Escape Lockdown Three: Austen and Queer Non-fiction

Why, yes. This is my first post of the year in July.

My growing pile of queer non-fiction.

I’m very lucky to have been able to read throughout the pandemic. I know that’s not been the case for everyone. Unfortunately, what eventually went instead was my ability to write. If I sat down to write even a blog post, any fragile equilibrium I’d achieved seemed to dissolve into a sticky mess. It’s probably still too soon to write about the last year and a half, but I want to get back to writing, so this is my attempt at clearing my creative drainage system. Here’s how I escaped mentally from lockdown three, mostly through books.

Each lockdown has presented a new mental challenge. The first came like a punch to my PTSD-addled brain. I did a lot of walking. That seemed to help. I indulged in all the cliches, from baking bread and feeding a sour dough starter to playing Animal Crossing on my kid’s Switch. I read a lot, stubbornly completing the Queer Horror Reading Challenge I set myself in January, before everything became horrible. I blogged about it. I was not okay, but I made it through. The second was at least finite in nature and promised to bring us better things. The third time was different. The better things had been cancelled and everything felt awful. I realised I needed to be very careful with my brain if I was going to get out the other side. I was having a lot of random whims and urges. I decided to listen to them.

First my brain said: The Regency. I’ve no idea why. Bridgerton fever hadn’t yet hit. I read Persuasion, started making Regency clothing, and researched the period so I could write in it. I came across this article about Jane Austen being the best literary cure for traumatic times and I think there’s something in it. In my case, there’s the obvious explanation of needing a bit of temporal distance from present reality. But there are parallels, too, between our turn-of-the-century era of swift change and that of the Regency. There’s the obscene wealth disparity between rich and poor, the way that technology is tearing through society, ripping up all our certainties. And the limited domestic horizons we find in Austen’s novels.

I also started craving queer non-fiction. I’ve always been primarily a reader of fiction, even though I enjoyed digging into cultural and literary theory at uni. Queer fiction has been hugely important to me, as is obvious from this blog. But oddly, this time I needed something else. So, I got a pile of queer non-fiction and made a start. What I found was a delight in feeling my brain expand out to meet the experiences and ideas of someone else. It unexpectedly made me feel less alone. It also reminded my brain of what it is capable of, at its best, when it isn’t freaking out, when it isn’t repeatedly getting stuck in fight/flight/freeze mode.

The non-fiction reading led to some honest-to-goodness academic literature of the type I hadn’t read in a while. I dipped my toe into literary trauma theory and even tracked down some queer literary trauma theory. I started asking myself some big questions about how queer folk live with both cultural and personal trauma and how we use art to do that living. I reflected on the similarities of what gay and bi men experienced historically, pre- and mid-legalisation, with what trans people are experiencing now.

Giving my brain these projects seemed to calm it the hell down. I gained some perspective. I started making plans for the future. I felt sane and calm, even optimistic at times. I started to understand, really for the first time, what therapists mean when they talk about sitting with your emotions. I could feel unhappy, uncomfortable, even downright miserable about a bad situation, but that didn’t have to be the whole story. At the same time, I could enjoy all these cool things and they would pull me through.

Of course, life has since hit again in multiple annoying and sometimes overwhelming ways. In moment of stress and trauma, I’ve forgotten these lessons a hundred times. But at least I have this to hold onto. Listening to my brain and what it needs can lead to some cool places. And more often than not, my brain food comes in book form.

I’ve started writing reviews again for work, for a new bookshop zine; my plan is to start on here again soon. I’ve been reading plenty. Maybe I need a non-fiction section on my reviews page….

Queer Book Club: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls coverWilder Girls is a YA sci-fi/horror novel about a girl’s boarding school blighted by the Tox, a disease that mutates both students and wildlife. As stated on the book’s cover, this is a story for older readers.

Raxter School for Girls has been under quarantine for eighteen months and supplies are scarce. There’s never enough to eat. Many girls and almost all the staff have died of disease or at the hands of the wild, mutated animals, which stalk the overgrown forest on quarantined Raxter island. The remaining girls have banded into small groups to take care of each other and only Headmistress and Miss Walsh remain of the staff. Hetty has her girls, Byatt and Reese. Byatt is her best friend; her friendship with frosty Reese is a little more complicated, mixed in with romantic feelings she hasn’t fully explored and has never admitted to anyone but herself. They all wait on Raxter for the Navy and the CDC to discover a cure. Their only job is to survive long enough for the cure to come.

This is a fast-paced novel that I flew through in a couple of days. Whilst the plot pulls things forward and offers a backdrop, the real focus is on Hetty’s friendships with Byatt and Reese and interactions with the other girls, and the decisions she makes for survival. The psychology feels real and appropriately brutal, given the circumstances, though at times it’s extremely bleak. This is not a story that takes a positive view of humanity, though there are moments of levity and hope in the close friendships of the girls.

The ending is particularly brutal, surprisingly so, and was my least favourite thing aspect of the story. It makes sense as the darkest take of an already bleak psychology. However, I would have liked to see more explicit reflection on the decisions made, even under pressure. The ending leaves readers with a lot of heavy-lifting. I enjoyed the rest enough that I’d still recommend the book. Whilst the ending could have been rounded out more, there were some moral ambiguities to the story that I enjoyed, particularly around Byatt’s character, and these benefited from not being spelled out.

The horror primarily comes in the form of body horror, through the Tox mutations unique to each girl. Although the disease causes suffering, there’s also a sense that it’s freed the girls from unwanted family expectations, from restrictive school uniform and gender limitations, from an uncertain future. Nothing is more valuable than the intense bonds of friendship they’ve made, which seem likely to last a lifetime, however long that will be. The story offers a chance to reflect on the things we value under the worst circumstances.

There are lesbian and bi characters among the cast, including Hetty, who is bi. Whilst there’s romantic friction between Byatt and Reese, the story doesn’t offer a complete romantic sub-plot, so readers looking for one will likely be disappointed. Friendship is much more a focus. I liked the way the relationships were written as hesitant and clumsy, full of doubt and self-sabotage. A more positive romantic plot may have felt trite against such an otherwise brutal story, but as it was, Rory Powers served up something that felt real and this approach grounded the more fantastical elements. That balance between the real and the speculative was the main strength of the story.

Read as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan

The Drowning Girl cover

When India Morgan Phelps (Imp to her friends) picks up a naked woman from the side of the road, her tentative grip on sanity is wrenched away. Or does that happen at all? Truth and fact are moving concepts in this Gothic tale of ghosts, mythology and madness.

Imp is schizophrenic, as were her mother and grandmother. Their suicides haunt her like the figures from art and mythology she obsessively collects in dossiers; they haunt her like Eva Canning, the woman who appears in her life one dark night and may be a siren and may be a werewolf. As Imp’s obsessions begin to merge with her experiences of Eva, readers are sucked into Imp’s frightening internal world. By her side is Abalyn, her trans girlfriend, a grumpy computer game reviewer, who tries to support Imp on her quests for the truth.

After enjoying Agents of Dreamland, I decided to pick up another of Kienan’s books. It has the same disregard for linear narrative, the same love of fragmented story telling, but the narrator is very different from the characters in that novella and shows off just how broad Kiernan’s range is. Imp is a brilliant character study – distinctive and compelling from the first page. It’s the mastery of voice and atmosphere that really sets this book apart and assured me I was in safe hands from the start. Beyond that, the way art and mythology and other cultural artefacts – both real and fictional – are woven together to form a narrative labyrinth is the perfect unsettling ride. Imp is the poster girl for unreliable narrators. The uncertainty and ever-shifting sense of reality veers from unsettling to genuinely disturbing at times. This is such a rich feast of a book, a tense psychological ride that’s both fascinating and disorienting. As soon as I got to the last page, I immediately wanted to start again, to go deeper into the mystery and see what I’d missed the first time.

I think this is a book that hangs on readers being interested in Imp, because the progression of the plot isn’t the main focus of the story and in places Imp’s constant avoidance and digressions slow things right down – which is all thoroughly enjoyable, if you’re invested in Imp and her experiences. I also found myself simply marvelling at the craft. It’s not a book for readers who struggle with uncertainty or who need a pacey, plot-driven read. But if you’re happy to be dragged along by a character who is actively avoiding her own plot, then throw yourself into these dangerous currents and turn your back on the shore.

The Drowning Girl is a Gothic novel for adults, read as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: The Vampire Gideon’s Suicide Hotline and Halfway House for Wayward Girls by Andrew Katz

The Vampire Gideon coverI found this quirky horror novella by accident when looking up a submission call, and loved it, so here’s a review. Asexual vampires have got to be fairly rare these days and that’s what gets this book a place in my queer horror reading challenge – though the story focuses on M/F relationships.

I have a bit of a soft spot for vampires (as long time readers of this blog will know) but let’s face it, they’re often done badly across a range of media and they often rely heavily on tropes. This novella is a genuinely original take on an old favourite, with Gideon trying to redeem his undead existence by offering a suicide hotline to mortals in distress. The story takes us through many of his conversations with callers, including Margot, a teenage girl living with an abusive uncle, who Gideon decides to help beyond the hotline. The eccentric title suggests humour, and there is humour, but the book never shrinks away from tackling serious subject matter with frankness and respect, in a way that’s not overwhelming, leaving room for contemplation and even hope. There’s also plenty of reflection on the importance of human connection, whether it’s romantic, familial or friendship. This idea of connection is at the heart of the story.

I found the frank conversations about suicide tremendously refreshing. We’re now urged to talk about mental illness and suicide, but there’s seldom space made for what those conversations entail. The characters in this novella are flawed, sometimes petty, not always particularly admirable, but they feel real and their struggles feel real. Katz uses the horror genre to stage a deep dig into these aspects of human existence. Through flashbacks to Gideon’s mortal life, we learn slowly about his traumatic past and his tumultuous present, realising that behind the helpful facade he’s tried to cultivate, his monstrous nature occasionally bursts out.

Gideon is a thoroughly unreliable narrator, not least about his own life, which leaves some work for readers to do in piecing things together and drawing conclusions – personally I like this approach, but some readers may find this frustrating. Whilst there’s hope, the ending is somewhat ambiguous and felt a little unsatisfying, though it’s consistent with the characters and themes, so I can’t really fault it. Amongst a deeply flawed cast, no character has all the answers in this story, but the ideas explored provide plenty of food for thought. Overall, this is a skilfully crafted read that handles its subject matter with honesty and courage.

An adult horror novella, read as part of my queer horror reading challenge.

Queer Book Club: The Devourers by Indra Das

The Devourers coverThe Devourers begins when Alok, a lonely academic in modern-day India, meets a man claiming to be half-werewolf. The story unfolds through scrolls the stranger has Alok transcribe, which take him back to the Mughal India of the Shah Jehan, following the lives of long-lived flesh eaters and the mortals they hunt and love.

This book is unique and powerful, balanced on the line between desire and terror for much of the story, playing with the Gothic sublime with a skill that’s electrifying. I was seduced by the richness of language, the characters and their relationships and the grizzly, visceral horror and violence of the flesh-eaters’ lives. Although the creatures sometimes known as werewolves, sometimes rakshasa, are fascinating, it’s really Cyrah, a human woman one of them falls in love with, who is the heart of the story. Through her trauma, and the uncompromising way she lives her life, Cyrah gives a new perspective to the idea of power. Her sections feel the most fluid and alive.

Through this beautiful, violent tale, Indra Das explores fractured identity, colonialism, gender, queerness, trauma and the risks we take to truly feel alive in our own skin. It’s also a story of stories, of different beings trying to construct a narrative and a legacy from their chaotic lives. The themes are woven seamlessly with the story and the supernatural elements, as we’re seduced along with Alok into this world of animalistic violence and transgression. Reading The Devourers is an intensely visceral, emotional ride, but one that’s remained with me on an intellectual level, with so many layers to unpick. This is speculative fiction at its very best.

The Devourers is an adult horror novel. Read as part of my queer horror reading challenge.

Queer Book Club: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Agents of Dreamland coverAgents of Dreamland is an adult cosmic horror novella, part of Tor’s Re-imagining Lovecraft series, and my favourite so far.

The novella is a jigsaw of interconnecting points of view and fragments plucked from different points in time, a puzzle concerning the activities of a doomsday cult and the interactions of two agents sent to investigate by shadowy organisations in the US and UK. There are mythos nods to Yithians and Fungi from Yuggoth and a distinctly Delta Green vibe, for fans of table-top roleplay games, or X-Files for the less geeky. The way the story circles around these cosmic mysteries feels like a perfect way to handle the subject matter and reflects the unknowable nature of the horrors at work. The pacing and structure fits the novella length beautifully and each point of view is distinct and rich in character.

This is a tricky book to review without giving away spoilers. One of the joys of reading this story is piecing together the disparate parts, coming up with theories and finding connections. For example, I’m convinced that one of the main characters, the aloof and mysterious Immacolata Sexton from the British agency “Y”, is queer, but I can only explain why I think so by joining up some dots that would totally spoil the fun. (A lack of LGBT+ Goodreads shelving would suggest I may be off-base with my theory.) At one point, there’s a hint that a myth central to the story has been straight-washed in its classic cult cinema rendering, which sent my brain spiralling off. I’d love to read other theories about this, so feel free to drop them in the comments below. I may be wrong, but I’ve decided to double down and stick this story in my queer horror list.

For Lovecraft fans, it’s worth mentioning that the ‘dreamland’ in the title seems to be the name of a special Area 51 bunker where cosmic secrets are housed, not Lovecraft’s dreamlands. No one was tickled in the making of this novella.

This was an extremely rewarding read – exactly what I want from a modern Lovecraftian story. Exceptional story telling. If you like cosmic horror, I can’t recommend it enough.

Reviewed for my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

The Cabin at the End of the WorldThe Cabin at the End of the World is an adult horror novel. Seven year old Wen and her two dads, Eric and Andrew, are holidaying at a remote cabin in a New Hampshire forest when a group of four strangers arrive, bearing weird home-made weapons they claim are tools. They tell the family that they must choose one of them to be sacrificed willingly, or everyone else in the world will die. So begins a nightmare ordeal.

This is an incredibly tense story of love and sacrifice, where the claustrophobic action of the present is woven skilfully with the past experiences of the characters, as previous hurts and traumas surface under pressure. The limited cast of characters, small time-frame and enclosed location serve to ramp up the tension and focus the narrative in a way that heightens the emotion and occasional extreme violence. The story is dark and bleak, but is woven through with humanity and connection, and never cheapens the value of a human life.

I appreciate that the story has gay dads in it. I don’t seem to come across a lot of fiction with queer parents in. Without going into spoiler territory, the whole story seems to subvert some common gay tropes – I’m not sure how deliberate this was, but it definitely added to the story for me. There’s plenty of philosophical meat to this novel, plenty to think about at the end, without the story feeling self-consciously “deep” or stylistically weighty. There’s a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity right up to the end, which I liked, but which I know won’t suit everyone.

My only real gripe, and it’s fairly minor, was an odd choice to switch between first and third person in some of the joint Eric and Andrew sections towards the end of the novel. Sometimes it happened mid-sentence, which I found difficult to process, and which threw me out of the story somewhat.

Overall, a skilfully wrought, tense and disturbing horror novel with two gay main characters. This one’s going on the recommendation list for my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

More queer horror reviews coming soon.

Queer Book Club: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts coverAn Unkindness of Ghosts is an adult sci-fi novel set on a generational ship, ruled by a white supremacist group. Aster is one of the dark-skinned lower-deck residents, who is also looked on with suspicion for being neuro-atypical. She’s a skilled healer who brews much needed medicine in her secret botanarium. Her fierce intelligence and passion for medicine lead her to an unlikely friendship with the Surgeon, “God’s chosen hands” on the ship. But when his cruel uncle looks set to take over and starts to press his vendetta against Aster, something has to change.

I’ll get straight to the most important part of this review: I flat out love this book. The story tackles a lot of dark subject matter and it never flinches or fails to show life in all its complexity. This won’t be a book for everyone. It can be a tough read at times and the situation on the ship can feel overwhelming and helpless. It’s in part a slave narrative, with all that entails. (Take this as a content warning for all types of violence associated with a slavery or segregation context.) Though the story is bleak at times, the way it’s written never feels exploitative or gratuitous, and there is a lot of space given to hope and friendship.

The characterisations are so detailed and consistent, even when character flaws and foibles are maddening at times. The way Solomon writes is uncompromising in the best way – we may be floating through space in a giant ship with these people, but their stories feel completely real. Aster is stubborn in the face of oppression, even when it hurts her time and time again. Her best friend Giselle’s mental health problems make her cruel and rash at times. Her adoptive mother, Melusine, loves Aster unconditionally, but still resents the motherly role that’s constantly thrust upon her because she’s seen as a matronly type by the white upper deck people. The Surgeon, Theo, pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable with his gender presentation every day, though he knows it makes his privileged peers view him with suspicion. In every way, people act like people, through small acts of rebellion and inevitable acts of trauma, through loyalty, friendship and kindness as well as petty and extreme cruelty.

As far as representation goes, there’s a very diverse cast of characters, though the words they use to describe their identities are not our words. Many of the lower-deck people seem to have intersex traits. Aster and Theo are both gender-nonconforming in different ways. Melusine is asexual. There are many other queer characters and most of the major characters are black. Aster is probably on the autistic spectrum. Giselle suffers from severe mental health problems, including psychosis. I’m not qualified to speak on all of these identities, but I think Aster and Theo’s gender identities are handled very well, particularly in the way they’re woven together with the culture and realities of the ship, so that the world building and diversity mesh seamlessly. They talk openly to each other at points in the story about their gender feelings, as well as reflecting internally, so it’s something that’s tackled directly, even if they’re not in a position to realise their ideal expression, or even able to fully separate that ideal from their varied traumas.

Overall, I can’t really praise this enough. If dark and unflinching sci-fi is your thing, read this book. It’s bloody brilliant.

Queer Book Club: The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion coverThe Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is an adult novella that falls somewhere between horror and paranormal. After her friend’s suicide, Danielle Cain travels to Freedom, Iowa, the anarchist commune he’d called home, looking for some answers. There she finds a bloody protective spirit tasked with taking down those who abuse power. The beast seems to have turned on its summoners and all is not well in Freedom.

I found this a refreshingly original read. The setting and the ideals behind the commune underpin the themes of the story and it’s not often I read a piece of speculative fiction exploring anarchism, whilst still telling a good story. The figure of the protective spirit, who appears as a blood-red three antlered deer, is a striking presence in the story.

The story has a whole cast of queer characters, and gender and sexuality is treated directly, but with a light hand. No complaints there. My only complaint, and this is entirely a matter of taste, is that I could have handled more horror in the tale. But overall, it’s tense and well paced, especially for a shorter novella, and doesn’t feel quite like anything else I’ve read. This is going on my queer horror list.

For my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater

Call Down the Hawk coverThis is the first in a new trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater, set in the same world as the Raven Cycle and featuring some of the same characters, particularly Ronan and Adam. Whereas the Raven Cycle focused around a group of school friends uncovering a supernatural mystery, the new trilogy focuses on the world of dreamers like Ronan, who can bring back objects from their dreams and, on the other side, people who believe them to be a serious threat to the world. The action is set after Ronan and Adam have left school and Adam has begun college, so whilst the Raven Cycle was solidly YA, this novel is at the upper end of YA, edging into adult. Genre-wise, the story sits somewhere between paranormal and fantasy.

If you read my Raven Cycle review, you’ll see I’m quite the frothing fan boy of the first series, so I was excited to get my hands on this new book. The new story has a different feel to it: the world is harsher, the stakes are higher, the action is more violent and the future feels bleak. There’s more compromise than hope as Adam, Ronan, and Ronan’s older brother, Declan, negotiate their way around living adult lives with the dangers dreaming can bring. There are new characters: Jordan Hennessey, an art forger, and the copies of herself she repeatedly dreams and brings back in a nightmare she can’t escape; Carmen Farooq-Lane, a member of a shadowy extra-governmental organisation tasked with taking out dreamers, who they believe will end the world. I particularly enjoyed Hennessy and Jordan, her first copy who she gifted with her first name, and Hennessy’s interactions with Ronan. Carmen Farooq-Lane is harder to like, but her character also shows the most growth in the space of this book and I could see her coming to a confrontation with her fellow hunters in the future.

I’ve seen Stiefvater come in for some criticism in the past for her characters being overwhelming white, and some additionally felt the Asian character in the fourth book was mishandled. Jordan Hennessy is black and Carmen Farooq-Lane is POC. It’s not really for me to say whether she succeeds with these characters, but the cast of characters feels more racially diverse than the Raven Cycle, so I’ll be interested to see reactions to them. Hennessy is also bi or pan which, although only referenced, is cool.

As an Adam/Ronan fan, it was a joy to see their story continue. Their relationship was such a lovely surprise in the Raven Cycle – one of the rare times in my life where I’ve thought I was reading a het-only story and been pleasantly surprised by an apparently incidental homoerotic vibe actually blossoming into something. Their story lines generally represent the darker elements of the original series, so it’s no surprise this shift in focus has led to a darker book. Ronan’s dreaming is explored in much more detail in this story, including the limits it places on his life. Ronan becomes trapped both by the need to dream and the need to be close to the West Virginian ley line that seems connected to him and his dreaming. We see Adam go off to college and try to reconcile the poverty and violence of his past with what he hopes will be a brighter future. The greater exploration of Declan’s life and motivations was another rewarding aspect to this story, with glimpses into the shady underworld their dreamer father frequented.

Then there’s the mysterious Bryde, an apparently powerful dreamer who haunts Ronan’s dreams, whose name is whispered with excitement in the occult underworld.

There was plenty here to pull me in, from Stiefvater’s well written, complex, morally nuanced characters, to the mysteries of the overall story arc, from Bryde to the impending dream apocalypse. I love how the dream magic is written and how everything is edged with danger. Stiefvater’s prose isn’t perfect, but it’s alive and enthralling and I found myself drawn into this story in a way that doesn’t happen all that often. The first half of the story is fairly slow in pace, in a similar way to early Raven Cycle books, but I found enough in the establishing of characters and plot to keep me involved and the slower start made for a richer story. My only criticism was that occasionally Hennessy’s Britishism sounded slightly off to my British ear. And that “crumbs” as a favourite curse word has already been claimed by Danger Mouse sidekick, Penfold, in the British children’s cartoon series, which was slightly distracting. These were minor points, though, in an overall extremely rewarding read.

As a rule, I’m not generally a fan of series where the books don’t have some sort of self-contained narrative arc, and this one very much ends on a cliffhanger, but having read the first series, I knew what to expect and know it’s worth coming along for the ride.

I think this story would probably make sense without reading the Raven Cycle. There’s enough background information fed in and enough that’s new to this trilogy that it works as its own thing. But I’m not going to be the one to recommend you don’t.