This book … may have gotten me excited about academic writing for the first time in what feels like a millennium, more accurately about two decades. As McGregor writes, A Sentimental Education is her trying out a new type of academic writing that is more in line with her podcasting voice. It’s not a voice, she says, that’s an essentially truer version of herself, but one she likes a lot better than what’s common in conventional academic writing.
Like with any ideas-focused writing, I know it’s a hit with me when it gets my brain buzzing and has me itching to record my thoughts and responses. Also, though, this book made me cry and have, well, feelings. I laughed out loud multiple times! The illusion that these two responses — intellectual vs emotional — are contradictory or ill-paired is explored in the book at length.
If you’re like me, you’re a fan of McGregor’s podcasting work already: her longstanding and now rebooted Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please that she co-hosts with tongue-in-cheek self-defined fellow “lady scholar” Marcelle Kosman and Secret Feminist Agenda, an interview podcast where McGregor talks to experts in all types of disclipines about feminist topics. Obviously I highly recommend both. (Secret Feminist Agenda has concluded, but Witch, Please is still running new eisodes). But if you’re not already listening to her podcasts, I have no doubt this book will have you racing to subscribe on the podcatcher of your choice.
But back to the book. A Sentimental Education is a collection of essays that run the gamut from analyzing the politics of whiteness in many beloved classics for (white) girls such as Anne of Green Gables and Little Women to discussing the mechanics of the podcasting form and how it engenders intimacy, authenticity, and familiarity. The book is a master class in the seamless integration of diverse tones, going from formal citations of Sara Ahmed to sentences like “Frankly, podcasting made me into a real hard-line bitch about open access” as if these different kinds of sentences were meant to coexist in the same essay.
McGregor writes about Witch, Please as originally conceived as a discussion of feelings and thoughts, about reclaiming feelings about books as they “were being rigorously professionalized out of us.” (This note reminded me of well-meaning advice I got when working on my applications to grad school in English lit: “for God’s sake don’t say you love to read.”) This lens applies to A Sentimental Education as well, as evidenced by my twinned reactions both emotional and intellectual. McGregor’s careful attention to affect when discussing literature, her moving inclusions of details from her personal life – especially about her mother’s death – and more are so refreshing. They’re not an addition to the intellectualism of the book; it’s an incorporation and a whole way of approaching the intellectual. I love it. It’s why the book spoke so deeply to me.
Other topics that I haven’t already mentioned you might be interested to know feature in A Sentimental Education: fatness, queer and asexual identity, feminist ethics of care, the call for relatability in art, the joys of critique as well as reading, the importance of action for social transformation instead of passive empathy, and more.
Here are some of my favourite passages. They are ones that made me laugh, ones that made me think deeply, and ones that made me cry:
It’s funny that a few times when I was writing this review I had an impulse to write “Hannah” instead of “McGregor.” Using an author’s last name is what I typically do to show I take the author’s work seriously. (I was taught this in academia, of course). Women authors tend to get first-named more often than men authors, surprise surprise. But I know this impulse is not coming from either disrespect or internalized misogyny. Sure, McGrgegor lives in Vancouver (where I used to live) and queer literary circles are not that big, so we have friends in common. But I’ve never actually met her IRL!
Instead, I think this instinct is coming from an effect of podcasting which she discusses at length in one of the book’s chapters. The intimate, personal nature of podcasts is an integral feature of the form itself. You might say a podcast’s airs of authenticity and listener intimacy is likely indicative of the craft and effort that have been put into it to make it seem so. In other words: the podcast is trying to make you feel like the hosts are your friends! But they aren’t! In other words, this meme:
(Shout-out to Heather Hogan who found this meme for me with only my vague description).
Anyway, that’s a long-winded explanation of the kinds of self-reflection and deep thinking this book encouraged me to do, and it happened when I was writing this very review! I’ve only scratched the surface of much of the brilliant and thought-provoking prose in A Sentimental Education. I encourage you to pick it up and then come talk to me about it when you’re done! Tell me which parts made you cry, laugh, and think.
I’d been thinking about the body even before the devastating news that Roe vs Wade was overturned in the US. I’d been thinking about bodies because I’d been reading Jason Purcell’s debut poetry collection, Swollening. The book is full of the body as a material reality, of the horrors of the body, of wanting to escape our bodies, and of the queer body and its complexities. “Sickness,” they write, “is not a metaphor.”
It’s not that bodies aren’t frequently found in poetry. The objectification of women’s bodies in the name of so-called praise is old hat. But I’d challenge you to find any other poet writing about the (queer) body like Purcell. Look at the teeth on the cover. Have you ever read a poem whose setting is the dentist’s chair? The sick bed? The toilet? This is not, as Purcell has already reminded us, a sanitized version of sickness used figuratively to express heartbreak or love. This is not the obsessive fascination with the perfect gym sculptured body you see in mainstream gay culture.
Writing from their experiences as a chronically ill queer person, Purcell sees the world from a certain vantage point and invites you – the reader, perhaps, but also the poet speaking to themself – to look as well. They write: “You see from the ground / what the well step over.” Have you ever thought of “the well,” those who are not sick, as a distinct group? I have, when I was stuck in bed for weeks with debilitating pregnancy nausea. I, too, felt like my body “want[ed] to quit from the inside.” I wished for “escaping the body.”
Mental as well as physical illness is a material reality in Swollening. It might be just as physical: “The sleepy slap of depression / from a concept to a practice.” The dissonance of a “sleepy slap” feels just about right for the visceral exhaustion of depression. Physical illness also bleeds into the soul, the “you” that inhabits your body. Purcell’s word play with “tooth” and “truth” in “Cavity” asks us if pulling one means pulling out the other.
What else is happening to bodies in Swollening? Motherhood, homophobia enforced on queer youth, nonbinary gender, Alberta masculinity, queer friendship, and surviving the apocalypse, to name only a few themes.
In the third and last section of the collection, “If I had a window, it would be open,” Purcell doesn’t leave behind their queer youth and sickness, the first two section’s major themes. But they add to them, wondering what it means to be living in these times, in the end of days in a queer, sick body. Is there … hope? Can we perform a “danse macabre” at the end of the world?
We can say this world, what’s left of it, is for us. / We have learned to make life, to walk / long distances, to be together, to coax from the rubble / a sign of life.
There’s still, of course, “[h]aving a body in the petrostate.” In Alberta, environmental degradation, “the bruise of” toxic masculinity, and illness go hand in hand: “bad backs from the hard / work of shouldering this culture.” There’s the knowledge that you are not innocent:
We are mouthing anger / that the world will be taken from us / the way we took away the world. / Look how we limp forward.
At the same time, there’s room to ask questions and remake what’s been given to you, “what is formulaic and normative.” What if you “twist[…] the language by its nipple”? What if you adapt and fuck around with your gender like a recipe that was just a suggested starting point? (“I would like to substitute myself / thoughtfully, as when forgetting / to pick up cilantro and so basil instead”).
And is there some perverse freedom in the “end times”? Purcell writes “it would be best if we all agreed to stop pretending.” In fact, they tell us we should:
Stop using what’s left of our muscle to press against crumbling / walls; use them to hold another body, and another, and another. / Open your doors and pour out your desire into the street so that it takes / the shape it’s meant to, so that it mixes with all else, so that you can finally / see it in the light.
People Change is a very readable, thought-provoking book of essays that I gobbled up in one morning a few months ago. It’s a short book but Shraya covers a lot of ground, discussing change, reinvention, and fluidity through referencing fashion, trans identity, Sai Baba, Madonna, her own artistic practices, bisexuality, friendships, divorce, her relationships with her parents, and more.
I particularly loved reading her thoughts on friendships and their intersection with your changing self. It reminded me of her fascinating investigation of that theme in her novel The Subtweet. It made me think of some growing pains I’ve had in longterm friendships where the person I or my friend was growing into was very different than when we’d established the friendship. I am excited to see more work, fiction and nonfiction, investigating the complexities of friendship and taking it seriously as a relationship.
Shraya’s writing on trans identity reminded me of Meredith Talusan’s memoir Fairest, which also resists mainstream, simplified narratives about trans identities and finally arriving at an inevitable true self. If you like People Change, read Talusan or vice versa!
Not to go all academic and talk about Foucault, but Shraya’s writing made me think of his work in The History of Sexuality which pinpoints the “invention” of the homosexual not as a site of proud self-identification but as a means to box in and control. Queer as a noun is a lot less slippery than queer as a verb.
I found this book hard to read at longer intervals because I wanted to record so many passages! Here are some favourites:
“There’s nothing more frightening than fluidity. At some point when the individual ‘chooses’ an identity in defiance (even rejecting identities is a kind of identity), we’re then gaslit through arguments for the need to eradicate labels because ‘we’re all human.'”
“Like when newly gay friends state they weren’t actually attracted to their previous opposite-sex lover or partner. This might be a genuine assertion, but even in queer communities there’s pressure to deny bisexual attraction, or rather, bisexuality is commonly read as still being in the closet… how often do we embrace the narrative of a true self because it’s expected of us? No one advises you to ‘be yourselves.'”
“Seizing the moment has been less about embracing the present and more about understanding that I am not entitled to a future. None of us are.”
“Our ideal self is actually holding us back, not propelling us forward.”
“Reinvention requires both a kind of death and a desire to keep living.”
“Let this book be a new prayer. One to rewrite the old ones, one for more growth, for more change.”
Have you read this book? Did Shraya’s writing and ideas strike a cord with you too? Let me know! And if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend it!
2021 was not my best reading year in recent times; there are lots of books I own or was sent by publishers that I’m excited about that I have not read yet! That’s because I spent most of last year pregnant (and very sick for half of it!) and then taking care of a newborn since September. I am very happy to have my beautiful baby but I did not realize my reading would suffer so much. But! I also read some amazing books in 2021. Here they are, in no particular order. Of course, these are mostly queer and quite a few Canadian.
Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle
This YA graphic novel was a bit darker than I was expecting, but not in a bad way. Becca is the new girl at a posh school and is surprised when the popular clique recruits her–literally, they’re a werewolf pack who need a fourth member!
They prey on the predators, satisfying their monthly hunger by eating shitty guys they pick up at parties. Things get a lot more morally grey when one of their boyfriends is accidentally killed and they’re forced to look for food outside of their usual places.
There are great vintage horror vibes in both the art and storytelling; the drawings are kind of Archie comic style but polished. There’s also a cute coming out, sapphic romance, and an intriguingly complex portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship where they never say what they mean.
I appreciated how all the women characters aren’t crafted with likeability or niceness in mind. They felt very authentic!
This book gave me strong Buffy vibes, capturing my imagination in the way it gave teen girls the physical power to fight the patriarchy as embodied in entitled rapey teen boys. It felt cathartic and empowering to read like Buffy has often made me feel. There are also shades of The Craft in the girls’ relationship and power dynamics with one girl being the leader.
Personal Attention Roleplay by Helen Chau Bradley
This book is a wonderfully inventive authentic collection of queer Asian Canadian short stories, including:
— a queer metal band’s tour with a new manager (AMAZING ending in this one!)
— a woman replacing her codependent relationship with her roommate with an ASMR channel
— two people who meet waiting in line in Covid times (the first story I’ve read featuring Covid!)
— an unemployed Montrealer juggling a relationship with a fickle lover and a friendship with a meals on wheels client
— two cousins who do a pilgrimage in Spain (one enthusiastically, the other reluctantly)
— a tween gymnast who has a crush on her older more talented teammate
— a kid who plays Greek heroes with her best friend but sabotages their relationship when she feels she doesn’t measure up
These stories have great precise details that bring the characters alive. They all felt so emotionally true. There’s also some lovely writing and skilled storytelling (the Covid story is told solely in unattributed dialogue!).
Some favourite passages:
“The top of her head smells like a good dream.”
“I thought about how enormous life was and how enormous also the space between people could be.”
Pride Colours by Robin Stevenson
My baby’s first LGBTQ book! And by a local Vancouver Island author no less. This board book is just beautiful. Lovely rhyming text about love, acceptance, opportunity, affection, and more centred on the meaning of the colours of the Pride flag. There are photos of racially diverse babies and toddlers and a couple pictures of queer couples with kids. The last page introduces the idea of the Pride parade. This book reminded me that I can’t wait to take my kid to Pride!!
Little You by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett
This board book is a beautiful, soothing story about an Indigenous couple welcoming a baby. (The writer is from the Dene Nation and the illustrator is Cree Métis). “You are life and breath adored.” “Little you / little wonder / Little wish / gentle thunder.” I am melting. Flett’s illustrations are gorgeous and earthy.
Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks
One of the most unique books I’ve ever read! It’s at once a reimagining of tween girl series like the Babysitter’s Club (a paranormal girl detective club a la first season Buffy), a brutally honest YA novel about a queer / trans coming of age and disordered eating, a choose your own adventure / video game level style surreal metaphorical journey through the body, and an intellectual adult reflection on all this. It is truly many books in one.
Wonderfully imaginative, thoughtfully intertextual, emotionally resonant, critically 90s nostalgic. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time. It’s a one of a kind masterpiece in the same vein as Sybil Lamb’s I’ve Got a Time Bomb and Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom. Wildly weird and thought-provoking.
A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett
I’ve been a big fan of Casey Plett’s work since I first encountered it, so it’s no surprise I loved her most recent short story collection. She writes about (and I suspect for) trans women, often looking at relationships between them. To get a glimpse of their intimacies, interiorities, and experiences is a privilege I don’t take for granted as a cis woman!
Her characters are so intricate and authentic. From one woman with Mennonite roots returning to her home in the Canadian prairies to another leaving cozy Portland queertopia to transition in New York’s anonymity, the stories crackle with quiet complexity. They made me ache, laugh, cringe, cry.
The characters felt like friends who came for a visit and had to go home. I miss them.
NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt
I’m not sure how to talk about this book except to say it’s a phenomenal collection of poetry. Reading Billy-Ray Belcourt feels like an enormous privilege. It’s a collection where I had to stop myself from collecting every other line in my phone notes because it’s all just so good.
I love his play with language, his seamless shifts between tones, his irreverent humour, his powerful interrogation of colonialism, and, of course, the queerness.
“A white boyfriend of mine wanted me to be less beholden to the clouds. / I told him we are all at the mercy of the sky, for better or worse. / Part of me thinks he doesn’t deserve to know / about this mode of attention, this art of description. / But I can’t keep secrets. I am addicted / to the high of letting my own words forsake me.”
“I make out with my imaginary NDN lover / on the ashes of every Canadian pastoral poem ever written.”
“My hobbies include / not dying / obsessively apologizing to the moon for all that she has to witness”
Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu
This graphic novel is an utter delight from start to finish. Kumiko is a bisexual Japanese Canadian woman in her 70s who is stubborn, quirky, funny, and independent. After escaping the longterm care home her daughters set her up in, she sets up a life in her own apartment in East Van only to find death has come too early for her. She intends to fight it, sometimes literally like with the vacuum cleaner she’s pictured with on the front cover.
I just LOVED Kumiko as a character, such a wonderfully rich depiction of a BIPOC queer elder. More books like this please!! This book was like getting to sit down with queer elders and learn about their lives (Kumiko’s ex is a supporting character as well).
Gorgeous, expressive art and complex questions about death, mortality, and a life well lived. Just an all round excellent book.
Stoop City by Kristyn Dunnion
I’d forgotten how much I liked Kristyn Dunnion’s writing until I read this, her most recent book. This is a great collection of short stories, mostly realist but a few with a speculative edge. All the characters are outcasts or misfits of some sort.
A young homeless guy whose boyfriend disappears after their latest con. A rockabilly butch nurse whose longterm partner has left her. A street sex worker sharing the tricks of her trade. An elderly woman living with schizophrenia.
Amazing grasp of character and punchy, visceral writing. It’s incredible to see the range of different characters Dunnion disappears into, especially in the span of a short story.
A Natural History of Transition by Callum Angus
What an extraordinary collection of short stories. Callum Angus takes the overdone and/or exoticized theme of transition for trans characters and in each of these speculative stories creates something unique, surprising, and thought-provoking.
All of the stories went in a direction I didn’t expect. They blend keen observations on contemporary and future life with fabulist, magical elements. They also felt very grounded in the natural world.
In one story where everyone chooses their gender at age 11, a character changes their mind after the initial decision, and then decides that a simple gender transition is not enough–they would like to be a rock. And then, perhaps something else…
In another, a trans guy living in a future dystopia returns to his hometown to find its inhabitants mutating into something horrifying and strange.
A story about a pregnant trans guy whose ‘baby’ comes out a cocoon also really resonated with me, as I read the story while I was pregnant.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel
On the surface this is a graphic memoir about fitness and exercise, told in decades of Bechdel’s life and moving through different activities like skiing, running, biking, yoga, and martial arts.
But once you get into it, it’s a deep meditation on the interwovenness of the body and mind, the search to escape the prison of your own ego, romanticism (the literary/aesthetic movement), and the profound power of nature. It’s an interesting blend that I think readers expecting or wanting a more narrow focus on fitness and exercise might be disappointed in. I, however, loved it. The art is exquisite with detail, movement, and expression.
Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
Now that is how you write a compelling, sympathetic character who is messed up and self-destructive! This is an older book that I had on my to-read list for a long time and I’m so glad I finally got to it in 2021.
It’s about a has-been bisexual photographer, Cass Neary, who had one hit book decades ago and has been working in a bookstore and drinking too much ever since. An acquaintance sends her on a kind of pity assignment to interview an aging reclusive photographer who lives on an island. Shit gets bad and dark fast, and Cass finds herself oddly working as a kind of detective.
I loved the gorgeous, effective writing, the subtle creeping mystery, Hand’s evocative images, and the coastal Mains setting. I also loved how this book is deeply uninterested in respectability politics for queer characters.
I will definitely be continuing with this series. I have the next book sitting on my shelf, taunting me.
Little Blue Encyclopedia(For Vivian) by Hazel JanePlante
One of the best books I’ve ever read! A wonderfully unique combination of character study, a letter to grief, a celebration of trans women, and an innovative format: an encyclopedia centered on a fictional TV show called “Little Blue.”
Our narrator, with the kind of authentic mesmerizing voice that immediately captures you, is a queer trans woman who has just lost her best friend Vivian, a straight trans woman who was the love of her life.
Stumbling through her grief, she ends up channeling it through writing. The best format, it turns out, is an encyclopedia dedicated to Vivian’s favourite TV show, a cult classic with a small devoted following, the kind of show fans watch over and over, catching new details and coming up with new fan theories every time. Of course, the encyclopedia is just as much about Vivian–and our narrator–as it is the show.
The book traces the women’s friendship, the narrator’s relationship with her brother and Vivian’s sister, and talks a lot about art: its power to soothe life’s grief, oppression–everything that feels unbearable.
Plante’s artistry is stunning. Little Blue Encyclopedia is about a TV show with a cult following, but the book itself is similarly art that inspires that kind of devotion. “Little Blue” couldn’t feel more real, with every detail so meticulously crafted it’s easy to forget while you’re reading that it isn’t actually a real series! The same could be said of all the characters, even the secondary ones: they are full of authenticity and heart.
The end of this book made me sob: heart broken but hopeful, sad but full of love. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how very very funny this book is too. It’s the best combination.
Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi
What a delicious, beautiful book this is. Three Nigerian women, a mother and her twin daughters, have drifted apart as adults as a result of one of the girls being sexually assaulted in childhood. The story goes back and forth from the past to the present when they have reunited in Lagos. It’s a heartbreaking story in many parts (miscarriage, suicide, and the death of a parent by homicide also feature in the book) but it is somehow not a dark story at all, but one full of life and hope.
The characters are just wonderful, fully fleshed out. I especially loved to see them in their different relationships, as well as in different places: Lagos, London, Montreal, and Halifax. Taiye is a particular kind of messy, hedonistic lesbian character who felt so deeply real. Her queer Black/Nigerian friendship with Timi was one of my favourite parts of the book. Kehinde’s relationship with her first boyfriend also stunned me in its authenticity and heart.
And then there’s their mom, Kambirinachi, who is an Ogbanje, a spirit who is not supposed to linger long in a human body, but who falls in love with being alive at great cost to herself and her loved ones. I find it fascinating to learn about different cultural stories that explain the toughest stuff of life that is inexplicable (like miscarriage, death of a child, suicide).
And the food!! God this book made me so hungry. Taiye loves food and eventually becomes a chef, but Kehinde’s sections also involve a lot of food as she works at a restaurant in Montreal.
To top it all off, Ekwuyasi’s writing is just beautiful. Here is one of my favourite passages from Kambirinachi:
“Life is an ambivalent lover. One moment, you are everything and life wants to consume you entirely. The next moment, you are an insignificant speck of nothing. Meaningless. But I am not insane. Imagine this: You are made unbound, birthed from everything glorious and fermented and fertile and free. Unbound. You visit this binding, this flesh cage. It’s sacred and robust but a cage nonetheless. You visit because it’s your nature.”
This is just an incredible book. It made me cry. And it’s only Francesca Ekwuyasi’s first. I am so excited to see what she does next!
A Duke in Disguise by Cat Sebastian
An utterly delightful, practically perfect historical romance. Verity Plum is a radical bookseller and writer whose childhood friend Ash, an engraver, has recently come to board with her and her brother. Their friendship and intellectual connection teeters on the edge of romantic love and lust, only having balanced there so long because of a mutual worry that their current relationship (they’re both to each other one of the few people in their life who has stuck around and can be trusted) might be ruined.
But when Ash–an epileptic brought up in foster care who has always assumed he was illegitimate–discovers he’s actually the legitimate heir to a dukedom and has the opportunity to take it from a terrible abusive man, it drives a wedge between him and Verity.
Superb writing that covers all manner of fascinating historical details like seditious journalism, naughty book publishing, engraving, 19th century inheritance law, women running small presses, and more!
Plus, Verity is bisexual and her ex-lover and friend Mrs Allenby is a prominent secondary character. (Staying good friends with your ex is queer lady culture, is it not??)
One favourite passage:
“For all she was one of Ash’s dearest friends and one of the few constants in his life, for all she and her brother were now the closest thing to family that he had in this country, being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses, like the bottle of French brandy he kept in his clothes press, lest he succumb to the emotional equivalent of gout.”
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
What a masterpiece! I’ve never read anything like this Indigenous epic fantasy. It’s a remarkable achievement in storytelling, world-building, and character. There’s so much richness of cultures, character motivations, politics, religions, genders, sexualities, and more, alongside an intricately woven plot with threads unfurling in different places at the same time.
I’m at a loss as to how to even begin to summarize the complex plot–you’ll just have to read it to find out!
I loved the naturally integrated queer representation too! Perhaps not surprisingly Xiala, the bisexual Teek sea captain and siren was my favourite. But I empathized with every character on all sides of the political, cultural, and religious divides Roanhorse so deftly creates.
The audiobook format is also stunning. Wonderful performances by four different actors, one for each main character. (Three of the actors are Indigenous, one is Black).
Is it too late to be sharing a list of 2020 favourites? Never! These were not necessarily published in 2020, just books that I read in that (neverending) year. There’s a smattering of all different genres, with an ample number of books of the queer and/or Canadian persuasion, of course.
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya
The rest of this list is in no particular order, but it’s not a coincidence The Subtweet landed at the top. It was my favourite book of 2020, hands down. Neela and Rukmini are two South Asian Canadian women musicians (one trans, one unspecified) who form a friendship when Rukmini an emerging artist, covers one of the more established artist Neela’s songs.
The ensuing story investigates brown female friendship, professional jealousy, the pleasures and price of making art, social media and call-out culture, white people performing anti-racism for their own benefit, the way systemic racism and sexism pits women of colour against each other, and more.
It’s also very much a love letter to so many women (mostly of colour) artists and theorists of all stripes. This book was so good and so smart! The characterization of Neela and Rukmini was incredible; they captured my imagnation so fully. I love how Shraya refused to make Neela and Rukmini likable. The concepts were so thoughtfully explored. See my full review here.
Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel by Julian K Jarboe
There is an amazing range of narrative voices in this superb science fiction / body horror / fairy tale / cyberpunk collection. Inventive and unique, it tackles subjects like spirituality, (trans) bodies, otherness, climate change, and queer solidarity in the apocalypse. Jarboe’s writing is stunning, full of bold images, mystical undertones, and raw humour. You get excerpts like:
“Give me a sex that has never been seen before and a soft outline exactly the size and shape of my lovers, and when they lay their entire selves within it, that is how we are going to fuck, since you keep asking, and everybody wants to know.”
And then you get distinctly queer dialogue like: “Ask me my sign and I’ll never talk to you again.” “Oh I would never ask. I know how Scorpios need their privacy.”
HARROW THE NINTH BY TAMSYN MUIR
I’m not sure whether to say this queer SF novel is a work of genius that tortured me or a torture because it is so genius. Muir’s writing is wildly inventive, deadly sharp, boldly unsettling, darkly funny. There is no simple way to describe this world or plot, although it’s correct to say it’s about necromancy, lesbians, space, death, grief, knowledge, trauma, and power.
This book that demands A LOT from the reader. Muir does not make the twists and turns of the plot or the language easy to grasp. I mean, one of the narratives here is about Harrow, but spoken to her in the second person for a reason that remains opaque until quite late. The other main narrative is baffling given what you know from the first book.
But this also means when you finally *get it* there is a huge reward. Plus there’s just the pleasure of her sentences, so weirdly gorgeous and grotesque. And these unexpected bursts of dark humour.
Not a book for everyone. But it is A BOOK. One of the few pieces of fiction I’ve read that truly feels like a masterpiece.
THE LOST FUTURE OF PEPPERHARROW BY NATASHA PULLEY
This book was an unexpectedly delightful queer steampunk / historical fantasy, with some lovely, unique writing and turns of phrase. I loved that it was set mostly in late 1880s Japan and wasn’t willfully ignorant of 19th century British imperialism, unlike a lot of other steampunk.
It follows a fairly large set of characters, Japanese and British (and some who are both) in a multi-layered plot orchestrated by Mori, a man who “remembers the future.” He’s trying to piece together a gazillion moving pieces to a positive future outcome even he doesn’t quite understand anymore.
There are ghosts, electrical storms, mechanical pet octopuses, political scheming, and queer love!
Technically this is a sequel, although I had no trouble following it without having read the first book.
THE HAMMER OF WITCHES BY KELLY ROSE PFLUG-BACK
I love when you start a book with no expectations and it blows you away. This slim collection of poetry by a queer Canadian writer was just the thing. Spooky, mystical, autumnal, feminist, dark. Themes include witches (obviously), loss, longing, necromancy, ancient myth, suicide, nature, death, nightime, horror, ghosts, and the body. The imagery and play with words are incredible:
“It was dark, and the world sang to itself to keep from being frightened”
“I want the ululations of a thousand throats to guide me across black waters whose shores I’ll never reach”
“Listen, I died here a long time ago and I’ve just been haunting the place ever since
sitting on the dryer’s in the basement staring at my phone.
That light you think you see sometimes and then it’s gone when you look again, that’s all it is;
I felt death’s bony hand close around my thigh, once
and I just laughed”
TO BE TAUGHT IF FORTUNATE BY BECKY CHAMBERS
Like all of Becky Chambers’ books, this science fiction novella was just delightful. A thoughtful amount of fascinating slscience; endearing, very real characters; heartwarming found family dynamics; and an optimism that is heartening but not naive.
The story follows four astronauts as they embark on a lengthy journey out into another solar system to do scientific research about life on four planets. Halfway through, communications from Earth complicate their mission.
This crew is all queer! One bi+ woman, one unspecified queer woman, one ace guy, and one trans guy. Love to see it, especially as their identities have nothing to do with the story!
WHITE IS FOR WITCHING BY HELEN OYEYEMI
Melancholy and spooky, this book. I had saved this one for October, and was very happy with that decision. I felt like the whole reading experience had me teetering on the edge of discomfort. The house in White is for Witching isn’t so much haunted as it is as alive as the people in the story. It’s a character, but a monstrous one who keeps the women in the family for itself. But it also *is* the women in the family. This only kind of makes sense, which is typical for Oyeyemi. Her writing is the kind of delicious stuff that forces you to let go of the idea that you’ll understand everything.
Floating around there’s also a delightful amount of queerness and interrogation of the UK’s racist and anti-immigrant/refugee ideologies. Plus Oyeyemi’s startlingly beautiful writing.
Content warnings for disordered eating and parental death.
MADAME ZERO BY SARAH HALL
I loved this collection of short stories. It’s my first book by this author but it certainly won’t be my last. I loved her writing. Hall’s prose feels elegant and effortless in a way that belies the talent and skill behind the words.
Reading the stories made me feel contemplative and sophisticated and stylish. It felt like I had to read them with a glass of red wine in front of my fireplace (I obliged). Themes include a woman who turns into a fox, a woman with a terror of heights who crosses a high bridge on a hike, a post-apocalyptic world with constant very high winds, and other diverse topics, some speculative, some not.
But it wasn’t the content of the stories, rather the authenticity of the feeling that captured my attention and imagination. They are almost scary in their perceptiveness and truth. I think I’ll be haunted by them for a long time.
THE GOOD HOUSE BY TANANARIVE DUE
A majestically crafted, terrifying horror novel with incredibly real characters. (I read this one for October too, and it was perfect for that time of year). One summer in Angela’s grandmother’s old house in the Pacific Northwest, she doesn’t realize her son Corey has found her grandmother’s book of vodou spells, and reawakened a horrifying demon.
Two years after, following Corey’s suicide in the very same house, Angela returns and finally starts to unravel what happened and put things right. Chilling reimagined vodou, a narrative that flips back and forth in time, characters deeply flawed but deeply empathetic.
This is a truly incredible, immersive read–with dark themes so tread with caution if needed. The end brought tears to my eyes. Most of the rest left me afraid to keep reading by myself in the dark. Highly recommended. I am mad this book isn’t more well known! It is just begging for a film adaptation.
BEETLE AND THE HOLLOWBONES BY ALIZA LAYNE
This middle grade graphic novel was just the cutest. Beetle is a goblin witch learning to do magic with her gran as a teacher when she find out the mall in her Halloweeen town which her non-binary friend Ghost Blob is doomed to haunt is going to torn down. By who? Power-hungry Marla Hollowbone, whose niece Kat, a cat skeleton sorceress, is back in town.
Can Beetle and Kat save Ghost Blob, defeat Marla, and admit their feelings for each other? Can kindly old healer midwife witch Gran bring back the badass sorcery from her youth?
Gorgeous art, endearing characters, and fun LGBTQ representation for kids! I’m a bit bummed I had an ARC of this book, since it didn’t have colour throughout. But I did love the art and the Halloween aesthetic! A perfect Halloween read.
THE BLACK EMERALD BY JEANNE THORNTON
I finished this book in the bath, with water tinged just the colour purple on the cover from a bath bomb. Very appropriate. Delightfully weird, dark but not cynical (such a hard balance to strike and Thornton does it so well), hilarious (the dedication reads “dedication is overrated”), sexy, and very queer. Thornton’s writing is often strikingly perceptive and beautiful:
“They had a wide Oriental rug, all beige and purple and gold, its fibers an ideal consistency between solid and liquid, and it would ooze up around the bare toes that walked across it like ten tiny, formal hugs.”
Stories include the titular one, about a queer artsy high school girl whose comics become haunted by a cult comics artist her ex-girlfriend loves, a girl who falls in love with a life size anatomical skeleton, a woman who runs a very unique hotel, and more. I loved this! Can’t wait to read her next book, coming out in 2021.
THE WESTERN ALIENATION BADGE
Such an incredible book! A family saga, snapshot of growing up in Calgary in the 70s, coming back home in the 80s & then in the 2010s, and a queer coming of age story. The characters–two sisters Bernadette and Frances, their dad (who lost two wives 😥), and Frankie’s childhood friend–are achingly real, flawed, and sympathetic even when you’d least expect. At once so specific to time and place, yet with such broadly recognizable complicated emotions and family dynamics. So Canadiana, so working class, so prairies. And the novel’s chapters are loosely structured around Girl Guide badges, so clever with with cute illustrations like on the pitch perfect cover.
I loved Cullen’s short story collection, Canary, a few years ago and this novel is just as great. I love her writing. Her characters feel so uncanny to me, so very familiar, but those familiar folks seen with such a sharp, empathetic eye.
MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW BY WAUBGESHIG RICE
What a thrilling, fascinating book! A kind of literary thriller / dystopian / horror novel with wonderful writing and authentic, human characters. It follows a Northern Anishinaabe reservation community in the days and months immediately after the apocalypse.
The focus is not what caused the breakdown of white society (you never find out what caused it) but on their journey to survive, leaning back into old ways of living off the land. Part of that journey is dealing with a white guy (what a villain!) who shows up wanting to escape the city and join them.
Parts of the story are quite suspenseful, and a few downright chilling! But it’s also the kind of book with a lot of meaty stuff to dig into and discuss. I’m looking forward to reading more by this author!
Wonderfully performed as an audiobook by Cree actor Billy Merasty.
THE LITTLE KITTEN BY NICOLA KILLEN
Honestly this is the first time in my adulthood that I’ve considered a picture book one of my favourite books of the year.
This is an utterly perfect cat-centric autumn Halloween-ish picture book. I couldn’t have imagined a book more suited to all things I love at thattime of year. The illustrations are gorgeous, black and white with orange, including metallic orange in the fall leaves and pumpkins and clever little cut-outs! So pretty!! Oh yes and the story is cute too.
FAIREST BY MEREDITH TALUSAN
A memoir about the life so far of Meredith Talusan, a writer/artist trans woman with albinism from the Philippines who immigrated to the US as a teenager. This book sails right past the conventions of both the typical trans and immigrant memoir.
It’s not the story of someone who always knew she was a girl. And it’s about someone who fits into American racial categories in a very unique way, as someone perceived as white who is Asian.
Her writing is beautiful, and she boldly looks at herself, sharing complexities, inconsistencies, and flattering and not so flattering moments in her life. I was sad when it ended, as I just wanted the story to keep going!
Wonderfully read by the author as an audiobook.
PARABLE OF THE SOWER & PARABLE OF THE TALENTS BY OCTAVIA BUTLER
I can’t believe I waited until 2020 (during a pandemic no less) to read this dystopian classic series set only 5-7 years in the future. This is a fascinating, page-turning book about a young Black woman surviving in a US descended into chaos and anarchy, with drugs, disease, water shortage, environmental degradation, and severe economic depression making it at once a totally new world and eerily familiar.
I love Butler’s world-building, characters (a future prophet / god as a protagonist!), and intellectual curiosity. She somehow writes a thrilling, gripping, I-can’t-wait-to-find-out-what-happens-next type of book that is so thoughtful and inventive with its themes of community, religion, and more.
The second book is even better than its predecessor. A fascinating and heartbreaking dystopia about the ambitious (Black woman) leader of a new religion and her biological and found family. A terrifying science fiction imagining of what happens when a fundamentalist tyrant comes to take advantage of an apocalypse and his followers indulge in the worst abuses of power imaginable. A tough read (slavery, rape, poverty) but also hopeful.
THE SKIN WE’RE IN BY DESMOND COLE
This collection of essays is a riveting, infuriating, passionate book. It follows the year 2017 in Desmond Cole’s life as a Black activist and journalist in Toronto.
He covers a wide variety of issues, from cops in schools and Pride to police brutality, immigration injustice, and more. I especially liked how he integrated the struggles of Indigenous people with his analysis of anti-Black racism in Canada. His “breather” chapter on taking a break and connecting in nature was also gorgeous. (It made me think about what kind of work we might get more of from Cole if he didn’t have to constantly fight anti-Black racism). He also did a great job connecting current events to historical anti-Blackness in Canada without going into so much depth as to lose the thread of his argument.
A must-read. Excellent as an audiobook read by the author.
THE PULL OF THE STARS BY EMMA DONOGHUE
This audiobook instantly gripped me and did not let go until the end. Set in a Dublin maternity ward amidst the influenza epidemic of 1918, it takes place over only a few short days but packs in a lot of story, character, and historical immediacy.
Julia is a nurse and midwife working with expectant mothers with the flu. Two women come quickly into her life, altering her forever. I felt like I was right there in the hospital the whole book. I loved it!
I wasn’t sure when this book was being publicized if there was queer content, which did make for a fun surprise when it came up, but I wish it would have been advertised! Although I do feel like it’s useful to note that there is NOT a queer happily ever after, if that’s what you’re looking for.
ONCE YOU GOT THIS FAR BY KRISTEN LEPIONKA
The Roxane Weary mysteries are officially my favourite ongoing series! Lepionka delicately balances page-turning pacing, intricate and twisty plot, and complex fascinating characterization. Her current case is a so-called hiking accident that leads Roxane to investigating a culty fundamentalist church, a Canadian casino, a charismatic politician who runs a women’s health organization, and more! Some very interesting developments in Roxane’s family, love life, and friends as well.
I love how we get tiny subplots that chug along the stories of supporting characters from past books who Roxane has folded into her life (Her queer “niece” Shelby and her crush on her BFF, the snarky motel employee studying criminal justice who’s doing her co-op hours with Roxane). Haha and the yoga pants businesswoman shows up again too!
I also love how over the course of the series we get to see the full spectrum of Roxane’s bisexuality. She’s trying to be in a relationship with Tom in this book (emphasis on the trying because she kinda sucks at it). But we also see her ex-girlfriend briefly come back to fuck with her (Catherine you leave my precious Roxane alone!) and see Roxane feel surprised at her sudden attraction to a woman she meets while investigating. It just feels so real to life, you know? I feel seen!
TAKE A HINT, DANI BROWN BY TALIA HIBBERT
This audiobook was excellently read by Ione Butler.
Predictably, I absolutely loved this. Talia Hibbert goes straight for my heart (and sexy parts) every time. A Black bisexual academic heroine? A South Asian ex-rugby player hero who reads romance novels? (Shout-out to the explicit shout-out to Beverly Jenkins!) I adore these two.
I loved the careful representation of Zaf’s anxiety, his trauma from his dad and brother dying in a car crash, Dani’s witchiness, her realization she’s overworking, and her issue with intimacy. I also was thrilled with the bi representation. We get to see a bit of Dani’s ex-sort-of-girlfriend and also her lesbian BFF Sorcha. Great use of the fake dating trope as well as the friends with benefits oops we caught feelings.
I will officially follow Talia Hibbert anywhere! This series is about the Brown sisters, but is it too much to ask for a little spin-off about Sorcha??
A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE BY ARKADY MARTINE
An absolutely incredible diplomatic space opera! Mahit is an ambassador from a small space station country sent to the heart of the Teixcalaanli Empire. She loves the poetry and Teixcalaan culture, but she also knows they are colonizers intent on annexing her home. When she arrives, she discovers her predecessor has suspiciously died. Here come assassination attempts, illegal neurological surgery, bubbling civil war, and many conversations where everyone is choosing their words oh so carefully to convey at least two things at once.
Intricate world-building with a focus on poetry, language (including body language and facial expressions), conceptions of selfhood, and neurological technology. Plus slow burn lesbian romance! It really got me thinking about how different cultures conceive of an “I” and a “we.” And the complex relationship you can have to a culture you know is oppressive but whose art you love. That feeling Mahit has of desperately wanting to be a fluent Teixcalaanli poet but knowing because she is a “barbarian” she would always be considered other.
LATE TO THE PARTY BY KELLY QUINDLEN
A wonderfully warm and heartfelt YA about growing beyond the person your friends from kindergarten know you to be, first queer kisses, and queer solidarity friendship. Codi and her BFFs JaKory and Maritza (lesbian, gay, and bi respectively) are homebodies who stay at home and watch Netflix. When they force themselves to go to a big party to make something happen in their lives, Codi ends up forming a secret friendship with a closeted popular jock, Ricky, after she accidentally sees him making out with a guy.
Through him she meets a girl who just might like her back. She also breaks out of her shell, trying new things, putting herself out there, and finally having the kind of teenage adventures she thought she might never have. The only problem? She never tells JaKory and Maritza anything, so you are just waiting for that shit to hit the fan as well as to see if the girl and Codi are ever going to kiss.
Late to the Party had a lot of beautifully complex relationships, some bright sparks of poignant writing that really brought to life a teenage mindset, and layered subplots including one for Ricky, JaKory, Maritza, and Grant, Codi’s 14-year-old brother. There were many times when this book made me fondly remember high school and the great, sometimes complicated friendships I had.
One quibble I had was that I had trouble picturing what a lot of the characters looked like since the author didn’t give enough information early enough when they were introduced. Especially since there’s a tendency to assume whiteness in the face of lack of details because of white supremacy!
SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT BY MERYL WILSNER
Ahhhhhh this book was so good! I’m always a bit nervous to start a book that I have such high expectations for, but this delightful and so real queer romance absolutely exceeded them. This Hollywood set love story between a showrunner and her assistant was done so beautifully and thoughtfully, addressing the power dynamics of a boss/employee relationship.
The slow burn…. I love to see it!!! What I love about that trope is how it lets the couple get to know each other so well and develop a friendship and a respect, which is absolutely what Jo and Emma did. And there were plenty of things going on in their relationship up until they kissed, with tensions and dilemmas at work.
The characters were authentic and flawed, funny and vulnerable. Both their career subplots and one about sexual harassment in Hollywood were excellently done. Representation is a Jewish bisexual woman in her late 20s, a Chinese American lesbian in her early forties. The only rep I can speak to is the bisexuality, which I thought was wonderful in the ways it was addressed and left aside when it wasn’t relevant.
And the side characters! I loved Emma’s snarky fat baker sister Avery as well as Jo’s childhood BFF Evelyn. I can’t wait to read what Meryl Wilsner writes next! I will never see the term “yes, boss” in the same way again.
POLAR VORTEX BY SHANI MOOTOO
A strange, dark, fascinating, and thought provoking novel. Priya is in her 50s and lives with her partner Alex in an Ontario small town. Out of the blue she gets a message from an old university friend Prakash, with whom she had a complicated and fraught relationship.
Her invitation for him to visit brings up longstanding insecurities and issues in Priya and Alex’s relationship. Themes include mainstream (white) discourse about queer sexuality and identity, refugee experiences, difficulties of intimacy and communication in relationships, and the triple effects of sexism, racism, and homophobia on queer women of colour.
The deep dive into longterm queer relationships really reminded me of Jane Eaton Hamilton’s book Weekend. Mootoo adds to that with a somewhat unreliable narrator and multiple points of view.
I really mean it when I say this novel was thought provoking! I have notes written all over the margins of this book and in the notes on my phone. See my full review here.
THE GOSPEL OF BREAKING BY JILLIAN CHRISTMAS
There were many times when I gasped out loud and just sat in awe as I was reading Jillian Christmas’s debut poetry collection. The poems are alternately sad, sexy, funny, and angry; I found myself—very willingly—riding a vicarious emotional roller coaster alongside them. Christmas’s inventive lyricism and images went straight to my heart and gut, sometimes at the same time. Such as lines like: “how will we know it [what is a body] / unless we go searching through the roughness of being alive.”
Many of the poems very much feel like their roots are in slam poetry with a careful attention to sound. They also shine on the page. Themes include depression, suicide, Black joy, spirituality, break ups, home and place, love, ancestry, Blackness, white feminism, writing, Christmas’s mother, Internet and social media culture, and more. Also, there is a killer, hilarious poem addressed to the person who stole Christmas’s bike! One of my other favourites was a gorgeous poetic take on the frequent meme “But have you tried.” Uh, everyone else can stop doing this now, Jillian Christmas has clearly won. Read my full review here.
THE REGRETS BY AMY BONNAFFONS
A delightfully weird, unique, sexy, bittersweet story about a love affair between a woman (in the world of the living, but also somewhat removed from it) and a ghost who has been temporarily stuck on Earth because of the equivalent to a clerical error in the afterlife. The powers that be tell him: you are “insufficiently dead … You lack rupture with your life. You have no exit narrative.”
I LOVED the writing: poetically precise and philosophically true. The tone was thoughtful and candid, details of the characters’ flaws unflinching, but it never moved into cynicism. Also the heroine is a red lipstick wearing librarian. This is one of those books that while featuring queer secondary characters and overall not at all homophobic also felt VERY heterosexual (emphasis on the sexual, there’s a lot of sex in this book), so beware if that’s not something you can stand.
MY ART IS KILLING ME BY AMBER DAWN
An exquisite, hard-hitting collection of poetry not without its moments of humour and an ample amount of free verse experimentation with spacing, repetition, spells, and business letters. Amber Dawn writes about the burden and joys of writing from the perspective of a woman, a queer person, a survivor, and a sex worker. Being an artist in the public realm, performing or having to convince others of your trauma, dealing with abusers in positions of power in the literary community, and more. A book to reread and savour. Full review on my blog here.
Some of my favourite parts:
“I wouldn’t mind if poetry mimicked racing tipsy down the subway stairs / in platform heels to barely catch the last train of the night.”
“A poem is always a mirror / that we must hold up before us”
“Who do I confide to about pain when pain is my praxis / and best performance?”
“But you (literally you) are reading queer and desperate poetry / so may I assume you too have never been afforded / an uncomplicated story?”
“My kink is to loudly love those / who’ve been told to keep quiet.”
“Closure / is like the conspicuous consumption / of real life.”
MRS DALLOWAY BY VIRGINIA WOOLF
Mrs Dalloway is one of those novels that feels so effortless, which shows how much skill and talent Woolf had. I went into it expecting it to be less accessible than it actually is. The stream of consciousness just flowed, taking me along like, well, a stream. I was also surprised at a few passages that were quite explicitly queer for the time and loved the complex look at depression and mental health.
If you’ve been meaning to get around to reading this like I have, I would heartily recommend! God, her writing is so beautiful.
“Yet she could not resist sometimes yielding to the charms of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as they often did, some scrape, some folly…she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered.”
IN THE DREAM HOUSE BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO
An INCREDIBLE memoir. The content is a subject that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: domestic abuse in queer relationships. It’s hard to describe, except as horrifying.
On top of the unique content, Machado is playing with form throughout the book, (re)telling the story through the lens of folk tale tropes, genres, and formats (including a harrowing “choose your own adventure” section). She pays particular attention to classic horror tropes
She often talks about her past self as “you” giving the reader an unsettling intimacy. Somehow this is compulsively readable despite the dark content. One of the best books I’ve ever read. This won the Lambda in 2020 for LGBTQ Nonfiction, and it is very deserved.
GET A LIFE, CHLOE BROWN BY TALIA HIBBERT
I LOVED this book!! (And yes, there are two books by Talia Hibbert on this list, for good reason). An emotionally resonant, steamy, diverse, authentic story about two people who at first don’t like each other and then realize their first impressions were wrong. Red is a white working class artist whose previous relationship was abusive. Chloe is a wealthy Black woman with chronic illness including fibromyalgia. She also has a history of being abandoned by partners and friends.
Their falling in love was so cute, and funny, and sexy and just every minute of it was perfect. I laughed out loud at the sarcastic humour. The audiobook narration with different British accents was also perfect. And there’s a cute cat! I had a feeling I was going to love Talia Hibbert and this did not disappoint at all. it’s hard to believe this was the first book of hers that I read. Can’t wait to pick up some of her older stuff.
THE PHILISTINE BY LEILA MARSHY
This book didn’t draw me in right away, but it eventually won me over, hard. It’s an #OwnVoices story about Nadia, a queer Palestinian-Canadian woman who travels to Egypt in the late 1980s to track down her father whom she has not seen in years. She finds and gets to know him anew, but she also meets and falls in love with an Egyptian woman artist, Manal.
There’s a wonderful journey of Nadia reconnecting with her Palestinian heritage, as she meets many other Palestinians (taxi drivers, booksellers, a doctor) who don’t hesitate to accept her as Palestinian and reach out to connect. Nadia is humbled and rejuvenated. There is of course also her father, whom she slowly begins to see as a flawed adult human being, instead of only the father who has disappointed her.
The story is set mostly in Cairo, a complicated, contradictory character unto itself. The city really came alive: the beauty of the art, food, generosity of people, poverty, stink of animals and defecation in the street, chaotic traffic, all the details of everyday life. Manal is Nadia’s guide as well as for the reader, and she is a passionate, opinionated, and lively one. I loved her.
Beautiful writing; thoughtful, nuanced content about art, family, connecting with your heritage, Palestinian and Egyptian cultures and politics, Arabic language, and the generosity of strangers. Full review on my blog!
What were your favourite reads of 2020? Did you read any of the same ones as me? Let me know!