Book: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

"Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda"

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly-gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an e-mail falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been e-mailing with, will be jeopardized.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his e-mail correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year had suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out–without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

Would you believe it took a movie trailer to sell me on Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda? That said, I wasn’t even aware about this book’s existence until I saw the trailer. I really should schedule more trips to the bookstore. Then again, I should finish the books that are still waiting to be read first.

But first, let’s talk about the book that I have read:

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a good book; it’s well-written, well-paced, and the characters are not caricatures. Then again, that’s a given–the book did win an award from the American Library Association. So it also shouldn’t be a surprise that the book is all kinds of great.

Not just one kind. All kinds.

See: LGBT stories are not usually for everyone. Yes, a lot of us can relate to the feeling of being alone, of being different, or being excluded–but at the end of it all, we don’t have the same problems. We don’t need to come out or have to endure taunts, teases, and bullying. But what’s great about this particular book is that, while it has the taunts, and teases, and bullying–it also has something that other LGBT stories struggle with: a dilemma that non-LGBT people can relate with. In this case: risking a possible happy ending to do what is right.

Simon is a not-so-openly gay teenager who is in love with someone still in the closet. That’s not something cis teens have to worry about–not even when they partners are of a different race, or a different age group. But the genius behind this book is in its premise: a teenager risk ruining a potential happily-ever-after by standing up to his blackmailer.

If you take out Simon’s gender preference, the story still holds. Sure, you’re still going to be reading about a gay teenager and his life–but the core emotion that pushes the story forward: that of wanting a happy ending and the fear of losing it is not gender-specific. It’s something that speaks to everyone. And that’s brilliant.

I loved the parents that Author Becky Albertalli gave our protagonist. They’re fun, but they also know when to draw the line. They’re a little too ideal, sure, but who wants to read about kids fighting with their parents? If the main premise revolved around that, why not–but when you’re reading a love story that has nothing to do with parental approval, adding a layer of disapproving parents can get pretty exhausting.

Simon, the character, can get infuriating at times. But I think that’s by design. He’s imperfect, marred by lack of experience and self-awareness–and it’s one of the reasons why he falls into the blackmailer’s hands in the first place, and the book addresses this.

His sexuality is treated as a matter of fact; there are no explorations, no questioning, and debating– The book establishes his homosexuality as a norm and quickly moves on to the premise of the novel: which is the blackmail, and Simon not wanting to lose his happy ending.

Honestly, reading Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is very refreshing. Sure, it still tackles characters having to come out, but other than that–it reads like other young adult romance novels. Two people fall in love, a problem presents itself, and a challenge is overcome for them to end up together. It’s an LGBT book that treats the LGBT like they should be treated: normally.

So I’m definitely putting this book on my list of recommended readings. And I’m also definitely looking forward to watching how it gets adapted into a movie. Because the trailer, as I already mentioned, is so good it got me to buy the book its movie is based on.

Book: How I Paid for College

"How I Paid for College"

It’s 1983 in Wallingford, New Jersey, a sleepy bedroom community outside Manhattan. Seventeen-year-old Edward Zanni, a feckless Ferris Bueller type, is Peter Panning his way through a carefree summer of magic and mischief. The fun comes to a halt, however, when Edward’s father remarries and refuses to pay for Edward to study acting at Julliard. So Edward turns to his misfit friends to help him steal the tuition money from his father. Disguising themselves as nuns and priests, Edward and his friends merrily scheme their way through embezzlement, money laundering, identity theft, forgery, and blackmail. But along the way, Edward also learns the value of friendship, hard work, and how you’re not really a man until you can beat up your father–metaphorically, that is.

How can you not pick up a book with a subtitle saying “a Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater?” The moment I laid eyes on the book, I knew I was going to pick it up, buy it, and love it.

And I did all three.

Edward Zanni is as zany as a character who loves musical theater can get. And although he can be a bit much… Okay, a lot much… sometimes, his character is still vulnerable enough that you can’t help but root for him. Which, I feel, is very important when writing a very flawed protagonist. (I’m looking at you, Sutter Feely.)

That said, I don’t think I would have liked this book as much as I did if it weren’t for the ensemble. Edward is surrounded by an amazing group of supporting characters who make his misadventures fun and never cringe-worthy. From the vivacious Paula who, surprisingly, is the most scrupulous of their merry band, to Kelly who is just full of surprises; from Doug, the jock who keeps breaking stereotype, to Natie, the budding criminal mastermind. And Ziba. The most understated character who underlines the exact reason why this book is different from all the other young adult coming-of-age novels that are out right now.

How I Paid for College doesn’t hold back from the fears, the mistakes, the fuck-ups, and the sexual confusion of teenage years. They’re all here, and they’re all presented without fanfare or big build-ups to epiphany. The novel doesn’t rely on the formula of what a coming-of-age novel is supposed to be, because real life doesn’t follow any guidelines–so when we hit the emotional beats? They’re all the more relatable.

But what I love most about the novel is how it doesn’t try to make readers cry. Throughout the heartaches and the hardships, Edward Zanni remains true to the character he’s associated with: the Ferris Bueller type mentioned in the book blurb. He cannot be unhappy. He cannot be caught crying. So when it does finally happen, he’s experiencing a breakthrough that is also shared with the viewers.

It feels earned.

And then, although already implausible, the novel grants what anyone living in a musical world needs in their stories: an outrageous happy ending. And yet it works. And it’s the perfect end to the whole affair.

And now I can’t help but rave about the novel. It’s definitely something anyone who loves the world of theater, and who has been a part of theater, will enjoy. Marc Acito wrote a gem of a story that’s truly entertaining and, although set in the 80s, still relevant.

Now, if only he had done the same for Allegiance

Book: Displaced

"Displaced"

“SPACE.
When Elay’s
Nanay
decided
to pack her bags,
board the airplane,
and fly back
to Manila,

TIME.
Elay’s glorious hours of
guitar-playing,
exam-flunking,
Facebook-viewing,
iPod-listening,
Justin-daydreaming
slowly
decreased
to
zero.

FORCE.
The harder she struggled
to return to how things were,

DISPLACEMENT
the greater the forces
that took her farther.

Displaced is a little unconventional as coming-of-age novels go. For one thing, the story is told through poetry– A genius move, in my opinion, that’s also very frustrating.

Poetry is a genre that leaves a lot to reader interpretation. Each line cut, each extra space, has a meaning to the writer that may not mean the same for the reader. Which is why I think it’s genius that author Aneka Rodriguez uses this medium to tell her story of adolescence–that confusing point in time when every little thing can make or break relationships.

We all have our own set of experiences when it comes to growing up, to falling in love; we all have different relationships with our parents, with our guardians, and with the families we chose to surround ourselves with. And Displaced tries to capture our feelings as it tries to tell its story. Especially when you read it out loud. Every change in how you pause, in how you cut off every line– It tells a different story each time.

Which brings me to my frustration.

Displaced is the story of every one told through the story of one person. Although I feel that the format is genius, it doesn’t change the fact that the story itself isn’t special. It relies too much on how you read it to make it something more than what it is.

The thing is, I don’t know what else one can do to make this novel something more than just a novelty. The premise is sound, but not special. And I’m left with a dilemma where I don’t want to put down a good book–but I don’t know how to promote it because, aside from the poetry, there’s really nothing to make it stand out from other releases.

But here’s where you can help.

There’s a comment section below. If you’ve read this book, tell me (and the others who have stumbled upon this blog) why Displaced is a must-read. What other things, aside from its form, sets it apart? Let’s have a discussion.

Book: Shine

"Shine"

This is not a ghost story, thought there are plenty of ghosts in it.

And it’s not a horror story, though some people might be horrified.

It’s not a monster story either, though there is a monster in it. And that monster happens to be me.

I fell in love with Candy Gourlay’s writing with Tall Story. Unlike so many writers, she was able to marry her Filipino heritage with her England setting in such a way that it didn’t feel forced. Maybe because she never lost sight of how her story is about siblings who just happen to be Filipino. In her new book, though, I think Gourlay struggles with the made-up town of Mirasol. And I blame the story’s reliance on superstition and flashbacks.

In Shine, the author takes us to a town where people believe in monsters; and introduces us to Rosa, a girl made to believe that she was a monster because of a birth defect. The first chapter sets up this new world beautifully. And then, in the second chapter, it all goes to pieces. Mostly because there are three stories running simultaneously, and only one of them is handled well.

Plot number one: who you are versus who you say you are.

The most interesting premise of the book, I feel, is its plot about Rosa wanting to be seen as normal. And in a town where people are afraid of her because of how she looks and how she sounds, her only solace is the world wide web. A world where she can be whoever she wishes to be. A world where her looks won’t matter.At least, not at first.

Gourlay is a master at building up the suspense of Rosa making a friend online, and discovering that he lives in the same town as her. The friendship that grows between the two feels realistic, as well as they’re need to make actual physical contact. Unfortunately, this is where the ball gets dropped when it comes to their storyline.

The plight of Rosa’s friend is supposed to mirror hers. And it does that. But it also undermines everything that we were made to believe about Rosa’s town of Mirasol. Because the town painted to Rosa by her father and her nanny seems to discriminate against everyone with Rosa’s defect. And yet gives her friend a pass–until such time when the plot needs for him to be noticed.

Plot number two: who you are versus who you think you are.

Throughout the book, we are told the story of Rosa’s mother and her twin sister. Girls who are alike in so many ways–except one has a physical defect that forces her to stay at home. Making her envious of the twin who can leave the house. While making the non-defective twin envious of the girl who gets to spend more time with their parents, their loved one. The one who gets more, because she has less.

I liked this plot best because there is a clear progression of where the characters begin, of how they handle their problems, and of where they end up in their journey. And I love how none of the characters are purely good. They are human. They make mistakes. And they do their best to make the most of what they have.

Plot number three: who you are versus who you want to forget.

Interspersed between Rosa’s need to have a friend, and the story of how her mother met her father and lost a twin, is Rosa’s need to find closure for her mother’s death. And her obsession in seeing her mother’s ghost. But when the ghost does arrive, I feel like Gourlay doesn’t really know where to take the story.

So we get the mother’s twin instead.

The monster’s twin who is in love with Rosa’s father.

And, this is unclear, who might also be the reason why Rosa’s father won’t pack his things up, to move Rosa to somewhere where she won’t be judged. Where she can be normal.

Yeah, I don’t really understand this part. I get that Rosa’s father is a man who cares for people, but at the risk of his own daughter’s safety? The daughter who was almost killed by the superstitious folks of Mirasol? If I were the dad, I would’ve packed up my things and moved as soon as that happened.

It’s this plot that’s really bringing this book down for me.

That said, I do think the book’s great writing outweigh my concerns about the story. Shine is an engaging read, and it does bring up good points about image, and how perception plays a part into our lives. I just wish author Gourlay handled some parts of the book better than she did.

But, as always, don’t just take my word on this. Check out what other people have to say about Shine:
Love Reading 4 Kids
The Book Bag
What’s Good to Do

Book: The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had

"The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had"

The last thing Harry ‘Dit’ Sims expects when Emma Walker comes to town is to become friends. Proper-talking, brainy Emma doesn’t play baseball or fish too well; but she sure makes Dit think, especially about the differences between black and white. But soon Dit is thinking about a whole lot more when the town barber, who is black, is put on trial for a terrible crime. Together, Dit and Emma come up with daring plan to save him from the unthinkable.

I’m a little on the fence about this one.

I do like the book. And by that, I mean I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. But now, trying to put down into words why I like the book? I… I can’t. I mean, the characters are standard, the events are commonplace…

Maybe it was the innocence.

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had is set in a time where racism isn’t politically incorrect. It’s an accepted fact. Although, let’s be real, racism is alive and well today still. Thing is, here, no one looks away when it happens. African-Americans are supposed to take it, look down, and just move away.

But it’s been a couple of generations since the emancipation. The children in this story are no longer aware of what happened in the civil war. Most of them have been raised with Africa-America neighbors, and while racism is unapologetic, the children doesn’t really know where it stems from. They’re slurs. Insults. It’s the adults in the story who are more caught up in the implications of inter-racial friendship, of an African-American girl headlining a school play from the white school.

The book’s main draw is friendship. It’s a simple enough theme that children of all ages can relate to it. But underneath the story of a boy’s realization that girls can be as cool as his male friends, that the girl he thought would become a hindrance is actually teaching him more about himself, is the politically-charged tension between the whites and the African-Americans.

The synopsis tells us that Dit and Emma have to come up with a daring plan to save an African-American from the unthinkable. It’s the why they have to that will surprise you.

Innocence makes one question the whys of the world, but it is also this innocence that gets us into trouble. And author Kristin Levine manages to weave a magical story about the importance of questioning, of crossing boundaries, and of growing up with our childhood innocence intact.

Check out what other people have written about The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had:
Kids Reads
Sprout’s Bookshelf
Rated Reads