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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: 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.

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: 352 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.