Queer Fiction Blog: September 2019

Welcome to September's Queer Fiction Blog! This month we are highlighting a new audiobook for a classic gay mystery series, a literary novel about queer teens protesting the demolition of their home, and a graphic novel about a bisexual teen learning about her transgender grandparent.

We are also bidding Kirsten a fond farewell as she continues her journey with her new solo blog. (See her message at the end of her review!) Next month we'll introduce one of our children's librarians who will be joining our Queer Fiction review team.

Title/Author: Fadeout by Joseph Hansen, Narrated by Keith Szarabajka

Reviewer: Jordan
Summary: When entertainer Fox Olson's car plunges off a bridge in a storm, a death claim is filed. But where is Olson's body? As Dave Brandstetter, a death claims investigator, questions family, fans, and detractors, he grows certain Olson is still alive. Dave must find him before the would-be killer does.
Series/Standalone: Dave Brandstetter Mysteries book 1 of 12
Genre/sub-genre: Mystery
Book Format: Downloadable audiobook
Length: 187 pages/5 hours & 7 minutes
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Violence: Off-page
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: YES!
Personal thoughts: I read this series for the first time a few years ago and absolutely loved it. The main character is unapologetically gay and very comfortable in his skin, which was a first for a mystery series written in the 1970’s. In the first book, Dave is struggling with the death of his longtime partner, Rod (to Cancer), and yet he gets back on the horse and keeps on going. He’s a good man who does what’s right as often as he possibly can.

The mystery is engaging, keeping you guessing until the end and the side characters are well rounded and fun to read about. It’s hard to believe this book came out nearly 50 years ago, but this series holds up well over time. It’s still sharp, fresh, and a great read.

I was thrilled to discover this series was being turned into audiobooks for the first time this year and so far I’ve not been disappointed. The narrator, Keith Szarabejka, is amazing! His range of voices is vast in this first installment, going from rugged Dave to his female friend who is a heavy smoker, to a young man with fetal alcohol syndrome. He does them all, and does them well. I can’t recommend this audiobook enough! I’m looking forward to diving into the next audiobook soon.

Title/Author: A People's History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian

Reviewer: Kirsten
Summary: After a bulldozer cleaves the entrance sign of Swargahalli, Bangalore in two, it reads "Swarga": the Sanskrit word for Heaven. The name is ironic, for Heaven is a slum in Bangalore struggling against poverty and an uncaring city government. Amidst it all is a community of residents that support one another through the hard times, including five teenage girls: Rukshana, Joy, Deepa, Banu, and Padma. When the bulldozers come with the intent of tearing down Heaven and building new glass high-rises, these five best friends join their mothers in protesting the demolition of their home.
Series/Standalone: Standalone
Genre/sub-genre: Literary fiction
Book Format: Print
Length: 290 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Queer girl, trans girl
Violence: None.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: Wow! I can’t remember the last time I’ve read a book with such poetic language and such a unique structure. It is narrated in multiple tenses. First person plural embodies the collective voice of the girls, while third person is used to tell each of their stories. The transition between “we” and “our” to “she” and “her” as a girl is mentioned by name is seamless, and a very effective method of storytelling. The book also jumps back and forth through time. We see flashes of the girls’ lives as children, the lives of their mothers and other residents of Heaven, and the events of the present. There is a large number of characters to keep straight, but I found it gripping, not overwhelming.

I was initially a little cautious of the way Joy’s story is told. The four other girls (the collective “we”) begin, “Joy. The girl of your dreams. Our unofficial queen. Now, that is. Back in fourth standard, Joy wasn’t Joy at all. She was Anand.” They then proceed to narrate Joy’s childhood through vignettes, using her dead name and he/him pronouns. Joy faces microaggressions; she’s asked “you want to be a girl?” and emphatically responds, “I don’t want to be a girl, I am a girl.” I understood the desire for realism, but I wished that the narration had continued to refer to Joy by her true name and pronouns, even when they were describing her childhood. However, my misgivings were softened by how the chapter ends, when Joy and her family convert to Christianity. She wears a dress to the baptism, where the priest announces that she is reborn, and her name is Joy. An initially stunned family welcomes her with open arms as their daughter. Joy’s dead name is only mentioned once again, when the girls are deemed eligible for free iron pills from the government, which requires Joy’s birth certificate as paperwork.

I also really enjoyed Rukshana’s story. I found her tomboyishness relatable, and I loved how Rukshana’s mother accepted that her daughter’s decision to cut her hair short and wear pants was no different than her own decision to hide her hair and cover her face. Her love story with Leela was brief, as it was just another snapshot in the lives of many characters, but it was very sweet.

Overall, this was beautifully written and touched on a lot of important topics, including transphobia, casteism, poverty, forced sterilization, sexism, religion, and the white savior complex. It was definitely a heartfelt and eye-opening read!

A note from Kirsten: I'm sad to say that this month will be my last post with the Queer Fiction Blog! Going forth, you can continue to read reviews from me on my new Diversity in Sci-Fi blog. Each month, I review a recently released science fiction book and present my thoughts on its POC, LGBTQ+, and female representation. I hope to see you there!  

Title/Author/Artist: Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw

Reviewer: Veronica
Summary: Mads comes from a strongly religious family in a conservative community and has spent her entire life without really questioning the very Catholic framework of her life. One day, however, she overhears something that makes her suspect that her father, the parent she is closest to, is cheating on her mother. From this point, a lot of the structures she's taken for granted begin to unravel. She eventually learns that the secret her parents are keeping from her is not an affair but rather the fact that her father's mother, who is never spoken of in the family, was a trans man. At the same time, Mads is figuring out the reason her first seven kisses were so unsatisfying: she has a crush on her (female) best friend.
Series/Standalone: Standalone
Genre/sub-genre: Graphic novel
Book Format: Print
Length: 300 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Main character is bisexual; one subplot revolves around her trans grandparent
Violence: There are a few scary flashback scenes of domestic violence
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Art/Illustrations: The art is completely black and white, and it mostly focuses on portraying people rather than the setting. I wouldn't describe it as particularly beautiful, but it's incredibly expressive, especially the faces!
Would I Recommend?: Yes, absolutely. This is a great, authentic story about coming out in a small town in the early 2000s. (The AIM conversations! It was like my entire adolescence was flashing before my eyes.) Even though things got very rough in places, it ends in a very uplifting place. It's also very unusual to find either YA or LGBTQ+ fiction in which organized religion is portrayed as a potential source of positivity and love.
Personal thoughts: First of all, this is NOT a romance. The cover and summary are kind of ambiguous on this, so just to make it clear up front, the point of the book is not Mads finding a girlfriend and falling in love. As a coming of age and coming out story, however, Kiss Number 8 is a fantastic success.

Things go wrong! People we love as children disappoint us as we grow up! That's life! There's no unrealistic "and they lived happily ever after" where everything is perfect, but nothing is ruined forever, either. Mads is ostracized at school when her former friends out her, to the point that she has to transfer. And her father rejects her attempts to get him to meet with his mother's widow. But she eventually rebuilds her relationship with her parents, gets new friends, and (in flash-forward) makes a happy adult life for herself.

I do want to stress that Kiss Number 8 is a moving story, but it’s also a pretty tough read in places. The subplot about Sam, Mads' paternal grandmother, made me cry in several places. Many characters say a lot of very transphobic things about Sam throughout the book. The art and dialogue are put together in a really interesting way that makes it clear her father has forced himself to embrace a false narrative in which his mother abandoned him rather than remember what actually happened. When Mads meets Sam's widow, she learns that Sam loved his son and was forced to leave by his husband who physically assaulted him and threatened their son when he learned Sam was trans. While Mads' life is enriched by learning about Sam's legacy, she never gets to meet him, because the precipitating event of the book is Sam's death.