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Book Review: That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston

Publisher’s description

ra6Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendent of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history. The imperial tradition of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage. But before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer of freedom and privacy in a far corner of empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process.

Set in a near-future world where the British Empire was preserved not by the cost of blood and theft but by the effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

that inevitableEvery so often a book will come along that I read and want to review to help promote it, but all I really want to say is “SO GOOD. GO READ IT.” Usually that’s because there is so much that happens in the plot and so many revelations and I don’t want to spoil anything—I just want to direct people to the book so we can freak out together.

THAT INEVITABLE VICTORIAN THING IS SO GOOD. GO READ IT.

Okay. I’ll attempt to do better than that.

Like history? Like alternative histories? Set in the near future? That feature multiethnic and LGBTQIA+ characters? Then this book is for you. I will admit that it took me a good 50 pages to really get into the story. The slow start was, for me, mostly just figuring out and remembering who the characters were, what their relationships were to each other, and what this new version of the world looked like. The story really picks up as it goes on, and about 1/3 of the way through, a detail is revealed that makes every relationship in the story all the more interesting.

If you’ve ever read any of other Johnston’s other books, you know she excels at world-building and at crafting dynamic characters, and this book is no exception to that. Margaret, Helena, and August are complicated people trying to figure out their path forward while realizing they all need to reevaluate their futures as events of this monumental summer unfold. And while the interplay and movement of various relationships satisfy, it is the relationship between Margaret and Helena that truly shines.

If you don’t want to know anything more about this book because you plan to read it, this is a good time to stop reading this review, particularly if don’t want to know more about the main relationships in the book.

 

Still here? Hi.

 

When Helena logs in to the Computer to find out more about her genetics and her matches, she sees a detail, previously unknown to her, that stops her in her tracks: Helena has XY chromosomes. She’s not immediately sure exactly what this means, but she does think that perhaps this may change things with August, who she has always planned to marry, knowing he wants a big family. Then there’s the fact that she’s chatting on the -gnet with someone—Helena has logged on as a boy (because of the XY thing; it is only later that she comes to know the term “intersex” and begins to understand herself better), calling herself Henry. The person she is chatting with, her genetic match, is also using an alias. She’s actually using multiple aliases.

Just when it seems like things could not get more convoluted, everything starts to fall into place. The characters begin to see the possibilities of their new paths, including a plan that may give all three main characters what they want in life.

 

This clever, smart, and romantic story is a fantastic exploration of identities, futures, and obligations. Readers who push through the somewhat slow start to the story will be swept up in this interesting near-future world and likely surprised by the resolution the three young adults settle on. Richly imagined and completely compelling. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

 

ISBN-13: 9781101994979
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 10/03/2017

Book Review: None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

In I. W. Gregorio’s None of the Above, things are going pretty well for 18-year-old Krissy. She’s headed to State on a sports scholarship, has been dating Sam for 5 months, and always has her lifelong two best friends, Vee and Faith, by her side. We’re introduced to her on the morning of Homecoming. That night, she and Sam are voted Queen and King. It’s hard to tell who’s more surprised, Krissy, who never considered she would win or Vee, who assumed she would win.

 

After leaving the dance, Krissy and Sam get their limo driver to park them somewhere secluded. They try to have sex for the first time. Try. Krissy is in agony. They try a little more, but there’s just no way it’s going to happen. Later, while talking to Vee about it—and leaving out all the details about the pain and the repeated attempts—they discuss Krissy going to see an ob-gyn, just to be safe. She isn’t worried she’s somehow pregnant, but is worried about HPV. Her mother died of cervical cancer and Krissy knows the vaccine isn’t foolproof.

 

Her appointment at the doctor reveals that she believes Krissy has androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), an intersex condition. Krissy has no uterus, has never gotten her period (which she’s always chalked up to her intense running), has a very short vagina, no cervix, and two small hernias that house testicles. That’s a lot to process. Further tests confirm her doctor’s diagnosis. Krissy doesn’t know what to make of this. While explaining it, her doctor says that she is what some people call a hermaphrodite, which she goes on to say is an antiquated term. Krissy is reeling from her new diagnosis. So is her father. Krissy doesn’t know if this means she’s really a girl still, if this changes everything, if a surgery and some medical interventions will help her feel right again. It is, undoubtedly, a lot to process. And that’s what this whole book is about—processing this news.

 

Krissy’s dad, though thrown for a loop, is supportive and spends hours researching. He finds a support group for her, which puts her in touch with other young women with AIS. She doesn’t know how, or what, she will tell Sam or her friends. At a party she confesses everything to Vee (and a drunken Faith who doesn’t register any of it). It doesn’t take long before the whole school knows. And, as you might expect, people are horrible to her. She’s called names, her locker is vandalized, she’s vilified on social media, and Sam is disgusted. He won’t talk to her. He hurls insults at her. It’s just too much. The guidance counselor eventually helps her get set up for homebound learning for a while. But it’s not all terrible. As Krissy works to figure out what this means for her life, she makes some new friends, including school friends who were mostly just casual acquaintances until now. She struggles with figuring out what life holds for her now, but she is loved, she is supported, and she is hopeful.

 

Gregorio, a surgeon in addition to being a writer, has filled the book with lots of medical info about AIS, explaining it is just one of many intersex conditions. Everything that Krissy learns about causes, surgeries, hormones, vaginal dilators, support groups, and more we also learn. The reactions of her friends, family, coach, and classmates are varied—there’s plenty of support to temper the awful things people are saying and doing to her. Overall, I found this to be a sensitive and very thorough look at the life of one intersex teen. Krissy asks a lot of questions and either finds the answers through her research or comes around to answers on her own.

 

Gregorio’s author’s note emphasizes that there is no one intersex story. She discusses her choice to use the word “hermaphrodite,” too. She offers lists of websites, fiction with intersex characters, and articles for further reading. This is an essential purchase for all libraries. Gregorio’s book is a very welcome addition to the small field of books depicting intersex teens.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read it already or read it soon. Find me on Twitter @CiteSomething.

 

For other intersex experiences see:

Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall

Pantomime by Laura Lam

Shadowplay by Laura Lam

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
ISBN-13: 9780062335319
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 4/7/2015

Book review: Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman

“Alex is with me. The other Alex. I am Alex as well. We are the two Alexes. I guess that’s confusing for a lot of people. Sometimes it’s confusing for me too.”

 

When we first meet Alex we know a few things. Alex has stopped taking some medicine recently. Alex is getting a makeover. Alex’s dad left last night, which Alex says was “100 percent because of me.” And Alex is actually two Alexes.

 

Born intersex and raised as a boy (I was going to say “assigned male at birth” but that’s complicated and I’ll address that later), Alex now understands that she’s a girl. The Alex who narrates the story is this Alex, the girl, but we also meet Alex the boy, who’s always lurking around, ready to make a sarcastic remark or blurt something out. The dual voices within the same person took a little getting used to, but each Alex has a very distinct persona, so before long it was easier to distinguish them. (For the sake of confusion, let’s just assume that if I say Alex, I’m talking about the girl who is narrating unless I indicate otherwise, okay? And Alex often says “us” and “we” when referring to both parts of herself, so there’s that, too.)

 

Alex enrolls in a new school, filling out her form: Alexandra, age 14, female. She hopes a new school will give her a chance to start over. She doesn’t tell her parents about this move. Both Alexes indicate that their mother is unstable. Boy Alex calls her a “nutbag.” Alex says she’s “mental.” Prone to fits of yelling, rolling on the floor, and blaming Alex, she is pretty much a clueless nightmare. No wonder Alex doesn’t look to any parental support or advice when she decides to change schools. But there’s just one problem: Alex needs a birth certificate to complete her enrollment. Because that certificate says she’s a boy, and she’s enrolling as a girl, it presents a problem.

 

Alex seeks legal advice on her own, going to a lawyer called Crockett to find out how to get a new birth certificate. In him, she finds an unlikely ally, one who goes on to play a larger role in the story as he tries to help her get the new certificate as well as some other significant choices Alex makes. That’s the gist of the story: Alex would like to have her gender legally reassigned so she can start living her life as a girl. A lot of stuff happens long the way. The plot is not enormous, but the things said to her, by her, and about her make the story very, very loaded.

 

Alex’s thoughts about herself and her past are complicated. Boy Alex refers to her dressing as a girl as a fetish. Alex refers to herself as a “transgender freak.” She thinks of herself as “beautiful/ugly,” says people look at her with fascination and loathing. She uses the word “deformed” when thinking about herself. She is not kind to herself in her thoughts, almost unrelentingly saying things along these lines. Alex thinks she will never be happy, no matter what. She thinks in very simplistic and stereotyped terms about what boys do versus what girls do (like blurting something out in class is a “boy thing,” and now that she’s a girl it’s okay to be incompetent with tools).

 

But nothing Alex says or does can be as horrible as what her mother puts her through. Her mother, Heather, is horrible. She tells Alex, “You’re killing me, you little pervert.” She posts on a web forum about motherhood, revealing that Alex was born “sexually ambiguous.” Born with a small penis, no testes, and ovaries, Alex was on hormones from young up to help her be male. And—oh lord—Alex had a birth certificate that said she was female until she was 6 months old, at which point her parents got it changed. Alex’s parents took to her lots of doctor’s appointments, kept a log of her behaviors and preferences, and tried to ignore anything that indicated maybe they hadn’t made the right choice. To his credit, her father wanted to stop the appointments and explain to Alex how she was born and what was going on. Heather shares in these posts that she doesn’t think she loves Alex, who she refers to 95% of the time as “him.” She’s angry and feels Alex suddenly just decided to become a girl—it’s just a phase, he’s just confused, she says. And remember, all of this is being posted on website.

 

We’ve all read comments online, right? Imagine the most frustratingly clueless, offensive, ridiculous comments you can think of. With the exception of two frequent commenters, Heather’s posts are given support and encouragement in completely not helpful ways. Things like, “If you’d made him a girl she would have wanted to be a boy. He’s a teenager. This is what they do,” or, “The home is not a democracy. The adults have to make the decisions.” The smallest part of me thought, okay, she’s struggling to understand what’s happening. Yes, she’s known all along that Alex is intersex, and none of this can be a total surprise to her. That doesn’t forgive the hateful, disgusting things she says or writes. And that teeny tiny bit of trying to be forgiving goes right out the door for good when she reveals that she’s found ways to still make Alex, unbeknownst to her, get her hormone supplements.

 

Alex’s dad is not as actively unsupportive—in fact, I think he’s well on his well to understanding and being able to offer the love and support Alex needs. After all, he’s the one who has been advocating for honesty and transparency all along. But he’s not given much time to show up in the novel. And even though he seems like her most likely ally, even he refers to her as a “weirdo.” Ouch.

 

Alex doesn’t have any friends from her old school and has a few very superficial friendships with people at her new school. The most supportive person in her life is Crockett, a relative stranger who is trying to help Alex, though I’m not always sure it’s in her best interests.

 

All of these things combine to send some troubling messages about life as an intersex teen. No real parental love or  support (and active hate from Heather), no real friends, no real positive feelings about herself… I spent a lot of the book shaking my head and cringing at the messages all of these things are sending.

 

And then there’s the fairly unrealistic side plot about Alex instantly becoming a sought-after model. It seemed too speedy and coincidental to be believable. In fact, a lot of the book just didn’t ring true, from Alex so easily enrolling and getting to stay at a school despite not having the proper paperwork to Crockett’s utter willingness to help her for free, to the extreme twists with her family situation and the abrupt ending.

 

In the end, I didn’t really enjoy this book. I found the overall tone off-putting. I didn’t like Alex, but I don’t even care about that. I don’t need to like a character for me to like a book or find it interesting/smart/compelling. The power of the many voices of hatred and disgust, including Alex’s own, weren’t tempered by other more positive support or thoughts. The odd choice for Alex to be split into two parts—a distinctive boy part and a girl part—reinforces binary ideas, as does the gender role stereotyping that Alex embraces. There are many smaller problems too—Alex’s description of her new friends (particularly Amina, who’s Somali and Muslim) as “exotic,” the predatory attitude that boy Alex has (and that Alex herself embraces at certain points), the treatment of possible mental health issues… I have pages of notes of places where I just felt like, NO. This isn’t working.

 

I really wanted to like this for a lot of reasons. It’s Australian, and to be honest I think this is the first Aussie YA book I have ever read that I haven’t loved. Alex as an intersex character is filling an important gap in YA. But she’s presented is in such a negative light that I feel like if I gave this book to someone to read, I’d also want to give them every other book about intersex characters I could find. I finished the book feeling it somehow felt dated, despite being new, and wonder about the research that went into it, and the motivations behind painting such a harshly negative picture of what life as an intersex teen might mean. It’s not that I expect books to be filled with supportive and loving characters, or that I feel books are obligated to present any kind of message, period, much less one of hopefulness or positivity. But I just find so much about this title troubling.

 

I’ll be curious to start hearing feedback about it as its release date is today. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read it already or read it soon. Find me on Twitter @CiteSomething.

 

For other intersex experiences see:

Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall

Pantomime by Laura Lam

Shadowplay by Laura Lam

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

Forthcoming title: None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio (April 7, 2015)

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF NETGALLEY
ISBN-13: 9781627790147
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date: 1/20/2015