Danika reviews Nico & Tucker by Rachel Gold

When Being Emily by Rachel Gold was published in 2012, it was one of the first YA novels to be from the point of view of a trans girl (although it was not own voices). Similarly, Nico & Tucker is representing a segment of the LGBTQIA+ community not often seen in media: nonbinary and intersex people. Nico is both, though yo is quick to point out that those don’t always, or even usually line up. Nico is a survivor of medical trauma due to being intersex, and Tucker is a survivor of rape, and both are discussed several times in the story, so I would definitely give trigger warnings for those.

This is a sequel to Just Girls, but I think it would work as a standalone. The writing is more functional than anything else, with exposition dropped in wherever it comes up, including in dialogue. This is definitely drawn forward more by the ideas than a poetic style or fast-paced plot. One thing I got hung up on was that the major point of conflict included entirely unnecessary failure to communicate, which is a personal pet peeve of mine. If they had just talked about it, it would have been resolved so much quicker! And considering how savvy Nico is with healthy coping strategies, it was particular egregious.

The strength of the story is in its ideas. Intersex and trans experiences are centred, including a breadth of representation: Nico is not the only intersex character, the only trans character, or the only nonbinary character. This definitely seems to be trying to be an educational text, just as Being Emily was. I can’t speak to the representation, because I am neither trans nor intersex.

Of course, Nico is not the only main character. The perspective swaps between yo and Tucker. Tucker is on her own journey with its own struggles. She was recently raped by her ex-girlfriend, someone she had loved and trusted. She is struggling to cope with that, and feels like she’s alone in this experience, coming from a same-sex partner. She prides herself in being strong, and is finding it very difficult to admit that she needs help to deal with this.

She is also dealing with more of an existential problem around her own identity. “Lesbian” is a label that she identifies with strongly, but she is also attracted to Nico. Is she only attracted to Nico because she views yo as being essentially a woman? Nico also isn’t sure how to handle this, feeling that yo is being misgendered–and that fear is not unjustified. It isn’t helped by the fact that in their queer circles is another lesbian who seems to have appointed herself the gender police, and is quick to dismiss Nico’s gender as well as Tucker’s identity.

Which leads to the depiction of a queer community in Nico & Tucker. They are in university, and have built a network of other LGBTQIA+ people, often around activism. This is a lifeline for both of them at different times: Nico has people to go to who will understand when yo is talking yos medical concerns or gender. Tucker has people who she knows will support her when she is triggered and reliving her rape. This is a great source of support and strength–though it can also be a source of gossip, drama, and pain.

This story shines when Nico and Tucker are together, communicating effectively. They can discuss consent and boundaries. They support each other, and understand first hand having trauma and needing to recognize how that affects their lives.

I would love to see a review of this book by an intersex person (as well as a nonbinary reviewer), because so much of this has to deal with educating about being intersex. I do think this is an important book in LGBTQIA+ literature, and I continue to be drawn to how Rachel Gold realistically depicts queer community, and the inclusion of geeky elements in her stories (Nico & Tucker talks about cosplay a lot, and how it connects with Nico embodying yos gender). I think what I said in 2016 about My Year Zero is still how I feel today: Rachel Gold seems to be doing now what Julie Anne Peters did ten years ago: pushing LGBT representation in YA [and New Adult] forward, one book at a time, making room for even more representative and authentic stories to come.

I have also reviewed all of Rachel Gold’s previous books, so here are the links, if you’re interested: Being EmilyMy Year Zeroand Just Girls.

Amanda Clay reviews Make Much of Me by Kayla Bashe

makemuchofme

You had me at “Jazz Age”.  Truly, in my mind, there is no more attractive time in human history than this fleeting moment between the Great War and the Great Depression. New York, London, Paris, Munich, this is the time to be a woman loving woman and dance about in your sparkly dresses, powdering each other’s knees and seeing if you can get an invite to Natalie Barney’s salon.  I’ll read just about anything set in this era, and am even more excited when I know from the outset that the story will be queer. Therefore I was thrilled to be given “Make Much of Me” and read it all in one gulp.

Four girls– Lily, Laura, Tommie and Jo– meet as new students at New York City’s River School.  Thrown together by chance, they quickly become an inseparable crew sharing their secrets, sadness, desires and dreams. Bisexual Tommie is ashamed of her poverty, but learns that her head, her heart, her talents and her humor are of immeasurable value. Asexual Jo comes from money and privilege, a life many would envy, but at a terrible price. Bold, lesbian Lily lets nothing stand between her and the life and love that she desires. And Laura, whose past is perhaps the most wretched of all, wants only to love herself and ends up finding so much more.

Loosely based on Christina Rosetti’s poem ‘The Goblin Market’, the story follows the girls from their meeting and early misadventures through more difficult trials to their ultimate joining of forces to rescue a friend and lover in need.  The engaging and diverse characters are fun to meet and grow more interesting as the story unfolds.  The book itself, however, is so brief (only 84 pages!) that the story seems rushed in places, especially the end, and some events wrap up with unrealistically neat solutions.

My chief complaint, unfortunately, brings me back to the Jazz Age.  I love historical fiction, and I love this time period in particular, and while it is clear that some research was done (musicians, film stars, all that kicky, kooky slang), the book could have used much more.  Multiplex cinemas, rolling suitcases, LGBT support clubs in elementary and middle schools, all of these glaring anachronisms drew me out of the narrative again and again.  Even the characters’ ease with sexual self-identification was a bit far-out, though I made peace with that for the sake of the story. Choosing to set a work in an historical era demands a certain amount of diligence, and the lack of these efforts mars what is otherwise a sparkling, sweet story.

Trigger warnings: physical abuse, drug abuse, sexual predators

Danika reviews Missed Her by Ivan E. Coyote

Ivan E. Coyote is one of my very favourite queer writers. When giving recommendations for les/bi/etc books, Sarah Waters and Ivan E. Coyote are at the top of the list (though their styles are pretty different). Ivan is often described as a “kitchen table storyteller,” and it’s true. Their stories read as if one of your good friends is relating an anecdote to you, if your friends are really good at telling stories. If you ever get the chance to see Ivan perform in person, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, pick up their books.

Missed Her is a collection of semi-autobiographical stories–Ivan treads the line between memoir and fiction. Some common themes run through the stories, including being queer in a small town. I find this especially interesting, because when the “It Gets Better” project was getting a lot of coverage, there was some criticism about how many of the stories talked about getting out of small towns, and how it didn’t address how rural communities can change, or the positive aspects of them, or even how constantly moving queer people out of rural environments and into urban ones just perpetuates any bigotry in hostile towns (not that anyone has an obligation to stay in a threatening environment, I want to clarify). We’re used to queer stories being set in the big city, so it’s interesting and pertinent to have another narrative. (Ivan currently lives in Vancouver, so it’s not all small town, but growing up in the Yukon made a strong impression on them.)

Ivan presents a different image of being queer in a small town. Their family was supportive, and they appreciate that the people they meet in these towns are more likely to simply ask what they’re thinking instead of skirting around the issue. They have a story set in a small town in which a bunch of men gather around so they can teach them how to properly tie a tie. They do still acknowledge the disadvantages and even dangers of some of these small towns, however, especially when they describe trying to find a rural doctor accepting of their gender presentation.

Ivan’s stories have all sorts of variety, though. There’s some heart-breaking ones and some hilarious ones, though usually it’s a bit of both. (Some topics: looking for an old-fashioned barber in Vancouver, teaching memoir-writing to seniors, repeatedly being mistaken for a gay man, stories about their family, and musings on their butch identity and the policing of the label.)

There’s not much more to say than that I highly recommend it!

Joint Review with Rie: Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole

Rie of Friend of Dorothy Wilde was kind enough to read Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole with me, and then we discussed it together. I tried to mark the spoilers (ones just marked “spoilers” are just for Down to the Bone, and spoilers for other books are indicated) so that you have to highlight to read them. I’m sorry if you read the unedited version; it posted too quickly!

Danika: Hmm, I guess I’ll just throw out some general impressions and we can expand from there. Well, I was stunned by how fast-moving it is. The first chapter could stretch the whole novel for most of the lesbian teen books I’ve been reading. I’m not entirely sure whether that was a positive or negative for me. Not only do a lot of things happen in the book (which I like), but they all happen very quickly. There’s not really any room to absorb what’s happening. Of course, if she had spaced out the action, it would be a very, very long book.

I loved the culture in Down To the Bone (what’s with the title, anyway?). I’m so used to reading the same sort of story over and over (middle-class white girl come out), so I really appreciated getting this glimpse into Cuban culture in Miami (is that right, Miami?). The Spanish phrases thrown in flow perfectly, and I didn’t feel the need to consult the glossary at the back (actually, I didn’t realize it had one until I finished it).

It was also interesting to see the family dynamic. I spent the book hating her mother so much that I couldn’t understand why she would want to be around her. It’s also unusual that we have a story where the protagonist is thrown out of the house (which is something that happens way too often in real life, but is rarely represented in our novels), but she’s not actually homeless. She has these competing forces of a completely intolerant mother and classmates, but fantastic friends who are willing to take her in and take care of her, not to mention the brother that adores her.

I was on the fence about the representations of trans people in Down To the Bone. I appreciated that there was some mention, but at times it seemed disrespectful. I wish I could remember specific instances now, but it really was a whirlwind.

This is definitely completely different from Annie On My Mind or Hello, Groin, and I’m really happy to see that diversity. I think its strength and weakness is that it does seem more true to real life. There’s so much going on, and a whole fleet of characters being introduced and leaving at any given point, which can be hard to follow and overwhelming, but it’s also more honest and relatable, maybe even more interesting.

Rie:Isn’t it just? I can’t believe how fast it moved, for how long it was, but I also didn’t want it to end. Some plot threads (whatever happened to El Gringo?)  did seem to wander off into the blue yonder, but life’s like that; sometimes your friend has a new boy for the blink of an eye. What struck me about the novel as a whole is that it’s very, for lack of a better word, teenager-y. Sure, they are excellent novels that have an authentic teen voice, this book really immersed me in the worldview of an actual teenager. Their days fly by, they love things passionately, they describe themselves by what they like. It’s a very endearing quality, though I do agree that sometimes I would have liked to slow down and enjoy the scenery a bit.

In the very last paragraph, Laura says that she feels loved down to the bone. 😀 The original title was Act Natural after the scene where Tazer is talking about his friend’s screenplay. Mom discovers her daughter in bed with another girl, and one of them yells “Act natural! Act natural!” It’s a good title, but too subtle for teen readers, I think.

Doles got some criticism for the book, that the emotions ran too high and the story was too dramatic. What did you think? I can speak from personal experience, raised Italian-Roman-Catholic, that no, that’s not an exaggeration, not at all. My family is a little bit more open-minded:  they want me to ” Mother of God, Mary most holy, please marry a nice Italian girl, no more  mamadell’ puttannas [skanky bitches].”

Speaking of, wasn’t it interesting to read about a queer teen with such a strong support network? I read another coming-out book whose climax was much like this book’s opening, but she ended up in a home for gay teens that had been kicked out–even the school guidance counselor had a vendetta against her! There was something really comforting in reading about Laura making a new family with people who aren’t blood family. I also think it’s important to have a narrative where friend-family picks up when your blood family can’t be trusted because they stop loving you.

And how awesome was it that Laura [spoilers] stuck up for herself and said she’d continue her relationship with her little bro, no matter what? [/spoilers] They were so cute together and it broke my heart when he talked about how it was terrible that he couldn’t see her or her puppy, and he was being punished even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Regarding trans folk in Down to the Bone, when I got a little cranky about certain words and how they were used, what helped me was thinking of the story through Laura’s eyes instead of immediately thinking OMG MAYRA LAZARA DOLES IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET. 😛 She’s 16 and completely new to the Miami queer scene, of course she doesn’t get that feminizing a genderqueer dude could be really disorienting for him. To his credit, Tazer took it in stride, and having him want to change for her showed his youth; don’t we all have the experience of wanting to be different for someone we really care about?

Also, how hot is Tazer? It’s been a couple years since the book came out, he’s legal now. 😀

Danika: I felt the same. When I picked it up I was like “Wow… that’s a big teen book”, but it really whipped along, and it could have even been longer. Yeah, exactly: it felt very true to real teen experiences, though that can be a little intimidating to rad.

Oooh, okay. That makes sense, I must have just missed it. I think I would have preferred Act Natural, but Down to the Bone works too. I thought that scene was hilarious.

Hmmm, it’s funny, because apparently Beth Goobie got some criticism for her book Hello, Groin (the last joint review I did) for being too cheery, which it really isn’t, since she spends the whole book struggling with her sexuality. I really don’t think you can win. The problem is that idea of the problem of one story. If you’re taking any book to be a representation of all people’s experiences, than it’s never going to live up to that. But if you take it as just one story of many, it makes more sense. I think that it’s an exaggeration for some people, but totally accurate for others, and since we so rarely see those stories (being kicked out when you come out, having a Cuban and Catholic family), I think it’s really important to represent that side of things. Some people are genuinely that emotional, and there’s no reason that their story shouldn’t be told. Besides, I got a definite semi-autobiographical scent off Down to the Bone, so I doubt Dole’s story is far off from her own (she’s also originally from Cuba and moved to Miami).

Yes, I thought that was really interesting. It was a good balance, because we got the story of “What if your parent/s don’t take it well? What if you get kicked out? What if they never come around?” without having it turn to utter despair. And considering how sickeningly often that happens to queer kids, I love that Down to the Bone offered an alternation to “blood” family, showing that there is more than one place to find safety and community. I’m definitely of the belief that “blood” is not nearly as important as how you are treated. I see stories about people who just keep coming back and begging for their intolerant families to accept them, and it makes me sad, because they deserve better. You’re right, it’s a good representation of chosen family, and of how you can find acceptance and community where you aren’t expecting it (Soli’s mom has a similar religious and cultural background as Laura’s mom, but doesn’t think it’s in opposition to accepting Laura).

Aaaww, I know, the little brother part was so hard, because I wanted her to just ditch her mom, but she loved her little brother so much! [spoilers] I’m glad she refused to compromise there and realized her own strength. [/spoilers]

It’s true, it does make more sense when you realize that Laura is unsure of what she’s talking about, but it still was a little flinch-worthy at times. Yes, it totally makes sense that Tazer would be willing to compromise a bit because he likes Laura. He was really laid back about everything, actually, far more than I would be. (You don’t want to be seen with me in public?! No, I’m not going to just put up with that.)

Rie: It’s funny–if you go back over the text with the original title in mind, you can see characters making comments about acting natural or what is natural and what’s good, and why people believe different things.

I’ve just read Hello, Groin myself (and Annie on My Mind is an old friend), so I’ve been thinking about the three protagonists, all lesbian, all around the same age, and how they approached their sexuality. It’s remarkable how much of a difference almost 30 years makes, no? But at the same time, how sad that teens still struggle with the same issues. Laura, for all of her insecurity about her sexuality, seems to be the most self-aware of the three. She has a very solid sense of who she is, and what she wants. Her comments about how Tazer is too sexually and emotionally agressive, and how she wants an equal partnership in bed and out of it, just floored me. It’s a very mature distinction to make in a relationship. Dylan has a healthier, more progressive awareness of queer sexuality itself, but Laura is more mature overall, more than likely from dealing with the death of her father and taking care of her family while her mother worked three jobs.
 
Speaking of, I saw the death of her father being one of the main reasons why she wanted to go back to her family, that unspoken feeling that her family was broken enough, and she didn’t want to lose what she had left. It does not excuse her mother’s behavior, but I understand why Laura was so desperate to seek her approval, especially since it seemed like she had a pretty decent relationship with her Mami before she found out.
 
Can we talk about Laura, Liza, and Dylan, and their choice in partners? [spoilers for Hello Groin, Annie On My Mind, and Down to the Bone] All three books end with the protagonist happily paired off, and [/spoilers] the relationships themselves have some striking similarities, but also key differences. Laura, for all her maturity, has a very [spoilers for Down to the Bone and Annie On My Mind] Liza-and-Annie storybook relationship with Gisela [/spoilers], while Dylan [spoilers for Hello, Groin] got together with her best friend, only now they kiss. [/spoilers] To be honest, I never quite saw what Dylan saw in Joc; she’s an old and true friend, but Dylan is such a curious, intelligent girl and Joc is kind of a flake (though I much admire her bravery and championing of the underdog, which happened a few times in Hello, Groin.).

Danika: Ooh, I’d like to re-read it with that in mind. Fascinating.

Oh good! I’m glad we can compare them, then! Hmm, I’m not sure which one I would consider the most mature… Laura does seem very self-aware, but all three of them are pretty introspective. Dylan is more aware of queer sexuality than Liza and Laura, maybe, but I think Laura is the only one to really find any sort of home in the queer community. Yes, Liza [spoilers for Annie On My Mind] has mentors in the teachers [/spoilers], but other than books, the community doesn’t really get any larger than that. Dylan is aware of the queer community, but rejects it, and never even seeks out queer media. She and Liza both seem to come at it from a place of “this is just who I am, it’s a very personal thing”, whereas Laura starts out that way but then becomes more aware of the queer community and seems to begin to reconcile that individual nature of being queer with being part of a queer community. I think that integration, the individual approach, is a perfectly valid thing to do, but I did like that Laura had a better opinion of the community aspect as well.

I hadn’t considered that, but that’s a very good point. That would definitely influence how her and her mother reacted. Her Mami would be trying to cling onto some semblance of a “normal” family and balk at any violation of that, and Laura wouldn’t want to further splinter her family. That makes a lot of sense.

[spoilers] Yes, I think the happily-paired-off ending is still mandatory in queer-positive teen books. We’re still getting over lesbian pulps’ endings. [/spoilers] I also was sort of puzzled by Dylan’s adoration of Joc. She has her moments, but she could also be pretty harsh. I think I just decided that the Joc featured in most of the book was different from the Joc that Dylan had started liking, because Joc was so deeply closeted (it really can eat away at you), and Dylan could still see the real Joc through that. [spoilers for all three] It’s funny, I think in all of the endings, you’re not really sure if it will work out. I mean, Joc seems pretty unstable, Annie and Liza went through this big traumatic experience and stopped speaking to each other for a while, and Laura just has this mysterious attraction to Giselle. We’re told characteristics about Giselle that seem like they would fit with Laura, but we don’t really get a chance to see them acted. It makes sense to end them that way, though, because most of us don’t end up with our high school sweethearts, but it is interesting. [/spoilers]

Rie: Community is something I thought about rereading this book, and thinking back over the lesbian YA lit that I’ve read. Down to the Bone really shines in showing that a queer community can be a really positive and empowering to experience. A lot of teen books have protagonists that are very “Oh, I’m a lesbian, but I’m just normal,I don’t need to hang out with other queer folk.” I can see how this is important to teenagers, who want to be just NORMAL, but I think that it also perpetuates the idea that hetero culture is what’s normal/the default. My outlook vastly improved when I discovered media about woman-loving women, and I think that having friends that are queer and connecting with other queer youth is a healthy and good thing. Laura was skeptical, of course, because of her upbringing, but she did seem to respect (and be a little jealous of) Tazer’s strong community bonds, and how well Soli slipped in as an ally and friend to the gay scene in Miami.

One really cute line was when Laura mentioned that she wished there was a club for lesbians to hang out and talk about books, art, activism and the environment in a really chill setting. I often wish the same thing!

A plot thread that I wish had some resolution was [spoilers] the fate of Marlena. She’s now presumably stuck in a loveless marriage, trying her damndest to be somebody that she’s not to keep her family’s love and acceptance. And she’s so young! You’d think that Paco would have brought up how their marriage was going, seeing how close he was to Marlena’s dad, so it’s odd that she’s never mentioned again after the wedding.

What did you think about Laura  dropping out of school to become a full-time gardener? I very much liked an alternative narrative (that Laura could have a fulfilling job without going to college), but wonder if it could build false hopes for young readers. After all, Laura was lucky in that she was close to Paco because of Marlena, and that she had a gift for landscape design. [/spoilers]

Danika: Yes, Down To the Bone’s positive portrayal of queer community is really one you don’t see much in other teen lesbian books. We’ve heard that line “We’re just like everyone else” so much that I think it can be damaging when we try to form queer communities, but “we’re the same as you” isn’t really true, for a variety of reasons. And you’re right, whether you find queer culture through the internet, books, movies, other media, or real life, it is often one of the first steps in really coming to terms with being queer. It’s hugely important (hence my obsession with lesbian books).

That was adorable. My girlfriend tried starting a lesbian club once… it quickly imploded in lesbian drama, which I wish was always just an inaccurate stereotype.

[spoilers] Yeah, it is odd that Marlena drops off the face of the planet, but I don’t what else could really be done with her character. She refused to talk to Laura anymore, and the rest of her story is implied: she fakes it in a loveless marriage. It is odd that the author decided to keep Laura connected to Marlena’s family, though. It creates this sort of suspense the whole book that never really amounts to anything.

I was surprised that she never went back to school, but Down To the Bone has so many “alternative” stories that I don’t think any of them can really be taken as something the author is pushing; they all just seem to be Laura’s individual life, not an experience that can be generalized. [/spoilers]

Any final thoughts on Down To the Bone? I’m really glad you recommended we read it. Thanks for discussing it with me; this was really interesting!

Rie: I think that’s a good note to end on!

Have you read Down to the Bone? What did you think of it?

 

Kicked Out edited by Sassafras Lowrey

I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to get the first review up, but don’t worry: it’s a good one.

Kicked Out is an anthology of LGBTQ homeless youth. Somewhere between 20-40% of homeless identify as LGBTQ, which is a staggering number. Kicked Out was created to tell these stories, and to prove to those LGBTQ kids still struggling that they’re not alone, and that they can survive. Kicked Out tells these survivors’ stories in their own voices. One is entirely in text messages (translated afterward) and another begins with their own poetry. The stories are raw and emotional, and they’re told extremely well. Kicked Out also includes stories of programs that are helping LGBTQ homeless youth and an essay on what needs to be done to help change the system to protect these youth. The stories included in this anthology are accounts of some of the worst things human beings can do to each other, but they’re also stories of survival and endurance. This is an incredibly important book, and it’s compelling as well.

Highly recommended.