Dead Collections by Isaac Feldman

Are you a dedicated user of our Special Collections department, or another archive? Do you love urban vampire stories or LGBTQIA literary fiction? If you said yes, or are intrigued, definitely try reading Dead Collections by Isaac Fellman. I checked it out because I had heard it was good transgender representation set in an archival setting and was delighted by the love story and identity exploration amidst an archival mystery. Here’s a quick summary:

When archivist Sol meets Elsie, the larger than life widow of a moderately famous television writer who’s come to donate her wife’s papers, there’s an instant spark. But Sol has a secret: he suffers from an illness called vampirism, and hides from the sun by living in his basement office. On their way to falling in love, the two traverse grief, delve into the Internet fandom they once unknowingly shared, and navigate the realities of transphobia and the stigmas of carrying the “vampire disease.” Then, when strange things start happening at the collection, Sol must embrace even more of the unknown to save himself and his job.

I loved reading both the experiences of trans man Sol and Elsie, who goes down a rabbit hole of gender exploration while falling in love with Sol. I also thought the way the story’s different threads wove together was clever and unique; this isn’t just a romance, or an urban fantasy, or a literary fiction, or a mystery, it’s a truly unusual blend of all of these, and reads like a prose poem. Sol’s narration is also reminiscent of the storytelling in Life of Pi by Yann Martel, incorporating glimpses of and insights from different times in Sol’s life. Different formats (email, scripts, etc.) were also woven into the narrative to echo the multimedia landscape of modern life.

As someone who reads more genre fiction than literary fiction, I did find the poetic writing style difficult in places, but the raw and real emotions, in all their complexity, that the characters lived through were really powerful and profound. I recommend this quirky and moving book to anyone looking for a one-of-a-kind reading experience full of queer representation, cool libraries, and mysterious goings-on.

Redoing Gender by Helana Darwin – Now on Overdrive

Remember my previous posts on transgender and non-binary reads (Either Both Neither and Invisible In-betweens)? Well, buckle up, because I’ve got a new read to help you build compassion for non-binary folks, by reading their experiences in their own voices. The book is Redoing Gender: How Nonbinary Gender Contributes Toward Social Change, by Helena Darwin, and it’s an ebook available through Overdrive or the Libby app. Check out this description from the e-resource:

Redoing Gender demonstrates how difficult it is to be anything other than a man or a woman in a society that selectively acknowledges those two gendersGender nonbinary people (who identify as other genders besides simply man or woman) have begun to disrupt this binary system, but the limited progress they have made has required significant everyday labor. Through interviews with 47 nonbinary people, this book offers rich description of these forms of labor, including rethinking sex and gender, resignifying genderredoing relationships, and resisting erasure. The final chapter interrogates the lasting impact of this labor through follow-up interviews with participants four years later. Although nonbinary people are finally managing to achieve some recognition, it is clear that this change has not happened without a fight that continues to this day. The diverse experiences of nonbinary people in this book will help cisgender people relate to gender minorities with more compassion, and may also appeal to those questioning their own gender

It’s easy to understand diversity as a concept, to imagine that there are a wealth of experiences in the world, but it’s a different thing to hear directly about some of those different experiences. This book helps to bridge that gap between intellectual understanding and real insight, combining sociological practices and academic rigor with a deep care for inclusivity and respecting LGBTQIA experiences. Moreover, it begins to fill a glaring gap in research literature, which is mostly focused on divisions between “men” and “women” without any imagination of other genders.

A good read for sociology buffs and allies alike, this book is recommended for anyone who loves an ebook and likes picking apart harmful patriarchal structures.

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

It’s proven that reading fiction about people different from us helps us build empathy and understanding – Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki was a powerful example of this for me. I feel I know so much more about trans women’s experiences and Asian culture in California after reading this book. It’s also a genre-bending, compassionate, hopeful look at Faustian bargains, intergalactic refugees, and family of all kinds.

Violinist Shizuka Satomi has a deal with Hell – she’ll win back her soul and her ability to play music if she delivers seven souls to Hell. After years of work she’s carefully selected, molded, and delivered six, with just enough time before her deadline for the last one. But her final student isn’t what she expected – Katrina Nguyen is an abused, terrified runaway, a trans girl with no confidence, no hope, and nowhere to go. But when she plays her violin, the music is indescribable. Shizuka takes Katrina into her home and starts to teach her, only to find her own world and heart irrevocably changed by this unexpected and gentle girl. At the same time, she finds herself growing closer to the enigmatic Lan Tran, owner of a donut shop, mother of four, and alien refugee in disguise. All three women have battles to fight, and will have to lean on each other and learn to let go of their pasts to find a new way forward.

There are so many reasons to love this book, from the descriptive prose to the vivid characters. It’s an unflinching portrait of a trans girl’s experiences, but hopeful at every turn, flouting tropes, conventions, and the expectations you might have for a book about trauma and deals with the devil. There’s all kinds of families on offer here, including found family helping each other heal from their old wounds, choosing kindness, connection, and tender care over fear and conflict. The blend of genres is innovative and mostly effective, as the supernatural melds with sci-fi and contemporary fiction, with a hint of sapphic romance. Aoki not only makes these elements stand together, but also uses the combination to hold up a mirror to our complex, diverse society that struggles to see, understand, and respect the myriad experiences being lived around us. Perhaps most powerful is the strong thread of feminism running through the story as multiple women grapple with generational trauma and patriarchy that has been harming them, and find their own way out and into a place of power and self-trust.

If you like stories of classical musicians finding their voice, urban sci-fi, Good Omens-style fantasy, pacifist themes, the young and old teaching each other valuable lessons, and/or queer romances and coming of age stories, this would be a great book for you.

The Highwomen, feat. Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires

My journey to rediscover country music continues! A modern country sound that honors the roots of the genre, The Highwomen is a unique gift to today’s country music. If you like or have liked country music but are looking for something fresh – or you prefer Outlaw Country to Bro Country or Boyfriend Country – this might be a good album for you.

Now, if you’re a longtime country fan, you’ve probably already guessed that this group was inspired by the legendary Highwaymen, composed of Outlaw Country Superstars – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. The idea was Amanda Shires’, who wanted to bring together a female supergroup partly to combat the low representation of women’s voices in country music radio and festivals. She connected then with Brandi Carlile  and Maren Morris, originally intending to leave the fourth spot open for guest collaborators. When the group debuted in 2019, at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday concert, Natalie Hemby was officially announced as the fourth member. The album came out later the same year.

What I really liked about this album was the stories that it told, stories that I haven’t heard a lot in my country listening. Now, I like a good “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” song as much as anybody else (Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood, anyone?) but it sure seems like a lot of what makes country music (or most music, honestly) popular is the same story – boy meets girl (Hurt Somebody by Dierks Bentley), boy chases girl (She’s a Girl Ain’t She by Rodney Atkins), the bliss of love (Heaven by Kane Brown), boy wrongs girl or vice versa (Jolene by Dolly Parton, I Hope It Rains by Jana Kramer), messy heartache ensues (Burning House by Cam), both move on (Red High Heels by Kellie Pickler, Bartender by Lady A). And if it’s not that story, it’s the Living In The Country is a Real Good Time story (Where I Come From by Montgomery Gentry, Mud on the Tires by Brad Paisley, Meanwhile Back at Mama’s by Tim McGraw, etc. etc.). Both are good, but repetitive after a while.

The Highwomen sing a new slate of relatable messages – in this album we hear the voices of women wronged by history/society (Highwomen), the struggles and joys of being women (Old Soul, Redesigning Women), a daughter facing the death of her father (Cocktail and a Song), various reasons not to be a mother (My Name Can’t Be Mama), an homage to suburban moms (My Only Child) and, my personal favorite, Heaven is a Honkytonk, which is a very Willie-Nelson-esque homage to country music legends who have passed on. And of course, thrown in are a few romantic journeys including post-breakup Don’t Call Me and the both relatable and subversive If She Ever Leaves Me. The latter is particularly a gem, because it portrays love between women in a positive and unexpected way.

If you missed this album when it first came out and love a modern twist on classic genres, get your country on with The Highwomen.

Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen by Amrou Al-Kadhi

As part of my Pride Month reading this year, I tried to pick up books that would help me learn about the diverse experiences of LGBTQ+ people beyond the margins of white, cisgender America. Amrou Al-Kadhi [they/them] expertly does just so in their memoir, Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen. This lavish and raw autobiography renders a refreshing peek into the life of a queer Iraqi-British Muslim drag queen- an intersectional identity that demands the careful and nuanced representation Al-Kadhi offers in their memoir. 

In their beautifully written story, Al-Kadhi, or Glamrou as they are known on stage, is a stunning example of the self-expression and self-exploration drag allows. Raised in a socially-conservative, religious household, Al-Kadhi was instilled early on with a torturously rigid sense of shame and self worth. Their journey outlines the beauty and freedom they experienced as a child, as well as the connection they felt to their mother and the world she created for them. “My mother’s middle east was one I felt safe in,” they lovingly recall. 

As they grew through their adolescence, though, they became painfully aware of the Middle East and Islam’s perspective on homosexuality and gender-noncomformity. It would take years of cultural healing and rediscovery for Al-Kadhi to feel connected to their family, heritage, and religion. While simultaneously mending the pain of the past and celebrating a mergence of femininity and faith, it was ultimately through drag that they finally felt at home in both their queerness and their culture. 

Unicorn is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. Beyond Al-Kadhi’s personal narrative of self-acceptance and perseverance, the story is heavy with complex understanding of how culture and faith belong to a people, not an individual. Al-Kadhi’s revelations of gender, sexuality, and belonging are inspiring and beautifully rendered. 

I would sincerely recommend this to anyone hoping to immerse themselves in a piece of nonfiction, at the heart of which is a story of the human search for acceptance and home.  

Love is for Losers by Wibke Brueggemann

I like YA books, but no other narrator has ever felt as authentically fifteen as Phoebe, the voice of Love is for Losers by Wibke Brueggemann. Slang, text-speak, cringe, angst, and a heaping helping of dense obliviousness all combine for a laugh-out-loud, queer, teen, and generally updated retelling of Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Phoebe is living in London with her mum’s best friend Kate (a Persian cat mom who runs a charity shop), AGAIN, since her mum is a doctor with Medecins Internationale and has run off (AGAIN) to help disaster victims. Adding to Phoebe’s feelings of abandonment is a rift with her best friend Polly after Polly finally gets a boyfriend (Tristan, who’s so useless he can’t even ride a bike) and won’t talk about anything else (when she even remembers Phoebe at all). Phoebe has vowed to never get emotionally attached, since falling in love is such a degrading loss of sanity (and frankly gross to look at – who makes out in public?). And that could’ve been the end of it, until one of Kate’s designer Persians escapes while in heat, costing Kate a lot of money she could’ve charged for full pedigree Persian kittens. Determined to pay her back, Phoebe goes out to get a job, ending up working at Kate’s charity shop (humiliating) where she comes face-to-face with Emma, who’s got the bluest eyes Phoebe has ever seen, not to mention beauty and class…

Not only is this book funny, but it delves into a ton of tough topics including loss, grief, selfishness, community, how to be a good friend, emotions, heritage, and what makes a family. The short-form diary entry structure makes the book more addictive by being quick and immersive to read. Heartwarming, hopeful, and inclusive, this is a book for anyone who’s tried to shut away their feelings to keep from being hurt, AND a good readalike for Fredrik Backman’s many fans (A Man Called Ove is a similar vibe).

My Dearest Darkest by Kayla Cottingham

YA feminist horror is one of my new favorite genres – there’s nothing like a squad of friends battling the forces of evil (and the patriarchy) in between classes. My Dearest Darkest by Kayla Cottingham is a Pretty Little Liars-style journey into peer pressure, manipulation, and gaslighting through a paranormal lens, and with a heartwarming sapphic love story to balance out the scares.

Finch has wanted to attend Ulalume, an elite private school on a remote and sinister peninsula, ever since she heard of it, despite the expense. Luckily her piano audition goes well, but scholarships are the least of her concerns when she and her parents are in a catastrophic car accident on the way home, after veering to avoid what looked like (though couldn’t have been) an eight-eyed stag in the road. Finch could have sworn she drowned when the car went in the lake, but she recovers, although finds herself changed – pale, cold, with a weak heartbeat. When she starts at Ulalume, more odd things start happening including strange new feelings for the local queen bee, Selena. But new love may be no match for what’s waiting for Finch in tunnels under the school…

I really enjoyed the romance between openly bi Selena and newly-out lesbian Finch. Their growth from enemies to friends to girlfriends is a realistic journey that is easy to root for, and Selena’s supportive advice as Finch fumbles through coming out is tender and respectful. In some ways the author prioritizes the romance over the horror plot, so readers will have to decide if a happy ending is worth a plot hole or two. The horror plot is an original take on the deal-with-the-devil or cult narratives, adding in an insightful element of gradual, insidious manipulation. The setting also contributes a Gothic atmosphere, complete with creepy forest, bleak lighthouse, and dank tunnels. In short, while some plot elements could be stronger, this female-centered ghost story compellingly asks what it’s worth losing to find the power and belonging you’ve always wanted.

A worthy addition to the realm of progressive horror novels, this is a good read for those who loved Plain Bad Heroines or other queer love stories where things go bump in the night.

This title is also available on Overdrive.

Trouble in the Stars by Sarah Prineas

When life gets you down… read a middle-grade novel. These books tackle serious issues without the angst of YA or the bleak cynicism of adult fiction, and that’s something everyone needs sometimes. My latest recommendation is Trouble in the Stars by Sarah Prineas.

Readers are plunged headlong into a journey of discovery when a young shapeshifter (who enters the story as a blob of goo) goes on the run from StarLeague (dystopian government type) soldiers. After stowing away aboard a freighter, the shifter takes human form and is christened Trouble by the crew. Trouble learns what it means to be a human (from food to friendship) while trying to earn the crew’s trust. But eventually StarLeague will catch up, so it’s up to Trouble and the ship’s crew to chase down the truth about where Trouble came from and why StarLeague wants so badly to find them.

New readers of sci-fi will appreciate learning the lingo alongside Trouble, and similarly diversity (of many stripes) is explained in clear, matter-of-fact terms. Fans of Firefly (or parents who want to expose their kids to the concept but not the actual show) will appreciate the outlaw vibes, complete with a mysterious, coveted individual who doesn’t know their own power. This is a good read for all ages, balancing a quick and interesting plot with thoughtful characterization and moral considerations.

See also its sequel, Asking for Trouble for the continued adventures of your new favorite shapeshifter. Trouble in the Stars is also available on Overdrive.

Super Monster by Claud

Support a non-binary artist and discover some catchy new music on Super Monster by Claud.  How to describe their style? Well, here’s what they say on their website: “claud mintz (they/them) makes the kind of pop that goes well with a late night snack.”

If that doesn’t clear it up for you, here’s my take: this is a pop sound similar to twin icons Tegan and Sara, and the California band Muna, but also with shades of Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish. With simple hooks and honest lyrics, Claud combines soft, musing ballads with more fast-paced, playful tracks for a mix that is overall optimistic, affectionate, vulnerable, and proudly queer. Listeners will be drawn in by bright, quirky album art and intriguing song titles including “Cuff Your Jeans” and “That’s Mr. Bitch to You”.

Incidentally, “That’s Mr. Bitch To You” is probably my favorite track for its light-hearted energy in response to hate (definitely my new personal anthem) – but most tracks are relaxing and enjoyable to listen to. I also recommend “Overnight” and “Falling with the Rain” for more romantic vibes, and “Ana” for a lost-love story.  Most tracks will leave you humming for the rest of the day, and the lack of cynicism will keep you coming back for more.

Never Been Kissed by Timothy Janovsky

Film buffs rejoice! Timothy Janovsky has written the ultimate romance for you in Never Been Kissed, featuring summer at the drive-in, a cranky and reclusive legendary film director, and second-chance romance with a childhood crush.

Wren has never been kissed – not only a big regret for him as a lover of rom-coms, but also a major source of teasing from his friends. Considering he’s also graduating college without a plan beyond his regular summer job at the drive-in, it’s especially hard for Wren to feel like a grownup. After a few too many at his 22nd birthday he decides there IS something he can do about one of his problems – he can send out all the emails he’s written to the boys he almost kissed over the years, and launch a quest to get himself kissed. In the morning, this was obviously a terrible idea, but it did reopen communications with childhood friend (and major crush) Derrick, who just so happens to be ALSO working at the drive-in this summer… awkward! Not to mention he’s juggling being a manager at the drive-in, for the first time, with also trying to save it from shutting down by hosting a big event featuring the the local film legend, reclusive director Alice Kelly. Through it all there’s Derrick, and some uncomfortable conversations about what happened to them in high school that need to be faced if there’s a future for them now.

At first I wasn’t sure about the 90s rom-com vibes of this book, or about how immature Wren seemed, dodging his problems and clinging to the past. But over the course of the book, while the film nostalgia stayed strong, Wren started to change, to learn and grow and face his uncomfortable truths. By the end his confidence has grown and he’s acting like a real adult — making the book not only satisfying but relatable, as we all face that moment of growing up and taking responsibility sooner or later. In general, this book was strongly Gen Z, both in terms of lingo, film references, and openly affirming things like mental health, found family, and a wide spectrum of identities. It’s a major milestone for the romance genre that this book openly discusses being demi (which means only feeling certain attractions once a strong emotional bond has been formed) and how important it is to have words to understand yourself. In fact, the atmosphere of acceptance was strong and unquestioned, which was refreshing to read.

This is the 90s romantic comedy movie rewrite I didn’t know I always needed — if you like New Adult coming-of-age stories, second chance romances, or just jump at the chance to go to the movies, I definitely recommend you read this book and then take a trip out to your nearest drive-in theater to keep tradition alive.