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!

Queer YA Review: Pulp by Robin Talley

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TitlePulp by Robin Talley

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Sixty-two years after Janet Jones publishes her first novel, high school student Abby Zimet bases her senior project on lesbian pulp fiction. Told using dual-narratives, this gay coming of age story ties two queer teens across generations.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Pulp is a one-half contemporary, one-half historical gay YA book that follows two cis lesbian teens in the 1950s and 2010s. It explores sexuality through the lens of pulp lesbian fiction, which was one of the first venues that queer women openly expressed themselves in the United States. As obscenity laws relaxed in the late ’50s, pulp writers were allowed for the first time to write uplifting and hopeful books about queer women. It’s an underground subculture that doesn’t often receive attention in LGBT books for teens but nevertheless foreshadowed the gay rights movement about a decade later. Pulp also features a non-binary character and briefly discusses gender identity and “they/them” pronouns.

What I Loved:  Robin Talley is one of my favorite LGBT YA writers, so I’d had high hopes for this one from the beginning. That being said, Pulp stands on its own even apart from Talley’s other novels. It immerses itself equally in the lesbian community during the 1950s and 2010s through the two vibrant protagonists. The two emotions that define this book are love and hope. Even through heartbreak, discrimination, internalized homophobia, and other challenges, Janet and Abby retain sight in a better, kinder tomorrow. They love fiercely and sometimes desperately while creating work that reflects their experiences, which I think is a meaningful message for queer teens in similarly tough situations.

The narrative switches between Janet and Abby was also really well done, especially as their stories intertwine later in the novel. Their experiences as queer teens are so similar in their hearts and desires, yet the way their generation reacts to who they are is incredibly different. It reminded me how fortunate we in the LGBTQ community to live in a more understanding culture while also feeling gratitude for those first people who openly expressed their sexual orientations. Pulp comments on how far we have come while spreading this message of hope to future strides in the queer acceptance movement.

Quote: “This is still a harsh world we live in, but you’re lucky you’ve found each other.”

Recommended: This is the second good LGBT historical YA novel by Robin Talley that I’ve read, the first being the civil rights-era romance Lies We Tell Ourselves. I’d recommend this one for anyone interested in queer American history as well as those interested in reading how far the gay rights movement has come since the ’50s.

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

Queer YA Review: What If It’s Us

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TitleWhat If It’s Us by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: Arthur’s summer trip to New York City wasn’t supposed to turn into a meet-cute romance, but when he and Ben bump into each other at the post office, he feels like he’s living in the Broadway musicals he always dreamed of. But does the universe really have a love story planned, or will separations, misunderstandings, and an eventual move back to Georgia put an end to their relationship?

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: What If It’s Us is a queer YA romance between two cis gay men. There are also several LGBTQ minor characters, including an ex-boyfriend and a queer female coworker. Heads up that there’s a brief, but intense aggressive scene in the novel—while the characters involved aren’t physical harmed, they do face homophobic insults and threats of violence.

What I loved: Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli are some of my favorite LGBTQ YA authors, and their writing styles meshed perfectly in What If It’s Us. Arthur and Ben both have unique voices and personalities throughout the novel, and their thoughts and feelings are distinct in ways that make them a cute match. With Arthur, you have the optimistic, yet anxious “first love” voice, which complements Ben’s recently-broken-up-and-somewhat-cynical voice well. Their differences make for some awkward, yet entertaining and all-around wholesome moments that capture the title’s feeling. Their budding romance is uncertain, yet hopeful that they’ve finally met “the one” in the way that all relationships start.

This book also features minor themes that adds depth to their story and relationship. It touches on race and privilege through Ben, a white-passing Puerto Rican who feels alienated because others don’t recognize his heritage. Not only does the story validate Ben’s insecurities, but it also check and helps him recognize his privilege as someone who is white-passing. I also loved how it featured mental health themes through Arthur’s discussion of ADHD and another character who’s hospitalized for a panic attack. It made the characters and their lived experience feel all the more real and brought up points worth talking about.

Also, I loved the male friendships portrayed in this book! You don’t always see that in queer YA, but it’s so needed to feature platonic friendships between gay characters and members of the same sex. Both Arthur and Ben have male friends who they feel close to without experiencing romantic attraction. I also appreciated how What If It’s Us explored the complexities of said relationships, however, like how they can change when someone comes out or whether it’s possible to stay friends with your ex-boyfriend. All common experiences that don’t always have a spot in YA fiction, but should.

The only thing I’m frustrated about is (slight spoiler) the fairly ambiguous ending, but I think that shows how well-developed Arthur, Ben, and their relationship was. And having an open ending made What If It’s Us mirror real life while still retaining that excitement, hope, and unlimited possibilities that the story began on. Their relationship in general, from first meet to the end of the novel, developed naturally despite the coincidences and sheer luck that brought the two together. Keeping a foot grounded in reality while still exploring ideas of “love at first sight” and “destined to meet” helps their story feel extraordinary without seeming melodramatic.

This was such a cute book—cute characters, cute story, and cute cover art as well. Plus, I’ve been a sucker for Dear Evan Hansen ever since a friend introduced it to me in college, so the title drew me in pretty fast. Arthur is a big musical theater fan, so if you are as well, this book’s for you. Especially if you like Hamilton, as you may find references to it and its fandom pretty amusing.

Quote: “I barely know him. I guess that’s any relationship. You start with nothing and maybe end with everything.”

Recommended: What If It’s Us is one of the happiest LGBTQ YA novels I’ve ever read! It’s a story where you read it and feel all warm and hopeful inside after you’ve finished it, like the people we meet and form relationships with matter regardless of how much time we spend with them. If you’re looking for an uplifting, wholesome queer love story, you’ve gotta check this one out. Doubly so if you like stories about missed connections, musicals, and first love.

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

Queer YA Book Review: Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

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TitleParrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

Rating: 3/5

Two-sentence summary: When Grady comes out as transgender, the backlash from his friends, family, and school overwhelms him. But as he meets friends (and maybe a first love) who see him as he is, he finds the strength to fight for acceptance.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book’s main character is a straight, teenage trans man. While he begins the story using a female name and pronouns, Parrotfish follows him as he accepts his identity and begins transitioning at the start of his junior year. It also features discussion of sexual orientation versus gender identity.

Review: Fun fact: this was the first book I ever read about a trans person, back when I was thirteen years old in 2011. I didn’t recognize that I was transgender until a few years later, but I remember reading about Grady’s experience and thinking to myself, “I’m just like this person. I wish I was a boy, too.” It was a key book for me in recognizing feelings I had about my gender and because of that, it holds a special place in my heart. Plus, it’s just a cute book in general with a loveable, courageous protagonist.

One critique, however, is that this book phrases Grady’s identity more as a “girl who wants to be a boy” than a trans man. That’s part of the reason, I think, I didn’t realize I was trans then. I remembered it more about a girl who felt like a boy than a boy born in the wrong body. It was not likely the author’s intention, but I think portraying trans people like that could spread misinformation about what gender identity means. Wittlinger also refers to Grady as “transgendered,” which is a dated and, depending on the trans person, sometimes offensive term (though it may not have been as outdated when the book as written).

Grady also engages in some unsafe transitioning practices—particularly using Ace bandages to bind his chest, which can cause bruised or cracked ribs and long-term breathing issues. The safe way to bind is using a chest binder or kinesiology tape, either of which would have been better options to portray when writing for teens. I understand why the author wrote this, as this was published eleven years ago when binders weren’t as common and even then, lots of trans people who can’t afford them still use Ace bandages. That being said, I think if a young trans guy read this, it could give him harmful ideas about binding. Maybe not the biggest complaint for a story, but something I felt concerned about since it’s a YA novel.

That being said, Parrotfish is also heartwarming and spreads a message of unconditional love and acceptance, which is groundbreaking considering its older publication date. It was written in a time when very little about trans acceptance was talked about in the media or mainstream queer community, let alone YA fiction. It probably helped a lot of young trans teens, myself included, come to terms with their identity and feel less different or alone. Overall, a sweet and uplifting story written when trans identities were seen differently than they are now.

Quote: “You can only lie about who you are for so long without going crazy.”

Recommended: This is one of the oldest trans YA books (2007) that I’ve been able to find, and the oldest in general about a trans man. It tells a compelling story and has a positive message for both trans teens and those unfamiliar with the trans community. But because of the way trans identities are portrayed and some unsafe transitioning practices, I feel like this is a good introductory book for people just learning about the trans community but not the ideal first book for trans teens.

Queer YA Review: Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

 

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Title: Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Author: Kathryn Ormsbee

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Tash Zelenka’s “Unhappy Families,” a modern webseries adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, goes viral and is nominated for a Golden Tuba award, she becomes friends (and maybe something more) with fellow Tuba nominee Thom Causer. But how can she explain to her budding crush—or anyone else—that she’s asexual?

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a heteroromantic asexual protagonist. Asexuality is something I still have a lot to learn about, but just for others who might not know the difference between asexuality and aromanticism: asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction to others, and aromanticism is the lack of romantic attraction. Because I’m not asexual, I don’t know if I can comment on whether it’s an accurate portrayal but have seen generally positive reviews from the ace community. There is also a queer male relationship, but it’s not the main focus of the novel.

What I loved: Every character in Tash Hearts Tolstoy felt vibrant and alive, even minor characters that don’t get more than a few scenes in the novel. You can’t always say that, especially since too much backstory can sometimes weigh down a novel, but it really gave this one depth. It felt like dipping into someone’s memories of the summer before their senior year rather than just a simple YA romance. In terms of the romantic plot itself, that, too, was more complex than I thought it would be—a happy surprise. I didn’t expect the characters’ reactions to Tash’s identity, nor their internalized emotions, to happen as they did. Without spoiling the story, the romantic heart of the story doesn’t turn out as you think it will but still ends in a satisfying way.

And while I don’t identify as asexual, I have seen several reviews from ace readers that said reading this book was like stepping into light after a long time in the dark. It was also useful on a personal level because it helped me understand more about ace identities and complexities that happen when a romantic asexual person goes into a relationship with a non-ace person. Whether you’re familiar with the ace community or not, it’s an insightful and comprehensive portrayal without weighing the text down with paragraphs of explanations.

Quote: “If you want a chance at being happy, exist. Because yes, life can suck, but as long as you’re alive, there’s a chance you can be happy.”

Recommended: This was such a delightful story! I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a cute, quirky novel with plenty of diverse queer identities. And, of course, if you’re a fan of literary webseries like The Lizzie Bennett Diaries or (my personal favorite) Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Invite Only Casual Dinner Party / Gala For Friends Potluck, this also explores the “other side” of producing one—dealing with melodramatic actors, reacting to negative reviews, and managing a sudden tsunami wave of fame. It’s so wholesome, guys!

LGBTQ YA Review: Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black

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Title: Devil and the Bluebird

Author: Jennifer Mason-Black

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After losing her mother to cancer, Blue Riley makes a deal with the devil to find her runaway sister Cass. With the help of her mother’s guitar and a pair of boots that lead her to her heart’s longing, she embarks on a journey with both temptation and hope waiting on every corner.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book featured several prominent queer characters. What I loved about it was how seamlessly the author weaved their LGBTQ identities into the story without making it a major plot point. Being queer affected, of course, who they were as characters and how they acted, but it didn’t consume their identities. Without spoiling anything by mentioning the character’s name, I especially enjoyed the depiction of a gay trans character, maybe because trans characters are generally portrayed as straight in queer YA and I like that we’re seeing some diverse identities within the genre. And, of course, as a queer trans guy, it felt validating to see an identity like mine portrayed in a book—everyone deserves to feel that.

What I loved: For whatever reason, one of my favorite Halloween songs when I was a kid was “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, possibly because it had two good things: a spooky and compelling story and a good rhythm. Devil and the Bluebird mirrors the Southern Gothic feel of that song, with the rhythm coming in the beautifully-crafted imagery. In some ways, this novel captures the essence of a folk song. Its core story of a girl named Blue betting her soul against the devil for her sister may be fantastical, but the emotions and characters feel so real that it’s devastating at times. Even minor characters are described so well that they click perfectly with the plot and make the entire novel feel purposeful in every word it uses.

Quote: “Remember that the devil is the one who tells you to play a tune that’s not your own, and you can drive him right on out into the cold by playing what’s in your soul.”

Recommended: It’s getting close to Halloween, and if you’re looking for queer YA with a fairly spooky plot, this book is for you. And if you’re looking for an artfully-written novel with diverse, lifelike characters and a bittersweet story, you’ll find that here, too.

LGBTQ YA Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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Title: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When unexpected events throw seventeen-year-old Sal and his best friend Samantha’s lives into tragedy, they rely on Sal’s adoptive gay father to confront their grief. As they finish their senior year of high school together, they find that even in times of great loss, the people you love can help you find faith in the future.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life deals with themes of fatherhood and the influence parents have on who you become. Sal never knew his biological father and, as grief brings out his impulsive temper, worries that he’ll take after whoever he was instead of his adoptive father. Other characters also comment about his adoptive father’s sexuality and Mexican heritage in ways that causes Sal, a white, straight teenage boy, wonder whether the father who raised him or his biological parents determine his identity. This book doesn’t give any easy answers but shows that, above all, family is who you love and loves you in return.

What I loved: One of my favorite queer YA books as a teenager was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by the same author (which I should get around to reviewing as well) because of its beautiful descriptions. This book does not disappoint. The language Sáenz uses for his imagery and dialogue is almost like reading poetry in prose form. The Inexplicable Logic of My Life also It’s one of those books that proves YA can be just as well-written and thought provoking as literary fiction.

I also loved that this book’s priority is capturing Sal and Sam’s friendship without trying to force anything romantic from developing. Their relationship is so strong and well-developed that working in anything more than platonic love would feel forced, in this situation. And it’s a lovely portrayal of a healthy friendship between two people of the opposite gender that feels a little lacking in YA fiction sometimes. Plus, if you’re looking for romance, you do get some of that from Sal’s father as he reconciles with his ex-boyfriend so this book really does have it all.

Quote: “All your life I’ve tried to protect you from all the shit in the world, from all the bad things. But I can’t protect you from this… All I have is a shoulder. And that will have to do. When you were a little boy, I used to carry you. I miss those days sometimes. But those days are over. I can walk beside you, Salvie—but I can’t carry you.”

Recommended: If you love stories that make you think, smile, and cry all in one, I’d recommend The Inexplicable Logic of My Life. Because the book features a straight protagonist but has strong LGBTQ themes, I think this book could also help non-LGBTQ teens relate to and understand queer issues a little more than they did before.

Next: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

YA Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

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Title: We Are Okay

Author: Nina LaCour

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Grief-stricken and alone, Marin plans to spend her winter break at her college in New York instead of her hometown in California. But when loved ones from her past come to visit, she is forced to face what happened between her and her best friend Mabel last summer.

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What I loved: There are so many unhappy LGBTQ YA books out there that you’d think there’d be nothing special about another sad, queer story. We Are Okay, however, manages to paint a fresh and distinct portrait of discovering yourself in the wake of grief. I especially loved how normalized the queer subplot was in this book. Although it was a key part of Marin’s identity and her past, she wasn’t reduced to her queerness nor was it portrayed as a “shock value” reveal. It’s much more about Marin confronting the loss of someone important in her life than it is coping with her sexuality. And I think that’s really beautiful that we’re getting to a point where a character can be queer without the story revolving around that.

Quote: “It’s a dark place, not knowing. It’s difficult to surrender to.  But I guess it’s where we live most of the time. I guess it’s where we all live, so maybe it doesn’t have to be so lonely. Maybe I can settle into it, make a home inside uncertainty.”

Recommended: This is a quick read so I’d recommend it for a weekend where you want to just spend a few hours in Marin’s head as she makes peace with her past. I like how this book features LGBTQ characters without making the plot revolve around their identities, so if you want a book with characters, We Are Okay is a good choice.

Next: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

YA Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

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Title: History is All You Left Me

Author: Adam Silvera

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Griffin’s best friend and ex-boyfriend Theo dies in a drowning accident, the only person who understands is Theo’s current boyfriend, Jackson. But between his grief and obsessive compulsive episodes, Griffin is stuck processing Theo’s loss in a history of painful memories and broken “what-ifs.”

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What I loved: Notice how that quote by Nicola Yoon on the cover says, “Will make you cry, think, and then cry some more?” That about describes the emotional waves that this book put me through. History is All You Left Me creates a great balance of thought and raw emotion. Not only does it depict Griffin’s grief following an unexpected tragedy but also how memories and relationships shape us into who we are—in good and bad ways. The pain is striking in a familiar way for those who have fallen in love with someone they eventually had to let go of.

When a relationship ends for any reason, part of yourself dies with that just as another part starts growing, and this novel tracks Griffin’s full growth as a human being from his first kiss to his resolution to love Theo, but let him go. The novel also features a complex depiction of OCD that goes beyond the “cleaning” and “organizing” compulsions in a way that more matched my own experiences with it. Not only did this make Griffin a more complex character, but it gave depth to a mental illness that is often cliched in pop culture.

Quote: “People are complicated puzzles, always trying to piece together a complete picture, but sometimes we get it wrong and sometimes we’re left unfinished. Sometimes that’s for the best. Some pieces can’t be forced into a puzzle, or at least they shouldn’t be, because they won’t make sense.”

Recommended: This is a little heavy of a read, so I would recommend this novel if you’re in a good mental “headspace.” It’s a beautiful and meaningful book, but one that could take time to process without letting it weigh you down. But as with every Adam Silvera novel I’ve read so far, perfect if you want a complex, thought-provoking queer YA book!

Next: One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

LGBTQ YA Review: As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman

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Title: As the Crow Flies

Author: Melanie Gillman

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Queer, black, and questioning her faith, Charlie can’t help but feel isolated at her predominantly-white Christian summer camp. When she befriends Sydney, another camper whose differences set her apart, the two are determined to change their camp leaders’ mindsets even if they have to cause a commotion.


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What I loved: This book is a careful critique on white feminism and how much of the female experience it excludes. Although Charlie’s leaders talk about the camp’s history as an “matriarchal” outpost for nineteenth-century women, they use racially-exclusive language and gloss uncomfortably over how those women were primarily served by former slaves. Several closeted queer campers and campers of color keep silent in fear of becoming outcasts, particularly a camper who knows that if the leaders found out that she was trans, they wouldn’t have let her come. The disconnect between the leaders’ brand of feminism and the campers’ marked discomfort builds with every campfire sermon. It complicates Charlie’s search for God, who she can’t seem to find in the way that her leaders hope.

The art style in itself is breathtaking, with beautiful landscapes rendered in colored pencils in a way that, to me, captured the divine better than any of the camp leader’s sermons on God. I think that’s a little of what As the Crow Flies expresses—that the way to find God is to search for Him (or Them) yourself. Charlie associates bird’s feathers with God because she found one while in prayer and, during her spiritual search, she  finds bird’s feathers as she continues to look for and define God for herself. The connection between nature, which is accessible to every person, and God is gracefully expressed through the artistic medium.

My one complaint is that the ending felt unfinished but, after doing a little research, I found out that this is just volume one in a series about Charlie’s experience at summer camp. That could have been made a little more apparent but hey, maybe it was. It’s finals week here, and the unique fatigue that finals week brings does things to your mind. But either way, I am both surprised and delighted to hear that Charlie’s story will continue in subsequent volumes!

Recommended: This was a thoughtful read on who, exactly, feminism stands for and how “white, cis feminism” marginalizes more women than it uplifts. As a queer Christian, I also found Charlie’s struggle to connect with a God she doesn’t fully comprehend powerful. I’d probably recommend this one for younger teens just based on Charlie and the campers’ ages influencing their concerns, but older teens and adults may find the questions raised on inter-sectional feminism and mainstream Christianity poignant.

Next: Ship It by Britta Lundlin