Spring books 2024 roundup, part 3 Diverse memoirs, fiction and a Liz Taylor biography

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Monday March 11, 2024
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Spring books 2024 roundup, part 3 Diverse memoirs, fiction and a Liz Taylor biography

The third installment of our Spring 2024 books roundup includes novels about being queer and sex-positive within a Syrian culture, a few engrossing young adult novels, and an impressive nonfiction title about the life and film legacy of Elizabeth Taylor. Enjoy and read on!

Author Khaled Alesmael  

"Selamlik" by Khaled Alesmael, translated by Leri Price; $19.99 (World Editions) April 2

This beautifully written novel chronicles the life of Furat, a twentysomething queer Syrian man who escapes his homeland of Aleppo in search of true liberation and the wonderous possibilities of desire and love.

Alesmael's tone and language is consistently smooth and lushly descriptive as the story begins when Farat is in his first year studying English literature at the University of Aleppo, obsessed with reading E.M. Forster, and frequenting the Turkish baths ("hammams") and gay cruising areas searching for connection and release.

As the story moves back and forth in time, things for Furat begin to change when he faints in the doorway of Ali, a man in his dormitory who would soon become his roommate and with whom he becomes enchanted and helplessly enamored with.

In the afterglow of their first sexual interlude, Ali gives the reader an impression of how homophobic the society is when he asks Furat: "Do you think they might arrest us?"

When Furat is forced to flee Syria, his journey becomes that of a refugee and the raw experiences of a queer man trying to live his life in a Muslim country. The author, a Syrian journalist now based in London, debuts with this immersive, erotic, and memorable novel about overcoming the restrictions of a prejudicial culture to live life to its fullest.

"Skater Boy" by Anthony Nerada, $18.00 (Soho Teen)
In this enticing debut young adult novel, we meet rural Ohio, closeted bad boy teenager Wesley MacKenzie who is about to flunk out of his senior year in high school. But who cares, really, Wes thinks, when he's sticking around town anyway to care for his mother who is recently out of a bad marriage with his father.

At a theater performance, Wesley finds himself attracted to the Black lead actor, Tristan Monroe, who, unlike Wesley, is openly gay and proud of it. Nerada crafts this relationship with care and makes certain to keep Wesley's tough-kid personality intact as he leans into his increasing affections for Tristan. There's a lot going on in this novel, including Wesley's lingering trauma from an abusive father, but the author impressively keeps everything in check right up to the conclusion which feels realistic and heartfelt.

"Canto Contigo" by Jonny Garza Villa, $20 (Wednesday Books) April 9
Non-binary author Villa is best known for writing young adult lit infused with Mexican and Chicane culture. Their third novel involves the complex, turbulent relationship between two Texas-based teenaged singing sensations.

Mexican American teenager Rafael meets Afro-Latino youth Rey after Rafael's family relocates to San Antonio and his legacy with the mariachi group at his former school isn't enough to catapult him to star status at his new school. He feels lost and confused, especially when realizing that the top singer at the new school is actually Rey, a transitioning boy whom he'd hooked up with at a previous mariachi competition a year prior.

The two competitive boys share their troubles, find meaning, hope, cultural exchange, and fiery passion: but will it last? This wonderfully well-written, colorful, and beautifully expressive YA novel has mariachi culture (with all its racism and homophobia included) suffused into every page and is all about the challenges of Chicane life, queer love, and making joy out of everyday pain.

"How To Live Free in a Dangerous World" by Shayla Lawson
, $28 (Tiny Reparations)
This dynamic essay collection from nonbinary, disabled, Black writer Lawson focuses on the challenges the writer faced when they were diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which caused them a great amount of chronic pain and discomfort.

In order to thrive with the disease, Lawson decided they had to make a valiant attempt to let go and live with it and cast aside the things in their life that held them back from doing so.

The essays in the collection each tackle a piece of that letting-go process for them as they traveled across the globe, which meant embracing drag as a means to emotionally bury a marriage to a cheating husband; attending an assisted suicide to better understand life and death; or envisioning a communal environment where citizens lifted each other up unconditionally.

Lawson is also a prize-winning poet, so the book's prose is elegant yet also carries a strength embedded in their words that demands attention. Transformative and uplifting, this essay collection is one to be savored and re-read for its reminders on how to live authentically and without regret or remorse.

"Mean Boys: Essays" by Geoffrey Mak
, $27.99 (Bloomsbury) April 30
Mak, a queer Chinese American writer and an editor at Spike magazine, lends his impressions on American fashion, club life, coming out, and the influences of social media in this distinguished and very opinionated essay collection.

Across these essays, Mak discusses how being Asian and gay in 1990s southern California was tough and isolating for him socially but was compounded when he came out to his evangelical parents, who, expectedly, rejected him.

He rushed off to live in Berlin, but those episodes were drug-fueled and party-centered and only led the author toward the downward spiral that would find him returning to America to lick his wounds and get sober.

Other pieces address Mak's obsession with status and the digital online culture that have morphed and changed as much as he has personally. This is an intensively personal archive of a writer who has come a long way and with a unique story to share.

"On Elizabeth Taylor: An Opinionated Guide" by Matthew Kennedy, $29.99 (Oxford University Press) April 1
This immersive Old Hollywood take on the extensive storied 65-year career of Elizabeth Taylor charts the star's beginning at 12 in "National Velvet" then to the fame of "Cleopatra" in 1963 and further details on a few flops, strange appearances, and a role in "General Hospital" in 1981. Taylor's intuitive and emotive on-screen talents became legendary and catapulted her into the Hollywood stratosphere.

Kennedy sticks primarily to the star's film career and offers pages of sharp perspectives on the features and personal facets which made her the star she went on to become. Fans of Taylor's legacy will find a treasure trove of information and opinion in this must-have filmography.

Author Kennedy is a distinguished Bay Area-based writer, anthropologist, and film historian and has written Hollywood biographies of Marie Dressler, Joan Blondell, and Edmund Goulding. He is also currently the host and curator of the CinemaLit Film Series at the Mechanics' Institute in San Francisco.

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