Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy
David Levithan
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“This is the story of Paul, a sophomore at a high school like no other: The cheerleaders ride Harleys, the homecoming queen used to be a guy named Daryl (she now prefers Infinite Darlene and is also the star quarterback), and the gay-straight alliance was formed to help the straight kids learn how to dance.

When Paul meets Noah, he thinks he’s found the one his heart is made for. Until he blows it. The school bookie says the odds are 12-to-1 against him getting Noah back, but Paul’s not giving up without playing his love really loud. His best friend Joni might be drifting away, his other best friend Tony might be dealing with ultra-religious parents, and his ex-boyfriend Kyle might not be going away anytime soon, but sometimes everything needs to fall apart before it can really fit together right.

This is a happy-meaningful romantic comedy about finding love, losing love, and doing what it takes to get love back in a crazy-wonderful world.”

It’s a little strange that such a flamboyant novel has such an unassuming name, but it actually fits pretty well. Beneath the campy exterior is a surprisingly deliberate and thoughtful coming-of-age romance with a meaningful message. Drag queen quarterbacks and harley-riding cheerleaders aren’t just there for comic relief (though they are often humorous), they also represent a utopic vision of society, one in which the star quarterback could be a drag queen. And that’s more or less what Boy Meets Boy is about. It’s delightful to explore Paul’s improbably progressive town and school and see the ways in which Levithan sets about subverting heternormative society as he creates his queer paradise. But unlike many other gay YA novels, he never forgets about the way things actually are. Paul’s friend Tony lives in the next town over, a town which more accurately reflects the actual societal attitude of 2003, and has very religious, very controlling parents. Tony serves as a constant reminder that, while Paul’s life might be charmed, the world still has its problems.

Paul’s character is particularly notable for being pretty much the only person in the novel not completely riddled with teenage angst. In contrast to most other YA protagonists, his life has been downright easy, something Levithan makes a point of emphasizing. Paul never struggled with his sexuality, his parents were accepting, and he’s never faced any social or physical consequences for his orientation, but most of his friends can’t stay the same. It’s a little weird reading a story from the perspective of the one person who’s just completely fine. Watching him solve problems thoughtfully and maturely was a bit bewildering at times because it’s so out of character for the genre. I’m not entirely sure why this aspect of Paul’s character is important to Levithan, but he’s pretty clear that it is. I suppose Paul’s ability to handle emotionally challenging situations caused me to reflect on similar situations in my life and to examine the reasons I might respond the way I do. How much of my behavior is colored by experiences grappling with my sexuality or the consequences of it? Paul could also be viewed as a bit of an instruction manual, demonstrating the right way to behave instead of validating more typical, emotionally charged responses. Regardless of the reason, Paul is a large part of what makes Boy Meets Boy stand out from the (admittedly small) gay YA crowd.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson
John Green and David Levithan
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Amazon:

“Two award-winning and New York Times–bestselling author join forces for a collaborative novel of awesome proportions.

One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.

Hilarious, poignant, and deeply insightful, John Green and David Levithan’s collaborative novel is brimming with a double helping of the heart and humor that have won them both legions of faithful fans.”

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is pretty much a mandatory read for YA fans since it’s a superstar collaboration between two of the best in the business. When they set out to write it, all Green and Levithan knew was that they would each write a character named Will Grayson, and that their characters would meet at some point. While I’m not the world’s biggest YA reader, I have to admit that the end result is pretty unique. The story is told from both characters points of view in alternating chapters, with the second Will Grayson’s (styled ‘will grayson,’ written by Levithan) mimicking an instant messenger chatroom, complete with usernames and no capitalization. As a titanic nerd who lived most of his teen years online, this was very familiar to me. I admit I found it a little difficult to like will grayson during the first part of the book because he was just so damn angsty, but as the story developed so did he, and by the end he was my favorite. Admittedly, he didn’t have that much competition because Green’s properly capitalized Will Grayson was pretty cookie cutter protagonist, intent on keeping a low profile and never rocking the boat, and pretty much succeeding at it. As a whole, Will Grayson, Will Grayson has much more in common with Levithan’s goofiness than it does Green’s high-stakes drama, but as I’ve said before, we need more fun gay stories.

When it was first published in 2010, Will Grayson, Will Grayson became the first LGBTQ+-themed novel to ever make the NYT’s Children’s Bestsellers list, largely due to the fact that few YA or children’s authors wanted to touch the topic. I have to wonder what level of influence it’s had over the last decade. On paper I would think the split narrative might entice readers of any orientation to give it a try, but everywhere I look I see the book categorized as LGBT fiction, which I think is unfortunate. That label may help LGBTQ+ folks find it, but it also makes it easier for those NOT searching that label to never see it. It’s important to write for our own community, but I’ve always felt that the greatest challenge lies in getting those outside of that community to acknowledge our existence in their media. That’s something I really like about Will Grayson, Will Grayson, that it tries to cross those boundaries, albeit with limited success. I think on some level, LGBTQ+ people simply don’t exist in the lives of many individuals, so when they encounter them in media, they reflexively categorize that media as being for someone else. It’s easy to forget how large a role systems like Amazon’s play in shaping the content we see and the content we don’t.

Lord of the White Hell

Lord of the White Hell
Ginn Hale
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Goodreads:

“Kiram Kir-Zaki may be considered a mechanist prodigy among his own people, but when he becomes the first Haldiim ever admitted to the prestigious Sagrada Academy, he is thrown into a world where power, superstition and swordplay outweigh even the most scholarly of achievements.

But when the intimidation from his Cadeleonian classmates turns bloody, Kiram unexpectedly finds himself befriended by Javier Tornesal, the leader of a group of cardsharps, duelists and lotharios who call themselves Hellions.

However Javier is a dangerous friend to have. Wielder of the White Hell and sole heir of a dukedom, he is surrounded by rumors of forbidden seductions, murder and damnation. His enemies are many and any one of his secrets could not only end his life but Kiram’s as well.”

Lord of the White Hell’s chief asset is its diverse cast of likable characters. A regular complaint I have when reading YA or romance novels is that many plots rely on indefensibly poor judgement on the part of one or often more characters to generate conflict, making it difficult to sympathize with them. Youth and stupidity do not need to go hand in hand, but fortunately this is not a concern with Kiram and company. Though they may be young, they are cognizant of social and cultural practices and taboos, many of which mirror those in our world, and the potentially devastating consequences of failing to conform. At times I even found it a bit depressing since I usually read fantasy to escape reality, but I suppose that it speaks well of Hale’s ability to portray such a realistic society. And it’s not as though other prejudices like racism aren’t already staples of the fantasy genre, so I really can’t complain.

This book is definitely a romance before it’s a fantasy novel, but unlike most of the authors who attempt to bridge that genre gap Hale actually does a pretty good job building out her fantasy world. Granted, Cadelonia is essentially a medieval Christian nation subjugating a smaller indiginous population (the Haldiim), but Hale still gives it plenty of detail and character. Fans of romance might find it to be a bit slow paced, fans of fantasy a bit too fast and lacking intensive worldbuilding, but as a regular reader of both genres I still found it enjoyable. One important thing to know: this is only the first half of the complete story, so be aware that you’re signing up for two moderately long (~350 pgs each) but good books.

Bloom

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Bloom
by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

When I was younger I never had much to do with graphic novels, comics, or manga. They somehow managed to be the one ‘nerdy’ thing I never participated in. Looking back I think it was mostly an economical decision. A novel could provide many hours of reading whereas comics or graphic novels only gave me one or two, and I needed enough material to tide me over until the next time my parents could take me to the library. I remember checking a manga out at the library once, I think it was a chapter from Inuyasha, and finishing it before we even left, so they just weren’t a viable time sink for me then. Unrelatedly, I think that manga was the first place I ever saw a boob (just one). Needless to say it was an anti-climactic experience for me. Anyways, this is my really roundabout way of explaining that I don’t know squat about the graphic novel medium, so take my brief opinions on Bloom with a grain of salt.

Beautifully illustrated in monochromatic blue, Bloom tells the story of Ari during the summer after his last year of high school. He’s more than ready to move to the big city with his friends, but the family bakery is struggling and his parents don’t want him to go. But Ari is determined to escape  a lifetime of baking in a small town, and when he starts searching for a replacement he meets Hector, a culinary student on hiatus from school. Over the summer the two grow closer as they work together to keep the bakery in business, and as the months go on Ari finds that he has some important choices to make.

I’m a fan of monochromatic art styles so Bloom caught my eye pretty quickly after its release, but it wasn’t until I came across it in a bookstore months later that I actually bought it. Truth be told I’ve been feeling a little chagrined at my ignorance of visual mediums like comics, and this book seemed like a fine place to start exploring. And I had a lot of fun reading it! Panetta and Ganucheau do a good job showing instead of telling, and the baking scene spreads were beautiful and inspiring (or would be if I knew how to bake). From a narrative perspective I don’t really have a lot to say. It’s a pretty standard coming of age, small town meet cute affair, which there’s nothing wrong with, there’s just a lot of it. I will mention that the ending did feel rushed, but the slow-burn relationship leading up to it was still very satisfying (most romances seem to have the opposite problem). All in all it was definitely worth the purchase, and I feel inspired to continue exploring other graphic novels like this.

Waterways

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Waterways
by Kyell Gold
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:

“Kory was having enough trouble in high school. His girlfriend just dumped him, his poetry made him a target for ridicule, and college applications were looming. The very last thing he needed was to fall in love with another boy.

Waterways is the complete novel from award-winning author Kyell Gold that includes his beloved story “Aquifers”. Join Kory as his feelings and faith collide, washing away the life he knew. His brother Nick, friends Samaki and Malaya, and Father Joe are there to help, but it’s Kory who has to navigate the thrills and perils of the new waterways that make up his life.

At stake? Nothing much — just a chance at true love and happiness. And he still has to graduate from high school…”

It’s unfortunate that the focus on anthropomorphic characters drives so many people away from this book. There are hundreds of gay coming of age novels out there and they’re all valuable for depicting unique experiences, but some are definitely better written than others. This is one of the better ones, and skipping it for fear of its “furry” content is ridiculous. I don’t remember having any qualms with anthropomorphic characters butchering each other in the Redwall series so I don’t see why that should suddenly change because this time they’ve got sexuality too. A good book is a good book and deserves to be read. Besides, the animal characteristics help make for a very interesting setting. Kory and his friends and family live in a contemporary society much like ours, but with numerous accommodations for the many different species which inhabit it. For example, since Kory’s family are otters, their house somewhat resembles a dam, where inhabitants swim from room to room instead of walk. Learning the species of each character can also tell a reader a lot about them before they ever open their mouth. A bull might have a more fiery temperament, or a cat might be less likely to get along with a mouse. I’d even say it makes for a more vibrant world, but at the very least it helps set Waterways apart from countless competitors.

In terms of actual narrative, Waterways is much more conventional. There’s a lot of angst and some mooshy high-school romance, along with a fairly standard spread of teenage problems involving school, family, work, and friends. Kory is likable and relatable, and I appreciated that his life was fairly stable besides his emerging sexuality since some coming of age stories have a tendency to pile a ton of extra problems on their protagonists and make them (and by extension, the reader) miserable. One aspect I particularly liked in this book was Kory’s struggle with his faith. Much of gay fiction won’t even touch that topic unless it is the explicit theme of the book. It seems that the popular view is that religion and homosexuality are incompatible, and I think that is a lamentable oversimplification of the problem, and not very helpful to those stuck in the middle of it, which means books like this one are more valuable for tackling it.

Mysterious Skin

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Mysterious Skin
Scott Heim
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Mysterious Skin Amazon page:

“At the age of eight Brian Lackey is found bleeding under the crawl space of his house, having endured something so traumatic that he cannot remember an entire five–hour period of time.

During the following years he slowly recalls details from that night, but these fragments are not enough to explain what happened to him, and he begins to believe that he may have been the victim of an alien encounter. Neil McCormick is fully aware of the events from that summer of 1981. Wise beyond his years, curious about his developing sexuality, Neil found what he perceived to be love and guidance from his baseball coach. Now, ten years later, he is a teenage hustler, a terrorist of sorts, unaware of the dangerous path his life is taking. His recklessness is governed by idealized memories of his coach, memories that unexpectedly change when Brian comes to Neil for help and, ultimately, the truth.”

I love me some gritty ‘90s angst, but for some reason there wasn’t a lot of notable gay literature published that decade, possibly due to the public response to the AIDS crisis. But Mysterious Skin has plenty of grit and angst to go around with its abusive fathers and underage hustlers. I can’t say it’s a comfortable read, but many do find it to be cathartic. There was a pretty well-received movie adaptation in 2004 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is definitely worth checking out if the book doesn’t appeal to you. Of course I feel I should warn potential viewers that the movie is just as dark.

Mysterious Skin is one of the more interesting coming of age stories I’ve read, with Neil and Brian playing out two very different comings of age. I suppose it’s ultimately a story about child abuse and its after effects, but it doesn’t really feel like that to me. There’s something optimistic about it. Neil and Brian internalize and process their abuse in different ways, but they are never defined by it. It is only one small part of who they are, and they eventually grow beyond it. I would say that Neil even finds a way to channel it to aid his own personal development. I think that’s part of what makes ‘90s angst so appealing to me: no matter how shitty the world so often is, we can be resilient and still find ways to lead fulfilling lives.

Something Like Summer

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Something Like Summer
by Jay Bell
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

It’s a sweltering Houston summer in 1996, and Benjamin Bentley may or may not have been spying on the attractive Tim Wyman for the past few weeks. He seems like the perfect guy, an athlete with a hot body, popular at school, generous parents, what’s not to love? But when Ben’s crush brings them face-to-face, he learns that things aren’t always as they seem. Over the next ten years, Ben and Tim continue to grow and change, sometimes together, sometimes apart, but all the while learning more about what it means to be in love.

Something Like Summer feels like the quintessential gay coming of age romance to me. Even though it was only published in 2011, for some reason it seems like it’s been around forever. Maybe it’s the ‘90s setting or the long time period over which the story takes place, or maybe it’s because the book has grown into a series a of eleven(!) over the last decade. But whatever the reason, that reputation isn’t entirely unwarranted. There’s something timeless about the relationships between Ben, Tim, and Jace. It doesn’t have any of the exciting or fantastic plots that garnish many popular romances (no detectives or werewolves), and there is no love at first sight. It’s just a story of boy meets boy, and of boys growing up, and it feels like a treat to read something so… normal.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect novel of course. Tim in particular can be difficult to like at times (though this is more of a personal opinion than a criticism), but this is somewhat alleviated by the second book, Something Like Winter, which tells the story from Tim’s perspective and makes him a more sympathetic character. I also think that Bell at times takes liberties with his narrative in order to sidestep some difficult issues, which makes some events in the story a bit hard to believe. The three other books in the quartet are all enjoyable, especially if you liked the first one, though every character’s relationships feel identical, which is a little bit weird to me. But none these points detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book, and I definitely recommend giving it a read.