Book Review: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

An achingly real and profoundly moving love story about two Minnesota teens whose lives become intertwined through school, role-playing games, and a chance two-a.m. bike accident.

It is Labor Day weekend in St. Paul, Minnesota, and boy and girl collide on a dark street at two thirty in the morning: Lesh, who wears black, listens to metal, and plays MMOs; and Svetlana, who embroiders her skirts, listens to Björk and Berlioz, and dungeon masters her own RPG. They should pick themselves up, continue on their way, and never talk to each other again.

But they don’t.

This is a story of two people who do not belong in each other’s lives, who find each other at a time when they desperately need someone who doesn’t belong in their lives. A story of those moments when we act like people we aren’t in order to figure out who we are. A story of the roles we all play—at school, at home, with our friends, and without our friends—and the one person who might show us what lies underneath it all.

3 cupcakes

I’m honestly not sure what to make of Guy in Real Life. On one hand, it’s a love story between two teens who couldn’t be more different; on the other, it’s a complex examination of societal paradigms, especially those relating to traditional gender roles.

Guy in Real Life is told from several POVs: not only do we get to hear from our two protagonists, Lesh and Svetlana, but the perspectives of in-game avatars are also present, adding to the uniqueness of the story.

I absolutely loved the way that Guy in Real Life portrayed the gaming world. Dungeons and Dragons gets such a bad reputation in many social circles, but Guy in Real Life did a wonderful job of showing just how much creativity and thought is put into each game. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the “gaming lingo” I still understood – it definitely brought back memories of my Runescape playing days!

While the friendship between Lesh and Svetlana was innocent and slow to build, their relationship didn’t feel authentic to me. From the first meeting, which set Svetlana up to be a manic pixie dream girl, Lesh becomes obsessed with her. She’s placed on a pedestal, and is constantly in his thoughts – to the point where he creates an online character in her likeness. That’s not to say that it wasn’t sweet at times, but this borderline-instalove made it difficult for me to fully support them as a couple.

My favourite part of Guy in Real Life, though, is the discussion on societal roles and how hard it can be to find your identity. The roles that we play can either strengthen us or increase our self-doubts, as Lesh shows time and time again. While I may not agree with the way that it was resolved, I definitely liked the message behind it.

Overall, Guy in Real Life was an entertaining read that was so much more than the “slice of life” story that I expected. While it isn’t a book that I could see myself re-reading, I wouldn’t be surprised if it made its way into many other readers’ hearts (and bookshelves).

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Book Review: Creeps by Darren Hynes

Fifteen-year-old Wayne Pumphrey wishes he were courageous enough to actually send the heartfelt letters he writes to friends and family. He also wishes his father would drive on the right side of the street, his mother would stop packing her suitcase to leave, and his sister would stop listening to Nickelback. But most of all, he wishes that Pete “The Meat” would let him walk to school in peace. After all, how many times can one person eat yellow snow?

Then one morning, while facing Pete and his posse, Wayne is rescued by Marjorie, the girl with a dead father and a mother who might as well be. Together, the two of them escape Pete’s relentless bullying by rehearsing for the school play, and an unlikely friendship is formed. As they grow ever closer to one another, they begin to dream of escape from their small town and restricted lives. But Pete now has plans for both of them—and after a moment of sudden violence, nothing will ever be the same again for Wayne, Marjorie, or Pete himself.

My Rating: 2 cupcakes

Creeps is told through two distinct narrative styles: unsent, heartfelt letters that Wayne Pumphrey writes to individuals (and sometimes locations), and third person narration. While it was nice to see an unbiased view of the situations through the third person narrative, those scenes paled in comparison to the letters.

I wasn’t fond of any of the characters in this book. I identified with Wayne’s inability to know why he was being targeted by bullies, but it was hard to reconcile the Wayne that we saw through the third person narration with the Wayne that we saw through the letters. I understand that we often act differently when we’re alone than we do when we’re with others, but Wayne’s characterization (and maturity level) seemed to change dramatically depending on which narrative style was being used. His relationship with Marjorie felt more like a relationship of convenience than a genuine friendship, which made certain scenes feel awkward instead of sweet.

The supporting characters all seemed to be cardboard cutouts of specific stereotypes: the alcoholic, the shopaholic, the “dumb jocks,” etc. They never attained any real depth, making it hard to sympathize with any of them. A few of the plot points pertaining to these characters, such as Wayne’s father’s drinking problem, were only mentioned a few times and then completely abandoned or forgotten, making me wonder why they were there in the first place.

I enjoyed the fact that this book is set in Canada, though some of the references made me cringe. Like Nickelback. (None of the Canadians I know like those guys, as bad as that sounds). Many of the references are likely going to be outdated fairly quickly and seemed to only be there to make the book “relevant.” Some of the language and slang was just… strange. I live in Ontario, which is a different part of Canada from where Creeps is set, but I’ve never heard “Jesus” used as an adjective. It might be an Atlantic Canada thing, but it made the dialogue sound awkward and unnatural at times.

The bullying itself was handled realistically in some cases, especially when it came to the parental responses and the reactions of other students. There were times when the bullying escalated out of nowhere from juvenile to truly horrific, and I felt really uncomfortable reading some scenes. The only portion of the bullying that I truly “enjoyed” (or, at least, could get on board with) was Marjorie’s response to being called a slut: that it’s her body, and she can do whatever she wants with it.

Overall, Creeps is a realistic story about bullying and how it affects those that are involved in it (the bully, the victim, and the witnesses). Unfortunately, its message wasn’t as strong as it could have been due to a combination of unlikeable characters, inconsistent characterization, and abandoned plot points.

ARC Review: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

3A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing…

Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.

My Rating:5 cupcakes

When describing this book to my parents, I noted that it reminded me of “a mixture of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Pixar’s Up, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.” While that may seem like a strange combination, elements from all of these works are seamlessly combined to create a humorous, poignant novel that will leave a lasting impression.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is written as a first person retrospective narrative in the style of Kurt Vonnegut, whose works play a rather important role in the novel: the reader is immediately exposed to the action at the end of Alex’s story, and is then brought back to the beginning to see how the events leading up to the present situation influenced and shaped his personality and worldview. At first glance,it is a coming of age story about a young boy, Alex, who lives a very unconventional life: he doesn’t know who his father is, his mother reads Tarot cards, he is a bit of a celebrity after having been struck by a meteorite when he was young, and his best friend is a Vietnam veteran. However, it is also a thought-provoking work of fiction that deals with many heavy subjects – such as bullying, free will, life, death, euthanasia and morality – in a respectful and meaningful way.

The protagonist, Alex, is a logical, naive, introverted young man with a compelling, authentic voice. There is a lot of social disconnect between him and his peers, due to the fact that he enjoys learning, voices his opinions – regardless of their appropriateness – and tends to go off on many tangents. As a biology student, I found all of the detailed information that Alex provided in regards to his scientific learning to be very interesting (which, from what I’ve seen, places me in the minority on that count). It is hard not to empathize with Alex, whose childlike innocence and unique worldview make him quite easy to like.

The friendship between Alex and Mr. Peterson is very much like that of Russell and Carl in Up: a young boy befriends a grouchy old man who lost his wife, and eventually the two begin to consider each other as a family of sorts. I loved watching this friendship grow and develop. Though it was filled with difficulties, the influence that this friendship had on both parties was quite powerful – especially towards the end where it is shown just how much they are willing to do for each other. At the beginning of the novel, Alex is a boy, but with Mr. Peterson’s help, he becomes a man with a heightened sense of integrity and a new outlook on life.

Overall, this was an excellent novel that will leave you with many ethical and existential questions, and will inspire you to read some of Kurt Vonnegut’s works.

Thanks to Netgalley for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.