Title: HOW WE BEGAN
ALEXIS HALL, DELPHINE DRYDEN, VANESSA NORTH, AMY JO COUSINS, ANNABETH ALBERT, GEONN CANNON
Publisher: Pink Kayak Press
Genre: YA/NA LGBTQ Anthology
Release Date: 9th November 2015
(ARC provided in exchange for an honest review)
This seems to be the year of anthologies for me. I reached for this particular collection, attracted – like a bee to a honeypot – by some of the participating authors. In addition, it is a charity anthology, published in support of the Trevor Project’s important work with crisis intervention and suicide prevention amongst troubled LGBTQ+ young people.
Only after having offered to review this compilation did I learn it was described as Young Adult genre wise and sweet regarding its content. I initially shuddered at the combination, because typically I don’t read either. I find the style of YA fiction often irksome, infantile and naïve, while any literary saccharine overload is guaranteed to have me breaking out in hives and sarcasm. I prefer my books just like my chocolate – dark, disturbingly bitter, mature-tasting and damn intense.
Luckily, this read didn’t result in either an episode of hyperglycaemia nor a stroke (of cynicism.) Shockingly, I actually enjoyed it.
This anthology contains six tales – a couple of trans stories, a few M/M ones and one of F/F variety. They all focus on how relationships between young people blossom during difficult, transitional moments of their lives.
TruNorth by Alexis Hall *5*
This piece defies categorisation. It’s not just a regular M/M story. Interestingly, it features at least two gender fluid characters. The setting is not completely contemporary either. There are little glimpses of futuristic elements, which really add to the atmosphere. Furthermore, I don’t see it entirely as a Young Adult story. To my mind, it has more of a New Adult feel.
TruNorth is about a “nice” boy with a guitar. Except in truth, he’s not really that nice and his guitar was taken away. It is also a story about another boy, who doesn’t feel like a boy at all. The author depicts being trapped within the harsh, unforgiving and suffocating world, where everything is choreographed, staged, rehearsed and photoshopped. This tale is about having to carefully hide one’s true nature, feeling lonely, alienated and unable to control anything, thus slowly losing one’s identity and becoming an empty shell. However, it’s equally about finally rediscovering yourself, regaining autonomy and making tough choices, encouraged by the motivation of love.
This story struck me as – even uttering these words in my mind makes my imaginary tongue bleed – simply endearing, delightful and sparklingly sanguine. And Lord help me, I loved it.
The strength of it lies primarily in the characters. Hall’s ability to sketch a complete character with just a few taps of the keyboard is admirable. If there were ever to be any follow-ups, I’d jump at the chance to read more about Benedict or Ernst – two side-characters who got under my skin.
On top of everything, Hall does sexy and seductive rather well. Swift, almost chaste touches, fleeting brushes of the lips, lingering glances – it’s about what’s withheld rather than what’s exposed. Reticent, reserved, exquisite. So hot.
Unexpected Dragons by Delphine Dryden *4*
Recently I saw this meme somewhere: Always be yourself. Unless you can be a dragon. What if one could be both?
An interesting fantasy setting never fails to capture my attention. Throw in some dragons and we’re almost there. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that I liked this perfectly charming coming of age story, starring dragon shifters. The story also features teenage crushes, insecurities and anxieties. I found the concept of the first shift as the equivalent of an initiation ceremony, accepting the individual as kin and a member of the community, rather clever. In my view, the execution was sufficient and the two main characters, especially Rook, very likable.
However, this enjoyable story was probably intended for a young reader. My complaint, as an adult, is that the moral of the story, so to speak, could have been delivered with a tad more finesse, rather than being shoved in my face somewhat crudely. And the moral, ladies and gentlemen, is – your appearance doesn’t determine who you are. There’s no point in denying one’s true nature – you should be who you are, do what you are good at and what you love. An appealing message conveyed nicely by a pleasant story.
A Song for Sweater-boy by Vanessa North *5*
This is an M/M contemporary high school story. I loved this brilliantly written romantic piece from start to finish.
What an amazing pair of main characters. They carry this entire story effortlessly with their sheer personalities all through their adorable journey from fellow students to friends and, eventually, boyfriends.
The dual POV worked fine for me. However, it was Jamie, the boy somewhere on the autistic spectrum, who completely stole my heart. He’s written in a raw, authentic and believable manner, betraying the author’s first-hand experience with what she’s depicting.
This story is stuffed with pure emotions, similar to the way a good pizza’s crust is stuffed with cheese. And it is – precisely like a pizza – both comforting and moreish. Mid-read I must have temporarily lost my gritty edge, because I happened to have a brief teary moment. A few humorous lines thrown here and there nicely counterbalance the emo feel.
This story illustrates that fear and mistakes are a part of life, and that being imperfect doesn’t make us less special or less deserving. What else is there to say (apart from: Can I have a sequel, please?) The title is fitting, the message beautiful, the story moving and the ending uplifting.
The Taste of Coffee and Cream by Amy Jo Cousins *4*
This is yet another story featuring a transgender character. A very good read – touching, poignant, with slightly darker undertones lurking in the background. Not an incredibly romantic tale overall, although I found the final scene fondly tender.
I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach at the mention of the abuse and bullying, which caused the teen heroine to adopt a guarded, distrustful and jumpy demeanour. She lives in a state of constant vigilance, veiled with fear and insecurity. Unable to receive acceptance, compassion, kindness and affection from her own family, she’s lucky enough to find them elsewhere. One cannot help but think about hundreds of young people out there in the real life, not quite as fortunate, and it’s heart wrenching.
I personally thought it was a clever choice to apply a third-person narrative in this particular story. It seems to me, that first-person would come across as too emotionally available. In my view, this neutral filter was needed here to express emotions of someone who is in the process of coming out of hiding, and is just finding herself and her own voice.
Lastly, I wouldn’t mind finding out more about TJ, a very intriguing side-character with a complicated past.
First in Line by Annabeth Albert *3*
This is an M/M contemporary story set around college orientation week. It portrays coming-out dilemma, and related issues young people often struggle with during that difficult process, such as fear of rejection or inability to fully embrace themselves.
I admit this story didn’t resonate hugely with me. It’s perfectly agreeable, the two characters are nicely drawn and I can’t fault the writing. Perhaps the setting proved slightly too “all American” to me. Maybe it was simply too sweet and naïve for my blackened heart and twisted tastes. I found it a little flat and bland – lacking depth or something more substantial lurking underneath. There’s not much of a plot as such here and that made the story a little static – I perceived it merely as a snapshot captured at a particular time. In my view, this piece is probably better suited for a younger reader.
Extinction Level Events by Geonn Cannon *2.5*
Similarly, this F/F story is also a coming-out tale. A positively happy one, depicting a lovely, supportive family and a good, caring friend. The key points of this story focus on transition, new beginning, internal strength and courage. The courage to be yourself and let others see it.
Again, I didn’t quite connect with this story, although it isn’t badly written. There is not much really going on in terms of romance. For me, the most interesting part was the teenage infatuation with a straight friend. The main character, Cassandra, was in my mind slightly annoying and definitely not the sharpest tool in the shed. I couldn’t force myself to like her. I’m afraid I remained unmoved and a little bored. To be fair, I’m not really into F/F, so that could constitute a factor. I’m sure many people will find this piece sweet and entertaining.
Aw, young love is the greatest of enablers. Just like the sugar and caffeine laden energy drinks, it gives you wings. It supplies the determination to act, motivation to persevere and confidence to conquer the fears.
My initial concerns regarding this collection proved to be unfounded. Fine, it had me rolling my eyes a little on occasion, but a sudden urge to remove my brain with a rusty spoon never came. This anthology was slightly uneven and I definitely had favourites (and the Oscars go… to Alexis and Vanessa.) However, it turned out to be an enjoyable and refreshing read overall. In addition, I reward some extra brownie points for a satisfyingly diverse and inclusive content. It certainly deserves a firm rating of 4 out of 5 from me.
Please keep the Trevor Project’s cause close to your heart and – if you are so inclined – support it in any way you choose. Purchasing this collection could be your valid contribution. Thank You.