Queer YA Speculative Fiction reading

I am privileged to be reading at Folio Books in San Francisco on their Queer Words series in the supreme company of Andrew Demcak and Tim Floreen. We’ll all read from our LGBTQ+ YA science fiction/fantasy books and do a Q&A after.

Tuesday 6/21, 7pm
Folio Books
3957 24th St
San Francisco 94114
Free
Refreshments & door prizes

Facebook event 

Review: A Little Bit Langston by Andrew Demcak

I’m a fan of Andrew Demcak — I reviewed his book Ghost Songs here a while back — and I was très très  excited about the release earlier this month of A Little Bit Langston, his new YA sci-fi novel.

A Little Bit Langston starts off in your head. No, YOUR head, the head of an LA teenager who has a learning disability and a demanding, self-absorbed mother and a bubbling volcano of feelings for his best friend. Or at least the book starts in the head of someone you love. James, the main character, is so engaging, so immediately present on the page, that I was willing to follow him right down the rabbit hole, no questions asked.

And it is quite a warren down there. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say if you’re a fan of alien technology, secret government agencies, and gifted young people who can probably kill you with their brains, you won’t be disappointed. Not to mention if you’re a fan of Langston Hughes, the Langston of the title. The author doesn’t use any excerpts of Hughes’ actual work; instead he paraphrases, or in some instances inserts original lines that are clearly intended to remind the reader of famous Hughes poems. But the spirit of the poet is there–in the multifaceted identities of the main characters, in the brave actions of young men who get beaten for being gay, in the expansively hopeful feeling of the story as a whole.

The plot fits into the classic “chosen one” style of tale. James appears at first to have trouble reading at school, but a bizarre talent quickly emerges when he begins to channel the writing of long-dead poet Montgomery Langston (Langston Hughes). At the same time, his electricity-related superpower shows itself. After a period of being persecuted at school, and some harrowing real-world complications involving his best friend/love interest, Paul, James finds himself at a special academy for gifted teens like himself. Which is when the alien + conspiracy questions really kick into gear. I’m glad the author set us up for a sequel, because the busy, scheme-filled underworld he created is way too big for just one book.

I love a YA story where the superpowers appear at adolescence, where they overwhelm the character and then through the arc of the story he masters them. That’s what growing up feels like: channeling electricity with no control, destroying all the lightbulbs in the house, knowing for a fact that no one can understand your side of the story. Even though James’ demanding mother claims she always knew he was special, we see James changing into his true self on the page, as his feelings for Paul blossom and he discovers who he really is. In this case that’s pretty literal; James gets a big surprise when he finds out who his father is. Good YA science fiction stuff.

The love story isn’t center stage here, and that’s a big strength of the book. There’s plenty already going on in this story, and not all YA stories or coming-out stories have to be love stories. Another significant strength is Demcak’s skillful, barely-there handling of race and ethnicity. Way too much science fiction is, historically, way too white. That’s started to shift in recent years, but slowly. In A Little Bit Langston, the love interest, Paul, is Filipino, while James is white. Hardly anything is ever said about that difference between them, but Paul never has that insert-diversity-here feeling as a character. He’s three-dimensional, with a complex family and history of his own, and his journey toward loving James feels very earned. When we meet Lumen, another student at the special school, James expresses curiosity about her Korean heritage, but when the two turn out to be half-siblings, no one misses a beat, because these characters live so easily in a multicultural world.

Don’t miss out on A Little Bit Langston. I will be holding my breath until the sequel comes out. Buy your copy here.

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Review: Ghost Songs by Andrew Demcak

Ghost Songs by Andrew Demcak took me by surprise. It’s driven by character rather than plot – not the norm for a YA novel, but it should be. Todd, the main character, is a gay teenager, but there’s no love story for him. In fact, the only thing that starts out resembling a romance turns into a horrible, far too realistic plot about sexual battery involving Todd’s best friend, Jennifer. Todd’s mother is an alcoholic and his father never makes an appearance – aspects of Todd’s life that could overcomplicate the story, or could serve as wallpaper, in a lesser writer’s hands. But Todd is a very believable child of an alcoholic: too wise and too worried for his 14 years. When his mother’s plot takes center stage, it’s heartbreaking.

Todd is also a gifted musician, and the descriptions of him playing the flute were right on the money for this former flute student. I thought it was going to be Todd’s orchestra class playing Dido and Aeneas that got through my defenses – I have a soft bit of personal history with that show – but for me it was all over when his orchestra teacher gives Todd an instrument that had once belonged to him. There was tearing up.

And then there’s Leroy, the ghost. This might be my favorite ghost in print. He makes himself known through smells. He bullies your bullies right back. And his motivation turns out to be surprising and satisfying. Best of all, he helps Todd become a hero — when he stands up for Jennifer, when he helps his mother get sober, and when he takes up the fight for himself.

Radar

Good reading times last night at the Radar Reading Series! Radar is celebrating its 11th year bringing writers to the microphone whose work reflects the diversity of queer experience. I love the fact that it’s at the San Francisco Public Library, for free. And last night’s writers were terrific. We heard Ariel Gore read from The End of Eve, her beautiful memoir about taking care of her ailing mother. Ocean Capewell read a sexy story from her book The Most Beautiful Rot. Shawna Kenney’s anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers had a so relatable introduction that she read (plus extra points for wearing that cute daisy headdress!). And Andrew Demcak gave us a bite of his new YA novel Ghost Songs, which has young queers and musical passions and dysfunctional parents and it’s set in the 80s and let’s face it, it could pretty much be about me.

And Radar’s host Michelle Tea made peanut butter chocolate cookies. No. Really. Peanut butter chocolate cookies.