All Eyes on Her

I could not be more excited for today’s post. I am super thrilled to welcome back BBB contributor Jack for another incredible review. This time, Jack writes about a forthcoming LGBTQ2S+ novel, Seven, by Farzana Doctor, an author of colour in my local, Toronto. Then, I am deeply honoured to be hosting a post by another Ontario author, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, whose new YA thriller, All Eyes On Her, comes out later this month. She addresses a super challenging topic in writing, and one that she proves herself to be a master of in her upcoming title that I couldn’t put down: multiple POV.

Before we jump in, I just want to put in a quick plug for an upcoming LGBTQ2S+ contemporary indie press book by my client, author CM Harris. Maiden Leap releases on September 1st, and you can read more about it here!

In addition, as a follow up to last week’s post on chapter books, huge congratulations to Theanne Griffith, Reggie Brown, and their whole team – there are more Magnificent Makers books on the way!

Jack’s Review of Seven, by Farzana Doctor

I have such a fondness for Farzana’s work, which I discovered years ago through our mutual connection to the social work profession. I was super glad when Jack chose this book to check out. Seven comes out later this year, and is available for pre-order now.

Farzana Doctor’s novel Seven is the kind of novel that, like the scent of baked bread wafting over from a bakery, lures you in. In her fourth novel, Seven, Doctor explores themes of personhood, motherhood, and the concept of individuality in a collective community. The novel borrows from Farzana’s Indian ancestry, specifically her Dawoodi Bohra community and carefully braids truth and fiction into a family’s intergenerational story. What begins as an insight into a familial tree takes Sharifa through past and present becoming a story of chosen family and the fortitude of relationships.

Seven, is a layered concoction which reveals itself to its reader in pieces. In the novel, Doctor questions how people define “harm”, challenging the notion of harm and family as mutually exclusive. Doctor represents social justice on the public scale we are familiar with, and through the individual experience which personalizes pain.

Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash

CW for this book include sexual violence and gas-lighting. I found enlightenment in the presence of both sexual violence and strategies of healing. I recommend this book to readers in their young adulthood. It is also an insight into the different types of activism and stands one can take.

Farzana Doctor is a Canadian author, activist, and psychotherapist. She is a careful writer whose embroidery of Intergenerational trauma, the politicization of women’s bodies and the human experience, is both brilliant and alluring. What happens when trauma is weaponized as a vehicle of obedience and victims become perpetrators? How can multiple truths co-exist?

During this year’s Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), I had the pleasure of attending the virtual What We found discussion, where she posed thoughtful questions about identity, about writing. The thoughtfulness is evident once again in the configuration of Seven, a novel full of questioning.

The novel begins with Sharifa, a woman who feels broken. Sharifa and her family decide to go to India, where Murtuza (her husband) will be working and Sharifa will be on sabbatical. Sharifa plans on researching her family, specifically Abdoolally’s role as the family’s patriarch, while homeschooling her daughter.  Her daughter, Zee becomes a focal point, reminding Sharifa of herself as a child when she would travel back to India. During her research, Sharifa begins to identify the ways in which people can inflict harm their loved ones. Even though this is a work of fiction, the character of Abdoolally was inspired by Hussonally Dholkawala, Doctor’s great-great grandfather, and the character are based on the very real Dawoodi Bohras’ community.

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

In many ways, the novel is an account of the experiences of a cultural transplant with sexual violence, generational trauma and belonging. By showing the varying ways in which trauma shows up for the same experience, Doctor explores the complicated nature of trauma.

In Seven, the reader is given pieces of a puzzle and asked: “what happens if we believe in the wrong thing, the wrong people?” What does healing look like?

Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, Author of ALL EYES ON HER

I met Laurie through this blog, when I first wrote about one of her titles, Last Girl Lied To, which I read during the #VillainAThon last year. I could not put this book down. Since then, I’ve learned that Laurie herself is as much of a delight as her books are, as she’s peppered me with recommendations for other un-put-down-able titles over the last several months. I think that I can safely say that we share a passion for messy teenaged femme characters, and I have never been disappointed by a book that she’s suggested for me.

I am honoured to have met Laurie, and to have received an ARC of her forthcoming YA novel, All Eyes On Her to screen read for my bookshop. It was the first book I read in 2020, while I was going through a very difficult time in my life, and it was immersive and escapist and everything I’d hoped. The ending drove me bananas in the best possible way. The last chapter was absolutely delicious, and kept me guessing through the very last page. All Eyes On Her comes out on August 18th, and is available for pre-order now.

More recently, Laurie has achieved incredible success, and as a reader I could not be happier, and as one of her supporters, I am deeply proud. Her adult debut was recently acquired by Simon and Schuster, and optioned for television by AMC. I can’t wait to read this book, and I hope desperately that we’ll all get to watch it come to live as a super bingeable series.

For this post, I am so grateful that Laurie addressed multi-POV writing. As I wrote at the top of this post, she executes it perfectly in All Eyes On Her, and it’s something that takes so much technique, precision, and dedication to master. Thank you so much for this, Laurie, and congratulations for all that is to come!

As is tradition, I asked Laurie to recommend some books by Black authors that readers of this blog should check out alongside All Eyes On Her. Her choices were Some Other Now by Sarah Everett, which releases in early 2021. She also loved Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson, and You Don’t Know Me But I Know You by Rebecca Barrow. 

Voices in a Crowd: Writing Multiple POV

When I started writing All Eyes On Her, I didn’t have a plot or an outline—just a vaguely drawn idea about a boy and a girl who went into the woods, and only the girl came back. The first voice that came to me was the main character Tabitha’s best friend, Elle, and the next thing I knew, Tabby’s sworn enemy needed a say too. Before I knew it, several other characters had emerged from my imagination, all of them with one thing in common: They knew, or had known, Tabitha Cousins, and thus felt qualified to weigh in on her guilt or innocence. To act as a sort of jury, convincing the reader of her true nature.

I drafted the novel in a fast and furious blur. By the time I finished, there were five main point of view characters, each with a different relationship to Tabby and her deceased boyfriend Mark, as well as several peripheral characters with their own chapters. To complicate matters, the story also involved news articles, blog posts, texts, diary entries, and police transcripts. 

I give huge credit to my editors for not balking at the idea of a novel with so many different POV characters and formats. They were fully on board and excited about the concept from the start. I knew the challenges I was facing—to successfully execute the style I wanted the novel to take, each voice had to sound unique, and each character had to provide different information that informed the narrative and moved the plot along. It was in editing and revising that I really learned what worked and what didn’t, and I came up with these tips for anyone else working on (or wanting to start) a multiple POV novel!

Know Your Characters

You need to know your characters no matter how many POV characters you have, or how the story is told. But it’s especially important when you have a cast of characters whose voices each need to sound distinct. Each time I entered a new perspective, I settled into that character’s head, and that informed the voice. I often asked myself, is this something she would say? Is this a reaction she would have? I also challenged myself to memorize each person’s motivations—why he feels this way, and why he thinks the reader needs to be made aware. I aimed to know instinctively how each character would react to a situation, even if it was a situation that wasn’t happening on the page. 

The Why

Ask yourself why a certain character’s POV needs to be included. What does it bring to the story? What information or insight does this person provide that another one can’t? A few side characters with POV chapters in the first draft of All Eyes On Her were cut in revisions, because as fun as they were to write, they weren’t adding any new or crucial information to the narrative.

Try Different Formats

While most of my POV characters have first-person present-tense chapters, I wrote one entirely using a police transcript format. At the time, I wasn’t sure why his story needed to be told this way, but looking back, I can see the reason. I didn’t necessarily want the reader in his head as much as directly outside of it. I wanted to showcase his personality through dialogue and intentionally keep certain thoughts off-limits. Which brings me to the next point…

Hide and Seek

Just because you have multiple characters doesn’t mean you need to give readers their every thought. In fact, it’s more effective when you don’t (especially if you’re writing a thriller where everybody may be a suspect…). Think as much about what you choose not to share as what you do. Give your readers tantalizing little gaps to fill in. Consider why a character may not be saying something, and what that tells readers about him or her. The only thing I love more than an unreliable narrator… unreliable narrators.

The only thing I love more than an unreliable narrator… unreliable narrators.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is solid advice for writing in general, but I find it especially helpful for navigating a multi-POV book. If readers are simply told every thought in a character’s mind, they’ll get bored easily, and you run the risk of one character blending into the next. Show how the character interacts with others. How she walks and talks. What her hobbies are. How she acts at parties. How she behaves around friends versus parents. What her secrets are, and how she conceals them…

Streamline Information

Something to avoid with a large cast of POV characters is each section feeling like an info-dump, or a repetition of information another character already shared. Ideally, you want each character’s next chapter to piggyback off the one before it, ramping up to the climax of the novel. The order needs to be determined by underlying tension, and what comes next to ratchet up that tension. Every author has a different strategy, and there’s no wrong way. Some write all of one character’s chapters before moving into the head of another, and some write mostly in chronological order. For this book, I head-hopped and wrote mostly in order, which I think helped with the pacing, and ensured that every new event built on the one before it to create momentum.

Motivation is Key

Since character arcs are so important, this is a challenge when you have several characters whose stories need to feel compelling on their own, as well as part of a whole. Make sure you always know what each character wants, and what’s standing in the way of them getting it. I also like to keep in mind what each character is hiding, or what they don’t want people to find out. Having character arcs overlap and inform each other is like putting together a (sometimes frustrating, sometimes extremely satisfying) puzzle.

Differentiate Speech and Mannerisms

A trick I employed as I edited All Eyes On Her: If I picked up the manuscript and flipped to a random chapter, would I know whose head I was in within a couple sentences? If the answer was no, I looked at why. Had I fallen into similar phrasing? Made everyone constantly push their hair back behind their ears? Did the dialogue feel familiar? Voice is everything in a book with several of them, so having consistent go-to mannerisms or expressions that feel familiar to a character helps them stand out.

I hope these tips are helpful to anyone writing multiple POV! All in all, try to think of it for what it is… a very fun experience, and a challenge that will improve your writing. If you’re someone who gets bored easily (hi, me) or something doesn’t feel right in your book from just one POV, it might be worth figuring out whose voice to potentially add to the story. Listen to what that character has to say—because it may be quite telling.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Chapter Books… What’s GOOD?

New (to me) Resource

Before I get into content, I do want to throw up a new Enby Book List that I discovered on Twitter this week! Compiled by Jeanne G’Fellers, this is a new resource that I’ve now added to the BBB Links and Resources page! This is a great list, especially if you’re looking for indie or harder to discover titles featuring non-binary authors and characters.

Chapter Books… What’s GOOD?

Thanks to some inspiration from one of my clients, Marissa Ellor, I’ve decided to finally write a comprehensive list of chapter book recommendations. This is a post that I’ve been meaning to make for a while, and it’s a total bookseller post, but I hope that it will be useful to parents and kidtlit writers as well.

The bookshop where I work is in a neighbourhood with a lot of young families in it, and we also do the majority of our business with the local school boards. Our store specializes in social justice and diversity, so as curators and booksellers, we are very mindful and selective about the books that we choose. For a while now, there has been fantastic YA to choose from, and picture books are getting better and better every day. Board books are catching up, and there’s starting to be some good MG out there. When you’re looking at kids who are still learning to read independently, though, finding really good chapter books, early readers, and graphic novels for the developing (or “reluctant”) reader can be super challenging. I hope that my recommendations can make finding the gems a little bit easier for those who are overwhelmed!

There was a period of my life when I was spending a lot of time in suburban Colorado, and probably once a week I found myself at the 2nd and Charles in Aurora. This store is an oasis of used kids’ books. They have a massive selection in a clean and well-organized space, and they often do ridiculous sales. At the time, I was co-parenting, and one of my favourite things to do was to bring the kids to these sales and give them free rein to pick whatever books looked good, and then spend time sitting at one of the kids’ tables with them, discussing what we were going to bring home and why it was awesome.

A bearded person stands in front of shelves of picture books with their arms full of books. They are laughing.
Photo from the 2nd and Charles Facebook page, May 22 2019.

Part of the fun of this for me was rediscovering the books that in large part made me who I am today. I was that kid who used to bring their maximum number of library loans home every week, and had to carry a stack after the Scholastic order came into my classroom in elementary school. I was lucky enough to be allowed to read whatever I wanted, and I read a lot. Some of my favourites were chapter book series – from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Saddle Club to Goosebumps and Bunnicula… I loved these stories. The bad news is? A lot of them haven’t aged so well. The good news is? There are a LOT of new things on the market for this reading group.

Unfortunately, sometimes too many choices can be overwhelming, and because chapter books are chronically under-screened and under-reviewed compared to books in other categories, it’s hard to know what’s good. Taking a peek at Barnes and Noble’s selection, for example: there are over 27 000 titles available through their website categorized as paperback, ages 6-9, and that cost between $5 and $10 USD. The Toronto Public Library lists 5 816 results for “easy-to-read” stories. Important to note: neither of these outlets for books for kids actually categorize books AS chapter books. Where does a reader even start to look? I hope that by providing some recommendations for my favourite chapter book series, it will make the selection process a little more manageable!

A close up of a child reading a book, one eye visible, and the book large and out of focus in the foreground.
Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

I’ve chosen the series listed below for a number of reasons, and diverse representation is at the top of that list. That said, probably the BIGGEST fault in chapter books right now is that you actually can’t judge books by their covers. Although so many of these titles look super inclusive, there is a serious dearth of #OwnVoices stories, and even most of the books that feature diverse casts are still written by white folks. It’s time for kidlit publishers to seek out better representation among their authors for books in this reading level.

I am also not a fan of “potty humour” in books, so there’s not a lot of that here. For each category, I’ve profiled my favourite selection briefly, and then included a list of other titles in that category underneath. You will see that the book listed is always the first book in the series (where the series are numbered), but as a rule, it is not necessary to read chapter books in the order in which they are published! They are typically stand alone stories. Where the series name isn’t obvious, I’ve included that in parentheses following the title.

A child looks at a bunch of books on a shelf.
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

Books with Animals as Characters

When you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing book for a group of young kids, or a great read aloud, it’s hard to go wrong with anthropomorphic animals just living their lives. The Heartwood Hotel series, written by Canadian author Kallie George and illustrated by Stephanie Graegin is a wholesome series about a super-cozy hotel for forest animals. Themes of friendship and community come through in these books accompanied by black and white illustrations.

The cover of Heartwood Hotel: A True Home, showing a tree with a small mouse sitting on a branch.
  • Eva’s Treetop Festival (Owl Diaries)
  • A True Home (Heartwood Hotel)
  • Rabbit’s Bad Habits (Rabbit and Bear)
  • A New Friend (The Adventures of Sophie Mouse)

Stories for Animal Lovers

The Jasmine Green books by Helen Peters and illustrated by Ellie Snowdon are about a young girl who lives on a family farm with her parents and siblings. Her mom is a veterinarian, and each book in this series sees Jasmine helping an animal in need. This is the perfect series for compassionate education in a classroom, or for any kid who loves animals.

The cover of A Piglet Called Truffle, featuring a pink piglet running through the grass.
  • Mercy Watson to the Rescue
  • Megabat
  • Amy and the Missing Puppy (The Critter Club)
  • A Piglet Called Trouble (Jasmine Green)

Books about Friendship

I love Megan Atwood’s books. At a more accessible level for readers, the Dear Molly, Dear Olive series features two young girls who are cross-country Email penpals. One lives in a city, and one lives in a rural area. The books follow the girls as they tell each other about their adventures, and the reader explores the ups and downs of long-distance friendship. At a more advanced level are the Orchard Novels, of which there are four, one for each season. These follow four kids who live and work together on a New England apple orchard. Like Dear Molly, Dear Olive, these lighthearted books feature a diverse cast.

  • Ivy and Bean
  • Best Friends Forever? (Ashley Tall and Ashlee Small)
  • A Fall for Friendship (An Orchard Novel)
  • Dear Molly, Dear Olive
  • The Baby-Sitters Club

Books about Making Stuff

The Magnificent Makers series is an #OwnVoices series of books about kids making stuff, written by Theanne Griffith, PhD. She is not only a children’s author, but also a neuroscientist. The illustrator for this series is Reggie Brown, who specializes in diverse representation. These books are charming, well-written, and they are a brilliant fresh perspective for a space where we are only just starting to see #OwnVoices stories come to light.

The cover of Magnificent Makers: How to Test a Friendship, showing three children of colour looking at a biodome on a table.
  • Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters (Questioneers)
  • Ellie, Engineer
  • The Un-Friendship Bracelet (Craftily Ever After)
  • How to Test a Friendship (The Magnificent Makers)

Mysteries

My favourite series in this whole post is the Museum Mysteries series. While I wish that the creators behind this series (Steve Brezenoff and Lisa K. Weber) were a little more diverse, the books themselves offer a fresh new take on classic whodunnits with an inclusive Scooby Squad cast of characters and beautiful covers. They’re quick reads with awesome classroom tie-ins, and if your household is playing a LOT of Animal Crossing right now (like mine is), fans of Blathers will be super into the varied museum settings of these stories.

The cover of The Case of the Haunted Mystery Museum, featuring a child looking up at a large museum with lightning in the background.
  • Ada Lace on the Case
  • The Case of the Haunted History Museum (Museum Mysteries)
  • King and Kayla and the Case of the Missing Dog Treats

Spooky Stories

Obviously, my favourites. I wish that my childhood chapter books had aged a little better, but I’m glad that there are new spooky series taking up the mantle – like Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol, by Andrés Miedoso and illustrated by Víctor Rivas. This is a classic monster-of-the-week series (appropriate for the faint of heart!) featuring the fearless Desmond Cole, and his sidekick who is afraid of everything: Andrés.

The cover of Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol, which shows two children in the foreground and some spooky houses and ghosts in the background.
  • Ghoulia
  • The Haunted House Nextdoor (Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol)
  • Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts
  • Isadora Moon Goes to School
  • Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball

Fantasy

There are so many good fantasy chapter books, and they range from epic to urban to friendship stories about yetis. There’s something for every reader. Left wanting for an #OwnVoices series in this category, I still love Zoey and Sassafras, by Asia Citro and illustrated by Marion Lindsay. This whimsical series is a blend of science and magic with lots of illustrations, featuring a young girl, and her cat.

The cover of Zoey and Sassafras, which shows a young girl and a cat looking at a small dragon.
  • Upside-Down Magic
  • Dragons and Marshmallows (Zoey and Sassafras)
  • Polly Diamond and the Magic Book
  • Rise of the Earth Dragon (Dragon Masters)
  • Bo’s Magical New Friend (Unicorn Diaries)
  • Sparkly New Friends (Unicorn and Yeti)
  • Willow Moss and the Lost Day (Starfell)

STEAM (Science, Math, and More)

At a slightly more advanced reading level, the Elements of Genius series is ideal for a reader transitioning to MG novels. This series is written by Jess Keating who is herself a zoologist, and illustrated by Lissy Marlin, an artist from the Dominican Republic now living in the US. Lissy has done all kinds of cool projects, including the Magic Misfits series by Neil Patrick Harris. the Elements of Genius are witty and trendy and feature a badass feminine protagonist as she navigates a new school for gifted kids.

The cover of Elements of Genius, which shows an adolescent girl in the foreground and a ferret reaching toward a laser gun in the background.
  • Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray (Elements of Genius)
  • The Friendship Code (Girls Who Code)
  • Frankie Sparks and the Class Pet
  • Super Amoeba (Squish)

Graphic Crossover (Illustrated)

I challenge anyone not to love the CatStronauts, a graphic series by Drew Brockington featuring astronaut cats in weirdly scientifically accurate NASA-type situation. They’re wonderful. I have nothing else to say about these books.

The cover of CatStronauts, which shows four astronaut cats on the moon.
  • CatStronauts: Mission Moon
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: New School Nightmare
  • Sparks!
  • The Way Home (Owly)
  • Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea (Narwhal and Jelly)
  • Hildafolk (Hilda)

Heroes and Adventure

There are a lot of really good hero books out there, but none as weird and charming as Gum Girl by Rhode Montijo. These books have bubblegum-scented covers (yeah, for real), and feature a feminine protagonist who literally changes into gum and goes on adventures. With a little bit of Spanish sprinkled throughout, I love the writing in these books, and I love the bizarre concept. They’re heavily illustrated, and they’re funny.

The cover of Gum Girl, which shows a character made of gum flying through the sky.
  • Mia Mayhem Is a Superhero
  • Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue
  • Chews Your Destiny (Gumazing Gum Girl)
  • The Jolly Regina (The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters)
  • The Princess in Black
  • The Bad Guys
  • An Extra-Ordinary Girl (Ellie Ultra)

Contemporary

They’re a bit on the ridiculous side, but if the #OwnVoices Alvin Ho books aren’t relatable, I don’t know what are. They’re about a kid who’s afraid of everything, and basically just has to figure it out. Alvin Ho is written by Lenore Look, who has been creating kids’ books since she was a kid herself, and illustrated by the incredible LeUyen Pham, who also illustrates the Princess in Black series, and is co-creator of Real Friends with Shannon Hale.

The cover of Alvin Ho, which shows a scared child on the front.
  • Good Dog McTavish
  • Katie Woo Has the Flu
  • Alvin Ho Allergic to Girls, School, and other Scary Things
  • Sadiq and the Desert Star
  • Yasmin the Builder
  • Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business
  • Stella Díaz Has Something to Say

…last but not least: Sports, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Personal Faves

There are SO MANY CHAPTER BOOKS that I couldn’t not mention just a few more. On the top of this list is a standalone chapter book level novel called Coyote Tales. It’s written by acclaimed Indigenous author Thomas King, and tells two stories about Coyote that demonstrate his skillfulness as an author, as well as his humour. This is a rad book that we sell a lot at the shop, and although it’s a bit difficult to categorize, I would be remiss not to mention it here. It’s the perfect note to close out on.

The cover of Coyote Tales, where a coyote looks up at the moon, who frowns back.
  • Coyote Tales
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School
  • Flying Ace: Errol’s Gander Adventure
  • Little Shaq
  • The Ice Chips and the Magical Rink
  • Choose Your Own Adventure
  • Yael and the Party of the Year (Yes No Maybe So)
A small child reading on a couch.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Veronica Mars, But Make It Queer

After taking the longest hiatus from posting that I have taken since I started this blog, coming back feels a little bit like coming home. I love my life as a literary agent, and in these quarantimes I am missing my life as a bookseller, but first and foremost, I’m always a bookworm at heart. I decided to take a step back from posting to make space for Black and BIPOC voices making essential statements during a very difficult political time both for publishing and for all of us who are touched and affected by COVID-19. I don’t want anyone to stop listening to those voices, but I also don’t want to stop making space for LGBTQ2S+ voices in this little space of mine. With that in mind, I would like to extend an ongoing invitation to Black and BIPOC writers who would find it advantageous – reach out to me. This space is yours to use if it’s useful to you. I would always be more than willing to use this platform to host and boost your words and voices if I can.

With that in mind, I have two books that I have personal connections to that I want to mention this week, and I am also all kinds of honoured to be hosting Kylie Schachte, author of You’re Next this week. But first, I want to plug a few of my favourite books by Black authors, for those of you who may not know them yet.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you will know that two of my favourite books of all time are Freshwater, by Akewaeke Emezi, and Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender – both non-binary authors. Freshwater is an adult literary novel that is like no other book I’ve read before. It’s powerful and otherworldly, at times baffling and at others too relatable. It delves into themes like identity, sexuality, and trauma, and it is a difficult but breathtaking book. Hurricane Child, on the other hand, is an accessible middle grade ghost story about a young, Black, queer girl navigating her first crush. It’s poetic and spooky in all the best ways, and I would recommend it to readers of any age. While I’m at it, I’m going to put in a quick plug for books by a dear friend – Emmy Jackson is a Black author of post-apoc fiction, and their book is literally next on my TBR. We’re working on a top secret project together right now, and they’re one of my favourite people. Check out their books here.

If you’re seeking something more contemporary, I would recommend Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, which deserves to be the next TV series à la Little Fires Everywhere. I feel like every millennial has known the characters in this book in their own lives, for better or worse, and the ending is deeply satisfying. Helen Oyeyemi is an author who never ceases to amaze me. Gingerbread is my favourite novel of hers, and it’s a twisting, winding, family epic turned fairytale that is all about a sticky, spicy, maybe deadly (??) snack. In non-fiction, I’d check out Haben Girma’s memoir – a book that I don’t think got enough buzz early on, and comes out in paperback later this summer. Haben tells her story of being a deafblind Black woman, and I think it’s essential reading – especially for anyone who can only name one deafblind person in history (Helen Keller).

As for books by Black authors that I have on my TBR that are coming out later this year, there are so many… Raybearer, by Jordan Ifueko, is a YA fantasy about having the strength to find your own path. I love innovative true crime memoir, and Natasha Trethewey’s book Memorial Drive that examines the murder of her mother looks fantastic. I’m SO HYPED for Alyssa Cole’s new thriller, When No One is Watching – look out for a review somewhere in the near future, because I snagged an ARC! And in my FAVOURITE genre, YA thriller, Tiffany Jackson will drop Grown later in 2020.

…I’ll stop there for now, but thanks to inspiration from Kylie, I’ve asked everyone who I’m featuring in the blog today to recommend a book by a Black author, so this post is packed with suggestions from some incredible authors in their own right.

New Books to Check Out

While the blog was on hiatus, my agenting partner in crime celebrated her book birthday, for her debut novel The Sunset Sisters! Congratulations, CeCe! I couldn’t be prouder of you. This book is the perfect summer read, and is a great commercial fiction recommendation written by a badass feminist author. Cecilia is a Brazilian woman living in Canada, and I am absolutely honoured to call her my friend.

I asked Cecilia what book by a Black author she’d like to recommend alongside The Sunset Sisters, and she chose her favourite of this year so far – The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.

Next, I want to give a quick shoutout to A. J. Vrana, one of my #SpineSquad authors, who is celebrating HER book birthday for her debut novel on July 28th. This dark fantasy is based on her South Slavic heritage, and it gave me nightmares. I’ll cop to it! The book that she wants to recommend alongside The Hollow Gods is How Long ’til Black Future Month, by N. K. Jemisin.

We also celebrated the sale of her audio rights to Tantor this past week, so there will be an awesome audiobook forthcoming! Congrats!!

You’re Next, by Kylie Schachte

When I picked up You’re Next earlier this year, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I read it because I had an ARC, and it was an easy go-to… as you all know, murder is my comfort read. What I actually got was a super queer, relatable, emotional story that blew me away. It reminded me of Veronica Mars, but super queer. Book of my HEART. I immediately reached out to Kylie, who is an absolute fucking gem, to tell her what a punchy rollercoaster her book had been for me. I’m thrilled that Kylie was up for writing a post for this space, and even more excited because what she wrote feels like it was pulled straight out of my heart. Thank you so much, Kylie, it’s an honour.

The cover of You’re Next, out July 7th.

You can pre-order You’re Next now, and while you’re at it, Kyle recommended two books by Black authors who share her book birthday: Cinderella is Dead, by Kalynn Bayron, and The Voting Booth, by Brandy Colbert. Here’s your summer challenge from me: order all three. You won’t regret a thing.

Re-Imagining Escapism for a World on Fire: Kyle Schachte

Emmy and I first planned the topic for this post back in March, but I am writing it in June. A month defined by uprisings in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, and more–more lives, more Black people brutally killed, so many that even as I say those names there are many more I’m leaving out. More may be murdered between the moment I write this sentence and the day it is posted. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the pandemic disproportionally kills Black and brown people, for deliberate, systemic reasons. 

This post is not about how I, as a white woman, feel about those murders, or the general state of racial injustice–the world emphatically does not need that. But to not mention this context would be to entirely miss the point of what I’m about to say. 

My book, YOU’RE NEXT, is the story of Flora Calhoun–a sixteen-year-old girl obsessed with solving the murder of her ex-girlfriend, Ava McQueen. I first started writing the book because I wanted to write something “fun.” I had this idea about a girl detective–a girl who would toss off one-liners like a hardboiled PI from the 40s…right before she went to math class. It would be campy, and sarcastic, and full of things like fight scenes and explosions. People might bring it to the beach, or stay up all night finishing it. 

But from the moment I began writing, I ran into some difficult questions. At the core of any murder mystery is, well, murder. So how do I write a “fun” book, when at the heart of it is a queer Black girl, brutally killed? And any murder mystery must grapple, in some kind of way, with justice–what it means and how it should be served. So how do I write a “fun” book about that, when our own justice system is so broken?

There are phenomenal YA books that tackle topics like these head-on, such as The Hate U Give, or the forthcoming This is My America. These are gorgeous, wrenching books that are desperately needed in YA. But this conversation should not be limited to “issue” books, and it shouldn’t solely be the responsibility of Black and POC creators. Too often, the media we think of as being “commercial” or “fun” (specifically the stuff made by white people) side steps these questions altogether. Those stories take place in some kind of parallel universe, where race, class, gender and the like simply do not exist. 

There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that same question I was asking myself: how do you write something that’s both fun and acknowledges the sad, infuriating realities of the world? Doesn’t that, kind of by definition, make things less fun? 

Well…yeah, in some ways. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that teenagers getting killed is fun. But we should also ask: fun for whom? That fictional parallel reality, absent any acknowledgement of inequality…it was constructed for the comfort of white people. An excuse for us to continue to ignore what we are already ignoring in the real world. Escapism from the issues that barely touch us, and yet make us uncomfortable. A world in which our privilege goes unacknowledged and unchecked. 

When creators respond to these critiques, the answer is often, “It’s not supposed to be that serious,” or, “I don’t want people to have to think that hard.” Mind you, these are often the same people who have developed wholeass magic systems they expect readers to follow, but acknowledging that race…exists…is asking people to think too hard. And that response actually makes a lot of assumptions about readers, and what they will find enjoyable. It assumes a definition of “pleasure” that is, like so many things, oriented around a straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, male gaze. 

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

But that kind of pleasure can ruin a story for others. I often give up on shows or books because the oversights are so glaring. Is this a world in which no people of color exist? No queer people? Women do not make up 50% of the population? When I consume those kinds of stories, there is no escape. My brain works double time to pick out every issue, every whitewashing, every dogwhistle. 

And anyway, it’s a false choice! We already know for a fact that it is possible to write books that can be both fun and acknowledge systemic injustice…because marginalized writers have been creating those stories for ages. Check out A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, or the upcoming Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas–all joyful and escapist, and yet imbued with the lived experience of marginalization. And we should absolutely be handing the mic to #OwnVoices authors at every opportunity, but that does not absolve us from needing to do better in our own work as well. 

I’ve been thinking about these questions since I started writing YOU’RE NEXT in 2014, but my thoughts started to coalesce a few months ago, when I watched the movie Knives Out. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie is an extremely campy, whimsical romp in the vein of Clue, or The Westing Game. An eccentric millionaire is murdered in a locked room, and a brilliant, ostentatious private investigator is brought in to figure out whodunit. But underneath those fun trappings, the movie is also a pointed rebuke of white privilege. The millionaire in question left his entire fortune to his nurse, Marta–a young Latinx woman whose mother is undocumented–cutting his family out of the will altogether. At first, the white family members treat Marta with saccharine affection (while loudly debating in her presence whether “illegals” should be deported), but when the money gets involved, they turn on her. They threaten her and weaponize her mother’s immigration status–even the “nice,” “liberal” side of the family. 

Now, is Knives Out a nuanced, in-depth portrayal of our broken immigration system, or the ways white people benefit from systemic racism? No. It is zany and bonkers, and exactly what you would want from a movie like that. But it provides just enough context to feel like it lives in our real world, or at least was created by people who are aware not only that these problems exist, but that they shape every story we tell–whether we acknowledge them or not. 

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

“Escapism” shouldn’t mean ignoring hard or painful things completely. Instead, when we acknowledge those issues, we find new narrative possibilities–we can create “escapist” fiction that is in dialogue with the things we are trying to escape. Knives Out is pleasurable–and commercially successful!–not because it pretends that racism and xenophobia don’t exist, but because Marta triumphs over it through her own cleverness and good heart. 

The joy I tried to create in YOU’RE NEXT is a little different. Yes, there’s the fun, high octane stuff–car chases, fight clubs, Noir tropes with a high school twist. But unlike Knives Out, the triumph over injustice at the end isn’t so clean & tidy. In many ways, I think the true pleasure of the book comes not from joy, but from pure, unadulterated rage. 

It is fury that propels Flora, the main character, to act. Anger that fuels her obsession with solving Ava’s murder. She lives in the same world we do, where kids are killed all the time, and the entire system is built to protect the wealthy & privileged. And she’s pissed as hell about it. She would love nothing more than to scream “fuck you” in the face of everyone who doesn’t care, or who looks away…and she kind of does exactly that. 

And the satisfaction of that rage can be its own kind of pleasure, or escape. As I have better educated myself about the injustice of the world around me, I have often been sad…but more often I have been livid. Furious with the world for being such a dark and violent place, furious with other people for not doing anything about it, and furious with myself for not knowing better sooner. And while there is plenty we can do in real life to work towards a better world, my hope is that there is something deeply, primally satisfying about watching a teenage girl–someone whom society has deemed weak, vulnerable, without agency–burn the whole fucking thing to the ground. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I strove to write a book that is “fun,” but still inhabits a world in which race, class, and injustice actually exist. As an obscenely privileged white woman, I have certainly gotten things wrong, and have much work still to do. But I could not write a book in which a queer, Black teenage girl dies and pretend that her race and sexuality have nothing to do with her death, or the failures of the investigation. I could not write a book in which teenagers participate in an illegal fight club for money, and not acknowledge the class divisions that drove them to such violence. Acknowledging these problems is not a chore, or an obligation. It creates opportunities for newer, more original stories to be told–and, most importantly, to connect with more readers. Because we already have plenty of books that look the other way, and people are hungry for something else.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Be Our Guest!

I am so excited that this week, I get to hand this space over to a whole bunch of rad guests! I am so grateful to author (and #SpineSquad member) Jules Devito, who is gracing this space with some of her wisdom for querying authors. You may remember that I hosted a self-pubbed author not too long ago who wrote about how to know if querying is not for you. Well, what if you know querying IS for you? The internet is a sea of advice on how to go about doing it, and it can be a lot to sift through.

Jules has queried and successfully been signed by two different agents in her writing career, and had great relationships with both of us. I have deep respect for her prior representation, with whom she parted ways amicably, and I am super grateful that she decided to sign with me on her second time around. Today, Jules has written a little bit about what she’s learned through her querying process.

The cover of Exciting Times - a green background with a cup holding two toothbrushes, and one toothbrush set down beside it.

I am also truly honoured to welcome author, friend, and fellow literary agent, Cecilia Lyra, to this space! I have so much respect for CeCe as a reader and as a fierce, brilliant feminist, and for everything that she does in my life and in the literary community. She’s penned a review of the forthcoming novel Exciting Times, by Irish novelist Naoise Dolan, and I’m so glad to share it with my readers in PART because CeCe loved the book, but also because Naoise is queer and autistic, and we need more of these voices ringing out across the literary world.

BUT FIRST:

Shoutout to Santana Reads: Trans, Non-binary, and GNC Reviews and Recs

But first: I want to drop a few links to Santana Reads, a blog by a rad bi, genderfluid, Puerto Rican teen who Books Beyond Binary supports! Carolina has dropped some awesome content lately, including an interview with non-binary author Kacen Callender about their newest title, Felix Ever After. If you’ve been reading this blog a while you may recall that Callender is the author of one of my FAVOURITE all-time middle grade novels: Hurricane Child.

A campfire, with lots of sparks around it.
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

Carolina has also posted a review of Somebody Told Me, the first traditionally published book with a bigender protagonist (AND IT’S A THRILLER!); a review of fresh new LGBTQ2S+ book Verona Comics; a review of Girls Save the World in This One; and a fantastic list of 23 new and upcoming books by trans, non-binary, and GNC authors! Phew. Dear Carolina, you are on fire, how do you do it? Love, emmy.

Some titles I want to highlight from Carolina’s list that I am personally super looking forward to are Cattywampus, by Ash Van Otterloo, which is a magical MG that had me at the charming as all get out title; Even if We Break, by Marieke Nejkamp, who is not only an author whose YA thrillers are among my faves, but who is also queer, disabled, and autistic (like me!), and whose work reflects that. Also – can we TALK ABOUT THIS COVER PLEASE? Last, but not least, we have Ana on the Edge, by A. J. Sass, which is about a trans figure skater! Nostalgia calling…!

Cover of Even If We Break, by Marieke Nijkamp. White theatre masks on a black background, and text that reads, EVEN IF WE BREAK. One of the masks is cracked.

How to do the Query Thing, by Jules Devito

Clement St. John Sinjin Wyndhamhammersmythe, or: Things I Learned During (And After) Loads Of Querying

Hey book community! As some of you might know, I signed with Emmy last month, and I couldn’t be more excited. What you might not know is that I had another agent before signing with Emmy. Which means what? Yes: I’ve done a lot of querying. I sent out 88 queries before getting my first agent, and 3 before signing with Emmy. That’s a lot of rejections. But along the way, I picked up a few tidbits here and there that I’d like to share with you. This is just my personal experience talking, so, as we say in critique partner-land, YMMV.

A bat flying in a sunset.
Photo by Igam Ogam on Unsplash

The manuscript that I queried Emmy with is a dark, quirky, queer (queerky?) vampire romp – a bit of a departure from my usual SciFi manuscripts. One thing to keep in mind when querying is that you’re not just writing one book and calling it quits. You’ll write more, your style will change, your tastes might change too. So you’re looking for an agent who represents everything you think you might write in the future. More on this later. For now, let’s start with:

Oldschool Querying

WOW, I started querying for my first novel ten years ago, way before I had any business releasing it into the wild. Do you know what querying was like back then? Not all agents even had an email address. So you’d print your query and send it via snail mail, and then you’d wait weeks—or months—to get a reply in your actual mailbox. Gross!

So I began querying for my first manuscript in 2010, and I didn’t sign with my previous agent until 2015. Seven whole drafts later.

Therefore step one—and every literary blog, every agent, every editor, everyone and their dog will tell you this, because it is so true–is to make sure your manuscript is ready. I know, I know, it is always ready, right? You’ve already cast the Netflix series in your mind, time to get started! But leaping empty-handed into the void and hoping for a net isn’t quite the thing in publishing, and that’s because you might find yourself burning through your list of agents in a big-time rush, and some of them might not give you a second chance after that first rejection. So if it takes six or seven drafts before your critique partners / mentors / writing communities agree that it’s ready, then take the time to redraft. Don’t blow your chances before you’re ready to go. Publishing is slooooooow anyway. Think of it like orchids: you tend them for a whole year just to get a few blooms. (But the blooms last for a really long time and are so worth the wait.)

A blur of a person walking with stylized posters in the background reading "wait"
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I made loads of mistakes. Starting queries with “What if” questions, yikes! Scattershot querying. Not researching agents enough. (Although, again: in the early 10s it was hard to come by resources with which to research them. There was a physical book, inches thick, which listed every agent, editor, and publisher, and gave you the tiniest, most pointless little blurb about their likes and dislikes. So personalizing your query back then was a challenge.)

What Finally Worked

Publishing, and naturally, agenting as well, changed a lot in those years. Like, did you know: Back in the 10s and earlier, having written fanfic was almost sure to get you rejected? So when you started to send out those queries, you had to scrub your fandom presence if you wanted to be taken seriously. Thank goodness that changed. Now, many agents grew up in fandoms themselves and consider this a plus. Not all, so do your research. But being a fic writer doesn’t disqualify you anymore; in fact, if you have a positive social media presence, you might even want to include links. That was one of the things that worked for me the first time.

Another thing I did was to change the name of my novel. I can’t stress this bit enough: Make sure your title is accessible, clear, catchy, and easy to understand and to pronounce. The week I changed my title was the week I got three full requests.

I entered every contest I could find to win critiques, chances to talk to agents, opportunities to pitch to them. I entered two pitch contests, two auctions, and in one case played a game of “guess what I’m thinking” with a high-profile agent on Twitter to win a ten-page critique. These were game-changers. Those query critiques and five/ten-page critiques that I won on Twitter improved the entire manuscript.

If an agent, editor, or writer is offering their help on any media platform, take them up on it. Take every opportunity to get eyes on your words. This might take a while. Feed those orchids.

Orchids.
Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

It Doesn’t Always Work Out

BE HONEST. Be honest about what you want out of the business relationship, and more importantly, about your own passions. Approach the entire situation with openness, not only with your future agent, but with yourself. Both novels that I wrote previous to this last one were SF, and I’m comfy there. My brain likes it. But my heart wanted to write that queerky gothic vampire novel, and I should have admitted that to myself from the start.

So obviously, when you do get an offer from an agent and they ask about your future works, you already know to tell them your plans. But you can’t do that unless you’re being honest with yourself. If you suspect that someday your Id is going to push you to write sassy vampires escaping bad guys while running hand in hand through a Halloween corn maze, then square with that and be upfront about it.  And if you and that agent aren’t on the same wavelength about the future of your career, it’s okay to start looking elsewhere, even if that seems like it’s going to set you back. Trust your manuscript. It got you one request, it will probably get you another.

You also don’t have to sign with the biggest or most famous agent or agency. Often, a smaller agency will be a better fit, if you like a personal touch.

Be patient. Remember: ORCHIDS.

Querying In ~*~Modern Times~*~

It’s so much easier now to know what an agent is looking for, and if they would be compatible with you and your work. Know your audience/agent. Google people, but don’t be stalkery. Manuscript Wishlist is the best resource there is. Did you know you can keyword search? “Gothic” “Vampire” “LGBTQA” “Adventure”! Keyword searching specifics can make a world of difference, and the MSWL is so detailed now, it’s really easy to personalize your query. Use that resource.

My new favorite thing? Form queries! They are so convenient. They practically tell you what to say, so you don’t have to struggle with what goes where (“do I lead with the hook? Do I start with the title and word count?”) It’s all laid out for you. But even so: keep a base query at hand, one that you can build on when you add personalizations specific to different agents.

These days, an agent might ask for some links. Do you have a Pinterest mood board for your manuscript? A Spotify playlist? It might be worth it to have a few links to include, if requested. (This was the most exciting bit to me. Wait, so you want to see my self-indulgent mood board? And my MIX TAPE? HECK YES.)

The Call… or Not!

The Call can be completely stressful if you have phone anxiety or social anxiety. The good news is, not all agents need to hear your voice these days. That’s a huge plus also for someone who needs time to think about what they want to say, and make bullet-pointed lists. It’s a good idea to have that anyway, this way if you do have to talk on the phone, you’ll have some guidelines. Also, I think it’s all right to be upfront about your anxiety. The old wisdom was “don’t lead with a weakness,” but I don’t like to think of that as a weakness. I can’t say it enough: Be honest! Agents get nervous too.

So when I signed with Emmy, we mutually decided to do “the call” via email, which for me was much more organized and easier to follow. But you—and your potential agent—may feel differently and that is also great.

What else did all those old advice pages say? Almost everyone still advises that you should ask which publishing houses or specific editors the agent has in mind for your manuscript. It’s supposed to make you sound knowledgable and professional, but again: Is that honest? Your query will divulge how much or how little experience you have in publishing, and you should never pad your query with exaggerations. You will be googled. So why are you bothering to sound like an in-the-know pro if you’re not? The agent is excited about your manuscript, not your connections.

And anyway, how familiar are you with the names they might give you? “Oh yes, the famous editor Clement St. John Sinjin Wyndhamhammersmythe, I just had lunch with that old chap last week!” (Me, though? I actually do know Clement St. John Sinjin Wyndhamhammersmythe. You can ask Emmy.) I get it: You want to google the houses/editors they’re thinking of. Yeah, I do, too! And if they do throw you some names, that’s cool. Don’t get weird about it though. Leave people alone.

So, what should you ask? Personally, I love an editorial agent – in my opinion, that is the best kind of agent. MORE EYES ON YOUR WORDS. So it’s good to ask if they do editorial work and a round or two revisions before submitting. Yes, again, that takes a bit longer. ORCHIDS.

Orchids.
Photo by Kyla Flanagan on Unsplash

I’m a chatty, nervous person, and I like to check in a lot during revisions (I always feel like the woman who tried to restore the Jesus fresco.) Is your potential agent all right with checking in? What is their level of communication? You never want to feel like you’re annoying them.

I think it’s all right to ask if you can talk to some of their authors, but only after you get an offer. Chatting at signed authors before you’ve even queried the agent seems a little presumptuous. “Hey, what do you think, should I query your agent?”  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I guess?? Do what you want!

Many agents will offer you some contacts with their authors after they make an offer, and if that’s their preference, that’s fine. But keep this in mind: Will any of those authors bad-mouth their agent? Hahahahaha not likely. If they’re still with their agent, then you can be sure they’re pretty happy. So you can contact all the authors you like, but I doubt you’re going to hear anything that will change your mind. “How was your experience with the agent Foreign Rights McNetflix-Series?” “OMG the absolute worst, can’t recommend.” Seriously?

What sorts of revisions do they have in mind? This is important! True story: I have a critique partner who was told by an agent that he would definitely sign her if she was willing to make her lead character “more marketable.” Well, what does that mean? When pressed, the agent clarified, “Straight.”

Run. Oh my god, run.

Be seriously open to change, because agents do have more experience than you, and they know what’s publishable. So to a point, you can’t be in too much of a committed relationship with your manuscript. But if they suggest any changes that make you feel uncomfortable, or that you really can’t get on board with, then chances are you and this agent will keep running into this particular wall, and you’re not going to have a good business relationship with them. Editorial suggestions should not feel personal – this is a business decision. If their suggestions make you feel bad, make your skin crawl, or make you feel like you suck, then it’s better to hold out for someone else.

You should never be made to feel like you suck. There is a gatekeeping aspect to agenting, but as a querying writer who knows that your manuscript is The Goods, try to think of it as searching for a compatible business partner. Agents are not the enemy or some door you need to batter down; you’re looking for someone who is as excited about your manuscript as you are. As with any relationship, you want them to feel a passion that matches yours. They shouldn’t be settling for you, nor you for them.

A group of people sitting at a wooden table with notebooks, a plastic coffee cup, and a book with highlighting inside. They look like friends collaborating on a project.
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

All of this advice goes for pretty much any relationship, business or personal, right? Be honest with yourself and with them from the start. This decision should make both of you happy and excited; neither of you should feel any trepidation about working together. Gut feelings are for real. Building this relationship will take time and work. Be patient but don’t spin your wheels for too long.

Remember, your manuscript is a Tall, Proud Orchid!

Review: Exciting Times, by Cecilia Lyra

A coffee and an open book on bedsheets.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

There are many reasons to fall in love with this novel. I will give you three.

Let’s begin with Ava—our protagonist. Reason number one.

Originally from Ireland, twenty-two-year-old Ava moves to Hong Kong to find happiness, except all she finds is an insultingly unstimulating job teaching English to wealthy children and a crowded flat filled with passive-aggressive roommates. Is it any wonder she agrees to move in with her Brit banker friend Julian, who, yes, is a first-rate douchebag, but who is also able to offer her a comfortable lifestyle? Their arrangement is casual (at his insistence), sexual, and involves Julian buying her clothes and dinners. Ava might be a feminist, but she is also human—and, by her own account, manipulative, unscrupulous, and prone to moral cowardice. I don’t disagree with her self-assessment, not exactly. I take her point—Ava isn’t likeable by any means. But she is interesting, not in the least because of the source of her moral cowardice—Ava possesses a dangerous trifecta of qualities: she’s abundantly intelligent, sensitive, and self-aware. And, let me tell you, when you feel and think with that much intensity—and, more importantly, you know it—you can talk yourself into anything, particularly when you’re young. (If you don’t get it, it’s likely because you are and have always been a stable, well-adjusted person. Good on you.)

Reason number two—plot.

This would be an interesting enough story if we only followed Ava’s time living with elitist, commitment-phobe Julian. But it gets even better when we meet Edith, a stunning and ambitious Hongkonger lawyer. Edith enters Ava’s life when Julian is away on an extended business trip to who-cares-because-this-man-is-seriously-so-boring, leaving Ava at his posh flat. Edith takes Ava to the theatre. Edith is a spry conversationalist, a sharp observer, and a feminist. Edith speaks with a permanent note of surprise in her voice. Ava wants Edith. Or Ava wants to be Edith. Does it have to be only one? The point is that during the six months while Julian is away, Ava grows very close to the mythologically beautiful Edith. When they kiss, it’s electric. When Edith asks Ava about Julian, Ava lies and says they’re just friends (there is very little Ava won’t lie about). And when Edith asks Ava to be her girlfriend, Ava happily says yes. And then Julian comes back.

Which brings me to reason number three—themes.

Woven into this heartbreakingly raw, character-driven novel are themes such as the messiness of human interactions. The perils of overthinking. Social pressure—and how it affects even the most well-educated, politically confident individuals. Exploration of one’s sexuality. The nexus between monogamy and the patriarchy. Financial anxiety, particularly as it affects a generation that’s been screwed over one too many times by capitalism. Fear of intimacy. The trauma that comes with being an outsider. Lying as a means of survival. Avoidance, not as a result of cowardice, but as a form of self-harm. Cultural clashes. Race. Class. The true cost of letting someone in. Above all, this novel explores what it’s like to love at an age where single people enjoy so much ostensible freedom and yet are plagued with even more inner doubts. And it does all that through prose that is precise, witty, and fluid. The quality of the writing alone makes this an unforgettable novel. (I suppose that’s reason number four. Don’t blame me — blame Dolan for writing a book that’s too good to be recommended with any sort of brevity.)

A warning: those who enjoy likeable, cookie-cutter characters should stay away from this novel. Why anyone would enjoy that is beyond me—Once upon a time, there was a good girl who did good things is a decidedly uninteresting story—but to each their own. (Again: I’m talking to you, well-adjusted human.)

But.

If you’ve ever felt damaged, read this novel. If you’ve ever been plagued by self-consciousness, read this novel. If you’ve ever suffered because you didn’t fit in, read this novel. You need to meet Ava, to spend time with her. You might not like her. But if you’ve ever had to pretend—and if you’re a minority you have—you’ll understand Ava. You might even forgive her.

I know I did.

5/5 stars

A quick plug: If you loved this review, or found it helpful, please consider pre-ordering CeCe’s upcoming novel THE SUNSET SISTERS (also available through Amazon and Apple Books) – the perfect, affordable book for your 2020 summer reading!

The German cover of THE SUNSET SISTERS, by Cecilia Lyra.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

…and we’re back!

My dearly departed laptop.

It was bound to happen some time! Two weeks ago, my beloved Frankenstein of a laptop finally died, and I simply did not have it in me to fight to assemble a blog post. It’s the first time that I’ve missed a planned post since I started this blog, so I’m super happy to be back in action this week with a post that’s super exciting. I’m so pleased to host a review of forthcoming LGBTQ2S+ novel You Exist too Much, by BIPOC author Zaina Arafat, by BBB’s new regular contributor, Jack.

I’m also thrilled to be able to share a guest post from an author for whom I have deep admiration, Isabel Stirling. She is the creator of some FABULOUS queer witches in her YA novel These Witches Don’t Burn, and its upcoming sequel, This Coven Won’t Break! I feel especially attached to celebrating Isabel’s latest book because I celebrated my own birthday on May 3rd, and her book releases on May 19th, so we are Taurus twins! More on that later…

First! I want to share a quick shoutout to AJ Vrana. Her debut novel, The Hollow Gods, comes out with Parliment House Press on July 28th. I participated in the cover reveal for this novel on Twitter, and since then, AJ’s joined the list of authors who I represent as an agent. I’m super proud that The Hollow Gods was reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly this week!

Jack’s Review: You Exist too Much, by Zaina Arafat

Zaina Arafat is an American and Palestinian writer and journalist and teacher. Her debut novel You Exist too Much is a diasporic piece of fiction. The story is told in flashbacks, beginning with the shaming of a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl, whose feelings of not belonging are externalized. It’s a story told in cyclical flashbacks, similarly to how we live life. Geographically, the novel mainly alternates between the US and the Middle East, between New York and Palestine.

This novel explores the meaning of living on the margins, of wanting to fit in a neat category. As an American and Palestinian woman, who has loved both men and women, she exists in the overlapping centre of a Venn diagram. The protagonist exists too much, yet, struggles to occupy space for herself. Arafat explores the pervasiveness of intergenerational trauma, and how it affects one’s identity.

Content warnings in You Exist Too Much include Emotional manipulation and Eating Disorders. While at a retreat, topics including sexual assault (from the perspective of the perpetrator) and substance abuse are mentioned.

When the novel begins, we know that the protagonist is in pain. It is the kind of emotional pain that manifests physically, the pain that makes You Exist too much an accusatory statement. The protagonist attempts to heal by falling in love with others, eventually realizing that one person can’t simultaneously occupy two bodies. We follow the protagonist as she confronts the different ways in which she exists.

This is a novel about existing and occupying space, it’s a novel about visibility and acceptance. The protagonist is presented as out of sync with the world, her live-in girlfriend and her own self. The novel embraces missed connections and opportunity, depicting the fleetingness and intensity of desire. You Exist Too Much is a story about identities and the complexities of attachments. Arafat invites us to question what obsessions, attraction and attachments all have in common.

YA Fantasy

Before I jump into Isabel Sterling’s awesome and creative guest post, I want to talk a little bit about why the publication and popularity of These Witches Don’t Burn and This Coven Won’t Break are such huge accomplishments.

YA fantasy is a hard market in traditional publishing. Looking at the deals made so far in 2020, there have only been 10 acquisitions in children’s (including MG and YA) fantasy, across all imprints, this year. One of them is a Lucasfilm IP property, and one is the next in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, so really, it’s more like 8 deals total for new books in that space, in the span of nearly 5 months. In 2019, there were 11 total deals in that space that were not series continuations. The competition is fire!! And yet, Isabel’s books are doing great.

Also, shoutout to writer KJ Aiello, who helped me out with this post, and asked: does crossover potential (ie, books that could appeal to YA or adult audiences) help fantasy books that are going on submission in traditional publishing? The unfortunate reality is, when a book is submitted to an imprint, you either sub to a YA imprint, or an adult imprint. The only real exceptions to that are SMG, which has St. Martin’s/Wednesday and acquires for both age groups, Tor, which encompasses Tor Teen, and Amazon, which publishes specifically with an eye to YA that is actually written for adult audiences.

BUT. When you see “crossover potential”, “millennial fiction”, “college-aged YA”, these kinds of terms, what they are actually code for, in the industry, is “New Adult”. Publishing’s unspoken secret is that we do publish NA, all the time. It’s just not branded as NA anymore, because the way that that experiment played out like, 5-10 years ago, is that the term has a negative connotation (ie, it just means YA books with erotic content now, basically), so we have to call it something different.

But adult appeal in YA-branded books is actually somewhat essential. A little over 50% of YA readership IS adults, and in addition, YA novels have to appeal to adults because they are often the ones with the purchasing power even if the books’ audiences are younger. Educational wholesale markets are a huge part of that – so not only are publishers aiming to appeal to adult readers of YA, but they’re also aiming to appeal to parents, teachers, and librarians. Fantasy novels aren’t seen to have as much of a place in a classroom setting as some other kinds of novels, partially because of the stigmas that surround all genre works as being seen as less-than compared to more “literary” work. Also, YA as we know it has only existed since the 1970s, so it’s by far the newest category in the traditional publishing industry, and it’s only been seen as legitimate since the late 1980’s, early 1990s.

If you want to learn more about YA books in general, YA fantasy, and on the attitudes toward genre versus literary works in broader publishing, here is some further reading:

  1. How Young Adult Fiction Blossomed With Teenage Culture in America
  2. A Brief History of YA Literature: An Infographic
  3. Home and Away, by Guy Gavriel Kay
  4. The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  5. How Horror Helps Us Overcome Our Fears, by Adam Pottle

This Coven Won’t Break Tarot Reading, by Isabel Sterling

Hello, Readers! Isabel Sterling here. To celebrate the upcoming release of This Coven Won’t Break, emmy suggested a tarot reading for my three main girls, and I thought that sounded like a wonderful idea. I don’t normally let myself think about what happens to my characters after their book is done, so getting to read for Hannah, Morgan, and Gemma was really fun! The cards had some interesting things to say. 

For this reading, I used the Modern Spellcaster’s Tarot Deck. I really enjoy this deck, especially because all of the major love cards are same-gender couples, and there’s racial diversity in there, too. Definitely a step up from many super white, heteronormative traditional decks.

Since This Coven Won’t Break is her story, I started with Hannah.

(Pictured: Seven of Pentacles, Ten of Wands, and The Sun)

In This Coven Won’t Break, Hannah works a lot with the Council, the organization responsible for protecting the three Witch Clans and keeping everyone in line. Hannah plants a lot of seeds with them, so the Seven of Pentacles tells me she’s going to be working to help those efforts grow and bloom. Unfortunately, it looks like Hannah will try to bite off more than she can chew and work harder than she should (Ten of Wands). If she’s not careful, some important things could end up dropped. Luckily, she has Morgan and Gemma to remind her to actually get out and have some fun in the sun, and overall, she has a really awesome summer.

Hannah definitely deserves some rest, relaxation, and brightness in her life. So The Sun card was nice to see. It also looks like she has some babysitting in her future, and perhaps some unexpected twins from Sarah and Rachel? (Who knows! Not me! Like I said, if it didn’t happen in the book, I honestly don’t know.)

Next, let’s take a peek into Morgan’s summer.

(Pictured: Queen of Swords, Two of Cups, and Two of Wands)

Well, without getting into spoilers, Morgan kinda Goes Through It during the course of This Coven Won’t Break. As a result, the Queen of Swords is telling me her mom gets a little over-protective about things. Which, honestly, is reasonable. With the Two of Cups, though, it looks like Morgan still has plenty of time to hang out with Hannah. I see lots of dates at their secret spot in the woods. (And see what I mean about the same-gender couple! I love this deck.) 

With everything that happens to Morgan, the Two of Wands tells me she’s a little nervous about leaving the nest to go to college. She’s just finally putting down roots in Salem and isn’t sure she’s ready to move on and start her “real” life.

Finally, let’s take a look at Gemma’s reading.

(Pictured The Tower, The Empress, and the Ace of Cups)

Well, The Tower is a total spoiler, so I can’t really say much except Gemma’s world turns upside down a bit near the end of the book. The Empress, though, tells me Gem spends much of her summer further honing her interest in all things witchy–tarot cards and crystals and everything. The Empress is often linked to motherly instincts, but in Gemma’s case, I see that as her connection with Hannah’s boss, Lauren, and Gemma getting into with her feminine intuition. 

Finally, it looks like there might be some romance waiting for Gemma with that Ace of Cups. Her crushes in These Witches Don’t Burn didn’t turn out so great, so she definitely deserves a little post-graduation fun. Maybe she can double-date with Hannah and Morgan! 

That’s all the cards had in store for us tonight. I hope you found this fun, and if you haven’t yet, you can order These Witches Don’t Burn here and This Coven Won’t Break over here! Happy reading! 

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Changing of the Seasons

I am staggered these past few weeks about how much can change in, seemingly, the blink of an eye. The world feels so different now than it did mere weeks ago – and yet, since the day I started Books Beyond Binaries, I haven’t missed a scheduled post, so the band plays on.

The last couple of years have been very challenging for me, and in 2019, I began tweeting about celebrating small joys. I’m not a naturally optimistic person, and in times of difficulty, embracing things like Pokémon GO and homemade ice cream has helped more than I’d readily admit. These days, as most days, I’m taking a great deal of solace in books, so I’m grateful to have this space to share.

And share I shall! Today is extremely exciting for me, because I get to introduce you all to BBB’s first repeat contributor! I reached out on Twitter seeking collaborators for this blog, and I am deeply lucky that Jack reached back out to me, and will be contributing her ARC reviews to enrich the content of this space over the coming months!

An image of Jack, a Black queer woman, eyes closed, wearing gold jewellery, and covered in powder-like, colourful paint.

Jack is a queer writer and artist who is completing her English and Cultural studies B. A
at McMaster University. She likes to read psychological thrillers, Afrofuturistic works and
genre-bending memoirs that include Auto-Theory. Also, she enjoys watching films,
writing short stories, drawing and desserts that are sweet, but not too sweet. It is my absolute pleasure to give over my platform to this brilliant reader and writer, and welcome her reviews of forthcoming queer books!

There are two other firsts that I’ll be celebrating in this post, as well: the book birthday of Mia Siegert’s Somebody Told Me: the first traditionally-published novel to feature a bigender protagonist… AND IT’S A YA SUSPENSE NOVEL. I’m hyped!

Last, but not least – if you’ve been following me for a little while, you’ll know that I’m on the planning team for the Festival of Literary Diversity, held each year in Brampton, ON. It is my favourite lit festival on the planet. In light of current events, the FOLD will move online, for free, for the first time ever this year. There are 19 virtual events this year, and all you need to attend – from anywhere in the world – is to register on Eventbrite. There is one event that I’m going to highlight, though, that everyone who reads BBB should attend – both because it’s going to be AWESOME and also because it’s on my BIRTHDAY. The Art of Craft: Trans Brilliance Edition! Organized by the FOLD and Kai Cheng Thom partially in response to the transphobic violence perpetrated by the Toronto Public Library this year, this event features some mind-blowing trans writers and creators: Gwen Benaway, Ali Blythe, Casey Plett, and Jia Qing Wilson-Yang, as well as Kai herself.

Poster for The Art of Craft: Trans Brilliance Edition

Jack’s ARC Review: Broken People, by Sam Lansky

Sam Lansky’s Broken People, a work of fiction with autobiographical undertones, makes a clear distinction between a physical journey and a spiritual quest. His diction is hypnotizing, twisting and twirling until the tale he has woven is all you can think about devouring. The protagonist’s sense of awareness or lack of, drives the story. It’s a work of art that reminds us that, writing is not healing, rather, it is the reflection, the learning and understanding, that leads to healing. Similarly, the main character’s healing process begins when he faces himself in the process of what he has written.


Lansky writes a riveting tale of growing up, of finding your voice and the cyclical nature of healing. Today, we’ve cultivated the unrealistic expectation of achieving all our life goals age thirty, convinced that not meeting this constraint is an act of failure. The reader is implicated in a story of growth, one that comes from understanding one’s experience rather than just experiencing. It’s difficult to articulate what we feel and how that may have led us to act a certain way, but Lansky does it expertly. He creates characters who come to life by simply existing, making choices, breathing.


CW for this book include eating disorders, substance use and partner violence (verbal and emotional). I found myself at certain scenes conflicted, but it was in that space that I was able to acknowledge the nuances of interpersonal relationships. I recommend this book to readers in early adulthood, who are looking for something.

The cover of Broken People, by Sam Lansky, which features a hummingbird.


There are similarities between Sam Lansky the author, and Sam the main character. Broken People references the protagonist as a writer whose memoir explores substance use, which is like the content of Sam Lansky’s previous work The Gilded Razor: a memoir. Sam crafts a journey of love and forgiveness and situates it in a work of fiction.


We meet Sam, a man who seems stuck and the story is full of flashbacks. He is living the dream before the dream: moving in with a friend, dreaming about becoming a published author.


The more he can afford, the emptier Sam feels. We follow Sam through the vulnerability in the wake of sexual encounters, heartbreak and career successes. We become entrenched in what it means to explore one’s love language when loving yourself did not seem to be an option.


I am currently writing a paper where I explore the relationship between the physical body and orientation, of both gender and sexuality. Lansky writes of self-discovery through both the body and the external world. How do you explore the world when you do not feel at home in your own body? How can you escape who you are? He does not answer these questions, rather, he offers possible paths. Lansky explores consumption of relationships, food and substance use. “Your body is a temple”, but what if you don’t know how to praise whom the altar belongs to? What if you don’t know yourself? There is no single cure or quick fix to the struggles of real life, but there is learning, through trial and error. So that is my take-away. Reading Broken People felt like making a home out of a story. It’s a story about the coming of age of the coming of age story.

Broken People is scheduled to be released in June 2020, and is available for pre-order now.

Happy Book Birthday to Somebody Told Me, by Mia Siegert

Yall, it is a weird time to be celebrating a book birthday, but we are here, and it is happening, and I have been waiting for this little gem for a while!

Somebody Told Me is the first novel to be traditionally published featuring bigender representation, and it came out this month from Carolrhoda and is available to buy now. Mia’s described this book as the French film Améie, but if it went terribly wrong… and given that Amélie is a huge favourite of mine, I am so here for this.

The novel follows Russian Jewish protagonist Aleks/Alexis as they navigate gender, and the fallout after they are sexually assaulted in their fandom community. It explores themes of gender presentation as the MC tries to solve a mystery before someone else gets hurt, and in doing so, confront their abuser and their own trauma. It’s not a light and fluffy read, and CWs also include trans and queerphobia, and religious content. That said, this is the kind of nuanced diversity representation that as a reader, I’ve been waiting for, and I would say: don’t sleep on this.

For a taste of what you can expect from this book, check out the book trailer above, voiced by Katelyn Clarke and Zeno Robinson. And while you’re at it, head on over to Mia’s Twitter, where you can check out the this spectacular book look featuring colourways from the bi-coded book cover, and wish a happy book birthday to Somebody Told Me!

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

#AmAgenting

Buckle in, pals. I don’t usually go this route with my blog, but this post is about one thing only: Shameless. Self. Promotion. I am so thrilled to be able to officially share with all the fair denizens of Booklandia that the papers are signed, and I’ve officially set up shop as the newest literary agent at The Rights Factory.

For those of you who didn’t know before, I’m adding this position to a long list of other bookish aspects of my life, which you can read all about in the About section if you’re interested, so I won’t repeat myself here. What I do want to do, by way of celebrating, is talk about how I got this job.

If you’re purely landing here because you’re looking for a rad new agent to rep your work, let me save you a few clicks, and direct you to the places where you can read about what I’m looking for, and submit a query to me: my Manuscript Wish List page, and my Query Manager, which is the only place that I am accepting queries. I was also super honoured this week that Quill and Quire reached out to do a profile on me, which you can see here. I have also added a page on this blog to feature the authors who I currently represent, aka, the #SpineSquad. Please check them out. They are honestly the best.

Becoming an Agent

A selfie of me.

Please Note: This section of this post has been edited since it was originally posted. Indigenous poet jaye simpson took the time to post on Twitter and call me out for using the phrase “Manifesting my Destiny”, which was the original heading of this post. The origins of that phrase are deeply rooted in colonial violence, and I should never have used it, but the fact remains that I did. As someone trying to integrate more QTPOC voices and work into this platform, this is a huge problem, and I’m grateful to the folks who are teaching me to do better. Please support QTPOC authors, especially jaye simpson, who can be found on Twitter here. They didn’t need to educate me, or point out the violence they caused, and they deserve compensation for their energy.


In the summer of 2019, I was doing a Lot. Of. Driving. I had a partner at the time who lived in Denver, Colorado, and I was splitting my time between their place, and my home with my (still) partner in Toronto, Ontario. Because of the cost, both emotional and financial, of the flight, I got really good at the two-day commute between my two places of residence. I listened to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts, yall. A lot.

At the time, I was taking a leave of absence from my PhD program at McMaster University, and I was working at Another Story bookshop whenever I was in Toronto, and I was spending the majority of my mental energy trying to piece together a picture in my mind of what I wanted my future to be. For several years, I’d been making most of my living as a freelance research assistant and transcriber, and I loved the work and the lifestyle, but I wasn’t sure that once my degree was finished, I wanted to walk away from bookselling. However, working as a bookseller full time in perpetuity didn’t feel sustainable either – it’s hard physical labour being a bookseller, and the pay tops out at just over minimum wage.

I had just turned 30. All of my academic qualifications were in social work. All I had left to my PhD was to write up and defend my dissertation. I had an extensive academic résumé, but knew that being a full-time professor wasn’t a goal I was eager to pursue. I felt so strongly that the work I’d done hand selling at the justice-oriented independent bookshop was the best activism I’d done outside of the direct action of my early 20’s. There was so much good that could be done with books, and they had always been a massive part of my life.

All of this was heavy on my mind as I drove the long, flat stretch through rural Nebraska, catching up on episodes of the Print Run Podcast that I’d banked for the drive. I was on Episode 105: What Should Agents Do, in which Laura and Erik discuss “how the role of agents and agencies could shift to meet the needs of modern publishing.” It was the galaxy-brain moment. By the end of the episode, I was in my car, buzzing, thinking… I could do that. By the time I got to my partner’s house in Denver, I was so ready to tell them my plan… and I phoned my partner back in Toronto, and talked zir ear off, too. And then… reality set in, and I still had a lot of family obligations, my work at the bookshop, and my PhD to finish…

…but a couple of weeks later, I see this tweet. On December 3, 2018, Simu Liu had written, “OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi”. When he was cast as the lead character in the movie, he later QT’d, “Thanks for getting back to me.” Obviously, there was more to Liu’s casting than a couple of cleverly-timed tweets, but the jokes had inspired Ryan Estrada to encourage his followers to shamelessly shoot for their dreams, à la Simu Liu. Still feeling all riled up from my drive, I went for it. I figured I had nothing to lose.

In the thread, I tagged every handle I already followed who was connected to lit agenting in some way. Rebecca Podos, from Rees, and Molly Ker Hawn, from the Bent Agency, graciously responded. Both of them responded to me, and offered to spend some of their valuable time answering my extremely under-informed questions. They sent me long Emails, and explained to me how they landed their jobs, what they entailed, and things that I should think about if working as a literary agent was a goal I wanted to pursue. My mind was full, and I am still so grateful for all of the things that they gave me to think about.

Fast forward to December of 2019. A lot had changed. I was back at school full time, with a SSHRC research grant temporarily funding my dissertation writing. I had recently lost one of my elderly dogs, and was newly a puppy caretaker for Pavot, a deaf Dalmatian bb that had entered my life suddenly in October, at 8 weeks old. My relationship with my Colorado partner was ending (although I didn’t know that yet). There had been a lot of big, unexpected changes at the book shop. I was in need of new employment opportunities, and I decided to start looking for positions in publishing. I took to Twitter again, and posted that I was job hunting.

A local author friend (whose debut is now available for preorder! ⬇️) tipped me off that The Rights Factory, a locally-based international literary agency, might need a couple of sets of hands after losing their agency assistant to a job at a publishing house. On December 25th, I fired off an Email to CEO Sam Hiyate with my résumé. I knew it was a long shot, especially on a holiday.

…but, it must have been kismet. Sam responded right away, we had coffee a few days later, and on January 6th (fighting a stomach virus!), I was sitting in my first agency meeting.

It has been a wild ride. Back in January, I agreed to work, unpaid, as Sam’s assistant. I was both excited and apprehensive. I’d previously had two unpaid internships turn into paid jobs in my employment history, but I worried that I wouldn’t be the right fit. Publishing positions in Toronto are super-competitive, since there are so many industry-specific educational programs in the city. As luck would have it, Sam and I hit it off, and I quickly asked him if he would consider keeping me on as an agent at the end of my internship. I have been humbled by his willingness to mentor me, and offer me opportunities that I never expected when I started at TRF. Ultimately, I signed my agency agreement in February, when I signed my first independent client… and now it’s official.

I’ve been searching for a reason to tell this story. In another life, I was a circus school student in Québec when legendary clown Paul Vachon – my mentor at the time, who passed in 2011 – told me never to take an opportunity at face value. You never know what chances can come from unexpected places. That advice has proven true and valuable over the years, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the means to ask for support and seek out the chances that I’m taking advantage of now.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Neglected Favourites of 2019

Currently Reading: You’re Next, by Kylie Schachte

LGBTQ2S+ POC Authors Are #CanLit

A handful of rad authors, many of whom are LGBTQ2S+ POC, have been announced as part of the delegation representing Canada at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year! So happy to see so many authors who have been celebrated in this space before (and who will continue to be!) get the public recognition they deserve. Special congrats to Billy-Ray Belcourt, Canisia Lubrin, Catherine Hernandez, Farzana Doctor, Joshua Whitehead, Tanya Tagaq, Tanya Talaga, Téa Mutonji, and Vivek Shraya!

Looking for 2020 Reads?

I love being able to shout out other trans and/or non-binary content creators! Recently, Books Beyond Binaries has extended support to Santana Reads, a book blog by a rad content creator. Carolina is a bi, genderfluid, Puerto Rican 16-year old teen book blogger who is very passionate about diverse literature. When they’re not reading a good book, they can be found snacking on gingerbread cookies, napping, playing with their dog, and marathoning TV shows on Netflix. They are one of the co-hosts of the Latinx Book Club, and their latest post is a review of Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, which comes out later this year. Thank you so much for this insightful review, Carolina!

If you are a non-binary content creator, and you can think of ways that this blog can support you, feel free to reach out through the contact form!

Genderqueer blogger and author Corey Alexander has put together another bang-up list of new release books with trans and/or non-binary authors for early 2020. So many rad titles on this list, but the ones I want to shout about are: Blood Sport, by the indelible Tash McAdam, which is a perfect pick for educators or those who want a more accessible reading level; Common Bonds, an anthology which has hella incredible rep across the aromantic spectrum; The Subtweet, by Vivek Shraya, who has never once disappointed me with anything she’s created; and The Thirty Names of Night, by Zeyn Joukhader, an #OV Syrian trans novel with an almost entirely QTPOC cast.

A mood board for Tundras, Travelers, and Other Travesties, featuring mostly a lot of mist and snow.

One of the other options on this list is Tundras, Travelers, and Other Travesties, by the fabulous enby author and online community builder who likely none of us could do without, Amara Lynn. It is a prescient solarpunk post-apocalyptic sci-fi short with a queer protagonist that is available now. I am thrilled to be able to share a preview of Amara’s newest offering in this space. Buckle in.


Excerpt: Tundras, Travelers, and Other Travesties

“I don’t understand. You live outside of Earth?”

“Yeah. In space. On an artificial planet, made for people to live on instead of Earth when it became too polluted and unlivable. Why don’t you know any of this?”

I shrug. I’m having trouble taking this in, confused by what it all means. I know that our outpost and greenhouse is built into the side of a hill of landfill waste, and the solar panels were built atop the highest landfill peaks to take in maximum sun exposure. All I know is this tundra, this landfill outpost. Zaza and Nana never told me anything about why there were so few people, why we never received travelers. Is it because they all live on this artificial planet Earth?

I clutch my knees to my chest, which aches along with my ribs. I don’t even realize I’m rocking until the traveler’s hands touch my shoulders.

“Hey, it’s okay. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to shock you.”

I look up, staring at those bright pools. “Who are you?” I blurt the question without thinking about it.

“The name’s Ignis. I use he, his, and him pronouns.”

“Eis. What are pronouns?” I am unfamiliar with this concept.

Ignis seems confused that I don’t know. “They’re used to refer to a person when you’re not using their name. They vary based on a person’s gender. I’m a man and I use he, him, and his pronouns. Someone who is a woman might use she, her, and hers. There are also people who don’t have any particular gender or who fluctuate and use neutral pronouns like they and them, ze and zir, or ze and hir. Those are just a few.”

“Oh…” I have never known anyone else besides my parents. Now, thinking about it, I recall Nana used ze and zir when referring to Zaza, and Zaza had used they and them for Nana.

“Why don’t you know that?”

“I…I’m not sure. My parents did use some of those for each other, but I’ve never been asked about myself. I’m not sure I know what gender I would be.”

“That’s okay. Would you like me to use neutral pronouns for you? They and them, or ze and zir? I can list some others if you like.”

“Oh…maybe ze and zir?” That’s what Zaza used.

“Okay.” Ignis smiles. “And if you change your mind later after learning more about it, that’s totally okay, too.”

“Okay.”

If you want to read the rest of this story, it is available on B&N, Universal, Gumroad, and (if all else fails) Amazon, or it can be added on Goodreads! You can find Amara Lynn on Twitter!


Unsung Favourites of 2019

This post comes at a time when we are experiencing the fullness of a complicated world. I didn’t have a collaborator or special theme of this week, so I thought that I’d write about some of the best books that I read in 2019 that I didn’t get to talk about in this space. Hopefully, these recommendations will serve everyone who is new to social distance well! If you can, order these titles from your local indie, since many of them are suffering right now, and lots of them can take online orders and provide delivery.

There’s nothing that’s a better distraction, in my opinion, than a good thriller, and these two were page-turners. A Madness of Sunshine is the first crime book from NYT bestselling contemporary fantasy romance author Nalini Singh. This atmospheric story set in a vividly imagined small coastal town in New Zealand features a diverse cast including many Indigenous characters and a slow-burn romantic subplot. It’s a clever twist on a formulaic crime novel from a WOC that features enough predictable elements to feel recognizable, while still hinting at searing political commentary in the best of ways. Despite a few loose ends at the conclusion of the book, I would recommend this to anyone seeking a great mystery. CWs for domestic violence, substance use, murder, violence against women, some ableist language, police protagonist, violence against animals (one scene, with warning indicators before violence occurs).

I am a huge fan of UK-based author Fran Doricott, and I ate up her twisty abduction mystery thriller After the Eclipse. It’s a complex mystery with a badass femme journalist protagonist, and it’s hella queer. This one requires all the CWs, in particular for violence, child abduction, confinement, imprisonment, sexual assault, rape, pregnancy, and stalking, off the top of my head. However, I loved about this book that it had a positive, satisfying outcome, despite its grim themes.

The Collected Schizophrenias by LGBTQ2S+ author Esmé Weijun Wang, and Consent by Donna Freitas, were two of my favourite non-fiction books from last year. I bought Wang’s collection of essays at the Tattered Cover in the Denver airport, (unsuccessfully) holding back tears, in the middle of a mental health crisis. I could not have made a more perfect choice. Not only did the author respond with such generosity and care when I reached out to let her know that her book was in an airport display – a long-standing wish of hers – but the collection is moving, relatable, and insightful. It is the book about psychiatric disability that I have always needed. In contrast, Consent is a timely, chilling, and all-too-familiar story of an academic relationship gone awry for Freitas, a student at the time, who ultimately gets stalked by her mentor. Freitas’ story is an unflinching tale that every femme will be able to see themself in, and a searing social commentary.

I struggle to describe what I loved so much about the fever dream that is Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi. It’s one of the few books in my life that I have finished, and then immediately felt the urge to flip back to the first page and read again. I had never read any of Oyeyemi’s work before Gingerbread, and I am delighted that she has such an extensive backlist for me to discover. This book is a strange and wonderful delight.

By contrast, Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age is a quick, engaging, millennial fiction, that I found instantly relatable in so many ways. You know that white girl who got rich off Instagram? Yeah, her. This book is both about her, and so not about her. With aspects of political commentary, a twisty romantic subplot, and the best-written child character I have ever read, I would recommend this one to anyone. It is a perfect book conversation starter or club pick, and it’s a great gift for the college freshman who loved The Hate U Give.

I don’t read a tonne of MG, as is probably evident from what I tend to review on this blog, but I picked up a few last year that I loved. I listened to The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu, on audio, and it was fantastic. I love twin books to begin with, and this one was a love story to weird junk shops, featuring adolescent social awkwardness (hard relate) and an unpredictable, fairy-tale-inspired plotline. If you liked the Hazel Wood, you’ll like this, too.

I loved Jinxed so much that although its sequel hasn’t been released in Canada yet, I actually begged a UK-based friend to mail me a copy. Canadian-born Amy McCulloch’s book is set in a near future Toronto, and I picked up the ARC on a whim while I was bored between bookselling at an event. I read it in one sitting, and I loved every minute. Jinxed is about a realistic electronics tinkerer protag, in a world where smart phones have been replaced with personalized robotic animal companions, and features one of my favourite things: a school for the elite! It’s an engaging mystery, and ultimately our fair protagonist is left facing off against the corporate overlords. Jinxed has been released in North America now, and the sequel, Unleashed, is available across the pond. Also, look out for McCulloch’s forthcoming YA Gothic thriller, co-written with Zoe Sugg (aka Zoella), The Magpie Society (!!!).

I feel like there was literally no way I was going to miss these last two books. I think I’m physically incapable of passing on cheerleader intrigue or witchy 90’s throwbacks – and I stan. Squad is a short but impactful YA contemporary by non-binary author Rae (Mariah) McCarthy about a cheerleader who gets dumped by her friends, has to navigate newly-discovered mental health struggles, and figure out who she really is. All I can say about this book is that it’s charming AF, and I hard relate. It’s well-written, and it’s a story that I think any teenaged femme (or formerly teenaged femme) will see themselves in. It also has a well-crafted transgender secondary character, and a tough-to-navigate romantic subplot with aspects of “what does transition mean anyway?”… without spoiling the entire book – if you are a fan of Complicated Friendship Stories, this one’s for you.

As for The Babysitters Coven, by Kate Williams, I’m delighted to report that this book is exactly what it says on the label. 90’s throwback. Magic. Baddies. Femmes save the day. Babysitters. It’s brain candy, and it’s great. My bookshop sales rep from PRH Canada tossed me a copy of this when I told them that I basically wouldn’t be able to wait for its release date, so shout out to them for always humouring me with such good will. Especially at a time when the world feels heavy, this is a kitschy delight to spend an afternoon on.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Thinking About Attack Helicopters

Currently Reading: You’re Next, by Kylie Schachte

Exciting Adaptation News

Quick note before we dig in… one of my favourite trans-affirming graphic novels, The Prince and the Dressmaker, which I’ve featured on the blog in the past, is getting a movie musical adaptation, and I’m hyped.

Who are the storytellers?

If you are on Twitter at all (and you probably are, if you’re reading this blog), it would have been difficult to miss the drama surrounding the CW story that was released and then wrenched from the internet earlier this year. It raised a lot of important questions that the literary world has yet to reckon with about who has the right to tell what stories, how, and what that means… but also what an online readership has the right to demand of an author, particularly one that is relatively unknown, and marginalized.

We see these issues raised again with American Dirt. My Dark Vanessa. Tamsyn Muir’s fanfiction. These questions aren’t going away.

The story raised more issues than just those that were obvious, however, particularly for those who are embedded in the literary and trans communities. When I read Morgan Swim‘s January 12th thread, I asked if they would be willing to collaborate with me to transform it into an essay, and that I could publish in this space. They graciously obliged. Below is the resulting essay, on constructing non-binary gender as an author in a Very Online™️ world, by Morgan Swim.

Gender and Representation in Trans Storytelling

Before I get started let me clarify: This is about the CW story, but it is not in response to it. What I mean is, it’s made me think very deeply about my own shit, why that’s my own shit, and if I want it to keep being my shit. Genderwise.

Here’s the gist of it: Who gets to decide what is and isn’t good trans representation is a lot more complicated than I thought it was. The simple answer I thought was: trans people. (By trans people I mean anyone who identifies as transgender, non-binary, genderqueer and gender non-conforming in any combination.) And that’s true, but I’m a trans people and I cannot decide what is good trans rep for anyone but myself. 

This isn’t just about trying to understand my personal metric for being able to decide the difference between a story I don’t like and a story that is transphobic. This is about me realizing that this discussion, this constant judging and weighing of individual pieces of content, IS my gender.

A photo of a person wearing sparkly lipstick, with curly hair. They are holding four brightly-coloured leaves over one of their eyes.
Photo by Jorge Saavedra on Unsplash

I identify as non-binary. It’s taken me a while to get to that signifier, but it’s comfortable, and seems to be where I’m gonna stay. Up until the CW story, I thought that “being non-binary” meant that I believed myself to be outside the bounds of western-white-people binary gender.

That means I end up mixing a lot of masculine and feminine shit, and enjoy confusing cis people. But, I realized that somehow, my brain was filtering that to mean “I have no gender.” But I do! It’s non-binary! If I didn’t have a gender, I would probably identify as agender. So, why… don’t I?

I realized that my gender is the constant dialogue I’m having with myself about what gender even is, and if that’s good or not. Instead of stripping myself of WOMAN pieces and MAN pieces, I was inspecting each element and putting it in a KEEP or TOSS bin. I was doing this without being consciously aware of it, even when I am constantly discussing with myself that I don’t do this!

In a very real sense, my gender is other people. What I mean by this is that my gender is not a set of physical characteristics, behaviors, or beliefs that can be defined independently. For example, I enjoy presenting as feminine in groups where my gender and pronouns are known, respected, and affirmed regardless of my appearance. In a space where my gender is known but perhaps not affirmed or clumsily respected, I will present gender neutral or even masculine. Yet in spaces where my gender is unknown, I often revert remain closeted regardless of how feminine or masculine I appear. Why am I doing this? It’s because my gender presentation needs to do more work to achieve the same level of internal equilibrium I need to feel comfortable about myself. How people view me and treat me does change that. It changes how I want to be perceived.

A person standing on a white background with rainbow stripes. The stripes cross their face as well.
Photo by Isi Parente on Unsplash

I think a lot of trans people may read that and think, ah, you’re managing your dysphoria, and I guess yeah, I am, but even so it’s still not that simple. Because sometimes, as relationships with (cis and trans) people deepen, I enjoy purposefully flipping my gender presentation and behavior. I do this even if will lead to being misgendered, even if it will cause my cis friends to be confused or question me. Even if it puts me at risk of harm.

I think what I’m really interested most of all is observing how people change when others change. By moving through gender as a dialogue with another, I often cause appearance and behavior shifts in others without intending. I see people tense into strict gender roles as often as I see them sigh in relief as they drop their performance of them. My gender is that dialogue between me and another, both spoken and in the constant adjustments to my appearance, my word choices, body language, etc. 

How does that dialogue change in publishing? Well it’s harder, I think. Being a trans author in SFF is a fucking gauntlet. And I don’t have other intersectional identities to consider! 

I can’t claim a gender that doesn’t belong to my culture or race, and I’m constantly running fidelity tests against what I think of as MAN and WOMAN, which are incredibly specific to race, culture, your relationship to your body, how other people view you, and how you want to be viewed.

Back to SFF. I freaked out about the CW story for a lot of reasons, some of them valid, some of them selfish, and when the dust settled, I realized that a very big part of me had been reacting out of fear of my own experiences of gender.

A person dressed in elaborate cosplay.
Photo by Judeus Samson on Unsplash

There’s a novella I’ve been working on for almost three years now. Here’s the basic premise:

There is a robot, and she is a woman. She is aware she performs the gender “woman”, and she uses it to engage with her desire to be a man. She uses gendered actions, appearances, and sex to surround herself constantly with men to live vicariously through them. Spoiler: the robot is a trans man.

Based on that premise alone, is that good rep? Here’s another take on it:

There are two robots. They share the same memory core, but never at the same time. One presents as a woman. One presents as a man. One day, they meet and fall in love. In the end, they realize they are the same person and live happily ever after.

 Is that good rep?? Here’s another take:

There is a human. They are non-binary. They build a robot and download all of their messy, traumatic experiences with gender, and put it into the robot. The robot is now miserable, and begins to harm itself. A human trans woman finds the robot and helps it to understand itself, and it works through its trauma. They start dating.

Is this good rep?? The answer to this is, I don’t fucking know, and it’s why I haven’t finished the damn thing.

 But here’s the thing – all those scenarios are the same story. All those scenarios are how I experience my own gender when I think nobody is watching. And I’m afraid to write it authentically because I’m afraid of myself as much as I’m afraid of someone reading it and saying that it’s bad trans rep.

 And that fear isn’t from a fear of being called out. Authors and agents of transphobic stories, written by trans people or not, need to be held accountable. Editors and publishers who publish harmful stories need to be held accountable. Racism, ableism, and other forms of oppression, even in “good trans rep”, need to be called out. 

 It’s obvious they need to be critiqued, because they harm trans people. They harmed me, a trans people! I had a fucking mental breakdown about it, and wrote a 1000 fucking word twitter thread about it! I never engage in this shit publically! I’m too afraid to!

A drag queen in an elaborate costume.
Photo by Raphael Renter on Unsplash

The question I guess I need to ask of myself, and of my community, is: How do we balance the very real need to protect ourselves from bad faith content, and make space for trans voices in publishing, while holding space for authentic, good faith content that is difficult to engage in, difficult to write, and difficult to even identify? 

How do we protect the trans people that are harmed by stories by other trans people? How do we discuss it without causing more harm and fragmenting the community?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I think that we need to start thinking about how we, as a community, can work together when these sorts of incidents occur. 

I do not know who the CW author is, but the discussion around “is it a closeted trans person or not” is deeply uncomfortable. And still, it needs to be discussed.

It sucks! It sucks that it needs to be discussed, because it causes us harm, but it does matter. We need to be able to make space to discuss harmful shit to know how to deal with it next time and progress as a community. 

I think a lot of the answers trans people have are in the right direction: more trans people writing and editing stories, more venues for trans people to be published, normalization of narratives that are don’t cater to cis and cisnormative audiences.

There should at the least have been some fucking content warnings on that thing. It’s sort of morbidly funny to me that it’s being referred to as “the CW story”. 

At the end of the very emotional weekend following the release and subsequent blowup around the CW story, the thing that consoled me the most was (surprise!) other trans people. After I had rammed my head through every possibility and logic loop I could, I just went and read shit by trans people I love! I spent all day drawing fan art for a friend while we discussed the story and our feelings about it. 

I can’t tell you, other trans people reading this, how you should feel about the CW story, or about my thoughts on it. But I want to see this harder shit discussed when you’re able, when you have the strength to consider.

A young person with their hands on their hips, looking upward. They have elaborate eye makeup on, and a t-shirt that says, Love you who are.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I see my gender differently after the CW story was published. I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in community politics and other people’s beliefs. I didn’t realize what a double-edged blade that is, but now I think I’m starting to wield it with more purpose. Now I can engage in conversation with my gender consciously, and find it a little easier to read and examine trans narratives that are uncomfortable or painful for me because now I can hold them up and know I don’t have to change myself in response if I don’t want to. I can choose who gets to have those conversations with me and who has the power to influence my gender.     I don’t want my gender to be the constant internal dialogue I have with myself about my behavior, my appearance, and if I’m churning out good rep. I want to talk about these things with other trans people. I don’t want to be afraid of my community anymore. I want to know the hard stuff other trans people are dealing with and feeling, even if it’s uncomfortable for me. I’m gonna chose to do that. 

 I want to have difficult, nuanced discussions together. I want to sit in that discomfort with people who are newly trans, who are from older generations that I don’t relate to. I want to get so strong and capable that I can keep helping. I want this shit to be fucking laughable. I want us to make so much progress, we can’t even remember a day when we had to have these discussions. I don’t care if it’s possible, that’s what I want.

Anyway… that’s my fucking gender.  

If you enjoyed Morgan Swim’s essay, consider checking out their newest self-published fantasy f/f short story on Gumroad!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Never Have I Ever

Currently Reading: Darling Rose Gold, by Stephanie Wrobel

Non-Binary New Release

Just a quick heads up before I jump into the theme of today’s post: non-binary poet Danez Smith’s newest title dropped on January 21st, and although I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, I hope that all of you will! It’s called Homie, and it’s a mixtape-styled collection that celebrates Black love, while lamenting the harm done to Black people.

Arospec Awareness Week!

Happy Aromantic Spectrum Awareness week! Over the past few months, I’ve been embracing my arospec identity for the first time. This is my first Arospec Awareness Week, and I wanted to remind everyone about the Aromantic and Asexual Characters Database! It’s always linked in my resources page, and it’s the best way that I know of to find great books by and about arospec folks.

FOLD Reading Challenge: Caribbean Author

If yall are reading along with the FOLD 2020 Reading Challenge, then you know that we are on month two, and this month’s challenge is to read a book by a Caribbean author. Truth be told, this is an area where I have serious gaps in my knowledge, but I put together a quick list of authors to check out this February…

  • Marlon James
  • Afua Cooper
  • Jamaica Kincaid
  • Roxane Gay
  • Ben Philippe
  • Ibi Zoboi
  • Claire Adam
  • Lilliam Riviera
  • Candice Carty-Williams
  • Elizabeth Acevedo
  • Zalika Reid-Benta
  • Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • Ann Dávila Cardinal
  • Maika and Maritza Moulite

…and last, but not least, non-binary author Kacen Callendar. If you take a look at some of the works by these authors, there really should be something for everyone, and that speaks to the sheer breadth of cultural and literary diversity that bursts forth from this region of the world.

Wet’suwet’en Strong

A drawing of the hereditary chiefs, with text that says "The hereditary chiefs say NO to all pipelines".
Art by Christi Belcourt

I see part of the work of this blog is lifting up marginalized voices, including those of the Indigenous community. For that reason, I want to issue a short solidarity statement from this platform, even though it is small. I am so humbled by the Wet’suwet’en land protectors and the incredible work that they are doing. So proud of all they are achieving. If you are not doing everything you could be to support them, you should make better choices.

Today’s Post

It’s a long one, so I’m going to jump right in! I’m so excited today to be featuring two spooky titles by LGBTQ2S+ authors; one from a small indie press, and one that was crowd funded. They both also have gorgeous covers.

I wanted to do something fun and creative with this one, so rather than focusing too much on the texts themselves, I’ve asked some of the rad authors of these works to share a bit about themselves, a teaser of their writing, and play a good old fashioned round of the classic adolescent party game, Never Have I Ever. Snuggle down, and pour yourself the beverage of your choice. Never have I ever made poor choices playing this game…

In Restless Dreams, by Wren Handman

In Restless Dreams is the perfect indie book for fans of The Hazel Wood duology, by Melissa Albertalli, or Holly Black’s Cruel Prince series. Written by an openly queer author, this book has so many elements I love in an urban fairy tale… careful handling of mental health issues, a MC who finds herself suddenly wealthy, a fancy prep school, and – of course – a little trickster magic. With this beautiful cover, it’s practically impossible to resist, and I’m thrilled to feature this title in this space.

Wren Handman

About the Author

Wren Handman is a novelist, fiction writer, and screenwriter. She’s written three novels: Last Cut (Lorimer Ltd 2012), Command the Tides (Omnific 2015), and In Restless Dreams, which was originally self-published and has now been released from Parliament House Press. Wren was pleased to be part of the team that wrote The Switch, a comedy about trans life in Vancouver. Her next book, Wire Wings, comes out with Parliament House on June 23rd, 2020. Follow her blog, or on Twitter.

Never Have I Ever…

For this post, Wren and I brainstormed, and she came up with an awesome idea… to have her main characters from In Restless Dreams play a good, old fashioned game of Never Have I Ever. Please enjoy this casual preview of Wren’s charming characters from her newly released novel, and, peripherally, the first fiction that I’ve ever had the pleasure of hosting on this blog!

“Never have I ever…been in a situation like this.” It might not be in the spirit of the game, but it’s true. I’m just a normal girl from Topaz Lake, Nevada. Or I was, until I moved to New York to live with my disgustingly rich Christmas-and-birthdays Dad. Now I’m just a disgusting rich girl from New York, New York. Which, in my neighbourhood, is sadly also normal.


Then again, I’m currently sitting in Fairy, which is about as far from normal as you can get. Yup, that Fairy. Magical world just a step away from our own. There’s a campfire, sort of, but the fire burns hot blue and dancing purple, and the sparks that drift away from the wood flicker and live on like tiny stars. On the other side of the enchanting flames are two people who make my heart beat faster, and I’m not sure if it’s from fear…or something else entirely.


One of them brings his drink to his lips and takes a long, deep gulp. His eyes are dancing with light of their own, and it’s the only brightness about him. The rest of him is nothing but shadow, from the living shadow-grey mass of his hair down to the pitch shadow-black of his skin. I don’t know his name, so I’ve taken to calling him Stranger.


“You really shouldn’t have been in a situation like this before,” the third person says to Stranger, chiding. “Interacting with humans is a breach of the Accord.” Royan is the embodiment of a young girl’s fantasy of a knight on horseback. Blond wavy hair, eyes an emerald that humans just don’t have, chiselled jaw that could cut his marble abs. I mean, I can’t see his abs, I’m just imagining them. I mean, I’m not imagining them! I’m just saying. He’s hot.


Stranger just shrugs at the hostility. He’s not afraid of the Knight. “I said like this, not exactly this. It’s your turn, Knight.”


“Never have I ever…been a Commoner.”


“No targeted ones,” I object. “It has to be something that could hit both of us.”


“I didn’t take you for a cheater,” Stranger teases.


“I was not cheating. I merely misunderstood the rules,” Royan says, though I’m not sure I believe him. “Never have I ever…eaten a hamburger.”


I laugh and take a drink. They tell you not to eat or drink in Fairy, in all the stories, but Stranger promised the drink wouldn’t hurt me, and I believe him. There’s something about him that just makes you feel safe. Maybe it’s his smile.


Stranger drinks, too, and Royan looks at him with narrowed eyes but doesn’t say anything.


“Never have I ever had a threeway,” Stranger says without missing a beat.


I snort out an awkward laugh, very unladylike, and no one drinks.


“Oh, wait.” Stranger rubs his head. “Sorry, no. That’s no good. Oh! I’ve got a better one, anyway. Never have I ever fallen for a mysterious stranger.”


They both look at me as my cheeks burn red hot. I don’t care if it’s cheating, there’s no way I am drinking! “You’re both giving yourself way too much credit,” I say, knocking my cup against the log I’m sitting on to show I’m not bringing it to my lips. “Never have I ever met royalty.”


They both drink, though Stranger shakes his head at me. “I feel like that’s cheating.”


I grin. “Or is it just playing smart?”


“Never have I ever kissed two people in the same night,” Royan says.


Stranger and I both drink, and when our eyes meet I giggle. “New Year’s Eve,” I explain. “You?”


“Madcap love affair with a forest nymph and its estranged troll lover,” he says, and I can’t tell if he’s joking. I guess being more than a thousand years old, you’re bound to have had some pretty wild experiences. But not Royan. I look at him when he isn’t looking, watching the light play across his cheekbones. He always seems sad, when you catch him unaware like there’s something he can’t quite let go of.


“Your turn,” I remind Stranger, who drums his fingers against his lips.


“Never have I ever…ridden on an airplane.”


I drink, not calling him out even though I think that techncially counts as targeted. They don’t have airplanes in Fairy.


“Do the sky bison of the Northern Mountains count?” Royan asks.


“Oh, yes, definitely,” Stranger says, and Royan shrugs and drinks.


“Never have I ever stayed awake more than thirty hours,” I say.


Royan looks confused, and Stranger shrugs. “Time sort of…works differently here. It’s narrative.”


“Time is narrative? What does that even mean?”


“It means that it moves more quickly when you are between important moments,” Royan explains.

“So technically, we experience very little non-meaningful time.”


“So that’s a no for both of us,” Stranger says with a grin.


“I think I should get a re-ask,” I complain, but I’m smiling, and neither of them takes me seriously.


“Never have I ever lost a fight,” Royan says. Stranger and I both drink, laughing, but this time we don’t share the stories behind it. I notice we have more in common than I expected, and once again I wish I knew his story. Who is it, really, behind the laughter and the mystery?


“Never have I ever started a fight,” Stranger says, and Royan and I both quickly drink. I’m not proud of my temper, but it’s there, all right. Sometimes I make bad choices.


“Never have I ever been in love,” I blurt out, before I can stop myself. I watch them both closely.

Royan smiles, softly, and takes a drink like he’s thinking about something pleasant from a long time ago. Stranger drinks, too, but he hesitates before he does, and the drink is quick, almost angry. It’s the exact opposite reaction to what I was expecting. Stranger, with his laughter and his promises of the truth; and Royan, with his honor and his uptight attitude.


They both have such huge lives beyond me. And there’s still so much I don’t know.


It isn’t anyone’s turn, but I drink anyway. Maybe I just need a drink. Or maybe my turn wasn’t as true as I thought it was…

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology

I could not believe it when I saw the Kickstarter for Unspeakable, a collection of creepy and transgressive queer gothic tales. Is there anything more on brand for this blog?! I’m so excited to be part of the tour of this collection of stories, and to feature a few of the authors in this space. There are four trans and/or non-binary writers who contributed to Unspeakable, and today, I’m pleased that you get to know a little bit about three of them here.

The cover of Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology, which features a skeleton wearing a flower crown and collar on a rainbow backdrop.

Meet Red!

Claire Hamilton Russell, aka Red

Claire Hamilton Russell lives in Glasgow, Scotland and is usually known as Red. They are one of life’s natural Disaster Bisexuals, hence why they are genderqueer/genderfluid/nonbinary, because choosing anything as solid as a distinct single gender identity is clearly antithetical to them. They are disabled and neurodiverse, and have a grand ambition to eventually cover all their various mobility devices in cool geeky stickers.

A former worker with disabled children and young people, refugees and torture survivors, they had to give up full time work due to chronic illness and now spend their time blogging about disability and LGBT+ rights issues, writing, embroidering, playing or running tabletop roleplay, LARPing with mobility aids and listening to podcasts. They are currently developing a podcast on Scotland’s lesser-known industrial and post-industrial history with their wonderful husband, Mark, occasionally hindered by their beloved Staffie, Jasmine.

Let Down: Teaser!

A tower, lit up at night, reaching into the clouds.
Photo by Victor Malyushev on Unsplash.

“Let Down” is a darker, nastier, and queering take on the Rapunzel faerytale. The Lady Melisandre is trapped in an isolated tower under a horrifying curse decades after rejecting a proposal from a very incel prince. She has long since given up on rescue, but it turns out the patriarchal mindset can leave some unexpected loopholes in curses.

Never Have I Ever…

Zip-lined across the River Clyde (I haven’t, sadly)
Left Europe (I haven’t, and I’ve taken the Flight Free pledge)
Gone on a rollercoaster (I haven’t – I have POTS so it would be distinctly unfun)
Petted a wolf (I have, and I’ll do it again at every possible opportunity)

Meet Avery!

Avery Kit Malone

Avery Kit Malone is a long shadow in a dark hallway. He is a researcher in psychology, as well as a writer of dark, and often weird and surreal, fiction. His work appears or is forthcoming in Aphotic Realm, The Gateway Review, Pseudopod, and other venues. You can call to him across the void: @dead_scholar

Doctor Barlowe’s Mirror: Teaser!

A person's face, partially obscured, wearing a headscarf and reflected in a mirror.
Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash.

In “Doctor Barlowe’s Mirror,” an inventor creates a strange device that conjures the image of a perfect version of oneself. This vision is not, however, all that it appears to be. As the doctor’s assistant discovers, something unsettling lurks within that handsome visage the longer he looks…

Never Have I Ever…

I have never owned a pet rabbit.
I’ve never gone swimming in the sea (or anywhere else. I can’t swim).
I’ve never been bitten by a centipede. As far as I know…
I have driven across the United States alone in my car more than once. Once, I took a wrong turn during a snowstorm and ended up driving through a national forest. Road conditions were fairly poor, and I was quite alone there, but sight of the sun coming muted through the fog between these giant evergreens, snow blanketing the ground beneath them and everywhere else, was lovely, in a lonely kinda way. I’ll never forget it.

Meet Jen!

Jen Glifort

Jen Glifort (she/they) is a nonbinary writer and editor living in Connecticut. When she’s not writing, she’s usually playing trumpet, losing at Overwatch, or giving presentations about robots in media for pop culture conventions. She can be found on Twitter!

Taylor Hall: Teaser!

A manor house in a foggy evening.
Photo by Ján Jakub Naništa on Unsplash

Taylor Hall has always been a sanctuary to Kit Taylor—a place to hide away when the world felt overwhelming. But when Kit develops feelings for a new roommate, the ancient family manor is all too happy to intervene, digging up emotions Kit would rather keep hidden.

Never Have I Ever…

One thing I have done: Gotten caught trespassing on a graffiti-covered abandoned highway.
Three things I haven’t done: Taken a cruise to visit the US Virgin Islands. Sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” at karaoke. Been drunk at Disney World.

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A book with a spine on its spine.