YA Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Note: From here until the end of finals week (April 29th), I will only be posting on Tuesdays.

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Title: Openly Straight

Author: Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 3.5/5

One sentence summary: When sixteen year old Rafe transfers to a new boarding school, he decides to hide his sexuality to avoid becoming “the gay kid” like at his old school.

What I loved: Coming out stories are a dime a dozen in YA fiction, but rarely do you see “coming out again” stories. Konigsberg explores an interesting angle here because Rafe’s reasons for hiding his sexual orientation are unique and, for some LGBTQ people, even relatable. Nobody bullied him at school. He had friends who accepted him for him. His parents supported him so much that his mother ran the local PFLAG branch.

But he was tired of people taking his sexuality and making it his whole story. Ever since he came out, he’d given interviews and spoken at local high schools about LGBTQ acceptance. Everyone at his school knew his sexual orientation, and even though nobody discriminated against him, he felt uncomfortable. Because so many people reduced him to his sexuality, he no longer felt normal.

This feeling is understandable, and it likely is for others who come from accepting backgrounds. Konigsberg, however, doesn’t encourage teens in Rafe’s situation to follow his lead. Hiding who you are, if you replace yourself with a lie, can come with unforeseen consequences.

Rafe struggles to suppress his feelings while weaving stories of nonexistent girlfriends, writes to express emotions he doesn’t fully understand, and gets to know another student, Ben, who also represses his sexuality for harder reasons. Unlike Rafe, he hates his sexual orientation so much more deeply. Rafe wants to tell Ben he doesn’t have to be ashamed, but how can he say that when Rafe himself has gone back into the closet?

What Rafe ultimately comes to terms with is labeling: he eventually understands that he doesn’t have to be the gay kid just because he’s out. What other people see doesn’t matter as much as what he does to help them. Throughout the novel, Rafe struggles to help others in ways only he can without revealing his sexuality, a balance that wobbles so much he can’t help but crash. But when he does, he gets back up and achieves a new balance between an open sexual orientation and a multi-dimensional personality.

Quote: “You can be anything you want, but when you go against who you are inside, it doesn’t feel good.”

Recommended? Yes! This was a lot more lighthearted than some of the LGBTQ YA books I’ve read so far, and for that reason, I’d recommend it to younger teens and up.

Next up:  Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

LGBTQ YA: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Note: When I initially started reviewing books, I had assumed that I would never read a perfect 5/5 book. The Miseducation of Cameron Post proved me wrong.

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Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Author: Emily M. Danforth

Rating: 5/5

One sentence summary: After coming to terms with her sexual orientation while living with her conservative relatives, Cameron Post is sent to a gay conversion therapy center in rural Montana.

What I loved: This book centers around two major milestones in Cameron’s life: first, her realization and path to self-acceptance of her sexual orientation, and then her time coping at a gay conversion therapy center for about a year. Both are important stories to here and, from what I can tell, both relatable and real.

Cameron discovers she is lesbian when she’s twelve years old, as she and her friend Irene kiss in a barn. Soon after, her parents die in a car crash. Because Cameron was raised in a heavily religious environment, she believes that her sexuality caused the car crash as a punishment from God. Queer teens who have been raised in a religious environment might relate to this misplaced guilt, though perhaps not in an overwhelming loss like Cameron. The first quarter of the novel is about her guilt process as she explores her faith and eventually finds peace with her sexual orientation.

But even though Cameron herself no longer feels like her sexuality is wrong, she still lives in a repressive place. Her issues are not over just because she feels no more internal pain, and once her conservative Aunt Ruth learns Cameron’s openly gay, she sends her to a gay conversion private school.

Having to deal with these two pains (first coming to terms with yourself, and then living in a hostile environment) is a feeling many queer teenagers can relate to, and I think the way Danforth handles it is important for teens in this situation to read. Personally, I’ve never been to a gay conversion therapy center, nor do I know anyone who has, so I can’t attest to the accuracy. Danforth herself grew up in Miles City, Montana (the setting of this book) and used some of her experiences to create this book’s environment, which creates a very realistic and fair depiction.

Nobody in this book is a “bad guy,” not Aunt Ruth, not the people at the conversion therapy center, not Cameron. That is the best part of this novel. Cameron, while our protagonist, doesn’t always make morally positive decisions. Aunt Ruth shows genuine concern for Cameron, even if a bit misguided. Even those who run the gay conversion center believe they’re doing the right thing, regardless of whether we as readers agree with them.

Sometimes in LGBTQ YA, it’s easy for authors to paint an “us vs. them” mentality with those who do or don’t support LGBTQ rights, but life isn’t that simple. Generally people aren’t trying to hurt others. We’re all going through life with unique perspectives, trying to understand others as well as ourselves. This book is wonderful because even though it could easily have made Cameron innocent and flawless, and it could have made those who don’t understand her cruel beyond understanding, it doesn’t. It makes them human. I feel like that is important for anyone to read and understand.

Quote: “Maybe I still haven’t become me. I don’t know how you tell for sure when you finally have.”

Recommended? Yes! Very much so. Everything about this book is well-done: the writing, the characters, the story itself. Like other recommends, I might advise this more for older teens (15-up) because this book does contain some mature themes (sex, self-harm, conversion therapy).

Next up:  Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

YA Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Another Friday, another YA book review! Now that I have a good rhythm for these reviews, I’m hoping to add more content to this blog: as a tentative schedule, I’m planning on personal posts for every other Sundays and creative writing posts for every other Wednesday. Wednesday will be the first one. Ideally this will help make the content a little more varied and related to my own work as a writer.

Until then, enjoy this review of All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven!

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Title: All the Bright Places

Author: Jennifer Niven

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of a bell tower and team up on a school project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, saving each other from their inner demons in the process. But some demons are harder to fight than others, and Finch struggles to keep from losing himself (and Violet) to the darkness inside his thoughts.

What I loved: This book is narrated from the perspectives of both Violet and Finch, alternating by chapter. Both characters have distinct voices, and it’s enjoyable to inhabit their perspective (if only for a little while). Though dealing with similar troubles, Violet’s voice is very different from Finch’s (and vice-versa). This can be a little hard to pull off when dealing with multiple POVs in a book without making one more interesting or combining both into an indistinguishable blob.

Many YA books deal with depression from a first-person perspective, but less focus on the effect depression can have on the friends of those dealing with it. Violet and Finch’s relationship is complicated, and although she loves him a lot, ultimately she can’t take what he’s dealing with away through dates or kind words. I think this is a good message to send, even if it’s hard to hear: depression is more than just a feeling. It’s serious, and treatment involves more than holding hands and wishing it away.

What Violet and Finch go through is so hard, and it’s hard as a reader to experience their struggles with them, but it’s real. While some themes in this book may be triggering (mentioned more later on), portraying painful situations in YA can be important because it helps those who experience them feel less alone. The way Niven writes them is respectful and done with a lot of taste. I especially appreciated that she listed resources for readers with the depression at the end of the book, too.

What I didn’t love: Although this book is beautifully-written and handles difficult topics well, I had a few concerns about its portrayal of depression. Sometimes it felt like the characters glorified mental illness as something that made you deep or quirky rather than a serious thing that needs treatment. Adults in the book are largely portrayed as clueless and unable to help, which seems like a bad message to send if a reader is struggling with depression.

Sometimes Finch felt more like a concept than an actual human being. Although his character was intriguing, his actions seemed more like a vehicle to talk about depression than a person with multiple dimensions. If he was a little more relatable, I think it would be easier for readers to understand him and see depression as a real concern rather than a quirk or romanticized illness. I still enjoyed his character but felt like he could have been more believable.

Quote: “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”

Recommended? Yes, but with some caveats. This book is definitely for older teens. Not only does this book include themes of death and suicide, but the way it handles these topics is a lot more open but also graphic than some YA books. If death and suicide are triggering subjects for you, this book might not be the best choice.

This book especially reminded me of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (which I personally love a lot). Readers who also enjoyed this book might appreciate the similar ideas and feelings in this book, especially since All the Bright Places is strong enough to stand on its own.

Next up:  The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

LGBTQ Representation in YA: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

Note: As you can see, I skipped a week on blog posts and book reviews. Last Tuesday after staff meeting, my co-workers and I went on an impromptu adventure to IHOP in the wee hours of the night. I figure responsibilities are important, but what’s life if you can’t enjoy yourself every once in awhile?

So I took the week to read some YA books and prepare to start up reviews Tuesdays and Fridays from now onward. This one is another LGBTQ YA book that explores memory and the role it plays in defining us, as well as what causes us to love who we love.

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Title: More Happy Than Not

Author: Adam Silvera

Rating: 4/5

One sentence summary: In the near-future where memory erasure procedure Leteo provide relief from traumatic events, 16-year-old Aaron Soto contemplates undergoing the surgery to “straighten himself out” if it means he can find bliss in ignorance.

What I loved: This book deals with brutal themes: suicide, homophobia, and inner shame are all treated with respect but also a rawness that almost hurts to read. Aaron discovers his sexual orientation in a repressive environment. Through developing a close relationship with his friend Thomas, he unravels emotions that he fights so hard to understand even as he wants them to disappear. Readers who came to terms with their sexuality as a teenager may find Aaron’s fear and confusion relatable, albeit hard to swallow.

In a word, More Happy Than Not‘s writing style is “gut-wrenching.” Despite a near-future setting, the turmoil Aaron faces internally and also from his loved ones reads so vividly that the reader is thrust into his emotions and deals with them alongside him. If you’ve been in a situation like Aaron’s, struggling to understand a sexuality or gender identity you never asked for, you may find the writing style punches you in the stomach in a way you’ve felt before. It’s hurtful but almost healing.

More Happy Than Not deals with hard questions, both questions that Aaron faces as he unravels who he is as opposed to who he thought he was. I grew up in a religious community that has come a long way in how we treat our LGBT lay members. While compassion and acceptance is taught more often than not, I still remember as a young teen when my relatives swore that gay people can change their orientation and, as this protagonist longs to do, “straighten themselves out” via therapy or just flat-out denial. I used to think I could do this with my gender identity. It still hurts.

For that reason, I think I understood why Aaron wanted so desperately to erase his sexual orientation from his memory, if it meant he could live a “normal” life. His friends are less-than-supportive and even violently homophobic. Coming out, for him, was not only shameful but unsafe. If a procedure gives someone a chance of escaping such painful discrimination, even if it means no longer being you, who wouldn’t find it almost too good to be true?

In Aaron’s case, it is: meaning that not only does Leteo promise to erase his inner fears, but it is quite literally too good to be true. Memories define us, but there is so much more to us. Silvera explores their fragility and whether you can erase something so central to someone as their sexual orientation, as well as what consequences that may have. It’s dark, thought-provoking, and unafraid of shying from conflicted and painful emotions (both for his characters and his readers).

Quote: “Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.:

Recommended? Yes. Especially recommended for those who enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as this book explores similar connections of memory, personality, and what love is. Silvera gives the idea a unique spin by incorporating sexuality into the mix.

I would probably recommend this one for around 14-up because of how openly it discusses teenage sexuality, bullying, and suicide. Younger readers may not be ready to deal with these themes, which can get a little dark, but older teens could find their discussion cathartic if they have gone through similar challenges. If any of these themes are triggering, however, it might not be the best choice.

Because I enjoyed this book so much, I looked to see if Adam Silvera has written anything else, and he has: his novel History Is All You Left Me was published in January. Requested from the library and added to the list!

Next up:  All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Trans Representation in YA: When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Note: After some thought, I have decided to post YA reviews on Tuesdays and Fridays. The idea behind this is two-fold. First, I feel that although I hope to review any contemporary YA book that holds a strong sense of meaning, it will be a good way to raise more visibility for LGBTQ YA in particular. When I was a teenager, I wish we had as much access to queer YA novels as queer teens do now. With all these amazing books out there, I feel a need to spotlight them in case there’s a LGBTQ teen out there who needs it.

Second, it will also help me keep up with my reading goal this year (as I am currently a little behind). I hope you find these reviews helpful and give you a good idea of what to check out next from your local bookstore or library. Let me know in the comments if you have any book suggestions!

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Title: When the Moon Was Ours

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: In a tale of magical realism that stings of emotions strongly felt in our world, close friends Miel and Sam are as equally unique as they are mysterious: roses grow and blossom from Miel’s wrists, and Sam hangs moons that he painted in the trees. When the Bonner girls, four sisters rumored to be witches, want Miel’s roses for themselves, Sam and Miel must face hard questions about love, identity, and the secrets we keep.

Review: Initially, I was drawn to this book because I read that one of the protagonists (Sam) was a transgender man. Although luckily, queer representation in YA fantasy is on the rise, I had yet to read a fantasy novel with a trans character (let alone a trans protagonist).

Yet the most beautiful thing about this book is that being transgender is just one aspect of Sam: it is a vitally important aspect of him, and throughout the novel he explores how to reconcile his gender identity, but he is also an artist painting moons to make the forest brighter, a son seeking love and acceptance from his mother, and a kind-but-conflicted boyfriend to Miel.

Too often in queer YA, it feels like the protagonist’s story is reduced to coming out as gay or trans–and while those stories are important to tell, people are so much more than their gender identity or sexual orientation. Sam and Miel, as well as the other characters, felt human. Overall, this book was very character-driven. As a reader, I felt so strongly pulled into the characters’ world that the emotions they felt, I felt alongside them.

Overall, this novel is about self-exploration and reconciling who you wish you were with who you are. It doesn’t present any easy answers, nor was it meant to, as we don’t often get those in life. The way this book handles social issues such as queer identity and racism is subtly well-done, with respect for these issues in reality evident in the way the author handles them.

What I loved: When the Moon was Ours is a work of magical realism, just as whimsical and beautifully-written as books in this genre tend to be. Blurring the edges between fantasy and reality allows McLemore to present powerful thoughts. The prose was as magical as the plot itself and gave a sense of allure and true magic.

Much of the story is told through metaphor and allusion: for those who prefer plot over character development, this may be a little frustrating, but for me it painted a vivid and compelling picture.

In addition to queer representation, the author also brought in themes of cultural identity and racism. Sam grapples with his identity as an Italian-Pakistani trans boy, realizing that his identity as male is so much more than the cultural role of bacha posh he had initially assumed. Miel investigates her identity through her Latina heritage through legends, language, and Spanish tradition.

In the author’s note, McLemore talks about her husband’s transition and how they as a couple came to know so much about one another as they grappled with difficult things. She wrote about seeing her husband’s struggle in his eyes as a teenager and how, though transitioning has been difficult as any challenge is, she has seen him become free.

I try to be a pretty strong person, but admittedly, I got a little teary-eyed as I read it. Someday, I hope to find someone as caring and understanding as the author is with her husband.

Quote: “He would never let go of Samira, the girl his mother imagined when he was born. She would follow him, a blur he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye when he stood at the counter, making roti with his mother. Or he would see the silhouette of Samira crossing the woods, wearing the skirts that fit her but he could never make himself fit. Maybe one day he would see her shape, her dark hands setting the lantern of a hollow pumpkin into the water, candle lighting the carves shapes.

“But this was what she would be now, his shadow, an echo of what he once was and thought he would be again. She was less like someone he was supposed to become, and more like a sister who lived in places he could not map, a sister who kept a light but constant grip on both his hand and his grandmother’s.

“No one could make him be Samira. Not him. Not the Bonner sisters. Not the signatures on that paper.”

Recommended: Highly. While this book is of course excellent for trans or queer-identifying readers, the way it handles identity is pertinent for anyone who’s trying to discover themselves in a conflicting world.

With prose so beautiful and characters so nuanced as these, I have to recommend this for all lovers of magical realism and an emotionally-charged story. I may, however, recommend this more for older teens because it does have some sex scenes (although with minimal detail and tastefully-handled).

A Monster Calls: Truths, Regrets, and Letting Go

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Last weekend, I saw A Monster Calls in theaters with my mom. I’m a little biased since I’ve been waiting in anticipation of this since 2014, but it was probably one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in a long time. The special effects drew heavily off the striking nature-based book illustrations, and the acting was emotional and very-well done.

A Monster Calls follows the story of a boy named Conor whose mother is dying of a terminal illness. He comes to terms with losing his mother and the conflicted emotions surrounding this through a monster, who tells him a story each night that broadens his understanding of life. “Stories are important,” reminds the monster, “They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”

While driving back to my university, we talked about how well the movie applied to anyone who must overcome loss in life, whether that’s loss of a loved one or something else. She asked me if I remembered a specific scene from the movie, when the monster confronts Conor about letting himself feel the truth: that his mother is dying and he must face his feelings surrounding her loss before they consume him. Conor cannot bring himself to face it.

He begs the monster to let him hide from the truth, crying that if he lets go of her, the truth will kill him.

“It will kill you,” exclaims the monster, “if you do not!”

Conor feels as to his mother is falling and he cannot catch her, and he struggles to face this but, at last, he does it. He faces the truth after months of repression and anguish.

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He lets go and he is finally, finally free.

This scene stuck with my mom, and it stuck with me, too. We both, as so many do, have regrets in life. We have moments we wish we could have changed, and lying behind these moments are painful truths. We know that no matter what, we can never return to where we used to be or who we once were. We wish we hadn’t experienced certain situations, some of which may even be our fault.

And yet, such is life. No person is perfect. A Monster Calls even notes the complexity of human nature and notes that most people aren’t good or bad but “somewhere in-between.”  While we dwell in the in-between, we go through experiences we wish we never had to face. But face them we must, or they will destroy us from inside out.

Neither my mom nor I fully understand why we go through hard things after watching the movie. It didn’t really answer that. Maybe sometimes there’s a reason, or maybe sometimes suffering is a part of mortality that is beyond our understanding or control. But in response to suffering, we have two choices: we can either ignore it and let the pain consume us, or we can embrace it. The latter hurts more than anything but in time, we heal.

I especially love the monster as an analogy of this process. Nothing is more horrifying than the truth, but nothing is more important, either. Often we think of pain as demons we have to struggle against at every cost, but I like the idea of embracing them, instead, and letting them go.

I’m not particularly good at facing truth but want to remember this, especially when I feel dysphoric or guilty. Pain isn’t the enemy nor something that we need to hide from. We have to face it so that we can let go.

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Note: I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair, honest review via Blogging for Books.

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Shylock is My Name: A Thoughtful Shakespeare Retelling

Author: Howard Jacobson

Rating: 3.5/5

One sentence summary: In a retelling of the Merchant of Venice, a conflicted modern-day Shylock (Simon Strulovitch) engages in conversation with his Shakespearean counterpart as the novel explores concerns of relationships and Jewish identity  as relevant today as it was in the sixteenth-century.

Review: Shylock is My Name follows the story of an art collector named Simon who finds himself facing a lot of similar problems to the Shakespearean character. His relationship with his daughter is, at best, rocky and at worst, dysfunctional. Although he cares for his wife deeply, he does not know how to connect with her following a traumatic incident that left her changed. He feels a little helpless in a world he doesn’t quite feel like he belongs in or understands, nor does he quite know how to process his Jewish identity.

He decides to visit his mother’s grave and, while doing so, runs into none other than Shylock. The two meet first as strangers, then as friends when they realize just how deeply they understand each other. Shylock follows Simon home and the two have deep, revealing conversations on relationships, Jewish identity, and family.

What I loved: I loved this book’s language. Jacobson’s word choice is beautiful and often poetic. He paints vivid mental imagery, each one giving the readers an insight into Simon and his very human emotions.

Although the premise of a modern-day Shylock meeting his fictional counterpart sounds a little strange, Shylock is My Name takes the idea and runs with it. Jacobson presents the mild absurdity of the situation as if it was ordinary and, in doing so, it becomes ordinary. As a reader, we are left focusing on the conversations than necessarily where Shylock came from and what he’s doing here.

What I didn’t love: Sometimes I felt like the language was a little too grandiose for my own liking. At times, vocabulary shifts felt unnatural and out-of-place among the rest of the prose. Though I don’t think this was the author’s intention, I felt like the prose was at times complex for the same of being complex rather than genuinely profound. This distracted me at times and took me out of the otherwise intriguing story.

Overall:  All-in-all, excellent contemporary adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Despite a few language hang-ups, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to those who love a good contemporary Shakespeare adaption. After all, who doesn’t?




Happy New Year’s Day! As tumultuous as 2016 was, I’m kind of going to miss it. What began as one of the hardest years of my life became one of the most worthwhile. Over the past twelve months, I have officially come out as transgender, finally (finally) attended an Aquabats concert, and started work as an RA alongside wonderful co-workers and residents.

Last January, I was struggling to overcome a bad bout of depression. My new year’s resolution was simply this: “Stay alive to 2017.”

Since I (somehow) completed last year’s goal, I have hopes. We’ll see how it went in 365 days. Here’s to a good, insightful year!

1.Write 1500 words per day.

From what I’ve heard, establishing a steady word count goes a long way. 2000-3000 would be a good end goal, but I want to work my way up to that. 1500 seems realistic with just enough challenge to make it interesting.

Going along with that, finish NaNoWriMo in November. This year is my year. I can feel it.

2. Read (at least) 100 books in 2017.

That evens out to (approximately) 1 books every 3-4 days. Hopefully, this will help clear out the backburner of books I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to.

Beyond simple pleasure, I’ve heard that reading helps people become more empathetic, and reading improves your own writing skills. With any luck (and a little audiobooks to get through study sessions), this will be a do-able goal.

3. Every day, get to know someone better.

On the spectrum of extroversion and introversion, I lean towards reserved by a wide margin. Sometimes, instead of getting to know and develop relationships with people, I keep to myself because it’s easier when I really could do more.

Relationships are the most important aspect of our lives. They are our main (and, really, only) source of happiness. What I hope to gain from this is getting to know and understand people on a deeper level, both those I already know and those who I meet in everyday circumstances.

In terms of application, I want to try pushing myself to talk to others and listen to them as well as working to develop closer relationships with them.

4. Maintain the six dimensions of wellness each day.

Initially, this goal was going to be “eat less cookies and not be single.” But when I informed a friend about this, he said that it might be more helpful to focus on overall health and wellness rather than… those goals in particular.

Focusing on the six elements of wellness (occupational, physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual) may help overall well-being more than the prototype goals.

In practice, I’m thinking of trying to do an activity that promotes each of these dimensions. For physical fitness, this might mean exercising or, well, eating less cookies. Spiritual wellness might involve yoga or reading from a spiritual book. And so on.

5.  Overcome evil with good.

A couple of days ago, I came across this quote: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

For me, this is not necessarily a moralistic thought. In 2016, there were some dark moments: both on the worldwide and the individual moments. When faced with hardship, sometimes I worry that the bad will overcome the good, and I lose hope.

Yet last year, despite painful moments, goodness always came through. It came through the people and the kindness they showed me. In the end, the little things outweighed the bad. When hardships happen this year, I hope to respond with compassion and try to bring light to my life and the lives of others.

And there we are, five resolutions. 2016, we hardly knew ye. Good luck in 2017! I hope it’s a prosperous year for you and that you’re able to accomplish whatever resolutions you have, or at least make progress in this crazy thing that we call life.