Title: Start Here
Author: Agay Llanera, Bobbi Moran, Motzie Dapul, Danice Sison, Barbie Barbieto, H. Bentham, Ella Banta, Yeyet Soriano, Katt Briones, Brigitte Bautista, Ronald S. Lim
Genre: Romance, Contemporary, Anthology
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There’s a first time for everything. Gate-crashing a K-pop concert with an oppa in a business suit. Taking shelter from the storm with the girl you’ve been meaning to shake off. That kiss that blurs the line between friendship and something more. A one-night stand (or, is it?) with your best friend from across the hallway.
Dive into these 10 stories of first encounters – unapologetically queer, happy endings required, with a smattering of that signature #romanceclass kilig. Whether you’re recalling your own firsts or out there looking for one, there’s a story in here for you.
So, go on.
Turn the page.
When I first learned that #romanceclass was going to release an anthology of queer romances, I’m fairly certain I screamed. Needless to say, when an opportunity to participate in the blog tour for Start Here unexpectedly opened up, I seized it as quickly as my fingers could fill up the form. As excited as I was about this book, a small part of me felt worried that I might be expecting too much out of it, but as anyone can tell from my emotion-ridden tweets, the authors of Start Here definitely delivered.
Now, I’ve never reviewed an anthology or any collection of stories before, so I figured that the best way to discuss everything I want to bring up and to highlight is by commenting on the stories individually. However, if you’re interested in reading actual quotes from every short story, then let me direct you to this Bookbed article entitled “10 Lines to Love from the #StartHere Anthology, No Matter Your Gender Identity”. You can also find excerpts from the posts of Chachic’s Book Nook, Something Maybe This Way Comes, Corey’s Book Corner, and Pinay Nobelista. I’m digressing. Here we go!
💙 In the Moonlight by Agay Llanera.
Quick premise: M/M pairing. Caleb ends his summer vacation on a heavenly note – a moonlight kiss with Ezra, a charming guy with an athletic build and disarming smile, whom he just met. A month later, a part of him hopes to see Ezra again.
In the Moonlight sets the tone of the anthology pretty perfectly, in my opinion. Despite the simplicity and shortness of the plot, the somewhat lyrical writing style of Agay Llanera flows smoothly into every paragraph, weaving together a meet-cute love story that unfailingly swept me off my feet. The innocent, adorably hesitant interactions between Caleb and Ezra left me smiling and convinced me to actively root for them right from the very beginning. I mean, the author managed to make me feel kilig over black pepper and pineapple juice – if that isn’t wizardry, I don’t know what is.
💙 Come Full Circle by Bobbi Moran.
Quick premise: F/F pairing. A fifteen-year love story and happy ending in the making.
Here’s the thing: I am not a huge fan of stories told in the second person (i.e. “you”) point of view. But it actually worked really well in this one. As a matter of fact, Bobbi Moran’s Come Full Circle is definitely one of my favorites, if not my most favorite, in the entire anthology! Plus, it features my favorite passage in the anthology as well, which is quoted as follows:
I should have kissed you then and there to make you realize that love was love regardless of gender.
I found it incredibly impressive how, despite the constraints imposed by its relatively short length, the characterization, the execution of the plot, as well as the variety of elements embedded in the story were at par with most full-length romance novels. In the handful of pages that made up Come Full Circle, the author succeeded in delivering a wonderfully in-depth, beautifully heartwarming love story spanning fifteen years. I was thoroughly engaged, constantly captivated, and completely emotionally invested in the blossoming relationship between Alana and Marion.
I cannot commend the author enough for interlacing this romance with themes of self-discovery (particularly Marion’s), self-love, and sex positivity. The mildly erotic nature of one particular scene really took me by surprise, but ultimately made me love the story even more. I also liked that the story involved traveling to culturally relevant monuments, such as the Taj Mahal. I basically loved everything about Come Full Circle, and honestly speaking, I’m convinced that I need more of Alana and Marion in my life.
💙 Gorgeous by Motzie Dapul.
Quick premise: F/NB pairing. Two home-grown Filipinos fall in love after a chance meeting on a train to Little Manila in Queen, New York. They learn, over time spent enjoying the colorful culture of New York City’s streets, that they are, by all accounts, perfect for each other—before some unexpected baggage and a surprising history threatens to tear them apart.
I have never encountered a romance involving non-binary characters, much less a non-binary Filipino character and another Filipino character who identified as pansexual. Gorgeous is the love story I never knew I needed to read. Personally, I’m still not quite well-versed with many things about the LGBTQIA+ community, so I really, really appreciated how insightful and eye-opening my reading experience with Gorgeous was. Moreover, I have to commend the author for going beyond the usage of gender neutral pronouns and actually making an effort to gently educate readers on why preferred gender pronouns (PGP) are important.
I didn’t dare assume their gender, and in New York you could roll dice every other day on whether somebody was a butch lesbian or a transman. All I knew for sure was that they were handsome, and kept throwing glances at me every so often, their warm smile warding off any bad vibes I might have had from a stranger on a subway train.
The range of topics explored in Gorgeous was pretty remarkable, from how Tinder “became less about finding true love and more about finding people I could send terrible memes to when I was bored at work” (note: reading this passage made me laugh out loud because same, I could relate) to the gravity and psychological consequences of bullying. I was amazed by the author’s ability to balance out humor, sensitivity, and solemnity throughout the story.
There were a handful of moments that left me disoriented and a few scenes that, I think, could have been written more clearly or perhaps even differently. However, overall, I found everything about Gorgeous to be fascinating, and it’s definitely the kind of story I can predict myself rereading over and over.
💙 Shipping Included by Danice Sison.
Quick premise: M/M pairing. Men in their 30s spontaneously decide to gate-crash a major K-pop concert.
I think that Shipping Included had an interesting and creative premise, which was delivered with a lighthearted, quirky writing style. I think the author’s intention was to write a story that was whimsical, entertaining, and just fun to read – and on all these aspects, she succeeded in doing so. It’s not hard for me to imagine other people falling in love with this story. Personally, however, I probably would have appreciated Shipping Included a lot more if I was a fan of K-pop music and actually knew the music groups mentioned in the story. Since I don’t subscribe to this specific music genre and know little to nothing about its fan community, this one sort of fell flat for me.
💙 Delubyo by Barbie Barbieto.
Quick premise: F/F pairing. Pebbles makes it a point to strictly enforce a 4-month expiration date on all her relationships, which means breaking up with Gab, whom she’s been seeing for eight months and counting, is totally long overdue.
For some reason, stories that involve commitment issues hold a soft spot in my heart. It was really easy to connect with Pebbles and her internal struggles, and it was equally easy to find reasons to adore Gab. Delubyo was pretty simple in terms of plot and writing style, but was nonetheless effective in conveying its message.
Reading this short story felt particularly refreshing after reading about meeting someone extraordinarily hot at the beach (In the Moonlight), traveling to faraway places with the person who’s unaware that you’re in love with them (Come Full Circle), falling in love amidst the chaos of New York (Gorgeous), and sneaking into concerts (Shipping Included). In contrast to all the previous stories, Delubyo was a lot more grounded to the normalness of reality because it was set in an ordinary scenario with ordinary circumstances. This enabled the author to present the less exciting, less extravagant, and perhaps quieter side of relationships – the one we are most accustomed to, and likely the one we’re prone to take for granted.
For me, Delubyo was a gentle reminder that love isn’t solely about fireworks and excitement, but also about simply choosing to stay and to grow together – and more importantly, that when you love someone, even the most ordinary of moments become inexplicably exceptional. And that’s definitely worth reading.
💙 The Other Story by H. Bentham.
Quick premise: M/M pairing. A bored twenty-something meets the love of his life at a sex club.
Out of all the stories in this anthology, I struggled with The Other Story the most. I really liked the idea behind the premise (because I’m all about promoting sex positivity!), but I just could not bring myself to connect with the writing. A large bulk of the story involved pretty explicit sex scenes, but the manner in which these scenes were written (e.g. usage of the word “tummy” instead of “stomach”) came across as weird because a more mature writing style would have been more appropriate. At one point, someone’s dick was referred to as a “pleasure pole” and I just couldn’t take anything else seriously. Additionally, the characters seemed underdeveloped, which resulted in lackluster chemistry and relationship development.
Still, I really liked the concept that inspired The Other Story because I can somewhat relate to it. I mean, I have gone on dates with people I’ve met through dating apps, so the urge to provide alternative versions of how we first met is not completely foreign to me.
💙 Blooms and Hues by Ella Benta.
Quick premise: M/M pairing. A mix-up with the flower delivery, together with some meddling from Patrick’s mother and sister, catalyzes his first encounter with Haya, the owner of the floral shop.
After the sexually charged intensity in The Other Story, Blooms and Hues offered a sweeter and more innocent tale between an artist and a flower shop owner. However, not unlike my experience with the previous short story, I felt very disconnected as I read Blooms and Hues. For me, the chemistry between Patrick and Haya fell disappointingly flat, which left me dissatisfied with their story. Despite this, it was a nice experience to read about two male characters that were really attuned to their sensitive, emotional side. It’s something I wish was a more common theme in literature in general.
💙 Another First by Yeyet Soriano.
Quick premise: F/F pairing. Jess is finally having a long overdue romantic getaway to Bohol with Matteo, but her boyfriend’s demanding workload keeps getting in the way of them spending time together. It’s Lily Rose, the resort’s resident singer and self-proclaimed mermaid, who ends up keeping Jess company instead.
I admire the author for the way she handled the struggles of self-acceptance and coming out. In many ways, Another First is very empowering. I think a lot of people from the LGBTQIA+ can identify and truly empathize with Jess’ plight. For me, I found it interesting how Jess had the tendency to be an overly organized perfectionist, which was something that I can personally relate to. I understand the compulsion to change things about myself just to satisfy the expectations and demands of the people who mean the most to me, and it was a relief to encounter a character who shared the same feeling. However, the one thing I didn’t really like in this short story was how Lily Rose consistently came across as an overly quirky caricature instead of a dimensional character.
💙 Luck from the Skies by Katt Briones.
Quick premise: M/M pairing. After winning the teen model search, Asher Lee, together with his co-competitor Chan Valiente, is catapulted to stardom with a portion of their fanbases insisting on shipping Asher and Chan together.
After reading Asher and Chan’s story, I have a new relationship goal to add to my already exhaustive list: cute dates over steaming bowls of yummy bulalo (or, in my case, sinigang). Asher’s initial awkwardness around Chan was nothing short of endearing and adorable. The two of them together was twice the amount of cuteness, and my heart just couldn’t take it!
At one point in Luck from the Skies, CP Garcia was mentioned, which, aside from the fact that the Math building and Electrical Engineering building were said to be three infrastructures apart, instantly made me think that the characters were studying in the same university as me – University of the Philippines Diliman! This really boosted my feelings and love for the story because I could easily imagine everything as it happened. Of course, a part of me is hoping the author confirms my suspicion. Regardless, Luck from the Skies was an incredibly delightful, wonderfully realistic contemporary romance.
💙 Lemon Drop Friday by Brigitte Bautista.
Quick premise: F/F pairing. A one-night stand between two friends-slash-hallway-neighbors and a vodka shot that may potentially induce diabetes.
After reading the tenth short story, I honestly could not think of a better way to end the anthology! It just tied up everything together very perfectly. With characters whom starkly contrast each other and an unlikely yet formidable friendship between them, Lemon Drop Friday was a compelling tale that epitomized modern contemporary romance. As much as I loved Liv’s adventurous side and confident personality, I could better relate to Tala with her tendencies to give a lot more than what she’s willing to take. Either way, I really loved how liberated both Tala and Liv are and the different kinds of strength they possessed individually.
The story flowed naturally, the writing style was great, and the chemistry between Tala and Liv was totally unprecedented. I have so many more good things to say about Lemon Drop Friday, but to sum up all of my thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Among everything in the collection, I adored In the Moonlight, Come Full Circle, and Lemon Drop Friday the most. Although I was not able to emotionally connect and invest in all the stories, for the most part, Start Here managed to exceed my expectations and left my heart all warm and fuzzy and hopeful. This anthology definitely addresses the sorely lacking, disappointingly limited representation of LGBTQIA+ stories and serves as an insightful, inspiring guide that hopefully, other authors can utilize as a springboard.
The collection of diverse short stories in Start Here – each one offering different perspectives and unique portrayals but all written with the same amount of heart – has set an incredibly high bar for future ‘unapologetically queer’ romances. I look forward to the awaiting plethora of surprises #romanceclass has in store for all of us because, as the title of the anthology suggests, from this point onwards, we start here.
Disclosure: I received a digital copy of the Start Here anthology in exchange for an honest review, as part of my participation in a blog tour hosted by Tara Frejas. This neither affects my opinion nor the content of my review. I am extremely grateful to Tara and the rest of the #romanceclass community for this amazing opportunity!
Excerpt from the book:
You asked me why I did what I did—get into complicated loveless relationships with both men and women—and I tried to explain. I said I was impatient. When I wanted something, I went for it—conventions and rules didn’t really matter to me. If I was attracted to a person, I pounced. What I didn’t say was that you were the first and only person I didn’t do this with, even if I was extremely attracted to you, even if I knew it was more than just physical.
You asked me why I drank and did drugs, and I shrugged saying because I needed to numb the pain.
What pain, you asked. I answered, the pain of knowing I will never be enough for anyone. The pain of knowing I was never wanted by my family. The pain of knowing…
I stopped just short of saying, that pain of loving someone I know will never love me back the way I need her to.
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