YA Review: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

Image result for kings queens imbetweens

TitleKings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is “Judy Blume meets RuPaul’s Drag Race.” High school student Nima finds herself immersed in drag culture and both finds new love and lets go of old love while performing.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Nima is a lesbian who finds a community among drag kings in Bridgeton, New Jersey. This is one of the first gay YA books I’ve read that explores drag culture, and I felt like it was nicely done. As a trans person, I’ve kind of kept my distance from the drag community but this book helped me understand more about it. Whether you’re familiar with drag queens and kings yourself or you’re interested in learning more, I’d very much recommend this one–it is, however, important to recognize that it’s a portrayal of drag and not trans culture.

What I liked: Nima was such a likable character, and I think that’s one of the most important things for LGBT YA books. She’s a little shy and awkward at first, but once she discovers drag culture, she’s able to find her inner confidence and let go of feelings for a straight friend. It was fun to see her blossom into herself throughout the book and especially how being a drag king allowed her to accept herself as a lesbian. She’s able to ditch all of the negative labels those around her assign (like “dyke” or “faggot”) and discover her own inner beauty.

I’ve also noticed that while drag culture’s explored pretty often in adult LGBT fiction, it’s less common in queer YA. From an outsider’s perspective, this felt like an honest and fascinating portrayal of it. I’m not sure if the author herself is familiar with drag but either way, it’s clear she did her research. The drag queens and queens Nima meets brings out the best in her and offers her a queer-safe place for her to come to terms with who she is. It helped me understand how important drag is to the LGBT community as well as how separate it is from being trans (though a trans person can also be a drag king or queen, if they want).

“The only thing about bliss is that it’s sometimes accompanied by ignorance.”

Recommended: Nina’s was a vulnerable coming-of-age story. I’d recommend this for anyone who would like to understand the drag community more. Or if you’re a drag king or queen yourself, check this one out and let me know if it’s a fair portrayal! It was such a lovely book that I imagine it is.

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

Mystery Blogger Award

Thanks for the tag, Elina! If you’re looking for thoughtful YA, fantasy, and poetry book reviews, check out Elina’s blog aquapages!

Thanks for the tag, Elina! If you’re looking for thoughtful YA, fantasy, and poetry book reviews, check out Elina’s blog aquapages!

What’s the Mystery Blogger Award?

“It’s an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there, and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.” – Okoto Enigma

  1. Put the award logo/image on your blog.
  2. List the rules.
  3. Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  4. Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well.
  5. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself.
  6. You have to nominate 10 – 20 people.
  7. Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog.
  8. Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question (specify).
  9. Share a link to your best post(s).

Three Things About Me

  • One of my biggest heroes as a writer and a human being is C.S. Lewis. In my AP Literature class almost six years ago, we watched Shadowlands on the last day and it really changed my perception of how important it is to love and be loved, even if it leads to sadness someday. Whenever I hear questions about which person, living or dead, you’d want to have dinner with, he’s always in my top three (along with Vincent van Gogh and Leonard Nimoy).
Speaking of Leonard Nimoy, I found this at the thrift store and it’s the best shirt I’ve ever had or ever will have.
  • I recently started a mini apartment window garden and am ecstatic about how much they’re growing!
  • My favorite scent is lavender. I even like it in tea, which is probably weird but ah, well.

Questions

  1. Which book would you recommend people to read immediately?

Good Omens! It’s such a light and hilarious read and with the miniseries coming out in a few months, now is the ideal time to read it. Plus, it’s got a character who’s described as “English, intelligent, and gayer than a treeful of monkeys on nitrous oxide.” What more could you possibly want in life?

2. What’s the song you listened to most recently?

Lately I’ve been listening to a ton of Hozier since Wasteland, Baby! just came out. My favorites from his new album are “Would That I,” “Sunlight,” and “Almost (Sweet Music).” I’d keep going, but I’d have to list the whole album since they’re all so good. And also “Run” –it’s not from his new album but it’s a treasure.

Even though he’s straight, Hozier is by far my favorite queer icon and his Salt Lake City concert was such a temptation–I almost bought tickets but decided that, y’know, it’s probably better to afford food and housing. Lame.

I also have a pretty constant stream of twenty one pilots in my headphones because I’m eternally Tyler Joseph trash.

3. Favorite character trope?

This is going to show my fan fiction writing roots, but I’m always down for some sweet, sweet hurt/comfort.

4. What’s a hobby of yours outside of reading?

I am such an old person when it comes to hobbies. Besides writing and reading, I like hiking, meditating, and going to cultural events like plays and art museums and such. I’ve also been trying to brush up on my German lately since I had to study two years of it for my English degree and it’s been fading quickly. Ich spreche Deutsch nicht sehr gut, but ich denke es ist eine schöne sprache.

5. Recommend me some book blogs you follow!

Check out the nominations below for a ton of book and writer blogs!

Nominations

For the Mystery Blogger Award, I nominate these amazing people:

And anyone else who would like to do it! If you want to make a Mystery Blogger Award post, consider yourself tagged!

Questions:

  1. Paperback, hardcover, or ebook? Why?

2. What’s one book that made you laugh and one that made you cry?

3. If you had to describe yourself in three characters, which ones would they be?

4. What’s your favorite thing about spring?

5. List one thing that’s made you happy that happened this year.

Blog Tour Review: Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale

Image result for Small Town Hearts

Title: Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Babe Vogel is happy to disappear into her work as a barista after a rough break-up with her ex-girlfriend. But when a cute artist named Levi starts frequenting her coffee shop, she might just have to break her rule to never date the customers.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: For those who call bi people who date the opposite sex “faking it” in some way, I’d like to point them to this YA contemporary romance. Babe is an openly bi girl who recently broke up with a girl and falls in love with a boy. Just because she’s interested in a guy, though, doesn’t make this any less of a queer YA novel. If anything, I think it shows just how nuanced the LGBT community is and how important it is for everyone’s voices to be heard–especially when bi erasure is so common no matter who they decide to date.

What I liked: Like most meet cute books, this one was adorable from start to finish. Even though Babe’s going through a rough break-up and trying to keep herself from falling in love, she spends just as much time discovering more about herself and growing as a result. She becomes more comfortable with her sexuality and herself in general, and she finds ways to have confidence whether she’s in a relationship or not. I think it’s important to show that kind of personal growth in YA romance books to show that partners can make our lives happier, but they should never be how you define your self worth.

Levi and Babe also had excellent chemistry. I’ve heard before that the sign of a good love story is that the characters learn from each other and become better people. In this case, it’s true. Babe learns to trust in the people around her again and take risks when it comes to opening up. And Levi starts to discover what his purpose is in the world as an artist and a human being. It’s a healthy and sweet relationship, and the discussions about sexuality and unconditional love make it even more vulnerable.

I think it’s important to mention that while on the whole this is a light read, there are a few difficult subject in this book as well. Alcohol and drugs are mentioned a few times, and it’s implied that Babe’s ex and her old friends were manipulative (if not abusive). If those are triggering topics for you, check out a few more reviews before opening this book up but know that even in the darker scenes, the story does end happily.

Recommended: This was a cute read that felt very much like a romantic comedy. And the best YA romance book to start spring with–it’s unique, sweet, and (most importantly) super duper queer. Plus, who doesn’t love a meet cute that turns into a coffee shop romance?

Note: I’m happy to have participated in the blog tour for Small Town Hearts! To check out more stops on this tour, visit Xpresso Book Tours’ website.

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.

2019: A Bulleted List of Things That Happened So Far

Hey guys! Hope the first month of 2019 went well for you and that the second one has been filled with plenty of joyful moments. I haven’t done a personal post since last year so I thought I’d do a quick life update in the form of a bulleted list:

  • Got back into personal essay writing, which I haven’t done as much of since college. It’s been kind of fun and a little more artful of a way to capture memories and emotions than journaling (though I’ve also been trying to do that more as well)
  • Collaborated with HuffPost Personal on an essay about my experience living in women’s housing as a trans man. It was probably one of the toughest articles I’ve written in my freelancing career so far because I wanted it to not sound critical towards the LGBT or religious communities. The most rewarding outcome of writing the article so far has been connecting a little more with the queer Mormon community on Twitter!
  • Moved into new apartment that cut my commute time by an hour, which has done so much for my emotional stability in the mornings hoo boy
  • Worked on my three non-writing 2019 goals: practice loving kindness meditation, learn more German, and volunteer regularly
  • Became a mental health blogger for HealthyPlace’s LGBTQ column, which is exciting and also nerve-wracking. I’m a little anxious about providing good, uplifting information for such a vulnerable topic but am also excited to spread more awareness and empathy for queer people with mental illnesses
  • Rescued a dog from the animal shelter. She’s a chihuahua and her name is Yoda because of her big, floppy ears
  • My partner and I decided to break up, which has been hard but ultimately for the best. It has also been helpful having a dog for that reason because she’s provided a lot of comfort and made my apartment feel a lot less lonely with that happening
  • Attempted to make brownie waffles–it was a messy but also delicious experiment
  • Started attending church again and exploring spirituality since graduating from BYU–mixed feelings, but I’m hoping to find authenticity and some sort of peace as a religious queer person and this is probably a good first step
  • Began an extensive revision for my baking competition-themed queer YA romance–still hoping to start querying around spring-ish but we’ll see how it goes
  • Listened to a ton of McElroy-based podcasts, one of the most wholesome sources of pleasure in this world

Also, I’ve read a lot of enjoyable books this year so far, including:

  • I Am Malala
  • The Silver Linings Playbook
  • All The Light We Cannot See
  • The Astonishing Color of After
  • Heavy: An American Memoir
  • Last Night I Sang to the Monster
  • God: A Human History
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Tenth of December
  • Check, Please! Volume One
  • Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir
  • The Universe in a Single Atom
  • Still Alice
  • Four Seasons in Rome
  • My Lady Jane

Like 70% of these were listened to since my day job as a writer involves a lot of independent work time where popping in an audiobook makes things go by faster. And then the other 30% were read either during my commute to work or at home while snuggled up with Yoda while blizzards outdoors made traveling impossible. So far, my favorite is probably either Check, Please! or Tenth of December.

So that, in a nutshell, is 2019 so far. A little exciting, a little challenging, but ultimately a fulfilling start to the year. What about you? How’s your 2019 gone during the first two months?

YA Review: The Music of What Happens

TitleThe Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: In 1980s Arizona, Max and Jordan bond over food trucks and family secrets. This gay YA romance follows the two over the course of their summer as they decide whether unconditional love is worth the vulnerability.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Music of What Happens features a queer romance between two cis men, one of whom is biracial. It also features discussion about femininity in gay culture as well as sexual abuse. If either of those might be trigging for you, you may want to read several different reviews before deciding whether this one’s for you. Because this novel takes place in the 1980s, the discrimination and internalized homophobia that Max and Jordan face as queer men is considerably high.

What I liked: One of the most interesting discussions in this book is “feminine” vs “masculine” gay men and how those perceived as feminine or “twink-y” can be alienated by straight as well as other gay men. Although I’ve read novels with feminine gay characters before, I haven’t seen that portrayed so openly in a YA book but it felt very needed. Konigsberg discusses in his end note how he as a gay man has struggled with this pressure, which might feel cathartic for queer readers and enlightening for straight ones.

As far as Max and Jordan go, this is one of the more authentic relationships I’ve read in a YA romance. Their relationship developed so naturally without feeling too contrived or simplistic, and their characters really complemented each other. They connect on such a deep and vulnerable level that, even though the novel explores some tough topics, it felt like an ultimately beautiful story.

Also, though I don’t feel as qualified to comment on this, I thought that the sexual abuse subplot was handled respectfully. It was also powerful in that it involved discussions of homophobia and racism in rape culture that transcended the 1980s setting and still feel relevant today.

And on a side note, look how beautiful the cover art is! What is with all of these amazing YA covers lately? Like whoever’s hiring artists in the publishing industry lately, they’re doing something so right.

Recommended: I’ve noticed other reviewers compare this one to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe and, while I see the similarities, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Both take place in the 1980s and discuss Hispanic culture, but I think their stories are different enough that both tell a valuable story. If you’re a fan of Aristotle and Dante, you might enjoy this one and if not, read both! They’re each beautifully written!

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