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5 Sapphic Dark Fantasies for Halloween

September 20, 2022 Leave a comment
An image that says 5 Sapphic Dark Fantasy Reads for Halloween. It has a greenish background with two smiling jack-o-lanterns and an image of a bookshelf on the borers. The covers of five books are featured. The Drowning Girl, The Haunting of Hill House, Maplecroft, The Queen of the Cicadas, and Sorrowland.

I am running A Very Sapphic Halloween Reading Challenge, which isn’t just for reading and reviewing new books but also for highlighting books you’ve read before (or hope to read) that fit the challenge. Something Halloweeny featuring women loving women.

This is my first list of suggested reads – 5 dark fantasies.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan

India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

A beautiful thing about this book is how it’s up to the reader to decide if fantastical things actually happened or if they’re all symptoms of Imp’s schizophrenia. Told in the first person from Imp’s perspective, it’s a uniquely different mystery. (my full review)

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Dr. Montague is a scholar of the occult, and he invites three other people to stay with him in Hill House, which is notorious for being haunted.  There’s jovial Theodora, timid Eleanor, and the future heir of the house, Luke. What starts as a light-hearted adventure quickly turns sinister in this horror classic.

This is considered a sapphic classic, but it was published in the 1950s so the sapphic part is pure subtext, due to censorship at the time. A haunted house story that’s not too scary to most modern readers but a fun, quick read. (my full review)

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

“Lizzie Borden took an axe; gave her mother forty whacks….”
Any New Englander knows the nursery rhyme based on the true crime story of Mr. and Mrs. Borden who were murdered with an axe in 1892.  In spite of being tried and acquitted for the murders, their daughter (in the case of Mrs. Borden, step-daughter), was widely believed to actually be responsible for the murders.  In this book, she definitely was, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
A darkness is trying to take over Fall River, Massachusetts, and Lizzie and her ailing sister Emma are all that might stand between the town and oblivion, with Lizzie’s parents being the first casualties in the battle.

Lizzie Borden’s axe murder actually had to do with an eldritch horror, plus Lizzie has a girlfriend, Nance. Think Stranger Things but in the 1890s and the lesbian is the main character instead of the sidekick. (my full review)

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

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?

This struck me as a Latina version of Candyman, where the wrongs instigating the righteous vengeance are colonization and taking advantage of migrant farm workers. I can’t reveal the sapphic content without spoilering, but trust me, it’s there. (my full review)

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Vern desperately flees the strict, religious, Black Power compound she was raised on while she is heavily pregnant with twins. Giving birth shortly thereafter and raising her babies in the woods, she finds herself transforming inexplicably. But what is she transforming into? Why? And can she protect her children from both the compound and the world?

This is a beautifully grotesque book that reminded me of watching season 1 of Hannibal – but with a Black lead with albinism who is a woman who loves women. (my full review)

Do you have suggested sapphic dark fantasy reads not on this list? Let us know in the comments!

Book Review: Buffalo Is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel

September 13, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. Two people stand on either side of a mystical ravine. the shadow of a buffalo is in the ravine between them.

Summary:
Inspired by classic and contemporary speculative fiction, this collection of eight short stories explores science fiction tropes through a Metis lens: Nanites babble to babies in Cree, virtual reality teaches transformation, foxes take human form and wreak havoc on hearts, buffalo roam free, and beings grapple with the thorny problem of healing from colonialism.

Review:
This collection contains nine short stories by Indigenous (Métis) author Chelsea Vowel. The Métis are a recognized Indigenous people with a unique culture descended from the pairings of Indigenous with European fur traders (usually, but not always, First Nations women with French men). Most of the stories are set in the same region of Canada, and all of the stories are speculative, containing some fantastical element, whether they are set in the past, present, or future.

The author is queer, and queerness is clearly present in five of the nine stories. These include: a historical woman figure who identifies as a woman, is interested in women, and dresses in male clothing; a woman character who becomes interested in a fox presenting as a woman; a woman character who is in lockdown without her girlfriend who ended up trapped in another town after she went to visit her family; a queer poly family raising a child together in a collective; and a nonbinary femme-presenting character who uses Métis gender-neutral pronouns.

My favorite story of the collection is “Maggie-Sue.” This is the story where an Indigenous woman becomes interested in a beautiful Cree woman she sees but realizes is actually a fox disguised as a woman (this is revealed very early on, so not a spoiler). I loved everything about the fox woman, the mystical adventure the main character goes on, and the ending was a delight to imagine. I also really appreciated the play on words in the title (which I won’t reveal, because it’s more fun for you to realize it when you’re reading it yourself). I thought this story also offered solid critique on the difficulties of being a survivor of ongoing colonization on your ancestral lands, without that criticism ever feeling like telling instead of showing or like academic language sneaking in where a character wouldn’t use it.

The latter is my main complaint for the story I liked least – “Unsettled.” There is a scene where five characters, none of whom are established as academics, sit around having a highly academic conversation for many pages. The story felt more like an academic thought experiment than a story with unique characters and perspectives. I also struggled a little bit with the first story in the book, “Buffalo Bird.” its pacing was slow, which is a challenge for me. I think I would have liked it more further into the collection. I personally need to kind of “know” a writer to trust that a story will ultimately go into an interesting place if it has a slow start.

Something else interesting about this collection is that it has footnotes throughout, where the author explains things or gives historical context. I enjoyed these and felt they added to the stories. They’re not used all the time, sometimes you as the reader do need to figure things out from context for yourself if you’re not Métis (which I, to be clear, am not). But I thought the footnotes struck a nice balance.

The other thing is after each story there’s a short reflection from the author about the story. On the one hand, I liked these because I learned more from them. As an author myself, also, it was interesting to hear from the author on what her goals were and compare them to my actual experience as the reader. On the other hand, I could see some readers not enjoying this aspect of the book, wanting to be left with their own experience with the story and leave it at that. But you can always skip over these essays if you prefer not to have the inside story.

Related to the essays, I do also want to note one additional thing. I do think that an author’s beliefs and politics tend to make it into their writing, whether they intend that or not. I’m not saying every character reflects the author’s worldview, absolutely not, but the more you read an individual author’s work, the more you come to see how they likely see the world. This is even more clear in this collection where each story is paired with a nonfiction reflective essay by the author. The author is an academic Indigenous queer woman, and definitely leans very left. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing. But I do think it shows through more clearly in some stories than others, and is very present in the essays. Only you, the potential reader, can know if this would be a plus, negative, or neutral for you.

Overall, this is an interesting collection of speculative short stories from a queer Indigenous woman author. I’m glad I took the time to read them and see a different way of storytelling and views on the world within the speculative framework I personally enjoy.

Please note, I calculate a rating for a short story collection by individually rating each story then reporting out the average. This came out to 3.7, so I rounded up to 4.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 272 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – Horror Stories by Richard Matheson

September 6, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a book cover. A figure stands on the wing of a plane in shades of blue, gray, and black.

Summary:
Remember that monster on the wing of the airplane? William Shatner saw it on The Twilight Zone and Bart Simpson saw it too. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is just one of many classic horror stories by Richard Matheson that have insinuated themselves into our collective imagination.

Here are more than twenty of Matheson’s most memorable tales of fear and paranoia. Personally selected by Richard Matheson, the bestselling author of I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come, these and many other stories, more than demonstrate why he is rightfully regarded as one of the finest and most influential horror writers of our generation.

Review:
I picked this up because I remembered enjoying I Am Legend (although my review is only 3 stars, when I looked it up just now…) I also had familiarity with The Twilight Zone episode based on the first story in the collection. I individually rated each of the twenty stories then calculated the average to give the collection a rating.

I rated two stories 5 stars. “Mad House” (made me make shocked and thrilled faces) and “First Anniversary” (I called it timeless in my notes). The former is a very meta commentary on being a writer. The latter reminded me of Buffy in that who you’ve fallen in love with changes, only in this case it was the woman changing instead of the man.

There were quite a few stories that I found moderately engaging and enjoyed their historic vibe. Like “Disappearing Act,” whose whole idea is it’s someone’s personal notebook left in a cafe. Or “Crickets” whose idea is what if crickets’ chirps are really a form of Morse code?

But there are also two stories where, just, the entire structure idea is racist. One “The Children of Noah” involves the idea that a town’s inhabitants are all the descendants of a sea captain and his Pacific Islander bride. The racist part is that they’re dangerous BECAUSE of being part Pacific Islander. The story “Prey” is about a “Zuni” doll that’s inhabited by the spirit of a great warrior. The whole idea made me cringe. One story, “The Distributor” confused me so much that I’m still not sure what the overall point was. A character who I think is a bad guy uses the the n word and another racial slur, but it’s a little unclear to me if he was meant to be a bad guy.

There are also definitely outdated gender ideas here. The least offensive is that it’s oh so scary for teenage girls to wage war as witches in “Witch War.” The worst is “The Likeness of Julie.” Most of the story is from the perspective of a college undergrad male rapist. That’s bad enough. If you want to know how it manages to get worse, check out the spoiler paragraph below in brackets. 

[The twist ending is that the college woman he rapes, Julie, in fact got inside his mind supernaturally and made him rape her. It’s the worst victim blaming I’ve seen in forever, and I honestly wanted to scrub my own brain out with soap. I’m suspicious that Matheson knew on some level how awful this story was, because the collection notes that he published it under the pseudonym of Logan Swanson in Alone by Night, which appears to have been some sort of anthology.]

So, there we have it. Some stories manage to be timeless. But definitely not all. Come into this collection prepared for a mixed bag.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Purchased

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)