Spooky New YA

Currently Reading: Witchmark, by C. L. Polk

Note: the links found on this page are affiliate links for Amazon.com, so if you use them to make purchases, you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link, and then search for the book you’re seeking. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

In my life, Spooky Season isn’t just October… it’s a year-round celebration. I love spooky reads. This week, I’m going to offer up three reviews for books that all drop this month: Out of Salem, by Hal Schrieve, which hit shelves on March 5th, Other Words for Smoke, by Sarah Maria Griffin, which came out just last week, and The Devouring Gray, by Christine Lynn Herman, which is set to release on April 2nd. In this post, I’m bringing you previews of the QT zombies, witches, superpowers, monsters, haunted houses, and talking cats of your dreams. But first! A little trans lit news…

News!

I’m so pleased that this time around, I just have two quick, positive things to share. One, in a trans-affirming move, some libraries will no longer be collecting gender data on library card applications, since it became clear that the data collected was both not useful and also a barrier to access for some.

Also, for anyone who read my post on trans-affirming middle grade books, or who’ve picked up The Moon Within since it dropped recently, listen to author Aida Salazar on the Scholastic Reads podcast! If you haven’t read the book yet, make sure to grab a copy, because it’s great.

Out of Salem

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Before I write anything about this title, I need to offer a little background. First, I only really discovered Urban Fantasy as a genre in its own right back at the end of 2018, when a friend asked me for some book recommendations (to be revealed in a future post!). Before I could deliver, I had a lot to learn. Since having my interest piqued, I decided to try to delve into the genre in my own reading – inspired partly by my return to PhD studies after a leave of absence, since it was really by chewing through urban fantasy YA like the Twilight series that got me through my undergrad studies.

Based on that information, my friend recommended that I try Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown for a taste of what’s going on in that genre almost a decade later. I listened to it on audio through the Libby app on a drive from Denver to Toronto, all in one sitting, and it delivered. Tropey, but complex enough to draw me in, with fantastic original worldbuilding, the spooky story kept me company all the way home.

As such, I was excited when a copy of Shrieve’s Out of Salem landed in my lap. I was hesitant, because zombies have never been my thing… but I had hesitated about Dread Nation before caving to curiosity in 2018, and I had loved that book. Since then, I’ve been educated about some of its more problematic elements, unfortunately, and in addition the author has said some pretty horrible and transphobic things on Twitter. Tread carefully. But – Out of Salem has an enby author and an enby MC… what could go wrong?

Well. I am a firm believer that there is a perfect book for every reader, and a dream reader for every book, and this one just wasn’t for me. I’ll read 100 pages of anything – that’s my rule – but after 160 or so of this one, I finally had to let it go.

I really enjoyed the first few chapters, which kept me laughing and interested, especially because of the diversity of the cast and the richness of the contemporary fantasy universe that Shrieve has built. The book tackles complex and important social issues through monstrous allegory. Impressive, considering that Shrieve is a twenty-one-year-old debut author.

Eventually, though, the zombie aspect began to wear on me. I’m neurodiverse and working on sorting out some family stuff… so maybe it was just a touch too dark for this moment in my life, but my anxiety was building hard about the MC, who seems destined to just painfully waste away over the course of book. I couldn’t handle the graphic imagery on the page of the decaying enby who I was growing to care for.

Additionally, perhaps due to my own experiences as a fat enby who has suffered at the hands of bullies, this book was just a little too edgy for me. The imagery around oppression and the violence that some of the characters experience in this gritty universe just felt harsh. The use of slurs felt gratuitous, and hit a little close to home. Considering whether I’d feel triggered and anxious carrying on to the end of this 450 page book, I finally had to put it aside.

That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend this book. It feels resonant to me, and I’m still curious what happens to the cast of characters – especially the elder lesbian bookseller witch who takes our fair MC under her wing – so if you can stomach a little more than I can? Order this book while it’s still hot off the presses, and fill me in on the ending. It dropped on March 5.

Other Words for Smoke

I received an ARC of Other Words for Smoke by from Edelweiss+. This YA haunted house story is Irish author Sarah Maria Griffin’s third book, following another YA title, Spare and Found Parts, and her memoir, Not Lost.

The blurb for this book basically gives the punch line. It’s a story primarily about six characters, a set of twins, a witch and her ward, a cat called Bobby, and and owl called James. The book takes place in the small town where Rita resides, and I have to admit, even as a Newfoundlander, the names of characters and settings in this book made a lot more sense when I looked up the author and found that she was Irish.

My favourite part of this book is how Rita’s house itself becomes sort of a seventh central character. Aspects of the house and the way it behaves really tugged at the heartstrings of mine that loved the moving staircases at Hogwarts. None of the characters in this book are as simple as they appear on the surface. The story and the development of the characters are both full of spellbinding surprises. Nothing is quite as it seems.

We know the end of the story before we know how it begins: their house burns down, and the witch and her ward are never seen again. What we get through this book is the suspenseful, labyrinthian ride through two summers preceding this dramatic event. I was drawn through this book, even with its somewhat slow pacing, because I was dying to know what happened next, and I didn’t want to pull myself out of the lush imagery of the fantastical, haunted world that Griffin creates.

Unfortunately, all of the characters in this book appear to be cisgendered, but there is great queer representation. Other Words for Smoke came out on March 12th, so you can enjoy it right away.

 The Devouring Gray

I was excited to receive Chrstine Lynn Herman’s the Devouring Gray as an ARC back in December 2018, just in time for my first holiday celebrations in years. It seemed fitting, since my partner and I were attempting to spookify our slightly modified Christmas-esque traditions. It is an atmospheric page-turner, and it completely drew me in as I read it over the few days of my holiday celebrations.

Herman’s debut is the first of at least two books in this universe; its sequel will drop in 2020. Its publicity copy describes it as a young adult contemporary fantasy, and compares it to the CW/Netflix show Riverdale. As a fan of the show, I was pleased to find that the comp is accurate, but based on the suspense and pacing, I would describe the genre as speculative horror (content warnings for the book can be found here). Queerbabes: this book is worth the hype. It made me feel everything. Pre-order it if you can! It comes out on April 2nd. 

There is skilful, plot-relevant queer representation in this book, despite a lack of trans or enby inclusion, and on this front, the book is #OwnVoices. I checked. Herman does a particularly noteworthy job of writing a character with a physical disability: a feminine MC who lost part of her arm, and is a practised sword fighter. Although there are romantic relationships between some of the characters, they are not the focal point of this story, which includes a rich cast of nuanced, morally ambiguous main characters. Each of the characters had their own complicated appeal for me, and they relate to one another as friends, foes, and family members. 

The most unexpected and charming aspect of this book for me was that it is written with book lovers in mind. Both library and archives are settings in this book, and characters include a corrupt rebel librarian and bibliophile MC. Gift this one to the broody Ravenclaw in your life – you won’t regret it. The Devouring Gray is available for pre-order now.

PS, if you choose to purchase one of the books I’ve mentioned in this post, please follow one of the links. It’s an affiliate link for Amazon.com, so you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

Black History Month Recs and a Taste of Salt

Currently reading: Empire of Light, by Alex Harrow

Note: the links found on this page are affiliate links for Amazon.com, so if you use them to make purchases, you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link, and then search for the book you’re seeking. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

Black History Month Non-Binary Reads

Two of my overall favourite reads of 2018 happened to be by Black, non-binary authors, and I thought this would be the perfect time to give a shoutout to these books – although they hardly require it. The first is a middle grade debut novel called Hurricane Child, by Kheryn Callender, and the second is a fictionalized memoir called Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi.

Callender, the author of Hurricane Child, was born and raised in the St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, which also serves as the setting for this book. It is a poetic gem that features a black, queer MC, who is 12 years old, and was born during a hurricane. The character is navigating falling in love for what appears to be the first time, and trying to find her missing mother. It’s the best-written middle grade book I’ve ever read, while being age-appropriate, and it’s spooky. Callender’s second novel and first foray into young adult lit, This is Kind of an Epic Love Story, dropped in October. It is my hope to see works featuring enby characters from Callender, but I would recommend anything they write.

Freshwater, (CW: trauma and sexual assault) is nothing short of breathtaking. Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil author, and this magical realism memoir is also their debut. They have a YA novel, Pet, forthcoming in 2019, and a second adult novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, also forthcoming. Emezi is trans, non-binary, and ogbanje, a Nigerian identity that involves aspects of plurality and of being a trickster spirit.

Freshwater is visceral and unique and bizarre and authentic. It took me a minute to get into the writing style, and this book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Once I was able to process it, I was completely unable to put it down. Despite being fully an outsider to this story, I share with Emezi that I am non-binary and have experiences of trauma, and in addition one of my partners is plural, so aspects of the tale were very relatable for me. For a taste of Emezi’s writing, they have also written several short stories, including Who Is Like God, and a Curaçao fairy tale.

Trans Lit News

Unfortunately, some negative news in the trans lit world this week. The woman author of the 2018 book Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks, Nandini Krishnan, committed ethical transgressions against the trans people featured in her book. These included, but were not limited to, misgendering, dead naming, erasure of Indigenous histories, and violation of consent.

Invisible Men was published by Penguin India, and is Krishnan’s second book. Firstpost has reported in their deep dive article on the book that Penguin has not admitted fault or taken action based on Krishnan’s transgressions. The book was reviewed in the News Minute by Gee Imaan Semmalar, one of the people portrayed in the book, who recommends Revathi’s A Life in Trans Activism as an alternate title on this topic.

In addition, I want to put a plug in for author and fellow trans book blogger, Bogi Takács. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Bogi was recently forced to leave their doctoral studies. This is a great time for other folks in this community to step up and support their work!

Slightly Salty

I feel like this has been the week of people using performative inclusivity for profit, while being exclusive and silencing marginalized voices in practice, and I am upset about it.

The first instance of this I want to address is the Kickstarter for 99% Chance of Magic, an anthology from Heartspark Press. The marketing copy for this book, which has raised thousands of dollars in donated funding, claims that this book is the world’s first chapter book for transgender kids. This is problematic for two reasons. First, this book is an anthology, not a chapter book, and there are some other great anthologies out there for trans youth (the first that comes to mind is transVersing, published in 2018, an #OwnVoices anthology by and for trans youth).

The second issue was clear to me after reading the marketing copy for this book, reading information about the contributors, researching (and Tweeting at) Heartspark Press, and reviewing the calls for contributors that the press made for this anthology. This project is not inclusive of a breadth of trans experiences. All contributors, and all people included in Heartspark in general, are (C)AMAB ((coercively) assigned male at birth). The calls for contributors were made specifically with the #girlslikeus hashtag. The Heartspark Press online mission page reads, “Join us in lifting the voices of (C)AMAB trans people everywhere.” However, it is not made clear in the branding of this anthology that transmasculine and (C)AFAB non-binary voices were excluded from this project.

This isn’t the only Heartspark project that is branded ambiguously. On the homepage of their website, The Resilience Anthology is described as “the largest literary collection of trans women and non-binary writers”, and The Sisters from the Stars is described as “a new children’s book for trans kids and weirdos like us”. I have spoken to several enbies who have supported this press under the assumption that they are inclusive of all members of the trans community, when that is not the case.

An #OwnVoices project for and by (C)AMAB folks is great! There is so much space for trans literature in the world. However, it should be clear to folks who donate that the anthology does not reflect experiences of many non-binary, transmasculine, or intersex people. This information is important to provide to folks who purchase the anthology for, or sell it to, trans or gender creative children or youth. If given this book without context, it could easily and unintentionally worsen feelings of isolation or dysphoria.

The LGBTQ+ lexicon is ever-evolving, and the mobilization of identities for profit can be tricky. It’s time for organizations like Heartspark Press to update their marketing practices. Enbies (myself included!) are tired of microaggressive gatekeeping, binarizing of the non-binary, and neglect of transmasculine people. Say “trans” if you mean to include everyone in the trans community. If what you mean is something different, please say that. (And thanks to Laura Bishop, who articulated this better than I could have!)

PS, if you choose to purchase one of the books I’ve mentioned in this post, please follow one of the links. It’s an affiliate link for Amazon.com, so you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

Affirming Middle Grade Gems for Spring 2019

Currently reading: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Note: the links found on this page are affiliate links for Amazon.com, so if you use them to make purchases, you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link, and then search for the book you’re seeking. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

Trans Book News

At the end of 2018, I sent some feedback to the hosts of my favourite podcast, Book Riot, that I thought they should have included more content about LGBTQ+ (and specifically trans and enby) people, content, and issues in their last couple of episodes of the year. Well, it appears that they listened. In their latest episode, they discuss some relevant bookish news stories that specifically focus on censorship of trans content in libraries, and opposition to drag queen storytime, both in the US. Take a listen here.

I’m really excited about this one: a new picture book about gender by enby illustrator Noah Grigni (and written by Theresa Thorn) is coming out this May. It looks like a beautiful book. If you’re in Canada, you can pre-order it here, and in the US, pre-order it here. Pre-orders support authors so much, and if you use these affiliate links to order, you’ll be supporting my work, too.

Last week, Ceillie Simkiss posted an important review of a forthcoming YA novel featuring a trans character, which is written by a cis author and riddled with problematic content. It’s not recommended for trans readers. Read the full review here.

Good news for trans representation in books and non-binary authors this week! Jessica Love’s Julián is a Mermaid, which I featured in my 2018 Trans-Affirming Picture Book Wrap Up, was a recipient of the Stonewall Book Award at ALA Midwinter! Another recipient was Kheryn Callender’s Hurricane Child, which – spoiler alert! – I will be discussing next week, as part of my Black (History? Future? Present?) Month post. See the full 2019 Rainbow List here.

The Moon Within

See the suspiciously sleepy-looking eyes in that photo? Yeah. It’s because it was after midnight, because once I picked this book up, I couldn’t put it down. No one is more surprised than me, and I’m thrilled to admit it.

I actually wound up with two hardcopy ARCs of Aida Salazar’s The Moon Within from the shop where I work. Perhaps because the rest of the staff saw it and had the same reaction I did: this is a middle grade, novel-in-verse. See me: skeptical. Yet, coming of age stories are usually among my favourites, and this one is by a Latinx author and features a mixed-race MC with a genderfluid best friend. I decided to give it a chance.

But let’s be totally transparent. I picked it up on the night that I did because I’d been in a bit of a reading slump, and I thought, this book is short, and I’m probably not going to like it anyway. Might as well. I ended up so glad that I did. This is me, with the humble pie over here.

This coming-of-age story is a charming exploration of many tensions that will resonate for readers: reclaiming Indigenous culture in contemporary America, navigating early love, and overcoming challenges in deep friendships. This book is entirely age-appropriate as a middle grade novel, with writing that remains poetic and descriptive. This story spans a relatively long period of time, enabled by the verse format, which avoids the passage of time and depth of emotion feeling cumbersome to the reader. Spanish language is woven into the text of this novel, at times with and at times without translation and explanation, and I expect that this will enrich the cultural experience of this text for Latinx and other Spanish-speaking readers.

The only aspect of this book that I found challenging as an AFAB trans enby was the focus on menstruation as a theme in the text. While I imagine that it would be empowering for girls and women, this was at times a struggle for me to navigate, because of the troubled relationship I have with my own body and its hormonal cycles. I did appreciate that the text touched on this tension as well, with reference to the AFAB genderfluid character in the book, but (my biased perspective is that) I thought that it could have been more thoroughly probed.

I’m thrilled to be able to recommend this book, which drops on February 26th, but can be pre-ordered now. Give this one to your kids. Point your teacher friends toward it. Send it in the mail to your enby friends in Oakland, like I’m going to do. It’s a gem. You won’t want to miss it.

Little Apocalypse

Note: I received an eARC of Little Apocalypse through Edelweiss+.

I requested an ARC of Katherine Sparrow’s Little Apocalypse out of personal interest, because I love a good spooky story, even if it doesn’t have explicitly LGBTQ+ content. It was appealing in part because comped to Ellen Oh’s Spirit Hunters, which I read in 2018, and loved. Much like when I read The Moon Within, I picked it up because it was a middle grade book, and I’d been battling a cold, so that’s about where my executive function level felt comfortable at the time. But again like when I read The Moon Within… once I picked this up, I had trouble putting it down.

Maybe it’s about time that I checked my own prejudices about MG books, because despite being written for a young audience (I know, I know), the world-building in Little Apocalypse was rich and deep. I probably would have anticipated that had I been familiar with Sparrow before picking up this book – although this is her MG debut, she’s hardly a novice writer. Sparrow has four previously-published adult novels in a series called the Fay Morgan Chronicles, and one of her short stories, The Migratory Patterns of Dancers, was nominated for a Nebula award.

This is a monster-fighting book with a Strong Feminine Protagonist that is perfect Buffy or X-Files fans (or future fans of Buffy, or maybe Buffy herself). If you’re buying this one for a kid, and they enjoy superhero stories, it’s a great step up from something like Buffy: New School Nightmare, the Desmond Cole series, or the Goosebumps books. Parents will love about this book that although there aren’t a lot of responsible adult figures around while the plot is unfolding (surprise!), the main character’s love for her family is clear and abiding throughout the book, even as she truly comes into her own as the protagonist.

My favourite things about this book are that, 1, it was written for book lovers. It has a bookworm MC, features a library in one of its settings, and even some of the most dramatic apocalyptic imagery was book-evocative. 2, it’s a friendship book. There are little hints at romance in places in this novel, but ultimately, it is all in on nuanced, complicated, platonic relationships. 3, the monsters are awesome. 4, the author does not shy away from moral ambiguity in this book, and I love the depth and complexity of that gray area.

But ultimately, (spoiler alert) one of the things that I love about this book is that in the end, the main character undergoes a pretty significant physical and emotional transformation. Although it’s dramatic and complicated, she and her parents work through it together, and they wind up having a happy, loving life, all together. The book doesn’t gloss this over, but the happy ending was heartwarming. It was this part of the book that I felt would be really affirming to any kid, but especially to kids dealing with transition or coming out to their caregivers. (end spoilers)

I would recommend this book to anyone over the age of 9 or so (only because any younger, and I feel like it might be edging on nightmare territory), including adults. Little Apocalypse is available for pre-order now, and will be released on March 19th, 2019.

PS, if you choose to purchase one of the books I’ve mentioned in this post, please follow one of the links. It’s an affiliate link for Amazon.com, so you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!