Wednesday, June 11, 2014

GUY IN REAL LIFE, A Tandem Review by Sarah Ahiers and Matthew MacNish

Sarah and I are both big fans of Steve Brezenoff's books, and although I no longer live there, we both grew up in Minnesota, where GUY IN REAL LIFE takes place, so we thought it would be fun to do a kind of tandem interview/review.

Before we get to that, here is the jack copy for this book, from Goodreads:

From the acclaimed author of Brooklyn, Burning comes Guy in Real Life, 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 Saint 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; 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.

Does that not sound wonderfully profound and entertaining? It is.

So, here are some questions I asked Sarah, and her answers:

1) As a girl gamer, how much online bullying have you encountered? I'm a man, so I haven't experienced much myself, but my girlfriend used to play with me sometimes, and the stuff she had to put up with was pretty disturbing at times.

Surprisingly little. Actually, none that I can think of. I'm mainly a console gamer but I've spent years playing Halo (soooooo much awesome Halo) and the most I've ever gotten is, "Are you a girl? Oh," and then maybe a friend request.

I don't know why I haven't experienced more. Because I know it's out there. It's out there in droves. I've just personally never experienced anything directed at me (and it's not like my gender is hidden. Both my profile pics and my avatar are chicks. And in Halo my Spartan is a chick as well.) So, yeah. I guess I've just been really lucky in that sense.

2) As a Minnesotan yourself, how much did the local angle increase your enjoyment of the book? And on the flipside, do you think much of anything would feel missing for readers who have never been to the Twin Cities?

Oh so much! I LOVED the Minnesota angle hard core. I was constantly thinking "Oh! I KNOW that place! And ooh! That one too! And I totally get what he's referencing here!" Kind of like when you see a friend on TV and you're like "I KNOW them!" and it somehow makes it feel like you're important too.

Though at one point Svetlana mentions that they drive to picturesque Blaine and I was like "Nope. No way in hell is it picturesque," but also I'm biased against Blaine for personal reasons and she could have easily been sarcastic too.

And no, I don't think non-Minnesotans would miss out on anything. Though I definitely pondered this while I was reading. I was just reminded of various other books that have strong, real place presences that I've never been too. It's almost like they become fictional. I mean, Cleveland could be Hogwarts for all I know, you know? I have no basis in the real life setting so I have to make it up in my head, and I'm sure that would be the case here for anyone unfamiliar with the Twin Cities (though everyone should come here. I'm just sayin' ...)

3) One of my favorite things about Steve Brezenoff novels is that they often bring up important thematic questions (usually about identity, but not always) without being too obvious or heavy handed. I very much enjoy books that can entertain me at the same time they make me think. Do you agree? If so, what were some of the thematic questions that came to mind for you while reading G.I.R.L.?

Oh I think this book practically popped with thematic questions regarding identity especially, but in a good way. Like you said, not heavy handed at all and very smoothly done. Which is good because this is YA and YA really should be focused on identity. But I think it's clear that a big portion of this book is focused on identity as it relates to gender. Lesh plays a girl in a video game, a girl he created to represent a girl he's hugely crushing on and then later dates. And he loves being this girl. He loves the escapism, he loves the other guys in the game saving him and flirting with him and treating him like a sort of princess.

I find this extra layer extra awesome. I mean, the book would be great without it, but with it kind of tucked away as it is, it just really adds extra depth to the story. In fact, one of my favorite lines is related directly to this theme of gender identity, though I won't share because it's pretty spoilery.

And now, here are some questions Sarah asked me:

1) Music is a big part of the book. Lesh is not only named after Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead but he's a metal head and Svetlana loves to listen to Bjork and classical. I know music is also a huge part of your own life. How do you feel the music in the book affected or impacted the story?

Well, I happen to know Steve Brezenoff a little bit from the internet, so I know that like myself, he used to work in the music industry, and you can really feel his knowledge of music bleeding through in his books. You should absolutely check out his blog series on his one hundred favorite songs.

Anyway, more to the topic at hand, I love the play on words in Lesh's name, both being named after the bassist from the Dead, and for having a last name that is literally Heavy Metal (I'm just glad his dad didn't turn out to be a TIG welder - look it up), and ever more so, I love love love the way that Svetlana talks about music. Not only because she enjoys Bjork, who I also personally adore, but also because she appreciates classical, which I have a soft place in my heart for because of my Father who worked for the Seattle Opera, and also because she has such a passion for music, and as a character, she really has no inhibitions when it comes to sharing and describing that passion to Lesh.

She does the same thing when sharing with him about gaming, and being the Dungeon Master of her group, or about embroidery, or about any of the things she loves. She is really a confident girl who seems comfortable in her own skin, which can be a real treat when reading a YA novel.

2) Lesh has moments where he struggles a bit with the idea that he's playing a girl in his MMORPG. As a girl I've certainly played my fair amount of male characters and never thought twice about it. Is this not the case for guys? Do you think Lesh's experience is more or less universal?

Well, first things first, I'm a gamer myself, and when I play RPGs, I often create female characters without thinking twice about it. Sometimes she's a Khajit, or an Orc, or a Dark Elf, but still ... female. However, I also have an extreme aversion to playing online with other human beings, and I think it's in that that the big difference lies.

Lesh plays a MMORPG, which means that he's playing a game with other people, who he has to interact with, and their expectations of him obviously are heavily influenced by the fact that they assume a player playing a girl would be a girl in real life.

I imagine that would feel weird. I mean playing games online with other people feels weird enough already, which is a big part of why I avoid it, but if you play with guild mates for a long time, getting to know each other,and they come to think certain things about you, and then ... you eventually have to decide whether to reveal the truth? That would be awkward, which is why it obviously makes for a great, tense bit of story.

3) And a Minnesotan question for you as well. As a former Minnesotan yourself, one who's been absent for a fair amount of years, were you able to place some of the locations and landmarks in the book? And if so, did that increase your reading experience?

Absolutely! I spent a lot of time in Minnesota as a teenager, and I even graduated from the very same high school that Svetlana and Lesh attend in the book, so it was quite a treat to read about all the placed they go, and feel such a sense of familiarity as a reader.

I mean, Midway, Frogtown, Crocus Hill, Summit, Mac-Groveland, those are all my old stomping grounds, and it makes for a vivid and pleasurable read to get to enjoy a book that includes so many places you know so intimately.

That's it for the tandem interview.

But I'm not necessarily done talking about this great book! It was one of the most fun and entertaining books I've read all year. It does pose some deep thematic questions, sure, but it's also very funny, and just full of wonderfully enjoyable things like rock concerts and video and role-playing game fantasy adventures.

I could go on about a lot of the other elements, but it's actually said much better than I ever could at both Stacked and Guy's Lit Wire.

You can find out more about the author, Steve Brezenoff, at:

Have you ever read a novel that was so explicitly set in a place you have lived, and know intimately? Did it add as much richness to your read as it did for Sarah and me? Share your thoughts in the comments, but if you love YA Contemporary, or gaming, or authentic romance, I would highly recommend you pick this book up.


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