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: This is Kind of an Epic Love Story

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TitleThis is Kind of an Epic Love Story by Kheryn Callender

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Nathan, a seventeen-year-old romantic cynic, swears off love for good to prevent someone from breaking his heart like his mother’s. But when he reconnects with his childhood best friend Ollie, his promise to himself is tested in the best of ways.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This is a gay YA romance novel centering around two cis men. Neither of the main characters define their sexuality beyond the general “queer” label and express romantic attraction for men and women. This is Kind of an Epic Love Story also features two POC protagonists and a hard-of-hearing protagonist who uses sign language.

What I Loved: The childhood best friends-to-lovers trope may be done a lot in YA romance, but it never stops being cute. Especially in Nathan and Ollie’s case. One of the most important things about YA romance is that you can actually feel the chemistry between the love interests, and these two are one of the cutest gay couples in YA books that I’ve read. Nathan makes an awkward, but lovable pair to Ollie’s sweet, goodhearted nature. They’re not just boyfriends but also best friends, and I think the deep and meaningful friendship the characters start off with really drives heart into their story.

Also, I mentioned this briefly earlier, but I love how This is Kind of an Epic Love Story doesn’t define itself as an “LGBTQ love story” but just a love story. Nate has fallen in love with men and women, and he doesn’t seem to identify with a specific sexual orientation. It’s portrayed more as caring deeply and connecting with another human being than something that defined who they are. I enjoyed that a lot. It really felt like a novel that celebrates love in its many forms.

Quote: “Maybe the way you love changes from person to person.”

Recommended: So many lovely LGBTQ YA books released in 2018! This is Kind of an Epic Love Story is perfect for those who love romantic comedies. Not a lot of gay romance books out there are just pure, wholesome happiness. But this book is, and if you’re looking for a reason to believe in love stories again, you’ll find it in Nathan and Ollie.

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

Twitter, Job Searching, and Other Mini Life Updates

Hello, friends! When I posted that The Inexplicable Logic of My Life review yesterday, it occurred to me that I hadn’t posted a personal update in a while. So much has changed since graduating college in August that I think writing everything would devolve into a mess of rambles and exclamation points, so here are a few things going on right now in a neat bullet list form:

  • I got a Twitter—this time for real! It’s @andyjwinder, if you’re interested. Twitter is something I tried a few times in the past but I’ve heard it’s great for networking in the YA publishing world and memes, so I’m giving it another go. I’m still trying to get the hang of it but would love to connect with more awesome, literary (or meme-y) people!
  • All of the time I used to spend studying is now devoted to applying and interviewing for jobs. I never thought I’d find something more exciting and anxiety-provoking than walking to the testing center during finals week, but here we are. I just keep telling myself “this is why I got my bachelor in English, this is what I’ve been training for, it’ll be alright” and so on. And then I cry a little, just on the inside. But so far, so good and I’m feeling pretty optimistic!
  • During my last semester of college, I took a break from long-term creative writing projects to finish my senior thesis but am getting back into the swing of things and working on a new novel draft! It’s still very rough but it’s YA and features (among other things) baking competitions, a character named Rose who is a lot less delicate than her namesake, and a nice queer romance. Going for that “wholesome and uplifting” feel to counterbalance all the sad (but still beautiful) queer YA out there.
  • Last year at Pride, I wanted more than anything to have someone to share my life with and wondered if I was broken because I’d never had a partner or even a first kiss before. And this past week, I got to attend Provo Pride with my boyfriend. It’s funny how different life can become in a year. I feel lucky to know and spend time with someone as silly, thoughtful, and sweet as he is and happy that we found each other.
  • And, best for last, I finally found the music that really sparks my drive while writing fiction, and it’s folk music. On a related note, I have been listening to way too much Hozier lately.

That’s a little bit about what my life’s looking at right now. Hectic, sometimes a little less clear-cut than my life in university used to be, but overall bright!

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

Over Raging Tides Review and Q&A with Jennifer Ellision

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Title: Over Raging Tides

Author: Jennifer Ellision

Release date: March 20, 2018 (Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC of this book in exchange for a fair review)

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Grace Porter, quartermaster to the all-female pirate crew aboard the Lady Luck, enlists the help of a young nobleman named Leo to destroy the Mogdris, malicious sea monsters who stole her mother. As Grace and Leo use the omniscient Map of Omna to find and kill the Mogdris, she must choose where her loyalty lies—with her kin or her crew.


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What I loved: As soon as I saw the description for Over Raging Tides, I was pumped to read it. An all-female crew of pirates? Is there anything more deserving of the word “BAMF” than that? There absolutely is not. It’s one of those things that you didn’t know that you needed in your life but you absolutely do. Grace Porter and the crew of the Lady Luck feel as though they stepped out of a sea shanty. They’re dynamic and larger-than-life in a way that every good pirate character is. Yet they also feel believable enough to empathize with, particularly the conflicted Grace as she struggles to resolve her tragic past at the potential cost of betrayal.

I also enjoyed the dialogue in this book. Good dialogue is pretty tough to pull off, especially for pirates, without sounding gimmicky. With pirates, you’ve got to balance the sharp wit and colorful slang with authentic-sounding phrasing. Over Raging Tides has got wit in droves. Sometimes the wit is humorous and sometimes it’s biting, but it’s always well-crafted. The dialogue drives the plot swiftly and feels as though it was pulled from an eighteenth-century ship log. It helps ground the reader in Grace and the Lady Luck‘s world without feeling too forced.

Without giving anything away, I will say that I appreciated the ending. It stops at a satisfying point while setting up a compelling story for when the series picks up again. As with many firsts in a series, it was a tad abrupt but I have faith that any unanswered questions will be pursued in the next book, Through Fathoms Dark and Deep.

Quote: “From the ship’s articles of the Lady Luckshe who attempts a mutiny will have her throat slit and be tossed overboard for the sea to feed upon. Unless, of course, she succeeds.”

Recommended: Oh, boy. This book is packed with so many good things—pirates, magic, sea monsters, sharp wit, and maybe even a little romance. If you, too, grew up in love with the Pirates of the Caribbean series but wished its female characters were more complex, you’ll love Over Raging Tides!

Next week: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson


Q&A with the Author, Jennifer Ellision


Jennifer Ellision is the author of the YA fantasy series Threats of Sea and Sky and the New Adult contemporary novel Now and Again. Over Raging Tides is the first book in her YA fantasy series, Lady Pirates. Check out her website to read her blog, discover upcoming release dates, and sign up for her newsletter!

1) Over Raging Tides is the story of an all-female pirate crew who sail the Lady Luck. How did you get interested in pirate history, and what inspired you to write about an all-female ship?

I confess, a large part of my interest in pirate history came about because I was inspired to write this book. While I’d already had a scene jump into my head that sparked the idea for the book, the idea didn’t come to create an all-female crew until I was rewatching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl one day. It struck me that Keira Knightley was the only central female character in that movie. I resolved to make a pirate story where there were plenty of women around.

2) Were you inspired by any (in)famous female pirates in history while writing Over Raging Tides? If so, which ones?

I was! In fact, my main character, Grace, is named after Grace O’Malley, the Irish “Pirate Queen.” If you keep an eye out in the novel, you may notice some minor characters named for a couple of other well-known lady pirates.

In my research, I also came across other, less well-known pirate women, some of whom have got me toying with the idea of extending the series past Grace’s duology… but that’s a story for another time.

3) What was the researching process like for this book? How did you include historical accuracy and the logistics of seafaring while retaining the novel’s adventitious, action-packed style?

The beauty of writing fantasy is that I had a little bit of flexibility because Over Raging Tides is set in a fictional world. However, I knew that I wanted it to feel like it could be real.

I spent a lot of time examining the layouts of different types of sailing vessels and familiarizing myself with different deck and mast names. I also read up a lot on the different roles of sailors and pirates on board ships during the “Golden Age of Piracy.” Likewise, I read about the democratic systems of pirate ships. (Did you know they functioned as early democracies? Because I didn’t.)

Research I did that didn’t wind up panning out (in this book at least) was making a point during my trip to London to visit The Royal Observatory; better known as the location of the Prime Meridian, where there is a museum documenting the history of maritime navigation (early drafts of Over Raging Tides included this element, but it didn’t ultimately make sense for the story). I also read a book documenting real pirate trials.

For lady pirates, in particular, I have a nice little stack of books devoted to the non-fiction subject of female pirates.

As for keeping the novel moving while including these elements, I think of much of the logistics as a backdrop. It’s important that they’re there to lend atmosphere to the story and make it engrossing, but I prefer to keep the story pace tight with setting details woven in.

4) This book is full of strong, powerful female characters. Who were your favorite fictional heroines growing up?

Oh, I love this question! So, first of all, I have to say Sailor Moon. I cut my writing teeth on Sailor Moon fanfiction. I’m a huge Sailor Moon fangirl to this day and think that a big reason incorporating female friendships into all of my novels comes from growing up with the Sailor Senshi as an example. Secondly, Tamora Pierce’s Alanna and Daine were heroines whose stories I reread again and again. I loved the fantasy world she created, with girls who got to save the day.

Thank you for having me!

Thanks so much, Jennifer Ellision, for your time and your thoughtful answers—it was a pleasure and an honor! Over Raging Tides made my heart happy from start to finish. If you want a story that speaks to your adventurous side, you can order it online or read it for free through Kindle Unlimited!

YA Review: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

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Title: A Study in Charlotte

Author:  Brittany Cavallaro

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes, descendants of the legendary Holmes and Watson, are framed for a murder of their fellow classmate, they must rely on each other’s wit and intuition to solve this case. But as their time runs out, they find that their ancestors’ footsteps are hard shoes to fill.

What I loved: Although there are tons of modern-day Sherlock Holmes novels out there, it’s hard to find a really compelling one. I think that’s not necessarily because the authors behind them don’t write good stories but because they’re taking on quite the mantle. A Study in Charlotte is one of the good ones, though. What I think the book does right is not making itself a retelling of the Holmes and Watson stories so much as a continuation. Charotte Holmes is not Sherlock, nor is Jamie Dr. Watson, but they have a similar heart and mind dynamic going on as they work to clear their names. This helped them develop into their own personalities and throw a strong nod to the original characters without constantly living in their shadows.

This book’s a quick read in a really good way. It’s got its gritty moments, sure, but A Study in Charlotte doesn’t take itself or its source material too seriously and has just as much humor as it does intensity. It’s just… fun. A little dark but overall, plenty of fun to read.

Quote: “I wanted the two of us to be complicated together, to be difficult and engrossing and blindingly brilliant.”

Recommended: I started my freshman year of high school right when the second season of BBC Sherlock came out and have been enamored with it ever since. If you love that series, this book will absolutely delight you. It has a similar feel but with just enough difference in their interpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters to make A Study in Charlotte stand out. And, considering that this is the first book in a series, you’ll probably get to read plenty more books in the Jamie and Charlotte universe before BBC Sherlock season five comes out! Which is one of those things that you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry about but, point being, this is a great read.

Next: Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

YA Review: Love Letters to the Dead

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Title: Love Letters to the Dead

Author: Ava Dellaira

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

YA Review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

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Title: Highly Illogical Behavior

Author: John Corey Whaley

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Sixteen-year old Solomon developed agoraphobia after experiencing panic attacks every time he left the house, so eventually he just stopped leaving. His former high school peer Lisa befriends him to cure his anxiety and slowly learns that relationships involve more than just “fixing” people.

What I loved: Most of all, I loved the characters. The more you get into this book, the more these characters’ depths unfold. They’re more than just stock-character high school students, and they can’t really be pinned down to any of their labels. This is especially important in that (without spoiling anything), one of the characters identifies as gay. While their coming out is a strong focus of the story, Whaley doesn’t give the character any of the internalized guilt or non-accepting peers often found in YA novels.

Those stories are important to be told, too, but they are told often. This character’s journey was a lot more nuanced. They feared coming out because they feared changing family dynamics and also hesitated because they never thought their sexual orientation was important to share. But they learn that their identity does matter. Their sexual orientation matters. Their relationships matter. They inherently matter and, though they don’t often believe it, they belong.

There are some dark and painful-to-read parts in this book, I’m not gonna sugar coat it, but the author balances those moments well with plenty of humor and truly happy moments. Overall, a quirky, heartwarming book on how a friendship can change both people for the better.

Quote: “We’re just floating in space trying to figure out what it means to be human.”

Recommended: Especially for Trekkies or sci-fi fans in general. They’ll especially enjoy the references in this one (and there are tons, my friends… it’s glorious). But this is also an honest and beautiful look at anxiety recovery.

Plenty of mental health YA books I’ve read don’t have happy moments. This one really pulls on all emotions: happiness, sorrow, panic, hope, love. The works. Whether you yourself struggle with anxiety or you want to understand what it’s like for those who do, this is a great and lighthearted book with surprising depth.

Next: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

YA Review: One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi

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Title: One Half from the East

Author: Nadia Hashimi

Rating: 3.5/5

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

YA Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

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Title: My Heart and Other Black Holes

Author: Jasmine Warga

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: High school students Aysel and Roman lose hope in life following separate family tragedies and plan to end their lives together on April 7th. But as their friendship begins to heal Aysel’s broken heart, she must find a way to convince Roman that life is still worth living.

What I loved: This book deals with loss and guilt that, though often painful to read, really delves into how isolating grief can feel. Aysel hates her father for committing horrible crimes, but she also still cares about and misses him. And she fears herself for missing him because she worries she’ll become like him. Roman blames himself for an accident that ultimately wasn’t his fault, but he can’t bear to live with himself without all his family lost.

Yet, even though these emotions are almost too much to bear, Warga also shows that through opening yourself to another person (along with seeking help), it’s possible to heal. Life doesn’t automatically become bright again once the Roman and Aysel have each other, but the love they receive from each other gives them hope that maybe they’re not the monsters their inner demons say they are. They also start to believe that, even though life hurts so much, they can still find happiness.

Quote: “But maybe meeting Roman has helped me to understand myself better. Yes, I’m broken. And yes, he’s broken. But the more we talk about it, the more we share our sadness, the more I start to believe that there could be a chance to fix us, a chance that we could save each other.

“Everything used to seem so final, inevitable, predestined. But now I’m starting to believe that life may have more surprises in store than I ever realized. Maybe it’s all relative, not just light and time like Einstein theorized, but everything. Like life can seem awful and unfixable until the universe shifts a little and the observation point is altered, and then suddenly, everything seems more bearable.”

Recommended: Yes! In my opinion, this was an honest portrayal of depression but also a hopeful one. Aysel and Roman’s path to overcoming depression has ups and downs, but their friendship gives them strength in dark times. I think, though, that it could be triggering for people who currently struggle with suicidal thoughts. It can get pretty vivid.

Next: One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi