Queer Book Club: Nina is not Okay by Shappi Khorsandi

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Nina is not Okay is a contemporary fiction novel with a YA protagonist, though it doesn’t hold back on content, so I reckon it’s aimed at older YA and adults.

Seventeen year old Nina is struggling to cope with her boyfriend leaving the country and then leaving her for another girl. She’s hitting drink hard and losing control. When she’s thrown out of a nightclub for inappropriate behaviour, she loses the rest of the night. All she knows is that some guy put her in a taxi home with her knickers in her hand. Nina continues to spiral out of control as she tries to lose herself in alcohol and casual sex, still unable to resolve that lost night.

In many ways, this is a heavy read. It’s hard to watch someone lose control of their life and hurt themselves over and over again. It’s a book about rape and alcoholism, which is obviously not going to be a walk in the park. However, Nina is a very sympathetic, smart, funny character, and even when she’s behaving like a complete idiot, I still found myself rooting for her. I loved the unflinching honesty of it all and the flawed characters (including the adults) who are all muddling through, making a mess of things. I love that Nina is bisexual and just figuring out how that works for her amongst all the other chaos of her life. It’s an emotional read, but hugely rewarding, especially if you had (or are having) a shambolic teens.

This is the second book I’ve read by this author. Her autobiography, A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English, about leaving Iran as a child and moving to Britain, is also brilliant. I’m beginning to think she’s a bit of a genius.

(NB to US readers: The book is set in the UK. For context, the age of consent in the UK is 16, the age you can legally drink is 18, and we have different rape laws.)

Queer Book Club: Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape by Jack Swift

niks mixtape coverA transgressive adult novel. When a voice from his past intrudes on his fragile recovery, Nik hits the road in his Dodge Dart and begins his revenge road trip, accompanied by the perfect mixtape and the ghost of his dead friend.

This is an incredibly intense, almost feverish tale of Nik’s attempt to get even with his past, from his abusive relationship with ex-boyfriend, Harley, to the depths he sank through his heroin addiction, and the horrific act he can never forgive his ex-band members for. It’s an amazing read from start to finish, sometimes disturbing, sometimes extremely moving. I cried a couple of times and wanted to puke a few others. It’s definitely full on, but I like a book that makes me feel something. Jack Swift experiments with non-standard narrative techniques to express the experience of trauma; the portrayal  works so well because it’s delivered within the tight structure of the road trip revenge spree.

A story with a trans guy as a main character, written by a trans writer. If you’re bored by the current fad for queer fiction full of sunshine, lollipops and mainstream wish fulfilment, this is a good antidote. A story where people are allowed to be just as messed up as reality. Full disclosure—I first came across this novel as an earlier draft, through a writing group. I fell for the writing first, before I became friends with the author,  so I feel I can recommend it in good conscience.

I wish there were more books like this—honest and raw, with an uncompromising punk rock sensibility. Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape tackles trauma, addiction, recovery and the possibility of redemption without sentimentality, but with humanity and dark humour. Definitely worth a read.

(TW/SPOILER: This story is part rape revenge fantasy.)

Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape is released in ebook format on 24th May 2017. You can order it here. Or you can buy the paperback here.

Queer Book Club: Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones by Torrey Peters

Infect Your Friends coverSpeculative fiction novella. In the future, everyone will be trans—that’s Lexi’s plan. With the help of her scientist friend, Raleen, she finds a way to shut down human hormone production, so that everyone has to make the choice trans people make. It’s both a revenge fantasy and a satirical ‘what if?’

The story is told in fragments by Lexi’s Patient Zero (who I don’t think is ever named). The narrative hops about in time, before and after ground zero of Lexi’s disease. It’s a quick read, but packs one hell of a lot into a small space.

I really love this. It’s funny, subversive, full of complexity and anger and frustration and satire and biting social observation about trans women, they way they treat each other and the way other people treat them. The style is fluid, dynamic and accessible—it was a joy to read. I don’t want to say too much more, because the story is compact, and I don’t want to spoiler.

I read in an interview with Torrey Peters that she’s made a point of not getting to hung up on traditional publishing conventions. There are a couple of tense shifts that threw me, but really, not a big deal.

Just, yeah, wow. I wish there were more books like this. One of my reading resolutions for 2017 is to read more spec fic with trans characters, and another is to read more subversive trans fiction. The world does not abound with books like this. This ticks all my boxes.

You can download an ebook copy from the author’s website, for a donation (or for free) here: http://www.torreypeters.com/ It’s also available in paperback.

Queer Book Club: For Real by Alexis Hall

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Adult BDSM M/M romance. A rare erotic romance review for me. I worry my responses to this genre are pretty personal, so I’m not sure how much use my opinion is to another reader, but I did really enjoy this and think it’s well written, so I thought I’d try a review.

Laurence is 37, and still hurt over a relationship that finished six years ago. The BDSM scene is feeling pretty stale to him, but he struggles to trust anyone enough to get close. Toby is 19, and completely new to the scene. The one thing he knows is he’s dominant. Can Laurence overcome his trust issues, and his misgivings about Toby’s age, enough to be submissive in a relationship again?

The point of view switches between Laurence and Toby, with Toby’s bits written in present tense and Laurence’s in past, to convey their different ages and personalities. I think the style switch works well. The voices of Laurence and Toby are also very distinct.

The main premise, and what makes For Real pretty unique, is the dom is much younger and less experienced than the sub, so there’s a learning curve for both of them, both in terms of each other, and what they want from kink. Laurence’s life is well established—he’s a successful emergency doctor with a nice big house—whereas Toby has lost his way and is stuck working in a greasy cafe for minimum wage. I really like the emotional exploration of what BDSM means to the two characters and how that interacts with the other parts of their lives. I think this is the most successful aspect of the story (aside from the kink scenes, which are very good). Alexis Hall avoids clichés in order to deliver something which feels fresh and unique. If your tastes run to traditional hard-ass alpha doms, this isn’t for you. Toby is pretty fragile, at times, and finding his feet.  But there are also a lot of inventive smut scenes, as Toby finds his way into what he likes and what Laurence likes. There’s even a foody scene which I enjoyed, and I usually get squicked out by that sort of thing.

My only criticism of this book is that, particularly in the second half, I found the emotional rollercoaster a little bumpy and extreme at times (oh my God, everything is perfect, oh no we’ve crashed, it is the very worst…), but it is a huge page turner, with a lot that’s good about it, so the bump didn’t detract too much. The smut is extremely hot (or at least, I found it so). There’s a lovely sweet little bath scene near the start, which I adore. I wish this had been followed up, but only because I like bath scenes. Oh, yes, and 37 isn’t all that ancient! As if my mid-life crisis needed any help.

One of the interesting things about this story, from the point of view of other queer fiction I read, is that the ‘coming out/coming of age’ bit is about kink and not about being queer. I like that Alexis Hall takes this aspect seriously. Read, if you want a responsibly written, hot BDSM novel with a convincing, realistic emotional aspect to the kink.

Queer Book Club: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

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YA coming of age novel about Pen, a Portuguese-American girl who is struggling for a place to fit, being a masculine girl and a lesbian. She hangs out with Colby and some other boys, but Colby’s brand of macho bullshit starts to grate when Pen talks to Olivia, and gets an insight into the harm he does to the girls he picks up and throws aside. Then, when Pen finds Blake, a girl she really likes, she has to define her own way of loving girls and negotiate her own sense of masculinity. In the background, her traditional Portuguese family are making life hard for her and her brother, Johnny, and nothing they do is good enough.

This is a quick read, and pulled me in from the start, especially the creepy friendship with Colby. Girard does a good job of portraying a really messed up power dynamic there. I could relate to tolerating misogyny as a teen, in some mistaken attempt to compensate for gender issues. Pen’s unreconstructed approach to her gender and sexuality stuff felt realistic and believable, and Girard highlights, through the action of the story, a lot of problems with traditional messed up gender roles and relations. Colby is on a massive power trip, and uses women like objects. Olivia ends up pregnant, with no support. Pen’s parents want her to fit in and not attract trouble—to act like a “nice girl”. Throughout, Girard plays with the different ideas of what it means to “man-up”. Even Johnny, Pen’s supportive older brother, still has some stuff to work through around solving problems with violence.

I had a small misgiving that a lot of the issues raised stay implicit, bubbling below the surface of the action, whereas by the end, I wanted some of the characters to be having a more explicit dialogue. I don’t expect a 16 year old character to have everything sussed, but given she goes looking for info online at one point in the story, I would have thought Pen might trip over some gender or feminist theory along the way. I guess, I felt like a bunch of problems were thrown up in the story, but only the most tentative road-map is offered out of them. At one point, Colby sexually assaults Pen, and that’s brushed over and never really named for what it is, even though it’s not shown to be okay. I think there’s a danger in being too subtle about some of this stuff.

My only other misgiving was, the students all attend a Catholic school, and I would have expected at least some of them to have internalised more guilt (about gender, sexuality and abortion). Those internal obstacles are not so easily jumped or reconciled, particularly at 16 when school and family are your whole world. Don’t get me wrong—the characters do have plenty of internalised prejudices, but the religious side is given a very light touch. Maybe there wasn’t space to fully explore those aspects. It was a niggle, rather than a deal breaker.

Overall, I think this book is on point flagging up problems, showing how misogyny and toxic masculinity function in practice, but doesn’t completely follow through with pointing the way to solutions. The characters are well realised, and it’s an enjoyable and compelling read. The relationship between Blake and Pen is sweet and healthy, and there’s no contrived narrative drama thrown in the way to create tension, which I liked. Blake is comfortable with being bi, which is also cool. It’s interesting that Pen never gives herself a gender label, other than girl. I’ve seen a few reviews stick different gender label on her, but it’s not there in the text, so I’m not going to. It’s testament to the complexity of this book that it’s been an absolute pain to review, and I’ve ended up saying so much.

Queer Book Club: The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan

the-rental-heart-coverA collection of short stories, which vary from fairy tale re-imaginings to original magic realism and steampunk stories. There’s a lot of meat here, to get your teeth into—the sort of short stories that leave you thinking. There’s also a lot of originality and imagination on show.  A good chunk of the stories have queer characters (I especially noticed the bi visibility).

One of the highlights for me is the title story, ‘The Rental Heart’, in which the main character employs technology to have relationships without the risk of a broken heart. I also enjoyed ‘The Coin-Operated Boy’, a tongue-in-cheek steampunk story. (Although I kept getting the Dresden Dolls song of the same name lodged in my head.) ‘Matroyshka’ is an original twist on Cinderella, with a self-involved spoiled princess not getting what she feels she deserves. The settings vary from fantastical to modern day.

The collection includes some of my favourite elements of magic realism, with the magic representing intangible aspects of longing, lust, love and the stand-ins for love. This is definitely an adult collection, as there are a few smuttier bits.

With short story collections, there are always bound to be some I like more than others, but this is a really solid collection with no real low points. I’d definitely give more of Kirsty Logan’s work a look on the strength of this collection.

Queer Classics: Funeral Games by Mary Renault

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The final part of Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, Funeral Games begins with Alexander’s death, and concerns the fallout that follows as his people vie for power, and to fill the huge void he leaves.

I found the action of this fascinating—the politics, the way that things fall out, the lengths the different characters will go to in order to achieve their aims, the sheer venality of it all. I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Persian Boy, which is by far my favourite. Funeral Games sees a return to the multiple third person points of view of the first book, and lacks the central driving emotion of that, so it’s my least favourite of the three.

Women, again, come out quite badly, though they get more screen time. Although, to be fair, everyone comes out badly, except Bagoas and Ptolemy. No tool is left unused in the bid for power—murder, manipulation, lies, deceit, the rewriting of history and war are all employed, with disastrous and tragic results. I did lose my temper at one point with Renault when something very silly happens to Eurydike (one of the key players in the power struggle) to thwart her bid for power. I won’t spoil it, but it drove me nuts and left me feeling incredulous.

Reservations aside, it’s still a fascinating study of a power vacuum. Politics don’t get any more vicious than this. Overall, I love the trilogy, but this isn’t the high point for me.

Queer Classics: The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

the-persian-boy-coverSecond in Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, The Persian Boy follows the story of Bagoas, the Persian eunuch who Alexander falls in love with, and is entirely from his point of view, in first person, unlike the other two books in the trilogy.

Oh, my heart. I loved this book. The detail, as Bagoas follows Alexander’s campaigns across the world, is breathtaking. I could have stayed in this world forever. It’s such a huge story, and Bagoas can only tell a small part of it, but I like that his perspective is limited in that way. It makes the story much more personal.

I also loved the main character. It’s quite unusual to have a male lead who is feminine and submissive, and that makes a nice change, especially given the subject matter of the story. It’s such an inspired choice by Renault. Whilst, in the first book, Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion seems to draw strength from the fact Alexander can be his relaxed, private self around Hephaestion, his relationship with Bagoas seems to allow him an outlet for his role as a divine hero, someone who is admired, as well as for his love of Persia. I think Renault shows how the two relationships complement each other, and Bagoas comes to accept that, despite his jealousy of Hephaestion. The relationship also highlights the racial tensions that Alexander faces from his own people, as he embraces the culture of a foreign land.

I hoped, all along, that Bagoas and Hephaestion might come to more of an overt understanding, but they do come to understand each other, in a way that is left unspoken. This is one of the ways that Renault captures the morality and behaviour of the time. In a modern book, the two would have inevitably had a heart to heart, but given the differences in the roles and statuses, and Bagoas’ own conservatism, it makes sense that they don’t.

My only major criticism is that this book doesn’t treat women particularly well, in the small space they’re given. To an extent, it reflects the times, but I think there’s also some prejudice on Renault’s part. Queen Sisygambis, Queen Mother of Darius III, is the only female character who comes out with any real dignity or strength.

So, lovely flexible gender representation on one hand, and not on the other. If you can get past the female characters (as I say, they play a tiny part), it’s an amazing book. I guess it’s going to be a subjective thing whether that’s a deal breaker, or not. While I admire this book a lot, for all the reasons I’ve said, I may not go on to read any more of Renault after this trilogy, because that could get grating. These generally seem to be considered her best, anyway.

Queer Book Club: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

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Nevada is the story of Maria, a young trans woman living in New York, struggling with her relationship to her body and her inability to be emotionally present in any of her relationships. It’s also about James, who lives in a small town in Nevada, and spends most of his time checked out on marijuana. When Maria’s girlfriend announces she’s been having sex with Maria’s friend and colleague, Maria wakes up to the fact she’s not really happy with any part of her life. I really wanted to read some more counter-culture books with trans characters (because I’m not a middle class teen and I’ve never been to a prom), and Nevada fits the bill.

This book is sharp and funny. I was genuinely laughing out loud a few pages in. Maria has a head full of queer and feminist theory, but treats it with irreverence and humour. Except when she doesn’t, then you get a full steam thought-diatribe on whatever’s wound her up. It’s a contrast to the wide-eyed innocence of trans people waking up to themselves in other trans novels I’ve read. Maria has access to other queer people, to support groups, to theory. It doesn’t necessarily make her life easy. It doesn’t solve all her problems. She’s still got all her hang ups about her body, and various self-protection strategies she’s built up as a child, which she can’t now drop in order to connect to other people and be present in her own life. So the humour is dark and the narrative is often on the edge. It feels intense and there’s a lot to process, but in a good way. The characters are frustrating, but for a reason—they spend a lot of time avoiding reality, avoiding emotions, avoiding making connections or facing tricky situations. They’re not role-models, they’re people. (Although I still wanted to scream at Maria for all the drunk driving.)

The style took me a little while to get into. Maria’s thoughts come full pelt all the time and the style is very naturalistic and conversational. There are a lot of fillers (like, anyway). It was fine once I’d got used to it, and I think the trick is to just go with it until it starts to flow. There are no speech marks, which works until the chapter where both James and Maria are thinking and talking at the same time, and then I lost the thread a bit. There were more than the average number of typos in the version I read, but it doesn’t distract too much. Weirdly, as I don’t often get hung up on this stuff, I thought a few times it’d have made more sense written in first person.

About halfway through the story, the point of view flips to James, a 20 year old stoner in small town Nevada. I didn’t realise this was going to happen, so I was a bit disoriented. His story soon joins up with Maria’s and you get a perspective from someone in a very different place with their gender identity. There’s a lot of reflection on the specific problems faced by trans women who are attracted to women and how patriarchal ideas about female sexuality and women’s bodies and men’s bodies feed into that.

The story doesn’t really have a resolution, which is a little unsettling, and maybe that’s the point. There’s this echo/not echo pattern with Maria and James. I guess that jagged feeling at the end is deliberate, in that Maria’s struggle, and both their struggles, don’t have a resolution. They’ll go on muddling through, dealing with some things, avoiding some things, making a shitty mess of some things. It would be naff if Binnie had tied a neat bow around it. However, there is still something a little unsatisfying about the end. I wanted to go back to Maria one final time.

I liked the story for its humour and realism. The characterisation is very strong. I liked that Maria wasn’t a wide-eyed innocent, she wasn’t a victim, but she still struggled. I liked that she’s trans and lesbian and punk. That her transness isn’t fit neatly into middle class America. I was still a bit unsure about the shape of the narrative towards the end. I was okay with the lack of resolution, but Maria gets kind of abandoned , which feels a bit odd when the whole first half is about her. Still definitely worth a look.

Imajica and Gender

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Clive Barker’s Imajica is an enormous multi-dimensional fantasy horror novel which mostly focuses on the story of three characters : Gentle, Judith and Pie ‘oh’ Pah. I’m hungry for horror fiction at the moment and particularly for queer horror fiction, which is why I picked up a copy. Rather than attempt a review, which would likely be  dissatisfying for such a huge and complex book, I thought I’d focus on gender, because, after leaving it to mull for a while, that’s what’s scratching at the back of my mind. Imajica both delighted me and annoyed me about gender, so here goes.

Imajica has a few queer characters, but I want to focus on Pie, because Pie is androgyne and I get very excited about the few rare non-binary characters I come across. Pie’s pronoun is “it” in the book, so that’s what I’m going to use. I know people vary on how annoying they find “it” as a pronoun, and likely, if it really flips you out, this is not the book for you. Pie is a rare type of alien species who is androgynous and usually appears as whoever the beholder desires. Only as he falls in love with Pie does Gentle begin to see Pie’s true form.

Pie is portrayed as exotic, and I guess that’s a little problematic (I’m writing about gender and I’ve already used the ‘p’ word *waves pompoms*), but I did overall enjoy how it was written. And, y’know, it may be problematic, and on the other hand, Pie is a gender divergent character who’s an object of desire in a cool and non-creepy way, so that’s quite nice. (With the proviso that this is Barker, and you don’t read Barker if you don’t want a bit of freaky sex and psycho-sexual mess.)

Although Pie first appears as an assassin, it is a very gentle character—insightful, patient and wise, and devoted to Gentle for better or worse. There’s a theme in the book that we love the people we love, not the people we ought to love, and that’s definitely true of Pie. Overall, I like Pie and I cared what happened to it a lot, and for me, that’s what’s important. Although its story is intrinsically tied to Gentle’s, Pie has its own history, its own tragedies and victories, and I think the character is well drawn.

So, what niggled me about gender? Here’s Barker with this cool non-binary character and I’m mostly very excited and happy. But there’s an idea about gender creeping around in the background. I can see it lurking there, as I’m reading, and my old gender radar is blipping a little. I’m getting twitchy. There’s a god in this multi-dimensional world, and he represents maleness, and he has a big old phallic pillar and whatnot. He’s tried to destroy all the goddesses and destroy a bunch of other stuff. A few characters opine that men are really intrinsically destructive—that’s what they do. And when the goddesses roll up, they’re all creative and fecund. It feels a lot like an essentialist gender narrative, and a tired one. But this is the very early 90s, so, more like the 80s. One of the reasons this stuff winds me up so much is I grew up with those narratives at that time, in all their sucky and limiting glory. For a while back then, that’s what feminism looked like. (Let’s face it—for some people, it still does.) But, having said all that, Judith and Gentle both overcome the gendered suck-fest that is their unhealthy hetero relationship pattern by the end of the novel, so things aren’t all awful.

Overall? I flat out hate essentialist gender narratives. I think they’re unhealthy and hurt people. There is that lurking at the back of the novel, and it comes to the fore much more towards the end. But then there’s Pie, offering a third way, and to an extent, that does redeem things for me, but it doesn’t completely expel my creeping discomfort. I was left with two separate feelings about the way Imajica deals with gender—one involving joy, and the other, eye rolling. They exist side by side, largely unreconciled.