Queering Rural Canada, Nova Scotian Music, and Can Lit: A Review of Lucas Crawford’s SIDESHOW CONCESSIONS

sideshowconcessions-webLike the last poetry collection I reviewed (Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white), Lucas Crawford’s Sideshow Concessions is a wonderful reminder that there is fantastic poetry out there that is unpretentious and meaningful to the average person who doesn’t think they’re a poetry reader. Although quite different in style and content, both of those books felt proudly like poetry for the people, rather than poetry for the stuffy old white guys up in the ivory tower. Let me tell you all about it.

Trans queer performer and scholar Lucas Crawford—who the back of this book calls “both a bearded lady and the fattest man in the world”—is originally from rural Nova Scotia. I bring this up right away because Sideshow Concessions, in addition to all its fun circus themes, felt soooo Maritimes to me. I did my MA at Dalhousie in Halifax and I miss it all the time for many reasons. Actually, one of the things I love(d) most about the east coast (and I say this not as an expert but as someone who visited PEI and New Brunswick, and spent a fair bit of time on the south shore of Nova Scotia even after moving away as my ex’s family is from there) is how gloriously unpretentious it is. Sorry / not sorry Vancouver and the west coast (which is where I grew up, I might add). Sideshow Concessions so wonderfully exemplifies this down-to-earthness and it might me horribly “homesick” for the coast that I wish was actually my home.

But it’s not just that. I mean, there’s also a poem titled “Eating Chinese in Kingston, Nova Scotia (Population: 5174).” Another poem is dedicated to and speaks directly to Rita MacNeil. It also casually mentions Ashley MacIsaac and the Rankin Family. If you have no idea who any of those people are, you should click on those links and rectify the situation. Although I suspect if you’re not Canadian, especially a Nova Scotian, it might be hard to understand the cultural significance (and the nostalgia). Crawford begins “Failed Seances for Rita MacNeil (1944-2013)” like this:

Rita, you requested that your ashes

be held in a teapot—two if necessary, you said.

Low days, I browse plus-size caskets

(They are all pink or blue)

But you took death with

milk and sugar, long steep

Rita, we are both members

of the fat neo-Scottish diaspora.

The poem ends:

Rita, say anything.

Tell me we can break biscuits

with blueberries and Devonshire cream.

Tell me that you’ll let pitch-free me

hum along as you sing me to sleep.

Just don’t tell me

we didn’t exist. Don’t

tell me that you don’t

feel the same way too.

(If you don’t get the ending, you should probably listen to this song).

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Lucas Crawford, image via http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca

As you might have noticed in that first passage, there’s also a lot of great fat-positive content in this book. (For more, check out this post I did a while ago about fat-positive LGBTQ+ books, including Sideshow Concessions). I saw Crawford perform one of these poems at Reverb, a queer reading series in Vancouver, and it was fucking fabulous. I’ll just give you the first part of “One of My Thin Friends,” and then you’ll have to get the book to see the rest:

You don’t know embarrassment until someone has tried to fuck you in one of your fat folds, and of course I mean embarrassment for the other party and not myself. I felt bad for that person, but only because we were on camera. Can you imagine being documented for life as someone who couldn’t find the cunt of a morbid o-beast? Wouldn’t you just die? Wouldn’t you just curl up under a fat comforter with a fat teddy bear and watch some fat porn in order to study up and to shame-masturbate while you cry over your thin-minded folly?

I said there’s a lot of Nova Scotia-specific content in this collection, but there are also some great pan-Canadian allusions, some of which are really amazing. Especially as a former Canadian literature student, I found the poem “Canadian Literature Premises” completely hilarious. It includes such gems as:

The Weather Mirrors My Mood Once More, and Other Ways I’m God

Each Ring of This Majestic Maple Reminds Me of a Wrinkle on Ashley MacIsaac’s Dick

Roughing It in the Bush: An Anti-Colonial Lesbian Rewrite

The Ocean is Very Vast and When I Think About It, Small Seas Drop from My Eyes

Because You [Adjusted] Me: A Poetry Diary of Celine Dion’s Jaw-Cracking Chiropractor

And any small-town Canadian will identify with “Hometown.”

Welcome to a hometown, where everyone knows

about the Ninja Turtles sweater

of your second-grade school photos (classy with a skirt),

your name, address, inherent hair hue,

details of your first date, first kiss, first –

and they whisperhiss about your prescriptions

What should you do with your life?

Welcome to a hometown, where everyone knows.

Also, also, also: there is some great, healing content in here about depression, sometimes with the same cheeky humour that you find throughout the collection.

Even though there are lots of aspects of Crawford’s and my identities that don’t overlap, something about this poetry collection made me feel really seen. It made me feel like an insider, with the experiences about growing up in rural Canadian towns, the references to Nova Scotian musicians, the Can Lit jokes. It’s also a solid hit of nostalgia in many ways if you’re in the mood. When many of these cultural references are straight and cis-washed, it’s so refreshing to have a queer and trans poet like Lucas Crawford writing about them. These references are ours too, Crawford insists, while queering the fuck out of some of them. For that, Lucas Crawford, I salute you.

Bonus! Did you know did I started a Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian last week? Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up.

Posted in Queer, Rural, Trans, Trans Masculine, Transgender | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Six Canadian Trans Women Writers You Should Know

I’m gonna get right to the list in a second here, but I just want to tell you all how excited I am that all these writers are out there creating their amazing art and that publishers like Topside Press, Arsenal Pulp Press, Kegedonce Press, and Metonymy Press are putting it out into the world. I could not have written this list when I first started this blog almost five years ago.

Casey Plett

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Casey Plett, image via writerstrust.com

Y’all are seriously missing out if you are not reading Casey Plett, who hails from Winnipeg. Her debut collection of short stories A Safe Girl to Love is one of the best books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of books). If you’re looking for a writer who really, really, gets people—from twentysomething urban cis, trans, and queer folks to a 7o-year-old cis Mennonite guy to a cat channeling the spirit of an old English dude—Plett is your woman. She’s applied these talents to a book dedicated to relationships between trans women: romantic, friend, and mother-daughter, resulting in a stunning collection that will not disappoint you. If you like Zoe Whittall’s work, especially Holding Still For As Long As Possible, you’ll love Plett. It’s no wonder she won the 2015 Lambda award for trans fiction. This year, you can look forward to an anthology of trans speculative fiction that Plett edited, coming out with Topside Press (who published her first book as well). You should also read this super smart article she wrote for The Walrus about trans novels by cis authors.

jia qing wilson-yang

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jia qing wilson-yang, image via plenitudemagazine.ca

I just finished reading wilson-yang’s debut novel Small Beauty and I’m so mad at myself for not reading it sooner! It was so good. Obviously the folks at the Writer’s Trust of Canada, who give out the Dayne Ogilvie Prize, thought so too, as wilson-yang received an honour of distinction last year. Small Beauty is a meditative but engaging novel about Mei, a young trans women dealing with grief and family secrets while taking a break from urban life, staying at the small town house of her aunt and cousin who’ve passed away. What I really loved about this book was it didn’t do any explaining. Mandarin words are presented in pinyin (i.e., romanized letters), characters eat Chinese food—not the beef and broccoli kind, transmisogynist shit happens, people who know and are related to Mei appear, all without any apologies or unnecessary description that would assume any of these things are anything other than just life. It felt so real. wilson-yang is a mixed race writer and musician living in Toronto and a new-to-me author I’m very excited about.

Sybill Lamb

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Sybil Lamb, image via alchemistcloset.org

Sybil Lamb—who’s originally from Ottawa—wrote a book called I’ve Got a Time Bomb in 2014 and somehow the rest of the world failed to recognize that a fucking genius had officially entered the literary world. It is truly, truly one of the most unique, weirdest books ever written and it should go down in literary history if there’s any justice in this world. I wasn’t being hyperbolic when I compared it to Tristam Shandy and Joyce’s Ulysses in my review. It follows a character also named Sybil, on a rambling journey in a modified ice cream truck through post-Katrina / post-apocalyptic “Amerika” after surviving a hate crime. The entire novel is a hallucinatory, fever dream, full of Lamb’s stunning, poetic and impressively fresh writing that is not the least bit show-offy. It’s also funny as hell and you will grow to love Sybil the anti-heroine. To top it all off, the book is full of kooky, evocative illustrations that Lamb did herself (see the cover art for an example). Am I ever excited to see what she does next.

Kai Cheng Thom

 

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Kai Cheng Thom, image via ladysintrayda.wordpress.com

Kai Cheng Thom, who lives in Montreal and Toronto, has suddenly appeared on my radar these last few months or so, which probably means she’s been working away for years on her art and I just didn’t notice. Her first novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, came out in November 2016. The blurb describes it as a “highly sensational, ultra-exciting, sort-of true coming-of-age story of a young Asian trans girl, pathological liar, and kung-fu expert who runs away from her parents’ abusive home”; she finds her true family of trans femmes, who band together to form “a vigilante gang to fight back against the transphobes, violent johns, and cops that stalk” their part of town. This sounds delightfully like Amber Dawn’s Sub Rosa but also like its own brand of trans femme magic. If that isn’t enough, Thom also has her first book of poetry coming out this year, A Place Called No Homeland. It interrogates body, land, and language, pulling from traditions of oral storytelling, spoken word, and queer punk. You should also check out her great book reviews and interviews on Autostraddle.

Gwen Benaway

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Gwen Benaway, image via writersfestival.org

I have Kai Cheng Thom to thank, actually, for introducing me to Gwen Benaway’s work. Thom’s thoughtful review of Benaway’s poetry collection Passage and interview had me completely sold. In Passage, which just came out last month, the two-spirit poet (she’s Métis and Anishnaabe) writes about survival, violence, colonization, and trans femme gender and desire. It’s a book rooted in Benaway’s ancestral homeland around the Great Lakes and Northern Ontario and one where Benaway “seeks to reconcile herself to the land, the history of her ancestors, and her separation from her partner and family by invoking the beauty and power of her ancestral waterways.” If you know (and thus love) the work of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Islands of Decolonial Love), you’ll be excited to know she blurbed Benaway’s book, saying “With equal parts warm light and raw bone, this stunning collection burns away the legacy of erasure and upheaval. If the lake could write poetry, this collection would be it.” Benaway writes: “nothing is more beautiful / than a woman who knows / exactly what she wants / and what I want / is myself.”

Vivek Shraya

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Vivek Shraya, image via shelflifebooks.ca

In case you missed it, I wrote a review of Vivek Shraya’s debut poetry collection Even This Page is White a few weeks ago. “Spoiler”: I loved it. Beautiful, accessible, smart, and playful, Even This Page is White is the kind of book you want to re-read right after finishing and then go out and buy a copy for a friend. Tackling racism in its many insidious forms, the book is both educational and healing, even while Shraya plays with different poetic forms and visuals on the page. Like so many talented artists, Shraya is at home in many formats, including different kinds of visual art and music. She also published a novel called She of the Mountains in 2014, a lyrical novel of two narratives: a re-imagining of Hindu mythology and a contemporary story about an unnamed feminine protagonist exploring bisexual identity. In addition her first book of poetry, Shraya also published her first children’s book last year, The Boy and the Bindi, about a young boy who’s fascinated by his mother’s bindi. A hard-working, prolific artist as she is, I’m sure we can be excited about whatever new work she’ll be putting out in 2017.

Bonus! Did you know did I started a Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian last week? Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up.

Posted in Asian, Fiction, Indigenous, Poetry, Short Stories, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

I’m Launching a Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian!

Hi readers!

I’m nervous and excited to share that I’ve started a Patreon account for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. If you don’t know what Patreon is, it’s a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/watchers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month!

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A new year, even more queer book reviews and lists for you!

I’ve got a few rewards lined up for people who want to contribute. The three most exciting ones (I think) are:

  • A guaranteed spot to be interviewed in my upcoming “Interview with a Queer Reader” series for patrons of all levels. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, and it seemed like a great place to start by talking to my patrons (via email, Skype, or in person if you’re in Vancouver!) about their experiences as LGBTQ2IA+ readers. We could talk about stuff like the first queer book you read, which books you’ve read that have really reflected your experiences, which queer book you want to read that doesn’t exist yet, and more!
  • Monthly entries in a draw to win a free queer book for patrons contributing $3 or more a month (2 entries for folks giving $9 or more). I get a ton of free queer books for review, so what better thing to do with them than to pass them on to other readers? Every month I’ll draw a name and give that person a choice from about 5-7 books and I’ll mail the book to them. (Canada and US!). This reward will start when I hit the $25 a month mark, so I have enough to cover shipping costs.
  • Monthly entries in a draw to have a postcard with a personalized book recommendation mailed to you. (Canada and the US as well, and other countries if anyone is interested!). I love giving book recommendations, and I thought it’d be fun to get one in the mail. Real mail is the best! I’ll ask you a few questions about what you like to read via email/Skype and then send you the recommendation.

Check out the link to the Patreon page for more info and details on the rewards. I want to reassure you all that the posts on my blog will always be free for anyone to read. This Patreon account is just a chance for me to make a bit of money in exchange for the time and work I put into my writing. In fact, even if you aren’t able to support the Patreon (no worries), this should benefit anyone who reads this blog as I’m hoping to up the amount of posts I do to eight a month once I hit my first goal of $25 a month.

Thanks so much for your support of Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian—whether that’s through Patreon or by reading, sharing, liking, and commenting on my posts. I appreciate it so, so much! Please spread the word if you want and let me know if you have any questions!

NEW!! (A few people have asked me about making one-time donations. Patreon isn’t set up for that, although their website does suggest you can make a monthly pledge and then just cancel after one month. I know that isn’t a great option. I also have a Paypal account and could do email money transfers with my email address stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com. Let me know if you’re interested in that and thanks again for your interest!)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 5 Comments

Bookish Survey 2016: A Review of My Year in Reading

This is a year-end reading survey I’ve been using for a couple years now that I originally stole from Danika at The Lesbrary in 2014. (If you’re not following The Lesbrary, you’re missing out on a lot of rad queer women’s bookish content!) So this is kind of a review of what I read last year, and mostly just a chance to get to talk about the stand-out books I read. There are so many.

2016 was a total banner reading year for me: I read 144 books! That’s much more than I’ve ever done in the past. I did good on my goals on making sure my reading was more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity—I was going for about half and half authors of colour and white authors, which I achieved. I still read way more women and genderqueer authors than men, which makes me happy.

I also branched out this year genre-wise, trying out quite a few mysteries and actually liking them! I also made an effort to read some more memoirs, which I don’t often pick up. Apparently I love comics and graphic novels now, since I read 28 of them. And I read a ton of kids’ books, which makes sense given that I took two classes on children’s literature in my librarian program. Aaaand, I totally fell in love with audiobooks in 2016: I read 17! It was a great discovery to realize they could fulfill my desire to never not be reading if it can at all be helped. I made this chart of the genres I read, cause I’m a nerd:

chart

Now, on with the survey!

  1. Best book you read in 2016

o-human-starUgh, this is impossible to choose! I read so many amazing, five star books this year that I thought were brilliant, intellectually and emotionally. Okay, I will limit myself to six: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, O Human Star, Vol 1 by Blue Delliquanti, The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel, Nobody Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont, Blanche Cleans Up by Barbara Neely, and Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa. All very different books, all ones that completely blew me away. Oh man, but also Kindred by Octavia Butler? It’s really hard to decide. Both Nimona and O Human Star are science fiction / fantasy comics with queer and/or trans and feminist themes that both gave me that feeling of that thing happen where you really wanna find out what happens and are enjoying the book so much that you can’t stop reading but you also want to slow down because you don’t want the book to end. In other words, they reminded me how much I love to read! I talk about all the other books below in other categories.

  1. Book you were excited about & thought you were going to love but didn’t?

julietEverything about Juliet Takes a Breath sounded amazing: a former Autostraddle columnist’s first novel, QTPOC politics, affectionate parodies of west coast white feminism, coming of age / coming out. THERE’S EVEN A SEXY LIBRARIAN WHO RIDES A MOTORCYCLE. It sounds like so many things I love. And then I read it, and it turned out to be a painful and boring read. Damnit, the entire fucking novel is telling instead of showing. And the characterization was so shallow; most of the characters never felt real to me. The entire novel needs a gigantic editorial makeover to transform it into fiction. So much of it read like a Queer 101 textbook and/or journal entries. What a bummer. Many other people, including some whose opinions I respect, enjoyed this though, so who knows.

  1. Favorite new author you discovered in 2016?

nobody-criesEasy answer here: Dawn Dumont. I read her debut semi-autobiographical novel Nobody Cries at Bingo in the fall, and immediately fell hard and fast in love with her. For me, there’s no higher praise I can give than telling you that that book made me laugh out loud more times than I could count. It’s no wonder Dumont is also a comedian. The ‘novel’ is actually really more like a collection of short stories about the main character Dawn as she grows up in and around the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, where this kind of stuff happens: peeing her pants in public, trying to impress crushes despite her extreme dorkiness, and her mom telling her every boy she’s remotely interested in is actually her cousin until she starts to get a little suspicious. Check out this excerpt where Dawn goes to bingo with her mom:

At first it was awkward sitting next to the same white people who glared at Native people when they walked into their stores, but after sharing a few nail-biting jackpots, racism faded to the background as they concentrated on the true enemy:

‘Goddamn fuckin’ bingo caller.’

‘I only needed one number for a fuckin’ hour.’

‘Last fuckin’ time I play at this hall.’

I got her latest novel, Rose’s Run, for Christmas and I am pumped to read it.

  1. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read / was out of your comfort zone?

blancheI read a fair amount of mysteries last year, despite the fact that I’d never really read any before! I don’t know why, but it had just never been a genre I’d been drawn to. So I tried out a new-to-me genre (and wrote a Book Riot post about the experience) and actually ended up really enjoying some mysteries! And while exploring this new genre, I discovered a new author, Barbara Neely, and her detective Blanche White (irony intended for this dark-skinned Black woman). I hopped right into the middle of the series, but it didn’t matter. I totally fell in love with Blanche, the smart, feisty, flawed, observant amateur sleuth and domestic worker. Actually the characterization for everyone in the book was incredible, down to the side characters. The novel is full of everyday wisdoms and observations about humanity and life on this earth, not to mention realistic, astute commentary about being Black in the US, class, sex work, homophobia, abortion, environmentalism, domestic work, and other issues weaved seamlessly and effortlessly into the detective plot which was also greatly entertaining and had just the right amount of twists. There was not one moment that I did not love reading this book. Did I mention it’s also really funny?

  1. Book you can’t believe you waited until 2016 to finally read?

northWell I listened to the audiobook of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, which was originally published in 1854. Obviously that is, uh, 130 years before I was born, so I couldn’t have read it that much earlier, but I’m surprised I didn’t read this Victorian classic during the height of my Brontës, Austen, and Victorian fiction phase while I was an undergrad English lit student. I finally “read” the utterly delightful audiobook performed by English actress Juliet Stevenson, and it was great. Socialist Pride and Prejudice indeed. Actually, the romance is just one of the many plotlines in the novel, although admittedly I’m a sucker for romance so it was my favourite part. And then I watched the BBC adaptation and damn, were Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage sexy in it.

  1. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?

kindredKindred by Octavia Butler was another of my forays into audiobooks this year, and holy crap was it a disturbing, provocative, complex, smart, page-turner. Er, or whatever the audiobook equivalent of a page-turner is. Normally I get too antsy if I’m listening to an audiobook and not doing something else, but I found myself so on edge while listening to Kindred that I couldn’t do anything else. This at first simple tale is about an African-American woman in 1970s America being inexplicably wrenched through time and transported back to antebellum Maryland, destined to save her (white) ancestor over and over. If you’re not already aware Butler was a genius, this book will convince you.

  1. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2016?

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It’s a bit hard to see the nuances of the cover of Labyrinth Lost in a picture on the Internet, but look at the patterns even in the black spaces of the design. It’s beautiful, creepy, magical, and mysterious, just like the Latinx fantasy world the book is set in. The gorgeous photograph of the girl, the fancy gold lettering of the title, the floral witchy pattern at the top, it’s just all so good.

  1. Most memorable character of 2016?

reluctantThis is a toss-up between Blanche White from Barbara Neely’s mystery series and Changez from Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but I’ll talk about the latter since I already gushed about Blanche. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is essentially a novel-length, brilliantly sustained monologue in the voice of Changez, a Pakistani living the American immigrant dream (at first) and then shattered by 9/11 and his girlfriend’s mental illness / the ghosts of her past. You’re emotionally pulled into Changez’s story, cheering him on, addressed directly as ‘you’—the implied American/Western reader. Then Hamid pulls the rug out from under you and you wonder how much you can believe of what Changez has said at all, in disbelief that this man whose journey you were so invested in turns out to be a the fundamentalist of the title.

  1. Most beautifully written book read in 2016?

The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel is an amazing novel, such a sure-footed, beautifully written book that it’s hard to believe it’s her first. I loved how she described the streets of the Mile End neighbourhood in Montreal, how she brought the complex characters to life, how she communicated the transcendental and spiritual possibilities of Judaism and the Kabbalah. Here’s an excerpt:

I touched her face and, one by one, her features sprang away from the cracked wall behind her. I held her by the hip and the grey drained away. I pushed her against the wall and she laughed a vermillion laugh, feral and throaty, her mouth stained red. I kissed her there and the colour spread–she was amaranth, cadmium, cerulean, herliotrope, atomic tangerine–and I pulled her into bed and inside the walls were raining, paint was pouring down, and outside the sky was darkening to a deep pitch black. In the morning, when I held the mirror up to her face, she wept the impossible tears of one who has never known what it is to see her own body.

  1. Favorite passage/quote from a book you read in 2016?

This is also from The Mystics of Mile End:Mystics-of-Mile-End-webcover

And there it was, the weird something in her voice. It was not too fast or too quiet but slow and steady, as if she had all the time in the world, as if it was just for her, just for this moment, that the whole world had been created. I closed my eyes. Inside her voice I could hear each letter, and each silence between each letter, and I felt happy and sad and lonely, because in each perfect silence was a smaller, hidden silence, like dolls inside dolls that go on and on forever, and inside the smallest doll I could suddenly see the list curled up, the list of all the reasons, the reasons for my sister’s sadness.

And a short one from Bushra Rehman’s Corona:

Ravi was sitting in a corner, apart from the crowd. He was going back to India in less than a year, so everything he observed was for the warehouse of his mind. He’d seal the box, label it ‘My Time in America,’ and draw stories from it now and then to entertain the literary crowd in Delhi. That was the night I fell into the box.

  1. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2016?

Honestly I feel like I have more crushes on authors whose books I loved reading this year. But of course there’s Margaret Hale and John Thornton from North and South, especially their depictions as done by actors Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage in the BBC adaptation. I really wanted to get in on the action between them when they had the sexiest hand shake ever in one key scene. Also, I think my crush on bearded female red-headed dwarf Violet from Kurtis Wiebe’s Rat Queens comic series has grown.

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I couldn’t find a picture of the hand shake so this will have to suffice. via emmyzmadrigal.wordpress.com

  1. Best worldbuilding / most vivid setting you read this year?

hundred-thousandThe Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, well and all of her books, is the fantasy every fantasy lover should be reading. It’s so fresh and unique and exciting, and so not pseudo-medieval Europe like literally every other fantasy you read. Jemisin has a knack for original and deep, intricate world-building, complete with mythology and theology. I loved this complicated world complete with its human-like gods and its countries with real histories and cultural intricacies. It really feels like Jemisin has created an entirely new world, not just borrowed snippets from other fantasy worlds. This is a setting of the most vivid kind, the one that is still crystal clear in my mind months after reading the book.

  1. Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2016?

Oh boy, so many books made me cry in 2016. The one I see-youremember crying over the most is See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles, a middle-grade novel about family and grief. I pretty much cried consistently through the entire second half of this book actually. Knowles lovingly and authentically draws this big, crazy, flawed family for you, centred around 12-year-old Fern, and you get to know them all and their family dynamic (including an excellently portrayed closeted 14-year-old boy). And then this horrific tragedy hits them and it’s just so sad, so sad and well done. There’s some hope at the end, and at that point I was crying happy tears. So many tears.

  1. Hidden gem of the year?

bushra-rehman-coronaIt seems like not a lot of people have heard of Corona by Bushra Rehman, which is a damn shame. It was one of my favourite reads in 2016. It’s gorgeously written (see above quote); it’s funny; it’s poignant; it has a great sense of place, character, and emotion. Plus, it’s about a Muslim bisexual woman! Although it’s called a novel, it’s more like a collection of short stories about the same character, a young Pakistani-American bi woman like the author, at different periods in her life. The style is really cool, kind of like a hybrid work of creative non-fiction, memories, short stories, and memoir. It’s funny, I was reading a post on another book blog talking about reading books by and about Muslims, and I thought, “I don’t know if I’ve ever read any!” Then I remembered I’d actually read two books by Pakistani authors this year.

  1. Best 2016 debut you read?

fansI always seem to be kind of behind on my reading; I tend to only read a few books that were actually published the year that I read them. Last year I probably read more new books than usual, in fact, but I think the only 2016 debut I read was The Mothers by Brit Bennett. I really liked, but didn’t love, The Mothers. It’s a beautifully written novel about secrets piled upon secrets, with plenty of quotable lines about grief, character, emotion, and relationships. For me it was also a fascinating window in a Black church community in southern California. The debut I loved that I read in 2016 actually came out in 2015: it’s a YA novel called Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa. It’s a gorgeous, sad book so achingly real about friendships and love and everything in between and overlapping. I’ve never read a YA book that reminded me so powerfully of being a teenager myself. I kept thinking: oh my god, Kate Scelsa remembers. There are lots of queer characters of multiple stripes in the book (including gay dads!) and also lots to say about mental illness and the foster care system. It made me cry.

Posted in Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay, Indigenous, Jewish, latina, Lesbian, Montreal, mystery, Non-Canadian, Queer, Romance | Tagged | 17 Comments

“what if there is no right way to be brown / besides the brown you are”: A Review of Vivek Shraya’s Even This Page is White

even-this-page-is-whiteWhen one of my fellow Book Riot writers was asking for contributions to a post about this year’s best under-the-radar books, Vivek Shraya’s debut poetry collection Even This Page is White was the first book to come to mind. Of course, it’s a book published by a small (amazing) independent Canadian publisher (Arsenal Pulp Press), so it’s not surprising this poetry book wasn’t getting tons of publicity and attention in 2016. It’s really too bad, though, because so many people need this book (me included), and it’s such an accessible, yet beautiful collection of poems.

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. This is Shraya’s debut poetry collection, but it’s not her first book: she’s also written a novel (She of the Mountains) and a couple memoirish/non-fiction books (God Loves Hair and What I LOVE about Being QUEER), in addition to being the kind of artist that makes all kinds of art (music, photography—notably this really cool project where she re-enacted old photos of her mom). So even though this is her first foray into poetry, it’s not surprising that Even This Page is White is a complete success, and a stunning, diverse, daring collection.

I always have a hard time articulating what it is that I love about the poetry that I love, often ending up just quoting poems at length in my reviews. The poems in Even This Page is White are perhaps doubly hard, because it’s both the content about race and racism—so necessary for me as a white person—and the skill and craft Shraya shows playing with different poem types and structures that make this book so wonderful.

You know this book is about race from the clever title alone. It was a really important book for me to read, one that taught me a lot for my always-ongoing education about race and racism. I know it’s one that I’ll keep coming back to. I predict it’s going to be one of the foundational texts writers and artists, especially QTPOC ones, will look back on and come back to as the groundwork that informed their practices and inspired their work, artistic and political. My and others’ communities are so lucky to have Shraya’s words!

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Vivek Shraya, via shelflifebooks.ca

For me, the most powerful poem was “a dog named lavender.” Shraya describes the debilitating self-doubt and the energy taken up by being preoccupied with race/racism and by moving through the world as a racialized person. She writes:

are you staring at me because

are you not looking at me because

you don’t like me because

you don’t desire me because

you desire me only because

i don’t like myself because

i wish i was like you

am i safe here

where are the others like me

i was not considered because

i was only considered because

why would you say that

i thought you cared about me

did you say that because

do i respond

how do i respond in a way that you will hear me

how do i respond without making you angry

or uncomfortable

can i be ok with not responding

As the questions directed to herself go on and on, the weight and pressure of them begin to climb, and the enormous amount of time and energy stolen from her life because of racism is clear as a bell. You’re left with the stunning ending:

what would i make if i wasn’t thinking about this

who could i be if i wasn’t thinking about this?

In a later poem she tackles how racism pits people of colour against each other, writing

when i feel jealous won’t let        scarcity       come between

we have already lost so much

when we should be friends

Smack dab in the middle of the book, Shraya includes a conversation about race and racism with white friends, because she “still believe[s] in the value of dialogue and because white people listen to white people.” You can find the whole thoughtful dialogue on Autostraddle.

What’s also incredible about this book is that it’s full of thoughtful, inventive poetic play in addition to being a powerful, educational (for me) punch in the gut. Flipping through the collection, you can see Shraya experimenting with all kinds of different forms and structures. For example, a number of the poems use “found” language from sources like a petition to ban Kanye West from playing the Pan Am Games closing ceremony, white celebrity interview sound bites, and the last names of the authors on a lover’s bookshelf.

One especially unique poem called “you are so articulate” uses a checklist format. Shraya writes:

dad had to

  • work three jobs

sold vacuums door to door

fly on your magic carpet

back to where you came from

to work three jobs he had to

  • give his time off to sleep

instead of knowing me

Other poems play with the visuals on the page, like when she writes the word “waterfall” like this:

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The final poem in this powerful collection is perhaps the most powerful poem yet, which ends:

what if there is no right way to be brown

besides the brown you are

soil nut clove wheat bark pluto

It’s not hyperbolic to say that this is a book everyone should read. It’s the kind of poetry collection that makes you feel privileged just to have read it. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially any folks of colour as I know our reading experiences would be very, very different.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Poetry, Queer, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Troubles on a Queer Feminist Utopian Planet: A Review of HEIGHTS OF GREEN by Lise MacTague

heights-of-greenLike in the last so-called genre fiction book I reviewed—mystery / detective novel Red Rover by Lizz Bugg—Heights of Green is part of a lesbian series with colours featured in the title and corresponding colourful covers. Is this a trend, or a coincidence? Unlike Liz Bugg’s book, though, which is the first in the series, Heights of Green is author Lise Mactague’s second effort and number two in this military science fiction / romance combo trilogy named On Deception’s Edge.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading the book that precedes this one—Depths of Blue—despite the fact that it’s a mixture of two genres I don’t normally read. You definitely need to read the first book before the next one, so check out my review of the Depths of Blue and read the book, then come back to this review. There may be some spoilers here!

While the first book took place on Jak’s home planet, enmeshed in civil war between horrifically misogynist and run-of-the-mill sexist societies, in Heights of Green we find ourselves on Torrin’s home planet, which turns out to be a dusty, dry desert, but also a lesbian utopia planet populated only by women. The ancestors of most of the women living on the planet Nadi are inter-galactic feminist pirate warriors. Obviously, this setting is great fun. I am still undecided about whether Torrin’s homeland would be a queer paradise or constant dyke drama hell. Perhaps a combination of both.

Jak, used to keeping all of her feelings close to her chest, pretending to be a man almost 24/7, and living in a homophobic society, is pretty overwhelmed to be on Nadi. She’s also out of her element, healing from a near-fatal injury, and so is dependent on Torrin in a way that she’s not at all comfortable with. Torrin, on the other hand, is so in her element in her lesbian feminist utopia that she’s focusing on her business to the detriment of her relationship. Throw in Jak’s unease as Torrin’s planet-wide reputation as a total player  becomes apparent and a certain side character who turns out to be more than they seem (and not in a good way) and there you have the unraveling of the opposites-attract romance that was so exciting in the first book.

lise mactague

Lise MacTague, via amazon.com

Unfortunately it takes quite a while for this action to get going; the relationship troubles and some larger plot points which I won’t spoil don’t really begin until after halfway through. This is certainly not a fault unique to Heights of Green. I can think of lots of trilogies that have trouble keeping up the momentum and action in the middle, aka “filler” book. You’ve got the world-building and introduction of the characters in the first book and the grand finale plot-wise in the last book; what do you do with the second one?

That said, the last quarter of Heights of Green is really exciting, as the reasons behind Torrin being set up on Jak’s planet are revealed to be much more complicated and deeper. Of course Torrin being who she is, she has to take dramatic and drastic action. The novel ends on another cliff-hanger that is really a teaser for the final book, which I can’t wait to read!

Posted in Lesbian, Queer, Romance, Science Fiction | 5 Comments

A Solid Intro to an Unquestionably Queer Toronto Mystery Series: A Review of RED ROVER by Liz Bugg

red-roverIt wasn’t too long ago that I had never consciously read any book that qualified as a mystery. Feeling like I was probably missing out, and that as a librarian-in-training I should figure out what it is that mystery readers get out of these books that they so enthusiastically devour, I read a few (an Agatha Christie and a Walter Mosley) earlier this year and did a school project on the genre. (I even wrote a Book Riot post about the whole experience). This fall, then, I felt qualified / prepared to read the Canadian lesbian mystery series by Liz Bugg that had been on my to-read list forever.

The first book in the series is Red Rover. Unfortunately as you can see the cover is really dark and the resolution on the image is terrible, which is too bad; the covers for the second and third books—Oranges and Lemons and Yellow Vengeance—are much brighter and fitting for the colour-coded titles. Despite the less-than-appealing cover, though, Red Rover is a solid introduction to this Toronto-set lesbian private investigator series.

The PI in question is Calli Barnow, a nearing-middle-aged white butch dyke who normally takes cases like hunting down dogs kidnapped by a distraught, recently-separated spouses fighting over their fur babies. The new case that Red Rover opens with, though, is a doozy: the missing daughter of a local rich, conservative tycoon. Tempted by the money, as well as the fact that the father has begrudgingly chosen Calli for the job because his daughter is queer like her, she accepts the case. Tracking down what has happened to Thalia, the young missing woman, is going to be tricky, because she might not be missing at all; she could just be avoiding her homophobic family. Calli’s search takes her all over Toronto and in and out of LGBTQ establishments and communities.

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Liz Bugg, via canadianlesfic.com

If you’re looking for a book that feels very Toronto, and very queer, Red Rover is for you. The whole story is centred around hotspots of Toronto queer life, with the familiar drag queen and dyke drama. Dewey, Calli’s unofficial second-in-command, is an up-and-coming drag queen and he usually steals any scene that he’s in. I’ve only spent a bit of time in Toronto, but it definitely felt like a slice of that Church street (the gaybourhood) life, as well as other areas you might know, like Kensington Market. It reminded me of the days when I was watching Queer as Folk. I also appreciated that the racial and ethnic diversity of the queer community was represented: Dewey’s Black, and Calli’s femme partner Jess is Chinese-Canadian (although you only meet her right at the very end). You can tell this is a novel written by an insider who knows the community. It’s the kind of book that’s written for queer readers, not merely about queer people, and that is a special treat for sure.

If you’re looking for a tight mystery to intellectually challenge you, though, Red Rover is probably not the best choice. I’m notoriously bad at this kind of thing—both Christie and Mosley’s convoluted plots boggled me and made me feel like I just wasn’t quite smart enough for them—and I figured out who the “bad guy” was pretty early on in the narrative. If you’re under 50, you’ll probably also roll your eyes like I did at Bugg’s dialogue for a few characters in their late teens / early twenties, which sounded like bad hip hop lyrics instead of how young white Torontonians talk.

All in all, this is a solid first book for a lesbian mystery series, and I’m definitely interested in continuing with it. I’d like to end with a quotation from what I’m pretty sure is a well-meaning but misinformed snippet from a Goodreads review of Red Rover: “This author gets high marks for having characters who follow the Gay/Lesbian lifestyle without letting the lifestyle dominate the plot.” Ha ha. If you’ve read this book and any others in the series, let me know what you thought of them in the comments. I’ll be over here following the bisexual lifestyle.

Posted in Lesbian, mystery, Queer, Toronto | 2 Comments