We Are Okay

We Are Okay
Written by Nina LaCour
Contemporary, LGBT, Realistic Fiction
240 Pages
Publishing in Australia March 5th 2019
Thank you to UQP
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★★★★★
Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even far away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

An intimate whisper that packs an indelible punch, We Are Okay is Nina LaCour at her finest. This gorgeously crafted and achingly honest portrayal of grief will leave you urgent to reach across any distance to reconnect with the people you love.
The snow continues to fall in New York City, washing the landscape in flutters while students prepare to journey home for the holiday season. Except Marin Delaney, a permanent dormitory resident since the death of her grandfather, the man who raised her after the passing of her mother. Marin has escaped her hometown in San Francisco for the anonymity of New York, her immeasurable sorrow isolating her from her hometown and her best friend Mabel. Mabel is now travelling to New York and after months of avoidance, Marin will need to confront her past, her isolation and the revelations of the death of her grandfather.

Marin's anguish is palpable as she grieves not only for her grandfather but for the life she has left behind. After her mother passed in a tragic drowning accident, Marin has lived with her grandfather in their small, San Francisco beachside home. Marin's relationship with her grandfather was wonderfully gentle and considerate and although residing within the same home, both lived separate lives. Her grandfather enjoyed using moments throughout their day as teaching moments, instilling important wisdom upon Marin, preparing her for the challenges of attending university and becoming an independent young woman.

Marin and her grandfather shared an unspoken agreement as not to encroach on the others personal space, Marin not entering his study or bedroom and her grandfather, allowing Marin the privacy of her bedroom. As Marin gained her independence, her grandfather became increasingly isolated within his study and Marin, grief stricken long before her grandfather passed. The once sprightly elderly gentleman is sustained by his correspondence with the mysterious Birdie, a woman that has captivated his attention and as Marin matures, she observes his health deteriorating.

We observe as Marin and Mabel's friendship transformed from friends to tentative lovers, exploring their sexuality and the new parameters of their relationship. As Mabel visits New York, Marin is confronted as to why she left San Francisco behind. The tenderness between the two young women is beautiful and although they've been separated from one another, Mabel is a wonderful friend who is determined to remain a part of Marin's life.

Throughout the narration, Marin's sorrow becomes a tangible element and arbours resentment towards the man who raised her, perpetuated by the isolating, wintry landscape. We Are Okay is a gentle narrative of bereavement and isolation, of solidarity that's encompassed by a quiet artistry that's rarely seen in young adult literature. Simply exquisite. 

Highway Bodies

Highway Bodies
Written by Alison Evans
Apocalyptic, Survival, Diverse, #LoveOZYA
367 Pages
Published February 2nd 2019
Thank you to Echo Publishing
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★★★★★
Who will you rely on in the zombie apocalypse?

Bodies on the TV, explosions, barriers, and people fleeing. No access to social media. And a dad who’ll suddenly bite your head off , literally. These teens have to learn a new resilience…

Members of a band wield weapons instead of instruments.

A pair of siblings find there’s only so much you can joke about, when the menace is this strong.

And a couple find depth among the chaos.

Highway Bodies is a unique zombie apocalypse story featuring a range of queer and gender non conforming teens who have lost their families and friends and can only rely upon each other.
Highway Bodies centres on three groups of adolescents throughout Melbourne during an apocalyptic outbreak, our humanity and resistance. Fraternal siblings Rhea and Jojo are awaiting information from their mother, a first responder and emergency nurse during the initial epidemic onslaught. Social media websites are being censored by government officials and journalists are reporting of a factory explosion in a neighbouring suburb.

Imagine rendered defenceless as your father decimates his family. Your only solace is nestled within the large topiaries masquerading as sentinels in your garden. The deceased faltering throughout the streets as you hear a young woman, a survivor needing assistance.

Poppy, Jack, Zufan and Dee are enjoying their freedom, composing and performing among the cicadas of their ramshackle cottage as communications go down. Venturing into the nearest town, the roads are abandoned, blood congealing on pavements.

These three narratives sharing a common ambition, to survive. 

The narrative is experienced through three perspectives and although taking place throughout a terrifying outbreak, it centres upon the survivors. Resilient adolescents that are adapting to their new environment. It's survival against humanity. Throughout their journey, the adolescents are consistently challenged by morality and the debris of human life, dangerous adults recruiting survivors and demanding idolisation under the guise of protection. It soon becomes apparent that it's the living that should be feared. 

The diversity of characters is wonderful, various identities, cultural backgrounds, genders and pronouns, all wonderfully representative of a multicultural and diverse Melbourne landscape. Genderqueer, bisexual, transgender, lesbian, Ethiopian, Pakistani she and they pronouns, facial scarring and amputated fingers. As each character introduces themselves, they also offer their pronouns. A wonderful and inclusive gesture, being that pronouns are also our own individual identities.

The prose is striking. The discourse and interactions allow readers to empathise with characters, their terror and sorrow is palpable. As a debut, Alison's IDA was brilliant and a wonderful precedent of how authors can write diversely. Alison Evans' writing has matured and flourished, their vibrancy shining throughout the narrative by enthralling and captivating readers until the final page.

Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)

Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)
Written by L. C. Rosen
Contemporary, LGBT, Diverse, Mystery
352 Pages
Publishing February 19th 2019
Thank you to Penguin Teen Australia
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★★★★★
My first time getting it in the butt was kind of weird. I think it's going to be weird for everyone's first time, though.

Jack Rothman is seventeen. A solid student with a talent for art, he likes partying, makeup and boys. Sometimes all at the same time. His active, unashamed sex life makes him a red hot topic for the high school gossip machine, but Jack doesn't really care too much about what the crowd is saying about him. His mantra is, it could be worse.

And then it is.

When Jack starts writing a teen sex advice column for his best friend's website, he begins to receive creepy and threatening love letters. His admirer is obsessed with Jack, they know who he's hanging out with, who he's sleeping with, who his mum is dating. And while they say they love Jack, they don't love his lifestyle. They want him to curb his sexuality and personality. And if he won't, they will force him.
As his stalker starts to ratchet up the pressure, it's up to Jack and his friends to uncover their identity, before their love becomes genuinely dangerous.
His reputation proceeds him. He's non conforming, open about his sexuality and his eyeliner game is on point. He's seventeen year old Jack Rothman, high school student and now online sex advice columnist, Jack of Hearts and Other Parts with the encouragement of friends Jemma and Ben. Jack makes no secret of his sexual exploits, he's comfortable with his body, his sexuality and is an advocate for safe, fun sex. He no longer listens to the gossip of his sexual prowess, the private schools halls echoing with rumours of casual sex and a trail of broken hearted boys.

The column is anonymous, encouraging students at the elite school to ask questions about relationships, sexuality and how to navigate life as a teen but it seems Jack has a mysterious admirer as a series of notes are found in his school locker. Each one increasingly more disturbing. What appears to be misguided love letters soon becomes threatening, they know where he lives, who Jack is sleeping with and details about the lives of those around him, including his single mother.

I absolutely loved Jack. In a world of Mary Sue characters, Jack's frank and openness is refreshing. He's factual, doesn't sugar coat his words and has a confidence and swagger that most of us strive for. Jack identifies as gay, he's sexually active and a safe sex advocate. Identifying as male, Jack doesn't conform to gender standards, he loves ladies fashion, eyeliner and is widely accepted by his peers. His single mother is a renowned doctor who used a sperm donor to conceive Jack and although Jack has never had a father figure in his life, his mother has ensured Jack has never needed to go without. All except her company, working long, strenuous hours at the hospital. Being open about his sexuality has somehow become the topic of Monday morning discussion within the hallowed school halls, Jack listening to the whispers from the girls bathroom of his sexual exploits, the next more outlandish than the last.

Although Jack doesn't care what his peers believe, the narrative explores how straight females often fetishise gay men by sexually objectifying them for their own sexual fantasies and as Jack is open about his prowess, believing they have the right to assert themselves into his life. Friends Jenna and Ben are a wonderful means of support. Jenna, a bisexual Latinx and Ben, a black young man identifying as gay. Ben is a budding fashion designer while Jenna hosts a website of investigative journalism, asking Jack to contribute to the site with his advice column. Jack is reluctant but wants to make a difference and perhaps clear up the misconceptions about his own life along the way. The anonymous letters allow Jack to talk about his own experiences, from casual sex, consent, how to give a successful blow job or what happens when both of you want to be on the bottom. It's brutally honest and utterly charming, I loved seeing a character in young adult so open about sex and not ashamed to admit to enjoying it. Of course not all adolescents are sexually active. Some choose not to be or identify as asexual. Through Jack's column, he is incredibly sex positive, asexual positive and reiterates the importance of safe, fun and consensual sex by choice. It's a little crass, a little cringe but so incredibly entertaining. Fabulously so.

Jack's openness attracts a secret admirer who now believes they have the right to demand access to the seventeen year old. It begins as letters confessing how they admire Jack but soon turn disturbing as the letters become more frequent and possessive, threatening Jack, his mother and friends unless he conforms to their demands. No casual sex and to stop writing his column. I found Jack incredibly realistic. At seventeen, he's all about having a great time. He drinks, is usually the life of the party and doesn't mind a dirty grind on the dance floor with the next hot guy that catches his eye. The threats leave Jack feeling flat, rather than sparkle he begins to conform into someone unrecognisable in the hope this will keep his friends safe.

It also touches upon the lack of acceptance from others, in particular Jack's principal who insinuates that Jack should try to blend in, be someone he's not and stop drawing attention to himself. That somehow, he is to blame for the threatening letters. It doesn't sugar coat how ignorant and in this case, homophobic adults and adults in positions of power can be. It also explores casual homophobic slurs that Jack experiences through anonymous emails addressed to the column and also the stereotypes placed upon queer community members by straight women in particular. On the surface Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) is a hilarious and easygoing contemporary narrative but explores deep societal issues that will invoke discussion among the teen audience about prejudice and how to create more inclusive environments for their peers without judgement.

It was glorious. I can't stress enough how much we need these narratives in young adult. Yes it's sexually explicit, yes it's eyebrow raising but it also normalises the sexual spectrum in a category of literature which favours scenes that fade to black. Recommended for the mature young adult reader, Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) is a funny, laugh out loud, heartwarming contemporary about life, love and getting laid. 

The Wicker King

The Wicker King
Written by K. Ancrum
Contemporary, Mental Health, LGBT
336 Pages
Published October 30th 2018
Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia
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★★★★★
Jack once saved August's life, now can August save him?

August is a misfit with a pyro streak and Jack is a golden boy on the varsity rugby team but their intense friendship goes way back. Jack begins to see increasingly vivid hallucinations that take the form of an elaborate fantasy kingdom creeping into the edges of the real world. With their parents' unreliable behaviour, August decides to help Jack the way he always has, on his own. He accepts the visions as reality, even when Jack leads them on a quest to fulfil a dark prophecy.

August and Jack alienate everyone around them as they struggle with their sanity, free falling into the surreal fantasy world that feels made for them. In the end, each one must choose his own truth.

Written in vivid microfiction with a stream of consciousness feel and multimedia elements, K. Ancrum's The Wicker King touches on themes of mental health and explores a codependent relationship fraught with tension, madness and love.
Following the nonlinear narrative of seventeen year old August Bateman, August is incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, keening and desperate to find Jack Rossi. Jack and August are unlikely friends, Jack the popular, athletic student while August is an introvert, hiding behind fashion labels in the hope no one will discover his low socioeconomic status. Beyond the confines of school, August and Jack and inseparable. Throughout the narration, we experience the codependent and often disturbing friendship between the two young men, the possessiveness, toxicity and domination. It's frightening, fascinating and will captivate readers until the final page.

August is a young man who feels like an impostor in his own skin. After his parents separated, August's mother developed a deep depression and retreated to her basement where she spends her days watching game shows. From a young age, August had learned to fend for himself by becoming self dependant and taking care of his mother. Unable to work and with only meagre support cheques from his father, August sells drugs to make ends meet, his side project well known throughout the wealthy student community. It's his friendship with Jack that sustains August, caring for his friend in a world that was created for them and them alone.

We get to know Jack through the eyes of August, who often views his friend with rose coloured glasses. Jack is popular, attractive and athletic, not to mention not even remotely in the same orbit as August. But somehow, their friendship works. Growing up, the boys liked to explore their surroundings, from the surrounding forest to abandoned buildings, Jack with his crown made of sticks and makeshift sword, August his loyal champion by his side. But Jack's childhood games have become increasingly disturbing, his imagination existing between two separate worlds sharing the one space. He sees people and objects within his vision from another time, no longer a game and claims the residents of this historical plane need his help to find an object. An object that will save their world. It begins to blur the lines between fantasy and mental illness as Jack experiences delusions, luring August into a world he can only experience through Jack's illness.

August and Jack's friendship takes an intense turn while playing in the forest, August slips into the river only to be rescued by Jack. An act of bravery leads August to believe that he now owes Jack, his life, his spirit and whatever Jack will now ask of him. Jack begins to feed upon that toxic devotion and begins to lay claim over August, often resorting to physical intimidation and abuse that August has become dependant on. Similar to being in an abusive relationship where the victim may believe they are deserving of abuse or that toxic possession is a way of expressing love by their abuser.

August and Jack are very much a product of their individual environments. Although Jack is from a wealthy family, his parents are often travelling or simply absent. August feels a deep responsibility to care for Jack, understanding his feelings of abandonment and isolation. On the surface of what seems to be a friendship of codependency, is a dangerously toxic love story, an all consuming love that threatens to destroy them both. Written with a passionate intensity, I was swept away by the relationship and hopeful that these two abandoned beings would survive their ordeal.

It was messy, complicated and utterly brilliant. I was enamoured by August and Jack and consumed by their relationship. Beautifully written with a dark, brooding realism rarely seen within young adult fiction, The Wicker King is phenomenal.
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