A Memoir of Medical Bias—Bless the Blood: A Cancer Memoir by Walela Nehanda

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Bless The Blood: A Cancer Memoir is a striking book that gets under your skin and stays there for days afterward. Though billed as a YA book, the writing and story hold a depth of feeling and insight that will engage far older readers, too. Hospitals, homes, intimate relationships and even one’s own skin are explored as sites playing host to complex histories. Framed by references to Cynthia Parker Ohene and Audre Lorde, Walela Nehanda threads a poetics of class, race and gender that shows how those constructs tangibly mediate who has access to certain spaces and their attendant expectations of care.

There is wisdom in Nehanda’s depiction of the ways relationships function as spaces for the people in them. And inversely, how spaces are shaped by the connections people make there. Some books really get to the heart of that old saying “a house is not a home”—this is one of the few that goes further by suggesting that a body isn’t always a home, either.

Teeming with generational trauma and an aching love-hunger that breaks through in paragraphs and poems about sickness, recovery, affection, intimacy, and history, this is a book that refuses to be reducible to inspiration porn. There is a lot of unvarnished pain here: it beats and seeps and leaps out of the page, sinking into the sorest parts of anyone who has ever found themselves at odds with their body, anyone who has ever felt the acute violence of having their bodies treated as alienable. 

But these recollections are accompanied by memories of healing and true connection that remind me of one of my favorite aspects of queer media: the defiance of portraying communal moments of revelry and unapologetic joy. These moments offer a small antidote to the seemingly incessant indignities Nehanda encounters in trying to access care through institutions that diminish compassion into a sort of charity contingent on the seeker’s performance of acceptable respectable acquiescence to unjust norms. It is a keenly relevant story, and only becoming more so as the conversation and activism around medical bias gains momentum.

The book’s archetypal figures and icons are also from a media moment that younger readers (I’m including twenty-somethings in this), will find timely. Close readers might be left wondering why there is more “prestige” in the exploits of long-dead hellenics than Captain American or Black Panther—and how our insistence on pretending that the former are more universal than the latter only goes to show how deeply those stories have been decontextualized in service of modern myths about what is “natural” or just.

I will admit fully that I am very partial to this sort of mythic deconstruction. I appreciate authors who staunchly refuse the opiate of presumed objectivity and instead fiercely reckon with the implicit messages and specificity of our shared stories. There is a passion in these pages that I found refreshing, and which I hope this review does justice to.

Who Will Enjoy This: People who thought The Remedy was poignant, timely and want to read more deeply personal stories about the struggles of accessing care (both medical and otherwise) as a gender-expansive person of color (here, a Black person in America). People who enjoy memoirs in verse, or poetry about the poet’s relationship with their body and others. People who think “formalism” is another word for “limitation”. People who enjoy science fiction metaphors for biomedical ideas.

(Seriously, Nehanda’s description of leukemia and their body as a besieged planet is all I’ve been talking about to anyone who will listen for the past week)

Who Might Think Twice: If you’re currently dealing with healthcare bias and difficulties of your own, this book will either reassure you that you are not alone or leave you emotionally exhausted. Your miles may vary. Nehanda pulls no punches in either their remembrances of or their viscerally unflinching depiction of their pain.

Scattered Shreds of Sapphic Poetry—If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson

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My girlfriend’s and my 10-year anniversary was this month, and I figured it was well past time we bought our own volume of Sappho.

For those who don’t know, Sappho was a poet from the island of Lesbos who lived around the turn of the 6th century BC. In her day she was known as “the Tenth Muse,” and though her lyric poetry and songs were some of the most influential in the ancient Greek language, only fragments of her works survive. It’s from her legacy that both the terms sapphic and lesbian are derived.

Unsurprisingly given how iconic her work is, there have been many translations of Sappho’s poetry published over the years, and it’s amazing how different they can be. Now, translation, as an art form, is often not given the credit it deserves. There’s a dream our culture has of a passive, invisible translator, someone who can provide the pure, unaltered meaning of a text without inserting anything of themselves in the process. It’s an impression of translation people get from foreign language dictionaries and algorithms like Google Translate; this idea that perfect, impersonal translations between different languages is ideal, or even possible. The truth is, however, that it isn’t reality. Translators are active participants in the writing process, just as authors are. This becomes especially clear with poetry—the density of meaning that each word has in a poem starkly illustrates just how difficult and creative the task of translation is.

Thankfully, I knew exactly which version of Sappho I wanted to get—Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Carson is a prolific and well-respected translator of ancient Greek works, and tends towards starkly simple and evocative language in her translations. If Not, Winter is that in the extreme; each page is mostly blank, with one to a handful of fragments on them. The reverse of each page holds Eva-Marie Voigt’s transcription of the ancient Greek, but even if you can’t read any of it at all, Carson’s English translation is more than compelling enough. What strikes me most about it, especially over other translations, is just how obviously fragmentary every piece of a poem is. Carson calls attention to where pieces of the original poems are missing with heavy use of open brackets and line breaks, and the effect is immediate and profound. Just flipping through, there’s no mistaking that you’re reading the scattered shreds of a much larger body of lyric work. Carson also avoided inserting words not present in the original Greek whenever possible, even when doing so sacrifices the clarity that articles or pronouns might provide. Everything feels short, poignant, bittersweet—the echoes of great words, great loves, barely remembered.

Of course, if a translated work benefits from its translator’s talent and vision, so too is it influenced by their biases. There are a few small things in If Not, Winter that felt oddly hesitant with Sappho’s, well, sapphic legacy. Carson’s introduction mentions that Sappho loved women deeply, and adds, “Can we leave the matter there?” Her description of Sappho’s family includes a husband and a daughter, despite the fact that evidence of either are extremely sparse and potentially suspect; for these details she cites only “biographical sources,” when the rest of the introduction is full of far more specific and thorough citations. Many women that appear in the fragments themselves are described in the appendix as “possible companion[s] of Sappho,” while her brother’s lover is explicitly given as his “girlfriend.” All this is just the supporting material, though—with the translation itself, I’ve only taken issue with one thing so far. This may be extremely nitpicky of me, but in fragment 102, Carson translates παῖδος—a word for a young person—as “boy,” even though “girl” would be just as accurate, and “youth” more accurate still. I’ve seen other classicists confused by this choice as well; it’s usually the one main complaint about an otherwise stellar translation.

That said, I’m overall quite pleased with If Not, Winter. There’s something extremely powerful about looking at words written more than two and a half thousand years ago and reading them, simply stated, on a blank page—seeing a single recovered noun or adjective, and knowing the whole song that once held it was sung across the entire ancient Mediterranean world. That’s the bittersweet thing about Sappho: so much has been lost, but also, what a miracle that this much has been saved! I do appreciate that Carson leans into this heart-wrenching contradiction by not covering up the holes in our knowledge, and fully embraces what’s left as, well…fragments of Sappho. Because the beautiful truth is that despite it all, despite what people may say or think, despite how much of the Tenth Muse’s music is gone forever, we do remember her—even here, in another time.

A Lesbian Poet Teen Finds Her Voice: Kween by Vichet Chum

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Kween is a character-centric book about Soma Kear, a Cambodian teen whose life in Lowell, MA has been deeply shaken. Soma’s Ba has been deported, her Ma is in Cambodia with him, her Bridezilla sister is in charge… and Soma just wants to make sense of things. With a viral TikTok video, an upcoming poetry contest, a loyal best friend, and a (hopefully!) new girlfriend, Soma just might be able to find her voice.

The queer content in this book is nice. Truly, “nice” is the best word for it. The relationship is comfortable and easy. Soma’s parents are supportive when she comes out; though they do worry she may experience challenges outside the home, these challenges do not occur on the page. This is a safe book for a lesbian protagonist to explore her identity and feelings.

However, when that holds true for all facets of the narrative, it becomes a problem. Soma is always safe to explore her feelings. That may sound like a positive, but for me, it felt indulgent and excessive and made for a deeply frustrating reading experience. Soma wants to find her voice… but she already has her voice. She’s already facing a parent-teacher meeting for an essay she wrote a bit too loudly. Her TikTok video goes viral in the first few chapters. Her poetry is encouraged and praised and everyone believes in her.

All of that could be positive, if Soma weren’t so acutely cruel. I have never hated a main character as much as I hate Soma, maybe because I was bullied in high school and Soma is a high school bully. She’s not trying to find her voice. She’s using it. When she’s not lashing out actively at others, she’s filling the first-person narrative with complaints about the sister who uprooted her own life to help her family, the best friend who does nothing but support and cheer for her, the lonely classmate who just wants a friend. All of this seems somehow excusable to the greater narrative. She rarely faces consequences, and when she does, it all comes wrapped up in words of encouragement, reassurance, and admiration.

Again, this could be great. I love the idea of a character allowed to be messy without being condemned, but that character needs to address if they cause hurt, and Soma does. The entire book, all she cares about is herself. Of course she makes an apologetic gesture at the end, but even then, it seems to come from a sense of her own grandeur, not actually caring about anyone else. Soma is a deeply flawed, deeply flat character experiencing a narrative of encouragement and indulgence.

From a narrative standpoint, this book is unbalanced. I said earlier that the queer content is nice, and that’s true. It also feels almost perfunctory. The book lacks a central focus—it wants that focus to be the poetry contest, but it’s not. The contest is the second-act climax and has no impact on the rest of the book other than being dismissed when Soma is done having feelings about it. And that’s honestly representative of the whole book.

A well-intentioned but deeply flawed reading experience, overall.

Piercingly Insightful Poetry: The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by Mimi Tempestt

the cover of The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by Mimi Tempestt

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From the epigraph to the end, this book is clear-eyed about its aims and its author’s perspective. Tempestt’s writing draws the reader in as a participant, with mentions of readers, watchers, audiences that are not confrontational, but certainly not abstracted. Reading this collection felt like watching spoken word, or another kind of embodied performance. Even their most numinous ideas are tangible, and felt within the reader’s body. This sort of experience can become consumptive, but Tempestt’s lyrical acknowledgement of these possible dynamics means the close reader has to interrogate their own relationship to the text.

What are the boxes offered to you, and what becomes of you when you cannot fit, contort yourself to fit, or decide to totally reimagine the presumed binary of these interactions entirely? It’s like those Barbara Kruger pieces—what do you hope art will do for you even when, especially when, it’s not a mirror?

Tempestt adds to that conversation, questioning how the commodification of artists’ pain and grief perpetuates power dynamics, and reflects entrenched values that prioritize certain approaches over other, equally poignant but under-published ones.

She understands the demands of performance acutely, intimately, and expresses them with a beautiful poeticism. The deforming weight of others demands and needs—both the explicitly coercive and the more implicit, insidious sorts that can arise in intimate relationships and workplaces and alike—are all rendered here. But it is not a bleak work. The poems are full of anger, frustration, also strength, joyful reminiscence, and even a sort of timeless expansiveness in the titular one.

I hesitate to use the word “metaphysical” because it conjures up the sort of philosopher-types whose practices and philosophies are shot through with the sort of categorical essentialism that does not necessarily align with this work’s core spiral symbolism. Or the synecdochal head-shop proprietor whose commercial enterprise’s interiors have sensorially co-opted incense from the practices of currently colonized faiths. But it is either that or the word “transcendental,” and personal connotative grievances aside, there is a sense of something magical in Tempestt’s verse. It is grounded, but there is also something more beneath that earth.

Death and discontent can become defanged when broken into art. But Tempestt’s writing keeps its edges, its piercing-flesh insights. The last piece, a short immersive play, was one of my favorites. The prose was incisive, with both the violence and precision of a fine scalpel, cutting through thick skin and protective coverings to reveal something visually red and viscerally tender. 

All that said, I’ve always been drawn to the ambiguousness of poetry, where the interpretation often says as much about the reader as the creator. It can be a site for shared understandings, or one that clearly demarcates the reader’s alienation from the emotional truths of the poet. 

This collection was engaging, clever, poetic and expressive. I strongly recommend it to people who enjoy formally-unconstrained but deftly shaped poetry with word-playfulness that seamlessly maintains its heft and intensity.

The Aftermath of Gay Conversion Camp: Tell the Rest by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

the cover of Tell the Rest

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In 2014, I read The Big Bang Symphony by Lucy Jane Bledsoe based solely on the fact that it was included on a book list called “Lesbians In Cold Places.” And you know what? That was a great decision, because I really enjoyed it. It was a slow-building character study set in Antarctica, with a queer main character, of course. So when I saw that she had a new sapphic book out today, I had to pick it up.

I have to start this with some heavy content warnings, because this is a book about conversion therapy and its aftermath. This review will discuss conversion camp and homophobia, and the book includes homophobia, abuse, rape, religious trauma, and suicide.

The book starts with two kids, a thirteen-year-old white girl and a sixteen-year-old Black teenage boy, running through the woods, trying to escape conversion camp. Then we flash forward to 25 years later.

Delia is fresh from a divorce and has just gotten fired as a college basketball coach. She’s also struggling with uncontrollable attacks of anger. She’s never felt so lost or out of control. So reluctantly, unbelievably, she drives across the country to her hometown in rural Oregon to move in with her brother and coach her old high school’s girls’ basketball team.

Her coach in high school was her hero. She gave Delia a path to follow, skills to develop, and a passion to nurture. Since then, basketball and the discipline she has around it has been her guiding light in her life. Maybe she’s hoping that by confronting her past, she can address the anger issues she’s having. Maybe she wants to step into her old coach’s shoes and inspire a new generation of kids. Maybe she just has nowhere else to go. Whatever the reason, she’s determined to take this team to victory, and she demands the best.

While I think this is Delia’s story, we do also get some point of view chapters from Earnest—the boy she escaped with. They never saw each other again after that night, but they both are still grappling with it and their experience at Celebration Camp. While Delia is at a difficult time in her life, though, grappling with her past, her personality, her anger, her family, her career, and more, Earnest seems more settled.
He has a job teaching poetry and a boyfriend he loves. The central tension in his story is struggling to write a poem about his experience at camp and their escape—something he’s been trying and failing to do for years.

As both of them find themselves needing to confront the past, it seems inevitable they will meet again. As we follow along with Delia and Earnest now, we also get chapters of their time at Celebration Camp, revealing more about the experience that had such an impact on them. Still, this is more about the ongoing effects of that experience than the camp itself.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t a light read. It feels like an open wound: Delia especially is still hurting so much and hasn’t gotten closure on it. Eventually, though, we do see her begin to work through it, accompanied by the glimpses of the lives of the teenage girls she’s coaching.

If you like to read character studies and quiet stories about working through trauma—and trying to lead a high school girls’ basketball team to glory, because that really is a big focus—I highly recommend this one. It’s a thoughtful, sometimes painful, but effective narrative, and it’s one that’s interesting to read after books like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, because this looks at not just the immediate horror, but the aftermath of being taught to hate yourself as a young person.

Maggie reviews Queer Little Nightmares edited by David Ly and Daniel Zomparelli 

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Queer Little Nightmares, an anthology edited by David Ly and Daniel Zomparelli is a fun and sometimes terrifying collection of queer horror writing. The Lesbrary was provided with a review copy, and I was more than happy to spend time with this collection. Queer Little Nightmares let writers experiment with queerness and horror in a variety of ways. I highly recommend getting your hands on this one if you want some innovative horror writing.

As with any anthology, some stories caught my attention more than others, with my favorites being “Wooly Bully” by Amber Dawn and “Glamour-Us” by Andrew Wilmont. 

“Wooly Bully” is a story about coming of age, queer awakenings in a small town, and werewolves. I absolutely loved all the sensory details, the limits of the narrator’s community, and how deeply she feels within that setting. The enforced gender roles as they learn agricultural skills, the way she is put off by the boys but is fascinated by Brenda, the slow realization that the feelings are real and reciprocated—it is a delightful story of teenage growth and queer desire, and the setting was filled in to perfection. The sort of story where the 4-H fair culture of my youth is turned slightly on its head. 

“Glamour-Us” is at the other end of the spectrum, about a future where it is possible, for enough money, to purchase either a synthetic body or a self-projection that can be customized, with the rich of course using it as a form of eternal youth. Within the LGBT community though, there is immediate debate as to whether that sort of glamour is a brilliant way for people to transition without struggle or for people to experiment or for people who don’t see themselves as one particular gender and want to flip between projections, and whether such technological assistance is exploitive and something the community doesn’t need. I think the story does a great job of bringing into a short story both an echo of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but make it trans,” the sort of inner community debate that would absolutely happen in these circumstances, and how the threat of bigotry is still a horror that always lurks, no matter the technology.

But I enjoyed much of this anthology, and it’s the sort of collection where everyone will have immediate favorites but those favorites will be wildly different. This plays to the biggest strength of this collection which, in my opinion, is the whole range of horror presented, in both prose and poetry format. Horror and monster standards such as werewolves, devils, and creepy carnivals make appearances, but authors also explore how horror interacts with queerness in novel ways, from body horror to love and desire. The editors put together a stunningly broad collection that doesn’t leave you bored. I never knew what sort of story was coming next, and it was a very fun read. I also appreciated that they included both short stories and poetry. I think it presented a varied picture of the complex themes and manner queerness interacts with horror.

In conclusion, if you’re a horror fan you could certainly do worse than picking up Queer Little Nightmares. The range of material gives full scope to queer imagination, and perhaps you will discover new fav authors to follow in the future.

Content warnings: It’s hard in an anthology, particularly a horror anthology, to be comprehensive with warnings but you will find gore, bigotry, body horror, cannibalism, sexual assault, and death at various points within this collection.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Crossfire: A Litany for Survival by Staceyann Chin

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I had the privilege to see Staceyann Chin do a live reading at Miami Book Fair a few years ago, which is where and why I picked up this collection. Her performance was electric and captivating, and that strong voice translates well on the page.

Every piece is propulsive and rhythmic, feeling like there’s a drum beat underlying each one. A lack of punctuation in most pieces creates this movement, forcing you to read line after line after line, all in one breath until you reach the end of the poem, like in “Catalogue the Insanity,” written from start to finish without any punctuation marks, not even a period at the end.

But there are also quieter moments that slow down the rhythm, giving you a chance to breathe. Chin creates this with the use of white space around lines and stanzas, such as in the poem, Love:

“I’ve bought the bloody myth
swallowed that sucker
hairy legs and all
crawled careless into bed with a fantasy
and now I’m hopping antsy with expectation
having drawn these crooked lines
in what looked to me like sand
my uncertain frame stands
hooked
on what I have been promised by the TV
by that saccharine ache Anita Baker
moans from a mass-produced CD…”

The speaker’s language packs a punch, bringing forth fire and anger. Chin is unapologetic in her feminist rage and it energizes the reader, making you feel like burning it all down. Covering themes of sex and sexuality, rape and assault, it can be overwhelming at times. But that’s the point. Her purpose is to be loud and in your face and make it hard for you to look away.

She combines poetic imagery and metaphors with straightforward phrases that don’t mince words to create both art and rant, like in the poem Speech Delivered in Chicago at 2006 Gay Games:

“…even in friendly conversation
I have to rein in the bell hooks-ian urge
to kill motherfuckers who say stupid shit to me
all day, bitter branches of things I cannot say out loud
sprout deviant from my neck…”

Overall, this is a loud and empowering collection of poetry that is accessible to readers who often feel like they don’t understand poetry. It’s an outstanding example of how much we need more diversity and representation to give space for voices that often get drowned out by the mainstream and literary canon.

Content warnings: rape, homophobia, violence

Rachel reviews The Lost Time Accidents by Síle Englert

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An incredibly complex and stunning poetic debut, Síle Englert’s collection The Lost Time Accidents (Icehouse Poetry 2021) is a must-read.

This collection of poems, divided into three distinct parts, unpacks a number of central themes such as gender, sexuality, objectification, fantasy, reality, motherhood, childhood, and many more. Icehouse writes that this collection moves “through time and memory — from childhood to motherhood, from historical figures and events to the precarious environment of the Anthropocene” and “Englert’s voice brims with grief while still holding space for whimsy.” Indeed, the focus on stages of life and stark dichotomies such as whimsy and grief is a hallmark of Englert’s collection.

A wonderful aspect of Englert’s writing is the way in which she interprets the significance of everyday objects. Using children’s toys, household items, and everyday experiences, Englert reframes them in order to craft a metaphorical narrative that addresses the larger and more complex issues dealt with in the collection. While Englert’s poetry is not easy reading—indeed, it is complex and intensely sophisticated in its language—The Lost Time Accidents demonstrates an obvious mastery of language, imagery, and literary devices. Gorgeously executed and obviously queer, each poem in the collection is a triumph.

In this collection, Englert’s writing includes something for everyone. I was particularly taken with the second section’s outward focus on famous figures and events that Englert adapts to suit her own thematic needs. However, I had undeniable favourite from across the collection, including “The Reason for Tiger Lilies”; “Functional Interpretation of the Knee”; “Summers at the Lake”; “Rabbit”; “Body of Nude Woman Found at Life Drawing Exhibit”; “Insomnia”; “Blackout Lullaby”; “Beetroot”; “Unearthing”; “Bullhorn”; “Denouement”; and “Petrified.”

I highly recommend The Lost Time Accidents for anyone interested in queer poetry and Canadian writers.

Please visit Síle Englert on Twitter.

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.

Rachel reviews Myself a Paperclip by Triny Finlay

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Incredibly personal, startlingly reflective, and refreshingly inventive, Triny Finlay’s new poetry collection from Icehouse Poetry (an imprint of Gooselane Editions) is an immersive and beautifully crafted account of a Finlay’s struggle and experience with mental illness.

Myself a Paperclip oscillates between the thoughts and experiences of the speaker and the world of the psychiatric ward. Icehouse writes that, in this collection, “memories, musings, echoes, and meditations on stigma coalesce: quarters dispensed into a payphone to listen to the stunned silence of a partner; Splenda packets and rice pudding hoarded in dresser drawers; counting back from ten as electrodes connect with the temple.” Finlay herself writes at the end of the collection that the text “focuses on my experiences with debilitating mental illnesses and some of their treatments, including hospitalizations in psychiatric wards, psychotropic medications, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), and Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)” (77).

It is difficult to succinctly review or sum up a poetry collection like Finlay’s, but suffice it to say that the poems here are poignant, imaginative, and heart-wrenching. Finlay demonstrates a mastery of language here that I have only encountered in some of the strongest poetry collections. Her experiences, while harrowing at times, are also deeply familiar. The core themes of this book—alternately trusting/being trapped in your own mind, distrusting those around you, questioning the limits of the body and the self—resonate with readers of this collection. The form of the collection—built around long and short poems, fragmentation, and back-and-forth dialogue structures, was also an innovative way to formulate the collection.

While the collection as a whole clearly works to form a unified whole, I had a handful of standout favourites that I felt exemplified the collection’s themes and resonated with me personally. Additionally, however, these poems are simply beautiful and Finlay’s work with imagery and metaphor is truly commendable. Favourites for me included “Adjusting the Psychotropics”; “#MeToo, and You, and You, and You, Too”; “Advice to the Mentally Ill from the Queen Bee”; and “Rejected Embroidery Projects.”

I highly recommend Myself a Paperclip for anyone interested in queer poetry and Canadian writers.

Please visit Triny Finlay on Twitter and put Myself a Paperclip on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, rape, sexual abuse, mental illness.

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

Kayla Bell reviews Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Radiant Days cover

There aren’t many stories that can truly say they’ve done time travel in a unique way. Going back to the past or ahead to the future have already been done dozens of times. A fish out of water, or out of time, is going to make for an interesting story. But Radiant Days does time travel differently, and in a way that felt very compelling to me. 

Radiant Days takes place in two different time periods. The 1870s storyline follows French poet Arthur Rimbaud through the trials and tribulations of his youth. The other storyline takes place in the 1970s, and follows Virginia art student Merle as she develops her craft and explores the street art scene. Merle is exploring her sexuality and Arthur is trying to survive as an artist in an oppressive time. One night, somehow, they meet and connect over their shared love of art. In terms of plot, there isn’t anything too major beyond that. 

Still, I found this book really compelling. Merle’s voice feels very authentic, and I wanted to see her make it out okay despite being in a bit of a toxic relationship. I also appreciated the unique perspective of a queer woman from Appalachia. Merle’s sexuality wasn’t at the forefront of the novel, and I think that was quite refreshing. She was also trying to deal with her complex family dynamics, recovering from the abuse she grew up around, and trying to make it in the art world. At the same time, the storyline following Arthur was also entertaining and kept me reading. Hand mixes historical events with humor and fun in a way that clearly showed how much respect and admiration she had for Arthur Rimbaud. As a Young Adult book, I thought this story structure was a clever way to get young readers interested in what from another writer might be a drier historical story. 

That being said, I would have liked to have seen a bit more plot in this novel. Merle exploring the graffiti subculture of the 1970s was very interesting, but I think the story could have used a little more of a driver. Similarly, I wish that Arthur had been given a chance to develop more as a character, I found myself wanting to read more of his inner thoughts and feelings and connecting more with Merle than Arthur. It was clear that both protagonists were impacted by their meeting out of time, but I think the story could have benefitted from spending a bit more time describing the impacts on both of them. With that being said, I thought that this was an excellently paced novel that is fantastic for younger readers. 

If you know a young person that is looking for a book about the power of art and what it means to break the rules, and is interested in historical fiction, this is a great option. I found myself feeling genuinely connected to both characters by the end of the book, and I can only imagine that it would be even more powerful for a younger reader. More queer historical fiction, especially about artists, is something I definitely want to see.