New Books by Genderqueer Breakouts

In this post, I am super lucky to be able to host A. E. Osworth, author of the breakout adult fiction novel We Are Watching Eliza Bright. This #MeToo era story about harassment in the gaming industry is told multiply and unreliably by users on Reddit, a novel that shatters the concept of form and narration completely. You’ll either love this one or you’ll hate it, but either way, you’ll probably emerge with huge admiration for this author.

But first, I have a guest review from a wonderful friend from my online book community, The Rogue Book Coven, and brilliant reader, Amanda Hamilton. Amanda has graciously penned a review for the highly-anticipated forthcoming title One Last Stop, from Casey McQuiston, whose adult LGBTQ2S+ romcom with crossover appeal, Red, White, and Royal Blue was an overnight sensation in 2019. Does their sapphic sophomore novel meet the high expectations set by the previous novel?

Review: One Last Stop, by Casey McQuiston

By guest contributor Amanda Hamilton

Like so many people, I read and loved Casey McQuiston’s debut bestselling novel, Red, White & Royal Blue last year, so when I had the chance to read an ARC of their upcoming book, One Last Stop, I was over the moon. And I am so happy to report that there is no sophomore slump here.

One Last Stop follows August, newly arrived in New York City, as she settles into her new life, complete with too many roommates and a job at a local diner. It is not the most glamorous life, but for once, it is completely hers. Until she meets Jane, a criminally attractive and charming woman replete with a motorcycle jacket. August and Jane have the ultimate meet-cute on the subway, but Jane doesn’t seem to want to see August outside the station. Because Jane is stuck. Stuck in time, stuck in the station, stuck riding the train over and over. But when the chemistry is this strong and the girl of August’s dreams are right in front of her, what’s a little time loop between friends?

August, Jane and the myriad of characters in One Last Stop’s world are all fully developed, with their own motives, concerns and loves, and it’s a joy to watch them all bloom throughout the course of the novel. Romance novels are often dismissed as predictable and rote, but that is certainly not the case here. Jump into this lovely and surprising with August and Jane – you won’t regret it.

For readers who enjoy One Last Stop, Amanda also recommends The Princess Trap, by Black author Talia Hibbert.


We Are Watching Eliza Bright: Feature Interview with Author A. E. Osworth

In Chapter 10, you give a bit of a gaming history of one of your characters in the book, Lewis. I would love to hear your gaming history! Did you write this book based on a lifelong interest in gaming, are you completely new to the gaming world, or was this just an interesting world for you to explore through fiction

It might come as no surprise that all the characters who have a gaming history (I believe there are three and there were almost more!) just have pieces of my own gaming history. I love video games and board games and table top RPGs (though I do not happen to be very good at most video games—especially if they require a large amount of dexterity-based combat). We were a Nintendo family, and my brother and I spent mornings before school playing the Nintendo 64 (Super Mario! Star Fox!) or, if we’d been dropped off early, Pokemon on our Gameboys. I also played Ultima Online quite a bit in my teen years—until a member of my guild took advantage of my naiveté and slaughtered me in a PVP zone for all my stuff (I had a lot of cool stuff). It wasn’t as much fun after that! Not because I lost all my cool stuff (though that was a bummer) but because it made me feel like my weird little online friendships weren’t meaningful.

Two more gaming-related questions. 1, do you have a favourite game that has kept you busy during the pandemic? 2, what character alignment do you most relate to yourself?

Honestly? Dungeons and Dragons. My household plays a big outdoor game with two other households, all socially distanced and our DM painted a giant battle grid on a bed sheet and hand-stitched cute beanbags to use as “minis.” Right at the beginning of the pandemic, though, it was all Animal Crossing all the time. Could that game’s release have been timed more perfectly? I used to get my avatar all dressed up in pajamas and have them lay in bed, surrounded by aesthetically pleasing digital objects in a world where no one was sick. They closed their eyes and slept soundly while I watched and pretended I felt like that. That sounds a bit sad, now that I say it out. But it is how I spent the early days and it was instrumental.

And that second question—like most folks I talk to, I wish desperately that I were Chaotic Good. When I play said Dungeons and Dragons, that’s usually what I go for. But the reality is that I’m Lawful Good. Which is to say, I am a giant weenie of a rule follower. I don’t make illegal u-turns and I get to airports a full two hours before my flight. I comfort myself only with the knowledge that I am not the worst alignment: Lawful Neutral. Law for the sake of law, rules for the sake of rules. Fuck that alignment!

You use gender neutral pronouns and have written a lot of non-fiction about queerness and technology. Did your experiences of gender and queerness impact the way that you approached writing this book? If so, how?

So when I wrote this book (or at least, the first several drafts of it), I didn’t know I was trans. I could’ve sworn up and down that I was a cis woman, and I wrote a story that centered on one. In that respect, my experience of gender has been with this book throughout. And queerness was always a part of it, too, in the character of Suzanne.

After coming out as trans, I had the opportunity to add and revise the second collective narrator, The Sixsterhood. This queer and trans art commune is inspired by a real group of people and a real place—the former Octagon in San Francisco, as well as other queer communities of which I am a part. That voice is explicitly queer and trans (and there are a lot of in-jokes there that are specifically for my queer and trans folks).

The cover of WE ARE WATCHING ELIZA BRIGHT

One of the things that is super unique about your book is the narrative style. Rather than having a single POV character, your book is narrated by a group of online fans of a popular MMORPG. For me as a reader, it created a sort of distance between me and the titular character, Eliza Bright. As a literary agent, I would say that this is a super risky choice in a competitive literary market. Why did you make that choice, and what do you hope it adds to your story?

I heard it again and again: cut the narrators, just tell the story. So many people in graduate school were of the opinion that I should do away with the book being narrated by Reddit, and they said the same things you’ve just said. I knew they were wrong because the whole point of the book is the Reddit narrator. The point is the antagonistic collective; the point is the parasocial relationship they have with the group of protagonists; the point is the feeling of being watched. I am so very lucky that I found an agent, and then an editor, whose whole mission was not to simply tell me to cut the narrator, but to ask the right questions and make the right comments to help me make the narrator really, really work. And I think it does; I think they do.

In addition to being a novelist, you also do a lot of teaching (you are so busy!). If an educator was going to teach your book in a high school or college creative writing class, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators who are going to choose this book to put in a young reader’s hands?

I think what I hope students take away depends on what this is being used to teach. If it’s being taught in the context of writing, I hope students try their own collective narrators. It’s really fun to consider how the collective knows what they know, how they share information with each other, whether or not they all agree, what they all sound like as one. There’s so much delight in working with this point of view, and there are so many good examples that all do it drastically differently (The Virgin Suicides, And Then We Came to the End, We Ride Upon Sticks).

If it’s being used to teach current events or internet culture or any number of other things, I hope students are taught the book beside the headlines that inspired it, because in the end I did make it up. The psychological and emotional underpinning of the book is as true as I could render it, but it’s a work of fiction. The narrators’ voices are accurate, but imagined. A good place to start with that is The New York Times’s Everything Is Gamergate.

A. E. Osworth, author of WE ARE WATCHING ELIZA BRIGHT

Being a marginalized publishing professional can be super challenging once in a while. Your book is with a Big 5 publisher – one of the Hachette imprints – and that’s a really big deal! What has your experience been like working with an agent and an editorial team at a big publishing house? What would you say the most fulfilling part of this process was, and what was the biggest challenge?

I have loved nearly every moment of working with my team at Grand Central. Seema Mahanian, my editor, has made this book the very best version of itself that it could possibly be. I was a little nervous that any editor at a Big Five publisher would look at my weirdo narrators and try to tone them down; Seema helped me turn the dial up on the narrators, and it was actually her idea to add the second collective (my beloved Sixsterhood). When I did two sample pages of the Sixsterhood and there were no periods at the end of the sentences, she said bring it on. I have felt not only artistically free, but artistically encouraged to find my very strangest ideas and let them play.

The biggest challenge for me is something that I truly think would be a problem no matter if I was working with a Big Five or not, and that’s the feeling of at-sea-ness that comes from We Are Watching Eliza Bright being my very first foray into publishing a book. The process is really opaque to me—as my book’s launch date approaches, I don’t know what I should be doing or what’s working or what’s not. My agent, Christopher Hermelin, is truly amazing though. And he’s been able to contextualize and guide and clarify for me. That I remain confused at times is a shortcoming of mine and not anyone else’s.

Last, but not least, when I’m covering a non-Black author, I ask them to recommend a book by a Black author to go alongside their post. Would you mind sharing a rec with me?

Oh oh oh! One of my year-mates from my MFA program at The New School (we graduated in 2016!) is publishing something I’m REALLY excited about. Zakiya Dalila Harris’s book The Other Black Girl is coming out in June and I am AMPED.

The cover of THE OTHER BLACK GIRL, by Zakiya Dalila Harris.

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

The Longest Shortest Month of the Year

Theydies and gentlethems, the first thing I need to do in this post is apologize for the sometimes sporadic timing of posts over the last several months. I am personally, officially more than one year into lockdown, more than one year into working as a literary agent, and I am doing my best to be mindful of my abilities and limitations during this weird part of our collective history. As such, there have been times when I’ve had to step back from some obligations in order to fulfill others, and at times the regularity of the blog schedule has suffered.

Today, however, I have a great post in store. First, I want to review a super exciting picture book, Jamie and Bubbie, by Afsaneh Moradian and illustrated by Maria Bogade. Then, I have a very exciting interview from author Zak Salih, whose gay literary fiction Let’s Get Back to the Party comes out THIS TUESDAY (!!!) from Algonquin books.

Before I dive into those, I have a VERY COOL resource to share for all of you who maybe didn’t get as much reading done in 2020 as usual. I’m super, super lucky to be part of a great online book community, called the Rogue Book Coven. This year, some of our incredible and skilled members put together this great resource featuring the best books read by our members in 2020 – across age categories, genres, and release periods. Check it out, and find something great that maybe you missed. I think of it like the front table at your favourite indie bookshop at the end of a long year.

Jamie and Bubbie

The cover of Jamie and Bubbie, A Book About People’s Pronouns

I have written about Afsaneh Moradian’s first children’s book, Jamie is Jamie, in this space before. I am a huge supporter of Moradian’s work, and so I was thrilled when she reached out to me to ask if I would review her newest offering. Moradian is an educator, and her expertise and familiarity with children really shines through in her picture books.

This book features illustrations of a diverse population that extends beyond racial inclusion, including wheelchair users, and a broad range of ages. It addresses an important topic – the use of pronouns – and it fills a huge gap in resources created on this topic by non-white creators. The book handles the topic with great sensitivity, allowing the young character to be the hero of the story, educating their elders in new and different ways to use language, while maintaining a sense of gentleness, positivity, and humility throughout.

This is a great 101 resource, and a lovely story. The only criticism that I could offer is that it is limited in the sense that there is no discussion of neopronouns. That said, for most people living in North America, this book is a great, accessible starting point for learning, that is expertly executed. It also includes resources for teachers and caregivers in the back of the book.

While you’re checking out Jamie and Bubbie, check out another one of my favourite picture books, Saturday, by Black author Oge Mora.

The cover of Saturday by Oge Mora.

Feature Interview: Zak Salih

Debut author Zak Salih’s novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party, will drop this Tuesday, February 16th. It’s been hailed as “iconic” by the Gay Times, was one of this month’s most anticipated books from Lambda Literary, and Michelle Hart, the assistant editor of books at O Magazine, said that it was among the titles that would change the literary landscape this year. I am honoured to have gotten the chance to interview Salih, and I hope that you enjoy reading as much as I did!

Cover of Let’s Get Back to the Party, by Zak Salih.

I can remember the exact moment that I heard that the US had legalized gay marriage – it wasn’t so long ago, after all. Do you remember that moment in your life? What did it mean for you?

I was working in the marketing department at The Washington Post at the time, so I was at my desk and saw the news on the website as soon as it broke. The next morning, I went down to the lobby and picked up a copy of the paper; I still have the front page here somewhere in my office. While marriage equality hasn’t been a social panacea for the LGBTQ2S+ community, it’s a powerful symbol and its legalization was a powerful moment. I’m glad I was alive to witness it.

You write a lot about art in this book, which is in itself a very artistic, literary work. Is art something that you feel passionate about, or was it just something that you researched for your novel? What role has it played in your life? Do you have a favourite artist or particular work that you wish all of your readers could experience?

I’ve always enjoyed art—flipping through art catalogs, walking through art museums, reading novels about artists—so those sections of the novel were relatively delightful to write. When it’s safe, the National Gallery of Art here in D.C. is the first indoor place I plan on going post-pandemic. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially because you’ll find John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark there, a painting that’s fascinated me since I was a young boy.

Watson and the Shark

For me, your book felt very nostalgic. I think that it really hearkens back to a tone and type of iconic gay literature that we don’t see as much of these days, but it grapples with very contemporary material. I wonder what books you would recommend for readers of your book, and what works you would say influenced you when you were working on it?

I’d recommend all of the LGBTQ2S+ books that inspire me— as a member of an incredibly diverse and wonderful community, as a writer, and as a human being. At the moment, I’m thinking in particular of books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Elusive Embrace, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and Andrew Holleran’s The Beauty of Men.

From my experience, particularly for LGBTQ2S+ “elders” (feel free to interpret that in whatever way you wish!), childhood memories of grappling with sexuality and complex relationships with peers are often poignant, and linger throughout our lives. This is a theme that comes up in your book, and I’m curious what that was like to explore through your writing. 

While I don’t share the specific childhood memories of Sebastian and Oscar, I do dwell on the past a little more than is healthy. But I think that’s true of most people, queer or otherwise. The past always tends to pop up in the most unlikely of places: the face of a stranger, a painting in an art gallery, a line in a poem. I find stories that focus on the past, or in which characters cannot get over the past, to be the most rewarding types of stories. They teach me about navigating my own relationship with memory and experience.

Obviously, as creatives, we all carry different parts of our identities into our work with us. How did your identities direct what you wanted to do with this novel, and to what extent do you feel your various identities define you as a writer?

In an obvious sense, my identity as a gay man informed what I tried to do with this novel, and the complexities of what it means to be part of a generation strung between a traumatic past and a more hopeful future. But when I sit down to write, I’m nothing thinking (at least consciously) about my identities. I don’t care to label myself a “gay writer” any more than I would label myself a “biracial writer” or a “cis-gender writer.” These identifiers and descriptors, I feel, are more for other people to make sense of me than for me to make sense of myself.

One of the characters in your book is a high school teacher. If an educator was going to teach your book to a group of young adults, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators who are going to choose this book to put in a younger reader’s hands?

I would hope students came away from the book with a sense of enlargement about their relationships with other people—the idea that they’re part of a larger community with a past, a present, and a future. I suppose I’d caution educators (and all readers to remember that Sebastian and Oscar represent no one but themselves; their messiness is not what makes them queer, it’s what makes them human.

Being a marginalized publishing professional can be super challenging once in a while. What has your experience been like working with the editorial team at Algonquin, which is a large independent publisher? What would you say the most fulfilling part of this process was, and what was the biggest challenge?

I honestly have nothing but kind words for everyone at Algonquin Books. Since they first acquired the novel, everyone from my editor to the marketing team has been entirely supportive not just of my writing but of the inherent queerness of the book itself. Perhaps other writers have horror stories to share, but in my relationship with Algonquin, I was never once asked to tone down or make more “cis-hereto-friendly” the story I was trying to tell.

Last, but not least, when I’m covering a non-Black author, I ask them to recommend a book by a Black author to go alongside their post. Would you mind sharing a rec with me?

Season of Migration to the North, by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. A fascinating, and occasionally disturbing novel about reverse colonization, whose enigmatic central character is a Western-educated Sudanese man who resolves to “liberate Africa with [his] penis.”

Cover of Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih.

New year, who dis?

Happy 2021, theydies and gentlethems! A quick personal note to start this post: Books Beyond Binaries may look slightly different this year, in terms of content. Part of the reason for that is because I have recently transitioned my Twitter account to announcements-only for the foreseeable future. I’ve come to accept that posting my updates and checking my mentions through Hootsuite is a lot better for my mental health and time management than reading my feed every day, even if it does mean that I miss out on content sometimes. If you see anything on Twitter that you think should be featured in this space, feel free to tag me or send it my way via DM or the contact page!

Now, on to the good stuff. I’m thrilled that for the first post of a new year, I have some super special content to share. CeCe Lyra has reviewed Susan Mihalic’s novel Dark Horses. This one holds a special place in my heart, because I grew up horseback riding every chance I got, competing, and devouring “horse girl” books. Not only are these coming back in MG and YA literature lately, which is a welcome trend over here, but I am hype for the books coming out for former horse girls turned reading adults.

I am also super excited to welcome an author who I’ve been following for a few years now for his first feature post in this space, Sam J. Miller. I first discovered Sam through his acclaimed YA novel, Destroy All Monsters, which I featured in a post back in 2019. At the time, this poignant and bizarre novel had become a staff favourite at Another Story, the local indie where I worked as a bookseller.

Sam’s fourth novel, The Blade Between, recently dropped, and I’m honoured that he was willing to put together a super cool post for us about some of the research that he did when writing the book. Sam’s books are spooky and fascinating and, in his words, “gay as heck.” If you’re new to his writing, I hope that this post will encourage you to dive in, because you’ve been missing it in your life. I promise.

Review of Susan Mihalic’s DARK HORSES, by Cecilia Lyra

The cover of Dark Horses.

Fifteen-year-old Roan Montgomery is a competitor in the exclusive, high-stakes equestrian world with a goal of becoming an Olympian. She has good reason to think she’ll get there: Roan is talented, hard-working, and genuinely passionate about riding. She’s also pedigreed—her father has several Olympic medals of his own and wrote the book on eventing. It’s no surprise then that he is Roan’s coach, publicist, and agent. What is a surprise: he’s been raping her since she was six years old. A greater surprise still: Roan’s mother knows.

An image of a chestnut horse wearing a harness eating hay.
Photo by Emmy Nordstrom Higdon; Cape Breton, 2011. Taken on Portra 160 VC; Minolta.

To survive (a word Roan would undoubtedly resent), she compartmentalizes. She tells herself it’s not all bad. That staying silent is her choice. That she would rather be complicit than a victim. That what really matters are her riding ambitions. As with all emotions, perhaps a lot of it true, or perhaps all (or none) of it is. But truth in emotions is beside the point. What is the point: Roan’s indomitable, clear-eyed strength. It is this strength that guides her as she struggles to comprehend and navigate her circumstances, not just the conflicting emotions she feels towards her father, but also the role she feels she plays in their relationship. Throughout the novel, we watch Roan’s sense of self grow stronger, which in turn causes her father to tighten his grip on her. This is exacerbated by the fact that Roan’s mother leaves, taking with her what little protection she could offer, and that Roan falls in love with Will, a classmate at her exclusive prep school. Although she is, without a doubt, a victim of abuse, Roan does not come across as a victim. She’s a fighter—has been from page one, and as the story unfolds, we watch her battle with growing fortitude.

Set against the backdrop of competitive riding, DARK HORSES moves along nimbly, with explosive stretches that made my pulse race. Typically, when I’m reading a book that I know I will later review, I make notes as I turn the pages. I jot down my impressions on the narrative flow, themes examined, and characters I meet along the way, pausing to reflect on their fatal flaws (I have a thing about flaws). I’m a natural note-taker and, more to the point, I find it helps with my reviews. I couldn’t do that with this novel. Its pull was all-consuming, like being sucked in by a tidal wave. I had no time—or headspace—to make notes. It’s quite a feat for any novelist, holding a reader’s attention like that. But given the disturbing nature of the subject matter it’s even more impressive.

A black Newfoundland pony, wearing a harness, grazing, seen through a white fence.
Photo by Emmy Nordstrom Higdon; Newfoundland, 2011. Taken on Portra 160 NC; Minolta.

DARK HORSES had everything to be a story of privilege. A poor-little-rich girl narrative with a horsey twist. Instead, it’s an exploration of power, control, and desire as told through the lenses of a girl who refused to be broken. It’s a powerful novel—in more ways than one.


Along with Dark Horses, CeCe recommends readers check out Aftershocks, by skillful Black author Nadia Owusu. It comes out on the 21st of this month.

The cover of Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

Feature Post: Author Sam J. Miller on THE BLADE BETWEEN

Hudson is a weird distinctive haunted looking town, and so I had a huge assortment of creepy fascinating spaces at my disposal when I started writing my gentrification ghost story The Blade Between. And while I hope I succeeded in rendering those locations vividly enough on the page, the reality of the city is worth sharing. 

The cover of The Blade Between.

Here are eight of the locations where key events take place, along with a quote from the book describing each. If you’ve already read THE BLADE BETWEEN, I hope they help you compare the space as it really is to the way you imagined it. And if you haven’t read it, I hope they spark your interest enough to want to visit Hudson… even if it’s only on the page. 

A brown brick building against a blue sky with dry greenery in front and bare trees. Text reads, Every building on that block looked like something out of Meet Me in St. Louis, great gingerbread monstrosities of nineteenth-century wealth, ;wide, deep porches and Tiffany glass, ; porticos and gables and other words I never knew before I started researching Hudson home prices - the better to burn them all down.
A bridge covered in faded graffiti over a worn concrete road. Text reads, A set of rusted black trestles carried the train tracks over Power Avenue.
An American diner on the corner of a street, red and white with silver metallic accents. Text reads, The familiar sooty chrome exterior of the Columbia Diner caught my eye, sucked me inside by awakened twenty-year-old instinct - an entire childhood's worth of Saturday morning breakfasts with my dad, on our walk to work at the butcher shop...
A road on a tree-lined street in winter, after the leaves have all fallen. A new-looking house sits on the corner. Text reads, Walking south on Second Street, up the steep block that fell away to a ravine on either side, where the rain still fell from the trees and the air smelled like rot and wilderness, I heard a voice say: Why so glum, glummy?
Twilight, a street with train tracks embedded in it, lined on one side with run-down buildings, and on the other side with parked cars. Text reads, Freight train tracks run right through upper Hudson, along sixth street, right below the park.
An evening sky with a streetlight on in the foreground, over a quiet back alley. Text reads, He puts a brown paper bag on the hood of her car, and stalks off into the alley dark. She hollers at him to wait - even turns on her cell phone's flashlight function and hurries after him - but he's already gone.
A bridge over the Hudson River. The sun shines through the clouds, reflecting off the water. Text reads, I was kneeling on the pedestrian walkway of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Staring down into the same dizzying dark, the same twenty-story fall that swallowed up my mother.
The inside of a library with marble floors and white-painted shelves. Text reads, ...the Hudson Library, which before being a library had been a mental institution and before that a foundlings' home, and both of those establishments had been in need of a cell in the basement for their most recalcitrant occupants.

In addition to The Blade Between, Sam J. Miller (and I!!!) recommends that readers check out A Spectral Hue, by Black author Craig Laurance Gidney. Sam writes: A gorgeous, creepy, rapturous story, told in incredible prose, and if there was any justice it would have already won ALL THE AWARDS. 

The cover of A Spectral Hue.

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Wounded

2020 is drawing to a close, and as arbitrary as time is, this is our last post of the year here on Books Beyond Binaries! First things first: if you’re here, that means that you’re seeking our new banner! I could not be more thrilled with the result of this year’s refresh, thanks to Oaky, a non-binary, Latino, concept artist and illustrator, who created this awesome new look for the blog going into 2021!

In today’s post, lots of new resources to share (as you can see) for books to read from trans and/or non-binary authors from 2020 and going into 2021, including this list of 2020 debuts from trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming authors from the Chicago Review of Books.

Otherwise, this post is all about the Big Feels, which seems appropriate for the end of 2020. I review a new poetry collection called Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, by torrin a. greathouse, and we are super excited to host a post from #SpineSquad author A. J. Vrana on writing for emotional impact.

As always, when we feature books by non-Black authors in this space, we also offer recs of books by Black authors to accompany them. For my part, I want to recommend my favourite book that I read this year, Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi.

The cover of Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi.

A personal request for support…

Before I kick off this post, I’m going to use this space to make a small ask for support. For those of you who don’t know, I’m completing my PhD studies right now. I was supposed to have defended my dissertation in December, but due to an administrative error at the School of Graduate Studies at my institution, and delays within my committee caused by COVID, I am being forced to take an extra term in order to be able to complete my studies. All of this, despite my having met every deadline and requirement thrown at me in 2020, has been really challenging to come to terms with. In addition, this situation comes with a whopping, unexpected, $2300 price tag that I am completely unable to afford. As a new agent and having lost my bookstore income due to the pandemic, I am just making enough money with freelancing and agenting to stay out of debt, and my department is not offering me any financial support for this extra semester of studies. If you are interested and able, there are three ways you can support me, a disabled trans student trying my best to have my work over the past seven years of study recognized. One, I have a crowdfunding campaign that you can donate to, two, you can hire me to edit your work or the work of an aspiring writer in your life, three, you can share these links (and the blog!) within your networks. Thank you in advance! 💜

Review: WOUND FROM THE MOUTH OF A WOUND, by torrin a. greathouse

A few months ago, I was approached by Claire Laine, a publicist of Milkweed Editions, one of my favourite independent publishers, to review the poetry collection Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, by torrin a. greathouse, which comes out tomorrow: December 22nd, 2020. torrin’s online bios describe her as a transgender cripple-punk and poet.

I am a person with Big Feelings, so sometimes I struggle to read poetry, because when it is done well, it feels like every syllable is an emotional gut-punch. That said, I love poetry for the same reason. Two of my favourite books of all time are a place called NO HOMELAND by Kai Cheng Thom, and Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Both of these collections absolutely gutted me. The blurb for torrin’s collection calls it, “A versatile missive written from the intersections of gender, disability, trauma, and survival.” I felt confident when I accepted the offer to review that this book would soon join Kai and Leah’s in my heart.

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound is the winner of the 2020 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, and has already received many glowing reviews and recommendations from Refinery29, NBC Out, Book Marks, Lambda, and the Chicago Review of Books. I’m afraid that Books Beyond Binaries won’t be the source of a dissenting opinion in this case. I do feel that I should, however, note that I am not a poetry expert, so I come to this review purely as a reader. If my thoughts in this post lack precision or technicality, I apologize in advance for that.

The collection opens with six verses inspired by a 2008 sculpture of Medusa carved by Luciano Garbati. The statue itself is fairly unadorned, a rendition in bronze of the woman with hair of snakes, unapologetically holding in one hand a blade, and in the other hand the severed head of a man. This sculpture is a response and inversion of another work that resides in Garbati’s hometown in Italy, near Florence, a statue by Benvenuto Cellini, called Perseus with the head of Medusa. In torrin’s collection, they use accessible, but poignant, imagery to write about this sculpture as a symbol of rape culture, and how that culture bleeds into the lives of children who are the product of traumatic experiences. Garbati’s sculpture has been reinterpreted again as the stunning cover art for this collection.

The cover of Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse.

The first formal section of this book begins with a quote. I was charmed by this, because coincidentally, shortly before reading Wound, I connected with queer Palestinian poet George Abraham after the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, in the hopes of featuring them and their poetry in this space soon. His collection, Birthright, is available now.

Wound is a collection of short works in verse, prose, and essay formats. There are five sections total. I am amazed by the efficiency of torrin’s collection. This is writing that works hard. In the first section, she tackles themes including motherhood, infant loss, and parentage; a relatable yet brief critique of the medical model of disability; the sterile experience of medical transition and the scientific fragility of physiological gender; sex and trauma; finally, and most resonant for me in this section, the radiant, emotional impact of medical transition. These themes unravel at a pace that is perfectly possible to keep up with, and with moments of startlingly beautiful imagery. Often, I find myself lost in poetry, but in this section, I rather found myself awash in it.

Mirroring the first section, the second begins with a quote (this time from Jillian Weiss), and a section of prose. The themes from the first section thrum throughout this book, with occasional meditations on body image and eating disorders, morality, addiction and blackouts, etymology, fear… torrin pulls absolutely zero punches in unraveling what I can only assume are their reflections on personal experiences on the page.

My personal favourite piece in this collection, and one that I am eager to share with the world, is the poem That’s So Lame, which addresses the casual violence of ableist language. It is searing, relatable, and communicates so much that is difficult to articulate in such a short space. It is both beautiful, and functional, and such a valuable tool, I think, for social justice and for literature.

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse launches tomorrow, and if you are able to purchase it from an independent bookstore, you have the opportunity to support a trans, disabled author, an independent not-for-profit press, and an independent small business, all at the same time. This collection, despite dealing with impactful themes, is not a chore to read. It is accessible and easy to follow, overflowing with evocative imagery, and it filled me with the sense of empowerment that one might get from watching a beautiful flower emerge from a crack in the concrete. Works like these are how the light gets in. I’m very grateful for Claire and torrin sharing this book with me, and with Books Beyond Binaries, and I hope that many of our readers will indulge in this incredible collection this winter.

Writing for Emotional Impact, by A. J. Vrana

A. J. Vrana’s recommendation for a book by a Black author to read alongside this post is from non-binary author Rivers Solomon, The Deep.

The cover of The Deep, by Rivers Solomon.

As a reader, there is no better experience than being emotionally moved while devouring a good book. The written word is, after all, intended for communication, and more often than not, what writers want is to make their readers think and feel a certain way. This is especially true in the world of fiction and memoire writing, where readers expect to be drawn into the story and to grow attached to the characters.

However, if you’re an author, you know that it’s not easy getting people to notice your book, and it can be even harder to get them invested. The world is full of different kinds of people, which means not everyone will pick up what you put down. Nonetheless, at the heart of authorial passion is the desire to have your story emotionally resonate with as many people as possible.

Okay, great, but how does one convey emotion through writing? We know beautiful prose when we see it, but how do we emulate it? How do we communicate the rawest parts of ourselves authentically and effectively? This is no small or easy task, but there are techniques that can help. In this piece, I will share four tricks I’ve picked up.

Photo by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Sentence Structure

The very structure of a sentence—its length, syntax, and punctuation—can impact the way it is received be a reader. The way writing flows from word to word, sentence to sentence, conveys a lot about the writer’s intentions. For example, short, choppy sentences can be great for communicating strong, sudden emotions like distress, confusion, and pain (in the negative) or excitement, anticipation, and joy (in the positive). Although I am generally not an advocate of using sentence fragments, the occasional fragment can be very effective in communicating a strong emotion—the caveat being that it’s used occasionally. Let’s look at a few examples:

            It came from within, this furious, bone-deep itch. Thousands of tiny needle-point legs, trampling on nerves. They burned and screeched, demanding nails on flesh.

In the above example, I’m describing someone in distress. I would assume that a person experiencing this level of discomfort wouldn’t be able to think or narrate in fully formed, complex sentences because of their emotional state, so their thoughts would come out choppy and somewhat fragmented. Keeping the sentences short ensures a snappy, urgent pace that puts the reader on edge. Now let’s look at another example:

            She stood there—a ghost returned from the grave. Only she wasn’t a ghost. She was flesh and blood. She was family, and she was alive.

 In this example, we have someone seeing a loved one they thought was dead. Although this is definitely a happier occasion, it is nonetheless riddled with complex emotions. Seeing someone you’ve grieved over is still quite traumatic and stressful, even if you are happy to see them! Similar to the previous example, I would assume that the person in question wouldn’t really have it in them to form long, eloquent sentences when first seeing a family member who is presumed dead. The short sentences mimic their tattered emotional state: shocked, confused, uncertain, but ultimately relieved or happy.

However, short sentences aren’t the only ones that can convey emotion. Longer, occasionally even rambling sentences can communicate scrambled thoughts, worry, or exasperation. For example, someone trying to recount a highly stressful or exciting event might narrate in run-on sentences. The same could be said of someone who is overstimulated or has had too much caffeine! Here’s an example:

            I put the key in the ignition, then turned it—the key, I mean—and then the engine revved like usual, but as soon as I switched the gear, I heard this noise like someone had dropped a glass from the roof, and then there was this bang and a sputter, and I could smell smoke, so I panicked and hit the breaks even though the car wasn’t moving because I was scared, you know?

The sentence above is narrated in the first person from someone who is frazzled after their car broke down (and who knows what happened before then!). The sentence is longer than any sentence should be, frankly, but the use of punctuation makes it manageable to read/ However, occasionally, using sentences like this is fine because they can effectively convey the person’s emotional state.

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Word Choice

Be methodical about word choice. Sometimes, the right words can go a long way in creating a specific emotion. For example, if I say someone is ‘angry,’ it doesn’t really evoke much of an image, but it I say someone is ‘seething,’ my brain conjures a specific image of a pot about to boil over. It gives me the distinct sense that something bad is about to happen—like someone might lose their temper and lash out. In comparison, the adjective ‘angry’ has very little impact.

Here is another example: if someone is drunk, rather than describing their gait as ‘clumsy’ or ‘uncoordinated,’ you can describe them as ‘shambling.’

“They shambled down the hill” is far more evocative than, “They walked clumsily down the hill,” or, “Their gait was uncoordinated as they walked.”

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Metaphors and Similes

Perhaps one of my favourite techniques for evoking emotion is using similes and metaphors to conjure a specific image in the reader’s mind. The fact is, direct, simple language often does not create emotional impact the same way that abstract images do. When we write about something directly, it may engender intellectual understanding, but it rarely provokes empathy from the reader.

Metaphors and similes are a great way to communicate how something feels without saying it directly. Because direct and clinical descriptions are so endemic to how we communicate on a daily basis, we are desensitized to their impact. For example, when a friend has a bad day at work, they might say, “I was so annoyed,” and then go on to explain why. We hear this so often that it has almost no meaning and falls flat when encountered in prose.

However, metaphors and similes give us a tool for creative expression for emotions we all experience; they defamiliarize us from the simplicity of loaded terms like ‘anger’ and ‘happiness.’ They offer us a specific and tangible image with which we can better understand the power of what is being conveyed.

For example, saying someone is “unpredictable” doesn’t really evoke any particular emotional response from me as a reader. However, if we say that someone is “like a tornado in the middle of the night,” we can insinuate that they are unpredictable based on culturally shared knowledge and symbolism around tornados: they are highly unpredictable and destructive storms with an erratic path, and the idea of one dropping from the sky after dark is especially terrifying because everything is less visible and less certain when the sun goes down. In other words, it’s the image, not the adjective, that evokes feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability, and anxiety. Through the image, we create an empathic connection with the subject of the writing. As a result, we genuinely feel that the person being written about is unpredictable.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Bodies Talk

Ah yes, the mind-body dualism. Whoever came up with it did some serious damage to how we think of ourselves. In reality, the border between mind and body is paper thin, and anyone who has ever had anxiety (aka all of us) can confirm this. Our emotions manifest through our bodies, and more often than not, bodies speak what we cannot.

For this exact reason, using the body as a tool to convey emotion is far more effective than direct, clinical description. Many of you will have encountered this advice in the form of “show, don’t tell.” For example, rather than telling your reader that someone is grief-stricken, show them through body language.

Does their face twist with realization? Do they curl in on themselves, seeking comfort and safety? Do they flee their immediate surroundings? Do they grab a drink or light a cigarette with a trembling hand? What does their voice sound like? Does it come out rough like sandpaper? Are they swallowing rapidly, mouth parched? Are their eyes red from tears and sleeplessness? Do shadows cling beneath them?

When you find yourself writing a scene that demands emotional impact, try to make those emotions visceral by focusing on the body. Embodied experience is the most tangible way we relate to the world, and it is also one of the best tools for communicating what lies beneath the skin.


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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

(What a) Year(!) in Review

I’m sort of in disbelief that I’m writing this post to celebrate the end of 2020, and the second anniversary of Books Beyond Binaries! If you are reading this post: congratulations, yall. We made it.

This one’s a big one! First, I’m going to throw out a bunch of resources on the best books that I can recommend going into 2021, I want to talk a bit about how you can support the blog going into 2021, I’m going to do my customary review of my own #2020Reading (which you can see snippets of on Twitter), AND last but not least, scroll on down to the end of this post, because I do have a review for today, from Jack! Jack read and gives her thoughts on one of 2020’s most lauded LGBTQ2S+ titles of the year – Luster, by Raven Leilani.

Roundups and Recs

Alright, folks. In this section, I have included links to a couple of different roundups of non-binary and trans books that have been posted recently. There are a few other resources that I would absolutely encourage you to check out as you do your holiday shopping or consider what to add to your TBR for the new year. First, a friend of mine and member of the Rogue Book Coven (my online book community), Sarah Cuddie, does this impressive data gathering project annually where she takes the “Best Of” lists from that year, and creates a GINORMOUS master “Best Of”. Obviously, the 2020 list is still in progress, but the Best Books of 2019 BIG Roundup is available and super interesting – especially for spreadsheet nerds like me.

I also always want to recommend the Another Story Holiday Gift List. Compiled by the best indie booksellers I know at the bookshop where I worked in the Before Times (aka, until the pandemic made it too dangerous for me), this list is the active staff’s favourite books of 2020! If you decide to buy from this list, please patronize your local indie. If you don’t have one, check out Bookshop.org if you’re in the US, or McNally Robinson in Canada (who offer $5 shipping all over the country).

Last but not least, I want to announce that there is a new trans book blog that you will love if you love this blog. It’s called Oceans of Novels, and it’s run by the creator of the Transathon book challenge! Welcome to the blogosphere, Ocean!

Support Books Beyond Binaries

Especially over the course of this tumultuous year, Books Beyond Binaries has been a space of safety and freedom for me, and I hope that I’ve curated content that has felt that way for all of our readers! Over the course of 2020, I really didn’t have the capacity to keep an eye on the performance stats for Books Beyond Binaries, but recently I took a peek, and on average this year, we are getting about 720 page views per month! I’m so proud.

If you are one of those approximately 8600 reads this year, and would like to support us, there are a couple of ways that you can do that! You can make a small donation through my ko-fi, or you can purchase my editorial services for yourself or for another writer in your life! Money received through these channels helps pay for the domain, hosting, artwork, and books that you see featured on Books Beyond Binaries! And what will that mean going into 2021? Well…

I won’t give away our secrets, but of course it means more guest posts from rad authors, more artwork commissioned from LGBTQ2S+ artists, more book reviews from Jack and CeCe Lyra, and it means that BBB can continue to support emerging non-binary literary content creators like Santana Reads and reddietoread! WOW a lot has happened since I created this space. Happy anniversary, blog supporters. I’m so honoured you’re sharing this with us.

This Year Did Not Go As Planned

Me in 2020, wearing a mask from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, featuring art by Gabrielle Grimard, author and illustrator.

…dramatic understatement, I know. And honestly, I don’t know if I have it in me to write a big personal blog post about my experience of the pandemic, or even of the last 12 months of my own life. So much has happened, personally and professionally, that it would be difficult for me to capture in a way that would feel safe and interesting in this kind of forum. In summary, I will say that I feel incredibly lucky on an individual level to have been able to stay healthy and safe this year, and to have stable housing and employment (even if it’s less than it used to be).

In my professional life, I am so honoured to have been able to spend this year building my list of authors as a literary agent, and to have been offered a dream position with Westwood Creative Artists. The #SpineSquad are an incredible group of creators who I am in awe of every day, and who I feel so lucky to be able to support in their work. Although some of the contracts are still being finalized, and announcements being prepared, I am super proud to have sold 11 books (including three audio deals) since February. Those that you can check out immediately are: The Hollow Gods, by A. J. Vrana, and Maiden Leap, by C. M. Harris… with many more to come.

How Agenting Changed My Reading – For Better and Worse

This year, my reading stats are very different from other years. This is in part because I haven’t been able to work at the indie book shop where I was employed in the Before Times because my partner is high risk for COVID, and the shop was unable to make accommodations that would keep us safe. I hope that that will be different in the future – I miss the shop with my whole heart – but for now, I’m part of the long-term self isolating crowd. We’ve been quarantined since mid-February… going on month 10 over here.

The biggest factor, though, has been my agenting work. Although I finished 99 books so far this year, about 2/3 of those were complete (unpublished) manuscripts that I read every word of with an editorial brain on as queries, freelance projects, assigned work from supervisors, or client work. Of the other books that I read, some were for my academic work, some were for research, and some were recreational books that I picked up because I just wanted to. I really have yet to find a way to strike a healthy balance between reading for work and reading for fun – and I’m aware it’s a problem, and working on it.

2020 By the Numbers!

My 2019 in review can be seen here.
My 2018 in review can be seen here.

How many books I read in 2017: 41
How many books I read in 2018: 57
How many books I read in 2019: 124
How many books I read in 2020: 99

First book read: All Eyes on Her, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
Last book read (as of this post): I’ll Never Tell, Catherine McKenzie
Average length: 302 pages

Books by POC: 20
POC MC: 18
Male authors: 25
Female authors: 81
Non-binary and/or trans authors: 14
Queer authors: 36
Queer MC: 38

Middle Grade: 9
YA: 28
Adult: 62
Graphic: 2
Short story or anthology:
Non-fiction: 16
Memoir: 4
Lit Fic: 25
Poetry: 2
SFF: 26
Thriller: 19
Horror: 10

Purchases: 9
Library: 14
ARC: 12

Digital: 35
Print: 13
Audio: 1

½ Star Books: 0
⭐️ Books: 0
⭐️ ½ Books: 1
⭐️⭐️ Books: 2
⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 0
⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 12
⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 16
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 31
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 13
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 24

January: 30
February: 13
March: 11
April: 3
May: 12
June: 9
July: 7
August: 6
September: 9
October: 2
November: 6
December: 0

Reading challenges I participated in: None

DNF: 9

Currently reading (published, unfinished in 2020): The Sunset Sisters, by Cecilia Lyra; White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi; Devotions, by Mary Oliver; The Deep, by Alma Katsu; Amanda Greenleaf, by Ed Kavanaugh; On This Day, by Dale Jarvis
Favourite (published) books read this year: Riot Baby, by Toni Onyebuchi; Resilience is Futile, by Julie S. Lalonde; Love Notes, by Philip McKibbin

emmy’s Most Anticipated of Early 2021

  • Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters
  • In the Garden of Spite, by Camilla Bruce
  • The Bad Muslim Discount, by Syed M. Masood
  • We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, by Joy McCullough and Maia Kobabe
  • Loner, by Georgina Young
  • Kink, ed. by R. O. Kwan and Garth Greenwell
  • Let’s Get Back to the Party, by Zak Salih
  • Dark Horses, by Susan Mihalic
  • Spin With Me, by Amy Polonsky
  • Honey Girl, by Morgan Rogers
  • Some Other Now, by Sarah Everett

Jack’s Review of LUSTER, by Raven Leilani

Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, is a rollercoaster. It’s not for the faint of heart. Leilani is an American writer and artist, with an MFA from NYU. In a NYT feature, Leilani mentions how surreal the release of Luster feels, during a pandemic that claimed her father’s life. Leilani also expands on Edie, explaining that “” she wanted to highlight a nonlinear artistic path, one that came in contact with the real world”.

Luster reads as a confessional, observational disclosure of Edie’s internal world. This book tells the story of Edie, an editorial assistant and artist. It’s about the awkward moments, it’s about being young, it’s about being human.  Like most 23-year old’s, Edie seeks validation in her relationships and at her job. What starts off as an affair between Edie and Eric, a white man in an open marriage, mutates into the exploration of the dynamic in families, with Edie living with Eric’s wife and adopted daughter.

As a disillusioned painter, Edie begins to question everything: what makes somebody an artist? How do you maximize productivity and is genius contagious? What and how do you structure the hard work that makes one’s talents shine?

Content warnings include violence, racism, child loss/pregnancy and transracial adoption. I recommend this book to hopeless artists, Black Women, and to the dream chaser, who is being held down by reality. This is a perfect read for YA.

Leilani expertly articulates the tension one feels when survival requires a never- ending audition. Luster is about grounding oneself and how we become products of our experiences. Did Luster lure me in? Or did I recognize something I needed in it?

By avoiding writing, a “neatly moral character” (Leilani’s words), Luster reminds me of Dionne Brandt’s Theory. You are then invited into a world where you not only read and see characters, but you’re also invited to be them.

Luster is about the relational understanding of one-self in the context of the world. By exploring Black womanhood, personhood, and the complexity of being a human being and societal established dynamics, Luster spoke to me. I couldn’t walk away, I needed to know what was next, I needed to be with Edie as she moved through life, searching for affirmation and validation.

Leilani wrote about a Black Woman who is questioning everything.

Edie’s astute worldview conflicts with her poor communication skills. The reader is then strapped in their seat, aware of the aside but unable to disclose what they know. Reading Luster is like driving by a car accident, with Edie at the wheel.

Havoc and Happiness!

Ace Week

As some of you may already know, this week is Ace Week, an annual tradition highlighting identities in the asexual and aromantic communities, which are part of the LGBTQ2S+ spectrum. It’s an important week for me, because although I am allosexual, I identify as nebularomantic, a neurodivergent aromantic identity. What it means is that I can’t (and don’t) emotionally differentiate between types of love like alloromantic neurotypical people do. For me, platonic and romantic love feel exactly the same.

The nebularomantic flag.

I only began to understand this about myself in 2019. As I began to unpack what that meant for me, while also navigating the unraveling of a close friendship and an abusive partnership, so many things in my life began to make more sense to me. Complicated relationships that I had had from the time I was a child, and often their breakdowns, became so much more simple to parse and understand when I was able to piece together this part of myself. Although I had identified with various other identities in the LGBTQ2S+ community for a long time, I could suddenly identify that my lack of understanding about my nebularomantic identity is the one that has caused me the most pain. My coming into the Ace community was laced with heartbreak, as much as relief. I have come to learn that for so many Ace people, this is often the case.

My wish for Ace Week is that people who do not share identities with the people in the Ace community, especially other queer people, will take the time to learn about what Ace identities are and what they mean to us. Our relationships can look very non-normative, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t fulfilling and precious and rich with meaning.

…and what better way to learn about identities different from your own than through books?! There are a few places to find these books, since they can be a bit tricky to pin down. First, you can check out the Aromantic and Asexual Characters in Fiction Database, always linked on our resources page. Second, check out this new list of books with asexual main characters, assembled by Fadwa, the rad Moroccan book blogger behind Word Wonders. And last but not least, a specific recommendation: Unburied Fables. This independently published short story collection features works by over a dozen a-spec authors, including my friend Rose Sinclair, founder of F*ck Yeah Asexuals, who popularized the term “allosexual”. 50% of all the book’s proceeds are donated to the Trevor Project.

The cover of Unburied Fables.

CeCe Reviews WHITE IVY

As always, I am honoured to welcome back author, friend, and fellow literary agent, Cecilia Lyra, to this space! CeCe is a Brazilian reader and a fierce, brilliant feminist living in Canada, and this week I’m so glad to share her review of White Ivy by Susie Yang. White Ivy will be released on November 3rd, and is available to pre-order now!

The cover of White Ivy.

What makes a reader fall in love with a novel?

White Ivy by Susie Yang is the story of Ivy Lin, “a thief and a liar—but you’d never know it by looking at her.” (That’s one-line gold right there. It’s what made me want to read this book.) The eldest in her immigrant family, Ivy grew up on the wrong side of town. She learned how to steal (and otherwise take advantage of situations) from her scrappy grandmother. She also learned how to covet, to aspire. And her main ambition? A life entirely different from her own.

It is no surprise then that Ivy sets her sights on Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of an old-moneyed family. Except, as a teen, Ivy doesn’t stand a chance of dating Gideon. Years later, however, Ivy—now a kindergarten teacher—runs into Gideon’s sister, a chance encounter that, as a little luck and a lot of manipulation would have it, evolves into Ivy becoming Gideon’s girlfriend. For a moment, it appears that Ivy has made it. She’s left her life—her pathetic, embarrassing, poor existence—behind. And then, a figure from her past re-emerges—one who sees the true Ivy, the self she has so deftly managed to hide from everyone else—and threatens her new, golden life. But, in addition to being a thief and a liar, Ivy is a survivor. And what she aims to protect isn’t just her life—it’s her newfound status (which, to Ivy, are one and the same—what’s the point of life otherwise?).

I read this novel compulsively. As a character, Ivy is dark and twisted and haunting, which makes readers consider the parts of themselves that are precisely that. It deals with ambition and deception, all while exploring a woman’s coming-of-age, a love triangle, and the immigrant experience. I was absorbed in Ivy’s journey. Wholly invested in it. I felt everything she was feeling—and Ivy, being a fully fleshed out, unreservedly human character, felt things that were immoral and illogical. I applaud this. I am so done with boring, moralistic characters. I loved that Ivy was flawed and I loved how she was flawed. Yang has written a wonderfully immersive novel.

Which brings me back to my initial question. What does make a reader fall in love with a novel? The simple answer is: a good story. Of course, what make a good story is a whole other matter. In a way, a good story is like magic. It’s the impossible made real. But, much like a magic trick, when we break down the elements that make up a good story, we are able to understand how it came to be. A hypnotizing voice. Lively, engaging pace. Crisp, natural dialogue. A surprising yet inevitable ending—to name a few. Storytelling feels like magic, but it is a craft, and, like any craft, it can be understood logically, even if it is experienced fantastically. In examining WHITE IVY under these lenses, I can very much see what made me fall in love with it. It has all the makings of a good story.

And yet.

Throughout the novel, the reader is prompted to ask themselves, Why is Gideon with Ivy? Indeed, this question is clearly at the back of Ivy’s mind. Like Ivy, we are afraid she will lose him, that she will lose the life she has craved—and fought—for so long. It is a fear that consistently informs her behavior and choices. It is a question we speculate about and, in novels, one counts on receiving answers to questions, particularly at the end. It’s one of the ingredients of what makes a good story: a reveal. And, sure enough, at the end of WHITE IVY, we find out why Gideon is with Ivy. The reveal is delivered. And, sadly, it was disappointing.

I won’t spoil it, but I will say this: it felt device-y. At best, lazy and unimaginative. At worst, offensive. I will also say that I do not fault Yang—at least no more than I fault every author out there (myself included). Whether we want to or not we are a product of the heteronormative, white supremacist patriarchy that rules our world, which means we often fall prey to its pervasive teachings. Even the most progressive, enlightened human has been brainwashed by the system and, sometimes, these prejudices unconsciously make their way into our stories. I do not know Susie Yang, but I believe it’s possible—likely, actually—that she did not notice the problematic plot reveal at the end of her novel and that, if she had, she would’ve addressed it in a responsible manner. I know I’ve seen problematic aspects in my own writing and hope to continue to see them, as that will mean I continue to grow. My criticism is not without compassion. In fact, it is imbued with it.

What makes a reader fall in love with a novel? A good story.

And I’m very much looking forward to Susie Yang’s next novel.

Feature: HAVOC AND HAPPINESS

Cover of Havoc and Happiness

I am super thrilled to get to feature Canadian LGBTQ2S+ author Wren Handman’s newest YA light fantasy title Havoc and Happiness on the blog today, on the day of its release! Happy book birthday!!! We decided to have a little fun with this post, but all you really need to know is this: Queer. Monster. Hunter.

…or, that’s all I needed, anyway. This book follows undead MC Michaela Peters, as she navigates a new school, new powers, and horrible monsters that shift depending on what people’s imaginations have the capacity to conjure.

The cover of a book of Mad Libs, called Goofy Mad Libs: World’s Greatest Word Game.

Now. Do you all remember Mad Libs? Well, we thought it might be fun to create a mad lib of an action scene from Havoc and Happiness to give to a couple of our contributors, to give BBB’s readers a silly preview of this rad new book. Thank you so much to Jack and Eddie (from reddietoread) for humouring Wren and I in this project intended to bring a little light during a weird, weird time. The scenes are below! In the meantime, I asked Wren to recommend a book by a Black author for this post, and she wanted to shout out one that’s on her TBR: The Weight of the Stars, by K. Ancrum, which is a rad YA lesbian sci-fi romance that was released by Imprint in 2019.

The cover of The Weight of the Stars.

Mad Lib: Version One

The two of them face off with a sort of ‘you wouldn’t dare’ look. Cade takes a long, deliberate swallow of his coke. Devin starts to relax, but then Cade goes on the attack.

“I guess you wouldn’t have heard,” Cade tells me, not breaking eye contact with Devin. “But Devin asked the apple last year so he would get a telephone.”

“Cade has a tattoo of bookcase!”

“Devin owns sixteen fish!”

“Cade had to eat  people to come to his birthday.”

“Devin joked Mr. Stephens to turn his basketball!” to a house!”!”

“Cade—”

“I need to run!” I holler into the stream of abuse, and hurl myself up from the book. I don’t look back, but I picture the two of them not even slowing down as they continue to fight.

I linger in the bathroom, putting on lipstick, fixing my hair, anything to avoid going back outside. I’m running out of things to do to my face when I hear a tall crash from the dining area. I rush back into the main room to find Cade and Devin both looking long and helping our waitress clean up some broken dishes.

“What happened?” I ask, picking up the handle of a broken mug and heaping it on top of the tray.

“They got into a fight about who was paying the bill,” the waitress, whose nametag reads “Kelly,” explains.

“I am so green,” I tell her, handing over the plate. “I don’t know what on Earth got into them. They’re acting like cakes.”

“Oh, honey. Teenaged boys and their fishes,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You just be careful—I’m sure it seems all cold, them fighting over you, but it can go bad fast.”

“Trust me, I don’t think it’s slimy,” I moan. “What’s a foot called when there’s only one girl?”

“A disaster?” she teases, and pushes me back towards my water. I drag my feet crossing back through the restaurant. I can’t believe what I’ve gotten myself into.

Mad Lib: Version Two

The two of them face off with a sort of ‘you wouldn’t dare’ look. Cade takes a long, deliberate swallow of his coke. Devin starts to relax, but then Cade goes on the attack.

“I guess you wouldn’t have heard,” Cade tells me, not breaking eye contact with Devin. “But Devin spat the frying pan last year so he would get a statuette.”

“Cade has a tattoo of foil!”

“Devin owns sixteen washing machines!”

“Cade had to slice  people to come to his surprise party.”

“Devin won Mr. Stephens to turn his armoire!” to a germ!”!”

“Cade—”

“I need to utilize!” I holler into the stream of abuse, and hurl myself up from the skyscraper. I don’t look back, but I picture the two of them not even slowing down as they continue to fight.

I linger in the bathroom, putting on lipstick, fixing my hair, anything to avoid going back outside. I’m running out of things to do to my face when I hear a squeamish crash from the dining area. I rush back into the main room to find Cade and Devin both looking unbelievable and helping our waitress clean up some broken dishes.

“What happened?” I ask, picking up the handle of a broken mug and heaping it on top of the tray.

“They got into a fight about who was paying the bill,” the waitress, whose nametag reads “Kelly,” explains.

“I am so calm,” I tell her, handing over the plate. “I don’t know what on Earth got into them. They’re acting like stuffed animals.”

“Oh, honey. Teenaged boys and their oceans,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You just be careful—I’m sure it seems all bright, them fighting over you, but it can go bad fast.”

“Trust me, I don’t think it’s ridiculous,” I moan. “What’s a potato called when there’s only one girl?”

“A disaster?” she teases, and pushes me back towards my lamp. I drag my feet crossing back through the restaurant. I can’t believe what I’ve gotten myself into.

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Miss Meteor Blog Tour

I know I’m shaking up the schedule a bit this week, but it’s a big week over here, so I hope that it’s worth the wait! I’ll be back to my regular schedule next Monday at noon ET like usual! For now, I have a few exciting announcements to share, and then a review and (what I think is) a cool creative, quarantine-friendly project in honour of the release of Miss Meteor, a new contemporary YA with speculative elements from incredible non-binary author Anna-Maria McLemore, in collaboration with Tehlor Kay Mejia.

Cemetery Boys Makes History

First, I want to take a quick minute to shout out trans author Aiden Thomas, his agent Jennifer March Soloway, and the editorial team at Swoon Reads, for the breakout success of the paranormal romance novel Cemetery Boys. Not only did it hit the NYT Bestsellers list, but it also made the National Book Award long list!

Thomas is in good company on the National Book Award long list – Black non-binary author Kacen Callender also made the list with their newest offering, King and the Dragonflies.

New Non-Binary Author: The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass

In my corner of the world, we’re also celebrating the debut YA from #SpineSquad author Adan Jerreat-Poole, The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass. Adan is a non-binary author, and their YA fantasy officially released this week from Dundurn, after quietly sneaking onto some shelves in advance earlier this summer. This is the first in a duology, and Adan’s working on some amazing new LGBTQ2S+ SFF projects for the future – so watch this space.

reddietoread

I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce all of you to a new non-binary content creator who is now supported by Books Beyond Binaries: reddietoread! The human behind this account is Eddie, a college student studying literature, creative writing, and art history. They are currently fulfilling their middle school dream of being a booktuber, and they are working on their other childhood dream of becoming a published author. In their spare time they can be found reading YA and middle grade fiction, learning how to use power tools, and obsessing over anything dark academia-related.

Check out their channel for all kinds of rad content, including a playlist of non-binary book reviews and recommendations! The video below is the first in that series. Welcome to the team, Eddie! So glad to have you!!

Last But Not Least…

I just want to take this opportunity to wish an INCREDIBLE book birthday to my friend and author Cecilia Lyra on her sophomore novel, The Faithfuls, which comes out TODAY!!! CeCe is a badass Brazilian feminist woman living in Canada, and I was thrilled when my pre-order landed in my inbox this morning! Pick this one up, and when you do, if you can guess the twist ending? Make sure to let CeCe know… so far, no one has!

#MissMeteorOnTour

I jumped at the chance to be an official stop on the blog tour for this book (thanks, Caffeine!) for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is because the level of hype Miss Meteor is seeing leading up to its release is truly not on par with the level of excitement I felt when I discovered this title. Also – I want to interrupt myself for a second here to give a special shoutout to @MeteorReadathon on Twitter, because their Meteor Shower Readathon is such a great idea. If you haven’t had a chance to pick up some of these authors’ other works, check out their feed for great inspiration.

Tehlor Kay Mejia

I’ve gushed about Tehlor Kay Mejia’s incredible YA duology We Set the Dark on Fire and We Unleash the Merciless Storm in this space before. What I have never written about is how Anna-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty is one of the first books that brought me back to reading YA fiction after a long time away from the category. I picked it up when I first began working at Another Story, during my many years in academia, and had to reintroduce myself to YA after being exclusively immersed in scholarly non-fiction for way too long. Wild Beauty was one of the first queer YA books I ever read, and it is still one of few books that I see dimensions of myself reflected in that don’t really show up anywhere else. Later, when McLemore celebrated their non-binary identity publicly, it was super heartwarming for me, and their books hold a special place in my heart for all of that.

Anna-Marie McLemore

When I heard that these two incredible queer Latinx powerhouses were teaming up on a project, I was over the moon – and Miss Meteor does not disappoint. My preface to this glowing review is this: I didn’t bother to read much about the book before I picked it up, because I was so excited to see what Mejia and McLemore would come up with together. I had skimmed the jacket copy and seen the cover, and that was it. This book was not at all what I expected.

The best way I can think of to pitch Miss Meteor is if Dumplin’ were super queer, and had a little touch of magic. I was a kid who grew up closeted in a small town that’s truly supportive and sweet as long as you abide by don’t ask, don’t tell… and there there were a lot of moments of searing truth in this story. There aren’t enough queer books that take place outside of the sprawl of metropolis, and we need them. I don’t think that LGBTQ2S+ folks think enough about how different it is experiencing queerness and gender non-conformity outside of urban centres. McLemore and Mejia paint a picture of a small town that’s believable and quaint and chilling, and there is skillful, diverse representation in every direction in this narrative.

Miss Meteor has so many things to love, including food descriptions that left me drooling onto my eReader. It has Wild Beauty‘s fingerprints all over it in the character of Lita – after reading this, I want to go to a cactus birthday party so badly! The only criticism that I really have of the book overall is that I could have used just a touch more of the magic that we get a hint of through this main character. It had everything else – the thrust of a powerful friendship story to keep to keep the plot momentum in forward motion, touches of romance and truthfulness, and the spectacular, voicey writing that I’ve come to expect from the authors’ other works. I just fell a little bit in love with the girl who was made of stardust, and I wanted to know more.

Miss Meteor Stitch Project

For those of you who don’t know, when I’m not reading, I’m usually stitching. I discovered embroidery a few years ago when I was adjusting to a new psychiatric medication, and I still love it. It’s cheap, it’s not super difficult, and I love the outcome. For my creative project for #MissMeteorOnTour, I decided to make a sheet of stitchable (or colour-able, if you’re not a stitcher!) Miss Meteor Merit Badges!

What’s your favourite part of this book? The pageant, the cactus birthday parties, the delicious diner food, or the awesome space rocks and star dust? The choice is yours.

Project materials:

  • large wooden or plastic embroidery hoop – nothing fancy required
  • scissors
  • fabric! You can use an old T-shirt (or bedazzle a new one), a swatch of cotton, or really anything you have lying around. Choose something with a fun pattern for a decorative background.
  • medium-sized embroidery needles. I would suggest DMC Size 5, if you’re a beginner!
  • graphite transfer paper to trace the pattern onto the fabric
  • embroidery floss. Use any colours you want! I would suggest DMC six-strand embroidery floss. It’s inexpensive, you can get it at lots of craft stores, and it comes in LOTS of colours. Sometimes, less expensive floss can tangle more easily, but you can also dig into your childhood friendship bracelet supplies for this project!
  • basic felt sheets
  • Mod Podge matte – you can use the spray version, or use a sponge to apply the regular version

Resources used to create the merit badges:

Instructions

All you need to do is print the pattern above, use the graphite paper to trace it onto fabric (be careful, these lines won’t wash off), and then get started! Before you thread your needle, you’ll want to cut off a few feet of embroidery thread, and separate it into 3 strands. Only use 3 strands at a time to thread your needle. Once you’ve threaded your needle, and tied it off at the end, you’re ready to get stitching. You can use a simple straight stitch or back stitch for any of these designs, or get creative and choose something more complicated! There are loads of Youtube tutorials for learning embroidery stitches.

Once you’re done, and you love your badge, you can iron it flat, or leave it under a stack of books for a few days to flatten out. Then, cut the felt sheet to make a backing, and glue it to the back of the badge, and you’re done! If any of you decide to stitch (or colour!) a Miss Meteor merit badge from these patterns – PLEASE send me a note through the contact form! I would love to feature it on the site.

Happy stitching!

Trans (P)review and FOLD Kids

Books Beyond Binaries Editorial Services

A little shameless self-promotion to start off this post, before I get to the good stuff!

As most of you know, as well as being a full time student, I am also a fledgling literary agent and a bookseller. I make most of my living in my student life, taking on freelance research projects, and I’ve usually had the comfort of a small but reliable paycheque from the bookshop where I work part time to fall back on. Unfortunately, because of COVID, both of these sources of income have all but disappeared from my life these days. As such, I’ve decided to start offering book doctor services to writers alongside my agenting career. I’m putting my experience of 3 years as a bookseller, nearly a decade in academic publishing, and my first year in traditional publishing to work with competitive rates to support writers at all stages of their careers. You can check out my Fiverr page here if you’re interested. While I am available for bigger contracts, I love offering thorough first pages critiques to strengthen longer projects and pitch packages.

FOLD Kids

Before I jump in to this week’s feature, I want to highlight an amazing event coming up TOMORROW for educators, supported by The Festival of Literary Diversity’s Kids Book Fest. Details for Decolonizing Education and the Role of Restorative Justice in Schools is a free webinar, and details can be found below. While you’re looking, registration opens on September 2nd for the Kids Book Fest being held in October that is not to be missed if you’re a supporter of diverse literature for young readers, a parent, an educator, or a young reader yourself!

Kit Mayquist’s Review of FIRST, BECOME ASHES, by K. M. Szpara

I cannot say enough how excited I am to host this review, written by up and coming #SpineSquad author, Kit Mayquist, who recently celebrated the sale of his debut novel, Tripping Arcadia, to Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

There is nothing I love more than trans stories being reviewed by trans readers. While Kit is just beginning a promising literary career of his own, K. M. Szpara made waves with his debut Docile, and his sophmore release First, Become Ashes is expected in April of 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

To readers of First, Become Ashes, Kit would also like to recommend one of my favourite haunted house books of all time, The Good House, by Tananarive Due. Tananarive Due is an epic horror author who I didn’t learn about until way too recently. If you’ve been sleeping on her work, definitely check it out. It will give you chills, no matter how hot this summer is getting.


There is magic in the world, though it depends on who you ask.

Being raised in a cult of Baltimore-based, monster-hunting wizards, the main character Lark is awaiting his 25th birthday where he will undertake his mission as one of The Anointed, and fulfill his oath to rid the corrupted world of monsters. When we begin, he is bidding his partner and lover Kane goodbye, watching him leave the guarded gates of Druid Hill and venture into the world to complete his own mission, but for Lark, this ending is the largest beginning he could imagine, as Kane betrays them and reports the Fellowship of the Anointed to the FBI, resulting in a sting operation and their arrest.

It is rare to find a story where two realities can exist simultaneously and still seem rooted in our own, present day. First, Become Ashes deals with many topics that readers will find familiar, topics such as growing up and discovering your own beliefs versus those you were raised in, and the rocky path of wrestling with belief when everyone seems to have a different opinion on it. Much like in Szpara’s debut novel, Docile, First Become Ashes is a story of a man discovering who he is in the world as he undergoes a deprogramming. In fact, for many readers of Docile, the themes in First, Become Ashes will seem very familiar. Our protagonist, Lark has an inner narrative and voice that is strong-headed and yet, gives the reader full insight into the unraveling (and lack thereof) of his beliefs and of his identity as he wrestles with what it means to exist beyond life as a chosen one for a cult that the world is all too happy to condemn. Much like how Docile followed Elisha as he lost sense of himself and struggled to regain it, our protagonist takes the reader on a journey full of bravado and surety, with his fingernails clinging so hard to his beliefs that he practically bleeds. His is a story of agreement with his cult’s beliefs and a resistance to the efforts of those around him to tell him otherwise. Along his journey Lark meets a cosplayer, Calvin and in him he finds companionship as well as another soul desperate to believe there is magic in the world.

 From a meet-cute beside the dumpsters in cosplay (relatable for many of us, I’m sure), to unashamed enthusiasm for the 21st century nerd and fan culture (so many references, so many!), Calvin is just like any one of us. Eager to go on a quest, and above all else, eager to believe that the rumors about The Fellowship of the Anointed’s ability to wield magic is genuine. For Calvin, Lark’s presence in his life is a much awaited turning point, and a choice he makes to find out for once and for all if he can live the life of the characters he dresses up as, and possibly find love in the process. What he does not expect, is to go on a road trip with a bag of BDSM toys in the trunk, and to discover that for some, magic does not come from a loving, joyous space, but from something darker.

 First Become Ashes comes with a warning of sadomasochism, and it is a warning well-deserved if that is not your thing. If it is your thing, you will be well rewarded. Much like in Docile, themes surrounding consent, and what it means for our protagonist, develop through a narrative that makes such lessons poetic and extremely grounded in the story’s plot and world-building. For Lark, there is no question magic is real, he feels it in his body, becoming weak when he is drained of it. It is a very real thing. It is also something that requires a partner to hurt him in order to produce, and it is a process his scar-marked body enjoys arguably more than any other member of The Fellowship.

 As his bond with Lark develops, it is revealed Calvin is no stranger to BDSM and the world of kink, though Lark’s approach to it, and his relationship to a life where pain is a necessity and not something pleasurable, is concerning. This raises an internal debate throughout the book for Calvin and Lark’s Fellowship partner, Kane, about if Lark is even aware of his own kinks, and if he can come to understand his own enjoyment and embrace pleasure in his life aside from shoving down any positives for the sake of self-discipline. One final note on the BDSM link to magic and ritual in the book is that there are two major instances of sexual abuse and rape on the page as we learn about the actions of The Fellowship and their leader. Though not glorified, the scenes highlight the link between spiritual and sexual abuse in a way that may be extremely triggering for some readers, so please be advised.

However as serious as the themes discussed in First, Become Ashes are, it is not without humor. References to protein shakes as ‘potions’ and glow sticks from your classic convention rave being used as evidence of magic come with a nod and a wink that feels like that assignment I had once in Anthropology 101 to discuss current items as if they were being discovered 100 years from now. That being said, the humor serves a dual purpose in showing us just how isolated Lark and the other Fellowship member’s lives have been, and while some pick up the intricacies of modern day objects like hotel key cards and Google Maps with ease, for others, it is a reminder of just how much they’ve been denied, and a challenge to avoid a deep seeded fear of spiritual corruption.

It is no shock that the beliefs of First, Become Ashes feel so rooted and real, knowing that Szpara himself has a Theology degree. What was perhaps most refreshing to me was seeing a classic ‘Doomsday cult’ without the Christian lens. Instead the Fellowship reminded me most of my own childhood spent in metaphysical circles and having soul paintings done and being taught to bend spoons with my mind when all I wanted to do was play Pokémon. I think this is why for myself especially, the experiences of the various Fellowship members in the book feel truer to life than anything else. In First, Become Ashes we see all sides of the belief debate. The one who chose to leave, the one who was abused, the one who was never chosen, the shunned Preacher’s Kid, and the outsiders who want to believe, as well as those who hate them. Seemingly every perspective on The Fellowship and their actions is explored at least briefly, and readers are likewise taken on the journey of whether the magic is real or not, bouncing between proof for both sides, and unexplainable instances that will continuously leave you guessing yourself, just how much is fact or fiction.

Last though certainly not least, as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community myself, First, Become Ashes is full of inclusive language and gender identities (one of the best things about The Fellowship is the normalized greeting of “What are your pronouns?” ) making it as comforting a read as it is a challenging one in terms of themes. Queerness is on the page in a celebratory way, as are discussions of polyamory and different types of love; something I’d personally like to see much more of from publishing. Ultimately First, Become Ashes is an excellent, well-awaited sophomore novel to Szpara’s Docile, while treading equally in familiar territory as well as new. Szpara’s ability to connect sex and identity to the plot in an inseparable way are what make his writing memorable long beyond the last page, and what make this novel shine.

Starred Rating: 5/5


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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

BREAK OUT THE SCISSORS

Happy Monday, theydies and gentlethems. This week, I’m pleased to share with you a review of Avalon’s Last Knight, an #OwnVoices LGBTQ2S+ novel by trans author Jackson C. Garton. I’m also thrilled to host a guest post from dark fantasy author A. J. Vrana on one of my favourite editorial topics: HOW TO CUT WORDS. Thank you so much for your continued support of this space! If you want to throw a coin to your blogger, my ko-fi is linked at the end of the post.

Review: Avalon’s Last Knight, by Jackson C. Garton

I’m so pleased that author Jackson C. Garton sought me out and shared this book with me, and I owe him a public apology, because it took me forever to finally pick this up. 2020 has been a hard year, and if I had known that I would enjoy this as much as I did, I may not have waited so long. Sorry, fam!

Avalon’s Last Knight from Pride Publishing is loosely categorized as LGBTQ Urban Fantasy, but I think it is more accurately described as an LGBTQ2S+ romance with speculative elements. I’m not usually all about retellings, but Garton managed to skillfully integrate the old and the new in a way that wasn’t distracting from the thrust of the narrative. Set in the rural American south – a rare bird for LGBTQ2S+ fiction – Garton’s book follows Lance and Arthur, high school BFFs turned sweethearts, as they learn to navigate their new relationship, and all the complications that come with it.

With strikingly raw prose reminiscent of the fiction of the Trans Vanguard, Garton expertly weaves thematic aspects of the original tales of Avalon through a diverse and contemporary romance flavoured with a taste of the occult. Emotions right on the surface, this book tackles the complexity of transition, love, and the cultural tension of progressive life in a conservative setting.

My only criticism of this book is that, to my knowledge, the racial representation is not based on lived experience. For me as a reader, it felt as though the diversity aspects were handled sensitively, and this remains a book that I would recommend. As a white reader, I would be interested to see reviews of this title from POC.

When I asked Garton what book he would recommend by a Black author, he suggested Kacen Callendar’s Felix Ever After, which was featured on Santana Reads! I’m thrilled to have been introduced to Avalon’s Last Knight, and I look forward to seeing what Garton comes up with next.


The Baldwin quote above is the banner that I use on my editorial reports for my lit agent clients. It feels appropriate here, because today, I am completely stoked to be hosting one of those clients with a guest post on one of my FAVOURITE editorial topics: how to make deep cuts. There is nothing more satisfying than a manuscript with good economy of language, and no one knows how to achieve that better than A. J. Vrana. Her method is just… *chef’s kiss*. I asked her to write this as much for my nerdy brain as for anyone else’s benefit. I hope you’ll all enjoy as much as I did.

In the meantime, if I haven’t shouted about it enough, A. J. Vrana’s beautiful debut dark fantasy novel is also now available for purchase, if you’d like a book-length example of the kind of results you can get with her editorial methods.

How to Cut Words: Guest Post by A. J. Vrana

There is no shortage of jokes about writers. Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional, you’re bound to encounter a quip or two about creative types and their stubborn dedication to their artistic vision. Creative people are sometimes incorrectly stereotyped as being spacey, unmoored, and impractical, much to my personal chagrin. Of course, if that were true, none of us would have succeeded in making a living with our creative work, least of all in a business that is primarily concerned with one thing: making money.

There is no separating creative writing from the publishing industry if, well, you want to be published. While there are many talented, visionary writers out there, navigating the business side of publishing can prove frustrating and alienating for many people. However, if we want our work read, we need to come to terms with the fact that publishing is a business, and businesses will always be concerned with how to maximize their profits. One of the ways they do this is by becoming intimately acquainted with the market. For a book to be publishable, it needs to have commercial potential. It doesn’t matter how breath-taking, eloquent, or poetic your writing is; if it isn’t something a publisher feels they can sell to a market they themselves have carved out through a long history of curated publication and advertisement, there is little hope the manuscript will be acquired by an agent or an editor.

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

One of the often understated facets of marketability is word count. See, when I say, “markets that have been carved out through a history of curated publication,” I’m talking about genre conventions that have slowly but surely become cemented in readers’ understanding of literature, and subsequently inform their expectations. Word count is one of the many markers of how well a work fits within its intended genre. It has implications not only for a publisher’s production costs and returns, but for how the market will actually receive the work.

So, what is an acceptable word count for your next best seller? Well, it depends on the genre. Here are some general figures for popular genres; these can be easily found on the interwebs:

  • Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words
  • Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words
  • Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000
  • Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
  • Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words
  • Young Adult: 50,000–80,000
  • Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

With the exception of kidlit and SFF, you’ll notice immediately that the upper end of the word count bracket for most genres is 100k. However, I would argue that if you’re a debut author, your SFF should also be around or under 100k. Once you go over this mark, the work becomes an increasingly difficult sell for both agents and publishers.

I myself am a verbose gal. When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words! I justified this massive word count by convincing myself it was what I needed to tell the story, but I was a DIRTY LIAR. In truth, the long word count reflected several of my weaknesses as a writer: I sucked at pacing. My first 50 pages were way too slow in getting to the action. I overwrote emotions. I spent too much time on scenes that didn’t move the plot forward, and I did so under the guise of ‘character development’. I underestimated how few words I needed to get my point across. After several rounds of substantive edits and several more of line edits, I parred the beast down to 97,000 words. The final manuscript upon publication? 98,300 words. The best part? The major plot beats and structure hadn’t even changed.

But how the heck do you chop a novel’s worth of words out of your manuscript to appease your agent or editor’s pragmatic bones? Well, let me tell you. Here’s how to murder your beloved in three, excruciating steps.

Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash

STEP ONE: Reverse Outline Your Book

The first step to chop-chop-chopping is to get rid of any large chunks of text that are unnecessary to the plot. But how do you know what’s unnecessary to the plot? That three-page meditation on the movement of celestial bodies and their implications for the fate of the family cat provide the reader with such a keen glimpse into your character’s psyche.

To figure out whether your reader will give a rat’s ass about the family cat’s natal chart, try a reverse outline. To do this, make a note of your book’s conclusion, then work your way backwards. What event prompted the ending? What then triggered the event that prompted the ending? Keep working your way backwards until you reach the beginning of your book. The catch? Don’t look at your manuscript when you do it. You, as the author, should be able to backtrack through your entire manuscript and communicate the book’s major inciting events without analyzing the text.

Once you’ve done this, take a look at your manuscript and make note of everything that falls outside of those core events, then ask yourself if those scenes are truly necessary. After reverse outlining your book, you should have a little more distance to judge whether these outliers are really needed. If you aren’t sure, cut and paste them in a separate document and see if the story still works without them. If the answer is ‘yes,’ DELETE DELETE DELETE. I don’t care how much you like it; GET RID OF IT. You won’t notice it after it’s gone, I promise.

One other option is to consolidate chapters that deal with similar events or circumstances. Are there two chapters where your protagonist visits a creepy old man in the woods to get information about a certain mystery? Slap ’em together, delete all the dialogue and prose that isn’t vital for your reader, and maintain the core purpose of both chapters—but in one!

Photo by Alex Gruber on Unsplash

STEP TWO: Economy of Words

This is the more detail-oriented and pain-staking method of cutting words, but people grossly underestimate just how much can be excised with careful line edits. The goal here is to make sure that not a single word is wasted. There is no one method of doing this, but I’ve learned a few tricks that can go a long way.

Contractions. This one took me a while to get used to because I got my start in academic writing, where contractions are a big no-no. However, using contractions in non-academic writing, especially creative writing, can reduce word count significantly. Use Ctrl+F to find common phrases that can be replaced with contractions.

That. Many a time, the word ‘that’ is not really necessary. I was told that I’d have to cut at least 10,000 words from my book. See what I did there?

Sentence Structure. Sometimes, switching up syntax and playing with verb conjugation can spare a word or two per sentence. It may not seem like a lot, but when you have thousands of sentences, it adds up.

For example: He stared at the maskless buffoon and then wondered if humanity was done for.

Alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, then wondered if humanity was done for.

Even better alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, wondering if humanity was done for.

Now, you don’t want to use the same sentence structure over and over again. Don’t get too nitpicky with this, because sentence variety is more important than cutting a single word per sentence. Don’t forget that you can also change what order your clauses are in. Be conscious of modifiers and subordinate clause placement, as sometimes these can needlessly lengthen sentences.

Example from this very verbose blog: When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words!

Alternative: The first draft of my contemporary dark fantasy debut was 135,000 words.

Photo by Wajih Ghali on Unsplash

Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’. This is probably the thing I struggled with most. I loooove starting sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but,’ especially when establishing a character’s voice. Sadly, it’s not necessary most of the time. Occasionally it’s fine if used for emphasis or in dialogue, but try to minimize this as much as possible.

Adjectives and adverbs. Remember when I said I overwrite emotions? Yeah, this. Listen, there is NOTHING wrong with a good adjective or adverb, but when you find yourself piling them on like a grocery list comprised entirely of snack foods, reign yourself in. Pick ONE snack food. Even better—ask yourself if there is a more accurate noun or verb that can replace the adjective + noun or adverb + verb you’re using.

Don’t repeat yourself. Sometimes when we try to communicate something, we spend too many sentences expressing the same sentiment. This is natural, as overwriting is how we explore the best way to get a point across. However, once we’ve done this, it’s a good idea to go back and pick one sentence that best communicates the intended point.

Metaphors > Literal Description. This can be a tough one as it forces you to exercise your poetic brain, but I promise it pays off and makes your writing more interesting. Literal descriptions of settings or a character’s emotional state tend to be quite lengthy, and if you have the attention span of a kitten like I do, they can be kind of boring too. Sometimes, an apt, pithy metaphor can convey all that needs to be conveyed in far fewer words than a very literal description. Don’t be afraid to experiment with similes and metaphors; if it doesn’t work, someone will let you know with their confusion! As with the suggestion about sentence structure, you shouldn’t turn every description into a metaphor, but it can help add some variety!

Example: On the weekends, the sidewalks were crowded with people pushing past one another.

Metaphor: On the weekends, the sidewalks [crowded] like an ant colony.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

Don’t start sentences with ‘There was’.  This is best illustrated with an example.

Example: There was a child napping in the shade.

Alternative: A child napped in the shade.

Eliminate the obvious. This is another trick best illustrated with an example:

Example: The sky was grey. The clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Alternative: The grey clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Since clouds are inherently in the sky, we don’t have to mention the sky and the clouds.

Eliminate absences. One trick to using precise language is to eliminate any mention of things being absent, and instead focusing on what is present instead of the absence. Here’s what I mean:

Example: She stared at her estranged mother and felt nothing. The love was gone.

Alternative: She stared at her estranged mother. The love was gone.

Here, it’s redundant for us to say that someone felt nothing; instead, we can infer that there is an absence by noting that ‘the love was gone’.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

STEP THREE: Repeat Step 2.

Seriously. You need to do the line edits like three times, because as you progress through your manuscript, you will grow lazy and let things slip. The first time I finished cutting on a line level, I’d eliminated 3000 words. After my second round, I’d eliminated 6000 words. By my third round, I’d cut a total of 8000 words.

And it was great.


Alex’s recommendation for a book by a Black author to check out is the Binti trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor. I had the pleasure of hearing Okorafor speak in Denver a couple of years back, and she blew my mind. This book is definitely worth the read!

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!