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.

The Race for Second

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The Race for Second
by Chase Potter
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon

Ethan West has just broken up with his boyfriend, but his long-dreamt of year studying abroad in Germany is about to begin, and he’s ready for a fresh start. He’s not looking for any new attachments, but starts to change his mind as he gets to know his new roommates, especially Daniel. Though the two don’t get along at first, they gradually grow closer until Ethan begins to question whether Daniel is actually straight after all.

The plot description makes The Race for Second sound like a cliche M/M romance, but it’s more of a coming of age travelogue. Ethan and the cast are realistic, flawed characters navigating cultural differences and the precipice of adulthood, and sometimes that makes them difficult to like, but never difficult to believe. Germany itself plays a significant role in the narrative, and Ethan’s struggle to integrate into a foreign culture adds an extra dimension to his experiences.

I can’t say that this is a particularly happy book, but I found it to be comforting in a way. Coming of age stories often depict maturation as the process of simply becoming an adult, as if there was a fixed goal which, once achieved, marks the end of your journey. But of course that isn’t true in the real world, there is no such thing as a ‘finished’ person, and life is full of new experiences from which we all continue to learn and grow, regardless of our age. Or something like that. I’m sure there are more qualified people who can communicate that more eloquently. Anyways, for me, The Race for Second was a reminder that it’s important to be resilient, because life is full of many experiences, and the end of one only signals the beginning of another.

Gives Light

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Gives Light
by Rose Christo
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Gives Light is the story of Skylar St. Clair, a mute, Native American teenager who comes to live with extended family on the Shoshone Nettlebrush Reservation after his father disappears. Eleven years previously a serial killer took both Skylar’s mother and his voice in that place, and neither he nor his father had been back since. There he meets the broody Rafael, son of the Nettlebrush serial killer, and the two form a friendship that helps them to confront and overcome their mutual past.

I was very moved by the depiction of Skylar. Despite being voiceless, he is an extremely expressive character with a rich internal life, and it caused me to reflect on the many ways we can communicate with each other beside speech. The bond he forms with Rafael feels natural and real, and Christo does an admirable job navigating the characters’ tragic pasts by never fetishizing them as so many other authors have been prone to do.

By all accounts (though I’m not in a position to confirm this), Gives Light offers an accurate depiction of modern reservation life, which is tremendously underrepresented in contemporary media. While Skylar and Rafael are the main focus, Christo spends plenty of time fleshing out Nettlebrush, describing different facets of Native American culture, and detailing the perpetual struggle between the reservation and state government. Christo never “writes down” to her audience. Each aspect of the story and characters is treated with an earnestness and care that gives the novel a sense of authenticity and importance.