Category: LGBTQ+

Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)

Cover image for Jack of Hearts by L. C. Rosenby L.C. Rosen

ISBN 978-0-316-48053-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“My sex life has always been out there, talked about, but now I’m talking about it, too. I don’t know if it’s just going to make the rumors and stories worse. I want to douse the fire, not throw gasoline on it.”

Jack Rothman is an out and proud gay white boy in liberal New York City, attending an elite private school. He knows he has it easy compared to gay kids in rural areas, or even compared to his best friend Ben, who is black and fat, in addition to being gay. But his ostensibly liberal school doesn’t quite know how to handle Jack, a boy who wears make up and has a reputation for sleeping around. So when Jack decides to lean into his reputation, and starts writing a sex and relationship advice column for his friend Jenna’s website, it is no surprise when the administration is displeased. But the sex advice column also prompts a turn for the disturbing, when a secret admirer begins leaving creepy notes in Jack’s locker. Soon stalking turns to blackmail, as the letter writer tries to force Jack back into the closet and curb his sexual behaviour. With no help from the school administration, it is up to Jack and his friends to figure out who is blackmailing him before his stalker gets what they want.

Jack is refreshing character in that his coming out is long behind him. He has friends both gay and straight, and a supportive if somewhat harried single mother. But the world he lives in has certain ideas about how gay people should behave, as exemplified in the character of Jeremy, President of the school GSA, and Jack’s first boyfriend, who is constantly striving after the straight ideal of masculinity in everything except who he dates. Jack’s refusal to be bound by these strictures results in him becoming the object of gossip in his school, where everyone feels free to talk about his sexual exploits, and even make up stories about him. In this respect, Rosen’s fun YA mystery full of parties and teen romance is also a serious conversation about the ways straight people, including young women, objectify gay men for their own pleasure or entertainment.

As a fan of the advice column format, I loved the way Rosen incorporated the Jack of Hearts letters into the story, posing them as advice, commentary, and even plot development in various scenarios, while also reinforcing the book’s emphatically sex-positive tone. Jack, of course, gives remarkably good, carefully crafted advice for a seventeen-year old, coming across as mature and worldly. But these character traits also prove complicated burdens as he tries to solve the problem of his stalker without involving the police, or his mom. As the harassment intensifies, he even begins to pull away from his friends, believing that he can solve everything himself, without worrying anyone else, and it is this belief that takes the book to its darkest place. Although I figured out who Jack’s stalker was early in the book, the intensifying situation still managed to hold me on edge until the very end.

If there was one place Jack of Hearts fell down for me, it was in the relatively abrupt wrap-up, after the stalker is revealed. I couldn’t help but feel that the implications of what Jack and his friends went through were overlooked for a simplistic conclusion. The result is a weirdly anti-climactic let down from an intense situation. After the deliberate intention and care with which the author addressed complex issues like consent and homophobia, this breezy conclusion to a legitimately traumatic experience felt out of place. With a more developed conclusion, this book would have been a real stand-out.

You might also like When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid.

Fresh Ink

Cover image for Fresh Ink Edited by Lamar Giles Edited by Lamar Giles

ISBN 978-1-5427-6628-3

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

It became pretty freaking clear that, book after book, adventure after adventure, the heroes weren’t like me at all.” –Lamar Giles

Fresh Ink is collection of short fiction highlighting diverse voices, put together by Lamar Giles, who is credited as one of the founders of the We Need Diverse Books movement. The majority of the stories are contemporary, with a strong focus on romance, but historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy are also included. The short format also includes one comic, and one play. With the exception of the reprint of “Tags” by Walter Dean Myer—to whose memory the collection is dedicated—the stories were written for this anthology. Contributor Aminah Mae Safi won a contest seeking new writers to feature in the book.

Everyone will have different favourites in a short story collection, and for me there were a few standouts in Fresh Ink. Sara Farizan, author of Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, and If You Could Be Mine, offers up “Why I Learned to Cook,” the touching story of a bisexual Persian girl who is out to most of the people in her life, but struggling with how to tell her grandmother, whose rejection she fears. This one put tears in my eyes. I was also gripped by “Catch, Pull, Drive” by Schuyler Bailar, a transgender athlete who draws on his own experiences in a tense, first person narrative about a high school swimmer facing down the first day of practice after coming out as trans on Facebook. Both writers spoke at ALA Annual 2018, along with Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Adaptation, who contributed “Meet Cute,” a story about two girls who fall for one another in line at a fan convention, one dressed as Agent Scully, the other as gender-flipped Sulu.

The collection comes to a strong close with “Super Human” by Nicola Yoon, author of The Sun is Also a Star, and Everything, Everything. The world it is set in seems much like our own, but featuring a super hero who has become disillusioned with the people he is trying to save. The point of view is that of the young woman who has been given the seemingly impossible task of convincing X that humanity is still worth saving. But first she must get X to tell her why he has given up hope. This little story packs a big punch, and nicely rounds out an anthology that offers a variety of short fiction which allows diverse readers to see themselves reflected, often in the words of an author who shares their particular experiences.

Barren

by Peter V. Brett

ISBN 978-0-06-274056-4

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher.

The rush of magic was addictive, as many folk were discovering. Even Selia was caught in its grip. It did more than strengthen the body; it heighted passion as well.”

Selia Square has been the Speaker for the small community of Tibbet’s Brook on and off for decades. She is a respected leader despite the mean-spirited nickname that has followed her into her seventh decade: Barren. Using warding spells and militia, Selia has helped lead the forces that protect the Brook from the hordes of demons that appear without fail at nightfall. But lately its seems as if the demons have become more powerful and cunning, and Selia worries about what the dark of the moon will bring, when the demons are at the height of their powers. But Selia has more than demons to worry about. The puritanical Jeorje Watch has slowly been gaining followers, and working to undermine her authority as Speaker. She knows it is only a matter of time before he challenges her for the Speaker’s gavel.

This novella landed on my doorstep courtesy of the publisher, and I decided to give it a try despite the fact that I hadn’t read any of the other Demon Cycle books. Clocking in at 135 pages, it seemed like an easy way to get a taste of a fantasy world that I have heard a lot about from other speculative fiction fans. One caution I had previously been given about Brett’s books is that they contain rape. Barren does not require that content warning, but it does depict other forms of domestic violence, as well as homophobia. A female character is also killed in order to provide a tragic backstory for her lover.

Brett no doubt did a lot of world building and explained his magic system more thoroughly in the main volumes of his series, and probably most readers of this novella will be existing fans. I had to pick things up as I went along, and I suspect I missed plenty of references and foreshadowing that will have resonance for Demon Cycle fans. One interesting thing about his magic system is that it appears to be reversing the aging of the characters who spill demon blood. This includes Selia, who should be entering old age, but is instead experiencing a renewed vigour for life. However, her long-time enemy Jeorje Watch, the oldest man in the Brook, has also benefitted from the magic. Jeorje should have been dead decades ago, along with the secrets he carries about Selia’s past. Jeorje has a long memory, and his isn’t about to forget what was once between Selia and his granddaughter.

Structurally, the novella moves back and forth between Selia’s past, where she lives with her parents, and helps her mother run the local school, and the present where she serves as Speaker, and lives alone, but risks exposure to the community by taking up with a woman five decades her junior. Given the short length of the book, Selia is the only character who feels significantly developed, though by the end I felt I had somewhat of a sense of Jeorje as well. Based on reading synopses for other books in the main series, it does not seem that Selia is a significant character there, so I am not sure if I will continue reading. I am a bit curious to learn more about the magic system based on the small taste I got in Barren.

Have you read the main Demon Cycle novels? Weigh in below in the comments section and let me know if you think it is worth continuing!

Fall 2018 Fiction Preview

Last month, I spent an extended weekend in New Orleans, attending the American Library Association’s annual conference. In addition to meeting up with colleagues, and attending workshops, I also hit up several book buzz sessions, and visited the various publishers in the exhibit hall. Disclaimer: the publishers were giving out ARCs of many of these titles, and I picked up copies where I could, but I haven’t had a chance to get down to reading most of them yet, so these are just a few of the titles I’m particularly excited to read in the coming months.

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

Cover image for A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua When Scarlett Chen falls in love with, and is impregnated by, her boss at a Chinese factory, the father of her child is elated to learn that he will finally have a son. Eager to secure every advantage for his long-awaited heir, he ships Scarlett off to a secret maternity hotel in Los Angeles, so that their son will be born with American citizenship. Scarlett doesn’t fit in with the upper-class women who can afford such a measure, and when a new sonogram leads to a startling revelation, she decides to steal a van, and disappear into Los Angeles’ bustling Chinatown. What she doesn’t expect is a stowaway, and an angry lover hot on her heels. River of Stars will be available from Penguin Random House August 14, 2018.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Cover image for Pride by Ibi ZoboiIf you love a good Pride and Prejudice remix, get ready for Pride, a  young adult  African-American retelling set in gentrifying Brooklyn. Zuri Benitez is proud of her Afro-Latina roots, but the Bushwick she once knew seems to be disappearing before her eyes. Her newest neighbours are the wealthy Darcy family, and while her sister Janae seems enamoured of their son Ainsley, Zuri wants nothing to do with his brother Darius. In the midst of family drama, and looming college applications, will Zuri and Darius be able to find common ground? Look for it from HarperCollins September 18, 2018.

Jack of Hearts by L. C. Rosen

Cover image for Jack of Hearts by L. C. Rosen Out and proud, it isn’t hard to convince Jack to write a sex advice column for his best friend Jenny’s website. But then the gossip mill starts churning, and soon Jack is receiving threatening notes from a mysterious stalker, who doesn’t like the fact that Jack is proud and comfortable in his skin. Jack of Hearts is already getting buzz for being own voices, queer, and sex positive, and billed as a potential game changer for discussions about sex  and sex ed in Young Adult literature. If it’s half as good as the early buzz, you’ll be eagerly awaiting its October 30, 2018 release from Little Brown. (Also, check out that cover!)

Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Cover image for Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn BarnesFans of The Naturals and The Fixer, take note! Jennifer Lynn Barnes has a new YA mystery headed your way this fall. Sawyer Taft is a talented mechanic, so the last thing she ever expected was to find her estranged grandmother on her doorstep, offering her a six-figure contract to be a debutante. But Sawyer quickly realizes that this unusual offer may be her only chance to discover the answer to a question that has haunted her for her whole life–who is her father? But as she begins mixing in high society, Sawyer quickly realizes that her family’s secrets are tied up with those of other powerful families, and investigating the past may unearth a lot of skeletons that those movers and shakers would rather stay buried. Coming your way November 6, 2018 from Freeform.

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Cover image for In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireNow technically this one isn’t due out until January 2019, so you can imagine my pleasure and surprise at landing an ARC! Katherine Victoria Lundy is a steadfast and serious young girl, and perhaps the last person you would expect to stumble upon a door to another world. But some worlds are founded on logic an reason, fair value and honest bargains. And so it is that Lundy opens a door to the Goblin Market, and finds her true home. But it wouldn’t be fair value to keep a child who is too young to decide, and so Lundy must periodically return to her own world, and the strings that tie her back there grow stronger with each visit. Spoiler alert: I read this one cover to cover on the plane ride home, and it might just be the best Wayward Children book yet! Set your countdown for January 8, 2019, and curse Tor if you don’t want to wait that long.

Wild Beauty

Cover image for Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore by Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-12455-5

For a hundred years, La Pradera has bloomed under the hands of the Nomeolvides women, five in every generation, whose magic brings to life what was once a barren landscape unfit for farming. But the Nomeolvides women are cursed; any man that they love too much, who stays too long, will disappear into La Pradera, never to be seen again. They have lived with this pain for generations, defined and shaped by it. So when Estrella and her four cousins make an offering to the land, and a boy appears, a boy who seems to be out of his time, a whisper of hope goes through the family. Fel has no memory of how he came to La Pradera, but what if he was the disappeared lover of a long ago Nomeolvide woman? But even as the women begin to hope that their lost loves may not be lost forever, the arrival of a new member of the family that owns the land they are bound to threatens everything they have built.

La Pradera is a vivid setting, a place of magic and tragedy. The Nomeolvides women have worked the land there for a hundred years, but beautiful as they have made it, they can never leave it, or La Pradera will take its revenge. But though they are bound to this land, they do not own it. It belongs to the Briar family, a wealthy clan that hides their rejects and failures on this distant estate. When Marjorie Briar dies, Reid Briar waltzes into town, fully expecting to seize control of the estate from Bay, the illegitimate daughter of a Briar, who was raised by Marjorie, and named her heir. The power imbalance between the Briars and the people who have worked their land forms an important part of the story.

Despite the curse, romance is woven through Wild Beauty. All five of the Nomeolvides girls are a little bit in love with dashing Bay Briar, nominal heir to La Pradera. They do not know if a woman can be disappeared by their love, but they are all afraid to find out, and so they keep their affection for her at a distance. When Fel appears, he and Estrella are repeatedly drawn to one another despite her mother’s warnings. Though the land gave him back, they all worry that he could disappear again. And what if he really was once the lover of a dead woman he can’t remember? In the course of the story, both Bay and Fel must emerge as their own people before questions about who can love them will be answered.

In addition to being a romance, Wild Beauty has a strong theme of family, especially the relationship between Estrella and her cousins. The older generations of women are more distant and less well known. Estrella and her cousins are pushing themselves away from their mothers and grandmothers, as much as they can when they are all bound to the same land, unable to leave it for very long. They hope to somehow avoid the fate of their ancestors, as every new generation hopes, and that drives a wedge between them and their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. The older women try to keep the peace and protect their daughters, but Estrella seems determined to stand up to Reid, whatever the cost.

In this, her third novel, Anna-Marie McLemore returns with her lush, polished prose and fine touch for magic realism. Although slower paced, her novels always deliver for atmosphere, character, and emotional impact, and Wild Beauty is no different.

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Also by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Weight of Feathers

When the Moon Was Ours 

Fall 2017 Non-Fiction Mini-Reviews

We’re three weeks post-move now, and I’m still digging out from under the chaos, and trying not to think too hard about the fact that the holidays are basically upon us! Unpacking will barely be finished before its time to start hauling out the Christmas decorations. In the meantime, here are a few more mini-reviews of some of the non-fiction I’ve been reading over the last few months while I was on hiatus.

A Really Good Day

Cover image for A Really Good Day by Ayeley Waldmanby Ayelet Waldman

ISBN 9780451494092

This memoir chronicles Waldman’s unique and illegal experiment using microdoses of LSD to regulate her mood disorder. The book follows the experiment diary-style, but also incorporates discursions on drug history and policy. In her career as a lawyer, Waldman has consulted on drug policy and taught courses covering drug history, so she has a solid grounding in the context of what she is undertaking. Much of the existing data she is able to bring up is compromised by the fact that early experimenters, in addition to giving the drugs to their subjects, were also sampling their own wares, and seem more like psychedelic enthusiasts than legitimate investigators. Along the way she must cope with questions like what she will tell her children about what she is doing when they inevitably notice the shifts in her mood, and what she will do once her very limited supply of LSD runs out. Every disclosure about her drug use risks both her reputation and potential legal repercussions, and the idea of purchasing on the illegal market is even more fraught. Ultimately, she concludes that what she really wants is “the kind of answer only real research by legitimate scientists under controlled circumstances can provide.”

A Mother’s Reckoning

Cover image for A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Kleboldby Sue Klebold

ISBN 9781101902769

This memoir is an intimate and gut-wrenching look inside the home of an ordinary little boy who grew up to be a high school mass murderer. Her son’s suicide inside the school library following the rampage left Sue Klebold heartbroken and in search of answers, with no one to whom she could pose the questions. She comes to conclude that a deep depression she failed to recognize played a significant role in her son’s involvement in the shooting, and advocates strongly for health care and suicide prevention—though she also clearly states that mental illness should not be assumed to lead to violence. Klebold does her best to recount the events in a way that is compatible with existing guidelines for responsible reporting on such tragedies in order to prevent imitation, something which she sharply calls out the media for failing to do in their treatment of the events at Columbine High School. It is a harrowing read because it shows people who commit terrible acts of evil as human, leaving aside the question of whether those who do monstrous things need to be humanized. I can’t imagine how upsetting this account might be for anyone who lost loved ones at Columbine.

How to Survive a Plague

Cover image for How to Survive a Plague by David France by David France

ISBN 9780307700636

This history is an insider’s look at the activists who advocated for AIDS treatments and victim’s rights in the early days of the epidemic. France’s account centers on New York, and the founding of such organizations as ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group, as well as the safe sex movement. France truly makes the reader feel the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery. Some early and influential activists believed that AIDS was the result of immune overload in “promiscuous” gay men, and advocated abstinence as treatment. While this theory was controversial and eventually thoroughly debunked, it did lead to the creation and promotion of the safer sex guidelines that helped curtail transmission of the disease. France also delves into the bureaucracy and homophobia that delayed the development of effective AIDS treatments by researchers and public health officials. Desperation led to thriving experimental drug undergrounds without proper oversight or data collection. Especially if you were born after AIDS went from being a death sentence to a manageable health condition, this is an essential and illuminating read.

Love is Love

Cover image for Love is Love Organized by Marc Andreyko

Edited by Sarah Gaydos and Jamie S. Rich

ISBN 978-1-63140939-4

On June 12, 2016, a shooter opened fire inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine people were killed, and more than 50 others were injured. In a Facebook post reacting to the tragedy, comic book writer Marc Andreyko put out the call for the comics community, writing “Hey, fellow comics professionals: anyone interested in doing a benefit anthology comic book for the Orlando victims? i’m more than willing to organize it and reach out to publishers…” The resulting deluge of offers to contribute led to the creation of Love is Love. From the proceeds of this anthology, a $150, 000 donation was made to the OneOrland Fund for victims and families of the Pulse shooting. Subsequent proceeds are scheduled to be donated to LGBTQA charities on an annual basis.

Love is Love represents a varied collection of pieces that span the range from one page stories to illustrated poems to single page pieces best described as posters. There are reactions, commiserations, rallying cries, and memorials. Some are inspirational and reassuring, while others are hard to read. Readers should be aware that in several instances, the victims are depicted in the aftermath of the shooting. Many of the contributors are straight, while others are members of the LGBTQ community.

Love is Love was put together and published in short order. Many of the pieces are raw and fumbling, reacting, processing. Some of them miss the mark, and a few really should have been more carefully considered, which might have had the chance to happen on a less tight editorial deadline. On the positive side, a number of major comic book characters are depicted as queer, or supportive of the LGBT community. However, these images would be more valuable in the regular runs of these major characters, where all the fans would be exposed to them. The collection achieved its purpose of raising money for the cause, and there are many beautiful and extremely touching pieces in this collection, mixed in with others that strike a sour note.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)

Cover image for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9203-9

“Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.”

Once upon a time, twins Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott opened a trunk in their attic, and found an impossible staircase that led down, down, down, to a magical world called The Moors. A world where Jack didn’t have to be the perfect girly girl for her mother, and Jill didn’t have to be the sports-loving tomboy standing in for an absent son. But still a world where they would have to be polar opposites in a different way, choosing between The Master and Dr. Bleak, the vampire, and the mad scientist. If they still have one thing in common, it is that they want to stay on the Moors forever. But we all know that doorways come calling when you least expect them.

Every Heart a Doorway was a fan favourite last year, and went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novella. I’ve seen very few complaints about it, but I do remember some laments about the fact that it was not in fact a portal fantasy, but rather the aftermath of one. Down Among the Sticks and Bones scratches that itch, while also further developing Jack and Jill’s backstory, and how they got to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Getting a better look at their family background is particularly enlightening, and indeed proves to be a main theme of the novella.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is very much about relationships between parents and their children, the delicate balance of hopes and expectations, and how easily children can be suffocated beneath them. “It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own,” writes McGuire, in the voice of someone who clearly remembers. This dynamic not only warps Jack and Jill’s characters, but also their relationship with one another. The Moors is the first place where they can define their own siblinghood, beyond the parameters their parents set out for them, but they find that they don’t really know how. And of course, part of adulthood is defining oneself beyond the boundaries of your family of origin.

If there is one thing to lament about Down Among the Sticks and Bones, it is that the story ends before Jack and Jill arrive at Eleanor West’s school. We don’t get to see their early days there, and nor do we learn more about the interesting system of worlds McGuire has set up. But more will no doubt be revealed with Beneath the Sugar Sky, due out in January 2018.

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You might also like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman