Estelle: Just Between Us by J.H. Trumble

Just Between Us by JH TrumbleJust Between Us by J.H. Trumble ( website | twitter )
Publication Date: September 24, 2013
Publisher: Kensington
Pages: 320
Target audience: Mature YA/adult
Keywords: marching band, HIV, romance, LGBT
Format read: Paperback ARC from author. (Thanks!!)
Other books I’ve reviewed by Trumble: Don’t Let Me Go | Where You Are

Summary: Luke is an uncoordinated clarinetist in his high school’s marching band, and Curtis is a band alum, a college man, who helps out as a band tech. After a dramatic breakup, Luke is determined not to pursue any other guy until he really thinks it can work. Of course, he falls for off-limits Curtis. While Curtis thinks Luke is cute, he also think he’s a kid (even though he’s only 2 years younger than he is), but can’t help falling into a friendship with him anyway. As the two get closer, Curtis discovers he has HIV and realizes he has no idea where this relationship or his future stands.

There’s something about J.H. Trumble’s work that makes me feel automatically at ease. For practically all of my other reading, it takes a good chunk of pages (a few chapters) before I’m “in it” but give me five pages of a Trumble story and I am completely comfortable.

In Just Between Us (a book that falls between her first and second, time-wise), I was once again surrounded by characters that felt like friends and situations that could easily be unfolding around me in real time. I’m pretty much at home on a marching band field so there’s that, and then there’s Luke, a clarinetist (I was one too!), who gets yelled at / made fun of because he’s not always on the beat. (That was me too.) I’ve met Luke before (in Don’t Let Me Go); he reminds me of an enthusiastic puppy who really wants to love everyone and be loved. Underneath this veneer, Luke is dealing with the prejudices of a father who has been so outwardly unsupportive of his son’s sexuality that his mother has dissolved their relationship.

At the same, Curtis has transferred colleges after a year of too much sex, too much drinking, and too little studying. He’s returned to his high school as a band tech, where everyone reveres him as a marching band god. Luke catches his eye early on, and when they discover they are neighbors they start a friendship. (Curtis’ twin sister — a sort of mini-Mom — is really pushing for him to pursue Luke.) You can tell the two really like each other but both are a little on the fence. Luke doesn’t want Curtis to be a rebound after his first heartbreak, and Curtis is nervous about the age difference and his tendency to lose control of himself when he’s with a guy.

And that’s all before the bomb is dropped: Curtis discovers he contracted HIV last year.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Curtis does not act like a responsible adult after hearing his diagnosis. He thinks it is a death sentence. (It is not.) He behaves irrationally; he is mean and distant and he refuses, absolutely refuses, to take care of himself. He is so busy thinking WHAT IS THE POINT that precious time is being lost: for his body, for his relationship with Luke, and for his openess with his fantastic family.

Trumble does not make Just Between Us a walking pamphlet about HIV. It was not weighed down with facts and statistics. She brought awareness to the surface with the varied emotions that Curtis comes to feel, the ugly words that are said in dark cars, the stark honesty from friends, and the imperfect process of owning up to your responsibilities and accepting all that comes next. Like fighting like hell to live a healthy, normal life.

It helps that Curtis’ story is counterbalanced by Luke’s fractured relationship with his dad, a lively and sweetly accepting younger brother, and a mother who must make a difficult decision between a man who she has loved since she was young and this father who has become careless with his sons’ identities. Just Between Us overflows with powerful dynamics and differing levels of support from all of those in Luke and Curtis’ lives. In the end, though, both stories are fused by the journey to get to one place: acceptance.

Just Between Us is just further proof that J.H. Trumble is a mastermind when it comes to writing about real people who feel real things and don’t always make the right decisions. I am always so wrapped up and so invested in the lives of her characters, and immediately wanted to go back and re-read her other two books. (Especially since my fav, Robert from WYA, makes a series of appearances in JBU.) It’s the best (and possibly the worst) to never want to leave the world an author has created, even if you are left to utterly miss the people within it.

I cannot wait to see what comes next from J.H.Rather Be Reading Buy It Icon

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My Life After Now by Jessica Verdi: Review w/Q+A

My Life After Now by Jessica VerdiMy Life After Now by Jessica Verdi ( blog | tweet )
Publication Date: April 2, 2013
Publisher: SourceBooks
Pages: 304
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: HIV, theatre, tough family situations
Format read: ARC provided by Publisher. (Thanks!)

Summary: After a particularly bad day, Lucy escapes to the city with her best friends for some spontaneous fun. But a foolish move changes her whole life when she contracts HIV. How can she tell her parents? How can she tell her friends? What does this mean for the rest of her life?

Back in college, I was part of a theatre troupe called “Better Choices / Better Chances” and for a few weeks in the spring, we toured middle schools and high schools in our area to teach them facts about HIV/AIDS through a series of serious, funny, and pop culture-y skits (that we wrote ourselves). This is why I was so interested in My Life After Now. There is only one other book (Positively by Courtney Sheinmel) that conquers HIV in the young adult genre, and this is a subject that needs to be discussed more frequently.

Let’s start that the beginning: after Lucy loses her prized role in the school play (an awesome adaptation of Romeo and Juliet) and her main squeeze, she decides to do something very un-Lucy like and totally let loose. It’s like this: dress hot, get into a club, meet someone in the band, get drunk, and then wake up and not know what the hell happened. That foggy part is when things get bad. Lucy realizes she had unprotected sex, and when she gets tested, finds out she has HIV.

This is, indeed, devastating. Lucy goes through a roller coaster of emotions, and doesn’t know where to turn or who to turn to. Her life is set on an entirely different course than it was a little awhile ago. What should she do next? While Verdi does a good job of telling us about Lucy’s actions, the lack of showing them caused me to connect very little with her character. Even the brighter moments didn’t have the right emphasis because the small details (like getting to know a new boy) seemed glazed over.

There were moments when Lucy surprised me in great ways, and others where I couldn’t believe she continued to be so naive. I would have expected her diagnosis to wake her up a little, but she continued to make decisions that left me shaking my head. Verdi also depended a ton on her main character as she was forced to wade through many other issues on top of HIV (including a very unstable biological mother). With a little finesse these could have worked in the story, but the multitude of heavy storylines made My Life After Now feel top-heavy to me.

I did have a soft spot for chapters named after songs from musicals (try to guess which is which!), Lucy’s uber-supportive dads, and the vivaciousness of Roxie, a gal Lucy meets at her support group. Though I am glad I found such a rare subject in my reading, I do wish My Life After Now would have branched out beyond its subject (less Rent references?), educating readers a bit more organically and, therefore, truly connecting us to Lucy.

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Sidenote: Ironically enough, this article about a study about 14 adults living with HIV popped up right after my reading of My Life After Now.

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And now a few words from Jessica Verdi, the author of My Life After Now:

Jessica Verdi - author of My Life After Now

EH: HIV is a pretty rare topic in the young adult genre. What inspired you to take your book in this direction?

JV: My primary inspiration for writing My Life After Now was a friend of mine, actually, who is HIV-positive. We both read a lot of YA and we realized that there are so many books about pregnancy, drinking, and drug use, but not very many about sexually transmitted infections—which is surprising, considering how many teenagers are in fact having sex. Young people ages 13-29 make up about 40% of all new HIV cases in the U.S. every year (mostly as a result of having unprotected sex), and that number is only increasing. So, to me, the lack of discussion about HIV/AIDS in teen literature was inexcusable, and I wanted to do something to help fill the gap.

EH: I saw when you first announced your book deal that the title was On the Plus Side. What went into the decision to change it? And were there any other significant changes to the actual story?

JV: My editor felt strongly (and rightfully so) that the title On the Plus Side would mislead people into thinking this is a pregnancy novel. So I knew from very early on in the acquisitions process that the title would be changed—I just didn’t know to what! I’m terrible at coming up with titles, so I was happy to leave that to the experts. Luckily, I love what they came back with. I love how the title My Life After Now leaves you with the question of, after so much goes wrong, what happens now? That’s essentially what this story is about.

Otherwise, there weren’t too many significant changes to the story during the editing process. Lots of clarification, cleanup, and adding of scenes, but overall the general story has remained the same.

EH: It’s so apparent the amount of research that went into My Life After Now. I think Elyse and Evan’s reactions really demonstrate the stigmas attached to this disease. What was the most eye opening about your research?

JV: I did a ton of research for this book, and one of the most surprising things to me was that there have been so few books written about children/teenagers and HIV. Not just in novels, as mentioned above, but also in non-fiction and academic books. I only found one academic book in the whole of the enormous New York Public Library system that was dedicated to the subject. That was so crazy to me, since there are literally tens of thousands of young people in the U.S. living with HIV/AIDS, many of whom have had it since birth. This discovery of how few books have been written about the subject only renewed my determination to write my own.

EH: Backtracking to the “rare topics in YA” question, what are some subjects that we don’t see nearly enough?

JV: Ooh, good question. Definitely STIs of all kinds, not just HIV. Another subject I would love to see more of is adoption and the foster care system. And I think we don’t see transgendered main characters nearly enough.

EH: As a musical lover, which do you recommend for young adults? (I personally like to share my affection for Next to Normal and In the Heights… so much fun to listen to at home!)

JV: Those two are awesome! I also love Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Ragtime, Legally Blonde: The Musical, Aida, The Wild Party (the off-Broadway one, written by Andrew Lippa), Tick, Tick…Boom!, and A Chorus Line. (Though there are so many others. We could be here all day!)

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Big thanks to Jessica for taking the time to answer these! Be sure to follow her on her website and Twitter!

And don’t forget to check out: Goodreads | Amazon for more on My Life After Now.