YA Review: Deposing Nathan by Zack Smedley

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TitleDeposing Nathan by Zack Smedley

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After Nate’s best friend Cam attacks him, he’s called to court to deliver a statement that would convict Cam. But their relationship had never been easy or simple, and Nate’s emotional conflict sends him spiraling to his limits.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Nate is a cisgender queer guy whose relationship with Cam is messy. But so many things in life are, including those that matter most. As the two boys fall apart, their friendship unravels as they get to the heart of what happened between them. There are no easy answers as to why Nate ended up in the hospital and Cam in court, but Nate tries to analyze his questions anyways and find some sense of closure.

Deposing Nathan deals heavily with themes of domestic abuse between Nate and his aunt. If that subject matter could potentially be triggering to you, I’d recommend researching the book a little further before reading it. It can be intense at times.

What I liked: Deposing Nathan is one of those books that takes you in a very different direction than you expect. One of the heaviest themes in this book is what makes a decision right or wrong. Nate knows that if he testifies against Cam, his best friend will serve a long jail sentence. The two boys are the only people who know the truth about what happened, and this burden weighs on Nate because he desperately wants to do good. But people don’t often fit into well-defined categories of “good” and “bad,” which heightens Nate’s problems all the more.

I also loved how well the author portrays Nate’s faith crisis. People whose religious beliefs and queer identity are equally important to them often have a hard time getting the two halves of who they are to coexist. Throughout Deposing Nathan, Nate grapples with his beliefs – his spiritual beliefs, his beliefs about his moral conscience, and his beliefs concerning his family. Challenging these beliefs is one of the hardest things for Nate to do but only through self-discovery is he able to reach peace.

“If you think you need to earn enough points on someone’s rubric for them to accept you, then either you’re wrong to assume they won’t love you for who you are, or they never loved you in the first place.”

Recommended: If you’re looking for a book that will just emotionally destroy you, here it is. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

YA Review: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

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TitleKings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is “Judy Blume meets RuPaul’s Drag Race.” High school student Nima finds herself immersed in drag culture and both finds new love and lets go of old love while performing.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Nima is a lesbian who finds a community among drag kings in Bridgeton, New Jersey. This is one of the first gay YA books I’ve read that explores drag culture, and I felt like it was nicely done. As a trans person, I’ve kind of kept my distance from the drag community but this book helped me understand more about it. Whether you’re familiar with drag queens and kings yourself or you’re interested in learning more, I’d very much recommend this one–it is, however, important to recognize that it’s a portrayal of drag and not trans culture.

What I liked: Nima was such a likable character, and I think that’s one of the most important things for LGBT YA books. She’s a little shy and awkward at first, but once she discovers drag culture, she’s able to find her inner confidence and let go of feelings for a straight friend. It was fun to see her blossom into herself throughout the book and especially how being a drag king allowed her to accept herself as a lesbian. She’s able to ditch all of the negative labels those around her assign (like “dyke” or “faggot”) and discover her own inner beauty.

I’ve also noticed that while drag culture’s explored pretty often in adult LGBT fiction, it’s less common in queer YA. From an outsider’s perspective, this felt like an honest and fascinating portrayal of it. I’m not sure if the author herself is familiar with drag but either way, it’s clear she did her research. The drag queens and queens Nima meets brings out the best in her and offers her a queer-safe place for her to come to terms with who she is. It helped me understand how important drag is to the LGBT community as well as how separate it is from being trans (though a trans person can also be a drag king or queen, if they want).

“The only thing about bliss is that it’s sometimes accompanied by ignorance.”

Recommended: Nina’s was a vulnerable coming-of-age story. I’d recommend this for anyone who would like to understand the drag community more. Or if you’re a drag king or queen yourself, check this one out and let me know if it’s a fair portrayal! It was such a lovely book that I imagine it is.

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

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: Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

TitleLeah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: This sequel to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda focus on sarcastic, Slytherin, and senioritis sufferer Leah Burke. In between drumming for a girl band and writing Harry Potter fanfics, Leah looks inside herself for the courage to come out as bisexual.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a bisexual protagonist (cis female) and a few queer minor characters. Leah comes from an accepting family and has several gay friends but struggles to come out as bi. It’s a fairly nuanced plot in that Leah doesn’t face as much discrimination from those around her but still needs to work through internalized homophobia and insecurity before she’s comfortable enough to come out.

What I loved: Out of all of Becky Albertalli’s novels, I think Leah is my new favorite protagonist. Her sarcastic attitude is endearing and as a former fanfic writer, I found her passion for Harry Potter shipping fits hilarious. But she’s more than just a witty character–she’s also sensitive in the way she treats others and herself. She’s concerned about privilege and looks after marginalized people around her. And even though she’s fully accepting of her queer friends and knows her mother would still love her if she came out, it takes a long time for her to find the courage. She’s such a fun and well-rounded character, and I enjoyed every minute I spent in her headspace as a reader.

Plus the romance plot is so cute! Without giving anything away, part of the reason she’s able to come out is the confidence she develops from falling in love with a close friend. I appreciated that unlike some queer romances, Leah on the Offbeat took its time to establish a relationship that took several months plus years of unrequited love to develop. It felt realistic for a romance between Leah and her girlfriend to happen, especially since the two accept that they’re queer for the first time throughout the novel. Overall, a fun and lighthearted book steeped with strong characters and a sweet love story.

Quote: “Imagine going about your day knowing someone’s carrying you in their mind. That has to be the best part of being in love- the feeling of having a home in some else’s brain.”

Recommended: I especially recommend this book to bi readers looking for a snarky but also relatable character, as well as fans of Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. You might be able to pick up the plot without having read Simon Vs, but you’ll understand the characters and complexity of the story a lot more if you finish it first. Plus, both are lovely books with plenty of good queer representation so you can’t go wrong with either!

YA Review: Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

TitleLet’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Being true to herself is difficult for Alice when her girlfriend leaves her after coming out as asexual. But when she meets “library worker in shining armor” Takumi over the summer, can she risk falling in love again if it means finally being understood?

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a panromantic asexual woman who, after breaking up with her girlfriend, develops a “squish” (asexual crush) on a male coworker. I liked how well Alice explained a lot of asexual terminology (like asexuality vs romanticism) without feeling weighed down with jargon.

Let’s Talk About Love also features a queer POC protagonist written by an #OwnVoices author, which is always good to see in YA.

What I loved: What I enjoyed most about this book is how lovable the characters are, especially Alice! Whether she was squealing about cute animals or standing up to her lawyer parents to pursue her dream, I found her character really endearing. Plus, the way she explains the difference between aesthetic, romantic, and sexual attraction was so enlightening as a non-ace reader and I imagine it would feel relatable for those who are.

Plus, the romance between Alice and Takumi was equal parts sweet and realistic. Although they both feel genuine care for each other, Let’s Talk About Love doesn’t shy away from showing the challenges of relationships between ace and non-ace people. Alice struggles to come out to Takumi because she worries he’ll leave her. And even though being honest gives her relief, Takumi does have a hard time understanding what her asexuality means for their relationship. But there’s also plenty of adorable, fluffy moments between the two to balance out the more serious stuff.

The only complaint I had is that I feel like this book should be shelved as new adult, not YA, since Alice is a college student. Recently I’ve come across a lot of discussions on Twitter about how when we write adult protagonists in YA, we’re isolating the target teen audience. It’s important to put books with adult protagonists in the right category to make sure YA reaches the readers who need it most. Plus, new adult is such a fledgling category and could use more well-written novels.

Quote: “You can’t let one or two bad experiences stop you from being happy.”

Recommended: If you’re looking for a sweet coming of age romance with plenty of queer representation, this book is a great choice! Also, on a side note, I just realizes that both of the books I’ve read about asexuality (this and Tash Hearts Tolstoy) have a female protagonist. Let me know if you’ve heard of any books with an asexual male or non binary protagonist! I think those perspectives would be both fascinating and important to see in YA.

YA Review: The Meaning of Birds by Jaye Robin Brown

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TitleThe Meaning of Birds by Jaye Robin Brown

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Vivi was the only person who understood Jess enough to make love blossom out of her anger and loneliness. But when Vivi passes away suddenly during their senior year, Jess must learn how to channel her loss into something beautiful.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a romantic relationship between two cis lesbian women. Because it’s mentioned in the main synopsis and not a spoiler, though, I will say that one of the women dies unexpectedly. It does follow the “bury your gays” narrative but is nuanced and meaningful enough that I don’t think it deserves the negative connotations of that trope.

The Meaning of Birds also mentions trans issues and features an aromatic minor character.

What I loved: First of all, even though this doesn’t have to do with the story itself, the cover illustration is gorgeous. If my rating was based on the cover alone, it would have easily gotten a 5/5. It’s a wholesome, pastel aesthetic that drew me to the book before I even knew what it was about. Based on other comments I’ve seen, other readers found the cover very visually appealing, too.

And the book reflects that beauty as well as the beauty of sorrow and healing from the sudden loss of a partner. When I began reading the book, I worried that this would just be another story where a gay character dies to show how hard being LGBTQ is. But it was more than that. Jess was a living, feeling character and her grief seemed so real. Coming to terms with Vivi’s death and all she left behind is a messy, difficult path, but it’s one that I feel would be cathartic for anyone who’s had to let go of someone they loved.

The main reason that I didn’t give it four or five stars, however, was because it had a few comments that I felt were unintentionally transphobic. Discussing how a trans woman was born male in a less-than-accepting way and talking about “gold star gays” prevented me from giving it a higher rating. Again, I don’t think this was on purpose exactly, but it was still prominent enough that it felt worth mentioning.

Quote: “My grief is part of me.”

Recommended: I’d recommend The Meaning of Birds for anyone who wants to read a raw and healing coming of age. If you’re looking for more of a sweet and uplifting queer love story, you might want to save this one for when you’re ready to read something more tragic (though still ultimately uplifting).

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.