“Dress Codes For Small Towns” by Courtney C. Stevens

I think I owe this book quite a lot. It’s about being a butch girl in a small town and navigating your identity and relationships in the light of that, and it helped me feel more certain than ever that I am, in fact, non-binary, and not just a butch cis girl. I mean, I’d been thinking this was probably the case for quite a long time, but I don’t really know many butch people IRL, and so it was difficult to know what my feelings were doing. Reading this, though, helped me realise what I don’t feel, which is any meaningful connection to the idea of womanhood. So I owe it for that.

(If you’re reading this review in August, you might be like, okay, but that’s not news. I’m writing this less than two weeks after coming out at the end of March, though, and I read the book a couple of weeks before that.)

Publication date: August 29th, 2017

Other than that, however, I’m not sure how to rate this book. It took me a long time to get into it, and my confusion influenced my mood for a long time. I struggled to get to grips with what was going on, and who all the characters were: there are a lot of them, and many of them have nicknames, so I spent the first 20% of the book extremely confused.

Part of this was also because small town life, especially American small town life — in quite an alien concept for me; pretty much everything I know about American small towns is based on Gilmore Girls, which may not be 100% accurate. As a result, it took me a long time to wrap my head around the dynamics of the setting, and there’s a lot of emphasis on esoteric local traditions that, as a reader, you know nothing about, so it takes a while for you to understand why you’re supposed to care about them.

That said, to a certain extent I did start caring about them, although it took a while — I may have struggled to engage with the book for about a quarter of it, if not longer, but something eventually clicked and I began to follow the plot a bit better. I never got as invested in the characters as I wanted to, but I started to care enough to want to know what happened.

Moreover, it was refreshing to read a queer book that featured an explicitly Christian character — Billie’s dad is the minister, and there are quite a few scenes that take place in youth groups and Bible studies. These aren’t a big part of the plot and they’re not the cause of any particular angst: they’re just the setting of Billie’s life. She may not always get on with the church as an institution, but she’s still a Christian, and her story doesn’t revolve around angst and rejection.

As someone who grew up Christian and whose teenage years also featured a lot of youth groups and socialising in explicitly Christian settings, I hadn’t realised how rare it was to see this in books until I actually saw it. It seems like most queer books with a religious aspect have to make it into an angst-ridden big deal, whereas while my faith definitely contributed to my uncertainty while I figured out my identity, it was never as clear cut as that.

There were also some great friendships and interpersonal dynamics in this book: it’s got quite a detailed ensemble cast, which may have contributed a lot to my early confusion and difficulty following what was happening, but it ended up being one of the book’s strengths.

I think if I’d found it easier to get into, I would have enjoyed Dress Codes for Small Towns more. I’m not sure I would have perservered past that early confusion stage if it hadn’t been a review copy, and therefore it might not have had the chance to win me over — in my opinion, that’s definitely a weak point.

However, there was a lot to like about the book, and like I said, it helped me with a few of my own identity things. (There’s a scene where Billie gets really hurt by jokes made that she’s ‘one of the boys’ because despite being butch, she very much identifies as a girl, and reading that scene made me realise how that was kind of the opposite of how I felt. Sometimes it’s easier to figure out what you don’t feel than what you do, and this helped point me in that direction.)

I think it’s losing stars for the confusion, but were it not for that, I might have liked this a whole lot.

Rating: ***

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