Release by Patrick Ness
Walker Books, 2017. ISBN 9781406331172
(Age: 17+) Themes: Homosexuality; Family; Friendships; Sexual Identity; Ghosts; Freedom from the past. Patrick Ness is a patron for a group that promotes diversity in schools, and this book introduces sexually diverse representations. The central character, Adam, is exploring his identity through a series of homosexual relationships. This exploration is at odds with his family background - his father is a pastor in an Evangelical American church, and the basis of Adam's experience of family love and acceptance is derailing as he explores his sexual relationships and his view of love. A close connection to a female friend gives him a sense of connection even when things go wrong - 'she has his back', despite his 'first love' turning his back on him. The young, high school-aged Adam is sexually active with his new boyfriend, and their sexual encounters are described in detail (although some facets of the coupling are left to the imagination, mostly the descriptions are fairly overt for a YA book). This coming-of-age tale, involves deserting the expectations and influence of family, not an uncommon motif in YA fiction; Adam's parents are painted as the 'evil' spectre in the background as they grapple with their own worldview and struggle with Adam's choices. But this is also a story where sexual diversity is assumed and the opinions of the parents are maligned. Adam also becomes the target of workplace sexual harassment, that is not dealt with well.
In contra point to this story of breaking away from conventions and the critique of those norms, is the spectral appearance of the Spirit Queen who inhabits the tortured spirit soul of a recently murdered young woman as she wanders the lake shore where her body was dumped. There is struggle as she works out how to be released from the torture, and will the Spirit Queen be trapped in this metaphysical half-light? Ironically this location is where Adam will be attending a farewell party for his former 'love interest', whose influence he cannot shake. This metaphysical appearance is about being released from the holds of a past life and the story thread weaves amid Adam's story of release.
Ness has demonstrated his usual capacity to write with great finesse, but I won't be recommending this in my school context. It is far too graphic and the fact that Ness needs to state that his own father was nothing like the father in the book, is evidence that he recognises the cruelty in the representation of Adam's father. Free expression of sexuality and desire may be common in today's culture, but it may not be helpful for all young readers to have this presented so boldly.