Risk of retraumatization for those with sexual misconduct-related trigger issues.

Five years ago, Josh was twelve and sleeping with his history teacher, Mrs. Sherman, a fact which came to light following a disastrous spin-the-bottle game with his best friend, Rachel. Now he’s a senior in high school, the teacher has been released from jail, and when he bumps into Rachel after years of avoidance, he learns that she’s not mad at him for the reasons he thought she was mad at him. And she doesn’t want to stay mad at him; she wants to pick up where they left off. And he’s waiting to hear from his Holy Trinity of colleges while trying to keep up both his straight-A streak and his remarkable batting average.

It’s absorbing, powerful, and really well-written. Josh is an interesting but likable first-person narrator, his pain and issues omnipresent but not melodramatic or maudlin. The lengthy sections in which he goes through his relationship with Mrs. Sherman and its immediate aftermath are particularly stellar, and particularly creepy; the author doesn’t spare us the details of Josh’s first sexual experiences, though he does for some reason shy away from the vaginal intercourse and actions that focused on her body, rather than his. Throughout it all, we can see her manipulations as she carefully works Josh around so that he thinks the guilt lies with him.

In the present-day sections, we can still see the remnants of those manipulations, even after years of therapy and being told that it wasn’t his fault. He is still obsessed with what happened, so much so that he doesn’t realize that while people in his small town know and remember, that it’s not all they think about. He realizes that his best guy friend, Zik, is doing his best by always being there for Josh and never asking about it, but he never, for five years, thought about what that does to Zik and Zik’s friendship with Rachel. And when he does, we see how painful it is for him, how he sees yet another reason for him to apologize.

The major flaw in the modern-day sections is Rachel. She knows what she wants—Josh—and she’s determined to get it. Whether he wants her or not. Their conversations are sometimes painfully reminiscent of Josh with Mrs. Sherman; him demurring, her instructing. Yes, they are the same age and neither is in a formal position of power, but the massive guilt he feels toward her does put her at an advantage over him—and she uses it. She does not respect Josh’s sexual agency—his right to not say yes—and she is emotionally manipulative, using, perhaps unknowingly, some of the same strategies that Mrs. Sherman used. She is presented as a heroic figure putting herself on the line to rescue her friend from his issues, but her actions are reprehensible. Boy Toy took pains to remind us that boys can be raped and taken advantage off; unfortunately, it forgot that men can be raped and taken advantage of, too. Absence of a yes is a no, regardless of gender, and a yes must be freely given, not the result of manipulation or abuse.

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Boy Toy ~ Barry Lyga ~ Barry Lyga’s Blog

Louisa Cosgrove is unusual for a Victorian young woman: passionate about science, aspiring to become one of the first generation of female doctors, and far more interested in her cousin Grace than in any young man she’s ever met. Her name isn’t Lucy Childs and she isn’t insane. And yet, she finds herself taken to an insane asylum, where the apathetic doctor and sadistic matron insist that she is Lucy Childs, and that her instance that she is Louisa Cosgrove is a symptom of her insanity. The only consolation is Eliza, a kind, smiling, pretty young woman who works in the asylum.

It’s a sweet, romantic little book. Louisa’s emotions are realistically raw and painful; her early unfounded hope and her growing sense of betrayal as she realizes that she is not in the asylum through sheer accident are particularly difficult. Eliza’s gentle raising of Louisa’s spirits and energy following a further catastrophe goes slowly but with a sense of the inevitable. Both Louisa’s early passionate crush on Grace and her more mature and balanced esteem for Eliza ring true.

Wildthorn gave me less of a feel for Victorian England than I would have liked. Rather than feeling grounded in its period, it felt like a struggle between twenty-first century mores and late-nineteenth century ones. Though Louisa’s indulgent father is presented as an explanation for her freethinking ways, the ease with which Louisa casts off Victorian ideals is stunning, and though Eliza is in many ways more of a realist and more aware of the difficulties they face, her casual and open acknowledgment of lesbianism makes her a bit too obviously an angel dropped into Louisa’s life to rescue her. The supporting characters, though far less sympathetic than the romantic leads, have more depth and more awareness of the time, and the ending is surprisingly pragmatic—though happy, it resists the urge to become utopian.

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Wildthorn

The Boneshaker Kate MilfordIt’s 1913, and Natalie Minks has two main goals in life: to make her clockwork airplane work, and to figure out how to ride the unusual bicycle that she’s convinced is the fastest in the world. Her life gets much more complicated when a traveling medicine show comes to town, bringing highly unusual and rather threatening medical men, mysterious remedies, and automatons that don’t need to be wound. Her town isn’t completely helpless—there’s more to several residents than meets the eye, include an old black man who once won a bet with the devil, and Natalie’s mother herself. Nonetheless, the danger is very real, and very close to home.

It’s a beautifully written book, redolent with love of storytelling, folklore, and traditional music. It’s not as tightly-woven as I wanted it to be, though; I had to Google Wilbur Wright’s death in order to figure out when the book was set, and a few times times minor characters were so briefly mentioned or lightly sketched that I had forgotten them by the time they reemerged with some importance later on. Similiarly, there are some interesting, important-seeming elements that are never explained; vagueness that contributes to a creepy, tense atmosphere early in the book is ultimately unsatisfying when clarity never emerges.

Natalie is a spunky tomboy, but not without context—she fits in perfectly with her mildly unconventional family, and if some of the townspeople aren’t overly approving of her choices of overalls instead of dresses, they tolerate her with affection. Her best friend is an effective foil: femme and frivolous, but brave when necessary. Natalie’s close-knit family is lovingly but honestly presented, with its members’ foibles and frustrations, its secret-keeping and its worry about Natalie’s mother, who is increasingly unwell—and Natalie’s obliviousness to her mother’s illness also has a ring of truth.

The Boneshaker is a version of the old Devil at the Crossroads motif, and it plays well with the guilt, desperation, hubris, and determination of the several characters who face the Devil across the campfire.

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The Boneshaker ~ Kate Milford’s The Clockwork Foundry

I read a book about football.

And I liked it.

I don’t understand football. I don’t understand team sports in general.¹ When I was in high school, I completely avoided all interscholastic sports events. I was regularly accused of having zero school spirit, a charge which was largely justified, but really, high school football was also not that big a deal in my town.²

So an obsession with football is pretty alien to me. I watched the first season of Friday Night Lights and enjoyed it on an intellectual level, as a sociological study of a foreign culture.

Dairy Queen I flat out enjoyed.

D.J. is the only girl in a family of football men, poor but extremely hardworking farmers who are better at football than at dairy farming. Since her dad busted his knee, D.J.’s been doing all the farm work (and her dad has taken over the cooking, with mixed results) and is getting it done, though it cut into her ability to do schoolwork. Luckily, it’s summer, so all she needs to do is the farmwork. And do a favor for a family friend by training the quarterback of her school’s rival football team. And maybe fall for said quarterback. And definitely decide to go out for football in the fall.

And maybe learn communication methods other than her family’s abysmal passive-aggressive ones. And maybe figure out what’s up with her best friend and her little brother. And her parents.

In some ways, it feels like reading a therapy transcript. A very funny therapy transcript, minus the therapist. But with a lot of emotions and relationships, looked at through day to day events. D.J.’s often a bit of an idiot when it comes to people, but she’s so honest and drily humorous that it would be hard not to like her. I don’t understand football, but the overworked mom, the closeted friend, the frustrated dad, the isolated brother—he’s almost as closeted as the friend, it’s just not about sexual orientation in his case— are all real, believable, understandable people

Don’t worry; I’m still staying far, far away from football.

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¹There’s the cooperative part of the brain, and there’s the competitive part of the brain. These parts in opposition. Somehow team sports imply that they can be turned on simultaneously. This is… weird.

²Our team lost almost all the time, anyway. Occasionally, the town could muster up some enthusiasm for hockey or soccer. When we were winning.

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Dairy Queen ~ Catherine Gilbert Murdock
My review of Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Princess Ben

Horns and WrinklesIt’s hardly a secret on Claire’s stretch of the Mississippi river – the Wisconsin/Minnesota stretch – that things rivery are a bit witchy. Even the local sheriff knows that. So Claire’s not entirely surprised when she and her bully of a cousin, Duke, bump into a strange woman who can make things float. She’s a little more surprised when Duke’s nose starts to turn into a rhinoceros horn, but then her grandfather explains that this happens every so often – to her great-great-great-granduncle, for instance – and those afflicted either recover or they disappear. So when it looks like the best chance to get everyone restored, Claire’s perfectly ready to go off on the river with Duke and a trio of river trolls.

Horns & Wrinkles is fun and quite clever, though a mite predictable. Also a mite sloppy – the background’s a bit sketchy, leaving me curious as to how the mythology and the magic work in this world. (Though if you’re going to be sloppy, you might as well do so in a way which makes your readers more curious. But that’s an awfully fine line to walk.) In many ways it was nothing special, but there is something to the storytelling; it’s subtle, but it has the rhythm of folklore. The network of small towns forming one community around the river, accepting its oddities as part of life and allowing their children adventures and risks, is not something we see often. And it makes a lovely break from the real world.

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Horns & Wrinkles

Ben (short for Benevolence) was raised by loving and indulgent parents, the niece of the king but carefully kept away from court life. All that changes just after her fifteenth birthday, when her mother and uncle are killed and her father disappears, leaving her at the tender mercies of her aunt, the queen regent. She is rebellious and intractable, not seeing the point in learning court graces – how to eat, dance, play music, embroider handkerchiefs and, most importantly, speak elegantly about nothing at all. She is basically helpless and useless, until she stumbles across her castle’s hidden secret, and starts to actually learn something – magic, actually. Even so, it takes disaster and months of endurance on a cold mountain to make her finally grow up.

Princess Ben has a good plot: nicely blended fairy tale elements, an unconventional heroine (she’s not skinny, among other things), and a bit of a mystery. Unfortunately, the writing isn’t as good; it’s told in a first-person narration that is, frankly, stilted, prone to hyperbole, and a bit annoying. It does match the formal, flowery court language we find in the dialogue, and in a way matches the character, but it matches the character as she is during the events of the book, fifteen years old – but it’s supposedly being written several decades later. The character should be immature, but the writing shouldn’t be.