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Book Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

Image of a digital book cover. A small pointy island is off in the distance in the sea.

Three monks struggle to survive on an inhospitable island off the Irish coast.

Summary:
In seventh-century Ireland, a scholar and priest called Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind. Taking two monks—young Trian and old Cormac—he rows down the river Shannon in search of an isolated spot on which to found a monastery. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find an impossibly steep, bare island inhabited by tens of thousands of birds, and claim it for God. In such a place, what will survival mean?

Review:
This is a quiet character study set on a windswept island with only one tree upon it but thousands of birds. (This is based upon a real place in Ireland.) It wrestles with how being with nature at a more intimate level than what is currently experienced by one’s peers can bring out great revelations about a person. Both good and bad. It demonstrates how a group with a leader can show great resolve through trials but also the weakness of unquestioned loyalty to a questionable leader. How do you know when it’s time to question the leader?

What I found particularly interesting was how the story itself shows the strange juxtaposition of this group going to nature but their leader not respecting nature simultaneously. While Cormac and Trian both have a respect for and understanding of nature due to their lives before they were monks, Artt as a scholar does not. He does things and asks the other monks to do things that strike them as odd. Two things in particular feel like wrongdoing to the other two monks although they struggle to articulate why. I found myself wishing that Cormac and Trian could find either Buddhism or a Christian sect that had a greater respect for nature (for example: Franciscans). They would surely have fit in better.

An example of something Artt asks along this line that isn’t particularly a spoiler. Trian, after they arrive on the island, eats some shellfish and brings some back for the others to eat. Artt tells them this food is unclean and forbidden. Trian’s thoughts later:

He wishes he still didn’t know it was forbidden; wishes he was innocent and could cram his belly with whatever dirty, delicious stuff he found.

page 161

Trian loves the birds and watching them. Artt is annoyed by the birds. He views their noisemaking as exacerbated by the devil to work against them and tells Trian that it’s not possible to pray with your eyes open. Trian internally resists this. He feels it is possible to pray with one’s eyes open. The reader is left seeing how much more spiritually Trian engages with God’s creation than Artt does. In fairness to Artt he does have a greater faith than the other two in God’s providing for them. When the other two might be willing to give up and take the boat to get supplies, Artt encourages them to wait and see what they can figure out on the island itself. He’s often correct that they hadn’t quite considered all options yet. One might say that Artt has a lot of faith in God’s creativity and perhaps too much suspicion of Satan’s creativity as well.

There is some queer content. I can’t describe what it is without spoilers. Highlight the next paragraph to see.

Trian is intersex. This is a critical plot point. Cormac and Artt are divided on how to handle Trian after finding out. I was pleased with the resolution and feel the ending is, overall, uplifting.

Overall, this is a quiet study of what happens when one person is given too much authority over other people’s spiritual development. It’s set in a gorgeous, richly imagined backdrop. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I read it, which is why I rated it five stars.

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5 out of 5 stars

Length: 272 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Through Forests of Every Color: Awakening with Koans by Joan Sutherland

December 26, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A blue swipe of paint is topped with the outlines of pine trees. The title of the book is written in white against this background.

Learn about Zen Buddhist koans – both their history and how to use them in your practice – in this approachable introduction from a nearly lifelong Zen practitioner.

Summary:
Renowned Zen teacher Joan Sutherland reimagines the koan tradition with allegiance to the root spirit of the koans and to their profound potential for vivifying, subverting, and sanctifying our lives. Her decades of practicing with koans and of translating them from classical Chinese imbues this text with a warm familiarity, an ease still suffused with awe.

Interlinked essays on “koans as art,” “keeping company with koans,” and “walking the koan way” intersperse with beautifully translated renditions of dozens of traditional Zen koans. Sutherland also shares innovative koans culled from Western literature, as well as teachings on how to create idiosyncratic koans or turning words from the circumstances of one’s own life.

Review:
I came into this book with some trepidation. My previous experiences with koans were frustrating, and not in a way that I felt lent itself to enlightenment. I hoped this introductory guide to koans would hep me to engage with them better. This book certainly met that goal. I now have a desire to work with koans in my own practice. Although, I won’t be jumping right into The Gateless Gate. I plan to pick up another book that moves slowly and with guidance.

Indeed, learning the history of how koans have traditionally been engaged with helped me. You wouldn’t enter koan study alone but rather with a teacher who helps you learn how to engage with them. The author does not feel this can be entirely replicated with books and encourages finding a teacher. I will carry on with books for now as finding a teacher seems an insurmountable task at the moment to me. Sutherland also discusses how traditionally there was a “right” answer to koans but in modern times there’s more consideration for alternative interpretations – as long as they hold meaning to the practitioner. So you might not make a student wrestle with a koan until they come upon “the” answer but rather until they come upon an answer that leads them further down the path toward enlightenment.

Sutherland also discusses the reputation of Zen for being rude. She points out how in the culture rudeness was basically unheard of. So the point wasn’t the rudeness. The point was startling the student out of their cultural expectations. She suggests that other methods might be best depending upon the culture you’re currently working in. This was a real “aha” moment for me. Startling as the goal is something I can understand as being an impetus to break out of your current mindset.

I also appreciated coming to understand that the goal isn’t to solve a koan immediately. Rather, the goal is to live with the koan, day in and day out. In this way your own life helps you understand the koan, and the koan helps you understand your own life. This reminded me of how I was encouraged to engage with Scripture as a child. To memorize a verse and consider it for a full week or a month to see what else may be revealed.

One thing that disappointed me in this book was the discussion of writing your own koans was sparse. It was the aspect I was looking forward to the most. In all honesty, I can’t remember any part of the book directly discussing it. I don’t believe the blurb would mention it if it wasn’t there, though, so I’m assuming it’s very fleeting. I was expecting an entire chapter, perhaps with suggested exercises.

I want to leave you with my favorite koan from the book.

Someone asked Yunmen, “What is reaching the light?
Yunmen replied, “Forget the light, First give me the reaching.”

loc 185

Overall, this is a nice introduction to koans, both how to use them in practice and their history. Recommended to anyone looking to learn more about koan.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition by Thenmozhi Soundararajan

December 19, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A purple background with green decoration. the title of the book and author's name are in yellow. It notes a foreword by Tarana Burke in white.

Indian people are born into a specific, unchangeable caste. People of the lowest caste – Dalits – suffer discrimination and injustice. Here a Dalit feminist Buddhist author explores how Dalits can survive and heal from this trauma and allies can work toward justice.

Summary:
“Dalit” is the name that we chose for ourselves when Brahminism declared us “untouchable.” Dalit means broken. Broken by suffering. Broken by caste: the world’s oldest, longest-running dominator system…yet although “Dalit” means broken, it also means resilient.

Despite its ban more than 70 years ago, caste is thriving. Every 15 minutes, a crime is perpetrated against a Dalit person. The average age of death for Dalit women is just 39. And the wreckages of caste are replicated here in the U.S., too—erupting online with rape and death threats, showing up at work, and forcing countless Dalits to live in fear of being outed.

Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan puts forth a call to awaken and act, not just for readers in South Asia, but all around the world. She ties Dalit oppression to fights for liberation among Black, Indigenous, Latinx, femme, and Queer communities, examining caste from a feminist, abolitionist, and Dalit Buddhist perspective—and laying bare the grief, trauma, rage, and stolen futures enacted by Brahminical social structures on the caste-oppressed.

Review:
I read and enjoyed Radical Dharma. It is a Black Buddhist exploration of systemic racial injustice against Black folks. It also uses Buddhist thought to progress toward liberation. The publisher recommended this book to readers of Radical Dharma, and I could tell from the title alone the parallels. Indian society oppresses Dalit peoples in very similar ways to how US American society oppresses Black folks. For example, they were both the source of enslaved labor in the 1800s. The author, a Dalit American woman, offers a very personal exploration of what it is to be a part of the Dalit diaspora. She also explores how her Buddhist belief system helps her navigate her trauma and advocate for societal change.

The author divides the book into four sections she calls mediations – The Existence of Caste, The Source of Caste, From Wounds to Liberation, and The End of Caste. There are also two appendixes that I found so meaningful I think they’re better thought of as part of the main book. The first explores Dalit social justice activists throughout time like B.R. Ambedkar and Phoolan Devi. The second is healing meditations for those truamatized by caste.

If you have ever heard of an “untouchable” caste this book makes it clear that this is not the name that members of this caste chooses for themselves. Many choose the name “Dalit” instead. Some choose other names, but Dalit is the most common.

Dalit means broken. Broken by suffering. Broken by caste.

loc 268

Another way of referring to those traumatized by caste is casteoppressed.

There is some controversy on exactly where caste came from. The author makes it clear she believes it came from the traditional faith of Hinduism. Caste was then weaponized by British colonizers to further divide those they colonized and make it easier to maintain dominance over them. However, the author acknowledges some people believe otherwise. I myself am not a scholar in this area. But however it began, caste is intermingled with Hinduism and Indian society across the diaspora. A person born into a lower caste is told they deserve to be at the lowest level of society because of sins they committed in a past life. That all of their suffering is their own fault, and they don’t deserve to rise out of it. The message also is that those in higher castes deserve to be there. Any suffering they put on those of lower castes is simply what those of the lower caste “deserve.” If you are at all familiar with the history of racism in the US, then it is immediately quite clear how damaging these societal beliefs are. It is also clear why they need to be overcome.

The pain and suffering for Dalit peoples is not of the past – it is now. The author offers sobering statistics (with references). They include:

  • 54% of Dalit children are undernourished (loc 500)
  • 83 of every 1,000 Dalit children die before their first birthday (loc 500)
  • more than 67% of Dalit women have experienced sexual violence (loc 509)
  • the average age of death for a Dalit woman is 39 (loc 509)
  • 45% of Dalits do not know how to read and write (loc 3327)
  • 48% of villages deny Dalits access to water (loc 3330)

The author explores how we can all begin to fight for freedom, justice, and equality. She talks about how important it is for oppressed people to be able to begin to imagine being free as the first step. She also speaks to allies about being aware that a move toward equality might feel like discomfort to us. She also speaks about the importance of supporting the experiences of the oppressed. Being cautious and mindful in our words and deeds is a message we all can benefit from.

An area that could have been improved on is where the author speaks about other religions in India and Dalit participation in them. While the section on Islam is well-written, making it clear how caste is not a part of Islam but can end up being enacted upon Dalit Muslims anyway, the same clarity is not brought to the section on Christianity. It makes it sound like social justice is a focus of only specifically Dalit led Christian sects. The section ignores other sects that follow similar mores and even the Bible verse Galatians 3:28 “…ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Similarly, Judaism is skipped over, but Dalit Jewish people do exist. I wished these had been explored more. I appreciate that the author is careful to encourage and support Dalits in whatever faith they choose – including remaining Hindu. But I would have liked either a more even-handed representation of other faiths or a purely Buddhist perspective.

I empathize very much with the author’s concerns about modern-day genocides. It is absolutely correct that society at large is not taking these atrocities seriously the way we should. But the author mentions that we went to war in WWII over the Holocaust. That’s inaccurate. Nations went to war to protect their own nations. While the Holocaust was taken seriously after the fact, it’s not why nations went to war. Indeed, most nations turned away Jewish refugees at the time. What we are seeing with the general ignoring of current genocidal atrocities is sadly a repeat of how nations reacted in the past. We haven’t learned what we should have from the horrors of the Holocaust.

Overall, this is an eye-opening book about caste-based oppression throughout the South Asian diaspora. It offers healing for the casteoppressed and asks us all to become allies in the work to liberate these people. It is a meaningful introduction to this liberating labor for both casteoppressed people and allies.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Patricia Wants to Cuddle by Samantha Allen

November 21, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A large hairy ape hand with a manicure holds a blonde white woman who is holding her phone and taking a selfie.

A reality tv dating show is filming its final four – including a closeted bisexual – on an island in the Pacific Northwest, but things take a fantastical horrifying turn the night before the penultimate decision day.

Summary:
This season’s Catch is a slightly sleazy bachelor who helped fund Glamstapix, which explains why so many of the final four women are Glamstapix stars. There’s Vanessa a car model, Amanda the daughter of two lesbian moms with a fashion Glamsta, Lilah-Mae a Dallas-based Christian influencer, and Renee a Black woman nominated by her coworkers who’s pretty over being the token woman of color on the show. No one is thrilled with the rural Otters Island location in the Pacific Northwest but everyone is motivated to make it to the final two in Palm Springs. Things get heated while they film the final interactions before the Catch chooses who will come with him to Palm Springs but things take a horrifying and fantastical turn when the cameras turn off for the night.

Review:
I did not receive the blurb I gave you above. The blurb I got combined with the title led me to believe that this was going to be a reality tv dating show where one of the women contestants was into another one of the women contestants who then gets abducted by a King-Kong like female creature she has to rescue her from. I still love this idea. But this isn’t what actually happens in the book. At all. It’s not a romance. It’s a funny reality tv show book that takes a horrifying turn in the last third.

I repeat. There is no romance in this book. Unless you count old love letters between an elderly B&B owner and her now dead wife. (Not a spoiler, she’s dead from the beginning). Renee is a closeted bisexual who does have feelings for Amanda (or at least the hots for her) but those feelings are not the focus of the book. The title of the book is misleading because Patricia, the giant ape-like monster, absolutely is not out to cuddle anyone. It’s not some weird cross-species ill-fated romance like King-Kong. Patricia is out to murder. And she murders a lot of people gruesomely. If you don’t like descriptions of a monster tearing people apart, then you won’t like the direction this book goes in. Sorry if you consider that a spoiler but I think it’s essential given how the book is being marketed and how the first two-thirds of the book reads to warn you about the dark, horrific ending before you get there.

Speaking of the first two-thirds of the book, that’s what made me give it three stars. I loved the insider look at the overlap of reality tv and influencer culture. I enjoyed Renee’s scathing observations about it all. I appreciated that there was some understanding and empathy for the influencers, especially that it actually is hard work to get the glamor shots and constantly promote every aspect of your day. It’s a fun, light-hearted read. I was wondering why it was taking so long to introduce Patricia. But then when Patricia came in I understood. The last third was basically a rapid slasher, not a search and romantic rescue. So it didn’t need much room.

The following paragraph is a spoiler filled analysis of the ending. Highlight to read.

Renee is the only one that Patricia doesn’t attack. The book seems to make the point that Patricia doesn’t attack her because Renee doesn’t treat her like a monster, and Renee doesn’t do that because she herself is queer. There’s this queer woman death cult that surrounds Patricia and protects her as well, even killing people to keep her existence a secret. To me this read as that monstrous groups only act monstrously (or seem monstrous) because of how you react to them. This might have worked but Patricia literally immediately tears people limb from limb. It’s not a kind act that’s misinterpreted. She hasn’t gently carried someone away in a kidnapping because she’s lonely. She concusses Amanda when she kidnaps her and then later tears her head off when she dares to try to run out of the cave. She scales the tower Lilah-Mae and Vanessa are on and immediately tackles Vanessa unprovoked. If this is an allegory, it’s a bad one, because Patricia is, in fact, acting like a monster. I think the allegory could have worked if there were real misunderstandings involved instead of the actual gore that occurred.

Overall, this felt like two different works mashed together. The first was a funny and empathic analysis of influencer and reality tv culture. The second was a gore-filled horror slash-fest that would work as a short story. The former is more my taste, but I respect the quality of the latter. The way the two are put together, though, might struggle to find its audience. So if you like a slow burn horror led by reality tv satire, give this one a try.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Lavender House by Lev A.C. Rosen

November 14, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A woman's silhouette reveals 1950s style purple wallpaper. Rabbits run across it. Some of them are bleeding.

A 1952 noir-esque mystery — but everyone from the detective to the murder victim to most of the suspects themselves are part of the queer community.

Summary:
Andy was just fired from the San Francisco police department after he was found in a compromising situation in a gay bar’s bathroom. He’s having one last night of drinks before throwing himself into the bay when a woman shows up asking him to investigate the murder of Irene Lamontaine – the matriarch of the Lamontaine soap company. She wants Andy to do the job because it turns out Irene was a lesbian, and almost everyone in her home is queer. A secret they have to keep if they want to remain an empire.

Review:
All I noticed in the blurb I saw was that this was a queer Knives Out. I somehow missed the historical part. I loved Knives Out but I wasn’t prepared for the amount of period appropriate homophobic content in this one.

This book is authentic to its time period. It doesn’t gloss over homophobia whatsoever. We witness one brutal gay bashing (literal gay bashing) and two other characters reference their own beatings. This is a world of bribes and secrecy from society such that even the happy characters can never be fully happy. Be prepared for the realistic depiction as you go into it.

The family Lamontaine consists of Irene and her partner Pearl. They have a son Henry. I can’t remember whose biological son he is. He has a partner named Cliff. He’s legally married to a woman named Margo who has her own partner Elsie, who is bisexual and runs a queer bar. Margo’s straight mother Alice begrudgingly lives with them. They have a butleresque character who is also gay, as well as another sapphic couple who run the kitchen and garden. They all get to be themselves inside the Lamontaine house but never outside of it. Irene was found dead in the perfume library. The family and coroner rule it a fall, all with the exception of Pearl who suspects foul play. She found out about the recently outed cop and figured he could be their private investigator without risk of outing them all. The characters feel like a lot but are actually easy to keep track of.

I appreciate that there was a bisexual character. I wished that there was more diversity. There was one Filipino bar tender and a rival soap company run by a Jewish family. With all the rampant homophobia being depicted, I was honestly shocked that racism didn’t come up. It would certainly have been period appropriate to, for example, even allude to issues like redlining or racist responses to the Korean War. If one was completely unaware of history coming into this book, one could have left it thinking the only issue of tolerance and acceptance in the 1950s was sexuality. (For a queer book that does explore racism in San Francisco in the 1950s, check out Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club).

Please also note that there is a scene where some rabbits are killed. I don’t think this is a spoiler as it’s alluded to on the cover. I wouldn’t have asked for the book at all on NetGalley if I’d been able to see the full cover as it’s rendered now, because I have a personal love for rabbits so that was distressing to me. One of the characters is depicted as having a drinking problem that they are told to snap out of. This is never followed up on in a way that implies the drinking problem is fine now. This isn’t how a drinking problem works. I found this to be a flawed and misleading depiction of alcoholism that was used as a plot device.

The mystery itself was kind of ho-hum. I suspected who did it from the get-go and was proven correct. The solution seemed….more than a bit obvious to me, honestly. If you’re curious, take a guess in the comments, and I’ll respond with if you’re right. Ultimately though for me I wanted this book to swing more fully into one direction or the other. Either to go full period piece and get into all the nitty gritty or move it into the present and just make it fun.

Overall, if a simply mystery set in the 1950s with a mostly queer cast facing an intolerant society appeals to you, then you should give this one a go.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 274 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Reader, I Murdered Him by Betsy Cornwell

November 3, 2022 Leave a comment

A YA romp told from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s ward gives a new view of both Jane Eyre and London’s queer underground.

Image of a digital book cover. A young woman in 1800s period costume stands facing the reader. There's a reddish hate tilted down over her face.

Summary:
Adéle grew up watching her mother dance in Le Moulin in Paris but soon found herself sent away to England with the man her mother said was her father. Mr. Rochester. Soon she meets her governess Jane Eyre and begins her own series of adventures.

Review:
If you have a love/hate relationship with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, then this book is for you. If you love your YA with sapphic romance in period costumes, then get this book immediately.

The thing about Jane Eyre is…Mr. Rochester is terrible. Yet she’s still attracted to him. (This was beautifully summed up in the web comic Hark! A Vagrant). Shifting to Adéle’s perspective gives a whole new angle on just how deliciously insidious Mr. Rochester is. Adéle does not pull any punches when it comes to him. It’s downright cathartic for everyone who tears their hair out about Jane’s love for him.

There’s much more in this story than a shift of perspective on Jane Eyre though. Adéle is well-rounded, and we have entire chapters where Mr. Rochester and Jane aren’t mentioned at all or only in passing. My favorite part is when Adéle goes to a finishing school in London, because this is when the sapphic subtext becomes blatant. Adéle has the hots for more than one other teenage girl. (Both of whom are excellent choices, by the way). There’s cross-dressing! There’s scuttling around on the streets of London late at night in widow’s clothes! But also Adéle has feelings for Mr. Rochester’s nephew she’s been exchanging letters with since she first came to England. What to do. what to do. I loved seeing representation of a bisexual woman who leans more in a certain direction usually. I really like that even though she is capable of attraction to men that the sexist society fizzles it for her, making her a bisexual that leans toward women. What a fun twist on what we usually see in period pieces with fluid sexuality.

The book does start slow. The first chapter in Le Moulin was rough with overly flowery language and stirred up drama. But this drops out as Adéle ages and comes into her own. Perhaps some of this was meant to show how she is a little too idealistic in how she remembers her early years. I suspect the first chapter may have served better as flashbacks from her early time in England, rather than linear.

Please do take a moment to check out the content notes on StoryGraph. The ones listed as of the day I was writing this post are accurate.

Overall, this is a fun twist on Jane Eyre that gives agency to Mr. Rochester’s ward Adéle. Come for the twist, stay for the YA sapphic heart-throbbing.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 288 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gómez

October 27, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A Black woman's face gazes to the right away from the viewer. It looks like her face is part of old paper. There is blood around the edges of the page.

Summary:
A young Black girl escapes slavery in the 1850s United States. When she grows up, she is made into a vampire with her consent. We see her immortal life and her perspective of the US through an imagined 2050.

Review:
The author herself stated in a recent article that she wrote this because she wanted “to see a lesbian of color embark on the adventure of eternal life.” This was something that was hard to find in 1991 when it first came out, and is only a little easier to find even now. There’s more of a twist to this, though, than a Black lesbian vampire.

How vampires work in this story is perhaps the most unique take I’ve read. They usually glamor their sources of blood while they are asleep. They come into their dreams and see something they wish for and leave something behind to help. An example is one time a teenager is hoping to do well on a test, so Gilda clarifies some of his mathematics homework for him. They also don’t use their teeth to draw blood but rather make a slice with a fingernail and then heal the wound magically without a trace. Most fascinatingly, these vampires must always keep their “home earth” close to themselves, or they will lose their powers. They must take large pallets of dirt from their home and sew it into their blankets, clothes, and shoes. One complain I have is that it was unclear to me if this dirt was from where they grew up or from where they were turned. It seems sometimes it’s one and sometimes the other. They also are weakened by all water, not just holy water.

Each of the chapter is set in a different year and place in Gilda’s life. It reads almost like a series of interconnected short stories more than a novel. I was reticent to ever stop in he middle of a chapter. I felt compelled to read each in its entirety in one sitting. This blipping in and out of Gilda’s life helps give the reader a sense of the jarringness of immortality. We just get to know a human, and then they’re gone. But that’s how it is for Gilda too.

This is not an erotic book. Gilda’s maker and another vampire named Bird (who also helps make her) are a couple when we first meet them. Gilda repeatedly becomes infatuated with women, both human and vampire, throughout the book. But we only rarely see any sexual interactions. I’m including even kissing here. The book is less about the sexuality and more about the community formed by queer people, often necessarily in the shadows. The often unrequited yearning. Gilda also has a vampiric encounter with a man that some readers view as sexual. I didn’t read it that way myself. I viewed it as a purely vampiric encounter. But you might feel differently.

Gilda’s perspective as a Black woman is ever-present, as it should be. She is othered by white society even when they don’t sense her vampire nature because of her blackness. But she also finds belonging in a variety of Black communities ranging from rural activists to singing nightclubs. Gilda also later in the book is left wondering how humans can feel such atrocities as slavery are so far in the past when for her it was a blink of an eye. An artful way of getting the reader to question how much time and distance is really between us and our history.

Overall, this is a unique take on vampire lore that centers a Black lesbian. It delivers both fantastic historic fiction and Afrofuturism in the same read. An engaging read for lovers of either.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 252 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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Book Review: A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

October 18, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A woman in 1800s clothing stands in the middle of a picture frame. She holds a skull in one hand and skeletons dance under her. Her face is obscured.

Summary:
You saved my life when I was on the brink of death, and I became your vampire bride. But we’ve lived many centuries past those days in Romania. I think your way of loving might be more than I can bear.

Review:
I picked this up because I heard that in spite of the husband/wife part of the summary that there’s a significant sapphic subplot. I’m not sure I’d call it significant so much as being one of the three parts of the book.

It’s written as a letter from the vampire bride Constanta to her vampire husband. In the first part, we learn how Constanta became a vampire and her early years with him. In the second, he adds a second wife, Magdalena. But this is true polyamory in that everyone sleeps with everyone. In the third part, he adds a husband, Alexi. Again, everyone has sex with everyone, although this is not the amicable threesome (and sometimes twosomes in both combinations) it once was. It’s clear that while the sire is fine with Magdalena and Alexi sleeping together, he’s less ok with Constanta and Alexi.

But what is the plot of the book? It’s basically Constanta realizing over time just how cruel her husband is and trying to decide if she should try to escape. The most unique part of this was the second part where Magdalena and Constanta both feel an immediate attraction to each other and then proceed to form a romantic bond as their husband perpetually abandons them for his research. I don’t say this just because it’s sapphic but rather because I think polyamory as opposed to polygamy has less representation in literature. Not that either have a lot.

I want to be clear this is not erotica. If it wasn’t for all the vampire feeding blood, I’d say it could probably pull off a PG13 rating for the sexual content. A lot occurs off-screen or is only vaguely described. There’s really only one scene that I think might warrant an R rating for the sex. This in fact is not a story about sex but one about many centuries of abuse and how the persons being victimized finally break free. The thing is…I was here for romance. And I wouldn’t say that’s what this is.

The language is overwrought in a self-aware way. Constanta is old world. These are her words. She sounds like an 1800s teenager who takes everything far too seriously and has some hilarious turns of phrase. I’m sure some readers would read this as gorgeous as opposed to silly. When I say overwrought 1800s language, I’m sure you can tell how well that will work for you.

While the book engaged me enough to finish it, here wasn’t enough unique about it to make me rate it above average. I wanted more of what makes this vampire bride different and less of the usual tropes. But if you’re a person who loves Old Europe style vampires and wants a dash of f/f love and polyamory in there, then this will likely work quite well for you.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 248 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Counts For:

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A Very Sapphic Halloween Reading Challenge

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.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 272 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Lucy Checks In by Dee Ernst

Image of a digital book cover. This is drawn in a cartoon style. The back of a woman with long brown hair. We can tell she's gazing ahead of her at two European style buildings, one is covered in vines.

Summary:
Lucia Giannetti needs a fresh start. Once the hotel manager of a glamorous NYC hotel and intimately involved with the hotel’s owner, Lucy had her entire future planned out. But when the owner disappears, taking millions of dollars with him, Lucy’s life as she knows it falls apart.

Two years later, forty-nine years old and unemployed, Lucy takes a job in Rennes, France to manage the Hotel Paradis. She pictures fur quilts and extravagant chandeliers, but what she finds is wildly different. Lucy is now in charge of turning the run-down, but charming hotel into a bustling tourist attraction. Between painting rooms, building a website, and getting to know Bing, the irritatingly attractive artist, Lucy finds an unexpected home. But can she succeed in bringing the Hotel Paradis to its former glory?

Review:
I have a real soft spot for romances whose main character is in a “needs a fresh start” spot in life. I was further intrigued by the age of a protagonist. I can’t remember the last time I saw a main character in a romance in her forties, let alone in her forties without kids.

Lucy has a delightful character arc. She starts off seeming a little high maintenance and self-critical, but then we get some reveals that show valid reasons for her being the way she is currently. Then we see her willingness to adapt and change. And honestly it’s easy to empathize with Lucy. She’s having to almost start over from scratch at 49 for reasons way beyond her control. I suppose one could judge her for dating the owner of the hotel but it’s realistic that a lot of people do date those they work with.

Then there’s the setting. I was at first surprised this wasn’t set in Paris (seems like all of these sorts of books are) but I enjoyed the setting of Rennes. I liked the old hotel, the apartments that were once stables. It was definitely a what a cool place to live vibe. I also think the author handled reminding us of the various languages the characters were speaking like it was a movie while still pretty much always writing in English. It was smoothly done yet necessary, and I appreciated that a big mark in Lucy’s favor for this job to begin with was her fluency in French. Because…not everyone speaks English, people.

Now, I didn’t really get hot and bothered for the romance. I didn’t dislike it either. It just was. It’s reasonably done and charming enough, I suppose, but to me the big sell of the book was the setting much more than the romance. I think I also worry a bit about Lucy’s work life and personal life becoming so entwined yet again. And not just in the romance. She’s got a close relationship with the older woman owner of the hotel too. Did the woman learn nothing from embezzlementgate?

Lucy has a brother with alcoholism. The book handles the relative with kindness, but also there’s constant wine drinking because it’s France. Lucy drinks with lunch and dinner on a seemingly daily basis. It seems like questionable behavior, but she never stops to consider it. Something that I would have hoped she’d have done at some point over the course of the book given her brother. Like even just a hm, maybe I should cut back to one glass of wine with dinner thought toward the end of the book would have been nice.

Overall, imagine this as Emily in Paris but with a 40-something main character who can actually speak French, set in Rennes, and with a focus on hotels/architecture instead of fashion. If that appeals to you, then I encourage you to pick it up.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 288 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)