Mini Book Review: Upside Down by N.R. Walker

The cover for Upside Down by N.R. Walker. Two men's heads are shown from the nose up, one fight side up from the bottom and one upside down from the top. Both are white men with dark hair, but the top one had brown eyes while the bottom has green, They are looking at each other. The title is in the center in stylized purple text over a white background with confetti-like dots of lights out of focus. The author's name is in grey text vertically in the lower left corner.
Upside Down by N.R. Walker
Goodreads

Jordan O’Neill isn’t a fan of labels, considering he has a few. Gay, geek, a librarian, socially awkward, a nervous rambler, an introvert, an outsider. The last thing he needs is one more. But when he realizes adding the label ‘asexual’ might explain a lot, it turns his world upside down.

Hennessy Lang moved to Surry Hills after splitting with his boyfriend. His being asexual had seen the end of a lot of his romances, but he’s determined to stay true to himself. Leaving his North Shore support group behind, he starts his own in Surry Hills, where he meets first-time-attendee Jordan.

A little bewildered and scared, but completely adorable, Hennessy is struck by this guy who’s trying to find where he belongs. Maybe Hennessy can convince Jordan that his world hasn’t been turned upside down at all, but maybe it’s now—for the first time in his life—the right way up.

EDIT, TO N.R. WALKER: I am very sorry, I didn’t realize your blog even had comments, to say nothing of pingbacks! If I had known, I would not have linked your blog at all! I think it is in poor taste to accost an author with reviews and beg you to please forgive me!

Why

Despite the fact that I spend a considerable amount of my time looking at and analyzing asexual representation, there is an obvious hole in my repertoire: English-language novels. Given that this is probably the fastest growing area of explicit ace rep, it seems like maybe I should take a bigger interest in it, but…. *deep sigh* It’s not like I don’t read fiction, or don’t read it in English, or am categorically opposed to YA or Romance or what-have-you as genres. I honestly can’t put my finger on the why, but novels don’t tend to do it for me in general.

I tell you this because I want you to be able accurately salt my opinion before you digest it. Y’all, I kept the tab open for months waiting until I could put in an Interlibrary Loan request and waited patiently for the book to come 2,500 miles and it… was not… worth it. But let no one say I did not try! For science!

Who

This is not an uncommon opinion judging from the Goodreads reviews, but a lot of the reason I didn’t really enjoy this book came down to the “who”—although not quite for the same reason. The novel alternates POVs, but the main character is really our logorrheic librarian, Jordan, I did also find him a bit of a trial, and he did strike me as a little immature for 26, but as far as his base personality goes, let’s say I suspect my annoyance stems from him sharing many qualities I don’t like about myself. No, my real issue with him has to do with the emotional logic of how he relates to asexuality. Which means the real who at issue for me was the author.

N.R. Walker says on her blog that Jordan is her asexuality story, and ma’am, you didn’t need to tell me that. Now, I am not a twentysomething gay ace man, and I’ve only had the chance to spend a few days in Sydney, but it seemed to me like Jordan’s emotional core and his stage-of-life didn’t match. I don’t think this is necessarily a knock on Walker’s skills as an author. I am not dissimilar in certain ways to Hennessy, and he worked for me, as did the other characters in the book to the extent we were allowed insight into their inner workings. Rather, I think Walker’s priorities about what it was important to include stem from a very personal place, and that reflects her stage-of-life, not that of a hypothetical 26-year-old fully plugged into the queer community. I also think there is a lack of perspective that a similar story from someone who had known about asexuality for many years might have brought. Again, I’m not knocking her, or any of the many, many people who write with the fervor of the recently converted. It’s just not for me, decade-plus veteran and certified curmudgeon™

What

While the characters didn’t really connect with me, I want to say I support this plot 100%. There’s a part where Jordan editorializes for a minute about why people shouldn’t look down on more popular genres and asks what is wrong with wanting people to be able to see happy endings in romance novels, and I agree. Everyone gets a happy ending in this book, and there is not a thing wrong with that! In fact, given that both of our main couple have histories of trying to force themselves to be people they aren’t for romantic partners, it is downright refreshing that they find someone who loves them for who they are. There is a criticism one could make here in that it kind of implies the only way aces can be happy is in relationships with other aces, but 1) the book says to us that’s not true and 2) the characters genuinely feel this way (see: their histories), so I think it would be a stretch to say that just because they feel a certain way about the dating pools open to them personally that we need to generalize that out into some political statement.

Speaking of political statements, that’s the clumsiest part of the novel, I think. There’s this aces & aro support group (although how much aro issues are focused on is an open question) that Hennessy runs, and they’re used almost more like a plot device than a character or group of characters. It actually makes me a little uncomfortable; it’s one thing for their friends to be invested in their romance, but this group also seems to exists only in service to the main couple and things the author thought needed to be said that she couldn’t work in another way.

And while I’m complaining—welcome to my blog—it drove me a little batty that the things that they were able to ~connect on~ were without exception extremely well-embedded in popular culture. The first thing is the book Flowers for Algernon, which was required reading in middle school for some of my friends, and their resulting conversation is one I could have had—and I’ve never read it! Quoting extremely famous authors is “unfair” and takes Jordan’s breath away, and knowing not to feed gremlins after midnight makes him “perfect.” In fact, I’m kind of offended on behalf of the men of Australia, who are portrayed as barely literate. Like, I suppose this could just be the difference in the education systems, but cursory research suggests that most if not all of the secondary school leaving certificates have English as a mandatory subject even if they require nothing else. I could see Flowers for Algernon being obscure in Australia, but I find it very hard to believe Alice in Wonderland is. (There was also an Ayn Rand appearance that did not impress me.) Look, authors shouldn’t have to be experts on every single thing in the world, or write only on things they’re experts about, so I shall not dwell on the birds or disbelieving in hackers, but maybe rethink if literary references are going to be central to your plot and you’re out here making incomprehensible sex jokes about asexy icon Hamlet???

But yes, it was a cute little plot, that has some fun twists and turns, and for someone who could connect with the characters, I think it would be great. For me.. a solid C.

12 Comments

  1. Very interesting review! I imagine similar things would bother me. You’ve also, though, sparked my curiosity to kinda want to read the book all at once. :) Meanwhile i just finished reading Summer Bird Blue as a book with aroace rep and i really was filled with joy by the little references to Regina Spektor and Wednesday Addams, which I thought were implemented flawlessly. My next canon rep I’ll read is i think my first non-English one, my first manga experience: Bloom Into You.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you might like it! I feel like you’re a much less nitpicky person than me! Like, I tried to make clear in the review: this is a me-problem orz

      Like, for instance, how I am a concerned that you’re going to be reading Bloom Into You and also that you’re describing it as “canon rep” :| :| :|

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I mean, I can be pretty picky about rep stuff sometimes. It’s I think complicated and i can also be really critical or annoyed by certain things but still love other parts… XD

        Also i was told throughout these 8 volumes was canon by a friend who says it’s her favorite rep ever and then i did a quick googling of like demi and the title and found multiple reviews also describing the identities featured and no one implied it wasn’t on page (I was also told it’s ambiguous whether it’s ace vs aro but. Canon gray for one and canon demi for the other, both lesbians.) I guess maybe the descriptions are clear enough that certain people think it’s canon and i didn’t read it myself yet so i don’t have any opinions yet or caveats when I repeat back the thought it’s canon… But I’ll try to keep my expectations low lol

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        1. Listen, my thoughts on YagaKimi are not a secret, and I think there is a lot of room for interpretation and evidence for making a case, but unless we have a Latin American Dub situation here, the one thing is unarguably not is canon. There is a canon ace in the story. He tells the main character that she is “nothing like [him]” and rejects her. It’s Not Great.

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  2. So is that another example of an ace group in fiction? Which also depicts it as a sort of support group rather than a social group? It’s an odd trope, though I guess I’m not complaining.

    I’m curious what it is that made Jordan’s “emotional core” mismatch that of a 26-year-old gay ace man. That’s the sort of subtle thing that would really bother me (having been such a person myself not so long ago), but then I’m not sure what would even constitute a mismatch.

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    1. So is that another example of an ace group in fiction? Which also depicts it as a sort of support group rather than a social group? It’s an odd trope, though I guess I’m not complaining.

      Yes, it is! I dunno, I wouldn’t really section it off from other ace groups (especially not in media representation); it has the same vibe as the queer group I belonged to for a while. And also it’s an easy way to get out of the orientation question and skip straight to other, equally banal what-ifs, so :P

      I’m curious what it is that made Jordan’s “emotional core” mismatch that of a 26-year-old gay ace man. That’s the sort of subtle thing that would really bother me (having been such a person myself not so long ago), but then I’m not sure what would even constitute a mismatch.

      That’s what it is, a whole lot of subtle things. It’s like, his mindset, how he approaches problems, the things he focuses on. (And not just about asexuality, I should make clear, but obviously the stuff about asexuality is what interfered most with my enjoyment of the story. ) A lot of the time the conversation would even be going in a direction I was vibing with and then veer off in Things What Should Be Said. It’s also, you know, dissonant to have him switch from sounding like he’s older than he is to being incredibly immature. But idk, it might not bother you or ring false to you like it did to me, because it really is subtle.

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  3. >asks what is wrong with wanting people to be able to see happy endings in romance novels
    >although how much aro issues are focused on is an open question

    smiles bitterly in aro

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    1. So, this is not a real support group, it’s a plot device whose topics of conversation are manipulated by the group’s leader 2 of the 3 times we see them (as covered in the review), and while I wanted to make sure people going in to the story were aware of this because it is a sore spot for people, they really don’t get enough screen time to say one way or the other what the actual character of the group is. There is another part of the book where aromanticism is explicitly discussed, but it’s in the context of the MC saying that his needs are not universal but they are still his needs (again, more a message to the reader, who may not know different aces have different romantic orientations and attitudes towards partnered relationships)

      However, I’m not really sure why not shaming people for reading fluffy stories where everyone gets a “happy” ending is causing you to smile bitterly?

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      1. We’ve just suffered the middle of February. This year’s round of hot takes regarding romance genre and happy endings and queer fiction which coincidentally erases or vilifies many aros (and also many aces) are fresh in mind. When I saw that line in the review I was waiting to see how long it would take to reveal the author’s regard for aros.

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        1. Ah, I understand now, you were taking them together.

          The conversation about not looking down on popular genres was not limited to romance novels and was really about people pretending like books are worthless if they’re not tragic and/or grimdark. I just pulled out romance novels specifically because this book is a romance novel and while the plot was a little… much, I wanted to make sure I and this review were not sliding into that lazy way of thinking.

          As for the author’s opinions on aros, the book doesn’t really reveal much, for the reasons I talked about earlier. She makes sure people know that aros exists and the characters are careful not to make blanket invalidating statements, but if there are any aros actually in the story, they would be at the support group meeting, all of whom only got ~1-2 lines of dialogue.

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