Finding great YA reads – Vivaldi in the Dark
As the moderator of the Goodreads Young Adult LGBT Books group, I’m reading quite a few Young Adult books these days. I’ve always loved good YA stories, for the emotional rewards they can deliver. I lived for books as a teen. They gave me worlds to walk in, and mirrors to see myself as not strange and not alone. In the hands of a good author, a YA book can pull you in and make you feel deeply, without erotica, and usually without gunshot wounds. The best YA fiction delivers that heart-punch from the moments of ordinary life.
I often wonder why some books get read a lot and others not so much. In YA, perhaps even more than in adult fiction, where and how the books are released seems to matter a lot. It’s harder for small presses and self-published authors to compete. One of the reasons this came to mind right now was the release of the third book in a favorite new series – Vivaldi in the Dark, # 1-3 by Matthew J. Metzger.
This series straddles the border between YA and adult. From the first book at age 15, to the last at age 23, the two protagonists go through a lot of growing up. They meet, fall in love, face obstacles large and small, dramatic and simple. The prose is clean, vivid and smoothly written. The characters are distinct and sympathetic. And yet it has a tenth of the ratings on Goodreads or Amazon of a comparable adult novel. Are young adult books not read? Not rated? Limited to the heavily promoted titles from big names and publishers? Some of those, like David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing from Random House, do much better. So how does a good YA LGBT book gain notice?
I’m not sure. One way is for those of us who enjoy them to make the effort to praise them. Which is what I’m doing today with this series.
Book 1 is Vivaldi in the Dark.
This was one of my favorite Young Adult M/M stories in the last year. Vivaldi in the Dark has two teen POV voices that feel authentic, an enjoyable dash of humor, and an intensity that isn’t just melodramatic angst. The British idioms and language are an added bonus, giving flavor to the story.
Jayden is gay, and although he’s only actually out to his best friend, he gets teased and bullied enough that he’s keeping his head down. He plans to transfer to a better school, go to uni, and then come out, and finally have a real boyfriend. But his plans are thrown in disarray when he meets Darren, a talented young violinist. Suddenly having a boyfriend tops his list, even if Jayden’s not sure he’s ready.
Darren meets Jayden at a dark moment, when he’s finished another frustrating, repetitive violin rehearsal, and the walls of his life are closing in. Suddenly there’s this brilliant, interesting and open guy who’s clearly attracted to him. Jayden feels like the antidote for everything that’s wrong with Darren’s life. But it’s never that simple.
This book is notable for one of the best depictions of teen depression I’ve seen. The underlying causes aren’t blatant – like many real-life depressed teens, Darren isn’t abused and traumatized. His situation isn’t that awful, or that obvious. The author depicts his moments of nadir in beautifully chosen phrases, making the reader feel the heaviness, the dulling, muffling, lethargic nothingness that smothers light and life in his dark moments. And Jayden’s responses are also true to life, as he tries to somehow make the difference for his boyfriend, against a foe neither of them can really understand.
This first book is my favorite book of the trilogy, and could be read as a stand-alone.
In Book 2 , The Devil’s Trill Sonata, the action moves on three years. The guys are now over 18, but the book could still be read by older teens. Jayden and Darren have made it through school, and now Jayden is off to university at Cambridge. Darren, who has no patience with sitting in classrooms, is starting a course in crime scene analysis, a hundred miles away.
Everyone says high-school romances don’t last. The guys are determined to prove them wrong, while secretly being afraid that it may be true. How can love, even as strong as theirs, hold fast against distance and years of changes? The space between them is not only physical, but increasingly one of experiences and expectations. Darren rents an apartment, and is preparing for a career. Jayden dives into the intense pressures of university, of books and studying, and a small circle of friends who are handy and latched onto early, and who begin to define his world.
This book delves into darker themes, as two very young men make choices for reasons that are sometimes well thought out, but other times are based on really short-term pressures. Jayden’s lack of confidence makes him vulnerable. Darren’s depression saps his energy and heightens every failure. For three years they had each other to turn to, every day. Without that anchor they are drifting apart, and something has to give. As I read, I was pulled forward intensely through this story, watching things unfold, afraid for these two young men I’d come to care about in the first book.
Book 3 is the newly released Rhapsody on a Theme. This is the final book in the trilogy, and possibly the most intense. It’s also the most adult book, and although most of the sex is off-page it still pushed the boundaries of Young Adult pretty hard. Here we find Darren and Jayden beginning real adult lives together, with a house, a cat, real jobs, Rachel, their asexual roommate and friend, and the ever-looming threat of Darren’s depression. Because although things are going well on the outside, depression is no respecter of actual circumstances. The dark cloud hovers, threatening all they have accomplished, and all they dream of.
This book begins a bit more slowly, as we watch Darren and Jayden trying to build a life on the shifting sands of Darren’s illness, at first only from Jayden’s viewpoint. But about a third of the way in, the intensity ramps up a notch, and we hear more from Darren. The swings of mood, of affect, of muted glass-walled perceptions, are evocatively described. In fact, I would put a strong trigger warning on this for those who are dealing with their own depression. The descriptions are so achingly familiar, and the hopeless feelings so intense, they pull the reader in and almost under. Darren’s experiences with multiple medications, with therapists good and bad, and with loss of self, are very real. Jayden’s pain at not being able to make things all right for the man he loves, and the echo of his day to day fears, are equally believable.
Fortunately there is also humor here, especially when things improve for Darren. The guys have a lovely warm playful relationship when Darren is up to it. His childhood friends, Paul and Evan, reappear with insults and caring. And as the book finishes, we leave our guys in a hopeful place that is healing, after the darkness that came before. I very much enjoyed this whole series, and the emotional rollercoaster ride it gave me.
So there you have one series of my favorite YA, three of many books that I’ve read and loved, and wish a wider audience would find and appreciate. Good Young Adult books remind us that we are all connected, each unique but not incomprehensible. We share joys, and fears, difficulties and hopes. I love that we are seeing more books for Young Adults that reflect that reality. There have been some great YA books released that address both the broader spectrum of LGBTQ and the broader spectrum of teen life experiences. If you have favorites, I’d love to hear about them too. Or if you have places you go, to find new Young Adult books, I’d be interested. Sharing the joy and sweet pain of the best stories is one of my favorite things.