Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4 

Narrator: David M. Nadalini
Length: 7 hours, 59 minutes

Audiobook Buy Links: Amazon/Audible | iBooks
Book Buy Links: Amazon | iBooks

Declan is a high school junior. It’s the last weekend before a new school year begins and he’s anxious about starting over at a new school. Declan was in a prestigious private gifted school, but trouble with bullies has led him to withdraw and attend the same public school as his older sister, Delia. If he’s honest, Declan is jealous of Delia’s clothes. And he harbors a secret crush on her ex-boyfriend (and current best friend), Carter, the most popular boy at her school.

While Delia is out at Carter’s back-to-school blow out party, Declan decides to help himself to some of Delia’s more feminine togs. She unexpectedly returns home, unsettled by a fight they’d had before she left, and isn’t in the least upset that Declan has essentially claimed her closet. No, Delia is aggrieved with his unflattering choice of clothing! So, she decides to make up Declan to look more feminine and Declan loves it. He’s less a fan of her plan to infiltrate Carter’s party in disguise, but he goes along. When will he have another chance to act on his most private fantasies, anyway? And, when Carter is inexplicably drawn to “Layla,” Declan’s alter ego, Declan rolls with it.

Carter is bored. With life and the people in it. He has a carefully crafted image and wants to be at the top of the scene in everything. Meanwhile, his parent’s divorce has quietly devastated him and he’s a bit at loose ends about how to get into his dream college. Meeting Layla at his house party is a more than pleasant surprise. He is fascinated by how she rises above the sniping, acting in exact counterpoint to the usual high school girls. And, that’s what prompts Carter to totally ignore his hosting duties and seek out a tête-à-tête with the most singularly confident, original, and confoundingly mysterious girl he’s met, maybe ever. And despite her assurances that he wouldn’t really like her if he knew her secrets, that only sparks Carter’s desire to figure her out.

challenge month 2020 badgeI chose this audiobook for New-To-Me Author Week because I was intrigued by the storyline of a gender queer teen who unwittingly steals the high school prince’s heart. This is a YA romance, so there are references to a physical relationship that blossoms between Carter and Declan, but it’s not on the page. While the conflict of Declan being male is one of the big ones, there is an external conflict at the high school with a homophobic principal barring same-sex couples from attending the Homecoming dance. Carter may be enamored with Layla, but he truly falls for Declan, and it’s not unwittingly.

Carter, who wants to study architecture, has dreams of a tricked-out treehouse in his yard, and that’s how he wrangles Declan into his sphere. Layla disappeared after a week of communication with Carter, but Declan’s friendship and soon his relationship is the stuff of Carter’s imagination. And, because he’s the ultimate in negotiations, he’s able to woo Declan before Declan can even figure out Carter’s angle. Declan thinks he’s a boy with a hopeless, unrequited crush on his sister’s ex—and he’s a bit scared that Carter will hate him for his alter ego, Layla, breaking his heart. For his part, Carter has learned some important things about himself through his interactions with Declan and Layla, and he doesn’t want to hide his true self anymore. Layla kind of convinced him that his façade wasn’t as airtight as he’d intended.

As an audio book, the narrator’s voice had sufficient range to vary between the main voices of Declan, Layla, Delia, and Carter—plus assorted adults. The pacing of the narration is adequate, tracking with the fast-paced banter of the dialogue and the rollercoaster pace of the plot. We get the story from both Carter and Declan’s points of view, which added context and increased the tension, as both of these boys try to keep their secrets, and definitely lose their hearts to one another.

For a new-to-me author, I appreciated the bold and imaginative writing without an afterschool special moral. I liked this thoughtful and nuanced story a lot, but I had one minor hang-up. The kids are really savvy, more so than I generally see in the high school where I teach. It struck me that the teens sounded a little adulty, and there is no doubt about their wealth and privilege being brought to bear in the situation with the principal. In some regard, this felt a little beyond the pale of what kids might do, but with wealth and privilege comes power, and Carter is particularly clear about his manipulations and strategies for success. It’s good that he only plans to wield his power to affect necessary justice. I think fans of teen-power movies would really be into this one, because of the power dynamics. This book also celebrates the sibling relationship and the character development for a gender queer male was positive and affirming.

This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for New-to-Me Author Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of FIVE $20 JMS Books bookstore gift cards (you can see the full event prize list here)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on New-to-Me Author Week here