REVIEW: Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee (September 8, 2016); 296 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here.

I keep wanting to call this book “plucky.” I think that’s because it manages to balance itself nicely between pessimism about the future (or perhaps it’s skepticism about our vision of the future) and optimism about, well, being alive, love, goodness, all that. Optimism wins, but not without a hard fight.

Not Your Sidekick is a fun adventure set in a post WWIII future, in which a small percentage of the population is born with powers-beyond-average. Those people register with the government, and are subsequently permitted entry into the Heroes League of Heroes (and oh, goodness, but I get happy giggles at the ridiculous bureaucracy suggested by the redundancy of that name), take on a “super” alter ego and live kind of like Superman in the comics: a mundane life as an average person, and a secret life as a hero, roaming the streets, performing rescues, thwarting evil, and doing general good. The government assigns a certain percentage of these “super” people to become villains, so there’s a good-evil balance, and there’s consistent work for everyone.

Jess Tran is born into a family of supers in the area of what used to be Nevada; her parents are—by day—a mild-mannered pair of Happy Middle-Class Suburbanites with 3 kids and—by…other day—Smasher and Shockwave, a dynamic crime-fighting duo. Jess’ brother Brendan is some sort of Super Science Nerd-Genius who cavorts with beakers and safety goggles in his free time. Her sister Claudia is a new hero, recently graduated from the Meta-Human Training Program and off being super somewhere, usually with Jess’ idol, the bright-toothed and model-flashy heroine Captain Orion. Jess has not developed any noticeable super powers (which she must discover before she turns 17 or she won’t be allowed to register as a Meta-Human—and thus, a hero—with the state). She lives with the disappointment and shame of being different from her family and rather un-special, until she takes an internship with the robotics company run by one of her parents’ arch nemeses, Master Mischief. There, Jess strikes up a friendship with the object of her Big Ole Crush, Abby, who’s working as some sort of secretary; Jess also struggles to keep up her friendships with Bells, her FTM bestie, and Emma, her cis-femme friend who has a painful crush on Bells, and tries to please her boss—or, at least, his representative, a mysterious person who wears a Master Mischief super suit, but is clearly not Him.

There’s twists here I’m trying not to give away: secret identities and secret feelings, plot twists and character 180s abound, like literary bumper cars. Suffice it to say, there’s lots of action, and Jess finds herself in the position of teaming up with her crush to save people she’s spent her life distrusting, loving someone she’d never expect, seeing her family and her heroes from a different perspective, and uncovering her own power (be it super or non-).

She does all this in the absence of her parents, with her friends—and her own intuition—to guide her.  In this way, the novel strikes me as the quintessential coming-of-age story, though the details may look very different from what we, in contemporary America/Europe, expect. But the heart is the same: young woman has to figure out her abilities, has to find her purpose, discovers desire and falls in love, then begins to drop her childhood illusions and see people for who they “really” are.

The protagonist, Jess, is compellingly sympathetic for almost anyone who has been a teenager (particularly a queer one); she’s awkward, unsure, fumbling through failures and the occasional hard-won success, full of longing. But I make the novel sound more heavy than it should—it’s fun, too. It’s set in an interesting future world, part Jetsons (a smooth, silver, automated fantasy) and part Brazil (a janky, steam-punk, be-tubed future bureaucracy.) (The best example of this is Jess’ family MonRobot, an older model who (that?) is charmingly inept and clunky, who vaccuums itself in circles and gets stuck in places and, though mostly a glorified Roomba, is still a wonderfully lovable little guy.) Jess is actually a pretty happy, driven character. Her friends are awesome. Her life, even without powers or a love affair, is pretty good. There’s love and intrigue, secrets and adventure to be had.

There’s also a really lovely aspect to this book that deserves its own mention: Jess is first-generation American (her parents emigrated to the North American Collective from somewhere in the former Asia), and though the novel doesn’t ever hammer this point at the reader, one can easily read the Discovering-One’s-Super-Difference and the Growing-Up-First-Gen-and-Not-White-in-America as parallel—or at least related—story lines about defining oneself, discovering one’s power, making an identity. There’s also the quiet little factor (again, not surfaced, but present enough to color the narrative) of an ethnically-Asian girl in a largely-Caucasian culture discovering her abilities and worth, despite that dominant culture often interpreting her as lesser–it rings relevant here. Of course, there’s also the parallel with queerness: a difference that’s both relevant and irrelevant, something one discovers about oneself, something that has the potential to change the way everyone else looks at you, something that often involves a secret identity or hidden life. I think of parallels with the lives of many women, too, and how they (okay, we) had to work hard to recognize our own abilities and value and place in the world.

The ties between the “superhero” narrative and the narrative of a non-white queer girl coming of age are there, certainly, but not the point—the point is a superhero story, and one that needn’t be qualified as a superhero story about a first-gen queer Asian girl. It’s just that readers often think of that kind of story as a qualified hero story (a hero story about…), rather than just a hero story. It’s a political decision to normalize her narrative, not make it all about her differences (her ethnicity, her gender, her sexuality). It’s a political decision that strikes me as really refreshing (we need both kinds of stories–those which insist on difference and those which insist on sameness–to be told). White, straight male heroes get to have narratives that don’t center on their identities, so why shouldn’t Jess?

This book is a bit of a departure in tone and style  from Lee’s first book, Seven Tears at High Tide, which I might call a supernatural romantic fairy tale (this book is quirky and bright, where the former book is mystical and almost mournful), but readers will notice a similar optimism, faith in friendship/love, and a dip into the unreal that manages to seem plausible even as it’s far from the details of the mundanity we know.

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REVIEW: Burning Tracks by Lilah Suzanne

Burning Tracks by Lilah Suzanne (August 11, 2016); 224 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

This is the second book in the Spotlight series (the first is Broken Records), which follows the lives of a quartet of people: Nico, the stylist to the stars, his business partner-stylist Gwen, Gwen’s wife Flora, and Nico’s love Grady, who just happens to be a big country music star.

While Broken Records focused mainly on Nico and his courtship with Grady, Burning Tracks is centered around Gwen and Flora’s lives. Nico and Grady are still around, and they get important story developments, but this is not their novel. The primary story—and the reader’s heart—belongs to Flora and Gwen as they navigate their new lives in a new town, pull apart and pull together and pull other folks into their circle.

When Nico and Gwen become business partners and take their star-styling business from LA to Nashville, Gwen and Flora need to make a new life for themselves in a new place. While Nico navigates a new and coltish relationship with Grady, Gwen and Flora are doing the hard work of staying together, weathering the long haul—it’s lovely balance: both couples are unsteadily trying to figure out how to live in new conditions, both literally (Nashville) and figuratively (new stages of lives and relationships, new pressures and possibilities). While Nico and Grady are stumblingly trying to figure out how to be in love, Gwen and Flora are trying to figure out how to stay in love—I don’t mean that they’re in constant danger of falling out of love, but that they’re trying to understand how to maintain their lives, keep beauty alive for each other, simply be in love without all the bang and fuss and glory that newness brings.

There’s heartache and drinking, of course (I mean, there are country music stars in this, so it would disappoint if it didn’t happen), but there is also contentment and joy… and some kittens at one point, too. I admit I’m not a big country music aficionado, but I can’t think of a single country song about the joys of living with kittens—this novel goes well beyond the clichés, in other words, to give a real picture of real lives happening.

They’re great characters, all four of them: loving, but not saccharine; interesting, but believable; complex, but still relatable; just stupid enough to make them real (I hate the sexism of “Mary Sue” labels, but because most people understand that term, I’ll use it: there are none here).

In this second novel, the group grows a little bigger to include Clementine (another country music star/Nico client), a couple kittens, and an endearing little guy named Cayo—but I won’t talk about how he figures into the story, because I don’t want to give anything away. Instead, I’ll say that Clementine is a fun and interesting character: she’s a shining penny of a woman, with the sleek sheen that money and fame seem to give, and she comes across as a bit vain, a bit too big for her britches, and yet still very endearing and well-meaning. She’s the kind of girl who gets her hair colored and calls people “Sugar,” but she isn’t one-dimensional—she gets a moment of awkward redemption, plus she hides a kitten in her coat like a crazy lady, so I think she’s tops.

The book’s paced just right—one is pulled along without any dragging, and the prose is efficient but loving (if you can say that about prose; I mean it feels neither self-indulgent nor too airy and speedy). It’s one of those books I could have easily (had I the time and no other stupid life obligations) read in one sitting, though knowing it was waiting for me to pick it back up again each evening was a good motivation to get through the daily mire.

While Broken Records never felt unresolved to me, Burning Tracks feels like it resolves some of what got knotted up in Broken Records, and leaves off at the top of a cliff—all the characters are just starting big new life adventures (I won’t say what, and you can’t make me). It felt quite nicely resolved, but still leaves room for more to happen in a future third book. Which I’m hoping Suzanne has in the works.

REVIEW: With or Without You by Zane Riley

With or Without You by Zane Riley (July 21, 2016); 348 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

So, ever since I reviewed Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley (here), I have been waiting for the release of the sequel, With or Without You, and guess what? It’s here!

If you’ve not read my review of GYOW, pop over there and do that first, or be, at least, forewarned: I’m going to talk about this like a sequel, as if these characters and this situation are familiar because, to me, they are. And I’m happy to see them get more book space.

(Oh, and probably: spoiler alert for book 1.)

With or Without You picks up where Go Your Own Way left off: Lennox McAvoy—a nominally homeless, rather crass high school senior—is living with (and falling for) the relatively-privileged Will Osborne. Lennox was living in a residence motel after being dumped there by an uncaring grandfather and The System (which, after releasing him from a pretty abusive juvie situation, slapped an ankle monitor on him and told him to go be successful… without going too far). Will’s family has taken him in, but they discover that keeping him safe and well-behaved and at “home” is a bit like trying to hold on to a wisp of smoke with nothing but a tissue and a rubber band; Lennox just won’t be contained that way.

Lennox has a dirty mouth and no filter, and absolutely no tolerance for folks (like Will’s dad) who neither trust nor particularly like him. Like a good Harvard Business School grad, he’s proactive: when he senses someone’s not going to treat him with the respect or understanding he needs, he acts like a jerk and pushes them away before they get the chance to hurt him.

Ironically (in the O. Henry sense, not the Alanis Morissette sense), the people Lennox trusts least (Will, Will’s dad and Will’s stepmom) are the most likely to help him stay safe and get him through high school and into college. Ironically (in the O. Henry sense, but maybe a little in the Morissette sense here, too), those folks are so wrapped up in their own ideas of what’s right and good that they do a bit of metaphorical foot-shooting and end up suffocating the kid with their good intentions.

Will pushes Lennox to apply for college at a very expensive, very exclusive music school (Lennox plays several instruments and composes music and is an incredible musician, after all, and Will… really, really isn’t), and it brings out the fear that underlies Lennox’s bravado. What if he bombs the interview or the audition? What if he doesn’t even get that far? What if Will goes away to college in New York as planned, and Lennox is left alone with nothing, holding his… gonads… and has to join the army?

Or what if he gets in after all, but can’t afford to go?

While Will’s in this up to his eyeballs, and has a lot of figuring out to do (how do you support someone without imposing your own values on them?), this book feels like Lennox’s story. Lennox has to learn to trust everything: Will’s dad, his stepmom Karen, Will, and even himself and his own abilities. He also has to learn to let go (his best friend Lucy is leaving him behind, moving to Boston with her new girlfriend). Finally, he has to learn to settle down into happiness and not screw it up just because he’s afraid and wants to ruin stuff before something or someone else does it for him. He is, in the classic sense of irony (and, okay, in Morisette’s sense, too) his own worst enemy.

Not that there aren’t enough really bad enemies out there for him anyway. His own grandparents reject him and keep him from seeing his little sister (his grandparents are white and he’s the child of a Black woman and a white man); the authorities don’t really care who or what he is, as long as his ankle monitor doesn’t indicate he’s gone outside his permitted zone; the racist homophobes at the motel where he was living just want to beat on somebody (he’ll do); Will’s dad kind of thinks he’s a punk, an opinion which may or may not be driven by some privileged racism.

This is a smart and compelling follow-up to Go Your Own Way. (It’s great as a sequel, but can also be read on its own, without having read the first book.) Lennox is tough to love; Will, though his motivations are probably more familiar to most middle-class readers than those of Lennox, is also tough to love much of the time. In fact, almost everybody in this novel (I’m giving Karen a pass) is a well-meaning jerk of one sort or another. (Okay, and the racist homophobes don’t get passes, but they also don’t get to be included here… they’re just jerks, not at all well-meaning.) All of them are interesting and compelling, complex enough as characters to pull you in and make you care what happens to them.

REVIEW: Into the Blue by Pene Henson

Into the Blue by Pene Henson (July 7, 2016); 236 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

“Sometimes we don’t get to keep things exactly the same. They can still be good.”

–Hannah, in Into the Blue

The Blue House is a crumbling, aqua blue seaside house on the North shore of Oahu. It’s home to a small found family of surfer kids: Tai Talegi, Ollie Birkstrom, Ollie’s younger brother Jaime, Hannah and Sunny. The ocean is practically at their back door, so they spend their days surfing the Banzai Pipeline and working or going to school when they must. The story centers around Tai, a budding board shaper, and his best friend Ollie, a world class surfer clawing his way back to the top after a pretty rough injury had knocked him out of competitions.

When Ollie gets tapped to compete in a worldwide tour surfing competition that will take him to places as far flung as Australia, Tahiti and South Africa, he asks Tai to come along as his supporter, board tech and coach. Though they have the “greatest friendship in the world,” once they’re away from their normal lives and everyday family, they discover that they can—and must—have more together.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that, and of course, things get in the way. But what’s central here is a kind of lighthearted-yet-determined struggling: the beachy, slapped-together home life of all the kids (who care for each other and work for each other to make a tight and fiercely intimate little family); Ollie’s climb back from injury to compete as a world class surfer; Ollie and Tai’s shaky, nascent love as it grows, a love which pulls them closer and farther apart like a tide, everyone’s desire to Figure It Out (the It being What to Do in the World and Whom to Be). This made me long for the days of that kind of brilliant patchwork life, full of uncertainty and people and love and risk and absolute newness, as difficult as it was rewarding. I remember windows wide open on weekend mornings, coffee cooling on the stove, sprawling meals we all cobbled together around a second-hand table (avocado, pancakes, a bowl of cold black beans, whatever we could scrounge, held together not by how well it fit but by how hungry we all were, how determined we were to call it a meal). The shared meal was the one moment of stillness we found together in our otherwise wide-scattered lives. This book puts me back there, in the best of ways. Life in the Blue House is like this.

It strikes me that this book is about people trying hard to hang on, trying to keep alive what’s precious to them. It’s what everyone in this book is doing: Blue House life is threatened again and again (by everything from absence to eviction) and the kids have to figure out how to persist; Tai tries to discover how to do what he loves while still staying loyal; Ollie’s trying to hang on to his life as a surfer though it’s really hard work that pulls his focus and sends him far away; Jaime’s on the cusp of college and all the kinds of leaving-behind that usually entails; Ollie and Tai find love but don’t know how to bring it home (for them, home threatens their love and their love threatens their home, and there’s no clear solution). Everyone is desperately trying to hang on. (And I’m refraining from making the point that surfing is also about hanging on, mostly because I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to surfing. I can barely balance myself on land.) Okay, and that’s another thing I can say: it’s about trying to find your balance. And let me point to back to that quotation with which I started: it’s about finding new and beautiful kinds of good, without needing to hold rigidly to what was good in the past.

There’s lots in this book you won’t see coming. That seems to me to be part of the point: insecurity, searching for solid ground (even surfers, seriously). There’s a lot that threatens to tip over, and the gentle suspense is tightened by the backdrop of Ollie’s progress in the worldwide surfing competition as we see it through Tai’s eyes. It is, at its heart, a love story between two men who have always been friends, but that story is intertwined so skillfully with a comeback story, and with several different coming-into-oneself stories. The writing and the pacing are exactly right for this: quick, smart, clean, but descriptive enough to stir up real longing in the reader.

Everything in this book presses you forward, and you move with it happily, looking for the end you both want and don’t want. Is that a surfing metaphor? Not intentionally. Like I said, I have no idea what I’m talking about there. But it strikes me that bodies of water do that: ebb and flow, undertow, push forward at the same time you pull back. It seems like the whole exercise of surfing, like reading, may be self-defeating: the joy is in the brief ride that must be brief to be joyful. The very thing (the wave, the book) that thrusts you onward must inevitably come to an end and leave you behind.

Happily, unlike waves, which you can only ride once before they’re gone forever, you can re-read and re-read a book.

 

 

REVIEW: Set Me Free by Kitty Stephens

Set Me Free by Kitty Stephens (June 9, 2016); 256 pages. Available from Duet/Interlude Press here.
 
Aaron Ledbetter is supposed to marry his childhood friend Lyn; their parents, both heads of wealthy families looking to further their own power, made the decision long before Lyn and Aaron could talk. It’s a good thing Lyn and Aaron have grown to be best friends. All this would be fine (well, not fine, but tolerable), except that Aaron’s gay and both he and Lyn have their own plans.
 
Enter Jonas “Lucky” Luckett, who’s scored a job as a caricature artist at the carnival on Tybee Island where Arron’s and Lyn’s families vacation. Aaron and Lucky meet (in the men’s bathroom, of all places, but innocently enough), and everything seems to settle into place. This becomes the story of Aaron and Lucky falling in love and working out how to manage the different forms of distance and familial resistance they face in order to be together. They strike up a semi-secret (Lyn knows) summer courtship.
 
The title (SET ME FREE) sets us up to understand this as Aaron’s story—he’s the one who’s trapped by his family (well, so is Lyn, but her role in this story is to the side), and he’s the one Lucky might save. The “freedom” of that title is an either/or: the freedom allowed by financial success and familial/social support, versus personal freedom to live as he pleases (no Harvard, no wife).
 
Despite the focus on Aaron (and, to a lesser degree, Lucky), one of the biggest joys of this novel is Lyn—she’s feisty, smart, independent, and totally roots for Lucky to be happy (she’s all the things a GBF could want, really); there’s stuff going on for her (her own secret loves, her own aspirations and interests) to which the reader isn’t much privy (since Aaron doesn’t see it, and the narration alternates between sitting on Aaron’s and Lucky’s shoulders). She’s clearly got depth beyond what the other characters see, and it shows in little flashes here and there. (In fact, I’d love to see the novel from her point of view, her own story and her own desires coloring this world. She’s got a lot going on, not the least of which is being forced into marrying Aaron when she’s in love with someone else and knows her husband-to-be is, too. But this isn’t her story—there are plenty of stories of straight girls falling in love with the man of their dreams; this one instead belongs mostly to Aaron.) Lucky, too, proves to be feisty and smart and rooting for Aaron. The only people who don’t seem interested in rooting for Aaron are the “parentals,” as Aaron and Lyn call their parents. Aaron is, well, pretty lucky.
 
Since this book is published by Interlude’s young adult imprint, Duet, I’m going to try to rewind myself about 30 or 35 years to remember what it was like to be a young adult. (Yes, we had books back then, you jerk.) For young folks wishing for love, struggling with familial control/approval, and just figuring out their own independence, this book will hit some really right notes, not the least of which is the longing for freedom and independence from familial/social control (oh, kids, I’ve got bad news for you… that usually never goes away).
 
It makes itself a version of a “topsy-turvy” world. Since probably only people who have studied medieval Europe will understand that, I’ll first apologize, and then say that the notion of “topsy-turvy” was what undergirded Carnival/e (a tradition in many, many countries, which is now most notably seen surviving in celebrations in Rio and New Orleans): every year, the society would hold a festival in which all usual hierarchies were inverted (the king would act like a peasant, a peasant got to be “king,” gendered roles and behaviors were reversed, etc), and in this way the brief celebration acted like a steam valve, letting off the pressure in a brief and controlled way (so that the rest of the year, everybody stuck to their expected roles). Tybee Island vacations seem to be intended to function this way for Aaron’s family, but this year the “flight of fancy” (yes, it is related to a “fugue state,” and thus a musical fugue, since “fugue” comes from the Latin word for “flight”), the summer fling, is intended to be just that: a retreat into fantasy that lets one go back to the plodding difficulty of your normal life afterward.
 
Except, when Aaron and Lucky meet, everything goes topsy-turvy for the summer, but then sticks for good.

REVIEW: Daniel and Erik’s Super Fab Ultimate Wedding Checklist by K.E. Belledonne

Daniel and Erik’s Super Fab Ultimate Wedding Checklist by K. E. Belledonne (June 23, 2016); 188 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

So, not to make this book review all about me, but I’m going to talk about me for a moment. I prefer to identify as queer—not lesbian (though I do, when asked, agree), not gay, but queer. It’s a political thing. Part of that political thing is feeling suspicious of marriage, its effects and meanings. (I was one of the queers who opposed American gay marriage in theory but advocated for it in the political short term because it was the quickest, surest way to gain all the rights and privileges legal marriage confers on straight folk in the United States.)

That said, I married my partner when gay marriage became legal in the U.S., despite political misgivings. My resistance was not about my feelings for her, but about the expectations that we queers would conform to the straight values of legitimacy/legality, visibility, monogamy and, well, conformity, by accepting something that was a barely-modified form of a straight social/political institution. No sooner was gay marriage made legal than non-marriage was made socially illegitimate, and resistance was futile.

That said, I sure do like my Married Person tax breaks and extra rights.

I needed to include all these explanations at the start of this review because this book takes as its situation the event of a gay wedding/marriage. To be quite honest, I balked a bit, worried a bit about reading the story (even as I trusted its author) because of my feelings.

But enough about me. What do you think of me? (Just kidding; I don’t care what you think of me.  This review is only a bit about me and my feelings. Instead, I’m going to tell you what I think of this book. Which is both about me and about this book.)

Daniel and Erik’s Super Fab Ultimate Wedding Checklist is fun. It’s funny, smart, sunny, romantic, by turns heartbreaking and sweet. It’s all the good things one expects of a rom-com. The characters are wise and complicated enough to be interesting without being too complex to understand. The situation is probably common enough that anyone who’s tried to throw a traditional wedding (or watched folks do it) will empathize. The writing is smooth and gently wry.

Here’s the deal: Daniel (a glasswork artist) loves Erik (an archeologist), and Erik loves Daniel, but when Daniel starts using a mobile phone app to plan their impending wedding, things spiral down the drain right quick. The app persona (Aurora), who is a minor character throughout the novel, is genial enough, but in the stress of planning every detail of an elaborate, classic wedding, it suddenly dawns on Daniel (get it? Aurora? Dawn? See what I did?) that he’s miserable, and everything breaks down rapidly from there. The two men wind up in different countries, on different paths, in different worlds, but similarly heartbroken.

Daniel seems to be all about form: he gets sucked into the Wedding Industrial Complex and agonizes over the differences between two essentially-identical paper colors for their invitations (this reminds me of that scene with the business cards in the film version of American Psycho), while Erik is over it and unafraid to say that he thinks the whole mess is ridiculous. One of them seems most driven by the glory of the ceremony (the wedding), and one seems more concerned with the glory of the outcome (the marriage). Between them, a vast political chasm. Filled with broken glass. And hungry wolves. With guns.

This story has all the trappings of a good rom-com: a hostile bestie secretly in love with one of the grooms-to-be, a few folk who root for the couple, a seemingly senseless but realistic breaking point, an interloping new love interest, and a dramatic journey to proclaim love and establish renewal. Like Belledonne’s first novel, Right Here Waiting, this story intervenes in a traditionally-straight narrative (in RHW, the war romance; in this case, the wedding-centric rom-com) and inserts gay folks at its center without changing the narrative too drastically. It’s one way of claiming territory to extend the borders of a previously-hetero-only institution to include outsiders while keeping the institution recognizable. (Another way is to change the institution itself, but that’s a subject for a different essay.)

DESFUWC a fun, beachy, lovely read. It’s engrossing (I read it in two large gulps over two evenings, because I didn’t want to stop). It’s sweet, and gently harrowing (in that bad things happen, but somehow you know it will all be okay in the end).

Ask me, because you knew it was coming: “do you take this book?” I totally do.

 

 

REVIEW: Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley

Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley (May 5, 2015); 326 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

I just flew through Go Your Own Way, and boy, are my arms tired.

JK, you guys, my arms aren’t tired at all. I could easily fly through another book about these characters. This is the first book in a series (…of two? …of more? I don’t know yet!), and when I got to the last page, I was unhappy to read “The End” and then an announcement that the story would continue in the next book. THAT book, which I have been calling Go Your Own Way 2 in my head but is really called With or Without You, will be released on July 21, 2016. Even though that’s less than a month away, I’m feeling anxious to get my hands on it so the story can continue.

Go Your Own Way is two stories, intertwined. The chapters oscillate between points of view: there is Will Osborne, a “good kid” struggling to drag his too-obviously-gay self through a hoary and hostile public school, when in comes the “hood” (do the kids today still say that?) Lennox McAvoy fresh from reform school, a sort-of classic Bad Boy with whom Will is assigned to work on a year-long literature project. Soon, Lennox has him in his Sex Crosshairs and sets up a relentless effort at seduction. It’s all very effective, except that he’s crude, situationally tone deaf, and sometimes mean as a wet cat caught in a corner. OK, well, it’s still pretty effective. Will soon discovers that Lennox is more than just a jerk: parents dead, he’s been dumped by a cold grandfather in an unlockable motel room where he bars the door with a steamer trunk and scrounges an existence from pilfered fruit and well-read books, while in the parking lot outside, racist (you’ll see) homophobes throw glass bottles at his door and threaten him with violence.

Despite Lennox’s rough and oversexed nature, Will falls. And then Will’s father lands in the hospital in a coma, so Will is left worrying with his stepmother (who’s kind, who’s a nurse, and who’s hanging onto Will with all her remaining strength) while his father persistently deteriorates.

It’s the story of two boys who have lost parents (both Lennox’s mother and father have died; Will’s mother died when he was younger and his father appears to be about to die). But while Will’s father (before he landed in the coma) and stepmother are both caring and supportive, Lennox’s grandparents take neglect to the edge of hate (it probably doesn’t help that they are white and Lennox’s mother was Black, making him “not quite/not white” (as Homi Bhabha wrote) and the object of the white grandparents’ scorn). So it’s the story of socio-economic privilege learning to trust and care for/about someone without (without home, safety, nutritious food, a caring and present family…), and also the story of someone without learning to trust and care for/about someone so privileged. It’s also the story of the very different ways privilege can affect our experience of difference—being a middle-class, white, gay boy is radically different from being a poor, parent-less, gay boy of color.

But this is me being preachy; the novel doesn’t preach like this. Instead, it tells a really great story, part love story (and that is also the story of how to reach across a flaming divide of privilege and difference) and part tale of danger and rescue (I mean that both ways: how to rescue someone you love and how to rescue yourself—both are dangerous).

As Will falls deeper, it turns out Lennox is also really smart (a math ace), and kind of lovely when you peel off the stinking jerk skin he wears for protection.

Go Your Own Way is suspenseful without literal ghosts (though the memory of dead parents haunts this, and there are ghouls in the motel parking lot who haunt and threaten Lennox); it’s emotionally engrossing without the over-high drama of a pantomime. It exercises every nerve I’ve got, keeps me teetering and balancing on edge, worrying, hoping for some safety and peace. It makes me want the story to continue (and, yay, it’s about to do so!), even though my damn proverbial arms are tired.

The sequel, With or Without You, is available for pre-order from Interlude Press here. It will be released on July 21, 2016.

 

REVIEW: Right Here Waiting by K. E. Belledonne

Right Here Waiting by K. E. Belledonne (February 10, 2015); 220  pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Right Here Waiting tells the story of a man serving in the military as a U.S. pilot during World War II and his lover, who waits for him to return home. It’s got all the trappings of a good war story, but it isn’t an historical novel. The way to read this novel is as a fantasy, a fix on history, a make-it-right. Folks looking for an absolutely accurate account of WWII will be disappointed…but that’s sort of the point.
For those of us gay folk yearning to see ourselves in a romantic, Casablanca-like wartime history (feeling unsatisfied with the winks at queers through the gardenia-scented Peter Lorre), this novel aims to fix our desires, to re-tell the history with us at the center.
Right Here Waiting is a love story between two men (Ben Williams and Peter Montgomery), whose clandestine-ish love affair is interrupted when Pete joins the US armed forces as a pilot and is shipped overseas to join the war. Ben, with his bum leg, is left waiting at home for his return. What follows Pete’s departure is a pastiche of memories, letters, longing, and the tension of war, until Ben and Pete can be safely united again.
Here’s why I call this a fantasy: Ben and Pete are really in love, and many of their close friends and colleagues know it and support it without the slightest bat of an eye.  In fact, there’s no tension or angst around The Gay Thing, other than a bit of covering-up the two do to keep their relationship secret (hint: they kind of do a shitty job and everyone knows anyway, but nobody cares). This is not a novel about the real struggles of being on the down-low (especially in the military), nor the dangers we queers faced (well, face even now, though less so), nor the mitigated support we often receive from straights (who are cool with us as long as we don’t act too queer); it’s a novel about two people in love who are forced into separation by war and violence, who worry and fear for each other, who risk death to find each other. For once, instead of Bogart and Bacall, those two people both get to be men.
This isn’t the story of two men in love. This is the story of two people in love who have a continent and an ocean and bombs and violence keeping them apart, told as if their genders don’t matter. It’s a story about how to hang on, how to find comfort where you can, how to wait for love and safety, but how to grab it, too.
I’m not mentioning the rest of the story: there’s Pete’s wonderful, supportive squadron; there’s Gwen Andrews, the famous singer/temptress who entertains the troops; there’s the best gal-pals who help the boys maintain their connection.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a fantasy, but there’s still death, and near-death, and injury, and danger. There just isn’t homophobia or hate or that kind of fear. It’s kind of nice to read a romance about queers that doesn’t include an obligatory bashing or hate-mongering jerk who dumps a malted on their heads or something.
I’m all for realistic fiction. I’m usually bothered by attempts to paper over queer presence and queer suffering, but that doesn’t seem to be the point here. The point of Right Here Waiting, rather, seems to be to intervene in the war story genre itself, to make a great and brave love story between two men. You can bet those stories happened (and still do), but they probably weren’t this romantic, beautiful, gripping or happy. Then again, straight romances don’t look much like Bogie and Bacall, either.
In the wake of the horrible homophobic events in Orlando and the mainstream media’s  subsequent erasure of queers from the tragedy, I’ll take any day this sweet and charming fantasy that insists on re-inserting us not into history, but into romance.

REVIEW: In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack

In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack (May 19, 2016)l; 336 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

I’m going to come out of the closet here as someone who loves grammar. (Sorry to disappoint, but I long ago came out of the sexuality closet.) I’m coming out as a grammar nerd (okay, a queer grammar nerd) to say how much I love the title of this book.  First, the double meaning of “tense”—this refers both to a time-bound verb form (is it past? Is it now?) and to the feeling of tightness (in the situation/plot, in the emotional line, in the urgency of the characters’ needs, all of that). Second, that multiple meaning of “present”: when we refer to the “present tense,” we generally refer to verbs capturing the now, the immediate action; when we say “presently,” however, we mean “soon” (not “now,” as many people assume).  Both those words are full of multiple meanings and the insecurity of meaning itself.

In other words, this title perfectly captures the quite successful intellectual juggling act of the novel—it tosses all those balls in the air and manages to keep them flying, and beautifully-so.

Miles Lawson is caught between: either he can time-travel, or he’s mentally ill; he unpredictably shuttles between his struggle in the current moment (in which he’s committed to a shady mental health facility) and the past (in which he and his then-love Adam struggle); he is still in love with Adam while being married to Ana; he both loves his wife and doesn’t trust her.  There’s more, but I don’t want to give too much away—suffice it to say, Miles Lawson is fraught.

When I read this novel, at several points, I actually said out loud, “yeah, but what’s real?” I think that’s very much the point, for me—the reader is strung as precariously as is Miles himself (and as, probably, all the characters are). There are no truly evil characters here (not even the seemingly-evil Dr. Brannigan—it’s possible to understand him as a moustache-twirler, but also possible to humanize your view of him in this novel, see him as a character with dire motivations, too).

What I loved here was having to relinquish myself entirely to the novel, not to be sure at any moment in the plot, never to fully understand what the novel “was” until it was over. Giving over control of oneself, especially one’s mind, like that is rather scary, even in this small way.

Oh, hey, look at that! Did you catch it? The novel doesn’t just tell the story of Miles’ difficulty, nor vividly show me that circumstance; it puts the reader herself into a similar difficulty, lets her really feel it. Neither showing, nor telling, but being is its mode.

It strikes me now, as I write, that this novel is about—in so many ways—empathy (I distinguish this deliberately from sympathy, a form of pity). To fully empathize, I have to feel the feelings of and understand the experience of both myself and another person at once (to sympathize, I need never truly feel the other person’s world, and need never truly relinquish my own ideas).

But all this intellectualizing is how I, generally, enjoy books.  I recognize that this isn’t everyone’s cup of chamomile (see? I’m being empathetic). For those of you impatient with such a view, I can also say: In the Present Tense is a hand-wringing, exciting novel you’ll love to read for both the thrill and the romance it offers.

 

 

 

 

Review: HELLO CRUEL WORLD by Kate Boernstein

Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws by Kate Bernstein.  From Seven Stories Press (July 2006), available here.

I bought this book for my wife as a gift, but read it before she got her hands on it. It’s a vital book, especially at this moment, when news of “bathroom bills” and the resulting legalized harassment and abuse of trans folk who dare to… exist… in public seems to be mounting by the day.

This book is going to save lives. Maybe it will prevent some suicides from happening–one hopes–but even if that’s not the case, it’s going to change the lives of those who read it for the better by helping readers wade through the mire of things-we-know about gender. It’s going to make us all rethink, or think better… and by that, love each other better.

Boernstein writes in a clear, relatable way, about gender. I’ve been teaching versions of “gender studies” at the college level for decades now, and I’m going to sit with this book over the summer to relearn how to talk about this stuff. Boernstein makes it very clear that you can talk about very complex ideas in understandable ways without dumbing down.

Another lesson I’ll take: I cried, like, really a lot reading this. I also snickered, and downright laughed; sometimes I did all three at once. All of this is good stuff, productive for thinking; in other words, the tone of this book isn’t just an extension of Boernstein’s writer persona in the world, and isn’t just about “relating” to teens–it’s a carefully-chosen stance with respect to the material and the thinking. “Real” thought (the kind academia finds valuable) isn’t necessarily best when it’s detached, stoic, and without investment. “Real” thought belongs to all of us who are invested. This book proves that.