Bite-sized reviews of the LGBTQ books I’ve read in the past week. All titles are linked to their Goodreads page.
Between February 5th and 11th, I read:
Olympia Knife by Alysia Constantine (2017)
Audience: young adult
Queer rep: MC is lesbian, f/f relationship
Thoughts: This was a very interesting premise, with a slightly lacking execution. Olympia is the daughter of the Flying Knifes-a trapeze artist pair-who was born with a strange ability: whenever she experiences extreme emotions, she becomes invisible. The circus is home to a lot of outcasts and oddities, though, so Olympia’s ability is treated as “just one of those things”. Then, one day, her parents vanish during their act. They aren’t simply invisible – they’re gone. Chapter by chapter, we learn more about the background of the other circus members, and chapter by chapter, the cast shrinks as the disappearances continue. Olympia is the main character, but this is almost like a dozen linked short stories rather than a single novel. I personally liked the format, I thought it was interesting, and I liked learning more about all of the cast. The writing is also nicely stylistic. My main complaint is that there really isn’t a conclusion. The disappearances are never explained, there’s no real investigation into what happened, and the story just…ends. So that was disappointing, because I’d been liking it a lot until then, but I think it’s still worth reading for the sheer creativity of the storytelling.
Switchback by Danika Stone (2019)
Audience: young adult
Queer rep: One of the two POV characters is aro-ace
Thoughts: This was not at all for me. I picked it up mainly because of the aro-ace MC, but the plot also sounded interesting: a pair of teenage friends get separated from their class on a school hiking trip and find themselves lost in the wilderness with a snow storm coming. I have to say, though, for a survival/adventure story this managed to be almost…boring. Ash and Vale don’t react in realistic ways, in my opinion – after a night battling hypothermia, they have a snowball fight the next morning? As if it wasn’t just established that they know how dangerous wet clothing is when they don’t have spares? As if they aren’t worried about being lost and cold and wet? The sheer quantity of trouble that befell them also seemed exaggerated. It was like every single animal in the Canadian rockies was concentrated along this hiking trail, not to mention an avalanche. Why is this a school trip destination! I also thought Vale had too much of a victim mentality, and Ash is very juvenile. Overall, this was a big disappointment for me.
A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland (2018)
Queer rep: The MC seems queer (not specified); his apprentice is gay, m/m relationship; cultural polyamory
Thoughts: This is a political fantasy crossed with Arabian Nights. We begin with a first sentence that made me smirk – “The whole mes began in a courtroom in Vsila, the capital of Nuryevet, where I was being put on trial for something stupid” – as our MC, the aged storyteller known as Chant (it’s a title, not a name) finds himself charged with witchcraft…and his attempted defense lands him with an additional espionage charge. Chant becomes deeply entwined in power plays between the five ruling Primes of Nuryevet and he is not above using his stories to try to manipulate his way to freedom…and if the entire government of Nuryevet comes crashing down in his wake, well, it couldn’t have been that good in the first place if one imprisoned old man could destroy it. I liked the story and the stories-within-the-story; at first I liked Chant, when it seemed more like he was acting grumpy to hide his soft interior, but it turned out he really was cynical all the way down, and eventually that started grating a bit. I ended up liking the secondary characters a lot, though, and the continuation of the story focuses on Chant’s apprentice, Ylfing, so I will probably pick that up especially since I did enjoy the writing style.
The Left Hand of Calvus by Ann Gallagher (2016)
Queer rep: The MC is gay, an important secondary character is trans
Thoughts: I picked this up when it was a free Kindle deal months ago and finally got around to reading it. It centers around Saevius, an enslaved gladiator in Rome. When he’s just a few matches away from winning his freedom, he’s sold to a politician in Pompeii – who sends him right back to the ring. Calvus, Saevius’s new master, is convinced his wife is having an affair with someone in Drusus’s ludus (a gladiator barracks/training ground), and wants Saevius to spy for him. Saevius quickly learns there is more than one plot afoot in the ludus, and this is almost a mystery/thriller with all of the espionage and assassination attempts and whatnot. It’s a quick read and fast-paced, and has a lot of details about gladiator training for those interested in Ancient Rome. It turns out I am not particularly interested in Ancient Rome (or Latin… or having everyone’s name end in -us…) but this was an intriguing thriller nonetheless.
Birthday by Meredith Russo (2019)
Audience: young adult
Queer rep: One of the two POV characters is trans
Thoughts: This is told in an interesting style, which adds to the impact of the story. Eric and Morgan were born on the same day in the same hospital, and their families have been friends ever since. The two always celebrate their shared birthday, and the story starts on their 13th, alternating Morgan and Eric’s experiences of the day. Then it skips ahead to their 14th, and so on through to their 18th. So for one day a year, we’re fully immersed in their lives – and then we catch up with them again a year later. Oddly, I thought skipping over the time in between actually deepened their character development and my empathy with them; rather than having their changing situations spelled out, the focus is more on their internal landscapes. It also definitely raised the tension for me, wondering what Eric and Morgan would be like when I turned the page, and how they’d be coping with their issues – Morgan’s gender dysphoria and internalized transphobia, Eric’s crumbling family situation – and how their friendship would have held up under the strain. This is a little painful to read because of some of the things they experience (physical abuse, alcoholism, dysphoria, depression) but it definitely works up to a high note at the end. A really moving book.
Call Me Max by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Luciano Lozano (2019)
Genre: picture book
Queer rep: The MC is trans
Thoughts: This is the second picture book I’ve read by Lukoff (When Aidan Became a Brother) and I really love that his books exist, that a trans man is writing picture books about trans boys – and even better that the books are very good! In this one, a kindergartener asks his teacher to call him Max, instead of the name on the attendance sheet. His friends wonder why, and Max explains that he feels like a boy. What I really love about those scenes is that picture books usually focus on gender stereotypes – I’m a boy because I like to climb trees, I’m a boy because I don’t like dresses – and Max starts with that, too, but his friend Theresa points out that she’s a girl and she climbed higher than Max and his friend Steven points out that he’s a boy and he likes dresses. So Max says, oh, right, that’s true; well, I’m a boy because I just am, that’s how and who I am. It’s some nice nuance without getting too focused on details. The pictures are cheerful and at its core it’s really a story about friends. It’s also the first book in the “Max and Friends” series and I’m looking forward to the others and seeing picture books about a trans MC that focus on more than gender!
~Bonus book: Indigo Girl by Suzanne Kamata (2019) has a secondary gay character