Book Review: How it All Blew Up

By Arvin Ahmadi

There are no literal explosions in this book.

I was given an advance review copy of this book by NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

I’ve been reading, and enjoying the hell out of, a bunch of books aimed at young gay folk in recent months. From L C Rosen’s Camp and The Jack of Hearts (and other parts) to the quirky Boy Meets Hamster by Birdie Milano, I’ve really enjoyed reading these light, romantic, sometimes sexy, stories about people coming to terms with their identity, suffering and creating drama, and sometimes finding love.

This is the first one I’ve read with an Iranian protagonist, which adds an extra level of drama and pathos to the proceedings.

Amir is a closeted eighteen-year-old on the brink of graduating from high school when something threatens to out him to his parents, which he’s sure is going to be a disaster. In a panic and with two thousand dollars in his pocket, he flees to Rome to wait for everything to blow over.

Away from home and emboldened to do things he’d never do there, he meets a collection of delightfully queer characters who bring a great deal of life and light to the novel. Amir’s adorable and highly relatable, and his tribulations and drama feel plausible even if more sensible decisions could have headed them off at the pass.

“How It All Blew Up” was a hugely enjoyable read, and I recommend it for anyone who’d like to get a taste of sun-soaked Rome while stuck in lockdown. Come for the travelogue, but stay for the adorkable protagonist and charming supporting cast.

Book Review: “The Gravity Of Us” by Phil Stamper

Front cover of "The Gravity of Us" by Phil Stamper.

Publication date 14th May 2020

I was given a review copy of this book by Netgalley.com. This review avoids spoilers as much as possible.

This is another of those books I wish had been around when I was a teenager. The romance is cute, the drama isn’t too overblown given the context, and the ending is very satisfying. However, this is more than an enjoyable fluff piece, with some interesting critique of modern media and how, in some ways, it’s not so modern after all.

Cal, the 17-year-old protagonist of this book, is a feisty ‘FlashFame’ new media personality whose life is turned upside down by his father’s involvement with a NASA mission to Mars. I’m too old to judge fully whether Cal is authentic as a teenage New Yorker and Digital Native, but at times his personality did seem perhaps a little on the nose; he listens to cassettes because he claims they ‘sound smoother’ and he rolls his eyes at old people and their poor understanding of how and why videos go viral and what that either means.

Having said that, Stamper does a great job of exploring Cal’s mind and personality (including his flaws) through the first-person narration and it turns out that there are deeper reasons behind some of his superficially hipstery behaviours. Stamper also engages in a degree of lampshading in regard to Cal’s NY hipster vibe, with his romantic interest poking a bit of fun in that general direction.

There’s a lot to like about this book. If it has a central theme, I’d say it’s the toxic effects of the codependency between the media and scientific agencies like NASA, and the difficulties that come along with relationships in general. While Cal’s romance is a major element of the novel, it was highly refreshing to me that neither his sexuality nor that of his romantic interest was a big deal.

Ignoring the usual beats in a queer romance story of finding acceptance of one’s true self from friends and family and coming to terms with one’s own sexuality was a really good move on Stamper’s part. Instead, this novel is more about learning to accept the problems of our partners that we can’t change, only help them to deal with in their own ways.

One character has depression. A couple deals with bickering and relationship strife due to their different personalities and ways of coping with things. Someone has to deal with their overwhelming urge to present a strong front and pretend they’re okay, to fix everyone else even when they themselves are in need of support.

Everyone (except the villains of the piece, and even one of them is more sympathetic than you might expect) is immensely likeable and I really found myself investing in their relationships and their goals.

The romance is written well, taking me directly back to the heady high of new love in a deeply visceral way. The charge of knee’s brushing, a hot hand on your shoulder, first kisses; all are written with great sensuality and attention to detail that make these moments highly effective.

If I were to criticise anything it would be to say that the second act drama surrounding the mission to Mars is perhaps a smidgeon overblown and perhaps resolved a smidgeon too easily, but that’s easily overlooked against the sheer enjoyment I got out of this book.

Book Review – Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), by L. C. Rosen

Publication Date: 30th October 2018

Genre: Thriller/Young Adult/LGBTQIA/Romance

I was given the opportunity to read this up-and-coming novel courtesy, of the publishers and via Netgalley

First of all, I wish that books like this had been around when I was a teenager. Hell, I wish that we’d had someone like Jack at my school when I was a teenager. So many years of confusion and discomfort about my sexual identity might never have happened.

Comparisons with “Love, Simon” are inevitable, so let’s get that out of the way. Yes, this book features a gay teenager. Yes, it contains a central hidden identity mystery that forms the core of the novel. Yes, it features coercion and blackmail. 

This book feels much more real, more authentic, much less of the Hollywood romanticised view of young gay folk… though it too has a few elements redolent of wish fulfilment.

I expect this book will be shocking to some audiences, because it features frank and detailed discussion of sexual acts between consenting people who are under the age of 18. It features such people smoking, drinking and smoking marijuana, too… and not being guilt-tripped or punished for it.

Jack himself, and his supporting cast of fuck buddies, friends, and compatriots, feel realistic and emotionally well-drawn. As Jack is slowly suffocated throughout the novel by the attentions of his stalker, I found myself hurting for him and just wishing that he’d open up to his mom and the other adults in his life, but whereas Simon’s silence in “Love, Simon” felt forced and unrealistic to me, Jack’s desire to ignore the problem until it went away and unwillingness to draw other people into his problem felt totally, heart-breakingly realistic.

For me a highlight of the novel were Jack’s advice columns, which tackled a range of subjects in what I felt was a heartfelt, funny, and effective way. Not only that, but his advice was absolutely spot-on, and highlighted the importance of communication and enthusiastic consent.

If I had to quibble about anything I’d say that perhaps the ending was a little too quick and convenient, but that’s really only a minor complaint… and honestly it was a relief due to the tension that had been building up over the course of the novel.

I highly recommend this book, especially for LGBTQIA folk and their parents. It would make a great gift for someone who’s recently come out, too!