Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole

“I shouldn’t have come to a gay beach.  That was wacko of me.  Here I am, terrified of people thinking I’m a tortillera. I was thrown out my school and my house for loving a girl, and what do I do?  I come to a gay beach for the first time in my life.  I’m just the most brilliant kid on the block.”

Do you know how I know when to put a book on the All Time Awesome-est List?  It’s when I’m seriously let down when the book is finished, when I feel like there’s no way the next book will compare to it.  Well, here it is, friends: meet the new addition to the List: Mayra Lazara Dole’s Down to the Bone.

On the last day of eleventh grade, Laura gets caught reading a love letter in class at her Catholic school.  Worse still, the letter is from a girl, her secret girlfriend of two years.  The nuns drag her to the office, call her mom, and in the same day, she gets kicked out of both her school and her house.  Worst of all, her girlfriend gets shipped off to marry a guy! So that’s no school, no home, and no love…you’d think it would be the end of the world, but Laura works it out, with the help of a colorful (and still authentic) cast of characters

This book sparkles with enthusiasm.  Laura is sassy, funny, and passionately devoted to her friends and little brother.  (She even sneaks in to see him at his school when her mother refuses to let her visit).  During the course of the story, she has to make some difficult choices: coming out, when it might mean that her mom could never speak to her again, or just trying (like her ex-girlfriend, Marlena) to find a guy and live the straight life, because it’s too scary to lose everything.  However, even though she’s really struggling with her identity and feelings, the book doesn’t ever bog down into the “This is Just a Coming-Out Book” pit.  It’s fresh-and that’s mostly thanks to Laura’s hilarious commentary (Dole is a master with dialogue!)  and the great supporting characters.

I love it!  I love it because it features a Cuban lesbian as main character.  The food, the Miami beach culture, the Cuban influences, and the slang all make this book delicious and fun.  But I love it even more because it’s a very honest portrayal of the coming-out process.  For example, Laura tries hard to date a boy, but she ends up just feeling like she can’t get close to him emotionally, even though she doesn’t dislike kissing him.  The story lets you get close to Laura in that way, by following her thoughts, and she’s so positive and funny that you just fall in love with her!  I also like that Dole lets the readers get a little nervous:  I know that when Laura is waffling about coming out to her mom (I won’t ruin it for you, though), I was rushing through the book, because I was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do the Brave Thing.

This is an ALA Rainbow List  (a great list of GLBTQ books for young people) Starred selection, and was also nominated for the ALA Best Books list, as well as the winner of the Americas award, for its portrayal of Latinas in the United States.  Good stuff!

Happy reading!

Author’s website: http://mayraldole.wordpress.com/  (She has a blog on Goodreads, too)

What’s even better is that she has a new book coming out next year! Wooohooo!

Dole, Mayra Lazara. Down to the Bone. New York: HarperTeen, 2008. 351 pp.

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Impulse by Ellen Hopkins

“Pray

you could somehow stop

the uncertainty, somehow

stop the loathing,

somehow stop the pain.

Act

on your impulse

swallow the bottle,

cut a little deeper,

put the gun to your chest.”

Before you panic about that quote, I’ll explain:  it’s a description of past events, even though in the excerpt I realized it can come off as an order.  Don’t worry! It’s not as bad as you think.

Well, it’s pretty bad.  The novel takes place in Aspen Springs, a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents.  Vanessa, Connor, and Tony have all attempted suicide, and meet in the ward.  Vanessa has bipolar disorder, like her mother, and cuts herself when she cannot cope with her emotions.  Connor, even though he looks like the perfect, all-American star student, feels isolated in his own family, as though he were an object instead of a son.  And Tony has spiraled into the depths of despair after his mentor dies of AIDS.   In the hospital, the three begin the lengthy process of sorting through years of pain and fear, searching for the combination of medication and therapy that will help them emerge into the sunlight again.

The three main characters take turns relating their own experiences in the novel: the speaker is identified at the beginning of each chapter, or whenever the speaker changes.  Since the characters are all so fragile and desperately unhappy, it is (like Hopkins’ other works) a raw, harrowing novel.  I had to take frequent breaks when reading it.  The voices are so gripping that you feel them reach out of the book and suck you in.  I actually found it to be so intense as to be overwhelming.

That said, this is Ellen Hopkins.  That’s her style: she wields her words like a surgeon’s knife, slicing away at any extraneous padding in a story.  There’s no sugar-coating here, that’s for sure.  It’s an undeniably grueling read, but even as I was sickened and horrified about the experiences, feelings, and memories of the characters, there was a part of me that was able to stand back from the story and recognize the skill of the writer.

The three-voice-narrative was especially genius, I think.  Because of the emotionally intense, introspective nature of a person going through a life-threatening emotional crisis, a single narrator could telescope the story in on itself, and make the entire novel too centered around tortured ruminations of the sad mind.  But with three different characters telling the story, Hopkins anchors the story, and keeps it from being an unbroken personal manifesto of misery.

Oh, what can I say here?  The topics are rough: sexual abuse, drugs, self-injury, abortion, and suicide, all described in graphic, but poetic language.  However, Hopkins takes this dark side of the self and humanizes it, makes it understandable.  She also refuses to tie up the story with a neat “happily ever after” bow, too, which is something I really appreciate.  One gets the feeling that, to Hopkins, her audience is street-smart enough not to swallow a syrupy ending.  There’s this underlying feeling of respect for her readers: she speaks to them as though they were adults.  I think this one is definitely worth a read.  (And the ALA thinks so, too: this book is an ALA Best Book winner!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenhopkins.com/

Hopkins, Ellen. Impulse.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007. 666 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  And while your 16-year-old is reading it, stick around for the tough questions that may come up.