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: 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.

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: Power Surge by Sara Codair

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Title: Power Surge by Sara Codair

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Erin discovers that their hallucinations of mythical creatures are real, they must come to grips with their half-Elf identity and new boyfriend. But time is running out, and Erin has to put aside their concerns to fight against a demon-led armageddon.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Power Surge features a non-binary protagonist and discusses other queer identities as well. I can’t comment on the accuracy of Erin’s identity but can say that it was written by a non-binary writer. This is the second YA/NA novel I’ve read by a trans author and the first by a non-binary person, and the representation feels so well done (perhaps because it’s written by someone in the queer community).

What I loved: It’s exciting to see non-binary characters finally receive representation in YA literature, especially by an #ownvoices author! Erin’s character is more than just a LGBTQ stock figure, and while their identity is very much a part of who they are, it doesn’t define them nor their struggles. They’re also grappling with a new partner (and his abusive ex who won’t leave Erin alone) as well as the realization that, as someone with Elven blood, they belonged to a world that they thought was a product of mental illness.

The world that Erin discovers, too, makes Power Surge a fascinating read. It’s just the right mixture of fairytale and the author’s own creativity to make it feel familiar in some ways but still stand out. What tied me most to the novel were how believable its characters felt despite a fantastical setting. And while the book has dark moments, it also has its share of hope, plus enough loose ends to hint at a sequel.

Recommended: In some ways, this book reminded me of The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare (but with its own voice)–which is very much a good thing! If you’re looking for a queer paranormal YA novel or an unique take on the urban fantasy genre, check this one out!

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

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