Book Review: Honestly Ben

Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.

Except…

There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else…and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.

If you’ve read my blog at all in the last couple of years, then you’ve probably seen me rave about Openly Straight (review), Bill Konigsberg’s amazing, touching, funny, sweet story of a gay teen trying to recreate his life on his own terms. In Openly Straight, we see the world through the eyes of Rafe, as he enters private school determined to shed his previous life as THE gay kid — completely out, giving talks, mother head of PFLAG, etc — and just see what it feels like to be one of the crowd. However, things get complicated when Rafe falls in love with his best friend Ben, who is startled to discover his own feelings for Rafe. In a nutshell, Ben doesn’t know Rafe is gay, so he believes that they’re exploring new ideas and options and feelings together, and feels completely betrayed when he learns what Rafe has been hiding from him. Seriously, this book made me laugh and broke my heart and was just so powerful!

But then we were left hanging… what happened next?

Well, thank you, thank you, thank you to the author for creating this beautiful sequel! Honestly Ben picks up just a few weeks after the events of Openly Straight. In Honestly Ben, Ben himself is the narrator, and we start to see more deeply into Ben’s life and world, and to understand what drives him and what scares him.

Ben grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, where working hard and not embarrassing the family are the values drilled into Ben and his brother from a young age. And when Ben starts to shine as a student, he’s not praised, but warned not to get a big head. For all that, Ben does succeed, and lands a scholarship to Natick, the poor boy among rich peers, striving to fit in and to do well enough to earn a scholarship to college. Ben keeps his head down, and tries to be what everyone wants him to be — a decent guy, a good baseball player, a top student — fitting in, but not one to call attention to himself.

Ben’s feelings for Rafe changed everything he understood about himself. In Honestly Ben, he digs deeper. Is he gay? The label doesn’t seem to fit. Bi? He doesn’t think so. He’s never been attracted to boys before, and his fantasies are generally about girls. Is he, as he puts it, just “gay-for-Rafe”? After the initial anger wears off, Ben and Rafe cautiously inch forward with their friendship. Ben is thrilled to reconnect with Rafe, but it’s a struggle for him to understand what this means. At the same time, he’s also facing pressure academically that threatens his scholarship, and he struggles with learning the truth about a former student whom the school idolizes — for all the wrong reasons, as Ben discovers.

The book’s exploration of labels is deftly handled. One of the Natick boys comes out as gender fluid, which takes much courage on  his part, as well as a lot of explaining — but he’s determined to start living his authentic life. As Ben tries to understand himself in the context of a relationship with Rafe, even well-meaners try to push him into claiming an identity he’s not comfortable with. Why does he need to put a label on what he is? He knows who he loves — why isn’t that sufficient?

Ben’s eyes are finally opened by a girl he briefly dates, who gets him to start to understand what he loses by hiding behind a front that doesn’t reveal the real him:

I’ve been doing some reading. This woman talks about vulnerability, and she says that it’s basically the key to everything. Vulnerability is allowing people to see you exactly as you are, which is really hard, because when you’re vulnerable you can get hurt. Most people armor up with bravado or something, but those people are missing out, because without allowing yourself to be vulnerable, it’s tough to have, like, any emotional experience at all.

The characters are just as wonderful as in the previous book. It’s touching to see Ben’s life through his own eyes and to understand the constant pressure he feels to be what he isn’t. The writing is outstanding, conveying both the challenges and the joys of Ben’s ongoing experiences and really capturing the sense of wonder that comes with sex in the context of love.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book! It’s a wonderful look at the inner lives of teens, and for those who read Openly Straight (which, really, you must do), it’s a terrific reunion with characters we absolutely love and care about. Check it out!

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The details:

Title: Honestly Ben
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Publication date: March 28, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: You Know Me Well

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

You Know Me Well

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Who knows you well? Your best friend? Your boyfriend or girlfriend? A stranger you meet on a crazy night? No one, really?

Mark and Kate have sat next to each other for an entire year, but have never spoken. For whatever reason, their paths outside of class have never crossed.

That is until Kate spots Mark miles away from home, out in the city for a wild, unexpected night. Kate is lost, having just run away from a chance to finally meet the girl she has been in love with from afar. Mark, meanwhile, is in love with his best friend Ryan, who may or may not feel the same way.

When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other — and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more.

Told in alternating points of view by Nina LaCour, the award-winning author of Hold Still and The Disenchantments, and David Levithan, the best-selling author of Every Day and co-author of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (with Rachel Cohn) and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with John Green), You Know Me Well is a deeply honest story about navigating the joys and heartaches of first love, one truth at a time.

 

My Thoughts:

This YA novel about connection and identity has a sincerity to it that is so loud and clear that it threatens to overshadow the story itself. The intentions are great, but I felt as though the plot itself was a bit flimsy.

The characters in You Know Me Well are all searching for their own truths, each on the way to becoming a more authentic version of themselves. The storyline takes place during Pride Week in San Francisco. Mark has been out for years, and is secretly in love with his best friend, while Kate finally has a chance to meet the girl she’s dreamed about from a distance. And after years of going to school together but never actually interacting, Mark and Kate connect and form an instant and deep friendship, finding in each other a kindred spirit, someone with whom they can be honest and reveal their inner worries, fears, hopes, and insecurities.

The action takes place over the course of an eventful week, in which friendships are made and broken and love is both found and lost. The condensed timeline keeps the story moving along, but I had some little doubts in my mind about the suddenness of Kate and Mark’s friendship and the complete trust that they establish in seemingly no time at all.

You Know Me Well is written in alternating chapters, as the authors take turns presenting Kate’s and Mark’s points of view. It’s an effective technique, as we get to know the two characters both as they see themselves and as they see each other. Readers of David Levithan’s earlier works will be familiar with this approach, which he’s used with other co-writers in books such as Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, among others.

David Levithan is an amazing writer, and once again we see his beautiful language at play in conveying the inner landscape of young adults on the verge of becoming who they’re meant to be. There’s a nice little homage to his recent novel Two Boys Kissing (review), which is one of the loveliest young adult books I’ve ever read.

You Know Me Well has a lot going for it, and it’s a quick and touching read, but ultimately I felt as though the messaging about positive identity and acceptance was more overt and heavy-handed than it needed to be. Then again, I’m an adult reading the book, and not truly the target audience. I imagine that reading You Know Me Well could be a profoundly important experience for a teen, gay or straight or anywhere along the rainbow, who’s trying to establish a strong self and figure out their place in the world.

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The details:

Title: You Know Me Well
Author: Nina LaCour and David Levithan
Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: June 7, 2016
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

SimonI dare anyone to read this book and not fall at least a little bit in love with Simon, the main character of this sweet, funny, touching young adult novel.

Simon is a 17-year-old high school junior, a good student, in the school musical (Oliver!), and with a reliable circle of friends, among them his life-long besties Nick and Leah and his new BFF Abby. What Simon hasn’t shared with anyone is that he’s gay. It’s not that he’s unsure — he’s quite, quite certain about his identity. He’s just not quite ready to stop being private and have to deal with the reactions he’s sure to face.

But life gets complicated. On the Tumblr where students from his school share secrets, he’s found a kindred spirit — a kind, smart boy going by the name of Blue, who is also a junior at the same school. Simon and Blue start an intense email correspondence, each using his “secret” gmail account to maintain anonymity. Over the course of the weeks and then months since they began emailing, they’ve opened up to one another to  a remarkable degree. Simon wants to meet; Blue isn’t sure that it’s a good idea.

And then Simon makes the ultimate online error — he checks his email using the computers in the school library and forgets to log back out. Before long, he’s facing a geeky, awkward student named Martin who lets Simon know that he has screenshots of his emails and will let the entire school know that Simon’s gay unless Simon helps him get Abby to go out with him. It’s blackmail, but carried out with a smile. Martin refuses to see that he’s doing something evil, and apart from this unforgivable act, Martin isn’t a terrible person or a bully, which makes it all the more confusing for Simon.

Simon himself is a sweetheart. He’s funny and smart, tries to do the right thing, and has good intentions, although he still manages to hurt some of his friends along the way. Above all, he’s a boy who’s falling in love with someone from the inside out, learning everything about Blue but still not knowing which of the boys he sees at school everyday is the actual man of his dreams.

Simon’s voice in the novel is engaging and full of humor. Even in his moments of doubt or discouragement, he’s funny as hell.

I take a sip of my beer, and it’s — I mean, it’s just astonishingly disgusting. I don’t think I was expecting it to taste like ice cream, but holy fucking hell. People lie and get fake IDs and sneak into bars, and for this? […] Anyway, it really makes you worry about all the hype surrounding sex.

Simon’s email flirtation with Blue is incredibly adorable:

I’m glad I was cute and grammatical. I think you’re cute and grammatical, too.

The truth eventually comes out, and Simon comes out, and all is finally revealed. I don’t want to say more, because seeing it unfold is a big part of the fun.

Beneath all the humor and cute teen escapades are real feelings, beautifully expressed, about family, identity, safety, trust, and friendship. Simon’s journey in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda involves sharing himself, really and truly, with the people in his life, and pursuing his truth even when it means taking risks.

It’s a lovely and engaging story, full of flirting and happy moments as well as heartache, and I loved every bit of it. Highly recommended — check it out!

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The details:

Title: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Author: Becky Albertalli
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication date: April 7, 2015
Length: 303 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

 

Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday: The Porcupine of Truth

There’s nothing like a Wednesday for thinking about the books we want to read! My Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday post is linking up with two fabulous book memes, Wishlist Wednesday (hosted by Pen to Paper) and Waiting on Wednesday (hosted by Breaking the Spine).

This week’s pick:

The Porcupine of Truth

The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg
(to be released May 26, 2015)

The author of OPENLY STRAIGHT returns with an epic road trip involving family history, gay history, the girlfriend our hero can’t have, the grandfather he never knew, and the Porcupine of Truth.

Carson Smith is resigned to spending his summer in Billings, Montana, helping his mom take care of his father, a dying alcoholic he doesn’t really know. Then he meets Aisha Stinson, a beautiful girl who has run away from her difficult family, and Pastor John Logan, who’s long held a secret regarding Carson’s grandfather, who disappeared without warning or explanation thirty years before. Together, Carson and Aisha embark on an epic road trip to find the answers that might save Carson’s dad, restore his fragmented family, and discover the “Porcupine of Truth” in all of their lives.

Openly Straight was one of my very favorite books of 2013, and I am so excited that this talented author has a new book coming out in 2015! Sign me up!

PS – If you’re interested, check out my review of Openly Straight, here.

What are you wishing for this Wednesday?

Looking for some bookish fun on Thursdays? Come join me for my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables. You can find out more here — come play!

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves

LiesAuthor Robin Talley gives us a stunning look at the school integration wars of the 1950s in her debut novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves. Seen through the eyes of two high school girls — one black, one white — caught up in the terror and day-to-day struggles of the early days of a Virginia high school’s forced integration, Lies takes us behind the historical record into the hearts and minds of the young people who had to actually live it all.

We’ve all read about integration in our history books and seen the photos of the Little Rock Nine being escorted into school by police through a jeering crowd. But what must it have been like for the students themselves? What did they feel, and what did they want?

In Lies We Tell Ourselves, we see both sides of the struggle through the two main characters, Sarah and Linda. Sarah is an honors student at the black high school in town; Linda is the white daughter of the town’s virulently anti-integration newspaper editor. When the court ruling comes down which forces the local white school to open its doors to black students, Sarah, her younger sister Ruth, and eight other students become the living symbols of integration. Once the NAACP wins its case, it’s the children who have to walk the path laid out for them by their parents and other adults. Everyone is just looking for an excuse to call integration a failure, so the pro-integration side lays out strict rules for the children: No fighting, no arguing, no answering back, no defending oneself, no extracurricular activities. Go along, get along — just walking the halls is an achievement, so don’t do anything that’ll hand the other side an excuse to say it doesn’t work.

The experiences of Sarah and the others are horrifying. Yelled at, spit upon, assaulted, impeded, harrassed, and threatened, entering the school and walking to their classrooms each day is like walking through a minefield. When someone spits on Sarah or dumps milk over her head, she can’t react, but must simply move on through the day. If she gives any hint that she’s upset, it’ll give the segregationists fuel for their argument that no one is ready for mixing of the races.

I wipe the tears away and stare at my reflection until my face smooths out and my eyes go empty. This is how they have to see me. If they know I feel things, they’ll only try to make me feel worse. Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything.

From Linda’s perspective, the “agitators” — the black students — are just ruining her senior year. Why couldn’t they stay in their own schools? Why do they need to come and cause such chaos in her own perfect little world? Even worse for Linda is her internal conflict — is it possible that the “Southern values” she’s been raised with are wrong? Is it possible that the behavior she witnesses on a daily basis isn’t about preserving tradition, but is simply ugliness and hatred?

For eighteen years, I’ve believed what other people told me about what was right and what was wrong. From now on, I’m deciding.

The day to day realities of 1959 in Virginia are simply awful to read about through the lens of our 21st century, post-Civil Rights sensibilities. The actions within the school are revolting. The verbal harassment, including the most disgusting racial epithets, are constant. The teachers and administration routinely turn a blind eye. In home ec class, Sarah is given her own sets of pots and pans to use, so that white kids don’t have to handle implements dirtied by black hands. It goes on and on, and reading about it through the words of students living it is incredibly painful.

Complicating matters even further for Sarah and Linda is that they’re thrown together as partners on a project for French class, and as they begin to know one another, each is reluctantly aware of a growing attraction toward the other. The girls spend much of their time together arguing, but beneath the racial divide, there’s a simmering interest that has nothing to do with skin color. As each girl realizes that dating boys and pretending to fit in doesn’t really work for her, entirely different questions about shame, sin, and what’s “natural” and “normal” surface.

I almost felt like telling Sarah and Linda, “don’t you have enough on your plates right now?” Just attempting a friendship is enough to get Linda ostracized and ridiculed and for Sarah to become even more of a target for the thuglike white boys from school. To pursue a same-sex relationship in the South of the 1950s seems foolhardy in the extreme, and while it was moving to see what the girls go through and how caught in a web of hatred they each find themselves, I’m not sure that the story needed one more element to put the characters at risk.

That said, I found Lies We Tell Ourselves to be a moving, important, and brave book. It’s eye-opening to take a well-known chapter of history and revisit it through the perspectives of people who lived through it. I’d thought I could imagine what it must have been like to live through those days, based on reading history books and watching documentaries. But sometimes, it takes fiction to make facts come alive, and that’s what the author achieves here. By giving us a personal point of entry to the experience, we walk the halls of the high school with Sarah and Linda and experience the fear, the hate, the humiliation, and the absolutely insane level of courage it must have required simply to take the few steps from one classroom to another.

Sarah and Linda are remarkable, unforgettable characters, and while the book ends at the conclusion of their high school careers, I can’t help thinking about how much better their lives will be from this point forward. They’ve each changed dramatically, and they’ve stood at the center of social change and survived.

Lies We Tell Ourselves would make a fantastic addition to any US History class curriculum, but more than that, its story of two brave girls trying to find their way and do what’s right should be widely read by teens and adults, in school or out. Robin Talley’s fine writing gives us a front-row seat to a difficult and important chapter of our nation’s recent history — but beyond the social value, she’s also written just a really good novel that conveys true emotion and personal growth.

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The details:

Title: Lies We Tell Ourselves
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: September 30, 2014
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harlequin Teen via NetGalley