music boxRating: 5 stars
Buy Links: 
 Amazon | All Romance
Length: Novel

These days there are lots of new voices emerging in the YA genre clamoring for attention.  However, consistently one voice has begun to stand out amongst the others as an author who seems to be able to connect with what really affects the gay youth in our midst, their traumas, joys, and day to day dealings, in particular with bullying.  I am speaking of author John C. Houser whose new novel, Music Box, has once again proven that this writer understands what it is to be a gay youth fighting their way daily in a still very real homophobic world.

Music Box is the name of an aging bygone days hotel that housed a music store for decades and has now become the sanctuary for Jonah Winfield.  Jonah, a physically small, underwhelming sixteen-year old, spends most every day running from the terrorizing attentions of two bullies, Antony and Justin.  A brilliantly gifted musician, Jonah seems unable to “fit “anywhere—not at school and certainly not at home.  Home, with its absentee mother and depressed yet caring father, holds little for Jonah and serves to only remind him of the terrifying disappearing act that his father is going through as he fades daily from the man he used to be—back when he was employed, back when Jonah’s mother was not so busy trying cases clear across the country.

So very little in Jonah’s life is right, and the daily harassment, name-calling and physical violence, that he manages to live through only increases despite the best intentions of his Jazz band teacher, Paul Gaston.  Paul sees the bruises that Jonah tries to hide and thinks that somehow the school must be able to stop the criminal acts of bullying that are being done to Jonah.   Meanwhile, Jonah escapes to the music box and plays the Steinway piano that owner Davoud Avakian so graciously offers to him.  Once Paul and Davoud join forces, they discover there is very little they won’t do to ensure the violence surrounding Jonah stops.  But Jonah must first be willing to face his bullies and speak out against them…something that so many in Jonah’s shoes realize will only serve to increase the episodes of bullying and not put an end to them.   When tragedy strikes Jonah’s home, he turns to Davoud and Paul both for shelter and comfort but both men realize that Jonah is now a tightly wound spring and one more punch may be the thing to drive him over the edge.

What sets John C. Houser’s novels apart is his ability to get inside the mind of a teenage boy and consistently portray him with a reality that is sometimes painful to read.  While the author never plays violence out just for shock value, he also does not hesitate to make the reader aware that bullying is real, ongoing, and often escalates to the point of life-threatening proportions.  We see it every day in our society, young gay boys attacked and discriminated against and our schools and police unable to stop it.  Houser turns a bright light onto this desperately sad and egregious reality and pulls you into his novel, capturing and holding you there as he spins a remarkably well-written story that stays with you far beyond the last word on the page.

Along with the unfolding drama surrounding Jonah, the author builds in a slow building romance between two older men who tread such a fine line in trying to help the teenager.  Once again, Houser uses his story to make us see how when a gay man chooses to help a gay youth, society looks upon it with a disgustingly homophobic view that twists the purest of kind and caring gestures into something perverted and nasty.  The fact that both Paul and Davould must watch how they act around Jonah—watch how much they intervene on his behalf, merely because it could be misinterpreted as sexual maneuvering was so incredibly sad and, yes, repulsive to think about.  Yet as the author points out this is how society perceives the gay man and his desire to help the gay youth in his community—as something opportunistic and perverse.

Music Box was not always an easy novel to read.  It was hard to listen to Jonah’s continual anger and refusal to cry foul against his bullies.  It was difficult to watch his family fall apart and his teachers and friends be unable to truly intervene and stop the violence surrounding him.  However, be assured that while Jonah arrives at the end of this novel battle weary and scarred, he does arrive intact and there is great hope for his future.   I found Music Box by John C. Houser to be profoundly gritty, realistic and compelling to read.  If you enjoy the YA genre, you will not want to miss it!

A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.

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