About the Book

Title: When You Call My Name
Published: 2022
Swoonworthy Scale: 5

Cover Story: Big Face x 2
BFF Charm: Yay x 2
Talky Talk: He Said, He Said
Bonus Factors: The Nineties, New York City, Fashion Baby!
Factor: AIDS Epidemic
Relationship Status: Like a Prayer

Content Warnings: This novel includes death and depictions of illnesses brought on by HIV/AIDS, as well as some violence against queer people.

Cover Story: Big Face x 2

While there’s nothing inherently WRONG with this cover (I actually like the font used on the title!), I am a little disappointed by it. You’ve got a book set in 1990 NYC, I’m gonna want some nineties-inspired, big city visuals to go along with it, you know? This cover could be any contemporary novel – it shies away from everything that makes the book unique.

The Deal:

It’s 1990 and New York City’s gay community is reeling from the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Born and raised in Manhattan, 17-year-old film fanatic Adam is working at the movie rental store when he meets Callum, a slightly older, extremely cute music student who asks him out on a date. Adam accepts, and soon finds himself falling head over heels.

Ben is 18 and obsessed with fashion, but when his mother finds his stash of gay magazines, he leaves his upstate New York home and moves in with his brother in the city. With a keen eye and creative mind, Ben soon finds himself a job as a photo assistant on high-profile fashion shoots, and for the first time in his life, he starts to feel like he can truly be himself and not hide the fact that he’s gay.

Eventually, Adam and Ben’s paths begin to cross, but their path to friendship isn’t a straight line. Adam realizes that Callum is keeping a major secret from him, and Ben is seeing first-hand that Manhattan isn’t as gay-friendly as he first assumed. Both boys need someone they can turn to now more than ever.

BFF Charm: Yay x 2

2 BFF charms

Adam and Ben were similar in a lot of ways – young, gay, and both dipping their toes into New York’s gay social and dating scene for the first time. Adam is a film fanatic, while Ben is obsessed with fashion. I loved them both, and I really liked the juxtaposition in their home and family lives. Born and raised in Manhattan, Adam’s parents are loving and accepting of him. But when his parents don’t understand exactly what he’s going through, Adam can always turn to his godparents, Jack and Victor, who introduce him to their gay and lesbian friends and talk to him about what it’s like to lose loved ones to HIV/AIDS.

Meanwhile, Ben has hidden his sexuality from his mother, and she isn’t accepting when she finds out. He moves to Manhattan to live with his brother Gil, and while Gil is accepting of Ben’s sexuality, he’s also cautious for his safety – as a big brother AND a doctor.

Swoonworthy Scale: 5

I went into this book assuming it was a love story between Adam and Ben, and in some ways it is, but their stories don’t fully connect until much later in the novel. Adam’s romance with Callum is the focus in the first half, and while it has its butterfly-inducing moments being Adam’s first love, I struggled to let myself fall head over heels the way that Adam does. Callum clearly had secrets, and there were times when he wasn’t honest with Adam or left him on read, so I always had my guard up.

Talky Talk: He Said, He Said

The book alternates between Adam and Ben’s stories, and between chapters, we get snippets of a Q&A with….someone. The book never really tells us who, but I have theories. Shaw’s writing is beautiful and aching, just like the story he weaves, and you can tell how much he loves the city and the people he’s writing about from the care he takes to describe them. I swear I could feel the cold air as a taxi whooshed by, smell the pizza from the corner shop, hear two boisterous neighbors yelling at each other up the street.

To walk in New York is to enter a sprawling civic choreography with a cast of millions, and Ben falls effortlessly into its rhythms of haste, purpose, possibility. He knows the steps because he listens to the city call them out. He sees where the woman approaching him is going just by the position of her hips and the curve of her neck, and when she comes directly at him with no hint of slowing, New York tells him to count a beat and twist his shoulders just as she does the same.

This story was apparently inspired by a viral Twitter thread by the author, which you can read here:

Bonus Factor: The Nineties

Screenshot from My So-Called Life, with Angela and Rayanne rocking 90s fashion

Nineties kids, bust out your Walkmans because Shaw is generous with the 1990s references. From the movies Adam loves to the fashion-industry intel that Ben has, this book will have you feeling nostalgic.

Bonus Factor: New York City

Overhead view of New York City skyline

This is definitely one of those books where the setting is a character in and of itself. I could just see the yellow taxis, smell the greasy pizza, hear the guy shouting at no one in particular on the opposite street corner. Shaw’s descriptions of New York City and the community and camaraderie of its people (especially the LGBTQA+ community!) will make you fall in love with the city.

Bonus Factor: Fashion, Baby!

Glamorous woman in leopard print dress steps out of limo

I used to do styling and art direction on fashion shoots, so I loved all the references to the fashion industry and magazine editorials. It felt so detailed that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I tracked down a December 1990 issue of VOGUE and saw that Shaw had described the actual covers and editorials inside, or real pieces from the Fall/Winter 1990 collections of the designers that Ben loves.

Factor: AIDS Epidemic

HIV red ribbon

Shaw doesn’t hold back when describing the tragedy of this disease, and I could feel the terror and heartache of the queer community in these pages. We also see condemnation and animosity from outsiders, which adds another layer of fear and isolation to an already horrible time.

But we also see how a community came together to show each other love and fight for one another, and there’s so much beauty in that resilience.

Relationship Status: Like a Prayer

The thing about this book is that there’s no way to write a true portrayal of the AIDS epidemic in NYC in the late 80s/early 90s without death. And yet, when asked to describe this novel, I wouldn’t say that it’s sad. There are some really heartbreaking moments, but when I finished reading and set the book down, I felt hopeful more than anything else.

FTC Full Disclosure: I did not receive money or Girl Scout cookies of any kind (not even the gross cranberry ones) for writing this review. When You Call My Name is available now.

Rosemary lives in Little Rock, AR with her husband and cocker spaniel. At 16, she plucked a copy of Sloppy Firsts off the "New Releases" shelf and hasn't stopped reading YA since. She is a brand designer who loves tiki drinks, her mid-century modern house, and obsessive Google mapping.