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