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.

Boy Toy ~ Barry Lyga ~ Barry Lyga’s Blog


A major terrorist attack has hit San Francisco. Marcus and his friends, in the wrong place at the wrong time, are picked up by Homeland Security for a few grueling days. When they return home, they – and particularly Marcus – are horrified by the loss of privacy and civil rights perpetrated by Homeland Security in the name of safety. A computer nerd, Marcus starts to fight back, with computers, cryptography, and the idealistic youth of San Francisco as his weapons. As more and more people become involved in his clandestine XNet, his creation slips more and more out of his control.

The major problem with Little Brother is that it’s trying to serve two masters. People who are attracted to it are likely to be interested in computers and cryptography, and therefore to come to the novel with some preexisting knowledge of the subject. Of course, it cannot be safely assumed that all of its readers have such knowledge. So it has to do a fair bit of teaching. I believe it generally succeeds at imparting the necessary information, but it does not succeed in making the lessons interesting. The novel is narrated in the first person; Doctorow simply has the narrator offer straightforward descriptions of cryptography, binary, Linux, and the like.

This would be boring even if one has not already read Neil Stephenson, but for someone who has all of this material taught in Stepheson’s brilliantly creative narrative digressions, it’s rather interminable.¹ I’m not asking for Doctorow to try to be Stephenson² – few things are worse than a novelist who doesn’t trust his own voice – but I think it’s valid to ask that teaching in a novel be delivered via a more interesting medium than a visit from the Exposition Fairy.

This frequent mini-lectures also have the unfortunate effect of increasing
the didacticism of an already didactic book.

Little Brother is largely an expression of Doctorow’s dissatisfaction with the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, much as William Sleator used Test to express his dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind. In both cases, I generally agree with both authors’ liberal biases, but I wish both had expressed their points of view with a touch more subtlety. Little Brother is a much better book than Test, but it is ultimately dissatisfying; while a major point of the book is “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25” – after 25, ways of thinking are too set and one is too invested in the status quo – it seems 37-year-old Doctorow doesn’t trust his teenage readers to see the flaws in the system without his help.

¹ For instance, in The Diamond Age, he teaches binary using a clockwork castle.

² Or other authors who need to present a lot of facts in their narratives. Another example would be Junot Diaz’s use of humor footnotes to impart large chunks of Dominican Republic history in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Little Brother ~ Cory Doctorow’s craphound.com