Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity has been receiving a tremendous amount of accolades recently (Hyperion, $9.99). In addition to receiving starred reviews in a number of publications during 2012, it also received a Prinz finalist award at ALA this year. I couldn’t possibly imagine a better book than The Fault in Our Stars last year, so this book has been on my list of must-reads for a while now. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only recently gotten around to it and I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner. It makes an excellent cross-over book. I’ll be Maddie is a pilot from England and Verity (code name) is a spy from Scotland. Both women are actively involved in the war effort and they become friends throughout their various assignments. I don’t want to talk too much about plot,because this is the kind of book that you really want to unfold and explore for yourself. Suffice it to say, the book is set in occupied France in 1943. Verity has been captured by the Gestapo. The rest is up to you to discover. One of the things I love about this book is the reminder that women were constantly underestimated in the 1940s. And yet, it’s so interesting to see what they are able to achieve precisely because no one thinks they can.
Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin, isn’t the first book to contain a character who is intersex, but books on this topic are few and far between (Simon & Schuster, $24.99, out today). Max Walker is the stereotypical golden boy. On the surface. But Max and his family have a secret. He is intersex: a person that used to be referred to as a hermaphrodite. Within this story, Max’s existence falls perfectly between horror (he has never been shamed or punished by his parents for being who he is as many intersex children have been) and complete acceptance (the parents do not make Max’s situation known to the outside world). Max identifies as a boy, but he is a true intersex: half and half. His family did not put him through reconstructive surgery as a baby. He’s known and understood that he was different his whole life, but it’s never really been a big deal. Just something that the family never discusses. At 16, the one childhood friend (boy) who knows about Max, rapes him. Rape is traumatic for anyone, but Max deals with a whole other layer of trauma. How is he supposed to process what happened? Thankfully he goes to a Doctor, one who is smart and sensitive enough to do some research and help Max find the vocabulary he needs to understand himself. This description might sound clinical, but even trying to talk about this book is a reminder of how inadequate our language is.
The narrative moves between Max, his brother, his mother, the doctor, and the girl he starts to fall for. This movement strengthens the story, because as each person struggles to talk about Max, the reader truly starts to appreciate Max’s inability to articulate himself. I most appreciated the Doctor’s narrative voice. She is professional, and remains at a somewhat critical distance, but truly helps Max and the reader navigate this rather uncharted territory. Max’s mom struck me as way too intelligent to be saying such ridiculous things. I liked her when Max talked about her. I started to despise her when she spoke for her self. I think the book would have been much stronger without her first-person chapters or perhaps if her voice had been introduced towards the end of the story, as Max’s dad’s voice is.
I also particularly liked Max’s younger brother’s commentary. Daniel is significantly younger (about 5 years); he looks up to Max and because Max is his older sibling, he knows nothing different. He is the only character (including Max) who doesn’t perceive Max as an aberration, because, to Daniel, Max is perfectly normal. Daniel’s voice, somewhat young and innocent, provides a strong counter to all the confusion that pervades everyone else’s voice. Golden Boy is not an easy book to read, but it is well worth it. I’m delighted that it has found the support of a major publishing house. This is a story that needs to be told.
The Lover’s Dictionary, by David Levithan (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $20) falls in to that ‘New Adult’ category that you may or may not have heard of. The designation is an awkward, to be sure, and is meant to denote books that are more mature than YA. New adults, presumably, are the 18-30 crowd. You can see the issues. Are ‘New Adults’ not actual adults? How does one go from being a ‘young’ adult to a ‘new’ adult? That evolution seems arbitrarily backwards. Anyway. Categories are always random and problematic, which is hardly the point of this post. The point is that all David Levithan books are worth reading. The characters in The Lover’s Dictionary are certainly older than the teenage protagonists in his other novels, hence the clarification that this book perhaps isn’t ‘YA’ in the strictest sense. In terms of content, there is nothing in this book that you can’t find in a YA novel and actually less because the most intimate moments are unwritten. The narrative format is unique and very intriguing. Starting with A “aberrant” through to Z “zenith”, the story emerges from the entries of the dictionary. I was almost skeptical. How could such a dry format yield and interesting story? But it does. Well. The
narrator dictionary composer writes in the first person and refers to himself as ‘boyfriend’ repeatedly. We know his gender. His partner, however, remains in the ambiguous second person. I wanted to write a story like this when I was in college. I never did. It wouldn’t have been nearly as good. There is something remarkably satisfying in the snippets of story and a more patient reader would probably spend more time pouring over the word and the entry. The ones I did pay attention to were always clever on a variety of levels. The story and history of the relationship plays out non-sequentially throughout the entries. The entries are short, occasionally only one line, rarely more than a page. And yet, somehow this story is so full. Perhaps because the story is such a familiar one: falling in love, self-doubt, relationship fissures, the threat of break up. I love reading Levithan’s books because they always contain lines that break my heart. Not necessarily because they are sad, but because they are true.