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Book Review: True Letters from a Fictional Life by Kenneth Logan

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

true lettersGr 9 Up—Seventeen-year-old James reveals his true self only in letters he keeps locked away and never intends to send. As far as everyone knows, popular athlete James is happy with his sort-of girlfriend, Theresa. But James’s letters tell a different story: James is pretty sure he is gay. The only problem is that he is surrounded by people who seem like they might not react well to that news. His friends frequently use homophobic slurs, and his parents say things like they are glad he is “normal,” not like his gay classmate who had his skull cracked recently. James meets Topher, whom he secretly starts dating, and considers coming out to his friends and family. But before he can, someone steals some of his letters and starts the process for him. Logan shines at creating strong, nuanced characters who behave realistically and unpredictably. Despite their tendency to trash-talk and their reliance on horrible slurs, James and his friends have deep, meaningful, complex bonds. The protagonist’s story is about struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. While he knows who he really is, he is uncomfortable with facing this. In a letter to God, James asks him for “a cure for boys who like other boys.” Though readers may be turned off by the near-constant homophobia that permeates the story, Logan’s look at a boy reconciling his private and public selves is well written and affecting. VERDICT: A solid addition to the LGBTQIA+ field.

 

ISBN-13: 9780062380258

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 06/07/2016

Book Review: Jerkbait by Mia Siegert

Publisher’s description

jerkbaitEven though they’re identical, Tristan isn’t close to his twin Robbie at all—until Robbie tries to kill himself. Forced to share a room to prevent Robbie from hurting himself, the brothers begin to feel the weight of each other’s lives on the ice, and off. Tristan starts seeing his twin not as a hockey star whose shadow Tristan can’t escape, but a struggling gay teen terrified about coming out in the professional sports world.

Robbie’s future in the NHL is plagued by anxiety and the mounting pressure from their dad, coach, and scouts, while Tristan desperately fights to create his own future, not as a hockey player but a musical theatre performer. As their season progresses and friends turn out to be enemies, Robbie finds solace in an online stranger known only as “Jimmy2416.” Between keeping Robbie’s secret and saving him from taking his life, Tristan is given the final call: sacrifice his dream for a brother he barely knows, or pursue his own path.

How far is Robbie willing to go—and more importantly, how far is Tristan willing to go to help him?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I overuse the phrase “rage blackout.” I’m sure I’ve claimed that 2/3 of all things in existence have given me a rage blackout. I’m easily annoyed. BUT. BUT. This book gave me a rage blackout. The parents are AWFUL. The way Robbie’s teammates treat him is AWFUL. And did I mention that the parents are AWFUL? Because they are. But we’ll talk about them later.

 

Tristan has always felt like he’s lived in Robbie’s shadow. Though they both play hockey (and their former hockey player father is their manager), Robbie’s the star, the one who will be drafted and go on to a huge career. But not if it gets out that he’s depressed. That he’s tried to kill himself three times. That he’s gay. At least, according to their monster of a father. All of that is bad press for Robbie, so the obvious thing to do is cover it up, not address any of the very serious issues, and focus on that goal: getting drafted. Sure. Great parenting. Your kid will be fine. You’re doing a good job. 

 

(You can come join me in my rage blackout—it’s kind of satisfying to get so mad.)

 

I could yell for paragraphs about their cruddy parenting and extreme denial, but I won’t. You get the idea already, I’m sure, that they suck. They pull him from the hospital early after attempt number one so he doesn’t miss a hockey game. They cover up the truth with lies, don’t do anything to help Robbie, and basically blame Tristan for what’s going on with Robbie AND make him responsible for watching over him to prevent future issues. Tristan, who quits hockey after some epic homophobic bullying, just wants to focus on his burgeoning theater career. He loves theater, has a knack for singing, dancing, and acting, and wants to grab the opportunities in front of him. But that’s hard to do when you’re supposed to be keeping your depressed wreck of a brother from committing suicide. Things become even more complicated and convoluted when Tristan learns Robbie is gay. Robbie is terrified of what coming out will mean for his life and his career—but not so terrified that he doesn’t out himself in an effort to save Tristan from some bullying. His teammates react just as terribly as you can possibly imagine. And when his parents find out? It’s a nightmare.

 

There’s a lot to talk about with this book. Siegert is tackling big topics: teenage sports careers; being not just a closeted gay teen but a closeted gay teen athlete; sibling/twin relationships; depression and suicide attempts; crappy parents; crappy friendships; homophobia; stigma with mental illness, and so much more. Plus, the book takes a big twist near the end when Robbie gets the brilliant idea that the answer to all of their problems is running away to go stay with this older dude he met online. That never turns out well, does it? And in this case, it REALLY, REALLY goes badly. Though it ends on a hopeful note, this is not a light read at all. It’s pretty much the worst case scenario for all things with the exception of the way Robbie and Tristan grow closer and more supportive of each other. It’s a dark, upsetting, frustrating, painful look at the pressure on teen athletes, at what happens when mental illness is ignored and untreated, and at how horribly scary coming out can be, especially for teens whose parents are hateful and unsupportive. Bleak but powerful. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781631630668

Publisher: Jolly Fish Press

Publication date: 05/03/2016

Book Review: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

more happy“Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you get through the messier tunnels of growing up. But the pain can only help you if you can remember it.” —More Happy Than Not

In Adam Silvera’s utterly fantastic More Happy Than Not, 16-year-old Aaron Soto grapples with what it means to be happy and if it’s possible to change who you really are.

 

Aaron and his friends live in a modern-day Bronx neighborhood with one major difference: it’s home to a Leteo institute, which offers a memory-relief procedure, which alters and suppresses painful or problematic memories. Aaron’s skeptical about it, but a kid from his block had it done and it seems legit. It seems like Aaron would have reason to undergo the procedure—when his dad committed suicide, Aaron was the one who found him. Aaron also survived his own recent attempt at suicide, something we’re reminded of every time he touches the smile-like scar on his wrist. His mother works two jobs to be able to pay the rent on their tiny one-bedroom apartment. Aaron has a job at the corner market and gives much of the money to his mom to help with the rent. He goes without a lot of things that he would like. But life isn’t all bad. He’s dating Genevieve, spends a lot of time playing games with his friends from the block, and has an intriguing new friend, Thomas.

 

Thomas and Aaron quickly become best friends. They have deep, honest, revealing conversations. There is an ease between them that makes it feel safe to be real. Aaron starts to wonder if maybe Thomas is gay, which, after some time, leads him to thinking that maybe he is gay (or, in Aaron’s parlance, a dude-liker). Before long, Aaron is torn between what to do, who he likes and loves, and what it all means. He comes out to Thomas, who is cool with it, but when Aaron makes a move on him, he’s rejected—Thomas says he is straight. Aaron is embarrassed and confused. He feels like he’s already lost so many people, and it seems certain he will now lose Thomas and Genevieve, not to mention who he might stand to lose if he came out to more than just Thomas. Aaron knows how to fix this, though: Leteo. He hopes Leteo will be able to make him straight, even though he knows that will mean that he’ll never really be able to be himself.

 

But before Aaron can undergo the procedure, his own friends start to get suspicious about his relationship with Thomas and attack him, brutally beating him. When Me-Crazy throws him through the door to their building, Aaron hits his head so hard that—much to his surprise—it loosens all of his memories, leading to a series of startling realizations for both Aaron and the reader. To say more would give away too much.

 

I absolutely could not put this novel down. The very first page grabbed me and pulled me right into Aaron’s world. The vivid setting, larger-than-life characters, and powerful narrative voice all stand out as some of the best writing I have read in a long time. The kids on the block (who have memorable names like Me-Crazy, Baby Freddy, and Skinny-Dave) are selling weed, getting in fights, and worrying over dead friends all while still playing childish games like Manhunt, a glorified hide and seek. They are a racially diverse group—we know Aaron’s Puerto Rican, Genevieve is Dominican, and Thomas was “the only brown” kid dressed up at a midnight showing of a movie. Their families vary, too—Aaron’s dad is dead, Gen’s mom is dead, and Brendan’s parents are in jail. Silvera does a great job of creating this extremely vivid little world in the Bronx, then making readers reconsider everything we think we know once Aaron hits his head. This powerful and complicated look at identity, memory, grief, happiness, and honesty will speak to a wide audience of readers who will find themselves unable to put down Aaron’s gripping story (even when it’s almost too painful to keep reading). 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616955601

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 6/2/2015

Book Review: Anything Could Happen by Will Walton

anythingIn Will Walton’s Anything Could Happen, 15-year-old Tretch realizes he is in love with Matt, his straight best friend, while sitting together in church and hearing the message “hold fast to that which is good.” Tretch isn’t out yet, even though he suspects that Matt, who has two gay dads (and is often assumed to be gay himself because of this fact—weird logic, right?), would be fine with it, as would his family. His mom is “uneasy” about Matt’s dads, but Tretch knows his family would still love him and stand by him if he came out, though he can’t imagine it. Their town is tiny and he thinks that his family would become ostracized if he came out and they supported him.

 

But coming out doesn’t feel really pressing to Tretch. He nurses his crush on Matt all through their semi-eventful winter break. They hang out and have sleepovers (where they sleep together in the same bed), Matt kind of starts to date a girl named Amy, another girl has a crush on Will, and Tretch starts to think more about coming out. This book is light on plot but heavy on interpersonal dynamics, which is just fine by me.

 

Anything Could Happen is a great addition to the younger side of LGBTQIA+ books. The whole story is sweet, warm, and happy. It’s all very wholesome (if you know me well, you know I usually accompany that word with a retching noise, but I mean it in kindest and best sense of the word here), full of gosh, heck, and freakin’. The friendships are all happy and loving, as are the family relationships. Tretch spends a lot of time with his grandparents and parents. The first person he comes out to is his older brother, who just says “cool” and then tells him a story about his girlfriend’s brother coming out to their preacher dad and how that went fine, too.

 

The whole thing sort of feels like it’s from another time, which I think is because of the setting in a very small town. If it weren’t for references to contemporary music and electronic devices, it could be set anytime in the past. The ending packs a lot in—Tretch busts out his amazing moves on the dance floor, has a heart-to-heart with Matt, and comes out to a few more people. He even comes to some kind of understanding with Bobby, the son of his dad’s business partner and his longtime bully.

 

The message at the end is that things are going to get better, but they’re already good. Will really takes to heart the lesson from the beginning, to hold fast to that which is good, surrounding himself with good and kind people throughout the book. Great for the 12 and up crew.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780545709545

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 5/26/2015

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Here’s my not-super-professional review of Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda: I LOVE IT! GO BUY IT FOR YOURSELF, YOUR LIBRARY, YOUR KIDDOS, WHOEVER!

 

Okay, so now that that’s out of my system….

 

Simon’s classmate Martin takes a screen shot of an email that would out Simon as gay. Martin blackmails him with this info, saying if Simon hooks him up with his friend Abby, he’ll keep quiet. Simon reluctantly (and extremely half-heartedly) agrees to this plan. Not only is he not particularly ready to come out, but he doesn’t want to drag Blue through the drama of being exposed, or lose him in the process. Who’s Blue? Well, that’s a good question. Simon doesn’t really know. Their relationship exists only on email, where Simon goes by Jacques. All he really knows about Blue is that he goes to Simon’s school just outside of Atlanta, Georiga. Both boys try to leave as many personal details of their lives out of their emails, understanding that they can be so honest with each other thanks to the anonymity. Their candor and flirtation in the emails reminded me of everything that is good about starting to get to know someone and starting to fall in love with someone.

 

Simon and Blue are fantastic characters, and this is one of those rare books where every character, no matter how secondary, is extremely well-written and stands out as distinctive and memorable. Simon’s best friends, Nick, Leah, and Abby, are all into their own things, have their own personal dramas both large and small, and serve different purposes in Simon’s life and his story. Simon’s family is also great. They do weekly discussions of The Bachelorette, even Skyping with his sister who is away at college. They are funny and loving and play large roles in Simon’s life in completely realistic ways. None of the characters are any one thing–not even Martin, the blackmailer. They’re complicated and dynamic.

 

There were so many tiny things I just loved about this book, like Leah’s act of subversion of dressing up in a dress for Homecoming week’s Gender Bender Day, the unpredictability of both the plot and most of the characters, and the conversations and observations about sex, sexuality, race, and more. Simon wonders why straight is the default, why everyone shouldn’t have to come out as whatever their attraction or identity is. I loved the many relationships, romantic and platonic. I also absolutely loved that Blue and Simon (on email as Jacques and in his “real” life) talk about and make flirty innuendos about sex. I don’t want to reveal much more of the plot because a lot of the fun of reading this book was not really knowing what would happen next or how certain events would be dealt with. One repeated idea in the book is that “people really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows.” Getting to explore Simon’s vast rooms, and those of his friends, was a total joy. This book is an absolute must-read: sweet, funny, honest, and filled with a bunch of happy endings. Get this one on your list. 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS

ISBN-13: 9780062348678

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 4/7/2015