YA Review: The Meaning of Birds by Jaye Robin Brown

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TitleThe Meaning of Birds by Jaye Robin Brown

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Vivi was the only person who understood Jess enough to make love blossom out of her anger and loneliness. But when Vivi passes away suddenly during their senior year, Jess must learn how to channel her loss into something beautiful.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a romantic relationship between two cis lesbian women. Because it’s mentioned in the main synopsis and not a spoiler, though, I will say that one of the women dies unexpectedly. It does follow the “bury your gays” narrative but is nuanced and meaningful enough that I don’t think it deserves the negative connotations of that trope.

The Meaning of Birds also mentions trans issues and features an aromatic minor character.

What I loved: First of all, even though this doesn’t have to do with the story itself, the cover illustration is gorgeous. If my rating was based on the cover alone, it would have easily gotten a 5/5. It’s a wholesome, pastel aesthetic that drew me to the book before I even knew what it was about. Based on other comments I’ve seen, other readers found the cover very visually appealing, too.

And the book reflects that beauty as well as the beauty of sorrow and healing from the sudden loss of a partner. When I began reading the book, I worried that this would just be another story where a gay character dies to show how hard being LGBTQ is. But it was more than that. Jess was a living, feeling character and her grief seemed so real. Coming to terms with Vivi’s death and all she left behind is a messy, difficult path, but it’s one that I feel would be cathartic for anyone who’s had to let go of someone they loved.

The main reason that I didn’t give it four or five stars, however, was because it had a few comments that I felt were unintentionally transphobic. Discussing how a trans woman was born male in a less-than-accepting way and talking about “gold star gays” prevented me from giving it a higher rating. Again, I don’t think this was on purpose exactly, but it was still prominent enough that it felt worth mentioning.

Quote: “My grief is part of me.”

Recommended: I’d recommend The Meaning of Birds for anyone who wants to read a raw and healing coming of age. If you’re looking for more of a sweet and uplifting queer love story, you might want to save this one for when you’re ready to read something more tragic (though still ultimately uplifting).

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

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.

The Most Anticipated LGBT YA Books of 2019

Happy holidays and wishing you all a winter break with books to read that both entertain you and provide you with invaluable new insights. This next year is shaping up to be full of new YA novels with plenty of much-needed diversity inclusion in everything from YA contemporary to dystopian sci-fi retellings. Use this list of highly anticipated LGBTQ YA releases in 2019 to find the perfect books to ring in the new year.

I’m going to try my best to update this list throughout the year as new YA books are announced. If I’m missing anything, let me know and I’ll add your YA book recommendations for 2019 to the list!

Last updated: December 2018

January

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  • The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg: This gay YA romance follows Max and Jordan over the course of their summer as they decide whether unconditional love is worth the vulnerability.
  • The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan: When Rukhsana’s conservative Muslim parents catch her kissing her girlfriend Ariana, she must fight against a forced arranged marriage after her parents send her to Bangladesh.
  • Death Prefers Blondes by Caleb Roehring: Described as a queer-positive Ocean’s 11, this YA thriller features a bisexual heiress, a dangerous drag queen burglary ring, and a mystery much larger-scale than anyone anticipated.
  • Our Year of Maybe by Rachel Lynn Solomon: After Sophie donates her kidney to her best friend and crush Peter, she must exchange unrequited love for unconditional once he comes out to her as bisexual and in love with a mutual male friend.
  • Cinders by Mette Batch: This lesbian YA book is a queer retelling of Cinderella featuring aspiring musicians, online dating, and overcoming bullying with compassion.
  • The Birds, The Bees, and You and Me by Olivia Hinebaugh: Seventeen-year-old Lacey takes it in her own hands to reform her school’s outdated abstience-only sex-ed curriculum, but she quickly learns that she may have taken on more than she can handle.

February

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  • The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried by Shaun David Hutchinson: Death has never frightened Dino, whose parents run a funeral home, until his best friend July dies and comes back somewhere in between this life and the next.
  • Bloom by Kevin Panetta & Savanna Ganucheau: The summer after his high school graduation, Ari bonds with Hector over baking bread and their blossoming romance.
  • The Moon Within by Aida Salazar: Celi Rivera faces a year of change as she falls in love for the first time, tries to understand her best friend’s genderfluid identity, and participates in a cultural ceremony to celebrate her first period.
  • To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holy Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer: After Bett and Avery’s single dads fall in love and send them to sleepaway camp as a get-to-know-you activity, the two girls bond over the wildest summer adventure of their lives.
  • Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto: This LGBT fantasy book tells the story of war orphan Veronyka, who disguises herself as male to become a legendary Phoenix Rider.
  • Immoral Code by Lillian Clark: This YA heist book features aro/ace representation and a digital hacking scheme of the century that four teens commit to combat the pressure of paying for skyrocketing college tuition prices.
  • Some Girls Bind by Rory James: High school student Jamie realizes that their chest dysphoria isn’t just insecurity and struggles to come out as genderqueer to their friends and family.
  • What Makes You Beautiful by Bridget Liang: Closeted Logan Osbourne falls for her classmate Kyle while coming to terms with her identity as a transgender woman.
  • Prom Kings by Tony Correia: When Charlie joins his local queer prom committee, he comes up with a plan to woo and “prompose” to the cute new guy.
  • The Afterward by E.K. Johnson: This ambitious queer epic fantasy follows the apprentice knight Kalanthe Ironheart as she runs away with the rogue Olsa Rhetsdaughter and forge their newfound indepndence in the uncertain stone of their realm’s future.
  • We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia: On the night of her graduation from a dystopian school for girls, Dani escapes an arranged marriage to risk a plunge into starcrossed and forbidden love.
  • Augur of Shadows (Destined Series #1) by Jacob Rundle: After suddenly losing his father, seventeen-year-old Henri’s grief is interrupted by strange dreams that lead him to a battle against otherworldly forces threatening to destroy the world.

March

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  • Something Like Gravity by Amber Smith: This YA contemporary romance follows a transgender boy named Chris who falls in love with his next-door neighbor Maia after a near-fatal car accident.
  • Squad by Mariah McCarthy: After Jenna has a falling out with her best friend Raejean, she single-handedly navigates her cheerleading squad performance, discovery of LARPing, and budding romance with trans boy James.
  • The Last 8 by Laura Pohl: This sci-fi YA follows a bisexual aromantic teen named Clover who, along with seven others, fights back against an alien apocalypse that decimated civilization six months earlier.
  • Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale: The summer after her senior year, Babe Vogel juggles hiding from her ex-girlfriend and falling in love with the artistic Levi Keller as a barista at the Busy Bean coffee shop.
  • Love & Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford: Sam Weyward has purposefully never fallen in love due to a family curse, but will he make it through one last summer crush without falling dangerously head-over-heels?
  • Kiss Number 8 by Colleen A.F. Venable: Catholic school student Amanda’s never understood the big deal about kissing until her number eight, which sends her into an emotional spiral as she falls in love with her best friend.
  • The Fever King by Victoria Lee: After an uncontrollable magical force kills his family and gives him technopathic powers, Noam joins an elite group studying the science behind this phenomenon while falling in love with the son of the minister of the dystopian Carolinia.
  • Once & Future by Amy Capetta: This anticipated indie YA retells the Arthurian legends with LGBT representation and a dystopian sci-fi setting.
  • You Asked for Perfect by Laura Silverman: After failing a Calculus quiz, Ariel does not expect to crush on his math tutor Amir, who he loves much more than struggling to secure his status as valedictorian.
  • Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo: After discovering a message from her late military sister, high school sophomore Angie travels across Ohio on an RV road trip to find peace and herself along the way.
  • The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum: This slow-burn YA romance follows Ryann Bird, whose dreams of becoming an astronaut leads her to Alexandria and her mother lost in space.
  • Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve: This LGBT fantasy novel follows genderqueer fourteen-year-old Z, who befriends an unregistered werewolf in an attempt to reverse their zombie infection.
  • The Sun and Moon Beneath the Stars by K. Parr: Fifteen-year-old maidservant Rasha teams up with Princess Adriana to rescue her brother from an evil sorcerer, stirring up powerful emotions that neither girl could have anticipated.

April

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  • The Meaning of Birds by Jaye Robin Brown: After her girlfriend Vivi passes away suddenly in the middle of their senior year, Jess learns through a new friend to channel her pain into creativity and healing.
  • The Hand, the Eye and the Heart by Zoë Marriott: Zhilan, who was assigned female at birth, saves their disabled father from a brutal battlefield death by taking his place as a male soldier.
  • Belly Up by Eva Darrows: After sixteen-year-old Serendipity hooks up at a party, she starts her junior year five-months-pregnant and head-over-heels for her new classmate Leaf.
  • Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan: This anticipated debut and LGBT romance follows a princess, a pirate, a girl in a hot dog costume, and a carousel operator as they find love at their summer amusement park job.
  • A Place for Wolves by Kosoko Jackson: This historical YA thriller follows Tomas and James as they discover how much they can sacrifice to come home in the midst of war.

May

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  • I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver: This #ownvoices queer romance follows Ben as they come out as non-binary and fall in love with their charismatic-yet-sweet classmate Nathan.
  • Birthday by Meredith Russo: This story follows Morgan and Eric from their shared first birthday to their journey to find authenticity, belonging, and their lifelong connection.
  • Going Off-Script by Jen Wilde: Seventeen-year-old Bex must do everything in her power as a TV intern to keep higher-ups from destroying a beloved show’s lesbian representation.
  • Missing, Presumed Dead by Emma Berquist: Lexi’s gift to sense how and when someone will die is equal parts gift and curse, especially after the ghost of a woman whose death she fortells chooses her to enact a plot of revenge.
  • Castle of Lies by Kiersi Burkhart: After an army of elves invades her kingdom, Thalia’s plot to inherit the throne is interrupted when she must prevent an ancient magic from destroying her realm.
  • Deposing Nathan by Zack Smedley: After being stabbed by his best friend, a young man must testify what really happened on that fateful night while coming to terms with his queer identity.
  • Hold My Hand by Michael Barakiva: This standalone companion to One Man Guy tell the story of two teenage boys as they learn to love through forgiveness, betrayal, and heartbreak.
  • We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra: When Jonathan and Adam are assigned as each other’s pen pals for a high school English assignment, they fall in love despite the pressures of bullying, homophobia, and familial conflict.
  • Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju: Pitched as Judy Blume meets RuPaul’s Drag Race, this queer debut romance follows Nima Kumara-Clark as the discovery of drag culture helps them come to terms with their shifting gender identity.
  • Each of Us a Desert by Mark Oshiro: This YA release follows a young woman trying to find somewhere she belongs in the aftermath of family tragedy.
  • Switchback by Danika Stone: Ashton Hamid finds his RPG experience surprisingly useful when he and his best friend are trapped in the Candian Rockies after an October snowstorm.
  • Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi: Overachieving Sana Khan finds herself falling for her rival Rachel Recht while working together on a senior film project.
  • Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron: Teenage misfit Brody Fair must choose between his family and Everland, the one place where he’s felt like he belonged.
  • Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins: This YA romance and companion novel to Royals stars Millie Quint as she falls in love with Flora, her boarding school roommate and a princess of Scotland.
  • Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero O’Connell: This tale of first love follows Freddy Riley’s recent breakup with Laura Dean as she learns how interconnected “passionate” and “toxic” can be in relationships.
  • Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson:Critically-acclaimed queer YA author Shaun David Hutchinson opens up about his experiences with mental illness as a teenager that shaped him into who he is today.

June

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  • Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian: Set against the backdrop of the queer community 1980s New York, Iranian-American confronts the AIDS crisis with his best friends Judy and Art.
  • Brave Like Lily by Richard Denney: After his older sister was killed by a police officer, Mateo navigates his return to school while grieving her loss and finding a way he can fight against injustice.
  • Technically, You Started It by Lana Wood Johnson: This YA follows Haley and Martin’s meet-cute romance from first text to the chaotic, yet sweet disaster that is their relationship.

July

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  • Ordinary Girls by Blair Thornburgh: This LGBT retelling of Sense and Sensibility follows sisters Ginny and Plum, who are brought together in the wake of their father’s death.
  • Destroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller: Close friends Solomon and Ash, united by a shared traumatic event when they were twelve, are the only people who can save each other from their growing pain and darkness in this dark YA fantasy.
  • Wilder Girls by Rory Power: This feminist take on Lord of the Flies centers on three best friends quarentined at their island boarding school who uncover a terrible truth about their surroundings.
  • Me Myself & Him by Christopher Tebbetts: After Chris breaks his nose and is shipped away to live with his dad, he’s confronted with a multitude of parallel universes that unlocks jealousy, existentialism, and what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself.

August

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  • Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell & Faith Erin Hicks: Best friends Deja and Josie make the most of their last season working at their town’s pumpkin patch in this YA graphic novel.
  • Swipe Right for Murder by Derek Milman: On the run from the FBI, a dangerous cult, and the media, seventeen-year-old Aidan stands off against a cyber-terrorist group that will stop at nothing to kill him.
  • The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert: After her estranged aunt Carlene moves into her family’s apartment, the way Birdie understands her family and the world around her is irreversibly changed.
  • The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta: This coming-of-age story follows a boy who comes to terms with his gay, mixed-race identity after discovering drag culture.
  • The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart by R. Zamora Linemark: With the queer literary hero Oscar Wilde as his guide, seventeen-year-old Ken navigates a year of firsts: first kiss, first love, and first heartbreak.

September

  • We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar: A coming-of-age set during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, this YA release follows Michael as he falls in love with Gabriel, the first boy who actually see him.
  • Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett: Simone Garcia-Hampton has never let her born HIV-positive diagnosis define her, but she must navigate hope, excitement, and fear when she falls in love for the first time.
  • How to Be Remy Cameron by Julian Winters: When an openly queer teen is assigned a personal essay about who he is, he embarks on a journey to better understand the labels people have given him.

October

  • Tarnished Are the Stars by Rosiee Thor: A queer mechanic teams up with her lifelong enemies to save not only her ailing village but the world in this YA debut.
  • The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco: In a world ruled the goddesses of day and night, twins separated at birth fulfill their destiny to reunite their divided land.

N/A (For Now)

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  • Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell: This YA paranormal romance will be the sequel to Carry On and continue the adventure (and love story) of wizards Simon and Baz.
  • Semper Augustus by Mackenzi Lee: Set in seventeenth-century Holland during the Dutch tulip mania, a flower girl who falls in love with her mistress is faced with a difficult choice to save her family from poverty.
  • Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry: A retelling of the tragic Greek myth with LGBT characters follows a gay Texas teen fighting to find her girlfriend again after both are sent to conversion therapy centers.
  • A Boy Like Her by Carrie Mac: Charlie starts at their new school determined to identify as neither male nor female despite pressure to conform with binary norms.
  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo: Set in historical San Francisco, this diverse YA explores the complicated relationship between the Chinese-American and LGBTQ communities during the 1950s.
  • Only Mostly Devastated by S. Gonzalas: Pitched as Clueless with LGBT themes, this 2019 release tells the story of a boy navigating a family crisis and the aftermath of a summer romance.
  • I Knew Him by Abigail de Diverville: A school production of Hamlet leads to a small-town queer romance that would have made the Bard himself proud.

What are your most anticipated YA novels of 2019? Any upcoming LGBT books make the list?

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.

November + December Book Haul and Life Update!

Hello, friends! It’s been a little while since I’ve posted a personal entry, so here’s a book haul on the non-queer YA fiction I’ve read and recommend over the past two months. Luckily, I have a technical writing job that makes listening to audiobooks during work easy so I’ve got a good variety of recommendations this time around. Hopefully a few of these catch your interest!

YA:

  • Romancing the Dark in the City of Light by Ann Jacobus (3/5 stars): This novel follows troubled Summer Barnes after she’s caught in a deadly pull between her best friend and self-harm. I actually found this book at the Dollar Store, which often has books from the clearance pile at Barnes and Noble, and decided to take a chance on it. It was a powerful read with a unique take on mental illness in that it personifies suicidal ideation. Though a little darker than most YA fiction, I felt like it made for a quick and compelling read.
  • (Don’t) Call Me Crazy (4.5/5), edited by Kelly Jensen: This anthology features personal essays from a variety of YA authors, artists, and other creative personalities on mental illness. If you’re looking to feel less alone about your own struggles or understand others with mental health issues, this is a vulnerable and uplifting read. I especially appreciated Libba Bray’s essay on obsessive-compulsive disorder. As someone with OCD, it meant a lot to read one of my favorite authors as a teen speak openly about her diagnosis. Probably one of the best YA releases I’ve read this year.
  • Meet Cute (4/5), edited by Jennifer L. Armentrout: Another compelling YA anthology but this time, short stories about first meetings between couples who are “meant to be.” This book really does have something for everyone. It’s genres range from contemporary to sci-fi and the stories feature plenty of LGBT and POC protagonists. It’s a quick read for sure but also full of fun, wholesome love stories.
  • Get Well Soon by Julie Halpern (3/5): After Anna’s sent to a teen psych ward for depression, she opens up with her fellow patients in a way that moves her towards healing. This was an ultimately optimistic take on dark issues like body image, suicidal ideation, and sexual assault. The book balanced these topics with equal amounts of heart and humor to keep the story hopeful. Although I wasn’t a big fan of the writing style, the plot overall seemed like it could be powerful for teens in similar situations.

Non-YA:

  • Lose Well by Chris Gethard (5/5): Comedian Chris Gethard shares his strategy to overcoming a fear of failure and making the most of what you’ve been given. By far the best self-help book I’ve read, especially for creative types who are trying to figure themselves and their career out. I mostly bought this book because his podcast Beautiful/Anonymous is one of my favorites but this book was really well-done. The balance between advice and personal stories especially made it enjoyable and hilarious in a purposeful way.
  • Zealot by Reza Aslan (3.5/5): This book offers a unique analysis on the historical Jesus and his connection to political turmoil in ancient Jerusalem. From a historical and a theological perspective, this book felt incredibly well-researched. I found it fascinating as someone who’s interested in both spirituality and ancient history, and it offered a more complex portrait of Jesus than what’s seen in mainstream Christianity. Equally intriguing for Christians and non-Christians alike.
  • Night by Elie Wiesel (4.5/5): The author narrates his experience as a concentration camp prisoner during World War II and it was harrowing. Stories like Elie Wiesel’s are especially important to keep in mind as World War II drifts further and further into the past to make sure humanity never commits such atrocities again.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (5/5): This book tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief following the death of his young son, who’s stuck in-between the land of the living and the dead in his tomb. Experimental and strange but oh man, I loved this one. It reminded me of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman but a little darker and more philosophical. If you’re looking for a weird and heartbreaking story, this one’s worth checking out.
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller (3.5/5): Fun fact: I was assigned this play for a college class but never actually read it. But hey, now I have so that counts for something, right? This one I listened to in one sitting at work and it was a chilling story. Though most people know that Miller wrote about the Salem Witch Trials as a comparison to the Communist Red Scare, I think it’s just as relevant today as it was then. Made me want to read a nonfiction book on the history of the Salem Witch Trials that I’ve been meaning to check out, so maybe there will be a review on that in January!

And, in bulleted form, a few life updates:

  • Got to see a live show of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and it was equal parts spooky and fascinating.
  • Sent out my first batch of beta reader chapters for my YA novel! Hoping to edit it through the winter and start querying in the spring so fingers crossed!
  • Hit the two month mark at my new job. It’s been challenging at times to transition from freelance work to an office job but I love my coworkers, the work, and the company’s mission. Ultimately, I’m happier than I’ve been in a while and grateful to have a fulfilling job.
  • Got back on testosterone after a two month hiatus while switching insurance. Getting back on it was very much a relief. I’m thankful to live in a time and place where healthcare for trans people has improved so much. Sometimes I forget how lucky that is, but it’s been one of the greatest blessings in my life to feel comfortable with my body and with who I am over the past two years on T.
  • Just watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with my partner’s family and was blown away! The art style, the characters, the emotions… if you haven’t seen it yet, I could not recommend it more. Such a satisfying and well-done film. Ugh, guys, it was so good!

What book that you read in 2018 made a strong impact on you?

YA Review: Dear Evan Hansen

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TitleDear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, & Justin Paul

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: High school senior Evan Hansen feels like he’s drowning in a sea of loneliness and anxiety. But after his classmate Connor Murphy commits suicide and Evan is mistaken as his best friend, he straddles the line between truth and fiction in an attempt to belong.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This is going to come as a major spoiler to anyone who’s seen the musical, but there are two queer characters in the novelization. One is an openly gay cis man and his semi-love interest, a pansexual cis man. Part of the pansexual character’s emotional turmoil seems to come from the failed relationship, as well as drug abuse and depression.

What I loved: Well, when I finally got to read the Dear Evan Hansen novelization after months of pining for it, I didn’t think I’d get to write about it on my LGBTQ YA catalog but here we are. This is, again, a pretty significant spoiler if you already love the musical so you’ve been warned, but I found the decision to portray Connor Murphy as bisexual fascinating.

On the one hand, it’s pretty straightforward “bury your gays,” which isn’t great. But it did add more depth to his character than the musical gave, especially because several chapters in the novelization are told from his perspective. I genuinely enjoyed his voice and felt that it gave his death true weight without glorifying suicide or romanticizing mental illness.

But Evan Hansen’s voice, however, I did not like. This was really disappointing, as I relate a lot to Evan as someone with social anxiety. The first time I heard “Waving Through a Window,” I felt like someone out there understood what it was like to crave close relationships but feel incapable of making them. It seemed like the Evan of the musical and novel were two different people. One was complex and empathetic, and the other felt whiny and shallow.

Even though most of the story takes place in Evan’s head, I felt like he didn’t contain the same likability as his musical counterpart. They might say the same things, but the internal motivation the book gives for Evan’s actions felt a little too simplistic. It’s an enjoyable read, especially if you like the musical, but because Evan’s character isn’t well-developed in the novelization, the plot doesn’t stand well on its own. 

Quote: “Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be a great day and here’s why: because today at least you’re you and, well, that’s enough.”

Recommended: If you’re a fan of the musical, I think you’ll find this adaptation at least fascinating, if not enjoyable. Or if you’re looking for subtle bi representation, you might like Dear Evan Hansen. But before reading, keep in mind that this book does contain heavy themes. If you’re sensitive to suicide, substance abuse, homophobia, or , check out a few more reviews before reading.

YA Review: Beast by Brie Spangler

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TitleBeast by Rebecca Barrow

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YA Review: Symptoms of Being Human

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TitleSymptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Rating: 4.5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queer YA Review: Quiver by Julia Watts

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TitleQuiver by Julia Watts

Rating: 3.5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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