16 September 2015

Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian

I spent several months anticipating the release of Carrie Mesrobian's latest, CUT BOTH WAYS. Everyone who read it before its release raved about it (at least, everyone that I respect), and it sounded outstanding.

It was.

But in some ways it was also the toughest of Mesrobian's books to read, because it touched on subjects that hit a lot closer to home for me.

Will Caynes is constantly being torn in two. He's torn between his divorced parents, a father that borders on alcoholism and a mother that's distant and distracted. He's torn between homes: his father's gutted house that he's been trying to help renovate, and his mother's McMansion that's cold and loveless.

When, at age seventeen, he finally has his first kiss, he's torn again: because it's with his best friend, Angus, while they're both drunk and high. And he isn't gay, but he kind of likes it. But then he meets Brandy, a sophomore that babysits for his dad's neighbors, and he likes kissing her, too. He strikes up relationships with both of them, even though he knows, deep down, that someone (mabye everyone) is going to get hurt.

Only now, as I write this, do I realize what an important role the search for identity has played in all of Carrie Mesrobian's books: Evan's identity as a victim and a survivor; Sean's identity as a young man; and now Will's identity as a sexual person. Will doesn't know who he is or what he wants, and figuring it out isn't easy when you don't feel like there's anyone you can turn to, except for the people you're having sex with.

One of the things that amazes me about Carrie's writing is her gift for using the ordinary to examine the extraordinary—how Will's simple job at his dad's friend's diner can, in micro, come to define all the best parts of Will and his life: constancy and direction and friendship.

The ending was rough. I was not surprised: life is messy and endings are never as final as they seem. But CUT BOTH WAYS's ending hit me harder, because it tapped into the fear that so many questioning kids have: being rejected, being kicked out, being homeless, being cut off from the people that are supposed to love us unconditionally. I (very selfishly) wanted to know how things panned out with Will's family once shit hit the fan. I have to hope things turned out okay for him, because I have to hope that for everyone.

CUT BOTH WAYS was a stunning, honest, and brave book. It tapped into my own fears and twisted my heart around. And, like Will, I couldn't stop myself: I had to keep going back for more, even though I knew I was going to get hurt.

14 September 2015

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Growing up, I never read any book with Iranian characters in them. So when Christa Desir mentioned Sara Farizan, an Iranian YA author, I searched out her books at once.

IF YOU COULD BE MINE tells the story of Sahar, a girl in Tehran who, at age six, told her mother she one day wanted to marry her best friend, Narsin—also a girl.

Yes.

Sahar is a lesbian, in a country where being homosexual is illegal.

I’ve never been to Iran—all my experience with Iranian culture comes from my interactions with my family and their circle of Iranian friends. The closest I’ve come to visiting has been in movies.

Iranians are a joyous people—at least, all the ones I know are—but Sahar’s Tehran is a melancholy place, and Sahar’s story is a melancholy one.

Certainly, the fact that Sahar is a girl—rather than a boy—affects the prism of her experience. It was deeply rewarding to live in Sahar’s head and see Iran through her eyes.

Despite the melancholy, there were so many ways when reading Sahar’s story felt like being at home: all the little things Sahar mentioned that I recognized from my own life, like how some Iranian women shave off their eyebrows and then get eyebrows tattooed on them. Which has always seemed weird to me.

I knew, going in, that IF YOU COULD BE MINE was going to be sad. How could it not be? But I’m a romantic, an optimist at heart, and I wanted some hope at the end. Maybe I got that. But it also felt like Sahar was stuck in a trap of her own making, and I so desperately wanted her to get out.

There is an Iranian cultural concept—tarof—which is hard to translate. The closest I've ever heard is exalting another by debasing yourself. In everyday life, that means politely refusing food you want a few times before finally giving in; or offering to do something you really don't want to do, because the other person is supposed to decline anyway. But in Sahar's case, it meant putting everyone else's desires before her own.

It was heartbreaking, but I knew exactly where it came from, too.

11 September 2015

Proxy by Alex London

When I put down Alex London’s PROXY, my first thought was:

Why isn’t this a bigger deal?

It’s a brilliant dystopian story, unique in its execution, with dual protagonists who are compelling and brilliantly written, and it kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.

Not an easy feat.

And then there’s the fact that Syd, one of the two protagonists, is gay, and that the book handles it brilliantly: it’s a necessary, integral part of who he is, but it never defines him or his story. It makes his life harder, but it’s not what drives his struggles.

What drives his struggles is this: Syd is a poor kid, an orphan, who was “rescued” by society (a society driven by capitalism at its most ruthless) as a baby and saddled with what amounts to a lifetime’s worth of debt. His debt was bought by the father of a spoiled, rich brat—Knox, the novel’s other protagonist—and thus Syd became Knox’s Proxy. Whenever Knox did something bad, rather than being punished, he had to watch Syd be punished instead.

Knox was a pretty naughty kid.

PROXY alternated between the two boys’ POVs, and it was clear from the start that Knox was insufferable, even unlikable—and yet so very compelling. Even though he was not likable, there were little glimmers of who Knox might have been with a better environment, the seeds of empathy that might have blossomed in other circumstances. Syd, on the other hand, was downtrodden but resourceful, likable from the start, even though his life was pretty shitty.

When Knox accidentally kills someone in a brash show of youthful stupidity, Syd is saddled with the punishment: being branded and then sent to a work camp for essentially the rest of his life. Syd excapes, though, and a chance meeting with Knox sends them both searching for a way to escape: Knox from his overbearing, manipulative father, and Syd from his debts and the soldiers of bureaucracy who will stop at nothing to see him dead.

PROXY is filled with twists and turns and betrayals, and while these are the bread and butter of any dystopian tale, PROXY managed to surprise me at every turn, because each betrayal came from an unexpected source, and the characters I identified as most-likely to betray Syd or Knox ended up being the truest allies.

The ending surprised me even more. Watching Knox and Syd grow and change was so rewarding, and then when things came to their inevitable climax: wow.

I hope more people read PROXY. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to read the sequel, GUARDIAN.

03 September 2015

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

I came across Jordan Ellenberg's HOW NOT TO BE WRONG via a discussion on Twitter, and it sounded fun and intriguing.

I have a pretty complicated relationship with math. When I was in sixth grade, I skipped a year of math, and when I was in seventh grade I skipped another year of math, which meant that I took eleventh-grade math in ninth grade and it was hard and all my classmates were older and treated me weird and I kind of ended up hating math, despite the fact that I was supposed to be "good" at it.

I mean, really, when was I ever going to use math?

So, fast forward to now, when I pick up HOW NOT TO BE WRONG: THE POWER OF MATHEMATICAL THINKING. I don't know what I was expecting, really, other than I expected it to be good, because it came highly recommended.

Here's Ellenberg's thesis: mathematics is really an extension of common sense by other means.

And to prove that, Ellenberg gives example after example showing when, exactly, people are "ever going to use this."

From armoring the weak points on World War II planes, to examining the science of polling, to how a bunch of people gamed the lottery system in Massachusetts, Ellenberg jumps from instance to instance of the real-world applications of math.

I suppose I felt like the examples were still far more specialized than anything I ever do—but it was a compelling argument, nonetheless. And Ellenberg's prose was exceptionally enjoyable. I took note of one particularly funny line:

There are aspects of the natural world-I'm thinking pandas here-that seem more likely to have resulted from grudging bureaucratic compromise than from the mind of an all-knowing deity with total creative control. 

Which was hilarious. And the chapter titles were great, too, like: 

Are you there, God? It's me, Bayesian Inference

Overall, HOW NOT TO BE WRONG was enjoyable and enlightening. It made me feel smarter for having read it.

Did it make me less likely to be wrong? Maybe not. Then again, I am rarely wrong anyway, soooo...

01 September 2015

Ten Reasons You Need Andrew Smith's STAND OFF

Back in July, I had the supreme privilege of receiving an Advance Reviewer Copy of Andrew Smith's STAND OFF, the sequel to WINGER, which releases on 8 September.

Here is a picture of us, with the ARC in question:



Suffice it to say, I devoured it in one sitting and have been so excited for the final release.

Herewith are the top ten reasons you should be, too, in no particular order (except for number one, which is, in fact, in particular order):

#10: Rugby—Because I never in my life wanted to play rugby until I read WINGER, when it seemed like so much fun, and it's just as fun in STAND OFF. I love the nicknames and I love the camaraderie and Ryan Dean's teammates are great fun.

#9: Nico Cosentino—Joey's younger brother, who may or may not be avoiding Ryan Dean, but who has some my favorite scenes in the book.

#8: Joey Cosentino—Even though he's gone, Joey's ghost is never absent from Ryan Dean's senior year. Joey was one of my favorite characters, and seeing Ryan Dean deal with his grief and heartbreak helped me process my own.

#7: Annie Altman—Ryan Dean's girlfriend, who calls him out on his shit when he needs it but loves him anyway. STAND OFF features one of the sweetest, most honest depictions of a growing relationship I've ever read.

#6: Comics—Ryan Dean's drawings have been plagued by N.A.T.E., ruining his enjoyment of them, but not mine. The comics were rough drafts in the ARC, but there have been some previews of the final art posted, and they look brilliant.

#5: Road Trips!—Because what would the sequel to WINGER be without a road trip filled with frightening and memorable characters? I will never look at cheese the same again. (Okay, that's a lie. I will always look at cheese with nothing but love and devotion.)

#4: PRINCESS SNUGGLEWARM!

#3: Consent Boy—In WINGER, Ryan Dean acted like a little bit of a dirt bag. Not unsurprising, given most fourteen-year-old boys are at times. But in STAND OFF, Ryan Dean has to take a health class, where they discuss condoms and consent. It's so great to see Ryan Dean learn how to be a gentleman.

#2: The Abernathy—Sam Abernathy, Ryan Dean's new roommate, is a twelve-year-old freshman at Pine Mountain. He's insufferably adorable, earnest, and annoying—and boy does he grow on you. Also, he watches the Cooking Channel, and for someone who doesn't watch television, Andrew Smith has an impressive knowledge of advanced cooking techniques.

#1: Ryan Dean West—Because there are few more earnest characters in fiction, and none that I can think of that are as full of love as Ryan Dean West. It's a true joy to spend time with him and see him grow up.

STAND OFF releases 8 September. I've already got mine preordered. Why haven't you?