Vamps in Denim

Currently Reading: Red, White, and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston

One day, I had a little spare time and was feeling restless, so I asked a friend of mine who I knew was a bit of a bookworm if she wanted to me to do some reading recommendations for her. As luck would have it, her taste as a big fan of urban fantasy was way outside of my wheelhouse. Some day, I’m going to do a Read Harder challenge, or at least make a reading goal to do a cursory read of some genre fic… in the meantime, I learned a lot giving these recommendations, and as a result, I’ve spent some time reading some urban fantasy on my own. In this post, I review an upcoming YA urban fantasy novel that drops in May – Carmilla, by Kim Turrisi – and I’ll offer up my recs. Special thanks to @genderqueerwolf and the SFF channel over at the Rogue Book Coven for being my go-to experts and helping me figure this one out! 

Carmilla

I received an ARC of Carmilla by Kim Turrisi from Edelweiss+. I saw it on a list of queer books coming out this year, and when I saw that this was about lesbian vampires and was based on a web series, I was like… yes. Obviously. And simply put, the book completely delivers. It’s tropey, it’s charming, and it’s clearly written for fans of Buffy or who have Twilight among their problematic faves. I loved it.

I don’t have a whole lot else to say about this book except that it made me laugh in a way that a lot of books don’t, and I was truly surprised that in a pretty light read, it had fantastic, accessible genderqueer representation that made this enby’s heart swell. Carmilla came out on May 7th, so order it, and treat yourself. Get a spooky bath bomb, too. (Unfortunately, the one in the photo is out of production, but my forever fave is Secret Arts.) You won’t regret it.

Recommendations

Here’s what I knew:

  1. Reads mostly urban fantasy
  2. Favourites are Anne Bishop’s Others series, and all of Holly Black’s novels 
  3. Most recently read books include Karen Marie Moning’s Fever books.

My Picks

I’m going to start out with two recommendations that aren’t strictly urban fantasy, but will still appeal to fans of the genre. Both are superhero books in contemporary settings. The Heroine Complex books, by Sarah Kuhn, are an award-winning series that features Asian-American superheroines, and was pitched as “The Devil Wears Prada with superheroes”. This is a compelling comp for me, because The Devil Wears Prada has long been one of my comfort-watch movie go-tos. There are three books available in this series right now.

The cover of the Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn.

The Santa Olivia series by Jacqueline Carey is also a superhero series, but unlike Kuhn’s books, they also integrate fantasy creatures: comic book superheroes, meet werewolves. Carey is probably best known for her Phèdre Trilogy, the epic fantasy series which begins with the award-winning Kushiel’s Dart. In Santa Olivia, Carey brings the fantastic to a more urban, near-future setting, in a disenfranchised town between Texas and Mexico. My only caution with this series is that I couldn’t find any claim to Mexican heritage in my research that I did on Carey, and because of the setting of this book and use of “Santa Olivia” – a seemingly fabricated town and patron saint – I can’t be sure whether or not readers will encounter culturally appropriative elements in this series.

The cover of Santa Olivia, by Jacqueline Carey.

The Root is the first novel in the Wrath and Athanaeum series, by Black, queer author, named Na’amen Gobert Tilahun. This is a gritty series set in San Francisco, and featuring gods, secret government agencies, and hidden magic. It has a super diverse cast, including trans representation, and monster butt-kicking. The Root is Tilahun’s debut novel, and the third in the series is forthcoming.

The cover of The Root, by Na'amen Gobert Tilahun.

Next up, I propose Mishell Baker’s Borderline. This is the first book in the Arcadia Project series, a three-book series. This book was a Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominee, and has characters that are queer, disabled, and neurodiverse… and fantasy creatures, of course.

The cover of Borderline, by Mishell Baker.

Indigenous literature seems to be taking the world by storm these days, and this isn’t the first time I’ve recommended Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse. It isn’t without a caveat, since this book has been criticized by some Indigenous community members as containing some culturally appropriative material. That said, this powerhouse #OwnVoices novel is still on my own TBR, and has been nominated for several awards – just know when you read it that no book exists in a political vacuum, especially if you’re picking this one up as a settler reader.

Since the release of Trail of Lightning, Roanhorse has also finished a young adult novel called Race to the Sun, to be released in January of 2020, and has released the second book in the Sixth World series: Storm of Locusts, which continues the story of Diné monster hunter, Maggie Hoskie.

The cover of Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse.

Okay, yall. Let’s talk Hillary Monahan for a second. Earlier this year, I picked up The Hollow Girl while on a plane ride between Toronto and Denver. This is a gruesome book, about the revenge of a Welsh Romani girl who is sexually assaulted and tortured by the son of her chieftan. I will write a full review of this book another day, but I could not put it down. It was an incredible book.

So when I was looking for diverse urban fantasy, I was scanning LGBTQ Reads, and came across a book called Snake Eyes, by Monahan. It is the third in the Gods and Monsters series. The first two are written by different authors, so I can’t vouch for them, but they appear to stand alone either way. If Snake Eyes is anywhere near the quality of the Hollow Girl, it is well worth giving this book a try – but if I know Monahan, this book may not be for the faint of heart.

The cover of Snake Eyes, by Hillary Monahan.

Finally, I thought that Malinda Lo’s fast-paced, character-driven style might appeal to a fan of urban fantasy, even if I’m not sure that’s how her work is typically characterized. Her novel Huntress features the strong female protagonists that are typical of urban fantasy, in an adventure prequel to Lo’s most well-known work, Ash, an #OwnVoices title featuring Chinese cultural influences.

The covers of Ash and Huntress, by Malinda Lo.

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#2019Reading Update

Currently Reading: Songs from the Deep, by Kelly Powell

Dear Reader, 2019 has been a wild ride so far. As I’m writing this, we’re about 1/3 of the way through, and I wanted to take a pause to sum up some of the things that have been going on for me and my reading this year. Additionally, I’ve been chronicling my #2019Reading through that hashtag on Twitter – find me @saskeah, and give me a wave! There’s also a book review buried at the end of this post – so if you’re interested in what I thought about SLAY, by Brittney Morris, you can skip all my early chatter, and check that out at the bottom.

eReading

A huge thing that’s happened to me this year is that I started eReading. As someone with very limited income, I debated the decision to buy an eReader a lot – and finally, I purchased a Kobo on sale early this year. I purposely chose the Kobo because I didn’t want an Amazon product, and because I could purchase it through Indigo, the big Canadian book store chain (à la Barnes and Noble). Mostly, though, Kobo now links with Overdrive, the library access app, which means that it is dead simple to withdraw library eBooks on your device.

I primarily invested in the Kobo in order to access low or no cost books. As a blogger and bookseller, I have access to ARCs through Edelweiss+ and NetGalley, if I have a device to read them on, and because of the Overdrive app on Kobo, it’s easy to borrow library books as well. I didn’t know how I would feel about the eReading experience – because I work at an indie, I read exclusively in hard copy before this year.

It turns out that with a Kobo, I read way more. I can read more easily in low light or when my eyes are tired, I can carry multiple titles with me so I can switch what I’m reading to suit my mood and mental capacity, and I can DNF books that I’m not feeling with no financial risk. It’s easier on my body, and the eInk is easy on my eyes. In short: eReading. So accessible. Also, a little bit nostalgic. When I have a really good book and no early morning plans, I love being able to stay up late and read in low light past my bedtime. It makes me feel like a little kid again.

Seriously, yall. My Kobo has become my security blanket. Whenever I leave the house, I can take as many books as I might need with me – something for any mood, so many backups, things I might like to share – and it doesn’t make my bag any heavier. My Kobo comes with me everywhere. It’s the best little robot friend.

My one complaint, and this is an industry gripe, so feel free to gloss over this bit if you’re not knee deep in publishing, but I wish that more publishers would produce ARCs in epub format. I so often receive eARCs in PDF formats that are virtually or literally incompatible with a Kobo. I think it’s clear to most people in the book industry that it would be preferable if Amazon didn’t have a full on monopoly, so it would be nice to see folks in the industry not cater quite as blatantly to Kindle users.

New Things I Want to Discover

No matter how much I read and learn, there are always more things I feel like I don’t know but want to discover. This year, I’ve been trying to get back into SFF, for example, after a long hiatus because of my own mental capacity for processing worldbuilding-heavy stories. One of the things that has really helped that is discovering Nine Star Press, a small New Mexico based press that publishes LGBTQ+ titles, and has released two SFF titles this year that have both impressed me and eased me back into the genre – Empire of Light, by Alex Harrow, which I’ve already reviewed, and The Soulstealers, by Jacqueline Rohrbach, which I’ll review down the line. I also decided to focus some of my reading in 2019 on learning about far right Christian culture in the United States, and I’ll be writing that up in a post in the future as well.

However, two things have emerged that I’m interested in reading more of that I’ve never really explored before. First of all, cozy mysteries, which I had never even heard of until this year! I’ve been skulking around Cozy Mystery.com to get some ideas for what I should read to explore this genre – but I’m also very open to suggestions!

I’m also wide open for recs by your favourite Australian authors. I picked up The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, by Felicity McLean earlier this year, in part because the publicity copy said that the book was “quintessentially Australian” – and I realized that I had no idea what that meant, and no idea if I’d ever even read a book from Australia. And that seemed ludicrous. After loving the Van Apfel Girls (and also deeply not understanding some of the cultural elements of the book!), I’d like to see what else I’m missing!

DNF All The Things!

Something else I’ve been doing in 2019 is DNF’ing. A lot. Often.

I realize that being able to do this is somewhat of a privileged position to be in. I access most of my books for free, and almost all of them at deeply discounted prices, because of my roles as a bookseller and blogger. I also access a lot of books through the library. But either way – I’ve come to peace with it. As I’m writing this, I’ve finished nearly 40 books this year, and I’ve DNF’d 18. I’ve even given up on my long-standing cardinal rule of reading at least 100 pages of any book, to give it a chance.

You know what? There are so many books in the world. If something doesn’t feel good to read and you have no other reason for wanting to read it? Just don’t! Read something different!

SLAY

The cover of Slay, by Brittney Morris.
Do you eat meat?

I was pretty stoked when I got approved for an ARC of SLAY from Edelweiss+. The pub copy bills it as Ready Player One (although a Goodreads user comped it to Warcross, and I think that’s more on point) + The Hate U Give, plus it was blurbed by Nic Stone. It’s a debut YA from author Brittney Morris, with a breathtaking cover design by Laura Eckes, who can be found on Twitter @iamturtlecat.

Probably, nobody needs me to hype this book. Not only was it not written for me, but it was also named by Entertainment Weekly as the YA debut they’re most excited for this year. But I loved it so much that I needed to gush about it, at least a little bit – especially since I don’t think most reviews will mention that there is Black trans representation in this book. It’s a side character whose plotline is heart wrenching, but there are not enough BIPOC trans characters out there yet, and my heart nearly jumped out of my chest when I realized that there would be in this gem that will likely be very widely read. I think a lot of readers will find mirrors and windows in this book that they won’t find anywhere else.

This book drops in September, and is available for pre-order now. Don’t sleep on this, particularly if you’re a fan of Angie Thomas, or an educator. Morris’ protag, Kiera, is a smouldering Queen of Black Girl Magic, and by this time next year, I’m pretty sure she’ll be SLAYing alongside Starr and Bri. I’m not a Black reader, but from my experience burning through this book in one sitting, it’s fast paced, it’s extremely well-written, it has characters that are highly relatable, and I learned a lot from it.

In an action-packed story with speculative elements, SLAY tackles serious social issues like gun violence, intergenerational relationship building, intercommunity struggles, and cultural appropriation through an accessible and magnetic (slightly near-future) contemporary drama. It interweaves elements of Black diasporic history and current culture in what essentially is a simple story about a young girl, and her video game.

It’s time for this white blogger to step back, but I’ll leave you with the completely extra book trailer that Simon Pulse created for SLAY, if you’re not already convinced that you should be calling up your local bookshop, and asking them to order this in for you, right now. Happy #2019Reading!

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New Trans Lit for Spring 2019

Currently Reading: Our Symphony with Animals, by Aysha Akhtar

Every time I look at the list of titles by trans authors or featuring affirming trans content that are coming out this year, and realize that there is no possible way that I could read or review them all, my heart just swells. There’s a lot in that stack now. As is more typical, from my perception, there are a few adult literary fiction titles, there are some memoirs, and the list of trans YA titles is getting longer and longer every year. It’s amazing.

That said, they’re not all the perfect book for me. In this post, I’m going to touch on five books that are coming out soon or have come out recently, but unfortunately, I’ve been DNF’ing a lot this year. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m reading more than I have in the past, or if it’s because I have less attention span when it comes to reading things that I don’t immediately connect with. That said, I’m glad that these books exist as choices in the world, and I hope that other readers check them out! I’m going to end with my most positive review, so stick with it…

The cover of Uncomfortable Labels, by Laura Kate Dale.

Although Uncomfortable Labels by Laura Kate Dale is a memoir, I was impressed that it explores the intersection of multiple identity labels in such a thorough way. The title and cover alone, for anyone who’s familiar with sensory sensitivity, was a great nod to the content of the book.

I received an eARC of Uncomfortable Labels through NetGalley. This book piqued my interest because one of my partners is queer, autistic, and transfeminine. I, too, am queer, have some neurodivergences that resemble autism spectrum experiences, and am trans. The same partner also has experiences with MDMA, and introduced me to roller derby… eerily, these are also topics that Dale dedicates chapters to.

Here’s the thing: this is a great book! The downside of it being so relevant in my life is… I basically didn’t get anything novel out of it. The upside of it being so relevant in my life is, I’m so glad that someone wrote this book. If you look at the reviews that already exist on Goodreads, you’ll see that lots of readers are learning a lot from it.

I’ve accepted that this one wasn’t written for me. I’ve learned a lot about the identity experiences explored in this book from years of living alongside my partner and learning from zir, and from parallel experiences in my own life. But for cis or neurotypical readers, this book is a gem. It’s clear, it’s thorough, and it’s extremely vulnerable. There is so much that makes this a memoir worth reading. Uncomfortable Labels comes out in July, and is available for pre-order now. CW for detailed descriptions of bullying, mention of substance use, and exploration of biomedical diagnostic processes.

The cover of Some Girls Bind, by Rory James.

Some Girls Bind, by Rory James, was released in February of 2019. I received an eARC through NetGalley.

This book is a format anomaly. First, it’s a novel in verse – growing in popularity, this format is still coming into its own in the world of YA lit. Second, this book is Hi-Lo. This is a format that’s written with a high or mature interest level, but at a lower reading level. Typically, Hi-Lo books appeal the most to high school students who are developing literacy skills, adult learners, or mature students learning English as an additional language. I will champion Hi-Lo books any day, because they are super accessible, even though they often deal with more involved subject matter than other books written at an introductory reading level.

That said, because this is a book with a genderqueer protagonist, and this is an author who is unknown to me, I wanted to do some digging. There is very little information available about the author of this book. The only bio I could find was from the publisher, West 44, and it reads,

Rory James is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. She holds degrees in creative writing, English, and political science. Rory now teaches test prep classes to high school students. Inspired by her own experience with gender issues, Rory hopes to reach the many young people with struggles or questions of their own.

from West 44.

…so I approached this book with some skepticism, since it appears to me to be a book written about a genderqueer character by a cis woman author.

Unfortunately, my skepticism was relatively warranted. Although I wasn’t offended by the content of this book, I was disappointed. The verse in this novel is exceedingly simple, and I think that the quality of the writing was a hindrance to the plot. Although it was intended for a younger audience, I would be quicker to recommend The Moon Within by Aida Salazar, which I have reviewed previously, than this title. That said, I think that this book may still have its place in an educational context, and I hope that teachers and librarians will consider seeking both books out.

The cover of Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee.

I finally discovered Yoon Ha Lee earlier this year, and I was so excited to see a trans author of colour writing sci fi that folks around me were just loving. I eagerly checked Ninefox Gambit, an adult title, out from the library, despite the fact that it’s been a minute since I read Serious Science Fiction. I started reading it without knowing much more about it beyond the fact that it had a trans author. Unfortunately, I was quickly overwhelmed by the technical aspects of the book, and that it was so focused on war. Other readers encouraged me to check out Dragon Pearl, since it’s a YA title, and is based a little more on mythology, and less on math.

Unfortunately, I gave this book my obligatory 100 pages, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that books based on war in space, no matter what the context, may not be my jam. That said, the writing in this book is precise and unique, and the author’s expertise in the genre shines through. The mythological aspects of the book were fascinating, artistically portrayed, and totally enjoyable, and from the first pages, the main character charmed me.

I would recommend Dragon Pearl to any sci fi fan, or a kid who is into science, math, or mythology. It seems like a great book, and I think that every trans or gender creative kid should have the opportunity to have books like this in their hands, as examples of what really accomplished and skillful trans folks are doing out in the world. This book is reviewing well, and my bookshop colleagues and customers are loving it. And I mean, listen, with Rick Riordan behind it, this book is basically selling itself. It’s available for purchase now.

The cover of Zenobia July, by Lisa Bunker.

It was actually kind of a struggle to get an ARC of Zenobia July, and I am extremely grateful that the generous author, Lisa Bunker, was willing to facilitate getting one into my hands. This is Bunker’s second #OwnVoices middle grade book featuring a trans MC, her first being Felix Yz. And Bunker herself is a powerhouse – on top of being an accomplished author, she also does political work and had a 30-year career in non-commercial broadcasting (I am a HUGE public radio fan). Yall. I wanted to love this book so badly.

Listen – if I was an eight year old, I probably would have. But again: this book just wasn’t written for me. A lot of what Bunker wrote in terms of gender really rang true to my experiences with transfeminine youth and partners who I’ve had who are trans women. I loved the affirmative parenting of older lesbian aunts. The story feels contemporary and relatable for a younger audience. But I just couldn’t get into it.

I tried to dissect why that is, and I think that compared to other middle grade titles that I’ve loved, the writing is a little bit plainer on the page, whereas I tend to lean more toward more poetic prose when I’m reading works intended for younger readers.

That said, I would put this book in the hands of any young reader, likely from age 8 or so onward. It’s an accessible read, and it would be a useful book for an adult involved in the life of a trans youth as well. I so appreciate the existence of this book – like all of the books in this post – even if it’s not something that I could really dig my own teeth into. This book is available for pre-order now, and will release at the end of May.

Two images, the cover of The Wise and the Wicked, by Rebecca Podos, and a picture of me, looking down, holding an eReader in my hand. My cat is laying beside me, resting his chin on the arm holding the eReader.
The cover of the Wise and the Wicked, and my kitten’s attempt at interrupting my reading.

AS PROMISED, I end this blog post on a high note, with Rebecca Podos’ The Wise and the Wicked! I was so fortunate to receive an ARC of this book through Edelweiss+, and I even held off for months reading it because I was so looking forward to it. As you can tell from the photo above, even my formerly feral kitten bb loved it!

Podos has an impressive pedigree. Her first novel was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a B&N Best YA Book of 2016, and her second was a Lambda award winner in 2018. I anticipate that this book will be no less lauded, if it gets the attention that it so deserves.

The Wise and the Wicked is one of the best YA I’ve read this year. It’s a contemporary story for older teens that deals with friendship, romance, navigating complex and multi-generational family bonds, family history, and struggling with moral ambiguity, all based on captivating Russian folklore.

As I would expect from an author who holds a recent Lammy, this book is an #OwnVoices title featuring fantastic and nuanced queer representation, and although Podos is cisgendered, it also has impressively affirming and accurate transmasculine representation. I loved about this rep that the transness of the character played a role in the plot, but wasn’t the central feature of the character themself.

Anyone who likes a spooky read, with a nod to a culture that is infrequently written about in North American titles, is going to love this book. If you’ve been captivated by recent titles such as House With Chicken Legs (Sophie Anderson) or Finding Baba Yaga (Jane Yolen), this book is definitely up your alley. It’s available for pre-order now, and will release on May 28th. Call up your local indie: you will not regret it. (CW for sexual content and substance use.)


AND, if you’ve made it this far in this mammoth blog post, I have two easter eggs to share from book Twitter. One, Podos dyed her hair to match her book cover. HOW RAD IS THAT.

Also, my cat really did have feelings about me reading The Wise and the Wicked, and the full photo documentation can be seen below.

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.

I’m Afraid of Men

Currently Reading: A Wolf Called Wander, by Rosanne Parry, illustrations by Mónica Armiño

A photo of the vendor table at the launch of I'm Afraid of Men, covered in many copies of Vivek Shraya's books, records, and children's books. There are also lots of I'm Afraid of Men buttons and bookmarks.
Copies of I’m Afraid of Men at the Toronto launch, held at the Art Gallery of Ontario, supported by Another Story Bookshop.

This week, I decided to post a review I wrote a while back, but hadn’t found the right time for yet… Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men. This book has been on my staff picks at the book shop since I got my hands on an ARC in May of 2018. Shraya is a prolific multi-disciplinary creator, and this small volume cannot nearly be called representative of her work, despite its relative visibility within mainstream culture. It seems like the right time to hype this title, since next month is the Toronto launch of Shraya’s new book, Death Threat, with artist Ness Lee. It will also be a celebration of Shraya’s imprint, VS. Books, and their first title, Shut Up You’re Pretty, by Téa Mutonji.

I had three reasons for wanting to write about I’m Afraid of Men, and why I’m consistently championing this title. First, I live in Canada, and this book was a big deal here. That said, I know that CanLit doesn’t always get the buzz that American-published titles do, so I wanted to lift this title up as much as I can, now that the initial visibility of its splash of a release has calmed down a little. Second, I often have customers at the book shop ask me what I thought of it as a trans person myself, and what audience I think it’s appropriate for. Finally, the book felt deeply personal to me, because despite the fact that there are lots of things that Shraya and I don’t share – experiences of racialization and gender identities, for example – there are lots of things that we do share. I, too, am afraid of cis people, men in particular, and I have also loved cis men, in my life.

I was lucky to get my hands on I’m Afraid of Men when it was just an ARC, and I later had the pleasure of attending the Toronto launch with the book shop where I work, which is why I can say with confidence that Shraya is as engaging in person as she is on the page. In Toronto, Shraya’s event for I’m Afraid of Men featured a dramatic recitation from the text accompanied by an artistic video montage, as well as a conversation hosted by Jully Black. I found myself moved when Black asked poignant questions that Shraya answered with touching vulnerability, and laughing as the two discussed soap operas. The large event at the Art Gallery of Ontario was sold out, and those in attendance were a diverse crowd. It felt like the perfect way to welcome Shraya’s creation into the world.

I devoured this book in one sitting. Although parts of the book felt as accessible as a trans 101 lesson, many of Shraya’s anecdotes resonated with me, and I felt like I could have easily been reading a friend’s diary. The book is part personal narrative, part critical analysis, and all clearly-written. My one caution to anyone who has extensive personal experience with the subject matter in this book is that the concluding pages felt more instructional and less nuanced than the rest of the book. That said, I would feel as comfortable handing a copy of this book to a cis het white young person with a limited knowledge of trans people and gender-related issues, as I was handing it to my genderqueer trans partner, covered in my eager marginalia.

I’m Afraid of Men is a must-read book that skillfully bridges the academic and the lyrical, and offers an important perspective on life as a trans woman of colour in contemporary society. It’s available now as a vibrant hardcover that’s perfect as a gift, or would be a gem on any shelf.

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Family-Friendly Gift Requests

Currently Reading: Soulstealers, by Jacqueline Rohrbach

Note: the links found on this page are affiliate links for Amazon.com, so if you use them to make purchases, you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link, and then search for the book you’re seeking. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

This is a slightly overdue recommendations post that I wrote much earlier this year, and I’m only just now getting around to posting. Before I get to it, I have just two little tidbits of news to share. One, I need to boost a newly-released book, by Alicia Elliott. I was honoured to have the chance to attend her Toronto release with my shop, and to have received an ARC of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground last year. I read it in one shot on a plane ride, and it’s a must-read, full stop. It’s available now.

I also wanted to share a list compiled by fellow genderqueer book blogger Corey Alexander, which is a look at books published early this year with trans and non-binary authors. It’s a fantastic list. You’ll see some of the books I’ve mentioned in this blog on it, but also a few others that I haven’t gotten to. Don’t miss out on Dragon Pearl, Squad, Once and Future, Disintegrate/Dissociate, or the Lost Coast. These are all high up on my TBR.

Prompt

Back in December, I had a friend post on Twitter that they were looking for some book recommendations for things that they could ask their somewhat conservative family for for the holidays, specifically titles that were available as Kindle eBooks. Although I didn’t get around to posting these back then, I’m hoping that this list will still be helpful to anyone who has a gift-receiving holiday coming up, since these are mostly 2018 releases.

Some of these books would also serve pretty well as a response to a question I often get in the bookshop: I have a conservative family member, and I’d like to give them something that they will read, but that will also offer them a progressive message, just a little under the radar.

Here’s what I knew:

  • Hadn’t read anything family-friendly in a while
  • Likes John Green and Harry Potter, but also adult books in similar veins
  • Likes Ivan Coyote and Andrea Gibson
  • Likes books about sexuality, gender, and feminist issues
  • Reads both fiction and non-fiction, adult and YA
  • Does not read thrillers or horror
  • Things that were off-limits included anything about kink, sex, or non-monogamy
  • Special interest in silly detective books, à la Brooklyn 99
  • These would probably be read in an ebook format

My Picks

I don’t do a lot of detective reading myself, but after reading a lot of 2018 wrap ups prior to giving these recommendations, I knew that as a silly detective rec, I was heading straight for Andrew Shaffer’s Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery, a detective story featuring past president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden as MCs. This book is described as part noir thriller, part bromance, by the publicity copy.

Whenever someone mentions John Green in their past-loved titles, I go straight for a dramatic book about a romantic relationship… which, for me, almost always means LGBTQ+ romance. Tin Man, by Sarah Winman, which is a gay relationship story that comes highly recommended by my fellow Another Story staffers, but that’s not super obvious from the publicity copy, making it a perfect under the radar rec.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou is a Book Riot dubbed Swiss Army recommendation of a sharp new release non-fiction that’s edgy in a way that might appeal to someone with some kink interests, but it’s not scary. Every time I think about this particular recommendation, it calls to mind Bill Gates’ super trippy holiday recommendations video from the end of 2018, and the syringe holiday light display! On the surface, this is a book about the tech industry, but underneath is about corporate corruption. It was featured on Book Riot’s Best of 2018 list, and is a non-violent true crime story. Another non-violent true crime that might appeal to someone who’s into over the top mystery like this reader is Kirk Wallace Johnson’s the Feather Thief, which I also added to this list.

Because this reader had mentioned Harry Potter, I also wanted to throw in some YA fantasy. Tomi Adeyemi’s debut Children of Blood and Bone is a story that draws on the author’s Nigerian roots, and has serious intersectional feminist appeal, but it’s still mainstream enough (particularly with its early movie adaptation) to be family-friendly.

Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel has a lot of sexuality writing tied up in it, also without it being blatant from the dust jacket. My shop hosted an event around this book and Darnell Moore’s No Ashes in the Fire, and I think that both books have poignant and important things to say about racialized experiences of queer life and history in North America.

Response

I was disappointed that the person who I offered these recommendations to didn’t receive any of them for the holidays! Their response to these picks was positive, and I was hoping to see them get to enjoy reading them. If you’d like to complete this experience for them (and for me!), you can visit the contact page of their website, and they’ll send you details of how you can send them one of my book picks! Remember to use one of my affiliate links in this post, if you choose to send them a gift – that way, both of us will feel your love!

If you enjoyed reading these recommendations, and would like some of your own, head on over to my contact page, and send me a message! I love giving recs and readers’ advisory, and have lots of experience from my work as a bookseller.

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.

Spooky New YA

Currently Reading: Witchmark, by C. L. Polk

Note: the links found on this page are affiliate links for Amazon.com, so if you use them to make purchases, you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link, and then search for the book you’re seeking. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

In my life, Spooky Season isn’t just October… it’s a year-round celebration. I love spooky reads. This week, I’m going to offer up three reviews for books that all drop this month: Out of Salem, by Hal Schrieve, which hit shelves on March 5th, Other Words for Smoke, by Sarah Maria Griffin, which came out just last week, and The Devouring Gray, by Christine Lynn Herman, which is set to release on April 2nd. In this post, I’m bringing you previews of the QT zombies, witches, superpowers, monsters, haunted houses, and talking cats of your dreams. But first! A little trans lit news…

News!

I’m so pleased that this time around, I just have two quick, positive things to share. One, in a trans-affirming move, some libraries will no longer be collecting gender data on library card applications, since it became clear that the data collected was both not useful and also a barrier to access for some.

Also, for anyone who read my post on trans-affirming middle grade books, or who’ve picked up The Moon Within since it dropped recently, listen to author Aida Salazar on the Scholastic Reads podcast! If you haven’t read the book yet, make sure to grab a copy, because it’s great.

Out of Salem

A photo of a physical ARC of Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve on my bed.

Before I write anything about this title, I need to offer a little background. First, I only really discovered Urban Fantasy as a genre in its own right back at the end of 2018, when a friend asked me for some book recommendations (to be revealed in a future post!). Before I could deliver, I had a lot to learn. Since having my interest piqued, I decided to try to delve into the genre in my own reading – inspired partly by my return to PhD studies after a leave of absence, since it was really by chewing through urban fantasy YA like the Twilight series that got me through my undergrad studies.

Based on that information, my friend recommended that I try Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown for a taste of what’s going on in that genre almost a decade later. I listened to it on audio through the Libby app on a drive from Denver to Toronto, all in one sitting, and it delivered. Tropey, but complex enough to draw me in, with fantastic original worldbuilding, the spooky story kept me company all the way home.

As such, I was excited when a copy of Shrieve’s Out of Salem landed in my lap. I was hesitant, because zombies have never been my thing… but I had hesitated about Dread Nation before caving to curiosity in 2018, and I had loved that book. Since then, I’ve been educated about some of its more problematic elements, unfortunately, and in addition the author has said some pretty horrible and transphobic things on Twitter. Tread carefully. But – Out of Salem has an enby author and an enby MC… what could go wrong?

Well. I am a firm believer that there is a perfect book for every reader, and a dream reader for every book, and this one just wasn’t for me. I’ll read 100 pages of anything – that’s my rule – but after 160 or so of this one, I finally had to let it go.

I really enjoyed the first few chapters, which kept me laughing and interested, especially because of the diversity of the cast and the richness of the contemporary fantasy universe that Shrieve has built. The book tackles complex and important social issues through monstrous allegory. Impressive, considering that Shrieve is a twenty-one-year-old debut author.

Eventually, though, the zombie aspect began to wear on me. I’m neurodiverse and working on sorting out some family stuff… so maybe it was just a touch too dark for this moment in my life, but my anxiety was building hard about the MC, who seems destined to just painfully waste away over the course of book. I couldn’t handle the graphic imagery on the page of the decaying enby who I was growing to care for.

Additionally, perhaps due to my own experiences as a fat enby who has suffered at the hands of bullies, this book was just a little too edgy for me. The imagery around oppression and the violence that some of the characters experience in this gritty universe just felt harsh. The use of slurs felt gratuitous, and hit a little close to home. Considering whether I’d feel triggered and anxious carrying on to the end of this 450 page book, I finally had to put it aside.

That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend this book. It feels resonant to me, and I’m still curious what happens to the cast of characters – especially the elder lesbian bookseller witch who takes our fair MC under her wing – so if you can stomach a little more than I can? Order this book while it’s still hot off the presses, and fill me in on the ending. It dropped on March 5.

Other Words for Smoke

The cover of Other Words for Smoke, by Sarah Maria Griffin.

I received an ARC of Other Words for Smoke by from Edelweiss+. This YA haunted house story is Irish author Sarah Maria Griffin’s third book, following another YA title, Spare and Found Parts, and her memoir, Not Lost.

The blurb for this book basically gives the punch line. It’s a story primarily about six characters, a set of twins, a witch and her ward, a cat called Bobby, and and owl called James. The book takes place in the small town where Rita resides, and I have to admit, even as a Newfoundlander, the names of characters and settings in this book made a lot more sense when I looked up the author and found that she was Irish.

My favourite part of this book is how Rita’s house itself becomes sort of a seventh central character. Aspects of the house and the way it behaves really tugged at the heartstrings of mine that loved the moving staircases at Hogwarts. None of the characters in this book are as simple as they appear on the surface. The story and the development of the characters are both full of spellbinding surprises. Nothing is quite as it seems.

We know the end of the story before we know how it begins: their house burns down, and the witch and her ward are never seen again. What we get through this book is the suspenseful, labyrinthian ride through two summers preceding this dramatic event. I was drawn through this book, even with its somewhat slow pacing, because I was dying to know what happened next, and I didn’t want to pull myself out of the lush imagery of the fantastical, haunted world that Griffin creates.

Unfortunately, all of the characters in this book appear to be cisgendered, but there is great queer representation. Other Words for Smoke came out on March 12th, so you can enjoy it right away.

 The Devouring Gray

A selfie of me with green hair, holding a physical ARC of The Devouring Gray, by Christine Lynn Herman.

I was excited to receive Chrstine Lynn Herman’s the Devouring Gray as an ARC back in December 2018, just in time for my first holiday celebrations in years. It seemed fitting, since my partner and I were attempting to spookify our slightly modified Christmas-esque traditions. It is an atmospheric page-turner, and it completely drew me in as I read it over the few days of my holiday celebrations.

Herman’s debut is the first of at least two books in this universe; its sequel will drop in 2020. Its publicity copy describes it as a young adult contemporary fantasy, and compares it to the CW/Netflix show Riverdale. As a fan of the show, I was pleased to find that the comp is accurate, but based on the suspense and pacing, I would describe the genre as speculative horror (content warnings for the book can be found here). Queerbabes: this book is worth the hype. It made me feel everything. Pre-order it if you can! It comes out on April 2nd. 

There is skilful, plot-relevant queer representation in this book, despite a lack of trans or enby inclusion, and on this front, the book is #OwnVoices. I checked. Herman does a particularly noteworthy job of writing a character with a physical disability: a feminine MC who lost part of her arm, and is a practised sword fighter. Although there are romantic relationships between some of the characters, they are not the focal point of this story, which includes a rich cast of nuanced, morally ambiguous main characters. Each of the characters had their own complicated appeal for me, and they relate to one another as friends, foes, and family members. 

The most unexpected and charming aspect of this book for me was that it is written with book lovers in mind. Both library and archives are settings in this book, and characters include a corrupt rebel librarian and bibliophile MC. Gift this one to the broody Ravenclaw in your life – you won’t regret it. The Devouring Gray is available for pre-order 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.

The Harrowing!

Currently reading: Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across, by Mary Lambert

Note: the links found on this page are affiliate links for Amazon.com, so if you use them to make purchases, you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link, and then search for the book you’re seeking. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

I was going to include a news section in this post, but I decided to leave it out this time around. There isn’t anything that I’ve read that feels like it hasn’t been covered by other sources, and I’ve shared a lot of salt lately. That said, if you missed my last post about Book Riot’s new policy rollout and demolition of the Epic Insiders program, feel free to check it out.

In this post, I’ll spend my energy talking about BOOKS! Two are educational titles designed for learning about queer and trans identities. The third is a recently released YA sci fi debut from Alex Harrow, a genderqueer author, who describes their work as “queerness with a chance of explosions”. Join the Harrowing and check out Empire of Light, which came out on February 25th.

Educational Titles

You Be You

Cover of You Be You! by Jonathan Branfman and illustrated by Julie Benbassat.

I received an arc of You Be You, by Jonathan Branfman and Julie Benbassat from Edelweiss+. This title is aimed at children 7 to 11 years of age, and yall, this is a book I’ve been waiting for, for a LONG time. It has diverse, charming, age-appropriate illustrations, and addresses topics such as sex, gender, sexuality, family, discrimination, privilege, intersectionality, and allyship in an affirming way. I was excited. Unfortunately, this was also a let down for me.

While I was pleased to see that the book uses biologically accurate terminology, particularly for body parts, the LGBTQ lexicon in this book is outdated. For example, “gender” and “gender identity” are treated as separate concepts. “Orientation” is used with regards to sexuality, rather than “identity”. “Homophobia” and “transphobia” are used in cases where “hetero-” and “cis-normativity” would have been more appropriate. There is conflation of the concepts of discrimination and oppression. Lastly, there was also some ableism in the framing of disabilities as afflictions (“having deafness” versus “deaf”).

After doing some research, it is unclear to me whether the author and illustrator are themselves queer or trans. Branfman is an academic, and particularly if he is coming from outside of the LGBTQ+ community, some of the nuances of current lexicon may have been lost in translation when incorporating current sociological education materials into an age-appropriate format.

Terminology, isn’t the only significant flaw with this book. Throughout the sections on family, the book consistently refers to a monogamous norm. Because I am part of a polyamorous, blended family, I found this personally disappointing. In addition, there was noticeable asexual erasure throughout the chapter on love and attraction. Finally, this book was focused exclusively on the American context. Part of the reason why I review books is to know whether or not they are suitable for sale at the Canadian independent bookshop where I work, and unfortunately that lowers the appeal of this book for us as well.

In short, the concept of this book is great, and it is available for sale as of July, 2019 (this is unclear – I think an initial publication happened in 2017, and this reprint is potentially part of a larger translation project). I hope that the creators will be able to incorporate feedback before that time, because otherwise I fear this book will be come quickly outdated. This is a great example of publishing taking baby steps in the right direction, but also demonstrates to me that we still have a long way to go.

A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities

A page from the Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities, in which a snail is pictured atop a flowering, spiral-shaped plant on a pink psychedelic background with stars and plant fronds. A speech balloon reads, "Try new things, take some changes. You might be surprised at what you discover and what feels right!"
From A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities.

By contrast, I received a copy of A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities by Mady G and J. R. Zuckerberg from NetGalley. I am in love with this book, and I want to give it to everyone I know. What’s great is that at $9.99 USD, it’s actually feasible for someone at a limited income to purchase!

This book is wicked trippy, and I’m into it. And I learned things. Legit. From a 101 book. It’s current, it’s inclusive, it explores more in depth concepts (eg, non-binary dysphoria, the first time I’ve ever seen this in a published text; warning signs of abuse in relationships; aftercare; alternate personas) alongside the more basic ones. Although it’s cutesy, it is also nuanced. Also? The protagonist is a snail. YUP.

This book is slightly more wordy than I want it to be, but it’s appropriate for any age, and it is affirming of the most marginalized of LGBTQ+ identities, including non-binary and ace. Unfortunately, an exploration of Two Spirit identity is notably absent. There is no discussion of sex or sexual acts, and the complex, fantastical illustrations provide charming balance to the text.

I only have a few critiques to offer about this delightful comic. First, it is strange that the first block of text inside the cover is from the parent of a QT person. I wasn’t sure what this introduction achieved, and it felt disingenuous to the purposes of the comic. Second, there was a slightly problematic focus on self-love. I don’t think it’s too much, but it did feel a little ableist to me as someone who struggles with dysphoria and depression. Finally, there was no overt affirmation of non-monogamous identities, but to the creator’s credit, there was no overt monogamous normativity either.

My favourite thing about this book, though, is that there are creative activity pages at the end! INCLUDING HOW TO MAKE A ZINE. I loved them, and I can’t wait to make a sproutsona with queer fam one day!

This title is available for pre-order now, and will release on April 23, 2019.

Empire of Light

The cover of Empire of Light, by Alex Harrow.

I submitted a request for an Empire of Light eARC through Alex Harrow’s website, because through the grapevine, I’d heard of this soon-to-be released YA SFF debut from an enby author that I’d never heard tell of before. I read the publicity copy for the book and thought, this sounds fun. Sure. Why not?

As anyone who follows my reading will know, I don’t usually do “fun”. But I try to, sometimes, especially when things are rough. (Which: yes.) Full disclosure, it took me a minute to get into this book… but I was really glad that I did. It’s a romp, for sure. Empire of Light is a fast-paced ride, and the comp to queer Firefly with magic is on point. The characters in this book never lift off the surface of the planet, but it’s certainly otherworldly. Plus, in Harrow’s novel, there’s also magic: the inexplicable Voyance, which gives those who possess it some amorphous mystical powers. Without the squickiness of Joss Whedon to consider, why bother resisting?

“Queer with a chance of explosions” is the perfect brand for Harrow’s work. CW for all kinds of violence and guns everywhere in this novel, as well as positive representation of assisted death that appears on the page. There is (very queer) sexual intimacy that appears on the page in this book as well, and I found the mentions of use of condoms and lubrication in these settings utterly refreshing. However, there are also so many necessary ingredients for queer representation that feels real, impactful, and resonant. Aside from the undeniably gay protagonist, there is also shame-free representation of kink, bisexuality, demisexuality, non-binary identity, trauma, and some kind of ambiguous non-monogamy, possibly with a side of sex work.

It’s possible that this was me misinterpreting aspects of the book, but there were moments in which the Voyance, and the sometimes unpredictable effects that it had on the characters in the book, felt like it could work as a stand-in for some of the health challenges that have impacted LGBTQ+ communities, for example, the AIDS crisis.

This is a complicated book, but somehow, Empire of Light manages to come off as a colloquial, action-packed adventure story. For this francophone, it was particularly heartwarming that Harrow used French-language names for some of the geographical locations used in the book, even though the rationale behind that remains unclear to me. The only criticisms I have of this book are that some of the side characters felt underdeveloped, there wasn’t obvious racial diversity among the characters, and I missed having feminine MCs, since most of the significant characters in this book are masculine.

Empire of Light is available now, and if you’re a fan of exciting SFF that doesn’t shy away from addressing profound themes, or if you’re just looking for a fantastic LGBTQ+ #OwnVoices book to chew through this winter, get in on the Harrowing.

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.