Monthly Archives: June 2016

Further LGBT YA reading

For Pride month I did my best to read as much LGBT YA literature as possible, but feel that I barely scratched the surface. So I thought of posting a few more that still await me on my TBR! The titles are linked to their Goodreads page, if you are interested.

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo.

Jerkbait by Mia Siegert.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki.

Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews.

True Letters from a Fictional Life by Kenneth Logan.

You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour & David Levithan

(You) Set Me on Fire by Mariko Tamaki.

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson.

This is by no means an exhaustive list (obviously) of what is available.  Please feel free to give me recommendations.

Freakboy

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Possibly one of the most powerful books that I have read in a very long time. That it is written in verse just adds to its impact. Lyrical, beautiful, heartbreaking, poetic. Have a box of tissues handy.

Brendan Chase has it all: he is doing well in his senior year of school, hopes to go to the University of Chicago in the fall, is a star on the school wrestling team, has a good circle of friends and an athletic and beautiful girlfriend. But it feels wrong. Sometimes he feels like he fits in perfectly, sometimes he feels that he would be much happier if he had long smooth hair, soft skin and breasts.

Multiple POVs can be difficult to pull off successfully, but author Kristin Elizabeth Clark does it. She deftly gets into each of the teens’ heads and projects their voices wonderfully, often examining the same situation from the three very different viewpoints, while providing them each with a perfectly developed voice and unique storyline.

While Brendan is the main character, both Vanessa and Angel are given enough voice that they balance him out perfectly. Brendan is struggling to understand his sexual identity, Angel fights her inner demons, and Vanessa, who at first glance seems to be the most settled of the three, questions her own identity and what her relationship with Brendan ultimately means. 

Brendan is a fantastic character, authentic, intense, questioning, and understandably extremely self-absorbed.  His discovery of his transgender identity is realistic, and one I have not yet seen in LGBT YA literature. He loves his girlfriend, loves the feeling sex with her gives him, yet sometimes feels best when sitting alone in his room, dressed in woman’s clothing. I love that Clark doesn’t pin a stereotype on Brendan, but shows that the trans experience is as varied and dynamic as the straight.

Brendan doesn’t get the chance to figure it all out and accept himself before his best friend discovers his secret and outs him to the school. The consequences are horrible, with bullying and lost friends and a split with Vanessa and suicidal thoughts the result. Heartbreaking.

Vanessa questions her own identity throughout the novel. She is tall and athletic and wrestles on the team with Brendan, as the only girl. She is harassed and called a dyke and after she finds out about Brendan, she questions what it means for her own identity, that she could love a boy who sometimes believes he is supposed to be a girl.

Angel is a bit older than the two teens, and confident in her identity.  That doesn’t mean she doesn’t struggle; her father beat her and sent her away, no son of his would dress that way. It took her a number of years to find a place where she could be accepted and acknowledged for herself, and to find a group of friends with whom she was completely comfortable being herself. Her influence on Brendan is steady and supportive, even as she questions her own motives.

And the COVER. The cover is spectacular. It perfectly mirrors the turmoil and inner demons that all three characters face.

The ending is open and without a clear conclusion, something I am discovering in quite a few of the novels that I have read on the trans experience. And each time I find them to be perfect. Yes, I would love these teens to find their happily-ever-after, and hope they do in the future. But life rarely wraps up so neatly and quickly when you don’t have hurdles to jump, and I appreciate that the authors are making these stories so true to life.

If you want to read another (really good and much more coherent) review of this book, pop on over and visit Beth at betwixt-the-pages. Not only does she write fabulous reviews, she is also the princess of all thing penguin.

Again, another wonderfully unique story about the trans experience that is appropriate for the entire YA age range, and should be read by anyone who needs to learn more. I couldn’t put it down.

Freakboy was published October 22nd, 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR).

 

Annie on My Mind

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I had an incredibly difficult time writing a review for Annie on My Mind. And not for any negative reason – it is unbelievable. All I can think to write is “READ THIS!” Not only did I not feed my children last night, I didn’t even phone for pizza. I threw them $$ and told them to take care of it themselves if they wanted dinner. (Damn kids didn’t save me any.)

17-year-old Eliza meets Annie during an afternoon visit to the Museum. Annie is singing in an empty room, and Liza is spellbound. And a friendship starts. Which slowly and carefully blossoms into love.

Liza attends a private high school in New York City, while Annie goes to a rough public school across town.  They are both driven in their respective fields: Liza wants to study architecture at MIT, and Annie wants to study music in California. But they have much more in common than not, and their differences add to their friendship, not diminish it.

First published in 1982, this novel was written during a time when homosexuality was hidden and forbidden and something of which to be ashamed. I was just a teen starting high school then, but remember well the atmosphere surrounding the gay community. It was not, for the most part, welcoming or supportive.

This is one of the best, most powerful novels I’ve read in ages. Not just as an example of LGBT literature, but as a YA novel as well. Nancy Garden writes such a beautiful novel of acceptance and love and growth and coming-of-age that it will resonate with anyone. I love how she looks at the connection between the girls, and how not only does the society in which they live affect their relationship, but also that she takes a good look at Liza and how she comes to terms with herself. Annie is more open to the idea of falling in love with another woman, while Liza struggles more with what that means, even as she recognizes her passion for Annie.

The characters throughout the novel are incredibly true to life. I absolutely adore Liza’s parents; their acceptance of their daughter’s sexuality is touching and heart wrenching. Their love, even as they try to come to terms with this new information, strikes such an authentic chord, and one you wish every teen coming out could face.

The teachers who accept Liza and Annie, and the ones that don’t, are all familiar and well drawn. Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer are just plain perfect. And Liza’s fellow students strike the right balance; some who turn away in disgust, some who are curious, while others could care less.

But it is the authenticity of the relationship that makes this book incredible. Whether lesbian, gay, straight, bi, trans, everyone can relate to the feelings and emotions of the two girls.

Annie on My Mind is an absolute page-turner. Once I started it, it was impossible to put down, and I read it through from start to finish in one sitting, laughing one moment and crying the next, then cringing in sympathy, and back to laughter. I was on the edge of my seat the entire book, and could not turn the pages quickly enough. And I loved the ending.

Nancy Garden’s interview at the end of the book is a must-read. She is breathtaking.

Everyone needs to read this book.

Annie on My Mind was published 1992 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (first published 1982).

If You Could Be Mine

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Homosexuality and transgender. In Iran, one of these is illegal and punishable by beating, imprisonment, even death. The other is considered a medical condition, and can be corrected, legally and openly.

17-year-old Sahar dreams of being a doctor, and her best friend Nasrin dreams of marriage and wealth. One day, Nasrin’s parents announce that they have arranged her marriage to a kind and decent young doctor and Sahar’s heart stops.

When she was 6 years old, Sahar told her mother that she wanted to marry her best friend. Her mother told her to never speak of it again. The two girls have been in love for 11 long years of sharing stolen moments and secret touches and shy glances. But their relationship is illegal. And now their love may have to end, and Sahar can’t live with that.

Nasrin tries to believe that they can still carry on, but Sahar doesn’t want to share her with anyone. She wants to stop the marriage, end the secrecy. And she could. But only if she were a man.

So much happening in this novel. I had NO idea.

Sexual reassignment surgery is considered acceptable and also partially paid for by the Iranian government because there is nothing in the Koran that says it is sinful. A man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa) is to be pitied and helped, not scorned. Which is, obviously, for transgendered people, good. But that’s not to say it is an easy life for any of them; many are still abandoned and rejected by family and friends. And what it can lend itself to, on top of that, is some homosexuals having the surgery in order to avoid persecution. Which has to be as bad as the alternative.

This is the basis upon which this story is built.

Sahar sees only the possibility of a life with Nasrin but does not understand the cost. This naiveté is realistic, she does not live in a society where these important issues are discussed openly, especially with women, from what I understand. The fact that she first of all sees this as an alternative to her current predicament, believes that sex reassignment can happen quickly enough to stop the wedding, and never even discusses her idea with Nasrin serves to highlight not only her ignorance about what it means to be transgendered but also illustrates the oppressive life she already leads.

Both Nasrin and Sahar are difficult characters for me to like, even as I sympathize with their predicament. It is not a healthy relationship they share; hidden homosexuality aside, the balance of power is all with Nasrin and her beauty and charm, while Sahar is a shadow. Nasrin thinks of herself, how Sahar can make her happy, and Sahar thinks the same. Nasrin’s feelings are important, Sahar’s can be pushed aside. Her desire for Nasrin, the very depth of her love, never feels completely expressed or shared.

Ali is a fantastic example of a gay man living on the edge in Iran. He has a certain forced joie de vivre but recognizes the danger he lives in every step of the way. Author Sara Farizan has written a man that is in complete control, as much as he can be, who shows his personal side to very few, while living on the edge of terror.

Other family members such as Sahar’s father and Nasrin’s parents perfectly move the story along and offer insight into the conflict the girls and their families face.

Farizan offered a peek into the discussion of the trans experience in Iran, but I think missed the opportunity to go deeper. The support group had everyone from a family sanctioned post-op woman to a bitter, suicidal one who had the operation in order to fit in, but the conversation only ever touched the surface. But what a surface it disturbed.

While the pacing of the story was good overall, the ending felt a bit rushed with a convenient if not a happy conclusion to all of Sahar’s problems. While I wish it had been more complete, I’m not sure how else the story could end, unless tragically.

Finally, I couldn’t put this novel down. My heart broke for the two girls and the lie they were forced to live. It is a fascinating look into a hidden world that I had never even thought about. It is appropriate for everyone.

If You Could Be Mine was published August 20th, 2013 by Algonquin Young Readers.

Ash

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A good re-telling honours the original, while adding something new and unexpected. Enter Ash, a light new look at Cinderella, with an LGBT twist.

Ash just lost her mother, a greenwitch in a kingdom that no longer believes in magic. Her father tries to comfort Ash and thinks a new mother will help. He remarries Lady Isobel then mysteriously falls ill and dies, leaving Ash to the mercy of her stepmother. Lady Isobel moves the family back to her own estate, takes advantage of Ash’s orphaned state and puts her to work.

Ash takes solace in a book of fairy tales that was a gift from her father, reading them nightly by the warm kitchen hearth. She dreams of the day that fairies will take her away, hoping the stories are more than just tales told to children. And they are real. Sidhean, an old and powerful fairy, stakes a claim for Ash, watches out for her and protects her.

On a day in the woods, escaping her stepmother for a brief period, Ash meets the King’s Huntress, Kaisa. And Ash begins to see that her heart did not die with her mother. But she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love. She must choose between Sidhean and oblivion, and Kaisa and life.

I’m a bit torn about this story. On one hand, what a lovely new way to write Cinderella. On the other, I am not sure if the fairy tale is needed for the story.

So, the good:

Ash is a lovely character. She is romantic and heartbroken, she believes in the old ways of magic and feels her mother’s spirit around her. She cannot move on from her grief because she is unsure whether her mother is resting in peace. Sidhean becomes a powerful addiction for her, even as she becomes the same for him. He can offer her oblivion and maybe a chance to reunite with her mother.

Kaisa represents something more powerful than death. She is love and all the joy and agony that goes with it. She is kindhearted and compassionate and patient and recognizes Ash’s need to come to terms with her feelings more slowly.

The relationship between the two girls is natural and heartwarming. The initial meeting, the casual time spent getting to know one another, the bond that they form even when Ash cannot put a name to it, is beautifully written. I love that two women forming a relationship is not unusual or shocking.

And the world-building is fabulous. The magic of the Woods is clear and lyrical, and author Malinda Lo paints gorgeous pictures with her prose. As Ash wanders through the pathways, the reader can see the sun playing through the trees and sparkling off the stream, hearing the silence.

The not-quite-as-good (but not bad):

The plot moves very slowly, and it took awhile to grab me. The first half of the book is a cycle of sadness and escaping into the Wood, and even though there are many plot points that emerge during this time, it isn’t until the latter half of the story that they become clear, and the pacing picks up.

Sidhean. Unfortunately, I never really care about him, or his motivations, because I don’t find his character fully developed. With the choice Ash is facing, he should be a stronger presence. On the other hand, it was nice that his near invisibility gave more importance and weight to Kaisa and Ash’s relationship, even as I wondered who she would choose.

Speaking of irrelevant. The Prince. This is where the Cinderella story as a basis for the novel stumbles. He didn’t add to the story at all. Ash is never choosing between the Huntress and the Prince – she is oblivious to him. The masque ball at the end of the book feels a bit tacked on, as if to make the story fit better.

A few other factors make the Cinderella story feel a bit forced in places. Ash is in tune with the magic of the Woods and manages to find her way home through them in less than a day – a trip that took her a week on the road with her stepmother. And Sidhean finds her and takes her back to her stepmother’s house. But she was raised and loved in her Village – someone would have sheltered her, and she could have escaped her drudgery. So in order for Cinderella to work, Ash must return. But doing so didn’t really fit with her personality.

So. While I have listed a number of elements that don’t work for me in the story, I also cannot praise the book enough. My criticisms aside, it is a beautifully written debut novel, with lyrical prose and wonderful imagery. And I love that Ash does not rely on a prince for her happiness, but finds it herself, and shares it with a woman. It is a hard book to put down.

Ash was published September 1st, 2009 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

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17-year-old Gabe is passionate about music and wants nothing more than to host a radio show and talk about music and play his tunes and share his obsession with everyone. He hosts an hour-long midnight show on the local radio station once a week and finds obscure themes for his offerings. He soon has a small but loyal following.

His story is, for all intents and purposes, a typical YA coming-of-age novel: finding his way, wondering about girls, figuring out what comes next after high school. Except Gabe was born Elizabeth.

This is a tough one to review. I have been struggling to put my thoughts into words for a few days; while the execution comes up a bit short, the story is captivating.

Gabe is a great character, comfortable in his knowledge that he is male, but conversely, he expects everyone else to have trouble with it. He feels almost as if he has failed, and doesn’t deserve to be happy or protected, or accepted for who he is. He hides his true self from all but a chosen few, and can’t wait to leave his town so he stops worrying about being outed.

While the transsexual storyline is at the heart of the book, it is the relationships that stand out and really make the story. And while sexuality does have an impact on each one, it is interesting to see how in the end, it is not the most important factor.

John and Gabe have a wonderful relationship. Gabe is John’s musical protege, while John serves as confidant, with unconditional support and love for the boy. While I thought at first it was a bit of a grandfatherly relationship, as the story continues, you see a true friendship between the two. Having lived all his life surrounded by artists and music, John has seen it all. His only worry is that he slips up and calls Gabe Liz sometimes. His acceptance is in stark contrast to Gabe’s family and their reactions.

The relationship between Gabe and BFF Paige is as authentic and very intense. The two of them have complete trust and love for each other, even as they try to define what Gabe’s transition will mean for them. Paige loves and supports him, even as she struggles with her feelings of how to deal with the new iteration of the same person she has loved for so long. And Gabe’s feelings for Paige, and how he deals with them, are mature and tug at your heartstrings.

After Gabe is outed to them, the Ugly Children Brigade accepts Gabe and his A Side/B Side because they recognize it in themselves. And that is a great storyline. Sometimes you have to hold your breath and leap and hope for the best.

It is not all rainbows and unicorns, however. There are extreme transphobia and hate and violence, which sadly, rang all the truer after the horrific events in Orlando over the weekend.

I liked that at the end of the book, Gabe is still figuring things out. There is not a cliffhanger as such, but his life is not fully resolved. Art imitating life.

Even though the story is written in the first person, it is a bit harder to connect with him than I expected. Usually, with first-person narration, the reader feels like s/he is getting a glimpse into the narrator, hearing their thoughts, feeling their feelings. With Gabe, it is a bit like listening in on a conversation he is having with someone else.

As well, the relationship with Gabe and his family didn’t completely work. Obviously, I have no experience with this, but it seemed to go from complete denial to complete acceptance very quickly; where I picture a gradual coming-to-terms with a change of such magnitude after the initial refusal to acknowledge it, everyone seemed to abruptly turn a corner, even as they said they needed time.

But, despite the issues I had with the execution, this is a good novel. It is appropriate for the entire YA age range, and anyone who wants to know more about the trans experience.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children was published October 8th, 2012 by Flux.

I am J

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I am a woman. I was born female, and even at my most tomboy stages, I have always known that I am a girl. In fact, I never even really thought about it, I just am. And it is beyond my imagination to understand how it must feel to not have that synchronicity.

J was born Jenifer Silver. But he prayed that God would realize He had made a mistake, and one day he would wake up as a boy. It didn’t happen. In fact, as he got older it got worse: puberty hit and he began to look like a girl. No matter how he dressed or cut his hair or walked or talked, people thought he was a she. And worse, they thought he was a lesbian.

But J does not want to be called a lesbian. He isn’t. He is a boy.

After a disastrous episode with his best and only friend, he decided to stop waiting for God to help him, and help himself. Senior year at school goes on the back burner while he researches ways to change himself.

This book is diverse, in more ways than one. Not only is J a transgender boy, he is also half Puerto Rican Catholic and half Jewish. So J is not only dealing with his changes, he is also dealing with the cultural repercussions of them.

It took me a few chapters to really get absorbed into the story, and then I couldn’t put it down. When I had to stop reading (damn dinner can’t cook itself), I spent the time away from the book wondering what will happen next, what is happening in J’s life, what am I missing?

I didn’t always like J. He was an unsympathetic character for a good chunk of the story, self-centred, and to be frank, a total a**hole. While it may be understandable, and we have probably all acted out for various reasons, being in pain is not an excuse for being a jerk. And he can really be a jerk. His dismissal of the girl at the party, his treatment of Blue, all because of how he felt he should behave, how he thought a guy would act, was crap. And all because he could only think of himself and what everything meant to his life.

But I still connected with him. His struggles, his pain, his need to express himself, his need to identify himself, are feelings that are recognizable and universal, even if they are directed differently for each person.

Melissa and Chanelle and Zak are wonderful secondary characters. They each support and guide J in their own unique way. Melissa is self-centred and unable to see beyond her own conflicts, in the beginning. But her love for J is stronger than her pain, and they help each other through their very different transitions. Zak and Chanelle, as members of the trans community, offer guidance and common sense advice. And friendship.

And support for J’s change comes from some of the most unexpected places, with unexpected lessons about love and acceptance, while those you hope will support him turn their backs. It will make you cry.

Author Cris Beam does a fabulous job educating the reader on the issues and challenges faced by trans people every day, without coming across as preachy or political. She is sympathetic without ramming judgement down readers’ throats.

The Author’s Note at the end of the novel is a must-read for everyone. Although not of trans experience herself, Beam is surrounded by those who live it daily, and I think she does an incredible job of translating their experiences to the page for those of us who need more understanding.

The novel is appropriate for the mature YA reader, as it deals with themes such as self-harm.

I am J was published March 1st, 2011 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.