YA Review: The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

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TitleThe Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: This #OwnVoices book follows seventeen-year-old Evan Panos, the son of Greek immigrants who he knows couldn’t understand or condone him being gay. But when Evan has his first kiss at summer camp and finally finds someone who loves him for who he is, he runs the risk of coming out whether he likes it or not.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Dangerous Art of Blending In follows Evan, a cis gay teenager, as he falls in love with his best friend Henry and comes out to his parents. His family comes from Greece and strictly follow Orthodox Christianity, with his parents reacting to his sexual orientation in different ways. While his dad is hesitant, he makes it clear how much he loves his son and tries to support him. His mom, on the other hand, seems to struggle with an undiagnosed mental illness and is both physically and emotionally abusive after he comes out and throughout his life because he has a strong feminine side.

If domestic abuse is triggering to you, you may want to read a few more reviews before deciding whether or not this queer YA book is for you. While the depictions of abuse are pretty intense and difficult to read, they aren’t graphic, and Evan (without spoiling anything) is also eventually able to escape the situation.

What I liked: Evan’s voice was so authentic and bold that it really drove the heart of this story. Part of this is because the author himself is gay and a child of Greek immigrants. The reason that Evan’s story felt so real was that in the endnote, Aurelis explained how so much of it had been based on his own experiences. I think that this book is a reminder that sometimes “write what you know” can lead to unique and much needed voices coming through in LGBTQ YA, especially when it’s done thoughtfully.

I also thought that Evan’s relationship with his dad, while definitely not perfect, was beautiful. It was clear that Evan’s dad came from a very different culture from his own and was raised seeing LGBT people in a negative light. But despite how he struggled to understand his son, he genuinely tried to. It didn’t excuse how long it took for him to get Evan out of the abusive situation with his mom. But it offered a little hope that Evan would someday find the support that he deserved in and outside of his community.

You may notice at this point that, while this book is a gay romance, I haven’t mentioned that element yet. That’s because I didn’t really like the relationship between Evan and Henry. It felt sort of imbalanced, with Evan putting all of his self-worth and confidence into how Henry saw him. While I think that’s understandable, given how little acceptance Evan had felt for being gay, I didn’t like that it wasn’t addressed. And at times, Henry seemed to be aware of that one-sidedness and used it against Evan (especially when kissing and being intimate). Maybe I’m just overanalyzing it too much, but I think that even though it was trying to be a cute gay romance book, it ended up feeling a little forced and maybe unhealthy.

Quote: “Maybe I’m not so ugly after all. Maybe no one is really ugly, and maybe no one has the right to call someone that or tell them that they are.”

Recommended: While reading this book, I fell in love with the sweetness of Evan’s personality and his story. This queer romance is a pretty light read– I think I finished it in around three sittings – but it’s a brave portrayal of what it’s like to authentically love others and yourself despite the pressure to stay guarded.

YA Review: Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

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TitleOut of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Rating: 3/5

Two-sentence summary: Genderqueer witch Z feels like a loner thanks to their new status as a zombie. After teaming up with unregistered werewolf Aysel, the two team up to combat the hostility against them in their town of Salem, Oregon.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues:  Out of Salem features a genderqueer protagonist named Z who deals with misgendering and dead-naming (which is kind of clever, considering that they’re a zombie). Z seems to use this term interchangeably with non-binary and use they/them pronouns. This book also includes a Muslim lesbian werewolf main character, and the interplay between these identities made the book a lot richer than some speculative fiction stories.

What I liked: I thought that the social commentary about LGBT discrimination via how these “monsters” are treated was a pretty unique concept. The queer representation was also very complex and well-written, especially the relationship between Z and Aysel. While there aren’t any major romances in this book, the friendship between this two is so authentic and uplifting for each other. Watching them learn to respect and genuinely care for each other through shared hardships is one of the best parts of Out of Salem. It makes the book feel so real for a story about zombies and werewolves.

The one complaint I had was that the writing felt a bit stiff, and that made it hard for me to engage with the story as much as I wanted to. It was an innovative idea, but it didn’t always translate over well into words (in my opinion). But that being said, this seems to be the author’s debut novel and even without that taken into consideration, it was still an enjoyable read.

Recommended: This was a pretty new concept for queer YA, especially within non-binary representation. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a spooky, gay read. Perfect book to get your Halloween fix any time of the year!

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

YA Review: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

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TitleThe Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: Prince Sebastian of Belgium has a secret that nobody besides his seamstress Frances knows: at night, he transforms into the Parisian fashion icon Lady Crystallia. Set in turn-of-the-century Europe, this unconventional love story explores what it takes to become who you are inside and stay true to your passion.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Prince and the Dressmaker features a young prince who describes himself as sometimes feeling like a boy and sometimes a girl. When he feels like a boy, he’s comfortable in his male clothes but other times, his discomfort leads him to dressing in makeup and beautiful dresses.

While it’s implied that Sebastian may be genderfluid or non-binary, he seems to use male pronouns–possibly because it takes place before trans and non-binary identity were discussed in European culture.

What I loved: First of all, the art style was just breathtaking. It kind of felt like a cross between a fashion designer’s notebook and a Disney movie. It’s just so vibrant and really captures the feeling of being young, falling in love and discovering who you are for the first time. Generally I’m not much of an aesthetics person but thought that the dresses Lady Crystallia wore were genuinely beautiful.

But the most beautiful thing about The Prince and the Dressmaker was the love story. In the back of the book, Jen Wang notes that she’d originally written Frances and Sebastian as in their twenties. But as she wrote, she felt that writing them as teenagers brought out feelings of self-discovery and first love a lot more strongly. That, I very much agree with. In general, too, the characters were very complex and well-written–I can’t think of one who was necessarily a “villain” or didn’t change or grow over time.

The way that this book explored femininity in men and possibly gender fluidity was also pretty innovative. I think that when people think of AMAB trans or non-binary people, they usually assume that they’re straight (attracted to men) and pretty fixed in their identity. While there are many trans people who fit that description and their stories deserve to be told, I also think it’s important to portray diversity in the trans community like this graphic novel did.

Recommended: Honestly, I can’t think of someone I wouldn’t recommend this to. For LGBT readers, I think this story would feel familiar and uplifting and for non-LGBT ones, I think it could be enlightening. Overall, it reminds me of The Danish Girl if it had been written with a happier ending and for younger audiences (and focused more on gender expression than necessarily gender identity).

YA Review: Earth to Charlie by Justin Olson

TitleEarth to Charlie by Justin Olson

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Charlie believes that his mother was abducted by aliens, and he wants them to take him, too. But when he meets Seth, he starts to question whether Earth is really worth leaving behind.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Earth to Charlie isn’t a queer romance but more of a friendship between two boys who are figuring out a lot about themselves and the world around them. It does, however, feature LGBT themes and main characters.

In some ways, I think stories like that are just as important as the love stories. We need more books that show queer teens that healthy friendships are just as valid as romantic relationships. And ones that have close, intimate friendships between guys that don’t necessarily lead to romance. There are many different kinds of love, and sometimes platonic love is undervalued in LGBT YA fiction.

What I loved: One of the underlying themes in this story was learning to have compassion for yourself and others, as well as the struggles that each person faces. It was reminiscent of the saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is facing a hard battle.”

I think that is such a powerful thought and very needed in queer YA books. Charlie was such a sweet protagonist, and I loved reading about his friendships with his somewhat reclusive neighbor Geoffrey and his classmate Seth. It was one of those books that makes you want to look for the good in people you meet every day and try to get to know them better.

The story itself was beautifully written and had a way of addressing deep issues in a soft, poetic way. It’s implied, for example, that Charlie’s mom suffered from mental illness throughout her life. These allusions are done in a respectful way that doesn’t feel weighted with stigma or overly heavy themes. It’s thoughtful, but also full of hope and authenticity in a way that makes Earth to Charlie feel really genuine.

Recommended: This is one of those books where every character feels like they have a rich backstory and are deserving of love. It’s a wholesome, sweet and sometimes sad story. Earth to Charlie is a perfect story for those looking for a coming-of-age YA about finding friends who make you feel less lonely in this wonderful, strange world.

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

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.