“You’s napêw iskwewisehot, m’boy, Two-Spirit”: A Review of Joshua Whitehead’s Debut Novel JONNY APPLESEED

What a damn fine book Jonny Appleseed is. That’s my eight-word review. Here are some more words:

When I finished reading this debut novel by Joshua Whitehead (an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer member of the Peguis First Nation [Treaty 1]), I remember thinking about first person narratives. I haven’t been reading a lot of them, and some of the ones I have read in the last year have grated on my nerves a little. I think novel-length stories told from an “I” are very hard to pull off. It’s hard to successfully represent an authentic-seeming individual’s voice and have a narrative that makes sense in terms of the information that limited perspective has for the plot. This is especially true in my experience when an author also chooses to tell the story in present tense. Done well, I am often incredibly moved by first-person narratives and remark on the artistry of representing the world from a particular person’s perspective. Not done well (which seems like the case more of the time, perhaps attesting to the difficulty of getting the voice right), I find them tough to get through or even unbearable.

Jonny Appleseed is 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. In a character- and relationship-driven novel devoid of a lot of what is conventionally considered “plot” (this is not a bad thing in my mind), the voice of Jonny is what holds the story and the reader along for the ride. Jonny Appleseed is one of those seemingly infinitely quotable books I found myself frequently underlining. Jonny has so much to say and you just want to share his words.

Some of my favourite quotes from Jonny were:

“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.’”

“But I just laughed and I think he got mad—I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they’re applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.”

“I never had to tell him, that was how I knew I love him—I never had to tell him.”


Joshua Whitehead / image via talonbooks.com

The story technically takes place over a week, but in reality it spans a much larger time period as it meanders through Jonny’s memories. It’s a non-linear book that feels very much like the way a mind goes to and fro from the past to the present and from topic to topic. Jonny thinks about his kokum, mom, his great first love Tias, coming out, and growing up. In the present Jonny is preparing to go back to the rez for his mom’s boyfriend’s funeral, hence the predominance of the past in his mind. He’s been living in Winnipeg, living his urban “NDN glitter princess” and scraping by by doing cyber-sex work. Now he’s set to go back to where he grew up, a prospect that is complicated emotionally and practically for him, not least of which is how difficult it’s going to be to scrounge up the funds to pay for a ride. He never even liked his mom’s boyfriend anyway.

A lot of the novel focuses on the women in Jonny’s life and the impact they’ve had on him. One particularly memorable story is about his aunt, and how she reacts to a black bear they find in her backyard, eating out of her garbage can. Jonny recalls:

She was fearless, that woman; she walked outside barefoot and marched right up to that bear and struck him on the nose with her broom, once, twice, bam. And then that great bear stood up on its hind legs, its claws the length of scissors, and grunted; but my aunt, tough as nails, smacked that bear again on its head and yelled at the top of her voice, ‘Git! G’wan you, out, out, git!’ The bear stared at her quizzically for a few seconds, then lowered himself and jogged back into the bush. My aunt came back inside, her feet red as the beans she cooked in her chili, and dusted herself off as if it were nothing.


He also thinks often of his kokum (grandmother). One lovely story is her reaction when he nervously comes out to her on the phone. Through his crying and hiccupping, she tells him “You done, m’boy, or what? … Heck, like I didn’t even know, Jonny. Why you think I gave you them earrings last year? … your kokum old but she ain’t dull. You’s napêw iskwewisehot, m’boy, Two-Spirit.”

These are just some snapshots of this book that I loved. It was one of those reads that sucked me in right from the first page and didn’t let go. Joshua Whitehead writes elegantly and exactingly about Jonny’s state of mind and his journey, to moving and profound effect. Jonny Appleseed is funny, on-point, and heart-breaking, often all at the same time. Don’t believe me? Did you know it was on the 2018 Giller Longlist and a finalist for the GG’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction? Now get reading Jonny Appleseed! Find it from the publisher Arsenal Pulp Press here.

Posted in Fiction, Gay, Indigenous, Queer, Rural, Sex Work | 4 Comments

A Trans Novel to Break You, and Build You Back Up: A Review of Casey Plett’s LITTLE FISH

Look at the opening of Casey Plett’s debut novel Little Fish, and how it unabashedly centres trans women talking to each other about trans stuff:

The night before her Oma died, Wendy was in a booth at the bar with Lila, Raina, and Sophie. It was eleven p.m., and they were all tipsy. Sophie was saying, “Age is completely different for trans people. The way we talk about age is not how cis people talk about age.”

“You mean that thing,” said Wendy, “where our age is also how long we’ve been out or on hormones or whatever?”

“Or do you mean that thing,” said Lila, “where we don’t age as much. Because we die sooner.”

“Both those things, yes!” Sophie said, “But there’s more! There’s much more.”

Yes, there is, much, much more. But from the very beginning, Plett shows us that this novel is going to dive deep into relationships between trans women, and it’s not going to shy away from the darkness and the complexities. It also insists, with its incisive insider voice, that this is not a trans book written with a cis audience in mind.

Little Fish is about a 30-year-old trans woman named Wendy. Wendy lives in Winnipeg. It’s a slice-of-life novel that follows Wendy’s life for a few (significantly, Winnipeg WINTER) months amidst some monumental events in her life. Plett says in a Q&A with Arsenal Pulp Press that “given the rapid-fire events Wendy deals with in Little Fish, it seemed right to me to also set the book during that season, when life in some way has that tinge of not being part of the world.” I’ve never personally experienced Winterpeg, but I feel like reading this book might be as close to the real experience as you’re gonna get.

The narrative begins with Wendy’s Oma’s death, recounting just what Wendy was doing before, during, and just after her grandmother died in that way that we always look back on the seemingly mundane events in our lives retrospectively after something major has happened to disrupt the normalcy. It’s fitting that we are introduced both to Wendy’s Oma and her tight-knit group of friends in the novel’s open, because this is a book about family: both Wendy’s Mennonite family of birth and her chosen family of trans women peers.

The crux of the novel’s plot is Wendy discovering her traditional Mennonite farmer grandfather might have also been trans—something she discovers in a chance phone call from a family friend when she’s back at her Oma’s house after the funeral. It’s a thread in the plot that falls and gets picked back up numerous times, as Wendy assesses how importance and relevant this information may even be, given that her Opa passed away years ago and that there are a lot of other pressing issues happening in her life. In this way, Little Fish is just as much about other issues like alcoholism, sex work, friendship, suicide, and being poor as it is about searching for your trans and queer history within your family and culture.


Casey Plett, photo via quillandquire.com

Little Fish is a hard-hitting, beautiful, and thought-provoking novel. It refuses to simplify any of the complex, thorny issues it is dealing with; no one is a saint, no one is a villain. It refuses to ignore the darkness in the lives of Wendy and her friends, but it also refuses to downplay the warm-heartedness, love, and community at the heart of their relationships with each other. Fellow trans woman writer Zoey Leigh Peterson (author of Next Year For Sure, reviewed here) says it perfectly in her back cover blurb:

There is a dark place most novels don’t touch. If you’ve ever been there, maybe you know how exhilarating it can be to read a book like this, a book that captures the darkness so honestly, so accurately, that you can finally begin to let it go. Fearless and messy and oozing with love, Little Fish is a devastating book that I don’t ever want to be without.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to even think about Little Fish and write this review without crying, both for how heartbreaking and dark it is, but also how human and real and full of love and hope it is. Near the end of the story, Plett writes: “However easily she might have abandoned or ruined her prospects, Wendy still did believe she would have love.”

Speaking of human and real and full of love: take Wendy and her dad Ben’s complicated relationship. Ben obviously fiercely loves and supports his daughter, and there are many very real, touching scenes of father-daughter hang-outs in the novel. Like when Wendy recounts her dad telling her it’s okay to drop out of university after a terrible first year: “Look, you don’t need to piss yourself into debt to be miserable … You can do that for free.” You can see there that Ben is a wonderful voice of humour in the book. But there’s also the ways that poverty and mental health have resulted in Ben being an absent father and the way that their drinking get-togethers are clearly part of Wendy’s alcohol abuse.

Ben is just one example of Plett’s amazing, complex, authentic characterization; I love how she isn’t afraid to make her characters messy. As I also wrote in my review of her first book, A Safe Girl to Love (a collection of short stories), Plett just seems to get people, a lot of different people. It’s an keen insightfulness on her part to be sure, but it’s also a kind of fiercely honest generosity that sees people in all their fucked-up complicated glory.

One of the ways this quality really emerges in Little Fish is the way Plett deals with the character of Anna, the Mennonite family friend who initially tells Wendy that her grandfather was “like her.” Throughout the novel, Wendy is trying to connect with Anna over the phone, attempting to get little pieces of who her grandfather was and to find out what Anna really meant with this monumental revelation. At the same time, because of the Mennonite community’s transphobia, Wendy is trying to hide who she truly is and how she fits into her family tree.

Eventually the quest to find out more about her Opa leads Wendy to visit Anna in person. This final culmination, where Anna, who we have up until this point thought of as an elderly traditional Mennonite woman, is revealed to be absolutely NOT what you thought she was. I don’t want to spoil anything, but WOW. I finished the book months ago now, and I’m still thinking about how her character made me think differently than I ever have before about queer history and religion and the choices we make to be ourselves.

little fish casey plett

Sybil Lamb’s art on this cover is phenomenal, right?

ALSO: have I mentioned how talented Plett is at dialogue. I can only DREAM about writing dialogue scenes like hers, where I always marvel at how her characters sound like real people in such a deceptively simple way. Take this exchange between Wendy and one her friends Lila:

 “Oh—right. Ernie. Haven’t heard from him yet.”

“Bummer, girl.”

“Yeah. Well. Thanks for asking.”

They were silent for a second, then Lila offered:

“There’ll always be more d.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

And then there are pieces of Wendy’s inner dialogue that are so real and hard and beautiful, like a punch to the guts:

And she learned right then: you always had to be on your guard. It didn’t matter how often you passed, it could always be taken away. Always. She’d never be little, she’d never be fish. It could always be taken away.

Most days, Wendy felt that eight years after transition, she had made her peace with trans stuff. Whatever she hadn’t made peace with, she’d made peace with the fact there’d never be peace, so to speak.

I haven’t even got to talk about Wendy’s amazing, authentic friends: Sophie, her fellow Mennonite who’s like a sister to Wendy; Lila, a Métis woman with a sharp tongue and quick wit; and Raina, a sweet, maternal Puerto Rican dyke who calls Wendy “Wendy-burger.” You’ll just have to read the book and get to know and love them like I did, okay? I also haven’t gotten into the sapphic relationships in this book, especially the really special one Wendy has with an out-of-towner Aileen, a fellow trans women. But look forward to that, okay?

Little Fish is unlike anything else we’ve ever seen in Can Lit, in all the wonderful and heartbreaking ways that I’ve described; but at the same time it’s so authentic and real and of a specific piece of this place currently known as Canada that it’s impossible for it not to be familiar. It’s books like this that show where Can Lit should be going. (By the way, Wendy slyly harkens to the likes Miriam Toews and Heather O’Neill in some of her observations, which is fun Can Lit touch).

All this to say: make sure you read Casey Plett’s novel Little Fish. It will break you, and build you back up. In the words of a fellow lover of this book, Tess, on Twitter: “It’s so good, and so hard. And so good.”

Content warnings: suicide, violence against sex workers, transmisogynist verbal, sexual, and physical assault

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Casey Plett, Fiction, latina, Lesbian, Queer, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 3 Comments

Interview with a Queer Reader: Julie Rak Talks Women’s Bookstores, Gay Biker Books, Finding Your Own Queer History in Books, and More!

Julie Rak describes herself as a “cisgender white settler-supporter lesbian.” She came out later in life, leaving her Baptist minister husband of ten years. This ended her life of faith as she was stripped of membership in the Baptist Union of Canada. She’s now married to a life partner, but doesn’t “think that marriage or monogamy need to be the only or even are the most important ways to show that we are connected to those we love.” She also shares her home with two cats!

Julie is a Professor in the English and Film Studies department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Her research and teaching here is centred on non-fiction and Canadian literature. Outside of work, Julie is a keen amateur poker player. At her level, she’s one of the few out cis queer women players! Other interests include gardening, the outdoors and of course reading, both print and online! Julie’s been a reader since age five. Reading is part of Julie’s job, of course, but it’s also just an important part of her life generally!

This next part I’d like to quote directly from Julie, because it’s a fascinating and heartfelt description of the past and present of queer culture from someone who’s seen a lot of change:

I am from a time in North America when we most of us had to be closeted and when it was really dangerous to be who we were in most places. It’s amazing to me to see how much things have changed and I think it’s for the better, but inevitably mainstream life means that we are losing some of the great institutions that helped us make alternative culture. I’m sad to see those go (I miss women’s bookstores, GLBTQ+ creative protest like ActUp, gay clubs and bars where all the freaks could just be themselves, pride parades without corporate branding). But if the price of amazing subculture is continuous oppression, I don’t want that for my community.


Keep reading to hear Julie talk about finding a gay book about a priest and a biker in her high school library, finding out about her own queer history through books, what losing women’s bookstores has meant to her, and more!

What was the first LGBTQ2IA+ book(s) you remember reading? How did you end up reading it?

When I was about 15, I read a paperback coming-out story about a gay priest and his first affair with a leather jacket-wearing biker. I have no idea what the title was. The book was in my high school library on one of those wire carousels and now, I have no idea if it was actually in the library or had just been put there. I was fascinated with it, but I never checked it out. I just went and read it in the library. I never told anybody I was reading it. Because it was about gay guys, I did not realize at the time that this could be about me too!

What is/are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books, and why?

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: because it’s such an interesting book and I love comics.

Nicole Brossard, Mauve Desert: Brossard for style style style.

Daphne Marlatt Ana Historic: because she showed me possibilities from the past.

Sara Waters Tipping the Velvet: because it’s so much fun and the historical material is great.

Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: because I needed to know my own history.

Extra shout-out to Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal (Winterson because she told my story too) and Gayle Rubin, anything she ever wrote, because she’s genius and badass and uncompromising.

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book have you read that best reflects your experiences as an LGBTQ2IA+ person?

Probably the collection From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life, for obvious reasons!

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?

Queer mountaineering memoirs. Where are they all? I was a climber and I write about it as an academic, but I want to see some creative work out there.

How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read?

It’s harder to find things now, because I used to just go to my local women’s bookstore and everything would be there. Bookstores don’t have enough edgy or artistically interesting material where I can actually find it. There’s the internet…and that’s not queer specific enough. I rely on the excellent advice of Casey and other bloggers now.

Do you know other LGBTQ2IA+ readers or participate in any LGBTQ2IA+ reading communities (in person or on the Internet)? What’s it like? Why or why not?

I know other readers because of my job and my interests, mostly in person. I’m older (born in 1966) so ALL the lesbians I know in my age group were and are readers, so it was a given that everyone read everything. I am not part of any official reading communities because I don’t have time for that, but I just participated in a UK queer theory reading group, and it made me miss GLBTQ+ book clubs and groups.

Thanks so much for sharing with us Julie, especially for mentioning more than one older Canadian lesbian classic, which I think don’t get enough attention. (I’m talking about Daphne Marlatt and Nicole Brossard). Anyone out there a queer mountaineer? Get on writing that memoir!

Posted in Canadian, Daphne Marlatt, Fiction, Interview with a Queer Reader, Lesbian, Queer | 3 Comments

“I believe in dangerous stories”: A Review of 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, the kind of book that feels timeless and like it should be read and discussed far into the future and 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 Kai Cheng Thom’s 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.

I can’t introduce the book any better than it introduces itself:

I don’t believe in safe spaces. They don’t exist. I do, however, believe in dangerous stories: the kind that swirl up from inside you when you least expect it, like the voice of a mad angel whispering of the revolution you are about to unleash. Stories that bend and twist the air as they crackle off your tongue, making you shimmer with glamour, so that everyone around you hangs on your every intoxicating word… The kind of story that doesn’t wait for you to invite it to enter, but bursts through the doors of your rat-infested house like a glittering wind, hungry, hungry, to snatch up the carpet and scatter your papers and smash every single plate in the kitchen…Where are those kinds of stories about trans girls like you and me?

A few things are clear on this first page (which, honestly, I wanted to copy in full, but that just seemed excessive): 1) Kai Cheng Thom’s writing is the kind of beautiful that grabs you by the throat; 2) She’s writing explicitly to trans femmes; 3) It’s completely, wonderfully unclear how the book you’ve just picked up might fit into conventional book genres.

After this perplexing and gorgeous introduction, the voice of this young Chinese Canadian trans woman brings you right into the story, although perhaps not without your doubts about her reliability in a traditional sense. In a description that seems a thinly veiled picture of Vancouver, she tells us “I grew up in a crooked house in a placed called Gloom, where the sky is always grey and the rain is always falling. Gloom was built on the edge of the sea, on land that was once inhabited solely by several Indigenous nations.” She doesn’t stay there long, however; the name of part one, indeed, is “Runaway.” She heads east. She heads to “the City of Smoke and Lights.”

kai cheng thom new

Kai Cheng Thom / photo via http://www.carriejade.com/a-woman-speaks

But it’s not too far into her story that she suddenly breaks the narrative abruptly, and says “Wait. Sorry. That’s not what happened. Here is what happened:”

This is the first time of many where Thom playfully dangles that idea of truth in front of the reader. Not only does the protagonist contradict herself in the main narration, we also see different perspectives in the letters to her sister and the poems she writes for herself that are included. What kind of ‘trans memoir’ is this? It’s not the one that going to satisfy anyone looking for ‘what really happened,’ nor is it going to satisfy cisgender readers looking for a simplified, exploitative tell-all about the sensationalized details of transgender life. You are, however, going to love this if you want a book to complicate the ideas of truth and selfhood:

Sometimes, to become somebody else, you have to become nobody first. You have to let go of your mother and father, the crooked starving house you grew up in that wanted to devour you and digest you whole. Forget, if you can, all the promises you’ve made and the lies that you’ve told. Forget the scars you left one, two, three times on your left wrist. Forget flowers and killer bees and everyone you’ve ever known…I’m going to find the place where my shadow ends and my body begins. Close your eyes. I’ll see you there.

She arrives at the Street of Miracles, she falls in fast with a group of trans sex workers. Mentors Kimaya and Rapunzelle—a great and complicated power lesbian couple—in particular help her find her first little crappy apartment:

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.

Oh my god, isn’t Kai Cheng Thom’s writing amazing?

In this new external environment, our confabulous trans girl has time to confront some of her internal demons, most of all: “why I hurt people when what I really want is for them to love me.” She also becomes involved with their girl gang the Lipstick Lacerators, which rises up to strike back against the violent transmisogynist men.

At first, this girl gang is nothing but success. And I can’t deny that there is something so deeply cathartic and just plain fun in part three of the novel, “girl gang.” It’s so satisfying to read about / watch women beating up shitty dudes. It was a bit like watching a particularly great episode of Buffy. But, of course, this fever dream of ass-kicking and empowerment can’t last. And it’s then that our protagonist realizes things can’t go on like this. But neither can she go on another path of privilege, which is briefly offered her by a rich trans guy who wants to date her. (What ultimately convinces her that she can’t live in his fancy apartment that his parents pay for is that the toilet paper is so soft and luxurious. It finally hits her: “I don’t belong here.”)


The novel has a fascinating blend of magic and gritty realism; I guess that makes it magical realism, but this is a magic whose ways are both unpredictable and powerful and a realism that doesn’t shy away from the hard realities of transmisogyny, racism, and anti-sex worker violence. It’s the kind of magic that might make the corrupt police officer chasing them disappear, but not the lingering trauma that rears its head in the form of anxiety and paranoia. At one point, our protagonist has this conversation with a magical healer:

“You will be able to stop hurting people when you can stop hurting yourself.”
“But how do I do that?”
“If I knew that magic, I wouldn’t be here anymore.”

Magic helps, but it doesn’t solve everything, especially the really big stuff. For that, she must escape again; that is where the book ends.

In the way it deals with magic, as well as others, Fierce Femmes reminds me a lot of Amber Dawn’s Sub Rosa but it’s also very much its own thing, particularly as an ode to trans sisterhood and an interrogation of the trans memoir. If you like Amber Dawn’s writing, as well as other fiercely strange and wonderful writers like Sybil Lamb and Megan Milks, definitely pick up this book. It’s also simply one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Here’s to many Fierce Femmes readers today and far in the future, as this brilliant novel takes its place among other books of sparkling genius.

Content warnings: self-harm (cutting), police brutality/violence, suicide, transmisogynist violence.

Posted in Asian, Canadian, Coming-of-age, Fiction, magic realism, memoir, Queer, Sex Work, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender, Vancouver | 8 Comments

Heck Yes, Queer Femme Romance!: A Review of Band Vs. Band, Volume 2 by Kathleen Jacques

If you aren’t already reading Vancouver-based cartoonist and designer Kathleen Jacques’s queer femme Band Vs. Band comics series, you are SERIOUSLY missing out. Let me help you rectify that situation. This review is of Band Vs. Band Comix, Volume 2; it you aren’t up to date on the webcomic and/or haven’t read the first volume, you should definitely do that. (See my glowing review of Volume 1 here).

So if you clicked that link, you know I loved the first print installment of these comics. I loved volume 2 too! What an amazing collection of comics! If you need some pure, happy, hopeful magical queer femme goodness in your life (and who doesn’t??), you need to get your hands on this comic asap.

While the first volume introduces the two rival / frenemy bands that comprise the title of the comic—it’s the Sourballs Vs. the Candy Hearts—the second volume gets deeper into the personalities of all the band members, as well as—squee!—further develops the burgeoning romantic relationship between the respective lead singers Turpentine and Honey Hart. In case you’ve forgotten how these two bands seem like they couldn’t be more different:

candy hearts.jpg


The great thing that Jacques does in this new volume is investigate how, despite appearances, the two bands may have more in common than they think. The shenanigans around each band trying to figure out how to deal with their financial woes, and their disappointment in some folk band named “Forest Elk” winning local band of the years are oddly similar. (Although only the Sourballs deal by turning over a table and stealing the trophy right from the hands of Forest Elk at the ceremony. The Candy Hearts are characteristically very good sports.)

How do you keep your band going into your twenties? How do you balance your day job with your true passion, the band? How do you keep band members motivated and eager to stay with the band as they get older and times get tough? As the leads of each band, both Honey Hart and Turpentine are trying to answer these questions.

They’re also trying to answer the long-standing question of how to deal with that ever-increasing lesbian sexual tension between them! I love a slow-burn romance, and is this ever a great one. I can’t help but feel giddy just thinking about it, because it’s soooo cute! The pages detailing their first kisses (and more!) and their shy vulnerability are just unbelievably sweet and heart-warming and squeal enducing. But also, SEXY:

Turpentine and Honey Hart sex

I think we are all feeling exactly like Princess Bunny, am I right? I’m fanning myself right now.

It’s also lovely to see both of them bring out other sides of the other: bad-ass Turpentine softens a bit; do-gooder Honey Hart cuts a little loose. Queer femme opposites attract! Actually, the fact that they’re both femme but in very different ways is one of my favourite things about this comic. Punk hard femme and wholesome 50s vintage femme have never looked so good as when they’re together.

Honey Hart tries to impress Turpentine's friends

This might be one of my all-time favourite panels. Honey trying so hard to impress Turpentine’s friends by bringing cue cards with edgy conversation topics on them? Turpentine reassuring her? Atomic Domme being sweet to Honey? Atomic Domme talking historical trans women and “experimental occult machines?” Atomic Domme just being?? Arsenic’s little quip “I liked those first topics, tho”? I LOVE IT ALL.

As if Turps and Honey’s romance isn’t enough, there are also so many more things to love: the never-ending hilarious jokes! The beautifully retro and stylistically unique drawings using pink, blue, and black tones! The casual, lowkey way the comic deals with diversity (featuring multiple characters of colour and L,G,B, and T characters)!  The unique quirks and personalities of each member of both bands! I admit: Atomic Domme from the Sourballs is my favourite—see above panel for a great example of why. There’s another fabulous strip where, in response to the idea of summer fashion, Domme just says “no,” while sitting there sweating in an outfit made almost entirely of black leather.

Seriously, this entire comic is so funny and spot-on, often in little subtle ways that you might miss if you read the panels too quickly. This is your reminder to slow down! For example, the name of the band “Forest Elk,” as a Pacific West Coast folk band? It’s almost too true to life, hitting that edge of realism and parody that Jacques does so well, without ever being mean or petty. And check out what they look like in this epic scene:

Forest Elk

In fact, Jacques making up band names and songs is another one of my favourite parts of the comic. Here’s a whole panel of them! The best is obviously “The Adam Daveson Band,” with their song “Unattainable Girl (Just Ignores Me at the Party)”, with the “Scene Weekly”’s astute assessment: “Buddy. You’ve miscalculated here.” The queer feminist satire is just gold.

Funny fake band names and songs

Well, what are you waiting for? Read it online now! I dare you not to binge it all.

Posted in Asian, Bisexual, Black, Canadian, comics, femme, Fiction, Graphic, Lesbian, Queer, Trans, Trans Feminine, Vancouver | 4 Comments

The Small Town Lesbian Survivor Ghost Story of Your Dreams: A Review of Amber Dawn’s SODOM ROAD EXIT

If you haven’t already read this book and looking at this review you’re thinking TLDR, just know this: Amber Dawn’s latest novel Sodom Exit Road is a brilliant blend of family drama, a queer homecoming, and a good old fashioned haunting. In other words, the small town lesbian survivor ghost story of your dreams!

For those of you who want the glorious and spooky and hilarious details, here we go: Amber Dawn’s second novel is set in the summer of 1990, in a has-been Ontario town called Crystal Beach. It’s the perfect setting for both a haunting and fraught queer-person-returning-to-their-small-hometown journey. Starla Mia Martin has been living in Toronto, where she’s racked up significant student debt despite never having actually graduated. Both the 90s time frame and the extent of Starla’s crushing debt are obvious from the first scene, where Starla is awakened by repeated early morning calls from a debt collection agency on her landline. (Remember those, and how the only way to stop someone from calling you was to yank the phone cord out of the jack in the wall? Good times.)


Amber Dawn / photo via amberdawnwrites.com

When you first meet Starla she is also waking up hungover with a one-night stand whose name she cannot remember. I was immediately enamoured with Starla, and I’d challenge anyone not to feel the same way. Here are the opening lines of the novel:

The anonymous woman in bed beside me adamantly shakes my shoulder. She had a name last night. She must have; as part of my hook-and-line, I complimented her ‘pretty name’ and said, ‘it suits you.’ Unless a woman’s name is Mavis, I normally compliment her pretty name.

For the rest of the scene, Starla refers to her date as “Not-Mavis,” and also treats us to many other hilarious observations. When Not-Mavis tells Starla that Starla’s friends Josie and Zed warned her not to try to get a second date out of Starla, Starla thinks “where do Josie and Zed get off? What am I, the dregs of casual sex, bottom-feeder of blind dates? I swear I’m never having another threesome with those two again.”

Starla’s rapidly falling apart Toronto life—in more ways than one—is clearly unsustainable, which is the jumpstart of the plot. After the low point of having to exchange a blowjob for a taxi ride when her credit card is declined (verified by car phone when Starla was hoping the cabbie would just use the old sliding imprinter device with the three-layered piece of paper), Starla reluctantly decides to take her mom up on her offer to move back in with her in Starla’s sleepy hometown, Crystal Beach. Enter mother-daughter drama, resurfacing childhood trauma, a new love interest in the form of an old classmate, and a ghost.

We’ve seen many of these themes before, sometimes in queer lit, but have we ever seen them all queerly together? This was one of the things I loved about this novel. Sodom Road Exit is a wonderful blend of different storylines and genres that you’re probably familiar with, all while making interesting changes to your usual expectations of those stories. In particular it’s the queer survivor perspective in Sodom Road Exit that makes everything feel fresh and new.

Sodom Road Exit is very much in the vein of the wonderful anthology Fist of the Spider Woman that Amber Dawn edited. (Check out my glowing review of Fist of the Spider Woman here). In that collection as well as this novel, the slippery boundaries between fear and (queer) desire are explored intimately. When the hauntings in Sodom Road Exit begin, they share a lot with horror films you know and love (or, maybe, like me, that you know and can’t watch because you’re too much of a chicken). But instead of screaming and running away in horror when she is confronted with the supernatural, Starla is drawn to it. She feels lust. She feels curiosity.

Crystal Beach is the perfect place for a haunting, because as a result of economic downturn, it’s already a bit of a ghost town. What Crystal Beach used to be known for was an amusement park; decades earlier, it was a hot vacation spot. Where people used to scream on thrilling roller coasters and laugh at goofy distorted mirror versions of themselves in the funhouse is now a creepy, abandoned space, devoid of people but still full of the falling apart relics of the past. One of those relics is Etta, a ghost whose perspective Amber Dawn shares with readers by devoting chapters to her, written in the first person. When was the last time you read a book about a haunting that gave you the ghost’s point of view?

While a queer ghost trying to deal with her unresolved issues in Crystal Beach reaches out to Starla, Starla herself is also confronting unfinished business. Being back in the house she grew up in and spending time with her mom is triggering Starla’s memories of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of one of her mom’s old boyfriends. There is love there between Starla and her mom, but it is deeply complicated and laced with hurt and resentment. Sodom Road Exit feels as much a book about being a survivor of sexual abuse as a book about being a queer woman. It’s a story of a healing journey as much as it is a queer homecoming.

Speaking of the queer homecoming part, I want to talk about Tamara, who Starla meets at an ill-advised lunch ‘date’ at a strip club with a teenage boy she meets on the bus. After totally stealing this job as a night manager an RV park that she only knew about because the teen boy told her he was on his way to apply to it, Starla agrees to hang out with him afterwards to assuage her guilt. She is not expecting to run into her old classmate, a formerly popular girl named Tamara who now works as a stripper at said strip club. She is also not expecting to find out that Tamara is also a lesbian.

I loved Tamara! I just love the story of two people who weren’t out in high school meeting again as queer adults in their hometown. And Tamara is very funny, totally out of fucks to give, badass, and takes the whole Starla being haunted thing in stride. After their first date, Starla looks around nervously after she and Tamara kiss goodnight on Tamara’s porch. Tamara’s response?  “Who’s going to see us? If you’re embarrassed about what people will think, then you probably shouldn’t be dating the town stripper.” She also later sarcastically comments about some of Starla’s worries about truck-driving asshole guys, “If I worried about what assholes think, I’d never leave my house.”

I’ve honestly only scraped the surface of this book so far, but I think that’s a good thing because you’re going to have to read it to find out how all these plot threads are resolved. Will Etta the ghost finally rest in peace? How are Tamara and Starla going to make it work? Can Starla and her mom form a working adult relationship? Friends, Sodom Exit Road is the novel about survivorship, queer love, and ghosts that you need in your life, whether you realize it or not. Get it here.

Posted in Amber Dawn, Canadian, femme, Fiction, Lesbian, paranormal, Queer, Rural | 1 Comment

A Romance about Love and Grief: A Review of the Graphic Novel FORWARD by Lisa Maas

Forward, the first graphic novel by Lisa Maas, is a great reminder of the great work that can be made when authors and artists represent what they know intimately. Set in Victoria, it’s a story about two women both trying to move ahead in their lives in different ways. The first is Rayanne, the kind of woman whose life revolves around her work (and her cat). Although it was years earlier, she’s never been able to open herself up again after the horrible way her last relationship ended. She lives a carefully controlled, regimented life, where her crushes on women only ever go further in her imagination. Ali is also having trouble moving forward (get that reference to the title?), but from very different circumstances: she is still grieving the death of her wife from cancer a year earlier.

Are these two going to meet each other? Well, of course they are. And in that way, this story is very much a romance. But like the best romance narratives, it’s also just as much about the individual journeys of each person as it is about their growing relationship. It’s a second chance love story of two people who didn’t imagine that they would ever get another chance. So while it is definitely a romance, it might be a little sadder and/or have more crying than the last romance you read. (I don’t know, maybe your romance tropetonite is stories about widows and other sad people finding new love and you read romances like this all the time). But while Forward is sad in many parts, it’s also sexy and, ultimately, hopeful. So there’s that.

Lisa Maas | image via arsenalpulp.com

Lisa Maas | image via arsenalpulp.com

Back to the idea that I opened with: the authenticity of reading a book about a sub-culture by someone who clearly knows it so well, in a way of course that no outsider could ever know it. Forward felt soooo authentic to white west coast middle age lesbian culture. I think only an author representing their own culture could do this. Wow. I don’t think I’ve read any other book that hits the good and the bad so on the nose.

I’m almost not even sure what to describe since there were so many details in this book that I didn’t realize were a part of that specific subculture until I saw them here and felt so much recognition. For one, there is a hella lot of lesbian processing in Forward. There’s even some hippie-tinged processing with a psychic! There are cats, Indigo Girls, and more than one of those awkward lesbian dating scenarios where both women obviously like each other but neither of them makes a move. Sigh. Almost all the queer ladies have short hair, except one who has kind of a mullet!? It was really great to see multiple women presenting on the masculine end of the gender spectrum, especially when you literally get to see them drawn in a graphic novel!

The world in Forward was so recognizable to me. Although they’re too fairly dissimilar books, Forward strangely reminded me a lot of Zoe Whittall’s Holding Still for as Long as Possible, in the way that it paints such an insider picture of a particular kind of queer culture that I had never seen depicted in fiction before.


And yeah, there isn’t really a focus on them, but some not-so-great aspects of this lesbian subculture are in the book too. The two ones that stand out the most to me are that almost everyone is white and all the characters use the word lesbian to describe any woman who might be or is attracted to women, as if bisexual women don’t exist. For the record, both of those things are true to my experiences in communities like this, so I’m not even sure if those are criticisms (but it sure would be nice to have some more inclusion!).

To be honest, it’s a bit hard for me to separate my experience of this book from my personal history in communities like the one represented in Forward: it made me both sad that I’m not a part of that lesbian culture anymore and also kind of mad at the norms of biphobia and racism of that culture (biphobia being one of the things that drove me away). It’s weird that the book is bringing up these things, because Forward is not about those issues at all. It’s a story about love and grief set in this context so naturally and elegantly. I know there will be many readers who will seem themselves and their communities in Forward, and for any queer person that is such a rare and beautiful thing. I guess what I’m saying is that for me that feeling of familiarity was a little more complicated. Just know that if you’re a bi woman and/or a woman of colour who’s felt excluded from lesbian communities, this book may stir up some of those feelings like it did for me!

More stirred up feelings: Forward made me really nostalgic for the time when I lived in Victoria. This is such a Victoria book! There were a few scenes where I thought, aha! I know exactly where those characters are taking a walk! And, I know restaurants exactly like the one in downtown Victoria where Rayanne and Ali have their first date. Fiction set in Victoria is pretty rare, let alone queer fiction, so it was really cool to get to see that beautiful place in a graphic novel. I think anyone who has a soft spot for Victoria like I do is going to love that aspect of the book.

Some of you are maybe wondering, but what about the art? Isn’t this a graphic novel? It is, indeed! I didn’t love the art, unfortunately. It reminded me of Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl, both in the actual style and also that I liked the story a lot and wished I liked the art more. The colour is subdued, with a water-colour kind of feel. (Is it actually watercolour? I don’t know since I don’t know anything about art!). I felt like the people’s faces looked too similar to each other—it’s probably a bad sign if I’m glad so-and-so and so-and-so have different colour hair because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. I did, however, really like a few of the panels where Maas was showing the passage of time. Like this one:


Has anyone else read Forward? I haven’t heard much buzz around it and I would love to know thoughts and reactions from other readers. Some of my reservations related to personal experience aside, I really enjoyed this book and felt like it was a bit different from everything else I’ve been reading lately.

Posted in Canadian, comics, Graphic, Lesbian, Queer, Romance, Victoria | Leave a comment