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She shoves the tray between us and cuts through. The name on her badge reads FINN. I watch her dump the tray, load up the hot plates along her arm, then serpentine through the tables and chairs.
Dyke! my gaydar screams. She has that self-confident aura. Plus, she’s wearing carpenter shorts and leather hiking shoes. Dark curly leg hair. Hel-looo.
I have an unabashed soft spot for Julie Anne Peters’ young adult novels. The drama, the straight-up lady longing, the romantic clichés, the processing, the feelings—did I mention the drama? Peters is completely unafraid to throw absolutely everything at her characters, just to see how it will all pan out. One natural disaster too simple? Why not give ‘em two!
She Loves You, She Loves You Not… (2011) by Julie Anne Peters is a perfect example of the pulpy-romance on which Peters has built her career. Delightfully, this novel ends on a slightly more hopeful and lighter note than a few of her previous novels (Rage: A Love Story and Pretend You Love Me), but the ride to get there is no less emotion-fuelled or tender.
The protagonist, Alyssa, finds herself being flown across the country to the mountains of Colorado, leaving her father, step-mother and brother on the East Coast. What she will find or do in this tiny ranching town is totally beyond her, but she is determined to make her own way—without the help of her pole dancer-cum-prostitute mother.
Heartbroken by the rejection of her girlfriend and, subsequently, of her father has left her emotionally adrift. Despite the recent trauma, Alyssa is still firm in her identity. She has known she is a lesbian since she was thirteen. She has no qualms about her sexuality—no coming-out processing here!—but she’s not sure she ever wants to fall in love again. That shit hurts.
While I really appreciate Peters’ depiction of Alyssa’s sexuality, some may take issue with her portrayal of a few of the other secondary characters. For these characters, their sexual identities are not as fixed as Alyssa’s and thus, at first glance, they could appear to be falling into the biphobic trope of “you have to pick: are you gay or straight?” I’m not totally happy with how Peters’ handles these characters, but a more generous reading of them allows for something that is desperately needed in young adult fiction: fluidity. Teenagers, in general, are unsure of a lot of things about themselves, and sexuality can often be a part of that larger, looming question: Who am I? For including this in her novel, I give an encouraging nod to Peters.
Overall, She Loves You, She Loves You Not… is a charming summer read, for lady lovers of any age. I would say its a ‘beach read’ but the scenery of this novel plays such an intimate part of the story that I would actually call it a ‘lake read’ or ‘camping read’ instead! You can almost smell the dry summer air and feel the dust and hot sun on your skin… If you enjoy strong female protagonists, first love stories, and a bit of pulpy mountain drama, definitely pick up this novel this summer.
Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine tells a story that I don’t think has ever been told in Young Adult fiction before, and it’s an important one. Set in contemporary Iran, it’s told from the point of view of 17-year-old Sahar, who has been in love with her best friend Nasrin for almost as long as she can remember. Luckily for her, Nasrin loves her back. Unluckily for both of them, homosexuality is illegal. But they can still share their love in secret, at least until the day Nasrin’s family announces she is to be betrothed–to a dude. While there’s nothing for Nasrin to do except go along with it, Sahar sinks into ever increasing despair, determined to stop the wedding at any cost. Her solution becomes this: transition to being a man, as gender reassignment surgery in Iran is, funnily enough, legal.
I was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of this book, as it’s been on my radar for a while. Yet I found myself slightly disappointed with certain things as I made my way through it. I found parts of it didactic, yet with books that introduce details about a culture to a (young) Western audience that more likely than not knows very little about it, I concede that basic explanations woven into the storytelling are necessary. I had also been nervous about how this would translate for the trans community, as it presents an excruciating conundrum: faking trans emotions seems offensive (obviously), but at the same time the fact that Nasrin would be pushed to such ideas necessarily highlights the painful absurdity of the entire situation. But in the trans community that Nasrin joins to get advice and encouragement in the novel, I found that Farizan was able to balance this well by showing trans folk who actually were living their truths, and the varying spectrum of pain that went along with that, whether their “condition” was “legally treatable” in their country or not.
I guess my main issues with the novel were personal annoyances with the main characters themselves. While I started the book in extreme sympathy for Sahar, as she declines further and further into her desperate plans, she becomes single minded in a completely irrational way. When people repeatedly warn her of all the negative outcomes or futility of her desires, she seems to shrug them all away, essentially saying over and over–I don’t care. I need to be with Nasrin. On the one hand, I question whether I even have a right to criticize Sahar. The most obvious reason being that as a privileged white girl from America, how can I look down on how Sahar reacts to the harsh reality of a world I can’t begin to truly understand? How obnoxious am I?
And for another thing, we all know that teenage love does indeed make you completely irrational and single minded. So in reality, there was probably a large amount of truth to Sahar’s stubbornness. It was just a truth I find annoying. Because the thing that bothered me most was that I didn’t find Nasrin likeable at all. She’s consistently portrayed as a shallow, selfish girl who yes, probably loves Sahar very deeply on the inside, but doesn’t have the conviction to show it as Sahar does. So while Nasrin drove herself to insanity over this girl, I couldn’t even truly sympathize with her motivation. Maybe if the novel was longer, and we had more of a chance to really get to know both Sahar and Nasrin through deeper character development, I would have felt completely differently about the whole thing.
Because at this point in YA, I expect more. Yes, while teenagers can be irrational, I really wanted more internal struggle within Sahar about what she was doing to herself, her body, her mind, in exchange for a girl who might not deserve it. I wanted more rage not just at the boy who was set to marry her beloved, but at the system as a whole, at the government, at the wider world who lets it happen. Farizan proved she could show grit in her descriptions of some other minor characters and the struggles they bore to survive. I wanted more of that grit for Sahar.
This all said: Would I still stock this book in a middle school or high school classroom? Would I put it on display at libraries? Absolutely. It still opens the door to discussions that need to be had, and can educate a lot of young people who have grown up in an It Gets Better North American psyche who may have no idea of the struggles other young people just like themselves endure in different parts of the globe. And after getting through all the frustrating middle parts, I actually did really like the ending.
If You Could Be Mine will be released in August 2013.
I think Molly Beth Griffin’s novel Silhouette of a Sparrow might just be the best lesbian young adult novel I’ve ever read. I don’t say that lightly. It has everything I could hope for: effortless yet beautiful writing, an authentic and lovable young heroine, a subtle and moving romance, an environmentalist sub-plot—honestly, what more could you ask for? I think, though, that what I appreciated the most about this book is that, while the romance is cute and sexy and authentic and great, it wasn’t the focal point of the novel. Rather, it’s the character development of the protagonist, Garnet, that Griffin is focused on throughout. I would be the first to admit that the romance was my favourite part, but I am also really pleased to read a book about a young woman whose interests are diverse. I think too often, especially in young adult books, even queer women characters continue to be defined by their romantic relationships.
Garnet is a strange and interesting mixture of artist and ornithologist (someone who studies birds). She’s rebellious by 1920s standards, but Griffin resists the urge to make her so modern as to disturb the carefully constructed historical accuracy of the book, which deals thoughtfully and realistically with issues surrounding class, gender, race, and sexuality. For example, Griffin writes about Garnet’s prejudice and preconceived notions about African-Americans at the same time that she explores the friendships that occur between working class white and black folks. It would have been tempting to pretend a young middle-class white woman at that time wouldn’t have been raised in an explicitly racist environment, especially if you want modern readers to sympathize with her. Griffin, however, resists that temptation and I think this strategy is an honest acknowledgement of racism and a much braver approach than presenting a historically inaccurately rosy picture of racial harmony.
Okay, I have to talk about the romance a little bit, especially since it has a classic romantic ‘caught in the rain’ moment, which is my favourite:
“I looked over at Isabella—those perfect lips, that short hair starting to dry with little tufts sticking up at funny angles, those boyish clothes all rumpled and soaked. I wanted to tell her secrets I hadn’t even told myself yet.”
Ah, that moment just before you kiss, when you know it’s about to happen, and you’re really excited but kind of terrified and it makes you feel like an entirely new person but wholly yourself at the same time? Griffin does a great job of capturing their teenage romance and of painting Isabella as an enticing, rebellious, and sexy young woman, yet also a flawed, complex human being.
As great as Isabella is, though, it’s Garnet’s personal journey that is really the star of this novel. Revelations such as this one border on the philosophical:
I looked closely at my edges, my boundaries, the slightly elongated lines that set me apart from lake and sky and island and bird and boat. I looked closely, pretending that I knew nothing about the girl I saw, pretending that she was some beautiful creature whose borders contained something worth holding in—something unique and extraordinary, something worth saving. I looked closely, the way I’d taught myself to look at birds, the way I’d learned to look at Isabella, and I saw myself. Then those scissors were cutting after all, as I snipped out my own image. I ignored the small ripples of the water and traced the lines that separated me from the world, and the lines that fit me into that world like the piece of a puzzle.
This passage actually reminded me in some strange way of Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir; I might go as far as to say that Silhouette of a Sparrow is as inspiring, insightful, and beautifully written as Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?—albeit a fictional, young adult version. From me, the praise can’t get much higher than that. Please, go pick up this book!
A nineteenth-century insane asylum seems hardly an appropriate place for a teenage lesbian romance. Jane Eagland, though, manages to make this both believable and exciting in her young adult novel, Wildthorn. This historical tale is not just a romance, though that was my favourite part; in fact, a larger portion of the book is dedicated to interrogating some of the atrocious Victorian social attitudes to mental illness and gender non-conformity. The “isn’t-it-horrible-what-they-did-to-women-back-in-the-day” is a bit heavy-handed and reductive at times, though; what bothers me mostly about this is the implication that nowadays women are ‘free’ from sexism. Actually, what I found remarkable —and at the same time depressing, of course—is how certain sexist belief systems, like victim-blaming, are at work in this fictional Victorian universe and are still alive and well today, albeit in different forms.
So the novel deals with some pretty serious issues, and it’s not as light as you might imagine; or, at least as I imagined when I picked it up wanting a cute, melodramatic romantic thriller. Louisa Cosgrove is from a middle-class English family and she’s, of course, exhibiting all the typical signs of baby dykedom: she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and be a doctor; she has no interest in feminine pursuits like needlepoint and pointless social calls; she has very strong feelings for her older cousin Grace. While her life is already in shambles following the death of her father, Louisa ends up being sent to Wildthorn asylum, and you’re left in suspense for most of the book as to how or why this happened. Was it her jealous, underachieving brother who orchestrated this? Has she been mistaken for someone else?
The novel is a bit of a slog in the middle section, where Louisa is trapped in the asylum; this is how Louisa feels, of course, so on the one hand Eagland is mirroring Louisa’s experience. On the other, it gets a bit tiring, and depressing. Once the romance picks up, though, the book gets pretty exciting; plus there’s the whole issue of how she is going to escape!
If you love Sarah Waters and have already plowed through all her books, I would recommend picking up Wildthorn. It’s an obvious connection to make, but I really think Eagland nails the same kind of Victorian melodrama that Waters does, in the spirit of some of my favourite nineteenth century British writers. I love how a lot of the chapters end with a dramatic cliff-hanger, such as “It’s all been in vain, I’m going to die…”. The dot, dot, dot, of course, is key. Unlike Waters, though, because Wildthorn is a book for teens, you don’t get the fun racy sex scenes. But it is a little more explicit than the original Brontës, so there’s that, and it might tide you over until Sarah Waters’s next book is out.
Also, if you want feminist historical young adult fiction set in Victorian England, I highly recommend Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series, which has some paranormal/fantasy elements as well as an awesome lesbian character!
There’s something special about a good teenaged summer story, which is why human beings keep making movies and writing books about them. And Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World is our very own classic summer teen story, with the added bonus of queer sexual awakening. Published in 2001, it came out long before the apparent current tidal storm of gay YA (http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/03/new-way-gay-characters-y/63563/) that the world is suddenly paying attention to. I’ve been wanting to read it forever, and what a sweet and satisfying story to wait for.
Nicola Lancaster is our main girl, and we meet her as she’s just arrived at the Siegel Institute Summer Program for Gifted Youth–essentially, summer camp for nerds. So not only is it a summer story, it’s a summer CAMP story, which are even better (although they don’t do many camp-y things and mainly just take classes at the Siegel Institute, but go with it anyway), and it’s a summer camp for NERDS story, which is the best. As is wont to happen at summer nerd camp, Nicola soon makes some wonderful, interesting friends: the amazingly manic computer geek Kristina, awkward music theory wiz Kevin, sweet sleeper Isaac, and of course Battle, of the beautiful blonde hair and lovely green eyes. In between studying for her archaeology classes and practicing her viola (nerd!), Nicola quickly begins to realize that her feelings for Battle are perhaps not just-friend feelings, and that maybe Battle feels the same way, but is that even possible, since Nicola has spent so much time enamored with boys in the past? (We all obviously know the answer to that one.) Yet it’s never with shame or disgust that Nicola questions her new feelings, but more a bit of confusion, and mainly awe. But like all summer stories, summer has to come to an end eventually, making Battle a somewhat bittersweet love interest from the start.
Nicola and her friends are funny and likeable, and Empress of the World is a quick, great read that pulled me in right away. Perhaps the used, somewhat battered copy of the novel I have helped this notion, but the writing had an almost classic, genuine feel to it, like all of the YA books from the ‘70s I grew up reading and loving. Yet at the same time, it felt surprisingly undated. The only part that stuck out was one moment when only ONE of the friends owned a camera, being as this was still the age before they all would have flipped open their smartphones, but being history, science, and music nerds as teens is timeless, and Katrina’s interest in programming still completely works.
The one thing that slightly bothered me was, as the book wore on, the gang as a whole but particularly Battle, gave Nicola a lot of guff for being over-analytical, for always having to name and classify and understand every situation and feeling and thing, to the point that it seems it might draw Battle and Nicola apart forever. Yet I personally didn’t think Nicola was over the top in this regard at all; she actually seemed rather normal for a teenaged girl. And I felt like Battle’s harping about it simply made Nicola feel ashamed of her sensitivity and thinkiness, instead of simply being okay with, and proud of, her open, vulnerable soul.
While the conclusion is somewhat open ended, a sequel to Empress of the World came out in 2007, The Rules for Hearts, and I would definitely be interested in checking it out one day, along with some short stories that were released in an updated, deluxe edition of Empress of the World last year.
Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza! by Jennifer Diemer and Sarah Diemer is a free fiction project that was created, in the authors’ words, “because of the obvious lack of lesbian heroines in the Young Adult genre, and the critical need for them.” Typically updated twice a week, this project provides short genre-fiction stories that feature lesbian characters.
I’m reviewing Project Unicorn: Volume I, which includes The Dark Woods, The Monstrous Sea, and Uncharted Sky. I really can’t tell you how delighted I am that these stories are being written and published – for free, no less – in the first place. I’ve always been a genre fiction girl at heart, and I’ve sharply felt the lack of lesbian characters in genres like fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and historical fiction. Not only is the quality of the stories in Project Unicorn: Volume I extremely high, there 30 stories to enjoy in this volume, more on the authors’ website (http://muserising.com), and more to come. The stories are extremely diverse, from mermaids to ghosts to werewolves to aliens. They span all sorts of time periods, and elements of romance appear in varying levels of focus. I loved the sweetness of the relationships in “Finding Mars” and “The Gargoyle Maker” as much as I appreciated that romance wasn’t forced to take the spotlight in “Melusine”. The characters are all lesbian, but their lesbianness doesn’t necessarily define who they are. There was a balance of stories in which being a lesbian was a non-issue and ones in which the characters had to deal with the discrimination and hardships that lesbians face in reality. I found the balance very satisfying, because I get tired of all stories featuring lesbians focusing mostly on their lesbianness, but at the same time I understand the importance of acknowledging what we go through.
Some of my favorites from the anthology include Jennifer Diemer’s “Dreaming Green,” about a woman on a sterile space station who finds a mysterious seed in space and defies regulations by planting it; her “The Girl on the Mountain”, which follows the relationship of a young girl in a mountain village with a sky-being who her people consider to be a deity; Sarah Diemer’s “The Gargoyle Maker,” about a woman who creates stone monsters to protect a medieval town; and her “Nike,” a stunningly beautiful story about a bullied girl who reaches the depths of despair and learns how to raise herself out of them. Also among my favorites are “Kyrie” and “Mirror,” two extra stories not published on the website that are included in Volume I.
The writing quality ranges from charming to exquisite. There were a handful of stories that left me wanting more and felt like snapshots of a larger story, but the majority of them were well-rounded. These are stories I’ll gladly curl up with and read again when I need comfort or crave escape.
When I finished the prequel to this book, The Trouble with Emily Dickinson, I said I was excited to read the sequel, because Queenie kind of steals the show in the first book and gets to be the star in this one. Predictably, I liked Queenie more as a main character than JJ. She is a bit infuriating (the back cover blurb describes her as “over-privileged and overconfident”), but that makes her journey all the more interesting. Queenie already has a bit of a character arc in the first novel, but in this one she is reeling at being in college and in a big city. She can no longer coast her way through life, and she’s directionless. When she stumbles (yes, literally) on a homeless gay girl in her city, she begins to become aware of her own privilege and finds new direction in trying to be there for Pudge.
I still have most of the same issues that I had with the writing of The Trouble with Emily Dickinson. There are a few typos, for instance, and some of the dialogue seems unbelievable (“you’re as emotional as a scorned 50-year-old menopausal woman”?). I also disliked [mild spoilers, highlight to read] that The Education of Queenie McBride got weirdly meta: JJ writes the first book and then talks about writing Queenie’s memoir. It seems even weirder because big sections of the first book are from other people’s perspectives… [end spoilers]
I found the storyline much more compelling in this volume. For one thing, as I said, Queenie has to change and grow in a big way. And I did appreciate that this book addresses queer teen homelessness, though it is in a book about a rich girl, and as far as I know all the characters are white. Queenie has to grow up, and she struggles with caring about Pudge while Pudge is defensive and skittish. Queenie fights to take on major responsibility while everyone around her still thinks of her as the immature teenager she acted like only months ago. Pudge, of course, also struggles to deal with not only her immediate safety and hunger, but also her conflicted feelings about her parents.
The subplot that really brings some added depth to the story is that JJ is going through her own, subtler coming of age. [spoilers for tTwED] She is attempting to maintain a long-distance relationship with Kendal, and it’s interesting to see what happens after the happily-ever-after of the first book. [end spoilers] She is also trying to get used to life in a big city, and she is feeling completely lost at school: she is no longer the star of her writing classes. As Queenie goes through a sudden and dramatic attitude change, JJ figures out things about herself in a more subdued way. It was nice to this continuation of her story even if it wasn’t center stage. Oh, and have I mentioned how awesome it is to have three major lesbian characters in a book? And they’re not even paired off with each other!
I have to say that I have no idea about the realism of the way queer teen homelessness is presented in this book, because I don’t know anything about what it’s like in a big city in the United States, but I would love to hear people with more knowledge about respond to the book. I was a little confused about the minimization of money as a factor in homelessness. I understand that Izzy (a social worker at the shelter) wanted to impress on Queenie that she couldn’t give Pudge a $50 and think that she really helped anything, but Pudge refuses Queenie’s money for food–even though she begs for money–and Izzy insists that the only way Queenie can help is by volunteering. Queenie’s family is ridiculously wealthy, and although I know that money isn’t the only factor in homelessness, I can’t help but think that Queenie could have helped the shelter in some way with that privilege, and I can’t imagine that shelters do a lot of turning away of donors.
Although I did have some questions about the novel, I was definitely pulled into The Education of Queenie McBride and zipped through it pretty quickly. If you’re on a lesbian teen book kick (and I think most sapphic bibliophiles go through at least one) and have run out of material, try picking up these two. And let me know what you thought of them!
The Trouble with Emily Dickinson is a cute lesbian teen book with a few notable features. One is that the main character, JJ, has a lesbian best friend: Queenie. They are not into each other. They’re just super close. The other is that JJ’s love interest? Straight. Or is she?!
The point of view switches between Kendal and JJ (and Kyan, but we’ll get to that later). JJ is out, is on the basketball team, and is a poet (we’ll get to that later, too). She’s not exactly part of the in crowd, but she’s got friends and hobbies and pretty much has things figured out, except for a habit of always falling for straight girls. Kendal is a cheerleader. She is part of the in crowd, and she thought she had everything figured out until she got JJ as a tutor, teaching her Women’s Literature, and Emily Dickinson’s poetry in particular. Kendal realizes that the life she’s built around cheerleading, parties, and being popular may not be what she really wants for herself.
I think the highlights of The Trouble With Emily Dickinson are the characters and their relationships. JJ is relateable and well-rounded, and Kendal’s self-discovery is sympathetic, especially because it comes from a bit of a different place than most lesbian teen novels: it’s not really about what she is and always has been but has suppressed, but is instead about how she feels right now, and the kind of person she seeks to become. Their friendship/courtship is sweet, especially at the end. I also appreciated Mya the cheerleading captain’s portrayal later in the book. But Queenie really steals the show. Her parents are rich and she loathes them. She gets great grades without trying. She seduces girls, but doesn’t believe in commitment. She’s charming, especially in her interactions with JJ. They balance each other out, with Queenie being all bravado and cynicism, and JJ all stage fright and so sincere and optimistic it kind of hurts. At first I felt like Queenie was veering into just flat-out jerk territory, especially with her plan to disrupt her sister’s wedding by coming out in her speech, but she grows throughout the book. The sequel focuses on her, so that definitely makes me want to pick it up.
I did have a few issues with the novel, however. The writing is mostly straightforward, nothing particularly noteworthy, though I did dislike a few things. One is that JJ has a bit of a drawn-out struggle with realizing that she likes Kendal. She’s out. She knows she’s gay. I refuse to believe she’d actually say out loud to herself “Why am I thinking about her?” A grey area is the poetry included. It’s absolutely believable as angsty high school poetry, but personally I didn’t find it particularly poignant, even for high school. JJ is described over and over as a writer and as talented, so I’m not sure if the poetry is supposed to be believable as high school poetry, or as genuinely moving poetry, but I wasn’t interested in them (and I still remember my high school poetry class and first year college poetry classes).
What most got to me, though, was the character of Kyan. His POV is shown a couple of times, and he just did not seem interesting or relevant enough to get that spot. Compared to the complex and interesting characters that comprise the rest of the novel (well, maybe not Christine), Kyan falls flat. He’s a jock/jerk type who gets what he wants, and stating in his first appearance in the novel that he has a “[l]ack of confidence, but he’d never admit that” just isn’t enough to humanize him. I thought his character was unnecessary to the story, especially as a POV character.
The Trouble with Emily Dickinson is a sweet teen lesbian love story, and I will definitely be reading the sequel, but I have a feeling that I will like The Education of Queenie McBride more than its predecessor.
2 years ago, I reviewed Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole with Rie, another book blogger. Recently, I was contacted by the author about reviewing the newly expanded, updated edition of the book published by Bella Books. Because it was a couple of years ago since I read it the first time, I wasn’t able to tell exactly which parts had been changed (which is good, I guess, or else there would have been parts that didn’t match). The tone of the book is very much the same, however. I remember reading it the first time and feeling like there was a dreamy element to the book, like it all took place in one hazy blur.
It took me a little while to get into the writing: the present tense occasionally distracted me, some of the dialogue didn’t ring true, and there’s just some general quirks in the style. Once I got used to it, though, the writing style swept me along. It really seems to be true to Shai and her life. There’s lots of Cuban phrases and culture included, and a lot of it feels like you are inside Shai’s head. The real strength of Down to the Bone is in the characters. Although sometimes they seem too quirky to be true (Shai and her friends have a list of interests a mile long, including water sports, environmentalism, architecture, foreign movies, drawing and painting, landscaping, specific music, etc), Shai and her friends are very lovable. I do remember that people seems to flit in and out of the book in the first edition I read, whereas there’s a lot more closure on relationships (specifically Marlena) in this edition, which I definitely think is an improvement. Tazer, Soli, and Viva especially are really interesting, well-rounded characters that you couldn’t help loving right alongside Shai.
Despite my difficulties with the writing sometimes, I can’t help liking Down to the Bone. The characters are so strong, and I love the Miami Cuban culture that permeates through the whole book. It also is a story that tackles not being accepted by your family, but also finding love and family in different people. Even when I disagreed with her choices, I was always sympathetic with Shai’s struggles to stay true to herself while maintaining relationships with her friends, love interest(s), mother, and little brother. Not a lot of teen books really take on the idea of being kicked out, which unfortunately is a reality for too many queer kids. This book is a respectful look at some of the challenges of this, while still being upbeat. Shai is always loved and supported, even when her former friends and her mother turn on her.
I also like that there’s a genderqueer character in the novel. The first time I read Down to the Bone, I was unsure of the treatment of this character. This time around, I feel like Tazer got a little more attention. I was a bit confused at first, because Tazer says that he is genderqueer, and then Shai immediately switches to male pronouns and talks about Tazer as if he is a trans man for most of the book, but eventually there is a scene where Tazer revisits that he is genderqueer/a boi, which smoothed it over, I thought.
Looking back at my conversation with Rie, I think the major changes I noticed in this expanded (? it doesn’t seem to be more pages) edition is that things don’t seem to zoom along at the same breakneck speed I remember the first time around, and characters don’t suddenly appear or disappear from this version. It does seem to be a neater story, despite having that dreamlike quality. (Also, now that I look at it, that they have different names: Shai vs Laura.) Overall I still find this to be a sweet, and important queer teen story, and I’d recommend it to YA fans, especially if you’re looking for something different from the usual white, middle-class lesbian coming out story.
With a cover as strong as Silhouette of a Sparrow‘s, I immediately have high expectations for the story within. And although the cover gives me a bit of a creepy vibe that I don’t get from the book itself, the story definitely lives up to my expectations of quality. Silhouette of a Sparrow takes place in the 1920s, and the protagonist, Garnet, is doing her best to navigate the practically Victorian values of her family and the rapidly changing, flapper culture of 1920s America. It is interesting to compare the setting of this book to Ellis Avery’s The Last Nude, which takes place in 1920s France. The dialogue of the characters could pretty easily be spoken in current times, which sometimes made me forget about the time period, but ultimately I think kept it from seeming too old-fashioned or gimmicky.
I loved Garnet as a character. She is very believable, and I really felt for her struggle to stay true to herself as well as her family. I think often we value individualism so much that we can be dismissive of people or characters who may be willing to sacrifice some of their freedom in order to be loyal to their family, but I thought Garnet’s struggle was portrayed very sympathetically, without casting her mother as a villain for wanting Garnet to get married and help support them.
I also really liked the ongoing bird theme of the book. Garnet cuts out silhouettes of birds she sees: a suitably feminine way to pursue her passion for ornithology. Each chapter is named after a bird with the corresponding silhouette above the chapter title. That bird is one that relates to a theme or a character in that chapter, and this is skillfully incorporated without, again, seeming like a gimmick. Garnet’s hobby of cutting out silhouettes is also used artistically later on as a metaphor for her attempt to find the edges of herself, to determine where she ends and her family, obligations, etc begin.
The love story is also really sweet, though really more of a subplot, in my opinion–as emily m danforth would say, this is about Garnet’s coming of gayge, not coming out. Garnet falls for a flapper girl, Isabella, who is beautiful, mysterious, and shows Garnet new possibilities for her life. [spoiler] I appreciated the realistic ending, as well, which emphasized that although Garnet and Isabella played an important role in each other’s life at that time, that doesn’t mean that they are now going to live happily ever after together. I liked that Griffin left it pretty open about whether they will end up back together or not. [/spoiler]
I haven’t even really mentioned what I usually consider the most important factor in a book: the writing. Most of the writing is pretty straight forward and furthers the story without distracting me from it, which is all I really ask for in a book. Often, though, the writing is downright poetic. Take the opening lines:
I was born blue. Life ripped me early from my safe place and thrust me into the world. It was all so astonishing I forgot to breathe.
But the puffed-up robin that sang outside the window of the birthing room came early too, that March of 1910, and just in time. He flew north before the spring came so he could sing me into the world. His song said Breathe child, this life was meant for you. When I finally let out my first scream I flushed red as that robin–red: the color of life, blood, love, and fury. At that moment I earned my name, Garnet, after the deep red stone that’s meant to bring courage.
I kept having to stop to scribble down quotes I wanted to post later on the Lesbrary tumblr.
Silhouette of a Sparrow is, obviously, a keeper, and I will be adding it to the shortlist of lesbian teen books I can recommend with no reservations. I hope to see more from Molly Beth Griffin soon.