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: Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

TitleHonestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: This sequel to Openly Straight follows Ben Carver during what should be the best year of his life: he’s captain of the baseball team, he won a prestegious scholarship, and he cut things off with his maybe-crush Rafe. But when his rekindled feelings for Rafe interfere with his straight identity, he must confront what it means to be authentic.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a protagonist who identifies as straight but falls in love with a gay cis man (Rafe). He feels that he’s physically attracted to women with Rafe being the only exception. It’s unclear whether Rafe really is the only exception or whether he’s in the process of understanding his sexual orientation.

Honestly Ben also has a side character who comes out as genderfluid and another character who’s implied to be asexual.

What I loved: Throughout the book, Ben explores what masculinity is and what it means to be a man. The crux of his internal conflict comes through his attraction to Rafe, but he also feels pressure from his position as the baseball team captain and the son of a conservative farmer. I liked how Ben’s ideology of what a man is shifts in a way that’s gradual but also helps him incorporate masculinity in a healthier way that seems natural for his character. And I thought it was important to note how ben calls out others who express toxic masculinity as Ben’s definition of manhood changes.

Also, the side plot about Ben and Rafe’s friend who comes out as genderfluid was an unexpected but also beautiful development! I almost wished that Bill Konigsberg had written an entire companion novel about them just because they seemed like such an interesting character. In general, it seems like so many more YA books feature genderfluid and non-binary characters and I love seeing greater diversity in queer representation.

Quote: “Anyway, my whole thing is, whatever path I’m on, I’m on. I’m not going to avoid it because it’s harder for the world, or even harder for me. I’m like, I gotta be me, you know?”

Recommended: I thought this was a sweet and wholesome follow-up to Openly Straight. To be honest, I actually enjoyed Honestly Ben a little more. But I would recommend that you read Openly Straight first because understanding the relationship between Ben and Rafe is important context for the sequel.

YA Review: Some Girls Bind by Rory James

TitleSome Girls Bind by Rory James

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Jamie Henderson has a secret: they feel out-of-place in their body and bind their chest to relieve dysphoria. Told in a free verse style, this book follows Jamie during the year that they come out as genderqueer.

Portrayal of LGBT issues: Some Girls Bind features a protagonist who explores self-acceptance and how to come out as non-binary throughout the course of the novel. While some groups make a distinction, the author doesn’t specifically define non-binary vs genderqueer and uses both terms interchangeably. The book does make a distinction between gender non-conforming vs non-binary identity, which I feel is helpful for both trans and cisgender readers.

Although the book’s synopsis uses “she/her” for Jamie, they also discover gender-neutral pronouns as a way to reduce dysphoria. Beyond non-binary identities, this story features a subplot about a gay student who’s rejected by his community after he comes out.

What I loved: I’m a bit of a sucker for YA books in verse and am always happy to read LGBTQ poetry. The writing style works well and allows Jamie to reveal their thoughts and feelings in an authentic and often beautiful way. Some Girls Bind features a lot of difficult subjects; even beyond queer topics, it also discusses child abuse, alcoholism, and marginalized characters living in a conservative and homogenous community. And it does so in a concise, yet thought-provoking way that keeps the story overall hopeful.

One of my favorite subplots in the book was when Jamie comes out to their brother Steve. As Jamie prepares to come out and live authentically as themself, Steve helps them find the resources and binding materials they need while supporting them all the way. In so many books about transgender characters, they don’t have someone they can lean on in their family. I thought it was both well-written and powerful to give Jamie one person who may not fully understand their gender experience but tries to and loves them unconditionally.

I’m not a big fan of the title, though, since it seems pretty binary for a book about a genderqueer person. But that’s pretty nit-picky and still fits with Jamie’s changing sense of gender identity throughout the book.

While this doesn’t necessarily relate to the queer community, I think it’s important to note that this is a hi-lo novel. Hi-lo refers to books written in a simpler style than most YA but still explores challenging topics. The purpose of hi-lo is to bridge the gap between juvenile fiction and YA fiction written at a high reading level for reluctant readers. If you’re a student who struggles with reading or know someone who is, this could introduce LGBTQ themes in an accessible writing style.

Quote: “When I look in the mirror, / I don’t see a girl and / I don’t see a boy. I just see / my goofy glasses and Beatles-like hair.”

Recommended: This book’s style reminded me a lot of Ellen Hopkins, another YA writer who explores challenging topics in free verse books. If you’re a fan of her books or hi-lo LGBTQ YA, Some Girls Bind could be a good book recommendation.

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