Tag Archives: LGBT character

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

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The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017.

In 2013, agender white high school senior Sasha fell asleep on the bus on their way home from school in Oakland. Black teen Richard was also on the bus, and, egged on by friends, used his lighter to set fire to Sasha’s skirt. Dashka Slater’s enormously thoughtful and well-written book (staring life as an article in the NY Times Magazine) looks at the before and after for both victim and perpetrator.

Short chapters move between Sasha and Richard and move between narrative and background information. Starting with the two young men’s backgrounds, the author shows that though both teens have loving families and close supportive friends in common, their differences are stark: Sasha’s family is comfortably off, he attends an independent school and has Asperger’s; Richard comes from a poor family and has lost many loved ones to murder.

It is never clear why Richard committed this terrible act – he tells the police it’s because he’s homophobic, but it’s not clear if he actually is or if he even understands what it means. Many people in the book put it down to him being a 16 year-old boy and all the lack of foresight that goes with that. It certainly appears that he had no thought of the implications or seriousness of his act.

Slater creates empathy for both her lead protagonists, though I found myself more engaged by Richard’s story than Sasha’s. Sasha, apart from the obvious physical trauma of being set alight and the pain of recovery, appears to be relatively unscathed by the attack and takes a sanguine and rational attitude as he heads off to MIT where he seems to settle in socially and intellectually. Richard, on the other hand, is tried as an adult  for committing a hate crime, though is able to serve his time in a juvenile facility. In fact it is likely that he will be released this year, having been a model inmate and used the time to study.

Ms Slater gives illuminating chapters on such contextual topics as the vocabulary of gender, sexuality, and romantic inclinations, and she explains clearly and concisely the judicial system including a sympathetic section on restorative justice. Her journalistic background shows in her exemplary use of sources including interviews, video, public records, and Richard’s two heart-twisting letters of apology that were not given to Sasha’s parents until fourteen months after they were written.

This is a short book and a quick read but provides rich material for thought, discussion, and even action.

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Ship It by Britta Lundin

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Ship It by Britta Lundin
FreeForm, 2018.

Set in the world of comic cons and fanfic, this warm-hearted and funny debut novel takes a sharp look at identity and representation. High school junior narrator Claire is obsessed with Demon Heart, a TV fantasy show, and she writes romantic and explicit fanfiction about the two male leads, Smokey and Heart (in the vernacular, she ships SmokeHeart). Second narrator Forest plays Smokey and is openly appalled when Claire asks at a con panel about the possibility that his character is gay.

Over the course of several cons, both Claire and Forest evolve, understanding more about themselves and the importance of empathy. Claire’s connection with Demon Heart has grown from from her nerdy misfit loneliness in small town Idaho and her nascent understanding of her sexuality. As she finds more friends who get her and even tentatively starts a relationship with Tess, a black “homoromantic pansexual” she realizes there is more to real life than SmokeHeart going canon.

Forest is laser-focused on a career in action movies and believes  any suggestion of homosexuality in his role would be a death blow to his ambitions. But he come to (maybe unrealistically quickly) realize the importance of representation of all communities in the media and that once something is on screen it is up to the audience how they interpret it.

The support cast, including Rico who plays Heart, Claire’s somewhat overinvolved parents, and the PR team are all warmly supportive of Claire’s struggles. Tess is an interesting love interest – though seemingly sure of herself in many ways, she is also ashamed of her fandom and there are several missteps between the two young women.

TV writer Lundin creates a frothily manic, if slightly idealized world, informed by her knowledge of the realities of TV show production, social media, and the intense world of comic cons. She acknowledges the lack of diversity in mainstream TV shows and though the ending suggests that attitudes are changing, it’s probably slower in real life.

Ideal for teens who enjoy shipping their favorite TV and movie characters.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

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What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
HarperCollins, October 2018.

In this appealing YA romance, Arthur Seuss (written by Albertalli of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda fame) and Ben Alejo (written by Silvera who also wrote the wonderful They Both Die at the End) meet cute in a New York Post Office. Both are rising high school seniors: Arthur, from Georgia, is interning in a law office; Ben is at summer school trying to keep himself from repeating junior year.

But when they fail to get a way to contact each other, it looks like their romance is fated not to happen – and Fate is big in this book – but Arthur doesn’t accept that and finds a way. Though it does seem that the universe wants them together, in the end it can only do so much. Their romance stutters at first and they need several do-overs (also a theme) until they hit their groove. But there’s still problems as Arthur obsesses over Ben’s relationship with his ex, Hudson, and hanging over them is Arthur’s return to Georgia at the end of the summer.

Both boys have loving supportive parents and both have a “squad” of typical YA novel witty and delightful friends. The authors explore the idea of the complications for friendships when the friends begin to date especially when it’s each other. Ben wants to have both friends and a boyfriend but that doesn’t always seem possible.

There is something of a rose-tinted fantasy hue over this novel. New York is a gorgeous backdrop to their romance and Arthur is the gawping tourist who wants “that New York feeling like they talk about in musicals – that wide-open, top-volume, Technicolor joy.” With the exception of an ugly confrontation on the subway, it seems like New York has sprinkled magic dust over our couple. Though Arthur muses on the difference between Lonely Messy Real Arthur and Upbeat Instagram Arthur, it does feel like both he and Ben lived charmed lives.

An epilogue set fifteen months later introduces some hard reality, but it’s still soft focus enough not to break the spell. I was thoroughly charmed by this two-hander and I suspect fans of Albertalli’s and Silvera’s will be too.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood

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The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood
Candlewick, 2018.

This is the second collection of feminist stories edited by Jessica Spotswood, following on from A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls. I don’t usually read short stories (and I haven’t read Tyranny) as I find the form a little unsatisfying but the title appealed and I picked the book up for review.

This collection of 12 stories focuses on young women on the cusp of making a significant change in their life and stepping away from what is expected, even demanded, from them; girls who are “radical in their communities.”

The stories all feature fictional girls but are set in historically accurate places across the US and in eras ranging from 1823 to 1984, and though a couple do have an element of fantasy they are rooted in the real world. There is a range of protagonists with diverse ethnicities, religions, abilities, and sexual preferences, but who all have in common the desire to follow their hearts and their intellects and break out of society or, as Spotswood puts it in her introduction, there is a “quiet badassery in girls taking charge of their own destinies.”

The majority of stories are about the catalyzing events that crystallize these desires and usually end with the young women preparing to make it happen. In endnotes, each author shows how she has brought her own background and philosophy to her story, making for a deeply personal and heartfelt collection. Because the stories are similar thematically, there is a synergy in reading them together as a collection.

Though all stories are readable, highlights are Better for All the World by Marieke Nijkamp about Carrie, an autistic girl who wants to study the law in 1927 Washington DC and The Belle of the Ball, set in 1952 Brooklyn, by Sarvenaz Tash, in which Rosemary finds a route to pursue her dream of writing comedy.

Perfect for readers who enjoy the quick hit of short stories and are interested in seeing history from a different perspective through exploring a wide range of intersectional feminist outlooks.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen, 2017.

Lord Henry “Monty” Montague, Viscount of Disley, his sister, Felicity, and his friend, biracial Percy Newton are off on their Grand Tour of Europe. But instead of taking in culture and high society in the prominent continental cities of their time, they end up in a series of adventures precipitated by Monty stealing a trinket box from the Duke of Bourbon.

All three characters are hiding their secrets from the world and each other. 18-year-old Monty seems to be a shallow, if enchanting, rake without a care or thought for anyone else, but he is deeply in love with Percy though doesn’t dare to tell him. Once the three are on the run from the aristocrat, they get held up by highwaymen, Monty is imprisoned in Barcelona, and then they are captured by pirates. As their troubles pile up, their secrets start to spill and this becomes much more than a lighthearted romp through 18th century high society.

Ms Lee has done thorough research on the attitudes and mores of the period, which she shares in an afterword, but the novel wears the learning lightly. Through Percy, we see how dark-skinned people were treated, even if they were part of a high born family; and the beliefs about women’s capabilities are explored through Felicity’s unfulfilled ambitions.

Monty, as our narrator, starts off as an oblivious and childishly spoilt social gadfly – he drinks, he gambles, and has flings with both sexes. The adventure tests and tries him, and his development and maturing is organic and written beautifully. Though Felicity and Percy don’t have the need to grow up in quite the same way, they both are gradually revealed as satisfyingly well rounded characters.

The plot is a rollercoaster of escapades, parties, intrigue, and romantic near misses. The ending leaves all three characters with closure, but I’m rather hoping Ms Lee will continue the adventures of these charmers.

Posted by John David Anderson

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Posted by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2017

Bench, Wolf and Deedee are Frost’s people, they make up his middle school tribe – he eats lunch with them, plays Dungeon and Dragons with them at weekends, and supports them in their passions. They have been together for years and are planning to cruise through middle and high school together.

But then two things happen: the school principal bans cellphones and Rose Holland starts at their school. These catalysts test the boys’ friendship and reveals the level of cruelty that anonymity can bring out in 8th graders. The cellphone ban generates a new method of communication – unsigned post-it notes. Many are just harmless notes to friends but a few are hate-filled.

The novel starts like an Andrew Clements novel with a funny situation at a school, but quickly gets much darker and more nuanced as it tackles middle school social dynamics rather than elementary school ones.

Frost, the narrator and the poet of the group, can only watch as his tribe fractures. Bench (so-called because of where he tends to spend most sports games) is not keen on letting Rose join them and when he makes a stunning catch in a football game and becomes part of the jock crowd he drifts away from them. Sensitive Wolf, a gifted pianist, bonds with Rose as they are both outsiders who become the target of post-it bullying. Only Dungeon master Indian American Deedee seems comfortable, or perhaps oblivious, with the status quo. Rose, “tall and wide,” has moved around from school to school and knows all about name-calling and bullying.

Set in a small town in Michigan, the novel zooms out from the school and portrays a variety of family structures and dynamics, and the effect that can have on a child. Frost’s parents are bitterly divorced, whereas Wolf’s are bitterly still together.

Mr Anderson seems comfortable to move between fantasy and novels, and writes equally adeptly in both genres. Kids who enjoyed Ms Bixby’s Last Day, should be happy to move up to the middle school machinations of Posted.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Clarion, 2017.

Salvador Silva is just starting senior year at high school and finds that his comfortable life is about to be disrupted both externally and internally. His grandmother, Mima, is dying of cancer, his best friend Sam is having difficulties with her mother, and his other good friend, Fito, is having even worse family troubles. And then Sal himself is feeling different – he punches a kid and then another, which is so not how he has been brought up.

There are some traditional and non-traditional families in this book and a lot of dead mothers. A lot. Sal himself is a white boy who was adopted by Vicente, a gay Mexican American, after his mother died when he was three. He doesn’t know who his birth father is and begins to suspect that these aggressive feelings must come from him. Vicente gives him a letter from his mother but Sal doesn’t feel quite ready to open it yet.

Vicente is the sort of saint-like parent that you only get in novels (or at least I don’t know any of them, myself included). He has sacrificed his life for Sal and always has the right thing to say or do, no matter how difficult the problem. When a boyfriend from the past returns, the family is expanded as Marcos turns out to be similarly saintly.

There’s also the sibling bonds that Sal has created with Sam and, tentatively, with Fito, both Latinx.  Sam is smart and confident but is fractured by her relationship with her mother, and unusually for a YA novel, her feelings for Sal stay at a sisterly level. Fito is also smart but because of his family dynamics, he feels worthless and that he deserves nothing.

The writing is easy but precise, short chapters often punctuated with text conversations. The author creates a warm, loving family even if it is not traditional. Sal has his moments, but the reader knows that with the loving support he gets from his father, relatives, and friends – all of whom make up his family – he’s going to be ok.