Tag Archives: LGBTIQA+

Heartstopper: Volume 1

Queer romantic young adult graphic novel set in the UK

Content warning: homophobia, sexual assault, disordered eating, mental illness, bullying

I saw lots of trailers for the Netflix adaptation of this graphic novel and suddenly copies of it were for sale everywhere. It looked unbelievably cute and I had a book voucher leftover from Christmas, so I picked up a paperback copy of the first volume.

Image is of “Heartstopper: Volume 1” by Alice Oseman. The paperback book is resting against a legal graffiti wall beneath a simple representation of the Ukraine flag, blue and yellow, twisted in the middle, partially covered by a hot pink tag. Above the flag are two stylised leaves, also in blue and yellow, which reflect the colours used in the TV adaptation to represent Nick and Charlie. The cover is of two teenage boys in school uniforms, one with dark hair and one with light hair.

“Heartstopper: Volume 1” by Alice Oseman is a graphic novel about a quiet teenage boy called Charlie who goes to Truham Grammar School for Boys. At the beginning of the year, his school starts a new ‘vertical’ form group to take attendance and Charlie’s seat is next to a boy called Nick, the captain of the school rugby team. Although they are quite different, they become fast friends, and begin spending time together outside school. Charlie is the only openly gay student at Truham and even though he is developing feelings for Nick, all his friends are adamant Nick is straight. But maybe, just maybe he might like Charlie back.

This is an incredibly sweet and readable graphic novel that gently and courageously tackles a number of different social issues but especially coming to terms with your sexuality and identity as a teenager. I just adored how respectful Charlie and Nick are with each other and that only becomes more apparent as the series progresses. Oseman brings to light the loneliness of being the only openly LGBTIQA+ student in the school and how being forced to keep things secret can leave you vulnerable to abuse. I really liked how Oseman struck a balance between the supports Charlie has around him, especially his friends and his sister, and his vulnerability to bullying, negative self-talk and restricted eating.

One of the most unique and striking things about this graphic novel is the use of motifs like leaves, flowers around the panels to emphasise what is going on emotionally in the story. Oseman’s art style overall is quite simple yet expressive. I really liked that they shared earlier drawings of the comic from years before it was published online as a webcomic (which I was inspired to read and which is still being updated). From reading many webcomics, and even trying a couple myself, I know how difficult it is to find a consistent style while your art steadily improves from all the practise. While maybe not my favourite graphic novel from an aesthetic point of view, Oseman’s style is definitely unique more than adequately conveys the story.

Which brings me to the Netflix adaptation. If I liked the graphic novel, I loved the TV series. It was beautifully filmed, immaculately edited and very well-acted. I understand Oseman was one of the writers for the show, and I almost think this story really came to life in film. The show kept some of the embellishments of the comic with certain scenes split into panels like a comic or animated leaves and flowers floating across the screen. The secondary characters felt much more filled out as well, and while the TV series remained very faithful to the comic, almost scene for scene, it seemed like a much richer story. So much thought was put into characterisation, sets and even colour palettes. I watched it while I was sick at home with COVID and am not ashamed to admit that I watched the entire thing three times. The music was exceptionally curated and you can listen to the Heartstopper ‘mixtape‘ as well for the full sensory experience. Sometimes it feels like everything on TV is really depressing or intense or dark or scary, and it was so lovely to watch something that was warm and sweet, yet utterly compelling.

A thoroughly enjoyable and inclusive story that you can check out for yourself in book, webcomic or TV format.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Webcomics, Young Adult

Conversations With Friends

Fiction novel about writing, sexuality and infidelity

Content warning: self-harm, alcoholism, chronic illness

A couple of years ago I listened to a book by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of months ago, I saw a trailer of a TV series adapting another of her novels. So when I was choosing my next audiobook to listen to while running, I thought I would try it out.

Image is of “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon. The audiobook cover is yellow with stylised drawings of two young women with their eyes covered by small strokes of coloured paint. There is a small circle in the bottom right corner with a photograph from the TV adaptation.

“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel set in contemporary Ireland about a young university student called Frances who is also a poet. She performs her poems together with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi. After their performance is noticed by renowned writer Melissa, she invites them to her home to be photographed for a feature article. There, they meet Melissa’s husband, an actor called Nick. As the novel progresses, Frances and Nick are drawn to each other, and the interplay between the four characters becomes more and more complicated.

While sometimes it can be difficult to discern pace listening to an audiobook, this is a slow-paced book that explores the power dynamics between emerging and established figures in the literary world. Outwardly quiet and composed, Frances has a tumultuous inner life where she is constantly evaluating and weighing up her complex and fraught relationships. Frances obscures her family life and financial situation from her new community and remains acutely aware of class differences.

I have to say, I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as “Normal People”. The magnetism and impeccable tension between Marianne and Connell was absent in this novel; replaced instead with awkwardness, repressed feelings and many, many things left unsaid. There are a lot of parallels between this story and “Normal People”: isolated young university student, a sexual relationship devoid of commitment, a summer trip to France (replaced with Croatia in the TV show). While the novel is hyperaware of Frances’ inability to confide in others and discomfort navigating all these complex relationships, it does nothing to get the reader onside. Despite McMahon’s excellent narration, there was no humour in this book. I didn’t feel invested in these characters or sympathetic to their lives. I didn’t feel like I learned anything or got a unique perspective. At the end of the novel, I was indifferent to Frances and who she might have a relationship with.

I have tried watching a few episodes of the TV adaptation, and I just couldn’t get into that either. I think, ultimately, this was not as engaging a story and ultimately I was left feeling disappointed.

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The Binding

Fantasy novel about trapping memories in books

Content warning: homophobia, exploitation, sexual assault

After a bit of a slow start, with members moving away and people going overseas and this never-ending pandemic, we did manage to have another meeting of our fantasy book club this year.

Image is of “The Binding” by Bridget Collins. The eBook cover is an intricately painted floral design in indigo, bronze and beige with a key in the middle.

“The Binding” by Bridget Collins is a fantasy novel about a young man called Emmett Farmer who is summoned by a Bookbinder to work as an apprentice. Although he has been too unwell to work on the farm recently, Emmett initially resists, insisting he will be able to resume his duties very soon. However, with his family strangely eager to see him go, he reluctantly agrees and travels to the isolated cottage to start his new trade. His master is an elderly, taciturn woman called Seredith who refuses to answer any of his questions about the magical art of binding: taking a person’s traumatic memories and encapsulating them safely in a book. Instead, he is set to work learning the practical skills of bookbinding. However, when Seredith falls ill, Emmett’s future suddenly becomes very unclear and he realises that even less clear is his own past, and the location of his own book.

There were some very strong elements to this book. Collins has a knack for capturing mood, and I admittedly found the first part of this book extremely bleak, though this was balanced out with the beautiful summer scenes in the middle of the book. I liked the idea of bookbinding as an arcane art, and that there was a whole economy and apprenticeship system built around it. The highlight of the book was the interplay between Emmett and Lucian, and the various circumstances in which they meet.

However, I did find the use of seasons to delineate mood a little heavy-handed at times. I also found the magic and society felt a little unfinished. If books are only ever the bound memories of people, how were they invented? Why can’t you bind a memory into a letter? Why, in a fantasy society without a clear religion such as Christianity, is homophobia so rampant? While there were a lot of beautiful scenes and pieces of writing, I wasn’t sure the plot and setting held up very well under close scrutiny.

An interesting concept with some lovely prose but at times a bit grim and unfinished.

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Nettle & Bone

Fantasy novel about a forgotten princess and a quest

Content warning: family violence

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have actually been a huge fan of this author and artist for many, many, many years and was thrilled to buy a copy of an omnibus edition of her Hugo Award-winning webcomic “Digger” almost 10 years ago. The physical book has been out of print for some time but! there is currently a Kickstarter campaign open for 7 more days republishing it in all its enormous glory. One of my favourite short stories of all time is the Nebula award-winning “Jackalope Wives“. Anyway, I have been meaning to read some of her adult fiction so jumped at the chance to read this book.

Image is of “Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher. The eBook cover is of a woman’s back wearing a green cloak made out of nettle and bones.

“Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher is a fantasy novel about young woman called Marra who happens to be the youngest of three princesses in a small yet politically advantageous kingdom. When her older sister is married to a neighbouring prince in a strategic alliance, Marra is sent away to finish growing up in a convent. The only times she sees her family is after tragedy strikes, and in the rigidly controlled palace there is no time to talk. However, one thing becomes abundantly clear: her second sister is in danger. Determined to save her, Marra must find a gravewitch and complete three impossible tasks. Only then, with the help of a newfound group of friends, does Marra have a chance to save her sister and her kingdom.

True to Kingfisher’s style, this is a warm, understated story with a very smooth flow. There is a strong focus on friendship and an enjoyable sense of reluctant kindness that underpins the book. All the characters were eminently likeable, but I particularly liked the gravewitch and her demon-possessed chicken. Marra is a surprisingly normal for a princess. Dressed as a nun, she blends into the background in many of the different places she visits. She isn’t especially beautiful, or smart, or talented but as a reader, it is easy to admire her courage and relate to her determination and patience. Kingfisher draws on classic fairytale themes like fairy godmothers, magical blessings and markets in another realm.

I also really liked how Kingfisher dealt with the themes of family violence. Without judgment, she explores how abuse can happen even in wealthy, powerful families and how sometimes the families themselves can be complicit. I also really liked how she explored sisterly relationships and how although it can be hard to forget the dynamics of being children, siblings can redefine relationships as adults. The romance unfolded gently, and there was even a delightfully surprising relationship.

A really easy read and a refreshing take on princesses and fairy godmothers.

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Devotion

Queer historical fiction about Prussian immigrants to South Australia

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “Devotion” by Hannah Kent. The eBook cover is light grey with a dark grey, banksia-shaped shadow and white, long-stemmed plant.

“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.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism

Call Me By Your Name

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.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman. The cover shows a young man resting his head on the shoulder of another man. They are both looking up at a blue sky.

“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman and narrated by Armie Hammer is a Bildungsroman about 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.

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Under the Whispering Door

Queer romance novel about life, death and what lies between

Content warning: death

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of the eBook cover of “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune. The cover has a house with colourful storeys stacked precariously on top of one another, with a little scooter next to it. In the background is a stylised forest with a silhouette of a large deer.

“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.

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The Boy from the Mish

Queer young adult fiction set in a rural Aboriginal community

Content warning: alcohol, intergenerational trauma, sex

I received this advance reading copy from the publisher.

Image is of “The Boy from the Mish” by Gary Lonesborough. The paperback book is in front of sketches and concept designs of an Aboriginal graphic novel character. The cover is of two young Aboriginal men wearing white paint on their faces.

“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.

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Throat

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.

Image is of “Throat” by Ellen van Neerven. The paperback book is sitting on steps between two black skate shoes with hot pink laces and electric blue interior that match the fuchsia book cover. The cover design is of a face in blocks of colour split in two, the lips and chin at the top and the eyes, forehead and short hair at the bottom. There is a Sturt’s desert pea flower made out of red fabric in the foreground that commemorates the Frontier Wars.

“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.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Poetry

A Master of Djinn

Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark. The cover is of a silhouetted figure climbing ascending a staircase in an ornate building with blue and gold designs and cogs and gears hanging from the glass ceiling.

“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.

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