Where to start with: Sarah Waters

If I’m going to keep this post in line with other Where to start with posts then I shouldn’t be recommending the book everyone has probably heard of, Tipping the Velvet. But love affairs in music halls is not a bad place to start.

Sarah Waters is sometimes summarised as writing “historical lesbian fiction” but whilst that is true, her books are so much more then that sweeping generalisation would have you believe.


The Paying Guests
brings us to 1922, when the aftermath of the war is starting to change people’s lives. Frances and her mother can no longer afford their house without taking in lodgers and when Lilian and Leonard Barber move in, Frances is captivated by the modern style and attitude Lilian introduces. The effect the paying guests have on Frances and her mother is told with Sarah Waters’ typical sensuous and rich language, deftly creating drama and suspense through her portrayal of flawed but utterly real characters.

 

When I first read Fingersmith I was describing it to everyone as “Dickensian lesbians”. This flippant remark wasn’t only because of the setting of the novel, but the themes of poverty and desperation. The manipulation of women by men is a current that runs throughout the many twists and turns of this brilliant novel. Sarah Waters chooses each word so carefully that you can’t help but feel the tension and barely disguised sensuality present in most chapters.

 

 

Check out all Sarah Waters’ books on her website

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

It’s hard to know what else you can possibly add to a book that already has all the glowing reviews in the world. There is a reason some books are hyped, and everyone says “you need to read this”, because sometimes it’s true.

What Belongs To You tells the story of an American teacher living in Bulgaria who first meets Mitko in a public bathroom, where he pays him for sex. Throughout the subsequent years Mitko’s continued involvement in his life gives us a view into a relationship that is hard to define.

This is an intimate story detailing every minute aspect of a mans life as he tries to navigate his way between the deep sensual attachment he has to Mitko, and the undercurrent of violence and anger always present. Theirs is a relationship of obsession, lust, love, and dependence.

Garth Greenwell’s writing is effortlessly exquisite, building beautiful sentences that call out to be re-read and re-read time and again.

I love books that detail the small connections between two people and What Belongs To You is one of the most honest and human portrayals of that intimacy that I have read in a long time.

What Belongs To You is on the longlist for the Green Carnation Prize and I bought my copy from Wordery

 

How to talk about a plague

It was 1987 and my mum told me a story about her day at work. She’s a nurse and that day she was working in A&E, attending to patients waiting to go up to a ward. She tells me how she started her shift being told by another nurse “that patient has been asking for water, I’m not taking it to him, you do it.” Baffled, she asked why that nurse, and others, were refusing to take water to a patient. “He’s got AIDS”, my mum was told, as if this was answer enough for why a nurse would refuse to go near a patient. Mum thought, ‘well, I have no idea what that is, but I’m a nurse, so I’m going to help a patient’. She spent all night trying to get hold of the patients partner, a married man who was unaware his partner was possibly hours away from death.

I was 7 years old when my mum told me this story. It’s hard to imagine, for anyone who was born after the first cases of HIV were diagnosed, what it was like at the start. The lack of information on what this new disease was, the lies and rumours about how it was spread (even after it was known how, the denials that it was anything other than a gay disease).

There are some great novels and works of non-fiction that can educate and enrich your understanding of what life was like when this disease began to destroy lives, so I’m going to recommend a few you may want to start with.

If you want to learn more about just how horrific a time it was for those infected and their family and friends, you should start with How to Survive a Plague by David France. This book (and there is a documentary of the same name available) tells the story of a group of activists whose tireless campaigning changed forever the availability of drugs to combat HIV.

 

 

Paul Monette’s memoir Borrowed Time (which I reviewed a few years ago) is a devastating first-hand account of AIDS. Published in 1998 it is an intimate account of love and loss which has haunted me since the day I first read it.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt in a novel which brings HIV into the lives of young people through the eyes of a 14 year old who loses her beloved uncle to the disease. She has to confront prejudice and secrets caused by both HIV and homophobia within her family and her community.

The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín is a novel which doesn’t focus on AIDS as a central theme, but where the disease seeps its way into every aspect of the character’s life. Set in Argentina in the 1980s it tells the story of Richard, his family struggles, and relationship difficulties, set against a backdrop of political turmoil.

I’ve recommended the books above because these are the ones that I’ve read, but there are many more that explore the early days of AIDS and its effect on individuals, communities, and the world. Let me know your recommendations of any you’ve read. I really want to read some contemporary novels that deal with HIV so any recommendations are welcome.

Where to start with…Jeanette Winterson

I first became familiar with Jeanette Winterson due to the dramatisation of her first novel, Orange Are Not The Only Fruit, which aired on the BBC in 1990. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a lesbian growing up in a religious community in England and explores family relationships, sexuality, and religion.

I finally read the book as part of my A’Level English course and loved Winterson’s storytelling so much I tried to read everything she’d written. This was easy given, at that point, she’d only published six novels. Since I first started reading her work, she has published (if I’ve counted correctly) 16 novels, many collections of short stories, screenplays, and a memoir.

If you haven’t read Oranges I’d recommend you start with that, but following on one of my early favourites is Written on the Body.

Written on the Body is a very difficult novel to define. An intimate portrayal of lust and love, the gender of the main character remains undefined throughout, forcing you to read the book not as a response of one gender to another, but as desire for a physical body.

 

 

For a completely different story, try Tanglewreck – a children’s fantasy time-travelling tale. A sci-fi Dickensian exploration of quantum physics that is full of adventure and humour.

Winterson has also contributed to the Hogarth Shakespeare series of re-tellings which have been released since 2015. I’ve not found the time to read The Gap of Time, her re-telling of The Winter’s Tale, but the story sounds fascinating so I’d recommend giving that a try.

 

 

 

 

History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

25014114History Is All You Left me is a story that talks about first love, grief, and mental health, in a story so beautifully written it had me crying from the first page until the last.

Written in chapters that alternate between the past and the present, the reader can fall in love with the relationship between Griffin and Theo as they themselves fall into each other, while in the very next chapter we’re brought crashing back down to earth with the devastating grief of the present day.

The portrayal of the grieving process and the different ways in which people deal with death was the most moving part of the story for me. I could identify with Griffin every step of his journey, and felt his devastation, anger, confusion, and hope that love was still alive in some way.

One of the first things that stood out for me was the realistic portrayal of OCD and how it affects every part of someone’s life. It is rare to read about OCD in fiction, nevermind in such a carefully and sensitively handled way.

Another thing I loved was the realistic presentation of sex. To not present it as an unusual thing that two young boys would want to have sex (not only with each other, but with other partners as well) was fantastic to read. The relationships and sex lives of the characters were so well crafted that the characters jumped off the page and became very real and very complicated people as a result.

 

George by Alex Gino

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George and her class have been reading Charlotte’s Web and when the teachers decide they should perform it as a play, George knows that she wants to play the part of Charlotte. The story follows George’s attempts to convince her teacher that she should be allowed to play Charlotte, even though everyone thinks she’s a boy. We also go on the journey George takes in telling her best friend, mom and brother the thing that seems obvious to her, but not to them. That she’s not a boy.

There is a line that made me stop, take a moment to breath, and realise why this is a perfect book for adults as well as children to read. When George says that trying to be a boy is really hard. The representation of what it is like to be trans is the best I have ever read and I think it was conveyed in a way that will make sense to younger readers.

I’ve read some interesting reviews of George online, and once you get past the blatant transphobic ones, there seems to be a lot of criticism that I think needs addressing. One strand of complaint is that the constant gendered language used towards George is excessive. That people don’t use phrases or words all the time that mention to children what gender they are. This is, of course, blatantly untrue and what Alex Gino is doing in this story is pointing out how often this does happen, and how this makes someone like George feel when she is constantly reminded how other people see her.

Another criticism I read frequently is how the story is too simplistic. Yes, the plot is quite simple but the subtle nuance that Alex Gino draws through it, and the way in which they demonstrate the realities of life for a transgender child, adds a depth that is subtle but profound.

The most depressing criticism I have read, other than the obvious ones that are just fuelled by hate, are those expressing that children shouldn’t read this book, that they wouldn’t understand it, and that they would be confused by the content. It depresses me that adults don’t give children more credit. I think you’d be surprised by what they do understand and by the depths of their empathy for each other. This is absolutely a book children should read and every school library should have a copy or two.

Whilst George’s experience of talking to people about being a girl is one of optimism and happiness in the end, this is not the typical situation for many trans children and adults. That is why this book is so important. It is vital to present the idea that yes, many trans children do have happy outcomes when they speak about their identity, and many adults deal well and are understanding. There can be a happy ending, and I’m so glad this book exists to prove that.

 

Superior by Jessica Lack

My book of the week has to be Superior by Jessica Lack. Based on the blurb alone I wanted to devour it immediately: A superhero’s intern falls in love with a supervillain’s apprentice in this star-crossed LGBT YA story. I mean, how can you not want to read that?

Superior is a novella with heart and humour. It’s goofy and gay and brilliantly conveys a detailed world where superheroes run hotlines and people call them to help rescue their cats.

I’m recommending this because Jessica Lack is superb, not only at realistic world building, but at developing characters with life and depth in only a few pages.

Get your copy now 

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

On the one hand this book is easy to explain, it’s about two boys, kissing. But then again, it is so much more than you would imagine and hope for.  Craig and Harry are trying to set a new world record the longest ever kiss and the story tells us of their attempt. But we don’t just hear from Craig and Harry, there are four stories interwoven into the novel, all related to boys coming to terms with coming out and the reactions of the people around them. The overall narrator is the voice of an older generation of gay men who have lost their lives to AIDS. It is these narrators that really start to pull the emotional punches as they lament the glorious possibilities the lives of young men have now, possibilities that were so cruelly denied to them.

Two Boys Kissing is a deeply moving and passionate novel that is absolutely beautiful.

You Know Me Well by David Levithan & Nina LaCour

When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other — and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more.

Told in alternating view points, You Know Me Well, follows the story of Kate and Mark who become best friends after one moment of bonding in a gay bar. I was skeptical at first that they could become such good friends so quickly, but I remembered the intensity of feeling when I was the same age as the characters, and it made more sense. Here are two people desperately searching for an identity and trying to find their place in the world, which is why they get so quickly attached to someone else who sees able to help them on this journey.

While the characters attempt to navigate the tricky world of relationships, it is their friendships that sit centre stage. This novel explores a number of themes that are rarely touched upon in YA fiction. As well as exploring friendship it, more importantly, shows LGBTQ+ young people comfortable with their sexuality and receiving support from the people around them. We need more novels that explore LGBTQ+ friendships and that explore the importance of having friends (more important than relationships)

This book left me with such a good feeling almost entirely because of the background setting of Pride. I felt so uplifted by the portrayal of celebratory times and optimism. While I preferred Mark’s story, and found it difficult at times to connect with Kate, both parts of the book are written wonderfully and are so engaging I read this in one sitting.

Buy the Book

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

It’s very rare, unheard of in fact, for me to read a book in one sitting but (and I’m aware it’s cliched, sorry) I actually didn’t want to put this book down. Simon is such an interesting and engaging person, I loved being inside his head and feeling everything he did.

The story starts with the first anguish that someone has discovered his secret about his sexuality and the emails he sends to an anonymous student at their school, and takes us on a quick journey through his developing feelings for ‘Blue’ and his relationships with his friends.

I’d been told that this was ‘just a coming out story’ and the person who told me that sold it short by a long shot. This story is so much more, and Simon’s almost forced coming out is a sideline to the deeper look into friendships, how we know ourselves (can we ever), how well we know the people around us, the surprises and secrets that everyone hides.

I loved how deeply we got into Simon’s head, into his private life, and how he displayed his mortification when he realises the assumptions and prejudices he’s been exhibiting.

This is such a brilliantly written and emotional story. I smiled so much, I laughed, I almost cried, and now I’m done I want to read it all over again.

Buy the Book!