Review: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children book cover

I saw this book on somebody’s blog and absentmindedly added it to my wishlist on a whim, as you do. Then, when I won a $10 book for participating in the Dewey Read-a-thon I chose this one on a whim, expecting to add it to the TBR and promptly forget about it, again as you do. It arrived a few days later and I started reading it on a whim. Seeing a pattern here? I’m telling you this to prove that a Whim Book can end up being one of the best god-damn books I’ve read all year.

Plot summary: My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. Gabe. My parents think I’ve gone crazy and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right. I’ve been a boy my whole life.

When you think about it, I’m like a record. Elizabeth is my A side, the song everybody knows, and Gabe is my B side – not heard as often, but just as good.

It’s time to let my B side play.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children feels like an indie movie, if that makes any sense. It’s quirky and unique, but deals with concepts that the mainstream media tend to shy away from. Homosexuality is starting to feature in YA novels more frequently, but concepts like transsexualism are still lagging a little behind, I think.

It’s told in the first person perspective of Elizabeth/Gabe, presumably to emphasis the inner conflict as she/he makes fundamental decisions about gender and identity, and deals with the reactions of friends and family. What I really appreciated about this book is that we jump in a short time after the big announcement has been made. I’ve read novels about the decision to ‘come out’ as gay (although I understand that is a very different issue) but Beautiful Music for Ugly Children takes it a step further. After all, those people have to live their lives after they’ve made that decision and this book tries to highlight that.

Obviously I have no idea how accurate a portrayal of a young female-to-male transsexual this is, but it feels right. It’s clear that a huge amount of care, effort and research has gone into this book and so it never feels forced or like it’s trying to make A Point. It’s just a moving story about a young man trapped inside the body of a woman.

There’s that word, ‘moving.’ Look, I hardly ever agree when a book is supposed to be moving or powerful. Go read my vitriolic review of A Fault in Our Stars. We’re not friends. At all. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children though… for once I actually care deeply about the main character and understand that they are in a terrible situation. More than that, they’re actually likeable, which helps.

Even the relationships are perfect. There is a romantic sub-plot, but it’s just that – a sub-plot. Even then it’s always within the context of what love/sex could mean for a transsexual; it’s not a pointless romance shoved into the story for the sake of it – it is relevant and it does need to be there. I like how it ended as well – kind of… open. It’s actually kind of perfect. Elizabeth/Gabe’s relationships with their parents is very well done too. It’s not black or white; instead it’s a very gradual alternation and you’re shown the emotions, not just told that they’re present.

If I had one criticism, it’s that Elizabeth/Gabe sounds like a girl. Their narrative ‘voice,’ I mean. I understand that in real life that’s probably a very offensive thing to say as it’s not my call to make. However, as a fictional character whose head I am actually inside… yeah, she’s a girl. It’s possibly just because the author is female and it’s very, very difficult to write in the tone of a gender not your own, but as a result I do think of Elizabeth/Gabe as female and therefore as ‘Elizabeth,’ despite the fact that she/he introduced themselves to me as Gabe. Perhaps that proves a cultural point about my incorrect perspective, I don’t know.

However, it’s not just about transsexuals and gender – there’s also a great deal about music. Music is Elizabeth/Gabe’s absolute passion and she/he hosts a radio show once a week. I’m not ‘into’ music myself (I just don’t understand it – although that’s a story for another day), but it doesn’t matter here. It’s not written so that you need any prior knowledge, so I was able to sit back and enjoy the musical discussion as the main character plans her/his show themes.

I should probably also clarify that it’s never graphic or explicit. There are a few mentions of the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina,’ but come on… what do you expect, really?

You’ve probably gathered, but I LOVED this book. I don’t understand why it’s not way more popular than it actually is, but maybe this review will go a tiny way towards fixing that. Everybody needs to read this, both for the message that it sends and also because it’s genuinely a damn good book.

Visit Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ website or find her on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I've never heard of this one, but it sounds really good. Whim books can really be the best sometimes.

  2. Etudesque says:

    Excellent whim book! I love fearless books like this one that are thoroughly researched, and not written just for the shock value.

  3. Laura says:

    Penis AND vagina? EW HANNA! Except what I actually mean is, first of all I really like the cover, second of all the title is SO GOOD and thirdly, well, it sounds excellent. You have piqued my interest, is what I'm saying, so well done!

  4. Ellie says:

    *sighs deeply* Okay, this book sounds amazing and even though I've never heard of it it's going straight onto my 'real' wishlist. (That's right, Hanna, your powers of persuasion have flipped it right over the top of the library wishlist and onto the proper one…) I'm a total sap, so me and moving books usually get along just fine anyway! Also, can I just say that I frickin' LOVE it when whim books turn out to be amazing. Some of my impulsive library checkouts and those 'third book in a 3-for-2 deal' random buys have turned out to be amongst my favourite books EVER. I really should do that more often… 🙂

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