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 dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

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 dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

A Delicious #SpineSquad Addition

Happy Monday, theydies and gentlethems! I’ve got a full roster this week for you on BBB… first up, I’m going to give a little nod (both sad and happy) to Trans Week and TDOR, there’s some rad trans books in the news that deserve a little shoutout, I’ve got a tip to make you smile, a new author (and some delicious snacks) to introduce you to, AND a review of The Harpy, by Megan Hunter, written by contributor CeCe Lyra. Stick with us, there’s lots to see!

First, I’ll give a quick shout out to Téa Mutonji’s short story collection, Shut Up You’re Pretty, which is a kickass collection that totally drew me in when I encountered it at the Toronto launch of Vivek Shraya’s VS. Books, an imprint of Arsenal Pulp Press. Mutonji’s collection is CeCe’s recommendation of a book by a Black author to check out alongside The Harpy.

Trans Week and Trans Day of Remembrance

CW: death, police violence, ableism

Full disclosure: I don’t typically mark Transgender Visibility or Awareness Week, or the Trans Day of Remembrance. There’s a lot that’s complicated and difficult for me about these events, and I do my best to affirm trans voices all the time, and not just these couple of days a year. Despite that, I know that they are meaningful to many people, and so I do want to mark them in this space this year, both with a heavy heart, and also with a celebratory spirit for all the amazing things that trans folks are doing out in the world.

There are two members of my communities that I do want to use this space to recognize and remember. First, Coco, a Black trans sex worker who died in police custody in my local community recently. As many who were close to Coco have said better than I can, Black lives matter, Black trans lives matter, and Coco deserves to be remembered and her communities deserve justice. If you are able to participate or support that cause, check out the links below.

Second, Corey Alexander passed away a few months ago. They were a disabled trans person (like me), who had to balance a lot of factors and considerations when seeking medical support and treatment. Corey was one of the first people to support this blog, and me as a content creator, and for that, I will always be grateful. They left behind an archive of incredible work, including their own books and blog, that are still available to appreciate.

I also want to use this space to share some great resources that other content creators have put together to lift up trans voices right now, and always. First, if you haven’t checked out the Transathon, an ongoing reading challenge to celebrate trans authors and books, you absolutely should. They are sharing AWESOME book lists, like this thread of books by trans authors being released in 2021, some trans books by Orca publishers, and this list from author C.G. Drews. For further reading about the Transathon, I would also recommend reading this wrap up post by participant Daniela, from The Booksnom.

One last book list that I want to share is by bookstagrammer @anyaemilie, which you can check out below:

Trans Books in the News

Quick shoutout to trans YA author Aiden Thomas, whose book Cemetery Boys is currently a finalist in the Best Debut Novel category for the Goodreads Choice Award, but also HUGE congratulations to Kacen Callendar, whose middle grade novel King and the Dragonflies won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last week! 🎉

#DrawYourBookstore

If you need an uncomplicated bookish something to brighten your days right now, might I suggest checking out the #DrawYourBookstore hashtag, hosted by the SelfMadeHero graphic novel publisher? I discovered it earlier this week when illustrator Mariel Ashlinn Kelly posted her drawing of the bookstore of my heart, Another Story Bookshop, here in Toronto. For safety reasons, I haven’t been able to go there since April, and this drawing made my day.

New Addition to my List of Authors, the #SpineSquad

For those of you who follow this blog but who aren’t in the professional publishing world, you may not know that I am a literary agent. I don’t usually use this space to make personal announcements, but I’m making a delicious exception, just this once…

I discovered Abi Balingit’s blog, the Dusky Kitchen, when one of her recipes popped up on my Twitter timeline. It was for lao gan ma spicy chili crisp cupcakes. My partner loves that flavour that kind of makes your face go numb a little(??) and sweets, so I was immediately excited and started scrolling Abi’s feed and eating with my eyes. Not long afterward, I started chatting with Abi about working on a cookbook together – something that captures her incredible cultural experiences and translates the diasporic identity through food.

When Abi signed on to work with me, I was thrilled… but as with any agenting project, I also had some major research to do. Abi’s work is largely based on her Filipino-American experiences, and although there is a big Filipinx community in Toronto where I live now, I grew up in Newfoundland, and I had never experienced the flavours in Abi’s recipes before.

I dove into Abi’s blog. First things first, I realized that I had no idea where I was going to get the ingredients needed to make any of these recipes with the flavours that Abi was so passionate about. I did a quick Google for stores in or around Toronto that might have Filipinx products and be offering delivery, since we’re still in COVID quarantine in these parts. I was super hype when I found Sunshine Grocery. This little shop opened because of the pandemic, ships all over, and has a huge range of Filipinx products to choose from. Abi was super helpful and sent me all kinds of recommendations for stuff that my partner and I should try. Really not sure what we were getting into, we went for it…

Our grocery haul from Sunshine Kitchen.

My partner and I are both white, and when the folks from Sunshine showed up to drop off this big order we had made, they were a little confused. And honestly, so were we. Like – I wanted to trust that banana ketchup would make for good pasta sauce, but I just had zero frame of reference, you know? And listen, my partner’s face when ze first tried Filipino spaghetti? Was hilarious. But we’re both hooked on it now, so Sunshine is going to have to get used to seeing our faces! I’m super glad that we trusted Abi, because my partner and I have had a wild delicious week trying out all of the food that we got from that order – and trying Abi’s recipes!

In the spirit of the project that Abi and I will be working on together, my partner and I wanted to pick something that was nostalgic for us, and that was decidedly Filipinx, to test bake from Abi’s blog to welcome her to my author list! I had grown up eating ginger crinkle cookies at Christmastime, and my partner, sen, had grown up with a chocolate version, so we thought that Abi’s ube crinkle cookies would be the perfect place to start.

I can take no credit for the baking this time around – that was all sen – but this recipe was a simple, beautiful adventure… even though we veganized the recipe, and made it in our postage stamp sized kitchen. The cookies were completely irresistible, even though I have never tried ube in my life before this past week, and I can’t wait to try more of Abi’s recipes. Horchata bibingka is next on our list!

I am SO excited to welcome Abi to the #SpineSquad, and I’m so happy to get to learn about all this delicious food! It’s going to be so much fun.

In celebration of all of these delicious flavours that Abi has introduced me to, my partner and I also donated this week to one of the relief efforts in the Philippines following the recent typhoon. If you can donate, please do. There is a Twitter thread linked below of places that are easy and worthwhile to donate to. If you aren’t sure what the situation is in the Philippines right now, and you would like to know more, there are threads linked that summarize recent events as well.

Review of Megan Hunter’s THE HARPY, by CeCe Lyra

Married couple Lucy and Jake each have a role to play. His: reliable and successful breadwinner. Hers: loving wife and mother. It is a familiar set-up—his life is his; hers is theirs. Jake’s career takes center stage. Lucy’s part-time freelance work is barely worth noting, even to herself. They are a family. Never mind that Lucy is bored, that her sharp intellect is wasting away against a backdrop of bourgeois domesticity.

Then one day Lucy gets a call. A man is on the other end of the line. He has news: his wife, Vanessa, has been having an affair with Jake. Lucy has met Vanessa—Vanessa and Jake work together. The two couples have socialized. The betrayal cuts Lucy. Jake does not deny the adultery. He begs Lucy for forgiveness. Lucy wants to hurt Jake. (I wanted to hurt Jake, too.) And she does—a brush of her fingernail against his skin. An accident. But it is satisfying, comforting. To keep their family together, they come up with an arrangement: Lucy will hurt Jake three times, and then they will be even.

What unfolds is a dance of reckoning and retribution, one that leads Lucy down a dark path. Slowly, quietly, she succumbs to her violent impulses. Through it all, Lucy feels the push and pull of guilt (how can she unravel when she is the mother of two children?) and desire (Jake deserves this—he hurt her first). And we feel for her. After all, it is a familiar urge—inside every woman lives a question: what would happen I didn’t behave? By bearing witness to Lucy’s yielding we allow ourselves to do more than wonder.

Written in a musical prose that is both delicate and sharp, THE HARPY examines the darkness that inhabits all love stories. It reads like a fairy tale, but not of the Disney variety. It is a story about a woman succumbing to primal urges: shredding her societal self, eschewing domesticity, and allowing destructiveness to take over. It is a meditation on metamorphosis. It is a story about a woman’s unravelling. But—strangely enough—is it also the opposite. It is the story of a woman coming home to herself.


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

Just Me!

Hey friends! This week on the blog, I’m doing something a little different than the massive, exciting guest posts I’ve been throwing around lately. This week… it’s JUST ME. I’m going to tell you, 1, about this rad video game I played this weekend, and 2, I’m FINALLY going to let this post that I wrote in 2018 and for some reason NEVER POSTED go LIVE! Be free, ye olde blog post! Tell the world now VERY belatedly about the brilliant book Jonny Appleseed, by Joshua Whitehead.

Before we dive in, a quick plug that NEXT WEEKEND is the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) Kids Book Fest, which is free, live, and online this year. Don’t miss it! It’s one of my favourite events of the year. Photo evidence below.

Visual Novel: Neo Cab

I think probably more than I should about what “reading” means. The perennial question of, is listening to audiobooks reading? Semantically, maybe not, but practically, of course, especially in a world where visually perceiving words on a page isn’t accessible to all readers. In my house, we do a lot of reading. My partner reads braille, and I use a text-to-voice app to give my eyes a break from sensory overload, we both have eReaders, we have an impressive stash of audiobooks, and predictably, our physical bookshelves are full to bursting.

When I was a kid, I devoured Choose Your Own Adventure books. The series was immensely popular, selling over 250 million copies in the 1980’s and 90’s alone. It still continues to this day – the latest series is Choose Your Own Adventure: Spies, based on non-fiction stories. The next title in the series, Mary Bowser, written by Black author Kyandreia Jones, comes out in October. Later, I discovered interactive text games, and recently, I decided to try out a visual novel on Nintendo Switch.

Visual novels are otherwise known as point and click narrative games, and are distinct from adventure games, which incorporate narrative and other gameplay aspects, for example, puzzle-solving. Visual novels are text-based stories that integrate animation with interactive elements. I honestly didn’t know how I’d feel about this. I love slice of life anime, which seemed to have some of the same flavours as visual novels, but I wondered if they would just feel like really boring action adventure games. I’m not a … super patient person.

Turns out? I love them. They absolutely incorporate aspects of slice of life, and also simulation games, in ways that feel organic and engaging. When partnered with really stunning visuals, they are a really great way to spend an afternoon.

Neo Cab is described as an “emotional survival game”, and it’s available for Switch, Linux, Mac, iOS, and PC. In it, you play Lina, a WOC who is basically a near-future Uber driver, who just moved to the city to be with her (toxic) best friend, Savy. The game is queer-coded, heartwarming, anti-capitalist, AND has really skillful non-binary rep. It checked every box for me… and taught me weirdly uncomfortable truths about myself. (Are video games allowed to do that??) If you’re having trouble getting into conventional reading these days, for whatever reason, or you’re just looking for a new way to experience storytelling, this game is a great place to start.

Jonny Appleseed: Written December, 2018

Listen, yall. I wrote this piece around the time I created this blog. I didn’t know back then if I was going to really be able to commit to this thing, and it felt like A Lot. Also, the launch it’s about… fully changed my life. It was when I got to really meet the incredible Alicia Elliott, who continues to inspire me to this day. I had a lot going on at the time. Somehow, this fell down in my drafts and never got posted. So, consider this a time capsule, because Jonny Appleseed seriously deserves the air time.

When I found out that my book shop would be hosting the (belated) Toronto launch of Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel Jonny Appleseed, I was so excited that I immediately messaged my managers to ask if I could work the event. Whitehead had been on my radar since spring of 2018. He was nominated for a Lambda award in the Trans Poetry category for his previous publication, full-metal indigiqueer, a collection that propels Two-Spirit (among other) identities out of a Eurocentric-imposed past and into an anti-colonial future.  I read and admired the clear and generous letter that Whitehead wrote when he turned down the nomination, calling for space to be made to celebrate Two-Spirit identities within (colonial) literary award frameworks. Then, I encountered Whitehead himself at the FOLD last spring, where his books sold out completely, and customers who had attended his panels raved about how well-spoken and spellbinding he was on stage. Jonny is one of the only books I’ve ever found myself searching through boxes for in the middle of the night at the book shop.

After all of this exposition, I was hungry for the months-late launch of Jonny Appleseed… and I hadn’t even peeled open the cover of the book yet. Ultimately, I didn’t manage to start Jonny Appleseed until five days before the event, which meant that I finally finished the book only a few hours before Whitehead would take the stage. I was still wiping tears off my cheeks when I headed out for work that day, as I sent a text to my partner to say that I was sobbing in our living room over the end of the book – in a good way.

The blurbs and press copy on the back of Jonny Appleseed describe it as a fever dream that centres on a Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer glitter princess, who is returning home to attend his stepfather’s funeral. I cannot emphasize enough that even with all the hype that I experienced around this book, so much was still completely unexpected for me.

The non-linear novel is peppered with nostalgic and evocative anecdotes about Jonny’s close relationship with his kokum (grandmother), and I hadn’t anticipated that being such poignant part of the book. I was raised in a small rural city by my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother all under one roof. Although my relationship and memories of my familial matriarchs looked very different from Jonny’s in some cases, there were striking similarities, and I found these sections of the text to be heart wrenching. Whitehead has what seems to be a careful willingness to delve into the complexities of the relationships that exist between people who exchange caretaking; a tactful ability not to shy from the grittiness in these relationships, but to describe them in such a way that they don’t lose sweetness in the process.

Jonny Appleseed also wrestles with the reconciliation of identities with the environments that the character inhabits. On the rez (reservation) where Jonny was raised, he struggles to find space to safely express the queer and gender-defying aspects of his Two-Spirit identity. After moving to the city, he struggles instead to find space for his Indigineity. For a reader like me, the experience of this theme was twofold. While carving out space for a complex identity is relatable, it was also educational, and any white settler reader would do well to learn from this book.

Perhaps most unexpectedly? I laughed. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I have trouble laughing. Whitehead cleverly weaves pop culture references into this book, and through them had me chuckling and reading passages aloud to other people. 

I’ve already passed on my copy and an additional two copies of Jonny Appleseed to friends and family. It was released in paperback, and it’s well worth the investment required to check it out.

Also, check out Joshua Whitehead’s new collection, Love After the End, a young adult anthology of stories by Indigenous authors, featuring Two Spirit and queer heroes in utopian and dystopian settings.

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

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 dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

BREAK OUT THE SCISSORS

Happy Monday, theydies and gentlethems. This week, I’m pleased to share with you a review of Avalon’s Last Knight, an #OwnVoices LGBTQ2S+ novel by trans author Jackson C. Garton. I’m also thrilled to host a guest post from dark fantasy author A. J. Vrana on one of my favourite editorial topics: HOW TO CUT WORDS. Thank you so much for your continued support of this space! If you want to throw a coin to your blogger, my ko-fi is linked at the end of the post.

Review: Avalon’s Last Knight, by Jackson C. Garton

I’m so pleased that author Jackson C. Garton sought me out and shared this book with me, and I owe him a public apology, because it took me forever to finally pick this up. 2020 has been a hard year, and if I had known that I would enjoy this as much as I did, I may not have waited so long. Sorry, fam!

Avalon’s Last Knight from Pride Publishing is loosely categorized as LGBTQ Urban Fantasy, but I think it is more accurately described as an LGBTQ2S+ romance with speculative elements. I’m not usually all about retellings, but Garton managed to skillfully integrate the old and the new in a way that wasn’t distracting from the thrust of the narrative. Set in the rural American south – a rare bird for LGBTQ2S+ fiction – Garton’s book follows Lance and Arthur, high school BFFs turned sweethearts, as they learn to navigate their new relationship, and all the complications that come with it.

With strikingly raw prose reminiscent of the fiction of the Trans Vanguard, Garton expertly weaves thematic aspects of the original tales of Avalon through a diverse and contemporary romance flavoured with a taste of the occult. Emotions right on the surface, this book tackles the complexity of transition, love, and the cultural tension of progressive life in a conservative setting.

My only criticism of this book is that, to my knowledge, the racial representation is not based on lived experience. For me as a reader, it felt as though the diversity aspects were handled sensitively, and this remains a book that I would recommend. As a white reader, I would be interested to see reviews of this title from POC.

When I asked Garton what book he would recommend by a Black author, he suggested Kacen Callendar’s Felix Ever After, which was featured on Santana Reads! I’m thrilled to have been introduced to Avalon’s Last Knight, and I look forward to seeing what Garton comes up with next.


The Baldwin quote above is the banner that I use on my editorial reports for my lit agent clients. It feels appropriate here, because today, I am completely stoked to be hosting one of those clients with a guest post on one of my FAVOURITE editorial topics: how to make deep cuts. There is nothing more satisfying than a manuscript with good economy of language, and no one knows how to achieve that better than A. J. Vrana. Her method is just… *chef’s kiss*. I asked her to write this as much for my nerdy brain as for anyone else’s benefit. I hope you’ll all enjoy as much as I did.

In the meantime, if I haven’t shouted about it enough, A. J. Vrana’s beautiful debut dark fantasy novel is also now available for purchase, if you’d like a book-length example of the kind of results you can get with her editorial methods.

How to Cut Words: Guest Post by A. J. Vrana

There is no shortage of jokes about writers. Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional, you’re bound to encounter a quip or two about creative types and their stubborn dedication to their artistic vision. Creative people are sometimes incorrectly stereotyped as being spacey, unmoored, and impractical, much to my personal chagrin. Of course, if that were true, none of us would have succeeded in making a living with our creative work, least of all in a business that is primarily concerned with one thing: making money.

There is no separating creative writing from the publishing industry if, well, you want to be published. While there are many talented, visionary writers out there, navigating the business side of publishing can prove frustrating and alienating for many people. However, if we want our work read, we need to come to terms with the fact that publishing is a business, and businesses will always be concerned with how to maximize their profits. One of the ways they do this is by becoming intimately acquainted with the market. For a book to be publishable, it needs to have commercial potential. It doesn’t matter how breath-taking, eloquent, or poetic your writing is; if it isn’t something a publisher feels they can sell to a market they themselves have carved out through a long history of curated publication and advertisement, there is little hope the manuscript will be acquired by an agent or an editor.

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

One of the often understated facets of marketability is word count. See, when I say, “markets that have been carved out through a history of curated publication,” I’m talking about genre conventions that have slowly but surely become cemented in readers’ understanding of literature, and subsequently inform their expectations. Word count is one of the many markers of how well a work fits within its intended genre. It has implications not only for a publisher’s production costs and returns, but for how the market will actually receive the work.

So, what is an acceptable word count for your next best seller? Well, it depends on the genre. Here are some general figures for popular genres; these can be easily found on the interwebs:

  • Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words
  • Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words
  • Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000
  • Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
  • Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words
  • Young Adult: 50,000–80,000
  • Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

With the exception of kidlit and SFF, you’ll notice immediately that the upper end of the word count bracket for most genres is 100k. However, I would argue that if you’re a debut author, your SFF should also be around or under 100k. Once you go over this mark, the work becomes an increasingly difficult sell for both agents and publishers.

I myself am a verbose gal. When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words! I justified this massive word count by convincing myself it was what I needed to tell the story, but I was a DIRTY LIAR. In truth, the long word count reflected several of my weaknesses as a writer: I sucked at pacing. My first 50 pages were way too slow in getting to the action. I overwrote emotions. I spent too much time on scenes that didn’t move the plot forward, and I did so under the guise of ‘character development’. I underestimated how few words I needed to get my point across. After several rounds of substantive edits and several more of line edits, I parred the beast down to 97,000 words. The final manuscript upon publication? 98,300 words. The best part? The major plot beats and structure hadn’t even changed.

But how the heck do you chop a novel’s worth of words out of your manuscript to appease your agent or editor’s pragmatic bones? Well, let me tell you. Here’s how to murder your beloved in three, excruciating steps.

Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash

STEP ONE: Reverse Outline Your Book

The first step to chop-chop-chopping is to get rid of any large chunks of text that are unnecessary to the plot. But how do you know what’s unnecessary to the plot? That three-page meditation on the movement of celestial bodies and their implications for the fate of the family cat provide the reader with such a keen glimpse into your character’s psyche.

To figure out whether your reader will give a rat’s ass about the family cat’s natal chart, try a reverse outline. To do this, make a note of your book’s conclusion, then work your way backwards. What event prompted the ending? What then triggered the event that prompted the ending? Keep working your way backwards until you reach the beginning of your book. The catch? Don’t look at your manuscript when you do it. You, as the author, should be able to backtrack through your entire manuscript and communicate the book’s major inciting events without analyzing the text.

Once you’ve done this, take a look at your manuscript and make note of everything that falls outside of those core events, then ask yourself if those scenes are truly necessary. After reverse outlining your book, you should have a little more distance to judge whether these outliers are really needed. If you aren’t sure, cut and paste them in a separate document and see if the story still works without them. If the answer is ‘yes,’ DELETE DELETE DELETE. I don’t care how much you like it; GET RID OF IT. You won’t notice it after it’s gone, I promise.

One other option is to consolidate chapters that deal with similar events or circumstances. Are there two chapters where your protagonist visits a creepy old man in the woods to get information about a certain mystery? Slap ’em together, delete all the dialogue and prose that isn’t vital for your reader, and maintain the core purpose of both chapters—but in one!

Photo by Alex Gruber on Unsplash

STEP TWO: Economy of Words

This is the more detail-oriented and pain-staking method of cutting words, but people grossly underestimate just how much can be excised with careful line edits. The goal here is to make sure that not a single word is wasted. There is no one method of doing this, but I’ve learned a few tricks that can go a long way.

Contractions. This one took me a while to get used to because I got my start in academic writing, where contractions are a big no-no. However, using contractions in non-academic writing, especially creative writing, can reduce word count significantly. Use Ctrl+F to find common phrases that can be replaced with contractions.

That. Many a time, the word ‘that’ is not really necessary. I was told that I’d have to cut at least 10,000 words from my book. See what I did there?

Sentence Structure. Sometimes, switching up syntax and playing with verb conjugation can spare a word or two per sentence. It may not seem like a lot, but when you have thousands of sentences, it adds up.

For example: He stared at the maskless buffoon and then wondered if humanity was done for.

Alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, then wondered if humanity was done for.

Even better alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, wondering if humanity was done for.

Now, you don’t want to use the same sentence structure over and over again. Don’t get too nitpicky with this, because sentence variety is more important than cutting a single word per sentence. Don’t forget that you can also change what order your clauses are in. Be conscious of modifiers and subordinate clause placement, as sometimes these can needlessly lengthen sentences.

Example from this very verbose blog: When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words!

Alternative: The first draft of my contemporary dark fantasy debut was 135,000 words.

Photo by Wajih Ghali on Unsplash

Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’. This is probably the thing I struggled with most. I loooove starting sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but,’ especially when establishing a character’s voice. Sadly, it’s not necessary most of the time. Occasionally it’s fine if used for emphasis or in dialogue, but try to minimize this as much as possible.

Adjectives and adverbs. Remember when I said I overwrite emotions? Yeah, this. Listen, there is NOTHING wrong with a good adjective or adverb, but when you find yourself piling them on like a grocery list comprised entirely of snack foods, reign yourself in. Pick ONE snack food. Even better—ask yourself if there is a more accurate noun or verb that can replace the adjective + noun or adverb + verb you’re using.

Don’t repeat yourself. Sometimes when we try to communicate something, we spend too many sentences expressing the same sentiment. This is natural, as overwriting is how we explore the best way to get a point across. However, once we’ve done this, it’s a good idea to go back and pick one sentence that best communicates the intended point.

Metaphors > Literal Description. This can be a tough one as it forces you to exercise your poetic brain, but I promise it pays off and makes your writing more interesting. Literal descriptions of settings or a character’s emotional state tend to be quite lengthy, and if you have the attention span of a kitten like I do, they can be kind of boring too. Sometimes, an apt, pithy metaphor can convey all that needs to be conveyed in far fewer words than a very literal description. Don’t be afraid to experiment with similes and metaphors; if it doesn’t work, someone will let you know with their confusion! As with the suggestion about sentence structure, you shouldn’t turn every description into a metaphor, but it can help add some variety!

Example: On the weekends, the sidewalks were crowded with people pushing past one another.

Metaphor: On the weekends, the sidewalks [crowded] like an ant colony.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

Don’t start sentences with ‘There was’.  This is best illustrated with an example.

Example: There was a child napping in the shade.

Alternative: A child napped in the shade.

Eliminate the obvious. This is another trick best illustrated with an example:

Example: The sky was grey. The clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Alternative: The grey clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Since clouds are inherently in the sky, we don’t have to mention the sky and the clouds.

Eliminate absences. One trick to using precise language is to eliminate any mention of things being absent, and instead focusing on what is present instead of the absence. Here’s what I mean:

Example: She stared at her estranged mother and felt nothing. The love was gone.

Alternative: She stared at her estranged mother. The love was gone.

Here, it’s redundant for us to say that someone felt nothing; instead, we can infer that there is an absence by noting that ‘the love was gone’.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

STEP THREE: Repeat Step 2.

Seriously. You need to do the line edits like three times, because as you progress through your manuscript, you will grow lazy and let things slip. The first time I finished cutting on a line level, I’d eliminated 3000 words. After my second round, I’d eliminated 6000 words. By my third round, I’d cut a total of 8000 words.

And it was great.


Alex’s recommendation for a book by a Black author to check out is the Binti trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor. I had the pleasure of hearing Okorafor speak in Denver a couple of years back, and she blew my mind. This book is definitely worth the read!

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

All Eyes on Her

I could not be more excited for today’s post. I am super thrilled to welcome back BBB contributor Jack for another incredible review. This time, Jack writes about a forthcoming LGBTQ2S+ novel, Seven, by Farzana Doctor, an author of colour in my local, Toronto. Then, I am deeply honoured to be hosting a post by another Ontario author, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, whose new YA thriller, All Eyes On Her, comes out later this month. She addresses a super challenging topic in writing, and one that she proves herself to be a master of in her upcoming title that I couldn’t put down: multiple POV.

Before we jump in, I just want to put in a quick plug for an upcoming LGBTQ2S+ contemporary indie press book by my client, author CM Harris. Maiden Leap releases on September 1st, and you can read more about it here!

In addition, as a follow up to last week’s post on chapter books, huge congratulations to Theanne Griffith, Reggie Brown, and their whole team – there are more Magnificent Makers books on the way!

Jack’s Review of Seven, by Farzana Doctor

I have such a fondness for Farzana’s work, which I discovered years ago through our mutual connection to the social work profession. I was super glad when Jack chose this book to check out. Seven comes out later this year, and is available for pre-order now.

Farzana Doctor’s novel Seven is the kind of novel that, like the scent of baked bread wafting over from a bakery, lures you in. In her fourth novel, Seven, Doctor explores themes of personhood, motherhood, and the concept of individuality in a collective community. The novel borrows from Farzana’s Indian ancestry, specifically her Dawoodi Bohra community and carefully braids truth and fiction into a family’s intergenerational story. What begins as an insight into a familial tree takes Sharifa through past and present becoming a story of chosen family and the fortitude of relationships.

Seven, is a layered concoction which reveals itself to its reader in pieces. In the novel, Doctor questions how people define “harm”, challenging the notion of harm and family as mutually exclusive. Doctor represents social justice on the public scale we are familiar with, and through the individual experience which personalizes pain.

Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash

CW for this book include sexual violence and gas-lighting. I found enlightenment in the presence of both sexual violence and strategies of healing. I recommend this book to readers in their young adulthood. It is also an insight into the different types of activism and stands one can take.

Farzana Doctor is a Canadian author, activist, and psychotherapist. She is a careful writer whose embroidery of Intergenerational trauma, the politicization of women’s bodies and the human experience, is both brilliant and alluring. What happens when trauma is weaponized as a vehicle of obedience and victims become perpetrators? How can multiple truths co-exist?

During this year’s Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), I had the pleasure of attending the virtual What We found discussion, where she posed thoughtful questions about identity, about writing. The thoughtfulness is evident once again in the configuration of Seven, a novel full of questioning.

The novel begins with Sharifa, a woman who feels broken. Sharifa and her family decide to go to India, where Murtuza (her husband) will be working and Sharifa will be on sabbatical. Sharifa plans on researching her family, specifically Abdoolally’s role as the family’s patriarch, while homeschooling her daughter.  Her daughter, Zee becomes a focal point, reminding Sharifa of herself as a child when she would travel back to India. During her research, Sharifa begins to identify the ways in which people can inflict harm their loved ones. Even though this is a work of fiction, the character of Abdoolally was inspired by Hussonally Dholkawala, Doctor’s great-great grandfather, and the character are based on the very real Dawoodi Bohras’ community.

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

In many ways, the novel is an account of the experiences of a cultural transplant with sexual violence, generational trauma and belonging. By showing the varying ways in which trauma shows up for the same experience, Doctor explores the complicated nature of trauma.

In Seven, the reader is given pieces of a puzzle and asked: “what happens if we believe in the wrong thing, the wrong people?” What does healing look like?

Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, Author of ALL EYES ON HER

I met Laurie through this blog, when I first wrote about one of her titles, Last Girl Lied To, which I read during the #VillainAThon last year. I could not put this book down. Since then, I’ve learned that Laurie herself is as much of a delight as her books are, as she’s peppered me with recommendations for other un-put-down-able titles over the last several months. I think that I can safely say that we share a passion for messy teenaged femme characters, and I have never been disappointed by a book that she’s suggested for me.

I am honoured to have met Laurie, and to have received an ARC of her forthcoming YA novel, All Eyes On Her to screen read for my bookshop. It was the first book I read in 2020, while I was going through a very difficult time in my life, and it was immersive and escapist and everything I’d hoped. The ending drove me bananas in the best possible way. The last chapter was absolutely delicious, and kept me guessing through the very last page. All Eyes On Her comes out on August 18th, and is available for pre-order now.

More recently, Laurie has achieved incredible success, and as a reader I could not be happier, and as one of her supporters, I am deeply proud. Her adult debut was recently acquired by Simon and Schuster, and optioned for television by AMC. I can’t wait to read this book, and I hope desperately that we’ll all get to watch it come to live as a super bingeable series.

For this post, I am so grateful that Laurie addressed multi-POV writing. As I wrote at the top of this post, she executes it perfectly in All Eyes On Her, and it’s something that takes so much technique, precision, and dedication to master. Thank you so much for this, Laurie, and congratulations for all that is to come!

As is tradition, I asked Laurie to recommend some books by Black authors that readers of this blog should check out alongside All Eyes On Her. Her choices were Some Other Now by Sarah Everett, which releases in early 2021. She also loved Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson, and You Don’t Know Me But I Know You by Rebecca Barrow. 

Voices in a Crowd: Writing Multiple POV

When I started writing All Eyes On Her, I didn’t have a plot or an outline—just a vaguely drawn idea about a boy and a girl who went into the woods, and only the girl came back. The first voice that came to me was the main character Tabitha’s best friend, Elle, and the next thing I knew, Tabby’s sworn enemy needed a say too. Before I knew it, several other characters had emerged from my imagination, all of them with one thing in common: They knew, or had known, Tabitha Cousins, and thus felt qualified to weigh in on her guilt or innocence. To act as a sort of jury, convincing the reader of her true nature.

I drafted the novel in a fast and furious blur. By the time I finished, there were five main point of view characters, each with a different relationship to Tabby and her deceased boyfriend Mark, as well as several peripheral characters with their own chapters. To complicate matters, the story also involved news articles, blog posts, texts, diary entries, and police transcripts. 

I give huge credit to my editors for not balking at the idea of a novel with so many different POV characters and formats. They were fully on board and excited about the concept from the start. I knew the challenges I was facing—to successfully execute the style I wanted the novel to take, each voice had to sound unique, and each character had to provide different information that informed the narrative and moved the plot along. It was in editing and revising that I really learned what worked and what didn’t, and I came up with these tips for anyone else working on (or wanting to start) a multiple POV novel!

Know Your Characters

You need to know your characters no matter how many POV characters you have, or how the story is told. But it’s especially important when you have a cast of characters whose voices each need to sound distinct. Each time I entered a new perspective, I settled into that character’s head, and that informed the voice. I often asked myself, is this something she would say? Is this a reaction she would have? I also challenged myself to memorize each person’s motivations—why he feels this way, and why he thinks the reader needs to be made aware. I aimed to know instinctively how each character would react to a situation, even if it was a situation that wasn’t happening on the page. 

The Why

Ask yourself why a certain character’s POV needs to be included. What does it bring to the story? What information or insight does this person provide that another one can’t? A few side characters with POV chapters in the first draft of All Eyes On Her were cut in revisions, because as fun as they were to write, they weren’t adding any new or crucial information to the narrative.

Try Different Formats

While most of my POV characters have first-person present-tense chapters, I wrote one entirely using a police transcript format. At the time, I wasn’t sure why his story needed to be told this way, but looking back, I can see the reason. I didn’t necessarily want the reader in his head as much as directly outside of it. I wanted to showcase his personality through dialogue and intentionally keep certain thoughts off-limits. Which brings me to the next point…

Hide and Seek

Just because you have multiple characters doesn’t mean you need to give readers their every thought. In fact, it’s more effective when you don’t (especially if you’re writing a thriller where everybody may be a suspect…). Think as much about what you choose not to share as what you do. Give your readers tantalizing little gaps to fill in. Consider why a character may not be saying something, and what that tells readers about him or her. The only thing I love more than an unreliable narrator… unreliable narrators.

The only thing I love more than an unreliable narrator… unreliable narrators.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is solid advice for writing in general, but I find it especially helpful for navigating a multi-POV book. If readers are simply told every thought in a character’s mind, they’ll get bored easily, and you run the risk of one character blending into the next. Show how the character interacts with others. How she walks and talks. What her hobbies are. How she acts at parties. How she behaves around friends versus parents. What her secrets are, and how she conceals them…

Streamline Information

Something to avoid with a large cast of POV characters is each section feeling like an info-dump, or a repetition of information another character already shared. Ideally, you want each character’s next chapter to piggyback off the one before it, ramping up to the climax of the novel. The order needs to be determined by underlying tension, and what comes next to ratchet up that tension. Every author has a different strategy, and there’s no wrong way. Some write all of one character’s chapters before moving into the head of another, and some write mostly in chronological order. For this book, I head-hopped and wrote mostly in order, which I think helped with the pacing, and ensured that every new event built on the one before it to create momentum.

Motivation is Key

Since character arcs are so important, this is a challenge when you have several characters whose stories need to feel compelling on their own, as well as part of a whole. Make sure you always know what each character wants, and what’s standing in the way of them getting it. I also like to keep in mind what each character is hiding, or what they don’t want people to find out. Having character arcs overlap and inform each other is like putting together a (sometimes frustrating, sometimes extremely satisfying) puzzle.

Differentiate Speech and Mannerisms

A trick I employed as I edited All Eyes On Her: If I picked up the manuscript and flipped to a random chapter, would I know whose head I was in within a couple sentences? If the answer was no, I looked at why. Had I fallen into similar phrasing? Made everyone constantly push their hair back behind their ears? Did the dialogue feel familiar? Voice is everything in a book with several of them, so having consistent go-to mannerisms or expressions that feel familiar to a character helps them stand out.

I hope these tips are helpful to anyone writing multiple POV! All in all, try to think of it for what it is… a very fun experience, and a challenge that will improve your writing. If you’re someone who gets bored easily (hi, me) or something doesn’t feel right in your book from just one POV, it might be worth figuring out whose voice to potentially add to the story. Listen to what that character has to say—because it may be quite telling.

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

Chapter Books… What’s GOOD?

New (to me) Resource

Before I get into content, I do want to throw up a new Enby Book List that I discovered on Twitter this week! Compiled by Jeanne G’Fellers, this is a new resource that I’ve now added to the BBB Links and Resources page! This is a great list, especially if you’re looking for indie or harder to discover titles featuring non-binary authors and characters.

Chapter Books… What’s GOOD?

Thanks to some inspiration from one of my clients, Marissa Ellor, I’ve decided to finally write a comprehensive list of chapter book recommendations. This is a post that I’ve been meaning to make for a while, and it’s a total bookseller post, but I hope that it will be useful to parents and kidtlit writers as well.

The bookshop where I work is in a neighbourhood with a lot of young families in it, and we also do the majority of our business with the local school boards. Our store specializes in social justice and diversity, so as curators and booksellers, we are very mindful and selective about the books that we choose. For a while now, there has been fantastic YA to choose from, and picture books are getting better and better every day. Board books are catching up, and there’s starting to be some good MG out there. When you’re looking at kids who are still learning to read independently, though, finding really good chapter books, early readers, and graphic novels for the developing (or “reluctant”) reader can be super challenging. I hope that my recommendations can make finding the gems a little bit easier for those who are overwhelmed!

There was a period of my life when I was spending a lot of time in suburban Colorado, and probably once a week I found myself at the 2nd and Charles in Aurora. This store is an oasis of used kids’ books. They have a massive selection in a clean and well-organized space, and they often do ridiculous sales. At the time, I was co-parenting, and one of my favourite things to do was to bring the kids to these sales and give them free rein to pick whatever books looked good, and then spend time sitting at one of the kids’ tables with them, discussing what we were going to bring home and why it was awesome.

A bearded person stands in front of shelves of picture books with their arms full of books. They are laughing.
Photo from the 2nd and Charles Facebook page, May 22 2019.

Part of the fun of this for me was rediscovering the books that in large part made me who I am today. I was that kid who used to bring their maximum number of library loans home every week, and had to carry a stack after the Scholastic order came into my classroom in elementary school. I was lucky enough to be allowed to read whatever I wanted, and I read a lot. Some of my favourites were chapter book series – from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Saddle Club to Goosebumps and Bunnicula… I loved these stories. The bad news is? A lot of them haven’t aged so well. The good news is? There are a LOT of new things on the market for this reading group.

Unfortunately, sometimes too many choices can be overwhelming, and because chapter books are chronically under-screened and under-reviewed compared to books in other categories, it’s hard to know what’s good. Taking a peek at Barnes and Noble’s selection, for example: there are over 27 000 titles available through their website categorized as paperback, ages 6-9, and that cost between $5 and $10 USD. The Toronto Public Library lists 5 816 results for “easy-to-read” stories. Important to note: neither of these outlets for books for kids actually categorize books AS chapter books. Where does a reader even start to look? I hope that by providing some recommendations for my favourite chapter book series, it will make the selection process a little more manageable!

A close up of a child reading a book, one eye visible, and the book large and out of focus in the foreground.
Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

I’ve chosen the series listed below for a number of reasons, and diverse representation is at the top of that list. That said, probably the BIGGEST fault in chapter books right now is that you actually can’t judge books by their covers. Although so many of these titles look super inclusive, there is a serious dearth of #OwnVoices stories, and even most of the books that feature diverse casts are still written by white folks. It’s time for kidlit publishers to seek out better representation among their authors for books in this reading level.

I am also not a fan of “potty humour” in books, so there’s not a lot of that here. For each category, I’ve profiled my favourite selection briefly, and then included a list of other titles in that category underneath. You will see that the book listed is always the first book in the series (where the series are numbered), but as a rule, it is not necessary to read chapter books in the order in which they are published! They are typically stand alone stories. Where the series name isn’t obvious, I’ve included that in parentheses following the title.

A child looks at a bunch of books on a shelf.
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

Books with Animals as Characters

When you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing book for a group of young kids, or a great read aloud, it’s hard to go wrong with anthropomorphic animals just living their lives. The Heartwood Hotel series, written by Canadian author Kallie George and illustrated by Stephanie Graegin is a wholesome series about a super-cozy hotel for forest animals. Themes of friendship and community come through in these books accompanied by black and white illustrations.

The cover of Heartwood Hotel: A True Home, showing a tree with a small mouse sitting on a branch.
  • Eva’s Treetop Festival (Owl Diaries)
  • A True Home (Heartwood Hotel)
  • Rabbit’s Bad Habits (Rabbit and Bear)
  • A New Friend (The Adventures of Sophie Mouse)

Stories for Animal Lovers

The Jasmine Green books by Helen Peters and illustrated by Ellie Snowdon are about a young girl who lives on a family farm with her parents and siblings. Her mom is a veterinarian, and each book in this series sees Jasmine helping an animal in need. This is the perfect series for compassionate education in a classroom, or for any kid who loves animals.

The cover of A Piglet Called Truffle, featuring a pink piglet running through the grass.
  • Mercy Watson to the Rescue
  • Megabat
  • Amy and the Missing Puppy (The Critter Club)
  • A Piglet Called Trouble (Jasmine Green)

Books about Friendship

I love Megan Atwood’s books. At a more accessible level for readers, the Dear Molly, Dear Olive series features two young girls who are cross-country Email penpals. One lives in a city, and one lives in a rural area. The books follow the girls as they tell each other about their adventures, and the reader explores the ups and downs of long-distance friendship. At a more advanced level are the Orchard Novels, of which there are four, one for each season. These follow four kids who live and work together on a New England apple orchard. Like Dear Molly, Dear Olive, these lighthearted books feature a diverse cast.

  • Ivy and Bean
  • Best Friends Forever? (Ashley Tall and Ashlee Small)
  • A Fall for Friendship (An Orchard Novel)
  • Dear Molly, Dear Olive
  • The Baby-Sitters Club

Books about Making Stuff

The Magnificent Makers series is an #OwnVoices series of books about kids making stuff, written by Theanne Griffith, PhD. She is not only a children’s author, but also a neuroscientist. The illustrator for this series is Reggie Brown, who specializes in diverse representation. These books are charming, well-written, and they are a brilliant fresh perspective for a space where we are only just starting to see #OwnVoices stories come to light.

The cover of Magnificent Makers: How to Test a Friendship, showing three children of colour looking at a biodome on a table.
  • Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters (Questioneers)
  • Ellie, Engineer
  • The Un-Friendship Bracelet (Craftily Ever After)
  • How to Test a Friendship (The Magnificent Makers)

Mysteries

My favourite series in this whole post is the Museum Mysteries series. While I wish that the creators behind this series (Steve Brezenoff and Lisa K. Weber) were a little more diverse, the books themselves offer a fresh new take on classic whodunnits with an inclusive Scooby Squad cast of characters and beautiful covers. They’re quick reads with awesome classroom tie-ins, and if your household is playing a LOT of Animal Crossing right now (like mine is), fans of Blathers will be super into the varied museum settings of these stories.

The cover of The Case of the Haunted Mystery Museum, featuring a child looking up at a large museum with lightning in the background.
  • Ada Lace on the Case
  • The Case of the Haunted History Museum (Museum Mysteries)
  • King and Kayla and the Case of the Missing Dog Treats

Spooky Stories

Obviously, my favourites. I wish that my childhood chapter books had aged a little better, but I’m glad that there are new spooky series taking up the mantle – like Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol, by Andrés Miedoso and illustrated by Víctor Rivas. This is a classic monster-of-the-week series (appropriate for the faint of heart!) featuring the fearless Desmond Cole, and his sidekick who is afraid of everything: Andrés.

The cover of Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol, which shows two children in the foreground and some spooky houses and ghosts in the background.
  • Ghoulia
  • The Haunted House Nextdoor (Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol)
  • Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts
  • Isadora Moon Goes to School
  • Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball

Fantasy

There are so many good fantasy chapter books, and they range from epic to urban to friendship stories about yetis. There’s something for every reader. Left wanting for an #OwnVoices series in this category, I still love Zoey and Sassafras, by Asia Citro and illustrated by Marion Lindsay. This whimsical series is a blend of science and magic with lots of illustrations, featuring a young girl, and her cat.

The cover of Zoey and Sassafras, which shows a young girl and a cat looking at a small dragon.
  • Upside-Down Magic
  • Dragons and Marshmallows (Zoey and Sassafras)
  • Polly Diamond and the Magic Book
  • Rise of the Earth Dragon (Dragon Masters)
  • Bo’s Magical New Friend (Unicorn Diaries)
  • Sparkly New Friends (Unicorn and Yeti)
  • Willow Moss and the Lost Day (Starfell)

STEAM (Science, Math, and More)

At a slightly more advanced reading level, the Elements of Genius series is ideal for a reader transitioning to MG novels. This series is written by Jess Keating who is herself a zoologist, and illustrated by Lissy Marlin, an artist from the Dominican Republic now living in the US. Lissy has done all kinds of cool projects, including the Magic Misfits series by Neil Patrick Harris. the Elements of Genius are witty and trendy and feature a badass feminine protagonist as she navigates a new school for gifted kids.

The cover of Elements of Genius, which shows an adolescent girl in the foreground and a ferret reaching toward a laser gun in the background.
  • Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray (Elements of Genius)
  • The Friendship Code (Girls Who Code)
  • Frankie Sparks and the Class Pet
  • Super Amoeba (Squish)

Graphic Crossover (Illustrated)

I challenge anyone not to love the CatStronauts, a graphic series by Drew Brockington featuring astronaut cats in weirdly scientifically accurate NASA-type situation. They’re wonderful. I have nothing else to say about these books.

The cover of CatStronauts, which shows four astronaut cats on the moon.
  • CatStronauts: Mission Moon
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: New School Nightmare
  • Sparks!
  • The Way Home (Owly)
  • Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea (Narwhal and Jelly)
  • Hildafolk (Hilda)

Heroes and Adventure

There are a lot of really good hero books out there, but none as weird and charming as Gum Girl by Rhode Montijo. These books have bubblegum-scented covers (yeah, for real), and feature a feminine protagonist who literally changes into gum and goes on adventures. With a little bit of Spanish sprinkled throughout, I love the writing in these books, and I love the bizarre concept. They’re heavily illustrated, and they’re funny.

The cover of Gum Girl, which shows a character made of gum flying through the sky.
  • Mia Mayhem Is a Superhero
  • Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue
  • Chews Your Destiny (Gumazing Gum Girl)
  • The Jolly Regina (The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters)
  • The Princess in Black
  • The Bad Guys
  • An Extra-Ordinary Girl (Ellie Ultra)

Contemporary

They’re a bit on the ridiculous side, but if the #OwnVoices Alvin Ho books aren’t relatable, I don’t know what are. They’re about a kid who’s afraid of everything, and basically just has to figure it out. Alvin Ho is written by Lenore Look, who has been creating kids’ books since she was a kid herself, and illustrated by the incredible LeUyen Pham, who also illustrates the Princess in Black series, and is co-creator of Real Friends with Shannon Hale.

The cover of Alvin Ho, which shows a scared child on the front.
  • Good Dog McTavish
  • Katie Woo Has the Flu
  • Alvin Ho Allergic to Girls, School, and other Scary Things
  • Sadiq and the Desert Star
  • Yasmin the Builder
  • Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business
  • Stella Díaz Has Something to Say

…last but not least: Sports, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Personal Faves

There are SO MANY CHAPTER BOOKS that I couldn’t not mention just a few more. On the top of this list is a standalone chapter book level novel called Coyote Tales. It’s written by acclaimed Indigenous author Thomas King, and tells two stories about Coyote that demonstrate his skillfulness as an author, as well as his humour. This is a rad book that we sell a lot at the shop, and although it’s a bit difficult to categorize, I would be remiss not to mention it here. It’s the perfect note to close out on.

The cover of Coyote Tales, where a coyote looks up at the moon, who frowns back.
  • Coyote Tales
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School
  • Flying Ace: Errol’s Gander Adventure
  • Little Shaq
  • The Ice Chips and the Magical Rink
  • Choose Your Own Adventure
  • Yael and the Party of the Year (Yes No Maybe So)
A small child reading on a couch.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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

Changing of the Seasons

I am staggered these past few weeks about how much can change in, seemingly, the blink of an eye. The world feels so different now than it did mere weeks ago – and yet, since the day I started Books Beyond Binaries, I haven’t missed a scheduled post, so the band plays on.

The last couple of years have been very challenging for me, and in 2019, I began tweeting about celebrating small joys. I’m not a naturally optimistic person, and in times of difficulty, embracing things like Pokémon GO and homemade ice cream has helped more than I’d readily admit. These days, as most days, I’m taking a great deal of solace in books, so I’m grateful to have this space to share.

And share I shall! Today is extremely exciting for me, because I get to introduce you all to BBB’s first repeat contributor! I reached out on Twitter seeking collaborators for this blog, and I am deeply lucky that Jack reached back out to me, and will be contributing her ARC reviews to enrich the content of this space over the coming months!

An image of Jack, a Black queer woman, eyes closed, wearing gold jewellery, and covered in powder-like, colourful paint.

Jack is a queer writer and artist who is completing her English and Cultural studies B. A
at McMaster University. She likes to read psychological thrillers, Afrofuturistic works and
genre-bending memoirs that include Auto-Theory. Also, she enjoys watching films,
writing short stories, drawing and desserts that are sweet, but not too sweet. It is my absolute pleasure to give over my platform to this brilliant reader and writer, and welcome her reviews of forthcoming queer books!

There are two other firsts that I’ll be celebrating in this post, as well: the book birthday of Mia Siegert’s Somebody Told Me: the first traditionally-published novel to feature a bigender protagonist… AND IT’S A YA SUSPENSE NOVEL. I’m hyped!

Last, but not least – if you’ve been following me for a little while, you’ll know that I’m on the planning team for the Festival of Literary Diversity, held each year in Brampton, ON. It is my favourite lit festival on the planet. In light of current events, the FOLD will move online, for free, for the first time ever this year. There are 19 virtual events this year, and all you need to attend – from anywhere in the world – is to register on Eventbrite. There is one event that I’m going to highlight, though, that everyone who reads BBB should attend – both because it’s going to be AWESOME and also because it’s on my BIRTHDAY. The Art of Craft: Trans Brilliance Edition! Organized by the FOLD and Kai Cheng Thom partially in response to the transphobic violence perpetrated by the Toronto Public Library this year, this event features some mind-blowing trans writers and creators: Gwen Benaway, Ali Blythe, Casey Plett, and Jia Qing Wilson-Yang, as well as Kai herself.

Poster for The Art of Craft: Trans Brilliance Edition

Jack’s ARC Review: Broken People, by Sam Lansky

Sam Lansky’s Broken People, a work of fiction with autobiographical undertones, makes a clear distinction between a physical journey and a spiritual quest. His diction is hypnotizing, twisting and twirling until the tale he has woven is all you can think about devouring. The protagonist’s sense of awareness or lack of, drives the story. It’s a work of art that reminds us that, writing is not healing, rather, it is the reflection, the learning and understanding, that leads to healing. Similarly, the main character’s healing process begins when he faces himself in the process of what he has written.


Lansky writes a riveting tale of growing up, of finding your voice and the cyclical nature of healing. Today, we’ve cultivated the unrealistic expectation of achieving all our life goals age thirty, convinced that not meeting this constraint is an act of failure. The reader is implicated in a story of growth, one that comes from understanding one’s experience rather than just experiencing. It’s difficult to articulate what we feel and how that may have led us to act a certain way, but Lansky does it expertly. He creates characters who come to life by simply existing, making choices, breathing.


CW for this book include eating disorders, substance use and partner violence (verbal and emotional). I found myself at certain scenes conflicted, but it was in that space that I was able to acknowledge the nuances of interpersonal relationships. I recommend this book to readers in early adulthood, who are looking for something.

The cover of Broken People, by Sam Lansky, which features a hummingbird.


There are similarities between Sam Lansky the author, and Sam the main character. Broken People references the protagonist as a writer whose memoir explores substance use, which is like the content of Sam Lansky’s previous work The Gilded Razor: a memoir. Sam crafts a journey of love and forgiveness and situates it in a work of fiction.


We meet Sam, a man who seems stuck and the story is full of flashbacks. He is living the dream before the dream: moving in with a friend, dreaming about becoming a published author.


The more he can afford, the emptier Sam feels. We follow Sam through the vulnerability in the wake of sexual encounters, heartbreak and career successes. We become entrenched in what it means to explore one’s love language when loving yourself did not seem to be an option.


I am currently writing a paper where I explore the relationship between the physical body and orientation, of both gender and sexuality. Lansky writes of self-discovery through both the body and the external world. How do you explore the world when you do not feel at home in your own body? How can you escape who you are? He does not answer these questions, rather, he offers possible paths. Lansky explores consumption of relationships, food and substance use. “Your body is a temple”, but what if you don’t know how to praise whom the altar belongs to? What if you don’t know yourself? There is no single cure or quick fix to the struggles of real life, but there is learning, through trial and error. So that is my take-away. Reading Broken People felt like making a home out of a story. It’s a story about the coming of age of the coming of age story.

Broken People is scheduled to be released in June 2020, and is available for pre-order now.

Happy Book Birthday to Somebody Told Me, by Mia Siegert

Yall, it is a weird time to be celebrating a book birthday, but we are here, and it is happening, and I have been waiting for this little gem for a while!

Somebody Told Me is the first novel to be traditionally published featuring bigender representation, and it came out this month from Carolrhoda and is available to buy now. Mia’s described this book as the French film Améie, but if it went terribly wrong… and given that Amélie is a huge favourite of mine, I am so here for this.

The novel follows Russian Jewish protagonist Aleks/Alexis as they navigate gender, and the fallout after they are sexually assaulted in their fandom community. It explores themes of gender presentation as the MC tries to solve a mystery before someone else gets hurt, and in doing so, confront their abuser and their own trauma. It’s not a light and fluffy read, and CWs also include trans and queerphobia, and religious content. That said, this is the kind of nuanced diversity representation that as a reader, I’ve been waiting for, and I would say: don’t sleep on this.

For a taste of what you can expect from this book, check out the book trailer above, voiced by Katelyn Clarke and Zeno Robinson. And while you’re at it, head on over to Mia’s Twitter, where you can check out the this spectacular book look featuring colourways from the bi-coded book cover, and wish a happy book birthday to Somebody Told Me!

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

Can’t Lit Fall Previews

Currently Reading: Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha

Not to throw shade (except kind of really to throw a little shade…), but there is one Canadian book that has been getting some serious buzz this fall. And guess what? I don’t think it’s the most exciting CanLit that’s being released this season! Not even close. Let me tell you about what I DO think is the most exciting CanLit being released this season…

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

The cover of Empire of Wild: A Novel, by Cherie Dimaline. The cover also notes that the author is the same as the #1 Bestseller The Marrow Thieves. The image is a mostly desaturated image of a green armchair sitting in the middle of a forest clearing.

I work at Another Story, an indie bookshop in Toronto’s west end. The year that I began working there was the year that Cherie Dimaline’s YA Indigenous speculative fiction novel The Marrow Thieves took the world by storm. When I chewed through it in one sitting, the cover was fresh and bare. Now, the cover is littered with medallions representing the awards that this title has won since its released, so much so that they nearly obscure the art. By the time the winter holiday shopping season rolled around, we were literally having cartons of this title delivered by hand from our distributors at the last minute to keep up with customer demand.

I was working at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton in 2018 when I learned that Dimaline had secured contracts for four more books after the success of the Marrow Thieves, and on September 17th, the first of those will be available to the public. Empire of Wild is, like Dimaline’s last book, an Indigenous speculative fiction title, this time written for a mature audience. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an ARC of this book.

I wasn’t disappointed. Much like when I read the Marrow Thieves, it took me a few chapters to really get into the pacing. As a settler reader, I sometimes find myself challenged by this aspect of Indigenous storytelling, but the more Indigenous lit I spend time with, the more that I am growing accustomed. Taking the time to get into the rhythm of brilliant books is always well worth it.

In Empire of Wild, Dimaline skillfully weaves her Métis heritage into a politicized, suspenseful narrative that centres around a woman’s search for a missing partner, the damage that Big Oil does in Indigenous communities, and the rougarou – a Métis mythical creature that calls to mind an anthropomorphic, demonic wolf.

CWs for this book include murder, other violence, possible abduction/abandonment by a family member, extreme right religious content, and substance use. It is an adult title, and it doesn’t pretend to be for a YA audience. I would definitely recommend this book. Is there any more enjoyable way to learn about social justice issues than through delicious, #OwnVoices storytelling?

If you are a settler and pick up Dimaline’s work, and then want to learn more about Indigenous issues, there are some great resources and books that can be read as follow up – including Billy-Ray Belcourt’s fall release, NDN Coping Mechanisms, which I recommend later in this post.

Other resources I would recommend are the final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the content produced by Idle No More. Some non-fiction titles that would be fantastic follow up include 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, Heart Berries, by Therese Marie Mailhot, and A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott. Last but not least, if you can’t get enough Indigenous speculative fiction, I can’t recommend Jonny Appleseed enough, by Two-Spirit author Joshua Whitehead.

I Hope We Choose Love, by Kai Cheng Thom

The cover of I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl's Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. A red flower with a yellow and red centre on a black background, with white lettering.

Kai Cheng Thom is one of the only authors whose work I savour. From her insightful articles and essays to her picture books, Thom’s writing is some of my favourite. She has an advice column in Xtra, and her recent essay on the legacy of trauma within queer communities has been resonating with lots of folks online. From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is one of my all-time favourite, gender-affirming picture books to read with children and adults alike, and Thom’s artwork is sumptuous and vibrant.

I’ve read, re-read, and been repeatedly brought to tears by her poetry collection a place called NO HOMELAND, but I’ve actually held off on reading her fictionalized memoir, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, which got some buzz recently since it was Emma Thompson’s Shared Shelf pick in March of 2019. I couldn’t bring myself to read it, because Thom didn’t have any other books, and I didn’t want to have read everything she’d published! I was so excited when I heard that Thom had a new project in the works, and now the wait is almost over, since her new collection of non-fiction essays, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, will hit shelves on September 24th.

Heartwrenchingly, I find myself hesitant about this new collection. It is beautiful, and brilliantly written. It is thought provoking, and that Thom brings a perceptive, and well-informed analytical lens to the issues that marginalized people face surviving the current political climate together. I would never hesitate to recommend any of Thom’s work (this collection included) to another reader, but I wondered even reading the title if perhaps our paradigms had diverged too far in recent times for me to find Thom’s newest work meaningful for me personally in the same way that I had her previous publications. Am I too cynical? Am I too white? Am I too hopeless? Am I too immature? Am I too angry?

I saw red flags that led me to believe this book was not for me. In the first chapter, Thom referenced works that make me deeply uncomfortable, for example, Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse, which is a deeply problematic work that can be used to gaslight victims of harassment. Thom also criticized “call out culture” or “cancel culture”, when I am of the opinion that if cancel culture’s existence isn’t a myth entirely, people often use this rhetoric when what they really mean is “consequences.” Yet, when Thom outlined her political views, I found nothing objectionable, and so I decided to proceed with caution.

Whatever it is about me and my social location, or about this political moment, I struggled with this collection. The format alternates between essays and poetry, and while much of the poetry reached me in a way that felt reminiscent of NO HOMELAND, the essays did not. They’re accessible and well-articulated, and I was often right there with Thom, until about three quarters of the way through. At some point in each of the essays, I found myself taking pause.

There was a conversation on Twitter recently about how instead of describing the written work of a marginalized person as “important” or “urgent”, we should be approaching these works as requiring “urgent listening.” I hold Kai Cheng Thom in great esteem, and while the conclusions drawn in this book are difficult for me to agree with, it is a book that I think warrants urgent listening, and probably for me, revisiting. I would definitely recommend it to fans of books like Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown, and it may just become my alternate recommendation when folks come into my shop for Conflict is Not Abuse. In the meantime, me and my rage are looking forward to savouring Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars in the not-too-distant future.

NDN Coping Mechanisms, by Billy-Ray Belcourt

The cover of NSN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. The cover notes that the author is the winnter of the Griffin Poetry Prize. The image is a person with long, dark hair, wearing a black shirt, set against a backdrop of dry, tall grass or wheat, and a pale, clear blue sky. The person has their hands folded as if in prayer in front of them, and the hands are bound together with white fabric. They are holding a piece of wood that looks like a dried, dead tree, with a hole positioned over one of the person's eyes. The wood obscures the rest of the face.

I was honoured to be able to attend the Toronto launch of this book as one of the staff of Another Story, who are the book vendors for the literary events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As Belcourt himself noted during his talk, the event was very well-attended, and I spent the majority of my time behind the bookselling table admiring the spectacular beadwork and other Indigenous jewellery that so many of the people in the diverse crowd seemed to be wearing.

In my doctoral studies, I cite Belcourt’s work on animality in decolonial thought constantly these days. He is one of few Indigenous scholars based in colonial Canada who has written academic work in this area, and since I study working animals using an anti-racist and decolonial lens, his work has been invaluable to me. Because I had yet to read Belcourt’s Griffin-award-winning poetry collection This Wound is a World, I was intrigued by this new work consisting of both scholarly theorizing, as well as poetry.

The event, like the book (title pronounced N-D-N Coping Mechanisms), was varied in both tone and intellectual register. The book is a gripping commentary on the paradoxical horror and beauty of Indigenous queer life in colonial Canada. Belcourt noted that the book had already made the CBC Books Bestseller List for its first week out – but had, strangely, been placed in the fiction category.

Belcourt was joined at the AGO by fellow Indigenous author and scholar, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who asked questions ranging from how Belcourt conceptualized success and envisioned his responsibility to future Indigenous queer authors, to probing for details about the men that Belcourt writes about in his new book. Belcourt himself joked about being born in the 90’s and thus having too short an attention span to write a novel, and also mused about who the anthropological object of his creative work was. I simultaneously enjoyed the evening, and felt (appropriately) like a complete outsider. At times, the conversation was theoretically challenging for me to keep up with – and I say that as a fifth year PhD student. I was both awed, and at times, a little lost. Both Belcourt’s and Simpson’s readings of excerpts from the book made me shiver.

There were a few moments in the evening that were particularly poignant for me. When asked why he writes, Belcourt responded, “I don’t know how else I would deal with all this shit.” As someone who has been eyeball-deep in affective scholarly work for the better part of my adult life, this was deeply relatable to me. In some ways, NDN Coping Mechanisms appeals to me as a work precisely because of this. I am interested and often validated when I have the opportunity to read about the experiences of other marginalized people who have found creative ways to cope with the state of the world, or who cope through content production.

I was also charmed and impressed when Simpson inquired whether Belcourt suffered from imposter syndrome, and he replied, “Maybe it’s just my generation’s thing of being like, I know I’m amazing!” The audience laughed, and Belcourt paused before continuing, “I know what I bring to the table.” As a bookseller and a member of the literary community, if I could have one wish for all Indigenous people, it would be that they all feel this kind of confidence in their work. Indigenous literature is certainly having a cultural moment right now, one that I hope will have a lasting effect on the literary scene in our colonial nation state, and I hope that Indigenous creators can all be aware of just how much they bring to the table.

Lastly, and to make reference back to some of my complicated feelings about Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love, Simpson mentioned during the launch that some of Belcourt’s lines of poetry would stay with her forever, and I think that the one that she mentioned is a good place to end this recommendation of Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms, which is available for purchase now. He wrote, “Revenge is more decolonial than justice,” something which feels equitable and firey and powerful to me. Simpson therefore asked herself, and Belcourt, and I think that it is a good question for everyone in the Canadian literary community to consider: what does revenge look like in CanLit?

Other Fall Books That Just Can’t Lit

…and if two books won’t be enough to stock up your TBR this fall, there are lots of other Canadian releases you should know about, for readers of all ages. These are some of the ones that I would recommend:

  • One Drum, by Richard Wagamese, October 19th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • On Fire, by Naomi Klein, September 17th
    Political non-fiction.
  • From Where I Stand, by Jody Wilson-Raybould, September 20th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • Breaking the Ocean, by Annahid Dashtgard, available now
    Memoir, Iranian-Canadian author.
  • Pickles vs the Zombies, by Angela Misri, September 21st
    Middle grade dystopian.
  • Angry Queer Somali Boy, by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, available now
    LGBTQ2S+ memoir, POC author.
  • Hustling Verse, various authors, available now
    Poetry, authors are sex workers.
  • African Canadian Leadership, various authors, available now.
    Political non-fiction, POC authors.
  • I Promise, by Catherine Hernandez and Syrus Marcus Ware, available now
    Picture book, LGBTQ2S+, POC authors.
  • Blanket Toss Under the Midnight Sun, by Paul Seesequasis, October 22nd
    Photography, Indigenous artist.
  • We Three, by Markus Harwood-Jones, available now
    YA with polyamory and LGBTQ2S+ representation.
  • In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott, available now
    Memoir, Indigenous woman author.

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