I like romance and boys loving boys in my books.
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This was my 2nd foray into the writings of Nikki Godwin, and where the first one was all about finding the courage to be yourself, this book was, while darker and morbid overall, about finding yourself and embracing being different. It's about learning to deal with loss in a way that may not make sense to others, but works for you.
Jude Calvert, teenager, is attending a support group for LGBTQ teens, after his first boyfriend (Drew) was yanked away by Drew's religious parents and sent to a conversion camp. The shame of that experience has broken Jude, and he copes by collecting stained glass pieces in all the colors of the rainbow.
He's a vegetarian, gay, and the son of the town's zoo's veterinarian. Through his father, Jude is close to some of the animals at the zoo, and still mourning the loss of Lucy, a gorilla.
Jude meets Max in the group, admires the eye-candy, and then sees him again after dark, when Jude is stealing broken glass from an old church window that has been shattered. While crouching in the shadows, he observes Max hauling a dead giraffe into a warehouse, with a group of other young men.
The story immediately takes on a dark undertone, with stolen dead animals, taxidermy, and a drug dealer, who has his own story to tell. It isn't immediately clear to the reader what's going on, but as Jude is parts terrified and parts intrigued by what he observed, we begin to see the story unfold as he accepts a date with Max and meets Max's friends.
Jude is not a perfect character, and neither is Max. Jude is also a rather unreliable narrator. As the story progresses and Jude finds out more about the group of Max's friends (as do we through his eyes), he begins to realize that while what they're doing is quite illegal, they're doing it for reasons that are, while perhaps hard to understand to an outsider, perfectly understandable to them.
The relationship that develops between Jude and Max may seem tame for two teenage boys, who would/should be tempted by raging hormones, and their romance doesn't really take center stage on its own. The author intertwines themes of loss and pain, of feeling broken, with themes of hope and moving forward, of keeping memories alive without getting lost in the past. The interactions were sweet and fun, and there was kissing and touching, but not much else. If anything, their intimate relationship was overshadowed by the activities around the dead animals and the taxidermy.
The author did a wonderful job exploring the secondary characters she created - from Terry to Levi to Caleb to Tuck, as well as Jude's father, giving them detailed characteristics and personalities of their own, without making them look like caricatures or one-sided cardboard.
It touches on making difficult choices, of paying the price of consequences, of coping mechanisms, and of doing the best you can under any given circumstances.
But this novel also has some issues - Jude's parents, for one, who were almost too perfect for my taste, with their understanding and support, and the taxidermy was a little creepy for me (I've always thought it a strange thing). The climax was also slightly predictable, and I was sort of waiting for that thing that happened to happen.
I did like the ending though - it made all of the pieces fall into place, it showed that Jude had learned some important lessons. And while I may have sniffled in some places, I liked the choices that Jude made in the end, because they showed he had grown throughout this story.
I would certainly recommend this book to teenagers, as I think that the lesson within is a good one. From where I'm sitting, middle-aged and cynical, this book reminded me of the confusion of my teenage years, not knowing who I really was, and feeling broken and alone. I could certainly empathize with Jude's struggles, though his 'poor-me' attitude was occasionally grating on me. I wanted at once to grab him by his shirt and shake some sense into him, as well as hug him and tell him everything would be okay.
** I received a free copy of this book from its author. A positive review was not promised in return. **