Cycler: smart YA novel about sex and sexuality

Screenwriter/producer Lauren McLaughlin's YA novel debut, Cycler is just out, and just in time -- this is a book that the kids in your life really need to read, a gender-bending piece of speculative fiction aimed at young people that manages to say novel, useful, and challenging things about gender and sexuality without ever descending into squicky fluid-exchange or soapy romance.

Jill McTeague has a secret: every 28 days, at the start of her menstrual cycle, she...changes. Painful, graphically, her body transforms into an adolescent male form, and her mind is remade as Jack McTeague, an angry, horny teenaged boy who stays locked in Jill's room for four days until she comes back to reclaim her body and mind. Her stepfordwife mom is mortified by this, and bent on ensuring that none of their neighbors in their affluent Massachusetts suburb discover their family's dark secret, and her absentee father (moved into the basement years ago to practice meditation and yoga) is no help either.

Jill does everything she can to pretend that her four-day absences just don't happen, while Jack seethes and rages against his captivity, in chapters that alternate between both points of view. Both characters are flawed and likable, smart but dumb about emotional stuff in exactly the way I was when I was a teenager. McLaughlin does an admirable job of nailing the voice of Jack -- I know that hormone-addled, enraged teenaged boy. I was that boy.

McLaughlin's screenwriting background carries through well, too: the plot is faultless, building from the weird premise (and the concomitant weirdness) to a series of ever-more-desperate scenarios that have you rooting for Jack and Jill even as you facepalm yourself and peer between your fingers at the wreck they're making of their lives.

This is a book about sex and love, and it's got a lot of it -- but not steamy between-the-sheets stuff (though there's some of that). Instead, McLaughlin's sex and love happens between the ears, in the realm of the mind and its contradictory and embarrassing and fickle passions. Through it all, there's always something redeeming happening, some sense that these people might, somehow, muddle through.

I've got a few years before my newborn daughter needs to start thinking about these things, but this is one I'm putting on the shelf for when she does. Cycler on Amazon


  1. McLaughlin does an admirable job of nailing the voice of Jack — I know that hormone-addled, enraged teenaged boy. I was that boy.

    That hormone-addled, enraged teenaged boy is a demeaning stereotype. This is not a criticism of the book, which I have not read, and may include a character who is not a stereotype. But the character as Doctorow describes it is. I really don’t believe that teenage boys are “addled” by the hormones.

  2. While those both use the idea of mysterious male-female transformation, I hardly doubt the handle it at all like this story.

  3. Funny, my bi-poly-kink friend thought this book was crap and at times, offensive.

    (And she admitted to being raised on a steady diet of Ranma 1/2.)

    I personally haven’t read it, but I think it sounds like the movie Zerophilia, so I don’t know how “novel” it actually is. (Zerophilia is an okay, but not great movie, BTW. Good premise, flawed execution.)

  4. It’s like — y’know that old joke about how women are crazy for a few days out of each month, while men get that same amount of craziness distributed evenly over the month? It sounds like that joke taken literally. (Which isn’t a bad way of coming up with fantasy premises.)

  5. This reminded me that I should re-read one of my favorite SF novels, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.

    Of course, it also reminded me of this considerably less noble pair of National Lampoon short stories by John Hughes in his pre-movie-making days.

  6. To #8, Jichikawa, this book is appropriate for “older” teens and, of course, for adults. Younger or less mature teens might find some of the sexual content challenging. There are no graphic descriptions, but as the review indicates, sex happens.

  7. Thanks for the reminder that this came out, Cory.

    I knew I’d forget it since you originally had posted about it…and had…even though I knew I wanted to read it when it became available.

  8. I’ve read this and it’s a truly excellent read. As a bisexual reader, I didn’t find it offensive, and felt that the author captured quite a lot of the confusion, hysteria and confusion about gender and gender stereotypes. Having read a few of McLaughlin’s blog posts about sexuality and feminism, I feel that she has outdone herself with this. Has just come out in Australia, too, so Australian BoingBoing readers can track it down at your local bookstore!

  9. F.M. Busby wrote a really cool SF novel back in the 1980s called The Breeds of Man in which scientists developed an immunization for AIDS that causes an unforeseen mass sterilization problem. To get around this the scientists engineer a Mark II type human, but they don’t know is that the Mark II’s become cyclic hermaphrodites when they reach puberty. It’s a really good book by an author who, in my opinion, isn’t as well known as he should be.

  10. I’m sure they’re nothing alike at all however if people would like to read excellent gender bending books don’t go past Myra Breckinridge and the sequel Myron by Gore Vidal.

    These books were both wrought with controversy at the time of publication and it’s not hard to understand why. I’m sure a lot of people will still find them offensive, however I personally thought they were brilliant.

    If you’re lucky you may even be able to find a copy of Myron with the special censorship throughout the book. As a means to get past the censors with offensive language Vidal replaced words such as ‘Breasts’ with ‘Father Hills’ referring to a priest at the time with the surname Hills that was campaigning against smut in literature. Genius!

  11. Your book was something else…I was so happy to find it. I’m very much into reading I guess what you can consider “out there”, original, or hard-to-find ideas. I’m very much into the Uglies Series, Vampire Chronicles (A.R.), and a book called “Snakes and Earrings”. (If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it.)

    But, damn! How did you think of this storyline??? I mean, I’ve considered the instances after a dream in which I would become a different gender, but really, how did you come up with the idea?

    Btw, throughout the book, I really felt for the characters. Like no other book, I really sympathized with them. I loved them. Specially’ Jack, but that’s just me. The biggest thing though, is the fact that you didn’t make it into a Disney to where there would be the Perfect, happy ending. And it wasn’t a J.K. Rowling, in which entirely everything was explained. Booorrriing! It just seemed like very out-there situations, but it was life. Life doesn’t always have explanations or promises fulfilled. for closing the way you did…THANK YOU!

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