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: 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: 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.

People as Monsters, and Why This Savage Song Gets it Right.

I have a thing about human monsters, and people as monsters. It’s one of the themes that attracts me to vampire fiction. I’m all for unknowable alien horror, but sometimes, a more knowable monster, a more human one, can hit much closer to home. We don’t get off the hook so easily when the Other looks just like us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about different ways that a person could become monstrous, what choices they could make, whether the paths they choose will put them beyond redemption. The vampire sequel I’m editing at the moment sits pretty evenly between themes of monstrousness and identity. It’s a lucky coincidence that I picked up V.E. Schwab’s This Savage Song, which is all about monsters.

this-savage-song-coverIn This Savage Song, the sins of humans become embodied in the form of different kinds of monster, and these monsters roam the streets of V-City, terrorising its human inhabitants. The city is split between the Flynns on one side, who fight the monsters, and the Harkers on the other, who deal with the monsters, and extract protection money from the human inhabitants to keep the peace. But it’s not as simple as that. Some of the Flynns are monsters themselves, including one of the protagonists, August Flynn. The other main character is Kate Harker, the daughter of the ruthless racketeer. You can already see how the line between human and monster blurs.

The three Flynn children are all a particular rare kind of monster, Sunai, who are born out of great tragedy. They feed on souls, but only of those who have sinned. But they’re all very different. I found August’s older brother, Leo, the most interesting character—he’s wilfully given up his humanity to better fight the monsters of the city, though he still appears to be human. He pushes August to embrace his dark nature, but August resists Leo’s brutal lessons.

The setting is one of near lawlessness, and both Kate and August are forced to make decisions that may put them over the edge into monstrousness. It’s the way that the whole story is constantly teetering on that edge that works so well. Every action has a moral weight to it, and leaves its mark on the world and the character. I found this inflexible notion of consequences one of the most interesting things about the book.

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.

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: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Sadly, this lovely cover is not used on the UK edition.

If I was Your Girl is a YA coming out romance about a trans girl, Amanda. After Amanda is attacked in a public toilet by the father of a fellow student, her mother and father decide it would be better if she make a clean break and move in with her father in a different town. Things start off well for Amanda—she makes new friends, and meets a boy who she really likes, and who really likes her. But things aren’t so simple: she’s scared that people will find out her past, that she’ll be the victim of more violence. At the same time, she’d really like to be honest, and unite her childhood with her present.

 

Throughout the story, there are flashbacks to different points in Amanda’s life, pre-transition, at different ages. Her life was tough, she experienced bullying and social isolation, her parents rowed about her difficulties, and her father made it clear she fell short of his masculinity measure. These flashbacks help to round out Amanda’s story, without taking away from her present.

Russo says in a note at the end of the book that she chose to make Amanda’s story simpler than many real trans stories, because Amanda is straight, and girly, and has always known she’s a girl. She also goes through all the transition surgeries and starts hormones pretty young,  she ‘passes’ easily, and is conventionally attractive. And, Russo says, it’s important to know those things are not true for a lot of trans people. I found, reading the story, that I was actually okay with those simplified aspects. Although I was also grateful for the note, too. It’s one possible trans story. Hopefully, as time goes on there’ll be more fictional trans stories that will get as much attention as this one, with more variety and flexibility. But the world moves slower than we sometimes want, and that’s not Russo’s fault. The romance plot is quite standard in some respects, but I like Grant, Amanda’s boyfriend—they both share a love of Star Wars, which is pretty cute and dorky, and Grant’s own family struggles make him much more sensitive than his footballer friends. I have no issue with people using romance as a vehicle for bigger issues—if it was okay for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, where’s the problem?

What’s important for me about the story, and what feels authentic, are all the small subtle ways that being trans impacts on Amanda’s everyday life. She’s often afraid of being found out, or making some social slip-up, somehow falling short as a girl. Her fears and insecurities are very relatable, and I could feel her weariness at living through all of that. But in contrast to her troubled past, and failed suicide attempt, the present is so much better. Acknowledging her identity gives her tremendous strength, as does facing many of her fears. It’s in these carefully observed and rendered details that Russo’s own experience as a trans woman really comes through. I also appreciate the observation that everyone keeps secrets, and presents a face to the world that doesn’t tell the whole of their story.

In some ways, it’s an idealised story, but Amanda’s world is still pretty far from ideal. Russo focuses primarily on the emotional side of Amanda’s experience, and for me, that’s a plus. I find stories with a big surgical focus pretty tough to read, personally, and actually I think they play into a mainstream media obsession with trans bodies. I also want to know where I can get a trans mentor like Virginia—someone Amanda can call when she needs to talk, a kind of big sis who she can rely on. There’s a nice touch in the fact that this is set in small town southern America, with a fair few working class characters, and Amanda finds a degree of acceptance there. I guess that’s drawn also from Russo’s own experience, as she originally hails from Tennessee.

My only misgiving is that the pacing is really fast at the start, which made me feel like I’d been thrown into the middle of things too quickly, but I got used to the pace, and the flashbacks help to fill in the gaps. It slows down a bit once the initial set-up is established, and I soon got into the rhythm of it. I read the whole book in one sitting, which for me is rare, but it’s definitely a page turner.

Amanda’s story is a tough one, but it’s not a tragic one, and for me that’s welcome. (Though trigger warning for sexual assault towards the end.) I’m going to spoiler and say, she gets a pretty happy ending. I don’t always need that from a book, but I was glad of it for this one. Now for more queered up trans stories and trans space adventures.

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.

Queer Book Club: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

EveryHeartaDoorway coverThis was July’s chosen read for the queer book club I joined, and I’m really glad it was. Every Heart a Doorway is a YA novella. It’s quite hard to pin down the genre—it’s kind of fantasy, but modern fantasy with a fairy tale vibe to it, and a fair few gothic elements. (Yeah, it’s queer and gothic. Hold me!)

The story is set in a school for young people who have been through magical doorways to other worlds, where they felt at home, and then have been forced to return to this world, where they don’t. The school is run by Eleanor West, a woman who once had a doorway adventure herself, and wants to help those who are struggling to find their place back in this world. Almost all the young people in the school want to find their way back to their magical worlds. The main character, Nancy, found herself in the Halls of the Dead, and learned the joy of stillness. She danced with the Lord of the Dead, and served the Lady as a statue, subsisting on the juice of pomegranates. Now the normal world seems so full of bustle and movement, and awkward relationships where people make assumptions that don’t fit with Nancy’s desires.

Nancy is asexual, but not aromantic. She enjoys flirtation and attention from boys she likes, but she doesn’t want things to go any further than that. She finds negotiating her way around relationships really tricky, and would far rather return to the simpler magic world where she found peace. I’ve read other feedback online from people on the ace spectrum who are really pleased with the representation. It’s not an area of identity where I have any personal experience, so I don’t really feel qualified to comment, other than Nancy is a great character, and the way her identity is handled feels nuanced to me. I like the way McGuire uses a gothic world to express what Nancy wants; it seems to fit really well.

Nancy befriends other students who found their homes in darker worlds, and finds even at Eleanor West’s school, those who travelled to lighter, more playful worlds are suspicious of people like her. When one of the students is killed, suspicion falls on Nancy and her friends.

Seanan McGuire’s idea of the different magical worlds found through doorways is such a rich one—she could probably write several books exploring this idea, as well as this relatively short one. I’d have happily read a much longer book about this, although Every Heart a Doorway does a heck of a lot in a small space. I really love the idea of the doorways, and McGuire uses them to explore identity and belonging in such nuanced and subtle ways, it makes our usual boxes and labels look clumsy and inadequate (which they often are). It really struck a chord with me.

There are some great supporting characters. There’s a trans boy, Kade, who I really love. I didn’t realise there was a trans character when I started reading, so that was a lovely surprise. More spec fic with trans characters, please! Kade’s doorway world was a fairy world, governed by very strict and complicated rules. He managed to best a goblin king and was named his heir, but then, when the goblin king died, the fairies who ruled there threw him out because they wanted little princesses in their world. Kade’s made himself a new life in the attic of the school, surrounded by books and fabric, and has appointed himself as fixer for the school. Nancy meets him when she finds out her parents have switched her beloved monochromatic goth clothing for a suitcase of rainbow garments. They want back their colourful little girl who first went through the doorway; they don’t understand who Nancy has become (or perhaps, who she really was all along).

The only element I’m not completely sure of with this book is the central murder mystery plot. It doesn’t feel completely necessary to me, especially in a novella length book. There is so much to say about the doorway worlds and the students’ journeys of self-discovery. I’d have happily read a book just about that. However, it still works as a story, and there’s absolutely no padding or filler at all, no waiting around. The pacing is extremely tight, which makes a refreshing change, as I’ve read a few books recently that took a little while to get going.

This really is a special book, and I’d love to see more written in this setting. The story says so much about figuring out who you are, and all the messiness and complexity that can entail, as well as finding a place where people see you for who you are. I also enjoyed the gothic edge to the story, which I should say goes pretty dark in places. This story ticked so many boxes for me, I’m feeling a bit giddy.

Queer Book Club: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

 

Simonvs cover picI realise everyone else has already read this book, and I’m slow off the mark, but I thought I’d review it anyway.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a YA coming out romance set in and around a Georgia high school.

I have a thing for first person stories with a really distinctive voice, and this definitely fits. The main character and narrator, Simon Spier, is a funny, likeable 17 year old, who starts up an anonymous flirty email friendship with another boy in his school. Neither of them are out as gay, and are not quite ready to share with their fellow students. The story starts when Simon accidently leaves his email logged in on a school computer, and another student finds out his secret.

(For non-US readers.) The main action of the story takes place in a high school in Georgia. High school in the UK is so much more low-key than in the US (no homecoming parades or school spirit week), so no matter how much Saved by the Bell and My So Called Life I watched in my teens, there’s always that slightly weird cultural disconnect. Also, way more cars, and much less alcohol. The differences didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment, it’s just a thing that’s there.

Even though Simon is struggling with coming out, what to do about his growing relationship with the mysterious Blue, and there’s plenty of tension around the discovery of his secret, the story is overall both funny and upbeat. It’s a sweet story of love and acceptance, and although there are dark moments, it never really gets lost in angst or despair. I saw the identity of the mystery e-boyfriend quite a bit before the reveal, but that didn’t really get in the way of my enjoyment, as the characters are fun and involving. It’s a quick and uplifting read.

(Coming soon: reviews of Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire and A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.)