Two Boys Kissing

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Title: Two Boys Kissing
Author: David Levithan
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: August 27, 2013
Pages: 208
Genre: Contemporary
Source: Purchased
Rating: 3/5

New York Times  bestselling author David Levithan tells the based-on-true-events story of Harry and Craig, two 17-year-olds who are about to take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new Guinness World Record—all of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS.

While the two increasingly dehydrated and sleep-deprived boys are locking lips, they become a focal point in the lives of other teen boys dealing with languishing long-term relationships, coming out, navigating gender identity, and falling deeper into the digital rabbit hole of gay hookup sites—all while the kissing former couple tries to figure out their own feelings for each other.

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To be honest, I still can’t figure out how I feel about this book, despite having read it weeks ago. There were definitely a lot of cool things about it, but there were also some things that kept me from connecting with it as much as I thought I would.

Let’s start with the good:

First things first: no one can ever accuse David Levithan of not being creative or original. The Lover’s Dictionary probably tops his most-creative-novels list, having told the story of a couple through dictionary entries, but Two Boys Kissing is certainly not far behind. For this book, Levithan chose to narrate the story through a Greek chorus made up of gay men who had died from AIDS. I can honestly say I’ve never come across a book written this way for young adults, and it was definitely an experience to read it.

Secondly, Two Boys Kissing acts as a diverse celebration of what it means to be a gay man (I will come to that distinction later). Levithan presents a variety of stories about gay teens, some intertwining, some not, and gives voice to many different experiences faced by gay and transgender youth today. There was a wide range of experiences on the happy-sad spectrum, and I felt Levithan handled each story with grace without overwhelming the reader.

That said, I did feel like the book was sometimes a little heavy handed in the way it tackled issues faced by gay teens. The Greek chorus really added to that feeling at times for me, and sometimes that part of the narration was just too much and made me want to shout, “Enough already, we get it!”

I was also a little put off by how male-centric the novel was. There were a few female characters, but they only played very minor roles and were mostly the mothers of the teens whose stories were being told. I think what bothered me about the lack of female LGBT characters was that I felt like Levithan was separating the experiences of gay men from other LGBT people a bit too much, even though other genders have had very similar experiences to gay men. Basically, the focus on queer men made me feel invisible as a female pansexual reader. I realize that exploring the experiences of multiple genders may not have been Levithan’s focus with this book, but a lot of the issues faced by the characters, including suicidal thoughts and AIDS, apply to non-male queer people as well.

Finally, I just didn’t feel as emotionally connected to the book as I had anticipated. I think that did have a lot to do with feeling invisible, but I also tend not to like books written in the third-person quite as much, even this very unique third-person.

I would definitely recommend this to queer men and their families due to the breadth of experiences Levithan covers. I think this book could be very important to gay teens as an affirmation, celebration, and recognition of their experiences, despite the somewhat narrow gender lens. Two Boys Kissing continues to mark Levithan as a master writer, and though I was somewhat disappointed by this book, I will be eagerly awaiting his next release.

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The Cutting Room Floor

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Title: The Cutting Room Floor
Author: Dawn Klehr
Publisher: Flux
Publication Date: October 8, 2013
Pages: 305
Genre: Thriller/Mystery
Source: BEA
Rating: 3/5

Behind-the-scenes secrets could turn deadly for Desmond and Riley.

Life in the Heights has never been easy for seventeen-year-old Riley Frost, but when she’s publicly dumped and outed at the same time, she becomes an immediate social outcast at her high school. So Riley swears off romance and throws herself into solving the shocking murder of her favorite teacher, Ms. Dunn.

Riley turns to her best friend, budding filmmaker Desmond Brandt, for help. What she doesn’t know is that Dez has been secretly directing her life, blackmailing her friends, and hoping his manipulations will make her love him. When his schemes go too far, Dez’s web of lies threatens to destroy both of their lives.

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This book wasn’t quite what I expected. When I first read about it, I expected that The Cutting Room Floor would be glaringly suspenseful and creepy. What I got was a novel that was quieter, still with a certain amount of creep and suspense, but creep and suspense that unraveled more slowly.

I really liked that this book had two narrators, because I feel like I’m not seeing multiple narrators as much anymore. YA is in love with single first person, so it was nice to take a little break from that with Riley and Dez. I will admit, however, that there were times when I wished that Dez would narrate the whole story, because I found him more interesting than Riley.

I feel like the best way to describe this book would be “subtle.” The murder mystery, Dez’s creepiness, and Riley’s relationship troubles all seemed to get equally balanced attention, and while I did wish for more intensity at times, Klehr’s slowly unraveling story worked for me.

My favorite part of the story was Dez and Riley’s relationship. Klehr’s quiet style worked especially well with that aspect of the story. I think that by writing about Dez’s manipulations in so casual and unassuming a way made it more creepy than if it had been nail-bitingly suspenseful because it normalized what Dez was doing, even though it’s clear that there’s something wrong.

I also thought Klehr handled Riley’s struggle with her sexuality well. She explored Riley’s confusion through the lens of sexuality as a fluid thing, rather than the typical binary of gay or straight. In most books about bisexual characters I’ve read, the person seems to be convinced they have to be one or the other, and have a very hard time seeing anything in the middle. I liked that Riley never came to a solid definition or label of her sexuality by the time the book ended, because it showed that you don’t have to confine yourself so other people can understand.

The Cutting Room Floor had its pros and cons, but eventually I warmed up to it though I had wanted something different from it. It’s worth reading for the strange relationship between Dez and Riley, but don’t come into it expecting to be on the edge of your seat the whole time.

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Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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Title: Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: February 21, 2012
Pages: 359
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating: 3/5

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

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I had mixed feelings about this book. I had somewhat high expectations of it due to all the hype about it and the fact that it’s won so many awards, but I don’t think my expectations were entirely met.

There were definitely some things I liked about it, though, starting with the lyrical writing. Saenz’s prose had this almost magical feel to it, and the poetic style really drew me in at times.

I was also intrigued by Ari and Dante’s exploration of what it means to be Mexican. I thought it was really interesting how Dante wanted to seem “more Mexican,” even though Ari had a really negative idea of what being Mexican meant. To be honest, I found this discussion more compelling than the LGBT aspect of the book, though that’s what it’s known for.

I think part of why that was was I didn’t believe the LGBT part as much. Although Dante’s sexuality is made pretty clear early on, I didn’t feel that Saenz explored Ari’s sexuality as much, so when Ari finally makes his declaration of love, it felt sudden, even though I knew it was going to happen before I even started the book.

That said, I do think it’s encouraging that a book about two non-white gay teens has received so many accolades, although in my opinion there are better LGBT books out there. Books for LGBT teens are already few and far between, and novels featuring people of color are even more rare in that category.

So, although I had some misgivings about Saenz’s latest novel, I would certainly recommend it. It’s told from a perspective that doesn’t seem to get a lot of coverage in YA lit today, and it’s full of beautiful little moments that make this book worth a read on their own. Besides that, Saenz’s writing is quite unique and lyrical in its own way. This may not be one of the best LGBT books I’ve read for teens, but it did make an impact on me and I think it will have that effect on many other readers as well.

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The Difference Between You and Me

Title: The Difference Between You and Me
Author: Madeleine George
Publisher: Viking Children’s
Publication Date: March 15, 2012
Pages: 261
Genre: Contemporary
Source: Purchased
Rating: 1/5

Jesse cuts her own hair with a Swiss Army knife. She wears big green fisherman’s boots. She’s the founding (and only) member of NOLAW, the National Organization to Liberate All Weirdos. Emily wears sweaters with faux pearl buttons. She’s vice president of the student council. She has a boyfriend.

These two girls have nothing in common, except the passionate “private time” they share every Tuesday afternoon. Jesse wishes their relationship could be out in the open, but Emily feels she has too much to lose. When they find themselves on opposite sides of a heated school conflict, they each have to decide what’s more important: what you believe in, or the one you love?

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Unfortunately, I can honestly say I hated this book. I read it because I was considering using it for a paper I’m writing about LGBT themes in YA lit, but I don’t know if I can even stand to think about it, much less write about it past this review.

This book had so many problems. It sounded like it had the potential to be really good, but it fell laughably short. I didn’t like any of the characters, even Jesse, who I probably would be attracted to in real life. They all  felt really fake and almost caricatured. Jesse was a little too over the top for me, and I felt a lot of her character was built around stereotypes.

I also hated Emily and wanted to bang my head against a wall ever time she uttered the words “corporate sponsorship.” I didn’t find her at all believable, because I simply couldn’t imagine a high school kid caring about things like corporate sponsorship. She was extremely irritating and made me want to break things.

Another issue I had with this book was the perspective from which it was written from. Jesse’s chapters are written in third person, while Emily’s and Esther’s are written from first. Emily’s chapters were very choppily written, but thankfully Jesse’s were a teeny bit better. I was also unsure as to why Esther had to have her own chapters at all, especially since there were only two of them.

I think the part of the plot dealing with the SmartMart controversy could have been a little more interesting if the book was more well written. I think Madeleine George may have been trying to emulate “teen speak” in Emily’s chapters with all the “like”s and fragmented sentences, but it gave me a serious headache. As previously mentioned, Jesse’s chapters were a little better, but only by a small margin.

I can’t think about this book without getting angry at how terrible it was, so I’m going to stop now and leave you with the one quote from it that I actually liked:

“I’m sorry, honey. I’m sure if you were a terrorist, you’d make a wonderful one.”

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Top Ten Authors Who Deserve More Recognition

Top Ten Tuesday is an original meme created by the wonderful blog, The Broke and the Bookish, as they are particularly fond of lists over there. All they ask is participants link back to the site to share their lists with fellow bloggers. Check out The Broke and the Bookish for details on this great weekly feature!

This week I’ll be sharing a list of authors who I think deserve more recognition.

1. Jandy Nelson – I love, love, love this author. The Sky is Everywhere is at the tippy top of my favorite books of all time list, and I don’t see it moving down any time soon. Nelson’s novel was beautifully written and was the perfect blend of tragedy and romance. When you read this book, you will root for Lennie and fall in love with Joe and Toby. Absolute perfection.

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2. Beth Kephart – I read Undercover in high school and fell head over heels for Beth Kephart. Her writing is lyrical and magical and her stories pluck on your heartstrings like no one else. Kephart’s stories are special and quirky and you need to read them!

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3. Nina LaCourHold Still is another all-time favorite of mine. I almost didn’t read it because I was worried it would be too depressing, but I’m so happy I gave it a chance. This book helped me forgive people in my own life by so honestly portraying the story of a girl whose best friend commits suicide. Caitlin’s struggles trying to be there for Ingrid really resonated with me and honestly changed me as a person.

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4. Sonya Sones – I feel like people see Ellen Hopkins as the first YA author to write in verse, but that’s so not true. Sonya Sones came way before Hopkins, and, in my opinion, writes much better books. Sones was one of my favorite authors as a child, and it still baffles me that no one seems to know who she is. Her books are meaningful, quirky, and fun; quick reads that pack quite a punch.

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5. Evan Roskos – Why is no one else flipping out about Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets?! This is easily one of the best debut novels of 2013, yet the blogs I follow haven’t picked up on that yet. Roskos’ debut is unique in every way: the writing, the story, the characters; you name it. James is definitely one of my favorite protagonists of 2013, and he’s a character I won’t soon forget.

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6. Tabitha Suzuma – Oh Tabitha Suzuma, why so amazing? This woman’s books need to be talked about. They’re different and intense and cover topics considered taboo in most societies today. From books on mental illness to incest, Suzuma’s books are powerful and haunt you long after you finish the last page.

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7. Sarah Ockler – I think The Book of Broken Hearts is getting her a little more attention, but she’s so amazing she deserves even more. Admittedly I’ve only read Twenty Boy Summer so far, but if her other books are that good, then holy hot damn. Twenty Boy Summer was a surprise for me because despite its corny title and cover, it was deeply romantic and powerful.

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8. Malorie Blackman – Blackman is the British author of the Noughts and Crosses series, called “Black and White” in America, because American publishers are idiots. In this futuristic series, the balance of power has shifted from whites to people of color, and it is an extremely thought-provoking series of books that needs to be discovered in the US.

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9. Ellen Wittlinger Hard Love and Parrotfish are simply amazing books. Hard Love was my first Ellen Wittlinger book, and it was super quirky and artistic. I was even more blown away by Parrotfish, a story about a transman’s journey to acceptance. Parrotfish is an extremely important book, and I truly believe everyone should read it.

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10. Mayra Lazara Dole – I don’t think Mayra Lazara Dole has written any YA since Down to the Bone, but if she does, I’ll be the very first in line to buy it. Down to the Bone is a unique LGBT story focusing on Laura, a young lesbian woman struggling to come to terms with her sexuality and her culture. If you’re curious about LGBT experiences in other cultures, this book is a great place to start.

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Waiting on Wednesday: Undone

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly event hosted by Jill from Breaking the Spine, and specifically spotlights upcoming novels we can’t wait to read. As always, there are some amazing upcoming books, but this week I’m particularly excited for…

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Cat Clarke’s latest book is about a girl who’s in love with her gay best friend, and tries to avenge his death after he commits suicide when he is outed online. I’ve read Cat Clarke’s other books, and while I didn’t really like Torn (i. e. the British version of Pretty Little Liars), I did like Entangled quite a bit. However, my one major worry is that this book won’t be available in the U. S. The only way I got to read Clarke’s previous two novels was by actually purchasing them in England, and sadly I don’t think a trip across the Pond will happen for me any time soon, even if it’s to get cool British books.

Caged in Coolness

Title: Caged in Myth (Book One: Bayou Zoo Series)
Author: J. T. Fairfield
Publication Date: October 23, 2012
Pages: 109
Genre: paranormal LGBT
Source: the author!

Summary- In Louisiana, young Jay is a zookeeper at a zoo housing mythological creatures, where he works with other supernaturals like himself. He struggles with the impending threat of exposure of his magic to the human world, and the exposure of his sexuality to his friends.

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It is rare to find a book on the young adult market with a truly unique plot. Between all of the vampires and apocalypses, a book about a zoo housing mythological creatures narrated by a gay protagonist certainly stands out.

There were a lot of things I liked about this book, as well as some things I thought could have used a little work. Obviously the originality is something I appreciate. I love any book based in mythology, and this one certainly was. I would call this a paranormal story, but it’s a different kind of paranormal.

I also thought it was interesting that Fairfield made the protagonist, Jay, gay. Having an LGBT protagonist alone is unusual in young adult lit, but having one in a fantasy/paranormal novel is something I have only heard of in Malinda Lo’s books. Young adult literature could definitely use some more diversity, whether it be from race, sexuality, gender, or ability.

That being said,  I wish there had been more interactions with Colin throughout the book, and not only ones involving sex or sexual tension. In addition, I would have liked to see some more interactions with the zookeepers and the creatures. We spend most of the story inside Jay’s head, and while there is certainly dialogue with other characters, I felt like there wasn’t enough to keep it moving all the way through, even though it was a short book.

Still, I am quite curious to find out more about PETMC, the organization that wants to free the creatures of Area Five, thereby exposing the magical world. I also hope to see Colin and Jay’s relationship progress further in the next books, as well as for the mystery of Grace, the hypersexual Kitsune, to be solved, as I felt she was another element of the story that I wasn’t completely satisfied with. In general, I feel “Caged in Myth” and the Bayou Zoo series has the potential to become very interesting, and look forward to the release of Book 2.

*NOTE: Though I received this book from the author, that in no way has affected my review of it.