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Gay Pride

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Today we have a two-fer! Are you in the mood for a quick nonfiction read? Or perhaps a fictional take on the Grand Tour? Maybe some history with a side of sass? Perhaps a rogue taking a hedonistic last hurrah before shouldering familial responsibilities? OK, I’m going to stop asking questions and just get on with this introduction. We’ve got a title with two stars, and a title with four. Both of these books have a definitive voice telling the story. Both of these are reads that will entertain you, and keep you thinking.  Do you think one of these books could walk away with a medal?

queer thereQueer, There, and Everywhere by Sarah Prager
May, 2017 HarperCollins
Reviewed from an eBook

So let me be totally honest, I saw the title and cover art for this book and immediately assumed that it was from the same authors who wrote Rad American Women, a book I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself and with my kids. It wasn’t until I actually opened the book, saw the art, and started reading it that I went back to check the author and illustrator information and realized the truth — this is a totally different team, different publisher, different everything. SADFACE. But then I read about the author and realized she made Quist, which is frequently my favorite notification of the day, and I felt better. HAPPYFACE. Isn’t it nice when more information brightens your day?

We have a quick read of 23 different individuals; Prager is explicitly working to make the case that queer history IS history, that although our understanding of identities has changed over time, queerness is omnipresent in world history. The 23 people included all get a black and white illustration accompanied by a brief essay giving information about their life, circumstances, and identities. Whenever possible, Prager makes a point of using the pronouns the people themselves used. She is also quick to acknowledge that because the way we understand and talk about identities has changed over time, we may today have another way to talk about the individuals and their life experiences.

This is a quick read, a light read, actually, and generally enjoyable. Occasionally, though, in this effort to make history seem (??? appealing? approachable???), the tone reads as too flip, too glib. It can sometimes come off as dismissive or minimizing, especially in the face of some of the tragedies the individuals experienced.

Additionally, the majority of the subjects included are from Western history. When you combine that with the light tone, it starts to seem that the book misses fulfilling the ambitious, inspiring thesis stated in the introduction.

Not a criticism, now, a question: Since I read a digital copy, I’ve been wondering what the illustrations are like on paper. Anyone seen them? Digitally (and maybe also because I read them on my phone and not a super impressive screen), they’re pretty small and muted — maybe even a bit anodyne. However! I will be the first to tell you that reading on my phone could be the culprit here. I also wonder if my initial mix-up with Rad American Women might have interfered; the illustrations here definitely went for a totally different feel, which doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, just means I’m not the best person to talk about them. I’d love to hear from someone with another perspective!

And let me be totally clear, this is an important read, it’s approachable, it’s eye opening. It’s an exciting book to give your readers, and it’s a book they’ll have a great time pouring over. But I believe there are enough flaws to take it out of Printz consideration.

 

gentlemans guideThe Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee
HarperCollins, June 2017
Reviewed from ARC; 4 stars

This is a slightly ridiculous but heartfelt romp, and it’s so exuberant (or at least Monty’s voice is so exuberant) that it’s no wonder it’s receiving lots of press — stars, sure, but also attention from less library and teen focused sources. EW had it on a must-read list for the summer, for example, and it was an NYT bestseller. It’s historical fiction that is mostly historically accurate, if given a slightly glossy treatment, and it’s a long book that goes down fairly easily (although it also could have stood to be a little shorter).

In Printz terms, here’s where this one shines: it’s totally a perfect play on the travel novel of the 18th century. I took a class on the18th century  travel and epistolary novel in college, in fact; it was quite honestly my least favorite class and my least favorite era, but Lee does a great job playing with the tropes and styles of the historical inspiration and making her tale also feel thoroughly modern. It’s a nice balance; it’s not that this reads as “accurate” so much as that it’s quite clear what literary antecedents went into this one. The historical aspects — attitudes about sex and race, the push-pull of the license of the times (decadence was in) with the rules — are all well evoked, and small decisions keep this from being too anachronistic despite the nods to modern readers. Felicity’s feminism and lack of racial prejudice don’t preclude her homophobia, for example, which makes her seem much more real despite her spunky heroine accoutrements. Similarly, the happy ending isn’t too happy — Monty doesn’t get the guy AND the fortune, so it’s emotionally satisfying while still seeming believable for the era.

Also stellar is the voice. Monty is spoiled and annoying, he’s blind to everyone else’s needs, and he wears his privilege lightly and holds his pain close. I don’t like him — and I don’t see why everyone in the text does, especially Percy (unless Mony really is THAT good at kissing…), but he’s definitely got presence.

On the less stellar side, there’s the issue of length and pacing — it really does drag a little past the midway point, and that’s something several other readers have mentioned, and I’m not completely convinced about the characterization (mostly Percy, who seems entirely too sensible to find Monty charming or enticing, unless we’re meant to think that Monty is just a means to avoid the sanitorium, but I don’t think that’s the case, I think the reader is meant to see them as a couple to root for). The cover isn’t great and I can’t sell it to teens, which isn’t necessarily a Printz concern (appeal is not a factor), but isn’t a great accolade either. At least one of my students also complained about straight women writing gay romance; I don’t know Mackenzi Lee, so I have no idea if that’s a fair complaint, but it’s true that that’s a trope, and it’s one my teen readers (especially the ones who identify as LGBTQ+) find irritating. But mostly it’s the pacing that makes this feel like an also-ran despite its many delights.

So there you have it, today’s two-fer. Agree? Disagree?

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. I liked, not loved, both of these books. I agree with you about the flip tone of the QUEER, THERE, EVERYWHERE book. In fact that was a problem for me but I am not sure it will be a problem for teens. But the tone definitely sets the book on a trajectory that the lives of the people highlighted didn’t necessarily experience. (Alan Turing especially).

    GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE is a romp and an adventure. I was struck by the seriousness of the topics covers (a whole plethora of them) while maintaining a fun, adventurous side. I think teens will be off-put by the length but I hope that they give the book a try.

  2. I see books like QUEER, THERE, and EVERYWHERE as “gateway” books – teasers for the reader. Maybe if the reader encounters something in the essays that strikes their fancy or intrigues them, they will turn to more substantial missives on the entry.

    I would never minimize any queer person’s experiences (I certainly don’t minimize my own experiences as a queer person), but maybe this book being a “gateway book” is why the glib, “fun” tone is employed. I myself kind of enjoyed it – a breath of fresh air amongst all the seriousness that would likely be employed in more substantial biographies.

    All this is to say, this is a title – like so many titles that address a marginalized population – that will sit well with some and not well with others. And like all literature, personal experiences will inform how the reader reacts. I am, however, inclined to agree with you, Sarah, this is likely not on the Printz table. And for good reason.

    Still waiting to read GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE. I think it sounds positively delightful.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Joe, I don’t think you’re minimizing…just disagreeing with me! Which of course is totally great. *grin* I absolutely agree about this title being a sort of “gateway” title for readers. I didn’t totally mind the freshness, just wished for more balance in a few spots.

      In particular, I remember the ending to the Alan Turing section and the description of the Catholic Church in the Father Mike section…both of those spots felt [to me] that they let the institutional forces outside of the individuals described off the hook. (If I hadn’t read this title on my Overdrive app, I think I would have had a few more spots with more detailed notes for this comment!)

      All of this is to say, I am pretty sure that my critiques on this title were all small spots that, with more careful wording, might have strengthened this title’s chances for Printzly consideration — at least to my mind. As it is, it’s still a great title to be able to hand to people to read. <3

  3. Y’all, I reeeaally love Lee’s book–including the representation of bisexuality/asexuality/queerness, disability, race, gender, and mental health (I wrote about how much and why I love it so here: https://medalonmymind.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/ggtvav/). So I’m definitely not unbiased, but I do have to say that the the claim (not just by this particular teen but more generally by many folks on Twitter, including gay authors) that Lee is a straight woman writing a “gay romance” is unfounded and honestly troubling to me. It’s problematic to assume an author is straight unless they out themselves publicly on the internet (not everyone has that luxury), and even more pertinent to this discussion it’s troubling to call a book that *explicitly* has a bisexual protagonist a “gay romance” when what folks might mean is “m/m romance”–they’re not the same, and to conflate them is bi erasure!

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Thanks for calling me out, Kazia. I wondered about the student assumption also, particularly in that they were assigning an identity to an author they don’t know, and raised that, but I absolutely failed to call them out on the bi erasure. Thanks for the reminder to be better and push back harder (on myself AND my teens). It does seem like an issue for the book either way; my politically minded, question-everything readers who identify as LGBTQ+ are the exact readers I would give this book to, and their skepticism is making it a hard sell. For the Printz convo, I like your review a hell of a lot better than mine; would you mind if I edit my post to insert a link in the body of the review to point folks there regardless of their comment reading?

      • Karyn Silverman says:

        (AND I didn’t mention that the epilepsy is pretty well written, speaking from the perspective of someone raising a child with epilepsy. I should never rush write.)

      • Thanks for being so receptive, Karen! I don’t mind at all (I’d be thrilled if folks wanted to engage in discussion in the comments there, too!). I work with children, not teens, so for the most part I don’t get the chance to do any RA for YA–I can’t speak to IRL teen appeal, but I can understand why they’d be hesitant. Queer folks have been and continue to be burned by bad rep by well-meaning allies. I’d argue that’s not what’s going on here (both because “ally” is the wrong term here and because I found the representation to be thoughtful and above standard). And, as a Personal Soapbox sort of side note, I’d also push folks to think critically about whom they’re critiquing! Not that anyone does or doesn’t deserve critique or skepticism, but if they’re calling out Lee, are they also calling out Cassandra Claire and Sarah J Maas and VE Schwab? Why or why not? (This has been building from a frustrating Twitter “conversation” so thanks for listening!)

        • Karyn Silverman says:

          The student who raised the concern has definitely also raised it about Schwab and Rowell’s Carry On (don’t think they’ve read Maas or Clare), and the Schwab in particular has been a source of some major conversations about representation and authenticity here — I put A Darker Shade of Magic on our summer reading list two years ago, and several students who identify as queer self-selected into my book discussion group. There was a really interesting tension of immense love (it’s an all feels kind of book) and this question of #ownvoices and representation. In the end, they seemed pretty definite that they love A Darker Shade of Magic and the representation felt not at all strange or exploitative (I think probably the fact that Rhy is a secondary, non POV character could play into this) but there is something a little “slash fic for straight girls” about Simon and Baz in Carry On. That said, for Gentleman’s Guide, the student didn’t actually take the book (which I was enthusiastically pitching as a romp with a fascinating set up and a queer MC), I think because of feeling tired of seeing the weird fetishization that can happen in fan fic in particular and sometimes in mainstream publishing.
          All that said, I just picked the brain of another student about feelings on straight people who write gay romance (not specific to this book) who is tight with student one and has often engaged in similar conversations, and student 2 thought Gentleman’s Guide (once I explained the larger context of why I was soliciting feedback) sounded like a hoot and might want to read it, so maybe my concerns about appeal are totally beside the point.

          • Just as an aside, I totally don’t think all the names I dropped are created equal in terms of representation! I love me some FANGIRL but BOY did I not find CARRY ON to be effective in anything it seemed to be trying to do, including but not limited to queer romance. Plus, I mixed some straight authors in with queer authors–I’ve been really feeling for bi women authors (Schwab, Lee, and Murphy included) who have had to make the choice to out themselves to save the reputations of their books this season.

    • Good points all, Kazia. Thank you for respectfully voicing your concerns. Your comments echo largely why I don’t get sucked into the Twittervortex.

      It may be generational, but I honestly have no problem with a straight person writing a gay or bi or any lgbtq romance as long as its done respectfully. And I say this knowing full well that what I consider respectfully is only what I consider respectfully. I do not speak for my people. I am only one of millions. :)

  4. I loved GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE because it combined the 18th c style with ridiculous YA tropes. I read the book as almost like a Dante’s Inferno descent into ridiculousness, where each chapter is less plausible than the one before it.

    I love YA that pushes at the boundaries, and imperfect boundary-extending books have done well in past years. I’d be willing to give GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE an honor tomorrow. Maybe not gold, but absolutely an honor.

  5. I haven’t gotten to Gentlemen’s Guide yet (I wasn’t wowed by her Frankenstein book, but it sounds like I shouldn’t let that put me off this one), but I’m almost done with E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing and it seems like there could be a good discussion about the two books, Victorian culture and themes, modern sensibilities, queer stuff, family stuff, etc.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I HAVE SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT THAT INEVITABLE VICTORIAN THING. The day before Sarah moved to the midwest (something I am still not over) we went to lunch (literally as her home was being loaded onto a truck) and all I could talk about were my feelings about TIVT. Which are complex and confusing.

      • I am not done with it yet and I feel like the denouement will have a major impact on my feels, but… yeah, I can TOTALLY see that. WE WILL DISCUSS.

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