Cover Art: Natsukoworks
Cover Design: Kanaxa Designs
Publication date: August 8, 2017
Length: 341 pages
Reviewed by Erin
A single stroke can change your world.
Xander Fairchild can’t stand people in general and frat boys in particular, so when he’s forced to spend his summer working on his senior project with Skylar Stone, a silver-tongued Delta Sig with a trust fund who wants to make Xander over into a shiny new image, Xander is determined to resist. He came to idyllic, Japanese culture-soaked Benten College to hide and make manga, not to be transformed into a corporate clone in the eleventh hour.
Skylar’s life has been laid out for him since before he was born, but all it takes is one look at Xander’s artwork, and the veneer around him begins to crack. Xander himself does plenty of damage too. There’s something about the antisocial artist’s refusal to yield that forces Skylar to acknowledge how much his own orchestrated future is killing him slowly…as is the truth about his gray-spectrum sexuality, which he hasn’t dared to speak aloud, even to himself.
Through a summer of art and friendship, Xander and Skylar learn more about each other, themselves, and their feelings for one another. But as their senior year begins, they must decide if they will part ways and return to the dull futures they had planned, or if they will take a risk and leap into a brightly colored future—together.
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A new book from the always incredible and immensely brilliant Heidi Cullinan is like Christmas, summer vacation, and warm chocolate chip cookies all mixed together. Her books always make me (and I would think most of her fans) feel like coming home--no matter what the subject matter of the book may be or who the characters are. There's also this wonderful sense of anticipation you get when you pick up a new book of hers, this tingling in your stomach because you just KNOW she's about to make you laugh and cry and everything in between. When I first heard about her new release, Antisocial, I knew it would be something special. When I saw that gorgeous, unique cover, I gasped and my excitement amped up a hundred fold. Then the blurb came out and holy wow, the countdown became excruciating. Antisocial wasn't ANYTHING like I expected, but everything I didn't know I wanted.
Xander Fairchild is an artist. He's also irascible, prickly is an understatement, and he's wary of most everyone he comes in contact with. There are reasons for his reticence, but he's much happier with his cats, Hokusai and Hiromu, than with most every human on the planet. He's a member of the team that writes Lucky 7, a magazine that's been a part of Benten College for over a hundred years. He's the teams manga artist and it's a job he does with great joy. He's a senior in college and he's dreading his senior year art exhibition that is the major component of his grade and his graduation is dependent on a successful showing. He has no idea how to go about making himself marketable as an artist, and really doesn't care to do so, and when the head of the art department "arranges" for someone to help him, he's not even the littlest bit excited by the prospect. Skylar Stone is the LAST person Xander wants help from, that's for sure.
Skylar Stone is the epitome of upper class preppy. Blond haired, a mega-watt smile, rich, with his future all planned out, the last thing Skylar expects to do is help turn a grumpy art student into a project. But when members of his Delta Eta Sigma fraternity vandalize a mural Xander painted on campus, Skylar puts his brains and wish to make amends to good use and offers his services. These two do NOT hit it off at first. They are opposites in every way, but one look at Xander's art and Skylar is enthralled. The more time they spend together, the more Skylar begins to chip away at Xander's solidly built walls, the closer these two get.
The friendship and eventual romantic relationship that oh so slowly develops between Xander and Skylar is one of the most beautiful I've ever read. It's not physical--Skylar is on the gray area of the spectrum and identifies as an aromantic asexual--but it's SO intense, so touching that their connection leaps off the page at you. Yes, Heidi is known for her hot and steamy sex scenes, but I'm here to tell you she can write intimacy without penetration or sexual contact of any kind like no one's business. There is a scene, I won't spoil it, toward the end, that left me breathless and my heart fluttering in my chest. It's gorgeous and SO moving it made me cry. Xander will also make you cry and want to give him a hug, porcupine quills and all. And then Skylar, who seems to have things so very together, really doesn't at all.
Antisocial is about finding your true path. It's about accepting yourself and surrounding yourself with your 'tribe', that group of people that loves you for all that you are, no matter who that might be. You'll get a major education in all things Japanese. Heidi's homage to manga was so enlightening and interesting. I am a huge fan of dual POV so it was such a treat to be able to see things from both Xander's and Skylar's viewpoints ... and important to knowing who they are and how they feel. I give Heidi huge kudos for the vast diversity present in the characters in the book and for showing that being in love doesn't have to always involve sex.
This is a beautiful journey. You will find yourself thoroughly immersed into this unique world Heidi has written. You'll feel, a lot. Cry, laugh, get angry, be awed and moved. This is a long book, no lie, but I could have kept reading for another hundred, five hundred, a thousand pages. Xander and Skylar are very special people; I'll think of them for a long time to come.
Popculture of Antisocial
Japan and the West
Many westerners know a little bit about Japan from an anime or two or a WWII history lesson, but the truth is there is so much more about the country’s history and current culture, and you’ll need to know a little bit about it before we proceed with this pop culture backstory.
Japan is an ancient, proud country, and it has a long history of imperialism and nationalism. Despite many wonderful aspects and its love of western culture and ideas, its culture is still largely closed, and many aspects of its culture, particularly in regards to queer rights, are behind those of the west. As a country, Japan, when compared to the west, particularly the United States, has a history and culture that blows ours away in depth and structure. The Japanese monarchy is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world and is considered in Japan as the symbol of the unity of the people. There is a huge priority in societal unity in Japan, to the point that foreigners—even foreign nationals born in Japan—are often denied housing in an effort to keep neighborhoods uniformly Japanese. (This is entirely legal in Japan.) Even Japanese nationals must go through many more hoops to rent an apartment, providing references and proving they will uphold the societal expectations. Japan takes its culture seriously.
Japan’s pop culture, however, can vary from the profound to the profane, and much of it is delivered in manga and anime. We westerners know all about manga and anime: from Funimation to Crunchyroll, most of us have seen at least one episode of something or other, or at least we know that when someone hands you a manga, you’re supposed to read it from what to westerners is back-to-front. Cartoon dramas adults can enjoy, graphic novels featuring characters with big eyes.
But did you know how much Japan wants us to enjoy its exported culture along with it? Did you know that the International Manga Award was created by Japanese Foreign Minister Tarō Asō in 2007, and the goal of the award is to encourage non-Japanese production of manga? Did you know most episodes of anime on Crunchyroll are translated within an hour, in multiple languages around the world? Did you know Crunchyroll has over one million subscribers and that popular shows routinely crash the site because they’re so hungry to see the new shows? Did you know France represents 50% of the European manga market and that 70% of the comics sold in Germany were manga in 2011? The market is just starting to grow in the United States, but it is growing.
In the United States in particular, we’re accustomed to being the arbiters of culture. We’ve been trained to assume the whole world will look to us for our entertainment content, and in many instances, this is still true. In Antisocial, I deliberately flipped that cultural switch. One, I knew Japan wouldn’t mind. In fact, it would be thrilled. Two, it’s good for westerners, particularly Americans, to shift the lens and have another culture be the shining lighthouse for a change, particularly right now. The truth of the matter is, no culture is perfect. If you look too closely, everything has a downside. But in a rose-colored novel, for four hundred fifty pages, it’s not so bad to pretend there’s somewhere we could all escape, a land where, like the US once was, we can all wish upon a star and imagine that if we too could get there, everything could be okay.
If you haven’t tried Japanese anime or manga, I highly recommend that you do. There is so much content that it’s impossible for you not to find something you’re looking for. And as someone who has been sampling for years, more in the past ten months, I can certainly point you in a few directions to get you started.
Skylar rubbed the back of his neck and turned to face Xander. “Speaking of worried. About what you said on the phone. I’m sorry if I came on too strong. But I don’t—” He winced and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Damn it, sorry. I didn’t sleep much, and I’m not… I rehearsed this in the car, but…”
Xander rolled his eyes. “Okay, first of all, let’s start there. I don’t want you rehearsing anything with me, unless we start doing plays together. Just be yourself. Open your mouth, say words, and don’t run them through a subcommittee first.” Skylar looked at him like a hurt puppy, so Xander stalked to his drawing table, where he realized he’d left out a few sketches of Skylar. He tucked them away as casually as he could as he babbled on. “I know it probably sounds insane to someone like you, but I’m fine with who I am. I don’t need to be remade. So like I said on the phone, we’re going to stick to the social media stuff and—”
“Holy shit, that’s new Hotay & Moo.” Skylar held up a sketch from his desk. His face was flushed. “I—I’ve been meaning to bring this up, but I didn’t know how. You draw The Adventures of Hotay & Moo, yeah?”
At first Xander couldn’t say a word. Not with Skylar looking at him like that, as if Xander were steak and Skylar a starving cowboy. Swallowing, he wet his lips and took a step back, until his butt pressed into the edge of the table. Blocking the sketches of Skylar, in case the man went hunting for more drawings. “Um. Yes?”
A whimper escaped him when Skylar grabbed his shoulders, and he gripped the table’s edge and held on as Skylar shook him gently. “Oh my God. You have no idea how much I love that manga. My fraternity brother does too, but he reads every manga ever made, I think—I mean, I only read this one, and when I found out you drew it, I was going to say something but I couldn't figure out how. And it’s like I just put it in a different part of my brain so it didn’t get in the way of the social media stuff but then here is an actual drawing and I’m totally freaking out—oh, shit!” He let go of Xander with a yelp, pressing the sketch on the table and trying in vain to smooth it out. “I wrecked it, I’m so sorry!”
This was so weird. Hotay & Moo had one goddamned fan in the world, and it was…Skylar Stone? Also, where had this come from? Where was the smooth-talking guy who got Xander to do things he didn’t want to do and then felt awkward about later? Who was this? A pod person? Had Skylar been drugged? What the fucking hell?
Skylar was still trying to fix the sketch, freaking out more now because he’d smudged it in addition to crinkling it. Xander took it from him as if he were removing dry gunpowder from a clearing full of campfires. “It’s…it’s no big deal. That’s just a doodle. I can draw it again. See?” He pulled down a fresh piece of paper, uncapped a Sakura .45mm, and freehanded Hotay and Moo sitting in onsen, Hotay relaxing happily in the hot springs while Moo sat on a rock above him, wrapped in his towel and complaining about something while Hotay ignored him. It took him less than a minute to rough out.
When he looked up to hand it to Skylar, Skylar was watching him like he was a god, and when Xander passed him the sketch, Skylar literally squeaked.
Like a fucking mouse.
Skylar Stone. The sleek Greek Zelda insisted was the Antichrist was standing in Xander’s living room in shitty sweats with bedhead and scruff squeaking because Xander crapped out a Hotay & Moo doodle.
What. The shit. Was happening.
“This is the best.” Skylar held the piece of paper with both hands and nestled into the space beside Hokusai on the sofa, staring at the drawing in wonder. “I’m sorry I’m being a geek. I didn’t know I was going to act like this until I saw your sketch on the desk. I can’t believe you actually write my favorite comic!”
Ah, there went his ego. Xander couldn’t help a wry smile. “I don’t write the story. I only draw the characters. The Lucky 7 staff agrees on the direction the characters should go and work together to write the plot. There’s a lot of research into Shinto that I don’t quite understand. I just do what I’m told and try to keep the characters looking the same.”
“Okay, but I bet I know when you started drawing, and you know more about Shinto than you think. You can’t tell me you haven’t done some research.” Skylar held up the sketch. “There are six things in this sketch alone that tell me you know what you’re putting in there.”
Now Xander felt like an idiot, because at best he’d put two deliberate Shinto references into the sketch. “Are you telling me you’re one of those secret-Shinto apologists? Are you going to whip out a map and try to prove to me there are all kinds of hidden shrines on campus?”
Come on, tell me you’re going to whip out a map. Tell me you’re one of us.
Heidi Cullinan has always enjoyed a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. Proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality, Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. She writes positive-outcome romances for LGBT characters struggling against insurmountable odds because she believes there’s no such thing as too much happy ever after. When Heidi isn't writing, she enjoys playing with new recipes, reading romance and manga, playing with her cats, and watching too much anime. Find out more about Heidi at heidicullinan.com.
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