Middle Grade Review: Summer of a Thousand Pies by Margaret Dilloway

Image result for Summer of a Thousand Pies cover

TitleSummer of a Thousand Pies by Margaret Dilloway

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Twelve-year-old Cady has never met her Aunt Shell but is sent to her countryside home for the summer. But can she, Aunt Shell, and her aunt’s partner Suzanne save their struggling pie shop from bankruptcy?

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Summer of a Thousand Pies features a lesbian couple, Aunt Shell and Suzanne, who care for Cady after Child Protective Services relocates her from her dad. For the most part, the aunts don’t face any backlash from their community as a same-sex couple raising a child. Their sexual orientation is less a conflict in the story as it is something that makes their characters feel more nuanced and human.

What I liked: When I saw the cover for Summer of a Thousand Pies, I thought I’d be settling into a fun and lighthearted middle grade contemporary. I was wrong. This is a beautiful, important book, but it doesn’t deal with easy themes. Cady’s mother has died and her grief-stricken father descends into alcoholism to the point where she has to live with her Aunt Shell. Her aunt’s pie shop is run with equal amounts of passion and joy, but it isn’t easy to thrive as a small bakery. And Cady’s new friend Jay, whose parents are undocumented and works at Aunt Shell’s bakery, depends on the pie shop staying open to keep from going homeless.

But that doesn’t mean that this book is free of uplifting moments. Thanks to her aunts and her new friends, Cady’s is able to let down her guard and trust the people she loves the most for the first time in her life. Through baking and immersing herself in life with Aunt Shell, Cady is able to heal from the loss of her mother and her father’s mental health issues. Summer of a Thousand Pies is an example of how middle grade can delve into just as real and heartbreaking issues as YA, as well as queer representation, in a way that’s appropriate and helpful for its young readers.

Recommended: This is hands-down one of the best and (no pun intended) sweetest LGBT middle grade books I’ve read. I’d recommend it to elementary and middle school students in particular but also teachers who are looking for a way to introduce LGBT characters to their students in a compassionate and normalizing light

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

Springtime Book Haul and Life Update

Haven’t done a book haul for a while so figured that since we’re approaching mid-spring, now is the perfect time. Here are a few noteworthy non-LGBTQ YA books that I’ve read over the past few months and my thoughts on each of them:

  • Haikyu! Volume One: I’ve been channeling sports manga for my YA bake-off romance WIP because I feel like they’re good at making competitions character-driven and investing readers in the stakes of losing games. This is one of my favorites so far–it’s so wholesome! Yuri On Ice! is still my favorite but this one does comes close.
  • Waiting for Fitz: One of my favorite non-LGBTQ YA reads this spring–Waiting for Fitz follows Addy, a teenager who has OCD and loves absurdist plays, as she falls in love with a schizophrenic boy named Fitz at their teen psych ward. Such a beautiful and heartbreaking story and explores themes of purpose, mental illness, and the human experience in a way that resonated for me. And for what it’s worth as someone with OCD, this was one of the most realistic portrayals of the condition I’ve ever read (perhaps because the author himself is also an OCD sufferer).
  • Educated: Tara Westover’s memoir wasn’t easy to read, but her wisdom and strength despite everything she had to deal with during her upbringing was inspiring.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: I’ve been meaning to read this one for years so when I saw it for $6 at a thrift store, I couldn’t pass it up. And it didn’t disappoint! Not what I expected from a murder-mystery but defied my expectations in the best way possible.
  • The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily: Did I expect to find a YA retelling of the forbidden romance between a French monk and a nun during the thirteenth-century featuring neurodivergent protagonists? No, but I am so glad that I did.
  • Twenty-One Truths About Love: Hmm. This one I won from a Goodreads giveaway and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Enjoyed the list format but some aspects of the plot were a bit too unbelievable. Overall, though, a fun read.

And because I haven’t done many life updates this year, here’s what I’ve been up to this spring:

  • My presentation on transgender spirituality in the Latter-Day Saint Church got approved for the Sunstone Summer Symposium! This will be my first conference panel and I am equally nervous and excited to present it.
  • Been doing a deep dive on research for my queer Hamlet retelling WIP–which involves both studying interpretations of Hamlet throughout the ages and Denmark/Germany in the sixteenth-century. It’s been wild!
  • Started counseling with an OCD specialist a few months ago and so far, so good–one of the upsides of leaving full-time freelancing is that having mental health insurance is such a blessing.
  • Got to talk about my experience as a transgender Mormon in the “Mormon Land” podcast (and my only complaint is that they used an incredibly dorky-looking pic from my junior year in college in the post adgjkhdhgh)
  • Been focusing on self-care as it relates to maintaining good mental, physical, and emotional health. This has mostly involved signing up for a few Coursera classes, practicing mindfulness meditation, and letting myself wind down with a video game every once in a while.
  • Got two beautiful art history books from a thrift store–one of the Uffizi Florence and a Frank Lloyd Wright pop-up book!

YA Review: Missing, Presumed Dead by Emma Berquist

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Title: Missing, Presumed Dead by Emma Berquist

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Lexi can tell how and when a person will die just by touching them. Although she can’t save anyone from their untimely ends, Lexi risks her own life to avenge her newfound friend Jane’s death.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: I think being specific about the LGBTQ issues in Missing, Presumed Dead would spoil the plot but will say that this book features a queer romance. Both characters are cisgender, though one of them may or may not be a ghost. For as many straight paranormal romances as there are in the world, you’d think there’d be more LGBT ones, but this is one of the few queer paranormal YA books I can think of.

What I liked: The premise of Lexi’s powers alone are unique as they are compelling. I found the concept of being able to view another person’s fate is fascinating–and because she knows she can’t save Jane, she devotes herself to bringing justice to her death. Because we know from the start that there’s nothing she can do to prevent Jane from dying, there is a bit of a heartbreaking tinge to the overall compelling mystery. But that doesn’t stop Lexi’s race to find out what happened and help Jane’s spirit find peace any less gripping.

Pacing and intrigue are both important for mysteries, and both were equally strong here. Even though it’s a fast-paced book and (for me, at least) doesn’t take long to finish, it’s hard to put down. I ‘m not usually one for YA horror but found myself rooting for Lexi and hoping that even if Jane isn’t avenged that she at least reaches some sense of closure. Plenty of YA mysteries have a weak ending in comparison to their premise, but the finish in Missing, Presumed Dead is a satisfying conclusion with a unique take on the paranormal romance trope.

Recommended: Who doesn’t love a good murder-mystery, even more so when it’s got queer rep? I would recommend Missing, Presumed Dead, especially for those who love ghosts, romances, and compelling ghostly romances.

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

YA Review: I Knew Him by Abigail de Niverville

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Title: I Knew Him by Abigail de Niverville

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Julian’s main goals for his senior year are to graduate and avoid being outed for the rest of high school. But when he’s cast as Hamlet in his school play, he never expected to fall in love with his Horatio.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Generations of queer historians and literature fans have speculated that there’s homoerotic tension between Hamlet and Horatio from Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy. While I Knew Him isn’t a retelling per se, it does feature a blossoming romance between the actors who play these two characters in their high school production. Both characters are cisgender men who are just starting to figure out their queer identity. Julian’s storyline in particular grapples with coming out to himself, let alone others, as well as how to deal with biphobia.

What I liked: Ugh, NineStar Press has some of the best queer YA books out there. It’s a small publishing house, but it deserves more recognition than it gets. I think that because they seek out authors who are themselves LGBTQ, the issues explored in their books feel quite nuanced. If you’re looking for some nice #OwnVoices LGBT YA, I’d recommend checking them out for sure.

This is going to sound silly, but I mean it in the best way possible: I Knew Him kind of reminded me of a queer High School Musical but without the singing and even more lovable characters. I feel like if the Bard was still around, he’d be happy to see that a book reimagined his characters into such a wholesome love story. Julian and Sky’s budding relationship doesn’t feel rushed or forced, and for theater students, they have a lot of natural chemistry (insert joke about how art gays don’t understand science here).

What I enjoyed most about this book was its exploration of what it means to come out as bisexual. Coming out as anything on the LGBTQ spectrum takes courage, but bisexual people (and bi men in particular) often face harassment from the straight and queer communities alike. Julian is no stranger to this conflict and experiences biphobia from another gay character who sees anything between gay and straight as invalid. As a bisexual person myself, I appreciated how Julian stood by his identity despite how easy it would have been to internalize the conflict he feels and put himself into either a “gay” or “straight” box.

Recommended: If you’re a Shakespeare nerd like me who’s always looking for a good romance I’d recommend I Knew Him wholeheartedly. Even if you know nothing about Hamlet, though, Julian and Sky’s love story explores a ton of complex issues within the queer community while ultimately still remaining hopeful.

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

YA Review: Like a Love Story

TitleLike a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: In 1989, the AIDS crisis brings three teens together: Reza, Judy, and Art. Between love, loss, and meaningful friendship, they learn how the people we care about can bring out the best in us.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book follows Iranian-American Reza as he comes to terms with being gay and falls in love for the first time. Set in New York City during the late 80’s, the AIDS crisis is in full-swing. Most of the coverage surrounding gay men during this time were of them dying, which Reza is all too aware of. The only out person he knows is Art, who documents the AIDS crisis through photographs in a way that is tender and compassionate. As Reza starts to fall for Art, he has to confront his gay identity even though he knows it could destroy his relationship with his family, his culture, and his girlfriend Judy.

What I liked: This is going to sound kind of specific and silly, but I really like 80’s queer YA books for some reason. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Music of What Happens… the list goes on. It obviously wasn’t an easy time to be LGBTQ, and I think that this book portrays the painful side of it, but that decade still fascinates me. It seems like those years were a turning point moment for the LGBTQ rights movement, although they were certainly years of sorrow because of the AIDS crisis.

Like a Love Story had so much heart. As a reader, it was so easy to feel for Reza and how hard it was for him to reconcile his conflicting identities. Not only does he have to consider tough questions about his future but also how to tell his girlfriend Judy that he’s fallen in love with a man and cares about her very much, but never in a romantic way. It gave me a lot of compassion and respect for what previous generations of queer teens had to go through. It’s never been easy to be queer but even more so thirty years ago.

Recommended: I would recommend this to anyone who wants to understand more about the AIDS crisis from an intimate and humanizing level. Because we’ve come such a long way in the past few decades, we often forget just how challenging this time was for LGBTQ people. While Reza may be fictional, his story mirrors the reality of those who struggled to understand their gay identity in a time where so many people in their community were dying.

Brief Endgame Reflections

Note: Endgame spoilers ahead! Do not read if you don’t want to know!

As a guy on the low side of 5’3’’ who regularly loses arm wrestling competitions, I didn’t expect to relate to Thor as much as I did in Avengers: Endgame. I’d always been more of a Loki fan. His struggle to belong as a half-frost giant resonated with how I’d felt as a young LGBT Mormon.

But while Thor’s storyline was mostly played for laughs in Endgame, I felt like I understood him in some ways. When I graduated from college, I left university with some unresolved struggles with anxiety and depression. I didn’t have a job lined up right away like some of my friends, I lived with my parents for a few months while job searching, and I struggled to deal with some of my inner demons. If someone were to ask me about my worthiness as a person, I don’t know whether I would have laughed or cried.

So on one hand, it was pretty hilarious that the God of Thunder spent five years after Infinity War playing Fortnite and eating pizza. But behind the humor, I actually thought it was an honest depiction of mental health struggles. Depression can transform people into shells of who they used to be and make them feel like they’ll never find joy in life again. It can make you too miserable to leave the house for days at a time. It can make you wracked with guilt until your self-esteem is absolutely annihilated.

There were a few solid weeks in August where I couldn’t bring myself to get off of the couch. Video games and reading helped me take my mind off things, but it didn’t stop the constant anxious thoughts from coming. I didn’t drink beer kegs like Thor, but I definitely emptied enough Diet Dr. Pepper cans to fill a room.

When I was a freshman in high school, the first Avengers film inspired me. It made me feel like even if you don’t feel like you belong in the world, you can find people who understand you and make the world a better place. For that reason, I actually teared up a little when Thor’s hammer Mjolnir returns to him and, astonished, he yells out, “I’m still worthy!”

Because I know what it’s like to think you’ve lost your inner goodness. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. And even though I laughed at plenty of the movie’s comedic scenes, I meant it with every part of myself when I cheered for Thor.

These days, I’m in a much better place. I have a job and co-workers that make me feel fulfilled. I’ve got a place (and a puppy) of my own. And while I have low days every once in a while, my life is full of joy.

For those who struggle with depression and feel like they’re unworthy of love or happiness in life, I want you to know that you’re a better person than you think and that you owe it to yourself to get help . Whether that’s telling someone, going to counseling, or taking steps to improve your mental health one day at a time, don’t hesitate to seek out treatment because you “don’t need or deserve” it. There’s nothing you can do that can take away your inherent worthiness of love and support.

YA Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

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Title: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Ben de Backer comes out as non-binary, they move in with their sister Hannah to escape their parents’ rejection. This #ownvoices queer romance follows Ben as they begin senior year with a fresh start and fall in love with their charismatic-yet-sweet classmate Nathan.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: I Wish You All the Best features a queer romance between a non-binary person and a cisgender man. After Ben is rejected by their parents for coming out, they struggle with anxiety issues as they come to terms with their identity and begin transitioning. As a binary trans person, I thought that this was excellent representation and think that this is thanks to the author themselves being non-binary.

What I liked: Holy cow. I haven’t read a YA book in such a long time that was so sweet, tragic, and beautiful all at once. Ben’s narrative voice is equally sweet and profound in a way that’s a little reminiscent of Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even though they’ve gone through so much because of their gender identity, they’re still able to find beauty in live through the love of those who do accept and understand them. It included both the joys and the challenges of being non-binary–I think a lot of LGBT YA novels just focus on the challenges but the hopeful parts are just as essential for enby teens to read about.

The way I Wish You All The Best handled mental illness was also well-done. A lot of Ben’s mental health issues stem from the way that others treat them because of their identity and, while Nathan helps them in many ways, their relationship doesn’t automatically make these issues go away. They’re going to therapy, they’re seeking treatment for their anxiety disorder, and they’re not 100% reliant on Nathan for emotional stability. I think that’s an important thing for a YA book to express: love can transform us in so many ways but ultimately, it’s still important to find other supports and professional treatment to overcome mental illness.

Also, the cover art is stunning. I saw a fellow Goodreads reviewer say, and I quote, “The Mona Lisa was found trembling in the Louvre Museum because of this cover.” Honestly, it’s so lovely that it’s kind of an understatement. If you’re worried that the book won’t live up to the cover art, don’t be–both are equally wonderful.

Recommended: I can’t recommend a queer YA book published this year harder than I do this one! Not only are you embarking on one of the most well-written LGBT romances out there but, by reading this book, you’re supporting an #OwnVoices non-binary writer. Definitely one of the best trans YA books out there.

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