REVIEW: Ruinsong by Julia Ember

REVIEW: Ruinsong by Julia Ember (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; November, 2020), 368 pages.

This book falls into two categories I generally dislike (YA and fantasy), and yet I loved it. I may have written something similar in my last review of Ember’s books (of The Navigator’s Touch, back in 2018, here), but there are just some authors who do a genre beautifully, and whose writing doesn’t rely on the bells and whistles of the genre for its strength and effect (I, and many folks, feel this way about Octavia Butler, for instance). Ember is one of those authors for me. She can throw in a dragon (I hate dragons, to the point of it being a joke among my friends), and I’ll buy into it anyway.

There are no dragons in this book, but there is magic and high drama, and everything that usually makes me run away. But I was absolutely hooked from the first chapter.

Ruinsong is the story of a woman with special abilities who combines forces with her community—and another strong, smart woman—to overcome some evil and oppressive ruling forces and reset the culture to a new, more equitable government. Given the time period in the U.S., I couldn’t help but read it as a parable for our own contemporary situation. (‘Nuff said.) It is also the story of two women falling in love. And it is also the story of a woman struggling with her strength and abilities and how best to use them, ethically speaking.

In the world of the book, magic is achieved by singing; there are different kinds of mages here (ones who sing their effects onto plants, for instance, or those who can affect elements like water). The really dangerous ones are the “corporeal mages,” those who can create effects on the living body—heating parts of it to blistering, crushing bones, suffocating it and the like, but also healing it. The society is ruled by a queen—okay, I’ll say it: an evil queen—who has enslaved corporeal mages to help her keep the rest of the population under her control. Cadence is a corporeal singer forced to do terrible things to people in the name of the queen.

Remi is one of those done-to people, but she also turns out to be the one with whom Cadence forms a tight bond. Together, they mount a resistance to the queen, attempt to overthrow the government and take care of each other in the meantime.

The novel, as much as it builds a convincing, complete world of magic and castles (and it does), doesn’t rely on all that. Its true power is in the story of relationships between its characters and in the characterization of each one as believable, complete, compelling. The story itself is compelling, too—folks banding together to overcome seemingly-undefeatable oppressive forces.

I’ve read that the novel is a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera tale—Ember has done quite a bit to re-envision old tales through a feminist, queer lens (see, for instance, The Seafarer’s Kiss, a re-envisioning of “The Little Mermaid”). I’m not familiar with the original Phantom (neither LeRoux’s nor the Lon Chaney film nor Broadway’s), but this novel stands entirely on its own. I imagine that if one is familiar with The Phantom of the Opera, there is probably extra excitement in reading a feminist, queer, updated version of this tale, but one doesn’t need to know the original to really enjoy this one.

What I love here is the smart, unwavering ethics of this book, combined with the compelling story and perfect pacing Ember gives it. The world feels so complete and believable—there’s magic in it, yes, but there’s also dust and animal slobber on the dress sleeve, high drama mingling with mundane reality in a way that really works. It’s dark and bright, ugly-beautiful, and it pulls you in and keeps you there, so that after more than 350 pages, you’re still ready for more.


Bookstagram tour!

Friends, LUCKMONKEY is going on tour over on Bookstagram. Check out the great book bloggers who are a part of it:

March 7- @mybibliophilia

March 8- @morrighanrose 

March 9- @lifeinlit

March 10- @pirouettes.and.pages

March 11- @featherboundbooks

March 12- @l.m.durand

March 13- @slowliving_lila

The ‘MONKEY and I will see you there!

Houselessness in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

When I was in college, living in Pittsburgh, my friend interned for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Turns out, that show was filmed in Pittsburgh, and my friend got to meet Fred Rogers and eat her lunch under that famous tree, the one in which the puppet X the Owl lived.

That world was a lovely one, in which the worst people (or puppets, like Lady Elaine) were simply grouchy, and the most houseless you got was living inside a tree like X the Owl. Owls usually live in trees, so it was probably NBD.

‘Round about the same time, I interned at Scholastic, Inc. in New York, and temporarily living there afforded a substantially darker picture. I was staying in a residence hotel on the Upper West Side, terrorized by 3-inch-long cockroaches and someone with punked-up hair and pleather pants who was always—always—using the single payphone in the hotel’s hallway and would crab fiercely about EAVESDROPPING at anyone who dared to pass by them.

The only thing that could have made it more dramatic was puppets which, thankfully, were not a feature of that life.

According to some recent statistics, however, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood—by that I mean Pittsburgh—isn’t much like the Land of Make-Believe. About 1/3 of Pittsburgh’s population currently lives at or under the poverty line (according to H.U.D.). More than 13,000 people in Pennsylvania are experiencing homelessness (says the US Interagency Council on Homelessness).

My latest novel (Luckmonkey, coming March 9) features a small group of houseless young adults squatting in an abandoned building in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. Even though I lived there in the 1990s, I had to actually research homelessness in the city. I recognize how lucky I was that it was just something I rarely saw as a young adult.

Perhaps it was because it didn’t affect me directly—I was a student at a major university, I had an apartment and a job (well, three jobs cobbled into one living wage, but still, the point is that I had a means to support myself). I had a family who, while not able to pay may way through life, would step in to help me if I ever got into a situation of real need. Perhaps it is because I didn’t go to the places where I might see houseless life in the open. Perhaps I simply chose not to look—or chose to look past—houseless people, as so many people seem to do.

Whatever the reason, my memories of Pittsburgh do not include the houseless.

In graduate school, I had a friend who lived with her boyfriend in a converted factory—her spot was a large, loft-like studio (she was a poet, he was a sculptor, it was perfect for them) in an uninhabited corner of Brooklyn (those really did exist back then, I swear). The place didn’t have a bathroom, so they used the toilets and bathed in the sinks of the gas station across the street, but the rent was very cheap. It was romantic, chic, New York Artist Life, not true need, but it was the closest I got to understanding how so many people live, unromantically, without other options.

The recent pandemic has likely increased rates of houselessness, and also presents increased risks of COVID-19 contraction and complications for those who are houseless, according to experts at Vanderbilt University. Fact is, living without stable, safe shelter puts you at all kinds of risk to your physical and mental health, and we fail to protect people properly from such risks.

Moreover, being a queer/trans person automatically puts you at greater risk of houselessness and makes finding shelter and services much more difficult. Very often, young folks find themselves houseless (and booted from their families) exactly because they are queer or trans. And many services for the homeless are dangerous or unaccepting of queer/trans people in need. The picture takes on greater dimensions when you consider that, according to one study (by the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute), 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. In other words, houselessness is a significant queer concern.

I don’t mean this essay to be all sturm und drang, truly. I’d like it to underscore the dire crisis of LGBTQ houselessness, but this is not to say that the experience of queerness/transness is all terrible, or automatically leads to instability. Part of the reason people have begun to use the term “houseless” instead of “homeless” is to emphasize that the problem is a lack of physical housing and not a lack of (or inability to form) close relationships, intimate spaces, stability or a sense of belonging. A “home” is so much more than a “house,” and many people make a “home” in places that are, by most accounts, unlivable or unsafe.

So please don’t mistake me. By writing about the increased risk of houselessness among queer and trans folk, I don’t mean to suggest that this is somehow related to our identities so much as it is related to treatment of us by the culture at large. And I don’t mean to suggest that this treatment is all there is, either—I live with my wife in a stable, loving home, surrounded by a supportive community, family and friends, and I know that I am not the only queer person who can say this.

I do mean to say that social conditions make it so that the population to which I and my wife belong—queer and trans folk—is made more vulnerable to houselessness. And I do mean to suggest that this is a problem worth fixing.

I’m using the upcoming release party for Luckmonkey to raise money for one organization supporting houseless LGBTQ people in Pittsburgh, where the novel takes place ( I hope you’ll (virtually) attend the release party online and give a donation. But if not, please consider donating to an organization for LGBTQ houselessness in your community.

To attend the book release party for Luckmonkey, at which I’ll be raising funds for Proud Haven, please see the invitation here. To donate directly to Proud Haven, please visit their website.

REVIEW: The Camino Club by Kevin Craig

The Camino Club by Kevin Craig (Duet Books, 2020), 280 pages.

This novel is utterly charming.

And in writing that sentence, I’ve now fully claimed my position as a Batty Elder. (I’ve recently turned 50, so I’m feeling sensitive, but I’ve been like this since I was about seventeen.) Excuse me while I remove my lace gloves and pour myself a cup of tea.

Despite my feelings about saying it, I’m going to say it again: this novel is charming. The story centers around the experience of six “bad kids” from Canada who, instead of being sent to juvie, are taken on a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain as an alternative penance for their teenage crimes (setting a small fire, stealing a car and the like). The group is a collection of boys and girls, queer and straight, privileged and not, all of whom have back stories to which the rest of the group—and the reader—are not immediately privy.

It’s a kind of Outward Bound experience, but with a path and little towns and hostels to stay in at night, a couple adult counselors and no ropes course. The walk is hard, sometimes uphill, be-blistering and tiring. By walking together, the theory goes, the kids will find themselves and form bonds of understanding and care with each other, and hopefully they’ll stop being such bad kids.

It seems to work. I mean, I’m not sure about the last part, but the bonding and understanding and caring happens. As the kids walk, their stories begin to take shape for each other (and the reader). Guards get dropped. Characters who first seem irredeemable become something new. Friendships and loyalties form. Kids figure themselves out. A few of them even fall in love. Along the way, the group picks up a lovely old fellow called Bastien who becomes for them some combination of tour guide, sage, friend and mascot.

This is something of a group bildungsroman, since it traces a coming-of-age for the six through a literal journey.

To help the story along, one gets occasional (required) journal entries, and each chapter is narrated by one of the kids (alternating between several of the voices). This affords the opportunity for quite a few points of view, both public and private, on the same situation. It’s quite a generous story in this way.

This novel did exactly what a good YA novel should do: it traced the coming-of-age from callow youth across difficulty and into a deepened perspective of one’s world and one’s place in it.

Perhaps one of the strongest points of this novel is how authentic and distinct the voices feel, even though there are several to juggle and the speakers are young. (As an aside, this is in large part why I’m cautious about the YA I read—too often, young adult characters’ voices aren’t quite right, being written, as these novels almost always are, by an adult remembering/imagining such a point of view. Not so here—the voices feel genuine.) Traumas feel neither overblown in that teenaged Everything Is Awful way nor diminished by an ironic adult perspective. Wonderment and happiness, the same. It all feels, in a word, authentic.

I realize now that I’ve actually given two one-word sums. So let me get back to my original word: charming. The novel made me want to go to see the Camino de Santiago and all the little towns and people on the way. It all seemed so charming. The novel also made me want to hang out with Bastien, who seems unavoidably charming. Though difficulties are real here, nothing gets too hot to touch, and everything gets worked through in the end. One is left feeling delighted, feeling entranced, feeling lured in and well pleased by the experience of the story. A little sobby inside, a little in love. Charmed.

It’s a party, and you’re invited

Hey, friends, here’s the news I’ve been teasing. My third novel, Luckmonkey, will be released on March 9, and I’m throwing a party! The only day that made sense to do it was National Pi Day, because it is both nerdy and celebrated with dessert. There will be games, prizes, a chat with me and author Sim Kern, and a reading. Since we can’t do this in person (thanks, coronavirus), we’re doing it online.

All you have to do is register using this link, and I’ll send you a Zoom link and password for the party.

It’s Coming…

Do you like fun? Do you like books? Do you like not leaving your house and not wearing a mask?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then mark your calendar for the evening of 3/14 (National Pie Day), because have I got a fun book-related activity for you that doesn’t require you to wear a mask or leave your home!

What? What could it be? Nice try, but I have already turned away several reporters asking me this question. Dear The New York Times, you will have to wait like everyone else. I’ll tell you soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, save the evening of March 14 for some good times. You might even say “monkeying around.” You know, if you’re lame like me.

REVIEW: Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern

REVIEW: Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern (Steliform Press, 2020), 90 pages.

When I came to the last page of this novel, I actually shouted, “No!” (Mind you, I was reading an e-book version, so I didn’t see the end coming.) I was angry at this book for a good ten minutes. I should say it was not because it was a bad book–quite the opposite. I was angry because the book had ended and I hadn’t prepared myself to leave it yet.

Even though the central characters spend nearly the entire novel in danger—Biblical danger, with hurricane and ark-worthy flood, fire, sheltering in awful places, barbarous people all around—I found it oddly comforting and pleasant to immerse myself in it. This was probably due, in part, to a recurring dream from childhood in which I was on the run from… something… and I kept finding trap doors and further-down secret chambers into which I escaped the something coming for me. The point of the dream was not the arriving, it was the journey there, every step toward safety. Freudians, do what you will with that. I’m married to a psychotherapist, so don’t think I haven’t thought about it before.

But it was probably also due to the fact that the central import of this novel is the tightening of a community of outsiders (queers, trans folx, POC), and what it means to belong in a group. Perhaps it’s needless to say, then, that this book hit my sweet spot.

In brief: Noah Mishner is forced to take emergency shelter in the Dallas Mavericks arena after a devastating hurricane wipes out Houston where he and a small band of friends had lived together. In the shelter, danger all around, Noah quickly forms a small enclave in which he and other trans and queer people huddle together, trying to keep each other safe from the dangers of some of the (crazy, gun-carrying) homophobic, transphobic, racist, angry residents.

In the chaos, Noah begins to see visions of his great grandfather, Abe, who fled Nazi persecution during WWII. The scene unpredictably shifts on Noah—walls blossom with Nazi graffiti, the guards appear to sport SS armbands. There’s a clear parallel drawn by Noah’s visions—racist homophobes melt into Nazis and back again—but the parallel is not used as a bludgeon. The metaphor with which the novel works is more subtle than that and allows the reader to make realizations herself. It works more like a very slow flood, getting your shoes damp, making you uncomfortable, seeping in.

In writing this kind of story—huge climate disaster event, death, flight, queers in danger from racist homophobes—one runs the risk of aggrandizement, of a shrieking kind of narration, too strident, too obvious, moralistic, inflated. Depart, Depart!, however, does not ever get close to these troubles. It manages to grow, quite naturally, an understanding of certain problems (namely, climate crisis and how its potential disasters might affect our current way of life, and how the lives of vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ folk, poor folk, POC, etc, might be affected especially deeply by climate change). It manages at the same time a very broad story about a community—a state, a world—and to be about one person’s life.

Here’s a more basic review: Depart, Depart! has clearly-drawn, relatable characters and an urgent situation they must all survive. The writing is clean (neither too much nor too little in the way of anything here), the plot drawn tightly across disaster and danger. It feels urgent but not rushed. I will read this again and again, if only to return to that world and those characters in it. I miss it already.

99 cents? Sweet!

It’s a SWEET deal, friends.

In anticipation of my new novel, LUCKMONKEY (coming 3/9), my first novel, SWEET, is available now as an e-book for 99 cents on a variety of major platforms (you know, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, Kobo).

Now, that’s what I call a SWEET deal. (Get it? Get it?) For details, go to, or to the Interlude Press announcement here: Interlude Press – Get a SWEET Deal this Valentine’s week! Alone and…

O, Pittsburgh.

When I went off to college at Carnegie Mellon in 1988, right off the bat during freshman orientation, some friends and I decided to go to the O, an all-night French fry shop that was Pittsburgh’s hangout for all manner of exhausted, underground, drunken or unruly hungry people. On the cheap, you could get a large paper boat mounded with French fries (I’m talking about an 8” high tower, friends) that were not exceptionally good by any means but were, instead, exceptionally cheap, exceptionally greasy and exceptionally cold. In a city that had a sub shop which piled French fries onto your sandwich (I’m looking at you, Primanti Bros), it was the O that was known as the gross spot.

The floor was coated in grease—you had to actually duckwalk slowly to make sure you didn’t slip and fall. The lighting was sickly and fluorescent. The crowd was wild and hectic. And really drunk. To a sheltered college freshman, it felt excitingly dangerous. If it was 3 am and you wanted some greasy, post-drinking anti-hangover junk food, that was where you congregated. I—and everyone from college I’ve consulted—went once just to try it and never again. The O was an institution, sure, but so is the prison system, and I don’t see most people rushing to go there more than once.

But when I wrote my latest novel, Luckmonkey, which takes place in Pittsburgh in the early twenty-first century, the O reappeared for me as the unnamed inspiration for a horrible place called Tamale Mama’s, a sad, greasy parody of a fast food joint (featured in Chapter 3: The Effing Taco). I just knew if I wrote a story based in Pittsburgh, the O had to appear. It was such a gross, necessary part of young life at the time.

I’m making the O sound awful, I know. I can hear you asking: why would anybody in their right mind go there ever? First of all, nobody there WAS in their right mind: they were inebriated, or a teenager, or super tired from being up all night, or otherwise desperate. It was the place the unseen—those folks who didn’t show up in the shiny, glass-glittering pictures of Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers and sparkling three rivers—collected themselves, and for a goodie goodie kid from the middle of the country with a strict Greek dad, this was the place that helped me realize there were other lives being lived far outside the orderly suburbs and fancy colleges. Second, see #1. Lots of kids went as tourists, to “experience the low life.” But lots of us also went because we felt a little more alive there, a little more at home (albeit nervously so) than at the library. It was right down the street from the infamous mens’ gay bar closest to our school (and, incidentally, the art museum). It was years before I came out as queer, but something in me knew a home when I found one. Anything could happen—there was often shouting, or fighting, or weeping, or barfing, or some combination thereof. Everything kind of came out into the open at the O.

Someone recently sent me the news that the O has, thanks to the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, permanently closed its grimy doors. Part of me reacted with a non-reaction. (I mean, well, duh it closed. I’m surprised the health department hadn’t shut it down years ago.) And part of me is still in mourning at the news. I mean, I haven’t been there or thought much about it since 1988, and I don’t think, given the chance, I’d ever want to go again, much less put anything from there into my MOUTH, but I still felt it as a loss. It’s a piece of ratty, greasy Pittsburgh history.

Most of Pittsburgh’s history is ratty and greasy. It was a steel town, after all. Cobbled together of immigrants from everywhere, academics and artists, high and low roiling together. It may have a lot of colleges (5 well-known colleges in one small city), but its backbone and its history are laborers and working class folks. It’s been too busy sweating and scraping by to worry about whitewashing its picket fences. It is, in many ways, for all its mid-Atlantic conservativism and small townishness, the city of my heart. It’s old houses with bright-colored ceilings and coffin niches in the narrow hall. It’s pierogis and Chinese broccoli and chewy bagels and not very good pizza. It’s mountains and rivers and hulking oak trees and cobblestone and gothic towers and crickets.

And it used to be the O. I could write here my kneejerk reaction to the O closing: it’s a symbol of the callous nature of our government’s refusal to deal with the pandemic and the devastating losses it has caused. But all this has been written before, and it breaks my heart a little too hard in this moment to write that.

Instead, I’ll say this: what’s lost is something that only makes sense if you’re untethered from obligation and restraint. This untethering is only available to the few of us—most readily (but not exclusively) at that moment in young adulthood when the world is beginning to open for us but we have not yet truly felt the weight of that openness. What’s lost with the O is a slipping feeling. I don’t mean the greasy floor. I mean what’s lost is—how do I say it right?—what’s lost is the sense that there’s somewhere the rules can fall away, somewhere that is liberated, a place that’s still dangerous and alive. A rule-bending place. The topsy-turvy world that makes the “real” world work. It was that place where everything inside will come out, wild and slippery and hectic as it is.