Strange, Unpredictable, Smart, and Lovable: A Review of Mariko Tamaki’s SAVING MONTGOMERY SOLE

saving-montgomery-soleAnd now, for my second review of a Mariko Tamaki book this year! In case you didn’t already know, I’m a huge fan of her work and how she always showcases queer and/or quirky weirdos in everything that she does. Her latest YA book Saving Montgomery Sole is, of course, no exception. It’s kind of strange, unpredictable, lovable, smart, and a bit hard to categorize. Actually, that’s probably an equally apt description of the main character Monty as of the novel itself.

Monty is a 16-year-old living in small-town California that’s surprisingly conservative, although maybe that’s just my naïve idea that everywhere in California is a bastion of queer friendliness. (Tamaki, who’s from Toronto, now lives in California last I checked, the same as the main character in this book). Things aren’t exactly the greatest for Monty: she’s peeved about the homophobic bullying her two moms and her gay friend Thomas have to put up with, she’s kinda obsessed with occult weirdo things which doesn’t exactly make her Ms. Popular, and lots of the people in her town are the kind of nuts that live for football games and eating non-fat frozen yoghurt. She’s totally righteously angry about hate and discrimination. To say Monty doesn’t fit in would be an understatement.

Cause she’s fascinated by everything unexplained and spooky in the world, Monty spends a lot of time online reading about stuff like telekinesis and spontaneous combustion. One day, while doing her regular surfing for the latest occult news, she stumbles upon a site selling a mysterious crystal amulet called the “Eye of Know.” Monty impulsively buys it. After it arrives and Monty starts to wear it around, though, weird stuff starts happening. Like, it’s almost as if it’s giving Monty some kind of power to get back at the bullies. A girl who was making fun of her moms has a horrible accident falling off the bleachers at a soccer game, for instance. Another bully falls over and has a seizure right in the middle of a confrontation when she touches the amulet.

The whole thing doesn’t make Monty feel cool and powerful though; in fact, she feels even more frustrated and alone. But she’s also still kind of hoping it’s gonna help her get even with the son of a famous televangelist preacher who’s just moved to town. Monty is convinced he (and his dad) are evil incarnate, just like all religion.

The strength is this book is really the characterization and the relationships. Monty’s far from likable sometimes and is right in the thick of teenage chip-on-your-shoulder angst. Thomas is a year older and a bit wiser: he has to tell Monty that sometimes, instead of raging over every little piece of homophobia she encounters, you kinda just have to role with the punches—otherwise, you’ll be swallowed. That’s his philosophy. Naoki, her new friend, eventually leads Monty to understand that she can’t keep assuming the worst of people and that being kind and giving people the benefit of the doubt is a good place to start.

I also love Monty’s talks with her parents, which are just so true to life. Tamaki is so so talented at teen dialogue / inner monologues. For example:

“What are you afraid is going to happen if someone is sad?” [her mom asks] They could leave, I thought. They could fold in on themselves and just disappear. They could not come out of the bedroom, ever. “Crappy things,” I said, finally.

It’s a brilliant translation of what teenagers think versus what they say. Here’s another great excerpt:

“So … screw you.” I said. I wanted to say it like a punch, but it came out kind of lame. Like an impulse buy at the checkout.


Mariko Tamaki, via

What I really love is that this is a great “issues” book for younger teens that doesn’t feel like an issues book at all. Over the course of the book Monty learns about some of the grey areas in things like homophobia, religion, sexism, and bullying, but she also doesn’t miraculously change tunes completely. Bonus, I found it hilarious every time Monty referenced something from my childhood—Home Alone, Back to the Future—as retro. She refers to Home Alone as “this relatively ancient movie [her sister] found on Netflix about this kid who gets left behind when his parents go away, because his parents are stupid and don’t know how to count their kids.” Ha ha!

Plenty of the reviews I’ve read mention that Monty’s voice sounds younger than 16, which I would have agreed with at first but I changed my mind. I think it’s good to remember that all kids age differently and that sometimes teens act younger than we might expect, or that they might combine things we associate with older and younger kids. Monty in the end was totally believable to me as a 16-year-old, with a totally believable mix of immaturity and teenage wisdom.

I think this is the first book I’ve ever read from the perspective of the kid of same-sex parents. We need more! This would be an AMAZING read for kids with queer parents. In fact, I’d highly recommend it for any reader about ages 12-16.

Posted in Asian, Fiction, Gay, Lesbian, Queer, Young Adult | 6 Comments

A Quiet Journey of Looking for Respect and Recognition: A Review of M-E Girard’s GIRL MANS UP

girl-mans-upDespite the plethora of queer YA these days, there was something that I didn’t even quite realize that was mostly missing in contemporary LGBTQ+ YA, let alone Canadian LGBTQ+ YA: stories about butch/genderqueer lesbians and their gender journeys. Girl Mans Up, by M-E Girard, delivers exactly that. In that way, it’s a new and necessary story, especially for a big publisher (HarperCollins) to be putting out in the height of fall book publishing frenzy. (The book officially came out September 6th). It’s exciting to see one of the big five publish this book—and by a Canadian author and set in Canada no less!

Girl Mans Up is nothing but very real. Carefully and authentically, Girard is completely honest about all her characters’ ugly messiness and the intricacies of the sometimes shitty, dog-eat-dog world of high school. Girard nails the teenage perspective of main character Pen, even all of her flaws, limited knowledge, and bad decisions. This book really feels like it’s written by someone who intimately knows today’s teens. If you’re looking for a superheroine who always does the right thing and astutely assesses everything around her, Pen is not your protagonist. But if you’re looking for an achingly real young queer person trying to figure out how to be herself and interact meaningfully and respectfully with those around her—with plenty of mishaps on the way— Girl Mans Up is for you.

Pen—short for Penelope—is a 16-year-old second-generation Portuguese teen living in Toronto (or maybe outside of Toronto? I can’t remember exactly) and going to St. Peter’s Catholic High. Here’s how she introduces herself in the opening of the novel: “There are four of us dudes sitting here right now, and I kick all of their butts when it comes to video games—and I’m not even a dude in the first place.” That’s Pen, just being the video-game-loving, one-of-the-guys-but-not, easy-going person that she is. Her problem, as she sees it, is that people are always making such a big deal about her being “different”—i.e., wearing her older brother’s clothes, wanting her hair short, and having known forever that she likes girls. As she puts it:

I don’t feel wrong inside myself. I don’t feel like I’m someone I shouldn’t be. Only other people make me feel like there’s something wrong with me.

That’s the interesting journey of the novel: it’s not that Pen doesn’t know who she is at the beginning. She does. What she works toward over the course of the book is demanding recognition and respect from everyone else around her for who she is, cutting out people who won’t, and making new connections with people who will. It’s a quiet journey, without the fanfare of other YA. It was really cool to see Pen develop a healthy romantic and sexual relationship with a kick-ass girl named Blake but for relationship drama to be notably absent. Here’s Pen trying to figure out how to communicate who she is to Blake:

I don’t want to be her girlfriend, though. But there’s this part of me that totally knows I could be her boyfriend. I don’t want her to think of me as a boy, or a boy substitute, though. I want to be a boyfriend who is a girl. I have no idea how to explain that stuff to anyone, let alone a girl I like. I just wish it was already understood.


M-E Girard, via her website

Given the quiet, internal nature of the storyline, characterization is important; luckily, Girard does a great job for the most part, especially with Pen. Unfortunately even in 2016 it feels revolutionary to have a protagonist who is a sometimes unlikable teen girl who fucks up multiple times and is not always nice. Olivia, a new friend Pen makes, is also a smartly done, real, fleshed out character going through an accidental pregnancy and abortion. Pen’s brother Johnny, too, is a stand-out character who isn’t perfect, but is always there to support his sister; he’s the only person who really sees Pen for who she is from the very beginning of the book. Then of course there’s Blake, who’s perhaps a little too perfect, with her smart-ass comments, sexy black eye make-up, and video game prowess. But the book is from Pen’s perspective, so it makes sense that Blake is painted from the rose-coloured view of first love.

In contrast, Pen’s parents are depicted as pretty one-dimensionally terrible: they literally begin to sound like a broken record as the book goes on, repeating the exact same comments about Pen’s clothes making her look like a “druggy punk” nearly every time they interact with her. They’re like a brick wall in every conversation with Pen, insisting she’s never going to get a husband and a nursing job if she keeps acting and dressing the way she is; it’s like nothing she communicates even registers. They’re very stereotypical traditional first generation immigrants. Like the rosy portrayal of Blake, this cartoony villain picture kind of makes sense since it’s only Pen’s perspective that we have. But I did feel like it would have made the book stronger if her parents, especially her mom, had been more humanized.

Oddly enough, the character I hated more than Pen’s parents—her best friend Colby—is actually more three-dimensional, which isn’t to say he isn’t a total dickwad. He’s like the embodiment of toxic masculinity that Pen, unfortunately, sometimes emulates. He’s the kind of dude who manipulates Pen into helping him get girls to go out with so he can treat them like crap—including things like not supporting girls who get pregnant after sleeping with him—and dump them when he quickly loses interest. Also, trigger warning for sexual assault perpetrated by Colby against Pen—even though she doesn’t have the tools to interpret it that way and continues her friendship with him for a while afterwards.

Girl Mans Up is a subtle book that resists flashy portrayals of instant change brought on by dramatic events and instead focuses on how Pen slowly but surely asserts her place in the world and her right to respect. I think given the speed and the lack of so-called action in the novel, it could have been trimmed down a bit—it does run 375 pages; I’m surprised editors didn’t cull it more, but I also read an ARC, so that may have changed before the final edition. For me, the narrative dragged a bit about three-quarters of the way through and began to feel repetitive, even to the level of characters’ dialogue: Pen used “douche” and “pussy” as insults more times than I could count, Blake constantly expressed her enthusiasm by saying “that wins everything,” and Pen’s mom accused her of looking like a “druggy punk” over and over.

My perspective is, of course, that of an adult, and I feel like even if I didn’t viscerally love Girl Mans Up like I have other queer YA, I think its appeal to teens is really high. Likely the things that bothered me wouldn’t nag teens much. I’m very happy Girl Mans Up is in the world and I’m excited to see what future stuff M-E Girard writes!

Posted in Butch, Lesbian, Young Adult | 3 Comments

A Special Lesbrarian Request: Canadian YA with Gay Boys

Welcome to a special gay boy version of my queer book advice column! In case you haven’t noticed, Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian has officially found a new home at Autostraddle, which I couldn’t be more thrilled about. My first post there is responding to a reader’s request for books with sexy student/professor or May/December lesbian romances. Check it out for recommendations for eight amazing books, including ones by Emma Donoghue, Mariko Tamaki, and classics like The Price of Salt and Desert of the Heart.

I got the question below a little while ago and couldn’t resist answering it, even though it doesn’t fit on Autostraddle, being a website for LGBTQ2IA+ women. This is a special, one-time only deal here on my website! Have a look and see what this gay teen is looking for:


Hello Casey,

My name is William and I am currently in my final year of high school (Grade 13, victory lap whichever you prefer) And I am re-taking English in order to get a better grade. One of the assignments -the ISP actually- is to read a book written by a Canadian author. Last year I read Water For Elephants (2/10) but I’d rather not read it again…. Ever….

Now I, being a gay teenage boy love LGBTQ literature, finding it more interesting and relatable. However, I’m having a hard time finding anything that fits this category and actually is worth reading which is the pretext upon which I am emailing you today. I was hoping you knew of a book that would work well for my assignment and would actually be a good read (something that I would actually want to read instead of just looking up sparks notes haha)

This is where you come in! That is if you aren’t too busy with your own life and I’m not coming off as a rude insolent child…. Anyway, I was hoping you knew of a book or two that you think would be perfect which you could recommend.

I’m hoping for something with a bit of gay romance maybe supernatural elements. Something that would be good to pick apart not bland and two-dimensional. I know I’m probably asking too much and wasting your time but I would really appreciate the help if you could🙂



Hi Will,

Thanks so much for the question! I am super pumped to find some books that you’ll actually want to read. I too remember being forced to read some stuff in high school English that I found frightfully dull, and I ended up majoring in English and becoming a librarian, so that really says something. In case you don’t already know about it, I have to recommend the majestic Gay YA website, which has master lists of YA books sorted by identity (ace/aro, bi, gay, intersex, lesbian, trans). It’s truly an incredible resource and you should check it out! They have great reviews there and themed lists. Unfortunately they don’t have books that are marked as Canadian, but don’t worry, I found some! Here are some recommendations for YA books by Canadian authors with gay romance and/or characters and enough meat to be able to do a bit of English lit analysis. I’m sorry to say I couldn’t find any with paranormal themes, but I’m pretty sure you’ll find a book or two to love in this list:

fruitFruit by Brian Francis technically doesn’t have any romance, but it’s a fricking adorable, amazing novel about a young queer boy (or maybe someone who comes out as a trans girl later?). The voice of 13-year-old Peter is incredibly well done: cute and innocent, while being sarcastic and droll at the same time. He starts off the book like this: “My name is Peter Paddington. I just started grade 8 at Clarkedale Elementary School. Six days a week, I deliver the Sarnia Observer and the other day my nipples popped out.” Despite what you might imagine, Fruit is not a typical coming of gayge novel, which is something that I really appreciated about it. He is, after all, only thirteen. The novel deals with fatphobia and has a cast of eccentric, authentic supporting characters like Peter’s terrified driver mom (she never goes anywhere she has to make a left turn) and his funny Italian Catholic friend whose church is “always open, like 7-11.” Oh yeah, also: his nipples talk.

way-to-go-tom-ryanWay to Go by Tom Ryan is set in Cape Breton, NS in the 90s, where 17-year-old Danny is trying to get his shit figured out. The summer before his grade 12 year, a run-in with the cops means he has to get a summer job, something he is definitely not psyched about. To top it all off, his dad won’t stop nagging him about what he’s gonna do after high school and his friends are all wondering why he doesn’t have a girlfriend. Of course, he doesn’t have a girlfriend because he’s gay and he kinda knows it but isn’t ready to tell anyone yet. Over the course of the summer, Danny is gonna figure out who he is and what he wants to do with himself. This is sort of an historical novel (I mean for you Will, in 2016!) so the details about that time and place might be some interesting things to write about for class. Why did the author set the novel in the past, and in a rural place?

money-boy-paul-yeeMoney Boy by Paul Yee is a definitely heavier than the first two books on this list, but on the other hand that means there are lots of issues to discuss in it! It’s about a guy named Ray, who’s a first generation immigrant to Canada from China. Ray knows he should feel lucky: he lives in a suburb of Toronto in a big house with all the latest gadgets and plenty of time for gaming. He’s struggling a bit at school, still feeling like a fish out of water and working on his English, but things get really bad when his dad finds out he’s been cruising gay websites. He gets kicked out and heads for downtown Toronto, where he encounters homelessness, theft, and prostitution. Is Ray gonna have to acclimatize to the harsh realities of the streets, or can he find a way to heal his family relationships?

swimming-in-the-monsoon-seaSwimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai is a novel set in the 80s in Shyam Selvadurai’s native Sri Lanka (he now lives in Canada). In essence, it’s about a gay teen guy’s sexual awakening. The setting is a richly described Sri Lanka; in particular, all the natural wonders like the monsoon storms. Swimming in the Monsoon Sea especially focuses on first love, as the main character Amrith finds himself, along with many local girls, enchanted with his visiting Canadian cousin. A sub-plot involves a school play of Othello so that might be an interesting point of analysis for you. Jealousy is a major theme of Othello and it also rears its ugly head in Amrith’s story. There is some beautiful writing in this book, and it might also be a good pick for a school assignment since it was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature in 2005.

dirt-chronicles-kristyn-dunnionThe Dirt Chronicles by Kristyn Dunnion is actually a collection of short stories, not a novel, which gives it the ability to cover lots of different ground (although the stories begin to be interrelated later in the book). Here’s a snapshot of some of the characters in the stories: anarchist punks, dumpster-diving freegans, a First Nations lesbian teen, middle-aged not-so-straight guys, trans sex workers, and activist-squatters living in abandoned buildings. There is no shortage of interesting issues tackled in this book. Most of the people in the stories are outsiders, people that have had to grow tough skin to survive, but Dunnion always finds the vulnerable and tender stuff underneath. There are some really sweet romantic moments between guys in the first four stories, despite the fact that the collection has a dark tone overall. There’s even a gay trans guy in one of them, which is rare to find!

another-kind-of-countryAnother Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby, just like all her books, is infused with the author’s characteristic wittiness (you may have heard of the Alice, I Think books which are by the same author). It stars Alex, a teen growing up on Vancouver Island who just wishes everyone would get that he wants to be a gay cowboy. After all, the guys in Brokeback Mountain did it, right? He’s especially interesting in the “girlier” performance of dressage riding. When he meets the self-absorbed posh Cleo at a unique opportunity to try out dressage, they begin a tentative friendship. But when she starts partying all the time and forgets about her horse, and Alex’s secret—that he’s gay—threatens to come out before he’s ready to tell it, that might mean doom for the both of them, and their friendship. This book is full of cool details about dressage (I had to look up what it was actually!) which might make an interesting essay topic.

cinnamon-toast-end-of-worldCinnamon Toast and the End of the World by Janet E. Cameron has probably the coolest title of all the books on this list. Like Tom Ryan’s book, it’s set in small-town Nova Scotia. And the end of the world—although it might not look like that from the outside—happens to Stephen Shulevitz while he’s sitting in his own living room watching TV with his (guy) best friend. His life will never be the same: he suddenly realizes he’s fallen in love with exactly the wrong person—his BFF, of course. Stephen’s a great complex character, and the supporting cast is full of multifaceted personalities, like his distant, pot-smoking dad and his overbearing, dependent mother. How is Stephen gonna cope with the end of the world? Should he leave town and hopefully his problems behind? Or should he stick around, and face the end of the world head on?

Posted in Asian, ask your friendly neighbourhood lesbrarian, Gay, Kristyn Dunnion, South Asian, Young Adult | 5 Comments

My Favourite Bi+ Books of 2016 (So Far)

Happy #BiVisibilityDay! Yeah, yeah, 2016 isn’t over yet but I’m pretty sure these books are still gonna be some of my favourites at the end of the year. These book are all either written by bi/pan authors and/or have bi/pan main characters. Tell me about any bi+ books you’ve read this year and loved in the comments!

not-my-fathers-sonNot My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
I just finished listening to the audiobook version of this memoir, read by the author. The narrating was just as amazing as I’d expected, given that Cumming is a seasoned actor AND has a Scottish accent. What more could you ask for from a narrator, really? It’s a fascinating and sometimes brutal book about Cumming’s relationship with his abusive father and how being asked to appear on a celebrity genealogy show opened up more than one can of worms in his family history. Throughout it’s lovely to hear a bisexual person talk about his life (his ex-wife, his current husband) as if it’s just all normal and no big deal. He even refers to himself using the “b word.” Swoon!

All-Inclusive-high-resAll Inclusive by Farzana Doctor
This is a character-driven novel about Ameera, a woman in her late twenties who’s been living in Mexico and working in the tourist / travel industry for years. Since Ameera arrived, she’s discovered she’s bisexual and enjoys having sex with (mostly man-woman, but sometimes woman-woman) couples, many of whom identify as swingers. She’s from Hamilton, ON and was raised by a single (white) mother, having had an absent (Indian) father. All the good things in her life aside, she is totally lost. It’s such a joy to watch her slowly reconnect with herself and her history as the novel progresses. It’s also remarkable to watch Doctor tackle issues like all-inclusive resorts, bisexuality, swinging and polyamory, spirituality, death, and terrorism, somehow making it all work in the same book.

bushra-rehman-coronaCorona by Bushra Rehman
Corona—referencing the neighbourhood in Queens, NY, not the Mexican beer—is a “novel” that to me feels more like a collection of inter-related short stories about Razia, a young bisexual Pakistani-American Muslim woman, at different stages in her life. It’s beautifully written, for one thing: “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.” There’s a great sense of place, character, and emotion in the book, and damn is it also really funny sometimes, even amidst sadness.

longredhairLong Red Hair by Meags Fitzgerald
A graphic memoir about growing up in the late 80s and 90s, Long Red Hair should incite lots of nostalgia for queer girls of that generation: it’s full of pop culture references of the time, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Meags is a kid interested in spooky stuff, so there are also sleepover games like Bloody Mary, séances, and dressing up as witches featured throughout. Coming out is another focus, and young Meags describes the process in perfect teenage agony: “I just want to be gay or straight. Being bisexual is way too confusing … If I’m bi that means I don’t have a soulmate and I’ll never be satisfied loving just one person for the rest of my life. It’d be like … a curse.” The memoir is also a meditation on relationships and the potentials of celibacy. Bonus!: the sepia-toned art is gorgeous.

Posted in Bisexual, Farzana Doctor, Fiction, Graphic, memoir, Non-Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 7 Comments

A Short Little Book of Weirdo Hilarity: A Review of Mariko Tamaki’s TRUE LIES

true liesHumour—what exactly each person finds funny—is such a personal thing. I mean, it’s about as personal as what turns you on and what kind of erotica/porn you like. So reviewing True Lies: The Book of Bad Advice, Mariko Tamaki’s collection of funny essays/stories-that-are-true-but-kind-of-not-true, and telling you which ones I thought were funny feels a bit weird. I mean, how am I to know what I think is funny is what anyone else would find funny?

So let me tell you all about this odd little book of writing that doesn’t quite know what it is. It reads very much like a comedy set, actually; you can just picture Mariko Tamaki standing up on a stage with a mic walking around telling you hilarious embellished stories about her life. (A lot of these stories were performed on various stages in Toronto, in fact). Reading this book is like sitting down for coffee with your really funny friend, and having to ask them when they’re finished, “No, but really. Did it really happen like that?”

Tamaki warns in the introduction: “I have no problem admitting that I am a liar at heart. It’s true. I am.” She then goes on to “compare lies to pearls: they look better strung together in a set.” Of course, when you’re reading the stories, you have no idea where the truth ends and the lies begin. But does it really matter?

Giving too much detail about the stories would ruin the punchlines, but let me select some choice titles to give you an idea of what’s in store here: “Reasons to Give a Blow Job,” “Cats Are Not People,” “Sometimes Psychics Let You Down,” and “The Epil-Lady vs. The Hairy Asian.” Those titles pretty much tell you everything you need to know. Can you imagine someone not inviting you to their orgy because you’re too hairy, especially for an Asian? How rude. There’s also a great fat- and body-positive story called “Angry Naked Women.”

Some of the most hilarious stories, however, have seemingly innocuous titles. “A Tawdry Dukes of Hazard” involves an unfortunate childhood misunderstanding of the word “molester.” There’s also an unfortunate misspelling of tights in this story, where a young Mariko needing a jazz dance uniform leaves a note for her parents indicating “Must have black tits by tomorrow.”

“Within Reason” provides an amusing list of reasons you may not be getting laid that have nothing to do with “greater forces” like astrology. Such reasons include your friends being too good-looking, everyone thinking you’re sleeping with your BFF, being a fag hag, and being a bad kisser and/or a bad dancer.Don’t worry there are elaborations on these reasons in case you’re thinking of protesting.


Mariko Tamaki / via

In “An Open Love Letter to the Homos,” Tamaki tells us: “A lot of people think that the reason I love homosexuals is because I myself am gay. I seriously doubt this. There are a lot of people who are gay and don’t even like homosexuals, including themselves. It’s called QUEER LOATHING, and there are lots of movies about it. Chances are if you’ve ever seen a queer movie, unless it was a dirty porno, it was a queer loathing movie.” Ah, so sad and so funny and so true.

If you’re familiar with Tamaki’s other YA work like (You) Set Me on Fire, you’ll find a similar brand of dark humour in True Lies; it’s edgier and darker than some of her later work though, especially her most recent book Saving Montgomery Sole. And, of course, there’s all the grown-up stuff in True Lies that would never make it into a YA novel. While it’s not the most even of story collections—some I just, gasp, didn’t find funny—this short little book is well worth your time for the genuine hilarity that some of the weirdo tales provide.

Posted in Asian, Fiction, Lesbian, Mariko Tamaki, Toronto | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Something Old, Something New, Makes Something Blue: A Review of Lise MacTague’s DEPTHS OF BLUE

depths of blueDepths of Blue by Lise MacTague (book one in the Deception’s Edge series) belongs to a few genres I don’t normally read: military science fiction, and romance. So I honestly wasn’t quite sure how much I would like this novel when I picked it up having been generously sent it by the Winnipeg-born, US-residing author (whose other talents as described in her bio, I might add, include being a librarian and hockey player). I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Depths of Blue: while it never did anything totally unexpected, I rather enjoyed going along on its smooth, well-trod road full of tropes like: mistaken identities, space opera-ish drama, mounting sexual tension, women passing as men in the army, big patriarchal bad guys, and that-thin-line-between-love-and-hate. Oh, and some pretty steamy sex scenes.

So here’s the set-up: outer space, way far in the future after humans have colonized other planets—although some of the societies look eerily like versions of Trump’s America. Jak Stowell is from one of these worlds, although from the more progressive half which has been at civil war with the really really bad patriarchal dudes for decades. She’s a soldier in her country’s army, a sniper. No one, now that her brother is dead, knows she’s a woman. His death has given her a war within a war to fight: she’s determined to find her brother’s killer in enemy ranks and bring him to justice. She’s stoic, rational, and used to keeping all her emotions and true thoughts under wraps; she hasn’t let anyone get close for ages.

Torrin Ivanov is pretty much her opposite (of course, we’re setting up for the opposites-attract romance here). She’s a bad-ass, motorcycle-riding, outspoken, openly lesbian illegal arms dealer who flies from galaxy to galaxy negotiating and selling her way to the big bucks. Morals aren’t exactly a priority for her. In fact, when she and Jak cross paths, Torrin had gotten herself into a dilly of pickle after having intended to sell weapons to the creepy rapist dude bros Jak’s army is fighting [definite trigger warning in some early sections for strong allusions to rape]. Jak’s mission had been to kill the arms dealer, but no one had told her—or even realized—that this dealer was a woman. Jak can’t bring herself to do it.

lise mactague

Lise MacTague, via

Ah, so we have the old “assassin-falls-in-love-with-the-person-they-were-supposed-to-kill.” It’s classic, but it’s also a lot of fun. The main tension of the romance, of course, is that Torrin is a lesbian and Jak is a woman disguised as a man, but neither of them are aware of this. Torrin is feeling oddly attracted to Jak but very puzzled as to why she likes this apparently male person. Jak is totally falling for Torrin but thinking that there is no way Torrin could ever love her when she finds out Jak is not a man.

For the most part I really enjoyed the layers of the romance element in Depths of Blue and had lots of fun reading those parts. I do think, however, it would have been more plausible if Torrin had been bi instead of gay. I mean, if Jak passes as a man, it doesn’t really make sense to me that Torrin would be attracted to her, unless you believe in some kind of gender essentialism where you can just “feel” what someone’s true gender identity is even though they’re trying to hide it. Admittedly, this is also my own bisexual agenda. But why not, I say?

This book does a fine job of balancing the romance and military action as Torrin and Jak make their way back to Jak’s side of the civil war and figure out how the hell they’re going to recover Torrin’s ship—trapped within enemy lines—so she can get off the planet. Oh yeah, and somewhere along the way they figure out they’re head over heels for each other.  It’s fun, it’s escapist, it’s got some well-done sexy times: what more could you ask for? Depths of Blue does a great job pulling together lots of tropes you might have seen or read before and creating something new enough, but still plenty familiar.

If I could change one thing, I would have liked to see the SF setting play more of a role in the plot of the book; there are some cool details about Jak’s planet, where a lot of the plant life is blue and there are these super cool giant blue trees (hence the title), but otherwise the romance and military plots could have taken place in any 20th century war on Earth. Unfortunately, even the horrible fascist misogynists would fit right into our not-so-distant history.

Being the first book in a trilogy, Depths of Blue of course ends on a cliff-hanger, with Torrin and Jak not sure if their love or their lives are gonna make it. Maybe we’ll see more world-building-related action in the second book as they fly off into space. I can’t wait to read it!


Posted in Caribbean, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Romance, Science Fiction | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

“Unspoken, the questions were like childhood garments stored carefully for decades within a satin-lined trunk”: A Review of ALL INCLUSIVE by Farzana Doctor

All-Inclusive-high-resToronto-based, Lambda-award-winning novelist Farzana Doctor’s latest book All Inclusive is nothing short of extraordinary. As always with Doctor’s novels (this is her third), there’s her trademark sharp insight into the human psyche and this gentle, calming, empathetic lens as she explores her characters. You can see how she is also a social worker who practices psychotherapy. But her latest book is what I’ve come to expect from her and more. As cliché as this might sound, I’ve really never read anything like All Inclusive before. It manages to take so many different themes and kinds of people, throwing them together to make this kind of magical, delicious soup of a story when you imagined it would turn into some inedible slop. Here are some of the ingredients:

Ameera is our main character. (Or is she really? That’s a bit debatable). At any rate, she’s our first focus in the novel and she’s a woman in her late twenties who’s been working in the tourist / travel industry for years and is coming up to the end of a contract working at an all-inclusive in Mexico. Her life there is far from the expectations of paradise that the entitled visitors, who she has to work with every day, have created.  Since Ameera arrived, she’s discovered she’s bisexual and enjoys having sex with (mostly man-woman) couples, many of whom identify as swingers. She’s from Hamilton, ON and was raised by a single (white) mother, having had an absent (Indian) father. So she has the brown skin of her fellow Indo-Canadians but doesn’t really have much of a connection to that culture. If I had to pick one word to describe Ameera, it would be: lost.

But just when you’re settling into her story, maybe feeling a bit scandalized by the mention on the second page of Ameera sleeping with a bodybuilder couple, the perspective of the novel shifts, and we get someone named Azeez, but back in 1985 instead of Ameera’s 2015. If you’ve read the back of the book, you guess immediately that Azeez is Ameera’s father and you know that he’s never been a part of her life. But you’ll probably never guess what his story is, and why he disappeared. Be forewarned: spoilers abound after this point (although in my opinion, they’re not that crucial, as they are revealed fairly early on).

Again, just as you’ve settled in to the alternating perspectives of Ameera and Azeez, wondering how one day they will finally meet, Doctor pulls the rug out from under you: Azeez was one of the 329 victims of the Air India bombing on June 23, 1985. Ameera will never know her father because he died before he even knew he was going to be one. Or will she?

I admit, after Azeez died, I thought, how is Doctor going to continue the book now? Without skipping a beat, as it turns out. As a spirit, Azeez resumes telling his story, which is far from over. This is one of the many unexpected, fascinating turns that the novel takes. If you were expecting a sexy beach read full of threesomes, well, you’ll get that, but it’s not all you’re going to get. Because of Azeez’s story, All Inclusive also becomes a deeply spiritual story that asks (and answers) some difficult, basic questions: what happens to us after we die? What effect do our ancestors and deceased loved ones have on us? How do we remember and honour all of those people who died? Can we communicate with people who have passed away?

photo of Farzana Doctor

Farzana Doctor, via

In addition to spirituality, All Inclusive also has a lot to say about sexuality. I really loved how Doctor wrote about sexual exploration and sexual identity in this book. In this really amazing interview with Shelagh Rogers, she says that one of her motivations for the story was that she wanted to write about people from communities who are on the margins and less understood and break stereotypes about them. She also talks about sex-negativity and slut-shaming in our society, about how so many of us think and worry about sex all the time but are not actually that comfortable talking about it. You feel those motivations running through her writing about Ameera’s sexuality. The sex scenes are sexy and liberating, but also sometimes messy and awkward. If you’re not non-monogamous or don’t know much about non-monogamy, you might find yourself a little challenged.

Ameera’s sexual journey and exploration are portrayed as vital aspects of her, but not the only interesting or important parts about her as a person. She’s not a sex-crazed, duplicitous person even though she’s bisexual and non-monogamous, two groups often accused of both. And the swingers she dates are also shown to be all sorts of different people: one or two turn out to be jerks, but most are these interesting, flawed, kind people. I imagine that for some readers, this is one of, or perhaps the only, book that reflects their sexual identity and exploration of their desires without condemning or vilifying them. Doctor is also keenly aware that Ameera’s sexual exploration is an essential part of her growth as a person, figuring out what her needs, wants, and boundaries are in all areas of her life.

If someone had told me, hey, this new book All Inclusive is a critical look at all-inclusive resorts, bisexuality, swinging and polyamory, spirituality, death, and terrorism, I probably would have said, are you kidding? That sounds like a disaster. If someone had told me that same book was a vehicle to remember the Air India bombing as a Canadian tragedy, resisting the racism that resulted in the people who died not being considered “truly” Canadian because they had Indian background, I probably would have just not believed them.

How is it that Doctor has managed to take all these disparate themes and create a truly engaging, affecting novel that is also smart, sexy, and funny? I don’t know, but you should pick up the book to experience it for yourself.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Farzana Doctor, Fiction, Queer, South Asian | Tagged , , | 16 Comments