Veronica Mars, But Make It Queer

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Books to Check Out

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

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

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

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

You’re Next, by Kylie Schachte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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

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

2019 In Review

Currently Reading: Keystone, by Katie Delahanty

News!

Get ready for your TBRs to balloon for the new year! Fellow trans blogger Corey Alexander brings you all the titles published in late 2019 with trans and/or non-binary authors. My top pick from this list are Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi, which I previewed earlier this year, and I’m most looking forward to Beyond the Black Door, by A. M. Strickland, which is on my TBR!

In response to the recent transphobic events at the Toronto Public Library, local independent bookstores are coming together to support trans writers and activists by co-hosting a teach-in at the 519 Community Centre on January 23rd. The store where I work is one of the organizers, so if you’re nearby, please come out and support the local trans and non-binary community.

Re-Introduction

When I first started this blog, one year ago, I wrote an introductory post, which gives a little bit of a window into what I’m about as far as my literary life is concerned. Because this blog and my reading in general is fairly politicized, and I believe that the personal is political, I’d like to offer a bit more information about myself that might give context to some of the 🔥hot takes🔥 that I post in this space.

A selfie of me in the bookshop where I work. I have medium complexion white skin, pink curly hair that is shaved on the right side and has dark roots, clear plastic frame glasses, and no makeup. I'm wearing a black tank top and a grey sports bra, and tattoos are visible on my shoulders. Bookshelves are visible in the background.
Me! 2019.

These are the facts about me that my Twitter bio won’t tell you!

  • Although legally I have to, I don’t capitalize my name. It’s emmy!
  • I’ve been (as) vegan (as possible, depending on where I was living) for more than 20 years! That said, I am firmly in solidarity with Indigenous and other marginalized people who cannot or do not engage with that life – especially (but not limited to) the Indigenous people who sustain their communities through the seal hunt and the deer harvest at Short Hills.
  • I’m a social work researcher, mostly focusing on LGBTQ2S+ health, and wellbeing of working dogs in therapeutic environments. In my previous life, I went to college for circus arts, and spent nearly a decade performing and coaching at a professional level. My specialities were juggling and group acrobatics.
  • I grew up in Newfoundland, an island off the east coast of Canada, in the North Atlantic. The island is the occupied territory of the Innu, the Mi’kmaq, and the Beothuk, who were victims of genocide. My family in Newfoundland can be traced back at least 7 generations on the maternal side, and we are white colonizers. I was raised in a house with my mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother, just the four of us most of the time.
  • J’ai appris le français quand j’étais très jeune, et j’ai vécu la grosse majorité de ma vie l’en parlant comme langue principale, alors que je me considère comme francophone.
  • My hobbies, when I have the time and energy, include film photography, snail mail (I collect postcards), roller skating, embroidery, cooking, and recently I’ve started playing video games occasionally. Oh! I also like to read!
  • I share my life with a lot of pets! Right now, that includes living primarily with an eleven year old retired racing greyhound, two formerly feral maine coon cats, and one five month old (by the time this gets posted!) deaf Dalmatian puppy. Their names are Boom, Whisper, Willow, and Pavot (pronounced pav-oh, it’s French for “poppy”, as in poppyseed). You can find them on Insta!
  • I’m polyamorous and have two relationships with genderqueer trans folks. My partner lives in Toronto, and I have a theyfriend and Denver. I am questing for a word that accurately describes “polyamorous but in no way seeking new romantic relationships,” because my life is as populated as I can handle it being.
  • I have diagnosed psychiatric disabilities and chronic illness, both of which are hormone-related (PMDD, chronic major depression, general and social anxiety, and PCOS). It’s also likely that I am on the autism spectrum, and I have most of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, although these are both more or less undiagnosed.
  • Other alphabet soup diagnoses that play a big role in my life through the people I love are PTSD and DID.
  • I have a very small social circle, and most of my close friends are relationships that I primarily nurture online, in large part because I have am neuroatypical and have a disorganized anxious attachment style.
  • I love bees and kākāpō, but I have a lot of favourite animals.
  • Recently, I have been trying to come up with the books that I would take with me if I was going to be indefinitely stranded on a desert island, and so far, I think they would be The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende; The Tea Dragon Festival, by Katie O’Neill; Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi; Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper; Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi; and Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima.

2019 By the Numbers

All these numbers are current as of December 20, 2019.
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
First book read: One of Us is Lying, Karen McManus
Last book read: Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty
Average length: 287 pages

Books by POC: 52
POC MC: 43
Male authors: 33
Female authors: 160
Non-binary and/or authors: 5
Queer authors: 46
Queer MC: 45

Middle Grade: 18
YA: 74
Adult: 101
Graphic: 5
Short story or anthology: 1
Non-fiction: 37
Memoir: 9
Lit Fic: 55
Poetry: 3
SFF: 46
Thriller: 28
Horror: 18

Purchases: 26
Library: 60
ARC: 105

Digital: 108
Print: 50
Audio: 36

½ Star Books: 3
⭐️ Books: 21
⭐️ ½ Books: 0
⭐️⭐️ Books: 27
⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 9
⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 24
⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 28
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 26
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 9
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 41

January: 8
February: 11
March: 6
April: 11
May: 14
June: 16
July: 11
August: 11
September: 17
October: 7
November: 6
December: 6

Reading challenges I participated in: #VillainAThon

DNF: 68
Currently reading (unfinished in 2019): Keystone, Katie Delahanty; The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware; Amanda Greenleaf, Ed Kavanagh
Favourite books of the year: Little Apocalypse, Katherine Sparrow; The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang; The Wise and the Wicked, Rebecca Podos; Wilder Girls, Rory Power; Pilu of the Woods, Mai K. Nguyen; Pet, Akwaeke Emezi; In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado; The Tea Dragon Festival, Katie O’Neill; The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black; I Know You Remember, Jennifer Donaldson; Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha; We Unleash the Merciless Storm, Tehlor Kay Mejia; The Seep, Chana Porter
Favourite picture books released this year (not otherwise included in stats above): My Footprints, Bao Yi; Stormy, by Guojing; No Room for a Pup, Laurel Molk and Liz Suneby; It Feels Good to Be Yourself, Theresa Thorn and Noah Grigni; King Mouse, Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling; Princess Puffybottom… and Darryl, Susin Nielsen and Olivia Chen Mueller, Truman, Jean Reidy; Ping, Ani Castillo; The Cyclops Witch and the Heebie-Jeebies, Kyle Sullivan and Derek Sullivan, The Scarecrow, Beth Ferry and the Fan Brothers; The Rabbit Listened, Cori Doerrfeld

Upcoming in 2020

So far, I have three 2020 plans. First: to integrate the reading challenge that my online book community, the Rogue Book Coven, is hosting for next year! Just to be clear, I had no hand at all in creating this – but I’m really glad for the work of some of our other members, who put this majestic thing together. If you want to read along with us, find us on various social media platforms at #CovenBookChallenge throughout 2020! POI for anyone who decides to follow along: we use the octopus emoji (sometimes, gratuitously) to mean hugs!

Second, to my actual delight and pleasure, I recently joined the planning team for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), held in Brampton each May. As such, I’m looking forward to curating and participating in the FOLD reading challenge in 2020 as well. The challenges aren’t 100% finalized yet, but you can check out past challenges here.

Last but not least, following a tweet from Esmé Weijun Wang, I committed to reading two Big, Long, Old Russian Books. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, and The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is legitimately the challenge that I’m most worried about so… wish me luck?

Most Anticipated of (Early) 2019

Wondering what you can look forward to me chatting about next year? In January, I’m going to be previewing Karen McManus’ upcoming sequel to One of Us is Lying, the bestselling YA thriller, and chatting with author Chana Porter about gender and her Jewish Indigenous trans MC in The Seep, her unsettling and heartwarming dystopian alien invasion literary horror novel.

Some other Winter 2020 releases that I’m excited about reading? Non-binary Latinx author Anna-Marie McLemore’s new YA fantasy, Dark and Deepest Red, is a spooky modern fairy tale that spans generations. It drops on January 14th, and it’s right in my wheelhouse. I’m also looking forward to The Truants, by Kate Weinberg. It’s a thriller, and I’m curious to see if this NA is another millennial-appealing book in the vein of Such a Fun Age and Normal People, which I read earlier this year.

Kacen Callendar is the non-binary author of Hurricane Child, my favourite middle grade book of all time, and their next book, King and the Dragonflies, comes out this February. I’ll also definitely be checking out The Last Confession of Autumn Casterly, by Meredith Tate. It’s a spooky YA thriller, and my own teenage heart is stoked that this book has a musical, geeky protag, as a former band geek myself.

There are two final February releases I’m hoping to get to. I’m all about fancy school dramas, and Privilege by Mary Adkins is a feminist NA that deals with themes around sexual assault on a college campus. Since the #MeToo movement began, books with similar themes have definitely become more visible, and I’m hoping that Privilege will have something unique to offer. Finally, with some skepticism, I’m eyeing A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch. This is Sanam Maher’s debut book, however she works as a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan. Without knowing a great deal about Baloch’s story, I’m hoping that Maher will have handled her story with sensitivity and respect.

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

Sign off image - an open book with a bright green glowing eye in the centre and several small eyes around it.

Fall Preview: Music and Monsters

Currently Reading: NW, by Zadie Smith

I am super lucky that for this upcoming season, I was gifted some amazing (and in some cases, very high profile) ARCs, either for the purpose of screen reading them to see if they’d be a good fit for the bookshop where I work, or for review. Some came directly from incredibly generous publicists, and others came from the shop’s hardworking sales reps. Others came from Edelweiss+ or Netgalley. EITHER WAY, for the next couple of months, I’m going to do my best to share the wealth and feature some of these hot new titles in this space.

If you’re interested in my own personal reading, I stumbled across this read-a-thon that’s too perfect for me to pass up! It’s called the #VillainAThon, and I’ll be participating until the end of October. It’s my first ever read-a-thon! (When do I get my merit badge?) I’ve paired the information about the #VillainAThon with a fall preview that would be a perfect fit!

Before I get to these great ARCs, I stumbled across a new resource recently that is incredible. Compiled by Ray Stoeve, it’s the YA Trans Ownvoices Masterlist – a list of all the trans, young adult lit that is written by trans authors. Check it out, and if you like it or find it useful, please remember to show your appreciation through ko-fi.

High School, by Tegan and Sara

Cover image of High School, by Tegan and Sara. Image is of two twins with long, thick hair, standing back to back, looking into the distance. Image is black and white, on a light gray background. Image is oriented in landscape, although the book is oriented in portrait.

I first discovered Tegan and Sara’s music when I was an unaware queer teen, living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It wasn’t even that I was closeted, it was that I was so unexposed to the breadth of LGBTQ2S+ experiences that I didn’t know that there was queerness beyond gay, white men. I had no idea that I could be anything other than a cis, het, woman. And even so, something in their music spoke to me in a way that most other music never had. So Jealous became the soundtrack to my life overnight, and awakened something in me that had yet to be discovered.

I’ve been a huge fan of theirs since then. The Con guided me through much of my early twenties, and I can sing every word of Sainthood by heart. I’ve seen them in concert in arenas and grassy fields, and heard their music echo off the towers of the Toronto skyline during Pride. When I heard that they had a book coming out, I was so excited.

High School isn’t exactly what I expected. When I saw the previews online, I imagined a glossy, hardcover book, with loads of photos, lyrics sprinkled throughout, something abstract and commemorative – but the book is a straight memoir. While there are photos included, the book is a collection of autobiographical essays, alternating authors, that chronicles the artists’ lives from tenth through twelfth grade, in downtown Calgary, Alberta.

This memoir feels very CanLit to me. Written in a chronological timeline, the stories are set on a backdrop of cold, Alberta winter days that turn the skin of the white authors’ knees purple through their ripped jeans, and freeze car batteries. There are stories of weekends spent in Jasper, and shows at the Saddledome. The anecdotes that Tegan and Sara tell are also very 90’s throwback. I think any white, middle class, Canadian Millennial who picks this up will find something relatable in the ambling stories of twins who troll Value Village for striped sweaters, write long notes to their friends, and fight over the telephone.

I almost felt like this book was told in two parts. Tegan and Sara before music entered their lives, and after. *High School* is the story of three tumultuous years, and the first half of the book is an exploration of budding queerness, the complex relationship that exists between twin sisters and their adolescent friends, and (CW) more alcohol drug use than I expected. For me, it was honest, complicated, and relatable. While I enjoyed reading Tegan and Sara’s musical origin story, the second half of the book focused much more on their fledgling career. I wished that the themes of the first half had bled a little more into the later part of the book.

Now having read the whole thing, I’m glad that I did, and I would recommend it to fans of Tegan and Sara’s music, CanLit memoir fans, or young queer Canadians still learning about their identities. The one burning question that I felt the book left unresolved for me – and maybe this is petty – is how “Sara and Tegan”, used throughout the entire text of the book, became “Tegan and Sara”?!

*High School* comes out on September 24th, and is available for pre-order now. Peripherally, Tegan and Sara’s new album, “Hey, I’m Just Like You,” comprised of songs unearthed while working on writing the memoir, will drop on September 27th. If you’re a fan of their older music like I am – I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about this new album, and I could be ready for a nice nostalgic Spooky Season this year. If you haven’t seen the preview video for the new album, you can watch it below, and get hyped for all this fresh Tegan and Sara content…

Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi

Cover of Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi. Letters of the title are large and blocky, filled with cream-coloured feathers. They are set against a map of a neighbourhood in purple and cream. In the foreground stands a young Black girl in pajamas and slippers, holding a large feather in her right hand.

…cue the gushing. I’ve written about Emezi before on this blog, so it should come as no surprise that when I heard they had another book coming out, I was immediately eager to read it. Even with my high level of anticipation, this book blew me over in so many ways. First, when talking to one of my partners while I was reading, I described the worldbuilding in this book as setting a high bar for what the norm for books of the future should be. To begin, Pet is set in a fictionalized world, post-revolution, in a time of relative peace. Emezi takes this basic, familiar setting, and masterfully crafts their main character, Jam, and her surroundings in a way that sets a fresh standard for what diverse representation in novels should be.

Race, transness, queerness, disability, and neurodiversity all get a place to unapologetically shine in this book in a way that regularly brought me to the edge of tears. I am doing my best to be acutely aware of my privilege as a white, settler reader, as I write this next bit. I had to read Pet more slowly than almost any book that I’ve ever read, and part of the reason for that is because it was so much to take in. I was completely overwhelmed by the way that Emezi’s poetic prose and nuanced, loving character development served as both a window and a mirror for me over the course of this book.

I felt deeply reflected in this book by the implicit rejection of gender norms, the generous depictions of characters with a rich internal worlds and varying outward capacities, and the tacit portrayal of non-monogamous and queer bio and found family structures. Meanwhile, the dialogue, clothing, and foods that the characters take up through this story were a window into a racial and cultural world that both felt welcoming and nurturing, and utterly unfamiliar to me.

Emezi achieves in Pet much of what they achieve in their previous fictionalized memoir for adults, Freshwater, which is to say that it is a paradigm-shifting gem of a book, but it unfurls in a way that feels more accessible to younger readers or people who may be triggered by some of the content of Freshwater. It also feels more plot-driven – and the story itself is a wild ride about a fantastical creature that is accidentally summoned from a painting in the first few pages of the book, who challenges Jam’s perceptions of the world, but also of her dearest friendship. But I wouldn’t want to spoil it anymore than that.

Pet is exquisite, and it comes out on September 10th. It’s available for pre-order now, and I would encourage you to do that through your local brick and mortar book shop. (CW for mention of child abuse, not very detailed.)

The #VillainAThon

I stumbled across Kailey Steward’s Villain-themed read-a-thon just in time for my favourite time of the year: Spooky Season! I always read a lot of horror, thriller, and paranormal books, but I definitely try to indulge even more in my favourite genre as October approaches. Even though I’ve never participated in a read-a-thon before, I figured this would be the perfect chance, given that the bar for participation was low, and it would give me a chance to chat about my favourite kind of books with some other people who were also excited about them!

My only hesitation in participating is a feeling that’s new to me, but there are a lot of rad folks on Twitter these days who are so much younger than me! While I definitely appreciate that youth and young adults are doing such cool things and using the internet in the best ways, I’m also 31, and always a little nervous about sticking my nose in where I’m just going to be an intrusive elder. But. I decided in this case that talking about spooky books is something I’m willing to do with just about anyone, so I’m pushing my internalized ageism aside and hoping that I’ll be welcome.

If you’re interested in more details on the #VillainAThon, check out Kailey’s post about participating, and choose something from the required reading list! It’s a super accessible event, and if you’re going to participate, please let me know, so I can give you a wave on the bird site!

The Tenth Girl, by Sara Faring

Cover image for Sara Faring's The Tenth Girl. Background is an ice blue, with branches and birds silhouetted against it. There are some letters and numbers indistinct in darker ink. The primary image is of a large, dark, manor house that is suspended in the middle of the cover. It fades to black and then into the background.

Kailey has put together some great recommendations for Villainous reading, but I thought that I’d pile on with one more. I read this book so long ago that I nearly forgot to write about it at all, even though it made my head spin at the time, so I’m very glad that trying to think of something to recommend for the #VillainAThon brought it back to mind. Two of my favourite spooky aspects are morally ambiguous characters, and haunted houses that become characters in their own right. This book has both of those in spades, nothing in this book is as it seems.

This book is a suspenseful, historically situated, complex horror novel, by Argentine-American author Sara Faring. It has dual narrators, which I initially had a negative reaction to, but once I read a few chapters, I had trouble putting it down. I’m so glad that I persevered. The characters and the setting of this novel are well-developed and compelling. The Patagonian setting is unique, and I would encourage educators to recommend this book to students who are interested in history, political resistance, and dictatorships in general. For someone looking for a bit of a more mature read, this would be another book that I would recommend as an alternative to Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

The plotline is extremely complex, with one of the most shocking twist endings I’ve ever read. That said, I question this novel’s categorization as a young adult read. None of the main characters are teens, and this book is one of the more chilling horror novels I’ve read this year – the scare factor is high. It works well as NA, or as a YA/adult crossover. I would recommend this book to fans of Tananarive Due’s The Good House, or Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke, which I blogged about earlier this year.

Who is the villain in this book? One of the things that I like about it is that I think that many readers would give many different answers. Without spoiling the book, I’d have to say that to make that judgement, you’d have to read it for yourself when it comes out on September 24th. In the meantime, check out the Den of Geek’s interview with Sara Faring, and the book trailer for The Tenth Girl.

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Black History Month Recs and a Taste of Salt

Currently reading: Empire of Light, by Alex Harrow

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Black History Month Non-Binary Reads

The covers of Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender (formerly under a different name), and Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi.

Two of my overall favourite reads of 2018 happened to be by Black, non-binary authors, and I thought this would be the perfect time to give a shoutout to these books – although they hardly require it. The first is a middle grade debut novel called Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender (formerly under a different name), and the second is a fictionalized memoir called Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi.

Callender, the author of Hurricane Child, was born and raised in the St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, which also serves as the setting for this book. It is a poetic gem that features a black, queer MC, who is 12 years old, and was born during a hurricane. The character is navigating falling in love for what appears to be the first time, and trying to find her missing mother. It’s the best-written middle grade book I’ve ever read, while being age-appropriate, and it’s spooky. Callender’s second novel and first foray into young adult lit, This is Kind of an Epic Love Story, dropped in October. It is my hope to see works featuring enby characters from Callender, but I would recommend anything they write.

Freshwater, (CW: trauma and sexual assault) is nothing short of breathtaking. Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil author, and this magical realism memoir is also their debut. They have a YA novel, Pet, forthcoming in 2019, and a second adult novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, also forthcoming. Emezi is trans, non-binary, and ogbanje, a Nigerian identity that involves aspects of plurality and of being a trickster spirit.

Freshwater is visceral and unique and bizarre and authentic. It took me a minute to get into the writing style, and this book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Once I was able to process it, I was completely unable to put it down. Despite being fully an outsider to this story, I share with Emezi that I am non-binary and have experiences of trauma, and in addition one of my partners is plural, so aspects of the tale were very relatable for me. For a taste of Emezi’s writing, they have also written several short stories, including Who Is Like God, and a Curaçao fairy tale.

Trans Lit News

Unfortunately, some negative news in the trans lit world this week. The woman author of the 2018 book Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks, Nandini Krishnan, committed ethical transgressions against the trans people featured in her book. These included, but were not limited to, misgendering, dead naming, erasure of Indigenous histories, and violation of consent.

Invisible Men was published by Penguin India, and is Krishnan’s second book. Firstpost has reported in their deep dive article on the book that Penguin has not admitted fault or taken action based on Krishnan’s transgressions. The book was reviewed in the News Minute by Gee Imaan Semmalar, one of the people portrayed in the book, who recommends Revathi’s A Life in Trans Activism as an alternate title on this topic.

In addition, I want to put a plug in for author and fellow trans book blogger, Bogi Takács. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Bogi was recently forced to leave their doctoral studies. This is a great time for other folks in this community to step up and support their work!

Slightly Salty

I feel like this has been the week of people using performative inclusivity for profit, while being exclusive and silencing marginalized voices in practice, and I am upset about it.

The first instance of this I want to address is the Kickstarter for 99% Chance of Magic, an anthology from Heartspark Press. The marketing copy for this book, which has raised thousands of dollars in donated funding, claims that this book is the world’s first chapter book for transgender kids. This is problematic for two reasons. First, this book is an anthology, not a chapter book, and there are some other great anthologies out there for trans youth (the first that comes to mind is transVersing, published in 2018, an #OwnVoices anthology by and for trans youth).

The second issue was clear to me after reading the marketing copy for this book, reading information about the contributors, researching (and Tweeting at) Heartspark Press, and reviewing the calls for contributors that the press made for this anthology. This project is not inclusive of a breadth of trans experiences. All contributors, and all people included in Heartspark in general, are (C)AMAB ((coercively) assigned male at birth). The calls for contributors were made specifically with the #girlslikeus hashtag. The Heartspark Press online mission page reads, “Join us in lifting the voices of (C)AMAB trans people everywhere.” However, it is not made clear in the branding of this anthology that transmasculine and (C)AFAB non-binary voices were excluded from this project.

This isn’t the only Heartspark project that is branded ambiguously. On the homepage of their website, The Resilience Anthology is described as “the largest literary collection of trans women and non-binary writers”, and The Sisters from the Stars is described as “a new children’s book for trans kids and weirdos like us”. I have spoken to several enbies who have supported this press under the assumption that they are inclusive of all members of the trans community, when that is not the case.

An #OwnVoices project for and by (C)AMAB folks is great! There is so much space for trans literature in the world. However, it should be clear to folks who donate that the anthology does not reflect experiences of many non-binary, transmasculine, or intersex people. This information is important to provide to folks who purchase the anthology for, or sell it to, trans or gender creative children or youth. If given this book without context, it could easily and unintentionally worsen feelings of isolation or dysphoria.

The LGBTQ+ lexicon is ever-evolving, and the mobilization of identities for profit can be tricky. It’s time for organizations like Heartspark Press to update their marketing practices. Enbies (myself included!) are tired of microaggressive gatekeeping, binarizing of the non-binary, and neglect of transmasculine people. Say “trans” if you mean to include everyone in the trans community. If what you mean is something different, please say that. (And thanks to Laura Bishop, who articulated this better than I could have!)

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