Queer Fiction Blog: June 2020

Hello, and welcome to the June 2020 edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! Happy Pride Month!

While Boston Pride is not hosting the parade this year, check out their website for upcoming virtual events to celebrate the month. You can also celebrate with the Boston Public Library's We Are Pride 2020 booklist! We Are Pride is a list of 76 titles published in the previous year for all ages concerning the diverse experiences of the LGBTQ+ community.

Our We Are Pride webpage also includes links to the Children, Teen, and Adult long lists for this year, as well as past years lists, Pride programming put on by the library in June, and links to other LGBTQ+ resources from the library, including a guide to LGBTQ+ terms and health resources.

For this month's Queer Fiction Blog, we have a coming of age story between two loner boys as they become fast friends, international spies attempting to bring down the Soviet Union with a novel, and a former child-star who takes her assistant to the SAG Awards and gets more than she bargained for.

Happy reading!

Title/Author: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Reviewer: Allison

Summary: 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.

Series/Standalone: Standalone

Genre/Sub-genre: Young Adult

Book Format: Print

Length: 359 pages

LGBTQ+ Orientation: Bisexual/gay

Violence: No physical violence/Description of an accident where someone gets a broken bone

Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written

Would I Recommend?: Yes

Personal Thoughts: A beautiful coming of age story, Sáenz perfectly captures what it is like to be young and feel like you don’t know any of the important things about your own life. Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza has always been a bit of a loner -- separated by many years from his older siblings and barely able to remember his brother, who is now incarcerated for a violent crime who his parents refuse to speak of. He’s never had many friends and he’s never really wanted any.

But something as small as Ari not wanting a friend can’t stop Dante Quintana from offering to teach Ari to swim the summer they both turn fifteen. As these two loners grow closer through that summer and their subsequent time together, their relationship strengthens and blossoms. The prose of this story wondrously captures the way that the bond between the boys flourishes and changes them; the way the book is written is just as beautiful as the story itself.

As Aristotle and Dante come to terms with who they are, who they want to be, and what that means for who they are now. This book doesn’t feature a huge amount of action or “plot”, but still I couldn’t put it down. A touching read about growing up, loneliness, and falling in love. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Title/Author: The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Reviewer: Jordan

Summary: At the height of the Cold War, two secretaries are pulled out of the typing pool at the CIA and given the assignment of a lifetime. Their mission: to smuggle Doctor Zhivago out of the USSR, where no one dare publish it, and help Pasternak's magnum opus make its way into print around the world.

Series/Standalone: Standalone

Genre/Sub-genre: Historical Fiction

Book Format: eBook

Length: 368 pages

LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian

Violence: There is a sexual assault that “fades to black” and some homophobia on page.

Well-written/Editor Needed: Editor needed, see my personal thoughts below.

Would I Recommend?: Not really.

Personal thoughts: I really wanted to like this book. I thought it had a lot of promise and as a book lover, I liked the premise a lot. However, for me, it did not measure up to my expectations at all. First, something I thought the book handled well, was the topic of Doctor Zhivago, as readers do not need to have read that book in order to read or understand this one. I also liked the chapter naming convention that gave the point-of-view character for that chapter a title such as “The Emissary” and it changed based on how that character’s role changed throughout the book with the previous titles listed and crossed out. This worked for the eBook, though I imagine this would be hard to follow if you were listening to the audiobook.

My biggest issue was that the characters felt flat to me. There were multiple points-of-view, from Irena and Sally, to Boris and Olga, and even the CIA typing pool as a whole, and I didn’t feel like I got to know any of them. Halfway through the book, it gets revealed that one of the women might be either asexual or a lesbian. While we had been in her head previously, I still wasn’t sure of her sexuality for a long while, and she actually read as asexual to me. Another character is sent to the gulag, a Russian labor camp, for three years, and she seems to come out as if nothing had happened while I’d expected to see her somehow changed from her experiences.

Because the characters lacked depth, and because they insisted on simply telling me what had happened rather than showing me, the action never felt immediate or suspenseful. Much of what would have been suspenseful, is handled with relative ease by someone outside of any intelligence agency, despite what the blurb of the book will tell you! Also not suspenseful is the romance between the two women, which is fleeting and hollow, showing up late with little action or emotions to support it, and gone in a bright flash of light.

Perhaps this would have been a more enjoyable read had it been nonfiction and stuck to the facts.

Title/Author: Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

Reviewer: Veronica

Summary: Former child star Jo Jones has retreated from the silver screen to work behind it as an influential showrunner, but she still has to walk the occasional red carpet. When she brings her assistant Emma Kaplan to the SAG Awards, it's a completely work-related outing -- even if she does enjoy buying Emma a new outfit a little too much. She isn't expecting the tabloids to take a picture of the two of them together and run with it, turning both her life and Emma's completely upside down.

Series/Standalone: Standalone

Genre/Sub-genre: Contemporary romance

Book Format: eBook (also available as eAudio!)

Length: 336 pages

LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian/bisexual

Content Warnings:There's a subplot about the #MeToo movement in Hollywood but no explicit rape. Emma is sexually harassed by a director she idolized, and as soon as she explains the situation to Jo, Jo immediately supports her both verbally and with practical action.

Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written

Would I Recommend?: Yes, for sure!

Personal Thoughts: This romance is sweet but it is SLOW. Wilsner (they/them) is constantly aware of the power dynamics implied by both the boss/assistant relationship and the age difference between Emma and Jo. They take their time to make sure that both the characters and the reader are reassured that everything is completely consensual. I really appreciate that, but be aware going in that it means a truly agonizing amount of mutual pining is required to set up the HEA. For a contemporary romance, the book is also quite light on sex and you don't get any romantic resolution until something like nine-tenths of the way through the book.

Despite the premise, this is NOT a fake dating for the tabloids story, which if I'm honest I was a little disappointed by. The actual story is perfectly engaging but it's not the tropey garbage I was expecting! Once I reset my expectations to a more serious and plotty love story I had a much better time. I really enjoyed how prominent friends and family are throughout the book, especially Emma's sister and Jo's best friend. Minor characters have consistent characterization rather than just showing up whenever a convenient sounding board is required, always a plus. There are some very cute cameos from both Emma and Jo's nephews, too!

Overall assessment: definitely recommended to anyone looking for a lesbian romance you can dig your teeth into. I'm hopeful that Something to Talk About will be this year's Red, White & Royal Blue—perfect gay beach reading, but deep enough to stick with you when summer's over.