When You Call My Name, Tucker Shaw (2021)
It’s a cold January day in 1990 and seventeen year-old Adam’s world is turned on end when a handsome customer at the video store where he works asks him on a date. He quickly falls for Callum, who is charming, fun, and dreams of becoming the conductor of a great symphony orchestra, but who seems to keep him at a distance that doesn’t mesh with his natural warmth. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, Ben, a fashion-obsessed, queer refugee from the staid New York suburbs, is just starting to figure out what his new life in the Big City could look like. Over the course of the next year, the lives of these two boys-turning-men intersect at pivotal moments and the two develop a tentative but profound friendship.
The book is set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, while it was still gritty and the AIDS crisis was ravaging the city’s gay community, and Shaw’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of the time and place are wonderfully specific and transport the reader there, in all of its beauty, creativity, fear, and anguish.
I have to say this book caught me completely by surprise. I picked it up expecting a fun, queer YA romance, but it’s not that at all. While the lead characters are teenagers and this is absolutely a coming-of-age story, it transcends a lot of the YA tropes that make so many adult readers roll their eyes. And, it certainly not a ‘Romance’ in any conventional sense of the genre. What this is is a powerful and poignant book about hope and love in the midst of unspeakable loss, and about finding your voice, place, and people in a world that would prefer you not exist.
Read this if you’re interested in:
- New York City
- Coming of Age
My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 10, Plot 9, Intrigue 9, Relationships 10, Success 10, Writing 8, Enjoyment 10, Lasting Impact / Meaning 10: TOTAL 96
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (1995), 91: At thirty-five years old, Rob Fleming’s life is thoroughly mediocre, and he’s the first to admit it. But when his live-in girlfriend leaves him for another man, he begins to question the patterns of his relationships and his pervasive feeling of having been left behind. This far surpassed my expectations: It is a hilarious and surprisingly insightful exploration of both the pettiness and profundity of life and relationships, as well as the difference between our perceptions and reality. Rob is without a doubt a whiny, sour, disappointment of a man. But, he knows it; and his self-awareness, humour, curiosity, and his sheer joy in even the smallest victories make him easy to cheer for. (1990s, Music, Pop-Culture, Relationships, Cool Britannia)
A Mixture of Frailties (Salterton 3) Robertson Davies (1958), 93: In this final book in the Salterton trilogy of small-town satires, a young woman named Monica, whose strict sectarian upbringing has left her sheltered even by the standards of mid-century, small-town Ontario, is sent to study music abroad in London. There she meets a diverse cast of characters that reveal a world far more complex and interesting place than she could have imagined. This is a book that plays with some very big themes: domination vs. independence, urbanity vs. provinciality, ‘high’ vs. ‘low’ art, and the nature of love. As such, it felt a bit conceptually over-stuffed at times; but, Davies was a magnificent author and so he manages to hold it all together, with his characteristic wit and elegant prose. (Classics, CanLit, the Arts, Parents and Children, Love, Fish out of Water, Coming of Age)
We Spread, Iain Reid (2022), 85: After living in the same apartment for decades, Penny is forced to move into a luxury long-term care facility. At first the change is positive, but quickly time starts to slip away from her and her circumstances seem far less friendly than they first appeared. This is very effective as a real-life horror story of the realities of aging, and all of the small humiliations and violations it involves. Where it didn’t quite work for me was in the attempt to draw in a possible sci-fi / medical horror plotline. The book doesn’t resolve the question one way or the other — whether there is something nefarious going on or whether it’s ‘just’ dementia — but to me the question itself lessened the book’s impact. (Aging, Elder Care, Psychological, CanLit)
Fence (Vols 1-3), C.S. Pacat, illustrated by Johanna the Mad (2017), 85: A talented but poorly-trained underdog is recruited to try out for the fencing team at a private school, but is shocked to discover that not only is his nemesis there too, but has been assigned as his roommate. This is, all told, pretty typical, if very queer, YA comic fare. The real standouts are the illustrations and peak into the subculture of fencing. Note: If you’re interested in checking it out, I would recommend reading through the first three volumes (which cover issues 1-12), since this finishes up the try-outs plotline. (YA, Graphic Novel, LGBTQ2S+, Athletics, Boarding School, Fencing)
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, Mordechai Richler (1975), 85: A young boy who has to say everything twice in order to be heard in his bustling household stumbles into misadventure when this coping skill is mistaken for sass and he’s sentenced to life in a secret children’s prison overseen by the dreaded Hooded Fang. This is a fun and silly children’s book that hearkens back to the days of early childhood when it seems like just being small is a crime. (Children’s Literature, Fantasy, Misadventure, Childhood)
Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria, George Jreije (2022), 77: Shad Hadid fled Lebanon with his grandparents under mysterious circumstances. On the cusp of turning twelve, he discovers he’s the last of a long line of alchemists and is recruited to join the last school of alchemy in the world. But when he gets there, he is confused to discover that no one there seems to have a clue what he’s talking about. I loved the set-up for this book. The first third was heartbreaking but also pretty perfect, but unfortunately, I was underwhelmed once Shad got to the school. That said, I have high hopes for this author and will definitely look forward to reading more from him. (Middle Grade, Magic School, Alchemy, Arab Identity)
Ruby Spencer’s Whisky Year, Rochelle Bilow (2023), 68: Tired of the busy Manhattan life — and of Manhattan men — Ruby arranges to spend a year in Scotland, where she’ll work part time at a pub and write a cookbook. But when she arrives, she discovers she’s stepped into a complicated web of relationships and politics, all of which revolve around the pub — and the gorgeous town handyman Brochan. This is a very typical rom-com set up and I was interested enough to read it. Unfortunately, this was a huge disappointment for me. There are some delightful characters, but all the secrets and politics and misunderstandings were just too silly for me to forgive. (Romance, Scotland, Fresh Starts, Cooking)
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