Here's to You, Zeb Pike

Here’s to You, Zeb Pike
Johanna Parkhurst
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“Fact: When Zebulon Pike attempted to climb what is now known as Pikes Peak, he got stuck in waist-deep snow and had to turn back. That’s the last thing Dusty Porter learns in his Colorado history class before appendicitis ruins his life. It isn’t long before social services figures out that Dusty’s parents are more myth than reality, and he and his siblings are shipped off to live in Vermont with an uncle and aunt they’ve never met.

Dusty’s new life is a struggle. His brother and sister don’t seem to need him anymore, and he can’t stand his aunt and uncle. At school, one hockey player develops a personal vendetta against him, while Emmitt, another hockey player, is making it hard for Dusty to keep pretending he’s straight. Problem is, he’s pretty sure Emmitt’s not gay. Then, just when Dusty thinks things can’t get any worse, his mother reappears, looking for a second chance to be a part of his life.

Somehow Zebulon Pike still got the mountain named after him, so Dusty’s determined to persevere—but at what point in life do you keep climbing, and when do you give up and turn back?”

Wow that’s a lot to cram into a blurb but hey, it’s the publisher’s decision. Here’s to You, Zeb Pike isn’t as doom and gloom as the description makes it seem, in fact, it’s Dusty and his siblings’ optimism and resilience that proves to be the book’s defining features. And boy do they need it, as you can see, they’ve got a lot to deal with. Of course, there’s still plenty of angst, it just comes from places you might not expect. Dusty does acquire a love interest in the latter half of the book (who stars in the semi-sequel, Thanks a Lot, John LeClair), but it’s much more the story of Dusty’s coming-of-age, or, rather, his return-to-age as he learns to cope with the major changes occurring in his life.

I’ve always had a soft spot for stories about foster care or difficult family situations, especially in YA. For starters, it’s heartwarming to see characters find their way to safe and healthy living situations and to be able to do the things their circumstances formerly prevented them from doing. But it’s also nice to read about young characters with problems beyond the usual high school drama/identity crisis sagas. And I don’t mean The Hunger Games either, things can be tough enough without imagining entire dystopias to go along with them. My background was nothing so bad as Dusty’s (thank goodness), but it was different enough that I wanted stories that reflected my experiences. I didn’t have many of those at the time, but reading them as an adult is still a cathartic and affirming experience.

Taji From Beyond the Rings

Taji From Beyond the Rings
R. Cooper
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“The Interplanetary Trade Coalition has not been welcomed with open arms by the Sha Empire. Isolated at the far edge of a distant system, the Sha are distrustful of outsiders, and previous I.P.T.C. diplomatic missions have ended with members imprisoned or dead. But, if pushed enough, the I.P.T.C. will overrun the planet to take what it wants. The situation is already precarious when student linguist Taji Ameyo is conscripted to translate for the newest I.P.T.C. ambassador. Taji, used to being alone, has never learned to hide his heart or his opinions, and the controlled Sha nobility regard little, outspoken human Taji with fascination, calling him shehzha.

Mysterious, coveted figures, so devoted to their lovers that pleasing them is a test of Shavian honor, shehzha are usually kept out of public view. Taji is a nobody, hardly alluring, and yet it’s not long before his runaway mouth gets him entangled in imperial politics, and he has no one rely on but the soldiers assigned to protect him—one soldier, more than the others.

At the mercy of both a greedy trade coalition and a proud empire, Taji has to determine what it means to be shehzha, while surrounded by ambitious noble families and a sharp-eyed emperor, and hopefully learn enough about the Sha to keep him and everyone he cares about alive.”


I’ve read a couple of R. Cooper’s books and found them to be enjoyable, but I had no idea she was capable of a novel like this. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read something this good from the self-publish/small press M/M community before, except for Klune’s Murmuration, and this one might be better. Taji From Beyond the Rings is a rigorous, anthropological science-fiction romance that repackages radical ideas of sex and gender first found in works like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in the form of an accessible genre novel. The Sha society depicted in Taji is creative, consistent, and believable, and so are the interactions between them and the I.P.T.C. emissaries of which the eponymous protagonist is a member. Cooper uses the complex, perilous challenge of learning and navigating a foreign culture as a versatile plot device that grants the story natural momentum, something many romance writers struggle with when they try to force their plots to replicate desired romance genre conventions. The linguistic mystery of shehzha, an enigmatic, untranslatable rank in Shavian culture, was particularly engaging. The experience of constantly redefining the term as Taji discovers new information reproduces for the reader the experience that Taji is having in the story. Like him, we can only speculate on the meaning of Sha words and symbols and adapt when we find out we’re wrong. Readers less familiar with science fiction as a genre may find this experience disconcerting at first, but becomes easier to process with time.

Interwoven with all this detailed and complex science fiction is an interspecies romance I can only describe as “mushy.” There’s lots of pining and angst, stoic handsome space marines, several explicit sex scenes, the works. But where these elements might feel melodramatic or just plain silly in a typical romance novel, they’re all quite natural in the context of Cooper’s extensive worldbuilding. One Amazon review wrote, “Without the author’s storytelling skills and imaginative vision, this book could easily have been shelved under the overheated and unhinged section for teenage wet dreams.” The reviewer’s not wrong, Cooper is working with some very delicate sexual tropes that before now I would have said could not be done tastefully, yet there they are in all their erotic and sensual glory. I’ll admit, some of them made me a little uncomfortable, but that’s only because they challenge values western culture holds in high esteem, like agency, independence, and self-reliance. Through the Sha, Cooper convincingly argues for the beauty and bravery to be found in relinquishing those ideals in order to become closer with another. As I write, it occurs to me that this is the principle behind BDSM, though I don’t think this particular story could be described as that. Anyway, it’s not often that I come away from a pulpy genre like romance feeling like I’ve learned something, so I feel very fortunate to have come across Taji From Beyond the Rings and enthusiastically recommend it to others.

The Starless Sea

The Starless Sea
Erin Morgenstern
Difficulty: Hard
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Blurb from Amazon:

“Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.”

We get a lot of retellings and reimaginings of classic fairy tales and myths, but not so many attempts at creating new ones. It’s no easy task, and the experience of reading Starless Sea is a quiet reminder of how much we rely on existing narratives and motifs to make sense of the world. Chasing bee, key, and sword symbols across a tapestry of separate but converging stories is an exercise in forbearance, resigning oneself to general disorientation as Morgenstern patiently works her way toward a unified narrative. But the final product is worth the effort. Readers of The Night Circus will already be familiar with her signature slow-moving, heavily visual brand of magical realism, and Starless Sea has it in spades. The mystery builds in momentum across the book’s ~500 pages and in the second half escalates into a full-on magical thriller, one all the more satisfying for the work both reader and author put in laying the foundation in the first half.

If the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, Starless Sea is probably not for everyone. It seems to have sharply divided its readers between those who found it pretentious and meandering, and those who think it’s an absolute masterpiece that trumps Night Circus. The key difference I observe between Morgenstern’s first and second books is the amount of effort she demands from her audience. Compared to Starless Sea, Night Circus was brisk, to the point, and heterosexual; all the mainstream reader had to do sit back and enjoy. But Starless Sea demands a bit of patience and a bit of work as Morgenstern sets the stage. And I’ll admit, sometimes it felt like too much. Constantly changing stories was a real momentum killer which, in a novel of this length, can be demoralizing. But her descriptive prose managed to make the experience a net positive, and by the time the action ramped up, I was completely on board.

As a bonus, enjoy this shrewd and penetrating critique from a top Amazon review:

“I also did not like the homosexual element. Homosexuals are fine with me. They are as normal as anyone, but I just don’t want to read about them. Give me/boy girl stories please?”

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson
John Green and David Levithan
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“Two award-winning and New York Times–bestselling author join forces for a collaborative novel of awesome proportions.

One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.

Hilarious, poignant, and deeply insightful, John Green and David Levithan’s collaborative novel is brimming with a double helping of the heart and humor that have won them both legions of faithful fans.”

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is pretty much a mandatory read for YA fans since it’s a superstar collaboration between two of the best in the business. When they set out to write it, all Green and Levithan knew was that they would each write a character named Will Grayson, and that their characters would meet at some point. While I’m not the world’s biggest YA reader, I have to admit that the end result is pretty unique. The story is told from both characters points of view in alternating chapters, with the second Will Grayson’s (styled ‘will grayson,’ written by Levithan) mimicking an instant messenger chatroom, complete with usernames and no capitalization. As a titanic nerd who lived most of his teen years online, this was very familiar to me. I admit I found it a little difficult to like will grayson during the first part of the book because he was just so damn angsty, but as the story developed so did he, and by the end he was my favorite. Admittedly, he didn’t have that much competition because Green’s properly capitalized Will Grayson was pretty cookie cutter protagonist, intent on keeping a low profile and never rocking the boat, and pretty much succeeding at it. As a whole, Will Grayson, Will Grayson has much more in common with Levithan’s goofiness than it does Green’s high-stakes drama, but as I’ve said before, we need more fun gay stories.

When it was first published in 2010, Will Grayson, Will Grayson became the first LGBTQ+-themed novel to ever make the NYT’s Children’s Bestsellers list, largely due to the fact that few YA or children’s authors wanted to touch the topic. I have to wonder what level of influence it’s had over the last decade. On paper I would think the split narrative might entice readers of any orientation to give it a try, but everywhere I look I see the book categorized as LGBT fiction, which I think is unfortunate. That label may help LGBTQ+ folks find it, but it also makes it easier for those NOT searching that label to never see it. It’s important to write for our own community, but I’ve always felt that the greatest challenge lies in getting those outside of that community to acknowledge our existence in their media. That’s something I really like about Will Grayson, Will Grayson, that it tries to cross those boundaries, albeit with limited success. I think on some level, LGBTQ+ people simply don’t exist in the lives of many individuals, so when they encounter them in media, they reflexively categorize that media as being for someone else. It’s easy to forget how large a role systems like Amazon’s play in shaping the content we see and the content we don’t.

The Last Sun

The Last Sun
K. D. Edwards
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“In this debut novel and series starter, the last member of a murdered House searches for a missing nobleman, and uncovers clues about his own tortured past. Rune Saint John, last child of the fallen Sun Court, is hired to search for Lady Judgment’s missing son, Addam, on New Atlantis, the island city where the Atlanteans moved after ordinary humans destroyed their original home. With his companion and bodyguard, Brand, he questions Addam’s relatives and business contacts through the highest ranks of the nobles of New Atlantis. But as they investigate, they uncover more than a missing man: a legendary creature connected to the secret of the massacre of Rune’s Court. In looking for Addam, can Rune find the truth behind his family’s death and the torments of his past?”

This one was super unexpected and a ton of fun. It took me a long time to learn to enjoy urban fantasy as a genre since it’s usually just ‘the present, but with the magic,’ and I like my fantasy to be farther removed from reality. But The Last Sun is a welcome departure from that formula. Yes, it takes place in the present, and yes, there’s magic, but there’s also a significant amount of engaging world building that I think is often missing from the genre. New Atlantis turns out to be a fascinating city with a well-developed history. When it was first established, its creators ‘borrowed’ iconic buildings and spaces from all over the world to populate it, and the result is a varied, kaleidoscopic landscape that reflects the city’s diverse inhabitants. It makes for an exciting setting, and Edwards does a great job describing the buildings’ histories without being tedious or disrupting the narrative.

But as fun as the world building is, it’s really the characters that are the main attraction. Rune and company are all well-developed, sympathetic, and endlessly witty, and their interactions are easily my favorite part of the novel. The intimate relationship between Rune and Brand was particularly refreshing, as neither character was afraid to express how they felt about each other despite the absence of any romantic or sexual feelings. Funnily enough, I think the plot itself was my least favorite part of the book. It’s not bad, there’s just so much going on and it moves at such a blistering pace that it often got in the way of quieter moments where the characters just talk to each other. But despite its many moving parts, Edwards manages to pull it all together in the end, more or less. It is the first in a forthcoming series, so expect some unresolved plotlines and a bit of a wait for future books.

Less

Less
Andrew Sean Greer
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

I wasn’t planning to do Less for a long time since this site is mostly geared toward bringing attention to books that may have flown under the radar, but it’s been a favorite punching bag of wannabe literary snobs for a couple years now and I every time I read another “wHaT wAs ThE PuLiTzEr CoMmItTeE tHiNkInG” I get all fired up about it again. So, here we are. There seems to be this bizarre idea that the Pulitzer should only be given to books that ‘measure up’ against the great classics of Western literature, as if we publish four or five such books every year instead of MAYBE one a decade if we’re lucky. And of course, what are these great classics? What makes them great? Who gets to decide the answers to those questions? You’ll be hard pressed to find any two people with precisely the same answers to those questions, much less an entire committee, which is the entire point of having a committee determine the winner rather than a single person. Less is as worthy of the award as any of its other winners regardless of its ability to measure up against the ‘classics.’ And, believe it or not, I think it actually has an important place in the history of gay literature.

The two biggest things about Less which work against its popularity in the mainstream are the fact that it’s about a gay man just living his life–instead of angstily grappling with cruel society or suffering like a good gay–and that it’s humorous (you wouldn’t believe how many people think ‘good literature’ shouldn’t be funny). Mediocre novelist Arthur Less is about to turn 50 when he receives an invitation to the wedding of his only recently separated partner of nine years. In a frantic attempt to make himself unavailable on that date, he accepts a number of invitations to dubious literary events around the world. Over the course of the next few months Arthur finds himself stumbling from one ill-conceived interview or party to the next, all the while reminiscing about his past relationships and desperately trying not to think of his impending 50th birthday.

I think Less is noteworthy as an early entry into a new era of gay literature, one determined to move forward from, but not forget, the struggles which earned us our status as a (somewhat) accepted group in American society. It’s a lighthearted and unapologetic presentation of contemporary gay culture, featuring casual relationships, age differences, and multiple partners. All very normal in the gay community, but still considered risqué by mainstream culture. Nobody likes to age, but aging is a particularly difficult topic in the gay community where youth is so highly valued, and there aren’t many people out there to show gay men how to age since the previous generation was decimated by AIDS. And it just feels good to laugh. Too much gay literature is soul-crushingly tragic, and comedies and other lighthearted books are sorely needed. I’m not here to say that Less is the greatest book ever written, but I think it brings a lot to the table. I complained in my post about What Belongs To You that the book appeared carefully crafted to appeal to a mainstream audience rather than a queer one. Less, on the other hand, seems to be a book about the gay community, for the gay community, and I think that makes it a worthy ambassador to the mainstream, which is probably why there’s so much complaining about it.

What Belongs To You

What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. He returns to Mitko again and again over the next few months, drawn by hunger and loneliness and risk, and finds himself ensnared in a relationship in which lust leads to mutual predation, and tenderness can transform into violence. As he struggles to reconcile his longing with the anguish it creates, he’s forced to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in, a country whose geography and griefs he discovers as he learns more of Mitko’s own narrative, his private history of illness, exploitation, and want.”

It’s always interesting to me to see what kinds of queer fiction catches the attention of the mainstream. They seem to fall into a few different categories, the most popular of which is the classic gay tragedy. A Little Life is a prime example of this. People love a good tragedy, and queer people have the dubious honor of having one built right into their existence. Then there are the innovative or experimental books, like Fun Home or The Argonauts, which participate in the tradition of queer stories being told in queer ways. I usually enjoy these, but I sometimes wonder if the mainstream thinks there’s some queer ‘secret sauce’ that makes these books better than other experimental texts rather than them just being good books in their own right. The last common category that I see is what I’ve come to think of as the voyeur novel. What Belongs to You would fall under this label. These books offer outside readers a glimpse into a mysterious queer world, just a peek behind the moral curtain that obscures such deviant cultural practices as cruising or prostitution. They’re like tourist attractions: slum it with the Other before retreating back to the safety and cleanliness of ‘the real world,’ or at least that’s how my bitter ass interprets it. 

I don’t really know why I’m coming down so hard on What Belongs To You. It’s very well written, sleek and polished MFA prose, and it was nominated for a number of major awards, the full list of which you’ll find blaring out of any shop listing despite the fact that it didn’t actually win any of them. I think what rubs me the wrong way about the book is that it seems so carefully crafted to appeal to the heterosexual mainstream and was so successful at it. The Bulgarian setting adds this layer of foreignness that helps buffer the homosexuality for a straight reader, and for a book about loving a prostitute, Greenwell is pretty circumspect about what exactly they get up to, preferring instead to give us an Aciman-esque poetic meditation on desire and loneliness. And the plot of a lonely gay man lusting after rough trade is as old as gay literature. Queer, Our Lady of the Flowers, and The Thief’s Journal all follow that same pattern, and that’s just a few books already on this blog. But of course there’s nothing wrong with remixing classic plots for a present moment. And anyways, shouldn’t I be happy that a book featuring predominantly gay subject matter is getting so much attention? Probably, but I’m not. I think I’m turning into one of those ornery, anti-assimilationist critics. Anyway, I decided to include What Belongs To You in the blog despite those complaints because 1. I’m interested in what other people are interested in, 2. I recognize it as a quality book even if it frustrates me, and 3. Y’all should be able to decide for yourselves whether my opinions are justified or not. Oh, and it’s got a phenomenal cover.