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Book Review: Paper Is White by Hilary Zaid

September 29, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. The words "Paper Is White" are imposed over a picture of a pile of papers.

Summary:
Oral historian Ellen and her girlfriend decide to get married in 1990s San Francisco. As they beat an early path to marriage equality, a Holocaust survivor draws Ellen into a secret. How much do you need to share to be true to the one you love? 

Review:
This is a rich exploration of two things simultaneously. What it meant to be in a same-sex relationship in the 1990s before marriage equality. And what it means to be Jewish in the shadow of the Holocaust.

There is a sad beauty in how Ellen and Francine find a way to experience the joy of being brides even in the face of rejection and homophobia from many sides. The fact that their wedding can’t be legally recognized. How that is most people’s first reaction. Their parents struggle with accepting and loving them as they are. There’s a real ache to how their parents come down on, essentially, well a lesbian daughter is better than no daughter at all. As a child of the 90s, I recall how that was often viewed as the pinnacle of acceptance from a parent. How sad that was. How well-represented here. But there are still scenes of delightfully bride moments, like Ellen struggling to get the shoes she wants. Or the rabbi who agrees to marry them getting serious about how marriage is about sticking through the hard things too.

I am not Jewish myself, but I did attend a historically Jewish university, and one of my closest friends is Jewish. (She had an interfaith same-sex wedding). So I do have some familiarity with Judaism, while still acknowledging my position as an outsider. From my perspective, this book does a great job depicting the struggle to be Jewish in a way that works for you while under the shadow of the Holocaust. The weight of responsibility many Jewish people feel to carry Judaism forward while also being true to themself.

Something that shows how this can be a struggle is how Ellen and Francine attend a meeting with well-meaning Reform rabbis. They say they want to help same-sex couples have marriages. But Ellen and Francine notice how they keep talking about commitment and not marriages or weddings. They then meet with a different rabbi at the suggestion of a friend. They’re surprised to discover he is part Chinese. And he is more than happy to give them a Jewish wedding. He is non-traditionally Jewish but still Jewish. This is an aha moment for Ellen. Over the course of the book, she comes to talk more about how the Judaism she’s living isn’t what her ancestors would have imagined, but it is still Judaism.

Ellen’s grandmother was someone she had a special relationship with. At the start of the book, her grandmother has been dead for years. Her grandmother was not a Holocaust survivor, as she was an American Jewish person. But Ellen in some way seeks to bond with her grandmother through her work interviewing Holocaust survivors. I won’t spoil the surprise in the book. But I will say that how Ellen comes to terms with her relationship with her grandmother is eloquently handled.

Overall, this is a book that manages a delicate balance. It’s realistic about what it was to be a Jewish lesbian in the 1990s while also depicting both queer and Jewish joy. I highly recommend it.

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5 out of 5 stars

Length: 318 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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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.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 272 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – Horror Stories by Richard Matheson

September 6, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a book cover. A figure stands on the wing of a plane in shades of blue, gray, and black.

Summary:
Remember that monster on the wing of the airplane? William Shatner saw it on The Twilight Zone and Bart Simpson saw it too. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is just one of many classic horror stories by Richard Matheson that have insinuated themselves into our collective imagination.

Here are more than twenty of Matheson’s most memorable tales of fear and paranoia. Personally selected by Richard Matheson, the bestselling author of I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come, these and many other stories, more than demonstrate why he is rightfully regarded as one of the finest and most influential horror writers of our generation.

Review:
I picked this up because I remembered enjoying I Am Legend (although my review is only 3 stars, when I looked it up just now…) I also had familiarity with The Twilight Zone episode based on the first story in the collection. I individually rated each of the twenty stories then calculated the average to give the collection a rating.

I rated two stories 5 stars. “Mad House” (made me make shocked and thrilled faces) and “First Anniversary” (I called it timeless in my notes). The former is a very meta commentary on being a writer. The latter reminded me of Buffy in that who you’ve fallen in love with changes, only in this case it was the woman changing instead of the man.

There were quite a few stories that I found moderately engaging and enjoyed their historic vibe. Like “Disappearing Act,” whose whole idea is it’s someone’s personal notebook left in a cafe. Or “Crickets” whose idea is what if crickets’ chirps are really a form of Morse code?

But there are also two stories where, just, the entire structure idea is racist. One “The Children of Noah” involves the idea that a town’s inhabitants are all the descendants of a sea captain and his Pacific Islander bride. The racist part is that they’re dangerous BECAUSE of being part Pacific Islander. The story “Prey” is about a “Zuni” doll that’s inhabited by the spirit of a great warrior. The whole idea made me cringe. One story, “The Distributor” confused me so much that I’m still not sure what the overall point was. A character who I think is a bad guy uses the the n word and another racial slur, but it’s a little unclear to me if he was meant to be a bad guy.

There are also definitely outdated gender ideas here. The least offensive is that it’s oh so scary for teenage girls to wage war as witches in “Witch War.” The worst is “The Likeness of Julie.” Most of the story is from the perspective of a college undergrad male rapist. That’s bad enough. If you want to know how it manages to get worse, check out the spoiler paragraph below in brackets. 

[The twist ending is that the college woman he rapes, Julie, in fact got inside his mind supernaturally and made him rape her. It’s the worst victim blaming I’ve seen in forever, and I honestly wanted to scrub my own brain out with soap. I’m suspicious that Matheson knew on some level how awful this story was, because the collection notes that he published it under the pseudonym of Logan Swanson in Alone by Night, which appears to have been some sort of anthology.]

So, there we have it. Some stories manage to be timeless. But definitely not all. Come into this collection prepared for a mixed bag.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: In the Event of Love by Courtney Kae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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Book Review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark (series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A Black woman with short hair and muscular arms stands in a keyhole doorway with her arms extended holding each side of it. Sand swirls around her, and she has a weapon on her hip.

Summary:
Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

Review:
I don’t read high fantasy very often, but when I do, I need it to be different and unique. When I heard about a military high fantasy with a Black woman lead, a sapphic subplot, and based roughly on North Africa, I knew I needed to read it.

This book took a little while to get up to speed. There’s a lot to introduce, and. it is a chunkster to be fair. By about the 25% mark, I felt like the plot was really moving, and I was glad I hung in there. The basic plot is that Balladaire colonized Qazāl. Balladaire forbids religion. Qazāl is religious. Balladaire abducted children from Qazāl and trained them to be soldiers. They fought on behalf of Balladaire in other regions they were colonizing, and now they’ve been sent back to Qazāl to put down the rebellion. These soldiers are called the Sands. Touraine is a Sand. Luca is in her 20s and is supposed to be the queen, but her uncle is holding onto the throne until he deems her ready to take it on. Luca has a permanent injury to her leg that necessitates her walking with a cane (that has a secret sword in it). Luca is determined to prove her ability to rule via her overseeing of Qazāl.

I think for a lot of readers Touraine will be the big appeal of the book. She’s a muscular, badass soldier who is unapologetically lesbian. And she’s not the only wlw in the book. There’s a rebel couple who are married women. There’s also a minor Balladairan teenager who has a romance with a Qazāli girl. Then there’s Luca, who’s bisexual. There’s also a character partway through who is very cool and is nonbinary. My only question about this character was how, exactly, when Touraine met them, she knew their pronouns without being told. Just because I thought that would be interesting world building.

The Qazāli are varying shades of Brown and Black. The Balladairans are mostly pasty white except for a few who grew up in Qazāl and manage to have tans. The Balladairans speak a language that’s basically French, and the Qazāl’s language, names, and food all seem to be drawn from Arabic culture. The author has stated North Africa as inspiration for this tale of colonization and rebellion. I think it does a good job of exploring colonization and race without ever verging into preachy or beating you over the head with it.

So the big romance (if you can call it that?) of the book is Luca and Touraine. The author describes it as enemies-to-still-enemeis-but-horny-about-it. That said, don’t go into this book expecting on-screen sexy times. For any characters. There’s a lot of longing but nothing on-screen.

This is a violent book. It has to be as it’s military high fantasy. Please keep that in mind. There are scenes including torture, battle, and various types of warfare.

Speaking of battles, this brings me to the other interesting aspect of the book. A key part of the Qazāli religion is the use of magic. And the magic is real. Everyone acknowledges this, even the Balladairans. Luca wants to use magic without being religious. She thinks it will help her take her throne. I myself was quite fascinated by this aspect of the plot, especially when a third and a fourth culture are brought into the mix later in the book. If you like some magic in your fantasy, you’ll get it here.

The one last thing I’ll say is I think this author is quite talented at metaphor and simile descriptors. I highlighted quite a few throughout the book. I was inspired by them. Like this one:

her eyes glittered with life, sharp as a dagger beneath the ribs.

page 206

Swoon!

Overall, if you’re looking for a fresh take on high fantasy with some military mixed in and almost entirely woman leads, this read won’t disappoint.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 528 pages – chunkster

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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Book Review: Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith by Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer

Digital image of a graphic novel cover. A woman with chin-length hair stands in front of a window with a cat beside her. She wears a button-up shirt and pants with a belt. She's smoking a cigarette. A train is visible in the foreground. A city skyline is visible through the window.

Summary:
Flung Out of Space is both a love letter to the essential lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, and an examination of its notorious author, Patricia HighsmithVeteran comics creators Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer have teamed up to tell this story through Highsmith’s eyes—reimagining the events that inspired her to write the story that would become a foundational piece of queer literature.

This is not just the story behind a classic queer book, but of a queer artist who was deeply flawed. It’s a comic about what it was like to write comics in the 1950s, but also about what it means to be a writer at any time in history, struggling to find your voice.
    
Author Grace Ellis contextualizes Patricia Highsmith as both an unintentional queer icon and a figure whose problematic views and noted anti-Semitism have cemented her controversial legacy. Highsmith’s life imitated her art with results as devastating as the plot twists that brought her fame and fortune.

Review:
I found this thanks to the Bitches on Comics podcast and was pleasantly surprised that my library had a copy. I have not myself yet read The Price of Salt. Although I have watched Strangers on a Train and loved it. I was shocked to discover the same author who wrote that classic piece of noir also wrote the first published lesbian book with a happy ending.

I love the content note at the beginning of this graphic novel. It’s too long to post here, but the authors eloquently describe the difficult task of loving literature written by a deeply flawed person. They also warn about what to expect in the book. Most of what they depict is Highsmith’s well-known anti-Semitism (using no slurs).

The art in this book is gorgeous. I especially love the pages where Highsmith is writing at her typewriter and scenes of what she’s writing are depicted around her. I love noir, and these images are just…well they’re so beautiful, I would frame them and hang them up in my home.

Something that was interesting to me was how Highsmith got her start writing in comics but loathed them and didn’t want her name put on them. I was tickled by the fact this handling of her life was itself a comic.

As a writer myself, I found the scenes about her struggles to get her first book deal (Strangers on a Train) quite relatable. Not surprising given that authors wrote this too.

Two things held this back from five stars for me. The first is a scene where a ring is thrown into a pond, and a duck is gazing at it. I was so distressed at the idea of the cute duck eating it, I couldn’t enjoy the scene. The second, and what others might find more important, was that, from what I’ve read since about Highsmith, she preferred the company of men but was only sexually attracted to women. In my reading of the comic, she seemed to loathe men and like the company of women. This is extra odd because she’s even been called a misogynist. Maybe the authors of this graphic novel have a different interpretation of her after reading all the primary sources. I’d have liked a note about that from them, if so.

Overall, this is a quick read with gorgeous art that eloquently explores a flawed human being who impacted both mainstream and queer 20th century literature.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 208 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The It Girl by Ruth Ware

Image of a digital book cover. An ombre gold background with the title and book's author in bold black on top of it.

Summary:
April Clarke-Cliveden was the first person Hannah Jones met at Oxford.

Vivacious, bright, occasionally vicious, and the ultimate It girl, she quickly pulled Hannah into her dazzling orbit. Together, they developed a group of devoted and inseparable friends—Will, Hugh, Ryan, and Emily—during their first term. By the end of the second, April was dead.

Now, a decade later, Hannah and Will are expecting their first child, and the man convicted of killing April, former Oxford porter John Neville, has died in prison. Relieved to have finally put the past behind her, Hannah’s world is rocked when a young journalist comes knocking and presents new evidence that Neville may have been innocent. As Hannah reconnects with old friends and delves deeper into the mystery of April’s death, she realizes that the friends she thought she knew all have something to hide…

Review:
I’ve read about half of Ruth Ware’s books and enjoyed them all, so I was excited and surprised when the publisher approved me for a review copy of her newest book on NetGalley. Most of her other books I’ve read part of the thrill is the characters’ tie to a place – like a ski chalet or weekend hen do rental. This one, though, the thrills come from everyone’s tie to an event that happened a decade ago – the death of April Clarke-Cliveden.

To me, the most important part of a thriller is that at least one of the twists (preferably the last one) both surprises me but also strikes me as fair. In other words, that it’s not only a twist because the writer withheld something from the reader that other characters we closely follow know. The twist must also not have been immediately possible for the main character to figure out. This book definitely ticks that criterion. Although, I thought I’d guessed the twist about 18% of the way into the book, I was definitely wrong. I hadn’t guessed the twist even moments before it happened. And I didn’t feel cheated because the twist did make sense. So if a surprising twist that makes sense if what you’re after, this read is for you.

Now, I will say, I nearly wore my eyes out rolling them at the main character Hannah. She just struck me as quite emotionally/psychologically weak and easily influenced. I don’t need to love a main character to enjoy a read, though, so I wasn’t bothered. Something about Hannah that some readers may enjoy, partially because it’s unusual in a thriller, is that she’s about six months pregnant for the meat of the story. I’ve never been pregnant myself, so I can’t say how necessarily realistic the portrayal is, but it did make for some different and interesting scenes.

The only thing that does bother me, which is why this is four stars, is I just do not understand why Hannah ever considered April her “best friend” or why she’s still so enamored with her years later. From the first moment we meet her when Hannah does on move-in day at Oxford, I was like…man this girl is the WORST. Did I know people like her in college? Sure. Did I befriend them? No. Am I aware of someone who had a roommate like her? Yes. Did she befriend her? No, they just hung out in separate groups and lived their separate lives. But I will say, Hannah is characterized as weak and easily swayed, so, in a way, it makes sense she’s friends with her. But I never felt sympathy for Hannah about any of it.

Overall, this was a fun thriller. For me it took a little bit to pick up speed, but once it did, I was definitely motivated to find out the final twist.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 432 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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: Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera

Image of a digital book cover. A neon purple palm tree against a dark purple background. The title is in white across the trunk of the palm tree.

Summary:
Lit by the neon glow of Miami, this heady, Spanglish debut novel follows a Colombian teenager’s coming-of-age and coming out as she plunges headfirst into lust and evangelism.

Uprooted from Bogotá into an ant-infested Miami townhouse, fifteen-year-old Francisca is miserable in her strange new city. Her alienation grows when her mother is swept up in an Evangelical church, replete with abstinent salsa dancers and baptisms for the dead. But there, Francisca meets the magnetic Carmen: head of the youth group and the pastor’s daughter. As her mother’s mental health deteriorates, Francisca is saved and falls for Carmen, even as their relationship hurtles toward a shattering conclusion.

Review:
I’ve been learning Spanish off-and-of since I was nine or so, only getting more serious in the last few years. I thought this delightful mix of queerness, Miami, and being an evangelical teenager would be the perfect match for my first dive into a Spanglish book. It absolutely held my interest with its unique and engaging storyline.

I was raised varying flavors of Evangelical, so the thing that struck me immediately when reading this was how easy it was for me to decipher certain bits of Spanish just from what my own churches said. (Out of curiosity, I double-checked with a dictionary, and I was indeed correct). The depiction of Evangelicalism is just so spot on. The only thing that seemed odd to me was the idea of baptizing a dead baby – major plot point of the beginning of the book. I’ve literally never heard of this being done in any Evangelical church. But an aspect of being Evangelical (non-denominational) is each church interprets the Bible in their own way, so I gave this a pass as being a quirk of this particular church that seems to be largely made up of converts from Catholicism.

What was most engaging to me about the book was Francisca’s slow sexual awakening. How she’s not sure if what she’s feeling when alone with Carmen is Jesucristo or perhaps the Espíritu Santo or perhaps something else? This all leads up to a scene between Carmen and Francisca that I found absolutely simultaneously erotic and moving and yet they don’t actually do anything sexual. What this book does a great job depicting, actually, is how emotional and spiritual intimacy can hold so much more realness than sexual touching.

There are also two chapters in the book dedicated to Francisca’s mother’s teen years (Mami) and Francisca’s grandmother’s teen years (Tata). I found myself with much more empathy for Mami than Tata after reading these. But I also appreciated how they demonstrated the spiritual and relationship struggles across generations.

One thing that did turn me off from the characters was how the whole family seems to have a dislike for animals (as in living animals, not as in they don’t eat them). This just…confuses me. How can you dislike all animals? For Tata, the dislike extends beyond mere preference in a way I couldn’t forgive. With Francisca, I tried to brush her dislike of the local ducks off as general teenage grumpiness, especially at being uprooted from home in Bogotá, but after seeing how Tata was as a teenager, I suspect it just is the way the family is. I’m a big lover of animals, so that made it harder for me to relate to the characters.

Some reviews dislike the unanswered questions in the book – like why did the family have to leave Bogotá? I forgave this because it’s narrated by a teenager. When there’s upheaval in the family life of teens, many of them won’t go into great details about it. They’ll just be like – this is happening and it’s terrible. So I found that to be quite authentic to the teenaged narrator’s voice. Someone else pointed out that they never go to school in Miami. I would say…school is never discussed. But the more I think about it, the more this makes sense to me. The church is all-encompassing to Francisca. Of course it’s all she talks about to us. It’s all that matters. Nothing important happened at school. In contrast in Bogotá her entire life was school because school was also the church for her, as she attended Catholic school. It makes sense to me.

My experience of this book as a Spanish language learner was that it was just the right mix of things I understood, things I could guess from context, and things I had to look up (many of which turned out to be Colombian slang). I can’t guess what your experience would be if you are bilingual or routinely speak Spanglish yourself. I’d be interested to hear your experience if that describes you. Did you find the Spanglish authentic? If you don’t know any Spanish, I’d say that you can still get the jist of the story without looking up every single word, but you’ll miss some of Francisca’s sense of humor and personality. It might be worth looking up at least some of the longer sentences or repeated words (which are usually swear words) to get some context.

Overall, this is a unique read with a fun setting and a well-rounded main character. I didn’t always like her but I found myself rooting for her nonetheless, and I enjoyed practicing my Spanish along the way.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 240 pages – average but on the shorter side 

Source: library

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Book Review: Hitler’s Forgotten Children by Ingrid von Oelhafen and Tim Tate

Image of a digital book cover. A black-and-white photo shows a woman in a nurse's outfit next to two bassinets. A colorized Nazi flag flies above them.

Summary:
Created by Heinrich Himmler, the Lebensborn program abducted as many as half a million children from across Europe. Through a process called Germanization, they were to become the next generation of the Aryan master race in the second phase of the Final Solution. 

Ingrid is shocked to discover in high school that her parents are actually her foster parents and struggles, like many in post-war Germany, to get official documentation of who she is. When the Red Cross contacts her, she slowly starts to realize her connection to the Lebensborn program. Though the Nazis destroyed many Lebensborn records, Ingrid unearths rare documents, including Nuremberg trial testimony about her own abduction.

Review:
There can sometimes be this misconception that society immediately dealt with all of the fall-out of WWII. Germany does do an admirable job of directly confronting genocide and fascism. But, as this book demonstrates, not everything was in fact dealt with right away. There were intentions to, but other things like the Cold War got in the way. One of the things that got swept under the rug until the early 2000s (!!) was the Lebensborn program.

Ingrid speaks eloquently about the rumors in the 90s especially about an SS “breeding program.” I actually remember hearing these rumors. Ingrid does a good job of describing how she felt realizing she might have a connection to Lebensborn in the face of these rumors. In fact, there was no “breeding program” aspect to Lebensborn. At least, not in the way the rumor mill said it. Women were not kept in breeding houses with SS members sent to them. But women were encouraged to sleep with SS members, regardless of their own coupled or marital state, to make more Aryan babies for Hitler. Where Lebensborn came in was that if a pregnant woman and the father of the baby fit the Aryan bill sufficiently, she could come to Lebensborn to be cared for until her baby was born. Then she might keep the baby or she might give it to “suitable” foster parents, usually high-ranking officials.

But the actual war crime part of Lebensborn was the other aspect. The SS abducted children from largely Eastern European occupied territories, sending them to Lebensborn to be Germanized and given to foster parents. They literally would put out a call ordering all families to report with their children to a center, check them for “racially desirable” qualities, and then take the children that “had potential” for Germanization, returning the rest. They also used this as a punishment against resistance fighters, only they would abduct all of their children, sending the “undesirable” ones to work camps and the rest to Lebensborn. It’s this latter aspect of Lebensborn that Ingrid discovers her connection to.

The book begins with a scene of a child abduction and then switches to Ingrid’s memories of her early life immediately post-war and her discovery that she was a foster child. Then many decades are skipped because in reality Ingrid discovered nothing new about her childhood until she was an older woman starting to think about retirement. The earliest part of the book is quite engaging because her foster mother escapes from East to West Germany right before the Iron Curtain closes. The rest is engaging because, of course, we are alongside with Ingrid as she discovers the truth of her early life.

Ingrid’s early investigations in the early 2000s are hampered by intentional resistance and red tape. Even though on paper it should have been easy for her to get assistance going through the voluminous archives (the Nazis kept meticulous records of everything), she actually met foot dragging and even downright lies from those who should have been helping her. Essentially, some people didn’t want the truth of Lebensborn to get out. But Ingrid finds help along the way from those who want to see the truth come out and justice, what little is available at this point in time, done.

Ingrid is quite honest about her difficult feelings during all of this. She ultimately decides she’s not defined by her origins. While I absolutely agree that “the choices we make throughout our life” (page 267) are essential in defining us, I also think where we come from does as well. The two go hand-in-hand. It saddens me that she seems to need to distance herself from that, although I understand why it helps her to do so.

Overall, this is an engaging book that is a quick read. The pairing of the historical facts with the memoirs of an innocent person who discovers her connection to this program works well for the delivery of these facts. It helps the reader remember that these were real events impacting real people who were just starting to discover the truth of their early childhood in the early 2000s.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 276 pages – average but on the shorter side 

Source: purchased

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