Figuring Out THE MIXTAPE TO MY LIFE–A Review

Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a near-historical LGBTQ YA coming of age/coming out story from Jake Martinez. THE MIXTAPE TO MY LIFE features a closeted high school junior reconnecting with his middle school crush, who’d saved him from a beating years before.

About the book:
Justin Ortega might as well be starring in his very own coming-of-age 80s movie. If only he could find his dream boy to pull up in front of his house in a red convertible and sweep him off his feet, already! At seventeen years young, he isn’t quite Mexican enough for his South Texas town; isn’t manly enough for his father; can sometimes be too much of a smart mouth for his mother; and as for the other kids at school—let’s just say he’d be cast as the quiet nerd with a heart of gold…and an ear for music.

The one solace Justin has is his love of 80s hair metal bands, which he listens to on his beloved Sony Walkman. The songs, lyrics, and melody keep him just sane enough to escape the pressures of school and help navigate the hurdles life brings. Especially with the doozy this year is shaping up to be. Not only does he have to try out for a captain position which is rightfully his, but his best friend has found a new girlfriend, leaving Justin to fend for himself in a school where he’s mostly known as simply Coconut.

Enter Dominic Mendoza. Sweet, funny, and a blast from his past, the hunky football player has moved in next door. Justin could never forget how Dominic protected him in the eighth grade, nor the way Dominic made him feel, then…and now.

Except, this isn’t a movie. Confusion, friendship, and love won’t guarantee a happy ending unless Justin can learn to accept himself for who he truly is. Hair bands and all.

My Review:
Justin Ortega is a high school junior growing up in South Texas in the mid-1990s. He’s sure he’s gay, and has come out to his best friend Benny, who is an ally. Justin’s father is a high school football coach, and his hard-line stances clash with Justin who is the definition of non-confrontational. There’s a culture clash with Justin’s Mexican-American parents, who are religious and highly suspicious of his friendship with Benny. They also don’t make light-skinned Justin, or his younger brother, learn Spanish–thinking it’s more American to only speak English. This leads to struggle with Justin’s bilingual Spanish-speaking peers who accuse him of “playing white” call him a “coconut”–brown on the outside and white on the inside.

It’s the end of summer, and Justin’s vying for the cymbal captain post in his marching band. Band’s usually a place where Justin feels safe, despite a trio of percussionists who are bullies, one who is his primary competition for cymbal captain. Justin retreats into his 80s rock mixtapes on his Walkman whenever he feels stressed. He’s a little frustrated that Benny has been secretly dating Lila, a fellow percussionist, for a month or more. He’s always liked Lila, but they were never really close. This relationship with Benny brings them far closer, and she’s an ally as well. Justin’s parents are SO happy to see that Benny has a pretty girlfriend, and they encourage Justin to find one too. He’s overwhelmed, knowing he can never please them this way.

Justin has had bullies plaguing him for years. One, Ivan, is a big football player and almost beat Justin up back in eighth-grade, openly accusing him of being gay–which Justin had not come to terms with. At that time Dominic, a fellow student, came to his rescue. Dominic’s father was a huge homophobe and pulled Dominic from the school, fearing that associating with Justin would turn Dominic gay. Now, three years later, Dominic’s parents are divorced and Dominic and his mom have moved into the house next door to Justin. Justin’s really excited to reconnect–he never forgot Dominic’s kindness, and has had a crush on him since that time.

Dominic is eager to build a friendship, and is really protective of Justin from the beginning. Their friendship is growing into something more–especially when Justin confesses his sexuality, and his attraction. Dominic returns these feelings–he’s suffered physical and emotional abuse from his father, which led to his parent’s divorce. His mom knows he’s gay, and she’s supportive, if confused. Dominic is still playing football, and now his coach is Justin’s dad. He’s pleased they are friendly–thinking that a burly offensive lineman like Dominic is a manly friend, and far better for Justin than Benny.

The drama in band continues, though, and it leads to a big crisis. Within the final two weeks of summer, Justin gets his first kiss, first kiss with a guy, a boyfriend, and a situation that sends himself, Benny, Dominic and Lila on the run–temporarily. Justin and his parents have conversations that needed to happen years before. They recognize that Justin is the boy he is, and they love him even if they don’t necessarily understand. And, their support is so needed by Justin, who’s life was careening out of control for a bit there. With all this love behind him, Justin is ready to stand on his own feet, stand up to the bullies, and be a stronger man for it.

For me, this one was very interesting. But, I’m a child of the 90s and I understood the many, many pop-cultural references that Justin and his friends experience. Corded phones, MTV showing MUSIC VIDEOS (gasp!), the songs that speak to Justin’s heart, what a “mix tape” is–these are touchstones of my youth, but I wonder how they resonate with kids now. The music, especially. None of the songs Justin refers to are in frequent play today–and even listening to them with my kids, they associate that with “listening to old music with mom” moments, not the poignant, life-affirming experiences that will trigger nostalgia later. Music, and its dissemination, has changed considerably in the last 30 years, and kids do not seem to have as many emotional connections to it as the people of Justin’s generation would have. It’s cute that the author has built a Spotify playlist of the tunes referenced, to guide his readers into it, but I’m not sure if it will have traction for young readers. I was also a little troubled by the writing, with tense shifts that happen constantly, sometimes within sentences, throwing me off.

Justin is sweet kid, a bit over-emotional at times, with a huge inferiority complex. He’s too light-skinned, not bilingual, and lacks the machismo to integrate well with his peers. His love of American rock music is another point of separation, not to mention his sexuality. Justin’s tendency to shut people out with his Walkman creates a further barrier to overcome in terms of connection. It is through opening up, with Benny, Lila and finally Dominic, that allows him to grow into a functional kid. He makes even more friends as as result, finding at least one friendly bisexual boy he can relate to, and another straight boy who doesn’t care about his sexuality. The moral seems that being honest, open and out will help Justin navigate his life. And, that’s a valuable idea in our current time. Justin and Dominic do recognize–and this is driven home by the parable of Justin’s Tio Mando–that they exist in a society where threats to them exist because of their sexuality. They are careful to whom they reveal themselves as safety measure, and that stands as a touchstone for teens who might have similar home or societal pressures even today. I liked the story, and would recommend it for readers who enjoy coming out stories and near-historical, teen gay romances.

Interested? You can find THE MIXTAPE TO MY LIFE on Goodreads, Deep Hearts YA, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo and Smashwords. I received a review copy via NetGalley.

About the Author:
Jake Martinez is a former South Texas resident who has found a new home in Chicago. He has been writing all his life, but has only recently sought to be published. His debut novel, The Mixtape to My Life, reflects on life as a gay teen growing up in South Texas. Jake holds an MFA in Creative Writing and loves to write plays and screenplays. Aside form writing, you can find him hanging out at home with his husband, their newborn son, and an eclectic group of fur babies.

Catch up with Jake on his website, twitter, and Instagram.

Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!

Growing Up Wondering WHY CAN’T LIFE BE LIKE PIZZA–Review & Giveaway

Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a contemporary LGBTQ YA coming of age story from Andy V. Roamer. WHY CAN’T LIFE BE LIKE PIZZA? is the first book in the Pizza Chronicles and features a high school freshman questioning his ethnic heritage, his friendships and his sexuality.

Scroll down for an excerpt, my review and to get in on the $10 GC giveaway!
About the book:
RV is a good kid, starting his freshman year at the demanding Boston Latin School. Though his genes didn’t give him a lot of good things, they did give him a decent brain. So he’s doing his best to keep up in high school, despite all the additional pressures he’s facing: His immigrant parents, who don’t want him to forget his roots and insist on other rules. Some tough kids at school who bully teachers as well as students. His puny muscles. His mean gym teacher. The Guy Upstairs who doesn’t answer his prayers. And the most confusing fact of all—that he might be gay.

Luckily, RV develops a friendship with Mr. Aniso, his Latin teacher, who is gay and always there to talk to. RV thinks his problems are solved when he starts going out with Carole. But things only get more complicated when RV develops a crush on Bobby, the football player in his class. And to RV’s surprise, Bobby admits he may have gay feelings, too.

How about a taste?

Why can’t life be like pizza?

I’ve been asking myself the question a lot lately. I love pizza. Pizza makes me feel good. Especially since I discovered Joe’s. Joe’s Pizza is quiet and out of the way and allows me to think. And Joe’s combinations are the best. Pepperoni and onions. Garlic and mushroom. Cheese and chicken. And if you really want that little kick in the old butt: the super jalapeno. Mmmm, good. Gets you going again. And lets you forget all your troubles.

What troubles can a fourteen-year-old guy have? Ha! First of all, I’m not a regular guy, as anyone can guess from my taste in pizza. My parents are immigrants who are trying to make a better life for themselves here in the United States. Besides the usual things American parents worry about, like making money and having their kids do well in school, my parents spend more time worrying about the big things: politics, communism, fascism, global warming, and the fact they and their parents survived violence and jail so I-better-be-grateful-I’m-not-miserable-like-kids-in-other-parts-of-the-world.

Grateful? Ha! As far as I’m concerned, life is pretty miserable already. Instead of thinking about the World Series or Disneyland, I worry about terrorists down the street or the dirty bombs the strange family around the corner might be building.

I don’t know why I worry about everything, but I do. It’s probably in my genes. Other guys have genes that gave them big muscles or hairy chests. I got nerves.

And then there’s my name. RV. Yeah, RV. No, I’m not a camper or anything. RV is short for Arvydas. That’s right. “Are-vee-duh-s.” Mom and Dad say it’s a common name in Lithuania, which is the country in Eastern Europe where my parents were born. A name like that might be fine for Lithuania, but what about the United States? Couldn’t Mom and Dad have named me Joe, or Mike, or even Darryl? My brother, Ray, has a normal name. Why couldn’t they have given me one?

I even look a little weird, I think. Tall and skinny with an uncoordinated walk because of my big feet that get in the way and make me feel like a clod. Oh, yeah. I’ve been getting some zits lately, and I wear glasses since I’m pretty nearsighted. Not a pretty sight, is it? At least the glasses are not too thick. Mom and Dad don’t have a lot of money to spend, but they did fork up the money to get me thin lenses, so I don’t look like a complete zomboid.

What can I do? I try my best, despite it all. I’m lucky because I’ve done well in school, so at least my genes gave me a half-decent brain. Hey, I’m not bragging. It’s just nice to feel good about something when most days I feel pretty much a loser at so many things. When I was in grammar school, there were enough days when I came home from school and cried because some big oaf threatened me, or I got hit in the stomach during my pathetic attempts to play ball during recess.

Mom always tried to comfort me. “Nesirūpink,” she would say. “Esi gabus. Kai užaugsi, visiems nušluostysi nuosis.” We talk Lithuanian at home. Translated, that sentence means, “Don’t worry. You’re smart. When you grow up, you’ll show them.” Actually, not “you’ll show them,” but “you’ll wipe all their noses.” Lithuanians have a funny way of expressing themselves. Not sure I aspire to wiping anyone’s nose when I get older, but that’s what they say.

Whatever. I’m determined to put all that behind me. I’m starting a new life. My new life. Today was the first day of high school. I’m going to Boston Latin School. You have to take an exam to go there, so it’s full of smart kids. Besides smart kids, it has heavy-duty history too. It was founded in 1635, a year before Harvard. They already gave us a speech about that.

And about pressure. The pressure to succeed with all this history breathing down our necks. Pressure, ha! Doesn’t scare me. I know all about pressure. I’ve gotten pressure from cretinous bullies at school. I get it from cretinous Lith a-holes, who Mom and Dad keep pushing me to hang around with because they say it’s important to be part of the immigrant community. And I even get pressure from cretinous jerks in the neighborhood.

Cretinous. A good word. That’s something else about me. I like words. Real words and made-up ones. There’s something cool about them. Yeah, yeah, I know what people would say. You think words are cool? Kid, you’ve got more problems than you thought.

Well, I’m sorry. I do think words are cool. There’s something fun about making them up or learning a new one. Kind of unlocks something in the world. And I like the world despite all my worrying. It can be an okay place sometimes.

Okay, okay, I’m getting off track. I want to write about my first day of school. Mom and Dad gave me this new—well, refurbished, but new to me anyway—computer for getting into Latin school, and they keep after me to make good use of it. So, I’ve decided I’m going to write about my new life. My life away from cretins—Lith, American, or any other kind.

The first person I met at school today was Carole. Carole Higginbottom. She’s in my homeroom. She was sitting in the first row, first seat, and I was sitting right behind her. We started talking. She’s from West Roxbury, too, which is where we live.

West Roxbury is part of Boston. You have to live somewhere in Boston in order to go to Latin school. West Roxbury is a nice neighborhood, for the most part, with houses, trees, grass, and people going to work and coming home. Kind of an all-American place, I guess. We used to live in a different, tougher part of Boston, but Mom and Dad moved away from there because they said the neighborhood was getting too rough. They promised I wouldn’t get beat up so much in West Roxbury. I don’t know. West Roxbury is better, but I still have gotten a few black-and-blue marks with “made in West Roxbury” on them, so as far as I’m concerned it isn’t any perfect place either.

Carole lives in another part of West Roxbury, near Centre Street, which is the main street in the area. People like to hang out there. Mom says that part of West Roxbury is a little dicey. (Mom thinks a lot of neighborhoods are too dicey. Maybe that’s where I get my worrying from.) Anyway, Carole sure doesn’t seem dicey. As a matter of fact, she’s a little goofy. Tall and skinny with red hair, red cheeks, and a million freckles. And she has a really sharp nose that curves up like those special ski slopes you see in the Olympics. But I get the feeling she’s smart. She says she likes science. That’s good because I might need help with science. I’m better with other subjects like history and English.

Our homeroom teacher is Mr. Bologna, Carmine Bologna. He’s a little scary with slicked-back dark hair and even darker eyes that stare at you forever. He looks like he’s part of the organization we’re not supposed to talk about—you know, the scary one from Italy that’s into murder, racketeering, and drugs. Two guys were horsing around in the back of the class and Mr. Bologna came right up to them, said a few words under his breath, and just stared at them. Boy, did they settle down fast. I’m no troublemaker, but I’ll really have to watch myself. Don’t want to deal with the Bologna stare if I can help it.

Today was mostly about walking around, learning about our subjects, and meeting teachers. Besides all the regular subjects, I have to take Latin. I don’t have anything against it per se, but is it really necessary to learn a dead language? And then there’s the teacher, Mr. Aniso. He’s kind of light in his loafers. That’s another new phrase I learned recently. It refers to gay guys, and Mr. Aniso is so gay it hurts. I just hope he can’t tell anything about me. I don’t wave my wrist around the way he does, do I?

Yeah, that’s something else I have to come to terms with. I might be heading in that direction. Yeah, me. I can hardly believe it. Me! Why? It can’t be true, can it? I’ve been praying to God, asking Him not to make me gay, but I don’t think He’s listening. If He exists, that is. Maybe He’s not answering because He doesn’t exist.

I don’t know. People on TV and in books say being gay is okay. Movie stars and rock stars are gay. There are gay mayors and other gay political types. That’s fine for them, but they don’t live with my family. Mom’s a heavy-duty Catholic. Dad’s a macho, “what-me-cry?” kind of guy. And my younger brother, Ray, well, Ray probably doesn’t care one way or another, but he doesn’t count anyway since he hates everybody. And then there are all those Lith immigrants, the community that’s so important to Mom and Dad. Most of them are so Old World and conservative. I don’t think being gay would go down well with them.

Not that I am gay for certain. I’m just saying it’s crossed my mind because…well, because I think about guys sometimes. And I notice them. Notice how they look when they’re coming down the street. Notice their eyes or their hair or the way they move. Just notice them.

Oh, I notice girls, too, but something about guys is different. I can’t put my finger on it, but I think about them as much or maybe more than girls. And I want to be with them. Is that normal? What’s normal anyway? To be honest, I’m so inexperienced. Never dated. Never even kissed anyone. Not like that anyway. No, I’ve spent my time worrying about communism, terrorism, and global warming. Like I said, I’ve always felt a little out of step with the rest of humanity.

Dealing with all this is just too much. To be nervous about things the way I am. To be speaking a language most people haven’t heard of. To have a strange name. To wear glasses and look nerdy. And now I might be gay? It’s all too confusing. I might as well start on antidepressants, or something stronger, right now.

But no. I try to look on the bright side of things. Take Carole for instance. She seems nice and fun, and maybe we’ll be friends. And if she likes me, I can’t be too weird, can I? I guess I’ll find out. I better not think about it. There’s enough to worry about as it is. I just have to take a breath and focus on my homework. Yeah, we got homework already. At least that’s one thing I’m good at. And when I go to Joe’s, well, life’s not so bad, at least while I’m eating my chicken and cheese or super jalapeno slice.

My Review:
Arvydas–called RV for short is the eldest son of Lithuanian immigrant parents. His parents emigrated when they were barely teens to escape the Soviet occupation and the hard life of the Old Country, but they haven’t forgotten their Lith roots. RV and his younger brother Ray have been taught to speak Lithuanian in their home–though Ray rarely does. RV is a bit embarrassed of his parents, to be honest, because their broken English makes them sound illiterate, and RV is really a literate kid. He’s been accepted into the Boston Latin School–a high honor–and he loves English probably the most of his classes.

RV has some deep secrets, though, most especially that he likes boys that way he thinks, even though he prays to God about it all the time. He’s pretty sure God doesn’t hear his prayers, much. RV goes to Lith church and has to hang with Lith kids, including the wealthy sort-of cousins that are some far relation to his mother’s family. RV’s parents fight a lot, mostly about money, but sometimes about RV and his “odd” ways. RV tries to be as quiet as possible so he won’t attract attention. He’s close friends with Carole, and army brat who’s moved a lot. Carole puts the moves on RV, and he’s kinda glad that she is willing to kiss him, but he’s not sure about how he feels when they make out. Is it weird that he’s sometimes thinking about his biology lab partner, Bobby, who is an attractive, black, super-athlete, when Carole kisses him?

Bobby is new to school and he’s friendly with RV, which is so confusing! They hang out at the same pizzeria sometimes, and Bobby is always asking for RV to look over his writing homework–which RV is so happy to do. It gives him more time to hang with Bobby after all. But, as the year wears on RV’s feelings about boys are really solidifying. He and Carole aren’t really working out. Bobby’s dating a really popular girl and RV’s dealing with jealousy, struggles at home, and the news that his effeminate Latin teacher has been hospitalized for was seems a gay bashing. Mr. Aniso was “swishy” in a way that RV feared appearing, and his students often made fun of him–RV included. But, RV does see Mr. Aniso’s extraordinary bravery, and he’s compelled to visit Mr. Aniso in the hospital where he learns about the man, not the teacher. Their visits help RV learn more about himself, too, and Mr. Aniso’s ready acceptance of RV’s questioning situation provides the support and context that RV really needs.

This coming of age/coming out story is tender and poignant, with a character who had many challenges to discover and overcome. RV’s family life is unstable, and his culturally bigoted parents will likely not accept his sexuality. RV’s large father, whose temper is often volatile, makes him feel unsafe to live his truth, but he is able to find allies in his life, including Mr. Aniso, Bobby, and Carole. The narrative is told through RV’s journal, so readers can be sure they are getting RV’s truest thoughts, and accurate representations of his emotional state, even when he’s confused and pondering. I honestly adored RV, who is so earnest and so nervous. He’s in an almost-constant state of panic, afraid to say the wrong thing to everyone. As his relationships grow, however, he learns who he can trust, and how to navigate the difficult conversations. He gains confidence, and with that comes some sparks of happiness.

I liked how Bobby and RV are able to carefully reveal that they both might like boys to one another, and how they might also like each other in that way. RV’s courage, and frustration, help this happen and it works out so well for him. There’s a TOUCH of romance here, in the most YA-friendly manner. I would gladly follow RV into more adventures.

Interested? You can find WHY CAN’T LIFE BE LIKE PIZZA? on Goodreads, NineStar Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords. I received a review copy via NetGalley.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a $10 GC from NineStar Press.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!

About the Author:
Andy V. Roamer grew up in the Boston area and moved to New York City after college. He worked in book publishing for many years, starting out in the children’s and YA books division and then wearing many other hats. This is his first novel about RV, the teenage son of immigrants from Lithuania in Eastern Europe, as RV tries to negotiate his demanding high school, his budding sexuality, and new relationships. He has written an adult novel, Confessions of a Gay Curmudgeon, under the pen name Andy V. Ambrose. To relax, Andy loves to ride his bike, read, watch foreign and independent movies, and travel.

Catch up with Andy on his website and Facebook.

Not Easy BECOMING ANDY HUNSINGER–Review & Giveaway!

Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a new near-historical M/M romance from Jere’ M. Fishback. BECOMING ANDY HUNSINGER is a coming-of-age story for a college student who’s inadvertently outed in 70s and hopes to find his true love without being shunned by his family. It’s a charming, and often bittersweet, story, and I really liked it.

Drop down to catch an interview, and excerpt and get in on the book giveaway, too!

About the book:
It’s 1976, and Anita Bryant’s homophobic “Save Our Children” crusade rages through Florida. When Andy Hunsinger, a closeted gay college student, joins in a demonstration protesting Bryant’s appearance in Tallahassee, his straight boy image is shattered when he is “outed” by a TV news reporter.

In the months following, Andy discovers just what it means to be openly gay in a society that condemns love between two men and wonders if his friendship with Travis, a devout Christian who’s fighting his own sexual urges, can develop into something deeper.

How about a little taste…

Chapter One
On my seventh birthday, my parents gave me a Dr. Seuss book, The Cat in the Hat.

I still have the book; it rests on the shelf above my desk, along with other Seuss works I’ve collected. Inside The Cat in the Hat’s cover, my mother wrote an inscription, using her precise penmanship.

“Happy Birthday, Andy. As you grow older, you’ll realize many truths dwell within these pages. Much love, Mom and Dad.”

Mom was right, of course. She most always was. My favorite line is this one:

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

***

Loretta McPhail was a notorious Tallahassee slumlord. On a steamy afternoon, in August 1976, she spoke to me in her North Florida drawl: part magnolia, part crosscut saw.

“The rent’s one twenty-five. I’ll need first, last, and a security deposit, no exceptions.”

McPhail wore a short-sleeved shirtwaist dress, spectator pumps, and a straw hat with a green plastic windowpane sewn into the brim. Her skin was as pale as cake flour. A gray moustache grew on her wrinkled upper lip, and age spots peppered the backs of her hands. Her eyeglasses had lenses so thick her gaze looked buggy.

I’d heard McPhail held title to more than fifty properties in town, all of them cited multiple times for violation of local building codes. She owned rooming houses, single-family homes, and small apartment buildings, mostly in neighborhoods surrounding Florida State University’s campus. Like me, her tenants sought cheap rent; they didn’t care if the roof leaked or the furnace didn’t work.

The Franklin Street apartment I viewed with McPhail wasn’t much: a living room and kitchen, divided by a three-quarter wall; a bedroom with windows looking into the rear and side yards; and a bathroom with a wall-mounted sink, a shower stall, and a toilet with a broken seat. In each room, the plaster ceilings bore water marks. The carpet was a leopard skin of suspicious-looking stains, and the whole place stank of mildew and cat pee.

McPhail’s building was a two-storied, red-brick four-plex with casement windows that opened like book covers, a Panhandle style of architecture popular in the 1950s. Shingles on the pitched roof curled at their edges. Live oaks and longleaf pines shaded the crabgrass lawn, and skeletal azaleas clung to the building’s exterior.

In the kitchen, I peeked inside a rust-pitted Frigidaire. The previous tenant had left gifts: a half-empty ketchup bottle, another of pickle relish. A carton of orange juice with an expiration date three months past sat beside a tub of margarine.

Out in the stairwell, piano music tinkled—a jazzy number I didn’t recognize.

McPhail clucked her tongue and shook her head. “I’ve told Fergal—and I mean several times—to close his door when he plays, but he never does. I’m not sure why I put up with that boy.”

McPhail pulled a pack of Marlboros from a pocket in the skirt of her dress. After tapping out two cigarettes, she jammed them between her lips. She lit both with a brushed-chrome Zippo, then gave me one.

I puffed and tapped a toe, letting my gaze travel about the kitchen. I studied the chipped porcelain sink, scratched Formica countertops, and drippy faucet. Blackened food caked the range’s burner pans. The linoleum floor’s confetti motif had long ago disappeared in high-traffic areas. Okay, the place was a dump. But the rent was cheap, and campus was less than a mile away. I could ride my bike to classes and to my part-time job as caddy at the Capital City Country Club.

Still, I hesitated.

The past two years, I’d lived in my fraternity house with forty brothers. I took my meals there, too. If I rented McPhail’s apartment, I’d have to cook for myself. What would I eat? Where would I shop for food?

Other questions flooded my brain. Where would I wash my clothes? And how did a guy open a utilities account? The apartment wasn’t furnished. Where would I purchase a bed? What about a dinette and living room furniture?

And how much did such things cost? It all seemed so complicated.

Still…

Lack of privacy at the fraternity house would pose a problem for me this year. Over summer break—back home in Pensacola—I’d experienced my first sexual encounter with another male, a lanky serviceman named Jeff Dellinger, age twenty-four. Jeff was a second lieutenant from Eglin Air Force Base. I met him at a sand volleyball game behind a Pensacola Beach hotel, and he seemed friendly. I liked his dark hair, slim physique, and ready smile, but wasn’t expecting anything personal to happen between us.

After all, I was a “straight boy,” right?

We bought each other beers at the tiki bar, and then Jeff invited me up to his hotel room. Once we reached the room, Jeff prepared two vodka tonics. My drink struck like snake venom, and then my brain fuzzed. Jeff opened a bureau drawer; he produced a lethal-looking pistol fashioned from black metal. The pistol had a matte finish and a checked grip.

“Ever seen one of these?” Jeff asked.

I shook my head.

“It’s an M1911—official air-force issue. I’ve fired it dozens of times.

Jeff raised the gun to shoulder height. He closed one eye, focused his other on the pistol’s barrel sight. “Shooting’s almost…sensual.” Then he looked at me. “It’s like sex, if you know what I mean.”

I shrugged, not knowing what to say.

Jeff handed the pistol to me. It weighed more than I’d expected, between two and three pounds. I turned it this way and that, admiring its sleek contours. The grip felt cold against my palm and a shiver ran through me. I’d never fired a handgun, never thought to.

“Is it loaded?” I asked.

Jeff bobbed his chin. “One bullet’s in the firing chamber, seven more in the magazine; it’s a semiautomatic.”

After I handed Jeff the gun, he returned it to his bureau’s drawer while I sipped my drink, feeling woozier by the minute. Jeff sat next to me, on the room’s double bed. His knee nudged mine, our shoulders touched, and I smelled his coconut-scented sunscreen.

Jeff laid a hand on my thigh. Then he squeezed. “You don’t mind, do you?”

I looked down at his hand while my heart thumped. Go on, chickenshit. He wants you.

I gazed into Jeff’s dark eyes. “It’s fine.”

And that’s were I cut the offered excerpt, folks, because I keep it PG-13 here, and the next few lines are a sex scene. Plus, there’s lots of Andy reminiscing about sex with Jeff, too. Let’s just say that Andy opts to rent this crummy apartment so he can have the privacy he needs to be a sexually-active gay man in 1976.

And some thoughts on the story from author Jere’ M. Fishback:

Was there any particular part of this book that was difficult to write? If so, what made it so difficult?
There’s a scene where Andy decides to explore the world of BDSM, and winds up getting beaten and sexually assaulted by a man he shouldn’t have trusted. The scene was very disturbing to write, especially because Andy’s such a lovable guy who doesn’t deserve what happens to him.

How about the part of the story you had the most fun writing?
I especially enjoyed writing about Andy’s family’s acceptance of his sexual orientation, despite their conservative views on life. Andy’s extremely close to this parents and his younger brother, and it was fun to write about the day (Easter Sunday) when Andy comes out to his family at the dinner table. There are some pretty tense moments, especially when Andy talks alone with his younger brother, Jake, about homosexuality.

How did you come up with the title?
I went to school with a friend who has the last name Hunsinger, and I always thought it was a cool name, so I used it for my main character. I titled the book Becoming Andy Hunsinger because the book’s about Andy emotional and sexual evolution.

My Review:
Andy Hunsinger unequivocally recognizes that he’s gay the summer before his senior year at Florida State University. His hidden escapades with a closeted airman confirm this, and when he returns to school in August of 1976, he seeks a small apartment for himself knowing he can’t bring a man back to his room in the frathouse.

It’s not as difficult a transition as Andy first imagined. He likes decorating his space and teaching himself to cook. Now, however, he’s lonely. It’s not like there’s a lot of options for entertainment at this time. He finds a gay-friendly bar which he cruises and he sometimes has luck finding a one-night guy, but he truly desires a steady partner. He thinks he does, but when Andy joins a rally against bigoted Anita Bryant’s “Save The Children” crusade Andy gets “outed” on local television. He soon finds himself single again. But, he’s not entirely alone. He’s met lots of gay men who’ve come out in this time, and made allies who assist him in his life as he copes with the fall out of his public status. His job as a caddie at a prominent Tallahassee golf club is at risk, which would be a big financial blow for Andy. Meanwhile, he’s making new friends, and new allies by the day. Still, he worries about how his family will take the news. And, he wonders about a closeted friend, Travis, who’s struggling with his family’s decree that he remain celibate.

This is a really interesting book. It’s told in an almost memoir fashion which generally bothers me, but didn’t in this case. The cast of time is clear and the historic details are amazing. I grew up in the 70s/80s and could easily envision this story unfolding through the lens of my memories. There are times, because this felt memoir-y, when I was a little overwhelmed by asides and description, but then the author looped all that fab detail into a point I hadn’t expected, and it made great sense. I really liked how open, honest and caring Andy was, for all the isolation and personal despair he suffered. He was never too busy to help a friend, or too hurt to mend a relationship.

I loved the slow unfolding of his love story with Travis. These guys have had traumatic outings, and Andy embraced himself, with the help of his friends and family, while Travis had a much different experience. Andy’s no stranger to violence, and refuses to let another suffer if he has a means to help. We experience about 18 months of Andy’s life in the book, and it’s time well spent. He’s a character worth knowing, and his story is remarkable in its commonness; it’s approachable and interesting, with curves that come just when the reader thinks Andy’s finally got everything going in the right direction. The resolution is what I’d call a HFN, or Happy For Now ending, though it was upbeat enough that I felt confident Andy and Travis would be alright on the other side of the page. It’s not a strict romance, though. More a coming out/coming-of-age story that has romantic elements, and a quiet love story that only builds in the last quarter of the book. That said, I really enjoyed the story as a whole, and admired Andy as a man and a character throughout. I enjoyed his journey and recommend the book.

Interested? You can find BECOMING ANDY HUNSINGER on Goodreads, NineStar Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a book of your choice from NineStar Press.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!

About the Author:
Jere’ M. Fishback is a former journalist and trial lawyer who now writes fiction full time. He lives with his partner Greg on a barrier island on Florida’s Gulf Coast. When he’s not writing, Jere’ enjoys reading, playing his guitar, jogging, swimming laps, fishing, and watching sunsets from his deck overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.

Catch up with Jere’ on his website, Facebook, and Goodreads.

Love and Loss for THE NEXT COMPETITOR–A Review

Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a contemporary New Adult sports M/M romance from Keira Andrews. THE NEXT COMPETITOR isn’t a Christmas book, but it features fantastic male figure skaters, and that’s wintry to me! Plus, I’ve recently gotten hooked on YURI!!! ON ICE, a lovely new anime with respectfully-portrayed gay characters, so I was jazzed to read this one.

And that cover! #Swoon…

tncAbout the book:
If he risks his heart, can he keep his head in the game?
To win gold, figure skater Alex Grady must train harder than the competition morning, noon, and night. He’s obsessed with mastering another quadruple jump, and due to the lack of filter between his mouth and brain, doesn’t have a lot of friends. As for a boyfriend, forget it. So what if he’s still a virgin at twenty? The Olympics are only every four years—everything else can wait. Relationships are messy and complicated anyway, and he has zero room in his life for romance.

So it’s ridiculous when Alex finds himself checking out his boring new training mate Matt Savelli. Calm, collected “Captain Cardboard” is a nice guy, but even if Alex had time to date, Matt’s so not his type. Yet beneath Matt’s wholesome surface, there’s a dirty, sexy man who awakens a desire Alex has never experienced and can’t deny…

Note: This gay romance from Keira Andrews features opposites attracting, new adult angst, sexual discovery, and of course a happy ending.

This new version has been extensively rewritten, updated, and expanded into a new adult romance with explict on-page sex.

My Review:
This is a strongly-written New Adult M/M sports romance which features elite amateur skaters.

Alex Grady is a taciturn skater determined to win gold at the Olympics. He came to skating late, but has worked really, really hard to make it to the top, winning US Nationals in the previous season. He has a new coach, Mrs. C, who is a former Russian champion, and gives Alex the tough instruction he needs. It’s an Olympic year and he’s training in Toronto, isolated from his family in New Jersey, making few friends of his training mates.

Matt Savelli, one-half of a partners team, is an attractive man, one that Alex can’t help but notice. Looking is all Alex really wants. He’s known he was gay for most of his life, but he’s never had a boyfriend. Alex’s out to his family, but he keeps his sexuality private, fearing some judges may lower his scores out of prejudice, especially with hypermasculine skaters tearing up the ice with all their huge jumps. Plus, dating someone would just take time away from training, and Alex can’t afford it. His family’s financial situation is very much dependent upon Alex’s performance.

Still, as Alex interacts with Matt, he recognizes that Matt’s not the model of perfection he projects. Their friendship grows, a bit. And, when a tragedy occurs on the ice and Matt’s partner is injured, Alex is there to pick Matt up from his depression, encouraging him to skate singles for the first time in years. Not only that, they connect in a way Alex never has with a man before. The competitive atmosphere is exciting as Alex and Matt both strive for their personal Olympic dreams. At the end of the day, however, Alex is focused on winning gold, and he messes up with Matt, big time.

I really enjoyed all the skating bits. I’m (at best) a casual figure skating fan–I appreciate its beauty, but it’s not really my thing–yet I didn’t feel lost, or overwhelmed with the sport bits. The story is one of setting goals, and reaching for them over all other parts of life, and that self-sacrifice is something I do really connect with. Alex’s life has a combustive energy, with his no-filter mouth and his solitary habits. He’s socially-awkward and abrasive, as a result. Matt stayed away at first because of that, thinking the Alex was a big jerk. He isn’t, really, but his shell is tough to crack, and he’s petulant at times with a horrid habit of lashing out when frustrated. That said, he does make amends, and his tender heart is revealed in lovely ways over the second half of the story.

There’s also a sweet bit of sexual exploration here, because Alex begins the book as a virgin, and Matt takes care of that bit of business. Both sweet and tender, and hot and dirty, loving are on the menu, folks. There’s also some heartbreak, and a lot of personal growth in store for Alex. I loved that he began the book as a prickly young man, and ended as a freaking teddy bear.

Interested? You can find THE NEXT COMPETITOR on Goodreads and Amazon.

Keira AndrewsAbout the Author:
After writing for years yet never really finding the right inspiration, Keira discovered her voice in gay romance, which has become a passion. She writes contemporary, historical, paranormal and fantasy fiction, and—although she loves delicious angst along the way—Keira firmly believes in happy endings. For as Oscar Wilde once said, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

You can catch up with Keira on her website, Facebook, twitter, and Goodreads.

Thanks for popping in and keep reading my friends!

Tough Love Learning YOU ARE NOT ME–Review & Giveaway!

you-are-not-me-bannerHi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a New Adult coming-of-age story from Leta Blake. YOU ARE NOT ME, the sequel to PICTURES OF YOU, is set in Knoxville, Tennessee, and follows a newly graduated, newly out teen looking to find his tribe. There’s a dash of romance, but it’s bittersweet.

Catch the excerpt below, and be sure to enter the giveaway to win one of two copies of PICTURES OF YOU.
you-are-not-me-coverAbout the book:
Follow Peter into the summer following his senior year to face new beginnings, new friends, and old baggage.

After a tumultuous final year of high school, Peter Mandel needs a break. It’s the summer of 1991, and his secret relationship with his ‘best friend’ Adam Algedi is put on hold as Adam goes away to Italy for the summer. On the cusp of adulthood, Peter has a couple of months to explore who he is without Adam at his side.

Enter Daniel McPeak, a slightly older, out, responsible college guy with a posse of gay friends and an attraction for Peter. Drawn into the brave new world of the local gay club, Peter embarks on a whirlwind of experiences—good and bad—which culminate in a hotel room where he has to make the ultimate choice.

But Adam will come back eventually, and there are promises that have to be kept. As autumn draws near and college awaits, can Peter break free of the binds of twisted first love? And what exactly is Daniel’s role in his life – a brief temptation, or something more?

Join Peter in the second book of this four-part coming of age series as he struggles to love and be loved, and grow into a gay man worthy of his own respect.

How about a little taste?

The stool next to me wasn’t empty for long. Minty dropped onto it, his purple tutu rubbing against my chinos and his thin, white arms curled up to rest on the bar. He stared at me for a long, curious second. “I’ve met you before, right?”

“Yeah.” I shook off my disappointment and gave him my attention. “Last spring, up on campus.”

“Did we fuck?”

I almost choked on my soda. “No.”

“Right.” Minty frowned. “Did I suck you off?”

I stared at him.

“Well?”

“My car was broken down,” I said slowly. “Daniel helped me.”

Minty grinned. “Oh, right! I remember now. You looked amazing that night. Made of moonbeams. Everyone was made of moonbeams.” He tilted his head. “You look all right now too.”

“Thanks?”

Minty laughed and fluffed his tutu. He turned away from me to hammer his fists on the bar. “Jolly Zima, Barry! Watermelon! Hit me!”

Barry rolled his eyes, but he pulled a Zima out from the fridge and popped the lid, then reached under the counter and came out with a watermelon Jolly Rancher, unwrapped it, and dropped it into the drink. Minty slapped three dollars down and took a dainty sip.

“Ah! Perfection!” He turned to me with his eyelashes lowered flirtatiously. “Anyway, back to what you were saying. We haven’t fucked yet?”

Startled, nervous laughter bubbled out of my mouth.

“Minty,” Barry said. “Drink your Zima and leave Peter alone.”

“Sure thing. You’re the boss.” Minty sighed and leaned toward me conspiratorially. “He won’t fuck me either. What’s a girl gotta do these days? I mean, I look good, don’t I?”

I looked him over—white, though scuffed, ballet slippers, purple tutu, toned, pale, lithe arms, and his made-up face. “Sure. You look really pretty.”

Minty grinned. “Aw, you know how to make a girl feel nice.”

“Didn’t I just see you downstairs with two guys, though?”

“Two? Please. That’s just a warm-up.” He sniffed.

Renée appeared at my side, dropping an arm around my shoulder. “Minty, doll baby, I need you backstage in an hour. You’re my naughty boy tonight.”

“Okay, but I want to wear my tutu.”

“You’ll be gorgeous.” Renée grabbed hold of Minty’s face and looked him over. “We need to put some eyelashes on you too.”

“And red lipstick.”

“Yes! Every man in this room will ache to be in that pert ass of yours.” She glanced at me and then back at Minty. “Except Peter here.”

“He catches?” Minty asked.

“Like Johnny Bench, baby.”

I didn’t like my positional preferences being discussed like it was any of their business, but I was mystified that Renée seemed so certain about it. Was there something about me that screamed loves it up the ass?

“How do you know who Johnny Bench is, woman?” Barry handed Renée a milky-looking drink topped with brown liquor.

“I listen!”

“I’ve never mentioned baseball to you and you know it.”

“Of course not. You’d never do that to me. Earl at Ringo Comics, though, he babbles on and on about it when he’s trying not to come. Earl says I catch like a pro.” She patted her ass.

Daniel was right last spring when he said Robert and Renée were the same but different people. Robert could be sassy and forthright about his sexual shenanigans, but raunchy details rarely left his mouth. My face burned.

“Hear, hear!” Minty cried, throwing back his head to draw a long swig from his Zima.

Barry frowned. It was the first time I’d seen Barry look even moderately unhappy about Renée—or Robert’s—indiscretions.

“What?” Renée asked defensively.

“Earl’s positive.” Barry’s gaze bore into her. “You used a condom?”

“Of course!” Renée licked her lips and shifted nervously to her other foot, her hip cocking out. “I always do. You know that.”

Minty bit his purple-painted thumbnail, eyes going distant. “I’m probably positive. I should get tested. My mom wants me to get tested.”

Barry nailed Minty and Renée with a frustrated glare. He reached under the counter and pulled out two condoms. Then his gaze shifted to me and he pulled out a third. “For fuck’s sake, use these. Every time. Every damn time.”

Renée stuffed the condom in her bra. Minty held it up in front of his face and then gave it a kiss before lifting up his tutu to tuck it into the waistband of his white briefs. Nodding, I pocketed the one Barry handed to me, even though I wasn’t going to need it. Adam was in Italy and the casual sex Minty and Renée played with was something I’d never risk.

My Review:
This is the second book in a series and best enjoyed when read in order. It’s June 1991, and the AIDS epidemic is at it’s peak, as is tension with Middle Easterners, as we’re in the midst of the Gulf War.

Peter Mandel is nearly nineteen, and just graduated from high school in Knoxville, Tennesee. He’s gay, and out to his parents and a few friends, notably his boyfriend, the BF’s siblings, and his drag queen boss. Peter otherwise keeps a low profile because he’s been attacked for his sexuality, and to spare his mother pain; as a child she’d seen her elder brother brutally killed for being gay.

Peter’s boyfriend Adam thought he had a fool-proof plan to shield them from scrutiny: he got a girlfriend, Leslie, who he maintains a sexual relationship with, as well as with Peter. It killed Peter for their time together in senior year, but now it’s summer and Adam’s gone to Rome to live with his parents until college begins in the fall. His letters and calls to Peter all describe the big changes that will happen when he’s back, but Peter’s not so convinced. He’s not comfortable being a piece on the side any longer, and he cares for Leslie, too–feels like a big jerk for lying to her, in fact.

Peter meets Daniel through Robert/Renee, the lovely black drag queen he works for. See, Peter’s a photographer, and he does Renee’s publicity, as well as helps edit his filmography of famous drag queens. Daniel is a college student at UT, just like Peter, and they develop a good friendship, as well as an attraction. Daniel doesn’t want to make a move, though, knowing Peter is holding out hope the he and Adam will build a stronger relationship when Adam returns–despite the fact that they’ll attend different colleges in different states–and Leslie will be with Adam.

So, yeah. There is a bit of romance, as Daniel and Peter spend more and more time together. Peter gets to know all of Daniel’s close friends, and he sees how important it is to live his truth. Plus, he’s filling out of his gawky-awkward stage, and finding that men are very much attracted to him whenever he gets out to the gay clubs. Should he wait for Adam? Is he only prolonging the heartbreak?

This book is really rich with description of the times and occurrences. I love the throwbacks of corded phones, answering machines and film cameras. Developing!! Argh! There’s also some really poignant moments regarding HIV/AIDS because Daniel is an outreach volunteer, and he gets Peter involved in some home care visits with a man who’s dying of AIDS. Wow! That was so freaking intense, and I only expect it’ll get more so in the next book. The context of HIV/AIDS is such a strong element of the book, with every person advising Peter on his safety, and some serious problems when risks are unnecessarily posed.

Emotionally, Peter struggles with doing what he believes is right, and what is right for him. So many times I wanted to just pull him in for a long hug, and tell him to Get Rid Of Adam!!! Alas, I’m but a reader, and I must follow the path he chooses. The good part is: all of it. It’s gritty, and scary, and captivating living life through Peter’s opened eyes. He finds unlikely allies, and builds true relationships–even repairing a lot of the damage within his own family. His parents’ benign neglect was more damaging than they realized, and they do a lot of soul-searching and reconnection in this book. That was fabulous. Peter does make mistakes, and I think he gets pretty lucky in some parts–particularly dealing with some substance use he wasn’t quite ready for. While the romance is almost incidental to the story, it does exist. Expect it to be bittersweet. The end is upbeat, and I’m eager to see how Peter takes to his first semester in college.

Interested? You can find YOU ARE NOT ME on Goodreads and Amazon.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win on of two ebooks of PICTURES OF YOU.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!

About the Author:
Author of the best-selling book Smoky Mountain Dreams and the fan favorite Training Season, Leta Blake’s educational and professional background is in psychology and finance, respectively. However, her passion has always been for writing. She enjoys crafting romance stories and exploring the psyches of made up people. At home in the Southern U.S., Leta works hard at achieving balance between her day job, her writing, and her family.

You can find out more on her website, Facebook and twitter.

IndiGo

New Young Love: PICTURES OF YOU–A Review

Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a mature YA/New Adult M/M series from Leta Blake. PICTURES OF YOU is the first in a four-part series about young gay people coming of age in 1990s Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s not exactly a romance, though there are certainly lots of sexytimes.

poyAbout the book:
Growing up gay isn’t easy. Growing up gay in Knoxville, Tennessee is even harder.

Eighteen-year-old Peter Mandel, a private school senior—class of 1991—is passionate about photography. Peter doesn’t have many friends, preferring to shoot pictures from behind the scenes to keep his homosexuality secret.

Enter Adam Algedi, a charming, worldly new guy who doesn’t do labels, but does want to do Peter. Hardly able to believe gorgeous Adam would want geeky, skinny him of all people, Peter’s swept away on a journey of first love and sexual discovery. But as their mutual web of lies spins tighter and tighter, can Peter find the confidence he needs to make the right choices? And will his crush on Daniel, a college acquaintance, open a new path?

Join Peter in the first of this four-part coming of age series as he struggles to love and be loved, and grow into a gay man worthy of his own respect.

This new series by Leta Blake is gay fiction with romantic elements.
Book 1 of 4.
Warning! These books contain: New Adult fiction, ‘90s gay life, small city homosexual experiences, Southern biases, sexual exploration, romance, homophobia, bisexuality, and twisted-up young love. Oh, and a guaranteed happy ending for the main character by the end of Book 4.

How about a little taste?

“Should I apologize for earlier?” Adam asked, turning down the stereo.

“It isn’t your fault she showed up.”

Adam grinned at me. “I meant, should I apologize for the kiss, but I guess the answer is ‘no.’”

I twitched nervously in my seat and took a deep breath “I’m gay.”

“No shit.”

I stared. “What?”

“I mean, yeah. You’re gay. I figured that out.”

“So—” I stopped. “Wait. How?”

“I can always tell. I don’t know how.”

“But I thought you said you weren’t gay.”

“I never said that.” Adam frowned. “Honestly, I don’t know what I am.”

My heart trip-hammered for a ton of reasons, but the scariest of them was hope. “What’s the deal then? Uh, with us?”

“Us? We’re friends. Like I said, friends kiss.”

My hope settled into a knot of anxiety.

“Then why hasn’t a friend kissed me before?”

“I don’t know. I mean, who wouldn’t want to kiss you?”

To me, it was definitely more of a question of who would want to kiss me, and, more specifically, just exactly why he had. Especially when I knew how everyone else would view me once we got to school. Maybe living all over the world hadn’t taught him the social skill of self-preservation required to make his way in a small city like Knoxville.

I decided to tell him. He really did deserve to know, and besides, if it was going to be an issue, I wanted to be hurt now, not later.

“I’m a huge loser, you know.”

Adam glanced over at me like I was insane. “What?”

“I’m not popular. In school. In life. In anything.” I turned my head and looked out the window, worrying my lower lip. “I just thought you should know. I mean, you don’t want to start out at a new school being friends with someone who’s just going to drag you down.”

Adam actually laughed. “You’re crazy. Did you know that?”

My throat tightened. It hurt he wasn’t taking me seriously. “I’m telling you why I’ll understand when you decide we can’t be friends anymore.”

“Look, you haven’t even started at this school and you’ve already decided that as a friend you’re not worth being first string? What’s up with that?”

I shrugged. “I’m just being realistic. I mean—look at me.”

In my peripheral vision I saw Adam do just that. He looked at me long enough that I worried about the car staying on the road. “Yeah. I’m looking. I still like what I see.” He lifted his hand to the back of my neck and squeezed. “I’m serious.”

A strange rush of emotion flooded my stomach and chest, and I wanted to tuck my face between my knees. Instead I just crossed my arms and frowned.

Adam brushed his fingers through my hair, catching in my frenzy of curls. It felt intimate and almost more real than the kiss. I shivered when he let go to grip the steering wheel again.

“But enough of that,” he said sternly. “Get my book bag out of the backseat. I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Happy to be leaving the uncomfortable topic of my gay dorkitude behind, I reached around and grabbed the blue, nylon book bag.

“Open the front pocket.”

I unzipped it, fished around, and pulled out a driver’s license. It was Mo’s, and I had to stifle a laugh at the typical bad license photo that made him look like a serial killer.

“I’ve got a fake ID that Sean got for me, but I liberated that one for you.”

I tapped the picture. “You think this will get me into the club? I look nothing like your brother!”

“Don’t be such a defeatist! You just hold your thumb over the picture when you show them your ID.”

“Adam, that isn’t going to work.”

“We can always try,” he said, lifting his shoulders dismissively.

“They’ll confiscate the ID. How’s Mo going to feel about having to get a new license made?”

That got through to him. “Oh. So, huh. I guess that won’t work after all.”

I snorted. “Uh, no.”

Adam just smiled. “We’ll figure something out.”

“We could see what’s going on at the under-21 shows on The Strip.”

“No. I want to go to Tilt-a-Whirl. I read it’s the best gay bar in town and has, and I quote, ‘the best drag queens in the area.’”

“If the area is East Tennessee, then yeah, it probably does. And why do you want to go to a gay bar so much? I mean, this is a small city. Word gets around.”

Adam narrowed his eyes. “This last-minute resistance is futile, padawan.”

“Trek and Wars in the same breath. That is very wrong. Very, deeply, truly wrong.”

“It is,” Adam readily agreed.

“You’re a total dork.”

“Shh. It’s a secret. Don’t tell the jocks when school starts. I wouldn’t want my nerdiness to drag us down and all.”

I started to laugh, but stopped, struck by an uncomfortable thought. I picked at my blue jeans a little, toying with a loose thread, before asking quietly, “So the kiss is a secret?”

Adam looked over in obvious surprise. “Of course. I mean, like you said, this is a small city.”

“And it’s the South. And the Bible Belt. And generally homophobic, yeah.”

I bit down on my lip. I didn’t know what I was expecting. It wasn’t like he was wrong. We couldn’t be boyfriends—not here, not now. Not out in the open or anything. It was just that I wanted so much more already. And he’d kissed me.

Adam’s hand clasped the back of my neck again. “Hey, listen. You’re my friend. And you happen to kind of turn me on with your glasses, and your camera, and the way you walk.” He gripped his fingers in my hair again and gave my head a little shake. “That’s enough, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. So—the drag show. How do we get in?” I hoped my voice sounded light because if in Adam’s world friends kissed, I didn’t want to do anything to ruin our friendship before I found out what else he thought friends might do.

My Review:
Peter Mandel is an 18 y/o closeted gay teen growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1990. He’s a new transfer to a small private school because he’d been terrorized by bullies for being queer. His parents seem to ignore all the evidence of homosexuality, instead believing him to be a late bloomer. He is, rather, being small and slight, unfit for sports and artsy in photography, but Peter is still only for the dudes.

Peter meets twins Adam and Sarah at orientation. They are half-Iranian, and their parents have some type of consulate business that keeps them in Jordan at the moment. Fomenting aggression caused their parents to send Adam and Sarah to the states to complete high school; their elder brother, Mohammed, is a college student at UT and their custodian.

Adam wastes no time connecting with Peter, who’s never even kissed a person before. He’d hoped to fly under the radar, but beautiful, skilled, sexy Adam is more that willing to school Peter in sex. Their courtship is fraught with issues–mostly keeping everything on the super down-low. Sarah and Mo know immediately that Adam and Peter are having sex, and they aren’t happy about it–mostly because they know how their strict father will react if he learns of this unnatural behavior.

When school starts, Sarah is determined to get them all well-situated into the best social strata. She’s aggressive and Adam’s charismatic and soon they cobble a tight group of friends, including Leslie, who’s overjoyed to be Adams’ girlfriend. Yep, the best way to hide Adam and Peter’s sexytimes is to get a beard–and Adam’s bisexual, so he pulls this off. But the rumors don’t stop.

The book spans a nine month period–all of senior year. It’s not a happy time for Peter. He’s captivated by Adam, who wants him terribly, but upset at hiding his love affair from everyone. Plus, he likes Leslie. She’s a sweet friend, and Peter dies a bit inside when he sees them cuddling, and knows they a real and true couple, having just as much sex as he and Adam do.

During this time Peter relies on unlikely friends, notably a drag queen that he met while out on his first date with Adam. Renee/Robert knows about staying closeted, and he’s a sweet and caring person. He offers Peter a job helping with his drag shows, and taking pictures for publicity. It’s through Renee/Robert that Peter meets Daniel, an architecture student at UT. There’s an immediate connection, but Daniel won’t get involved with a high school student.

The book, as a whole, is really bittersweet. It’s about yearning and choices and the struggle for love and acceptance in a time that was rife with homophobia, in a place that’s not eager to embrace homosexuality now–twenty-five years later. It’s the height of the AIDS epidemic, and Peter’s (mostly disinsterested) parents are just as scared of gay cancer killing him as they are of homophobic bigots killing him. They have some experience with the latter, as Peter learns close to the end of the book. It’s not a typical romance, and Peter’s mostly broken-hearted accepting a half-love from Adam, who won’t just let him go. For his part, Peter knows that he’s not able to protect himself from the bigotry inherent in his world, but he makes a grudging peace with it, until he can walk away clean: graduation.

There’s a bit of hope on the horizon, with Daniel, who may be willing to be monogamous and not hide Peter. His parents are resigned to his sexuality, and seem to be supportive; his father in particular. His mother suffers depression and struggles to care for herself, let alone her son. Peter’s a good kid, and the stage seems set for him to have a better life within a tribe of his choosing who will care for him. Being that this is more a gay fiction series, I’m sure we’ll have more ups-and-downs as Peter learns to navigate his dangerous world. There is a promised happy ending for Peter, I suspect, in the fourth book. Until then, we have a really rich world with regular historical touchstones for readers to connect.

It’s always fun to read a book set in a time that has just faded from our collective consciousness. It’s an era of no cell phones, landlines, people walking out their door and being unreachable, film cameras, developing rooms, word processors… Peter is a contemporary of mine, being one year older, chronologically. So his experience is mine–from a cultural standpoint. He and I share those moments, watching GHOST on the big screen, contemplating The Cure, even photography–though I was limited to a point-and-shoot due to being broke. I got Peter, and I struggled with him. I wanted Adam to stand up for them–even if it wasn’t coming out. Even if it was them still hiding, but hiding together. The conflict was really tense, and I hope that we’ll get some respite–though it’s the dawn of the Iraq War, and Adam, being half-Iranian, has many struggles to come. As for the book, and series, I think readers who enjoyed the Something Like series by Jay Bell will enjoy it. I liked it lots, and enjoyed the immersive experience of suddenly being back in high school.

Interested? You can find PICTURES OF YOU on Goodreads and Amazon.

About the Author:
Author of the best-selling book Smoky Mountain Dreams and the fan favorite Training Season, Leta Blake’s educational and professional background is in psychology and finance, respectively. However, her passion has always been for writing. She enjoys crafting romance stories and exploring the psyches of made up people. At home in the Southern U.S., Leta works hard at achieving balance between her day job, her writing, and her family.

You can find out more on her website, Facebook and twitter.

IndiGo

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Sept 2016–Banned books galore!!

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Hi there! Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month. Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.

stand-up_facebook2This week marks the annual BANNED BOOKS WEEK “celebration” highlighting books that are the most challenged within the ALA, American Librarian’s Association. As many may remember, I’ve been on a mission to read banned books in 2016. I think I’ve done rather well! I cried reading PERSEPOLIS. I smiled reading AND TANGO MAKES THREE with my sons. I’ve looked at the 2015 Top Ten banned books and saw John Green’s LOOKING FOR ALASKA (read this years ago, before I got into Goodreads or blogging!) is in the top spot again, followed by EL James’s FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (read the book, own the movie), and David Levithan’s TWO BOYS KISSING rounded off the list. Food for the thought, the Bible is on the list again this year…

part-time-indianAnyhoo, I decided to pick up THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, which was the top of the 2014 banned list-and required reading for my son in 2011, I’ll add. I read half the book with him, and liked it. He still remarks that it’s the only English book he finished in high school. (Jane Eyre, he claims, broke his soul, but I digress…)

Sherman Alexie’s unflinching story of Junior, a dirt-poor Spokane native teen growing up on the rez is really a fantastic look into a world most Americans forget exists. It discusses poverty, and opportunity, and hope, and despair. Showcases parents who try hard, but still fail. Highlights the stark differences between kids who dwell in a world with no expectations–versus those who have a lot going for them, and dreams that might actually come true. It’s practically a treatise on institutional racism, and how it keeps some classes of people down…forever.

Are there problems? Yes. Junior’s attended forty-two funerals in his fourteen years. His parents are alcoholics. Close friends and family die for insensible reasons, usually related to alcohol abuse. White people think he’s trash. That’s a reality of life on the rez. It’s as inescapable as his dark skin and black hair. But. Junior seeks a way out–leaving the rez to go to the nearby white high school, and he’s labeled a traitor as a result.

Honestly, this was an eye-opener. I hate using the term “Indian” for Native Americans/First Nations persons, but it’s how Junior sees/calls himself. He stands up for himself when he can, and recognizes that the white world of his white school is a very different place. There, kids have so much more, and they don’t fight, and some of them really will make something of themselves. It’s almost a foreign country compared with his rez-life 22 miles away. And yet, this community also lacks closeness and camaraderie. Junior, walking between his two worlds, remarks that he’s Half-Indian in the white world and half-white on the rez–despite being a full-blood Spokane. These subtle cultural distinctions underlie the deep prejudices in his life. He’s brave, though, and succeeds in building friendships in both places.

Why is this book on the banned list? Cited reasons include: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying.” Well, I that “sex education/sexually explicit” complaint is pretty weak, considering Junior makes a couple references to masturbation. And anti-family? Junior loves his family, despite their dysfunction. I saw fantastic bonding moments, in all their tragedy. Regarding cultural insensitivity: There are some gay slurs, and I’m not super thrilled about that–though there are other moments when Junior talks honestly about homosexuality in the Native community. Also, it was others calling Junior “gay” as a slur, and he rolled with it; bigots were always painted as such. There’s violence, and bullying, none of which seemed extreme. Junior was a target, and he endured some rotten moments, sure. Offensive language falls out of my 14 y/o son’s mouth on the regular–if you hang around boys you’re not gonna be shocked by the few F-bombs on the page.

Ultimately, this book opens a window on contemporary life in Native reservations, and the view isn’t good. I think it’s honest, and troubling, and it makes me want better for all these folks. My great-grandfather escaped reservation life in the 20s. He lived to be 36, dying after several bouts of pneumonia and leaving behind his widow and my grandmother–aged 8 at the time–at the outset of the Great Depression. The stories I’ve heard from family painted a bleak picture, but Junior’s world is even more despairing. Though his experience isn’t the same as that on all reservations, because his sister finds another rez that’s better off. That said, the whole book is an emotional rollercoaster that I rode for the span of a day. The story is completely accessible, with evocative language and fearless art, and I’m glad it was required reading for my eldest. I expect my other boys to pick it up in their turn, and have a copy on my shelf awaiting them.

Interested? You can find THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and bookstores and libraries everywhere. It’s a National Book Award winner, a best-seller, and a banned book.

I hope you’ll tell me if you’ve read a banned bookrecently–or if you’re inspired to do so, now! Be sure to check out the best books from my fellow Coffeehouse reviewers below. Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!