Gigi Amateau, April 2009. A Certain Strain of Peculiar features Mary Harold, a thirteen-year-old girl living with her grandmother in Wren, Alabama. This is one of those "three generations of strong Southern women" novels, with the twist that it's for middle-grade readers. By observing her grandmother (and her mother, to a lesser degree), Mary Harold learns to accept others' shortcomings and to love herself while still improving as a person. She tames a baby deer, raises a cow, and sets out to break the county record for doing the most pull-ups.
This book doesn't have any explicitly gay content. It's reviewed here because one of the drawbacks of being a loving, intense, not-ready-for-boys-yet young teenage girl is that her classmates will, and do, call her a dyke. (She may even be one; there is no first hetero love scene at the end.) The author handles this nicely; Mary Harold rejects the notion that she is gay without feeling insulted by the very idea.
I didn't love this novel personally - it's a little too preachy and has just a touch of magic realism, which I loathe - but it's a nice bridge from juvenile chapter books into YA fiction, and Mary Harold is a good role model for girls her age.
Pamela Ehrenberg, May 2009. In Ehrenberg's second YA novel, she develops the story of an arson in rural Tillmon County through the voices of eight teens. Cait is a bystander who observed a sort of confession; Aiden is born-again and out to make a point; Ben and Amelia are dating, but Ben is secretly gay and Amelia has an online flirtation with another guy; Lacey is pregnant and no one knows and she works at the hardware store where the lighter fluid was purchased; Albert is different from the other kids, probably autistic, and tries to help out where he shouldn't have; Jeremy is his twin brother and has somehow become friends with Aiden; and Rob lived in the house that's burned to the ground. The story of the arson, a hate crime directed at the new kid from New York who "started prancing and lisping around Tillmon County High School" over the winter, comes out slowly via kids' stories that don't seem to be related but eventually add up.
A story with so many voices can be repetitive or difficult to control, but Ehrenberg ably avoids these problems by sticking to a slim 171 pages and not repeating most of the action from multiple viewpoints. The book starts out just a little too slowly to make it perfect for reluctant readers, who may be drawn to it nevertheless by the red and black matchbook cover art and low page count. Recommended for all public libraries and most schools as well, although teens plotting violence can be a controversial subject.
Malinda Lo, September 2009. Twelve-year-old Ash has grown up listening to fairy tales and experiencing medical care provided by greenwitches rather than doctors, so she's surprised but not shocked when her late-night wanderings in the forest lead her to fairyland. She welcomes the escape; after her father's recent death, she's been forced to work as a housekeeper and ladies' maid for her new stepmother and two stepsisters.
Ash falls in love with a scary and elusive fairy-boy named Sidhean who is cursed to love her, and she feels herself losing control the more time she spends with him in the woods. But the same paths that lead her to fairyland also bring her to Kaisa, huntress for the king, who belongs to Ash's own world. Ash's attraction to Kaisa competes with her longing for fairyland, but she doesn't feel compelled to choose between them. Nor does she feel that one attraction is wrong, as in many coming-out tales. The twist comes when Ash, in order to meet Kaisa at a ball, must ask for Sidhean's help. In return, he asks that she become completely his, leaving her in a bind between her lovers.
The tale is set against a rich backdrop of ballgowns and class struggles, minor characters that stick with the reader (I hope there's a sequel focusing on Gwen), and the delicate balance between fairyland and real life. The love story is both vivid and subtle, and the fact that each character would survive without her partner removes this from the romance genre, although it will still appeal to readers of same. In fact, this not-romance, not-realistic, not-quite-fantasy novel will probably appeal to nearly all of your teen girls. Highly recommended. And now I'm the first and last reviewer to not mention Cinderella...oops.
David Levithan, August 2009. "It's starting to feel like I'm over at a friend's house, which isn't a bad thing for a seventh date, but is pretty discouraging for a first. But there's no way I'm going to make a move without him giving me some indication that he wants me to make a move -- which I guess is a way of me saying that he has to make the move, since indications are, in general, also moves."
That's what's going through Peter's head as he tries to figure out whether he and Jasper will hook up while watching Cabaret on their first date. Later, we hear about the experience from Jasper's point of view too; he and Peter are two of the book's three narrators, detailing how they experienced September 11, 2001, and its aftermath as residents of New York. Peter, the indie kid, is waiting for Tower Records to open so he can get the new Bob Dylan. Claire, the moral center, was at school near the towers and led her little brother on the long walk uptown away from the smoke. Jasper, the slacker college kid, slept through the whole thing.
As in the outstanding Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and the solid Naomi and Ely's No-Kiss List, this novel is partly about the drama of older adolescents, partly a love letter to New York, and partly a celebration of music geekdom. Levithan drops references to Travis and Ryan Adams and the Magnetic Fields, and these tidbits make Peter's character the most interesting and relatable voice in the book.
Summary: Outstanding. Moving, realistic, funny, hopeful, and a page-turner. Multiple copies recommended for every library.
Megan Frazer, July 2009. Dara's family life seems pretty normal - sure, her mom is strict, but whatever - until she finds a folder of family birth certificates and realizes she has an older sister, Rachel. When she confronts her parents, they admit Rachel ran away before Dara was born and that they have no relationship with her.
Dara was crowned Little Miss Maine when she was a kid, but now she's seventeen and significantly overweight. She plans her junior autobiography project around this theme, but parts of it are taken out of context by her teacher and counselor, so her furious parents pull her out of school. Dara rebels by going off to live with Rachel on her Massachusetts dairy farm. While there, Dara finds out some family secrets (hint: the farm is historically a refuge for gay kids whose parents kick them out) and makes some new friends, including Owen (gay!) and his brother (not gay! likes Dara!).
Summarizing this plot in these few words makes it recognizable as your basic coming-of-age story, and it is - but it's extremely well done. Plot threads like the out-of-order diary pages Dara finds in a closet interweave with tales of Rachel's love life, domestic scenes of the "family" cooking dinner together, and Dara's eventual decision to enter a local beauty pageant. Such peripheral characters as silent, elderly matriarch Belinda and Dara's kindly and undersung father contribute to a novel more complex than it might seem initially. Perhaps the best detail is Dara's commitment to fashion despite her size; she and Owen are always creating spectactular outfits that would delight the members of fatshionista. Highly recommended for all public, middle and high school libraries.
Josh Kilmer-Purcell, 2008. In case the shiny silver color with hot-pink lettering doesn't give it away, this book is one big gay party. In the opening scene, fourteen-year-old Jayson is shooting his Dallas/Dynasty crossover (that'd be Dallasty), starring himself as the female lead - as good a plan as any to make out with the cute neighbor boy he's cast opposite. Jayson has never been kissed, although he's quite comfortable with his identity, having "decided that he was homosexual while watching a Phil Donahue episode on the topic eight years earlier. He'd come home early from kindergarten that day because he'd gotten a stomach ache from wondering whether his Hee Haw overalls were too outré for his peers. Jayson had been sent home from school fairly often over the years, including the first day of kindergarten when he'd become inconsolably agitated that the school wouldn't change their spelling of his name from 'Jason' to 'Jayson.' He felt very strongly that he needed the extra flair to set himself apart from the other, obviously less special Jasons in the class."
Jayson's home life is somewhat chaotic; he doesn't know who his father is, his younger brother suffers from Prader-Willi syndrome, and his mom has been married eleven times. After kicking out her latest live-in boyfriend, she announces to Jayson that his father is an old movie star, Oscar Harlande, and that Jayson will be visiting him. Tomorrow. By himself. When Jayson shows up on Oscar's doorstep, he learns that Oscar, who runs an escort service for older gay men interested in sleeping with young Broadway talent, has no idea who Jayson is. Moreover, Jayson's long-time celebrity crush just happens to be living in the house.
The plot only grows more far-fetched from there, but it contributes to the soap-operatically gay smorgasbord that is Candy Everybody Wants. Recommended especially for fans of How I Got into College, Freak Show, and other big gay carnivals of teen fiction.
Jere' M. Fishback, April 2009. Protagonist Josef is 13 in 1933 when his mother dies and he's sent to live with his uncle Ernst. Ernst is a semi-openly gay man, living with 20-year-old boy toy Rudy. Josef and Rudy become close friends, and they travel to Berlin together when Josef is offered a role in a Nazi propaganda film. Josef has known for quite a while that he's interested in boys rather than girls, and he confirms this during sexual explorations with Rudy.
Uncle Ernst is a Nazi leader, and he encourages Josef to join the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). Josef agrees because he likes the uniform and the camping trips. He knows that Nazis are said to hate Jews, but his own observations don't match this rumor. Still, when Josef falls in love with his Jewish friend David, he keeps his Hitlerjugend membership to himself for as long as he can...
Historical gay novels are necessarily problem novels, but this one avoids the clichés of the genre. Josef is about as comfortable as he can be with his sexuality and finds several willing partners. The love story is sweet, and the plot is action-packed. Recommended.
Peter Marino, March 2009. Pan (short for "pansy") and TJ are best friends, and she's not really in love with him - very much, anyway. Any more, anyway, now that she knows he's gay. Still, TJ relies on Pan even more than best friends normally do; she needs his help dealing with her disturbed toddler brother as well as making her feel pretty. When she starts dating Caspar, things begin to go wrong; the two boys don't get along, and she feels that Pan's abandoned her just when her life has started to improve.
The plot is a standard one, although it's executed well. The characters, however, are outstanding - nothing formula here. Caspar in particular is far more than just a typical love interest. He's a jock with depth, but it goes further than that; he's incredibly thoughtful, smart, awkward, and above all, consistent and real. Parents are often cookie-cutter figures in teen books, but in this case, both sets - Pan's and TJ's - are natural and appealing. They're in the book as characters, not as Stock Parents. Even more intriguing is Paolo, TJ's younger brother, who seems to have an emotional or behavioral disorder. This isn't diagnosed in the book, so what the reader sees is the effect such a child has on the family. The one peripheral character who does fall flat is Tammie, TJ's bitchy boss, who appears only as a foil for TJ and Pan. Still, the author has worked hard to create these characters, and his work pays off.
Highly recommended, then - if you can get the right reader to pick it up. The cover art is sadly 1990s, and the title is worse. Magic and Misery? There is no magic in the book, nor any fantastical element. I'm worried this won't get into the hands of realistic-novel readers, and the SF/F crowd that will pick it up based on the title will end up disappointed.
"'Just leave the kid alone,' Leigh said. 'And then we have no problem.' ...
"'Fine,' Oliver said. 'You can have your little faggot.'
"And Leigh laughed, all of his thoughts and fears sliding away.
"'That's the best you got?' he asked. 'You can't do any better than calling him a faggot?'
"'Oh, I'm sorry, did I insult you?' Oliver asked. 'I didn't know you were one. No offense.'
"'No one cares,' Leigh said. 'That's like the lamest insult.'
"This was not actually true, as Leigh knew. Yes, at his old school, everyone was very careful to use it as a joke and never at a kid who was suspected of being gay, but that was precisely because the word carried a power far beyond its meaning.
"But knowing that he liked girls and being big enough to knock someone out gave Leigh the rare privilege of being able to laugh when the word was turned in his direction.
"The bell rang.
"'Nice meeting you,' Leigh said, letting Millie pull him toward the building. He called over his shoulder, 'Next time I'll try not to be such a fag.' ...
"It became clear that in facting down Oliver Lexham and his gang, Leigh had become a hero of sorts. Franklin had to tell the story countless times, and in the hallways, as well as on different sports teams, people could be heard telling each other, by way of apology or excuse, Next time, I'll try not to be such a fag."
That's the only gay content in After the Moment, but it's pretty great, isn't it?
Lauren Bjorkman, October 2009. "I wish my coming out had been real so I could write about it online!" exclaims high school junior Roz after reading some stories about the newly uncloseted. Roz has a lot going on: her sister Eva, who used to be her best friend, is ignoring her....and she thinks Eva might be gay. Eva does have a boyfriend, Bryan, but he keeps flirting with Roz. Roz, in turn, flirts with Jonathan, who turns out to be actually gay. Then there's Carmen, bitchy genius and surprisingly good theatrical director, and Nico, whom no one can quite figure out. Eyeliner Andie, who describes herself as "no-sexual," rounds out the ensemble of teens putting on a production of As You Like It. The book tells the story of their complicated-to-the-point-of-farcical love lives as Roz pretends to be gay in order to find out if Eva is, and then has to figure out how to get a boyfriend despite pretending to like girls, and then has to deal with the possibility that she does indeed like girls. This is complicated by her role as Rosalind in the school play, for which she has to dress as a woman dressing like a man. Roz is not only the narrator, but the stereotypical fool who is the last one to figure out what's going on. She's always wailing, "But I don't understand!" as the other characters roll their eyes knowingly. This use of the protagonist serves both as an effective plot device and a smart parody of same.
Imagine if Paula Danziger had written a Basic Eight/Twelfth Night fanfic with help from the writers of Three's Company; that will give you an idea of the red herrings, misunderstandings, gender-bending, secret-keeping, and unreliable narration that make this book the intriguing chaos that it is. My favorite gay YA read of the year. Highly recommended.
Alyson Noël, February 2009. When sixteen-year-old Ever lost her parents, sister, and dog in a car accident, she survived, but since then she's had the ability to read people's minds just by being near them. She tries to cloud this power by wearing hoodies, listening to her iPod constantly, and avoiding touching anyone, but all of this makes her a social outcast. Her only two friends are Haven, an attention-seeking scene jumper, and Miles, constantly looking for love anywhere he can.
The rest of Ever's story, in a nutshell: she meets and falls in love with new student Damen, who is gorgeous and mysterious (he disappears a lot) and super-smart and super-strong and hardly ever eats, though he does drink an odd red liquid from vials....but he's not a vampire! NOT.A.VAMPIRE, NO SIR! No, he's...an immortal! Yes, and that is how this book distinguishes itself from the Twilight series. That, and the second book is called Blue Moon, not New Moon.
But Miles is the reason you're here, because he is the Gay Sidekick. He's not an especially complex character - he's the nice guy, in search of love or at least a date. He gets the lead in Hairspray, which is unexpected and funny. He's always texting his newest potential boyfriend. He tries to resolve the issues that arise between Ever and Haven.
I mock, but I did really enjoy the book. Recommended for all your vampire immortal-loving teens, especially the gay ones.
Hayden Thorne, 2007. Upper-class Victorian England is the perfect setting for a gay romance; opportunities abound for secret assignations, literary allusions, and parlor bitchery. Hayden Thorne takes advantage of this quite well, and often with tongue in cheek, as she explores the romantic friendship between two schoolboys.
James is from a wealthy family and is used to getting his own way in school, both socially and with the teachers. Daniel is a new boy and more middle-class; also more fearful, he seeks James's protection from bullies. Their families intertwine when Daniel's brother George becomes James's private tutor. James's sister falls in love with George, and then George dies in an accident. These events only drive James and Daniel closer together, and James dreams of a future where they can live together shamelessly. "'I'm either foolish or proud or both for choosing to disappoint everyone around me,'" he says, "'but I'd sooner lower myself in their opinion now for the sake of what's real than subject them to a lie for the rest of their lives....Can you imagine how it is when my [future] children....find out, either by accident or malice or whatnot, that their honored father was really a sodomite?'"
After a sweet romance during the boys' school days, they live together briefly in London under the fiction that Daniel is merely a houseguest. Soon, James's sister Kitty learns what is actually transpiring and asks Daniel to leave for the sake of James and the family. He does, and the two rely on the writing of elaborately constructed letters (another conceit of Victorian-era literature) until a quarrel ends their communication.
The plot deteriorates somewhat as James flees to the Continent, ostensibly to buy property but really to party in Italy, and Daniel becomes a research assistant for a series of elderly gentlemen. Both resist societal urges to marry women, and both, of course, pine after one another. Too many new characters are introduced in the second half of the book, and it's difficult for the reader to keep track of them. Suffice it to say that by the end, the two are holding hands while walking along a "muddy, desolate trail" that "was comforting and companionable in spite of their vulnerability against Nature."
Kudos to Hayden Thorne for her wickedly subtle parody of a Victorian romance; if only she'd fleshed out the endless parade of characters in the second half, the book would be more readable. As it stands, I can't recommend it for reluctant readers, but your historical romance lovers will eat it up. Sex scenes are as coy as the setting dictates, so this is a good purchase for school libraries as well as public.
Lee Bantle, May 2009. Protagonist David is mostly in the closet, but sometimes he peeks out a bit. He experiments sexually with hot jock Sean, wishing he were his boyfriend, but Sean can't come out to the rest of the track team and in fact insists he's not gay -- boysex is just more convenient. David tries hard to be straight, hooking up with his female friend Kick and masturbating to the image of Mandy Moore, and in fact he may well be bi; he touches Kick's hair and thinks, "I felt a wonderful, hopeful tingling down there where it counts, where you can't fake it, even if you really, really want to." He tries buying Playboy and is interested in breasts, but he soon puts the magazine aside in favor of Iron Man and Car and Driver.
David Inside Out follows a predictable problem-novel format, with David facing bullies' accusations that he's gay, then eventually coming to terms with his sexuality. Still, formulas work if done with flair, and this one is. It has some hilarious moments, as when David attends church with his mother and finds himself "right under a nearly naked plaster statue of Jesus on the cross....I looked up, inspecting the folds of the loin cloth, trying to imagine what was underneath. This is what I had sunk to. Checking out Jesus." Sean is a stereotypical jock in denial, but Kick and Eddie are more complicated characters and round out the book nicely. Recommended for all public libraries; school librarians should note the frequent sex scenes.
Randa Jarrar, September 2008. Feisty, smart-aleck Nidali is thirteen the year her hometown of Kuwait is invaded by Saddam Hussein. Her family -- including an abusive father, a confused but loving mother, and a little brother she mainly ignores -- moves first to Egypt and then to Texas. The war and politics are relegated to the background in this coming-of-age story in which Nidali never actually quite comes of age. When Nidali describes her home life and her frequent fights with her parents for independence, she could be any girl in an American suburb, except that Dad's rants are often anti-U.S.
It's Nidali's attitude toward her sex life that really makes her character shine. When she describes masturbation via the bathroom bidet, there is no confession in her tone (and her dismay upon moving to Texas and finding that American bathrooms lack this fixture is hilarious); when she manipulates boys into making out with her, there is no sense of shame. However, experimenting with a female friend makes her nervous. "I'll go to hell, I thought. I liked boys, I assured myself, because I did. I wanted to kiss them. But I wanted to be the first one Jiji kissed instead of some slimy toad of a guy."
Parts of A Map of Home are gross; parts are hot; parts are violent in the way you'd expect when the story takes place in wartime and features an angry, vicious father. The result is a passionate narrative by an intense and lovable character. Highly recommended for public and high school libraries.