Kathe Koja's KISSING THE BEE audiobook: betrayal and emotional whirlwinds told with originality and subtlety

The audiobook of Kissing the Bee combines two of my favorite things: Kathe Koja's young adult fiction and Full Cast Audio's use of skilled actors to bring fiction to life.

Kathe Koja's young adult novels are masterpieces of subtlety, understatement, and the sneaky, skillful use of everyday situations to illustrate large, difficult emotional truths about growing up. Full Cast Audio — you may know them from their great adaptation of Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel — have brought in as talented a team of voice actors as I've heard, and their narration does great things for an already strong narrative.

Kissing the Bee tells the story of Dana and Avra, two small-town high school seniors about to graduate. They're best friends, but brainy, shy Dana is always in egocentric, beautiful Avra's shadow. Dana is incredibly smart about people and her natural empathy lets her love her best friend, despite all her failings, and despite the fact that Dana is secretly in love with Avra's long-suffering boyfriend, Emil.

That's the setup, your basic adolescent love-triangle. But oh, does Koja ever do amazing things with it. Koja's special gift is empathizing with the wrenching drama of adolescent emotions, the looming, all-eclipsing feelings that suffuse every tissue, raising the stakes of your problems to infinity. Dana is smart and reflexive enough to know this, but she can't avoid or explain away her feelings. She is a genuinely good person trapped in a situation in which there is no genuinely good course of action that avoids one kind of betrayal or another. Her dilemma — whom to betray, and how — plays out with the crushing inevitability of an avalanche, but her reflexivity and thoughtfulness means that the reader never descends into helplessness, no matter how bad things get for Dana.

The three primary actors — voices of Dana, Avra and Emil — play it just perfect, with the nuance that conveys smart young people who are in two minds: the dramatic emotional whirlwind and the rational knowledge of its true scale as measured against the whole wide world.

Koja's admirable people-smarts have guided her through two different careers, first as a writer of lush, lavish horror and now as a writer of spare, whittled-down, understated young adult novels. She is proof that there are no tired or unoriginal situations, only tired or unoriginal writers. Thankfully, she is neither.

Kissing the Bee (CD)

Kissing the Bee (Hardcover)