Mars Reviews Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Content warning for child abuse, alcoholism, incest, domestic violence, dissociation. 

This review does contain spoilers.

Tanya Marquardt was sixteen years old when she ran away from the home she shared with her mother, stepfather, and assorted siblings in the small Canadian town of Port Alberni. Her flight was strategic, timed right for when Tanya became of age and would no longer be legally bound to her parents’ whims. Her departure began an alcohol-fueled odyssey to manage high school, homelessness, and attempts to process the trauma of a childhood riddled with emotionally manipulative parents and domestic abuse. As young Tanya spirals out, crashing on couches and beds by cashing in on the sympathy of friends, the one constant in her life is a deep love of Shakespeare, and it is that thread that leads her out of the fray and on to calmer waters in her life.

This book is chiefly the honest account of the author’s life detailing a young girl’s family dysfunction and subsequent spiraling out. By fifteen, Tanya was already an alcoholic, and readers will be hard-pressed to find a scene in which she is not chain-smoking. Her unresolved trauma and rebellion against the authoritarian antagonist figure in her life, her mother, eventually leads her to just outside Vancouver, where she says she is living with her formerly abusive alcoholic father but is actually with friends exploring the big city and its underground goth and kink scenes. In these places, she finally finds a home and a tribe to call her own, and through the act of performing and belonging, she finally finds a way back to herself.

I admit that I had a hard time reading this memoir in a number of ways. As an adult, it was hard reading about the struggles young Tanya faced and the many moments where the adults in her life let her down. It was additionally challenging because as a reader, it was hard to know how to feel about the adult figures in Tanya’s life. With young Tanya, in one breath readers experience the psychological warfare her parents commit using her and her siblings as pawns for their own selfish campaigns, and in the other, adult author Tanya chimes in with a throwaway comment about how she loves her family. The result is just one out of a few cases of whiplash, as this story reads more like a history (which, to be fair, this is a memoir) rather than a clearly delineated narrative. It makes for a confusing and sometimes meandering read.

Of particular note for our readers is that while the author self-identifies as a queer performer and playwright today, aside from a passing interest in a female friend at a high school party and mentions of bisexual friends engaging in a few same-sex relationships, all romantic interests and sexual identities explored in this book are presented as heterosexual and cisgender.

Mallory Lass reviews Broken Trails by D. Jordan Redhawk

Broken Trails by D Jordan Redhawk cover

Trigger Warnings: Suicide of a minor character (occurs in the past and is recounted), and alcoholism.

Spoilers marked separately at the end.

A gripping adventure romance, set in “Big Sky Country” Alaska at the famous Iditarod dog sledding race, features a swoon worthy protagonist and a driven but out of control (at times) love interest.

Scotch Fuller is the eldest of 4 kids and winning the Iditarod is not only her dream, but her family’s life work. The Fuller family runs and operates a dog racing kennel and dog sledding tourism company. Scotch is hard working, independent, disciplined young woman. Her family is everything to her and they are her biggest cheerleaders. She has a great head on her shoulders and soft butch vibe that will make you weak in the knees.

Laney is a successful nature photographer who just finished a long assignment in Africa. She reluctantly agrees to go on a quick assignment to Alaska as a favor to her friend Ben, a magazine editor. She is physically ill equipped for the Alaskan elements and emotionally blindsided by an up and coming Iditarod star who catches her eye. Laney is dealing with personal baggage that has manifested into a drinking problem.

Scotch has an amazing rookie run to set the stage but the real adventure starts when Laney convinces the magazine (against her own better judgement) to do a series of stories about Scotch’s training for her sophomore run at the Iditarod. Ben agrees, as long as Laney trains to run the race as a rookie. Laney isn’t sure if she wants to go back to Alaska, and Scotch isn’t sure she wants the distraction of training someone. Despite Laney being a decade or so older than Scotch, they both have a lot to teach each other about life and love. The age-gap is mentioned but is not a big part of the story, nor is it a source of consternation.

I really enjoyed this book, and I am definitely not a dog person! Ever since I saw a documentary series on the Iditarod via the discovery channel over a decade ago, the sport has fascinated me. Add a lesbian romance and I was immediately drawn to it. This is a great story for someone who likes long, slow burn romances. At nearly 400 pages you really get the complete Iditarod experience from couch to finish line. Redhawk really makes you feel like you are on the sled with Scotch and Laney, sleep deprived, bitter cold hitting your face, danger at every turn.

Ultimately, I think this story is about laying yourself bare. About finding out that another person can still love you, despite scars, secrets, or shortcomings of character. That is really how Scotch and Laney stole my heart.

***Spoilers***

I am a sucker for letters, and was excited when Don gave the letter to Laney from Scotch when the race started. I was kind of disappointed it took to nearly the end to discover the contents, and given the structure of Scotch being ahead, they were only one sided.

The Tonya storyline was important to Scotch’s growth, but I felt could have been developed a little more before the reveal. It felt like she needed something to be going through, some scar to match Laney’s but it kinda felt dropped in rather than lived in.

The sex scene, the long awaited sex scene, was too short for how late in the book it came. And to fade to black when it was Scotch’s turn to be pleasured just blew the wind out of my sails. Their exchange was emotional, and their speeches at the end nearly made up for it…nearly.

Quinn Jean reviews Taking Flight by Siera Maley

[This review contains spoilers and a brief mention in paragraph four of homophobic abuse and alcoholism in the novel.]

Taking Flight is a young adult coming-of-age novel by Siera Maley where lesbian LA-born and bred high school senior Lauren gets in trouble for skipping school and is sent to live with a middle-aged Christian youth worker David and his family in rural Georgia. When she arrives Lauren discovers she’ll be sharing a bedroom with David’s daughter Cameron, a very beautiful church-going cheerleader, and you can probably guess how Lauren feels about that.

There are a lot of things to like about Taking Flight, not least of all the tender love story at its core. The lead character has been sure of her sexuality and comfortable with it from a young age which is a pleasant contrast to many formulaic WLW YA books where the protagonist has a sudden lightbulb moment after meeting a bold new person who pushes them out of their comfort zone. Taking Flight doesn’t particularly play in to tired stereotypes about the southern USA either. And Maley doesn’t waste time doing too much boring set-up before throwing Lauren into the far more interesting fish-out-of-water premise of the novel, instead filling in gaps later as need be.

There are a lot of plot holes though, some big and some small, and Lauren as a character isn’t particularly three-dimensional, instead seeming to serve as a bland narrator that the reader can substitute themselves with. For a lot of readers this might be ideal, it just would’ve been nice for Lauren to have more hobbies, interests, quirks and motivations of her own to go with those of the other major characters, even if she had found those once she arrived in Georgia. Also Lauren’s entire family history doesn’t quite make sense; both her parents’ long Hollywood marriage after meeting as teenagers and the press’ complete disinterest in the child of an A-list actress are implausible in the twenty-first century.

To its credit the novel realistically depicts people’s varied responses to different characters coming out throughout the story, with many characters being accepting if not always enamoured of homosexuality, while one character’s aggressive reaction is one of the only potentially distressing scenes in the book. Additionally the complex feelings Lauren has towards her father due to his functional alcoholism are also handled sensitively. Ultimately the  central love story where two very different people from contrasting worlds give each other the space to express themselves and offer open-hearted support for each other’s innermost feelings and dreams is undoubtedly the most beautifully realised part of the novel and certainly what makes it worth reading.

Taking Flight gives the impression that the author wanted to offer readers a teenage gay love story that unfolded slowly, and was built on kindness and respect, and had an uplifting (excuse the pun) ending. While there are some weak spots, for the most part Maley succeeds with soaring colours (couldn’t help myself).

Elinor reviews The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

I have long-standing love for Ariel Levy’s work, so I was eager to read her memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. For those who’ve read her essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” about her miscarriage at 19 weeks pregnant, you have some idea what you’ll be getting in this book. Essentially, it’s a brutally sad story told gorgeously. The memoir gives context to Levy’s loss of her pregnancy, marriage, and home, all within a single month, and delves into her life before, during and after this central tragedy.

Much of the book explores Levy’s adventures as a successful writer, interviewing fascinating people all over the world, and how her work informed her ideas about gender, family, work, queerness, marriage, and a meaningful life. Alongside this is the story of Levy’s personal life, from a childhood spent witnessing her mother’s long-term affair and the dissolution of her parent’s marriage, to dating men and women as an adult. When Levy falls in love with and marries a woman before such a marriage was legally recognized, you can feel the heady excitement. Together the pair bought a home and wrestled with question when and how to become parents. Though Levy’s marriage was loving, it was complicated by Levy’s destructive affair with a creepy ex and her spouse’s increasingly serious drinking problem. Still, when they decide to have a child after many years together, she believes that they have things under control, that they’d weathered storms and gotten bad behavior out of their systems. Then the unthinkable happens and the story takes a turn Levy never expected.

Levy resists the cultural rules for women throughout her life, managing to have brilliant ambition, professional success, lust, love, adventure and a rich domestic life. But those are only a superficial rejection of the “rules” that the title references. This memoir rejects tidy lessons, platitudes, and the idea that loss is avoidable. Often in stories like Levy’s, the unstated rule is that it all works out in the end, that there’s a silver lining, or that everything happens for some ultimately rewarding cosmic reason. Levy refuses to pretty up her pain or to resolve the story neatly. Here, there is no happy ending. In fact, the book ends ambiguously, with Levy stepping out into an uncertain future.

The rawness and incredible writing draw you in, and leave you unsettled. You might want to line up something soothing after this. I was very glad I didn’t read it until after my child was born, because if I’d been pregnant or trying to get pregnant I would have been an anxious wreck reading this book. Having said that, I still highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating, honest, unique book.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com