Book Review – Half Bad

bloghaWitches and magic are popular motifs in fiction, rivaled only by the recently revived penchant for vampires. It’s seemingly impossible to review a book about witches without mentioning the “Harry Potter” juggernaut, which has defined the witch/wizard genre for almost two decades. Yet witches are also the basis of more recent fictional endeavors, including the YA fantasy “Caster Chronicles” series, the 2013 mini-series “American Horror Story: Coven”, and the “All Souls” trilogy. The rich mythological basis for witches means that “Harry Potter” does not have a creative monopoly on this sub-group of fiction, and there’s plenty more material still to be mined from the backlog of witch folklore. Indeed Sally Green’s “Half Bad”, which revolves around witches living in modern England, doesn’t feel like a mere rehashing of the fiction that’s come before it. While its concept isn’t strikingly original (a primordial battle between “Black” and “White” Witches, and a protagonist who bridges the gap between the two sides), its innovation is derived from its brave decision not to shy away from the macabre. blogha4Children and teenagers have demonstrated innumerable times that they’re not afraid to handle some pretty dark stuff in their literature (just off the top of my head: children massacring each other in a televised gladiator-style contest). Even so, “Half Bad” is particularly gruesome and disturbing, its narrative encompassing scenes of physical torture, mutilation, murder, self-harm, and even cannibalism. In one exceptionally chilling scene the fourteen-year-old protagonist is held down while three White Witches (the supposed ‘good guys’) brutally carve “BW” (for ‘Black Witch’) into his back. The scene is described in the first person as Nathan drifts in and out of consciousness, the reader experiencing and sharing his pain. Nathan is also kept in a cage, viciously persecuted, and burnt with acid, all due to his identity as a Half Code (half White Witch and half Black Witch). “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” this is certainly not.

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The premise of “Half Bad” itself is nightmare-inducing. An orphaned boy, Nathan, son of both the most evil Black Witch that’s ever existed and a White Witch (who died in mysterious circumstances), lives in fear that at any moment his Black Witch attributes might manifest and cause him to be executed by the ruthless Council and their cut-throat Hunters. Imagine Harry Potter is the son of Lord Voldemort and Lily, is chained up in the cupboard under the stairs, never gets that nice little letter from Hogwarts, and has to escape the Death Eaters all on his own. That’s the sort of predicament Nathan finds himself in. Yet the fact that the stakes are so high adds a certain realism to the fantasy novel. Despite Nathan’s magical healing ability, he constantly gets hurt. The danger is palpable and keeps the pace breathless.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of “Half Bad” is the moral ambiguity it explores. blogha3The White Witches and Black Witches are established as polar opposites – the former good and the latter bad. This antithetical set-up is common, seen most vividly in Glinda the Good Witch  and the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”, and to a lesser extent by the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix in “Harry Potter”. Yet in “Half Bad” both the good and bad witches are almost immediately revealed to be neither wholly good nor bad. There are no genuine villains and heroes in this book; the reader roots for Nathan, but at times Green throws things into the narrative that confuse even this basic line of thinking. Nathan occasionally acts in such a manner that the reader is forced to question whether he might indeed grow up to become evil after all. In some ways I hope Green goes down this bold route; to identify and sympathize with a young adult narrator, and to then witness their growth from persecuted child to cold-blood killer over the course of the trilogy would be pioneering. Pardon yet another Harry Potter comparison, but it would be like thinking you’re rooting for a Harry and watching him, aghast, evolve before your eyes into a Voldemort. blogha95The dichotomy between good and bad witches is also the basis of “Beautiful Creatures”, in which the protagonist’s magical powers will be claimed for either Light or Dark on her sixteenth birthday. Yet in “Half Bad”, this transformation isn’t just a matter of self-identification but a matter of life and death. In other points of interest, Nathan’s relationships with his half-brother, Arran, and the White Whet, Annalise, add further dimensions to his character. The obligatory YA love triangle is vaguely set in place by the novel’s conclusion, though with a refreshing new spin which I’d rather not spoil. I also enjoyed the fact that the protagonist was a male witch, in a move away from the traditional depiction of witches as female.

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If you’re looking for something saccharine or easy to digest, don’t read “Half Bad”. It’s pretty unsettling. It’s also, however, totally absorbing. Green’s protagonist has barely begun his journey when the first part of the trilogy ends and we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of answers and revelations. Nathan is no Harry Potter. Something tells me he won’t be the sort of character that responds to Avada Kedavra (the killing curse) with Expelliarmus (the disarming charm). Something else tells me this series won’t end with the sentence “All was well”. The next book is due out in Spring 2015 so if you like your YA fiction dark and depressing you’ve got a whole year to get reading this one. No excuses.



Film Review – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (major spidey spoilers)

blogsp“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” follows on from 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man”, which was itself a reboot of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy (concluded only in 2007). Created only in order to enable Sony to hold onto the rights of the franchise, the reboot  offered little in the way of originality or creative integrity. While it delved into the background of Peter Parker’s parents and introduced Gwen Stacy as Peter’s first love (in a move which surely enthused the diehard comic book fans), the blogsp7film otherwise merely recycled plot elements from Raimi’s “Spider-Man” and failed to really find a fresh origin story or an ingenious manner of introducing the superhero’s mythology. Uncle Ben, whose murder provides the major catalyst for Spider-Man’s vigilante mission and who originates Spider-Man’s famous adage ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, has much less gravitas in the reboot (even though he’s played by Martin Sheen aka President Bartlet) and his death delivers a much less potent emotional punch. Much of the first film felt tedious and prosaic in its delivery; after all, we’d seen it all just ten years before. I don’t actually have a problem with Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man incarnation. While I personally prefer Tobey Maguire’s shy and unassuming portrayal of Peter Parker (providing a better antithesis for his spidey-suit wearing counterpart and creating a nerd icon for all us nerds), Garfield brings his own brand of misfit vibes to the role. Additionally, according to my comic book sources (i.e. my brothers), Garfield’s simultaneous sarcastic and angst-ridden representation of Spider-Man is actually closer in essence to the original comic book character than Maguire’s. He’s also severely easy on the eyes, which doesn’t hurt.

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Anyway, if you agree with my preamble about the superfluousness inherent in the very idea of a “Spider-Man” reboot, then the chances are you’ll probably also find the majority of this sequel tired and hackneyed. To be fair, with the absolutely huge influx of superhero movies in the past decade or so, it must be very difficult for screenwriters to find an innovative approach to the genre. Nevertheless, in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” the mishmash of elements derived from preceding superhero films is particularly conspicuous. The opening segment aboard the plane, for example, plays out as a far less invigorating version of Bane’s airborne attack at the beginning of “The Dark Knight Rises”. The superhero’s attempts to keep his love interest at an arm’s length in a heroic but misguided attempt to protect her is a recurring motif – see “The Dark Knight” and, particublogsp92larly, the original “Spider-Man” trilogy. The thinly-drawn villains are perhaps the weakest aspect of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”. Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) is introduced as Peter’s estranged childhood friend with some clunky and unsubtle exposition. His transition from vague goodie to unequivocal baddie is far-fetched and inexplicable even for a superhero movie: his vendetta against Spider-Man is instigated by the eponymous character’s refusal to give Harry a vial of his blood (so that Harry can find a cure for a degenerative disease he’s afflicted with). Upon discovering that his new-found arch-enemy Spider-Man and his best friend Peter Parker are one and the same, Harry has little to no reaction. Nor does the audience: while the strained friendship between Peter and Harry is mapped out over three films by Raimi, the viewers of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” are seemingly supposed to care about a friendship that has had mere minutes of screen time devoted to its depiction. blogsp91Jamie Foxx as Electro is similarly given little to do in the way of illustrating his character’s motivation and development. His character pre supervillain transformation is sympathetic and amusing, but post transition Foxx is lost amidst a cloud of CGI and an over-the-top hammy performance. DeHaan is similarly transformed by the make-up department into something resembling an over-sized gremlin, and his performance becomes pantomime-style to compensate. The film in general is over-stuffed and struggles to contain all of its disparate elements, in actuality developing none of them to the extent required for audience engagement. The script is incredibly unfocused  and the various strands of story, for me at least, fail to be drawn together by the time the credits roll.blogsp3

The strongest aspect of the film, hands down, is the chemistry between Peter and Gwen (Emma Stone). If the plot was shaved down of extraneous detail, the narrative drive of the film would be represented by the conflicted relationship between these two. While, as I’ve mentioned, there’s nothing particularly original about their storyline, it does at least reflect the only real attempt the film makes at representing psychologicblogsp2al realism. Their verbal exchanges are at times genuinely heartfelt, and the director (the aptly named Marc Webb) certainly seems to be far more comfortable during these scenes than during the rather rushed action sequences. The most powerful moment of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, as well as the most depressing, comes near the film’s conclusion. In a move comic book (or Wikipedia) readers had seen coming a mile off, Gwen is killed off despite Peter’s near-successful attempt to save her. The death scene drew audible gasps and muffled sobs from the audience in the auditorium in which I viewed the film, as well as a loud ‘I can’t believe they’ve actually killed her’ exclamation. Indeed in a

blogsp5superhero world in which people routinely survive nuclear explosions, alien invasions, and attempts at mass genocide, the fact that a character with a well-established fan base would kick the bucket is pretty exceptional. The manner in which she died was particularly upsetting. Having seen Spider-Man save Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) from falling to her death with his webbing just in the nick of time in 2001, here we see Spider-Man fail to catch Gwen before her head smacks against the ground. Indeed Peter’s distraught and shocked reaction was shared by most of the audience…

blogsp1There are, then, a handful of moments in the film which are worthy of watching. Overall though “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” fails to make its own mark against its superior superhero competitors, to define its identity outside of the original trilogy, and even to justify the need for its existence. With the strong “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” preceding its release, and the highly-anticipated “X-Men: Days of Future Past” succeeding it, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” will likely be the forgettable filling in a spring superhero sandwich.  Garfield and Stone try their best, but are ultimately unable to hold up a whole film on the shoulders of their authentic chemistry alone. Plus, try as they might, the new “Spider-Man” movies are never going to be able to replicate this iconic moment…


Book Review – Delirium

blogde1In “Delirium”, Lauren Oliver envisions a future in which love is a disease (termed amor deliria nervosa or ‘the deliria’) mandatorily cured at eighteen years of age by an invasive lobotomy-style procedure. Oliver’s novel taps into the huge demand in the YA market for dystopian fiction and the author astutely links her dystopian premise with another ostensible YA prerequisite – the star-crossed teenage romance. “Delirium” shares huge similarities with Ally Condie’s “Matched” (which I reviewed here) yet expands upon Condie’s imagined obligatory matching process and her consequent rumination on free will, with a stronger, more ambitious concept  with wider-reaching implications: the medical diagnosis of love as a severe affliction and the root of all conflict and unhappiness. Oliver depicts a United States devoid of passion – whether it be passion for a romantic partner, a friend, music, literature, colours, a hobby, or even a family member. Perhaps the most nightmarish aspect of Oliver’s vision is the passive acquiescence of the citizens, who give up their ability to feel sadness along with their ability to feel anything at all.

‘Hate isn’t the most dangerous thing…Indifference is.’

In the futuristic society in “Delirium” William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” is on the high school curriculum in order to educate students about the dangers of the deliria: it serves as a cautionary tale. Dancing is banned and dreaming is rare. Those infected by love are ‘cured’ against their will, and are depicted thrashing like rabies victims against their physical restraints until a portion of their brain is forcibly excised. In Oliver’s society our perception of love is turned completely on its head. Rather elevating love as the transcendent goal most people aim for and feel incomplete without, Oliver presents love as a mental illness which impedes rational and ordinary function. Oliver’s depiction doesn’t stray far from reality, and the author clearly recognizes that the more relatable the nightmarish world, the scarier it is. As Spike Jonze writes in “Her”, falling in love ‘is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.’ The inextricable nature of love and obsession are indeed often acknowledged within our own society and the chemical nature of desire really isn’t all that different from any other kind of chemical imbalance. Dopamine leads to attraction. The ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin leads to attachment. The colloquial term ‘lovesick’ demonstrates the synonymic nature of ‘love’ and ‘madness’: it is, in its early stages, as physical a reaction as it is emotional, despite our attempts to romanticize the notion.

‘The most dangerous sicknesses are those that make us believe we are well.’

In one sense, “Delirium” is comparable with Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. In this film, the fictional pseudo-scientific company Lacuna Inc offers heartbroken adults the chance to erase memories of their loved ones in order to ease their emotional turmoil. Yet halfway through his procedure one man realizes the pain is worth keeping the good memories of the relationship. Likewise, “Delirium” is a proponent of passionate love (along with the sweaty palms, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, sadness, and other pathological symptoms that are part of the package).

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The medical cure administeredblogde8 in “Delirium” is reminiscent of the aversion therapy ‘Ludovico technique’ in Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, a 1962 novella which also deals with the issue of free will v the state’s authority. Similarly, in his 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Ken Kesey details various controversial psychiatric procedures, namely electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and lobotomization. Oliver also clearly borrows from the sordid history of psychosurgery for her shadowy and noblogde7n-specific descriptions of the procedure in “Delirium”. It must be noted that the most terrifying aspect of dystopian fiction is the fact that the most ghoulish and terrifying practices included within the dystopian corpus are actually borrowed liberally from humanity’s history. Indeed, it’s probably impossible to imagine humans doing worse things to one another than have already been done at some point and somewhere in the world. On a more cheery note, the central romance is squee-worthy. A ‘squee’, FYI, is defined by urban dictionary as ‘the cry of the rabid fangirl’ and looks something like this:

blogde9There’s no trope more popular in YA fiction than lovers torn apart by external circumstances (cough and so the lion fell in love with the lamb cough) as fangirls love nothing more than rooting for a seemingly hopeless case. Oliver, thankfully, manages to find a fresh set of obstacles which provide protagonists Lena and Alex with plenty of conflict. Namely, Lena is a seventeen year old who wants to follow the rules and be cured, and Alex is an ‘Invalid’ (an uncured member of the resistance from the Wilds). In addition to this central romance, Oliver fleshes out an interesting dynamic between Lena and her childhood best friend Hana, with both girls realizing that post-cure their attachment to one another will be non-existent.

The best YA literature doesn’t patronise its audience. Teenage readers are as capable of recognizing weak characterisation and underdeveloped relationships as their adult counterparts. A great YA book should explore relevant and serious themes and treat its readers with respect. Yet at the same time the best YA literature isn’t afraid to be sincere and earnest, and to wear its heart and its message on its sleeve. The message of “Delirium” is serious but simple: all the pain and rejection and humiliation of growing up and feeling things is better than feeling nothing at all.

 ‘Love is merely a madness; and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punish’d and cured is that the lunacy is so
ordinary that the whippers are in love too.’ – Shakespeare

‘Well, love is insanity. The ancient Greeks knew that. It is the taking over of a rational and lucid mind by delusion and self-destruction. You lose yourself, you have no power over yourself, you can’t even think straight.’ – Marilyn French

‘Isn’t what we mean by ‘falling in love’ a kind of sickness and craziness, an illusion, a blindness to what the loved person is really like.’ – Freud

‘Love is a serious mental disease.’ – Plato

‘Love is a madness.’ – Socrates

Throwback Thursday: Dredging Up Dawson’s Creek

K15138JBP.JAMES VAN DER BEEK & KATIE HOLMES.''Dawson's Creek''. 03/22/1999(Credit Image: A© Globe Photos/ blogda3

Often credited with spawning “One Tree Hill”, “The O.C.”, “Gossip Girl”, the “90210” reboot, and a plethora of other noughties shows about mini adults with massive problems, “Dawson’s Creek” is the godfather of the teen drama and totally reinvigorated the waning genre. The show follows the lives of a group of ordinary teenagers living in the small fictional seaside town of Capeside, Massachusetts. If you find the fast-paced lifestyles and promiscuity displaced in this show’s metaphorical successors distasteful or unrealistic, then “Dawson’s Creek” is the perfect wholesome antidote. The creator Kevin Williamson said he pitched “Dawson’s Creek” as ‘Some Kind of Wonderful, meets Pump Up the Volume, meets James at 15, meets My So-Called Life, meets Little House on the Prairie.’ The show does indeed seem to fluctuate between after school special and “Beverley Hills, 90210” wannabe, but maybe its inability to decide on an identity for itself is part of its adolescent charm.

Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) is the anti-Chuck Bass, an almost unbearably angst-ridden and excessively analytical protagonist who is less Byronic and more moronic and histrionic. At his rare best, Dawson is idealistic and neurotic. At his common worst, he is controlling and selfish. The guy says annoying things like this:


and this:

blogda22…and attempts to storyboard the perfect first kiss within his own life. Envisioned as the romantic lead of the show (I mean, it is named after him), Dawson was thankfully shunted aside in later seasons in favour of his best friend Pacey (Joshua Jackson), the show’s fangirl heart-breaker and breakout character. Van Der Beek has since good-naturedly poked fun at his own involvement in the show and the Dawson persona he’s unable to escape in “Don’t Tell the B**** in Apartment 23”. The following gif pretty much epitomizes both Dawson’s inherently irritating character and, thanks to the curtains haircut, the whole decade of the 90s.blogda1 blogda2

Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) is the introverted and slightly abrasive tomboy and girl-next-door figure who you can’t help but root for. Her constant self-analysis is vaguely annoying and she tends to make mountains out of molehills, but when she breaks free of the weird emotional Dawson-vortex she’s often caught up in, she’s generally likable (and has a New England 90s wardrobe to die for). Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams) is established as Joey’s opposite: the ‘fast’ New York girl who was forced to grow up too quickly. As she meanders from plot-line to plot-hole, it becomes increasingly clear that the writers had no idea what to do with the character or the talented actress (who, unlike Holmes, went on to bigger and better productions: see “Blue Valentine” and “Take This Waltz”). Once upon a time the show was lauded for its supposedly honest representation of adolescence and its inclusion of intelligent and contemplative teenaged characters. The sophisticated vocabulary utilized by the leads and the unflinching manner in which they discussed their burgeoning sexuality was praised as realistic and fresh. Yet now the show is more known for its cringe-worthy dialogue and its unintentional comedic value in the sheer embarrassment that arises when watching Dawson wax lyrical over his hero Steven Spielberg, or sob to himself as he ‘selflessly’ lets Joey off the invisible leash he holds her on. Supposedly known for its realism, I don’t know many teenagers who have verbal exchanges like this:

Joey: I just don’t think it’s a good idea for me to sleep over anymore, you know?

Dawson: No, I don’t know. C’mon, You’ve been sleeping over since you were seven. It’s Saturday night.

Joey: Things change, Dawson. Evolve.

Dawson: What are you talking about?

Joey: Sleeping in the same bed was fine when we were kids, but we’re fifteen now.

Dawson: Yeah.

Joey: We start high school Monday?

Dawson: Yeah.

Joey: And I have breasts!

Dawson: What?

Joey: And you have genitalia!

Dawson: I’ve always had genitalia.

Joey: But there’s more of it.

Dawson: How do you know?

Joey: Long fingers. I gotta go.

(said no male and female teenaged friends to each other, ever)

We also have “Dawson’s Creek” to thank for Edward, Bella, Jacob and the perpetual love triangle that now seems a prerequisite of all YA fiction in all formsblogda7 anywhere ever. While Romeo-Juliet-Paris and even Kelly-Dylan-Brenda were dilly-dallying, flip-flopping, and angsting about their feelings years (or centuries) before “Dawson’s Creek” ever aired, the lblogda5ove triangle between Dawson, Joey, and Pacey remains the paradigm of this romantic format. This love triangle single-handedly saved the sinking show when it  seemed to have squeezed all of the blood out of the Dawson and Joey stone by the close of the second season. Enter Pacey, the polar opposite of the ineffectual Dawson, who sweeps Joey off her feet, bblogda97blogda96uys her a wall, takes her on a spontaneous cruise, makes season 3 the absolute best, and performs some other minor miracles. I absolutely love it when a show completely veers off its pre-established track because of unanticipated chemistry between characters and the positive and persuasive fan reactions it evokes. Pacey, the underdog (or court jester, if you will), steals the heart of the heroine away from under the hero’s nose. It’s thanks to Pacey, the first sidekick who gets the girl, that Hermione ends up with Ron rather than Harry. Pacey wins hands down in the battle between the boys, no question about it. Just look at him. And read this:

You know why so many great pictures are about love triangles? Simple. For every piece of happiness, there’s also a piece of unhappiness. If you haven’t told both sides you haven’t told the whole story.

“Dawson’s Creek” thought it was demonstrating risqué realism but the legacy it leaves behind is, in fact, one of pure soap opera and unintentional comedy. It’s a show that’s stuck in a turn-of-the-decade time warp with an accidentally unlikable and precocious protagonist and teens no real teens can in reality recognise as peers. Yet despite the barrage of (warranted) criticism I’ve leveled at it, “Dawson’s Creek” remains unnervingly watchable and even sporadically poignant. Furthermore, it’s a cultural phenomenon that influenced all fictional presentations of teens that came after it and for that reason, if no other, it’s definitely worth a watch. Prepare to cringe, mock, and then get totally and completely invested in it against your will – and to hate yourself a little bit for falling for its unforeseen and disarming charms.

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Book Review – Golden Boy

bloggbAbigail Tarttelin’s second novel, “Golden Boy”, joins an astonishingly small quantity of fictional representations of  intersex individuals. Despite the approximate statistic that one in 1,666 people are born neither exclusively XY or XX, those who have some form of sex chromosome “anomaly” are appallingly underrepresented in literature and film. Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex”, Kathleen Winter’s “Annabel”, and Lucía Puenzo’s film “XXY” are three notable examples from an extremely meager sub-group. Tarttelin’s eponymous ‘Golden Boy’ is Max Walker, a popular and attractive teenager who hides from almost everyone he knows the fact that he possesses both female and male genitalia. Max, who has always identified as a heterosexual male, has generally ignored his condition and what it might mean for his future. A horrific and brutal assault near the opening of the novel  and the ensuing cracks that appear in Max’s carefully-constructed façade force him to confront and question his identity.

‘Science is unreliable. It can’t tell you who you are or what you’ll want or how you’ll feel.’

At its heart, “Golden Boy” is  a coming-of-age story; yet it is also a family drama, a romance, and a sociopolitical statement. It raises important questions about gender and sex, personal choice, and intersex rights.bloggb3 Tarttelin references the disturbing medical practice that sees parents of intersex babies decide to raise their child as a particular gender, and sees doctors operate on the infant before they’re old enough to know their own name (let alone their gender identity) to remove the unwanted anatomical features. Using Max’s parents as mouthpieces for the two opposing sides of this controversial issue, Tarttelin falls down heavily on the side of Max’s father, who considers early sex reassignment surgery as at best, unnecessary, and at worst, genital mutilation. As Tarttelin contends in “Golden Boy” – why must one identify as any gender at all? Why must we live in a world of binary genders in which those who do not fit the physical “norm”  are made to feel deviant, abnormal, and abhorrent? In “XXY”, Alex Kraken, the intersex protagonist, ultimately decides against both surgery and hormone treatment, and subsequently refuses to conform to rigid societal definitions of gender. I won’t spoil the journey Max embarks upon and the destination he reaches – I highly recommend reading it yourself to experience it alongside him.

‘It takes strength to be proud of yourself and to accept yourself when you know that you have something out of the ordinary about you.’

Although divided into multiple narrative voices, “Golden Boy” undoubtedly belongs to Max. Yet his story and his experience also belong to anyone else who has ever felt marginalized, or anyone who feels like they don’t fit into the categories that have been laid out for them.