1) his parents' recent divorce
2) his father's coming out as gay
3) his body image
4) his sexual feelings
5) his confused emotions about at least 2 girls
6) the way that his parents suddenly seem like different people
7) the way that his parents have lives that don't necessarily have him at the center
8) general weirdness
Like Judy Blume, that trailblazer of realism in children's and YA literature, author Todd Hasak-Lawy speaks candidly about the body and adolescent sexual awareness. Darren might be awkward and self-conscious and mute, more often than not, but the voice of the narrative is self-assured. Darren's anger, confusion, contrariness and monosyllabic tendencies seem entirely appropriate for his age, gender and situation in life.
There seems to be a trend in realistic YA fiction for strong language (which was not so present in Blume's writing), sexuality and references to drugs and alcohol. It may not be what parents want their children to read (ie, a sanitized version of of adolescent life), but it probably rings truer for the life that most adolescents are experiencing. Also: Is just me, or does it seem like LGBT themes and characters and storylines are really pervasive at the moment? Fun Home just won 5 Tony awards, Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the last three realistic YA novels I have read all feature a gay character -- and not even as the protagonist or the main theme, but in a studiously casual way . . . as if to say, "this is just our new normal". Darren is not completely comfortable with his father being gay, but it's not really the homosexuality per se as much as the fact that his life is changing too quickly. It's just one of many things that Darren is dealing with, and the storyline deals with it in straightforward, sensitive way. Like most adolescents, (if not all), Darren is much more interested in his own sexual experiences than his father's.
It's difficult to stand out in a crowded YA field, but this book will be remembered as "the list" book -- and maybe for its catchy title (which suits a story in which there is father-son therapy and a love interest in rehab). The narrative is told through a series of lists -- some of them brief, and some of them so lengthy that they threaten to stretch the concept to its breaking-point. It is an arguably gimmicky way of telling a story, but it mostly works. Much of the humour of the book takes place between the title of the lists and their contents. It also is an efficient way of breaking up the text, which is always a plus for reluctant readers, male readers, impatient readers and readers who read a lot for their work (me). Unfortunately, and this would be my main criticism of the book, the overall length of this book starts making even an indulgent and (mostly) entertained reader feel: enough already. Didn't YA books used to be between 180-200 pages on average? Just because J.K. Rowling wrote door-stoppers that sold millions doesn't mean that every YA author needs to deliver such a high word-count. This story would have greatly benefited from being more tightly edited. It just goes on a bit too long, even though its separate parts are both entertaining and worthwhile.
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