Category: Review

Book Review: “Monstrilio,” by Gerardo Sámano Córdova

What do monsters have to do with queer books? From Frankenstein’s monster to Nosferatu to the most obscure of X-Files cryptids, monsters are threats to “normal” straight society. There’s definitely rich analysis to be had about the historical associations between queerness and monstrosity. But monster media is also so much fun. Any Jennifer’s Body devotee knows that some of the best queer media plays up the thin line between fear and desire. Who doesn’t want the adrenaline rush of thinking they’re going to be eaten by Megan Fox?

While Frankenstein might be the first book we think of as the “monster novel,” its queer descendants are taking up the inhuman body to explore queer sexualities and life. If you’re chasing the thrill of reading authors like Carmen Maria Machado, Gretchen Felker-Martin, or Shirley Jackson, put Monstrilio at the top of your reading list. 

When eleven-year-old Santiago passes away, his mother doesn’t cry. Instead, Magos does what feels natural: she cuts open Santiago’s body and extracts a piece of his lung, storing it in a jar for safekeeping. The lung becomes her secret stowaway, accompanying Magos to her mother’s home in Mexico City, where she retreats to grieve. On little but a folktale and a hunch, Magos spoons some chicken broth into the jar, watching for signs of life. Remarkably, the tiny piece of tissue grows and grows into a little creature, affectionately named Monstrilio. But the more the “grief creature” grows, the more his family struggles to satisfy his hunger. 

Monstrilio is Gerardo Sámano Córdova’s debut novel. Divided into four parts, the story dedicates a section to each of its four central characters: Magos, Lena (the woman who is in love with her), Joseph (Santiago’s father), and a mysterious “M.” A writer and artist from Mexico City, Córdova’s affection for gothic images shines through his work. In Monstrilio, a family’s love for such a terrifying monster mirrors their struggle to reckon with their own queerness and deviance–the monster uncovers the monstrous within.

Grief might be where Monstrilio begins, but the story isn’t exactly a tear-jerker. Córdova’s writing is detached–the novel is ruled by an otherworldly logic from Magos’ very first cut into her son’s body. It’s the kind of dreamlike state when a loss is just so overwhelming that the pain becomes ambient, and nothing feels real. For Magos, if Santiago can be dead, maybe none of the rules of the world make sense. These logical slips give way to intimate, weighty realizations about grief that Córdova sneaks in between the more action-packed moments of the novel. The beats are quieter, but they’re certainly there. If you’re interested in reading about grief, Monstrilio offers a beautiful, human portrayal of how far a person will go to avoid confronting such an immense loss.

But as the moves forward, it becomes clear that Monstrilio is also built for fans of horror. Monstrilio’s uncontrolled hunger is made way more terrifying by his pointed fangs, jaw that can unhinge to the width of his body, and extra long limb built for swinging from branch to branch while he hunts. His family desperately tries to figure out how to contain him as he feasts on basement rats, neighborhood pets, and threatens to graduate to larger beasts. Córdova’s horror winks at genre conventions, but the way he writes gore is so visceral and inventive that it doesn’t land as redundant.

By the final section, Monstrilio has matured into a teenager, and his family encourages him to pass as human. He’s going to restaurants, working in a bookstore, and venturing onto dating apps to meet boys. As Córdova adopts M’s perspective, we realize that M doesn’t just feed on pets because he misses a meal, M is always hungry. Witnessing M’s desire to eat is so satisfying after reading three characters who repress their feelings so forcefully. Who can blame M? He wants to eat men! He was born this way, baby! 

There’s an obvious parallel between M’s desire for men and his desire for human flesh. Córdova flirts with a commentary on social deviance that will resonate with queer readers, but it’s not overbearing. Rather than divorcing M’s queerness from his monstrous hunger, Córdova takes the likeness further, taking us through M’s teenaged dating app escapades as he tries to find – a boyfriend? A victim? The clever tension between cruising and hunting makes for a kinky, terrifying, and thrilling fourth act. It’s also what might align Monstrilio not with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but with Susan Stryker’s. Córdova doesn’t reinvest in “human” as a category any more than he invests in the straight or cis. In this book, the monster speaks back, and he doesn’t want to assimilate. — Leo

Book Review: “Queerly Beloved,” by Susie Dumond

If you watched a lot of YouTube, like I do, you might have noticed a trend among those who like to turn on their cameras and talk about pop culture: they miss romcoms. Where did the romcom go? they ask, the previous staple of the Friday night movie date is all but lost to nostalgic reboots and superhero sequels. And more and more people are interested, not just in the return of romcoms, but gay romcoms. After all, what better way to update familiar material?

Enter Queerly Beloved

In 2013, Amy is living in the deep red of Oklahoma, closeted while working her day job at a bakery (The Daily Bread) and bartending at the local gay watering hold on select nights. Life is looking pretty bright when she makes a date with the newest soft butch stranger in town, until she’s outed and fired from the bakery. 

But Amy is resilient, and a chance encounter-slash-conversation leads to a whole new career path: professional bridesmaid. For a reasonable fee, Amy will be the bridesmaid of your dreams. She will stitch up any tear, be careful of mascara while wiping away tears, and wrangle your drunk cousin at the reception before he ruins the toasts.

As her new business picks up, however, Amy is faced with the conflict between her genuine love for weddings and the raw fact that many of the people she’s assisting would fight against her right to ever have one. She’s just a closeted in this role as she was when working for ultra-conservative employers, and not all of her queer friends are wild about the connotations of her new job… including that new beau. Ultimately Amy will have to figure out how to marry her love of weddings — the fantasy, the fanfare, even the fondant — with her growing need for a more raw and unapologetic authenticity when it comes to her own queer identity. 

Queerly Beloved is the debut offering from Susie Dumond, a Senior Contributor from the mammoth online presence that is Book Riot. As a queer writer from Arkansas, she brings a wonderful specificity to Amy’s conflict: the conflict of any queer person living in a polically inhospitable state who still treasures their local community and culture. Queerly Beloved is at its best when it shucks the narrative that queer people should just “move somewhere else,” showcasing them as an integral part of those communities — and pointing out the hypocrisy, especially, in asking this of Native queer people. There’s a lovingly detailed portrait of Red State queer life in its pages that adds something unique to the expected meet-cute-leads-to-misunderstanding of the romantic subplot. 

The book is less sure when it deals with the issue of gay marriage as a concept. There’s a lot of meaty potential to be had in a story about a woman who isn’t legally allowed to marry the person she wants, making a career within the very industry that denies her. But that isn’t what Queerly Beloved wants to focus on — it’s having a lot more fun with stories of Amy’s last-minute saves and improvisational skills, true to its romcom inspiration. The disconnect between the potential seriousness of the subject matter and the book’s insistence on more lighthearted scenes can sometimes create an unevenness in tone, and Amy never really questions the depth of her commitment to weddings as a concept. Other people in the book ask questions like Why is marriage the chosen battleground for equal rights? or Are we chasing a heteronormative ideal when we pursue marriage equality?, but not Amy. When her friends bring up the political and social side of things, she dodges those issues with a straightforward affirmation: she loves weddings, and that’s all that is really important. Amy focuses on the things she can control, and in doing so creates a sphere of influence which can also give comfort and support to others.

Ultimately, Queerly Beloved is a celebration: of hot women in suits, of queer joy, of the diverse experiences and perspectives we have to offer as a community. Dumond urges you to fall in love with the fairytale, and to have hope for the future. Like all the classic romantic comedies, it makes the promise that, even with all the crazy ups and downs, everything will all work out in the end.

Katharine’s Review of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls

My love for Clarissa is so strong it changes the temperature of the air around us — that’s how it feels — which is precisely the thing about losers, the thing that binds us here on Mrs. Vag’s floor, and the thing that will bind us even after we change, grow up, become new people, meet other former and current losers: losers stick together. We recognize one another.

— T Kira Madden, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls

There are two ways to write a successful memoir. One is with sheer talent of prose, making even the ordinary moments of our lives shine with their own luster. The other is to recount kind of experiences that make most people go: “Holy crap, I can’t believe that’s been your life.”

Luckily for T Kira Madden, she gets to do both at once. 

Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls is Madden’s account of growing up queer and hapa in Boca Rotan, Florida. Awkward and alien even among similarly nouveau riche classmates (her uncle is Steve Madden of the shoe empire, just to give you a sense of the tax bracket), Madden was caught in the crux of both being the Other and having immense privilege. Her language is deeply creative and visceral, and she appreciates the surreal amidst the superficial; it’s Welcome to the Dollhouse as envisioned by Francesca Lia Block. 

Another movie comparison: the book reads like the flip narrative to The Wolf of Wall Street — what all that excess and drug abuse looked like when it wasn’t cinematic enough to be adapted by Scorsese, the effects on family members and daily life. That’s not so much a comparison, however, as the actual truth. Madden’s father was good buddies with Jordan Belfort, and we’re left to assume he made a lot of his money the same way. Madden’s account is quite the palate-cleansing contrast to the movie — she talks about the house rules where she was effectively locked inside her room at night when “company” came over, the sex and drug parties she glimpsed when she managed to sneak out, how she was babysat by some of the shadiest characters you’d ever think to trust with a preteen. And that’s when she isn’t digging into the real darkness, such as her parents cycling in and out of rehab, or how her father, high as a kite, once chased Madden and her mother into a locked bedroom and beat the door with a baseball bat until it splintered. He didn’t remember the incident afterward, claimed his little girl must have broken the bat herself.

One of the striking elements of the book is Madden’s lack of anger, or accusation, toward either of her parents. She has anger, but she focuses it squarely on their dealers. When it comes to the adults directly responsible for her — the ones who lied to her, neglected her, once forgot about her entirely and left her at a baseball game — Madden spends a lot of time trying to contextualize their behavior, if not excuse it. Madden clearly loves them both, and the book’s overarching narrative (if it can be said to have one, more on that later) is about attempting to incorporate that love into her adult understanding of her trauma. She unpicks her mother’s past and insists she did the best she could. But it’s her father whom Madden really labors over, sifting through her memories like they contain precious grains of wheat, even as she acknowledges the growing excess of chaff. Madden’s father is alive for most of the book, which might seem to contradict its title — but as one character in a similar situation points out, your father doesn’t have to be literally dead in order to grow up fatherless. (He’s the one who left her at a baseball game.) 

It’s Madden’s strained connection to her father, or lack thereof, which guides her choices in most of the relationships she chronicles in the book. Madden now identifies as gay, and her book touches on queer desire, but her overwhelming hunger for adult, or at least older, male attention dominates the narrative. Toxic boyfriends, abusers, predators — they all find their way into her life, and as Madden tells it, they’re all connected back to that initial disconnect. It was the first really big, really damaging crack in the foundation of her life.

And Madden’s own life contains considerable damage: eating disorder, assault, addiction. There is a lot of ugliness couched in the book’s beautiful prose. Details in the later chapters make it clear that Madden eventually overcame these obstacles: marriage to a supportive partner, repaired relationships with her parents, getting clean. But the book itself isn’t interested in the resolutions, or with much of the process of reaching them. Instead Madden seems to fixate on the worst parts, such as the more bigoted reactions to her coming out among an otherwise accepting family, or her teenaged partying and its excesses instead of how she came to be a lauded nonficition writer. Arguably, that’s because these things make for a more interesting story. It can still be frustrating, to feel like Madden doesn’t acknowledge how lucky, ultimately, she has been — especially how much of her family’s money contributed to that luck. For instance, after she all but flunks out of high school, Madden is sent to a Manhattan fashion school with her tuition and expenses paid. In these chapters she talks about her ongoing emotional turmoil, her struggles with queer identity — all of which is valid. But it’s hard to ignore how much better she had it than most with similar sorrows. 

In fact many of the narrative threads of Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls feel incomplete, and often we’re given endings and beginnings with no details of what happens between. Even in the very end, where the audience might finally believe Madden has reached a place of balance and perhaps emotional wholeness, a revelation in the last pages lands like a sucker punch. The book won’t give you any sense of resolution, and those in search of it should look elsewhere. But if you’re more inclined towards intensity, or a nostalgic look back at the weirdest aughts-era adolescence you never really lived, let T Kira Madden tell you stories of her tribe.