YA Review: Beast by Brie Spangler

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TitleBeast by Rebecca Barrow

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: This YA fairytale retelling of Beauty and the Beast begins when Dylan, a hairier-than-average teen with anger issues and possibly gigantism, meets sweet and smart Jamie at a self-harm support group. When he discovers that Jamie is transgender, he fights against bullying and discrimination to protect their love.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Beast portrays a straight, cisgender guy who falls in love with a transgender girl. Others in the novel, like Dylan’s mother and friends, struggle to understand how he can be straight and dating a trans person. Dylan himself also has an identity crisis of sorts after learning that Jamie was assigned male at birth. But while he initially withdraws from Jamie and struggles to reconcile his feelings for her, he ultimately accepts her identity as valid and falls in love with her, body and soul.

This novel also features strong instances of transphobia and verbal assault, with mentions of physical assault and even murder of trans people. As a trans man myself, I felt uncomfortable at times reading how some characters referred to trans people. If you’re sensitive to trans slurs or mentions of self harm/suicide, you may want to read this book with caution.

What I loved: This is probably the best YA romance I’ve read between cisgender and transgender characters so far besides maybe When the Moon Was Ours. Dylan and Jamie both face social isolation and discomfort in their own bodies, and they both know how it feels to be misunderstood. Dylan’s father died from a brain tumor that doctors believe gigantism may have caused, and he’s regularly bullied because of his physical appearance. While he takes some time to warm up to Jamie’s trans identity, this gave them a connection and deep understanding for each other that I found beautiful.

Even though Dylan definitely had his flaws (which makes sense since, y’know, he’s the story’s Beast counterpart), I genuinely enjoyed his narrative voice. It was heartfelt and thoughtful but also hilarious at times. I listened to the audiobook for this one and found myself having to stifle my laughter several times at work. I think it helped keep the story light and positive instead of weighed down with some of the heavier moments in this book.

If you’re looking for a strict Beauty and the Beast retelling, you may be a little disappointed. Beast is more of a loose interpretation that, I think, is overall more empathetic than the original fairytale. The Beast inherited his physical problems and temper from his late father, for example, instead of his selfishness. And the Gaston character of this novel comes from an abusive family, and he’s much more complicated than his fairytale counterpart. They’re still very imperfect, but a little more complex than the original characters, and that takes the story in a slightly different direction.

Quote: “I don’t want us to be horrible anymore. I want us to be good.”

Recommended: I’m a sucker for both queer romance and Beauty and the Beast, so I sort of knew I would enjoy this one before I read it. But I especially loved the balance of humor and serious themes. If you’re looking for a young adult fiction novel that makes you genuinely feel for the characters, I think this is a good book to curl up with on a snowy day and fall in love with.

–transgender fiction

YA Review: Symptoms of Being Human

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TitleSymptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When snarky, yet sensitive Riley Cavanaugh starts at a new school, the last thing they want is for people to find out they’re genderfluid. When their anonymous gender identity blog goes viral, however, they worry that their identity is too large a part of themselves to keep secret.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This novel features a genderfluid protagonist named Riley who comes out, first to their therapist and ultimately their friends and family. The author makes a pretty bold narrative choice in that he doesn’t reveal Riley’s birth sex. While some may find this confusing or annoying, I think it emphasized that their birth sex shouldn’t change how you see or define them. Symptoms of Being Human also has several trans minor characters and discusses sexual assault, suicide, and bullying through a queer lens.

What I loved: Riley’s is a powerful story, one that has the potential to help people feel comfortable with who they are and others understand people who identify differently from them. It delves pretty deep into non-binary identity, which is informative without weighing down the text or interrupting the story. It feel like an authentic story about how being a closeted genderfluid teen feels, especially when that identity’s at odds with their community’s values. Even though this book is written by a cisgender author, it felt well-researched, in part because the author consulted non-binary and trans people while writing this story.

Riley themself is a compelling narrator, with a voice that’s equal parts sarcastic and vulnerable. And they grow so much over the course of three hundred pages! Seeing them gain wisdom and courage about who they are and how they can stand for others like them is beautiful and truly inspiring. They begin Symptoms of Being Human closeted and suicidal and, while they go through some truly heartbreaking circumstances, they gain so much strength and compassion for themself and people in general.

The only reason I didn’t give this book a 5/5 was because one scene was so disturbing to me that I skipped a section and would hesitate before re-reading the book again, but that really is a personal rather than quality issue. And if anything, it speaks to the novel’s emotional strength and the relevancy of the topics it portrays. That being said, though, if you’re triggered by sexual assault scenes, it’s worth researching the book’s content before you read it.

Also, this is random, but I listened to the audiobook for this one and found it really cool that they chose a transgender voice actor! In my opinion, it added to the authenticity with which they narrated Riley’s story.

Quote: “As for wondering if it’s okay to be who you are – that’s not a symptom of mental illness. That’s a symptom of being a person.”

Recommended: This was such a powerful read. I don’t think that there’s a person I wouldn’t recommend this to unless its subject matter triggers them. But I’d especially recommend it to two groups of people. First, non-binary people who want to feel a little less alone and a little more comfortable with who they are. And second, cisgender readers who want to understand the diversity of the gender spectrum more, as well as the harassment trans and non-binary people face.

Queer YA Review: Quiver by Julia Watts

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TitleQuiver by Julia Watts

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Libby, a teenager in rural Tennessee, is raised in a conservative Christian sect that views people as quivers in “God’s righteous army” and women as strictly homemakers. When she befriends a genderfluid teen named Zo, she struggles to reconcile her beliefs with her friend’s lifestyle and freedom.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This story features a genderfluid character named Zo who has two loving, pro-LGBTQ parents in a conservative, rural town. Quiver also discusses their sexual orientation and conflict between belonging in the lesbian community while feeling like something other than a cis woman. One of the secondary characters is also a POC trans girl.

What I loved: Quiver is told with a dual narrative between Libby and Zo, two teenagers who grow up in nearly opposite living environments. In this way, Quiver sends an overall message of compassion and understanding one’s upbringing, even if it’s not the same as your own. At times, I did feel like it leaned a little more sympathetic to Zo’s story than Libby’s and painted Christianity in a somewhat stereotypical light. But it also reflected the mindset of a lot of conservative religious groups and the difficulty groups on polarized social beliefs can have with befriending each other.

It feels like this book could be useful to help teens who grew up in strongly right- or left-leaning households understand people who don’t think in ways they’re used to. By having a narrator they can relate to and another with a possibly unfamiliar voice, it could expose them to other ways of thinking without pushing them far out of their comfort zone. Both Libby and Zo are incredibly sympathetic characters who help bridge anger and misconceptions their families have of each other, and I think that’s a beautiful message to send in such a politically fiery climate.

The only issue I had with this one is that I felt the writing style was a little stilted. Libby and Zo’s voices also weren’t as distinct as they could have been, so sometimes I’d forget that the chapter had changed and gotten confused about the narration. Because of that, I had a hard time really immersing myself in the story like I wanted to. But the concept itself is fascinating enough that becomes a compelling read, regardless.

Quote: “Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have a gender—that the body that contains my personality is no more significant than the jar that holds the peanut butter.”

Recommended: Quiver is one of those LGBTQ YA books that humanizes both left-wing and conservative right viewpoints in the idea that most people are just trying to do the right thing. If you want to cultivate empathy for a perspective different from your own, this could be a powerful read.

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

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: This is Kind of an Epic Love Story

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TitleThis is Kind of an Epic Love Story by Kheryn Callender

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Nathan, a seventeen-year-old romantic cynic, swears off love for good to prevent someone from breaking his heart like his mother’s. But when he reconnects with his childhood best friend Ollie, his promise to himself is tested in the best of ways.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This is a gay YA romance novel centering around two cis men. Neither of the main characters define their sexuality beyond the general “queer” label and express romantic attraction for men and women. This is Kind of an Epic Love Story also features two POC protagonists and a hard-of-hearing protagonist who uses sign language.

What I Loved: The childhood best friends-to-lovers trope may be done a lot in YA romance, but it never stops being cute. Especially in Nathan and Ollie’s case. One of the most important things about YA romance is that you can actually feel the chemistry between the love interests, and these two are one of the cutest gay couples in YA books that I’ve read. Nathan makes an awkward, but lovable pair to Ollie’s sweet, goodhearted nature. They’re not just boyfriends but also best friends, and I think the deep and meaningful friendship the characters start off with really drives heart into their story.

Also, I mentioned this briefly earlier, but I love how This is Kind of an Epic Love Story doesn’t define itself as an “LGBTQ love story” but just a love story. Nate has fallen in love with men and women, and he doesn’t seem to identify with a specific sexual orientation. It’s portrayed more as caring deeply and connecting with another human being than something that defined who they are. I enjoyed that a lot. It really felt like a novel that celebrates love in its many forms.

Quote: “Maybe the way you love changes from person to person.”

Recommended: So many lovely LGBTQ YA books released in 2018! This is Kind of an Epic Love Story is perfect for those who love romantic comedies. Not a lot of gay romance books out there are just pure, wholesome happiness. But this book is, and if you’re looking for a reason to believe in love stories again, you’ll find it in Nathan and Ollie.

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.

Queer YA Book Review: Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

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TitleParrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

Rating: 3/5

Two-sentence summary: When Grady comes out as transgender, the backlash from his friends, family, and school overwhelms him. But as he meets friends (and maybe a first love) who see him as he is, he finds the strength to fight for acceptance.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book’s main character is a straight, teenage trans man. While he begins the story using a female name and pronouns, Parrotfish follows him as he accepts his identity and begins transitioning at the start of his junior year. It also features discussion of sexual orientation versus gender identity.

Review: Fun fact: this was the first book I ever read about a trans person, back when I was thirteen years old in 2011. I didn’t recognize that I was transgender until a few years later, but I remember reading about Grady’s experience and thinking to myself, “I’m just like this person. I wish I was a boy, too.” It was a key book for me in recognizing feelings I had about my gender and because of that, it holds a special place in my heart. Plus, it’s just a cute book in general with a loveable, courageous protagonist.

One critique, however, is that this book phrases Grady’s identity more as a “girl who wants to be a boy” than a trans man. That’s part of the reason, I think, I didn’t realize I was trans then. I remembered it more about a girl who felt like a boy than a boy born in the wrong body. It was not likely the author’s intention, but I think portraying trans people like that could spread misinformation about what gender identity means. Wittlinger also refers to Grady as “transgendered,” which is a dated and, depending on the trans person, sometimes offensive term (though it may not have been as outdated when the book as written).

Grady also engages in some unsafe transitioning practices—particularly using Ace bandages to bind his chest, which can cause bruised or cracked ribs and long-term breathing issues. The safe way to bind is using a chest binder or kinesiology tape, either of which would have been better options to portray when writing for teens. I understand why the author wrote this, as this was published eleven years ago when binders weren’t as common and even then, lots of trans people who can’t afford them still use Ace bandages. That being said, I think if a young trans guy read this, it could give him harmful ideas about binding. Maybe not the biggest complaint for a story, but something I felt concerned about since it’s a YA novel.

That being said, Parrotfish is also heartwarming and spreads a message of unconditional love and acceptance, which is groundbreaking considering its older publication date. It was written in a time when very little about trans acceptance was talked about in the media or mainstream queer community, let alone YA fiction. It probably helped a lot of young trans teens, myself included, come to terms with their identity and feel less different or alone. Overall, a sweet and uplifting story written when trans identities were seen differently than they are now.

Quote: “You can only lie about who you are for so long without going crazy.”

Recommended: This is one of the oldest trans YA books (2007) that I’ve been able to find, and the oldest in general about a trans man. It tells a compelling story and has a positive message for both trans teens and those unfamiliar with the trans community. But because of the way trans identities are portrayed and some unsafe transitioning practices, I feel like this is a good introductory book for people just learning about the trans community but not the ideal first book for trans teens.

Queer YA Review: Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

 

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Title: Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Author: Kathryn Ormsbee

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Tash Zelenka’s “Unhappy Families,” a modern webseries adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, goes viral and is nominated for a Golden Tuba award, she becomes friends (and maybe something more) with fellow Tuba nominee Thom Causer. But how can she explain to her budding crush—or anyone else—that she’s asexual?

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a heteroromantic asexual protagonist. Asexuality is something I still have a lot to learn about, but just for others who might not know the difference between asexuality and aromanticism: asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction to others, and aromanticism is the lack of romantic attraction. Because I’m not asexual, I don’t know if I can comment on whether it’s an accurate portrayal but have seen generally positive reviews from the ace community. There is also a queer male relationship, but it’s not the main focus of the novel.

What I loved: Every character in Tash Hearts Tolstoy felt vibrant and alive, even minor characters that don’t get more than a few scenes in the novel. You can’t always say that, especially since too much backstory can sometimes weigh down a novel, but it really gave this one depth. It felt like dipping into someone’s memories of the summer before their senior year rather than just a simple YA romance. In terms of the romantic plot itself, that, too, was more complex than I thought it would be—a happy surprise. I didn’t expect the characters’ reactions to Tash’s identity, nor their internalized emotions, to happen as they did. Without spoiling the story, the romantic heart of the story doesn’t turn out as you think it will but still ends in a satisfying way.

And while I don’t identify as asexual, I have seen several reviews from ace readers that said reading this book was like stepping into light after a long time in the dark. It was also useful on a personal level because it helped me understand more about ace identities and complexities that happen when a romantic asexual person goes into a relationship with a non-ace person. Whether you’re familiar with the ace community or not, it’s an insightful and comprehensive portrayal without weighing the text down with paragraphs of explanations.

Quote: “If you want a chance at being happy, exist. Because yes, life can suck, but as long as you’re alive, there’s a chance you can be happy.”

Recommended: This was such a delightful story! I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a cute, quirky novel with plenty of diverse queer identities. And, of course, if you’re a fan of literary webseries like The Lizzie Bennett Diaries or (my personal favorite) Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Invite Only Casual Dinner Party / Gala For Friends Potluck, this also explores the “other side” of producing one—dealing with melodramatic actors, reacting to negative reviews, and managing a sudden tsunami wave of fame. It’s so wholesome, guys!

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.