October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman

Although I didn’t want April to slip away without reviewing a poetry book, this is not the one I thought I’d cover. It has sat on my shelf since last fall, it’s slim spine slipping down between other books, sometimes shoved behind but always reemerging to ask the mute question, “Why haven’t you read me?” Why? Because I was afraid it would hurt. Because I was afraid it would make me cry. Because this is a collection of poetry in many forms that examines the murder of Matthew Shepard and it’s aftermath and I knew it would be an emotionally brutal read. And it was. All those things happened—my heart broke, my head ached, I cried. But I’m glad I read it. Because this is also a collection of poetry in many forms that pays tribute to a life cut short and calls on anyone who reads it to fight against the ignorance, intolerance and hatred that caused Matthew’s murder. Each poem assumes a voice of a person or object that either witnessed or was in someway touched by Matthew’s life or death. We hear from the fence he was hung on, the moon who witnessed it, the prosecutor who argued his case, the jury who decided the guilt of killers, the judge who handed down two life sentences in prison. But the poems that touched me the most were those modeled after the famous apology poem “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. (Probably because all the apologies in the world won’t bring him back.) There’s this one, in the voice of Matthew’s heart: “This is just to say/I’m sorry/I kept beating/and beating/inside/your shattered chest/Forgive me/for keeping you/alive/so long/I knew it would kill me/to let you go” And this one in the voice of the judge who rejected the killers’ bogus defense: “This is just to say/I’m sorry/to deny/your request/to use/the gay panic defense/Forgive me/for pointing out/the obvious:/there was someone gay/and panicked that night/but that someone wasn’t you.” Author Leslea Newman has also included loads of fantastic backmatter, including a heartfelt author’s note, an annotated list of all the news sources she drew from to inform her poems and additional resources should readers want to learn more about Matthew Shepard’s life and memorial. A bittersweet and powerful collection.

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

Celia Door is DARK. “When I say I turned Dark, what I really mean is that I gave up. I gave up on trying to fit in and make everyone like me. I accepted that no one liked me and I didn’t care what they thought…I realized that, in a field of sunflowers, I’m a black-eyed Susan.” It’s freshman year. Celia is turning over a new leaf. And it’s black. She’s never without her black boots, black hoodie and black and white composition notebook that holds her dark poetry. This ensemble helps her get into the correct mindset to enact what she hopes will be a singular, spectacular act of sweet revenge. “I came to Hersey High School for revenge. I didn’t have a specific plan worked out, but I did know this: it would be public, it would humiliate someone, and it would be clear to that someone that I had orchestrated it.” Eighth grade was tough. Celia’s parents split, she lost her best friend and she was publically humiliated. Now she only hopes to take down the individual who made her lose faith in herself that awful year. Enter new kid Drake Berlin, who “had the kind of style that you can only achieve if you were raised in New York City or possibly a foreign country.” Drake is as bright as Celia is dark, as popular as she is unpopular. Shockingly, of all the kids at school, he picks her to be his friend. Celia is flattered, but she can’t let Drake distract her from her plan. And she can’t tell him the terrible truth of what happened last year. But Drake is hiding a secret too. And if Celia and Drake don’t figure out a way to bring their secrets to light, they just might be undone by their own darkness. If you haven’t noticed, I can’t stop quoting pithy passages from this marvelous debut. Celia’s first person narration is sprinkled with humor and pathos in equal measure, which ended up making me laugh or cry every other page. Plus, she is a woman after my own book-loving heart. Celia freakin’ adores the library and isn’t afraid to say so: “I love a library the way a swim team loves towels,” and “Libraries are my power centers.” She even organizes her book crushes by genre. “My classic crush is Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. For fantasy, I’ve chosen Aragon from Lord of the Rings. Sci-fi is a tie between Peeta and Gale from Hunger Games, and my favorite contemporary fiction bad boy is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye.” In addition to her wonderful wordsmithery and pitch perfect portrayal of a girl in crisis, author Karen Finneyfrock has crafted an all too real tale about the consequences of bullying and the high price of revenge. Celia’s ninth grade journey is painful and wonderful and tragic and true. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this one.

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

“I think about how I have different secrets hidden from different people in my life in different areas of my life. I think about how that might be the reason I’m chewing on Rolaids all the time.” Astrid Jones is an excellent secret keeper. If anyone ever finds out that her best friend is gay or that her dad is smoking pot in the garage or that her mother doesn’t really love her, it’s not going to be because they heard it from Astrid. The only people who ever get to listen to Astrid’s secrets are the anonymous passengers she imagines in planes that fly over the backyard picnic table where she goes to lie down and think. It’s safe to silently tell the passengers. They won’t report back to her mom or gossip about her at school. The passengers are the only ones that know Astrid has a secret too, and it’s about who she loves. But secrets have a way of coming out. All of Astrid’s secrets are suddenly revealed one night when she is caught somewhere she shouldn’t be, and any comfort she ever gleaned from conversations with the imaginary passengers vanishes. Now she will have to take a risk and reach out to the real people in her life–which won’t be easy, but promises to be much more rewarding. This perceptive offering about an introspective teen trying to learn to live her life out loud is just the type of super smart book I’ve come to expect from wickedly cerebral author A.S. King. She’s building quite an impressive back list and I can’t wait to see what she does next. (To read a short, funny and insightful interview with out-of-the-box King that will challenge your image of authors, click here.)

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Future Project Runway contestant Lola Nolan has a pretty sweet life. She lives in a mint green Victorian house with two dads who adore her in the swank Castro district of San Francisco. She has her sewing machine, a lovable dog named Heavens to Betsy and an older rock star boyfriend named Max who makes her heart go pitter pat. But when her childhood nemesis and hot shot figure skater Calliope Bell moves back next door, Lola’s sweet life turns sour. Calliope and her nasty attitude are bad enough, but it’s her fraternal twin Cricket who really breaks Lola’s heart. Back in the day, Lola and Cricket almost hooked up. But something terrible happened, something Lola still doesn’t completely understand, and now she can’t even look at Cricket without feeling her stomach sink. Unfortunately, Cricket doesn’t seem to be getting the memo that Lola is so over him, because he keeps chatting her up through their parallel bedroom windows just like old times. Soon Lola has to face the fact that the reason Cricket isn’t getting the message is because she may be sending him mixed signals. To make matters worse, Max starts making jealous noises over Cricket just as Lola’s birth mom, a homeless fortune teller, shows up one day at the front door demanding help. What’s a budding fashionista to do? Lola tries to ignore her troubles by burying herself in her latest creation, a Marie Antoinette-like dress, complete with bird cage wig and old fashioned stays. But her latent feelings for Cricket can’t be denied, and before she knows it, Lola is knee-deep in all kinds of drama-rama. Stephanie Perkins’ trademark effervescent dialogue carries her second novel along on waves of witty banter that a good friend of mine compared to a John Hughes movie. I couldn’t agree more, and look forward to more from this too cool, blue-hued, former librarian author.

Pink by Lili Wilkinson

“I never wore pink. Pink wasn’t cool. Pink wasn’t existential. Pink was for princesses and ballet shoes and glittery fairies.” Serious, all-black-wearing Ava has a secret. She longs to be one of those “Girly girls who wore flavored lip gloss and read magazines and talked on the phone…girls who like boys.” Because Ava likes girls. Or, at least, one girl: Chloe, she of the dark vintage clothes and sophisticated literature taste. But now Ava is wondering if maybe she just didn’t give the color pink or boys enough of chance. So she’s transferring to a posh private school in order to try on a different identity, one that her way-left-of-center parents and cynical Chloe definitely wouldn’t approve of. At her new school, she tries fitting in with the Pastels: smart, Brooks Brothers-styled preppies with perfect hair and grades who are all performing in the high school musical. Unfortunately, the best voice-challenged Ava can do is make stage crew, where she meets the anti-Glee gang: the Screws. Like Chloe, they favor dark clothing but have more wider ranging interests than deconstructing Sartre or black and white French films. They’re actually really smart, funny and cool, when they’re not constantly slagging on the actors. Ava warms to the Screws more than she thought she would, but she also still wants to be a pretty Pastel. The deeper undercover she goes, the more confused she gets. Is she gay or straight? Preppy or pouty? Pastel or Screw? Is it possible to have it all and Chloe too? Or is she doomed to have to choose? This refreshing fish-out-of-water story is just what the doctor ordered to spice up the tired old chick lit genre. Ava’s classic adolescent identity crisis is made brand spanking new by the fact that she’s already living the bohemian life most high schoolers dream of, but instead longs for structure, collared shirts and a date to the senior prom. Which just goes to show that the grass is always greener on the other side of the cafeteria…and nobody illustrates that fact better than Aussie author Lili Wilkinson, who also happens to be employed in the incredibly cool profession of teen librarian when she’s not writing super snappy dialogue or creating moments of exquisite fictional teenage embarrassment. All this good, girly, gothy fun can be found at a library or bookstore near you!

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan

will grayson
Meet Will Grayson. He’s the guy at school who tries to blend in with the scenery. He doesn’t like to rock the boat and he doesn’t like to get too emotional. “I don’t really understand the point of crying. Also, I feel that crying is almost…totally avoidable if you follow two very simple rules: 1. Don’t care too much. 2. Shut up.” Unfortunately, Will’s best friend Tiny Cooper is his exact opposite: big, loud and flamboyantly gay. And Tiny keeps making Will care—about him, about the musical he’s writing based on his life called “Tiny Dancer,” and about Jane, the uber-smart girl in the Gay-Straight Alliance who likes the band Neutral Milk Hotel as much as Will does and drives an orange Volvo. Will could probably care about Jane if he tried. In fact, he could probably fall in love with her—if he wasn’t so terrified by the idea that she might find out the truth about him: “Not that smart. Not that hot. Not that nice. Not that funny. That’s me: I’m not that.”

Now, meet will grayson. He’s the guy at school who hates everything. “i am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me.” He feels one emotion—rage, and makes sure everyone knows it. Unfortunately for will, despite his obvious dissing of her, this girl Maura seems to like him although he can’t understand why. “it’s like those people who become friends in prison even though they would never really talk to each other if they weren’t in prison. that’s what maura and i are like, i think.” will’s only solace is chatting online with isaac, a guy he’s never met face to face but who feels like his soulmate. He could probably fall in love with isaac if he let himself. And that’s exactly what he intends to do when makes plans to meet up with isaac in Chicago in, of all ironic places, a porn shop.

…the same porn shop Will Grayson finds himself wandering around after his fake i.d. gets him thrown out of the club he tried to get into with Tiny and Jane. Will Grayson, meet will grayson. Two very different dudes with the same name and the same problems when it comes to matters of the heart. But now that they’ve actually met? Their lives will never be the same…

This epic and utterly unforgettable book brings together two of the biggest and brightest names in YA lit: John Green and David Levithan, both writing as, well, will Grayson. As a result, the levels of smart and funny are off the charts. My advance review copy is chock full of scribbles, giggles, highlights and underlines. And stealing every scene is the irrepressible Tiny, whose sheer exuberance at being alive and being in love helps both Will graysons get their acts together. (The amazing thing about Tiny is that he’s written by both Green and Levithan, who manage to keep him consistently fabulous through the whole book.) Who’s writing who? Well, you’ll just have to read it to find out!

Ash by Malinda Lo

In a medieval land where science and logic have begun to overtake faith and enchantment, Aisling still believes in fairies, having been fed a steady diet of supernatural tales by her beloved mother since she was a tot. But now her mother is dead and her father soon follows—but not before marrying a cold noblewoman who finds fairies to be superstitious nonsense. After her father’s death, Aisling or Ash as she is called, is demoted to a servant in her stepmother’s household, where she begins to dream of escape. She visits her mother’s grave, willing the fairies to take her, only to be turned down again and again by the fairy lord Sidhean. Then one day, Ash notices and is noticed by the King’s Huntress, a mysterious woman named Kaisa. Despite the difference in their stations, they soon become friends and suddenly Ash regains her will to live. But now she needs a favor in order to get closer to Kaisa, a favor only Sidhean can grant. The fairy agrees to give Ash what she wants, in exchange for her vow that she will become his “when the time is right.” Ash recklessly agrees, but soon regrets her choice when she realizes that she no longer wishes to leave her world for the cold, bright world of Fairie. Is it too late to change her mind? Is she brave enough to break her promise? Told in an understated, traditional tone, this upgraded and updated Cinderella story will take you by surprise when the love triangle of girl, fairy and huntress takes an unexpected turn. Newbie author Malinda Lo gives this oft-told tale a modern spit and polish, the results of which landed her as a finalist for the American Library Association’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award. And Lo’s in pretty hot company, check out the rest of the nominees (including Nina LaCour)  here.

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

almost perfectWhat if everything you believed to be true about someone was a lie? Well, not EVERYTHING. Just one thing. But it’s the one thing that changes everything. High school senior and small town boy Logan Witherspoon has the rug pulled out from under him when smart, sexy, funny new girl Sage reveals after their first kiss that she is biologically a boy. Hurt, confused and angry, Logan at first wants nothing more to do with her. But he misses Sage’s laughter and easy banter more than he thought, and soon he can no longer deny his physical feelings for her. The thing is, Sage LOOKS like a girl, ACTS like a girl, SMELLS like a girl and for all intensive purposes IS a girl in every way except, well, THAT one. Logan has never met a transgendered person in his life and has no idea how to navigate this new relationship. Does his attraction to Sage mean that he’s gay? What if someone finds out about Sage? Is he prepared to stand up for her? How can he explain Sage to his family and friends, and does he even have to? All because of “one teeny, little, microscopic, enormous, universe-sized complication,” Logan’s world has been turned upside down, and instead of answers he just keeps finding more questions. The biggest question of all is if he knows how to be a true friend to someone when she needs him the most. Unfortunately, that’s the one question Logan is having the most trouble answering. This honest, funny, and often heartbreaking book openly addresses the prejudices and misconceptions often held about transgendered people and puts them out there for us to examine, understand and hopefully discard as nonsense and ignorance. What Logan painfully comes to understand is that you fall in love with a person, not a gender, and that if you let it, love will always find a way. Make sure to check out Katcher’s equally excellent first novel, Playing with Matches.)

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

loveNYC teens Claire, Jasper and Peter find their lives intersecting in unexpected, meaningful ways after the tragedy of September 11 brings them together. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, Claire is starting her day at school, Peter is skipping homeroom in favor of snagging the new Bob Dylan album, and Jasper is sound asleep. After the attack, Claire is sleepless and anxious, Peter searches for meaning in music, and Jasper shuts down. Peter and Claire know each other from school, and each make a connection with college freshman Jasper after 9/11—Peter asks Jasper out, while Claire runs into him when they are both wandering around Ground Zero, trying to comprehend what has happened to their city, their country and their lives. Slowly, as the three of them muddle through their complicated feelings, they each come to a place of healing that they never would have made it to without each other. And that’s about it. This quiet meditation about the effects of 9/11 on three different individuals isn’t so much about what happened as it is about what happened next. It’s about how we got through and how we continue to get through, and it is full of David Levithan’s trademark thoughtful observations about human nature that always get me right HERE. Like this one attributed to Claire: “If only I still had my faith in old books and reruns. They are among the things I feel have been taken from me, along with humor and hope and the ability to savor.” Or Peter’s thought about the power of music post 9/11: “We all understand that this is just music. We all understand that these songs were written Before—there is no way the band could have known how we would hear them After. But the songs ring true.” As a New Yorker who was working downtown on 9/11, I kept reading this book and saying to myself, “Yes, I remember feeling that way.” But you don’t have to have been in New York on that day to understand the feelings Levithan writes so eloquently about, because in many ways I think we all continue to share the pain and the hope that was generated world wide by the events of September 11.

King of the Screwups by K.L.Going

There’s only one thing high school senior Liam Geller is good at—screwing up. No matter what he does or says, he just can’t seem to please his uber-strict dad, a controlling CEO who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Unfortunately, metrosexual Liam is his former runway model mother’s son—popular, gorgeous and impulsive, all qualities that his father despises. So when Liam finally screws up one time too many (getting caught drunk on his dad’s desk with a nearly naked girl), he is sent to stay with his gay, glam-rocking, trailer-park-living “Aunt” Pete in upstate New York. Aunt Pete is about as thrilled about the situation as Liam is, and the two strike an uneasy truce: Liam will ignore Aunt Pete’s large collection of animal-print and neon colored spandex pants if Aunt Pete will carve out a corner of the trailer as a make-shift closet for Liam’s select number of carefully chosen designer duds. In an effort to embrace trailer living and get back into his dad’s good graces, Liam resolves to squash all the aspects of his personality that his dad hates and become the biggest nerd the world has ever seen. There’s just one problem—his impeccably good taste and inherently good looks keep getting in the way. Even as a dork, Liam is a complete and utter failure. Will Aunt Pete ever be able to convince Liam that what his dad views as weaknesses are actually strengths? Or will Liam continue to hide his light under the bushel of his dad’s sky-high expectations and unrealistic demands? Liam struggles to see what the reader and Aunt Pete understand right away–he is massively talented, but what he and his father view as “talent” are two totally different things. Not just another “my parents are ruining my life” re-tread, this very funny fish-out-of-water tale is also about discovering what you’re good at and staying true to your personal vision, no matter how outrageous it may seem to others.

Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers

Johnny is a black-nail-polish-and-eyeliner-wearing recovering alcoholic who loves The Cure, The Ramones, and, ever since rehab, Blondie. Maria is a Goth-girl-on-the-rocks who dances by herself to Nico, The Clash, and Patti Smith. Neither one thinks anyone will ever love them, until they pogo into each other in a mosh pit at a local all-ages club. It’s Love and Rockets at first sight, except for the troubling fact that Maria initially thought Johnny was gay. Why? Just because he likes to Robert-Smith-it up a little? Johnny knows he’s not gay, or he wouldn’t dig Maria so much. But what do you call it when you like girls, but you secretly want to try on that little white dress from the thrift store that looks exactly like the one Debbie Harry wears on the cover of Parallel Lines? This hip work by newbie author Meagan Brothers encourages readers to explore the meanings of all the shades of gray that exist between gay and straight. Johnny and Maria’s romance is realistic, sweet, and quite unlike any other I’ve read about in teen books. After all, how many girlfriends would encourage their boyfriends to enter a drag contest? If you like Freak Show by James St. James or Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, you’re gonna love DHSF.

Another Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby

another kind of cowboyAlex Ford wanted a horse so bad when he was little that he named his black bike “Del Magnifico le Noir” and fed it hay after he tied it up in the garage at night. Now that he’s a teenager and owns sweet, swaybacked Turnip, he tries to be grateful for the old cow horse. But what Alex really yearns for is dressage, the English tradition of riding, and poor old Turnip just doesn’t cut it when it comes to performing the fancy steps dressage demands. But Turnip isn’t the only one standing in Alex’s way. There’s also his macho alcoholic dad who thinks that dressage is for pretty boys and pansies, and the infuriating Cleo O’Shea, a spoiled rich girl who boards her horse at the stable where Alex works, and doesn’t half appreciate how lucky she is to have everything Alex wants. Adding insult to injury, Cleo develops a crush on him, not realizing that if Alex ever found time for a relationship outside the stable, it would be with a boy, NOT a girl. Will this reluctant cowboy ever be able to trade in his spurs for jodhpurs? Will he ever be able to find both the horse and the boy of his dreams? And if he does, how will he convince his dad that dressage didn’t make him gay, he was always that way? Mixing laughter with heartbreak in equal measure, Canadian queen of funny Susan Juby has penned an original story about being true to yourself and learning how to trot to your own beat. Experience more of Juby’s snort-inducing, offbeat humor online at www.susanjuby.com

Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

someday this painEighteen-year-old New Yorker James Sveck is happiest by himself. “People, at least in my experience, rarely say anything interesting to each other. They always talk about their lives and they don’t have very interesting lives. So I get impatient.” So now it’s his last summer before college, and James isn’t even sure he WANTS to go to college. He may just chuck it all and use his tuition money to buy a house in Kansas where he can be completely and utterly ALONE. But his divorced parents, worried about his strange love for the Mid-West and the fact that he may be gay (even though it supposedly “wouldn’t bother them one bit!”) send him to a shrink to in order to clear up his issues and go off to Brown like a good boy. Though James is skeptical about therapy at first, Dr. Adler manages to get him talking about all the things he never thought he’d share—his disastrous school trip to Washington D.C., his unacknowledged attraction to his mother’s sophisticated male gallery employee, and what he might have seen from the windows of his downtown Manhattan high school on 9/11. Suddenly, James realizes he is completely and utterly SAD, and has been for a long time. What he decides to do in order to change his depressed status forms the basis of this neurotic, funny, Woody-Allen-film of a YA novel. Its’ twin sister in the world of YA lit. is Garret Freymann-Weyr’s brilliant My Heartbeat, also featuring a smart, confused New York teen with issues. So if you’re finally sick of the vapid world of Gossip Girl, come visit a whole other New York within the pages of adult author Peter Cameron’s first title for older teens.

Freak Show by James St. James

freak showI have just two words for you, James St. James: LOVE IT! Your unrepentantly outrageous and brutally honest bi-polar portrayal of seventeen-year-old Billy Bloom, drag-queen-in-training-wheels is one of the freshest, funniest YA novels I’ve read in YEARS. My only complaint is that this wasn’t a picture book, so I couldn’t get a gander at all of Billy’s meticulously constructed outfits. Yes, to Billy Bloom, “Being fabulous, being relentlessly fabulous, is damned hard, hard work, I can tell you…It requires more than just…platform boots and an ironic tee to cut it in today’s marketplace.” Billy is determined to bring fashion and culture to the “Stepford teens” who populate his new private school in the depths of swampy red state Florida. But his unrelenting good cheer in the face of apathetic teachers and waves of spitballs is finally squashed by a brutal beating that he suffers at the hands of several football players. After a long recovery and a great deal of soul-searching, Billy comes to the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with him, it’s the REST of the world who needs to learn how to deal! So he decides to launch his most ambitious project to date—a run for Homecoming Queen. Does Billy have a hope in heck? Or are all his glitter-dreams destined to go up in a poof of lavender-colored smoke? Make no mistake, this book isn’t just for the cross-dressers among us (although, they will love it). It is for every teen who was told he or she couldn’t play, can’t join, or isn’t invited, and who perservered anyway. Even though St. James’s message comes dressed in heels and a tiara, it still rings true: be yourself, no matter what, because at the end of the day, “you must find your own path and live with your own decisions.” And really, can any book blurbed by both Michael Cart AND Perez Hilton be anything short of FABULOUS? Slide into your best pair of feathery pink marabous and RUN not walk to your nearest library branch or bookstore to check out the best comeback-kid story since Justin Timberlake’s post ‘N Sync career!

Dramarama by E. Lockhart

dramaramaOh, E. Lockhart, could I love you more? I thought my love was complete after reading The Boyfriend List and Fly on the Wall. But, incredibly, my love for both of those books has been surpassed by my passion for the delicious Dramarama, which does for theater camp what Craig Thompson’s Blankets did for Jesus camp! (no not that one) Sayde (which sounds so much more “gawky-sexy” than plain old “Sarah”) and her best boy friend Demi (who has been in “straight drag” for far too long) travel to the Wildewood Summer Theater Institute in order to escape Ohio and finally be their true, fabulous selves. But the chance to unlease their amazing inner Lizas doesn’t go quite as Sayde expected. Instead of growing even closer, the BFF’s begin to drift apart. Demi discovers the strong, gay black man he was meant to be, and learns to toe the line when it comes to the rules of rehearsals, while Sayde is constantly pushing boundaries, and coming to the realization that she may be a better director than actor. Can Sayde learn to tamp down her “lurking bigness,” or is it about to explode all over the place and get her thrown out of not only drama camp, but also Demi’s heart? My teenage friends, you don’t have to be a Sandy or a Shark to appreciate both the drama and the real soul-searching that’s going on between these two friends. But if you are not of the musical theater ilk and want to hear the tunes Sayde’s obsessed with, visit E. Lockhart’s website www.theboyfriendlist.com and click on “Sadye’s iMix” in the right hand column for the songs that inspired the characters.