“Tell the Wolves I’m Home: Novelistic Proof of Love’s Intricacies”

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, is a manifesto of what it means to love someone and what it means to lose them. Jealousy, anger, and misgivings are weaved together in a lucid, telling tapestry where wolves and dancing bears are hidden. Love isn’t always so forthcoming. 

June Elbus loves her Uncle Finn more than anything. When he dies of AIDS, the terrifying disease everyone – including her mother – refuses to acknowledge, June isn’t sure she’ll survive it. The rest of her family seems to forget quickly enough. Her sister Greta most of all. However, Finn’s death signals the arrival of a stranger, someone that will change June’s life forever. He may be the only other person who loved Finn as much as she did. But how could that be?

This novel was not what I expected. For some reason, despite the slightly foreboding cover, I predicted the story to have more of a sanguine undertone, something a bit more upbeat. As became apparent a couple chapters in: that was not the case. Nevertheless, this tale did not suffer from a lack of heartiness in detail or character development. In fact, it flourished. 

Each character was drawn beautifully and in such a unique style. I really don’t think I’ve seen this type of novel before. With a lot of fiction like this – and fiction in general – the author quickly tries to get out as much about the character as they can so they can focus on the rest of the plot, which can actually sometimes cause the rest of the novel to wilt with lack of reinforcement for that character’s arc. 

Brunt is different. She, so brilliantly, gives you little snippets of detail in the beginning chapters and in the first part of the novel. By doing so she is setting the reader up for those twists in personality that come later. You and June, the narrator, think you know this other character really well, but then something in June’s perspective shifts and you’re faced with someone with a narrative different than the one you were seeing. It really is looking at things through the narrator’s eyes, as well as seeing that main character change herself. June is so realistic and raw that you can really get inside her head and feel what she is feeling. It’s fascinating from a writer and reader perspective.

The other thing completely unique about Tell the Wolves I’m Home – other than that amazing title – is the way it entangles the concepts of love and jealousy within the plot and characters. 

He loved Finn more than you did. 

That’s what it told me. And I knew it was true. 

I could feel a hard cold knot forming in the center of my chest. I’m not a jealous person. I’m not a jealous person. I’m not a jealous person. I thought that to myself over and over again, slowing my breathing down. I looked up at Toby. 

“Well … did Finn ever paint a portrait of you?”             

 – Carol Rifka Brunt

As June’s character is unravelled in the second half of the novel, it becomes apparent just how enraptured she was with Finn. He was her first love and first love is a very intimate, perplexing thing. Now it was a little creepy at first, not gonna lie, but it’s not that creepy because this isn’t Game of Thrones. Throughout the book the reader gets a very good look at this complicated jealousy web that surrounds June and her family, with Finn hovering as this sort of unreachable, grand person(a). 

Toby, Finn’s lover, is a focal point, and a very well-written one. As the characters discover for themselves, Toby and June were jealous of each other, even if they didn’t quite know it until later. They both loved Finn the most. And because of that, there is this brilliantly-executed game of tug of war going on here. June wants to keep her Finn stories to herself, she doesn’t want to give pieces of him away in the fear that she’ll lose their connection any more than they already have, with his demise, and Toby was simply pining for more time. But they, as the reader finds in one of the novel’s little twists, were not the only ones who loved him. And Finn was not the only one who loved June, as she originally thought and as we find out. 

June’s mother, Finn’s sister, is one of those obscure characters. The ones that an author draws out, the one they keep to themselves until the right time presents itself. For most of the novel all we know is that she disapproves of Finn “quitting” art, and his relationship with Toby – especially when he’s diagnosed with AIDS. She blames Toby.

To her, he is no better than a murderer. 

But there’s a reason for her hatred. Just as there always is. When it came down to the grit, she was really just jealous of Finn’s life and opportunities in New York, of leaving her behind. She missed her brother, missed the time they could have had together in the city. It was there the whole time, June just didn’t see it. 

At first the reader will side with June and her perspective, because why wouldn’t you? Especially because her sister Greta is pretty mean. But there’s a reason for her actions too. If Tell the Wolves I’m Home tells you anything: it’s that nothing is as it seems. 

Overall, Brunt’s writing is a casual type of majesty. The book itself is just very well executed and styled to near perfection. Reading it felt like winding down a path of rose bushes with a wolf nipping at my heels, which translates to a 9/10.

“What If It’s Us: A Truthful, Winning Testament to the Bounds Between Love and Friendship”

What If It’s Us, written by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli, is the story of first love and the strange, match-making ways of the universe. 

Arthur is a believer in the universe. So is Ben, but for different reasons. When the two run into each other at the post office, it seems too good to be true. Especially since Ben’s holding a shipping box full of his ex’s stuff. Can the universe keep them together, once they find each other again, that is? (It wouldn’t be an epic love story without a little work.) Or are they meant for one New York summer and nothing more? 

It’s rare that I find a book that makes me laugh out loud. Yeah, I find an occasional chuckle every now and then, but this book was so different. What If It’s Us was charming and endearing and had so many good references that I was grinning and laughing almost every chapter. (Thank you thank you for the Waffle House shout out, Silvera and Albertalli. I nearly died with happiness reading it.) 

But the very first thing that completely hit me in the face about this book was that I found myself relating so strongly to both lead characters. 

Arthur is completely fascinated with New York. It’s so different from his hometown in Georgia. No matter how long he’s in the city, he finds himself gazing at it like it’s this strange, bustling, chaotic entity. (Which it is.) He’s amazed at the fact that New Yorkers don’t seem to notice what an absolute place their home is. But that’s a tourist for you. That dazed feeling – of living in New York – is so realistic and brilliantly depicted through Arthur’s eyes. I myself have lived in the city for about a year and I’m still struck with that same fascination.

When Arthur and Ben eventually clash, the reader gets a first look at just how insecure first love can be. (I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.) It really offers a better insight into both their characters. 

Arthur just can’t help but question exactly why Ben is with him. He can’t stop asking about the break up and Ben’s relationship with ex boyfriend Hudson. His jumpiness is so fucking relatable. There’s a part where Arthur checks his phone before their first date and doesn’t see any texts from Ben. His first emotion is relief, because no text means Ben hasn’t canceled. OOOF. That anxiety hits home something awful. Both authors paint this painfully real look into love’s raw, very intimate experience. At the end of the day that reality, that Arthur is not Ben’s first, is always gnawing at the back of his head. The whole novel is an amazing balance between a Hallmark-ish love story and the reality of one. 

 

“And of course there would be kissing. My first kiss. Followed by the loss of my virginity in some quiet, starlit field. 

But no. Not even close. Instead, it’s me bleeding out all my neuroses, looking for answers to questions I have no place asking. But I don’t know how to make myself stop asking them. People like me should come with a mute button.”                                                                                                                          – Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli

 

The anxiety of firsts goes both ways. Ben just broke up with Hudson, driving a wedge between their previous friendship and the friend group. And he still can’t bring himself to mail that damn box. Ben’s worried Arthur may be too good for him, that he’s just a dumb guy stuck in summer school. He’s awkward and guarded, constantly looking at things half-empty. Another big OOOF hitting me hard. The reader can tell that Ben doesn’t really love himself the way that he should. He is just so unsure

 

“No, you didn’t screw it up… I’m the one who messed up. I’m always ready to flip off anything good the universe throws my way since I swear the universe hates me. But maybe the universe is just playing a long game. Like everything that’s ever gone wrong was so it could be right later. I don’t know.”                                                                                                                                             – Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli                

 

That dialogue though… So down-to-earth and so very like Ben. That’s the other thing about What If It’s Us: it doesn’t throw together two faceless, virtually identical characters. It brings together two people. People who aren’t sure what the fuck they are doing. People who love Hamilton and people who think Skittles double as breath mints. Because that is what first love, and most other kinds of love, is. It’s a layered, messy, painful understanding. 

The true beauty that this book captures is what happens when love doesn’t work out. And it’s not solely talking about it in the traditional romantic sense. Silvera and Albertalli also explore the love behind a friendship too. First love may be breathtaking and scary, but so are navigating friendships, because they last a lot longer. Both authors truly show the reader that sometimes, when you let people go, they don’t have to be gone for good. Love can blossom into a friendship the same way it can the other way around. 

I think we all can learn a thing or two from that. 

Overall, this intimate, realistic love story gets a 10/10 in my book. I have literally nothing negative to say and I’m not sorry for it. I want the movie and I want it done well. 

“All Out: A Beautiful Collection of Queer Fantasy and Fiction”

I have a confession to make. This is not my first time reading All Out. It was so delicious I just had to have a second go and write about it. Since it is a collection of multiple stories, I picked three of my favorites to discuss more in-depth. 

Roja, by Anna-Marie McLemore

This gorgeous, richly written story takes place in 1870s Mexico, with a French outlaw called Le Loup and the red-headed girl who loves him. Early on in the story you find out that Le Loup was christened with a girl’s name, but he chose his true name, Léon, joining the French army to finally be who he is. The girl, an outcast in her village, is called by no real name because of her family’s history. They are Las Rojas, marks of el Diablo himself. 

“They carried the whisper that the women in my family could murder with nothing but our rage.”                                                                                   – Anna-Marie McLemore 

The two fell in love when she found Léon left for the wolves – a bit of cruel irony since Le Loup literally means “the wolf.” When he is eventually captured by the village authorities, La Roja has to find a way to save him before she loses him for good. 

I loved everything about Roja. I loved that its queerness wasn’t this big deal. Like a lot of the stories in All Out, Léon’s gender identity was a prominent theme, but it didn’t take over the story and become so overly obvious, if you get what I mean. It wasn’t screaming at the reader: “Hey! Look! This is a QUEER story! Go us!” Instead, it nudged at you, firmly telling you to take notice but to also appreciate the rest. LGBTQ+ people are people. We have a million other things about us than just being gay or trans. And I have such an appreciation for writers who really get that. 

Léon and La Roja, while you don’t get a full shot of their love story, are endearing and true to behold. I especially loved the part where she tells us how he trusted her enough with his dead name – and how she knew she was never to speak it. Their bond is as strong as they are.

Now it is a short story, so there’s only so much about its characters and setting that you can pack in. But McLemore’s writing more than fills that space. Her style is brilliantly detailed and unique, both in its descriptions and in its way of dispersing information on characters and their pasts. The way she switches back and forth between present and passive tense really adds to that tactic. The reader really gets a sense of this place and these people, even though it’s through small, quick glimpses. 

Overall, Roja makes for an interesting read that guides the reader amidst different wavelengths in storytelling as a whole.  

And They Don’t Kiss at the End, by Nilah Magruder

This modernly-written story is set in 1976 Maryland and its popular roller skating scene. Dee, our teenage heroine, just broke up with friend-turned-boyfriend Vince and has been avoiding the rink – and him – ever since. See, Dee is different. She isn’t into the steamy novels that her friends read, or the pornos they’ve watched with the volume turned down low. She doesn’t imagine romance like that. So when Vince shows up when he’s no supposed to, how can she explain herself? Why had she let go of his hand? 

When I saw that there was a story in All Out about an asexual teen, I was thrilled. I think representation of everyone in the LGBTQ+ community is something to celebrate. Especially LGBTQ+ people of color. 

“Lori had suggested that maybe Dee wasn’t into guys. Lori wasn’t, and sometimes she linked fingers with other girls at the rink. Dee didn’t think it was about boys and girls. She didn’t know how to explain that she preferred to have no preference at all, and so she said nothing.”                                                                             – Nilah Magruder

Magruder’s writing mixes the old with the modern. She has this way of making her dialogue sound so authentic and her character interactions, especially between Dee and Vince, are nothing if not engaging. The reader does not want for much more, except for more. We need a whole goddamn novel. 

The element I love the most about this story is its realness. It’s a scenario I could envision happening now, though maybe without the American Bandstand references. Asexuality is still something that a lot of people don’t understand, but Magruder doesn’t waste her time trying to slap a definition on to it. Instead she focuses on Dee’s personal struggle with it and the way it has affected her life and her relationships. Is she a prude, as she’s been labelled as? Is she going to change the way she feels in the future? Dee’s confusion is understandable and so, so relatable. How many of us struggle with knowing who we truly are? How many of us never grew up knowing for sure if we were this or that? 

Magruder doesn’t end the story on a perfect, pretty-in-pink answer. The moral of this story is that nothing has to be “figured out.” Sometimes all that matters is the connection you have with a person and with yourself. So what if it’s not sexual? 

Burnt Umber, by Mackenzi Lee

It’s 1638. Amsterdam. Constantijin is the only boy in his painting apprenticeship who doesn’t drool over the women they draw. He does not “exaggerate the breasts,” like Braam and Johannes do. However, if it was Joost Hendrickszoon – the gorgeously handsome dockhand –  sitting naked in their circle, Constantijin would have a serious problem on his hands. His desires would ruin him if he was discovered. But he soon stumbles across someone else, a boy who he never would have noticed if not for a pair missing gloves.

What can I say? I adore a lavishly-written gay love story. They never get old. Burnt Umber is endearing and opulent, and Lee’s writing lends wonderfully to the establishment of such an antique, romantic city in the story’s background. 

Early on in the story, the reader can immediately see that Constantijin is isolated. There’s just something missing from him. Using first person narrative is a way that Lee implements that solitude, by giving us a peek into the way he looks at the world. His sexuality does seem to be the main backbone of the story, which isn’t a bad thing. I would have liked to see a bit more of his character, but again, by using that first person, Lee is giving Constantijin the reins and that allows for more details about the other characters to come into light. And we do get to see how adorably awkward he can be when it comes to Joost. 

“‘We were painting… We’ve been talking about the musculature of…’ I do a mime of something oblong shaped with the unfortunate placement of right in front of my crotch. ‘It was just for the painting. We didn’t do anything with them. Not the penises. The casts. The plasters.’”                                                                                   – Mackenzi Lee

That is what I liked most about Burnt Umber. I appreciated its simplicity and its little twist as to who Constantijin ended up falling for. I liked how the title tied nicely into the ending, and how lovely all the painting language was. It was a pretty, Hallmark-ish love story. The world always needs one of those. 

 

All Out: The No Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages deserves an outstanding 9.5/10 for it’s careful, well-written representation of both the LGBTQ+ community and the writing community as a whole. While I only featured the work by three of its authors, the others stories in All Out are equally as engaging and are worthy of a good read. Let me know what you think down below!

 

“Holding the Man”

What do you say?

Will you run away?

With me, in you hand-me-down car?

I know a place, I promise we’ll be safe,

no one will see.

Your father knows, and so does mine.

Welcome to the unemployment line,

so long as we’re together.

I bought you a ring today,

and as the woman boxed it away,

she asked me who it was for.

As you can imagine, I was shown the door.

I understand, why being different is such a cause for concern.

Still I yearn, to take you, my darling, to Italy.

Where I will dance in the dawn with you,

and hold your hand in public.

Where you will guide me down the sand,

and away from dry land.

We’ll float, side by side,

inviting the tide,

to our wedding.

We are playing a game,

in their eyes, a false declaration, a schoolboy crush.

But my sight only falls on you.

My love, my husband.

I don’t need anyone’s permission.

Because when I kiss you,

I taste the stars.

My hands start to shake.

I grab onto you,

as our prophet delivers his final words.

I can feel your heartbeat,

as quick as a hummingbird’s.

Then nothing, as you turn to look at me.

I guess Italy will have to wait,

for something less ornate.

But we will stay together.

I won’t leave you.

It’s got a hold of you now, my dear.

But I still have that smile you gave me,

your beautiful laugh.

I replay them in my head,

as your lips see red,

and the ocean steals you away for good.

It is in Italy that I will be misunderstood.

Lying in a golden glen,

holding you,

time and again.

“Paul’s Case”

He dabbed a sprig of liquid lavender on one wrist.

Then the other.

His mirror gawked at him,

at her,

struck blind by such brazen behavior.

The crystal bottle shook as his hands did,

which made replacing the cap difficult.

His father didn’t know.

His father didn’t know about the silk scarves stuffed into a small slit in the upstairs mattress. His father didn’t know about the trips to the theatre district, and the lace costumes she had tried on.

Was there no mercy? No understanding?

Of course not,

this was a man’s world.