20 Books of Summer, #12–13, BLUE: Johnson & MacMahon

Blue has been the most common colour in my themed summer reading, showing up in six out of the 20 titles. In the two books I’m reviewing today, it’s used somewhat ironically, with a YA memoir subverting its association with conventional masculinity and a Women’s Prize-longlisted novel contrasting idyllic holiday weather with the persistence of grief.

 

All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson (2020)

“you sometimes can’t see yourself if you can’t see other people like you existing, thriving”

Growing up in New Jersey in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson knew he was different. He preferred Double-Dutch to football, called his classmates “Honeychild,” and begged for a pair of cowboy boots instead of the sneakers everyone else coveted. His effeminate ways earned the expected epithets. Even though he had plenty of LGBT precedents in his own family – a gay older half-brother, a lesbian aunt, a trans cousin – and his beloved Nanny assured him he was loved for who he was, he didn’t publicly confess his identity until he got to college and felt accepted as part of a fraternity. In fact, there are three instances in the book when, as a teenager, he’s asked directly if he’s gay and he denies it. (Do you hear a rooster?)

Johnson is a warm, earnest storyteller and deftly chooses moments when he became aware of the social disadvantages inherent to his race and sexuality. His memoir is marketed to teens, who should find a lot to relate to here, such as dealing with bullies and realizing that what you’ve been taught is comforting myth. In the “‘Honest Abe’ Lied to Me” chapter, he discovers in middle school that Lincoln didn’t actually support racial equality and questions whether landmark achievements by Black people are just conciliatory tokens – “symbolism is a threat to actual change—it’s a chance for those in power to say, ‘Look how far you have come’ rather than admitting, ‘Look how long we’ve stopped you from getting here.’”

The manifesto element of the book lies in its investigation of the intersection of Blackness and queerness. Johnson is an activist and wants queer Black kids to have positive role models. He knows he was lucky to have family support and middle-class status; many have it harder, getting thrown out and ending up homeless. Multiple chapters are devoted to his family members, some in the form of letters. The structure didn’t always feel intuitive to me, with direct address to his cousin or grandmother coming seemingly out of nowhere. The language is informal, but that doesn’t excuse “me and so-and-so” constructions or referring to “people that” instead of “who”; young adult readers need to have good grammar reinforced.

I also questioned whether the author needed to be so sexually explicit in describing his molestation at the hands of an older male cousin (he has about a zillion cousins) and losing his virginity at age 20. Then again, today’s teens are probably a lot more sexually knowledgeable than I was 20+ years ago. All in all, I wondered if Johnson is more successful as a motivational speaker than a writer. I think his occasional bravado (he closes his introduction with “This is the story of George Matthew Johnson. This is a story for us all.”) would come across better in person than in print. Still, considering I couldn’t be much further from the target audience, I found this a sweet and engaging read. (Public library)

 

Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon (2020)

“Incongruous, the situations we found ourselves in. To be talking about such sorrow against the backdrop of a Mediterranean summer.”

SPOILERS in the following; otherwise it would be difficult to say anything other than that this novel is a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. When I read a synopsis, I thought it would be Sue Miller’s Monogamy with the roles reversed, but that’s because the blurb makes it sound like there were secrets in David and Mary Rose’s marriage that only emerge after her death in a plane crash. I was on the alert for something sordid and earth-shattering, but in fact this is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage.

David, a foreign correspondent on Dublin’s television news, always put his career first, his sophistication and wicked humour masking the wounds of an emotionally chilly upbringing. Mary Rose, a hospital midwife, was the perfect foil, deflating his pomposity and calling him out on any unfeeling quips. Her loving nature was the soul of their relationship. Now that’s she gone, David regrets that he didn’t take more seriously her desperation to have children, a desire he didn’t share. His voice, even flattened and numbed by grief, is a delight. For instance, here’s how he describes Irish seaside holidays: “Summer to us was freezing your arse off on a windswept beach, with a trip to the ice-cream shop if you were lucky. Of course, they never had the ice-cream you wanted.”

The novel is set in Aiguaclara, a hidden gem on Spain’s Costa Brava where David and Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. Against his friends’ advice, he’s decided to come back alone this year. Although most of the book remembers their life together and their previous vacations here, there is also a present storyline running underneath. Initially subtle, it offers big surprises later on. These I won’t spoil; I’ll only say that David’s cynical belief that he’ll never experience happiness again is proven wrong. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated. This reminded me of Three Junes and also, to a lesser extent, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. (Public library)

 

Coming up next: Pairs of green and red titles.

 

Would you be interested in reading one of these?

13 responses

  1. Pleased to say the MacMahon’s already on my list so I don’t have to add it. It’s been expanding at an alarming rate recently.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know what that’s like 😉 I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m intrigued by All Boys Aren’t Blue. Nothing But Blue Sky sounds excellent but I’m not in the right headspace for it by the sound of it. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be in the “right” headspace for sad books ever again! But then I think, reading moods do fluctuate over time, at least for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t think of many other memoirs that have specifically been marketed to YA readers, apart from Jacqueline Woodson’s and Gary Paulsen’s.

      I know what you mean. I still can’t bear to try again with Shuggie Bain…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve heard so many great things about Nothing But Blue Sky. I really need to check it out.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. MacMahon was a new author for me. I’m so glad the Women’s Prize longlist put this one on my radar!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nothing but Blue Sky appeals most strongly, though I do support the plea for acceptance and the questioning of tokenism in Johnson’s memoir.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been keen on All Boys Aren’t Blue but have noticed I haven’t picked it up anywhere yet so not sure if I really am. The explicitness doesn’t massively appeal but then that does crop up more than when we were that age, I think. Good work through your 20 Books, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Both covers really appeal to me, so different but so evocative. And you’ve reminded me that I am soooo behind with Women’s Prize reading for the past couple of years. Yeesh.

    I think I know what you mean about having the sense that some books aimed at teens are cultivating that motivational-speaker tone. That can be wearying when you’re not the target audience (and when you don’t benefit from their particular message). But I think his decision to use natural language, if indeed that is how he speaks, is laudable–because I think it takes courage to break from tradition, even if that tradition hasn’t been particularly nurturing or welcoming.

    Not a single book with a colour in the title in my stack currently, but that manga series Ir read about all the cats in the family is called Plum Crazy….bit of a stretch? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be interested to hear how teens have responded to Johnson’s memoir. I have a pet peeve about incorrect grammar, even though I know it’s in common usage and meant to be informal. I still believe in the doomed “whom”!

      Plum would definitely count, since I’ve counted two “emerald” titles plus one “darkness” one 😉

      Like

      1. Whom isn’t doomed so long as we are whom-ing! A sentence which could draw your ire, I suppose. 😀 But I don’t think one has to require the “King’s English” in every context, even if one is personally a devotee. (I think we’d both fall into that category, wouldn’t we?) There are some books that seem to rely almost exclusively on voice and I think that appeals inherently to readers. Isn’t that different from a poorly copy-edited book that purports to be grammatically correct but contains a few incidences of sloppy expression (all those dangly bits for instance, so easy to find…and so easy to write–for me, anyway LOL).

        There was a “grey” in my Alistair MacLeod reading, but simply a short story!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oof, dangling modifiers are among my biggest pet peeves!

        Like

  7. […] back, my favourite read from this project was Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon, closely followed by the novels Under the Blue by Oana Aristide and Ruby by […]

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