I started to write two separate reviews for these titles, but the more I thought about them, the more it seemed appropriate to talk about them together. Both Malinda Lo’s new title Adaptation — which will have a sequel — and Kirstin Cronn-Mills’s Beautiful Music for Ugly Children tackle sexuality and identity head on in ways that, on the surface, don’t look to have anything in common but in actuality, touch upon many common themes.
Reese and her crush David are in the airport waiting for a flight home from their team debate in Arizona when it happens. When the birds first crash down. When the world around them starts behaving in erratic, strange ways. They can’t catch a flight home. When people are dying everywhere.
They rent a car, determined to get home to San Francisco to their families. Except, the ride home is about what you’d expect from a world gone mad.
In the middle of Nevada, a bird crashed into their windshield, and shortly thereafter, Reese awakes in a military hospital. Neither she nor David can get answers about what happened or why they’re in the hospital or even where they are. But they’re healed from the car crash.
As soon as Reese gets home to San Francisco though, things become even more bizarre. There are dead birds still. Hazmat teams. All sort of surveillance. And then she runs into Amber Gray. Now Reese is much less worried about busting down the government’s secrets and instead, she’s worried about figuring out who she is and what Amber is to her.
Adaptation takes on one of my favorite scifi tropes: aliens. Aliens. This is a huge and brilliant metaphor in the story. As much as this is a story about Reese discovering the truth of her and Amber’s identities (Are they human or alien? Is it all government conspiracy?), it’s actually a story about Reese questioning her sexuality. Does she have feelings for David or does she really have feelings for Amber? This internal struggle epitomizes the alien aspect, of course — Reese feels alien in either choice because she’s unsure whether she’s ever being true to herself or true to what people want to believe of her. David’s reactions and interactions with Reese make readers want one thing, while she’s unable to make a solid choice because her heart can’t. I’m being purposefully vague because so much of the enjoyment in this book was not knowing what would happen going in and being pleasantly surprised with how the romantic tension played out.
More than being a story about sexuality, though, it’s also a story about love more generally. Reese questions whether it’s possible to love more than one person because the feelings she has for David and the feelings she has for Amber are real and true, but she isn’t sure whether she can truly believe that or not. Is there enough room in her heart to love two people? To do so for such different reasons and purposes? And how do you proceed when you do tangle with that? There’s a great speech from Reese’s father on the topic who assures her it is possible and okay to love more than one person.
While I saw the twist in the story coming from pretty far away, I thought the pacing and the complexity with which Lo wove the alien/sexuality metaphor made this book quite memorable. I always hesitate to use the word fun when it comes to a book that delves into pretty meaty issues — without becoming an issue book, I should add — but this book was a lot of fun to read. It does have a companion and there is quite a cliffhanger at the end. I’m invested enough to want to know what happens next, though.This isn’t a perfect book, as I found the pacing dragged at the end and I had trouble further into the book parsing out the government conspiracy aspects of the story from the personal struggle in Reese, but these are forgivable. I assume some of these issues will be better illuminated in the companion.
Give Adaptation to readers who like stories about sexuality, want something LGBTQ-friendly, and those who like good, thought-provoking science fiction.
Moving from aliens to feeling alien within one’s own body — without the science fiction elements — is Kirstin Cronn-Mills’s powerful Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. Gabe, who was born Elizabeth, loves music and would love nothing more than to be a DJ when he leaves high school. Of course, those jobs are pretty rare, and he knows he’s lucky to be spinning tunes for people in his mid-sized town in Minnesota late at night thanks to his neighbor managing the local radio station.
Gabe feels most comfortable behind the mic, where he can truly be Gabe. It was up until a couple of months ago he lived as Elizabeth and fought against everything he believed about himself. He wasn’t Elizabeth. He was Gabe. Through radio, he can better accept himself and hope people can accept him too.
the Midwest and while it’s not small-town, there are certain beliefs that permeate Gabe’s world
and impact it pretty profoundly. His mom and dad have a hard time
accepting him as Gabe (despite loving him and accepting him in their
hearts, they still want to call him Liz, thus continuing to hold him
back); school is a place where he’s insulted and taunted for being
different; people actually want to hurt him because of his difference
(more because of their own fear of anything that’s not black and white);
and he struggles with where to go from here not only in terms of work
(he’s graduating and while he dreams of being a DJ, it’s a dying art)
but also in terms of relationships. Does he go after his heart and
pursue his best friend Paige? Does he dare break the friendship in an
attempt to forge a romance? What about Mara, who was the first girl to
call in to his radio show and profess her feelings for his radio persona
(which isn’t a persona at all)? Or Heather?
transsexual storyline is at the heart of the book, I found what stood
out were the relationships here (of course they all go back to the
essential questions of sexuality and of gender and whether or not those
things matter period). Gabe and his relationship with John is different
from many I’ve read in YA, and it got me a bit choked up more than once.
I found his relationship with Paige dynamic and authentic; as much as
she was at times scared or worried for him, she loved him fiercely in
the way he deserved. There is a real vulnerability that exists between
the two of them and reading these moments made my breath a little
unsteady. I worried so hard for both of them because their worlds felt
so fragile, even though it shouldn’t have; I think because the story was
through Gabe’s lens I was led to worry about him and Paige a little
Gabe doesn’t think he deserves
anything. He doesn’t believe he deserves to be happy, deserves to be
loved, deserves to be accepted for who he is. Gabe is hard NOT to like
as a reader, and those moments where two jackasses who
are scared of him want to hurt him because he’s different, I welled up.
He was such a good person, such an unassuming person, even, and the fear
those two had for his being different and accepting himself as such
made me so angry. No one deserves that kind of treatment, and that Gabe
even questioned himself or his insanely brave decisions for a second
because of them hurt. That Gabe didn’t want to seek out police help
because he assumed they wouldn’t care not only hurt, but it struck a
truth about the LGBTQ world, especially that world in the Midwest, and
it only made me care and worry about Gabe that much more. It also
further reflected Gabe’s believe he didn’t deserve protection or help.
John, who is Gabe’s neighbor, has had a rough life, but he keeps it quiet. It doesn’t appear to be the case on the surface, since his career in radio had offered him so many neat opportunities. He’s a fully-fleshed character in and of himself, but his story line further enhanced Gabe’s. John, despite being much older and being pained by loss in his own life, looked at Gabe as an equal.
I think that’s why when he does tell Gabe about his family, it’s such a
huge moment both for him and for Gabe. It’s friends sharing big things
with one another.
John really sets Gabe up on a great path for the future in many, many
ways with a big gift — something he expects no returns on. The acceptance and love he offers Gabe without any questions was
such a contrast to what Gabe experiences at school and, at times, home.
music story line here is fresh, and I loved the A-side/B-side metaphor
woven throughout. While Beautiful Music for Ugly Children focuses on Gabe and his acceptance of self as Gabe, it’s really a story about accepting yourself, period. This is where the Ugly Children’s Brigade, a fan group for Gabe’s show, plays in. This is a story about Gabe, who is transsexual, but it’s not a story about Gabe, the transsexual. There’s a big difference.
I thought the transsexual storyline may have even been underplayed,
actually, and I wouldn’t have minded a little more. For a while I
wondered if this was more about a transgendered experience since it was
so underplayed, but it was the very last scene that cemented the fact
that this was about a transsexual experience. John’s gift was, of
course, so that Gabe could work toward a full physical change. I’m
assuming anyone who reads and gets this book understands the difference
between those two terms.
At the center, this is a story about being a person, and being a person
who accepts that they deserve to be the person who they are. No
Cronn-Mills writes the teen voice so well, and maybe
it’s because my roots are Midwestern, but she nails life in this part of
the country for teens. I love how these kids work and their jobs are a
big part of who they are, too. For all of this, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is a quieter book,
but it is one that will resonate with readers, and I think they’ll
identify easily with Gabe — the questions of who you are and who you
can be are never limited to one experience.
Both Adaptation by Malinda Lo and Beautiful Music for Ugly Children are available now. Review copies received from the publisher.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).