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Starred Review
The new novel from Balli Kaur Jaswal, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, is a quietly radical feminist story of three estranged sisters who travel from the U.K. and Australia to their parents’ home country, India, to fulfill their mother’s dying wish. Their mother leaves them a detailed itinerary with activities meant to teach them about being better people and better sisters. Each sister is facing her own crisis at home. One is freaking out about becoming a grandmother, as her son has barely finished high school; another is an actress who has become an unfortunate YouTube sensation; and the youngest has a very traditional husband and an overbearing mother-in-law. They learn to embrace the old ways but are also confronted with very modern issues. Great narration by Soneela Nankani and Deepti Gupta are fun when they need to be but also carry an emotional weight.

If you didn’t have the chance to see Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on Broadway, this is the next best thing. Originally staged on Broadway in 1993, the play is set at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1986 New York City and follows several characters whose lives are impacted by the disease as they confront mortality, loyalty, religion and Reagan-era politics. The audiobook features the full cast of the 2018 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival, and performances by Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Susan Brown, Denise Gough, Beth Malone, James McArdle, Lee Pace and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett are masterful, as you would expect from actors who have spent hundreds of hours in these roles. Stage directions, spoken by Bobby Cannavale and Edie Falco, help orient the action without slowing anything down. This is an important documentation of an era and a valuable story to retell for future generations.

Normal People, the second novel by Sally Rooney, makes for absolutely stunning listening. Her writing style is measured and tight, and she understands her characters as psychologically rich, full beings. The story follows Marianne and Connell, the smartest in their small Irish town’s high school class. However, he’s popular and she’s not, and she’s rich and he’s not. Their love affair begins as a secret and ebbs and flows through their time at Trinity College and after. Their story is an honest and focused portrait of two people becoming adults together and the ways life can get in the way. Aoife McMahon’s heartfelt narration is perfect. Her Irish accent adds to the sense of place and the class aspects that are so important to the novel.

Starred Review The new novel from Balli Kaur Jaswal, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, is a quietly radical feminist story of three estranged sisters who travel from the U.K. and Australia to their parents’ home country, India, to fulfill their mother’s dying wish. Their mother leaves them a detailed itinerary with activities meant […]

Robin Talley, author of the new YA novel Pulp, shares a glimpse into the underground world of 1950s lesbian pulp fiction that changed her life.


My first glimpse of a lesbian pulp novel came from a refrigerator magnet.

I was a college student browsing in an LGBT bookstore when an image leaped out at me from across the aisle: “I PREFER GIRLS,” it proclaimed in all-caps, alongside a painting of two women clutching at each other while dressed in skimpy vintage clothes.

I was mystified by where the image could’ve come from, but in that moment, I didn’t care. I bought the magnet, took it home and proudly slapped it on my dorm room minifridge.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned I Prefer Girls was a novel published in 1963—and that it was part of an enormously successful midcentury genre now called “lesbian pulp fiction.” During World War II, paperback books finally took off, and by the 1950s publishers were rushing to put out original paperback novels. They were printed on ultra-cheap paper, with the idea that a man would buy one of them in a bus station, read it during the trip and toss it into a trash can once he reached his destination.

(And yes, the books were very much intended for men. It didn’t seem to have occurred to most of these publishers that women were an audience worth targeting—let alone queer women.)

Most of the lesbian pulp authors were men, too, often writing under female pen names, but a handful of the authors were lesbians themselves. In many cases, it was the first opportunity these women had to write about their own experiences and communities.

The stories often had tragic endings, thanks to publishers’ fears of controversy and censorship. Pioneering author Marijane Meaker was instructed to put one of the protagonists in her 1952 novel Spring Fire into an asylum following a nervous breakdown at the end of the book and to have the character’s former girlfriend promptly forget she’d ever been anything but straight. And Tereska Torrès’ Women’s Barracks was the subject of much outrage at a public hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials. (Incidentally, news reports of that hearing led to millions of additional sales for Women’s Barracks, so it wasn’t all bad news.)

Despite everything they were up against, some of the books written during that era are incredible. The collection Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950-1965, compiled by powerhouse lesbian author and editor Katherine V. Forrest, is full of gripping midcentury writing as well as fascinating glimpses into the lives of the LGBT community in the pre-Stonewall era. Nearly all of the characters are closeted, and many of them face discrimination that threatens to destroy them, but the worlds the characters inhabit and the lives they live are still incredibly rich.

But even though lesbian pulp fiction was selling in numbers that most modern romance authors can only dream of, actual lesbians, along with other gay, bisexual and transgender people, were facing impossible odds. Same-sex marriage and other legal protections were unheard of, discrimination was a matter of course, and outright persecution was common.

The same era when lesbian novels were thriving was also the height of the lavender scare in the United States. From the late 1940s and all the way into the 1970s, the federal government went to great lengths to identify any potential gay, lesbian or bisexual employees and summarily fire them. Gossip spread by a disgruntled coworker or a belief that someone’s voice was too low or hair too short might be all it took to get an employee kicked out of the job and officially banned from any future government employment. The rumor mill also made certain they could never get a job anywhere else either.

Thousands of people lost their jobs. Along the way, many were outed to their parents in an era when outing often meant the severing of all family ties. Suicide was common.

I never came across anything in my research about whether the same men who conducted the interrogations and ordered the firings (because it was pretty much all men there, too) also read lesbian pulp fiction in their spare time. But odds are, most government officials in that era would’ve seen absolutely no contradiction between being titillated by fictional lesbians and ruining the lives of actual queer people.

That contradiction wound up being the most interesting part of writing Pulp. From the beginning, I envisioned it as a dialogue between two queer teenage girls, both writers like me, living in very different circumstances and battling hypocrisy.

Pulp starts with Abby, an out-and-proud lesbian high school senior in 2017. Abby lives in Washington, D.C., and she regularly goes to protests with her friends to speak out against the injustices happening in the world around them. One afternoon she stumbles across an eBook of a lesbian pulp novel and becomes fascinated by the dramatically different world it represents. She decides to track down the author, who wrote under a pseudonym and vanished after publishing only one book. The 1950s have always seemed like a million years ago to Abby, but as she searches for the mysterious author, she starts to understand exactly how much the world still hasn’t changed.

Interspersed with Abby’s story, alternate chapters introduce Janet, an 18-year-old closeted lesbian living in 1955 who also happens across a lesbian pulp novel and decides to try writing one of her own. While she’s writing, Janet also falls in love for the first time, but her best-friend-turned-more, Marie, has just been hired as a secretary at the U.S. State Department. Her job would be in major jeopardy if anyone found out about Janet or discovered Janet’s book.

While I was researching Pulp, I naturally read a lot of lesbian pulp fiction (my personal favorites are Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt and Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker series), and it gave me a whole new appreciation for the women who wrote these novels right in the middle of the horrific landscape that was the United States in the 1950s. These authors helped to lay the groundwork for the modern publishing industry. I’m a queer woman writing fiction about LGBT teenagers, and if it hadn’t been for the queer authors who first paved the way, I might never have been able to see any of my books in print.

We take for granted now that the world is ready to read stories like these, but that’s only true because activists worked for decades to make change. Reflecting on their work is a great reminder of how far we still have to go to ensure representation of marginalized characters—and of how lucky we are, even with all the challenges we’re still confronting, to be living in today’s world instead of the era just a few generations back.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Pulp.

Robin Talley, author of the new YA novel Pulp, shares a glimpse into the underground world of 1950s lesbian pulp fiction that changed her life.

High school senior Abby’s home life in Washington, D.C., is a mess best left untouched, and her love life? Ugh. She’s still reeling from her breakup with her ex-girlfriend, Linh, and trying to figure out how they can go back to being friends. Little things like her college applications have been forgotten altogether. When she must improvise her senior creative writing project on the fly, she randomly lands on 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. As she starts researching in order to write her own modern novel in the same style, she becomes obsessed with one pseudonymous author (known as Marian Love) and decides to find her real identity.

Abby’s story in the present dovetails with another tale set in 1955, when closeted teen Janet Jones finds one of those same novels. In the 1950s, those pulpy novels are required to have tragic endings or a spontaneous renunciation of same-sex love, and it seems as though Janet’s own story is headed that way. The best friend she’s in love with isn’t prepared to lose everything, and running away seems like the only option.

Author Robin Talley (Lies We Tell Ourselves) contrasts Abby’s life in present-day D.C., where she’s comfortably out to her friends and busy protesting Trump-era policies, with Janet’s in 1955, when even a rumor of homosexuality is grounds for investigation under the pretext of exposing Communists. This comparison makes Pulp both a mystery and a history lesson, and it’s quite moving. Talley’s afterword highlights some of the real history—complete with lists of real lesbian pulp fiction authors and their published titles—that underlies Janet’s fictional story. It’s remarkable how far gay rights and U.S. culture have come, but Talley notes that you can still be fired or evicted for being gay in 28 states today.

Pulp neatly moves between two similar girls’ very different worlds and offers a pointed reminder that history is never that far behind us.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Behind the Book essay from Robin Talley on Pulp.

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

High school senior Abby’s home life in Washington, D.C., is a mess best left untouched, and her love life? Ugh. She’s still reeling from her breakup with her ex-girlfriend, Linh, and trying to figure out how they can go back to being friends. Little things like her college applications have been forgotten altogether. When she must improvise her senior creative writing project on the fly, she randomly lands on 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. As she starts researching in order to write her own modern novel in the same style, she becomes obsessed with one pseudonymous author (known as Marian Love) and decides to find her real identity.

What if you could know which day on Earth would be your last, and what if you couldn’t ignore the phone call that let you know? Bestselling author Adam Silvera imagines a near-future world where each person’s death is foreseen by a mysterious, shadowy organization known as Death-Cast.

Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emerito are two very different teens living in New York City. They don’t have much in common—except for the fact that they’ll both be dead tomorrow. A soaring, heart-rending story that explores the fleeting fragility of youth and life, They Both Die at the End urges young readers to be true to themselves, love fiercely and live courageously. We spoke with Silvera about his life philosophy, the importance of queer stories, his upcoming projects and more.

Can you tell us a bit about your initial inspiration for this story?
They Both Die at the End
was inspired by this panicking anxiety of not knowing when we’re going to die, and wondering how differently our final day would look if we know when that day was.

During your own teenage years, would you have identified more with Rufus or Mateo? Why?
I was definitely more of a sheltered Mateo who wanted to be more like outgoing Rufus. I had a lot of Rufus’ anger though. But where both boys land by the end, that’s more representative of who I am today. 

What would your profile on Last Friend, the app designed for finding a friend to share your last hours with, look like?
My Last Friend profile today would be about how I’m a book-loving queer dude who’s tall for no reason and wants to live an End Day doing things I’ve never done before. 

In what ways do you think our current society would be different if we had Death-Cast?
There would be so much carefree living. Even on the days when he doesn’t get “the call,” Mateo is very paranoid, anxious and scared he’ll do something that will cause his death the next day, but I think the majority of the country would be making risky choices they normally wouldn’t make because of fear of dying.

What do you hope readers take away from this story?
We don’t have Death-Cast as an actual resource, so we should truly treat each day like it counts. 

YA lit has made some exciting strides in terms of highlighting LGBTQ+ stories and voices. Why is it important for you to write queer-centered stories specifically for a teen audience?
We need more and more and more and more and more and more queer stories on these shelves. Currently, in some bookstores, they shelve the queer narratives they have on one or two shelves, and I dream of having so many books out there that we can fill entire bookcases. One person’s experience won’t reflect the masses, so we need as many voices out there as possible so more teens can see themselves and meet others unlike themselves.

What are you working on next?
A Secret book plus a Secret Fantasy book. 

What’s your best advice for living life to the fullest?
Do the things that matter most to you, carefree, with the people who you love most.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of They Both Die at the End.

Author photo by K.W. Strauss

A soaring, heart-rending story that explores the fleeting fragility of youth and life, They Both Die at the End urges young readers to be true to themselves, love fiercely and live courageously. We spoke with author Adam Silvera about his life philosophy, the importance of queer stories, his upcoming projects and more.

BookPage Teen Top Pick, September 2017

In an alternate present-day New York City, Mateo and Rufus both receive the same call from Death-Cast in the early morning hours, letting them know they’ll be dead by midnight. The two teens have never met, but when they connect on the Last Friend app, they set out to help each other pack the experiences of a lifetime into one last day and form a deep bond that soon goes beyond friendship.

Adam Silvera, bestselling author of More Happy Than Not and History Is All You Left Me, delivers a thought-provoking story about two boys who seize one final opportunity to change their lives. The premise—that we should embrace every day because we don’t know many we’ve got left—may be trite, but Silvera’s take on the cliché is anything but. He renders every moment of their last day with such honesty that readers will feel as though they’re experiencing the same terror, anger and even joy Mateo and Rufus feel as they prowl the city together.

It’s a risky move, letting the reader know from the get-go that the main characters won’t make it. But these protagonists are impossible to hold at arm’s length; Mateo’s crippling shyness and Rufus’ temper are sure to resonate with readers. Both boys are hyperaware of their own shortcomings, but they’re also bound and determined to overcome their insecurities and live as their ideal selves during their final hours. They Both Die at the End is impossible to put down, and it’s sure to inspire readers to think about the people they want to be.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Adam Silvera on They Both Die at the End.

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In an alternate present-day New York City, Mateo and Rufus both receive the same call from Death-Cast in the early morning hours, letting them know they’ll be dead by midnight. The two teens have never met, but when they connect on the Last Friend app, they set out to help each other pack the experiences of a lifetime into one last day and form a deep bond that soon goes beyond friendship.

Julie Murphy made a splash with her acclaimed 2015 novel about a one-of-a-kind Texas beauty queen, Dumplin’. Now, Murphy is back with her highly anticipated follow-up, Ramona Blue, a story about another strong, marginalized teen doing her best to make sense of who she is.

Ramona Leroux is a 6 foot 3, blue-haired, gay teen who lives in a trailer with her dad and sister, Hattie, in Eulogy, Mississippi. Things aren’t looking so stellar for Ramona after her dreamy summer romance comes to an end, and her grand plans to leave Eulogy don’t look quite as likely when her family suddenly needs her more than ever. But when her childhood friend, Freddie, moves back to town, their reconnection brings more than either of them ever expected.

Ramona Blue is a beautifully rendered YA novel, and Murphy is adept at “tackling issues of economic, racial and sexual diversity with love, humor and hope.” We asked Murphy a few questions about finding—or shedding—your labels, what she hopes readers learn from Ramona's story and more. 

Your 2015 YA novel Dumplin’ garnered rave reviews. What was it like to take on another writing project after establishing such high expectations?
Releasing Dumplin’ out into the world was such a thrilling experience. It’s always hard to work on a new project privately while you’re touring and promoting another book—one many people are connecting with in a significant way. It was really daunting, and I knew I wanted to take my time writing Ramona Blue because of the subject matter I planned on tackling. Not publishing a book in 2016 was hugely helpful. It gave me the opportunity to pass on a few publicity opportunities and fully concentrate on Ramona Blue.

Ramona and her family live in a trailer in small-town Mississippi, 13 years after Hurricane Katrina. What inspired you to set your story in this particular place and time? Did you have a personal experience with Hurricane Katrina?
Well, first off, I spend a lot of time along the the Gulf Coast. It’s a part of the country where I truly feel at home. It’s just southern enough to remind me of Texas while still maintaining its own distinct flavor, so I feel like I’m getting away. At the time of Katrina, I was living in Dallas-Fort Worth, which is where I still live, and we saw a huge influx of people moving in from the Gulf Coast. Some of those people became really close friends, so I saw firsthand how this one event has forever changed the course of their lives. I was also in college at the time and becoming more socially aware—beginning to understand all the social, class and race issues at play—so Katrina was very formative for me. My husband’s family is also from that part of Mississippi, and many of them still live there. I think that part of the country, especially outside of New Orleans, is slowly starting to bounce back, but when I spend time with my husband’s relatives, it’s very clear that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was forever changed, and not only that, but many locales feel like they were forgotten in favor of New Orleans during the rebuilding efforts. I can only commit to settings that intrigue me and places where I am sure my stories can live. The Mississippi Gulf Coast, with all of its beauty and conflict, turned out to be one of those places for me.

“As a teenager I was in a rush to label myself in certain ways, whether that was gay or straight, rich or poor, goth or prep. But being in such a hurry didn’t leave much room for discovery, and letting go of those labels was much harder than applying them in the first place.”

Ramona is attracted to girls and to her male friend Freddie, but rejects labels like “lesbian” and “bisexual.” What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of labels like these?
I don’t know that I would say Ramona rejects labels, but I do think she’s hesitant to rush into labeling herself in light of her attraction to Freddie. One of the advantages to claiming a definitive label is that it can give us a sense of place and safety. Letting go of that label puts her at risk of losing those things. But Ramona is adamant that her attraction to Freddie doesn’t diminish any of the female relationships she’s had in the past. As Ramona is questioning her sexuality, she uses those labels in conversation, but she doesn’t outright commit for many reasons, but mainly because she’s taking her time figuring things out. I think that for many people, they just know what and who they are, but as a teenager I was in a rush to label myself in certain ways, whether that was gay or straight, rich or poor, goth or prep. But being in such a hurry didn’t leave much room for discovery, and letting go of those labels was much harder than applying them in the first place. I truly believe that labels are great and hold so much importance, but I also feel that it’s perfectly fine—healthy, even—to take your time deciding what fits you if you’re not sure.

In addition to the prepub buzz about this book, there has been some confusion surrounding Ramona’s relationship with Freddie, and claims that it undermines the experiences of teens who identify as lesbian. How would you respond to this criticism?
The difficulty with prepub buzz is that readers only have a few paragraphs of jacket copy to work with, so a lot of the criticism has been a response to early efforts to clearly communicate what the book is about, which is a complicated story about identity and identity markers. I can tell you—as a bisexual woman who has never felt at home in straight or queer communities—all the reasons I wrote this book, but ultimately it’s never the author’s place to tell someone how they should feel about a book. My hope is that when readers have access to the full text, the conversation will shift. Ramona Blue addresses sexual identity, yes, but it also confronts issues of class, race, geography and even pregnancy. We did rewrite the jacket copy, though, because we quickly realized that the public perception did not reflect the book.

Freddie is somewhat ignorant about Ramona’s sexuality and what it means (and doesn’t mean). What do you hope readers learn from this aspect of the story?
Well, it’s my hope that readers will see that it’s OK to admit your ignorance about specific identities and cultures as long as you’re making active strides to learn and broaden your worldview. Over the course of the novel, we also learn that Ramona is just as clueless about Freddie’s experience as a black teenager. Perhaps I’m speaking for myself, but I was never naturally enlightened. It took exposure to people whose experiences differed from mine, and as an adult I’m still learning every day.

One detail of Ramona Blue that stood out for me was its inclusion of consent. Before two characters have sex, one repeatedly asks the other for verbal consent—including the reminder “you can change your mind whenever you want.” Why was this an important detail for you to include?
Without giving away too much, I will say that it was important for me to express that these were two actively consenting parties. Consent is always, always necessary, but it was something I wanted the reader to be hyperaware of in this case.

At one point when her life is particularly confusing, Ramona muses, “I’m starting to think that maybe the gist of life is learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Is this similar to your personal philosophy?
I have many personal philosophies, and while I don’t know if this is one of them, I do believe it’s a lesson I learned while becoming an adult (which I still feel like I’m in the process of, if I’m being honest). This specific quote doesn’t mean that Ramona believes it’s OK for her to allow others to make her uncomfortable, but instead she’s learning that growing is impossible without growing pains. Some of the most amazing things many of us will ever do oftentimes start with very difficult and uncomfortable situations and discussions. The sooner you can come to terms with that, the more personal growth you open yourself up to. For example, learning how to speak in front of others can be horrible and uncomfortable, but will it serve a long-term purpose that could potentially provide you with lots of opportunities? Yes. Totally.

What’s next on your writing agenda?
I am currently writing the companion to Dumplin’, which should be out in spring or summer of next year. I’m having a blast revisiting the setting and characters, and I can’t wait to share more details with readers.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Ramona Blue.

Julie Murphy made a splash with her acclaimed 2015 debut about a one-of-a-kind Texas beauty queen, Dumplin'. Now, Murphy is back with her highly anticipated second novel, Ramona Blue—a story about another strong, marginalized teen doing her best to make sense of who she is.

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