Dyke Drama, Bisexual Polyamory, and Queer Softball in Leigh Matthews’s Modern-Day Lesbian Pulp Novel GO DEEP

go deepMaybe people who live in cities like New York or L.A. get to read books and watch TV shows and movies that actually feel like they represent the places where they live, and all the different kinds of places one city can be to the diverse groups of people who live there. But as a Vancouverite, I’ve never read anything like Leigh Matthews’s All Out Vancouver series, a modern-day take on the lesbian pulp genre investigating the lives and loves of a diverse group of queer folks, mostly in East Vancouver. It’s such a treat to read a book that feels like an authentic representation of the Vancouver I know, describing pubs, parks, music venues, intersections, streets, and, most of all, people that I recognize.

The second book in the series, Go Deep, was just released earlier this month (the author is a friend, so I got a copy right when it came out!). If you haven’t read the first one, you must! And you should probably not read this review because there will be spoilers for the first book, which I review here.

Go Deep picks up right where we left off: Kate is living in Amsterdam with Cass, who continues to be sexy and funny and hot but also plagued by a perpetual Peter Pan syndrome. To go with the running softball metaphors in this book, can Cass step up to the plate and be a real grown-up in a real grown-up relationship, or is she going to let Kate down? What makes matters worse is that Kate has to suddenly return to Vancouver, leaving Cass alone in a foreign city. Can Kate trust Cass not to go all self-fulfilling prophecy and do something reckless, ruining their relationship while she’s gone?

When Kate gets back to Vancouver, you’re (re)introduced to a bunch of your favourite queers from the first book, plus you get a meet a few more! Em, your favourite bisexual, is still dating Steve and Hanna, and they’re officially, as they affectionately say, a trifecta.

This is kind of an aside, but reading about a triad—a ‘couple’ made of three people—as a monogamous person honestly kind of puzzled me, made me feel like I’m not sure I understand this! Part of it I guess is that I’m also bi and it’s happened a few times that people have assumed I’m poly, I think, because I’m bi and in a relationship with a guy, and I’m like, damn, do I have to be poly to show that I’m bisexual? But that’s clearly my own shit that I’m projecting. Anyway, while I was sitting there thinking that I could not fathom having two partners, let alone two partners who are also involved with each other, I had this revelation: oh my god, is this what uninformed straight people think when they read about queer people for the first time? That was pretty telling! So I’m glad that I got a little glimpse into what was a totally new world to me by reading about Em, Steve, and Hanna. If you don’t know much about polyamory or triads and/or don’t know anyone who is poly, this wildly entertaining book will also be educational for you!

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Leigh Matthews, via goodreads.com

But not to harp too much on education, because, like its lesbian pulp foremothers, Go Deep is all about queer drama. What I love about this series is how it fulfills that desire for a lighter, beachier kind of read, but is also smart, well-written, and full of characters who are never caricatures. Back in Vancouver, Matthews runs her characters through all manner of excitement and commotion. Women are dumped, new relationships are formed, people end up in the hospital, and softballs games are lost and won. There’s a new minor character named Afra who’s genderqueer and who I hope shows up more in future books! Kate’s ex Janice is still around too, and in typical queer women fashion, becomes entangled in a web of dating, relationships, and hook-ups that eventually all lead back to the new flirtatious queer in town, Scout.

Strangely enough, Scout is a dead-ringer for Cass, down to the softball playing, masculine of centre gender presentation, and lady killing. In fact, ex-lovers of Cass’s have literally been confusing Scout with Cass! What is going on? Who is Scout? Who’s going to end up with who? And most importantly, when is Em’s cat Thunderpuss going to get the screen time he deserves?

Of course, you’re going to have to pick up a copy of this delightful, funny, page-turning novel yourself to find out! You can buy copies online on CreateSpace and Amazon.

Posted in Bisexual, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Vancouver | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“But how I suddenly loved the question”: Looking for Answers about Love, Spirituality, and Family in Sigal Samuel’s THE MYSTICS OF MILE END

Mystics-of-Mile-End-webcoverThe Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel is, above all, an amazing book, such a sure-footed, beautifully written novel that it’s hard to believe it’s her first. It’s one of those books that was so good I’m not quite sure where to begin describing it. But, I’ve got to try. Here goes! [By the way, I’m going to keep hidden some of the details that are even on the back of the book, because in my opinion they are spoilers. So if you really want to get the full effect of this novel, I suggest NOT reading the back cover!]

At its core, The Mystics of Mile End is a story about a family. Lev and Samara Meyer live with their father David in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, a curious mix of Hasidic Jews (a branch of Orthodox Judaism) and young hipsters. Samuel lovingly and richly sets the scene of Montreal; you can feel the thick humid summer air, smell the coffee at funky neighbourhood coffee shops, and hear the Hasidic Jews call to each other in Yiddish and Hebrew as they walk in groups to and from synagogue.

David is a cynical professor of Jewish mysticism at McGill university, but has rejected the Orthodox faith in part because of his wife’s early death; as children both Lev and Samara have to hide their interest in Judaism and spirituality, Samara even keeping her preparations for her bat mitzvah—which is happening one year later than it should—a secret. Lev and Samara share a close bond, a comfortable intimacy that does not need to be spoken, which only makes their distant father feel more separate from them.

Despite David’s avowed disinterest in religious practice, however, his children begin to notice strange behaviour as he (and they) grow older that suggests his spiritual, in addition to his intellectual, interest in Jewish mysticism is returning. The concept David is becoming increasingly obsessed with is the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The Tree of Life—as I’ve learned from this novel—is a mystical symbol representing different stages of enlightenment: at the bottom is ani (“I,” associated with the ego or unified self) and at the top is ayin (“nothingness,” associated with the annihilation of the ego), with many layers in between. The study of the Tree of Life and the consequent urge to ascend the Tree are supposed to be restricted to scholars over the age of forty, because, as the neighbourhood’s wise teacher says, young people who have recognized the meaning of the Tree’s holy vision have been “consumed by fire.” In other words, they go crazy.

Eventually, Samara sets out on the same dangerous path as her father, to disastrous results, and it is up to her family and friends—including her girlfriend Jenny, Lev’s best friend Alex, and neighbour and Holocaust survivor Mr. Glassman—to save the Meyers and bridge the communication gaps that keep them apart and threaten to destroy their family.

sigal samuel

Sigal Samuel, via sigalsamuel.com

If The Mystics of Mile End sounds complex, that’s because it is. It’s a profoundly spiritual but also intellectual novel, the kind of book that is full of emotional truths that ring true. While you don’t have to know much about Judaism, Kabbalah, or the Tree of Life to enjoy this book—I certainly didn’t—Jewish readers and/or those with a special interest in spirituality and mysticism will certainly connect with The Mystics of Mile End. Even if you don’t think of yourself are a spiritual person or someone attracted to spirituality, though, this novel has a lot to offer about human relationships, family, grief, queer identity, and, as trite as it might sound, the meaning of life. Samuel wonderfully sketches out some the ugly and beautiful truths of life and the similarly ugly and beautiful things human beings say and do.

What I really loved about this book, in addition to its musing about the nature of our world and life itself, was how Samuel sketched such complex, fascinating, authentic characters that were allowed to be unlikable sometimes, allowed to be contradictory, allowed to be sympathetic despite everything. The novel passes over a decade of time, and through the minds of Lev, David, and Samara, taking on their first person perspectives before moving onto an omniscient standpoint from the point of view of the neighbourhood itself. Changing viewpoints like this is a challenge for veteran writers, but Samuel totally triumphs. Here’s an excerpt from 10-year-old Lev’s section, talking about his sister’s Torah reading from her bat mitzvah:

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

This is David, in the throws of spiritual revelation:

I had wanted an answer. But how I suddenly loved the question, black coffee and the smell of books, and a fine wine on a white table-cloth and the middle-of-the-night bicycle rides, and middle-of-the-way forays into old age, and the pale blue dot on Val’s left leg, whizzing away into infinity, and the new manuscript waiting to be written, and the old silences waiting to be spoken, and the girl attacking her copy of Zizek with a highlighter, and all of the trunk drawers full of jewelry and sadness, and the telephone ringing all day, and my children. My children. And Valérie saying, ‘You might as well stay, if you want to. I mean here, if you want to. You can.’

And finally, Samara, in love:

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

Whether what piques your interest is the earthly everyday details of Montreal, the transcendental possibilities of Kabbalah, or the eternal struggle to connect with your fellow humans, The Mystics of Mile End will not fail to enchant.

Posted in Lesbian, Queer, Montreal, Fiction, Jewish | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Taking Root: A Review of Amber Dawn’s Poetry Collection WHERE THE WORDS END AND MY BODY BEGINS

where words end and my body beginsHave you ever heard of something called a glosa poem? If you haven’t, you’re like me when I picked up Amber Dawn’s debut poetry collection Where the Words End and My Body Begins, which is comprised of these things called glosa poems. I admit, I was intrigued and surprised: I mean, you don’t read a lot of contemporary poets who are using strict forms, let alone archaic forms that even a former English major like me hasn’t heard of! This book of poems is a welcome change from the sea of free verse that you usually find written by today’s poets.

So what are glosas? It’s a pretty cool concept, an explicit acknowledgement of the intertextuality of all writing and poetry in particular. A glosa (or sometimes called gloss or glose) starts with a four-line quotation from another poem. The poet, then, incorporates these four lines into their own poem, but not all at once: the borrowed lines are used as the final line in ten-line stanzas of the new poem the poet is writing, losing their original context and becoming part of their new poem home. The idea is that the new poem is a ‘gloss on’ the content and theme of the original quotation. Apparently this form was popular in Spain in the 14th and 15th century, but has never enjoyed a lot of popularity with English-language poets, with Canada’s P.K. Page being a notable exception. In fact, as she writes in the introduction, Amber Dawn’s inspiration was P.K. Page’s book Hologram: A Book of Glosas.

If you’re at all familiar with 20th century queer, lesbian, feminist, and survivorship poetry (especially from Canada), you’ll recognize a lot of the poets Amber Dawn has chosen for her glosas: Trish Salah, Gertrude Stein, Rachel Rose, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, Leah Horlick, Sina Queyras, Jillian Christmas, Lydia Kwa, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarashinha, and more! I love the idea that Where the Words End and My Body Begins is an ode to being a reader and writer, and a conversation between women poets. Despite the fact that writing can be about as isolating as work can get, these glosa poems create a kind of community on the page.

Mood and theme-wise, these poems are all over the map: some are funny, some are sexy, some are sad, some are playing with words, some are about grief, some are about queer identity, some are about being a survivor, some are about sex work. All of them are stunning, playing with the form and breaking the rules sometimes, when it fits the poem.

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Amber Dawn, via amberdawnwrites.com

I especially loved how the poem “Story Book” reverses the original trajectory of the source material by Lucille Clifton: “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” The new poem, instead of moving from deceptively happy to dark as Clifton’s does, begins bleak and ends hopefully with “Good brightens the room, beaming blank page. / New story. New street. Enough new stars to share, may we all / come celebrate.”

Amber Dawn’s prowess in the form also really shines in “Chicken Dance,” which is glossing Gertrude Stein: “CHICKEN / Pheasant and chicken, chicken is a peculiar bird. / CHICKEN / Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.” Transforming Stein’s nonsensical play with language, Amber Dawn’s new poem spells out the word chicken over the four stanzas, playing with the sounds, punning and integrating the single letters into a poem about going into sex work.

Another powerful poem, one that is easy to love, is “Queer Infinity.” It’s a queerifesto of sorts and a testament to the power of queer art:

Queer grief is a blueprint. We got this shit wired tight.

Maybe we’ve become too good at losing? Are we trauma

bonded? I can’t speak for the whole, only myself

I’d sooner howl at a wounded moon, yes, I might

swoon at a questionable light

 

but at least I still swoon—my scabby kneecaps

may always weep pink, I’m so often floored.

I’ll never be a two-feet-on-the-ground girl. Let me guess

age didn’t temper your passion either? Your passion, like mine,

only became more strategic.

A totally different kind of poem called “A Group of Sluts Is Called What?” was another one of my favourites. It’s a perfect combination of fun language play, grammar nerdiness, and third-wave feminism:

a ‘recall’ of memories is what

remains do you remember when we all got bent?

a peep of chickens a clutch of chicks

A what? a ‘fluff’ of aging sluts

A what? a ‘muff’ of ex-lovers

all gathered on the same coast

the same city the same black-lit leather bar

the last homocile standing I’ll hold the ceiling up

with my spare hand my creampie is still grandiose

What I have stumbled upon has pleased me the most

Probably the most seamlessly and gracefully integrated glosa in the collection is “Queer Grace,” inspired by an excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-one Love Poems.” With a tongue-in-cheek attitude, the poem addresses young queer people, schooling them on their queer history and what has come before them:

Quiet, you whippersnappers. You were born in the eighties

And I must school you. Our foremamas and papas

didn’t have the luxury of safe assembly, much less

Facebook. Think Stonewall had a hashtag?

Allen Ginsberg just yelled, ‘Defend the fairies.’

#fuckingriot #dragbomb. Boom, queer speech

had to boom to be heard in real time.

Queer gait was a march. Queer hearth was our rage.

We shared the meager feast or starved. Potluck.

No one imagined us. We wanted to live like trees

 

or at least weeds. We wanted to take root

Well, what are you waiting for? Sit down a while, be quiet, and listen to Amber Dawn’s queer femme survivor poems, and all the woman poets before her, and let them take root in you. If you’re anything like me, they’ll make you want to write some poems of your own and participate in the conversation, which is probably one of the best things poetry can do.

Posted in Amber Dawn, Lesbian, Poetry, Queer, Vancouver | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Comic as Weird and Rad as It Sounds: A Review of RAT QUEENS, Volumes 1 and 2

rat-queens-vol-01-releasesRat Queens by Vancouver writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and American illustrators Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic is one of those comics that, when people try to describe it, ends up sounding like the most bizarre combination of the most disparate media you’ve ever heard of. It’s like Sex and the City meets Lord of the Rings? Dungeons and Dragons mixed with Girls? Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tank Girl but set in an timeless, kind of Medieval fantasy world?

To be honest, the strange pictures RatQueensV2_Coveryou’re probably getting in your head from trying to imagine how all that media could be mixed together in a comic are likely pretty accurate. Yes, Rat Queens is as weird as all those comparisons imply. But it’s also just as rad as you might guess, taking all the awesomeness of Buffy, LOTR, SITC, Tank Girl, Girls, and D & D respectively to concoct something new, like the best mash-up ever.

So, like Girls and SITC, Rat Queens features a cast of complex, flawed women, all kick-ass in their own way. You’ve got the leader Hannah, a pale elf with flashy spell-casting powers, a high level of sass, a rockabilly sense of style, a messed-up past, and a penchant for dating the wrong men. Then there’s Dee, a quiet, socially awkward atheist who comes from a family and culture that worship a giant squid god; she’s got witchy / priestess powers too, but more of the bookish type. Violet is a formerly-bearded dwarf who’s rebelled against her family’s traditions by leaving home and shaving her beard; she wields a giant sword skillfully wherever she goes. And then there’s Betty, the resident queer and comic relief: she’s a hobbit with blonde dreads who loves candy, being a sneaky sneaky thief, recreational drugs, and booze.

rat-queens

Can you tell me which one’s which?

Actually, it’s not just Betty who loves booze: it’s every Rat Queen. That, and their superior skills at kicking ass and killing bad guys is what brings these ladies together. So if you love books where interesting, fleshed-out women get together to use their skills to fight evil, that might be all you need to know to rush out and read this, if you haven’t already.

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But there are so many other things to love about this series: the fact that women’s diverse body types are highlighted, the gorgeous gorgeous art, dead-pan and dark humour, satire that at once is affectionate and critical of the fantasy tropes it’s drawing on, deliberate anachronisms, and a decent job featuring people of colour (although, I’d like to see more—Dee is the only Rat Queen who’s not white). The secondary characters are also extremely well done: a gentle, giant Orc named Dave who keeps bluebirds in his huge black beard; Sawyer, a studly and serious police chief (and POC!) with a weakness for Hannah; Betty’s hot kind-of girlfriend Faeyri who sports a classic lesbian haircut, a septum piercing, and a no nonsense attitude; and many more!

rat queens faeyri

Some warnings: Rat Queens might not be to your taste if you’re sensitive about gore, crassness, drinking to excess, drugs, and fantasy violence. Personally, although I don’t read comics especially for any of that stuff, the over-the-top excess of all of it felt really fitting to me, in a similar way that Buffy works so well despite/because of campiness. The humour reminds me a lot of Buffy actually, although in terms of vulgarity it’s more akin to Tank Girl.

Violetandorc_Dave

The plot—in both volumes one and two—is sometimes all over the place, but honestly that’s kind of not the point, and I was so in love with the characters, humour, and the setting that I just didn’t really care. One plot point I especially appreciated in volume 2 is that Hannah’s lover / ex / police chief / resident sexy guy Sawyer is the one who needs rescuing! Ha, it’s no surprise there are no damsels in distress to be found in Rat Queens, but it was pretty terrific that the strong tough guy needed to be saved by the Rat Queens.

Rat-Queens-pgs- hannah

If you feel like volume 1 is a little light on character history, volume 2 is chock full of it, so you can look forward to that! Probably my only complaint about volume 2 is that I still feel like Dee is more of an enigma than the other girls, even though there was a big multi-issue arc on her and her history. Not really sure why that is; maybe it’s just that she’s outshined by the other bigger personalities. That, and I sometimes wish there was more sex in this comic, maybe to balance out the violence? That said, the Rat Queens do talk about sex a lot and go after whoever they want, which is probably where the SITC comparisons come in.

rat queens morning after

The morning after their victory party; where volume 2 starts.

Volume 3 just came out a few weeks ago, and I can’t believe I haven’t picked it up yet! But, that means if you haven’t read this series yet, you have 3! volumes that you can binge read all in one day. That is a pretty exciting prospect.

Posted in Black, Canadian, comics, Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic, Queer | Tagged | Leave a comment

“The good thing about pen and words”: A Review of Shani Mootoo’s Poetry Collection THE PREDICAMENT OF OR

the predicament of orI count Shani Mootoo as one of Canada’s most gifted writers, her first novel Cereus Blooms at Night being one of the first queer books I read after coming out and still one of my favourite books of all time. So I was interested to learn a while back that she had published an early collection of poetry. If I remember correctly, actually, I found my copy of The Predicament of Or in the discount section of Little Sister’s, Vancouver’s queer bookstore. The poems in this collection are often about identity, desire, and place; about immigration and colonization; about feeling neither here nor there; about life’s small moments of beauty and revelation; about the words women and queer folks use to describe themselves.

Unfortunately I liked, but didn’t love, The Predicament of Or. Likely my expectations of this book were a little too high, given that it represents really early work of Mootoo’s. In fact, it seemed like as the collection went on and the poems got older I liked it less, which is probably a testament to Mootoo’s growth as an artist. So I’m gonna talk about some of the poems that I loved, which were the ones in the beginning of the book, and her most recent.

One of my favourites was the one of the first sets of poems in the book, actually. In a series called “Beach Compositions,” Mootoo attempts to capture the ephemeral beauty but also the harsh reality of, well, the beach—in stark contrast to the exoticization tourist industries make of beaches the world over. In the third “Beach Composition,” she writes:

There was a camera, too—

in my hand and loaded—

but I could not bring myself to use it

for fear of what I would make:

 

                realism

                a theory

                fiction

                iconography

 

                romancing the crumbling

 

The good thing about pen

and words:

 

                the plan to ensnare and remember

 

                is a true, a final,

                a most perfect forgetting.

The title poem of the first section was probably my favourite: “The Way You Bounce Off a Pane of Glass.” I’ll just show you it in its entirety and you can see what you make of it:

Mayaro Beach

facing east

 

you talk of futures

etch your name

in vain with mangrove quill

 

you claim name-length portions of sand

 

coconut tree come all the way,

you say,

from the western shores

of Africa

 

today is today, you say,

just as the sea crawls up the sand,

washes your name away

 

moments used to be few

and far apart

 

now they line up

a stream of dots, islands,

vivid as sunlight reflected in glass

Or maybe I change my mind, and this, the short, first part of a series of poems that give this collection its name was my favourite:

It is remarkable

                worth remarking

how I am with you

                how you are with me

There are a few breath-taking moments in this collection; I’ve highlighted which ones those were for me, but maybe those moments might be different for you, if you decide to pick up The Predicament of Or.

Posted in Canadian, Caribbean, Poetry, Postcolonial, Shani Mootoo, South Asian | Tagged , | 1 Comment

A Deliciously Dark YA Fantasy, Full of Surprises: A Review of Hiromi Goto’s HALF WORLD

half worldMelanie Tamaki is a lonely girl shunned by her peers: she loves books but she’s not very good at school, she has no special talents to speak of, she’s fat, and her single, alcoholic mother loves her but is neglectful at best. Her only friend is an eccentric old woman named Ms. Wei who runs a convenience store. She’s not exactly the kind of person you’d expect to be the heroine in a young adult fantasy novel. But, lo and behold, it is Melanie who is the star of Vancouver-based queer author Hiromi Goto’s Half World. And in addition to the unexpected protagonist, Half World has a lot of surprises for you.

Let’s back up a bit: Half World is set in Vancouver (with lovingly specific details of East Vancouver, by the way), where, one day, Melanie comes home from school and discovers that her mother is missing. As it turns out, her mother has not been taken somewhere unknown, but has been taken back to where she came from, a place called Half World. Melanie, of course, sets out to rescue her beloved mother on what turns into an epic quest that has significance not just for her small family, but for the entire universe.

Goto wisely begins the novel with a helpful prologue to introduce the concepts of the three worlds, or ”realms,” that the book is based on: the Realm of the Flesh, the Realm of the Spirit, and Half World. I’m certainly no expert on either, but the concepts Goto has taken to construct this intricate, fantastical world are clearly inspired by Japanese mythology and Buddhist thought, especially the perspective of needing to let go of earthly attachments before moving onto the spirit world. The idea is that in Melanie’s world, the traditional balance of the realms has been upset. Can Melanie put things right, things that have been wrong for centuries?

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Hiromi Goto, via prezi.com

 

One thing that surprised me was how dark this novel was: dark as in Melanie has to contemplate biting off her own pinkie finger as passage from one world to another. Yikes! So while this is written at a fairly low reading level, looking like it’s aimed at young teens, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. I found it disturbing at some parts, while just deliciously creepy at others. The villain, Mr. Glueskin, for example, gives you the heebie jeebies: teetering on the edge of in/sanity, he’s a literally spineless mush of glue-like substance in the shape of a human who love to torture and swallow his victims whole. Some of the people trapped in Half World, doomed to repeat their earthly mistakes, are doing things like committing suicide over and over and drinking themselves into such a stupor as to not recognize their own children.

On a lighter note, one pleasant surprise was that Ms. Wei, the elder and mentor to Melanie who helps her get into Half World, turns out to be a lesbian! And it’s totally not a big deal! When was the last time you read a book where the old wise kick-ass mentor was a Chinese-Canadian lesbian? Probably never. Ms. Wei also has some pretty sweet tricks up her sleeve to pass on to Melanie, including a talking rat necklace made of jade.

half world characterAnother thing I wasn’t expecting was the novel to be dotted with evocative illustrations by the amazing Jillian Tamaki (whose works with her cousin Mariko Tamaki Skim and This One Summer are rightfully famous). I mean, it says on the cover that there are illustrations, but it’s just that because Half World isn’t a graphic novel, every time a drawing appeared on the page it was a welcome interruption from the words. They’re pretty great, as the example on the left shows. That’s not Ms. Wei, but someone else that Melanie meets in Half World.

The only thing I didn’t like about Half World is I felt the plot lagged a bit in the middle; this isn’t particular to Goto’s book, as I’ve felt similarly with other fantasy quest novels when the characters are in the middle of the journey, but not much is actually happening—plot or character wise—and you’re just thinking, c’mon, get to the good stuff! I imagine it must be hard to sustain the momentum of fantasy quest novels but not rush the plot, although I don’t really know how hard, since I’ve never studied fiction from that perspective!

The last quarter of the book, however, really picked up to the edge-of-your-seat, oh-my-god-what’s-gonna-happen kind of tension, which is exactly what you want from a fantasy novel. Can Melanie save the world, literally? Can she save her mom? Will she make it out of Half World alive, with all her fingers intact? You’ll have to pick Half World (and its companion Darkest Light) to find out!

Posted in Asian, Fantasy, Fiction, Hiromi Goto, Vancouver, Young Adult | Leave a comment

A Feat of Queer, Feminist, Punk Dystopian YA: A Review of Kristyn Dunnion’s BIG BIG SKY

big big skyBig Big Sky by Toronto punk author Kristyn Dunnion is perhaps the strangest book I’ve ever read. But I mean strange in that’s it’s wonderfully weird in a way that makes your brain stretch a little bit in a direction it’s never gone before. It’s certainly not a novel that I would recommend to everyone, but for science fiction and dystopian fiction enthusiasts and for people who just want something a little bit different, it’s a fascinating, adventurous story exploring a dystopian future world through the eyes of five female warriors, who, despite being brainwashed to be killer assassins, are super compelling and complex. You become all the more attached to them because, unlike other young adult science fiction and fantasy I’ve read lately, the stakes are pretty high in this book: you are actually worried about the main characters dying.

It’s a challenging read right from the start, because Dunnion has created this totally bizarre futuristic slang, and the novel is written in this slang from the get-go.  After orienting yourself, however, the slang is a lot of fun, and really adds to the experience, mirroring some of the ways of thinking in the girls’ world. Like, the book starts like this:

Sometimes it’s harder to think to kill than pod might think. I crouch in the dark, staring into the manimal’s shining eyes. It blinks right at me. It shakes in fear. Its thrumping furred chest quickens my own pulse. It licks its full lips and I feel the send. Or do I? It’s not Loo, and it’s blaaty not me. The thing wave-sends a sonic roll of pure emo: terror, disbelief, and a wee glimmer of hope. … I freeze. ‘Blaaty whafa, Rustle?!’ It’s Loo, yelling and pushing me forward. ‘Be fit!’ she shouts, but there’s no use. … ‘She’s–,’ I start to say, but Loo interrupts. ‘It. It dies in the now. ScanMans’ orders.’ ‘It’s wary scary Pod-like, Loo.’ I say. ‘I can’t do it.’

Have no idea what’s going on? That’s okay, neither did I when I started reading this book. But you’ll eventually sink into the slang, as well as into the high stakes, edge-of-your-seat, innovative plot and world. You follow the five girls as they are free themselves from the repressive alien-controlled society they have been brought up in. Along the way, some of them die, some transition into a kind of post-human / human-animal hybrid species, one becomes a mother, some are captured and tortured, and some betray their “pod”—the warrior group to which they have sworn loyalty.

If the description so far sounds weird, well, this is a weird book like I said. You should be prepared for the likes of something you have never read before. There are, however, some themes that you’ll recognize: namely, female bonding and the idea that each girl can “kick ass” in her own way. Some of the outlandish pieces of plot, namely the bizarre transformation of two of the girls into human-animal hybrids, have some interesting parallels with puberty. Teens going through puberty and feeling that their bodies are perhaps not their own will identify with the girls’ confusion.

krystin dunnion

 

Kristyn Dunnion, via kristyndunnion.com

 

Other strengths include Dunnion’s knack for showing, not telling, readers the strengths and personalities of her characters, all of whom have distinct, complex personalities, histories, and goals. None of the girls are even close to stereotypes. Another stand-out feature is the fact that the book does not focus on men or relationships with men at all; other YA fantasy or science fiction books such as Throne of Glass feature strong female assassins, but still spend so much of the plot time invested in women’s relationships with men. This is why the Bechdel test is so important!

Fittingly, then, Big Big Sky is also hella queer, in the stretchiest sense of that word: technically you have female-identified characters hooking up with each other, but they’re pretty post-human (one of them turns into a giant black bird later, another turns into a fish-human hybrid). At the beginning of the book they live in an all-female society. When they meet human men later on, they call them “strange beasts” and use the pronoun “it” to describe them, which is unbelievably awesome.

Although Big Big Sky does have this awesome original, exciting plot, it is sometimes lacking in physical description of environment, location, and character, which, on the one hand, can make imaging the girls and their dystopian world hard. On the other hand, the relative absence of character and species description lets the reader imagine a significant amount for themselves, which some people might enjoy. I would have rather had more description, especially of what the characters looked like!

The only thing I think doesn’t really work is that given that you are simply dropped into this strange world, a prologue explaining the context would probably be useful. The publisher’s blurb on the back of the book attempts to do this, but does not really succeed and then does not provide the synopsis you usually expect. Basically you just end up being kind of confused for long enough that some people might not keep reading, which would be such a shame because Big Big Sky is really an amazing, mind-blowing book

Overall, even though Big Big Sky is a pretty challenging science fiction read, it’s really rewarding. It’s the kind of novel that will leave you thinking about it weeks after reading. You’ll definitely want to convince other people to read it so that you can talk about it with them! If you liked and/or read 1984 or A Brave New World but thought they could have used a queer / feminist / punk re-telling, Big Big Sky is a book you should definitely check out!

Posted in Canadian, Coming-of-age, Fiction, Kristyn Dunnion, Queer, Science Fiction, Young Adult | Tagged , , | 1 Comment