Friday, 25 September 2015

Review: All of the Above by James Dawson

All of the Above by James DawsonAll of the Above by James Dawson (review copy) - When sixteen-year-old Toria Grand arrives at her new school she needs to work out who her friends are in a crazy whirl of worry, exam pressure and anxiety over fitting in. Things start looking up when Toria meets the funny and foul-mouthed Polly, who's the coolest girl that Toria has ever seen. Polly and the rest of the 'alternative' kids take Toria under their wing. And that's when she meets the irresistible Nico Mancini, the bassist in a local band - and it's instalove at first sight! Toria likes Nico, Nico likes Toria, but then there's Polly ... love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles. From Goodreads.

I really liked the sound of All of the Above by James Dawson when I first heard about it, but I was also a little wary. I really didn't like Hollow Pike, Dawson's debut novel, and wasn't a fan of his writing style, so I was worried I might not like this one too. Fortunately, I enjoyed All of the Above more than thought, but I was still left a little disappointed.

Toria moves to Brompton-on-Sea with her family when her dad gets a new job. Worried about making new friends and fitting in at her new school, Toria felt awkward, but she shouldn't have. She is quickly embraced by a group of "alternative" kids, and finally finds her place among them. But finding a place is the least of all Toria's problems as she deals with what life throws at her in her first year at Brompton.

There is a lot going on in All of the Above, so to say it's a story about any one thing would be wrong. It's about everything; moving to a new town, making new friends, romance, mental health issues, sexuality, protesting, exam pressure, family problems, and so on. Rather than feeling like it's too much, it's not as overwhelming as you'd think. All of the Above feels like a very realistic snapshot into a year in Toria's life. No-one ever has just one thing going on, there are all sorts to deal with, and that's how this book is presented.
'Now, I appreciate you might be thinking that this is all a bit issues galore and mega emo. Well, sorry, but that was what happened. It would be neater, wouldn't it, if this was a story about self-harm or sexuality or eating disorders or drunk mums or ridiculously hot bass players, but it's a story about all of them. Yeah it's a mess. And it's about to get messier if you'll bear with me. That's the way it is sometimes - nothing's ever neat and tidy.' (p107)
If I had to narrow it down, I would say it's a story of friendship and finding your place. You'll notice I didn't say sexuality. And that's where this book disappointed me, because I was expecting a story about a girl questioning her sexuality, or discovering she's bisexual, or the fluidity of sexuality, one of these things in one way or another. And it is, but it's a subplot. It's one subplot among many subplots. There's no main focus. So, although there are hints, a few small bits and pieces along the way, Toria's questioning of and thinking about her sexuality doesn't really come into the foreground until maybe the last quarter of the book. And I was sold on this book being about sexuality. The fact that it's not the main focus of the book isn't a bad thing, it's just that the description from Goodreads above, the blurb on the book, even the title, they all make it out to be that kind of novel, and it isn't. All of the Above isn't the book I was expecting.

Saying that, this is a hugely diverse and intersectional novel. Toria is biracial - half English, half Indian, and questions her sexuality. Nico is of Italian descent. Of the new friends Toria makes, Daisy is asexual and has mental health issues, Beasley is gay, Zoë is a black lesbian, Alice is Asian, and Polly has a fluid sexuality and mental health issues. Huge props to Dawson for this; it's just so brilliant that there is such a diverse cast of characters! I'd like to talk about Polly and her sexuality here, because I think she's a character we don't see very often. Polly has had romantic and sexual relationships with boys and she's had romantic and sexual relationships with girls, but Polly does not identify as bisexual, and I think it's important to point this out. Do not put a label on her, she doesn't want them. That's not how she identifies. I could be wrong myself in saying she has a fluid sexuality, because that's not something she states herself. She just likes people.
'"You're bisexual?"
[Polly] scowled in distaste. "Bitch, please. Labels are for **** you buy in shops."' (p117)
'"[...]Have you always fancied girls?" I asked, sipping on my now tepid coffee.
"I didn't know you weren't supposed to. I never had brothers so I was like nine before I realised boys and girls were even different."
"Wow."
"No, I think it's a good thing. I don't think we are different. I don't see penises or vaginas, I see hot people or not hot people. It's pretty ******* easy if you ask me."
[...]
"I don't know why people find it so hard to believe. I find different things sexy. Like with Nico, for example, it was his dimples, his teeth, his arms. With you it was your lips."
[...]
"But do you see what I mean? I don't think I could ever say 'Oh I fancy this about girls' or 'I fancy this about boys' because boys don't all look the same and neither do girls. And they're very different in bed. Different but good." (p152-153)
All asterisks are in the actual novel. I think it's awesome to have this fluidity of sexuality represented, because not everyone does identify as bisexual or pansexual or any of the other labels. Straight cis-gendered people need to see that not everyone can or wants to be pigeon holed.

As awesome as it is to see Polly discussing her sexuality, I felt a little let down by Daisy. Daisy's asexuality is brought up once:
'"What about you? I asked. "Who are you into?" It occurred to me that Daisy hadn't once mentioned a guy - or a girl - in that way. "Who's on the Daisy Weekes crush list?"
Daisy looked me dead in the eye and said, "No one. I am asexual."
"What?" She said it in the same way I say, "I'm a Capricorn." She held my gaze. "Are you for real?" I'm not a Tumblr virgin, I know all about asexuality, but I couldn't work out if she was kidding or not.
Daisy being Daisy, she simply smiled. "Yes. I don't want to have sex with anyone just now, thank you very much."
And that was that.' (p55)
And that really is that. It's not mentioned again. There are so few YA novels with asexual characters, I would have liked perhaps a little more of Daisy talking about it. Toria might "know all about asexuality", but readers of this book might not. I think it could slightly lead to misunderstanding, which I think would mean asexual people are misrepresented; not wanting to have sex "just now" could confuse people about what it means to be asexual. From what I've read and understand - and I could be wrong in my understanding so don't take what I say as gospel - there's no "right" way to be asexual; some asexuals may never have sex at all, whereas some might. There's a lot more to it than that, but I don't trust my memory or understanding enough to go into it further. This would have been a prime opportunity to help readers understand a little more what it means to be asexual, and represent asexual characters better... it's not what I would have hoped. I hate to say it, but, although there's more to her, it's almost like Daisy is the token asexual character when it comes to sexuality. I don't think that's so great.

There's also another girl in the group, Freya, who's story I had a problem with. I don't like how it was left. I don't want to spoil the story, but there's one conversation between Toria and Freya about this specific topic, and that's it, it's just left. I felt there should have been more about her as a character, and have more people involved in that conversation. To be just left like that seemed unfair, to everyone involved, and to Freya's character.

I have to say, there was an emotional disconnect for me throughout the book. I didn't much care about any of the characters or what happened to them. There was a moment of sadness for me, but only a moment. I just wasn't emotionally engaged with these characters. So that, the representation of Daisy's asexuality and the issue with Freya, along with this book not being about what I expected, left me disappointed. But in all, it's an ok, realistic story. I think there are a lot of people who would enjoy it.

Thank you to Hot Key Books for the review copy.

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Published: 3rd September 2015
Publisher: Hot Key Books
James Dawson's Website

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