Currently Reading: The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
An Academic Finding…
Some regular readers may know that when I’m not book blogging, I’m a PhD student, studying social work and critical animal studies. I came across an open access academic article this week while conducting a literature search on decolonial animal studies that I would be remiss not to share here. Although I haven’t written much about erotica here on the blog, obviously it’s a huge area of literature, and something I do write about a lot is spooky books… and who doesn’t love a good monster, right? Well, if monster erotica is up your alley, you should definitely check out this 2017 academic article from the journal Humanimalities, called How to Fuck a Kraken: Cephalopod Sexualities and Nonbinary Genders in Ebook Erotica. Although I couldn’t find much about the author, Dagmar Van Engen, online, they seem to be non-binary, and have taught in the English department at the University of Southern California. If you’re out there, Dagmar, give me a wave, so I can credit you properly! This article is rad. Dear readers: you’re welcome.
Femme Rebels in my #2019Reading
I only started tracking my reading in a real way a couple of years ago, back when the 50 Book Pledge was separate from Goodreads, and I didn’t even realize that there was such a thing as like, book culture. One of the things that I really like about tracking my reading is that as I read more, themes start to pop up in the titles I’ve picked, without my even expecting them to. One of the unintentional themes that’s come up in my reading this year, especially in the YA that I’ve been drawn to pick up, has been rebel girls.
Real talk: I would vastly prefer if I was finding loads of books with representation from a spectrum of gender identities, because the “rebel girl” trope for me feels a little binary and tired. However, if I’m going to read something from the plethora of books that are out there about binary identified characters, I’m at least glad that books are challenging gender stereotypes in so many ways, and that femme characters are fierce, queer, and forming complex friendships to take down the patriarchy.
There are three books that have really stood out for me this year in terms of this theme cropping up, and they’re all 2019 titles. We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia came out in February; A Dress for the Wicked, by Autumn Krause, just dropped a few days ago; and The Grace Year, by Kim Liggett, hits shelves in October – just in time for spooky season! I also read two books earlier this year that fit nicely into this theme: Little Apocalypse, by Katherine Sparrow, which I reviewed earlier this year, and The Hollow Girl, by Hillary Monahan, which is a backlist title, released in 2017.
The Hollow Girl: Horrific Revenge Fantasy
I’m going to write briefly about The Hollow Girl, because it is backlist, and because I read it really early on in 2019, but I haven’t written about it on this blog before. I actually read it in one sitting on a plane ride. It was at a time this year when I was filled with frustration about many things, but in particular about one of my partners’ ongoing divorces from an abusive and manipulative ex, who was treating everyone involved in her life with my partner terribly. It was triggering a lot of things in me to go through that experience – memories of my own past with my long-term abusive ex not least among them, as well as memories of the rape I experienced in my early 20’s.
The Hollow Girl was the revenge fantasy I needed, and it was incredibly cathartic to read. This book is a rad horror story about feminine rage in the face of sexual assault, with excellent, positive Welsh Roma representation. CW for violence, murder, and gore. Welsh Roma representation. It’s a heartwrenching book, and not an easy one to stomach, especially on a plane surrounded by strangers and stale air, but it’s also a book filled with dark magic and creepy grandmother mentors. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, I would recommend this book to any femme who can stomach it.
The other three books that I wanted to look at more closely are not horror titles, although some of the content in these YA dystopian titles is uncanny enough so as to be chilling. All of these books are stories of oppressive societies with polarized upper and lower classes, and the feminine characters that use their individual privilege in an effort to reject social norms and resist structural forces that marginalized the vulnerable members of their societies.
I’m going to come out and say this early on, and loudly, as someone for whom Margaret Atwood’s writing was very formative in my own education about activism and injustice: Since Margaret Atwood’s disappointing, apologist behaviour in the face of the sexual assault and harassment issues that came up in the CanLit community in 2018 (eloquently detailed by Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People in the Walrus), I no longer recommend her books or media based on them to my customers at the book shop. I am happy to say that any of these YA titles would make a great alternative read or curriculum replacement for The Handmaid’s Tale.
We Set the Dark on Fire is the first book in a trilogy that was released earlier this year, with the second volume coming in February of 2020. The author, Tehlor Kay Mejia, is queer and Latinx, and the book is a powerful #OwnVoices coming of age story set on the fictional island of Medio, featuring an undocumented MC who is learning how to be an activist and a rebel while living her life under the enemy’s roof.
The only thing that truly disappointed me about this book is that from the prologue and the lore of Medio, I was really excited for this author to dig into the radical storytelling potential of the world that she had created where triads, rather than couples, were the norm as heads of household. Even though this was presented as an oppressive, faith-based, polygamist structure, as a consensually non-monogamous person, I was curious where the author would take that. There are so few works of fiction where non-monogamy is portrayed in a non-toxic way, and I was curious if that would be explored at all in this book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Fortunately, the book is super queer, and although I’m not a huge romance person, I was glad for that.
I loved that the author sprinkled Latinx culture and language throughout *We Set the Dark on Fire*, but I was surprised at how quickly it felt to me like a novel about a literal war, rather than a symbolic or internal struggle. The pacing of the story really picked up near the end of this volume, though, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. CWs for physical violence and war-like conflict, alcohol use, sexual harassment.
I would describe A Dress for the Wicked as Project Runway meets The Hunger Games. There are lots of things that I loved about this book, which is a classic country-mouse-turns-city-mouse tale about a rural girl who gets a chance to compete in a high-profile fashion competition in a dystopian society where fashion is everything. As someone with a vivid visual imagination, the writing was a perfect level of poetic and descriptive, and the ending was emotionally satisfying for me as a reader. Although it’s described as romance, that’s not the focus of this book. I actually found it to be a bit queer bait-y, since there is no LGBTQ2S+ representation, but the plot centres on several richly portrayed feminine characters, who have a lot of depth and mystery. The lack of queer rep felt like a bit of a missed opportunity here.
In a lot of ways, I would have been more interested in A Dress for the Wicked if the heterosexual love interests hadn’t been introduced at all, since the relationships that were most important to the narrative and most interesting to me were the nuanced friendships between the women. The other things that I loved about this book are that there really aren’t any CWs necessary, it stands alone, and it has a hopeful ending. I often joke that I’ll consume any media as long as there’s pretty dresses… well, if this is you, you want this book, because it’s one that you can feel good about on multiple axes.
The one note that I should make here, because I read an advance copy of this book, and I’m not sure if it was changed for the final edition, is that there was one moment in this book that made me raise a serious eyebrow. In chapter 7, the author includes a line that is a real dig about consent culture around kissing (“If there is anything less romantic than being asked if someone may kiss you, I don’t know what it is.”). It’s hugely problematic, and completely unnecessary. I hope that it was revised before the final version was released? If you are a reader and you got your hands on the published version – fire me a message from my Contact page, and let me know!
Last but not least is The Grace Year, which is an Indie Next pick for Fall 2019. Unlike A Dress for the Wicked, this book does get dark fast, and there should be a big CW for physical violence, as well as a trigger warning for anyone who’s #Exvangelical or who has endured abuse in religious contexts. One of my goals this year was to read more fiction and non-fiction about religious right extremism, and I will probably feature this book in a blog post specifically about that at some point. That said, I could not put this book down – and I’m not the only one. The book has already been optioned for film, even though it hasn’t hit shelves yet.
I read this one on a plane, too (2019 has involved a lot of travel for me), and I tore through it. The Grace Year has a bit of a gender-bent Lord of the Flies feel that’s a commentary on the Christian religious right in a dystopian setting. Especially for educators, this book addresses so many of the themes in The Handmaid’s Tale, only they’re updated for a 2019 context, and as far as I know, the author hasn’t recently defended rape culture, which is a plus. This book has some queer representation, and a super empowering ending that made me bawl my eyes out. In public. On a plane. And contrary to We Set the Dark on Fire, even though this book isn’t literally about consensual non-monogamy, it did give me warm and fuzzy compersion feels.
Of course, I would be remiss to review four books in one blog post – five if you flipped back to read what I previously wrote about Little Apocalypse – and not to say that the one thing that stands out in common among all of them to me is that despite the fact that they are all books about resistance, struggle, fighting social norms, overcoming oppression… they are all stories that are essentially devoid of any non-binary content. It’s great to see queer content trickling into some of these titles, but it would be so cool to see non-binary and/or trans MCs in some of these rebel titles! I’d have even taken a genderfluid best friend, or a trans girl sidekick… this is a great opportunity for an author to get in and fill this niche. Although these books are fabulous, I’m ready for the book about the trans rebel who leads us to progressive revolution.
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