Rachel reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel, The Mercies (2020), is a vivid, sapphic, historical novel that I couldn’t bear to put down. I read this book in nearly one sitting and its dark, passionate story will likely have you doing the same.

Hargrave’s novel is starts in Finnmark, Norway, in 1617. It follows twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter as she watches a sudden storm overwhelm the male fishermen trapped on the sea. Most of the men in the village, including Maren’s brother and father, are drowned, and the women must fend for themselves in an isolated world of rock, ocean, and dangerous weather.

Three years later, when Absalom Cornet arrives, carrying with him a reputation for burning witches in Scotland and his new Norwegian wife, Ursa, tensions build in the town as Absalom sows seeds of unrest and rumours of witchcraft among the women. Was the storm a natural disaster, or the work of a curse? Meanwhile, in the lives of these independent women, Ursa encounters a new way of life, perhaps a life that involves Maren in ways neither of them ever anticipated. But Absalom sees only evil brewing in this community of women left without men to guide them, and as tensions build and violence escalates, survival becomes even more difficult.

I heard about this book because a lesbian author I follow on Twitter was reading it and couldn’t recommend it enough, so when I bought it on my ereader a few months ago, I was so excited to read it. The Mercies is a beautiful novel in terms of its wonderful poetic language that is sweeping and immersive. Some of the descriptions of the landscape are so captivating that this book really can take over your day. Hargrave’s novel is also very raw, portraying the dangerous and volatile life of this village with stunning clarity. However, it’s also incredibly dark. Based on the true story of the Vardø storm and the 1620s witch trials, the tragic violence in this book perpetrated against the women in this novel is unsettling and sometimes difficult to read, but told from Maren and Ursa’s dual perspectives, it is also a powerful story of resilience.

Maren and Ursa’s characters are two sides of the same coin—both women trapped without knowing it in a male-dominated world where their paths of marriage and family are laid out for them from birth. However, they are both pushed away from those paths and towards each other as they become alienated and isolated from those around them. Hargrave captures the chaos of suspicion and fear and the relief of finding an ally and a safe place in another person. This book was gorgeous and there really is nothing I love more than historical lesbian fiction. It’s not beautiful and glamorous, like a Sarah Waters novel, rather, it’s raw and dangerous and the peace that both women find with each other is sharply juxtaposed against an unforgiving landscape filled with dangerous accusers.

I recommend this book both for its writing and for its lesbian plot. I think my only criticism would be that it could have used a better ending, or at least one that did some of the characters more justice. Nevertheless, this novel cuts right to the heart and I couldn’t be happier that I read it.

Please visit Kiran Millwood Hargrave on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Mercies on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture, execution, domestic abuse.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews The Night Off by Meghan O’Brien

The Night Off by Meghan O’Brien Amazon Affiliate Link

I’m always on the hunt for good, well-rounded, lesbian erotica and I was so thrilled to find Meghan O’Brien’s novels from Bold Strokes Books. I started with The Sex Therapist Next Door (2018) and really enjoyed it, but The Night Off (2012) was such a fun read that I felt I had to review it. Although this one is from a few years ago, I definitely want to underscore that I often struggle to find lesbian erotica that I find enjoyable (that’s also written by and for queer people) and everything I’ve read so far by O’Brien has been great.

The novel is told from the dual perspective of Emily Parker and Nat Swayne (having two narrators is common for O’Brien). Emily works at a law firm while raising her college-aged little sister. Born into a life of chaos and raised by drug-addicted parents, Emily relies on control, order, and responsibility to dictate her busy life. She’s so used to caring for her sister and dismissing her own wants or needs that when she books a night off with an escort agency, she goes all out, crafting her ultimate fantasy. Nat Swayne, Emily’s high-priced escort, both loves her job and excels at it in almost every way. For Nat, numbered among the benefits of working as an escort is never having to become emotionally involved. However, things change when Nat meets Emily, and both of their highly cultivated boundaries are crossed, but not without complications.

This was a really fun read! With erotica, it’s definitely exciting to read a book that’s both sexy and well-rounded. These characters (Emily and Nat, but the other secondary characters as well) are thoroughly developed, with issues and biases and fears that they struggle to get over throughout the book. The pacing was also strong, with a logical sequence of events that didn’t take away from the erotic elements. I was totally captivated by these characters and this plot and I felt as though this had all the right elements of erotic fiction. The book wasn’t overdone, it wasn’t unbelievable or wooden, and I felt like it thoughtfully treated some of the more painful issues that were brought up. The Night Off was genuinely fun and refreshing to read.

This book is the perfect combination of character and conflict. It absolutely is a staple of the genre, and it’s main focus is the erotic plot, but to me, it doesn’t cut corners on the story itself and I think The Night Off is really worth picking up if you’re looking for this kind of book.

Please visit Meghan O’Brien on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Night Off on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Shame, discussions of addiction.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?

Rachel reviews Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

A lesbian fantasy with intrigue, murder, spymasters, and royal obligations? I’m in from the word go.

Helen Corcoran’s Irish fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers was published in June of 2020 by The Obrien Press after a short delay related to the COVID-19 crisis. But it was sincerely worth the wait. I think fantasy as a genre lends itself well to queerness in all its forms. Worlds that don’t necessarily answer to our own societal prejudices or pressures can be extremely freeing if done correctly. I’m thinking particularly here of something like The Priory of the Orange Tree (2019) by Samantha Shannon, which Corcoran’s novel follows nicely in the same vein.

Queen of Coin and Whispers follows Lia and Xania in a dual POV narrative. Lia is a princess who rather abruptly inherits the throne from her uncle, a ruler who remained distant from his duty and his people, content to let others make decisions for him as long as his goblet remained full. With his death, the kingdom teeters on upheaval, and Lia is determined to wrest power back from the conniving forces than commanded it under the nose of her uncle and to make real change as a ruler. Xania, the eldest daughter of a lower caste family whose mother has married up in order to secure financial safety for Xania and her sister, lives each day dreaming of finding the suspected murderer of her father and exacting vengeance. When she stumbles—literally—upon the queen and her council, a series of events ensue that lead Lia to hire Xania as her Master of Whispers. Now the queen’s eyes and ears everywhere, Xania attempts to protect her majesty while also searching for her father’s killer. However, an already complicated network of power is further entangled when issues of power, duty, and love intersect for both young women in this excellent fantasy.

This book was so, so fun. I found myself deeply intrigued by both the characters and the world around them from the opening of the novel. I found this fantasy to be very character-driven, differing from the usual world-driven novels I often encounter in this genre. Lia and Xania’s personalities and the choices they make are what drive this novel forward, and their distinct character traits really shine through. Lia’s introspective and powerful voice despite her young age are indicative of a queen’s commanding presence, something that Corcoran subtly includes. By contrast, Xania’s fierce and unparalleled passion for her family, her job, and Lia is thrilling to read.

While this novel may focus on character, in my opinion, the plot is not lacking. The intrigue and drama of a royal court provides an excellent backdrop for the violence, espionage, and trickery that constitutes some of the most exciting twists and turns in this novel. Corcoran pulls no punches and hedges no bets—anyone and everyone could be holding a knife to your favourite character’s back at any moment.

There are a number of social, political, and moral quandaries in this court that contribute to Corcoran’s world building. What is not an issue on its face, however, is queerness—it’s lovely to read a fantasy novel where not only are queer people accepted for who they are, but they’re also everywhere in this text, containing the various and rich elements of character that we might expect from any other fantasy novel.

Overall, I loved this book. My only issue would be that the pacing—especially toward the end of the novel—felt a bit off, and that the text could have slowed down just a but in order to convey the urgency of the last few pages at the same time that the world beyond the court could have been explored a bit more. Nevertheless, this was phenomenal, and if you’re looking for a fun and delightfully well-written lesbian fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers is entirely the perfect choice.

Please visit Helen Corcoran on Twitter or on her Website, and put Queen of Coin and Whispers on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel Friars reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead is the queer fairy-tale retelling we needed in 2020.

Bayron’s novel is doing amazing things for queer fiction, fantasy, and YA. If there’s anything we need more of, it’s books like this, and more from Bayron herself. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Cinderella with queer girls. I can only recall Malinda Lo’s Ash (2009), which I read as a very confused teen, and still have on my shelf to this day. Bayron’s innovative and sparkling retelling is such a joy to read.

Cinderella is Dead takes place 200 years after the death of Cinderella. Based on the palace-approved version of the fairy tale that sixteen-year-old Sophia and her friends know by heart, Cinderella married her prince and lived happily ever after—for a time. Now, as a homage to Cinderella and her story, teenage girls are forced to appear at an Annual Ball, presided over by the current king, where all eligible men in the kingdom are free to select their wives. If a girl remains unselected…they are forfeit.

The novel opens with our main character, Sophia, preparing for the ball. However, Sophia would rather not go to any ball to be paraded in front of men who would have the authority to use her as they saw fit. Instead, she would rather marry her best friend, Erin. But things are complicated—the ball is not optional, and neither is conformity. After fleeing the palace the night of the ball—much like Cinderella herself, although under very different circumstances—Sophia finds herself in Cinderella’s tomb surrounded by the story she’s always known. However, when she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella and her stepsisters, she learns that Cinderella’s story may not be so idyllic after all. What happened to the fairy godmother? Were the stepsisters actually ugly and monstrous? Sophia is determined to find the truth.

The novel is miraculous not only for its representation of queer and Black characters, but for its world, which seems to draw on both the conventions of the Cinderella story and history itself. Sophia is living in a world where queerness isn’t unheard of, but exists underground, subtly, or silently. She lives in a world where being different is unsafe, and the world around her struggles to catch up to her own bravery. In a world that demands absolute conformity, dissent comes at a steep price, and Bayron, through her characters, allows us to see the way queer people avoid that price in order to be who they are. This isn’t unheard of in centuries—or even decades—past, and is still relevant in some parts of the world today. So, even though the world of Cinderella is Dead has those elements of magic and fantasy that make the story so thrilling, there are also pieces of history that make it a important piece of queer literature.

The characters are vivid and thoughtfully presented, and each person close to Sophia presents us with a different view of queerness in a post-Cinderella world. Luke, the son of a family friend, is our window into the avenues through which people can explore their queerness, and the consequences of being discovered. Erin, by contrast, is one of the many portraits of the painful position of women—especially queer women—in this society. The fact that this story, with all of its intricacies, is structured around the story of Cinderella, makes it doubly fascinating.

One last word about the romance: Constance and Sophia are such a great pair! After a fraught dynamic with Erin, who struggles with her sexuality and society’s expectations, it’s clear that the relationship between Constance and Sophia is meant to be a vibrant alternative. Although I felt that their relationship could have used more detail in terms of the natural progression of their feelings for one another, that could just be me wanting more.

Overall, I loved this book and it was so much fun to read Bayron’s novel and to discover a world where queer girls can, quite literally, do anything. Although queer fairy-tale retellings have become more popular in recent years, we always need more, and we especially need more written by people of colour, and this one is particularly beautiful and unique.

Please visit Kalynn Bayron on her website, or on Twitter @KalynnBayron.

Content Warnings: abuse, domestic violence, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Sheila Laroque reviews The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

I couldn’t believe that this novel, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, was a debut work! It was so poetic and lyrically written, and Petrus painted such a vibrant picture into the lives of Audre and Mabel. This story has two primary voices: Audre, a teen from Trinidad who is now living in Minneapolis, and Mabel, who quickly takes to showing Audre what being in an American high school is like.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons, but particularly by learning more about Trinidad through the eyes of Audre, as well as what she misses about home. I’m not very familiar with Trinidadian culture in my personal life; and I always appreciate it when books are written in a way that allows me to learn without feeling condescending or just out of place with the rest of the work.

This is a young adult romance that is written in a way that acknowledges the complexity and emotional depth that people in their teens have. It can be seen as a beautiful time to be experiencing all of the intricacies of love and dating, and this book is a beautiful experience to read. There are other elements of racial justice that fit in very well to the current political climate. I will definitely look for upcoming releases from Juanada Petrus.

Sheila Laroque reviews Nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

Nîtisânak is the Cree word for family; and Linday’s non-fiction account of growing up punk, queer and Indigenous in smaller cities of the Canadian prairies will resonate with many folks from many walks of life. After all, the concept of a ‘chosen family’ has been discussed widely in queer writings before, but nîtisânak brings new perspectives and ways of writing that will appeal to a broader audience. The text is peppered with shorthand, acronyms, and other shorthand ways of writing that makes the text feel less formal. The way that Lindsay writes feels very organic to Internet message boards and a Twitter-savvy audience; without feeling forced. This makes sense, because part of their story discusses the importance of Internet messaging boards in the punk scene on the prairies to find the next shows and a sense of community.

Lindsay’s story takes place in many of the same cities as my own. Reading this book at times feels like it could have been written by myself, or any other of my friends from when I was younger. Their story takes place largely in Regina, Saskatchewan which is a rival city to where I grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They then move to Edmonton, Alberta and have a tumultuous and in many aspects an abusive relationship with a girlfriend that is referred to as B2B. This acronym stands for ‘back to black’, in reference to the Amy Winehouse album of the same name. Nixon’s description of this relationship of being both something beautiful and something that was the source of a great deal of pain for them resonated a great deal for me. Romantic relationships blend into familial relationships; and Nixon highlights with great care some of the foundational ways that young queer friendships can also create the same family bond and structure in our lives.

Peppered throughout this work are different prayers that are numbered. Setting aside the text like this gives the sense that these parts are special and need to be paid attention to. They are different than prayers that many people would have likely encountered in other contexts. For example, prayer 3 states: “Thank you to all the trees who breathe in poison on the daily, who gift us the air that we breath and the wind that propels everything forward”. These moments stand out in the text, while other Cree words are used seamlessly, without definition or italics. In a way that makes the Cree language just as another part of the text, and another part of their story. Cree is spoken widely enough that the curious reader could easily look up the words in any online Cree dictionary to the definitions of a new word. By just leaving it as it is, Lindsay is inviting the reader into their reality and the worldview that they and their family hold. This choice of writing style also signals that the work is for an Indigenous audience; to whom might not have seen themselves reflected in other coming of age stories. Being queer, Indigenous and punk in a particular local prairie context is an important story that can reflect back pieces of our own realities to us; even if we ourselves are not necessarily those things.

This is an important piece of writing that will appeal to people from many different backgrounds and families. I would give this a 4 out of 5 stars.

Sheila is a queer Métis woman, living in her home territory of Edmonton, AB, Canada. She has worked in a number of libraries across Canada, but being back in the public library has given her the space to rekindle some love with books and reading. She also co-hosts a podcast about Indigenous publishing called masinahikan iskwêwak (which is Cree for Book Women) with two other Métis librarians. The podcast can be found at https://bookwomenpodcast.ca/; and Sheila tweets at @SheilaDianeL.

Danika reviews I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison RaskinIt’s a shame that New Adult as a genre never really took off outside of Romance, because I think there’s a demand for it. The just-after-high-school years, whether they’re spent in college/university or elsewhere, have distinct challenges. I Hate Everyone But You is set during that time, following Ava and Gen as they are just beginning university. They have been inseparable best friends for years, and they stay in contact through constant emails and text messages.

The entire novel is written in these emails and text messages, making it a modern version of an epistolary novel. It’s an interesting format: it’s an extremely quick read, and because they are so close, Ava and Gen both share their innermost thoughts while providing their own narration of what happened. There is an element of unreliable narration because we only see it through their stories, but you can usually read between the lines to figure out what “really” happened. They deal with typical issues with that stage of life: dating, sex, drugs, and figuring out their identities. This isn’t shied away from, but because it’s texts and emails, these experiences are not told in detail as much as they are just matter of fact statements. They also bring their existing baggage to this new life stage: Gen comes from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father and enabling mother, and Ava deals with intense anxiety (and possible OCD?).

If you like Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin’s online presence, like their Just Between Us youtube channel, you’ll probably like this book. Their characters very much seem to match their personalities. The strongest part of this book is the bond between Ava and Gen. They fight–in fact, they bicker almost constantly. But that’s because they are open and honest with each other. They call each other out. They ask uncomfortable questions. They aren’t afraid to be their whole flawed selves with each other–and they have a lot of flaws.

For instance, Gen comes out as queer over the course of the book, and Ava can’t seem to let go of some variation of the question “Wait, are you gay now? Why do you like this guy: aren’t you gay now?” Ava has some ignorant questions about the queer community, to Gen’s irritation, but she means well. If you don’t want to see someone struggle through their heterosexist assumptions, this might be painful to read (she also asks Gen about a trans person’s genitals at some point). Transphobia is addressed here, but it may not be given the depth and time that it deserves.

Despite all these disagreements, though–despite their anger at each other or disappointment, despite lashing out and ignoring each other at times–there is never any question of their loyalty and love for each other. They are family. They are able to process ideas and emotions with each other, to bounce off ideas and try out new labels. They know that they will still be accepted by the other, no matter what conclusions they come to.

This isn’t a story for everyone. The format itself will put some readers off, though I found it absorbing. There is less of a plot and more of an exploration of these characters and their growth (apart and together) over time. On top of the heterosexism and transphobia included (though called out), there’s also a very questionable relationship between Gen and Charlotte, a T.A. almost twice her age with a propensity for sleeping with undergrads. As for me, though, I really enjoyed spending time with these characters: I liked that they were able to share even the most messy or uninformed thoughts and feelings with each other, and I found it to be a very quick, engrossing read. I look forward to diving straight into the sequel.

Carmella reviews We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

Samra Habib is many things: photographer, journalist, activist, writer, queer woman, Muslim, refugee, and now – with the publication of her memoir – the author of a book. The saying may be ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, but I think she has done a pretty masterful job here!

I was already familiar with Habib (as you may also be) from her existing body of work. She runs ‘Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Project’ on Tumblr, where she shares the photo portraits and stories of other queer Muslims, and writes for various media outlets such as the New York Times, Guardian, and Vice. She has a strong voice and is always interesting, thought-provoking, and creative with it – so I was naturally excited to read her memoir and learn more about what experiences have shaped her perspective.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir follows Habib’s life, starting with a childhood in Pakistan where her family faced persecution as Ahmadiyya Muslims, followed by immigration to Canada, an unwanted arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, and then finding both her identity as a queer woman and her calling as a documenter of queer Muslim experiences.

As I already said, one of Habib’s writing strengths is her voice. I always enjoy reading her articles, so I was curious to see how much a full-length book would differ from her journalism. The answer is “not much”!

She continues to write with a conversational, confessional style. Reading the memoir is like reading a really long feature article (think the Guardian’s ‘long reads’). Luckily, this is a good thing: it’s what Habib is good at. I was engaged the whole way through, enjoying both the personal aspects and the more factual bits focusing on history and culture.

That said, I did feel like there could have been a little more of the personal, as sometimes the narrative felt like it had gaps. For example, Habib’s siblings fade in and out and barely feature as characters, which feels strange in a work that talks so much about family life. But this is a memoir rather than an autobiography, so it could just be a quirk of the genre.

For me, the memoir gets to be most interesting when Habib starts to talk about her photo project. It’s compelling to hear about how it got started. Habib explains that she wanted to see Muslims represented in queer spaces, and in an accessible way that doesn’t block people with a language barrier or academic jargon.

I was also fascinated to hear more about how people like Habib and her subjects reconcile faith with their queer identities. I have read a fair deal about LGBT followers of Christianity and Judaism, but I haven’t come across much about Islam. One of the stand-out sections is Habib’s description of attending prayers at Unity Mosque, an LGBT-friendly mosque run by a gay imam. After spending so much of the memoir seeking belonging, it’s delightful to read about Habib finally feeling part of a community.

The title We Have Always Been Here is actually taken from a quote from one of Habib’s subjects, Zainab. It’s a powerful statement about asserting the right to a shared community, history, and voice for queer Muslims. But I don’t know if it’s the right title for this memoir. Going into it, I was expecting more on the history of queer Muslims, whereas the memoir is focused entirely on contemporary experience. I don’t dislike this focus, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from the title.

Still, I see why Habib wanted to use a quote taken from her photo project. This memoir is a natural extension of her existing body of work: yet another way in which she asserts that queer Muslims exist – indeed, have always existed – and deserve to have their stories heard.

Trigger warnings: CSA, abuse, arranged child marriage, attempted suicide

Mallory Lass reviews The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding

The Summer of Jordi Perez

CW: Body shaming and homophobic mother, elaboration at the end

Spoilers: Spoilers marked at the end for the first 35% of the book

I’ve been wanting to read The Summer of Jordi Parez ever since I attended a 2018 ClexaCon panel where Amy Spalding was a speaker. What jumped out at me during her panel was that her book featured a protagonist that was traversing both queerness and body image issues. Having dove head first into the world of lesfic romances in 2016, and ultimately reading so many books with conventionally beautiful protagonists, I have been seeking books with character representations closer to my lived experience.

Abby “Abbs” Ives is a plus size fashion blogger in the summer between her junior and senior year. She’s the daughter of Norah Ives of “Eat Healthy with Norah!” fame and her older sister Rachel is preoccupied with college life and her new boyfriend. Her best friend Maliah also has a new boyfriend, Trevor, and Abby feels destined to be alone. She’s just started her dream internship at a boutique clothing store, Lemonberry and has a major crush on her surprise co-intern, Jordi Perez.

Jordi Parez could be described as a misunderstood artist. She is a photographer with a penchant for wearing black, but not necessarily in a goth way, she has more of a New York artist vibe. When Abby and Jordi first meet outside the boutique for their internship, Abby doesn’t even know Jordi’s name, or that they attend the same high school. Neither of them knew there would be two interns, and they soon find out that they are fighting for one job at the end of the summer. Little does Abby know, that is the least of the complications ahead of her.

This book is written in first person from Abby’s point of view, which I mostly enjoyed. My only complaint is that she can be really self-deprecating (which other characters point out), and while I understand it does fit the character and the story Spalding is telling, I found it grating at times. My lived experience of being seventeen years old seems so far away from me now, and I didn’t always relate to Abby’s anxiety-filled daydreams, or love of fashion, but it did give me a glimpse into everything Abby was thinking or feeling and really allowed me to go on the journey with her. I felt the chaos and joy of Abby’s crush and the momentum of her relationship with Jordi as it progressed, and that was accentuated by the narrative choice Spalding made.

There are some gems of life advice in this book, and Spalding has a way of grounding all of this wisdom in casual conversation and observation which I find relatable even as an adult reader. It is definitely not preachy, and that’s a bonus. Abby’s summer is a modern coming of age journey filled with social media and text messages and also descriptions of kissing as something unknowable because it’s a thing you do. Spalding has a beautiful way with words, and all the while it still feels authentic from a seventeen year old. Some of the lines are adorably cheesy, for example: “I can’t tell the bass drum apart from my thudding heart.” The easy dialogue and great concept make this an enjoyable and quick read.

There is a fun supporting cast of characters. With Abby and Jordi’s families, their friend groups, and their Lemonberry co-workers and boss Maggie all getting space on the page, Abby’s life is dimensional and complicated. Her relationships are changing around her and that is one thing I really loved about this book. The interpersonal plantonic and familial relationships really shine, even when they are not in a positive place.

If you, like me, fell in love with Jared in the indie hit Booksmart, you’ll probably enjoy the relationship between Jax and Abby. Jax is the queer platonic friend everyone wishes they had. Abby and Jax have great banter and are building their relationship around what Jax dubs being “friends-in-law” (he’s best friends with Trevor, and Abby is best friends with Maliah who are dating) and I’m totally stealing that. If you want a story about coming into yourself, navigating evolving friend groups, familial challenges, and your first girlfriend – this is a book for you.

Content Warning (with spoilers)

The portrayal of Abby’s mother Norah is very real, but could also be really triggering for some readers. She “forgets” Abby came out as a lesbian, and fails to apologise for it. She essentially asks her to go on a diet. She plays the “why are you making our relationship so difficult” card a lot and is generally not a supportive mother to Abby. She has a skewed idea of what it means to be healthy, what healthy body acceptance looks like, and doesn’t understand how to connect with Abby in an authentic way. Based on other characters support of her I don’t think it’s a case of an unreliable narrator, or that Abby’s view of her mom is very far off from reality. Norah makes an attempt at smoothing things over, but the damage has been done and in my opinion can’t be repaired in one day by words alone, but actions over time. If you have unsupportive parents, you might want to pass on this book.

Spoilers

Abby and Jordi get together in the first third of the book, and their budding relationship is really romantic and age appropriate. I liked the way Spalding built up Abby’s crush on Jordi, and how she brought them together. Abby gets to explore the age old question of “How do you tell if a girl is into other girls?” with different characters – tl;dr attending a Tegan and Sara concert doesn’t make you gay, but it should go in the plus column. Overall, I found the pacing enjoyable and I didn’t spend the whole book waiting for the other shoe to drop or some big conflict to happen but you’ll have to read for yourself to see if Abby and Jordi can survive the summer.