If You’re Brown, Stick Around: Books About Colorism

If you’re Black, get back! If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re white, you’re alright! ~ Big Bill Broonzy

Even though I make a conscious effort to read across genres, cultures, and time periods I still sometimes find myself stuck in theme patterns. For months I’ll find myself somehow reading books that feature sharks or Chinese calligraphy or clown cars. It’s not that I’m intentionally trying to read around specific ideas, but sometimes it just sort of…happens.

Lately, the theme that has been whopping me over the head repeatedly in books is colorism, or the practice of discrimination/bias due to skin color both within and between racial groups. While I unpacked my personal feelings and experiences of colorism quite a bit in my review of the essay collection Whiter, it seems as though the topic isn’t quite done with me yet. Everything I’ve read in the past few months seems to have at least an underlying current of colorism, if not an overt discussion of the topic. While my personal feelings on the subject tend towards contempt and disgust rather than personal hurt, I’m aware that the subject hits a very tender nerve with a lot of people in a lot of communities, and that many simply comply with the idea without ever really thinking about the ridiculousness of it all.

That’s where the books come in. I’ve curated a (very) shortlist of texts I’ve come across recently on colorism to share with you all. (If you want to see them all in one place, click here.)

As always, this isn’t an expert list, since I am not an expert. It’s also not complete or definitive. It’s simply a few books on colorism that I find helpful, interesting, or entertaining, and hope you will too.

So, without further ado…

  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison. While I’d argue that the heart of this classic novel beats in a place far deeper than colorism, clearly the topic plays a major role in the story. ( I mean…look at the title!) The story follows three little Black girls in the 1940s realizing that they live in a world that openly dislikes who they are and the way they look, and their coming-of-age in a community of adults living with the resulting self-contempt. It’s a slow, sad, meaty novel with a terribly depressing ending, but it’s a classic for a reason. The writing is peerless, the themes interrogated with a rare level of grace, and the characters deeply human and affecting.

  • Coffee Will Make You Black, April Sinclair. On a more hopeful note–this novel, set some 20 years after The Bluest Eye, manages to pull together many of the same themes as Morrison’s masterpiece with far different, less depressing results. To be fair, it’s a young adult novel, but the protagonist, Stevie, makes far less devastating choices and has a much more supportive community than the one in The Bluest Eye. The final message is about dismantling the power of colorism and other prejudices (sexuality also plays a major part in the story) rather than being destroyed by them. It’s a funny, thoughtful novel with an unusual ending.

  • Don’t Play In The Sun, Marita Golden. This one strikes a nice balance between the crushing heartbreak of Morrison and the hopeful growth of Sinclair. As a memoir, this book is of course focused on the author’s personal experiences but still manages to paint a very illuminating picture of how colorism shapes and is shaped by Black American culture and history. There’s a lot of analysis and critical thought included with the anecdotes, making this a very worthwhile read.

  • Whiter: Asian American Women On Skin Tone, edited by Nikki Khanna. Being Black myself, I often only think of colorism in terms of African diasporic communities. However, I live in Asia and colorism is a whooolllle other game over here. For a broad, academically grounded, but still very vulnerably human overview of Asian and Asian-American variants of colorism this collection of essays is an excellent start.

  • Fairest, Meredith Talusan. Speaking of colorism in Asia, this memoir by a Filipina-American immigrant contains some interesting ideas on the subject. While I gave this book all the side-eyes possible in my final review, I still think it’s interesting to see colorism from the other side, as it were. Talusan has albinism, and it’s clear that her paleness comes with both privilege and othering. How reliably she recounts that is another thing, but if you see this at your local library, peek into it and see what you think.

  • Sana, Sana, Ariana Brown. I haven’t read nearly enough of this woman’s work yet. Brown is multiracial(Black and Mexican), and her poems neatly unpack the intersections and levels of colorism as one navigates between different communities and cultures. Her poem “Supremacy”, which she performs in the video above, is an excellent example of that.

  • Passing, Nella Larsen. The final entry on this list, first published in 1929, is perhaps the definitive novel on color politics in America, and one of the few that dives deeply into the often taboo practice of “passing”–that is, pretending to be white in order to gain social benefits and acceptance, while being ethnically and culturally connected to non-white communities. While the book itself focuses on Black Americans, this is a common practice across non-white communities in America and beyond (Talusan even does it in the Philippines in Fairest.) The novel manages to explore the subject thoroughly yet still maintains enough of a sense of story and character to keep threads of humanity, sympathy, and intrigue woven through all the social commentary. (TL:DR; it’s a great story.)

As I said before, this list is hardly exhaustive and there are a lot of titles missing, of course. I find that many of the best books on colorism are often academic texts, and you can find several of those included on the complete list, found HERE.

Other than that– be kind to yourselves, fellow readers, no matter what your skin tone is. Share your thoughts on these reads(and your own suggestions) in the comments. Peace!

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Sula, Toni Morrison

(Buy it HERE.)

(In lieu of the usual review, I present to you the explanation of this book that I gave to a non-American friend who has never read Toni Morrison before.)⠀
“This book? Yeah, it’s good, but I’m not sure you’d like it. It’s by this writer who won a Pulitzer prize & was famous for writing about Black people & racism, but really her books aren’t about that at all, they’re about Black people’s lives during real historical America and racism is just…a part of that. I never get the feeling Morrison is trying to make statements about race in America. She’s just expressing its reality as a factor in the lives of Black people.”⠀

“What’s it about? Uh, well, there’s this segregated town in the 1920s & these 2 little Black girls are born into really different families but still become friends. They have this really innocent, nostalgic American girlhood full of ice cream parlors, climbing trees and girl talk. Then one day they’re out playing & accidentally just up and kill another kid, keep it a secret and…hey, you know what? I just realized that this book is *really* violent. The thing with the kid isn’t even the worst, or the most important. There’s just…death around every corner in this book, and if not death then pain, or some kind of suffering.. There’s lots of sex too. The violence is more shocking & disturbing than the sex, of course. Like, there’ll be a peaceful, mundane scene then sudden shocking violence. Two girls are playing in a field, then suddenly someone drowns. A lady is washing vegetables, then suddenly she’s burning to death. A mother tucks in her son and the next thing you know, he’s burning to death. I kept having to put the book down and do something else to give my mind and emotions a break. The author said the book is about friendship but it seems to be more about cruelty and sadness in relationships. And the title character, Sula–I’m not sure she makes any sense. She’s just…sociopathic, really. If this was a movie, it’d be a horror flick & she would be the villain. Her thoughts are explained thoroughly but it still feels like a creepy little theme should play every time she appears on a page. But it never really feels like her character arc is resolved so the ending seemed flat, despite being beautifully written.⠀
“But the other characters & the setting are really interesting, and the writing is pure genius. The town’s whole life cycle is told with so much rich, sensory detail in only 170 pages and the words are just beautiful, even when they’re describing horrible things. There’s something brilliant about the way that Morrison uses these beautiful words to juxtapose mundanity and horror and keep the reader thinking and feeling, but she did it better in Beloved. In some ways, this book feels like a test run for that one. ⠀
“But if you don’t already know Morrison, maybe don’t read this book first. Try Beloved or The Bluest Eye. This one is still very good, but I think you need to be familiar with the author first to enjoy what she does in this book. Come back to it, though, once you have a feel for Morrison’s style, because it really is profound, despite the shock of violence.”

“Yeah, sure, you can borrow it.”
4 stars and a better explanation to Sula. 😁

(Thanks for reading, beautiful people. If you want to give Sula a try, check your local library or purchase it from Bookshop here. I’ve made a list of essential Morrison reading as well, which you can find here. This blog is a Bookshop affiliate, so if you click through and make any purchases, a commission will be earned. Peace!)

A Mercy, Toni Morrison

(Buy it HERE.)

*whew* This ain’t it, y’all.
Toni Morrison was a genius and everything she wrote is brilliant in some way. But now that I’ve said that, I honestly feel that when you place A Mercy next to the rest of Morrison’s oeuvre it’s like parking a hooptie in a lot full of Ferraris.

There’s not much in the way of plot here but what there is, is focused on slave girl Florens going to fetch a free African blacksmith who practices herbal medicine so he can save her owner’s farm from a plague of smallpox. Ostensibly, that’s the story, but really the book is built of the characters telling their trauma narratives of how they came to the farm. A Mercy is scattered across half a dozen POVs belonging to an ersatz “family” made up of a slave owning couple, a pair of European indentured servants on loan to the farm and several slaves, both indigenous and African. It’s set in pre-colonial 1690s Virginia.

I can’t say that I didn’t like this at all, but frankly it seems unfinished to me. It lacks focus and clarity and reads like a 165-page draft, a collection of broad plot strokes and character sketches from what should have perhaps been a much longer and deeper novel. It is interesting to visit America in its infancy and see the lines of justice and injustice that grew to define the country being drawn. We tend to think of chattel slavery as a very static, unchanging institution in our history but it lasted for 400 years and has a history of its own. Slavery in A Mercy is far different than slavery is 200 years later in Morrison’s classic work Beloved, and realizing that was the most intriguing part of this book.
It took me almost 3 weeks to read less than 200 pages because of how diffuse and incomplete they seemed. Brilliant compared to everybody else, but this is Morrison’s worst.

3 stars and a freelance copyedit to A Mercy.

(Fellow readers, this is your regularly scheduled reminder that this blog has an affliate agreement with Bookshop.com and any clicks and purchases made on links here will result in a commission earned by me, your friendly neighborhood reading reader who…reads. Thanks for reading, and peace!)

Fairest, Meredith Talusan

(Buy it HERE.)

Although I did my official Pride Month wrap-up a few days ago, I didn’t mention one of the LGBTQIA+ themed books I read, simply because I’ve had such a hard time deciding what to say about it.

Is there a word for a book that everyone else seems to like, but you don’t? Part of my difficulty with deciding what to say about Meredith Talusan’s Fairest is that that book is so highly and critically acclaimed, yet I still didn’t like it much. Taste is subjective, of course, but it’s further complicated by the fact that I really wanted to like this book. Talusan’s Slate interview intrigued me and I was fascinated by the overwhelming singularity of her life experience–albino, child star, immigrant, trans woman, Harvard graduate. I was expecting to be immersed in her life, to truly see the world through a pair of eyes entirely unlike my own and thereby sharpen my own vision of the world a little bit.

But, I got none of that, and therefore–I didn’t like this book. I give it a smooth two stars–maybe three, if you push me. This book and its author are enormously complex and my feelings and thoughts about it only slightly less so–I didn’t hate the book, and there were some things I liked about it, so let’s start there.

The Good Stuff…

  1. Talusan’s life and experiences are entirely unique. While there are more than a few people in the Phillipines born with albinism, and some of them are undoubtedly gay, transgendered, or both, how many of them go to Harvard? How many of them have long, loving relationships with members of the British peerage? How many were child stars in the Phillippines and came to the US to live in relative poverty not due to lack of earning power or opportunity but parental irresponsibility? How many of them are interns at the British library? And how many of them revel fully in experiences of life and sexuality as both a man and a woman? Meredith Talusan is extremely unique. This book was an complete and unexpected departure from my own life and I appreciated that quite a bit.
  2. Fairest avoids annoying trans and immigrant tropes. There are things we have been conditioned to expect from immigrant stories; slavish devotion to family, soppy gratitude for even the smallest American-style material comforts, and awkward fish-out-of-water mishaps with culture and language and education. There are other things we’ve grown to expect from transgender stories, like crippling body dysmorphia, gender confusion, revelatory physical transformations, and a host of other difficulties. Talusan’s experience remains singular in that if she did experience any of those things, she makes the bold choice to not talk about them much, if at all. When she does, she approaches from atypical angles. Immigration is almost a non-event in the book–the narrative skips from her first day in the US in her early teens to her arrival at Harvard with little mention of the years in between. Similar time skips are made around her gender confirmation process–it’s not so much an event as an inevitability. Instead, Talusan focuses more on her own internal life and perceptions of the world and as a result, writes herself as her own steadfast normal in a way that I really respect and want to see more of from writers.
  3. The narrative is honest. Talusan has said in interviews that she has no interest in portraying herself as a lily-white(ha), flawless protagonist triumphing over a hostile world. I definitely respect the honesty here–Talusan presents herself very vulnerably and openly, warts and all. But while I respect her refusal to lionize herself, I didn’t enjoy the results much. I suppose that brings me to…

The Not-So-Good…

  1. Meredith Talusan sounds like terrible company Some memoirists are able to write about themselves in a way that makes the reader even more intrigued about who they are despite their flaws. (Think Samantha Irby, Marcus Samuelsson, Holly Madison, even Arnold Schwarzenegger). Talusan does the opposite, writing herself as unrepentantly vapid, venomous, self-absorbed and mean. The weird thing is that she doesn’t seem particularly aware that that’s how she’s coming across–she seems to be under the impression that she’s genuinely beautiful and special, an attractive, magnetic Harvard blonde. But her page persona is someone I’d ignore entirely in real life–mean girls are boring. Instead of wanting to take her for a drink and get the stories behind her story, I mostly just felt sorry for the friends, family and lovers she writes about, for having to put up with her. I felt the same way about Eat, Pray, Love. Despite the book’s popularity, Elisabeth Gilbert wrote herself as a vacuous, selfish person who only saw other people as functionaries in her journey to become whatever she wanted to be, and that ultimately turned me off of the book–that’s not a fundamentally interesting story, for me. Selfish people who talk about themselves a lot are a dime a dozen. Talusan does the same, and while it may not be true to her in reality (and to be fair, I doubt it is ) it’s still not a joy to read. I can go to my local bar and listen to somebody tell tales of staring at themselves in mirrors and trying to steal their best friend’s boyfriend but I don’t. Why give that person an audience unless they’re a really great story-teller? But that brings me to…
  2. The writing could be better. I’m aware that Meredith Talusan is a Harvard-educated journalist, photographer, and bonafide member of the literati. I’m also aware that I am a largely unpublished nobody writing this on a blog only a few people read but look, let me keep it real. The writing of this memoir is underwhelming. From the reviews I was expecting some truly toothsome prose, some delicious craft I could really savor and immerse myself in. Instead,I got some flat, dry, competent but ultimately empty-seeming words that I can barely chew, let alone swallow. If I hadn’t been reading folks like Ocean Vuong, Rakesh Satyal and Bernardine Evaristo so much this year perhaps I’d have been less underwhelmed, but I was expecting PROSE and got prose instead. I read books for the writing(duh) and aside from some clever tricks of narrative, Fairest is largely functional. It’s serviceable but not up to the standard of what I was expecting. And speaking of what I was expecting…
  3. This book is far too complicit with the things it claims to be interrogating. There’s an anecdote shared in this book that made me extremely uncomfortable in a way that was perhaps not intended. Talusan, pre-transition, on one of her rare trips home to the Phillipines, decides to hire a young sex worker and pretends to be a rich white American during the encounter. Talusan recounts how impressed the boy is by her physical whiteness, her relative wealth, and how desperate he is to please her. The entire encounter seems meant to revel in Talusan’s earned power and explore the difference in station imbued by skin color privilege, nationality and education. It does that, but it also comes across as cruel, full of projection and frankly–delusional. Large portions of the book rely on Talusan’s claim that she passes, first as a white man, then as a white cis woman. Girl, I guess so. I have to say that when I first saw Talusan in an interview, long before I knew who she was or her story, she appeared undeniably Asian and transgender to me despite her albinism. Are we really supposed to believe that she travels through the world entirely unclockable, a perfectly created white woman reaping the benefits of such? Nobody perceives anything but her literal skin color? I don’t buy it. (Although it’s perhaps worth pointing out that I’m Black, and Talusan notes in the book that Black people she encountered IRL generally saw through whatever social projections she attempted. She also assumes that they experience the world as hollowly as she does, which is problematic.) Yet the book is full of comments on the author’s pretensions of whiteness and cisgenderedness, and there’s a pervasive sense of superiority in her assumed ability to pass as these “better” things. The interviews and reviews that piqued my interest in this book make much out of the idea that Talusan is interrogating her privilege and difference by telling her story in this way. If by “interrogating” we actually mean complying with harmful and oppressive ideas out of a desire to assimilate with whiteness and gender norms to the point of self-delusion, then I guess Fairest succeeds. But from my own critical perspective, I’m honestly creeped out by Talusan’s largely unexamined assumptions that whiteness, straightness, “conventional” beauty and wealth are synonymous with desirability and success. There is never a point where Talusan seems to enjoy and accept herself outside of how she is externally perceived,and it’s rather sad. Colorism and complict prejudice in Asian contexts has been whopping me over the head in books lately, most recently in Whiter and The Poppy War, but it’s taken to a new extreme here simply because it isn’t interrogated enough. Talusan’s self-characterization lacks depth and so do her attempts to explore how colorism and other issues of privilege and power really affect her life and the lives of others around her, despite that being a stated theme of the book. Instead of being revelatory, her experience largely comes across as compliant and complicit–and that complicity renders the singularity of her experience dull and useless, for literary purposes. I’m also a bit bothered at how Talusan’s career seems to depend at least partly upon the language of minoritization, oppression and struggle but her experience seems to be one that benefits from buddying up and reinforcing oppressive structures of privilege. Instead of interrogating privilege and power, Talusan is simply trying to co-opt them for herself, sometimes in ways that seem dishonest and two-faced. Some people might find that brave, realistic and analytical. I simply find it unpalatable.

Two stars and a heavy dose of truth serum to Meredith Talusan’s Fairest.

(Thanks for reading, beautiful people. If you want to see a list of memoirs I did enjoy, check out this Bookshop list. Also,now is the perfect time to tell you that this blog is an affiliate of Bookshop and if you click and purchase anything from a link you find here, I earn a commission. Peace!)

Pride Month Reads 2020: A Wrap-Up and Booklist

Happy Pride Month, fellow readers! The genesis of LGBTQIA+ Pride is a long story that begins before the 1969 Stonewall riots and still continues today. Notably, in 1970 a bisexual woman named Brenda Howard first proposed a Pride march and a week of events to celebrate and take joy in queer identities and the rest is history. I’m not going to give a whole lesson here(and I don’t know if I could), but if you really don’t know what Pride is, check out the video below for a quick primer.

While I myself am straight and cisgendered, I’ve been welcomed into LGBTQIA+ spaces as an ally (and like the typical annoying ally, made mistakes, offended people by staying stupid stuff, and gotten way more out of the experience than I’ve given. Sorry y’all. Next step; becoming an accomplice and helping dismantle structures of oppression. Can’t promise I’ll stop saying stupid stuff entirely, but I’m trying hard.) Despite that, I’ve read alarmingly few works by authors in the community. I first realized this back in November, when I made an Instagram post for Trans Awareness Week and was embarrassed to realize that the only book by an openly transgender author I’d ever read was Eddie Izzard’s memoir. Yikes. A quick perusal of my Goodreads revealed that while I’ve read a lot of books about the QUILTBAG community by people outside of it, I hadn’t really read much by actual queer authors, and I wanted to change that. I started by reading work by queer and trans authors a bit more actively, and read mostly LGBTQIA+ authors during Pride Month this year.

In case you’re in the same boat as me–you haven’t read a lot of books by writers in the LGBTQIA+ community but would like to–I’ve decided to do a quick roundup of recommendations. My list is by no means exhaustive or expert, but it is a few books that I read and personally found illuminating or just plain interesting.

I also strongly recommend that you read this month’s guest post from my friend Rogene, where he reviews the memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue penned by gay author George M Johnson. Also check out his carefully curated Pride Month booklist which comes from a place of considerably more expertise and refined taste than my own.

So…on to the list!

Recommendations(in no particular order…)

Wow, No Thank You and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, by Samantha Irby

Samantha Irby has been a favorite writer of mine since I stumbled across her hilarious blog bitches gotta eat years ago. In her second collection of humorous essays, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life she opens up publicly for the first time about her “casual bisexuality”. In her 4th, Wow, No Thank You she takes us deeper down the rabbit hole(ha ha) and includes bits about what it’s like to be married to another woman for a long time. I’ve always loved how accepting Irby is of herself in her work, and appreciate that her sexuality is a fact and never a focal point of her self-deprecating humor.

Becoming Him by Landa Mabenge

This memoir by a South African transgender man is captivating, inspirational and very deeply grounded in family and culture, all good book ingredients. While I’m sure there were a LOT of things I missed due to unfamiliarity with the nuances of being transgender or South African culture, after reading this I still walked away feeling privy to a truly exceptional life and person.

Plus, Mabenge himself DM’ed me after I posted my review on Instagram and he is SUPER nice. He even posted my review in his IG stories(despite the fact that it wasn’t entirely flattering)!

Let’s Talk About Love, by Claire Kann

Speaking of unfamiliarity–who knew asexual YA romance novels were a thing? At least one exists, anyway. This very sweet story about a biromantic asexual woman is deeply relational and manages to explain things without going too Very Special Episode on its readers.

Asexuality is a part of the LGBTQIA+(it’s what the “A” stands for) but it seems to be kind of the red-headed stepchild of the community. A lot of people don’t know what it is or understand it, but this book bridges the gap quite neatly, I think.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong

This is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It’s emotionally messy and flawed but Vuong keeps you deeply engaged with his amazing prose.

Often not a lot of thought is given to the sexuality of young immigrants or poor people unless it’s from an exploitative angle. It’s notable that this book centers a relationship between two teenage boys with a shifting power dynamic and does so in a way that is charming, heart-rending but never cruel. In other words–I cried a lot over the ending and you probably will too.

Slave Play, by Jeremy O. Harris

I’m including Slave Play here because even though I’m ultimately ambivalent about it, it does something that writers are often hesitant to do–examine the (often negative) ramifications of racial power dynamics in inter-racial relationships. Slave Play looks at two straight couples, one gay couple and a lesbian couple, and while one of the straight couples ultimately takes center stage, there are some hard thoughts broached through the gay and lesbian couples that are really worth paying attention to. The intersections of race and sexuality are complex and not as egalitarian as they’re often presented. Slave Play is worth a read because it takes a hard unflinching look at that reality.

Odd One Out, by Nic Stone

I didn’t really like this book (it has issues that have nothing to do with the sexuality of its characters or author) but I’m including it here for one reason. It’s the only book I’ve read that presents the possibility of sexuality being a mutable, evolving thing rather than a flag planted in the sand. LGBTQIA+ themed books often project and explore very binary emotions and decisions with very set end points–but this book contains a lot of questioning and a lot of indefinite answers, which is very true to life and should be normalized as well. I didn’t like the book much, but I’m glad it was written just the same.

Honorable Mentions

I don’t have as much to say about these, but think they should be mentioned briefly.

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire is so deep in the culture that I read the whole book and had no idea that it features non-binary, asexual and biromantic representation until it was explained to me later. It resonates deeply with people, and while I may not have gotten it at all, I’ve had enough conversations with people who did to include it here. Plus, it’s a creepy contemporary fantasy with a lot of fairy tale elements. What else could you ask for?

I Can’t Date Jesus… by Michael Arceneaux is included here because Arceneaux’s essays contain a lot of face-to-face reckoning with religion and the role it can play in repressing and oppressing gay people. His thoughts on how religion and sexuality reconcile within himself–or don’t, sometimes–are thought provoking.

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal is one of my new favorite books and I can’t recommend it enough. While sexuality is not the focus, it is a theme and several of the characters are gay and Hindu. I think we’re very used to the idea of gay people emerging from Abrahamic religions but have no idea how other faith paths intersect with sexuality, and this offers a glimpse.

Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris is hokey and dated now, but I think it deserves a little shine for being the OG Black gay bestseller back in the 90s. Plus, this is the book that teenage me, raised in a very religious, conservative, repressed home, happened upon in the library, read and began to develop empathy that put me on the path of unlearning homophobia (Honest moment: it still took a while). I understand that it may not be for everyone, but the book had a deep impact on my own development as a person, and so I include it here.

Future Reads…

Sometime in the next 6 months, I want to get into these, which have LGBTQIA+ representation or themes:

The Stars and The Blackness Between Them, by Junauda Petrus – lesbian, romance

A Taste Of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson – gay, fantasy

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters – lesbian, historical thriller

Gracefully Grayson, Ami Polonsky – transgender, YA

The Chiffon Trenches, Andre Leon Talley – gay, memoir

The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism Within US Slave Culture, Vincent Woodard – LGBTQ studies, non-fiction

The Gilda Stories, Jewelle Gomez – lesbian, horror fantasy

(I’m not promising I’ll review all of these, I’m just saying I’d like to read them.)

Happy Pride to all who celebrate and here’s to continuing to read diverse writers! If you have any links, suggestions or criticisms, feel free to leave them in the comments!

(Thanks for reading, beautiful people! This blog is an affliate of Bookshop, and if you click through and purchase from any of the links within, I earn a commission. Just thought you should know. Peace!)

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, Sun-Mi Hwang

(Buy it HERE.)


The important thing is to understand each other. That’s love!”

This book follows Sprout, a pathetic old laying hen with a big heart and a dream. She survives a terrifying coop cull and embarks on a new life in the fields as a free hen. Her lowly circumstances don’t keep her from fighting to reach rather lofty goals–more than anything, she wants to be a mother. She wants to hatch an egg, safely raise her baby, and then fly away. Does she do it? Well, yeah–but not in any way you’d expect.

I read a whopping 11 books in February (not normal! Blame coronavirus and bad weather). I have to admit, ending the month with this was kind of a downer. It’s so sad, even in its most hopeful moments. There’s a harshness to the lives of Sprout and her animal friends that really puts the reader on emotional edge–some bits of this book make Watership Down look like Pororo.

But ultimately, the story is very good, and comes to a sad and beautiful conclusion. I never knew a sickly little hen could keep me so near tears! Out of all the lives we get to live through the magic of the printed word, perhaps Sprout’s is one of the most unlikely and affecting. I won’t forget her or her huge and motherly heart in a hurry.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is translated from the original Korean by Chi-Young Kim, and I have to be honest, it’s not an amazing translation. It gets us from point A to point B, and when it’s good, it’s very good. Unfortunately there are a few points where odd vocabulary choices take us out of the story– for example, when Sprout compares a ducklings’ and a chick’s “fur”–isn’t the fuzz on baby birds called down? There’s a few moments like that, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t caught in editing.

One more thing–this is a book you’ll want to own a physical copy of, if you decide to own it. The paperback edition is really beautifully made, with gorgeous minimalist illustrations by Japanese artist Nomoco and deckled edges. It’ll look lovely on your bookshelf and would make a nice gift.

4 out of 5 stars to Sprout the hen and her passionate little life.

(Thanks for reading, fellow readers! Quick reminder that this blog is a Bookshop affiliate and if you click and purchase anything from a link, commission will be paid. Peace!)

Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris

(Buy it HERE.)

I think it’s really important to reiterate that what we all just explored was incredibly difficult and triggering, but it was also fantasy.

For the month of March I gave myself the stealth challenge to only read works written by women. However, a friend who reads far more than I do got in touch to tell me I must read this award-winning play by young playwright Jeremy O. Harris. He was so emphatic and scandalized that I put aside guilty pleasure Verity and inhaled this in an evening. I’d heard of it, of course. I’d read reviews, which all seemed to alternate between repulsed and rapturous. I knew the basic plot–3 interracial couples(one gay, 2 straight) go on a therapeutic retreat run by a lesbian couple. The retreat revolves around slave roleplay–not BDSM, but Kunta Kinte. I knew the play included graphic sexual content and a blunt take on interracial relationships and racial fetishism. I knew all of this but still…

. … Y’ALL. This is the most shocking thing I’ve read in a very long time. Have you ever read a whole book with your mouth hanging open the entire time because you can’t believe what you’re reading? I hope the actors in this get PAID because reading these scenes, I cannot imagine the challenge of performing this work night after night.There’s a lot of graphic simulated sex and a lot of verbal violence and racial slurs. The relationships included are very distressing even without the racial element included and become downright pathological once the slave-master dynamic is added. Harris tries to temper this with humor(and pop music) but I hope the jokes land harder in performance than they do on the page.

Still, I’m no Puritan and while I was shocked, I wasn’t bothered by the sexuality explored in the play. In fact, I rather appreciated the attempt at diving deeper into the psychology of interracial relationships than the usual tropes.

What did bother me is that for all its boldness, I’m not sure Slave Play is as good as it thinks it is. It ultimately seems like an attempt to justify a desire for problematic white partners, and its portrayals of therapy and attempts at psychoanalysis are so odd that they’re almost offensive. It does some interesting work with the ideas, but I can see this play disappearing into the cultural ether once a more sensitive and thorough work on the complexities of Black-White relationships, both sexual and servile, is published.(There are already a few non-fiction contenders; Woodard’s The Delectable Negro comes to mind.)

Frankly, Slave Play is disturbing and revels in it. The end scene is guaranteed to wreck your peace of mind, and while it should, I don’t think anything particularly insightful is being expressed in exchange. As a result, it’s really hard to rate this. 4 stars and a giant box of condoms to Slave Play–it gets props for its boldness but shouldn’t reproduce.

(Thanks for reading, beautiful people. As always, I need to tell you that this blog has affiliate relationships with entities such as Bookshop, and if you click through and purchase from any of the present links I’ll earn a commission. Peace! )

Odd One Out, Nic Stone

(Buy it HERE)

Courtney loves his best friend Jupiter, Jupiter loves girls. New girl Rae isn’t sure who she loves or how she feels about it. Odd One Out explores their individual perspectives & the questions they have about their emerging sexualities & relationships.⠀
I love how casually diverse this book is. Race, culture and sexuality all intersect peacefully, naturally & normally. Most of the characters are multi-cultural and/or multi-racial. Jupiter has 2 dads, while Rae & Courtney have single parents, who all link up into a (very inattentive) co-parenting Voltron. (Also, Rae’s dad is perhaps the 1st Chinese Jamaican I’ve seen in print.) It’s the kind of community I love best in real life & want to see more of in print. The book also displays a distinctly modern emotional openness, up to a certain point. I feel like younger people are better equipped for emotional discussion, if not situations, and that really showed in some of the choices made here. There’s a lot of introspection & I was surprised at some of the ideas presented.⠀
However, books like this are why I don’t read a lot of YA fiction. This contains everything I hated about being a teenager. Emotional volatility, fickle relationships, weird body changes, insecurities, intensely stupid crushes–all of that sucked, & still does. It doesn’t help that these teens all sound weirdly old. Rae is obsessed with crosswords and rattles off 4 and 5 syllable words to the points of being nonsensical. Jupiter is a one-woman social justice machine, or at least a boomer’s stereotype of one, with the rants to prove it. Courtney sounds especially geriatric when he describes his physical attraction to Jupiter–he refers to her “having more up top than most girls our age”. He also has a constant erection in her presence, which is laughed off because she’s lesbian. Really? For that matter, most of the sexual situations presented in this book are problematic, most notably a pretty clear statutory case that gets hand-waved away due to the genders of the people involved. This happens side by side with discussions of consent & changing identities yet remains unaddressed, which is a little jarring. The way that sex, independent of sexuality, was handled through most of this book left a pretty sour taste in my mouth, and while I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to discuss it in detail, this review does a great job of deconstructing all of those issues.

Long story short, the main characters are all ultimately really self-absorbed & often mistreat others in their search for themselves. Life is messy & it’s normal for people to be a little crappy, but this book goes beyond that and I just can’t get down with it. ⠀
Despite how I feel about it personally, I am glad this is on shelves. There are definitely readers who need to see these characters and questions represented, and I bumped up my rating a star because I recognize that. But I think this needed to be done more conscientiously. Given the great community of supporting characters the author created to hold this story, it easily could have been. ⠀

Okay, one more petty little thing before I give my final rating–who designed this cover? Why is it so ugly? It gets props for not whitewashing the main characters but what in the 5 minute Photoshop shenanigans is this design? I tried my best to take a nice picture but gave up when I realized it doesn’t look any better in color. It’s petty, but this cover really put me off. ANYWAY…

3 grudging stars and a bucket of ice water over the head to Odd One Out.

If you want to see a list of Pride month reads, click HERE.

Also, thanks for reading! This blog has an affiliate relationship with Bookshop, an online book shop that supports indie bookstores and authors. I earn a commission from any clicks or purchases via links on this blog. Peace!

Tampa, Alissa Nutting

Tampa is possibly the most repulsive, disturbing, and un-enjoyable book I have EVER read. It’s also literarily and socially important, but because of its subject matter I wouldn’t recommend reading this for pleasure.

Tampa is a pathological little story told by Celeste, a self-described “pretty blonde” middle school English teacher who seduces her favorite students into sexually coercive and abusive relationships. She’s an absolute sociopath and pedophile, and the amount of graphic detail about pubescent boy bodies included from her perspective makes this a difficult and at times rather disgusting read. Her exploits have predictably disastrous results but as is often also the case in real life, the fallout is far worse for the abuser’s victims and associates than for the abuser herself.

I don’t want to get into too many details in this review because frankly, it’s disturbing to revisit them. Gender-flipped Lolita comparisons have been made but Nabokov wasn’t quite as lurid as Nutting. This book revels in obscenity, giving us vivid descriptions of smells and tastes and textures that really don’t invite contemplation if you are not a pedophile yourself. Parts of this book made me want to throw up. Nutting’s flat, dry matter of fact prose makes the graphic nature of the sexual scenes in this even more shocking and the sheer reptilian self-centeredness of the protagonist is tinged with just enough reality to be believable and perhaps a little bit indicting.

We’ve all seen the headlines and bleary photos of red-faced young women accused of abusing their teen and pre-teen boy students. We’ve all also heard the asinine jokes made about how lucky these boys have been to be “initiated” into sexual relationships by these women–usually young, white and conventionally attractive. In the long, trailing wake of #MeToo and its surrounding discussions, Tampa is definitely food for thought.

4 stars, not because it was a good read, but because it was a shocking and thought-provoking one that asks necessary questions about boys and abuse in our current social climate.

(Blech, beautiful people. I read this book over a year ago and I still feel gross every time I think about it. If for some reason you want to read it after all that, click HERE to go to Bookshop and purchase it online. You can also check your local library for a copy–and frankly I’d do that, because this isn’t a book I’d want lying around my house. Too much bad pedophile juju. That said, this blog has an affiliate relationship with Bookshop and if you do click and purchase, I earn a commission. But seriously–maybe don’t buy this book.)

Opposite of Always, Justin A Reynolds

(Buy it HERE.)


I was expecting this book to be something totally different than what it was. The synopsis led me to believe it was a sci-fi time travel tale focused on fixing sad past mistakes, much like last year’s tear-jerking Netflix original See You Yesterday. And it is all of that, but unlike the film, my main reaction while reading this was… …EWWWWW. ICK. GAG. This book is just so…so SWEET. If See You Yesterday is hot sauce, this book is maple syrup. But gag reflex aside, I liked it. It’s cute. It’s light. It’s funny. It’s totally not what I expected or usually like, but it won me over.

High school senior Jack falls for college freshman Kate and with a little help from his ridiculously loving friends and family woos her in a dozen different cutesy ways that all seem to start with bowls of cereal. Then she dies, and Jack spends the rest of the book inexplicably Groundhog Day-ing his way through the same summer over and over again, trying to help his friends and save his lady love.

**The next paragraph contains mild spoilers**

A few unexpectedly pleasant things occurred to me while reading this. One is that I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with a main character living with sickle cell anemia before and I appreciated seeing that on the page, even if it was played for narm in the end. The other is that it was really nice to read about a bunch of unapologetic Blerds in a light, fun happy-ending story where racism is not the center of their lives (except for right near the end and I thought including a shooting was a very well-intentioned misstep on the part of the writer.)

**spoilers over**

It’s not perfect, but it’s way better than a first novel has any right to be and after a slow start before we get into the time travel bits, it’s entirely charming. 4 stars and a delicious bowl of Froot Loops to Opposite of Always.

(Hey, fellow readers. It’s late and I’m tired. This is the part where I give you the spiel about something something affliate, something something Bookshop, something something if you click on any link on this site and make a purchase I will earn and commission and isn’t that just something something? Thanks for reading, go enjoy a good book. Peace!)