February 11, 2016

Celebrating Pride 2016 with a rainbow Review Revue

 Auckland Museum lights up for Pride 2016

Yesterday evening at Central Library we celebrated Pride 2016 with our annual Review Revue, an evening of stand-up reviewing with a focus on the world of GLBTIQ literature. "You get up with a book and you have seven minutes to make it notorious" is how we describe it to people we invite to join our line-up of reviewers. And no one says no, which gives you an idea of the atmosphere.

And for an idea of the content, well, you're in for a treat! One of last night's reviewers is a fellow librarian, so he also couldn't say no when I asked him to turn his notes into a post for Books in the City. Here he is and here you go!


Morgan Borthwick on Cinnamon toast and the end of the world

I have never been to a Review Revue before. When my colleagues discovered an ancient book review of mine and asked me to speak, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to sit here and listen to me waffle on about that book I read one summer that I sort of liked because it had a hot guy in it. But hey, I’m here and I’m queer and I’m here to talk to you about a book! 

I thought long and hard about a book to read, do I go the popular route and review a classic you’re probably pretending you’ve read? Do I choose a best seller like A little life (which by the way, is totally fantastic and everyone should read)? Do I spend all night extolling the virtues of Maggie Smith (hint, it’ll be longer than 7 minutes)? Do I get up on my soapbox about the gay erotica that the library stocks and why I find it hideous (the inability of so many writers to accurately write gay sex scenes)? Or do I find a hidden gem that many people wouldn’t have heard about and bang on about it for seven minutes until I’ve convinced you to read it?

You guessed it. I’m going to speed review for you a hidden treasure of a book that I read in one night, with lots of tears and smiles, Cinnamon toast and the end of the world by Janet E. Cameron.

Picture yourself as a Russian-Ukrainian Jewish gay teenager in a dead-end small town in Nova Scotia 1987. Can’t do it? Well, meet Stephen Shulevitz, our hero. Three months before graduation he realises that he is in love with his best friend Mark. Mark is straight, dyslexic, from the wrong side of the tracks and doesn’t know what he’d do if he ever met a queer. ‘Probably kill them if they touched me’ is one of his many sweet lines in the book.

What follows from this realisation is Stephen’s coming of age, interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood, to his adolescence with an absent father, and to his ever changing relationship with his dreamy mother.

I don’t really want to tell you any more than that, because it is a fucking fantastic book that should be read by as many people as possible. At times hilarious, at others heartbreaking, it never fails to be unflinchingly honest. From Stephen’s experiences with sex to the horrors of -- and attitudes towards -- AIDS in 1987 to the clich√©d but ever fascinating topic of gay men and their mothers, this book covers it all in vivid, graphic detail.

What I do want to focus on in this review is the truth behind this book. I have read many, many novels about gay teenagers discovering who they are, starting at around age 12 when I was first discovering who I was beyond the Saddle Club novels and Cleo magazines. They veered between two extremes.

Some were nauseatingly cutesy romantic (Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the Universe, Fan Art, Rainbow Boys, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens agenda) where funnily enough, the best friend is in love with them or SHOCK GASP the cute guy at the back of the bus is actually gay and has been stalking them too. This is heart-warming to read but it is simply not true. These books should come with a "Don’t try this at home" warning, as they’re setting poor questioning teenagers up for failure or worse.

One the other end of the spectrum there is a range of teen reads where life is shit, high school is shit and the focus is on themes of suicide, depression, prostitution and runaways (Money Boi, Bait, Suicide Notes). While again a very real thing in the world for many gay teenagers, it is not always like that, nor is it helpful for books to perpetuate stereotypes and offer ideas like the ones some of these do.

Very few books find that rarely discussed but commonly experienced middle ground in exploring what being a gay teenager is like, and for me it's important to get up on my soapbox about one that does. I find it ironic that I had to go to a book set in 1987, in the middle of the AIDS crisis to do so, but there you go. Without spoiling it for you, it is an open ending, it has a bittersweet tone and it showcases that life for gay teenagers isn’t always about extremes. Often, writers forget that with gay teenagers, and trying to describe their life experiences, the drama is already there, honey. You don’t need to add to it, we’ll do that for you. I love books that focus on the character, rather than the circumstances surrounding them and this book nailed that.

For me, that was my life. As a gay teenager, I didn’t struggle, there were problems, bullies, unrequited crushes and awful experiences with girls -- I won’t lie. But there was no happily ever after as a 15 year old with that cute guy at the back of the bus; there were also no suicide attempts or drug overdose and years in rehab. That’s not to say those things don’t happen or take away from the struggles that people have, but for me, there was none of that.

There was just me, an ordinary gay teenager, trying to find his way in the world with not a lot of advice, a lot of alcohol and plenty of hormones. That’s what this book is about. Simple, plain honest life regardless of sexuality, written in the most beautiful of ways that understands sometimes life is messy, definitely not straight, but with a bit of grit and the odd tear, you’ll get there. I recommend you all read this book, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll all wish you knew a small town gay Ukrainian-Russian Jewish teenager like Stephen Shulevitz.

(Podcast of the entire Revue coming soon!)

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 22:30


  1. Wow. Don't ask me how I found this, but I'm very glad I did. Thanks so much for this review!

  2. Hello! I found this book because of this blog article, and am so grateful and happy I did. For me, I never forget a book where the characters feel real to me, and by flipping heck did these characters feel real. Even minor characters had such distinctive + real presences. I reacted really strongly to them. Thanks for this blog post :)


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