Karen Gregory is now one of those authors who, when their publisher sends an email to say advance proofs of their new novel is out I could easily break the world record for hitting reply, typing SEND ME THIS IMMEDIATELY I NEED THIS IN MY LIFE, and hitting send. Thank the publishing gods, or Emily at Bloomsbury specifically, for getting this book into my eager hands, because oh my, is this one rollercoaster ride of brilliant YA writing.
Gemma is a confident, country music singing, girl with a solid group of (bloody excellent) friends. Then Aaron enters the picture. With his beautiful face, and his adorable dog, and his ability to always say the right thing and totally sweep Gemma off her feet.
I HOLD YOUR HEART is a YA thriller that had me gripped from page one and left me desperate to find out what was going to happen next. There were times I sat reading it in open mouthed shock, and my heart broke when the truth started to ease its way into the story.
Whilst most of the book is told from Gemma’s perspective, the addition of chapters told by Aaron really gave a deeper dimension to the story, allowing us an insight into his mind. This is easily one of the best YA books of 2019, and brilliantly delves into the hidden truths of obsessive, controlling, relationships.
This is the perfect book for teenagers (of all genders) who are starting to explore relationships. Karen crafts a story that at no point felt preachy, but still has an incredibly important message for us all – of what love is, and how it should never ask us to give up parts of ourselves.
Also, my deep love for realistic bisexual representation on the page was realised fully throughout the book, which gives it extra points in my book!
I received a copy of I Hold Your Heart by request to the publishers, Bloomsbury Children’s Books. It is released in the UK and Ireland on 11th July and you can buy a copy now
This year the Polari Prize has a new sibling. As well as the First Novel Prize, there is also a new book award for best book from this LGBTQ book award. This is fantastic because now there’s double the amount of books to read!
Below is the complete list of all books on the longlists, a short summary, and a link to where you can buy them. Don’t forget, you can get all these from Gay’s The Word (you don’t need to be in London, they’ll post them out too!). The shortlist is announced on July 26th, with the winners announced in October.
Everyone has a secret… Only some lead to murder. Introducing Leo Stanhope: a Victorian transgender coroner’s assistant who must uncover a killer without risking his own future.
When the body of a young woman is wheeled into the hospital where Leo Stanhope works, his life is thrown into chaos. Maria, the woman he loves, has been murdered and it is not long before the finger of suspicion is turned on him, threatening to expose his lifelong secret.
For Leo Stanhope was born Charlotte, the daughter of a respectable reverend. Knowing he was meant to be a man – despite the evidence of his body – and unable to cope with living a lie any longer, he fled his family home at just fifteen and has been living as Leo ever since: his secret known to only a few trusted people.
Desperate to find Maria’s killer and thrown into gaol, he stands to lose not just his freedom, but ultimately his life.
When Rosie and Jules discover a ground-breaking clinical trial that enables two women to have a female baby, they jump at the chance to make history.
Fear-mongering politicians and right-wing movements are quick to latch on to the controversies surrounding Ovum-to-Ovum (o-o) technology and stoke the fears of the public. What will happen to the numbers of little boys born? Is there a sinister conspiracy to eradicate men at play?
In this toxic political climate, Jules and Rosie try to hide their baby from scrutiny. But when the news of Rosie’s pregnancy is leaked to the media, their relationship is put under a microscope and they’re forced to question the loyalty of those closest to them, and battle against a tirade of hate that threatens to split them apart…
Aspiring photographer Dunya Noor discovers early on that her curious spirit, rebellious nature, and very curly hair are a recipe for disaster in 1980s Syria. And at the tender age of thirteen, she is exiled to live with her grandparents in England.
Many years later in London, she meets Hilal, the son of a humble tailor from Aleppo and no match for Dunya, daughter of a famous heart surgeon. But, dreamy, restless Dunya falls in love with Hilal and they decide to return to Syria together, embarking on a journey that will change them both forever.
Rana Haddad’s vivid and satirical debut novel captures the essence of life under the Assad dictatorship, in all its rigid absurdity, with humor and an unexpected playfulness.
In this intimate and vital debut, Richard Scott creates an uncompromising portrait of love and shame against the backdrop of London’s Soho.
Examining how trauma becomes a part of the language we use, Scott takes us back to our roots: childhood incidents, the violence our scars betray, forgotten forebears and histories. The hungers of sexual encounters are underscored by the risks that threaten when we give ourselves to or accept another. But the poems celebrate joy and tenderness, too, as in a sequence re-imagining the love poetry of Verlaine.
The collection crescendos to the title-poem, where a night stroll under the city street lamps becomes a search for “true lineage”, a reclamation of stolen ancestors, hope for healing, and, above all, the finding of our truest selves.
When Sam falls in love with South London thug Derek, and Anne’s best friend Kathleen takes her own life, they discover they are linked not just by a world of drugs and revenge; they also share the friendship of the uncanny and enigmatic Deborah.
Seamstress, sailor, story-teller and self-proclaimed centenarian immortal, Deborah slowly reveals to Anne and Sam her improbable, fantastical life, the mysterious world that lies beneath their feet and, ultimately, the solution to their crises.
With echoes of Armistead Maupin and a hint of magic realism, Attend is a beautifully written, darkly funny, mesmerisingly emotive and deliciously told debut novel, rich in finely wrought characters that you will never forget.
Twenty-two-year-old Oscar is a lost cause. He roams central London, looking for love and distraction. But this isn’t quite Bright Lights, Big City: Oscar is gay but feels disconnected from London’s gay scene. He is naive and rootless, an emotionally stunted young man who lives in upscale Kensington with his foster mother, novelist Charlotte Fontaine.
But all of this changes when he meets Tim, Charlotte’s thirtysomething literary agent with whom Oscar becomes hopelessly infatuated. While he struggles to understand Tim’s politics and his rejection of religion, Oscar’s developing friendship with Tim affects a profound change in the young man, making him want to understand the world and his place in it.
This is the story of one trans man’s exploration of gender identity, set against changing cultural attitudes from the 90s to the present day.
Caspar Baldwin grew up in a time when being trans was not widely accepted by society, and though progress has been made since then, trans men are still underrepresented and misunderstood. Grappling with the messy realities of gender expectations while giving a stark and moving account of his own experiences, Baldwin grants a nuanced understanding of what it’s like to be a trans boy or man.
With its unflinching portrayal of the vulnerability, confusion, dysphoria, empowerment, peace and joy that are all part of the transition process, this provides an invaluable support for trans men and is a memoir that breaks the mould.
In 1988, 14-year-old Michael comes out as gay. Later he returns as a teacher. In the background: the notorious Section 28 of Thatcher’s Local Government Act, which prohibited schools from “promoting homosexuality.” The narrative of the play spans from 1988 to 2003.
In this frank, funny and poignant book, transgender activist Juno Roche discusses sex, desire and dating with leading figures from the trans and non-binary community.
Calling out prejudices and inspiring readers to explore their own concepts of intimacy and sexuality, the first-hand accounts celebrate the wonder and potential of trans bodies and push at the boundaries of how society views gender, sexuality and relationships. Empowering and necessary, this collection shows all trans people deserve to feel brave, beautiful and sexy.
After the disintegration of the most significant relationship of his life, the demons Luke Turner has been battling since childhood are quick to return – depression and guilt surrounding his identity as a bisexual man, experiences of sexual abuse, and the religious upbringing that was the cause of so much confusion.
It is among the trees of London’s Epping Forest where he seeks refuge. But once a place of comfort, it now seems full of unexpected, elusive threats that trigger twisted reactions. No stranger to compulsion, Luke finds himself drawn again and again to the woods, eager to uncover the strange secrets that may be buried there as he investigates an old family rumour of illicit behaviour. Away from a society that still struggles to cope with the complexities of masculinity and sexuality, Luke begins to accept the duality that has provoked so much unrest in his life – and reconcile the expectations of others with his own way of being.
This is the deeply personal and witty account of growing up as the kid who never fitted in.
Transgender blogger Mia Violet reflects on her life and how at 26 she came to finally realise she was ‘trans enough’ to be transgender, after years of knowing she was different but without the language to understand why. From bullying, heartache and a botched coming out attempt, through to counselling, Gender Identity Clinics and acceptance, Mia confronts the ins and outs of transitioning, using her charged personal narrative to explore the most pressing questions in the transgender debate and confront what the media has gotten wrong.
An essential read for anyone who has had to fight to be themselves.
When house-servant Abednego is sold away south, his broken-hearted field-hand lover Cyrus snaps and flees the estate on which he has lived his entire life. Leaving everything he knows behind him, and evading patrollers and dogs to head north and find freedom, in the midst of a dismal swamp Cyrus receives the revelation that Abednego is his true North Star, and, impossible though it seems, he determines to find and rescue his lost lover from slavery.
In her third collection, acclaimed performance poet Sophia Blackwell explores connections, relationships and journeys, and celebrates their importance in a divided world. From Brighton, Paris and the Edinburgh Fringe to Amsterdam, Australia and outer space, The Other Woman maps women’s journeys through time and geography, exploring identities, bloodlines, buried pasts and alternative futures, ending up somewhere new and different – the country of marriage.
1970s Weston-Super-Mare and ten-year-old oddball Eustace, an only child, has life transformed by his mother’s quixotic decision to sign him up for cello lessons. Music-making brings release for a boy who is discovering he is an emotional volcano. He laps up lessons from his young teacher, not noticing how her brand of glamour is casting a damaging spell over his frustrated and controlling mother.
When he is enrolled in holiday courses in the Scottish borders, lessons in love, rejection and humility are added to daily practice.
Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives.
Long ago, Andrew made a childhood wish, and kept it in a silver box. When it finally comes true, he wishes he hadn’t…
Long ago, Ben made a promise and he had a dream: to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve. When he finally makes it, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined…
Ben and Andrew keep meeting in unexpected places, and the intense relationship that develops seems to be guided by fate. Or is it? What if the very thing that draws them together is tainted by past secrets that threaten everything?
A dark, consuming drama that shifts from Zimbabwe to England, and then back into the past, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is also a devastatingly beautiful love story, with a tragic heart…
A young Russian, Pavel Grekov, arrives in New York in the October of 2001, and accuses ageing TV composer Sol Conrad of plagiarising a work by his grandfather, Sergey. Conrad’s young PA Natalie is determined to defend her boss, but as she digs deeper she discovers worlds she barely knew about – the labour camps of Siberia, the “Red Scare” of 1950s Hollywood, government oppression, and the plight of gay men in the USA and USSR of the mid-20th Century.
Natalie, Sol and Sergey’s stories range across decades and continents, and A Simple Scale moves through narratives of love, death, deceit, the secret police, atom bombs, Classical music and the last days of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”. In a dramatic conclusion, the past and present catches up with them, as the secrecies and betrayals of Sol and Sergey’s lives inform events in 2001, when history is just about to repeat itself.
Witty, inspiring, and charismatic, Oscar Wilde is one of the Greats of English literature. Today, his plays and stories are beloved around the world. But it was not always so. His afterlife has given him the legitimacy that life denied him.
Making Oscar Wilde reveals the untold story of young Oscar’s career in Victorian England and post-Civil War America. Set on two continents, it tracks a larger-than-life hero on an unforgettable adventure to make his name and gain international acclaim. ‘Success is a science,’ Wilde believed, ‘if you have the conditions, you get the result.’
In these intimate, sometimes painfully frank poems, Andrew McMillan takes us back to childhood and early adolescence to explore the different ways we grow into our sexual selves and our adult identities. Examining our teenage rites of passage: those dilemmas and traumas that shape us – eating disorders, circumcision, masturbation, loss of virginity – the poet examines how we use bodies, both our own and other people’s, to chart our progress towards selfhood.
McMillan’s award-winning debut collection, physical, was praised for a poetry that was tight and powerful, raw and tender, and playtime expands that narrative frame and widens the gaze.
Meet the hapless Jeremy: a man in his late 50s, he scrapes together a living in Paris by writing soft-core pornography under the saucy guise of `Nathalie Cray’.
When his all-but-estranged sister tells him their father is on his deathbed, Jeremy reluctantly travels back to his parental home in the depths of the English countryside. Confronted with a life that he had always been eager to escape, his return marks the start of an emotionally fraught journey into the family’s chequered past. The journey takes him back to the unexpected death of his mother in a provincial Greek hospital years earlier and, further back, to the moment at which the Eldritch family fell apart. It’s a journey composed of revelations, of secrets disclosed and not disclosed, and of something that might, or might not, be reconciliation…
An atypical coming-of-age tale, Prodigal deftly reconsiders everything we think we know about the nature of trust, death, and what we do to each other in the name of love.
Finding herself in a new home in Brighton, Kate Bradbury sets about transforming her decked, barren backyard into a beautiful wildlife garden. She documents the unbuttoning of the earth and the rebirth of the garden, the rewilding of a tiny urban space. But while she’s doing this Kate’s neighbours continue to pave and deck their gardens locking them away, the wildlife she tries to save is further threatened, and she feels she’s fighting an uphill battle. Is there any point in gardening for wildlife when everyone else is drowning the land in poison and cement?
Sadly, events take Kate away from her garden, and she finds herself back home in Birmingham where she grew up, travelling the roads she used to race down on her bike in the eighties, thinking of the gardens and wildlife she loved, witnessing more land lost beneath paving stones. If the dead could return, what would they say about the land we have taken, the ancient routes we have carved up, the wildlife we have lost?
It is high summer in rural Northumberland. Seventeen-year-old Silvie and her parents have joined an encampment run by an archaeology professor with an interest in the region’s dark history of ritual sacrifice. As Silvie finds a glimpse of new freedoms with the professor’s students, her relationship with her overbearing father begins to deteriorate, until the haunting rites of the past begin to bleed into the present.
In The AQI, David Tait examines the world in 4 sections. The first looks at city life: the people within the city; the way people interact within cities; cultural differences; and the surreal-ness he has experienced whilst being a foreigner in China. These poems are seeking to make a connection, or seek an explanation of cultural differences and their complexities. The second section is all about the environment and air pollution. The Air Quality Index, or the AQI, is the measurement of particulate matter in the atmosphere. The AQI examines the effect that this has on day-to-day life, particularly during the winter. The third section relates to human rights, particularly LGBT rights, and the impact of a changing world. The final section tries to find some calm, and to integrate some sense of the pastoral (the world David Tait is from) into the city.
If you’ve not yet read Sophie Cameron’s debut novel, Out of the Blue, then you won’t know what a magical treat you’re in for. With her second novel, Last Bus to Everland, Sophie has once again delivered an emotional, realistic, contemporary novel, full of love, hope, and magic.
The novel is set in Scotland as well as a magical Narnia-esque place, and delivers its story with such a light touch, while still reaching deep into some serious issues. The way the story deals with bullying is exemplary, and allows us to follow Brody through a full arc of emotions in how he deals with (or doesn’t deal with) bullies. I really appreciated how Brody doesn’t just suddenly find an inner strength out of nothing in order to cope with his bullies, but slowly builds up to a place where he can confront them and start to push back.
One of the things that is explored superbly in Last Bus to Everland is poverty. Brody is part of a working-class family, and Sophie Cameron approaches that head on, never shying away from the hardships his family faces, and providing no magical cures. We definitely need more books that deal with parents working shifts, cutting back on food, and struggling to pay bills – and discussing this with their children. How this is portrayed, and Brody’s reactions to this, are carefully weaved into the magical storyline, allowing the reader to feel a part of the family and the struggles they are going through.
Brody is not a perfect character, he has flaws and complexity. This was exhibited fantastically in how he responds to his father’s mental illness. Brody tries to sympathise, but often times doesn’t quite know how to keep being understanding when faced with all the difficulties the family faces. This realistic response is portrayed with subtle understanding and compassion by Sophie.
As with her debut, in Last Bus to Everland Sophie Cameron delivers a novel of quietly built tension, low-key passion, and believable love and friendship between a diverse cast of LGBTQ teens. A brilliant novel that will appeal to fans of contemporary or fantasy YA.
I received a copy of Last Bus to Everland by request to the publishers, Macmillan Children’s Books. It is released in the UK and Ireland on 16th May, and in the US in June.
A book reviewer has a difficult job, not every book will be suited to your tastes, and you will not be the intended audience of every book. This is especially important to remember when reading children’s or young adult fiction. If I had a pound for every review I’d read from an adult saying “this teen character isn’t very mature” I’d be a very rich but still very tired human.
I approached reading My Brother’s Name Is Jessica, by John Boyne, as I would any book, asking the question “who is this book for? Who is the intended audience?”
This is a children’s book, it is not intended for adults. While adults may read and enjoy children’s books – and many do – they are not the intended audience. The book has to be read through the lens of a child reader. It is also clear, having read the book that it is not intended for a trans child.
Writers can write what they want
There has been a lot of online discussion about this book, and it would be remiss of me not to address some of that. One of the arguments I have seen from many is that those speaking out against the book are applying censorship, that they are saying writers cannot write anything outside their narrow life experience. Give me strength. Okay, some people might be saying that, and they are wrong. Most people are not saying that, so let’s unpick it a bit.
There is a great difference between writing a story with a trans character, writing a story about a trans character, and writing a story about being trans. It’s the kind of nuance that gets lost in the brevity of Twitter arguments.
Every writer is entitled to write about whatever they want, but should every story be published? Does the responsibility to be mindful lie with the author or the publisher?
Stories are best when they reflect the world that we live in. You do not need to be trans to write a story with a trans character. The fact they are trans does not need to be the focus of the story, because (and I know this may come as a surprise to many) trans people are just normal people. So please, by all means, write a story with a trans character in, even if you’re not trans. No one rational is going to stop you or police what you write. We might call you out for writing a two dimensional stereotype, but I’m sure you can do some research and make a real person out of all your characters.
I would argue that it is fine for a writer to write a story about a trans character. Make a trans character your main character, make your story all about how they fought in the trenches of WWI, or how they learnt to communicate with shape shifting aliens in order to negotiate a new era of cooperation between earth and a distant alien planet. I, and many trans and non-binary people, would love to read these stories that centre trans characters without making the entire story about being trans.
I will happily agree to disagree with people who don’t think non-trans writers should be writing stories that have trans-characters in them. This is censorship, and people should be allowed to write whatever they want, provided they don’t write cliched, offensive, shite. I’m not a fan of shite, and all readers should be able to demand better.
So how about being? Is it okay for a non-trans writer to write about what it is like being trans? Well, this is a difficult one.
People do, at this point, like to trot out the “No human currently alive knows what it’s like to be an alien. So what, Jen, you’re saying no one can write a book with an alien in it?”
Obviously I am not, and you know that, and you’re just being a facetious little troublemaker looking for a fight. What I am saying is, there aren’t (and I’m sure someone will disagree with me on this) aliens living among us on earth. There aren’t aliens who we, as a society, have spent centuries silencing, castrating, murdering, imprisoning, and abusing.
We have done this to trans people throughout the world for centuries, and can you – as someone who does not identify as trans – know what it is like to live with the constant threat that someone might murder you for just being trans? No you can’t know this. You may be a member of a minority that has similar experiences, but you cannot speak for a minority that you are not a member of. Can you research, interview people, and learn enough to write a story that really conveys what this experience is like? Yes, probably. But should you? And will you do it well?
Should you tell another person’s story?
There are numerous accounts from writers who have tried to publish their stories, ones that are about being only to be told “we already have a story about that”. Except the publisher doesn’t. They have a story that is with or about not being. Or, it is about being but it’s by someone who did not live that life, and it is not their story. It is a fallacy to say there is a unlimited amount of space on the shelves for writers, because publishing has to make money in order to survive, and publishers do not want to publish two identical books. If a non-trans writer is already published, telling the story that a trans writer wants to tell, then they are taking the place of another writer.
I would argue that a writer should think twice, as should publishers, before they put out into the world yet another book that tells the story of a minority community that the writer is not a part of. Instead, publishers should be doing more to seek out the stories that come direct from these communities first.
This is about more than just the limited publishing spaces available for writers, this is also about who will read your book, and what they will get from it. Which brings me right back to the start and to the other question I left unanswered, will you do it well?
I find it a laughable idea that people think a writer from outside a minority, can tell the story of what it is like to be member of a minority better than someone who is actually from that minority. They can’t. Maybe one individual can be a better writer than another, but that is a different argument, and let’s not pretend it isn’t.
My Brother’s Name is Jessica is not written by a trans writer, but that should not stop John Boyne being allowed to write this story, he is perfectly entitled to do so.
My Brother’s Name is Jessica is it not about being trans. Jessica is not the main character, and everything in her life is seen through the lens of her younger brother.
My Brother’s Name is Jessica is a story with a trans character – so far so okay – but it is also about a trans character.
Trans children are not the intended audience for this book, it is intended for those who are like Jessica’s younger brother.
The first chapter introduces us to the idea that Jessica is her brother Sam’s hero – the person he admires more than anything or anyone in the world. Sam loves Jessica so much he is the only one who notices that something is bothering her. This is not a book about Jessica, it’s a book about Sam.
It’s not about you
I hate to have to break it to you, but if your child is trans, if your sibling is trans, if your friend is trans, it has nothing to do with you. It is not about you, about your pain, or about how difficult your life is or how traumatic it is for you. This story is entirely about that, it is not about a trans character, it is about how their “choices” affect their family, specifically their brother Sam. As this is not a story whose intended audience is trans children, having a story that focuses on the brother is not in itself a bad thing. Children will have to meet trans school friends, they will have trans people in their family, and for a lot of children this might be confusing for them, especially if they have awful parents like the parents in this book.
A great book I would love to read would be exploring how a sibling develops an understanding of their sister’s gender identity, working out how they can support their sister. It would be great to see a trans child supported, and transphobia called out. It is very disappointing that none of that happens in this book. John Boyne is a great writer, and this book will get a lot of publicity, so it’s deeply regrettable that it does not do what I think was clearly the intention with the book.
If you want to read the book yourself, and therefore want to avoid spoilers, I would recommend you stop reading now.
As, by the end of the book, Sam has accepted that Jessica is his sister, it is curious that he spends the entire book saying “my brother Jason”. And not just occasionally, but every single time Sam mentions Jessica he says that phrase. Even in conversation it’s “said my brother Jason”. A very odd way of speaking that seems to have been written specifically to remind us who Jessica is, and exactly what Sam thinks of this. The repetitive use of Jessica’s dead name would be understandable perhaps if it was written in present tense, but being in past tense just made it seem like it wasn’t the result of Sam’s emotions at the time, but a deliberate attempt to remind the reader that Jessica is different, Jessica is other, Jessica isn’t really Jessica at all.
Throughout the book people are demanding that Jessica provide evidence of her transness, asking for specific moments when bad things happened to her that caused her to reflect on her gender identity. This is something that trans people have to face a lot, people asking them to prove who they are and why they feel the way they do – demanding they must suffer in order to have come to a particular understanding of their gender identity. It’s a shame that this is included in the book with no counter argument from Jessica or those who support her.
The adults in the book are almost overwhelmingly transphobic, and perhaps this does reflect the society we live in, which is a depressing thought. With the exception of Jessica’s football coach, and her Aunt, everyone else is deeply transphobic. Again, it is disappointing that this occurs time and again in the book with no one calling the adults up on this, no one stopping them, and no counter-argument given for this behaviour. It is left unchecked and not adequately responded to. There are so many ways in which supportive adult role-models could have been brought into the story. I would have loved to see more of Aunt Rose earlier in the book – and not just as Jessica’s knight in shining armour at the end, but a constant source of support who also kicks back at the other adults.
Jessica’s parents decide to seek the help of a psychologist, and rather than book an appointment for her, they force her and Sam, and both of them, to attend together. This felt like an unfortunate plot point to get the narrator Sam into the room, and once again makes the parents and Sam the focus of Jessica’s story, centering the narrative around them.
It is in this counselling session that we start to see just how abusive Jessica’s parents are to her. I would call it bullying for certain. They want credit from her for “trying” to understand, and they make her feel bad for not giving them credit – it has all the hallmarks of an abusive relationship. But no one points out their bullying, no one tells them to give Jessica some credit for the strength she is showing, not a single character at this point is backing Jessica up. At one point the psychologist says Jessica has to “hear them out too”, but does not chastise the parents for their bullying behaviour.
The focus is never on Jessica, and I would have liked to see more conversations between Sam and Jessica that moved the shift over to her. There are attempts at this, but they often ended in arguments, or transphobic comments left unchecked.
I want to stop here to say that yes, I know this is probably a realistic portrayal of what many young trans children have to go through, but let’s think again about who this book is for. This is for young children who aren’t trans, so think about the message this is sending them at this point in the book – adults are transphobic, you can be too, there are no arguments against being so.
And then there is the hair incident. Jessica’s long “feminine” hair is mentioned repeatedly, and is clearly something that distresses her parents and Sam – which is why Sam eventually sneaks into Jessica’s room in the middle of the night and cuts off her ponytail. This manipulative bullying is never called out, but is seen as a sign of Sam’s distress and trauma at what Jessica is putting him through. Is this book telling children it’s okay to be shitty to people as long as they’re trans? You can bully people if you perceive they’re making life worse for you? I understand Sam’s action – it’s the action of a confused, angry, child – but the fact that it is an action that is never learnt from, that is seen as a reasonable reaction, is concerning.
Jessica’s mum does eventually realise the damage she’s done to her daughter, but she realises it because of how it affects her career – how it ruins her chance to be prime minister. That is the only reason she regrets how she bullied Jessica. This is one of the most concerning aspects of the book for me, how Jessica’s mum does such a swift about turn, and it is presented as her learning from her mistakes, but she does so because of the impact it is having on her career – not because of how Jessica has been affected by her abuse.
Jessica’s mum abuses her so much, in fact, that Jessica returns to the family, have shaved all her hair off, grown facial hair, and dressing masculine, because it will help her family and help her mum get the job she wants. This is a depressing moment in the book, where Jessica feels that she cannot be who she is, and must conform to her parent’s expectations of what she should look like, and who she is, in order to save her mum’s job and prevent a split in the family. But it’s okay, Jessica doesn’t have to actually go through with this, because Sam saves the day. He yells in front of the press that Jessica does exist and uses the line “My Brother’s Name is Jessica”. This, once again, removes all agency from Jessica and makes her entire story about other people, everything she does is for them.
This is a disappointing end to the book, Jessica has been bullied and abused by her own family, and forced into a situation where she feels she has to lie to them again. While this isn’t the end of the book – there is a short chapter set two years in the future – the actual end is very short and unsatisfying. It reads very much as if “everything is fine now” and that the way Jessica has been treated by her family had no repercussions for her or them.
There are some aspects of the book that I thought were bad simply because of the way they were handled, and I would have appreciated them if more detail was given, or more time spent on time.
The transphobic language, while very uncomfortable for many, is representative of what trans people have to endure. It does not benefit children to pretend this language doesn’t exist, or pretend that no one talks like this. I have no problem with this kind of language being used in a book, it is realistic – however, I am concerned about the damage it will do to children to read such language in a book, and to have it go unchallenged. As an adult reading this I can read between the lines and see problems with the language, see how people speak from a place of fear and misunderstanding of those different to them, but let’s go right back to what I was saying at the start, I am not the intended audience of this book. Would a ten year old pick up this book and understand the complex nuances behind such abuse when it remains unchallenged on the page?
Another aspect I thought was not handled well was the focus on the way Jessica looks (including the obsession with genitals – although Jessica does finally address this herself later in the book). It is true that some trans and non-binary people come to start expressing their identities through the way they look (hair, make-up, clothing) and it can be the focus of discomfort – but it is more than just about the way you dress. I was disappointed that the book focused so much on looks without seeing beyond this. Complexity can be brought into children’s books if it is handled well, so it’s a shame that didn’t happen in this case.
It is clear to me that John Boyne, and his publishers, had the best of intentions with what they were trying to do with the book, but for me it fails to achieve almost every one of its aims. So is there anything good about the book?
I liked how it addressed the conflation of gender identity and sexuality. This is a complex area (as Jessica says herself in the story) and can be difficult for many to understand, so I appreciated that it was addressed.
I was also thankful that there were some characters who fully supported Jessica, her football coach and her Aunt Rose, I just wish we’d had more of these adults intervening in her life.
One of the things I think the book did really well is convey what it is like to be a transphobe. It brilliantly portrays how it can be easy (when you’re being bullied because your sister is trans) to blame her, and wish she’d just kept quiet and not told anyone.
Unfortunately there is little else that would encourage me to recommend this book to a young person. I wish it had been just a little bit longer, that Sam had spent more time focussing on his sister and less time with the intricacies of their parent’s lives, and the mum’s ambition to be prime minister. The parental storyline didn’t add anything significant to it and really detracted from the book, I don’t really know why it was relevant to include.
It is unfortunate that the book ends with Sam still not getting it, still talking about how Jessica looks, how she has boobs now, how she looks less like a boy now.
Ultimately I found myself, having finished the book, not as angry as many people I have seen comment on it. I was just disappointed that the opportunity for a thoughtful, complex, story had been wasted. The book is not about what being trans is like. It is not about how difficult life can be when you’re trans. It’s about how difficult life is made for other people.
Reading a book that contains so much transphobia and abuse can be harrowing for anyone, but to have a resolution that sees people learn the error of their actions, see the damage they have done to someone, atone for their actions, and be a better person, is a book I would love to see written for children. This is unfortunately not that book.
Fanny and Stella were also known as Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, and in 1870 they made front page headlines after their trial at Bow Street Magistrates for “the abominable crime of buggery”. The two were put on trial to make an example of them, but dressing up as a woman in public wouldn’t give them much more than a warning, which is why the trial attempted to prove a physical relationship between the two, something for which the prosecutors lacked evidence or anyone willing to stand up in court to speak against them. They were eventually found not guilty.
A good place to start to get a feel for Victorian England and the world they lived in, is in The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing, which tells their story through the eyes of their landlady. This novel should give you an appetite to delve deeper into their lives, and you should pick up Neil McKenna‘s book Fanny & Stella. He reconstructs the lives the two, to tell a compelling story of how Fanny and Stella came into existence. He also provides rich and vivid detail of the lives of their friends in Victorian England.
First Duke of Buckingham, patron of the arts, courtier, and lover of King James I/VI. Often times George is referred to as the “favourite of King James” or as the “alleged lover”, but James once said of George “You may be sure that I love Buckingham more than anyone else”, and in a letter to the King, George wrote “I naturally so love your person, and adore all your other parts, which are more than ever one man had”. So I will, as many great historians have said, call Gay on this relationship.
George rose to power within James’ court and quickly became a force to be reckoned with. You can read a fascinating biography of George in The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I by Benjamin Woolley, and explore the theory that the death of James was possibly at the hands of his lover.
Throughout her life Anne Lister, a Yorkshire landowner and traveller, kept diaries written in a secret code that was only uncovered after her death. The diaries include details of her finances, industrial activities on her land, and her lesbian relationships. The diaries are a fascinating insight into the daily life of a wealthy, independent, woman in the early 19th Century, but they also offer a glimpse into the love lives of women, and Anne’s fascinating seduction techniques.
You can read her de-coded diaries, and understand this fascinating woman in her own words, in The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister. It was this edition of her diaries that the 2010 BBC drama, starring Maxine Peake as Anne, was based on. A new biography of Anne was published last year: Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist by Angela Steidele and a new TV production also called Gentleman Jack is set to air sometime in 2019.
If you want to purchase any of these titles you can do so using the affiliate on the book covers below, which helps keep this site up and running:
I talk so much about novels, how about this week we have a look at some short stories instead?
I don’t know why I don’t read more short stories, because I really love them when I do take the time to read them. I’m going to try to read more this year. This post will feature some books I’ve already read, and ones I want to get around to.
First up is the brilliant A Portable Shelterfrom Kirsty Logan. I am a huge fan of Kirsty’s work, and absolutely adore her novels. Kirsty is gifted at telling dark, mysterious, unusual stories that have a depth, richness, and mystery unlike anything I’ve read before.
A Portable Shelter is a linked collection of stories. Liska and Ruth are waiting for the birth of their first child, and they tell stories to the baby, vowing to only speak the truth. Stories of circuses, selkie fishermen, werewolves, child-eating witches and broken-toothed dragons, all woven into the fabric of Liska and Ruth’s relationship within each other, and their hopes for their unborn child.
This is truly a magical collection. You can also find more Kirsty Logan short stories in The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales.
All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages is a collection by of historical fiction by multiple authors. This collection includes seventeen stories and I’ve read some of them, but not all yet – I will get around to finishing it soon.
There is a great variety in the settings, style, and genre of the stories, but one thing they all have in common is that the characters are all queer teens. A fantastic addition to your short story collections.
I definitely have to include the upcoming Proud anthology in this post. I know I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll talk about it more when it comes out, but it is such an excellent YA collection.
I’ve not finished every story yet but the ones I have read have made me laugh and cry. Each story comes with a fantastic illustration and the collection also features some poetry.
It’s out in March and you can pre-order now.
I should definitely follow up Proud with another queer anthology, and that is We Were Always Here. I haven’t yet read it and I don’t yet own a copy, but it’s on it’s way to me because I pre-ordered it so fast I nearly fell off the sofa! This is an anthology created by independent publishers 404 Ink, and is a collection of stories and poems celebrating the diversity of Scottish queer experiences.
I’m going to end by recommending a single short story, rather than a collection.
Superior by Jessica Lack is the most adorable, brilliantly written, m/m superhero story, in which a superhero’s intern falls in love with a supervillain’s apprentice. It’s a long short story (or a short novella depending on your opinion) and is unfortunately only available to download from Amazon, but it’s definitely worth it.
That’s all for this week’s recommendations. Let me know if you’ve read any of these books, and what you thought of them. If you have more suggestions of LGBTQ short stories comment on this post or come chat to me on Twitter.
If you want to purchase any of these titles you can do so using the affiliate links below, which helps keep this site up and running:
“unrealistic and overly vulgar”, “unnecessary, overly-sexualised”, “so explicit, crude and vulgar”, “entirely inappropriate” – these are just a few of my favourite quotes that I found online referring to the 2015 Raziel Reid novel When Everything Feels Like The Movies. If those kind of reviews don’t make you want to read this brilliant novel, then let me try and convince you some more.
I first read this way back before it’s publication and I loved it, including the shocking ending which – knowing nothing about the true story the book was based on – I was not expecting. I’ve been thinking about this book recently – after reading and totally adoring Jack of Hearts (and other parts) last year – and how sometimes books appear before the time is right for them, and Reid’s novel I think definitely fits into this category.
Just like Jack, Jude (the main character of When Everything Feels Like The Movies) is flamboyant, fabulous, unapologetically queer, lover of sex, and passionate about living his life honestly. The story unfolds in an American junior high school, where Jude sees his life as a movie set, and the people around him as characters in his central drama, bringing to colourful life the drab town he calls home.
The book initially received rave reviews but soon a backlash took place after it was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature. A petition eventually gaining more than 2000 signatures called it a “values-void novel” and the petition’s instigator said “Jude’s sexual yearnings, masturbating, fantasising…and voyeurism constitute the bulk of the narrative”.
Here is a book that depicts the realistic sexual fantasies (and realities) of teenagers and received a lot of negative criticism because the main character is talking about gay sex. There are two main criticisms that negative reviews of the book has, first is that the sexual activity of the teens is unrealistic, and secondly that it is inappropriate for young people to read about sex.
Firstly: teens are having sex, and this includes gay teens. Get over it. Ignoring sex in fiction is not going to make them stop doing it. Isn’t it better that books offer a realistic representation of safe consensual sex? Just because it’s queer doesn’t make it inherently bad.
Secondly, the negativity from adults in relation to books like this always comes from a complete lack of trust. There is no trust that young people reading books such as When Everything Feels Like The Movies or Jack of Hearts will be able to read these books without acting out the activities in them before they are ready to do so. Just because a character talks openly and honestly about gay sex does not mean every teen reading it is going to do those things. A novel like this, expertly written with a realistic sounding teen voice, is able to educate by presenting a character who does experience life and have normal thoughts the same as those young people reading it.
In 2015 when it was first released, When Everything Feels Like The Movies felt like it was on an island by itself – there wasn’t a whole lot of YA queer literature, and it felt almost too realistic for many people to believe. I would love to see how the book would do now, and would recommend that you give it a read if you haven’t yet done so. There are so few representations of queer life (and sex) in books for young people, that it is still refreshing to see this in a novel. Young people reading books need to see themselves represented, and they need to see all aspects of life portrayed.
The end of When Everything Feels Like The Movies is shocking, and may be too upsetting for many people, but I don’t think that detracts from the book. Rather the opposite, here is a book that shows bullying and violence towards a young queer boy but refuses to place the blame for that on Jude himself. This is vital for young people to realise, that they are not to blame. For me, Jack of Hearts is a natural accompaniment to Raziel Reid’s novel. I would hate for publishing to get stuck in one narrative for LGBTQ YA books (or queer fiction more generally) where we only see happy endings and cute stories. Yes, it’s important we have these stories, but it’s also important we show what reality is for many LGBTQ people. This book won’t appeal to everyone, and it hasn’t been written for everyone, but Simon Vs isn’t suited to everyone’s taste either. There is room on the shelves for a full plethora of queer stories, and When Everything Feels Like The Movies deserves to be there too.
I’d love to know if you’ve read When Everything Feels Like The Movies, and what you thought of it. Leave a comment on this post, or come find me on Twitter to chat.
You can buy all the books mentioned in this post, but if you’re in the UK the physical copy of Jack of Hearts is out in February:
If, like me, you’re a life long Oscar Wilde fan and you think you already know everything about him – think again, and pick up a copy of Making Oscar Wilde by Michèle Mendelssohn. It will completely change the way you think about Oscar.
The book takes us back to the start, right when Oscar was making the journey from Ireland to come and study in Oxford. It details his rather unimpressive academic career, and paints an entirely different picture than the one many (Oscar included) would have us believe of the impact he made during his time there. We then travel to America, to the real heart of the journey this book is taking us on, through Oscar’s now infamous tour of America. You may be aware of the highly quotable things he said on his lecture tour of America, but perhaps less aware of the anti-Irish, racist sentiment that followed him around. The book explores how Oscar stumbled through a less than successful tour, plagued by dubious promoters that were as keen to see him succeed as they were to make money from parodying him.
This book will show you an Oscar unlike any you’ve read about before. It primarily focuses on his American tour, and therefore the final few chapters exploring his return to England, and his eventual arrest, imprisonment and death, are quite rushed and lacking in the rich, vivid, detail the rest of the book has. Don’t let that put you off, this is a book worth every moment of your time.
If you want more Oscar to follow on from that, I’ve got a few more recommendations of excellent books detailing more about his life.
The Wilde Album by Merlin Holland is a veritable treasure trove of Oscar photographs, art, and artefacts, with the life of Oscar told by his grandson Merlin. It is a brilliant little book for any Wilde fan, which is why it’s totally devastating that it is no longer in print. Published in 1997 by Fourth Estate, you get still get hold of second-hand copies of this book online, and it’s definitely worth hitting up your local library to see if they have a copy.
Another excellent Merlin Holland edited work is The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. Reading the full transcript of what happened in Oscar’s own words is gripping and heartbreaking. This edition gives the full details of both cases that resulted in Oscar’s eventual imprisonment.
And finally, no list of Oscar Wilde recommendations would be complete without recommending some of his work. There are great editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray available now, I especially like this Penguin clothbound edition (you know I love a fancy hardback book!) If you haven’t yet read any of Oscar’s short stories, check out The Happy Prince and other stories from Macmillan.
But my top recommendation has to be the Penguin classics collection De Profundis and other prison writings. This is a brilliant selection of Oscar’s poetry and letters from his time in Reading Gaol and isn’t an easy read, but I can’t recommend it more highly.
Let me know if you’ve read Making Oscar Wilde, or your thoughts on anything else Oscar related. Leave a comment here or come find me on Twitter. I was going to finish off with the ultimate cliche and give you an Oscar Wilde quote but instead here’s a tiny part of one of my favourite Oscar poems:
I remember the first time I heard about The Wicked Cometh on Twitter: “lesbian victorian detectives” someone said, and I was sold! It’s not a very thorough or entirely accurate description of this novel by Laura Carlin, but it’s not far wrong.
In London, 1831, Hester White is desperate to escape the slums by any means available to her. She is thrown into the world of the Brock family, and is drawn to the mysterious Rebekah Brock.
This is a dark and atmospheric thriller that takes the reader on a journey through the unravelling of secrets in a plot twist heavy narrative. I loved the descriptions of London and how brilliantly Laura Carlin is at establishing a strong sense of place and its impact on the characters. It is a slow-paced start and speeds through quickly to its conclusion, but the journey there is lusciously written and will definitely be loved by fans of gothic mysteries.
The paperback has just been released and you can buy it now.
Every week in 2019 I’m going to recommend an LGBTQ book to get off your shelves, or off the book shop/library shelves. It’s not just newly published books that deserve love, so I’m going to share my favourites not published in the last 12 months, and if you haven’t yet read them you should check them out.
This 2017 novel follows the story of Sri Lankan-American Lucky and her husband Krishna. The truth of their marriage is a secret only they know: both Lucky and Krishna are gay.
Lucky is forced to return home when her grandmother has a fall and while there she reconnects with her first lover, Nisha. All the old romantic feelings are rekindled but Nisha is about to marry a man. This impending marriage causes confusion for Lucky; she wants to stop Nisha from a marriage based on lies, but Nisha wants to have the comfort and support of her family, something she doesn’t feel she’ll get without the marriage.
Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a moving portrait of family ties, truth, and love. It is a deep exploration of what it means to live truthfully, and the reality many people face of being excluded from their families and communities if they are open about their sexuality. Sindu writes with depth and clarity, never shying away from uncomfortable moments, but instead embracing them with compassion and honesty.