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The Last Exit to Normal
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Michael Harmon lives in Spokane, Washington.

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Two gay men struggling against prejudices in the rural West may conjure images from Brokeback Mountain, but this novel has less to do with unconventional romance than a teenager dealing with unwelcome changes. Bitter about the dissolution of his "normal" family after his father came out three years ago (an announcement that made his mother leave for good), 17-year-old Ben dreads moving from Spokane, Wash., to rural Montana, where his father's partner, Edward, grew up. Starting over in a small town "where gay dudes and their boyfriends don't go over well" looks impossible to Ben. Tracking Ben's transformation from rebellious city boy to hard-working cowboy, Harmon (Skate) digs beneath the stereotypes of gays and rednecks to tackle issues emerging when conservative and liberal values clash. Some of Ben's prejudices about the West prove to be true: Miss Mae, Edward's mother, makes Ben live in the woodshed until he starts obeying her; the Pentecostal next-door neighbor believes Ben's family is going to hell. But Miss Mae has surprising complexities to her character, and Ben, itching to save the neighbor's son from obvious abuse and what seems to be local indifference, has a lot to learn about appearances. Harmon coaxes readers past some far-fetched plotting (Ben saves lives and rockets to hero status) with skillful, often witty insights into human nature; because his take on people is convincing, audiences will want to believe in his story, too. Ages 14-up. (Mar.) Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

Gr 9 Up-Since his father came out and his mother took off, Ben Campbell has been in trouble, smoking pot, getting arrested-the usual array of angry bad-boy behavior. In an effort to put him on the right path, his dad and his dad's partner, Edward, decide to move the family from Spokane to Edward's hometown in Montana. Rough Butte, population 463, is full of farmers, ranchers, and Miss Mae, Edward's tough country mama. Ben is out of his element in the extreme, and has a hard time adjusting until he meets Kimberly Johan, a neighbor who steals his heart and makes him want to be a part of Big Sky country. Although the novel wraps up a little too neatly, it is filled with atypical character interactions that make it an excellent read. Ben's anger at his father for destroying their original family and failing to be a "regular" dad is potent and raw, as is his language. His father's fear that Ben is becoming homophobic turns to paranoia and mistrust, and the two nearly part ways permanently. Ben also struggles with the differences between what he sees as child abuse and what most of the Montanans consider simple discipline as he befriends his young neighbor, who is in desperate need of someone's help. And, finally, Ben must conquer the town's teen villain who has an unhealthy obsession with Kimberly and a penchant for arson. It may sound like a lot of plot for one book, and it is, but Harmon makes it work with believable characters, Ben's biting wit, and solid lessons about acceptance and responsibility.-Nora G. Murphy, Los Angeles Academy Middle School Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, February 18, 2008: "Because [Harmon's] take on people is convincing, audiences will want to believe in his story, too." Starred Review, School Library Journal, April 2008: "It is filled with atypical character interactions that make it an excellent read." "From the Hardcover edition."

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