Danika reviews Meanwhile, Elsewhere edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett

This is a huge book. Metaphorically, of course: it’s a big step in queer lit that we have a collection like this now, a collection of SFF stories all by and about trans people. We’re finally moving towards having stories that neither minimize queerness nor make it our only defining feature. But actually, I’m talking about it’s physical size. It’s 447 pages, and the book is taller and wider than your average paperback: more like a textbook than a novel. Although I really enjoyed reading this, it did take me a while to get through, because its physical size makes it awkward to hold and the length was intimidating.

It was well worth the time it took me to read it, though! I was happy to see that there are plenty of sapphic stories included: in fact, at least 10 of the 25 stories has a women-loving-women main character. Although this collection is sci fi and fantasy, and trans people in general, there’s definitely a stronger presence of science fiction and trans women.

As always in an anthology, some of these were bigger hits than others, but even the stories I didn’t personally enjoy I could see other people loving. (Like “It’s Called Fashion,” which I found difficult to follow, but I can see other readers really clicking with.) The stories vary a lot in their scope and premise. Some build a complex cyberpunk world in 20 pages, while others imagine a world only slightly different than ours. One story follows someone in space quietly ruminating about microaggressions, while another follows a woman whose brain-eating amoeba communicates through dreams and grows via orgasms.

A few stories I found so fascinating that I could easily write papers about them: “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me, Laura.” by Aesling Fae attempts to reclaim Satan as a trans woman, and as the protector of trans women. Outside of context, the devil and a trans woman sounds offensive, but Fae makes it an empowering thesis. Like Carmilla the series takes the monstrous lesbian and turns her into a hero, this story does the same thing with the devil.

The other story that really made me think was “Rent, Don’t Sell” by Calvin Gimpelevich. In this world, the technology for body-swapping had been made viable, but under capitalism, it’s used for things like: swapping your body with a trainer’s so they can do your exercise for you, hiring someone to detox for you, and, of course, having sex while inhabiting someone else’s body. This has a lot of interesting discussions about identity. The side character is a trans women who swapped bodies with a trans guy, but now regrets it and wants to transition with her own body, so she’s suing to try to get it back.

Some of my other favorites were “What Cheer” by RJ Edwards, where the main character spends a couple days with her alien close, and learns appreciation for herself and her life; “After the Big One” by Cooper Lee Bombardier, where a motley crew of queer argue about discourse and privilege, but have to come together to survive disaster; and “Gamers” by Imogen Binnie, which is about Zelda and time travel and being in an unhealthy relationship with a dependent girlfriend.

I do want to mention some serious trigger warnings for transphobia, transmisogyny, violence, gore, and rape in various stories. Specifically, the one story I had a problem with is “Delicate Bodies” by Bridget Liang, in which the main character is a zombie who rapes and then kills her ex-boyfriends/crushes. I get the zombie revenge fantasy, but I was getting nauseated reading about her brutally raping multiple people, and the text seems to suggest that they deserve it. They may have been jerks, but they didn’t do anything comparable. It soured the collection some for me. I also want to mention a trigger warning for suicide in “Visions” (though that’s not one of the sapphic stories).

I highly recommend this collection to just about everyone. It’s ambitious and necessary and has some fantastic stories. (And that sapphic story abundance doesn’t hurt!)

Rebecca reviews Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South edited by Connie Griffin

The 2015 non-fiction collection Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South edited by Connie Griffin is interesting and moving but sadly not very diverse. The book focuses on the coming out experiences of Southern lesbian, queer-identified, gay, and transgender people. The book’s unique title is inherently Southern. It comes from the chant that young Southerners use to spell Mississippi. These sixteen first-person essays chronicle experiences which range from both mundane and extraordinary to hopeful and devastating. These deeply personal narratives examine first love, gender identity and performance, homophobia, finally learning the language to describe themselves, belonging, and death.

The collection includes several noteworthy stories from lesbian perspectives. Stephanie Woolley-Larrea’s “Straight as Florida’s Turnpike” is an interesting and well-written narrative which recounts the author’s exploration of her identity and her journey to become a mother. She also recalls her search for a community and a sense of belonging. Woolley-Larrea’s relatable journey to understand her identity and sexuality even includes her unsuccessful attempts to adopt different lesbian personalities including ‘Nature Lesbian’ and ‘Activist Lesbian.’ In an endearing touch, the narrative includes the author’s conversation about marriage with her young triplets.

Susan L. Benton’s “The Other Side of the Net” is a unique and inspirational essay. She details her life as a sorority girl which is at first fulfilling and happy because she finally feels that she belongs. She even has a secret romance with a fellow sorority sister. However, Benton is soon outed and kicked out of her sorority. Despite these devastating setbacks, she emerges victorious in academia and on the sports field as she triumphs over her former sorority sisters in an important college volleyball match.

Another notable essay is Merril Mushroom’s informative and disturbing “The Gay Kids and the Johns Committee” which highlights the horrors experienced by lesbians and gay men in South Florida. She carefully captures the fear and hysteria during the late 1950s as she recalls how gay people were hounded. Mushroom recounts newspapers gleefully outing people and publicly revealing their personal information. The author deftly combines historical events with personal memories of the era as she also recollects her experiences of surviving during this dangerous time. She even briefly pretends to be straight to escape a detective who was seeking to expose gay people. She also remembers police officers harassing and arresting people at gay clubs and the gay beach. Mushroom’s essay is an unforgettable and important read. Although the incidents are horrifying, it is vital that readers learn about these tragedies and injustices.

While I did enjoy many of the narratives in this collection, I was extremely disappointed with the lack of narratives from people of colour. Although the book’s editor, Connie Griffin, briefly acknowledges the collection’s glaring lack of diversity, she does not really address it. While the essays do encompass a variety of experiences and readers of different backgrounds and sexualities may find elements to relate to, this collection is overwhelmingly white. Therefore, it misses the abundant opportunities to explore the rich intersections of sexuality, race and gender.

“Ben’s Eyes” by Louie Crew is the only piece which represents a gay African-American’s experience. This engaging and well-detailed narrative follows young Ernest Clay as he discovers his sexuality with his older cousin, Ben while at his grandmother’s house in Georgia. The essay provides an invaluable look into the lives of African-American people in the South. It also examines strong family dynamics and debunks negative stereotypes of Southern African-American people, especially with regards to homosexuality. However, this piece is written by a white man. Although Crew is Clay’s husband and the essay is sensitively written, it is sad that this collection’s only representation of black people has been presented to readers by a white man.

James Villanueva’s “The Gathering” is another notable essay which is well-crafted and intensely moving. The narrative focuses on a family party for a gay man who is dying of AIDS. Villanueva also recalls his own coming out journey and he examines the complexities of family, death, and identity. His interactions with his family and especially with his sick Tío Jacob are touching and optimistic. Villanueva’s piece is a little lengthy but it is not noticeable because his story is so rich and fascinating. The essay’s inclusion of aspects of the author’s Mexican culture is a welcome addition as it provides some much-needed variety in this collection.

Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South contains many original narratives which are poignant and eloquently written. While these essays do not hesitate to recall the loneliness and pain associated with being different and coming out, there are instances of optimism, love and acceptance. However, the book is not a casual or easy read. The essays are lengthy and quite dense because they confront heavy themes like death, identity, and religion. There are also instances of homophobia and violence so readers sensitive to these issues should be vigilant. While I did enjoy the collection, the lack of representation of and from people of colour was disturbing. The book claims to represent a cross-section of Southerners but the narratives are almost exclusively white. I would have liked to see a variety of experiences and voices.

Rebecca Cave is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. She is an avid but sadly not very prolific reader and writer.  

Julie Thompson reviews Me and My Boi edited by Sacchi Green

me-and-my-boi-cover

“Gender has no boundaries, and neither does lust.” — Sacchi Green, Introduction

Me and My Boi, edited by Sacchi Green, is a collection of twenty erotic encounters between those who, in addition to identifying as lesbian, also identify as bois, butches, masculine-of-center, or eschew gender labels altogether. These individuals seek out sexual romps and emotionally charged situations. Sometimes they satisfy existing desires or discover new ones when paired with the right partner at the right time. The diversity of experiences showcased in this volume allow for a greater possibility of connection with readers. That being said, not every story will resonate with every reader; we all have personal preferences that will find a home in (hopefully) at least one or two of the stories presented here.

The stories unfold against quotidian and risqué situations, well-worn paths and the unknown. Readers peer in on a car garage in the English countryside as two women get acquainted (“A Fresh Start” by Melissa Mayhew); join long-term partners on their Parisian honeymoon (“Gargoyle Lovers” by Sacchi Green); and get locked into a bar bathroom with a bittersweet memory (“Hot Pants” by Jen Cross). The characters negotiate intimacy dynamics and grapple with what their choices may or may not communicate about their identities (“Nisrine Inside” by Pavini Moray; “Resurrection” by Victoria Villasenor).

While I enjoyed the collection overall, there were a few stories suited to my personal taste and that I look forward to revisiting. Strong women who are handy with a tool, sport grease smudged jeans, and possess a subtle tenderness, are the characters that melt me to the page. In Sommer Marsden’s Bennie, Ava finds her long held desires reciprocated with the handsome butch-next-door, Bennie. I appreciate how Me and My Boi (M&MB) shares a range of sexual desires, which include needs for hard and soft; fast and slow; bound and free; and more. For people who want to flirt with danger, M&MBhas it. For people who want a safer, yet no less lusty fling, they’ll find it here. I admit that I struggled with the first half of “Resurrection” because I wasn’t sure how much was consensual seduction and how much was coercion. I know that as a reader I engage with stories through my own lenses. I’m interested in how other readers interpreted that portion of the story.

Other stories engaged me more on an emotional level than on an erotic one. One such story  is “Not Just Hair” by Annabeth Leong. Darla is eager to find a butch that will allow her to act out her desires as a femme top. The usual kink crowd gathers around scenes of controlled lust or cruise for playmates. Observing and participating femmes, butches, tops, and bottoms assess each other for possibilities and compatibility. Darla struggles against the restrictions imposed on her as a femme, by her partners, and by the group. When she thinks she’s spotted an unfamiliar butch, she eagerly approaches, only to find that it’s someone she knows. Shawn, at heart a butch bottom, is also breaking out of the stifling role as a femme bottom that her partner had expected. The two women see each other and embrace the opportunity to be who they are inside and out.

The stories offer reflections of how we see ourselves and how we see others, as well as how we believe others should think of us and of themselves. It’s a mouthful and a mindful to process. Yet, more often than not, erotica at its best is a delectable mixture of physical, intellectual, emotional elements.

Krait reviews Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

longhidden

Long Hidden features 27 stories, focusing on (as the editors put it) “stories from the margins of speculative history, each taking place between 1400 and the early 1900s and putting a speculative twist—an element of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the unclassifiably strange—on real past events.” The anthology features many people and women of color, trans* characters, lesbians, and stories from all over the world.

My love affair with speculative fiction started after a childhood spent devouring sci-fi and fantasy books left me with the realization that very few stories actually featured people I might know or people I could be. With that in mind, I had very high hopes going into Long Hidden and I’m pleased to say that were not in vain.

Anthologies can often be hit-or-miss when it comes to story quality, but Long Hidden is nicely consistent. A few stories – “Angela and the Scar;” “It’s War;” “Medu” – didn’t have quite as strong a narrative or quite as engrossing characters, but they still entertained. “Angela and the Scar” and “It’s War” both occur during fascinating events and encouraged me to brush up on my history, but the character arcs and the magic conceit just didn’t hook me. I found Medu’s snake-haired women to be an interesting concept and the story starts strong, but the conflict and the resolution fall flat.

It’s really only in comparison to the brightest stars of the anthology that these stories fizzle.

But oh, those stars. Meg Jayanth’s “Each Part Without Mercy” follows a dreamer with gorgeous imagery and lovely prose. “Marigolds,” from L.S. Johnson, is deliciously disturbing and tells of blood-magic in a French Revolutionary Parisian brothel. “Marigolds” left me with a few shudder-worthy images but a surprisingly uplifting ending. Jamey Hatley’s “Collected Likenesses” is thought-provoking, with fascinating magic and heart-rendingly real characters. A young black woman in 1913 Harlem struggles with dangerous memories and magic passed down from her grandmother (and even farther back). Kima Jones’ “Nine” features Tanner, a possibly genderqueer woman of color, who runs a small motel with her lovers, several other women. All escaped the remains of slavery back east, and they provide a safe stopping point in Arizona for others doing the same. And finally, several days after I’ve finished the book, I’m still thinking about “Lone Women,” by Victor LaValle. I would absolutely read a novel featuring Adelaide (the protagonist), her sister, and the community of strong single women out on the Montana frontier. There’s just enough horror and magic to put an interesting twist on the story of a frontiers-woman, and I’d love to see that story expanded.

It’s difficult to discuss some of the stories without spoiling some essential element, the hidden magic in the characters or their surroundings, so the ones I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. The plots run the gamut from romance, crises of faith, self-discovery, to overcoming the terrible odds and obstacles thrown at you by life. But all of the stories have some element of magic or fantasy or horror, and all tell the narratives of people typically ignored by fiction.

In short, I loved Long Hidden, and would absolutely read another anthology along the same theme. However, I’ll warn readers: many of these stories are dark, and not just those that feature horror elements. Violence against women, rape, violent racism, and other trigger-worthy events are touched on more than once, though never shown in detail. Not all of the stories have happy endings – but I think they’re still well worth your time.

[Editor’s note: This book was published through a kickstarter campaign, but will be available more broadly in May]