New movie and TV deals are discussed with both Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue coming to Amazon and a Love, Simon series to the Disney+ streaming service. Jeff talks about seeing The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical.
New patrons Rhonda and Regi are welcomed.
Will reviews the Netflix original Special. Jeff reviews Jay Bell’s Straight Boy.
Jeff & Will discuss their trip to the LA Times Festival of Books. They also share the interviews they did at the festival with Julian Winters, Kim Fielding & Venona Keyes and S.A. Stovall. Julian talks about his upcoming book How to Be Remy Cameron. Kim discusses her Stars in Peril series and Venona also tells Jeff about her co-writing with Kim. S.A. gives the origin story of her Vice City series and how she uses caricature to encourage people to read the first chapter (she also did a super cute caricature of Jeff & Will).
Remember, you can listen and subscribe to the podcast anytime on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, PlayerFM, YouTube and audio file download.
Here are the things we talk about in this episode:
- Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston on Amazon
- Love, Simon movie on Amazon
- The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical website
- Brandilyn Talks About LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Rick Riordan’s Books in BGFP #126
- Tracker Hacker (Codename: Winger #1) by Jeff Adams on Amazon
- Special on Netflix
- I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves by Ryan O’Connell on Amazon
- Straight Boy by Jay Bell, narrated by Kirt Graves on Amazon
- LA Times Festival of Books Interviews
- Julian Winters: website | Twitter | Instagram
- Running with Lions by Julian Winters on Amazon
- How To Be Remy Cameron by Julian Winters on Amazon (pre-order through Sept 10)
- Becky Albertalli on Amazon
- Running with Lions Wins Two IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards on Julian Winters website
- YALLWEST website
- Kim Fielding: website | Facebook | Twitter
- Venona Keyes: website | Facebook
- The Spy’s Love Song by Kim Fielding on Amazon
- Redesigning Landry Bishop by Kim Fielding on Amazon (pre-order through May 21)
- Running Blind by Kim Fielding and Venona Keyes on Amazon
- Brute by Kim Fielding on Amazon
- Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR website
- Shira Anthony on Amazon
- Big Bang channel on YouTube
- BTS website
- Chained: A Bureau Story by Kim Fielding on Amazon (pre-order through April 30)
- S.A. Stovall: website | Facebook | Twitter
- Vice City series by S.A. Stovall on Amazon
- Modern Gladiator by S.A. Stovall on Amazon
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast on Patreon.com
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast patrons on BGFP website
Interview Transcript – Julian Winters, Kim Fielding & Venona Keyes, S.A. Stovall
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Interview with Julian Winters
Jeff: We are at the LA Times Festival of Books with Julian Winters.
Jeff: Who I’ve just had a major fanboy moment over.
Julian: I had fanboy moments.
Jeff: Okay. We kinda both had the fanboy moment.
Julian: Yes, yes. It is equal.
Jeff: Because I had to get him to sign my “Running with Lions.” Podcast listeners know that was one of my favorite books of last year.
Julian: Thank you.
Jeff: And you’ve got a little sneak peek…
Julian: I do.
Jeff: Right now of “How To Be Remy Cameron,” which comes out September 10th.
Julian: Yes, yes. September 10th, yes.
Jeff: Tell us what this is about.
Julian: Remy is a very personal book. It’s about an out and proud teen in high school, who has always felt like he’s known himself until he has this AP lit course. And one of the final grades he has to write an essay about who am I and it’s like the make or break essay. He’s trying to get into Emory University, and he needs this course in order to get there. And so, he has this kind of panic mode of, “Okay, but who am I?” Because he’s always been defined by, “Oh, he’s the gay kid who came out at 14,” or, “Oh, he’s one of five black students that go to our school,” or “Oh, he’s the big brother to this character,” and he’s just all these labels he wears all the time. He’s, “This is who I am.” But then he starts to realize, “Is that all I am and do these labels really define exactly who Remy Cameron is?” So, it’s kinda an exploration of what labels mean to us, but it also has a great family dynamic. A couple of secret mystery parts I can’t tell you about but there’s a lot of guessing games going on in it. And of course, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have like a dorky romance in there. So, that’s in there too.
Jeff: A dorky romance? I like that because that’s…
Julian: Yes, that’s exactly what I promise you. It’s so geeky, it’s so dorky.
Jeff: That’s kind of what “Lions” was as well for sure. That’s a good label for it. How would you say that your writing has evolved from first book to second?
Julian: Oh, it’s a lot. A lot. With the first book, I just kinda wanted to write the feel-good story, and that was my goal, and touching on certain issues throughout the book. And it also was written in third person and “Remy’s” written in first person. I’ve never, not even when I was like a small child, wrote in first person. I love reading books like that, but I thought, I just can’t do that, it’s just too personal. And so, it was a challenge doing that, but it was a lot of fun. And “Remy,” like I said, it’s very personal, so exploring parts of myself and things that I see throughout, you know, our community and things like that. It really helped me grow as a writer to really say, Okay, you can challenge yourself and you can fail at it, but you can also improve. And that was great. So, to fail, I struggled so much in the beginning, but to have that under my belt now, it’s I think I could write a lot of different stories.
Jeff: So, you think you’ll visit first again sometimes?
Julian: Oh, yeah, yes, yes. The next book I’m working on, first might be where I’m stuck now. I think this might be my calling. I don’t know.
Jeff: Okay. I could tell you, first is a nice place to be.
Julian: Yeah, it is.
Jeff: What are some elements of this book that are so personal to you?
Julian: Growing up. So, I grew up in Upstate New York where I was one of five black students at my school. And then when we moved to Georgia, I was one of 400 that went to my school. So, it’s very personal in the sense of, I went through a lot of phases of am I too gay? Am I black enough? Am I too perfect as a friend? Am I good enough friend? A lot of things that I went through, Remy goes through in the book. It also explores my love for a lot of geeky things and how for a while I wouldn’t let that define me because I thought, “Oh, no, this is bad, people are gonna make fun of me.” And Remy goes through that because he had a lot of geeky moments, but it’s almost like he’s scared to show them now that he knows that these are the things that I’m defined by.
Jeff: I love that you point out the geeky thing because I saw on your Instagram earlier today of the comic books that you read into here at the Festival.
Julian: Listen, I almost had to leave, you know, our booth just to go, you know, bow down at the comic book booth and just say, “Listen, thank you. I love it.”
Jeff: Now, let’s talk about “Lions” for a second because you’ve had an amazing year. I mean, you started out of the gate that the book was blurbed by Becky Albertalli.
Jeff: And now, just within the last week or two, you’ve won an award for it. So, tell us a little bit about that.
Julian: It’s been a wild journey because, first of all, like, I never thought I’d meet Becky Albertalli, I never thought I’d talk to her, I never thought, you know, I would become friends with her. And then just meeting all the other people along the way that I’ve met and growing in that area… I always felt like I was the kid sitting at the table in the corner where I peek over at all the cool kids and say, “Yeah, I’m never sitting at that table,” but it’s been kinda really awesome being taken in by so many different people and I never thought I’d be an award-winning author. Like, I wanted to write the book for queer kids to enjoy, to see themselves and know that, you know, you’re not some other subcategory, you’re just a normal person. It’s just that…this is just a part of you, it doesn’t define you. And to win an award, I broke down crying. It wasn’t something I was expecting going into this because my journey has always been about the reader but to have something for myself was amazing. It still is amazing. I’m not over it. I guess I won’t be over it until I actually hold the award in my hands and say, “This happened.”
Jeff: This actually happened. And the cover too, which was a stunning cover, also won.
Julian: Yes, the cover won for best cover. And that was so great for me in the sense that I love our cover designer, C.B. Messer. She’s amazing. She reads all the books cover to cover. And so, she knows these characters, she knows their stories, and what she did with that cover just blew me away. What she did with the “Remy” cover, I’m still in complete awe of just how well she knows these characters.
Jeff: When we talked back last year, the book had hardly been out.
Jeff: How’s the reader response been to it?
Julian: It’s been amazing. Today just alone, just so many people will walk by and say, “Oh my gosh, ‘Running with Lions,’ I’ve heard of that book.” And I’m just like, “What? Of all the books that came out in 2018, you heard of that book?” The response has been amazing. Going to the events and having people walk up to me and say, “Thank you for writing this book because I played soccer all my life, but there was never a queer soccer book.” Or, “Thank you for writing this because there weren’t a lot of books with bisexual main characters, or characters that were gay and Muslim, or black characters, or whatever.” It’s been amazing, the response I get. I get teary-eyed every time. I’m like, “I’m not strong enough for this, we can’t talk about this.” But it’s also been so cool to know that I’m helping someone see themselves because I didn’t always get that opportunity growing up. So, to know I’m getting to be a part of their journey, it’s just been amazing.
Jeff: Fantastic. And what have you thought of the fair, of the festival? Because it’s your first time up here.
Julian: Yes, this is my first time here for the festival. And I was talking to another friend about it because I went to YALLWEST last year. YALLWEST is this…it’s nice little corner and then this is like a whole city. Like, I get lost every time I go either to the bathroom or get something to drink. But it’s amazing because it brings so many different publishers, so many different books together, so many different genres, so many different kinds of authors are here. And that’s the amazing part to me, just to know how influential books are because there are people everywhere all the time, stacks of books in their arms. And you don’t really get to see that in, like, media, like how impactful books are, how much people really enjoy the art that we put out there. So, this has just been amazing to watch how excited people get when they see the books.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s been very cool here. So, thank you so much for hanging out with us.
Julian: Thank you. You know, I love you guys.
Jeff: Best of luck on “How To Be Remy Cameron,” coming out September 10th.
Interview with Kim Fielding and Venona Keyes
Jeff: We are at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books with Kim Fielding and Venona Keyes. Thanks for being here.
Kim: Thanks so much.
Venona: Thanks for asking.
Jeff: We’re excited to have you both here. And now, Kim, of course, within the past couple of weeks, we’ve raved about the “The Spy’s Love Song” and the new “Dreamspun Desires.” Where did the inspiration for this book come from? Because it was so good.
Kim: I think a big part of the inspiration came from my travels in Eastern Europe. So, you know, thinking about the way things used to be in Eastern Europe and how things are changing, plus politics as they’re happening right now. And so, yeah, I think that was the main thing.
Jeff: What kind of research did you have to do to develop your spy and your rock star who becomes kind of…along on this mission without even knowing he’s on it?
Kim: I didn’t have to do too much research on the spy part or on the travel part, but rock stars and music is not something I know anything or have any talent or anything else about, so that was where I had to do most of my research because I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know what it’s like to be a rock star. I can’t even sing.
Jeff: Does that mean you what it’s like to be a spy?
Kim: Hmm, I’m not…I can’t divulge.
Venona: You have kids.
Kim: Yeah, I have kids.
Jeff: And you wrote song lyrics too?
Kim: I did. Yeah, I know. And it was really fun. And then in the audio version, my narrator Drew Bacca sang them, which was so cool. And it’s like, this is the closest I’m ever gonna get to being a songwriter. And it’s so much fun to listen to. And I can pretend, you know, like, I’m the next thing.
Jeff: Which actually raises the question, did you give him an idea of what the melody for it was or did he just kind of make that up?
Kim: I had no melody in mind. I didn’t know he was gonna sing. When I write a book, I’m sorry narrators, I don’t think about what I’m doing to my narrators. And so, sometimes I torture them, and I wasn’t even thinking about a narrator singing it. So, that was his idea and I was so pleased.
Jeff: And this is a little different in “Dreamspuns” as well and I noted it in my review that you are a single point of view here. Did you go into it deliberately that way or just kind of organically discovered it was the way to go?
Kim: It made more sense for this book because there’s some surprises about our spy character and I think it’s a lot more fun if we kinda discover the surprises along with the other character rather than knowing right from the start. So, you know, for some books, the dual point of view works really well, but for this one, I think this works well.
Jeff: Yeah, I totally agree on that. Now, this is part of a bigger series that’s happening within the “Dreamspuns.”
Kim: It is.
Jeff: Tell us a little bit about the series overall.
Kim: Sure. So, this series is called “Stars from Peril” and this is the first book in it. The second book comes out next month, and that’s “Redesigning Landry Bishop.” And the third book, I just finished the first round of edits on. It’ll be out in October and that one is “Drawing the Prince.” We went over several titles on that one. And so, what all three of them have in common is the main characters are from the same small town in Nebraska called Peril, Nebraska. And all three main characters have made it big in some way. So, our first guy is a rock star, our second guy is kind of a Martha Stewart type, and the third guy is an artist. And so, they’ve made it big in the world and they meet someone. And so, you can read each of them as a standalone and in any order you want to, but you’ll kind of see the characters appearing a little bit in one another’s story.
Jeff: It didn’t even click for me that it was the name of the town too because peril plays into their own peril.
Kim: Exactly. And I honestly cheated a little bit on that. There is a real town, a tiny little town, I think there’s like 60 people in it, in Nebraska called Hazard, Nebraska. So, Peril.
Jeff: Peril, Hazard, it works.
Kim: And it’s a great name.
Jeff: Now, people may be wondering, why do we have both of them here together? Well, Venona and Kim also co-write. Tell us about that book.
Venona: “Running Blind.” I will tell you this came about some years ago in Portland at our Dreamspinner meetup and she pulls me aside. Now, you have to understand that I was such a fan of Kim. I love “Brute”, I loved all of her stuff. And then she’s talking to me and I’m like, “You sure you’re talking to me because, you know, I don’t, like, co-write. I’m really bad at, you know, doing it by myself.” And she goes, “Oh, yeah, I heard on NPR…” And that’s how it started. Because Peter Sagal who’s out of Chicago hosts, “Wait, wait, Don’t Tell Me.” He is a running guide for blind people for marathons.” So, she had the idea and we came up with “Running Blind.”
Kim: And the reason why Venona was such a perfect choice is because, unlike me, she does triathlons. So, I didn’t have to do the research on marathon running.
Venona: No, or running guides either. Stuff like, “Yeah. That’s your department,” I’m like, “All right, we can do this.” And it’s a wonderful book and we decided that we wanted to have a second story because in the beginning, and it’s not giving a spoiler away, is Kyle and Matt who have been friends, who went to college together, were friends, became lovers, and now they’re in a comfortable pattern, and they really love each other but as brothers rather than lovers. So, when something happens to Kyle, Kyle breaks it off and he goes, “You gotta go do stuff.” And Matt’s reluctant, but this story is about Kyle and how he deals with the things that have happened in his life. So, the next book that we’re writing, the working title is “Playing,” is Matt’s story about how he finds romance after the breakup.
Jeff: And when do we get to see that one come out? TBD.
Kim: Well, that one is still in progress.
Venona: It’s still in progress. It’s now in my hands. And so, we switch back and forth when we write, and I need to get it back to Kim. So, hopefully soon.
Jeff: And you’ve got some other co-writing coming too? You’re working with Shira Anthony as well.
Venona: Shira Anthony, it is another story. It’s actually about a farmer and a city boy. So, that one is coming up soon and that’s an honor of a friend of ours from GRL. So, we’re writing a story about a farmer which he is and who’s not out and a city boy who is. So, it’s a lot of fun. We already have the outline and we’re just getting started on writing that as well too.
Jeff: Very cool. Anything else coming up we should know about?
Venona: Yes. “How to Become a K-pop Idol,” I am writing that one by myself. We might get a co-writer on that one, you never know. But that one is, if people aren’t familiar with this, I love Korean culture, a lot of Asian culture, Japanese, Korean. I’m learning Korean. I’ve been a K-pop fan since 2009 proudly with the Big Bang.
Jeff: Before it was cool.
Venona: Before it was cool. And my bias is right now, because Big Bang, if you don’t know in Korea, you have to go in for military service mandatory by the time you’re 30. So, a lot of the K-pop idols are going in. So, new ones are coming up. So, the third gens right now is BTS, if you’ve not heard of Bangtan Sonyeondan, BTS, they’re really big. They’re the band that I’m following right now.
Jeff: Very cool. Anything coming up for you, Kim, a part from the Peril series?
Kim: Yes, start of the Peril series at the end of this month, so April 30th. I’ve got a new novella coming out. So, if people who are following my “Bureau” series, there’ll be a new novella in that. And I wanna push that because I give all my royalties for that to Doctors Without Borders. So, this is the fourth story in that series, but you can read them as standalones too.
Venona: And they’re awesome stories too, I love those.
Jeff: And what have you guys thought of the festival?
Venona: You know, this is the first time I’ve been here, and it is awesome. There’s just so many people here, there’s so many different books, and you get to browse them all at the same time instead of in a little bookstore somewhere. So, yeah.
Kim: And it’s been a lot of fun just kinda hanging out with everybody, LA is fun. So, it’s been a lot of fun.
Jeff: Very cool. Well, thanks for hanging out with us for a few minutes.
Kim: Thanks so much.
Venona: Thanks for asking us.
Interview with S.A. Stovall
Jeff: And we’re at the LA Times Festival of Books with S.A. Stovall. Thanks so much for being here with us.
S.A.: Well, thank you for having me. It’s super exciting.
Jeff: Now, you’re the author of “Vice City,” it’s currently two books in the series. Tell us a little bit about what the series is?
S.A.: It’s a crime thriller like a noir style. Ironically, if you’ve ever read “Sin City,” which is a graphic novel, it’s kind of similar to that. I used to work at a courthouse and I got a lot of green, was an attorney and all that. I don’t do that anymore because it’s a little depressing, but I used some of my experience in that to write the series. And I really like redemption stories and like criminals turning it around. That’s what I did in the courts is I helped a lot of drug addicts get to rehab and turn their life around. And so, I’m really into that kind of story. So, the series follows an ex-mobster who like, you know, leaves the mob and then becomes a private detective, and then, you know, shenanigans ensue.
Jeff: Shenanigans ensue?
Jeff: And he’s consistent through the series?
S.A.: He’s the main viewpoint. There’s a romance a subplot in which he falls in love with like a police academy cadet, and obviously, that’s his in to the police and you know, again, more shenanigans ensue that way. In the sequel book that just came out, one of the subplots is that a police officer suspects the main character’s actual identity, that he had connections to the mob and used to be a mob enforcer. And so, he’s out to prove that it’s him. And so, you know, it’s a thriller story so it’s got lots of thrills.
Jeff: Mystery, suspense, thrills, it’s all there.
S.A.: Yes, exactly.
Jeff: What got you into starting to write these books?
S.A.: So, I had a friend who really likes Dreamspinner Press and I used to write just books like short stories for my D&D group, because they really liked, you know, fantasy, all that kind of stuff. So, I wrote short story fantasies and she was like, “My God, you should write me a Dreamspinner-style novel, like, that’s what you should write for me.” And I was like, “Okay, I don’t know if I can do it as good as all these other people, but I’ll try.” And I wrote “Vice City” for her specifically. I even put that in the dedication. I’m like, “It’s just for you.” I didn’t think that it would go anywhere because, you know, I was just like, “Okay.” But I got an agent after I wrote this and then the agent sold it to Dreamspinner and then they published it for the DSP line because that’s where they do genre stuff.
Jeff: It doesn’t necessarily have the romance in it, right?
S.A.: Yeah. Well, mine does but it’s not the focal point. The focal point is the, you know, mystery and the mobster story. So, I was very surprised. I didn’t think it would go anywhere but it totally went somewhere. So, every time somebody is like, “Oh, I don’t know if I should write a novel,” there’s a piece of me that’s like, “Man, I just wrote that novel willy-nilly. So, you should try, you should do it. You should try.” Now admittedly, you know, I was writing before I wrote this because I wrote other stories and short stories, but still, if you’re thinking about it, you should just do it, you know. Don’t even think to yourself, “Oh, nobody will read this,” because I kinda thought, “Nobody’s gonna read a crime noir.” You know what I’m saying? Like, I was like, “That’s old school, nobody reads that kind of stuff anymore.” But no, people do, and people like it. So, I was really happy.
Jeff: And you noted that the second book just came out. Do you have plans for third?
Jeff: What is yet to come?
S.A.: I’m about halfway through the third book and it’s a true series in the sense that it could go for as long as I want it or, you know, that kind of thing. It’s not like a trilogy or a set thing like, “Oh, something needs to happen.” But, you know, as a private investigator, anything can happen, you know, all sorts of shenanigans can ensue.
Jeff: Very true, very true.
S.A.: But there is a connecting theme. The whole reason that it’s the vice enforcer is that the mob that he used to work for was the vice family, and they’re still around by book three so you can kinda see the, like, he’s trying to take them down one by one. And so, I guess I could be limited to and then it got the whole vice family and then the series is over. But, you know, there’s that connecting thread too.
Jeff: Now, that you’ve been writing in this genre, do you wanna expand out to other genres or is noir thriller kind of your sweet spot?
S.A.: Well, it’s just a thing that I like a lot, that I thought, you know, nobody likes this anymore, but I like it. I wrote “Modern Gladiator” which is just a pure romance for Dreamspinner. It was a sports romance with UFC fighter.
Jeff: Oh, cool.
S.A.: I, a few years back, was dating a guy who was in the UFC. And so, I just used all of that experience to write a sports romance. And I know a lot about, you know, wrestling and all that kind of stuff just from him. And I put a lot of that kind of information in the book and it literally just came out about two weeks ago. Yeah, “Modern Gladiator” came out. And then I do a lot of fantasy and science fiction on the side as well. So, I mean, all sorts of things, all crazy things.
Jeff: Very cool. Now you’re also an artist?
S.A.: Yes, that’s true.
Jeff: While she’s been here doing her signings and such, she’s also been doing caricatures of people who get their book signed. And so, we had this one done of us. It is so freaking adorable. How did this get started for you?
S.A.: I’ve just always drawn things. I like doodling. I was really into comic books at a point in my life. I mean, so many comic books and manga. I mean, anything that was drawn and kind of that like storybook style with the panel, super loved. But I didn’t really intend for it to go anywhere. I went and got my history degree, I got a law degree. I wasn’t like, “Man, I need to study art.” But I did at least doodle enough that I was like, “I’m mildly good, you know.” And when I went to my first ever book fair, I thought, “I can’t just be the schmoe who’s standing in a booth trying to peddle their book, because I’m gonna be like 50 other people in the road doing the exact same thing. I should try and do something that’s at least enticing or to get people to read my stuff.”
And I figured, “Hey, I could try a little caricature, and while I’m drawing them, they can read my book. And if it’s enticing enough, you know, they’ll buy the book, or they’ll feel guilty enough to buy the book, you know, I don’t know, whatever gets them to buy the book.” And a lot of people usually give me comments right away. Like, the first line in “Vice City,” everybody always comments, well, not everybody but like 80% of people. The first line is, “Getting hit with a wrench hurts.” And, so many people either laugh or comment like, “Oh my God, what a good line,” and I’m like, “Yeah.” And the first chapter in “Vice City” is an interrogation of that police cadet. So, Pierce, the mobster, is interrogating this guy who he thinks is a police mole. So, it’s really intense, you know, high stakes going on. I really like that first chapter and it usually hooks people. So, they read that first chapter while I’m drawing them and, bam, that’s my sales strategy. Don’t steal it. I’m joking, everybody can use it.
Jeff: It’s all her’s.
S.A.: Anybody can do it.
Jeff: But the key is, like, I could never draw. There’s no way I’d do this, I’d have to find another hook.
S.A.: I’ve been successful with it. People typically like that. And the caricatures are free. I just give them to people. So, even if they don’t buy the book, you know, it’s fine.
Jeff: And it’s awesome watching her do them. We watched as she did ours. It’s like, “Oh my God, there we are just manifesting on the page.” It was very cool. Well, thank you so much for hanging out with us a little bit. One last question, what have you thought of the fair?
S.A.: It’s good. There are a lot of people here though. I mean, just thousands of people all over the place. Going to the food trucks was fun, although not during lunchtime. There’s like a mile-long line from here to the sun and back. Nobody wants to do that. But the food trucks are good, the people seem to be really nice, and I don’t know, it’s just a good time.
Jeff: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for spending a little bit of time with us.
S.A.: Thank you for having me again, like, super awesome.
Here’s the text of this week’s book review:
Straight Boy by Jay Bell, narrated by Kirt Graves. Reviewed by Jeff.
I went into Straight Boy without knowing much about it other than it was a young adult story involving Andrew, a gay high school student, who develops a crush on Carter, a straight (or maybe not-so-straight) boy. What made me buy the audiobook was the fact I’m a huge Jay Bell fan because of Something Like Summer and also for Kirt Graves’s narration. I knew these two together would give me a great read.
And they did.
With Something Like Summer and its sequels, Jay proved a master of telling a story with many characters and many plot lines that involve an array of emotions. He’s upped his game with Straight Boy.
Two things happen right away–Andrew, a recent transplant to Chicago, discovers a boy who lives down the street having an argument with his parents and saying things like “I was born this way.” Andrew thinks he’s found a gay friend. The next day–his first day at his new school–Andrew comes out as he introduces himself in class. This makes him a target of the school bully, Bobby. Andrew goes off on Bobby, despite the bully’s threats and ends up getting sent to the guidance office. Here he meets Carter and discovers that’s the boy he heard arguing. Both of them end up in a special program at the school where learning happens outside a traditional classroom
Andrew’s year is now set.
Everyone–gay, straight or otherwise–inevitably has that phase where you want a romantic relationship that you can’t have. Andrew longs for Carter but also doesn’t want to wreck their friendship, which seems to grow stronger by the minute. The thing is, Carter seems to be a little experimental too and that only makes things more confusing for them both. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would end up a disaster on the page, but Jay deftly weaves the emotions and circumstances for both guys as they figure out the place they’ve got in each other’s lives as it evolves through the school year. I cheered for the good and wanted to protect them through the bad since my fifty-year-old self could vividly recall how confusing seventeen was.
Bobby’s integrated deeply into their year too. He’s a friend of Carter’s and that mean’s Andrew is around Bobby far more than he likes–and he ends up putting up with more crap that he should. Andrew accepts dealing with that because he doesn’t want to lose Carter. It’s made even harder when Carter starts dating Bobby’s ex, Olivia. Along the way another of Bobby’s friends, Jackson, becomes tight with Andrew too, creating more bonds in the group. The evolution of Andrew and Jackson’s friendship is as interesting as Andrew and Carter’s.
Things get rough in the last quarter of the book. Bobby doesn’t like the changes happening to his group and he plots revenge. I have to warn here that not only does bullying happen throughout the story at varying levels but as we get into the last act there’s also off-page sexual assault and a pretty epic final battle where Andrew, Carter and the group are in way over their heads. Again, Jay does an excellent job of telling the story, ratcheting tensions and putting characters–and readers–through the wringer.
The epilogue was the icing on top of this cake. Jumping twenty years into the future, we find out where everyone ended up. There were some surprises here that made me go “awwww.” It provided the perfect ending.
What this book excelled at was showing friendships up close–what makes them grow, what rips them apart, and most importantly, what can make a true friend for life. It also shows, perhaps too intensely for some readers, the lengths people can go to in order to protect a relationship even if it’s toxic. I can’t commend Jay enough for how well he did all of this.
Kudos to Kirt Graves too. I know well from TJ Klune’s Green Creek series that Kirt can handle a large cast of characters and high emotional impact. Kirt is perfection here handling the emotional rollercoaster without sending it over the top. His performance adds perfectly to what Jay had on the page.
I highly recommend Straight Boy by Jay Bell, just make sure you’re ready for the ride.