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Girl Mans Up by M E Girard - Review

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Where did I get it? It was this month's book in my Willoughby Book club subscription, so I have my friend J to thank for it, as she works there and often (maybe even always) selects the books to send to me. (Don't forget you can get 10% off a subscription using my affiliate link)

What's it about? Pen is in her last year at a Catholic high school in Canada (near Toronto I think). At the beginning of the book she's friends with three boys, two of whom are basically total dickheads to her. She dresses like a boy, borrowing shirts off her older brother Johnny and wearing her long hair tied back under a baseball cap. Her friends are Tristan, who is nice, Colby, who behaves like a total dickhead but who has her back when things get difficult with her family, and Garrett, who is barely her friend. The four of them spend a lot of time gaming together, even though Garrett is really mean to Pen and calls her every name under the sun.

When they start school, Colby asks Pen to get rid of an old girlfriend, Olivia, for him, and to talk to a new girl, Blake, for him. But Pen has a crush on Blake herself, and it turns out to be reciprocated. Olivia has some problems and Pen ends up supporting her through them. There's a wedge driving between Pen and her old friends, and she doesn't like it but she isn't sure what to do, especially when she's really enjoying spending time with Blake and Olivia.

Pen's parents are Portugese, and they don't really understand her. While they don't seem to mind that she's gay, they don't like the way she dresses. Her mum thinks she looks like a "punk druggy" and wishes her daughter could be more feminine. They're also quite hard on Johnny, Pen's older brother, who lives in the apartment under the house and who always comes to Pen's rescue. 

There's a lot going on in the book, all of which I thought was great. There are a couple of occasions where I felt like the narrative was confusing, and I would have liked being led a bit more, by the writer, to what I was supposed to be taking from the section. But it is most great. I loved Pen's family, even though they were kind of messed up - I think we need more of this in YA fiction. I loved Pen's developing relationships with Blake and Olivia and I thought there was a lot about feminism and girls standing up for each other and themselves which was really good. 

There's a lot about nerd culture and how girls can fit into that. I really liked the stuff about queerness, too. But, I did think it was a bit odd in places. Lots of the reviews of this book will mention that Pen is genderqueer, and all the way through I kept waiting for when she used that word on herself, but she didn't. Then at the end there was a Q&A with the author in which she talks about that, and I really liked her response. Basically she realises that lots of teens - trans, non binary, queer, all kinds of different identities - had identified with Pen and that that was really great. I agree completely and I can see how a lot of gender non-comforming people would see themselves reflected in her. For me, she's redefining what it means to be a girl to herself, and I liked that a lot. 

What age range is it for? 15+, thanks to some mature themes

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, Pen is gay and there's a lot of exploration of queer themes going on. I thought it was a bit odd how she kept saying to Blake that she was a girl and Blake had to be okay with that, even though clearly Blake knew that and liked her as a girl. But that was perhaps part of Pen's own gender exploration and presentation - but if so I would have liked a bit more signposting into that. I loved their relationship actually - Blake veers a little into being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but in the Q&A Giraud acknowledges that and says she wanted their relationship to be something really good against the backdrop of all the rubbish things going on in Pen's life. 

There's some homophobia and a lot of homophobic bullying, so be careful if that will upset you. 

Are any main characters people of colour? Pen's family is Portugese. Her parents speak non-standard English and speak Portugese to each other. Pen understands a lot of the Portugese but doesn't speak it. There's parts too where the Portugese isn't translated - and that's okay. The reader still understands the gist of it. 

There's a lot about family and family expectations, I think the book is a good depiction of immigrant life. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No 

Is there any sex stuff? Yes, it's really sweetly done and isn't graphic. I thought this was a really great addition - it wasn't needed exactly, but I'm glad it was there

Are drugs mentioned or used? There's some marijuana usage 

Is there any talk of death? No 

Are there swear words? A few, they're judiciously used 

What criticisms do I have? Like I said, I think I would have liked more signposting in parts. 

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely, it's a really good story and I loved Pen as a character and the settings and situations. 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? It was just hanging around my bedroom after it arrived and it appealed to me! 

What other books is it like? Gosh I'm not sure. Maybe some of the family stuff reminded me of Aristotle & Dante

How many stars? Four out of five 

Where is the book going now? Straight on to my LGBT shelf! 

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