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Book Review: A Restless Truth by Freya Marske (Series, #2)

December 5, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A green background with blue flowers coming out surround two women in silhouette. They are in 1900s period costume and are in yellow. An empty bird cage hangs above them.

A murder mystery on an ocean liner cruising from the US to the UK in the early 1900s being solved by two women – one of whom is a magician. Both of whom are into each other. Things get spicy…and dangerous.

Summary:
When Maud voyages from the US to the UK on RMS Lyric, she finds a dead body, a disrespectful parrot, and a beautiful stranger in Violet Debenham, who is everything—a magician, an actress, a scandal—Maud has been trained to fear and has learned to desire. Surrounded by the open sea and a ship full of loathsome, aristocratic suspects, they must solve a murder and untangle a conspiracy that began generations before them.

Review:
I’m not sure how I ended up with an advanced copy of the second book in The Last Binding series – when I hadn’t read the first. I’m assuming either I requested it, not realizing it was a second book or it was sent to me based on my reading history with the assumption it didn’t matter. The series aspect is less “the story happens in a row” and more “everyone featured is living in these alternate history version of the early 1900s plus magic.” Apparently the first book in the series features a m/m pairing (Amazon, Bookshop.org), whereas this one stars a f/f pair.

I didn’t struggle too much to figure out what’s going on. The author does refrain from explaining much for the first chapter or two. But that’s because the book starts essentially in media res – with the murder happening. After that has occurred we slow down for a minute, and there’s a refresher of the rules of the universe. It didn’t take me too long to catch up and get into it.

One thing that did surprise me was the spice level of this romance. I was expecting very light spice with most encounters occurring off-screen after a fade to dark. That is not the case. Things get very explicit. Let’s put it this way….at least one of the scenes would have had to have been cut to manage to squeak in an R rating for explicitness. There are three scenes total, and each takes up a whole chapter. To me, this much spice feels like erotica jammed into a romance. I prefer the two separately.

The pairing here is grumpy/cheery. Violet is the grumpy, and I adored her. I liked Maud too, but Violet was someone I could see a whole book’s perspective on. Perhaps I’m biased since Violet is bisexual and the quintessential theater geek. I just really enjoyed her. But Maud is nice enough too. I liked their pairing well enough.

The mystery is substantial enough to hold up a plot. I enjoyed the animals and sneaking around the boat. I did think a bit more attention could have been paid to the class and race issues that sort of came up and got a bit glossed over. I don’t expect preaching in a book but it might have been interesting to at least have Maud and Violet see the second or third class areas of the ship on one of their many attempts to outrun their pursuers. (Somehow they always seemed to end up in the cargo hold instead). Maud talks with disdain of her parents only giving charity when others can see it, but Maud herself doesn’t seem to do much giving either. Violet, at least, offers to become the patron of an all-Black opera. (The real history of Black opera.)

Overall, I liked getting to know Violet, and it was an interesting world to visit. But the spice level was far too hot for what I personally prefer in romance, sliding more into an erotica category in my opinion. It also seems to me that the first book may have been quite different from this one, so readers of the first should come in aware of these differences.

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!

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 388 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

2022 Award Eligibility

November 25, 2022 Leave a comment
2022 Award Eligibility is in black against a blue background. Four digital cover images surround it. One says Decoded with a Black woman in a gold gown in front of a purple background. One says Solarpunk Magazine Lunarpunk Special over an image of a river in a spaceship. One says Vol 3 is Here! justfemmeanddandy.com with a horse, wolf, and a cat in fashionable clothes eating vegetables. One shows a dragon leaning down toward a little girl who touches its nose. Wyrms is in gold above the dragon's head.

I have four pieces eligible for awards during the 2022 award season in three categories.

All of these were first published during 2022.

For the paid stories, I am able to provide author copies for award consideration purposes only. Please email me at mcneil.author [at] gmail.com to request one.

Short Stories

The University of Late-Night Moans” in Decoded Pride: A science fiction, fantasy, and horror story-a-day anthology for Pride month
June 9, 2022, issue 3, $14.99 digital
fantasy romance (sapphic / wlw)
It’s 1998, and Leonora’s friend Virginia is helping her investigate the moans coming from the cemetery across the train tracks from her dorm.

Sister Prudence on the Beach” in Solarpunk Magazine
Issue #6, Lunarpunk Special, Nov/Dec 2022, $6 digital
hopepunk (speculative scifi)
Sister Prudence settles down for her full moon meditation on the beach. But a young one passing by interrupts not just her meditation but perhaps her retirement as well.

Drabble

Bostonians Aren’t Friends With Our Neighbors” in Wyrms: An Anthology of Dragon Drabbles
July 1, 2022, $3 digital, $6 print
fantasy
The first line is “Deadrodents.com said the box on the triple-decker’s porch next door.”

Creative Nonfiction

These Boots Were Made for Who?” in Just Femme & Dandy
July 4, 2022, issue 3, free
digital magazine version (page 105) or html/accessible version
literary fashion magazine through a queer lens
I explore how my favorite pair of thrifted boots helped me develop my queer, bisexual fashion sense and sustained me throughout the pandemic.

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.

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!

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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.

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!

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 248 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Counts For:

A light green background. There is a border made up of books and jack-o-lanterns carved into smiles. The heading "A Very Sapphic Halloween Reading Challenge" is centered with a photograph of a Black and a white woman kissing. Under the photo it says "Hosted by opinionsofawolf.com @opinionsofawolf"
A Very Sapphic Halloween Reading Challenge

Book Review: In the Event of Love by Courtney Kae

Image of a digital book cover. This is a cartoon style drawing Pine trees make up the background. On the left is a blond white woman in a pink coat, torn jeans, and knee high boots with a cowboy hat. On the right is a brunette woman in a red flannel shirt, khakis, and work boots, holding an axe on a stump. There's a Christmas wreath behind her.

Summary:
With her career as a Los Angeles event planner imploding after a tabloid blowup, Morgan Ross isn’t headed home for the holidays so much as in strategic retreat. Breathtaking mountain vistas, quirky townsfolk, and charming small businesses aside, her hometown of Fern Falls is built of one heartbreak on top of another . . .

Take her one-time best friend turned crush, Rachel Reed. The memory of their perfect, doomed first kiss is still fresh as new-fallen snow. Way fresher than the freezing mud Morgan ends up sprawled in on her very first day back, only to be hauled out via Rachel’s sexy new lumberjane muscles acquired from running her family tree farm.

When Morgan discovers that the Reeds’ struggling tree farm is the only thing standing between Fern Falls and corporate greed destroying the whole town’s livelihood, she decides she can put heartbreak aside to save the farm by planning her best fundraiser yet. She has all the inspiration for a spectacular event: delicious vanilla lattes, acoustic guitars under majestic pines, a cozy barn surrounded by brilliant stars. But she and Rachel will ABSOLUTELY NOT have a heartwarming holiday happy ending. That would be as unprofessional as it is unlikely. Right?

Review:
This is a thoroughly queer holiday romance for your holiday needs. It has the returning to my small town from the big city to try to save a small business trope. It also has the second chance love trope.

The two main characters in this sapphic romance are BOTH (!) bisexual (and say the word), which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a romance. There’s a secondary male character who I think is bisexual, although it’s possible he’s gay and has dated women in the past (no one ever says which). There’s another secondary gay character, and a trans woman of color. The owner of the business Morgan works for is a woman of color. A tertiary character is a woman of color married to a Jewish man. Chrismukkah happens briefly. There’s also a pine tree decorated for a mix of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The sex scenes are steamy and on-screen (all f/f), and there were at least three? Maybe more? I lost count. There’s also one ahem, self-love scene, which I honestly skimmed over because that’s not something I’m personally into reading. I appreciate that it did move the plot forward and wasn’t pointless though. (The character essentially clears her head in this way and then is able to solve a problem she’s been puzzling over).

The one thing I didn’t like was how alcohol is handled in this book. Rachel (the love interest)’s dad has alcoholism. That’s absolutely fine to include. In fact, it’s generally something I’m happy to see. But the representation of this struck false. The main thing that really bothered me is how Rachel interacts with alcohol herself. The book establishes that she’s traumatized by her dad’s alcoholism. It tore the family apart in high school. He’s been in and out of rehab that her and her brother pay for. Her mom left the family after Rachel (the youngest) graduated high school. Rachel routinely drops by her dad’s apartment (that she and her brother pay for) to check for signs of alcohol. YET she STILL drinks regularly. Not occasionally. Regularly. Most people I know who’ve seen this much of the negative impacts of alcohol won’t even allow it in their homes, let alone go out drinking themselves regularly.

Plus, there’s the whole instigation event to Morgan coming back to Fern Falls. (I don’t consider this a spoiler because it happens in chapter one). She gets wasted out at a bar and accidentally kisses the fiancé of someone whose wedding she’s organizing. He’s “in disguise” because he has a hoody on, but we all know she’d have recognized him if she wasn’t drunk. Anyway, everyone knows about this because the news wrote it up. We know Rachel knows about it. She still goes for Morgan. No way. No adult child of an alcoholic would set themselves up like that. I overlooked it because it’s a cheesy romance, but this is not a realistic depiction of an adult child of an alcoholic who’s actively engaged in their recovery. Adult children of alcoholics tend to fall either into the camps of also alcoholics themselves or sober. Rachel falls into neither. I feel weird complaining about realism in a holiday romance novel, but this is real life for a lot of us, and I disliked it being used as a plot device poorly. Alcoholism is serious, and Rachel wouldn’t be casually getting drunk with some love interest who’s only home because she became a hashtag while doing something drunk. In fact, I think this was a missed opportunity for some real bonding. They could have been at a town event and both noticed they were drinking hot chocolate. Rachel reveals the stuff about her dad. Morgan reveals she’s decided to dial it way back with the alcohol after possibly losing her career on that night out. Instant believable bond. But no….they just share spiked drinks.

All of that said, I still gave it four stars because this is a fun holiday romance. It’s not supposed to be that serious! And the bisexual rep is so uncommon and needed. I just wish the alcoholism/adult children of alcoholics rep was just as well done.

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: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Get the Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide
A beautifully graphic designed 2 page PDF that contains: 1 icebreaker, 9 discussion questions arranged from least to most challenging, 1 wrap-up question, and 3 read-a-like book suggestions
View a list of all my Discussion Guides.

Publication Announcement: Nonfiction “These Boots Were Made for Who?”

A purple background with an arch of the words "Vol. 3 is here!" There's a green background arch with three humanoid animals eating vegetables (mostly carrots) together. They are a wolf, a horse, and a cat. justfemmeanddandy.com is across the bottom in yellow and black.

I am thrilled to announce the publication of my first nonfiction piece in Just Femme & Dandy – a biannual literary arts magazine on fashion for and by queer trans, two-spirit, non-binary, and intersex people.

This magazine is free to read in two different formats.

Here’s a blurb about my piece.

“These Boots Were Made for Who?” explores how my favorite pair of thrifted boots helped me develop my queer, bisexual fashion sense and sustained me throughout the pandemic.

Please be sure to check out my Publications Page for my other work.

Decoded Pride Issue 3 Wrap-Up

Digital art of a cemetery with a hand shining a flashlight onto a gravestone.
This beautiful art that ran with my story is by Sara Century.

If you missed my announcement on May 30th, this month my short story “The University of Late-Night Moans” was part of Decoded Pride. It’s a story-a-day anthology of queer science fiction, fantasy, and horror by queer authors. Throughout the month on twitter, I’ve been maintaining a thread of my favorite line (or small screenshot, in the case of comics) from each story. I wanted to give that thread a more permanent place here.

You can still buy access to the anthology, even though the month is over. Plus your subscription will get you access to the full-color, pdf version coming out later this summer or early fall, which will include interviews with all the authors (including me!)

Date Story Title Author (links to their website or social media) My fave line (or image if a comic)
1 Ode to After Eulogies Remy Chartier “if she’d marked even just the follow-through of every impulse to marry the wonder that was Char, her hands would be too heavy with rings to flex her fingers”
2 Christ-like Leo D. Martinez “Your light is unwilling to fade, determined to exist”
3 The Vetala of Crystal Vellam Inlet Simo Srinivas “ “You have brought plague to the city.”
“It is the city,” the vetala said, “that has brought plague to us.” “
4 The Wildest Dream S.M. Hallow and Izzy Singer
5 Invidia Christina Wilder “My fixation on Adriana became a craving to feel her skin as my own, rather than feel it against mine. I wanted to claim her completely.”
6 WE ARE ROBOT Katlina Sommerberg “There is no room for aberration, but that is our only desire.”
7 The Prophet from Seventrees Lowry Poletti “The burrow becomes a tunnel of tree roots knotted like threads on a loom.”
8 The Agents of CLAW Save Christmas Jeffrey Brown
9 The University of Late-Night Moans Amanda McNeil (me!) “Do I look like I’m in hell?”

(Also, check out the promo reel I made over on Instagram.)

10 Platinum Venus Illimani Ferreira “If there was one thing I knew about him it was that he wasn’t the type to save anything flammable from burning, no matter if it was fuel or a reputation.”
11 Pepper Honey and Cedar Smoke K.S. Walker “Katherine had a long list of grievances to attend to. She repeated them nightly like a prayer.”
12 All Shall Know Their Appointed Time Lisa M. Bradley “The Mothman and myna know their appointed times.”
13 The Mark Sarah Bat “I’m tired of only ever giving love to others. I’d rather feel it for myself.”
14 A Wolf in the Woods Robin Quinn “I have simply grown unfamiliar with touch that is intended to comfort instead of harm.”
15 Incident Report Sarah Loch
Not a quote, but the feature that this archival style short story had the manager’s email signature update to what crisis book she was currently reading.
16 The Bleeding God Lindsay King-Miller “And they loved each other with a passion as hot as the water that bleeds from beneath the sands.”
17 Suspension K.T. Roth “And what … life unenrolled us because of inactivity on our accounts?”
18 Punk Rock Lesbians from Beyond the Grave Darci Meadows “The crackle of electricity filled the solstice sky as the eerie tune played out, and on the Westbridge curve a hand burst forth from the loose dirt”
19 A Date to Remember Glenda Poswa “My entire being was simply an extension of the part of me that mattered most to her — my shoulder.”
20 Nebula Akil Wingate “This is the beginning of vengeance. So let it roll off me like molting skin.”
21 Nothing to Nowhere and Back Ciko Sidzumo “I needed air. I needed movement. I needed something. Something more than release. Something less than freedom.”
22 Parasite Callie Cameron “For the longest time, I was what it wanted me to be. My own self was buried under its desires.”
23 Hands, Heart, Hunger V. Astor Solomon “It’s not dignified, she would say. The drums were not for girls like her, she was not meant to be the backbone for someone else.”
24 The Syncerus Legend Maurice Moore “I don’t remember being hunted by anyone during my rituals Auntie.
Paulie: Yes, but we are goin according tah de Heaux Tales prophecies bout de last calf’s transition.”
25 When Day Becomes Night RENEGAEDZ
26 Dust in the Barn Elinora Westfall “the broken arms and legs from one glass of wine too many that saw those same shadows reach out and grab her, crush her, slither into her mouth, her nose”
27 Devour Me Sarah Edmonds “Zoe couldn’t bring herself to take back her request and she hated herself for that.”
28 Like Cursive Cameron E Quinn “the surface tension we’ve sustained over months of proximity broken like a wave”
29 Kitty’s Gas Station Avra Margariti “Kitty listens to Avery blabber about anything and everything as she fixes them a bowl of soup. The white noise is strangely soothing.”
30 These Whispering Remains Izzy Wasserstein “Even when she was at her worst — fifteen was a hell of a year — the reward of having her in my life was more than worth the fear.”

Book Review: Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair (Series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A Black teenage girl with a fro and a bright head band holds her hands around her mouth accentuating it. The title of the novel comes out of her mouth as a speech bubble.

Summary:
Set on Chicago’s Southside in the mid-to-late 60s, following Jean “Stevie” Stevenson, a young Black woman growing up through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Stevie longs to fit in with the cool crowd. Fighting her mother every step of the way, she begins to experiment with talkin’ trash, “kicking butt,” and boys. With the assassination of Dr. King she gains a new political awareness, which makes her decide to wear her hair in a ‘fro instead of straightened, to refuse to use skin bleach, and to confront prejudice. She also finds herself questioning her sexuality. As readers follow Stevie’s at times harrowing, at times hilarious story, they will learn what it was like to be Black before Black was beautiful.

Review:
After reading Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (review) and finding myself disappointed with how it handled race, I intentionally looked for older classics of LGBTQIA+ lit written by Black authors. (As a starting place. I intend to continue this searching with other BIPOC groups). In my search I found this book listed as an own voices depiction of a queer young Black woman in the South Side of Chicago. My library had a digital copy, so I was off.

First published in 1995, this is certainly an own voices book. The author grew up in Chicago in the same time period as Stevie, and that authenticity really shines through. The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 (spring 1965 to summer 1967), Part 2 (fall 1967 to fall 1968), and Part 3 (fall 1969 to spring 1970). Part 1 begins in Stevie’s last year of middle school. It establishes the systemic racism Stevie and her family live with that the Civil Rights movement that Stevie will later become involved in in high school. It also demonstrates Stevie’s difficult relationship with her mother. In Part 2, Stevie enters high school, Dr. King is assassinated, and Stevie starts to push back on racism and colorism. In Part 3, Stevie starts to question her sexuality and also the lack of interracial friendships and relationships she sees among her friends and family.

In some ways this was a tough book to read. It pulls no punches about what life was like for a young Black girl at this time. Although it always pains me to read about racism and colorism, there was an extra twinge in reading this because Stevie is just such an immediately likable little girl with a protective mother. The book opens with Stevie asking her mother what a virgin is (because a boy at school asked her if she was one), and her mother not wanting to tell her. This reminded me of all the conversations about Black girls being forced to grow up too fast and letting them stay the little girls they are. Although I advocate for frank talks about sexuality with questioning children, I also understood her mother’s impulse to keep Stevie little just a while longer.

Stevie’s sexuality is left open-ended in this book, in spite of my finding it on a list of lesbian fiction originally. Essentially the idea is posited that sometimes adolescents feel confused only to realize later they’re straight. I wondered if this is what happens with Stevie so peaked at the sequel. (spoiler warning!) Apparently in the sequel Stevie identifies as bisexual. This thrilled me, because there’s so little representation of bisexual folks in literature, but also because I felt a bit of a twinge of recognition when reading about Stevie’s confusion in the book. Part of why she’s so confused about if she’s straight or a lesbian is because the answer is neither. It was a great depiction.

I did feel the book ended kind of abruptly. It’s definitely a bit of a plot hanger that leaves you yearning for the sequel. Not in an uncomfortable way but more in a I want to see Stevie finish growing up way. Plus, it’s the start of the 1970s, and that’s such a fun time period to read about.

Overall, this own voices book gives a realistic yet fun depiction of growing up Black in the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. If you’re coming for the queer content, hang in there, it shows up in Part 3. A great way to diversify your reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Get the Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide
A beautifully graphic designed 2 page PDF that contains: 1 icebreaker, 9 discussion questions arranged from least to most challenging, 1 wrap-up question, and 3 read-a-like book suggestions
View a list of all my Discussion Guides.

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!

Book Review: Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune

Image of a digital book cover. A four story home built like jenga stands in front of a woods where a shadow of a deer with antlers can be seen. The title of the book is in yellow font.

Summary:
When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead. Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

Review:
I preordered this because of how much I loved another Klune book that I read earlier this year – The House in the Cerulean Sea (review). I just did not want to have to wait through the line at the library for a copy of this one. So maybe my expectations were a bit high for this after that. Maybe I would have liked this better if I hadn’t loved that one so much. But I do feel decidedly ho-hum about it.

Here’s what I did enjoy about it. The main character is a bisexual man. We don’t see that often in literature. And the representation of male bisexuality is well done. The setting and feel of the book is just plain cozy. I loved the tea shop, and how it’s described. I would want to go there for tea for sure. It was soothing to visit, in spite of being populated by ghosts and having a general ambiance of being in touch with the dead. The cover really beautifully represents the tea shop. It was a setting I wanted to soak into.

So what turned me off? I feel a bit awkward talking about this as the author states in the afterword that writing this book was part of his own grief process after losing someone. But I am also a person who has gone through grief for someone close to me, and I just have to say that this vision of the afterlife just didn’t work for me. I found it quite sad, actually. I got the vibe I was supposed to feel at least a little hopeful from it but I didn’t. I don’t like that there’s jobs and management. I didn’t like that the supernatural creature in management asserts there’s no god. (Kind of confusing for a setting that’s entirely about a mystical afterlife?)

My other issue with the book was with the main character Wallace’s character development. He was a jerk in his life and learns to do better in his afterlife. I didn’t find the transformation realistic or believable. It’s like one minute he’s the guy heartlessly firing someone in the first chapter and the next he’s this selfless ghost. What happened that made him change? It just didn’t track for me. And that made it quite difficult for me to care about his storyline. I read about it because I wanted to hang out in the tea shop but not because I cared about Wallace.

So if you’re ok with the depiction of an afterlife that’s managed like a department store and an extremely rapid turnaround of character, you’ll probably really like this book. The cozy setting, and the bisexual male representation are big pluses also.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 373 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

July 13, 2021 3 comments
Picture of a digital book cover. A red-tinged foggy photo of a black gate into a university campus. The title of the book - They Never Learn - is imposed over the gate in white font.

Summary:
Scarlett Clark is an exceptional English professor. But she’s even better at getting away with murder. Every year, she searches for the worst man at Gorman University and plots his well-deserved demise. But as she’s preparing for her biggest kill yet, the school starts probing into the growing body count on campus. Determined to keep her enemies close, Scarlett insinuates herself into the investigation and charms the woman in charge, Dr. Mina Pierce.

Meanwhile, Gorman student Carly Schiller is just trying to survive her freshman year – and her crush on her roommate, Allison. When Allison is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly becomes obsessed with making the attacker pay.

Review:
This felt like a woman-centered, queer Dexter, and I really enjoyed it.

The book seems straight-forward at first, but midway there is a plot twist that made me make the shocked Pikachu face. From there on, the plot just kept surprising me. In a good way. It’s not exactly what it seems it might be at first.

Although my own ethics don’t agree with revenge seeking, this is just the right mix of campy social commentary and revenge violence to work for me. I was able to view it as a cautionary tale of what could happen if we don’t start working to solve the academia culture that breeds violence against women. There are certain moments when the tide could have been turned if someone, anyone, had listened to the violated women. To me, this is what the takeaway from the book really is supposed to be.

For me, the queer content was delightful. There are multiple bisexual women characters. This means, instead of suffering from tokenism, bisexual characters get to come into full expressions of themselves. The word bisexual is used frequently in the book (or the short version bi). There are even multiple coming out stories present in the book.

I read this in audiobook format, and the narration of both voices was well done. It was easy to tell them apart but also not jarring to switch back and forth. I also thought both actresses did a solid job with accents.

A quick content warning that sexual assault, violence and murder are all described on-screen in this book.

Overall, the plot compelled and surprised me, and the characters were engaging with multiple different bisexual women present. A delightful addition to the thriller genre.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 378 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Audible

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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