Queer historical fiction about Prussian immigrants to South Australia
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“Devotion” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel set initially in Prussia in 1836. Hanne, her twin brother and her parents live in an Old Lutheran community. Hanne has always struggled to fit in with the other teenaged girls and the expectations of her mother, and prefers instead to spend time in nature. However when Hanne meets Thea, the daughter of a new family who joined the community, her whole world changes and suddenly she doesn’t feel so alone. When the community flees religious persecution for the colony of South Australia, Hanne and Thea’s bond is put to the ultimate test.
Kent is a beautiful writer and this book shows off her prowess bringing the diverse and untold stories of women in history to life. I found this to be a really relatable story, and Kent expertly captured the mutual love and frustration of mother-daughter relationships and how faith is interwoven in the community’s daily life. The connection between Hanne and Thea was both gentle and electric, and watching their friendship and relationship bloom was the highlight of the book. There were some elements of magic realism and spirituality that were interesting as well, with Hanne’s affinity for listening to nature underpinning and enriching a lot of the events that unfold.
It is a little hard to review this book because something incredibly significant and life-changing happens in the middle of the book which I can’t really mention without spoiling the story. Suffice to say that while it was creatively courageous, I’m not sure it added to the overall plot and I think I might have preferred it if Kent had taken another direction.
A unique story with plenty of depth, plenty of emotion and plenty of heart.
Queer literary romance about identity and growing up
Content warning: sexual themes, reference to abuse
While looking for audiobooks that fit my strict criteria (9 hours or less), I came across this one. I had heard many, many things about this book because it was adapted into a film starring Timothée Chalamet who everyone is constantly talking about for some reason. I was really keen to see the film, but I decided to listen to the book first.
“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman and narrated by Armie Hammer is a Bildungsromanabout Elio, a 17 year old Jewish Italian-American boy whose parents have a house in Italy. Every summer, Elio must give up his room to a university student invited by his academic father to stay for 6 weeks. This particular summer, in the mid-1980s, the student invited is Oliver. Eminently cool in his seeming indifference, Elio is surprised to find himself extremely attracted to older Oliver. As Elio fantasises more and more vividly about Oliver, he begins to question what this means for his own sexuality and whether the erotic tension between them is truly unrequited.
This is an exquisitely written novel that is as much a love letter to the male form as it is an exploration of a young man’s transition into adulthood. Aciman’s prose is some of the most beautiful and compelling I have come across in a long time. He captures perfectly that teenage obsessiveness, where you get sucked into the vortex of every single detail of every single interaction. Where the time spent thinking about experiences that have or could happen is almost more intoxicating than the reality. The film was a great adaption, but it is a challenge to put on screen prose that takes place largely in the protagonist’s mind – especially when that prose is so captivating in its apparent raw honesty. This book is full of layers and layers of depth, and I found myself wondering whether the names Elio and Oliver were intentionally chosen because of how many letters they shared.
I think this story, in both book and film format, has become iconic. It inspired Lil Nas X’s song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and Sufjan Steven wrote a song specifically for the film that is just magical. The European summer setting is of itself so enticing, where intellectualism and hedonism intertwine in a sublime way. There are some iconic scenes in this book, and one of my favourites is where Elio’s father speaks to him about his friendship with Oliver. That conversation is such a fantastic template for a parent supporting their child’s sexuality, though I found myself wondering if part of the reason Elio’s father had such great empathy was the suggestion that he himself had experienced something similar.
I also have to say something about the narration, which was done by Hammer who actually played Oliver in the film adaptation. He did a phenomenal job narrating this book; and although the book is told from Elio’s perspective, Hammer’s familiarity with the subject matter brings a noticeable intimacy to an already very intimate book. He has a clipped, deep American voice that was very easy to listen to. However, I cannot laude his performance without mentioning the abuse allegations that have been made about him over the past year. I didn’t know about this at the time I listened to the audiobook or watched the film, and in fact it was only in reading more about the actors that I read about the allegations.
While the accusations levelled against the narrator may dissuade you from listening to the audiobook, I cannot recommend Aciman’s novel enough. I understand that he has written a follow up novel called “Find Me” and I am definitely going to read it.
Queer romance novel about life, death and what lies between
Content warning: death
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“Under the Whispering Door” BY TJ Klune is a queer speculative fiction romance novel about a man called Wallace who has died. A lawyer by trade, Wallace’s initial instinct is to try to negotiate with the reaper who has been assigned to him about how to get back to his old life. However, when he finds himself at a strange tea shop run by a man called Hugo, Wallace begins to realise that while his old life was actually not that fulfilling, he is not quite ready to cross over.
Coincidentally, I have been reading a few books that grapple with the afterlife and the question of what lies beyond. This was overall a very enjoyable one. Klune is excellent at a slow-burn romance, and in that respect it is as delicate as the other book of his I’ve read. Wallace is the quintessential corporate lawyer but somehow Klune’s take on his character development feels fresh and original. This book radiates with warmth, and I enjoyed the tenderness that developed between Wallace, Hugo, reaper Mei, Hugo’s grandfather Nelson and, of course, a ghost dog called Apollo. I also liked how Klune set out the many rules of how the crossing over process is supposed to work, and promptly begins breaking them with wild abandon. I am very passionate about improving bad rules, and lots of bad rules are improved in this book.
One of the only things that frustrated me about this book was how frequently the characters say that Mei is an excellent (albeit inexperienced) reaper, when everything in the plot appears to suggest otherwise. I found her maddeningly vague, the few dead people she brought to the teashop seemed extremely unhappy about it and she seemed extremely quick to lose her temper with anyone who didn’t live in the teashop. The budding romance suffered a little for a bit too much tell and not quite enough show. Apart from being a device for adding tension, the reason why Mei was able to touch ghosts but not Hugo was never really explained. In fact there seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies about what ghosts could and couldn’t do, especially when it came to Apollo the dog.
Nevertheless, an enjoyable and sweet story about finding the biggest joy in the smallest pockets of life.
“The Boy from the Mish” by Gary Lonesborough is a young adult novel about Jackson, a 17 year old young Aboriginal man who lives in a rural Aboriginal community near the coast called the Mish. Although Jackson is having troubles with his girlfriend and deciding whether he will return to school for year 12, his life exists more or less in a balance. However, when his aunty comes for Christmas with Tomas, a boy from the city she is fostering, Jackson’s world is turned upside down.
This is an incredibly important book with a fresh and unique take on the young adult genre. Although books that are queer and Aboriginal are becoming more common, this book really engages with what it means to be queer in an Aboriginal community, unpacking masculinity and the importance of culture in navigating identity. Jackson and Tomas are great characters who show some of the diversity of experiences among Aboriginal teenagers. Lonesborough writes frankly about sex and the physical side of exploring sexuality and learning about how bodies work.
There are some really powerful scenes in this book, and some challenging scenes and conversations that deal with racism, police, domestic violence, the care system and intergenerational trauma. Relations between the people at the Mish and those in town are clearly tense at times, and I thought that Jackson’s approach to dealing with these problems was an interesting way to explore both queer stereotypes and stereotypes about Aboriginal men. There is plenty of romantic tension in this book, and I really liked how Lonesborough explores consent, sexuality and respect. I also really liked how Lonesborough highlights the importance of art and how creating art together – either a large traditional piece or a graphic novel – or even working on individual artworks at the same time is a bonding experience.
One thing that stood out to me a lot about this book compared to other young adult novels was how much drinking there was. Certainly there is drinking and parties in other books in the genre, and certainly there was drinking and parties when I was that age – especially around Christmas, but I was surprised at how many of the events in this book involved alcohol. Far be it for me to moralise about alcohol, but I will admit I was a bit taken aback at how ubiquitous it was in this story.
A necessary book that brings queer and Aboriginal perspectives to the forefront and relevance to the young adult genre.
Poetry collection about colonisation, queerness and the tension between city and country
Content warning: family violence, racism, colonisation
I first heard of this award-winning writer and poet when unacceptably they were harassed and abused online after their poem Mango was selected for a New South Wales Higher School Certificate English examination paper. Although I have been meaning to buy their work, it was not until I found myself standing in the poetry section of a book shop a couple of months ago looking for a different book that I saw their newest collection.
“Throat” by Ellen van Neerven is a collection of poetry that explores the intersection of being both queer and Aboriginal. Through her poetry, van Neerven grapples with issues that are both personal and political and invites the reader to engage with issues such as racism, deaths in custody, calls for treaty, gender, urbanisation and identity.
Although I am no poetry aficionado, one thing that really struck me about this book was van Neerven’s exceptional and innovative use of structure. Their poem 18Cs, a clear reference to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the protection against offensive behaviour, lists 18 reflections relating to words beginning with the letter C. Similarly, Acts of protection refers to historical legislation that gave governments the power over Aboriginal people’s lives, and uses Roman numerals to emulate subsections of legislation in actually listing things that bring van Neerven comfort. Another poem, logonliveon, uses an Aboriginal flag emoji to punctuate their thoughts about being Aboriginal online. At one point, van Neerven invites the reader to sign a treaty they have drafted in relation to shared power.
I really enjoyed Chermy, in which van Neerven, tongue-in-cheek, reminisces about the “cultural” connection she and her family have with Westfield Chermside, and then more seriously considers the ongoing impact of colonisation and gentrification on connection to country. Van Neerven also writes about issues such as dysphoria, navigating queer spaces, loneliness, longing for country, language and family. Expert was particularly heart-breaking; writing about family violence in a queer relationship where Aboriginal identity is used against them and the stereotype of who is the perpetrator is turned upside down.
There is so much to think about in this book, so I won’t go into much more detail except to say that van Neerven is a deeply profound poet whose work is the finger on the pulse of this nation.
Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark is a fantasy mystery novel with steampunk elements set in an alternate Cairo, Egypt in 1912. After the barrier between our world and the magical world was removed half a century earlier, countries have been trying to manage the influx of magical beings. In Egypt, where Djinn now live amongst people, Fatima is the youngest woman who works at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fuelled by confidence and a snappy style of dress, a new mystery soon has Fatma stumped. After members of a secret British society are murdered by someone claiming to be the very man they worship, Fatima must solve the crime before the tension in the city boils over and and all is lost. Meanwhile, she has an unwanted new partner at work and her hot and cold girlfriend is more than who she seems.
This is a fun novel that reimagines Cairo at the turn of the century in a new light. The introduction of magic and Djinn in the world shifts the international power dynamic and in Clark’s Egypt, the British have withdrawn early and colonialism is becoming a distant memory. Djinn and the mysterious Angels bring with them new technologies, which Clark shows off to great effect during some of the action scenes. Fatma is a great, imperfect character whose brilliance is tempered by her vanity and her stubbornness. I really enjoyed Fatma’s new partner Hadia, and their interactions were a really good comment on how scarcity of opportunity for women (or people who belong to any marginalised group) can force unfair competition, but also how valuable mentorship and camaraderie can be. I also really liked the romance. Clark explores what it means to come from more than one background, and how critical trust and safety is in a relationship. The Djinns as well were really well done and I thought Clark brought a lot of complexity and humanity to these new citizens of Cairo.
I think something to keep in mind is that the characters refer to events earlier one quite often, and I though perhaps he was setting the story up for a prequel. It turns out, he has actually written a short story set in the same world. While I don’t think you need to have read it to enjoy this story, given how often it is referred to it might help. Although set in a steampunk fantasy world, this is at heart a mystery and I probably would have liked it to be a little, well, mysterious. Clark introduces several red herrings and plenty of action, but ultimately I guessed the twist early.
A fast-paced and enjoyable novel with a lot of interesting social commentary if not a particularly surprising ending.
This was the set book for my most recent fantasy book club. Although I hadn’t heard of this author prior to reading the book, the author has had a number of books published recently and is generating quite a bit of hype for his novels.
“The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune is a queer romantic urban fantasy novel about a public servant called Linus who works as a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Linus spends his days in a toxic workplace writing reports about the compliance of special orphanages with child welfare standards and his evenings alone listening to records with a cat who doesn’t particularly like him. Linus’ life is lonely but predictable, and he is always careful to maintain clear boundaries between work and home. However, when he is called to attend a meeting with Extremely Upper Management, Linus soon finds himself auditing an institution so secret even he has never heard of it. He travels to Marsyas Island Orphanage and meets the enigmatic Arthur Parnassus and the peculiar children he is responsible for. As Linus gets to know them, it becomes harder and harder to remain objective.
The book club member who picked this book also picked “The Rook“, and it has been really interesting reading another example of a subgenre that I’m going to call bureaucratic fantasy. Most fantasy novels focus on war and overcoming evil, and it is kind of a nice change to read about the less exciting practicalities of how magic might be regulated in a more real world setting. It was also really refreshing to read a romance novel that gently unfolds without anything especially bad happening. This is a sweet novel with a strong message of belonging. Klune manages to maintain a sense of tension without ever causing the characters too much discomfort, which is honestly kind of a relief during these times. The kids were really fun and I particularly enjoyed Chauncey and his big dreams of becoming a bellhop.
There were only two things that jarred with me a little. One was that Linus’ world didn’t really have a clear, consistent internal logic. There are a mishmash of magical beings that seem to derive from different mythologies and belief systems without any of those belief systems actually being incorporated into the story. It’s not often that I would be calling for more exposition, but I did feel that the magic was more of a nod to the canon rather than well thought out itself. The other was that while I appreciated the sweetness of the story, there were a number of scenes that were just too saccharine for my liking.
A light-hearted story that is not particularly challenging but is satisfying nonetheless.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden is a science fiction novella about a woman called Atuale whose village has been overwhelmed by a disease. Having undergone gene-editing to live with her husband and his technology-resistant people on land, Atuale must return to the sea to seek a favour from the one they call the World Witch. However, the World Witch is one of many Sea-Clan people Atuale left behind and even though they have a new form, their history remains unchanged. It soon becomes clear that the only way to find a cure is to leave the planet. Faced with an intimate journey through space with the World Witch to seek assistance from other, more technologically advanced human races, Atuale must decide which betrayals she can live with.
I absolutely love this genre, and Ogden’s style and themes reminds me a lot of one of my favourite authors, Vonda N. McIntyre. Ogden hints at a huge post-human diaspora of which we see only the smallest glimpse through Atuale’s limited gaze. Atuale is a fascinating character who discards the limits of one civilisation for those of another. What she lacks in education and understanding of the broader galaxy, she makes up for in courage and determination. The World Witch is also a great character, and I enjoyed the exploration of alternative biology and the genetic ability to change one’s gender.
This is a quick book, and one that I think could have used a slightly slower pace. I felt that the tension between Atuale and the World Witch, particularly their past history, was a little rushed and I would have liked to be strung along a little more. While I liked that we see the world (and the universe) through Atuale’s naïve perspective, I also felt like the worldbuilding could have been a little more comprehensive. This is not to say that I wanted every single detail about altered human lives in the far reaches of the galaxy, but I wanted the sense that that detail did exist – even if we couldn’t see it.
A very easy and enjoyable read that needed just a bit more suspense.
Short queer erotic graphic novel tie-in to roadtrip comic series
Content warning: sexual themes, drug use
After recently Marie Kondoing a significant amount of my house, and subsequently donating a LOT of books, I have had a bit more space to think about my remaining book collections including my graphic novels. I really enjoy graphic novels, and a lot of books in my collection are physical copies of a series that has become popular as a webcomic. I realised that I actually have some unfinished collections in some series, including a brilliant webcomic called “The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal“. I recently ordered the third volume in the print edition (the webcomic is free to read online), and I had a little niggle in my memory that there had been a limited edition mini-comic that the author had released. I remember not being able to get one of the limited print copies, but a quick search through my files showed that I had managed to buy an eBook copy from the publisher. It is now December, and the clock is ticking to hit my reading goal for the year, so I thought I’d finally read this little comic.
“Whisper Grass” by E. K. Weaver is an erotic graphic novel about two young men, TJ and Amal, who are on an road trip together after meeting in a bar. Amal has to make it across the country to his sister’s graduation after coming out to his traditional family, and TJ has offered to cover costs if Amal does the driving. Amal is a med student while TJ lives a rather itinerant lifestyle, however despite their differences, the two bond during their journey together. One evening, the pair stay at a motel room and after attempts to buy some drinks are unsuccessful, share a smoke of weed together instead.
This is a fun and warm vignette where a casual evening of Amal and TJ hanging out together becomes something more intimate. Weaver is very keen on characterisation and mood, so while this is an erotic comic, the focus is still very heavily on the emotional connection between the two characters. In the author’s own words, “Sometimes people ask me why most of the sex scenes in TJ and Amal fade to black, get cut short, or are off-camera entirely. The answer is showing those encounters wouldn’t have moved the plot forward, explored the characters’ personalities, or added any substance to the story. In short, those sex scenes were unnecessary. Here’s something unnecessary.” I think that the decision to offer this as a standalone comic separate to the main series was a good decision. Although it is perhaps a little unnecessary, this comic is full of tenderness, humour and enthusiastic consent and complements the main series really well.
If you, like me, fell in love with TJ and Amal, this is a light-hearted and enjoyable edition to a fantastic webcomic series that only adds to our understanding of these two complex characters.
Historical fantasy novel about the fall of the Emirate of Granada
This was the the latest set book for my fantasy book club, and I did attend this time (albeit with lots of typing out my thoughts on my phone). I had not heard of this book before but the premise was interesting, and I did manage to finish most of it before the book club.
“The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson is a historical fantasy novel set just before the downfall of the Emirate of Granada. The book is about Fatima, a slave and concubine to the last sultan for whom the palace is a gilded cage. Although well-fed and well-cared for compared to the rest of the declining nation, the walls of the palace chafe against Fatima and it is only in her friend Hassan, a mapmaker, that she finds solace. However, Hassan’s ability to make imagined places reality with his maps draws the attention of representatives from the new Spanish monarchy. When his life is placed in danger, he and Fatima flee the palace. With nothing but themselves, a jinn and faith in half a story about an island ruled by the Bird King, Fatima and Hassan must outrun the Spanish Inquisition.
This book started out really strong with a very unique premise. Fatima is a compelling character who, despite her official status as a court slave and concubine, is very smart, spirited and doted upon by the sultan and his mother. However, despite her relatively luxurious lifestyle, there are constant small reminders of her true position in the palace – including that her relationship with the sultan is only ever on his terms. I really liked the way that Wilson posed two possible lives for Fatima: a life of certainty and comfort, possibly as the mother of a sultan’s sons, but a life never truly her own; and a life of uncertainty but with the freedom to live and die on her own terms.
I also really liked the relationship between Fatima and Lady Aisha, and the complexities, parallels and empathy between the two. Vikram the jinn was another great character who slowly revealed himself to become one of Fatima’s greatest allies. Hassan’s ability to recreate reality through his maps was such an interesting and original magical ability and Wilson really explored it well throughout the book.
However, I felt like the second half of the book started to unravel a bit compared to how compelling the first half was. Although the antagonist Luz was a deeply ominous presence early in the novel, I felt like (without giving too much away) her character’s arc was a little confusing and ultimately a little convenient. I didn’t think the sailor-cum-monk Gwennec added a lot to the story either, and was one of many new characters who were introduced very late into the story and therefore hard to form a connection with. While Fatima and Hassan’s friendship was for the most part incredibly beautifully written, I did feel a bit like it would have been even more powerful had it been strictly platonic on both sides the entire time. The final chapters of the book felt very muddy, and I think perhaps if the final battle was going to be the focus of the book, it would have been better to spend more time getting to know its location than on how they got there in the first place.
A refreshingly original story with a lot of great elements and writing that unfortunately lost a bit of steam towards the end.