We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ Rights (ed. by Amelia Abraham)

We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ Rights is a collection of short essays by various contributors that set out the present and future of areas such as healthcare, community, and visibility for LGBTQ+ people. Covering topics across the UK and USA but also Uganda, Russia, Bangladesh, Brazil, and more, the book manages to get a great breadth of material from people doing work or who have personal experience in these areas. It opens with essays on the topic of ‘safety’, highlighting the dangers faced by many people in the present day, and then does on to cover visibility, dating, love and family, health and social care, going beyond the binary, and community and organising.

What is particularly impressive the range both of topics covered and of people involved, with famous names in various areas contributing to the collection. Everyone is going to have essays that particularly speak to them—I personally found Juliet Jacques’ look at transphobia and the UK media particularly powerful as it charted the history of the UK media’s treatment of trans people, which obviously is a pressing and depressing subject. A lot of the international essays taught me about what is happening in other countries, and it’s good to get that balance alongside the UK-focused contributions. I also liked Yasmin Benoit’s look at asexual visibility, especially non-white asexual people, Amelia Abraham’s essay on gendered sporting frameworks and how they need updating, and Travis Alabanza’s imagining of a trans future without surveillance.

I didn’t expect the collection to be able to cover so many different interesting topics and futures for LGBTQ+ people, but by keeping the essays short, the book both covers a lot and stays readable and engaging, suggesting you should go away and find out more if it’s something new to you. It serves as a reminder that globally there is still a lot to do and also that by imagining futures and setting out the change that needs to happen, more people can be drawn into being a part of making that change.

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle is a novel about a postman set to retire, who gets a new lease of life to try and hunt down his lost love, George. Albert has been a postman all his life, living in a small Northern town and keeping himself to himself, living with just his cat since his mother died eighteen years ago. When a letter from work tells him that he’s due to retire in a few months, he realises that he doesn’t want to be lonely, and starts building up connections with people in the local community, and building the courage to look for George, the man he loved and lost in his youth.

The sort of book you have to call ‘heart-warming’, The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle has deep meaning underneath its light and sweet story and characters. In particular, it highlights the way people hide things for such a long time (like sexuality, but also the issues Albert had with his parents) and the importance of finding people you can talk to and be open with. The trauma Albert has due to these things in his past means he doesn’t expect people in the present to be kind or sympathetic, and his amazement at people being supportive as he comes out to them shows how deep that was ingrained.

The main narrative is around Albert hunting down George, who is a big presence in the novel though mostly in flashbacks, and George being in the drag scene is a nice way for Albert to discover some of the gay culture he’s missed due to fear. The subplot in which Albert becomes friends with Nicole, a young single mum whose boyfriend’s family won’t accept her, feels typical of the genre (person stuck in their ways makes a new friend who is different to them and pulls them out of their rut), but works well to show friends can come from unexpected directions.

The depiction of an older gay man coming out is important and poignant, and hopefully this sort of book will open the eyes of lots of people who wouldn’t think about the issues faced due to decades of fear and trauma. It’s an ideal story for this kind of book, a light read about someone who is lost and lonely finding hope and people, as it shows the need for different kind of community and also for self-acceptance. Not necessarily the kind of genre I’d usually pick up, but definitely the kind of narrative I want to read and see in the world.

sikfan glaschu by Sean Wai Keung

I was excited to read this collection as I loved Sean Wai Keung’s poem in the Haunted Voices anthology, and it did not disappoint! The format of focusing on different Glasgow restaurants to explore identity, language, and authenticity worked really well (‘tinto tapas’ was one of my favourite poems in the collection and was very much on this theme) and gave a sense of travelling through the collection around Glasgow, thinking about who you are and where you belong. Some of the poems also explore lockdown, in terms of food and getting outside and also pandemic racism, and they had a wry yet relatable approach (especially ‘wing rush’ which is about whether anyone knows if you’ve already been out once that day) which I also really liked.

I love Sean Wai Keung’s poetic style and these poems were clever and enjoyable, a fresh take on identity and what is authentic (cuisine or otherwise).

The Rules of Revelation by Lisa McInerney

The Rules of Revelation is a novel about secrets, the past, and the future, as Lisa McInerney delivers the third in her series of books about Cork and one teenage drug dealer now turned musician. Ryan Cusack is back in Ireland, looking to create an album with his new band, but there’s still someone in Cork looking for him, wanting him to keep quiet about the past. However, that’s not so easy when Georgie is also back in Cork, trying to make Ryan’s drug dealing past common knowledge, and another old secret relating to Ryan puts pressure on both his band and his ex-girlfriend. Still, there’s one old lady trying to look out for Ryan.

I wasn’t sure whether to read The Rules of Revelation, as I enjoyed the previous two books in the series, but I read them in the wrong order (I happened to read The Blood Miracles without knowing it was a sequel) and found it hard to keep track of the plot in the first one. I couldn’t remember the other two and wasn’t sure how it would go, but I’m glad I did pick this one up, as I found it enjoyable and much easier to get into the world of the characters even when I’d forgotten them than I expected.

The other two felt notable in being more up to date small time gangster stories, and The Rules of Revelation also feels up to date, but less of a gangster narrative this time. Instead, it’s a lot more about secrets and scandal, sex and gender, and how to reinvent yourself. It wasn’t too hard to distinguish between the different narrators and it worked quite well to bring the stories together, though Georgie’s felt like it lost steam partway through. The stakes never felt particularly high, but that suited the fact it isn’t a book about gangsters, but about people trying to forge new paths even with their pasts on display.

I did find the book a bit too long, as it does meander and give a lot about what the characters are thinking, but it gripped me more than I expected as I thought I was going to spend most it trying to remember who the characters are. The start had to do quite a lot of ‘here’s the major things you need to know about this person’ seeing as they weren’t being introduced from scratch, but I appreciated being given the information even if it was a bit slow.

As someone who likes gangster narratives, but also likes books that address actual modern issues and aren’t stuck with a dated mindset, I appreciated The Rules of Revelation for being up to date and looking more at the treatment of female characters, sex, trauma, class, and gender that makes up the fallout from the previous two books. I found it readable without remembering the previous two books, but other people might prefer to feel like they knew the full histories of the characters and ensure they’ve read the other two books first.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Crying in H Mart is a memoir about grief, family, and food, as musician Michelle Zauner tells stories about growing up with her Korean mother and American father, navigating her identity in Korea and America, and losing her mother after a cancer diagnosis. Throughout the book are tales of food, eaten and cooked, and how important food has been to her in her relationship to her mother, her other Korean relatives, and to getting through things.

The hype about this book is definitely deserved, as it is both emotional and powerful, and also leaves you hungry, really feeling the importance of the food described throughout and thinking about how food can create bonds between people. I found myself eating spicy egg ramen whilst reading it and saving YouTube videos about Korean cooking, significant in the book as Zauner looks to learn how to make the food her mother made, to watch later. The exploration of grief and illness is sad but also witty at times, getting across how complicated both emotions and families can be.

Written in an engaging way, Crying in H Mart does as maybe good memoirs should and draws you both into Zauner’s anecdotes and makes you reflect on your own experiences. It is a testament to mother-child relationships that are messy but full of love, and also to how much food can define moments and memories.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Sorrowland is a gripping, insightful novel that combines the real and the fantastical, as an escapee from a separatist compound starts developing powers. Vern has spent as long as she remembers in a Black separatist religious compound, used to night terrors and being told she’s too willful. When she escapes one night into the woods she’s hunted, but discovers she is developing extra-sensory powers. Vern gives birth to twins and raises them in the woods, but she must leave the woods if she wants answers to the larger questions about what has happened to her and others, and what power led that to happen.

I wanted to read this book after the hype around it and Rivers Solomon, and it surpassed my expectations, drawing me into Vern’s world both on a character level and to think about the power structures and histories that cause medical experimentation and other horrors. Vern and her children Howling and Feral are memorable characters carefully constructed, especially around what Howling and Feral know and how they experience the world, having spent the first few years of their lives in the woods. The approach to gender in the book was another element that was particularly good, touching on lived experience of fluidity and its importance over labels.

Another notable thing about Sorrowland is that despite all of the horrors that occur and the importance of power structures and nations in causing that horror, there is also a focus on individual healing and survival. Vern and Gogo’s relationship, and the restorative qualities of being able to rely on other people rather than having to fight everything yourself, felt very crucial, bringing out ideas of community resistance.

Exploring both a personal rebellion and metamorphosis and larger structural abuse of groups of people, Sorrowland is a genre-defying novel that takes such a powerful approach towards resistance, gender, and who the monsters really are. I think it’ll be lingering with me for a long time.

Diamond Hill by Kit Fan

Diamond Hill is a fascinating novel about a place disappearing and a city changing, set in Hong Kong in the late 1980s. Diamond Hill is a run down shanty town with a Buddhist nunnery, drug addiction, and a faded memory of being a place for making films. When a man, nicknamed Buddha and a recovering heroin addict, takes refuge in the nunnery when he returns to his home of Hong Kong from Bangkok, he meets a strange selection of people, like the severe Iron Nun, Quartz who has forgotten her past, and Boss, a teenage gang leader who dreams of her escape. All the while, Diamond Hill is under threat from the various people and power across it, and looming redevelopment.

Kit Fan really draws you into the world of the novel, Hong Kong with looming knowledge of the handover from Britain to China coming in 1997, and into the issues of colonialism, displacement, and self that run through the characters’ lives.The characters in general are heavily tied to language and place—Cantonese and English, Hong Kong and England and Thailand, Diamond Hill and elsewhere—and this gives a sense of some of the kinds of tension at play. Power is crucial: who has it and who doesn’t, but also how it can be a presence in different ways. Buddha, as a protagonist drawn into others’ lives to avoid thinking about his own, is an interesting viewpoint into the narrative, suggesting how hard it is to ignore both the past and the future.

Both a look at distinctive characters dealing with their past and what they might do next, and a wider commentary on Hong Kong at this particular moment, Diamond Hill is an eye-opening novel that I found gripping and atmospheric. I enjoyed the chance to find out more about Hong Kong’s recent history too.

Teeth in the Back of my Neck by Monika Radojevic

Teeth in the Back of my Neck is a collection of poetry that focuses on anger and sadness, on identity and history, and on the societal structures that hold us. Split into two parts—’The Teeth’ and ‘The Neck’—the poems explore things the violence and trauma that women face, the way women’s bodies are seen, and how race and belonging are constructed and viewed in society. 

The collection manages to feel varied whilst having clear themes, and the poems are written in an immediate and forthright way that gets across the anger and power behind them. Poems like ‘Hell Will Fall Apart for You’ and ‘A Few Brown Bodies’ look at how people react and how to get angry (or not) about things, and how to enact change, feeling immediate and memorable. The second half of the collection focuses even more on personal identity, history, and people’s relation to others in how these are built. I found the poems that explore the importance of names (‘Jane’) and the idea of DNA testing and the self (’23andme’) particularly interesting, questioning what makes a person and how other people react to that.

It’s hard, despite the pun, not to call Teeth in the Back of my Neck poems with bite, because that’s what they feel like: they’re sharp, witty, and emotional, and even just looking quickly back through the book to write this review makes me want to read them again and again.

Las Biuty Queens by Iván Monalisa Ojeda

Las Biuty Queens is a book of interconnected stories about a group of trans Latinx friends who live in New York City, looking for clients and highs, and dealing with the realities of immigration policies and the harshness of America. The stories follow their interpersonal drama, difficulties with the law, and the brutal realities of being someone in such a liminal space, but also their joy and friendship. 

Chilean writer Iván Monalisa Ojeda draws on his/her own experiences for the book, and you can really feel the real pain and happiness throughout, especially when situations are described that seem impossible to win. The format—short stories that are all held together by the same narrator, moving between different times in a non-linear way—works well to paint a picture rather than tell a single story, and despite being individual stories, the book felt more cohesive than some novels. 

Exploring sex work, drugs, and immigration, Las Biuty Queens sits well alongside other books that explore trans lives in New York City, and it has a witty immediacy that brings you straight into each story. It’s a rare occasion on which I wish a book was longer, because I definitely would’ve read more of this.

Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Snowflake is a novel that looks at feeling like an outsider, mental health, and knowing your home, as an eighteen-year-old from the Irish countryside starts at university. Debbie lives on a dairy farm with her mother and Uncle Billy, having grown up with Billy’s stories and her mother’s seeming eccentricities. When she starts at Trinity College, commuting into Dublin from the farm, she finds the two worlds hard to inhabit, whether it’s dealing with things with her family not going well or navigating her new friendship with Xanthe and Debbie’s own relationship with going out drinking.

This book was a bit unexpected in some ways, as the start feels like any novel about an outsider figure starting university and some of the difficulties of being caught between the countryside and the city, but then later on there’s quite a lot of serious tragedy and mental health stuff, including someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder and an attempted suicide. The novel has a lot to say about mental health (like Debbie’s feelings about her own failed attempt at university counselling when her friend seems to be easily diagnosed with depression, and the fact that when one of the characters from the countryside needs mental health care they have to go into the city) and maybe the blurb’s focus on ‘eccentricity’ and weirdness recreate some of the issues within the novel about the intersection between mental health and seeming “weird” or an outsider.

The novel itself is an engaging read with quite a fast pace that doesn’t dwell on particular events for long, though it takes place over only a number of months. In spite of the sometimes sad subject matter, it has a general positivity, especially from the ending, that shows how people can feel at home and in the right place even when they don’t feel “normal”.