If you’re looking for a creepy horror book to sink your teeth into this winter, I can highly recommend Under My Skin by Juno Dawson. This book reminded me why I read horror when I was a teenager, except it was infinitely better than anything I read back in the day.
At 17 years old Sally Feathers is just like a lot of young women her age, desperate to make it to the end of school in one piece without any major traumas. Her routine and ordinary life is changed when she encounters a mysterious tattoo parlour in the seedier side of town and is instantly drawn to an image of the beautiful Molly Sue.
Sally images having a secret Molly Sue tattoo on her back will inspire her with the confidence to get a part in the school musical, and perhaps talk to that hot guy who’s dating one of the cool girls. What she didn’t bargain on is Molly Sue having other ideas.
This is an exquisite YA book exploring deeply disturbing ideas of power, loneliness, confidence, identity – all through the medium of carefully crafted and interesting characters in their high school setting. I loved this book and how the strong voices and personalities of the characters shone through the fast moving plot.
Atmospheric and dark, but full of personality and courage, this book is the perfect read for a warm night inside on these dark nights.
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 managed to write a post of what I read in July…and then forgot to make it live! So here’s a bumper issue of LGBTQ+ books you can get stuck into as we enter autumn and all stop melting into a sweaty puddle! If you want to receive these updates straight to your inbox, just subscribe here.
I finally got hold of the much anticipated THE MADONNA OF BOLTON, a crowdfunded novel from Unbound that became the fastest funded in their history. It tells the story of Charlie, whose life changes when he gets his first Madonna record on his 9th birthday. The novel follows Charlie’s life from childhood in the 1980s to the present day, with Madonna’s music the ever present back-drop guiding him through life’s difficult moments. A poignant, funny, and ultimately heart-warming of a boy growing up gay in Britain from the 1970s to now.
I also read:I Am Nobody’s N***** by Dean Atta, a collection of poems that I can’t stop thinking about weeks after reading. My Heart Goes Bang by Keris Stainton, yet another brilliant novel from the ever marvellous Keris, funny, uplifting, full of hope and sex – I adored this book a lot. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera– I don’t know why I continue ready Adam’s books when all I do is end up an emotional wreck – this book destroyed me in it’s subject matter and how brilliantly Adam dealt with memory, grief, and coming to terms with your sexuality.
So, what great reads might you have missed that weren’t released this summer? Check out these recommendations below for suggestions you can still get hold of in your book store or library.
Set in Edinburgh during the festival, OUT OF THE BLUE tells the story of Jaya, whose father has, since the death of her mother, become obsessed with angels. His obsession started when angels started falling from the sky. But when an angel falls right in front of Jaya, she must decide how she’s going to keep this secret and protect the angel from the people who would harm the being. This was a completely unexpected story that took me to places I wasn’t prepared for. It is a beautiful story that explores grief and how it’s possible to move on and still find happiness.
Everyone kept telling me to read this book, and they weren’t wrong. STARRING KITTY is the story of 14-year-old Kitty who falls in love with Dylan, a 15-year old girl who lives next door to her gran. Kitty is not coping well with her mum’s illness, and hasn’t yet told her friends that she likes girls. This absolutely adorably cute novel is just perfect, it explores first love and friendship, taking us on a journey as Kitty struggles to bring together all the parts of her life, let Dylan into her world, and open up to her friends about her relationship.
I’m looking forward to getting started on volume 2 of this adorable, funny, beautifully illustrated graphic novel.
When Jory transfers to an all-boys private high school, he’s taken in by the only ones who don’t treat him like a new kid, the lowly stage crew known as the Backstagers. Not only does he gain great, lifetime friends, Jory is also introduced to an entire magical world that lives beyond the curtain. With the unpredictable twists and turns of the underground world, the Backstagers venture into the unknown, determined to put together the best play their high school has ever seen.
I’ve bought some books recently that have been added to the top of my to-read pile, and I’m really looking forward to getting around to reading them:
Recently nominated for the Polari Prize, this novel is based on the true story of the arrest and interment of gay men in Sicily 1939.
Francesco has a memory of his father from early childhood, a night when life for his family changed. From that night, he has vowed to protect his mother and to follow the words of his father: Non mollare. Never give up. As Francesco is herded into a camp on the island of San Domino, he realises that someone must have handed a list of names to the fascist police. Locked in spartan dormitories, resentment and bitterness between the men grows each day.
A story about coming of age in rural America, family, love, mystery, and magic. I can’t wait to read this very soon.
Seventeen-year-old Aidan Lockwood lives in the sleepy farming community of Temperance, Ohio?known for its cattle ranches and not much else. That is, until Jarrod, a friend he hasn’t seen in five years, moves back to town and opens Aidan’s eyes in startling ways: to Aidan’s ability to see the spirit world; to the red-bearded specter of Death; to a family curse that has claimed the lives of the Lockwood men one by one . . . and to the new feelings he has developed for Jarrod.
I’m taking a trip to Gay’s The Word next week to purchase more great LGBTQ+ books, so if you have any recommendations let me know. Below are the books I’m looking forward to getting hold of in the next month of so:
Okay, so it’s not out until next year, but get Proud added to your to-read pile (and your Goodreads, and your pre-orders) now. This illustrated anthology from Stripes will be hitting shelves in March, and I know I’m not the only one excited to read all the stories.
Last year Noah Can’t Even made us all fall in love with the chaotic and mostly hapless Noah Grimes (sorry Noah, we love you, but how do you get yourself into these situations?). This year, be prepared to launch yourself back into Noah’s whirlwind of drama and angst, with the brilliant follow-up Noah Could Never.
Now that Noah and best friend Harry are boyfriends, how is this going to change their friendship? What if Harry decides he’s actually not that interested in weedy Noah but would prefer the much sexier French exchange student Pierre? What disasters will befall Noah when his gran’s diamonds are stolen and he finds himself in the middle of an epic drag queen feud?
I adored Noah Can’t Even and had high expectations going into Book 2. I was worried it might not be as funny, I was worried that it might just be more of the same high-jinks chaos. I didn’t need to worry. Yes, it’s just as funny. Yes, it’s the same chaos you’d expect from Noah Grimes. However, there is so much heart to Noah Could Never. Noah’s life isn’t just a series of chaotic mistakes, they’re believable episodes in the life of someone unsure of themselves and trying to find their way.
I loved that characters we saw briefly in Book 1 (e.g. Bambi Sugapops) are fully realised and developed. I loved that Harry, who we know a bit from Book 1, is explored in greater depths as a person, not just in his relation to Noah. I love that there’s more Gran and I identify with her sassiness in so many ways.
Noah Could Never is the perfect follow-up to the first book. It’s full of emotion, drama, humour, and love. Plus, it made me cry lots, in a good way.
Book 3? I would very much love a book written from Harry’s perspective because I adore him so much, but anything featuring more of the adventures of Noah would be very welcome. Another Book 3 suggestion – Bambi Sugapops, the Novel – you know it makes sense Simon!
Genres: YA, LGBTQ+, Contemporary, Funny
Published:7th June 2018 Available to buy now
It’s hard to know what else you can possibly add to a book that already has all the glowing reviews in the world. There is a reason some books are hyped, and everyone says “you need to read this”, because sometimes it’s true.
What Belongs To You tells the story of an American teacher living in Bulgaria who first meets Mitko in a public bathroom, where he pays him for sex. Throughout the subsequent years Mitko’s continued involvement in his life gives us a view into a relationship that is hard to define.
This is an intimate story detailing every minute aspect of a mans life as he tries to navigate his way between the deep sensual attachment he has to Mitko, and the undercurrent of violence and anger always present. Theirs is a relationship of obsession, lust, love, and dependence.
Garth Greenwell’s writing is effortlessly exquisite, building beautiful sentences that call out to be re-read and re-read time and again.
I love books that detail the small connections between two people and What Belongs To You is one of the most honest and human portrayals of that intimacy that I have read in a long time.
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.
Nayomi Munaweera has the ability to keep drawing you in, lulling you into a false sense of security where you think everything is going to be okay, and then it isn’t. The beautiful description of the seemingly idyllic childhood in Sri Lanka quickly gives way to one of those passages that I can only describe by how it happened in my head as I read it: ‘Hang on, did I just read that right…let me go back and…oh god…oh god no.” This happened several times as I worked my way through time, through her childhood and into adulthood, repeatedly thinking things might work out only to be shocked into reality.
The main character remains unnamed until the end of the novel and in a way I felt like I never got to know her, whilst at the same time experiencing all the emotions and confusion she does at the circumstances of her life. I felt as lost and floundering as the main character often felt, unsure if I could trust her memories or the people around her.
What Lies Between Us explores the way in which memory effects our life and interacts with our present. It draws out how the past, even if long distant and buried deep, can still shake the foundations of our happier times and destroy the things which should be able to offer us some relief. At times brutal but always delicately written this novel is outstanding and definitely worth exploring.
Reading Guapa means spending 24 hours in the life of Resa, a gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, as he reflects on the immediate trauma and past events of his life. The stories of his father’s death, his mother’s departure, and his difficult relationships with friends and lovers, are interwoven through a tale of his struggle to discover his place in the world. This novel delivers so much more than it promises, delving deep into Resa’s mind to explore issues of marginalisation within every community Resa tries to discover an identity for himself. Resa struggles to find somewhere that he belongs and is on a constant search to find meaning in the definitions that other people put onto him, based on his nationality, sexuality, religion (or lack of).
This is an amazing novel that explores complex issues in a delicate and sensitive way, bringing them to life through vivid characters and an evocative landscape. I found myself nervous before the ending, worrying what Resa was going to do and what would happen to him. I wondered how he would react at the wedding and if it would destroy him. Being able to see through a small window in to a world that I’m not a part of was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measures, as I found myself wanting to argue with almost everyone Resa came into contact with.