YA Review: The Music of What Happens

TitleThe Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: In 1980s Arizona, Max and Jordan bond over food trucks and family secrets. This gay YA romance follows the two over the course of their summer as they decide whether unconditional love is worth the vulnerability.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Music of What Happens features a queer romance between two cis men, one of whom is biracial. It also features discussion about femininity in gay culture as well as sexual abuse. If either of those might be trigging for you, you may want to read several different reviews before deciding whether this one’s for you. Because this novel takes place in the 1980s, the discrimination and internalized homophobia that Max and Jordan face as queer men is considerably high.

What I liked: One of the most interesting discussions in this book is “feminine” vs “masculine” gay men and how those perceived as feminine or “twink-y” can be alienated by straight as well as other gay men. Although I’ve read novels with feminine gay characters before, I haven’t seen that portrayed so openly in a YA book but it felt very needed. Konigsberg discusses in his end note how he as a gay man has struggled with this pressure, which might feel cathartic for queer readers and enlightening for straight ones.

As far as Max and Jordan go, this is one of the more authentic relationships I’ve read in a YA romance. Their relationship developed so naturally without feeling too contrived or simplistic, and their characters really complemented each other. They connect on such a deep and vulnerable level that, even though the novel explores some tough topics, it felt like an ultimately beautiful story.

Also, though I don’t feel as qualified to comment on this, I thought that the sexual abuse subplot was handled respectfully. It was also powerful in that it involved discussions of homophobia and racism in rape culture that transcended the 1980s setting and still feel relevant today.

And on a side note, look how beautiful the cover art is! What is with all of these amazing YA covers lately? Like whoever’s hiring artists in the publishing industry lately, they’re doing something so right.

Recommended: I’ve noticed other reviewers compare this one to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe and, while I see the similarities, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Both take place in the 1980s and discuss Hispanic culture, but I think their stories are different enough that both tell a valuable story. If you’re a fan of Aristotle and Dante, you might enjoy this one and if not, read both! They’re each beautifully written!

Note: I was given an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

YA Review: Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

TitleLeah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: This sequel to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda focus on sarcastic, Slytherin, and senioritis sufferer Leah Burke. In between drumming for a girl band and writing Harry Potter fanfics, Leah looks inside herself for the courage to come out as bisexual.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a bisexual protagonist (cis female) and a few queer minor characters. Leah comes from an accepting family and has several gay friends but struggles to come out as bi. It’s a fairly nuanced plot in that Leah doesn’t face as much discrimination from those around her but still needs to work through internalized homophobia and insecurity before she’s comfortable enough to come out.

What I loved: Out of all of Becky Albertalli’s novels, I think Leah is my new favorite protagonist. Her sarcastic attitude is endearing and as a former fanfic writer, I found her passion for Harry Potter shipping fits hilarious. But she’s more than just a witty character–she’s also sensitive in the way she treats others and herself. She’s concerned about privilege and looks after marginalized people around her. And even though she’s fully accepting of her queer friends and knows her mother would still love her if she came out, it takes a long time for her to find the courage. She’s such a fun and well-rounded character, and I enjoyed every minute I spent in her headspace as a reader.

Plus the romance plot is so cute! Without giving anything away, part of the reason she’s able to come out is the confidence she develops from falling in love with a close friend. I appreciated that unlike some queer romances, Leah on the Offbeat took its time to establish a relationship that took several months plus years of unrequited love to develop. It felt realistic for a romance between Leah and her girlfriend to happen, especially since the two accept that they’re queer for the first time throughout the novel. Overall, a fun and lighthearted book steeped with strong characters and a sweet love story.

Quote: “Imagine going about your day knowing someone’s carrying you in their mind. That has to be the best part of being in love- the feeling of having a home in some else’s brain.”

Recommended: I especially recommend this book to bi readers looking for a snarky but also relatable character, as well as fans of Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. You might be able to pick up the plot without having read Simon Vs, but you’ll understand the characters and complexity of the story a lot more if you finish it first. Plus, both are lovely books with plenty of good queer representation so you can’t go wrong with either!

YA Review: Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

TitleLet’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Being true to herself is difficult for Alice when her girlfriend leaves her after coming out as asexual. But when she meets “library worker in shining armor” Takumi over the summer, can she risk falling in love again if it means finally being understood?

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a panromantic asexual woman who, after breaking up with her girlfriend, develops a “squish” (asexual crush) on a male coworker. I liked how well Alice explained a lot of asexual terminology (like asexuality vs romanticism) without feeling weighed down with jargon.

Let’s Talk About Love also features a queer POC protagonist written by an #OwnVoices author, which is always good to see in YA.

What I loved: What I enjoyed most about this book is how lovable the characters are, especially Alice! Whether she was squealing about cute animals or standing up to her lawyer parents to pursue her dream, I found her character really endearing. Plus, the way she explains the difference between aesthetic, romantic, and sexual attraction was so enlightening as a non-ace reader and I imagine it would feel relatable for those who are.

Plus, the romance between Alice and Takumi was equal parts sweet and realistic. Although they both feel genuine care for each other, Let’s Talk About Love doesn’t shy away from showing the challenges of relationships between ace and non-ace people. Alice struggles to come out to Takumi because she worries he’ll leave her. And even though being honest gives her relief, Takumi does have a hard time understanding what her asexuality means for their relationship. But there’s also plenty of adorable, fluffy moments between the two to balance out the more serious stuff.

The only complaint I had is that I feel like this book should be shelved as new adult, not YA, since Alice is a college student. Recently I’ve come across a lot of discussions on Twitter about how when we write adult protagonists in YA, we’re isolating the target teen audience. It’s important to put books with adult protagonists in the right category to make sure YA reaches the readers who need it most. Plus, new adult is such a fledgling category and could use more well-written novels.

Quote: “You can’t let one or two bad experiences stop you from being happy.”

Recommended: If you’re looking for a sweet coming of age romance with plenty of queer representation, this book is a great choice! Also, on a side note, I just realizes that both of the books I’ve read about asexuality (this and Tash Hearts Tolstoy) have a female protagonist. Let me know if you’ve heard of any books with an asexual male or non binary protagonist! I think those perspectives would be both fascinating and important to see in YA.

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.

YA Review: Some Girls Bind by Rory James

TitleSome Girls Bind by Rory James

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Jamie Henderson has a secret: they feel out-of-place in their body and bind their chest to relieve dysphoria. Told in a free verse style, this book follows Jamie during the year that they come out as genderqueer.

Portrayal of LGBT issues: Some Girls Bind features a protagonist who explores self-acceptance and how to come out as non-binary throughout the course of the novel. While some groups make a distinction, the author doesn’t specifically define non-binary vs genderqueer and uses both terms interchangeably. The book does make a distinction between gender non-conforming vs non-binary identity, which I feel is helpful for both trans and cisgender readers.

Although the book’s synopsis uses “she/her” for Jamie, they also discover gender-neutral pronouns as a way to reduce dysphoria. Beyond non-binary identities, this story features a subplot about a gay student who’s rejected by his community after he comes out.

What I loved: I’m a bit of a sucker for YA books in verse and am always happy to read LGBTQ poetry. The writing style works well and allows Jamie to reveal their thoughts and feelings in an authentic and often beautiful way. Some Girls Bind features a lot of difficult subjects; even beyond queer topics, it also discusses child abuse, alcoholism, and marginalized characters living in a conservative and homogenous community. And it does so in a concise, yet thought-provoking way that keeps the story overall hopeful.

One of my favorite subplots in the book was when Jamie comes out to their brother Steve. As Jamie prepares to come out and live authentically as themself, Steve helps them find the resources and binding materials they need while supporting them all the way. In so many books about transgender characters, they don’t have someone they can lean on in their family. I thought it was both well-written and powerful to give Jamie one person who may not fully understand their gender experience but tries to and loves them unconditionally.

I’m not a big fan of the title, though, since it seems pretty binary for a book about a genderqueer person. But that’s pretty nit-picky and still fits with Jamie’s changing sense of gender identity throughout the book.

While this doesn’t necessarily relate to the queer community, I think it’s important to note that this is a hi-lo novel. Hi-lo refers to books written in a simpler style than most YA but still explores challenging topics. The purpose of hi-lo is to bridge the gap between juvenile fiction and YA fiction written at a high reading level for reluctant readers. If you’re a student who struggles with reading or know someone who is, this could introduce LGBTQ themes in an accessible writing style.

Quote: “When I look in the mirror, / I don’t see a girl and / I don’t see a boy. I just see / my goofy glasses and Beatles-like hair.”

Recommended: This book’s style reminded me a lot of Ellen Hopkins, another YA writer who explores challenging topics in free verse books. If you’re a fan of her books or hi-lo LGBTQ YA, Some Girls Bind could be a good book recommendation.

Note: I was provided an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

YA Review: Love & Other Curses

TitleLove and Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Sam Weyward has purposefully never fallen in love due to a family curse that proclaims anyone he loves before his seventeenth birthday will die. But with only a few weeks left, will he make it through one last summer crush without falling dangerously head-over-heels?

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book! Features an unrequited crush! Between a gay cis man and a straight trans man! Can you tell how excited I am for this?? Even though it’s not quite romance, it’s still important representation. I’m still waiting for the day the YA romance between a cis and trans guy will come out like my teenage self always wanted but baby steps. Love & Other Curses also discusses drag culture and the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation (i.e. being transgender vs gay).

What I loved: This is something I mentioned earlier, but I appreciated the trans representation in this book! AFAB guys especially don’t get much attention in gay romance books. I can think of a lot of YA fiction I’ve read where the trans guy expresses unrequited love but never one where he (or any other trans character, for that matter) is on the receiving end of it. It might not seem like much and maybe I’m just over-analyzing things, but this felt like a big step towards normalizing attraction between cis and trans characters.

And while Sam experiments with crossdressing and dives deep into the drag scene, he does so while remaining respectful of trans characters and noting a difference between the two– all simple but important things that really drive the novel’s nuance in portraying queer culture.

The writing style of Love & Other Curses also felt natural and conversational, like reading someone’s journal entry recollecting a summer crush that they’re still reeling from. Plus, the heavy musical themes almost give this book a built-in soundtrack, which was both fun and gave it a strong sense of presence.

Quote: “I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy in my school who can replace a faulty kick-down switch and also create the perfect smoky eye.”

Recommended: Out of all the new YA books releasing next year, should you read Love & Other Curses? Well, let me ask you the following questions:

  • Do you like your queer romance novels with unexpected twists and unrequited love and/or sudden death?
  • Are you excited about the aesthetic of family curses, drag nights at local LGBTQ bars, and mischievous magic?
  • Do you regularly say the phrase, “I wish YA authors were writing trans characters with more complexity”?

If the answer to any or all of the above is a resounding “yes,” this might just be one of your most anticipated YA books for 2019!

Note: I was provided an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

YA Review: Beast by Brie Spangler

Image result for "I don't want us to be horrible anymore. I want us to be good."

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.

YA Review: Symptoms of Being Human

Image result for symptoms of being human

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

Image result for quiver julia watts

 

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.

BeFunky-collage-2

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

 

Image result for gentleman's guide vice and virtue

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!