Blog Tour Review: Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale

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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 Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

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TitleThe Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

Rating: 3.5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YA Review: Earth to Charlie by Justin Olson

TitleEarth to Charlie by Justin Olson

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YA Review: 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.