Sugarless Reviews

Sugarless has been shortlisted for the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

Sugarless has been designated one of twelve semi-finalists for the Virginia Commonwealth University James Branch Cabell First Novelist Award.

Sugarless is a finalist for a 2010 Lambda Literary Award in the category gay debut fiction. See full list here.

Sugarless is a Featured Selection of the InsightOut Book Club and a Selection of BOMC2

• An “Indie Top 20”—Publishers Weekly, 8.31.2009


“Magruder, a dramaturg and playwright, loves theatre, and it shows through his prose. His ear for intelligent teenage dialogue is effortlessly full and rich, capturing the keen sensibilities of a sassy boy not yet cowed by the undertow of Puritan culture. Magruder revels in exposing a core American conflict: freedom of being versus the fevered proselytizing of religious fundamentalism.

—Alice Tuan, American Theatre

Sugarless, James Magruder’s juicy, fruity new novel, is a ’70s coming-of-age story that combines the heady flavor of adolescent hormones with original cast albums and high school speech competitions. The result is a tart rite of passage into gay adulthood that’s not at all saccharine but packs a surprising emotional punch…The astringent ending of Magruder’s impressive and highly entertaining first novel leaves us eager for his next work of fiction.

—John Dennis Anderson, Gay and Lesbian Review

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“Magruder’s brilliant writing draws you into what may be the best gay fiction you’ll find this year.

Instinct Magazine

“Rarely have I read a coming of age story as compelling as Sugarless…. It carries all the angst of Catcher in the Rye without feeling forced…. Magruder has created what I believe will become a classic of gay literature.

—Ward Holz, Our Lives

“Holding everything together is Magruder’s winning narrative economy. He soaks his story in period details—he’s got a fabulous ear for teenage dialog and a blithe gift for making every economic description of ’70s décor and color schemes feel like a Frank Stella painting, his adjectives and metaphors darting out into unexpected directions—and he’s got a wicked sense of humor that he never steps on by overwriting. Even better, Magruder climbs inside all his characters and animates them with flickers of flesh and blood foibles….

Magruder’s best feat here, though, is the way he steers these characters through decisions reactionary and ill-fated without ever passing judgment on them. Richard occasionally passes judgment on people, but it’s the impudent, churlish action of a teenage boy who is rapidly losing his place in a house that no longer feels like home, if it ever did. And in that humanity, he makes lanky, awkward Richard Lahrem—Stephen Sondheim fan, wearer of bikini underwear with brightly colored piping, speech club team member—into an accessibly familiar American teenager, trapped between being his parent’s son and being himself.

—Bret McCabe, Baltimore City Paper

Sugarless is a sparkling, beguiling sucker punch. It starts out as an edgy, nervously funny high school romp. Then the author gradually lures you into more dangerous waters. And even as Rick (the story’s young protagonist) achieves his Pyrrhic victory, the story becomes unexpectedly poignant.

—Mead Hunter, Blogorrhea

“By putting Rick’s sexual awakening next to his mother’s religious conversion, Magruder asks challenging questions about both: When we live the life we want, what do we ask of the people around us? Are we being selfish? Hurtful? If so, is that okay?

—Mark Blankenship, The Critical Condition 

“Though Rick Lahrem is a high school sophomore relying on an allowance-limited collection of Broadway-cast LPs for his nascent gay-boy desires—the novel is set in the 1970s, when vinyl still ruled—Magruder’s debut is too nuanced to fit into the young adult slot. Teens who come across it will of course find its coming-of-age, coming-out storyline enormously supportive, particularly if they’re contending with parents prone to a fervent belief in the power of Jesus. But this is a grown-up read, focusing as much on young Rick’s boorish stepfather and hapless mother as on the travails of the sexually questioning—and desperately horny—youngster.

—Richard Labonté, Book Marks

“Magruder’s protagonist is a witty, resilient youngster with thick skin and impenetrable spirit. The novel, as a whole, is rife with colorful characters and side-splitting dialogue.

—Christopher Verleger, Edge

“James Magruder has shaped a perfect coming-of-age story, moving, tender, romantic, sexy, even carnal, at times marvelously obscene. Sugarless is composed of prose that flows with perfect, seemingly effortless control from elegant, astringent wit to merciless, raucous, rude staring-and-describing to passages of breathtaking poetry. Fearlessly, scrupulously remembered, splendidly detailed, keenly observed, it’s generous and wise about (and to) its wonderful characters without a moment’s lapse into sentimentality; enfolded within its pages is a surprisingly dark heart, devastated by grief. Magruder is a writer of immense gifts, with a voice—smart, playful, lyrical, subtle, unsparing—utterly unlike anyone else’s. Sugarless is a cold-eyed accounting that refuses to blame, and an act of deep forgiveness that refuses to forget anything—an important, funny, heartbreaking, and beautiful book.

—Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels in America

Sugarless is a boy’s life. It is the rough chutes and ladders of adolescence against a realistic and hilarious evocation of the 70’s and if you ever wondered what makes boys tick, or you’ve been in danger of forgetting, Sugarless—compassionate, funny, wrenching and real—is the book you’ve been looking for.

—Amy Bloom, author of Away

“James Magruder’s Sugarless—so sly and funny, smart and affecting—is a remarkable debut. At once tender and satirical, Magruder illuminates the secret heart of every character, from the sixteen-year-old narrator who worships Broadway show tunes to the Christian girl who wears a live Peruvian cockroach pinned to her blouse.

—Richard McCann, author of Mother of Sorrows

“This fascinating 1970s coming-of-age story . . . may be about a homosexual relationship in the 1970s, [but] the story captures the struggles of teenagers, straight and gay, of every generation.

Publishers Weekly

“The tale of adolescent sexual awakening in James Magruder’s Sugarless reads so true it feels like it should
be thrust into the hands of every confused protogay teenager.

—Emily Drabinski, OUT Magazine