Maggie reviews Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is one of those rare books where an interesting concept is upheld through thorough world-building and great writing. It posits “What would happen if the zombie apocalypse happened at the end of the Civil War?” and follows through with that idea – building an amazingly detailed post-war, post-undead world and filling it with political conspiracies, combat schools, small life details, and plenty of drama.

The story follows Jane McKeene, a student at one of the most prestigious combat schools for black girls in the Baltimore area. She is training to be an attendant, a highly skilled position that is meant to protect the life and virtue of wealthy white women, but Jane has her own plans to return to the plantation where she was born, which is now being run by her mother. Before she can graduate and strike out for home, however, she is caught up in a series of events that takes her out of Baltimore and to the Kansas prairie town of Summerland. Stranded there with her fellow school-mate Katherine, Jane discovered that the torturous living conditions of Summerland cover up even worse problems coming for the inhabitants.

What I really liked most about this book was the care that was put into creating the world and the atmosphere of the book. It’s not logical to plop down zombies into the Civil War and keep everything else the same, but the author carefully layered her story with details about how life would play out, right down to acceptable skirt lengths and Jane’s utter shock at seeing real horses in Summerland. It’s the sort of world-building that I love to immerse myself in. Please, tell me more about the history of combat schools, how zombie fighting techniques evolved, and the effect of the undead on post-Civil War life. Add to that the weird cult-like atmosphere in Summerland, and you have an engaging and evolving read that really fleshes out the premise of a historical zombie apocalypse. There’s also plenty of straight-up zombie fighting included too, for a nice balance of action and plot-building. Jane is an extremely capable person who is absolutely deadly with her zombie-fighting scythes. A child of her time, she doesn’t waste time on the nostalgia of those older than her, who long to go back to the way things were before the undead rose up. Zombies and post-war politics are simply a fact of life for her, and she switches back and forth between doing what she needs to survive zombies and doing what she needs to survive white society, although her strong independent streak does get her in trouble a lot.

Another thing I liked about this book was how quietly, and normally, queerness crept into it. At first, Jane shows both that she has been involved with Jackson Keats, a local boy, and an appreciation for Mr. Redfern, a trained fighter who works for the Mayor. Later though, she reveals that she has had relationships with girls in the past, and it was, in fact, a girl who taught her how to kiss. I really enjoy that this information is revealed so casually, and that Jane herself is very casual about it. At once her sexuality is a real and explicit part of her character and not a guiding part of the plot at all. I guess that fighting zombies means that she does not have time to worry about who she wants to be with, or perhaps she came to terms with herself with her first girlfriend. Either way, Jane McKeene does what she wants, whether that’s fighting zombies or kissing girls, and it was nice to have it be such a nonissue for a historical character. Kate, on the other hand, is outwardly bossy but intensely private about her personal life. Even when she and Jane grow closer through their shared struggles, she doesn’t like to talk about her past. Finally though, she confesses to Jane that she isn’t interested in sex or marriage. This happens towards the end of the book, so there isn’t time to develop this more, but I was genuinely excited for ace rep, and I really appreciated the antagonists-to-friends arc that her and Jane went through.

I’m excited to see how Jane and Kate grow in the next book, and I’m also excited to see what society looks like as Jane and Kate move west across the frontier!

Susan reviews Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

Bingo Love by Tee Franklin cover

I’m pretty sure that I can’t discuss Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge’s Bingo Love without spoilers, because the things that naffed me off the most about it are all massive honking spoilers. It’s a second-chance romance; Mari and Hazel meet again in their sixties and decide to pick up where they left off as teenagers when their homophobic families forcibly separated them. The art is fantastic, I especially love the way that the colours are done, everyone’s looks are excellent. I liked how supportive and loving Hazel’s children were eventually, although the fact that Hazel gets homophobia from all generations of her family is upsetting. The dialogue was quite stilted, but some of the conversations – especially the ones about boundaries–were pretty good. And… That’s the most I can say about it without spoiling anyone. Abandon hope all ye who enter here and all that jazz!

Okay, so I was mostly on board with Bingo Love until it turned out to be The Notebook with queer women. (I wasn’t kidding about the spoilers!) Like, my hatred for The Notebook is as deep as the sea, so that particular reveal was hugely disappointing to me! It turned a few things that I thought were continuity errors into foreshadowing, which was good! It made the cold-open make sense, because as it was Hazel appears to hear someone begging for help after being made homeless by their homophobic family and immediately make it about how much worse queer people had it when she was a kid. No! It’s just how she launches into telling her life story to her wife with dementia. I guess queer women (and especially queer women of colour) deserve to have their own version of The Notebook, if that’s what they want? But for me, it was the tipping point where I couldn’t ignore the things that bugged me anymore.

For example: Mari and Hazel seeing each other for the first time in forty years and immediately running to kiss each other was baffling to me. They’re different people now! Surely there needed to be some build-up or getting to know the adult versions of themselves before the kissing and leaving their husbands! … Actually, I think lack of build-up is the problem for most of the book, because fifty to sixty years are whizzed over at lightspeed, which means that the relationships don’t feel like they have a solid foundation. Not to mention I’m fundamentally suspicious of Hazel’s therapist drawing a distinction between “someone who is the same gender as you” and “someone who identifies as the same gender as you,” because I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be trans-inclusive and missed, or if it’s just being transphobic.

I think what I’m saying here is that Bingo Love is flawed but could be serviceable for someone who isn’t me. The art is good, and getting to see two queer women of colour getting married with their families around them was worth the price of admission. It was just the stuff around that making me twitch.

[Caution warnings: homophobia, adultery, dementia]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is EXCELLENT. It follows Freddy, a mixed-race high-school girl as she gets dumped by the titular Laura Dean for the third time, and it ripples throughout her friendship group.

I’m not gonna lie, I did spend a lot of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me yelling first that Freddy deserved better, and then that Freddy’s friends deserved better. The narrative does such a good job of showing why Freddy keeps going back to Laura Dean; she’s magnetic and charming, despite her casual disregard for everything about Freddy that doesn’t involve her. But also the art is fantastic for showing how Freddy’s life revolves around Laura Dean when they’re together (especially in its use of one colour versus the standard black and white art), at the expense of her friends! So even as I admired the story’s craftmanship in how it showed the relationships and the characters’ reactions to them, I was shrieking on twitter about how they made me feel!

Freddy’s narration is witty and sweet – I especially liked her observation that her being able to be humiliated and broken up with in public like her hetero friends is progress, because as a reviewer I feel called out – and the gimmick of writing to an advice column feels simultaneously nostalgic for the YA stories I was reading as a teenager, and as an excellent way to justify both the narrative and the final conclusion that Freddy comes to about her relationship.

(We all saw Laura Dean’s reaction coming, right? And cheered for Freddy doing what she needed to?)

I appreciated it showing that someone can be not right for you even though you love them, and the advice Freddy gets feels simultaneously kind and realistic. And I like that there was so much importance on Freddy’s friends, who all clearly had their own stories going on that intersected with Freddy’s! It worked, especially for Doodle’s storyline, which broke my heart for her.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is excellent, and if you want something that feels realistically messy and contemporary, with a strong current of friendship running through, definitely pick it up!

[Caution warning: cheating]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence

PJ review Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu

I’d looked forward to reading Marriage of a Thousand Lies since I glanced it on Lesbrary, and my initial reaction after finishing it was that of elation, but there was a pit left in my stomach. At first, I couldn’t understand why, but the more I pored over S.J. Sindu’s book, it began to make sense. Let’s break down the good and bad of this book:

There are so few books with South Asian representation, even few yet with LGBTQ+ characters, and even less still with that character as the main character. Having a lesbian character in a realistic setting, fighting against her parents who believe in and strictly adhere to a culture that has failed them, was so relatable it hurt. But therein lies the problem. Sindu writes in a way that comes off as surreal, dreamy, but the content is harrowing, painful. I actually think that’s a perfect mix to keep the reader going without bogging them down with too much heartache.

See, there is nothing inherently wrong with the book: it’s a fairly realistic and sobering portrayal of toxic parents in a toxic culture which bleeds into the main character’s own actions. There are a fair amount of points where she responds with the same toxic and controlling behavior she’s been raised in. Realistic. So, in one way, it’s cathartic to read about something so relatable. But, in another, it left me with a sense of hopelessness.

I realized the main issue I had: This book wasn’t about a lesbian South Asian woman who rose above all odds, it was a book about said character who was barely able to scrape by and finally managed to begin to process of cutting herself free from her toxic family.

This is not to say I wouldn’t recommend the book. I would certainly recommend it with a warning. Anyone who wants to read this book should mentally steel themselves, or at least be mentally prepared about the harrowing ride this book can take you on. The more you can relate to it, the more it’ll hurt.

But, in the end, it is great to see a story revolving around the hardships of a first generation Southasian background, and I hope to see more kinds of niche representation, South Asian or otherwise, until it’s no longer so niche!

Danika reviews Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Full Disclosure is about Simone, a teenager who’s been HIV positive since birth. Her dads have done their best to make sure she has the best possible life, and as long as she takes her medication every day, her day-to-day isn’t much different from her peers. The problem is not so much with symptoms or medical care, but stigma. At her last school, her peers turned on her when they found out her diagnosis, and she had to switch schools. Now, she just wants to enjoy directing the high school play and hanging out with her friends and crushing on a boy without having to think about how people would react if they knew. Which is why getting blackmail notes threatening to out her if she doesn’t stay away from her crush is particularly terrifying.

I will say up front that this has a bisexual main character, and the central romance is M/F. But even aside from the bi main character, there is queer rep aplenty: Simone has two dads, one of her best friends in an asexual lesbian, and the other best friend is also bisexual. In fact, it’s partly because Simone is surrounded by confident, out queer people in her life that she doesn’t feel like she can claim the word bisexual for herself. Sure, she has crushes on celebrity women, but that doesn’t count, right? And liking one girl isn’t enough to be able to call herself bisexual, right? An undercurrent of the story is Simone coming to terms with her sexuality, and realizing that she can claim that identity. (Also, her–almost?–ex-girlfriend is awful.)

I find this book a little difficult to describe, because on the whole, I found it a fun, absorbing, even fluffy read. Simone is passionate about musical theatre, and she is excited and intimidated to be acting as director. She is swooning over a cute guy (also involved in the production), and their romance is adorable. Simone’s friends are great–even if they have some communication issues–and so is her family. She is surrounded by support, and there is a lot of humour sprinkled throughout.

On the other hand, Full Disclosure also grapples with the stigma around HIV positivity. Simone’s dads felt that it was fitting that they adopt an HIV positive baby, after having lost so many people in their lives to HIV and AIDS. There is discussion of what living through the epidemic was like, and the extreme bigotry towards people with HIV/AIDS. Simone is being blackmailed, and she lives in fear of having people turn against her again. She doesn’t feel like she can even talk to the principal about it, because it could mean that the information could get out. Even her best friends don’t know.

There is tension between the lightheartedness of the book as a whole, and the serious underpinnings. It meshes well, though, and doesn’t feel like bouncing between emotional extremes. Instead, it portrays that HIV positive teens can have happy, fulfilling lives and also have to worry about unfair, hateful treatment. They can be carefree in most aspects of their lives, and also have to take their health very seriously.

Full Disclosure is masterful, including well-rounded characters, an adorable love story, and a protagonist who grows and matures over the course of the novel. I highly recommend this, and I can’t wait to read more from Camryn Garrett.

Danika reviews The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

It’s the classic story: girl meets granddaughter of pastor, girls falls in love, girls get caught and sent away to separate countries. That is only the beginning, though.

Audre loves her Trinidad home, and she is heartbroken to leave it–and her love, and her friends, and her family–behind. Her grandmother assures her that Spirit lives in America, too, and that she can find meaning in this change in her life. There, she meets Mabel, the other main POV of this story. They quickly bond, and that only gets stronger when Mabel begins to get sicker and sicker.

This is a book with a strong voice and focus. It begins with a poem, and then: ‘Yuh fa’ and arrow and sensual and mango,’ Queenie tells me, ‘so, Audre, please put some molasses in yuh feet for dis walk, it ain’t supposed to go fas’.’ … My heart feeling like it get bus’ up for calling somebody mother a jagabat. Because of the slang and style in narration, I found it difficult to get started, but after a few chapters, I acclimatized. I appreciate that this isn’t written to pander to a white American audience–it trusts that readers will ether understand or accept being a little lost. It makes for an immersive, powerful read.

The focus of the book is on Audre’s adjustment to life in America and Mabel’s acceptance of her terminal illness, and the relationship that develops between them. On top of that, though, there are a lot of other elements being juggled: spirituality and astrology permeates the whole story. Mabel finds meaning and comfort in pursuing astrology, and Audre’s connection with Spirit and what she learns from Queenie (her grandmother) allows her to know how to help and comfort Mabel–without suggesting that she knows best or that she has any quick fixes.

Poetry is also interspersed between chapters, all with an astrology-themed title (Gemini Season, Capricorn Season, etc). Mabel finds comfort in Whitney Houston, and the text affirms Whitney Houston also having a relationship with a woman. Another aspect is that Mabel finds comfort in reading the prison writings of someone named Afua. His book is what leads her to astrology, and his grappling with his life on death row helps her come to terms with her own struggles. We also get a few chapters with Afua’s point of view, illustrating how he ended up in jail, and how he finds meaning in his life.

I of course loved the character of Queenie, Audre’s grandmother who is accepting and teaches her spirituality and medicine. Queenie is the definition of a free spirit. I did find it a little awkward, though, that we get flashbacks of Queenie’s life in Mabel’s chapters–the idea is that through Audre’s “dreamo therapy,” she is developing a link to Queenie’s memories. These are written exactly as if they were just from Queenie’s perspective, though, and I found it confusing to imagine Mabel having these prolonged, detailed flashbacks. I would rather have had them be their own POV chapters.

Near the end of the book, we find out what happened to Neri, Audre’s Trinidadian girlfriend. [Mild spoilers:] I appreciated that she still is reaching out to Audre. I feel like usually in these stories, especially since Audre found another love interest, it would turn out that Neri had rejected their earlier relationship. Instead, Neri finds her own queer community in Trinidad after running away from a hateful home situation. I really appreciated that although most of the story takes place in the U.S., we get this glimpse of how queer teens in Trinidad might build their lives. [end spoilers]

I really appreciated the skill at work here. Audre and Mabel are well-rounded characters, and I loved their relationship. Mabel pushes away the people in her life when she becomes seriously ill, and they also don’t know how to be around her. Audre is determined to keep their friendship, and she continues to show up for Mabel. They develop a stronger relationship through this. Audre is also still dealing with the rejection from her mother, and slowly becoming closer to the father that she has spent very little time with in her life. Although she is outgoing, she’s also hurting–she begins being in her new home thinking “Most adults I know want you to say just the right thing to them, in just the right way, so they can love you.” The relationship that was a source of joy and light in her life has been torn away from her, and labelled as immoral. “All I know about love is how to find its hurt and its endings after I find its sweetness.” I appreciated seeing Mabel and Audre grow together. This is a powerful story, and I’m grateful that we’re beginning to see more stories like this getting the attention they deserve.

Carmella reviews Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Notes of a Crocodile

Trigger warning: this review discusses suicide.

What do crocodiles and lesbians have in common? Plenty of things, as I learned from Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile.

The novel, first published in Chinese in 1994, is a fragmented, broody, and often puzzling coming-of-age tale. The main story is told through journal entries by our narrator, a college student nicknamed Lazi.

In her first year of study, Lazi begins a turbulent relationship with a fellow student, Shui Ling. Although she knows her love for other women is innate, Lazi is filled with self-loathing: she sees her identity as a crime. As a result, she sabotages the relationship to avoid confronting intimacy.

Over the remainder of her college years, Lazi returns obsessively to her experience with Shui Ling, which she sees as her one great love – but only great because it ended before it could become really real. In the meantime, she forms other relationships – some romantic, some sexual, some platonic – with a variety of queer people.

Notes of a Crocodile isn’t a plot-heavy book. Rather, it’s about the introspective development of a character. Lazi is romantic but melancholic, self-absorbed but self-hating. She’s likeable, but she can also be a bit much!

Lazi’s main quest, as I see it, is to learn how to love. More specifically: how to love as a lesbian. With no societal script to guide her, it’s a messy process of trial and error. Her experiences are mirrored by her friends’ relationships, which can be seen as various models for how queer love can be. They’re a vibrant cast of characters, from a loud-and-proud bisexual gangster and his depressed journalist ex-boyfriend, to a try-hard overachiever and her slacker guitarist sweetheart. Getting to know them is one of my favourite parts of the book.

But don’t get me wrong: none of them any good at love either! Lazi has to learn from their bad examples. As she says towards the end, “On how to love well: instead of embracing a romantic ideal, you must confront the meaning of every great love that has shattered, shard by shard.”

And what about the crocodile? Well, it crops up in a series of satirical vignettes that break up Lazi’s narrative – which is much-needed, given how bleak her story can be.

The crocodile has lived its whole life wearing a human suit, trying to fit into a human-normative society. Despite its desperate longing to connect with its own kind, because all other crocodiles also wear human suits, the crocodile can’t be sure that it’s ever met another one for real. Does this sound like a familiar experience? It certainly resonated with my teenage memories!

While society hates and fears crocodiles, it’s also fascinated with them. During the course of the novel, Taiwan’s media is whipped up into a crocodile-frenzy, obsessed with finding out every detail of these outsiders who live among the normal populace. Headlines scream: “BREAKING NEWS: CREAM PUFFS ARE A CROCODILE FAVOURITE!” Should the crocodile feel flattered, or fetishised?

Oddly, although these crocodile sections are humorous, they were also the ones that touched me the most.

Around the time of the book’s first publication, lesbians were under a similar scrutiny in the Taiwanese media. That same year, a TV journalist secretly filmed patrons at a lesbian bar, resulting in many being outed without their consent. In a separate incident, two female students (who attended the same high school where Miaojin had once studied) committed a double-suicide, leading to media speculation that they had been in a lesbian relationship. Medical experts and psychologists were called to comment and analyse the girls’ motives. As Miaojin satirises, “various crocodile experts had begun to crop up” – all of them spouting contradictory pseudo-scientific nonsense.

From the outset, I was expecting this to be a sad book. I’ve read Miaojin’s other novel, Last Words from Montmartre, which is an extended suicide note. Miaojin herself committed suicide in 1995, at the age of 26. So I was unsurprised by how self-destructive the characters in Notes of a Crocodile are.

However, I was surprised by how defiant the book felt as well. Yes, Lazi is miserable, but she keeps on trying to build human connections, to find a love that will last. I didn’t come away feeling miserable. Or, at least, not too miserable. And I enjoyed its puzzles and parallels, the way you have to pick apart metaphors and pop culture references to understand what’s being said. I still don’t understand it completely – but that’s part of what makes me like it.

Danika reviews In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Trigger warning: This review discusses emotional abuse. 

I have been simultaneously excited for and dreading reading In the Dream House since I first heard of its existence. I absolutely loved Her Body and Other Parties as well as Machado’s edition of Carmillaso those put her books on my automatic must read list. This memoir, though, is about a same-sex emotionally abusive relationship: a subject I think needs to be discussed more, and is also something that gets under my skin. I knew that Machado would handle it incredibly–but I also knew that skill would carry the risk of reliving some painful moments in my own history. I was right on both counts.

Machado is an incredible writer. This is a book that experiments with the genre of memoir, explores the history of abuse between women (and its invisibility in the archive), includes a choose your own adventure section, and manages to make a recap of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode a chilling counterpart to the main narrative. In the Dream House is divided into very short sections, usually between 1-3 pages. Each examines the “dream house” (where this relationship took place) from different angles: “The Dream House as Gothic Romance,” “The Dream House as Folk Lore,” “The Dream House as Famous Last Words.” Some are vignettes from her relationship. Some are academic essays on topics like 1940s Gothic Romance movies, or queer-coded villains. I found myself taking picture after picture on my phone of these short works, wanting to refer back to them.

Although this is not a book of theory by any means, Machado weaves in the academic so that it complements the story–and also makes me, for a second, want to be back in academia. Her explorations, regardless of the topic, are fascinating. Did you know that 1946 had the highest divorce rate in the U.S.? Do you know why? Throughout the book, there are footnotes referring to the MotifIndex of Folk-Literature, a book I was confident didn’t exist (Machado used a similar technique in Carmilla), but I see now is a real, 6 volume catalogue. For example, in “Dream House as Famous Last Words,” the woman in the dream house (she never gets a name), says “We can fuck, but we can’t fall in love.” The footnote that follows refers to “Omens in love affairs.”

Of course, this is a book about abuse. It follows their relationship from its cheery promise to nightmare reality. It’s not my experience, but it still felt like someone putting words to an experience I have never been able to properly voice. Machado explores the nature of abuse in queer relationships: the tangle of feelings about “lesbian utopias” being shattered, about violence and abuse as gender-coded, about feeling the need for both of you and your relationship to be positive representation. That by naming the abuse, you will only validate homophobic people’s views. “Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.'”

For me, that really hit home. It made me think about the trap that queer people find themselves in an abusive relationship: the need to protect our abuser in order to protect the greater queer community/image. Also, the idea that our partner can’t possibly be abusive, because they are a victim. They are marginalized. In the victim/oppressor binary, someone can’t occupy both spaces, right? But I realized that it goes one step further than that, something that likely every person in an abusive relationship has felt: protecting the relationship in order to protect yourself. Because to show the abuse is to show that you were wrong. Misguided. That you misjudged the situation. You were foolish. Everyone else could see it, so how could you not? The more obvious the abuse, the more shameful it is to voice it or to attempt to escape. It’s an emotional sunk cost fallacy. Of course, this isn’t true. Victims of abuse should never be judged in this way. But it’s another way to keep people trapped.

Carmen Maria Machado is an incredible author, and I will continue to pick up anything that she ever writes. I highly recommend In the Dream House, but be prepared for an in-depth exploration of emotional abuse.

Carmella reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

It felt like I was seeing the vibrant front cover of Girl, Woman, Other everywhere (or at least all over lesbian bookstagram), so when it won the Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was finally time to buy a copy and see what the buzz was about.

The book follows twelve loosely-connected characters, each section switching to a new point of view. It begins with Amma, a black lesbian playwright, whose production of The Last Amazon of Dahomy is about to open at the National Theatre. After so many years living as a counter-cultural socialist activist, making it into the mainstream is both a source of pride and worry for Amma – is it radical for her play about black lesbians to achieve such a platform, or is she selling out?

From Amma, we springboard off into the lives of the other characters. Most of them (but not all) are black British women. Many of them (but not all) are queer. Some of them are closely connected – there’s Amma’s headstrong daughter, Yazz; her best friend and former business partner, Dominique – and some of them are several degrees of separation away – Carole, the hotshot investment banker who’s attending opening night; Morgan, the non-binary influencer caught up in a Twitter beef with Dominique.

Normally when I read a book that switches between lots of characters I get frustrated. There are always some stories I’m more interested in hearing, and some characters I care about more than others. I was worried I would feel the same way going into this book.

But that wasn’t the case at all – each one of Evaristo’s voices was so compelling that I was engrossed immediately every time. The experience felt something like getting into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where you bounce from article to article as interesting tidbits catch your eye. Then you look up and you’ve lost six hours!

Of course, there were still favourite characters among them. I loved the determination of Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant and widowed mother who’s working hard to build a cleaning empire – and looking for love again with both women and men. But I think my favourite was Hattie, a crotchety mixed race nonagenarian who grew up in the agricultural north of England. After a lifetime of hard work on the family farm, she despairs of her lazy descendants – with the exception of Morgan, who often visits with their girlfriend to help out.

Not all of the characters are so easy to like. Dominique, for example, founds a trans-exclusionary ‘women’s’ festival. Penelope holds racist beliefs her entire life, and only starts to learn at the age of 80 that things aren’t as black and white as her parents taught her (including her own DNA). But even when you don’t agree with one of Evaristo’s characters, you’re still interested to learn more about them – and it’s a mark of wonderful writing that Evaristo can switch hats and ideologies so skilfully.

Without a unifying plot, what connects these voices are the themes of race, gender, class, and identity in general. Instead of providing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to any of these, Evaristo examines them from every angle. It feels like she’s giving a cheeky wink to anyone who wants to read a novel about a black woman’s experience as a novel about the black woman’s experience.

If I’m making it sound intellectual and literary – well, it is, but it’s also captivating. I nearly missed my stop on the tube more than once because I was too glued to the pages to pay attention to anything else. It’s not a light book – it deals with serious topics like (of course) racism, as well as abuse, rape, and addiction – but it’s very readable, and there are plenty of fun, heart-warming moments mixed in there too.

I’m glad I finally gave into the social media buzz to read this book. It was well-deserving of its Booker win, and I hope it goes on to receive even more recognition in the future.

Content warnings: racism, rape, abuse, CSA, sexism, transphobia, addiction