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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Review: How Beautiful the Ordinary

This collection of YA LGBT short stories made a great read for Portrait of a Woman's LGBT YA week. Do go over and take a look. There are several reviews on her blog, or linked from it, and also a great post on queer characters in YA by the fabulous author of Hollow Pike, James Dawson.

Editor: Michael Cart
Title: How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity
Genre: varied
Series: no
Publisher: HarperTeen
Published: 2009
Source: purchased on my kindle

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

Goodreads description:
A girl thought to be a boy steals her sister's skirt, while a boy thought to be a girl refuses to wear a cornflower blue dress. One boy's love of a soldier leads to the death of a stranger. The present takes a bittersweet journey into the past when a man revisits the summer school where he had "an accidental romance." And a forgotten mother writes a poignant letter to the teenage daughter she hasn't seen for fourteen years.

Poised between the past and the future are the stories of now. In nontraditional narratives, short stories, and brief graphics, tales of anticipation and regret, eagerness and confusion present distinctively modern views of love, sexuality, and gender identification. Together, they reflect the vibrant possibilities available for young people learning to love others—and themselves—in today's multifaceted and quickly changing world

My verdict: Highly varied in theme, form and content. All worth a read.
I enjoyed the variety within this collection, unified nonetheless by the theme of gendered and sexual identity. The anthology includes stories of love, loss and betrayal, as well as specifically LGBT experience. Few are traditional short stories; there are two comic book stories, one novella and several use unusual voice or experiment with narration in some way. The stories are a mixture of realism and fantasy, and cover different time periods as well as a wide range of LGBT experience: male/male and female/female love and desire and the less often represented trans experience - both female-to-male and male-to-female.

I particularly enjoyed Francesca Lia Block's "My Virtual World". An updated epistolary story, this is mostly told in the form of emails and presents a blossoming friendship between two emotionally raw teens. Another favourite for me was Margo Lanagan's retelling of The Highwayman, "A Dark Red Love Knot", with its themes of jealousy and betrayal. I hadn't read any Lanagan before, but I have now moved her up my wishlist :). I also enjoyed the gentle narration and effective metaphor of Jennifer Finney Boylan's "The Missing Person". My final top choice is Julie Ann Peters' "First Time", which is a touching tale of a lesbian couple's first sexual encounter. This story rendered slightly incorrectly on the kindle (I think) as I didn't realise how it worked to start with and had to go back and read over once I'd sussed out that there were two narrators telling the same story from their independent perspectives. The paragraphs alternated on screen, but there was no visual indication to cue the change. Possibly the print version uses a different font or some other indication? Anyway, I realised pretty quickly and was then able to enjoy the tenderness of the tale.

There were no stories I actively disliked (fairly unusually for a mixed anthology like this), and the variety of material is a strong point in favour of this collection. If there is something you don't like, you can guarantee there'll be something else that you will. Most are pretty short, with the exception of Gregory Maguire's "The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck, N.H." which takes up about a third of the entire book and is therefore quite a different reading experience, having more room to develop characters and take its time. Both this story (the last in the collection) and the first - David Levithan's "A Word From the Nearly Distant Past" - feature narrative voices who are considerably older than the teen target audience and speak from a more experienced and informed perspective. Both still focus on teen experience, however, keeping the overall YA appeal. Any teen, LGBTQ or not, will find something that feels familiar here, in terms of the uneasy course of young love or the uncertain nature of adolescent identity.

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