Estelle: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Openly Straight by Bill KonigsbergOpenly Straight by Bill Konigsberg ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: May 28, 2013
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
Pages: 336
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: LGBT, boarding school, labels, friendship, lies
Format read: ARC paperback from TLA.

Summary: Rafe decides to spend his junior year on the East Coast at an all boys boarding school. What’s so crazy about that? Well, unlike his life in Boulder, he decides not to share with anyone that he is indeed gay in order to give him the chance to strip away all labels and give him the opportunity to be more than his sexual preference.

Openly Straight is a novel that encompassed so many of my favorite things: a flawed main character who felt a lot, supportive and enthusiastic parents, and heart-tugging friendship and romance. And best of all? It made me think.

Basically, I want to hug and squeeze this book until I can’t anymore.

Rafe is pretty lucky when he comes out to his parents. They are completely supportive; they barely blink an eyelash. The liberal town of Boulder, Colorado responds pretty much the same way. His teachers want his thoughts on the gay movement, he trains to give speeches to others about sexuality, and his family surprises him with an awesome coming out party. Life is pretty much hunky dory. We’ve all heard people’s hurtful experiences regarding coming out, so it’s kind of hard to believe that Rafe has anything to complain about, right?

Well. Wrong. He feels totally pigeonholed by his sexuality, and decides to go off to a boarding school on the East Coast in hopes of wiping the slate clean. He won’t exactly be back in the closet because he knows he’s gay… he just won’t really tell the peers in his all-boy school what his deal is.

The idea of going to a brand new place and being a whole new you is pretty tempting. Of course, part of it, especially in Rafe’s case, isn’t awesome because he is kind of lying in some instances. But in others, he’s finding out things about himself that he never knew. Like maybe the jock isn’t always “the jock” and maybe he can actually keep up with a bunch of guys playing football in the quad.

The challenges though… outweigh that lack of boundary Rafe feels. And as a reader, you are just waiting for everything to blow up in his face. His parents are confused by this “phase”, he’s making up stories about his closest girl friend, and this intimate friendship with Ben, a soft-spoken jock who loves to read and have deep conversations, is definitely in jeopardy, especially as he and Rafe continue to get closer. Is Ben gay? Are they just best friends? The lines are so blurred at times, that it was really hard for me to figure it out. The possibility of heartbreak is so palpable.

Konigsberg also included pieces from Rafe’s writing class — a great way for us to get this character’s back story but also to see him grow as a writer. (I adored the teacher’s comments so much because so many times what he was saying was criticism I have about what I’m reading: “show don’t tell!”) Mr. Scarborough also gives him room to think about his choices to be someone new at the school, and subtley offers some helpful perspective. He would definitely have been one of my favorite teachers too.

I feel absolutely so much love for this book that my heart is actually seizing up as I write this review. From Rafe’s refreshing narrating to watching him painstakingly make blunders and attempt to get himself out of them, Openly Straight unveils a different kind of journey towards self-discovery — one filled with laughs, love, late nights, and finding out how to balance all the parts that make you you.

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Estelle: When Love Comes to Town by Tom Lennon

When Love Comes to Town by Tom LennonLove Comes to Town by Tom Lennon
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Publisher: Albert Whitman Teen
Pages: 304
Audience: Young adult
Keywords: Dublin, senior year, gay teenager
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary: Neil is about to turn 18 and graduate from high school in 1990s Dublin. He’s friends with people he’s known since he was a kid, he’s a celebrated rubgy player, and his niece and nephew adore him. But for many years now, he’s been harboring the secret that he is gay. As much as he has tried to ignore it, the truth continues to plague him and he wonders if he can trust those closest to him with his deepest secret.

With a title like this When Love Comes to Town, I was really hoping for a love story. Instead, I received a deep analysis in the very troubled psyche of Neil, a young man who seemed to totally accept himself one minute and be ready to throw in the towel the next.

Who could blame him? He was living in a very close-minded circle of treasured friends and even family who would not accept homosexuals. Neil couldn’t stand the pressure of keeping secrets from everyone he knew, but he was also filled with such fear of how his own truths would affect life as he knew it.

I really felt for Neil, as he dedicated so much of his time watching old family movies and wishing so hard to be that little boy who was close to his parents without the “invisible barriers” created by who he has discovered himself to be. Neil brought to the forefront a very scary concern: the idea that our parents don’t know who we really are and that maybe, just maybe, they know and want to pretend otherwise. Isn’t that one of the loneliest realizations?

Even when dispersed between Neil’s newly discovered friends, ventures into the gay nightclub scene, and affection for a certain boy named Ian, the heavy stuff in When Love Comes to Town only seems to get heavier when the opportunity presents itself: AIDs, rejection, bullying, and loss in many different degrees.

Still Neil cannot experience the lowest of lows without the occasion highs that come in the form of an accepting female best friend, great music lyrics, and even the comfort of knowing that his religion will hold him tight, even when it seems like an impossibility. When Love Comes to Town felt like a prelude to other wonderful books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the past year like J.H. Trumble’s Don’t Let Me Go + Where You Are, as well as Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. Though the struggles these characters face are along the same lines, have things indeed improved in the years since When Love Comes to Town was released in Ireland?

I’d like to think so, I really would. I’d also like to think, 25 years later, older and wiser, Neil is somewhere happy and warm and wholeheartedly loved.

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