Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Review: Almost Like Being in Love and My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger

I think 2010 is starting great so far :D It seems that my reviewing muse has come back and my blogging mojo as well and I've already have 2 books under my belt :) Not bad right?

Next, I'll have start working on a recap of 2009 and get back to Breezing Through... In the meantime though, I want to review two books that I've read and thoroughly enjoyed: Almost Like Being In Love and My Most Excellent Year, both by Steve Kluger.

Almost Like Being in Love by Steve Kluger
published by HarperCollins in April 2004

A high school jock and nerd fall in love senior year, only to part after an amazing summer of discovery to attend their respective colleges. They keep in touch at first, but then slowly drift apart.

Flash forward twenty years.

Travis and Craig both have great lives, careers, and loves. But something is missing... Travis is the first to figure it out. He's still in love with Craig, and come what may, he's going after the boy who captured his heart, even if it means forsaking his job, making a fool of himself, and entering the great unknown. Told in narrative, letters, checklists, and more, this is the must-read novel for anyone who's wondered what ever happened to that first great love.
Genre: Fiction (GLTB), contemporary
Series: none

The Story: I cannot summarize it better than the synopsis of the book. So I'm not going to try :)

My Opinion: This book first came to my attention a few months ago when Tracy reviewed it. I told myself I should get it and give a try, especially since my library had it (surprise!). Then, I was reminded to do so when Hilcia put up her own review. Two of my favorite bloggers loving this book... Seriously, what was I waiting for, right?

I do admit that the format of the book - narrative letters, checklists, e-mails, notes, etc. did put me off a little. This is definitively not my favorite style of books, but I'm soooo happy I decided to sit down and read it... because this is a gem!! This is a wonderful book: it's clever, funny and heart-warming.

Where to begin? First, I love Travis and Craig. These two are definitively great, unique characters. Credit goes to the author for not over-stereotyping them. Best example would be Craig... He is a jock, he does love sports, but he's not the tough, macho man. He's sensible and funny and it makes him more real. Of course, Travis and Craig are more sensible and close to their emotions than heterosexual men, but that's normal and not exactly a stereotype... I love how both were comfortable with their sexuality and never tried to deny it. Travis and Craig were at ease with who they were and I believe that made a difference in this book :) I love how unique Travis and Craig's voices were while I was reading the book... and oh, Travis' OCD behavior? Soooo cute LOL. It provided so much laughs :D

Surprisingly, Almost Like Being In Love was not exclusively Travis and Craig's story. Actually, I think these two only spent about 1/3 of the book together and that was mostly at the beginning, when they were in high school. It took a very long while before Travis and Craig reunited and that was a surprise, but in a good way. It made the book more powerful in my opinion... especially given that Craig was in a long-term relationship - 12 years!! And you can't help but like Craig's significant other, Clayton. He loves Craig deeply as well and is definitively committed to this relationship. He's a sweetheart, he's a great guy... and I was prepared to hate him. Seriously, whoever gets in between the H/H happy ending gets no love from Nath... but I just couldn't. He totally won me over... As a result, as a reader, I didn't know for what ending to root... Craig and Travis? Craig and Clay? I think I would have been happy for either ending and sad for the one who didn't end up with Craig. It was great from M. Kluger not to take the easy way out and make Clayton into a jerk. As a whole, this whole situation definitively makes the book better and the ending, more powerful. Almost Like Being in Love is really about love - first love, other love, love between friends... but still what marks me most is that Craig and Travis' first love wasn't just love, but there was a sense of belonging...

But I digress. I meant to say that Almost Like Being in Love has a great cast of secondary characters... from Clayton to Gordon, Travis' best friend. They are all lovable and a total riot LOL. There's a lot going on, interactions between Gordon and Travis, Travis and people he meets on his journey, Craig with his colleagues, Craig with his clients... and everything put together make them who they are.

And the best thing about this book is that it's fun. I LOLed so many times, I enjoy re-reading passages because they make me smile or chuckle. Today at lunch, I was talking about this book to my co-workers... and when S heard it was about two men, he made a face... and I tried to convince him that no, he should read this and give it a try... and I read passages to him and he changed his mind, he'd like to try it because it sounded fun. You cannot not fall for Travis' charm :)

My Grade: A-. Two reasons why I'm not giving this an A. 1) While it was fun to follow everything and everyone, there was a tiny bit too much going on and combined with 2) the epistolary format (yes, it did make the book stands out, but...), Almost Like Being in Love was at time a bit confusing. However, it's still a book that I strongly recommend :)

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger
published by Penguin Young Reader Group in March 2008
There are only three great loves in T.C. Keller's life: the Red Sox, his father, and his best friend and unofficial "brother," Augie. But ninth grade is the year when he falls head-over -cleats in love with Alé Perez. She's pretty, sassy, smart, and a great dancer. Alé is so busy playing hard to get that she doesn't realize that she just might be falling head-over-tap shoes for T.C.'s Boston accent, too. Meanwhile, T.C.'s best friend, Augie, is falling in love as well, but with a boy? It ma not be so clear to him; but to the rest of his family and friends, it's totally obvious that Augie, who loves musicals and old school screen sirens such as Judy Garland, is head-over-hells in love with Andy Wexler.
Genre: Young Adult
Series: none

Story: Again, not going to try :P Read it to find everything out!

My Opinion: I loved Almost Like Being in Love so much that I had to find M. Kluger's backlist. This is his most recent release, My Most Excellent Year. At first, I was a bit disappointed that My Most Excellent Year was a YA novel. I have nothing against YA, I've read and enjoy some. However, I find that sometimes they don't emotionally satisfy me as much as much as romance books because it's hard to believe in a HEA ending when the characters are only 16 y.o... I should never had doubted M. Kluger, because My Most Excellent Year turned out to be, for me, an even better read than Almost Like Being in Love!

Again, I totally fell in love with the characters. T.C. and Augie are two very charming boys... T.C. is the regular cool kid, the popular one... but he's more vulnerable and sensitive and he's not afraid to show it. Part of it is because he lost his mother at a young age, another part would be due to Augie. Augie is just your diva teenager LOL, but in a good way. It's not that he is high maintenance as in wanting the latest cool clothes or wanting everyone's attention, it's just that he demands so much of himself and how he views his entourage. It also comes from his passion for musicals, it just makes him more sensible and prone to drama LOL.

For example:
"Mom? Dad? I'm gay." Oh, please. That is like SO pedestrian. What happened to my sense of style?! Maybe I'll throw a coming-out party. With a grand entrance down a staircase. "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night." No. Engraved coming-out announcements.
Know what I mean now? LOL.

These two boys have such good chemistry... they know each other so well. I wish there would have been more scenes of them together. Then you throw in a girl, who's smart and sassy... and you have the perfect three musketeers :D Alé was another great character. I thought she balanced out T.C. and Augie so well; she was the in-between, a real mix of T.C. and Augie :)

The story was simply so cute. Augie falling in love and discovering he was gay. T.C. trying to get the girl LOL. The side-story was T.C. discovering a little, deaf, 6 y.o. boy reminding him of Augie and who waited for Mary Poppins to come live with him. That story was very touching and it was nice to see teenagers care about something more than themselves.

Again, this book is about love, friendship, discovering yourself. I do think that sometimes, T.C., Augie, Alé and their friends act too mature or perhaps the way they talked and acted didn't totally fit teenagers. They were all a bit too accepting... like nobody bat an eye at Augie being gay - not his parents, not his grandparents (who are all Asians). Nobody at school made fun, everyone was soo supportive. This is how ideally life should be, but real life is not. So I thought it was bit too Cinderella-ish at times... still it didn't deem my enjoyment at all.

M. Kluger clearly has a passion for musicals and baseball (especially Red Sox) and a lot of topics are important to him and he doesn't hesitate to include them in his novels - Almost Like Being in Love, My Most Excellent Year and Last Days of Summer... It's quite incredible that he manages for his books to be so distinctive. I mean the subjects in Almost Like Being in Love and My Most Excellent Year are very similar, but I would never mistake one for the other. Of course, I would know they were written by the same author :) He has quite a distinctive style :) What I meant to say is that being passionate is a good thing, but at the same time, adding so much of it can be a bit overwhelming. I mean, my knowledge of musicals - zero. It's basically like Jennifer Crusie quoting movies in her books. It'd be great if he could take it to a lesser degree in his future books.

Still I love My Most Excellent Year... and I said it was better than Almost Like Being in Love because he takes all the strengths and positives of Almost Like Being in Love and scale it down. The story revolved around T.C., Augie and Alé; there are still some side-stories, but they don't detract as much as they did in Almost Like Being in Love. My Most Excellent Year is still written in an
epistolary format, but there is a lot more narration from T.C., Augie and Alé, as we follow their diary entries. As a result, My Most Excellent Year flows better and is easier to read. Again, the book is fun, clever and heart-warming. You can't stop smiling while reading it... and because the story focuses more on Augie and T.C., you really feel the friendship between the two which takes it a step further.

My Grade: A. I simply love it... and I'll be reading everything by Steve Kluger I can put my hand on :) I hope he writes another book soon!