Monday, February 5, 2018

YA Review: Ramona Blue

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

Published: May 9th, 2017 by Balzer + Bray
Genre: Contemporary YA
Binding: Hardcover, but the paperback comes out in May.
Page Count: 408 plus acknowledgements.
Part of a series? Standalone.
Got via: Library.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads): Ramona was only five years old when Hurricane Katrina changed her life forever.

Since then, it’s been Ramona and her family against the world. Standing over six feet tall with unmistakable blue hair, Ramona is sure of three things: she likes girls, she’s fiercely devoted to her family, and she knows she’s destined for something bigger than the trailer she calls home in Eulogy, Mississippi. But juggling multiple jobs, her flaky mom, and her well-meaning but ineffectual dad forces her to be the adult of the family. Now, with her sister, Hattie, pregnant, responsibility weighs more heavily than ever.

The return of her childhood friend Freddie brings a welcome distraction. Ramona’s friendship with the former competitive swimmer picks up exactly where it left off, and soon he’s talked her into joining him for laps at the pool. But as Ramona falls in love with swimming, her feelings for Freddie begin to shift too, which is the last thing she expected. With her growing affection for Freddie making her question her sexual identity, Ramona begins to wonder if perhaps she likes girls and guys or if this new attraction is just a fluke. Either way, Ramona will discover that, for her, life and love are more fluid than they seem.

Review: Not gonna lie, I wasn't really planning this book. I mean, I wanted to eventually read it, but I had no immediate plans to read it. But my library does this thing where they do an estimate of the materials you've borrowed/how much money you've saved doing that, and I popped into the library the day before it closed for the Christmas/end of year break, and I wanted to see my total for the year (it was over $7000 so that was cool) and this was there.

Why do so many of my reviews start with me telling a story about getting the book?

Anyways, this was interesting. Let's do the bad stuff first to get it out of the way. I thought this was lacking in some serious areas of diversity. There's a very interesting conversation about how reckless teenager antics that are fun and games for white Ramona and her friends, are much more dangerous for Freddie, who's black, and the book does a cool thing in labelling white characters as white in the narration and not assuming they are by default. There are also a good amount of queer characters for a small Southern town. However, other areas are less explored. There's really nothing for any kind of disability rep, and considering the setting, and what people are dealing with, that seems a real oversight. And very surprisingly for me, there's not much for fat rep. The book also has no trans rep, and cis is pretty much assumed to be the default.

I also wasn't really a fan of the ace rep. I liked the character, who is homoromantic demisexual, but it only comes up twice, once kind of as a joke, and it doesn't actually affect the character's portrayal. It's like the character was just given a label and then forgotten. And that label isn't defined at all. Ramona replies to it with, "A what?" and the scene just carries on. If someone comes across the word demisexual for the first time in this book, they're not going to know what it means. The rest of the book, the character is just treated, and called, a lesbian. She doesn't seem to connect to the asexual community - or that the book is aware there is one - and that word is never used, and while I always want more ace characters, it feels superficial. It almost feels like a label for the sake of a label, or for points, not something the author thought about actually affecting the character.

Also, this passage from page 115:
I'm not this sex-crazed maniac or anything, but I'm a human being. I think about sex. Girls think about sex. Sometimes a lot.
And sometimes they don't! Would have been nice to have that mentioned. Throw in a use of "just friends", and kinda ignoring that aro people exist at all, and it just didn't work for me. I don't identify as demisexual anymore (used to, labels change), or homoromantic, so maybe it'll work for people who are, but I'd be hesitant to recommend it for that without reading reviews from ownvoices reviewers, which I'm pretty sure are gonna be hard to find. I've only found a couple so far.

Last complaints - there's a weird "everyone is a little bit gay" sort of comment and I just hate that idea personally as someone who does not identify as the least bit gay, but very acearo, and also a use of "opposite sex", which kinda adds to that no trans peeps/intersex peeps/enbies situation. There are also some sticky consent moments. A physical reaction is not consent, and it only takes one person to end a relationship. It wasn't like full on creeper mode or anything, but both those lines/moments make me pause and go, "Nope".

Now, I thought the poverty rep was great. It is an incredibly realistic depiction of the kind of poverty that doesn't get talked about often enough in YA in a respectful way. The kind where there's a roof over your head, and food on the table, but you're living bill to bill. The kind where an emergency is devastating. The kind where the idea of a baby being born sick is something you know you can't afford and are constantly terrified of. And I loved that there wasn't a magic fix to systematic poverty. There's a possibility of change, maybe, but it's not an easy out or a magic wand.

Personally I also thought that the theme of exploring sexuality and labels changing was handled very well. Again, not a lesbian or bisexual, but if you're reading this, you are here for my thoughts, and that's what it is. My identity has gone through a few labels, and it's confusing and sometimes scary and there aren't always easy or quick answers. Sometimes it takes a while and it's messy and complicated and hard. I thought that was handled in a respectful, thoughtful way.

Overall, I had mixed feelings. A lot of this book is great, and felt thoughtful and realistic, but other parts underwhelmed. I wish every part had been handled as well as those good parts instead of feeling more like afterthoughts. This one ends up at about three roses out of five. I loved the voice and I thought the premise of a post-Katrina Mississippi was very different, but points off for the things mentioned previously. I'd still recommend it in certain situations, but cautiously.

Other notes:

- Content notes for bimisia, queermisia in general, amisia, discussions of racism, actual racism, big freaky natural disasters, pregnancy, pregnancy complications, someone drinking fairly heavily early in pregnancy which despite what she says is not safe or recommended by doctors, and that's all I got right now.

- Bonus points for the use of "pregnant people" at one point.

Peace and cookies,

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