Alexander, T.J. Chef’s Kiss. Atria, 2022.ISBN 978-1982189082 320 pp. $16.99
This is the second cooking show themed queer romance I’ve read this year, and it’s only the third week of January! Pastry chef Simone is as proper, discerning, and uptight as her name implies–trained by the Culinary Institute of America, she has her dream job perfecting recipes for an American institution of a cooking magazine–but in a sudden attempt by the editor to change or die, is informed that video content and social media, both of which she eschews, are the wave of the future and she can get on board with tweeting and offering How to Cook Kale videos or risk losing her job. Along with a layoff of the marketing department, her kitchen has retired and in her place is tall, comparatively boisterous Kay.
Kay launches a informal homebrewing series that gets a lot of hits, but also a lot of flack from the hired guy who wants to be on trend and pay attention to SEO. It’s Ray and Simone’s show, based on Simone’s fresh takes on updating Ray’s outdated 1950’s canned and prepackaged dishes, that garners millions of hits and speculations they like one another.
When Kay reveals her gender neutral pronouns, Simone and a handful of staff immediately get on board–but management and the image rehauling team, not so much. Simone is bi but not out at work, lives with a trans person who schools her on being the best ally, and slowly wakes up to calling out transphobic behavior, and noticing that it’s only the video crew that’s made up of people of color. When Ray takes some earned vacation time to have top surgery, it’s Simone who stays the first night to help them through the post-op healing (and is challenged by Ray’s ex for doing so, until they agree to take nursing shifts).
It takes a little while for the couple to finally get together. The subplot of gender identity is strong and provides insight for cis-het readers and recognition and representation for non-binary readers. The food descriptions are salivating.
I received an advance reader’s review copy of #ChefsKiss from #NetGalley.
Wang, Jen. The Prince and the Dressmaker. First Second, 2018. ISBN 978-1626723634 pp. $17.99
A prince angsts over his family’s demand that he find a bride while he moonlights in ladies clothing. Only his talented dressmaker knows his secret… Sebastian’s secret prevents Frances from reaching her own potential, and they seem to be falling for one another. At what point can they continue to deny their true selves and dreams?
The story manages to be both subversive and inclusive. The gender-bending and identity issues will make LGBTQIA+ readers feel seen, and has a modern feel juxtaposed with the historical setting.
This is a beautifully drawn graphic novel with perfect timing and a wonderful sense of movement to it that propels the reader. Wang has crafted gorgeous costumes for her characters. The Parisian setting plays homage to the fashion industry and showcases the artist’s talent not just for fabulous gowns by the the architecture of the times. The setting and courtly life are appealing for fairy tale fans. The romance is so very sweet.
I bought this to own and we ALL loved it (Ms. 8, Mr. 10, myself – 45 – and my partner -48). Our copy is tattered from so many re-reads.
Blacker, Terence. Boy 2 Girl. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2005. ISBN 978-0374309268. 304 pp.
After the death of his mother, Sam moves to London to reside with his aunt and her family. His cousin Matthew is reluctant to include charmingly abrasive Sam in his social circle after a few awkward situations. They gang decides that Sam must prove his friendship to the “Sheds” before he can join their clique. The hazing: dress like a girl for a week at school. Sam, slight with longish hair, assumes the persona of Samantha with more ease than they are all comfortable with; he manages to soften his male friends and empower his girl friends in one fell swoop. A tough boy with a lot of baggage, the unruly Sam finds that passing as a girl allows him to express his bottled up feelings on a variety of subjects.
The plot complicates when the hunkiest guy in school falls for Sam, and so does a cute musical girl in his grade. No one dreamed that the crossdressing would come in useful when Sam’s dad, newly released from jail, comes to London seeking his son–and his son’s inheritance. The amusing premise has an unexpected depth, and the humor is balanced out with serious issues of honesty, depth, family and gender.
Kudos to Blacker for a unique tale and memorable characters. The story, told from multiple points of view, creates a complete portrait of Sam, whose voice we hear only through the mouths of the other characters. The foreign setting shouldn’t create problems for the average American reader; short chapters make the pages fly by, but it takes a little while to get into the swing of the pace and the voices of all the characters, which tend to blend together. The ex-con path the plot takes is not wholly believable, but enjoyable nevertheless.
Catherine Hall. Days of Grace. Viking, 2010. ISBN 978-0670021765 304 pp. $
Elderly Nora, certain she is dying from some type of self-diagnosed abdominal or uterine cancer, attempts to absolve her guilt from incidents in her youth by taking in an unwed young mother who has been disowned by her family.
Chapters alternate between the past and present. The present focus on Rose and her baby, their fabrication of family, Nora seeing a doctor about her condition, and the hospice nurse that comes to live with them. Chapters set during the Blitz are concerned with Nora’s adjustments after being separated from her mother and a life of poverty when she is fostered in the country at the home of a pastor, his unhappy wife, and their teenaged daughter Grace. Nora has a crush on Grace that develops into a love she knows to be deeply inappropriate. Following the death of Nora’s mother, still in London where bombs are dropping, the Reverend Rivers shares the truth to Grace’s desire for a sister and the key to Mrs. River’s unhappiness, additional inappropriate behavior cause the two girls to run away to London; Grace, always precocious, falls in love, while Nora is forced to watch from the sidelines.
I anticipated this as a lesbian coming-of-age story set during WWII, but ultimately, this is a novel of atonement, redemption and friendship. It’s neatly structured with many tandems (Nora and Grace, past and present, two mothers, two inappropriate father figures, a twin birth, two deaths). Supporting characters are not very complex, and simply serve as an effective device to help tell Grace and Nora’s story. The slow pace and the reflective nature are likely to be deterrents to some readers. Hall did an adequate job of creating mystery and drama to pull me through the story and find out what secrets Nora is harboring, but I felt more curiosity than empathy while reading.
The shift from one timeline to another is marked only by action, and requires careful reading until it’s clear that chapters are alternating; in the final chapters, past and present come together as Nora opens up about her past to Rose and David.
Schrag, Ariel. Likewise: The High School Comic Chronicles of Ariel Schrag (High School Chronicles of Ariel Schrag). Gallery, 2009. ISBN 978-1416552376 400 pp. $
Likewise is the autobiographical chronicles of a girl in her senior year of high school who is trying to write a comic and missing her ex (who has already gone off to college) and pining for a straight girl. It’s about applying to college and experimenting with boys and coping with parents who are splitting up and defining oneself as gay, and what that means. Immense appeal to a limited audience.
Helget, Nicole. The Turtle Catcher. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. ISBN 978-0618753123 304 pp. $
The Turtle Catcher chronicles the history of two German immigrant families, living in Minnesota during WWII, and is primarily focused on a hermaphrodite who presents as female, and finds acceptance only with the “slow” boy on a neighboring farm.
While an important book from a voices not heard standpoint, I found it poorly written, hard to follow, and bleak.
Hartinger, Brent. The Order of the Poison Oak. Harper Teen, 2012 (reprint). ISBN 978-0060567323 176 pp. $
Hartinger’s breezy style draws the reader directly into this sequel to Geography Club (HarperTempest, 2003). Russel is the center of this story as well. Ready to “get away from it all” (it being his outing at his high school) he agrees to apply for a job as camp counselor at Camp Serenity with best friends Min and Gunnar. The first camp session is devoted to children who are burn survivors or have some other skin disfigurations, bringing them together in a place where they will be with other children like them and treated as “normal” kids. This, on top of learning to deal with a cabin full of subversive 10 year olds, is a challenge for Russel, but he finds a friend and ally in Otto, a counselor who was once a camper attending the session one program.
Summer romance is a co-plot of the book. Min and Russel are both interested in beautiful and perfect Web, and awkward Gunnar has sworn off women because of his own awkwardness. The overall theme of developing a thick skin to protect yourself from name-calling is a bit heavy handed, but it takes Russel creating a ritual for his campers to believe this truth for himself. The plot is predictable but still enjoyable and character development realistic as Russel reacts well to some moral dilemmas and fails to do the right thing in other instances. A must-read for fans, The Order of the Poison Oak will make those new to the characters want to go back and read Geography Club.
Andrew Matthews. The Flip Side. Delacorte, 2005. ISBN 978-0385730969 160 pp. $15.95
This British novel about gender and sexuality is cleverly staged around Shakespeare’s gender-bending play As You Like It. When Robert is assigned the role of Rosalind in a class reading of the play, he is surprised to discover he not only enjoys dressing as girl, but that his crush Milena seems to like it too. As Robert struggles to wrap his mind around the idea that his preconceived notions of boys and girls no longer fit into little boxes, he raises more questions than answers, Milena agrees to a date, and his best mate Kev gets homophobic on him. A party invitation instructing attendees to dress as the opposite sex brings about a predictable climax.
In spite of knowing how the story will end, the author makes the journey there half the fun, keeping the serious story light and mixing in quotes from Shakespeare with true-to-life characters and issues. The underlying themes that we are all a mix of feminine and masculine, that we should be accepting of ourselves and one another, that there is no such thing as normal and that it is possible to surpass labels and just be are all positive ideas that teens–and possibly our politicians–need to have reinforced, not just in their literature, but in the world around them. Not as fluffy as David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (Knopf, 2003) or as serious as a Nancy Garden novel, The Flip Side would make a fantastic title for book discussion.
Peters, Julie Anne. Luna. Little, Brown, 2006. ISBN 978-0316011273 256 pp. $10.99
I am a big supporter of LGBTQIA+ people and the issues important to them, but I never really knew much about transgendered people. After reading the book Luna by Julie Anne Peters, I can say that I have a much better understanding, and an enormous amount of sympathy for people who’s physical and mental sexes do not match. Luna is about a high school senior named Liam who feels he is a girl born in a boy’s body. His female manifestation is Luna, someone that only his younger sister, Regan, has met.
Regan has known the truth about Luna/Liam for a long time, and accepts and loves him/her for the person inside, who happens to be brilliant and beautiful. Regan has spent her whole life protecting and worrying about Luna/Liam, and gets freaked when Luna decides to start going public with the truth. It is a wrenching read; the anguish Liam feels over being in the wrong body is palpable. But it was really well done, and a very important and groundbreaking book. Highly recommended from this end.
Myracle, Lauren. Kissing Kate. Speak, 2007 (reissue). ISBN 978-0142408698 208 pp. $7.99
I want to second all of April’s comments about Kissing Kate by Lauren Myracle. It’s an awesome teen identity book. It’s a journey and exploration and exactly what I love about good teen coming of age fiction. Myracle manages to tackle some tough issues with heart and maturity while still appealing to a teen reader. The story goes something like this: Lissa and her best friend Kate share a kiss and a little bit more on a drunken party night. Now, they aren’t speaking.
Lissa holds on to this secret tightly. (The way she holds on to this secret reminds me of the main character in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak). Lissa is ashamed and scared and missing her friend Kate. But through some new friendships that she makes in Kate’s absence, Lissa gains the courage to face her feelings and come to terms with the fact that she might be gay. I put the book down feeling like Lissa was not completely resolved about whether or not she was a lesbian and I really liked that. There is so much ambiguity in those pesky teen years… it just seemed like the right way to end the book.
See April’s review for another take on Kissing Kate!