Femme Rebels

Currently Reading: The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

An Academic Finding…

Some regular readers may know that when I’m not book blogging, I’m a PhD student, studying social work and critical animal studies. I came across an open access academic article this week while conducting a literature search on decolonial animal studies that I would be remiss not to share here. Although I haven’t written much about erotica here on the blog, obviously it’s a huge area of literature, and something I do write about a lot is spooky books… and who doesn’t love a good monster, right? Well, if monster erotica is up your alley, you should definitely check out this 2017 academic article from the journal Humanimalities, called How to Fuck a Kraken: Cephalopod Sexualities and Nonbinary Genders in Ebook Erotica. Although I couldn’t find much about the author, Dagmar Van Engen, online, they seem to be non-binary, and have taught in the English department at the University of Southern California. If you’re out there, Dagmar, give me a wave, so I can credit you properly! This article is rad. Dear readers: you’re welcome.

Artwork by Kayla Shaggy, a Dine/Annishinabe woman of color that draws and creates comic books.

If you like the artwork featured above, you can support see more on Kayla’s portfolio site, read her comics, or support her Patreon!

Femme Rebels in my #2019Reading

I only started tracking my reading in a real way a couple of years ago, back when the 50 Book Pledge was separate from Goodreads, and I didn’t even realize that there was such a thing as like, book culture. One of the things that I really like about tracking my reading is that as I read more, themes start to pop up in the titles I’ve picked, without my even expecting them to. One of the unintentional themes that’s come up in my reading this year, especially in the YA that I’ve been drawn to pick up, has been rebel girls.

Real talk: I would vastly prefer if I was finding loads of books with representation from a spectrum of gender identities, because the “rebel girl” trope for me feels a little binary and tired. However, if I’m going to read something from the plethora of books that are out there about binary identified characters, I’m at least glad that books are challenging gender stereotypes in so many ways, and that femme characters are fierce, queer, and forming complex friendships to take down the patriarchy.

There are three books that have really stood out for me this year in terms of this theme cropping up, and they’re all 2019 titles. We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia came out in February; A Dress for the Wicked, by Autumn Krause, just dropped a few days ago; and The Grace Year, by Kim Liggett, hits shelves in October – just in time for spooky season! I also read two books earlier this year that fit nicely into this theme: Little Apocalypse, by Katherine Sparrow, which I reviewed earlier this year, and The Hollow Girl, by Hillary Monahan, which is a backlist title, released in 2017.

The Hollow Girl: Horrific Revenge Fantasy

I’m going to write briefly about The Hollow Girl, because it is backlist, and because I read it really early on in 2019, but I haven’t written about it on this blog before. I actually read it in one sitting on a plane ride. It was at a time this year when I was filled with frustration about many things, but in particular about one of my partners’ ongoing divorces from an abusive and manipulative ex, who was treating everyone involved in her life with my partner terribly. It was triggering a lot of things in me to go through that experience – memories of my own past with my long-term abusive ex not least among them, as well as memories of the rape I experienced in my early 20’s.

The Hollow Girl was the revenge fantasy I needed, and it was incredibly cathartic to read. This book is a rad horror story about feminine rage in the face of sexual assault, with excellent, positive Welsh Roma representation. CW for violence, murder, and gore. Welsh Roma representation. It’s a heartwrenching book, and not an easy one to stomach, especially on a plane surrounded by strangers and stale air, but it’s also a book filled with dark magic and creepy grandmother mentors. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, I would recommend this book to any femme who can stomach it.

Rebel Girls

The other three books that I wanted to look at more closely are not horror titles, although some of the content in these YA dystopian titles is uncanny enough so as to be chilling. All of these books are stories of oppressive societies with polarized upper and lower classes, and the feminine characters that use their individual privilege in an effort to reject social norms and resist structural forces that marginalized the vulnerable members of their societies.

I’m going to come out and say this early on, and loudly, as someone for whom Margaret Atwood’s writing was very formative in my own education about activism and injustice: Since Margaret Atwood’s disappointing, apologist behaviour in the face of the sexual assault and harassment issues that came up in the CanLit community in 2018 (eloquently detailed by Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People in the Walrus), I no longer recommend her books or media based on them to my customers at the book shop. I am happy to say that any of these YA titles would make a great alternative read or curriculum replacement for The Handmaid’s Tale.

We Set the Dark on Fire is the first book in a trilogy that was released earlier this year, with the second volume coming in February of 2020. The author, Tehlor Kay Mejia, is queer and Latinx, and the book is a powerful #OwnVoices coming of age story set on the fictional island of Medio, featuring an undocumented MC who is learning how to be an activist and a rebel while living her life under the enemy’s roof.

The only thing that truly disappointed me about this book is that from the prologue and the lore of Medio, I was really excited for this author to dig into the radical storytelling potential of the world that she had created where triads, rather than couples, were the norm as heads of household. Even though this was presented as an oppressive, faith-based, polygamist structure, as a consensually non-monogamous person, I was curious where the author would take that. There are so few works of fiction where non-monogamy is portrayed in a non-toxic way, and I was curious if that would be explored at all in this book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Fortunately, the book is super queer, and although I’m not a huge romance person, I was glad for that.

I loved that the author sprinkled Latinx culture and language throughout *We Set the Dark on Fire*, but I was surprised at how quickly it felt to me like a novel about a literal war, rather than a symbolic or internal struggle. The pacing of the story really picked up near the end of this volume, though, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. CWs for physical violence and war-like conflict, alcohol use, sexual harassment.

I would describe A Dress for the Wicked as Project Runway meets The Hunger Games. There are lots of things that I loved about this book, which is a classic country-mouse-turns-city-mouse tale about a rural girl who gets a chance to compete in a high-profile fashion competition in a dystopian society where fashion is everything. As someone with a vivid visual imagination, the writing was a perfect level of poetic and descriptive, and the ending was emotionally satisfying for me as a reader. Although it’s described as romance, that’s not the focus of this book. I actually found it to be a bit queer bait-y, since there is no LGBTQ2S+ representation, but the plot centres on several richly portrayed feminine characters, who have a lot of depth and mystery. The lack of queer rep felt like a bit of a missed opportunity here.

In a lot of ways, I would have been more interested in A Dress for the Wicked if the heterosexual love interests hadn’t been introduced at all, since the relationships that were most important to the narrative and most interesting to me were the nuanced friendships between the women. The other things that I loved about this book are that there really aren’t any CWs necessary, it stands alone, and it has a hopeful ending. I often joke that I’ll consume any media as long as there’s pretty dresses… well, if this is you, you want this book, because it’s one that you can feel good about on multiple axes.

The one note that I should make here, because I read an advance copy of this book, and I’m not sure if it was changed for the final edition, is that there was one moment in this book that made me raise a serious eyebrow. In chapter 7, the author includes a line that is a real dig about consent culture around kissing (“If there is anything less romantic than being asked if someone may kiss you, I don’t know what it is.”). It’s hugely problematic, and completely unnecessary. I hope that it was revised before the final version was released? If you are a reader and you got your hands on the published version – fire me a message from my Contact page, and let me know!

Last but not least is The Grace Year, which is an Indie Next pick for Fall 2019. Unlike A Dress for the Wicked, this book does get dark fast, and there should be a big CW for physical violence, as well as a trigger warning for anyone who’s #Exvangelical or who has endured abuse in religious contexts. One of my goals this year was to read more fiction and non-fiction about religious right extremism, and I will probably feature this book in a blog post specifically about that at some point. That said, I could not put this book down – and I’m not the only one. The book has already been optioned for film, even though it hasn’t hit shelves yet.

I read this one on a plane, too (2019 has involved a lot of travel for me), and I tore through it. The Grace Year has a bit of a gender-bent Lord of the Flies feel that’s a commentary on the Christian religious right in a dystopian setting. Especially for educators, this book addresses so many of the themes in The Handmaid’s Tale, only they’re updated for a 2019 context, and as far as I know, the author hasn’t recently defended rape culture, which is a plus. This book has some queer representation, and a super empowering ending that made me bawl my eyes out. In public. On a plane. And contrary to We Set the Dark on Fire, even though this book isn’t literally about consensual non-monogamy, it did give me warm and fuzzy compersion feels.

Of course, I would be remiss to review four books in one blog post – five if you flipped back to read what I previously wrote about Little Apocalypse – and not to say that the one thing that stands out in common among all of them to me is that despite the fact that they are all books about resistance, struggle, fighting social norms, overcoming oppression… they are all stories that are essentially devoid of any non-binary content. It’s great to see queer content trickling into some of these titles, but it would be so cool to see non-binary and/or trans MCs in some of these rebel titles! I’d have even taken a genderfluid best friend, or a trans girl sidekick… this is a great opportunity for an author to get in and fill this niche. Although these books are fabulous, I’m ready for the book about the trans rebel who leads us to progressive revolution.

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Critical Publicity

Currently Reading: After the Eclipse, by Fran Dorricott

On Talking About Books

Recently, I was listening to an episode of the Print Run Podcast that was about the nuances that exist in talking about books, particularly the difference between writing about books for the sake of criticism versus writing about books for the sake of publicity. I spent the remainder of my drive after the episode ended thinking about my own talking about books, and considering why it is that I do what I do, and exactly what it is that I think I do, both in my personal life, and in this blog.

I have lots of qualifications that mean that I am well-suited to write literary criticism. I am a published doctoral student with a speciality in critical theory, and I spend a lot of time evaluating, peer reviewing, and producing academic writing. I am also a bookseller in a small, independent, justice-oriented bookstore in Toronto. If I’m feeling particularly self-confident, I would tell you that my marginalized identities and my social location mean that I bring a unique perspective to the books that I read.

That said, I would be lying to myself and anyone who cared to ask if I didn’t say that even when I’m providing criticism of a book, I’m ultimately doing it for the purposes of sales. It will probably damage my anti-capitalist street cred to say that, but living in a capitalist world, when I look around me and I consider what luxury purchases I want people to spend their surplus money on, and what investments I want people to make with their time? I want them to spend it on books.

A lot of that is selfish. Publishing is not a perfect industry, by any stretch – and mass market publishing is such a small part of the publishing sector as it exists in the world. But as person who has often felt isolated in the world, it’s not an exaggeration when I say that books have often been my closest friends, and there are many parts of my life that I never would have survived without them.

Reading is formative for me. It has made me who I am and continues to make me. Book sales provide some of my very limited income. And one of the only things that I have strong faith in is the ability of ideas to make the world better… so ultimately, I spend a lot of my energy trying to get the books that I think will do that into the hands of people who need them.

I’m not always sure that readers understand all of the moving parts that is the giant machine of mass market publishing. I know that I don’t fully understand it yet, and I had an even more limited grasp before I began working as a bookseller. From conception to writing to physical production to distribution to sales, there are so many links in the chain that need to remain strong for books to make it into the hands of readers.

Right now, at the shop where I work, there are some scary conversations happening. Toronto is one of the most expensive cities in Canada, so the basic costs of maintaining a storefront in this city are a challenge for any retail business, especially one with profit margins as small as bookselling has. Although my shop still maintains a storefront, we also do the vast majority of our business through school board contracts and with educators – whose budgets are getting slashed by our current provincial government. That means fewer book fairs, fewer vendor fairs, and fewer librarians, lib techs, and teacher librarians who are ordering from us.

On a more macro level, things like paper shortages and tariffs on books will impact our tiny store’s ability to get newly published titles in a timely manner, especially in comparison to places like Amazon and Indigo, who are able to order much larger quantities of books pre-sale. Because of this political climate, the amount of backorders and slow reprints that we have to manage these days is much higher than it was in the past, which makes it difficult to please educators and retail customers.

And more than ever, authors are being pressured by their economic situations and also by the publishing industry to always, always, always be focused on that elusive measure of success… the pre-order. But so often, I see huge authors – in some cases, very successful people who have won the majority of their recognition in part due to the efforts of independent booksellers – promoting their pre-sales through Amazon, or other big chain bookstores. Authors are my heroes, but it hurts my heart to see those links. Indies (and other brick and mortar stores) can take pre-orders, too!

When I review a title, I always try to offer a critical perspective. I choose diverse titles to read on purpose. I almost never read books written by allo cis het men, and I try to read as many books by underrepresented authors and with characters who embody marginalized identities as possible. No matter what I read, I try to write reviews honestly and analytically.

But when I review a title… I am always hoping that someone is going to go out and buy a book, or visit their local library and take one out. I always hope that someone is hearing about a book that they need to read, or that someone they know needs to read, when they open my blog on a Monday afternoon – or, that they’re hearing about a book that they should absolutely avoid, but in favour of something that’s going to do the job better. I don’t think that that makes my reviews less legitimate, or that it makes my perspective less valuable. Publicity for any individual book is important, but whether I review a single title well or poorly, I like to think that that is publicity for books… and for me, that is the most critical thing of all.

Review: Wilder Girls

The cover of Wilder Girls, by Rory Power.

…which brings me to my review this week. I almost don’t even need to review Wilder Girls, by Rory Power, which was released on July 9th. As I’m writing this, it currently sits at the top of the Goodreads list of top titles published this month, with over 40 000 users having added it to their “want to read” shelf. No one needs me to recommend them this book (content warnings found here), because chances are good, if it’s for you, you’ve heard about it already.

What the publicity copy on this book won’t tell you, though, is that this is a book that I needed, and that the world needs, so badly. The book is gripping. I stayed up way past my bedtime and woke up long before my dogs were hungry the next morning just to finish it. In so many ways, I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for a book like this one.

This is a YA title, but this book is straight up genre fiction. It’s definitely a horror title that stands on its own legs outside of the YA category – and for me, that’s important in and of itself, because it demonstrates the depth and breadth that YA titles encompass these days. More than that, this book is queer AF. Three are three main protagonists in this story, and all three of them are queer women. But the best thing for me? That’s not what the book is about. The book is about politics, infectious diseases, climate change, adaptation, transformation, disfiguration, trauma, coming of age, mental health, love, friendship, and ALSO… queerness.

The protagonists of Wilder Girls are complicated. The relationships that exist between them and that the characters have with themselves are morally ambiguous and messy and raw… and this book isn’t even about all that. We are finally getting books that embody those aspects of queer life and community, but also have riveting, thought-provoking, surprising plotlines. This is one of the first times that I have ever felt myself reflected in a book in an authentic, multi-faceted way, and I am deeply grateful for the weird and wonderful experience that that was.

Listen. It surprises me more than anyone that 40 000 want to read about infectious queer girls sprouting gills and fighting over food and trying to save their friends from dying, literally. But I am here for it.

If you didn’t pre-order Wilder Girls, and you think that it’s your speed, don’t sleep on it. Your local bookshop can and should hook you up, and while you’re at it, put in a request at your local library, too. Out there, there’s a teenaged me who’s going to have a very different life than I did because this book landed in their hands early on.

I’m Afraid of Men

Currently Reading: A Wolf Called Wander, by Rosanne Parry, illustrations by Mónica Armiño

A photo of the vendor table at the launch of I'm Afraid of Men, covered in many copies of Vivek Shraya's books, records, and children's books. There are also lots of I'm Afraid of Men buttons and bookmarks.
Copies of I’m Afraid of Men at the Toronto launch, held at the Art Gallery of Ontario, supported by Another Story Bookshop.

This week, I decided to post a review I wrote a while back, but hadn’t found the right time for yet… Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men. This book has been on my staff picks at the book shop since I got my hands on an ARC in May of 2018. Shraya is a prolific multi-disciplinary creator, and this small volume cannot nearly be called representative of her work, despite its relative visibility within mainstream culture. It seems like the right time to hype this title, since next month is the Toronto launch of Shraya’s new book, Death Threat, with artist Ness Lee. It will also be a celebration of Shraya’s imprint, VS. Books, and their first title, Shut Up You’re Pretty, by Téa Mutonji.

I had three reasons for wanting to write about I’m Afraid of Men, and why I’m consistently championing this title. First, I live in Canada, and this book was a big deal here. That said, I know that CanLit doesn’t always get the buzz that American-published titles do, so I wanted to lift this title up as much as I can, now that the initial visibility of its splash of a release has calmed down a little. Second, I often have customers at the book shop ask me what I thought of it as a trans person myself, and what audience I think it’s appropriate for. Finally, the book felt deeply personal to me, because despite the fact that there are lots of things that Shraya and I don’t share – experiences of racialization and gender identities, for example – there are lots of things that we do share. I, too, am afraid of cis people, men in particular, and I have also loved cis men, in my life.

I was lucky to get my hands on I’m Afraid of Men when it was just an ARC, and I later had the pleasure of attending the Toronto launch with the book shop where I work, which is why I can say with confidence that Shraya is as engaging in person as she is on the page. In Toronto, Shraya’s event for I’m Afraid of Men featured a dramatic recitation from the text accompanied by an artistic video montage, as well as a conversation hosted by Jully Black. I found myself moved when Black asked poignant questions that Shraya answered with touching vulnerability, and laughing as the two discussed soap operas. The large event at the Art Gallery of Ontario was sold out, and those in attendance were a diverse crowd. It felt like the perfect way to welcome Shraya’s creation into the world.

I devoured this book in one sitting. Although parts of the book felt as accessible as a trans 101 lesson, many of Shraya’s anecdotes resonated with me, and I felt like I could have easily been reading a friend’s diary. The book is part personal narrative, part critical analysis, and all clearly-written. My one caution to anyone who has extensive personal experience with the subject matter in this book is that the concluding pages felt more instructional and less nuanced than the rest of the book. That said, I would feel as comfortable handing a copy of this book to a cis het white young person with a limited knowledge of trans people and gender-related issues, as I was handing it to my genderqueer trans partner, covered in my eager marginalia.

I’m Afraid of Men is a must-read book that skillfully bridges the academic and the lyrical, and offers an important perspective on life as a trans woman of colour in contemporary society. It’s available now as a vibrant hardcover that’s perfect as a gift, or would be a gem on any shelf.

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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

A photo of a physical ARC of Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve on my bed.

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

The cover of Other Words for Smoke, by Sarah Maria Griffin.

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

A selfie of me with green hair, holding a physical ARC of The Devouring Gray, by Christine Lynn Herman.

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 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.

The Harrowing!

Currently reading: Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across, by Mary Lambert

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!

I was going to include a news section in this post, but I decided to leave it out this time around. There isn’t anything that I’ve read that feels like it hasn’t been covered by other sources, and I’ve shared a lot of salt lately. That said, if you missed my last post about Book Riot’s new policy rollout and demolition of the Epic Insiders program, feel free to check it out.

In this post, I’ll spend my energy talking about BOOKS! Two are educational titles designed for learning about queer and trans identities. The third is a recently released YA sci fi debut from Alex Harrow, a genderqueer author, who describes their work as “queerness with a chance of explosions”. Join the Harrowing and check out Empire of Light, which came out on February 25th.

Educational Titles

You Be You

Cover of You Be You! by Jonathan Branfman and illustrated by Julie Benbassat.

I received an arc of You Be You, by Jonathan Branfman and Julie Benbassat from Edelweiss+. This title is aimed at children 7 to 11 years of age, and yall, this is a book I’ve been waiting for, for a LONG time. It has diverse, charming, age-appropriate illustrations, and addresses topics such as sex, gender, sexuality, family, discrimination, privilege, intersectionality, and allyship in an affirming way. I was excited. Unfortunately, this was also a let down for me.

While I was pleased to see that the book uses biologically accurate terminology, particularly for body parts, the LGBTQ lexicon in this book is outdated. For example, “gender” and “gender identity” are treated as separate concepts. “Orientation” is used with regards to sexuality, rather than “identity”. “Homophobia” and “transphobia” are used in cases where “hetero-” and “cis-normativity” would have been more appropriate. There is conflation of the concepts of discrimination and oppression. Lastly, there was also some ableism in the framing of disabilities as afflictions (“having deafness” versus “deaf”).

After doing some research, it is unclear to me whether the author and illustrator are themselves queer or trans. Branfman is an academic, and particularly if he is coming from outside of the LGBTQ+ community, some of the nuances of current lexicon may have been lost in translation when incorporating current sociological education materials into an age-appropriate format.

Terminology, isn’t the only significant flaw with this book. Throughout the sections on family, the book consistently refers to a monogamous norm. Because I am part of a polyamorous, blended family, I found this personally disappointing. In addition, there was noticeable asexual erasure throughout the chapter on love and attraction. Finally, this book was focused exclusively on the American context. Part of the reason why I review books is to know whether or not they are suitable for sale at the Canadian independent bookshop where I work, and unfortunately that lowers the appeal of this book for us as well.

In short, the concept of this book is great, and it is available for sale as of July, 2019 (this is unclear – I think an initial publication happened in 2017, and this reprint is potentially part of a larger translation project). I hope that the creators will be able to incorporate feedback before that time, because otherwise I fear this book will be come quickly outdated. This is a great example of publishing taking baby steps in the right direction, but also demonstrates to me that we still have a long way to go.

A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities

A page from the Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities, in which a snail is pictured atop a flowering, spiral-shaped plant on a pink psychedelic background with stars and plant fronds. A speech balloon reads, "Try new things, take some changes. You might be surprised at what you discover and what feels right!"
From A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities.

By contrast, I received a copy of A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities by Mady G and J. R. Zuckerberg from NetGalley. I am in love with this book, and I want to give it to everyone I know. What’s great is that at $9.99 USD, it’s actually feasible for someone at a limited income to purchase!

This book is wicked trippy, and I’m into it. And I learned things. Legit. From a 101 book. It’s current, it’s inclusive, it explores more in depth concepts (eg, non-binary dysphoria, the first time I’ve ever seen this in a published text; warning signs of abuse in relationships; aftercare; alternate personas) alongside the more basic ones. Although it’s cutesy, it is also nuanced. Also? The protagonist is a snail. YUP.

This book is slightly more wordy than I want it to be, but it’s appropriate for any age, and it is affirming of the most marginalized of LGBTQ+ identities, including non-binary and ace. Unfortunately, an exploration of Two Spirit identity is notably absent. There is no discussion of sex or sexual acts, and the complex, fantastical illustrations provide charming balance to the text.

I only have a few critiques to offer about this delightful comic. First, it is strange that the first block of text inside the cover is from the parent of a QT person. I wasn’t sure what this introduction achieved, and it felt disingenuous to the purposes of the comic. Second, there was a slightly problematic focus on self-love. I don’t think it’s too much, but it did feel a little ableist to me as someone who struggles with dysphoria and depression. Finally, there was no overt affirmation of non-monogamous identities, but to the creator’s credit, there was no overt monogamous normativity either.

My favourite thing about this book, though, is that there are creative activity pages at the end! INCLUDING HOW TO MAKE A ZINE. I loved them, and I can’t wait to make a sproutsona with queer fam one day!

This title is available for pre-order now, and will release on April 23, 2019.

Empire of Light

The cover of Empire of Light, by Alex Harrow.

I submitted a request for an Empire of Light eARC through Alex Harrow’s website, because through the grapevine, I’d heard of this soon-to-be released YA SFF debut from an enby author that I’d never heard tell of before. I read the publicity copy for the book and thought, this sounds fun. Sure. Why not?

As anyone who follows my reading will know, I don’t usually do “fun”. But I try to, sometimes, especially when things are rough. (Which: yes.) Full disclosure, it took me a minute to get into this book… but I was really glad that I did. It’s a romp, for sure. Empire of Light is a fast-paced ride, and the comp to queer Firefly with magic is on point. The characters in this book never lift off the surface of the planet, but it’s certainly otherworldly. Plus, in Harrow’s novel, there’s also magic: the inexplicable Voyance, which gives those who possess it some amorphous mystical powers. Without the squickiness of Joss Whedon to consider, why bother resisting?

“Queer with a chance of explosions” is the perfect brand for Harrow’s work. CW for all kinds of violence and guns everywhere in this novel, as well as positive representation of assisted death that appears on the page. There is (very queer) sexual intimacy that appears on the page in this book as well, and I found the mentions of use of condoms and lubrication in these settings utterly refreshing. However, there are also so many necessary ingredients for queer representation that feels real, impactful, and resonant. Aside from the undeniably gay protagonist, there is also shame-free representation of kink, bisexuality, demisexuality, non-binary identity, trauma, and some kind of ambiguous non-monogamy, possibly with a side of sex work.

It’s possible that this was me misinterpreting aspects of the book, but there were moments in which the Voyance, and the sometimes unpredictable effects that it had on the characters in the book, felt like it could work as a stand-in for some of the health challenges that have impacted LGBTQ+ communities, for example, the AIDS crisis.

This is a complicated book, but somehow, Empire of Light manages to come off as a colloquial, action-packed adventure story. For this francophone, it was particularly heartwarming that Harrow used French-language names for some of the geographical locations used in the book, even though the rationale behind that remains unclear to me. The only criticisms I have of this book are that some of the side characters felt underdeveloped, there wasn’t obvious racial diversity among the characters, and I missed having feminine MCs, since most of the significant characters in this book are masculine.

Empire of Light is available now, and if you’re a fan of exciting SFF that doesn’t shy away from addressing profound themes, or if you’re just looking for a fantastic LGBTQ+ #OwnVoices book to chew through this winter, get in on the Harrowing.

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.

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

The covers of Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender (formerly under a different name), and Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi.

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 Kacen Callender (formerly under a different name), 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 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.

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

A selfie of me, with green hair, looking sleepy, and holding an ARC of The Moon Within, by Aida Salazar.

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

The cover of Little Apocalypse, by Katherine Sparrow.

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 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.