YA Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Title: If I Was Your Girl

Author: Meredith Russo

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Amanda Hardy moves to live with her father after transitioning to female, she just wants a peaceful and low-profile high school experience. But when she falls in love with her kind, complicated classmate Grant, she wonders how deeply you can love someone while hiding so much of yourself.

What I loved: For a novel that deals with some heavy topics (including suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse), this is a wholesome story. I enjoyed how the chapters alternated between Amanda’s senior year and her memories realizing, coming to terms with, and finding confidence in her trans identity. It felt like If I Was Your Girl explored the complexities that come with transitioning well… which makes sense, since the author is a trans woman herself and has lived it.

At the beginning of the novel, Amanda considers herself “fully transitioned”—she socially transitioned, takes hormone therapy, and received gender confirmation surgery. Unless she wants to tell others, nobody would ever have to know that she’s trans. Yet she questions to what extent her trans identity is part of her story and, if it is, whether telling others is worth her safety. None of the questions have easy answers, but Amanda works through them in a way that gives her comfort.

Also, side note that has nothing to do with the story, but not only is this written by a trans woman (the first trans YA book I’ve read by a transgender author, by the way), but the model on the cover is also a trans woman. Not to speak for trans women but as a trans guy, that feels like positive and much-needed progress in YA publishing.

Quote: “Either way, I realized, I wasn’t sorry I existed anymore. I deserved to live. I deserved to find love. I knew now—I believed now—that I deserved to be loved.”

Recommended: One hundred times yes! I almost hesitate to say this just because there are so many good queer books but, if you choose to only read one transgender YA novel, I think it should be this one. We need more books about trans/non-binary people written by trans/non-binary authors. You can feel the authenticity of this experience in a way that I haven’t felt in other trans YA books before. The author doesn’t just feel sympathy for trans people but genuine empathy, and I think you can pick up on that.

That being said, I would love to read more books by trans and non-binary authors. If anyone has recommendations, be sure to leave a comment!

Next: If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman

YA Review: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

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Title: Juliet Takes a Breath

Author: Gabby Rivera

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After a disastrous coming out experience with her family, Juliet Palante leaves for Portland with only the works of her favorite feminist author for guidance. As she works to make a place where she belongs, she grapples with her identity as a Puerto Rican lesbian.

What I loved: When it comes to the balance between characters and plot in a story, I prefer books that really delve into who a character is and who they become. This book was very character-heavy and I loved it. It’s very much a coming-of-age story that captures how one queer woman of color establishes and grows confident in her identity. It’s so vulnerable and doesn’t give any easy answers to any of the questions Juliet explores about herself. If anything, the more she meets others in the queer community and opens herself to the complexity of the human experience, the more messy and uncertain and beautiful her story becomes.

My only complaint with this book is that it felt a little heavy with LGBTQ jargon sometimes. Which is fine if you’re pretty familiar with the community but can get repetitive, and I feel like it might be information overload for non-queer people. But all in all, solid prose, characters, and story.

Quote: “My love for you is deeper than anything that happened between us. My love for you is the sun, the sky, and the moon. It’s the air I breathe. It lives in everything I do. It’s better than good. It’s everlasting.”

Recommended: As a trans guy, I can’t speak for the experiences of queer women but enjoyed the how much this book grounds you in Juliet’s mind. If you’re looking for a raw, authentic coming-of-age story, you might just love this book.

Next: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

YA Review: Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner

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Title: Chaotic Good

Author:  Whitney Gardner

Release date:  March 13, 2018 (Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC of this book in exchange for a fair review)

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Tired of having her fan status challenged by the dudebro owner of her city’s comic book shop, teenage cosplayer Cam uses her costuming skills to disguise herself as a guy. But the more “boy Cam” hangs out with her fellow (male) geeks, the more she longs for them to accept all of her—the real her—for who she is.

What I loved: Cam is, in a word, passionate. She’s passionate about cosplay, comics, and her geek identity. Nothing, not even the ignorant workers at the comic book shop, could take that away from her. But her passion is complemented by a need to be authentic with herself and with those around her. Her internal conflict of wanting to belong yet feeling alienated as a female comics fan draws attention to how harmful the “fake geek girl” stereotype is. While girl Cam has to constantly “prove herself” to the male geeks around her, boy Cam instantly makes friends with them. Because nothing changes except her perceived gender, she gradually gains confidence in her right to love what she loves without searching for arbitrary male approval.

Plus, the illustrations in this book are absolutely adorable. This is a mixed media story, so while it’s mostly told in prose, you get comic segments spread throughout the novel. I thought this was a fun, fitting touch that paired well with the overall geeky world that Cam inhabits. The prose generally transitions to and back from comics seamlessly and in a style reminiscent of Noelle Stevenson.

Quote: “Everything in Dotty’s life is adorned with so much love. All of it so incredibly girly, womanly. She wears her womanhood like a badge of honor. Now, I want to sew that badge on myself.”

Recommended: This book took me back to my cosplaying days in middle school but with a refreshing dash of feminism to go along with that nostalgia. If you self-identify as a geek, you’ll probably enjoy this book a lot. You know those books that you just dedicate an afternoon to and just enjoy for a few hours? This is one of those books. It’s a quick read in a very good way.

Next: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

YA Review: Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

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Title: Written in the Stars

Author:  Aisha Saeed

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Naila’s conservative parents learn that she’s made friends and fallen in love with a boy, they find her a husband and force her into an arranged marriage. Naila, now cut off from her friends, her college, and her boyfriend, must find a way to return home and take control of her own destiny.

What I loved: This book puts you so directly into Naila’s heart and mind that you feel for her as she fights to escape this arranged marriage. For her, this task isn’t so easy as just leaving the situation. Her husband and his family are abusive, and her uncles kidnap and threaten to kill her if she runs away. She risks everything she has—her reputation, her family, and even her life—because to her, life’s not worth living without authenticity. Although she seems trapped in a hopeless situation, Naila’s ability to find hope and strength from within saves her. I feel that many people, including myself, could learn from her quiet bravery.

Quote: “Love is about the good moments, but it’s about holding on to each other during the difficult ones, too. Coming out on the other side, weathered but still holding hands, isn’t easy. It’s the most difficult thing there can possibly be, but I know now it’s the truest test of love there is.”

Recommended: Yes, this book was a well-written story on love, tradition, and the risks women take when fighting for their independence. I think it’s important to note, though, that this book has a rape scene that may trigger some readers. If you think this might be too much for you, take caution before reading this book. But, though upsetting, the scene does give insight into the pain that so many women trapped in forced or abusive marriages face. It’s difficult to read, but that doesn’t detract from its importance.

Next: Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner

YA Review: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

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Title: A Study in Charlotte

Author:  Brittany Cavallaro

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes, descendants of the legendary Holmes and Watson, are framed for a murder of their fellow classmate, they must rely on each other’s wit and intuition to solve this case. But as their time runs out, they find that their ancestors’ footsteps are hard shoes to fill.

What I loved: Although there are tons of modern-day Sherlock Holmes novels out there, it’s hard to find a really compelling one. I think that’s not necessarily because the authors behind them don’t write good stories but because they’re taking on quite the mantle. A Study in Charlotte is one of the good ones, though. What I think the book does right is not making itself a retelling of the Holmes and Watson stories so much as a continuation. Charotte Holmes is not Sherlock, nor is Jamie Dr. Watson, but they have a similar heart and mind dynamic going on as they work to clear their names. This helped them develop into their own personalities and throw a strong nod to the original characters without constantly living in their shadows.

This book’s a quick read in a really good way. It’s got its gritty moments, sure, but A Study in Charlotte doesn’t take itself or its source material too seriously and has just as much humor as it does intensity. It’s just… fun. A little dark but overall, plenty of fun to read.

Quote: “I wanted the two of us to be complicated together, to be difficult and engrossing and blindingly brilliant.”

Recommended: I started my freshman year of high school right when the second season of BBC Sherlock came out and have been enamored with it ever since. If you love that series, this book will absolutely delight you. It has a similar feel but with just enough difference in their interpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters to make A Study in Charlotte stand out. And, considering that this is the first book in a series, you’ll probably get to read plenty more books in the Jamie and Charlotte universe before BBC Sherlock season five comes out! Which is one of those things that you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry about but, point being, this is a great read.

Next: Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

YA Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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Title: They Both Die at the End

Author: Adam Silvera

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: In a near-future world where people get a phone call the day they are going to die, Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio go on an adventure so they don’t have to spend their last day alone. But as they grow closer to each other in their final hours, their focus shifts from dying to, for a few brief hours, finally living.

What I loved: This book. I loved this book. But I also hated it because it struck my emotions hard and wrung them with every page. You know exactly what to expect from the first page: even as you get to know Mateo and Rufus, you know that they’re going to die by the end of the book. The question is when, which keeps the book so captivating. Mateo and Rufus are just as aware as the reader that their time is limited and, in the course of a day, their relationship becomes so intimate and authentic despite how short-lived it is. It’s an equally beautiful and painful musing on how we define life as well as its end.

Quote: “I always wanted to stumble into someone like you.”

Recommended: This book was devastating but in such a necessary way. I’d warn anyone who wants to check this out that it’s a difficult read. Ever since I started hormone replacement therapy last year, I’ve cried a lot less than I used to but this one had me tearing up. If you want an emotional reflection on how mortality can make us love and lose hard, it’s a good book for that. Or if you want to bawl your eyes out. It’s a great book for that, too.

On an unrelated note, Adam Silvera is quickly becoming one of my favorite current LGBTQ YA writers. After reading this book, I couldn’t get my hands on History Is All You Left Me fast enough… which was also a painful, meaningful read. So expect a review on that soon as well!

Next: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

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