REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember

REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember (September 13, 2018); Interlude Press/Duet Books, 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

The Navigator’s Touch is the continuation of the story begun in The Seafarer’s Kiss; although you can read this one all on its own without reading the first book, why would you? I mean, more books, amIright? You can read my review of TSK here if you’d like—for brevity, I won’t sum that up now. Instead, I’ll tell you that while the first novel is told from the mermaid Ersel’s point of view, this novel is told from her human lover Ragna’s point of view. Ragna is a fierce warrior on a quest to find Ersel, the mermaid/Kracken (a punishment by Loki) who rescued Ragna when…

Let me back up. I’m going to be brief, because the novel itself contains enough of the backstory for you to understand what’s happening (and, even better, you can read the first book, The Seafarer’s Kiss, which is a new telling of the original Norse myth which Disney’s The Little Mermaid bastardized). Ragna is fierce. She’s also got a very special gift (she’s “gods-touched”): her arm contains a tattoo-like map that changes as she moves or as she wills it. In other words, she can find her own way from or to anywhere in the world, and she can even use the map to locate towns, people, things of value. She’s not the only one with this gift, and in an effort to kidnap the children who might possess it, a warlord burned her village and killed the adults (including Ragna’s family). Ragna’s own cousin is among the kidnapped, and part of Ragna’s quest in this novel is to find her.

Along the way, she falls in love with a mermaid, becomes captain of a sea vessel (and its disloyal crew) stolen from her captor, outsmarts the trickster god Loki, and does it all one-handed (she’s got a hook to replace a severed hand). It reminds me of that old saw about Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Ragna does everything the other sea captains do, but as a woman and with one hand. I’m pretty sure she wears boots, though.

Before I address the story itself, let me quickly address how it’s told: it’s a page-turner. The narrative voice melts into the story, and Ragna is such a smart, powerful character, one can’t help but want to hear her speak more and more. Neither overly dry nor too flowery, the prose just whistles through the adventure.

This strikes me as a particularly feminist novel. Not simply because it stars a woman in charge (though that certainly helps), but because it’s the story of Ragna figuring out how to be in charge without being oppressive, how to wield power without dumbly blunt force.

The love story between Ragna and Ersel, too, seems feminist: they are each independent beings who love each other, but that love does not cancel out all other duties or desires. There is longing, and there is cleaving (both to and from), and there is desire and beauty, but this is not a story in which everything is put aside for the romance, in which romantic love conquers all. It’s a story in which love helps the heroine conquer all, but it’s not just romantic love. There’s self-love, familial love, loyalty, friendship, intelligence (that is a way of loving the world, you know)… all of it drives Ragna, and all of it helps her get where she winds up.

I’ve read numerous reviews of this book that exclaim over its violence and, yes, there’s some intense violence described, but really, how do you read a book about pillaging pirates and war and not see the violence coming? It would be disingenuous if there were none, I think. When I think back on some of the “classics” I had to read in junior high and high school, I have to laugh at the statement that young folks should not read anything violent because that’s not how we did it in the 1980s. I also remember lots of repression, lots of denial on the part of adults who told me that the violence I experienced in real life (as a daughter, as a young woman in the world) was not fit to be discussed, or did not happen, or was not a worthy social concern. Denying the violence is a big lie, and it sets young women (in particular) up to fail when they inevitably meet it. How much better, then, to give them the gripping story of strong heroes like Ragna who meet, survive, and even triumph over that violence?

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REVIEW: Running with Lions by Julian Winters

REVIEW: Running with Lions by Julian Winters (June 7. 2018); 320 pages. Available from Duet Books, an imprint of Interlude Press, here.

When I was coming up, queer YA was not available. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when my adolescence was in bloom, I felt lucky to have access to Daniel Pinkwater’s quirky, witty novels and novels like Forever, Ahbra (by Mary Anderson) as an alternative to my mom’s old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. I never dreamed books could be written about real kids—queer, of color, smart, struggling, complex reflections of me and the other kids I knew.

As an adult, I’m not one of those avid YA readers. I’ve moved on, and there’s so much not-good YA out there… I like complexity in a novel, darkness, a bit of grit and no melodrama, and that order seems in short supply in most YA. All this is to say I’m not a die-hard YA reader like some adults I know, but I can really appreciate a great YA story when I come across one.

Found one, friends!

Running with Lions by Julian Winters hits the spot for me. It’s many things that did not interest me as a kid: boy MCs, sports… well, I guess that’s the list. Nevertheless, it’s a beautifully-written, softly suspenseful queer young-person romance, by turns tender and stubbly and gently humorous. It’s not deliberately wallowing in ignorance of the world (which is what turns me off about many YA books—young folk know what’s going on, and they feel it intensely; no need to pander, authors).

Sebastian Hughes goes to training camp for his high school soccer team, the Bloomington Lions, and comes face-to-face with his former childhood bestie, Emir Shah, with whom Sebastian had fallen out of touch. Emir is sort of a social reject, both because he’s crusty and scowly, and because he’s not very good at soccer. (I marveled-cheered because the fact that he’s gay and brown and Muslim did not factor at all into his exile. I mean, finally.) At first Emir pushes everyone—including Sebastian—away. But Sebastian persists, offering to help Emir train and practice at night, alone, on the field. Sebastian has to fight through that prickly exterior to get to the soft, nougaty center that is the Emir he remembers, but it winds up worth it; slowly, Emir cracks open.

Sebastian, who identifies as bisexual, has never been in love with a boy before, but he falls for Emir (who has). The rest of the novel is a slow, careful unfolding of their relationship, little advances and retreats, skittish acceptance and unpredictably cold rejections. It’s rather like watching someone try to trap a feral cat, but in a good way.

What, perhaps, appeals to me most now, as an adult looking back, is that not only is the queer romance front and center, respected for its complexity and not just used for its queerness, but the major problem in the romance isn’t homophobia, it’s history and mistrust and other interpersonal complications. Queer people, in other words, get to be just as interesting as straight ones, and we get our full and difficult-human story here. The other players don’t care about the queerness, and even the coach is supportive and doesn’t pay mind to his players’ sexuality or masculinity. (How different from Mr. S–, the coach at my high school who giggled and eye-rolled his way through teaching sex ed like a frat boy and never once even mentioned queerness.)

It’s radical that a queer love story for young folk is not centered on homophobia. (In fact, much of the team is either gay or bisexual, and sexuality is hardly an issue.) I mean, it’s really, truly radical. Everyone—kids and adults—needs stories like this.

In some ways, this idea (that a teen’s queerness is not an issue, that there are these queer-majority sports team-havens for kids) seems like a fantasy. Yet all fiction is fantasy (that’s kind of the point). Every single novel contains a made-up world and made-up people. As long as we’re fantasizing, how about a new fantasy with better values, one that doesn’t depress or scare the boop out of young queer kids just coming into their own, one that gives them something to dream about and wish for?

School librarians, please grab this book for your stacks. Parents, slip this into your kid’s bookshelf. Request it at your local bookstore and library. Tell them an unathletic old queer lady sent you.

REVIEW: Beulah Land

Beulah Land by Nancy Stewart (November 16,. 2017); 250 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/beulah-land-by-nancy-stewart

There is something about a tough, smart girl in fiction or film that just melts me. Perhaps it’s because I always felt scrappy inside, but was never that brave. Perhaps it’s because every young lesbian girl like me grows up knowing she will have to fight just to keep herself intact–this feeling is acute and transforming, whether or not that fight ever comes. One feels oneself always endangered. For that matter, most “normal” girls do, too. Whatever it is, Violette Sinclair feels like my better self.

Violette is the voice of Beulah Land, and it’s her story. She’s too smart and too gay to be growing up in the small Ozarks enclave she is in is a place where the ruling clan of nasty, dog-fighting, gun-toting jerks is related to the sheriff and there’s little hope of a girl like her surviving. Beulah Land might be a young adult novel, but like the best of those, it makes for good adult reading as well.

Violette has not only her own toughness but the backup of a popular, football-star best friend to help her out. Not only is she bent on rescuing the dogs abused and discarded by the semi-secret dog-fighting ring, but she needs to discover and fix her own family: her father was murdered when she was younger (and she needs to know what), her mother has a secret past (Vi wants to learn what it is), and her sister is resentful and sometimes cruel to her (one wants a tearful apology and reunion).

The story is told in the voice of Vi, who is determined, tough, take-no-crap and smart. Hers is a great voice to guide us through her own story, and it’s satisfying that she gets to have that control. There’s a comfort, too, through all that awfulness, to know she comes out well enough to tell us the tale.

This is a coming-of-age story in which the coming-of-age is rougher than the one most people experience. All the elements familiar to most of us–secrecy, trauma, helplessness and fight–are there, just writ larger and more dangerous for Vi. It’s about a girl coming to own herself–she’s a lesbian and an animal lover with a strong sense of justice, and all of that gets her in trouble in her small neck of the swamp. One gets the sense that she’s loved despite these things instead of because of them. But she fights on to find happiness and peace, not only for herself but for those she loves. This is no small thing for us queers, and we need narratives that give us this.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t narratives like this available to me. As a young girl, I didn’t even know what a lesbian was, because nobody spoke of it… ever, anywhere. There were no lesbians on TV, or in the movies outside of porn (and porn didn’t really present a real picture, I knew), or in novels available to me as a kid. In college, I found The Well of Loneliness, Stone Butch Blues and Mrs. Danvers, none of which gave me very much hope. As a result, it took me longer than it might have otherwise to recognize myself and come out as queer. I knew I was different, and I figured there was something wrong with me because I could not feel complete, deep love for my boyfriends. I have a feeling this story is not uncommon. I felt fight in me, and wildness, and passion, but had no way to express it in the real world. I wish there’d been a Violette Sinclair for me to find. I’m glad there is now.

Funds Raised! Cookies Eaten!

Friends, I’m pretty happy to report that

a) the book party is over and I am under no obligation to appear in public again for quite a while (I am like a groundhog in this way)

and

b) from the donations of super wonderful book party guests, we raised a total of $200 for the queer, social justice-oriented circus/performance troupe Circus Amok (thanks, Jennifer Miller, for juggling knives) and the Ali Forney Center for homeless queer youth.

Since the bookstore space could only fit a limited number of people (about 25), this total makes me happy. Thanks to everyone who was able to give something!

 

Interview with Illustrator CB Messer

CB Messer is the art director at Interlude Press, and is the designer who created the cover and interior look of both of my own novels. She has designed many other books, and is an illustrator whose work I absolutely love. Her works are whimsical and odd, but realistically lifelike, the combination of which has a certain beautiful and strange tension, a real thing which cannot be real. I feel lucky to have had CB design my first book, and asked that she design the second (which she probably would have done anyway, but I didn’t want to take any chances there).

I’ve wanted to pick her brain for a long time, and I finally got myself organized and courageous enough to ask her to let me get a glimpse of what goes on in her head.

 

ALYSIA CONSTANTINE: First off, I’d like to say how much I love your work. In particular, the graphite drawings you do are beautifully detailed and spot on. I still remember the first illustration of yours I ever saw, before I knew you—you’d illustrated someone’s story about a cartoonist/illustrator who slowly reveals himself to his love interest through a series of drawings (and, of course, all those drawings were actually yours). When I found out you would be the one to design my first novel, I thought your name sounded familiar, and I went back to look at the story, and sure enough, it was you! I almost jumped out of my socks with excitement. One of my favorite book covers you’ve done aside from mine distinctly maintains the weirdness and humor I associate with your work, despite its deceptive simplicity: the cover to The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F. T. Lukens. It’s all illustrated in silhouette, just the title and a guy being chased by a charging unicorn. Usually, if I see a unicorn or a dragon or some such thing, I run the other way. But this totally drew me in and made me want to read it. I think the silhouette helped—took all the fantasy romance out of it and made it humorous.

Some basic questions to start: first, what does an art director do? It sounds like a dumb question, but I mean this both literally (what are the things you must do?) and in a broader sense (what are the things you need to accomplish?).

CBM: This is far from a dumb question! The role of an art director caters a bit to the size and purpose of the studio or company one works for, but for the most part, we’re responsible for what I like to call “visual congruence,” or ensuring the visual components of a project make sense with regard to each other while also serving to achieve the campaign’s overall goals and objectives. At IP, I manage cover development and book design for contracted titles, artist commissions, and the visual side of company-tier promotional branding.

AC: When you’re acting as an illustrator/book designer, what do you do? Again, I mean this both literally (what are the things you must do?) and in a broader sense (what are the things you need to accomplish?). And because I can never leave ex-professor-me totally behind, I cannot resist going to the lexicographical authorities here to point out that “illustration” is about making something clear, bringing something to light. Is that an accurate way to see what you do?

CBM: You betcha! I’m happy to report the lexicographical authorities have not let us down here. Or rather, we haven’t let them down. Illustration, at least in the world of visual arts, is the process by which one visually represents a cognitive idea. In the case of IP, these ideas are stories (manuscripts), and their visual representations take shape by way of cover art and typesetting. Apart from the technical/manual aspects of creating cover-bound artwork (proper layout, rendering, etc.) and at the risk of sounding terribly maudlin, a good illustrator will concern themselves with making certain that the “heart” of a design matches/complements the “soul” of the story it’s representing.

AC: That sounds like it should go on a coffee cup or inspirational poster. I like that you think of the novel (or whatever you’re illustrating) as something alive, something with a heart and soul.

I don’t want to ask the question that everybody asks of artists and writers: where do you get your ideas? Instead, I’d like to know: how do you choose what detail or moment from a story to illustrate (or use for the cover illustration of a novel)? What criteria do you use? Or do you just somehow know? (I had a poetry professor once who said she could hold her hands over a poem and feel where the “heat” was in it—is it that woo-woo for you?)

CBM: Haha, I love that! But no, no superpowers for me. My approach is rather pragmatic. I look for things that characterize the book as a whole—repeating themes and motifs, symbols, and, you bet, when it makes sense and doesn’t give too much away, a specific moment or “scene.” There’s a limit to how much stuff we can cram onto a cover before it gets too convoluted, so what we choose to put there is methodical. I ask myself things like: Does this tease the story in a manner that makes sense, even out of context? Is it interesting? Is it unique? Is it congruent with the title? Are the characters and/or setting represented in ways that really matter? If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” then I feel pretty good about moving forward with the idea at hand.

AC: What is your favorite illustration (or book cover) you’ve done? What about it do you love?

CBM: I do have favorite covers, but don’t tell the others! One is Sweet. Another is Rules and Regs. From the very beginning, I knew exactly what I wanted to pursue, felt so strongly about the efficacy of the designs I wanted to pitch, that I charged into those staff meetings ready to battle/bribe my way to green lights. There’s a beautiful simplicity to Sweet—a charming, don’t-let-the-details-pass-you-by quality that I was determined to capture on its cover. In the case of Rules and Regs, the story and concept just made me laugh. Literally, it was me, sitting alone in my office, pondering potential, laughing.

cbmesserRulesRegs

AC: Well, I could be biased a bit, but I love what you did with Sweet. Tonally, it’s so light and clear, and that sticky note (which is a reference to a moment in the novel) is an absolutely perfect detail on which to seize, though I didn’t realize it until I saw your work. Thank you for such an awesome cover, by the way.  

sweet cover

 

Now I’m going to artlessly jump topics and ask: I know you’ve been in the military, which is not an environment in which one imagines an artist thriving. Did you thrive as an artist there? 

CBM: I like to think that I thrived, but probably not as an artist. There’s an organized discipline to the military that suits me; I like knowing what I have to do, how long I have to do it, and why it’s important. It’s not the best environment for ambiguous free-thinking, but I was honestly fine with that. My mind was on other things, other tasks, and despite having used art as a mode of escapism for most of my life, I didn’t miss it all that much. It wasn’t until my commitment was coming to an end, and I had to decide what to do next, that I realized, oh wait, yes I do miss it. So, I can’t really claim my time in service was an intensive exercise in visual creativity, but it did expose me to things—people, places, perspectives—that, to this day, influence the way I perceive the world around me. And that bleeds into my work, for sure.

AC: Speaking of influences, who is the artist/illustrator you most admire? Would anyone guess your artistic heroes from looking at your work?

CBM: Oh, man. Ask me this again tomorrow, and you might get a different answer. But I think I can safely say, on any given day, that I have a minor obsession with Pascal Campion. There’s a candidness and near-multisensory quality to his composition and style that many within the visual arts community strive to emulate, myself included. But no, the odds of someone contemplating my work and saying, “What ho! This brings to mind Pascal Campion!” are extremely low. If you did, I’d thank you profusely for lying.

AC: And yet enough people think your work is wonderful that you’re now an art director! How did you wind up being a part of Interlude Press?

CBM: I first came aboard as an illustrator, but I’d been familiar with IP [Interlude Press]and the work of several of its authors (yours included) for quite some time. The art director at the time kindly approached me and asked if I’d be interested in working with her on some cover projects. Of course I said yes!

AC: Do you choose which books you want to “cover,” or are they assigned to you?

CBM: When a manuscript we’ve acquired enters our production pipeline, my desk is one of its very first stops. So I guess you could say that no one really escapes me. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on who you ask.

AC: You’re one of the few art directors I have ever heard of who reads the book you’re designing (instead of just reading a summary). Why do you read the whole book? Does reading the book change what you decide to do as an art director?

CBM: I think maybe this is just because I’m odd. I don’t know. I can’t really say that it’s necessary, because full access to manuscripts as an art director/designer isn’t always guaranteed. But I’m given the opportunity to read them at IP, and so I do. I like knowing the story firsthand; it makes my job more comprehensive, which I appreciate, and having such familiarity means I can explore nuance in ways I might not otherwise attempt. In this sense, it probably does affect my design choices, hopefully in ways that make the resulting composition stronger.

AC: When I think of my favorite designs of yours, that really rings true. So many of the interesting covers you’ve done–for Sweet and Rules and Regs, as examples, highlight a detail from the book that would probably not be in a summary, and yet capture the flavor of the book so completely.

OK_front (online only)

So, What’s the book you wish you could design or illustrate, if you could have a go at any book (written or not)?

CBM: I’d love to illustrate a children’s book. A clever little tale, probably by way of anthropomorphic animals or some such surrealistic silliness, because that’s what I drew all the time as a kid. (This is mostly because I found them easier to draw than actual people, but my affinity for the exercise has since stuck around.)

AC: I can’t tell if you’re teasing the project I’d proposed to you, or if I somehow hit the nail exactly on the head with my proposal! Either way, for those who don’t know (which is everybody except CB and me), I’ve asked CB to work with me on a book. With clever little tales featuring anthropomorphized animals. I’m so excited to get this rolling.

Do you write?

CBM: It’s in deference to public safety that I don’t.

AC: You’re a public nuisance. 

I know I’ve told you before, but I think you’ve got a brilliant instinct for knowing exactly how a book should look, inside and out. The range of your designs—even the range of styles—is amazing to me. They’re all so individual and look nothing alike (though I can usually peg your illustration style if you draw something, which is the mark of… something wonderful… in an artist, I think). The covers of my own novels, both of which you’ve done, for instance, don’t look alike at all—they’re not even the same style. Sweet was clean and open and a little quirky, almost humorous, while Olympia Knife is darkly beautiful, complex, almost baroque. Both illustrations seem intimately tied to the novel with which they correspond. What’s the process that gets you there? In other words, how do you keep everything unique and intimate and specific like you do?

CBM: Mostly, I try to keep things as unique and specific as the story itself. Every book has a personality, and I do my best to honor that. The psychology behind cover art, when approached correctly, is to embody the story in such a way that attracts the author’s intended audience. I want potential readers to know what they’re getting, no surprises. These are the folks who’ll enjoy the story most! So, I suppose I approach the task from two separate angles: composition and style. A proper composition should, at the very least, impart subject: who or what the book’s about. Style, then, is an effective means to convey more subliminal messages like genre and “tone,” the latter of which is largely derived from writer’s voice. In the end, a young adult title should visually speak to those who are young (or at least young at heart), a comedy should appear funny, and so on and so forth. Visual processing is a weird and fascinating affair, and, lucky for me, something we can sometimes nudge/influence via simple techniques, e.g. stroke and color.

AC: What’s the most difficult part of this kind of work for you?

CBM: It would be really, really nice if there were 57 hours in a day.

AC: It strikes me that you must be really good at listening—both listening to the author and publishers, and listening to the story itself—to know what’s needed from any illustration. (And, maybe, this includes listening to readers, too?) Has there ever been a time when you’ve had to go in a direction you didn’t want, or design in a way you thought was wrong? 

CBM: Those closest to me may need to corroborate these ostensible “listening skills.” But I do try! I do my best to communicate on what, exactly, I’m doing and why, so I don’t know that I’ve ever been forced to execute on a design I’ve been staunchly opposed to (or someone else has been staunchly opposed to), but there have been instances where I’ve needed to sacrifice ideas I’ve loved in order to achieve something else. Something more valuable than whatever plans I might’ve originally had. Quite honestly, when there’s a case for change, I’m all ears.

AC: Do you lean toward a certain color palette, or a certain style, or certain themes, or even modes of illustration? 

CBM: There be far too many attempts at greyscale realism scattered amongst my personal projects to say “no” here. Tonal values (shadow and highlight, which, together, serve to create depth and dimensionality) are best observed in this profile, so perhaps this feeds into my obsession? I’m not really sure. For work, though, predispositions are tossed to the wind! (It’s the ones that end up boomeranging me in the face that are then, possibly, reconsidered.)

cbmesserRhino

AC: What do you most love to read for pleasure? Is it the same stuff that lends itself well to illustration?

Perhaps I am a giant geek. No, for sure I am a giant geek. Apart from fiction of the lighthearted/comedic sort, I spent most of my time perusing children’s picture books, visual development anthologies, and textbooks on the human anatomy. (I majored in biology, so let’s pretend that last one isn’t as strange as it probably is.) As for whether any of this lends itself well to illustration, I would say yes. At least in the sense that I will always find lessons in aesthetic storytelling invigorating.

AC: I still treasure my copy of Gray’s Anatomy. Medical illustrations are so cool.

So, what’s better, computer or hand?

CBM: Ah, the age old question. One that has long been subject to zealous debate. I would assert, with complete sincerity, that each serves a purpose of equal importance. That “undo” button, though? Even the finest of fine artists will admit that thing’s downright transcendent.

AC: Paint or graphite or something else?

CBM: For me, personally: digital paint, graphite drawing, Star Wars characters in papier-mâché.

AC: Illustrating something already written, or creating something a propos of nothing?

CBM: Both! Every now and then, I’ll stumble across a little ditty that tickles me, and before I know it, I’ve drawn a frog in yellow rubber wellies. Other times, I’ll paint something just because the abstract notion of it makes me laugh. My favorite outcome, though, is when something I draw then inspires someone to write. This has happened a time or two, and I freakin’ love it.

cbmesserfrog

AC: What are you working on right now?

CBM: Exciting, secret stuff! (Hint: 2018 pub calendar, here we come.)

AC: How can people get in touch with you if they want to tell you how cool your work is, or if they want to work with you?

CBM: Anyone who feels so inclined can hit me up at cb@interludepress anytime. E-paper footballs and airplanes welcome!

 

To see more of CB Messer’s illustration and design work, you should check out her website: http://cbmesser.com/

 

Buy me in new places

That sounded dirtier than I intended. What I intended to say:

My first novel, SWEET, is now available on NetGalley: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/olympia-knife-by-alysia-constantine

My upcoming novel, OLYMPIA KNIFE, comes out on November 2. It’s a magic realist novel about a woman in a traveling circus at the turn of the century. You can pre-order it at most major booksellers, but I suggest getting it straight from the publisher–support small presses when you can (most booksellers take a cut of their profits): https://store.interludepress.com/collections/olympia-knife-by-alysia-constantine

Now, go read something.

(Oh, yeah, and if you’re in NYC and looking for something fun to do on November 5, stop by Bluestockings Bookstore from 7-9 for the book release party for OLYMPIA KNIFE. There will be cotton candy and other swag, a raffle for some good stuff (including books), a live performance by Circus Amok founder Jennifer Miller, a reading, and your chance to browse a fabulous feminist bookstore while eating a brownie.)

REVIEW: The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F T Lukens

The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F. T. Lukens (September 7, 2017); 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

If I were a gawky teenage boy and had to climb the side of a house to get a job working for a weirdo Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-Watcher-Type-Guy who got smelly-slimed by trolls frequently and had a 1960s-ish nutjob secretary and a couple of junk-food-obsessed pixies living with him, and this job put me in situations in which I was chased by gore-furious unicorns and nearly killed by unfriendly mermaids, then… I don’t know what. I guess I’d be the star of this book and my name would be Bridger. Unlike the star of this book, I probably wouldn’t have the fortitude and determination to press on after that first mermaid attack.

But Bridger, like many a hero of young adult novels, is stronger and more determined than I. He bumbles into a job helping someone who’s charged with ensuring the world’s myths (like the Loch Ness Monster and a unicorn and a manticore) remain in their proper places (that is, hidden from “regular” folks) and the world’s humans are safe from their magic. Lovely enough for the reader, but unfortunately for poor Bridger, those mermaids, that manticore and all the other myths are pretty dangerous—that unicorn is definitely NOT a My Little Pony hearts and rainbows sort. Bridger discovers there’s magic in the world, but it’s not the fantasy magic he read in storybooks—it’s real, terrifying, and the only way the “normal” world stays in balance is if it remains ignorant of it.

This is an adventure story (Bridger, and many of the other characters, have quests and Joseph Campbell-like arcs to complete) and a love story (Bridger falls for football hero Leo) and a tale of chivalry (Bridger must rescue not only the world, but Leo, so that he may ride off happily into the sunset with him, and the two rescues are in direct conflict). The novel is knowing, and softly humorous at the same time that it’s gripping and tense. It puts me in mind of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time quintet—believably weird, starring outsider teens who come into their own through intrigue with odd creatures and helpful-but-strange mentors.

 

 

REVIEW: Blended Notes by Lilah Suzanne

REVIEW: Blended Notes by Lilah Suzanne (August 17, 2017); 275 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Nico and Grady are back at the center of the narrative in the third book of the Spotlight series, and they’re getting maaaaarried. If you haven’t read Broken Records or Burning Tracks, you can still read Blended Notes and understand everything going on, but why would you skip those other two books? Broken started us off with Nico, a stylist to the stars, meeting Grady, a star country singer, and, well, hitting it off. Burning moved the focus to Nico’s business partner Gwen and her life with her wife Flora, and added focus on famous country singer Clementine, who reminds me a bit of a young Lucinda Williams (at least I picture her that way—smart and feisty and full of everything). Blended swings back to Nico and Grady, but Clementine is there, and Flora and Gwen are there, along with their wee son Cayo, who’s there with all of his drool and joy.

(I should make a special note here: Cayo’s in it, but it’s not a fawning, baby-focused thing in which even his diapers are cute. He’s there for realness.)

Lest you think Blended Notes is only about the fantasy of getting married, there is much more to be had (I’ve written about this before—not all gay folk, or folk in general, burn only for a straight-style wedding and marriage or care much about it, except for the significant financial and legal equality it delivers in many parts of the world… in short, a wedding alone is not enough to sustain an interesting narrative in my opinion). (And I recognize that this, on the heels of my “a baby is not all cuteness” thing probably makes me seem like the bitterest old lesbian ever, but I swear that’s not it. I like both weddings and babies, but I also recognize there’s more in a person’s life, or at least there should be, and those two elements are usually cheap and easy story devices to lend motive and pathos to characters. But that isn’t the case here.) The wedding here is neither central (I mean, who wants to read about picking out napkins for more than a paragraph?) nor is it the point. It’s there, but only as an impetus for other things to happen. Also going on: Grady comes out about his love for Nico (well, “him”) in a song, his record company censors him, and he must make the decision about whether to sing from inside or outside the closet, and Nico must figure out how to support him.

The writing is well-paced as usual—and perhaps in this book, even better than before. It might have something to do with the tension created when wedding plans and homophobic record labels and snooping press all begin to make things go awry and one’s never sure whether the wedding—or Nico and Grady’s relationship–will go forward or not. Grady sees Nico sneaking around with some guy, and then Nico wants to cancel the wedding, and it just can’t be what it seems to be, right? (One more page, one more page, I kept saying, which is how I found myself still reading at 2:30 AM more than once.)

All in all, it’s a really satisfying way to wrap up a series of books which follows the lives of some very likeable, interesting characters. I, for one, am particularly partial to Clementine, Grady’s compatriot country singer—she’s been by turns vain, compassionate, weird, complex and interesting in this and past books, and I want to be her friend. On the whole, these characters are not, by any means, perfect, but they are all people you root for despite that (or maybe because of it).

 

 

REVIEW: Grrrls on the Side by Carrie Pack

Grrls on the Side by Carrie Pack (June 8, 2017); 230 pages. Available from Duet Books/Interlude Press here.

Back when Riot Grrrls were active, I no longer qualified as a girl, except perhaps to a certain breed of older person who would probably still call me a girl at 46. Still, I remember the movement and the excitement and hope that went with it. It was a good time, with particularly good music.

Grrrls on the Side takes place in the 1990s in the US, at the height of the Riot Grrrl movement. It follows the growth from girl to grrrl of Tabitha, who finds her bisexuality, and then finds Riot Grrrl. She’s fat (as a fat woman myself, boy, howdy, do I hate the word “chubby” or other euphemisms like “of size”… I’m going to use “fat” here, because it’s what I call myself), she’s white, she’s sheltered, and she’s a teenager still in high school. Life, in other words, is a combination of tough and easy, which all changes when she finds a Riot Grrrl group—the tough stuff gets easier and the easy stuff gets tougher. She finds support, but also must figure out how to support others (along the way, confronting the implacable whiteness of much of the mainstream feminist movement). When her support system—her friends and new girlfriend—hit the road to tour as a new band, Tabitha is left to figure out how to be independent while still depending on support from others.

The novel’s focus isn’t politics, per se, though if one understands “politics” to refer to the workings of power, politics are certainly sewn in there. Instead, it focuses on the experience of Tabitha, learning to accept herself, find her own power, and work it out with others. (In other words, it’s a very apt story for a young person, since that’s what most of us spend our youth doing.)

Told in the first person present tense, Grrrls on the Side is interspersed (epistle-style) with short excerpts from the various zines the Riot Grrrls write, and as a result, there are several narrations represented here—in other words, the novel wants to bring together all these different voices and let speak everyone who usually doesn’t get to do so.