Danika reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger, as the subtitle states, a memoir of a body. It follows Roxane Gay’s journey with her body, from when she was a kid to her present day, and how the trauma in her life has played out over her body. This is dark, sometimes brutal book. It talks frankly about her rape as a child and how she has lived with that experience for the rest of her life. It talks about the way our society views fat bodies, how that fatphobia affects her in so many ways. It talks about her disordered eating, the unhealthy relationships she’s had (as well as the healthy ones). The subject matter is intense.

Despite this, I ended up finishing Hunger much more quickly than I had anticipated. Gay writes in an approachable, casual style most of the time, as if she’s having a conversation with you. The chapters are very short–often just a few pages. And her writing is so compelling. Whether she’s talking about fat acceptance as a movement or discussing her dating life, I was completely pulled in.

She includes a lot of nuanced, complicated looks at subjects she returned to repeatedly. Often, she’d write “I don’t know why ___. Or I do.” (“I don’t know how I let it get this bad. Or I do.”) Because that’s how we look at our own lives. It seems completely random, out of our control–or it’s a concrete narrative, every step leading inexorably to the next. We don’t know why we do things (but we do). She talks about how she appreciates fat activism, body positivity, and the health at every size movement, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to lose weight–that even the representation of fat bodies in these movements don’t represent people at her size and the struggles that she has with her body.

I love Roxane Gay’s writing even when I’m disagreeing with her, and I felt like Hunger was the strongest work I’ve read by her. I have enjoyed every book I’ve read by her, but I really felt affected by this one. It’s definitely not as big a focus as some of the other themes going on, but there is queer content in Hunger. Roxane Gay is bisexual, and she talks about her coming out as well as some of her relationships with women.

I rated this 5 stars, and it’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. I’d definitely recommend it, as long as you are prepared for the discussion of rape, disordered eating, and negative body image.

Danika reviews Dreadnought by April Daniels

If “trans lesbian superhero YA” makes you think “queer escapist romp,” you would have the same idea as I did going into Dreadnought. And although I don’t regret picking it up based on that, I got the “escapist romp” inference entirely wrong. This is a book that deals directly with intense transphobia (especially transmisogyny) and abuse. To give you an idea, here’s a line from the first few pages (trigger warning for suicide)The dirty little secret about growing up as a boy is if you’re not any good at it, they will torture you daily until you have the good graces to kill yourself.

Danny has enough on her plate just trying to survive her abusive household while being a closeted trans teenage girl. She has ducked behind the mall to secretly paint her toenails–her only avenue of self-expression–when blue lasers explode around her: Oh. Great. A superhero fight. Just friggin’ wonderful. It turns out to be Dreadnought, the world’s most powerful superhero, locked in combat against an unknown enemy. The fight turns deadly, and Danny pulls a wounded Dreadnought to safety–but it’s too late, and Dreadnought passes his abilities on to Danny just before he dies. Danny gains access to the “lattice” behind reality. She immediately uses this to shape her body into her ideal version of herself, but this also means that she has super strength, can fly, and can influence reality in ways she’s not fully aware of.

Being a superhero doesn’t mean that she escapes the problems she had before, though. Although she relishes being in a body that other people recognize as her gender, being a cape comes with risks–and the superhero community has its own transmisogynistic assholes. This isn’t escapist utopian fun: it’s battling bigotry armed with superpowers. And although initially she feels like no one can hold her back, she quickly finds out that her father’s vitriol can still get under her skin (even though bullets can’t).

This is a catharsis fantasy. Danielle fights the bad guys both in her cape identity and in her everyday life, and it makes her victories even more triumphant. This is about pushing through unimaginable pain and conquering it, surviving, maybe even emerging stronger.

I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to the next book, but I do want to emphasize that this should come with some major trigger warnings. Danielle deals with suicidal thoughts. There is a ton of transmisogyny, including slurs. Her father is extremely verbally and emotionally abusive, and the poisonous words he uses are on the page. There were also a few notes I wasn’t sure about: the origin of superheros/villains in this book is Hitler’s Ubermensch, including a villain called Kristallnacht. Would like to hear Jewish reviewers’ thoughts on that. There was also a moment of ableism near the end (vague spoilers), where Danielle shows disgust towards someone (one of the villains) without arms and leaves them face-down on the ground. (On a more minor note, some of the dialogue did seem stilted to me, but it might be because I just don’t want to believe that people would say such heinous things, and I believe the author did mention that some of it is word-for-word what was said to her, so that’s likely just me as a reader.)

I still would recommend this book, but don’t expect a fluffy read! Also, Danny does mention that she’s a lesbian, but there isn’t a romance in this volume (though there is a ship I hope will sail in the next one!), and her sexual identity plays a pretty minor role beside her superhero and trans identities.

Danika reviews Girl Friends: The Complete Collection 1 by Milk Morinaga

Everything I’ve read talking about yuri seems to mention Girl Friends, so I thought it was time for me to read this quintessential yuri series. And I can see how it’s the example of yuri! It’s school girls, and a lot of blushing, and the typical “girls don’t do this” heteronormativity. I read this in the omnibus, and talk about a slow burn! This is almost 500 pages, and mostly just about Mariko making a new friend, falling in love with her, and then (much later) realizing that she’s fallen in love with her.

Girl Friends is super cute: exactly what you’d expect from the title and cover, though there is the melodrama of agonizing over a crush on a girl, but that should go without saying. It is also set in high school, so it does have some nudity, talk about sex, and underage drinking. (The cotton candy cuteness made me a little shocked by the nudity, for some reason.)

Interestingly, about three quarters of the way through, we get a perspective shift. After spending so long reading about Mariko’s doomed crush on Akko, we get to see Akko’s (mostly oblivious) reaction, and perhaps see the same thing happen to her? Maybe that’s what’s going to take up the next 500 page omnibus?

This is a fun, quick, addictive reading. I was craving it between readings. I’ll definitely be continuing on with the series!

Danika reviews Citrus, Vol 1 by Saburo Uta

Generally I don’t subscribe to the idea of “guilty pleasure” reads, but yuri manga is definitely the closest that I’ve come. The ones I’ve read have been addictive, engrossing, but they leave me with the same feeling binging on junk food does. Citrus Vol 1 definitely fit into that category for me, though it did some things better than most of the other yuri I’ve read. It was a fun, sort of trashy read.

The strength is definitely the art. Especially in the first few glossy, full-color pages (the rest is in black and white), I was impressed by the attention to detail, especially in the girls’ faces. The main character is Yuzu, a loud, mischievous, and overall adorable girl who has just moved. She’s shocked by the strictness of her new school, which leaves little room for fashion or boy-chasing, her usual pursuits. She immediately comes into conflict with Mei, the student council president, who has no tolerance for her. Then, plot twist, Mei turns out to be Yuzu’s new stepsister! (One of the Goodreads reviews calls this “incest erotica,” which I think is going a little far. There are some make out scenes, and they do go on about the “sisterly love” thing more than I’d like, but they are stepsisters who have just met, and it doesn’t approach what I would call erotica.)

There is definitely some questionable consent in several scenes in this, but I think what sets Citrus apart is that there is reason for this: Mei is repeating the sexual abuse that she’s experienced. Where Yuzu is generally carefree, Mei is reserved and brooding, and we learn that she’s in a relationship with a teacher who is using her for her family connections. She has largely accepted this is her fate, but she lashes out at Yuzu because of this pain–which doesn’t excuse it, but it does explain it. They definitely don’t have the healthiest dynamic because of this, but you can really see that she’s coming from a place of pain and of self-sabotaging any relationship she might have with someone who cares about her.

This does have the heteronormativity and internalized homophobia that I’ve come to expect from yuri: lots of “that’s not what girls do” and being called a “deviant,” for example. For all its faults, though, I think the art style and the nuance to their personalities made this stand out for me. I have already requested the next two volumes from the library, so that tells you what I really think of it.

If you have yuri recommendations, especially ones without the heteronormativity and internalized homophobia, let me know!

Danika reviews Honey Girl by Lisa Freeman

It’s 1972, and while Nani may not be familiar with California, she’s a Hawaiian teenage girl, and she knows the rules of the beach. Rules like: Never cut your hair. Never go anywhere without a bathing suit. Don’t let boys see you eat. Armed with this knowledge, she’s determined to break into the line up of local beach girls and become a true honey girl. But beach girl culture is cutthroat, and it’s not so easy to earn a spot.

Rarely has historical fiction pulled me so completely into the atmosphere. This takes place entirely during the summer, right after Nani and her mother have moved to California after her father’s death. She’s struggling with his death, the move, and dealing with her (white) mother’s refusal to acknowledge her Hawaiian culture, all while trying to fit in in a whole new social scene. Honey Girl perfectly captures that feel of summer vacation sun-drenched days that seem to stretch on forever. It was fascinating to see the intricate power plays that happened between all the girls on the beach, who are competing for the attention of Rox and Claire–the rulers of the beach girls–almost as much as they compete for surfers’ attention.

Nani takes her reputation on the beach very seriously, and she calculates every word and movement to ensure that she follows the rules of the beach, which she is sure will be her ticket to success. I really liked Nani. She has a tumultuous relationship with her mother, who wants a quick route to a shiny, rich, Christian, American life. Nani wants to keep the memory of her father alive, and is determined to go back and take over his bar once she’s of age. She resents her mom, but she’s also the only family she has.

The beach has the real cast of characters, however. Rox and Claire, especially, are fascinating, but even the minor characters seem to have more going on than is explicitly written, like they’re wandering off the page to continue their own stories. Initially, I was briefly worried that I had somehow gotten confused, and that Honey Girl wasn’t a queer book. Then Nani talked about secretly looking at her uncle’s Playboys, and I stopped worrying. Still, although she acknowledges that she might be a funny kine girl (Hawaiian Pidgin for lesbian), her romance with a boy is a significant part of the story. It is not, however, the only romance she has.

[spoilers] 

Some people might be concerned about the cheating/”slutty” bisexual trope used here, but I enjoyed Rox as a character a lot, and both Nani and Rox seem to agree that in their situation, a beard boyfriend is necessary for keeping up appearances. I wasn’t sure if Nani was bisexual or a lesbian, by the end. She doesn’t use a label, but she seems to come to a general both/and conclusion for the dichotomies in her life: Hawaiian and white, Fiji and Nigel, Mom and Jean, Hawaii and California.

[end spoilers]

I really enjoyed this one, and I am very glad that I have the sequel lined up, because I really got sucked into the atmosphere of this story.

Danika reviews Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

There’s a certain kind of book that I find really hard to read. It’s when it has this tone–this disaffected, aimless melancholy. Radio Silence definitely has that underlying sadness, and combined with it being a 400 page book, this wasn’t the quickest read for me, but it was definitely worth it.

Radio Silence is a YA novel about Frances, who has concentrated all of her energy and attention on two things in life: getting into Cambridge, and being a fan of Universe City. Universe City is a podcast with a striking similarity to Welcome To Night Vale. When she finds out that the creator of Universe City is someone she knows, the two immediately bond over their shared interests.

I loved the focus on friendships as important, life-changing relationships. As Frances and Aled grow closer, she makes sure to clarify that “You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say—we don’t.” That doesn’t stop them from having an intense relationship, though. They connect in a way that they haven’t with other people, and they can help and hurt each other just as much as if they were in a romantic relationship.

As I said, there is a bleak atmosphere through most of the novel. Frances has built her life around her academic career, and hasn’t stopped to consider whether she actually wants what she’s been working towards. Aled is in a smiliar spot, except that he has been pressured into it by his abusive mother. (Extremely emotionally abusive–trigger warning for abuse and pet death.)

There are a lot of different relationships at play here: Aled’s estranged sister (who yelled at Frances when she tried to kiss her and then disappeared), Aled’s mother, and also his friend Daniel.

I’m not sure how to talk about this book without spoiling it, because the ending is really what made it for me. It was worth pushing through the sadness to that bit of light at the end. It shows that there is an escape from that dread that seems all-consuming. It might not mean stepping out into beams of sunlight, but there are stars in the darkness.

There is, of course, a lot of great representation as well. Frances is biracial and bisexual, and there are also gay and demisexual characters.

If you like Welcome To Night Vale, love/hate tumblr, or have a complicated relationship with universities as institutions, definitely check this one out.

Danika reviews Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote

“I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.”

– Michael Cunningham, A Home at the Edge of the World, epigraph to Tomboy Survival Guide

I am in love with this book, as I am in love with Ivan Coyote’s writing in general.

First of all, this is a beautiful book just as an object. I love the cover, and there are lots of small details that really add to the design, including the back cover edge being usable as a ruler. Throughout the book, between essays, are diagrams, including a disassembled stand mixer, knot-tying, and pastry-making.

I love Ivan Coyote’s writing because it’s both easy to read and deeply moving. Most of their stories come out of a rural setting, often up north, and they combine that often harsh environment with a kindness and generosity that underlies all their words. In one story, they talk about being one of only two people in a trades class that wasn’t a cis guy, and the harassment they faced. One day, they came in to find that someone had pissed in their toolbox. They cleaned it before class so no one would see them flinch at this.

In this same class, the same day, a guy asks them for relationship advice. They proceed to give possibly the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard, including detailed instructions on both dinner preparation and cunnilingus. The guy came back the next day and gave them the only hug they’d ever seen him participate in. He was beaming. Coyote absorbs this environment’s cruelty and still offers kindness–kindness that pays off, that is multiplied.

This conviction to remain kind even in a cruel world is inspiring to read. It’s not laid out as a philosophy; it’s just apparent behind every story. In one essay, they talk about forgiving their mother for “squeezing” them into things, recognizing that what they read as shame for all those years was actually fear–and wishing that their mother had named it then.

Once I came out, I stayed out. I got a regrettable pink triangle tattoo on my shoulder and plastered Queer Nation stickers on my leather jacket and went to kiss-in protests at the old coffee shop on Commercial Drive. I wanted to fight homophobia everywhere, in everyone. I wanted to Act Up, to act out, to have sit-ins, and not stand for it anymore.

I wish now I has been kinder to my mother about it all.

Ellen moved into a big house in East Vancouver and started to date a guy who played trombone in her jazz quintet. I told her I couldn’t spend too much time with her and all her straight friends anymore lest I by homogenized by their infectious heterosexuality. My politics didn’t leave anyone, including me, a lot of room for nuance, or grey areas.

I wish I had been kinder to a lot of people about it all, come to think of it.

Queer and trans people are often depicted in media as being perpetually teenagers or twenty-somethings. That’s another reason that I appreciate Ivan Coyote’s place in queer lit. They are in their 40s, which means both that they offer a look into a possible queer future for ourselves (it’s hard to imagine your future when none are depicted in media) and that they offer a more nuanced view of queer politics.

One essay that really stood out to me talked about the response they got from their Slate piece about gender neutral bathrooms, and about the harassment they face in public bathrooms. Their piece got shared at the same time on two sites: one, a pray-away-the-gay site, and the other, a “radical feminist” anti-trans site. The odd thing, they said, was how difficult it was to tell from the hateful emails which site the person was from. These are supposed to extreme opposite ends of the political spectrum, and yet the “radical feminists” and ultra right-wing camp sound almost identical. There is an unfortunate amount of TERFs (trans-exclusionary/trans-exterminatory “radical feminists”) on tumblr, and I’m constantly stumbling on their posts and remarking at how conservative their stances are, with minor vocabulary changes.

Of course, as the title would suggest, most of this collection has to do with gender.

But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. I am not trapped in the wrong body; I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battle ground, where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I like in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

I think this would be an excellent book to give both trans/butch/gender-nonconforming people, especially teenagers, but also to give to someone who wants to learn about trans politics and lives, but doesn’t know where to start. Coyote is generous and forgiving in their writing, and despite the almost endless opportunities to respond to a situation with rage, there is very little anger in this book.

Basically, I can’t recommend Ivan Coyote’s writing highly enough, and Tomboy Survival Guide is a superb example of it.

Danika reviews Thirteen Hours by Meghan O’Brien

I know, I know. “What is that cover??” I can explain. (No I can’t. It’s a terrible cover.)

There’s a useful term they use on Book Riot: “genre kryptonite“. It describes those tropes that immediately make you want to pick up a book. The buzzwords that leave you helpless to add a book to your TBR. For me, one of my genre kryptonites is enclosed spaces. I’m not sure why (claustrophilia?), but any story that has characters trapped together in an enclosed space piques my interest. So when I heard about a lesbian erotica novel that had two character trapped in an elevator together for 13 hours, I knew I was going to read it eventually (even though I don’t usually gravitate towards erotica).

This book was both better and worse than I was expecting. From the first few pages, I knew I wouldn’t be rating this book highly. I knew that part of the tension of Thirteen Hours was that the two women didn’t get along before they got stuck in the elevator. What I wasn’t expecting was the instant loathing that I had for one of the main characters. Dana is working at her office when she is surprised by a stripper, who has apparently been hired by a coworker for her without her knowledge. Obviously it’s fair that Dana feels super uncomfortable and even angry about this. But she reacts by being over-the-top cruel and insulting to this woman, including saying that she’s afraid she’ll “catch something” from her.

I realize that this was supposed to be the basis of their dynamic when they get stuck in the elevator, but I was so immediately sympathetic to Laurel (the stripper) and repulsed by Dana that I couldn’t understand why Laurel was so understanding about it. She seems to think that her defending herself and reacting to Dana’s insults is just as bad as Dana’s spontaneous vitriol.

On top of not liking their romance, I found the elevator scene to be less engaging than I was expecting. It was basically just them chatting, getting to know each other. And then playing truth or dare (and, obviously, sexy shenanigans follow).

What I was surprised by, though, was the second part of the book, which shows their emerging romance. If I had read that part without reading the first couple chapters, I would have enjoyed the book as a whole a lot more. The depiction of BDSM, especially, is well done. They have clear communication and consent, and there’s a playfulness to their sexuality.

Unfortunately, the underlying disgust with sex work that permeates this book really detracts from its strong moments. Laurel does defend herself and stripping, but she does so by distancing herself from “hookers”. And despite her defense of other women who strip, she quits that job to make Dana happy.

So although I actually quite liked their relationship together post-elevator, this wouldn’t be a title I would recommend (even if it’s your genre kryptonite, too).

Danika reviews Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

This has been a much-anticipated read for me! Back in 2016, I saw a tumblr post by Barbara Dee’s daughter talking about the upcoming release of her mom’s book, Star-Crossed: a middle-grade book with a bisexual girl as the main character. The first middle-grade novel with a girl who likes girls as the main character! And with an adorable cover! I was sold, but it was still months before it came out.

Unfortunately, the next time I heard about this title (other than the endless reblogs on tumblr) was when I read Barbara Dee’s post, Please Don’t Talk About Your Book. (Which got me so upset that I wrote Let’s Talk About STAR-CROSSED: Why We Need Bisexual Kids’ Books, Backlash or Not at Book Riot.)

Needless to say, I was pretty eager to read this story myself! I was pretty biased going into it, I’ll admit, but I felt that it lived up to the hype. This is a very sweet story that balances Shakespeare references with the dizzying experience of middle school crushes. The characters and middle school politics felt realistic and well-rounded. Even the “mean girl” isn’t dismissed as one-dimensional.

This story revolves around the 8th grade production of Romeo and Juliet, and there is lots of discussion about the play and Shakespeare. Each chapter starts with a related quotation from the play. I was impressed with the discussion that takes place with the material–the play is not only explained, but also critiqued and complimented by the kids performing it. I think it shows what you can gain from really diving into a story looking at in depth. It begins to be relateable and personally valuable.

As for the representation in the story, the word “bisexual” isn’t actually used, but it’s explicit that she acknowledges that she can get crushes on boys and girls. Mattie worries what people will think if they find out that she has a crush on a girl, but there’s very little homophobia on the page. (More detail and spoilers in following paragraph.)

[Spoilers] The only homophobia on the page is one kid saying “That’s gay” about something and the teacher and his classmate (the popular girl who’s been kind of a jerk otherwise) both immediately say that wasn’t okay and that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. Mattie comes out to her sister, teacher, and friends without ant of them really batting an eyelash. She doesn’t come out to her parents by the end of the book, but doesn’t seem worried about it. She asks Gemma (her crush) out on a date, and she accepts! [End spoilers]

This was a light, fun read, and I’m so happy it’s out in the world now. This would be life-changing for kids questioning their sexuality/romantic identity! It is fluffy enough that I don’t expect I’ll reread it or that it will stick with me in a huge way as an adult reader, but it’s well-written, entertaining, and much-needed.

Danika reviews Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

Jessie is a ballet dancer who pours her life into controlling her body. It must be kept slim, contained, and each muscle must be acting perfectly according to the assigned movements. Despite going home from classes having danced until her feet bled, Jessie feels her chances of becoming a professional ballerina are slipping away.

Dawn has lost control of her body. She keeps slipping into “fugues”–chunks of time where she loses conscious thought and retains no memories from. She feels an overwhelming pull towards the animalistic, her body keening for wildness. Her life, fragmented and antagonistic towards her BodyBeautifulTM mother and bitter stepfather, can’t continue this way for long. Something has to break.

Dawn and Jessie were once best friends, but they haven’t seen each other in about a decade. Their parents used to be just as close, but once relationships between the girls and between the pairs of parents crossed boundaries, the families moved apart and cut contact. When desperation on Dawn’s part gets her to reach out, the two start clumsily rebuilding a relationship together. Meanwhile, Jessie finds herself lost in a new, overwhelming, raw style of dance, and Dawn keeps returning to a bear in a cage in the woods.

Usually I wouldn’t give this much summary in a review. But I’m finding it hard to gather my own feelings about the story. I was completely immersed in it while I was reading it, and it definitely has a wild, passionate appeal to it. Both girls seem on the edge of losing control, and neither seem to know whether that would be a bad thing. Dawn’s descents into her fugues are accompanied by fragmented, poetic writing, communicating her changing thought processes. This really worked for me, and I couldn’t help rooting for Dawn even as she lashed out at everyone around her and jumped out her bedroom window to run into the woods.

I would expect Jessie’s story to pale in comparison to Dawn’s… were-bear story? But I actually ended up just as morbidly fascinated with her world of dance. She is brutally disciplined, and when she starts dancing a more interpretive style, you can feel the intensity of base, physical emotion pour off the page. I was wrapped up in both of their emotional journeys, but I had no idea where they were going to go. This is a story about, as the author note explains, being a girl in a girl’s body. It’s about the intensity of societal pressure on teen girls’ bodies. How do you tidily wrap that up?

You don’t, I suppose. I don’t know what to think of the ending, exactly. [vague spoilers] There is confirmation of the complex, queer, but not entirely defined relationship between Dawn and Jessie, but it’s unclear whether they will have any relationship in the future, or what will happen in either of their lives. [end spoilers]

This made for an intense reading experience, and I really enjoyed the use of language to convey their differing perspectives. If you’re interesting in reading about a book inspired by a Mary Oliver quote and the scrutiny placed on teen girls’ bodies, I would highly recommend this.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver