Hi everyone, and welcome to the November 2020 Queer Fiction Blog! This month we have a teen girl not looking for love but finding it anyway, an older Antiguan gentleman learning to stand on his feet to be with the man he's always loved, and several teen boys in a fencing club who may or may not be falling for each other. We hope there's something here you'll enjoy!
Title/Author: The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smyth
Summary: Seventeen-year-old cynic Saoirse Clarke isn't looking for a relationship. But when she meets mischievous Ruby, that rule goes right out the window. Sort of. Because Ruby has a loophole in mind: a summer of all the best cliché movie montage dates, with a definite ending come fall. No broken hearts, no messy breakup. It would be the perfect plan, if they weren't forgetting one thing about the Falling in Love Montage: when it's over, the characters have fallen in love ... for real.
Genre/Sub-genre: Young Adult Fiction
Book Format: Print
Length: 355 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian
Content Warnings: n/a
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: It took me almost an entire month to get through this book. Though it only takes place in the span of a summer, the slow pacing of this book makes it feel like years have gone by. It takes a while to warm up to main character Saoirse, both as a character and as a narrator who breaks the fourth wall. I preferred the moments when Smyth’s writing ignored the reader to the moments when Saoirse directed her comments right at us. At one point in the story, Saoirse says of love interest Ruby that she isn’t “just a collection of quirks,” but the writing feels otherwise. Both characters had better chemistry with other side characters in the book and I did not feel a real buy-in to the relationship Smyth was trying to build between them.
Something I loved about this book was Saoirse’s relationship with her parents. Her mother is a full-time care facility as a result of her early-onset dementia and her father is newly engaged to someone else. As Saoirse navigates what it feels like to lose a mother who is still, technically, there and a father she feels betrayed by, she has to face hard truths about herself and the ways her parents’ decisions have impacted her life and her future. The moments of introspection she has when thinking about her family and the ways that it has changed are the strongest moments of the book.
The character I loved best in the book was Oliver, a friend, turned enemy, turned friend of Saoirse. Their constant bickering to cover up their genuine friendship was believable and genuinely funny. I cared more about the relationship between these two characters than about the love story. Oliver and Saoirse had the comfort (and chemistry) that I wished Saoirse would have with Ruby. Overall, I think there were strong elements to the story, but the focus was pulled in too many different directions for the book to be truly cohesive.
Title/Author: Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo
Summary: Seventy-four years old, Antiguan born and bred, flamboyant Hackney personality Barry is known for his dapper taste and fondness for retro suits. He is a husband, father, and grandfather. And for the past sixty years, he has been in a relationship with his childhood friend and soulmate, Morris. Wife Carmel knows Barry has been cheating on her, but little does she know what is really going on. When their marriage goes into meltdown, Barrington has big choices to make.
Book Format: eBook
Length: 307 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: Homophobia, sexism, racism, ageism, untreated postnatal depression, and a domestic violence threat.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written. I was really surprised to see that the chapters from Carmel's point-of-view were written without a single period and few punctuation marks in general. Those chapters were so well-written, it took me a few pages to notice the lack of punctuation!
Would I Recommend?: This book certainly isn't for everyone, but I think it does a good job of portraying some of the societal injustices of the world that more people need to see to understand.
Personal thoughts: This was a difficult read. Barry, our main character, is as flawed as they come. He's almost entirely sexist. He's completely unable to care for himself if it weren't for his wife. (He's not set foot in a grocery store in over 10 years and doesn't know how to wash the dishes.) He's judgmental and condescending of most everyone but himself and Morris, whom he places on a tall pedestal. And he's a little bit homophobic at times toward younger gay men for being out and proud. It's quite clear that most of his flaws stem from his upbringing and societal expectations of the 1950s and 1960s. Even as his hurtful thoughts and comments were hard to read, I still rooted for him to change his ways and hoped he would find a way to divorce his wife so they could both finally be happy.
Barry's immediate family members are heavily damaged in one way or another, due in part to Barry's flaws, showing just how much harmful societal expectations can ripple through the generations, all the way down to his grandson. As I said, this is not an easy read, but perhaps it's an important read as it easily explains how a society can be damaging to its members.
Title/Author/Artist: Fence by C.S. Pacat with art by Johanna the Mad / Striking Distance by Sarah Rees Brennan
Summary: Underdog sports story meets queer romance! Nicholas Cox, an amateur fencer from the wrong side of the tracks with talent and ambition but little formal training, joins the exclusive and preppy Kings Row Academy on a fencing scholarship. Unfortunately, some members of the team are less welcoming than others—especially his new roommate, rival prodigy Seiji Katayama.
Series/Standalone: Ongoing series in both comic and tie-in novelization forms
Genre/Sub-genre: YA contemporary fiction / sports romance
Book Format: eBook (also available in paper)
Length: Each volume of the comic is 112 pages; Striking Distance is 368 pages.
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Character identities are not labeled on-page but several characters are in same-sex relationships or express a wish to be. Bobby, a major supporting character, appears to be trans and/or nonbinary.
Content Warnings: The depiction of Aiden’s sex life may tip over into slut shaming for some readers. Aiden’s emotionally neglected childhood is described in Striking Distance.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written in both comic and novel
Art/Illustrations: The characters are drawn in an appealing and dynamic style, but sometimes backgrounds are sparse, especially in the later volumes. There’s a definite manga influence in some of the character designs, and in the way certain expressions are rendered more cartoonishly for emphasis. This seems appropriate, considering how explicitly the storyline is drawing from sports manga like Haikyu!!, Kuroko’s Basketball, and Yowamushi Pedal. Unlike manga, however, the art is in full color, and those colors are consistently eye-catching! Johanna the Mad is well-known for her fanart, and I think that it shows in her focus on character over setting, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Would I Recommend?: Yes, with the caveat that readers looking for any kind of emotional resolution will not find it in what’s been published so far. Those readers may be waiting for a long time.
Personal thoughts: I am torn about this series. I’ve enjoyed it so far, but I also find it increasingly frustrating, both as a serialized story and as a narrative that aspires to contain positive queer representation. Both the comic and the novel are clearly setting up for two endgame couples: Nicholas and Seiji, and the team captain (Harvard) and his best friend (Aiden). However, sixteen issues and one full novel later, all we have is set-up and a bewilderingly slow progression through the first few beats of a typical sports story: introducing the underdog, introducing the rival, team tryouts, the first test against a rival team, etc. It all needs to be fit in somehow, but does it need to take quite this long? Not knowing how long the series will ultimately run, I can’t estimate the curve of the plot arc and I find myself upset at the end of every new volume when there’s still no significant development in the romance. If I wanted a seemingly infinite sports narrative where the hinted romance never gets fulfilled, I could go back to watching Free! I’m reading Fence because I want them to (eventually) kiss!
The novelization is significantly heavier on character and relationship development than the comic and I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Rees Brennan’s dive into perspectives that the comic format can’t present. Seiji, in particular, gets a chance to shine as something other than the uptight narrative foil to Nicholas We also get a lot more of the backstory to Harvard and Aiden’s friendship. One of Sarah Rees Brennan’s great gifts as an author is her knack for limited third person perspective and how much can be revealed by what a POV character doesn’t understand. Striking Distance, which features both a fake dating plot (Harvard and Aiden remain impressively oblivious to each other’s feelings) and a slow awakening to the existence of classism for Seiji, is a worthy showcase for her talents. Still, the novel ends in frustration for the aborted romantic arc between Harvard and Aiden, and it's not at all clear whether any of Seiji’s character development will be carried over into the comic.
If any of this sounds harsh, it’s because I’m hoping so much to be proven wrong! Right now, however, I can’t recommend the series without including a warning that it feels not only unfinished but unplanned. I also read Check, Please! (to which Fence will inevitably be compared, as the other queer young adult graphic novel sports romance on the market) in serialized form as a webcomic. From the beginning of that series, it was clear how the story was going to be structured. Fence doesn’t offer that same sense of assurance about where it’s going and when the plot beats are going to hit. But for all of that, I intend to keeping reading, and I was thrilled to hear that Striking Distance is getting a sequel, also by Sarah Rees Brennan, that’s due out next year!
The rest of the series so far can be found here: