I chose Cranberry Boys for Older/Younger Hero Week because it features high schoolers trying to find a safe place in the world, while coming to terms with their sexuality and coming out. The title, Cranberry Boys, alludes to the once-plentiful (but now corporate-owned) cranberry farms of the dying town of Watermarsh. This is a YA title, so the steam is sedate, but the feels are plentiful.
Zeph Fuller is a high school junior on the cross-country team at tiny Watermarsh High. He’s a closeted gay boy with a secret boyfriend, Connor, something both want to remain secret, and has a public girlfriend. Stephanie, Zeph’s good friend thinks Connor really loves her, but meanwhile he’s always hooking up with Zeph. Zeph loves Connor and would be cool with coming out, if he didn’t think it would mess up his whole life. His parents are super religious and always hounding him to be perfect, even if he isn’t.
Bronson was friends with Zeph, Connor, and Stephanie all through grade school, but in middle school life got nasty. Bronson was singled out for “seeming gay” and a lot of kids, Zeph especially, pulled away. Bronson had considered Zeph his best friend and the loss of that relationship was overwhelming. Though Stephanie remained close with Bronson, he couldn’t cope; it turns out he is gay, but he hadn’t come to terms with it then. To help Bronson escape his growing depression, his parents sent him to an expensive private school for two years, but he’s been temporarily suspended pending an investigation that Zeph is wondering about. Was he kicked out for being openly gay?
Zeph is attracted to Bronson, but committed to Connor…who’s unwilling to come out or stop messing around with girls, even though Connor’s totally after Zeph all the time and gets mad if Zeph even talks to another guy. And Bronson wants to talk to Zeph, Stephanie, and Connor a lot, to get them each to write parts of a “Bog Blog” that would shine a light on the small-town life of Watermarsh and hopefully get some college attention focused their way.
For me this was a bittersweet book. Zeph is a boy trapped in bad situations, where love is often contingent on him doing or saying something that will please someone else at the expense of his own feelings. He so wants to believe that Bronson is interested and will love him the way he craves, but Bronson guards his heart, and Zeph isn’t able to see the love Bronson holds too close.
Through the school year we spend in Zeph’s head, we see his heartbreak and turmoil from both his parents, as well as from Connor who denies his feelings over and over. Connor is really the most despicable, fickle, pseudo-boyfriend I’ve read in a while. Stephanie and Bronson are good, but they keep secrets that hurt Zeph, too. Zeph, unmoored in many ways, tries to find his truth and figure out a lifepath that allows him to live it. This might involve letting Bronson and Connor both go their own ways, even if it’s hard to cut those ties. That all felt mostly real to me, and I ached for Zeph a lot in this story. I felt the Bog Blog stuff seemed artificial and a bit forced, especially keeping Connor in the mix, as he was so unnecessarily heartless.
Expect a couple love triangles, and they are both emotionally tough to endure. Expect Zeph to suffer a lot and grow a ton, learning to stand up for himself and his needs. I liked how he rebuilt his relationship with his father, and they were both so much more happy for it. There is a totally happy ending for all the kids: Zeph, Bronson, and Stephanie above all, though Connor’s HEA seems to be fleeting. Hints at later strife make me think he’ll be the subject of a sequel.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for Older/Younger Hero Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of FIVE $20 JMS store gift cards from JMS Books! Commenters will also be entered to win one of our three amazing Grand Prize book bundles. You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on Older/Younger Hero Week here.