Pancakes in Paris, by Craig Carlson****

pancakesinparisThe American dream has become harder for ordinary people to attain, but Carlson is living proof that it can happen; yet some of us may need to go somewhere else to find it. In his upbeat, congenial memoir, “the pancake guy” chronicles his journey, from the kid of a wretchedly dysfunctional home—and I don’t use the term lightly—to the owner of Breakfast in America, his own restaurant franchise in France. This title was a bright spot in my reading lineup last month, and it can be a bright spot in yours too. Thank you to Sourcebooks and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

Is this a thing that any kid in America could have done? Not so much. Carlson has a rare blend of  intelligence, organization, and social skills; above and beyond all else, he possesses unstoppable determination, clear focus, and a work ethic that never flags for one tiny minute until he discovers he is close to working himself to death. Those lacking talent and determination may never reach the end of the rainbow as this author has done; that much is clear. But oh, what fun to share the ride with him!

Given his family’s expectations for him, or lack thereof, it’s amazing he finished high school, and his acquisition of a college education is more remarkable still. But it is his junior year at a state college in Connecticut that plants the seed that will sprout and grow into a way of life; he is invited to spend his school year in Paris. Once he’s there, the tumblers click, and he knows that he has found his people.

As Carlson’s story unspools, he debunks stereotypes believed by many Americans, and a few of them are ones I believed too until I read this memoir. Carlson delivers setting in a way much more immediate than any number of Google searches can provide, but it’s his insights regarding French culture, law, and society that make his memoir so captivating. The prose is lean and occasionally hilarious. He plucks choice, juicy vignettes from his journey all along the way, and this makes us feel as if we are riding quietly on his shoulder taking it all in as he goes.

If you’ve never been to France and don’t intend to, you can still enjoy this book. If you don’t like pancakes or any aspect of the traditional American breakfast, it doesn’t matter. Carlson is enormously entertaining, and so his story stands on its own merits. I am furthermore delighted to see that the only recipe that is inserted into his narrative is actually a joke. A small collection of actual recipes is inserted at the end, and although I never, ever, ever do this, I intend to try one of them out tonight! But even if you skip the recipe section entirely, you should read this memoir. It’s too much fun to miss. The best news of all is that it’s available for purchase right now.

Get it, and read it!

Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford*****

radiogirlsFearless women change history.

Radio Girls is a fictionalized account of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the remarkable women that shaped it. As we near the centennial of women’s right to vote in the USA and the UK, Stratford’s riveting historical fiction could not be better timed. I received my copy free and in advance thanks to Net Galley and Berkley Press in exchange for this honest review. I am overjoyed to be able to recommend this new release unequivocally. You have to read it.

Maisie Musgrave is born in Canada and raised in New York City. Tossed out of the nest without a parachute by unloving family, she makes her way to Britain, the place her heritage began. She wanders into the BBC half-starved and looking for an honest way to pay for her room and board, hoping in the meanwhile to meet a man she can marry for financial security.

At the BBC she meets supervisor Hilda Matheson, who fears nothing:  “Give that woman an inch and she takes the entire British Isles,” a colleague remarks.

Under the firm and commanding wing of Matheson, Maisie’s confidence and talent grow daily. It’s a very good thing, because over the course of time, more will be demanded of her than secretarial skills and errand-running.  My busy fingers marked one clever, articulate passage after another to share with you, but to enjoy Stratford’s fresh, humorous word-smithery, you really need the book itself.

Occasional historical figures drop in—Lady Astor, who was a moving force in the development of the BBC and a champion of women; Virginia Woolf, early feminist writer and crusader. Yet Stratford metes out these references in small enough batches that it’s clear she isn’t relying on them to hold her story together; rather, they are the cherry on the sundae.

Setting of time and place, pacing, and a million twists and turns in plot make this a good read, but it’s the character development that makes it a great one. I found myself wanting to talk to Maisie and cheering her on when she broke through to higher ground personally and professionally. I feared for her when she veered into dangerous waters and nearly wept with relief each time she was able to extricate herself and move forward. There isn’t a slow moment or an inconsistent one, and the protagonist is just the character women need to see right now as we move forward too.

How much of this is based on truth and how much made up for the sake of a great story? Read the author’s notes; she spills it all.

All told, Sarah-Jane Stratford’s historical feminist tale is perfect for today’s modern feminists—and those that love us.

This book is available to the public Tuesday, June 14. Change the screen and order a copy for yourself now. You won’t want to miss it!

 

The Fat Artist and Other Stories, by Benjamin Hale*****

thefatartistI like short stories. My Goodreads library tells me I have munched my way through 89 collections and anthologies; yet I can tell you that there is nothing even remotely similar to what Hale offers here. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for permitting me to view the DRC for the purpose of an honest review. You should get a copy May 17, 2016 when it is released, so that when it is immediately banned by various school boards you will know what they’re screaming about.

The ribbon that binds these brilliant, bizarre tales is that each of them features a social outlier as a protagonist. We start with the airline flight from hell in “Don’t Worry Baby”; you have doubtless flown at least once on a flight with a small child whose mother you long to smack upside the head for her dreadful parenting skills, but this one wins the prize. The second story that deals with Judgment Day didn’t work for me; first there were some hyperliterate science references that zinged right over my head, and then the sick factor got the better of me, and so I skipped that one and moved on to the title story. Having read the rest, I am inclined to chalk that second one up to my own quirks rather than Hale’s skill set.

When I came to “The Fat Artist”, I could only bow in awe. I was overcome with frustration because no one else in my household enjoys literary fiction, and so I couldn’t share. In a nutshell, the protagonist, a performance artist, seeks to eat himself to death while setting a worldwide fatness record. I actually gasped several times while reading this one.

Although the writing within this collection provides outstanding examples of every imaginable literary device, those that teach high school literature would be wise not to place it on classroom shelves unless you work at an alternative school. A very alternative school. A very, very, very…well, hopefully my meaning is clear. There is so much edgy material, from language, to explicit sexual description, to sexual roles and gender ambiguity, that I can see the villagers coming with their torches, their hot tar, their feather pillows. Teachers, don’t do this to yourselves. Get a personal copy; take it home and enjoy it; then pass it on to someone that can be trusted to appreciate it. Seriously.

Four more stories follow, and they’re all strong. “Leftovers” deals with a middle aged man in the midst of an extramarital affair when his problem child unexpectedly appears, ready to ransack the family vacation home for valuables to sell in order to feed his addiction. The way this tale unfolds gives me goose bumps.

The next two tales deal with sexual roles and ambiguity. I came away from “Beautiful Boy”, which made me realize, whether by the author’s intention or not, that men that choose to cross dress only as a diversion are looking at the best of both worlds, never having to confront the glass ceiling because they’ll be at that office meeting clad in their conservative suit and tie like always; it reminds me of white actors that wore black face.

The final story of a troubled brother that lands in the basement of his brother, the MIT researcher, and is provided with a job driving squid from the docks to the laboratory, is as brilliant as all the others, and equally esoteric.

Hale is wholly original, but if I were to compare his writing to any other author, it would be to that of Michael Chabon.

Bring your literary skills to the feast that Hale has laid for you; you will need them.  It’s one hell of a banquet.

The Girls, by Emma Cline*****

thegirlsThe Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson Murders, a terrible killing spree that stunned the USA in the 1960s before any mass shootings had occurred, when Americans were still reeling from the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Manson, a career criminal with a penchant for violence yet possessed of a strange sort of charisma, attracted a number of young women and girls into a cult of his own founding. Later they would commit a series of grisly murders in the hills outside Berkeley, and it is this cult and these crimes on which Cline’s story is based. Great thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book will be published June 14, 2016.

Evie is an only child of the middle class; she is well provided for, but her parents have split up and her presence is getting in the way of her mother’s love life. Evie needs her mother’s attention now that she has entered her teens and so she pushes the limits in small ways, then in larger ones. When it becomes clear that her mother just doesn’t want her around, Evie looks elsewhere and finds herself drawn to a feral-looking young woman named Suzanne, who has unsuccessfully tried to shoplift something from a nearby store. Before long, Evie is sleeping on a mattress at the rural commune where Suzanne lives, eating from the communal kitchen and being used sexually by the group’s charismatic leader, and then by a man in the music industry that Russell, the founder, wants to please in the hope of having his music published.  Russell dispenses hallucinogenic drugs freely to make the girls more compliant.

We know immediately that this place, the commune, is not a good place. When we find that the babies  born to young women that live there—in this era before Roe versus Wade gave women the right to choose—are segregated from their young mothers and the pitiful way they regress and attempt to attach themselves to various females in search of a mother or mother figure, that’s a huge tell. But when Evie arrives she doesn’t want to know these things, at least not yet. All Evie wants is to be with Suzanne.

The story’s success isn’t anchored so much in the story line, a story that’s been tapped by previous writers, but in the dead-accuracy of setting, both the details of the time and in every other respect as well, from home furnishings, to slang, to clothing, to the way women were regarded by men. The women’s movement hadn’t taken root yet. This reviewer grew up during this time, and every now and then some small period bit of minutiae sparks a memory. In fact, the whole story seems almost as if a shoebox of snapshots from pre-digital days had been spilled onto the floor, then arranged in order.

The other key aspect that makes this story strong is the character development. Evie doesn’t have to live in poverty among bad people, but she feels both angry at her mother and hemmed in by the conventional expectations of her family and friends. Her boundary-testing costs her the loyalty of her best friend, really her only friend, and so she casts about for a new set of peers. Her mother prefers the fiction that she is still visiting Connie, the friend that has disowned her, and this lie provides Evie with a lot of wiggle room on evenings when her mother is with her boyfriend and finds it convenient for Evie not to be home.

As for Evie, what has started out to be an adventure, a bold experiment in branching out from the middle class suburban life she’s always known, gradually begins to darken. But the worse things get, the more important it is to her to prove her fealty to Suzanne, to not be rejected a second time as she was with Connie. Hints are dropped that probably she ought to just go back where she came from before it’s too late, but she is determined not to hear them.  I want to grab her by the sleeve and get her out of there; Evie won’t budge. Once she is in trouble at home for the things she had done on behalf of the group, her desire to avoid her home and stay with Suzanne grows even stronger, which leads her into more trouble yet. Clues are dropped that something big is going to happen, something that our protagonist maybe should avoid, but she plunges forward anyway with the bullheaded determination peculiar to adolescence.

All told, Evie’s future doesn’t look good.

Readers among the Boomer generation will love this book for its striking accuracy; those that are younger will feel as if they have traveled to a time and place they have never seen before. One way or another, Cline’s masterful storytelling weaves a powerful spell that doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Riveting, and highly recommended.

Tears in the Grass, by Lynda Archer***

tearsinthegrassTears in the Grass marks the debut of novelist Lynda Archer. It tells the story of three generations of Cree women, and in doing so also provides the reader with that tribe’s rich history and culture. Thank you to Net Galley and Dundurn for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This book is available for purchase now.

Elinor is old. She is old enough to have been through the shameful period in North America in which Native children were forcibly wrenched from the arms of their parents and forced to attend boarding schools in order to become assimilated and indoctrinated into the dominant culture. Her traumatic memories are harsh reading, but it’s the only way that story can be shared with any degree of honesty. And there’s something she has held back from her daughter Louise and her granddaughter Alice: she has another daughter out there somewhere. She was raped by a Caucasian man, carried the baby to term, and then it was stolen from her. She knows that baby, now a woman, is out there somewhere, and she wants to meet her before she dies. She turns to Alice to get the job done:

 

“’Are you listening? I want you to find that child.’

‘ I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Your mother’s sister. Your aunt. My daughter. I was raped in that damned school.’”

 

The point of view shifts throughout the narrative, with the dominant one being that of Elinor, but also including those of Louise, Alice, and a bison. It doesn’t always flow in a way that makes sense; sometimes we are rolling right along through one of the women’s narrative and suddenly the thoughts being voiced are clearly those of an animal, with no transition to mark the change. The first time, it is that of a taxidermied bison in a museum, and the effect strikes me as somewhat cartoonish rather than reverent. At other times, there is no possible way that the animal in question could be a bison, unless we allow for some magical realism.  Remember, however, that I read a DRC, and sometimes details that are going to be present in the finished work, such as lines that mark a change of setting or point of view, are missing.  Your copy may make these changes clearer.

A lot of social justice issues are worked into the flow of these three generational narratives. Louise recalls the Vietnam War, which makes her a senior citizen also. She remembers the slaying of Dr. King, and if these details are to be utilized to establish setting and develop the character, they might be more effective if included earlier in Louise’s narrative.

Alice seems the easiest for the reader to relate to, even though my own age is closer to that of Louise. Her contemporary spin and flexible thinking are more in line with what most young people of any age are likely to resemble. Her affection for her grandmother comes through the page, and although all three women are effectively developed, she seems the most tangible. Alice is lesbian, and so there is also this aspect of social justice as a subscript, though it stays primarily in the background.

But let’s go back to the grandmother for a moment. Along with the need to meet her stolen daughter, Elinor has one more key task on her bucket list: she wants to know what the secret is that Louise has been hiding from her all these years. And Louise doesn’t want to tell her or even think about it. It’s an interesting twist, and adds to the characters of both Elinor and Louise.

Though shaky in places, Tears in the Grass is a worthy debut, and the subscript, the history of the Cree people at the hands of European settlers, is a tough read but an essential one, a story often left out of the core curriculums currently taught. Kudos to Archer, who will be a writer to watch in the future.

The Black Glove, by Geoffrey Miller*****

The Black GloveThe place is Hollywood, California; the time is 1980. Terry Traven is a private detective specializing in finding the runaway children of the wealthy. He is offered a job that appears to be more of the same; a local mogul’s son has disappeared, and Dad wants him found. But then the disappearance turns out to be a kidnapping, and the kidnapping turns out to be a murder, at which point all hell breaks loose. This story is fast-paced and though it’s set a generation or two ago, the issues with police brutality—otherwise known as “the black glove”—make it more socially relevant than your average piece of crime fiction. There are other components that will sit well with those with an eye for social justice, too. Thank you Brash Books Priority Reviewer’s Circle for the DRC, which I received in exchange for a fair and honest review. This book is available for sale right now.

The beginning of the book doesn’t appear to be auspicious. A guy walks into Traven’s office and presents him with a dossier that tells him all about himself, at least in the words of intelligence sources. The dossier is too lengthy–we see every word, pages and pages of italicized material– and is clearly a fast, easy way for the author to introduce us to the character. I was prepared to be let down.

Once we get past that sloppy introduction, however, the story is complex and fast paced enough to remind me of James Lee Burke’s detective series. Toss in some quirky names, like Senator Suspenders and a punk rock band called The Dead Cherries, and add a whole lot of action. And yet somehow we find ourselves discussing issues of race, gender, and gay rights without slowing the pace at all. I almost always take off at least a star for the use of the “n” word, but the way it is used here isn’t just some cheap stunt to show us that a bad guy is really rotten or ignorant; instead, the characters manage to embark on an abbreviated discussion of race and white privilege without ever becoming preachy or distracting from the main thread.  Some of it is very indirect, and it took me awhile to get a handle on it. In other places, it’s crystal clear, as when the visiting room at the jail is “gas chamber green…a cruelly subtle reminder to the inmate of his loss of freedom.”

The story’s subscript demonstrates how women and people of color are sometimes so overwhelmed by the racism and sexism that is inherent in US culture—and even more so when this novel was written than now—that we find ourselves internalizing that hatred. Likewise gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals; those from the Boomer generation will recall just how difficult this time period was for anyone that wasn’t straight.  And given that Miller wrote this during that time, I consider this story to be courageously written, a gutsy story by a writer unafraid to take a hard look at a controversial topic.

In fact, Brash Books hasn’t introduced a detective this brainy and complex, yet entertaining since they brought out Barbara Neely’s Blanche White series. What a tremendous find! I wish there was a whole series with this detective.

Meanwhile chances are excellent that you haven’t read this book yet, and if you lean left and enjoy a good detective novel, this is one you should scoop up right away.  It’s strong fiction with a progressive thread running through it. Don’t miss out.

The Lion’s Mouth, by Anne Holt****

thelionsmouthWho killed Prime Minister Birgitte Volter? Was it the neo-Nazis? The Satanists? Was it a personal thing, perhaps an angry family member? The answer is cleverly built up to, so that the reader has a fair chance of figuring it out, and yet will most likely be surprised. I was.

Thank you, Net Galley and thank you also, Scribner for the DRC. Anne Holt is an established writer and it shows in the way she expertly crafts character and setting. I was at something of a disadvantage, never having been to Norway; the place names had no meaning to me, apart from the names of major cities, and I struggled with the governmental structure. When Parliament was mentioned I was fine, and likewise the Supreme Court made sense, but then we came to the President of the Supreme Court, a prominent figure—is that like a chief justice, or is it a very different construct from that of USA?—and also there is a President of Parliament. Americans should be prepared to either Google these items or accept a certain amount of ambiguity; I chose the latter, and it worked all right for me. I knew that there would be some new terrain when I began reading, and as part of my goal was to widen my own reading world a little bit, it was worth battling the unknown. A mystery is an accessible way to do this, and I enjoyed it.

The book was originally published in 1997; even so, I found a couple of stereotypes unsettling. The fat jokes seemed inappropriate and disturbing; Little Letvik started out a caricature, and even when she was developed a bit more at the end, it didn’t help much. Ruth-Dorthe is a “blonde bimbo” and “slightly worn Barbie doll”. There was also some slut-shaming that I could have done without.

On the other hand, the character for whom the series is named, Hanne Wilhelmsen, is a lesbian and is the hero of the story. She is sensible, even-tempered, (thin,) and very intelligent. Another character I really enjoy is Billy T, a boisterous, funny fellow who lightens the story considerably. In fact, there were a number of places that made me laugh out loud.

Although the book is part of a series—this novel being the fourth—I liked it just fine as a stand-alone.

All told, it’s a strong work of fiction and a good choice for the mystery lover to add to her collection. With the above reservations, I recommend it to you.

It is available for purchase February 9, 2016.

The Flood Girls, by Richard Fifield*****

TheFloodGirlsIf Fannie Flagg worries that she has no heir, she can relax; Richard Fifield is here. The Flood Girls is his brilliant debut, and you have to read it! Fifield will cut out your heart and feed it to you with a rusty spoon, and he’ll make you like it, too. Hell, he’ll even make you laugh through it. I got the DRC free via Net Galley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review, and I’m going to read it a second time before I archive it as I am supposed to. This is only the second time I have done so after hundreds of galleys have come my way; that should give you a measure of how impressed I am with this title.

From his arresting first line to the deeply satisfying ending, I was completely bound up in this book, only setting it aside as a reminder to myself to delay gratification and make it last a little longer. In the end my e-reader had 177 notes and marks, and every single one of them was there to highlight outstanding imagery, a passage in which yet another character was developed, a place in which he had shown us something important while saying something else, or a place in the text that was drop-dead funny. I would guess the last of these accounts for 100 of those 177 notes.

Let’s start with the premise: Rachel Flood has returned home to Quinn, Montana after many years away. She is here to make amends. It isn’t easy: “A small town never forgets, or forgives.” It’s a tough town, full of people that have survived dozens of harsh 6 month winters. Its people are abrupt and sometimes rude; they don’t suffer fools here.

Rachel’s sponsor has assured her that she doesn’t have to move back to Quinn to make amends; she isn’t here to do penance, after all. Offer the amends and then, whether or not they are accepted, hit the road! But for several reasons, not all of which Rachel understands herself at first, she chooses to stick around, and it isn’t easy. Ultimately, she is cornered into playing in the outfield of The Flood Girls, the local softball team sponsored by the mother she has wronged. She becomes a friend and mentor to Jake, a quirky twelve year old with a fondness for fine fabrics, wardrobe and design, and an intolerant right-wing Fundamentalist stepfather.

Perhaps the most technically impressive aspect of this work is the way Fifield differentiates a very wide cast of characters. I cannot think of any other novel among the 151 books I read and reviewed over the past year in which there were so many characters that were juggled so deftly. When I put down the book, I did a quick finger count of how many characters I could actually name and identify without looking. I stopped at 21, and I didn’t try long or hard. Every single one of these characters, most of whom are wonderfully eccentric, stood out in my mind, apart from two small groups (the silver miners and the Sinclairs) that are treated as such in the text.

It isn’t only the eccentric characters and the small town setting that makes me think of Flagg’s masterpiece, Fried Green Tomatoes; it is also the message. Fifield wants us to know that intolerance will kill us. It is only by accepting and celebrating one another’s differences and quirks that we become part of the human family. We must learn to help and rely upon each other, because we are all we have. That said, The Flood Girls shares Flagg’s spirit, yet it is not derivative, but wholly original.

You don’t have to like baseball to enjoy it.

This hilarious, engaging new novel is for sale to the public February 2, 2016. Very conservative evangelical Christians won’t enjoy it, and it wasn’t written for that audience anyway. It is highly recommended to everyone else. This book will be talked about, and you’ll want to be in on it from the get-go! Put this one at the top of your list.

The Burying Ground, by Janet Kellough ****

This book will be released in a couple of weeks, and I can tell you, it’s already gotten some really good reviews. Since I read and reviewed it clear back in January, I’m reblogging it today.

Seattle Book Mama

theburyinggroundThis is the fourth book in Kellough’s Thaddeus Lewis series, but it was brand new to me, and I was able to follow the story quite well as a stand-alone. My thanks go to Net Galley and Dundurn Group for the DRC. This book comes out in early August, and I will run my review a second time on my blog then to remind readers that it’s available.

Kellough has merged two enjoyable genres, mystery or detective fiction and historical fiction, and added a splash of social justice–the sort that slides into the story neatly and without preaching. Lots of different story threads eventually braid together elegantly into an ending that satisfies deeply.

The settings are Montreal close to the time of the Industrial Revolution, and outside of Montreal in a village called Yorke. Our protagonists are Thaddeus Lewis, a Methodist Episcopal preacher who travels the circuit, and his son…

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Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son, by Lori Duron*****

raisingmyrainbowThis ground-breaking memoir made me want to stand up and cheer. Many times, I was dumbfounded by the courage of the mother who wrote about her “gender creative” child. (The term was new to me, and raised questions, which were subsequently answered.) I had a couple of small disagreements with some of the things she said (and are there any two parents with identical viewpoints in all respects?) However, most of the time I could merely bow in awe.

That, and say thank you for the ARC! I got it in a Goodreads.com giveaway. But on with the story:

You see, her second son, who she calls “C.J.” in her book, prefers to dress like a girl, play with girl toys, and have his hair done like a girl’s.

What to do? How to protect her child from the pain the greater world might bring down upon him? What is the healthy thing to do? And also, how do they protect his older brother, a “true boy’s boy”, from the repercussions of having a brother like C.J.? It’s enough to make one’s head spin.

Fortunately for C.J., his mother is a stay-home mom, and they do not struggle greatly with financial issues. They’d rather have their medical insurance pay for a therapist, but if it came to a choice between good therapy and free therapy, they had the capacity to elect for the former.

In the beginning, an agreement was reached among the adults, while C.J. was still a toddler (and before therapy), that “girl toys” such as his beloved Barbie should stay at home, or in the car, to “keep them from getting dirty or lost”. I would’ve done the same. The very thought of the cruel things that might be said to my vulnerable little boy would’ve made anything else unthinkable.

But the author’s mother, known as Nana Grab Bags because she always comes laden with sweets and toys, deliberately breaks the rule. The author is pissed. I would be, too. I’m not a grandma yet, but the rules are clear: you get to raise your own kids, and then the new parents are the boss. Sometimes this may be painful.

My own kids are grown, but I have steeled myself not to interfere or offer advice that is not wanted if and when I get grandchildren.

Various ruses are tried to get the very young CJ back on track. Once, while they are on vacation, a relative is dispatched to their home to disappear all the girl toys in the hope that C.J. will be satisfied with the “boy” toys. The effort failed, as did the trip from Santa that featured no girl toys. A sad, sad Christmas.

Breaking the news to Dad–who is a police officer–made me cringe. My own experiences with cops, and those I know of locally and in the news don’t appear to be really flexible guys. I expected abuse. But though Dad was about as leery as most fathers would be likely to be, there were no ugly scenes, only questions.

Anybody would have questions! The author begins blogging about her experience. I have never read blogs, though for awhile I wrote one. This sounds very cathartic, and a great idea.

As the child gets older and still wants to wear feminine clothing to school, I wince. It’s not going to be pretty for him…and it isn’t. At age 3, he finds a friend. He’s still basically a baby, and there isn’t much push-back. At age 4, it gets tougher. And when he goes to kindergarten, the shit hits the fan. Throughout all of it, the parents flounder and try so many different things, that the writer realizes that her son needs predictability, and their boundary is not staying put. They need a policy they can stick to, and they decide to let him be himself.

I thought back to my own experiences with gender-nonconforming children:

*When I was seven, my family moved from California to a suburb of Portland, Oregon. There were no children my own age on my block, and I was idly amusing myself on my backyard jungle gym when I heard singing.

On the back patio next door, a little boy was daintily sweeping the cement and singing the only 3 lines of a song from Cinderella that he remembered…over and over and over. He was a little younger than me, and apparently, to my own eyes in the 1960’s, a little stranger, too. But we chatted for awhile. His own play was not only limited to girl stuff, it was limited to Cinderella, and I gave up on him. I’d been there and done that, and was not interested. But I spoke to my parents about it; they were close to the child’s grandparents. They exchanged glances, and the next thing I knew, though the friendship with the next door neighbors remained intact, we had a six foot high fence between us.

It was to keep the dog in the yard, they said.

Next thing I heard, the boy’s little brother, who was not even in kindergarten yet, was invited on a hunting trip with his dad, uncles, and grandfather. My dad said, “I think they’re making sure lightening doesn’t strike twice,” and he winked at me.

I question the wisdom of hormonal and/or surgical treatment to alter the gender of any child who has not yet reached the age of consent. It is true that there are people born wishing they were biologically the opposite gender; I have also known personally at least one young man who changed his mind entirely, despite the support of family.

It would be a helluva thing to decide you wanted to be male after all, but your anatomy had been changed while you were younger.

I was shocked when the author started discussing whether to stop her son’s hormonal development on the word of a single individual who had had surgery and wished that she had started the process sooner so she would not have become so big and tall. I hope they give their son a chance to turn 21 and make that decision for himself; hormones not only build large bodies, but sometimes they mess with our minds. How many of us turned out exactly the way we thought we wanted to be at six, at twelve, at fifteen? Maybe he will; maybe he won’t.

The writer has already dealt with plenty of criticism, and she’s learned to handle it well. The fact that she writes well is also a plus. The story of raising both sons to where they were when she published her book is well paced, concise, and jammed with information. I have no doubt there are many, many mothers who thought they must be the only ones who were dealing with such a dilemma. Ladies (and fathers too), this book is for you. And for anyone who feels confused about what to do with such friends, should their children encounter them: it’s for you, too. And for those who support GLTBQ kids, here you go. For those who fear them: read this, and grow up a little.

I had some questions: what separates a transgendered person from a hermaphrodite, for example? Is someone who has male organs only and wears dresses but likes women just a cross-dresser? A transvestite? What if he likes men and does those things? My school once had a child who used only the nurse’s office for the potty and to change clothes. He was born with a penis, but his breasts developed like a girl. I say “he” but was told the child (who was not in my class) preferred to be known as “she”. Till then, I had assumed everyone who had some of each organ had gotten that way through surgery that had stopped mid-process. An eye-opener.

I felt a little impatient with the big-deal insistence on trying to find a Mrs. Santa for C.J. to sit with for Christmas. Most little girls just sit on Santa’s lap. Why not just say, “Santa this year? Or would you rather skip it?”

Mrs. Meyer was C.J.’s teacher and guardian angel, and when the author hoped Santa was good to Mrs. Meyer, I could not (as a retired teacher) help wondering what C.J. had brought her.

Here’s the very worst part, followed by the greatest triumph: apparently at the time, Orange County schools were not strong on protecting students who were victims of bullying. The older brother is severely and long-term harassed by another student, and although the kid who harasses him has to sit out recess and have a chat with adults at the school–a good first step–it is never taken beyond this point.

For shame! This should have been dealt with swiftly. I suspect the administration’s own discomfort with a gender creative student may have caused them to delay meting out the kind of justice called for. Why wasn’t this child sent home after two warnings, or at least written up and his parents notified? Why was there no time when the child being harassed was offered a supervised meeting when the harasser would be told by adults once more that this hurtful behavior must stop, and an apology is owed? If none was forthcoming, then a promise should have been required to stay away from the victimized child completely, and not to attempt to sabotage his other friendships through rumor-mongering. As a teacher, I have seen children moved to other schools when the parents took matters to their attorneys. A good no-contact order will do that, and it is a sign that the school has failed, when the law has to step in.

Every teacher in every school should have a copy of the bullying and harassment policy their district uses. Every parent should have a copy, too.

I was ecstatic when Mom called in the ACLU and did not warn the principal that the rep would be present at the meeting she had to push so hard to get. I was also pleased that the harasser, not the child who was harassed, was the one that had to change classes.

What does the future hold for this family, and in particular, for their gender-creative son? Hey, who knows? The most important thing is what the writer begins with and ends with: she will love him, no matter what