My 2018 Year in Reading: Favourite Books of the Year, Most Memorable Character, Best Cover, and More!

I love looking back on what I read the past year, don’t you? This is a kind of survey that I’ve adapted a bit from where I originally found it on The Lesbrary in 2014. If you’re not following The Lesbrary, you’re missing out on a lot of rad lesbian and bisexual women’s bookish content! And without further ado, here’s a recap of my 2018 reading, including my favourite reads of the year, most memorable character, best cover, and more!

1. Best book you read in 2018

So I find it very hard to not cheat on this question a bit, because, really, who can pick just ONE favourite? In no particular order, here are my absolute favourite reads from 2018. There’s a nice mix of YA fantasy, romance, graphic novels, mystery, and lit fic. I’ll talk about all of them in more detail further down!

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2. Favorite new author you discovered in 2018

Okay, this is going to have to be a tie between Alisha Rai and Courtney Milan, because I really can’t choose. Both Alisha Rai and Courtney Milan are new-to-me romance authors whose work I never would have checked out if I hadn’t decided to broaden my genre horizons in 2018 (more on that in question #3). Rai writes contemporary erotic romance and Milan writes historical romance. (Actually, Milan also writes contemporary, but I haven’t read any of those yet). Both effortlessly integrate diversity into their stories, including queer characters, people of colour, and people with mental and physical illnesses. Alisha Rai’s books made me cry, and Courtney Milan’s made me laugh. Both deliver really compelling characters and interesting, complex, believable romantic plots.

I especially appreciate how Milan’s books authentically integrate interesting contexts from the past, like 19th century scientific discoveries and fights for women’s and working class rights. I especially appreciated how Rai dealt with emotional complexities that included, of course, the romantic/sexual relationship between the main characters, but also complicated family and friend relationships. I am definitely going to be reading many more books by these two women in 2019! I’m excited about Alisha Rai’s upcoming The Right Swipe. With Courtney Milan, I think I’ll try one of her contemporaries; Hold Me (the second book in her Cyclone series) looks particularly interesting—it has a bisexual hero and a trans woman heroine!

3. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read

So in 2018 I decided I wanted to do another “new-to-me” genre project. I’d never really given romance a try—despite usually being a big fan of romance subplots in other genres—so in 2018 I solicited a bunch of recommendations for romance authors and went wild! There were some definite duds that I thought were terrible and/or reinforced for me all the negative assumptions I had about romance being poorly crafted and supporting stupid sexist gender relations (sorry Sonali Dev, Beverly Jenkins, Patricia Oliveras, Laura Lee Guhrke, and others). But on the flip side, there were many books that I simply adored and thought were moving, smart, sexy, funny, and just plain great books.

Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai was the first of the romances I read where I was like, wow, I might actually love this genre? It was only the second book in my romance reading project and it was a total knockout! To my admitted surprise, I ended up LOVING this book. I loved and empathized with the main characters so much. I was impressed at Rai’s talent for dealing with emotional complexities (romantic, familial, and otherwise). This book actually made me cry in TWO places! I was totally shipping these two from the beginning, and the obstacles they had to overcome were very realistic (old family business feud stuff, mostly). Both the hero and the heroine’s individual journeys dealing with old trauma were compelling stories in and of themselves too. And their relationships with other characters were multi-layered and well developed. Just all around fantastic characterization. Plus: POC heroine who has depression! Secondary queer characters! Smoking hot sex scenes! I liked this book so much I went out and bought the sequel (Wrong to Need You)) immediately. I also went out and bought my own copy later since I’d initially borrowed it from the library but felt a very strong need to own it.

4. Book you can’t believe you waited until 2018 to finally read

Since it seems like too much of a cop-out to just pick the entire genre of romance here, I think I’ll go with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics. I am a MASSIVE Buffy fan, but for whatever reason—maybe that I just spend my time rewatching the series—I had never read any of the comics. This is pretty unbelievable actually, considering how long and how much I have love(d) the show.

I found them very hit or miss in seasons 8 and 9, although I did really love season 10 as a whole, which was done by a solid, consistent team of Christos Gage writing and Rebekah Isaacs drawing (with some guests). At their best, the comics really brought back the best of the show for me, especially that warm and fuzzy the gang’s all here fighting evil together and the unique combination of heart-wrenching drama (Andrew trying to bring back Tara from the dead and Willow stopping him was particularly memorable) and comedy (basically everything Spike says and does). I’m going to try and track down season 11, which for some strange reason my library doesn’t have? If you’re also a Buffy fan who’s been on the fence about reading the comics, I definitely think they’re worth the time, overall.

5. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year

Before the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray is the third in her Diviners series and it is, in my humble opinion, definitely the best installment so far. I really could barely put this book down; since I was listening to the audiobook, this meant I was very driven to clean my house and other usually unpleasant tasks so I could keep listening. I don’t have words for what an incredible book this was, honestly. The last time I was so enthralled by a novel was N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season; if you know my feelings about that book that says a lot. This is Bray, truly a genius storyteller, at the height of her powers, weaving a dizzying amount of plotlines featuring incredibly nuanced, diverse characters set in a wonderfully authentic and playfully recreated 1920s New York with a paranormal twist. Also: the audiobook performance by January Lavoy is, I think, the best I have EVER heard. When I say diverse characters, I mean it: this book has gay, black, Jewish, Irish, Chinese, asexual, disabled characters, and more! Starting this series at the beginning with The Diviners is definitely worth your time.

6. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2018

This is also the most unique and weirdest and most suited to the book cover of a book I read this year: Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen another book cover that so strongly says QUEER TRANS HARD FEMME, just like that, in all caps. The details—check out the wrinkles on the hands, the lightning coming from her fingers, and the index finger nail ring— and the pink and purple colour tones are all just perfect.

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7. Most memorable character of 2018

EVELYN MOTHERFUCKING HUGO. What a woman. The titular character of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2017 novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was definitely the most memorable, fascinating character from a book I read last year. In the present of the novel, she’s an elderly Hollywood legend who has been reclusive for years until she solicits a specific young journalist Monique who she wants to tell her life story to. The novel goes back and forth, telling Evelyn’s story as she tells it to Monique and also telling Monique’s story.

Evelyn is ambitious, hard-working, confident, and cut-throat. She describes herself in this way: “I’m cynical and I’m bossy and most people would consider me vaguely immoral.” She’s also explicitly, wonderfully BISEXUAL. I knew the book had queer content going in, but I had no idea that it tackled bisexual identity so specifically. There’s a specific scene early on in the interview process where Evelyn coolly asserts that she’s bisexual, and not gay as Monique has just assumed. Evelyn makes it clear she loved her husband and then a woman, so “don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that.” It was such a perfect slap in the face of monosexism. GO EVELYN. This section, as well as more than one other part in the novel, brought me to tears.

8. Book you were excited about & thought you were going to love but didn’t

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie was one of those books that I had meant to read for, like, ever. It had been recommended to me by lots of people. It won both a Hugo and a Nebula award! So when I finally picked it up one day at work at the library after seeing it on the shelf dozens of time, I was pumped. But something about this feminist science fiction novel never clicked for me. I’m still now sure if there’s something I missed from the plot/characterization/etc. that’s a failure on my part or if I did get it all and it just genuinely didn’t do it for me? I do know I found Breq, the protagonist, an elusive character, which is always a hard sell for me. Oh well!

9. Most beautifully written book read in 2018

So I’m adapting this question a bit because I want to gush about how beautifully drawn this debut graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters is. I don’t even have enough extolling adjectives to describe what Emil Ferris has done. The detail and range of what she has achieved is just stunning. She draws real people, 1960s Chicago street scenes, copies of vintage horror magazine covers, reproductions of classic art, and more—all using ball point pens only!! The novel is structured as the notebook of the tween main character Karen. Check out these amazing works of art:

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10. Favorite passage/quote from a book you read in 2018

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead was also one of my favourite reads of 2018 that didn’t quite make the top ten list above. What I liked most about this debut novel was the main character’s distinctive, mesmerizing voice. It was the kind of book where I was constantly underlining Jonny’s words, which were alternately hilarious and heart-breaking. Here are some of my favourite excerpts:

“Humility is just a humiliation you loved so much it transformed.”

“I texted him back with a simple ‘No.’ I made an emphasis to punctuate my text. In the digital universe, a punctuated sentence is as powerful a slap as slamming down the landline.”

“Funny how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like ‘I’m in pain with you.’”

11. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2018

Roxane Weary!!! She’s the bisexual protagonist of Kristen Lepionka’s new mystery/PI series, the first book of which is The Last Place You Look and the second of which is What You Want to See. I totally fell in love with her. In the first book, Roxane is at a pretty low point: she’s been drinking too much while grieving the death of her cop father, who she had a complicated relationship with. She’s messy, she makes mistakes, and she’s got some troubles with emotional intimacy but at the same she’s really smart, persistent, compassionate, and has a big heart that loves people who perhaps don’t deserve her and wants to help people. In the second book she’s at a bit more of an emotionally healthy place, but not so much as to make her boring, you know? I was really kicking myself when I realized after I had published this article on Book Riot, 5 More Queer Book Characters I Would Totally Date (And Why), that I had failed to include Roxane. What. Was. I. Thinking. Oh well, there’s always next time.

12. Best worldbuilding / most vivid setting you read this year

These two books also would have been good contenders for I-can’t-believe-I-waited-until-2018-to-read. Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo were just. so. good. I had very high expectations and they were absolutely met, possibly even exceeded. These two books were my introduction to Bardugo’s “Grishaverse,” the dark fantasy world she’s created. I tend to find European-inspired fantasy tired, but Bardugo’s world-building in the Grishaverse is anything but. This duology is set mostly in the city of Ketterdam, an Amsterdam-like bustling, dirty, gritty city full of the sins of sex, gambling, and thievery. (The last of which is the speciality of our rag-tag gang of characters). The city felt so alive.

But it wasn’t only Ketterdam that Bardugo brought so vividly to life: settings in other Grishaverse fictional countries were also fascinating, as was every single lovable, broken, complicated, little criminal in the group of protagonists. It’s rare to find a novel with complex, authentic characters just as vivid and sophisticated as the speculative world-building. But Bardugo has totally achieved it, with both books in this duology. (FYI: I wouldn’t recommend reading the second book in public, as I did. I cried big tears of hearbreak but also joy and it was a bit embarrassing). These books are thrilling, funny, romantic, clever, heart wrenching, healing, dark, and ultimately unputdownable. Also: thoughtful representations of disability, bisexuality, trauma, and people of colour.

13. Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2018

If I’m being honest, like half of the books in my top ten picks of the year made me cry. But I’ve already talked about Crooked Kingdom, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Before the Devil Breaks You, and Hate to Want You. So I’m going to talk about In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, which was the first book I finished in 2018. I was on the YA committee of the Bisexual Book Awards last year, and I was so thrilled to get to vote for Brennan’s novel, which won in the YA category! It made me cry (sad and happy tears), true, but it also made me laugh a lot. It took me a little bit to get into this YA fantasy, but once I was on board with the dry snarky humour and understood who Elliot the main character was (obnoxious little turd that he is who has never been loved), I could not stop reading this book.

It’s a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of a bisexual boy and about a kid who goes away to a portal fantasy world that isn’t quite the idealized thing he imagined. Eliot is a kid who’s built up so many walls around him to protect himself from a world who doesn’t care about him. Just like the people around him in the book, when I first met Elliot I found him abrasive and obnoxious; but it didn’t take me long to love him. It was so amazing to watch his journey, where he gets to this point: “Elliot could not help but think of how often he had struck out wildly to defend himself, when just saying what he felt would have worked. Except it would not have worked, not on his father, or his mother, or on Jase or Adara. It only worked when someone cared how you felt. He did not know how to act, if Luke cared what he felt.” I was not expecting this book to make me cry, but that part did.

Did I mention it has an ADORABLE queer love story? Also, there are unicorns and harpies and mermaids who are also nasty but also flawed species just like humans. And the humour is great! It had me laughing out loud many, many times, most of all at Elliot’s friend Serene’s matriarchal elf speeches about protecting fair gentlemen and how women are especially suited for the battlefield. (I also loved how Brennan interrogated that matriarchal way of thinking and didn’t idealize it). Serene and all the supporting characters, especially Luke and his family, were wonderfully drawn. Do I need to gush more? Just read it!

14. Book that made you laugh out loud the most in 2018

My Lady’s Choosing by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris was by far the funniest book I read in 2018. I was constantly laughing out loud, like the snorting-milk-out-of-your-nose-a-la-middle-school kind of laughing. My Lady’s Choosing is a choose-your-own-adventure (hence the title) historical romance novel. From witty banter with a Darcy-esque aristocrat to pirate adventures in Egypt with your lesbian lover to do-gooding with a rogue Scotsman to paranormal intrigue with Lord Craven aka Rochester, all the plotlines were creative and most of all side-splittingly funny. It hits the perfect spot between a genuine homage to and affectionate parody of the genre. You get to choose between endings like “Upon travelling to Egypt and falling in love with the lady you are accompanying, you and she join a band of lesbian pirates” or “Co-running an orphanage with your husband Mac, a taciturn but kindly Scotsman who eschews social conventions and likes to have sex in the stables.” Or how about “The Reverend next door to the house where you work as a governess ends up being a sexy villainous vampire and you join him, becoming a vampire Queen and taking over the Lord’s mansion.” Whatever way you go, a happy ending is in store for you!

15. Best 2018 debut

I apparently didn’t read any 2018 debuts?? But Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom is a 2017 debut which I loved very much and you should read my full review here.

Runner-ups for my favourite books of the year also include Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead (full review), Little Fish by Casey Plett (full review here), All Violet by Rani Rivera (full review here), The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli (probably the gayest book about a straight teen girl ever written), andWhite Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (a really fantastic and helpful break-down of the concept for white progressives like me and maybe you!).

You’ll probably also be interested in my The 10 Best Queer Books of 2018 (that I read, at least). There’s a bit of overlap with this post, for obvious reasons but I also talk about some books there that I don’t mention here at all!

Posted in Asian, Bisexual, Canadian, comics, disability, Erotica, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay, Graphic, Indigenous, latina, Lesbian, list, mystery, Non-Canadian, paranormal, Queer, Romance, Sex Work, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender, Young Adult | 2 Comments

The 10 Best Queer Books of 2018 (that I read, at least)

Some of these were published in 2018, some I just read in 2018! They span pretty much every genre and are all 5 stars, I-can’t-believe-how-much-I-loved-this-book kind of books.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

I predicted in my January 2018 Goodreads review that this would be my favourite bisexual book of the year, and I was right! It took me a little bit to get into this, but once I was on board with the dry humour and understood who the main character Elliot was (obnoxious little turd that he is who has never been loved), I could not stop reading this book. It’s a wonderful nuanced portrayal of a bisexual boy. It’s about a kid who goes away to a portal fantasy world that isn’t quite the idealized thing he imagined and who’s built up so many walls around him to protect himself from a world who doesn’t care about him. Just like the people around him in the book, when I first met Elliot I found him abrasive and obnoxious; but it didn’t take me long to love him. It was so amazing to watch his journey. I was not expecting this book to make me cry, but the parts about Elliot confronting how he has dealt with the trauma in his life did. Did I mention it has an ADORABLE verrrry slow burn queer love story? Also, there are unicorns and harpies and mermaids who are also nasty but also flawed species just like humans. And the humour is great! It had me laughing out loud many, many times, most of all Elliot’s friend Serene’s matriarchal elf speeches about protecting fair gentlemen and how women are especially suited for the battlefield.

All Violet by Rani Rivera

WOW. What a stunning collection of poetry. Themes include fleeting moments of connection, bisexual dating and crushes, drug / alcohol use and addiction, music, depression, and the humanity of people dehumanized by society. Often sad, raw, but occasionally very funny, with beautiful unique imagery. This is a really amazing poetry collection and I wish more people knew about it. Let me convince you to read it: here’s full review on my blog. And here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite poems:

I love them
broken and beaten badly,
pock-marked and toothless,
spent and riddled with rue.

I love them lying
with sleep in their eyes,
the sunlight curdling
in sweet bellies
heaving with an unrest of a few
too many.

I love them motherless
and taunted. Violent
and entitled.

I love them on fire. I love them on ice.

I love them hairy and unclean.
Hearts pierced and sagging.

I love them old. I love them new.

I love them mean.
I love them talking and talking.
I love them destructed and
pinned with little needles,
smokestacks of inconstancy.
Nailed to the wall and stuck on
with glue.

I love them dancing, dancing.

Little Fish by Casey Plett

What are you doing with your life if you haven’t read this book? Plett’s debut novel is a hard-hitting, beautiful, and thought-provoking novel. Amazing, complex, authentic characterization; Plett isn’t afraid to make her characters messy. I was especially astounded at how she dealt with religion in the lives of some characters. She is also really talented at dialogue. I always marvel at how her characters sound like such real people. The novel is about a 30-year-old trans woman named Wendy living in Winnipeg, her group of trans women friends, and her Mennonite family. The crux of the plot is Wendy discovering her grandfather might have also been trans but it’s just as much about other issues like alcoholism, sex work, friendship, suicide, and being poor. This was the kind of novel that broke me but also built me back up. Full review here.

My Lady’s Choosing by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris

This ridiculous tongue-in-cheek book was probably the most fun I had reading all year. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure historical romance novel. From witty banter with a Darcy-esque aristocrat to pirate adventures in Egypt with your lesbian lover to do-gooding with a rogue Scotsman to paranormal intrigue with Lord Craven aka Rochester, all the plotlines were creative and most of all side-splittingly funny. This book had me laughing out loud many times. It hits the perfect spot between a genuine homage to and affectionate parody of the genre. You get to choose between endings like “Upon travelling to Egypt and falling in love with the lady you are accompanying, you and she join a band of lesbian pirates” or “Co-running an orphanage with your husband Mac, a taciturn but kindly Scotsman who eschews social conventions and likes to have sex in the stables.” Or how about “The Reverend next door to the house where you work as a governess ends up being a sexy villainous vampire and you join him, becoming a vampire Queen and taking over the Lord’s mansion.” Whatever way you go, a happy ending is in store for you!

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom

There aren’t many books in my lifetime that I’ve read that I would truly consider a work of genius. I mean the kind of book that feels timeless and like it should be read and discussed far into the future; the kind of book that is really doing something unique and ground-breaking. But debut novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom is one of those books. (By the way, I also loved her debut poetry collection, A Place Called No Homeland, so you can count me among her top fans now, eagerly awaiting whatever she does next). Fierce Femmes is a funny, dark, innovative story that completely takes apart the genre of the trans memoir. The subtitle, A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, is only the first clue that you are about to read a mind-blowing breakdown of genre and gender. Kai Cheng Thom’s writing is the kind of beautiful that grabs you by the throat. For example: “Little cocoon apartment, I love how you rattle and shake in the wind. You are mine like nothing has ever been before. Someday you’ll tear open, and I will fly out with the wings I have grown inside you. Still shimmering. Still wet.” She also plays with genre, the concept of truth, and the self to wonderful and provocative effect. See here for my full review.

The Last Place You Look and What You Want to See by Kristen Lepionka

These first two books in Lepionka’s new mystery/detective series were just excellent. The Last Place You Look was a fabulous and assured debut mystery, and the second one was even better. It begins with Roxane Weary, a bisexual PI who’s been drinking too much while grieving the death of her cop father, who she had a complicated relationship with. A new case, which starts off as a missing person sighting related to an old murder case, becomes more complex the more Roxane investigates. The mystery in What You Want to See is even more complicated—the kind that starts one place (supposedly cheating spouse) and ends up somewhere else (murder and real estate fraud) entirely. Really amazing, messy, authentic characterization and relationships and some beautiful understated writing. Lepionka has Roxane in a slightly better place in book two, which is some fascinating character development but not too emotionally healthy to be boring, you know?

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This complex, beautiful novel is perhaps one of my favourite reads of all time?? I was completely mesmerized by the complex characters, 110% invested in their lives, fascinated by the historical details and insights into the human condition, and unbelievably moved by the story. I cried so many times! It follows two women’s lives: Evelyn Hugo, a legendary 1950s movie star who’s famously reclusive, and the young journalist she’s chosen to tell her life story to, Monique Grant. It has a beautiful epic love story that spans most of Evelyn’s life, and a wonderfully nuanced and smart portrayal of a bisexual woman! Evelyn was such a fascinating character—she describes herself like this: “I’m cynical and I’m bossy and most people would consider me vaguely immoral”—and she’s bisexual to boot.It’s one of the best bisexual characters and bisexual representation I have ever encountered. There’s one particular scene where she specifically addresses her sexual identity that was so incredible. Also: fabulous audiobook voice acting; I definitely recommend checking it out in that format. I just want to start re-reading this now that I’m thinking about it again.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris

I was completely blown away by the intricate and varied art in this graphic novel, which is all done with ballpoint pen! It’s unbelievable! Ferris draws real people, Chicago street scenes, copies of 1960s horror magazine covers, reproductions of classic art, and more. You won’t believe it until you see it for yourself:

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And the story is similarly impressive, with multiple plotlines happening for tween Karen who’s growing up poor in 1960s Chicago. Lots of tough stuff in here: sexual assault (not pictured), death from cancer, the Holocaust, and forced prostitution. But even though it had a dark feel (sometimes in fun, campy old horror movie way and sometimes in a very real way), it didn’t make me feel dark. Karen is a little baby dyke, which I somehow didn’t know going into this book? For that reason and many more, she is very lovable. It’s a powerful story of a kid dealing with a lot of grown-up stuff that even the grown-ups in her life aren’t equipped to deal with. This includes: her Holocaust survivor neighbour’s dark story in Europe and mysterious death in Chicago, her brother’s sexual and emotional intimacy issues, and what happens in the US when you’re poor and terminally ill. Also, she thinks of herself—and draws herself—as a monster. A really incredible work of visual art and storytelling. I can’t wait to read volume 2.

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

What a motherfucking duology of books. Everything I hoped they would be, and I had VERY high expectations. The books feature an incredible, nuanced cast of broken and criminal young people who are nevertheless not without hope and redemption. I loved the characters and their complicated relationships with each other while wanting sometimes to smack them on the side of the head. Bardugo’s world-building and plotting (high stakes heists and cons on the best con artists themselves) are equally impressive. I loved the world Bardugo has created, this complex, sophisticated dark fantasy world. This duology was by turns thrilling, funny, romantic, clever, heart wrenching, healing, dark, and ultimately unputdownable. I CRIED TEARS OF HEARTBREAK BUT ALSO JOY. Both were one of those books that reminded me of how joyful but also painful reading a truly great book is. I may never forgive Leigh Bardugo for some of the things she put me through in the second book. But I really did love how she dealt realistically with trauma and recovery, especially in Kaz and Inej’s stories. And intensely adorable romantic bantering between Nina and Matthias, one of my all time favourite couples. Fantastic representation of bisexual (boy), gay, and disabled characters.

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

What a beautiful, sad, funny book. It’s the most poignant reminder I’ve had in a while about how powerful and effecting a first person narrative can be. Jonny, the Two-Spirit main character, carries the book with his raw, hilarious, and insightful voice. The story meanders through his memories, mostly of his kokum, mom, and his great first love Tias, while in the present Jonny prepares to go back to the rez for his mom’s boyfriend’s funeral. A lot of the novel focuses on the women in Jonny’s life and the impact they’ve had on him. This was one of those books where I underlined so many passages because they just got me right in the feels—of the sad and funny variety. Jonny says: “Humility is just a humiliation you loved so much it transformed.”; he says: “I texted him back with a simple ‘No.’ I made an emphasis to punctuate my text. In the digital universe, a punctuated sentence is as powerful a slap as slamming down the landline.”; and he says: “Funny how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like ‘I’m in pain with you.’” Full review on my blog!

What were your favourite queer reads of 2018? Let me know in the comments!

Want more of the best of the best queer books? Check out my last year’s post The Best (Mostly Queer) Books I read in 2017.

Posted in Asian, Bisexual, Canadian, Casey Plett, Coming-of-age, disability, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay, Graphic, Indigenous, Lesbian, list, mystery, Non-Canadian, Poetry, Queer, Sex Work, Toronto, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender, Young Adult | 7 Comments

Not as Scary As I Hoped, but Cute Lesbians?: A Review of THE DARK BENEATH THE ICE by Amelinda Bérubé

This review is just in time before the spooky Halloween fall season turns irrevocably into the winter holiday season. The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé is a kind of paranormal queer horror YA novel by this Ottawa-based debut author. It’s definitely the kind of book meant to be read on a long dark October or November night.

The Dark Beneath the Ice was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. Let’s talk about one of the good things first! This book is set in Ottawa, which I found quite different and refreshing. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book set in the Canadian capital! Having never visited Ottawa, it was fun to get a chance to experience a novel set there. In particular, the Ottawa river that is such a prominent feature of the city plays a not too insignificant role in The Dark Beneath the Ice (hence the ice). The strong presence of the river gave the book quite a particular feeling of place, but one that’s probably different than what you might think about Ottawa, which I appreciate.

You’re probably wondering what this is all about with the river. Let me start at the beginning: Marianne is a teenager who’s having a rough time. Her parents have recently separated and she just quit doing high-level ballet, for reasons Bérubé slowly reveals. But that’s not even the worst of it. Lately Marianne has started to feel like she can’t trust her own mind. She’s losing time, “waking up” in the middle of her day with no recollection of how the time has passed. She’s having nightmares involving a dark creepy river covered in ice that are increasingly terrifying. She’s being faced with evidence that she’s done things that don’t seem like her at all.

Are you scared yet?? This all sounds like a good psychological horror. I think it might be scary for some people. For me, the scariness factor was a bit disappointing unfortunately. I was hoping it would be as scary as the synopsis promised it would be, but I wasn’t scared at all! Am I tougher than I thought after all? I’m not sure. All I know is I wanted this book to give me that deliciously creeped out Halloween feeling and it did not. Maybe it did / will for you? Let me know!

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I think Bérubé was going for some ambiguity about whether the haunting was real or just in Marianne’s head. This is the most interesting kind of haunted story to me, and I don’t mind and I think might even prefer if it’s never clear whether the supernatural element is “real” or not. (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a great example of this. It’s also one of my all-time favourite scary (queer) books). However, The Dark Beneath the Ice it didn’t succeed at this ambiguity at all for me.

The Dark Beneath the Ice also felt like one of those books where the main character doesn’t take much action and the aimless plot just kind of happens to her. I wanted Marianne to be more take charge about this crazy scary thing taking over her life! I also wished the plot was less rambly.

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Amelinda Bérubé / image via twitter

But … (here’s the final compliment sandwich part of this review) there’s a cute lesbian romance side plot! Marianne connects early on in the book with Rhiannon, aka Ron (haha, what’s more high school baby dyke than giving yourself a boy’s name as a nickname, eh?). It’s not a spoiler to say lesbian feelings are soon had! Ron is a cool goth girl who also used to play rugby (and still remembers how to tackle someone). She also has a mom who’s a psychic; those skills come in quite handy with the mysterious haunting and all. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Ron was definitely my favourite character.

I can see The Dark Beneath the Ice appealing to teens more than it did to me. They are, after all, the intended audience for this YA book. Check it out—whether you’re a teen or an adult—and let me know what you thought!

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Young Adult | 2 Comments

Delicious Italian Food and a Lack of Cohesion: A Review of Monica Meneghetti’s WHAT THE MOUTH WANTS

What the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti is, unfortunately, one of those books that just wasn’t for me. But let me try to talk about it a bit, in a way that will hopefully tell you whether it might be the book for you! First, check out that beautiful cover!

Meneghetti’s book—subtitled “a memoir of food, love, and belonging”—is a memoir told in short, vignette-like passages. Sometimes the passages are quick short, like prose poems. Other times they are more straight-forward recounting of past experiences, albeit occasionally written in the immediacy of present tense. Meneghetti writes about coming out as bisexual in a small town years before gay rights movements became mainstream, her mother’s death from breast cancer when Meneghetti was a teenager, complicated family dinners that are sometimes terrible, polyamory, her abusive dad, and food, food, food.

The memoir is strongly infused with Meneghetti’s traditional Italian-Catholic upbringing, whether she’s talking about the pasta her mother makes or the way the patriarchy rooted in religion rears its head in her family. I imagine that for readers with backgrounds similar to Meneghetti’s, this aspect of the book will have a lot of pull. There are also undoubtedly parts of the particular Italian-Catholicness of this book that I couldn’t fully appreciate. (Although the descriptions of delicious food like pasta, cheese, sausage, gelato, and more rang very true to this food-loving non-Italian).

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Monica Meneghetti / image via cbc.ca

What the Mouth Wants is organized, appropriately, like an Italian meal: first “antipasti,” then “primi,” “secondi e contorni,” and finally “frutti e formaggi.” I love the idea of weaving the theme of Italian food into the very structure of the book. But I didn’t love the result. Most of all, the structure just didn’t have any meaning for me when I was reading. I couldn’t piece together why certain pieces of writing were placed in certain sections. It wasn’t based on length of the writing, theme, chronology, or any reason that I could ascertain. If anyone else has read this book and has insight on the organization of the writing, I would love to hear your thoughts!

I love a good non-chronological memoir (Lydia Yuknavitch’s incredible bisexual memoir Chronology of Water comes to mind). But What the Mouth Wants felt less like a deliberately structured non-chronological memoir and more a disorganized manuscript of writing that didn’t have enough care put into its structure as a book. It’s not to say that Meneghetti’s writing isn’t sometimes very interesting on the sentence or passage level; it is, although it is also lacklustre at other times. But for me the lack of cohesion and meaningful structure overwhelmed the value that I found in a few of the individual pieces. If cohesion and organization aren’t fussy issues for you like they are for me, you may feel differently!

The other issue I had with What the Mouth Wants is that I just never felt like the characters came alive. I wanted to feel like I knew them, and I didn’t. This weakens the emotional resonance of the events of Menegehtti’s life that she recounts. Readers need to understand and be familiar with the people in the books they’re experiencing—whether those people are real in a memoir or fictional characters in a novel.

Overall, for me there were just too many areas of this memoir that were lacking; the strengths didn’t make up for the weaknesses. For a different perspective, check out this review in the Edmonton Journal. Again, I’d be very happy to hear about other readers’ experiences with What the Mouth Wants. Please share in the comments!

Posted in Alberta, Bisexual, Canadian, memoir, Poetry, Queer | 3 Comments

“My bindi tells me where I’m from / my bindi reminds me of my mom”: A Review of Vivek Shraya’s Gender-Diverse Picture Book THE BOY & THE BINDI

Hey guess what! This my very first review of a picture book on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. The book, fully deserving of this honour, is The Boy & the Bindi written by Vivek Shraya and illustrated by Rajni Perera. You might know Vivek Shraya as an artist jill-of-all-trades. I’ve reviewed her poetry book even this page is white and talked about her novel She of the Mountains as one of the great Canadian bisexual books you have to read. (I’ve also got the audiobook of her latest non-fiction book, I’m Afraid of Men, queued up next on my audiobook app). You might also know her as a musician and artist in various other visual mediums. Since she published The Boy & the Bindi in 2016, she can also add picture book author to her long list of artistic ccomplishments.

The Boy & the Bindi is about, well, a boy and his fascination with his Ammi’s (mom) bindi. It’s a sweet story about a gender non-conforming kid who is curious about Ammi’s bindi. He asks “Ammi, why do you wear that dot? What’s so special about that spot?” Readers can learn along with the little kid that it’s called a bindi. But more importantly, we hear about what its deeper meaning is. The boy’s Ammi explains:

My bindi tells me where I’m from.

My bindi reminds me of my mom

And when she gave me my first one.

In this way, Shraya explains how the bindi is a specifically feminine cultural tradition for South Asian women, one that links mothers and daughters to each other. Where, then, does the little boy in this story fit? Easily. When he asks his Ammi for a bindi of his own, she doesn’t hesitate. She reaches into her drawer and says “Ta-da! This one is yours!”

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Just like for his Ammi, the boy finds that the bindi is much more than a pretty adornment on his forehead: “As soon as it’s on, I feel so calm / Like all the noise around is gone.” Even under the scrutiny of white kids at school who don’t know what the bindi is, he derives strength and peace from imagining the bindi turning into a star, his forehead turning into the sky, and his whole being feeling light and free. The bindi helps too when feeling “small like a dot / And sometimes ugly like a blot.”

The Boy & the Bindi clearly shows Shraya’s finesse with music and poetry, with its rhythmic rhyming lines very much like a song or poem. She also uses repetition for stylistic effect beautifully. The musicality of the words is matched by the gorgeous lush colours of Rajni Perera’s painted illustrations. The richness of the brown boy and mother’s skin tones is especially striking. I also loved the bright colours in the boy’s imaginative scenes: the blue-purple night sky the boy flies away to and the green jungle growing around him and his Ammi.

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When you’ve finished reading the book (for the first time), definitely check out the multiple resources and different ways to experience the book on Vivek Shraya’s website. There’s an audio recording of the author herself reading the book with soothing music playing in the background. There’s a video of Catherine Hernandez (whose name you might recognize as the author of Scarborough, a debut novel I reviewed last year) doing an amazing storytime (complete with songs before and after) featuring The Boy & the Bindi. If you’re a teacher or a librarian, you’ll also be interested to know that there’s a teacher’s guide resource available for free there in PDF form. It’s developed by educators Robin Phillips and Meghan Park. It’s got stuff like learning outcomes, activities for before and after reading, and discussion questions.

Stay tuned for more picture book reviews on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Next I’d like to read Kai Cheng Thom’s From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea. In the meantime, go forth and share The Boy & the Bindi with the kids (and, hey, adults!) in your life.

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Kids, Queer, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 2 Comments

A Dark and Humorous Look at the Life of a Lesbian Stay-at-Home Mom: A Review of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ADULT ONSET

If you were expecting Ann-Marie MacDonald’s third novel Adult Onset (published in 2014) to be similar in scope and drama to her first two sweeping, epic historical novels — including the massively popular Oprah Book Club pick Fall on Your Knees (my review here) — you might be disappointed, at least initially. I think reading this novel with those expectations, however, would do a disservice to MacDonald, who is after all attempting to write a different kind of book. Moreover, I think if you scratch beneath the surface of this week-in-the-life-of-a-stay-at-home-lesbian mom, you’ll find that despite its differences Adult Onset shares a lot with MacDonald’s previous novels.

I, for one, loved this novel. I thought it was fascinating and riveting. I listened to the audiobook, and there were many times when I could barely bring myself to take out my headphones and pause the story. Which is probably not something you’d predict about this type of book set and taking place over the course in a regular week in the life of a married middle class lesbian mom. But there’s also something to be said about the urgency and immediacy of a piece of fiction set in such a short time frame. Especially for the context of this book, in which the weight of motherhood and domesticity are claustrophobically suffocating and swallowing the main character, the pressing atmosphere of the condensed time felt very appropriate.

The lesbian mom in question here is Mary Rose, aka MR, aka Mister. (I love how the completely different nickname comes from this unusual place, and how it represents MR trying to move away from the heightened femininity of her given name to what she calls “a calculated androgyny”). I said the book takes place during a week in her life, which is in the Toronto neighbourhood The Annex. This is true, but it also skips back a bit occasionally to the child- and young adulthood of MR, sometimes inside her own head and memories, and sometimes reaching outside what she could possibly know and remember about her own young life. There are also excerpts from MR’s autobiographical YA series.

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Ann-Marie MacDonald / image by Guntar Kravis, via annmariemacdonald.com

Adult Onset is a psychologically rich and complex novel. Barely suppressed underneath the mundane details of MR’s days caring for her toddler Maggie and her Kindergartner Matthew — without her wife Hilary, who is away for work — is a surging sea. This sea is made up of so many things: the myriad stresses of motherhood; struggling to keep up with domestic tasks; MR’s longstanding problem with anger; maintaining a relationship with her mother, who appears to be in the early stages of dementia; supporting her brother who is going through a break-up and dealing with anxiety; remembered trauma of childhood physical illness and familial homophobia; the challenges of sustaining her relationship with Hilary long-distance; and the pressure for MR to write the third book in her immensely popular YA series. It’s A LOT.

The result is an often painfully real book, at times not unlike the last book I reviewed, Jane Eaton Hamilton’s Weekend. Both novels also have the effect of making you feel less alone amidst all the shit of life you are wading through. But one key difference is that MacDonald’s book has a lot of humour in it, albeit often dark humour (my personal favourite kind). It had me laughing about the same amount as it had me cringing. One of my favourite lines from the book that had me laughing out loud was “Mary Rose having approached heterosexuality rather like math: she worked at it until she achieved a C then felt justified in dropping it.”

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As I said earlier, I listened to the audiobook version of Adult Onset. I would highly recommend experiencing the book this way, even if you don’t normally do audiobooks! Ann-Marie MacDonald herself narrates it, and it is incredible. Often author-narrated audiobooks aren’t very good, because even though an author has written the book, it doesn’t mean they’re good at performing it. An audiobook is nothing less than a performance by a voice actor, after all. But MacDonald is also a trained and accomplished actress, in addition to a gifted author. She is absolutely fabulous narrating this story. She has a wonderful expressive voice, really embodying MR’s state of mind.

Her narration added a lot of value for me. There were certain passages I think I might have interpreted differently or found less interesting had I read the print book. One sentence in particular stands out in my memory. MR is falling into a sleep-deprived angry spiral about her relationship with Hilary, inside her own head, and she somehow gets onto the topic of how Hilary identifies, queer wise. She thinks, “Hilary, of course, refused to identify specifically as anything, which was just so typical of a bisexual.” (This is a paraphrase, as I didn’t write down the exact sentence–it was that memorable that I still remember it now, weeks after finishing the book).

MR’s voice is so infused with, well, her crazed mental state. The pitch of MacDonald’s voice goes higher and higher and the words are strung together closer and closer as the sentence nears its end until her voice is shrill. It sounded just like the kind of silly, petty thing you might think about your partner while mad at them for, oh, say, being away from home and leaving you alone to parent your two children under five. Acted out in MacDonald’s voice, I found this line very funny. In print, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been uneasy about this jab at bisexuals.

MacDonald also did great unique voices and accents for different characters: the rural Cape Breton twang of MR’s elderly parents was especially great. I will also confess now I’ve always had kind of a crush on Ann-Marie MacDonald (even though she’s old enough to be my mom) and something about the way she did MR’s brother’s voice was so sexy to me I couldn’t handle it.

In short: I loved Adult Onset. Read it. In particular, listen to the audiobook.

Posted in ann-marie macdonald, Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Toronto | 2 Comments

Viscerally Real Queers, Dyke Processing, Kink, and Disability in Jane Eaton Hamilton’s novel WEEKEND

Oof. You know when a book feels almost too real? That was my experience with Jane Eaton Hamilton’s novel Weekend. I don’t know if I’ve read a novel about queer relationships that felt so viscerally authentic, ever. This is a testament to Hamilton’s sheer writing talent, of course, as well as technical finesse in the careful character and relationship development throughout. But Weekend is also a great example of a book that speaks to the power of #ownvoices writing.

There’s just no way an outsider who didn’t have deep, personal experiences with the intricacies of gender and sexual identities, kink, and disability the book is representing could ever write something that felt this real and complex. The book is not conforming to the “we’re-the-same-as-everybody-else” theory of queerness and it’s certainly not concerned with portraying queer people in a flattering light. What it does do is unflinchingly reveal us at our worst in some ways that all humans can be in relationships with each other and at our best in some ways that are very specific to the queer crip politics of the novel.

Weekend is, according to this review in The Vancouver Sun, a take on Raymod Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I admittedly haven’t read Carver, but judging from its description as a “grim mediation on love,” that sounds just about right.

Hamilton’s novel is a snapshot of two queer couples spending the weekend in side by side cabins in that specifically Ontario construct of what Ontarians call “cottage country.” The two halves of each couple who own the property, Logan and Elliot, are—unsurprisingly—long ago exes, each there with their current partner. Logan’s partner is 10 years their senior, a woman named Ajax who has come out from BC to spend quality couple time. Ajax and Logan are still in what you might call “the honeymoon phase,” which means they’re having constant amazing sex but still don’t know important things about one another. Joe and Elliot are a long-term couple who have just had a baby together and are struggling not only with the daily exhaustion and effort of caring for a newborn but also deep buried relationship troubles.

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Jane Eaton Hamilton / image via vancouversun.com

There’s a lot to revel in in Weekend, just purely from a representation angle. When was the last time you read a queer novel about people in middle age, let alone a novel that has extended sex scenes featuring queer people in their 40s and 50s? Older queers getting it on feels revolutionary in and of itself, but Hamilton also features a character who is disabled and black (Ajax has a heart condition and grew up in the Bahamas), a trans masculine character who uses they pronouns (Logan), a masculine-presenting polyamorous character who uses she pronouns (Elliot), and a kinky couple (Logan and Ajax). None of this feels forced or for the sake of diversity itself, but simply a portrayal of some real people with various intersecting identities.

As you’re probably guessing, this is a highly character and relationship driven novel. You know at the beginning that shit of many kinds is going to hit the fan for both couples. Hamilton takes you there slowly while letting you get to know all the characters, their dynamics, and histories. The only other work I can think of that has so much authentic dyke processing in it is Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. Logan, Ajax, Joe, and Elliot talk about their gender and sexual identities (I found Ajax’s ruminations about her lesbian identity in the face of Logan’s in-flux gender identity particularly fascinating), sex, feelings, their exes, illness, and relationship practicalities. They talk, and talk, and talk.

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Another gorgeous cover by Arsenal Pulp Press–can you see how the topography looks like a body?

Ajax was the most interesting character for me, as she’s negotiating multiple marginalized identities that she doesn’t share with her Logan: she’s disabled and black, as I already mentioned, and also grew up poor/working class and has lived an adult life living mostly as a kind of starving artist. She has to decide how much and what and when to tell Logan, especially because their relationship is new. At one point when Logan stumbles upon a tangle of race and class assumptions they hold based on their perceptions about the Bahamas, Ajax has to outright tell them: “There is some awful something happening right now, right here, that I am just going to cross out because I don’t want to get into it with you. Not this weekend. Can we defer?” She thinks later: “Quintessentially, she and Logan had almost nothing in common. Which had essentially no bearing on love.” As a side note: I think I also liked Ajax the most because I deeply identified with her, a Vancouverite, thinking this about Lake Ontario: “Ajax keeping her lips pressed tight about the lake’s basic wrongness (pretending it was an ocean).”

Weekend is a deeply thought-provoking novel. It doesn’t shy away from the sometimes harsh realities of the characters’ lives in the same way it exposes unflinchingly but compassionately their sometimes massive imperfections. It’s not the kind of book about relationships that will “make you believe in love.” But it will, I think, make many readers feel less alone and affect many readers greatly, on both emotional and intellectual levels. Weekend is perhaps the queer book you didn’t know you needed so much.

Posted in BDSM, Black, Butch, Canadian, Caribbean, disability, Fiction, Lesbian, Non Binary, Queer, Trans, Trans Masculine, Transgender | 4 Comments