Bee reviews Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

I’ve been reading Alison Evans’ work for a while. The main appeal for me is that they are a Melbournian author, and their YA sci-fi/fantasies always have a basis in the city and surrounding areas. I think I’ve written here before about how much that appeals to me. When their newest book, Euphoria Kids, was announced, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

Euphoria Kids is an urban fantasy that turns magic into an everyday thing for its core group of teens. Iris was grown from a seed in the ground, giving them an affinity for plants and their magical properties. They are a lonely kid, with no human friends – only the faeries that visit them in the house they live in with their two mums. That is, until they see a “new” girl on the bus one day – Babs, who was cursed by a witch and sometimes turns invisible. Babs is made of fire, and lives with her mum, who has fibromyalgia, but still practices magic. A third member is added to their group when they meet a boy who hasn’t chosen his name yet, but who also has something magic about him – what exactly is uncertain.

As is probably clear, this is a diverse group of friends. Iris is non-binary, Babs is a trans girl, and the boy is also trans. Iris’ mums are obviously lesbians, and Babs makes it clear that she is too, as well as a secondary character who works in a café which they love going to. The trio also encounter dryads and faeries – dryads who have no gender, and cannot understand why humans do; faeries who shift between as many genders as they like, as easily as they can change their appearance. I’m loath to say “It’s great representation”, because I often feel that the word “representation” is just used as a catch-all for an identity named in the story, even when that identity isn’t given justice or used naturally. However, that isn’t what Evans is doing at all. The genders of the teens are tied to the magic they learn and explore, almost like being trans is a magic in and of itself.

The writing and story are, in a word, tender. The trio of teenagers are just so sweet and wide-eyed, experiencing this magical word with wonder and care. Their friendship is fierce and loving, and the way they band together to overcome obstacles is very endearing. It is a very kind book – a book that is careful with its characters, with its reader, and with all of the people who may see themselves represented in its pages. The descriptions of magic are ethereal, and the use of plants and connection to nature is filled with all the joy of walking in a secluded forest and seeing light pouring through the trees. It is all just so gentle; the perfect book for reading under a blanket with a cup of tea (and the characters drink a lot of tea too, so you won’t be alone in that).

Something which Evans does very well is write otherworldly things in a convincing way. Of course planting a jar of herbs in the garden works as a protection spell; of course a lesbian couple can nurture a seed that turns into a child; of course a girl can light fires with her touch. Theirs is the type of writing that draws a reader in, and enfolds them in the world that has been created. It’s a book filled with comforting imagery and beautiful turns of phrase – the world of magic is easily pictured, and the use of the Australian bush is wonderful.

I am usually not much of a fantasy fan; I find it confusing at the best of times. But for me, this type of real-world magic is easy to get behind. With friendships at the core of the story, there is something to root for. The characters are all also very appealing – the adults all have magic of their own as well, and treat the three teens with love and respect. It’s just plain nice to read, honestly. While it’s a good entry-level fantasy, it’s also a very witchy story, full of enchantment. And I was enchanted, definitely. It’s a world I would gladly fall into, again and again.

Bee reviews I am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale

I am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale

I often see people complaining that there is no WLW equivalent to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I’m not really sure what the complaint is about: the popularity of the books? The tone? The content? The writing? I think that what people mean when they say this is that they are looking for a book with similarly affecting prose, with a convincing romance and a kind of wistful tone. While I’m sure that everyone reading this could probably offer up five, ten, twenty books that meet the brief, the one that does it for me is I am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale. This is my personal WLW Ari and Dante – the book that makes me feel special things. To me, it is superior in every way.

I am Out With Lanterns is a companion novel to Gale’s book The Other Side of Summer. The focus is shifted from the titular Summer Jackman to her sister Wren, goth and moody and furiously bisexual. Along with Wren, there are five other teenage narrators, each giving their own voice to what it means to be young in Melbourne. Part of the reason why the book resonates so strongly with me because it is entrenched in my home town: the landmarks are real and tangible, and I can perfectly picture every scene. There is such a strong sense of place in this novel, and the characters only reflect the diversity of living in this city.

Aside from Wren, we are introduced to Adie, returning to Melbourne with her artist father after time in Europe and Tasmania. Juliet remembers Adie from their childhood together, but Adie doesn’t have the same recollections. There is also Wren’s neighbour and best friend Milo, who is autistic and also in love with Wren. Ben, a boy who mercilessly bullies Milo, is also afforded a POV. This may seem like a lot of perspectives, but the stories are deftly interwoven. The characters are connected in a web, one leading to the next, and the way they perceive each other is engrossing and believable.

A reason why this book works so well for me is that it understands what it means to be 17 and yearning for another person. Crushes in various forms play out on the page, and whether it be Milo’s interest in Wren, or Wren’s interest in Adie, the intensity of teenage feeling is given ample time and respect to develop. This is the wistfulness I mean; it is a pleasure to read YA which amplifies warm feelings about our teen years, when it is so easy to write them off as an embarrassment. This book champions the tumult of young love, in such a way that I was left looking back on my high school crushes with true fondness.

The identities of each character are also given respect and care. Whether it be Milo’s autism, Wren’s bisexuality, Juliet’s two mums, or the introduction of Hari, a lesbian, these parts are all shown to be integral to who these characters are as people: their foundations are clear, and their journeys are relatable and realistic. It is diversity which reflects the real world, and shows how important a sense of identity is to our formative years.

I am gushing, because I love this book. It is an excellent example of Oz YA, which is a small but thriving community which could always use more readers. It is beautifully told, with some gorgeous turns of phrase which truly reflect the Emily Dickinson poem referenced in the title. It is raw and real, full of complicated relationships and unrestrained feelings. If you’re looking for a YA read that will fill you up and leave you ruminating, this is a first class choice.

Bee reviews Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

I have never been so confused as I was while reading Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. I felt exceedingly silly, like I was missing a trick (or several) about the impenetrable prose and the seemingly nonsensical character behaviour. I was expecting to be wowed, amazed, startlingly impressed by it as a work of literature. Jeanette Winterson promises, “Reading it is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass. You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work. From now on, a part of you is pearl-lined.”

I am not pearl-lined. I do not feel enlightened or changed in any way, except for the dip in my self-esteem that this book brought about. But I survived it. I may still be wondering what the heck? But I survived.

Nightwood is a lesbian fiction classic from 1936, and is set in the 20s. It weaves in and out of the lives of a group of Europeans and Americans as they navigate love in a dazzling, slightly seedy underworld in Paris. For me, the focus of the book was a woman named Robin, who is first married by a Baron, with whom she has a child. She then leaves both husband and son to wander the globe, ending up in America. In New York, she meets a woman named Nora Flood, and begins an affair with her. Robin can’t seem to still her restlessness, however; even though she and Nora return to Paris, she eventually leaves Nora for a woman named Jenny. Nora reveals that this is not the first time that Robin has strayed from her, and that loving Robin causes her great pain due to Robin’s mercurial nature.

I’m a little astounded that I understood any of this at all. Most of the book is written in lengthy soliloquies, delivered mostly by the doctor Matthew O’Connor, who secretly dresses in women’s clothes and also acts as a general confidante to all parties involved. I found myself thinking that it would be more suited to performance than to a novel. The language is often poetic, and I could appreciate it from a stylistic standpoint, but I found it difficult to access the meaning a lot of the time.

That isn’t to say that I wasn’t interested. I did become invested in Robin and Nora’s relationship, which was messy and layered and confronting. I did feel that their love was infantilised at times – Robin is said to play with toys frequently, and also gifted Nora a doll which becomes emblematic of a child within their relationship. The complexity of their relationship and how it was portrayed was an enjoyable part of the book: it is largely what compelled me to keep reading. The second to last chapter, in which Dr Matthew visits a distraught Nora and they discuss her relationship with Robin, was engaging and heart-wrenching. The problem is, I could have done without much of the commentary from the doctor.

I have done some reading around responses to the book, trying to figure out what it is that I’m missing, and they often speak of the book’s humour – something I didn’t get any of at all. I think the mystique around this book – which has been called “one of the great books of the twentieth century” by William S. Burroughs – established my expectations. I was sure that I was going to find Nightwood incredibly profound and altering. I think it was this expectation that left me feeling so inadequate as I finished. I’m sure that I’m missing something, that I lack the language and the smarts to truly understand this book.

Maybe it’s not just me. As I took my initial complaints to Instagram, Danika consoled me by suggesting that its impenetrability was what allowed the lesbian content to fly under the radar. It did make me feel a little better: at least I understood that much. In the back of my edition, there is an extract from a letter by Frank Morely to Geoffrey Faber of Faber & Faber Publishers. In it, he remarks, “the point is that there is no reporting of lesbianism, no details; the conflict is one of souls, not bodies, and if for censors’ sake there have to be any individual words cut out; the work itself wouldn’t much suffer.” It’s almost comforting to know that a book with pretty obvious lesbianism had its champions through publication, enough that they were trying to figure out how to keep the book as intact as possible.

I think as well that there are certain expectations that queer people have for so-called queer classics. We want to see ourselves, to feel a connection to the ghosts of our identities past, to hold that tangible proof that we have always existed. As such, it seems doubly disappointing when a book doesn’t live up to that image which we create. It is also hard to deal with that the book is obviously of its time: there are fleeting moments of racism, and some glaring antisemitism, both of which make it impossible to empathise with any of the characters.

The root of my struggle with Nightwood is that it felt exclusionary. I am used to lesbian fiction which invites its readers to engage and enjoy, to understand and to feel seen. It is hard to feel any of that with a book that seems to set out to distance the reader from the content. What could have been an entertaining romp through Europe, a heartbreaking portrait of a love in crisis, a farce filled with offbeat and quirky characters, turned into something isolating and stressful for me. I can usually see why a classic is a classic, but in this case, I am feeling excluded from engaging with the literary canon. It will stay with me, like Jeanette Winterson promised, but not in the way she meant.

Bee reviews The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai

The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai cover

Spoiler Warning

Trigger warnings: character death, violence, body horror, gore

I should say upfront that I don’t read much sci-fi. It’s definitely not my genre of choice, so I am unfamiliar with the conventions and the tropes, and the general methods of worldbuilding. The only reason I picked up The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai was that it won the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction this year. A hint of gay is enough to get me picking up any sort of book – and I am unbelievably glad that in this case, I did.

The Tiger Flu is set in a future overrun by its eponymous disease, forcing the population into quarantine levels, with the maligned and anarchic Saltwater City at the centre. In the outermost quarantine ring is the Grist Village, a secluded commune of women exiled from Saltwater City due to their genetic mutations: they are a society built around “doublers” – women with the ability to clone – and “starfish” – those who are able to regrow their own body parts, and so donate them to Grist women who need them. This is the home of one of our perspective characters, Kirilow Groundsel, a groom who cares for her starfish lover, Peristrophe. When an invader from Saltwater City brings the tiger flu with them, a weakened Peristrophe succumbs to the disease, sending Kirilow on a revenge quest to both kill the responsible “Salty” and find a new starfish to protect the Grist way of life.

In Saltwater City, Kora Ko helps her uncle grow potatoes for their tiny family, hoping to prolong their lives even though both her brother and uncle show signs of the tiger flu. Although the illness mostly affects men, Kora is still in danger of contracting it – and so the family decides to send her to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, also a commune of sorts in the depths of the city, where girls are taught to dance and thieve. Kora only wants her family reunited – but perhaps her brother, K2, is more dangerous to her than she thought.

Something which I appreciated greatly about Lai’s writing was that none of the worldbuilding was explanatory. In fact, very little explanation is given, and so it is mostly up to the reader to deduce what is going on and how the characters fit within this dirty, diseased world. The prose is enough for this, with everything being slightly off-kilter, enough that you come to understand what has happened to the world in this year of 2145. It was hard for me initially, it being a bit difficult to get into the sci-fi headspace, but I did find it consuming in the best of ways.

Something which I found it hard to get past was that the plot was put in motion by the death of Peristrophe; is it an example of Dead Lesbian Syndrome? On the one hand, it means that the narrative as a whole is framed by Kirilow’s love for Peristrophe – it is what haunts and drives her, and leads to almost every inciting decision she makes. On the other hand, there is something a little Willow/Tara about it all, where Kirilow’s development as a character is only kicked into gear when her lover is killed. For a lesbian literature award winner, I’ll admit that I was expecting the relationship to feature in a different way. It was startling to have Peristophe’s death hit the page so quickly, and with no real sense of justice eventuating from it.

What I did appreciate was that the women were allowed to be – and I love the opportunity to use this word – feral. In this dystopic world, the women protect themselves from corrupt and diseased men by being violent and ugly, unwashed and aggressive. The Cordova girls are frequently referred to as “stinky”, and Kora’s own scalp crawls with lice. Kirilow isn’t afraid of blood, and readily performs surgery and amputations. It’s always refreshing to read women in this way, especially when beauty and perfection are shown to be corrupt facades. I read this as a sharp assessment of womanhood under patriarchy, in a book full of sharp assessments on a number of topics.

From the sanctuary of her Grist Village, Kirilow isn’t even aware of what a man is, except for stories she has heard about how “Salties” reproduce, a relic of how society used to be. There is something a little cisnormative about this, with the Grist process of cloning – or “doubling” – still being dependent on wombs. In a world more sharply divided into men and women, I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more discussion around the multifaceted nature of gender – especially considering this is sci-fi.

All of that said, I am still grateful that I read The Tiger Flu. It is a singular book, which constructs a confronting world filled with complex characters who don’t always behave in the way you’d think. Even in the world that Larissa Lai creates, one which is harsh and at times grotesque, these characters are driven by love, in their own ways. The prose is arresting, and the world is consuming, and it is all a sort of welcome fever dream. As someone who does not read sci-fi, I am glad I read this one – and I think you will be, too.

Bee reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Spoiler Warning

Trigger Warnings: body horror, gore, violence

The things I heard about Wilder Girls before I picked it up:

  • Lord of the Flies-esque, but with girls
  • Body horror
  • Secrets and lies
  • Queer girls

And needless to say, I was sold. If the ethereal and captivatingly disturbing cover weren’t enough, these tidbits promised something dark and twisted that appealed to my love of the grotesque and monstrous girls in love.

Wilder Girls centres on the students of Raxter, an all-girls boarding school on an island off the coast of Maine. The school has been quarantined after an outbreak of an untraceable disease called the Tox, which manifests itself in different ways for whoever contracts it: second spines bursting through the skin, scales growing over limbs, unhealed blisters and sores which ooze and bleed without relief. In the worst cases, the Tox turns the girls feral and violent, forcing their peers to put them down like animals. The core trio of girls are Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, close-knit friends who distance themselves from the others for their own protection. Hetty is connected to Byatt like a sister, and secretly yearns for something more with Reese, which is threatened when Hetty is put on the team which collects the shipments of supplies and rations from the mainland, and becomes privy to some dark truths.

In reading Wilder Girls, I was consistently reminded of the movie Annihilation–yes, that one with Gina Rodriguez with an undercut, a tank top, and a big gun. The blending of nature and bodies, the twisted manifestations of the Tox, reminded me a lot of the visuals in the film. There are also mutant animals which threaten the girls’ lives; there is a particularly memorable scene with a disfigured bear which is a little too reminiscent of the scene from Annihilation. However, the similarities weren’t a problem for me. I loved the film and its aesthetic, especially the way it presented twisted depictions of bodies and a rawness in all its women. After watching it, I definitely wanted more. Wilder Girls gave it to me. Rory Power’s descriptions are evocative and visceral, creating that same rawness which worked so well for me in the film. Maybe these similarities are subjective, but I do think it’s a worthy comparison, especially if you were a fan of the movie. I may have to pick up the book by Jeff VanderMeer to see if the similarities are that concrete.

There are obvious differences, too. The relationships between Byatt, Hetty, and Reese are a major drawcard; they are strong and complicated, and the girls are all sharp in their own ways, making for compelling reading. The attraction between Hetty and Reese isn’t soft by any means: it’s a rough sort of yearning, with a desperation that I feel we don’t normally see in YA. It, like the rest of the book, is dark–and it’s deliciously appealing.

The ultimate answer of what the Tox is, and the involvement of a navy research base, did seem a bit rushed to me, and left me with more questions than answers. If you are looking for a book which neatly ties everything up and reveals the entire mystery to you, then this is perhaps not a good choice. But I did enjoy that as more plot points at revealed, the conspiracy deepens and the desperation heightens. One thing that can definitely be said about the characters is that none of them are perfect, and none of them are selfless. In fact, they are all selfish in their own ways, and it makes for some realistic and believable reading.

Wilder Girls, for me, is a highly recommended read. It is a violent representation of girlhood of a kind that is rare in fiction, and deserves to be celebrated. It helps that the characters are well realised and have depth, and the whole thing is grounded in female friendship. It is also served well by Power’s frank and unrelenting prose. This is a book which I feel can tempt even people who don’t usually read YA–fans of horror in general should find something to like. I for one am definitely looking forward to reading more of Power’s work in the future.

Bee reviews A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan

A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan

Sometimes you take a chance on a book, and it pays off in a weird, indefinable way. This is the only way I can describe my experience with A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan. Actually, it turned me into the bewildered girl the book addresses in the title. I tacked it on to a book order after reading the tagline, an impulse purchase if there ever was one, and went in to reading knowing approximately nothing. That tempting tagline? “Grace loves a woman. Annie loves a man. Violet isn’t too sure. But you will love them all…”

Although I wasn’t exactly sold on the use of ellipses, it was enough to pique my interest. It turned out to be a 75% accurate summary of the book. Bewildered Girls is told through the perspective of three women, which are revealed to be intertwined in different ways: Grace, a lesbian psychologist who is unsatisfied with her love life; Annie, a high powered lawyer who has high expectations for the men she dates; and Violet, who has a string of unsuccessful sexual encounters with men behind her, and lives with crippling anxiety which she calls “the fear”. Each woman is fairly neurotic in her own way, but it is questionable to me whether this made her relatable, or even (as promised by that tagline) loveable.

This is the sort of book that doesn’t quite have a plotline–rather, it delves into the goings on of these three women and takes the reader along with them, offering slices of three lives which turn out to be more entangled than would be initially suggested. The book is written as a series of titled scenes rather than chapters, allowing the reader to dip in and out of perspectives quickly. It keeps the pace quick and engaging, which is good because to be honest, not much happens. I don’t mean that in a bad way, whatever it may seem–I personally enjoy books that are more character studies than anything else.

What plot there is focuses on the budding relationships with each of the women’s love interests. Grace meets a woman at a party and becomes, for lack of a better word, obsessed with her. Annie starts seeing a man who somehow manages to live up to the high standards of etiquette and personal grooming which she holds those in her life to. The biggest surprise is that Violet, on a reluctant night out, meets a woman and decides to sleep with her. This is the relationship which was the most interesting to me; it has ripple effects across the other two characters’ lives, and I would argue it is the central focus of the whole book. Given that Violet is so reluctant to label her mental illness in any tangible way, it is unsurprising that dating a woman doesn’t lead to any redefinition of her sexuality. It causes more of an upset for Annie, who is Violet’s overprotective roommate and can’t get her head around her friend dating a woman when she had previously dated men.

This was just one of the behaviours that made it really difficult for me to like any of the characters. Another block, for me, included Grace patently not listening to what the woman she is dating tells her about her wants and needs. When I say that I didn’t end up loving them all, as the tagline promised, this is what I mean: I enjoyed reading about them, and I was drawn in by their character voices and entertained by their lives, but for me they were fundamentally unlikable characters. I still think it’s a triumph of sorts for a book, to be full of characters the reader doesn’t like and still be something they are glad they read. Despite the attitudes and actions of the characters which I found to be irritating, the narrative voice was smooth and sometimes whimsical, with a strong sense of personality that was fundamentally charming. I did want things to turn out for the three women, even though I didn’t think any of them were particularly good people.

It could be said that Morgan allows her women to be messy, which is something I really appreciate about A Love Story for Bewildered Girls. The characters are definitely dimensional and complicated, as are the relationships between them. It is often funny, and also often annoying, but in a way that ultimately made me want to keep reading.