If you’ve not yet read Sophie Cameron’s debut novel, Out of the Blue, then you won’t know what a magical treat you’re in for. With her second novel, Last Bus to Everland, Sophie has once again delivered an emotional, realistic, contemporary novel, full of love, hope, and magic.
The novel is set in Scotland as well as a magical Narnia-esque place, and delivers its story with such a light touch, while still reaching deep into some serious issues. The way the story deals with bullying is exemplary, and allows us to follow Brody through a full arc of emotions in how he deals with (or doesn’t deal with) bullies. I really appreciated how Brody doesn’t just suddenly find an inner strength out of nothing in order to cope with his bullies, but slowly builds up to a place where he can confront them and start to push back.
One of the things that is explored superbly in Last Bus to Everland is poverty. Brody is part of a working-class family, and Sophie Cameron approaches that head on, never shying away from the hardships his family faces, and providing no magical cures. We definitely need more books that deal with parents working shifts, cutting back on food, and struggling to pay bills – and discussing this with their children. How this is portrayed, and Brody’s reactions to this, are carefully weaved into the magical storyline, allowing the reader to feel a part of the family and the struggles they are going through.
Brody is not a perfect character, he has flaws and complexity. This was exhibited fantastically in how he responds to his father’s mental illness. Brody tries to sympathise, but often times doesn’t quite know how to keep being understanding when faced with all the difficulties the family faces. This realistic response is portrayed with subtle understanding and compassion by Sophie.
As with her debut, in Last Bus to Everland Sophie Cameron delivers a novel of quietly built tension, low-key passion, and believable love and friendship between a diverse cast of LGBTQ teens. A brilliant novel that will appeal to fans of contemporary or fantasy YA.
I received a copy of Last Bus to Everland by request to the publishers, Macmillan Children’s Books. It is released in the UK and Ireland on 16th May, and in the US in June.
“unrealistic and overly vulgar”, “unnecessary, overly-sexualised”, “so explicit, crude and vulgar”, “entirely inappropriate” – these are just a few of my favourite quotes that I found online referring to the 2015 Raziel Reid novel When Everything Feels Like The Movies. If those kind of reviews don’t make you want to read this brilliant novel, then let me try and convince you some more.
I first read this way back before it’s publication and I loved it, including the shocking ending which – knowing nothing about the true story the book was based on – I was not expecting. I’ve been thinking about this book recently – after reading and totally adoring Jack of Hearts (and other parts) last year – and how sometimes books appear before the time is right for them, and Reid’s novel I think definitely fits into this category.
Just like Jack, Jude (the main character of When Everything Feels Like The Movies) is flamboyant, fabulous, unapologetically queer, lover of sex, and passionate about living his life honestly. The story unfolds in an American junior high school, where Jude sees his life as a movie set, and the people around him as characters in his central drama, bringing to colourful life the drab town he calls home.
The book initially received rave reviews but soon a backlash took place after it was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature. A petition eventually gaining more than 2000 signatures called it a “values-void novel” and the petition’s instigator said “Jude’s sexual yearnings, masturbating, fantasising…and voyeurism constitute the bulk of the narrative”.
Here is a book that depicts the realistic sexual fantasies (and realities) of teenagers and received a lot of negative criticism because the main character is talking about gay sex. There are two main criticisms that negative reviews of the book has, first is that the sexual activity of the teens is unrealistic, and secondly that it is inappropriate for young people to read about sex.
Firstly: teens are having sex, and this includes gay teens. Get over it. Ignoring sex in fiction is not going to make them stop doing it. Isn’t it better that books offer a realistic representation of safe consensual sex? Just because it’s queer doesn’t make it inherently bad.
Secondly, the negativity from adults in relation to books like this always comes from a complete lack of trust. There is no trust that young people reading books such as When Everything Feels Like The Movies or Jack of Hearts will be able to read these books without acting out the activities in them before they are ready to do so. Just because a character talks openly and honestly about gay sex does not mean every teen reading it is going to do those things. A novel like this, expertly written with a realistic sounding teen voice, is able to educate by presenting a character who does experience life and have normal thoughts the same as those young people reading it.
In 2015 when it was first released, When Everything Feels Like The Movies felt like it was on an island by itself – there wasn’t a whole lot of YA queer literature, and it felt almost too realistic for many people to believe. I would love to see how the book would do now, and would recommend that you give it a read if you haven’t yet done so. There are so few representations of queer life (and sex) in books for young people, that it is still refreshing to see this in a novel. Young people reading books need to see themselves represented, and they need to see all aspects of life portrayed.
The end of When Everything Feels Like The Movies is shocking, and may be too upsetting for many people, but I don’t think that detracts from the book. Rather the opposite, here is a book that shows bullying and violence towards a young queer boy but refuses to place the blame for that on Jude himself. This is vital for young people to realise, that they are not to blame. For me, Jack of Hearts is a natural accompaniment to Raziel Reid’s novel. I would hate for publishing to get stuck in one narrative for LGBTQ YA books (or queer fiction more generally) where we only see happy endings and cute stories. Yes, it’s important we have these stories, but it’s also important we show what reality is for many LGBTQ people. This book won’t appeal to everyone, and it hasn’t been written for everyone, but Simon Vs isn’t suited to everyone’s taste either. There is room on the shelves for a full plethora of queer stories, and When Everything Feels Like The Movies deserves to be there too.
I’d love to know if you’ve read When Everything Feels Like The Movies, and what you thought of it. Leave a comment on this post, or come find me on Twitter to chat.
You can buy all the books mentioned in this post, but if you’re in the UK the physical copy of Jack of Hearts is out in February:
Meet Jack Rothman. He’s seventeen and loves partying, makeup and boys – sometimes all at the same time. His sex life makes him the hot topic for the high school gossip machine. But who cares? Like Jack always says, ‘it could be worse’. He doesn’t actually expect that to come true.
But after Jack starts writing an online sex advice column, the mysterious love letters he’s been getting take a turn for the creepy. Jack’s secret admirer knows everything: where he’s hanging out, who he’s sleeping with, who his mum is dating. They claim they love Jack, but not his unashamedly queer lifestyle. They need him to curb his sexuality, or they’ll force him.
As the pressure mounts, Jack must unmask his stalker before their obsession becomes genuinely dangerous.
This book could be one of the most important books published in recent years, if it manages to spark the debates that it is perfectly placed to talk about. It is full of humour, is uplifting, is packed with social commentary, it talks about sex and relationships, and it’s also a thriller – it has everything.
But let’s focus on the thing that everyone wants to talk about…
It is “graphic” in it’s descriptions of sex, depending on your frame of reference, because it depends on what you’re used to. I mean, I’ve read Oscar Wilde’s Telany – this books ain’t got nothing on that! I didn’t find it especially graphic but it is a book for teenagers, and has teenagers characters and going into it readers should be aware of the graphic nature of some sexual descriptions. If that isn’t your thing, don’t read it.
Some reviewers have commented that they didn’t find the book realistic, because “sensible” teenagers don’t behave like the characters. I know trashing teenagers is a bloodsport that so many people love, but let’s give it a rest. Just because you like sex does not mean you’re not “sensible”. Just because you drink or go to parties does not mean you’re not “sensible”. Yes, many of the characters do some questionable things that that occasionally regret in the morning (who doesn’t regret a raging hangover the next day!) but that is part of growing up and learning. It’s a part of learning that even us “sensible” adults are still doing in our 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond. At work I am surround by young people, in their late teens and early twenties. These are “sensible” young people who are studying at one of the best universities in the world, and while I have no idea of the intimate details (to the level of this book) of what they get up to in the privacy of their rooms, I can guarantee you that this book accurately represents what some teenagers are like.
Not all teenagers are the same, they are not one homogenous block and do not all have the same interests, desires, pastimes. They do not all need the same level of support.
Many MANY teenagers will not like this book (as, judging by some reviews on Goodreads, many adults will not either), but let’s stop pretending that teenagers aren’t like the characters in this book, and that many young people won’t identify with them.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but it seems it has to be time and again, that you don’t need to identify with a character – and agree with everything they do – in order to enjoy a book. You don’t need to be like Jack in order to love this book (I managed it). There is so much more to this book than just graphic sex scenes, so I’m going to move on now.
This book repeatedly brings up the subject of consent, and works through the layers of it really well. It talks about not being pressured by society to have sex just because everyone else seems to be doing it. It talks about not being pressured by a partner to do anything that you’re not 100% comfortable with. It talks about how sex should be a constant dialogue, making sure that you are both comfortable with what is happening at all times, and how it’s okay to stop at any point if you don’t feel comfortable.
There are moments when some characters don’t behave with much thought for their safety, such as getting so drunk they don’t remember how they got home. I’ve already addressed above how situations such as this do happen as part of human growth (and don’t just happen to teenagers), and I found parts like this realistic and in keeping with the characters personality and approach to life.
A key aspect of this books success is that it somehow manages to preach a message, without feeling like the reader is being told what to do or think. The advice columns that Jack writes do feel like lessons, but they’re kinda supposed to due to what they are – the rest of the book manages to give the reader a sense of who these characters are, and the ways in which they mess up and try to fix things again, without it coming across like the author is giving a sermon.
Don’t be too gay
The most important aspect (for me) is how this book addresses homophobia – including the internalised homophobia of some gay characters. This was an absolute breath of fresh air in a book, and something that needs to be said loud so we can start to talk about it.
Too often, LBGTQ+ content is sanitised before it is allowed to be put out into the world, and this seems especially true in the past, and true of YA content. I hope that we are now turning a corner when we can be more honest about the lives of LGBTQ+ people, and our voices can be heard. However, we are far from out of the straight woods yet. In 2018 a gay film won an Oscar after it stripped out all but the merest hints of sex (yes, I know many people think Call Me By Your Name has a lot of sexual content, but read the book and then come and talk to me about how let down we were by the director). There is a sense in much LGBTQ+ media that we have received acceptance from the world when it comes to love, but only if we don’t talk about sex, only if we don’t conform to stereotypes, only if we are indistinguishable from everyone else in the straight cis world. Honestly, it’s exhausting! It effectively puts LGBTQ+ people back into the closet, where they cannot be the true authentic versions of themselves. What does this have to do with Jack of Hearts (and other parts)? Well, that is something at the heart of the book, it is at it’s very core and runs throughout. Jack puts himself out into the world as someone who conforms to a lot of the stereotypes people have about gay men, and he struggles against both straight people and some gay people who think he “is giving gays a bad name”. Jack is being asked to change who he is, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of a society that would rather gay men are quiet and never have sex (or certainly never talk about it).
I hope this book finds its way onto the YA shelves of bookshops, libraries, and schools – as well as into the hands of adults who will love it just as much. It’s an important book that needs to be read.
Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) is out in the US and UK in eBook on 30th October 2018. It’s out in paperback in the UK in February 2019. You can preorder now:
I’ve never cared much about getting older, and I try not to regret things from the past, but do I wish YA fiction had been available when I was a teenager, hell yeah!
There are many reasons that I read, write, and love YA: it pushes boundaries and explores topics other fiction is scared to go near, it gives a voice to teenagers who are frequently pushed to the side and their opinions dismissed. One of the things I love most about YA is the amount of LGBTQ+ that can be found among the pages, which makes it relevant to me, and speaks to me in a way that a lot of “adult” fiction never did.
I don’t think YA fiction is perfect or has it sorted in terms of representation. There is still a lot of trans characters being written by cis writers, there is a lot of gay and lesbian teenage characters being brought to life by straight writers, and there is still an under-representation of colour, bisexual, intersex, genderqueer, asexual YA characters. What YA does have is a passion for is pushing this forward and for getting better, and that seems something to be optimistic about.
Below are a few of my recommendations of YA books I think everyone should read:
Simon James Green – Noah Can’t Even
I won’t go on and on and on about how much I love this book (you can read my review here) but my first recommendation is the very British, utterly cringe-inducing, hilarious life of Noah Grimes. I’ve read reviewers describe Noah as gay, I read him as probably bisexual, when my girlfriend read the book she wondered if he was asexual. I think this book is a brilliantly written exploration of a young man who is confused about his sexuality, wondering what it says about him and obsessed with what other people think.
Meredith Russo – If I Was Your Girl
One of the few novels I’ve read with a trans character written by a trans writer, and it shows. A story of a trans girl growing up in America and trying to navigate the line between honesty, being yourself, and protecting yourself from the prejudice still so prevalent for all trans people.
David Levithan – Two Boys Kissing
This novel is about more than just two boys trying to break the world record for the longest kiss, there are four stories interwoven into the novel, all related to boys coming to terms with coming out and the reactions of the people around them. The overall narrator is the voice of an older generation of gay men who have lost their lives to AIDS. It is these narrators that really start to pull the emotional punches as they lament the glorious possibilities the lives of young men have now, possibilities that were so cruelly denied to them.
Nina LaCour & David Levithan – You Know Me Well
I couldn’t write a blog post to coincide with Pride month without including this fantastic novel. Told in alternating view points it follows the story of Kate and Mark who become best friends after one moment of bonding in a gay bar. It shows LGBTQ+ young people comfortable with their sexuality and receiving support from the people around them. We need more novels that explore LGBTQ+ friendships and that explore the importance of having friends.
What I want to read more of is books that feature more genderqueer teens, more bisexual teens, more non-white characters – and if these could be British that would be amazing. Give me your recommendations of the best YA you’ve read recently.
With his debut novel Simon James Green has written one of the funniest books I have ever read. I wouldn’t recommend reading whilst eating (I nearly choked) or whilst drinking (I nearly spat my tea all over the pages and ruined them) or whilst…sitting (I nearly fell off my chair laughing). I may be being too cautious, but the danger is real!
Noah Grimes is painfully awkward, socially uncomfortable, and has an amazing knack for getting himself (or talking himself) into the most ridiculous situations.
Noah’s life is already difficult enough, trying to stop everyone finding out his mum does a Beyonce tribute act, and trying to get Sophie to like him, but his world is turned upside down when his best friend Harry kisses him at a party. What follows is a turbulent journey through Noah’s path of self-discovery.
Noah is an incredibly likable character and is written with a distinctive voice unlike anything I’ve read recently. Funny, charming, emotional, and an outstanding exploration of a young man trying to understand his sexuality whilst also trying to just be as normal as everyone else. I love this book so much, and I really hope we get to read more of Noah’s adventures in future.
Genres: LGBTQ+, Contemporary, Young Adult
Published: May 4th 2017 I bought my copy of Noah Can’t Even from Wordery
My book of the week has to be Superior by Jessica Lack. Based on the blurb alone I wanted to devour it immediately: A superhero’s intern falls in love with a supervillain’s apprentice in this star-crossed LGBT YA story. I mean, how can you not want to read that?
Superior is a novella with heart and humour. It’s goofy and gay and brilliantly conveys a detailed world where superheroes run hotlines and people call them to help rescue their cats.
I’m recommending this because Jessica Lack is superb, not only at realistic world building, but at developing characters with life and depth in only a few pages.
On the one hand this book is easy to explain, it’s about two boys, kissing. But then again, it is so much more than you would imagine and hope for. Craig and Harry are trying to set a new world record the longest ever kiss and the story tells us of their attempt. But we don’t just hear from Craig and Harry, there are four stories interwoven into the novel, all related to boys coming to terms with coming out and the reactions of the people around them. The overall narrator is the voice of an older generation of gay men who have lost their lives to AIDS. It is these narrators that really start to pull the emotional punches as they lament the glorious possibilities the lives of young men have now, possibilities that were so cruelly denied to them.
Two Boys Kissing is a deeply moving and passionate novel that is absolutely beautiful.
When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other — and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more.
Told in alternating view points, You Know Me Well, follows the story of Kate and Mark who become best friends after one moment of bonding in a gay bar. I was skeptical at first that they could become such good friends so quickly, but I remembered the intensity of feeling when I was the same age as the characters, and it made more sense. Here are two people desperately searching for an identity and trying to find their place in the world, which is why they get so quickly attached to someone else who sees able to help them on this journey.
While the characters attempt to navigate the tricky world of relationships, it is their friendships that sit centre stage. This novel explores a number of themes that are rarely touched upon in YA fiction. As well as exploring friendship it, more importantly, shows LGBTQ+ young people comfortable with their sexuality and receiving support from the people around them. We need more novels that explore LGBTQ+ friendships and that explore the importance of having friends (more important than relationships)
This book left me with such a good feeling almost entirely because of the background setting of Pride. I felt so uplifted by the portrayal of celebratory times and optimism. While I preferred Mark’s story, and found it difficult at times to connect with Kate, both parts of the book are written wonderfully and are so engaging I read this in one sitting.
It’s very rare, unheard of in fact, for me to read a book in one sitting but (and I’m aware it’s cliched, sorry) I actually didn’t want to put this book down. Simon is such an interesting and engaging person, I loved being inside his head and feeling everything he did.
The story starts with the first anguish that someone has discovered his secret about his sexuality and the emails he sends to an anonymous student at their school, and takes us on a quick journey through his developing feelings for ‘Blue’ and his relationships with his friends.
I’d been told that this was ‘just a coming out story’ and the person who told me that sold it short by a long shot. This story is so much more, and Simon’s almost forced coming out is a sideline to the deeper look into friendships, how we know ourselves (can we ever), how well we know the people around us, the surprises and secrets that everyone hides.
I loved how deeply we got into Simon’s head, into his private life, and how he displayed his mortification when he realises the assumptions and prejudices he’s been exhibiting.
This is such a brilliantly written and emotional story. I smiled so much, I laughed, I almost cried, and now I’m done I want to read it all over again.