I’m doing a joint book review because at the end of the day, both of these are YA coming-of age (and coming out) novels, which have nothing in common besides that, but have both left me feeling all warm and cosy inside.
“Three years ago, Tanner Scott’s family relocated from California to Utah, a move that nudged the bisexual teen temporarily back into the closet. Now, with one semester of high school to go, and no obstacles between him and out-of-state college freedom, Tanner plans to coast through his remaining classes and clear out of Utah.
But when his best friend Autumn dares him to take Provo High’s prestigious Seminar—where honor roll students diligently toil to draft a book in a semester—Tanner can’t resist going against his better judgment and having a go, if only to prove to Autumn how silly the whole thing is. Writing a book in four months sounds simple. Four months is an eternity.
It turns out, Tanner is only partly right: four months is a long time. After all, it takes only one second for him to notice Sebastian Brother, the Mormon prodigy who sold his own Seminar novel the year before and who now mentors the class. And it takes less than a month for Tanner to fall completely in love with him.”
This book managed to do something a lot of its peers (contemporary coming out novels) didn’t, which was telling me a story about LGBT youth, that I, as a gay person, saw a lot of my own thoughts and feelings in. I’m pretty sure that as a teenager I actually said a lot of the same things Tanner did, and shared, and still do, many of his feelings towards religion. It’s so hard to capture that, and a lot of straight people never quite get it, the instinctive flinch that goes through any gay person when someone says they’re religious. To this day my first thought is, “how to end this social interaction as fast as possible and get out of here” when that happens. I’m lucky to have been raised by pretty agnostic parents, in a house completely devoid of religion. You’d think that would make me a lot less prone to experience extreme dread at the mention of any and all religions, but the only thing it did was show me that religion provides the people who hate me and my brothers and sisters convenient and socially acceptable arguments to keep hating us.
I think there are no people braver than LGBT people who voluntarily associate with organised religion, their sheer mental and emotional fortitude is astounding. That will never be me, however. Some wounds never heal. For this wound to have any hope of closing all the religions of the world would need to acknowledge the harm they’ve done to the LGBT community, and that’s something I never see happening. So I’ll keep my safety distance.
Sebastian, is one of those innocent people deeply harmed by religion. He was raised Mormon, and it’s honestly heartbreaking to read about his beliefs, because they are so sincere and beautiful, but as the story progresses we learn the love his religion professes is completely conditional — and so does Sebastian, eventually. More harrowing, is learning that his family’s love is just as conditional. That if he can’t be a perfect Mormon man he can’t be their son either. Coincidentally, that’s where some of my only criticism of this book shows up. I think the author fumbled the ending. Mild spoilers ahead: We know things aren’t completely resolved between Sebastian and his family, but not to what degree. We learn that he is no longer participating in one aspect of the Mormon religion, but we don’t know if he still considers himself Mormon, if he has found a way to be both gay and Mormon. I would have liked to see both these issues addressed clearly, but I can also see plenty of people being more forgiving of this open-ended aspect, considering the relationship side of things got a clear resolution.
Speaking of the relationship — I loved it. In so many YA books I love both characters, but I’m completely uninvested in the relationship, or the book completely fails to make the relationship interesting (see: Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda — Am I supposed to care about Simon’s relationship with a guy whose identity I don’t even know? A relationship that only exists through e-mails???). Not here, the dynamic between Tanner and Sebastian was gripping from their first interaction, and the stakes were very real from the beginning. There were a lot of factors working against them, and it all worked very well to build tension, without ever falling into the cloying clutches of melodrama. The way Tanner’s very tolerant family was against him having a relationship with a Mormon boy, for his own protection, was very interesting, but also very believable. It’s common knowledge that extremely religious parents only want their children to interact with other equally religious kids, but it’s often ignored that non-religious parents aren’t that keen on their kids drinking any sort of religious kool-aid either. I know my mother wasn’t. It’s an interesting discussion, and while not overt the book makes the subtle argument that both sides are wrong.
All I can say is that I loved this book, some passages made me truly emotional, it’s a story that I’ll probably remember for a long time, and one of those books I desperately wish I had when I was younger. I appreciate the message that sexual orientation is a part of the self and a building block of identity in a way that can’t be removed and put in a box. And the very sound argument that if a god exists their ability to love probably transcends the man-made social limitations of religion.
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Summer of Salt
Georgina Fernweh waits with growing impatience for the tingle of magic in her fingers—magic that has been passed down through every woman in her family. Her twin sister, Mary, already shows an ability to defy gravity. But with their eighteenth birthday looming at the end of this summer, Georgina fears her gift will never come.
An island where strange things happen . . .
No one on the island of By-the-Sea would ever call the Fernwehs what they really are, but if you need the odd bit of help—say, a sleeping aid concocted by moonlight—they are the ones to ask.
No one questions the weather, as moody and erratic as a summer storm.
No one questions the (allegedly) three-hundred-year-old bird who comes to roost on the island every year.
A summer that will become legend . . .
When tragedy strikes, what made the Fernweh women special suddenly casts them in suspicion. Over the course of her last summer on the island—a summer of storms, of love, of salt—Georgina will learn the truth about magic, in all its many forms.
Speaking of books that made me emotional. I swear if I hadn’t read these two weeks apart I’d think I was just going through a sensitive phase or something, because they both left me feeling tender in some long forgotten place. Which I suspect is the part of me that didn’t have any of these books when I was in middle school or high school and instead had to read adult books (often tragic) to get any sort of LGBT rep. Unlike Autoboyography, Summer of Salt isn’t a straight up romance. It’s a magical realism novel about family, friendship and a girl’s relationship to the whimsical island she grew up in, and that she loves, and how that can be suffocating.
The atmosphere of this book is delightful, I wish By-the-Sea was a real place I could visit, because I could almost smell it, it was so vivid, and not because things were overly described, but because Leno is so good at evoking the mood and feeling of the setting. The weather played a big part in the book, and you could feel the way it affected the characters, which was not only apt considering the plot, but helped bring By-the-Sea to life without having to name every rock. I also liked how many of the characters were characterised by the spaces they inhabited, either by seamlessly fitting in or by standing out. The feeling of whimsy and wonder was sustained through pretty much the first half of the book, at which point things slowly start to unravel. And quaint, beautiful By-the-Sea starts fraying at the edges.
I really enjoyed how the island reflected the mental state of the characters. This is a small, close-knit community where everybody knows each other, and while that can be comforting — Georgina is an out lesbian and no one on her little island bats an eyelash — it can become claustrophobic, as soon as the people who’ve known you all your life turn their back on you. This book did a really good job of making this island the kind of place you’d love to visit but would think twice about moving to. It’s so outwardly charming and picturesque, but places like that can be eerie in a way that is hard to describe, Leno managed it. It isn’t that By-the-Sea hides some awful corruption, or inhabitants that are all twisted an evil, it’s a place like many others, where people judge their neighbours too harshly, but at the end of the day they are reasonable people who actively want justice to prevail. It’s just that this sort of picture-perfect, just odd enough to be exciting, type of place can lure you in and never let go. And there’s a whole lot of world out there, especially for an 18-year-old girl.
The family dynamics in this book were phenomenal. Georgina’s relationship with her sister was beautiful and heartwarming, her devotion and unwavering belief in Mary’s innocence was wonderful, and her determination to save and avenge her brought some of the most intense and heartfelt moments in the whole novel. Their mother could at times feel a little distanced from their daughter’s lives, especially considering what happens to Mary in the second half of the book — but this is somewhat mitigated by the magical realism aspect of the story.
I was deeply invested in the romance for the first half of the book, at which point it gets put in the back burner and then develops a lot faster than what I would have liked. That’s why I say this book is not a romance, a romance exists, and it’s adorable, but by no means the linchpin of the book. I still loved to see Georgina’s and this girl’s relationship develop, and how Gerogina’s awkwardness and often clumsy interpretation of social cues only made her more endearing. It was sweet, I would have liked it to be explored more, but the book is ultimately about the relationship between the sisters and the island where they live, and I appreciated that aspect a lot too.
The awful thing that happens to Mary is predictable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a mystery to the reader, only to Georgina, and the people of her little island who would never consider for a moment something like that could happen in their little community.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself, there are some slight plot-contrivances, and one character’s constant tiredness that is never explained properly, as well as a few other instances where conflict isn’t totally resolved, but overall those didn’t detract from my enjoyment. This is a book about the strength of the bonds between siblings, between friends, and the ways tragedy doesn’t break us. Maybe things got resolved (in the legal front, at least) a little too cleanly, but I won’t fault a book for imagining a reality better than our own.
Author: Katrina Leno
Publisher: Harper Teen