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Is It YA?

I get a lot of questions about age categories for books. It seems the lines have become somewhat blurred as more and more adults pick up young adult, and even middle grade, novels. So many writers think that, based on their characters’ ages, their book must be x, y, or z. But character age is not the only—or even the best—metric for determining which category your book belongs in.

Think of Stephen King’s IT. There are children in that book, but it is not a book for children. There are plenty of young people and teens in horror movies, but not all those movies are suitable for young people.

Then is it sex and violence that make a book “adult”? No. There are many YA novels with sex and violence, and many adult books without either.

Age categories are largely determined by themes. A children’s book will present a problem that a child will view as “large,” even if, to an adult, the solution would seem relatively simple. Middle grade books expand on that, building bigger worlds as characters navigate things like school vs. home, old friends vs. new ones, maybe the dissolution of a family, a death, or a major move. I’m not saying YA and adult books can’t have these things, but the way the characters perceive and react to them will be very different.

Young adult books bring in even more complex feelings and plots. Sexual attraction, peer pressure, the fight for independence and individuality balanced against a desire to fit in—all these are typical themes, regardless of the plot or situation. Whether it’s set in space, a dystopian future, a contemporary school, or the past, these are the things that make a book YA. Yes, there may be violence. Yes, there may be sex. Yes, the characters may be saving the world while dealing with a love triangle. But the bottom line is the transition from childhood to adolescence, how to handle the new emotions and situations that arise.

There is a lot of debate about whether new adult is a real category. At one point in time, it was a label for books that fit the “quarter-life crisis” demographic. I once listened to agents discuss new adult at a writing conference, and they said that these books deal with major firsts: a starter marriage, a first divorce, a first job, a first baby. New adult was mostly a women’s fiction category, though I’ve since seen genre writers try to use the label when they have protagonists that are in their twenties. In truth, since I have not seen bookstores separating out new adult from young adult or adult fiction, I don’t recommend positioning your book that way. Think about where you would expect to find it in a library or bookstore. Where would they shelve it? What other books is it similar to? That will go a long way towards helping you decide which age category your book belongs in.

Finally, keep in mind that children “read up” but adults will often “read down.” What does that mean? Well, children will typically pick up a book that features characters a couple years older than they are. An 8-year-old will read about kids who are 10 to 12. A 12-year-old is going to read about kids who are 14 or 15. There are exceptions, of course, but it is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind. And what this really means is that you can write a book with 18-year-old characters that is still really for the adult market. If those characters are dealing with adult issues and situations( or issues and situations that adult readers will identify with more than teens), then… the book is for adults.

Again, there will always be exceptions. And readers vary widely as well. What some teens are ready for, others will not be. As I said, the easiest way to identify your age category is to think about where your book would be shelved in a library or bookstore. If you aren’t sure, go look at the books there and figure it out. It’s incredibly important to know who you are writing for, whether you intend to query agents or self-publish. Positioning yourself and your work in the market is key, and knowing your age category is a large part of that.

Movies: Let Them All Talk

It’s easy to tell from the get-go that this movie has no script. As a writer, I don’t think that’s a good thing. As a viewer… I think it could have been interesting? But it wasn’t.

This movie stars Meryl Streep as Alice, a writer due to turn in her latest manuscript any day now. She’s also supposed to receive a prestigious award in the UK, but she “can’t fly” (her words), so her young, new agent Karen (Gemma Chan) books her on the two-week Atlantic crossing of the Queen Mary 2. Alice invites her estranged friends Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen) along for the trip, as well as her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, as awkward as my son would be if I dragged him on a trip with my friends and expected him to keep them company while I worked). Also on the ship, unbeknownst to Alice, is Karen, who uses Tyler as a spy for how the manuscript is coming along.

As a setup, it has potential. This could have been riotously funny. Or the old, festering resentment between Roberta and Alice could have been played for true tension and pathos. Instead, due to a lack of script, this story meanders and never really arrives at any true destination.

Although I’ve confirmed that there was no scripted dialogue, I can only assume that the actors were put into scenes and given the basic framework of their characters and the situation(s) involved. While very “real,” it often didn’t hold much interest and at times was even painful to watch the talent try to work their way into and out of scenes. The actors felt wasted, too, particularly Wiest. Meanwhile, I couldn’t decide if I was supposed to feel sorry for or dislike Bergen’s Roberta; maybe the point was that both feelings are simultaneously possible. Of all of them, she was the character with the most personality, even if it wasn’t an entirely likable one. Of course, she seemed to have the most to work with, too—Alice’s prize-winning novel caused Roberta’s marriage to fall apart and left her with nothing. Sadly, despite this prime plot point, the story line ends with a whimper. The whole movie does, really.

Bottom line is, I could have gone on a cruise, walked around eavesdropping on people, come up with some kind of story about them, and been more entertained that way than watching this version of, basically, exactly that. None of the characters were well defined. None of the story lines were clearly delineated. And still, I might have enjoyed it, except it just wasn’t very interesting to Let Them All Talk.

Thoughts on Loki (and Loki)

Once upon a time, there was a little “boy.” He had been adopted by a powerful family, the family of a king, in fact. This boy was meant to be a prince. But his greatest bond was with his adopted mother. He delighted in time spent with her, and in “feminine” things. (His mother was a great warrior in her own right, mind, but wiles are often seen as women’s weapons.) This boy was clever, and sometimes he liked to be a girl. But the expectations for him were that he was a prince, and that he would cause nothing but trouble.

Still, was his gender fluidity part of his hallmark chaos? Did it contribute? Or was that simply part of his being?

Loki, mythologically and now in modern pop culture, comes with a lot of baggage. Without knowing exactly what the Norse were getting at with Loki’s gender antics, we can’t say if they considered his feminine outings as part and parcel of his mischief, or if he was “just that way.” We have very definite ideas of Norsemen as burly and masculine; Loki is described as different from that. In fact, he is “other” in every way: adopted, actually from another world/dimension, and able to shapeshift. He’s ridiculed for spending time as a woman but doesn’t seem dissuaded by anyone’s bad opinions. If anything, he finds his big, dumb companions alternately amusing and irksome. They’re easy to fool and lack imagination.

I watched the series and… was disappointed. Because Loki should always be the smartest person in the room, really, and they absolutely dumbed him down. I can understand they wanted the character to be thrown off his stride by the new and bizarre circumstances of the TVA, but still, Loki is persuasive. He’s an accomplished liar. It should never have been written that he was so easily caught out and always on the back foot. It simply wasn’t true to character.

Really, what would have been more interesting and, I think, faithful to Loki as we know him, would have been to have Sylvie be the Loki brought in and “our” Loki be the one they were hunting. This simple swap would have made all the difference. And I can see that the Disney folk would want Hiddleston’s Loki centered, which is why they started with him as the one to be nabbed, but… It would have paid off more in the long run to have patience and bring him in later. I mean, imagine: the Loki we know skipping through time trying to stop his mother’s death and his own. Trying to stop the end of Asgard, even. Trying to hold his world and life together, thread by thread. We already know and have sympathy for him as a character; that work has been done by the films. It’s a perfectly logical jumping off point for the series.

Instead, we’re meant to feel sorry for Sylvie, a character we barely know except as another Loki. Abstractly, we can feel sorry for her; the TVA took her away and she basically hasn’t had a life, so to speak. But we don’t have the depth of feeling for her that we do for “our” Loki. If the roles had been swapped as I suggested, we could have slowly learned more about her, how she got grabbed by the TVA, maybe even raised by them in anticipation of needing to chase down another Loki in the future. She might’ve been their top agent, so to speak, and a true foil for the Loki we know. The dynamic would have been far more interesting. And our Loki would have retained all his cleverness and power rather than having been watered down for the sake of the plot.

Ah, but I started this essay by talking about gender. And I had mixed feelings about that, too. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love that there is a female Loki! But, well… I think Rowan Ellis’ video actually says it all. While the representation is nice, it’s not quite there? Is how I feel anyway. Like, why do we need to split the genders into two characters when gender fluidity is really about two-in-one? The fact that a male Loki suggests a female Loki would be “terrifying” is ridiculous. It should be more like, “Oh, yeah, I do that sometimes…”

So, you know, once upon a time, an adopted prince sometimes liked to be a princess. And he got ribbed for it, but the truth was, he was damn good at being both. Therein lay his power. And he knew that, and he embraced it. He used it to his advantage, which, deep down, was exactly what those around him were most afraid of. But [if I were writing the story] one day it would be that ability that would save not only him but them, so… eventually they’d come to appreciate it.

Books: Any Way the Wind Blows (Simon Snow #3) by Rainbow Rowell

I wrote a short review on Goodreads immediately after finishing this book. Then, a few hours later, I filmed a video review that rambles a bit. So here I’m going to attempt to organize my thoughts a little more coherently.

For context, let me begin by saying I adore Carry On and like Wayward Son. Though the second book was, I felt, a bit depressing in tone, it still had a fairly solid core plot. It meandered a little, but a road trip book can get away with that kind of thing.`

AWTWB doesn’t have such an excuse for its lack of tension or thin plot.

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

If you’ll recall, Wayward Son ended with a major cliffhanger. Trouble at Watford! Need to get back right now! It was framed with such intensity that one thought Watford might be under siege, or that the Coven had fractured and there had been a hostile takeover of some kind. Maybe the rest of the magickal world had banded against Mages because, honestly, Mages are asshats who think they’re superior to everyone else. In short, there were so many interesting possibilities.

And yet.

What we got at the opening of AWTWB was… flat. We don’t open with the group arriving at Watford, ready to tackle whatever problems have arisen. Instead, they’re all back in England and they’ve split up to take care of random personal issues. The “trouble at Watford,” in particular seems to have been that Baz’s Aunt Fiona broke into the Headmistress’ office and got locked in a Tower for it.

Anticlimactic much?

Meanwhile, Simon has gone home with Agatha, where he’s told he has money because the Mage left him everything. And Penny drags Shepherd home with her in hopes her mom can help him with his curse.

It’s seriously underwhelming.

Then Simon moves out of his apartment with Penny and tries to break up with Baz, but that lasts all of 20 pages. Most of the rest of the book is Simon and Baz dealing with Simon’s sexual dysfunction/intimacy issues. (Seriously, wtf is up with Simon wanting to bite Baz? Like, I half expected we’d discover he really was part dragon after all or something.) But again, there’s no real tension, no real fear they might break up. Just a lot of confusing description of them trying to get it on. It was a case of a lot less would have gone a lot farther, if that makes sense?

Penny and Shepherd end up having their own side story regarding his curse. Basically, these two don’t meet back up with Simon and Baz until the end of the book, so for those who love the group dynamic, you won’t find it here.

And Agatha ends up conscripted into helping at her dad’s medical office. While there she semi-befriends a veterinary student named Niamh. For once, Agatha has, I think, the most interesting story/relationship in the book, but we don’t get very much of it. Maybe it was most interesting because it met the “little goes a long way” criteria. Dunno.

There is ostensibly a central plot in which Simon and Baz are trying to figure out a cult that has formed around the new Chosen One (a Mage named Smith Smith-Richards). Baz’s stepmother has left home to follow this guy, and so has Jamie Salisbury. Baz and Simon are trying to locate Jamie for his mother Lady Ruth Salisbury. Lady Salisbury is also Lucy’s mother, which makes her Simon’s grandmother, but that is treated as a throwaway discovery that’s squandered at the end of the book by being rushed and mostly unexplored. In fact, the whole cult thing feels incidental rather than central considering we spend more time with Simon and Baz in bed and shopping at Ikea than we do dealing with Smith.

Oh, and Fiona was only breaking into Watford to look for her late sister’s ring. She wants to use it in her marriage to Nicodemus.

What we get in AWTWB: goats, including delivery of baby goats; a lot of dealing with Simon’s wings and tail (especially the wings and fitting shirts and coats over them); pseudo-sex between Simon and Baz; Penny’s knees; eye rolling (SO MUCH eye rolling); contract negotiations with demons; sandwiches; cake.

What’s missing from AWTWB: tension/urgency; a solid core plot; character development (except a bit with Agatha); clear understanding of Simon’s issues and why he’s behaving the way he is (like, he talks about it some, but it still doesn’t make sense?); any consequences from the previous book.

No one reprimands these kids for disappearing to America or breaking magickal law. There’s only a passing mention of NowNext and the Vegas vampires, with the gist being, “Not our problem.” There’s just no flow from the last book to this one. And this book has no internal flow either. I never had that desire to pick it up and read it. You know how it is with a great book; you don’t want to put it down, and when you have to, you can’t wait to grab it again. That didn’t happen here. I only got through it as quickly as I did because my daughter was pestering me to finish so she could read it. It got to the point that I just wanted to get through it.

Is this really the last book in the series? There is a lot left open, but based on the trajectory of quality, maybe it’s best to be done. Too bad the end failed to live up to the beginning. (IMHO, of course.)

Kindle Vella Stories!

I have two series premiering on Kindle Vella, and I hope you’ll go take a look at them.

Summer in Avalon is a blend of, say, The Great Gatsby, The Secret History, and Merlin.

Hamlette is my contemporary version of Shakespeare’s classic. Basically, I’m giving it the Clueless treatment. It’s meant to be silly rather than serious.

Kindle Vella is a new platform for serialized stories. The first three “episodes” of every series are free, and then you purchase subsequent episodes (chapters) with tokens. My understanding is that it’s similar to Radish and Wattpad, though my familiarity with those sites is limited.

At the very least, I hope you’ll check out my free episodes, and if you decide to continue reading, I’ll be flattered and grateful! And please spread the word!

FanFic Ask Game

I found this online and thought it would be fun to answer some fan fiction questions. I’ve chosen A Game of Hearts, which is kind of cheating since it’s actually a collection of seven stories, but I also think it’s my best-known and most ambitious fic. It’s the one people are most likely to ask about, I think? Anyway, buckle up because this may take a while.

How did you come up with the title to A Game of Hearts?

I don’t know off the top of my head. I think I came up with the series title after writing the first couple stories, and it had to do with that line Jim says in “The Great Game” about “burning the heart out of” Sherlock. Since the first story establishes John as Sherlock’s “heart”… I guess it went from there.

Any of your stories inspired by personal experience?

I’d say that some of my stories, or the themes explored in them, work as therapy for me in dealing with a few personal experiences.

What character do you identify with most?

Sherlock, hands down.

Is there a song or playlist to associate with A Game of Hearts?

At the time it was written (c. 2010 or ’11), I listened to a lot of Maroon 5, The Script, and Gin Blossoms (especially the No Chocolate Cake album), and a bit of Neon Trees and Lifehouse. Yes, go ahead and judge my music preferences, but music is massively inspirational for me.

If you wrote a sequel to A Game of Hearts, what would it be about?

I actually started but never finished a sequel titled “The Hanged Man.” It was about Sherlock and John having to look after Mycroft’s illegitimate daughter while trying to find out who had tried to kill Mycroft (and might also be trying to kill them).

Do you write your story from start to finish, or do you write the scenes out of order?

I write linearly, all my scenes in order.

How would you describe your style?

I’m not sure I have a distinctive style? I think you’d have to ask someone objective about it. I do use a lot of metaphors, though, I think. Is metaphorical a style?

Do you have a guilty pleasure in fic (reading or writing)?

I used to feel guilty and shy about writing it. Well, actually, at first I didn’t know enough to feel ashamed. Then I did. And now I’ve come out the other side and no longer feel bad about it.

Write or describe an alternative ending to A Game of Hearts.

Uh… I can’t imagine it ending any differently than it did, honestly. It felt like a natural conclusion. That might be why I never finished the sequel story.

How many times do you usually revise your fic/chapter before posting?

Probably not as much as I should. I write it in Word, go over it once there, then cut and paste it to the online site and go over it one more time before publishing.

Got any premises on the back burner that you’d care to share?

Well, I’ve already explained about “The Hanged Man.” I don’t have any plans for more Sherlock fic. I do need to finish this Simon/Baz fic, but the next book is about to come out, and that will make my story obsolete, so I don’t see the point now.

Is there a fic you wish someone else would write (or finish) for you?

See above. Though, really, I’d probably get anxious over how this other writer finished the stories.

How do you begin a story—with the plot, or the characters?

Usually a scene. And then I spin the story out from that. So, in A Game of Hearts, it was that first scene of Sherlock looking at his phone and realizing John had been kidnapped. In one of my favorite fics that I’ve written, “Setting Love Free,” it was the scene of Methos asleep in the chair at Duncan’s flat.

Are you what GRRM would call an “architect” or a “gardener”? (How much do you plan in advance versus letting the story unfold as you go?)

I do very little planning. I generally have an idea of the endpoint, but getting there is always an adventure. I still marvel at how much A Game of Hearts ties together given that most of it was not planned ahead of time. It was more like I realized that something I planted two stories before could suddenly be used. Like my subconscious was planning even though I wasn’t consciously doing that at all.

How do you feel about collaborations?

I’ve tried on a couple occasions to collaborate. This was decades ago. It never worked out, but I wouldn’t say it couldn’t, with the right person. I’d still love to find an artist to collaborate with on manga ideas.

Are there any writers (fanfic or otherwise) you consider an influence?

Well, when writing fic based on television, I’d have to say the television writers, I suppose. I pick up the characters and their speech patterns and mannerisms from them. Same for book-based fics; I’m influenced by the authors who created the characters. I strive to stay true to that tone.

Any fandom tropes you can’t resist?

Probably? Nothing immediately leaps to mind. I guess yearning. Is that a trope? I like angst. I like when a character is uncertain. I like playing with dynamics between characters. Those aren’t tropes, maybe, but that’s the stuff I dig into.

Any fandom tropes you can’t stand?

As far as fic goes, my only real peeve is when characters don’t act or speak like themselves. If I’m reading a fic and thinking, “So-and-So would never do that, they’d never say that,” then I can’t keep reading. No matter how much the writer has tried to give an excuse for the character to behave a certain way, the characters still need to be true to themselves as created. I guess that might be why I don’t read AU fics that often. I feel like the characters get blurred once they’re removed from their home environments.

A character you enjoy making suffer.

All of them.

A character you want to protect.

John Watson is probably the one I most try to protect. I don’t always do a very good job of it, though.

Major character death: do you ever write/read it? Is there a character whose death you can’t tolerate?

I’ve definitely come close a few times, though I can’t think of an instance where I wrote a major character’s death and they stayed dead… I’m not against it in theory. I feel like there need to be stakes, and sometimes that results in someone dying. But is there a character whose death I couldn’t tolerate? Methos, maybe. He’s the genesis of my nickname, after all, so I feel specially tied to him.

Falcon and Winter Soldier Improv

We did a family improv night and one of the prompts was: Sam, Bucky and Zemo waiting in line for a roller coaster. The kids are still getting the hang of improv, so they weren’t able to take the scene very far. I, on the other hand, may have gone beyond… I ended up sending my daughter a series of texts that I’ve reproduced here.

ZEMO: James, will you please hold my hand? This roller coaster looks frightening.

BUCKY: No.

SAM: I’m gonna just fly over it…

BUCKY: How is that fun?

ZEMO: How is riding it fun?

BUCKY: It won’t be, with you. Let go of my hand.

ZEMO: It’s better if I hold the other one?

BUCKY: Sure, if you want me to crush your hand.

SAM: I’m out.

BUCKY: Don’t leave me with him!

SAM: I’m gonna get a sno-cone

ZEMO: I would like cherry.

BUCKY: No one asked you.

ZEMO looks pained.

SAM: It’s fine, what flavor do you want?

BUCKY: …Grape.

SAM: Be right back.

***minutes later***

SAM returns.

BUCKY: What flavor is that?

SAM: Bubble gum. You want a bite?

BUCKY: Yeah.

ZEMO: Try my cherry.

BUCKY: I’m not going to try your cherry.

SAM: Be nice, man, it’s his first amusement park.

ZEMO: See, James? You should hold my hand.

BUCKY: What, like you’re five?

SAM: You’re both acting like children.

BUCKY: Says the man too afraid to ride the roller coaster.

SAM: I just got you a sno-cone.

ZEMO: Show him some respect, James.

BUCKY: I’m about to show you some respect with my fist. Which is the only way you’re going to feel my hand.

ZEMO: Can I at least taste your grape?

BUCKY and SAM: No!

***later***

BUCKY: You really did just fly over the track.

SAM: There wasn’t enough room for three across and I didn’t want to sit alone.

BUCKY: They’d put someone next to you.

SAM: How is that better?

ZEMO: What is “funnel cake”?

SAM: We’re going to eat our way through this entire park…

***later***

ZEMO: But no Turkish delight…

SAM: That’s not a regular thing most places.

ZEMO: How unfortunate. (beat) This salt-water taffy is almost as good.

BUCKY: Here, have a few more. No, more than that—

SAM: Wh-why are you force feeding him taffy, now?

BUCKY: I’m hoping it’ll glue his jaws shut.

New Release!

Available for pre-order now, out on June 1!

This ebook contains three previously uncollected short stories and five heretofore unpublished plays. The stories “Aptera” and “Origami of the Heart” are available elsewhere online, but “The Zodiac Clock” has been out of print for a while now and is reintroduced in this compilation. (Fans of Peter Stoller should like that one.) The plays include “Warm Bodies,” which has been produced twice on stage and was eventually turned into the short film Adverse Possession, and “20 August,” which likewise was reimagined in screenplay format and did well in screenwriting competitions. The contents are rounded out by three other, unknown, plays: “The Strange Art of Longing,” “Willie,” (based on the nursery rhyme) and “Three Nights” (a salute to Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn’s screwball comedies).

A Note Regarding the Title

When my daughter was ~6 years old, I told her to clean her room. She took it upon herself to find a box for wayward items and labeled it thusly. For some reason, this touched me, and I was moved to take a photo. Now the label feels like the perfect title for an oddball collection of writings.

A Blockbuster Memory

Tonight we watched The Last Blockbuster. It was… cute. Nostalgic. It didn’t remind me of my childhood because we always rented movies from the grocery store; our Kroger had its own rental counter, and that was way easier than going to some other location. So I didn’t do Blockbuster until I was away at uni. And even then, I didn’t have my own card; I wouldn’t get one until grad school.

But I had friends with Blockbuster cards, and there is a very distinct memory attached to this. It was Good Friday, and my two friends Natosha and Abby and I decided we would go rent a movie. But what we ended up doing is renting several movies. Horror movies.

Not gore, mind you. I don’t do gore. More like psychological. We started with The Uninvited (1944). Moved on to The House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Shining (1980), and finally some 1980s or 90s cable movie that I can’t even remember. I do definitely recall that we watched them in chronological order, though. We had tried to get one from each decade, more or less, though as you can see, it wasn’t exact. Made for a long night, but a memorable one. We got Taco Cabana via drive thru. I miss Taco Cabana. I know they still exist, but not where I live, so they might as well be as defunct as Blockbuster as far as my circumstances go.

I just looked it up and there is a Taco Cabana in ALASKA but none in California. Like… I can’t even.

Anyway, as for The Last Blockbuster, it was okay. Not entirely cohesive? It spoke to some previous franchise owners, and it spoke to some famous people who have good memories of Blockbuster (some having worked at Blockbuster in their teens), and it focused in large part on, well, the last extant Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon. On its manager and its place in the community there. It kind of made me want to go take a look. I wonder, if I did, whether I’d feel awash with that nostalgia. This movie didn’t quite bring me to full sentimentality, but it was still a nice piece of fluff.

Books: We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra

I didn’t like it, then I did, then I didn’t again.

The set-up: high school sophomore Jonathan Hopkirk (“Jo,” age 15 at the start of the book but 16 by the end of it) and repeat senior Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky (18) are assigned by their English Lit teacher to write letters to one another. Jo idolizes Walt Whitman, dresses in vintage clothing, plays the mandolin, and is the target of bullies. He’s out, but not particularly proud, just doesn’t see any point in hiding it. Kurl is a beefy football star from a Polish family that doesn’t consider academics all that important. Girls swoon for him, but he’s not interested. And of course they fall in love.

That’s no spoiler, and I won’t detail the secondary family dramas that might be considered spoilers. This is a NO SPOILER review.

For the first 20ish pages, I wasn’t digging it. I didn’t like either character. Maybe that’s on purpose. Maybe Henstra was demonstrating that each boy was sort of putting on a front or persona in their early letters to one another. That’s reasonable; they’d be likely to do that, given they’ve been tasked with writing to more or less a complete stranger. (Side note: I never had an English Lit teacher that taught both 10th and 12th grade? And none of the teachers at my kids’ high school do either. I had the same English Lit teacher for both 11th and 12th grade, but that’s because he was the AP teacher, so… I dunno. I didn’t completely buy the idea that this teacher taught both 10th and 12th grade Lit.)

Thing is, Jo is presented from the start as someone who is “open.” But maybe the truth was that the “openness” was just part of the persona all along? Or I’m trying to make this book deep when it ain’t.

I’m no big fan of Walt Whitman myself. I love the Romantics and have a healthy respect for the Transcendentalists (which got me ribbed in high school in my own right, but also meant the teacher selected me to be Thoreau in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, so pffft). Somehow, though, Walt just turns me off. I dunno. And there’s a lot of him in this book, which is pretty gimmicky, but I tolerated it. And there’s plenty else going on, too.

By which I mean sex. And that made me a bit… I don’t want to say uncomfortable because that makes me sound prudish, and I’m not. It was more that Jo is 15? And Kurl is 18. And that doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but it feels like a lot? My oldest is 15, and if he started dating an 18yo (girl or guy), I’d be like: what does an 18yo want with a 15yo? You know? A lot happens between those ages.

I think maybe we’re supposed to believe Jo is mature for his age and Kurl is a bit stunted in some ways. But it’s still weird.

There are some mechanical issues with the book as well. It’s epistolary, of course, but in order to tell the story, Jo and Kurl must write to each other everything that has happened—even when they were both present for any given event. Henstra hangs a lampshade on it by having them say in their letters that, yeah, it’s weird that they feel the need to write it all out, but that admission doesn’t quite excuse the clunkiness of the device. “And you said abc,” one of them will write, “and then I told you xyz.” Yeah, he knows, he was there? Like, I dunno, it just didn’t quite work for me. I think if things were phrased more as, “Remember when you said abc? I know I said xyz, but here’s what I was thinking/feeling…” And there is a bit of that, but too often the letters just rehash events for the benefit of the reader rather than feel authentic and natural.

Also: voice. By the end of the book I could kind of hear the distinction between Jo and Kurl, but it still wasn’t strong enough for my liking. That’s a subjective, nitpicky thing, I know. But I sometimes had to go back to the salutation of the letter to remind myself who was writing, and that tells me that there wasn’t as strong a difference between the characters as there maybe should have been.

In the end I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads (though I mentioned it was maybe a 3.5). I didn’t like the characters at first, then the book got kind of sweet, and then it fell off into pure teen soap melodrama and began to drag. The ending didn’t really do anything for me, either. I saw it going one way, and that felt like the natural progression, but then it U-turned and… Meh. There were some great moments, though, and I think parts of this book will stay with me for sure. So it’s not a total dud.