YA Review: If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman

 

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Title: If I Tell You

Author: Alicia Tuckerman

Release Date: March 1, 2018 (Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC of this book in exchange for a fair review)

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Closeted teenager Alex Summers doesn’t expect to find love in her rural Australian town but can’t help falling for Phoenix. As they navigate their budding romance in their close-minded community, they make choices that will irreversibly change them.

What I loved: As the recent release of Love, Simon suggests, it seems like the trend in LGBTQ YA media is moving from externalized homophobia to internalized conflict the protagonist faces while coming out. But If I Tell You handles homophobia in a way that’s still relevant in 2018. As a young lesbian, Alex fears that her loved ones won’t treat her kindly she comes out. This fear is confirmed when her friends and family treat the more openly queer Phoenix with disgust. Alex debates between coming out and remaining safe, but closeted for much of the novel, knowing that this is something she can’t take back.

Regardless of their family situation, I think a lot of queer readers can relate to the worry that those they care about won’t see them the same way after coming out. Coming out is a serious decision, especially if you’re not sure how your loved ones will react. Most of the time, relationships do change—for better or for worse. Alex’s story is one many LGBTQ teens experience when others reacts not as they hoped but as they expected. If a reader out there lives in a similarly homophobic community, this could help them feel heard and understood.

Quote: “I feel the anger deep inside of me as I begin to understand the notion—the idea of being proud of who you are in a world that tells you to be ashamed; brave enough to be seen when people wish you were invisible.”

Recommended: Yeah, this was a good, heavy novel. I will say that it includes a lot of LGBTQ YA stereotypes, including a specific stereotype I’m not always fond of (spoiler alert: “bury your gays”). It isn’t necessarily groundbreaking but still very heartfelt. If you’re triggered by homophobic slurs or verbal abuse, though, tread carefully with this one.

Next: Release by Patrick Ness

YA Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Title: If I Was Your Girl

Author: Meredith Russo

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Amanda Hardy moves to live with her father after transitioning to female, she just wants a peaceful and low-profile high school experience. But when she falls in love with her kind, complicated classmate Grant, she wonders how deeply you can love someone while hiding so much of yourself.

What I loved: For a novel that deals with some heavy topics (including suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse), this is a wholesome story. I enjoyed how the chapters alternated between Amanda’s senior year and her memories realizing, coming to terms with, and finding confidence in her trans identity. It felt like If I Was Your Girl explored the complexities that come with transitioning well… which makes sense, since the author is a trans woman herself and has lived it.

At the beginning of the novel, Amanda considers herself “fully transitioned”—she socially transitioned, takes hormone therapy, and received gender confirmation surgery. Unless she wants to tell others, nobody would ever have to know that she’s trans. Yet she questions to what extent her trans identity is part of her story and, if it is, whether telling others is worth her safety. None of the questions have easy answers, but Amanda works through them in a way that gives her comfort.

Also, side note that has nothing to do with the story, but not only is this written by a trans woman (the first trans YA book I’ve read by a transgender author, by the way), but the model on the cover is also a trans woman. Not to speak for trans women but as a trans guy, that feels like positive and much-needed progress in YA publishing.

Quote: “Either way, I realized, I wasn’t sorry I existed anymore. I deserved to live. I deserved to find love. I knew now—I believed now—that I deserved to be loved.”

Recommended: One hundred times yes! I almost hesitate to say this just because there are so many good queer books but, if you choose to only read one transgender YA novel, I think it should be this one. We need more books about trans/non-binary people written by trans/non-binary authors. You can feel the authenticity of this experience in a way that I haven’t felt in other trans YA books before. The author doesn’t just feel sympathy for trans people but genuine empathy, and I think you can pick up on that.

That being said, I would love to read more books by trans and non-binary authors. If anyone has recommendations, be sure to leave a comment!

Next: If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman

YA Review: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

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Title: Juliet Takes a Breath

Author: Gabby Rivera

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After a disastrous coming out experience with her family, Juliet Palante leaves for Portland with only the works of her favorite feminist author for guidance. As she works to make a place where she belongs, she grapples with her identity as a Puerto Rican lesbian.

What I loved: When it comes to the balance between characters and plot in a story, I prefer books that really delve into who a character is and who they become. This book was very character-heavy and I loved it. It’s very much a coming-of-age story that captures how one queer woman of color establishes and grows confident in her identity. It’s so vulnerable and doesn’t give any easy answers to any of the questions Juliet explores about herself. If anything, the more she meets others in the queer community and opens herself to the complexity of the human experience, the more messy and uncertain and beautiful her story becomes.

My only complaint with this book is that it felt a little heavy with LGBTQ jargon sometimes. Which is fine if you’re pretty familiar with the community but can get repetitive, and I feel like it might be information overload for non-queer people. But all in all, solid prose, characters, and story.

Quote: “My love for you is deeper than anything that happened between us. My love for you is the sun, the sky, and the moon. It’s the air I breathe. It lives in everything I do. It’s better than good. It’s everlasting.”

Recommended: As a trans guy, I can’t speak for the experiences of queer women but enjoyed the how much this book grounds you in Juliet’s mind. If you’re looking for a raw, authentic coming-of-age story, you might just love this book.

Next: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

YA Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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Title: They Both Die at the End

Author: Adam Silvera

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: In a near-future world where people get a phone call the day they are going to die, Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio go on an adventure so they don’t have to spend their last day alone. But as they grow closer to each other in their final hours, their focus shifts from dying to, for a few brief hours, finally living.

What I loved: This book. I loved this book. But I also hated it because it struck my emotions hard and wrung them with every page. You know exactly what to expect from the first page: even as you get to know Mateo and Rufus, you know that they’re going to die by the end of the book. The question is when, which keeps the book so captivating. Mateo and Rufus are just as aware as the reader that their time is limited and, in the course of a day, their relationship becomes so intimate and authentic despite how short-lived it is. It’s an equally beautiful and painful musing on how we define life as well as its end.

Quote: “I always wanted to stumble into someone like you.”

Recommended: This book was devastating but in such a necessary way. I’d warn anyone who wants to check this out that it’s a difficult read. Ever since I started hormone replacement therapy last year, I’ve cried a lot less than I used to but this one had me tearing up. If you want an emotional reflection on how mortality can make us love and lose hard, it’s a good book for that. Or if you want to bawl your eyes out. It’s a great book for that, too.

On an unrelated note, Adam Silvera is quickly becoming one of my favorite current LGBTQ YA writers. After reading this book, I couldn’t get my hands on History Is All You Left Me fast enough… which was also a painful, meaningful read. So expect a review on that soon as well!

Next: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

YA Review: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

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Title: The Art of Starving 

Author: Sam J. Miller

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: After his sister runs away, bullied teenager Matt develops an eating disorder in the hopes that starvation will make him stronger and bring his sister back. As Matt bonds with and develops feelings for his sister’s friend (and possible former fling) Tariq, he discovers that some things—good and bad—cannot be controlled by force of will.

What I loved: Until now, I hadn’t read a YA novel about men and eating disorders. I’m glad the first one I read was this one. Books about eating disorders tend to follow a pattern: they’re usually firmly planted in the realism category and don’t contain much humor. Which is valid and respectable, but The Art of Starving borders that line between fantasy and reality and it has an authentic, somewhat bleak sense of humor. It still gives its tougher subjects much-needed respect but isn’t afraid to take a book about mental health into unexplored directions. And, y’know, the humor is a little refreshing.

Relationships play a heavy part in shaping this story, the strongest of which are Matt’s confusion and longing towards his sister and his tentative romance with caring, yet cautious Tariq. In addition to these, Matt also struggles to understand his mother, who bonds with others mainly through food in a way that triggers his eating disorder. And then, of course, there’s the relationship that Matt has with himself—beneath all the self-loathing is a potential that he himself sees but must learn to access in a healthy way. This book hits its strongest stride when Matt works through all of these tangled relationships to see himself and those he loves a little clearer.

Quote: “The strongest people aren’t the ones who are born strong. They’re the ones who know what it’s like to be weak and have a reason to get stronger. The ones who’ve been hurt. Who’ve had things they love taken from them. The ones with something to fight for.” 

Recommended: If you want a YA book about anorexia that breaks the norms, this is your book. Not only does it feature a male protagonist with an eating disorder (in itself pretty rare), but it also features some speculative fiction elements. The way Miller uses fantasy to write truths in a way that reality can’t always do justice is both sad and beautiful. Its ending is also hopeful enough that the novel can explore some tough, dark topics while still letting some light shine through.

Next: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

YA Review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

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Title: Highly Illogical Behavior

Author: John Corey Whaley

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Sixteen-year old Solomon developed agoraphobia after experiencing panic attacks every time he left the house, so eventually he just stopped leaving. His former high school peer Lisa befriends him to cure his anxiety and slowly learns that relationships involve more than just “fixing” people.

What I loved: Most of all, I loved the characters. The more you get into this book, the more these characters’ depths unfold. They’re more than just stock-character high school students, and they can’t really be pinned down to any of their labels. This is especially important in that (without spoiling anything), one of the characters identifies as gay. While their coming out is a strong focus of the story, Whaley doesn’t give the character any of the internalized guilt or non-accepting peers often found in YA novels.

Those stories are important to be told, too, but they are told often. This character’s journey was a lot more nuanced. They feared coming out because they feared changing family dynamics and also hesitated because they never thought their sexual orientation was important to share. But they learn that their identity does matter. Their sexual orientation matters. Their relationships matter. They inherently matter and, though they don’t often believe it, they belong.

There are some dark and painful-to-read parts in this book, I’m not gonna sugar coat it, but the author balances those moments well with plenty of humor and truly happy moments. Overall, a quirky, heartwarming book on how a friendship can change both people for the better.

Quote: “We’re just floating in space trying to figure out what it means to be human.”

Recommended: Especially for Trekkies or sci-fi fans in general. They’ll especially enjoy the references in this one (and there are tons, my friends… it’s glorious). But this is also an honest and beautiful look at anxiety recovery.

Plenty of mental health YA books I’ve read don’t have happy moments. This one really pulls on all emotions: happiness, sorrow, panic, hope, love. The works. Whether you yourself struggle with anxiety or you want to understand what it’s like for those who do, this is a great and lighthearted book with surprising depth.

Next: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

YA Review: As I Descended by Robin Talley

Note: After another semi-hiatus while revamping the website, enjoy this review of Robin Talley’s As I Descended, a delightfully dark (and queer) retelling of Macbeth.

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Title: As I Descended

Author: Robin Talley

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Power couple Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten will let nothing stand between them and winning the prestigious Cawdor Kingsley Prize: especially not school sweetheart Delilah Dufrey. When the two tap into paranormal powers to secure the scholarship, darkness threatens to consume their boarding school (and themselves).

What I loved: You know those books that you’re already certain you’ll love before you pick it up? As soon as I heard that As I Descended was a contemporary Macbeth retelling, I was hooked. Openly queer characters only sealed the deal.

This book exceeded expectations for everything I thought it would be, and I had high expectations already. Its tone was delightfully spooky and reminiscent of a Southern Gothic, and the characters mirrored their Shakespearean counterparts while still retaining individuality. Powerful emotions like envy, desire, and unbearable guilt push every character into a morally grey area as they deal with supernatural forces far beyond their understanding.

Quote: “Between the atheism and the lesbian thing, Lily was a terrible Catholic. Even before she’d added murder to her list of sins.”

Recommended: Yes! Especially recommended for those who love Shakespeare retellings or fiction featuring very open and human LGBTQ characters. Or anyone who loves a good ghost story. Between the three categories, I think most people fall into at least one.

Next: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

YA Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

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Title: Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Author: John Green and David Levithan

Rating: 4/5

One sentence summary: When they meet at an unlikely crossroad, teens Will Grayson and Will Grayson begin a turning point in love and all the confusion that goes with it.

What I loved: Two of my favorite YA authors in one! This book is wonderful because both John Green and David Levithan are blessed with wonderfully distinct voices, and they compliment each other well here. The two Will Graysons are only similar in name: their voices, internal conflicts, and perspectives on life are so opposite.

On one hand, we’ve got a nerdy, music-obsessed Will Grayson who’s trying to figure himself out just as much as he’s trying to figure out his love life. Then on the other, there is a snarky and cynical Will Grayson who has only admitted he is gay to a boyfriend he’s never actually met (the somewhat sketchy joys of online dating), not his mother and definitely not his quirky (only) friend. Had these Graysons never wandered into the same bar by mere happenstance, they likely would have never crossed paths. But they did. And both of their lives shift in unexpected ways because of it.

This novel is about love. One Will Grayson is self-deprecating but earnest, trying to make sense of his first love and blossoming relationship that should be familiar to anyone who’s gone to high school. The other Will Grayson, after significant heartbreak, begins a new relationship with the very-much out Tiny Cooper, a mutual friend of Will Grayson #1 who is much more familiar with queer dating than Will Grayson #2. Ultimately both Graysons are trying to cope with confusion, commitment, and heartbreak: in other words, love. It’s a light, fun little novel, two-parts sarcastic and one part sincere.

Quote: “When things break, it’s not the actual breaking that prevents them from getting back together again. It’s because a little piece gets lost – the two remaining ends couldn’t fit together even if they wanted to. The whole shape has changed.”

Recommended? Yes! Recommended for, of course, fans of John Green as well as those who just want a lighthearted LGBTQ YA novel. There are so many sad, somber ones out there, which is alright… but the happiness in this one is very refreshing.

Next up:  Another David Levithan book (Two Boys Kissing)

YA Review: Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

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Title: Almost Perfect

Author: Brian Katcher

Rating: 3/5

One sentence summary: Logan Witherspoon grapples with transphobia, internally and externally, when his high school crush Sage Hendricks reveals a secret: she is a transgender woman.

What I loved: This book presents a real depiction of trans students in unaccepting areas. Logan and Sage begin a relationship in a small and very LGBTQ-phobic town, and their relationship comes with serious pressures. Sage, who was homeschooled until her senior year, fights to hide her gender identity to avoid verbal and physical aggression. Logan, (who is until this point ignorant of queer issues) experiences anxiety over whether others would consider him gay for dating a trans woman, as he himself tries to define what his sexual orientation is.

Their relationship is complicated and not without flaws, but what relationship is? And watching Logan’s progression from confused and a little homophobic to someone who sees Sage as who she really is feels very authentic. In addition, Almost Perfect explores the conflict between a trans person comfortable with their gender identity in a world that isn’t quite ready. Sage’s parents love her a lot but very much mourn for a son they feel they’ve lost. The grey area between hostility and unwavering acceptance is an uncomfortable-but-necessary relationship to portray, as many trans people can relate.

What I didn’t love: Although a voice worth hearing, this book doesn’t go beyond the general “coming out” trope seen in many LGBTQ stories. A positive relationship between a cis man and a trans woman is important to see in fiction, but the characters do not progress beyond this initial concern to make their story unique.

In addition, our protagonist Logan is narrow minded when it comes to transgender issues. Even when dating Sage, he still refers to her for much of the novel as “a girl, but not a girl.” She is distinct from other women in that she is trans and, in Logan’s eyes, not quite female or male. Near the end of the novel, he finally begins to see and respect Sage as a woman, but it takes him a long time to get there. While this is likely accurate for his age and life experience, he does not treat Sage with the respect she deserves. I understand what the author was going for but feel that having a narrator like Logan could spread more misunderstanding than help for trans women.

Quote: “Sage would survive. I’d survive. We were better off apart. Painful and quick, just like ripping off a Band-Aid. Well, more like gouging a piece of shrapnel out of my stomach, pouring a bottle of gin into the wound, lighting it on fire, and sewing my guts up with a dirty bootlace. But the concept was the same.”

Recommended? Yes. This book is especially useful for teens unfamiliar with trans people and want to know more. It should be taken with a grain of salt, though, because Logan and his peers live in a very transphobic town. Some of the ways he refers to trans people earlier in the novel (as “a boy who wants to be a girl”) are not accurate nor okay to use.

Next up:  Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

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