Category: LGBT+

Fall 2017 Non-Fiction Mini-Reviews

We’re three weeks post-move now, and I’m still digging out from under the chaos, and trying not to think too hard about the fact that the holidays are basically upon us! Unpacking will barely be finished before its time to start hauling out the Christmas decorations. In the meantime, here are a few more mini-reviews of some of the non-fiction I’ve been reading over the last few months while I was on hiatus.

A Really Good Day

Cover image for A Really Good Day by Ayeley Waldmanby Ayelet Waldman

ISBN 9780451494092

This memoir chronicles Waldman’s unique and illegal experiment using microdoses of LSD to regulate her mood disorder. The book follows the experiment diary-style, but also incorporates discursions on drug history and policy. In her career as a lawyer, Waldman has consulted on drug policy and taught courses covering drug history, so she has a solid grounding in the context of what she is undertaking. Much of the existing data she is able to bring up is compromised by the fact that early experimenters, in addition to giving the drugs to their subjects, were also sampling their own wares, and seem more like psychedelic enthusiasts than legitimate investigators. Along the way she must cope with questions like what she will tell her children about what she is doing when they inevitably notice the shifts in her mood, and what she will do once her very limited supply of LSD runs out. Every disclosure about her drug use risks both her reputation and potential legal repercussions, and the idea of purchasing on the illegal market is even more fraught. Ultimately, she concludes that what she really wants is “the kind of answer only real research by legitimate scientists under controlled circumstances can provide.”

A Mother’s Reckoning

Cover image for A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Kleboldby Sue Klebold

ISBN 9781101902769

This memoir is an intimate and gut-wrenching look inside the home of an ordinary little boy who grew up to be a high school mass murderer. Her son’s suicide inside the school library following the rampage left Sue Klebold heartbroken and in search of answers, with no one to whom she could pose the questions. She comes to conclude that a deep depression she failed to recognize played a significant role in her son’s involvement in the shooting, and advocates strongly for health care and suicide prevention—though she also clearly states that mental illness should not be assumed to lead to violence. Klebold does her best to recount the events in a way that is compatible with existing guidelines for responsible reporting on such tragedies in order to prevent imitation, something which she sharply calls out the media for failing to do in their treatment of the events at Columbine High School. It is a harrowing read because it shows people who commit terrible acts of evil as human, leaving aside the question of whether those who do monstrous things need to be humanized. I can’t imagine how upsetting this account might be for anyone who lost loved ones at Columbine.

How to Survive a Plague

Cover image for How to Survive a Plague by David France by David France

ISBN 9780307700636

This history is an insider’s look at the activists who advocated for AIDS treatments and victim’s rights in the early days of the epidemic. France’s account centers on New York, and the founding of such organizations as ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group, as well as the safe sex movement. France truly makes the reader feel the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery. Some early and influential activists believed that AIDS was the result of immune overload in “promiscuous” gay men, and advocated abstinence as treatment. While this theory was controversial and eventually thoroughly debunked, it did lead to the creation and promotion of the safer sex guidelines that helped curtail transmission of the disease. France also delves into the bureaucracy and homophobia that delayed the development of effective AIDS treatments by researchers and public health officials. Desperation led to thriving experimental drug undergrounds without proper oversight or data collection. Especially if you were born after AIDS went from being a death sentence to a manageable health condition, this is an essential and illuminating read.

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Love is Love

Cover image for Love is Love Organized by Marc Andreyko

Edited by Sarah Gaydos and Jamie S. Rich

ISBN 978-1-63140939-4

On June 12, 2016, a shooter opened fire inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine people were killed, and more than 50 others were injured. In a Facebook post reacting to the tragedy, comic book writer Marc Andreyko put out the call for the comics community, writing “Hey, fellow comics professionals: anyone interested in doing a benefit anthology comic book for the Orlando victims? i’m more than willing to organize it and reach out to publishers…” The resulting deluge of offers to contribute led to the creation of Love is Love. From the proceeds of this anthology, a $150, 000 donation was made to the OneOrland Fund for victims and families of the Pulse shooting. Subsequent proceeds are scheduled to be donated to LGBTQA charities on an annual basis.

Love is Love represents a varied collection of pieces that span the range from one page stories to illustrated poems to single page pieces best described as posters. There are reactions, commiserations, rallying cries, and memorials. Some are inspirational and reassuring, while others are hard to read. Readers should be aware that in several instances, the victims are depicted in the aftermath of the shooting. Many of the contributors are straight, while others are members of the LGBTQ community.

Love is Love was put together and published in short order. Many of the pieces are raw and fumbling, reacting, processing. Some of them miss the mark, and a few really should have been more carefully considered, which might have had the chance to happen on a less tight editorial deadline. On the positive side, a number of major comic book characters are depicted as queer, or supportive of the LGBT community. However, these images would be more valuable in the regular runs of these major characters, where all the fans would be exposed to them. The collection achieved its purpose of raising money for the cause, and there are many beautiful and extremely touching pieces in this collection, mixed in with others that strike a sour note.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)

Cover image for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9203-9

“Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.”

Once upon a time, twins Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott opened a trunk in their attic, and found an impossible staircase that led down, down, down, to a magical world called The Moors. A world where Jack didn’t have to be the perfect girly girl for her mother, and Jill didn’t have to be the sports-loving tomboy standing in for an absent son. But still a world where they would have to be polar opposites in a different way, choosing between The Master and Dr. Bleak, the vampire, and the mad scientist. If they still have one thing in common, it is that they want to stay on the Moors forever. But we all know that doorways come calling when you least expect them.

Every Heart a Doorway was a fan favourite last year, and went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novella. I’ve seen very few complaints about it, but I do remember some laments about the fact that it was not in fact a portal fantasy, but rather the aftermath of one. Down Among the Sticks and Bones scratches that itch, while also further developing Jack and Jill’s backstory, and how they got to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Getting a better look at their family background is particularly enlightening, and indeed proves to be a main theme of the novella.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is very much about relationships between parents and their children, the delicate balance of hopes and expectations, and how easily children can be suffocated beneath them. “It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own,” writes McGuire, in the voice of someone who clearly remembers. This dynamic not only warps Jack and Jill’s characters, but also their relationship with one another. The Moors is the first place where they can define their own siblinghood, beyond the parameters their parents set out for them, but they find that they don’t really know how. And of course, part of adulthood is defining oneself beyond the boundaries of your family of origin.

If there is one thing to lament about Down Among the Sticks and Bones, it is that the story ends before Jack and Jill arrive at Eleanor West’s school. We don’t get to see their early days there, and nor do we learn more about the interesting system of worlds McGuire has set up. But more will no doubt be revealed with Beneath the Sugar Sky, due out in January 2018.

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You might also like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Prey of the Gods

Cover image for The Prey of the Gods by Nicky Drayden by Nicky Drayden

ISBN 9780062493033

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher through the Harper Voyager Super Reader Program.

If there’s one rule in planning for world domination, it’s to make sure you look good doing so.

South Africa, 2064. Sydney, a debased demi-goddess with dwindling powers, schemes to find enough fear, blood, and belief to feed on to return to her heyday. A new designer drug is hitting the market, and unleashing the divine potential of seemingly ordinary humans, and in it Sydney sees the possibility of chaos such as the world has not experienced for a long time. Meanwhile, her old mentor Mr. Tau is preparing to release a new demi-goddess into the world, one who may help her or undermine her, depending on how Sydney plays her cards. Can a pop star, two gay teens, a little girl, a politician, and a robot foil her plans?

To be honest, it is hard to give a concise, non-spoilery plot summary of The Prey of the Gods. There are at least eight point of view characters, and a lot of seemingly disparate elements that have to come together in this unusual novel. The book has elements of both fantasy and science fiction, as well as a distinct sense of humour. Sydney is a demigoddess, and mythology forms the underpinning of the story, but it is science that unleashes the action. The new drug hitting the market seems like a hallucinogen, but is really tapping into the divine potential of humans, including powers such as mind reading and manipulation that will create unprecedented chaos as they spread through the population. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous personal robots belonging to the human cast are gaining sentience, and questioning their role in society.

Perhaps the book’s strongest feature is its diverse and interesting cast of characters. I was particularly drawn to Nomvula, the young Zulu girl, and Councilman Stoker, the cross-dressing politician with a secret life as a drag performer who is starting to realize that he just might be trans. Drayden has also created an interesting character in Riya Natrajan, a fairly unlikeable pop diva who has been faking a drug problem to hide a more serious chronic medical condition from the public. Additional points of view come from Muzi, who is struggling with a crush on his best friend, Elkin, and This Instance, later named Clever 4-1, Muzi’s newly sentient personal robot. The mix of characters is exactly as odd and intriguing as you would expect, but works well once the reader gets everyone straight, and especially after the narratives begin to overlap.

Part of what gives nuance to the large cast is the theme of family, which is important for each character in different ways. When the book opens, Muzi is about to be circumcised not because he wants to, but because he knows that going through this traditional rite of passage will please his grandfather, whose approval he craves. Much of Riya’s backstory is defined by her mother’s death, and the complications that ensued in her relationship with her father, who she has not spoken to in years. Nomvula has grown up before her time caring for her sickly mother, with no father or siblings. When Mr. Tau and Sydney come along, her desire for family connections will change everything. Councilman Wallace Stoker is less interested in politics than music, but pressure to continue the familial political legacy keeps him from pursuing his dreams, or realizing his true identity. His domineering mother has her eye on the premier’s office, and will let nothing get in the way of her son achieving that landmark.

The Prey of the Gods is a humourous, genre bending romp through the near future, fearlessly mixing and matching demi-goddesses and robots, pop stars and politicians. Although it takes a while to settle in and get a handle on all the moving pieces of this narrative, the result is fresh and unexpected.

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You might also like Company Town by Madeline Ashby

More Happy Than Not

Cover image for More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera by Adam Silvera

ISBN 978-1-61695-561-8

“My worlds collided and I can’t get up.”

Sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto has been struggling since his father’s suicide, a downward spiral that culminated in a suicide attempt of his own, as the smile-shaped scar on his wrist constantly reminds him. Neither his overworked mother, nor his video-game obsessed older brother are able to offer much in the way of support, but Aaron is trying to get back to normal, a little bit at a time. When his girlfriend Genevieve leaves to spend three weeks at a summer art camp in New Orleans, Aaron begins hanging out with Thomas, a kid from the next block who is a little less rough and tumble than the friends Aaron grew up with. Soon their fast friendship is stirring up tensions with Aaron’s old crowd, and even Genevieve seems a little jealous when she returns home. As Aaron’s feelings for Thomas spiral out of control, he becomes obsessed with the idea of undergoing the Leteo procedure—a new medical technique that might be able to make him forget that he ever liked a boy.

Occasionally you run across a book that is best read with as little foreknowledge as possible, with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf being my most recent example. While I had heard a lot of hype about how good this book was, I had somehow managed to absorb almost nothing about the plot, and I think that was for the better as far as my reading experience with More Happy Than Not. So if you are already planning to read it, just go do it! You can read reviews later. If you still need convincing, read on.

More Happy Than Not is a largely contemporary novel with a slight speculative fiction twist. Almost everything about Aaron’s world is recognizable as modern day New York. The exception is the Leteo procedure, a controversial new neurological technique that allows doctors to erase memories. When the novel opens, Aaron’s neighbourhood is abuzz with the rumour that Kyle and his family have moved away because Kyle had the Leteo procedure in order to forget about the murder of his twin brother, Kenneth. Despite this sci-fi twist, the focus is largely on identity and human relationships, and Aaron’s growing curiosity about the Leteo procedure is mostly a narrative device that allows Silvera to delve into the conflict surrounding his sexuality. When is it humane to allow someone to forget a terrible experience? What role does experience play in identity if it can simply be overwritten?

More Happy Than Not is an emotional rollercoaster of a book. Silvera does a good job of developing the connection between Aaron and Genevieve in the early chapters, so it is genuinely heartbreaking to see them beginning to come apart when Aaron starts to fall for Thomas. Aaron’s family relationships are less than stellar, and his childhood friends are deeply homophobic, leaving him isolated and depressed, grasping after the hope of a miracle cure that will make it all go away. Aaron struggles to even say the word gay—eventually opting for “dude-liker” instead—so it is perhaps not surprising that bisexuality is never considered, let alone discussed. The style develops in accordance with Aaron’s level of happiness and self-understanding, bumping along with an artful unevenness that neatly conveys his inner turmoil. While dark enough that I would not necessarily recommend this book for everyone—it deals heavily with both homophobia and suicide—it is nevertheless a powerful expression of what it means to come of age in an environment that is hostile to your very identity.

The Cursed Queen (The Impostor Queen #2)

by Sarah Fine

ISBN 978-1-4814-4193-3

“Thyra is not an eager fighter like I am, but when she commits, she is a thing of absolute, cutting beauty, and I hunger for the sight.”

Taken as a raid prize as a child, and passed from tribe to tribe, Ansa has no idea of her origins, but she has made a place for herself among the Krigere, earning her rank as a warrior with blood and plunder. She is loyal to her chieftain, Lars, and most of all, to his daughter and heir, Thyra. Spurred by the victory Lars’ brother has won over the city of Vasterut, the Krigere set their eyes on crossing the Torden to conquer Kupari. No one truly believed the Kupari witch queen was anything other than a myth until she called down the storm that destroyed the Krigere fleet. Ansa and Thyra are among the few survivors, and Thyra will need Ansa more than ever as she fights to unite the Krigere under her leadership, even as she must convince them that they will need to change their way of life in order to survive. But with her dying breath, the witch queen cursed Ansa with ice and fire that threaten to devour her, or turn her into a weapon against the people she has claimed as her own. Her loyalty will be tested at every turn as she tries to control the curse or find a way to rid herself of it forever.

Sarah Fine’s companion novel to The Imposter Queen largely takes place simultaneous to the events in the first volume. The first three-quarters of the book retreads the same timeline, from the battle on the Motherlake/Torden and through to the fight for the Temple on the Rock. The last hundred pages of The Cursed Queen continues on past the end of the first book to set Elli and Ansa on a collision course. Known as the Soturi to the Kupari people in The Imposter Queen, they call themselves the Krigere. They largely appear as a typical invading barbarian race in the first novel, but here Sarah Fine takes the unusual step of turning to their perspective for the second installment in her series. The Krigere are divided into two groups; the warriors and the andeners. The warriors are the leaders, and they protect the andeners and go out raiding to provide for those under their care. The andeners in turn supply the warriors, crafting and repairing weapons, maintaining the camp, and caring for the children while the warriors are away raiding. Each group relies on the other for survival.

Fine sets up an interesting cultural dynamic with this system of raiders and andeners. The warriors are both men and women, and after their first raiding season, they are generally expected to make a partnership with an andener. The partner may be either male or female; what is unheard of among the Krigere is for a warrior to partner with another warrior. This poses a problem for Ansa, who is in love with Thyra. In order for them to be together, one of them would have to give up warrior status. Ansa is the natural fighter of the two of them, but the Chieftain must be a warrior. Thus Sarah Fine creates a conflict that keeps the two apart which is rooted in the Krigere culture, but does not rely on either sexism or homophobia, which I found refreshing. The situation only grows more complex when Thyra becomes Chieftain, and begins proposing changes to the Krigere way of life that Ansa has adopted so thoroughly as her own. Lars’ brother Nisse hews more closely to the old ways which Ansa has been taught to uphold, but what she does not see at first is that he values andenders for little more than their reproductive function, to replenish their diminished fighting force.

The Cursed Queen is related from Ansa’s point of view, and unfortunately I found myself more interested in getting Thyra’s perspective. Ansa has a hot temper and is always ready to fight to try to solve any problem that comes her way. Thyra is a skilled fighter, but one who prefers to think first, and pursue other options before drawing blood, so I was able to relate to her more of the two. Ansa’s confusion and divided loyalties are completely understandable, but as a result her relationship with Thyra becomes so antagonistic over the course of the book that it was hard for me to imagine them making up and getting together. I think this will need to be addressed in the final volume in order for me to really get aboard this ship. However, I am still very interested to see how Sarah Fine will bring Elli and Ansa together in The True Queen, due in in Spring 2018.

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You might also like Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

Juliet Takes a Breath

Cover image for Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Riveraby Gabby Rivera

ISBN 978-1-62601-251-6

“If you don’t know my life and my struggle, can we be sisters? Can a badass white lady like you make room for me?”

Juliet Palante has just come home to the Bronx from her first year at college, and she is trying to figure out how to come out to her Puerto Rican family before she moves across the country for a summer internship. She will be spending the summer in Portland working for Harlowe Brisbane, author of Raging Flower, the book that sparked Juliet’s feminist awakening. But when she arrives in Portland, Juliet quickly feels out of her depth. Her girlfriend Lainie isn’t returning her calls, Harlowe doesn’t seem to have a clear plan for her internship, and everything is unfamiliar. The longer she is in Portland, the less sure Juliet is about Harlowe’s brand of feminism. But the summer nevertheless introduces her to people and experiences that will open her mind in ways she never expected.

I was sucked into Juliet Takes a Breath right from the first page. The story opens on Juliet’s letter to her hero, who is a famous feminist writer. It is a heart-felt outpouring, and it is the missive that scored her the internship in Portland. By the end of those five pages, I was already in love with Juliet’s voice, as well as her passion and curiosity about the world beyond the place where she grew up. Her character really is the linchpin of the story, and her voice kept me with her even through some of the slower parts of the book.

Harlowe was not at all the character I expected. I was picturing a hard-charging corporate white feminist when I first heard about the book, but instead Harlowe is a mild hippie feminist who is all about auras and the power of the female body. If you are familiar with feminist literature at all, you will probably quickly realize that Raging Flower is a clear analogue for a real book. Indeed, Rivera thanks the author in her acknowledgements, since she in fact did an internship with her, and some parts of the book are based on Rivera’s own experiences. Harlowe, though a bit weird, is generally a likeable character. This contributes to the gut-wrenching awfulness of the climax of the story when she reveals just how deep certain prejudices can run even in people with the best intentions.

Juliet isn’t the only one who struggles with Harlowe’s brand of feminism. On page three of the book, I wrote myself the following note: “Are we going to challenge the connection between feminism and vaginas?” The answer is, eventually, yes, but not until page 197. Juliet is a naïve character, and there is a lot she is learning over the course of the book. Consequently, it takes nearly two hundred pages before her cousin points out to her that not all women have vaginas, and that centering feminist discourse around them can be exclusionary. Rivera generally does a good job of circling back around to eventually address Juliet’s misconceptions. However, I would encourage you to check out Weezie Wood’s review of the book, which critiques a statement Julie makes about Native Americans, which is never revisited. Indeed, while there are many Black and Latina characters, Native women are noticeably absent.

If this book has a difficulty, it is striking the right balance between educating and story-telling. It would also have benefitted from at least one more proof-reading pass; I caught many places where an extra word belied the fact that a sentence had been changed or rephrased. Rivera has crammed a lot of information into the book, and some sections can get a little bit didactic. However, integrating this material into a story will be far more accessible for many people than a Women’s Studies text book. Juliet also struggles with the language of the social justice movement. This is a good reminder for readers who are fluent in this vocabulary that they didn’t always know the terminology, and that there can be a big learning curve that can make people feel excluded. And for readers who are also new to this language, it introduces the concepts while also showing that it is okay to still be learning. So while this book is far from perfect, I don’t doubt that I will be recommending it often.

Audiobook Memoir Mini-Reviews

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and I’ve written before about all the awesome ways they make my life better. However, I don’t usually write reviews, because driving, cleaning, cooking, or walking while I listen means that I don’t usually take any notes, which is a key part of my regular review writing process. But this year I’m trying out short reviews that will share my quick impressions of the books I’ve been listening too. These are admittedly not as in-depth or analytical as my usual reviews, but rather a quick record of what I thought about my latest listens.

Scrappy Little Nobody

Cover image for Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick Anna Kendrick

ISBN 9781501117206

This memoir features a series of funny essays about Kendrick’s rise to fame read by the actress herself. She is best known for Up in the Air and Pitch Perfect, and forgotten for, but financially supported by, her bit part in the Twilight franchise. Scrappy Little Nobody shares Kendrick’s stories about being a theatre nerd, the weirdness of appearing on red carpets in borrowed dresses that cost more than your rent—which you can barely pay—and yet having everyone assume that you are rich because you’re famous. I especially enjoyed the story about the first time she realized she was being followed by a paparazzo, and her strategy for avoiding stakeouts of her apartment (use your introvert super powers to stay inside, watch Netflix and eat take-out until they go away).  Kendrick was both funny and relatable and this audiobook made for enjoyable company while getting my chores done.

Being Jazz

Cover image for Being Jazz by Jazz JenningsJazz Jennings

ISBN 9780735207448

Being Jazz is a sweetly earnest memoir by a trans girl who realized her identity at a very young age, and was blessed with the rare support of her family despite the difficulty they faced in finding any information about raising a trans child. Jazz has now featured in several TV specials, a children’s book, and a reality series, in addition to her own memoir. Honestly, I felt like a bit of a creepy snoop for getting this intimate look into the life of a very young person, who will probably be embarrassed by some of these stories down the road. Apart from her advocacy work, Jennings’ life is pretty normal, and while that is important for people to see, it isn’t terribly interesting, especially if you’ve already been a teenage girl once yourself. Jennings also touches on her struggles with depression, and evinces a sex-positive attitude with little room for shame. Her straightforward message focuses on self-love and acceptance.

In Other Words

Cover image for In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri Jhumpa Lahiri

ISBN 9781101875551

After completing her 2012 novel, The Lowland, award-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri largely gave up reading and writing in English, and moved to Rome to pursue her passion for the Italian language. After studying it sporadically for more than twenty years, she wanted to immerse herself in it to become truly fluent, something that she felt was impossible in New York. In Other Words was written in Italian (In Altre Parole) and then translated back into English by Ann Goldstein. The audiobook is read by the author, first in English, and then again in Italian. I was absolutely fascinated by these layers of mediation, as well as the process of learning another language, and I listened to the entire English half of the audio book during the January 24 in 48 readathon. Lahiri explains why she felt she had to give up English, the reason she chose to have someone else translate her book into English, and meditates on the experience of trying to express herself in a language she has only just begun to grasp with any fluency. The collection includes two of the stories she wrote during her time in Rome. One is the first story she wrote in Italian, and the other is one that came later. She also reflects on how her three languages—Bengali, English, and Italian—relate to her identity as the child of immigrants. If you find languages or the writing process interesting, or are curious about the relationship between language and identity, you absolutely have to check out this memoir!