I love a good slow burn character-driven story. And I love something that’s quiet but impactful and elegant but gritty. That’s how I would describe Samantha Mabry’s newest book Tigers, Not Daughters. A contemporary, Latinx King Lear-esque story about all the ways girls are mistreated and misunderstood, a spellbinding tale of the love and turmoil of sisterhood, this is a book that captivated me and has my whole heart.
The book begins with the tragic death of Ana Torres, leaving behind her younger sisters Jessica, Iridian and Rosa to grieve and pick up the pieces of their broken family. Jessica has taken over the responsibility for caring for the family and their broken, abusive father. She is caught in a loveless relationship. Iridian is slowly fading among the pages of her sister’s favorite romance novels and the sheets of her bed. And Rosa thinks that she can speak to animals and is on a mission to find a locally escaped hyena. All of them are grieving and when their dead sister begins to haunt them, they must all reckon with what she might, or might not, be telling them.
I read Tigers, Not Daughters at the beginning of what would become my state’s shelter-in-place order. During those first few uneasy days at home filled with the uncertainty and anxiety of the massive and sudden changes we were experiencing, this story helped me to escape and find some solace. Filled with gorgeous prose and intriguing, complex female protagonists, Mabry’s novel provided an enchanted and disturbing world filled with the ordinary and the extraordinary.
In a book with multiple perspectives, it’s easy to fall in love with one voice and like others less. That wasn’t my experience with this book. I loved the chapters narrated by the meddling boys across the street, which added on a shimmery layer of the outside onto the intense psychological worlds of the sister. They also toyed with the complex gender politics of the novel. This is a world in which the Torres sisters are victims of the well-intentioned kindness, neutrality and malice of those outside their tight-knit bonds.
Each of the sisters felt distinct and I enjoyed each of their voices and stories. I loved Jessica’s resignedness and her quiet fury. I loved Iridian’s quirkiness and her stubbornness. And I loved Rosa’s eccentricity. But most of all, I loved the way the sisters found each other again over the course of this book.
Tigers, Not Daughters is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s intense, deep and suspenseful. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year about grief and the way it deeply transforms you. That shower hair scene was disturbing, but I get what it’s like to miss someone so deeply you want them to be a part of you. To miss someone so much you begin competing with the other people who miss them to for even the smallest tangible piece of memory to hold onto. It was so well done, and my heart swelled with every page.
I’m also thrilled that Tigers, Not Daughters is the first in a series. I can’t wait to spend more time with the Torres sisters in the next chapter of their story.
Please note that an e-arc was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Nothing makes me happier than books with small but resounding emotional stakes that make me ponder the ways that we connect to other people and find our way, step by step, through what is often an intense and cruel world. And more often than not, my favorite books in this category are young adult novels that explore flash points in the lives of young people. One such book that fits this category is Maria Padian’s latest young adult novel, How to Build a Heart.
Since her dad, a marine, died in Iraq six years ago, all Izzy has wanted was a home and some stability. Her mom, little brother and her have been on the move ever since and Izzy is ready to settle down. Completely cut off from her father’s family nearby, Izzy’s family is on their own, especially so after they learn that Habitat for Humanity has selected them as the first family to receive a house on the wealthy side of the town where Izzy lives. Eager to trade in their mobile home for a real house with walls, Izzy is excited and nervous all at the same time, because she doesn’t want any of her friends at her school she attends on scholarship to know that she’s poor. Especially not after she befriends Aubrey, a new girl in their a cappella group. And definitely not after she begins to connect with Aubrey’s older brother Sam. Equally parts poignant romance, heartwarming family drama and a sweet, complicated friendship book, How to Build a Heart is a must read for anyone looking for a great contemporary read about figuring yourself out and learning to trust the people who support you.
I loved Izzy as a character. She felt complicated and real, and I quickly got sucked into the messy dynamics of her story. It’s easy to relate to her complicated feelings toward her neighbor and best friend, Roz, who resents their life in the mobile home and longs to get away from her abusive family to become a stylist. I also related so intensely to Izzy’s shame around having less than her wealthier private school peers, but admired her dedication to her family and ingenuity in juggling all of her responsibilities.
Also, my favorite part of the book was her friendship with Aubrey, and how that connection became the first domino in a chain of events that changed how Izzy saw herself, her family and her situation. In close second for my favorite part of the book was Izzy’s relationship to her father’s family and how that changed and evolved over the course of the book. I loved that a big part of this book was about second chances and learning how to let people in, to let people show you that they’ve changed or that they’re not who you thought they were.
Izzy’s dynamic with the Habitat for Humanity workers was also great. Habitat is an organization that I’ve of course heard of and there have been builds over the years in my area. However, I didn’t know much about the details of it, from the application process to how the builds were completed and what an emotionally and physically taxing process it can be for everyone involved.
The writing itself had such an incredibly and strong voice. Izzy’s thoughts and feelings leaped off the page. The writing is gritty, emotionally intense and lyrical all at the same time. This book would make a perfect weekend read under a pile of blankets or the perfect beach and poolside read once summer, finally, rolls around. Unless you live somewhere warm, now. Then please read this book on the beach for me. 😉
I am such a fan of books about competition, relationships between girls, ballet and Paris. That is why I am SO excited that A.K. Small’s fantastic debut, Bright Burning Stars, will be out this Tuesday. I loved this beautiful written, thrilling novel, and I am so excited to share some information about this gorgeous book and an excerpt from it as part of the blog tour.
As a young ballerina in Paris, young adult novelist A. K. Small studied at the famous Académie Chaptal and later danced with companies across the US. Inspired by the dancers from her childhood, Small weaves a vivid story of a fiercely competitive female friendship in her dazzling debut, Bright Burning Stars. Following two teens fighting for center stage and a spot in the Opera’s prestigious corps de ballet, this page-turning novel explores the lengths it takes to turn talent into a career. A gifted new writer, Small brings the reader into the passionate world of ballet all while telling an engrossing story of female friendship.
Kate and Marine have trained since childhood at the Paris Opera Ballet School where they formed an intense bond after respective family tragedies. Their friendship seems unshakeable until their final year when only one girl can be selected for a place in the Opera’s company. The physically demanding competition takes an emotional toll, and their support for each other starts to crumble. Marine’s eating disorder begins to control her life as she consumes less and dances more, and Kate discovers the depths of depression and the highs of first love as she falls for the school heartthrob—who also happens to be Marine’s dance partner
As rankings tighten and each day is one step closer to the final selection, neither girl is sure just how far she’ll go to win. With nuance and empathy, the intense emotions of teenage years are amplified in Small’s debut as the girls struggle with grief, mental health issues, and relationships, all set against the glamorous backdrop of Paris.
Doesn’t that sound FANTASTIC? Now keep reading for the first chapter!
We stood outside the circular studio in the apex of the dance annex. Some of us obsessively rose up and down in first position to break the soles of our shoes, while others, like the boys, tucked their t-shirts into their tights and cracked their necks for luck. I didn’t do anything but clutch Kate’s hand. Kate and I always held hands before the weeklygénérales. But before I could ask her what she thought the new ratings wouldbe,who would outshine whom on The Boards after only a week and four days of ballet classes and rehearsals in our final year at Nanterre, my name was called first. A bad omen: in six years of dancing here, the faculty had never switched us out of alphabetical order before. IsabelleTheBrooder always started. I danced third.
“Break a leg,” Kate said in English before I stepped into the studio, which made me smile because saying things in her mother tongue was Kate’s way of showing love.
Inside the vast round room, three judges—judging deities really—sat erect behind a long folding table.
ValentineLouvet, the director, was on the left, her dark hair twisted into a loose knot and rings adorning her fingers. She would sometimes look up at the giant skylight and I would swear that her lipsmoved,that she discussed students with Nijinsky’s ghost through the thick glass. Francis Chevalier, the ballet master, an older man with sweat stains radiating from under his arms, was on the right. While you danced, he rhythmically jabbed the tip of his cane into the floor. In the middle sat The Witch, aka MadameBrunelle, in glasses and a tight bun. When she disliked a student’s movement, which was almost always, we all whispered that worm-like silver smoke seeped from her nostrils and her ears.
I didn’t look them in the eyes for fear of turning to salt. Instead, I hurried to the yellow X that demarked center, taking note of all the mirrors that wrapped around me like gauze. I triednot to criticize my reflection, how I was one kilogram fatter than when I’d last performed in May. I’d found out earlier this morning, courtesy of MademoiselleFabienne, the school nutritionist. Weigh-ins herewerelike random drug tests. You were called and asked to step onto the beastly scale whenever faculty felt like it. Now, all I could do was suck my stomach in and pray it didn’t affect my score. I placed my right foot on the tape, my left intendubehind,thenwaited for the pianist’s introduction.
As I offered the judges my most heartfelt port de bras, I concentrated on the ivory of my leotard, an atrocious color on me, yet a coveted symbol of my new elite rank.Seven other sixteen year-old rat-girls and I had risen to First Division. The variation we were to perform today was obscure, from The Three Musketeers, but I didn’t mind. Actually, I preferred low profile dances. The pressure somehow felt less. I also liked the three-count waltz, the way the notes filled up inside me, the rush of the C major melody, all making me zigzag across the studio. Music was why I kept going, my ticking heart. As the piano filled the air, my arms felt fluid, my balances sharp, and my leaps explosive. Even my hunger diminished. I steered myself from left to right then from front to back. My spirits lifted and my nerves calmed.Vas-y.I can do this, I thought. And then I remembered to give the judges my stage smile.Maybe I’ll rise from Number 3 to Number 2. During a slow triple pirouette, I held my foot above my knee, balanced, and stuck my landing in perfect fourth position, the number 2 floating like an angel’s halo above my head.
But then I forgot to anticipate the piano’s shift in keys, the sudden acceleration. Realizing I was an eighth of a note off, I skipped a glissade to catch up to mysaut de chat.Ne t’en fais pas,I told myself.Adjust. Yet, at once, The Witch stood up and snapped her fingers, silencing the music.
“I thought you were here because of your auditorygift, Duval,” MadameBrunellesaid. “Don’t students call you The Pulse?”
I looked down at my feet. I hadn’t gone through three fourths of the variation.
“They must be wrong. Would you like to have someone else come in and demonstrate? Teach you whole notes from half notes?”
“No,” I whispered.
“Miss Sanders,” MadameBrunelleyelled.
Kate poked her head inside the studio.A joke, I thought.
Kate was a dynamic ballet dancer but well known for her lack of rhythm.
“Mademoiselle Duval needs help with her waltz tempo.
Would you run the variation through for her?”
Kate nodded. She tiptoed into the studio, setting herself on the X the way I had done earlier.
“Shadow her, Duval,” MadameBrunelleordered.
She snapped her fingers and the pianist began again.
I danced behind Kate. We moved in unison, gliding into longpas de basques,arms extended.Kate seemed weightless, her heels barely touching the ground. A genuine smile fluttered on her lips. Her ivory leotard fitted her long narrow frame like skin. Blue crystal teardrops dangled from her ears as she spun. They glittered like fireflies. All of Kate glittered. The afternoon sun poured in from the skylight, lighting her up like a flame. The variation lasted a million years. At every step, my face grew hotter. The studio door had been left wide open, so I saw in the mirror’s reflection that other First Division dancers were peering inside and watchingour odd duo. A wave of humiliation nearly toppled me. MadameBrunelledid not stop the music this time. She waited for Kate and me to finish with ourrévérence,thenshe dismissed us with a flick of the finger.
I ducked out of the studio into the stairwell and didn’t wait for Kate. I could have sought refuge in the First Division dressing rooms but that was too obvious a hiding place so I rushed down three flights of stairs and into the courtyard. A mild September breeze blew. I fought back tears.It would have been easier, I thought,if The Witch had picked someone else.Anyone else.But Kate?Pitting me against my best friend? I wished I could keep walking past the trees, alongside the fence, out of the gates, downL’Allée de La Danse, to the metro, all the way home to the center of Paris and my mother’sboulangerie.There, inside with the warmth and the sugary smells, I would find a tight hug, an, “It’sokay,Chérie.You don’t have to do this unless you want to.” But I knew I wouldn’t. I’d have to go back to the dorms to change into street clothes or at least take off my pointe shoes and then I’d see Oli’s battered demi pointes on my bed. Plus, I’d come this far. Hadn’t I? Only 274 days until the finalGrand Défilé.Judgment Day: when everyone, except for two strikingly gifted students—one female, one male—got fired in the top division. I plopped down into the middle of the courtyard and found the sky.How could I have messed up on tempo?I closed my eyes and inhaled.
“Hey!” Kate yelled a minute later.
She stood at the entrance of the courtyard, breathing hard.
“Do you think you could have gone a little faster?” she said, crossing her arms. She was still in her leotard, tights, and pointe shoes. Her neck flushed bright red from running. Wisps of blond hair framed her face. “You hurtled down the stairs like a bat out of hell, M. I thought you were going to tumble and fall.”
Bat out of hell?I nearly corrected her and said that here we usedcommeunbolide—like a rocket—but instead I replied, voice sharp, “Too bad I didn’t.”
“You don’t mean it,” she said. “Mistakes happen. You’re only human.”
Kate sat down beside me. She smelled woodsy, even after she danced. We watched as pigeons flittered around the bright white buildings. On our left were the dorms with their common rooms at the bottom. In front, the dance annex loomed. It was known for its grand staircase, bay windows, cafeteria, and Board Room where all big decisions were made. On the right was the academic wing with classrooms and faculty offices. Little pathways led from one building to the others with awnings in case of rain. If I turned around, I could peek at the high concrete wall hidden between oak trees. Sometimes I wondered if the barrier was there to keep rats from fleeing or strangers from trespassing.
Kate squeezed my ankle then flashed me her best smile.
“The Witch is an asshole.Seriously.Don’t sweat it.”
At her touch, my eyes filled. The tempo mix up hadn’t been Kate’s fault.Only mine.I quickly wiped the tears with the back of my hand.
“Have I told you that I dig wearing ivory?” Kate said. “Last night, I called my dad and tried to explain it to him. How good it felt to parade around in this sublime color. I said it was like receiving the freaking Medal of Honor but he didn’t get it.”
“Of course not.”I shook my head.
And just like that, the weird moment between us, the resentment I’d felt at having to dance behind her, passed.
I was about to tell her that after what had happened in the circular studio I would probably never wear ivory again, when younger rats came out into the courtyard, disturbing ourprivacy. Everyone always whispered about everyone else while waiting for ratings. Within the hour, the Board Room would open. Rankings would be posted on the wall. Rats who were rated below fifth place might be sent home. Now and again, I’d see a parent waiting by the school entrance and the wretched sight would make me flinch. But Kate, who was always at my side, would loop an arm around me and say, “Face it, M. Not everyone is cut out for this.” Her thick skin soothed me today.
“God, I can’t stand the sitting around,” Kate said. “Let’s play Would You.”
“I thought you and I banned that game,” I replied.
Kate laughed. “Things don’t go away just because you want them to, Miss Goody Two-Shoes. Or because the stupid rules say so.”
I slapped her shoulder.
“Ouch. Loosen up. I go first,” she said. “Would you die for The Prize?”
The Prize.What every rat girl and boy was after: the large envelope with a red wax stamp on the back, a single invitation to become part of the Paris Opera’s corps de ballet.The thought of seeing that envelope made me dizzy with possibility. I almost said yes but she cut me off.
“If I close my eyes,” Kate said. “I feel the envelope’s weight in my hands, the warm wax beneath my thumbs. It’s damn near euphoric.”
I looked away. Kate’s hunger for success, for being the Chosen One was sometimes so acute that it frightened me.
“Are you asking because ofYaëlle?”
The Number 3 rat from last year, a sweet girl from Brittany, once our roommate, had been found in her tiny single, lying atop her twin bed, in her ballet clothes, bones protruding at strange angles, eyes sunk deep in their sockets, dead a few days beforeLe Grand Défilélast May. She’d starved herself in the name of The Prize.Ever since, we’d all been on edge.Summerhadn’t changed the mood. If anything, getting back together after a few months away had heightened the sense of dread.
“You’re not answering my question.”
“No,” I decided. “I wouldn’t die for The Prize. Would you?”
“Yes,” Kate said.“Absolutely.”
There was no hesitation in her voice.
“I’ve got another,” she said. “Would you hurt The Ruler for The Prize?”
Gia Delmar, the Ruler. Always Number 1 on the boards, she was our biggest rival but this wasn’t the time to think about her. Not before rankings. “I wouldn’t hurt anyone,” I said,thenI added, “Would you rehearse night and day?”
“Yes. But would you do drugs?”
“Rehearse night and day, sure.Drugs?Maybe.”
“Kate!” I said.
“Would you try to suck up to Monsieur Chevalier?”
Kate laughed. “I know. Would you sleep with The Demigod?”
The Demigod?I shivered. Like The Ruler, The Demigod was off limits. As a rare conservatory transfer, he’d magically appeared in Second Division one sunny day last February and had outdone everyone. I didn’t want to think about the leaders, the rats most likely to succeed, even if they were supremely sexy. “No,” I answered.“Of course not.Would you?”
“That’s sick,” I said. “Sleeping with someone to climb the ladder?”
Kate lowered her voice. “The Demigod is different, M. You know. Everybody knows.Even faculty.Look how they gawk at him. His talent is greater than the sun and the stars combined. Proximity to him is—” she paused, searching for her words.“The key toeverything.Think of it as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s lover, collaborating with him on a canvas.Except that our canvas is four dimensional, made up of flesh, of bodies.Lee’s paint strokes had to intensify, right? The Demigod’s balletic gift, his glow, rubs off like glitter on his partners. Haven’t you noticed? Anyone who spends time with him in and out of the studio shoots up on The Boards. M, he is The King. You know what dance is?The art of the sensual.Electricity, entanglement,ease. You partner with him and you will blow the roof off this effing place. Plus,” she sucked in her breath, kept me in suspense. “He’s got the hottest quads in the universe.”
I imaginedCyrilleflying into splits, his thighs stiffening under silver tights, what his hands might feel like clasping mine if I was ever asked to partner with him. My whole bodywarmed. Kate was right. The Demigod was like food, like one of my mother’s pastries. You knew that eating it was bad for you, but you just couldn’t help yourself. I was about to warn Kate that the Greek demigods, as attractive as they were, ate their young and their lovers when Monsieur Arnaud, the groundkeeper, walked over to the old fashioned bell and rang it. The wooden doors creaked open and all the dancers scurried inside the Board Room. I still sat outside, frozen. What if I was ranked fifth or lower and got sent home? I thought of Oli.My promise to dance for him no matter what.Failing was not an option. Kate snagged my hand and pulled me up.
Memphis “M” Engle is stubborn to a fault, graced with an almost absurd knowledge of long lost languages and cultures, and a heck of an opponent in a fight. In short: she’s awesome.
Ashwin Sood is a little too posh for her tastes, a member of an ancient cult (which she’s pretty sure counts for more than one strike against him), and has just informed Memphis that her father who she thought was dead isn’t and needs her help.
From the catacombs of Paris to lost temples in the sacred forests, together they crisscross the globe, searching for the pieces of the one thing that might save her father. But the closer they come to saving him—and the more they fall for one another—the closer they get to destroying the world.
I got the chance to ask Laura and Melinda some of my burning questions about the world-building and writing process for I Do Not Trust You:
Tay: In I DO NOT TRUST YOU, M and Ash visit a variety of significant cultural locations around the globe, bringing them to almost every continent on a high-stakes hunt for pieces of a mysterious ancient statue. What was the research process like for choosing these sites? Did you work together? Were there any big surprises or Aha! moments?
Laura and Melinda: We did try to hit most of the continents! Antarctica and Australia didn’t make the cut, unfortunately. We knew the basic requirements for the locations we needed–they had to have been built a certain number of years ago, they had to be religious sites–and that helped narrow down our research. We initially made a long list of possible locations, and then narrowed them down in such a way that we’d have a variety of mythologies and cultures.
The best Aha! moment came at the very beginning, when we were plotting out the story in broad strokes. We knew we wanted an adventurous search for something, but we didn’t know what. We thought of an Egyptian artifact right away because we love Ancient Egypt, but we weren’t sure what it should be. One of our favorite Egyptian myths is the story of Osiris and Isis, which also involves Set, who is a dark god. Set kills Osiris and chops his body into pieces, which he scatters throughout Egypt. Isis, Osiris’s wife, searches for all the pieces and reunites them, reincarnating Osiris. And as we discussed this myth, we thought (Aha!) Isis searched for scattered pieces, and that’s what our heroine is doing as well. So we could use that myth as the basis for our (fictional) Egyptian artifact–it’s chopped into pieces and scattered around the world. It worked perfectly.
Tay: Along the same lines of my previous question, were there any sites or locations that you wanted to include, but ended up not fitting into the story?
Laura and Melinda: It was hard to pick only one spot in Egypt. We had a list of several, as you can imagine given our obsession with it! But it wouldn’t have worked for the plot to spend too much time there, so we had to choose the one that fit our story best. We also have an intense attraction to Druids, and we really wanted to use a location that might’ve been sacred to the Druids. Alas, we couldn’t quite find a way to work that in either.
Tay: A big part of what I love about I DO NOT TRUST YOU is that it offers a nuanced discussion of religion and what is sacred. Is that something that you two initially set out to write or did it develop over time? How did the weaving of different belief systems from Egyptian cult beliefs to Catholicism to local indigenous pagan beliefs develop as you wrote and then revised the book?
Laura and Melinda: We love anything involving complex mythology or the occult, and we love to create our own mythologies. The different belief systems are fascinating to us, and it’s impossible to separate those systems from the cultures that gave rise to them. One thing that we think gets forgotten when learning about the gods of ancient cultures is that, while we view the myths as merely stories, the people who lived then viewed them as a religion. It’s a mistake to assume that priests in Ancient Egypt weren’t just as devout as priests in our current religions, for instance. One of the best ways to learn about a modern culture is to study the religious beliefs of its people, and that’s true of ancient cultures as well. We like to think about what the lives of those believers were like, rather than only thinking about the gods and what they might symbolize.
With our main male character, Ash, we tried to figure out how it would feel to believe so completely in your religion that it crowds out all other considerations. And with our protagonist, M, we went the other way–she knows so much about so many different belief systems that she doesn’t have one particular belief of her own. Eventually, the theme that we settled on was one of respect for all the different faiths. If an act is done in service of the greater good, then it is sacred. That was something both of our characters could agree on.
Thank you so much Laura and Melinda for answering my questions!
Interested in learning more about I Do Not Trust You and my thoughts on this lovely imaginative book? Keep reading for my review!
I’m Tori Curtis, and last year I published my debut f/f fantasy novel, Eelgrass. It’s a coming of age story about selkies, a beautiful (and terrifying) mermaid, and how brave you have to be to protect your friends.
In Eelgrass, a lesbian reimagining of Irish folktales, Efa and Bettan spend their days roving the sea and shore. The other selkies in their village say it will soon be time for them to settle down and find husbands. Then Bettan disappears into a rainstorm. Despite the other villagers’ reassurances, Efa can’t shake the certainty her friend’s been taken.
To rescue Bettan, she must leave behind the shallow waters of her home and find the fishwives. These half-human fish seduce men with song and devour them with sharp teeth. She doesn’t expect to find Ninka, an outrageous young woman who makes her feel giddy and who might be the key to unlocking her own courage.
I have never been good at self-restraint in the face of true love.
The first time I fell in love with a girl, I spent six months crying into my pillow, posting poems about how I yearned to be in her strong, softball-playing arms on Fictionpress. I contemplated that possibly, after ten short years on this earth, I would have to die of a broken heart. I told everyone in my 200-person middle school that I was a lesbian now.
I also told my parents, who I think must have been a little amused when I tearfully confessed that MAYBE it was possible that I was actually bisexual, but probably it wouldn’t come up, on account of no feeling I could ever feel would be as strong or as true as what I felt for my beloved.
(She knows who she is, and she deserves to be unbelievably smug.)
The first time I fell in love with a fictional gay character, I lied to my parents about staying after school for homework, jumped the turnstile, took the 1 and 9 train twenty blocks downtown to Barnes and Noble, realized that Barnes & Noble DIDN’T HAVE THE BOOK I WANTED, took the train back to the 72nd street station, and ran ten or fifteen blocks uptown to the next nearest Barnes & Noble, which also didn’t have the book I wanted.
This had a happy ending: I didn’t get my ten-and-a-half-year-old butt kidnapped, and my One True Love bought me a copy of Magic’s Pawn for my birthday. (Disclaimer: Please, if you’re ten and obsessed with an LGBT fantasy novel but too shy to ask your parents to buy it for you, talk to a librarian or do ANYTHING other than spend two hours running up and down Broadway without a cell phone while your parents think you are safely working on your math homework.)
CW: References to transmisia and anti-lesbian slurs
It’s impossible to talk about the LGBT characters I have loved – desperately, earnestly, without reservation – without running into… dilemmas. Because so often, the characters that I’ve held in my heart for years didn’t get that kind of care from the stories they were written into. My wife read Magic’s Pawn this year – the same copy I got when I turned eleven, the same copy where I highlighted entire passages in pink magic marker – and we were both horrified not just by the things I remembered (like the main character’s soul-bonded boyfriend dying horribly) but by things I took for granted as a child.
“Wait,” she said, “so we’re supposed to believe Valdemar is a perfect utopia ruled by magic talking horses, but also there are religious orders where they will take gay teenagers and forcibly brick them into caves for the rest of their lives? And no one stops this?”
Falling in love with LGBT characters as an LGBT person is complex in a way that, I assume, falling in love with cis, straight characters as a cis, straight person isn’t. In some ways, it grows harder as we create better, more representative work. When we have the romance between Chiron and Kevin in Moonlight, what are we supposed to do with RENT’s representation of Angel and Collins, who are pushed aside to provide development for the more-important white and straight characters, who can’t get either a set of preferred pronouns or a single scene in which Angel isn’t the butt of a transphobic joke?
What are we supposed to do with characters whose writers couldn’t make up their minds: the Albus Dumbledores (Harry Potter) of the world, the Janis Ians (Mean Girls), and the Grace Polks (Joan of Arcadia)? It’s not representation to write a character all your tiny lesbian viewers identify with, make sure she gets called a “dyke” at least once, and then make ABSOLUTELY SURE that she expresses interest in men. But the heart wants what it wants.
When we talk about LGBT characters and LGBT representation, we have to worry about the personal and the political. As a writer and a feminist, nothing is ever going to be perfect, and I don’t ever want to settle. But just between us, when we’re hanging out in the cool kids club, we deserve some time for the characters we fell in love with even when it wasn’t perfect. Even if they’re Dr. Frank-n-Furter or a one-line side character in a 700-page fantasy novel. Or that novel-length Star Trek fic I almost wrote for Sulu and his husband (I’m not sorry).
If you’re LGBTQ+ this Coming Out Day 2017, I’m so glad you’re here, and I hope you get to spend the coming year with the characters who make you excited to be a part of this community.
The world (and the Internet) is full of unexplained phenomena. From ghosts to telekinesis, people are enthralled in and hold onto mysteries and the unexplainable as a way of instilling order onto their lives. Plus, that stuff is just kind of cool. Montgomery Sole, the witty, stubborn and relatable protagonist of Mariko Tamaki’s new novel Saving Montgomery Sole, embraces the mysterious in her search to instill order on her chaotic life.
Montgomery’s life isn’t easy. She faces bullying from popular kids like Matt Truit and Madison Marlow. She feels threatened by the Reverend White, a preacher trying to “save” the American family by denouncing what he sees as sin-including LGBTQPIA+ people like Montgomery’s friend Thomas and her moms. Montgomery’s only source of relief is the Mystery Club, where she discusses the strange and unexplained with her friends Thomas and Naoki. But when Montgomery buys the Eye of Know online, the possible power of the mysterious stone to hurt Montgomery’s memory threatens her relationship with herself, her closest friends and her family.
Montgomery’s character is the star of this quirky and excellently voiced contemporary novel. I found her worries about her family and her frustrations with the world around her to be relatable, although her character wasn’t always likable or easy to fully understand. Her voice shone through the pages, though, and I felt each of her nuanced feelings along with her on her journey.
Naoki was another gem of a character in this book, one that stole every scene in which she appeared. Her eccentric outfits and her blasé attitude about life were intriguing, and I found myself craving more of her. Montgomery’s other friend, Thomas, didn’t work as well for me. In some ways, he felt more like a caricature than a person and he fell into some stereotypes of gay boys that were humorous, but also made me feel uncomfortable. Also, the scenes with grad school dropout Tiffany were hard for me to get through and didn’t move the plot forward in the way they felt like they should. However, characters like Kenneth White, the Reverend White’s son, provided unexpected twists of character that balanced out these flaws.
While the teenage characters were hit or miss, I especially loved the representation of Montgomery’s family and the love of her moms Momma Jo and Mama Kate. I haven’t found many books that include gay parents and I was delighted to see the care with which Tamaki rendered this one. Their family dinners and Montgomery’s tense relationship with her tween sister Tesla were some of the best scenes in this novel. The scenes about Mama Kate and her difficult relationship with her religious parents were difficult to read, but insightful. Overall, the family scenes in this book comprised a full emotional spectrum and were one of the main highlights of this book for me.
But perhaps the biggest strength of this book was the tremendous amount of heart it had. As a character driven novel with a slower plot and many loose ends at the end, the emotional capacity of this novel kept it afloat and made it work. Montgomery stumbles, but she stumbles towards love and her misadventures and conflicts with the world around her ultimately draws her into a place of peace, kindness and understanding.
The vivid setting and descriptive language was another strength of this novel. The thread of mysteries and unexplained phenomena was also another intriguing aspect of this novel that worked well. Overall, Saving Montgomery Sole is a fantastic story of self-discovery with twists on conventional LGBTQPIA+ themes and a dash of mystery.