More Than a Statistic: Every Variable of Us by Charles A. Bush

the cover of Every Variable of Us

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Alexis Duncan is a Black teenage girl from Philadelphia whose incredible basketball skills are her one ticket to receiving a scholarship and getting out of her poverty-stricken neighbourhood. However, after getting injured during a shooting at a high school party and being told she will never play again, her dreams vanish. Aamani Chakrabarti, the new student in school, believes that Alexis has the potential to thrive even outside of an exclusively athletic environment, and pushes her to join her on the high school’s STEM team. Alexis agrees (reluctantly) and eventually starts to learn that she has a passion outside of basketball—astronomy. But with the chaos in her personal life constantly making her second-guess if she can actually strive for a better future for herself, and her feelings for Aamani becoming ever more confusing, Alexis must fight to not let her doubts get in her own way.

I read this book back in December of 2021 and still, two and a half years later, I remember so many details of the emotional trainwreck it put me through. I made the unwise decision of reading it on a plane, and not only did I finish it within one sitting, but I also had to find a way to sob silently next to sleeping strangers for the entire second half of the story. There is something about the way that Bush wrote these characters that made me so deeply attached to them right from the beginning. I was incredibly invested in the storyline, the characters’ relationship, and especially Alexis’s character development. I really appreciate Bush writing a main character that you can root for, while still making her realistic and flawed. Alexis is a product of her environment and has opinions about other people and the world that can be ignorant, bigoted, and uninformed—opinions that happen to also impact her own identity and self-worth. Those opinions are challenged by the text, specifically through Aamani’s character, in a way that is both subtle and poignant. I think authors sometimes struggle to write effective redemption arcs for their characters, which made it that much more satisfying to watch Alexis’ redemption unfold in a carefully crafted way.

The other great thing about this book is that it absolutely is made for its target audience. Bush wrote it for a young adult reader, and you can tell that he made sure that the characters, their struggles, their anxieties, their fears, and their friendships would feel relatable to that audience, without underestimating what they could handle in a story or what they would want to read about. I think it shows just how much respect Bush has for his young readers to know that they would be able to not just handle heavy themes such as internalized misogyny and homophobia, racism, poverty, violence, and drug abuse, but concretely understand, relate to, and analyse these themes. I love when authors give their young audience the benefit of the doubt and don’t try to over simplify or sugarcoat serious storylines. It allows teenage readers to access literature that is more than just informative, but also liberating and self-reflecting.

I’ve recommended this book a lot over the years, in many different circumstances. To readers looking for: underrated novels; heart-breaking storylines; books that accurately center characters of colour; sapphic books that aren’t romance novels but are nonetheless romantic; books that heal the part of you that struggled to accept your queerness when you were younger; stories that discuss the intersection of race and queerness; novels that make you cry sad tears; novels that make you cry happy tears; books that will put you in a reading slump; books that will get you out of a reading slump. There are dozens of reasons to pick up this book and exactly zero reasons not to. It remains, to this day, one of my most memorable reading experiences and one of my favourite go-to recommendations.

Representation: Black bisexual disabled main character, Indian-American lesbian love interest

Content warnings: gun violence, gore, drug abuse, homophobia, islamophobia, biphobia, death, abuse, racism, transphobia

Meagan Kimberly reviews Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

the cover of Perfect on Paper

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Darcy Phillips secretly runs the relationship advice service that comes from the mysterious locker 89 at her school. When Alexander Brougham discovers her secret, he enlists her help in getting his girlfriend Winona back. Everything becomes complicated when her secret gets out, including how she used the locker for selfish reasons. While Darcy prides herself on her 95% success rate, she still has a lot to learn about people, relationships, and herself.

There’s so much teen drama that could easily delve into cringe territory. But Gonzales uses great finesse to illustrate how complicated and messy emotions can get. The characters all make frustrating mistakes, but her deft writing leaves room for compassion. At every turn, she gives her characters the chance to learn and grow.

The back and forth enemies to lovers between Darcy and Brougham is absolutely delicious. Perhaps calling it enemies to lovers is a bit strong. It’s more like moderately annoyed with each other to smitten. Still, seeing each character unravel to one another with every moment they spend together does a great job portraying how hard it is for some people to let others in. These are both characters that don’t let many people see their true selves often, so to do that for each other creates a beautiful romance you can’t help but get wrapped up in.

A cast of queer side characters makes it all feel like a family within this school community. There’s Ainsley, Darcy’s sister who’s transgender; Ray, the other out bisexual in their school; Finn, Brougham’s gay best friend; and a bunch of other students and their teacher Mr. Elliott part of the Queer and Questioning (Q and Q) Club.

While Darcy spends the majority of the book doling out relationship advice, both romantic and platonic, she has a hard time seeing herself and her relationships. She puts her best friend Brooke on a pedestal and calls it love. She fails to see her own shortcomings. She jumps to conclusions about Brougham and sees what she wants to see. But throughout the whole story, you keep wanting her to get better. And she does.

Gonzales creates moments that touch on tough subjects like divorce and fighting parents, and how those relationships at home affect the people these characters become. She also weaves in confronting biphobia, both from fellow queer characters and internalized by Darcy. She begins to question her bisexuality and if she belongs to the queer community if she has feelings for a cishet boy.

There’s a lot of angst and anxiety, but always a glimpse of hope for these characters.

Trigger warning: Biphobia

Meagan Kimberly reviews If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Childhood friends Sahar and Nasreen are desperately in love, but living in Tehran, their love is forbidden. Nasreen wants to lead the life her parents want for her, to marry a good man with a good job who can take care of her, even if it means she has to give up her childhood sweetheart. Sahar can’t lose Nasreen, so she considers transitioning into a man, as that is acceptable in their culture. It’s a novel filled with teen angst, questions of gender and sexuality, coming of age and deciding how to stay true to yourself while holding on to the people you love.

When it comes to the discussions of trans people and transitioning, it’s hard for me to speak clearly to it because that’s not my own experience. But throughout the novel, the discussions explicitly state “transsexual,” which I’m not sure if it’s an outdated term or if it’s specific to Iranian culture on the subject. Because in this culture, trans people are acceptable as it is seen as “fixing” the problem of homosexuality. There’s a lot to unload in that frame of mind altogether because lumping gender and sexual orientation into one doesn’t allow for nuance.

There’s also an interesting division within the LGBTQ+ community. Sahar’s gay cousin, Ali, introduces her to Tehran’s queer community to show her she’s not the only one and there’s nothing wrong with her. But Sahar is resistant to the idea that she is a lesbian. Moreover, there’s another trans character she meets who shows repulsion toward gay people, calling it unnatural.

Farizan creates dynamic, imperfect characters in Sahar and Nasreen. It would be easy to categorize them as overdramatic teen girls and to get easily annoyed with their personalities. At times, Sahar becomes frustrating, even as she acknowledges her flaws and irrationality. But through all that emotion, it’s a delight to see her go through the growing pains and become firm in her identity.

I admit I found Nasreen harder to sympathize with. She’s not a bad person, but she is more selfish and self-centered in comparison to Sahar. However, she’s never condemned for her desire to live comfortably. She’s not the kind of person to fight her role as a woman in her society, and it doesn’t make her weaker or inferior. She simply chooses to survive the best way she knows how.

That doesn’t mean I think she deserves Sahar. Nasreen’s treatment of her best friend is never justified by her desire to survive and live a comfortable life. It’s this complex and messy narrative that makes the novel a compelling read. Nothing’s black and white. Characters aren’t necessarily good or evil. There are no right answers.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

Sahar and Nasreen don’t end up together. It’s a heartbreaking moment for Sahar, but it feels like the right choice for the story. However, there’s a spark of hope at the end as the novel wraps up with Sahar meeting a new girl at college.