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: Pulp by Robin Talley

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TitlePulp by Robin Talley

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Sixty-two years after Janet Jones publishes her first novel, high school student Abby Zimet bases her senior project on lesbian pulp fiction. Told using dual-narratives, this gay coming of age story ties two queer teens across generations.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Pulp is a one-half contemporary, one-half historical gay YA book that follows two cis lesbian teens in the 1950s and 2010s. It explores sexuality through the lens of pulp lesbian fiction, which was one of the first venues that queer women openly expressed themselves in the United States. As obscenity laws relaxed in the late ’50s, pulp writers were allowed for the first time to write uplifting and hopeful books about queer women. It’s an underground subculture that doesn’t often receive attention in LGBT books for teens but nevertheless foreshadowed the gay rights movement about a decade later. Pulp also features a non-binary character and briefly discusses gender identity and “they/them” pronouns.

What I Loved:  Robin Talley is one of my favorite LGBT YA writers, so I’d had high hopes for this one from the beginning. That being said, Pulp stands on its own even apart from Talley’s other novels. It immerses itself equally in the lesbian community during the 1950s and 2010s through the two vibrant protagonists. The two emotions that define this book are love and hope. Even through heartbreak, discrimination, internalized homophobia, and other challenges, Janet and Abby retain sight in a better, kinder tomorrow. They love fiercely and sometimes desperately while creating work that reflects their experiences, which I think is a meaningful message for queer teens in similarly tough situations.

The narrative switches between Janet and Abby was also really well done, especially as their stories intertwine later in the novel. Their experiences as queer teens are so similar in their hearts and desires, yet the way their generation reacts to who they are is incredibly different. It reminded me how fortunate we in the LGBTQ community to live in a more understanding culture while also feeling gratitude for those first people who openly expressed their sexual orientations. Pulp comments on how far we have come while spreading this message of hope to future strides in the queer acceptance movement.

Quote: “This is still a harsh world we live in, but you’re lucky you’ve found each other.”

Recommended: This is the second good LGBT historical YA novel by Robin Talley that I’ve read, the first being the civil rights-era romance Lies We Tell Ourselves. I’d recommend this one for anyone interested in queer American history as well as those interested in reading how far the gay rights movement has come since the ’50s.

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

Queer YA Review: What If It’s Us

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TitleWhat If It’s Us by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: Arthur’s summer trip to New York City wasn’t supposed to turn into a meet-cute romance, but when he and Ben bump into each other at the post office, he feels like he’s living in the Broadway musicals he always dreamed of. But does the universe really have a love story planned, or will separations, misunderstandings, and an eventual move back to Georgia put an end to their relationship?

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: What If It’s Us is a queer YA romance between two cis gay men. There are also several LGBTQ minor characters, including an ex-boyfriend and a queer female coworker. Heads up that there’s a brief, but intense aggressive scene in the novel—while the characters involved aren’t physical harmed, they do face homophobic insults and threats of violence.

What I loved: Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli are some of my favorite LGBTQ YA authors, and their writing styles meshed perfectly in What If It’s Us. Arthur and Ben both have unique voices and personalities throughout the novel, and their thoughts and feelings are distinct in ways that make them a cute match. With Arthur, you have the optimistic, yet anxious “first love” voice, which complements Ben’s recently-broken-up-and-somewhat-cynical voice well. Their differences make for some awkward, yet entertaining and all-around wholesome moments that capture the title’s feeling. Their budding romance is uncertain, yet hopeful that they’ve finally met “the one” in the way that all relationships start.

This book also features minor themes that adds depth to their story and relationship. It touches on race and privilege through Ben, a white-passing Puerto Rican who feels alienated because others don’t recognize his heritage. Not only does the story validate Ben’s insecurities, but it also check and helps him recognize his privilege as someone who is white-passing. I also loved how it featured mental health themes through Arthur’s discussion of ADHD and another character who’s hospitalized for a panic attack. It made the characters and their lived experience feel all the more real and brought up points worth talking about.

Also, I loved the male friendships portrayed in this book! You don’t always see that in queer YA, but it’s so needed to feature platonic friendships between gay characters and members of the same sex. Both Arthur and Ben have male friends who they feel close to without experiencing romantic attraction. I also appreciated how What If It’s Us explored the complexities of said relationships, however, like how they can change when someone comes out or whether it’s possible to stay friends with your ex-boyfriend. All common experiences that don’t always have a spot in YA fiction, but should.

The only thing I’m frustrated about is (slight spoiler) the fairly ambiguous ending, but I think that shows how well-developed Arthur, Ben, and their relationship was. And having an open ending made What If It’s Us mirror real life while still retaining that excitement, hope, and unlimited possibilities that the story began on. Their relationship in general, from first meet to the end of the novel, developed naturally despite the coincidences and sheer luck that brought the two together. Keeping a foot grounded in reality while still exploring ideas of “love at first sight” and “destined to meet” helps their story feel extraordinary without seeming melodramatic.

This was such a cute book—cute characters, cute story, and cute cover art as well. Plus, I’ve been a sucker for Dear Evan Hansen ever since a friend introduced it to me in college, so the title drew me in pretty fast. Arthur is a big musical theater fan, so if you are as well, this book’s for you. Especially if you like Hamilton, as you may find references to it and its fandom pretty amusing.

Quote: “I barely know him. I guess that’s any relationship. You start with nothing and maybe end with everything.”

Recommended: What If It’s Us is one of the happiest LGBTQ YA novels I’ve ever read! It’s a story where you read it and feel all warm and hopeful inside after you’ve finished it, like the people we meet and form relationships with matter regardless of how much time we spend with them. If you’re looking for an uplifting, wholesome queer love story, you’ve gotta check this one out. Doubly so if you like stories about missed connections, musicals, and first love.

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

LGBTQ YA Review: Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black

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Title: Devil and the Bluebird

Author: Jennifer Mason-Black

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After losing her mother to cancer, Blue Riley makes a deal with the devil to find her runaway sister Cass. With the help of her mother’s guitar and a pair of boots that lead her to her heart’s longing, she embarks on a journey with both temptation and hope waiting on every corner.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book featured several prominent queer characters. What I loved about it was how seamlessly the author weaved their LGBTQ identities into the story without making it a major plot point. Being queer affected, of course, who they were as characters and how they acted, but it didn’t consume their identities. Without spoiling anything by mentioning the character’s name, I especially enjoyed the depiction of a gay trans character, maybe because trans characters are generally portrayed as straight in queer YA and I like that we’re seeing some diverse identities within the genre. And, of course, as a queer trans guy, it felt validating to see an identity like mine portrayed in a book—everyone deserves to feel that.

What I loved: For whatever reason, one of my favorite Halloween songs when I was a kid was “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, possibly because it had two good things: a spooky and compelling story and a good rhythm. Devil and the Bluebird mirrors the Southern Gothic feel of that song, with the rhythm coming in the beautifully-crafted imagery. In some ways, this novel captures the essence of a folk song. Its core story of a girl named Blue betting her soul against the devil for her sister may be fantastical, but the emotions and characters feel so real that it’s devastating at times. Even minor characters are described so well that they click perfectly with the plot and make the entire novel feel purposeful in every word it uses.

Quote: “Remember that the devil is the one who tells you to play a tune that’s not your own, and you can drive him right on out into the cold by playing what’s in your soul.”

Recommended: It’s getting close to Halloween, and if you’re looking for queer YA with a fairly spooky plot, this book is for you. And if you’re looking for an artfully-written novel with diverse, lifelike characters and a bittersweet story, you’ll find that here, too.

LGBTQ YA Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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Title: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When unexpected events throw seventeen-year-old Sal and his best friend Samantha’s lives into tragedy, they rely on Sal’s adoptive gay father to confront their grief. As they finish their senior year of high school together, they find that even in times of great loss, the people you love can help you find faith in the future.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life deals with themes of fatherhood and the influence parents have on who you become. Sal never knew his biological father and, as grief brings out his impulsive temper, worries that he’ll take after whoever he was instead of his adoptive father. Other characters also comment about his adoptive father’s sexuality and Mexican heritage in ways that causes Sal, a white, straight teenage boy, wonder whether the father who raised him or his biological parents determine his identity. This book doesn’t give any easy answers but shows that, above all, family is who you love and loves you in return.

What I loved: One of my favorite queer YA books as a teenager was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by the same author (which I should get around to reviewing as well) because of its beautiful descriptions. This book does not disappoint. The language Sáenz uses for his imagery and dialogue is almost like reading poetry in prose form. The Inexplicable Logic of My Life also It’s one of those books that proves YA can be just as well-written and thought provoking as literary fiction.

I also loved that this book’s priority is capturing Sal and Sam’s friendship without trying to force anything romantic from developing. Their relationship is so strong and well-developed that working in anything more than platonic love would feel forced, in this situation. And it’s a lovely portrayal of a healthy friendship between two people of the opposite gender that feels a little lacking in YA fiction sometimes. Plus, if you’re looking for romance, you do get some of that from Sal’s father as he reconciles with his ex-boyfriend so this book really does have it all.

Quote: “All your life I’ve tried to protect you from all the shit in the world, from all the bad things. But I can’t protect you from this… All I have is a shoulder. And that will have to do. When you were a little boy, I used to carry you. I miss those days sometimes. But those days are over. I can walk beside you, Salvie—but I can’t carry you.”

Recommended: If you love stories that make you think, smile, and cry all in one, I’d recommend The Inexplicable Logic of My Life. Because the book features a straight protagonist but has strong LGBTQ themes, I think this book could also help non-LGBTQ teens relate to and understand queer issues a little more than they did before.

Next: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

YA Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

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Title: We Are Okay

Author: Nina LaCour

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Grief-stricken and alone, Marin plans to spend her winter break at her college in New York instead of her hometown in California. But when loved ones from her past come to visit, she is forced to face what happened between her and her best friend Mabel last summer.

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What I loved: There are so many unhappy LGBTQ YA books out there that you’d think there’d be nothing special about another sad, queer story. We Are Okay, however, manages to paint a fresh and distinct portrait of discovering yourself in the wake of grief. I especially loved how normalized the queer subplot was in this book. Although it was a key part of Marin’s identity and her past, she wasn’t reduced to her queerness nor was it portrayed as a “shock value” reveal. It’s much more about Marin confronting the loss of someone important in her life than it is coping with her sexuality. And I think that’s really beautiful that we’re getting to a point where a character can be queer without the story revolving around that.

Quote: “It’s a dark place, not knowing. It’s difficult to surrender to.  But I guess it’s where we live most of the time. I guess it’s where we all live, so maybe it doesn’t have to be so lonely. Maybe I can settle into it, make a home inside uncertainty.”

Recommended: This is a quick read so I’d recommend it for a weekend where you want to just spend a few hours in Marin’s head as she makes peace with her past. I like how this book features LGBTQ characters without making the plot revolve around their identities, so if you want a book with characters, We Are Okay is a good choice.

Next: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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