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‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore **

Helen Dunmore’s final novel, Birdcage Walk, is a piece of historical fiction set in 1792, in Bristol.  At this time, ‘Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence’.  The Observer calls Birdcage Walk ‘the finest novel Dunmore has written’.  The Daily Telegraph deem it ‘Quietly brilliant…  among the best fiction of our time.’  The Guardian believe it to be ‘a blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still’.  The novel was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and has been rather highly praised by critics, as the above quotes demonstrate. 9780099592761

Lizzie Fawkes, the protagonist of the novel, is the product of a childhood lived in Radical circles, ‘where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism’.  Lizzie has recently married a property developer named John Diner Tredevant, who is ‘heavily invested’ in their city’s housing boom, and has ‘everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war’.  He is displeased with Lizzie’s ‘independent, questioning spirit’, and is of the conviction that she should live and behave only in the manner he wishes her to.  In 1793, war was declared between Britain and France, which led to the collapse of the housing boom in Bristol, causing many builders and developers to go bankrupt; this, of course, affects Lizzie and John.

The novel opens in present day Bristol, where a dogwalker comes across an overgrown grave: ‘If my friends hadn’t decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard.  I always took the paved path between the railings.  Birdcage Walk, it’s called, because of the pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast iron frame.’  The grave which his dog, Jack, first discovers ‘leaned only slightly backwards’.  The name inscribed upon it is Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, an eighteenth-century writer.  The narrator is able to find no information about her whatsoever online, and goes to an open day at her known residence in order to ask an archivist what they are able to find out.

The novel proper begins with rather a chilling chapter.  It begins: ‘He must have shut his eyes.  When he opened them, there she was.  She lay as he had left her, under a tree in the brambles and ivy.  He had laid her out straight, and crossed her hands, and then he had wrapped his coat about her head.  He had known that she would stiffen in a few hours, and that he would not want to see her once again.  There she was.  No one had come; he’d known that no one would come.  It was his luck.  There were no marks where he had dragged her, because he had lifted her in his arms and carries her.’  This man, unknown to us at first, then digs a grave and buries her, before scurrying away.  The second chapter of the novel, and the majority of those which follow, are narrated by Lizzie, whose mother is a writer.

The descriptions in Birdcage Walk are sometimes inventive, and have a vivacity to them.  For instance, Dunmore writes: ‘But the moon was inside too.  It had got into the bedroom while we were sleeping.  Its light walked about over the bedstead, over the chest, the basin in its stand and the blue-and-white jug.  It was a restless thing and I could not lie still.’  I found the first couple of chapters, and the differentiation between tone, character, and period intriguing, but I soon found myself losing interest in the story once Lizzie’s account began.  Her voice felt too settled, and I could not invest enough empathy in her plight.  The dialogue felt forced, unnatural, and repetitive, and the prose and plot were too slow, and plodded along.  Julia Fawkes was a real person, but I felt as though Dunmore had no hold upon her character.  Whilst Dunmore often excels in her novels with her descriptions of the natural world, and in setting scenes, I did not quite feel as though this was the case here.

Birdcage Walk deals with ‘legacy and recognition – what writers, especially women writers, can expect to leave behind them’.  This has an added poignancy, given Dunmore’s untimely death last year.  Unfortunately, whilst I have very much enjoyed several of Dunmore’s novels in the past, Birdcage Walk neither lived up to its premise, nor to its praise, for me.  I am all for slow novels, but I like my historical fiction to be highly absorbing, and well anchored in the period.  Unfortunately, Birdcage Walk was neither.

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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”.

9780099555643“All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

I was so very impressed by Laurence Binet’s HHhH. I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used. The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together. The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily. Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times. He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed. His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first. Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary. HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read. It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end. HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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‘The Pigeon Pie Mystery’ by Julia Stuart ***

I have wanted to read Julia Stuart’s The Pigeon Pie Mystery for what feels like absolutely ages, after really enjoying her other three novels (The Matchmaker of Perigord (2007), Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo (2010), and The Pearl Fisher of Scotland (2016).  The Pigeon Pie Mystery is her third novel, and is set largely inside Hampton Court Palace and its grounds during the reign of Queen Victoria.

As still happens today, the reigning monarch allowed ‘grace and favour’ residents to make their home in Hampton Court Palace, with their rent, at least, being paid by the state.  One such character, whom Stuart focuses upon in this novel, is an Indian Princess named Alexandrina, and nicknamed Mink.  She is invited to make her home in the palace in March 1897 after her father dies ‘in such unusual circumstances’ and leaves her penniless, forcing her to move out of their luxurious home, and into quarters with her hopeless and stubborn maid, Pooki.9780307947697

Soon after she arrives, Mink ‘is befriended by three eccentric widows’, who invite her to a picnic, along with many other grace and favour residents and their families.  Pooki decides to bake a great British favourite, a pigeon pie, for the occasion.  At the picnic, nobody touches this, save for General-Major Bagshot, who dies.  The coroner discovers traces of arsenic in his system, and Pooki thus becomes the favourite suspect in the ensuing investigation.  A ‘fun and quirky murder mystery’ is promised.

This quirkiness is perhaps most apparent with a couple of the peripheral characters, as well as with Stuart’s rather inventive chapter headings.  These range from ‘The Ominous Arrival of the Undertaker’ and ‘An Unfortunate Incident with the Blancmange’, to ‘The Hazards of a Stuffed Codpiece’.  The character list which has been included also features quite unusual attributes and details about the protagonists.  The Countess of Bebbington, for example, is a ‘parsimonious widow in perpetual mourning, with an addiction to ferns’, and the Watercress Seller who ‘hawks outside the palace gate and sleeps in a coffin’.

I hoped that The Pigeon Pie Mystery would be just as entertaining as Stuart’s other novels, but was left feeling a little disappointed.  Whilst there are some undoubtedly creative and amusing elements at play within it, they become lost somewhat in rather a saturated plot, peopled with too many characters.  The writing is certainly intelligent here, but it feels as though Stuart was trying to make too many things work; she had too many fingers in too many pies, and the result became something of a muddle, unfortunately.

The Pigeon Pie Mystery reads like a comedy of manners; in this way, it does tend to become a little silly in places.  Whilst the novel did keep my interest, it was not at all what I was expecting.  It felt quite different to Stuart’s other books, perhaps just because it is her only historical novel.  Although there is great period detail, and a clearly large amount of research which has gone into this work, it feels flatter than it should.

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Powell’s ‘Indiespensable’ Novels

Powell’s Books in Oregon, whose headquarters claim to be the largest new and secondhand bookshop in the world, is somewhere that has been on my to-visit list for around a decade now.  I am determined to get there one day – perhaps with an empty suitcase in tow for a wealth of probable purchases – but for now, I have to make do with their website.  Powell’s champion a lot of small, lesser-known books on their website, and launched a wonderful looking subscription club some time ago, called ‘Indiespensable’.  I would love to sign up, but being in the UK, it is rather expensive.  I have, however, made my way through their archive and highlighted ten books which I really, really, want to read, along with Powell’s wonderful reviews and reasoning for choosing these particular tomes.

1. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner featured-indie-73
‘With The Mars Room, bestselling author and two-time National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner brings readers another award-worthy novel. Romy Leslie Hall, prisoner W314159, captivated us from the beginning, riding in a bus for female inmates heading to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, to serve a double life sentence. Romy’s life has never been easy, and she reflects on her time before prison, when she worked as a stripper at the Mars Room and cared for her son, Jackson. From prison she offers commentary on the minutiae of institutional life, studded with vivid characters like Conan, an extremely masculine transgender male; Norse, a heavy metal-loving white supremacist; and smiley Laura Lipp, the “baby killer.” Entertaining and thoughtful, The Mars Room delves into the injustices of the American prison system and the routine violence inflicted upon marginalized children and women in our society. Switching between Romy’s voice and those of her fellow inmates, as well as a dirty cop, a well-intentioned prison employee, and the diaries of Ted Kaczynski, among others, the novel creates a provocative mosaic of those living within and around the prison industrial complex.’
2. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado’s sublimely creepy debut, draws on the lexicons of urban legend, the 19th-century British gothic, and American society’s evolving ideas about female corporeality to tell stories about women on the edge. Machado’s characters are subject to the familiar embarrassments, privations, and violence to which women worldwide are accustomed, but they ’re also privy to something else; in very different ways, Machado’s main characters share a consciousness of the enormity of the world’s brutality against women, whether it’s exercised through the condemnation of fat, the frequency of rape, the male gaze, the disavowal of female testimony, or campfire stories about bad girls getting what they deserve. In the liminal worlds of Her Body and Other Parties — positioned somewhere between 21st-century America and a horrorscape of breathing pavement and sentient dresses — an intangible, living darkness reaches out to hurt women, or convince them to hurt themselves. The dread this darkness inspires powers Machado ’s riveting short story collection, which heralds the arrival of a brilliant and incisive writer.’
329202263. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
‘From Jesmyn Ward, the National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones, comes another timely and stunning addition to the literary canon. With Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward casts a careful, unsentimental lens on the most disenfranchised Americans. The novel traverses the Gulf Coast on a complex family odyssey, as the characters struggle to find hope and peace in a world that is unsympathetic to them. Leonie, a careworn waitress, finds solace in drugs and Michael, her white boyfriend and the father of their two children. Caught in the middle of Leonie’s quest for the “perfect” family are Jojo, her teenage son, and his toddler sister, Kayla, who prefer the comfort and security of Pop and Mam, the grandparents who raised them. Like Ward’s previous work, Sing, Unburied, Sing is raw and honest in its depiction of the generational poverty, racism, and regret that shadow this family and, more broadly, the rural South. Ward’s signature lyricism lends a visceral quality to her characters and their landscape, without evoking undue sympathy for the most troubled individuals. Sing, Unburied, Sing is an elegantly rendered, brilliant, and necessary reading of the American landscape.’
4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
‘George Saunders’s writing has always been apropos of the current political and social climate, and though his theatrical debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is set in 1862, the modern-day parallels (and contrasts) are striking. The novel portrays a critical time in the life of Abraham Lincoln, who is deep in grief over the death of his son, Willie Lincoln. Disliked by the populace and presiding over a dramatically shifting country, Lincoln finds himself visiting the bardo — a Tibetan purgatory-like state — each night by returning to his son’s tomb while a gaggle of ghosts (including Willie) look on. Told through this chorus of spirits along with real-life and fictional characters, Lincoln in the Bardo turns our idea of the novel on its head. Yet through the fractured narrative, Saunders has created a deft historical tale that speaks volumes about our current unrest and ill-defined state.’

5. The Mothers by Brit Bennett 28815371
‘A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, New Republic, and The Paris Review, Brit Bennett has never shied away from asking and answering the difficult questions when it comes to race. Her debut novel, The Mothers, is just as bold in its depiction of abortion. But the story doesn’t end with this polarizing topic — it begins with it, and each page gradually reveals the tangled lives and fates of three teenagers in a black Southern California community: Nadia Turner, an ambitious and rebellious teen; Luke, the local pastor’s son; and Aubrey, Nadia’s timid friend. Narrated by “the Mothers,” a chorus of elder parishioners of Upper Room Chapel, the story follows Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey from age 17 into their mid-20s. Bennett’s unflinching honesty in portraying these all-too-human characters (including the narrators) is something to be treasured. The Mothers is a beautifully reflective work about the decisions we make in our youth and their reverberations in our lives and throughout our community.’
6. The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
‘We’ve had our eye on Josh Weil ever since his first book, The New Valley, came out in 2009. The collection of three linked novellas won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and earned him a spot on the National Book Foundation’s esteemed “5 Under 35” list of upcoming young authors. So we had high expectations when his new novel found its way into our hands.  The Great Glass Sea lived up to — and surpassed — those accolades with its inventiveness, originality, and incredible story. Yarik and Dima are twin brothers living in an alternate and dystopian version of Russia. Inseparable as children, their adult lives begin to divide along lines of power, ideology, and fortune. Drawing strong influence from Russian folktales, The Great Glass Sea is a gorgeously written, intricately detailed look at how community, individuality, and love evolve in one imagined future. We are happy to be partnering again with Grove Atlantic, one of the country’s premier independent presses, to present this excellent work.
181439777. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘This novel tells the parallel stories of a blind French girl and a young German radio engineer during World War II. Whether he’s describing the locks in Paris’s National Museum of Natural History, the history of a notorious diamond, or the streets of a medieval French port, Doerr lends an expert’s eye to the details of the world he brings to life. But what truly elevates his second novel is how skillfully he uses each of his lyrical, evocative sentences, one after the other, to gradually reveal the complex inner lives of his truly memorable cast of characters. Abraham Verghese wrote: “It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion,” and we, too, feel absolutely enchanted by this book.’
8. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell
‘When we read Matt Bell’s debut novel, our first thought was, Wow! Our second thought was, Indiespensable. Books like this are why we created a subscription club in the first place. We wanted a venue to promote those titles we would stake our reputation on but that might need a boost to reach the audience they deserved, hence the focus on independent presses, small print runs, and first-time authors. We’ll concede that this is not an easy book. It’s certainly difficult to describe, though Lauren Groff came pretty close when she called it “a big, slinking, dangerous fairy tale, the kind with gleaming fangs and blood around the muzzle and a powerful heart you can hear thumping from miles away.” But it is well worth the effort. Once you sink your teeth in, we’re confident you’ll love it as much as we did.’
9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 18428067
‘The moment we opened Anthony Marra’s brutal, beautiful debut novel about an orphaned Chechnyan girl hiding from the Russians during the country’s recent decade of war, we knew that for once our choice would be easy. Maile Meloy perfectly captured our experience: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is “both devastating and transcendent….You’ll finish it transformed.” One colleague was even more succinct, saying simply, “Gorgeous. Just gorgeous!”‘
10. Bright Before Us by Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Facing the prospect of fatherhood, disillusioned by his fledgling teaching career, and mourning the loss of a former relationship, Francis Mason is a prisoner of his past mistakes. When his second-grade class discovers a dead body during a field trip to a San Francisco beach, Francis spirals into unbearable grief and all-consuming paranoia. As his behavior grows increasingly erratic, and tensions arise with the school principal and the parents of his students, he faces the familiar urge to flee—a choice that forces him to confront the character weaknesses that have shattered his life again and again, and to accept the wrenching truth about the past he’s never been able to move beyond. A haunting debut novel, Bright Before Us explores the fraught journey toward adulthood, the nature of memory, and the startling limits to which we are driven by grief.

 

Have you read any of these?  Have you been lucky enough to go to Powell’s before?  Do you ever plan trips around visits to bookshops?

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‘The Rehearsal’ by Eleanor Catton *****

The Rehearsal is the debut novel by Eleanor Catton, the author of The Luminaries, which I very much enjoyed, and which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013.  Despite the praise which her second novel has had, relatively few readers in comparison seem to have come across The Rehearsal.  I was so looking forward to reading Catton’s debut, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and was written as her MFA thesis when she was just twenty two years old.  The Sunday Times recognises that Catton is ‘a starburst of talent and the arrival of an author wholly different from anyone else writing today’.  The Guardian calls the novel ‘astonishing… [it] has the glitter and mystery of a true literary original… the prose is so arresting, the storytelling so seductive, that wherever the book falls open it’s near impossible to put down.’

7513511The Rehearsal follows the experiences of several adolescents when a sex scandal rocks their school, and later, when a group of drama school students decide to dramatise it, the wider community.  ‘The sudden publicity [of the scandal],’ says the novel’s blurb, ‘seems to turn every act into a performance and every space into a stage…  the real world and the world of the theatre are forced to meet, and soon the boundaries between private and public begin to dissolve…’.

Isolde, the younger sister of the girl who enters into a relationship with her schoolteacher, tells her saxophone teacher: ‘Dad says it would probably be years and years before Mr Saladin gets properly convicted and goes to jail…  All the papers will say child abuse, but there won’t be a child any more, she’ll be an adult by then, just like him.  It’ll be like someone destroyed the scene of the crime on purpose, and built something clean and shiny in its place.’  Isolde is focused upon throughout, as is a drama student named Stanley, and a girl named Julia, who has lessons with the same saxophone teacher as Isolde.

Isolde’s sister, Victoria, flits in and out of the narrative and its dialogue; she is the central focus of the novel, due to her actions and their repercussions, and the way in which these draw certain characters together, but she is never a protagonist in terms of the space devoted to her in the novel.  Isolde wonders about her sister’s choices, musing about them, but knowing she will never be able to directly confront Victoria.  Catton writes: ‘She could not ask, Why didn’t you tell me? when Victoria snared her first lover, began her first affair, broke her first promise, or shed, for the first time, tiny blossom-drops of virgin blood, for all those slender landmarks are part of a terrain in which the younger sister does not yet belong.’  There is a rawness to Catton’s characters throughout, and the ways in which they interact.  They are, without exception, complex, and feel ultimately realistic, even when we only know them by their job titles, or when they exist only on the periphery.

The Rehearsal has been written in an extremely clever way; it becomes difficult, almost from the very beginning, to know if the characters are those affected directly by the scandal, or whether they are mirrors, actors rendering their actions into play-form.  They go by the same names, and there is no marked distinction between the two.  This sounds confusing, but actually, it serves to make the novel all the more absorbing.  The Rehearsal bounces back and forth in time, and Catton so cleverly blends what is real, what is acted, and what is imagined together.

There is a real freshness and sharpness to the dialogue here; nothing said is ever cliched, or sentimental.  Conversational exchanges have a complexity to them, and they often startle.  At the drama institute, for instance, a former pupil tells the new intake: ‘Everything you’ve ever slammed shut gets reopened here…  If none of you had auditioned and been accepted you would all have become cemented, cast in plaster and moulded for the rest of your adult life.  That’s what’s happening to everybody else, out there.  In here you never congeal.  You never set or crust over.  Every possibility is kept open – it must be kept open.  You learn to hold all those possibilities in your fist and never let any of them go.’

Taut and impressive, The Rehearsal is certainly a novel to admire.  I enjoyed it even more than The Luminaries, which is a literary tour de force I doubt I will ever forget.  The Rehearsal is perceptive, searching, and understanding; it is incredibly compelling, and there is so much here for one to invest in.  Catton’s prose is beautiful and has such depth to it.  The Rehearsal does not read like a debut novel; rather, it feels incredibly polished and accomplished.  Catton’s voice is highly distinctive; never does it falter.  This novel is a masterful one, which I found entirely absorbing.

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Books for Pride

I am a little late in creating this post, but thought it would be a nice way to mark Pride, which is occurring worldwide during the month of June.  I have put together a list of ten books with LGBTQIA protagonists or themes, some of which I have read, and some of which are on my to-read list.

317062591. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd
In Queer City Peter Ackroyd looks at London in a whole new way – through the history and experiences of its gay population.  In Roman Londinium the city was dotted with lupanaria (‘wolf dens’ or public pleasure houses), fornices (brothels) and thermiae (hot baths). Then came the Emperor Constantine, with his bishops, monks and missionaries. And so began an endless loop of alternating permissiveness and censure.  Ackroyd takes us right into the hidden history of the city; from the notorious Normans to the frenzy of executions for sodomy in the early nineteenth century. He journeys through the coffee bars of sixties Soho to Gay Liberation, disco music and the horror of AIDS.  Today, we live in an era of openness and tolerance and Queer London has become part of the new norm. Ackroyd tells us the hidden story of how it got there, celebrating its diversity, thrills and energy on the one hand; but reminding us of its very real terrors, dangers and risks on the other.
2. Transgender History by Susan Stryker
‘Covering American transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today, Transgender History takes a chronological approach to the subject of transgender history, with each chapter covering major movements, writings, and events. Chapters cover the transsexual and transvestite communities in the years following World War II; trans radicalism and social change, which spanned from 1966 with the publication of The Transsexual Phenomenon, and lasted through the early 1970s; the mid-’70s to 1990-the era of identity politics and the changes witnessed in trans circles through these years; and the gender issues witnessed through the ’90s and ’00s.  Transgender History includes informative sidebars highlighting quotes from major texts and speeches in transgender history and brief biographies of key players, plus excerpts from transgender memoirs and discussion of treatments of transgenderism in popular culture.
3. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood 16059558
When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, determined to persist in the routines of his daily life. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.
4. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Call Me by Your Name is the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents’ cliff-side mansion on the Italian Riviera. Unprepared for the consequences of their attraction, at first each feigns indifference. But during the restless summer weeks that follow, unrelenting buried currents of obsession and fear, fascination and desire, intensify their passion as they test the charged ground between them. What grows from the depths of their spirits is a romance of scarcely six weeks’ duration and an experience that marks them for a lifetime. For what the two discover on the Riviera and during a sultry evening in Rome is the one thing both already fear they may never truly find again: total intimacy.  The psychological maneuvers that accompany attraction have seldom been more shrewdly captured than in André Aciman’s frank, unsentimental, heartrending elegy to human passion. Call Me by Your Name is clear-eyed, bare-knuckled, and ultimately unforgettable.
325612375. Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? by Heath Fogg Davis
Beyond Trans pushes the conversation on gender identity to its limits: questioning the need for gender categories in the first place. Whether on birth certificates or college admissions applications or on bathroom doors, why do we need to mark people and places with sex categories? Do they serve a real purpose or are these places and forms just mechanisms of exclusion? Heath Fogg Davis offers an impassioned call to rethink the usefulness of dividing the world into not just Male and Female categories but even additional categories of Transgender and gender fluid. Davis, himself a transgender man, explores the underlying gender-enforcing policies and customs in American life that have led to transgender bathroom bills, college admissions controversies, and more, arguing that it is necessary for our society to take real steps to challenge the assumption that gender matters.  He examines four areas where we need to re-think our sex-classification systems: sex-marked identity documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses and passports; sex-segregated public restrooms; single-sex colleges; and sex-segregated sports. Speaking from his own experience and drawing upon major cases of sex discrimination in the news and in the courts, Davis presents a persuasive case for challenging how individuals are classified according to sex and offers concrete recommendations for alleviating sex identity discrimination and sex-based disadvantage.  For anyone in search of pragmatic ways to make our world more inclusive, Davis’ recommendations provide much-needed practical guidance about how to work through this complex issue. A provocative call to action, Beyond Trans pushes us to think how we can work to make America truly inclusive of all people.
6. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.  But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.  Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship — one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to ‘fix’ her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self — even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.
7. Unbecoming by Jenny Downham 25582543
Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story. Katie, seventeen, in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, uptight, worn out and about to find the past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything’, despite suffering from Alzheimers. As Katie cares for an elderly woman who brings daily chaos to her life, she finds herself drawn to her. Rules get broken as allegiances shift. Is Mary contagious? Is ‘badness’ genetic? In confronting the past, Katie is forced to seize the present. As Mary slowly unravels and family secrets are revealed, Katie learns to live and finally dares to love. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.
8. Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection aims straight for the perennial “big”—and very human—subjects of romance, family, memory, grief, war, and melancholia. None of these he allows to overwhelm his spirit or his poems, which demonstrate, through breath and cadence and unrepentant enthrallment, that a gentle palm on a chest can calm the fiercest hungers.
63446649. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
Heartbreakingly funny, moving and vibrantly drawn, Skim is an extraordinary book–a smart and sensitive graphic novel of the highest literary and artistic quality, by and about young women.  “Skim” is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth who goes to a private girls’ school. When Skim’s classmate Katie Matthews is dumped by her boyfriend, who then kills himself, the entire school goes into mourning overdrive. As concerned guidance counselors provide lectures on the “cycle of grief,” and the popular clique starts a new club (Girls Celebrate Life!) to bolster school spirit, Skim sinks into an ever-deepening depression.   And falling in love only makes things worse…  Suicide, depression, love, being gay or not, crushes, cliques, and finding a way to be your own fully human self–are all explored in this brilliant collaboration by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. An edgy, keenly observed and poignant glimpse into the heartache of being young.
10. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourites with LGBTQIA themes or characters?  Have you read anything specifically to celebrate Pride this month?

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‘Zennor in Darkness’ by Helen Dunmore *****

Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness proved the perfect tome to pick up over a relaxed and warm bank holiday weekend.  I first read the novel some years ago, but did not remember much about it, save for D.H. Lawrence featuring as one of the protagonists, and the sweeping Cornish setting.  First published in 1993, John le Carre calls this ‘a beautiful and inspired novel’, and the Sunday Telegraph deems it ‘highly original and beautifully written’.

9780141033600Zennor in Darkness opens in May 1917, when war has come to haunt ‘the coastal village of Zennor; ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy stories.’  It is into this environment that D.H. Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, move, seeking a cheaper existence away from the controversy which his writing has caused in London.  Also resident in the village, and living with her widowed father, is a young woman named Clare Coyne.  She is a young artist, whom Lawrence and Frieda soon befriend.

When Lawrence arrives in Cornwall, it is almost directly after the publication and scandal of his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  In Zennor, he is ‘growing vegetables to eke out his tiny income.  He earns his living by his writing, and it has shrunk close to nothing since his novel was seized by the police in November 1915 and prosecuted for obscenity.  The book is shameful, say reviewers and prosecution.  It is a thing which creeps and crawls…  He does not know when he will be able to publish another novel.  But with a remote cottage rented at five pounds a year, and cheap rural living, he hopes that he and his wife may get through the war.’  Controversy follows the Lawrences wherever they go, however; local residents are highly suspicious of Frieda’s German accent, and the couples’ penchant for singing Hibernian lullabies to one another.  ‘This brazen couple,’ writes Dunmore, ‘ignores the crossed, tight webs, the drystone walls, the small signals of kinship, the spider-fine apprehensions of those who’ve lived there for ever once they feel a fly strumming somewhere on their web.’

Dunmore’s descriptions throughout are highly sensual.  At the outset of the novel, when Clare decides to swim with her cousins with nothing on, she writes: ‘Second in, she must be second out.  And she wants the sea to herself for a minute, the noise and swell of it, her bare flesh rocking in salt water.’  The rural scenery, as well as the current crisis and its effects, are set with such grace.  Dunmore is very understanding of the location against which the action of the novel plays out, as well as the wider political climate, and the links between the two.  When Clare and Lawrence survey the sea, for instance, she writes: ‘It is wonderful to have your back to the land, to the whole of England: to have your back to the darkness of it, its frenzy of bureaucratic bloodshed, its cries in the night…  To have your back to this madness which finds a reason for everything: a madness of telegrams, medical examinations and popular songs; a madness of girls making shells and ferocious sentimentality.’

Dunmore’s depictions of people, too, are vivid and memorable.  When Clare meets Lawrence for the first time, for instance, she finds that ‘his beard is astonishing.  It juts from his face, wiry and bright red, and then the sunlight catches it and it’s all the colours she’d never have thought human hair could be: threads of orange and purple like slim flames lapping at coals.’

Whilst the majority of the novel is told using the third person omniscient perspective, the use of diary entries written in Clare’s voice are effective.  Using this technique, Dunmore shows a more tender side of her, and it is also, of course, far more revealing than she is able to be in her public life.  Snippets of first person perspective, and thoughts of individual characters, have been woven throughout.  Sometimes asides are given, or reflections between snatches of dialogue.  Separate characters are focused upon in individual chapters, and we are thus able to see the rich tapestry of those who live within Zennor, some of whom are real historical figures, and others of which have been imagined by Dunmore.

Everything within Zennor in Darkness has been beautifully placed into what is a taut and tightly executed novel.  Throughout, Dunmore’s writing is measured and careful; she is understanding of her characters, and never resorts to melodrama.  Zennor in Darkness is a novel to really admire; it is slow, sensuous, incredibly human, and highly beautiful.

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