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Archive for June, 2021

Book Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (Plus Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide)

Digital cover of the book One Last STop. A white woman with a bigger body and red hair holds a cup of coffee outside of a train. The train is labeled Q. A medium skin-toned Chinese-American woman in torn jeans with a leather jacket and a backpack stands inside the train. The doors are open between them. Subtitle of the book is - Sometimes love stops you in your tracks.

Summary:
Twenty-four-year-old August has struggled to find her place in life. She’s now transferred to her third college, this time in Brooklyn, and she hopes it’ll stick. She finds a room in an apartment that comes with a delightful mix of found friends all also a part of the queer community, and they set her up with a job at the local diner. August thinks maybe it’s finally time to fit in and start to feel like she’s living a normal life, but then she meets a stunningly cute Chinese-American girl on the Q train. And meets here again. And again. Slowly she discovers that this girl might not be quite what she seems to be – in fact she’s a punk rock lesbian from the 1970s displaced out of time. Can August solve the case of how she got displaced and not lose her heart in the process?

Review:
I heard this described somewhere as a queer romance similar to the movie Kate & Leopold. That’s one of my favorite romantic comedies, so I was sold. I can definitely understand the comparison. They’re both set in New York and feature a love interest displaced out of their own time. While I love Kate & Leopold though, I have to admit I didn’t quite love this book.

Let’s start with what I liked. The main character, August, is bisexual and says it (more than once) with confidence. There is no biphobia expressed in this book by any of the characters she cares about. I also really appreciated seeing a bisexual main character who is a virgin and yet still declares this. An important moment of representation that one does not need to sleep with people to know one’s sexuality

August’s roommates and new friends are eclectic and fun while still feeling real. There is representation of gay and trans* folks especially. One of the roommates is Black (with Chinese adoptive parents), one is Greek-American, and one is Jewish. There’s a lot of diversity here. Part of what made them all feel real is that all of them had their own different families and issues. It wasn’t one queer story but many. I also really liked how real the local drag club felt, and I appreciated the representation of someone in recovery (the chef at the pancake restaurant).

I thought there was a lot of sizzle between August and the girl on the train – Biyu. Now at first she goes by Jane but over the course of the book she comes to ask to go by her birth name, Biyu, rather than her Americanized nickname. I want to be respectful of that. I also enjoyed the mystery of how she came to be on the train, and how August goes about solving it.

I felt pretty neutrally about the sex scenes. They were steamy without being explicit, but they weren’t anything particularly memorable for me. Some readers, I know, were turned off by the fact some of the sex happens on the train. That didn’t bother me because it makes sense for the characters. But be forewarned!

Now what I liked less. I don’t think the book handled racism and homophobia as directly or clearly as it should have. Biyu is from the 1970s and is a Chinese-American who is visibly lesbian. She literally had run-ins with the cops over wearing men’s clothes in her time period. But being jetted forward 40 years doesn’t solve the problems of homophobia and racism. I think the book acknowledges this by having Biyu have a run-in with someone who says something both racist and homophobic to her (the words are not said in the book and the incident appears off-screen). Yet August responds by saying, “most people aren’t like that anymore” (I can’t give an exact page number as this was a review copy but it occurs in Chapter 12). This does lead into a large fight between Biyu and August, which I think implies that August was wrong in what she said. However, I think August needed a bigger I was wrong moment, where she acknowledges that she did a very poor job of both being there for Biyu in that moment and of describing the complexity of how racism and homophobia are simultaneously different and yet not in modern times. I think readers also would have benefited from a nuanced discussion of how, for example, same-sex marriage is now legal and yet hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have increased dramatically in the last year, especially against Chinese-Americans (source). I think this book wanted to say something big and interesting about sexuality and queerness especially in the 1970s versus now, but in my opinion it falls short of accomplishing this.

Additionally, I know I was supposed to find the ending satisfying but it left me dissatisfied. I think for similar reasons – it’s a complex situation and the book doesn’t dig deep enough or hard enough into these complexities. Things are kept at the surface level. While it is a book in the spirit of a romcom, romcoms can say big and difficult things while not losing the romcom feel. Confessions of a Shopaholic springs to mind – it deals with the very serious issue of shopping addiction while still feeling like a very fun romcom.

Overall, this book is fun and lighthearted. It features a realistic bisexual lead and steamy, yet not explicit, f/f scenes. The queer found family is delightful. But it could have stood to have dug a bit deeper into the serious issues it brought up. They are important conversations to have that wouldn’t have messed up the lightheartedness of the romcom vibe.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 422 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Queen of the Cicadas / La Reina de las Chicharras by V. Castro

June 22, 2021 2 comments
Digital cover of the book The Queen of the Cicadas / La Reina de las Chicarras. A red silhouette of a woman is against a blue background. A quote reads "Dark, atmospheric, sexy, and dangerous, her fiction bringers readers her unfiltered Latinx essence and a unique pulpy flavor. Her work matters. Read it."   Gabino Iglesias, author of Coyote Songs.

Summary:
You’ve heard of Bloody Mary and Candyman but have you heard of La Reina de las Chicharras? The legacy says she’s a Mexican farmworker named Milagros who was brutally murdered in 1950s Texas then given new supernatural life by the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl. In 2018, Belinda Alvarez arrives in Texas for a friend’s wedding on the farm that inspired the legacy of La Reina de las Chicharras. But is it just a legacy or is it real?

Review:

I’m a woman of a certain age. I know that shit isn’t always right.

Chapter 9

This struck me as a Latinx, female-led version of Candyman, only, over time, La Reina de las Chicharras comes to protect the downtrodden who call her.

Milagros’s life story that leads to her becoming La Reina is told in parallel with Belinda’s discovering her story and coming into her own realizations about Mictecacíhuatl. I really resonated with the Milagros chapters but struggled to relate to Belinda. She needed more depth and roundness to seem as real as Milagros. Some additional chapter breaks could also help with the jumping perspectives. In general, though, the dual perspectives worked and the uniqueness of the storyline kept me quite engaged to find out what would happen.

In addition to the strong Latinx content, the Indigenous history of Mexico is present. Milagros’s relationship especially to the Indigenous people who were brutally colonized is drawn clearly. There is also relatively significant queer content here. Milagros is a woman who loves women. There are two important gay male characters, and Belinda exhibits fluid sexuality, although she never gives a label to this.

Two things in this book were at ethical odds with me. First, Belinda is written as a woman in addiction who then never overcomes it (or even tries to) in spite of her character arc seeming to indicate that she has been transformed in a positive way. I’m ok with a realistic depiction that not everyone finds recovery, but it bothered me that it comes across as a positive transformation when she remains in addiction. It’s relatively clear that this is a bit of a vengeance fantasy. I understand the importance and role of having a place for anger at injustice to go. But my own spiritual beliefs uphold forgiveness over vengeance, so my world view differs.

If you like urban legend style horror and want to see women in the lead, then you will likely enjoy this read. Those offended or disturbed by the idea of the universe holding multiple gods and religions simultaneously should likely look elsewhere.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

Digital image of the cover for The House in the Cerulean Sea. A cartoon drawing of a Victorian style home on a cliff over the ocean with two trees blowing in the breeze. A yellow bar on the side advertises that this is a New York Times and USA Today bestseller.

Summary:
Linus leads a solitary life with his cat and his records and an ethical commitment to his job as a Case Worker for the Department in Charge of the Magical Youth in the UK. When his long-time commitment to investigating cases precisely according to the book by Extremely Upper Management with a highly classified case, he finds himself Marsyas Island Orphanage. Here six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must put aside his own fears and decide if they’re likely to bring about the end-times, all while keeping a particularly special eye on their mysterious caretaker, Arthur Parnassus.

Review:
When I picked this up, I expected to read a cheery tongue-in-cheek book about the end times. What I got instead was a cheery book, yes, but one about taking the risks that allow you to actually live your life in a fulfilling way. It inspired me and made me teary-eyed.

Klune simultaneously depicts the soul-crushing horror of working for a bureaucratic organization and makes it funny. This is evident just by the name Extremely Upper Management. It is just so relatable to see Linus working for a government organization that clearly has some nefarious tendencies and, at the very least, creates a terrible work environment, yet that Linus has convinced himself is him doing an ethical job. He clasps to the idea that he is making a good impact on the world, and therefore allows his life to be the horrible and depressing way it is. It takes going to Marsyas Island to snap him out of it.

Just as Linus’s depressing London life is drawn (the depiction of his commute alone is just so on point to a city commute), Maryas Island is depicted to beautifully that even now, weeks after finishing the book, I can send my mind back there for a mini-break. It’s not that it’s perfect, there are, of course, infuriating aspects to small town life (like the ferry) but! Linus can see the sun again. And he can see what can happen when people are encouraged that there is good in them they just need to draw out. My favorite of the children is the gnome, a little girl with a beard who loves her garden and threatens to kill with her shovel anyone who seems like a danger to it. But instead of focusing on the negative (the shovel threatening) Arthur focuses on encouraging her to show people her garden and guide them through what there is to appreciate about it and how to appreciate it respectfully.

I was surprised but thrilled by the blooming attraction between Linus and another adult male at the island (I somehow didn’t know that Klune is a Lambda Literary Award winning author). When I realized that a potential change for Linus might include finding love after 40 as well, I was thrilled. I would be hesitant to call this a romance, because I felt like it was really a book about living your life in a way that is authentic to who you really are and makes you happy, Loving someone who loves you back is part of that for Linus. But it’s not the focus. His life calling is the focus.

I want to encourage readers who might be distressed by Linus’s initial disappointment in his own body size and commitment to dieting that this is not a story where pounds magically fall away on an island and only then can our character find love. No, this set-up is part of making room for Linus to learn to love his body and care about other markers of health (like having a healthy glow).

This is a delightful fantasy about breaking out of your routine to find the life you really want to live. About helping children and adults find the good in themselves and draw it out. About a gay man learning to love his body and finding love in his 40s. It was so beautifully written it left me speechless, and I pre-ordered Klune’s next book. Recommended to those wanting to find inspiration to living a life that brings joy.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 394 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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