Saturday, January 4, 2020

REVIEW: Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) (book) by L.C. Rosen

Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) is YA LGBT contemporary fiction with mystery/thriller elements.

Review:

Content warning for stalking, victim blaming, homophobia, suicidal thoughts, on-page drug use and drinking, and graphic discussions of sex.

Jack is a gay teen who likes casual sex and isn't interested in being in a committed relationship. Maybe one day - he isn't completely ruling it out - but definitely not right now. While he enjoys having sex, he doesn't enjoy people gossiping about his sex life, and for some reason his sex life is a hot topic among the gossips at school. When his friend Jenna suggests that he write a sex advice column for her personal blog, he reluctantly agrees. Maybe if he works in some true stories about his sex life, the rumors about stuff he's never done will go away. And the posts will be semi-anonymous, written by "Jack of Hearts," so there's no way some future college or employer will google him and see them.

For the most part, the advice column goes surprisingly well, but things take a turn for the worse in his private life. Someone keeps putting notes in his locker. At first they look like love notes, but as time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Jack has a stalker.

I got an ARC of this at a conference a while back and only just now got around to reading it. The book came out in October 2018, so that gives you an idea of how long I've had it. It looked good, but I was a little afraid it'd have more sex in it than I wanted to deal with. Now that I've read it, I can say that, yes, the advice columns were extremely explicit and did mention, in graphic detail, some of Jack's past sexual experiences as context for whatever advice he was giving. However, even though Jack has sex multiple times in the story, there were no on-page sex scenes. I appreciated that. The advice columns were one thing, but first person present tense on-page sex scenes, especially in a YA novel, would have felt voyeuristic and gross.

Okay, I'll start with the good. I thought that most of the advice columns were well-done. I could imagine the topics and explicitness crossing lines for some folks - I, personally, thought that the last one about roleplay and BDSM would have been more appropriate in a book aimed at adults than teens - but for the most part I liked the way the topics were handled, with an emphasis on communication and consent. There was even one column addressing the fears of a letter writer who was probably asexual, as well as a column that discussed the fetishizing of gay men by straight women.

I liked Jack reasonably well, even if he occasionally made me want to scream in frustration, and I thought his friend Ben was an utter sweetheart. Although most of the prominent characters in this book were very much into sex, usually casual sex, I liked that there was an effort to say "it's okay for teens to not want to have sex, or to want to wait until they meet the right person or feel like it's the right time." And the story's pacing was good and definitely kept me hooked.

However, here's where I get into the things I wasn't as wild about. The stalking plot had several moments that made me incandescently angry. Yes, I understand that there were teens who would not want to tell anyone if they were being stalked, who, like Jack, would want to just wait and see if the problem would go away on its own. And yes, I understand that there are horrible adults out there who'd react like Jack's principal and not do anything particularly helpful. However, it just kept going on and on and becoming more and more awful. The message the book was communicating boiled down to "there's nothing that could possibly be done to make your situation any better, no one will help you, and even the people who try to help you won't be able to accomplish anything." It did resolve in a positive way, but it felt like a stroke of luck on Jack's part, and even then it almost didn't work out. Things got so bad that I was worried the book was going to end in Jack's suicide.

Jack was so frustrating. Every time one of his friends suggested going to someone for help, he trotted out reasons why that wouldn't do any good or just plain said no. No cops, no telling his mom. Considering the principal's reaction when he was first alerted to the problem, I could understand, but as the notes got darker and more threatening, I had a harder time seeing why he wouldn't try again, with a different adult. His mom would have been perfect, but no, he didn't want to worry her. Jack and his mom often felt more like roommates whose paths occasionally crossed than like parent and child. Giving your son space to grow and figure himself out is one thing, but Jack's mom didn't seem to have any rules beyond "don't get blackout drunk and make sure you practice safe sex." And what good was having a "cool" mom, anyway, if Jack still didn't feel comfortable enough to tell her that a stalker was blackmailing him and making his life hell?

The high school experience depicted in this book was more like what I see in movies than what I remember of my own high school life. It seemed like everyone was having huge parties, drinking, smoking pot, and having sex. Yeah, there were mentions of kids who wanted to take it slower, like Ben, and that asexual letter writer, but the bulk of this was just...are there really people out there whose high school experience is like this?

And while I do think it's good that sex positive YA books exist, there were certain things in this one that crossed the line. For example, there were multiple instances where Jack admitted that he'd used Grindr to find partners, that he'd lied about his age, and that at least one or two of his partners were probably adult men who didn't realize that he was still a minor. The problems with this were never addressed. Honestly, the "hooking up with older men via Grindr" stuff could have been cut from the book without hurting anything - Jack had zero problems finding people his own age to hook up with via parties.

Anyway, it was a quick read, but I definitely had issues with it and am not really sure I enjoyed it. I could see the advice columns being helpful to some readers, though.

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