Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Lover's Dictionary: A Novel by David Levithan

brash, adj.
"I want you to spend the night," you said.  And it was definitely your phrasing that ensured it.  If you had said "Let's have sex," or "Let's go to my place," or even "I really want you," I'm not sure we would have gone quite as far as we did.  But I loved the notion that the night was mine to spend, and I immediately decided to spend it on you.

David Levithan is so versatile--he's the founding editor of Scholastic's PUSH imprint, has mentored many new writers, has written his own highly acclaimed fiction for teens (including the groundbreaking LGBTQ Boy Meets Boy),  and has now come out with this first book for the adult market, which I'm highlighting here because I think it will certainly cross over to his teen audience, particularly the older teens.  The Lover's Dictionary is a love story, and despite its brevity it's a very intriguing read.  Levithan constructs this relationship story out of words and their definitions,  beginning with aberrant and ending with zenith.   It's funny and romantic, yes, (no one does romantic quite like David Levithan) but also shadowed by anger,  insecurity, betrayal.  There's a lot of tenderness, but no sense of permanence.  The relationship pictured is organic and fragile.  I never lost the feeling that it was teetering on the edge of heartbreak, but the wordplay enherent in the form of the book lightens it  considerably.

exacerbate, v.
"I believe your exact words were, 'You're getting too emotional.'"

The Lover's Dictionary feels very finely crafted to me, almost poetic. Each word is carefully considered yet often has an unexpected quality.  Although Levithan is very out as a queer writer, the gender of the lovers in this story  is subtly handled.  The narrator addresses his lover as "you", and while the narrator is male, the "you" is left ambiguous.  I think this gives the story a nice sense of openness and fluidity.  In the end, it's the love that's the miracle, regardless of the lover's identities. 

sancrosanct, adj.
The nape of your neck.  Even the sound of the word nape sounds holy to me.  That and the hollow of your neck, the peek of your chest that your shirt sometimes reveals.  These are the stations of my quietest, most insistent desire.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Rich and Mad by William Nicholson

"I've decided to fall in love," said Maddy Fisher.
Cath nodded to show she was listening, but did not look up from her magazine.
"I'm seriously serious.  I'm too young to get married but I'm too old to be single.  I need love."
"And sex," said Cath.
"Well, yes.  But I'm not talking about a quick grope at a party.  I'm talking about can't-eat can't-sleep crazy in love."
"Any idea who?" said Cath.
"Not a single clue."

It's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of reading such a convincing and absorbing chronicle of that adolescent rite of passage, first love.  Nicholson's Rich and Mad is warm and thoughtful and optimistic, just like its protagonists.  It's an easy book to fall into and get lost in.  Nicholson is an established and respected fantasy writer who had a particular agenda with his first work of realistic fiction.  I think the end result is complex yet beautifully balanced.

Rich and Mad is the story of Maddy Fisher and Rich Ross, British teens who are both rather quiet and, frankly, a bit nerdy.  They're inexperienced in the field of romance and Rich, in particular, feels like a misfit.  They long for love, without really knowing anyone of the opposite sex.  Each of them, rather naively,  becomes infatuated with someone they barely know:  Rich with beautiful Grace, and Maddy with the charming and popular Joe Finnegan.  Rich and Maddy become friends in the process of trying to woo their respective crushes, and when things with Grace and Joe fall apart, they support each other and gradually deeper feelings develop between them.  They are kind to each other, and it is this kindness that engenders love.  It's innocent and sweet, but Nicholson makes it seem natural and not sentimental.

Part of what gives Rich and Mad its depth, I think, is the way that Nicholson has contextualized this relationship.  Rich and Maddy don't just experience love emotionally, they also give it a lot of thought.  As Rich's feelings for Maddy are blossoming, his beloved grandmother is dying of a stroke.  Maddy's antique dealer father has fallen in love with a woman far away in China and has come home to say goodbye to his wife and children in order to commit to this new relationship.  Maddy's older sister and her friend Grace are  struggling with abusive relationships. Rich is reading The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm and considering what it has to say.  A lot of different voices are heard and a lot of different experiences are laid out here, some of them more somber than the one Nicholson is primarily developing, and each one feels quite individual.

In the final chapter, Rich and Maddy make love.  Nicholson is quite descriptive here and the book jacket carries the warning "explicit content", I think mainly referring to this scene.  I felt almost embarrassed reading it;  I felt like I was intruding on the privacy of real people, which is not something I often feel when reading fictional accounts of sex. Nicholson captures a mood of tenderness and intimacy, and the encounter seems right and good in the context of the relationship.  Rich and Maddy may not stay together forever, but what they have now is the real thing. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

I'll never be able to listen to that Elton John song the same way again.  (Not that I listened to it a lot before...but now that one line has completely taken over my head...and I'm hearing it in Elton John's voice, too...oh dear lord!).  After I read Hold Me Closer, Necromancer  I googled the lyrics to Tiny Dancer and they're completely inane.  Just begging to be reimagined.

As the titular pun demonstrates, this book is a little twisted.   It's very funny, in a dry, scary, pull-no-punches sort of way.  It's not afraid to go way past weird and embrace the downright bizarre,  while somehow maintaining enough of a framework of normalcy (well, normalcy within the conventions of supernatural fiction--it does feature necromancers, witches, werewolves and a harbinger of death) to keep it grounded.  Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is maybe not for everyone, but I sure got a kick out of it.

The story's beat-up hero is Sam (short for Samhain), a young university dropout who's eking out a living in Seattle at a burger joint with the enticing name of Plumpy's.  Due to an unfortunately timed game of potato hockey (don't ask), Sam comes to the attention of  a creepy alpha-necromancer named Douglas who  isn't pleased to have an unknown necromancer (Sam) on his turf, even though Sam is apparently pretty low-voltage, powerwise.  Sam, understandably, thinks that Douglas is a freaky madman, until Douglas sends Sam a message he can't ignore (this is where the bizarre-o-meter goes into hyperdrive).  Now Sam and his motley pack of friends are racing to find out who Sam really is, what his powers are, and why he can't make them work.   And when Douglas kidnaps Sam and throws him in an iron cage in a science-lab dungeon with an irate kidnapped werewolf girl, the stakes get really high.

What really makes this book work is the sharp way that McBride controls the tone, a sort of mashed-up gritty supernatural comedy noir.  Sam's a great portrait of a teen drifter with a good heart, a guy who feels like a loser but ends up becoming one of the good guys as he comes into his power.  If McBride writes a sequel, I'll read it in one hot second.

Now if only I could get that song out of my head...