Queer Book Club: Every Day by David Levithan

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Every Day is YA speculative fiction. Every morning, A wakes up to find themself in a different life, in a different body. They spend only a day in each person’s body and then move on. A has always moved from life to life, unable to make long-term relationships, careful not to leave a lasting mark on the lives they touch. But then they meet Rhiannon and fall in love and everything changes.

Every Day was a random second-hand bookshop find for me, although I read and enjoyed another Levithan book earlier in the year (you can find the review in the index), so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. Each life that A touches was well realised, a brief glimpse into someone else’s reality. Levithan jumps from life to life with incredible skill.

A is effectively gender fluid, taking on the gender of the person whose life they’re borrowing. They’re also pansexual/bisexual. I’m not sure why there is a male pronoun used in the blurb as A is explicit about not identifying with one gender more than another in the story. Probably marketing department shenanigans. Gender is handled quite subtly for most of the story—for A it’s not that big a deal, but it’s clear in the way the A interacts with others that their varied experience has given them a lot of empathy for others. This particularly comes across in A’s concern for the way that Rhiannon is treated and devalued by her shitty boyfriend and there’s a nice feminist undercurrent to that. There’s a little more explicit gender reflection towards the end and in some ways I preferred the more subtle gender and identity stuff because the whole model for the story gives ample opportunity for that sort of reflection. The trans person that A hops into towards the end becomes a bit of a vehicle for this. I liked the diverse representation (and overall there is plenty), but found it a bit odd that this was the only character that got an enormous coming out back story.

The only thing that is missing for me in the story is a little more existential reflection from A. There is a little, but as the whole set-up is such a huge opportunity for that, I think more big questions could have been asked. There are some slightly bland generalisations about people being 98% similar and religions all being similar which I was fairly ambivalent about. I guess that the big questions of existence are just something Levithan didn’t want to go near, maybe so as not to alienate people, so the story keeps a tight focus on personal experience and identity. Having said that, I’m happy that no explanation is provided for A’s hopping, though I’m sure it would drive some readers nuts.

This is worth reading for the deft way Levithan realises the different lives that A glimpses. Each chapter is a day and there are so many different experiences brought to life in the story. For me that’s really the main attraction of the book.

Queer Book club: Beloved Poison by E.S. Thomson

beloved-poison-coverEspecially for Halloween, Beloved Poison is a grisly gothic mystery steeped in Victorian grime and macabre medical practices. The story follows Jem Flockhart, apothecary to St Saviour’s Infirmary, as she pieces together the mystery of six tiny coffins discovered in the Infirmary’s old chapel. The writer is an academic who specialises in the history of medicine, and that knowledge certainly comes through in the gory detail. The story is dark, bleak and atmospheric—if you’re looking for a story with plenty of gothic atmosphere, it won’t disappoint.

Jem is an excellent character—she lives her life as a man, a necessity her father insists upon, so that she can continue the family business. Her masculine build and a birth mark on her face make it easier for her to maintain this disguise. The role leaves Jem feeling separate from both the men and women who surround her, set apart by her secret, but she also recognises the freedom that her role gives her. She’s secretly in love with Eliza, the beautiful daughter of one of the infirmary’s surgeons, but she’s sure her love could never be returned. When a young architect, Will, is charged with clearing St Saviour’s graveyard in time for the old infirmary to be relocated, Jem finds real friendship for the first time. I like the way Thomson handles the gender roles—it feels aware and considered, and there is also some insightful observation of women’s roles at the time and how those limits impacted on individuals. While the characters aren’t always aware of the injustices that surround them, the story makes them clear.

The world of the story is a small one, claustrophobic, with a limited cast of characters. This adds to the atmosphere of the story, but left me wondering if Thomson  could really surprise me with the reveal. But in the end, I wasn’t disappointed by the conclusion of the mystery. Despite the gothic atmosphere, this story brings readers face to face with some grim social realities—the brutal practices of Victorian medicine, child poverty and the limited roles of women. Because of that unflinching approach to the bleak setting, it’s fitting that the story doesn’t have an entirely happy ending.

My only criticism was that the story occasionally drops retrospective hints about the mystery while otherwise not feeling like it’s written in a retrospective style. It’s a small thing, though, and it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of and immersion in the story.

I should say an especial thank you to book blogger Hit or Miss Books for the recommendation.

Gothic/Horror Month Guest Interview: Nina Shepardson

nightscript 2 cover.jpgToday for Gothic/Horror Month, I have an interview with writer Nina Shepardson. Nina took some time out to talk to me about her latest story, a literary horror short, “And Elm Do Hate,” which appears in the anthology, Nightscript vol.2.

You recently had a short story, “And Elm Do Hate,” published in Nightscript Vol. 2. Tell me about the story.

“And Elm Do Hate” falls into the classification of literary horror. While there are certainly scenes where characters are trying to rescue themselves or others from immediate peril, the piece’s real focus is on atmosphere and a sense of brooding menace.

What were your inspirations?

The big one is a line of graffiti that started appearing in Worcestershire, England in the 1940s. It asked, “Who put Bella in the wych-elm?” after a group of children found the skeleton of a woman named Bella hidden in the hollow trunk of a tree.

I also drew some inspiration from an old folk saying: “Oak do brood, and elm do hate, but the willow walks if you travel late.”

Do you have any recommendations for short stories, or short story writers that tend towards the dark side of things?

Barbara Roden’s story collection “Northwest Passages” doesn’t get nearly enough love. Pretty much every story in that book is excellent, and they evoke a wonderful sense of pure creepiness. I also highly recommend Emily Carroll’s illustrated collection “Through the Woods” (as well as her online comics, which can be found at emcarroll.com).

Nina Shepardson is a scientist who lives in the north-eastern US with her husband. She’s a staff reader for Spark: A Creative Anthology, and her writing appears or is forthcoming in numerous venues. Her ghost story “Gifts from a Newlywed Husband to his Wife” can be read at Electric Spec: http://www.electricspec.com/Volume11/Issue1/shepardson.feb16.html She also writes book reviews at ninashepardson.wordpress.com

Gothic/Horror Month Review: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

theloney-coverI’ve seen The Loney described as both gothic and folk horror, and also literary fiction, and all those labels fit. It’s the story of the Catholic Smith family and friends who take a pilgrimage from their church in London to a desolate patch of coast in Northern England. They stay at the Moorings, a rental house once home to a taxidermist. But it is the stretch of coast itself, The Loney, with its deadly tides, and the mysterious Thessaly, an abandoned cottage on the tidal island of Coldbarrow, which are really at the heart of the mystery. For years, the group visited the nearby shrine with their old priest, Father Wilfred. But on their previous visit, Father Wilfred mysteriously changed, and soon after died. This time a new priest accompanies them.

The story is narrated by one of the boys from the Smith family, now grown-up. His older brother, Hanny, was mute and had learning disabilities when they were young, and the narrator often acts as his protector. Every pilgrimage, the family hoped that Hanny would be cured, though the narrator knew what a strain that expectation placed on his brother. The story begins by looking back at that time, at the final pilgrimage, but from an adult point of view. In the present, we know that adult Hanny has somehow recovered from his condition, but not how, and we’re told of a baby discovered in a landslide at Coldbarrow. Though it takes the book to explain why, this event prompts the narrator to tell the story of the final pilgrimage to The Loney. The retrospective style builds the sense of mystery.

The Loney is fantastically atmospheric. The bleak and deadly landscape is a character in itself, and there’s a brooding sense of doom that overlays the whole story. From the start, there are hints of folk magic, of the dark history of the place, and of something not quite right about the locals. As the story grows, this becomes increasingly apparent, but it takes a long time to discover the truth. I can’t stress this enough, this book is a slow burn, so if you like a fast pace, this isn’t for you. However, I’m not the most patient person in the world, and the rich characterisation and atmosphere were enough food to keep me going.

Catholicism plays a big part alongside the folk magic, and there’s brutality there as well, mostly in the form of the older fire and brimstone priest and the legacy he left. There’s a lurking question that seems to hang over the story about the fate of those who are cast out by The Church. But it’s not a complete trashing of religion. The new priest is much more open minded, and genuinely caring, and the story also stresses the comfort and hope that faith provides, as well as some of the darker excesses of religion. There’s no one single message about belief, but a lot of ambiguity.

The biggest ambiguity comes at the end. I won’t give it away, but it’s an ending that stays with me, that haunts with its lingering questions. The narrator, who I don’t think is ever given a first name, plays his role of protector to the end.

Queer Book Club: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

eileen-coverEileen is the story of a young woman set in the early 60s, in a small New England Town. It’s told retrospectively by Eileen when she’s much older, and there’s a wry humour to the retrospective viewpoint. Younger Eileen is trapped, living with her alcoholic father in their run down house, and working as a secretary in a juvenile prison. Nothing is rewarding about Eileen’s life, and she dreams of escape. She fantasises about Randy, one of the prison guards, and stalks him from afar, but really she’s quite alienated from her own desires, and her own body. Increasingly, we learn in snapshots from her childhood, that the whole of her life has been loveless and without affection. When a beautiful woman gets a job at the prison, Eileen’s desperate need for companionship transforms into a powerful crush.

This book caught my eye on the Man Booker shortlist. I’m slightly iffy as to whether it belongs in Queer Book Club (the main character isn’t explicitly queer), but the action hangs around Eileen’s crush on the beautiful new prison educator, Rebecca, so that’ll do I reckon.

I’ve seen the book labelled thriller, but it doesn’t really have the pacing of a thriller. Most of the book is more of an intricate character study of Eileen, following her around for a week, leading up to an unknown event which will cause her to leave her hometown forever. I loved the characterisation. Some of it is pretty grim—Eileen lives in filth and squalor, and hates her body to the point where she near starves herself, and then purges with laxatives, whilst drinking pretty heavily. Her relationship with her father is strained—he’s been a drunk for years, and has delusions and paranoia. But as the story takes shape, it becomes apparent that there never really was a golden time for Eileen. The retrospective style of narration, with the promise of escape and a better time, lifts the book from utter bleakness, so there’s humour and hope.

Whilst Eileen’s situation is not typical, there are some interesting reflections on women and sexuality at that time, and the limited roles available. Eileen’s not simply a victim of circumstance. She’s often quite an unpleasant, frustrating character, although I actually found her sympathetic as well.

The thriller element only really makes up the later part of the story, when Rebecca embroils Eileen in a surprising plot that finally snaps her out of the trap her life’s become. I won’t spoil the twist, but it was unexpected for me, even though the narrative is shaped towards that moment.

Eileen’s well worth a look, if you go in expecting a deep character study, and not a pacey thriller.

Queer Book Club: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

not-otherwise-specified-coverThis is a YA contemporary novel. Etta doesn’t seem to fit anywhere—her bisexuality gets her into trouble with the “Disco Dykes” group at school, she’s not skinny or white enough for the ballet she loves, she’s not ill enough for people to take her eating disorder seriously, she’s not a good enough singer to go to theatre school. Etta’s struggling with social isolation, and being the only person who is providing the support she needs. Then she finds unexpected friends at her group counselling, in a younger white anorexic girl and her gay brother. Bianca and James are from a very religious family, and are having problems all of their own.

When I first picked up this book, I was a bit stunned (in the sense of being hit round the head). The style is pretty intense—Moskowitz gets right in Etta’s head, and she has a pretty full on pile of anxieties which she cycles through constantly. The style is both a positive and a negative—on the one hand, it feels realistic, and I could really feel Etta’s struggle to cope with all the problems around her, and try to stay positive and on top of them. She keeps telling herself she’s really up-beat and happy, even when she’s falling apart, and eventually it comes true. On the other hand, the style makes for a somewhat unhinging read at times, especially if you’ve had mental health problems yourself.

Moskowitz does a really good job of showing some of the difficulties faced by bisexuals in finding acceptance, and in facing bi-phobia and bi-erasure. I’ve not read a lot of books with bisexual characters, and so that made a nice change. The bullying Etta faces at the hands of the girls at school actually gets pretty nasty at times, and that’s never completely resolved, which was a bit unsatisfying. Etta does stop looking for their acceptance, at least.

This is a bit of a novel of extremes. The characterisation is excellent, but that makes it a tricky read at times, and not all of the emotional loose ends feel completely tied up.

Writing Trans Characters

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I had this idea I wanted to put together a guide to writing trans characters. But the more I thought about it, the more I wasn’t really sure such a thing is possible. There are an infinite number of possible trans characters and trans stories, and having that variety represented is as important as anything else. So I’m just going to write about what I’d like to see in trans characters, and maybe it’ll be useful to others.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had recently about writing trans characters:

Transition isn’t the only story. Much as I loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a kid, I don’t want to read it over and over for the rest of my life. I want to know what awesome adventures that beautiful butterfly has when it’s done stuffing it’s face with saveloy and fruit. For me, it’s really important to tell stories that aren’t just about transition. Part of the reason for that is because sometimes it feels like there is no life beyond transition, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only trans person who’s wondered if they even have a place in the world. Stories of what happens next are more important than telling the same transition story over and over. (Also, as a side note, trans stories that read like surgical manuals are particularly tedious. The few programmes about trans people I saw on TV growing up were mostly just about surgical procedures. It scared the hell out of me.)

Trans people could exist in any environment or genre, not just realism, Bildungsroman or high school. Trans people could have adventures in space, or kill dragons, or fight clockwork robots, or solve crime, or get eaten by eldritch horrors, or act as a spy during the 18th century, or really just anything. Having looked pretty hard, I’ve noticed some more genre fiction emerging with trans characters. Which is really cool. But I’d love to see more of that stuff, and just more variety in general. I read pretty widely, in genre and literary fiction, and I want to be able to give my book geekness full expression.

Trans people don’t exist for non-trans people to get their tragedy jollies. Does the story really present a believable human being, or is the character really just an object which serves some cathartic process for others? I’m not saying the story has to be happy (I don’t write happy fiction), or the character has to be the main character, but does the character’s transness exist only as a symbol of something else, or to milk an emotional response? (Clue: if people say things like “her tragic struggle for acceptance taught me so much about what it means to really be your true self”, you’ve probably written something overly sentimental and should try harder next time.)

Trans people aren’t always part of the mainstream. Not all trans people want to be. Trans people can be queer in different ways. Not all trans people care about passing, (some do, and that’s fine too). Not everyone transitions, and if they do, their transition is unique to them, and doesn’t necessarily fit some formula. Trans people don’t always fit into a binary model of gender. Trans people can be part of subcultures other than LGBT ones, and might also be part of a queer social network.

Trans is not the whole character. This should go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t—being trans is just one part of a big and complex character picture. It can dominate a person’s life at times, and at others, become irrelevant, but the point is, it’s just one part of a person. You’ve got to write all the other parts as well, or you have a flimsy character.

I have a sequel coming up to my vampire novella, with a trans character in. And my plan is the third and final part of the trilogy will be from his point of view. He’s gay and goth, and a vampire (and kinky as hell). So I’ve hopefully managed to fulfil some of my own wishes for a decent trans character.

Recommendations for good trans fiction welcome.

Queer Book Club: We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

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We Are the Ants is a hybrid YA novel, with elements of sci-fi, coming of age and romance thrown in. Henry is struggling at home—his mum hasn’t coped since his dad left, his brother bullies him, and he’s losing his grandmother to Alzheimer’s. He watches his fellow students drive around in flash cars, while his family just struggle to get by. And he lost his boyfriend to suicide. But on top of all that, he’s regularly kidnapped by slug-like aliens, who now want him to decide whether the Earth will end. Thanks to his brother telling everyone in school about the abductions, his fellow students call him Space Boy, and bully him mercilessly. Henry isn’t really sure whether the Earth is worth saving.

Despite the pretty out there premise of the alien abductions, We Are the Ants is mostly a high school coming of age story. It’s pretty dark and brutal at times, more so than average. Henry is dealing with a lot of things, and has an understandably bleak outlook on life. His voice is really distinctive, veering from alienated distance to dark humour. The voice was really the first thing to grab me about the novel. Henry definitely serves up a whole heap of existential angst along the way, as he tries to negotiate his increasingly desperate life, and feelings of self-loathing. There were a few shocks in the story, as Henry punishes himself for his perceived failings with his late boyfriend, or is punished by others or by circumstance. When a new student, Diego Vega, befriends him, he’s really in no state to embark on a new relationship.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and Hutchinson does justice to the varied complex issues covered, particularly the family’s financial hardship and the various problems that arise from that. There’s really no let up for Henry. (Trigger warnings for bullying, sexual assault and attempted rape.)

It’s a good book. But I was a little disappointed in the ending. It didn’t quite satisfy as a pay-off to all that angst and trauma. And not because it wasn’t a happy ending. It just had too much ambiguity for me, given the novel set-up. However, even given the ending (which I don’t want to spoiler), We Are the Ants is definitely worth a look.

Queer Book Club: You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan

You Know Me Well coverYou Know Me Well is a YA coming of age novel, set in San Francisco, with a vein of romance. Mark is in love with his best friend, Ryan, who runs hot and cold with him and isn’t ready to come out, whereas Kate is in love with a dream girl her best friend set her up with, who she’s never even met before. Among all the confusion and turmoil of their final years in school, what Mark and Kate really need in the end is a good friend to get them through—and luckily they find each other.

The story alternates chapters between Mark and Kate. I enjoyed both characters, and didn’t have that horrible sensation that sometimes happens with multiple points of view, of craving one character more than another. The characters are very different—Mark is much more sporty and conventional, whereas Kate is an artist—but they complement each other because they’re both very sensitive to each other’s needs. While each of them is paralysed at times by their fears for themselves, their friendship means that they have the support they need to push through their fears. Kate’s self-sabotaging anxiety is pretty astounding at times, but it’s also what brings her and Mark together.

The representation of teenage life is much closer to my own experience than some YA I’ve read, so that was easy to connect with. School is there, but the characters are also around in the city, going to clubs and bars, drinking, going to house parties. I also liked the way that when the characters take risks, really cool things can happen to them. They push each other to be better, to believe in their own abilities, particularly where Kate’s art is concerned. There’s almost a fairy tale quality to the night they meet, when, just for a short time, their dreams start to come true.

This book has a lot of queer characters, which is cool. Most of the characters are out, and they draw strength from that sense of community and shared experience. The book also touches on the awkwardness of coming out, with Mark’s friend Ryan, not because Ryan is living in a repressive community, but because he’s just not ready to share that private part of himself with the world. Because there are all these different queer characters, the writers are able to show lots of different queer experiences. At the centre of the story is the friendship between Mark and Kate, and it’s refreshing to see friendship celebrated over romance in this context.

This is a very enjoyable book. As I say, there’s a fairy tale quality about a few bits, which didn’t feel entirely realistic, but I’m not all that fussed about realism if the story is good.