Stephanie Kate Strohm, May 2012. Teenage Libby is off to intern at a living-history museum, Camden Harbor, where it’s always 1791. The usual summer-camp shenanigans ensue: her roommate hates her, she’s denied her cell phone (since they won’t be invented for another 200 years), there’s been a series of mysterious ghost sightings, and she’s got a huge crush on the wrong cute boy. The gay character is her BFF Dev, who’s in New York interning for a fashion magazine. Dev doesn’t play a huge role in the book, though he does show up at the end to save the day as only he can. This light summer read won’t change any lives, but it’s a good choice to read on a chaise lounge whilst sipping lemonade.
Malinda Lo, September 2012. Lo’s third novel and first foray into book-length science fiction is set in 2014 America, where teenage Reese and David get into a car accident and wake up 27 days later in a classified military hospital. The doctors won’t let them walk outside and won’t tell them where they are; in fact, when they’ve recovered and fly back to their families, the airplane windows are blacked out so they can’t see what they’re leaving.
Things at home aren’t much closer to normal. The day of the car accident, there were also dozens of plane crashes, apparently caused by birds. Cities have strict curfews and the government is killing all the geese and pigeons. Reese is still trying to figure out what’s going on when she runs into (literally) a beautiful girl named Amber Gray. Although it wasn’t something Reese had ever considered before, she ends up falling hard for Amber, making out with her whenever she gets the chance and forgetting about her former crush David…
…except when she just has to consult him about some strange symptoms she’s had since they left the secret facility. Why does her head pound suddenly for no reason? Why is she dreaming about a yellow room with red lines down the walls? Why do her cuts and scrapes heal eerily fast? Is David experiencing the same thing or is something wrong with her? Is this related to the birds, or could it be….aliens?
I loved Lo’s Ash and loved, loved, loved Huntress, so the bar was set pretty high for Adaptation. While “love” isn’t a word I’d use, I liked it a lot and would recommend it to those more into SF than am I (note this is the only SF title I’ve ever reviewed here). The gay content is, as usual for Lo, handled beautifully. Reese had a crush on David, then she has a crush on Amber, and in the end….well, I won’t say. Her best friend is gay too, and that’s not a major plot point, as it shouldn’t be. Overall, the story is fast-paced with characters you’ll root for, and it kept me engaged the whole way through a cross-country move. I’ll be eager to read the planned sequel. Recommended.
E.M. Kokie, September 2012. Matt’s a pretty unhappy kid. His beloved big brother T.J. died in Iraq; he’s in unrequited love with his best friend Shauna; his dad is distant at best and violent at worst; and he’s failing out of school. Then his brother’s personal effects come in from the military, and Matt discovers a treasure trove of love letters to T.J. from a woman named Celia, whom he hadn’t known existed. There’s even an unopened, unsent letter from T.J. to Celia, and Matt makes it his mission to drive Shauna’s car hundreds of miles to Madison, Wisconsin, to meet Celia and deliver the letter.
When Matt arrives in Madison, he’s shocked to learn that while Celia put her return address on the letters in order to skirt Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, T.J.’s real lover was her brother Curtis. Matt finds this impossible to handle at first, but quickly is won over by Curtis, Celia, and their love for T.J., and delivers the letters as planned. Then he realizes Shauna’s been into him all along, and he stands up to his dad. Sure, it wraps up a little neatly, but it feels like a triumph because the reader is rooting for Matt all along. Great, fast-paced read, and the gay content is handled elegantly. Highly recommended.
Tom Ryan, April 2012. It’s the summer of 1994 and Danny’s got problems: his dad works in distant oil fields and comes home only to nag him about college; he’s not sure what he wants to do after high school; and, most importantly, he’s gay and trying to hide it from his two best friends. But everything changes when he gets a summer job at a restaurant. Danny falls for a girl, of all people – a fun, zany girl from New York who makes mix tapes and seems way too cool for Danny’s small town. He doesn’t hook up with Lisa, but the restaurant job becomes life-changing nevertheless: he decides he’d like to be a chef, and with the support of his new friends, he’s able to come out of the closet.
This is a typical coming-out, coming-of-age story, but it’s told sweetly, and readers will root for Danny. Recommended especially for fans of Sarah Dessen.
Molly Beth Griffin, September 2012. Garnet is sixteen years old in 1926 and plans to live the life her mother wants for her: she’ll graduate high school in a year and then marry her boyfriend and become a happy homemaker near her family in Minneapolis. The shadow over her life is her dad’s PTSD, earned during World War I. But when she’s sent to the resort town of Excelsior, Minnesota, for the summer to escape the polio epidemic, everything changes.
In Excelsior, Garnet stays with a distant relative, the haughty Mrs. Harrington, and her quiet, stuck-up teenage daughter Hannah. She longs to visit the brand-new amusement park or even the local dance hall, but the latter is strictly out of the question while the former can be enjoyed only under close supervision. Yearning to do something other than sit around on the patio sewing and gossiping with the Harringtons, Garnet gets her first job, in a hat shop, and that’s where she meets Isabella.
Isabella is a flapper and a dance-hall queen and a runaway, beautiful and mysterious and exotic. Garnet had no idea she might like girls, but her relationship with Isabella quickly turns physical, and provides the perfect escape from her troubles. Soon there is bad news from Minneapolis; her dad has left the family and her mom is coming to get her. Worse, Mom wants Garnet to drop out of high school and get a job to support her – or else get married right away so that the family has income.
I loved this sweet, sexy, feminist coming-of-age tale. The plot is quiet but moves swiftly, and even secondary characters are well-drawn and have their own subplots, e.g. Hannah can’t read very well, and the hat-shop owner uses feathers in her wares until Garnet shows her the environmentalist light. Okay, that part was a little heavy-handed. But overall the book was excellent.
I’m worried, though, about getting teens to pick it up. Historical fiction can be a tough sell to begin with, and when you add in the birdiness of the title and the brown and gray cover – which I personally think is pretty, but I’m thirty-six – well, I worry.
Amy Reed, June 2012. Connor is just a regular kid who gets along with his mom, dates girls about whom he has conflicting feelings, and befriends the zany Izzy at summer camp. Izzy refuses to talk on the phone, so when summer’s over the two of them are reduced to emails, and this is how their story is relayed to the reader. Putting aside how well-crafted the emails are, and how perfect the teens’ grammar and spelling is, their content is realistic and compelling. At first, Connor tries for a two-way conversation, but Izzy keeps yelling at him and ignoring his questions, and her emails eventually disintegrate into either bully pulpits for her views on life, as she maniacally writes down everything she’s trying to feel all at once, or cries for help as she descends into crippling depressions that last for weeks. Sometimes Connor can’t reach her at all and he worries but there’s not much he can do without her phone number.
Connor is the kind of quietly cool yet geeky kid that makes me want to make this book into a movie and cast Cameron from The Glee Project as the male lead. It was harder to get a good read on Izzy outside of the heartbreaking seesaw of her moods, but Connor is a Good Guy who eventually is able to contact her parents even though he knows Izzy might never speak to him again. I was terrified Izzy was going to die in the end, and I won’t tell you whether she does or not, but the degree to which I cared demonstrates how good Reed is at getting inside a character’s head. Highly recommended.
It’s also highly gay, considering that both leads are straight. Connor’s sister is a partnered lesbian having a baby. Connor makes out with a male friend just to give it a whirl. Izzy is straight but she wants to sleep with Pink. Connor’s girlfriend breaks up with him when she decides she’s gay. All of this is presented straightforwardly, just like the rest of the story, not problematized or stigmatized even within the book’s world. Yay.
Steve Berman, ed., May 2012. This is another uneven collection of short stories from Bold Strokes, this one focusing on summer romances between young men. The standout story here is Alex Jeffers’s “Wheat, Barley, Lettuce, Fennel, Salt for Sorrow, Blood for Joy,” which features a boy on a boat trip with his parents who falls in love with a sailor; a mysterious herb garden; and dreams based on ancient Anatolian myths add texture to this tale of a summer crush. Also strong is L. Lark’s summer-camp story, “Breakwater in the Summer Dark,” in which the discovery of a sea monster parallels the emotions of a budding romance. Rounding out the top three is Aimee Payne’s “Summer’s Last Stand,” in which a boy going off to college and happy to escape his bratty sister learns how much he means to her when they’re confronted by violent homophobes at a party.
Unfortunately, the other contributions aren’t as strong. ‘Nathan Burgoine’s “Leap” has problems with expository dialogue. Marguerite Croft and Christopher Reynaga’s “Brass” is more of a vignette than a fully-plotted story. Sam Cameron’s “Bark If You Like Boys” tries to cram too much into its 24 pages. Steve Berman’s own “Most Likely” introduces the concept of a haunted yearbook but fails to follow through on that and other plot threads; Anne Zeddies’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Swamp Thing” feels similarly unfinished. Shawn Syms’s “Get Brenda Foxworthy” and Dia Pannes’s “Cave Canem” feature gratuitious, violent drama and then cop out with sweet romantic endings. Recommended only where short-story collections are popular and there is high demand for queer YA fiction.
Paul Yee, September 2011. Ray is a privileged Chinese-Canadian teen who struggles to hide his homosexuality from his family and friends. When his traditional, authoritarian dad checks his browser history and then throws him out of the house, Ray spends five days on the street, learning what it’s like to be unsure where his next meal is coming from and where he’ll sleep that night. He hears about a street corner where boys his age sell their bodies for easy money, and grows desperate enough – both for money and to lose his virginity – to give it a try himself.
The book ends too neatly; Ray’s father comes to find him on the streets and tells him his dying grandfather is flying in from China that evening, and won’t Ray come to see him? Ray acquiesces, and ends up coming out to his family, and the grandfather is shockingly blasé and accepting. It’s also incredibly lucky that Ray’s first couple of johns are supportive and nurturing. Still, the unique voice (very rarely are YA novels narrated by ESL speakers) and the adventure story will make this appealing for many teens.
Julie Anne Peters, April 2012. Man, for YEARS now I have really wanted to like a Julie Anne Peters book. I mean, she’s a mainstream Big Six writer of teen lesbian and trans fiction. She’s like the David Levithan of dykes – except that Levithan’s a brilliant writer and Peters, well, isn’t.
But this book is different. It’s narrated by two kids, Luke and Azure, who are determined to make this year’s prom an alternative that everyone can enjoy. Luke’s bi and Azure’s gay, so of course they want a prom without gender restrictions, but they go further than that – they want it cheap enough for everyone to afford, no formalwear required, Wii tournaments, free drugs, a tattoo parlor, and a drag show? Kids these days. But as they work out compromises among what they want, what the senior class wants, what’s allowed by school authorities, and what they can afford, they learn about teamwork and transcending their cliques in some nice and non-clichéd ways.
Subplots abound: Azure and Luke both have crushes on Radhika, their third bestie. Azure’s ex is haunting the edges of her life and it’s making her sad and wistful. Luke’s brother, who owns a limo company, is a jerk and is also in charge of him while their parents are abroad….and I totally did not see the resolution of this one coming.
The book is not perfect. It’s too long, and the romance bit with Azure and her ex is stupid, and I never did get a handle on Radhika. And I’m not sure why Ms. Peters’s editor didn’t correct her repeated references to “a monkey survey” (maybe in the finished version). Still: realistic characters with reasonable motivations, and no one dies in the end. Yay!
Charles Rice-González, October 2011. Chulito is a small-time drug runner and high-school dropout with a secret: he’s crushing hard on Carlos. Carlos and Chulito were childhood besties, but Carlos skipped two grades, stopped dressing and talking street, went off to college, and came out of the closet. Now Chulito’s buddies on the corner harass Carlos whenever they see him, and the two certainly can’t be seen together….and yet Chulito can’t stop thinking about Carlos.
Despite the street-culture background, the book is filled with queer people – the neighborhood drag queen hangs out her window begging passersby for drugs and popsicles. The Korean kid who works at his family’s Chinese restaurant wants Chulito to fix him up with any male friends who like Asian boys. The travel agency down the street is run by Julio, an older gay man who serves as the story’s moral center and voice of reason.
Like Street Dreams, Chulito makes the coming-out problem novel relevant again. I’ve read a bunch of stories in which a young man comes out into a macho culture, but each of those (Street Dreams excepted) describes a boy who’s always felt different, who’s not into the violence and exclusion of his peers, and that’s part of how he knows he’s gay. Chulito is different. He’s a thug, he sells drugs by choice, he enjoys killing time on the corner passing around a bottle of Hennessey, he loves wearing baggy pants and baseball caps and looking tough. He doesn’t want to change any of that – he just has a huge crush on a sexy college boy whose boldness he envies and respects: “[Chulito] loved how Carlos matter of factly said he dug him. That was up front and gangsta.”
At the end of the book, Chulito comes out to his boss Kamikaze, whose support and continued love means a lot to him and strengthens his resolve to come out to his other friends. When he does, violence results, but all it really does is separate the homophobes from the true friends who can deal with Chulito’s new relationship. Kamikaze isn’t as happy for Chulito when he announces his decision to leave the drug-dealing game; Kaz pulls a gun on Chulito in a dramatic scene, but continues to have his back in the end.
The book is a page-turner, tautly written with dialogue and details that carefully build a world many readers will never experience in real life. My only quibble is that it could have used better editing. A big publishing house would have the editorial talent to correct some pretty serious structural flaws, like a few shifts in perspective which seem to unintentionally switch the POV to Carlos’s. Maybe that’s been cleaned up in the final version, since what I read was an ARC. Nevertheless, highly recommended.