Felix Ever After

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “We push open the apartment building’s glass door, out into the yellow sunshine that’s a little too cheerful and bright.”
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Content: There’s some teenage drinking and pot smoking, swearing — including multiple f-bombs — and some tasteful making out. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Felix is a trans young man who is struggling. Not just with his father — who won’t say his name, just calling Felix “kid” — but fitting in at St. Catherine’s, an elite art prep school in New York City. Felix has one friend, Ezra, who is totally and completely accepting of who Felix is. However, not everyone on campus is. When one day during the summer term, an “installation” of Felix’s dead self complete with his deadname shows up, Felix is determined to find out who did that, and exact revenge. But things don’t go as planned.

I’ve not read a lot of trans fiction, especially for young adults, but I adored the way Callender handled this (one expects it would be handled beautifully, considering Callender identifies as non-binary). I adored Felix and felt his struggles to be accepted as his true self, even though he’s still kind of questioning his identity. I am glad Callender reminded readers that gender is a spectrum and perhaps labels aren’t always the best thing. But beyond that, I loved Felix and Ezra together, and the tension between Declan (who was a former boyfriend of Ezra’s) and Felix. I loved the emphasis on art, and how art can express inner feelings the way words sometimes can’t. And I still think Callender is a beautiful writer. They capture things on the page about being trans and black and queer and trying to fit into this world that doesn’t want them. It was powerful and challenging and wonderful all around.

I am definitely a fan of Callender’s now.

King and the Dragonflies

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother.”
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Content: There is some parental abuse, and kids run away. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

King’s brother Khalid recently died, and he and his parents are struggling to adjust to the new reality. It doesn’t help that King things his brother has come back as a dragonfly. And that his old good friend, Sandy, has come out as gay. In their small, conservative Louisiana town, and with Sandy’s abusive father as sheriff, that doesn’t bode well. Not for Sandy and not for anyone who wants to be his friend.

King spends the book coming to terms with both his brother’s death and with Sandy’s revelation (and the realization that he might be gay as well). It’s a quiet book, but it’s captivating. Callender is a phenomanal writer, and the feelings and emotions they invoke are incredible. They capture not only grief but friendship and parents struggling to do what they think is best. It’s a journey, one that is not readily summarized in a plot, but that is incredibly moving all the same.

Definitely deserving of the National Book Award it won, and highly recommended.

The Magic Fish

by Trun Le Nguyen
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Content: There some fairy tale-type violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

 Tiến is a first-generation American, trying to live his best life. However, he has recently come out as gay to his friends, and wants to share that with his parents. However, he doesn’t know if they understand English well enough and he doesn’t know the words in Vietnamese. His mother feels like Tiến is growing apart as he grows up, but they do still share one thing: a love of reading fairy tales. And maybe through this connection,  Tiến will find a way to share about his life.

Honestly? It was a gorgeous book. The art was spectacular, and the fairy tale retellings (three re-tellings of Cinderella-type stories) were marvelous. I liked  Tiến  and his friends and the way he tries to navigate coming out and his feelings while his mother deals with being separated from her elderly, sick mother.

However, I’m not entirely sure who this graphic novel is for. I know adults will read it and love it, as will those who enjoy fairy tale re-tellings. But, is it for the middle grade age group? Maybe? Maybe there are some 4-8th graders who will read this and see themselves, or need to read this because they lack the confidence to come out to their family. But it lacks a real plot, which most middle grade books kind of need to have.

At any rate, it’s a gorgeous book, and Nguyen is a talented artist. I will be curious to see what he does next.

Giovanni’s Room

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
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Content: There is some talk of sex and some mild swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss wit this one. The basic plot is this: it’s the 1950s (the book was first published in 1956, which surprised me) and David is a gay man. Except he doesn’t want to believe it. He believes he is sick, he is dirty. And, in Paris, he’s found a girl — Hella — who he mostly likes and asks her to marry him. Except she’s not sure, so she darts off to Spain, and David meets Giovanni. And falls in love. Head-over-heels, living together love. Until Hella comes back, and David completely dumps Giovanni who ends up going into depressive spiral.

On the one hand, good on Baldwin for writing about LGBTQ characters in the 1950s (I haven’t read much classic lit from that time period, so I really don’t know how common or uncommon it was). Also, it surprised me that all of his characters were White (except Giovanni who was Italian, but that’s basically White). Not saying he shouldn’t have written it, just that it surprised me. But, the thing was: this was so full of gay self-loathing. I understand why: it was, culturally (especially for Americans) taboo, and so those who are gay must have felt absolutely awful about it. I appreciate that insight. But it was so hard to take. Maybe because I’m looking at it through 21st-century eyes, but I felt bad for David. He didn’t need to mess up his life so much because he was gay. But, then, it was the 1950s, so maybe he did.

Also: I had a hard time stomaching the sexism. At one point, Hella’s like “I totally need a man to complete me” (not those exact words; Baldwin likes going in for long eloquent sentences), which so eye-rollingly, well, 1950s. I guess it’s really just a reflection of its time.

That said, it was short, and it was interesting (even if it was impossibly sad) and I’m glad I read it. Not my favorite Baldwin book though.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor

by Hank Green
First sentence: “
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Others in the series: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first book, obviously.

April has died in a fire, Carl has disappeared, and the world is trying to recover. Mostly April’s friends — Maya, Miranda, and Andy — are trying to move on. And they each do in their way. That is, until they start getting a mysterious book that is telling them what to do. And from there, the plot gets really really complicated and it’s so much better not knowing too much.

And, much like the first book, this one is about more than just humans vs. alien robots. It’s about collective action, and free-will. It’s about whether or not we can stop ourselves from destroying the earth. It’s about friendship and trust and forgiveness.

And, much like the first book, it’s a delight to read. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s pretentious but not overly-so, and I think Green knows (and has thought long and hard) what he’s talking about. It’s a fun romp, and a good conclusion to the story, but it’s also a thoughtful book with a lot to discuss.

Or maybe I just really like the Green brothers. Either way: it’s a good read.

If You Could be Mine

by Sara Farizan
First sentence: “Nasrin pulled my hair when I told her I didn’t want to play with her dolls.”
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Content: There is some all of sex and drug use. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve had this one on my backup TBR shelf for nearly six years. I’m just impressed it didn’t get given away in one of my purges!

Sahar has been in love with her best friend Nasrin for as long as she could remember. She is the only person Sahar wants to be with. Except they live in Iran and being gay — not to mention marrying someone of the same gender — is not only illegal, it’s punishable by death.

Sahar and Nasrin know this so they try to keep their deepening romance secret. That is, until Nasrin’s parents arrange a marriage for her. To someone nearly twice her age (which is mid-30s, but still). This sends Sahar into a tailspin, and she discovers that while being gay is illegal in Iran, gender reassignment surgeries are not. So, she decides that the best way to be with Nasrin is to become a man.

While I enjoyed learning about Farizan’s take on Iranian culture and life, it was all a bit, well, convoluted. Sahar didn’t ever ask Nasrin whether she wanted her to change her gender. Sahar just assumed that’s what it would take to stop Nasrin’s wedding, and was bullheaded about going forward with it, in spite of objections from people who have gone through the reassignment surgery.

Maybe it was the lack of communication between Nasrin and Sahar that bothered me. Or the way Nasrin treated Sahar. It really wasn’t a healthy relationship. And I’m glad (kind of spoilers) that Sahar was finally able to let Nasrin go while staying true to who she really is.

It wasn’t a great book, but I finished it. So it wasn’t horrible either.

Audio Book: Untamed

by Glennon Doyle
Read by the author
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Or listen on Libro.fm
Content: There are several f-bombs as well as some mild swearing. There is talk of addiction. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

Sometimes a book comes into your life at the right time. I picked this one up to fill out a category in the #ReadICT challenge — everyone’s reading it (or they were back in March, but who’s keeping track?) — and got something completely unexpected and absolutely needed.

I have heard of Glennon Doyle, but never read any of her work, so I was going into this blind. In a series of short essays (some longer than others), the book is essentially the story of her falling in love with a woman, divorcing her husband, and building an entirely new life. But it was about more than that: it was about taking back ownership of your decisions, your life, your feelings and not being “caged” by anything, whether it be society, religion, yourself. It’s a hard thing, being true to your own truest self. It’s much easier to lean on other people’s beliefs and perceptions of you. It doesn’t require the work of figuring things out for yourself. And I think that’s something I needed to hear right now.

I appreciated the humor of the book, the thoughtfulness, the encouragement. I adored Doyle’s honesty and forthrightness, and her willingness to be true to herself at all costs. She sounds like an imperfect but utterly remarkable woman. Doyle is also a good narrator, and I’m glad she read this one; it made it that much more personal.

I’m not sure this is a book for everyone, but I really enjoyed listening to it.

Juliet Takes a Breath

by Gabby Rivera
First sentence: “There was always train traffic ahead of us and that Saturday was no different.”
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Review copy provided by publisher.
Content: There are a ton of f-bombs, some tasteful on-screen sex, and pot use. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

So, while doing some Googling and looking when I finished this, I discovered that it was published four years ago by a small press, but picked up by Dial Press and re-published last year. Which explains 1) how I got an ARC from our Penguin rep and 2) why I missed it the first time around.

Because this a a spectacular piece of feminist LGBT writing.

The premise is this: Juliet has grown up in the Bronx, but gone away to a liberal arts college in Baltimore. Once there, she began discovering her sexuality, and read “Raging Flower” a seminal feminist book by Harlowe Brisbane. On a whim, Juliet decides to write Harlowe and ask if she needs an intern, which Harlowe readily agrees to. So, Juliet takes off across the country to Portland, hoping to be inspired and discover out more about herself.

What she discovers is that Harlowe doesn’t have all the answers, but the experiences — both good and bad — are immensely worth having.

The book was not kind to Portland; the people there were VERY hippie. So much hippie. And maybe that’s the way Portland really is, but I kind of felt like it was overkill. That said, I think Rivera did an amazing job exploring the space between adoring someone and being hurt by them and questioning their motivations. I also loved Juliet’s exploration of her sexuality and her relationship with her mother. But mostly I adored her cousin Ava.

It’s a good feminist book, encouraging girls (and women) to stand up and question not just patriarchy but their own individual responses. It was also a good exploration of intersectionality, and how if we don’t welcome everyone to the table, there’s not a lot of good that can be done. It’s all about taking ownership, and I can get behind that.

And it wasn’t a bad story either.

Crownchasers

by Rebecca Coffindaffer
First sentence: “The Otari came here to die.”
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Release date: September 29, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence, mild swearing, and about four f-bombs. It will be in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Captain Alyssa Farshot has everything she needs: a worldship, a membership in the Explorer’s guild, and space. And her engineer/trusty sidekick Hell Monkey. But when her Uncle Atar — who happens to be the Emperor of the thousand planets in this universe — suddenly and unexpectedly dies, Alyssa (and Hell Monkey) finds herself a crownchaser, along with other nominees from the prime families, searching for the seal that will make her empress.

Except she doesn’t want it. And the whole chase becomes more deadly than anyone expected.

That’s the basic plot, but that’s not really a great pitch for this book. How about this: Alyssa is a sarcastic, fearless pilot who has a heart of gold and is willing to go to any lengths for her friends. I loved how Coffindaffer told this story, interspersed with flashbacks to explain the relationships Alyssa has with the other characters in the book. They’re placed at just the right moments, and give the narrative a depth I wasn’t expecting. I adored Alyssa (shoot, I adored all the characters) and the way she just threw herself headfirst into everything she did.

I loved the tone of the book; it didn’t take itself too seriously but also managed to give weight to a couple of ideas (like representation for all, and the inherent classism in the worlds’ systems). It was a perfect balance and kept me turning pages.

An excellent debut novel.

Harrow the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir
First sentence: “Your room had long ago plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving now distraction from the great rocking thump-thump-thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: Gideon the Ninth
Content: It’s violent, brutal, and doesn’t mince swear words. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

There really is no way to mention the plot without spoiling it; truly the less you know about Harrow going in, the better it will be. Trust me.

Know this: Harrow has been made a Lyctor. The first three-fourth of the book will have you questioning your sanity and wonder what the hell Muir is up to. Stick with it. It is not uninteresting, and Muir will keep you guessing and wondering. The final fourth makes up for everything that went before.

It is awesome and amazing and I can’t wait to see how Muir ends this all.