starts with Cameron’s parents dying in a car crash (don’t worry, that’s not really a spoiler as it’s on the blurb) and as a result of that her religious Aunt moves in with her and her Grandma. When her Aunt Ruth discovers that Cameron is gay she sends her off to a correctional ‘camp’ where she stays almost until the end of the book. I hadn’t heard much about the book before I read it but I knew it was getting really great reviews and as Penguin featured it in their book club I thought I’d pick it up. I don’t know if I could say that I enjoyed it as such as at times it was a really tough read but I definitely appreciated it’s importance and the quality of the writing. The characters were all really realistic, no one was a caricature or a walking stereotype – even the incredibly conservative Aunt Ruth, while I was expecting her to be a sort of ‘Umbridge’ character was human, and was actually painted as a nice person at times, she just believed in her beliefs and I think that’s an important thing to recognise. It’s not just the people that shout and scream that are discriminatory, even people that are kind and sweet in other aspects of life can be that way too to LGBTQ people. This book wasn’t really anything I was expecting but in really great ways that made me love it more. I won’t be rushing to reread it in a hurry because like I said, it was a tough read at times, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be recommending it to pretty much everyone I know! I give it 5 out of 5 stars however I just want to warn you guys (as I didn’t know this about the story before reading and it definitely caught me unawares) that there is a pretty graphic description of self injury. It’s about a fairly minor character but it’s still an incredibly raw and emotional couple of chapters. And, as you may expect, there is a great deal of homophobia which some of you may find triggering as well. I think the thing that shook me the most was how quietly it was approached and reasonable the arguments were deemed by some of the characters, after a while it really got under my skin. I don’t think it’s advisable to read it all in one go as I did, I’d break it up over a couple of days at least.
Another book I read from Penguin’s book club was ‘The Terrible’ by Yrsa Daley-Ward. This is a memoir written in unflinchingly honest free verse and was another one that was hard to read. It was fairly short, I think I read it about two hours, but I think had it been any longer I’d have had to have stopped. It’s completely beautiful but completely heartbreaking at the same time. There are no moments in this book that are optimistic, it deals with everything, sexuality (although there was actually much less about being LGBT than I expected from how it had been pitched, it was much more about other aspects of sexuality), abuse, drug and alcohol use, mental health from eating disorders to suicide attempts, race – you name it, it was in there. And while I think that means that it would be relatable in some form to a lot of people I still don’t think I’ll be recommending it because of the way those topics are handled. It’s admirable that Yrsa has been so honest and it is reflective of real life, there aren’t always going to be happy endings to every chapter of your life, but that doesn’t mean we (and by we, I mean people who are affected by the aforementioned issues in a big way – if I knew people who hadn’t dealt with the realities of any of the issues then I would definitely be recommending it but unfortunately that isn’t the case) need to read about it. I’m still giving it 4.5 stars because it was beautifully written and I truly empathise with Yrsa’s past – I can appreciate something’s quality without enjoying it myself (and that’s not to say I hated the entire reading experience because I didn’t, I would have put it down if that were the case).
Okay, from two books that I didn’t love completely to one that I did! The next book I read this month was ‘We Are Okay’ by Nina LaCour. I loved everything about this book, it’s style, the story, the tone, the beautiful settings, the characters – everything. The story follows Marin, a girl who’s at college and completely alone in the world. Her parents died when she was younger and she lived with her Grandfather for most of her teenage years until, the summer before she’s due to leave for university, tragedy strikes again, leaving her with no family at all. It’s not told in chronological order, flitting between the present day and the events leading up to it, giving you just enough information and intrigue to make you hungry for more. It incorporates Marin’s sexuality in a really subtle way that’s not integral to the story and I just thought it was really beautiful. It’s really nice to read about LGBT characters whose identity isn’t the sole purpose of the story; Marin’s self discovery is much more focused upon other aspects of herself. All of Marin’s relationships are so complex and interesting to read about, particularly that of her and her grandfather, who she realises she didn’t know as well as she thought she did (if at all) after he leaves her life, something that’s the catalyst for her abrupt and early move and across the country. There are some books that I could ramble on about for pages (some for pleasant reasons, some for negative ones) and this is definitely the former! It’s gone straight into my list of absolute favourites. It’s a beautifully written, emotional story about how family doesn’t have to just mean people with whom you’re connected by blood and how life can be unexpected in both terrible and amazing ways. I give it 5 out of 5 stars and have already lent it to a friend to read.
The next book I read was ‘The Art of Being Normal’ by Lisa Williamson. I have really apathetic feelings towards this one if I’m honest. I just felt a bit underwhelmed with it all. There are two transgender main characters and so I should have been feeling ‘YES, REPRESENTATION!’ but I just didn’t. The character’s just didn’t feel that real to me. I actually realised about a third of the way in that I’d read it before a couple of years ago and I think that speaks for itself! It obviously didn’t excite me then and it didn’t excite me this time either. I think the way the topic of gender identity and transitioning were handled well, and it was obviously well researched (the author is cis-gender but has worked at a Gender Identity Development Service). I honestly can’t really describe why I didn’t really like this book, I just didn’t! There were no major things that made me dislike it as such (apart from one line when a much older character commented on another character’s sister who was inappropriately younger than him. I definitely stopped and went ‘What the actual hell?!’ at that point!) there was just nothing that really made me like it or even any of the characters. The two main characters, Leo and David, while I could sympathise with them for their struggles, just felt wooden and there’s not much plot either. David is coming to terms with their gender identity and the person they want to be and I Leo is trying to hide from his past and make a fresh start. I think my two favourite moments, or the moments that I felt were most realistic, were the scenes when David was telling his family and their reactions (the way that they were neither overwhelmingly positive or negative felt quite true to the Mum and Dad’s characters – they loved their child and yet would need time to adjust, much like them) and also Leo’s struggles with dating as a transgender person. I won’t say anymore on that to avoid too many spoilers. Overall I give it 3 out of 5 stars. My first thought was to give it 2 stars but I think that would be too much of an insult to what was still a really great example for representation of transgender characters.
The next book I read was History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera. Now I didn’t love this one but I definitely liked it. The story is again told in non-chronological order, flitting in between the present day and the past, before the death of Theo, the ex boyfriend of Griffin, the main character. This is a tale of grief and how people cope with it in different ways, there were a lot of really great and realistic portrayals of that from different characters I thought, and it was also a really sweet romance at points, especially in the flashbacks to Griffin and Theo when they were a couple. I was definitely rooting for them (as much as you can root for character’s when you know from the beginning that one of them dies…). From the blurb I thought that Griffin would end up with Theo’s new boyfriend (what, Theo and Griffin split up?! Unfortunately so, I was really frustrated with that development even though you know from the start it’s going to happen – they were just so perfect for each other!) but I’m really glad that didn’t happen because it would have been a little cliche. Their dynamic is never romantic really, they just both want to cling on to every last part of Theo they can to eke out his (too short) existence. It did get quite depressing at times because Griffin is going through the grieving process for the entire story (apart from the flashbacks but they didn’t happen as often as I would have liked) and dealing with the guilt loved ones often feel when they’re left behind. It was a really beautiful story though, as you can probably tell from the title alone which is such a lovely quote, and I give it 4 out of 5 stars. The star missing is because of the addition of OCD to the story that I didn’t think was handled particularly well. It’s a side detail rather than a main focus which would be okay if it was still necessary to the story and treated properly and accurately- I felt like it was just thrown in afterwards when really it would have been just as good of a book (if not more so) without it being there.
The next book I read was another memoir but one I much preferred and that is ‘Would
You Rather’ by Katie Heaney. I first discovered this book after reading an excerpt of it on a Buzzfeed post (Katie works for Buzzfeed) and loving it so much that I bought the book as soon as it was released. This was a funny, honest and uplifting book about Katie’s life both before and after she realises that she’s gay. It starts with Katie expressing frustration at the fact that she’s 25 years old and has never had a real relationship and definitely not a long term one, but it’s not until later that she realises that this is because she’s been trying to date the wrong gender. It was really great to see her progression from unfulfilled dating wise, to happy and fulfilled in a long term relationship with the first woman she ever went on a date with. I think there’s something so beautiful about that, I don’t really believe in fate but there’s something magical about finding love without trying (although granted Katie had been trying for a long time with men prior to that) and I was whole-heartedly rooting for Katie and Lydia who, I was very happy to find out (I checked as soon as I’d finished!) are still together. I think ‘Would You Rather’ showcases the important and valid voice of someone realising their sexuality later in life while still acknowledging that that doesn’t mean that everything prior to that realisation was unimportant or not valid. I could also relate to Katie as a person for her introverted self and her love of writing, she was just a really great person to read about for me. I give this book 5 out of 5 stars because I can’t think of a single compliant!
Okay the final book for this post is ‘This Book Is Gay’ by Juno Dawson and boy do I have some strong feelings about it… This Book Is Gay is a non-fiction book, supposedly about everything LGBT, I think aimed at young teenagers. I hated every second of reading this book. It claims to be inclusive but it is not. It claims to cover every topic an LGBTQIA (or questioning) teen could ever need, but it definitely does not. It was poorly written, incorporating quite patronising language and pop culture references that may have been current when the author was a teenager but definitely aren’t now and will have left most of it’s audience confused. Sure, it covered some topics well but the way it handled others meant that I would never give this book to anyone. It wouldn’t be good to use to educate people outside of the LGBT community and it wouldn’t good to educate those in it. In fact many people in the community might come out (no pun intended) with wrong, potentially damaging information and many would come out of the reading experience feeling excluded – some not even having been mentioned at all. There is very little mention of bisexuality and absolutely no mention of pansexuality, asexuality or any sexuality really besides homosexuality. It constantly adheres to strict gender binaries which will alienate much of its intended audience I think (and also really surprised me considering that the author is transgender) In fact one particular line that I noted as being majorly problematic said ‘Penis? Check, then that’s a man,’ which is actually pretty transphobic – not all men have penises and not all people with penises are men. It also constantly said that to be (insert sexuality) then you had to want to have sex with (insert applicable gender) which is exclusive of both asexual people and people who just aren’t that interested in sex for whatever reason (e.g. past trauma that’s still affecting them) but aren’t actually asexual. It all seemed very reductive to me, you don’t have to want to have sex with someone to be attracted to them, what about romantic attraction? Emotional attraction? There’s more than one kind of attraction, just saying, Ms Dawson.
As well as being very exclusive and being very binary in terms of gender and attraction, there was actually lots of misinformation. When warning against STI’s the author actually says ‘Dear God wear a condom. Wear two.’ which, even I, who missed the last two years of school and therefore missed two years of sex education, knows that wearing two condoms is much less effective than wearing just one as they’re at much greater risk of causing friction and breaking, thus not being effective against STI’s. You’d think that a) an ex-PSHE teacher and b) someone writing a book for and about people who are going to take it’s information literally, would know that, wouldn’t you??
While there was some information and advice in their that didn’t make me want to throw this book at the wall, it’s fault were too many for me to ever consider it worthwhile anyone reading without coming out (I swear I’m not doing it on purpose!) with seriously misinformed and way to simplified opinions about gender and attraction. And considering it’s audience is that of young and vulnerable people, I can’t excuse that. It’s the first book this year that I’m giving a rating of 1 out of 5 rating.
And so that concludes this month’s ‘What I Read’ post, I hope you enjoyed reading about my reads (sorry it was a super long and late one!) and I shall see you next month!