Last summer (let’s be honest, FAR too long ago), Team Bkmrk was kind enough to send me a full set of books for their #ReadWithPride campaign that they are doing with Lucy Powrie – As I’ve been reading a lot of hefty adult fantasy, this stack of queer YA has been proving a great summer distraction (and then taken me all winter to actually finish with them because I am a horrible person and can’t be trusted), and I thought I’d share mini-reviews of all of the lovely books with you!
A massive thank you to Hachette Children’s Publishing for providing me with the books!
Heartstopper is the first volume of the print version of a webcomic focusing on two teenage boys falling in love. It is adorable and emotional – I read this in a single sitting while feeling lonely one night and almost cried. It makes me so happy that books like this exist and are accessible nowadays – I think I would have figured out quite a few things about myself a lot earlier if YA was as inclusive in the early 2000s as it is now (even if it isn’t perfect). Alice Oseman poignantly tells the story of Nick and Charlie as they navigate being queer, teenagers, and coming-of-age in today’s Britain, accompanied by wonderful art. I very much recommend and I can’t wait to keep reading this series.
Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal is a modern reimagining of Moby Dick – it took me quite a while to grasp that and the references to it, as it was not clear from the blurb (should have guessed, given that one of the characters was named Ahab, but that’s heatwave and Covid brain for you). It is the story of a teenager discovering her sexuality and coming to terms with her life, told through the lens of a dusty classic that most of us have only heard of. Kit de Waal manages to make the story accessible, relevant and immediate, though for me the stakes of the story didn’t come through enough. It led to the tension lagging and the pace dragging a bit, but that might be more due to me as a reader than the book itself, as I do rarely read contemporaries these days.
Eight Pieces of Silva by Patrice Lawrence was one of the books on the stack that tempted me most – but it didn’t work for me at all. I almost DNF’d it so many times, as to me, the plot was not believeable at all. This is the story of Silva and Becks, London teenagers left alone while their newly married parents are on honeymoon. A story of obsession, love and its aftermath. I know this sounds weird coming from a fantasy reader, but when I read contemporary, I do have to be able to somewhat see the story as realistic. Maybe it is due to a cultural disconnect from how and where I grew up, but this didn’t work for me, though reviews indicate it does for many others.
Alice in Wonderland is my favourite classic. It is wonderfully weird and quirky and nonsensical, and I love it more than anything. Wonderland by Juno Dawson is just as strange and wonderful. Technically the third in a series of interconnected novels, it reads just as well as a standalone – it is the first of Dawson’s works I have read and I did not feel like I was missing out on anything. The Wonderland allegories are sometimes very heavy-handed, but that is what created the magic for me: half contemporary thriller about a trans girl, half crazy psychodelic trip through Wonderland. It is not fully realistic, nor a work of fantasy, but something in between – I enjoyed it a lot. Alice’s transness and bisexuality – and unashamed sexuality – just happened to be part of the story rather than the main element being interrogated, which was refreshing. Yay for incidental queerness!
After that, Only Mostly Devastated was the calm after the storm. Back to the roots of contemporary YA rom-com. Refreshing, cute, but still nuanced, the story of Will and Ollie is a cute summer read – exactly what the doctor ordered to distract myself from my problems. After they have a summer fling, Ollie finds himself moving to the same town as his crush Will, only to realise that Will isn’t out yet… Chaos and shenanigans ensue, they run hot and cold, and the importance of friendship and being true to yourself is explored.
Sadly, I did not enjoy Can Everyone Please Calm Down? by Mae Martin at all. Conceived as a sort of guidebook to modern sexuality it read more as a very self-indulgent autobiography of coming to terms with the author’s own sexuality in a supportive environment rather than being a helpful handbook for struggling teens. The tone was often cringeworthy and had me rolling my eyes throughout. I think a book more along the lines of Kelly Jensen’s recent anthology Body Talk specifically aimed at sexuality would hit the spot much more (see here for my review of the anthology).
The same is true of Read With Pride by Lucy Powrie. I was not able to connect with the book at all and ended up abandoning it after about eighty pages. I think part was as I am clearly too old to be the target audience for the novel, as it is a lower-YA aimed book, but also I felt like issues were over-explained and plot elements were too predictable. But as the book has a 4.22 rating on Goodreads, it is likely more of a me-thing than anything else!
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta was probably my favourite book out of the bunch. On paper, it’s not my thing at all – I’m not a poetry person and this is a novel in verse, but I fell in love with it. It is raw and honest and deals with figuring out who you are away from home as you grow into being an adult. I thought it was brilliant and devoured it in a single sitting. And oh, how strong its sense of fuck you to society and conformity is. This is the kind of book every teen needs, especially teens with marginalised identities. Michael is a fabulous leading character, because he doesn’t have any answers, he makes them up as he goes and is just as clueless as most of us are.
Last, but not least, The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. This is the only book on the list that I’d read beforehand – I’d pre-ordered it in hardback and was now sent it in paperback too. This is the story of Dracula’s brides, and how they came to be. It is a story of fierce girls, of sisters who love each other more than anything, while being incredibly competitive with each other. It also features a very sweet sapphic relationship between two traumatised girls – I’m all here for the slow-burn and helping each other heal. And Kiran’s writing is stunning – she is a brilliant writer in all her book, be it this YA or her MG or adult work.