Book Review: Siren Queen

sirenSiren Queen by Nghi Vo
Published May 10, 2022
Set in a fantastical Hollywood, where both magic and monsters are real, Siren Queen is an atmospheric, enthralling tale that will reward patient readers.

Luli Wei is an ambitious, beautiful, queer woman of colour desperate to be a star. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she spends her childhood chopping off an inch of her own hair, the price of a ticket, to spend a few hours enraptured by the magic of movies at her local cinema. Then a film shoot in her neighbourhood offers Luli a background role and a chance to brush against the world she desires so badly. Propelling herself into Hollywood comes with a cost, but Luli has enough leverage to demand some stipulations of her own: “No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.” For a while the studio doesn’t know what to do with her and Luli wonders if she’ll ever get a break, then she’s cast as a monster, the terrifying siren queen, and her star begins to rise.

Few authors can evoke a setting quite like Nghi Vo. Just as she brought to life a fantastical empire reminiscent of Imperial China in The Empress of Salt and Fortune and a hot 1920s summer on Long Island in The Chosen and the Beautiful, here she turns her imagination loose on an ominous fantastical Hollywood headed by real monsters. Even though Siren Queen is told through the frame of a future Luli telling her lover, Jane, about her life, Vo manages to create and maintain a feeling of danger, of not quite knowing how it will all turn out.

Luli Wei is a terrific character. She knows what she wants and is calculating enough to do what she must along the way, whether it’s taking a name that belongs to someone dear to her or trading years of her life in exchange for career advice. Once in the door, Luli lacks both the power to compel herself further, and the understanding of how to carve out a niche for herself. Then she’s cast as the villain. While Luli is bold and unapologetic, refusing to compromise her principles, Siren Queen never looks down upon those who take other paths. There’s compassion there for gay actors who choose to marry a spouse they aren’t attracted to and for marginalized actors who take stereotypical roles in order to carve out space for themselves in a world dominated by white people.

Siren Queen continually asks questions like how much of yourself are you willing to risk/sign away/carve out for a shot at immortality? Do you try to live authentically or do you hide, reshape, or reinvent parts of yourself? Is it worth it? There’s something intentionally fairy tale-esque about it, the way Vo uses bargains, contracts, and even the power of naming in this story that makes metaphorical monsters literal and otherworldly.

The obvious comparison here is to Taylor Jenkins Reid’s bestselling The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. It’s understandable; they’re both well-written, engaging books about enigmatic, ambitious, and sometimes unlikable, queer women of colour who do what they must to get ahead in the film industry. Despite loving both books (and both characters!) I don’t think they’ll necessarily attract the same audience though. Seven Husbands moves at a quicker pace, its monsters are of the human variety, and it reads as escapism with hidden depths, while Siren Queen is slower and more deliberate, leans into the fantastical (did I mention that Luli’s roommate is a magical Swedish cow woman?), yet remains grounded through what it has to say about the moral complexities of fame and power.

Siren Queen isn’t going to appeal to everyone. There are no doubt people who will find it too slow for them, but I love Nghi Vo’s atmospheric writing and her exquisite prose so much that I’d like the rest of her books injected straight into my veins please. Readers who are willing to take the time and spend awhile in Luli’s world will be ensorcelled by this atmospheric fantasy about a clever, unapologetic, queer Asian American woman forging her own path through the glamour and corruption of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Mini Book Reviews: PRIDE edition

While Pride is traditionally celebrated in June, LGBTQ+ books are never out of season. Here are my thoughts on some recent LGBTQ+ reads.
Image of the cover of Ace, a book by Angela Chen.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

Remember the days when the only mainstream asexual representation was a handful of YA romances? I do, and it’s why, as an asexual bookworm, I am so glad that a thought-provoking book like this exists. Ace not only represents a wide range of asexual experiences, including disabled aces, aces of colour, male aces, non-binary aces, and aromantic asexuals, it also challenges all readers, ace and allosexual (meaning people who experience sexual attraction to others), to re-examine how we think about and relate to sex and relationships.

Chen writes in a style that is clear and accessible, drawing on personal anecdotes as well as analysis of sexuality and interviews conducted with asexual people. She also has an uncanny ability to look at an issue or topic from all sides and anticipate counter-arguments, which makes for a persuasive and eye-opening book. A bibliography and extensive notes section speak to the research that has gone into this book and may point those looking for more resources in the right direction. As someone who reads very little non-fiction, and who generally prefers narrative non-fiction, I did find Ace a little more theoretical and academic than I’m used to, but it’s still a worthwhile and insightful read.

I not only recommend this book to fellow asexuals who may still be figuring things out or who want to read books about asexuality, but also to pretty much everyone. The points Chen makes about compulsory sexuality are enlightening and I think there is genuinely something that any reader, be they ace or allo, can take away from this book.

Picture of the cover of The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros. The cover is a dark bloody red with mustard yellow font and graphics of a ferris wheel and gaslamps.

The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros

Just when I thought that I’d outgrown Young Adult as a genre entirely, I pick up a pair of outstanding queer young adult historical novels! Featuring a Jewish protagonist, The City Beautiful is set in Chicago during the 1890s, a time when thousands of Jewish refugees were fleeing rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Alter Rosen, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, shares a room with three others and often goes hungry as he tries to save enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America. But when his closest friend Yakov becomes the latest victim in a line of murdered Jewish boys, Alter is possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk, a malevolent possessing spirit that seeks to take over Alter’s body. Alter must join forces with a dangerous boy from his past to find Yakov’s killer.

I’ve never read anything quite like The City Beautiful! I absolutely loved the way Aden Polydoros depicts 1893 Chicago, as both a city of promise and glittering delights, but also a place of poverty, prejudice, and danger. His writing is so evocative that I had a clear picture in my head of the setting as events unfolded. Alter Rosen is deeply empathetic as a boy just trying to make the right choice, but who is tempted by desires he believes to be wrong, and I felt invested in the romance that develops between Alter and another boy. Almost as wonderful as good mensch Alter, are the secondary characters, who are well-developed with their own voices, quirks, and pasts. There’s definitely anger, grief, and pain here, but Polydoros confronts them with maturity and an authenticity that I found moving. Be warned that there is darkness here though and potentially triggering content. The combination of Jewish mythology, murder mystery, characters to root for, and an atmospheric setting make this an irresistible read.

Picture of the cover of The Reckless Kind by Carly Heath

The Reckless Kind by Carly Heath

Set in early twentieth-century Norway, The Restless Kind is about the friendship between three outcast teens who find refuge in community theatre. Asta is a hard-of-hearing girl who looks different from anyone else in her village due to her mismatched eyes and white forelock. Alongside her friend Gunnar and his secret boyfriend Erlend, she hopes to perform in the local theatre and make a life together as a unit rather than enter into marriage with anyone. However, any future they hope to have together will require money. They have one shot at gaining enough money to secure their future: win the village’s annual horse race.

I loved so much about this novel, but let’s start with the wonderful rep. Disability is still too infrequently represented or at least represented well in fiction. Although Carly Heath is limited by the language of 1904 and therefore discusses the conditions her characters have in an author’s note rather than in the text, she writes from experience about being hard-of-hearing, having post-concussion syndrome, and her experiences with lumbar spine trauma inform her portrayal of Gunnar’s Brown-Sequard syndrome. There is also sexual diversity as Gunnar and Erlend are gay men and Asta is asexual. Accordingly, The Restless Kind is a book about authenticity and resisting the pressure to conform to societal norms, even when it’s difficult.

It’s the characters who are the beating heart of this found family story. I loved reading about Asta, who is courageous and hardworking, maintaining hope as she tries to keep her found family together when circumstances and despair threaten to tear them apart. Told in a dual narrative format, wealthy, big-hearted, but anxious Erlend is the other perspective character. Gravely injured Gunnar is the only one of the central trio not to get a point-of-view chapter. Independent and straightforward, he has a tendency towards melancholy and copes through dark humour that makes his boyfriend nervous. Gunnar’s serious younger brother Fred completes the family.

I would recommend The Restless Kind to anyone who has ever dreamed of running away to a cottage with their friends, anyone who loved Frozen but wished it had lived up to its queer potential, and those looking for a hopeful read about queer found family with authentic disability representation.

Picture of the cover of Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko. It features a stylized illustration of a woman with brown skin and long Black hair astride a motorcycle. She is wearing a black leather jacket and jeans. The motorcycle has a rainbow pride flag sticker on it. The background depicts green hills against a teal sky and the title Too Much Lip is in large blocky white text.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Early on in Too Much Lip I began to realize exactly how few Australian novels I’d read before and that this was the first Indigenous Australian novel I’d ever picked up. It took a bit for me to get used to the vernacular and the distinct sense of dark humour here, but I’m glad I read Too Much Lip! The book revolves around Kerry Salter, a tough, wise-cracking bisexual woman on a stolen Harley who plans who spend twenty-four hours, tops, in her hometown – just enough time to say goodbye to her dying father. But Bundjalung country has a way of latching onto people and soon she’s once again dealing with her chaotic family, a proposal to build a prison on Granny Ava’s Island, the family’s spiritual home, and her attraction to a good-looking white fella.

Kerry is such a great character to spend time with. She’s outwardly tough, unapologetic, and her smart mouth gets her into trouble, but she also cares. The rest of the Salter Family are similarly well-developed, survivors of trauma who feel fucked up and flawed but who are still standing and interact in all the ways that a family can (both loving and dysfunctional). Author Melissa Lucashenko has a voice that’s distinctly her own and she writes about intergenerational trauma and Australian Indigenous identity in a way that’s intelligent, raw and unflinching, but characterized throughout by biting humour. It’s worth noting that this book deals with a lot of very heavy stuff so please heed the content warnings and know what you’re getting into, but Too Much Lip is a well-written and original novel that I would recommend to the right reader.
Content warnings for child abuse, incest, domestic abuse, alcoholism, and animal cruelty that includes the dog dying

Review: Rogues

roguesRogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks by Patrick Radden Keefe
Published June 28, 2022
I read almost entirely fiction. In fact, I can count the non-fiction books I read each year on one hand and still have fingers left over, but Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland is so remarkably gripping and well-written that it became my favourite read of 2019. While his second book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, didn’t capture me in quite the same way, I still loved reading it. I’m not sure whether it’s just the difference between reading a full-length book versus a short story collection, the subject matter, the writing itself, or answer d) all of the above, but Keefe’s latest book, Rogues, didn’t blow me away.

As you can tell from the four star rating, I clearly still enjoyed Rogues. My library hold came in right when I was in the middle of a pretty intense reading slump, and I found Rogues a refreshing diversion that I finished in a matter of days. It may not have broken my slump, but it did hold my attention and I would recommend it to others… with a few caveats.

Collecting twelve of his previously published articles from The New Yorker, Keefe says in his preface that this latest book “reflect[s] on some of my abiding preoccupations: crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial.” The articles range from a fascinating story about the intricacies of forging $150,000 vintage wines to exploring how reality TV producer Mark Burnett reforged Donald Trump into an example of American success.

The biggest reason to pick up this book is, of course, Patrick Radden Keefe’s writing. Keefe is an investigative journalist and his stories are always meticulously well-researched and compellingly told. I often shy away from non-fiction because it fails to capture my attention and the writing can be dry, but Patrick Radden Keefe always manages to hook me and keep me turning the pages, as eager to find out what comes next as I would be reading any great fictional mystery or thriller.

The nature of a short story collection is that some stories will grab you more than others, and that’s the case here. Rogues is a bit of a mixed bag. I absolutely loved some of the articles, but others dragged and I couldn’t connect with them. Rogues starts out strong with “The Jefferson Bottles”, a fascinating look at forging eighteenth-century wines and claiming a link to noted wine connoisseur Thomas Jefferson. My brilliant BookTuber friend Jill at The Book Bully observed that she loved this one because it’s about crimes that only hurt rich people and I completely agree!

Another highlight is “Winning”, which looks at how Mark Burnett, creator and producer of reality TV shows Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank, and The Apprentice, reshaped Donald Trump’s image. Growing up, I remember watching The Apprentice with my parents and even staying in one of his (incredibly tacky) hotels on a family trip to Atlantic City. Reading about Burnett’s calculating tactics, the way he stroked Trump’s ego to new heights, and his culpability in the rise of Donald Trump to positions of power and success is a somewhat harrowing experience, but it makes for compelling reading.

I would also single out “The Worst of the Worst”, Keefe’s look at star defense lawyer Judy Clarke, who has defended some of the worst American criminals, including Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and Dzhokbar Tsarnaev (one of two men responsible for the bombing the Boston Marathon). An opponent of capital punishment, Clarke believes that all of her clients are people, not monsters, and tries to understand what caused them to commit their crimes.

Ultimately some of the stories in Rogues suffer because of their subject matter. My interest in organized crime is limited and even the gifted Keefe can’t make drug lords and arms dealers into interesting reading so “The Hunt for El Chapo” and “The Prince of Marbella” were never going to be favourites of mine.

While “Journeyman”, a profile of Anthony Bourdain, is well-written and engaging, it feels out of place in this collection. Yes, technically Bourdain falls under the ‘rebels’ part of the subtitle for his unorthodox approach to food, but when all of the other stories have to do with those who break the law in one fashion or another, this article feels adrift. Is it a great article? Yes. Should it have been included in this topical collection? In my opinion, no.

Who would I recommend this book to?
Those who enjoy engaging narrative non-fiction and have already read Empire of Pain and/or Say Nothing (because otherwise you should really read those instead) or are looking for a shorter diversion/enjoy short story collections will enjoy this solid, if not 100% satisfying, book.

Who would I NOT recommend this book to?
If you’re finding the world really grim these days and are looking for a more optimistic read, you might want to hold off on Rogues, Empire of Pain, and Say Nothing.

Review: Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead

everyone1Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin
Published July 6th 2021
Reading Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is not exactly an enjoyable experience – the situations that protagonist Gilda gets herself into made me cringe, and the too relatable depiction of a mental health spiral felt like a personal attack – but even so I loved this book!

A twenty-something atheist lesbian so prone to panic attacks that Emergency Room staff all know her by name, Gilda responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local Catholic church. She’s greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is hired to replace the church’s recently deceased receptionist, Grace, and quickly becomes obsessed with her predecessor’s mysterious death.

Gilda’s first-person narration is often darky comic, and succeeds in making the reader root for her. While it can be frustrating to watch Gilda continue to make choices that we would never make ourselves (impersonating Grace and striking up an email correspondence with an old friend of Grace’s instead of just informing the woman that sadly her friend has passed away comes to mind!), Gilda is so clearly a victim of her declining mental health that she remains empathetic throughout. It’s also important that Gilda’s choices are well-meant and any harm she does to her relationships and to others is unintentional. I found it especially ironic that most of the situations Gilda finds herself in occur because she tried to reach out for help.

Debut author Emily Austin writes with a frank and sardonic wit that places us intimately inside Gilda’s mind. Gilda is outwardly quiet, unwilling to ask people for the things she needs or to honestly assess her condition, she meekly finds herself working for the Catholic Church and dating a man. Yet her thoughts are more candid and self-aware, providing much of the book’s humour. There’s a pervading melancholy to Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, and truth in its depiction of people who seem, on the surface, to be coping, but who are actually struggling. While this book can be a bleak experience, there is also catharsis, and even a gentle resolution that seems to encourage us to have hope and to treat ourselves with kindness.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is a compelling and moving read that definitely made me tear up before the end.

Who would I recommend this book to?
This book will appeal to fans of the Ottessa Moshfegh-style “disaster woman” and to those who have gone through their own mental health struggles.

Who would I NOT recommend this book to?
If you can’t handle second-hand embarrassment, steer clear of Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead.

The Mid-Year Freak Out – Book Tag 2022

It’s July, which means we’re half-way through the year and it’s time for that annual tradition that makes us all wonder where the last six months of our lives have gone, the mid-year freak out book tag!

1. The Best Book You’ve Read So Far In 2022
boneorchardHonestly I’m having one of those years where I’m reading a lot and reading a lot of great books, but have discovered very few new favourites. So far, my favourite read is Sara A. Mueller’s genre-defying debut, The Bone Orchard. Part political fantasy, part revenge narrative, and part mystery, The Bone Orchard is cleverly written, deftly plotted, and its world is richly drawn. It revolves around Charm, the necromantic mistress of a brothel that services the wealthy of Borenguard, including its Emperor. When Charm is summoned to the Emperor’s deathbed, he charges her with choosing which of his awful sons will carry on the empire, and discovering which one is responsible for his own murder. I absolutely loved this book and I’m baffled it hasn’t been more hyped or better received.

2. Your Favourite Sequel This Year

As a reader of predominantly sci-fi and fantasy, I usually wind up reading a number of sequels. Surprisingly I can only think of three that I’ve enjoyed so far this year. Volume 4 of Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper is heartfelt and tear-jerking as it delves deeper into Charlie’s mental health problems. The Missing of Clairedelune, the second book in Dabos’ The Mirror Visitor Quartet, strengthens the relationship between Ophelia and Thorn and expands the worldbuilding in an intriguing follow-up that ends with a devastating cliffhanger. Finally, Nghi Vo’s When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is another knockout as it weaves in themes of storytelling and how a tale changes depending on the audience, the teller, and the cultural context around actions and words.

3. A New Release That You Haven’t Read But Really Want To
I’ve been a fan of Robert Jackson Bennett’s for awhile, so I’m looking forward to seeing how he wraps up his Founders Trilogy in Locklands! Apparently this volume is set eight years after Shorefall and I’m curious about the ripple effect that those events have had on the universe!

4. Most Anticipated Release For The Second Half Of The Year
atfotsMy favourite book of 2021 was Victoria Goddard’s fantasy doorstopper The Hands of the Emperor. Described as a cross between Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, Disney’s Moana, the musical Hamilton, and TV show, The West Wing, it’s a quiet fantasy about the slow, important work of political change and about the individuals trying to make the world a better place through reforms like universal basic income. Goddard is hard at work on a direct sequel to The Hands of the Emperor, titled At The Feet of the Sun, which continues the story of Cliopher ‘Kip’ Mdang, the Wide Seas Islander who serves as His Radiancy’s secretary and the head of His government. Goddard is self-published and an official release date is forthcoming, but it is expected to be near the end of the year!

5. Your Biggest Disappointment

tenderI absolutely loved The Great Gatsby, which I read for the first time last year, so I expected Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night to work for me too. Alas, I found this unspeakably boring. I didn’t care about any of the characters or what happened to them, and I frequently zoned out while reading. If I hadn’t been reading this for a book club, I would have DNFed it.

6. Biggest Surprise Of The Year
peterdarlingI’ve never been all that interested in fairy tale retellings and my feelings towards Peter Pan are decidedly ‘meh’, so I went into this trans retelling with limited expectations. Surprise! In Peter Darling, Austin Chant cleverly constructs a plot where Peter Pan returns to Neverland after ten years in the real world. Things have changed in his absence and the only person who seems to have missed him is his old rival Hook. The rivalry between them blurs into something more complicated and sensual. Moving, profound, and tautly written, I loved reading this original queer take on J.M. Barrie’s classic adventure story.

7. Favourite New To You Or Debut Author
shewhobecameBesides Sara A. Mueller, another new-to-me author I enjoyed reading is Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun. Their historical fantasy is a queer reimagining of the life and ascension of Zhu Yuanzhuang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. This sapphic trifecta novel is so well-written and plays with gender in a really interesting way. I loved the bonds between both Zhu Chongba and Ouyang, a General in the Great Yuan army and a eunuch, and between Zhu and Ma Yingzi. At a time when I was having a lot of trouble reading, this book held my attention and I look forward to seeing what Parker-Chan writes next.

8. Your New Fictional Crush

9. New Favourite Character

Two of the characters in Mueller’s The Bone Orchard are new favourites of mine; Charm and Justice. Charm is the Emperor’s mistress, a prisoner who asserts her will and independence through frequently dying her hair in vivid shades. Her survival instinct, strength, and cunning, won me over. Justice, one of her ‘bone ghosts’, offers more generosity of spirit, steadfastness, and compassion. Unsurprisingly, I was also won over by Ophelia, a plain, quiet-spoken museum curator who prefers books and objects to people, in Dabos’ Mirror Visitor Quartet. Ophelia’s intelligence, courage, and drive make her a new favourite character of mine.

10. A Book That Made You Cry

I haven’t yet added any of this year’s reads to my I-actually-cried shelf on goodreads, but these two certainly made me come close! Everyone in this room will someday be dead certainly offers its share of second-hand embarrassment, as the protagonist makes decisions that make you want to slam your head against a desk, but it’s also an unflinchingly honest portrait of mental illness and living with severe anxiety and panic attacks. Some of the descriptions made me, a woman going through her own mental health issues and dealing with anxiety, relate a little too hard and I definitely teared up on more than one occasion! Alec, William di Canzio’s sequel to the gay classic Maurice, had me tearing up for other reasons. The way this book brings in queer community and gay elders is incredibly moving, but it’s the reunion between Alec and Maurice, which uses the very best trope of two lovers being separated for awhile, perhaps even thinking the other dead, spotting each other and walking slowly toward each other. Yes, this made me tear up just as it does in Pride and Prejudice and in Black Sails.

11. A Book That Made You Happy

As discussed above, I was moved by di Canzio’s Alec in the way that it depicts queer community, found family, and a loving gay relationship with a happy ending in times when that was less likely. The Queer Principles of Kit Webb was my first Cat Sebastian book and it won’t be my last! Abiding by the “be gay, do crimes” catchphrase, it throws together Percy, the son of a Lord, and Kit, a retired highwayman and current coffeehouse owner, for an odd couple pairing that I really enjoyed. Over the past year I’ve been delving into the works of Canadian author Victoria Goddard. While I didn’t love The Return of Fitzroy Angursell in the same all-encompassing way as I did The Hands of the Emperor, it’s a delightful book that continues the adventures of The Last Emperor of Astandalas on his quest to find a successor, and perhaps look up some old friends along the way. I did not expect to find out that the serene Emperor was such a chaos gremlin and it did take some wrapping my head around, but I wound up really enjoying this!

12. Your Favourite Book To Movie Adaptation That You’ve Seen This Year
powerofthedogI don’t think I’ve seen any book to movie adaptations so far this year, but I did absolutely love The Power of the Dog, a beautifully shot look at the impact of toxic masculinity. A book club I’m in is planning to read Thomas Savage’s book this fall, and I’m looking forward to it!

13. Favourite Book Post That You’ve Published This Year
I haven’t been around here much, but I was pleased with 5 Bookish Things I Changed My Mind About + 1 I’m Hoping to Reconsider!

14. The Most Beautiful Book You Bought Or Received This Year
loveI’m a big fan of the colourful cover on Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City. Hilarious and heartfelt, Love in the Big City is about a gay man’s search for love in Seoul, South Korea.

15. What Are Some Books That You Need To Read By The End Of The Year

So so many! I’m focusing on books I own and intend to prioritize, which include: Another member of the Sapphic Trifecta, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri; Mary Renault’s historical fiction classic about Alexander the Great, Fire From Heaven; Till Human Voices Wake Us, Victoria Goddard’s first novel about a mage trying to prevent the end of the world when his estranged brother appears at his door; Freya Marske’s queer historical fantasy romance set in an Edwardian England full of magic, contracts, and conspiracies, A Marvellous Light; and Victoria Goddard’s latest novel, The Redoubtable Pali Avramapul, about a folk hero turned scholar who uses her tongue and pen more than her sword these days, but who keeps her sword sharp in case adventure comes calling.

How is everyone else feeling about their reading this year? What are your favourites so far? Let me know in the comments!

Review: Gender Queer

Gender Queer: a Memoir by Maia Kobabe
Published May 28th 2019 by Oni Press
239 pgs

A Stonewall Honor Book in Non-Fiction, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer is an insightful autobiographical comic about eir path to identifying as nonbinary and asexual. Writing in an intensely personal way, Kobabe’s non-chronological graphic novel moves between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

In eir cathartic book, the storytelling follows a clear path, and Kobabe’s voice is candidly intimate, as if e is talking to friends, rather than a stranger. E strikes a balance, relating the traumas of undergoing pelvic exams and being misgendered alongside lighter moments, like bonding with friends through erotic gay fanfiction, and worshipping flamboyant US figure skater Johnny Weir.

As an asexual woman, I could relate to some of Kobabe’s struggles along the path to labelling eirself as asexual, but this is the first memoir I’ve read by a non-binary person. It was those aspects of the book that attracted me the most.

I’m not an especially feminine woman. I’ve only gotten a manicure once (for prom), I despise shoe shopping, and I can count the tubes of lipstick I own on one hand, but I have also never felt like I am anything other than a woman. As a cisgender person, I do not experience gender dysphoria when I look at myself in the mirror, or have to live with people making incorrect assumptions about my gender based on physical characteristics or how I present myself to the world. With its candid depiction of what it’s like to grow up as a gender nonconforming person and broader commentary on gender identity in society, Gender Queer is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about the lived experience of being nonbinary.

Kobabe hits milestones along eir journey; E cuts eir hair short, comes out to eir family, starts to wear a binder, and begins buying the clothes that allow em to express eirself in “queer and magical ways”. Yet in this memoir, as in life, it is clear that things are not so neatly wrapped up and the journey will continue. The final pages see Kobabe worrying about not introducing eirself as nonbinary to the kids at a comic workshop e’s teaching at the library. Do I have a responsibility to be the nonbinary role model I would have wanted to see growing up? wonders Kobabe. Is it fear that’s holding me back?

As someone who bounces off non-fiction easily, one of the joys of Gender Queer is that it educates without being didactic. I never felt like I was being lectured to, but I gained understanding about one person’s life experience as a nonbinary individual. Highly recommended.

5 Bookish Things I Changed My Mind About + 1 I’m Hoping to Reconsider  

One of the greatest gifts as a reader is to have a reading experience that changes your mind for the better about something. Whether it’s revisiting a classic novel and gaining a new understanding of it or finding joy in a genre or form that you’d never appreciated before, I love the way that reading a certain book can alter your outlook and shift your future reading trajectory.

As I sat down to review some recent reads, it occurred to me that some of them had been expectedly delightful; so much so that they’ve had an impact on my to-read list! Inspired by the desire to explore these shifts and the irresistible 5 Books articles publishes, and armed with a fanfiction inspired title, Here’s my list of 5 shifts for the better that my reading has taken, and 1 I’m hoping it will take in the future:

1. Novellas

Many of my all-time favourite novels are chonky 500+ page doorstoppers or, as I like to affectionately call them, murder books.  Les Misérables is a 1,469 page paperback, The Hands of the Emperor is a massive 900 page hardcover, A Little Life rings in at 720 hardcover pages, and let’s not even get into George R.R. Martin’s catalogue. I could have carried one of those I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie tote bags.

Then I decided to commit publicly to reading the 2019 Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel and Best Novella. I started with The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark, a brilliant steampunk alternate New Orleans that includes Yoruba mythology, continued onto Kelly Robson’s thoughtful and innovative Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, about a future where time travel is used for profit, enjoyed Kate Heartfield’s whimsical queer timey wimey Alice Payne Arrives, and discovered the glory that is Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries. It was like a switch in my brain had flipped. Why did I think that a compact novella couldn’t have the same impact as a novel-length work? Why did I think that it’s worldbuilding would be incomplete or that it’s characters would have less satisfying arcs? I don’t know, but I was entirely wrong!

There are some absolutely brilliant novellas out there, spanning literary and genre fiction. If, like past me, you’re wary of shorter books, here are a few I’d recommend besides the above:

2. Shakespeare

I have never disliked Shakespeare. As an English major who took an entire course on his works in university, I retained a vague fondness for The Bard but besides a select few plays, including King Lear (a banging play and anyone who says otherwise is lying or wrong), the Tom Hiddleston versions of Henry IV part I and Henry V, and Much Ado About Nothing, I hadn’t revisited most of the plays I studied. I was especially ambivalent about some of the more commonly known ones like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Still others I had never read or seen performed at all.

When Covid-19 arrived in North America I felt adrift. I was fortunate enough to still be on the payroll, but there was little work I could do from home for my public service job, I wasn’t seeing friends or family, and the theatres had closed. My friend Rachel invited me to be a part of Project Shakespeare, a mixed group of hobbyists and actors performing a different Shakespeare play each week over zoom, and I jumped at the chance! While part of the fun was creating props and costumes, practicing our roles, and the friendships we made or renewed along the way, another joy was discovering, and rediscovering, the genius of Shakespeare.

There are certainly plays that didn’t appeal to me, but there were many that did. Among them, Romeo and Juliet, with lines so beautiful I’m sorry they were wasted on my teenage self who couldn’t appreciate their beauty, and Hamlet, which I connected with more as a disaffected thirty-something millennial than as an emo university student. I even found new plays to love, like the brilliant Julius Caesar (one of my favourite works read in 2020)!

Having the chance to both read and perform Shakespeare in a welcoming environment has increased my appreciation for these plays immensely and I can’t wait to take back what I’ve learned to becoming an audience member once more.

3. Romance

I don’t remember when I wrote off romance as a genre. Did I assume most romance was cheesy, like the Sandra Hill Viking novels a friend liked to text me snippets of? Was I embarrassed by the covers and, as an asexual person, lacking understanding of why these shirtless highlanders, lords, or cowboys appealed? Was it the heteronormative relationships they seemed to depict? I’m not sure but I wrote off romancelandia.

Like so many other people, the book that put me on the path to changing my mind about romance was Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. Frothy, sweet, and idealistic, I enjoyed the dynamic between Alex and Henry. Over the last few years I’ve read more romances (mostly mlm ones) as well as fantasy romances and I’ve come to appreciate a good romance as an escape from the darker realities of the word we live in.

4. CanLit

Full disclosure I’m still working on this one, but I’ve made progress! As a Canadian English major, I took a year-long course dedicated to Canadian Literature (CanLit for short). At best it was on the dull side, at worse, painful. So what is CanLit? Early works include James De Mille’s satiric travel fantasy A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder and Susanna Strickland Moodie’s instructions to potential settlers Roughing It in the Bush. More well-known are authors like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Alice Munro. When I think of CanLit my mind still goes, however unfairly, to landscape/nature as a metaphor for the characters’ isolation.

While I can’t say that all Canadian Literature suddenly appeals to me, I have discovered shining examples in the genre that have reduced my fear of picking up CanLit titles.  Books like Emma Hooper’s Our Homesick Songs, a magic realist look at the disappearing fishing industry in Newfoundland, Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, about a northern Anishinaabe community coping with a plague, and Francesca Ekwuyasi’s Butter Honey Pig Bread, about the African diaspora, have stuck with me and I’m making an effort to choose more novels by Canadian authors.

5. Indie/Self-Published Authors

Surprisingly I’ve been buying some fiction by small-press and independently published authors for about 10 years, but they were very much in the minority of my reading habits. Yes, I bought C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince back in 2012, having followed the serialized livejournal posting of it as original fiction, and yes, I bought Elegy by Vale Aida only a few years after that, but it’s only about a year ago that I started increasingly picked up self-published and small press books. I think I’d fallen into believing the stigma that self-published books wouldn’t be as well-written or engaging as those with major publishing houses.

The truth, of course, is that there are many fantastic books being written by authors who aren’t traditionally published. There are books with asexual representation, like His Quiet Agent by Ada Maria Soto and City of Spires by Arseneault. There are queer romances like K.J. Charles’ Slippery Creatures and Austin Chant’s Peter Pan retelling Peter Darling. There’s also my favourite book read in 2021, The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard.

I’ve fallen in love with Victoria Goddard’s Nine Realms in all its soft, idealistic, intelligent fantasy glory and am working my way through the spin-off novellas and novels set in the same universe as The Hands of the Emperor. It’s my love of this book that has changed my mind about self-published authors.

+ 1 I’m Hoping to Reconsider: Poetry

Poetry terrifies me. Every time the category comes up on a reading challenge I shudder. Sure, I could take the easy way out and pick up a Dr. Seuss book or Shel Silverstein, but I want to get into poetry, to try it properly outside of academic contexts… I just don’t know where to start!

If you’re a poetry fan, or someone who came to poetry recently I’d love to hear which poets or collections you’d recommend. Please, help me give poetry a proper chance!

If there are genres, forms, authors, or other bookish things that you’ve opened your mind to, I’d also love to hear from you. Please drop me a comment and let me know what’s changed your reading over the years.

Mini Book Reviews: Novellas

Proving that size doesn’t always matter, here are my thoughts on four excellent novellas I read recently.
Picture of the cover of All the Horses of Iceland by Sarah Tolmie

All the Horses of Iceland by Sarah Tolmie

As both a former Horse Girl™ and a lover of historical fantasy, it will shock no one to learn that I really enjoyed this imagined origin story of Iceland’s unusual horses. Eyvind, a pagan trader in ninth-century Iceland, refuses to convert to Christianity as his captain commands. Instead, he chooses to join Jewish merchant David and his crew on a journey to Mongolia, where they will trade and barter for horses. Along the way he meets an otherworldly white mare with no name, who ensures that Eyvind’s hard-won herd arrive safely in Iceland.

Tolmie writes with a lyrical and dreamlike style, grounded by historical detail and keen sense of place. One of my pet peeves in historical fiction/fantasy is dialogue and writing that feels too modern, but Sarah Tolmie avoids that trap nicely. In fact this might be the first novella I’ve read that had me wishing for a map! Besides my minor gripes about not being able to track Eyvind’s travels visually and my initial confusion about how ninth-century place names corresponded with geography today, I loved this book. The magical elements (including ghosts and the gift of prophecy) are woven in seamlessly, while the mare with no name deserves to be spoken of alongside Katherine Arden’s Solovey, and Tolkein’s Shadowfax as one of the great fictional horses of fantasy.

Picture of the cover of Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Set in a small Irish town in 1985 in the days leading up to Christmas, Small Things Like These will bring to mind other holiday classics like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life in the way that it shows how one man’s choices make a difference. Bill Furlong has risen from humble beginnings to become a busy coal merchant, husband, and father. While delivering an order to the local convent he stumbles across a scene that forces him to confront his past and decide whether to speak out against the powerful Catholic Church or be complicit in their wrongs.

Keegan displays great sensitivity in the way she writes about the difficult subject matter that is the Magdalene Laundries. Her descriptions are never unnecessarily graphic, but she deftly conveys the abuses suffered there. I especially loved the subtlety with which Keegan develops her setting. Though her prose is spare, she builds a real sense of time and place through her dialogue and imagery. The characters are clearly developed and empathetic and there is resilience and kindness to be found here. Especially for such a slim novella, it’s remarkably affecting and I can certainly see myself rereading in holiday seasons to come.

Picture of the cover of Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden

Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden

Aimee Ogden’s Nebula Award nominated novella is a gorgeously told, queer, sci-fi reimagining of what happens after the little mermaid has settled down with her Prince. Set in the distant future, where scattered human clans have edited their genes to adapt to harsh environments like the desert and the sea, it focuses on Atuale, the daughter of a seaclan lord. Falling in love with a land-dwelling man, Atuale fled her tyrannical father, who viewed her only as a means to seal alliances through marriage and procreation, and edited her genes to survive on land. Now, with her husband and her adopted people dying of a plague, she seeks out her former lover, the World-Witch, for aid.

Odgen’s worldbuilding is impressive. In just over 100 pages she gives us multiple completely different settings that range from the World-Witch’s lair to the desert-dwelling lands of Atuale’s husband, to off-world, and the variety of technology showcased indicates civilizations with differing priorities. At the center of the book though is the relationship between the little mermaid and her childhood friend and first love Yanja, who is now the resourceful World-Witch. There’s a wonderful nod to Disney’s queer-coded villains in Yanja, who was in a relationship with Atuale before he transitioned, and his voice has a deliciously embittered snark to it. I loved the race against time aspect, I was invested in the relationship between Yanja and Atuale, and I adored Ogden’s lyrical prose. The ending isn’t going to work for everyone, and I understand why some readers took issue with it, but it did work for me. I look forward to seeing what Aimee Ogden does next!

Picture of the cover of When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

While this novella isn’t quite the homerun that was The Empress of Salt and Fortune (one of my favourite books of 2020), I loved this continuation of The Singing Hills Cycle. Cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of three fearsome tigers. In order to stay alive until help arrives, Chih tells the tale of the infamous tiger Ho Thi Thao and her scholar lover.

Like The Empress of Salt and Fortune, this is a book about storytelling and how the tale changes depending on the audience, the teller, and the cultural context around actions and words. There are few things I love more than storytelling as a theme (as witnessed by the fact that I won’t shut up about Black Sails!), so of course I loved this. The tigers’ corrections to the tale as Chih tells it unfold in a fascinating way that challenges us to rethink our preconceptions. I may have missed Chih’s avian scribe, Almost Brilliant (busy sitting on a clutch), in this installment, but the woolly mammoths made up for it! I will pretty much read anything Nghi Vo writes at this point.