Advance Review Copy generously provided by the author
via IndiGo Marketing in exchange for an honest review.
Growing up gay isn’t easy. Growing up gay in Knoxville, Tennessee is even harder.
Eighteen-year-old Peter Mandel, a private school senior—class of 1991—is passionate about photography. Peter doesn’t have many friends, preferring to shoot pictures from behind the scenes to keep his homosexuality secret.
Enter Adam Algedi, a charming, worldly new guy who doesn’t do labels, but does want to do Peter. Hardly able to believe gorgeous Adam would want geeky, skinny him of all people, Peter’s swept away on a journey of first love and sexual discovery. But as their mutual web of lies spins tighter and tighter, can Peter find the confidence he needs to make the right choices? And will his crush on Daniel, a college acquaintance, open a new path?
Join Peter in the first of this four-part coming of age series as he struggles to love and be loved, and grow into a gay man worthy of his own respect.
Leta Blake Books
Contemporary, YA/NA, M/M, LGBT+
316 e-book pages
’90s Coming of Age, book 1
Ratings are 1 to 5 stars and based mostly on GoodReads standards.
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Leta Blake has become an author whose books I pounce on. Most of the time the payoff is an incredible reading experience.
This start to a four-part series had a few elements that spoke to me. Namely, the 1990-91 high school setting — this was my era. In fact, it was my graduating year. Also, the Knoxville setting — I used to have some ties there, enough that the landscape was eerily familiar to me (also, my experiences weren’t great). There were a few more reasons this book got its hooks in me.
Peter is beginning his senior year in a new private school in an effort to avoid a year of bullying that got scary at his old public school. He’s a bit of a loner, preferring to view the world through the lens of a camera, his pictures capturing the raw and stark honesty in the world around him.
He meets Adam very early on, during school orientation and they click immediately. Adam and his twin sister are new in town, having recently moved from Jordan, without their parents.
Peter and Adam are very nearly complete opposites. Adam is outgoing, athletic, makes friends easily…the sort who slots in smoothly with the popular crowd. Peter…not so much. He’s quiet and a loner. And, while he’s not exactly out — because it’s not exactly safe — he’s been pegged by his peers as gay and has been targeted because of it.
Adam, with his affable personality and worldliness, is such a bright spot, Peter can’t help but be drawn into his orbit. He’s finally with someone who sees him for all the beautiful things he is. Except…Adam doesn’t want to be out, so the secrets start to compound until they’re a heavy weight around Peter’s neck.
This is Leta at her finest from the setting, the mood, the characterizations…the teenaged angst. I honestly could not put this down. It’s books like this that continue to make a liar out of me saying I don’t like YA/NA. It’s books exactly like this that resurrect the emotional rollercoaster of my adolescence and give me an opportunity to tell my teenaged self that it’ll all be okay. One day.
The story ends on just a tiny bit of a cliffhanger after Peter and Adam graduate. But what we get in this first installment was lovely and heart-wrenching. As much as Peter’s heart ached with the angst, as much as he longed to be fully seen, acknowledged, desired without fear…I gotta tell you, looking at it all through my 40-something-year-old lens, it’s all part of the process of growing up.
I’m not too worried about Peter, but I can’t wait to see what’s in store for him next.
“Should I apologize for earlier?” Adam asked, turning down the stereo.
“It isn’t your fault she showed up.”
Adam grinned at me. “I meant, should I apologize for the kiss, but I guess the answer is ‘no.’”
I twitched nervously in my seat and took a deep breath “I’m gay.”
I stared. “What?”
“I mean, yeah. You’re gay. I figured that out.”
“So—” I stopped. “Wait. How?”
“I can always tell. I don’t know how.”
“But I thought you said you weren’t gay.”
“I never said that.” Adam frowned. “Honestly, I don’t know what I am.”
My heart trip-hammered for a ton of reasons, but the scariest of them was hope. “What’s the deal then? Uh, with us?”
“Us? We’re friends. Like I said, friends kiss.”
My hope settled into a knot of anxiety.
“Then why hasn’t a friend kissed me before?”
“I don’t know. I mean, who wouldn’t want to kiss you?”
To me, it was definitely more of a question of who would want to kiss me, and, more specifically, just exactly why he had. Especially when I knew how everyone else would view me once we got to school. Maybe living all over the world hadn’t taught him the social skill of self-preservation required to make his way in a small city like Knoxville.
I decided to tell him. He really did deserve to know, and besides, if it was going to be an issue, I wanted to be hurt now, not later.
“I’m a huge loser, you know.”
Adam glanced over at me like I was insane. “What?”
“I’m not popular. In school. In life. In anything.” I turned my head and looked out the window, worrying my lower lip. “I just thought you should know. I mean, you don’t want to start out at a new school being friends with someone who’s just going to drag you down.”
Adam actually laughed. “You’re crazy. Did you know that?”
My throat tightened. It hurt he wasn’t taking me seriously. “I’m telling you why I’ll understand when you decide we can’t be friends anymore.”
“Look, you haven’t even started at this school and you’ve already decided that as a friend you’re not worth being first string? What’s up with that?”
I shrugged. “I’m just being realistic. I mean—look at me.”
In my peripheral vision I saw Adam do just that. He looked at me long enough that I worried about the car staying on the road. “Yeah. I’m looking. I still like what I see.” He lifted his hand to the back of my neck and squeezed. “I’m serious.”
A strange rush of emotion flooded my stomach and chest, and I wanted to tuck my face between my knees. Instead I just crossed my arms and frowned.
Adam brushed his fingers through my hair, catching in my frenzy of curls. It felt intimate and almost more real than the kiss. I shivered when he let go to grip the steering wheel again.
“But enough of that,” he said sternly. “Get my book bag out of the backseat. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Happy to be leaving the uncomfortable topic of my gay dorkitude behind, I reached around and grabbed the blue, nylon book bag.
“Open the front pocket.”
I unzipped it, fished around, and pulled out a driver’s license. It was Mo’s, and I had to stifle a laugh at the typical bad license photo that made him look like a serial killer.
“I’ve got a fake ID that Sean got for me, but I liberated that one for you.”
I tapped the picture. “You think this will get me into the club? I look nothing like your brother!”
“Don’t be such a defeatist! You just hold your thumb over the picture when you show them your ID.”
“Adam, that isn’t going to work.”
“We can always try,” he said, lifting his shoulders dismissively.
“They’ll confiscate the ID. How’s Mo going to feel about having to get a new license made?”
That got through to him. “Oh. So, huh. I guess that won’t work after all.”
I snorted. “Uh, no.”
Adam just smiled. “We’ll figure something out.”
“We could see what’s going on at the under-21 shows on The Strip.”
“No. I want to go to Tilt-a-Whirl. I read it’s the best gay bar in town and has, and I quote, ‘the best drag queens in the area.’”
“If the area is East Tennessee, then yeah, it probably does. And why do you want to go to a gay bar so much? I mean, this is a small city. Word gets around.”
Adam narrowed his eyes. “This last-minute resistance is futile, padawan.”
“Trek and Wars in the same breath. That is very wrong. Very, deeply, truly wrong.”
“It is,” Adam readily agreed.
“You’re a total dork.”
“Shh. It’s a secret. Don’t tell the jocks when school starts. I wouldn’t want my nerdiness to drag us down and all.”
I started to laugh, but stopped, struck by an uncomfortable thought. I picked at my blue jeans a little, toying with a loose thread, before asking quietly, “So the kiss is a secret?”
Adam looked over in obvious surprise. “Of course. I mean, like you said, this is a small city.”
“And it’s the South. And the Bible Belt. And generally homophobic, yeah.”
I bit down on my lip. I didn’t know what I was expecting. It wasn’t like he was wrong. We couldn’t be boyfriends—not here, not now. Not out in the open or anything. It was just that I wanted so much more already. And he’d kissed me.
Adam’s hand clasped the back of my neck again. “Hey, listen. You’re my friend. And you happen to kind of turn me on with your glasses, and your camera, and the way you walk.” He gripped his fingers in my hair again and gave my head a little shake. “That’s enough, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. So—the drag show. How do we get in?” I hoped my voice sounded light because if in Adam’s world friends kissed, I didn’t want to do anything to ruin our friendship before I found out what else he thought friends might do.