Posts by booksoverlookedblog

Part time writer, full time bad-ass who enjoys dissecting pop culture and flying planes with no engines.

Trans Discrimination in School Sports

This blog has long since talked about social issues, typically as they relate to books. While it is unlike me to use this blog for such blatant soapboxing as this, I’ve recently had an uptick in my traffic here. I want to use this as an opportunity to talk about something important to me: the wave of anti-trans legislation, coming to a school near you.

On June 1st, the first day of Pride Month, Florida Governor Ran DeSantis signed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act”, which bars any trans girls from playing on public schools girl teams. This is only the latest is a series of similar laws have been signed in Idaho, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, with many other states proposing similar legislation.
I just want to mention that in Florida there have only been 11 trans students who applied for screening to participate in sports since 2013.

Eleven. Out of the whole state. This isn’t urgent legislation; trans athletes are not threatening anyone or taking away their chances. This is just hateful politicians trying to appease their base by creating discriminatory laws by targeting an already vulnerable group.

The Trevor Project
National Center for Transgender Equality
PFLAG
Human Rights Campaign

I know that not everyone sees these laws as inherently discriminatory, and I understand why. Sports and gender is not a new issue. Just ask Dutee Chand. Lawmakers use misinformation and fear, not scientific knowledge, to justify barring trans girls from school sports. In essence, they believe that trans girls will have an advantage over cisgender girls in competition, with the implication that trans females are not female.

Except that’s not true. This interview sums it up fairly well*. Let me give you a quick recap:

[Estrogen use by trans women] will reduce their muscle mass and red blood cells, which carry the oxygen necessary for better performance. And that will also reduce the speed, the strength and the endurance. [. . .] [A]t a high school level, many trans youth do delay their puberty, which means that even if they are not taking these gender-affirming hormones, their natural puberty in their biological sex is not happening, therefore resulting in a delay and an absence of an effect on muscle mass, at least for the male-to-female situation. So the supposed advantage of muscle mass and red blood cells because of testosterone becomes moot in middle and often high school competitions when there have been puberty blockers involved.

Dr. Eric Vilain, M.D., PhD


Luckily, the NCAA and International Olympics Committee are a little more up on the science than certain politicians. Both have put forth policies (linked here) regarding inclusion of trans athletes in college sports and the Olympics, respectively. In short, provided the athletes can meet the requirements in these guidelines, there is no reason they should be barred from competition.

Contact your representatives and tell them you support inclusive school sports for trans athletes. If you are able, please consider donating to one of the above organizations to help support trans students, and fight against harmful and unjust laws.

#TransWomenAreWomen

#TransMenAreMen

#TransRightsAreHumanRights

*For more science, in greater detail:

Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies
Trans Girls Belong on Sports Teams
Laws banning trans athletes from competing in girls’ and women’s sports not grounded in science, say experts
Radiolab Presents: Gonads

Stop talking about testosterone, there’s no such thing as ‘true sex’
Laws banning trans athletes from competing in girls’ and women’s sports not ground in science, experts say

Don’t fuck with me man, I’m a librarian.

Pandemic Fatigue and Mental Health

I haven’t been keeping up with the posting schedule that I set for myself. In fact, I haven’t been doing much of anything for the past few weeks. I’ve been pretty down, and quite lethargic. I had thought that I’d adapted well to living through a pandemic – I even got married during it – but as time goes on, COVID has worn on me more and more. I want to go to a restaurant and watch a movie in theaters. I want to sip hot chocolate at my favorite café and have friends visit. But I can’t do any of those things.

I, like a lot of people, have been experiencing pandemic fatigue. Some days I fight against depression, or my already high levels of anxiety are peaked. As the pandemic continues with no clear end in sight, I can feel my life and my emotional health erode around me. I feel so isolated and frustrated.

I know I’m not alone in this. Instead of my usual book-related post, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to help share some mental health tips and resources with you here.

Before I do, I want to say that I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, but I am not a licensed therapist, doctor, or medical professional of any kind. I have done my best to vet the information and resources here, but I cannot provide actual medical advice. There will also be links throughout this post, but none of them are sponsored. Lastly, most of my resources will be based in the United States, as that’s where I live and have the most information about.

I’ll be putting many links from the section about finding therapy in the resources page. That way you won’t need to scroll through a long post if there’s something you’d like to check out later on.

Now, let’s try to work some of the pandemic blues away. I’ll talk about therapy a little later on, but here are some methods you can try on your own.

Acknowledge what you’re feeling, and feel it. When I last talked to my therapist (more on that later), we talked about pandemic fatigue, and how it was affecting me. She spoke about the pandemic fatigue that she’s seen in other people, and told me that everyone’s experience was unique to them. There’s no singular way people are reacting to the pandemic, and everyone’s mental health needs will be different. My advice is: give yourself a break. You can’t command yourself to stop being sad, or anxious, or however you’re feeling. But don’t beat yourself up, or feel guilty. We are living through hard times, which none of us would have ever imagined two years ago. Give yourself a little time to just feel whatever it is you need to – anger, sorrow, fear – and keep going forward.

Exercise. Get up off the couch! Study after study has proven benefits of exercise for both physical and mental health. It’s shown to be effective in mitigating symptoms of depression and anxiety, and lowering stress levels. In the immortal words of Elle Woods: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” For a more professional take, here are a few articles with more detailed information:

Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms – Mayo Clinic
The exercise effect – American Psychological Association
The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise – HelpGuide

Journal. I’m not saying this only because I’m a writer, but because there are many proven mental health benefits to writing, and journaling in particular. Maybe you have days where it feels like the world is spinning around you, and you can’t quite get a grip on anything. Or maybe you’re anxious or sad or angry, but you’re not really sure why. When you journal, you turn the chaos around you into a narrative, helping to make sense of seemingly random events. As you write, you may also find you have better clarity over what’s causing you to be stressed out or upset. Or maybe you just need to vent somewhere; a journal is the perfect place to do that.

If starting a journal sounds intimidating, remember you don’t need to share what you write in there with anyone else. Don’t worry if it’s not pretty or well-written. Write whatever comes to mind, say whatever it is you need to say. You’re writing for yourself, not anyone else. There are also many guided journals available, which provide you with prompts to reflect on and write about.

Journaling for Mental Health – University of Rochester
Take Note – Northwestern Medicine
Reasons Why You Should Start Journaling – BBC
Writing Tips that Can Reduce Symptoms – NAMI

Get yourself some therapy.

This is it. This is the big one. Therapy and mental health are still, unfortunately, stigmatized by many people. Mental health isn’t always easy or comfortable to talk about, and it can be hard to find help because of that. It can also be hard to admit that you might need therapy. Speaking from my own personal experience, sometimes going into therapy felt like I had failed myself. I worked so hard to keep my mental health issues under control and under wraps, and was frustrated and dejected because that control was slipping. In most of those cases, though, external factors were threatening to overwhelm me, and strained my mental well-being. Realizing this, therapy became a mental “tune-up” for me, in the same way your car might need a tune up from time to time.

Here’s how I try to look at it now: if you get injured – maybe you’ve torn a muscle or broken a leg – you would go see a doctor. Your doctor has the expertise that you lack to help patch you up and help you recover. If you think of your mind as a muscle, it only makes sense that you would see another professional to help you heal from whatever illness or injuries might be ailing you.

If you think it’s time to try therapy, it can be hard to know where to start looking for a therapist. One of the most common ways that people find therapists is through word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends or family. If you’re willing, don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations.

If you’re a student, most high schools and universities have counselors and counseling centers, where you can go to seek help for mental health. Check your school’s website or student handbook for more information.

If you’re employed in the U.S., many companies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which provides free short-term counseling to employees (and typically their families as well). The details of using an EAP will vary between companies, but in general, they provide 2-3 counseling sessions. If that’s all you need, great! If not, many will provide referrals for continuing therapy.

With few exceptions (I’ll talk more about confidentiality in a bit), whatever you say in your counseling sessions is private. In most cases, your boss doesn’t ever need to know that you’re using an EAP. Your counselor cannot disclose any information to anyone else without written consent from you, unless they are court ordered to do so, or to protect yourself or another person from harm.

EAPs do work a bit differently in terms of confidentiality when the employee is mandated to attend counseling by an employer. The employer may receive information about the employee’s attendance, compliance, recommendations from the counselor, and notice of completing treatment. In this case, the employee still must give written permission to share this information, but the employer will be receiving feedback.

Your insurance provider can be another way to find a therapist. Look to see if there are any therapists “in-network” that you can get an appointment with.

I also want to acknowledge that there’s an extra layer of challenge in finding a therapist if you’re a person of color and/or if you’re a LGBTQAI+ individual. This article from Healthline lists several resources for BIPOC and LGBTQAI+ people to find therapists, as support networks, and organizations for financial assistance for therapy.

How To Find And Fund Therapy as a BIPOC – Healthline

This takes us into another common reason why people don’t seek therapy: the cost.

Therapy can get expensive, and even if your insurance does cover it, they might not cover all the costs entirely. There are other options, though, that can make therapy more affordable.

First, there’s the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: https://www.nami.org/help (1-800-950-NAMI). The Helpline is not therapy, but can provide support, coping strategies, and referrals and resources for mental health needs.

You can also look for mental health services provided by your local government. Check your county’s website, or your county’s health department’s website. You can usually find a link to the county’s mental health center, which should offer some form of counseling or therapy.

If you live near a university, you can also see if the university offers a clinic you could take advantage of. Universities which offer advanced degrees in clinical psychology typically run mental health clinics for the public. Student psychologists, under the supervision their instructors, work in these clinics to gain experience working as therapists. These services are typically provided for low or no cost.

Online therapy may also be an option. The prices range between services, they are often cheaper than traditional in-person therapy (even though that’s being done remotely now, too).

I also found a few articles that list a few other options I haven’t mentioned here.

Mental Health Services: How to Get Treatment if You Can’t Afford It – NBC
Therapy for Every Budget: How to Access It – Healthline
Low Cost Treatment – Anxiety & Depression Association of America
Strategies to Afford Mental Health Treatment – NAMI

If you’re just starting therapy, or are thinking about therapy and are a little apprehensive about it all, there’s just a few I want you to know, to hopefully make your journey smoother.

Confidentiality is key when it comes to therapy. There are only a few special circumstances when a therapist will break confidentiality.

These special circumstances are:

  • The client is an imminent danger to themselves and/or others
  • The therapist suspects abuse
  • The therapist has received a subpoena to share information on the client
  • The client gives the therapist permission to share information.

Everything else stays between you and your therapist. You can say whatever you need to.

When you start therapy, you might have to do something called an “intake interview”. Your therapist will ask about your background, why you’re starting therapy, and probably more questions based on your reason for being there. These questions aren’t meant to make you feel judged, but to help tailor therapy to your needs.

To be totally honest: the intake interview is uncomfortable. It can feel awkward and be really hard to get through. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: most therapists hate conducting them, too. They find it just as awkward as you do.

There’s another thing you need to know about therapy: it takes time. Therapy is not a magic pill that you can swallow and make things better after you finish a session. It’s work, and you may not feel the positive effects right away. In fact, it’s not uncommon to feel more down immediately following a therapy session than when you started. In therapy, there’s usually a lot of raw emotion that you have to deal with, and your therapist is there to guide you and help you process it in a healthy way. It can get pretty intense and be hard. But if you keep working on your mental health, you will have better coping skills and thinking patterns, and you will feel better.

Okay, so what if you’ve found your therapist, you’ve sat through the intake, but you and your therapist just aren’t meshing? Rapport does take time to build, but maybe your personalities are just too different, or maybe you need help in an area that your therapist doesn’t have much experience in. In this case, you may be referred to another therapist. Being referred to another therapist doesn’t mean that you were a bad client. It just means that there is someone else who would be better able to help you. At my college’s health center, I did one session with a male counselor. After that session, we both agreed that I would make more progress if I talked to one of the female counselors instead. I didn’t dislike the male counselor, but we both understood that it would be better for me to talk to another woman. Referrals are okay, and you don’t need to be worried if you’re referred to someone else.

We’ve all been very concerned with physical health for the past year, but please, don’t neglect your mental health. I hope you found something useful in this post. Remember that you are valued and loved. Take care of and be kind to yourself. You deserve it.

BIDP: Save Your Breath

For the next round of “Books I Didn’t Pick”, I read Save Your Breath by Melinda Leigh. This is the most recent in Leigh’s Dane series, which revolves around the eponymous attorney, her fiancé, PI Lance Kruger, and his assistant, Lincoln Sharp.

I haven’t read any thriller novels since I was in high school, and I’ve never really liked mystery books. I didn’t think that Save Your Breath would be something that was fun for me to read. But I’m trying to read outside my usual genres, and assured myself that, however bad this got, at least I wasn’t reading another romance novel.

I opened the first page, and finished the entire book in about a two weeks.

I get pegged as a fast reader, but that’s not entirely the truth. I don’t read faster than the average person, I just read a lot. It still can take me several weeks or or a couple months to finish a book. Which is why finishing Save Your Breath within two weeks was a bit of an accomplishment for me, and shows how compelling I found the book.

Though there is one thing I need to point out: when I read Save Your Breath, I was midway through two children’s literature courses. Throughout the semester I would read at least 60 children’s and middle grade books, and it was just so refreshing to read a book intended for an adult audience. Busy as I was with school and work, it would have been easy to let Save Your Breath fall by the wayside. Even so, I kept coming back to it, day after long day.

The writing technique was fine. I know that’s a boring way to put it, but that’s about all I can say. The prose wasn’t anything spectacular, but it wasn’t bad, either. Every sentence said just what it needed to, and got out of the way for the next one. It got the job done – no more, no less.

Though Save Your Breath is part of a series, it worked as a standalone novel. Whenever a main character from the series appeared, they reader got a little bit of background about them. That way, I could understand who everyone was, their role, and their relationship with the other main characters.

I’ve seen this used in other book series, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books, or The Dresden Files. It makes it easy for readers to pick up the newest book without having to know everything that happened in the ones before it. I imagine this could be annoying for readers who have been following the series for a long time, but it was helpful for me.

The downside of novel series where a new reader can jump in at any point is that changes to the status quo often come very slowly. Going back to Janet Evanovich for a moment, the 27th Stephanie Plum novel (not counting side-stories) was released in November 2020. In it, Stephanie Plum is still torn between the same two love interests she’s had since the first book, which came out over twenty years ago.

Not to throw shade on Evanovich or the Stephanie Plum series, of course! I’ve read some of the books and enjoyed them, but this is the only comparable example I have at the moment. Like I said, I don’t read the thriller/mystery genre much.

From Save Your Breath, at least, I did get a feeling that big changes for the characters do happen more frequently. At the beginning, for example, Morgan and Lance are engaged, which is not how they started the series.

I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters very well, especially Lincoln. Morgan, Lance and Lincoln are all intelligent, tenacious people with different skill sets. They care about each other and are protective of the people they love. Looking back on the book now, it’s hard for me to pick out individual character traits beyond that. Morgan is a mother, and Lance is a good step-father to her kids, but I can’t think of any distinct characteristics of them beyond that.

I think the characters would have come across more strongly if I had read the previous books in the series. Save Your Breath also deals with a crime that’s personal to the characters: Lincoln’s girlfriend, Olivia, has been kidnapped. Lincoln is justifiably concerned, and working around the clock to do anything he can to find her. The other characters note that he’s so worried that he’s not acting like himself. This makes sense, but because I haven’t read the other books in the series, I don’t know what he’s really like as a person. So, pros and cons of jumping into a serial series!

Like I said before, I’m not a big fan of mysteries. Even so, I was pretty drawn in by the set-up. True crime writer Olivia Cruz has an ethical dilemma about what information she should put in the book she’s working on. She calls Lincoln to ask him for advice during lunch the next day, and is kidnapped from her home. Morgan, Lance, and Lincoln must learn who took her, why, and most important, how they can bring her home safely.

The more they uncover, the more the mystery deepens. Murder, suicide, and a homegrown militia all come into play. Each moving part offers another clue to the story. If nothing else, this book got me to understand the appeal of mysteries novels better. I liked trying to put the clues together, and I was really interested to see how they all tied together.

This next paragraph is a little spoiler-y, so skip it if you plan on reading this book later.

Unfortunately, the clues did not all tie together. I liked the rouges’ gallery of suspects involved in Olivia’s disappearance, and I was especially intrigued about the para-military survivalist organization that one of them ran. And what was the ethical dilemma that Olivia wasn’t sure if she should put in her book? It was a question that I thought the entire plot hinged on. But it turned out that very little of those details actually mattered. The true culprit and motive for Olivia’s kidnapping had very little to do with those questions. Another reader might have appreciated the subversion of expectations, but it left me feeling disappointed and disgruntled. A lot of interesting plot points had been built up, only to ultimately fall flat. The otherwise exciting events of the book became filler in the wake of the novel’s conclusion.

Despite the above complaints, I liked Save Your Breath for the most part. It was easy to read, and I’d be open to trying out another thriller novel when I need something a bit less dense than what I normally pick out for myself. Maybe during my next semester at school, it’ll be a nice breath of fresh air….

#1000BlackGirlBooks: One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia tells the story of Delphine Gaither and her sisters, Vonetta and Fern. In the summer of 1968, they fly from New York City to Oakland to meet their mother, Cecile. Cecile left the family when Fern was a baby, and the sisters have next to no memories of their mother. She resents the intrusion into her life, and sends them to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers.

I was interested in this book, because for a long time, the only thing I knew about the Black Panthers came from a two-minute scene in Forrest Gump. Most media depicts the Black Panthers in a one-sided way, as a ruthless, militant group. It wasn’t until last year that I even learned about the survival programs the Black Panthers ran. These included the Free Breakfast for Children, community medical clinics, voter registration, and sickle-cell anemia testing. There’s no denying that the Black Panthers were a militant group, and they remain controversial today. But that’s not all they were.

Doing some research on the author herself, I learned that Williams-Garcia’s relatives were members of the Black Panther party. She grew up during the Civil Rights era, and refers to her diaries as her primary sources.

I don’t necessarily dislike historical fiction, but I am very picky about it. I’ve given up reading far more historical novels than I actually finish. So when I say that I couldn’t put this book down, you know that I was hooked. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that characters tend to be what draws me into a story.

All the Gathier women are vibrant and memorable in their own ways. Eleven-year-old Delphine is the eldest, but often must act older than her years. She takes it upon herself to be her younger sisters’ guardian, helping to raise them after Cecile abandoned her family. The middle child, Vonetta, is showy and loves to be at the center of attention. Fern, the youngest, is clear-eyed and an emerging poet.

Cecile is hardly a warm matriarch, and doesn’t want the girls in her life. She’s associated with the Black Panthers and allows them to use her beloved printing press, but she doesn’t share their zeal. Her main concern is her poetry, and she doesn’t act anything like the mother the Gaither sisters imagined for most of the novel.

Another crucial piece of historical fiction is the setting. The time period and location are critical parts of the narrative. In a good historical fiction, the setting is woven together with the story to the point where you can’t separate them.

One Crazy Summer couldn’t be set anywhere but Oakland, CA in the summer of 1968. Along with the other social upheaval and counterculture movements at the time, the murder of Bobby Hutton had occurred only months prior to the beginning of the novel.

When the story begins, Delphine only knows a little about the Black Panthers, and her grandmother, “Big Ma”, only refers to its founders as troublemakers. When they first go to the center for breakfast and the day camp program, they are largely indifferent to the Panthers’ cause. As Vonetta says:

We didn’t come for revolution, we came for breakfast.

As the story progresses, Delphine starts reading the Black Panther’s newspaper, and becomes sympathetic to their cause. She takes pride in her work passing out fliers to encourage people to come to a rally, refusing to shop again at the grocery store that would not allow her to post one. By the end of the novel, she knows taht being associated with the Black Panthers is dangerous, but also understand the value of the party. She comes to better understand the racism and prejudice she and her loved ones face every day, and wants to fight back against it.

There’s a lot more I could talk about this book. I especially loved the importance that was placed on names and identity. However, I don’t want to spoil the events and significant moments in the book for you. I want you to go and read it. You won’t regret it.

One Crazy Summer was a fantastic book from start to finish, and I’ve added its two sequels onto my ever-growing to be read list. The characters and setting are vibrant and authentic, and the novel portrays another side of the Black Panthers that is rarely seen in media.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

This post contains many, many spoilers for A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins.

Just as I thought my days of watching teenagers kill each other for sport were over, I got dragged back in.

I’m not going to lie: I was definitely intrigued when I heard a new Hunger Games book was coming out. I couldn’t read the original trilogy fast enough. Like a lot of people, something about the Hunger Games series hooked me. Even now, I occasionally go back to those books, years after the books were read and the movies had wrapped, every so often, I still go back to the books.

I really like the original series, and I knew that I had to read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

I didn’t like it.

I don’t think that it was an objectively bad book, and if you read it and loved it–great! Just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean that it’s awful. A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was the perfect book for someone…just not me.

This was something I never thought I’d say about a book, but here it is: I think Snow was the wrong choice for the protagonist.

This is one of the hard things about writing prequels. It’s not easy to build tension when we already know how Snow’s story ends. Whatever happens to Snow in this book, whatever dangerous situation he’s put in, he’s going to survive. He’s not just going to live to the end, he’s going to reign over Panem for decades.

Snow’s also hard to sympathize with. In many prequels starring the main series’s villain, we usually get a character who wants to be good and do the right thing. Typically, dire circumstances cause the protagonist to make hard choices, and lead to their inevitable moral downfall. We usually like this prequel protagonist, and feel sad knowing how things are going to end badly for them.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like Snow, even from the very start of the book. From the outset, he’s obsessed with status and regaining his family’s lost wealth, and cares for no one but himself. When he shows kindness to others – most notably his ostracized classmate Serjanus – he only does so because it will benefit him in some way. Snow was a sociopath from the start, and I didn’t find anything likable about him. Even his family’s poverty didn’t make me feel more sympathetic for him. Every time he complained about how he hated eating lima beans or cabbage, I wanted to shout at him that Katniss and her family almost starved to death in District 12, decades after Ballad takes place.

Actually, I just wanted to shout at him a lot throughout the book, but that’s largely because of the writing style.

Suzanne Collins has never been known for her subtlety. One of the main complaints I heard about the original Hunger Games books were that they spoon-fed the audience too much. I think that’s a fair criticism. Since Ballad was written in the third-person, I’d hoped that Collins had gotten away from shoving information down the reader’s throats. Unfortunately, just the opposite of that happened. It got way, way worse. Large portions of Snow’s inner monologues are about the “Three C’s”: chaos, control, and contract. He has deep discussions with one of the antagonists, Dr. Gaul, about human nature and the purpose of the Games.

The didactic nature of the prose ruined the character of Serjanus for me as well. I was certain that I would like him at the beginning of the book: a District-born boy who was raised in the Capitol. But by the end, everything that came out of h is mouth was so preachy, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t cheer for him trying to rebel against the Capitol. Much like Snow, I just wanted him to shut up.

The unwanted philosophy discussions weren’t the only things with the subtlety of a sledge hammer. Collins made sure that her reader would never have to think for a minute to figure out what was going on. Take the folks songs that District 12’s tribute, Lucy Gray, sings. Snow’s inner monologue explains the meaning of each verse while she explains the songs. The lyrics themselves offer insights and clues, but they’re not that hard to figure out.

That’s far from the only time something like that occurs. Shortly before the tributes go into the arena, Snow drops a hint to Lucy Gray about how she might bring a weapon, of sorts, into the arena to help her.

She noticed the empty well where the cake of powder had sat an hour earlier. ‘Did there used to be powder here?’

‘There did, but–‘ began Coriolanus [. . .] ‘I thought you might want to use your own.’ [. . .]

Maybe he’d broken a rule or two by giving her the compact and suggest she fill it with rat poison, who knew?

I did cut out some of the above quote, but in less than two pages, it’s already revealed what the plan is. There’s no chance for the reader to guess at Snow’s hint or figure it out on their own. And for people who wouldn’t catch that hint, they’re robbed of the surprise.

This was just one of many examples, so I was really happy to see a scene where everything that happened in it was left implied. Snow gets caught cheating in the Games to help Lucy Gray, and is then expelled from the Academy and forced to enlist as a Peacekeeper. He gets called to meet with the dean of the Academy, thinking he’s going to be reward. When he gets to the meeting, however, he sees that the evidence of his cheating has been found.

There, arranged on the table like lab specimens, were three items: an Academy napkin stained with grape punch, his mother’s silver compact, and a dingy white handkerchief.

The meeting could not have lasted more than five minutes. Afterword, as agreed, Coriolanus headed directly to the Recruitment Center, where he became Panem’s newest, if not shiniest, Peacekeeper.

There. Perfect. The reader already knows the details of how Snow cheated, and the consequences he would face if he was caught. I was so happy that we were finally given a scene that doesn’t spell everything out for us. Something that finally left something to the reader’s imagination.

In the very next chapter, two and a half pages are dedicated to the details of the meeting between Snow and Dean Highbottom. Nothing left implied, nothing for the reader to wonder about.

The pacing really bothered me. For a series known for its action, this book is slow and plodding. There’s such a long wait before we even get to the Games, which was something that drew a lot of people into the series. A large portion of the book is taken up with pre-Hunger Games prep. While interesting at times, it also felt bloated, and I was chomping at the bit to get to the Games themselves.

When the Hunger Games finally begin, they’re disappointingly boring. Since we’re seeing this through Snow’s eyes, not Lucy Gray’s, we don’t see half of what goes on in the arena, and hear from the tributes even less.

After the Games, Snow becomes a Peacekeeper. He gets assigned to District 12, which is where the last third of the book takes place. It was a totally new setting, and the main conflict was so different from the first two-thirds of the story, it felt like a different book. It was just a slog for me to get through.

There were also the callbacks. For the most part, I didn’t mind them. At least, not the little ones, like lamb stew, or Snow’s grandmother mentioning that a news story will “catch fire”. It was the ones that were beaten over my head that annoyed me. Snow’s utter hatred for mockingjays, for example. Also, the song “The Hanging Tree”. We get to see its inspiration, and Lucy Gray write it. Some fans may have really liked these parts, but for me…well, I’ll just leave the wise words of Patton Oswalt here (NSFW video):

I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love!

All that said, I don’t want to end on an entirely negative note. There were plenty of things that I did like about the book. Lucy Gray was a really good, colorful character. There was some ambiguity if her feelings for Snow were actually genuine, and her ultimate fate is left unknown. It gave the reader something to wonder about, even be hopeful for. Whatever happened to her, I’m squarely in her corner.

Despite my complaints about “The Hanging Tree”, I really did like some of the song lyrics. I’ve always been a fan of folk music, even if the narration felt the need to explain every verse to me. The only reason I might watch the inevitable film is to hear how those songs sound, instead having them awkwardly read to me by my audiobook’s narrator.

While I thought the pacing wasn’t great, it was also interesting to see life in the Capitol through the eyes of its citizens, not just the Hunger Games tributes. It was neat to see how the Games evolved, when tributes were treated like criminals, not superstars.

It even improved on something that really annoyed me in the original Hunger Games series. In the original, Katniss frequently fell unconscious and then was rescued by allies. Once she woke up, her allies would explain what she missed. It came off as a bit of a lazy way to move the plot forward. But that never happens to Snow, even when the situation would have absolutely warranted him being knocked unconscious. I can appreciate that Collins actually wrote the full scenes out for the readers to see, rather than getting information fed to us after.

I didn’t love this book, and it was disappointing for me in many ways. But if you read it and loved it, great! Just because it wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it can’t be the perfect book for you.

52 Children’s Books in 52 Weeks

This isn’t a proper blog post, so much as an accountability booster for a reading project. I’ve never set goals for pleasure reading for myself before, this the only thing I had closely resembling a “goal” was “read all the books!”

I do have a career goal, though, which is to become a youth services librarian. One thing that’s important for me to do is to know what kids are currently into. The books I loved when I was 10 are not necessarily books kids today will love. To that end, my goal is to read 1 book from The New York Times best sellers for children each week.

There’s no one single list for children’s best sellers. Rather, NYT divides them into categories: picture book, children’s middle grade hardcover, children’s series, and young adult hardcover. For this, I’m just sticking to picture books, middle grade, and series.

Some ground rules for this project:

1. I will read from a different list each week. In order: picture book, middle grade hard cover, children’s series. Wash, rinse, repeat.
2. I will read the first* book on each list.
3. If I have already read the first book on the list, I will move to the second, and so forth.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to come back next year and report back with observations, and perhaps micro-reviews of each book.

*Except The Ickabog.

#1000BlackGirlBooks: Amber and the Hidden City

For my next pick from the #1000BlackGirl book list, I chose Amber and the Hidden City by Milton J. Davis. After reading some pretty heavy books, I wanted to get something a bit more light-hearted. I also opted for a middle-grade book so I could read it a bit faster than some of the other novels I’ve covered on here.

And I’m really glad I did! I liked the titular Amber right away, and the writing is solid and easy to get into. Perfect for a middle grade book. There’s also not a ton of waiting around for the plot to start, which I like.

Thirteen-year-old Amber is at a crossroads in her life. After summer break, she’ll be going to a new high school that none of her friends are attending. This is especially daunting because her blunt personality makes it hard for her to make new friends. To top it all off, she just used magic for the first time in her life.

Amber visits her grandma, Corliss, during her summer vacation, hoping to figure out all these changes in her life. Corliss finally tells Amber the secret she’s hidden her whole life: she is from Marai, a magical city that has been hidden from the outside world for thousands of years. The leader of Marai, the Sana, is dying, and nobles are vying for power in attempts to become the next Sana. The villainous Bagule is a strong contender for the title, but his rule would likely spell disaster for the city. He wants to open up Marai to the world, something that other nobles strongly advise against.

You’d be forgiven for making comparisons between the book and Black Panther, even though Amber and the Hidden City was published before the Marvel film. Fortunately, other than both works featuring a mysterious African city, the stories are quite different.

Corliss reveals how she and Amber can stop Bagule’s rise to power. Amber is a seer, and her powers are just beginning to wake. They must travel to Marai, whereAmber can use her gift to select the next Sana, someone who will protect the city and help it prosper. They travel from the United States to Paris to Senegal to Dakar, and finally pass through a magical veil that brings them to Marai. Along the way they are pursued (and sometimes aided) by Aisha, a deadly shape shifter. As they travel, Amber learns to use her powers as a seer to see the inner truth of the people she encounters.

One thing I am always conscious of in fiction is how women are treated as characters. Are they shrinking violets? Are they balanced characters? How much “screen time” do they have when compared to male characters? I know that many male (but not all!) authors have difficulty portraying women in ways that female readers would find authentic.

I was absolutely delighted that female characters played a central role in the story. Amber and Corliss have their moments of doubt and fear, but that’s totally normal in the situations they’ve been thrown into. They also display courage and compassion. Amber also acts like a thirteen-year-old girl actually would. For example, when she has to share her bedroom with a boy, Amber’s pretty freaked out about it. She spends too much time in the bathroom to avoid seeing him and texts her best friend, asking what she should do in this situation.

I also really liked Aisha. She’s definitely a “true neutral” character, who puts her survival ahead of everything else. While others in the book have their own goals — Amber wants to get to Marai, Bagule wants to be Sana — Aisha only wants to do what’s best for herself. Even if this means betrayal. That’s a fine villainous trait to have, but she was just so cool that I could never make myself hate her.

That’s not to leave out the male characters, though! Amber’s great-grandfather is a source of wisdom; his apprentice, Bissau, is crucial to bringing Amber and Corliss to Marai; Bagule is appropriately despicable.

There are a couple things that I didn’t love about this book. The first is that there were still several places with grammatical issues, but nothing that some editing wouldn’t be able to fix.

The second is that we’re told over and over again that opening Marai to the rest of the world is a terrible idea. This is Bagule’s plan, and this is why he cannot be made Sana. Somehow, opening the city will bring ruin to Marai and the world.

We never find out why this is, though. Towards the end of the book, Amber’s great-grandfather implies that Marai is a cage for some dark, evil force. However, no one ever mentions it again, or even says what it is that Marai’s protecting the world from. After waiting so long for an explanation, I was a bit miffed when that was all we got. I imagine it will be expanded on more if there’s a sequel.

At this point, there is one thing left to talk about. You guessed it, it’s race!

I’ve just finished a Multicultural Literature course, and one of the first things we learned in it is basic ways to classify multicultural books. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) classifies diverse books in the following ways:

  • By and about – the work is by a member of a specific culture or group, and about someone in that culture or group (ex. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi)
  • By and not about – the work is by a member of a specific group or culture, but not about that specific group or culture. (ex. The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats)
  • About but not by – the work is about members of a specific culture or group, but not by a member of that group (ex. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot)

Additionally, books can be classified as “culturally neutral”, “culturally specific”, and “culturally generic”.

I would classify Amber as “by and about” – the same category that I’m trying to read more from. I’d also say that it’s “culturally generic”. It features diverse characters, and the cultures of these characters affect their decisions and reactions to events. Even so, the story is not about African cultures that Amber and Corliss encounter. The story is about their journey to Marai.

One other thing worth noting is that all the characters in the book are Black, even the most minor ones. I thought that was pretty cool. Though I’ve tried to read more diverse books, I’m not sure I’ve ever noted ones that have casts entirely made up of people of color.

When I attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Spectacular, one of the interviews I got to watch was a conversation with authors Jason Reynolds and Nic Stone. Along with sharing their writing process, they talked about interacting with kids, Black Lives Matter, and writing diverse books. When talking about doing a reading, Jason Reynolds told this story:

This young kid raised his hand and he said, ‘how come you never write White people in your books?’ …He’s not being sort of provocative, he’s like, ten. This was an earnest question. ‘How come you never write White people in your books?’ And I said, ‘You know, in my world, sometimes I believe it’s okay for Black children to live a life uninterrupted, and that’s fine, you know?’ And then I said, ‘does it bother you?’ And he said, ‘Of course it doesn’t bother me, because they’re not that different from me.’ They’re kids! It’s all the adults who are hung up.

Jason Reynolds, 2020

I’d never thought about it like that, but now that I have, it makes sense. I’m glad I found a book with only Black characters, where they can have their adventure, uninterrupted.

Books I Didn’t Pick: How Fires End

How Fires End by Marco Rafalá is a family drama, following the life of Salvatore Vassallo using three different perspectives.

Salvatore was born in Melilli, Italy, where he lived during World War II. Salvatore’s younger brothers were accidentally killed during the war, and their deaths destroy Salvatore’s faith, and bring ruin to his family. With the help of an Italian soldier with fascist ties, Salvatore and his sister, Nella, leave Italy and immigrate to Connecticut. A generation later, Salvatore’s American-born son, David, seeks to discover his overbearing father’s secrets, with devastating consequences.

Since other “books I didn’t pick” were disappointments for me, I was a little wary coming into this one. I also don’t read a lot historical drama fiction. When I started How Fires End, the only other novel I could think to compare it to was Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides. Both tell a multi-generational story of a family of immigrants. The family heads keep secrets from the next generation, which change their children’s lives forever. There’s a historic fiction element to both, but that’s really where the similarities end. In recent memory, the only family dramas I’ve enjoyed and felt invested in were Downton Abbey and The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. While I am familiar with the family drama/historical fiction genre, it’s not something I seek out frequently.

Why is why I was pretty surprised at how quickly I got sucked into this novel. A big part of that is just for the way that the book is written. The prose is beautiful, even poetic. The first section of the book, “David”, was a prime example of this. Throughout it, the author uses extended metaphors to show the relationship between David and his father.

Imagine an object so massive that not even light could escape the pull of its gravity. If light could not escape, nothing could. That was how my father loved me.

The metaphors in Part 1 are often related to black holes or planetary orbits, which makes sense, because David has a strong interest in astronomy. I really enjoyed them, mainly because I’m a space nerd. If they had been based on some other topic, I could see the constant metaphors getting annoying, but they worked well for me.

David’s section of the book was easily my favorite, but there was one issue I had with it. The novel is told using first-person perspective, so David is our narrator. He’s thirteen years old, but the narration doesn’t have the voice of a young teenager. Of course, thirteen-year-olds can have deep thoughts and come up with clever metaphors about their lives. But this entire section reads like an old man looking back on his life, not as a kid living it.

This is most obvious when it comes to David’s relationship with his only friend, Sam. Vincenzo says that Sam and David are paisanu.

‘They are saying, the saint is one of them, a paisanu. You know what that word means? It’s like the way you and David fought for each other. You understand? It’s the same thing.’

Sam really likes this, and calls David paisanu as an affectionate nickname. For any thirteen-year-old, especially a lonely one like David, that would be a huge deal. Later, Sam excitedly discusses his summer plans for the two of them. He talks about going to the beach, starting a band, and girls.

Sam had unspooled a thread for me to follow–a way out of the labyrinth–and I held onto it even as I knew our Ray Harryhausen days couldn’t last. Nothing did.

This just drives it home for me that David’s narration is not that of a thirteen-year-old. When you’re at that age, you often feel closer to your friends than you do to your family. No thirteen-year-old would refer to his friend as a brother, but also fully believe that their friendship will come to an end.

It’s a bit paradoxical – the prose is one of the book’s greatest strengths, and also one of its weaknesses. What this novel struggled with most was distinguishing the voices of its characters. The second section of the book is narrated by Salvatore, and the final part is told by Vincenzo. Salvatore’s and Vincenzo’s stories focus on the past: their lives in Italy, and early life in America. Though their life stories are different, the prose doesn’t change to match them. There’s no stylistic difference between David’s, Salvatore’s, or Vincenzo’s narration.

Salvatore’s section was probably the hardest for me to get through. Part of it was the aforementioned issue with voice, but it’s also just kind of a bummer. This makes sense when it comes to the three-act structure commonly used in fiction. Salvatore’s section is the second act, which is usually a downer. There were no light-hearted moments or hope spots, and getting through it was a slog for me.

At that point, I’d also become pretty attached to David. I wanted to know more about what happened after his part in the novel was over. There’s a little bit of an epilogue, but I really wanted to see more than what I got.

My one other complaint might be the dearth of female characters. David, Salvatore, and Vincenzo all have romantic interests, though they aren’t all that well fleshed out. Of them, David’s mother, probably has the most characterization, but she died when David was young. She doesn’t appear “on screen” as much as she appears in David’s faint memories of her. Salvatore’s sister, Nella, does play a significant role in the novel, yet she doesn’t appear to have any sort of life of her own outside of Salvatore and David. Of course, the first-person perspective is limited, and can only tell us how the narrators see her.

On one hand, I would have liked to see the women in this book have a stronger presence. However, the novel doesn’t feel incomplete because of that lack. It’s a very masculine novel, a book about fathers and sons. The writing style and excellent prose help hide this absence. I wouldn’t be surprised if other readers didn’t notice it at all.

While How Fires End did have its flaws, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. This is Marco Rafalá’s first novel, and I’d be interested in reading more from him.

#1000BlackGirlBooks: Americanah

First of all, I’m sorry about the late post. I was incredibly busy working on my finals, but I’m happily on my winter break right now!

The other reason this post is late is because…well, it’s kind of a mess. I’ve written, edited, and re-written, but Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a complex work. I don’t feel qualified to write a nuanced, in-depth discussion about this novel, but I decided to give it a shot anyway.

I started reading #1000BlackGirl books to learn, and the experience has varied so far. I’ve gotten way more out of The Hate U Give and The Color Purple than NOLA Gals and Sound. So when I read the description of a young Nigerian woman going to America to continue her education, and learning what it means to be Black in America, I was here for it.

The first thing I learned from this book is that I don’t know shit about Nigeria.

I only knew very vague facts about Nigeria before I started this book – something about tribes and a military government, and that it was densely populated – and not much else. When one of the characters, Aunty Uju, begins and affair with someone known only as “The General”, I decided it was time to learn a little bit more about the country. I don’t have a ton of free time anymore, but I do have enough time for a couple Wikipedia articles, and read through some about Nigeria’s political history.

This was a new experience for me. I’ve done research on things I’ve read about in stories because they piqued my interest, but I’d never done research to better understand the context and setting of a novel. Even after I did, I still felt like there was a lot for me to learn. But that’s kind of how all of  Americanah made me feel.

Americanah follows Ifemelu and Obinze, a young Nigerian couple. When constant strikes impede their university education, Ifemelu decides to go to America to complete her Bachelor’s degree. Later, Obinze tries to move to America as well, but is denied a visa in the aftermath of 9/11. Instead, he goes to London, hoping to start a new life and someday make it to the United States.

This book covers so much that I’m not sure I’ll be able to touch on everything here. t also took me a year to read this book, grad school frequently halting my progress. There’s things in the beginning that I’ve probably forgotten, or things that I meant to take notes on and didn’t. It chronicles the immigrant experience for both these characters, while Ifemelu – and her blog – discuss race in America.

In trying to plan this blog post, I felt very much out of my depth. I have very few experiences in common with Ifemelu and Obinze. I’ve never had to use another person’s social security number to get a job, have never left my home country for reasons other than vacation, and I can’t say that I have any real idea what it means to be a Black person in America, or in England. I know what it means to be a well-meaning White person, like Kimberley, one of Ifemelu’s employers. Trying my best to be inclusive and empathetic, while knowing that I will never truly “get it”. I’m on the outside, looking in, and hoping I’m doing more good than harm.

I suppose I’ll start at the first thing in the book that struck me: a realization of my White privilege in a way that I’d never thought of before. Near the beginning, Ifemelu goes to get her hair braided, and the hair dresser tells her the process will take six hours. Six hours?! You’d need to take a day off work to get your hair done! I sat in a salon chair for three hours a couple times, and I hated it. It looked nice when I was done, but three hours of making uncomfortable small talk was torturous. I can’t imagine was six hours of that would be like.

One chapter in the book is actually dedicated to Ifemelu’s hair. As she starts searching for jobs in America, she uses relaxers to make her natural hair more acceptable to White interviewers. After she gets a job, she wonders if she would have been hired if she’d worn her natural hair. Ifemelu’s immigrant aunt, Aunty Uju, also gets rid of her braids and relaxes her hair so her patients take her more seriously. The relaxers burn Ifemelu’s scalp and she eventually forgoes it, joining online communities for natural hair, and wearing her own natural hair as well.

This becomes one of the main themes of the book: Ifemelu’s identity as a Black woman, juxtaposed (and sometimes in conflict with) her identity as an American. For example, she practices an American accent, until someone compliments her on not sounding African, after which she switches back to her Nigerian accent.

I’ve been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be Antiracist as I work on this post. In it, he writes about “dueling consciousness”, drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois ideas of “double consciousness”.

They joined other Black people trying to fit into that White space while still trying to be themselves and save their people. They were not wearing a mask as much as splitting into two minds.

The conceptual duple reflected what W.E.B. Du Bois idelibly voiced in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. ‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,’ Du Bois wrote. He would neither ‘Africanize America’ nor ‘bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism’. Du Bois wished ‘to be both a Negro and an American.’ Du Bois wished to inhabit opposing constructs. To be American is to be White. To be White is not be a Negro.

Kendi, I. X. (2019) How to be an Anti-Racist, p. 28

Ifemelu’s story is largely built around this dual consciousness. So many of her experiences in America are affected by her skin color, even as Americans around her say they don’t see race. A perfect and all too real example is when Ifemelu goes shopping with her friend Ginika, shortly after Ifemelu arrives in America. When buying clothes, they get helped out a sales associate, but can’t remember her name when asked by the cashier. The cashier asks what color the employee’s hair was, but it doesn’t help, since they both employees had the same hair color. After they leave, Ifemelu asks why the cashier didn’t just ask if it was the Black girl or White girl who helped them. Ginika laughs, and says in America, people pretend race isn’t real.

This is something I have done. Once at work I was trying to point out a customer to my boss, struggling to remember what she was wearing. After he found the customer, he asked me, “Why didn’t you just say she’s the only Black person here?” It had never occurred to me, even if it would have made finding the person easier. Why is it so hard to say, “She’s Black/Latinx/White/Asian” and use race as a neutral descriptor?

Here’s the thing: I’m uncomfortable doing that, and many White people I know are as well. It’s hard for me to say why that is. Part of it, for me, was because I spent most of my life living in majority White cities, where diversity was more of a vague idea than something I had to think about every day. I have this notion that describing someone by their race, no matter the reason, is inherently racist.

And while I don’t know if that’s “okay” or not, as I reflect more on current events, I’ve come to realize that discomfort is a problem. If we’re going to make any progress towards justice and tearing down racist systems, we have to be able to have discussions about race. Just as you can’t have a conversation if the other person isn’t listening, you can’t have a conversation if the other person is too afraid of being wrong or feeling uncomfortable to talk.

Then there’s Kimberly, one of Ifemelu’s first employers in America. When I wondered before what benevolent racism looks like, I now understand that it looks like Kimberly. Kimberly dotes on Ifemelu not only because she’s a good nanny, but because she’s Nigerian. She shows Ifemelu souvenirs she’s collected from second- and third-world countries, saying things like, “the poorest people we saw were also the happiest.” It sounds so patronizing, especially when you consider how Ifemelu’s family often struggled to pay rent. Ifemelu was definitely not happier for her poverty. Kimberly is a tourist in the cultures of others, but sees it only at a surface level, rather than engaging with it in a deeper, more meaningful way.

If I’m being totally honest, I’m guilty of this, too. I was very skeptical when I first read about cultural appropriation, because I didn’t want someone telling me the way I was enjoying things wasn’t right. I got a little defensive. I had to learn and reflect, and become more aware of my actions and the things I say. For example, I used to love the misapproprated phrase “spirit animal”. It was a fun, jokey thing for me, and I didn’t want to give it up. Whenever I said that something was my “spirit animal”, I was ignoring and disrespecting Indigenous cultures. I’ve since learned better and stopped doing that, and I try to be aware of cultures not my own. I’m going to keep making mistakes, and I’ll keep getting things wrong until I know better. The best I can do right now is keep learning, and to change my ways based on what I’ve read and experienced.

And, as I’m now seeking out anti-racist reading material, as above, some of it has been hard for me to take. There are things that I’ve read in Kendi’s aforementioned book that I’ve initially taken issue with or had a hard time getting behind. It’s only by reminding myself to keep an open mind and that I have no place telling a Black author what’s racist and what isn’t. I need to shut up, listen, learn, and grow.

I feel like this post is kind of a mess, and there’s so much in Americanah that I won’t be able to cover the whole novel properly. But before I finish up here, I think I need to talk about Ifemelu’s American boyfriends.

Her first is Curt, one of Kimberly’s relatives. Ifemelu is hesitant about dating him at first, and Curt tells others that it was because she didn’t want to date a White person. This isn’t true; she just wasn’t sure about dating a relative of her employer. There’s a couple ways I interpreted this. The first is that Curt couldn’t believe Ifemelu wouldn’t want to date him, and had to make the excuse that it was about race. Or, by saying that he’s the one who doesn’t care about race, he appears to be more progressive and open-minded. Of course, if he really doesn’t care about race, then why bring it up? Curt is using his relationship with Ifemelu to virtue signal, so it’s not a huge surprise that their relationship doesn’t last.

The next is Blaine, a Black university professor and activist. Though he and Ifemelu are both intelligent, passionate people with similar interests, they have several conflicts in their relationship. A large part of this is because Blaine tries to stifle or change Ifemelu’s voice throughout their relationship. This is most apparent when it comes to her blog. By this point in the novel, Ifemelu makes her entire living on her blog. Blaine constantly badgers her to make it more professional or academic, citing the responsibility she has due to her high levels of readership. She resents this, and the pressure Blaine puts on her.

Blaine’s sister, Shana, is another hurdle to overcome. In a book with a lot of asshole characters, Shana is easily the most self-centered. Along with that, she’s jealous of Ifemelu for getting so much of her brother’s attention. She also belittles Ifemelu’s experiences in America, and says that she can’t fully participate in discussions about race in the United States, because she isn’t American.

There is so much going on in this book that I can really only cover a little bit, and these are some of the things that stuck out to me. In some ways, I feel like this post is a good representation of where I’m at right now, in trying to learn more about race and be better than I am. I’m scratching the surface, and I’m more in tune with the obvious stuff that’s easy to notice and understand. There’s an ocean of information to swim in, and I’m still splashing in the shallow end. I’m glad that I have books like this to help open my eyes, and teach me how to swim in the deep end. I hope I get there some day.

Books I Didn’t Pick: The First Girl Child

Picking out a book for someone else can be a challenging task. Everyone has their personal tastes, and it can be hard to find something that suits that person well. Take me, for example. I love sci-fi, but I couldn’t make it though the sci-fi classic, Dune. Other people love it, but it just wasn’t for me. In this not-so-creatively titled series, “Books I Didn’t Pick”, I’ll be looking at books that were chosen for me, most of which I would probably not pick if left to my own devices. Even so, I try to be open to different writers and genres, hoping to find something new that I enjoy.

For the very first edition of “Books I Didn’t Pick”, we have The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon, which was sent to me as part of a writer’s subscription box.

The First Girl Child was billed as a historical fantasy romance, and I figured that two outta three ain’t bad when it came to genres I was interested in. Reading through it, though, I came to discover that it failed at being any of those things.

Historical fiction isn’t something I got into until I was an adult, but I can appreciate the difficulty of writing it. It needs to feel grounded enough that even if the events and characters never really existed, you believe that they could have happened at some point. As I’m writing this, I recently finished a historical fiction unit for one of my classes, and discovered that I’m very picky about historical fiction that I actually enjoy. It either needs to be from an era I have an interest in, or feature spunky girls going against societal norms. The First Girl Child at least had the former: it’s a story about Vikings!

The First Girl Child takes place on the fictional island of Saylok, home of five fierce Viking tribes. I was here for it: high seas, adventures, shield maidens and fierce warriors. At least, that’s what I wanted to see. I got next to none of that. Viking raids are mentioned in passing, the only female warrior we actually see is almost immediately killed off, and most of the book takes place at the main temple on the island. Instead of seafaring exploits, we get shallow politics that feel like they were lifted from A Song of Ice and Fire without the nuance, or compelling characters to carry it through. Aside from an occasional reference to Odin, there is virtually nothing to separate Saylok’s culture from any other generic Medieval group.

It also bothers me that the author only had the characters pray to Odin or her OC Norse god, Saylok, and completely neglected Freya and the Vanir. The book is centered on the island’s residents being unable to conceive female children, but no one ever has the bright idea to pray to a fertility goddess.

Okay, so the historical fiction element was lacking. Maybe the fantasy aspects would be better? They definitely started out strong. In this world, magic comes from drawing ancient runes, and then activating the runes with blood. In the prologue, Dagmar and his sister Desdemona discover they have “rune blood” after entering a cave with runes carved on the walls. Runes are powerful forms of magic, and Desdemona uses them to curse all of Saylok. She also prophesies that no one but her son will be able to break the curse.

Aside from the set-up, the runes are hardly ever used. Dagmar uses them to pray for protection for Bayr, but they never make a meaningful appearance until the end. Because the runes are underutilized, the resolution felt like a deus ex machina. The book justifies this by saying that rune magic is dangerous, and its secrets are guarded closely. Even so, I’m a bit miffed about the lost potential.

Women were also forbidden from using rune magic. In doing some research for this post, I found that siedh, or a type of Norse magic, was often associated with women rather than men, so there’s another big X in the historical fiction column.

Then last, but not least, comes the romance.

Oh boy, here we go.

I’m not sure how fair it is for me to discuss romance as a genre. I’ve reviewed some romance manga here, but it’s often not something I’ll typically go for. Still, I tried to keep an open mind. Amy Harmon is the author of several romance novels, and she has a following. Thus, I expected the romance between Bayr and Alba to have some of the strongest writing in the book.

The relationship between them just strikes me as rather icky, though. Bayr sees Alba for the first time when she’s an infant and he’s a young child, and immediately says that he loves her. I chose to interpret this as platonic love, because Alba had just been born. It’s not as squicky as, say, Jacob imprinting on Renesmee in Breaking Dawn, but it’s in the same ballpark.

Bayr sees himself as Alba’s protector, and the two have a brother-sister relationship when they’re growing up. Bayr leaves the Temple Mount where they both live when he’s around twelve, and returns years later as and adult man. When he sees Alba again, they are suddenly in love, despite (a) not seeing each other in years and (b) being raised as brother and sister. In fact, Bayr’s lowest point in the book is when he believes Alba to be his biological sister. She isn’t, but it drives the “icky” factor home even more.

Even if I put that aside, I don’t see this as a great romance. There’s no build up; you don’t see them gradually fall in love. They meet, they’re in love, that’s it. Sometimes that’s okay, but we don’t see their relationship grow in any meaningful way. It’s just banal, and what should be the driving force of the book its least interesting aspect.

As far as characters and pacing go…

In my experience, good characters can save a mediocre plot, and vice-versa. I thought the plot itself was fine, though clumsily executed. As far as the characters go…I honestly don’t remember a thing about them. In writing this post, I tried to think of some key traits of each one. Bayr is strong and protective. His uncle, Dagmar, is intelligent and protective. Alba is…demanding of Bayr’s attention? If the only thing I can remember about the heroine of a romance novel is their connection to another character, that’s a problem. Even the antagonist was generically evil in a way that made him neither compelling, nor someone that I loved to hate.

The pacing bugged me. The novel starts with Bayr’s birth, and ends once he (spoiler!) becomes king of Saylok, so it obviously can’t capture every moment of his life in the book’s 400 pages. A lot of Bayr’s life is done in a sort of written montage, with important, specific scenes written out in detail. I think this works well when Bayr’s a kid, but not so much when he’s an adult. Most disappointing for me was when he leaves the Temple Mount where he was raised, and joined his grandfather’s clan. Apart from one scene that depicts his (admittedly badass) initiation into the clan, a lot of his skill and character development during those years is covered in just a few paragraphs. I want to see how he changed from the shy, stammering “Temple Boy” into a leader and warrior, but I never got more than a glance at his journey.

I was obviously pretty disappointed with this book. Even though I have my favorite genres and authors, I like stepping out of my reading comfort zone and trying something new. It can be hit and miss sometimes, and this book was clearly a miss.

I don’t want to end on an entirely negative note, and there were some things I liked about the book. First, despite my complaints, it’s well-written. I may not have cared for the story, but the prose was pretty good. I also think that it started out strong, and the magic system was cool, even if it wasn’t used to its full potential. I also liked the character of Desdemona, despite the fact that she was barely in the story.

In S.R. Ranganathan’s Laws of Library Science, laws 2 and 3 are:

2. Every reader her or his book
3. Every book its reader.

This was not my book, and I was not its reader. But if this sounds like a novel you would enjoy, by all means, check it out! You might be the reader it needs.