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 Nico & Tucker by Rachel Gold

When Being Emily by Rachel Gold was published in 2012, it was one of the first YA novels to be from the point of view of a trans girl (although it was not own voices). Similarly, Nico & Tucker is representing a segment of the LGBTQIA+ community not often seen in media: nonbinary and intersex people. Nico is both, though yo is quick to point out that those don’t always, or even usually line up. Nico is a survivor of medical trauma due to being intersex, and Tucker is a survivor of rape, and both are discussed several times in the story, so I would definitely give trigger warnings for those.

This is a sequel to Just Girls, but I think it would work as a standalone. The writing is more functional than anything else, with exposition dropped in wherever it comes up, including in dialogue. This is definitely drawn forward more by the ideas than a poetic style or fast-paced plot. One thing I got hung up on was that the major point of conflict included entirely unnecessary failure to communicate, which is a personal pet peeve of mine. If they had just talked about it, it would have been resolved so much quicker! And considering how savvy Nico is with healthy coping strategies, it was particular egregious.

The strength of the story is in its ideas. Intersex and trans experiences are centred, including a breadth of representation: Nico is not the only intersex character, the only trans character, or the only nonbinary character. This definitely seems to be trying to be an educational text, just as Being Emily was. I can’t speak to the representation, because I am neither trans nor intersex.

Of course, Nico is not the only main character. The perspective swaps between yo and Tucker. Tucker is on her own journey with its own struggles. She was recently raped by her ex-girlfriend, someone she had loved and trusted. She is struggling to cope with that, and feels like she’s alone in this experience, coming from a same-sex partner. She prides herself in being strong, and is finding it very difficult to admit that she needs help to deal with this.

She is also dealing with more of an existential problem around her own identity. “Lesbian” is a label that she identifies with strongly, but she is also attracted to Nico. Is she only attracted to Nico because she views yo as being essentially a woman? Nico also isn’t sure how to handle this, feeling that yo is being misgendered–and that fear is not unjustified. It isn’t helped by the fact that in their queer circles is another lesbian who seems to have appointed herself the gender police, and is quick to dismiss Nico’s gender as well as Tucker’s identity.

Which leads to the depiction of a queer community in Nico & Tucker. They are in university, and have built a network of other LGBTQIA+ people, often around activism. This is a lifeline for both of them at different times: Nico has people to go to who will understand when yo is talking yos medical concerns or gender. Tucker has people who she knows will support her when she is triggered and reliving her rape. This is a great source of support and strength–though it can also be a source of gossip, drama, and pain.

This story shines when Nico and Tucker are together, communicating effectively. They can discuss consent and boundaries. They support each other, and understand first hand having trauma and needing to recognize how that affects their lives.

I would love to see a review of this book by an intersex person (as well as a nonbinary reviewer), because so much of this has to deal with educating about being intersex. I do think this is an important book in LGBTQIA+ literature, and I continue to be drawn to how Rachel Gold realistically depicts queer community, and the inclusion of geeky elements in her stories (Nico & Tucker talks about cosplay a lot, and how it connects with Nico embodying yos gender). I think what I said in 2016 about My Year Zero is still how I feel today: Rachel Gold seems to be doing now what Julie Anne Peters did ten years ago: pushing LGBT representation in YA [and New Adult] forward, one book at a time, making room for even more representative and authentic stories to come.

I have also reviewed all of Rachel Gold’s previous books, so here are the links, if you’re interested: Being EmilyMy Year Zeroand Just Girls.