Something Like… a Book Review

I started reading Jay Bell’s Something Like Summer on June 11 and I finished it that same day, which for me is quite remarkable. I had searched through the gay fiction category because I had questions in my mind as I was writing my next novel where a young teenage boy begins to question his sexuality. Certain things were happening in my character’s life and I wasn’t sure, given his age, if these things would seem shocking or within reason. So I wanted to find a book that portrayed the coming of age of a gay teen – written as literary fiction and not erotica –  about what experiences are normal for boys just coming to realize they are gay and at what age certain acts begin to take place.

Something Like Summer had many good reviews and seemed to fit everything I was looking for. So, I bought it. As soon as I started reading, I was immediately sucked into the story of Benjamin Bentley. He is such a well-developed character that I’m not convinced he isn’t real. He is witty, passionate, quick to act in ways that seem brave but are actually rooted in lack of restraint, self-aware, and determined to be happy one way or another.

Benjamin has been openly gay since he was 14 at a time when this was a rarity (mid 1990s). The book begins in the summer before Ben’s Junior year in high school. He encounters a new guy in his neighborhood who takes daily runs through the park. Ben makes a point of secretly watching (stalking) him. But when school begins, it becomes evident that Tim Wyman is not gay and he is quickly becoming friends with the people who bully Ben. Most boys would give up, but Ben is tenacious and willing to take risks which might pay off in the long run (or might get him into a world of hurt).

The only problem is that Tim Wyman isn’t as willing to take risks, perhaps because his family isn’t nearly as loving as Ben’s. Tim has been raised very differently, the consequences of which neither boy at age 16 can fully appreciate. They each push the other to change in ways that would make it easier on themselves, not the other. The result is disastrous but completely understandable given their circumstances.

As a reader, I wanted things to work out for the two of them. I wanted it to be obvious and easy because that’s what we all want when it comes to love. But nothing about this story was obvious or easy. But it still kept me reading, not necessarily because of the love story, but because I wanted to know what would happen to Ben.

The Something Like… series is written more like a collection of biographies than a collection of love stories. Yes, romance happens, sex happens, break ups and patch ups happen. But Jay Bell writes about the lives of very distinct, realistic characters, which span a decade or more. Each book in the series is about a character which has already been introduced in the other books.

In Something Like Summer, I wasn’t sure if I really liked Tim Wyman or if I believed him. Early on in the book, Tim mentions leaving Kansas after a girl falsely accuses him of raping her. As a woman, I tend to doubt men who make this claim and see them as potential rapists. I wanted something to come out in the story to reassure me that Tim wasn’t capable of doing such a thing. But, Tim is revealed in Something Like Summer to have moments of aggression. I just never was sure, even by the ending.

So, after finishing Something Like Summer, I picked up Something Like Winter which is the story of Tim Wyman’s life as he comes to terms with his sexuality. Something Like Winter begins in Kansas and directly addresses the rape accusation, which is revealed to be a completely false  accusation by a very manipulative girl. I was relieved because that meant I could trust Tim a little more. But generally speaking, I don’t like it when authors portray rape accusations as lies because in the real world already places so much doubt on legitimate claims of rape. But, my activism aside, I realize that this *can* actually happen in real life and perhaps is more likely to happen to someone like Tim with the kinds of people who find their way into his circles. Tim has a big problem when it comes to figuring out who deserves his friendship and attention and who does not.

Both books were very good, but there was a lot of overlap. Most of Tim’s story I already knew from reading Something Like Summer. But what I didn’t know about was Tim’s character. In Something Like Winter, I came to deeply understand Tim and how his experiences caused him to act the way he did. I enjoyed seeing Ben through Tim’s eyes, and I found out what Tim had been up to in the “missing years” of Something Like Summer.

Now I will probably read Something Like Autumn, which is the story of Jace. I already know how Jace’s story will end, but I do not know how it began.

Jay Bell writes in a very fast-paced, candid, and affectionate way about growing up gay and finding love. I enjoy his stories while I read them and cannot stop thinking about the characters when I’m done.

If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, you can get Something Like Summer for free right now. Maybe Jay Bell has it permanently set as free, I don’t know, but it’s worth so much more than that.

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A Letter to Z

Dear Z,

We live far away from you now, so when I saw your post that you are “doing drag”, I didn’t know exactly what that meant in your life right now. But, I want to write this open letter to you anyway. What I have to say is based on the time you have spent with my family and what little I know of your past. I will admit I don’t know a lot, and I could be wrong with some things I assume. But I hope you read this and see, no matter what, I’m on your side.

My daughter met you when she was forced to switch schools at the very end of her 4th grade year. She was devastated, even though her best friend was switching schools with her. As soon as she met you, the two of you became fast friends. I know from things she has told me that many kids regularly laughed at you for looking like a girl. I know it had been going on since you started Kindergarten and your hair was long. I think you needed a friend like my daughter as much she needed a friend like you.

I met you a week after my daughter switched schools. It was Talent Show Night and you were sitting on the bleachers, waiting your turn to play piano. My first impression of you was that you exuded joy. You were polite, but willing to disregard what people thought of you in order to express your happiness. You were a rebel in the name of laughter. Not only did you have my daughter (usually analytical and reserved) laughing and acting like any other 4th grader, you had my younger daughters enthralled. When you went to play piano, I cried a little, not because of the piece you played, but because I was so happy to have someone like you in the lives of my children.

I suspected then that you would likely come out as gay or trans. You were so feminine, which I know is not always an indicator. I wanted my kids to understand the complexities of sexual and gender identity so they could be supportive if that day ever came. I discussed with my kids often that “It’s okay if people are gay. It’s okay if boys like boys. Some boys are actually girls. Some girls are actually boys. You can’t judge. Etc., etc.” And I would bring this up when my daughter would tell me how other kids were insulting you by calling you gay, or calling you a girl, and how much that hurt you. I didn’t want you to be hurt, but I also didn’t want the insults to resonate with my kids as “gay is bad” or “feminine boys are bad”. Gay is not bad. Being a feminine boy is not bad. Realizing you are really a different gender is not bad.

But my daughter saw these reminders as me saying you were gay, or saying you were a girl, which to her had already been classified as a hurtful and wrong thing to say about someone. She wanted to protect you from any words, well intended or not, which might cause you pain.

I was not surprised when you became her first boyfriend. There were certainly times the two of you bickered and did not get along, and both of you were right that the other one was being unreasonable. But, ultimately, the two of you have never disliked each other. Of all the people in her life, you are probably still the one she admires the most. Why? I don’t know what she would say, but I think it’s because you push her out of her comfort zone; not into breaking rules, but in seeking out personal bliss. For example, not every boy could convince his classroom team to call themselves the Purple Unicorns with absolute disregard for the shit you were likely going to get for it. Yes, people hurt you, but you never compromised your joy… not when your classmates tried to pull you off your cloud, nor when your own family members would try to make you be a normal boy. You were determined to be happy and that’s why we love you so much.

We moved away to Texas soon after you and my daughter began dating. That was halfway through 6th grade. Now you are in 8th grade and we only see you when we come to visit and on social media. Soon after we got here, you and my daughter decided to just be friends because of the distance between you. But when we visit, you become my 5th child. Last summer we went thrift shopping almost every day we were in town. You encouraged my girls to buy brightly colored jeans. I think you bought purple for yourself. You bought women’s clothes which could have been unisex, and even tried on a ruffled blouse. All I really thought about it was, if I had been in high school, I would have bought that ruffled blouse for myself because of Prince. I accept ruffled blouses as a unisex thing. We had a blast and my girls fought over which one would sit beside you in the van and in restaurants.

Only six months later, you have posted a photo of yourself in make-up and declared that you are “doing drag”. My daughter says a friend told her you wore a dress to school. I can not say, because I haven’t spoken to you about it, whether or not you consider yourself trans. I can not say for sure if you are identifying as female. I can not say for sure if you are straight or gay. I can say, with 100% certainty, that I do not care. We all love you the same, maybe even more for knowing you are still refusing to hide your light.

But I have concerns I want to share with you because I do see you as my 5th child. So everything I say through the rest of this letter, feel free to roll your eyes at me like my kids would.

You are beautiful, naturally. If you love to wear make-up and see it as a way of expressing yourself, you should go for it. Put on glittery purple eyeshadow and huge peacock eyelashes and we will go anywhere you want to go. There is nothing you could put on to express yourself which would ever make us see you any differently than we already do. But, I need for you to know you are beautiful without it, too. What makes you beautiful is the glow you have when you laugh. You have to know that the world can see it, and the world can love you for it, and it’s enough.

Being in the LGBT community does not mean you have to sexualize your appearance. (Roll your eyes at me, but listen). I know that for grown-ups, “doing drag” can venture into some pretty inappropriate stuff for a just-turned-teen. It may be easy for you to fall into the same trap that young girls fall into, this belief that no one will every want you unless they want you “like that”.  I don’t want you to ever think you have to dress a certain way or do certain things to be accepted by whatever gender you wish to attract. You have NEVER been the kind of kid to conform, and I hope you never do. People are going to love you, many people, because of the light you exude. It is enough. Say that with me, “The light within me is enough.”

Don’t let people take advantage of you. I worry about you, Z. I am so happy you are defining yourself and trying on different ways of being in the world. But I worry predators will see you as easy prey because you are so new in the LGBT world and you have expressed doubts about whether or not you will ever be loved. Please, please, please, know that you are loved! Don’t rush into things. Believe with all your heart that someone will want you, just to be in your presence, without you ever needing to sacrifice anything for them. The person who is going to love you for who you are with or without all the glitter is probably out there right now, but too shy to say so. Please, don’t rush into anything. Be wary of anyone who is over-complimentary, boisterous, or demanding. Be wary of anyone more than 3 years older than you. Just be wary in general because we love you and don’t want anyone to hurt you.

Even if you are stuck between identifying as a boy or girl, you are not less of a human. You aren’t an inferior boy. You aren’t an inferior girl. You never will be. You are amazing no mater what. Do not settle for less on the premise that you are flawed. You certainly are not perfect. I’ve had to call you down just like I call down my girls for little things here and there. We all make mistakes, we all have strengths and weaknesses. But none of that makes us more or less human. You can be flawed and beautiful. You can be flawed and loved. You should never be around people who try to justify hurting you based on your being “not like other boys/girls”. Get those people out of your life and make room for one of many people who will want to treat you right.

And one last thing, please keep your promise to do my girls’ make-up when we visit again in March. Show them all the tricks you have learned because I am completely ignorant about all things cosmetics. They want to learn and I think it would be fun. Maybe after you teach them, they can teach me. I will pay you by taking you thrift shopping and you can buy all the brightly colored jeans, ruffly blouses, dresses, or whatever you want.

Our lives are better with you in it. We love you.

-The Towes

Winter Suns Cover Reveal

The release of Winter Suns, the sequel to Winter Seedlings, will happen very soon, I promise. (I have been making this promise for a month, I know.)

While you wait, let me throw out a few sneak peeks and hints:

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Allie

December 25, 1990

I know I’m running because I feel my legs moving. A dim light before me grows larger as I near it. I don’t know what I am running away from, but I hear my heart pounding loudly. The sound of my heart seems to be coming from the tunnel itself. I can hear nothing else. How long have I been running?

The light from the tunnel grows brighter and other sounds emerge. Cries of a screaming baby. The echo bounces off the walls, multiplies. I can’t hear my heart anymore. I can only hear the sound of crying. As I move into brighter light, all sound begins to fade. The light becomes so bright that I can’t see. Then I hear nothing at all.

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The Girl

December 25, 2006

It was with thoughts of eventually sleeping under a large dense pine that I felt my foot step too low. It landed down an embankment, pulling all of me with it. I slid, clinging to my hat, trying to dig in my heels where there was nothing in which to dig. I then fell briefly through the air before landing face down on hard flat rock. I hadn’t fallen far, but I was disoriented. I slowly started to push myself up from the rock when bright light filled the space around me. Blinded for a moment, I thought that it was God. But I registered the sound of a motor just before the sound of squealing tires. I realized I was in the middle of a road.

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John

December 23, 2006

I would have liked to have a normal life, just for a while if not forever. Many times I wished for my parents to actually live together, not just on the same farm but actually in the same house like when I was six. But when they bought this place, everyone decided that I needed to stay mostly with Mom because my Dad Tracy was out of town a lot on tour with his band and Dawson worked at night. So, I didn’t get to stay in the all-guy house with the swimming pool, mini theater, and ten bedrooms. I stayed mostly with mom in the all-girl Victorian house with the endless supply of crying. Secretly, there were times I thought the house was kind of awesome because it was a hundred years old with lots of hidden nooks. It would have been much better if it had been a home for just our family and not the 24/7 abuse shelter Mom had turned it into.

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Jute

“…… life can take many twists and turns and still come out okay in the end. I guess what I’m telling you is that life isn’t planned out ahead of time. Tomorrow isn’t set in stone. There is no fate waiting on you to be ready for things. Life just dances about, whirling, twisting, jutting, and throwing its arms around. Sometimes it even falls on its face. But none of it is planned or synchronized between us all like a movie on a screen. That means you’ll have to step up and try to take a little control over what moves your life makes. You can’t just sit back and watch it dance. I believe in the power of our choices. I don’t believe in fate.”

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Winter Suns

Cover designed by the talented and magical Anna Wand.wintersunsfinal

Winter Seedlings / Winter Suns

Without giving away too much of what happens in Winter Seedlings (though a few spoilers are unavoidable), here is the description of the sequel and final book in the series:

Winter Suns

A nameless teenage girl in Eastern Kentucky has been isolated since birth. She experiences her abuse as unquestionably the will of God. She follows the house rules in hopes of banishing her demons and finding redemption. But when she breaks a rule to search for the Bible in order to teach herself to read it, she discovers something more powerful than her faith. A letter written sixteen years ago by a woman named Allie reveals both disturbing and electrifying secrets. The girl feels called to action. She perceives it is the will of God that she find a way to get the letter to Jute, even if none of the maps in the Bible show the way to Nashville, Tennessee.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Jute has finally decided to clear out the attic to make room for Dawson’s daughter. It has been over a decade since Jute even looked at Allie’s things. She asks her son, John, to take everything to the barn. To him, it’s just a lot of junk. Jute never told him about Allie because it was too painful to tell. But, when John discovers an old photograph tucked inside one of the notebooks, he is instantly drawn into solving the mystery of what happened to the girl. What he discovers is even more devastating than the secrets his mother is hiding. He wants to forget he ever found the photograph, but he can’t.

Winter Suns contains a wide array of characters usually under-represented in fiction. Every letter in LGBTQ is represented here as well as one (or more….?) characters on the autism spectrum. Don’t think this is a sensationalizing story written to be shockingly different. It’s very ordinary and yet unforgettable. I hope to have it published by the first week of January 2015, if all the stars align.

Happy Halloween Book Sale

In celebration of Halloween, our 14th wedding anniversary, and the November 4th elections, I’m having a book sale.

Get Winter Seedlings for 99 cents, now through midnight November 4th.

Winter Seedlings Cover by Anna Wand

Winter Seedlings is a story of survival, as the fragile new hearts of two girls must make it through the cold and isolating storm that is the effect of child sexual abuse. Jute’s mother has finally moved them out of hell, a.k.a Earl’s trailer. But they are still in Maryville, Tennessee, only six miles from that creep.

If she could, Jute would have made herself invisible. But instead, she has made herself repulsive, even frightening. It kept his hands off her, so it doesn’t matter if people mistake her for a boy or call her a freak. Jute is certain she doesn’t need love anyway, doesn’t want it. She doesn’t even know how to love. But if she did, she would love Allie.

Allie is beautiful, wears vintage dresses, and craves approval. She has suffered her own abuse, but she blames herself. She knows if she was a better person, a person worth loving, a person willing to give up everything, a man would love her. If only Allie could see herself through Jute’s eyes…

When Allie inadvertently puts Jute in danger, they are forced to face their demons. If they drop their guard, will love be able to penetrate their scars and repair their hearts? Or will their self-loathing destroy them before it can?

 

Labeling Gay Lit

Is Winter Seedlings a gay novel?

The stereotype of gay lit is this: a story about gay sex.

What it really is: a story involving LGBTQ main characters and LGBTQ issues.

How are LGBTQ characters different from characters in traditional novels?
They aren’t.

How are LGBTQ issues in gay lit different from the issues addressed in traditional novels?
Gay characters deal daily with oppression and judgment to which traditional characters are not subjected. So, take a traditional novel and add a few specific hurdles, and you have a gay novel.

Why the hurdles?
Because our society creates them. The hurdles are imaginary things others believe should be there, so therefore they are. Once our society stops inserting these hurdles, we will finally be able to see love as love and life as life.

Which brings me back to Winter Seedlings.

When I asked my gay friends, “Is Winter Seedlings a gay novel?” They answered emphatically, “Yes.” They reasoned that the characters are gay and the book highlights important issues within the gay community. They felt it was important to market it to the LGBTQ community because there would be such a benefit there.

When my straight friends realized Winter Seedlings had been labeled as a gay novel, they had difficulty processing why it had been labeled as that. Winter Seedlings had moved them to tears, and they were straight. If straight people enjoy a book and can internalize it, identify with the characters, and appreciate it for more than a book about sex, it should be labeled as traditional.

And I understand both sides. I understand the frustration of knowing a book would be universally loved if only it didn’t have a label attached to it which made people shun it. But that isn’t just the fate of my book. It’s the fate of many human beings. They really are equally beautiful, equally complicated, equally intelligent. But they are put in a corner with a label and expected to only be about sex.

The problem with the gay lit label is how it is perceived, not what it actually is. As with all stereotypes, those holding the prejudice also hold the responsibility of changing it. If more readers accepted that people in the LGBTQ community live their lives just like everybody else, and allowed them out of the “taboo and kinky sex” box, straight people wouldn’t have a problem with the category. And this is why I almost didn’t label it gay lit. I wanted straight readers to get comfortable reading about gay characters.

Winter Seedlings was written for gay readers. It was also written for straight readers. I held them both up throughout the process of creating this story which I hoped would bring them together. I will consider the fact that both my gay and straight friends insist this book was written mostly for them as a sign that I succeeded. Regardless of what it is labeled, I hope it finds its way into the hands and hearts of those who will find it most meaningful. Ultimately, the book is about abuse and how to overcome self-hatred. It’s sadly a universal pain, recognizable to all.

Books

Sexuality Isn’t a Soda

I got an email from a very dear friend this morning. I will share it with you, and then my reply. She said:

I don’t know if you’ll agree with me and I’m not asking you to but, you are welcome to comment. I would like to hear your opinion. We both have our own opinions and we respect each other!

I was watching a Ricky Martin video that he did with Oprah Winfrey. Sexual orientation is a big question in today’s society. I believe people aren’t born one way or another but, they grown up to make the decision. I believe it is a choice. You can choose to have a Coke or a Pepsi. See, I think it is a choice. I think you can tell a child the things he or she needs to grow up strong and independent. And I think you can show them the things they will need to exceed. Ultimately, it is the person’s decision what they will be. Don’t you see it that way? 

My response to her was more patient than I would give most people because I care a lot about her. Here is how I replied:

Here is the litmus test…. could you love and have sex with a woman and enjoy it?
I mean, you can drink a Pepsi or a Coke, right? So, could you fall in love with a woman, have sex with her, marry her, and have what you have with X____… only you “prefer” not to do that? Or, is it that you COULD NOT love and have sex with a woman?

If your theory is correct, then most gay people would have been raised outside of a church. They would grow up in families who approved of being gay, families which did not teach them not to be gay.

Do you already see that your theory is failing these tests? Because many gay people are beaten by their parents when their parents suspect they are gay. There are gay people who were told from the earliest signs that they did not fit in, that they could only do things stereotypical for their gender. Boys were beaten for wanting their nails painted, or even for hugging their friend in a way that was too loving.

Yet, people are still gay. Why do they choose that, if it is a choice?

Sexuality is not a choice. Who we love is not a choice. Who we marry, is a choice to a certain extent…meaning, you like boys, but chose X____. Gays do not get that choice, but they should. Take a moment to consider the idea of being gay outside of the context of sex. Because relationships are not about sex, at least not the ones that last until someone proposes marriage.

If you really, truly, want to know if it is a choice…find out what gay people have to say about it. You really can’t form an opinion about gays if you haven’t actually talked to any about it. They are all over the place, do some research.

And I have to divulge that the novel I am writing centers around the relationship between two girls, how they help each other recover from two different types of abuse. One of them can not seem to break free from it. But, these girls love each other… yes, “like that”. I didn’t write it to sensationalize the gay issue. Actually, I hope that it helps in de-sensationalizing the gay issue. This book is not about “being gay”. It’s about surviving self-hatred.

In real life, my friends C____ and M____ have been living together for 18 years, but they are not allowed to marry each other. Still, their love for each other and the strength of their relationship is far greater than what you or I experience with our own marriages. I don’t mean that to sound bad to us. I am only saying that they are inspiring as a couple, and they make me want to be a better person to my own spouse.

Even if it was a choice, and it isn’t, I truly believe they are meant to be together.

I hope this helps you understand my point of view.

I wanted to share this publicly, because this question plays out in the storyline of my novel. Why do we love the person we love? Where do we fit in? How do we survive a journey through self-loathing without love?

One day, I hope to hand my book to her. I hope she will read it and understand that love is complex and essential and nothing at all like a soda.