Quinn Jean reviews The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson cover

[Please note: this novel contains occasional depictions of violence and this review mentions these in the first and final paragraphs]

Like its eponymous heroine, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza defies categorisation. Hutchinson’s novel never doubts the reader’s intelligence and jumps right into the centre of events at the start. Elena Mendoza is introduced as a sixteen-year-old bisexual Latina woman working at a Starbucks in a small town in Florida, who witnesses a teenage boy shoot her long-time crush and abruptly learns she has the power to heal people. The crush is a blue-haired artist called Freddie who unwittingly becomes part of Elena’s journey along with Elena’s best friend Fadil, a kind and thoughtful Muslim boy. Everyone who is exposed to the mystery of Elena’s healing ability offers her opinions on how to solve the puzzle and who to help with her power, while Elena is most concerned with keeping her loved ones safe and not hurting anybody, while also trying to figure out if Freddie maybe likes her too now. A side note to all these extreme events taking place early in the story is that Elena was the product of a virgin birth when her mother was a teenager, with science proving Elena was a statistical anomaly and was conceived through parthenogenesis. Elena has been bullied and stigmatised her entire life as a result of her famous history, which all leads her to question whether these otherworldly occurrences are miracles, science, coincidence, or something else entirely.

A novel with plot points this complex even just at the beginning of the narrative is bound to deal with countless themes, and Elena Mendoza does not disappoint there. The book trusts the reader to have the patience and focus to follow the various characters and story points and at various times Elena’s first-person narrations discusses the significance of religion, science, and ethics in the matters at hand. A big part of Elena’s growing bond with Freddie is the two of them debating and exploring different understandings of why Elena can heal and when and whether she should be healing people. There are times when the book comes off a bit patronizing, with Elena’s self-righteous rants about how to be a good person and treat other people fairly, but this could arguably just be intended as the character’s perspective rather than the author’s.

And despite the Big Idea monologues sometimes verging on being sanctimonious, for the most part Elena is a compelling, likeable and relatable main character who more than deserves her own young adult novel to lead. Elena herself points out that if her powers are God-given, she is an unexpected vessel as a queer woman of colour; the same is unfortunately true of YA protagonists. Similarly, the religious, big-hearted and open-minded Fadil is a wonderful foil to Elena’s sometimes pessimistic, doubtful and misanthropic tendencies. Their loving interfaith, interracial friendship as it is portrayed in the novel is as refreshing as it is rare.

Elena’s bisexuality and interest in Freddie is an important and key element of the story, without reducing either character to the role of pursuer or love-interest. The often prickly and inconsistent interactions the two girls have as a result of extreme circumstances are not romantic in any traditional sense. The way Freddie and Elena are forced to confront their preconceived ideas of the other and listen to uncomfortable truths explodes old notions of how intimacy and love are formed, and the novel and their bond are both better for it.

This novel is not exclusively young adult, or fantasy, or a queer love story, or a meditation on how to be a good person. It is all of those things and a lot more, all crammed into a relatively small amount of pages. Do note that the novel contains brief references to domestic violence and racism as well as the aforementioned gun violence. Ultimately aside from the odd preachy moment, the book is an excellent piece of writing, exploring important themes through engaging with very likeable and relatable characters.

Megan G reviews Grrrls on the Side by Carrie Pack

Tabitha doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere. Her ex-best friend is now her number one bully, and the only friend she has is only her friend because they smoke together and enjoy the same type of music. One night, her friend, Mike, invites her to a concert, where Tabitha is introduced to the Riot Grrrls. Soon, she finds herself with a new group of friends, an increased desire to smash the patriarchy, and some interesting new feelings for a fellow Riot Grrrl.

Before I jump into my (potentially muddled) thoughts about this book, I need to start with some Trigger Warnings for this book, because they are extensive: This book contains racism, homophobia, biphobia, fatphobia, and sexual assault. Another warning I feel is important to add is that these issues are not always dealt with in the best of ways.

Now that that is out of the way, let me start trying to unravel the range of emotions I felt while reading Grrrls on the Side.

As you can probably tell from the trigger warnings, this book deals with some heavy content. The problem is that it doesn’t often deal with it in an appropriate manner. Often, conflicts are resolved within a page or two, and the resolutions feel half-assed. Most of the time the conversations about issues like racism, homophobia, biphobia, fatphobia, and sexual assault, read more like after-school PSA specials than actual real-life conversations. It’s frustrating, because I feel like this book scratches the surface of something that could have been wonderful, but never allows its characters to go deep enough to truly get to that wonderful place.

I had a hard time being invested in the main relationship, as well. Here we have an unaware racist bisexual white girl, dating a biphobic black lesbian. Any time Jackie, Tabitha’s girlfriend, brings up issues she has with the Riot Grrrls regarding race, or issues she has with things Tabitha says that are racist, Tabitha either doesn’t accept her explanations, or tells her that she gets it while it’s obvious that she really doesn’t. [major spoiler] Tabitha only seems to fully understand the issues Jackie deals with due to the intersection of being a black lesbian after she has a conversation with a white woman, which is pretty problematic considering her girlfriend has been telling her the exact same things the entire book [end spoiler]. On the other hand, after a bout of irrational jealousy, Jackie blurts out some majorly biphobic sentiments. She immediately tries to retract them, and the issue is seemingly resolved, but it left an awful taste in my mouth. Things like that don’t just come out of your mouth when you’re angry unless you genuinely believe them. I had a really hard time rooting for these two, and in fact often wondered what they even see in each other that would make them stick through this clear lack of acceptance of integral parts of each other.

Something I feel very conflicted about is the way that the Riot Grrrls interactions are portrayed. Almost every single scene that involves more than two Riot Grrrls ends in a fight breaking out. One character, Marty, is unapologetically racist, and although she is called out on it, it’s always quickly swept under the rug. The fact that Venus, who is the usual subject of Marty’s racism, continues to stick around the Riot Grrrls despite this is pretty implausible. Racism aside, though, there is a strong amount of internalized misogyny in these patriarchy smashers. We have two instances of female relationships breaking apart because of a man (one of which I will discuss more in a moment), and I can only think of one scene in which two or more Riot Grrrls being together doesn’t end in a massive fight. These girls are meant to be friends, but that doesn’t come across through the text. In fact, more than once I found myself scratching my head and wondering why any of them even bother hanging out with each other, since they obviously dislike each other so much. I don’t know much about the original Riot Grrrls movement, but from my limited understanding, the point was to form a sisterhood. To join together against the patriarchy. I can’t even tell you a single thing that any of these girls have in common with each other. They are simply thrown together and fight.

That all being said, a part of me actually appreciated this. There seems to be a misunderstanding that being a feminist automatically assumes that you will put women’s desires first, or that your ideals will always match with your actions. The truth is that a lot feminists, even intersectional feminists, can be racist, misogynistic, homophobic, etc. Hypocrisy can run wild, and that is brought out in this book. My only issue with this is that there is no contrasting portrayal of genuine female connection. I know that Jackie and Tabitha are supposed to exemplify this, but their obvious difference in world views (see above) kind of cancels out any healthy relationship they may have. The only character who seems to be kind and open with everybody is Cherie, the sole non-white and non-black character in the novel, but she is relegated to the role of sidekick and given, at most, one important scene in the book.

The way that sexual assault was handled here was, at best, sloppy. A sexual abuse survivor sits in a room, sobbing, while two other girls debate whether the word “rape” should be used for anything other than… well, rape. Later, Tabitha is groped and forcefully kissed by a man, touting lesbophobic sentiments, and when she confronts her then-girlfriend Kate, she is rebuffed. Kate, who earlier was so concerned with how using the word “rape” for any type of unwanted attention devalues it for rape survivors, nonchalantly tells Tabitha that the man is “harmless” and that he only did it to “get back at her” (he’s an ex-boyfriend). They break up, and the issue is dropped (with a brief mention that the school has transferred the boy out of Tabitha’s classes). Kate eventually apologizes in a supremely mediocre way, and Tabitha accepts, even though this makes no sense. Then, we are informed that Tabitha’s mean ex-best friend is dating her assailant. She is rude to Tabitha when she tells her about it, so Tabitha does not inform her of what kind of man she is dating. Because this is never mentioned again, it kind of comes across as Tabitha deciding that, since Heather is mean, she deserves to be with a man like that.

Again, though, part of me does appreciate the way Kate reacts to Tabitha’s confession of assault, if nothing else because it’s real. That does happen, even coming from the most outspoken feminists. I just wish that this reality had been treated less flippantly than it is.

One of the things I did appreciate was the inclusion of the zines throughout the text. They added a lot to the plot, and added an extra sense of nostalgia and realism to the book. It was also cool to hear from character’s other than Tabitha in such a deep, personal way.

Overall, I feel like this book wanted to be more than it was. It’s clear that Pack’s intent is in the right place, but the execution falls a little flat. I wish more of the story had focused on genuinely dealing with Jackie’s biphobia and Tabitha’s racism (which, again, is shocking and continuous), instead of throwing out PSA-style conversations about random issues every now and again. Even if they had not ended up together in the end (which, really, I think would have been better for both of them), I would have felt more satisfied if I’d seen actual growth from the girls in these issues than I did watching them get a pseudo-happy ever after. It should also be mentioned that trans issues are not broached once, and the book comes across as quite ciscentric. One could justify this by claiming that it’s natural for a book set in white suburbia in the 90’s, but coming from a book that is so clearly meant to be preaching about intersectional feminism, it feels like a glaring omission.

Danika reviews Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant

I knew I would like Sugar Town from the cover alone, and from the first page, it didn’t disappoint.

This is a queer, polyamorous, BDSM fluffy love story. Hazel is in an open relationship with her boyfriend, and she bumps into Argent, a confident and kind domme, at a party. They click instantly, and Argent helps Hazel learn more about negotiating polyamorous relationships. All of the relationships are so caring and gentle.

My favourite scene was probably the BDSM scene (which is pretty tame and mostly off-panel, if it concerns you). Argent is using a whip on Hazel when Hazel says “Hang on,” and Argent immediately stops, checks in, and finds out that Hazel pulled something in her back, though she was thoroughly enjoying the scene. They cuddle and watch cooking shows instead. It’s BDSM as a completely consensual, mutual, and even kind activity for partners to enjoy together. That’s something I very rarely see.

Do I keep using the word “kind”? I can’t help it. Sugar Town is a sweet, soft story. Everyone in it treats each other with respect and caring. They check in. They talk about their feelings. Hazel is still figuring out jealousy and other aspects of polyamory, but that’s okay. They’re not simmering underneath, they’re freely discussed. They’re not perfect–Argent mentions experiencing suicidal thoughts, Hazel is self-conscious and doubts herself–but they  are supportive of each other and the rest of the people in their lives, whether they’re friends or partners.

I also loved the art style, which reinforces that warm and welcoming feel. I want to crawl inside the pages and curl up there. This is definitely one of my rare 5 star ratings: I loved every panel, and I know I will return to it when I need something hopeful to dive into for a little while. What a treat.

Danika reviews Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire by Lisa M. Diamond

sexual fluidity lisa m diamond

This was a life-changing book for me. The only thing I can compare it to in terms of reading experience is Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue, which opened up a whole world of queer women lit throughout time to me that I had never heard of before. Instead of changing my view of lesbian and bi books, though, Sexual Fluidity revolutionized my entire outlook on sexual identity and orientation.

I wish that was an exaggeration. This was an incredibly affirming book, but it also frustrated me that it took this long for me to discover a different framework from which to view sexuality–one that viewed my experiences not as an aberration, but as a normal, valid example of how sexuality might flow over time.

Lisa M. Diamond follows a group of almost 100 women over the course of ten years, most of them lesbians or bisexual women, checking in several times throughout to see how their sexual identity and behaviour had changed. Although the standard understanding of sexual orientation would assume that these women would stay in the same categories after they came out, this wasn’t the reality. 2/3 of the women changed identities (lesbian/bisexual/heterosexual/unlabeled) at some point during the ten years. Most of that change was because of sexual relationships women had since the last interview. Diamond argues that typically it isn’t actually that these women’s orientation is changing–the interviewees generally reported staying in a fairly narrow range of attraction to their preferred gender(s)–but that instead these experiences were due to examples of sexual fluidity.

This is a fairly academic text, but it’s packed full of fascinating information. It covers the biological aspects and psychological aspect of this concept, drawing from a huge amount of studies. I apologize for this long-winded review, because this book was so central in changing how I think about sexuality that I’m determined to note it all down so that I can’t forget.

Diamond argues sexual orientation indicates not a rigid  prediction of the gender(s)/sex(es) you are and will always be attracted to, but instead indicated a range from which you can fluctuate–meaning that being attracted nonexclusively to a certain gender is not necessarily a bisexual orientation, but may be brought on by sexual fluidity. Basically, sexuality is not just a range from 0% same-sex attraction = heterosexual, 1%-99% same-sex attraction = bisexual, and 100% same-sex attraction = homosexual. Instead, orientation is only one aspect of sexuality. Here are some of the things she argues make up sexuality:

  1. Sexual orientation, which indicates a tendency to seek out sexual experience with a certain sex/sexes
  2. Degree of fluidity: the capacity a person has to react to triggers for fluidity. Where orientation determines someone’s already-existing attraction to certain sexes, same-sex arousability determines someone’s receptivity to environments that might trigger fluidity–like becoming emotionally intimate with a same-sex friend
  3. Exposure to environments that might trigger fluidity (usually exposure to certain genders/sexes in everyday life–an all-women college won’t offer a lot of opportunity for sexual fluidity towards men)
  4.  Capacity for “person-based” attraction: for some people, emotional intimacy with someone may lead to romantic feelings, which may then lead to sexual attraction, just as sexual attraction to someone may then lead to romantic feelings for them

I know that I am over simplifying and likely mangling that explanation, but that is my understanding. Diamond also explores the roles of “proceptivity” (sexual drive) vs “arousability” (receptivity to sexual cues) in certain people’s lives. For people who menstruate, the hormonal fluctuations mean that arousability plays a bigger part in day-to-day attractions than proceptivity (unlike cis men).

She also explains that the biological foundation for romantic love evolved independently from sexuality. So while sexual orientation evolved to encourage mating, romantic love evolved from infant-caregiver bonding, which means that the biological underpinnings are not gender- or sex-specific, which explains why people might more easily fall in love with someone who does not match the sex they are usually attracted to. (These are systems that evolved separately, but they are connected, which is how romantic love might develop into sexual attraction and vice versa.)

Sexual Fluidity contains some pretty controversial statistics. For example, 60% of the women who identified as lesbians in the initial interviews went on to have sexual contact with men in subsequent years. More than 50% of the women who continued to identify as lesbians had sexual contact with men over the course of those ten years, and 30% of the women who identified as lesbians in the first interview would go on to have romantic relationships with men (though the vast majority of these women then stopped labeling themselves as lesbians). There seemed to be an unstated agreement that over 75% attraction to women meant you were a lesbian–people who crossed that line tended to change how they identified.

As someone who identified as a lesbian since high school, who felt at home in that label for ten years, and then found myself in a romantic relationship with a man, this was revelatory. Where I had always viewed my history of attraction as somewhat embarrassing and out of the ordinary, this recast it as perfectly valid and not even uncommon. According to this framework, it still made perfect sense that I would have a lesbian orientation but be in a relationship with a man (though I won’t call myself a lesbian anymore–I know that wouldn’t go over well). It just meant that I have capacity for fluidity, even though I have a pattern of being attracted to women. I can’t explain what a relief it was to read about my experiences as…. well, normal.

The conclusion of this book proposes that we change the way we look as sexuality, especially women’s sexuality. One promising avenue is dynamical systems, which in a psychology context means that it views a subject by acknowledging that biology and environment are constantly influencing and changing each other: it is a system that is based in change and assumes that change will happen, rather than seeing sexuality as a fixed point.

It’s important that we teach about sexual fluidity, because despite the fact that the majority of the women interviewed were affected in some way by fluidity, they usually explained these examples with some embarrassment, feeling as though they were the exception to the rule. Diamond shares that when she speaks at queer events about this research, she always has women come up to her afterwards and “confess” their experiences with fluidity, and how they had felt alone in this. We should not be teaching that perfectly normal shifts in sexuality or “exception to the rule” person-based attractions are abnormal.

This isn’t a perfect book. Diamond acknowledges that more research is needed, especially in the biological aspects that she mentions, which are often based on animal experiments. My primary criticism is the cissexism: gender and sex are conflated, which explains my muddled use of both in this review. Intersex people and nonbinary people are erased–despite the fact that two of the participants went on to identify as nonbinary in some way. And, of course, this is all based on interviews of people during a specific time period, and from a fairly narrow sample. It isn’t perfect, but it did blow my mind and make me consider my worldview, so I can’t help but give it 5 stars. If you have ever felt like your experiences don’t fit into the standard explanation of sexual orientation, I highly, highly recommend reading this one.

Casey reviews Bi: Notes for A Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner

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Are you looking for a smart, accessible introduction to bisexual academic theory, history, and activism?  Are you a bisexual/pansexual/omnisexual person who needs an anti-assimilationist kick in the pants?  Are you a monosexual (gay or straight) person who wants to learn more about the bisexual people in your life?  Look no further than Shiri Eisner’s Bi: Notes for A Bisexual Revolution.  Although my feelings about this book are complicated, for the most part I am happy that it is out there and that bisexuals younger than myself have it as a resource!  In particular, I think it’s a fantastic introduction to not only bisexuality but queer and feminist studies more generally.  Eisner is great at defining key terms in no-nonsense language and succinctly summarizing complicated queer/feminist theories.  You don’t need a background in queer or feminist studies or academia to understand this book, which I think is great for making it a manageable read for all sorts of people who wouldn’t ordinarily pick up something like this.

What I really loved about Bi was how Eisner put a lots of things about bisexuality and biphobia that I had experienced as both a lesbian and bi-identified woman into words.  I had never taken the time to analyze some of this stuff, and some I had just never realized were manifestations of biphobia.  Eisner dives right in in the early chapters and tackles such tricky topics as bisexual stereotypes, accusations that bisexuality ‘reinforces the gender binary’ and otherwise contributes to the dominant social order, myths that bisexuality doesn’t really exist, the fact that bi men are deemed gay whereas bi women are deemed straight, and bi people being accused of having access to heterosexual privilege.  One of my favourite points that she made was that the sometimes positively-viewed assertion that ‘everyone is really bi’ is really the other side of the ‘bisexuality doesn’t exist’ coin.  Both statements are trying to deny the validity of a bisexual orientation and the uniqueness of bisexual people.

I also really liked how she dealt with the issue of heterosexual privilege and the idea of passing as straight or gay.  She writes, for example,

“The presumption that bisexuals experience oppression not as bisexual people but as ‘quasi gays and lesbians’ … divides bisexual identity into ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ parts [and] presumes that bisexuals are only oppressed by heterosexism inasmuch as they live a ‘gay’ life and that they gain privileges inasmuch as they live a ‘straight’ life.”

Eisner also brings up a really important point about the gay / straight-washing that happens so often to bi people.  Since I’ve been paying attention, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen bi celebrities as well as regular people referred to as either gay or straight.  Like, I had no idea Alan Cumming was actually bi and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him referred to as gay a million times.  Recently, when bisexual activist Robyn Ochs (whose wonderful definition of bisexuality I’ll include farther down) was mentioned in a mainstream newspaper celebrating her marriage with a same-sex partner, she was called a lesbian—this is a woman whose career is built on fighting that exact kind of erasure.  So this book was eye-opening for me in a lot of ways, and in particular about the monosexist assumptions that led me to feel like I had to pick lesbian or straight.  A lot of what I read feels empowering and revolutionary, just like the title promised!

One of the things I didn’t love about this book was Eisner’s radical political stance.  I mean, I agreed theoretically with a lot of the points that she made, but often anarchist/radical politics feel naïve and limiting for me.  I want to say, okay, yes, dismantling the entire structure and ways of thinking that our societies are founded on is great in theory, but what can we actually practically do to make things better for people who are getting a shit deal right now?  I heard some echoes in Eisner’s writing of other things I’ve heard in radical queer circles, like the ‘subverting gender binaries’ shtick .  I’m sick and tired of reading about whether this or that identity subverts gender binaries or not. It’s getting old. I’m suspicious of this especially because it’s often evoked (not in Eisner’s case) in an anti-feminine context.

Eisner’s section on men and bisexuality is definitely the weakest section.  Honestly, a bi man should probably have written this chapter—I would have been really interested to hear that perspective, but Eisner’s anti-science tirade about the research that’s been done on bi men wasn’t interesting or illuminating to me.  In fact, in her book Excluded, Julia Serano points out that a lot of feminism’s knee-jerk anti-science is detrimental and misguided.  The section on bisexuality and racialization could have used a lot more variety too.  I get that Eisner is relying on her own experiences, but some references to other racialized people, at least for further reading, would have been nice.

All of that said, I still really recommend this book.  It taught me a lot and made me think a lot about bisexuality and biphobia in many ways that I hadn’t before.  It’s a great starting point for discussion—it will get you thinking and talking and thinking some more!  I want to end with Robyn Ochs’s definition of bisexuality, which Eisner introduced me to:

“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted-romantically and/or sexually-to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

Eisner praises Ochs for the inclusiveness and reassuring quality of this definition.  I think Eisner’s insistence on the messiness and complication of bisexuality is similarly reassuring: she writes that these qualities are not something to apologize for but rather something to value.

Danika reviews Dear John, I Love Jane edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre

I love this book. I just want to say that straight off the bat. In any minority (of power) group, telling our own stories is crucial, especially when they’re stories that defy the narrative that has traditionally been put forth about that group.

The foreword of Dear John, I Love Jane is written by the author of Sexual Fluidity, which is a book I now really want to read. The only problems I had with the book in general were that the introduction and foreword combined seemed pretty lengthy, and the introduction especially seemed unnecessary.

Also, I was initially irritated because the  foreword set the tone for stories about sexual fluidity, which I was very excited about being able to read, because we have a very Born This Way, rigid conception of sexuality in our society, and I wanted to see the stories this framework ignores. When the first few stories didn’t really address sexual fluidity, I was disappointed, but by the end I was completely satisfied.

The major thing I loved about Dear John, I Love Jane was the quality of writing. With a topic this narrow, I didn’t have very high standards, especially since anthologies generally have a range of quality. Most anthologies tend to include at least one story that you really hate. This was not true! I actually didn’t have any story that I didn’t enjoy. They varied in styles, but I thought the quality of writing was high in each one.

What makes Dear John, I Love Jane so valuable, though, is the variety of the stories told. As I said, I was hoping for stories about sexual fluidity, and there were, but they weren’t the only ones. Dear John, I Love Jane represents many different situations where women left men for women. In some, it was because they had always been attracted to women and only were with a man because they felt it was the right thing to do. For others, though, they really were deeply in love with the man they were with. For some, it was one woman who changed everything, and had nothing to do with their sexuality, just with the individual. And some women decide to stay with their husband. It really represents a range, which I found refreshing.

I have a particular dislike for our dichotomy of choice vs born-that-way with sexuality. No other aspect of ourselves do we treat that way. Was I born sarcastic, or did I choose to be that way? Was I born loving books, or did I choose to be that way? It doesn’t make any sense. And it doesn’t with orientation, either. If sexuality is not a rigid, unchanging, biological, pre-destined thing, it doesn’t automatically make it a choice.

I also enjoyed the portrayal of men in the stories. Some of the partners are not ideal mates, but many are wonderful people, and it brings more nuance to it. I think that men in Dear John,  I Love Jane are primarily positively portrayed, which just makes those situations so much more difficult and interesting.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I only keep books that I want to re-read at some point, and this is definitely one that’s going to go into my permanent collection.

(Check out the Dear John, I Love Jane website here!)