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.

YA Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Title: If I Was Your Girl

Author: Meredith Russo

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Amanda Hardy moves to live with her father after transitioning to female, she just wants a peaceful and low-profile high school experience. But when she falls in love with her kind, complicated classmate Grant, she wonders how deeply you can love someone while hiding so much of yourself.

What I loved: For a novel that deals with some heavy topics (including suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse), this is a wholesome story. I enjoyed how the chapters alternated between Amanda’s senior year and her memories realizing, coming to terms with, and finding confidence in her trans identity. It felt like If I Was Your Girl explored the complexities that come with transitioning well… which makes sense, since the author is a trans woman herself and has lived it.

At the beginning of the novel, Amanda considers herself “fully transitioned”—she socially transitioned, takes hormone therapy, and received gender confirmation surgery. Unless she wants to tell others, nobody would ever have to know that she’s trans. Yet she questions to what extent her trans identity is part of her story and, if it is, whether telling others is worth her safety. None of the questions have easy answers, but Amanda works through them in a way that gives her comfort.

Also, side note that has nothing to do with the story, but not only is this written by a trans woman (the first trans YA book I’ve read by a transgender author, by the way), but the model on the cover is also a trans woman. Not to speak for trans women but as a trans guy, that feels like positive and much-needed progress in YA publishing.

Quote: “Either way, I realized, I wasn’t sorry I existed anymore. I deserved to live. I deserved to find love. I knew now—I believed now—that I deserved to be loved.”

Recommended: One hundred times yes! I almost hesitate to say this just because there are so many good queer books but, if you choose to only read one transgender YA novel, I think it should be this one. We need more books about trans/non-binary people written by trans/non-binary authors. You can feel the authenticity of this experience in a way that I haven’t felt in other trans YA books before. The author doesn’t just feel sympathy for trans people but genuine empathy, and I think you can pick up on that.

That being said, I would love to read more books by trans and non-binary authors. If anyone has recommendations, be sure to leave a comment!

Next: If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman

YA Review: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

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Title: The Art of Starving 

Author: Sam J. Miller

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: After his sister runs away, bullied teenager Matt develops an eating disorder in the hopes that starvation will make him stronger and bring his sister back. As Matt bonds with and develops feelings for his sister’s friend (and possible former fling) Tariq, he discovers that some things—good and bad—cannot be controlled by force of will.

What I loved: Until now, I hadn’t read a YA novel about men and eating disorders. I’m glad the first one I read was this one. Books about eating disorders tend to follow a pattern: they’re usually firmly planted in the realism category and don’t contain much humor. Which is valid and respectable, but The Art of Starving borders that line between fantasy and reality and it has an authentic, somewhat bleak sense of humor. It still gives its tougher subjects much-needed respect but isn’t afraid to take a book about mental health into unexplored directions. And, y’know, the humor is a little refreshing.

Relationships play a heavy part in shaping this story, the strongest of which are Matt’s confusion and longing towards his sister and his tentative romance with caring, yet cautious Tariq. In addition to these, Matt also struggles to understand his mother, who bonds with others mainly through food in a way that triggers his eating disorder. And then, of course, there’s the relationship that Matt has with himself—beneath all the self-loathing is a potential that he himself sees but must learn to access in a healthy way. This book hits its strongest stride when Matt works through all of these tangled relationships to see himself and those he loves a little clearer.

Quote: “The strongest people aren’t the ones who are born strong. They’re the ones who know what it’s like to be weak and have a reason to get stronger. The ones who’ve been hurt. Who’ve had things they love taken from them. The ones with something to fight for.” 

Recommended: If you want a YA book about anorexia that breaks the norms, this is your book. Not only does it feature a male protagonist with an eating disorder (in itself pretty rare), but it also features some speculative fiction elements. The way Miller uses fantasy to write truths in a way that reality can’t always do justice is both sad and beautiful. Its ending is also hopeful enough that the novel can explore some tough, dark topics while still letting some light shine through.

Next: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

YA Review: Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

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Title: Rules for 50/50 Chances

Author: Kate McGovern

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Seventeen-year-old Rose Levenson must decide whether to take a test that tells her if she carries the mutation for Huntington’s disease, a terminal condition that her mother genetically inherited. When Rose meets a boy who also comes from a genetically-troubled family, she must learn to live without a clear view of what lies ahead.

What I loved: I loved how real these characters were, especially Rose. Sometimes YA books about tough subjects (especially diseases) paint the protagonist as a martyr who can get through any difficulty with their head held high and neverending patience. Rose, however, is not a saint. She’s a seventeen-year-old girl whose mother is dying from a degenerative condition, and sometimes she lashes out at those around her or breaks down when she worries about the future. This makes her, in my opinion, very relatable and easy to empathize with.

The dialogue in this book was also tasteful, and McGovern often used her characters’ speeches to tackle issues relating to race, mental health, and disability. This is done in a very frank but natural way. Every word progresses the narrative and addresses powerful questions without sounding contrived. The dialogue and descriptions are both full of valid, real emotions.

Quote: “If you had a crystal ball, like in a fairy tale – or a magic mirror or one wish or whatever – would you want to know how you were going to die? Would you want to watch it happen, in slow motion, every day?”

Recommended: Recommended particularly for those who have family members with genetic conditions like Rose, as they might find this novel cathartic. But sometimes the most meaningful novels are those that we can empathize with even if we ourselves haven’t experienced it, so recommended for anyone who struggles with uncertainty when it comes to their future.

Next: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

YA Review: Love Letters to the Dead

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Title: Love Letters to the Dead

Author: Ava Dellaira

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Laurel’s English teacher assigns her to write a letter to a dead person, Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her recently-deceased sister, Mary, loved him. As Laurel writes letters to famous people who died young (like Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and Janis Joplin), she navigates love and friendships over her freshman year, mourns and comes to terms with Mary’s untimely death, and faces the trauma that Mary didn’t protect her from when she was still around.

What I loved: This book is so moving and a beautiful meditation on grief. Laurel’s character is open, and the emotions she experiences are real. She feels pain deeply, both in her life and in the lives of her loved ones, but she also sees beauty. It’s easy to relate to her as a protagonist because of her vulnerability. Those who love to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s emotions will find it easy to do in this novel. It’s steeped in both joy and sadness without being overdone or gimmicky.

I also loved the book’s format, which is told primarily in the form of letters. Most of the letters Laurel writes are to her sister, whose recent death is a heavy burden for her family to bear. Why Laurel writes to each historical figure when reveals a lot about both her and her relationship with her sister. As the novel progresses and the letters reveal just how complicated Laurel’s relationship with May was, you can’t help but hurt with her. I think that’s the sign of a good book: when you don’t just feel bad for the character but you feel with her. That’s exactly the kind of book Love Letters to the Dead is.

Quote: “I wish you could tell me where you are now. I mean, I know you’re dead, but I think there must be something in a human being that can’t just disappear. It’s dark out. You’re out there. Somewhere, somewhere. I’d like to let you in.”

Recommended: Recommended for anyone who enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Stephen Chbosky mentored Dellaira as a budding writer and helped workshop Love Letters to the Dead. While the book stands well on its own, the influence is there. Perks and Love Letters to the Dead have a similarly honest, emotional feel.

Next: Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

YA Review: Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

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Title: Almost Perfect

Author: Brian Katcher

Rating: 3/5

One sentence summary: Logan Witherspoon grapples with transphobia, internally and externally, when his high school crush Sage Hendricks reveals a secret: she is a transgender woman.

What I loved: This book presents a real depiction of trans students in unaccepting areas. Logan and Sage begin a relationship in a small and very LGBTQ-phobic town, and their relationship comes with serious pressures. Sage, who was homeschooled until her senior year, fights to hide her gender identity to avoid verbal and physical aggression. Logan, (who is until this point ignorant of queer issues) experiences anxiety over whether others would consider him gay for dating a trans woman, as he himself tries to define what his sexual orientation is.

Their relationship is complicated and not without flaws, but what relationship is? And watching Logan’s progression from confused and a little homophobic to someone who sees Sage as who she really is feels very authentic. In addition, Almost Perfect explores the conflict between a trans person comfortable with their gender identity in a world that isn’t quite ready. Sage’s parents love her a lot but very much mourn for a son they feel they’ve lost. The grey area between hostility and unwavering acceptance is an uncomfortable-but-necessary relationship to portray, as many trans people can relate.

What I didn’t love: Although a voice worth hearing, this book doesn’t go beyond the general “coming out” trope seen in many LGBTQ stories. A positive relationship between a cis man and a trans woman is important to see in fiction, but the characters do not progress beyond this initial concern to make their story unique.

In addition, our protagonist Logan is narrow minded when it comes to transgender issues. Even when dating Sage, he still refers to her for much of the novel as “a girl, but not a girl.” She is distinct from other women in that she is trans and, in Logan’s eyes, not quite female or male. Near the end of the novel, he finally begins to see and respect Sage as a woman, but it takes him a long time to get there. While this is likely accurate for his age and life experience, he does not treat Sage with the respect she deserves. I understand what the author was going for but feel that having a narrator like Logan could spread more misunderstanding than help for trans women.

Quote: “Sage would survive. I’d survive. We were better off apart. Painful and quick, just like ripping off a Band-Aid. Well, more like gouging a piece of shrapnel out of my stomach, pouring a bottle of gin into the wound, lighting it on fire, and sewing my guts up with a dirty bootlace. But the concept was the same.”

Recommended? Yes. This book is especially useful for teens unfamiliar with trans people and want to know more. It should be taken with a grain of salt, though, because Logan and his peers live in a very transphobic town. Some of the ways he refers to trans people earlier in the novel (as “a boy who wants to be a girl”) are not accurate nor okay to use.

Next up:  Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

YA Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Note: From here until the end of finals week (April 29th), I will only be posting on Tuesdays.

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Title: Openly Straight

Author: Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 3.5/5

One sentence summary: When sixteen year old Rafe transfers to a new boarding school, he decides to hide his sexuality to avoid becoming “the gay kid” like at his old school.

What I loved: Coming out stories are a dime a dozen in YA fiction, but rarely do you see “coming out again” stories. Konigsberg explores an interesting angle here because Rafe’s reasons for hiding his sexual orientation are unique and, for some LGBTQ people, even relatable. Nobody bullied him at school. He had friends who accepted him for him. His parents supported him so much that his mother ran the local PFLAG branch.

But he was tired of people taking his sexuality and making it his whole story. Ever since he came out, he’d given interviews and spoken at local high schools about LGBTQ acceptance. Everyone at his school knew his sexual orientation, and even though nobody discriminated against him, he felt uncomfortable. Because so many people reduced him to his sexuality, he no longer felt normal.

This feeling is understandable, and it likely is for others who come from accepting backgrounds. Konigsberg, however, doesn’t encourage teens in Rafe’s situation to follow his lead. Hiding who you are, if you replace yourself with a lie, can come with unforeseen consequences.

Rafe struggles to suppress his feelings while weaving stories of nonexistent girlfriends, writes to express emotions he doesn’t fully understand, and gets to know another student, Ben, who also represses his sexuality for harder reasons. Unlike Rafe, he hates his sexual orientation so much more deeply. Rafe wants to tell Ben he doesn’t have to be ashamed, but how can he say that when Rafe himself has gone back into the closet?

What Rafe ultimately comes to terms with is labeling: he eventually understands that he doesn’t have to be the gay kid just because he’s out. What other people see doesn’t matter as much as what he does to help them. Throughout the novel, Rafe struggles to help others in ways only he can without revealing his sexuality, a balance that wobbles so much he can’t help but crash. But when he does, he gets back up and achieves a new balance between an open sexual orientation and a multi-dimensional personality.

Quote: “You can be anything you want, but when you go against who you are inside, it doesn’t feel good.”

Recommended? Yes! This was a lot more lighthearted than some of the LGBTQ YA books I’ve read so far, and for that reason, I’d recommend it to younger teens and up.

Next up:  Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

LGBTQ YA: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Note: When I initially started reviewing books, I had assumed that I would never read a perfect 5/5 book. The Miseducation of Cameron Post proved me wrong.

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Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Author: Emily M. Danforth

Rating: 5/5

One sentence summary: After coming to terms with her sexual orientation while living with her conservative relatives, Cameron Post is sent to a gay conversion therapy center in rural Montana.

What I loved: This book centers around two major milestones in Cameron’s life: first, her realization and path to self-acceptance of her sexual orientation, and then her time coping at a gay conversion therapy center for about a year. Both are important stories to here and, from what I can tell, both relatable and real.

Cameron discovers she is lesbian when she’s twelve years old, as she and her friend Irene kiss in a barn. Soon after, her parents die in a car crash. Because Cameron was raised in a heavily religious environment, she believes that her sexuality caused the car crash as a punishment from God. Queer teens who have been raised in a religious environment might relate to this misplaced guilt, though perhaps not in an overwhelming loss like Cameron. The first quarter of the novel is about her guilt process as she explores her faith and eventually finds peace with her sexual orientation.

But even though Cameron herself no longer feels like her sexuality is wrong, she still lives in a repressive place. Her issues are not over just because she feels no more internal pain, and once her conservative Aunt Ruth learns Cameron’s openly gay, she sends her to a gay conversion private school.

Having to deal with these two pains (first coming to terms with yourself, and then living in a hostile environment) is a feeling many queer teenagers can relate to, and I think the way Danforth handles it is important for teens in this situation to read. Personally, I’ve never been to a gay conversion therapy center, nor do I know anyone who has, so I can’t attest to the accuracy. Danforth herself grew up in Miles City, Montana (the setting of this book) and used some of her experiences to create this book’s environment, which creates a very realistic and fair depiction.

Nobody in this book is a “bad guy,” not Aunt Ruth, not the people at the conversion therapy center, not Cameron. That is the best part of this novel. Cameron, while our protagonist, doesn’t always make morally positive decisions. Aunt Ruth shows genuine concern for Cameron, even if a bit misguided. Even those who run the gay conversion center believe they’re doing the right thing, regardless of whether we as readers agree with them.

Sometimes in LGBTQ YA, it’s easy for authors to paint an “us vs. them” mentality with those who do or don’t support LGBTQ rights, but life isn’t that simple. Generally people aren’t trying to hurt others. We’re all going through life with unique perspectives, trying to understand others as well as ourselves. This book is wonderful because even though it could easily have made Cameron innocent and flawless, and it could have made those who don’t understand her cruel beyond understanding, it doesn’t. It makes them human. I feel like that is important for anyone to read and understand.

Quote: “Maybe I still haven’t become me. I don’t know how you tell for sure when you finally have.”

Recommended? Yes! Very much so. Everything about this book is well-done: the writing, the characters, the story itself. Like other recommends, I might advise this more for older teens (15-up) because this book does contain some mature themes (sex, self-harm, conversion therapy).

Next up:  Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg