Queer Fiction Blog: February 2021

Hi, and welcome to the February edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! This month we have a seventh-grade amateur detective looking into her aunt's mysterious death, a young Nigerian girl who falls in love with another girl to the horror of her family, and a historical fantasy about a relationship lost to bound memories.

Title/Author: Pepper's Rules for Secret Sleuthing by Briana McDonald

Reviewer: Allison

Summary: Amateur detective Pepper Blouse, a rising seventh-grader, cannot resist investigating when her Great Aunt Florence passes away under mysterious circumstances, but strictly following her mother's Detective Rulebook may not be the best plan.

Series/Standalone: Standalone (though I’m hoping it will end up a series!)

Genre/Sub-genre: Juvenile Mystery

Book Format: Print

Length: 229 pages

LGBTQ+ Orientation: Questioning/queer main character; trans side character

Content Warnings: Perceived transphobia (no actual transphobia)

Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written

Would I Recommend?: Yes

Personal thoughts: Many of the reviews for this book likened it to a modern-day, queer Nancy Drew, which deeply appealed to me. While I don’t necessarily agree with that review (Pepper is much younger and besides their love for solving mysteries and a mother who has passed away, they don’t actually have that much in common), I loved this book! It was as if Junie B. Jones grew up to maybe like girls and read Harriet the Spy a few too many times. Pepper was both a whirlwind of chaos and keenly introspective about herself and her motives.

After her great-aunt suddenly passes away, Pepper travels with her father to Maine to settle the estate along with Pepper’s aunt Wendy and cousin Andrew. Pepper is naturally inquisitive, a trait she inherited from her police detective mother. Even though she promised her dad she wouldn’t, she starts looking for clues to help her figure out what caused her great-aunt's death. At the top of Pepper’s list of suspects is her Aunt Wendy, meaning that Pepper can’t trust anyone in her life to help with her sleuthing.

In the course of her investigation, she meets Jacob, a young trans boy eager to escape his home in the midst of his parents celebrating the impending arrival of a new baby. Together, Pepper and Jacob track down each lead, stumbling upon plenty of clues that could either break the case or simply break up Pepper’s family. When Pepper’s father disappears, Pepper and Jacob bring Andrew into the investigation and the trio determine to get to the bottom of Great-Aunt Florence’s death.

I loved all three of our mystery-solving trio. They were believably written and deeply empathetic and sympathetic characters. I hope Pepper, Jacob, and Andrew’s adventures continue. This could be the mystery series for a new generation of kids, just like Nancy Drew was for me. The mystery was well-woven, the pieces settling into place nicely (but not perfectly) by the end. The character development is never lost in the plot and vice versa. Though a bit on the shorter side, I didn’t find that this book lacked for anything. I’m hopeful I’ll get to read another book with these characters someday soon!

Title/Author:Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta; Narrated by Robin Miles

Reviewer: Jordan

Summary:  Ijeoma comes of age as her nation does; born before independence, she is eleven when civil war breaks out in the young republic of Nigeria. Sent away to safety, she meets another displaced child and they fall in love. They are from different ethnic communities. They are also both girls. When their love is discovered, Ijeoma learns that she will have to hide this part of herself. But there is a cost to living inside a lie.

Series/Standalone: Standalone

Genre/Sub-genre:  Fiction

Book Format: eAudiobook (also available in print and eBook formats)

Length:  328 pages/11 hours 19 minutes

LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian

Content Warnings: Homophobia, rape, bigotry, abuse.

Well-written/Editor Needed:  Well-written

Would I Recommend?: Yes

Personal thoughts: This is not an easy read, but I do think it’s an important read, especially considering the Nigerian Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2013. The story of Ijeoma deftly puts into perspective what it’s like to live in a place that does not accept you for who you are, for loving someone who is of the same gender as you. Ijeoma’s own mother turns on her when she finds out her only daughter has fallen in love with another girl. It’s incomprehensible to me that a mother would rather her daughter be raped by men than be in a healthy, loving relationship with another woman, but that is the culture and the society in which they live, where certain passages of the Bible trump everything else.

The characters here come alive, just as the setting does with Okparanta’s wonderful writing. While I could have done with fewer Bible verses, this was a book I could not put down. Ijeoma’s life is almost never easy as she grows up, gets married, and becomes a mother herself, all while struggling to keep a lid on her feelings and sexuality. I needed to see how things would work out for her and whether she would have a happy ending or not.  And the ending, I felt, was realistic. It didn't fall into the Happily Ever After of a traditional romance, nor did it go in the complete opposite direction, it was just somewhere in the murky middle. I think it worked for these characters and for their society, which hasn't changed throughout the story or in real life.

I listened to this as an audiobook and the narrator, Robin Miles, was fantastic. There were several passages written in languages other than English, as well as a few songs I enjoyed listening to her read and sing. She has a wonderful voice and every day I looked forward to hearing her speak again.

As I said, this is not an easy read, perhaps not for the faint of heart, but I do highly recommend it.

Title/Author: The Binding by Bridget Collins 

Reviewer: Veronica 

Summary: In a fantasy world on the verge of industrialization, Emmett, a young man from a farming family, is unwillingly sent to apprentice to a bookbinder. His reluctance is understandable. Bookbinding is one of the most distrusted trades in existence. In this world, books are not written—they are composed of memories. Once a memory is bound into a book, it is wiped from the mind of the original owner. When a nobleman named Lucian comes to have a memory bound, Emmett is disturbed by the sense of recognition he feels, because, of course, he doesn’t remember Lucian at all.

Series/Standalone: Standalone  

Genre/Sub-genre: Historical fantasy 

Book Format: eBook (also available in audio and on paper) 

Length: 345 pages 

LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay 

Content Warnings: Violence, homophobia, extensive references to rape and domestic abuse, child death (off screen)  

Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written 

Would I Recommend?: Under limited circumstances, and with some reservation 

Personal Thoughts: I feel like such a hater for saying this, but The Binding just didn’t wow me. It isn’t poorly written, which makes my lack of enthusiasm hard to explain. I never felt especially invested in Lucian or Emmett’s relationship with him, and I think that the structure of the book—three arcs, in which the entire second section is a flashback that explains the significance of the first—doesn’t work the way the author intended. Lucian, as he appears in both the first and third sections, is a character whose uneasy combination of trauma and privilege have made him unpleasant to be around. He's hardly recognizable as the person Emmett fell in love with. It isn’t exactly unbelievable that Emmett continues to pursue him, convinced that if he can just get Lucian’s memories back he will become that person again, but it feels like a cheap out to use magic in lieu of character development.  

Speaking of cheap outs: I viscerally hated the ending of the book. The Binding brings up a lot of interesting arguments about consent, trauma, and memory—who wants to forget and who is forced to, who is allowed to remember and who has their wish to erase a memory disregarded—and Collins absolutely kneecaps her own thesis in the final pages. It’s not just that Lucian’s memories are restored to him by force when he actively doesn’t want them, but that she characterizes him as misguided not to want them back. If someone doesn’t want to remember their trauma, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid or childish or wrong! The rules of the magical system Collins invented demand consent; no one can be bound against their will, although we see over and over again how that consent may be coerced. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth that Lucian doesn’t consent to having his memories restored. And that’s the final scene! The book doesn’t conclude, it just ... stops, on a supposed happy ending that feels completely unearned. It’s rare for me to finish a book and think, “Wow, that really should have been longer,” but there really needed to be at least a few more chapters of denouement to tie up the many, many loose threads.  

Despite my hang-ups with the structure and conclusion of the novel, however, The Binding has a lot going for it in terms of setting and worldbuilding. I think that readers who are interested in concept over character might find it more compelling than I did. Alas, a book lives or dies by interpersonal dynamics for me, and this one just didn’t spark joy.