Queer, A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele | 1 Minute Reviews

Here’s the thing: I’m queer in a number of ways. I’ve known I was attracted to multiple genders for a long time, but good old childhood shaming and being called “Lizzie the Lesbo” was enough for me to squash that side of me until I reached adulthood and eventually felt safe enough to think about it. I’ve known I was not a girl and not a boy either for my whole life, existing in the in-between and struggling with intermittent social and physical dysphoria. It was only in my late twenties that I started to find the words for this, having finally met other genderqueer, trans and nonbinary people.

Part of my own coming out was through learning about queer politics, and in turn theory. But I’m going to be really honest with you here — I did not understand a lot of it. When I say understand, I don’t mean politically align with. I mean the language was so often complex, so very different from the English I speak or have heard throughout my life, that I would be thrown off entirely.

There’s been discussions around this on Twitter, quite rightly pointing out that academic language can be alienating for people, particularly working class people who haven’t studied humanities. The amount of times I’ve had to google words like “hegemony” and “praxis” in order to understand a sentence are innumerable.

The same thing has happened to me with feminist theory. I have tried quite a few times to read works by Nancy Fraser, or sections of Judith Butler’s writing, or even try and access philosophy through a beginner’s course, and I never managed to get very far. Until today.

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A few weeks ago, myself and Alice were walking through Soho, talking about the DIVA book conference she’d recently been to and how revelatory it was that an event devoted to queer female literature was not protested any more. We got onto the topic of Section 8, the problems of a discourse centring around “always knowing” about your own queer identity, and a few other connected topics. She mentioned Queer, A Graphic History to me, and I decided there in the rain in Soho that we would march to the bookshop and I’d buy it.

I’m really pleased to say that having read Queer, A Graphic History I actually think I have a handle on theory! Barker takes the reader through the evolution of queer theory and the main contributors, right up to the present day and the futures directions of study that are developing. Thanks to Scheele’s wonderful illustrations, concepts are broken down simply, faces given to mysterious names and summarised quotes attributed to those faces.

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As I suspected, I knew a lot of these fundamentals of queer theory — intersectionality, gender perfomativity, the black feminists who correctly challenged much of the original white thinkers — but I didn’t have the faces, the names, the language behind the concepts. Never again will I shrink when I hear someone attribute a concept to Lacan or Foucault, because I now have a loose understanding of their positions and a Scheele portrait to put their name to.

Barker has also provided a resources section at the back with accessible further reading on sexuality and gender, and queer theory, which is incredibly useful as so often I pick up a book and fall into the inaccessible language pit.

Queer, A Graphic History is an informative, affirming, hopeful and essential read for anyone who wants to know more about queer theory, politics and activism. However, irrespective of your own identity, Queer is also a great introduction to examining binaries and biases in our daily lives and media. This is a thoughtful and powerful book to spend an afternoon reading and a lifetime acting upon.

Interested? Get it here: Hive (UK) / Book Depository (Int)

What to read next:

Dr MEG-JOHN BARKER is a writer, therapist, and activist-academic specialising in sex, gender and relationships. Meg-John is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and a UKCP accredited psychotherapist, and has over a decade of experience researching and publishing on these topics including the popular book Rewriting the Rules. @megjohnbarker

JULIA SCHEELE is an illustrator, graphic facilitator and comic book artist. She runs One Beat Zines, a feminist zine collective and distributor. @juliascheele

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley & being non-binary/genderqueer

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a bit of a Robin Talley stan, having fallen deeply in love with Lies We Tell Ourselves and worked through her four novels since then.

What We Left Behind is Talley’s second novel and, if you’d go by the GoodReads reviews, somehow the most controversial, due to featuring a nonbinary character who questions their pronouns and place on the gender spectrum throughout the book. As a nonbinary person, I was curious about some of the reviews and decided to pick up a copy myself.

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After meeting at a high school dance, Toni and Gretchen have been virtually inseparable through high school, as hopelessly in love as the day they met. But when plans for college go awry, the couple find themselves pulled apart to different towns, whereupon both Toni and Gretchen begin to grow into themselves.

Gretchen rediscovers her love for New York and gains a sassy blunt best friend to explore it with. Toni discovers their university’s LGTBQ society and, upon finally meeting other genderqueer and trans people, starts to question what they know about themselves. As they learn more about themselves, Gretchen and Toni grow further and further apart. Will they manage to stay together?

In the same way as Talley’s other straight-contemporary YA Our Own Private Universe, there is definitely an educational bent to this narrative, making it a useful book for younger queer readers in particular.

What We Left Behind shows the progression of Toni and Gretchen in discovering and understanding not just what it means to be queer yourself, but to be part of a wider LGBTQ+ community, to be a part of that history. Talley does some interesting playing around with typical confusions of baby queers – I particularly liked Toni’s feeling of being so overwhelmed by pronouns that they choose to just remove them completely from their language.

This is also a heavily character based novel, with barely a straight in sight (and when they are present, sometimes the descriptions are not the most complimentary). I think for queer kids growing up without a chosen family, this aspect of the novel could be the light at the end of the tunnel – as they say, it gets better.

But let’s talk about the controversy, and some light spoilers ahead my friends. As Toni realises they are more masculine than they thought, they switch their name spelling to Tony and begin using he/his full time, as he tries to work out whether he is a masc non binary person or a trans man. Some people have felt this is not the right way to represent genderqueer people, and I’m here to say I don’t necessarily agree with that viewpoint. While yes, I 100% agree that some people falsely see non binary/genderqueer identities as a stepping stone along to trans binary, sometimes it does happen. Or even, people remain non binary but change their names, pronouns and begin physical transitioning to accompany this. Ash Hardell’s Youtube channel explores this quite a lot through a number of videos, often including other guest stars who are nonbinary or genderqueer.

Let’s talk personal here – I’m nonbinary, assigned female at birth, and I’ve considered top surgery and hormones, and the only reason I’m definitely not doing the latter is because I think the loss of my singing voice as is would crush me more than the dysphoria which I hope my new gc2b binder is going to sort out. I’ve considered top surgery, quite strongly, for the last year. However, my dysphoria is tied up with some other body image things right now so I’m going to give myself time. But, none of this makes me a trans man either. You can be whatever kind of non-binary you want to be, and if that leads you down the road to a binary identity, well that’s okay too.

I’ve been thinking about posting this review since I read the book a few months ago, realising that in talking about the book and the controversy itself it makes sense to demonstrate where I’m coming from. I’m not saying that the feelings that other genderqueer people got reading this book are invalid either, but I wanted to share a positive review of this book from a non binary person’s perspective.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

 

Undercover Princess by Connie Glynn | 1 Minute Reviews

I’ve been watching Connie Glynn aka Noodlerella on Youtube for a while; I’m quite particular to her brand of whimsy and she always has good anime recommendations. When I saw she’d written a book, I wasn’t surprised. During my time as a bookseller, most prominent UK YouTubers either had a book out or on the go, though generally these were non-fiction, self help type affairs. Instead, Connie wrote about her mainstay: princesses.

Cute, I figured. Good for her. It will sell well. And then I thought little more about it until I saw a sampler on the Penguin stall at YALC, which I popped into my tote. The cover of the book (and the sampler) is pretty beautiful, and I am somewhat of a magpie. I figured I’d give the sampler a go, and then resign it to the pile of books that are popular that I won’t bother with.

And then I read the sampler and was absolutely charmed by it. So much so, that I tweeted my lovely chums at Penguin and they very kindly sent me a full proof copy.

I am still charmed, especially because this book is pretty gay in ways I was not expecting.

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Now, Connie herself is out as bisexual/queer on YouTube and I was kind of hoping that this would naturally appear in her work. It does, friends.

Let’s step back a little. Undercover Princess follows Lottie Pumpkin, who leaves her life with her stepmother to attend the prestigious Rosewood Academy on a rare scholarship for excellence, herself being the first recipient in twelve years. Upon arrival, she discovers she shares a room with wild, messy Ellie Wolf. When it is revealed the heir to the Maravish throne is attending Rosewood, suspicion is cast upon Lottie by the other students. To her surprise, Ellie reveals to her that she is in fact the princess in disguise and Lottie agrees to keep up the pretence, taking on the mantle of Portman.

There’s a moment 80% in (not a spoiler) where Lottie learns of a romance between Portman and Princess, and has a minor public episode, and by this point I was yelling at the book YOU ARE GAY YOU ARE GAY THIS BOOK IS GAY with the glee of someone who’d solved some kind of mystery. Maybe I’m wrong, but there’d been a lot of longing glances, weird not-quite-jealousy moments and a moment of “platonic” hand stroking.

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This feels pretty exciting and radical to me because this book is aimed at the tween end of YA, that tricky area when one steps from adventurous but polite Middle Grade fiction (in the UK also known as age 9-12) over to sexed up drunk teen fiction. This area can be quite tricky to find books for but ahoy, this is a great one that also appears to have some LGBTQ+ characters and themes – aside from my headcanon Ellie & Lottie romance, there are a number of other LGBTQ characters in the book. The writing feels firmly accessible tween (though I think most readers who’ve ventured into the Middle Grade section will be fine with this), and is really quite charming. There’s a lot in here about treating others with respectful behaviour whilst also setting boundaries as a self care priority. The morals are all completely in the right place.

I’m pretty impressed with this first outing from Glynn and look forward to reading more of the Rosewood Chronicles in the coming years. I think if you know a young person who loves fairy tales, magical British boarding school nostalgia (like Harry Potter) or all things Disney, this would make an easy win Christmas present, not least because of how pretty it is.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you ever so much to the team at Penguin Platform and Penguin Huddle who sent me over the proof copy.

Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman | 1 Minute Reviews

Alex as Well is a rare thing in literature – it is the story of an intersex person grappling with their gender identity and the rights of intersex people to choose their own gender.

Alex has been raised as a boy for fourteen years – boy’s school, boy’s clothes, and hormonal medication to keep their body male.

But Alex isn’t a boy. Her parents got it wrong. Alex is a girl.

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The novel follows Alex’s decision to live openly as a girl, exploring her expression of gender, alongside a complex representation of parents resistant to these changes. Brugman creates interesting, complex characters in Alex’s parents, and even lends the point-of-view narrative to her mother on occasions. The greatest criticiser of Alex’s decisions, Alex’s mother is openly transphobic and controlling, with mental health issues of her own, and thus is a convincing, often unlikeable antagonist.

Stories of intersex lives are dramatically under-represented in literature, and I feel that Alex as Well presents a good story alongside an in-depth exploration of the stigma that intersex and trans people face from their own family, themselves and the wider world. I do feel that the narrative device that positions Boy Alex as a separate person doesn’t always hit the mark, and I feel results in a conflation of intersex and trans identities with multiple personality disorders or schizophrenia. However, it is a good first start for teenagers wishing to understand more about intersex and trans lives, and how mental health inter-relates to understanding who you are.

Interested? Read it here.

What to read next:

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham | 1 Minute Reviews

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham is an intense read about familial relationships, specifically how pain can be passed through generations and how everyone’s experience is a truth of its own.

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Unbecoming follows Katie as her grandmother, Mary, who is suffering with Alzheimer’s is thrust back into her family after years of estrangement from her daughter Caroline. Family secrets are revealed as Mary’s memory returns – teen pregnancies, crushed dreams, mental illness and the terror of parenting. Amidst this, Katie struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and the push back of homophobic stigma in a small town after accidentally kissing her (now former) best friend Esme. Alongside the three women, is Chris – Jenny’s brother who has unspecified special needs.

Not far from the background are the absent men. Katie and Chris’ father who absconded with a new family. Jack, Mary’s boyfriend, who passed away and unsettled her fragile world. Mary’s stern unpleasing father.

I love the slow pace of this novel, the plot unfurls gently. It did take a little while for me to settle into this pace, but I’m glad I stayed with it. I really resonated with Katie’s experience of misplaced attraction, confusing those intense female teenage semi-romantic friendships with real romance. Many other young people working through their own sexuality will recognise much in her.

Despite the heavy topics, I wouldn’t say this novel is particularly sombre in tone on the whole. The relationship between Mary and Katie is a joy to see unfold, and Chris regularly inserts witticisms into complex situations. Of course, there are many touching moments that had me reaching for the tissues.

Interested? Read it here.

What to read next:

Thank you to David Fickling Books for sending me a copy to review.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell | 1 Minute Reviews

Do you like teen fiction?
Do you like LGBTQ fiction?
Do you like Harry Potter?
If so then go read Fangirl, then come back and read Carry On!

In Fangirl, protagonist Cath writes Simon Snow (essentially Harry Potter) fan-fiction as her primary hobby, in which the two enemies fall in love. She names this fanfic “Carry On”. In the Fangirl universe, she releases it online before the final book came out, thus Cath got to conclude the Simon Snow arc her way.

THIS book I’m talking about right now is the book Cath writes. Throughout Fangirl, sections of the Carry On (and other bits from the “actual” Simon Snow books, and from Cath’s other fics) are interspersed between chapters, leaving you with a taste of Simon, Baz, Penelope and Agatha, and the Wizarding World of … Watford.

Macmillan were kind enough to send me a copy of Carry On, which I devoured in a few hours – very reminiscent of my reaction to new Harry Potter books back in the day. Simon and Baz’s love story feels so real and tangible, and there are plenty of nerdy references and heartwarming moments. Hogwarts is Watford, Harry is Simon Snow, Draco becomes maybe vampire Basilton, accompanied by their Hermione-esque heroine Penny and permanent damsel in distress Agatha replaces Ron. While the story certainly echoes Harry Potter, I also feel that it is a universe and narrative of its own right.

Not only that, but it is really, really witty. SadFishKid of Tumblr summed it up in these 5 images.

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I’m sad that this is likely the only Simon Snow book we’ll get, but I know I’m definitely going to go back to it.

I strongly recommend reading Fangirl first, but I especially recommend buying them both at the same time, because I refused to put either books down. I realise that saying “go read this predominantly straight book before you can read this super awesome m/m romance” is not ideal in the least part, but Rowell’s writing is a warm comforting hug, and I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Interested? Get it here, and you can get Fangirl here.

What to read next:

Thank you again to Pan Macmillan for sharing this copy with me.

Moonstone by Sjón | 1 Minute Reviews

This beautiful little book arrived in my postbox earlier this week and I couldn’t take my eyes off it, and so decided to sit down and enjoy it in one sitting.

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Máni Stein Karlsson, a sex worker who sees male clients, spends his days in Reykavik avidly watching the best of cinema and admiring the beautiful leather-clad motorbike-riding Sola G-, clutching at her lost bright red scarf.

The year is 1918 and Spanish Flu strikes the town, and so everything begins to change. The cinemas fall abandoned, the streets become emptied as disaster strikes and people die, leading Máni to work as an assistant to the few overworked doctors treating the influenza epidemic.

This is a beautiful novel that captures Iceland in the wake of a volcano eruption and complete devastation of a community. It has a gentle melancholy that reminds me ever so of Stoner by John Williams or A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler.

While Máni is a fictional character, it is clear that this novel is from a personal place. At the climax, it is revealed to be linked to Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson’s (whose pen name is Sjón, meaning sight) own life.

A short novel at around 140 pages, this book really touched me and I look forward to reading more works by Sjón.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you ever so much to Sceptre for sending me a copy of Moonstone.