Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Review: Status Update by Annabeth Albert

Cover of Status Update, featuring two white men seated on a couch. One has his armed wrapped around the other from behind. They both pet a tan and black dog curled up in the foremost man's lap.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Noah Walters is exactly happy in the closet, but he’s not about to mess up his life as a field archaeologist and tenure track professor at a conservative Christian college for the sake of a little action. Abstinence seems like the best route all around, but it gets a whole lot harder when an oh-so-attractive game designer turns up on his RV’s doorstep.

Adrian trusted the wrong guy, and now he’s stranded in a Utah campground with no way home for Thanksgiving unless he throws himself on his mother’s well-meaning (if judgmental) mercy. Noah tells himself he only agrees to drive Adrian to save him that indignity--and okay, maybe to score exclusive access to the hot new game Adrian’s working on--but as the miles tick by he begins to wonder whether Adrian could be worth the risk to his carefully planned future.

OMG THIS BOOK IS SO AWESOME.

LIKE, SERIOUSLY, SERIOUSLY AWESOME.

At least part of my intense, must-tell-everyone response to STATUS UPDATE [Amazon | Kobo] comes down to timing. I don’t read nearly enough romance these days, and I happened to open this particuar example just as my craving for the stuff reached its peak. Most of it, though, is down to Annabeth Albert’s fabulous feel for relationship dynamics and interest in the sort of details that render her protagonists in sharp relief.

Albert brings the emotion from the first page on down. She takes us straight into Noah’s reality; his worldview, his work ethic, and the circumstances that’ve inspired him to adopt certain practices, from his living situation to his decision to remain closeted. I was instantly sympathetic to him, and the moment I realized his companion, Ulysses, was his dog, I was sunk.

Then it turns out that Adrian, Noah’s obvious-from-the-get-go love interest, also has a dog, whose name is Pixel, which is the best small dog name of all time, and I decided I had no choice but to love STATUS UPDATE with all my soul.

Books with dogs in them are better than other books. This is science.

Luckily, the book is so emotionally charged, and so eminently worthy of love, that I didn’t have to compromise my readerly principles in order to do this. I just kicked back and let the story wash over me.

I mean, Albert obviously took a close look at my own interests and concerns as a romance reader and denizen of the internet, then said, “Yes. I shall work with all of this.” And then she did, in the most charming and toothsome way possible.

The very most charmingest of STATUS UPDATE’s many charms is its strong focus on consent. Noah doesn’t have much romantic experience, let alone sexual experience, and Adrian remains forever aware that Noah’s boundaries aren’t necessarily going to match his own. The two of them communicate every step of the way, and nothing happens unless there’s clear, enthusiastic consent from both parties. They ask each other questions, they determine each other’s comfort levels, and eventually Noah reaches a point where he no longer wants Adrian to get his explicit go-ahead for every little thing. He clearly defines this moment, and Adrian respects it with the understanding that it doesn't mean everything is suddenly on the table. It’s glorious and swoony.

And far too rare. So much of the romance I read involves people talking one another into sex, if not outright tricking their partners into deciding that no might mean yes after all, so I’m beyond glad I can now point to STATUS UPDATE and say, “Here’s a very sexy contemporary that models healthy consent.” We need more books like this.

Along the way, Adrian also considers the possibility that Noah may be asexual, and he assures Noah it’s not an issue if that’s the case. I love love love that they discuss the possibility, and that it’s not a dealbreaker. Sex has the potential to be a big part of their relationship, but they connect in a million other ways, too, and communication plays a key role in defining what they'll mean to one another.

This emphasis on communication, and on working to understand one another, extends into the nonsexual parts of their relationship. There are awkward pauses sometimes, as is only natural when two people are getting to know one another, but there’s also a ton of open, honest back and forth. Noah and Adrian connect on multiple fronts, and when they encounter an area where one of them has to work harder to understand the other’s perspective, that’s exactly what they do. They put in the effort every step of the way. They’re willing to be open, or to accept the other’s desire to close off part of themselves for personal reasons. It’s a thing of beauty and it made me love them both very much.

They also move forward at a pace they can both be comfortable with. Noah hasn’t come out because he’s not ready to process the changes it may causes in his familial and working relationships, and Albert never presents that as improper or cowardly. Noah has evaluated his situation on a deeply personal level, and it’s not until his circumstances alter to an extent that allows him to make a considered choice that he even contemplates talking to anyone other than Adrian about it. He has to feel safe and ready before he can be out in his everyday life. It’s not something anyone else can decide for him.

Speaking of familial relationships, Albert does some gorgeous stuff with both men’s families. Adrian has a supportive but somewhat strained relationship with his sisters and his mother. (One of his sisters just married Adrian’s ex. Hello, bisexual character!) Noah has distanced himself from his own mother and sister as it’s become harder to stay in the closet with them. These relationships provide a great deal of tension in their own right, and they give Albert a prime space to show us what the very notion of family means to both men.

She also writes a variety of different families instead of sticking to the mom-dad-kids model; something I always appreciate. Adrian’s parents are divorced. His father has remarried, while his mother prefers to keep her dates casual. One of his sisters is a stepmother. The other is extremely pregnant at her wedding, without the implication that this marriage is happening mostly for the baby’s sake. Hurray for modern families!

And as if consent and communication and family and dogs weren’t enough to hook me, Albert throws in a slew of the sort of details that make me squee with delight. Noah and Adrian share a love of SF, including SF romance. They get super excited about games and worldbuilding (with an emphasis on geoarcheology, given Noah's academic interest in the subject). Adrian’s game is crowdfunded--a great, modern touch--and he and the rest of the design team keep their backers informed via a YouTube channel. Noah learns Skype so he and Adrian can do things together while they’re in different locations. These sorts of social systems are bound to resonate with most people who buy ebooks, and I’m thrilled to see them in fiction as well as on my Twitter timeline.

Friends, the whole thing was wonderful. STATUS UPDATE has no overtly queer woman and few POC, but otherwise it plucked all my strings. It’s exactly the sort of well-considered, emotionally-charged romance I always long to find.

Read it, please. I want you to have good things like this in your life.

Meanwhile, I am gonna seek out Albert’s earlier books while I wait for the second #gaymers novel, BETA TEST, to hit NetGalley in advance of its May release date. Good thing la TBR is almost a done deal; she’s written a fair few of ‘em.

2 comments:

  1. IS THERE ALSO SCIENCE IN IT? Cause all of this sounds amazing, and moreover, I wish there were way more books with people doing science in them. Which actually is a good reminder to go find some awesome Science Bros fics to read. I'mma go do that real quick.

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    1. There's a teensy bit of science; stuff along the lines of Noah pointing out where Adrian's game gets soil erosion and wind patterns wrong, and where Adrian goes on about designing the game to be as realistic as possible.

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