The funny thing is she didn’t realize this was badass at all until I pointed it out

This is the story of how my mom is a total badass. It’s pretty much what I’d expect from her at this point; after all, I have a very vivid memory of a trip we took to the north Georgia mountains when I was a teenager. We stumbled on to one of those Pioneer Days events in a state park, and one of the exhibits was an apple cider press that you could try out yourself with local apples. It was supposed to be operated by two people, but there she was, cranking both parts by herself in her tank top and shorts (I have pictures somewhere.) She drank something like a quart of self-pressed apple cider and then promptly got indigestion, because that’s what happens when you drink a quart of apple cider. My point is that she’s always been good at living 150% of life.

This spring, she and my stepdad went to Norway. They had lots of adventures, including kayaking in a fjord when the tour guide casually mentioned that a famous Nazi battleship had sunk there, destroyed by the British, and remained there in ruins. Two thirds of the way through the trip they were hiking in Kirkenes, way up inside the Arctic Circle within view of the Russian border, when she saw a “cool ice formation” off the trail that she wanted to look at more closely. (“That’s how they get you!” a friend of mine would later joke after hearing the whole story.) It looked like a giant anvil. Given Norway’s mythological history with its trolls and frost giants, I can see the appeal of a great anvil made of ice. She went off the trail and promptly slipped on rock algae, hitting both her head and her elbow.

To make sure the head injury didn’t get scary they packed snow into a plastic bag to use as a compress, but there wasn’t really a way to get medical care before she had to be back on the tour boat. It was a small enough ship that they didn’t have a doctor, getting around the rules by saying they could just send people to a doctor in port since they were on a coast-hugging itinerary. However, that doesn’t actually work in practice unless you basically jettison your entire vacation. She tried to see a land doctor a few more times, but even when the ship called in advance it never worked out.

So she just took ibuprofen and waited. She and Stepdad continued to hike, continued to tour Norway, and mostly continued to enjoy themselves despite her pain. Besides, the ship’s security guard waved it off, saying that if it was broken, she’d be in a lot more pain.

When she got home and went to the doctor, it turned out her elbow was fractured to the point where bits were shattered. Now she’s recovering from surgery and has a metal plate in her arm (and five screws.) Her return was the first I heard of the story, since they were mostly incommunicado until they got back to Florida. “Wait,” I said. “You kayaked over Nazi skeletons, then fractured your arm hiking in the Arctic Circle and got by on ibuprofen for a few weeks while continuing to enjoy the scenery?”

Anyway, that’s my mom.

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AI finds herself, a family, & a future

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers is a science fiction novel of such literary quality yet such approachable prose, characters, and relationships that I honestly feel like it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t say this lightly. I loved the previous book in the series, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (my review), and consider it a solid rec, but this one surpasses it by adding some really powerful themes and messaging to the already cool worldbuilding and cozy interactions.

The book focuses on the convergence of two storylines, an AI who lives with some discomfort in an illegal human-looking body, and a flashback timeline to the childhood of the human tech who’s taken her into her family. The human woman grew up as a slave child in a factory on what is probably Earth, but she escapes and makes a life for herself thanks to her own inner strength and the love and compassion of another character.

The major themes of this book, besides the obvious platonic love and “found-family” gloriousness that its predecessor did so well but this one even more intensely, include bodily autonomy, consent, and respect without objectification. One main character, after all, is an artificial intelligence. What’s that like for her? How can she deal with being stuck in a human-looking body instead of living in the walls as a ship’s computer? She didn’t choose this — not freely (she was pressured into it as a result of events at the end of the previous book.) How can she gain more control over herself when there are shackles programmed into her brain?

How can she get her friends to treat her fully as autonomous–they’re doing their best, but you know the drill with allies. Sometimes allyship can be asymptotic. There’s a scene where she’s candid with a new friend that their response to her seems unduly focused on her unusual status. They agree to modify the situation by agreeing that she can ask them as many questions as she wants about them, too, and she adds that it would be nice to answer some questions that aren’t about being a computer.

The human woman’s story is one of resilience and persistence in the face of the worst. It’s easier to digest than it might have been, since from the beginning of the book we see that as an adult she’s living comfortably with loved ones. One sees echoes of Jane Eyre’s time in the orphanage, both in the name “Jane” (which she changes as an adult) and in the fact that there’s another little girl whose friendship very much reminded me of Helen Burns.

One also really feels the state of mind of both the human and android protagonists through the author’s use of language. The android overwhelmingly thinks of anything her physical body does as being done by “the kit” — i.e. “the kit smiled.” It’s not her, in some fundamental way. This is important and ends up being meaningful. And the human’s language too — when she’s a slave child in the factory, her language is limited to the language she would have known. “She taught Jane about something called music, which was a weird bunch of sounds that had no point but made things feel a little better.” As she grows the reader watches her use of language grow, too.

But the heavy is mixed with light. Chambers’ space world is colorful and exciting, populated by a variety of alien cultures that coexist in diverse splendor on the present-day’s port planet. When the AI character eats or drinks, her programming replaces her missing senses of taste and smell with beautiful images that correspond with the flavors she’s supposed to be experiencing, so that she’s able to enjoy them hedonically like her friends are.

You know how in the real world, tattoo artists have a rule about not serving you if you’re under the influence? One of the major supporting characters in this book–the bigender character Tak, who uses he or she pronouns that change from scene to scene–does ink for a living, and they make an exception to this rule — Aandrisks, a species of sentient reptilians. Why? Because Aandrisks shed their scales, so even if you sober up and realize “Oh, shit, who the hell is Larry?” you only have to live with it for a few weeks. I love that this series has the kind of worldbuilding that thinks of these things.

Plus, you have details like, when faced with the mockcusation that another bartender has him beat for fastest in the port, a minor character tosses off “He’s got tentacles. That’s hardly fair.” Or a bar serving a certain alcoholic drink that’s described as being made from Whatever we could grow this year, plus water.

At one point, an alien responds with alarm to the human main character crying happy tears, to which she replies: “Humans do this when–when we’re feeling a lot of things.” His shocked response: “You leak?

This is a Space Book that’s mostly about how characters feel about themselves, about life, and their relationships with each other. Instead of wars between alien species — which are referenced as history, so it’s not like this is a war-free universe — we see injustice on a more personal level, and we witness battles against loneliness, alienation, insecurity, and loss instead, with plenty of warm fuzzies to smooth the journey. This genre, I like it. Another.

These stories may take you to some dark places, some more distressing and some merely a little sad in a familiar way, but Orbit delivers on a happy ending that’s both complete enough to be satisfying and messy enough to feel realistic. And if you’re anything like me, that happy ending will feel so meaningful because you’ll want it for them so badly as a result of the currents of the book..

Incidentally — this is more of a spinoff than a sequel to Long Way because it’s about characters who are barely present in the earlier book and not a continuation of the earlier book’s MC’s story.

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I found a Tristan retelling where Marke/Brangäne is canon!

I’m going to explain the premise, pitch, and demographics of The White Raven by Diana Paxson first so you know whether or not you’re interested and then give you the recipe-blog ramble afterward, so that you aren’t sitting there for the first minute of reading, wondering where this is all going. The White Raven is a Dark Ages fantasy novel that’s heavy on the intimate relationships between characters and the politics between tiny states and relatively light on the actual magic. (You could almost call the magical elements quasi pagan inspie instead of ordinary fantasy, as they reflect the setting’s religious traditions.) The romantic end-game is a hunky older King Woobie archetype, which was my main draw, so if you’re into grizzled sad powerful charistmatic men who need comforting, I can recommend this one with some caveats. They are later down in the review and please do not take them lightly.

The main character is Branwen, the daughter of an Irish king’s brother. Unfortunately, she happens to be a daughter by a British captive he’d brought over, so instead of being raised as a princess, she grows up beside her actual-princess cousin, Esseilte (this book’s version of how to spell the name I grew up calling Isolde) as both a sister and a servant at the same time. The cousins are extremely close and devoted and the storms they weather together comprise a good portion of the book’s emotional upheaval.

I purposely sought this book out because for years I’ve been fascinated by a variation in the Tristan myth in which Isolde begs her handmaiden (i.e. Branwen) to take her place in the king’s bed on her wedding night so he won’t discover that his nephew Tristan has already helped her get her PiV badge. (Please note that in real life it’s probably not so easy to tell if someone has their badge or not!) Since my huuuuge opera crush regularly plays this particular king, it was a hop-skip-and-a-jump over to dreaming about what if Branwen felt like I do, i.e. what if became infatuated with the king based on his personal magnetism and also from her experience with him that one night. So I went to the Goodreads list for Tristan retellings and looked for any of them that had Branwen/Mark as a canon ‘ship.

Well, this is EXACTLY the Branwen/Mark relationship as I would have written it. From the moment she first sees him, she’s riveted–but not in a cheesy way, not like gold confetti fell from heaven, just in a way that makes her later reaction to that wedding night totally plausible. The wedding night incorporated a magical rite that made her literally the queen in a way that the legal queen wasn’t because Mark shared that intimate moment with Branwen, not Esseilte, and I loved that detail. And eventually they do wind up together, after the hardship and loss and grief of the regular Tristan plot that’s been told in a dozen other books and operas and legends. In between, though, Branwen nurses a deep, steady love for him while also maintaining her love for Esseilte through all of their relationships’s adult transformations and trials.

I’ve been around Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde since I was a teenager but this book was the first time I ever truly cared about the actual character of Tristan (or Drustan, as Paxson calls him.) Since there’s space for it within the sweeping epic length of an Eighties Fantasy Novel, we’re right there from the very beginning watching Branwen’s father stab Tristan with a poisoned blade as he dies by Tristan’s hand, we’re there watching him insinuate his way into Esseilte’s life so she can heal that poison, and for all the other bits that Wagnerians only get to hear about in long drawn-out flashbacks via aria.

The tone for the most part is pretty serious except for a moment halfway through the book on that fateful wedding night, when Branwen’s narration suddenly gives us “I felt my eyes widen, realizing that there was more than one reason they called Marc’h the Horse King.” Really? REALLY? I mean, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if not for the narrator’s utter earnestness until that moment.

As far as the rest of the book, I was scared on the first few pages because there was an overwhelming amount of Irish proper names without giving me time to figure out what they all referred to, but that died away pretty quickly and for most of the text, the focus is on the interaction between two to four characters at a time and the associated emotions and relationships. I couldn’t always follow the Dark Ages political landscape, but it didn’t really interfere with my appreciation of the main plot, i.e. the tragic connection between Tristan and Isolde (who in case you didn’t know got that way because of a potion they took accidentally) and the way it affects Mark and Branwen, both of whom love them dearly.

I loved every detail of Branwen’s love for Mark. When he’s away fighting in Gaul, for example…

“They are only moths,” came Drustan’s quiet voice. “We know that summer is almost done when the silver moths come home from Gaul.”

From Gaul, I thought, like the king… I straightened then, letting the moths spiral around me. Did you see him, my sisters, did the wind that bore you here also fill his sails?

 
I love this. I simply, simply love this.

But we’ve got to talk about the trigger warnings. Toward the end of the book, when Mark is absent again, Branwen gets manipulated into an abusive relationship with a man called Keihirdyn. You’ll have ample warning to tread lightly in this chapter because it’s labeled with his name. He sexually assaults her and then either manipulates her into thinking she wants more or she genuinely wants more physically but then feels gross about it emotionally. In either case she goes along with the relationship out of emotional exhaustion more than anything else, beating herself up about enjoying the physical component, until finally her anger at the situation propels her to finally drive the plot forward, since she partially blames Drustan and Esseilte for his behavior. And he does die — at Mark’s sword, which I found cathartic.

Here’s the thing. I hate that she ends up physically “liking” it. That’s a disgusting trope. There’s a nuance to this, though, that reminds me that it could perhaps be personal, and that many people have conflicting feelings about their abusers. It’s possible that it might resonate with people who have survived similar events. Personally, I’m seriously considering ripping those few pages out of the book since I loved the rest of it so much. It’s completely legitimate if the inclusion of this trope makes you nope out on the entire book. I do, however, want to make it easier for people who do want to read the book to do so without this scene ruining it, if that’s something you feel would help you.

The book is dominated by a woman’s love for the cousin she regards as a sister, and how their relationship changes over the course of half a decade as she ultimately loses her to her tragic destiny. How sweet that at least in this version, her love for Mark and the country he accidentally made her queen of without even knowing it can give her new joys once Isolde is gone.

Additional warning for some typical epic-high-fantasy type violence including death and morbid magic (hello, talking severed head! Not at all nice to meet you) and for a brief scene in which Branwen wakes up next to some random nameless dude because she wanted the king really badly and was lonely.

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Real Life Indie Dyer: an interview with Caitlin from String Theory Colorworks

To celebrate the release of my f/f contemporary novella Knit One Girl Two, whose main character Clara is a small-batch independent yarn dyer, I interviewed Caitlin Cieslewska. At String Theory ColorWorks, otherwise known as her garage, she dyes yarn that stripes on its own without you having to do any extra work besides simply knit (or crochet) and watch the colors appear. Caitlin has hundreds of color combinations available and they all have nerdy science names. She’s also a terrific person and an inspiration–in this case, rather literally!

Featured in front: Caitlin’s color ‘Trifolium

What made you first decide to start dyeing your own yarn instead of sticking with stuff from the store or dyed by other people?

When I very first started dyeing, self striping yarn was not as popular as it is now.  The only things you could really find in the LYS were German brands that didn’t come in bright, happy colors and had tons of “faux isle” and weren’t very soft.  I had just started knitting socks and fell in love with the portability of it, and had taken a dyeing class at my local yarn store.  I told my husband “I’d love to have neon yarn that stripes, but I can’t find it anywhere.  Help me figure out how to dye my own?”  And he took it and ran like a boy being chased by sharkey sharkey.  Everything kind of snowballed after that.

Shira’s yummy dragon socks made of color Black Body Radiation

What would you go back and tell yourself at the beginning of your dyeing career, or other indie dyers just starting up?

Be patient with yourself.  Dyeing has a really steep learning curve–it’s either right, or a disaster.  Go slowly, read everything you can find, and experiment!  A failed dye experiment is not the end of the world, it’s just how you need to learn.  Also, never read the comments 😀

What’s your favorite colorway (folks, that’s our yarn world word for a specific color combination) that you dye?

That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child!  My favorite really depends on what I’ve been knitting with lately.  I love to knit up the Isomer colors, even if they are 3 times as much work to dye.


Shira’s note: Isomer colorways, like Ytterbium here, use the same colors but different striping patterns for each sock. Most of her other colorways come in one giant hank so your socks will both have the same striping pattern.

Though I think my new favorite is going to be the colorway I just dyed, Zygoptera.  It’s neon, it’s unexpected, and it’s got a spiffy name.

What are some of the more creative or unexpected things people have made with your yarn besides socks? (It makes great socks, of course!)

All sorts of things can be made with self striping yarn.  My favorites are shawls with non-traditional construction, like Typhoon by Josh Ryks or Lokken by megi burcl.  I also love hat patterns that take the self striping yarn to the next level, the best being the Linen Stitch Slouch by Michelle Lynne and the Swirl Hat by Mandie Harrington.

Who are some other indie dyers whose yarn you really enjoy working with and would recommend to someone who wants some new squishy eye candy?

That’s a hard one.  I love Haldecraft yarns–her colors are totally different from what I dye (more earth tones to my eye bleeding neons), and I know her personally, and she’s awesome, so that helps.  I also love BeEweFibers (she has an etsy store)–she does FABULOUS speckles, and that’s a trend I’m totally in love with and haven’t been able to do yet.

What are some good reasons to buy small-batch indie dyed yarn?

For a few reasons.  First, when you buy indie, you’re supporting an individual, or a small group of people, who are putting their heart and soul into their yarn.  You don’t dye yarn for sale unless you love every second of it.  You’re buying art that’s painted with dyes and wool, instead of canvas and oils, and then you get the added bonus of taking that art and turning into something that is uniquely your own.  Hand dyed yarns have a life, a depth to them that commercial yarn just can’t compete with.

Caitlin’s yarn is for sale at shop.selfstriping.com and new goodies are added every few weeks. She also takes custom orders. String Theory ColorWorks yarn comes in several different bases ranging from pleasant workhorse sock yarns with just merino and nylon content to luxury fiber blends that include cashmere and/or stellina (sparkles!)

Use the code girltwo for 10% off your order as a mutual thank-you from both of us!

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Review of “Mistress Moderately Fair”, historical f/f romance between actress and playwright

This review originally appeared in The Lesbrary

The English Restoration, i.e. when Charles Stuart II returned to England to take his father’s throne back from the Puritans, fascinates me for being a renaissance of both art and hedonism. Theaters opened again after being banned, and all kinds of sexual openness flourished. I purposely sought out queer lit set in this time period – not that there’s much, given that historical LGBT romance skews heavily Regency – and was rewarded with Mistress Moderately Fair by Katherine Sturtevant. I think it’s out of print, but WorldCat has it at these libraries and Amazon has used copies.

Mistress is about a woman who comes to London to become an actress, and in the course of doing so falls for the lady playwright who’s been helping her hone her skills. It delivers most generously on lesbian romance, on plot twists and turns, and on evocative language. The author’s also done a remarkably good job at bringing a time period to life pretty vividly without falling prey to “look at meeee, I’m so well researched!” I felt the exciting earthiness of the time.

The actress, who is going by Amy but that isn’t her real name – she’s the Beauty with a Mysterious Secret Tragic Past trope – is scarred across her face, prompting the line: “I know I have a garden in my face – the roses and the thorns.” How it got that way, and what she’s hiding from, comprise the main conflicts of the book. She’s never heard of queerness before she came to London, not understanding why she’s so immensely, irrevocably drawn to her playwright friend Margaret, until one of her fellow actors gossips to her about their gay boss. Wait, that’s a thing people can do? Is that why I–

And straightaway, beautiful sensual sapphic prose starts gushing out all over the reader:

“I have deceived you,” [Margaret] said. “I have no poetry to share with you.”

“You are deceiving me now,” Amy said in a shaking voice, “For you are yourself a poem, and I have been hungering for you to share yourself with me.”

Their sex scenes glorify in sensuality, with that enthusiastic appreciation of breasts that validates my own impulses so soothingly. Amy is “my type” – a buxom, squishy, gorgeous brunette with luxurious hair and a tragic past. Margaret is one of those independent, outspoken, able to live slightly outside of society’s rules widow characters. They have chemistry from their very first encounter, and are totally believable as a couple.

“MARGARET AND I HAVE BECOME FRIENDS!” Amy gushes into her diary, too cautious to write what she really means. She goes on to add “I will say that we wrote poetry together, and whenever I read those words, I will know what they mean. And they are true indeed, for we have writ such poetry as I never dreamed of!”The metaphor doesn’t stop here, so the book is almost worth it for the “cunnilingus = poetry” jokes alone.

I love the way this book talks about writing inspiration and the way we create idealized and alternative versions of the people in our lives to interact with on the page. So very relatable.

The liveliness of the time period is evident in the snappy dialogue:

“I heard you had returned from the dead,” says the gay theater owner to someone recovering from violence. The man’s reply is “I did not like being dead, for the plays in heaven were quite dull and not the least bawdy.”

In one scene the two leading ladies recognize and mourn how it was easier for a man to be accepted for sleeping with men than a woman with other women, mainly because of misogyny. Incidentally this is a book that recognizes bisexuality as a phenomenon (without actually anachronizing by using the word), which was a nice touch.

My one quibble, and it’s a major one that’s the reason for the missing star, is the treatment of the book’s minor characters of color. Since it’s out of print, it would satisfy me deeply if this book were to return to print with those parts reexamined especially since they could be tweaked with zero impact on the actual story itself. I like the fact that the enslaved cook from next door insists right away that the main character call her by her real African name instead of the English name her own captor gave her–and that Margaret immediately does so–and I like the fact that the main character buys her and frees her at the end. But both she and her friend, another African captive, speak in broken English that felt awkwardly executed to me, and there are passages exoticizing her religious beliefs without actually adding anything to the story itself. I’m glad she was freed at the end but it would have been even more satisfying if she’d left England with the main character’s blessing after being freed instead of being asked to stay on as a servant and sneak out.

Trigger warnings: sexual assault in a flashback, and also for a brutal attack sustained by the gay supporting character from his lover’s brother’s henchmen. I found the lesbian positivity in the book so overwhelmingly affirming that it didn’t bother me as it ordinarily might have, but it’s there all the same.

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My top LGBTQ+ book recs at the Alachua County Library

Thank you for having me to speak at my alma mater yesterday! You have a wonderful space, and I wish we’d had something like that when I was there. I’m so happy for you that it exists.

Below is a list of some of the books at your local county library that I’ve enjoyed the most.  The links go to my reviews, which have plot details without spoilers, trigger warnings, etc. Remember, if you don’t see something you like, use their suggest purchase page (max. 5 requests per week) to bring it in, or go through interlibrary loan to ask them to borrow it from somewhere else. WorldCat.org is a good way of looking up if anywhere else in the Southeast has the book — I don’t think they’ll be able to import things from Australia, for example. And yes, the Suggest Purchase page works on eBooks, too.

Lesbian or bi lady Real-world Romance
The Red Files by Lee Winter (suspense/mystery)
For Sizakele by Yvonna Fly Onakeme Etaghene (love triangle between three Black women)
Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton (Welsh village romance)
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (YA, lesbian Latina learns about how to escape White Feminism)
Under the Lights by Dahlia Adler (YA)
A Wartime Love by Shiralyn Lee (WWII)
Warming Trend by Karin Kallmaker (suspense)
Date With Destiny by Mason Dixon (suspense)
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour (YA)

Lesbian or bi lady Sci Fi or Fantasy
Promises, Promises by L-J Baker (LotR/D&D parody)
Prayer of the Handmaiden by Merry Shannon (warrior priestess)
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones (19th cent costume drama w/political intrigue) and its sequel The Mystic Marriage
Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (queer disabled women fighting Big Pharma in space)
Good Enough to Eat by Allison Grey and Jae (vampire rom-com)
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie (pirates and sea monsters)
Letters to Zell by Camille Griep (“princess” parody; Snow White winds up with a girlfriend)

Trans lit
A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett (short stories)
A Boy Called Cin by Cecil Wilde (nb/trans m billionaire romance)
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (trans girl YA)
When The Moon Was Ours by Anna Maria McLemore (YA fantasy, trans m/cis f)

Polyamory
She Whom I Love by Tess Bowery (Regency f/f/m, bi ladies)
Kneel, Mr. President by Lauren Gallagher (m/m/f, bi men)

Men with men
The Rules of Ever After by Killian Brewer (YA fantasy)
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (YA)
The Bears of Winter (anthology of erotica by and for gay bears, winter settings)
Gone, Gone, Gone by Hannah Moskowitz (YA)
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (YA)
The Marrying Kind by Ken O’Neill (rom-com)

Misc
Fierce Family – anthology of short stories on the theme of “positive representation of queer families in sci-fi/fantasy”

Two notes: two queer ensemble cast post-apocalyptic-yet-heartwarming adventures, RoAnna Sylver’s Chameleon Moon (my review) and Claudie Arseneault’s Viral Airwaves, are both at the library, but both authors have revised their books to include more on-the-page representation and take care of some other issues so you’d be better off seeking these books out another way. (Chameleon Moon stars a trans woman in a triad marriage with two other women and Viral Airwaves features an all-male love triangle, but the new versions include that plus more nonbinary characters and asexual representation.)

Some recommendations for other books that the library doesn’t have, but should–so I heartily recommend them:

Peter Darling by Austin Chant – Peter Pan is trans and grows up to confront toxic masculinity and fall for Captain Hook
Mother of Souls by Heather Rose Jones – the third book in the Daughter of Mystery series, mentioned above
Roller Girl by Vanessa North – roller derby f/f romance starring a trans woman
Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee – superhero YA, f/f, Asian-American lead and author
Black Art by VT Davy – modern-day noir/suspense starring a trans man
The Dyke and the Dybbuk by Ellen Galford – Jewish lesbian paranormal comedy

And of course, I’d be over the moon if you’d check out my books, too ^_^ (I write fluffy queer fantasy in an imagined, Florida-like Jewish setting. Happy endings and friendly dragons guaranteed!)

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A (trans) Pan/Hook slash novel by a trans guy releases next week and it’s the best thing I’ve read in 2017 so far

At long last, my review of Peter Darling, by Austin Chant. Fair warning: Peter Pan and the idea of Captain Hook as a love interest are important enough to me that this review has turned into a post on a recipe blog–in other words, there’s going to be a preamble 😛 If this is too much for you, skip to the words “imagine, therefore, my delight.” (Now imagine Hook saying these words. OK, bye.)

 

Some years ago, fantasy erotica writer Tof Eklund and I discussed the thematic differences between the original J.M. Barrie Peter Pan and multiple movie versions. The novel’s focus is on youth, whereas the movie versions become a fascinating meta-analysis of make-believe itself. After all, Neverland is concocted out of children’s play. At the time the book is set in its real-world scenes, English children were fascinated by pirates and by the environments their parents’ friends had colonized –Neverland seems like a casserole of Caribbean and African plants and animals. A 1960’s Neverland might be an alien planet, for example, because kids had moved on.

 

The most distilled example of this is Captain Hook himself. In at least two live-action versions, the same actor (for example, Cyril Richard or Jason Isaacs) portrays both the children’s father Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. What purpose can this serve other than to emphasize the fact that the children are only playing pretend, or that their imaginary villains are inspired by an intmidating figure from their real life? Darling is, after all, a strict and distant figure.

 

Tof had a fabulous way of summing up the Darling-Hook connection: “Daddy in a hat.” After all, if Cyril Richard goes from being their father to a fearsome pirate captain just by putting on an anachronistic hat with a huge feather, then that pirate captain allows them to explore the thrill of interacting with a villain without actually being dangerous. It’s just a hat.

 

I cribbed this line, with a dedication to Tof and their family, in my short story “The Generous Princess” (Tales from Perach), because the princess’s wizard grandfather-figure is playing Haman in the Purimspiel. He becomes, therefore, “Zayde in a hat”, which as one of her moms explains to her makes him a safe way to interact with the idea of bad guys. In fact, this line is a microcosm of my entire philosophy in creating the wizard in the first place: what we like about appealing villains isn’t their villainy, most of the time, but their swagger, smirk, and distinctively weird clothing.

 

Imagine, therefore, my delight when I discovered that not only was there to be a Pan/Hook novel out there, but that author Austin Chant feels the same way about villains that I do, including the clothing fascination! His Hook is definitely a snappy dresser. In fact, one of the most endearing things about him is that part of the treasure he seeks includes particularly unusual and awesome things to wear instead of just gold. It’s not even played as camp or frivolous. He’s completely macho, while coveting fancy boots.

 

I have to admit when I hear “Pan/Hook slash!” the first place my mind goes is very surface-level and very physical. What I got instead was something I wound up liking a lot more: Chant gets inside the minds of the characters and really explores who they are to each other, which changes and evolves by the chapter.

 

Pan/Hook slash, to be good and not to be insulting to the reader–who is presumably there because they like the original mischievous smartass vs. blustery villain dynamic and doesn’t want to be shortchanged–has to start with that dynamic. Chant doesn’t disappoint. We get an opening skirmish that has all the teasing and violence you’d expect from these two.

 

But soon the novel starts to ask whether the Boys Vs. Pirates setup of the island is even fair — imagine a Disney princess starting to question the idea of idealizing monarchy in fairy-tales — and with each interaction, Hook and Pan draw closer together, even if only by millimeters. Most of the book is slow burn, despite any early attraction, because of the antagonistic nature of their history. The friendship sort of grows in a “you dipshit”-becomes-“my dipshit” sort of way.

 

“Pan,” Hook said. “You saved my life.”

 

[…]

 

“I had to,” he said finally. “If you’d died there, I wouldn’t have been the one to defeat you.”

 

Hook gave a low chuckle. “Your obsession is flattering, Pan. And I share it.”

 

“Obsession?”

 

“Is that not what they call it,” Hook said, “when two men can think of nothing but each other?”

 

I was amazed at the way Chant took the very meta-nature of the Peter Pan story and wrapped it into a fancy bow in ways I never before imagined. This is a story about Peter Pan, but it’s also a story about Peter Pan, if you follow me.

 

Since Peter is transmasculine, I found myself dreading the inevitable “reveal”, and was pleasantly surprised to discover there wasn’t one. At all. Austin Chant actually wrote one, originally in an early draft, before realizing like many of us do that when it’s your book, you don’t have to include the parts you don’t like. There’s a piece of writing advice that says that those parts you skim or skip when reading? Don’t write those parts. This, as Austin points out in his amazing blog post about why he didn’t include a coming-out scene, goes double for scenes that aren’t just boring but actually make you unhappy. As he puts it:

Maybe the coming out scenes I kept writing were uncomfortable because cramming them in only served to entertain the idea of Hook rejecting Peter. I was putting Peter’s trans status on the table as something that had to be addressed and scrutinized before his relationship could proceed, as if they couldn’t be together if I didn’t include that scene.

 

Fair warning that there is deadnaming, misgendering, and even suicidal ideation in Peter’s flashbacks to his life in the Darling household, but these sections are brief and clearly demarkated so you can read them with your mental armor on, if you need it. Plus, this book is a trans man writing a trans man’s experiences, so he’s allowed to write that down. Peter Darling has the sweetest of happy endings — I think they’re even up an apple tree or something old-fashioned like that — so don’t worry, the sunlight is waiting after the storm.

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