TBR Challenge June 2023 – Love is Love

Love in romance novels is amazing, especially during Pride month! It’s all about celebrating that love is love, no matter what. These books break all the rules and show us that love doesn’t care about gender or who you’re into. They remind us that we should be free to love whoever we want without judgment. So let’s support those love stories that teach us love is this unstoppable force that brings people together. The novels from this month’s TBR challenge show us that love is love, no matter what.

Tramps and Vagabonds by Aster Glenn Gray

Reading something for a ‘Love is Love’ prompt is a bit like a Busman’s Holiday for me because I read so much queer romance anyway, so I tried to pick a book that had a little bit of something different about it – hence Aster Glenn Gray’s Tramps and Vagabonds, which is set in the US during the Depression. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance set in that time period, so that was ‘something different’ enough!

Despite the setting, the book generally has an upbeat feel to it as we join James and Timothy, who decide to ride the rails after they finish a six-month stint at the CCC – the Civilian Conservation Corps, an organisation founded in 1933 that provided jobs for unemployed young men. There’s not a lot of plot here; the book is really a series of vignettes spread over around eight or nine months as the two young men – they’re twenty – tramp around the Midwest with no real destination in mind and fall in love along the way.

Even though they’ve both been at Camp McCormick for six months, James and Timothy don’t know each other at all, really, and have only exchanged a few words now and then. But on the last Sunday at camp, James finds himself sitting down next to Timothy and telling him he’s not going to sign up for another six months – he’s going to ride the rails for a bit instead. Tim’s wide-eyed questioning lead James into talking about the places he’s seen and the people he’s met – and how great it is to not have to wake up at a set time and how you can do what you want. He’s a bit taken aback when Timothy asks if he can go with him – he doesn’t think that Timothy, who is sweet and so pretty, and whose mama sends him packets of home made ginger snaps, is cut out for the rough life – but the company might be nice for a bit. Chances are Tim will get tired or bored pretty soon and go home anyway.

James and Timothy are superbly drawn characters, although as James is the PoV character, we get to know him better, and their romance is beautifully written. It starts as a friendship – with benefits – which slowly turns into genuine affection and romantic love; it’s sweet and tender and will tug at the heartstrings, but is complicated by the (period appropriate) attitudes towards queerness James has internalised. He doesn’t label himself as queer although he’s happily fooled around with whoever comes along; he had a relationship with a woman when he was on the road the year before, and is also obviously attracted to Tim – “that pretty hair, and that easy way he moved; and he had a pretty mouth on him, too.” In today’s world, he’d probably identify as bi (or pan) sexual, but of course, those wouldn’t be familiar terms – he just likes what/who he likes. Still, those attitudes (which the author discusses in her very informative historical note at the end) – and the kind of unwritten rule thatit ain’t queer if you play the man’s part” – influence his understanding of the kind of relationship he can have with Timothy. They start having casual sex fairly quickly, but as far as James is concerned, he and Timothy are just friends scratching an itch, and it takes James a while to see what the reader has been seeing for ages, that he’s falling in love with his travelling companion.

Their dynamic works really well as James acquaints Timothy with all the dos and don’ts of life on the road, and is surprised at how well Tim takes to it. Despite the occasional arrest, the hunger and the uncertainty, their summer adventure is one of excitement and fun, but as the summer begins to fade and with the hardships of winter on the horizon, life on the road becomes more grim and James decides it’s time for Timothy to go home.

Right from the start, it’s obvious Aster Glenn Gray has done a lot of meticulous research into what life on the road was like, and the book is full of interesting detail – how to move through life with only what you can wear or carry, how to find shelter, how to stretch food to last as long as possible, how to keep your clothes clean when jumping on and off of trains – it’s all fascinating, and woven skilfully into the narrative in a way that is completely organic. Both narrative and dialogue are stylised in a way that feels true to the era, and the book is drenched in atmosphere; the settings are wonderfully realised, painting a vivid picture of the world of young people on the road during this time – and the author does a terrific job of juxtaposing the romance of the road with the awful realities of it without having those realities completely crushing the joy and the romance out of the story. She shows the best – the freedom, the kindness of random strangers willing to give them a meal and a place to sleep in return for their doing a few chores – and the worst – the older “wolves” who regard the younger “punks” as their sexual prey – sides of the hobo lifestyle, and doesn’t discount the risks of riding the rails, the violence of the police raids and the ever present danger of permanent injury or death every time they jump on or off a train. But the darker aspects of the story are well balanced by the lighter ones – good-natured teasing, gentle humour and affection, a bit of hurt/comfort and what is, ultimately, a delightful love story. You won’t find hearts and flowers or vows of undying love here (the word “love” isn’t said by either of them) – it’s the little things, the way James and Timothy care for each other and the things they do and say to make each other feel better, the subtle understatedness of it that makes their romance so satisfying.

Is the ending a bit convenient? Perhaps, but it doesn’t negate all the things James learns along the way – that it’s okay to let himself be vulnerable, that it’s okay to love Tim and to imagine a future for himself he’d never dared think about before. The book ends with a very strong HFN – after all, being in a same-sex relationship in the 1930s means they’re going to have to be careful – but at least we leave them in a good place and looking forward to future together.

Tramps and Vagabonds was absolutely captivating. It’s full of fascinating historical detail that grounds the reader firmly in the time period, the characters and their emotions feel absolutely real, and the romance at its heart is just beautiful. It’s funny, angsty, heartbreaking and brilliant – and I highly recommend it.

Rating:    A-              Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at Amazon

Not My Problem by Ciara Smyth

When I saw this month’s Pride Month – influenced TBR Challenge theme, I took it as a hint to read a YA novel that one of my younger cousins had raved about a couple years ago. As is often the case, my interest was piqued, I downloaded the book and then it sat on my Kindle a while. With Not My Problem, this was a shame because it took me much too long to get to enjoy this gem of a book. It didn’t have as much romance as online reviews and my cousin’s glowing recommendation led me to expect, but it’s a wonderful read about a young woman finding love and acceptance not only from a romantic partner, but also in the form of true friends and mentors.

There is a romance in this book, but it definitely takes a back seat to the coming of age plot. The novel is set in Ireland, but many of the themes will resonate with non-Irish readers as well. The lead, Aideen, has lots of problems and only some of them are of her own making. On the one hand, Aideen is hardly a star student and as we see throughout the book, her one close friendship is struggling as Aideen’s supposed best friend may be less loyal than assumed.  Aideen also has an unstable and deeply impoverished home life with her alcoholic mother. Aideen’s father may pay the fees for her to attend a good school, but he is otherwise almost completely absent from her life.

With this backdrop, one might expect this novel to be dark and heavy. However, while it has some very emotional moments, there’s a certain warmth to the story. Aideen has a wry sense of humor that I enjoyed and since much of the story focuses on her learning to trust others and to build a circle of good, solid friends, we get to see many moments of joy mixed in with the harsher realities of Aideen’s life.

So, what starts Aideen on her trajectory toward friendships and even a romance? She finds the school overachiever, Meabh Kowalski, melting down from the stress of her school and extracurriculars. The two hatch a scheme to get Meabh out of at least one of her commitments, and from there, a tentative friendship starts. Aideen had previously seen Meabh as an annoyance, but as she gets to know her, she starts to appreciate her better qualities – and to be attracted to her. Throughout the story, Aideen is fairly matter-of-fact about her orientation, as well as her growing feelings for Meabh.

After helping out Meabh, Aidenn starts to build a bit of a reputation as a “fixer” in her school. Soon she is coming up with clever plots to help her fellow students out of various fixes. Some of these are over-the-top and a bit outrageous, but Ms. Smyth writes her story with a good humor that kept me engaged.

In terms of the TBR Challenge theme, “love is love” is simply how Aideen views her life.  She is quite open about who she is and the people in her life seem to just accept her as she is. There are many things in this book that feel hopeful, and the fact that the teenaged characters in the story largely accept both gay and straight relationships is one of them. Aideen does make reference to there having been some pushback directed at the first kids to come out at her school, but much of this story focuses on her being herself and building relationships with people who love her just as she is.

Speaking of love, there is a sweet, slow-building romance between Aideen and Meabh. However, the main focus of the book is really on Aideen and her growth as a person. She frustrated and cracked me up by turns and I enjoyed reading her story. Even if the romance turned out to be a bit subdued in this book, I couldn’t resist reading this all the way to the end for TBR Challenge. Despite tackling some very heavy subjects at times, Not My Problem has so many deeply positive moments that I couldn’t help rooting for Aideen as she found supportive friends and mentors, and fell in love.

Rating:       B+          Sensuality: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at Amazon

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