Casey reviews The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George

The Difference Between You and Me by Madeline George

I had been reading a lot of heavy things when I picked up Madeleine George’s queer YA novel The Difference Between You and Me and it pretty much fulfilled every expectation I had; in fact, it was actually deceptively complex, despite the fact that it’s a quick read.  The Difference Between You and Me is a classic opposites attract story in some ways, but it’s refreshingly not a coming-out story, nor is it a they-live-happily-ever-after.

What it is is a story about three very different teenage girls, told alternately from each of their perspectives.  Jesse is an anti-assimilationist lesbian who spends her time plastering her high school with manifestos defending the rights of weirdos everywhere.  Emily is a popular, uptight student council vice-president who doesn’t like “labels” (i.e., is bisexual and doesn’t want to admit it).  Esther, whose voice doesn’t enter the narrative until a bit later, is a serious activist with a tough façade but a hurt, squishy interior.  Jesse and Emily are having a secret affair (surprise!) but Emily doesn’t want anyone to know about it and still has a boyfriend.  Esther is Jesse’s new friend and partner in activism (spoiler alert: you think she and Jesse are going to get together in the end but they don’t).  The conflict in the story is when a company that’s not called Walmart but is obviously a stand-in for Walmart wants to build outside the town and Emily is revealed to have struck a deal with the company to raise money for the school.

I actually think of the three girls George does Emily’s voice the best.  For example this is her while supervising the “refreshments table” at a school dance:

But to be honest, at that point I was getting pretty annoyed with some of the people working under me on the refreshments committee (like Lauren Weiss and Kim Watson and Kimmie Hersh, to name three) because they kept putting out more and more Costco-brand cheese curls, which were the only refreshments we were serving that night, even though I told them repeatedly that they had to ration the snacks so they would last for the entire event, and all of a sudden I was just like, you know what, screw this, let them put out however many cheese curls they want, whenever they want to. And I told Michael I had to use the restroom and I went to find Jesse.

This is her talking about her boyfriend (this is a great testament to poor teenage boy kissers everywhere):

“When me and Michael kiss, it’s like I’m making out with a cut cantaloupe. He is the wettest, squishiest kisser on the planet. He’s so cute from a distance, you know, he’s such a good-looking guy, like a male model practically, but then when he goes to kiss me it’s like all the muscles in his face go slack and his lips get all spongy and loose and he opens his loose face and sort of lays his spongy lips all over me and drools his melon-juice spit into my mouth. It’s horrible. I don’t mean to criticize him, I’m sure lots of other girls would think he was a totally amazing kisser, it’s just … sometimes I have to pretend he’s getting too powerful and intense and I push him off me, but really I’m pushing him off me because he’s getting too disgusting.”

Jesse is pretty straight-forward from the beginning, and is a fairly typical stock alternative angsty character—not that she’s not fun for that reason.  But she’s more of a caricature and was therefore less compelling and real to me than Emily, who I found fascinating.  Although she looks on the surface to be quite different from Jesse, and might be constructed as the villain of the novel (there are certainly plenty of reviews that see her that way, which is disappointing and biphopic, to be honest), she’s actually a lot more complicated.

I think what George wanted to do—maybe she doesn’t fully succeed—is show that the girls might not be as dissimilar as you might think.  Both are ambitious, motivated, and concerned about making the world better: they just go about it in very different ways.  Maybe I sympathized with Emily more because Jesse’s let’s-overturn-the-system approach strikes me as naïve and unrealistic, and I found it weird that the book doesn’t want you to read it that way.  Emily is naïve too, and ignorant, but this felt totally realistic to me, for a teenage girl from a privileged background afraid to come out.  She kind of reminded me of Cher from the movie Clueless, actually: lovable despite being privileged and you know, kinda clueless, because she’s genuine and earnest and caring.

That said, I agree with a lot of the points that Sarah makes over at the bisexual books tumblr in her review: namely, it is really disappointing that the cheating, conformist character is bi.  George should have done a better job resisting the urge to make Jesse a heroine and Emily a villain.  I see how it’s easy to fall into that way of thinking, as a writer and a reader.  But I think Sarah makes a mistake in her review by falling into the trap of thinking of the girls that way, because you don’t have to. I don’t think the novel condemns Emily for her choices; I think it’s actually sympathetic, if you read closely.  It’s realistic that the novel ends and Emily still hasn’t figured things out and is still in the closet.  It’s legitimate that a teenage girl wouldn’t feel comfortable coming out and in some ways it’s unfair to expect her to.  I think her refusing to label herself is classic internalized biphobia and the novel wants you to read it that way.  As a bi woman who hasn’t been open about it for that long, I actually really identified with her.  So is it an ideal representation of a bisexual teenage girl?  No.  Is it authentic and interesting and complex?  Yes.

Casey reviews Excluded by Julia Serano


I was pretty eager when I picked up writer, performer, and activist Julia Serano’s latest book, Excluded: Making Queer and Feminist Movements More Inclusive. I had read her first book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity back when it came out, and thought it was totally mind-blowing and so overdue and just plain old awesome in every way.  It taught me a lot about femininity, gender, sexuality, feminism, and transmisogyny (actually, I’m pretty sure it taught me the term transmisogyny).  Whipping Girl is one of the best feminist books I’ve ever read, and I really think that it should be read by, like, everybody.  If you haven’t read it yet, go do that right now!

So, given my high expectations, it kind of makes sense that I could only be disappointed by Excluded.  Whereas in Whipping Girl Serano is tackling queer and feminist movements head-on, specifically for their transmisogny and devaluation of femininity, Excluded is trying to do something broader.  I say trying, because I don’t think this book really succeeds in doing what it wants to.  Serano writes that she wants to stop focusing on specific groups that queer and feminist movements have excluded and continue to exclude but rather to look at the idea of exclusion more generally.  This is interesting in theory but not really in practice.

To be honest, I just think Serano is at her best when she’s speaking to her specific circumstances, not when she’s trying to formulate over-arching theories.  Her experiences both as a biologist and as a feminine trans woman offer perspectives on gender, femininity, and bisexuality that are often overlooked, both in queer feminist and mainstream circles.  She writes really well about the exclusion in queer and/or feminist spaces of trans women, bisexuals, and femmes—all her own identities.  This is what she does in the first part of Excluded, which I thoroughly enjoyed and found fresh and thought-provoking.

She writes convincingly and admirably, for example, about the ways in which anti-feminine sentiments are used to undermine and delegitimize trans women, coming out as bisexual after identifying as lesbian, and transmisogny in cis queer women’s communities.  She passionately describes how “cis dykes’ unwillingness to consider trans women as legitimate partners translates directly into a lack of community for queer-identified trans women.”  She debunks the idea that the label bisexual is inherently gender binary-enforcing, pointing out that gay and lesbian identities are hardly ever accused of this, despite the fact that they also rely on a woman /man binary to make sense.  Hmm, it appears that it’s bisexuals, trans people, and femmes who are constantly accused of reinforcing the gender binary, whereas their privileged counterparts aren’t.  Serano also brilliantly points out that

The sad truth is that we always seem to create feminist and queer movements designed to challenge sexism on the one hand, while simultaneously policing gender and sexuality … on the other… radical movements practise exclusion and police their own boundaries just as fiercely as conservative ones (as can be seen in many self-identified radicals’ pronouncements that certain individuals or identities are not feminist or queer enough.)

She argues that this exclusion is a “systemic problem that stems from the way we conceptualize sex, gender, and sexuality, and the way we frame sexism and marginalization more generally.”  In other words, we view things hierarchically, no matter where we stand.  I can totally get behind this, and appreciate that she is critiquing both radical/anti-assimilationist and liberal/assimilationist movements.

It’s in the second half of the book, however, where Serano begins to lose me a bit.  For one thing, I simply don’t agree that we need to “stop pretending there really is a gender system,” because exceptions such as the way some genderqueer folks look down on men and women, or how straight women aren’t welcome in certain radical feminist movements don’t fit in our hegemonic understanding of patriarchy and heterosexism.  I, do think, though, that these situations can be explained by the gender system.  To me, these exceptions are reactions to institutionalized oppression (i.e. the hetero –patriarchal gender system) but not examples of oppression itself.  To be fair to Serano, I don’t agree with her because my definition of sexism isn’t the same.  I certainly think these exceptions are wrong and unfair, but I don’t think that makes them oppression; this is because while these situations show prejudice, that prejudice doesn’t coincide with societal/economic/cultural power.

Frankly, those kinds of exceptions just aren’t that high on my list of priorities, despite the fact that in one of these scenarios as a woman I would be on the receiving end of what Serano calls a double standard, which is the terminology she wants to use instead of referencing a monolithic gender system.  A lot of what Serano does in the second half of the book, trying to reframe what has been seen as part of the gender system or the patriarchy or heterosexism or etc. as double standards, just kind of read to me like, uh…and? So what?  The reframing doesn’t add anything to the debates Serano is intervening in.  At this point, Excluded begins to sound repetitive and the language becomes clunky.

The other thing is, Serano’s theory about making queer and feminist movements more inclusive isn’t that inclusive of marginalizations that she doesn’t face herself, race and class in particular.  There’s a distinct lack of attention to the material effects of privilege in this book, as if we all just stopped thinking there was a hierarchy between groups like cis / trans and man / woman and stopped applying double standards everything would be hunky dory.  To be clear, I don’t think it’s a problem that Serano focuses on monosexism, cissexism, and sexism—after all, that’s her experience.  But you can’t claim to have formed a general theory of inclusivity in queer and feminist communities that doesn’t apply to class and race!  It’s just plain ignorant.

And how are we supposed to explain to privileged folks the fact that we face a gazillion more double standards than they do?  It just strikes me as an unfeasible practical strategy, that could fall into the kind of thinking where men argue that they are wronged by the patriarchal gender system too (it’s true, they are) so that means they aren’t overwhelmingly privileged by it or that it wrongs everybody so why bother with this feminism stuff.  If we do away with the idea of the over-arching system— that men are seen to be more valuable, authentic human beings than women—and all we are left with are these double standards, how are we supposed to argue against such faulty lines of reasoning?

All this to say that while Excluded is an interesting and well-done book in many ways, it fell short of my expectations.  I would still recommend it to anyone who’s already read Whipping Girl, but it’s definitely Whipping Girl that I would steer first time Serano readers to.  Clearly, I have a lot of thoughts about this book, to Serano’s credit.  I’m interested in seeing how she responds to criticisms of Excluded.


Casey reviews Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre


I had heard a lot of praise for Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women (edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre) by the time I finally picked it up.  So, I was expecting good things.  This book, however, managed to actually exceed my expectations.  It was so refreshing to read an entire book filled with a different kind of coming out story.  I’ve never identified with the “I’ve always known”, or the “I was a gender non-conforming kid so it figures”, or the “I fell in love with a girl when I was five” stories.  It’s not that those stories aren’t valid in their own right.  But they never felt representative of my experience.  It turns out a lot of other women felt the same way.  Dear John I Love Jane has a few pieces where I was like, oh my god, this could totally be about me.  It was so amazing to read and feel like, yes, this is my kind of queerness.

There’s a huge range of different stories even within this anthology.  There are women who were never really happy with men.  There are women who’ve only really been attracted to one woman.  There are women in this book who married men in good faith, and were completely blindsided by their later (sometimes exclusive) attraction to women.  There are some women who open up their relationships with men to date women at the same time.  There’s even one woman in here who stays married to her husband after coming out as a lesbian.  There are women who identify as bi, lesbian, queer, and some who are uncomfortable labelling or naming their sexualities at all.   Lots of the women in the book have children.  There is one woman who falls in love with a woman for the first time at age sixty-nine.  Sixty-nine!!  This diversity of experience aside, though, the vast majority of the women whose stories were in the book are white, and I would really have liked to have seen more women of colour, as well as women from different class backgrounds.

It was awesome to see women questioning and attacking conventional understandings of sexual orientation—that model that’s built for gay men that just doesn’t seem to do a lot of LBQ women justice.  One woman writes about her lack of “brazen knowledge about” her sexuality; taught that she would be sure if she was queer, she felt paralyzed because she didn’t know for certain.  Another compares her newfound feelings for women as an acquired taste for fancy espresso when she used to slurp down drip coffee from a styrofoam cup without thought.  Another blames Angelina Jolie’s lips.  One woman admits thinking that she just wasn’t that kind of girl, until she realized she was that kind of girl, but for “andro-butchy” girls.  Another recounts her mother’s reaction to her coming out as “JESUS CHRIST!  I thought you were going to tell me you had cancer.  I don’t give a shit if you are a lesbian.”  Ha ha.

I highly, highly recommend this collection.  Not only did I love the content, I thought the majority of the pieces were really well written.  I think Dear John I Love Jane is especially an important read for queer women whose stories are of the “I’ve always known” variety and for folks who need to confront their biphobia (there are an unfortunate number of lesbians who need to work on this).  I’ll just leave you with this last awesome quotation, from Amelia Sauter: “You won’t find me rewriting history to say that I was gay all along.  I was straight.  Now I am gay… I always thought I couldn’t change.  I was wrong and that freaks out a lot of people who are scared to imagine that one day everything they think is true and permanent could change.  I found my knight in shining armour, and she’s a girl.”

Casey reviews Nevada by Imogen Binnie


I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get to reading Nevada by Imogen Binnie!  I finished it a few days before Christmas and am still feeling the impact of this powerful, thought-provoking novel.  Nevada follows the life of a queer trans woman named Maria.  She’s in her late twenties, she’s living in Brooklyn with her cis girlfriend, working in a bookstore in Manhattan, and trying to deal with life and her shit.  Of course, since I’m cisgender I can’t pretend to understand the emotional, physical, and mental stuff that’s trans specific in this novel, but I will say that I found that living in Maria’s head for a few days a challenging, heartbreaking, scary, breath-taking experience.

And this is definitely a novel where you feel like you’re living (trapped?) in someone else’s head for a while.  Maria is neurotic, there’s no doubt about that, and she’s cynical, and punk, and sarcastic, and (as Danika wrote in her review) post-post everything.  Hers is the kind of voice that brings up some seriously fucked-up shit in one breath and says ‘whatever’ in the next.  She uses the word fuck a lot.  It’s not that Maria doesn’t care.  It’s that she’s so used to dissociating as a survival mechanism that even after coming out and transitioning she can’t turn it off.  Her girlfriend actually lies to her about cheating on her because she so desperately wants a strong reaction, any reaction from Maria.  The descriptions of dissociation were uncomfortably close to home, for someone who’s dated someone who did this.  Imogen Binnie knows what she is talking about.

Nevada is so many things that are so refreshing to see in queer literature.  The obviously groundbreaking aspect of Binnie’s novel is that it’s a piece of fiction written by a trans woman, about trans women, with trans women as the intended audience.  I’m going to let writer Casey Plett explain a bit more about that:

And, duh, I love how it’s a novel specifically about trans women, for trans women, written by a trans woman (any of which has rarely existed let alone all three at once) and that it talks about shit that probably only trans women know about and in a totally real and unbullshit or snow-covered way (see above re: experience drinking whiskey and/or crying and/or dumbass giggling). I love how Imogen doesn’t give a fuck about her audience before she gives a fuck about trans women, we’re the primary audience and Jesus Christ that’s cathartic to have that as a reader. It’s a weird feeling to read shitloads of fiction all your life, and then read this book, and realize it’s the first book written specifically for someone like you to read it: “Gender may be a social construct, but so are cars, and if you ignore them, you still get hit.”

(via Progress Never Stops For Nostalgic Transsexuals)

Nevada is also a detailed, complex look at life after coming out.  Trans and/or queer people know life goes on after you come out, but far too often narratives (especially from cis or straight people) act as if it doesn’t or that it’s easy or that trans or queer people cease to be different from their cis or straight counterparts.  Life doesn’t end after you come out.  And your gender and sexuality don’t cease to be relevant.  In fact, what Maria is grappling with for the whole novel is “how to live a life post-transition” and how “to exist like a three-dimensional person who cares about her body and her mind and her life and her friends and her lovers and is able to exist in a relationship with another person.”  It’s not an uplifting look at this process by any means.  In the article I linked above, Casey Plett has a lot of profound and brilliantly put thoughts on this from a trans woman reader’s perspective.  This book left me with a feeling that was kind of like: FUCK WHY IS LIFE SO FUCKED-UP AND HARD??

Moving on from that, here are two other things to love about Nevada: one: Maria’s best friend, an older trans woman whom she has nicknamed Piranha.  She’s unfailingly kind, but also bad-ass and doesn’t let Maria get away with shit and calls her out on stuff and is generally the kind of friend that everyone wants and needs.  I really loved her as a character and would have liked to see more of her in the novel.

Two: Did I mention that, despite the bleakness and the hopelessness and the fucked-upness, this novel is also hilarious?  It made me laugh out loud quite a few times.  Let me just give you some examples.

Maria is emailing a guy back and forth about buying drugs and she thinks: “they are basically instant messaging via email, like our ancestors did.”  She also thinks while riding her bike “Oh Williamsburg.  There was a point when you seemed like a scary, tough neighbourhood, but now it’s obvious that the graffiti on your walls gets put there by art students.”   After she gets fired: “And that’s that.  You could be melodramatic and say: just like that Maria Griffiths is homeless and unemployed in New York City.  The reality though is that she has a bunch of places to crash, so it would be appropriative to call herself homeless.”

If you haven’t read this book already, what are you waiting for?

Casey reviews She Rises by Kate Worsley


I’m not sure how to begin this review.  I have two options:  1) I can tell you I loved this book and urge you to get your hands on it right away; 2) I can warn you that it’s very difficult for me to discuss this book in any depth without revealing GIANT SPOILERS.  You are, therefore, warned.  If you haven’t read this book, you probably shouldn’t read this review beyond the first paragraph.  This is coming from someone who usually is pretty blasé about the whole spoilers thing.  Let me just say this: if you like historical queer fiction, if a tantalizing mixture of inter-class lesbian romance and mid-1700s navy action sounds exciting to you, if you are desperately waiting for Sarah Waters’s next book, if you love authentic, rough language that disorients and dazzles you, then please pick up She Rises by Kate Worsley.

First of all, have you had a look at that gorgeous cover?  This beautifully written and suspenseful novel completely lives up to the stunning artwork.  The novel has a peculiar structure which alternates between the perspective of fifteen-year-old Luke, who has been press-ganged and forced to work on a navy ship, and Louise, also a teenager and a former dairy maid, who has recently arrived in the seaside town of Harwich to become a lady’s maid.  This structure moves you along pretty quickly, because you’re always wanting to read on and find out what happened to Luke after reading about Louise and vice versa.

Louise soon finds out that the woman, Rebecca, she’s supposed to serve is not quite what she expected a “lady” to be: she’s lazy, insubordinate, and vulgar, although she is, of course, very beautiful.  The house Louise arrives at is worlds away from the quiet, simple farm from which she has come, and she discovers that city life, especially in Harwich where the ocean literally washes into the basements of houses, isn’t as clean and pristine as she might have imagined.  She also certainly wasn’t imagining falling in love with her new mistress.  It’s a slow-burning romance at first, but once it gets going, it’s pretty exciting, like secret meetings in the attics of pubs that are connected to their house!  Isn’t it weird to think you could sneak from house to house like that?  This novel is full of those fascinating historical details.

The new world that Luke becomes immersed in is even harsher: Worsley doesn’t hold back in describing the gritty, disgusting, disturbing universe of the sailboat.  Luke is barely able to negotiate survival, and has to navigate the slippery slope of relationships between the men on the boat; in particular, Luke develops a kind of daddy relationship with an older, experienced sailor Nick.  This relationship is never exactly spelled out, but there is something both cruel and loving going on at the same time.  Once Nick falls off the pedestal which his fellow sailors had put him on, Luke falls under the control of a more straightforwardly controlling and abusive man (trigger warning for sexual assault in chapters thirty-eight and thirty-nine).  He’s a smart cookie, though, and admirably works to use this situation to his advantage.

You find out quite early in the novel that the name of Louise’s brother who has been lost at sea is Luke.  I knew there was some kind of twist in this book, and when I recognized that Louise’s brother was named Luke, and the teenager on the ship was named Luke, I was like: that’s it?  Okay, I admit I was wrong.  Oh no, my friend, this is not the twist.  Again, I’m going to warn you: stop reading if you haven’t read this book.  Here we go: Louise is Luke.  I’m not quite sure when exactly I started to have suspicions, but I think it had something to do with Louise and Rebecca finding an old sailor’s trunk and Louise trying on the sailor’s uniform up in their attic love nest (hot!!).

What’s really fascinating to me about how Worsley deals with the overlap of Louise, the lady’s maid, and Luke, the sailor, is that she resists drawing any firm conclusions about the character’s exact orientation and gender identity.  This novel, of course, takes place before either the concept of transgender or lesbian existed.  She presents the character as neither recognizably lesbian or a trans man in our contemporary understanding, but rather as a person in the mid to late 1700s navigating this dangerous territory of non-conformity in gender and sexuality.  She also cleverly and admirably deals with the pronoun issue.  One of my favourite parts of the novel is when Luke meets another sailor who was assigned female at birth and has been passing as a man for years.  Their bonding as two people living in a world where they can’t share who they really are except with each other was really specific to their situation, but also really resonated with me as a contemporary queer person.  It reminded me of the ways you relate with other folks who fall somewhere near you on the LGBTQ spectrum.  It’s that feeling that you’re not alone.

I’m going to echo Mary from Queer Books Please in her podcast raving about She Rises: why hasn’t this book received more attention?  I hadn’t even heard of it until this podcast episode, and I kind of pride myself for knowing all about what’s happening in the literary lesbian world.  And Worsley was mentored by Sarah Waters, people!  Buy this book! Check it out of your library!  Spread the word!

Casey reviews Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea


I feel a bit like a terrible literary queer when I say that I haven’t read much of Michelle Tea—I actually saw the film version of Valencia when it was recently at Vancouver’s queer film festival, and I haven’t read the book yet!  While Michelle Tea was in town for the screening, though, I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing her read from her latest (young adult) novel, Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.  I was sold.

First things first, the book itself is beautiful.  It has a great nineteenth-century feel both on the outside and the inside.  The hardcover is deep blue scattered with pictures of birds and a silver silhouette of a girl.  Throughout the book in the corner of certain pages, and sometimes taking over an entire page or spreading onto the next one, are illustrations of birds, people, plants, trailers, and other random locales in the dirty, urban climate of Chelsea, Massachusetts where the novel is set.  If you like beautiful books, this is an awesome one to have in your collection and it’s only twenty bucks, which is a steal for a hardcover!

Okay, onto the content of Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.  This novel has a fantastic combination of a lot of things I love in literature: tough yet vulnerable teenage girl protagonist, gritty urban setting, magical creatures, girls saving the world, feminism, gender play, witches, and talking animals.  Our everyday girl chosen for a special destiny is Sophie Swankowski (yes, that’s a Polish last name and I was excited to read about Polish immigrants to North America, since it’s not something I’ve encountered much and I have Polish background myself!).  I know the chosen one shtick in fantasy has been done a lot (Harry Potter, etc) but I love it.  I love how Sophie, being the uncertain, messy-haired teenager that she is, is pretty reluctant about taking on the responsibility of ridding the world of evil.  Her guide is a cussing mermaid who appears out of a filthy river to her during a vision she has while playing the pass-out game with her friend.  I’d be weirded out too, Sophie.

In addition to her bad-ass mermaid mentor, Sophie also discovers a long-lost great aunt masquerading as the owner of a musty old convenience store, that her grandfather is not really dead but has been turned into a dog by her evil grandmother, and a Puerto Rican genderqueer teenager named Angel who has been waiting for her at the previously mentioned evil grandmother’s trailer at the town dump.  Angel is where the queer part comes in, although, admittedly, it’s pretty subtextual.  Angel is there to help Sophie and teach her about her powers, and the interactions between them are really cute.  Ideally, I would have liked a little more romance here, but I get it, okay: Sophie has that whole saving-the-world-from-itself thing to do.  I’m a sucker for romance, what can I say.  I hope we get to see more of Angel in later books!

This novel is also a fantastic blend of genres:  sometimes I find fantasy worlds a little too clean, but Mermaid in Chelsea Creek injects a healthy dose of gritty realism, particularly about the sexist shit teenage girls have to deal with.  While there’s no over threat or mention of sexual assault, it and violence against women more generally linger in the background of the novel and I would definitely give a trigger warning, for sexual assault and self-harm.  Sophie’s world is magical, but there’s also poverty, and misogyny, and animal cruelty, and alcoholism, and racism, and immigration, and single moms doing the best they can.

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is the first book in a trilogy, so we’re left just when Sophie is embarking on her journey with the mermaid.  I can’t wait to find out what happens next!  We still need so many of these stories, of women as agents of their own destiny and leading the story and kicking ass and being messy, complex human beings.  When I was at Michelle Tea’s reading in Vancouver, there was a group of gay men there who had read the book in their book club.  They were obviously eager to discuss it, but unfortunately were totally unaware of how male-dominated the q&a became when they took up all the space.  One of them even complained about how there weren’t any so-called nice male characters in the book.  Hello!?!  So many men’s stories have been told—it’s time for stories about women, like Sophie, to be told.  Prioritizing women’s voices is one of the things this novel is all about—if you didn’t get that, you better read it again.

Casey reviews Le Bleu est un Couleur Chaude (Blue is the Warmest Colour) by Julie Maroh


I had admittedly never heard of French author and graphic artist Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, Le Bleu est un Couleur Chaude (it’s being translated as Blue is the Warmest Colour, although the title more literally says “blue is a warm colour”) until I read about the film version’s win of the Palme D’Or—the top prize—at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the controversy surrounding one apparently ten minute long sex scene.  I became even more interested when I read that Maroh had some serious problems with the film adaptation and—remember this is translated from the original French—called the sex scenes “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, turned into porn, and which made [her] feel very ill at ease.”   She ultimately concludes that “as a feminist and lesbian spectator, [she] can not endorse the direction Kechiche [the director] took on these matters.”  You can see the original French blog post here and an English translation (not the greatest) here.

Since the movie hasn’t been released in North America yet (it’s set to be out this fall), I decided I had to read the book.  I’ve been wanting to brush up on my French anyways, and I thought a graphic novel with plenty of lesbian sex (or so I assumed) would be a great way to start.  I was also excited about this novel because the English translation, which has just been released, is being published by one of my favourite presses, Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press.  Arsenal publishes a host of great queer writers, including Ivan E Coyote, Amber Dawn, and S. Bear Bergman.  So, with the occasional help of a dictionary and a Francophone friend (thanks Yayuk!), I read the original French version.  What did I think?  I liked it.  But I didn’t love it.

Let me tell you why.  The drawings are definitely the novel’s strength—Maroh is certainly a talented visual artist and manages to convey complexity and emotional turmoil in what are mostly black/brown and white shades.  The occasional splash of blue—the hair colour of the main character’s love interest—is a shock, as it should be.  What might also be shocking to some readers are some pretty, shall we say, graphic sex scenes.  They’re well done, to be sure and hot and authentic and pretty much everything you could ask for.  This page, in particular:

In fact, I think the drawings have a subtlety and power that the language often doesn’t; or rather, the plot as it is drawn through words.  This is a teenage coming out story; it’s also a love story that follows the two women into their later lives, but a large part of the novel deals with Clémentine figuring out that she’s a lesbian and dealing with that revelation.  And deal with it does she have to.  Le Bleu manages not to miss a single coming-out trope and opportunity for drama: intense initial denial, virulent explicitly homophobic friends who drop her as soon as they find out Clém is gay, self-loathing, projection of internalized homophobia onto your lover, and, finally, parental rejection.  Let me make it plain:  this is a dramatic book.  I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of these issues, but it just seems a bit like—did Maroh really have to make it that bad for her in order to garner support from hetero folks?  Really?  Clém has one queer friend, it’s true, a gay guy who acts as a kind of mentor.  Other than that, she’s on her own.

A lot of teenagers are going to love this book, I’m guessing, because it really does do teenage melodrama well.  It kind of makes me glad I didn’t come out until a little later.  To be fair to the book, it takes place in France in the 90s, and this is clearly a very different environment compared to both France today (although, the controversy surrounding same-sex marriage there does speak volumes) and North America.  Maybe I don’t know enough about the political and social climate of France to be able to fairly judge how out of proportion the homophobia is in the book.  All I know is, I’d ideally like to read a different story, where the explicit, overwhelming homophobic obstacles to Clém’s happiness don’t keep appearing like moles out of molehills (it’s like that whack-a-mole video game—as soon as you get rid of one, another one pops up for you to squash).

It’s not just coming out and being queer that provide constant hurdles: Clémentine and her blue-haired lover, Emma, have quite the tumultuous, sensational relationship.  Of course, the older woman Emma—she’s in university while Clém is still in high school—is already in a relationship when they meet.  Drama ensues.  They’re together, but Emma doesn’t want to break up with her partner, who introduced her to the queer scene and is a bit of a stereotypical scary territorial butch (I’m giving Maroh the benefit of the doubt here, but it is unfortunate that this is the only representation of a masculine woman).  There are stupid misunderstandings that take way too long to clear up and the whole storming out instead of finishing the conversation schtick happens fairly often.  There is never a dull moment once Emma and Clém are together; I actually preferred the slower pace of the novel before they get together.  The final piece of melodrama, of course, —if you prefer no spoilers skip to the next paragraph— is that Clémentine dies young, tragically, after Emma kicks her out when Clém confesses to having cheated on her.  This is not really a spoiler, actually, since you know Clém has died from the beginning of the novel, which starts after her death and then goes back to tell the story of how everything came to this final depressing scene.

Other reviews I’ve read emphasize the emotional impact of the novel, and the whole unfairness of the situation and the how awful it is.  I mean, it was sad, but by the end mostly I just felt like: oh brother, well, that’s the icing on the cake of the rest of the drama.  I just couldn’t make myself feel quite so emotionally involved.  This might be a language barrier.  But I don’t think so.  Actually, I think the melodrama and cheese factor must be pretty high for me to be able to sense it so strongly in a second language.  Despite what I’ve said, I would still recommend this book, for two reasons: one) the art is really exquisite and tells a beautiful and sexy story all by itself; two) I think the fact that the book takes place in 1990s France is really a context, as an Anglophone Canadian who was ten in 1995, I can’t understand—maybe it’s not my place to judge the book on certain standards too far removed from the novel’s context.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you though: Le Bleu est un Couleur Chaude is the most melodramatic thing I’ve ever read.  If you become more emotionally involved than I did, be prepared to cry.  And cry some more.

Casey reviews The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch


I heard many, many good things about Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir before I picked it up.  On the one hand, many readers who are also great writers (Ivan E Coyote and Alex Leslie among them) had recommended it, so I thought it should be a sure bet.  On the other hand, it’s always a bit dangerous when you have really high expectations coming into a book.  I think I prefer no expectations at all, to be honest.  I lucked out, however, with this book, which is as beautiful and smart as the title, The Chronology of Water, suggests it is.  Also, in case you still have any doubts by the time you actually have the book in your hand, the cover features a photo of a boob underwater. Enough said.

The synopsis on the inside cover declares, “This is not your mother’s memoir.”  I’m not really sure what exactly your mother’s memoir would be like, but it’s true that Yuknavitch’s memoir is not for the faint of heart, both in terms of content and style.  The memoir opens, for example, with this: “The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses…”  Yuknavitch does not hold back, sharing intimate details about, most of all, her body: drug use, child birth, destructive relationships, abuse, swimming, and a lot of sex (with both women and men).  What I really enjoyed was how Yuknavitch handled such so-called scandalous material: as if it were ordinary.  In fact, she tells us:

“This is not another story about addiction… My life is more ordinary.  More like… more like everyone’s.  Addiction, she is in me, sure enough.  But I want to describe something else to you.  Smaller.  A smaller word, a smaller thing.  So small it could travel a bloodstream.”

She’s quite adamant that the book not fit into a marketable, monolithic narrative of either drug addiction or sexual abuse/incest survivor.  She wants to tell the story she wants to tell, not the right kind of incest story, or the kind of inspirational story about ‘overcoming’ drug addiction that Oprah snags for her book club.  It’s a fiercely feminist book, and it wants to talk about “the tyranny of culture telling women who they should be.”  In a way, all the other feminist issues she deals with—abuse, sex, childbirth, family—lead back to writing, which Yuknavitch calls her lover and her most intimate secret.  Writing is the reason she’s here to tell the stories in this book.

In the same way that Yuknavitch refuses conventions as regards the memoir’s content, she slashes any stylistic and narrative expectations you might have and spins them around, backwards, forwards, and backwards again.  While she sometimes writes a scene in a straightforward, beginning-to-end-style, she will then begin the next chapter by telling you that wasn’t exactly how it happened; for example: “Goddamn it.  I’m already lying.  I’m making it sound all literary.  It was messier than that. A lot.”

Often even when the actual language is uncomplicated, the narrative is in “random fragments,” which Yuknavitch tells us is “how [she] understood her entire life.  In the language—image and fragment and non-linear lyric passages—that seemed most precise.”  The actual writing is sometimes downright nonsensical, pages uninterrupted by the indent of paragraphs, littered with run-on sentences, bereft of punctuation.  No matter where is she stylistically, Yuknavitch is unquestionably a talented wordsmith.  For example:

My first book came out of me in a great gushing return of the repressed.  Like a blood clot had loosened.  My hands frenzied.  Words from my whole body, my entire life, or the lives of women and girls whose stories got stuck in their throats came gushing out.  Nothing could have stopped the stories coming out of me.  Even though my hands and arms and face hurt—bruised and cut from falling from a train—or a marriage—or a self in the night—I wrote story after story.  There was no inside out.  There were words and there was my body, and I could see through my own skin.  I wrote my guts out.  Until it was a book.  Until my very skin made screamsong.

Since this is the Lesbrary, you probably want to know more about how the memoir deals with Yuknavitch’s queer sexuality (or maybe that’s just my personal interest).  Let me tell you, first off, Yuknavitch can write a really hot sex scene.  This comes from someone who is super picky about erotica and sex writing.  Just trust me.  It’s super sexy, and it’s never cheesy or over-the-top or too tame. It’s perfect.  Here’s how she describes breasts: “Boobs were the magical thing women had.  White and full and inexplicably mouthwatering.”  Also, here’s a bit about a threesome with two women:

We ate each other we ate pickled herring we ate gruyere cheese.  We ate the animal out of each other’s bodies we ate steak we ate chocolate two women my chocolate.  We drank each other we drank all the beer we drank all the wine we peed outside.  We got high on skin and cum and sweat we got high on pot.  We came in waves we ran out and into the waves.

Okay, the third and last thing I want to say about queer sexuality in the book is that I loved a hilarious chapter about a young teen Lidia going crazy with lust at all the older girls in the change room at the swimming pool. About how she just wants to rub herself all over them.  Awesome.  Oh, and if you’re looking for some writing about BDSM, that’s in here too, and it’s also very well done.

The only other memoir I’ve read that The Chronology of Water comes close to is Jeannette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? In case you haven’t read my review of that book, this means Yuknavitch’s memoir is one of the best books I’ve ever read.


Casey reviews Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

Silhouette of a Sparrow

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!

Casey reviews Wildthorn by Jane Eagland


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!