I don’t know what it was about April, but I somehow read not one, not two, but three books centering high school dances with queer leads. Okay, I do know what it was about—two of the books were ARCs and the third was an audiobook that came off hold in the library.
While I immensely enjoyed the first two, the third fell a little flat (still enjoyable!) but I think that was because I was filled with prom/homecoming fatigue.
While I did attend prom both in junior and senior year, I never attended a homecoming game or dance because our high school football team sucked, I don’t enjoy high school, and the people that attended homecoming were the people I avoided. But overall, prom was boring and the prep filled with more anxiety and emotional manipulation than I ever wanted (my mother shoehorned herself into our all-girls’ prep because it’s tradition for mothers to help their daughters will prom…maybe in the 60s, but not so much anymore).
Anywho, to the reviews!
Initial blurbs are from Goodreads because I’m feeling lazy.
May the Best Man Win by ZR Ellor
Jeremy Harkiss, cheer captain and student body president, won’t let coming out as a transgender boy ruin his senior year. Instead of bowing to the bigots and outdate school administration, Jeremy decides to make some noise—and how better than by challenging his all-star ex-boyfriend, Lukas for the title of Homecoming King?
Lukas Rivers, football star and head of the Homecoming Committee, is just trying to find order in his life after his older brother’s funeral and the loss long-term girlfriend—who turned out to be a boy. But when Jeremy threatens to break his heart and steal his crown, Lukas kick starts a plot to sabotage Jeremy’s campaign.
“Gender is stupid. It’s like one of those dystopian novels where everyone’s assigned to a group at birth and you just have to accept that? Like, how bizarre is that from the outside?”
So this was not entirely what I anticipated.
Based off the blurb and that darling cover, I was anticipating something more on the spectrum of rom-commy pranks and whatnot.
Instead, I got something a little more realistic, a lot more heartbreaking, and much more hopeful.
Jeremy Harkiss definitely suffers from Napoleon Syndrome, as he’s a Type A with a drive to always prove himself over and over and over. Part of this is because he’s trans and feels he must be more manly and successful than everyone else in order to be accepted as a boy, and part of this is because he is an obnoxious, self-centered teen like…well, a lot of teens. Also, his name is Jeremy, and I have literally never met a Jeremy I liked. Sorry kid.
Lukas, on the other hand, was someone who was just as driven, but suffered heavily from second child syndrome, made doubly horrific because his Golden Brother died in a really tragic way the previous May and because he felt his parents were stuck with the defective son (Lukas is autistic and really internalized that by trying to be Perfect in every way). His storyline was heartbreaking and my heart just shown for him, as he’s struggling to keep everything together, fix everything broken even if it’s out of his control, and is reeling from his (abusive) brother’s death and Jeremy’s sudden breakup with him (he dumped Lukas in a diner after Golden Boy’s funeral…and threw a strawberry milkshake in his face—there’s a good reason for this, but a lot of it was Jeremy learning to process his dysphoria and unintentional misgendering from others in a healthier way).
A lot of this book deals with what comes next, and how to prepare for it. What comes after high school? How do you position yourself to get into a fantastic school and set yourself up for your heart’s desires (even if you don’t exactly know what they are yet)? How do you recover from a breakup? How do you publicly transition during your senior year? How do you grief after your brother’s death? How do you get up, after failing horribly?
I gave this four stars because it was good, although pretty heavy.
However, I loved that we got a really realistic lovers to enemies to lovers, as both Jeremy and Lukas had a lot of ground to cover to get to that point. There are also so many queer characters, and both leads grow so much as human beings, as they learned to dismantle the walls they had built around each other and open themselves up to love, hope and life.
And the ending has a fabulous twist!
Please note that there are some serious trigger warnings in this one, particularly: transphobia, homophobia, grooming, ableism and ableist language (the r-word is used), death of a sibling, child abuse, bullying.
I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review
May the Best Man Win releases May 18, 2021
Pumpkin by Julie Murphy
Waylon Russell Brewer is a fat, openly gay boy stuck in the small West Texas town of Clover City. His plan is to bide his time until he can graduate, move to Austin with his twin sister, Clementine, and finally go Full Waylon, so that he can live his Julie-the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music-Andrews truth.
So when Clementine deviates from their master plan right after Waylon gets dumped, he throws caution to the wind and creates an audition tape for his favorite TV drag show, Fiercest of Them All. What he doesn’t count on is the tape accidentally getting shared with the entire school. . . . As a result, Waylon is nominated for prom queen as a joke. Clem’s girlfriend, Hannah Perez, also receives a joke nomination for prom king.
Waylon and Hannah decide there’s only one thing to do: run—and leave high school with a bang.
Once you come out of the closet, there’s no going back in. The freaking closet door disappears, and you’re left totally unprotected in the middle of the world at the mercy of everyone else’s goodwill, hoping the people you’ve known your whole life really are decent and kind and that all that unconditional-love Bible stuff people spew is the real deal. That’s what coming out in a small town is.
Right from the start, I fell into Waylon’s voice (and returned to the world of Clover City) like I was falling into a warm hug.
Mind you, I don’t like hugs, so that might not sound like the compliment I meant it to be. Like falling into a really cozy chair? I dunno.
Regardless, despite the roller coaster of emotions rolling through this, I loved seeing the main cast of characters (even if I was more invested in Willowdean and what’s-his-face’s drama than Waylon and his dude) reunited, as Waylon gets swept up into this lovely friend group.
Okay, wow, I didn’t know I could care even less about an organized sports thing.
There was less actual drag queening going on than I had expected and/or wanted, and quite honestly the plot was a bit of a snore, but Waylon’s voice more than made up for the fact that he really didn’t…do anything the entire time? He’s kind of that sort of character I generally find annoying—the one everyone else praises as someone they admire because they are [insert at least three of these] so smart, so accomplished, so incredible, so loving, so confident, so whatever. Waylon just kinda…exists?
And so this is the story of him coming out of his shell, and realizing that the wide-world of high school is awful, but not quite as bad as he was anticipated. He blossoms into full-Waylon, and learns that he can step apart from his twin and that that’s okay—and that it’s okay to not know with 100% certainly what you want to do immediately after high school. That it’s okay to realize that pressing pause and figuring shit out is normal and very smart.
While I wanted more of the drag queens to be present, I was so, so happy that Waylon discovered he was not alone, that there were thriving queer communities in his home town—even if they were sometimes hard to find out about if you weren’t tapped into the culture already, or didn’t know someone.
And I loved his grandmother, who was fantastic. And I loved the school nurse, who understood her role was healing even if it wasn’t healing of a medical sort but as a sanctuary for kids who were a little different.
When the world isn’t settling what you’re looking to buy, you just have to take it upon yourself to cut your own pattern.
There’s a lot of prom court stuff and it was relatively interesting, although Waylon’s LI (yeah forgot his name, don’t care to look it up) was more of a wooden plank with a six-pack than a human being.
I do love the last thing Waylon does for his school, as he kinda realizes that being openly visible means he can help those who come after him, even if he doesn’t want to be an icon or a figurehead or That Gay Kid in school—and he realizes there are ways he can extend the ladder to those below, to allow them some smalls ways to find solace and comfort in knowing they aren’t alone, and to let them climb up after him.
Ultimately, though, I was left wanting moahr. More story, more drama, more of Waylon post-high school.
Admittedly, my dog passed away when I was reading this (not as I was reading this), so a lot of my memories are fuzzy and a lot of the things I normally pay attention to were just kinda…let away. Mostly I felt a lot of the emotions, and really took comfort in knowing that this book would end well and that Waylon was a joy to read.
I received this ARC from Netgalley for an honest review
Pumpkin releases May 25, 2021
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.
But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.
Okay, and this is where I feel really bad, because I didn’t quite like it nearly as much as I hoped I would, and that’s entirely because 1) reeling in grief and 2) had just chain-read two other dance books.
So this review is going to be very quick.
I loved Liz Lighty—I especially loved the voice of the narrator, so if you get a chance to listen to the audiobook, do it—who was determined to find a way no matter what. As one of the few Black students in her school, she has a lot standing in her way, and when she doesn’t get the scholarship she needs to get into her dream school and play music and go to pre-med, she remembers that there is a scholarship for winning prom queen. She’s not a wallflower, and as an in-the-closet lesbian and Black student she’s less than inclined to put herself out there in her majority white, prom-obsessed midwestern town, but she’s going to do it, dammit. She needs the money, and she needs the way.
While the actual running for prom business was fairly interesting—I loved how her genius friends collabbed on a spreadsheet to track her progress and accurately project her place in the rankings—I was underwhelmed by her relationship with Mack. It was very off-and-on, hot-and-cold, and I just wasn’t really feeling any chemistry between the two of them.
And I know then what I’ve always known: Campbell is never going to make a space for me to fit. I’m going to have to demand it.
And I loved how at first Liz is like I must conform in order to succeed, before finally, finally realizing that by being herself and shining, she will stand out from the crowd and pull in the votes of the people like her—the nerds, the kids in the back, the smart kids, the non-popular crowd, the ones who are just as fabulous if not more so than the actual popular kids.
It’s a story of not-belonging and the fight to belong and conform to the unrealistic ideals of a whyte supremacist society until realizing that there’s another way, and that there are other people who don’t or won’t or can’t fit into the “idealized” (heavy sarcasm there) society (and all its micro-aggressions, flaws, and double-standards), and that finding friends there is just as real and true and fantastic and as much of a community, if not more so.
It’s also a story of friendships—the different kinds, and how sometimes your friends can be supporting and welcoming and well-intentioned and absolutely cutting you to the bone without meaning it. And how friendships can shatter and regrow, and move forward again.
I also really liked the disability rep throughout this book. Liz has anxiety and panic attacks, and her brother Robbie has sickle cell anemia (which their mother passed away from). Both are treated respectfully and well.
Overall, it’s definitely a refreshing and fantastic book to read, with a great main character you just can’t help but root for.