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!

YA Review: Release by Patrick Ness

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Title: Release

Author: Patrick Ness

Rating: 4.5/5

Two sentence summary: Adam Thorn, seventeen-year-old son to a family of preachers, is reeling in the wake of a fractured relationship with his ex-lover and fears that his conservative parents will find out about his sexuality. Release follows Adam over the the course of a day as he faces his past and jumps into a confrontation that may either shatter his heart or finally mend it.


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Photos via Unsplash

What I loved: I always love me some Patrick Ness, and this was no exception. Release is an accurate title for this book. Adam knows that the strong emotions he carries about his situation weigh him down—growing up with his parents’ conditional love, escaping sexual assault from his supervisor, and working through heartbreak have left him with deep wounds. It’s difficult for him to love others, even himself, because affection shown to him has often been warped and always temporary. But this day we follow Adam on sparks something from within—as he lets go of those who have hurt him, he opens himself to feeling all of the pain he’d been blocking at once. And yet, despite this, he is free. His is a bittersweet story, with hope that this day will lead to better ones for Adam.

The stream-of-consciousness narrative of this book was also enjoyable and, I think, a really good way to tell it. Ness was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to write this story, and it has a similarly psychological, internalized feel. Because this book follows Adam from morning until nighttime, we as readers glimpse his thoughts in a way that’s a little more unstructured than most third-person narratives. It heightens the rawness of emotions in a way that fosters deep empathy for Adam and his flawed, conflicted heart.

Quote: “They’re your parents. They’re meant to love you because. Never in spite.”

Recommended: Some books are just beautiful, and Release is one of those. If you want to savor the words, characters, and emotions, this is a hard-hitting yet satisfying read. It is hurtful and healing in a way that only Patrick Ness’s books could be.

Next week: Risen by Cole Gibsen

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: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

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Title: Juliet Takes a Breath

Author: Gabby Rivera

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After a disastrous coming out experience with her family, Juliet Palante leaves for Portland with only the works of her favorite feminist author for guidance. As she works to make a place where she belongs, she grapples with her identity as a Puerto Rican lesbian.

What I loved: When it comes to the balance between characters and plot in a story, I prefer books that really delve into who a character is and who they become. This book was very character-heavy and I loved it. It’s very much a coming-of-age story that captures how one queer woman of color establishes and grows confident in her identity. It’s so vulnerable and doesn’t give any easy answers to any of the questions Juliet explores about herself. If anything, the more she meets others in the queer community and opens herself to the complexity of the human experience, the more messy and uncertain and beautiful her story becomes.

My only complaint with this book is that it felt a little heavy with LGBTQ jargon sometimes. Which is fine if you’re pretty familiar with the community but can get repetitive, and I feel like it might be information overload for non-queer people. But all in all, solid prose, characters, and story.

Quote: “My love for you is deeper than anything that happened between us. My love for you is the sun, the sky, and the moon. It’s the air I breathe. It lives in everything I do. It’s better than good. It’s everlasting.”

Recommended: As a trans guy, I can’t speak for the experiences of queer women but enjoyed the how much this book grounds you in Juliet’s mind. If you’re looking for a raw, authentic coming-of-age story, you might just love this book.

Next: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

YA Review: Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

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Title: Written in the Stars

Author:  Aisha Saeed

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Naila’s conservative parents learn that she’s made friends and fallen in love with a boy, they find her a husband and force her into an arranged marriage. Naila, now cut off from her friends, her college, and her boyfriend, must find a way to return home and take control of her own destiny.

What I loved: This book puts you so directly into Naila’s heart and mind that you feel for her as she fights to escape this arranged marriage. For her, this task isn’t so easy as just leaving the situation. Her husband and his family are abusive, and her uncles kidnap and threaten to kill her if she runs away. She risks everything she has—her reputation, her family, and even her life—because to her, life’s not worth living without authenticity. Although she seems trapped in a hopeless situation, Naila’s ability to find hope and strength from within saves her. I feel that many people, including myself, could learn from her quiet bravery.

Quote: “Love is about the good moments, but it’s about holding on to each other during the difficult ones, too. Coming out on the other side, weathered but still holding hands, isn’t easy. It’s the most difficult thing there can possibly be, but I know now it’s the truest test of love there is.”

Recommended: Yes, this book was a well-written story on love, tradition, and the risks women take when fighting for their independence. I think it’s important to note, though, that this book has a rape scene that may trigger some readers. If you think this might be too much for you, take caution before reading this book. But, though upsetting, the scene does give insight into the pain that so many women trapped in forced or abusive marriages face. It’s difficult to read, but that doesn’t detract from its importance.

Next: Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner

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: One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi

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Title: One Half from the East

Author: Nadia Hashimi

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After Obayda’s father is injured in a car explosion, her mother decides to have Obayda participate in the Afghan bacha posh tradition: she, the youngest of three girls, is dressed as a boy to bring her family luck. This brings Obayda (now Obayd) newfound freedom, but as she befriends an older bacha posh, she slowly realizes this transformation won’t last.

What I loved: Before reading this book, I’d heard about the bacha posh tradition before but knew very little about it. Hashimi’s novel does an excellent job at immersing the reader in the emotional elements of Obayd’s transformation. It became very clear to me while reading that being a bacha posh is not a variation being transgender, which is what I assumed from the description. It is a much more complex view of gender identity, one specific to Afghan and Pakistani culture.

The friendship between Obayd and Rahim (an older bacha posh) is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Rahim is more comfortable being seen as male than they ever were female and fights desperately to remain in this way of life. But this tradition usually only lasts until adolescence, and both know that their time is running out. One Half from the East meditates on courage and identity in an intimate way as it questions why certain gender identities can either limit or set someone free.

Quote: “‘Do you know what’s so special about you two?’ my mother asked softly. ‘You are the best of two worlds: one half from the east and one half from the west.'”

Recommended: Oh, for sure. Generally, I review young adult books but this one could be suited for a younger audience (perhaps even middle grade). The writing is beautiful and emotionally charged, which makes the humorous and emotionally painful moments all the more poignant.

Next: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

YA Review: As I Descended by Robin Talley

Note: After another semi-hiatus while revamping the website, enjoy this review of Robin Talley’s As I Descended, a delightfully dark (and queer) retelling of Macbeth.

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Title: As I Descended

Author: Robin Talley

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Power couple Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten will let nothing stand between them and winning the prestigious Cawdor Kingsley Prize: especially not school sweetheart Delilah Dufrey. When the two tap into paranormal powers to secure the scholarship, darkness threatens to consume their boarding school (and themselves).

What I loved: You know those books that you’re already certain you’ll love before you pick it up? As soon as I heard that As I Descended was a contemporary Macbeth retelling, I was hooked. Openly queer characters only sealed the deal.

This book exceeded expectations for everything I thought it would be, and I had high expectations already. Its tone was delightfully spooky and reminiscent of a Southern Gothic, and the characters mirrored their Shakespearean counterparts while still retaining individuality. Powerful emotions like envy, desire, and unbearable guilt push every character into a morally grey area as they deal with supernatural forces far beyond their understanding.

Quote: “Between the atheism and the lesbian thing, Lily was a terrible Catholic. Even before she’d added murder to her list of sins.”

Recommended: Yes! Especially recommended for those who love Shakespeare retellings or fiction featuring very open and human LGBTQ characters. Or anyone who loves a good ghost story. Between the three categories, I think most people fall into at least one.

Next: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga