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: Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

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TitleOut of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Rating: 3/5

Two-sentence summary: Genderqueer witch Z feels like a loner thanks to their new status as a zombie. After teaming up with unregistered werewolf Aysel, the two team up to combat the hostility against them in their town of Salem, Oregon.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues:  Out of Salem features a genderqueer protagonist named Z who deals with misgendering and dead-naming (which is kind of clever, considering that they’re a zombie). Z seems to use this term interchangeably with non-binary and use they/them pronouns. This book also includes a Muslim lesbian werewolf main character, and the interplay between these identities made the book a lot richer than some speculative fiction stories.

What I liked: I thought that the social commentary about LGBT discrimination via how these “monsters” are treated was a pretty unique concept. The queer representation was also very complex and well-written, especially the relationship between Z and Aysel. While there aren’t any major romances in this book, the friendship between this two is so authentic and uplifting for each other. Watching them learn to respect and genuinely care for each other through shared hardships is one of the best parts of Out of Salem. It makes the book feel so real for a story about zombies and werewolves.

The one complaint I had was that the writing felt a bit stiff, and that made it hard for me to engage with the story as much as I wanted to. It was an innovative idea, but it didn’t always translate over well into words (in my opinion). But that being said, this seems to be the author’s debut novel and even without that taken into consideration, it was still an enjoyable read.

Recommended: This was a pretty new concept for queer YA, especially within non-binary representation. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a spooky, gay read. Perfect book to get your Halloween fix any time of the year!

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

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: 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.

Queer YA Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

 

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TitleThe Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Henry “Monty” Montague, a young earl of England, embarks on one last Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend (and crush) Percy and his sister Felicity before taking over his father’s estate. But when their trip takes an unexpected turn, Monty and his companions must throw their vacation out the window and confront the danger (and their feelings) head-on.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Gentleman’s Guide features a queer relationship between two cisgender men, one of whom is a person of color and disabled (epilepsy). One of the love interests is bisexual and the other is ambiguously queer so the book also has excellent bi representation. It also features an aromantic/asexual character, though this is explored more in its sequel The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy.

What I loved: Part of me debated whether or not to review this book because it is so popular that most have already heard of it. But because I’m using this blog as a catalog for notable queer YA books (and because it’s genuinely well-written), it felt important to include.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue feels like what Oscar Wilde might have written if he’d been a twenty-first century YA writer. It’s a snarky, yet surprisingly profound adventure from the first chapter to the end. Monty’s not only a hilarious character, but he’s also more complex than he seems. As a bisexual man in the eighteenth-century, he carries a lot of internalized shame and abuse (both physical and mental) from those who didn’t understand him. In that way, his character feels very human and a fascinating depiction of what queer eighteenth-century men might have been like.

What The Gentleman’s Guide does best is translate contemporary issues into historical fiction. Disabilities, racial prejudice, PTSD from child abuse, and other serious topics are all discussed in thought-provoking and timelessly relevant ways. These issues do not weigh down the comedic scenes, but they do add a tension that gives this book more depth than just a funny romance.

One complaint I’ve heard in reviews on the book is that it’s somewhat anachronistic so if you’re an eighteenth-century history buff, that may bother you. But personally, I found that (similar to Moulin Rouge) it adds to the book’s charm and contributes to its fun and fantastical tone. The novel definitely doesn’t read like a text book, but what fun would it be if it did? It’s a YA romantic comedy with a good dose of swashbuckling romance. Like all good romances, there’s got to be a bit of the unbelievable in there. That being said, Gentleman’s Guide feels well-researched and it seems like most of the possible anachronisms are deliberate.

Quote: “The stars dust gold leafing on his skin. And we are looking at each other, just looking, and I swear there are whole lifetimes lived in those small, shared moments.”

Recommended: This book is highly recommended, not only for its fascinating portrayal of a queer relationship in eighteenth-century England but the adventure it takes you on. If you love Oscar Wilde’s work, books about young (queer) love, and journeys through eighteenth-century Europe, Gentleman’s Guide is a good YA fiction book to read!

Queer YA Review: This is Kind of an Epic Love Story

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TitleThis is Kind of an Epic Love Story by Kheryn Callender

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Nathan, a seventeen-year-old romantic cynic, swears off love for good to prevent someone from breaking his heart like his mother’s. But when he reconnects with his childhood best friend Ollie, his promise to himself is tested in the best of ways.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This is a gay YA romance novel centering around two cis men. Neither of the main characters define their sexuality beyond the general “queer” label and express romantic attraction for men and women. This is Kind of an Epic Love Story also features two POC protagonists and a hard-of-hearing protagonist who uses sign language.

What I Loved: The childhood best friends-to-lovers trope may be done a lot in YA romance, but it never stops being cute. Especially in Nathan and Ollie’s case. One of the most important things about YA romance is that you can actually feel the chemistry between the love interests, and these two are one of the cutest gay couples in YA books that I’ve read. Nathan makes an awkward, but lovable pair to Ollie’s sweet, goodhearted nature. They’re not just boyfriends but also best friends, and I think the deep and meaningful friendship the characters start off with really drives heart into their story.

Also, I mentioned this briefly earlier, but I love how This is Kind of an Epic Love Story doesn’t define itself as an “LGBTQ love story” but just a love story. Nate has fallen in love with men and women, and he doesn’t seem to identify with a specific sexual orientation. It’s portrayed more as caring deeply and connecting with another human being than something that defined who they are. I enjoyed that a lot. It really felt like a novel that celebrates love in its many forms.

Quote: “Maybe the way you love changes from person to person.”

Recommended: So many lovely LGBTQ YA books released in 2018! This is Kind of an Epic Love Story is perfect for those who love romantic comedies. Not a lot of gay romance books out there are just pure, wholesome happiness. But this book is, and if you’re looking for a reason to believe in love stories again, you’ll find it in Nathan and Ollie.

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