Reviews tagging Blood

Can't Take That Away, by Steven Salvatore

1 review

perpetualpages's review

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challenging emotional hopeful inspiring sad medium-paced
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated
 CWs: instances of homophobia, bullying, and misgendering; use of homophobic slurs; exploration of gender dysphoria; mentions of suicide ideation; allusions to depression and anxiety; exploration of familial death and grief; descriptions of degenerative illness (Alzheimer's); homophobic attacks and hate crimes; physical assault; graphic description of injury

This is a tough book for me to review, because I enjoyed it and I see its importance, but I also struggled with it a bit. It's described as "empowering" and "emotional," which it definitely is, but it also asks the reader to endure a great deal of trauma and queer trauma in order to get there, and I feel it's important to recognize that that will be too big of an ask for some readers, which is fair.

I want to start off by saying that stories that honestly explore queer pain and queer trauma are just as needed as stories that center queer joy. I am not interested in censoring anyone or suggesting that there's a "certain amount" of trauma that one story or one life can contain before it's "too much." That is not true. There is no metric by which we can definitively say how much trauma is "enough" trauma. That's not how life works, and I'm not interested in policing those experiences in any way.

That said, let's start with what I enjoyed. First of all, this story wonderfully celebrates a genderqueer character who uses he/she/they pronouns (mostly they/them as default, which I will be using in this review). I think the story really captures Carey's experience of fluidity, and how on the one hand, their gender variance makes them more powerful and beautiful, but on the other hand it makes them feel like an "inconvenience" to the people around them, because it can feel like every day is another coming out. In the story, they use the mechanic of wearing different colored bracelets to telegraph their gender expression for the day, but they also realize that it kind of sucks to have to depend on that kind of reductive mechanic. There's a lot of nuance in how Carey understands and explores their gender, and I really appreciated that.

Carey also acknowledges their privilege as a white, male-assumed person. Even though they don't identify as a man in any way, that's how people perceive them more often than not, and that comes with power and privilege, even if they don't "want" to claim those things. That is, in part, what makes it ideal for them to be "the face" of this social campaign calling for queer-protective rights and regulations to be installed within their school district and allow them to play the role of Elphaba. Again, I found that acknowledgement to be very nuanced, because "passing" does have an effect on power dynamics, both within and outside of the queer community.

I also appreciate how the story centers mental health and normalizes therapy. Carey has a strong relationship with their therapist, whose help they sought after dealing with depression and suicide ideation, and I enjoyed seeing their regular appointments being documented throughout the book. Mental health support and therapy can still very much be seen as "taboo" topics, when actually the process of going through therapy is healthy and normal. I appreciate how the story seeks to destigmatize therapy, and allows the reader to see what that process can look like, which could be invaluable to young readers, especially. That process also helps Carey parse through things they're facing in the story, and helps them put a name to what they're feeling and what they're really reacting to.

Another element that is somewhat of a rarity in YA fiction is the way the story makes room for contentious and complicated personal relationships. Throughout the book, Carey is hurt by people who are their friends and they also, in turn, hurt other people. Humans are not perfect, and sadly we're not born knowing how to healthily express our feelings and openly communicate. Sometimes our mistakes are what communicate our insecurities or our pain to the people around us. Mistakes are part of life, and I appreciate that this story gives its characters space to reconcile, to talk out their concerns and take active steps to make up for their mistakes, but also that it affords the characters grace and second chances. While the characters are not perfect (and who is?) they are still able to grow, which is far more important.

There's a lot to enjoy about this story. It has strong found family elements, it takes readers step-by-step through how to organize a social movement and engage in peaceful protest, it effectively explores the importance of safe learning environments, and it has a really sweet (if somewhat messy) romance where neither queer character has to "earn" the other person's love. It's all about finding and embracing your voice, even when everything stacked against you, and finding strength in community, and I think that's wonderful. The story is relatively well-paced and keeps you invested as the stakes get higher and higher.

All that said, I still had some problems with the story. As I touched on before, the ratio between queer joy/euphoria and queer trauma felt a little bit off to me. Again, being bullied, being harassed, being misgendered, being targeted are all extremely real and valid experiences that many queer teens, especially, are forced to endure just for being themselves. I'm not here to say the traumatic elements are "unrealistic," because they're not. But it's hard for me to see myself recommending this book to a young reader, for example, and promising them an uplifting and empowering queer story, because there is so much heavy content to wade through in order to get there. I don't expect everyone to want to dive head-first into a very triggering story that explicitly discusses depressive episodes, detailed suicide ideation, death threats, hate crimes, physical assault, public outings and cyberbullying, etc. etc. While it is a hopeful story that's ultimately working towards a happy ending, I see how it could potentially feel tiresome for a queer reader to have to sit with for any length of time.

Another major issue I had with the story was the positioning of the supporting cast, especially in terms of racial diversity. Like I said before, Carey is white and most of their close friends are white. The exception are two friends that they make over the course of the story: Phoebe, a young Black pansexual theater prodigy, and Blanca, a queer Latinx journalist for the school paper. I can't say whether it was a conscious choice on the author's part, but it bothered me that a majority of the labor in this story is undertaken by both Phoebe and Blanca.

It's not a stretch to say that if it were not for them and their specific experience and expertise, the whole #LetCareySing movement would never have taken off. Phoebe is doing a majority of the organization, she is the one who comes up with the plan, she plays a large part in staging the protests and petitioning the school district. Blanca, as a school journalist, has insider information to the school's publications and also has intel on a "shadow gossip site" that shares unsanctioned, often slanderous stories about students, as written anonymously by other students. She is also the one who has connections that would allow her to potentially bring that site down and name its creators. Were it not for her connections and her expertise, it's unlikely that the offenders in this story would have faced any kind of lasting consequences.

I love both Phoebe and Blanca as characters, but not only did they feel like token Black and brown characters, but they were the ones assuming almost all the labor of Carey's movement. Without their labor, #LetCareySing would not have been possible, and it is their labor that allows for Carey to be "the face" of the movement while relying heavily on their friends' work. On the one hand, I love seeing the queer community come together for each other, I love seeing friends wanting to help their friends, and I understand that the rights and protections they're fighting for have larger implications that will undoubtedly impact all of the students in the school, not just Carey. On the other hand, it's a reinforcement of how white queer folks garner recognition and come to be seen as "groundbreaking trailblazers" when in reality, they're standing on the shoulders and the labor of Black and brown communities. Regardless of intention, that's how the group dynamic is positioned, and it doesn't sit well with me.

(There were also some instances of Carey and their white friends casually appropriating AAVE, and it's never really challenged on the page. Phoebe says once that it "doesn't really work for them," but it's never brought up again. I couldn't figure out where this should fit into the review, but I thought it should be noted.)

To top it all off, I found the climax of the story and the resolution of the plot points to be somewhat unsatisfying. I won't say much to avoid spoilers, but part of the #LetCareySing movement is trying to hold a violent, homophobic teacher to account and potentially getting him to resign, and the way his storyline wrapped up felt a little bit like a cop out. And after all the trauma, all the pain, all the violence, I wanted the pay-off to be powerful, incredible, and over-the-top, but the story wraps up relatively quickly without really lingering on the joy or the triumph. I feel like a natural bookend to the story would be getting to see the production of the musical, which is what incites the whole story in the first place, but the entire production ends up being glossed over. I felt like there was a lot of missed opportunities when it came to resolving various plot points, and I think that boils down to how the story is frontloaded with all this trauma to the point where, spatially, it doesn't leave room for the ending to fully play out.

So I'm conflicted. This story is important, it does a lot of good and is eventually working its way towards hope and empowerment, and it centers a queer identity that we don't see nearly enough of in media and fiction. I had such high hopes for it and enjoyed many aspects of the story, but the way everything played out just left me feeling a little stranded as a reader. This is not to say this is a story that's not worth telling or reading, but just that it has its pros and its cons and I can see it being a polarizing book. I think my concerns with the story are valid, but I can also appreciate what the story was attempting to do.

This is a rare case where I won't be assigning a star rating. Hopefully what I've said here is enough to help you decide whether or not this book is for you. I'm still looking forward to whatever Steven Salvatore writes next, because I think they hold a lot of potential and talent, even if this book didn't end up being my favorite. 

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