Danika reviews A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

It’s not beautiful or brave or redemptive. It’s like a light case of mono that never goes away. I don’t want to brave. I want us to be okay.

I’m having trouble writing this review, because I feel like I’m still processing this book. A Safe Girl to Love is a collection of short stories with trans women main characters, many of whom are also lesbians/bi/queer. The stories have different voices, but for the most part, they’re written in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone. Some stories don’t have quotations marks around dialogue, which gives it a dreamlike, immersive feel. Most of these stories are realistic and gritty, but one does have a talking cat.

Although these women all live in different places and circumstances, and their everyday life varies a lot, they all deal with the daily struggle of surviving in a world that constantly questions their existence and value. Every character faces microagressions, though they’re often accompanied by more overt aggression and danger. Plett really lays out how these constant digs wear away at the protagonists, and how much it takes to just survive under that.

Because these are all women dealing with trauma and institutional discrimination, they have to find ways to cope. They are flawed, and sometimes make bad decisions. Sometimes they don’t have a lot of options to choose between. But they also endure, and they find meaning where they can.

I can’t help but compare this to Nevada by Imogen Binnie: not because they’re two of the few queer trans women books out there, but for that tone. They both reject the idea that enduring pain is noble or beautiful, or the idea that trans people have to be perfect people in order to earn the right to live. Add in the BDSM and bookstore jobs, and these two have a lot in common.

The tone made this a difficult book for me to read, emotionally speaking. Though I also feel ridiculous saying that I found it too hard to just read about these experiences, when they’re far from uncommon for trans women in their everyday lives. In hindsight, I wish I had spaced these out a little more and read something in between, so I could better absorb each individual story. I don’t want to imply that there are no spots of light or positivity, though, and those moments are all the more powerful because of it.

People at the bookstore sometimes ask why I’m still there. Because no one else wants to fucking be here. But I’m happier in my day-to-day life than I ever was before. A lot of shit’s still awful, yes, and I’m angry and negative most days, yes. But I love my job. I love my partner. (You know, most of the time.) I like our household. I do actually like how I’ve structured most of my life. I’ve started to see a future and it’s got its shit parts, but it’s also kind of really okay. Everyone else sees me as a mess, Liam included. But I don’t feel like a mess. I know what a mess feels like.

Danika reviews Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan

Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan

What a great summer read. Lou is gearing up for The Best Summer Ever, and even being cast as the hot dog at her summer carnival job doesn’t break her stride. Sure, her crush is literally dating the Princess of the park, but she’s got a plan to snag this diving pirate for herself. And as for the apparent closing of the park, which has been one of the few constants in her life, she is determined to find a way to save it. When she ropes her best friend, Seeley, into fake dating her, Lou is surprised to find that her various schemes aren’t going exactly to plan…

I love this queer rom com YA. Lou is a flawed character that I couldn’t help but root for. She is determined to have control over her life: she is going to get the guy and save the park, no matter what. She can have a one-track mind and miss the obvious because of it. She’s also dealing with her fears of abandonment (her mother left when she was about ten). She makes bad decisions, but I understood why she was making them, and she (eventually) learns from them.

This turns into not just a love triangle, but a love pentagon. And the fake dating trope is a staple in fanfic for a reason! This has a slowburn element that can be infuriating, but also very compelling. I loved that there are a variety of queer characters, and also that there is complexity to even the peripheral characters. You get the sense that even if they’re not on the page much, they are living their own lives with their own narratives.

This balances well between feeling summer-y while also having some drama and angst to keep pulling you in. I highly recommend it!

Danika reviews In the Silences by Rachel Gold

In the Silences by Rachel Gold

While Rachel Gold usually writes about gender and sexuality, In the Silences expands this by also tackling race. Although it does have a non-binary, genderfluid main character who is discovering and accepting their gender identity, it is just as much about Kaz learning about race, racism, and whiteness. While I originally was a bit worried about a book so much about race being written by a white author, as the book went on, I realized that it is much more about whiteness. Kaz’s best friend and love interest, Aisha, is black (and bisexual), and by listening to Aisha and seeking out resources, Kaz begins to realize the impact that race has in their small, mostly-white community.

Kaz and Aisha are both comic book fans, and Kaz relates to both their gender and the concept of racism by relating it to comics. The voice that whispers racist thoughts in white people’s minds is Apocalypse, a comic book villain who has brainwashed people. Kaz attempts to understand how to fight against this force, and how to help their loved ones see that it exists. Kaz lives with their mother, brother, and grandparents. Their grandmother is progressive and accepting, helping Kaz to process this information and taking their coming out in stride. Their mother and brother are a different story, though, and Kaz struggles to figure out how to get through to them.

In the Silences really explores the day-to-day of microaggressions and unrelenting racism, particularly anti-black racism. (Of course, as a white person reading a book written by a white author, I can’t speak to the authenticity of these depictions.) Kaz is the point of view character, so we see Aisha’s experiences through their eyes. Kaz is slowly awakened to the daily, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant discrimination that their best friend faces. Aisha wants to be a doctor, and at every turn she is underestimated and her intelligence is doubted. I especially liked the attention the story pays to stereotype threat, and how often Aisha is placed in impossible situations, where she must devote so much mental energy to navigating others’ racist perceptions of her, leaving her little room to do anything else.

At the same time as they are learning about race, Kaz is exploring their gender, and beginning to accept being non-binary and what that means. Aisha and Kaz are able to find commonality in their identities being erased, but they also recognize their very different experiences and work to become allies for each other. They look out for each other, and they put in the work of trying to understand each other. In one scene, Aisha has printed out pictures of black female doctors and other role models to help her feel less alone (and combat stereotype threat). At the same time, she offer Kaz examples that she has found of non-binary people and communities through history–combating Kaz’s isolation.

I feel like what Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness does for small children, In the Silences does for teens. I still haven’t found a lot of books like these two, which recognize that it is white people’s responsibility to learn about racism and fight to change it, and especially to educate each other. This is much-needed, and I hope that it finds its way into the hands of the people who need it.

Danika reviews “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh

New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

New Suns is an anthology of speculative fiction by people of colour, and it does include a few queer women short stories, but one really stood out to me: “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh. The author describes it as “A pornographic triptych of three different individuals encountering a creature part human, part bobbit worm.” This story perfectly combines two tropes that need more f/f content: human/mermaid love stories and human/monster sexuality. Any time a movie like The Shape of Water comes out, it sparks a new rehashing of the age-old question: “Why are so many people attracted to monsters?” I’m not here to answer that question, only to recognize its truth, and this is the perfect short story to explore it.

Mayang is not a mermaid: her bobbit worm-like traits, including mandibles, are too disturbing to fit our sexualized and Disneyfied vision of a classic mermaid. But she is a fantastical creature who lives in the water, who is fascinated by people, but also separate from them. Salmah and Mayang have a relationship, but there is tension there: they belong in different places. Salmah can’t reconcile this relationship with her life or future. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it is Mayang’s next, unexpected relationship that bring her more acceptance and really explores what is possible between their different lives (and bodies).

Part erotica and part revenge-against-misogynists story, with an undercurrent of the grotesque that leaves you equal parts disturbed and enthralled, this is a story I think a lot people have been looking for without knowing it.

Jen Wilde’s Books are the Feel-Good Sapphic YA You’ve Been Searching For

Did you know I (Danika) have a booktube channel? Along with the Lesbrary, the Bi & Lesbian Literature tumblr, and Book Riot, I talk about books there, too! Apparently I can’t say enough about them. Most of my content is about queer women books, and I even have a playlist of just my sapphic book videos. Consider this video my review of Going Off Script by Jen Wilde (suffice to say, I loved it).

For exclusive videos and to be entered in monthly queer book giveaways, support the Lesbrary and this channel on Patreon! 

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Danika reviews Heathen, Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

I feel like Heathen is a book that lots of people are looking for, but they don’t know it’s an option. It’s about a lesbian viking taking on the patriarchy. Norse mythology with a queer lead! That’s what made me pick this up in the first place, but I mistakenly thought this would be incidentally queer: that the main character liked women, but it wouldn’t come up much. Instead, the basis of her arc is that she was banished from her community–and meant to be killed–for kissing a girl. Instead of feeling shame, she feels outrage at a system that punishes her for this. She decides to free Brynhild, a Valkyrie who is imprisoned in fire by Odin.

That’s only the beginning, though. This is a quest to take down the patriarchy, and along the way Aydis and her allies defend other outcasts. She also runs into some talking wolves and a talking horse as well as Freyja, goddess of love. Oh, and of course, she picks a fight with the most powerful enemy you can find in Norse mythology: Odin.

I really like the art, which has muted colours and a scratchy quality that makes it more dynamic. I’m not going to be able to explain it well, so just look at the page below for an idea of the style. My only qualm, and it’s a small one, is that Aydis and many other female characters are wearing very little clothing, especially considering that this scene takes place in winter. It is own voices lesbian representation, though, so I’m not going to get too hung up on clothing choices. This is a fun, feminist take on Norse mythology, and I’m looking forward to picking up volume 2!

Page from Heathen

Danika reviews The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta

The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta

This was my most-anticipated book of 2019, and it lived up to the hype. I knew from the time that I heard about a YA novel featuring six queer witches among the California redwood forests, I was hooked. This is such an atmospheric, encompassing read. It’s told in a way that mirrors the fantastical events: we see the story through different time periods and perspectives (Danny–the main character, The Grays–the witches, the Ravens, the Trees, the students at their high school, etc), giving a piecemeal account that advanced remarkably organically. I found that I had to let the story wash over me, without getting too bogged down with the details. 

I still get a little thrill out of seeing books that actually use the word queer in the description, so that’s always a plus, but it exceeded my expectations on the representation front. It’s no coincidence that this is the queerest YA book I’ve read since Amy Rose Capetta’s Once and Future. With a few exceptions (Anger is a Gift and Down to the Bone come to mind), I still don’t see a lot of YA (or books in general) that feature a queer friend group. To have 6 queer witches that celebrate their identities is–I hesitate to say–magical to read about. The group includes a grey ace non-binary character, a black bisexual character, a main character who identifies as queer, a character with synesthesia, a character with a limp, and a Filipino character. These characters discuss their labels and identities freely and without shame. This book includes a character casually using the phrase “femme as fuck.” Not only that, but Danny is a queer teenage girl who enjoys her sexuality. Kissing is her favourite thing to do, and she usually kisses girls. Before moving to Tempest, she spent her time finding all the girls in the school who wanted to kiss her, and kissing them. I feel like sapphic YA often shies away from explicit sexuality, while The Lost Coast celebrates sexuality/sensuality, and includes an on-the-page f/f sex scene.

I found myself partway through this book, impatient to reread it. Because there are so many central characters as well as perspective and time period shifts, I felt like I couldn’t keep track of it all the first time through. It wasn’t a problem, because this has such an eerie, dreamlike feel that this disorientation just added to the experience. Although I am Canadian, I live on the west coast, and the magical, foreboding, awe-some power of the forest described in The Lost Coast really spoke to me. By the end of the book, I did feel satisfied that I understood the crux of the plot despite my initial confusion, but I am still excited to read this again on a breezy October evening, diving into this magical and encompassing story with a better understanding of the personalities contained there.

There were a few moments that really made me stop to appreciate and process them. At one point, Danny realizes that although her mother loves her, she doesn’t understand her: “there are parts of me–maybe the best parts–that she will never see, because they’re too strange.” Despite the flack that The Well of Loneliness gets, I still find that one line from it echoes through queer lit even to the present, where the main character declares that her love–which she has been shamed and hated for–is the best thing about her. I see this in Danny, too, this confusion/shame/outrage that the qualities others may resent or want to change about us may be our best qualities, what we most have to offer to the world. Later on, Danny realizes that part of the reason that the Grays touch so much is that they recognize that people like them have been denied this in earlier times, that every kiss is also in tribute to the queer people who were not able to openly kiss the people they wanted to. Especially in the conclusion of this story, there is a real recognition of queer people through time, which I really appreciated.

This is a beautiful book that I feel like so many people have been asking for. It’s an atmospheric Fantasy story. It has diverse queer representation. It’s whimsical and has a big queer cast, all of whom have their own magical specialization. I think this deserves so much more attention. Amy Rose Capetta has really pushed queer YA forward, between this and Once and Future. I’m so glad that 2019 is bringing us the stories we’ve been craving for so many years. Please pick up this story of chosen family and finding your own magic, and spread the word, because I know so many readers have been waiting for a story just like this.

Danika reviews Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst and Paula Garner

Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst and Paula GarnerSometimes, a book so clearly communicates the emotional state of the characters that it becomes painfully familiar. It is relatable to the point that I instinctively want to distance myself from it. Starworld is one of those animals, and although its characters have very different life circumstances to my own, their loneliness and vulnerability brought me right back to being a teenager again–not something I would volunteer for!

Both Sam and Zoe are dealing with overwhelming home lives, though you might not be able to tell they have much in common judging from their school lives. Sam is determined to fly under the radar, confiding in exactly one friend and sticking to her exit plan: getting into a good university, where she can study aerospace engineering. At home, her mother’s OCD has consumed their lives. Sam has to follow a seemingly endless list of her mother’s rules, and she feels responsible for keeping her safe and pulling her out of spirals. It’s an exhausting job, and although Sam longs to escape, she also fears what will happen when she leaves.

Zoe is a social butterfly who seems to have it all together, but she keeps her home life very separate. Her brother is disabled, and now that he is a teenager, it has gotten significantly more difficult for his family to care for him. He is stronger than them, which means that his (and their) safety is at risk. Their family is torn at the prospect of having to have him cared for at a facility. It’s only complicated further by Zoe’s mother having just gone through cancer treatment. If that wasn’t enough, Zoe is secretly dealing with feelings of abandonment at being adopted.

Zoe and Sam are both hurting, and they don’t have a lot of outlets for this pain. Although they run in very different circles, when they have a few change interactions, they end up reaching out and finding comfort in their unexpected friendship. They create their own world together, which they call Starworld. It takes place between *s in text messages, like so: *hops on a dragon and takes you out into space* This reminded me of online roleplaying that I did in high school (although that was Drarry HP fanfiction), so it definitely rang true for me!

What really felt like being back in high school, though, was Sam’s crush on Zoe. She falls for her, hard. I feel like this is the first queer YA I’ve read that really captures the dizzying, overwhelming, helpless feeling of a teenage crush, especially because it addresses the sexual aspect of it. Sam loves Zoe for her personality and their friendship, but she’s also checking her out! The story doesn’t shy away from Sam’s attraction to her, which isn’t something I’ve seen much of in sapphic YA.

[spoilers, highlight to read] Sam’s unrequited crush is painful to read about. She has placed so much importance in this relationship–and Zoe has, too, but she’s not seeing it in the same way. They’re both relying on each other, and when Zoe doesn’t return Sam’s feelings, it drives a wedge between them. Maybe that was necessary for them both to grow as individuals, and maybe they needed to stop running away to Starworld and start making changes in their real lives, but it doesn’t change how hard it is to witness both of their pain and Sam’s lashing out. [end spoilers]

What can I say? This was well done, and I definitely felt for the characters, but it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable read. It made me feel like a teenager again, drowning in emotions and not having the resources to manage them. If that’s the experience you’re looking for, definitely pick this one up! But I will definitely be looking for a fluffy book with a simple, happy f/f romance coming off this read.

Danika reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmilla edited by Carmen Maria MachadoThe act of interacting with text—that is to say, of reading—is that of inserting one’s self into what is static and unchanging so that it might pump with fresh blood. Having read this introduction, I hope you will enter into Carmilla thusly, using your fingertips and mouth and mind to locate the lacunae where LeFanu excised pieces of Veronika’s account, the hallways haunted by the specters of truth and phantom of passion. See if you cannot perceive what exists below: the erotic relationship of two high-strung and lonely young women. The shared metropolis of their dreaming. An aborted picnic in the ruins.

This isn’t my first encounter with Carmilla. I’ve read it twice before, and, of course, seen the web series and their movie (in theatre). I have a complicated relationship with this text, which I will get into later, but suffice to say I am repulsed and attracted—just as Laura is said to be to Carmilla. So, when I found out that Carmen Maria Machado was editing and introducing an edition, I needed to get my hands on it. Machado wrote Her Body and Other Parties, which is an incredible short story collection. This review will by mostly about Machado’s edition as a distinct work, but if you’d like to read my thoughts about Carmilla in general, here is my original review.

After I received a review copy of this edition, I started to wonder how different a change in editor would really make it. I shouldn’t have underestimated Machado. Carmilla was originally published as a serial in a magazine. After that, his short stories were collected, with an added introduction which claimed that the story was gleaned from a Doctor Hesselius’s collection of letters. Machado adds another layer on top of this, claiming that the actual letters were discovered hidden in Le Fanu’s property, and that he had not only stolen this story and claimed it as his own, but had also censored it. She creates a meta narrative around the work, which leads us to imagine that Carmilla was published in a world where vampires do exist.

Through her introduction, she makes the queer subtext (already hard to deny) text. In the discovered letters, the real Laura (Veronika) describes her undisguised desire for the real Carmilla. This casts doubt on Le Fanu as a narrator, showing him as a biased perspective. He is made unimportant, an impediment to understanding the story and the character, instead of a creator. Machado’s introduction claims that she hasn’t restored the edition to the “original letters” because she hopes that more will be discovered, and also because she wanted Le Fanu to be recognized in his inadequacy and shame. What a brilliant reclamation of this story, which centres the women and their relationship. Instead of seeing a queer reading as violating the intent of the author or bringing a modern lens, it imagines the story as being previously misinterpreted through a heteronormative view. It’s brilliant.

Of course, there’s more to this book than just the introduction. There are footnotes, but they are only occasional. There are a handful of factual footnotes, mostly indicating place names that no longer exist. And then there are a precious handful of footnotes that add a whole new dimension to the text. One footnote casually relays the life story of a character who only shows up for a few pages. After Laura glances at the woods, a footnote laments, “Lonely as she was, if only Laura knew the potential friends who resided in those woods! Peddlers, mountebanks, roguish-but-decent thieves and brigands, fairies, wolpertingers…” And the ultimate footnote, of course, which simply reads: “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.” It’s so nice to have a friendly (i.e. queer) guide through this unfriendly narrative. As wonderful as it is to read a lesbian vampire story that predates Dracula, it is openly hostile to queer readers. This edition, instead, centres a queer narrative. In the introduction, she excerpts from Veronika’s discovered letters, where she says she dreams of Carmilla, of her corpse intoning “You are mine,” and follows it with “How I fear that sound: that it might be true, and that it might never be true again.” In this story, the male characters are executing Laura’s lover while claiming to be protecting her. Machado compares her to Elizabeth Báthory: monster, or victim of misogynistic smear campaign?

There are also a few beautiful and detailed illustrations by Robert Kraiza, including a sexy illustration of Carmilla and Laura’s embrace. Like Machado’s footnotes, I savored each one, but I was also greedy for more of them. One of the things that I noticed about the original story this time around was the lore. I like reading early vampire or zombie stories, because the rules and associations around them have changed over time. In Carmilla, vampires must return to their graves to sleep at least a few hours every day. (They also seem to be able to walk through walls and get into and out of their graves without disturbing the soil.) When they unearth Carmilla in her coffin, she is partially submerged in blood, which is such a creepy image that I’m surprised it hasn’t survived. I also noticed this time that Le Fanu’s text describes the vampire, after finding a suitable victim, to engage in a kind of courtship which resembles the passion of love. He says that they yearn for something like consent or sympathy. Carmilla is not treated entirely sympathetically in the original text, but this definitely leaves the door open for more generous interpretations.

Finally, I found myself ruminating about why queer people so often love monsters, villains, vampires. I think that Laura’s mix of fear and shame and attraction is such an uncomfortable reflection of some of our first experiences with queer desire—before, maybe, we even knew enough to name it. That monstrous, beautiful future that could be glimpsed in it. Laura’s feeling of being both drawn to Carmilla and feeling “something of repulsion” can easily be interpreted as compulsory heterosexuality souring desire. In fact, so heteronormative is Laura that she wonders if Carmilla could be a boy disguised—the only way she can conceive a romance. She is so undone by this queer courtship that she says “I don’t know myself when you look so and talk so.” Outside of (or alongside) compulsory heterosexuality, I started to think of Laura and Carmilla’s relationship as being a representation of toxic relationships—love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. Initially unaccountably pleasurable, fascinating, and then mixed with the horrible, resulting in Laura’s increased lassitude, melancholy, and thoughts of death. This could easily be reimagined as a canon relationship, but an unhealthy and even abusive one.

Ultimately, I keep coming back to this story for the same reason that I keep coming back to lesbian pulp. Because I think that it’s crucial to not only have a queer present and future, but also to reclaim our past. And those narratives have been hidden, and when they’re not hidden, they’re hostile. But I want to seek out every snide reference to a queer woman throughout time, and it’s for the same reason that queer people reclaim monsters and villains. Because we stare our fears in the eye and embrace them. We take the boogeyman stories about us and we invite them in. We make monsters into heroes and the heroes into monsters. We queer the story. Instead of shrinking from the terrible associations that have been put on us, we remake them and show them off. Because we are alchemists who turn shame into pride. And this is a book that knows that so intimately. Carmen Maria Machado seems to know why I read Carmilla, and created a pathway through this story that does most of the work for queer readers. This is a profoundly different experience from reading Le Fanu in isolation. Machado’s edition has made me think more deeply about this story, and has made me feel like a welcome reader to it, which is not an easy thing to do with a text that frames people like me as monsters. I will cut off this sprawling essay here, since I feel like I’m approaching the length of the novella, but I hope that if you have read Carmilla, you re-read it in this edition, and if you’ve never read it, treat yourself to this little-changed but much-improved version.

Danika reviews Moonstruck, Vol. 1: Magic to Brew

Moonstruck Vol 1

I adored this book when I started it. The pastel colours, the adorable art style, the world packed full of magical people of all varieties (living plants! ghosts! centaurs!), and the coffee shop setting. Then you get a f/f romance between two fat poc werewolves (Selena is Black and Julie is Latina)! It also has a nonbinary centaur character who uses they/them pronouns. I was gearing up for a five star rating.

Unfortunately, I ended up giving this one three stars, because I am conflicted about it. Although the plot pulled me through the story and I loved the aesthetics, the adorable relationship quickly devolves into something… icky. Selena is sometimes controlling and even insulting. Julie reacts with tears. They fight, multiple times, including physically (as werewolves). I fully admit that I prefer my romance fluffy and basically conflict-free, so I am bringing my own baggage into this, especially because I can feel so much empathy for Julie, who is a raw nerve of vulnerability and sensitivity.

I still want to continue with the series, because everything else was 5 stars for me, but because I was expected fluff, the downward spiral of the relationship really soured it for me. The book does address their dynamics and has some accountability, but it still didn’t seem to match the happy tone of the rest of the book. I’m interested to see if the next volume course corrects in that, or if I’ll have to accept that this one isn’t for me.