Posts Tagged With: queer content

Almost Perfect

by Brian Katcher

Logan is still smarting from his break-up with Brenda, his chaste girlfriend of three years who cheated on him in the backseat of a car with some random dude. His friends try to convince him to ask out someone new, but he isn’t interested–until Sage Hendricks transfers to his school. She’s cute, she’s weird, and she seems really interested, but some secret from her past is keeping her from being anything more than friends with Logan. Everyone thinks they’re together, and Logan wishes they were… until he kisses Sage and she tells him her secret: she was assigned male at birth. Logan freaks out about what this means for him, but as Sage remains part of his life, he starts to think about what it means for her and what it doesn’t have to mean for them.

I’m really happy a book like this exists (even though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, which I’ll get into later). It’s not a great book for a trans person to read, because it is so much about the ungenerous things ignorant people think when they first encounter a trans woman, but it’s a great premise for a reader who still has a lot to ponder about trans issues. Logan is a hick, and his response to Sage’s revelation is horrible, but pretty realistic. He worries that it means he’s gay, he worries that others will think it means he’s gay, he thinks Sage tricked him, he grapples with the image he has of Sage’s body. He treats her like dirt, and I wanted something better for Sage, but I appreciated the realism. Logan evolves realistically over the course of the novel, but he’s still not perfect by the end, which I liked even though I still didn’t like him. I loved Sage and I thought she was a really well-rounded character, especially for a trans character in an issues book, since they usually treat “problem characters” like Sage as props for the “normal” main character’s emotional journey.

What I absolutely hated about the book was all the racism. Some of it was unnecessary characterization of Logan’s friends: Sam is a fat Japanese-American who is compared to Buddha more than once; Jack is a white kid whose favourite joke is an “Engrish” pun. But the worst instance of racism in the book was Logan’s description of going to a frat party:

Approaching Greek Town was like riding up to an encampment of angry Indians. I could hear their war cries long before I saw them.

None of these descriptions or characterizations are valuable in any way, and it frustrates me that they were not edited out of this otherwise valuable book. Yes, a lot of LGBT-themed YA books are about middle- or lower-class white teenagers, and as problematic as I find that I will still recommend those books to teens. I’m so desperate for good trans YA fiction that I probably would have still recommended this to teens with the racist characterizations of Sam and Jack. But the “encampment of angry Indians” bit is inexcusable.

With great regret, I have to say that I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.

edit: Definitely did not think this review would ever find its way to Brian Katcher. He seems like a decent fellow and he took my criticism seriously, so I’d definitely give his next book a chance. I’ve removed a line I wrote about the award this book received, because while I still have problems with race issues being overlooked in LGBT book awards, it was a pretty mean thing to write.

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Hana-Kimi vol. 1

by Hisaya Nakajo

Mizuki Ashiya loves Izumi Sano, a teen high-jumper in Japan, so she stalks him online to find out where he goes to school. Unfortunately, it’s a boy’s school, so if she wants to get close to him she will have to disguise herself as a boy! She travels from America to Japan and enrols in the school, only to discover that Sano has quit the high jump. Luckily they are roommates, and she hopes her proximity to him will allow her to befriend him and change his mind. Meanwhile, she is the new prettiest boy in school, and her feminine beauty causes her classmates to question their sexuality. Also included in this volume is a bonus story called “The Cage of Summer,” about a girl whose angelic second cousin comes to stay with her family, only to reveal himself as a bad-boy player who promises not to seduce her friends if she promises to kiss him.

First, I’ll address the main story, which is pretty dull as far as cross-dressing manga goes. Everything happens so quickly that I can’t imagine the story retaining its secret-fuelled excitement for more than a few volumes. Mizuki is clueless and insensitive and a stalker, so I don’t really care for her or understand her motivation. Izumi is ambivalent, so I am ambivalent about him. Even the dog who lives in their dorm is boring.

Second, “The Cage of Summer” bonus story is not an appropriate story for teens, since it romanticizes sexual abuse. The boy not only pressures the girl into kissing him, but he banks on his innocent facade to encourage her to remain silent about the abuse, since no one will believe her if she tells. She then sees that he is hurting because his parents are getting a divorce, so she warms up to him and has sex with him, after which he leaves and avoids all contact with her for two years. In the end, he transfers to her college. Happily ever after?

While Hana-Kimi is pretty harmless (at least in this volume–I won’t be reading on), the bonus story has a really damaging message and may be traumatizing for teens who have suffered sexual abuse, especially because of its positive portrayal of abuse. I would feel uncomfortable recommending this to anyone for that reason. Even without the bonus story, there are other manga series featuring cross-dressing I would recommend before this one.

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Beauty Queens

by Libba Bray

When a plane full of beauty queens headed for the final leg of the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant crashes on an island in the Atlantic, all but 13 of the contestants perish. All of the stranded girls have their own priorities: Miss New Hampshire wants to figure out how to survive on the island, Miss Texas wants to continue to practice for the competition, Miss Rhode Island needs to find her medication, and Miss New Mexico has to figure out a new hairstyle that will distract from the airline tray stuck in her forehead. Surviving the elements is the first challenge, but the girls will have to learn to love and respect themselves and each other in order to make it through the trials that await them on the island. While the beginning of the story focuses on the skeptical Miss New Hampshire (Adina Greenberg), we get to see each of the contestants’ thoughts and backstories as the book goes on. The story is occasionally interrupted by commercial breaks, and includes product placement footnotes from our sponsor, The Corporation.

I was pleasantly surprised that this book was actually overtly feminist. It’s a satire, so it gets a lot of flak for having characters who are just stereotypes, but Bray turns a lot of the stereotypes on their heads. There are a lot of characters who never get a name beyond Miss [state], but even this gets some tongue-in-cheek attention near the end of the book. For a story with such overt political messages, it is shockingly funny! Even though the characters discuss some complex political issues, the book avoids a didactic after-school special directness by staging these conversations in settings that would be either realistically appropriate for such conversations or hilariously inappropriate for them. Of course a group of beauty pageant contestants would discuss Feminism 101 over campfire. And a backstory about colonialism is totally pillow talk material before oral sex! But, race politics while sinking in quicksand? Well, that’s just awesome. While the book sort of spirals out of logical control in the last quarter, none of the messages are lost in the chaos, and it’s still pretty funny. There are some glaring plot holes, of course, but I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief for what I got in return: a socially responsible survival satire starring a group of kick-ass ladies.

Recommended for mature teens who are comfortable enough with reading non-descriptive sex scenes. Ideal for teens who are interested in social issues, but funny enough to be enjoyed by teens looking for something silly.

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f2m

by Hazel Edwards & Ryan Kennedy

Skye doesn’t feel like Skye. Born and raised female, Skye feels like a boy. Nobody knows this about him, and everyone treats him like a butch lesbian. His best friend always tries hooking him up with hot girls, but he can’t focus on who he’d like to be with when he still hasn’t sorted out who he is. When he writes “Finn” on a nametag among a group of friends, they go along with it as a silly role-playing scenario, but he worries about how they will react when the time comes for him to fully transition from Skye to Finn. f2m follows Finn as he navigates the complicated world of transitioning from female to male.

I’m glad that this exists and is in my public library because it’s a subject that is little covered by young adult literature. Another original point is that Finn is punk, and he worries that his non-traditional appearance will make it harder for him to convince a psychiatrist that he wants to be a guy. Aside from the punk trait, Finn and his story are pretty generic. He’s a white 18-year-old from an affluent 4-person family living in a metropolis. Although he seems to know no more than his own preference to be male at the beginning of the book, he rapidly moves through all the huge life events involved in transitioning within the next few months, including hormone therapy and chest surgery. What I worry about with this book is that it really only appeals to people who seek out stories about transitioning, and they will get an unrealistic picture of how easy the transitioning process is. A lot of the reactions Finn received were realistic, though: his all-girl band members found it anti-feminist, other friends didn’t care, and his mom felt like she was losing a daughter. The least realistic and most problematic for me was his brother’s reaction, which was that he would feel more comfortable with Finn once he had chest surgery because then they could be bros instead of Finn being some girl he couldn’t talk to because boobs and stuff. While I don’t think a book about a little-covered subject has to be all things to all people, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see Finn go through all of the questions about his gender that led him to be sure he wanted to transition. He seemed so single-minded about it, but also completely unprepared for the trials of transitioning, which I thought was odd for a person who grew up in a metropolis and was involved in a queer/punk/feminist underground scene. It made it harder to be invested in his quest because I wasn’t confident that he was completely sure of what he was doing.

I’d recommend it to anyone 13 and up looking for a story about transitioning, although I would warn them that this book is very idealistic about the process and doesn’t go into any of the politics or personal reasons for transitioning.

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Huntress

by Malinda Lo

This story takes place long before the time period Ash is set in, and tells the story of the first King’s Huntress. Kaede is at the Academy, a place where many young people learn to be emotionless sages. She is not a good student. Not like Taisin, who shows incredible promise as a sage. When the king receives an invitation to visit the Queen of the Xi fairies, Taisin has a vision of a quest to the fairy land. But this vision is dark: Kaede is on a boat, heading toward an icy fortress where she is about to meet her death. Worse than the sight in the vision is the feeling Taisin has when she sees Kaede go. She doesn’t know Kaede at all, but in this vision of the future, she recognizes that she loves her. She does her best to stop the vision from happening, and to stop herself from feeling for Kaede. Kaede, meanwhile, knows she is along on the quest because Taisin saw her in it, but she has no idea that she is heading to her doom. And hey, Taisin’s pretty cute.

The story started out kind of slow, but I really got into it as it picked up. Although I was more into the concept behind Ash and I got into it right away, overall Huntress was a fuller, more sophisticated story. Ash is a good example of a familiar story where you substitute a queer character for a straight one, but I have never read another story like Huntress. I found it to be really realistic, perhaps a strange compliment for a fantasy but one I wish I could give to other books in the genre. It’s not like so many other quest-type stories where everyone learns to work together and they triumph over all the evil and maybe one person dies so that you feel sad; in this world, anyone can die and a happy outcome is not guaranteed. This book is some hardcore adventure stuff. I wish more quest-type books were like this. I also wish more books with queer characters were like this. No “coming out,” no labeling, no inner turmoil about liking someone of the same gender. The cultural blending was really appealing, too. Everyone’s descriptions made me picture them as Asian, but their names were mostly Irish Gaelic. I desperately want Malinda Lo to set a series of trends in YA fiction: imperfect questing outcomes, well-adjusted queers, and lead characters who aren’t necessarily white.

Huntress is a good pick for those who like any of the following (even if they don’t usually like all of these aspects): magical quests, cool fantasy worlds, queer romance, and/or strong female characters. It can be read before or after Ash because there are no character cross-overs and the time setting makes the worlds of the two books vastly different.

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson

by John Green & David Levithan

Will Grayson is a silent, stoic Chicagoan teen with two rules: 1) Don’t care. 2) Shut up. His current state of near friendlessness is due in part to his having broken those rules. He never should have signed the letter he sent to the paper defending his gay friend Tiny’s right to play on the school football team. Now his only friends are Tiny and the people Tiny hangs out with at the GSA. Tiny, who is obsessed with love, keeps trying to hook him up with Jane, whom Will doesn’t even like… he thinks.

will grayson is a clinically depressed closeted gay teen living in the suburbs outside of chicago. he has one thing in this world that keeps him from killing himself and everyone around him: his internet boyfriend, isaac. too bad maura, the goth chick he hangs out with at school, doesn’t get that he would never choose to be her friend if they weren’t both outcasts stuck together like prisoners in the same school. will doesn’t tell her about isaac, or his plans to finally meet up with isaac in chicago, but she keeps trying to insert herself into his personal life.

When the two Wills cross paths in Chicago, their lives become intertwined and start to move in a new direction.

This book was so compelling that I read it in one day. The chapters with the first Will Grayson were properly capitalized, while the other will grayson’s chapters were all lower case. The lower case chapters were my favourite, and I found the netspeak used between will and isaac to be super genuine (except when things were italicized). A lot of books with queer characters only use gay guys as a foil for straight characters, and show homophobia in a didactic way that shows the presumably straight reader how they should act towards others. This book was refreshingly real and didn’t prioritize one Will’s development over the other, like so many books that focus on one straight character and one gay character do. It isn’t a typical straight book or gay book in that respect.

This could be an enjoyable read for teens who like realistic fiction, regardless of gender or sexuality; however, since it does focus on friendships and relationships between the characters, it will appeal to those who like character-driven books more than action- or comedy-fueled ones.

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Ash

by Malinda Lo

An amazing Cinderella story with dark fairy lore weaved in. The fairies in this book are not like the ones Disney shows you. They are dangerous and irresistible and if they catch you alone at night they will lure you into a fairy circle from which you can never escape. Aisling, the Cinderella character, meets a fairy man in the woods, but oddly he lets her go. Since Aisling’s life is so horrible anyway, she wishes he would just take her away to live with the fairies so she would never have to return to her home with her wicked stepmother. He meets with her regularly, but says that he will not take her away until she is older. Obsessed with the fairy and the thought of being taken away by him, Aisling thinks of nothing but him as she trudges through her increasingly unbearable life… until she meets and starts to fall for the King’s Huntress.

Unlike most other queer books for teens, this one isn’t about coming out and it’s not a big deal that Ash likes a guy and likes a girl. Definitely in my top five for queer books and also one of the best supernatural teen stories I’ve encountered. The fairy stuff is well researched and adheres to traditional tales of malevolent fairies. The Irish names are also a plus.

A fantastic read for anyone looking for a queer story or a supernatural story, even if they’re not looking for something that has both. The cracked fairy-tale crowd will also enjoy it.

Prequel: Huntress

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Wildthorn

by Jane Eagland

Louisa Cosgrove wants to follow in her father’s footsteps. He is a doctor and has always encouraged Louisa to be curious about her world. So curious that she once took it upon herself to surgically remove her doll’s arms and legs to see how she was put together. For a girl growing up in the Victorian era, this is not appropriate behaviour. Her mother wants nothing more than to have Louisa become a proper woman. Apparently someone else is unhappy with Louisa, and the carriage she believes is taking her to a new home has actually been instructed to deliver her to an insane asylum. Once there, the administrators and staff all start referring to her as Lucy Childs. She insists that it has all been a misunderstanding, but her protests are only considered evidence of her madness.

This book was extremely frustrating to read, not because of the first-person present tense narration style, but because everything was so unjust! I thought it was really predictable, but a lot of the things I predicted didn’t actually happen. There’s a bit of a convenient romance that I thought was just a little too neat and a lot too boring, but overall I enjoyed reading it. The story starts with Louisa’s committal and then some chapters look back at events over the years that led to her present state.

A dark, Victorian read, with some lesbian bits, but definitely not just for those looking for a queer story.

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Boyfriends with Girlfriends

by Alex Sanchez

This was the first book I’ve read by Alex Sanchez, and it wasn’t all that bad. Lance and Allie are friends. Sergio and Kimiko are friends. Lance is gay and has never dated a guy. Allie is straight and has a boyfriend. Sergio is bisexual and is curious about trying a relationship with a boy instead of just hooking up. Kimiko is a lesbian who has never dated a girl because she doesn’t want to be a bad daughter. When Lance and Sergio decide to meet irl, they bring along their best girl buds, who hit it off just as well as they do. But can Lance get over Sergio’s bisexuality? Can Sergio allow himself to be in a relationship after his last one failed so miserably? Can Allie figure out her new feelings for Kimiko? Can Kimiko get over her bad self esteem long enough to see that Allie is really into her?

The entire book could be one sentence long: “These two sets of friends like each other but aren’t sure if the other person likes them enough, but then they do and it’s ok.” There’s a whole bunch of forced diversity, with “cultural insights” that seem ill informed (Allie loves Japanese things, and Kimiko is soooo grateful to meet someone who is excited about meeting a Japanese person in America). As I assume is the case with all of Alex Sanchez’s books, there’s a lot of idealistic plot points. Ultimately everyone gains acceptance and lives in a gay wonderland. A short book, and one of the only ones I’ve read where male bisexuality is considered to be a valid sexual identity, so it gets some props. Plus, the people on the cover actually look like the characters in the book!

A good enough read for guys or gals wanting to read queer teen relationship books.

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