Welcome to the March 2022 edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! This month our reviews include a middle grade novel in which a young boy discovers his asexuality, a teen historical fiction novel with three queer friends fighting to stay together and save a family farm, and in an adult romance novel, a corporate shark finding love with his best friend's little brother.
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Title/Author/Artist: A-Okay by Jarad Greene
Summary: A-Okay is a vulnerable and heartfelt semi-autobiographical middle grade graphic novel about acne, identity, and finding your place.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Juvenile Graphic Novel
Book Format: Print
Length: 238 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Asexual
Content Warnings: Conversation around food and dieting
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: The “A” in A-Okay really stands for three things in this graphic novel: acne, asexuality, and adolescence. We follow main character Jay as he navigates eighth grade. Over the summer, his face has broken out and due to a last-minute class schedule change, he’s not in classes with any of his friends. On top of all of that, when two of his classmates show interest in dating him, he doesn’t understand why he doesn’t feel the same way. Jay’s got a lot going on, but author/illustrator Greene handles it with care and love (probably because so much of this story is autobiographical).
This book does a great job of representing the middle school experience. Greene’s art style is well-suited to the story he is telling which elevated this read for me. He managed to capture all those awkward moments and hormonal reactions that define adolescence on the page with just a few facial expressions or background characters. From familial relationships to feeling like he’s losing his best friend, Jay handles everything the same way I remember myself approaching those problems and feelings.
Jay’s asexuality isn’t something that’s explored a lot in this graphic novel (this is neither a positive or negative thing!), but there is one panel that resonated with my soul. After a comment from a friend that Jay might be “ace”, he goes home and looks up what it means. He reads a few articles about it and then lays back on his bed with a content smile on his face; he finds the word for himself and likes the way it fits. I felt my heart grow three sizes for this kiddo who was finally starting to get some answers for himself.
Title/Author: The Reckless Kind by Carly Heath
Summary: It is 1904 and partially deaf Asta Hedstrom is engaged to Nils. She would rather spend time with her best friend Gunnar Fuglestad, and his secret boyfriend, Erlend Fournier. When Nils gravely injures Gunnar, Asta shuns her marriage and moves in with her friends in a secluded cabin above town. The three misfits then set out to win the annual Christmas sleigh race in order to save Gunnar’s family farm and to prove to everyone that they belong together.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Teen Historical Fiction
Book Format: Print
Length: 336 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Asexual/aromantic & gay
Content Warnings: This is a quote directly from the author’s note at the start of the novel: “As a writer and reader, I firmly believe in the importance of content warnings. Look away now if this is information you don’t wish to know. This book features a character who copes with his trauma by making glib remarks that allude to child abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and self-harm. There is a depiction of physical violence and bodily injury. The existence of sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia is briefly mentioned. Something I often want to know as a sensitive person entering a fictional world is does it end okay? Meaning: Will the book end in tragedy and death? I assure you, it doesn’t. No tragic ending here. No death for the main three. In this story, their supportive love prevails.” –Carly Heath
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written except that most everything could have been solved with one conversation at the start of the book. When Asta determines that she will find a way to save Gunner’s family farm, she has no idea how she’ll do it, but never once does it occur to her to ask their mutual friend, Erlend, for help or ideas. While Erlend has a ready solution, because she doesn't talk to him, he uses up the solution elsewhere and they must find another way to save the farm.
Would I Recommend?: The LGBTQ+ representation in this was good, as was the disability rep. If you can get over the plot issue mentioned above, and if none of the content warnings are triggering, then yes, go for it!
Personal thoughts: As I said, the representation here was good! Here is a rundown of the disability representation: Asta is deaf in one ear with Waardenburg Syndrome (as is the author, Carly Heath). Following a riding accident, Fred has Post-Concussion Syndrome (his symptoms were inspired by Heath’s own experiences with PCS). Also following that same riding accident, Gunnar suffers from Brown-Sequard Syndrome where a lesion in the spinal cord results in weakness or paralysis on one side of the body and a loss of sensation on the other. Heath drew on her experience with lumbar spine trauma when writing about Gunnar. None of these maladies are named as this is a historical novel and the characters wouldn’t have had the modern terminology for them in 1904, but Heath has a section at the end that briefly talks about each one and why they made the decisions they did when writing it.
I liked the three main characters: Gunnar, Erlend, and Asta. Each stood out from the others, but they also worked well together as a group, both complimenting each other’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as annoying the heck out of each other, as good friends do at times. That said, there were some things about their relationships that bothered me. First, the romance between Erlend and Gunnar needed more time and space on the page to grow, or should have been established prior to the start of the book. Second, Gunnar’s depression hits hard when he believes that he’s taken Erlend from his loving parents and he decides he doesn’t want to be with Erlend anymore. The more Erlend pushes for them to stay together, I began to wonder, at what point should you take a step back and respect a friend’s decisions, even if you think it’s wrong?
Plot-wise, this is a very slow-moving story with most of the action happening toward the end. The slow plot didn’t bother me too much. What did bother me was that many large decisions were made in a rush where everything either worked out perfectly or added more injuries on top of the injuries or disabilities they already had. There is a lot of misery heaped on these characters before everything can get better. Perhaps a bit too much.
As for the setting, I didn’t get a strong sense of Norway from this, but I was also distracted by all the injuries and the depression and anxiety that filled the book so I didn’t notice the lack of Norway until I’d finished the book.
In short, I loved the disability and LGBTQ+ representation a lot and even though the execution of the plot could have used some help, the writing itself was enjoyable and easy to follow.
Title/Author/Artist: Hard Sell by Lin Hudson
Summary: Corporate shark Danny Ip has a serious chip in his shoulder and only one soft spot: his best friend's family. When they meet again as adults, can Tobin get Danny to see he's not just Wei's baby brother anymore?
Series/Standalone: First in a series
Genre/Sub-Genre: Contemporary romance
Book Format: Print
Length: 378 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: Some references in passing to possibly underage prostitutes and human trafficking, but nothing explicit.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: The prose is serviceable, and there were no major errors that I noticed.
Would I Recommend?: Not really.
Personal thoughts: I wanted to love this book so much. Look at that beautiful cover! I was inspired to bump it up my To-Be-Read list by Zen Cho, of all people, asking on Twitter for suggestions of traditionally published queer romance about Asian characters. The list was lamentably short. I've read (and enjoyed!) One Last Stop, The Charm Offensive, and Something to Talk About, but they're all by white authors. Hard Sell (and arguably The Other Man, which I've seen described as both romance and relationship fiction) was pretty much it for traditionally published queer romance by an Asian author.
Unfortunately, I just didn't like the book very much. Despite its length, I found it to be overstuffed with different conflicts, bouncing from one to the next rather than developing and resolving them. It's a problem that Tobin feels infantilized when other people pay his way and Danny's preferred mode of expressing affection is to buy things. Then it's a problem that they're working on opposite sides of a business deal and their relationship is a massive conflict of interest. Then it's a problem that Tobin's older brother doesn't approve of their relationship, or the fact that they've been hiding it from him. All of those are very reasonable problems to have, but I never felt that Tobin and Danny grew as characters in order to fix them.
Danny resolves his problems at work by taking a sabbatical, but not by finding a more meaningful or fulfilling job. (Frankly, I thought he should have been fired!) Tobin apparently just gets over not liking it when Danny buys him things, as the epilogue shows Danny proposing with a monstrously expensive ring. The family conflict does work out with Danny realizing that his place in the Lok family is not contingent on his always being perfect, but it should have gotten more time in the book.
I also felt that the book was weirdly uncritical of the capitalist systems that both Danny and Tobin work in, despite the concept of that critique being brought up on page by Tobin's roommate. There's a lot of romance out there that fetishizes wealth; there's a reason that people like reading about dukes instead of servants. I just think having that conversation about the ethical problems behind "corporate raiding" but still having the hero blackmail or pay people off to get his way is trying to have your cake and eat it too.