James St. James–Freak Show

The What: Billy Bloom, “Gender Obscurist” extraordinaire, is starting his senior year of high school in a new place. He can’t connect to the conservative Florida teens at his ultra-rich school, and they don’t know what to make of him, either. Violent students, apathetic teachers, and a devastatingly gorgeous football-player crush who couldn’t–just couldn’t!–be gay combine to make life miserable for Billy. Billy, however, is not one to take misery sitting down. Instead, he grabs his fabulous array of makeups, custom costumes and wigs, and takes on the school in glittery head-on style.

The Good: This is a laugh-out-loud hilarious book with a great deal of substance beneath the chiffon, and it’s told in a voice that you won’t find anywhere else in YA lit today. Billy Bloom is a riot. Open to any page of Freak Show, and you’ll immediately get a sense of his singular perspective on Florida private-school life:

Yes, it was Preppies On Parade: Hi, Muffy! Hi, Buffy! Hey, Binky, Hey, Biff! There’s Moose McLettersweater! And his best girl, Abby Add-a-pearl! (pg. 15)

Billy’s manic glee successfully carries the story through a wide array of emotional registers, even when the events being narrated are quite serious. His epic crush on Flip Kelly, local football legend, manages to be at once particular (this is Billy we’re talking about, after all) and universal (it sounds like any first love, and props to St. James for recognizing that love is love is love.)

The Meh: St. James gives enough insight into Billy, and enough detail about the other characters, that I came to care about them. However, the novel shies away from showing high-stakes moments between the characters: why don’t we see Billy and his dad working out a better way to relate to each other? Why doesn’t Billy face his mother? I enjoyed the way that things ultimately worked out with Flip, but I found it hard to believe that Flip covered so much emotional ground so quickly. It would have been easier to believe if I’d seen more of his process on the page. Also, Blah Blah Blah is the most under-used character in YA lit today. I want a sequel from her perspective!

Hand It To: NP’s character readers, and fans of all things over-the-top and glittery

Meaghan Brothers–Debbie Harry Sings In French

The What: Johnny hasn’t had an easy time of it. His dad was rarely around, and before Johnny turned fourteen, he died. Then his mom fell into grief, and couldn’t take care of the house. Johnny took over, and to deal with the pain, he turned to drinking. Once his mom recovered, she found that he was someone she couldn’t stand to live with. She sent him to live with his uncle in South Carolina, where he finds homophobia, a wicked-good record store, and a girl named Maria who’s just as passionate and troubled as he is.

The Good: I’m a little swoony-in-love with this book. Johnny discovers who he is without undue angst, and with great humor and patience. He finds the supportive Maria, who’s a well-done character in her own right. The relationships between friends, family, and lovers resound with authenticity. And the music! So good! I was a little surprised that Morrissey never made an appearance, but I’m probably revealing a big ol’ musical ignorance by saying that (“Blondie fans, listen to Morrissey? Please!”) The book questions gender and the labels that we assign GLBTQ people without bonking the reader over the head–this book is no polemic. Woo!

The Meh: I couldn’t decide whether the ending (don’t wanna ruin it for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading this book yet) was sweet and warm and full of identity reclamation, or if it was so sweet that it made me throw up in my mouth a little. Also, I had trouble keeping track of some of the very minor characters, especially Johnny’s friends from before the move. And “transvestite?” Really? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure we left that behind with Dr. Frank-N-Furter in “Rocky Horror.” I thought these days, folks went with “cross-dresser.”

Hand It To: guys who aren’t afraid of their feminine side, girls and guys who aren’t afraid of said guys, and anyone who’s down with difference.