Anna Marie reviews Grrrls On The Side by Carrie Pack

Grrrls On the Side by Carrie Pack cover

I was so excited to read this queer Young Adult novel, but unfortunately it was a big disappointment. Before I get into my criticism, let me explain the premise, and why I was so excited to read it. Set in 1994, Grrrls on the Side is about Tabitha, a fat white girl who feels like an outcast stumbling across a movement of Riot Grrrls nearby. As someone who loves zines and some aspects of riot grrrl, I was really intrigued by the synopsis, and I had also just read Moxie which is another Young Adult novel but this time focused on contemporary girls reaching back to riot grrrls for inspiration. Moxie was disappointing to me for various reasons, some to do with the way race was represented and also because queerness was almost completely erased from the narrative. When I remembered that Grrrls on the Side had canon queerness in it and was also about Riot Grrrl I thought it would satiate my itch for some good angry queer punk girl YA, but once again I was wrong!

Grrrls on the Side is a confusing and fluctuating story – Tabitha is very inconsistent in so many ways, leaping from one feeling, one breakup and one crush to the next, and not in a way that was believably adolescent. It was weirdly paced, intensely focused on romance in a really unlikely and often confusing way – random characters would be mentioned once as being present in a scene completely out of the blue. A lot of the characters, including Tabitha, are like light switches in terms of their emotions: one minute they are crying and the next laughing – its very hard to keep up with and enjoy. One of the threads of the novel – that being Tabitha’s sexuality – is just oversimplified: at first she has turmoil about being bi and thinks about it a lot, but as soon as she’s in another relationship, it completely disappears from her mind, except when out of the blue, one of the love interests says really biphobic things to her (which I personally found to be very frustrating and out of character for her).

There were three black girl characters in the novel, Venus, Monique and Jackie, and of those three Jackie was the only one to get more of a personality than her blackness. Venus and Monique were consistently present to draw attention to the racism not only of the Riot Grrrl movement (and especially one specific character), but also to Tabitha. A character arc of the novel is that Tabitha finally understands that she won’t ever understand what it’s like to be black, which is such a disservice to all three black characters, and the idea that Tabitha, a white girl, is the focus point of a narrative supposed to highlight how black women and girls are the ‘grrrls on the side’ is reprehensible. I just cant understand why the author would choose to sideline the black characters in a story that she was in control of creating!

On top of the stereotypical and flat representation of these three characters, there is also a Chinese American character named Cherie who doesn’t seem to register as a person of colour in the context of the group or the narrative, like her presence isn’t seen as a ‘problem’ in the way the black girls are?!

I don’t want to end this totally negatively, so here were some good aspects: Throughout the chapters the zines that some of the girls make are included, and it was always so fun and lovely to read. It really made it seem like riot grrrl, like a bunch of messy, angry, contradictory weird girls were making things and enjoying it for themselves. My favourite character was Jackie, because she was a tender butch lesbian and she was so sweet and patient. Lastly, there was a really cute moment where Tabitha met an older woman who had also been part of a women’s liberation movement, and they had a lovely connection and promised to write to each other! Intergenerational solidarity is the best!

There’s one instance of sexual assault in this and some discussion of r*pe nearer the beginning of the novel.

Anna Marie reviews Women Lovers, Or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney 

Women Lovers or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney is an intense and poetic modernist novel about three women (N, L and M) deeply devoted and in love with each other, and chronicles the transformation of their relationship. The idea of the “Third Woman” is not only a reference to one of the women in the novel being left out by the others, but also to the idea that being a lesbian was being part of a “third sex” (something also explored at around the same time by Radclyffe/John Hall in The Well Of Loneliness and by various sexologists circling around at the time). The novel is also an exceedingly thinly veiled autobiography about Barney’s relationship with Mimi Franchetti and Liane de Pougy, both key figures in sapphic Parisian (generally immigrant) circles in the 1920s.

The language of the novel (in translation from French) is electric and so alive and sensual, just as the love story and relationships it depicts are. L is a decadent woman whilst M is frenzied and soft – “Her hands are more evolved than she herself is, and they get hurt on everything, just as souls do.” Barney’s description of herself, of the character N, is a potent snapshot of a person who constantly feels like the odd one out: “she communes with humans through joyful pleasure, even though she seems to miss out on it in every other way”. I think something in this novel that made it even more captivating than a queer love and loss story might have been is this positioning of some people as “thirds”, as constantly missing out because they don’t have a singular partner or relationship that consistently puts them first. It reminded me a little of this article that Caleb Luna wrote about being “denied intimacy and care… who reserve it for others” the ways that people undermine platonic relationships by focusing so intensely on romantic coupling. Obviously N in the novel has multiple other pairings, so its not an entirely accurate comparison, but I think it adds interesting current contexts for the novel.

The earthy but whimsical tone of Women Lovers as well as the descriptions charmed and inspired me so much. As someone studying the period, it’s also interesting to see who else weaves their way into and through the narrative, from their “Dearest Friend” (the artist and long term partner to Barney, Romaine Brooks) to “The Newly Miserable Woman” (Djuna Barnes author of Nightwood and The Ladies Almanack), as well as references to Radclyffe/John Hall and her partner Lady Troubridge.

Although this word is never used in the novel, it is clear that N and the women she is involved with are in some way polyamorous: they generally participate in and create non-monogamous relationships with each other, overlapping intimacies, so it’s a record of the way that historical queers connected separately and related to their communities and their partners/lovers/friends. The other really enjoyable part of reading this novel is the many ways in which the current sapphic and queer community I witness and participate in mimics these wild lesbian and bi+ women from almost 100 years ago! Just like when I read The Ladies Almanack, this novel/autobiography made me really feel like nothing has changed – we make the same jokes, we care about the same things, we use similar imagery and vocabularies, we have the same issues to work through, we are all dating each others exes and so on!


Anna Marie Reviews PSYCHO NYMPH EXILE by Porpentine Charity Heartscape  

“She resolved to never call something good again. If something was truly good there would be no need to call it good, and it wouldn’t need to pressure her to think so. It would help or hurt her, that was all. Things were only good if they drilled to the end of time and could be accounted for on your final resting day.”

[just to note: this review was written by someone who does not experience transmisogyny]

I think I’m simultaneously the worst person to read this book and also one of the people who it will connect with on a very deep level. I really had no idea what I truly had got myself in for with regard to PSYCHO NYMPH EXILE though, so if I can say one thing with this review it’s to be prepared for a lot of stuff and to make sure to take care of yourself whilst you’re reading it (whether that means you go slow or you have to stop and not read it at all!). On her website where I ordered the book Porpentine writes content/trigger warning for everything and holy moly is she right. To illustrate here are what I would consider the major content warnings [but this isn’t a full list! be kind to yourself!!]: physical + sexual violence, blood, body horror, death, trauma/ptsd, drug use and sex.

PSYCHO NYMPH EXILE drew me in originally because of the name (I am a Psycho Nymph definitely) and it basically charts the story of a traumatised trashgirl named Vellus and her also traumatised ex-magical girl girlfriend Isidol. It’s a pretty grotesque, blood filled sick story written by a trashwoman for other trashwomen, Heartscape said in an interview that “It is very much written for weird women with cocks who are exiled from society”.

The reading experience was one of horror, sensitivity, relatability, fear and softness. The novel dashes in and out of your comfort zones with a brutality that can leave you reeling. I think I would have been less grossed out and shocked by the novel if I had actually looked into what guro-wave as a genre was (basically eroticism and the grotesque, as far as I can see), because it says that’s what it is in the description its just the title seemed so Me in so many ways I had to pick it up!

Within the novel mental illness is made incredibly and distinctly bodily, present and gross, refusing to be inverted and covered up. Despair Syndrom with Temporal Purge or DSTP, (a parallel with (complex)PTSD) is an illness that is formed from experiencing traumatic events and consists of various colourings that affect your body, some are parasites, some cause you to shoot beams of slime and light out, and others do even wilder things. As someone with [c]ptsd I found the presentation of DSTP to be painfully resonant; my experiences of it are bodily and I regularly feel like I’m producing all this traumatic sludge. I do, however, tend to be uncomfortable with the discourse that suggests that if only mental illnesses could be “seen” in whatever form, then they wouldn’t be made invisible when this isn’t true. Physically disabled folks’ disabilities do get undermined and invisibilised, even when they are incredibly physically present, and I think its important to just remember that.

A very cool thing I learnt whilst writing this review was that the physical structuring of the book was made to be accessible and to allow the reader to get a break – porpentine said “I want a book that’s more legible for people with brain damage” – and that’s why the massive eyes that break the text up are there!!

The book breaks a lot of boundaries, both in terms of the content itself and the relationships between humans/animals/machines, magic/mundaneity, life/death, creating these wild, fluid, liminal trauma spaces and shifting understandings of what bodies are and how they work. As a reader I also felt that my own boundaries were broken too and in ways that I’m not entirely convinced needed to be. After a while I felt like the relentless horror was pretty gratuitous but maybe that’s because of the genre and my own sensitivities. I would really recommend this review if you want to look into more perspectives!

PSYCHO NYMPH EXILE is a love story and a survival story and a belonging story. Vellus and Isidol’s relationship feels familiar and so heartfelt, and even after so long on from reading the book they have stayed with me in their own weird wild way.

Anna Marie reviews Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang

[The book and this review (although briefly) has these content warnings: transmisogyny, transphobic physical assault, death/grief]

I read this book in one day and it was the best decision! Like the ghosts/people who resurface throughout the novel I have felt its presence ebb in and out of my consciousness as I go about my life for the past week. It is a kind, sensitive, introspective and honestly deeply beautiful novel that had me marking half its pages because of the lyrical softness of the prose, or the relatability of the text or the enjoyment I had of tracing motifs and metaphors through it.

Small Beauty tells a meditative and sincere story of a mixed race Canadian Chinese trans girl named Mei. She spends a lot of time by herself in her dead relative’s home with her griefs over the death of her cousin, Sandy, her Aunt Bernadette and her grandma Nei Nei. But its not just a novel of sadness, instead it documents times before and after the various departures of her family and friends and showcases her complicated experiences and her heartfelt anger and love.

Mei, within the subtle, sweet and baring prose, doesn’t ever offer explanations of her identity to the reader or to anyone within the text either. Her transness and her whole self is allowed to simply be. Mei does experience a transphobic physical assault [pages 66-67 if you want to skip it!] but what is evidenced in the aftermath of this is her community, especially in the form of an older Chinese trans woman named Connie, supporting and looking after her. The evidence of some kind of intergenerational community was really warming and tender. The older “woodsy dyke” Mei meets whilst staying in the country is transmisogynistic but that too is treated with a softness, a multifaceted-ness and ultimately a forgiveness granted by Mei. The novel regularly refuses to pander to cis people and the narratives for trans folks that they create and one of the major reasons is because it treats things with nuance. Its also important to note that this is an own voices novel – that is that the author is a mixed race trans woman like Mei.

Trying to find an adequate example of the prose was difficult because so many small beauties are weaved throughout it. So this is one example of many of the soft ways in which images and words are formed:

The air is cold but he welcomes it. It is grounding and relieving to feel the ephemeral character of body heat. In the moment between chopping the last of the wood and the somatic realization of Winter, he is a new planet, a molten core spinning furiously, volcanic plumes billowing out of his breath. If not for the solidity of the ground below him he would believe that he orbited the forest instead of walked in it.

I loved the motif of the geese, which flies throughout Small Beauty and was done with this care and openness I really enjoyed. The geese offer a really lovely representation of community and family and ghosts. The geese, much like the prose, become this familiar presence to you, with this quiet strength. In Kai Cheng Thom’s review she wrote that it was a “deeply communal and strikingly unique” novel and I cant help but agree!

Anna Marie reviews Sea-Witch Volume 1: may she lay us waste by moss angel witchmonstr

“I have nothing to fear from monsters.

It was people who broke my teeth with rocks.”

[Before I get into the review I think its important to let folks know that I am not a trans woman! and therefore dont experience transmisogyny like moss angel does]

Sea Witch is a wild and transformative novel about love, community, girl-ness and pain. It speaks to the experience of Sara and the time she spent living inside a witch god named Sea-Witch. It’s also about family and Sea-Witch’s community of sisters and the 78 Men Who Cause Pain (78MWCP) via making laws and being cops and fighting against so called monsters like sea-witch. The story is told through scribbles and sigils, words and drawings and photographs.

It’s experimental fiction, it’s occult queer trans being stories, it’s a fragmented memoir and a graphic novel, it’s about being a fuck up, being mentally ill, being a trans woman.

It’s for all of us freaks who are interested in mythology and regularly create our own. It’s for all the queer witches, for all the Sapphic sea lovers. It’s about fucking up systems of power and trying to build through care, hope and positivity. Its about being marginalised and what oppression does to you, what it inscribes on your psyche and your body, on your community and your imagination.

Sara is living inside an oceanic gay witch god in an intense trans girl world which is both bewildering and makes complete sense. In its upside down logic and reworking of bodies it’s validating and poetic, beautiful in its descriptions of nature and witchcraft and sisterhood. The way time is treated also provides a tumultuous space of fluidity and fragmentary, exciting narrative–because time is distorted a normative transition narrative is subverted–Sara is in sea-witch always and never, it’s a space that is present and not present simultaneously, a little like when you look back at the past and realise you are trans and you have both always been and always known this and also not had a clue about why you felt like such a weirdo, like such a monster.

There are interesting symbols and repeated signs, or what look like sigils that mark some of the images in Sea-Witch. These flourishes of witchcraft were something that I really really enjoyed. What do all these symbols mean? What can they do? Some of them look like ropes tied together, box crosses over images, like nets that are both for capture and also for protection. Maybe that’s a little like being in Sea–Witch.

The novel ends with a sigil by Claire Diane for hope and resistance and care, (and hot trans make outs!) and that’s a nice touch too: maybe it’s an invitation to become your own sea-witch, or dog-witch or dirt-witch or strawberry-witch (and the list goes on!). An invitation to make our own community mythologies real, to fight the 78MWCP and all the despicable laws against our bodily autonomies and our lives.

Sea-witch is like an ocean, a dreamy, flowing and ebbing of thoughts and narratives and rhythms. In dreams and realities it opens new possibilities of girlhoods and healings and traumas and relationships!

You can read up to date writing from Moss Witchmonstr on her patreon and volume 2 will be published in September, which I really am looking forward to!! 8deadsuns.tumblr.com is Moss’s tumblr so definitely check her out and $upport her work!

Lastly, fuck the 78MWCP!!!!!

https://www.patreon.com/monstr