The Society for Soulless Girls by Laura Steven

The Society for Soulless Girls is a young adult thriller that retells the Jekyll and Hyde story at an exclusive university for the arts with a dark past. The infamous North Tower at Carvell College of Arts is where four students died ten years ago and Carvell closed, but now it is reopening, and Lottie, hockey-playing English student with a desire to investigate what really happened at Carvell, and Alice, goth Philosophy student with some anger issues, are starting there and find themselves put together as roommates, albeit ones with little in common. When Alice finds a book containing a soul-splitting ritual in the library, the cycle seems to be starting again, and Lottie and Alice must get over their differences to try and uncover the truth.

This book is very much aimed at the dark academia market (it even has a character who dresses like the aesthetic, quotes philosophy and literature, and at one point mentions The Secret History), with a focus on actual gothic, supernatural goings on as well as the prestigious yet dark education environment. The perspective of the narrative is split between Lottie and Alice, as their encounters with the secrets of Carvell combine with an enemies-to-lovers romance, and the pace is good, with plenty going on. The tone was a little darker than I expected, which pleasantly surprised me (I hadn’t realised the characters would be 18/19 and starting uni, rather than at school, which again was a pleasant surprise), though some of the writing was less up my street (one character spends an entire scene talking in memes).

The engagement with Jekyll and Hyde was very interesting, with the book really focused on female anger and society’s expectations of outlets for rage, and hinting towards ideas of gothic as ways of expressing repressed and difficult things in society. I liked the slightly sinister reputation of the gothic literature course, which brought a nice side of The Secret History-esque ‘what if you studied something theoretical but for real life’ though wasn’t as prevalent in the book as you might expect. The quoting of philosophy and literature throughout made it ideal for pretentious teenagers (I’m sure I would’ve liked it when I was younger for that) who the genre is clearly ideal for.

Combining a mystery, a romance, and a look at how female rage is treated, The Society for Soulless Girls is a fun thriller that really taps into a bunch of things that I think will appeal to the target audience. It’s one of those young adult books that is perfect for getting audiences intrigued by some of the intellectual and literary ideas within whilst also being genuinely entertaining to read and with enough darkness to at least keep it interesting. 

Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

Briefly, A Delicious Life is a novel about yearning, conventions, and love, as a ghost watches an unusual group come to Mallorca for their health. Frédéric Chopin isn’t well, but is in Mallorca with George Sand and her children in the hope of wellness and a simple life. They take residence in an old monastery, where Blanca, the ghost of a teenage girl who died centuries ago, watches them with interest, and falls in love with George, a woman wearing trousers and shirts and shocking the local people. Winter brings difficult times, and Blanca can only do so much to try and help them alongside her usual attempts to protect the women of the town from the men, whilst Chopin writes songs on a substandard piano.

This is a book that is more than its summary, especially if you boil it down to: a ghost falls in love with George Sand and Chopin is ill. The book is from Blanca’s point of view, through which you see some of the thoughts and histories of the other characters as well as her own brief life, and it is a strangely fascinating viewpoint, this teenage girl who has now seen hundreds of years and has learnt how to manage love and yearning. The picture of this family, two lovers and the children of one of them, is really shown in its complexities through Blanca’s perspective, though you never know if her idea of George is clouded by her sudden love for the woman.

I’m not usually one for historical novels without another selling point, especially not ones about real historical figures, but I love the unique conceit of this one, and it felt almost timeless a lot of the time, possibly thanks to having a narrator who has seen a lot of time. It is fascinating, with a slightly strange ending that changes pace from the rest of the book, but makes sense in terms of the narrative, and especially Blanca’s need to watch every detail of the group. A fresh take on queer history, Briefly, A Delicious Life makes a book about a ghost, living life, and types of love something nuanced and intriguing, and not at all what I might’ve expected.

Before We Were Trans by Kit Heyam

Before We Were Trans is a book that looks at the history of gender through an expansive trans lens, showing that the scope of trans history can be wide and inclusive and that can teach us more about the people left out by certain ideas of gender. Each chapter focuses on a particular theme and acts as a kind of introduction to that area of history, weaving together a few different examples and discussing how thinking about these is important, and many of the chapters look at the overlap between trans history and other histories, particularly the history of sexuality, intersex history, and the history of colonisation.

The style of the book is academic yet engaging, aimed at a broad audience, and the content is introductory, providing explanations of what and why people and communities can be viewed through a broader lens of trans history but not going deep into each topic, which could be books in themselves. The book sets forward a methodology for doing history, acknowledging at one point the bad reputation of historians in terms of the history of gender difference and the policing that can go on around historical figures, and the title hints towards the fact that differing terminology means that history like this isn’t so simple to chart. At the same time, Heyam makes it clear how important it is that people do this work and see these histories as histories that can be crucial to modern thought and understanding.

As the book is an overview, I was looking forward to using the bibliography to follow up and go deeper, which I will do, though in my electronic proof copy it’s not the easiest to navigate and could have been split into key texts for each chapter to make it more accessible for people wanting to read more. I’m not a historian, so I can’t really comment on the discussion of methodology, but Heyam clearly highlights the book’s limitations, especially as written by a white academic, and the book is useful for thinking about who and how trans histories are told.

There’s a lot of fascinating content in Before We Were Trans, and it sits nicely with other recent non-fiction books on trans life and reality, particularly Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue (which is cited in this book), to consider the ambiguity, policing, and intersectionality of gender and trans history. 

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

Lapvona is a novel about the balance of power, faith, and human connection in a rigid rural society, set in a fictional village. In Lapvona (somewhere probably medieval, possibly in eastern Europe), lives Marek and his father Jude, the shepherd; Ina, a blind midwife and wet nurse with supernatural powers of communication with nature; the lord Villiam who lives high on the hill; and Father Barnabas, who has traded religious for the power of being Villiam’s right hand man. The village is controlled by Villiam’s whims, but when Marek finds himself caught up in Villiam’s world and Lapvona faces drought, the balance of the village changes in different ways.

From the summary, this isn’t the sort of book I would usually pick up, as I’m not a fan of a medieval setting, but I was intrigued to see what Moshfegh would do, and drawn in by the stark cover. This is a complex book, feeling like a literary fable and also a tale of human darkness. It is split into seasons, with the point of view shifting between characters to give an overarching picture of Lapvona, whilst not focusing on too many characters that you get lost. I found it quite easily gripping at the start, despite the setting, and it quickly becomes dark, with characters devoid of sympathy for others and scenes I’m sure some people will find disgusting. This darkness makes it stand out, feeling like a controlled literary portrait of a feudal society and cutthroat decisions people make even when they could be nicer.

In terms of narrative, a few things happen, but it isn’t really plot driven, and I did find the ending felt a bit like ‘oh right, that happened’ rather than a climax. This maybe suits the book, though I was wondering if there was going to be a like a big thing that happened at the end to tie it up (that’s not to say that nothing happens at the end, as that isn’t the case). This is a book that I found pretty good to read, but I’m not entirely sure why, and that weirdness is quite a good place to be (though doesn’t make for the easiest review-writing).

On reflection, I like Lapvona more and more, thinking about its strange atmosphere and hints of supernatural, embracing the dark and the disgusting without trying to see if something big is going to happen to make it all make sense to me. Also, it does give me flashbacks to studying medieval literature, especially the darker ends of it. I’ve only read a couple of Moshfegh’s previous book (liked one, didn’t like the other) and I feel this one may also be divisive, but I think it did well to ensure I wasn’t bored by something I usually wouldn’t be enthralled by.

oh, you thought this was a date?! by C. Russell Price

oh, you thought this was a date?! is a poetry collection exploring the apocalypse through trauma, desire, and the realities of America. The collection is split into sections, each with a quote, dictionary definition, ‘Soundtrack’ and ‘Ritual’, and the book feels like a ritual overall, a chance to speak about brutality and destruction through lyric and song. There’s a lot of music, titles and lyrics, infuses throughout the book and it almost feels like the hazy soundtrack to a wasteland, playing whilst poems explore kinds of apocalypse, trauma, vengeance, and personal histories. At times, in poems like ‘Ars Poetica: We Can Take Our Turn, Singing Them Dirty Rap Songs’ but also through its own structure and tone, it is also a manifesto for poetry that isn’t “fluff”, that does things rather than gently meditate, and that’s a good message to leave with: poetry should have power, and can feel dangerous to those who’d rather it was hidden.

The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran

The Kingdom of Sand is a novel about ageing, friendship, and sex, as an unnamed narrator, an older gay man living in rural Florida, reflects on his past and present. Told in episodes, including a central one about the slow death of a close friend, the narrator considers his position in the world: living alone in the house his parents bought, having to go to his sister’s for the holidays because he doesn’t want to tell her he’d rather be alone, visiting cruising spots, and remembering the past, parties in New York and AIDS and how he ended up staying in Florida.

This is a highly readable book that I felt drawn into, with some initial shorter sections and then a much longer section in the middle that focuses on the narrator’s older friend who is dying, and their shared love of movies. The book reflects a lot on ageing as a gay man in America, especially in terms of loneliness and connections, but also on knowing and supporting people who are ill and dealing with what you are left with when people die. That does make it pretty melancholy, but it’s not entirely tragic, and the narrator’s ways of fitting in and around the world in which he lives, even as it changes, brings a perspective that is complex and contemplative.

I can’t think of many other books that explore the lives, friendships, and sex of older gay men, and this one brings to life not only the protagonist, but the Florida setting as well, exploring a place known for old people and retirement. I’m not always one for books made of different length ‘episodes’ rather than a single plot, but I found this one easy to get into thanks to the writing style and perspective.

Double Booked by Lily Lindon

Double Booked is a novel about a twentysomething woman working out her sexuality and finding who she wants to be, as she’s drawn between two parts of her life. Georgina is 26, with a long-term boyfriend, a job teaching music to children, and a carefully planned calendar. After her best friend Sophie drags her to a gay bar, she watches a lesbian pop group and realises that she needs to get back into performing, and that she’s quite into their drummer. When a spot opens up in the band, she works out she can live a double life, thanks to her careful schedule: sensible Gina sometimes, and keyboardist-in-a-band George at others. However, even with wardrobe swapping and a versatile new haircut, it might be too much to try and live out the parts of her life separately.

Despite the blurb describing this as a romcom, it’s heavier on the comedy and the finding yourself plotline, as the protagonist comes to terms with being bisexual and tries to compartmentalise her life to have to change too much. Romance is obviously part of this, both in terms of her long time boyfriend Doug and possible new love interests, but a lot more of it is about Georgina dealing with her musical and romantic future, working out her own style rather than diving head first into what she thinks are the queer tropes she needs to follow, and realising she doesn’t have to live in a rigidly structured life since her dad died. There’s fallouts, romantic drama, and misunderstandings, but also she finds her feet and works out that parts of her life can come together, even if they must also change.

It was nice to have the ‘discovering yourself’ plotline for someone older than you might get in a young adult novel, especially in terms of trying to navigate coming out as bi when you’re a woman in a long term relationship with a man, and to see the fact that Georgina didn’t have all the answers, but instead had to spend the book trying to work out what was best for her. There’s some good comedy around the fact she initially throws herself into stereotypes, being worried about liking the right music or dressing right, but the book didn’t feel a need to try and explain these too much. I did feel like she needed to meet some LGBTQ people who loved dogs, seeing as the book offered a lot of cat-loving queer people with the joke that only Georgina seemed to think both were good, and I was expecting it to end with her finding other people who liked dogs (and the cover is kinda suggesting that dogs are for her old life/straight people). The book also explores open relationships a bit, especially people perhaps opening up relationships not always for the right reasons.

Double Booked is a light read, a comedy about someone in their twenties coming out and navigating their sexuality and their sense of self, and has a satisfying ending suggesting that Georgina is working out what’s next. I was very glad that the protagonist’s love of Friends at the start of the book wasn’t really a recurring thing, though, as I think that could’ve got a bit grating. I could imagine a sequel which perhaps leans more into the romcom territory and/or focuses on one of the other characters (Rudy felt like a great side character who didn’t get much of a role). If you’re looking for something deep or more incisive, this maybe isn’t the right book, but it’s easy to engage with and fun to read.

So Happy For You by Celia Laskey

So Happy For You is a darkly comic novel about a maid of honour who has to try and survive the wedding—literally. When Robin’s childhood best friend Ellie asks her to be maid of honour, she wants to say no. She doesn’t believe in marriage, which has become a desperate industry in America due to hugely declining rates of marriage and skyrocketing divorce, and doesn’t want to deal with straight-people rubbish when she could be at home with her partner, Aimee. When Robin says yes, she hopes this will mean Ellie won’t go in for any of the strange rituals that have become part of weddings, but as celebrations begin, it seems that Ellie will do anything to get her perfect day.

I wasn’t a fan of Laskey’s previous novel Under The Rainbow, but the wild summary of this book made me want to read it, and it certainly was quite a ride. Told from Robin’s first person perspective, you immediately know that she and Ellie will try to kill each other. A lot of the book is building up the characters, telling the story of Robin and Ellie’s friendship intercut with the journey to the actual wedding ceremony, including a bridal shower and bachelorette that show Ellie might be taking things a little far, and meeting the other members of the bridal party (though by the end, they fade into the background). This all means that by the end, with a few moments of tension (like Robin’s nut allergy that suddenly appeared as a plot point), you know something is going to happen, and the book is just drawing out getting there.

The big centre of the book is the idea of weddings, and what would happen in a slightly alternate version of America in which weddings starting going out of control as people become desperate for marriages to work out (think gender reveal parties that start wildfires or cause deaths, but for weddings, basically). Robin is writing a thesis on this whole turn of events, which provides motivation for actually going to Ellie’s wedding, and also has opinions on weddings and marriage that will chime with a lot of queer people, even without this somewhat-extra version of what weddings might become. The whole concept of wedding traditions and what they mean to a marriage is satirised, though marriage itself comes out okay, with a sense that maybe Robin hasn’t given Ellie’s fiancé a chance, and her self-righteousness and anger maybe doesn’t always come from a good place. Despite being a satire of wedding culture in many ways, So Happy For You isn’t really saying anything new about weddings, other than pitting two extremes of idea against each other, but it presents a funny picture of what people might do and offers an entertaining ride that feels like a fairly regular comedy up until the parts when it becomes darker.

If I’m honest, I might’ve expected the book to go a little darker or weirder (probably saying something about my taste in literature), or to have sustained the threat for a bit longer (the ending feels like a ridiculous thriller, with the kind of drama I used to like in Point Horror books as a child, but much of the rest of it is build up without danger). However, I like the ridiculousness of the premise and the flaws of both Robin and Ellie, and this is a fun, trashy read that asks what if instead of mocking bizarre traditions involved with life events that society deems worthy, you were drawn into a deadly version of them?

Boys Come First by Aaron Foley

Boys Come First is a novel about three thirtysomething Black gay friends from Detroit, trying to get their lives on track. Dominick has just moved back to Detroit from New York City, after losing his job and longtime boyfriend at the same time, and he’s keen to catch up with his best friend Troy, a teacher whose school is under threat and whose boyfriend is more work than he should be. Troy introduces Dominick to Remy, his other best friend, a hotshot estate agent caught between men who won’t commit, and the three of them become firm friends as they try to sort out their love and work lives.

I was drawn in by the cover of this book, which really emphasises the friendship that is at its heart with a beautiful design, and it was definitely worth it. The chapters move between the perspectives of the three protagonists, bringing a lot of backstory and detail as you see them navigating love, sex, and work, all whilst thinking about what Detroit means to them against the backdrop of gentrification and the loss of Black history and culture in the city. It is packed full of location detail (it’s one of those books where the city is basically another character), but also a lot about the different characters and their drama. 

At its heart, the book is about three friends trying to come out of their thirties where they want to be, and it has an uplifting ending (and a few good ‘uh oh’ moments of drama) that also shows that friends really are vital. It feels like it would make a great TV show, adapted to keep the messy drama but also the comedy, as it has the character focus that comes with a lot of witty, modern TV looking at millennial lives.

Covering race, sexuality, family, gentrification, and a whole host of other things in a witty, modern way, Boys Come First is a novel that plunges you into the protagonists’ lives, packed with observations and harsh truths. One for people who like books that feel like the drama from the group chat, but with social commentary too.

100 Queer Poems ed. by Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan

100 Queer Poems is an anthology of, as the title suggests, 100 poems from across the twentieth and twenty-first century that evoke queerness in some way, with the introductions by each editor exploring some of the definitions and ideas behind this concept. Split into seven sections, the poems follow a range of topics and styles, with some in translation, so there’s likely to be something for most people to enjoy, regardless of what sort of poetry you prefer.

For me, I found myself often most drawn to poems by poets I’ve already read (Mary Jean Chan, Matthew Haigh, Peter Scalpello, Richard Scott, Danez Smith), which possibly suggests that I’m already good at finding the poetry I like, and it was nice to read various poets together. I found myself drawn into the collection and accidentally stayed up too late reading it all in one go, almost in suspense for what poem would come next. I would like to have a physical copy (I read the book in PDF form) to use as a proper anthology, to flick through and dog ear and find that specific poem you want to read again at that moment.

Probably my favourite poem in the collection is one I think I’ve read before, Harry Josephine Giles’ ‘May a transsexual hear a bird?’, which I don’t think will ever stop being such a powerful poem and one that strikes a real message about poetry and what can be in it, offering with that an interesting commentary on what should or could be included in any collection of queer poetry. Surprisingly, I also found myself really drawn to the ability to reread Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, a poem I’ve read a lot but not recently, in the context of poems from a range of decades, but especially alongside a lot of modern poetry. Some other poems that stood out to me were ‘Go Away and Then Come Back by Martha Sprackland, ‘I See That Lilith Hath Been with Thee Again’ by Shivanee Ramlochan, and ‘Ganymede’ by Jericho Brown.

As the introductions touch upon, it is refreshing to see a major publisher bringing out such an anthology, which feels like the sort of book that all queer poets and poetry fans need a copy of, both as something to return to and as a representation of a current moment (which the acknowledgements suggest, referring to the idea of there being another one of these in ten years). As with any anthology, people are going to prefer different poems or wonder why certain things weren’t included, but it is a great chance to survey some of the queer poetry out there from the past 100 years or so. It’s a jumping off point rather than a closed book, as any good anthology should be, and I think it just being readily available and visible is still important.