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.

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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: The Better to Kiss You With by Michelle Osgood

The Better to Kiss You With by Michelle Osgood (April 21, 2016); 182 pages.  Available from Interlude Press here.

This is the story of Deanna, who works for a company that runs a werewolf role-playing game called “Wolf’s Run,” and who falls for her very sexy neighbor called Jamie, who turns out—in a weird coincidence–to be an actual werewolf.

Things get intense when Deanna gets stalked by a person on the Wolf’s Run message boards who claims to be an actual werewolf (they are EVRYWHERE!) angry about the portrayal of werewolves by the game. Deanna appeals for support to her best friend Nathan and—eventually—to Jamie, since the stalking becomes terrifying because, well, it’s STALKING.  Things escalate—there’s frighteningly bloody stalker photographs, and actual blood, and creepy leering orange eyes—and everything comes to a head at the annual role-playing competition hosted by Wolf’s Run.  It’s night, and there are hundreds of fans crowded into a small area, many of whom will be running around in the dark woods howling like wolves and trying to win a prize.  Crywolf, Deanna’s stalker, appears to be there, but slips into the crowd before Deanna can do anything about it and, well, you probably see a confrontation coming, and you’re probably on the right track (yes, that’s a wolf-on-a-scent-trail-joke… it’s probably lame because I don’t get many opportunities to make those).

This is a tense story—not only does it have the will-they-won’t-they-budding-romance appeal of a good love story, but it has this jarringly-thrilling other plotline about the wolf-guy stalking the girl-girl, like Gamergate, but with fangs. I read this in a couple large gulps, because I needed to know what was going to happen in both plotlines, and because it was just that kind of shivery fun.

It’s probably no secret by now that I balk at supernatural stuff; I may be the only 45-year-old American lesbian who wasn’t into Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  But this novel works so well for me, despite my anti-supernatural prejudice—mostly because the plot, the characters, the ideas, they all have lives outside of the supernatural thing.  (When I was an undergrad creative writing major at a…ahem… snobby private university with a kilt-wrapped theme and a Scottish founder… no names mentioned here, but the initials were CMU… we writing students were taught that “genre” stories were bad because they usually eschewed the fundamentals of good storytelling… not so this one, folks, so CMU can go fly a kite, which is more awful a wish than it sounds, because of the kilts and the wind.)  The world of this story is incredibly believable. The characters are people in whom you want to invest your faith and love (boy, did I love Nathan, the BBF (I don’t mean BFF, nor do I mean your clichéd Will & Grace GBF, but a BBF, a bi best friend with his own real life and personality)).  In fact, Nathan is a great example of why this novel works so well: werewolves, bi best friends, lesbian love interests… it all has the potential to become cliché, too easily dealt with, usable for the story’s purposes, but it just doesn’t.  This story doesn’t use its characters, but lets them be who they are, do what they will, even if it means that they grow fangs and fur.

The supernatural part is present, but it’s not the only important thing, and doesn’t dictate how you can read this story—you can read it because of the werewolves, the lesbians, the were-lesbians, or just the dang good storytelling.