Aging, Book Review, Death, Fiction, K.B. Dixon, metafiction, Psychology

The Ingram Interview by K.B. Dixon

Meet Daniel Ingram, retired English professor: despondent, eccentric, and in the midst of writing his memoir, after being kicked out of his current home (a retirement facility) for depressing the other residents. The story itself is the process of Daniel writing his story, so the reader witnesses him interviewing himself (at least, this is what I eventually concluded – as the interviewer is never identified) as he moves out of the retirement center to live, briefly, with an ex-student and attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife so as to find a more permanent place to live. Daniel recently suffered a medical shock, which seems to have jolted his sense of self and needled at that pesky morality issue, wherein Daniel realizes that it may be “now or never”. Surprisingly, that is about the extent of his revelation and, while he mentions his family and other past failures, he has little regret in life and, instead, seems focused on just getting his story written and moving onward to a new retirement facility, to new people, to new experiences. He is a people-watcher, an outsider, and finds little importance in life, outside of what he is doing in each moment. Still, there are moments where he seems genuinely proud of and hopeful for certain people and things; it’s a strange, cold type of non-emotional emotion.  Daniel clearly feels things, worries about things, and thinks about quite a lot, but he uses all of that to one end: writing.

There is only one main character in the book, and that is Daniel Ingram,  interviewer and interviewee. The other characters are present only in relation to Daniel’s interactions with them and opinions of them. Still, though Daniel seems emotionally detached, we are able to learn quite a bit about him, about his fears and ideals, by the questions that are asked and how he responds to them. One of my favorite moments is when the Interviewer mentions the nice weather, and Daniel rants about the inanity of mediocrity, how, even when it comes to weather, there should be some kind of substance (so a beautiful, clear day – 72 and sunny- is worthless – give him 48 degrees any day!). There is something about life in that answer; Daniel wants to feel something, he wants to (or does) appreciate the less-than or more-than average. Another favorite moment is the end of the book, where Daniel’s fears and recovery are finally addressed head-on, and that beautifully moving admission is quickly followed by a comment on somebody’s shoes, and how those shoes speak to the man’s personality. It’s kind of brilliant.

The self-interview as style was unique and interesting. Many writers I know employ this device when creating stories, but few –if any- that I can think of have actually turned the process itself into the actual story. I honestly had an incredibly fun time reading this book (and read it in two sittings of 60-pages each) because of the style; it was interesting and new and reminded me of something I would do for myself, either in preparation for writing a short story or other creating writing piece, or simply as a self-evaluation for blogging purposes or job interviews, etc. It was also amusing to keep up with Daniel’s thought process, which was ever-changing. In the course of a chapter, the questions would range from topics like burglary in the retirement center to the artistic value of a certain movie, to the nature of Daniel’s relationship with his son. This style reminded me of how quickly our own thoughts race through our heads, how we can be sitting in a room, staring out the window, and in the hour that passes, a thousand thoughts about a thousand topics and memories will have passed, and these little thoughts are what we are made of and these moments of reflection are how we grow as individuals.  

What I find so attractive about this book is that there is a very real human spirituality to it. The themes and style remind me of something Mitch Albom would write, if he were more focused on the human element, rather than the religious. Dixon is allowing the reader to take a look at a man, aging and coming to terms with that mortality, but not grasping at any straws, not looking for any type of relief, but just living to the best of his ability, through the last of his days. The narrator, Daniel Ingram, still has to struggle with accepting mortality and the fact that the “better days” are over, but he uses that struggle as another life event, another learning experience, another writing process. This type of spirituality, the intellectual pursuit of life through life, resonated with me in a way that similar topics, addressed through religious revelations and explanations never could. 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Dan Noakes.  He has a weakness for taffy-colored shoes.”

“In thirty years I have never been able to look out on a meadow filled with grazing cattle and not first think – ah, a field of swaying bovines.”

“He has an excellent reputation, Dr. Nesbitt – you just have to ignore the fact that for some reason he thought it would be a good idea to do something interesting with his mustache.”

“Who is Everyman?  Where did he go to school?  What sort of jobs did he have before he ended up with this one?  He used to be one way, now he’s another.  Does he know why?”

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Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Death, Family, Fiction, Friendship, Grief/Recovery, Ranching, Young Adult

Review: Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith

Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 32


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Ghost Medicine is Andrew Smith’s debut novel and, though there are some similarities to his later works (elements of danger, young protagonists, brotherly relationships at the core of the narrative), it is also quite a bit different.  The story is about Troy Stotts, a teenager who lives alone with his father and who is trying to deal with the loss of his mother.  He and his friends set out to have a summer of “Ghost Medicine” – a summer in where time stands still.  Troy works on the Benavidez ranch, owned by his best friend’s father.  The girl Troy is crushing on just happens to be Troy’s best friend’s sister, so a delicate balancing act beings, wherein Troy must figure out how to maintain his friendship with Gabriel while also building his relationship with Gabe’s sister, Luz. Joining this trio for a summer of danger and wild abandon are Tom Buller, a rough-shod ranch-hand youngin’ who is impossible not to fall in love with, and Chase Rutledge and his father, the deputy sheriff, one of whom harbors a violent anger toward Troy and his friends, the other of whom wants nothing but to retire with his full pension, even if that means lying about or ignoring his son’s misdeeds. It is a thrilling, precarious, life-changing summer – a summer none of them will ever forget.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Troy Stotts and Tom Buller might be two of my new favorite characters in YA fiction.  Tom Buller, especially, was impossible not to be attracted to; his primary characteristics include a hilarious sense of humor, a strong sensitivity, and a die-hard loyalty to his friends.  Troy, too, is incredibly loyal and brave, although a bit self-involved at times (he heads off for days at a time, and at all hours of the day/night, without much concern for how his Dad will worry).  Their friendship and the relationship they build with a lonely older woman, is indicative of what the summer of Ghost Medicine is all about: passion, freedom, and doing what’s right.  The two, together, are a joy to watch and, with the addition of Gabriel, Luz, Mr. Benavidez and other solid supporting characters, allows for a moving and entertaining story, progressing the plot in ways the narration does not always manage to do.  


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Smith is clearly a talented writer and storyteller and though this is his first novel, it demonstrates an understanding of language, pace, and tone that makes it clear to readers: “This is a writer.”  The story, though, does move rather slowly – it felt, sometimes, like swimming through molasses – liquid enough to move forward, but at a reduced pace.  Perhaps this is fitting, considering the story takes place in a dusty old ranch town, far from the nearest city.  Things are bound to be slowed down, here, and Smith’s prose does make the reader feel that.  Fortunately, the story does move forward without stalling, even if it is going slowly.  The characterization and the minor hints at danger and intrigue create just enough tension to keep things interesting, and keep the pages turning. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Perhaps the most interesting sub-elements of the plot are the various forms of “Medicine” that Troy creates, to suit certain situations that the boys (and Luz) find themselves in throughout the story.  Some Medicine makes them strong and some makes them disappear.  But the Ghost Medicine makes them have a summer that will last forever.  Troy is on the cusp of manhood and this summer is really the last between his boyhood and his adulthood – the story is not just about him coming to terms with the loss of his mother, but also with the loss of his innocence, his childish freedom.  His friends are on a similar path, except for Gabey who everyone seems hell-bent on trying to protect and to save from growing-up.  Unfortunately, the events of the summer do not spare anyone.  We all must grow up sometime.  


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: MG+
Interest: Friendship, Family, Coming-of-Age, First Love, Rural South, Ranching, Grief/Recovery, Loss, Death/Dying

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Bisexuality, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Death, Family, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, GLBT, John Irving, Literature, Sexuality, Transgender

Review: In One Person by John Irving

In One Person by John Irving

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 18


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Irving is known for his bold approach to sexuality and the social/familial “other.”  This latest is no exception to that well-established reputation.   Meet William Dean Abbott, a teenage boy with a speech impediment.  And meet the first love of his life, Miss Frost, the town library.  William (or Bill, or Billy, depending on who we’re talking to) develops at a young age a love for reading and writing – the answer to that primordial question “What do you want to be when you grow up,” is, for Billy, “A Writer.”  He divulges this secret to just one person, Miss Frost.  It’s no wonder that a boy who loves to read and write might develop a crush on the town librarian, an attractive middle-aged woman.  Except, there might be quite a bit more to Miss Frost than meets the eye.  The story is essentially a fictional memoir, with Billy as narrator looking back on his life and works.  It takes us along Billy’s journey from boyhood to manhood and into old age.  We watch as he comes to terms with and explores his bisexuality and particular interest in transsexuals. Along the way, the reader is exposed to a variety of Billy’s friends, family members, and lovers – some male, some female, and some transgendered.  There are marriages and divorces, deaths and rebirths, supportive folks and terribly antagonistic ones.    


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

The characters in this book are one of its greatest charms and, simultaneously, one of its greatest issues.  While one can expect, from Irving, a blunt and over-the-top approach to any sensitive topic (in this case, bisexual & transgender people), what I found disturbing was the overabundance of both.  Billy, for instance, is a bisexual who finds himself attracted primarily to transgender women (“the best of both worlds”).  As it turns out, Billy’s father just happens to be gay – the effeminate kind, and Billy’s grandfather also thoroughly enjoys dressing up as a woman.  Billy’s mother, too, has sexual peculiarities of her own, though I will leave those for the reader to discover, since they are a particularly interesting aspect of the back-story which is revealed later in the book (it’s not the biggest mystery in the world, but it’s fun to let it unfold naturally).  One could say this might just be an odd family, but considering Billy’s best friend, Elaine, their mutual love interest, Jacques, others of their schoolmates (revealed later in the book) and the town librarian are all either bisexual, gay, or transgender – well, maybe there’s something in the water in First Sister, Vermont! The plenitude of sexually “other” characters was not wholly believable and, for me, even detracted from Billy’s journey a bit (the main theme seemed to be about a bisexual writer calling for tolerance in a world of normalcy, yet most elements of his world, with the exception of a few people whose negativity seems less than bothersome to Billy, are largely the “other” world rather than the “standard” – so where is the conflict?).  That gripe aside, the majority of the characters are more than interesting – as Irving’s characters usually are.  There are a plethora of personalities, from the butch lesbian to the effeminate old man, to the teenage boy trying to figure out what he is.  There are overbearing mothers, alcoholic uncles, and hilarious foreigners who can’t pronounce anything right, especially when they’re excited.  Although one might find it hard to believe that virtually every person Billy meets could actually be in some way queer, the journey itself and Billy’s interaction with all these people are still worth the ride.   


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

As with characterization, the overall experience with Irving’s prose was positive, but there were some elements which irked me, two in particular.  First, the narrator had a penchant for repetition.  He would re-tell certain parts of the story multiple times, like an old man reminiscing with his friends or grandchildren about life-gone-by, sometimes forgetting that he had already told parts of the story twenty minutes ago.  The second issue was his tendency to skip around in the timeline.  The narrator is writing this as a memoir, looking back fifty or sixty years, but rather than following a clear trajectory through boyhood, the teenage years, manhood, etc., he often skips around so that one moment he is a college student in Europe, and the next he is a boy again, getting ready for his school play.  This, at times, disrupted the flow of the story so that it was difficult to relax and sink-in completely.  That being said, there was also an endearing quality to it, when all was said and done.  The language and prose itself matched the characterization in that it was clever, witty, and sharp.  The dialogue was often the most interesting element of the story, and Irving’s ability at description certainly shows – it is perhaps the glue that holds the entire novel together, when it seems to be jumping around.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I found most difficult about this novel is that it is written by a heterosexual man who seems to be trying too hard.  Granted, Irving certainly has a history of exploring sexuality and human nature; still, because it was so over-the-top (almost every character had to be at least a little “gay” in someway) it almost felt like Irving was pandering to a particular audience.  That being said, Irving is also doing what his narrator is accused of doing by some of the more bigoted characters: He is demanding tolerance.  This I respect to the utmost and, in the end, I was able to put aside the fact that almost everyone in the book carries a “Different and Proud” card because so many moments in the book were pure, sensitive, and hopeful.  The story tackles the specific difficulties that bisexual men and women face, separate from general homophobia; for example, that they are distrusted by the gay community and treated with prejudice by the straight community.  Ultimately, this book puts bisexuality and transgendered people on center stage in the literary world, in an empathetic and intelligent way.  There are very few examples of high literature approaching these topics (few examples even in the YA or other genre categories, to be honest), so Irving’s In One Person is a welcome addition both to the LGBT canon but also to contemporary literary fiction in general. 


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Coming-of-Age, Transgender, Transvestite, Cross-Dressing, Family, AIDS, Death & Dying


 Notable Quotes:

“We are formed by what we desire.”

“Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

“All I say is: Let us leave les folles alone; let’s just leave them be. Don’t judge them. You are not superior to them – don’t put them down.”

“Don’t forget this, too: Rumors aren’t interested in the unsensational story; rumors don’t care what’s true.”

“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away; it keeps things for you, or hides things from you. Your memory summons things to your recall with a will of its own. You imagine you have a memory, but your memory has you!”

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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, David Levithan, Death, Depression, Fiction, Psychology, Young Adult

Review: Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 48

Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

I can say it now: I hate David Levithan, unequivocally.  Why do I hate him?  Because he continues to write every book I would have written, had I the talent, stamina, or patience to actually become a writer.  First, there was Boy Meets Boy, a beautiful high school romance between two teenage boys, delivered in the most natural way I have ever seen.  Then, there was Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which he co-wrote with John Green and which was, let’s face it, a match made in heaven.  Most recently, he released The Lover’s Dictionary, which is one of the most interesting and relevant re-imaginings of the adult love story in current fiction.  So, alright, I actually love David Levithan.  With his latest, Every You, Every Me, David Levithan again cooperates with another artist, this time a photographer named Jonathan Farmer.  The main character, Evan, recently lost a friend – the one friend he wished could have been much more than a friend.  He and Ariel’s (that’s “the one”) boyfriend, Jack, are struggling in their own ways to deal with their grief and feelings of responsibility about what happened to Ariel.  Suddenly, as Ariel’s birthday approaches, Evan –and Jack- start to receive random, cryptic photographs in places which remind them of Ariel.  Some of the photos even have Ariel in them.  As the torture continues, Evan struggles to fight the madness and find the person responsible for leaving these photos – but who is it?  Could Ariel herself be somehow haunting them?  Is it a mysterious stranger with a grudge brought to bear?  Or, could Evan himself have truly snapped and not even know it?  Thrilling, poignant, and surprising – David Levithan has definitely done it again.


Characterization:

3 – Characters well-developed.

As is the case with most of Levithan’s work, the book is rather sparsely written.  That is to say, the story tells itself, in a way, and is much more the focal point than its characters are.  For this reason, the characters do not get as much growth, development, or characterization as one might hope.  Still, the various personalities – particular of Evan and Jack, but also of some of the minor characters- are clearly written so that each character is identifiable as him or herself.  What is most impressive in this regard, though, is the characterization of Ariel, the dangerously disturbed girl who Jack and Evan are pining over, and who is long-gone before the story even begins.  To develop a character that is so crucial to the story, yet not technically a presence in it, takes a certain amount of craft – and Levithan has it.


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What I am often most impressed with is Levithan’s story-telling ability.  His prose is sparse but engaging – not lofty in the least, but also not quite conversational.  There is an interesting balance between these two extremes which Levithan always manages to scale delicately, and Every You, Every Me is no exception. The interposing of images at crucial moments of the story, coupled with the “chapter parts” and the varying lengths (sometimes a chapter part is one or two sentences, other times it is a few pages) adds an interesting complexity and novelty to the structure.  There is also quite a lot of strikethrough in the prose, as if the narrator, Evan, is arguing with himself as the story progresses – fighting certain memories, battling certain emotions.  At first, the strikethrough was a bit irritating, because I wasn’t quite sure whether I should skip or scan through that and read just the open prose, or if the strikethrough itself was really part of the storytelling.  This is a determination each reader will have to make on his own, as it works either way; for me, it felt most appropriate to read every word because the struggle for the character, being mirrored in the prose was ultimately moving and important.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

To live or to die.  That is a decision every person makes every day, though hardly any of us think about it.  Still, the choice is ours, really – we wake up each day and we decide, consciously or subconsciously, whether or not to continue living.  This is a very personal, private thing, and for most, not really a consideration at all.  So, what if someone else forced that decision – of whether they would continue to live or not- on you?  What if they put you in command of their survival?  Could you let someone –a best friend, a girlfriend- die, if they really wanted to die?  Would you force them to get psychiatric help against their will if it meant they would live – but live hating you forever?  This is the nature of Every You, Every Me.  The title is taken from a moment in the book when Ariel is telling Evan that all of us have multiple personalities, in a way.  We don’t ever show 100% of ourselves to anyone else and, likewise, we never see that 100% in another.  Sometimes, we can’t even admit all of the truths about ourselves to ourselves.  What is so wonderful about each of Levithan’s books is that they say something, and usually it is something few others know how to say or how to admit.  Every You, Every Me is a story about love and friendship, yes, but more importantly it is about struggles with depression, social anxiety, psychotic breaks, and decisions none of us should ever have to make.  It is about how to survive and move on, when all is said and done. 


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: YA/High School+

Interest: Friendship, Coming-of-Age, Loss, Psychology, Manic/Polar Psychosis, Suicide, Recovery.

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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Death, Fiction, Friendship, Gay Lit, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, GLBT, John Donovan, Monthly Review

Review: I’ll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip by John Donovan

I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip by John Donovan
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

 

YTD:  5

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

 

What is hardest to believe about I’ll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip. by John Donovan is that the book takes place in the 1960s (and was written then, too!).  I mean, honestly, where was this book all my life?  As a teenager, I read a few gay-themed novels, like Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley (which I adore), but this book is the starting point for realistic gay fiction and, more specifically, the realistic gay YA novel.  This is simultaneously a book that represents the end of idealized youths in YA fiction and also smacks its readers in the face with the presence of a typically denied or unrecognized type of person.  Davy is thirteen, he’s in love with his dog, and his best friend and only role model is his grandmother, with whom he lives.  When Davy’s grandmother passes away, he and his dog must be uprooted from their small suburban lakeside home, to New York City.  Davy’s mom, the reader learns, is a delusional, self-absorbed alcoholic, the likes of which is not next seen until Augusten Burroughs’s memoir, Running With Scissors , almost forty years later.  The father, like Burroughs’s, is a relatively weak, non-presence.  Granted, he is “accepting” of Davy’s “predicament,” but only because he believes that all boys fool about a bit when they are growing up, and Davy is sure to soon grow out of it.  Whether or not Davy will grow out of it, though, is left unsettled, as is the path his budding relationship with the school jock and loner (another odd but special combination of characteristics for one high school person) will take.  Do they live happily ever after?  Do they end up “making out” with all the girls, as they vow to do – or, possibly, does their relationship become even deeper and more intimate as the days go by?

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well developed.

This section almost got a “3” rating, except that I had to pause and reflect on a lot of the other so-called YA books I have read recently and how those characters did not come close to the level of depth and interrelationships presented by Donovan here.  Davy, the main character, is sad, lonely, and confused.  He is also intelligent, witty, and incredibly loving.  He understands his mother and father perfectly, despite how they try to dupe him into believing they may care more than they do, or be “cooler” than they are.  His father’s new wife, too, comes across as genuine as she is meant to be, without it ever seeming phony (the use of which word made me laugh, as Davy did certainly have a certain Holden-esque feel to him, and Donovan’s prose was similar to Salinger’s in its sparseness and directness).  Altschuler, Davy’s friend and crush, is complex from the start – there is something secretive about it, though it never seems sinister.  Altschuler is handsome, clever, and great at sports – so why does he always place himself on the outside, in opposition when he could be in control?  The reader finds out in due time and, quaintly (but without being too saccharine) it is another well-written character, Fred, who brings the two boys together and who, at the appropriate time, lets them go off on their own – to grow and experience life without his presence as a crutch.  Fred is, believe it or not, Davy’s lovable dog, and one of the best written characters in any YA novel.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

As I mentioned above, the prose is reminiscent of the sparse and rather cold nature of the 1960s realists, post McCarthyism.  There is a jaggedness to it, a pained emotionality.  Donovan, like Salinger, has a bittersweet bite to his prose – something that draws the reader in, almost tenderly, but which also keeps him at a distance throughout, so that we bear witness to the story without feeling overwhelmed or coddled by it. The language was believable from a thirteen year old narrator’s perspective, as were the rather amusing and sometimes completely unpredictable and unconnected strings of thought.  Davy relating his dream to the reader, as something uninteresting which can be skipped, for instance, is perfectly indicative of what a young, self-conscious boy might tell his friends or classmates – “well, I had this dream, it’s not important, I mean, I don’t even know why I’m telling it…” which, by nature of this lead in, indicates to everyone that the dream really is important, at least to Davy, and we should pay close attention despite how he tries to dismiss it.  Similarly, the way in which Davy connects his “transgressions” with Altschuler to the loss of his dog is tragically comic – but wholly believable of a boy looking for answers to unanswerable questions.
Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

One of the most interesting and likely agitating pieces of this novel is its resolution, or lack thereof.  The title of the book seems to allude to an eventual time or place the “there” where Davy (or Donovan – or all of us) will eventually reach.  The ending of the book makes it perfectly clear that neither Davy nor us has gotten there, yet, but that the path is being laid and the direction is much clearer than it had been.  When I read a novel like this, I cannot help but to think back to Whitman and Wilde, Shakespeare and Dickinson, the literary and poetic giants, masters of verse and prose, who had to disguise certain feelings, desires, or plain curiosities, in fear of persecution.  Suddenly, it seems Donovan steps up to say “enough is enough” and grabs the readers hand to walk onward – where?  That’s uncertain, but it’s somewhere and, ultimately, it may be the journey that is the most important part.  There is self-discovery, here, and a hope for a social awakening.  We see small glimpses of the larger world’s oppression, in Davy’s mother’s reaction and his father’s patronization.  There are small glimmers of hope, though, unlike any in a novel previously – open embraces and acceptance, really, from characters like Stephanie, Davy’s step-mother, and in the candy shop owner, always eager to welcome the boys, to acknowledge their presence and treat them as guests – together (indeed, she’s even disconcerted when one appears without the other).  All-in-all, this is one of the most impressive YA novels I have ever read, and certainly one of the top novels with a gay main character.  That Donovan achieved both, together in one book, 40 years ago, is almost unfathomable, and my only hope is that there will be a great resurgence in this books popularity soon, because the world is really missing out.

 
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult

Interest: GLBT, Coming-of-Age, Family, Death & Dying, Loss, Friendship, Coming Out, Alcoholism

 

 

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