Hello and welcome to the October 2022 edition of the Queer Lit Review! This month we have two ex-best friends finding their way back to each other, a young man with severe social anxiety falling in love, and a lesbian Great Gatsby retelling.
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Title/Author: Running with Lions by Julian Winters
Summary: Bloomington High School Lions star goalie Sebastian Hughes should be excited about his senior year: His teammates are amazing, and he's got a coach who doesn't ask anyone to hide their sexuality. But when his estranged childhood-best-friend Emir Shah shows up at summer training camp, Sebastian realizes the team's success may end up in the hands of the one guy who hates him.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Teen Fiction
Book Format: eBook
Length: 307 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Full spectrum!
Content Warnings: Bullying; Disordered eating; Homophobia; Islamophobia
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Mostly well-written
Would I Recommend: Yes
Personal thoughts: I picked up Running With Lions for two reasons. One, I’ve been meaning to read it forever and it seemed like a good time because, two, I just finished a reread of the Fence graphic novel series (reviewed here in November 2020 by Veronica) and I was craving another sports romance. So here we are!
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I am a sucker for sports romance, but specifically sports romance in which two characters who don’t like each other have to work together on the same team. It’s a specific trope and I seek it out whenever possible. Winters’ book falls into that category but is made even better because it’s the trope of childhood friends who had a falling out and don’t know how to be together! Somehow a trope I also love that’s even more specific than the other one! And this book had both!
Main character Sebastian was intensely lovable and incredibly realistic. He’s always been the one his friends and the adults in his life can count on to be levelheaded. It’s why they eventually choose him as captain of the soccer team, but it also weighs heavily on Sebastian. He’s acutely aware of the ways the people around him depend on him and he doesn’t always know how to react to that pressure, especially with a history of being bullied tucked under his belt.
Enter Emir, Sebastian’s childhood best friend who he lost touch with, who has joined the Lions to make his dad proud. The catch? Emir is terrible at soccer. Sebastian, pulled to try to rekindle the friendship they lost all those years ago, offers to help Emir practice and make first string on the team. Between their early morning runs together and one-on-one training sessions, Sebastian realizes that he has feelings for Emir that go beyond friendship.
I mostly only have good things to say about this book. I thought the ebb and flow of how different teammates got along or fought at different points was realistic to the high school experience. I did think there were slightly too many characters to keep track of (I still barely know the difference between Kyle and Gio) and too many pop culture references for the book to grow beyond its specific moment in time. Other than that, this was a delightful read that I definitely recommend to anyone looking for a quick, sweet story about two boys falling in love against a backdrop of a team who is more like a family.
Title/Author: Better Than People by Roan Parrish
Summary: Simon Burke has always preferred animals to people. When the countdown to adopting his own dog is unexpectedly put on hold, Simon turns to the PetShare app to find the fluffy TLC he’s been missing. Meeting a grumpy children’s book illustrator who needs a dog walker isn’t easy for the man whose persistent anxiety has colored his whole life, but Jack Matheson’s menagerie is just what Simon needs.
Series/Standalone: Garnet Run #1
Genre/Sub-Genre: M/M Romance
Book Format: eAudiobook
Length: 7 hours 20 minutes
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: None
Ratio of Sex/Plot: More plot than sex
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal Thoughts: I don’t normally read straight-up romance. I usually prefer a murder mystery along for the ride or a fantasy quest, but every now and then, I do pick up a regular romance novel. For this one, it was the dogs, affectionately known as “pack,” that initially drew me in. (Yes, there are cute cats for you cat lovers too!)
Simon has severe social anxiety that leaves him unable to speak at times. I appreciated the inclusion of a character with a disability and the fact that Jack didn’t come along and fix it. Simon still has his social anxiety at the end of the book. However, Jack is the guy known for Googling things he doesn’t know, and I was surprised when he didn’t Google social anxiety in order to better understand Simon right away.
Speaking of Jack, he has his own problems, having lost his writing partner and then broken his leg while chasing one of the dogs. While his are not permanent, it was an interesting contrast to see how they both struggled and came to grips with their own and each other’s.
I loved the humor, when it pops up. I also loved Simon’s feisty grandma and Jack’s caring brother. This is a cast of few characters, but it works well and even the side characters are a delight.
The narrator, James Cavanaugh, was great and I would listen to him again. The only thing that was a little off was that he would sometimes put odd pauses after dialogue and before the dialogue tag. It reminded me of how Jordan Castillo Price edits the dialogue tags out of her books specifically for the audiobook narration. I wonder if more authors should do this.
Title/Author: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May
Summary: Annie Mason is an anxious wreck when she arrives at Crow Island to pack up her inheritance from her estranged father. World War I has destroyed her close-knit group of friends and the ban on magic has everyone on edge — but on Crow Island, it seems like no one cares about the prohibition. When Annie reconnects with her glamorous former friend Bea, she's inducted into the dangerous world of Cross House and Emmeline Delacroix, whose involvement with Bea and Bea's controlling husband threatens to doom them all.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Historical fantasy
Book Format: eBook
Length: 432 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian, Nonbinary
Content Warnings: Violence, including domestic abuse; reference to forced prostitution
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Not personally, but if someone was looking for a book with these specific themes I wouldn't hesitate to mention it.
Personal thoughts: This was a highly anticipated release for me, and I was very excited to read it as my "Book Set in the 1920s" for the Summer Reading challenge this year. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to the hype! The worldbuilding was interesting, but I didn't find the characters engaging and their motivations never quite came together to explain the plot. Annie and Emmeline both make decisions completely against their own self-interest for reasons I still can't piece together, unless they're just "my brain turns off when a pretty girl stands too close." Surely nobody would choose to continue making massive sacrifices for a person who treated them as badly as Bea does both Annie and Emmeline. It's frustrating! I can suspend my disbelief for magic, but I don't vibe with plots fueled by stupidity.
In case it isn't clear from the summary, Wild and Wicked Things is a loose retelling of The Great Gatsby, and it suffers from the inevitable comparison to The Chosen and the Beautiful, another Gatsby-with-magic-and-lesbians book that came out last year. The Chosen and the Beautiful had really insightful things to say about the message of The Great Gatsby (and who gets left out of the story altogether), while Wild and Wicked Things appears to have just fundamentally misunderstood what The Great Gatsby is about.
In the original Gatsby story, the reader is being asked to think about the collateral damage of living without consideration for others. It's an interesting twist to flip that on its head by making the protagonists queer and nonbinary people, who must consider the threat of other people at all times. Without too many spoilers, however, I thought May accidentally undercut her own thought experiment by treating the person who got caught in the crossfire here as future tragic backstory for Emmeline instead of a tragedy in his own right. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but “loyal servant sacrifices himself for his mistress, who will be sad of course but get over it and go off to live happily ever after with her girlfriend” just rubbed me really the wrong way, possibly because he was never a POV character and his massively traumatic backstory all gets told from her point of view instead.
But on the other hand, I'm sure there's plenty of people who would love a (lesbian) version where Nick and Gatsby killed Tom and strolled off into the sunset together while Daisy went her merry way, and to those readers I say: here is your book. I didn't like it, but I suspect you will!