YA Review: Check Please! By Ngozi Ukazu

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TitleCheck Please! Volume One by Ngozi Ukazu

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: Vlogger, figure skater, and expert baker Eric “Bitty” Bittle begins college at Samwell University to compete on their hockey team. This volume explores his freshman and sophomore year as he becomes comfortable with who he is on and off the ice. 

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Bitty, the protagonist, is a gay college student who navigates coming out, making friends with his predominantly straight teammates, and (without spoiling anything) falling in love with another queer student. Although most of his friends and fellow hockey players are not queer, he doesn’t seem to face any discrimination or homophobia. It’s such a wholesome and optimistic take on queer identity, and I think stories as hopeful as this are just as important as LGBT YA books that explore tougher subjects.

What I loved: Literally everything about this. I just… loved this book so much and can’t wait until volume two comes out this fall. Like sometimes I feel like YA novels about college students should be branded as new adult books but I don’t even care with this one. It was so good that everyone needs to read it.

The relationships that develop between Bitty and his teammates is done so well. We follow the Samwell University hockey team throughout the course of two years and each member is so lovable and unique. And it’s adorable to see how Bitty transforms from an uncertain, nervous freshman into a sophomore who knows he belongs on the team and feels confident both during games and hanging out with his teammates. And while the story is on the whole optimistic, the deeper issues that some characters face (like implied alcoholism and depression) are portrayed tastefully.

And the art style fits the story so well! It’s vibrant and beautiful and everything that Bitty bakes looks so delicious, his hockey bros are so lucky. I feel like this was an ideal portrait of “bro culture” in the idea that straight and queer men can be friends without falling into close-minded stereotypes. Everything about this queer romance defies expectations but is done so in a way that makes the characters and story itself feel alive.

Recommended: Honestly, I would recommend this to anyone looking for a sweet, wholesome story. The only regret about reading this that I have is that I didn’t get to it sooner. If you want something cute and gay, you need Check, Please! in your life!

YA Review: The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali

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TitleThe Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: After Rukhsana’s conservative Muslim parents catch her kissing her girlfriend, they send her to Bangladesh to immerse her in tradition. By reading her grandmother’s old diary, Rukhsana is able to discover important truths about herself and her culture.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali follows a cis lesbian protagonist who is forced into an arranged marriage after her parents discover that she’s fallen in love with a woman. Although it explores the pain and discrimination Rukhsana faces from her culture, it does not portray her family or Bangladeshi people as evil or outdated. Instead, most characters are portrayed as good, kind people who are genuinely trying to do the right thing but have different ideas about what that is.

This #OwnVoices novel was written by an author from Bangladeshi descent who writes about Muslim teens caught between two cultures. Although Sabina Khan herself doesn’t identify as LGBTQ, she mentioned on Twitter that she was inspired to write this novel after her daughter came out.

What I loved: Despite how heavy this book’s themes are, it’s also surprisingly hopeful. Even though Rukhasana’s flown far away from home into an arranged marriage with someone she could never feel attracted to, she finds people who love her for who she is and keep her going. Her uncle and grandma try to convince her unaccepting parents that Rukhsana’s queer identity isn’t as condemning as they think. Irfan, her arranged husband-to-be, validates her anguish and empathizes with her as a gay man. And while her parents put her through a lot of trauma, their love and concern for their daughter make their characters more nuanced than they seem.

I especially loved the emotion in this book and how easy it was to empathize with many of the characters. Muslim or Bangladeshi culture isn’t portrayed as evil (though it does explore the cruelty queer Bangladeshi people face) but a very different viewpoint from what Rukhsana’s liberal friends or partner understand. The novel vividly portrays her frustration with not only having to push against her culture’s restrictive view on homosexuality but also how boxed in she feels by both her LGBT and Bangladeshi identity. There aren’t a ton of LGBT YA books out there that portray characters straddling between religious and queer identities in a positive light, but I felt like this book did so in a fair and humanizing way.

The main reason I didn’t rate this book any higher is because I felt that the writing was a little confusing at times, but that’s more of a technical issue than anything. It doesn’t take away from the story but is noticeable enough that I didn’t feel comfortable giving a 4.5 or 5.

Quote: “You have no idea how hard it is to constantly feel like you have to represent your entire culture.”

Recommended: Novels about queer teens who have unaccepting parents are fairly common, but this is one of the more important YA books to read with that theme. I felt like this was an especially complex and empathetic take. There are so many diverse books with LGBTQ protagonists coming out (no pun intended) this year and each one has such a meaningful story to share.

YA Review: Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

TitleHonestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: This sequel to Openly Straight follows Ben Carver during what should be the best year of his life: he’s captain of the baseball team, he won a prestegious scholarship, and he cut things off with his maybe-crush Rafe. But when his rekindled feelings for Rafe interfere with his straight identity, he must confront what it means to be authentic.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a protagonist who identifies as straight but falls in love with a gay cis man (Rafe). He feels that he’s physically attracted to women with Rafe being the only exception. It’s unclear whether Rafe really is the only exception or whether he’s in the process of understanding his sexual orientation.

Honestly Ben also has a side character who comes out as genderfluid and another character who’s implied to be asexual.

What I loved: Throughout the book, Ben explores what masculinity is and what it means to be a man. The crux of his internal conflict comes through his attraction to Rafe, but he also feels pressure from his position as the baseball team captain and the son of a conservative farmer. I liked how Ben’s ideology of what a man is shifts in a way that’s gradual but also helps him incorporate masculinity in a healthier way that seems natural for his character. And I thought it was important to note how ben calls out others who express toxic masculinity as Ben’s definition of manhood changes.

Also, the side plot about Ben and Rafe’s friend who comes out as genderfluid was an unexpected but also beautiful development! I almost wished that Bill Konigsberg had written an entire companion novel about them just because they seemed like such an interesting character. In general, it seems like so many more YA books feature genderfluid and non-binary characters and I love seeing greater diversity in queer representation.

Quote: “Anyway, my whole thing is, whatever path I’m on, I’m on. I’m not going to avoid it because it’s harder for the world, or even harder for me. I’m like, I gotta be me, you know?”

Recommended: I thought this was a sweet and wholesome follow-up to Openly Straight. To be honest, I actually enjoyed Honestly Ben a little more. But I would recommend that you read Openly Straight first because understanding the relationship between Ben and Rafe is important context for the sequel.

YA Review: Love & Other Curses

TitleLove and Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Sam Weyward has purposefully never fallen in love due to a family curse that proclaims anyone he loves before his seventeenth birthday will die. But with only a few weeks left, will he make it through one last summer crush without falling dangerously head-over-heels?

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book! Features an unrequited crush! Between a gay cis man and a straight trans man! Can you tell how excited I am for this?? Even though it’s not quite romance, it’s still important representation. I’m still waiting for the day the YA romance between a cis and trans guy will come out like my teenage self always wanted but baby steps. Love & Other Curses also discusses drag culture and the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation (i.e. being transgender vs gay).

What I loved: This is something I mentioned earlier, but I appreciated the trans representation in this book! AFAB guys especially don’t get much attention in gay romance books. I can think of a lot of YA fiction I’ve read where the trans guy expresses unrequited love but never one where he (or any other trans character, for that matter) is on the receiving end of it. It might not seem like much and maybe I’m just over-analyzing things, but this felt like a big step towards normalizing attraction between cis and trans characters.

And while Sam experiments with crossdressing and dives deep into the drag scene, he does so while remaining respectful of trans characters and noting a difference between the two– all simple but important things that really drive the novel’s nuance in portraying queer culture.

The writing style of Love & Other Curses also felt natural and conversational, like reading someone’s journal entry recollecting a summer crush that they’re still reeling from. Plus, the heavy musical themes almost give this book a built-in soundtrack, which was both fun and gave it a strong sense of presence.

Quote: “I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy in my school who can replace a faulty kick-down switch and also create the perfect smoky eye.”

Recommended: Out of all the new YA books releasing next year, should you read Love & Other Curses? Well, let me ask you the following questions:

  • Do you like your queer romance novels with unexpected twists and unrequited love and/or sudden death?
  • Are you excited about the aesthetic of family curses, drag nights at local LGBTQ bars, and mischievous magic?
  • Do you regularly say the phrase, “I wish YA authors were writing trans characters with more complexity”?

If the answer to any or all of the above is a resounding “yes,” this might just be one of your most anticipated YA books for 2019!

Note: I was provided an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

YA Review: Beast by Brie Spangler

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TitleBeast by Rebecca Barrow

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: This YA fairytale retelling of Beauty and the Beast begins when Dylan, a hairier-than-average teen with anger issues and possibly gigantism, meets sweet and smart Jamie at a self-harm support group. When he discovers that Jamie is transgender, he fights against bullying and discrimination to protect their love.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Beast portrays a straight, cisgender guy who falls in love with a transgender girl. Others in the novel, like Dylan’s mother and friends, struggle to understand how he can be straight and dating a trans person. Dylan himself also has an identity crisis of sorts after learning that Jamie was assigned male at birth. But while he initially withdraws from Jamie and struggles to reconcile his feelings for her, he ultimately accepts her identity as valid and falls in love with her, body and soul.

This novel also features strong instances of transphobia and verbal assault, with mentions of physical assault and even murder of trans people. As a trans man myself, I felt uncomfortable at times reading how some characters referred to trans people. If you’re sensitive to trans slurs or mentions of self harm/suicide, you may want to read this book with caution.

What I loved: This is probably the best YA romance I’ve read between cisgender and transgender characters so far besides maybe When the Moon Was Ours. Dylan and Jamie both face social isolation and discomfort in their own bodies, and they both know how it feels to be misunderstood. Dylan’s father died from a brain tumor that doctors believe gigantism may have caused, and he’s regularly bullied because of his physical appearance. While he takes some time to warm up to Jamie’s trans identity, this gave them a connection and deep understanding for each other that I found beautiful.

Even though Dylan definitely had his flaws (which makes sense since, y’know, he’s the story’s Beast counterpart), I genuinely enjoyed his narrative voice. It was heartfelt and thoughtful but also hilarious at times. I listened to the audiobook for this one and found myself having to stifle my laughter several times at work. I think it helped keep the story light and positive instead of weighed down with some of the heavier moments in this book.

If you’re looking for a strict Beauty and the Beast retelling, you may be a little disappointed. Beast is more of a loose interpretation that, I think, is overall more empathetic than the original fairytale. The Beast inherited his physical problems and temper from his late father, for example, instead of his selfishness. And the Gaston character of this novel comes from an abusive family, and he’s much more complicated than his fairytale counterpart. They’re still very imperfect, but a little more complex than the original characters, and that takes the story in a slightly different direction.

Quote: “I don’t want us to be horrible anymore. I want us to be good.”

Recommended: I’m a sucker for both queer romance and Beauty and the Beast, so I sort of knew I would enjoy this one before I read it. But I especially loved the balance of humor and serious themes. If you’re looking for a young adult fiction novel that makes you genuinely feel for the characters, I think this is a good book to curl up with on a snowy day and fall in love with.

YA Review: Symptoms of Being Human

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TitleSymptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When snarky, yet sensitive Riley Cavanaugh starts at a new school, the last thing they want is for people to find out they’re genderfluid. When their anonymous gender identity blog goes viral, however, they worry that their identity is too large a part of themselves to keep secret.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This novel features a genderfluid protagonist named Riley who comes out, first to their therapist and ultimately their friends and family. The author makes a pretty bold narrative choice in that he doesn’t reveal Riley’s birth sex. While some may find this confusing or annoying, I think it emphasized that their birth sex shouldn’t change how you see or define them. Symptoms of Being Human also has several trans minor characters and discusses sexual assault, suicide, and bullying through a queer lens.

What I loved: Riley’s is a powerful story, one that has the potential to help people feel comfortable with who they are and others understand people who identify differently from them. It delves pretty deep into non-binary identity, which is informative without weighing down the text or interrupting the story. It feel like an authentic story about how being a closeted genderfluid teen feels, especially when that identity’s at odds with their community’s values. Even though this book is written by a cisgender author, it felt well-researched, in part because the author consulted non-binary and trans people while writing this story.

Riley themself is a compelling narrator, with a voice that’s equal parts sarcastic and vulnerable. And they grow so much over the course of three hundred pages! Seeing them gain wisdom and courage about who they are and how they can stand for others like them is beautiful and truly inspiring. They begin Symptoms of Being Human closeted and suicidal and, while they go through some truly heartbreaking circumstances, they gain so much strength and compassion for themself and people in general.

The only reason I didn’t give this book a 5/5 was because one scene was so disturbing to me that I skipped a section and would hesitate before re-reading the book again, but that really is a personal rather than quality issue. And if anything, it speaks to the novel’s emotional strength and the relevancy of the topics it portrays. That being said, though, if you’re triggered by sexual assault scenes, it’s worth researching the book’s content before you read it.

Also, this is random, but I listened to the audiobook for this one and found it really cool that they chose a transgender voice actor! In my opinion, it added to the authenticity with which they narrated Riley’s story.

Quote: “As for wondering if it’s okay to be who you are – that’s not a symptom of mental illness. That’s a symptom of being a person.”

Recommended: This was such a powerful read. I don’t think that there’s a person I wouldn’t recommend this to unless its subject matter triggers them. But I’d especially recommend it to two groups of people. First, non-binary people who want to feel a little less alone and a little more comfortable with who they are. And second, cisgender readers who want to understand the diversity of the gender spectrum more, as well as the harassment trans and non-binary people face.

Queer YA Review: Quiver by Julia Watts

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TitleQuiver by Julia Watts

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Libby, a teenager in rural Tennessee, is raised in a conservative Christian sect that views people as quivers in “God’s righteous army” and women as strictly homemakers. When she befriends a genderfluid teen named Zo, she struggles to reconcile her beliefs with her friend’s lifestyle and freedom.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This story features a genderfluid character named Zo who has two loving, pro-LGBTQ parents in a conservative, rural town. Quiver also discusses their sexual orientation and conflict between belonging in the lesbian community while feeling like something other than a cis woman. One of the secondary characters is also a POC trans girl.

What I loved: Quiver is told with a dual narrative between Libby and Zo, two teenagers who grow up in nearly opposite living environments. In this way, Quiver sends an overall message of compassion and understanding one’s upbringing, even if it’s not the same as your own. At times, I did feel like it leaned a little more sympathetic to Zo’s story than Libby’s and painted Christianity in a somewhat stereotypical light. But it also reflected the mindset of a lot of conservative religious groups and the difficulty groups on polarized social beliefs can have with befriending each other.

It feels like this book could be useful to help teens who grew up in strongly right- or left-leaning households understand people who don’t think in ways they’re used to. By having a narrator they can relate to and another with a possibly unfamiliar voice, it could expose them to other ways of thinking without pushing them far out of their comfort zone. Both Libby and Zo are incredibly sympathetic characters who help bridge anger and misconceptions their families have of each other, and I think that’s a beautiful message to send in such a politically fiery climate.

The only issue I had with this one is that I felt the writing style was a little stilted. Libby and Zo’s voices also weren’t as distinct as they could have been, so sometimes I’d forget that the chapter had changed and gotten confused about the narration. Because of that, I had a hard time really immersing myself in the story like I wanted to. But the concept itself is fascinating enough that becomes a compelling read, regardless.

Quote: “Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have a gender—that the body that contains my personality is no more significant than the jar that holds the peanut butter.”

Recommended: Quiver is one of those LGBTQ YA books that humanizes both left-wing and conservative right viewpoints in the idea that most people are just trying to do the right thing. If you want to cultivate empathy for a perspective different from your own, this could be a powerful read.

Note: I received an ARC copy in exchange for a fair review.

Queer YA Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

 

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TitleThe Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Henry “Monty” Montague, a young earl of England, embarks on one last Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend (and crush) Percy and his sister Felicity before taking over his father’s estate. But when their trip takes an unexpected turn, Monty and his companions must throw their vacation out the window and confront the danger (and their feelings) head-on.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Gentleman’s Guide features a queer relationship between two cisgender men, one of whom is a person of color and disabled (epilepsy). One of the love interests is bisexual and the other is ambiguously queer so the book also has excellent bi representation. It also features an aromantic/asexual character, though this is explored more in its sequel The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy.

What I loved: Part of me debated whether or not to review this book because it is so popular that most have already heard of it. But because I’m using this blog as a catalog for notable queer YA books (and because it’s genuinely well-written), it felt important to include.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue feels like what Oscar Wilde might have written if he’d been a twenty-first century YA writer. It’s a snarky, yet surprisingly profound adventure from the first chapter to the end. Monty’s not only a hilarious character, but he’s also more complex than he seems. As a bisexual man in the eighteenth-century, he carries a lot of internalized shame and abuse (both physical and mental) from those who didn’t understand him. In that way, his character feels very human and a fascinating depiction of what queer eighteenth-century men might have been like.

What The Gentleman’s Guide does best is translate contemporary issues into historical fiction. Disabilities, racial prejudice, PTSD from child abuse, and other serious topics are all discussed in thought-provoking and timelessly relevant ways. These issues do not weigh down the comedic scenes, but they do add a tension that gives this book more depth than just a funny romance.

One complaint I’ve heard in reviews on the book is that it’s somewhat anachronistic so if you’re an eighteenth-century history buff, that may bother you. But personally, I found that (similar to Moulin Rouge) it adds to the book’s charm and contributes to its fun and fantastical tone. The novel definitely doesn’t read like a text book, but what fun would it be if it did? It’s a YA romantic comedy with a good dose of swashbuckling romance. Like all good romances, there’s got to be a bit of the unbelievable in there. That being said, Gentleman’s Guide feels well-researched and it seems like most of the possible anachronisms are deliberate.

Quote: “The stars dust gold leafing on his skin. And we are looking at each other, just looking, and I swear there are whole lifetimes lived in those small, shared moments.”

Recommended: This book is highly recommended, not only for its fascinating portrayal of a queer relationship in eighteenth-century England but the adventure it takes you on. If you love Oscar Wilde’s work, books about young (queer) love, and journeys through eighteenth-century Europe, Gentleman’s Guide is a good YA fiction book to read!

Queer YA Review: Pulp by Robin Talley

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TitlePulp by Robin Talley

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Sixty-two years after Janet Jones publishes her first novel, high school student Abby Zimet bases her senior project on lesbian pulp fiction. Told using dual-narratives, this gay coming of age story ties two queer teens across generations.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Pulp is a one-half contemporary, one-half historical gay YA book that follows two cis lesbian teens in the 1950s and 2010s. It explores sexuality through the lens of pulp lesbian fiction, which was one of the first venues that queer women openly expressed themselves in the United States. As obscenity laws relaxed in the late ’50s, pulp writers were allowed for the first time to write uplifting and hopeful books about queer women. It’s an underground subculture that doesn’t often receive attention in LGBT books for teens but nevertheless foreshadowed the gay rights movement about a decade later. Pulp also features a non-binary character and briefly discusses gender identity and “they/them” pronouns.

What I Loved:  Robin Talley is one of my favorite LGBT YA writers, so I’d had high hopes for this one from the beginning. That being said, Pulp stands on its own even apart from Talley’s other novels. It immerses itself equally in the lesbian community during the 1950s and 2010s through the two vibrant protagonists. The two emotions that define this book are love and hope. Even through heartbreak, discrimination, internalized homophobia, and other challenges, Janet and Abby retain sight in a better, kinder tomorrow. They love fiercely and sometimes desperately while creating work that reflects their experiences, which I think is a meaningful message for queer teens in similarly tough situations.

The narrative switches between Janet and Abby was also really well done, especially as their stories intertwine later in the novel. Their experiences as queer teens are so similar in their hearts and desires, yet the way their generation reacts to who they are is incredibly different. It reminded me how fortunate we in the LGBTQ community to live in a more understanding culture while also feeling gratitude for those first people who openly expressed their sexual orientations. Pulp comments on how far we have come while spreading this message of hope to future strides in the queer acceptance movement.

Quote: “This is still a harsh world we live in, but you’re lucky you’ve found each other.”

Recommended: This is the second good LGBT historical YA novel by Robin Talley that I’ve read, the first being the civil rights-era romance Lies We Tell Ourselves. I’d recommend this one for anyone interested in queer American history as well as those interested in reading how far the gay rights movement has come since the ’50s.

Note: I received an ARC copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.