Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Edit: It has been brought to my attention that this book has problematic representation. While this book helped explain gender-fluidity, it does so in a way that is clearly written for cisgender people, not for gender fluid people who need representation in fiction. If you want to read about gender fluid individuals, seek out #ownvoices stories which center gender-fluid people, rather than writing for cis people’s benefit. Additionally, while never revealing the main character’s gender assigned at birth or using pronouns to describe the MC is compelling, it is a choice that can undermine important parts of life for gender-fluid individuals. Also, not using pronouns undermines the educational value, in my opinion, by refusing to normalize gender-neutral pronouns.

An emotional roller coaster of a story that helped me understand gender fluidity.

3/5 stars

cover symptoms of being human synopsis for reviews 2

The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?

Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. The thing is…Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in uber-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s so-called “normal” life.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s REALLY like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.

Add it on Goodreads

my thoughts for reviews 1

I did not know what to expect from Symptoms of Being Human, but I got an emotionally charged story that honestly changed the way I see the world.

I loved Riley’s character. Their voice was clear from the first page, with just enough sass and never too much brooding. I was sucked into their life and was incredibly emotionally invested in everything that happened.

Through Riley, I got a vivid window into what it is like to be gender fluid. The way that the author presented Riley’s character felt natural; it feels like a novel, not a pamphlet. I had never considered what it would be like to be gender fluid before, but Symptoms of Being Human really helped me understand it. SOBH also has various other LGBT characters and spends a lot of time clarifying the nuances between each in a clear way—without breaking up the flow of the story. I am thinking of passing this book onto my grandparents because of how simply but clearly it explains different LGBT identities.

Riley’s first day of school made me nervous. The depiction of high school was extremely stereotypical, kind of everything I avoid when it comes to contemporary books. Though it never completely shook the stereotypical beginning, the high school was thankfully given more nuance as the story progressed.

The side characters helped the story avoid being totally cliche. Both Solo and Bec broke the “best friend” and “love interest” molds, bringing originality and life to the story. I loved that their relationships with Riley did not progress easily from their first meets to friendship; the friction they had with Riley gave the story more layers and helped the plot go in interesting directions. Bec’s backstory complemented the main plot without feeling like it was added in only for that purpose.

Speaking of the plot, SOBH was paced exceptionally well. For a contemporary book, the pacing is pretty fast, especially past the halfway mark. I was sucked in, both because of the plot and the emotions the plot evoked. I read the book in basically two sittings, and I cried for most of the ending.

The process of Riley’s blog going viral felt natural and realistic. Riley was actually a really strong writer who was able to put his emotions into moving words, making it understandable why his blog would become popular. Even so, the blog did not go viral overnight, and it was not a positive process. Riley started a blog assuming no one would care and became a lightning rod for LGBT controversies and discussions within a few weeks. It was overwhelming and frightening for Riley, and that was before someone threatened to expose his identity in real life.

As much as I loved SOBH, I have a few problems with the plot. I saw the identity of the person who was threatening Riley coming from miles away. Though the plot grabbed me, it never took an entirely unexpected turn. Looking back on the story, I feel like the author could have done more to make the plot less predictable. Making the story longer and fleshing out some of the side plots could have helped make the story more unique, I think.

Overall, I would recommend SOBH to everyone. It does a fantastic job bringing Riley’s identity to life. Though the plot has technical flaws, the story is gripping and powerful, and I dare you not to be horrified and saddened throughout the book. I will definitely read anything else Jeff Garvin writes.

Why We Need Diverse Entertainment

I wrote this piece for my school’s newspaper about the need for diverse entertainment. It is more formal than most of things I post on this blog, but I wanted to share it, because this is definitely a discussion being had in the bookish world, and the current push for diverse literature is a movement I fully support.

Diversity has become the buzzword of the entertainment industry. Sexually, racially, and physically diverse characters are taking center stage in new movies, TV shows, and especially in young adult books. This sudden uptick in wide-ranging representation poses an important question: do we really need this much diversity in our entertainment?

Advocates of diverse entertainment argue that the answer to this question is an obvious YES. By creating storylines that feature characters that break the normal straight, white, and physically enviable mold, writers offer their readers a unique chance: to read their own story.

LGBTQ+ people should be able to read love stories that are not solely heterosexual. People struggling with body image should be able to recognize their figures on television, instead of watching a parade of golden ratio women take leading roles. Non-white people should be able to see members of their culture as protagonists instead of token background characters. People suffering from mental illnesses or living with disabilities should be included in fictional narratives as more than inspiration for the “more able” main character.

The simple answer is yes, we need to push for diversity, because it is not yet a reality in the entertainment industry.

Moreover, we need diversity in entertainment because the current landscape is a myth. The world is not made up of straight, white size-two women and muscled men with all other races and identities crammed in the background. In a tweet on Oct. 11, children’s book author Laura Ruby eloquently illustrated this point.

“If books are here to teach kids about the world, what does it mean when books don’t reflect the world?” she asked.

It is the twenty-first century, a time of rising social movements advocating equality of all types. How many Black Lives Matter protests must we see before we realize that the sentiment extends beyond cop-related violence? How many Pride parades have to dominate cities before we realize that the LGBTQ+ movement is not a niche issue? How many body-positive ad campaigns have to spread like wildfire across social media platforms before we realize that people are tired of the size-zero ideal?

We need diversity in entertainment because without it, social equality will forever be handicapped. The entertainment we consume is a reflection of who we are—and one of the most potentially powerful forces of change in our lives. Until the entertainment industry pushes the exclusive boundaries that they have imposed on themselves, consumers remain trapped in an unrealistic world. There is immense potential to change minds in entertainment, because seeing diversity brought to life directly contradicts the hatred and fear of ignorant masses.

We need diversity in entertainment because we live in a time of change, and diverse art is both the cause and effect of this movement.

Top Ten Books that Celebrate Diversity

top ten tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week, they post a new Top Ten topic and other bloggers respond with their own lists. I take part in this meme when I have something to say for the topic and I remember what day it is.

I am getting really bad at posting these on Tuesday…

I have to admit something: I am not a diverse reader. Or at least, I am not a purposefully diverse reader. I’ve never gone out and searched for books that feature diversity. I buy books because of the plots they have, not necessarily who the characters are, but that unfortunately leaves me with a bookshelf dominated by straight, white protagonists.

I want to read books that have diverse characters but that are about something more than just what makes the character diverse. I wish there were more diversity-focused fantasy books. Basically, I am a white girl wishing she reading more diversely, so if you have recommendations, please send them my way.

1. Every Day by David Levithan

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I loved the simplicity with this book discussed the nature of sexuality and gender identity. The main character, A, wakes up in a different body every day, with the powers that be making no distinction between genders. As a character essentially removed from the idea of gender, A’s falling in love with a normal girl effortlessly challenges the idea that “gay” love is any different from “straight” love.

2. The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler

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Featuring an ethnic protagonist whose culture heavily influences her personality, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids separates itself from the contemporary pack with a plainspoken discussion of gender identity, trauma and healing, socioeconomic divides, and the meaning of voice.

3. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

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This book has everything. In terms of books I’ve read, this book “wins” diversity for me. It has a separate plot that stands on its own but perfectly showcases (and celebrates) diversity of all stripes.

4. Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught

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Featuring a schizophrenic protagonist, this novel humanizes mental illness while telling a sweet and compelling story.

5. Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig

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This book celebrates diversity in a slightly different way: by focusing on hate crimes. Atlanta, the badass protagonist, takes a stand against racial supremacy and homophobia (as well as animal cruelty) in this gritty and humorous read.

6. Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

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I haven’t read this book yet, but my sister told me to put it on the list. Historical fiction set in Ethiopia with Europe on the brink of WWII, the story focuses on the racial tensions of blacks and whites mingling during Mussolini’s occupation.

7. Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

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With a deaf protagonist taking over management of a high school band, this book tackles the social perceptions of disabled people from page one. A hilarious story that proves stories don’t have to have the perfect ending you would expect, Five Flavors of Dumb holds a special place in my heart.

8. More Than This by Patrick Ness

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A hauntingly unique exploration of death and reality, More Than This has a gay protagonist and back-up characters that bring racial and body image issues into the touching plot.

9. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Steifvater

Fantasy stories set in an urban world, The Raven Cycle brings together the pampered son of the uber rich with the scholarship student, the recovering abuse victim from a broken home, and feisty, ragtag girl protagonist who refuses to comply with society’s rules for young women. Later books deal with LGBT themes and issues of social classes.

10. For Darkness Shows the Stars and Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

Companion fantasy/dystopian novels, both of these books deal with societies with heavily entrenched class systems and characters trying to bridge the gaps created by them. They also explore mental illness, focusing on a fictional sickness called Reduction that bears similarities to autism.

What do you think? Have you read any of these books? Do you want to read them now?

Seeing these books that I enjoyed, do you have any others that you think I’d like? Please comment!

Book Review: Slash by Evan Kingston

This book surprised me with its stylistic writing and unique premise, but left me conflicted over the success of its execution.

3.5/5 stars

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 I received a copy of Slash from the author in exchange for an honest review. 

Author’s description of Slash:

Alex Bledsoe would rather die than reveal her secret crush. As a star of TV’s #1 family drama, she’s certain coming out of the closet would end her career. Worse still, her one true love is America’s hottest young actress, Lissa Blaine, who just happens to play her older, prettier, and smarter big sis each week on Koop’s Kitchen. So Alex hates Lissa too, wishes her dead every time she stumbles onto the tabloid covers with a Long-Island in hand and some new B-list beefcake on her arm.

Desperate for an outlet each night after filming wraps, Alex closes the shades on her trailer and reads slash stories on internet fan-fiction forums: trashy little tales written by viewers about an imagined romance between her character and Lissa’s. All unbelievable moans and trite whispers, the fantasies are so incestuously metafictional, Alex believes them best taken to her grave—until an anonymous author begins to post violent slash stories, and Alex’s lusty dreams start to open up graves of their own.

As Alex struggles to decide whether she is turned on or disturbed, Koop’s Kitchen’s real-life actors start dying in suspiciously similar scenes. Sure that the parallels are more than coincidence, she begins to search the stories for suspects and clues instead of steamy caresses. But as she works to catch the killer before he slashes again, Alex realizes that revealing the secrets she’d die to hide might be the only way to save the lives of everyone she loves.

Slash was originally released as seven “episodes” from 2013 to 2014, and has recently been released as a collected edition.

There was a lot to enjoy with this book. For me at least, the premise was outside of anything I’d really ever read before. I loved the way Kingston incorporated slash fan fiction. Fan fic is something that I’ve encountered the fringes of on the internet, but that I’ve never really gotten into, so it was interesting to see it play a significant role in a novel. The stories and the forum onto which they were posted felt realistic, as did the digs Kingston worked in about the writing quality of most fan fic, especially slash.

The reality TV angle of the book was fun to read. Koop’s Kitchen is a fascinating mixture of writers who want a platform to preach “family values” and network specialists determined to use scandal to score high ratings. I loved the subtle cynicism infused throughout the descriptions of filming the series and the Hollywood world in which the story takes place.

The mystery was compelling. The way the stories played out in real life worked well with the story, and I liked that all of the deaths were “suicides,” adding an extra level of confusion to the early episodes. Each “episode” essentially focuses on investigating a different suspect. I could usually tell that the main character, Alex, was jumping to the wrong conclusion as to who the killer was, but for the life of me, I had no idea who the murderer could be. The last episode, when everything starts to come together, still kept up the suspense and the surprises. In the end, I liked the resolution of the mystery and of the overall plot.

The characterization wasn’t overly complex, but it got the job done. I loved Perry, he was hilarious. By the end of the story, I had a clear sense of who each of the major characters were. I loved the way Kingston worked in each character’s backstory. The flashback style would have come off as clunky with a different story, but it actually really worked in Slash.

I’m on the fence about a few parts of the book.

Alex, the main character, is one of them. I can’t decide if I connected to her. Parts of her personality–her most basic fears, her feelings about acting and Koop’s Kitchen, her drive for the truth–were very compelling and relatable. I honestly wanted to like Alex. Though the ages of the characters put the book in the NA genre, Alex’s voice had a YA feel. I didn’t feel like this took away from the story at all, and it was nice to have the familiar narrative style in an unfamiliar genre.

When I picked up the first episode of Slash, my first thought about Alex was basically “wow this girl is screwed up.” I thought that Kingston was going for the broken protagonist, but in fact, he presented her personality in a way that I realized she wasn’t screwed up psychologically that much. She has issues, of course, and her addiction to slash is one of them, but Kingston presents them with no judgement in his tone or plot structure, so that you end up sympathizing with her as a struggling individual rather than looking at her as damaged goods. Especially with the subject matter Kingston decided to tackle, I appreciated the matter-of-fact-ness of his writing throughout the book, making sure that Slash avoided what could have had an overwhelmingly preachy tone.

However, there were other parts of her personality that I understood on a conceptual basis but that I never emotionally connected with, especially her love/obsession with Lissa.

You learn fairly early on that Lissa is…a bitch. I really didn’t like her, though the characterization that made me hate her was skillfully done. At times, Alex sort of admitted that Lissa’s personality sucked, but her obsession (and that is a fair word to use–even Alex admitted it) never wavered. Kingston did provide psychological reasons for this (which tied in to her fears/doubts about her sexuality), but I never emotionally believed them; I still felt like her obsession was shallow and unreasonable, and I couldn’t connect to it. If the psychology had been more clearly shown–instead of basically just told to the main character by other people–it might have been a very different story.

One part of the story that was different from what I expected was the darkness of the plot. From the synopsis provided, I got the impression that I was in store for a seriously dark and screwed up story (along the lines of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, which I read last year). In reality, the novel was a lot more mellow than I expected. Horrific things happened, sure, but most of them were told second-hand (much in the style of Macbeth, where someone runs off screen, dies, and some poor messenger has to relate the gruesome details). It wasn’t until the seventh and final episode that things got super horror-esque.

I was actually okay with this aspect of the plot. It was kind of nice to read a story that deals with dark topics and horror elements without throwing themselves headlong into scaring or scarring the reader.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the idea of reading horror but maybe isn’t ready for nightmare level plots. The story has a good amount of humor, characterization, and voice.  The writing is stylistically interesting and very readable–I breezed through the seven episodes in a few days of light reading. While there were specific areas of the execution that I feel missed the mark, the story in its entirety is definitely worth reading.