Upside Down by N. R. Walker

Published: 21st March 2019Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Blueheart Press
Pages: 258
Format: ebook
Genre: Contemporary romance
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

Jordan O’Neill isn’t a fan of labels, considering he has a few. Gay, geek, a librarian, socially awkward, a nervous rambler, an introvert, an outsider. The last thing he needs is one more. But when he realises adding the label ‘asexual’ might explain a lot, it turns his world upside down.

Hennessy Lang moved to Surry Hills after splitting with his boyfriend. His being asexual had seen the end of a lot of his romances, but he’s determined to stay true to himself. Leaving his North Shore support group behind, he starts his own in Surry Hills, where he meets first-time-attendee Jordan.

A little bewildered and scared, but completely adorable, Hennessy is struck by this guy who’s trying to find where he belongs. Maybe Hennessy can convince Jordan that his world hasn’t been turned upside down at all, but maybe it’s now—for the first time in his life—the right way up.

There is a certain delightful charm about this book. It is slightly rough around the edges in terms of style and story but it has heart. There are unique and diverse characters and Walker has managed to show the joy of friendship groups and the adventures of people in their mid-twenties: able to enjoy the freedom of being an adult while allowed to still be young and not have any major responsibilities.

Walker has captured the two differences voices perfectly. Jordon is very excitable but this has its charm at times. You can see Jordan’s mind working a mile a minute and his talkative nature is juxtaposed against Hennessy’s subdued, calmer nature. This may not be the full asexual story that people are looking for, but it does show the actions and mindset of a man trying to work out where he fits in the world. It is also a great introduction to this type of relationship and life that people may be unfamiliar with.

Jordon is definitely someone I think is an acquired taste. He swears a lot, he rambles and is very talkative but this is the character choice Walker has made and it brings some uniqueness to the character. One that also helps understand why he is so reluctant for this added development. Hennessy is the opposite and seeing the two of them together can be quite sweet because Hennessy doesn’t see Jordon’s personality as a flaw.

There are a few dialogue bumps and it isn’t always the most perfect writing but the story comes from a strong start and seeing the boys get to know one another and grow is actually quite endearing. Seeing them get flustered around each other in their own way is joyful and there are many adorable moments of the boys being adorable together. If you know the Surry Hills area there are great Australian references and locations as well.

Sometimes in an effort to cover the fact there is no offer of sex or sexual attraction there are a few misunderstandings that aren’t actual misunderstandings which I think Walker is trying to add some drama where communication would have solved all of the problems. There is admittedly a cheesiness to the story but it is sweet and if you don’t mind slightly sappy, daggy boys and their enthusiastic friends.

The things I loved though was the complexity of the relationship and identity. Seeing Jordon trying to work out who he is and where he fits is wonderful once you get further into the story. There are light hearted moments, cringy moments, but there are also complicated moments that show that trying to find out who you are can be tough and something that takes time and a lot of support.

You can purchase Upside Down via the following

Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (#1) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Published: 21 February 2012 (print)/ 9th April 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster Audio
Pages: 359/7 hrs and 29 mins
Narrator: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★  ★  ★ – 5 Stars

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

How I managed to relate to a teenager in America from the 1980s is a surprise to me but I did. This is a novel that didn’t evoke a lot of visible emotions, there wasn’t any squealing or gasping, no warm fuzzy feelings, but it was impactful all the same. It was a profound novel without being Profound. There are no sweeping metaphors, not Deep Thoughts, but at the same time it was deep in its own way. Sáenz is quite subdued with his grand thoughts and that is what I loved about this story.

At the beginning I didn’t think I was going to enjoy the story as much as other people but somewhere around the middle I realized how much I adored this story, how much I loved Ari. Sáenz’s writing is brilliant in its slowness, and its enlightenment. It felt real. It felt like the 1980s where everything is slow, there are certain world events around you that have their own impact and effect. There is growth and understanding and I think it is a beautiful story.

I loved how Ari thought about things but it never came to a point where it was unbelievable, that you wouldn’t believe these are a fifteen year olds thoughts and feelings. I believed everything Ari thought and how he thought and seeing him work out the world and who he is was a great journey. I loved that it takes place over years, it isn’t one summer of discovery, it is years of growth and finding out who you are, it takes time. But at the same time I loved that it has a focus on the long summers. The long days of finding things to do and wasting time and being with friends.

The friendship between Dante and Ari is fantastic. There is a wonderful and genuine friendship between them that breaks down the need for manliness and inherent toxic masculinity, especially from the 80s but also from today. Sáenz’s depiction of male friendship is loving and affectionate without it being an issue for either boy. It is pure and I loved every minute of it. Dante is gentle and kind, and has no problem with that, even Ari is quiet and thoughtful, and loyal and has no worry being unlike other boys.

Other things that makes this story feel realistic is the constant call-backs to old jokes, no matter how long ago they started. This is a great reflection on real life that in jokes between friends and family can rise up at any point. It also explores serious things like absent family members and the after effects of war and those who must live on after it. I understood Ari’s frustrations and the way Saenz explores why Ari has these emotions; his anger, his guilt, his shame whether he knows that is what he’s feeling initially or not, it is real and heartbreaking. Dante is also wonderful and unapologetic. His confidence and shine is invigorating and it’s great seeing how it helps Ari, whether he knows it or not.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is amazing as narrator. His voice is perfect for these boys and he had wonderful pacing and tone which made it even more enjoyable. He uses a good voice for each of them and you don’t even hear that it is him after awhile because you get lost in their story. I thought it may be hard to hear anything but Lin but that wasn’t the case.

I need book two because I need to know what happens after what happens at the very end. I need a whole book of that final scene and I think there are so many brilliant moments in this book about friendship and honesty and boys, and what it means to be a person in the world and a teenager. There is a lot of love of all kinds and seeing Ari understood the world by observing others is such an introverted thing to do I loved it. He doesn’t say much but he thinks a lot and through those thoughts we try and understand who Ari is and how he is seeing the world around him. This is truly a story about Ari discovering who he is and wants to be, but more so trying to make sense of the world around him. Each character must try and find their place in the world and realise their actions affect others.

You can purchase Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust | Audible

Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman

Published: 11th March 2015Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Candlewick Press
Illustrator: Laura Cornell
Pages: 32
Format: Picture Book
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

Heather’s favorite number is two. She has two arms, two legs, and two pets. And she also has two mommies. When Heather goes to school for the first time, someone asks her about her daddy, but Heather doesn’t have a daddy. Then something interesting happens. When Heather and her classmates all draw pictures of their families, not one drawing is the same. It doesn’t matter who makes up a family, the teacher says, because “the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love one another.”

This is the book. The book that everyone talks about, mainly because in 1989 when it was published it was one of the only books of its kind and no doubt was a smidge controversial. Thankfully there are a lot more out now and we have a little variety. My copy calls it a modern classic which it probably is, but I’m glad there are a lot more variations out there now.

The story isn’t actually focused on Heather’s two mummies, instead Heather is the main theme as we learn all about her. Newman tells us about how Heather’s favourite number is two and all the two things she has and does. It just so happens one of those twos is two mummies. As a whole it is also a great book about the different families there are: single parent, grandparents, step parents, same-sex parents.

The story doesn’t focus on how Heather copes with her two mummies, or the “controversy” of having two mummies. It is a perfectly sweet story that only happens to have two mummies in it. It is a wonderful book about being loved, new adventures, and the wonderful diversity of all family.

The illustrations are painted pictures with lots of colour by Cornell. There are full and double page pictures with lots of detail to keep little eyes busy. Cornell’s style is clear but also a lovely style of painted figures and backgrounds with no solid edges. The variety of colours is admirable and it highlights her great skillset. The text is simple and there is a rhythm but no rhyme, and Cornell illustrates Newman’s words with realism but with her own interpretation as well.

I was surprised because I had only heard mention of this book, but having found a copy I am glad to say I have read it. As I say, I am glad there are so many more out there now to read, but this one hasn’t aged and certainly isn’t dated. At its core it is about Heather and it is about family, something that never changes.

You can purchase Heather Has Two Mommies via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust

Lashings of Sauce edited by UK Meet Acquisitions Team

Published: 1st July 2012Goodreads badge
Publisher:
JMS Books LLC
Pages: 270
Format: Paperback
Genre: Anthology
★   ★ – 2 Stars

We Brits love our sauce, whether it’s what we lash on our food, read on our seaside postcards, or write in our stories. Come and enjoy a buffet of tasty LGBTQ treats!

From marriages to reunions, via practical jokes and football matches, to weresloths and possibly the oddest Tarts and Vicars party in the world, join us as we celebrate the UK Meet in the best way we know: telling the story.

As a follow-up to the critically acclaimed British Flash and Tea and Crumpet anthologies, our talented writers bring you sixteen stories about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and genderqueer characters enjoying what Britain and mainland Europe have to offer, with their wonderfully diverse range of cultures and landscapes and some incredibly colourful and quirky people.

The most important thing I think any anthology needs is a strong opening story, one that will hook the reader and want them to keep going. I was curious about Post Mortem, the opening story, but it really doesn’t give you anything to grab your attention. It was unengaging and it was only my hope that there were other better stories did I keep reading. It was only by a slim chance did I actually keep going because so many times I was prepared to add this to my DNF (Did Not Finish) pile. My DNF pile is small but I was getting the same feeling from the first half of this anthology that I have had with books before. The fact I told myself that I may be missing out on other good stories kept me going, I was eventually rewarded but it was a long road.

The theme of this anthology is a little vague. The introduction states it is to show off how great the LGBTQIA community have it in Britain and in Europe. It was published in 2012 when Britain was on its high from the Olympics and the Queen had her Diamond Jubilee. None of these events are mentioned in the story but 2012 was also the 3rd annual meeting of the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet and to celebrate this anthology was created. The idea is sweet enough, a chance to celebrate the good times of being part of the community in Britain at the time and this is reflected in the stories in as much as they are nice stories, things aren’t complicated, there’s no altercations or conflict that I could tell due to a character’s sexuality or gender.

There are multiple trans stories, gay and lesbian romances, as well as a BDSM story. Content warning wise not every story involves sex but some do which are described in detail though not graphic or overly explicit. In a way they are the good examples of stories; the LGBTQ characters aren’t there as a plot point, nothing really centres around their sexuality, it is just a part of the overall story because it affects who they interact with and how. It isn’t an issue of contention or a problem which was refreshing.

Having said that, only half of these stories were actually interesting. Maybe even less. Many were half and half, some parts were interesting but within the same story I was bored to pieces. There were a few exceptions that only barely made the mark: Vidi Velo Vici was good, basic but had a good ending. The better ones were Dressing Down and Zones for the humour and the heart and for something like Zones it is a great story about discovery and acceptance which is subtle, but certainly there. Lost in London was another rare gem as was My Husband and Social Whirl. The rest I was not interested in, and to only have six out of sixteen stories grab my attention, it doesn’t say much about an anthology I was rally expecting more from.

The genres range from contemporary to the paranormal and magical. I found I couldn’t engage with the paranormal as much, I preferred those in modern settings. The genders and sexualities present was a great diversity and something I was impressed with. As I say, without a theme as such, the general acceptance of LGBTQ people in Britain was a great starting point because it normalised these occurrences and while it was a theme, it also showed how to make gender and sexuality naturally part of a story and not only there to be a plot point in itself.

Honestly the second half is better than the first, I am glad I persevered because I found the stories in the second half more enjoyable, certainly more diverse. Even for a LGBTQ anthology there are only so many times you can read about gay men before you start wanting to see something different. But even so, to only like six stories, there’s more issues than just that to contend with.

You can purchase Lashings of Sauce via the following

Amazon | Amazon Aust

Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories edited by Michael Earp

Published: 1st June 2019Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Walker Books Australia
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
Genre: Anthology/ Young Adult
★   ★  ★  ★ – 4 Stars

I love the titles of Anthologies because it is fascinating to see how a theme or concept is explored through so many different voices and narrative styles. For this one, not only are there queer stories, but these stories embody everything that kindred means and stands for.

These stories are not about finding love, or coming out, they are about finding someone who is like you, who knows you and understands you, if there is romance in there, great. But there are many wonderful stories about kids finding another person who understands them, and someone who, whether they know it consciously or not, are supporting them.

Not all characters in this are teens, a couple characters are in their 30s that I can best estimate, others aren’t specified, but their stories are still valid. There are a range of genres and each author has put up a story that encapsulates the theme. Kindred can mean so many things and seeing how each writer has interpreted this is wonderful.

While these are queer stories, they are also #LoveOzYA as well which showcases the great talent our LGBTQIA YA authors have. There are household names and there are new talents I didn’t know and getting some new names added to my #LoveOzYA repertoire is always a bonus. Some of these stories found their own place with me and I particularly loved Waiting by Jen Wilde. I saw myself in that story and it is proof that these stories are for everyone to enjoy.

The range of genres and representation was incredible. There’s representation from so many different cultures and voices and shows why representation matters. The tone across the stories were so different, form light hearted to dystopian, with a few futuristic and fantastic thrown in. There are some tough subjects and harsh realities but I found it refreshing because these authors don’t shy away from the realities of the world but they also treat it with a powerful care and respect.

It was a great decision to include Benjamin Law’s story at the end because while it is a story, it also acts like an essay and it is a thought provoking one that (hopefully) makes people question the things that they may do or say around LGBTQIA people.

With any anthology I am always so in awe of how one theme could be interpreted by so many different genres and approaches. It is a fantastic reminder that no matter what circumstance, no matter what reality, there is a commonality between people and the emotions and desires are universal.

You can purchase Kindred: 12 #LoveOzYA Stories via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | Angus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust

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