My super-belated June reading is introduced to you by Furiosa! All the books I chose for June had LGBTQ characters. This time year I tried to feature more countries. (You can also check my Pride readings from 2014, 2015 and 2016.)
The reviews contain some spoilers, though I try not to spoil plot twists too much (with the exception of the book that angered me).
- Meredith Russo “If I Was Your Girl” [USA]
- Chinelo Okparanta “Under the Udala Trees” [Nigeria, USA]
- Tittamari Marttinen “Ikioma perheeni” [Finland]
- Julia Ember “The Seafarer's Kiss” [USA, UK]
- Salla Simukka “Musta kuin eebenpuu” (Lumikki Andersson #3) [Finland]
Short stories available online:
If I Was Your Girl
“Amanda Hardy is the new girl at school.
Like everyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is holding back. Even from Grant, the guy she's falling in love with.
Amanda has a secret.
At her old school, she used to be called Andrew. And secrets always have a way of getting out.
A book about loving yourself and being loved for who you really are.”
I was so looking forward to reading it! Alas… This review is very spoiler-heavy.
Things I liked:
- the first ~two thirds of the book were nice
- the flashbacks felt very real, emotional, and were quite interesting.
Things I didn't like:
- things related to the bi character (I'll elaborate below)
- Amanda is too perfect – super pretty, makes friends right away and easily, two boys want to date her almost as soon as they see her, she becomes the homecoming queen; while her friends are more like background characters most of the time…
- the sudden shift in the end from a pleasant slice-of-life contemporary into almost a thriller with Amanda attacked by a guy and almost raped (she's saved by her friends but it was super uncomfortable to read because of its suddenness)
- Amanda was intentionally made as accessible as possible to cisgender readers, even when it meant unrealistic trans experiences, as the author notes in the end: “I have taken liberties with what I know reality to be. I have fictionalized things to make them work in my story. I have, in some ways, cleaved to stereotypes and even bent rules to make Amanda’s trans-ness as unchallenging to normative assumptions as possible. She knew from a very young age. She is exclusively attracted to boys. She is entirely feminine. She passes as a woman with little to no effort. She had a surgery that her family should not have been able to afford, and she started hormones through legitimate channels before she probably could have in the real world. I did this because I wanted you to have no possible barrier to understanding Amanda as a teenage girl with a different medical history from most other girls.”
Now, if this was a wish fulfilment fantasy for transgender readers, I'd happily accept it. But it wasn't done for them. So we have a book about a trans girl that isn't entirely realistic, even though the author is a trans woman. I understand why she did it and I know it's my personal preference and you might actually love the trans representation in this book, but as a nonbinary trans person I strongly prefer books that don't try to please cisgender people in any way. They already have enough books that cater to their views, it's time for us to have unashamedly trans books.
About the biphobia… Oh boy. More spoilers here. This was the first time in my life I wanted to rage-quit a book, I was so pissed. I didn't know there was going to be a bisexual character here, so I was pleasantly surprised at first when Bee showed up and said clearly she was bi. But Bee is all the biphobic tropes we hate. She seems manipulative (she makes Amanda confess her secrets by telling her own sad story which felt manipulative, and later we discover Bee knew everyone's secrets without being the heart of the school and having many friends, so I assume she manipulated others, too – how else would she get access to so many secrets?). She's dating a girl but falls for Amanda, who has clearly said she is straight, but Bee doesn't care, so Bee leaves her girlfriend and kisses Amanda without her consent during prom, saying she's better for Amanda than her boyfriend. Then Bee is unhappy Amanda is still not interested in her (cos she's straight, aren't you listening?), so she goes to the stage and tells the whole school Amanda is trans (by using transphobic language) and then, because this wasn't bad enough I guess, she spills everyone's secrets, including outing her ex-girlfriend. This leads to Amanda being attacked by a guy she didn't want to date earlier, who, had her friends not interfered, would probably have raped and killed her. That part was extremely uncomfortable to read.
Bee is the only bisexual character in the book. If they were a few others, I wouldn't be so angry. I feel kinda betrayed by the reviewers who praised If I Was Your Girl for its diversity and forgot to mention it's very biphobic. Just because we need more books with trans characters doesn't mean we should ignore other things in the stories we read. :/ I'd also like to add that Bee and Chloe, the only confirmed not straight characters, do not get any kind of happy ending. If you're looking for bisexual or lesbian positivity, this book ain't it.
There was a positive note left in the library book. :)
Under the Udala Trees
“One day in 1968, at the height of the Biafran civil war, Ijeoma's father is killed and her world is transformed forever. Separated from her grief-stricken mother, she meets another young lost girl, Amina, and the two become inseparable. Theirs is a relationship that will shake the foundations of Ijeoma's faith, test her resolve and flood her heart. In this masterful novel of faith, love and redemption, Okparanta takes us from Ijeoma's childhood in war-torn Biafra, through the perils and pleasures of her blossoming sexuality, her wrong turns, and into the everyday sorrows and joys of marriage and motherhood. As we journey with Ijeoma we are drawn to the question: what is the value of love and what is the cost? A triumphant love story written with beauty and delicacy, Under the Udala Trees is a hymn to those who've lost and a prayer for a more compassionate world. It is a work of extraordinary beauty that will enrich your heart.”
I always want to read more books from the African continent, so when I heard about a Nigerian novel with a queer main character, I knew I had to read it! And I'm so glad I did. This book is beautifully written but quite heavy sometimes (war, abuse, rape, gruesome anti-queer violence), but it does have a happy ending for Ijeoma. The story starts when she's a child, we see Ijeoma experience and explore her first attraction to a girl. Later, when she's a young woman, she meets more queer people (there's an underground club where they can meet because it's not safe to be out). It's a cruel world and many unhappy things happen to her and her queer friends, but in the end she finds her happiness.
A few quotes from Under the Udala Trees that I liked:
“Aunty, whatever the matter, just remember that it is the same moon that wanes today that will be full tomorrow. And even the sun, however long it disappears, it always shines again.”
“I suppose it's the way we are, humans that we are. Always finding it easier to make ourselves the victim in someone else's tragedy.
Though it is true, too, that sometimes it is hard to know to whom the tragedy really belongs.”
“There are no miracles these days. Manna will not fall from the sky. Bombs, yes, enough to pierce our hearts, but manna, no.”
“The thought occurred to me: Yes, it had been Adam and Eve. But so what if it was only the story of Adam and Eve that we got in the Bible? Why did that have to exclude the possibility of a certain Adam and Adam or a certain Eve and Eve? Just because the story happened to focus on a certain Adam and Eve did not mean that all other possibilities were forbidden. Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean that woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable.”
“Kuu elää sateenkaariperheessä. Sana on hänestä kaunis ja värikäs, niin kuin on taivaalle ilmestyvä sateenkaarikin. Hänellä on kaksi äitiä, jotka rakastavat ihan hurjasti häntä ja toisiaan. Kuun ystävällä ja veljellä Kimillä on kaksi isää. Kun Kuu kaipaa isäseuraa, hän menee leikkimään Kimin isän ja iskän kanssa. Nämä kaksi perhettä muodostavat yhdessä apilaperheen. Kuulla on syntymäpäivä ja hän viettää sitä veneretkellä perheensä kanssa. Mukaan tulee myös kummi Niki, joka on opettanut Kuun retkeilemään luonnossa ja jonka kanssa Kuu voi jutella mistä asiasta tahansa. Kirjassa kerrotaan luontevasti ja lämpimästi erilaisista perhemuodoista. Ikioma perhe on lapselle maailman tärkein asia. Kuun mielestä on hauskaa, että kavereiden perheet ovat erilaisia kuin hänen omansa.”
This Finnish children's book is narrated from a child's PoV. We have a family with two mothers and a family with two fathers. One of the mothers is a vegetarian (or maybe even a vegan)! ^.^ There is also their friend Niki who is trans! Woot woot! Niki explains what being trans means and even talks a little about nonbinary and intersex people.
The Seafarer's Kiss
“Having long-wondered what lives beyond the ice shelf, nineteen-year-old mermaid Ersel learns of the life she wants when she rescues and befriends Ragna, a shield-maiden stranded on the mermen’s glacier. But when Ersel’s childhood friend and suitor catches them together, he gives Ersel a choice: say goodbye to Ragna or face justice at the hands of the glacier’s brutal king.
Determined to forge a different fate, Ersel seeks help from Loki. But such deals are never as one expects, and the outcome sees her exiled from the only home and protection she’s known. To save herself from perishing in the barren, underwater wasteland and be reunited with the human she’s come to love, Ersel must try to outsmart the God of Lies.”
I like all the animals (especially belugas), the icy northern setting, the colours. And the cover is so beautiful! The merfolk have special scales that soak up the sun's warmth and can be used to produce heat when needed, which I thought was a really cool idea. It's a fast-paced story with twists that surprised me. I like the character growth of Ersel and that she's bisexual. :) But I found her love interest Ragna too aggressive – I don't find it romantic when couples angrily argue and punch each other in the face and then proceed like nothing happened. That's creepy. So, I found myself disinterested in their relationship but rooting for Ersel's success with other things, like trying to right some wrongs and make their world a better place.
Overall, I liked The Seafarer's Kiss as an adventure story, but I wish I could enjoy Ersel and Ragna's relationship. By the way, I have a fanart of Ersel with her beluga friends!
Now let's talk about Loki. I heard that this book had a nonbinary character. But. Pronouns ≠ gender. Clothes and bodies ≠ gender. Everyone refers to Loki as 'they,' yes. We are also shown that Loki is a shapeshifter, that they can turn into animals, mermaids, humans – male and female (I don't think they were ever intersex?), but honestly I didn't get a feeling that Loki *identified* as nonbinary. For example, Loki can turn into a fish, that doesn't mean Loki identifies as fish, so why should male and female human forms mean 100% that Loki is genderfluid and nothing else instead? (Can gods even have genders like ours?) To me, Loki reads as someone who just loves changing shapes on a whim, same as how we, mere mortals, can change outfits and hair colour. We see Loki's forms (what is seen on the outside), we hear how others refer to them (again something from the outside), but we don't see any confirmation of their nonbinary gender from Loki themself (from the inside). Saying that Loki must be genderfluid just because Loki can change their anatomy is like saying that your organs define your gender, which is very transphobic. (You can identify as a woman and have a penis, for example. It's not your body that makes you a man, a woman, or a nonbinary person! It's how you feel, how you see yourself.) Anyway, I suppose for most readers Loki *is* nonbinary and that means this book has only one nonbinary character who is a villain. :(
Musta kuin eebenpuu (As Black As Ebony)
“After a harrowing summer in Prague, Lumikki Andersson is back in Finland at her prestigious art school, concentrating on graduation. She lands the lead role in the school’s modern-day adaptation of “Snow White” and finds herself facing a new distraction—Sampsa, the boy playing the role of the huntsman, who has an undeniable allure that makes Lumikki conflicted about what, and who, she wants.
As Lumikki starts falling into something more than just her role on stage, a shadow is cast over the production when she begins receiving creepily obsessive love notes. Lumikki can’t ignore the increasingly hostile tone of her admirer’s messages, and when the stalker threatens mass violence at the play’s premiere, Lumikki knows she must discover who is behind the menace and stop the person at all costs.
With a foe who has a heart as black as ebony, does Lumikki have any hope of saving those she loves?”
That twist though! I liked this book the most in the trilogy. It went to very dark places and made you doubt things. It's quite a psychological thriller, but it all ends well. The ending was great, it made me feel lots of feels. =D The book is set in Tampere, and although I've been there only once, I loved the city, so it was cool to revisit it via reading. There's a new character Sampsa, Lumikki's boyfriend, and he is really cute and cosy. I love how he wanted to throw a picnic for Lumikki in the middle of winter, so he brought a blanket and foods (including CHOCOLATE MUFFINS) and set them in her apartment on the floor. =D
As for the queer side of things, we have Lumikki, the main character, who is attracted to people regardless of their gender, and then also Liekki who is a trans guy. No complaints about the representation!