Friday, June 21, 2013

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

"He looked me in the eye.  His eyes were a translucent blue. He looked kind.  I didn't want to look away.  I realized that not being the gay kid here allowed me more access.  I wasn't supposed to hold eye contact with jocks back in Boulder.  It was understood:  They accepted me, and I didn't freak them out with eye contact.  Here, no such contract had been made." 
Rafe is out, and his family's fine with it.  So's his school.  His teachers.  His soccer team.   His mother threw an embarassing coming-out dinner for all his friends when he came out, and now she's the ultra-enthusiastic president of the local PFLAG chapter.  His teachers turn to him when they need a minority perspective.  He gives "I'm a gay kid" talks at other high schools.  He's sick of all this inclusion and acceptance, because it makes him feel two-dimensional.  He doesn't want gay to be the only thing about him people respond to, but this is how he's beginning to feel:

                                                          "GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY 
                                                          GAY GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY
                                                         GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY 
                                                        GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY
                                                       GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY..."

 Rafe decides he wants to start over as a whole person, and so, in spite of the bewilderment of his parents and best friend, he transfers to an all-boys boarding school, where he decides, not to go back in the closet exactly, but just to not mention his orientation.   He has a great time.  He plays sports.  He makes friends.  He goofs around.  He takes a writing class.  He pretends his best friend Claire Olivia is an ex-girlfriend.  He falls in love with Ben.  Oooooops!

"I didn't tell him I was gay because I didn't want anything to come between us."

It's the falling in love part that's awkward.  Ben's straight, but they develop an intimate friendship that seems to suggest other possibilities.  The thing is, the longer Rafe goes without telling Ben about his orientation, the more it seems to matter.  Rafe's dilemma is how to communicate his inner truth without being reduced to a label, and while this  book doesn't offer any ideal solutions, it does in the end suggest that honesty is the best policy. Rafe's a very likeable character and Konigsberg has a great ear for dialogue, but what I liked best about Openly Straight is how deftly Konigsberg balances the tone between light and serious.  This book feels like it would be very readable for teens of all genders and persuasions who are interested in issues around constructing an identity that's in keeping with your own deepest sense of self.  


Invisibility by David Levithan and Andrea Cremer

"I am like a ghost who's never died." 
Invisibility is only a superpower if you can turn it on and off at will.  Otherwise, it's not such a blessing.  Stephen has been invisible from birth, although he doesn't know why.  His parents know, but they won't tell him.  He lives alone since his mother has recently died and his father has left to live a more normal life and start a new family (luckily for Stephen, his father still pays for his apartment and living expenses).  He's used to living on the fringes of life, not going to school, not having friends, having to dodge people on the street if he goes for a walk.  Then one day, while he is in his apartment hallway, the grocery bag of his new neighbor breaks, and groceries spill out all over the floor.  As she's scrambling to pick things up, she looks up and snaps "Are you really going to just stand there?  Is this fun for you?".  And so an utterly stunned Stephen meets Elizabeth, the only person on earth who can see him.

Invisibility is a story of magic and romance set in New York by one of my favorite teen authors (Levithan) and Andrea Cremer,  bestselling author of the Nightshade series.  Levithan must be great to work with, since this is the fourth novel he's co-written (two novels with Rachel Cohn and one with John Green).  There's a very cute picture of David and Andrea cozying up to each other on the back flap.  

This was such a fun read, but it tugged at my heart a little as well.  Levithan can do that.  I was sucked in by Stephen's description of the ephemeral nature of his one childhood friendship:

"And then there was Ben, who moved away.  Ben, the only friend I've almost had.  When he was five and I was ten, he decided to have an imaginary friend.  Stuart, he named him, and that was close enough to my name, Stephen, for me to play along.  He'd invite me to dinner, and I'd come along.  He'd move to hold my hand in the park, and I'd take it.  He'd bring me to kindergarten for show-and-tell, and I would stand there as the teacher indulged his whim, nodding along to whatever Ben said about me.  The one thing I couldn't do was speak to him, because I knew that hearing my voice would spoil the illusion.  Once, when I knew he wasn't listening, I whispered his name.  Just to hear it.  But he didn't notice.  And by the time he turned six, he'd outgrown me.  I couldn't blame him.  Still, I was sad when he moved away."

It turns out that Stephen is invisible because his grandfather is a curse-caster, and he cursed his daughter when she left him to go to college.   Nice, right?  Elizabeth can see him because she was born with the rare ability to see curses.  You'd think the fact that Elizabeth and her brother Laurie are the only people in Stephen's life --except for the escaped father--would make the Stephen and Elizabeth romance a bit claustrophobic, but somehow it doesn't.  Perhaps it's because Elizabeth isn't yet entangled with school and other friends (she's new in town, and it's summer).   It's sweet how Stephen and Elizabeth fall for each other and what that means to them both.  We feel that Stephen isn't the only one who's being seen for the first time.     I  also like Elizabeth's close relationship with her ally and kid brother, Laurie. It's refreshing to see such a positive, I've-got-your-back sibling relationship.  

One thing I did notice is that Stephen's voice is pretty much exactly the same as the voice of A, the protagonist of Levithan's previous book Every Day.  That's not really a complaint, just an observation.

Here's a trailer from Penguin Books:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Lucy Variation by Sara Zarr

"In Lucy's house, childhood, like grief, was an episode merely tolerated.  An inconvenience and an obstacle to the real work of life;  proving to the world and to yourself that you weren't just taking up space."

The Lucy Variations explores some interesting ideas around art and competition.  Lucy Beck-Moreau is a gifted young pianist whose rich and cultured family place tremendous pressure on her not to waste her talent.  In the Beck-Moreau household, this means not just driving yourself towards ever-increasing artistic accomplishment, but also winning at performance competitions.  To Lucy's grandfather, the Beck-Moreau patriarch,  absolute discipline and commitment mean that Lucy is expected to perform at an international competition in Prague even though she has just learned that her beloved grandmother has died in her absence.  When Lucy walks off the stage, her grandfather is furious.  She is barred from playing ever again, and her young  brother Gus becomes the focus of the family legacy.

As the plot plays itself out,  Lucy defies her grandfather and begins to play again, privately, trying to re-connect to the joy of music. She also tries to protect Gus from carrying the weight of too much expectation.  This is a quiet book without a lot of incident, but the situation Lucy is placed in really drew me in.   Zarr's writing is elegant and nuanced, and her gift for complex characterization makes everyone in this book feel authentic and dimensional.  Lucy is a striking protagonist, very mature in some ways yet still clearly not an adult.  Lucy has to figure out what she has missed by dedicating herself to piano to the exclusion of all else, and she has to decide for herself what the responsibilities of being an artist might involve. For Lucy, the most compelling question is, does she still want to do it?   Does she still love it that much?

" The  metronome on top of the piano ticked steadily;  Lucy fought off the urge to throw a pillow at it...That sound.  Tick tick tick tick.  A slow adagio.  A death march.

She didn't know how Gus could stand it.  Spending day after day after day after lonely day in this room, with this old woman. 

Everything good (tick) is passing you by (tick) as you sit here (tick) and practice your life away (tick)."

Many of the adults around Lucy aren't very good at boundaries (neither is Lucy for that matter), and it takes Lucy a while to figure out whose support is disinterested, whose is not, and how much it matters.   I like what the Horn Book reviewer says about The Lucy Variations:  "the novel's strength is Zarr's unflinching attention to the gray areas of Lucy's life, where adults are fallible, decisions are reversible, and passions can guide you forward or lead you astray."  Like most of Zarr's work, The Lucy Variations is an absorbing book for thoughtful readers.