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5 Sapphic Dark Fantasies for Halloween

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

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

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

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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

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

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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

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

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

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

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

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

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

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

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

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

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

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

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Book Review: Buffalo Is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 272 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Publication Announcement: Short Story “Bostonians Aren’t Friends With Our Neighbors”

Image of a digital book cover. A little girl holds a hand out touching the nose of a dragon with glowing blue eyes. Lava or fire appears to be around them.

I am thrilled to announce that I have a short story in Wyrms: An Anthology of Dragon Drabbles (stories of exactly 100 words) from Shacklebound Books, edited by Eric Fomley.

For $3 digital, $6 print, you get eighty-two stories of dragons, hydras, wyverns, sea serpents, and all other forms wyrms take by authors all over the world! Step into dozens of different fantasy worlds but be careful where you tread, there be dragons here.

Here’s the first line from my drabble. I hope it entices you.

Deadrodents.com said the box on the triple-decker’s porch next door.

page 42

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.”

Publication Announcement: Short Story “The University of Late-Night Moans”

Digital cover of an anthology. A Black person in a gold dress with an ethereal crown stands in front of a pink and purple background.
Cover art by Craig Hale.

I am thrilled to announce that I have a short story coming up in issue 3 of Decoded Pride: A science fiction, fantasy, and horror story-a-day anthology for Pride month!

This is a really cool project. The editors worked hard to select and curate a collection of flash fiction, short stories, longer fiction, and comics by queer and trans authors with queer and trans themes to celebrate Pride month. Have you been frustrated with how corporate Pride has become? Are you a more introverted queer person? Then this is the ideal way to celebrate Pride this year!

The way it works is you pay the $14.99 subscription fee, and then you have access to the website where all the creative works drop each day. In the late summer or early fall, you’ll be sent a color PDF of all the stories plus interviews with all 30 authors (yes, including me!) You can subscribe at any point throughout the month and get retroactive access to the previous stories. After the month is over, you can still purchase the PDF. As a thank you for being one of my supporters, now through June 30th you can get $2 off your purchase with the discount code FrienzNFam at check-out.

My short story will published on Thursday, June 9th. It’s a sapphic fantasy romance. That means expect something supernatural. Expect women loving women. And I promise you a happy ever after. Also, expect some 90s nostalgia.

Here’s the blurb:

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.

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

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Series, #1)

A digital bookcover shows a door in the middle of the forest with forest on both sides. It is a door with no house around it.

Summary:
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care at her Home for Wayward Children understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things. No matter the cost.

Review:
This is the first book in the series but they all also can be read as stand-a-lone stories if you want. One of my siblings-in-law gave me the second book as a gift, and I decided I wanted to read the first book first to ensure I got the greatest enjoyment out of it possible. I felt confident with this decision, because I’ve really enjoyed everything else by Seanan McGuire I’ve read. As expected, this was a fun read.

The worldbuilding is gorgeous and creative. Not just the idea of the doors but also the map of how the other worlds are organized. Stephen King’s other worlds are organized around a tower. These are organized around a compass, similar to those political leaning compass tests, only this is organized on points such as Logic vs Nonsense and Wickedness vs Virtue. The worlds are varied, and so are the children who get drawn in then come back. Although come back is the wrong term for these children. They all want to “go home” to their other worlds. The children who don’t want to go back attend a different boarding school. (Now that’s also a series I’d read, just saying).

I found the plot to be less engaging than the world building. The mystery at the school was both bloodier than I would have preferred and also far too expected and easy to figure out. I viewed the plot as an excuse to continue sojourning in the world.

There is diversity present in the book. Although the main character and owner of the school are both white, Nancy’s roommate is Japanese-American. One of her new friends is Latino. I do wish the races and ethnicities of more of the secondary characters were more clearly stated. There is a trans girl character, who is a strong secondary character with a lot of realistic struggles. Nancy, the main character, is asexual (but romantic), and the word is used. Although I am myself queer and bisexual, I fully admit my understanding of the ace members of our community is less than it might be. I was uncertain about the representation in the book, so I found an ace person’s review. They loved the representation and felt Nancy to be very representative of them.

Some folks complain the book is too short, but largely because they wanted to linger longer. I thought it was just about the right length. I like reading a shorter read sometimes, and this means it’ll be much faster and easier to visit the worlds of the other characters featured in the other entries in the series more in-depth.

Recommended for readers looking for a quick read with a creative and engaging fantasy world. Especially recommended for those looking for asexual and trans representation in their fantasy.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 176 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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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: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Image of a digital book cover. A yellow sky with an orange sun. In front of this on the rise of a hill is an army on horses with one leader in front. The title of the book is She who Became the Sun.

Summary:
In China in 1345, a little peasant girl barely surviving a famine hears her brother will have a great fate but she is fated to nothingness. When their father dies and her brother chooses to die with him, she lays claim to his fate, going to a monastery and pretending to be a boy for survival. When she grows up, she finds herself pursuing her brother’s great fate and clashing repeatedly with Ouyang – a man who survived an order to kill his entire male line by being forcibly turned into a eunuch. As the Mongols and the Nanren clash for dominance in China, Ouyang and the person known as Zhu Chongba find their fates clashing.

Review:
This is being marketed as the queer Mulan, and I just have to say that Mulan was already queer. Li Shang Mulan regardless of what gender she is presenting as. But there’s plenty of room for more than one queer ancient China war drama. 🙂

I loved the beginning of this book. The famine and Zhu’s entire time in the monastery just spoke to me. I was engrossed. But then when Zhu leaves the monastery the tone and setting of the book changed, and it worked less for me. To me the beginning of the book is about choosing your own destiny, and the clash of desire and faith. The end of the book is about being the best warlord with your brains instead of brawn, which just was less compelling to me personally. Actually, I think this quote from the book sums up how Zhu is at the end of the book, even though this is actually Zhu describing someone else:

[T]he ferocious, irreligious joy of a man who has willingly cast aside any chance of nirvana for the sake of his attachment to life.

(location 843)

The fantasy elements of this book include that Zhu and some others can see ghosts – hungry ghosts specifically, which is a Buddhist concept. Leaders also have a mandate from heaven, which presents itself as a visible fire they can summon into their hands. Different leaders have fire of different colors. It’s interesting to note that many sides seem to have a real mandate of heaven. Why is an interesting question that I hope the sequel will explore.

The queer elements in the book include both gender and sexuality. Zhu seems to experience some gender dysphoria – this is not presented simply as a cis woman passing as a man. It’s more complex than that. However, I do wish this was explored more deeply. For example, the omniscient narrator refers to Zhu as “she” regardless of how Zhu seems to feel about their gender at any point. Ouyang is a eunuch, and eunuchs fall under the queer umbrella. Ouyang has romantic feelings for another man. It was unclear to me if these feelings were ever consummated. Zhu falls for a woman, and they have sexual relations onscreen. For me, Ouyang’s relationship was a classic queer tragedy. Zhu’s is more complex, and I’m interested to see where it goes in the sequel.

There is a character who loses a limb in this book. The moment of the limb loss is presented as a turning point for this character. It lets them become who they need to be. I felt negatively about this. It read to me as a bit like disability inspiration p*rn. I understand that, for this character, their relationship with their body is complex. But I wish another way had been found to help the character come into their own rather than this.

Overall, I really enjoyed that this fantasy was set in a culture steeped in Buddhism as a nice change of pace for fantasy. Queer characters are central, rather than as tragic sidekicks. The qualms I had did not keep me from enjoying the book as a whole, and I am interested in its sequel. Recommended to fantasy lovers looking for a change or to those who don’t usually read fantasy but might enjoy it for the representation.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 416 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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

June 22, 2021 3 comments
Digital cover of the book The Queen of the Cicadas / La Reina de las Chicarras. A red silhouette of a woman is against a blue background. A quote reads "Dark, atmospheric, sexy, and dangerous, her fiction bringers readers her unfiltered Latinx essence and a unique pulpy flavor. Her work matters. Read it."   Gabino Iglesias, author of Coyote Songs.

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

Review:

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

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 394 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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