Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Book Tour, Coming-of-Age, epilepsy, Fiction, Friendship, Young Adult

Review: 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

20493997Andrew Smith is a mad scientist. I imagine him, even now, sitting in his writing laboratory playing with every imaginable ingredient and coming up with another brilliant concoction of literary gold. This might sound like the delusions of a raving fanatic or a particularly creative reviewing mind, but considering Smith’s books continue to win universal praise and, more recently, critical notice and awards, perhaps it’s not so far from the truth after all.

100 Sideways Miles is another example of how brilliantly Andrew Smith can craft a totally readable, totally relatable, completely unique story. The main character, Finn, has been immortalized by his own father, a writer who has created a duplicate “Finn” in his fiction. The science-fictional Finn created by his father, and our fictional Finn (how meta!) are more than a little bit similar. They even share the same scars, the “real” Finn having earned his in a twist-of-fate accident involving a horse that falls from the sky onto Finn and his mother. The accident has lasting impact on Finn’s family, and in the way Finn sees the world (he begins to measure time in distance, for example).

In addition to Finn, who’s still a virgin in his late teens (the horror!), we meet Cade, the ridiculously-obnoxious-but-in-a-totally-loveable-way, Cade. He’s a bit of a big brother to Finn. Every day, he comes up with a new sexually-charged descriptor to attach to the shape of Finn’s scars, which might seem insensitive but is actually his way of helping Finn relax and feel less self-conscious about his body.

Aside from the two high school boys, there is, of course, a girl or two. Including “the girl,” Julia. Finn and Julia become star-crossed lovers; Finn, the epileptic local boy and Julia, the mysterious bombshell from 2,000 miles away (Chicago) who shows up in their small California town, without warning or explanation. The two quickly, and awkwardly, form an intense bond, one which will be tested when Julia returns to Chicago. Fortunately, Finn, Cade, and a road trip to end all road trips will return balance to the universe.

100 Sideways Miles is filled with humor, angst, confusion, sarcasm, and the typical teenagers’ point of view. This means the guys encounter situations involving drugs, alcohol, sex, and “foul” language. There’s also a “damn the man” attitude expected in any coming-of-age story (what are we if we don’t rebel against the last generation, at least a little?). All of this is treated realistically, though, without being gratuitous – it makes sense to the story being told and the lives these boys are living. And when you meet Finn, you’ll understand if he needs to curse once in a while.

Smith without a doubt knows how to spin a yarn. He gets into the minds of young people and shares their experiences, in their vernacular and on their own terms. He’s done this with Stick and Grasshopper Jungle. He’s done this in Winger and with In the Path of Falling Objects. He does it in Ghost Medicine and The Marbury Lens. And yet, he does it, somehow, in a completely innovative way, every time.

So, yes, Smith is a mad scientist. He is the Victor Frankenstein of contemporary young adult fiction, and we readers have become his insatiable monsters. Is the world finally ready for Andrew Smith? No matter. He hasn’t just arrived, he’s become ubiquitous. Ready or not.


If you’re interested in hearing more about 100 Sideways Miles and/or Andrew Smith, check out the book tour hosted by Amy of Lady Reader’s Stuff!

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Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Family, Fiction, Friendship, Gay Lit, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, LGBT, Mexican American, Monthly Review, Young Adult

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

By Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 39

 

 

 


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

I was introduced to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Laura of Owl Tell You About It, who had nothing but glowing things to say about this book.  A quick Goodreads and Amazon scan brought up a lot of other positive reviews, some of them outstanding, and from bloggers I’ve been connected with for a while.  How did I miss this one?

The story is about two teenage boys, Aristotle and Dante, whose lives and personalities seem worlds apart, but who are connected by something stronger than circumstances.  Although they and their families are very different, the two boys soon become friends (not without plenty of tense moments) and stumble upon a universe all their own – two planets, as different as Earth and Mars, but orbiting each other in the most natural way.   

Through painful accidents and dangerous situations, through tragedy and loss, through long-distances and secret family histories rediscovered, what Aristotle, especially, learns is that it is okay to be vulnerable – to need someone.  And what Dante learns is how to be needed, and how to be patient.  This is a story about two boys, Ari and Dante, one who is sure about who he is and the other who is on a difficult path to discovery.  Their worlds collide and the friendship they create in the process might be enough to destroy them, or to save their lives.


Characterization:
4 – Characters very well-developed.

Aristotle, Dante, and their parents.  These are the primary and secondary characters in a book that is rather light on characters, which is fine because the real story is Dante & Aristotle.  Some others make their appearances, in brief or in memory.  Aristotle’s brother and sisters, for instance, and Dante’s boyfriend.  But the story is, start-to-finish, in-and-out, all about Dante and Aristotle.  Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is well-read, artistic, and self-confident.  Ari prefers solitude and quiet – he harbors a darkness, an anger, and has a hard time communicating. Dante loves poetry and loves to draw.  Ari spends most of his time thinking about his older brother (who is incarcerated), and about why his parents refuse to talk about it.  Dante is fair-skinned and beautiful, but longs to feel closer to his Mexican heritage;  Ari is darker, plain, and wouldn’t mind being less obviously Mexican. 

Somehow, these two very different boys find each other, balance each other, and develop a friendship that fits them both like nothing ever has.  Dante manages to penetrate Aristotle’s defences, and Aristotle helps keep Dante grounded, giving him the strength and courage he will need to confront his biggest fear.  Through it all, they share words and dreams, poetry and laughter, books, games, and even artwork.   Together, they  realize that the universe doesn’t just surround them – it is what they create for themselves.


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

If the story itself isn’t wonderful enough (it is), the way it is delivered cannot be ignored.  This is the first book I’ve read by Sáenz, but numerous people told me, while reading this, how much they enjoyed his prose and storytelling abilities.  I’m jumping on the bandwagon.  His prose is sparse but romantic.  The complexities of language – of finding the right word for the right moment – are part of Aristotle’s journey, so the prose itself becomes a part of the story.  Vivid imagery, beautiful language, emotional knuckle-punches, and a great sense of humor all pack themselves into a carefully crafted style that is accompanied by natural dialogue and a unique narrative perspective. 


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

If I am being honest, I must admit that I was disappointed by this book in two ways; first, by the final reveal (or revelation?) and second by the way that reveal came about.  I was incredibly excited to possibly have discovered a genuine, touching, “boy’s boy” book about two guy friends, one of whom just happens to be gay.  But it doesn’t turn out exactly as it appears, and even if the ending isn’t too deftly veiled, one (me, at least) still hoped it would go a certain way.  I realize I’m being ambiguous, but it’s hard to talk about what happens without giving away the whole ball game – and since this is such a beautiful story told in such a wonderful way, I definitely do not want to spoil it for anyone.  Others might be perfectly pleased with the way it turns out, though, again, I’m not sure that anyone could be thrilled with its mode of delivery.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Prove me wrong! 

Ultimately, this is a sweet, sweet book filled with emotion, passion, love, pain, and reality.  It’s a coming of age story that is believable and remarkable at the same time.  Even though I would have taken the ending in a different direction, I’m still thrilled with the experience of reading this book – it has won countless awards, and it’s not hard to understand why.  We’re looking at a new standard for honest, contemporary YA with realistic male characters and topical issues, delivered in a believable and magical way.  Right on.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Friendship, Family, Mexican-American, Gay, Coming of Age, First Love, YA.


Notable Quotes:

“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get – and never would get.”

“That afternoon, I learned two new words. ‘Inscrutable’ ‘friend.’ Words were different when they lived inside of you.”

“And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness.”

“You can’t make anyone be an adult. Especially an adult.”

“The summer sun was not meant for boys like me. Boys like me belonged to the rain.”


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Andrew Smith, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Favorites, Fiction, Friendship, GLBT, LGBT, Loss, Young Adult

Review: Winger by Andrew Smith

11861815Winger by Andrew Smith
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 36

Ryan Dean West is Winger, so nicknamed for the position he plays on the high school Rugby team.  He is fourteen years old and, being intellectually gifted, is already heading into his junior year of high school. He begins the new school year as a resident of Opportunity Hall, the “reject” wing of his school campus’s dormitories.  How did such a bright kid end up in exile?  Take one part smarty-pants, one part wild boy, and two parts bad judgment, and there you have it!  Living in Opportunity Hall with Chas, the school’s biggest bully, as a roommate sucks, but it is not the biggest of Winger’s problems.  And the fact that Chas’s girlfriend is totally lusting after him is bad, but still not the worst of it.  That one of Winger’s friends posts pictures of his band-aided scrotum on the internet and another is gay (how do you deal with that!?) definitely causes Winger some anxiety, but these are still not the worst of his issues.  No, the worst part is, he’s in love.  Not so bad?  Well, it is if you’re in love with your best friend.  And it’s really bad if your best friend is a girl two years older than you.  Two years might not seem like such a big deal to those of us who are now counting our birthdays in decades instead of years, but when you’re young, two years feels like a generation, especially when another guy, an older guy, your best friend, in fact, is competing with you for the same girl’s attention.  Winger is a classic coming-of-age story for the new era. It is smart, daring, honest, and dangerous.

One of my favorite things about Smith’s books has always been the characters.  Smith clearly knows and understands his characters inside and out.  No one in the story is there for the sake of being there – they are all integral to the story’s plot and progression, be it for comic relief, emotional growth, romance, sexual awakening, or whatever else.  Winger is no exception to this mastery.  The main character, Ryan Dean, is not the greatest guy in the world; in fact, he does some pretty lousy things.  But he’s growing up.  He stumbles and he learns.  He says stupid things, but reflects on them later.  We get annoyed with him, sometimes, but we root for him because we can see and remember our own journeys to adulthood reflected in his.  The bullies, too, Chas and Casey Palmer, are equally rounded – they are not all bad, and they are not just there because every protagonist needs an antagonist.  They have their stories and histories, too, and they are equally important to this world that Smith has created.  Although the story focuses on the students, Winger and his friends, Smith also captures the best and worst of adulthood.  There are teachers (Mr. Wellins!) who live in their own little obsessive worlds, trying to make their students see what they see in the things they love; there are absent parents and clueless mentors; there are even unlikely romances between creepy hall directors who ultimately let their residents down in the worst possible way.  This mixed bag of characters, their individualities, and their interconnectedness with one another and with the main story itself all help to create a story world that is believable and engaging, hilarious and terrifying – just like life.

When you have a favorite writer, the anticipation that builds when waiting to read his or her new book is a peculiar experience.  You know you love what they do, but part of you is always dreadfully afraid that the new book might disappoint.  When you’re a self-identified “reader,” there are few things more terrifying and heart-breaking than to be let-down by your favorite writer – it is a fear that few people can know or understand.  So, headed into this reading experience, having loved every single one of Andrew Smith’s published works to date, had me simultaneously nervous and excited.  I discovered Smith when I received an advanced copy of his book Stick from the publisher, for review.  Immediately after finishing it, I bought every one of his books.  And I’ve enjoyed all of them.  Smith has a distinct voice, a poignant style, and a raw and daring point of view.  It is remarkable, then, having already known what Smith was capable of, that Winger has blown my head right off.  Smith clearly cares deeply for this story – the language and style are creative and distinctive, without being distracting.  Smith understands people, but it takes a great storyteller to metamorphose that understanding into a readable, enjoyable story.  He does this in traditional ways, sure, but he also adds unique signatures to his prose and form.  For example, Winger carries on conversations with himself – something we probably all do – but has it ever been so realistically employed in prose?  I don’t think so.  The cartoons, too, add a fun element to the narrative, but also add to the reader’s understanding of the main character/narrator’s personality.  Sometimes his deepest feelings, though caricatured through comic, come across most pointedly in his drawings.  The dialogue, the jokes, the sarcasm, and the descriptions, too, are without flaw.

This year, I have been fortunate enough to have read some great young adult fiction from some of the most popular, award-wining writers.  Although the YA genre is not my particular specialty, I do enjoy it and read it often; in the last 5 months, I’ve read works by Rick Yancey, David Levithan, Lauren Myracle, Cassandra Clare, and Rick Riordan. I’ve enjoyed, to varying degrees, all of their books and have found much to praise about each writer.  But Andrew Smith stands unequivocally head-and-shoulders above the rest, and Winger is in a league of its own.  It is not uncommon to read blurbs and reviews that claim such-and-such book is THE book of the year – for whatever reason.  I have made a point, on this blog, to write my unbiased opinions of books, based on my own criteria – the things that work for me when reading a story.  I’m not sure I’ve ever, in a review, suggested that anyone go out and buy a book.  But there’s a time for everything, and this is that time.  Winger is the first book this year to capture my attention from the start and hold it to the end.  It’s the first story to tug at my heart, my soul, and my funny bone, and to make me believe that this story and the characters in it are real.  If you’re a lover of YA fiction or coming-of-age stories, or if you are, like me, someone who just loves a good story and will dabble wherever you need to in order to find it, then, for crying out loud, go experience Andrew Smith’s Winger.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: 13+ (Language, sexuality, violence).

Interest:  Coming of Age, YA, Boarding School, Friendship, Loss, LGBT, Bullying.

Notable Quotes:

“Nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was . . . things expand and contract – like breathing, but you could never fill your lungs up with the same air twice” (7).

“Getting through my world was like trying to swim in a pool of warm mayonnaise while carrying two bowling balls” (328).

“I wrote this all down, and I tried to make everything happen the exact same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it – real time – with all the confusion, the pressure, and the wonder, too” (411).

“Things get tough. And you’re supposed to grow up. And it’s all a bunch of bullshit” (411).

“It felt like it was going to snow, and the clouds hung so low and white that I couldn’t even see the tops of trees around me. It looked like there was a pillow over the face of the world” (423).

“Almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and, maybe, not having it” (438).

“The same words that make the horrible things come also tell the quieter things about love” (439).

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1001 Books, 2012 TBR Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Community, Depression, Fiction, Friendship, John Stephens, Literature, Loneliness, Mental Health

Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 54

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

Cannery Row is a unique stand-out amongst Steinbeck’s works, for many reasons.  One of these is that, unlike with East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, or Of Mice and Men, for example, there is not much of a plot.  Instead, what Steinbeck does is open up to his readers a place – typically American (and Californian)- where its people and its mood can be felt, captured, and understood.  This place is Cannery Row, a small cannery district in Monterey, California.  The people are a mix of shop-owners, layabouts, migrant workers, “girls for hire,” and others who are either genuinely worn down or who have chosen to live humbly in this out-of-the-way town, rather than move on up to the more prosperous areas.  The story itself centers on a man named Mack and his group of pals, all of whom are without work but who get by on their resourcefulness and their ability to find work when it becomes absolutely necessary.  The gang decides to do something nice for the town doctor, who does so much for the town without ever asking for anything in return.  Their first attempt at ‘thanking’ him goes terribly wrong, but they vow to make up for it and, in the end, they succeed.  Their gift to the doctor brings everyone together but, what the reader will realize, is that amongst the friendship and revelry is a deep sadness and loneliness which both the town and its inhabitants, but particularly the doctor, suffer from.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well developed.

Cannery Row is similar to The Grapes of Wrath in that the main story is frequently interrupted by short vignettes.  In Grapes of Wrath, these intercalary chapters served to widen the lens from the Joad family and onto the plight of the Great Depression and migrant workers in general.  Here, in Cannery Row, the interruptions often introduce the reader to minor characters – residents of or visitors to the town who emphasize certain extremities of real life, most of which are cruel in nature (dead bodies, violence, suicide, etc.).  Many readers are critical of Steinbeck’s method of interrupting the primary story in this way, but the purpose is to shape a world, to give feeling and context to a group of people, without having to focalize on one person or one family in particular.  This allows the story to be about a general community rather than individuals, which allows the conversation to be about a class or type of people, a region, rather than a character – the place, in fact, becomes the person.  This is what regionalists (like Faulkner) do best.  In addition to this, the specific characters who are introduced and witnessed, such as Mack, Doc, and Lee Chong, the shop owner, are all distinct, realistic, and purposeful.  Their interactions with one another are interesting and believable, but their internal thought processes are perhaps the most fascinating of all.

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

I am a fan of Steinbeck’s prose.  In this book, he opens many of the chapters with incredible descriptions – short passages that are almost poetic in their beauty.  He has a talent for not just seeing but also feeling people and places, then somehow reimagining these sensations into written language.  While Steinbeck employs an intercalary method, as mentioned above, his narrative asides and detours are brief and his description of those things taking place outside of the primary story are shortened.  While we might leave the main story from time-to-time, it does not feel, as it sometimes does with Grapes of Wrath, as if we have been completely separated from it.  Steinbeck also manages to capture mood and tone with his narrative voice and through his use of dialogue.  We learn much about the character Frankie, for instance, without necessarily being granted access to Frankie’s point of view.  Instead, we learn about him through others’ treatment of him, through Steinbeck’s description of him, and by the way his and the Doctor’s relationship is presented in the narrative – subtle descriptions and meaningful allusions.  Frankie, one single character, comes to mean much more on the narrative level.  He represents a type of person but, due to the straightforward and bare, sometimes raw, way Steinbeck approaches his descriptions, he can represent a group of people without becoming a grotesque.  Ultimately, the prose and style are generally sparse with brief interludes of poetic, almost romantic language.  The style suits the tone of the novel as well as the nature of its characters and “plot” or, more accurately, situation.

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

Cannery Row, unlike many of Steinbeck’s other works, is not quite as politically charged or socially sentimental.  It is still about people and place, exactly what one would expect from such a brilliant regionalist writer, but its purpose is much more ambiguous.  The emotion and pathos is still there, but the reader is allowed simply to bear witness to a community, perhaps even becoming a part of it, without necessarily being guided toward feeling one way or another about anyone in the town (even the Doctor, lauded by his townspeople, has his faults).  Certain themes from Steinbeck’s other works, such as mental health, community-families, survival, depression (economic and psychological), and labor are present again in this book, but in a much more subtle way.  For those who enjoy Steinbeck but who might be put off by his “peachiness” or heavy-handedness of politics/morality, Cannery Row might be exactly what you are looking for.  There is also a good amount of humor, counterbalancing a relatively sombre tone.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Great Depression, Community, Loneliness, Mental Health, American West, Friendship, Society

Notable Quotes:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” (5)

“Man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.” (13)

“Casting about in Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum.” (34)

“It is the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”  (82)

“The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system.  And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success.  And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” (135)

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Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family, Fiction, Friendship, Gay Lit, LGBT, Multiple POV, New York, Relationships, Richard Kramer

Review: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer

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These Things Happen by Richard Kramer
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 53

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

These Things Happen opens with the main character, Wesley, and his best friend, Theo.  Both of these young men, teenagers in high school, are special as are, we will quickly learn, all of the characters in the book, in their own way.  Theo has been in a race for school class president and Wesley has been there, by his side, as campaign manager and whatever else Theo needs.  Things turn out well for the dynamic duo, at least until Theo’s acceptance speech, where some breaking news happens to tumble out of his mouth, in front of the whole school.  The repercussions are great, and they send Wesley on a quest to discover more about the people in his life. This quest and the questions he asks, the answers he seeks, will ultimately lead him to become more introspective, to learn more about himself than, perhaps, about anyone else.  Over the course of a few days, Wesley’s attempts to connect with his parents result in the start of what might be the most meaningful relationships of his life – but not with the people he originally intended.  Wesley’s story is one about friendship and family, about finding one’s  self and learning to look at life in new ways, to be open to possibilities, and to never assume to know more than we do, about ourselves or anyone else.  This is one of those strange books, like Catcher in the Rye, I’ll Get There It Better Be Worth the Trip, and Jumpstart the World, that belongs in the realm of adult contemporary fiction, even though its main character is a youth.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Perhaps my one concern with this book is its characterization.  The message that we are all special and unique, with our own personal, valid life stories, is well taken.  However, there is an overabundance of “fabulousness” to these characters – one which is pointed out in the book’s synopsis.  The main character Wesley and his best friend Theo are both brilliant, and let each other know it all the time.  Wesley’s father and his partner both think the other is smart, funny, amazing.  Wesley thinks the same of both of them.  Wesley’s mom is talented and intelligent, as is her boyfriend.  Everyone in the story, it seems, is super clever and wonderful, except in their own eyes.  This says a lot about how we see others versus how we see ourselves, but the “wow” factor of each character was so overemphasized that it, to me, made nobody seem very special at all.  That being said, these characters certainly are people, and different ones at that.  They are special in their own ways – George, in particular.  Character is done best, I think, when it is demonstrated through the various relationships.  The strained relationship between Wesley and his father, for instance, or the budding relationship between Wesley and George.  The way we see Wesley’s mom, behind closed doors, and the way she comes across in public.  Viewing the characters in their different situations adds depth to them and allows us to understand each of them a bit better, even if they haven’t quite figured out themselves or each other just yet.

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

A carry-over issue I have from characterization has to do with narrative voice(s) in the book.  Each chapter is narrated from the perspective of one of the characters, which means our relationship to the narrator changes with each chapter, too.  In one chapter, we are with Wesley – seeing things from his point of view.  In the next, we are with Theo, or George, or Ben.  One would expect, then, a very different voice from chapter to chapter but, unfortunately, the language and style are almost identical, no matter which perspective we are witnessing in any given chapter.  Wesley is a great character and, with George, probably the best drawn in the book – I just wish he had been more of a stand-out by being completely different from any of the other characters in the story.  Mood and tone do shift, depending on the situation that the narrating characters are in at that point in the story, and the language and style in general are fluid, engaging, and appropriate to the overall tone and level of the story.  I found the humor to be current and funny, not necessarily an easy task, and while I am not usually a fan of multiple narrative perspectives, it definitely works for this book, because the essence of the book is not just Wesley’s story, but all stories. 

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

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer is a modern take on a modern topic.  Thankfully, gay and lesbian fiction is on the rise, both in the adult contemporary and the young adult spheres.  There is still a lot of work to be done, but Kramer’s new book happily adds to the genre, and in an innovative way.  These Things Happen looks at a variety of homosexual (and general life) issues through the eyes of a heterosexual teenaged boy.  What is so fascinating is the fact that three of the main characters are gay, and this story is certainly about their lives, but it is also about the main character,  Wesley,  and how he begins to come into his own, to understand himself – maybe.  Told from the perspective of many of its characters, what the reader learns from each vantage point is that no one is really sure of him or herself – we think we know who we are, but we constantly doubt it.  Do others see us as we really are, or as we pretend to be?  Can others, those closest to us, know more about us than we know about ourselves?  How can listening to and learning about our friends, our parents, our children, give us deeper insight into who we are?  This book asks a lot of questions and it answers few of them, but that’s the point – the discovery is ours to make.  I can easily imagine These Things Happen becoming an indie/cult classic, someday.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Family, Alternative/Modern Families, Friendship, Intergenerational Relationships, LGBT Issues, New York City, Bullying/Violence, Prejudice/Bigotry, Self-discovery.

Notable Quotes:

“I like when someone doesn’t know an answer right off, where what they say first is just a start, that can wind up anywhere. Where answers don’t end things.” (18)

“Sometimes I think I’m like forty different people, sometimes not quite one.” (23)

“If I’m gay, which I am, it’s not because my dad was distant. He wasn’t. And besides, that’s just psychology.” (99)

“He understands tonight, as he might not have before, that to accept what someone wants to give you is, in its way, a kind of bravery.” (215)

“Lying is most interesting as an action when you don’t actually have the need to lie . . . Because it allows you to find out what truth, personally, is for you.  Because there have to be more categories, quite frankly, than truth or untruth.” (234)

“It is possible to have an experience and only find out later what it means.” (235)

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Review: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer – As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!)

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer – Shooting Stars Mag

Blog Tour: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer – Dreaming In Books

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AIDS, Edmund White, Friendship, Gay Lit, GLBT, Green Carnation Prize, New York, Sexuality

Review: Jack Holmes and His Friend by Edmund White (The Green Carnation Prize)

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This is Book #1 for our Green Carnation Prize reading project.  For more information on the project and on the Green Carnation Prize itself, please visit This Post.

About the Book:

Format: Hardcover

Published: January 1st, 2012

Publisher: Bloomsbury UK

Description:

“Jack Holmes and Will Wright arrive in New York in the calm before the storm of the 1960s. Coworkers at a cultural journal, they soon become good friends. Jack even introduces Will to the woman he will marry. But their friendship is complicated: Jack is also in love with Will. Troubled by his subversive longings, Jack sees a psychiatrist and dates a few women, while also pursuing short-lived liaisons with other men. But in the two decades of their friendship, from the first stirrings of gay liberation through the catastrophe of AIDS, Jack remains devoted to Will. And as Will embraces his heterosexual sensuality, nearly destroying his marriage, the two men share a newfound libertinism in a city that is itself embracing its freedom.

Moving among beautifully delineated characters in a variety of social milieus, Edmund White brings narrative daring and an exquisite sense of life’s submerged drama to this masterful exploration of friendship, sexuality, and sensibility during a watershed moment in history.”

-From Goodreads.com.

My Thoughts:

Reading Jack Holmes and His Friend is, for me, like visiting an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while.  In years gone-by, I have read and enjoyed other White novels, including A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty.  As with any reunion, though, one notices certain differences.  For instance, the two books read previously are both semi-autobiographical (or, as I would prefer to call them, creative non-fiction).  This one, though, is a bit more difficult to figure out.  The primary character, Jack, is a gay man with aversions to homosexuality.  I actually saw quite a bit of myself in him (at first – but only at first!), which was fun, as I usually do not identify at all with fictional gay characters.

Jack has a difficult time coming to terms with is sexuality, though he does eventually accept himself, after attempting, through physical action, therapy, and other methods to “fix” himself and become heterosexual.  He also struggles his entire life with being in love with the man (Will) who becomes his best friend.  Some readers have found this relationship cliché, but I would argue that 1) something is not cliché simply because it happens often in real life and 2) White handles this yearning, in Jack, with a sense of realism that is not often found in these types of situations—it does not feel like a “puppyish” type of unrequited love, as might be found in YA books.

Readers should also be prepared for quite a bit of masterfully crafted erotic segments, both heterosexual and homosexual.  White has always portrayed sexuality and sexual situations in a naked (no pun intended) uninhibited way, and that certainly still holds true.  Readers who are expecting a purely “gay” tale, though, will be in for a surprise, as the heterosexual escapades seem, to me, just as accurately and intimately detailed as the homosexual ones.

What I find most appealing about the story, though, is its temporal reach.  The novel spans decades and it is fascinating to watch how the friendship between Jack & Will changes over time (as well as how they themselves change), but also to witness the important historical events and movements that take place, particularly the AIDS epidemic and how it impacted the gay community of New York.  I did find Jack’s “growth” a bit contrived and forced – I will leave the impetus for that growth out of this review, so readers can discover and evaluate it for themselves; but, I for one would have liked to see that development come from a “purer” place (if that can be said to exist).

Some of the difficulty of this book is in its structure.  While the prose is beautiful, the back-and-forth narration, from Jack’s perspective (but in third-person), to Will’s perspective, and then reversed again, is a bit odd and distracting.  I understand that White wanted the reader to relate closely to both the gay and straight characters, to experience their world through the eyes of both friends, but I wonder if a simpler, consistent third-person narrator might have been more effective in serving this purpose.

Would I recommend this book?  I would, indeed.  Is it worthy of The Green Carnation Prize?  Well, fortunately, that is not for me to decide!  I do see how and why this book made its way onto the short list.  White might be breaking-ground with his look at adult male relationships, here.  Can a gay man and a straight man be best friends?  Absolutely.  But if that gay man happens to be in love (obsessed) with his friend?  Complications!  Those situations and complications do happen, though, and they have not yet been extensively explored in fiction.  Although its structure and style might leave a bit to be desired, Jack Holmes and His Friend absolutely has a place on the shelf and adds a certain something to the canon of gay literature.  It is also an interesting read for those interested in cultural studies (particularly 1960s/70s New York City), the nature of friendship, and sexuality.

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Up Next in Our Series on the Green Carnation Prize Short-List:

December 4th: Scenes from Early Life – Philip Hensher (Ana of Things Mean A Lot)

December 5th: A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (Mat of MatLee Reviews)

December 6th: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw (Cass of Bonjour Cass!)

December 7thMoffie by Andrew Carl Van Der Merwe (No review scheduled – please comment if you would like to read/review this book for our project!)

December 10th: Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Before he Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson (Jodie of Book Gazing)

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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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