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 Gothic novel for adults, read as part of 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: Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

Wake of Vultures coverWake of Vultures is a hybrid YA novel, blending western, horror, paranormal, fantasy and adventure genres. Nettie Lonesome lives on Mam and Pap’s farm as their adopted daughter, though they treat her no better than a slave. Everything changes when Nettie has to fight for her life against a monster. Her new-found ability to see the monsters all around her leads her on a quest for vengeance. If you like stories about cowboys fighting monsters, this is the novel for you.

This is a tough, often violent YA novel, that’s definitely aimed at the top end of YA. I found it very readable as an adult. I think younger YA readers might struggle with some of the violence and also with an attempted rape scene towards the end of the book. It’s well written with a dark, gritty tone and plenty of dirty fight scenes against monsters from various cultural traditions. The action stays with Nettie as she travels across the Durango landscape, on the hunt for a child-stealing beast.

Nettie is a complex, well drawn main character: she’s often stubborn and pig-headed, and very slow to trust others because of her traumatic home life. She’s sometimes not very likeable, but remains sympathetic. She’s still figuring out who she is and the narrative follows along with that self-discovery as her world expands beyond the farm where she grew up. She describes herself as “half black, half Injun”, though her adopted parents are white. They used her colour against her as she grew up, so part of her internal journey involves learning to value that aspect of her identity. She’s also figuring out her sexuality, which seems to be bi, and her gender. Nettie identifies as more masculine than feminine, though some of her discomfort with being feminine and female is cultural. The author describes her as trans and genderqueer in an interview at the back of the copy I have – obviously that’s not terminology used in the 19th century setting. The book does a decent job of weaving together the internal and external aspects of Nettie’s journey, with adventure going hand-in-hand with self-discovery.

The plot has a chosen one and hero’s journey structure, which aren’t my favourite things these days, but they’re handled with a deft hand here and don’t overwhelm the story. I suspect that this is partly because the western and horror elements are much more to the front. Liking these genres and being on board with the genre mash-up is likely essential to enjoying the book. There is also a large cast of secondary characters, from hard-bitten monster hunting rangers, to shape-shifting indigenous siblings.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. My only niggles were a couple of aspects of the gender representation. The first was a weird quirk of the narrative style where, even though the narration is all from Nettie’s point of view (in third person), she’s occasionally referred to as “the girl”. It felt weird as an external point of view shift, but also because Nettie states to others and to herself a number of times that she doesn’t see herself as a girl and I expected these moments of affirmation to be reflected in all aspects of the way the story was told, but that didn’t quite pan out. My other niggle was a plot development that I’ve noticed occurring often enough in trans stories for it to be considered a trope, where they’re forced to dress up as the gender they don’t identify with in order to solve a plot point. I don’t want to derail the review by picking apart why this trope bothers me, as overall I feel positive about this book (maybe a subject for a separate post). These two aspects weren’t deal breakers for me, but I’m mentioning them because they might be for others.

This is the first in a series, but the main plot was contained within this novel and resolved by the end, so you could comfortably read this on its own. Having said that, there’s plenty more growing and learning to be done for Nettie and I appreciate that Lila Bowen takes her time with this and takes Nettie’s traumatic upbringing seriously. There’s also a whole lot of personal background plot to be explored and a really nice reveal at the end, which left me wanting more. I’m on a mission to find decent dark speculative fiction with queer characters, particularly trans characters, and this book makes my 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.

Queer Myths, Folklore and Fairy Tales (on Medium)

child readingMyths, folklore and fairy tales have a big influence on my writing. This is my first foray into non-fiction on Medium: “Why Telling Queer Myths, Folklore and Fairy Tales is an Act of Healing”. It’s a mixture of personal experience, writing about writing, and reflections on the impact of queer representation (or lack of) in the stories we grow up with. You can read it for free, it’s not behind a paywall. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, too.

Short Story: Falling, Parts 1-4

black snake scalesI’ve posted all four parts of my new short story, “Falling,” on Medium. Here’s a short excerpt from the beginning and a friend link to all parts below, so you can read them for free if you’re not a Medium member.

His body stretches across the Cour Napoleon, surrounded by the rubble his fall has made, the cracked stone and concrete. If he moves a leg, his foot will crash through the glass pyramid, but he’s still. He must move. He must shrink his vast body to fit the proportions of the mortal world. But he can’t find the will required. A light breeze ruffles the feathers of his wings.

Few in the crowds of tourists can bear it. Some have fallen to their knees and are openly weeping in the street. Most turn away, gather up their loved ones and return home, or the closest haven they can find. One or two hardened souls point their iPhones at him. He sheds tears for them, for their lost awe and wonder, these maimed souls. His tears puddle beneath his face.

A hand touches his arm. A small hand, but he knows it doesn’t belong to a human.

“Gabriel.”

Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. There are also friend links within each part that you can use to navigate by. I hope you enjoy the story.

Check out the hosting publication, The Mad River, for stories and poems of magic and madness. They have a Dark and Holy Writing Challenge coming up.

Queer Book Club: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

What Belongs to You coverWhat Belongs to You is (adult) gay contemporary fiction. It’s taken me a little while to review this one as I needed to let it settle. It’s a tough read, not because of the style or the length—it’s a fairly short novel and elegantly written—but because watching the main character manhandle their emotions and cycle through their self-loathing is difficult to witness. If those don’t sound like things you want to read about, this isn’t the book for you.

The story is about an American teacher living in Sofia, who starts an on-off relationship with a young sex worker, Mitko. The narrator (who I don’t think is ever named) becomes fixated with Mitko, but their relationship is always an uneasy one, complicated by the narrator’s self-loathing and their uneven economic status. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the narrator is far from easy with himself, that likely every decision he’s made in adulthood has been complicated by feelings left over from his childhood and his father’s rejection of his sexuality. I thought the emotional layering was well done. The way the narrator constantly fails to make the best choices for himself creeps up on you with slow frustration and then begins to make sense when more of his past is revealed.

The only thing I didn’t get on with, and this is more a visual discomfort thing for me, is that there are no paragraphs in the middle section of the novel. It’s a retrospective section about the narrator’s adolescence and his complicated relationship both with his own sexuality and with his father. Whilst perhaps the format reflects that mire of emotions, it made my eyes hurt and I’m not grateful for that.

Overall, this is a fairly heavy read, but it’s worth it for Greenwell’s handling of the ways our past shapes our present. I like the unreliable narrator and I’m interested in the ways we lie to ourselves about our own emotions. I also like a book that pulls the reader into the atmosphere and emotion, even if it is uncomfortable. It’s a book that leaves readers the space to do some working out for themselves and I think it’s worth the effort.

Queer Book Club: Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

Regeneration cover

An actual book review from me, for a change. I’m rather late to the party with these ones, as they were published in the 90s, and the first one has since been made into a film, but I enjoyed them so much I thought I’d dust off my reviewing hat and recommend them here. I’ll cover the whole trilogy in one review, as I read them back to back in a frenzy of enthusiasm, and would now probably fail to separate them very well. The trilogy is adult historical fiction, comprised of: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.

The trilogy is set during WW1 and begins in the Craiglockheart Hospital, where Dr W.H.R. Rivers is treating soldiers experiencing battlefield trauma. The characters are a mixture of historical figures, including Rivers, and the poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, as well as fictional characters, such as Billy Prior, who becomes the focus of the second and third novels in the trilogy. The trilogy doesn’t shirk from featuring the sexuality of the characters, particularly as the trilogy progresses.

What I liked most about this trilogy is the way Barker tackles the subject matter with compassion, but not sentimentality. The characters are complex, often difficult, and morally conflicted. There are no easy answers served up for any of them, and their understanding, both of themselves and the world around them is always a hard-won thing. Billy is a brilliantly drawn character—acutely aware of the class divide he awkwardly straddles, as an officer from a working class background, at peace with his bisexuality, but troubled by his sadistic desires, wryly self-aware of his own limitations in some ways, whilst self-deluding in other ways. Whilst the portrayals of the historical figures were interesting and well done, it was Billy that really made the trilogy for me.

This is human nature, in all its messy complexity. These books have gone straight onto my list of favourites. I can’t recommend them enough.

More queer fiction reviews coming up in the near future, as I have some on my reading pile.