Victories Greater than Death

I am always humbled by the connections that I get to make with incredible new authors and emerging artists through this platform. Once in a rare while, I also get to connect with authors who I have admired for a long time. This week, I am super excited – and still kind of in disbelief? – that I get to share an interview that I had the pleasure of conducting with the iconic Charlie Jane Anders.

Charlie Jane Anders, photo by Sarah Deragon.

If Charlie Jane Anders is a new name for any of you reading this, buckle in, because you are in for a wild ride. I was excited to get to chat with Charlie Jane about her upcoming YA debut, the first book in a trilogy, Victories Greater Than Death, which comes out TOMORROW with Tor Teen! You still have a little while to pre-order! Run! (And don’t stop running.) This book is (if I’m counting right), Charlie Jane’s ninth novel-length work, but she is prolific and has won an awe-inspiring number of awards for her longer works, but also her short fiction: the Emperor Norton Award, a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, a William H. Crawford Award, a Theodore Sturgeon Award, a Locus Award, and a Lambda Literary Award. Nbd. (Except, VERYbd).

I had the pleasure of reading an early copy of Victories, which was great, because I full-blown squealed when I heard that Charlie Jane was working on a YA project. Although I do love speculative work, for whatever reason I am a reader that struggles with worldbuilding – so, often, YA speculative is much easier for me to wrap my mind around. That said, though, I’m not an Epic Fantasy person… so sometimes, YA speculative that appeals to my interests can be a challenge to find. I was lucky, because (unsurprisingly to me at least) Victories delivered on everything that I wanted it to.

Like I told Charlie Jane before I interviewed her, I’m not usually an intergalactic-war person, but the characters and the voice of this novel were irresistible. Everything about this story is just fun. As an anxious and autistic person, the protagonist’s best friend, a character called Rachael, was highly relatable. Her needs were represented in ways that were charming and challenging and often not well-executed in fiction, and for me, it was a joy to follow her through this story. Still, the real beauty of this book for me was the absolutely bonkers diversity of the characters. The pub copy comps the book to Dr. Who meets Star Wars, and I grew up watching so much monster of the week TV that the levity of the worldbuilding really struck a chord with me as a reader, even though I’m not a science fiction buff. Suffice to say, I would recommend this book up and down to a wide variety of readers, and I’m thrilled that Charlie Jane agreed to chat with me about it in this space. Without further ado…


The cover of VICTORIES GREATER THAN DEATH.

You are becoming – if you’re not there already – a prolific author, and most of your work has speculative elements. This book is a bit of a departure, though, in that it is your first book intended explicitly for young readers. I have two questions about this. First, what came first – the story, or the intention to write for young readers?

I started thinking about writing a young adult book in spring 2016, around the time I quit my day job to write full time. I had been noticing for a while that YA fiction was getting more action-adventure-oriented, like there were more books being published like Warcross or Want or Illuminae. YA seemed to be taking a turn towards being a place where you could do something super fun and exhilarating. So I started to think about what I would like to do in a YA, and immediately started to remember all those times when I was a teenager, when I just wished a spaceship would swoop down out of the sky and come take me away from this planet. That led to imagining the story of a girl who’s actually the clone of an alien hero, and her efforts to reclaim her heritage and seize her destiny. 

Second, did you find it difficult to adapt your writing style to the voicey, confessional tone that is so characteristic of YA works right now (because I felt like you nailed it)?

In terms of the tone, that took a TON of work. I sat down with a huge pile of my fav YA books and paged through them, getting a sense of which were first person and which were third person, and how they worked on a sentence level. It took a ton of trial and error to get Tina’s voice right, and I had to keep coming back to the idea of her being snarky and funny, but not ironic or wry or self-mocking the way adults usually are. And once I handed in a complete draft, I worked a lot with my editor, Miriam Weinberg, to tighten the book and speed up the pace and boost the emotion in a lot of crucial places. 

There is such a wide range of characters in this book, and it has a huge cast. Humans, clones, aliens, teens, and adults, all with very distinct aesthetics, cultures, bodies, identities, etc. Do you have an absolute favourite, or one who you relate to the most? What was the most enjoyable part about creating such a rich and diverse cast?

I had so much fun creating all of these different aliens and creatures. It was a total dream come true, and I spent hours and hours cooking up complicated histories and backstories for the different alien worlds and societies, as well as the galaxy as a whole. And then I also spent hours and hours doing research and talking to people for my human supporting cast, since they come from all over the world. I definitely had different characters on different days, but overall my favorite character probably ended up being Rachael — I love how she just wants to hide away and draw when she’s on an alien ship in the middle of a space battle. 

One of the norms in this book is that the characters consistently introduce themselves with their pronouns, and many of the characters use non-binary pronoun options or no pronouns at all. This isn’t prominent in many books. What was your rationale behind that choice, and did you struggle with it through the editorial process at all? 

I honestly can’t remember how I decided that everyone should introduce themselves with their pronouns. I was just thinking about the fact that all of these aliens are speaking their own languages and it’s being translated into English, and so it made sense to me that a translator could also give you other important information — like someone’s pronoun. And once I started doing it, it just made sense. I made sure to mention that not everybody actually “hears” the pronouns spoken out loud, the way Tina does. It works differently for different people. But this felt like a good way to be introducing a lot of human and alien characters, some of whom might not have genders or other identifiers that a human would be able to figure out at a glance. It also went along with the overall theme of the book, of respecting other people’s identities while you try to figure out your own.  

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

As a literary agent who represents speculative authors across age categories, I am constantly hearing from editors that sci fi in YA is a super tough sell, and that they have trouble getting these works approved by their acquisitions boards. In comparison to your other works, what was the process like finding a home for VICTORIES, and what made you choose to write sci fi for this age group? 

I always hear people say that science fiction is a hard sell in YA as well, but then you look at series like The Hunger Games, Illuminae, Divergent, the aforementioned Warcross, and a bunch of others, and it’s clearly not accurate. That said, I am very nervous about launching a YA science fiction book, just because I’m aware of that widespread misconception, and I’m worried it’ll keep people from offering the book to kids. I think especially right now, it’s super important to get young people (and everyone) fired up about science and exploration and discovery. Luckily, the folks at Tor Teen were super excited to delve into this space-opera universe—and I think the fact that it stands out a bit is not a bad thing. 

If an educator was going to teach your book in a high school or college creative writing class, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators who are going to choose this book to put in a young reader’s hands?

Wow, I can’t ever think about people teaching my books to creative-writing students, except as an example of what *not* to do. 🙂  In the case of Victories, I hope they’d be interested in the voice, like we talked about before, and the way I use humor and feels to add to the suspense. (Or at least, I hope I do that.) For high-school teachers generally, I would hope they’d talk about the themes of post-colonialism and what it means to be a hero. 

Being a marginalized publishing professional can be super challenging once in a while. You have worked with a few different imprints and editors over the course of your career so far. What has your experience been like working with an agent and an editorial team at a big publishing house? What would you say the most fulfilling part of this process was, and what was the biggest challenge?

I’ve been so lucky with Russ Galen and with everyone at Tor, including Miriam Weinberg and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Everybody has been incredibly supportive and understanding, and nobody blinked when I said I wanted to include so many queer characters in my space opera universe. The most fulfilling part has probably just been talking to Miriam about the characters and the story and how to make them pop — and the biggest challenge has just been breaking in as a YA author, especially during a time when school visits and other in-person appearances are not possible. 

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

Three that I’ve read and loved recently come to mind: The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus, A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, and Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. 

Victories Greater Than Death comes out on April 13th, 2021 from Tor Teen. If you enjoyed this interview, you can find Charlie Jane Anders on her Hugo Award winning podcast with co-host Annalee Newitz, our opinions are correct.


PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

New Books by Genderqueer Breakouts

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

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

Review: One Last Stop, by Casey McQuiston

By guest contributor Amanda Hamilton

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of WE ARE WATCHING ELIZA BRIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

The Longest Shortest Month of the Year

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

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

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

Jamie and Bubbie

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of Saturday by Oge Mora.

Feature Interview: Zak Salih

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watson and the Shark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New year, who dis?

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of Dark Horses.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The cover of Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

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

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

The cover of The Blade Between.

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

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

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

The cover of A Spectral Hue.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Wounded

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

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

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

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

The cover of Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi.

A personal request for support…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing for Emotional Impact, by A. J. Vrana

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

The cover of The Deep, by Rivers Solomon.

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

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

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

Photo by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Sentence Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Word Choice

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

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

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

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Metaphors and Similes

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Bodies Talk

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

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

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

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


PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

(What a) Year(!) in Review

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

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

Roundups and Recs

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

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

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

Support Books Beyond Binaries

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

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

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

This Year Did Not Go As Planned

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

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

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

How Agenting Changed My Reading – For Better and Worse

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

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

2020 By the Numbers!

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

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

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

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

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

Purchases: 9
Library: 14
ARC: 12

Digital: 35
Print: 13
Audio: 1

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

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

Reading challenges I participated in: None

DNF: 9

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

emmy’s Most Anticipated of Early 2021

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

Jack’s Review of LUSTER, by Raven Leilani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leilani wrote about a Black Woman who is questioning everything.

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

Meet A.J. and Ana!

I grew up as a sports-loving tomboy in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and one of my earliest memories is of my toddler body being stuffed into a snowsuit and skates, and thrust onto the ice by my grandfather. I leaned my torso on the seat of a rickety wooden chair that scraped along in front of me as I learned to clop my way around a worn rink and lots of bumpy pond surfaces. When I got steady enough on my feet, being a girl, I was funnelled into figure skating classes, while my masculine peers were shuffled off to hockey. I did local competitions until I was 10, when a knee injury from horseback riding kept me on crutches for a year, and I was relegated to recreational skating for the rest of my days. Still, ice skating has been a huge source of joy in my life, and every winter I still haul my neon purple and pink skate bag, monogrammed with my dead name, out to the rinks in Toronto. I wear knee pads these days.

The cover of The Shiny Skates, by Elizabeth Koda-Callan.

When I first came across A.J. Sass’ book, ANA ON THE EDGE, the first thing that came to mind was one of my 1990s childhood favourites, a book called THE SHINY SKATES, by Elizabeth Koda-Callan. Truly a relic of the 90s (although it was reprinted in 2004 by Workman Publishing), this was part of the Magic Charm books – a series of chapter books that came with charm necklaces for the reader to wear along with their characters. I wore mine religiously.

Around the time that THE SHINY SKATES was released was also when American Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding’s career came to a close due to her possible involvement in a scandalous event in which her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was assaulted and injured at the rink. Both skaters competed in the 1994 Olympics, where Kerrigan won a silver medal and Harding finished eighth. I still remember how public perception of Tonya Harding and her less feminine presentation on the ice coloured my entire experience of learning how to skate as a young, gender non-conforming athlete. (If you want to learn more about Harding and her story, journalist Sarah Marshall wrote a great piece about her, and later did a two-part podcast episode about her on You’re Wrong About.)

The cover of Ana on the Edge, by A.J. Sass

ANA ON THE EDGE is an #OwnVoices middle grade novel about a non-binary figure skater, written by a non-binary figure skater, and all I can think every time I think about this book is how the world has changed since I was a kid. I can’t even imagine how life-changing it would have been for me to have gotten my hands on this book back in the body-shaming mid-90’s, when I was mortified by how my muscular, chubby body looked in my skin-tight, sequinned figure skating dresses… if Tonya Harding couldn’t pull them off, how could I be expected to? The gentle exploration of gender, identity, and self-perception that is navigated with such charm in ANA ON THE EDGE could have been a balm to my soul back then, as it is now.

I am so honoured that author and figure skater A.J. Sass was so generous and receptive when I reached out to see if they would collaborate on a post for this site about ANA, and my interview with them is below. I would be remiss not to mention that not only is A.J. an autistic author with an interest in neurodivergence representation in fiction, they are a much more accomplished skater than I could ever dream to be! Aside from writing books, A.J. is a US Figure Skating double gold medalist in Moves in the Field and Free Skate, a silver medalist in Ice Dance, and a member of the 2018 national bronze medalist and 2019 national silver medalist Masters synchronized skating team, IceSymmetrics. (Insert my fan face here!) Now living in San Francisco, ANA is their debut novel, and it was released in October, and is available for purchase now!

When I asked A.J. what books by Black authors they would recommend alongside ANA, they struggled to narrow it down to three choices… Kacen Callendar’s KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES (a fan favourite in these parts), THE BLACK FLAMINGO, by Dean Atta, and Kim Johnson’s THIS IS MY AMERICA.

Interview with A.J. Sass, author of ANA ON THE EDGE

A.J. Sass, author of ANA ON THE EDGE.

When I first encountered ANA ON THE EDGE, I was so thrilled for two reasons. One, there isn’t a lot of #OwnVoices non-binary representation for this age group yet, and two, I would have loved a book like this growing up. What do you think your young self would have thought of Ana and of this story?

I definitely didn’t know I was non-binary when I was Ana’s age. In fact, I’m not even sure if the term had been coined yet, officially! What I do know is that I would’ve gravitated toward a book like this on the shelves because I was an avid fan of skating as a kid. I started group class lessons all the way back when I was seven. And I think reading about Ana, a rising star in the sport of figure skating who realizes she* is uncomfortable with some of the gendered aspects within the sport, would have been revelatory for me as someone who always felt a little prickle of discomfort when I encountered similar binary components as a skater.

I can’t know for sure what I would have thought of Ana, or Hayden, her new friend who is a transgender boy, but I suspect that seeing a mirror of my own feelings reflected in someone else would have given me a solid starting point to exploring my identity much earlier in my life.

*Just as a heads up, I’m referring to Ana with female pronouns because Ana hasn’t chosen a new set by the end of the story. Non-binary people use a variety of pronouns, like gender neutral and even male and female pronouns in some instances (e.g., I use he/him and they/them pronouns interchangeably). In Ana’s case, she’s still exploring what feels best for her.

You’ve competed in figure skating, ice dance, and synchronized team skating. How did your own experiences in this artistic sport factor into your work on ANA?

As I mentioned earlier, I started skating when I was a child and I remain active in the sport now. As a kid, my discomfort associated with wearing skating tights and dresses was more of a subconscious undercurrent rather than something I was actively aware of. I think kids today are often more aware that the LGBTQIA+ community exists, even if they don’t know precisely how they fit into it. So I made sure to reflect that in Ana’s narrative, even though it took me until adulthood myself to pinpoint why I was uncomfortable with skating’s gendered components.

One of my favorite memories in the sport is of the friendships I made, and the moments my training-mates and I would goof off in between lessons during practice. Because at its core, skating is a really fun activity, even for kids like Ana who are very serious about their training. An early scene where Ana’s best friend, Tamar, challenges her to perform a cartwheel on ice comes directly from my own experiences. Here’s some proof:

From A.J. Sass’s instagram.

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

I feel like I’ve been supremely fortunate to work with my agent, Jordan Hamessley, and the entire team at New Leaf, as well as ANA’s publishing team at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Working with Jordan has been wonderful and affirming. An example: When we were preparing to go on submission with ANA, Jordan made sure I was comfortable being out as a non-binary author before pitching me as such to editors. Now that ANA is published, I absolutely see where Jordan was coming from since the vast majority of author panels I’ve been on and interviews I’ve done have referenced my experience of being non-binary in some way. I’m proud to be out and open about who I am, but I definitely appreciate Jordan preparing me to think about how that choice would impact the way people approach questions about me and my book.

My editorial team at Little, Brown has also been fantastic. Even so, working on a story with a non-binary protagonist who hasn’t made a decision to change her pronouns yet by the end of the story presented a challenge for all of us.

About a year ago, right around the time we were finalizing the book summary that would appear on ANA ON THE EDGE’s dust jacket, the use of female pronouns in reference to Ana started feeling off to me. I really couldn’t explain it at first. We’d used female pronouns for the Publishers Weekly announcement when ANA first sold and we used them on internal email communications as well. So why was it bothering me to see them on the inside flap of what would eventually become the book’s dust jacket?

Eventually, I realized my concern was that prospective readers would be unfamiliar with the nuances of Ana’s story and what it even means to be non-binary. I worried that cisgender readers would see those female pronouns and immediately make the assumption that Ana is a girl who decides to become non-binary, rather than a non-binary kid discovering that’s who they’ve always been.

Then I proceeded to worry that my publisher would be annoyed if I asked to change the wording after I’d already approved the final copy. But ultimately, this became one of the most fulfilling aspects of the publishing process for me because my editors were incredibly receptive to my feedback. They were happy to rework the copy so that pronouns aren’t referenced at all on the dust jacket, or marketing and other promotional materials. Now I feel like readers can enter Ana’s world without any misconceptions about gender identity and come to their own conclusions as they immerse themselves in the story.

In this story, you decided to include not only Ana, a non-binary protagonist, but you also introduced readers to Hayden, a transgender boy. Was it important to you to include more than one trans character in this book, or did that just happen organically as you were writing? In addition, how did you make sure that you were doing both of these identities justice in your representation of them in this book?

It was an intentional choice to include two trans characters because I wanted to highlight how no two trans experiences are the same. Hayden’s known who he is for a while by the time he and Ana meet, whereas Ana is just starting to explore the layers of her identity. As I touched on in an earlier answer, I think it can sometimes be a revelation to see an aspect of yourself reflected in someone else. That’s what happens when Ana meets Hayden: Hayden’s identity doesn’t match Ana’s precisely, but she recognizes a shared commonality, one that spurs her to dig deeper and learn more about herself.

In terms of representation, I’ve identified as a transgender man and non-binary at various points in my life. There are parts of my experience with those two identities in the representation of both Hayden and Ana. Since trans experiences can vary greatly from person to person, I also had authenticity readers provide further feedback.

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

What is one thing that you would want your readers to know about ANA ON THE EDGE? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell adults who are going to choose this book to put in a young reader’s hands?

My answer here applies to both kids and adults: It’s okay not to have everything figured out about yourself all at once. It’s fine if you do, of course, but I think something I struggled with when I was younger was a concern that I might change my mind later or realize I was wrong about my identity after I’d already come out to my friends and family. I worried about burdening others if I had to come out again and ask them to use a name and set of pronouns that fit me better.

People aren’t static. We are constantly changing and evolving. The same can be true about identity, and there is no shame in coming to a better understanding of yourself, no matter what age you are. I hope Ana’s story helps readers embrace uncertainty and consider it an opportunity to get to know themselves even better.


PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Havoc and Happiness!

Ace Week

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

The nebularomantic flag.

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

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

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

The cover of Unburied Fables.

CeCe Reviews WHITE IVY

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

The cover of White Ivy.

What makes a reader fall in love with a novel?

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

Feature: HAVOC AND HAPPINESS

Cover of Havoc and Happiness

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

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

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

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

The cover of The Weight of the Stars.

Mad Lib: Version One

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

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

“Cade has a tattoo of bookcase!”

“Devin owns sixteen fish!”

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

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

“Cade—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mad Lib: Version Two

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

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

“Cade has a tattoo of foil!”

“Devin owns sixteen washing machines!”

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

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

“Cade—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Miss Meteor Blog Tour

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

Cemetery Boys Makes History

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

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

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

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

reddietoread

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

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

Last But Not Least…

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

#MissMeteorOnTour

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

Tehlor Kay Mejia

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

Anna-Marie McLemore

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

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

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

Miss Meteor Stitch Project

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

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

Project materials:

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

Resources used to create the merit badges:

Instructions

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

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

Happy stitching!

Trans (P)review and FOLD Kids

Books Beyond Binaries Editorial Services

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

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

FOLD Kids

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starred Rating: 5/5


PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!