Welcome to the June 2021 edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! HAPPY PRIDE MONTH EVERYONE!!!
The annual We Are Pride list, opens a new window is officially out! Every year a committee of super queer and very awesome librarians puts together a list for children, teens, and adults of the best LGBTQ+ books published the year before. You can find this list in physical format soon at your local branch, or online, opens a new window.
You may also want to visit the BPL's Pride Page, opens a new window for more information about the We Are Pride list and access to previous lists. It also has links to LGBTQ+ guides and resources, other blog posts, and event listings for the Boston area.
Onward to the Queer Fiction Blog! This month we have a cynical twenty-three-year-old lesbian falling in love, a young Syrian transgender man finding himself after his mother's death, and a young lesbian woman who discovers she's possessed by her grandmother's ghost. Oh my!
Title/Author: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
Summary: Cynical twenty-three-year-old August doesn't believe in much. She doesn't believe in psychics, or easily forged friendships, or finding the kind of love they make movies about. And she certainly doesn't believe her ragtag band of new roommates, her night shifts at a 24-hour pancake diner, or her daily subway commute full of electrical outages are going to change that. But then, there's Jane. Beautiful, impossible Jane.
Book Format: eBook (also available in print and downloadable audiobook formats)
Length: 432 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian/bisexual/trans/queer
Content Warnings: Homophobia
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: If you’ve read my review of Red, White, and Royal Blue, you know that I love Casey McQuiston. I think her writing style is fabulous. It's intricate and witty without feeling out of place in the story. Her characters are loveable and they remind me of my own friend groups in the ways we relate to each other. I find reading her books not only an escape, but an absolute joy.
OLS opens with main character August moving to NYC. Unsure of what comes next for herself, she enrolls in a local college and works part-time at a diner to make ends meet. Getting around New York requires the use of the Q train and on that train is the mysterious Jane Su, who has been trapped on the Q since the blackout of 1977. As August and Jane grow closer, August must try to find a way to free Jane from the Q ... whatever that will mean for their relationship.
Reader, I laughed, I cried, my heartstrings were tugged! I cannot recommend this title enough. A sapphic romance that also features a HEIST?! It’s like McQuiston can see into my soul. And I know that we are not supposed to judge books by their covers, but how gorgeous is this cover?! Long story short, as long as Casey McQuiston keeps writing, I’ll keep reading!
Title/Author: The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar
Summary: Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. One night, he enters the abandoned community house in Manhattan’s Little Syria and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She disappeared more than sixty years ago, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew.
Genre/Sub-genre: Historical/literary/general fiction/magical realism
Book Format: eBook (also available in print and downloadable audiobook formats)
Length: 304 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Transgender, bisexual, nonbinary. Note that LGBTQ+ labels are not used on these characters, but this was how I saw them.
Content Warnings: Transphobia, sexism, homophobia, racism, and Islamophobia.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written!
Would I Recommend?: YES
Personal thoughts: Wow. I am absolutely floored by the flow of beautiful words in this novel, the amazing queer characters that refuse to back down from admitting who they are, and the imagery of the birds. This is an Own Voices novel, which makes it even more special.
Told in the first person point-of-view, the main character goes through much of this novel without a name. He is a transgender man, searching for himself even as the rest of his Syrian family, friends, and neighbors are all clamoring to find the woman they think he should be. This was written realistically, from his experiences with his gender dysphoria to his grief over his mother’s death and his relationships with friends and family.
When the main character finds the journal of Laila, the ornithologist who disappeared more than 20 years ago, we start diving into the past through her journal entries written to someone she names “B.” “B”, we come to realize, was a young girl she’d fallen for and left behind in Syria when her family emigrated to the United States many decades earlier. Also realistically written, Laila’s voice ages as she does. I felt dropped into her world, as if I was actually there.
I loved everything about this novel. There’s a lot happening, but the chapter headings alert you to the change in point-of-view. This is a total immersion story that I could not put down, needing to know what was going to happen next and whether everything would work out for both main characters.
As I said, the language is beautiful, and there were many lines, phrases, and paragraphs filled with meaning I wanted to savor. For example, this particular gem was one that really spoke to me: “Sami’s chest rises and falls, and I realize that, with nothing in the way, he can hug his loved ones closer to his heart.” There were plenty of others, but I won’t spoil them for you. You'll just have to read it and find them for yourself. Consider it a fun, meaningful treasure hunt!
Title/Author: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
Summary: Jess feels aimless and disconnected after graduating college and returning with her parents to Malaysia, a country that both is and isn't home. But the awkwardness of living with her extended family, searching for a job her parents will approve of, and hiding her relationship with her long-distance girlfriend is nothing compared to the shock of discovering that her grandmother's ghost has been possessing her body while she sleeps.
Book Format: Paper (also available in eBook and downloadable audiobook formats)
Length: 384 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian
Content Warnings: Descriptions of domestic violence, and there's a brief but scary scene where the protagonist is threatened with rape.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Very well-written!
Would I Recommend?: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. If you like cool urban fantasy: yes. If you like complicated feelings about queerness and familial obligation: yes. If you like badass grandmas: YES.
Personal thoughts: Back in January, opens a new window, I picked Black Water Sister as my most anticipated read of 2021. I was not disappointed! My favorite thing about Zen Cho's writing is her dialogue, and it is absolutely on point in this book. I can practically hear the lines when I read them. I especially love that she trusts the reader to figure out the non-English words instead of glossing them! Everything in the book is so vivid, almost like a film.
If New Adult were a subgenre label that applied to fantasy instead of romance, I would describe Black Water Sister as New Adult. The things that Jess is going through are so intensely and specifically the problems of people in their early twenties. The soul-crushing experience of throwing job applications into the void while your parents' generation gives you outdated advice. Suddenly losing the constant companionship of your college friends and not knowing how to stop drifting apart. Surrendering the autonomy you had at school and moving back in with your family, who still see you as a child. I couldn't help but relate, even though her other problems – getting haunted by her grandmother, taking on the local crime lord, and picking a fight with a god – were well outside my experience.
The one place the book fell down a little for me, weirdly, was Jess's relationship with her college girlfriend, Sharanya. Jess maintains to her girlfriend and even to herself that she wants to be with Sharanya, but as the story progresses Sharanya becomes a distraction and sometimes even an annoyance. Cho explores Jess's complicated feelings about her parents in depth, both her sense of obligation as their only child and her conviction that they will never accept her sexuality. We never get that kind of background about why Jess loves Sharanya though. She just exists, somewhere off screen, occasionally sending (justifiable!) nagging Wechat messages. But on the balance, it's a minor quibble when the familial relationships in the book are so satisfying. I actually loved that the source of Jess's strength is her interconnected web of extended family – not just her indomitable (although deceased) Ah Ma, but her mother and father and uncles and aunts and cousins.
I look forward to watching this book clean up at every major science fiction/fantasy award competition next year!