YA Review: Like a Love Story

TitleLike a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: In 1989, the AIDS crisis brings three teens together: Reza, Judy, and Art. Between love, loss, and meaningful friendship, they learn how the people we care about can bring out the best in us.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book follows Iranian-American Reza as he comes to terms with being gay and falls in love for the first time. Set in New York City during the late 80’s, the AIDS crisis is in full-swing. Most of the coverage surrounding gay men during this time were of them dying, which Reza is all too aware of. The only out person he knows is Art, who documents the AIDS crisis through photographs in a way that is tender and compassionate. As Reza starts to fall for Art, he has to confront his gay identity even though he knows it could destroy his relationship with his family, his culture, and his girlfriend Judy.

What I liked: This is going to sound kind of specific and silly, but I really like 80’s queer YA books for some reason. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Music of What Happens… the list goes on. It obviously wasn’t an easy time to be LGBTQ, and I think that this book portrays the painful side of it, but that decade still fascinates me. It seems like those years were a turning point moment for the LGBTQ rights movement, although they were certainly years of sorrow because of the AIDS crisis.

Like a Love Story had so much heart. As a reader, it was so easy to feel for Reza and how hard it was for him to reconcile his conflicting identities. Not only does he have to consider tough questions about his future but also how to tell his girlfriend Judy that he’s fallen in love with a man and cares about her very much, but never in a romantic way. It gave me a lot of compassion and respect for what previous generations of queer teens had to go through. It’s never been easy to be queer but even more so thirty years ago.

Recommended: I would recommend this to anyone who wants to understand more about the AIDS crisis from an intimate and humanizing level. Because we’ve come such a long way in the past few decades, we often forget just how challenging this time was for LGBTQ people. While Reza may be fictional, his story mirrors the reality of those who struggled to understand their gay identity in a time where so many people in their community were dying.

YA Review: Something Like Gravity by Amber Smith

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TitleSomething Like Gravity by Amber Smith

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary:  Chris and Maia meet after a car accident, so it makes sense that their relationship begins with a rocky start. But as Maia grieves her late sister and Chris deals with a traumatic assault from the year before, the healing process brings them together.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Chris is a trans man who falls in love with a straight, cisgender woman. While many books about trans characters focus on the coming out process, Chris is portrayed as comfortable in his own skin and already taking steps toward the transitioning process.

As far as content warnings go, Chris spends part of the novel processing an assault that happened a year prior to the novel. It is in the past, but the emotions that Chris feels towards the attack can be intense at times. If you think this could be triggering for you to read, I’d recommend checking out a few more reviews before reading it.

What I liked: Finally, a FTM main character that doesn’t spend the whole novel ruminating about their self-hatred! I feel like that’s a theme especially in AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans YA novels and have no idea why. It’s definitely not healthy for cis or trans readers. Chris was a lot more comfortable with himself. I think that’s important to portray and gives a lot more nuance to the typical stories written about trans characters.

Also, I liked that Chris’s entire story didn’t revolve around him being trans. It is a huge part of his identity, but he’s also interested in getting to know Maia and helping her come to terms with the loss of her sister. Sometimes, a trans character’s gender identity overpowers YA books to the point where there’s no other plot points or characterization. This book does explore how many trans people feel and what it’s like to be attacked for choosing authenticity. This book is not an easy read because Chris and Maia are both going through hard things, but their relationship gives them a person to talk and empathize with as they go through the healing process.

Recommended: I think that this could be an especially helpful book for teens who aren’t as familiar with the trans community who want to understand and have more compassion for them. For trans teens, I might recommend an #OwnVoices YA book for a more authentic depiction but overall, it’s sweet and humanizes both the grieving process and what it’s like to be transgender.

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

YA Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

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Title: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Ben de Backer comes out as non-binary, they move in with their sister Hannah to escape their parents’ rejection. This #ownvoices queer romance follows Ben as they begin senior year with a fresh start and fall in love with their charismatic-yet-sweet classmate Nathan.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: I Wish You All the Best features a queer romance between a non-binary person and a cisgender man. After Ben is rejected by their parents for coming out, they struggle with anxiety issues as they come to terms with their identity and begin transitioning. As a binary trans person, I thought that this was excellent representation and think that this is thanks to the author themselves being non-binary.

What I liked: Holy cow. I haven’t read a YA book in such a long time that was so sweet, tragic, and beautiful all at once. Ben’s narrative voice is equally sweet and profound in a way that’s a little reminiscent of Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even though they’ve gone through so much because of their gender identity, they’re still able to find beauty in live through the love of those who do accept and understand them. It included both the joys and the challenges of being non-binary–I think a lot of LGBT YA novels just focus on the challenges but the hopeful parts are just as essential for enby teens to read about.

The way I Wish You All The Best handled mental illness was also well-done. A lot of Ben’s mental health issues stem from the way that others treat them because of their identity and, while Nathan helps them in many ways, their relationship doesn’t automatically make these issues go away. They’re going to therapy, they’re seeking treatment for their anxiety disorder, and they’re not 100% reliant on Nathan for emotional stability. I think that’s an important thing for a YA book to express: love can transform us in so many ways but ultimately, it’s still important to find other supports and professional treatment to overcome mental illness.

Also, the cover art is stunning. I saw a fellow Goodreads reviewer say, and I quote, “The Mona Lisa was found trembling in the Louvre Museum because of this cover.” Honestly, it’s so lovely that it’s kind of an understatement. If you’re worried that the book won’t live up to the cover art, don’t be–both are equally wonderful.

Recommended: I can’t recommend a queer YA book published this year harder than I do this one! Not only are you embarking on one of the most well-written LGBT romances out there but, by reading this book, you’re supporting an #OwnVoices non-binary writer. Definitely one of the best trans YA books out there.

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.

Blog Tour Review: Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale

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Title: Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Babe Vogel is happy to disappear into her work as a barista after a rough break-up with her ex-girlfriend. But when a cute artist named Levi starts frequenting her coffee shop, she might just have to break her rule to never date the customers.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: For those who call bi people who date the opposite sex “faking it” in some way, I’d like to point them to this YA contemporary romance. Babe is an openly bi girl who recently broke up with a girl and falls in love with a boy. Just because she’s interested in a guy, though, doesn’t make this any less of a queer YA novel. If anything, I think it shows just how nuanced the LGBT community is and how important it is for everyone’s voices to be heard–especially when bi erasure is so common no matter who they decide to date.

What I liked: Like most meet cute books, this one was adorable from start to finish. Even though Babe’s going through a rough break-up and trying to keep herself from falling in love, she spends just as much time discovering more about herself and growing as a result. She becomes more comfortable with her sexuality and herself in general, and she finds ways to have confidence whether she’s in a relationship or not. I think it’s important to show that kind of personal growth in YA romance books to show that partners can make our lives happier, but they should never be how you define your self worth.

Levi and Babe also had excellent chemistry. I’ve heard before that the sign of a good love story is that the characters learn from each other and become better people. In this case, it’s true. Babe learns to trust in the people around her again and take risks when it comes to opening up. And Levi starts to discover what his purpose is in the world as an artist and a human being. It’s a healthy and sweet relationship, and the discussions about sexuality and unconditional love make it even more vulnerable.

I think it’s important to mention that while on the whole this is a light read, there are a few difficult subject in this book as well. Alcohol and drugs are mentioned a few times, and it’s implied that Babe’s ex and her old friends were manipulative (if not abusive). If those are triggering topics for you, check out a few more reviews before opening this book up but know that even in the darker scenes, the story does end happily.

Recommended: This was a cute read that felt very much like a romantic comedy. And the best YA romance book to start spring with–it’s unique, sweet, and (most importantly) super duper queer. Plus, who doesn’t love a meet cute that turns into a coffee shop romance?

Note: I’m happy to have participated in the blog tour for Small Town Hearts! To check out more stops on this tour, visit Xpresso Book Tours’ website.

YA Review: The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

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TitleThe Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: This #OwnVoices book follows seventeen-year-old Evan Panos, the son of Greek immigrants who he knows couldn’t understand or condone him being gay. But when Evan has his first kiss at summer camp and finally finds someone who loves him for who he is, he runs the risk of coming out whether he likes it or not.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Dangerous Art of Blending In follows Evan, a cis gay teenager, as he falls in love with his best friend Henry and comes out to his parents. His family comes from Greece and strictly follow Orthodox Christianity, with his parents reacting to his sexual orientation in different ways. While his dad is hesitant, he makes it clear how much he loves his son and tries to support him. His mom, on the other hand, seems to struggle with an undiagnosed mental illness and is both physically and emotionally abusive after he comes out and throughout his life because he has a strong feminine side.

If domestic abuse is triggering to you, you may want to read a few more reviews before deciding whether or not this queer YA book is for you. While the depictions of abuse are pretty intense and difficult to read, they aren’t graphic, and Evan (without spoiling anything) is also eventually able to escape the situation.

What I liked: Evan’s voice was so authentic and bold that it really drove the heart of this story. Part of this is because the author himself is gay and a child of Greek immigrants. The reason that Evan’s story felt so real was that in the endnote, Aurelis explained how so much of it had been based on his own experiences. I think that this book is a reminder that sometimes “write what you know” can lead to unique and much needed voices coming through in LGBTQ YA, especially when it’s done thoughtfully.

I also thought that Evan’s relationship with his dad, while definitely not perfect, was beautiful. It was clear that Evan’s dad came from a very different culture from his own and was raised seeing LGBT people in a negative light. But despite how he struggled to understand his son, he genuinely tried to. It didn’t excuse how long it took for him to get Evan out of the abusive situation with his mom. But it offered a little hope that Evan would someday find the support that he deserved in and outside of his community.

You may notice at this point that, while this book is a gay romance, I haven’t mentioned that element yet. That’s because I didn’t really like the relationship between Evan and Henry. It felt sort of imbalanced, with Evan putting all of his self-worth and confidence into how Henry saw him. While I think that’s understandable, given how little acceptance Evan had felt for being gay, I didn’t like that it wasn’t addressed. And at times, Henry seemed to be aware of that one-sidedness and used it against Evan (especially when kissing and being intimate). Maybe I’m just overanalyzing it too much, but I think that even though it was trying to be a cute gay romance book, it ended up feeling a little forced and maybe unhealthy.

Quote: “Maybe I’m not so ugly after all. Maybe no one is really ugly, and maybe no one has the right to call someone that or tell them that they are.”

Recommended: While reading this book, I fell in love with the sweetness of Evan’s personality and his story. This queer romance is a pretty light read– I think I finished it in around three sittings – but it’s a brave portrayal of what it’s like to authentically love others and yourself despite the pressure to stay guarded.

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.