Ren reviews Caged by Destiny Hawkins

TW: PTSD, mental abuse, physical abuse, domestic abuse, gun violence, and mentions of sexual assault.

At the beginning of the story, main character Rose is eight years old and recently abducted. Our antagonist Arnold runs a child fighting ring, and Rose makes him money.

The details involving the collapse of the fighting racket, the rescue of the (many) kidnapped children, and Arnold’s arrest are all very vague, but the majority of the novel takes place many years later. Rose (now a high school senior) has recently moved to Ohio following an ‘incident’ at her old school in California. The novel is written entirely from Rose’s first person POV, and in the initial chapters her narration is a little world-wise for an eight-year-old, but it’s spot on for the part of the brooding teenager.

Rose attempts to forge a new life for herself; from her very first day, she’s drawn to Abigale and Lorena. Abigale is an easy-going girl who falls into a natural rhythm with Rose, and Lorena is the instant crush who leaves Rose tongue-tied. Abigale’s friend Cameron is on the wrestling team; when Rose expresses an interest in joining, the wrestling coach forces her to have a private pre-tryout tryout match against Cameron… because there is concern for her safety. Because wrestling is dangerous (for ladies), of course.

The idea is insulting, but Cameron doesn’t stoop to defensive posturing when he loses.  He’s quick to give Rose the credit she deserves for a good fight, and they become fast friends. Life is good for a short time, but Rose soon finds herself spiraling as she tries to move forward without ever really dealing with everything that has happened in her past.

There is a lot to this book that doesn’t make sense: Rose’s parents are killed prior to her rescue, and so she is placed in the care of her aunt. We learn through Rose that Aunt Shannon physically and mentally abused her for years, but Ohio!Shannon has sudden regrets and is committed to being an attentive guardian.

Arnold never actually goes to jail because ‘someone went in his place,’ and no further explanation is given. (Note that this is not a matter of having another human convicted in Arnold’s place; Arnold is sent to jail, and through some wild series of events to which the reader is not privy, it goes unnoticed that he is not in fact the one who arrives at the jail to serve the sentence.)

The California ‘incident’ at the old high school involved Rose accidentally killing someone, but the act is pardoned because of her special circumstances.

The plot is rushed along through coincidence and half the student body is tied to the fighting ring in some obscure manner by the end. But there is beauty to be found in the racial diversity. Rose is black, Lorena is mixed, and many of the characters are pretty pointedly not white.

There is a humorous moment early on in which Rose tries to figure out Lorena’s background; being mixed myself, I have been on the receiving end of the “what are you” question from so many white people, I am entirely unfazed by it. But Rose’s manner of venturing a few reasonable guesses caused a familiar tug of appreciation for People of Colour and their ability to ask the same question in a way that comes across as curious and not rude as fuck.

“Are you Guyanese?” “Which one of your parents is Indian?”

These are assuming questions, but at least there’s a degree of recognition; it doesn’t sound like you’re asking someone about their rescue dog.

Additional Pros:

Rose knows her strengths, and she is unapologetically confident.

The queer content is light, but there is bi and lesbian representation.

Additional Cons:

One of the wrestling team bros is dating Lorena in the earlier chapters, and he regularly abuses her. Because of a ‘lack of proof’, Cameron very problematically extends the benefit of a doubt to Abusive Wrestling Douchebag.

Aunt Shannon makes a dismissive comment regarding her relief that Rose is ‘at least interested in somebody’ after she begins spending more time with Lorena.

Rose dresses Lorena up ‘like a tomboy’ after a sleepover to ensure that Cameron won’t hit on her.

The plot is not particularly well executed, but it shows immense imagination.

Danika reviews How To Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Even before this book came out, I have been hearing 100% positive things about it. Lots of people whose opinions I respect have sung its praises, and with bi & lesbian YA readers, it’s widely accepted as a favourite. But despite these glowing reviews, I was reluctant to pick it up. Why? Honestly? Because I didn’t like the cover. It looked so bland! I know that’s a silly reason, but that’s why it took so long to reach the top of my TBR stack. And in fact, it’s probably only because I read it on my phone instead of picking up the physical copy that I even made the leap then. I’m happy to say that I was utterly mistaken in putting it off, and everyone else was completely in the right. I loved this book.

This book deftly deals with grief and unhealthy/abusive family dynamics. Grace’s father died when she was young, and since then, her mother hasn’t acted much like a mom. Maggie has been dragging Grace from one boyfriend’s house to another, and Grace is used to following her into bars and pulling her out of dangerous situations. She feels like it is her responsibility to watch after Maggie.

This is a horrible situation to be in as a teenager, and Grace is obviously suppressing a lot of anger and pain. She never knows what she’s coming home to. She’s constantly scared that Maggie has gone out drinking or ended up with a questionable guy. Trying to grow up quickly and hold it together for the both of them means something has to give. I appreciated was Grace as a character because she has deep friendships and cares about people, but she also lashes out in ways that are very believable. She wants to reach out, even as she feels that making connections is meaningless, that she is trapped in this situation. It makes her a complex but relatable character.

The relationships between characters are nuanced: Grace’s best friend and his mother are a solid source of support for her, but Luca’s mother and Maggie have a strained relationship that causes Grace to try to cover up for Maggie. In the meantime, Luca and his mom have taken in Eva (Grace’s love interest), who has recently lost her mother. Maggie takes Eva under her wing, causing Grace to agonize over whether she should tell Eva the whole truth about Maggie.

That’s a lot going on, and it’s only scratching the surface. Maggie and Grace are living with Maggie’s new boyfriend, who happens to be the father of Grace’s ex-boyfriend, meaning she’s stuck in the same house as the guy who publicly posted their suggestive text conversations after they broke up. Grace desperately wants to pursue a career as a pianist–her passion–but is afraid to leave Maggie alone, and the deadline for her life-altering audition is rapidly approaching.

The heart of the story, though, is between Maggie, Grace, and Eva. Grace cherishes the relationship she forms with Eva, where she feels like she can be herself, while resenting Eva for having a more positive relationship with Maggie than she does. The push-and-pull between Grace and all the people in her life leaves her in a situation that feels unwinnable. It’s heartbreaking to see how Maggie lets Grace down, over and over. Particularly because it’s so believable. Maggie is not a cartoonish villain, but she’s a terrible mother who puts her own child in danger and doesn’t even notice.

In case it isn’t obvious, I highly recommend this. I thought it was masterfully handled, and I was completely invested in Grace and Eva–individually and as a couple. My only complaint was that I thought Grace’s ex-boyfriend, Jay, got off the hook too easily for what he did. But overall, the treatment of abuse and grief layered with a bisexual (yes, using the word bisexual) love story and accompanied with a thoughtful examination of race and art (Eva is a black ballet dancer) all came together into a five star read for me, regardless of the cover.


Indie Lit Awards, GLBTQ

I was lucky enough to be one of the judges for this year’s ILA GLBTQ section. Before we select the winner, I’d like to post some of my thoughts on the lesbian entry.

[Cover redacted due to cutting scars that might be triggering]

Scars is actually the only nominee with a lesbian protagonist. But that’s definitely not the main issue in Scars. This novel is mostly about being raped as a child and cutting to deal with the pain. It is not an easy book to read. I had to put it down at times because of the graphic details of her cutting, though that’s not a complaint. I struggled with how I felt about this book, because on the one hand it seemed very, very dramatic, especially at the end. (She is being stalked by her childhood rapist, whose identity she has blocked out, leaving every adult male in her life a possible suspect.) On the other hand, I don’t know how this story could have been told without seeming dramatic, and it’s a story worth telling. I really liked some of the secondary characters, especially her girlfriend (and her therapist, who I’m glad is described positively).

Have you read any of the finalists? What did you think of it?