Review of Play It Again

Play It Again by Aidan Wayne. Carina Press. 2019.

Content Warnings for review: Discussion of emotional abuse and trauma, sexual negotiations.

play it againI wanted to read this because it has a Jewish disabled queer hero, and because online relationships and MCs who create online content are such big catnip for me. I want to glom all of the romances with this going on. I also am a fan of long distance relationships in romance and have a hard time finding those stories. I’ve been in several LDRs myself and ache to see this on the page, so basically this is a bunch of things that I’m pretty much autobuy for.

This is the second book I tried by Aidan Wayne, and I liked this one quite a bit. It hit the mark for me with the online relationship and online content creator aspect, and was pretty satisfying on the long distance relationship piece as well. (I will say that the closing the distance stage of things felt a bit skimmed over and easy for my taste, but I didn’t mind that so much.) It’s also got a fairly light adorableness to the romantic relationship aspect that was exactly what I needed on a rough day.

It’s not a completely light story, I wouldn’t exactly call it fluff, as Sam’s arc has trauma elements woven into it pretty strongly, and there is a plot twist in the middle of the book that I found so jarring it had me putting the book down for a few days. (See the content warnings for more information about the twist; I’m going to discuss the trauma element in the body of the review.)

One of the central aspects of Sam’s arc is around the fact that he has been emotionally abused by his parents for his whole life, and this is his normal, he doesn’t see it because it’s just always been. As a result of this abuse, which has a queer hating element but isn’t solely concentrated on that, he has rather low self esteem. His arc is partly about recognizing that the way his parents treat him is not okay, and also about building up his self esteem, partly through recognizing his own competency at vlogging and gaming, and partly through building relationships where he is cared for just as he is, and treated with respect. While this arc is a bit simplified, it didn’t feel sugar coated, and it didn’t feel like his self esteem/trauma was healed by love.

This moment felt like it was really carefully built to, and I loved that we got to take a slow breath here:

“For the first time in his life, Sam considered the possibility that, well…That maybe his parents were wrong.”

The story felt like it recognized that Sam was at the beginning of a long journey to unpack the impact of the abuse and find ways to create safety for himself and heal his self esteem. I appreciated the pacing of the arc quite a bit, it didn’t feel rushed, and I especially appreciated that (spoiler, highlight to read) Sam begins to pull away from his parents and question whether the things they told him were true, and this is celebrated as a big difficult step and not an easy thing. This really feels like a balm to all the romances where MCs experienced queer hating abuse and rejection from families and part of their happy ending was reconciliation. Instead, part of Sam’s happy ending looks like steps towards estrangement. Because really, for some folks, that is a much happier resolution. I also really appreciated that while queer antagonism was part of the abuse dynamic, it wasn’t the only aspect of it, it was just woven in as one piece. That kind of experience of parental queer antagonism is really common, and very rarely represented in queer romances.

I appreciated that Dovid, the other MC, had really good self esteem, for the most part, and was disabled. It was one of my favorite things about the disability representation in the book, because it’s super common for romances with disabled MCs to portray those characters as having low self esteem due to internalized ableism, where they think of themselves as not worthy of or as burdens to potential partners. Dovid seems fairly confident, and doesn’t have that as part of his characterization. I appreciated that.

All the central characters in the book are queer. Dovid is bi, which is named on the page, and later on in the book he references both men and women as past partners. His sister Rachel is aroace, and that’s named on the page early on; the text even directly uses the word sex-repulsed and makes it clear that not all ace spec folks are sex-repulsed. Sam first identifies as gay, but as the story unfolds, that shifts and he’s clearly marked as homoromantic ace.

This is one of those stories where an ace character learns about ace identity from an allosexual character; I find this unfortunate in general, but I think it’s pretty well done here, compared to other books I have read. It fits Sam as a character who is fairly isolated to not have found this on his own, it comes up because Dovid makes a lot of room for the possibility that Sam might be ace spec, and Dovid gives him a bit of information without going overboard.

I appreciated the way Dovid and Sam negotiated around sex. Sam is not sex repulsed; he’s also not really interested in sex, and Dovid carefully draws him out when he gets a soft yes for sex, in a way that I really liked.  At one point Dovid says “Not minding something and wanting to do something are two really different things,” and my whole body relaxed. The way consent worked in that particular scene was really wonderful, and made me so happy, and just…relieved. There is no sex on the page in this book, and while we see them talk about potentially having it if Sam is interested at some point, it also doesn’t feel like there is sexual pressure. This is honestly a breath of fresh air as far as ace spec representation in contemporary romance goes, in my reading experience. Often allo/ace relationships are presented as if there is a ton of pressure to have sex, as if the aceness of the character is a problem they need to come up with a solution for. This really doesn’t do that, it presents Sam’s aceness and Dovid’s allosexuality as things that are just true about each person, and not as…antagonists or obstacles in the story. Instead, their conversation about it actively prioritizes communication and consent as the goals, and that just felt really good to read, as an ace spec reader and as a trauma survivor reader.

There is a moment when Dovid asks Rachel to stop joking about him potentially having sex and in the course of that conversation he tells Rachel that Sam is homoromantic ace. I had some concerns about this as I wasn’t sure he had Sam’s consent to tell people, and while I understood why he wanted Rachel to stop, I wished that he had found a way to get her to without outing Sam to her. It would have been great if the story had made it clear that it was okay with Sam to tell her, or perhaps even have Sam talk to her about ace stuff before this so it wasn’t a big thing. I did really want Sam to have other ace spec folks in his life, and she is right there and his friend, so that would have been really lovely.

I’m not blind, so I cannot speak to accuracy of the representation. I would love to hear what blind readers think of this book. In general, the disability representation worked pretty well for me. Dovid gets to be a blind YouTube celebrity without making inspiration porn, which I appreciated. He feels like a full on romance hero in this, all swoony and competent and romantic, and I fell for him. He is also…a full person in a way that I think is fairly rare in disability representation in romance, and he has an analysis of ableism and access issues. He’s an access activist in his own way via his access reviews, and also does anti-bullying work with kids. He makes lots of jokes about being blind, in a way that resonated for me as part of disability culture, and he’s got connections to other disabled folks. I loved that that he really got to be irritated and sad about access issues, that he was a better cook than his abled sister, and all the other ways that his competency and complexity was honored by other characters and by the story.

I loved loved loved Dovid’s relationship with his sister, so much, all the ways they navigated caring for and about each other, creating interdependence and honoring each other’s privacy and needs. It made me so happy to see such a close, complex and caring relationship between them where they both got to be full characters. I also really loved Rachel in her own right, and would be excited if she got her own book; perhaps she might get to have a QPP?

Dovid is an incredible active character, bounds about the story doing things and catalyzing change for others and doing doing doing, somewhat impulsively, sometimes inadvertently changing things in other people’s lives without thinking about how they might ripple out or what impact they might have. I liked watching him go, partly because it is just so incredibly rare for me to find stories about disabled characters where they take this level of action all throughout the story. And I liked watching him learn about and begin to be a bit more careful about the ripples he causes for others. I’ve written before about this kind of thing with regard to Peter Darling, where it was incredibly striking to me to see a trans character in a romance take so much action, drive so much of the story. Dovid is not the object of affection in this story, he is a subject, taking action, and just as that is rare in trans rep, it is also rare in disability rep in this genre.

That said, there were a couple moments where the language used to talk about disability jarred me out of the story. Early on, Sam refers to Dovid as a “voice for disabled and differently abled people”, and while I am forever irritated by “differently abled,” as a phrase, it made sense that an abled person might use it. But later in the story Dovid says “There were a lot of people who were disabled or otherwise special needs,” and that felt off me, as Dovid is presented as someone who is involved in disability culture and activism. In my experience of disability culture, there are disagreements on whether to use person first or identity first language, but it’s fairly universal that folks do not use the term “special needs” except sarcastically. I had a hard time buying Dovid saying this, and I also was just putt off by the way the book didn’t seem to be able to refer to disabled people without other added language.

The Jewish representation worked well for me, it was mostly incidental, but felt right to me as a Jewish reader, if that makes sense? Sometimes incidental rep feels off, and this didn’t. I am so hungry for Jewish disabled queer MCs in romance, that it was just really nice. Sam has social anxiety and I liked the rep around that, liked the way Dovid made room for him to not be up for some things, and the panic right before a big social thing really resonated for me.

Overall, I am so glad I read this book, it was lovely in a great many ways, and I am likely to do comfort rereads in the future. I am really hoping there will be an audiobook at some point because attraction to voices is a big thing in the story and I’d love to have a voice in mind for Sam in particular. (ETA: Per the author, there will be an audiobook, narrated by Sean Crisden, who is one of my fave audiobook performers!) There are so many cozy and sweet moments in the story, including all the gaming, which was really soothing to read about. I have a feeling this would be a great companion to Looking for Group by Alexis Hall; if you are a fan of that book, this might be up your alley.

Representation

  • Bisexual Jewish blind man MC.
  • Homoromantic ace man trauma survivor MC with social anxiety.
  • Aroace Jewish woman secondary character.
  • Non-binary author.

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

MC has emotionally abusive queer hating parents who have deeply impacted his self esteem; this features heavily in his personal arc. References to ableism and queer antagonism, including internalized queer antagonism. References to MC experiencing bullying in the past. Ace spectrum character learns about asexuality from an allosexual character. Midpoint plot twist where an MC gets hit by a car as a pedestrian; this doesn’t go into much detail describing it, but I found it quite jarring because it felt like a jump scare. 

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
  • I have had no contact with the author.
  • All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.

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