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Posts Tagged ‘queer’

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: 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: 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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Book Review: The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes

Digital cover of the book "The Deep" by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes. A mermaid swims among what appear to be whales.

Summary:
Yetu is the historian for her people – the mermaid descendants of pregnant enslaved African women thrown overboard from slave-ships before they could give birth. As the historian, Yetu holds the painful memories of her people, helping them to experience them once a year. But the pain of holding the memories is more burdensome for Yetu than for previous historians, as she is more sensitive than any historian before her. One year, in the middle of the history ceremony, she flees for the surface in an act of self-preservation. Can she both preserve herself and not abandon her people?

Review:
This book wowed me, taking my breath away from start to finish. If you know you like mermaid stories and want a fresh take on them, just go pick this up immediately.

The number of authors is large because this book was inspired by a song by the hip-hop group, .clipping. I love that the song authors gave permission to Rivers Solomon to write this book inspired by the song, and Solomon in turn credited them for the book. It’s a beautiful collaboration, and the song is well-worth the listen.

No one ever says explicitly that Yetu is neurodiverse, but it’s clear that she is. Her neurodiversity both made her a candidate to be the historian but also made the task soul-crushing and life-destroying for her. I love that no one in the book ever decides that Yetu is the one at fault for this. In other words, Yetu is not blamed for this problem, rather the culture is questioned and it is wondered how sustainable this model is if it doesn’t work for everyone in the culture. Similarly, although Yetu on some level wants to break fully away from her society, she also feels a responsibility to them and wrestles with how to be loyal to both them and herself. The questions that Yetu asks herself in this process struck me as so poignant and painfully real.

Was there anything about her that wasn’t a performance for others’ gratification?

(location 17%)

Is this my curse? To be unfathomable? 

(location 58%)

But this isn’t just a book about a culture being a space for those both neurotypical and neurodiverse, it’s also a myth that demonstrates the role of intergenerational trauma. It shows intergenerational trauma rather than telling, and that is powerful.

As with all of Rivers Solomon’s work, there is also queer content in this book. There is gender fluidity (in the mermaids) and a queer relationship between Yetu and a two-leg. I thought this was one of the more artful relationships between a mermaid and a land dweller I’ve seen.

Recommended for readers looking for Black mermaids, a neurodiverse main character, and/or a queer relationship between a mermaid and a land dweller.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Cover of the book "Sorrowland."

Summary:
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?

Review:
Another Rivers Solomon book was my favorite read of last year (An Unkindness of Ghosts, review), so when I saw their new book come available on NetGalley – featuring a religious, Black Power compound – I requested it immediately and was thrilled to receive a copy. Like all of Rivers Solomon’s work this book is a gorgeous, intertwining mixture of compelling and challenging.

I was startled by the focus on pregnancy and mothering at the beginning of the book. It hadn’t been the focus of the other Rivers Solomon books I’ve read, and I must admit as a person who has never been pregnant or a mother myself, I always struggle a bit more to connect to these characters. And, indeed, by the end of the book it was not Vern as mother I connected to but rather Vern as a person caught in a complex web of the world as we know it with her ability to right wrongs and change the future limited. That twist in the gut of being caught inside of something much bigger than yourself, that I was able to relate to.

Who cared who knew if the knowing didn’t prevent future occurrences?

location 5089

The fantastical elements are immediately engaging – beautiful and grotesque. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say her transformation took my breath away in a manner that reminded me of my feelings watching Season 1 of Hannibal. I mean that as a complement. It’s a fantasy that both feels like a fantasy and also real and leaves one wondering if Vern is right in the head or not? Can the world really work like this? What is happening to her?

The social commentary in this book is astute and apt without being preachy. Characters say what they say because their very lives have lived it – these are their experiences and real feelings. What may to some readers seem the most out there about the book can easily be traced to real occurrences in US history. It’s not far-fetched but one hopes its realness will reach more people because of how it is couched in fantasy.

There is rich queer content in this book, both in the sense of gender and in the sense of sexual relationships. There is two sex scenes, one of which I would consider explicit with people of multiple genders participating. However, contrary to how some booksellers are listing it, I absolutely would not call it “er*tica.” This is a serious fantasy book about issues of justice that just happens to have queer characters have sex “on screen” twice. Queer sex is not automatically “er*tica.”

With regards to other representation, there are many Black and two Indigenous (Lakota) people. Two characters have albinism, and this book eloquently depicts the visual impairments that come with that.

Overall, this book delivers what I have come to expect from a Rivers Solomon book – an engaging fantastical imagining with queer content and different abilities represented that draws attention to social issues. Readers who are able to keep an open mind to the book potentially not going the places they were anticipating or hoping for but who are willing to let the book lead where it may will enjoy this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (Series, #1)

Cover of the book The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Summary:
Chih, a non-binary cleric, is on a walking journey when they meet an elderly woman, Rabbit, with a story to tell. Chih ends up staying and listening to Rabbit’s tale while cataloging the archives of her things. It slowly is revealed just how much of history Rabbit was quietly witness to and participant of.

Review:
The summary I read was nothing like the one I wrote above and, therefore, I was under the misimpression from the combination of the summary and the title that this was a magical realism book featuring an actual rabbit. I also didn’t know how each chapter would start with essentially an archives finding aid that Chih is writing. There was a time in my life when I wrote finding aids for work, and I must be honest – I didn’t enjoy it. The combination of these two things didn’t put me in a great headspace for this book. However, I do think it’s a good read when it finds its audience, and that’s what I’m hoping to do here.

This book features a non-binary main character whose sidekick is a fabulous talking bird. Female/female love is also well-represented here. It is set in a fantasy world inspired by Asian period dramas with dashes of fantasy (like the talking bird). The entire premise revolves around respecting and listening to an elder – treating her as important simply because she is elderly. It of course then turns out that she has a pivotal role in history, but Chih would have never known that if they hadn’t listened to her. Those who love the history of items will also likely really enjoy reading the descriptors of Rabbit’s possessions at the start of each chapter. While this is a short book (novella length), it is the first in a series, so you can visit its world, and, if you like it, you can keep on going with the rest of the series.

Recommended to those looking for a fantasy with an Asian period drama fantasy written by an own voices author with a dash of magical realism and queerness.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 112 pages – novella/short nonfiction

Source: Library

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Book Review: Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden

February 2, 2021 2 comments
Cover of the book

Summary:
A scifi, queer version of The Little Mermaid that wonders what happens after Ariel leaves the ocean?

In this version, Ariel is Atuale. Eric is Saareval. The sea witch is Yanja. The land folk find themselves the victim of a deadly disease that Atuale is immune to thanks to Yanja’s genetic engineering that let her switch from sea dwelling to land dwelling. She seeks out Yanja who takes her on an interplanetary trip to find help from other humanoids with more advanced technology than their own.

Coming February 23, 2021.

Review:
When I heard a queer scifi version of The Little Mermaid, I couldn’t hit the request button on NetGalley fast enough, which I point out to say, perhaps my expectations may have been a little too high.

This is a novella and so the world-building is tight not deep. In spite of this, I did feel I was able to quickly catch on to the world, but I suppose I might not feel that way if I wasn’t already a big reader of scifi. Its world isn’t that unique for scifi. Gene-edited humanoids live on various planets. There are some more fully alien species. Each planet has its own culture and problems, etc… I like that the gene-editing explains why the “sea witch” was able to move Atuale from the ocean dwelling to land dwelling. Yanja is less a sea witch and more a rogue sea scientist, which is neat.

The queer representation in this book is that Yanja was in a female body when Atuale lived in the ocean, and they were lovers. When Atuale seeks Yanja out again, Yanja is now in a male body. Saareval is male. So Atuale is bisexual and Yanja is trans. I appreciated how rapidly Atuale accepted Yanja’s new gender. There were no deadnaming issues as Yanja kept the same name throughout. I was disappointed in the representation of Atuale, though, mainly because I think one particular plot point falls into stereotypes of bisexual people. I wish a more creative approach to the plot was taken. It felt like a stereotypical and easy way through the story rather than a thoughtful one.

Personally, I struggled a bit to want to read this because I wasn’t expecting the future pandemic plot and that was just a bit too real for me right now. Perhaps other readers will find it comforting to see a pandemic being addressed in scifi, though. You know your own potential reaction the best.

I also want to offer the trigger warning that there is miscarriage in a flashback.

Overall, this novella has fun world building with a plot that looks at what happens after the happily ever after in The Little Mermaid. There is trans and bisexual representation, although the latter falls into stereotypes. Readers looking for a merger of The Little Mermaid with scifi and a scifi interplanetary approach to a pandemic are likely to enjoy this quick read.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 112 pages – novella/short nonfiction

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling (Series, #1)

January 26, 2021 Leave a comment

Summary:
Hannah loves her life in Salem, Massachusetts – working at the Fly By Night Cauldron store selling witchy items while secretly being the real deal herself – an Elemental witch. She’s about to enter her senior year of high school and things are a bit complicated of course – there’s her ex-girlfriend, Veronica, and fellow Elemental to deal with and the fact that her best friend is a Reg (non-witch) and can’t know. But when an end of year party ends with a blood ritual, Hannah becomes convinced there’s a dangerous Blood Witch in town, and she wants to find her before it’s too late. Plus there’s the cute ballerina, Morgan, she’s trying to date.

Review:
If you’re looking for queer representation in your YA fantasy, this book is here for you. Hannah is a lesbian, her coworker at the Cauldron is a gay trans man (in his first year of college), and Morgan is bisexual. The queer characters aren’t perfect, and they do gently educate each other with people apologizing to each other and strengthening friendships. I love how realistic that is. It’s not a fantasy land of everyone just perfectly knowing exactly what the right thing is to say, but it is a world of mutual respect and trying to be there for each other and correct mistakes. Speaking as a bisexual woman, I found the representation of Morgan accurate and kind, which is more than I can say about a lot of bisexual representation in literature.

The plot is less gentle and feel-good than you might expect. There is more violence and even death than I was expecting based on the plot summary and the fact that it’s the first book in a series. If you’re thinking about this one, know that you will be getting a mixture of feel-good and real danger. This is also definitely a book that’s setting up the next book in the series. I immediately put the next book on hold in the library, and kind of wished I’d done it sooner so I could have read them one right after the other.

While there are witches who are Black and People of Color in the book, they all seem to come from outside of Salem. While it is true that Salem is 70.8% white and non-Hispanic (Data USA), I think even if one was using the argument that Salem is very white in real life, the lack of People of Color inside of Salem in the book isn’t accurate. I also think, personally, that we have a responsibility in literature but especially in YA where we’re trying to help youth feel seen and heard, to depict all types of diversity, not just diversity of the queer spectrum.

If you or someone you’re giving book recommendations to is looking for a YA book rich in fantasy and queer characters, this may be the right read. I would recommend being prepared to have a conversation about why greater diversity matters and ensure the reader is ok with some violence (not just of the magic kind). I’d also be prepared to just pick up both books right away as this one really leads right to the next one.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Announcement: I Am Open to Review Requests Now Through December 30th for Review in 2016

Image of confettiHooray!!

I am happy to announce that as of now I am open to review requests for books to be reviewed in 2016!!!

Now through December 30th, feel free to fill out the submission form if you are interested in being reviewed right here on Opinions of a Wolf at some point during 2016.

Here’s how it’s going to work:

  1. You lovely indie authors and indie publishers read my review policies to determine if your book is a good match for me.
  2. If it is, fill out the submission form.  I do NOT accept submissions via comments or emails.
  3. Between December 1st and 30th, I go over the submissions and determine which ones I will accept.  The number I accept will depend upon both the number that interest me, and the number I feel comfortable committing my time to in 2016.
  4. I send out acceptance emails to all the accepted authors/publishers anytime between December 1st and January 8th.
  5. By January 15th, accepted authors/publishers reply to this email either with a copy of the ebook or confirmation that they have sent out the print book to me.  If I do not hear back from accepted authors/publishers by January 15th, the review acceptance will be rescinded.
  6. By January 31st, I will write a post right here announcing the books I have accepted for review.  This means that if you are accepted for review, you have the potential for three instances of publicity: 1) the announcement 2) the review 3) a giveaway (if you request one AND your book receives 3 stars or more in the review).  You may view 2015’s announcement post here.  I highly recommend checking it out, as it reveals some interesting data on genres that have many versus few submissions.

I would like to note that I strongly encourage women writers and GLBTQA writers to submit to me, particularly in genres that do not normally publish works by these authors.  I was quite disappointed last year to get only 38% of my submissions from female authors.  I would like to get at least 50% of my submissions from women authors.  Although I received 14% of my submissions from authors who self-identified as GLBTQA, I would like to see this grow to at least 25%.  Please help me get the word out that I am actively seeking works by these authors.

If you are interested in the full breakdown of submissions I received last year and what was ultimately accepted, check out my 2015 accepted review copies post.

Thank you for your interest in submitting your books to Opinions of a Wolf!  I’m looking forward to reading through all of the submissions, and I can’t wait to see what review copies I’ll be reading in 2016!

Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
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.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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