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Book Review: Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Image of a digital book cover. A colored pencil drawing of a Latina woman in a cowboy hat, jeans, and boots riding a light brown horse. Behind her is a white woman with blond hair in a green dress. A hawk flies above them. A Western vista is behind them.

Summary:
In this rollicking queer western adventure, acclaimed cartoonist Melanie Gillman (Stonewall Award Honor Book As the Crow Flies) puts readers in the saddle alongside Flor and Grace, a Latina outlaw and a trans runaway, as they team up to thwart a Confederate plot in the New Mexico Territory. When Flor—also known as the notorious Ghost Hawk—robs the stagecoach that Grace has used to escape her Georgia home, the first thing on her mind is ransom. But when the two get to talking about Flor’s plan to crash a Confederate gala and steal some crucial documents, Grace convinces Flor to let her join the heist.

Review:
This is a graphic novel for readers who love Westerns but are tired of them erasing BIPOC and queer people. In this read you get all the fun of a Western but it’s peopled with both BIPOC and queer people.

The book starts with a stagecoach robbery by Flor (a Latina woman) and her pet hawk. She kidnaps a white damsel (Grace) who turns out to be a young trans woman on the run both to avoid her family’s wish for her to serve in the Confederate army and to seek out performing on the stage. Grace convinces Flor to let her help in a plot to spy on some Confederate documents.

Since this is a short book, there aren’t a ton of characters. It’s mostly the other folks on the stagecoach with Grace (all deliciously hateable), the tailor who helps them get ready for the Confederate gala, and the Confederate gala attendees. This doesn’t leave a ton of room for additional BIPOC in the story, but the tailor is Luis who is Black and completely supportive of Grace.

The book does an artful job of establishing that Grace is trans without ever using the word or deadnaming her. I had been concerned that Grace’s visible depiction might fall into the cringer category of visibly “man in a dress” like in the old movies when male characters dress as women to escape something. This absolutely does not happen with Grace. She simply looks like a larger woman. (Larger than Flor, close in size to the men in the stagecoach). There are also multiple times when the existence of other trans people are established. Luis says Grace isn’t the only larger woman he’s designed for. Flor discusses other women like Grace performing on stage out west.

I enjoyed Flor but wanted a little more backstory on her. What made her start robbing stagecoaches? How did she get the pet hawk? How does she know Luis? I get it she’s a more close-lipped character, but Luis could have dropped a few tidbits about the two of them, and I get the vibe from Grace that she might be the type to be able to lure information out of people with her charm.

The spying plot worked and fit into the small amount of space allotted. I liked that it gave Grace and Flor a reason to team up and showed them as active rather than passive. I did wish for a little more detail in these scenes, though. Specifically, when someone recognizes Grace, what is their relationship to her?

I love the art and thought it worked great for a Western story. Only when I looked it up later did I discover Gillman does everything by hand with colored pencils. Truly amazing and translated into a book that was beautiful to read.

Overall, this was a fun, beautifully drawn, sapphic read with a lot of diversity that establishes trans people as existing in history. It just left me wishing for more – more background and for Flor and Grace’s adventures to continue.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 104 pages – novella

Source: Library

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Book Review: On a Grey Thread by Elsa Gidlow

Image of a digital book cover.Red and pink roses rest against a green background. A black band across the middle has the title in white on it.

Summary:
Published in 1923, this poetry collection was the first in North American history to openly express lesbian desire. Both personal and political, Gidlow’s poems express the poet’s complex feelings as a young woman whose political ideology and sexual identity ran counter to the traditional values of her time.

Review:
For Pride Month, I wanted to push myself a little by reading from a genre I read less often – poetry. I’ve also been striving to connect more with queer history, so I thought this groundbreaking collection was a great match.

The poems are collected into four sections – Youth, Grain and Grapes, Inner Chamber, and In Passing. If you are here for women loving women content…skip to the Inner Chamber section. Although, I am glad I read them all in order, because I do feel like they told a subtle overarching story.

The first poem in the collection beautifully explores the meaning of life and what makes us who we are via beads on a grey thread. Other poems consider the beauty of nature and sadness/loneliness (in a way that reminded me of 90s emo culture). In fact, I think what struck me the most when reading these was just how of the moment and today they felt, in spite of being written almost 100 years ago.

Since the entire collection is out of copyright, let me close my review by sharing my favorite in its entirety.

“Episode”

I have robbed the garrulous streets,
Thieved a fair girl from their blight,
I have stolen her for a sacrifice
That I shall make to this mysteried night.

I have brought her, laughing,
To my quietly sinister garden.
For what will be done there
I ask no man’s pardon.

I brush the rouge from her cheeks,
Clean the black kohl from the rims
Of her eyes; loose her hair;
Uncover the glimmering, shy limbs.

I break wild roses, scatter them over her.
The thorns between us sing like love’s pain.
Her flesh, bitter and salt to my tongue,
I taste with endless kisses and taste again.

At dawn I leave her
Asleep in my wakening garden
(For what was done there
I ask no man’s pardon.)

I hope this review entices you to read some (more) classic queer poetry.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 73 pages – novella

Source: Archive.org

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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Book Review: Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

Image of a digital book cover. A Black teenager with braids holds a bat in front of a train car. Burn Down, Rise Up is written in electric letters over her.

Summary:
For over a year, the Bronx has been plagued by sudden disappearances that no one can explain. Sixteen-year-old Raquel does her best to ignore it. After all, the police only look for the white kids. But when her crush Charlize’s cousin goes missing, Raquel starts to pay attention—especially when her own mom comes down with a mysterious illness that seems linked to the disappearances. Raquel and Charlize team up to investigate, but they soon discover that everything is tied to a viral worldwide game called the Echo Game. If you play it wrong, it can trap you in an echo – a parallel universe based on one of the worst times your particular region has seen.

Review:
I love a horror based around a bunch of people doing something that tempts the supernatural into coming to get them, and then being surprised when it does. (And when I say “love” I mean I will literally throw you out of my house if you say Candyman at a mirror twice). When I saw there was a sapphic version of this trope coming out, you bet I smashed the request button on NetGalley so hard.

The first hurdle any horror like this has to get over is giving us a horrifying scene right off-the-bat that’s scary even though we don’t really know what’s going on. This book does a great job at that. Charlize’s cousin, Cisco, has been missing. He comes back from being missing “wrong” and accidentally gives “something” that’s clearly supernatural to Raquel’s mom, who’s a nurse. This beautifully sets up both Charlize and Raquel to be heavily invested in what exactly is going on in their neighborhood. They used to be close friends but now they’ve drifted to acquaintances, and Raquel has the hots for Charlize. It’s just the right set-up.

The next hurdle the book has to get over is why are the Black kids sneaking out at night to play this viral game tempting the supernatural at 3am? The book takes this head-on with the characters acknowledging doing such a thing doesn’t go with their culture. Charlize and Raquel are motivated to save their family members, but what about Cisco? We learn he befriended a bunch of white theater kids who asked him to come along and do it as part of some theater kids bonding activity. I have to say, as a once upon a time theater kid myself, this sort of thing rang as very true.

So is the horror scary? Yes, largely because it’s starting to reach out into the Bronx even among those who aren’t playing the Echo Game. But I will say, I didn’t think it was terrifyingly scary. If this was a movie, I could sleep after it. Unlike The Ring, which made me terrified of being in the same room with my own television for two weeks. So I’d say it’s moderate on the scary scale. It’s definitely kind of gory, and the peril is real.

The relationships are interesting, realistic, and Raquel has just the right amount of them. She has her best friend, his brother, Charlize, Cisco, her father, and her mother. The fact that she was living with her mother and has to move in with her bachelor pad father while her mother is ill was one of my favorite parts of the book. Her dad clearly loves her and they were absolutely part of each other’s lives before, but there’s a difference between the dad who loyally pays child support who you see a few times a month and the dad you live with. I appreciated how that difference was drawn out, acknowledging the awkwardness without blaming either of them. I also liked how her dad both brought out the Latinx aspect of the story, as well as giving her a direct connection to when the Bronx burned in the 1970s. (This time period, of course, is when the echo draws from).

The Charlize/Raquel situation was cute. I liked how Raquel’s best friend, Aaron, also likes Charlize, and he just wants Raquel to be honest with him about liking her as well. I was a little bit confused about why Raquel has some internalized homophobia making it hard for her to accept that she likes Charlize. It was unclear to me if this was coming from her family (who seemed very accepting) or if it was just worrying how her peers would react or what exactly. I think a richer development of that would have helped make the scenes where Raquel works on accepting herself more powerful.

Overall, this is a fun take on the viral game tempting the supernatural trope. The setting of the Bronx and the main character’s Afro-Latinx culture are both well developed. It’s a medium scary read that will certainly appeal to YA readers.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 352 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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Book Review: Getting Clean with Stevie Green by Swan Huntley

February 22, 2022 Leave a comment
A digital book cover. There is a blue background with a cartoon drawing of a white woman holding a stack of four pillows in front of her face.

Summary:
At thirty-seven, Stevie Green has had it with binge drinking and sleeping with strange men. She’s confused about her sexuality and her purpose in life. When her mother asks her to return to her hometown of La Jolla to help her move into a new house, she’s desperate enough to say yes. The move goes so well that Stevie decides to start her own decluttering business. She stops drinking. She hires her formerly estranged sister, Bonnie, to be her business partner. She rekindles a romance with her high school sweetheart, Brad. Things are better than ever—except for the complicated past that Stevie can’t seem to outrun.

Who was responsible for the high school scandal that caused her life to take a nosedive twenty years earlier? Why is she so secretive about the circumstances of her father’s death? Why are her feelings for her ex-best friend, Chris, so mystifying? If she’s done drinking, then why can’t she seem to declutter the mini wine bottles from her car?

Review:
I smashed the request button on NetGalley when I read this description. A mixture of quit lit (literature about addiction and recovery) and decluttering? Sign me up! And it did not disappoint. In fact, it surprised me with delightful queer content I wasn’t expecting.

It’s important to know that Stevie’s ex-best friend Chris is a woman. Chris also came out in high school as a lesbian around the time of the scandal that so traumatized Stevie. Stevie has also slept with women, although only the men are mentioned in the description. The only hang-ups about Stevie’s sexuality seen in her circle of family, friends, and even lovers, come from Stevie herself. This is a great example of how addiction can freeze someone’s self-awareness and self-acceptance. Stevie began drinking in high school, and it’s a trueism in recovery circles that you freeze at the age of development you were at when you began drinking until you stop. Then you can begin maturing again. So is it a bit frustrating that Stevie is 37 and kind of acting like a teenager? Yes. But is it realistic? Also yes.

When we meet Stevie she is newly sober and running her decluttering business. I loved the depiction of how Type A Stevie is about her days and routines. This is so accurate to early recovery. One of my favorite parts is how she starts every day by standing in a Wonder Woman pose and saying affirmations to herself repeatedly.

How had I become a woman who chanted affirmations to herself while doing this ridiculous pose? Because it was supposed to make me feel better. I would have done anything to feel better.

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Early recovery really is this incredible moment of being willing to do anything to feel better, and this is wonderfully depicted here.

The scenes with Stevie decluttering with her clients also shine. I’m a fan of decluttering YouTube videos and tv shows, and these gave me the same thrill as watching those. I loved seeing the variety of types of clutter the clients had, their personalities, and how Stevie interacted with them. She also quickly ends up working with her sister, Bonnie, who is also going through it after her boyfriend of 15 years left her for a younger woman. Bonnie and Stevie have great sisterly chemistry, and her addition to the business helps keep the pace moving forward.

Ultimately, it’s only when Stevie fully faces both her past and her father’s death that she can really begin to heal and move on. I thought this requirement hit her in the right way and with the right force. The pacing of this book really was quite good. And while there’s always the concern when reading queer lit that there will be a tragic ending, don’t worry, readers, there’s a happy ever after for Stevie. This is truly a lighthearted queer romance that also tackles the serious topic of recovery. It was like eating a salted caramel ice cream – sweet with just the right amount of savory.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 304 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 422 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (Series, #1)

Digital image of the cover of the book Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. A woman's body is in silhouette against the moon. She appears to have wings. Another body is superimposed over hers. A pull quote from Viola Davis is featured stating, "A book that shifted my life...epic, game changing, moving, and brilliant."

Summary:
Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who is immortal who has so far largely passed without notice. But when Doro, a being who maintains his immortality by stealing others’ bodies, discovers her, everything changes. He considers her to be wild seed for his project of gathering together all humans with special powers to breed them to try to create those who can match him. But is Anyanwu already a match for him? And can they ever produce children who are like them?

Review:
The simplest word to describe this book is unexpected. That’s something that’s difficult to achieve in fantasy about immortality, so I was pleasantly surprised.

This book immediately asks the reader to identify with and understand Anyanwu at least a little bit. Unlike in some other fantasies about immortality, she is already immortal when she meets Doro. So the challenge isn’t does she want to be immortal but rather what is it like to be truly seen by someone else? Doro is somehow more frightening than Anyanwu. The reader thus sides with Anyanwu, even though she is also a little bit scary. Anyanwu also says she goes with him to protect her children from him, an emotion it is easy to understand. Thus, the reader develops an ability to see Anyanwu’s viewpoint. When Anyanwu later does certain things that would have seemed shocking, this ability to see her perspective remains.

It is also interesting to see Doro and Anyanwu’s lives placed against a backdrop of slavery. Anyanwu is African. Doro can take the body of anyone he chooses, but he does state his original human body was in Africa. They are aware of slavery and even pull some seed away from being slaves to live in Doro’s villages instead. Doro breeds people regardless of their race. What he is interested in is their abilities. However, slowly the book comes to ask if this is in a way another form of slavery? Doro says the people view him as a god and that is their relationship, but Anyanwu feels differently. That sets up the reader to ask how free are these people in these villages really?

I was also pleasantly surprised by an appearance of queerness in the later half of the book. Anyanwu makes some interesting discoveries about her shapeshifting that leads to some pregnancies and relationships that are decidedly queer in nature. I was glad the book went there but surprised because so often books about shapeshifting and body inhabiting never do cross the line of gender.

Although this is the first book in a series, I felt it stood strongly on its own yet, simultaneously, propelled me to read more. The immortality angle is what makes it work this way. This is a solid chapter in the lives of Anyanwu and Doro. Yet clearly their story isn’t over, and there are new people who are going to encounter and challenge them. It was fantasy that felt possible and challenging simultaneously. Recommended to fantasy readers looking for a fresh take on immortality.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer 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.

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