Hi and welcome to the September edition of the Queer Lit Review! This month we have biographies of bad gays, a nonbinary teen solving a murder, and lesbian vampires getting their revenge.
These titles may be available in other formats or languages. Check the catalog for availabilty.
Title/Author: Bad Gays by Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller
Reviewer: Puck M.
Summary: We all remember Oscar Wilde, but who speaks for Bosie? What about those 'bad gays' whose unexemplary lives reveal more than we might expect? Many popular histories seek to establish homosexual heroes, pioneers, and martyrs but, as Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller argue, the past is filled with queer people whose sexualities and dastardly deeds have been overlooked despite their being informative and instructive....With characters such as the Emperor Hadrian, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and notorious gangster Ronnie Kray, the authors tell the story of how the figure of the white gay man was born, and how he failed. They examine a cast of kings, fascist thugs, artists, and debauched bon viveurs. Imperial-era figures Lawrence of Arabia and Roger Casement get a look-in, as do FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, lawyer Roy Cohn, and architect Philip Johnson.
Subject/Topic: Queer history/biography
Book Format: Book
Length: 357 pages
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written, for the most part. (A few errors.)
Would I Recommend?: Yes, for the most part.
Personal Thoughts: I was already a fan of Lemmey and Miller’s Bad Gays Podcast before I discovered that they had also written a book on the subject and that the Boston Public Library had a copy of that book. The book covers some of the same ground as the podcast. However, in addition to the pure factual biographies, the authors craft a historical throughline from the Roman Emperor Hadrian to the Dutch far-right politician Pim Fortuyn (with many fascinating stops along the route, including the architect of the BPL’s own Boylston Street Building, Philip Johnson—a gay bad enough that several of the nation's leading institutions have stripped his name from their buildings).
The authors are deeply interested in the relationship that queer people have with power: how we struggle for it and against it, the compromises we make to acquire it, and why so many gay people, particularly gay men, throughout history have had love affairs with far-right movements not any less potent than the ones they had with people of their own gender. In the book’s introduction, they introduce their thesis: “By examining the interplay of their lives and their sexualities, this book investigates the failure of homosexuality as an identity and a political project.”
I’d recommend this book on the strength of the introduction alone, but the lives of the men (and one woman) are indeed fascinating and illustrative. If you don’t have time to listen to six whole podcast seasons of biography (or even the 13 or so episodes that cover most, but not all, of the contents of this book), I can’t recommend the book enough. If you’re like me, you’ll spot troubling parallels to many current strands of queer politics as you read.
There are a few places where I’ll nitpick; an additional editing pass would have been helpful to catch word substitutions, like my pet peeve: “discrete” for “discreet.” Although I believe that in the broad strokes Lemmey and Miller describe the lives of their subjects accurately, there are some relatively insignificant errors that can make one doubt the accuracy of larger claims. For example, I was skeptical that J. Edgar Hoover learned about the usefulness of the Dewey Decimal System at the Library of Congress, given that they were already using the Library of Congress Classification system by the time Hoover began to work there. I don’t know if that error belongs to Lemmey and Miller or Gentry’s J. Edgar Hoover, their source for that particular line.
Overall, however, this is an interesting and informative book. The prose never drags. In some ways, because I like listening to knowledgeable people conversing, I still prefer the podcast. But I have far less time for listening to podcasts than I do for reading books, and I don’t regret in the least picking up this one. I’ll certainly be thinking about its contents for a long time.
Title/Author: Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything by Justine Pucella Winans
Summary: Bianca Torre is 16 years old, gay, and starting to question their gender identity. To help cope with their severe anxiety disorder, they take up birdwatching…and accidentally witness a murder through their binoculars. With the help of their best friend Anderson and crush Elaine, Bianca sets out to solve the crime.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Teen mystery
Book Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Nonbinary, lesbian
Content Warnings: Anxiety and panic attacks, gender dysphoria, murder, kidnapping, cults, home invasion, stalking, animal death (bird)
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes!
Personal thoughts: This is genuinely one of my new favorite books. It felt wonderful to see so much of myself represented in a protagonist (like Bianca, I’m an anime-loving, nonbinary lesbian with an anxiety disorder), but even aside from that, I found the story engaging, sweet, and hilarious.
I laughed out loud so many times reading this. While humor in YA is controversial due to how difficult it is to write authentically, I thought it worked really well here. Bianca and Anderson are funny and still sound like teenagers. Their friendship is similarly heartwarming—I am a huge fan of the “found family” trope.
The plot is over-the-top in the best way possible, but I know it won’t appeal to every reader. A good comparison might be if Only Murders in the Building was YA. If you like your mysteries with a small helping of absurdism, you’ll love this. It’s camp!
Bianca Torre has plenty of poignant moments too. You’ve got Bianca’s gender journey, discussions about trans-exclusive radical feminism, learning to live with anxiety, and more. Plus, the cast is beautifully diverse, with multiple Black, Chinese, trans, and queer supporting characters who aren’t tokenized.
This book is just the best.
Title/Author: A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson
Summary: As Constanta lies dying after her village is attacked, she finds herself rescued by a vampire. Constanta follows her savior across Europe, bound to him by both love and by their shared secret. But the longer she spends with her vampire, the more they find themselves at odds. And as Constanta begins to make connections both with outsiders and with Magdelena and Alexi (new vampires that join their family) she discovers that her maker has a manipulative and jealous side.
Book Format: Book
Length: 292 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Bi/Pan
Content Warnings: Violence and abuse—a detailed list of trigger warnings is included at the front of the book.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written. My expectations were kind of low for this since I knew it had originally been self-published, but the writing was polished.
Would I Recommend?: Sure. I didn’t love it, but if you like dark books that have relationship plotlines but aren’t really about romance, you might really enjoy it! I do, however, think House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson is a better version of the sapphic vampire revenge story.
Personal thoughts: I didn’t know much about this book before reading it—just that it was originally self-published (which made me wary) and that it is about queer vampire revenge (which interested me). Honestly, I find this book difficult to write about. So much happens and the story covers many years, but the book is quite short so it can feel like you’re just jumping from moment to moment. In particular, I felt that Constanta, Magdalena, and Alexi deciding to gain their freedom wasn’t developed enough. I rarely ask for a book to be longer, but it was tough to feel any connection to the characters between the writing style and the brevity.
I don't think this is a poorly written book, but the writing style isn’t my favorite. The chapters are very short—many are really just a single short passage—and that took some getting used to. I also struggled a bit with the fact that it is written in first person as a confession to the vampire who turns Constanta, so the reader is basically being addressed as him while reading.
Part of the reason I didn’t love this is also just the story itself, in a very “it’s not you, it’s me” way. I came into the book expecting more of a gothic romance vibe, with a focus on Constanta and Magdelena’s relationship as they take revenge. Instead, the central relationship is very much Constanta and her abuser, and her relationships with Magdelena and Alexi are more tangential. I also expected this to be a much spicier book than it is. That is neither good nor bad, but I’ve read much spicier romance novels.
The edition I read ends with a novella told from Alexi’s point of view about the three of them reuniting decades after enacting their revenge—I enjoyed that so much more than the book itself. The reader gets a much better sense of all their characters in the novella, and the tone has some angst/darkness but is overall lighthearted. I think the fact that I liked the novella but didn’t love the book itself emphasizes that it isn’t a bad book, it just wasn’t for me!