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Posts Tagged ‘sapphic’

Book Review: A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

January 30, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A woman holding a guitar has her mouth wide open singing or screaming. The title of the book runs over her eyes so we can't fully make out her face. The cover is in shades of brown, yellow, green, and blue.

An eerily prescient book that came out in September of 2019 that looks at a future where stay at home orders in response to both bombing attacks and a deadly virus mean performing music live for a crowd is illegal.

Summary:
In the Before, when the government didn’t prohibit large public gatherings, Luce Cannon was on top of the world. One of her songs had just taken off and she was on her way to becoming a star. Now, in the After, terror attacks and deadly viruses have led the government to ban concerts, and Luce’s connection to the world—her music, her purpose—is closed off forever. She does what she has to do: she performs in illegal concerts to a small but passionate community, always evading the law.

Rosemary Laws barely remembers the Before times. She spends her days in Hoodspace, helping customers order all of their goods online for drone delivery—no physical contact with humans needed. By lucky chance, she finds a new job and a new calling: discover amazing musicians and bring their concerts to everyone via virtual reality. The only catch is that she’ll have to do something she’s never done before and go out in public. Find the illegal concerts and bring musicians into the limelight they deserve. But when she sees how the world could actually be, that won’t be enough.

Review:
I wouldn’t have been too surprised if this vision of a dystopian future was written during the height of the pandemic then came out recently. What intrigued me about this book was that it was published in September of 2019. It both predicted stay at home orders and density rules and imagines what would have happened if they’d never been lifted. In an interview in Marie Claire, Pinsker graciously states that this is simply a risk of writing about the near future. Indeed, she’s correct. Near future scifi is about paying attention to the current and predicting where we might end up soon – whether dystopic, hopepunk, or somewhere in-between. Pinsker certainly had her finger on the pulse of both risks and what responses to those risks might be given our technology.

She was a note that hadn’t ever known it fit into a chord.

page 213

While the book is certainly about the risk/reward balance and how to live in a satisfying way, it also is drenched in music and musical references. It was obvious to me that Pinsker is a musician, and I wasn’t surprised at all to look it up later and see she’s an indie rocker. If you’re a musician who wants to see music accurately represented in fiction, just stop reading this review now and go pick up this book. It’s the best integration of music from a musician’s perspective I’ve ever seen in a fiction book.

Another element of this book that is a wise storytelling choice is the dual perspective from Luce and Rosemary. Luce remembers the Before very well. The bombings and pandemic ripped away her success just as she was taking off. Rosemary barely remembers the Before, because she’s about 15 years younger than Luce. She remembers a baseball game at a stadium. But mostly she remembers being in the hospital with the Pox. Luce is able to remember all that was good and not actually that dangerous about Before. But Rosemary is able to see the parts of Now that are good – and there are parts that are. For example, the ability of rural people and people who can’t travel to go see Graceland (and other cultural places) in Hoodspace. There’s one scene in particular where Rosemary argues with Luce about how Hoodspace isn’t all bad that reminded me of some people speaking excitedly about being able to go back to conferences just the way they were before, while people with disabilities tried to get them to listen to the fact that joining things remotely meant they weren’t being left out any longer and how much they didn’t want to lose that. Without spoilers, an important part of the plot is Luce and Rosemary having to figure out together how to take the best from both and make a better future.

An important theme of the book is the balance of staying safe with still being able to live a fulfilling life. Who gets to decide what’s too risky? What actually is too risky? And isn’t that something that’s fluid? Are things that were once risky always risky? And aren’t things that were once safe sometimes too risky for a time? This is definitely a book that comes down on the side of part of life is taking some risks.

Now she understood how much she’d missed; how much had been taken from her in the name of safety and control.

page 268

While this isn’t a book about being queer, it is a book by a queer author full of queer characters. Luce and Rosemary both are attracted to women. Their relationships are mentioned when relevant to the plot but there’s no big coming out arc for either. Also, you can tell this was written by a queer person because Luce and Rosemary are not automatically attracted to each other just because they both happen to be women who are into women. Love to see that. A flaw I often see in books with queer characters by straight author is this idea that all women who are into women are automatically attracted to each other. That’s….not how it works. So I found the representation to be quite authentic. It’s just people living their lives who happen to be queer.

I also want to mention that Luce is Jewish, originally from an Orthodox community that she became ostracized from due to her sexuality. The author is herself Jewish, and I trust people to represent their own faiths and cultures well. I will say, much like the queer representation, there was one scene where Luce thinks about Rosh Hashanah’s in the past after seeing some people throwing paper into the river, and I found it very moving.

Overall, this is a scifi book about a dystopian future written by a queer, Jewish musician. It thus brings authentic representation to all three of these and tells a universal story about balancing safety with risk and using technology to accentuate our lives.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca Thorne

January 23, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A high level view of a room with a large fireplace and a wall of bookshelves. There are plants near the rafters. Two people sit in cozy chairs near the fireplace.

A sapphic (wlw) cozy fantasy where a woman commits treason by running away from her lifelong job as the Queen’s private guard to start a remote tea shop with her girlfriend.

Summary:
After an assassin takes Reyna hostage, she decides she’s thoroughly done risking her life for a self-centered queen. Her girlfriend Kianthe, the most important mage in all of the land, seizes the chance to flee responsibility. Together, they settle in Tawney, a town nestled in the icy tundra of dragon country, and open the shop of their dreams.

What follows is a cozy tale of mishaps, mysteries, and a murderous queen throwing the realm’s biggest temper tantrum. In a story brimming with hurt/comfort and quiet fireside conversations, these two women will discover just what they mean to each other… and the world.

Review:
This might be the first time I’ve ever impulse read a book on my kindle’s “recommended for you” list. I was precisely in the mood for something lighthearted and escapist, and none of my library books or currently owned ebooks fit that bill. When I saw this title, I laughed. Then I read the description and, delighted to see it was a cozy fantasy, decided to give it a whirl. (What exactly is cozy fantasy? It’s a newly defined genre, but I like the devoted Reddit subgroup’s definition. The Kenosha Public Library is a little more specific in their definition.)

I mostly expected a plot about opening a tea shop in a fantastical land with dragons. That was really one of three plots. The other two involve Reyna’s treason and Kianthe’s role as the most powerful mage. It was a little more high stakes than I was expecting. People’s lives are at stake at quite a few points. It didn’t particularly stress me out, but I guess I was expecting something more along the lines of – oh no we’re out of honey and can’t get anymore for a month because the dragons are blocking supply chains – sort of thing. That said, even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it was still a relaxing, escapist read to me.

I like the main couple. They have a sweet dynamic with things to overcome. Mainly that Reyna was raised to a role of servitude to those born to power, and Kianthe was born to power. Reyna has to come to understand her worth, and Kianthe does amazingly supporting her through that. I also loved the dragons and griffons. There are two nonbinary secondary characters, both of whom use they/them pronouns. Although the word isn’t used, it’s strongly hinted at that a secondary character who is a woman married to a man is bisexual.

Kianthe is a woman of color, although I personally was left confused by what exactly her skin tone is. It is described as “the color of drying clay” (page 42). I checked on Writing With Color’s skin tone guide, and they do suggest clay as a reference. From the picture on their page, I think it’s supposed to denote reddish-brown. For me, though, when I was reading, I thought of gray clay. Writing With Color does state that creative descriptions can be confusing to the reader and suggests using additional descriptives to help. I don’t think drying brings much clarity to the sentence. Who’s really stood around watching clay dry? They also suggest to consider the associations that come up with a word. Clay is malleable, and I think Kianthe is anything but. Similarly, while Reyna’s hair is described many times as the typical shimmery blonde, I’m still not sure what Kianthe’s looked like due to a lack of description.

The tea shop itself ends up being a giant room full of plants that Kianthe keeps magically alive in the cold climate. I loved that aspect of it. The tea itself is largely inspired by our own world’s tea, and the goodies are essentially the same as here as well. The only exception being bagels with “creamed cheese.” The bagels are treated as kind of exotic and that confused me. Why are bagels exotic and not the scones? Why is cream cheese spelled differently and not bagels? One other thing that bugged me so much I ran an Instagram poll about it is that the tea shop owners make tea incorrectly. They add tea bags to cups of hot water. While this is totally fine in one’s own home when using a microwave and in a hurry, the proper way to make tea is by pouring the hot water over the leaves. Only one respondent in my entire poll said they do it the other way around, and they messaged me to tell me they do it that way because they have to microwave their water. This is a nice tea shop, and Reyna and Kianthe don’t make tea correctly! It hurt my escapism a bit. I wanted scenes of making various types of tea in the various different ways required. I wanted a matcha whisk and special timers for different steep times and different pots for black tea and green tea and herbal tisanes. I wanted Kianthe and Reyna to offer to make special mixes for customers based on something about them like this one tea shop in Portland, Maine did for me once. Essentially, I wanted less book time spent on the stakes and more on the tea. Bonus points if there was a fantastical tea with some wild steep requirements like, I don’t know, you have to add a molted scale from a dragon.

Overall, this is a different fantasy read featuring a w/w couple at the lead. It’s a fun universe to visit and was escapist for me. Recommended to readers looking for a quick, light read who don’t mind some stakes in their cozy.

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 codes. Thank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 339 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Kindle Unlimited

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: A Restless Truth by Freya Marske (Series, #2)

December 5, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A green background with blue flowers coming out surround two women in silhouette. They are in 1900s period costume and are in yellow. An empty bird cage hangs above them.

A murder mystery on an ocean liner cruising from the US to the UK in the early 1900s being solved by two women – one of whom is a magician. Both of whom are into each other. Things get spicy…and dangerous.

Summary:
When Maud voyages from the US to the UK on RMS Lyric, she finds a dead body, a disrespectful parrot, and a beautiful stranger in Violet Debenham, who is everything—a magician, an actress, a scandal—Maud has been trained to fear and has learned to desire. Surrounded by the open sea and a ship full of loathsome, aristocratic suspects, they must solve a murder and untangle a conspiracy that began generations before them.

Review:
I’m not sure how I ended up with an advanced copy of the second book in The Last Binding series – when I hadn’t read the first. I’m assuming either I requested it, not realizing it was a second book or it was sent to me based on my reading history with the assumption it didn’t matter. The series aspect is less “the story happens in a row” and more “everyone featured is living in these alternate history version of the early 1900s plus magic.” Apparently the first book in the series features a m/m pairing (Amazon, Bookshop.org), whereas this one stars a f/f pair.

I didn’t struggle too much to figure out what’s going on. The author does refrain from explaining much for the first chapter or two. But that’s because the book starts essentially in media res – with the murder happening. After that has occurred we slow down for a minute, and there’s a refresher of the rules of the universe. It didn’t take me too long to catch up and get into it.

One thing that did surprise me was the spice level of this romance. I was expecting very light spice with most encounters occurring off-screen after a fade to dark. That is not the case. Things get very explicit. Let’s put it this way….at least one of the scenes would have had to have been cut to manage to squeak in an R rating for explicitness. There are three scenes total, and each takes up a whole chapter. To me, this much spice feels like erotica jammed into a romance. I prefer the two separately.

The pairing here is grumpy/cheery. Violet is the grumpy, and I adored her. I liked Maud too, but Violet was someone I could see a whole book’s perspective on. Perhaps I’m biased since Violet is bisexual and the quintessential theater geek. I just really enjoyed her. But Maud is nice enough too. I liked their pairing well enough.

The mystery is substantial enough to hold up a plot. I enjoyed the animals and sneaking around the boat. I did think a bit more attention could have been paid to the class and race issues that sort of came up and got a bit glossed over. I don’t expect preaching in a book but it might have been interesting to at least have Maud and Violet see the second or third class areas of the ship on one of their many attempts to outrun their pursuers. (Somehow they always seemed to end up in the cargo hold instead). Maud talks with disdain of her parents only giving charity when others can see it, but Maud herself doesn’t seem to do much giving either. Violet, at least, offers to become the patron of an all-Black opera. (The real history of Black opera.)

Overall, I liked getting to know Violet, and it was an interesting world to visit. But the spice level was far too hot for what I personally prefer in romance, sliding more into an erotica category in my opinion. It also seems to me that the first book may have been quite different from this one, so readers of the first should come in aware of these differences.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 388 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

2022 Award Eligibility

November 25, 2022 Leave a comment
2022 Award Eligibility is in black against a blue background. Four digital cover images surround it. One says Decoded with a Black woman in a gold gown in front of a purple background. One says Solarpunk Magazine Lunarpunk Special over an image of a river in a spaceship. One says Vol 3 is Here! justfemmeanddandy.com with a horse, wolf, and a cat in fashionable clothes eating vegetables. One shows a dragon leaning down toward a little girl who touches its nose. Wyrms is in gold above the dragon's head.

I have four pieces eligible for awards during the 2022 award season in three categories.

All of these were first published during 2022.

For the paid stories, I am able to provide author copies for award consideration purposes only. Please email me at mcneil.author [at] gmail.com to request one.

Short Stories

The University of Late-Night Moans” in Decoded Pride: A science fiction, fantasy, and horror story-a-day anthology for Pride month
June 9, 2022, issue 3, $14.99 digital
fantasy romance (sapphic / wlw)
It’s 1998, and Leonora’s friend Virginia is helping her investigate the moans coming from the cemetery across the train tracks from her dorm.

Sister Prudence on the Beach” in Solarpunk Magazine
Issue #6, Lunarpunk Special, Nov/Dec 2022, $6 digital
hopepunk (speculative scifi)
Sister Prudence settles down for her full moon meditation on the beach. But a young one passing by interrupts not just her meditation but perhaps her retirement as well.

Drabble

Bostonians Aren’t Friends With Our Neighbors” in Wyrms: An Anthology of Dragon Drabbles
July 1, 2022, $3 digital, $6 print
fantasy
The first line is “Deadrodents.com said the box on the triple-decker’s porch next door.”

Creative Nonfiction

These Boots Were Made for Who?” in Just Femme & Dandy
July 4, 2022, issue 3, free
digital magazine version (page 105) or html/accessible version
literary fashion magazine through a queer lens
I explore how my favorite pair of thrifted boots helped me develop my queer, bisexual fashion sense and sustained me throughout the pandemic.

Book Review: Reader, I Murdered Him by Betsy Cornwell

November 3, 2022 Leave a comment

A YA romp told from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s ward gives a new view of both Jane Eyre and London’s queer underground.

Image of a digital book cover. A young woman in 1800s period costume stands facing the reader. There's a reddish hate tilted down over her face.

Summary:
Adéle grew up watching her mother dance in Le Moulin in Paris but soon found herself sent away to England with the man her mother said was her father. Mr. Rochester. Soon she meets her governess Jane Eyre and begins her own series of adventures.

Review:
If you have a love/hate relationship with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, then this book is for you. If you love your YA with sapphic romance in period costumes, then get this book immediately.

The thing about Jane Eyre is…Mr. Rochester is terrible. Yet she’s still attracted to him. (This was beautifully summed up in the web comic Hark! A Vagrant). Shifting to Adéle’s perspective gives a whole new angle on just how deliciously insidious Mr. Rochester is. Adéle does not pull any punches when it comes to him. It’s downright cathartic for everyone who tears their hair out about Jane’s love for him.

There’s much more in this story than a shift of perspective on Jane Eyre though. Adéle is well-rounded, and we have entire chapters where Mr. Rochester and Jane aren’t mentioned at all or only in passing. My favorite part is when Adéle goes to a finishing school in London, because this is when the sapphic subtext becomes blatant. Adéle has the hots for more than one other teenage girl. (Both of whom are excellent choices, by the way). There’s cross-dressing! There’s scuttling around on the streets of London late at night in widow’s clothes! But also Adéle has feelings for Mr. Rochester’s nephew she’s been exchanging letters with since she first came to England. What to do. what to do. I loved seeing representation of a bisexual woman who leans more in a certain direction usually. I really like that even though she is capable of attraction to men that the sexist society fizzles it for her, making her a bisexual that leans toward women. What a fun twist on what we usually see in period pieces with fluid sexuality.

The book does start slow. The first chapter in Le Moulin was rough with overly flowery language and stirred up drama. But this drops out as Adéle ages and comes into her own. Perhaps some of this was meant to show how she is a little too idealistic in how she remembers her early years. I suspect the first chapter may have served better as flashbacks from her early time in England, rather than linear.

Please do take a moment to check out the content notes on StoryGraph. The ones listed as of the day I was writing this post are accurate.

Overall, this is a fun twist on Jane Eyre that gives agency to Mr. Rochester’s ward Adéle. Come for the twist, stay for the YA sapphic heart-throbbing.

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: 288 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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.

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!

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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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
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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.

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: 320 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.

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

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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

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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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