I attended an LGBTQIA safe space training on behalf of BCPL a few weeks ago, and at one point a woman raised her hand from the front of the room. “You told us earlier that calling someone ‘queer’ is hate speech,” she pointed out. “But it’s right there in the acronym. So why is that okay?” The presenter paused. “Honestly?” she said. “It’s inclusivity versus exclusivity. There’s a big difference between someone reclaiming a hateful word from a place of power and someone calling someone ‘queer’ from a place of ignorance.” I lead with this because I want you to understand all the different types of ‘power’ at work in Laura Jane Grace’s new memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout — co-written by Dan Ozzi — because there are many.
The word ‘tranny’ is one that Grace returns to over and over again throughout the book. “I don’t want to wait until all of my youth is gone,” she writes at one point, struggling with her decision to transition from male to female. “I don’t want to end up a sad, old tranny.” That word, tranny, has its roots in hate, as something sneered at transgender individuals for decades, but most often directed with vitriol at birth-assigned men wearing women’s clothing. Like so many other words whose origins are founded in hate speech, it was reclaimed by the very community it was designed to hurt, but because of the common target, the word came to carry a very specific connotation. So when the author refers to herself as a tranny in the book, it’s important to understand that she isn’t saying she wants to be a man wearing women’s clothing — she wants to be a woman. That disconnect between a person’s identity and their biology is what’s referred to as “gender dysphoria,” and it occupies the heart of Laura Jane Grace’s story.
And it’s a hell of a story. Laura Jane Grace shifts seamlessly between the raw, untempered emotion of personal journal entries and the calmer, more methodical reflection of a memoir. More than anything else, Tranny showcases how dysphoria and dysfunction often go hand in hand, one informing the other and often feeding into each other. In an effort to feel normal and escape this ever-present notion of “her,” Grace documents her descent into hard drugs, alcoholism and (maybe worst of all) corporate punk, only to emerge triumphant in the third act and then...stop. Tranny is a unique memoir insomuch that it doesn’t end on a blindingly positive note that leaves the reader with the sense that they all lived happily ever after. Laura Jane Grace doesn’t “win,” not really. What she does do is close the chapter on an achingly and viscerally painful period in her life and begin a new chapter that’s arguably just as painful and hard, but also wholly worthwhile and finally true to who she is. Tom Gabel dies, but maybe that’s what he wanted all along. It sure seems that way.
If you love a good heart-wrenching biography, the not-so-secret politics of the music industry and/or especially self-aware sellouts, Tranny is the book you’ve been waiting for. It will break your heart and it will make you laugh and you will pump your fist when Laura Jane Grace screams at a pharmacist in Florida loud enough to silence everyone who ever had the audacity to say “you’re not a real punk.” Against Me!, Grace’s band, has a long, storied history, but are entirely worth listening to, particularly their two most recent albums: Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Shape Shift With Me, both of which are about as far from corporate as you can get. Laura Jane Grace remains an excellent human being to follow.
Rani Patel In Full Effect is the debut young adult novel by author and child psychologist Sonia Patel, a resident of Hawaii and devout hip-hop enthusiast born to Gujarati parents. The novel follows the life of Rani Patel, a teenager living on the island of Molokaʻi with her mother and father. Rani is similarly devoted to '80s and '90s hip-hop music and shares much of the author’s background and heritage, but even with all of the obvious similarities, Rani is a fully developed character in her own right and should not be written off by readers as a “self-insert” author proxy. We see her grow and change over the course of the book, and to say that Rani Patel In Full Effect chronicles a tumultuous period of the titular character’s life would be putting it mildly. At times, the events and subject matter are downright unsettling — which is important.
Rani Patel is not a typical young adult novel protagonist. She isn’t white, to begin with, or shoe-horned into any particular high school caste, or fighting to save the world. Patel’s novel is, at its core, about trauma, and she does an outstanding job depicting the realities of recovery, if not the time frame. This book pulls no punches, and I respect the hell out of that and enjoyed reading it thoroughly. Sonia Patel is clearly interested in talking about the realities of being a teenager — not an adult’s notion of what that means — and the end product is dark. Very, very dark. But so is that reality, sometimes. Yet through music and the love and support of friends and family, Rani learns how to express what she’s gone through and finally acknowledge that her feelings and fears are valid.
And don’t get me wrong, this book isn’t all darkness. In addition to a cast of characters as culturally rich and diverse as Hawaii itself, Sonia Patel’s narrative is sprinkled through with '90s hip-hop slang and native Hawaiian phrases that let the reader play interpreter (supported by a helpful glossary, of course), and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the poetry and raps that Rani labors over for the entirety of the novel. I would love to see Sonia Patel, who raps herself, drop the Rani Patel mixtape in the future, but the words stand on their own merit on the page and the author’s detailed description of every beat laid down by “DJ Skittles” make it easy for the reader to transport themselves to the pavilion at Pala’au State Park where Rani’s crew performs.
Rani Patel In Full Effect is a refreshing and important addition to the culture of YA novels as a whole. It covers so many bases and demographics normally marginalized by the mainstream that I don’t even know where to begin. Rani herself is an Indo-American teenager, acutely aware of her own sexuality, whose life has been defined by men her entire life, just like her mother and grandmother before her. She fights for native Hawaiian rights with her friends and she strives to be the first woman in her family to get an M.D. Interwoven with Rani’s story, Sonia Patel writes about the crystal meth epidemic that has plagued Hawaii for decades and decries a toxic tourist culture that preys on residents. As far as first books go, Rani Patel In Full Effect is a knockout. You can learn more about Sonia Patel’s writing endeavors and work in child psychology at her website, and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, where she will occasionally grace her followers with clips of her rap skills and sick dance moves.
Crooked Kingdom is Leigh Bardugo’s second near-perfect and engaging venture into the city of Ketterdam, and her fifth foray into the world first introduced in her bestselling Grisha Trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising). I’ll freely admit that the Grisha trilogy was not my cup of tea at all, but Six of Crows (Bardugo’s first book in the duology of the same name) was easily my favorite read of 2015. Ketterdam, the cosmopolitan capitol city of Dutch Republic-inspired Kerch, is a vibrant combination of Amsterdam, Las Vegas and New York; a bustling hub of education, trade and crime. It’s in the Barrel—the lascivious, indulgent entertainment district of Ketterdam— that Kaz Brekker’s gang of criminals, outcasts and misfits find themselves reeling from the events of the previous book. The Six of Crows duology is not two stories, but one long epic told in two parts.
The greatest strength of both books is easily the characters, but that’s more a testament of how fully realized and interesting they are than it is a condemnation of any other aspect. As the glue and primary motivating force of the narrative events, Kaz is somehow equal parts sympathetic and unsettling and is easily the best teen protagonist I’ve ever encountered.
Six of Crows has a split focus, however, with every chapter focusing on the perspective of a different character. I’m not usually a fan of this technique, as in my experience there are always some weaker characters that drag down the flow and only leave you longing for the chapters of characters you enjoy. I’m happy to report that Leigh Bardugo proved me wrong. Not one of these six perspectives is any less enjoyable or dynamic than the others. The story slips between them easily and feels completely natural, and Bardugo weaves the different threads of this narrative together seamlessly.
The first book is, in essence, a heist story with a fantasy twist, but as fans of the genre know, a good heist story doesn't end when the job does. There are always betrayals, broken hearts or some other complications that throw a wrench into the plan. Crooked Kingdom is no exception, as we see Kaz’s gang playing defense for the majority of the book in a definite departure from Six of Crows, where they successfully pulled of the biggest heist in the Grishaverse’s history. The second book is about survival , though Kaz Brekker wouldn’t be Kaz Brekker if he couldn’t spin a profit out of the situation. It’s fitting that Crooked Kingdom takes place on an island that worships the god of trade and deals, since nothing is without a price, not even the reader’s enjoyment of the book. By the end it exacts a heavy toll on the audience, and I found myself tearing up more than once.
I would (and do) recommend the Six of Crows duology to anyone and everyone, not just readers who enjoy fantasy, crime novels or teen books. Crooked Kingdom is my favorite book of 2016, just as its predecessor occupied that spot in 2015. These books truly do contain something for everyone, and I was disappointed to discover that this would not be another trilogy. Fortunately, I get the impression that Leigh Bardugo is far from done with the Grishaverse or Kaz’s Crows. You can keep up with her work and learn more about her worlds on the Leigh Bardugo website and, trust me, she’s very worth following on Twitter.
You don’t have to delve particularly deeply into musician Franz Nicolay’s solo discography before you start to notice a couple of trends. First, Nicolay likes telling stories, and he’s good at telling them. Second, he has a deep and abiding passion for words. The lyrics of the eponymous track of 2012’s “Do the Struggle” (one of the songs that he references early in The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar) reads more like a Kerouacian beat poem than a folk-punk song. By the same token, the finished product of The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar can hardly be described as predictable.
More of a travel memoir than anything else, Nicolay takes great pains to avoid talking about his own music in the book, even going so far as to proclaim early on: “I’ll describe [the shows] once, then you can mentally copy and paste this into the hole I gloss over toward the end of each day.” Instead, he delivers exactly what the title of the book promises, a tour of the punk underground. There’s so little narcissism in this book that it could have just as easily been written by one of the oft-referenced communist revolutionaries rather than a Brooklyn-based songwriter. Throughout the book, Nicolay’s focus is squarely on the countryside, the cities and the people of Eastern Europe. Just as often as he references himself, he also shares the spotlight with his travelling companions and famous authors — from his ethnomusicologist/wife Maria to Dostoyevsky to the Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century French aristocrat who seems particularly close to Nicolay’s heart.
But amidst the (surprising) conversations with young Russian and Ukrainian punks about underground American punk bands like RVIVR or Bridge and Tunnel, and the monotonous nightly shows in unfinished basements, Nicolay and his wife find themselves passing back through Ukraine only months after Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation. What follows are not only some of the most touching first-hand accounts of the effects the occupation had on the people of Ukraine, but also some incredibly moving moments of self-discovery for Nicolay himself. This book doesn’t so much progress slowly as it takes its time getting to its destination, and the reader is never left wishing Nicolay would pick up the pace; he’s too good of a storyteller for that. Like his music, The Humorless Ladies of Border Control ultimately draws its strength from Nicolay’s words and rhythm. Even standing on their own merits, the facts of his adventure are almost as epic and expansive as the appendices in the back of the book. As far as travelogues go, I’ve never read better. Nicolay’s music can be found here, RVIVR and Bridge and Tunnel here and here.