Hello, and welcome to the April 2021 edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! This month we have a little fake-dating between rival high school girls, a murder mystery involving a reluctant mystery bookstore owner, and a high school student possibly falling in love at his new school.
We hope you find something you like to keep you reading! Enjoy!
Title/Author: She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen
Summary: After an embarrassing loss to her ex-girlfriend in their first basketball game of the season, seventeen-year-old Scottie Zajac gets into a fender bender with the worst possible person: her nemesis, Irene Abraham, head cheerleader for the Fighting Reindeer. But when an opportunity arises for Scottie to get back at her toxic ex (and climb her school's social ladder), she bribes Irene into an elaborate fake-dating scheme that threatens to reveal some very real feelings.
Genre/Sub-genre: Young Adult
Book Format: eBook (also available in print and downloadable audiobook formats)
Length: 288 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian
Content Warnings: n/a
Well-written/Editor Needed: Editor needed
Would I Recommend?: Yes, but it wouldn’t be my first choice
Personal thoughts: In December, I reviewed Kelly Quindlen’s debut, Late to the Party, which I loved. I was lucky enough to get ahold of an advanced reader copy of Quindlen’s sophomore novel, She Drives Me Crazy, which comes out later this month. While I enjoyed She Drives Me Crazy, I found it to be lacking a lot of the things that made me fall in love with Quindlen’s first novel.
In her acknowledgements at the end of the book, Quindlen calls the book “goofy, campy, [and] ridiculous” all of which are true. The book was a little bit of each, but lacked substance between those moments. Something I thought Quindlen did really well in her debut was to capture how teenagers actually talk to one another. I didn’t see any of that in this book. The dialogue was almost always stilted or unrealistic, which led to the relationships between characters feeling forced and superficial. The pacing of this book was also all over the place; the relationship between Scottie and Irene felt rushed. When it came time for the big feelings reveal, I didn’t feel like Scottie or the reader had earned it because we didn’t spend enough time with Irene or examining Scottie’s growing feelings for her.
However, this book did give me one of my new favorite characters in the YA canon, Irene Abraham. (Quindlen also admits this character is one of her favorites that she’s ever written.) I am ride or die Team Irene, to be quite honest. Irene was complex, emotional, deserving, loving, kind ... I could go on! She was easily the most three-dimensional character in the book and deserves every good thing that has ever happened to her.
The book featured a pretty diverse cast of characters and the secondary characters felt like real people, but overall, I think that this book fell into the sophomore slump trap. Hopefully Quindlen can find her way back to the level of her first book for her next title. She still has a fan in me. I’m rooting for her!
Title/Author: Murder at Pirate's Cove by Josh Lanyon
Summary: Ellery Page, aspiring screenwriter, Scrabble champion, and guy-with-worst-luck-in-the-world-when-it-comes-to-dating, has inherited both a failing bookstore and a falling-down mansion in the quaint seaside village of Pirate's Cove on Buck Island, Rhode Island. When his rival bookseller is found murdered, of course handsome Police Chief Jack Carson suspects Ellery.
Series/Standalone: Secrets and Scrabble, book one
Genre/Sub-genre: Cozy Mystery with a hint of M/M Romance
Book Format: eBook
Length: 206 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: None. This is a cozy mystery and contains no on-page sex or violence, a change from Lanyon’s usual work.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: YES
Personal thoughts: This is a classic cozy mystery, light and fun. It was hard to put this down, though I did try to extend the life of the book by reading it slower than usual. Trust me, that didn’t work because I had to know what was going to happen next!
Josh always does a fantastic job with eccentric side characters, and this series is no exception. Sometimes I wish I could step into the pages of her books and meet her characters in person! The romance between Ellery and Jack is slow-blooming and sweet as the two men dance around the idea of a romantic relationship. This is “slow burn” at its slowest right now, but Josh has commented on Goodreads, “I won’t drag it out forever. I have a different goal in mind than with the Adrien English series.” So that’s something to keep in mind. I’m really curious to see what she has planned.
Of course, the murder investigation doesn’t help anything in the romance department, seeing as Ellery is Jack’s only suspect for a while. I probably should have guessed whodunit, but I don’t always catch the clues when I’m enjoying a good book and I didn’t catch them here, right up until the end. With all of the eccentric characters, it can be hard to know who might have it in for Ellery’s rival bookseller. Any one of them may or may not have motive, means, and opportunity, and poor Ellery is so new to the island he doesn’t know everyone yet.
Lastly, the puppy Ellery finds is adorable and the pirate themed locale is kind of awesome. If for no other reason, read it for the puppy and the pirates. (I promise nothing bad happens to the puppy. This is a cozy, after all!)
If you’re a long time Josh Lanyon fan, it’s important to know this is not like her typical work in the M/M Romance genre. If you’re not a fan of cozies or books with no sex or violence on the page, this might not be for you. If you’re new to Josh Lanyon and you want something a little grittier, I highly recommend reading the Adrien English Mystery Series, for which she is most well-known. Start with Fatal Shadows.
Josh is planning for the Secrets and Scrabble series to contain eight books. The first three titles are out and are available as Overdrive eBooks. You'll definitely want to read them in the following order: Murder at Pirate’s Cove, Secret at Skull House, and Mystery at the Masquerade.
Title/Author/Artist: That Blue Sky Feeling by Okura
Summary: Noshiro is a cheerful kid with a strong sense of what’s right and wrong. When he transfers schools, he discovers that everyone is avoiding his new classmate Sanada because of rumors that he’s gay and Noshiro becomes determined to befriend him. Sanada, on the other hand, is less than thrilled about Noshiro’s well-intentioned but clumsy attempts at defending him, not least because he is gay.
Series/Standalone: Complete three-volume series
Genre/Sub-genre: Coming-of-age/romance manga
Book Format: Print
Length: Three volumes, each around 240 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay; questioning
Content Warnings: Homophobic bullying. Prior to the start of the story, a high school student had a romantic relationship with a man about ten years his senior.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Art/Illustrations: The style is very clean and appealing. I love how expressive the faces are! All the main characters have very distinctive designs, which helps a lot since they're often wearing identical school uniforms. As is typical for manga, the art is completely black and white and the backgrounds aren't always very detailed, but it really conveys motion and emotion well.
Would I Recommend?: Yes, with a few caveats
Personal thoughts: Every time I say that I’m tired of high school romance in manga, I end up eating my words, so here I am again! I really like this series, and especially the protagonist, Noshiro. He doesn't have everything figured out yet, but he's just so earnest about trying! When I first picked up volume one, I couldn't believe that I was really holding a manga with a fat protagonist, let alone a queer romance. I'd literally never seen one in print before. Noshiro's fatness is never the butt of a joke, and while he doesn't think of himself as attractive, he has plenty of admirers who like him not in spite of his body, but because of it.
My one big hesitation about recommending this series is Sanada's ex-boyfriend, Hide. Hide is a wonderful character who serves as a loving queer mentor to Sanada, Noshiro, and their friend Makoto. He's also fat, and a complete guy magnet whose existence proves to Noshiro that he can, in fact, be attractive. Throughout the story, as Noshiro questions his own sexuality and struggles to define his relationship with Sanada, Hide is available to support him with advice and the occasional much-needed kick in the pants. I'm so grateful to have that kind of platonic queer friendship represented on the page. I wish there had been a different introduction to him than the premise that Hide, a 26-year-old adult, used to be in a sexual relationship with Sanada, an eleventh grader. I spent all three books anxiously waiting for Hide's relationship with Noshiro to turn predatory. I want to be clear: it never does! For all the time that Hide is on-page, he's a platonic mentor. But having that background to his character left a bad taste in my mouth.
The web of relationships surrounding Sanada and Noshiro is realistically messy, and—unusually for a romance—things don't get neatly wrapped up in a bow at the end. I'm a little ambivalent about the ending, which has Sanada and Noshiro declaring that they're "special" to each other, but deciding not to define their relationship. Any time a piece of media decides that labels aren't important or "What do 'straight' or 'gay' mean anyway?", I bristle. It feels like it's invalidating the existence of identities that aren't straight or gay. It feels very realistic that Noshiro is still questioning. Honestly, his character reads as potentially asexual or demisexual to me. I'd like for him, and any readers who identify with him, to be given more than two possible options. In an ideal world, labels aren't meant to be boxes that we struggle to stuff ourselves into, but a joyful claiming of a shared experience. I hope that readers who see themselves in Noshiro will be able to find the names that best describe themselves.