What They Always Tell Us

( 35 )


JAMES AND ALEX have barely anything in common anymore—least of all their experiences in high school, where James is a popular senior and Alex is suddenly an outcast. But at home, there is Henry, the precocious 10-year-old across the street, who eagerly befriends them both. And when Alex takes up running, there is James’s friend Nathen, who unites the brothers in moving and unexpected ways.

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JAMES AND ALEX have barely anything in common anymore—least of all their experiences in high school, where James is a popular senior and Alex is suddenly an outcast. But at home, there is Henry, the precocious 10-year-old across the street, who eagerly befriends them both. And when Alex takes up running, there is James’s friend Nathen, who unites the brothers in moving and unexpected ways.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Martin Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us hears the voices of the young as they struggle toward adulthood. . . .”
—Richard Peck, Newbery Award–winning author

“In his beautifully realized first novel, Martin Wilson demonstrates a wonderful gift for finding the truth in human caring and for creating memorably multidimensional and engagingly sympathetic characters whom readers will welcome into their hearts.”
—Michael Cart, former president of the ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association and the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents

Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, July 28, 2008:
“Insightfully evoked, Alex, James and their friends will leave a lasting impression on readers.”

Starred Review, Booklist, November 15, 2008:
“This is a strong debut, and Wilson shows admirable control of a complicated story that in less-accomplished hands could have spun out of control.”

Publishers Weekly

Set in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Wilson's searching debut maintains a level of urgency as it explores the bonds between two brothers. As the novel begins, high school junior Alex's half-hearted suicide attempt (he swallowed a bottle of household cleaner at a party) has left him ostracized at school and bewildered his parents; meanwhile, his older brother, James, a popular athlete, feels angry and ashamed. But James isn't all that connected to his emotions: when first met, he's in a motel room with a girlfriend and has had sex with her, but is "filled with a strong desire to be rid of her, for good. It always happens." Wilson follows the two brothers as the school year unfolds, Alex growing into himself and falling in love with one of James's male friends, James discovering compassion and acting on it. Well-observed details shore up the Southern backdrop, important for the social networks that bind the characters and inform their actions. Insightfully evoked, Alex, James and their friends will leave a lasting impression on readers. Ages 14-up. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
KLIATT - Myrna Marler
This story is told in alternating chapters from two points of view. One is that of 15-year-old Alex, who tried to commit suicide by drinking Pine-Sol at a party. His life was saved, but he cannot explain why he wanted to die except to say that he felt ignored by his friends. He is trying to recover and go on, but everyone now thinks he's a freaky weirdo. The other point of view is that of Alex's older brother, James: popular, athletic, attractive to girls, but emotionally disengaged from his family, especially Alex, and from girls. He decides not to date anymore because relationships are too complicated. Then Alex meets one of James's best friends, Nathen, who encourages him to join the track team and treats him like one of the guys. Before long, Alex and Nathen are involved in an intense friendship/affair. James doesn't understand the friendship and doesn't know about the affair, although eventually he hears rumors. Meanwhile, both boys get involved in the life of a mysterious neighbor boy whose mother is often absent and who has no visible means of support. Secret letters are delivered at midnight and strange cars pull up in the driveway. As the year progresses, Alex heals and becomes more self-confident and James matures and appreciates his brother more. The book explores issues of identity, but it is worth noting that the sex scenes between the two boys are more compelling than the sex scenes between James and his girlfriend, as if the author simply cannot imagine what attractions girls hold for men. The novel will be of particular interest to gay, lesbian and bisexual teens. Reviewer: Myrna Marler
Bryce Lewis
Teen angst just got a much needed 21st-century perspective in this genuine story of two brothers and their struggle to come together throughout a turbulent school year. James was once close to his younger brother Alex, but things have changed. James, a senior, does not care to be associated with Alex, a loner trying to find his niche. James has his own issues to deal with: picking a college, going to parties, girls, and finding a way to stay sane in small-town Alabama. Alex must overcome his shaky past and the pressure to live up to his big brother's reputation. James and Alex discover the value of family and friendship in this powerful tale of self-acceptance and growing up. James and Alex's perspectives alternate through the chapters. Alex's chapters capture his loneliness and desire for social recognition while James's focus on his insecurities and concern for the future. Reviewer: Bryce Lewis
VOYA - Jonatha Bayse
Brothers Alex and James are extremely different. James, the popular, smart, athletic one has no problem finding girlfriends or getting invited to the best parties. Alex, on the other hand, has started off his junior year with problems that weigh heavily upon him. His sadness is made apparent after a failed suicide attempt at a friend's party. Now no one will talk to Alex, including James. It is difficult for the people around Alex to understand why he would try to take his own life. He had everything going for him, and then it spiraled out of control. Nathan, one of James' friends, looks past the negativity that surrounds Alex and pushes Alex to become more involved. His support allows Alex to understand and embrace his uniqueness and begin the journey to find his inner strength. Wilson's debut novel does an excellent job of showing the tension with which siblings deal on a daily basis. He also does a great job of exploring controversial issues, such as suicide and homosexuality. By alternating chapters between Alex and James, the reader gets to see how these brothers affect one another. It also allows the reader to see both points of view, which is sometimes a rarity. Public and school libraries should seriously consider adding this book to their shelves, especially if they are trying to increase their gay/lesbian YA collection. Reviewer: Jonatha Bayse
Children's Literature - Claudia Mills
Ever since sixteen-year-old Alex drank some Pine-Sol at Marty Miller's lake house party, his one time friends have shunned him, his parents have hovered over him, and his seventeen-year-old brother James seems profoundly embarrassed and uncomfortable about the whole thing. Certainly the "incident" has only made James even more eager to get out of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for Duke University (he hopes) as soon as possible. But when a redemptive, mentoring friendship between Alex and James's friend Nathen turns into something deeper, James has to come to terms with what it means to be brothers. In alternating viewpoint chapters, Miller enters completely and convincingly into the viewpoint of each brother, chronicling their thoughts and feelings with meticulous, non-judgmental care and insight. He manages to make the most ordinary events—an early morning run, a casual conversation with an ex-girlfriend, a party to which one brother is invited and the other excluded—utterly riveting simply by the honesty with which every single moment is observed and recorded. The tone of the narration is quiet, the emotions understated, and yet readers will find themselves gripped, shaken, and transformed. Debut novels do not get much better than this. Reviewer: Claudia Mills, Ph.D.
School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up

Alex and James are only one year apart, but the distance between these brothers is vast. James, a popular and talented senior, awaits news about his early admission to Duke, playing tennis and going to parties with his buddies on the weekends. Alex, a junior, is confused and disoriented after having chugged Pine-Sol at a party, lost all of his friends, and found himself secretly dating Nathen, one of his brother's best pals. The backdrop is Tuscaloosa, AL, where Alex knows his emerging sexual identity will never be accepted, and James fears he will be stuck forever if Duke turns him down. The boys wander their way through the school year fulfilling family obligations, befriending an odd and lonely neighbor boy, and navigating their way back to mutual affection after a period of mild estrangement. Wilson's novel offers a look inside the minds of both brothers, allowing readers to experience their parents, their school, and their town from two distinct points of view, confident and fearful, indifferent and melancholy, impatient and reflective. Some readers may feel that the book has a bit of a slow start, with some of the relationships only beginning to develop after page 100. They may come away wishing to have gotten to know the central characters more deeply, although the relationship between Alex and Nathen is touchingly realistic. In the end, this book may appeal to teens who are grappling with decisions about the future, the frustrations of family, and the choices that relationships require of us.-Nora G. Murphy, Los Angeles Academy Middle School

Kirkus Reviews
When this tender coming-of-age novel opens, Alex, a junior in high school, is profoundly alone. Ever since he swallowed Pine-Sol at a party, he's been considered an outcast, a loser, a freak. In contrast, his brother James is an athlete, a strong student and a charter member of the senior-class in-crowd. Yet underneath his one-of-the-guys persona, James also feels alone, constrained by the limited social scene of his Tuscaloosa high school, and ready to move on to the larger world of college. The brothers, once close, are awkward and uncomfortable with each other now, and how they begin the tenuous business of reconnecting is the stuff and substance of this somewhat overlong but nonetheless satisfying story. The main catalyst for their renewed rapport is James's friend Nathen, lamentably portrayed as a cardboard paragon of perfection, who encourages Alex to join the cross-country team and later develops other, more personal feelings for him as well. Smoothly written and psychologically astute, this story eloquently charts the cross-currents between social status, loyalty and brotherly love. (Fiction. 14 & up)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385735087
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 2/9/2010
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 332,059
  • Age range: 14 years
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Martin Wilson received a BA from Vanderbilt University, and an MFA from the University of Florida, where one of his short stories won a Henfield Award. This is his first novel. He lives in New York City

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 35 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 35 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2010


    This is the first book I have ever read that was about a gay boy my age. I had NEVER liked to read, but this book caught my attention. Once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down!!!! This book is amazing, and honestly changed my life and left me reflecting on it for days after. Not only that, but after reading, i emailed the author, Martin Wilson, we have since exchanged a bunch of emails and he even sent me a signed copy of his book! He is a great guy and he has told a wonderful story! Please, if you only ever read one book, let it be this one.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2011

    Touching and well-written.

    Can't even review; just read it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Not cliche


    "'...She said, 'Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.'
    'Yeah, that's what they always tell us.'"

    What They Always Tell Us is Martin Wilson's debut novel. It is written in a simple way, although as a reader I feel like it was just filled with emotions unspoken with words.

    The book started with Alex's perspective. Alex is a junior who recently became a misfit. A social outcast, but the kind that wasn't picked on. You name it. But that happened even before he drank the Pine-Sol in a party. After that, everyone just started calling him a freak.

    His older brother, James, deep down, probably do too, to Alex.

    James--like everyone else--asked Alex why he did it. Not that Alex ever answers, of course. So James, like everyone else, starts to ignore Alex too.

    James just wants to get out of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Start over everything he messed up.

    Alex, on the other hand, just wants...something. He doesn't know yet.

    Then there's Nathen, who's always nice to Alex (even after the Pine-Sol "accident"--as James and their parents calls it). One night, Alex started jogging again like he used to and he met Nathen on the way.

    Nathen encouraged Alex to join the cross country team. Alex wants to know why he's nice to Alex. Why he's always been nice to Alex.

    There's also Henry, a 10 year old kid who lives next to Alex and James. A puzzle piece out of the place in Tuscaloosa. Henry, the kid who reads the DICTIONARY.

    What They Always Tell Us tells a different yet still heart breaking story about first love, boy to boy and how a teenager cope with ex-friends, exes, brothers, family and most of all; life.

    What I love about this book: Okay, so first of all, I'd never thought I'd read a boy-boy/girl-girl love kind of thing. Don't get me wrong, I have NO PROBLEM with it. But I liked this book. A lot. Because it's meaningful, and it's a good piece of literature. It's always nice to get glimpses of someone else's life who is totally the opposite. I like how Martin Wilson switches perspective from Alex and James, and I like how the characters developed throughout the book. :D

    What I dislike about this book: The beginning was a bit slow for me, the first 2 chapters. But I understand that Martin Wilson was trying to set the story up, so it's all good! :)

    P.S: I highly recommend this book if you really like books. If you can't handle the boy-boy part, then just don't read it really.


    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 10, 2009

    Hate it!

    This book is the most horrid book I have ever read in my intire life. I did not enjoy it one bit. You should not ever lay hands upon it.

    1 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 30, 2011

    Highly Recommended - A Must Read For All!

    I think that this book was one of the most fascinating books I have yet to read. As a frequent reader of gay themed book this novel took a different approach that I enjoyed immensely. The writing style was detailed and clear and the alternating between the two main character's James and Alex had intertwined flawlessly - leaving you wanting to know more about each character. I would highly recommend this book to anyone, no matter the age or sexual orientation. "What They Always Tell Us" gave me the feeling of sadness and the feeling of wanting more when I turned that last page and last sentence - feelings that for me are rarely warranted. I will definitely continue to follow Martin Wilson and I will wait impatiently for his next novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2012


    Alex and James are both character with a lot of depth. You really feel a connection to them. Definitely worth the read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2010

    Good, but Cliched.

    I read this book, not really expecting too much (I don't mean quality; the back was vague, I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to get), and while I enjoyed it, I found a lot of it to be pretty predictable and gushy. While at the start of the novel, the character of Alex is interesting, by the end of it, I actually was far more interested in James' chapters, and found myself a little bit annoyed when his came to an end, and I'd have to read more about Alex. I've read a lot of books about gay teens, and frankly, one issue is that they always skip a part where they work out who they are, and they go straight into macking on one and other. Which there is nothing wrong with, but this kind of felt a little paint by numbers. By the end, James was the only real comfort in an otherwise predictable story. That and Henry, who had an interesting plot with his mother, that brought the brothers closer. But I never actually felt like they got close at all; maybe that's just me and my skepticism. Overall, a good book, and I wouldn't tell somebody to not read it, but would I actively recommend it? Maybe, but to be honest, I doubt I'll remember it in a month's time.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 26, 2010

    amzing connection to the reader

    it was a very good book. I was happy that unlike many of the other books dealing with gay characters, this book does not go into detail about their sexual activities. its a very good to to understand how a person can come into their own self by just finding their sexuality. two thumbs up

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  • Posted December 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Very good.

    I bought this book at a local used book store and I read the first few pages on the way home. I immediately took the bookmark out of the book I was already reading and began to read this novel. It was very realistic and edgy. I never wanted to put this book down. Every teenager should definitely read this.

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  • Posted November 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by Randstostipher "tallnlankyrn" Nguyen for TeensReadToo.com

    We all have read stories about two siblings who at first get along and then quickly drift apart... with their outcome up to the author. WHAT THEY ALWAYS TELL US has that similar outline; however, Martin Wilson puts his own spin on it and creates a novel more real and even more original than anything else on the shelf currently.

    We are introduced to two brothers. First there is James, the older brother who excels in all areas, from academics to athletics. Then there is Alex, who is now considered to be the outsider. Because of an attempted suicide at a party, not only did his friends abandon him but also his brother.

    With this incident, James drifts apart from Alex, unsure of what his brother has become. As their life continues, two unlikely people bring them closer together.

    First is Henry, the boy next door, who is only ten but has family issues of his own as both parents are hardly there for him. For some odd reason, Alex is drawn to him, wanting to be a guardian toward Henry.

    Then there is Nathen, James' friend who notices Alex's interest and potential in running. At first just helping him out, Nathen's bond with Alex turns into something that not even James could have guessed at.

    WHAT THEY ALWAYS TELL US is full of heartwarming and breakout scenes that leaves the reader saying one thing: WOW! Certain scenes, such as when Alex confesses his actions and the reconciliation between the brothers, deserve an Oscar for such amazing writing. Martin Wilson develops all four characters in a way that is satisfying, and the chemistry between each of them is so heartfelt.

    Words just can't describe how powerful of a read WHAT THEY ALWAYS TELL US is. The only advice I can give you is to pick up the novel and read it (just make sure you have a box of tissues right next to you and an entire free day, because you are not going to want to put this novel down once you start!).

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Horrible! I hate it!

    This is the most horrible book i have ever read in my whole life! Nothing can beat this book at being boring and horrible!! Its the most unaddicting book ever! DO NOT waste your time trying to get this book! You'll be nothing but disapointed and bored! If you really want a book to read then read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, That was then This is now by S.E. Hinton, Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper, Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper, The Face On The Milk Carton by Caroline B Cooney, and Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2009

    It's amazing!

    I absolutely loved this novel! I used every second of my free time reading this book, i finished it in four days! I felt addicted to it and even when i wasnt reading it, i found myself thinking about it. I'm a high school freshman so i can say first hand how realistic and relatable this book is. Kids need characters who they can relate too and feel a connection with, and this book definitley has them. I recomend this book to everyone but especially those who are in the process of finding themselves. Just remember "Dont forget to be the way you are!", a quote from one of my favorite Placebo songs, called Plasticine.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2009

    It's A Re-Reader!

    This book was one of the best I have ever had the chance to read. I enjoyed every minute of it. I have already recommended it to 3 friends, and am planning on reading it again. It is such a "real life" story, you dont know what is going to happen next!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2008

    Wonderful, Relateable, Well-Written First Novel

    Martin Wilson crafts a wonderful tale of teenage friendship, troubles & love (both familial & otherwise) among 4 boys that are growing up in suburban Alabama. ¿What They Always Tell Us¿ masterfully portrays today¿s teenage voice in a way to which almost anyone can relate. Much like an Altman film, Wilson creates characters that have their own disparate stories & then come together in a not unremarkable way. The writing style is also reminiscent of Louis de Bernières. Though the subject matter may rarely veer into the risque, it is never sensational nor is it used for anything other than logical plot advancement. (It is useful to keep in mind that Holden Caulfield¿s language was a bit racy, too.) Wilson¿s writing is ebullient without being pedantic, a rare trait in first-time authors. I would without reservation recommend this book for any person that enjoys a well-written, smart & relateable novel that cleverly and successfully explores teenage life.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted December 12, 2009

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    Posted January 1, 2010

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    Posted August 27, 2011

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    Posted June 29, 2010

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    Posted April 1, 2011

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    Posted April 18, 2011

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