“People Like Us” by Dana Mele is a roller coaster ride from start to finish. The story begins with a headfirst dive into the lives of boarding school girls Kay, Brie, Tai, Maddy, and Tricia when it seems impossible to keep track of each of the different characters. At first, I had a hard time telling who was important and who I needed to remember. But down the road, I realized this was done intentionally and helped to submerge me further into the story. There isn’t any expository build-up, which might not normally not interest me. But it works incredibly well in this case, because by page three the girls find a body in a lake on their boarding school’s campus.
While I went in knowing that this was going to be a murder mystery, it was nothing like what I expected. From the back cover, we learn that our main character, Kay, is being harassed by a girl named Jessica Lane. I went into this book expected a scavenger hunt left behind by dead girl Jessica Lane — a la Hannah Baker of “13 Reasons Why” — but instead found myself in the midst of a true murder mystery. Good murder mysteries are hard to find in the world of young adult reading, but this one was well thought out. Each clue and new piece of evidence whirled the story forward, capturing me in its drama. I read a lot of murder mystery and find that I’m usually able to identify who the murderer is about halfway through the book. In “People Like Us”, I was unable to solve the mystery and often changed my opinions and ideas multiple times while trying to piece together the clues. Even within the last few pages, Mele continued to keep me guessing. Murder mysteries are often an epic climb to the climax of the final scene, leaving the reader to spend the entire novel waiting for the big finish. In the case of Mele’s novel, I enjoyed the journey and it more satisfying than the finale.
Mele does an amazing job of making the characters relatable and distinct. Each character seems to have their own unique story; they’re each struggling with something different from person-to-person, whether it be the loss of someone in their pasts, or their sexualities. The way Mele deals with sexuality is probably the best thing I’ve read all year, though. There are many bisexual and gay characters in “People Like Us” and it doesn’t feel like she’s trying to meet a quota. While I do greatly enjoy stories about LGBTQ characters and stories that are centered around their sexuality, I really, really love it when stories include gay characters without making the story about them being gay. Including gay characters in stories typically written with straight/cis characters (like murder mysteries) normalizes the inclusion of gay characters. Ultimately, doing this will lead to LGBTQ characters showing up in more places, like television, movies, and books. The more writers that do this, the more it will seem “normal” to have these characters around. I love nothing more than when I watch television or read a book and a character is LGBTQ. without it being a big deal. It reflects real life and normalizes LGBT people. We exist in real life; and we should exist in media, too.
Mele’s gay-inclusive murder mystery had me turning page after page until I reached the very end, only to leave me wanting more. More answers, more stories, more anything from Dana Mele.
“Summer Bird Blue” by Akemi Dawn Bowman – 5/5 Stars
“Summer Bird Blue” by Akemi Dawn Bowman is a young adult LGBTQ book that deals with the topic of asexuality at a young age. The novel revolves around a young girl named Rumi, struggling with the loss of her sister and best friend, Lea. Lea was always there for her sister; the two wrote music together; they talked about boys together; they were inseparable. And while there is only one brief scene of the two of them at the beginning, it’s easy to see the qualities they share and the love that they have as a family. Of course, this is not all we see of their relationship, as Lea appears many times in flashbacks both warm and heartbroken.
As the story progresses, we watch Rumi foray through the stages of grief. Shortly after Lea’s death, Rumi is shipped off to Hawaii to live with her Aunt. As many people would, Rumi takes to anger in this new environment, finding herself wanting to yell at anyone who tries to help her. Because she is a seventeen-year-old girl, and Dawn Bowman did a great job of painting her as a fiery angst filled teen who just wants her sister back, Rumi’s anger is relatable.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t expect much from this book. I picked it off a list at the mention of an asexual character. Asexuality is highly underrepresented in books and media; and I thought it would be an interesting read. What I got from the book, was so much more. Dawn Bowman does an excellent job at crafting a story where there isn’t much going on within the narrative. Rumi spends the summer on the island of Hawaii meeting new people and dealing with new experiences. There isn’t much of a story, and the arcs are all character-based. That being said, this book probably isn’t for someone mainly into adventures. But it is for someone liking character-driven stories with rich connections.
I fell in love with these characters, as seeing myself within them became easy — Rumi with her grief-based anger and her willingness to lash out at those around her, her confusion with attraction and sexuality; Kai with his troubled family and his uncertain future; Aunt Ani just trying to help out wherever she can. That’s not all of them. There were so many more amazing, detailed, well thought-out characters. I was impressed with each of them, as they all had such varying quirks and personalities. If anything, I would suggest reading “Summer Bird Blue” simply because of it’s amazing characters.
But the book is much more than that. Bowman’s novel reads almost as a stream of consciousness. Page-after-page, we listen in on Rumi’s thoughts and feelings. The great thing about the story is that we get to watch Rumi grow as a person, not only through her actions, but through her thoughts. She struggles with the idea of being able to play music again, and we get to witness her thought process as she overcomes this fear.
Then, of course, there’s her sexuality. “Summer Bird Blue” tackles a lot of tough issues within its pages. Dealing with the loss of a family member and figuring out one’s sexuality? It’s a lot; but the two plot lines meshed incredibly well together while also bringing to light sexualities that don’t often get a lot of attention. The storyline is focused mostly around Rumi’s possible asexuality (and yes, they actually say the words ‘asexual’ and ‘asexuality’ aloud in this book — amazing, right?) while also describing other orientations. They touch briefly on being aromantic and demisexual, something that a lot of other LGBTQ books never do.
I applaud Akemi Dawn Bowman in writing a book with such diverse, amazing characters. It isn’t something that I’ve seen before and it feels fresh and new, a feeling that is always amazing to have when reading a book.
The LGBTQ novel “Summer Bird Blue” is expected for release Sept. 11th, 2018 from Simon Pulse, the YA imprint of Simon & Schuster Publishing. You can preorder your copy here. It is recommended for ages 12 & up, specifically grades 7 through 9.
In their newest book, all this can be yours, from University of Hell Press, Isobel O’Hare tackles sexual assailants by using their own words against them.
While sexual assault is nothing new, the movements that thrusted into the spotlight in 2017 felt fresh, invigorated … liberated, even. #MeToo (co-opted from its creator Tarana Burke) came storming out the gate as many strong people came forward to say, “Time’s up!” to the men who had assaulted them and effectively tried to ruin their careers.
A survivor of sexual assault, queen and gender non-binary femme poet and essayist Isobel O’Hare (pronouns they/them/their) felt a rage-fire burning inside their stomach, and took to the page to begin their catharsis to quell the feelings that the movement churned inside of them. O’Hare (who was a generally known name in the literary community even before their erasure poetry took on the likes of Weinstein, Spacey, Takei, Piven and many other sexual assailants) couldn’t have anticipated what would happen the day they took some print-outs of the statements released by these men after allegations arose against them and began to Sharpie them into what they really were.
Erasure poetry, for those unfamiliar, is a form of found poetry in which a writer blacks or whites out words from an original text in order to create a new text. In this case, O’Hare was erasing just enough to show what these “apologies” actually were—bullshit excuses. And before long, people in the lit community began to notice, sharing them across social media until the actual media got their hands on O’Hare’s work—publicizing it high and low. In the published collection of these erasure poems, all this can be yours, O’Hare admits that they weren’t sure what to make of the attention, and that they didn’t always love it. Still, what O’Hare had done was speaking to people. So much so, in fact, that they were extended an offer to collect the poems into a book by University of Hell Press, set to be released next month.
Much like O’Hare themself, the book holds nothing back. Opening with a foreword entitled catalyst, Isobel delves directly into what brought them to take on the task of creating this art. They say,
“I was exhausted by the constant revelations of abuse by men in positions of power, and I found myself avoiding social media for weeks at a time because it was too painful to read …”
From there, they tell the story of how the statements they read were riddled with parts to be criticized, and how they simply “grabbed a Sharpie and went to work.” But for better or for worse, that’s exactly what the book doesn’t feel like it ever was—work. That’s not to diminish what was surely an exhausting amount of time an energy that O’Hare surely put into this collection. There’s no doubt that they were exhausted not only physically and mentally, but emotionally, as well. It is to say, however, that O’Hare’s poise and poignant power to embolden the words that matter in these pieces feel somehow natural—as if they knew exactly what they were doing even before they began.
The book is separated into three major sections (apology, apologia, and in conclusion) with apology being broken down into subsections (a question I run from, a culture of demons, I recall differently, and She never said no), each subtitle taken from a separate “apology” letter with poems that are categorically connected to one another. And while each erasure goes without the name of the assailant in question, reading through allows the readers just enough sight of the original text beneath the Sharpie to figure out who the statements came from. O’Hare explained their decision to leave the names out by stating that the men in question are not the overarching problem, but that rape, abuse, and harassment extend far beyond just this handful of assholes by name. In doing so, O’Hare eviscerates the limits of who their poetry can reach—who can relate to it—who can understand. By eliminating the Hollywood elitist titles, O’Hare has created a tome that can be empathized with by all victims of assault—women, men, non-binary, cis, trans, black, white, and everything in between.
In a question I run from, Isobel organizes their poems as if the assailant in question (this entire section composed of varying poems crafted from the same statement by the same man) is not making an argument for himself that better maps out the transgressions that have come to pass. Rather, they landscape the truth of what this man has said—how his obsession with his own phallus has hypnotized him so that he cannot even form a proper method of amends without bringing it up. Each poem, beginning with just the words my dick runs the original narrator in circles with him never making a point. Instead, the poems create a pastiche of illustrations of just how phallocentric and power-obsessed this man is and has always been. More so, in the poem your dick, O’Hare brings about a chilling reminder that this man is a manifestation of all sexual predators simply by saying, “my dick is your dick.”
In a culture of demons, O’Hare spins these “apologies” into something more accurately articulated—flippancy for bad behavior and a lack of accountability on the part of the assailants. O’Hare even shows how laden some statements even are with the desire to be forgiven, simply because the accused doesn’t wish to suffer damage to their career and reputation rather than from actual remorse. I recall differently is similar, but takes the words of these men—usually notes about how they are innocent rather than an attempt at taking responsibility for their actions—and reduces them to the honest male fragility under attack that they really are. It’s the point in the book where anger and rage beget feminism, as readers will see that nothing in the statements are really more than what O’Hare has laid out: femme-shaming. Each poem questions the integrity of the stories told by the women who have come forward simply for no other reason than that the victims are, in fact, women. In a series of consecutive poems, reusing the phrase “these women,” O’Hare lets misogyny take center stage, at last, to prove that what these assailants are is nothing less than male chauvinists using an eons-old culture of shaming women into submission to try to plead their cases.
Things get particularly interesting in She never said no, which I found to be the most chilling part of the entire collection. For it’s here that O’Hare concisely lets the true statements shine: a lack of women declining to have sex, whether from fear, or shock, or drugs, or any other reason. Here, in this very short portion of the book, O’Hare deals with why not saying no does not equal consent.
“We tend to think so much in binaries that we point at victims and ask why they didn’t fight or flee, because we believe those are the only instinctual responses to a threat. There is, in fact, another response that might be more prevalent in cases of sexual assault than in the presence of any other threat: the freeze response.”
The last part of the book, apologia, takes the responses of other notable names to the accusations—one of which was even that of a very influential woman who stated that maybe women should accept some of the blame. And by erasing these statements, O’Hare has highlighted the ignorance and the ability that exist in many to be persuaded to say what may help one keep their social standing, or what one truly and quite stupidly believes to be true.
Alas, the poetry alone is beautiful, but it’s O’Hare imploring that we recognize that their book is just one part of a much larger mosaic that really polishes it. O’Hare knows that they are not the face of this revolution, and they acknowledge that more than once in catalyst. O’Hare—a white, queer, non-binary femme—writes in extraordinary verbiage that they are aware that their experience with sexual assault is different from that of so many other, especially those in the trans community and that of women of color. And in doing so, O’Hare finds a correlation to their own life against this collage of poetry: that they are not entirely represented, either. O’Hare states that being non-binary, they felt a certain distance from the issue. But as the saying goes, “Nevertheless they persisted.” In acknowledging that they are not the voice of the movement, O’Hare has broadened the availability of to so many who haven’t had an outlet for their grief, anger, and disgust before. They write, “I do not claim to be the voice of a movement, and I wouldn’t want to be.” But that’s just the thing: Isobel isn’t the voice—they are, in fact, one of the standing microphones at the edge of the stage that are allowing other survivors to come forth and say, “We aren’t taking this bullshit anymore.” They’re valiantly fighting the good fight, but knowing that they aren’t doing so alone—knowing that there are others, alike and unlike, that have experienced similar tragedy and emotions. And, in doing so, O’Hare has pieced together what may just be one of the most powerful pieces of art our generation will see. Certainly it is one of the most beautiful that will come from this movement; and it is so because Isobel isn’t trying to save the world—they’re creating more seats at the table for a much larger revolution to come.
all this can be yours is nothing short of a masterpiece, and the reading list that accompanies it with pieces by many black, queer, and feminist writers is well worth further investigating. O’Hare is a lone fire on a very cold island where, unfortunately, too many people who have suffered the same tragedy have been forced to exist. However, with their warmth and perseverance, Isobel—like the fire they are—is bringing comfort to those who have gone so long without it.
“I swear, people can’t wrap their minds around the concept of a fat girl who doesn’t diet. Is it that hard to believe I might actually like my body?”
Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli is the bisexual story I have always wanted to read. Not that I knew it existed until a few weeks ago, or even know that I needed it in my life before then. But now that I’ve read it, it’s like it was something I’ve been missing. If you liked the first book in this series, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, or it’s movie counterpart, Love, Simon, you will love this book. It focuses on Simon’s best friend, Leah Burke, who is confident in her sexuality. She’s bisexual; and from the very beginning we know this to be true. She has only told one person, her mother. Leah spends her senior year struggling with college applications, prom dates, and crushes. Leah has never been kissed, so when a friend of hers asks her to prom, she finds herself feeling obligated to go with him. It’s clear that this isn’t really what she wants. She has her heart set on someone else, even if she doesn’t know it yet.
“It has to be easier for people with penises. Does this person get you hard? Yes? Done. I used to think boners literally pointed in the direction of the person you’re attracted to, like a compass.”
This book keeps you laughing on every page. Leah’s hilarious narration makes real life situations more interesting. I always found myself relating to her inner-monologue. She says what we’re all thinking. She calls people out when they deserve it and is the modern-day hero we’ve been looking for. She’s also human, she has flaws. She easily lets her feelings get the best of her. The story begins with Leah’s disinterest in a girl that used to be her friend. A girl upon who she develops a crush. A straight girl. When things don’t turn out the way she wants them to, she gets angry and defensive. The teenage angst is so relatable (we’ve all been there). It’s easy to get angry when someone doesn’t (or is incapable of) liking you back. But, this book isn’t just about Leah and her crush. It’s about all relationships. Leah struggles to come to terms with her mother’s relationship and we get to see more of Simon and Bram together, who are just as cute as they were in the first book.
“…That’s why bi girls exist, Garrett. For your masturbatory fantasies.”
Leah and the Offbeat, while focusing mainly on Leah’s sexuality, isn’t only about that. It’s about so much more. Leah is so much more than just a bisexual. She’s funny, smart and has a huge attitude. I loved watching her grow as a person throughout the book.
I’m a sucker for a good romance so I was dying to know how everything would unfold. I couldn’t put it down. There were some slow parts of the novel; but there weren’t any scenes where I was bored. Everything that was in the book was important. Nothing was there just to fill up the pages. It’s well written and the story flows nicely together.
“You’re not fat. You look amazing. Because fat is the opposite of amazing. Got it.”
This is the most honest high school story I have ever read. I always felt like I was witnessing real conversations, like I was hearing them in passing in the high school hallway. Everything about this book is very authentic. It was easy to get lost in the story. Leah, especially, is very real. She reacts like any moody teenage girl would and I could easily picture her being a real person. She is three-dimensional and much more than just her sexuality. Leah is a character I have definitely fallen in love with.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Leah on the Offbeat. From the first page, I knew it would be a good read. It started off with a bang and held my interest the entire time. I would definitely recommend this book.