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.

Neglected Favourites of 2019

Currently Reading: You’re Next, by Kylie Schachte

LGBTQ2S+ POC Authors Are #CanLit

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

Looking for 2020 Reads?

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

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

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

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

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


Excerpt: Tundras, Travelers, and Other Travesties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you know that?”

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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


Unsung Favourites of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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