The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

This is a revision of a review originally posted on Butler’s Pantry.

Williamson, Lisa. The Art of Being Normal. 352 p. FSG, 2016. ISBN 9780374302375.

The Art of Being Normal Book Cover

David’s classmates call her a “freak.” It started when she was eight and shared with the class what she wanted to be when she grew up. Other kids wanted to be sports stars, actresses, or the prime minister, but not David. She wanted to be a girl. Aside from her two best friends, Essie and Felix, she is isolated in her posh high school, where no secrets stay hidden for long. Although she longs to tell her parents the truth and start her life as Kate, fear of rejection keeps her feelings locked inside her.

Leo Denton is desperate to escape Cloverdale. His acceptance into the elite Eden Park High School is his best chance to leave behind the bad memories at his old school and his unstable relationship with his mother. He dreams of finding his father who left when he was a baby. All Leo has to do is keep his head down and stay out of trouble so no one will learn about his past. However, when he finds himself falling for the popular and artistic Alicia Baker, his secrets get harder to hide in the spotlight.

Set in the suburbs outside of London, The Art of Being Normal is a coming-of-age story that explores gender identity, socioeconomic differences, and what it means to fit in. Written in first-person narration, the chapters alternate between the perspectives of Kate and Leo. Overall, the self-acceptance narrative is flawed by a fixation with cis-normative standards of gender expression. Leo “passes.” He is never once denied masculine pronouns except in overt instances of bullying. However, when he chooses to share his story with his father and with the girl he likes, he faces rejection. Kate, on the other hand, gets misgendered throughout the book, even by her allies. No one calls her “Kate” until she starts wearing dresses, and the chapter markers designate her as “David” too. While The Art of Being Normal provides visibility for transgender teens, it fails to challenge cis-normative standards or break out of the gender binary.

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

This review was originally posted on Butler’s Pantry. My copy of Mask of Shadows was an advanced reader.

Miller, LinseyMask of Shadows. 352 p. Sourcebooks Fire, 2017. ISBN 9781492647492.

Mask of Shadows Book Cover

All the nobles of Igna fear the might of the Queen’s Left Hand, four elite assassins known only as Emerald, Ruby, Amethyst, and Opal. When Sal Leon, a thief and a street fighter, steals a poster advertising auditions for the new Opal, they seize the opportunity to seek revenge on the nobles who betrayed Sal’s homeland during the last war. Kill or be killed, the auditions require strength and subtlety. Participants must eliminate their competition without arousing suspicion. Any moment might be Sal’s last.

A fusion of fantasy and political intrigue, Mask of Shadows is a dark and suspenseful read. Miller delves into themes of gender identity, prejudice, and privilege. The positive exploration of Sal’s genderfluidity makes this book an important addition to Young Adult collections. Sal’s identity is never portrayed as a hardship. Although Sal dresses to show how they wish to be addressed, they are not focused on cisnormativity, but rather on being who they are. They explain, “I always felt like Sal, except it was like watching a river flow past. The river was always the same, but you never glimpsed the same water. I ebbed and flowed, and that was my always.” Throughout the book, Sal grows as a character and learns to trust someone they initially saw as an enemy. Miller develops a compelling romantic subplot. The cliffhanger ending of this debut novel will leave readers dying for the next installment in the duology.