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

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Lena Prodan–The Suicide Year

The What: Nameless Protagonist (no, really, zie doesn’t have a name) lives on a military base. Hir father is physically abusive, hir mother is mentally unstable, and zie hirself is transgendered and suicidal. Add in fairweather friend Eric, their mutual crush Alex, and lots of drug-soaked trips to the local porn theater between church group hiking trips, and you’ve got yourself a premise.

The Good: The main character is easy to care about. Zie has so little to look forward to, and receives so little love and affection from the other characters, that it was impossible not to root for hir in hir quest to hike the Appalachian Trail and find love. Prodan gets props from me for finding a new story to tell in the often repetitive world of YA lit: I can’t say that I have ever read nor heard of another story whose protagonist is a nameless, overweight, female-to-male pre-or-non-op transsexual military brat.

The Meh: Numerous typos inhibited my enjoyment of this book. Sneaky grammar problems would be one thing, but “sheer” instead of “shear”? Underscores where there should be spaces? Letters left off of the ends of words? Torquere Press, I bet I could do better than that. Freelance offers welcome. : p  In terms of the story itself, it’s… it’s missing something. It lacks the alchemical touch that turns good components into a good story, and would be best for YA libraries with a substantial GLBT collection.

Hand It To: Fans of hardcore gayngst (gay angst, for yall uninitiated out there), violently emo teens, Ellen Hopkins fans.

Sheri Reynolds–The Sweet In-Between

The What: Kendra, better known as Kenny, has a complicated life. Her father’s girlfriend is raising her, she lives with three “siblings” to whom she is not related, and her biological parents are dead (her mother) or in jail (her father). She has begun to dress and live as a boy, stymieing those close to her. Add in the catalyst of a murder next door, and Kenny begins to unravel in unexpected ways.

The Good: The descriptions throughout this book are just beautiful. Each character, and each place, have a vivid life that appeals to the senses of the reader. I have not spent much time in the American South, but after reading this book, I feel as though I have lived in Virginia. Additionally, Kenny is a unique protagonist for whom you will never stop rooting, even as adversity after adversity closes in around hir.

The Meh: I hesitate to type what may be considered a spoiler, but I’ll phrase it as vaguely as I can and move on: the narrative tone, for reasons believable within the story, seems to promote a weary acceptance of violent behavior. It was frustrating as a reader to not share a character’s journey toward demanding self-respect.

Hand It To: Older teens, fans of Fannie Flagg or Jill Conner Browne, Nancy Pearl’s character and setting readers. (Note: this title is not marketed as YA, so despite its teen protagonist, I would consider it a crossover title.)

Brian Katcher–Almost Perfect

The What: Logan’s a good small-town Missouri boy. He lives in a trailer, runs track, and hangs out with his friends. He can’t get over his ex, Brenda, until a new girl arrives at his small high school. Sage is attractive, friendly, and mysterious: her parents won’t allow her to date. Logan and Sage become friends, and then something more than friends. When Logan finds out that Sage is a male-to-female transsexual, he is furious and refuses to speak to her. Yet no matter how hard he tries to deny it, he misses her, and is still attracted to her. What does that mean for him, and what will happen to Sage when she begins to share her secret?

The Good: Despite the story’s potential to devolve into melodrama (poor boy with problems falls for rich girl with bigger problems), Katcher’s sense of humor keeps the tone afloat. I laughed out loud so often that a co-worker sharing the break room with me looked up from her crossword puzzle in disbelief and asked, “What are you reading?” Logan’s self-deprecating approach to life, struggles with acceptance, and quiet insights will resonate with teens, especially guys. Also, the simultaneous closeness and distance encompassed in Logan’s relationships with his mother and sister (and his father, in absentia) will feel familiar to many teens.

The Meh: Two biggies. One, I enjoyed the story, but it’s too long. The middle needs to be tightened up to spare us some of Logan and Sage’s numerous ups and downs; I kept looking at the number of pages left and thinking, “Where can this story possibly go that would require this much page space?” Two, the cover will make it hard to sell to teenage guys, but that’s exactly who this book will most appeal to. Not ideal, Marketing Department.

Hand It To: Older teen guys, fans of “Luna” or “Parrotfish,” Nancy Pearl’s character readers, anyone interested in transgender fiction.

Ellen Wittlinger–Parrotfish

The What: Grady McNair wants to hang out with his friend Sebastian, hurts at the betrayal of his ex-best friend Eve, and moons over his crush, Kita. Oh, and he really wants to convince his dad that their annual Christmas extravaganza is more than a little ready to be retired. Unfortunately for Grady, he was born female, so everyone in his world knows him as “Angela.” He decides that, like the parrotfish, he will change the sex he lives as. He finds surprising allies, fierce enemies, and more when he decides to be himself.

The Good: This book is laugh-out-loud funny. It is about Grady’s gender issues, and he does face some serious repercussions, but it’s by no means a problem novel. I appreciated that. The treatment of gender was nuanced and informed. Grady makes a statement to the effect of being comfortable as a boy, but not being sure whether he’ll want to be a “man.” He pictures himself in the middle of the gender football field, a useful mental exercise if ever there was one. The teachers and administrators at Grady’s school alternately made me cheer and groan with disappointment/recognition. (Can we categorically outlaw that old chestnut, “This is just a phase”? Seriously, folks. That puppy’s gotta go.)

The Meh: Grady’s imagined dialogues were funny, but sometimes they interrupted the plot in ways that frustrated me. Also, the story suffers from a touch of “what if?” novel-itis: the author thought, “What if I wrote a YA book about a female-born person who wasn’t gender-normative?” Then this book happened. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but the premise-to-page journey is rather transparent here.

Hand It To: Readers interested in gender-nonconformism, fans of “Luna,” readers with a sense of humor, Nancy Pearl’s story and character readers.