If you are in Toronto, please also keep in mind that the bookshop where I work, Another Story, is co-sponsoring an upcoming teach-in for trans allies featuring incredible trans women speakers Kai Cheng Thom and Gwen Benaway. Click on the image below for details.
One last note is that the Emerging Writers reading series in Toronto (recently voted the best reading series in the city) is hosting a trans and non-binary writers event in March. The deadline to submit has been extended to January 22nd! If you are Toronto local or adjacent, and you have not published a book, get in there!
Karen McManus and How I Learned I Love Thrillers
In late 2018 and early 2019, I was doing a lot of long distance driving. And I mean long distance. I routinely made the trek from Toronto to Denver, which takes a pretty steady two days on the road, with, in my case, an overnight in Des Moines, Iowa. What that drive means for me, especially when I do it alone or with my dogs, is a lot of audiobooks. I’ve become a Libby expert over the past few years, and I usually listen to most of them at 2x normal speed, especially when I’m on the road and trying to avoid drowsiness.
I have an audiobook routine. A few weeks before the trip, I’ll sit down with Libby, and put a selection of books on hold. Because I know I’ll be listening to the books straight through, I typically pick a type of book that’s a little different than what I might pick were I to spend a couple of days or weeks with a luxurious hardback. I pick things that are a little lighter, a little faster paced, sometimes things that seem extra engaging.
In January of 2019, I was making the drive back to Toronto, and it was a snowy one. It ended up taking me an extra day, because I got caught in a whiteout a few hours outside of London, and one of my dogs was injured. My brain was super foggy, and I had to be on my toes in the nasty weather. I decided to listen to a book that I’d seen on the shop shelves at Another Story, the indie in Toronto where I work. It had caught my eyes a couple of times, and I’d never read a YA thriller as an adult, so I figured it would probably keep me interested, and it would be good research for our teen, educator, and caregiver customers. The book was One of Us is Lying, by Karen M. McManus.
This book was McManus’ debut novel. A bunch of things about it surprised me. It felt raw. It felt more graphic than I had expected for a book written for teens. It felt just a little bit kitschy, in a way that I couldn’t decide if I liked or not. And also? It totally had me hooked. I listened to the whole thing. I wasn’t the only one who liked McManus’ work. At the end of 2019, this title had spent 100 weeks on the NYT bestseller list.
I had a rough 2019, as so many people did. About halfway through the year, after going through a lot of ups and downs with my psychiatric disabilities, some of my personal struggles had come to a head, and I was having trouble focusing on anything – least of all, books. I looked back at what I had read throughout the year, and I thought back to McManus’ book, and I thought… she has another title, right? I listened to it on audio again, and truth be told? I liked it a lot more than her first book.
I originally thought that this was the sequel to One of Us is Lying, but it quickly became obvious that I was mistaken. I stuck with it, and was pleasantly surprised. I had been reading a lot of spooky stories and YA horror through the first half of 2019, and the amusement park in a small town setting struck a gothic chord with me that high school detention had missed in McManus’ first book. The characters were richer, and the story took more twists and turns.
As 2019 progressed, I decided to embrace the small joys that I was experiencing. I leaned hard in whenever something made me happy. I collected Pokémon cards and started playing PoGo after the release of the nostalgic and charming Detective Pikachu. My partner and I bought an ice cream maker, and a book called *Incredible Vegan Ice Cream* by Deena Jalal, and we made (and ate) so much inexpensive ice cream. And when I realized that teen thrillers were the kinds of books that I could read quickly, and that would suck me in and distract me from the rest of the world? Well.
I read a bunch of them. Some of them speculative, and others just good old fashioned thrillers. I don’t really read books written by white cis men very often, so most of them had female authors… and the best ones had tonnes of plot twists. I started reading adult thrillers, with a particular interest in queer, feminist, domestic, psychological, and gothic novels. And soon, I realized that, whatever it says about me… murder is my comfort read.
These realizations completely changed and shaped my reading for the rest of the year. From realizing that this unsettling genre was my wheelhouse, my TBR swelled, I burned through so many fantastic and entertaining reads, I processed emotions, I made friends, and I discovered new authors who I had never considered picking up before.
During the #VillainAThon, a Halloween reading challenge I participated in this year, I crossed paths with Jennifer Donaldson and L. E. Flynn on Twitter, after being positively blown away by their books. They are both incredibly skilled female writers, and a pleasure to know. At the time, Flynn recommended Kara Thomas’ books to me, which I got from the library as quickly as I could, and gobbled them up. I’m so excited for Thomas’ book The Cheerleaders, which was the last hold to arrive, and for Flynn’s forthcoming title, All Eyes on Her.
I also discovered some mainstream adult authors who I honestly never thought I would enjoy. I admit, I’d seen these women on the shelves at the bookstore where I work, and I had written them off as likely too normative for my tastes. What can I say? Sometimes I just call it wrong. In the last few months of 2019, I have read three of Liane Moriarty’s books, and two of Ruth Ware’s, and I guarantee that the rest of the titles that these two authors have produced are high up on my list for 2020 reading. Not that they need my endorsement, but Big Little Lies, and in particular The Death of Mrs. Westaway were fantastic, and the latter quickly made it onto my favourites’ list.
So… that brings me back to Karen McManus. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of One of Us is Next, the actual sequel to One of Us is Lying, by @PenguinTeenCA earlier this year. Looking at McManus’ progression from her debut to her third book, the difference is staggering. This sequel takes place among the younger siblings and friends of the cast of her first book – a more diverse, nuanced cast, and a story that’s more tangled and engaging than before. It’s not surprising that McManus is now an international and NYT bestselling author, with yet another book on the docket following the January release of One of Us is Next. And I have her to thank for not only shaping my reading this past year, but also to opening my mind to a whole genre of literature that reflects my experiences and emotions in unexpected ways.
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.
Currently Reading: Unfuck Your Boundaries, by Faith Harper
Welcome to the Relaunch of Books Beyond Binaries!
Since I started this blog last year, it has been my plan to commission a non-binary artist to create an aesthetic for this project that would be unique, and capture my personality and my interests, so that when people come to this site, it feels like something special. I was so lucky to get a chance to work with Ice, aka Bill Underwood, who created the incredible artwork that is now featured on this blog.
I love spooky books, and while I always want this blog to focus on LGBTQ2S+ literature, with a keen eye to trans and/or non-binary authors and books, I always want the blog to reflect me as its creator. I will always have a special place in my heart for spooky spec fic and feminist thrillers, and I believe that these books are often queer and move beyond binaries in their own ways. I grew up on fantasy novels and 90’s kidlit horror like Bunnicula and Goosebumps. Currently, YA and adult dark fantasy, paranormal horror, dystopian, post-apoc, magical realism, mystery, paranoid fiction, true crime, memoir, and thrillers make up a large portion of what I like to read. I am so excited to have this blog reflect these interests, and feel more like my space, thanks to the incredible art that Ice has produced for it.
To celebrate, and spread the word about my blog, I’ve decided to host a giveaway on my Twitter! If you help Books Beyond Binaries by spreading the word about the relaunch, you can get your hands on some awesome stickers of some of the art that Ice has created for this page. Keep your eyes on this space, because winners will be notified just in time for Halloween!
Also, if you’re as into Spooky Season as I am, @genderqueerwolf created a partially crowdsourced Halloween playlist, and honestly, I couldn’t make a better mood list for this site if I tried.
News: Transphobia Locally and in Publishing, and New Trans Research
Transphobic Hate Speech at TPL
The Toronto Public Library is one of the biggest and most well-used library systems in the world. It is a cornerstone of the Canadian literary community, and a community institution of which I am generally incredibly proud and fond of. However, the TPL recently chose to uphold a room reservation for a sold-out event that will give a platform to transphobic hate speech, by well-known trans-exclusive radical feminist Megan Murphy.
I am incredibly grateful to the folks who have spoken up in our community. First and foremost, trans folks in the literary community, including Indigenous poet Gwen Benaway, who has done some community organizing around this issue. In addition, the Toronto Public Library Workers, who create the safe spaces that myself and others inhabit when they visit the libraries, other author allies, Toronto Pride, Another Story Bookshop (the indie where I work), and even the Conservative city mayor, John Tory.
The event will go ahead tomorrow evening, and I encourage anyone in Toronto to attend the protest at the library where the event will be hosted.
New St. Martin’s Press Book
Unfortunately, transphobia is also alive and well in publishing at large, and I was extremely disappointed to find a book entitled Savage Messiah, by Jim Proser. Proser has written two books for St. Martin’s Press previously, both biographies of conservative, American white male military personnel. His next book profiles transphobic Toronto-based psychologist Jordan Peterson (click for some background info). It is a huge disappointment to see St. Martin’s support this project, and if you would like to tell them about how this affects you or your community, they can be contacted at email@example.com.
New Trans Research
I am part of a Facebook group for trans PhD students. This new academic article, entitled Tumblr Was a Trans Technology, was posted there this week. The authors met in the Facebook group, and co-authored this rad paper together. It’s open access, so be sure to check it out.
A Personal Note
I found out this week that my legal name change has been finalized! …that’s the tweet. I’m super excited.
#VillainAThon Wrap Up!
I am participating in my first ever readathon right now, the #VillainAThon! I need to say, for various life reasons, I am rocking this thing (even if it means that I’m struggling in some other areas!). You can read an update from the host blogger participants here, and I’ve decided to write mini-reviews for all the books that I’ve read over the past two months below.
I have read 15 books that qualify for this readathon, and I am super proud of myself! Since I love spooky books, especially around Halloween season, this Villain-themed readathon is right in my wheelhouse. The mini-reviews are posted in (mostly) chronological order below.
The Archived and The Unbound, by Victoria Schwab
I had never read any of Schwab’s books before this challenge, and my experiences with them were mixed. One of the requirements was to read any of her books, so I went to my library and put holds on a bunch of them at the beginning of the month. I started with The Archived because it was the first one to be available. This book is set in a world where the souls of the dead are stored in an archived, and a girl who is charged with returning the dead to their places in the stacks when they escape. I liked it so much that I wound up reading its sequel as well, and just found out that it’s been optioned. It was a compelling duology with a unique premise, and I enjoyed reading both.
The Naturals, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
I’m a bit type A, so I decided to get all the required reads for the challenge out of the way first. Schwab was the first that I completed, and then I had to choose a book off of the list provided by the host. The list was great, but included a bunch of books that I’d already read or DNF’d (The Devouring Gray, We Hunt the Flame, Sawkill Girls), which made it challenging to choose what I’d check out next! I landed on The Naturals, the first in a series about a group of teenagers with talents that lead them to be scouted by the FBI for a special training program. This book is tropey and unrealistic and fast-paced and everything I wanted it to be. If you’re looking for a good read for a night in the bath or plane ride, I would definitely recommend this series.
Salt, by Hannah Moskowitz
I immediately added Salt to my best books of the year when I finished it. It’s a story about a group of sea monster hunting siblings out to find their missing parents, and try not to get outwitted by pirates on the way. Romance isn’t the main plotline, and I loved every character in this book. It was haunting, and the world-building was detailed, but easy to digest. I loved it.
I Know You Remember, by Jennifer Donaldson
I can’t even say very much about this book, except that it has one of the best HOW DARE YOU moments of any YA thriller that I’ve read. It’s set in Alaska, where the author is from, and depicts a setting that is not often seen in mainstream literature. Coming from Newfoundland myself, it was highly relatable. Put this on your TBR – you won’t regret it.
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado.
Machado’s debut collection of short feminist horror stories got so much buzz in my circles, so although I am struggling with shorter forms lately, I decided to finally pick it off my shelf for this challenge. After reading an ARC of Machado’s memoir in September, though, I have to say that I had mixed feelings about this first book. Some of the stories were fantastic and chilling, but others, I didn’t wind up finishing. Although I would recommend Machado’s writing without hesitation to a horror fan, I would say that Her Body and Other Parties was more of a mixed bag for me than anything.
Half-Resurrection Blues, by Daniel José Older
So. I don’t read many books by men. But this one had been recommended to me by folks from my online book community, the Rogue Book Coven, and I decided to give it a chance because of Older’s great reputation. One of the things I loved about this book is that it’s so evident that it’s written by a person of colour in the best possible ways. One of the things I didn’t love about this book is that it’s so evident that it’s written by a man in the worst possible ways. I read it, but the toxic masculinity throughout, particularly obvious in the author’s portrayal of feminine characters, really ruined the experience for me.
Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha
This book is finally available in stores, and if you don’t have it yet, it’s time to call your local indie and make sure they’re carrying it. This one is a must-read. An LA noir, Your House Will Pay felt like The Hate U Give for grown ups. I couldn’t put it down.
One Night Gone, by Tara Laskowski
This is my kind of beach read. Set in a seaside town in the dead of winter, and featuring a house that might be haunted and a girl who might have been murdered AND a badass roller derby team, this feminist thriller is spooky and winding and drew me in. I’m so glad that the thriller genre is finally producing powerhouse books written by and centred on feminine people. Pick this up when you need a summer chill on the seaside.
A Place Called Perfect, by Helena Duggan
I have not been in the headspace for a lot of middle grade recently, and it had originally been my plan to also read The Trouble With Perfect. That one is still on my TBR, though, because A Place Called Perfect was fantastic. Age-appropriate for middle grade, offbeat, and chilling. Bleeding eyeball plants, yall. True horror writing for the little ones. I would have eaten this up when I was a kid (and I ate it up now! No regrets).
The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert
I debated about including this book in my list, because the only requirement for books to be included was that there had to be a villain. Now, in thrillers, mysteries, and a lot of books for younger readers, the “bad guy” was pretty clear – at least by the end of the book. In Salt, there was no real antagonist, but sea monsters? Pretty villainous. In Your House Will Pay, ultimately there were multiple villains, and they were more complex and less straightforward. When I first listened to The Hazel Wood, having recently received an ARC for its forthcoming sequel, I was like, nope, no villain. I changed my mind, however. I think that there are a few candidates in this delicious fairy tale story for the title of villain, and I’d love to know who others think they might be.
The Body in Question, by Jill Ciment
After The Hazel Wood – yall, I hit a DNF wall. Part of it was just that woah life stuff came at me out of nowhere, and suddenly I had no real brain power for reading. I picked up The Body in Question because it was short, and murdery, and as has become PERFECTLY clear throughout this challenge… murder is my comfort read. This was a great book. Ultimately, it ended up being more about a woman coming to terms with a lot of heavy life stuff, and reconciling a lot of real world responsibilities in not-so-neat-and-tidy ways, and less about murder. Even so, it grabbed my attention enough to read the whole thing and really enjoy it.
Last Girl Lied To, by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
I started this thriller on audio during the same stint of low executive function as when I picked up The Body in Question. By contrast, this was exactly what I expected it to be. Fast-paced, spine-tingling, high suspense, lots of twists and turns. As I tweeted at the author when I’d finished it, I’ve learned this year that “manipulative best friend who I am also kind of in love with” is very complex, and also possibly my favourite. Also in this vein, The Best Lies, and I Know You Remember (above).
The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo
I came across this book on a list of spooky books for Halloween season, and I noticed that it had already been optioned for Netflix. It was available as an audiobook, so even though it skews somewhat historical fiction, I decided to go for it. Yall, it took me a minute to get through this one. Last Girl Lied To was actually a brain break I took in this middle of beginning The Ghost Bride on audio, and my three week loan expired and I had to borrow the eBook from the library to finish it. Although the ending of this book was unexpected and had me questioning the protagonist’s decision making skills, I still really enjoyed it. Filled with mythology and in an uncommon setting for books in the North American market, this book was lush and like nothing I’d ever read. I’m dying to know what the adaptation will be like, and that’s not a familiar feeling for me.
The Darkest Corners, by Kara Thomas
When I tweeted about having read Last Girl Lied To, the book’s author was kind enough to respond with some of her favourite toxic friendship book recs, including See All the Stars, by Kit Frick, and “any thriller by Kara Thomas. I went to Overdrive, and The Darkest Corners was available. I started reading it after a whirlwind week of relationship turbulence, puppy care, vet visits with my older dog who is on palliative care, and some strife in my PhD studies, on a day when my brain needed a break.
The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware
It was members of my online book community, the Rogue Book Coven, who originally recommended Ruth Ware to me. I was wary of trying her books, because it’s very unusual for me to enjoy books by a mainstream author. However, The Lying Game was available on audio through Libby one day before I had to take a long drive, and I started it, and I couldn’t put it down. I’m a sucker for any book with a spooky seaside setting, but this unsettling story with sublime pacing captivated me. I’ve already put all Ware’s other titles on hold through the library. Add this to your list of toxic friendship books that bowled me over.
And then, as anyone who follows my Twitter or Goodreads knows, I DNF a lot. Maybe more than a person should. I wanted to document the books that I tried to read, and didn’t quite get through, during this readathon. So here they are…
Lies You Never Told Me, by Jennifer Donaldson
The style of writing in Donaldson’s first book just wasn’t for me. Now that I know how good her second book is, though, I’m definitely going to go back and give this another go.
Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
This book is a classic example of why I’m sometimes hesitant about mainstream authors. I started listening to this on audio, I was into it, and then suddenly there was a bunch of content about unhealthy substance use that just came out of nowhere. It felt unnecessary, and it totally turned me off of the book.
And the Trees Crept In, by Dawn Kurtagich
Seemingly unnecessary ableism in the first couple of chapters around one of the main character’s bodies made me DNF this immediately.
Hocus Pocus and the All New Sequel, by AW Jantha
I had hoped this 90’s cult classic would have aged better, and I was looking forward to the queer rep in the new book. Spoiler alert: it did not age well. Stick to the movie.
My Story, by Elizabeth Smart, and What is a Girl Worth, by Rachael Denhollander
I started both of these books, and it quickly became evident that they would be oriented toward a very white Christian worldview. Given our current political climate, I simply cannot with that.
Death and the Seaside, by Alison Moore
I gave this one a college try, but I was just bored by both the narrative, an extremely unsympathetic main character, the novel-within-a-novel format, and what felt like a touch of ableism.
The Laws of the Skies, by Grégoire Courtois
This book became gruesome too quickly for me. I’m not down for the shock-and-awe for its own sake kind of horror, and this felt like it was going to be that. Serves me right for considering a book by a male author for a change?
The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff
I enjoyed a few chapters of this very long book before I became lost in the details of names and dates and was unable to commit to it in the long haul.
A Darker Shade of Magic, by Victoria Schwab
Maybe it was my mood, but I just wasn’t interested in any of the characters in this book at all. I think that Schwab has a lot more affection for men than I do in general, but I found none of the MCs in this book drew me in. Without anyone to root for, I couldn’t stick it out.
Girls of Paper and Fire, by Natasha Ngan
I was having a rough time when I started this one, and there was some swift and disturbing animal violence right up front. I may give this one a chance another time, but for now, it’s not for me.