Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan: Book review

Two Boys Kissing coverWhen I was about 14 or 15 – this was in 1998 – my English teacher took me aside and gave me a copy of Dance on My Grave to read. That teacher was openly gay (as openly as you can be as a teacher in a regional Australian high school in the ’90s, anyway), the novel is about gay characters, and I would turn out be gay. Pretty obvious why that teacher lent me the book: “Hey kid – you are this. Learn to accept it.”

But I refused to read it. A couple of days later I handed the book back to the teacher, insisting it interested me zero. This is called denial! I didn’t want to learn to accept anything. I probably knew – though had never consciously admitted to myself – that I was gay. But I really didn’t want to be.

Looking back, in the late ’90s it felt like homosexuality was on its way to acceptance, but a long way off being accepted. The same-sex marriage debate was a thing crazies speculated about, not seriously discussed. Pop-culture offered a smattering of gay characters – asexual sidekicks, mostly, or one-offs*. Being gay was the stuff of Special Episodes or Problem Novels. Gay people were a thing you knew about but didn’t look at directly. Being out in high school was unimaginable**.

(*Will and Grace didn’t premiere and Jack didn’t enter Dawson’s Creek till a year or so after my English teacher gave me that book. I guess Jack was a pretty Big Deal for teenagers my age, even though he barely pecked at other boys and Kerr Smith was pretty outspoken about how gross he found the whole thing.)

(**Adult Me is frequently amused that almost all of Teenage Me’s male friends turned out to be big ol’ raging homos. If only we’d been out to each other instead of dancing around it!)

Which is why David Levithan’s excellent book Two Boys Kissing, published in 2013, is so remarkable. He writes about teen life where being gay isn’t a problem by default. It doesn’t mark you as special. It’s just… a thing. (One character is even a transgender boy, which Teenage Me would find especially remarkable. Transgender teens were not even on pop culture’s radar when I was a Youth.)

Not that gay teenagers now exist in a utopian bubble of acceptance and tolerance. They don’t, and Two Boys Kissing acknowledges the floods of homophobic ugliness that will never entirely recede, and that coming out will never be effortless. Almost all its young characters struggle with different facets of their homosexuality. But the world they exist in is a very different place from the one 15 or 20 years ago, and that’s terrific.


Two Boys Kissing balances several characters. Peter and Neil have been together a year (so in teenage terms they are an old married couple), but Neil isn’t out out to his parents yet. Blue-haired Ryan and pink-haired Avery (the aforementioned transgender boy) meet at a “gay prom” and start that delightful-but-awkward dance of determining what’s next. Self-loathing Cooper is disgusted and ashamed of his homosexuality – because his only experience with that world is through sleazy one-dimensional sex apps. And Tariq stands strong after a recent gay-bashing.

These boys orbit around Harry and Craig, a former couple-turned-best friends (with all the baggage that kind of relationship comes with) attempting to break the world record for longest kiss. That’s a gruelling 32 hours, an event broadcast to the entire world, and whether or not they’ll pull it off is terrifically suspenseful.

(Levithan was inspired by the real-life story of Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, two college boys who set the world record for longest kiss in 2010 when they locked lips for 33 hours. Although Guinness says their record has since been broken by a heterosexual couple in Thailand.)

Levithan’s writing is honest and beautiful, though he does toss in a pinch of that literary-ish tweeness which is a hallmark of “realistic” YA fiction. Tariq is obsessed with the poet Walt Whitman and leads friends in a recital of Whitman’s work, while in another scene Neil and Peter spell out love messages in book titles. Obviously, yes, some teenagers really actually do stuff like this, but – to me, anyway – these kind of grandiose moments always seem contrived and sugary when they’re flattened on to a page.

The boldest, most memorable part of Two Boys Kissing is that it’s told from the point-of-view of the ghostly chorus of gay men who died amid the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a striking, odd narrative structure. “Odd” because it sometimes keeps the living characters at arm’s length. But mostly because it filters the experience of being gay through such tragedy – like at any moment Two Boys Kissing might just become a tale of victims or the “descendants” of victims.

But it never does. Levithan – who in the acknowledgements explains  he came of age in the narrow window after the first AIDS crisis but before the advent of the internet – makes his ghosts vivid and important. By telling Two Boys Kissing from their perspective, he isn’t saying  gay people now need to define themselves by AIDS. But he is saying we need to remember it, and its cost.

Which makes Two Boys Kissing seem like kind of a downer. It’s not. The end of this book optimistic, powerfully hopeful, and filled with so much pride. I wish someone could have lent it to me when I was a kid, and that I could have put aside my teenage denial and cynicism and read it. I wish every gay teenager in the world could read and accept this book. I wish everyone, period, could read it and love it as much as I did.

Previously: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan: Book review


The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky: Book review

Perks of Being a Wallflower

Honestly, I could hate The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I could hate it eeeeeasily. It’s about a suburban white middle-class high schooler who’s racked by angst, who’s a brilliant outsider, who’s surrounded by a group of larger-than-life friends who all come with their own set of Very Serious Problems and Quirks, whose story is told in a way that is kind of pretentious for no reason. If someone told me they hated this book I’d say, “Sure. Yes. I get it.”

I wouldn’t agree with you, but I’d get it.

I think the reason author Stephen Chbosky pulls it off is because Wallflower is so sweet and earnest. Its protagonist, Charlie, is a sweet, earnest kid. (Plus it helps that he was played by the amazingly ridiculously named Logan Lerman in the movie adaptation, because Logan Lerman is a super dreamboat you guys.) When Charlie starts high school it seems like his only friend will be his English teacher – who, like all English teachers in young adult novels, is a super cool guy overly invested in teenagers’ education – but almost by chance he falls in with Patrick, a senior, and his step-sister Sam (played in the movie by Emma Watson, so you know Sam is way pretty and awesome and perfect).

Describing the rest of the plot makes it sound ridiculously precious: there’s love triangles, beatings, teenage dramas, dark secrets revealed. It could so easily have been a terrible and melodramatic book! Instead it’s kind of lovely. It captures that sense of Terrible Importance that imbues every moment of adolescence. Try to ignore the cynical-about-everything bit of your brain repeating “You hate this you hate this you hate this” every time you turn the page. It’s nice. You’ll like it.


A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness: Book review

A Monster Calls, Patrick NessWhat do you even say about a book as perfect and brilliant as A Monster Calls?

OK, well, firstly: There is no excuse for anyone not reading this, because it’s barely 200 pages long and you can finish it in a single sitting. (You can buy it online so don’t even try “I don’t have time to go out and buy it”.) It has the extra advantage of being one of those books that draws you tight into its story – you don’t realise how tight till you put it down and can’t stop thinking about what’s on the next page.

Without giving too much away, because one of the (many) pleasures of Patrick Ness’s writing is his skill at unwinding a story, the book is the tale of Conor, a 13-year-old whose mother is battling cancer and whose father is almost entirely absent from his life. Meanwhile, he’s the victim of a recurring nightmare so terrifying that he’s mostly unfazed when he’s visited by a real, ancient monster. This monster promises to tell Conor three stories, which will ultimately help him through deeply troubling events he’s forced to confront.

Ness (whose Chaos Walking trilogy is probably the book series I never shut up about telling people to read, especially people who ask me for excellent YA recommendations. Put it near the top of your to-read pile, please) borrowed the idea for A Monster Calls from Siobhan Dowd, a fellow writer who died of breast cancer before she could write it. Ness’s care and respect for Dowd’s plot runs so deep I was surprised to discover the two never actually met.

Please please please read A Monster Calls. It’s powerful, and beautiful, and one of those truly transcendent reading experiences. There aren’t really that many entries on the List of Things That Made Me Cry*, but, well. This book is on there. In the same way I still think of The X-Files years after watching it when I see the clock turn 10:13, I’ll remember A Monster Calls whenever it’s 12:07.

(*#1: That time I thought I had Oreos at home and spent all day looking forward to eating them then I got home and discovered I did not in fact have any Oreos at home.)


Black Heart, Holly Black: Book review

Buried in the acknowledgements in the back of Black Heart is what might be the key to Holly Black‘s success. She writes (slight paraphrasing): “I have to thank my husband, who once again let me read the whole book to him out loud.”

That’s right: having a husband is the key to a woman’s success. Just kidding! I mean the bit about reading the whole book out loud. That’s kind of neat, right? The only people who read whole books out loud are the people who get paid to narrate audiobooks. But I think it explains why The Curse Workers trilogy, which concludes with Black Heart (at least I assume it’s a trilogy – trilogies are how YA series are mostly pitched and sold. So maybe there’ll be a fourth book. I have no idea), has such a distinctive, polished, convincing voice. Because Black read the whole book aloud, to someone else. It really pays off.

So. In this series magic is real, and most people with magic powers are criminals – mobsters, con men, killers. Cassel Sharpe is the youngest member of a family of “worker” lowlifes (worker is Black’s term for anyone magic) who’s been roped into using his rare magic ability, the power to transform anything into basically anything else, for the FBI. And of course it turns out the feds are as ruthless and untrustworthy as the worker mafia Cassel is also tied up with. “Between a rock and a hard place” comes somewhere close to describing this kid’s dilemma.

Cassel, bless his melodramatic moody teenage heart, is dealing with some heavy stuff. But The Curse Workers books are not hard hitters. That is not meant as a bad thing! This series is a noir thriller dressed up as young-adult fantasy: it’s sexy. It’s gritty. It’s readable. Please, television executives who are totally likely to pay attention to all the things I say: make a TV series about these books. It’d be Veronica Mars with magic. And I have to wrap this up now because I’m having heart palpitations at how awesome that would be.

Previously: White Cat, Holly Black/Red Glove, Holly Black


Movie review: Young Adult

Young Adult

Young Adult is not the zany black comedy suggested by its trailer (which, by the way, basically spoils the entire movie, so you should probably avoid it. Here’s the link!). This is a dark, twisted-and-not-in-that-cute-Hollywood-way portrait of a disturbed woman, but it’s a portrait that doesn’t say enough about its subject.

(Light spoilers ahead.)

The trailer does get the basic plot right: beyond-beautiful Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, the author of a failing series of young-adult novels who returns to her hometown to reclaim her high-school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who’s now married with a kid.

Soon after arriving in Mercury, a sort of Everywhere/Nowheresville that could stand in for pretty much any small town in America (or Australia, for that matter – the strip mall/fast-food landscape looks the same), Mavis encounters Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate who was brutally beaten and crippled when he was at school. The two bond – who doesn’t love connecting with friends of the jocks who terrorised you as a teenager? – even as Matt tries to talk Mavis out of her ridiculous plans with Buddy.

The problem with Young Adult is that when I ask myself “What is this film about?”, I can’t really come up with an answer. “Continuing to behave like a high-schooler well into your adulthood has bleak consequences.” And… that’s it? The plot doesn’t move beyond that premise; it’s not thoughtful enough to be a character study, too sour to be a comedy.

Mavis sneers at pretty much everyone who enters her field of vision, but I didn’t dislike her because she’s so unlikeable. Unlikeable characters are fine in principle, and it’s not like I hated her: she’s best when her powerful sarcasm is turned up to 11, scoffing when a date boasts about travelling in South-East Asia and rolling her eyes at a stranger’s baby (strangers’ babies are the worst). Nor would Young Adult have been better if Mavis had experienced some vague redemption – that would’ve been way worse, actually – but unlikeable characters still need to offer some reason for us to follow them, and Mavis doesn’t.

She doesn’t feel complicated as much as she feels disparate; she’s mentally ill and an alcoholic and there’s a late reveal about an adolescent miscarriage that probably fuelled her present-day miscarriage, but none of it gels, and some her characterisations are just obvious (the bit where she looks over a chart used to teach autistic kids about emotions, then she remarks that she doesn’t feel any. CLUNK). There’s too little sense of Mavis and what her regular life is like, or how a bitchy high-school prom queen even became a writer in the first place.

(There’s a vague implication Mavis writes young-adult novels because she’s stuck in permanent adolescence herself, which I emphatically reject, and it suggests screenwriter Diablo Cody is pretty ignorant about YA as a whole. It’s not just Sweet Valley High these days.)

It’s not just Mavis who’s so oddly drawn: what is Young Adult trying to say about small-town America? Should we share Mavis’s contempt for Mercury and her classmates who stayed behind? Or come away believing that even escaping your past doesn’t guarantee you’ll escape mediocrity? I have no idea.

Director Jason Reitman offered a better portrait of a stunted adult in Up in the Air. Watch that instead.


Book review: Red Glove, Holly Black

Red Glove, Holly Black

The best argument against the existence of the supernatural is this: if all that stuff was real, someone would exploit it for profit. (There’s a great xkcd comic about it.) In Holly Black‘s series The Curse Workers, magic is real – and it’s exploited for profit.

Curse workers – those who possess the ability to alter memories, invade dreams, transform one thing into another, or other fantastic powers – rule New Jersey’s organised crime. Think The Sopranos with magic, but instead of a focus on Tony Soprano our hero is Cassel Sharpe, the youngest member of a worker family tangled up with a powerful mob syndicate.

White Cat, the first Curse Workers instalment, detailed Cassel’s discovery of his place within his family and the worker world. It was a great book, honestly, but felt light-weight despite its heavy themes – high on set-up, low on plot. But! All that establishment in White Cat means we know the rules coming into its sequel Red Glove, freeing Black up to get into the meaty stuff. And she gets right to the meaty stuff.

(Some spoilers ahead for White Cat.) … 


Book review: Goliath, Scott Westerfeld

GoliathIt’s been a looooong time between instalments, but Scott Westerfeld‘s Leviathan trilogy wraps up with a sterling conclusion in Goliath. Probably the best word to describe the third and final part of the series is “cracking”… which is also the best word to describe the series as a whole.

Minor spoilers ahead for Leviathan, Behemoth and Goliath.

So! Fresh off their adventures in Constantinople, our heroes Alek – secretly a prince – and Deryn – secretly a girl – venture to Siberia, Japan and then New York City in the flying warship Leviathan. On their quest the duo encounters several historical figures – including Nikolai Tesla, William Randolph Hearst and Pancho Villa – and finally confronts the romantic tension that’s been brewing between them the past two books.

Alek and Deryn are terrific characters, but Westerfeld’s greatest accomplishment is the world he’s built: set in the lead-up to World War I, the Leviathan trilogy pitches “Darwinists” (roughly equivalent to the Allied powers, who genetically engineer animals into terrifying war beasts) against “Clankers” (the Central powers, who battle with colossal hulking machines). There’s a lot going on here. It might’ve been laboured, or too complicated. But Westerfeld handles it all so cleverly!

Grown-ups will get into Goliath but be aware it falls squarely into the YA camp (never a bad thing, but some adults are weird about reading books “for” teens). Know a smart kid who you want to indoctrinate into the awesomeness of steampunk and alternate history and science-fiction? Give them this whole series.

If there’s a problem with Goliath, it’s that the story hints – and Westerfeld’s afterword makes it explicit – that 20th century history turns out very different because of Alek and Deryn. Their actions basically stop a world war. And that’s only a problem because World War I is this huge terrible epic thing, and the threat of it looms over all three books, but then it… doesn’t happen (or at least, happens on a much smaller scale than in our timeline). Which, on the one hand: yay, WWI averted, millions of lives spared. But on the other hand, from a narrative perspective, the climax loses some of its oomph.

But it’s a minor quibble. Especially since I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of Alek and Deryn – or at least, not the last we’ve seen of the Darwinist/Clanker universe. With an entire century of history ready to be rewritten, Westerfeld’s got loads of territory left to explore. (Also, I want to see the perspicacious loris Bovril talking for reals.)

Lastly, major credit must go to Keith Thompson’s beautiful, lively illustrations, one of the true delights of all three books.

Previously: Book review: Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld, Book review: Behemoth, Scott Westerfeld


Book review: The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson

The Name of the StarRory Deveaux has two near-death experiences in about as many months: the first comes when she nearly chokes on dinner soon after quitting her native Louisiana for London – where she enrols at Wexford, a posh boarding school smack in the middle of Jack the Ripper’s old stomping ground.

The location is important, because Rory’s arrival coincides with the start of a series of murders that mirror the Ripper’s infamous, gruesome killings. Is it a copycat at work, or something even more nightmarish?

As Rippermania grips London, Rory encounters a mysterious man who her (adorably English) roommate Jazza can’t see. He’s a ghost, and Rory’s rare ability to see him grants her entry into a team that hunts London’s “shades”… which ultimately leads to her second near-death experience at the climax of the book, as the Ripper’s killings come to a head.

The Name of the Star has some great ingredients: English boarding school hijinks, murders, young people with implausibly awesome jobs with the police. But something about it is all a bit unsatisfying: I wanted the story to be more sinister, more romantic, more London. Johnson only captures flickering senses of the city and the sensational dread of the Ripper’s return, and the plot twists are often contrived; when the villain’s motives were revealed (via monlogue), my reaction was pretty much, “Why would anyone go to all the effort of X just to achieve Y?” And many of the supporting characters fall flat, though others are terrifically vivid – especially Rory’s oft-mentioned, never-seen American relatives.

I really wanted to enjoy this but I just wanted more; it’s less than the sum of its parts. Johnson is a lively, funny writer but The Name of the Star feels like it’s going through the motions of setting up a new supernatural YA series, rather than transporting us to spooky and mysterious London.


Book review: Blood Song, Rhiannon Hart

Blood Song

Dear Rhiannon Hart: thank you for writing a brooding romantic interest who isn’t also a complete jerk. Too many young adult books have young women inexplicably falling for young men who are either monster-creeps or borderline-abusive psychos – Blood Song‘s hero Rodden has wit and smarts to match his tall dark handsomeness.

And ditto its heroine, Zeraphina: she’s a princess (not in the entitled spoiled way; in the literal lives-in-a-castle way) and a skilled archer and followed everywhere by her loyal animal companions. And yet she’s not annoyingly perfect, as so many of these heroines are. Sometimes she’s a stubborn, stupid brat – which isn’t necessarily a bad quality in a narrator, not when it’s balanced with her wit and smarts.

In addition to those archery skills and animal friends, Zeraphina has a secret: a mysterious, unquenchable, painful craving for human blood. She begins to uncover clues about her condition when her sister is married off to the prince of a country that borders Lharmell – a cruel land ruled by even crueller beasties which hunt humans for their blood.

Blood Song is an unpretentious, competently crafted fantasy that mixes familiar elements into an entertaining story. If I knew a young reader with a burgeoning fantasy obsession, I’d definitely recommend it.


Book review: White Cat, Holly Black

Young adult meets fantasy meets noir in the captivating novel White Cat from Holly Black, the first entry in her new trilogy The Curse Workers. (Book two, Red Glove, is out in a couple of months. Hurrah!)

Our hero is Cassel Sharpe, though hero isn’t quite the right word: he’s a murderer, who accidentally killed his first love Lila several years ago. Now in his late teens, he’s still so traumatised, so wracked with guilt, that he’s sleepwalking – the very first scene has him waking up on the roof of his school, precariously close to the edge. (Fantastic opening, by the way.)

Cassel has a messed-up family: they’re curse workers, with powers to manipulate people’s emotions, hurt people, erase their memories, influence their luck. That sort of magic is illegal, driving curse-workers underground – making them gangsters, mobsters and con artists. Cassel is the only non-criminal in his family… if you overlook that whole “he killed someone” thing.

The complication: Lila, that someone he killed, was the daughter of a powerful curse-worker boss, forcing his family to cover up the crime.

After Cassel’s disturbing dreams about a white cat get him booted out of school, he starts to suspect his brothers are involved in another massive con – one he’s unknowingly tied up in too.

The noirish details are perfect: Cassel is an alluring antihero (without being a bad boy, that most overdone of YA creatures), clever and introspective without being whiny, and Black slowly draws her oh-so-intriguing story out of the shadows.

But the problem with White Cat is that it feels a lot like the first entry in a trilogy. That’s not to say the story isn’t satisfying, because it is, immensely so, but it feels very… linear. There isn’t a lot going on away from the main plot, and the twists in the story are pretty predictable (though to Black’s credit she reveals them about halfway through and builds on them for the climax; if she’d saved them for the end it would’ve felt pretty limp). I finished the book with a sense of… dissatisfaction, like I only ate half a plate of a mouth-watering meal.

That said, the set-up is so rich that if Red Glove can keep up the atmosphere and suspense of its predecessor, it’s pretty much a surefire winner.