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.

Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp

Sick of horror stories where able-bodied straight people are the only ones smart and strong enough to survive? Try Even if We Break by Marieke Nijkamp. This deeply inclusive YA thriller is a love letter to RPGs, a Breakfast Club vibe (with shades of One of Us is Lying), and a typical “remote-cabin-on-haunted-mountain” campfire story.

It’s been three years of high school since disabled goth Finn (he/him), cash-strapped game master Ever (they/them), autistic former athlete Maddy (she/her), hardworking “new money” Carter (he/him), and wealthy aspiring seamstress Liva (she/her) first started playing their role-playing game in the mythical land of Gonfalon. Once, the game made them inseparable. Now, they’re barely speaking, and all hiding secrets. Carter is bitterly resentful, Maddy is lost and desperate, Finn is consumed with anger and mistrust, Liva feels disrespected, and Ever is just desperate to keep the friendship going a little longer. They’ve gathered, one last time, at Liva’s mountain cabin to play an immersive game. But soon, strange things start happening, and then in the darkness, someone vanishes, leaving a pool of blood behind…

This book is priceless because of its effort to accurately and compassionately portray the lives of queer, disabled, and trans teens, through their own voices. Touching on chronic pain, the opioid epidemic, poverty, bullying, neurodivergence, and more, this is a thoughtful portrayal of a group of friends and how their circumstances can drive wedges between them. What this book does best is show the friends’ processing of trauma and secrets in order to get back to a place of trust and honesty. While slightly less effective, the thriller plot unravels at just the right rate to keep readers on the edge of their seats wondering what will happen next and who’s behind it.

Both the frequent heart-to-heart talks and inconsistent serial-killer-stalking stretch the limits of believability to some degree and, combined, make for a somewhat anticlimactic ending, but as a pioneer of inclusion in the genre – and a nuanced portrayal of disability – this is a tour de force.  Recommended for fans of Stephanie Perkins’ horror work and Karen McManus’ multi-perspective whodunits.

This title is also available on Overdrive.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

A vital work of queer Latinx fiction, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is full of vibrant culture, real emotions, and the triumph of self-knowledge.

“This stunning debut novel from Thomas is detailed, heart-rending, and immensely romantic. I was bawling by the end of it, but not from sadness: I just felt so incredibly happy that this queer Latinx adventure will get to be read by other kids.” – Mark Oshiro, author of Anger is a Gift

The story centers on Yadriel, a trans boy from a family of brujx, a magical community that lives in a cemetery and takes care of the souls of the dead. Traditionally, brujas focus on healing and brujos help spirits cross over to the afterlife. Unfortunately for Yadriel, his family is very traditional and can’t really accept him as a boy and a brujo, although his magical abilities lie firmly in brujo territory, with no skill for healing. Since his mother passed away, Yadriel’s only sources of support has been his best friend Maritza, a vegan bruja, and his uncle Catriz, whose magic isn’t strong enough to use, and neither of them have been able to convince his father to give him his quinces coming-of-age ceremony, which would confirm his identity in the community as a full brujo. But Yadriel isn’t giving up – he performs the ritual himself, and tries to summon the spirit of his murdered cousin to prove he can release a spirit to the afterlife. Unfortunately, the summoning instead produces Yadriel’s classmate Julian, the resident bad boy who isn’t going into the afterlife without knowing exactly what happened and tying up his loose ends. Without many options, Yadriel agrees to help, only to find that the more time he spends with Julian, the less he wants him to leave. In the meantime, Yadriel and his family must still find out exactly how and why his cousin was murdered, all before Dia de los Muertos, Yadriel’s first chance to see his mother since her death.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and I appreciated the steady pacing that kept the plot moving and new revelations every few pages. The portrayal of the rich culture was fascinating and informative, and the characters and their relationships were realistic with emotional pathos. Moreover, the depiction of being trans in a conservative family was heart-wrenchingly real. I definitely think this is a groundbreaking work, and an excellent read for anyone who either identifies with or wants to build understanding for Latinx culture and/or trans identity.

The Danish Girl

the danish girlThe Danish Girl follows the lives and work of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. This movie is based on the real lives of these two Lili Elbe was a transgender Danish painter, born Einar Wegener. Einar and Lili were married and lived together painting and illustrating different portraits and landscapes.

Einar Wegener was a Danish landscape painter born in 1882 who married Gerda Gottlieb when they were just 21 and 19. This movie begins with them being happily married with a loving relationship. One of the couple’s friends walks in on Gerda painting Einar as he is holding up a dress and wearing heels and tights. The friend says that they should start calling Einar, Lili instead. This name-giving serves as a sort of shift for Einar.

Einar begins dressing up more as a woman with Gerda even helping him get into character one night when they go to a party. Einar ends up in full Lili garb and this new persona is born. Einar begins treating Lili as if she is a totally separate individual from himself. Einar has begun his transformation into completely becoming Lili, something he always knew he wanted to be. Einar and Gerda’s relationship becomes strained, but they don’t stray from each other’s sides, eventually settling in Paris with Einar fully transitioning to live openly as Lili.

This movie follows Einar’s journey to Lili and how Lili struggles to accept the truth that this ‘Lili’ persona is her true an authentic self. He reveals that he is a woman, that he was simply born into the wrong body, but that it sometimes feels like he has two people in his one body and that they are both fighting to see who will take over. Einar struggles with revealing this admission because the doctors he visits sometimes either do not believe him or wish to send him to a mental institution. Lili eventually meets a doctor who tells her that he can help her become her true self through sex reassignment surgery, something she desperately wants. Gerda and Lili’s relationship evolves and changes throughout this movie as both of them struggle to deal with their new identities. This movie was sincerely eye-opening for me and the actors did a wonderful job of portraying each character.


This movie is also a book, available in a physical copy and also as an OverDrive ebook.

 

June is LGBT Pride Month

The six-colour version of the pride flag is the most commonly used version. The original version from 1978 had two additional stripes — hot pink and turquoise which were removed due to manufacturing needs. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The six-color version of the pride flag is the most commonly used version. The original version from 1978 had two additional stripes — hot pink and turquoise which were removed due to manufacturing needs. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In honor of LGBT Pride Month, we are featuring films, novels and media created by and for the LGBTQ** community on this blog. We’ll also have an ongoing display of these materials at the DPL’s Main branch.

First, a little history …

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month  is currently celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan, New York City. The Stonewall riots  – occurring over the weekend of June 27-29, 1969 – were a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States. While protests for LGBTQ rights had occurred prior to the Stonewall riots, many considered the riots as a “shot heard round the world,”* the first to garner large-scale media attention for a population that had, prior to then, been forced to live in secret.

156px-Stonewall_Inn_1969
Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, New York City, USA, Via Wikimedia Commons.

Christopher Street Liberation Day on June 28, 1970 marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots with an assembly on Christopher Street (where the Stonewall Inn was located); with simultaneous Gay Pride marches in Los Angeles and Chicago, marking the first Gay Pride marches in U.S. history.  Since then, Gay Pride marches have occurred annually in major cities across the U.S.  to recognize the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have had on history locally, nationally, and internationally.

On June 2, 2000 President Bill Clinton declared June “Gay & Lesbian Pride Month”.  On June 1, 2009, President Barack Obama declared June 2009 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, citing the riots as a reason to “…commit to achieving equal justice under law for LGBT Americans.” Read President Obama’s  2015 declaration here.

If you’d like to learn more, the Library of Congress hosts many historical documents, photos and recordings about LGBTQ Pride month, as well as the history of the LGBTQ movement in the United States. Check it out here: http://www.loc.gov/lgbt/

National Public Radio’s StoryCorps produced the documentary “Remembering Stonewall” on the 20th anniversary of the riots. You can listen it here: http://storycorps.org/remembering-stonewall/, as well as explore other stories from their OutLoud initiative, founded to preserve LGBTQ  voices and stories across the U.S. On the 40th anniversary of the riots, NPR’ Margo Adler produced another retrospective, “Years Later, Stonewall Riots Remembered”

Check back here next week for a look at LGBTQ literature for all ages!

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*Faderman, Lillian (1991). Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017122-3

**A note on terminology: The acronym LGTB and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) are both used in the official Presidential declaration. According to the GLAAD and The New York Times style guidelines, LGBT is the preferred term, based on universal acceptance and recognition. However, I’ve chosen to use LGBTQ throughout, except when citing a direct quotation, or using the name of a specific organization or event.