Kayla Bell reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Kayla Bell Reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan cover

In the bookish community, there is a divide between people who are character readers versus plot readers. Character readers need to read detailed, nuanced characters, while plot readers focus on an interesting, intricate plot. For the longest time, I thought I was a character reader. I’ve read plenty of books where the plot takes a backseat to a character’s journey of self-discovery and really enjoyed them. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan made me really rethink this aspect of my reading life, and I now know that I actually do need even just a little bit of a plot in order for a book to keep my attention.

Exciting Times is the story of Ava, an Irish twentysomething who moves to Hong Kong to teach English. While she’s there, she becomes entangled with a rich, aloof, English banker named Julian and, later, a vibrant, interesting lawyer from Hong Kong named Edith. The book deals with her differing relationships with both of them, and Ava trying to figure her life out. Aside from that, there is not much of a plot. It’s definitely a character-driven book.

Even that description I just gave reveals why this book fell a little flat for me. To me, it seemed that Ava was so clearly happier with Edith, who actually cared about her and called her out on her self-sabotage. This fact made it hard to understand the choices she was making to continually go back to Julian, who was so cold to her but offered her financial security. I wish that there had been more of an external conflict that would force Ava to really confront her dilemma and choose one or the other. Without it, in my opinion, the book basically became Ava’s internal monologue, which made it drag in the middle. This story structure also made the ending feel kind of rushed. I had a hard time understanding why Ava made the choices she made.

With that, there was also plenty to like about this novel. I can’t speak to the Asian representation in this book, but to me, Edith was a very interesting and compelling character, albeit less so seeing her through Ava’s eyes. I wish we had gotten more time with her and learned more about who she is outside of her relationship with Ava. I also really enjoyed how the book played with language. Ava’s English lessons were weaved through the writing in a really unique way. The voice of the book felt very raw and honest, and that’s what kept me reading even through the parts I found a little tedious. The setting of Hong Kong was also utilized very well, in my opinion, and made the book’s imagery feel vivid and interesting.

I saw a lot of comparisons between Naoise Dolan’s and Sally Rooney’s writing when reading reviews of this book and I can understand that. For me personally, Rooney’s books worked in a way that this one didn’t quite achieve. That being said, I enjoyed Exciting Times although it wasn’t quite my cup of tea and the ending frustrated me. I am always glad to see more queer representation from Irish authors and characters, though, and would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.

Carolina reviews We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman’s debut, We Play Ourselves, satirizes the contemporary art scene through the eyes of Cass, an embittered former drama wunderkind turned hapless millennial, as she uncovers the secrets behind an up-and-coming feminist documentary. However, behind that beautiful cover and biting wit, We Play Ourselves fails to balance criticism and nuance, and falls prey to the very structures that it pokes fun at.

After being #cancelled in the fray of a viral scandal and Off-Broadway flop, 30-something playwright Cass retreats to the sleepy suburbs of LA to stay with her friend and his on-the-rocks boyfriend. After a listless lull at the house, Cass is approached by a prominent filmmaker, Caroline, whose new project, a subversive, feminist Fight Club starring a feral pack of teenage girls, draws Cass in. After meeting the cast and starting the project, Cass begins to recognize that Caroline’s draw towards these girls crosses the line between muse and manipulator, and must reckon with her place at the heart of an exploitative art piece.

Silverman is an incredibly talented author, whose word choice is always sharp and necessary, and whose sentences string together in poignant prose. She brilliantly constructs the mindset of someone trying to rebuild themselves once they’re stripped to their most vulnerable state. Cass is an unlikable narrator: she’s catty, unempathetic and pretentious. However, your eyes are glued to her every move, and hungry for her backstory. I also found Silverman’s comparison of the limitations of artistic mediums incredibly interesting: theatre is a completely different animal than film, as this juxtaposition is made clear by the alternative perspectives in New York and Los Angeles.

We Play Ourselves takes major media buzzwords, and cultural revolutions, such as the MeToo Movement, conversations of media inclusion and representation and cancel culture, and breaks them down to their core through her sardonic wit. However, this satire can be read as tokenizing or dismissive to real life issues. For example, Cass’s nemesis, Tara-Jean Slater, is a self-proclaimed “turned asexual” after being assaulted by her uncle as a child, who then channels her trauma in a best-selling play and up-coming Netflix show, starring Cate Blanchett and Morgan Freeman as different iterations of her uncle. It’s quite obvious that Silverman is poking fun of the use of big celebrity names to sell products, but it instead comes across as acephobic and ignorant of the real trauma and mental health issues faced by CSA survivors, as Cass is “jealous” of Tara’s “selling point” as a CSA survivor.

This facetiousness is present throught the novel: Silverman pokes fun at tokenism by criticizing Caroline’s “diverse” film with only two non-white leads, but is guilty of the same crime, as no other non-white characters are present in the narrative. Caroline also fetishizes queer women, as she forces BB, the lesbian teenage girl, to fake a coming out to Cass, the only queer person on the film set, in order to garner attention from LGBT movie audiences. However, BB and Cass’s relationship is awkward and forced, contrived by BB’s crush on Cass, and the uncomfortable age gap between the two characters. The film storyline is extremely fraught with these problematic elements, and does little to reckon with them: I much preferred the New York theatre scenes to the Los Angeles film scenes, and would have preferred a narrative without the film aspect. We Play Ourselves is a narrative journey through the lens of a disillusioned young adult in the pretentious art scene, but does little to critique the issues at its core.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy

Warnings: homophobia, substance abuse, cheating, violence, racism, sexual assault, child abuse, disordered eating

Meagan Kimberly reviews You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.

The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.

As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.

The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.

She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.

It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.

I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.

[Spoiler warning]

Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.

Rachel reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of Stars by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s newest novel, The Pull of the Stars (Harper Avenue 2020), is perhaps one of her most compelling historical fictions to date. A fast-paced, stunning novel, I was unable to put down The Pull of the Stars until the early hours of the morning. It drew me into its world in a way that was so riveting and unexpected. I highly recommend this novel.

Shockingly serendipitous, The Pull of the Stars is set in Ireland during the 1918 flu pandemic. Already torn apart by war and struggling to fight this new and deadly disease, the novel is told from the perspective of Nurse Julia Power. Julia works in an understaffed and over-full hospital in Dublin in a cramped Maternity-Fever ward full of ill expectant mothers who must be quarantined together. Over a period of three days, Julia must attempt to save the lives of these women and their babies, even as the flu threatens to take them from her. As she works, two other women walk into Julia’s ward (and into her life): Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a Rebel with a complicated past attempting to care for patients while dodging the police, and a young volunteer who has seemingly appeared out of thin air, Bridie Sweeney. In a novel that takes place over three harrowing days, the lives of these women and their patients will become irrevocably intertwined. Birth, death, love, and loss all conflict and persevere in this novel.

The Pull of the Stars could not have been more wonderful. I was captivated by the breakneck speed that Donoghue affects in her writing. Moment to moment, life for Julia Power on this ward is intense and deeply moving. While a pandemic rages on alongside war and political unrest, Donoghue focuses in on the microcosmic relationship between three women and three beds over three days. In a hospital full of othered bodies—queer bodies and disabled bodies—all ravaged by war in different and equally traumatic ways, the novel juxtaposes the weight of war abroad with the war on disease at home, fought by valiant people who have perhaps been forgotten in the wider scheme of the war effort.

Donoghue’s choice to focus on obstetrics is fascinating. She highlights through the figure of Julia, a queer woman working tirelessly to save the lives of her expectant patients—all of whom come from different socio-economic backgrounds and who are equalized by their pregnancies and this disease—and not always succeeding. The tragedy of death and the miracle of life happen all around Julia in this novel and repeatedly astound her. The compelling and mysterious presence of Bridie Sweeney and the grounding force of Doctor Lynn widen Julia’s perspective of the world in different ways as she attempts to navigate an entirely changed global landscape.

The research and the writing in this novel were stunning and so carefully crafted. This book’s links with the pandemic aside, I think this novel has a lot to say about women’s health, knowledge, and incredible power during the 1918 pandemic and today. The book has the effect of reading like a play—much of the action takes place in one room and involves a small cast of characters. However, this ‘slice of life’ setting often moves beyond the narrow confines of the ward to delve into the three very different and very telling backstories of each of these three women. The structure of the book has an ominous bent to it, and I was compelled to read without pausing until the very end. This book runs the gambit of feelings and it will definitely leave you experiencing the full force of a measure of the emotional whiplash Julia repeatedly encounters in herself and her patients in this novel.

Donoghue integrates lesbian life in her novels so expertly that it seems to occur almost organically. There are some gorgeous scenes here that really did warm my heart, and there is something so powerful about placing lesbian characters in a maternity ward—especially a historical one.

I cannot recommend The Pull of the Stars enough to anyone who is a fan of lesbian fiction, historical fiction, or of Emma Donoghue. It is a triumph.

Please visit Emma Donoghue on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Pull of the Stars on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, death, infant death, trauma.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Danika reviews Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi cover

This was such an impressive book that I have been intimidated to write about it! It was longlisted for the Giller Prize, and it was on Canada Reads! (If you’re not Canadian: this is a big deal.)

Trigger warnings for suicide and suicide ideation, miscarriage and child death, as well as rape and child sexual abuse, both for the book and this review.

This is a book about three Nigerian women: Kambirinachi and her twin daughters, Taiye and Kehinde. This is split into four books, which you may have guessed are titled Butter, Honey, Pig, and Bread. In the first book, we’re introduced to Kambirinachi. She is an obinje, which is an Ebo term for spirits who are said to plague a mother by repeatedly being born and dying early. She finds being alive boring; it makes her restless. She can hear her kin all around her, always calling her back, so dying is a simple thing. After she sees how much her mother is tortured by her miscarriages and early childhood deaths, though, Kambirinachi decides to stick with life, much to her Kin’s disapproval.

We then jump to Taiye and Kehinde visiting their mother as adults. It has been a long time since the sisters spoke to each other, and the three of them have drifted apart due to an unnamed Bad Thing that happened. We find out that this bad thing was the rape of Kehinde as a child while her sister stayed silent under the bed. They have never openly talked about this, and it’s driven a wedge between them. The whole story spirals around this point, and we see their lives before and after this point out of sequence.

Although this isn’t told chronologically, it flows smoothly and is easy to follow. I hardly noticed that it was jumping around in time, because it always seemed like a natural transition. We follow each of their perspectives, and they all feel realistic and deeply flawed, which I think is the strongest part of the novel.

Kambirinachi struggles with life. Her daughter describes her as “beautiful in an impossible way, a delicate thing. Too soft for this world.” She loves her children, but falls into a deep depression after her husband (their father) dies, unable to take care of them or herself.

Taiye and Kehinde define themselves in opposition to each other. Kehinde feels inferior, like Taiye is the perfect twin and she is made up of the castoffs, especially because Taiye is the thinner twin. Despite having a husband and being successful, she always feels as if she’s in her shadow. Taiye, on the other hand, constantly feels rejected by Kehinde. As a child, she relied on her sister to talk for her. Now she feels lost in the world, overcome by her voracious appetite both for food and sex. She is constantly thinking about the women that she’s been with, but none of them seem to last.

One of her exes mailed a box of Taiye’s letters to Kehinde–except that Taiye never meant to actually send them. When they meet again, she avoids talking about the letters or acknowledging how painful she’s found their separation. This is an exploration of these flawed people and their complicated, layered relationships with each other.

Although it deals with difficult subject matter, it feels hopeful. There are plenty of fractured relationships here, but there are also supportive, kind, gentle relationships with healthy communication that makes me swoon. There’s also, unsurprisingly, a food theme. Each of the foods in the title shows up repeatedly, with slightly different meanings: a bee hive is a life-altering outing, a secret indulgence, or a staple of the household. Characters cook for each other when they don’t have the words to explain themselves

I highly recommend Butter Honey Pig Bread for fans of literary fiction, queer books, food writing, and anyone who wants a good story. If you’re on the fence, here is a video with the author reading excerpts–I’m sure you’ll quickly be hooked.

Danika reviews Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

There are some books–very rarely–that I read and form such a personal attachment to that I don’t want to share them with the world. This is one of them. I picked it up based on the fact that it was queer and had a blurb from Carmen Maria Machado; that was about all I knew about it. It turned out to be an immersive, raw, sometimes overwhelming reading experience.

Content warning: Discussion of disordered eating, self-loathing, internalized homophobia.

This follows Rachel, a twenty-something woman who is obsessed with food. She carefully counts calories and dutifully exercises to keep thin. She is ravenous. Every moment she is awake, she is thinking about food. She was raised to prize and police her body, and despite this tight control she keeps over her weight, it’s never enough for her mother. Rachel is a woman repressed. She is either bisexual or a lesbian, but she’s pushed that down most of her life. She desperately wants her mother’s approval, and she feels like her hunger is bottomless. In her mind, she has to exert this control because if it slips for a moment, she will spin out of control. She will never stop eating. She will never stop gaining weight.

During a session, her therapist asks her to do two things: 1) To go on a 90 day communication detox from her toxic mother, and 2) To sculpt her fear of gaining weight. Rachel agrees, and she uses all of the clay available to her to sculpt a fat woman. Her therapist says, “I think she’s quite lovely. And I think she’s worthy of love–more than worthy of love, actually. Don’t you think so?” Rachel storms out of the session and doesn’t return.

The next day, she goes to get her daily low-fat yogurt (no toppings, filled just to the line) and meets a new employee: a beautiful fat woman who fills her cup past the line and comps her some sprinkles. Rachel is panicked: this does not fit into her calorie plan. Instead of throwing the extra yogurt out, though, she finds herself devouring it, and coming back every day. Soon, she is falling for Miriam, and every time they are together, she finds herself veering from her controlled food plan.

The main character struggles with her repressed sexuality, her issues with food and her body, and her mother issues, and those all get tangled up in each other–which is my way of trying to tactfully give a content warning for her fantasizing sexually about a (fictional) mother/daughter relationship. She is looking for mother figures in the wrong places, desperately wanting the unconditional love she never received as a child.

This is a darkly comic book that had me highlighting and underlining on almost every page. On her first boyfriend: “I began dating him by default when one night, in his car, he put his hand on my thigh and I was too hungry and tired to deal with moving it. I ended things a few months later, when I got the energy to move it.” Her assessment of her therapist: “She was probably someone who genuinely enjoyed a nice pear.” On approval: “What I wanted most was for this certified hot person to see a hotness in me, thereby verifying, once and for all, that I was hot. It wasn’t that civilians didn’t find me attractive. But for a licensed hot person to verify me? That was the real shit.”

I found myself reading this book compulsively. I fell completely into Rachel’s worldview and couldn’t tear myself away. If you are someone who struggles with disordered eating or body image issues, this isn’t a book to pick up lightly. In a way, I was reading Rachel like Rachel was watching Miriam: as the fear and the secret dream. The idea of being so in control, contained, and thin is attractive–even though I know those thoughts are extremely unhealthy. At the same time, it was a cathartic read. Over the course of the book, Rachel goes from extreme restriction to feeling out of control to discovering something like balance. It’s a book that asks, What is your worst fear of your body? Isn’t that person worthy of love?

“Just because it feels good doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” said the rabbi.

This book had me almost in tears several times. I think that many–most?–women fear being out of control, and often feel like they’re right on the precipice of it. This story asks, What happens if you let go? If you fed that hunger until it was appeased? “What do you have to lose?” the Rabbi in her dreams asks. What is so desirable for Rachel about being thin, hungry, and alone?

Rachel has been sexual, but as an object more than a subject. She’s only ever craved being desired. With Miriam, she’s discovering desire, discovering herself as sexual agent. It’s also a celebration of fatness. The beauty and freedom of fat. And it’s a rediscovering of her body, learning to listen to what it needs and desires. This doesn’t have a romance ending, but it’s the messy, imperfect close this story needs. She doesn’t and shouldn’t get everything she wanted. But she can be kinder to herself and stop going to the hardware store for milk.

Honestly, this is just scratching the surface of Milk Fed. I haven’t even mentioned how much discussion of Judaism is here–Miriam is devout, while Rachel is lapsed and is trying to rediscover her relationship with it. And I haven’t really talked about Miriam’s character at all, or the ups and downs of their relationship. Still, I hope this review gives you some sense of the journey I went through reading this. It was a cathartic, immersive read that I will not be able to forget.

Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.

16 Brilliant Bi and Lesbian Literary Fiction Novels to Keep You Thinking

Bi and Lesbian Literary Fiction to Keep You Thinking graphic

When I say that I read mostly bi and lesbian literature, people often assume that means F/F romance. Although I like the occasional romance novel, the truth is that it makes up very little of my reading life. There are sapphic books in every genre: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, nonfiction, etc. One of the genres I gravitate towards is bi and lesbian literary fiction—which is a tricky thing to describe. What makes a book literary fiction? Well, usually it is more character-driven than plot-driven. It may deal with “big ideas” and concentrate more on questions than on action. It’s often seen as complex and “well-written”—but all of these qualities are subjective. I’m not interested in getting a perfect definition. Instead, I want to offer some book recommendations that will likely appeal to you if you read books that are marketed as “literary fiction.”

This is in no way a complete list of every bi and lesbian literary fiction book out there. They’re just some of my favorites. To simplify, I decided to leave out the “classics” of lesbian literature: The Well of Loneliness, The Color Purple, Rubyfruit Jungle, and other books published in the early days of queer lit. These are not all recent releases, but they are biased towards books that have come out in the last decade or two. Did your favorites make the list?

The Last Nude by Ellis AveryThe Last Nude by Ellis Avery

This is historical fiction based on Tamara de Lempicka, and it made me fall in love with Ellis Avery as an author and Tamara de Lempicka as an artist. It’s about the artist’s relationship with one of her models, Rafaela, who was the inspiration for six paintings. It’s beautiful and melancholy, and completely pulls you into 1920s Paris. It will make you think about art, doomed romance, discovering your sexuality, our relationships to our bodies, queer history, and the nature of betrayal.

In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne BrandIn Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand

This is about two women in Trinidad: one a sugar cane worker, another an activist attempting to unionize the workers. They are immediately drawn to each other, but their relationship is threatened by outside forces, including racism and homophobia. This book will make you think about belonging, and feeling caught between (and left outside of) two communities. It will make you think about immigration, and what it means to be “illegal,” about justice and belonging, and about individual choices in an unjust system.

My Education by Susan ChoiMy Education by Susan Choi

This books at first glance seems to be the very stereotype of a literary novel: a young university student begins taking classes with a professor rumored to sleep with his students. They begin sleeping together. When Regina meets his wife, however, she is far more interested in her—and that’s the dynamic at the heart of this novel. This book will make you think about trainwreck relationships—the kind you can’t quite resist, about flawed main characters, and about the mistakes you make in early adulthood.

Miss Timmins' School for Girls by Nayana CurrimbhoyMiss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy

This is an atmospheric, absorbing book about teaching at a boarding school in India in the 1970s during the monsoon season. Sheltered Charulata is only a handful of years older than the students, but she changes quickly, especially when she has two sordid, tragic love affairs (one male partner, one female). Then a student turns up dead, and the mystery element begins. This will make you think about coming of age and discovering your own identity.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-BennPatsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Patsy has just taken her chance to move to the U.S., leaving her small Jamaican hometown behind—as well as her 5-year-old daughter. Patsy follows the main character and her daughter over years, and how they both reconcile with this decision, and what it means for their relationship. It will leave you thinking about family, independence and interdependence, gender, and sexuality. Be sure to also check out her previous novel, Here Comes the Sun.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma DonoghueThe Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

This title is standing in for a lot of Donoghue books: she’s one of the big names in lesbian literary fiction. The Pull of the Stars is set during the 1918 pandemic in a small hospital ward, which is either exactly what you want to read right now, or exactly the opposite. It will leave you thinking about the parallels between that pandemic and ours, about justice in healthcare, pregnancy and childbirth, and motherhood.

The Salt Roads by Nalo HopkinsonThe Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

This book is an experience. It follows three women in different countries and time periods: Mer in 18th century Haiti, Jeanne in 1880s France, and Meritet in ancient Alexandria. Binding the three together is the spirit Ezili, who inhabits each of them at different times. This book has an F/F sex scene in the first 15 pages, and let me tell you, when I was assigned this in university, I was not expecting that. This book will leave you thinking about freedom and oppression, what’s worth sacrificing, misogyny and racism throughout time, sexuality, spirituality, the beauty of language, and so much more.

when fox is a thousand by larissa laiWhen Fox is a Thousand by Larissa Lai

This is told in three perspectives: the eponymous fox, counting down until her thousandth birthday when she will acquire power and knowledge; Yu Hsuan-Chi, a real-life poetess from 9th century China; and Artemis, a young woman in modern-day Vancouver. This is told like folklore, with fables woven throughout. It’s beautifully written, I firmly believe it should be considered a classic of lesbian literary fiction. This will make you think about toxic friendships, about activism uninformed by compassion and respect, and about queering folklore.

Her Body and Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado coverHer Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

This is a beautiful and unsettling collection that takes familiar stories and exposes the misogyny beneath them. They are thoughtful, metaphorical stories: women who fade away until they are imbued into objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, and urban legends transformed. Read this to think about gender, stereotypes (a writer is accused of writing a stereotype, and she explains that she’s writing about herself—her gay, anxious self), folklore, feminism, and more.

The Summer We Got Free by Mia MckenzieThe Summer We Got Free by Mia Mckenzie

This book feels like the moment before a summer thunderstorm. It’s about a family dealing with the fallout from a tragedy they can’t bare to talk about. We alternate between Ava’s childhood, when she was free-spirited and passionate, and her closed-off, practical adult self. Read this to think about race and racism (particularly anti-Black racism), societal norms, growing up, family secrets, and the possibility of kissing a strange woman who shows up at your doorstop.

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

Mala is sent to Paradise Alms House after she is declared unfit to stand trial for suspected murder. Slowly, she begins to unravel her life story to her nurse, Tyler (a gender-nonconforming person of indeterminate gender). Two queer love stories emerge: one in Mala’s past, one with Tyler. This story will make you think about homophobia, racism, and the intersections between them; about inter-generational queerness; and about hope.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo OkparantaUnder the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

This story is about two star-crossed lovers in Nigeria: they’re both girls, and from different ethnic communities. They are thrown together during civil war—but this is not a romance, and they are torn apart. Ijeoma has to learn what do about this part of herself that has to be hidden for her safety and acceptance. Read this to think about the the dangers of being out in different places around the world, to consider how much is worth sacrificing to be your whole self, and how these impossible choices may change over time.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique is shocked when Evelyn Hugo picks her to pen her biography: Hugo is an aging starlet whose biography is sure to be a bestseller, and Monique is an unknown writer with some magazine credits. Still, she takes the opportunity, and listens to Hugo unravel her life story, which reveals how she stayed closeted about her sexuality (bisexual) and ethnicity (Latina). Read this to think about the cost of fame, bi-erasure, complex female characters, racism, and 1950s Hollywood.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlEverfair by Nisi Shawl

You might find this in the sci-fi/fantasy section, but this is more alternate history than steampunk. It’s a reimagining of the colonial history of the Republic of Congo, and also follows a tumultuous, decades-long relationship between two women of very different backgrounds. Read this to think about colonialism, racism, white “passing,” complicated F/F relationships, intersectionality, war, and the story structure of including a staggering amount of point of view characters.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah WatersTipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is my favorite author, so this is a stand-in for all of her books, but I especially recommend picking up Fingersmith, too. Tipping the Velvet is a “lesbo-Victorian romp” (that’s the author’s description) about a small-town girl falling for a male impersonator and joining her on the road. Read it to think about being queer in Victorian England, male impersonators and gender, first loves, socialism, relationships that develop from friendships, and love after loss.

Written on the Body by Jeanette WintersonWritten on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of the big names in lesbian literary fiction, so there are a lot of her books I could have included, but I especially recommend this and The PassionWritten on the Body is remarkable for not stating the gender of the protagonist explicitly at any point, but it’s generally regarded as a classic of lesbian literary fiction. It’s about the narrator’s adoration of Louise, a married woman, and singing the praises of her and her body. Read this to think about gender assumptions and signifiers, and about being passionately in all-consuming love.

Bonus book:

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max GladstoneThis Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Okay, you’ll almost certainly find it in the science fiction section: it’s about two women on opposite sides of a war across space and time, leaving each other letters—at first taunting, and then romantic. The letters between Red and Blue are so beautiful and lyrical that you’ll forgive me for including it on this list. Read this to think about poetry and love letters, war and time travel, and recognizing the humanity of people we’ve been taught to dehumanize.

Those are my picks for bi and lesbian literary fiction that will leave you with much to ponder! This is only a brief introduction: there are many more sapphic literary works, and more are being published all the time. If you pick up any of these, let me know what you think on Twitter! I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to also offer any recommendations of bi and lesbian literary fiction you think I’d enjoy! I’m always looking for more.

This article originally ran on Book Riot.

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Mo Springer reviews Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Lucky is a lesbian, but in her conservative Sri Lankan family, that’s not an option. She married her gay friend Kris and they go to gay bars, have lovers, and still have the approval and conditional love of their family. When her grandmother falls and Lucky has to move back home to help take care of her, the lies become harder and more pressing. Then, Lucky’s childhood sweetheart Nisha is getting married, and Lucky wants to save her. She’s trapped in the obligations of a family that has many of its own problems–her father divorced her mother for her best friend, her sister entered an arranged marriage she didn’t want but seems happy, and her other sister ran away. Lucky wants to escape this life of duty without happiness, but how can she leave her family behind?

This was a hard story, I won’t lie. There is a lot of honesty and truth in this book, and the author doesn’t pull any punches. Lucky is miserable, and her obvious depression bleeds through the page. Having said that, it’s important to note that this is not a bad story–this is an amazing story that surrounds sad events.

Every single character is so unique and well-rounded that by the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people personally. Lucky’s mother clings to these traditions and cultural rules so desperately as a way to keep control of her life that has been destroyed by these same rules (her husband who left her is accepted in their society, but not she, the divorced woman). Her grandmother has always been very dear, and has lived an amazing life, but now puts Lucky into a panic with talk of grandchildren. Nisha wants her family to love and accept her, but she also wants to have her own life and happiness. Kris is desperate to be different from what he is, to keep up this lie as much as possible, to never let go, no matter the cost to Lucky.

A lot of these characters come across as unlikeable for good reason. Lucky’s mother is unquestioningly homophobic. At times it seems that Nisha is using Lucky more than caring about how her decisions have an affect on her. Kris, similarly, seems to be using Lucky.

Kris in particular I had a hard time giving as much empathy to as I was with the other characters. As much as I hated Lucky’s mother’s decisions, I can understand them. I felt all of her Lucky’s pain every time Nisha did something to hurt her, but I can also sympathize with where Nisha is coming from. But with Kris, at times it really felt like he just saw Lucky as a means to an end, the end being his acceptance in their community and his family. Lucky wants to lie to keep her family happy, but Kris seems to want more than that. He wants to be normal and have the social status he would have if he was straight.

Social status and community acceptance are themes for all the characters. The author does a great job of explaining the Sri Lankan culture and traditions, creating an immersive experience that also helps to inform the reader of the characters’ motivations. As much as I didn’t like what a lot of them did, I understood them and stayed engaged with their story arcs.

The writing itself is also amazingly beautiful. The exact and specific imagery that flows through the narrative pulled me so effectively the real world felt like a blur. I think I must have highlight lines on every page, it was so stunning.

This is a great book, and I do highly recommend it. It’s not a light and fluffy read, so don’t go into it expecting that, but it is fulfilling.

anna marie reviews Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai is a gooey treat of a book, full of nauseating smells, intoxicating feelings and so much juicy/murky/enticing fluid. In other words it was really great, even better than The Tiger Flu (2018) in my opinion, which I read last year and enjoyed immensely too. Both novels in fact share certain preoccupations with gross bodily queerness as well as dystopian capitalist futures and clones.

Published in 2002, the novel tells a dual or even quadruple story at once. It floats out of time frames, bodies and characters but the main focal points are two protagonists. Nu Wa & her story, generally in nineteenth century China, and her experience falling in love with the salt fish girl who works at the market and Miranda, who’s growing up in the technocapitalist Pacific Northwest from 2042 onwards, and who has the pungent smell of the durian fruit constantly emanating from her whole being and whose family is trying to find a cure.

I was prepared to love the book, it had been recommended to me by a friend, and, as I said I’d already enjoyed another of Lai’s novels. From the first lines I knew I would like it–lines on the first page about loneliness and primordial sludge made me pause with wonder. I was sold; “It was a murkier sort of solitude, silent with the wet sleep of the unformed world,” writes Lai. Salt Fish Girl has this incredible, in many ways relatable, blending of a gross, pervasive sickness/smell with a sensitive, handsy queerness that vibrantly articulates something very truthful, I felt, about the experience of being a child dyke. Full of clumsy encounters and fraught yet attempting-to-be-loving relationships which the novel clung to me, and I took, much like the smell of durians following Miranda, to bringing the book with me into any room or space that I went to, whether or not I actually did any reading.

The novel is about sickness, as well as about the bizarre coupling of mutation, love and reproduction (again much like The Tiger Flu). It also has mermaids and a mythic focus and swelling that was so compelling and really quick to read. The pacing never fails to feel exciting and the dual story pulls you along so that it’s hard to put the book down, each storyline pulling you along to the next installment and on and on.

Funnily enough, the compulsion that pulled me through the book, after the first few chapters settled me into the story, is how I feel about picking up another Larissa Lai novel! I’m really looking forward to reading When Fox is a Thousand, which was her debut in 1995, and rereading The Tiger Flu when I’m next near my copy.