Jeff & Will kick off this YA-focused episode talking about Heartstopper, the new series on Netflix that’s based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alice Oseman.
Some incredible middle grade and young adult books coming in May are previewed, including titles by Robby Weber, Tucker Shaw, Maya MacGregor, Emery Lee, Kevin Van Whye, Dean Atta, Kevin Christopher Snipes, Jason June, Phil Stamper, Brian D. Kennedy, and R. Eric Thomas.
The guys also review the recent YA they’ve read, including Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zaho, Golden Boys by Phil Stamper, And They Lived… by Steven Salvatore, and Chef’s Kiss by Jarrett Melendez, Danica Brine and Hank Jones.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at frolic.media/podcasts!
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. These links are current at the time the episode premieres, however links are subject to change.
- Big Gay Fiction Fest: Pride 2022
- Heartstopper on Netflix
- Heartstopper #1 by Alice Oseman
- If You Change Your Mind by Robby Weber
- When You Call My Name by Tucker Shaw
- Spin Me Right Round by David Valdes
- The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester by Maya MacGregor
- Cafe Cone Lychee by Emery Lee
- Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee
- Episode 314 – Gay Agendas & Meet Cutes with Jason June & Emery Lee on Big Gay Fiction Podcast
- Nate Plus One by Kevin Van Whye
- Date Me Bryson Keller by Kevin Wan Whye
- Only on the Weekends by Dean Atta
- The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
- Milo and Marcus at the End of the World by Kevin Christopher Snipes
- Two Princes Podcast
- Out of the Blue by Jason June
- Jay’s Gay Agenda by Jason June
- Small Town Pride by Phil Stamper
- A Little Bit Country by Brian D. Kennedy
- Kings of B’More by R. Eric Thomas
- Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao
- Xiran Jay Zhao YouTube Channel
- Golden Boys by Phil Stamper
- Chef’s Kiss by Jarrett Melendez, Danica Brine & Hank Jones
- And They Lived… by Steven Salvatore
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast Links
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Will: Coming up on this episode, we’re going to be talking about young adult books as we preview some May releases and review a couple of our recent reads.
Jeff: Welcome to episode 376 of “The Big Gay Fiction” podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of gay romance fiction. I’m Jeff and with me, as always, is my co-host and husband, Will.
Will: Hello, rainbow romance reader, we are so glad you could join us for another episode of the show. Now, when last we spoke on Monday’s episode of the show, we announced the return of the Big Gay Fiction Fest. This year, our focus is on Pride. And for those of you who haven’t already heard, the Fest is a virtual book festival created, especially for readers of gay fiction. And it is 100% online, which, you know, if you’re a homebody like me, is just about as perfect as perfect can get. There’s no exhausting travel, no expensive hotel rooms to book, and you get to enjoy hearing from your favorite authors, all from the comfort of your own home, or conversely, if you’re an on-the-go type, you can watch it anywhere on your mobile device. This year’s Pride edition of Fest will be happening on Saturday, June 4th. And if you can’t virtually attend on the day, no worries, replays of all discussions and panels will be available to watch later. To get your ticket, just go to biggayfictionfest.com.
Now, I wanna talk some more about the programming that you can expect at Fest. Last time I mentioned all the great author panels that we’ve got planned, but really that was just the beginning. In addition to those panels, we’ve got spotlights on authors like Kate Hawthorne, Beth Bolden, and J.R. Gray. They’re going to be telling us all about their newest summer releases, plus we’ve got a special book chosen for the Fiction Fest Book Club, LaQuette’s super sexy romance, “Under His Protection.” It’s got forced proximity, bodyguard tropes. Trust me, you are gonna love it.
And for those of you who like our “Dante’s Cove” recaps, Jeff and I are going to be doing something similar and having a deep dive discussion on “The Thing About Harry,” the irresistibly adorable gay romcom from 2020. We’ve got so much great stuff planned. I think it’s going to be the perfect way to kick off Pride month.
If you wanna know more and to purchase tickets, head on over to biggayfictionfest.com. For members of our Patreon community, check our Patreon page for a special coupon code that you can use for a discount on your Fiction Fest ticket. It’s our small way of saying thank you for supporting the show. We really hope to see you there on Saturday, June 4th. So one last time, just for laughs, go to biggayfictionfest.com for all the details.
Jeff: I’ve so much enjoyed doing the interviews for Fiction Fest, and one of the things I like so much about talking to authors near Pride is that we get to ask them what pride means to them and how they infuse pride into their stories. As usual, the responses are so amazing, and I can’t wait for everybody to get to hear what all of these authors talk to us about pride and how it connects to their stories and how it connects to their lives. It’s really some special stuff there.
Heartstopper on Netflix
Will: Since this episode’s focus is going to be on young adult stories, there’s really no way that we can proceed without mentioning “Heartstopper.” And really, what is there to be said? You’ve seen it, we’ve seen it. The whole world has fallen head over heels in love with it.
Jeff: Oh, my God.
Will: If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s the new Netflix adaptation of the Alice Oseman graphic novel series. It’s about schoolboys, Charlie and Nick. They’re a classic shy nerd, popular jock pairing. It’s about their friendship and eventual romance. So looking at it on the surface, it’s really nothing new compared to other coming-of-age, coming out stories, but just because it’s not necessarily new doesn’t mean that it can’t be something kind and wonderful and so incredibly special. And frankly, we need more kind and wonderful and special things in the world. Joe Locke and Kit Connor play Charlie and Nick, and, oh, God, they’re just perfection. They’re flawless. They’re wonderful. I mean, truly, there is a reason the entire world has fallen in love with them.
Jeff: Oh, my God, yes.
Will: They’re backed up by a terrific supporting cast. Specifically, I wanna call out Yasmin Finney, William Gao, and Tobie Donovan, who played Charlie’s friends. Their characters support the main storyline, but they also have their own story arcs and each of them are absolutely wonderful. This show is so cute and so sweet and so utterly perfect. And my only complaint is that we don’t have more right now.
Jeff: Eight episodes was not enough.
Will: I know. Season 1 was just eight half-hour episodes. Though, realistically, if the season were longer, they would’ve had to come up with ways to keep Charlie and Nick from being happy, and truthfully, my heart could just not take that.
Will: So for now, we’re all going to have to be happy with watching those eight episodes, on an endless loop, until Season 2 comes our way.
Jeff: I love young adult stories so, so much, but there was something about this and I have to admit the gap in my reading that I’ve not read the graphic novel despite all of the tremendous acclaim that it has had over the years. But these eight episodes, my God, I mean Nick and Charlie, and these actors, I can’t imagine two actors who could play these roles more perfectly. I mean, it’s like there was no acting there. They might as well have just had a relationship already. So, so perfect. I love the graphic novel elements that come into it, the little butterflies and the hearts and the birds that fly around them. In particular, I love the very first moment where they kind of tentatively, maybe, are gonna hold hands, and these little electric bolts and little zzzz show up and…oh, so perfect. It was so perfect. I think we could easily talk the entire episode about this and just everything that we love. Please, Netflix, if you cancel this after one season like you’ve done other shows that we’ve loved, it’s gonna be so, so upsetting.
There’s gotta be a Season 2. We need more of Nick and Charlie and whatever else is gonna be going on in this world. I definitely need to go back and read these graphic novels because Alice’s writing is so amazing and really awesome that she got to write these episodes. Oh, my gosh. I mean, how often does the writer actually get to write the television adaptation? Anyway, I have gushed enough, there are other things to talk about here. If you haven’t seen “Heartstopper,” just stop listening to us right now, go watch those episodes, and then come back. They’re streaming right now on Netflix.
May YA Book Preview
Will: So from the latest in streaming, let’s move on to the newest YA stories. In our last episode, we spoke about some of the terrific gay romances headed our way in the month of May. Now it’s time to talk about some of the newest YA titles that are available. And truly, it is a veritable treasure trove. There are a ton of wonderful YA titles coming out this month. May seems to be particularly popular because I think publishers wanna make sure all those little gay YA book nerds have something to read over summer break.
Jeff: Right. It’s like, get it out there now, so everybody has got their stuff to take away to the beach or to just hole up in their room or whatever they’re gonna do for the summer, here’s your reading list, ready to go.
Will: So first up is, “If You Change Your Mind” by Robby Weber. Harry wants nothing more than to win a screenwriting competition that will assure his admission to the college of his dreams. So he’s determined to spend the summer free of distractions, but his first heartbreak, Grant, returns with a secret that could change everything. There’s also Logan, who’s making him question everything he knows about romance. Harry is about to learn that life doesn’t always follow a script. Oh, sweetie, it sure doesn’t.
Jeff: No, it does not. I can’t wait to find out what Logan is gonna do to change his thoughts on romance. There’s so many things that that could, you know, lead to there, which I’m certain are off-script, but that one sounds like it’s gonna be really good.
Will: Also available now is, “When You Call My Name” by Tucker Shaw. In this new novel about two gay teens coming of age in New York City at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Ben and Adam meet, forever changing each other’s lives. As they both begin to open their eyes to the possibilities of queer love and life, they realize sometimes the only people who can help you are the people who can really see you and all of your messy glory.
The reason I wanted to highlight “When You Call My Name” is because it’s doing the work of what a lot of YA literature is doing right now, tackling difficult subjects. But in this particular case, it’s looking at it through a historical lens of two characters who are living in New York City in the 1990s. Contextually, that’s sort of like the late ’80s, early ’90s in which “Rent” takes place.
Jeff: Yeah, I very much like when YA takes a moment to educate about the past, just setting young adult characters in the late ’80s, early 90s with AIDS and during that timeframe or something else where you get a sense of what it was like to be queer back then and compare it to what it’s like now and things like that. I think it’s an important contextual moment because there’s not a lot of ways, you know, unless you’re gonna take a deep dive on your own you’re not exactly learning queer history somewhere else. You’re not learning it in school, for sure. And if these young adult authors can help teach a little bit of that while delivering a great story, you know, we saw with “Spin Me Right Round” by David Valdes, who looked at a part of the middle ’80s. I think that’s a great thing and I’m really interested to see, you know, what this book does with these characters and also within this timeframe.
Will: One more book that has just been released and is available right now is, “The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester” by Maya MacGregor. In this one, Sam’s life seems to be on an upswing after making some new friends, yet, the past keeps returning in Sam’s memories and in the form of a suspicious death that took place in Sam’s new home. They can’t resist trying to find out more about the kid who died and who now seems to guide their investigation. Sam knows that they’re on the path to uncovering a murderer, but are they digging through the past or digging their own future grave?
Jeff: Get out of the house. I’m not sure I could read that book with how many issues I have with ghostly houses.
Will: There is a long tradition of spooky YA horror-themed fiction, and in this one, not only does a mystery need to be solved with a hint of the paranormal, but it’s got a non-binary teen as the lead.
Jeff: Oh, that’s very cool, the non-binary teen in the lead. And I am curious where it’s gonna lean in terms of storytelling. Is it more mystery? Is it more paranormal? Is it gonna lean into the horror? Is it gonna be a mishmash of all of it together? Maybe you can read it and then tell me if it’s appropriate for me to read it because you know what my level of horror is.
Will: Yes, I do.
So coming up on May 10th is the new release “Cafe Con Lychee” by friend of the podcast Emery Lee. Emery wrote “Meet Cute Diary” that came out last year. I absolutely loved it. And in this new one, Theo and Gabriel have always been at odds, but when a new fusion cafe threatens each of their parents’ businesses, Theo and Gabi realize an unfortunate truth, they can only achieve their individual goals by working together to cook up an underground baking operation and win back their customers. But can they put aside their differences long enough to save their parents’ shops or will the new feelings between them boil over?
Jeff: I can’t wait to get this book.
Will: Me neither. I’ll fight you for it.
Jeff: Well, we talked to Emery last year, and if you missed that interview, you can catch it in episode 314. There was just a little bit of hint that Emery was able to give us about this book because it was still, you know, like a year off. But even then I’m like, “Yeah, I need that,” because it’s food. There’s an underground baking thing. You’ve got these two characters who are gonna have to, like, enemies to lovers their way to a relationship. And I love everything Emery did with “Meet Cute Diary,” so reading this next book. I mean, it’s kind of a foregone conclusion. It’s gonna be one that we don’t fight over. It’s gonna be one that we just both read and then talk about.
Will: Exactly. Also coming out on May 10th is the new title from Kevin van Whye, “Nate Plus One.” Nate needs a date to his cousin’s lavish destination wedding. Jai is Nate’s best friend and secret crush. Could Jai be Nate’s plus-one and only? Kevin van Whye is the author of “Date Me, Bryson Keller.” And the back cover copy for “Nate Plus One” insists that this is a swoon-worthy summer romcom about music, adventure, and self-discovery.
Jeff: Just sign me up because those all three sound like really delightful things.
Will: All the books, I wanna read all of these. It’s ridiculous.
Jeff: We need a summer vacation.
Will: Oh, I know. Right? So moving forward on the release schedule, on May 24th comes, “Only on the Weekends” by Dean Atta. From the Stonewall award-winning author of “The Black Flamingo” comes a romantic coming-of-age novel and verse about the beautiful and sometimes painful fallout of pursuing the love we deserve. When Mack’s father takes on a directing project in Scotland, he discovers how painful long-distance relationships can be. It’s awful to be so far away from Karim, but when Mack meets actor Finlay on set, his world turns upside down, again. Fin seems fearless and his confidence could be just as infectious.
Jeff: You know, it was just back in Monday’s episode where there was another romance that was on a movie set, and here we are now with a YA version of that. So just like I said before, all about these books that are set on movie sets because I find that, really, a very interesting place to set a romance. So I’m very into seeing where this one goes as well. I’m just gonna keep making this list of books that take place on movie sets so I can work my way through them.
Will: Now, also coming out on May 24th is, “Milo and Marcos at the End of the World” by Kevin Christopher Snipes. In this one, Milo has managed to survive most of high school without any major disasters until dreamy and charismatic Marcos saunters back into his life after a three-year absence and turns his world upside-down. Strange things have been happening around their sleepy Florida town ever since Marco’s return. As natural disasters begin to befall them the closer they become, they begin to wonder if the universe itself is plotting against them in this YA debut from the playwright and creator of “The Two Princes” podcast, Kevin Christopher Snipes.
Jeff: Well, of course, you love “The Two Princes” podcast.
Will: Oh, excellent.
Jeff: Which you reviewed. Well, feels like forever ago. And I’m really intrigued by this. Like, what is causing these natural disasters to come up, and what is it about Marcos that causes this stuff to happen? Yeah, that blurb just kind of sold that whole book there for me because I am super curious, which is, of course, what you want your blurb to do.
Will: Now rounding out our YA list are several books that are coming out at the very end of the month on the 31st.
First up, we’re gonna talk about “Out of the Blue” by Jason June. Crest is not excited about the merfolk right of passage in which he must help a human within one moon cycle and return to Pacifica to become an Elder or remain stuck on land forever. When he meets a lifeguard named Sean, he agrees to help Sean make his ex-boyfriend jealous, but as the two spend more time together and Crest’s perspective on humans begins to change, they’ll soon be torn between two worlds. Their fake dating just might lead to real feelings.
Jeff: I’m super excited that we’re having another summer of both an Emery Lee and a Jason June book. They are two of the people who made last summer’s YA reading so incredible. Of course, Jason June had “Jay’s Gay Agenda” last year. Once again, Emery and Jason are releasing within a couple of weeks of each other, which is super exciting. And this one, I mean, what could you not want about this? It actually has “Splash” written all over it. We had Jason on, in the same episode we had Emery Lee on and he previewed this one a little bit and it is kind of his take on “Splash.” So yeah, summer vacation, I need it because this is yet another book that I must read. What this means is that the podcast folks are gonna get a glut of YA reviews from us at some point this summer because we’re gonna have read all this stuff.
Will: In addition to Jason June’s latest, there’s also Phil Stamper’s new title, “Small Town Pride.” When Jake’s dad hangs a comically large pride flag in their front yard as an overblown show of support, the mayor begins to receive complaints that the flag might lead to something truly unthinkable, a pride parade, except Jake and his friends don’t think that’s a ridiculous idea as they try to find a way to bring pride to Barton Springs. It seems suspicious that the mayor’s son, Brett, suddenly wants to spend time with Jake. Someone that cute couldn’t possibly be in league with his mayoral mother, could he?
Jeff: I think this is another book that is so great to have right now. I mean, honestly, any queer and YA lit is good to have right now, but this, with its small-town take, you know, having pride in a smaller town is not something that we look at a lot. I think this is a great book and I can’t wait to read it because, I mean, Phil is an acclaimed author already of young adult literature. So yeah, I don’t know which of these I’m gonna read first, folks, because there’s so many.
Will: Well, I’ve got a few more to recommend.
Jeff: Oh, dear.
Will: Next, I wanna talk about “A Little Bit Country” by Brian D. Kennedy. Emmett can’t wait to spend the summer working at an amusement park owned by his idol, country legend Wanda Jean Stubbs. Luke hates country music. And as the grandson of Verna Rose, the disgraced singer who had a famous falling out with Wanda Jean, the last place he wants a job is at Wanda World. When Emmett and Luke meet, sparks fly. Soon, they’re inseparable until a long-lost secret about Verna and Wanda comes to light threatening to unravel everything. Can they get past the truths they discover or will their relationship go down in history as just another sad country love song?
Jeff: It’ll be the best country love song because it won’t be sad.
Will: Well, you have a thing about books set in Hollywood during the making of a movie, and admittedly, I do too, but I also have a deep abiding love for stories set in theme parks.
Jeff: Yes, you do.
Will: I cannot wait for this one. It sounds just too delicious.
Jeff: Yeah. And don’t you know, just at the back of your head, you’re gonna just set it at Dollywood? Even though I don’t think Dolly has a rivalry with really anybody, but from a theme park perspective, your head’s just gonna think Dollywood.
Will: And lastly also coming out on May 31st is, “Kings of B’more” by R. Eric Thomas. When Linus tells his best friend that he’s moving out of state, Harrison plans a sendoff, a la “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” squeezing every life-expanding experience they thought they’d have into their last day together. On a mini road trip, Harrison and Linus attend their first pride and a rooftop dance party, all while keeping their respective parents off their trail. They make a pact to do all the things, big and small, they’ve been too scared to do, but nothing feels scarier than saying goodbye to someone you love.
Jeff: This is gonna be so fun. I mean, just the Ferris Bueller element alone mean that it’s gonna be super fun because who doesn’t really love the escapades of Ferris Bueller? And then the things that they do between pride and a dance party and a little bit of road trip. Yeah, sign me up for that one too. So has Will been as damaging to your TBR as he’s just been to mine?
Will: I’m the worst. So if any of the books that we just mentioned sound good to you, we have a complete list of everything that we’ve covered on the show notes page. Just go to biggayfictionpodcast.com.
Jeff: Yes, all those links will be right there.
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao
Jeff: But we’re not quite done yet talking about books that are coming this month because I actually wanna talk about one that I’ve read that is coming out on May 10th, and it’s called “Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor” by Xiran Jay Zhao. I have done my best, I’m gonna say this upfront, to research so I get my pronunciations right. If I mess these up, I so apologize. But here we go. I loved this middle-grade book so, so much. It is an incredible mashup of fantasy, sci-fi, and action set in the modern-day. How modern is it? Well, there’s even a chapter title that references “American Idol” as in how the creation of China was actually like “American Idol.” If you’re one of the legions of people who loves Rick Riordan’s, Percy Jackson books, I really think you’re gonna love this one. Zachary Ying, or Zach to his friends, simply is trying to get through middle school. He’s got friends, but he’s got no one like him. And he’s often ridiculed for things like what he brings for lunch, which is food that his mom makes but that others find kind of odd and maybe a little bit smelly.
One of his favorite things is the game Mythrealm, and he and his friends make up a team that actually plays in competitions. Zach’s also sort of obsessed with the game’s creator, Jason Xuan, and he actually wants to be like Jason someday. Zach’s world takes a turn as he starts hearing voices which seem to come from the portal lens that he uses when he plays Mythrealm. Now, these are glasses that let him see the real world beyond them, but it’s overlaid with elements from the game. So they’re basically looking like glasses, but you get all these other things laid over the lens. Think of it kind of like the Google Lens from like eons ago when they first tried to put those out there. And I really love this element since there’s tech in this book that is similar to the things that we have in the world now but aren’t quite in, like, everyday use yet.
So one day, about the time he’s starting to hear these voices, Zach meets Simon who immediately befriends him, talking about Mythrealm, but also giving him a lot of discussion about Chinese historical figures for reasons that Zach really can’t figure out. Now it seems that Simon has a very rare weapon in his Mythrealm arsenal and it’s something that Zach’s friends want to use for an upcoming tournament. They all end up in a bit of a fight when Simon won’t lend it out. And suddenly out of nowhere, Zach seems to be able to control water, even creating a huge thunderstorm over the fight and actually sort of injuring a couple of his classmates. And so, of course, you might be wondering, What is Zach up to here? Well, it turns out the voices that Zach heard actually come from Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and someone who Zach is a descendant of. Zach is meant to host the emperor’s spirit because this emperor, along with others, are on a mission to seal a damaged portal to the Chinese underworld before it blows open during Ghost Month, which would unleash all manner of spirits and cause general chaos.
Now the spirits binding to Zach goes wrong somewhat because Zach doesn’t know that much about Chinese history or his heritage. And the spirit ends up actually binding to Zach’s portal lens instead, which severely is diminishing its power. Oh, and by the way, in the midst of all this, as a big battle takes place over will Zack or will Zack not bind with the emperor correctly? Zach’s mom has her spirit stolen, and with a tight timeline on the mission to seal that portal, they can only take care of his mom once the portal is sealed. It’s kind of being held as a little bit of a ransom. So Zach goes off to China with Simon and another spirit-possessed warrior child named Melissa to track down the portal seal, get it in place, and to essentially save China and the world. It’s a chase through museums, temples, fantastical places, most of which Zach knows nothing about. His mom hasn’t told him much about where he comes from, what his heritage is, or really even who his father was, who actually died in China as a political prisoner. Zach also doesn’t get any Chinese history, of course, in his American school so he has no knowledge from that either.
It’s an incredible first half of the book as Simon and Melissa, along with their spirits, actually educate Zach about parts of Chinese history and what he has to do to solve this portal problem. I really love all the elements that Xiran has in this story, Zach learning more about his Chinese culture, about his father, connecting with his heritage in ways that he’d been unable to before. When he gets pulled into this thing, he has the opportunity to make a wish of what he may want to happen here. And besides getting his mom’s spirit back to her body, he also says that he would like to become strong, and his growth into being a strong individual was so amazing. And it’s not about being necessarily strong of body, it’s about being strong, really, in every way, and being able to stand up for yourself, be able to take control, and be confident in situations. The growth of Zach was so incredible in this book. And, of course, we see him grow along the way as he’s put through this quest to save the world. But the moment when he realizes that he has become strong was so satisfying to read. It was just one of those kind of just wonderful moments that you can get in a book.
The adventure throughout this book is also super fun. Xiran puts you right in it with Zach, Simon, and Melissa, plus, there is a high snark level in this book with the attitude that the emperors have. You see in the mythology that’s created in this book, the emperors and their spirits are impacted by how modern society views them and so they’ve picked up all kinds of modernisms along the way and it gives their speech and their interaction with these kids a really brilliant kind of snarky sarcastic tone, which is just a whole bunch of fun. More than anything, the back and forth on if you can or can’t trust any of these people and the spirits was so incredible because it kept me guessing right down to the end of the book.
Now you may ask yourself why am I talking about this book? As I haven’t mentioned anything queer. It’s mentioned a couple of times in different ways that Zach likes boys. And I really love how this is not a primary point of the story. I love that it was there, but it was there in a way that it wasn’t made to be an important point. And I have to imagine for any young people who pick this up and to be able to see themselves in that way and see this young person who does some really incredible stuff and for it just to be presented in that matter of fact, no big deal way will be so fantastic.
I am so very interested to read more of Zach’s story because, oh, yes, this ends on a quite well-done cliffhanger. So I think if you love “The Lightning Thief,” you’re just gonna love “Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor.”
And by the way, in the show notes, I’m gonna add a link to Xiran’s YouTube channel. They’ve got an incredible library of videos there discussing Chinese history and culture and how it’s represented in the media. There’s some really interesting and insightful things about movies like the recent Disney movie, “Turning Red.” I highly recommend you give their YouTube channel a look as well when you pick up this book, which, again, is coming out on May 10th.
Golden Boys by Phil Stamper
Will: So from your story about a big fantasy quest and adventure, I’m gonna talk about a book I recently read in which the characters have their own adventures but on a slightly smaller scale.
Jeff: They’re not gonna be fighting any dragons or anything?
Will: No, nothing like that. It’s “Golden Boys” by Phil Stamper. Now we, of course, just mentioned Phil’s new middle-grade story, “Small Town Pride,” coming out on May 31st. “Golden Boys” is his newest YA release that came out just a few weeks ago. Phil, you are a busy, busy boy. I’m gonna keep this review kind of short and sweet, but I think this might be the feel-good read of the summer. I love this story to pieces and I think you will too. It’s about four gay best friends who live in Ohio. They’ve managed to find each other and are a support system for each other. They’re essentially each other’s ride or die. And the summer before their senior year, they each have really big plans. Gabriel is going to be volunteering at an environmental nonprofit in Boston. Reese is attending design school in Paris, Sal is interning for a Senator on Capitol Hill, and Heath is going to be making the long trip to Florida to help out with his aunt’s boardwalk arcade. And over the summer, they each face various trials and tribulations.
The 4th of July weekend ends up becoming an inflection point for each of them and they must decide whether to throw in the towel or finish what they’ve started. It’s all kind of like “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” but way gayer. And I think that comparison alone should tell you if this is the kind of book that you would be interested in. It’s certainly one that I loved. These guys are amazing, and Phil Stamper makes each of their voices so distinctive. Oh, God, this would make the best TV show. Please give “Golden Boys” a try. I do not think you’ll be disappointed.
Chef’s Kiss by Jarrett Melendez, Danica Brine, and Hank Jones
And in addition to that book, I also recently read “Chef’s Kiss” by Jarrett Melendez, Danica Brine, and Hank Jones. If you’re into the “Heartstopper” graphic novels and are looking for something with a similar illustrated vibe, this is a really sweet, low angst romance about Ben, a guy who has just finished school and can’t find a job anywhere. One day he sees a “Help wanted, no experience necessary,” sign in a restaurant window, and since cooking is one of his favorite hobbies, he gives it a shot. And he cooks a dish as sort of an audition. He hopes to impress dreamboat, chef Liam, but really he should be concerned with impressing the restaurant’s official taste tester, Watson, the pig who lives outback.
Jeff: I can’t imagine anything that would be, like, less for my thoughts than what you just said.
Will: It’s so adorable. Ben manages to make it past that first hurdle. And it’s from there that he must train with some of the other chefs in the restaurant, continue to impress Watson, and, of course, while he’s doing all that, he ends up falling for the aforementioned dreamboat. The story of Ben and his friends, it’s cute and it’s funny. The romance is so sweet and I really loved the artwork. And if you wanna try the dishes that Ben creates, there are recipes in the back as well.
Jeff: As there should be with any book that deals in food.
Will: Yeah. So if you’re looking for something super cute and romancey, give “Chef’s Kiss” a try.
And They Lived… by Steven Salvatore
Jeff: And I’ve got one more that actually ties into my love of movie making to a degree, although this one’s not set in Hollywood. I’m gonna talk about Steven Salvatore’s, “And They Lived…,” which is such an incredible young adult new adult book that tells a smart and complex story about that time in your life that things start a new because of college, but you’ve also gotta deal with your past a little bit because your past may be causing you to sabotage yourself while you’re figuring out who you are in this new setting.
Chase Arthur loves Disney, and he’s starting college with an eye on his dream job, which would be working for Disney Animation, hence my little connection there to the movies. Part of his successful application to school was a viral video that he made, and it’s helped him get on a shortlist into an elite class which just might get him a mentorship with one of his favorite animators. I’m just gonna say off the top that I love Chase. Steven has written a complex teen, right at that freshman going into college phase that you just have to root for and also sometimes just wanna wrap in a reassuring hug, but you also want to occasionally scream at them because of the actions that they’re taking. It’s like, “No, don’t do that.” Chase knows what he wants and even knows how to get it, but he’s filled with the self-doubt that comes with being a teenager and with being a creative, and beyond that, he’s grappling with his gender identity, recovering from an eating disorder, and suffering from body dysmorphia because of his father. Oh, and shortly after Chase gets to school, he meets a boy who just might be someone who can be more than a friend, but that’s also unclear, which also plays in, of course, to all of his insecurities.
Chase is so insanely cute as he gets to know Jack, that other freshman. They immediately click around varied topics, including reading and movies. The chemistry between these two is so undeniably good, but Jack is the product of a super conservative family, and as a result, he is very closeted. And even the cracks that form in his closet because of Chase don’t make it easy for these guys to be together. Chase has no intention, though, of going back in the closet, and Jack isn’t exactly clamoring to get out, even though he seems to understand how good he and Chase are together. Oh, at the creative partnership these two end up in, it is absolutely magical.
Chase has to get an animated short together to present in the freshman showcase, which is the deciding factor in that mentorship that he wants. Chase is expanding that viral short that he did, which was a mythical story about princes who control thunder and lightning. Chase bounces ideas off Jack and their collaboration is so wonderful in just practically every way possible. The creation of Chase’s short is a really awesome and magical part of the story that we see while we’re looking at Chase’s creative process. And the story is even told in certain breaks in the action along the way as, like, an additional vignette. And, of course, it’s no real surprise that the story of the princes actually mirror the journey that Chase and Jack are on.
It was really a great addition to the story to see and hear, because I did the audiobook, what it is that Chase is creating. Chase’s college times from meeting his roommates and finding new friends who will make up his squad, adjusting to being away from home, and dealing with a former friend who’s now more of a frenemy who happened to land in the same animation program that he did felt just so real at times. I had some high school and college flashbacks reading some of Chase’s anxious moments. And those moments where you’re not sure if you fit in or if you’re good enough to be doing what you’re doing, I have to say Steven captures all of this so well. And I think there’s gonna be so many teens who see themselves, whether it’s in Jack or in Chase or in some of the friends and, you know, possibly pieces of all of these characters. There are some very rough but necessary parental interactions in this book too. Chase has things to work out with his father. To be honest, there were moments I had to put this book aside when Chase’s father was being such a dick to him because it was just horrible and I needed to space myself from that a little bit. Jack’s also got some uncomfortable things to deal with in his family, as well as a best friend from home. Steven handles all this with perfect emotional punch, which is, of course, why I had to put the book down sometimes to recover from the punch that he’d given me.
So how does it all work out? Well, you’re gonna have to see that for yourself, to see if Chase gets Jack, does Chase fall in well with his tribe? Does the whole frenemy thing sort itself out? Which I have to say it turned out to be an unexpectedly great piece of the storyline as well. And did he get that mentorship? The thing I like most about this book lies in the message of the title, which Steven goes into greater detail within the story. We all know how modern-day fairy tales end with the whole, “And they lived happily ever after.” Now consider that that HEA aspect may not be the most important part, but the, “And They Lived…,” meaning that they continue to exist and live out their lives, might just be the most powerful message that we can get. And within this book, it is definitely the most powerful message because it’s something that Chase comes to realize that he’s got to be out there and living.
Big props on the audiobook too. Narrator Kirt Graves always delivers, but I swear he goes to next level with Chase and the myriad of emotions that he goes through. Steven’s words and Kirt’s narration are a match made at audiobook heaven. And I particularly loved Kirt’s performance of that short film that Chase was putting together. The story of those princes was so, so good. So I highly recommend, “And They Lived…” from Steven Salvatore for a very emotionally satisfying read. And if you like audiobooks, you cannot go wrong with Kirt’s telling of the story.
Will: This episode’s transcript has been brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you like to read our conversation and reviews for yourself, simply head on over to the show notes page for this episode at biggayfictionpodcast.com. The show notes page also has links to all of the books that we talked about in this episode.
And if you’d like even more gay fiction recommendations, Jeff and I have put together “Happily Ever After,” a free ebook full of reviews and suggested romance reads. You’ll get it when you sign up for the “Rainbow Romance Reader Report,” our weekly podcast newsletter. To learn more and get your free ebook, go to biggayfictionpodcast.com/report.
All right, I think that’s going to do it for now. Coming up on Monday, in episode 377, we’ve got a special interview as we welcome professional strongman, Rob Kearney, and LGBTQ parenting expert, Eric Rosswood, to talk about their new children’s book, “Strong.”
Jeff: For Rob, who is also known as the world’s strongest gay, this book is also a little bit of a memoir about how he learned to live as his authentic self and how that made him strong. This is a really great, inspiring interview, and you are not gonna wanna miss it.
Will: On behalf of Jeff and myself, we wanna thank you so much for listening. We hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kind of stories we all love, “The Big Gay Fiction” kind. Until then, keep turning those pages and keep reading.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at frolic.media/podcasts. Production assistance by Tyson Greenan. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.