Category: review

The Unknowns : A Book Review

Refreshing twist on a coming of age story

I was constantly surprised by Shirley-Anne McMillan’s new book, The Unknowns. She takes the familiar story of a girl who is a little different and who is finding her way in the world as she comes of age, and adds fresh, original elements to the personality of Tilly and the narrative. The risks feel very real. The discovery of the world similarly feels authentic and exhilarating. Seeing a character encounter her own specialness and strength even when she is initially unable to see it in herself, got me deeply invested in what happens to her and the unconventional friends she meets late at night.

Beyond the engaging plot, I love the atmosphere of the book, these late night gatherings and meetings that appear sinister at first but then surprised me by the warmth and friendliness within. Much like those misconceptions I can have of a person on first encounter, McMillan’s book invites the reader to look with clearer vision that overturns negative judgements. She presents an edgy Belfast filled with grit and decay that contain surprising nooks and crannies for community to pop up like flowers growing in the cracks of abandoned parking lots.

Playing with Perspective

I was also surprised by the ways she helped readers consider perspective. Who gets to tell a story affects the story and how people respond to it. Reading about the events in the book as they happen and then reading the flattened out, misleading, and negative commentary about these same events as reported in the newspaper, got me thinking about the injustices that happen from misreporting events and slandering people in public and private forums.

Shirley Ann McMillan

Taking on Big Issues

As with all of her novels, McMillan does not shy away from real life and hard topics–the loss of a parent, sectarian violence, and issues related to sexuality, gender, and orientation.

She is never preachy. Instead she provides visions of what acceptance and understanding look like next to the harsh realities of what ignorance and fear inspire. It is in the sudden unexpected beauty of the communities she envisions and the love and art these communities foster, that McMillan provides an antidote to negative forces in the world.

I recommend The Unknowns by Shirley McMillan! 

Weeks after reading the book the images remain and the characters feel like real friends I met who are still living their lives and standing up for their friends. I highly recommend, The Unknowns by Shirley Ann McMillan. Available in the UK and USA from booksellers and on Kindle.

Under the Udala Trees — debunking Biblical “cures” for lesbians and others

As someone who survived ex-gay ministries and conversion therapies in the name of religion, I am always cautious when reading narratives about similar experiences. There is always a risk I can re-trumatize myself. After my partner, Glen Retief, attended a reading by Nigerian-American author, Chinelo Okparanta, he insisted I would find her novel, Under the Udala Trees, both beautiful and moving.

Glen was so right in large part because Okparanta is such a skilled writer. She expertly recreates the Bianfran/Nigerian Civil War as we see it from a child’s eye. The horrors of this conflict and the extreme hunger people experienced are illuminated along with loving acts of survival and caring. This little girl, Ijeoma, is sent away by her deeply religious Christian mother for her own safety and survival. While away, Ijeoma enters puberty and begins a a romantic and sexual relationship with another young woman, a Muslim around her age who is also displaced by the war. Eventually they are discovered. Ijeoma is sent home where her mother attempts to “cure” her of her lesbian orientation.

From the Amazon site:

As Edwidge Danticat has made personal the legacy of Haiti’s political coming of age, Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees uses one woman’s lifetime to examine the ways in which Nigerians continue to struggle toward selfhood. Even as their nation contends with and recovers from the effects of war and division, Nigerian lives are also wrecked and lost from taboo and prejudice. This story offers a glimmer of hope — a future where a woman might just be able to shape her life around truth and love.

Chinelo Okparanta

For folks like me who were bullied about my sexuality by Bible passages, Okparanta brilliantly goes through these clobber passages and deftly addresses the inaccuracies of interpretations by anti-LGBTQ religious leaders. Her young character, Ijeoma, uses simple logic to help herself stay grounded in the midst of the biblical barrage leveled against her by her mother.

Under the Udala Trees works on so many levels–as good literature, as a way for American LGBTQ to experience a Western African story of a young woman who loves another woman, and a means for folks like me who have been traumatized by cruel and inaccurate biblical interpretations in order undo some of the damage.

The book reads well, but if you enjoy audio books, you may want to check out the Audible version narrated by Robin Miles. She interprets the story well and flows seamlessly in and out of English.

A Normal Lost Phone — Game Review

You are walking down an empty street one night, and you find a smart phone on the ground. Surprisingly there is no lock on it, so you suddenly have access to someone’s private digital world. You reason, I should nose around so that I can find out whose phone this is, so I can get it back to the owner. This opens you up to the world of Sam, an 18-yo high school student. It also draws you into Sam’s mystery disappearance.

So begins the phone app game, A Normal Lost Phone. I  confess I am NOT a game person or a gaymer, as some gay game loving guys like to call themselves. I’ve tried in the past to get into on-line games, computer games, phone app games, but most of them bore me to tears. Perhaps because I am a storyteller, the only games that have captured my attention have been narrative games.

That said, I only got so far with realMyst and Walking Dead before I lost my patience. Both seemed so impersonal. So I had doubts about A Normal Lost Phone when the developers contacted me to take a look. That there were LGBTQ characters in it was a draw for me. Also the company that created the game, Accidental Queens, was founded by three women, something all too rare in the gaming world.

I loaded the game app on my iPhone 6 Plus, and immediately I liked it. The graphics are pleasing with warm muted tones and a watercolor quality to them. The photo images are drawings and represent a diversity of characters.

They have original music (which you can turn off if you like) that is not your typical atmospheric ambient background tunes. It is actual music that the owner of the phone enjoys–modern pop and rock stuff. Sam, the young protagonist of the game, is a musician, so you can also hear some of Sam’s original music. You can view Sam’s photos, read text messages, emails, and social networking, (including some cool queer-friendly forums and a dating app. Why does Sam have two profiles on the Lovebirds app???)

As you search in and out of Sam’s apps and messages, mysteries unfold concerning Sam’s family, romantic life, and personal struggles with identity. I won’t say much more because part of the fun is discovering all these things and the big reveals along the way.

While the game is designed for teens, I found it compelling. For the most part the voices of the various characters in their texts and emails sound believable and interesting. The mother character seems a bit flat (and she is an obsessive bakers,) but otherwise most of the characters have the sound of real people in Sam’s world. I played the English version, (they have multiple language options) which is written in British English and uses British formats for some calendar dates and spelling. Any lover of Dr. Who will easily understand the British terms and lingo.

Lots of important social issues come up in the game including consent, homophobia, and the many complications of friendship, particularly when someone is coming into a new identity. I am happy that this game exists in the world. As an LGBTQ rights campaigner and as an artist who works with stories, I encourage you to check out the game and share it with young people in your world.

A Normal Lost Phone is available today. It is available on multiple platforms.