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Book Review: On a Grey Thread by Elsa Gidlow

Image of a digital book cover.Red and pink roses rest against a green background. A black band across the middle has the title in white on it.

Summary:
Published in 1923, this poetry collection was the first in North American history to openly express lesbian desire. Both personal and political, Gidlow’s poems express the poet’s complex feelings as a young woman whose political ideology and sexual identity ran counter to the traditional values of her time.

Review:
For Pride Month, I wanted to push myself a little by reading from a genre I read less often – poetry. I’ve also been striving to connect more with queer history, so I thought this groundbreaking collection was a great match.

The poems are collected into four sections – Youth, Grain and Grapes, Inner Chamber, and In Passing. If you are here for women loving women content…skip to the Inner Chamber section. Although, I am glad I read them all in order, because I do feel like they told a subtle overarching story.

The first poem in the collection beautifully explores the meaning of life and what makes us who we are via beads on a grey thread. Other poems consider the beauty of nature and sadness/loneliness (in a way that reminded me of 90s emo culture). In fact, I think what struck me the most when reading these was just how of the moment and today they felt, in spite of being written almost 100 years ago.

Since the entire collection is out of copyright, let me close my review by sharing my favorite in its entirety.

“Episode”

I have robbed the garrulous streets,
Thieved a fair girl from their blight,
I have stolen her for a sacrifice
That I shall make to this mysteried night.

I have brought her, laughing,
To my quietly sinister garden.
For what will be done there
I ask no man’s pardon.

I brush the rouge from her cheeks,
Clean the black kohl from the rims
Of her eyes; loose her hair;
Uncover the glimmering, shy limbs.

I break wild roses, scatter them over her.
The thorns between us sing like love’s pain.
Her flesh, bitter and salt to my tongue,
I taste with endless kisses and taste again.

At dawn I leave her
Asleep in my wakening garden
(For what was done there
I ask no man’s pardon.)

I hope this review entices you to read some (more) classic queer poetry.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 73 pages – novella

Source: Archive.org

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Book Review: Solo Dance by Li Kotomi, translated by Arthur Reiji Morris

Digital book cover. A bird drawn in a red outline has black legs that turn into thorny branches coming out of it. The book's title is written along two sides. The background is light purple with dark purple thorny branches on it.

Summary:
Cho Norie, twenty-seven and originally from Taiwan, is working an office job in Tokyo. While her colleagues worry about the economy, life-insurance policies, marriage, and children, she is forced to keep her unconventional life hidden—including her sexuality and the violent attack that prompted her move to Japan. There is also her unusual fascination with death: she knows from personal experience how devastating death can be, but for her it is also creative fuel. Solo Dance depicts the painful coming of age of a queer person in Taiwan and corporate Japan. This striking debut is an intimate and powerful account of a search for hope after trauma.

Review:
This is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful read that I couldn’t put down.

The story starts with Cho in Japan. We learn what led to her emigration from Taiwan through a combination of flashbacks and her rereading her own college journal entries. Cho is a writer who has been obsessed with death from a young age. But she also went through a devastating trauma. The PTSD from that event destroyed her budding relationship with another young woman and haunts her to this day.

I think it’s important for anyone considering this book to know coming into it what the devastating trauma was. It’s central to the book and can be quite triggering for some. Cho was raped by a stranger who specifically targeted her due to her same-sex relationship. Although Cho does encounter kind and understanding people who validate how wounded she is from this experience, there are others who expect her to just get over it. Worse, some people blame her for it. She feels shame for what has happened to her. While this is realistic, it is painful to read about.

So this book is about many complex things. It’s about how Cho was obsessed with death from a young age. Why is that? Is it ok to feel that kind of emo way? It’s also about the systemic exclusion of queer and trans people. Cho also travels the world and sees how queerness and Pride and love exist in many countries. While she wants a sense of belonging, just what is the right way to belong is a question left for the reader. Ultimately, though, this is a book about trauma and healing from trauma. How trauma isolates a person, even when other people try, imperfectly, to reach out.

It’s easy as a queer westerner to get caught up in what queerness means in the west. It’s important to dive into what queerness means and looks like in other cultures in order to better grasp how we might create a community that’s more inclusive of all types of origins and experiences.

Although this novella is challenging, it’s also beautiful. If you feel ready to engage with the realistic trauma depicted in it, I encourage you to pick up a copy.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 149 pages – novella

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

October 19, 2021 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A woman in a white kimono with no eyes, red smeared lips, and a black maw with no teeth haunts the cover.

Summary:
A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.

It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.

But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.

And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

Review:
I thought this cover was deliciously creepy in a way that reminded me of The Ring, and I was ready for a quick spine-tingling thriller set in Japan. Unfortunately, for me, the cover was the only part of the book that elicited any real response from me.

Let’s start with the good. Representation is strong in this book. It’s a group of four racially diverse friends. The main character is bisexual, says the word, and isn’t demonized in the book. Since it’s common for thrillers and horror to demonize queer characters, this was nice. The writing is poetic, which is a bit unusual in horror. The idea of a bride being so into haunted houses that she wants to be married in a house where the haunting is a bride was also fun. So why didn’t it work for me?

For horror to work for me, I need to know enough about the characters to kind of care about what happens to them. This jumps so quickly into the haunted house moment with the friends that I just….never really cared about any of them. To be honest, I still kind of easily get them mixed up in my head. By the time we know any of their motivations, a lot of the thrills and gore have already happened but it’s too late for me to care about them. It wasn’t even that they were a collection of common horror tropes so I knew what was going on and could sort of care. (I’m thinking about the tropes used in Scream or The Cabin in the Woods). It seems to me that part of the goal was to subvert tropes but in order for that to work, I need to really know the characters for the tropes to be subverted and for me to still care about the characters. Tropes work because they fill in the blanks for us. The cheerleader may be ditzy but she really cares about her friends, so we know she’s really actually upset when she can’t find one of them. But if the trope has been subverted just enough that we know that the cheerleader doesn’t’ care about her friends but we also don’t know what she actually cares about then all understanding of what meaning and impact the plot has on her is lost.

Others who don’t need strong character development to get into the thrills of a horror will likely enjoy this story more than I did, particularly if the basic plot summary given above appeals to you.

2 out of 5 stars

Length: 128 pages – novella/short nonfiction

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (Series, #1)

Cover of the book The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Summary:
Chih, a non-binary cleric, is on a walking journey when they meet an elderly woman, Rabbit, with a story to tell. Chih ends up staying and listening to Rabbit’s tale while cataloging the archives of her things. It slowly is revealed just how much of history Rabbit was quietly witness to and participant of.

Review:
The summary I read was nothing like the one I wrote above and, therefore, I was under the misimpression from the combination of the summary and the title that this was a magical realism book featuring an actual rabbit. I also didn’t know how each chapter would start with essentially an archives finding aid that Chih is writing. There was a time in my life when I wrote finding aids for work, and I must be honest – I didn’t enjoy it. The combination of these two things didn’t put me in a great headspace for this book. However, I do think it’s a good read when it finds its audience, and that’s what I’m hoping to do here.

This book features a non-binary main character whose sidekick is a fabulous talking bird. Female/female love is also well-represented here. It is set in a fantasy world inspired by Asian period dramas with dashes of fantasy (like the talking bird). The entire premise revolves around respecting and listening to an elder – treating her as important simply because she is elderly. It of course then turns out that she has a pivotal role in history, but Chih would have never known that if they hadn’t listened to her. Those who love the history of items will also likely really enjoy reading the descriptors of Rabbit’s possessions at the start of each chapter. While this is a short book (novella length), it is the first in a series, so you can visit its world, and, if you like it, you can keep on going with the rest of the series.

Recommended to those looking for a fantasy with an Asian period drama fantasy written by an own voices author with a dash of magical realism and queerness.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 112 pages – novella/short nonfiction

Source: Library

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Book Review: Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden

February 2, 2021 2 comments
Cover of the book

Summary:
A scifi, queer version of The Little Mermaid that wonders what happens after Ariel leaves the ocean?

In this version, Ariel is Atuale. Eric is Saareval. The sea witch is Yanja. The land folk find themselves the victim of a deadly disease that Atuale is immune to thanks to Yanja’s genetic engineering that let her switch from sea dwelling to land dwelling. She seeks out Yanja who takes her on an interplanetary trip to find help from other humanoids with more advanced technology than their own.

Coming February 23, 2021.

Review:
When I heard a queer scifi version of The Little Mermaid, I couldn’t hit the request button on NetGalley fast enough, which I point out to say, perhaps my expectations may have been a little too high.

This is a novella and so the world-building is tight not deep. In spite of this, I did feel I was able to quickly catch on to the world, but I suppose I might not feel that way if I wasn’t already a big reader of scifi. Its world isn’t that unique for scifi. Gene-edited humanoids live on various planets. There are some more fully alien species. Each planet has its own culture and problems, etc… I like that the gene-editing explains why the “sea witch” was able to move Atuale from the ocean dwelling to land dwelling. Yanja is less a sea witch and more a rogue sea scientist, which is neat.

The queer representation in this book is that Yanja was in a female body when Atuale lived in the ocean, and they were lovers. When Atuale seeks Yanja out again, Yanja is now in a male body. Saareval is male. So Atuale is bisexual and Yanja is trans. I appreciated how rapidly Atuale accepted Yanja’s new gender. There were no deadnaming issues as Yanja kept the same name throughout. I was disappointed in the representation of Atuale, though, mainly because I think one particular plot point falls into stereotypes of bisexual people. I wish a more creative approach to the plot was taken. It felt like a stereotypical and easy way through the story rather than a thoughtful one.

Personally, I struggled a bit to want to read this because I wasn’t expecting the future pandemic plot and that was just a bit too real for me right now. Perhaps other readers will find it comforting to see a pandemic being addressed in scifi, though. You know your own potential reaction the best.

I also want to offer the trigger warning that there is miscarriage in a flashback.

Overall, this novella has fun world building with a plot that looks at what happens after the happily ever after in The Little Mermaid. There is trans and bisexual representation, although the latter falls into stereotypes. Readers looking for a merger of The Little Mermaid with scifi and a scifi interplanetary approach to a pandemic are likely to enjoy this quick read.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 112 pages – novella/short nonfiction

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

January 18, 2011 4 comments

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Summary:
It’s Christmas time and Nora is eagerly getting ready for the holidays with her husband, Torvald, their children, and their friend Dr. Rank when her old friend, Christine, shows up in town.  Christine is recently widowed and is looking for work.  Nora, who appears flighty and silly at first, informs Christine that she saved her husband’s life when they were first married by taking a loan from, essentially, a loan shark to pay for them to take a trip to Italy.  He remains unaware of both the loan she is working on repaying and the fact that his life was ever in danger.  Unfortunately, things come to a head when the man who loaned her the money, Krogstad, threatens to reveal all to her husband.

Review:
This three-act dramatic play was first performed in 1879. It explores the nature of domestic relationships in a way that still holds relatability and power today. The play accomplishes this using the same set design of the Helmer family’s living room throughout all three acts. I found myself impressed by the different feelings evoked by the identical set in each act.

The primary relationship the play explores is that of Nora and her husband Torvald. The first act opens before Christmas with Nora returning from a shopping excursion. Although their language with each other is sweet, there is also a clear tension in the relationship. Torvald calls her many terms of endearments. Yet they clearly disagree on how and when to spend money. Although Torvald is to start a new job in January with a higher salary, he does not want them to borrow any money for Christmastime. Nora disagrees, thinking it a reasonable thing to do. This seems like a minor disagreement until we discover that Nora in the past secretly borrowed money. She did this to take Torvald south to a warmer location for his health. The doctor told her it was vital to take him or he would die. Her motivations were sound, but it is a secret between them. Thus the play establishes that what seems like a simple mismatch in the marriage is, in fact, more serious.

The three acts deftly escalate this mismatch and how it must come to a head now between the two of them. In a mirror of the two of them, there is another couple introduced who broke up for livelihood reasons. In this way, the play leads the audience to see that a couple does not need to be perfect to find a way forward. This sets up the question of will or won’t Nora and Torvland find a way forward as a married couple?

The play also explores expectations of mothers. Nora and Torvald have three children. In the first act, we see Nora engaged in enthusiastic play with her children.  She speaks with pride of  both them and her mothering to a friend. Yet, over the course of the play, she comes to doubt her own mothering abilities because she doubts how good of a person she herself is. This all starts with a comment from Torvald:

TORVALD: “Almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother.”
NORA: “Why do you only say–mother?”

(loc 1005)

Although she pushes back on it, this begins to break the foundation of her own beliefs in her ability to mother. Since the audience both saw and heard her quality mothering at the beginning of the play, it is clear that it is not her character that is at fault. Rather it is that she needs her own husband to have faith in her quality as a mother. This subtle exploration of mothering is an enjoyable subplot to the main relationship drama.

Another theme explored in the play is the struggles of women for self-sufficiency. Nora’s friend Mrs. Linde (a widow) brings this to light. Dr. Rand’s character allows the play to explore the choices available to a person with a debilitating disease.  Another interesting exploration is whether the law is always correct or if sometimes the law itself can be wrong.

Overall, this is a brief yet powerful play. Although it was first performed more than 140 years ago, the relationships and themes it explores are still relevant today. It gives no easy answers, leaving the audience to decide for themselves what they think.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 88 pages – novella/short nonfiction

Source: Audiobooks app for the iTouch, iPhone, and iPad.

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Note: This review was updated on March 25, 2022.

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