Book Review — Inside/Out by Joseph Osmundson


Inside/Out by Joseph Osmundson — $17

My experience of being queer is relatively mundane as far as these things go. Sure, I had the isolation of being one of the only queer people in my small Midwestern town growing up, and sure the parents would hit me with the occasional wish that I wasn’t gay or statement that “they’ve never gone through this before” to justify something that upset me—but I’ve had a pretty straightforward experience aside from that. Three relationships, several hook-ups—nothing too complicated, and the only long term partnership is the one I’m still in. I’ve been without mutual understanding, but I’ve never been without friends. I didn’t really go through much more trauma or ennui than one expects as a queer teen. When a very sweet friend of mine took me to a queer teen support group, in fact, I felt like I didn’t belong. Like I was invading a space, butting in on those who really needed it.

This all goes to say that no experience of being queer is the same, and that often because of how mundane and mainstream acceptable my queerness has manifested and felt, I find myself not fully appreciating the queerness of others. With those who have had a more difficult time being accepted, who have had a more complex journey into feeling comfortable with their own feelings, in their own body, in how and why they share that body with others.

Which brings me to Joseph Osmundson’s Inside/Out. Listening to the podcast Food 4 Thot, of which Osmundson is a co-host, I feel the most connected to his views and opinions: A cis white guy who seems like he can “pass” as straight when needed and who appreciates David Foster Wallace kind of despite himself. But much diverges from this foundation. In reading Inside/Out I was taken into a rumination on queerness that I haven’t personally had to go through. This book humbles me and causes me to reconsider a lot about what I take for granted in my everyday understanding of relationships, self-worth, self-image, and life in general as a queer cis white man.

It also, incidentally, has the single-most heartbreaking butternut squash recipe I’ve ever read.

Osmundson brings us into a reflection on a past relationship of his with no clear victims or victimizers—one in which sexuality is beautiful and destructive, in which repulsion and desire are intermingled. The way Osmundson writes about his body shifts his insecurities into strength, or at least bravery, finding power through candor, as he lays his insides out, exploring his whiteness, submissiveness, the need and attraction to people and experiences that may be painful but that seem impossible to pull away from. That romanticizing pain and toxicity is sometimes the way we best learn to cope with it.

This is not something I’m particularly familiar with, as I’ve had relatively uncomplicated romantic and sexual relationships in my life, and what little messiness I have had I managed to circumnavigate with the questionably masculine traits of emotional unavailability and misguided ego. (Which I’m working on, another story for another day.) I mean, I achieved something like sexual liberation in college, at a small liberal arts school where all the queer boys inevitably fucked in an increasingly complicated web of one-offs and relationships. I never experienced Grindr culture nor rural queer life nor urban queer life. I haven’t been with anyone with whom it was consistently unclear whether or not we should stay together, whether or not we uplift each other or bring each other down, and this is exactly the type of relationship Osmundson explores in his work.

The structure of Inside/Out reminds me of alt-lit, but Osmundson graciously knows how to avoid the inelegant, lazy, stream-of-consciousness rambling of alt-lit and instead makes something actually good. Simple, short paragraphs that each get one key idea across, with few chapters longer than a page. He incorporates feelings that stem from song lyrics and social media posts, the kinds of syrupy or petty or destructive emotions that we ordinarily try to suppress, too embarrassed to admit out loud. The writing feels spontaneous yet exacting. One touch I enjoyed, a sort of literary equivalent of sampling—whenever someone has captured something Osmundson need to communicate, he doesn’t recreate it with his own words, but incorporates quotes as from Kiese Laymon or the eponymous Diana Ross song. Osmundson knows when he does and does not have the authority to communicate something to the reader, and when necessary he defers to a different source. And taken into context they combine into such a powerful whole.

Inside/Out is both light and heavy. It is a slim volume that never dwells on one facet of its subject for too long, for that it’s an easy read. Yet it’s also brutal, laying out truths and observations that I’m still dwelling on, returning in my mind, feeling Osmundson’s prose viscerally. I can only imagine the difficulty of actually writing it, much less getting it published.

As I see Inside/Out take its place on my queer studies bookshelf, I see something that can’t really be demonstrated in the shelf’s more dense, academic, impersonal work. Those books have their place, certainly, but Osmundson has translated something urgent and important about queer experience that I sort of knew logically but never considered as much as I should have emotionally. Even the more lengthy autobiographical books don’t offer the same impact, don’t communicate with the same gutpunch. Understanding Osmundson through this work, insofar as an outsider can, has realigned me in some way, reminding me and revealing to me of the myriad ways we explore queerness in ourselves and with others. And for that I am extremely grateful.

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“It’s not racist because…”: How context doesn’t save racist media

Never underestimate the lengths to which we will go to make racism palatable. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel purposeful, rather like we are subconsciously perpetuating the status quo while thinking that we have our hearts in the right place.


Consider a more overt example of this pattern: the 2017 Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. We still have a long way to go with representation, but we are at least slowly heading toward a popular enough rejection of whitewashed casting that maybe a few casting directors will take note. In the case of Ghost in the Shell, though, it seems they heard the words but didn’t quite catch the meaning. Rather than see it as an issue of needing to cast a Japanese-American in the American adaptation of a Japanese media property, they saw it instead as an issue of needing a white actress to make sense within the narrative. Whitewashing Ghost‘s protagonist, Major, by casting Scarlet Johansson was bad, but the way that the writers accommodated Johansson’s presence in the script is even more insidious problem.

Ghost in the Shell is a narrative that deals with consciousness and body. The extent to which we need to understand that here is that Major has a synthetic body and a human mind. The film makes a white Major make sense by having it turn out that while she was a Japanese woman originally, she was placed into a white body. A clever idea, maybe, but one that misses the point of representation in lieu of a narrative trick. There’s no substance to this twist beyond justification for Johansson’s casting. We seem to want white bodies on screen so badly that we will alter the source material so that it makes sense. The focus then becomes about that rather than, you know, trifling little themes like the nature of existence and the ethics of robotic technology.


Or consider the original box art for the videogame Far Cry 4. It features a blonde-haired, light-skinned man dominating a dark-haired, dark-skinned man, treating him sort of as an arm rest. Understandably, many criticized this image at first glance as straight-up racist. An image steeped in Western imperialism, it shows the powerful, garishly dressed, presumably white man overshadowing and emasculating the scrawny little dark-skinned guy.

But wait, cry the Devil’s Advocates™! The dominating man is Pagan Min, native and dictator of Kyrat, a small country in the Himalayas, loosely based off of Nepal. Presumably the dark-skinned man stands in for the oppressed people of Kyrat. Pagan and the man are thus both South Asian. Supposedly this should eliminate any criticism of the box art as racist, seeing as how Pagan isn’t white. And besides, he’s the villain, right? But this context merely justifies and obfuscates the first impression. No amount of context will make that first impression go away.

They did end up changing the box art for Far Cry 4. But we can’t erase the fact that the creators originally found no problem with it, never considering the implications when taken at face value. Perhaps it wasn’t as conscious as Ghost in the Shell, where white supremacy was a sure factor in its casting (no, of course not the explicitly violent white supremacy of the KKK, but the more subtle white supremacy that has allowed white people to dominate in Hollywood for the past century), but perhaps this was a subconscious desire to see light-skinned people sublimate dark-skinned people. That’s certainly, again, the first impression.

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Now let’s go back quite a ways and look at my favorite example of this phenomenon: the 1976 comedy-adventure film Silver Streak. In this movie, George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) is on the run from the law with his friend Grover Muldoon (Richard Pryor). They need to get on a train, but in order to do so they have to get through security. Trouble is, the security guards already have Caldwell’s picture and are on the look out for anyone fitting his description. How, then, are they to get around security?

Well. Turn George Caldwell black, of course.

The writers seemed to understand that blackface is not a socially acceptably form of comedy anymore. But instead of, I don’t know, not using blackface, they instead throw every justification they can at the viewer in order to make it just palatable enough. For one, it’s our black best friend Muldoon’s idea. Caldwell is in fact opposed to the plan at first. Soon however, due to Muldoon’s insistence, Caldwell is in the train station restroom rubbing shoe polish on his face and practicing “jive” in the mirror.

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The comedy is supposed to derive here from a white guy acting “black”. In case there was any further concern over whether or not it’s racially insensitive, they have the black shoe shiner from whom they took the polish enter the room. Caldwell stands embarrassed, but the shoe shiner simply laughs and comments that Caldwell must be in a lot of trouble. This addition is actually kind of brilliant, if completely misguided: It establishes further that the white guy is the least comfortable person in this situation, that the black men are simply tickled by the idea of blackface rather than offended. It’s politically incorrect, sure, but there are so many reasons for why they got to this point that the argument is we’d better just role with it.

There are more examples, I’m sure, but these are just a few, I think, that show how much we want to accommodate racism. They aren’t as overt as others out there, but this kind of relatively subtle racism is exactly the kind we need to be better about watching out for. If there is doubt about its sensitivity to an entire racial minority, if we need endless amounts of context to make it palatable, if there needs to be an entire narrative arc’s worth of justification, then perhaps consider that your casting decision, your box art, or your comedy might not be as progressive, or even as good, as you think it is.

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I can’t stand Call Me By Your Name

Call Me Maybe

I hate André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. I try not to hate things. It’s so rare that I genuinely hate a book. It’s especially troubling in this case provided how many people whose opinions I value have enjoyed this novel. But I just can’t do it. I hated it so much I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I’ve given up on books before because they’re tedious, because they’re not what I thought they were, because I felt like the writing wasn’t speaking to me. But Call Me By Your Name is one of the few times I’ve given up on a book because it gave me such a visceral reaction of frustration, sadness, and distance from my own identity.

Now, because I’m obsessed with nuance and not undermining the feelings of others, I say that and I’m immediately compelled to add that you don’t have to hate it too. I see that the writing, tone, and structure in Call Me are all excellent. Aciman is by all means a talented author.


Admittedly there’s a personal taste level to why I dislike this novel. As a relatively straightforward, narrative-focused person, I don’t enjoy beautiful language for its own sake. Plotless literary novels have never appealed to me, and many common techniques in literary fiction are like nails on a chalkboard to me. The actions that the narration keeps returning to, like Oliver’s drinking apricot juice and smacking his lips or the descriptions of bathing suits or the fixation on Oliver’s saying “Later” all the time—I can’t stand it. I don’t enjoy excessive rhetorical flourishes and that’s a huge problem here because most the novel is those flourishes. Call Me is a journey through eroticiscm in language. Maybe a point or two about youthful sexual fascination is explored, but that’s far from the main purpose of this book. So on some level I wasn’t going to like this book anyway because it’s not the way I enjoy reading.

As previously mentioned, it is especially disheartening for me to hate this book because it is so beloved by many. It is one of the few queer novels in the mainstream literary canon. Yet this widespread appreciation in itself bothers me because people seem to like it for all the wrong reasons. Call Me By Your Name is constructed, marketed, and comes off like a romance. Claiming this book as romance feels like calling Lolita a romance. Not in the pedophilic sense, rather that the relationship between our two protagonists is this mean-spirited practice of manipulative give-and-take that people gloss over. These characters treat each other like shit for no reason other than that they’re pretentious, emotionally distant fucks. Yet reviewers seem to be sympathetic to them, see where they’re coming from. Or they’re at least interested in these problems that aren’t problems.

Although unlikeable protagonists aren’t needed in a good book, I haven’t seen readers even put Call Me By Your Name‘s protagonists into this context. I’ve read a number of reviewers who actually like or identify with Elio. The author himself seems to want us to sweetly wallow in the attraction and relationship between these two dudes. Perhaps it’s just a personality thing, but I can’t identify even remotely with the constant “Are we? Aren’t we? What are we? I’m suspicious and petty so I’m going to go have sex with somebody else out of spite now” of the narrative. This narrative elevates suffering and making others suffer out of erotic compulsion into aesthetic pleasure, and that is bizarre to me.

The setting is evocative, sensual, beautiful. I can understand appreciating the novel for its textured language, the way it establishes and weaves you through this Italian villa and its surrounding locales. But again, it’s tough for me to be so enraptured because the novel takes it on faith that you should care about these dudes despite how they have no problems beyond their own dicks and their egos. Why am I supposed to care about the erotic problems of pretentious white men who have every privilege in the world and ultimately can’t even face themselves?

That’s the main thing for me. I don’t know why this book is so embraced by gay men—I may not have read the whole thing so perhaps I’m misguided (though I can’t finish it for my own mental health so don’t say I should), but it appears to treat same-sex attraction as a youthful dalliance. I’m so sick of this trope, the use of homosexual attraction as a (seemingly) idyllic memory of youth instead of a present reality. It makes me feel like same-sex attraction isn’t valid. Like it’s an aesthetic flair, rather than an identity or a means to build community. Something that has no bearing on our present.

Can you appreciate Call Me By Your Name? I mean, yeah. Because, again, I don’t mean to invalidate your enjoyment of the book. I just need to air these grievances. I can’t see how people read this and see themselves in it, or how they can feel anything other than miserable while reading it. The only other novel I can think of that has caused a similar reaction in me was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which I’ve written about before. But this was worse because where Franzen sits on his pedestal and pokes fun at his cynical interpretation of humanity, Call Me By Your Name seems to want us to believe that this cynical interpretation is actually beautiful.

Problematic elements are not essential to good literature, so Call Me‘s fickle, pretentious, shitty protagonists don’t need to be these perfect dudes with politically correct views and no personality flaws who wind up together forever embracing the gay side of their sexual spectrum and volunteer at their local JCC on the weekends to boot. Nor does Aciman necessarily need to moralize the behavior of these protagonists. But what I’m worried about is people thinking that there are no problematic elements to Call Me, to not engage with the morality of the story at all, that this romantic veneer is the way Aciman and his readers actually see and process and understand toxic erotic obsession. Yeah no, fuck that.

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Reclaiming our buried gays in YA: Timekeeper & More Happy Than Not

More Happy

In the past few months I have read two YA novels with vastly different takes on how they treat their gay male protagonists. Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not and Tara Sim’s Timekeeper. More Happy is a sci-fi lite novel about a 16-year-old named Aaron Soto who struggles with grief and coming out. Timekeeper is a steampunk novel about magical clocktowers with spirits inside who literally control time. More Happy is a downbeat (if somewhat hopeful) novel, steeped in tragedy and sadness, while Timekeeper is a sugary, hopeful romance.

Why, then, did I feel so isolated from the gay representation in Timekeeper, and why did I feel so strongly validated by the gay representation in More Happy?

At the heart of this question is dealing with the fact that More Happy deals extensively in Tragic Gay™ tropes, and how Silvera navigates those tropes in order to create something meaningful. How he uses those tropes for a queer audience, rather than to exploit them. Our protagonist Aaron is dealing with his father’s suicide, poverty, toxic friends, and a newly awakened sexual identity that he has no resources to process. The drama can get a little soap opera-ish at times, but for the most part it’s an unflinching take on a gay teen’s pain. The science fiction elements come from the presence of the Leteo Institute, a memory-altering service similar to the one used in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and they bring up the problematic but legitimate thought that a lot of gay teens have had: If I could alter my brain to “forget” I’m gay, would I?

If spoilers are a big thing for you I would recommend reading More Happy Than Not before continuing here. I won’t say any specifics (and here is where you should stop reading if you want to read the book), but suffice it to say that More Happy doesn’t end on a happy note. Hopeful, yes. But it’s still tragic and sad.

In considering the narrative’s trajectory, I thought about how oversaturated we are with tragic gay people. Why can’t things work out for us? Why does everything have to be centered on raising awareness about social issues? I feel like I’ve seen more men die of AIDS on screen than have a healthy relationship with one another. (Sidenote: You can have both! Just watch Jeffrey) But then, something about More Happy felt different than those ~~social issue~~ narratives. It was painful, for sure, but it was genuine pain. Pain directed at an audience who have felt the same at one point or another.

There is still a need for lighthearted romcom type gay stories that don’t deal so strongly with pain, but we also need more stories where queer identities are validated while addressing pain. More Happy Than Not accomplishes this. I haven’t lived a life like Aaron’s, but I have felt his feelings before. I understood and appreciated Aaron’s interior turmoil, and because of that the novel resonated strongly with me. It may have been a tragic gay story, but it wasn’t just another tragic gay story.


Compare this to Timekeeper, which I have described (accurately I would argue) as Chuck Tingle shounen-ai. The novel describes how Danny, a prodigy clock mechanic, falls in love with Colton, a clock spirit. Danny’s sexuality is accepted without question in this alternate history, wherein the sudden appearance of these magical clocktowers kickstarted the industrial revolution, which somehow leads to accelerated social progressiveness. Their relationship is simple and syrupy and cute, and I enjoyed it a lot while I was reading it. But then I finished the novel, and realized how little I actually cared about their relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the exterior of it. I liked seeing them be cute, but there’s no resonance with them. It’s a junk food romance. Enjoyable at the time, but I wasn’t left with anything of substance.

Timekeeper is a woman writer’s interpretation of m/m romance. Which, of course, isn’t on its face a bad thing, and that’s not to dissuade women from writing about gay men. But it raises an issue of audience and intention. Danny and Colton are there to be cute. They aren’t there to be points of identification, to be compelling characters even, really. (The question of whether Colton can even appropriately consent is an issue I hope Sim raises in the sequels, by the way, because it really weirds me out.) The strains put on their relationship are all the result of outside conflicts, most of which are fantastical and exclusive to a steampunk plotline. They are there to go “Awww” at, to get idealized romantic fantasies about.

In eliminating gay pain from the narratives, we do a disservice to queer representation. Normalizing is good, yes. But there is a difference between the normalization of queer characters and the glossing over of their pain. The visual novel/dating sim Dream Daddy has been justifiably criticized for this. As one critic, Tim Mulerkin, points out:

“On the one hand, I’m thrilled that a game with queerness running through its veins is enjoying so much popularity, but Dream Daddy’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t feel like a game made for or by gay people. It doesn’t capture the experience of what it feels like to be a gay man and fails to engage with or invoke gay culture in a meaningful way.”

This is a convenient way to sum up the issue. Timekeeper is for people who get titillated in whatever way by m/m romance, not for gay people themselves. That former demographic may include gay people, for sure, but that is only secondary. More Happy Than Not is more brutal, sad, and downbeat than Timekeeper, but it is also much more validating a narrative exactly because it speaks directly to a gay audience. You are more than welcome to enjoy Timekeeper and Dream Daddy (as many of my gay peers have), but I personally can’t be uncritical of narratives that trade in the parts of gay life that people squeal over without even acknowledging the parts we don’t like to talk about. It’s a representation cop out.

“Bury Your Gays” tropes are difficult to navigate, to be fair. There is certainly a pattern of queer people dying or getting shit on disproportionately in our mainstream narratives, and it isn’t a bad ambition to want to create something wholesome with queer identities. But I think it is dangerous to swing in the absolute opposite direction and have nothing bad ever happen to queer people, to just straight up ignore their pain. Again, it’s a matter of audience and intention. Take stories like Moonlight and My Own Private Idaho, which are simultaneously sad, painful, genuine, and validating. More Happy Than Not fits into this canon. I’m not so sure about Timekeeper.

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Letting boys be boys: Trans misrepresentation in 3 Generations


I watched and am about to discuss a mediocre coming-of-age transgender male dramedy that nobody saw so you don’t have to: Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations.

Let’s get a couple things out in the open beforehand. First, I am a cis queer white male. I do not identify as trans and as a result have no authority to speak on what is or is not valid as a trans experience. I have been culturally conditioned to be transphobic and, despite my best efforts, will likely falter in one manner or another in my engagement with transgender representation. That said, I think that while this movie is worth critiquing, it isn’t something that any transguy should be subjected to. Trans male representation is so scarce to begin with and 3 Generations, good intentions aside, doesn’t add much to the canon with its reductive melodrama and paper-thin characterization. So I’d like to be here to wade through the trash in your stead.

Second, 3 Generations was widely and justifiably criticized for casting a cis woman, Elle Fanning, as the trans male lead protagonist Ray. The director cited as reason that Ray still looks like a cis girl because he is pre-transition. What that means for Ray, whether pre-testosterone, pre-top surgery, pre-bottom surgery, and how the film doesn’t get into that, is a problem in itself, but more to the point pre-transition transgender male teens exist. What’s more, pre-transition transgender male teen actors exist. The director said that the decision was made because they needed guaranteed stars for a small budget production like this, but that’s ignoring the buzz that a breakout trans star would cause. (Or not cause, it’s still the right thing to do and a risk worth taking.) Even if you kept the entire rest of the movie as is, I think trans communities would have rallied for 3 Generations a lot more. Because even if the content of the film rightly stands to face harsh critique, at least we know on a production level that their hearts were in the right place. Because at least on the casting level they would have had genuine trans representation.

As it stands, it was a mediocre movie that nobody saw and is now already mostly forgotten. I do believe that the filmmakers had good intentions in mind (though their refusal to listen to casting criticisms is infuriating), and in fact I would expect at least a handful of transgender teen boys to watch this and feeling validated. (Certainly more than the only other young transguy film I can think of, the brutal PSA announcement Boys Don’t Cry.) But praising such a dubiously progressive movie just because it could have been worse and just because it is one of the very slim offerings in trans cinema, that doesn’t mean it can get away with what it does. 3 Generations is an unsubtle coming-of-age film that tries to bring forward a message of wholesomeness and acceptance, but in getting there it manages to perpetuate a lot of deeply problematic gender and identity politics.

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Review – Harbinger Island by Dorian Dawes

2017-08-15 09_44_09-Amazon.com_ Harbinger Island eBook_ Dorian Dawes_ Kindle Store

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

Harbinger Island is available on Amazon Kindle for $6.95.

Recently I’ve felt that, as a critic, I have an obligation to approach critique differently when dealing with small-scale content. I know I should allow that people have thick skin and can handle criticism, but when the creator has a high chance of actually coming across my response to their work, my writing shouldn’t be as detached as it might be for a book printed by major publication. I want to be and know most creators would want me to be honest, even if that honesty means declaring that I didn’t enjoy the work. But on the other hand, I want these small-publication or indie creators to thrive and feel motivated. Even if I’m critical, I want it understood that if I’m taking the time to write an in-depth review of something, that means I feel deeply enough about it that I think it deserves attention, if not necessarily unanimous praise.

This in mind, I start by saying that I did not enjoy Harbinger Island by Dorian Dawes. Some parts worked better than others, but in its entirely it didn’t work for me. I thought the setting was underdeveloped, the atmosphere thus lacking. The short stories collectively working into one larger narrative arc didn’t work for me either (though to be fair I haven’t been thrilled with this structure in any novel, as with Lovecraft Country and Everfair). The writing felt in-your-face when it should have felt subdued. There was little mounting tension. I liked the characters but wasn’t convinced by their dialogue and behavior.

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Sumiko Saulson’s Black Women in Horror Writing #21: Valjeanne Jeffers

Mona Livelong

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective by Valjeanne Jeffers

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

I think too often we expect our books to be extraordinary. We expect them to play with genre in unexpected ways, to subvert our expectations of language and narrative. To tell something inimitable in a way that no one has ever told it before. This is a noble goal for a writer, but if you establish it as the basis for your concept of quality, you risk losing sight of why people love stories for their familiarity, their ordinariness.

Generic books can be a joy to read precisely because they don’t defy expectations, because they play our comfortable narrative straight. It’s why we read Stephen King novel after Stephen King novel, Agatha Christie after Agatha Christie, James Patterson after James Patterson. How many Dresden Files novels follow the same structure? Discworld? These books aren’t the ones we reach for when we want to broaden our intellectual depth—sometimes we just want a great story.

Works likes these by and featuring minorities are something of a scarcity though, which is an important (if not central) aspect of Valjeanne Jeffers’ first Mona Livelong novel. It should be appreciated as the straightforward piece of genre fiction that it is, but also acknowledged for filling the lack of representation in these kinds of books. It doesn’t do anything too extraordinary but adjust the identity focus. Instead of the predominant white male perspective, we have a supernatural detective tale featuring a black woman. Throughout my reviews in this series I’ve mostly latched most onto what these authors do differently, how they play with and subvert genre expectations. But Mona Livelong reminds me of the value in making fun, simple, straightforward genre novels.

Valjeanne Jeffers’ Mona Livelong advertises itself as a steamfunk horror novel. A story about the eponymous paranormal detective solving, well, paranormal mysteries, the novel has much in common with what we might classify as urban fantasy. Set in an alternate history where the United States has truly divided into two countries post-Civil War, the “steamfunk” trappings are mostly contained to the setting’s aesthetic shell: Livelong’s bodice-centric wardrobe and the quirky locations she finds herself in, mostly. Livelong has two intertwining cases to take on in this book: A haunted house and three connected murders. The novel features ghosts, violence, mysteries, voodoo, psychic powers—all the stuff one expects and hopes for in a horror-mystery narrative.

The plot, again, isn’t the most mind-blowing thing in the world, but entertaining exactly because of its familiar tropes. The shift in identity causes some welcome thematic and character development adjustments, and these are all for the better—subtle variations on tropes remind us of how to revitalize said tropes. I’m reminded of Alan Yang’s Critic’s Choice TV acceptance speech for Master of None, where he states: “Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, and for so long, that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original. Because you guys crushed it for so long, anything else seems kind of different.” So it is with Mona Livelong. It’s a straightforward urban fantasy novel in a lot of ways, but gives off a different vibe due to its centering of “anyone else”.

This book has typos, has pacing issues, but that is almost beside the point because it’s good at simply being enjoyable. It has a compelling, reasonably interesting plot that is familiar enough to breeze through but not predictable enough to be boring. It isn’t a big publisher book, so much of the writing’s downfalls can be chalked up to a lack of intensive editing.

It’s far from perfect, but it could be exactly the sort of entertainment someone out there is looking for. Again, the importance of representation in James Patterson-tier novels is just as important as it is for the high literary canon. Many out there need to read pulp novels with black women protagonists, whether as a source of reflection for black women or for the realization of some white man going “Oh, I didn’t know black women liked steampunk too.” Mona Livelong isn’t sophisticated because it doesn’t need to be—it’s simply pleasurable.

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