Wednesday, October 5, 2016

ARC Review: Pictures of You (‘90s Coming of Age, #1) by Leta Blake

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.

This new series by Leta Blake is gay fiction with romantic elements.

Book 1 of 4.

Warning! These books contain: New Adult fiction, ‘90s gay life, small city homosexual experiences, Southern biases, sexual exploration, romance, homophobia, bisexuality, and twisted-up young love. Oh, and a guaranteed happy ending for the main character by the end of Book 4.

Jewel's rating:

Five freakin' awesome stars. Wow, Leta, you have outdone yourself.

I graduated high school in 1988 in the American south. Leta Blake captures the time period with exquisite perfection. Set in Knoxville, TN between August 1990 and June 1991, Pictures of You transported me back to a time before internet and cell phones. To a time that was less friendly toward the LGBT community (though we still have a long way to go), Operation Desert Storm was underway and prejudice was normal. It isn't a time or a place I'm nostalgic for, truth be told. Still, Pictures of You is a book I could not pass up and I am so very glad I gave it a chance. I am certain Pictures of You (and I suspect the whole series, once I get my greedy hands on the rest of it) will stay with me for some time to come.

As Pictures of You begins, Peter Mandel is eighteen, and about to start his senior year of high school. He's slight and geeky and gay and he doesn't really see himself as an attractive boy. The one place where Peter's confidence soars, though, is his photography. Where other people express their emotions and thoughts in words, Peter does so through his photographs. Peter's photography helps him, in many ways, to work through his thoughts and feelings. Peter is also an easy target for jocks who think that beating up others for the perception of being gay is a fine pastime. After several altercations at his public school, Peter's parents transferred him to a private college prep school, Kingsley High, for his senior year. And it was there that he first laid eyes on Adam.

Adam Algedi was a transfer student from an American High School in Jordan. With all the danger and unrest in the area at that time, Adam's parents (his father worked for the UN) sent him and his twin sister, Sarah, to Knoxville to live with their older brother and finish high school. Adam was tall and gorgeous and charismatic and doomed to be popular -- especially if his sister had anything to do with it. When he first saw Peter, Adam befriended him, right away, seeing beyond the geeky exterior Peter projected. Adam was also an aspiring writer and as much as he tried to not act like it, he really did have some good insight into the human experience.

"What's it called when the guy you're with is also with a girl who doesn't know about you?"

"Baby, that's called 'fucked up.'"

And that pretty much sums up Peter’s and Adam’s relationship in Pictures of You . Though the author isn't calling this series a romance, there are plenty of romantic elements in Pictures of You and lord is it hot. But don't expect an HEA here. The story isn't yet done.

Adam and Peter have a complicated relationship that is built on webs of lies and deceptions and, like real life, that's not really sustainable in the long term. Pictures of You never takes the easy way out and never does it feel like there won't be consequences. I'm sure Adam isn't going to be a popular character, though. I mean, he is a hot mess. He cheats, he's not honest about himself and what he needs and wants out of life. I can only hope that Adam will eventually be the kind of guy that is honest and has the courage to live and love in the open. He's not off to auspicious beginnings, here, though. Adam was never willing to compromise. He was selfish, wanting to keep both his girlfriend, Leslie, and Peter (without the knowledge and agreement of all parties involved). Selfish because he wasn't being honest - Leslie did not know about Peter. Selfish because he brought other people into his lies.

Adam's got a whole lot of growing up to do, but I don’t want you to think he's all bad. He's protective of those he cares about, and Peter, especially, and I do really think he loves Peter. He's definitely not good for Peter, though, and Peter deserves better, as does Adam's girlfriend Leslie. Hell, she is the only innocent one in this story. And if I’m being honest here, Adam also deserves better than he is giving himself.

While his level of guilt was not on par with Adam’s, Peter definitely was not innocent. Though he wasn't, at first, Peter was complicit in Adam's deceptions. He hated it and he hated himself and guilt ate him alive, but he was complicit. He ultimately made the decision to keep his relationship with Adam, once Adam found himself a girlfriend, and he made the decision to be her friend, too. Peter made his own choices here. Bad ones, for sure, but he made them. I cannot lay the blame totally at Adam's feet.

The cast of characters, in Pictures of You , like real people, were flawed. Sometimes deeply so. Sometimes people were selfish and sometimes they just wanted to be loved. Sometimes cowardice won out. But for each and every one of them we also saw promise. Life is complex and complicated and being young and just figuring out who you are and where you fit isn't an easy process for anyone, really, and through the many primary and secondary characters in Pictures of You we experience the whole beautiful and messy slice of life.

The secondary cast of characters in Pictures of You felt just as well drawn and real as Adam and Peter did. Peter's parents were fairly in denial, for most of the book, leaving Peter to his own devices. His father, once he started to suspect that he and Adam were more than friends, just kind of ignored it, hoping it would all go away, until close to the end of the book, when he was rather forced to pay attention. And his mother, lord, she was a piece of work. Completely incapable of dealing with reality, as soon as anything got too "heavy", she was sleeping with Prince Valium.

Adam's parents were absent almost entirely, but what we did see of them explained, at least a little, why Adam was so insistent about lying about himself. His mother knew about his bisexuality, and was ok with it, conceptually, but insisted that he keep "that side of himself" under wraps until he was in college, lest it reflect badly on the family. His father got violent with Adam, previously, when he learned of Adam's attraction to other boys, as well. So, I get it. I do. Adam's sister, Sarah, was very much the type of person for whom appearances were everything. She, also knew about Adam, but like her mother, insisted that Adam keep it hidden, because it might damage her social reputation. In fact, of all the major secondary characters, it took me the longest to warm to Sarah. She turned out to have a redeeming quality or two, but, I had to look kind of hard.

Renée DeShea was a drag queen, who introduced Adam to spankings, which he took to liking quite a lot. Though it definitely had a sexual overtone, I think Adam kind of saw it as self-flagellation-by-proxy, as well. I'm curious to see if this will be explored further. Renée also took Peter under her wing and became a good friend and confidant. Like any drag queen worth her salt, she saw too much and took no shit. And it is through Robert Michaels (Renée's non-drag persona), that Peter met Daniel, as well. Daniel was a few years older. He was an architectural student at UT, Knoxville and there was an attraction right away, and it was reciprocated. However, do not worry, Daniel and Peter do not pursue anything other than a casual friendship because Peter is still in high school and has a boyfriend. Daniel was an admirable guy. I liked him a lot.

There are quite a few other characters I could mention, as well, but this review is already way too long...

Pictures of You is told in the past tense, in Peter's POV. This story is part of Peter's journey to living his truth, to being someone he can respect. The events of this novel are both hopeful and heartbreaking and there is so much uncertainty. Am I glad I read Pictures of You ? Yes, unequivocally. It is exceptionally well written and the story grabbed hold of me and hasn't let go. It's not an easy read, though, and it is not going to be for everyone. I should also note that while not really cliffhangery, the ending is clearly not the end. Peter's journey has just begun.

"Love was like honey -- a little was good, a lot was amazing, and too much? Well, too much made a big, sticky mess, a sweet mire I was drowning in, alone and more exhausted by the minute."


ARC of Pictures of You was generously provided by the author, in exchange for an honest review.

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