YA Review: Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

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TitleOut of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Rating: 3/5

Two-sentence summary: Genderqueer witch Z feels like a loner thanks to their new status as a zombie. After teaming up with unregistered werewolf Aysel, the two team up to combat the hostility against them in their town of Salem, Oregon.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues:  Out of Salem features a genderqueer protagonist named Z who deals with misgendering and dead-naming (which is kind of clever, considering that they’re a zombie). Z seems to use this term interchangeably with non-binary and use they/them pronouns. This book also includes a Muslim lesbian werewolf main character, and the interplay between these identities made the book a lot richer than some speculative fiction stories.

What I liked: I thought that the social commentary about LGBT discrimination via how these “monsters” are treated was a pretty unique concept. The queer representation was also very complex and well-written, especially the relationship between Z and Aysel. While there aren’t any major romances in this book, the friendship between this two is so authentic and uplifting for each other. Watching them learn to respect and genuinely care for each other through shared hardships is one of the best parts of Out of Salem. It makes the book feel so real for a story about zombies and werewolves.

The one complaint I had was that the writing felt a bit stiff, and that made it hard for me to engage with the story as much as I wanted to. It was an innovative idea, but it didn’t always translate over well into words (in my opinion). But that being said, this seems to be the author’s debut novel and even without that taken into consideration, it was still an enjoyable read.

Recommended: This was a pretty new concept for queer YA, especially within non-binary representation. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a spooky, gay read. Perfect book to get your Halloween fix any time of the year!

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

YA Review: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

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TitleThe Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: Prince Sebastian of Belgium has a secret that nobody besides his seamstress Frances knows: at night, he transforms into the Parisian fashion icon Lady Crystallia. Set in turn-of-the-century Europe, this unconventional love story explores what it takes to become who you are inside and stay true to your passion.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Prince and the Dressmaker features a young prince who describes himself as sometimes feeling like a boy and sometimes a girl. When he feels like a boy, he’s comfortable in his male clothes but other times, his discomfort leads him to dressing in makeup and beautiful dresses.

While it’s implied that Sebastian may be genderfluid or non-binary, he seems to use male pronouns–possibly because it takes place before trans and non-binary identity were discussed in European culture.

What I loved: First of all, the art style was just breathtaking. It kind of felt like a cross between a fashion designer’s notebook and a Disney movie. It’s just so vibrant and really captures the feeling of being young, falling in love and discovering who you are for the first time. Generally I’m not much of an aesthetics person but thought that the dresses Lady Crystallia wore were genuinely beautiful.

But the most beautiful thing about The Prince and the Dressmaker was the love story. In the back of the book, Jen Wang notes that she’d originally written Frances and Sebastian as in their twenties. But as she wrote, she felt that writing them as teenagers brought out feelings of self-discovery and first love a lot more strongly. That, I very much agree with. In general, too, the characters were very complex and well-written–I can’t think of one who was necessarily a “villain” or didn’t change or grow over time.

The way that this book explored femininity in men and possibly gender fluidity was also pretty innovative. I think that when people think of AMAB trans or non-binary people, they usually assume that they’re straight (attracted to men) and pretty fixed in their identity. While there are many trans people who fit that description and their stories deserve to be told, I also think it’s important to portray diversity in the trans community like this graphic novel did.

Recommended: Honestly, I can’t think of someone I wouldn’t recommend this to. For LGBT readers, I think this story would feel familiar and uplifting and for non-LGBT ones, I think it could be enlightening. Overall, it reminds me of The Danish Girl if it had been written with a happier ending and for younger audiences (and focused more on gender expression than necessarily gender identity).

YA Review: Earth to Charlie by Justin Olson

TitleEarth to Charlie by Justin Olson

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Charlie believes that his mother was abducted by aliens, and he wants them to take him, too. But when he meets Seth, he starts to question whether Earth is really worth leaving behind.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Earth to Charlie isn’t a queer romance but more of a friendship between two boys who are figuring out a lot about themselves and the world around them. It does, however, feature LGBT themes and main characters.

In some ways, I think stories like that are just as important as the love stories. We need more books that show queer teens that healthy friendships are just as valid as romantic relationships. And ones that have close, intimate friendships between guys that don’t necessarily lead to romance. There are many different kinds of love, and sometimes platonic love is undervalued in LGBT YA fiction.

What I loved: One of the underlying themes in this story was learning to have compassion for yourself and others, as well as the struggles that each person faces. It was reminiscent of the saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is facing a hard battle.”

I think that is such a powerful thought and very needed in queer YA books. Charlie was such a sweet protagonist, and I loved reading about his friendships with his somewhat reclusive neighbor Geoffrey and his classmate Seth. It was one of those books that makes you want to look for the good in people you meet every day and try to get to know them better.

The story itself was beautifully written and had a way of addressing deep issues in a soft, poetic way. It’s implied, for example, that Charlie’s mom suffered from mental illness throughout her life. These allusions are done in a respectful way that doesn’t feel weighted with stigma or overly heavy themes. It’s thoughtful, but also full of hope and authenticity in a way that makes Earth to Charlie feel really genuine.

Recommended: This is one of those books where every character feels like they have a rich backstory and are deserving of love. It’s a wholesome, sweet and sometimes sad story. Earth to Charlie is a perfect story for those looking for a coming-of-age YA about finding friends who make you feel less lonely in this wonderful, strange world.

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

YA Review: Check Please! By Ngozi Ukazu

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TitleCheck Please! Volume One by Ngozi Ukazu

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: Vlogger, figure skater, and expert baker Eric “Bitty” Bittle begins college at Samwell University to compete on their hockey team. This volume explores his freshman and sophomore year as he becomes comfortable with who he is on and off the ice. 

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Bitty, the protagonist, is a gay college student who navigates coming out, making friends with his predominantly straight teammates, and (without spoiling anything) falling in love with another queer student. Although most of his friends and fellow hockey players are not queer, he doesn’t seem to face any discrimination or homophobia. It’s such a wholesome and optimistic take on queer identity, and I think stories as hopeful as this are just as important as LGBT YA books that explore tougher subjects.

What I loved: Literally everything about this. I just… loved this book so much and can’t wait until volume two comes out this fall. Like sometimes I feel like YA novels about college students should be branded as new adult books but I don’t even care with this one. It was so good that everyone needs to read it.

The relationships that develop between Bitty and his teammates is done so well. We follow the Samwell University hockey team throughout the course of two years and each member is so lovable and unique. And it’s adorable to see how Bitty transforms from an uncertain, nervous freshman into a sophomore who knows he belongs on the team and feels confident both during games and hanging out with his teammates. And while the story is on the whole optimistic, the deeper issues that some characters face (like implied alcoholism and depression) are portrayed tastefully.

And the art style fits the story so well! It’s vibrant and beautiful and everything that Bitty bakes looks so delicious, his hockey bros are so lucky. I feel like this was an ideal portrait of “bro culture” in the idea that straight and queer men can be friends without falling into close-minded stereotypes. Everything about this queer romance defies expectations but is done so in a way that makes the characters and story itself feel alive.

Recommended: Honestly, I would recommend this to anyone looking for a sweet, wholesome story. The only regret about reading this that I have is that I didn’t get to it sooner. If you want something cute and gay, you need Check, Please! in your life!

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: The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali

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TitleThe Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: After Rukhsana’s conservative Muslim parents catch her kissing her girlfriend, they send her to Bangladesh to immerse her in tradition. By reading her grandmother’s old diary, Rukhsana is able to discover important truths about herself and her culture.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali follows a cis lesbian protagonist who is forced into an arranged marriage after her parents discover that she’s fallen in love with a woman. Although it explores the pain and discrimination Rukhsana faces from her culture, it does not portray her family or Bangladeshi people as evil or outdated. Instead, most characters are portrayed as good, kind people who are genuinely trying to do the right thing but have different ideas about what that is.

This #OwnVoices novel was written by an author from Bangladeshi descent who writes about Muslim teens caught between two cultures. Although Sabina Khan herself doesn’t identify as LGBTQ, she mentioned on Twitter that she was inspired to write this novel after her daughter came out.

What I loved: Despite how heavy this book’s themes are, it’s also surprisingly hopeful. Even though Rukhasana’s flown far away from home into an arranged marriage with someone she could never feel attracted to, she finds people who love her for who she is and keep her going. Her uncle and grandma try to convince her unaccepting parents that Rukhsana’s queer identity isn’t as condemning as they think. Irfan, her arranged husband-to-be, validates her anguish and empathizes with her as a gay man. And while her parents put her through a lot of trauma, their love and concern for their daughter make their characters more nuanced than they seem.

I especially loved the emotion in this book and how easy it was to empathize with many of the characters. Muslim or Bangladeshi culture isn’t portrayed as evil (though it does explore the cruelty queer Bangladeshi people face) but a very different viewpoint from what Rukhsana’s liberal friends or partner understand. The novel vividly portrays her frustration with not only having to push against her culture’s restrictive view on homosexuality but also how boxed in she feels by both her LGBT and Bangladeshi identity. There aren’t a ton of LGBT YA books out there that portray characters straddling between religious and queer identities in a positive light, but I felt like this book did so in a fair and humanizing way.

The main reason I didn’t rate this book any higher is because I felt that the writing was a little confusing at times, but that’s more of a technical issue than anything. It doesn’t take away from the story but is noticeable enough that I didn’t feel comfortable giving a 4.5 or 5.

Quote: “You have no idea how hard it is to constantly feel like you have to represent your entire culture.”

Recommended: Novels about queer teens who have unaccepting parents are fairly common, but this is one of the more important YA books to read with that theme. I felt like this was an especially complex and empathetic take. There are so many diverse books with LGBTQ protagonists coming out (no pun intended) this year and each one has such a meaningful story to share.

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!