TITLE: Exit Plans for Teenage Freaks
AUTHOR: ‘Nathan Burgoine
234 pages, Bold Stroke Books, ISBN 9781635550986 (paperback)
DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover): Being the kid abducted by old Ms. Easton when he was four permanently set Cole’s status to freak. At seventeen, his exit plan is simple: make it through the last few weeks of high school with his grades up and his head down. When he pushes through the front door of the school and finds himself eighty kilometers away holding the door of a museum he was just thinking about, Cole faces facts: he’s either more deluded than old Ms. Easton, or he just teleported.
Now every door is an accident waiting to happen – especially when Cole thinks about Malik, who, it turns out, has a glass door on his shower. When he starts seeing the same creepy people over his shoulder, no matter how far he’s gone, crushes become the least of his worries. They want him to stop, and they’ll go to any length to make it happen. Cole is running out of luck, excuses, and places to hide.
Time for a new exit plan.
MY RATING: five out of five stars
‘Nathan Burgoine’s YA science fiction debut is fast, funny, heart-warming, angsty (without being angst-ridden), refreshing, authentic … and it is populated by one of the most diverse casts of teen characters I’ve ever encountered.
The first-person narration by Cole is so authentic -- he’s not just another snappy-sarcastic gay boy (although he has his moments). He is occasionally clumsy (physically and verbally), sometimes confused about where his life is headed, but always thinking about his friends and family. He self-describes as a bit of an obsessive-compulsive when it comes to list-making. He really just wants to be “normal” – and while in other authorial hands that might mean a trip down “self-loathing gay lane” before coming to terms with his sexuality, Burgoine gives us a character who is already out, has a great support system, and really just wishes he could just not be “the kid everyone talks about because of what happened thirteen years ago.” I was drawn to him not because he’s who I was as a teen (I was nowhere near out, nowhere near as organized, and nowhere near as sure of what I wanted to do with my life), but because he expresses himself in such a way that you feel what he’s feeling, all of the anxiety and confusion and exhilaration and joy of his arc.
The supporting cast share a love and concern for Cole, but otherwise they are as different as it’s possible for a group of friends to be. There’s the Rhonda and Lindsay, the intimate lesbian couple: Greyson, a fellow gay boy who is as bombastic as Cole is shy; Nat, the gender neutral calming influence with their own insecurities to overcome; Alec, the asexual best friend at odds with Greyson; and the athletic, somewhat mysterious, outlier of the friend group, Malik. Listed like that, it sounds like Burgoine just ticked off boxes on the queer spectrum, but these characters are more than just “what kind of queer they are.” I loved seeing a YA novel where the main character’s circle is full of other gender and sexual identities rather than being the token gay guy coming out to a group of straight friends. These characters are already out to each other at the start of the book, and most of them are out to their families (although we never see them), to their schoolmates, teachers, even local business folk. I also loved reading a novel where the bullying of queer kids is addressed without it becoming the main plot. The bullies in Cole’s life are tertiary characters at best; acknowledged but not empowered.
But Cole’s friends are not the sum-total of his support group. The adults in Cole’s life, from the local game-and-coffee-shop owner to teachers to Cole’s parents, are actively involved and support him. They may not be aware of the unusual things he’s experiencing, but they do their best to react with love and helpfulness to what they do think is going on (for instance, thinking a bully shoved Cole in a locker, since Cole can’t come right out and admit he teleported himself in there). Not only are Cole’s parents loving and supportive of their son – Dad (who is deaf) is a role model for Cole in terms of personality and career choice (Dad is a translator and advocate for other hearing-impaired folks).
This was the first YA/MG book I read recently where the adult characters are not sidelined, oblivious, or actively working against the main character. (The second was Carlos Hernandez’s Sal & Gabi Break the Universe). Okay, that’s a bit too much of a blanket statement, as the creepy bad guys, when we finally encounter them, turn out to be mostly adults. But they’re the exception which proves the rule governing the rest of the adult characters.
The SF aspect of the book is as well developed as one expects from Burgoine’s short stories – there’s an underlying “science” to how and why the teleportation works, there are hints that this is the same universe as the stories in Burgoine’s collection Of Echoes Borne. The slow reveal of exactly what’s going on with Cole, why he’s being watched, who the creepy watchers are and what they want … it’s all really excellently paced. And even the nominal villains of the piece are more than just tropes. They have personalities.
While the focus of the book is on Cole’s developing teleportation ability and the danger it puts him in, there are also subplots for the friends – interpersonal relationship and trust issues endemic to any high school group – and of course there’s the slow-burn romantic arc around Cole’s crush on Malik. I like slow-burn romance, and this one is so well-paced you can’t imagine the book without it.
Here’s hoping we get to see much more of Cole, his friends, his stalkers, Malik, and this world.