Author: Shay Shortt

I Kissed Alice

Cover image for I Kissed Alice by Anna Birchby Anna Birch

Illustrated by Victoria Ying

ISBN 978125021986-2

“The fact that life is just throwing us together should feel like fate, but instead all I have is an impending sense of doom.”

Friends. Lovers. Competitors. Rhodes, Sarah, and Iliana are all students at the Alabama Conservatory of the Arts and Technology, a speciality high school. Rhodes is the award-winning model student, and Sarah is her roommate. Sarah and Iliana have been best friends since childhood, and they transferred to the Conservatory together, even though they don’t share the privileged background of most of the school’s students. But their friendships are challenged by one complicated fact; Rhodes and Iliana hate one another, and they are in fierce competition for the Capstone Award, which includes a scholarship to the local college of art and design. Hard-working Iliana is furious that rich, talented Rhodes might snatch the scholarship she so desperately needs. What she doesn’t know is that Rhodes is battling depression, and a creative block that is threatening to destroy her academic career and her future. Unbeknownst to them both, they share a secret online life on Slash/Spot, a fanfiction site where Curious-in-Cheshire and I-Kissed-Alice are co-creators of an Alice in Wonderland-inspired comic. But their feelings for one another might go beyond creative collaboration, if they were ever to meet in real life…

I Kissed Alice is told in alternating first person chapters, switching perspectives between Rhodes and Iliana. The chapters occasionally conclude with a comic by Victoria Ying, capturing the story of Alice and the Red Queen that Iliana and Rhodes are unknowingly collaborating on. The comics were amazing, and would have loved to see more of them included in the book, preferably in colour! Birch also uses, chat, the Slash/Spot comments, and text messages to flesh out the story. I enjoyed the fandom aspect of the book, and the intense connection Rhodes and Iliana both feel to Alice in Wonderland, as well as their f/f take on it in their comic.

The tone of this book was a little bit heavier than what I expected from the publisher’s summary and the cover art, all of which suggested a light enemies-to-lovers romp. However, the book deals with complex themes including unhealthy relationships of various types, and a protagonist who is battling with significant depression. Rhodes is wealthy and seems to have everything Iliana wants, but beneath the well-polished surface, she is dealing with a mother who is a functioning alcoholic determined to control her future, and stifling a depression that has choked off her ability to create any art other than her comic with Curious-in-Cheshire. She is drowning in the expectations of others. Meanwhile, Iliana has lost out on one scholarship after getting into trouble with Rhodes and Sarah, making for a bitter competition for the Capstone Award, which she desperately needs to afford college. Both Iliana and Sarah work part-time at a diner in addition to their studies, struggling to purchase the necessary art supplies for all their classes. Studying art at college seems even further out of reach.

Although I Kissed Alice is an enemies-to-lovers story, it is lacking in sizzle, tension, and banter. Iliana and Rhodes mostly make themselves, and Sarah, miserable with their bickering and in-fighting. The narration alternates between Iliana and Rhodes, but the perspective I felt was really missing was Sarah, who is the real life bridge between the two, and often caught in the crossfire of their arguments. Given the significant role she plays in the story, I really wanted to understand her point-of-view better, particularly towards the end of the book. Friendship is just as important to this book as romance, so Sarah not having a voice in the narrative somewhat limits that exploration.

Urban Fantasy Vampires

Ever since discovering the work of Anne Rice when I was about fifteen, I’ve been more or less obsessed with vampires, which tend to rise and fall in the trends of speculative fiction literature in a somewhat cyclical fashion. They’ve been having a bit of a quiescence since the hype of Twilight settled down, but I’ve recently been craving a return to this obsession that never dies. I’m impatiently awaiting the publication of Vampires Never Get Old next week, a short story anthology that brings together authors like Zoraida Córdova, Dhonielle Clayton, and Julie Murphy with fresh takes on an old favourite. While I was waiting, I decided to revisit some classics from the vampire urban fantasy oeuvre, and see how they held up. (Fellow UNBC alum: Yes, these were all on the syllabus from Dr. Stan Beeler’s English 486 Literature of the Fantastic course!)

Blood Price

Cover image for Blood Price by Tanya HuffOriginally published in 1991, Blood Price by Canadian SFF writer Tanya Huff is probably the oldest book I’ve read that could classed as urban fantasy. Vicki Nelson has recently retired from the Toronto police force at the ripe old age of 31, due to her rapidly deteriorating vision caused by retinitis pigmentosa. A former rising star within the department, Vicki still feels like she has a lot to prove, and she’s set up shop as a private investigator. In Blood Price, she is hired by a wealthy college student to investigate the murder of her boyfriend. As the killings continue, the local press begins speculating about vampires, as all the victims have been drained of blood. While she tries to keep an open mind, what Vicki never expected was to run into a real vampire who is trying to solve the murders himself, before the press draws too much attention to the potential existence of his kind. Part of the great fun of this series in the vampire himself, Henry Fitzroy, who is the bastard son of King Henry VIII. In 1990s Toronto, he is making a living as a romance novelist, penning historical bodice rippers under the nom de plume Elizabeth Fitzroy.

This was a fun reread that has held up in many respects, but aged markedly in others. The human villain of this installment is an angry young, white, male college student who feels he hasn’t received everything to which he is entitled, something that still rings so true as to almost be too on the nose. When this novel was published, the École Polytechnique massacre of 1989 would have been a still fresh event, and not much has changed since. A lot of the plot turns on answering machines, and people waiting for phone calls, something I didn’t notice when I first read this book in 2008 with a flip phone in my purse, but which is glaringly obvious in 2020 with everyone glued to their smartphones. I’m also less interested in police protagonists, and cringed really hard when Vicki’s former partner, Mike, made a joke about police brutality.

Guilty Pleasures

Cover image for Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. HamiltonPublished in 1993, this still ongoing series is often cited among the influences of urban fantasy writers, though my 2002 paperback edition describes it as “a heady mix of romance and horror,” and the cover blurbs are mostly from mystery rather than SFF writers. Guilty Pleasures introduces Anita Blake, zombie raiser and vampire hunter. Although her primary job is raising the dead, Anita sidelines in killing rogue vampires, and in this first installment of what is now a 27 book series, she is hired to investigate the murders of four vampires. Pressured into undertaking the investigation against her better judgement, Anita finds herself pulled into vampire politics, squaring off against the terrifying Master of the City of St. Louis, and upending the balance of power in a way that will inevitably bind her to the supernatural world, and to the handsome and alluring vampire Jean-Claude.

Urban fantasy is split into those series in which the supernatural world is secret and those in which it is openly acknowledged—sometimes with a transition in which the supernatural world is unveiled. This series begins two years after vampires become legally recognized in the United States, and one thing I find interesting about this book is the world-building that explores the consequences of such a ruling. Vampires can use their abilities for commerce—as we see at the vampire strip club Guilty Pleasures—or to found their own religions, as with the Church of Eternal Life, a vampire church being a truly fascinating concept in a world Laurell K. Hamilton also chooses to have holy objects repel her vampires. This series has transformed and reincarnated itself several times over the nearly thirty years it has been running, and I haven’t read a new installment in over a decade, but it was nevertheless illuminating to revisit. Even if the plot also heavily figured answering machines. Go figure.

Dead Until Dark

Cover image for Dead Until Dark by Charlaine HarrisBetter known for its 2008 television adaptation True Blood, Dead Until Dark was originally published in 2001. Set in rural northern Louisiana, it follows the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, the psychic waitress. Like the Anita Blake series, these books take place about two years after vampires have “come out of the coffin,” and the book opens with Sookie meeting her first vampire, Bill Compton, who has returned Bon Temps to reclaim his family’s property there now that vampires have been legally recognized. Regarded as somewhat crazy by her neighbours, who don’t really want to believe in her psychic abilities, Sookie has faced a lot of social rejection before Bill rolls into town, but she is surprised to find that—unlike humans—she can’t hear vampire thoughts. She quickly falls into a romance with Bill, but this attachment is complicated by local suspicions about the newcomer, a series of murders of young women known to have associated with vampires, and the fact the vampires would very much like to put Sookie’s psychic talents to their own uses.

Urban fantasies commonly feature working class protagonists, but Sookie is notable for her pride in her job as a waitress, and her defensiveness about anyone who tries to put her down for being low class or air-headed because of her lack of education or her choice of employment. Much of the action centers on her interactions with patrons at Merlotte’s, the local watering hole. Dead Until Dark has one of the most rural settings of any urban fantasy series I’ve read, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, but Harris turns small town life to good effect, even as she pulls in wider vampire politics with Sookie becoming enmeshed in the supernatural community. The big cringe here might be when Sookie’s grandmother invites Bill over to talk to her about the Civil War, and she seems fascinated and delighted when he is able to tell her that her husband’s family owned two slaves. And yes, in case you were wondering, there were several plot points featuring answering machines. So let that be a lesson to you writers out there; vampires may never get old, but the technology you include in your stories will!

Have you got favourite vampire reading recommendations? Hit me in the comments!

More Vampire Reads:

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

The Great Influenza

Cover image for The Great Influenza by John M. Barryby John M. Barry

ISBN 9781101200971

“It seemed now as if there had never been life before the epidemic. The disease informed every action of every person in the city.”

On the heels of The Great War—now better known as World War I—a much more rapacious killer swept the globe, leaving a death toll that dwarfed the war in its invisible wake. As the influenza pandemic raged, medical scientists practically took up residence in their laboratories, seeking the elusive pathogen that was piling up bodies on their doorsteps. Wave after wave broke over the globe, but still the cause, a treatment, a vaccine, remained just beyond grasp. Recently modernized, American medical science clashed with nature and fell short, despite the concerted efforts of investigators such as Paul A. Lewis, Oswald Avery, and the team of William H. Park and Anna Wessel Williams. John M. Barry combines war, disease, and history of medicine in this account of 1918 flu pandemic, which remains one of the deadliest in human history.

The Great Influenza is broadly interested in the history of medicine, and specifically the evolution of the American medical tradition, and how it came to be transformed and modernized, finally becoming a scientific endeavour. Barry goes so far back as the Hippocratic and Galenic medical traditions, tracing progress through Paracelsus and Vesalius before discussing the stagnation of medical progress, and America’s late arrival to the scientific medical revolution. He spends significant time on the establishment of Johns Hopkins in 1876, the first modern medical laboratory in the United States to be modeled after state of the art institutions in Europe. The hospital and medical school would be added later, and for the first time prospective doctors in the United States would be required to have a college degree, as well as be fluent in French and German for admission. The establishment and contributions of the Rockefeller Institute also receive significant attention, if not quite as much detail as Johns Hopkins. This contextualization takes up about the first quarter of the book before Barry turns his attention to the pandemic proper.

Barry begins in Kansas in January and February of 1918, following Dr. Loring Miner, who observed an unusually violent influenza among his rural patients that winter which may have been the forerunner of what is now thought of as the first spring wave of a pandemic that would ultimately take as many as 100 million lives. He then turns his attention to Camp Funston, also located in Kansas. Although he briefly acknowledges that the exact origin of the outbreak is not proven, he considers this the most likely, and proceeds from there. From army camp to laboratory to naval shipyard to community spread, Barry follows the pathogen, and the people who were trying to identify it, and create a treatment or vaccine. Barry’s account of the pandemic is largely Amerocentric. (For a book with a slightly more global perspective, I would recommend Pale Rider by Laura Spinney.) Late in the book Barry makes a brief circuit of the globe, with cursory accounts of the death tolls in various locales, but this is not the focus of the book. On the home front, he uses Philadelphia as a particular case study. The city was home to a naval shipyard, and held the Liberty Loan Parade to raise money for war bonds in late September of 1918, just as the deadly second wave was breaking upon the city. The results were catastrophic, almost apocalyptic.

At times Barry seems to wish he was writing a biography, with figures such as William Henry Welch, Paul A. Lewis, and—to a lesser degree—Oswald Avery occupying large amounts of his attention, even taking time to detail lulls in their careers when they were not making significant contributions. Welch, though not much of a laboratory scientist himself, was a key player in the transformation of the American medical establishment, and an important mentor and power broker in the field. Both Lewis and Avery spent the war and the years that followed in the laboratory investigating influenza, but neither would identify the virus, and their most signal scientific accomplishments would be in other areas. Lewis would be remembered largely for his work on polio, and Avery for his ground breaking discoveries regarding DNA. Both the war and the pandemic would pass, and it would be the 1930s before the virus was at last discovered. This receives only cursory attention in the final section.

A significant cautionary note that emerges from The Great Influenza is the danger of government misinformation and inaction. Because of the war, information about influenza was tightly repressed, as it was believed to have a negative influence on morale. As Barry puts it, “What officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured.”  In practice, the cognitive dissonance of seeing friends and neighbours dying all around while the press and government continued to print reassurances that there was nothing to be concerned about proved significantly more destructive to the social fabric. Trust eroded, and in the absence of reliable information, people simply had to fend for themselves. Read in the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, this makes The Great Influenza a chilling combination of reassurance and despair. It—which is to say the disease itself—could be so much worse, and yet more than a hundred years later, we are still making so many of the same mistakes.

You might also like Spillover by David Quammen

The Dutch House

Cover image for The Dutch House by Ann Patchettby Ann Patchett

ISBN 9780062963673

“We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside.”

Danny and Maeve Conroy grew up in the Dutch House, a unique and magnificent home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, which their father purchased for their mother with the hard earnings of his own self-made real estate empire, built up in the aftermath of WWII. But the house undoes Cyril Conroy’s first marriage, leaving Maeve to raise Danny with the help of Sandy and Jocelyn, two sisters who work in the kitchen and manage the household. It is their father’s remarriage to the despised Andrea that truly sets the chain of events in motion that will define their lives as orphans who have only one another to rely on. As drawn to the Dutch House as Elna Conroy was repulsed by it, Andrea becomes the villain, the wicked stepmother who dispossesses and exiles her stepchildren. Her choice will reverberate through all their lives over the course of the coming decades.

Although Danny is the narrator of this tale, he is probably the least interesting character in the book. He is also not the most insightful, though there is enough detail that is observed but not understood for the reader to pick up the things that he is missing. I personally would have been more interested in Maeve’s perspective, but as Ann Patchett herself put it in an interview on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, Maeve is not the sort of person who would ever think her own story is worth telling. She is not as self-effacing as her mother, but nor can she countenance being at the center of attention. So we are left with Danny, who is surrounded by a cast of fascinating women, all of whom are holding him up, always ensuring that the fifteen year old boy who lost his father and his home finds his way, continuing long after he is grown. Even flipping to the perspective of Andrea might be fascinating, because she is the character into whom we get the least insight, seeing her always through Danny’s eyes and grievances.

Another intriguing character is Fiona, who also grew up in the Dutch House before Danny and Maeve, because her parents were the caretakers for the previous owners, the VanHoebeeks, whose possessions still decorate the Dutch House like some sort of museum to the past. Like Danny and Maeve, Fiona is exiled from the Dutch House, fired by Mr. Conroy after she strikes four year old Danny, an event he can barely remember. When Fiona finally resurfaces late in the book, she serves as contrast to Elna Conroy, the mother who abandoned her children in order to serve those she felt needed her more. Danny is able to forgive Fiona quite readily, something he is not so easily able to extend to his own mother when he is finally forced to reckon with some of the shades of his past.

The Dutch House is permeated by a strong sense of two people who are not living entirely in the present moment, but are in constant state of reaction to the hurts of their past. This is echoed in some ways by Patchett’s choice to set the book in the near past, perhaps not far enough to really be considered historical fiction, but not present either. The loss of their parents and their home is a wound that Danny and Maeve can’t seem to help reopening again and again, every time they park in front of the Dutch House, unable to go inside, but unable to stop watching it from afar. This is paired with the more obviously destructive metaphor of their smoking habit, something a doctor and a diabetic should surely know better than to engage in, yet can’t quite seem to kick. Maeve has pushed Danny through a rigorous education, including an elite private boarding school and a top medical school, even though he had no desire to be a doctor, all in service of taking the only thing they can access from their stepmother; money from the shared educational trust established for Danny and for Andrea’s two daughters. Unable to go back to school herself, Maeve sets Danny to fulfilling her missed opportunities.

As Maeve and Danny grow up, echoes of their parents’ lives haunt them, and an omnipresent past hovers overhead, certainly not dead, and not even really past so long as it is kept alive by the living, constantly turned over and reimagined until it is finally worn smooth.

You might also like:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony F. Marra

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

The American Plague

Cover image for The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosbyby Molly Caldwell Crosby

ISBN 9781440620461

“Nature had found the perfect place to hide the yellow fever virus. It seeded itself in the blood, blooming yellow and running red.”

Long before the idea that mosquitoes could spread disease was scientifically proven and medically accepted, diseases like malaria and yellow fever were wreaking havoc, spreading from West Africa to the Caribbean and up the Mississippi River Valley on the gossamer wings of aedes aegypti. People who had never been in contact with anyone who was ill mysteriously succumbed, as if the disease was in the very air. In The American Plague, journalist Molly Caldwell Crosby chronicles how yellow fever arrived in North America, the devastating effects of an outbreak, the efforts to uncover how the disease was spread, and finally the journey to a vaccine.

The American Plague has two main subjects; the 1878 yellow fever outbreak in Memphis, Tennessee, and the work of Walter Reed, James Carroll, Jesse Lazear, and Aristides Agramonte on the Yellow Fever Board in Havana during the Spanish-American War. A Memphian herself, Crosby begins with the Memphis outbreak, a devastating event that killed at least 5000 people, in a city with a population of only 40, 000—half of whom fled at the onset of the epidemic. There were not enough doctors and nurses to care for the sick, and medical volunteers arriving in Memphis were often stricken by yellow fever within days of arrival, adding to the burden. With deep access to the local history, Crosby pulls out fascinating details, such as the caretaker’s daughter who kept the cemetery’s record book, writing down each name and ringing the bell for the dead, until she succumbed to yellow fever herself.

Economic imperatives and subsequent devastation surround this narrative, beginning with the slave trade, which was the vehicle that brought yellow fever from West Africa to the Americas, satisfying the thirst for free labour at the cost of human life. Crosby recounts how yellow fever would typically arrive in New Orleans via the Caribbean, and then make its way up the Mississippi River Valley. Port cities were caught between the desire to prevent disease and the economic benefits of not quarantining incoming ships. Cargoes such as fruit from the Caribbean could be destroyed by a quarantine. The Memphis Board of Health voted against a quarantine in 1878, only to have the city economically destroyed anyway; the outbreak was so severe that the city was bankrupted, and its charter revoked. I found this particularly striking in the midst of the fraught economic debates currently surrounding COVID-19 containment measures.

After illustrating the devastating effects of yellow fever on both human life and the American economy, Crosby shifts her attention to the efforts to discover the cause of yellow fever, and create a vaccine against it. When the Yellow Fever Board was assembled in Havana in 1900, they were building on the work of Dr. Juan Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor who had proposed the mosquito as the vector for yellow fever two decades earlier, to much ridicule. What is most interesting here, however, is the various controversies surrounding the work. Members of the board experimented upon themselves, and on army volunteers, but also carefully recruited and groomed new Spanish immigrants to Cuba, using large financial incentives to get them to consent to participating in the experiments. Army doctor Jesse Lazear, who was the head of the mosquito work, died of yellow fever which is now suspected to have been self-inflicted, but was covered up at the time. James Carroll eventually died in 1907 of the lasting complications of yellow fever contracted in the course of his work in Havana. From there Crosby goes on to the work of Max Theiler, who invented a vaccine for yellow fever, infecting thousands of American soldiers with hepatitis in the process—although to be fair to Theiler, he expressed his concerns about the widespread use of this vaccine and was overruled in favour of ensuring that American soldiers deploying for World War II were inoculated.

Although Crosby dedicates a significant amount of the book to medical investigations, I would describe this account of yellow fever as more cultural than epidemiological. She doesn’t delve deeply into any of the virology or the nitty gritty scientific details. Although she briefly mentions that the difficulty in proving the mosquito hypothesis was a matter of the timing of the reproductive cycle of the virus, she never does get around to fully explaining the viremic window for infection between mosquitoes and humans, or a more than cursory exploration of the zoonotic origins of the disease. Nevertheless, The American Plague is an interesting look at how one tiny virus significantly shaped the course of American history, and I would recommend it for those more interested in the human impacts of pandemic than the science surrounding it.

More pandemic reads:

Spillover by David Quammen

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

China Syndrome by Karl Taro Greenfeld

So You Want to Talk About Race

Cover image for So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluoby Ijeoma Oluo

ISBN 978-1-58005-882-7

“These conversations will never become easy, but they will become easier. They will never be painless, but they can lessen future pain. They will never be risk free, but they will always be worth it.”

With grace, patience, and occasional humour, Seattle writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo tackles many of the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask about race, for fear of putting your foot in your mouth. Oluo covers such fundamentals as “What is racism?” and “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” to get readers on the same page, working from the same definitions, before tackling more specific queries, such as “What is the school-to-prison pipeline?” and “Is police brutality really about race?” The chapters do not need to be read strictly in order, but it is helpful to begin with the first five, which are about concepts and definitions, before digging into the twelve chapters that address specific issues.

I first read this book back in March 2018, shortly after it was published. I ended up naming it one of my top non-fiction reads of 2018. At that time, I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the excellent Bahni Turpin. However, I don’t usually write reviews of audiobooks, since I’m not making the kind of notes that I usually take when reading a print book, which form the basis for my reviews. Last fall, I picked up a copy of the new paperback edition, but didn’t actually dig into at that time.  Recently however, I’ve been talking to folks about this book a lot, and been wishing I had written a more substantial review, so the time seemed ripe for a reread.

 So You Want to Talk About Race is a stunning work of emotional labour that takes the time to work privileged readers through hard subjects in a way that may actually have a chance of getting those readers to see it as a question of systemic injustice rather than as a matter of individual failing about which they need to be defensive or angry. This is the fundamental grounding in understanding systemic racism that our education systems currently fail to provide anywhere but the college level, and often not even there. I never took an Indigenous Studies or Women’s Studies class during my post-secondary education, and I’m not even sure my university offered a critical race theory course. This essential knowledge is treated like an optional elective.

In the first chapter, Oluo writes that “these are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia their parents and teachers told them it was.” And while that was undoubtedly true when she wrote it, it strikes the same note with a deeper resonance in 2020, when many people are opening themselves up to talking and thinking about ideas they might never have entertained before. While this book has a chapter on police brutality, for example, it doesn’t have one about abolishing the police. Even just two years ago, that wasn’t a topic that fit into a 101 conversation about race and racism, but now entire cities are having it about the future of their police departments.

Oluo weaves in personal stories, often at the beginning of the chapter as an illustration of the concept she is about to unpack. Sometimes, such as the chapter on police brutality, it is an example of oppression from her own life as a self-identified fat, queer black woman. But other times, she uses her privilege as an illustration as well, such as the story of the picnic on Capitol Hill, or her college education, which qualified her for jobs that had nothing to do with her political science degree, and earned her higher pay in those jobs, while Black and Latinx colleagues with more experience but no degree were ineligible for promotion. By openly exploring and acknowledging her own privileges without defensiveness, she invites readers to do the same.

This is a book that is less for your unabashedly racist uncle, and more a book for talking with the aunt, cousin, or friend who thinks that they aren’t racist. What Oluo unpacks over the course of seventeen chapters is that racism is less about the beliefs of individual racists, and more about the systems of power that undergird and reinforce those beliefs, causing them to persist generation to generation even as explicit adherence to concepts like eugenics or Manifest Destiny fades. We are racist not because we as individuals are bad people, but because we operate in a system that is larger than any one individual’s beliefs or actions. Individualism blinds us to the larger patterns playing out in society. Again and again, I found myself writing the words “intent vs. harm” into the margins of this book. We desperately want to believe that we cannot be racist if we do not intend to be, but intent does not mitigate harm. If we fear being called racist more than we fear our unexamined racism, the conversation can never progress. If we are too afraid to speak, how will we ever take action?

The paperback edition includes a new preface by the author, as well as a discussion guide. In the preface, the author takes responsibility for some of the short-comings of the first edition, such as the inconsistent terminology she used around Indigenous people. She also moves to more explicitly acknowledge the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who coined the term intersectionality to highlight the need for feminism to explicitly consider the experiences of women of colour. Notably, the discussion guide includes not just discussion questions, but also principles for having a safe and productive discussion, such as “do not allow white group members to treat their discomfort as harm done to them,” and “don’t allow people of color to be turned into priests, therapists, or dictionaries for white group members.” These are valuable additions to the book, and I would recommend the newer edition if you’re planning to pick this one up.

You might also like The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Nonbinary and Genderqueer Reads

Today I’ve got mini-reviews four books by and about nonbinary and genderqueer people, including two young adult novels, and two memoirs, including one graphic memoir. I’m part of a monthly bring your own book club with other library workers, and this month’s theme was “read a book by an author whose gender is different than yours.” Having read a lot of books by men already in my life, I decided to focus on books by nonbinary people instead!

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (they/them)

Cover image for I Wish You All the BestThis YA novel is a classic coming out narrative, but for gender rather than sexuality. Ben is thrown out by their parents after coming out as nonbinary, and is taken in by their estranged older sister, Hannah. Ben starts the last semester of senior year at a new school, where they decide not to come out as nonbinary because of the fallout from the fight with their parents. At the new school, Ben falls for their first new friend, the handsome and ebullient Nathan Allan. This quiet contemporary focuses on relationships and acceptance, including Ben’s growing feelings for Nathan, reconnecting with their sister, and their decision about whether or not to forgive their parents. One thing that I Wish You All the Best does really well is highlight just how unnecessarily gendered language can be in small, quotidian ways that creep into everything. From binary checkboxes on forms, to endearments like “little bro” or “dude” and “my prince,” gendered language is a minefield that is slowly killing Ben with a thousand thoughtless cuts.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (he/they)

Cover image for Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderWhereas I Wish You All the Best is a coming out story, Felix Ever After follows the story of Felix Love, who has already transitioned to male, but is still exploring their gender identity and coming to terms with some of the nonbinary options. Felix has never been in love, but has a deep romantic streak, and this novel sees him caught between an enemies-to-lovers epistolary romance via Instagram messages, and the possibility that one of his oldest friendships is actually romantic. Next to the romances, my favourite element of this book was the way it explored the complicated forms of homophobia and transphobia that can exist within the queer community where Felix is supposed to feel safe, such as his ex-girlfriend Marisol, and the anonymous bullies causing trouble at school and online. Felix’s best friend Ezra is the light of this book, and he reminded me a great deal of Nathan from I Wish You All the Best.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir)

Cover image for Gender Queer by Maia KobabeThis graphic memoir follows Maia Kobabe on eir exploration of gender, and how e came to understand that e was nonbinary, with colours by eir sister, Phoebe Kobabe. The book recounts eir confusion about increasingly gendered expectations in childhood, such as differences in acceptable swimwear for young boys and girls. As e gets older, there is an increasing focus on body dysmorphia, particularly body horror related to menstruation and gynecological exams. E confesses to secretly harbouring a guilty wish for breast cancer as an excuse for a mastectomy. Unaware of the nonbinary option, as a teen Kobabe wished for the ability to switch between genders at will, like in the cartoon Ranma ½. The memoir comes to an open ending, as Kobabe has realized eir nonbinary identity, but is still struggling with being open about it in various settings, such as the art class e teaches. The book concludes: “A note to my parents: Though I have struggled with being your daughter, I am so, so glad I am your child.”

Sissy by Jacob Tobia (they/them)

Cover image for Sissy by Jacob TobiaJacob Tobia is a gender nonconforming writer, producer, and performer based in Los Angeles. Sissy is their memoir about growing up in North Carolina, and their years coming into their gender identity and expression as a scholarship student at Duke University. Tobia is perhaps best known for their 2012 run in five inch high heels across the Brooklyn Bridge to raise money for the Ali Forney Center after it was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. Tobia has a loud love-me-or-leave-me style that you will either jive with, or not; in their conclusion they write “to this day, your divine conviction in your own self-love makes you kinda arrogant and a little bit of an asshole,” apparently aware of the inevitable dichotomy. Tobia likes humour and extended metaphors; for example, they propose that instead of the closet, the metaphor for coming out should be a snail coming out of its shell. Their tone is a whiplash combination of earnestness and irreverence, mixing insights about gender and socialization with jokes, dropping insights about toxic masculinity in the same breath as a dick joke. Tobia loudly pushes for more trans stories that go beyond the traditional gender binary, using their own struggles with their parents, their church, and their university to pave the way.

Browse more LGBTQ+ reads

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Cover image for Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kellyby Helena Kelly

ISBN 9781524732110

“Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary as anything thing that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote. By and large, they’re so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places—reading them in the right way—they simply won’t understand.”

When Jane Austen died in July 1817, she had lived only forty-one years, a quiet life amongst her family and friends that does not make for a remarkable biography. She was unmarried, and lived with her widowed mother and spinster sister, in a cottage on the grounds of the estate of one of her many brothers. Between the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, England had been at war for most of her life, and she never had the chance to travel outside the country. In accordance with decorum, she did not publish under her own name during her lifetime. With such a scanty biography, and a family that was heavily invested in controlling her image after her death, Oxford professor Helena Kelly argues that to truly understand Austen’s life, we must look to her published works, because “it is impossible for anyone to write thousands upon thousands of words and reveal nothing of how she thinks or what she believes.” It is to Austen’s six novels that Kelly turns to understand the author’s true thoughts and opinions, bolstered by her letters and Kelly’s knowledge of English history. But while many people find Austen’s novels to be light romances, Kelly argues that we must read more deeply to unearth the true thoughts and less orthodox opinions of a woman who mocked the monarchy, criticized the clergy, and thumbed her nose at the titled aristocracy.

Kelly begins with Northanger Abbey, likely the first of Austen’s novels to be sold, and the last to be published, for the publisher that initially bought the rights never actually printed it. She later reacquired the rights, but it was not published until her after death, leaving open the question of whether she wanted this youthful manuscript to be read. Each chapter begins with a biographical sketch from the life of Jane Austen, showing where she was and what was happening in her life at the time she was working on each of her books, though this is an inexact business, as her early books in particular were likely worked on over many years. But the main part of each chapter is given over to close reading of Austen’s work, looking for evidence of her engagement with the radical ideology of the time in which she lived. Interestingly, Kelly never applies the word “radical” to Austen directly; she reserves this for political thinkers such as Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, William Godwin, and Mary Wollestonecraft, and once applies it to Austen’s most famous heroine, Elizabeth Bennett.

When the characters from all of Austen’s books are taken together, as Kelly does here, it is clear that Austen did not think much of the nobility or clergy. Most of Austen’s characters are untitled gentry, but characters such as Sir William Lucas and Lady Catherine de Burgh are figures of fun, and the Reverend Mr. Collins still more so. The Reverend Mr. Elton of Emma is hardly better in his pretensions and flirtations, and Edmund Bertram, the hero of Mansfield Park, openly admits the he is going into the Church out of convenience rather than any sense of vocation; he knows that nepotism will provide him with a living. Altogether, Kelly makes a strong case that for the daughter of a clergyman, Austen did not have a great deal of respect for England’s traditional institutions and authorities.

It is also clear that Kelly’s view of Austen’s novels is not particularly romantic. In her reading of Sense and Sensibility, Kelly suggests that the math does not add up in the story Colonel Brandon tells Elinor about whether he is the father of his ward. He never outright denies the relationship, but seems to disavow it through his timeline. Kelly points out that the fortune that saved the estate Colonel Brandon inherited from his brother rightly belongs to his ward, since it was essentially stolen from her mother when Brandon’s father abused his guardianship and forced her to marry his older brother. In her close reading of Emma, she makes the case that Mr. Knightley is engaged in an enclosure of the commons, something that was happening at an extremely rapid pace during Austen’s lifetime, with serious consequences for the poor who relied on those resources. Kelly further suggests that by marrying Emma and Isabella, the Knightley brothers will eventually be able to complete an enclosure plan for Highbury and Donwell that the conservative and change-averse Mr. Woodhouse would be unlikely to agree to. Once married, their property belongs to their husbands when they eventually inherit Hartfield. Austen’s other heroes do not fare much better under Kelly’s scrutiny.

Helena Kelly knows her English history, and uses it to illuminate the context of Austen’s novels beyond the drawing rooms in which they take place. If her theories are sometimes far-fetched, they are always thought-provoking, and are looking to tie back to that history. “Read Jane’s novels,” Kelly implores, “they’re there to speak for her: love stories, yes, though not always happy ones, but also the productions of an extraordinary mind, in an extraordinary age. Read them again.” No doubt I will be thinking of her ideas the next time I revisit the texts, even as I doubt I will be taking some of her theories to heart. 

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