Book review: Playing by the Book, by S. Chris Shirley

Shirley Playing by the BookShirley, S. Chris. Playing by the Book. Riverdale Avenue Books. 2014. $19.99. 314p. PB. 9781626010710.

Jake, a naïve teen from Alabama, lives his life by the “Book,” that is, the Bible. Jake’s father is a preacher who expects him to follow in his footsteps. Fortunately, Jake’s love of journalism has him headed in another direction–to New York City and Columbia University’s prestigious summer journalism program. Coming from small-town Alabama, Jake’s summer in New York is eye-opening. From homeless people and gay marriage to his hot neighbor Sam, Jake’s world view is turned upside down. Most importantly, though, how can he follow the Book when he can’t stop fantasizing about Sam? During his New York summer, Jake must find out if he can be true to himself and still play by the Book–or least part of it.

Writer, director, and president of the board of Lambda Literary, S. Chris Shirley offers readers a novel detailing Jake’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and Christianity. From a first-time author, Playing by the Book is a beautiful and profound story that asks readers to question their own beliefs and ability to look at people beyond labels, beyond what they “see.” Shirley’s powerful prose draws us into Jake’s world – a world of fundamentalist Christians, a world where people must follow the Book, a world that made me, as a reader, cringe.

Jake tries so hard not to be gay that even his part is straight. His authentic voice underscores the reality that many GLBT teens live with and struggle against every day. Through Sam, the wise, hot, Jewish neighbor, the author offers the reader, “How can it be a mistake, brah? It’s who you are.” Shirley, drawing from his own experience, explores the sexuality/faith conflict superbly and leaves Jake and readers with the knowledge that interpreting the Bible, like the constitution, evolves over time.

While a Christian-centric LBGT story might not be for everyone, I found it to be an excellent story with an insightful message. LBGT Christian teens will devour both the story and the message.

Ruth Compton, Youth Services Librarian
Arlington County Public Library (VA)

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