YA Review: Tomboy by Liz Prince

Title: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir 

Author: Liz Prince

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Adventure Time artist and webcomic writer Liz Prince explores what being a girl meant for her growing up as a staunch tomboy, which she saw as someplace in between masculine and feminine. As Prince navigates her adolescence as a middle and high schooler, she pushes gender expectations aside and finds meaning in her tomboy identity.

What I loved: As a trans guy, this novel was fascinating for me to read. So many of Prince’s growing up experiences matched my own—like me, she also would consider it a compliment when strangers saw her as male, she felt most comfortable while wearing men’s clothes, and as a child, she hoped that she would eventually become a man. Yet she does not seem to identify as transgender but instead as a woman who defies gender expectations. I thought about this, wondering if I could have found solace as a “tomboy” in the same way, but I don’t think I could have.

But you know, that’s okay. I think both of our perspectives are valid. It goes to show how diverse and personal gender identity can be and how important it is to define that for yourself. Gender can be as complex or as simple as you make it to be, and there’s enough room in this world for cis men and women, tomboys, trans folk, and everyone else on that spectrum to find self-actualization. If you want to think a little more about your own relationship with gender, you might find this book a good starting point.

I’ll have to keep an eye out for more of Liz Prince’s books. She’s got a perspective that I can relate to but how she processes it is different enough that I’m able to learn from her. Her take on gender goes beyond both traditionalist and more liberal perspectives, and she defines her gender identity in an individualistic way that everyone could learn from.

Quote: In lieu of a quote, I thought a little snippet from the graphic novel would be more appropriate:

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Recommended: If you like graphic memoirs, which I am personally a big fan of, you might find this one both humorous and heartfelt. I haven’t read Prince’s book on her long-term relationship, Will You Still Love Me if I Wet the Bed?, but sure want to now. And, y’know, if you were a tomboy growing up (or still are) … this one might be a little cathartic for ya. All in all, highly recommended!

Next: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

YA Review: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

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Title: The Art of Starving 

Author: Sam J. Miller

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: After his sister runs away, bullied teenager Matt develops an eating disorder in the hopes that starvation will make him stronger and bring his sister back. As Matt bonds with and develops feelings for his sister’s friend (and possible former fling) Tariq, he discovers that some things—good and bad—cannot be controlled by force of will.

What I loved: Until now, I hadn’t read a YA novel about men and eating disorders. I’m glad the first one I read was this one. Books about eating disorders tend to follow a pattern: they’re usually firmly planted in the realism category and don’t contain much humor. Which is valid and respectable, but The Art of Starving borders that line between fantasy and reality and it has an authentic, somewhat bleak sense of humor. It still gives its tougher subjects much-needed respect but isn’t afraid to take a book about mental health into unexplored directions. And, y’know, the humor is a little refreshing.

Relationships play a heavy part in shaping this story, the strongest of which are Matt’s confusion and longing towards his sister and his tentative romance with caring, yet cautious Tariq. In addition to these, Matt also struggles to understand his mother, who bonds with others mainly through food in a way that triggers his eating disorder. And then, of course, there’s the relationship that Matt has with himself—beneath all the self-loathing is a potential that he himself sees but must learn to access in a healthy way. This book hits its strongest stride when Matt works through all of these tangled relationships to see himself and those he loves a little clearer.

Quote: “The strongest people aren’t the ones who are born strong. They’re the ones who know what it’s like to be weak and have a reason to get stronger. The ones who’ve been hurt. Who’ve had things they love taken from them. The ones with something to fight for.” 

Recommended: If you want a YA book about anorexia that breaks the norms, this is your book. Not only does it feature a male protagonist with an eating disorder (in itself pretty rare), but it also features some speculative fiction elements. The way Miller uses fantasy to write truths in a way that reality can’t always do justice is both sad and beautiful. Its ending is also hopeful enough that the novel can explore some tough, dark topics while still letting some light shine through.

Next: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

To Autumn

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We’ve been reading a lot of Keats’ poetry in my Transatlantic Literary History class, which has turned my mind to freshman year of college. That is when I read “To Autumn” in my Introduction to English Literature course, the first Keats poem I’d ever studied. My professor had a strong love for Keats, particularly this poem, and he told us that as we grew older, we would understand it a little better every year.

We were young. Eighteen, nineteen years old. Fresh out of AP English Literature and creative writing courses. Not many of us could identify so much with the poem at the time, and I certainly didn’t. Fall was dreary and wet, and it seemed to promise the beginnings of a winter that would make the trees and all other natural beauty die. I’ve always hated feeling cold, and so when I read “To Autumn” with the class, I just didn’t connect with it.

Maybe I still don’t understand a lot about what Keats was trying to say. How much can change about a person in two years, after all? I still dislike it when cold sets in my bones, and I can’t help but miss summertime when walking home on chill, dark evenings. Although I’m only twenty years old, I’ve felt that seasons goes by faster this year. Every fall reminds me that another year is close to ending and that, though I am trying to make every day last, they’re still limited and slowly slipping from my grasp.

But I’m starting to enjoy in these autumn days: the leaves changing colors and falling from the trees, the smell of apples and spice, the foggy mornings while walking to campus. And sometimes, I think I’m starting to understand what Keats said when he wrote, “Think not of [spring,] thou hast thy music, too…”

It’s a subtle, quiet beauty. Melancholy, maybe, but beautiful nonetheless. I don’t know what’s changed, why I’m not minding autumn quite so much this year. Perhaps I’m getting older and am starting to understand what my professor meant, how life can change and in some ways dim as you grow older but still contain sheer wonder. Or perhaps it’s nothing. But I feel like I’m seeing this autumn differently, and it is both lovely and strange.

YA Review: Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

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Title: Rules for 50/50 Chances

Author: Kate McGovern

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Seventeen-year-old Rose Levenson must decide whether to take a test that tells her if she carries the mutation for Huntington’s disease, a terminal condition that her mother genetically inherited. When Rose meets a boy who also comes from a genetically-troubled family, she must learn to live without a clear view of what lies ahead.

What I loved: I loved how real these characters were, especially Rose. Sometimes YA books about tough subjects (especially diseases) paint the protagonist as a martyr who can get through any difficulty with their head held high and neverending patience. Rose, however, is not a saint. She’s a seventeen-year-old girl whose mother is dying from a degenerative condition, and sometimes she lashes out at those around her or breaks down when she worries about the future. This makes her, in my opinion, very relatable and easy to empathize with.

The dialogue in this book was also tasteful, and McGovern often used her characters’ speeches to tackle issues relating to race, mental health, and disability. This is done in a very frank but natural way. Every word progresses the narrative and addresses powerful questions without sounding contrived. The dialogue and descriptions are both full of valid, real emotions.

Quote: “If you had a crystal ball, like in a fairy tale – or a magic mirror or one wish or whatever – would you want to know how you were going to die? Would you want to watch it happen, in slow motion, every day?”

Recommended: Recommended particularly for those who have family members with genetic conditions like Rose, as they might find this novel cathartic. But sometimes the most meaningful novels are those that we can empathize with even if we ourselves haven’t experienced it, so recommended for anyone who struggles with uncertainty when it comes to their future.

Next: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

YA Review: Love Letters to the Dead

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Title: Love Letters to the Dead

Author: Ava Dellaira

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Laurel’s English teacher assigns her to write a letter to a dead person, Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her recently-deceased sister, Mary, loved him. As Laurel writes letters to famous people who died young (like Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and Janis Joplin), she navigates love and friendships over her freshman year, mourns and comes to terms with Mary’s untimely death, and faces the trauma that Mary didn’t protect her from when she was still around.

What I loved: This book is so moving and a beautiful meditation on grief. Laurel’s character is open, and the emotions she experiences are real. She feels pain deeply, both in her life and in the lives of her loved ones, but she also sees beauty. It’s easy to relate to her as a protagonist because of her vulnerability. Those who love to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s emotions will find it easy to do in this novel. It’s steeped in both joy and sadness without being overdone or gimmicky.

I also loved the book’s format, which is told primarily in the form of letters. Most of the letters Laurel writes are to her sister, whose recent death is a heavy burden for her family to bear. Why Laurel writes to each historical figure when reveals a lot about both her and her relationship with her sister. As the novel progresses and the letters reveal just how complicated Laurel’s relationship with May was, you can’t help but hurt with her. I think that’s the sign of a good book: when you don’t just feel bad for the character but you feel with her. That’s exactly the kind of book Love Letters to the Dead is.

Quote: “I wish you could tell me where you are now. I mean, I know you’re dead, but I think there must be something in a human being that can’t just disappear. It’s dark out. You’re out there. Somewhere, somewhere. I’d like to let you in.”

Recommended: Recommended for anyone who enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Stephen Chbosky mentored Dellaira as a budding writer and helped workshop Love Letters to the Dead. While the book stands well on its own, the influence is there. Perks and Love Letters to the Dead have a similarly honest, emotional feel.

Next: Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

Drafting, Drafting, Drafting

Hello there! It’s been a little while since I’ve updated this blog, particularly when it comes to personal posts. The short answer for this comes down to two words: senior year. I am determined to graduate by next summer term, which involves getting a lot of things in order: decent grades, grad school applications, trying not to make a fool of myself while taking the GRE. It can keep you busy.

But. Beyond the stress and general pressure of college life, I have also been working on an exciting project: drafting a novel! Which I’ve been holding back on for a bit until I felt ready. Not just to write larger-scale stuff again but also to write LGBTQ topics with the complexity and nuance they deserve. I know that you can’t wait until you’re “ready” to write a book because you’ll be waiting forever, though, so I’m diving in and seeing where this will take me over the next few years.

So, what can be said so far about this project? Here’s a few details:

  1. It has a queer protagonist.
  2. It’s within the low fantasy genre.
  3. It draws inspiration from a classic English novel near and dear to my heart.

Which is all I’m wont to say at the moment because drafts can change so much and I’m only at the first one. As months (to be optimistic) of edits, re-drafting, and tears change its shape, who knows what it will look like in the end? Or if it will see the light of day outside of my notebook?

Regardless of what comes of it, I’m enjoying this project so far. Whenever I’ve drafted novels in the past, I’ve only really written lighthearted stuff. It’s sort of cathartic to go a little darker, and I’m excited to see where this goes. So yes, not dead! Still writing! Pray that college doesn’t kill me!

YA Review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

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Title: Highly Illogical Behavior

Author: John Corey Whaley

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Sixteen-year old Solomon developed agoraphobia after experiencing panic attacks every time he left the house, so eventually he just stopped leaving. His former high school peer Lisa befriends him to cure his anxiety and slowly learns that relationships involve more than just “fixing” people.

What I loved: Most of all, I loved the characters. The more you get into this book, the more these characters’ depths unfold. They’re more than just stock-character high school students, and they can’t really be pinned down to any of their labels. This is especially important in that (without spoiling anything), one of the characters identifies as gay. While their coming out is a strong focus of the story, Whaley doesn’t give the character any of the internalized guilt or non-accepting peers often found in YA novels.

Those stories are important to be told, too, but they are told often. This character’s journey was a lot more nuanced. They feared coming out because they feared changing family dynamics and also hesitated because they never thought their sexual orientation was important to share. But they learn that their identity does matter. Their sexual orientation matters. Their relationships matter. They inherently matter and, though they don’t often believe it, they belong.

There are some dark and painful-to-read parts in this book, I’m not gonna sugar coat it, but the author balances those moments well with plenty of humor and truly happy moments. Overall, a quirky, heartwarming book on how a friendship can change both people for the better.

Quote: “We’re just floating in space trying to figure out what it means to be human.”

Recommended: Especially for Trekkies or sci-fi fans in general. They’ll especially enjoy the references in this one (and there are tons, my friends… it’s glorious). But this is also an honest and beautiful look at anxiety recovery.

Plenty of mental health YA books I’ve read don’t have happy moments. This one really pulls on all emotions: happiness, sorrow, panic, hope, love. The works. Whether you yourself struggle with anxiety or you want to understand what it’s like for those who do, this is a great and lighthearted book with surprising depth.

Next: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

YA Review: One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi

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Title: One Half from the East

Author: Nadia Hashimi

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After Obayda’s father is injured in a car explosion, her mother decides to have Obayda participate in the Afghan bacha posh tradition: she, the youngest of three girls, is dressed as a boy to bring her family luck. This brings Obayda (now Obayd) newfound freedom, but as she befriends an older bacha posh, she slowly realizes this transformation won’t last.

What I loved: Before reading this book, I’d heard about the bacha posh tradition before but knew very little about it. Hashimi’s novel does an excellent job at immersing the reader in the emotional elements of Obayd’s transformation. It became very clear to me while reading that being a bacha posh is not a variation being transgender, which is what I assumed from the description. It is a much more complex view of gender identity, one specific to Afghan and Pakistani culture.

The friendship between Obayd and Rahim (an older bacha posh) is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Rahim is more comfortable being seen as male than they ever were female and fights desperately to remain in this way of life. But this tradition usually only lasts until adolescence, and both know that their time is running out. One Half from the East meditates on courage and identity in an intimate way as it questions why certain gender identities can either limit or set someone free.

Quote: “‘Do you know what’s so special about you two?’ my mother asked softly. ‘You are the best of two worlds: one half from the east and one half from the west.'”

Recommended: Oh, for sure. Generally, I review young adult books but this one could be suited for a younger audience (perhaps even middle grade). The writing is beautiful and emotionally charged, which makes the humorous and emotionally painful moments all the more poignant.

Next: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

YA Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

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Title: My Heart and Other Black Holes

Author: Jasmine Warga

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: High school students Aysel and Roman lose hope in life following separate family tragedies and plan to end their lives together on April 7th. But as their friendship begins to heal Aysel’s broken heart, she must find a way to convince Roman that life is still worth living.

What I loved: This book deals with loss and guilt that, though often painful to read, really delves into how isolating grief can feel. Aysel hates her father for committing horrible crimes, but she also still cares about and misses him. And she fears herself for missing him because she worries she’ll become like him. Roman blames himself for an accident that ultimately wasn’t his fault, but he can’t bear to live with himself without all his family lost.

Yet, even though these emotions are almost too much to bear, Warga also shows that through opening yourself to another person (along with seeking help), it’s possible to heal. Life doesn’t automatically become bright again once the Roman and Aysel have each other, but the love they receive from each other gives them hope that maybe they’re not the monsters their inner demons say they are. They also start to believe that, even though life hurts so much, they can still find happiness.

Quote: “But maybe meeting Roman has helped me to understand myself better. Yes, I’m broken. And yes, he’s broken. But the more we talk about it, the more we share our sadness, the more I start to believe that there could be a chance to fix us, a chance that we could save each other.

“Everything used to seem so final, inevitable, predestined. But now I’m starting to believe that life may have more surprises in store than I ever realized. Maybe it’s all relative, not just light and time like Einstein theorized, but everything. Like life can seem awful and unfixable until the universe shifts a little and the observation point is altered, and then suddenly, everything seems more bearable.”

Recommended: Yes! In my opinion, this was an honest portrayal of depression but also a hopeful one. Aysel and Roman’s path to overcoming depression has ups and downs, but their friendship gives them strength in dark times. I think, though, that it could be triggering for people who currently struggle with suicidal thoughts. It can get pretty vivid.

Next: One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi

YA Review: As I Descended by Robin Talley

Note: After another semi-hiatus while revamping the website, enjoy this review of Robin Talley’s As I Descended, a delightfully dark (and queer) retelling of Macbeth.

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Title: As I Descended

Author: Robin Talley

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Power couple Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten will let nothing stand between them and winning the prestigious Cawdor Kingsley Prize: especially not school sweetheart Delilah Dufrey. When the two tap into paranormal powers to secure the scholarship, darkness threatens to consume their boarding school (and themselves).

What I loved: You know those books that you’re already certain you’ll love before you pick it up? As soon as I heard that As I Descended was a contemporary Macbeth retelling, I was hooked. Openly queer characters only sealed the deal.

This book exceeded expectations for everything I thought it would be, and I had high expectations already. Its tone was delightfully spooky and reminiscent of a Southern Gothic, and the characters mirrored their Shakespearean counterparts while still retaining individuality. Powerful emotions like envy, desire, and unbearable guilt push every character into a morally grey area as they deal with supernatural forces far beyond their understanding.

Quote: “Between the atheism and the lesbian thing, Lily was a terrible Catholic. Even before she’d added murder to her list of sins.”

Recommended: Yes! Especially recommended for those who love Shakespeare retellings or fiction featuring very open and human LGBTQ characters. Or anyone who loves a good ghost story. Between the three categories, I think most people fall into at least one.

Next: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga