Category: LGBTQ+

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

Canada Reads Along: We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habibby Samra Habib

ISBN 978-0-7352-35007

Content Warnings: Sexual violence, homophobia, sexism, racism, child marriage.

“Azaad is a funny word in Urdu. In most instances, it means ‘freedom.’ Freedom from your captors, war, and oppressive regimes. But when used to describe a woman, it is meant to imply that she is too wild to be tamed by those who have the right to tame her: her parents and all the men in her life whose honour it is her duty to prioritize before her own desires.”

Samra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims, which the Sunni majority does not recognize as a form of Islam at all. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her.

In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her mother, from whom she was estranged for a period of time following her divorce from her cousin. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong her parents did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step. After all, she had “only ever been surrounded by women who didn’t have the blueprint for claiming their lives.” Habib’s memoir takes us deep into her own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but cannot offer us quite the same insight into how her mother started as someone who would marry her minor daughter to her first cousin, and came to be a woman who could accept the fact that her daughter is queer, and dates all kinds of other queer people. “To better understand myself, I need to understand how she got here,” Habib concludes. “I intend to spend the rest of the time she’s alive finding out.”

Habib’s father is a fascinating contradiction, a man who refused to accept condolences for having three beautiful daughters before a son finally came along, but who was also known to bellow “Allah hates the loud laughter of women!” Habib’s portrait painfully illustrates how his confidence was unmade by the family’s move to Canada, where he is unable to reclaim the status to which he was accustomed in Pakistan as a successful businessman. He is the kind of father who disagrees with engaging a teenager to her first cousin, and obliquely offers to put a stop to it. But he is also mercurial enough that his adolescent daughter knows instinctively that there will be a price to pay for accepting that offer. Even though he was not the architect of her child marriage, Habib’s rapprochement with her father seems more halting and tentative. I was also deeply curious about the experiences of her sisters and brother in this same household, and how they were uniquely affected by growing up under similar circumstances. However, that is perhaps their own story to tell, and Habib does not dwell on it.

Although leaving Pakistan helped her family avoid one type of religious persecution, in Canada Habib still faced racism, homophobia, and anti-Muslim discrimination. “Sure, we were no longer afraid of being killed by religious extremists on our way to school, but not knowing whether we’d be able to make next month’s rent didn’t ease my mind either. We had our asylum and our government-issued blankets, but I still didn’t feel free to be a child,” Habib writes of the precarious transition to life in Canada. School was a mixed blessing. Though “people who devote themselves to learning have always been my people, my pockets of safety,” she experienced the transition from ESL classes with other immigrants to the mainstream classroom as a source of trauma. Education was her weapon, but school was not always a safe place.

We Have Always Been Here was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by actor Amanda Brugel. The book slid under the radar on the first day of debates, as the discussion that day centered on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. However, Brugel was an engaged debater from the first, showing herself early on as one of the strongest defenders at the table this year. She came out swinging on the very first question, arguing vociferously against Radicalized by Cory Doctorow, saying that it centered the perspectives of angry men, and that the only woman of colour protagonist was less developed than the smart toaster in “Unauthorized Bread.”

Indeed, We Have Always Been Here faced little criticism over the course of a week of debates. The most notable critique came from Akil Augustine, who argued that Habib did not do a good job of explaining how she could remain a Muslim after she came into her queer identity. Augustine specifically felt that given the importance of the religious texts in Islam, she should have mounted a theological argument referencing the textual passages that supported her position, as this would be most effective in persuading other Muslims to her way of thinking. George Canyon also noted he would have liked more contextual information about Pakistan and her family’s history there.

Although she didn’t often use the term, Brugel also argued that her book was the most intersectional, and therefore best represented the widest variety of Canadians within a single story. Samra is a queer woman of colour, a Muslim, and a refugee, providing multiple points of entry into her narrative. In keeping with this year’s theme, Brugel felt the book had the potential to bring the largest number of diverse Canadian identities into focus, making them feel safe, seen, and recognized.

Brugel described reading this book as being like reading the diary of a soul mate she had never met, and the other panelists seemed to agree with her, especially after they became free agents. George Canyon praised We Have Always Been Here for the way Habib’s writing evoked the Pakistani setting in the first part of the book. Canyon also joined Akil Augustine and Kaniehtiio Horn in naming Samra as one of the characters from all the books that stuck with them most, and Alayna Fender named her the character that most embodied compassion for the messiness of being human.

Going into the finale, We Have Always Been Here seemed a clear favourite, never having had a single vote cast against it by any of the panelists. In her closing remarks, Brugel asked her fellow panelists to put aside the question of fiction vs. non-fiction, and instead vote for the book that changed them, and impacted their life after the last page. Despite a lively final day of debate, when the ballots were read, everyone except Son of a Trickster defender Kaniehtiio Horn had voted to name We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib the historic winner of Canada Reads 2020. This marked the first time since Canada Reads began in 2002 that a woman panelist defending a book written by a woman took home the top prize.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2020! Need to catch up? Start with Radicalized by  Cory Doctorow.

You can also browse for more Canadian reads, including past Canada Reads contenders! Past winners include:

Let’s Talk About Love

Cover image for Let's Talk About Loveby Claire Kann

ISBN 9781250138828

“I always did everything I was supposed to without complaining. It’s my life, but I’m still waiting for my turn to be in charge.”

After recently being dumped by her girlfriend Margot, Alice is starting to believe that being asexual and biromantic might mean that she is going to be alone forever. Except for her best friends Feenie and Ryan, but even they are a couple on the road to marriage, and Alice can’t help but feel like a third wheel. Then she meets Takumi, a new employee at the library where she works, who is so stunningly attractive that Alice has a twinge of doubt about her identity for the first time since she learned the word asexual. But after her complicated history of relationships with people who don’t share her ace orientation, Alice promises herself that she won’t get involved with Takumi, even though he clearly seems to like her. After all, she has bigger things to worry about, like the fact that her parents might stop paying for her education if she refuses to go to law school.

Let’s Talk About Love opens with Alice and Margot breaking up on page one. Contrary to what is in the publisher’s summary, Alice doesn’t actually tell Margot that she is asexual. In fact, she has been having sex with Margot to please her, but refusing to let Margot reciprocate, and refusing to explain why. After rattling off every ace stereotype in the book—all without ever actually using the word—Margot breaks up with Alice because “you could never love me as much as I would love you.” With the exception of Feenie and Ryan, in fact, Alice has never revealed her sexual identity to anyone, especially not her romantic partners, a fact that continues to end in heartbreak and misunderstandings.

Although written in the third person, Claire Kann’s style makes the narrative feel personal, and her chatty voice is filled with bracketed asides. As a character, Alice is well-defined beyond her asexuality. She loves television, and her hobby is writing critical essays about her favourite programs. She loves food, but can’t cook to save her life. She is still undeclared, because she doesn’t want to declare Political Science the way her parents want, on her way to becoming a lawyer. She would rather become an interior designer, a career that would take advantage of her “intense obsession with aesthetics.” But she knows that her parents would never pay for her to study something so frivolous.

There are three sets of relationships that make up Alice’s story. First is her long-standing friendship with Feenie and Ryan, who also become her roommates after her break-up with Margot. Unfortunately, this felt like a rather unhealthy triad, because Feenie is volatile and emotionally manipulative, and Ryan tended to go along with her more egregious behaviour. I also felt that Feenie and Ryan expected Alice to understand and accept that they were a couple, but seemed to expect that her asexuality would mean that she would never have an outside relationship that would be as significant to her as their friendship.

Although none of them ever make an in-person appearance, Alice’s family is also significant to her story and identity. Her parents are lawyers, with a fierce determination that their children will have the opportunities they did not, and that they will have all the advantages that they can give them that will help make up for some of the unfairness of racism and prejudice. Her older siblings Aisha and Adam are almost like another set of parents, because they are significantly older than Alice, who came along last, and unexpectedly. Although her family has money, Alice is trying to stand on her own, and claim the freedom that would come with paying her own way.

Takumi is the newest relationship in Alice’s life, but their connection quickly becomes intense, even as Alice continues to struggle with her promise to herself not to get involved. They meet at the library, but I’ll try to leave aside my professional nitpicks about the way the library is depicted, and the fact that they go around making googly eyes in the stacks when they are supposed to be working. Their relationship is indeed cute and swoonworthy, but I felt like the book ended before they really hashed out the inevitable complexities of a relationship between an allosexual person and an asexual one, partly because Alice can’t bring herself to tell him the truth for most of the book. As a result, matters still felt rather unresolved despite the epilogue.

Taking place largely over the course of a summer, with her future in flux, Let’s Talk About Love explores friendship, family, and romance, and how these different types of relationships contribute to our ideas about what it means to love.

You might also like Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

I Wish You All the Best

Cover image for I Wish You All the Bestby Mason Deaver

ISBN 978-1-338-30613-2

“Everything looks so bright and new and put together. Like everything here has a place and that’s exactly where it belongs. And I’m the extra piece that doesn’t fit in.”

It is New Year’s Eve, and Ben has finally worked up the courage, with a little help from their best online friend, Mariam. They are going to tell their parents that they are nonbinary. But they never expected to find themself barefoot on the winter streets after their parents throw them out when they won’t take it back and pretend that it was all a joke. Fortunately, Ben’s estranged older sister Hannah is willing to take them in, and Ben has to start their last semester of senior year at a new high school where Hannah’s husband is the chemistry teacher. But they decide not to come out at the new school, a decision that is made even more complicated by Ben’s growing feelings for their first new friend, the handsome and ebullient Nathan Allan.

Despite its centrality to the story, the romance between Ben and Nathan is quiet and slow moving. Honestly, Ben’s mental energy was so tied up in recovering from trauma and trying to figure themself out that they just didn’t seem like they had a lot of mental bandwidth for a romantic entanglement. That said, Nathan was a vibrant, joyful character, and I could totally see Ben becoming wrapped up in his light and energy, and becoming extremely invested in keeping his good opinion. The possibility of a deeper relationship feels more tangible by the end of the book, but of course it is hard for two people to truly connect when one of them is keeping a big secret that is like a wall between them.

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. There are dozens of cringe inducing moments where Ben is casually misgendered because they can’t face coming out at their new school after being brutally rejected by their parents. It only hurts the more because these are people who would not deliberately harm Ben, but simply do not know better because this is just normative language.

I love sibling stories, so I was really interested in the relationship between Ben and their sister Hannah. The history of family abuse and their age difference makes their interactions at once loving and fraught. Ben’s arrival on her doorstep resurfaces Hannah’s own traumatic history with their parents, and emphasizes the differing traumas of the one who left, and the one who was left behind. I liked the way their sibling bond grew over the course of the book, especially once Ben got up the courage to openly confront their feelings of abandonment and betrayal. I would have enjoyed exploring this more, as well as Ben’s online friendship with Mariam Haidari, the YouTuber whose videos helped Ben figure out their identity. Together, Hannah and Mariam represent Ben’s past and future, and the hurdles they will have to overcome in order to get there. I would recommend this as a quiet contemporary about relationships and acceptance.

No Ashes in the Fire

Cover image for No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore

ISBN 978-1-56858-940-4

“Like so many other black boys who would grow up to love and lust after other boys, I would have died if I had not found safety in my imagination. I maneuvered through my days smiling, even as I suffocated in a world that refused to let me breathe.”

Darnell L. Moore was raised in Camden, New Jersey, a predominantly Black and Hispanic city across the river from Philadelphia. When Moore was born in 1976, Camden was a formerly prosperous industrial city that had developed a reputation for violence after a civil uprising against the murder of Horacio Jiminez by two police officers in 1971. But as Moore grew up, facing a fraught relationship with his father, a difficult relationship with the church, and deep denial about his own sexuality, he was largely unaware of that cultural history. Camden was merely home, a place full of his family, but also full of dangers for a boy who didn’t quite fit in. No Ashes in the Fire is an intersectional memoir at the confluence of being a gay Black man in the United States that recounts Moore’s long journey to self-acceptance.

In his portrait of his youth, Moore characterizes himself as a smart but not exceptional child, albeit one who drew the attention of his peers for his subtle failures to fit in. Moore points to the value of his education even as he critiques the system in which it took place. As a boy, he took his report cards to the guidance counsellor, and demanded to know why he wasn’t in the school’s gifted and talented program. He was admitted, but “unfortunately my individual ascension would be of no consequence for all of my peers who still had to return to the overcrowded classes I left.” Rather than casting himself as exceptional, he critiques the inevitable inequality of per pupil funding that relies heavily on local property taxes. Moore admits that “the better story would be one where I am portrayed as an exception, a student more worthy of better schooling than others,” but rather than giving into this narrative impulse, he firmly states, “I was no more gifted than they were.”

Moore is the son of young parents, who welcomed him into the world when they were still teenagers themselves. But his father, who had once defended his mother from beatings at the hands of her own father, eventually became her abuser. The violence in their home drove Moore deeper into himself, and into denial, and he notes that “the real tragedy of living with routine acts of violence is the way each act deadens emotions.” When his mother finally left his father for good, their relationship was essentially severed, even as his ghost haunted Moore’s choices. Yet “the selfish ambition to outshine my dad was not enough to spark self-transformation.” One of the most aching bits of prose in the entire book describes a chance encounter Moore had with his father as an adult: “To say I hated him would only reveal a surface truth. I hated my need to be loved by him. And I hated the way my heart opened in his presence because I knew he wouldn’t enter even if invited.” His absent father is a constant presence as he struggles to define and differentiate his own manhood.

Church had always been a feature of Moore’s life. He was attending a Catholic university when he suffered a heart attack in his first year, after which he “leapt into the depths of a shallow faith,” becoming deeply involved with youth ministry at the expense of his schoolwork. But while he “poured my love into a god I worshipped while slowly denying love to myself,” he secretly hoped to be cured of his desire for men. Eventually, he found that what the church was really instilling in him was self-hatred of the gay part of himself, even as it bolstered his “attraction to patriarchal rule” through its emphasis on masculinity and authority. For Moore, the church proved to be a false respite, and he eventually came to the realization that “the first, and most important revolution I needed to push was an upheaval of the systems within myself.”

No Ashes in the Fire is a story of the complex collision of multiple identities in a world that defaults to straightness and whiteness, and chooses to see some identities as inherently better or more worthy than others. Too many people are consumed by the twin fires of self-loathing and persecution. The fight for justice and equality continues.

You might also like Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow 

Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children #5)

Cover image for Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9930-4

“Have you noticed that the doors come for us when we’re young enough to believe we know everything, and toss us out again as soon as we’re old enough to have doubts? I can’t decide whether it’s an infinite kindness or an incredible cruelty.”

In the fifth installment of the Wayward Children series, Seanan McGuire continues the story of Jack and Jill, twin sisters who found a doorway to another world in a trunk in their attic. The door opened onto the Moors, a world under a crimson moon where dark powers hold one another in a constant battle for balance. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we followed Jack and Jill through their door, and to their eventual expulsion from the Moors. In Every Heart a Doorway, we witnessed their bloody return to that world, and were left wondering about the consequences. Now Jill has snatched Jack’s body, and the twin sisters are locked in a battle for the future of their world.

At the heart of Come Tumbling Down is the nature of evil and monsters. Meditating on Jill’s deceptively innocent appearance, Christopher reflects that “Something about the way she’d wrapped her horror movie heart in ribbons and bows had reminded him of a corpse that hadn’t been properly embalmed, like she was pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside. Terrifying and subtly wrong.” Jack finds herself trapped inside this “charnel house” of a body, ostensibly identical to her own, and yet terrifyingly different. Coping with her OCD proves to be a particular challenge in these unique circumstances, and yet the battle must go on. Returning to Eleanor West’s school, Jack recruits several of her former classmates to help stop Jill before it is too late.

Thanks to the events of Beneath the Sugar Sky, it is great to have Sumi back amongst our adventurers. We know that sooner or later her door will come for her, and she will go back to Confection, but for now she joins her school friends on yet another forbidden quest. As a character who travelled to a Nonsense world, Sumi gets a lot of the best lines, coming out with bizarre yet accurate comparisons and strikingly observant insights. As someone who would almost certainly find a Logic world behind my own door, I always find her peculiar forthrightness strangely refreshing.

The other adventurers are Cora, mermaid heroine of Beneath the Sugar Sky, and Christopher, lost love of the Skeleton princess, and Kade, Goblin Prince in Waiting, and heir to Eleanor West’s school for wayward children like himself. They are none of them suited to the world of the Moors, but as heroes who once answered the call of their own doors, they are no less ready to answer the call of friend in need. It also hints at a school that might be very different under Kade’s management. Eleanor tries to persuade them from the quest, lamenting “I should have reminded you of the rules when Rini fell out of the sky. No quests. It’s so easy to become addicted to them, and so hard to break the habit once it takes hold.” But heroes are not so easily dissuaded.

Come Tumbling Down also draws some parallels to the previous installment, In an Absent Dream. Just as Lundy and Moon’s friendship is slowly poisoned by inequality and debt, Jack keeps saving Jill, even at a terrible cost to herself, and those around her. True, Sumi “got over” being dead at Jill’s hand with a little help from her friends, but Lundy and Loriel are never coming back.  Alexis will never be whole and healthy again, despite her resurrection. The outcome of Chester and Serena Walcott’s petty insistence on differentiating their twin daughters and pitting them against one another plays out on a grander and more terrible stage than those wayward parents could ever have imagined, leading the sisters into a final, fateful confrontation with inevitable casualties.

You might also like Temper by Nicky Drayden

Red, White & Royal Blue

Cover image for Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuistonby Casey McQuiston

ISBN 978-1-250-31677-6

“June, I’m the son of the President of the United States. Prince Henry is a figurehead of the British Empire. You can’t just call him my archnemesis… Archnemesis implies he’s actually a rival to me on any level and not, you know, a stuck-up product of inbreeding who probably jerks off to photos of himself.”

As the son of the President, Alex Claremont-Diaz, his sister June, and their best friend Nora Holleran are America’s golden children, beloved by the press, and the perfect political surrogates for President Claremont and Vice President Holleran as they pass through the 2018 midterms and aim for re-election in 2020. But Alex commits a very public faux-pas when he gets into an altercation with his long-time rival, Prince Henry of England, at the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Prince Philip. As the White House and Buckingham Palace fly into damage-control mode, Henry and Alex are forced to fake a public friendship for the press, even while the sparks that are flying behind closed doors are of an entirely different sort. But if they ever want to really be together, they’ll have to come to terms with themselves, their families, and their place in history.

Red, White & Royal Blue is told from the perspective of Alex Claremont-Diaz, the son of America’s first female president, Ellen Claremont, who is divorced from his father, the senator for California, Oscar Diaz. Although college-aged, Alex lives in the White House with his mother while he attends school at Georgetown, and his sister June has returned home after graduation as she attempts to start a journalism career with the baggage of not being taken seriously as a result of her status as First Daughter. Alex is mouthy and over-confident, with a laser focus on going straight into politics after college and becoming the youngest Congressman ever elected. So it maybe isn’t surprising that coming to terms with his sexuality has been on the back burner. After all, “he’s absolutely sure that guys who kissed a Prince of England and liked it don’t get elected to represent Texas.”

The Claremont-Diaz family is, of course, entirely fictional, a made-up successor to the Obama administration, although certain real political figures are mentioned in passing. Ellen Claremont is finishing out her first term, and heading into the 2020 election as her son undertakes a liaison that could provoke an international crisis. The British Royal Family is semi-fictionalized, drawing clear comparisons to the real monarchy without directly copying the family members as characters. McQuiston’s fictional version of the firm is headed by Queen Mary, whose daughter Catherine has withdrawn from public life since her husband, the film star Arthur Fox, died an early death due to pancreatic cancer. Her three children, heir Philip, and younger siblings Beatrice and Henry comprise the family’s younger generation of the Mountchristen-Windsors.

This book is at heart a light, fluffy romance, but one that also cheekily sends up the problematic aspects of the trope at its center. For example, early in the book Alex complains to his sister June that “royal weddings are trash, the princes who have royal weddings are trash, the imperialism that allows princes to exist at all is trash. Its trash turtles all the way down.” June shoots back, “you do realize that America is a genocidal empire too, right?” I suspect that some people won’t like politics intruding into their fluffy romance in this manner, but I personally found it helped to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance rather than simply ignoring the problems inherent in the trope. Your mileage may vary.

As the book goes on, Henry and Alex develop into frenemies, then lovers, and launch a snappy epistolary romance as they exchange text messages and emails, and try to sneak across the Atlantic to see one another as often as their duties will allow. The sex scenes are a bit more explicit what you would generally find in a YA novel—Red, White & Royal Blue is marketed into the New Adult category—but not actually that graphic overall. It will certainly appeal to fans of m/m YA tales such as Carry On or The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. Most of all, however, this was a perfect bit of fluffy, swoony fun, which was exactly what I needed in the current moment.

Dark and Deepest Red

Cover image for Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-16274-8

 “Well-crafted seams and delicate beading gave my family a trade and a living. But red shoes gave us a name. They made us infamous. Until they came for us.”

Strasbourg, 1518: A plague of uncontrollable dancing sweeps through the independent city of Strasbourg, rousing suspicions of witchcraft and demonic activity. Lala and her aunt Dorenia have been living in the city since Romani were driven out of neighbouring countries by order of law. The laws eventually came to Strasbourg as well, but the two women have lived quietly, hiding their true ethnicity behind rumours of illegitimate descent from an Italian lord. But when rumours of witchcraft begin to swirl in earnest, the unspoken suspicions of their neighbours loom large. In the present day, Emil and Rosella live in Briar Meadows, a town that is entirely normal fifty one weeks out of the year. But every autumn, the glimmer arrives and settles over the reservoir, precipitating unexpected events that fade as quickly as the autumn leaves. This year, it is the legendary red shoes made by Rosella’s family that seem to have become truly magical, but Rosella worries that the taint of witchcraft will haunt her family long after the glimmer fades. Meanwhile, Emil tries to understand the connection between the glimmer and a family legend about long ago ancestors who were tried for witchcraft after a dancing plague swept through the region.

In their fifth book, Anna-Marie McLemore turns their talent for magical realism to the realm of fairy tales, and history, combining Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” with the documented la fièvre de la danse that ensnared the city of Strasbourg in 1518. In their Author’s Note, written from the city of Strasbourg in 2018, McLemore notes that there is no known connection between the two, but they “still wonder if perhaps Hans Christian Andersen had, at the back of his mind, a little piece of history that mentions red shoes, and an Alsatian city gripped by dancing as though it was a plague.” In Dark and Deepest Red, McLemore makes the suspected connection explicit, casting Emil as a descendant of the women who were accused of causing the plague.

Dark and Deepest Red is structured around three alternating narrators, beginning with Rosella, whose family, the Olivas, are known for their exquisite handmade shoes. Next is Lala, who goes by Lavinia outside her family, because it is essential that they hide their Romani heritage. Finally, we have Emil, a modern day Romani boy who has supressed his heritage in order to fit in. Briar Meadows has a touch of magic, true, but it is not otherwise so accepting of things that are out of the ordinary. Emil’s parents are scholars, and their family history is well-researched and documented, but Emil doesn’t really want to know the stories his parents have so painstakingly saved for him. The chapters alternate in quick succession, and indeed this might be the book’s greatest weakness; while it keeps all of the plots moving, it also means that the reader never has time to really settle in and connect with one character.

Dark and Deepest Red orbits around two central romances. Lala has long been in love with Alifair the orphaned trans boy who appeared mysteriously appeared out of the Black Woods one day when they were both still children. He has since become her aunt’s apprentice in their dyeing and ink-making business, his uncanny talent for slipping among wasps unstung further adding to his mystery. But Lala constantly worries that if she and her aunt are exposed as Romani, Alifair will be tainted by association. Emil and Rosella were friends when they were children, finding a unique bond in the fact that they didn’t quite fit in among the other children of Briar Meadows. But they slowly grew apart, until the dancing shoes bring them back together unexpectedly. Rosella tries to hide her affliction, desperate for the glimmer to pass, while Emil’s denial of his heritage means that unbeknownst to them both, he may hold the key to the answers Rosella seeks. Only together can they solve the problem. The two relationships mirror one another, showing how secrets complicate our every attempt to connect.

While this book has much of the magic of McLemore’s previous reads, and deals with many of the same issues, the structure makes it difficult to sink into and revel in that magic in quite the same way as The Weight of Feathers or Wild Beauty.

You might also like When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore