Genevra Littlejohn reviews Cinder Ella by S.T Lynn

Cinder Ella by ST Lynn

Fairy tales are comforting because we know how they’re going to go. These days, with the advent of modern fantasy, there might be a lot of changes to the incidentals. Maybe the Prince is a marine biologist. Maybe the Evil Stepmother is a media mogul in NYC. Maybe it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Snow White is aided by some helpful zombies; maybe it’s set off planet and Rumpelstiltskin owns a space station. But we know, unless it’s produced by a horror publisher or written by an author lauded for her edginess, that we’re probably going to get a happy ending.

I came across S.T Lynn’s Cinder Ella by accident, looking for something else. But the official copy caught my attention:

Ella is transgender. She’s known since she was young; being a woman just fit better. She was happier in skirts than trousers, but that was before her stepmother moved in. Eleanor can’t stand her, and after Ella’s father passes she’s forced to revert to Cole, a lump of a son. She cooks, she cleans, and she tolerates being called the wrong name for the sake of a roof over her head. Where else can she go?

I grabbed an ebook copy off of Amazon, and I read it on my phone, which was actually not something that I’ve done before. I was immediately charmed. The story is brief at 62 digital pages, making it perfect for a bus read or to pull out while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. And while I expected total fluff (that being one of the provinces of many retellings of fairy tales) I got a little something more. Ella is, from the first page, a delightful heroine. She takes what pleasure she can in the little kindnesses of the day (a happy dog, a rose cutting beginning at last to shoot) but doesn’t balk at dreaming bigger. Even when she’s downtrodden and abused, she doesn’t lose the ability to look for joy in and improve her situation. But for all of that she is not saccharine or sickly sweet. She grows angry. Her pain is raw. And so much of her determined happiness is simply her best coping mechanism for dealing with cruel, abusive family.

The story is absolutely a piece of wish-fulfillment, and frankly I think that’s a good thing. There’s just not a whole lot of fantastical representation of black trans WLW, and what we do see is rarely so sympathetic or so loving as this. Ella gets to eat delicious food, she gets to wear a designer dress, she is pursued by the heiress to the kingdom. When’s the last time we saw such blatant gift-giving to trans readers of color? Every bit of abuse heaped on Ella by her stepfamily is contradicted by the other people that she meets, and while even this brief narrative doesn’t suggest that everything is just going to be mended as though the hurts were never real,

Due in part to how short it is, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t get told. We know who the Fairy Godmother-stand in is, but we don’t know anything about her, or how Ella came to her attention, or how magic works in this world and why people are fairly careless in witnessing it. We know Ella’s backstory so well through sheer cultural saturation that it goes almost entirely unmentioned. We know all the roles–the Princess where the Prince would be in most tellings, the nasty stepsisters and evil stepmother, the animal companion–but we aren’t given any details about their internal lives or motivations. This is a quick, bouncy story with a very direct energy, and it doesn’t need to be more than that.

The single criticism that I honestly have, viewing this for what it is, is that I wish Ella’s mother had been present in the text. In the oldest versions of Cinderella, it is actually her mother who performs the acts that the Fairy Godmother takes over in more recent versions. Sometimes the mother is a fish, or fish bones, as in the fifteen-hundred-year-old Chinese story of Ye Xian, sometimes as in Aschenputtel she is the tree that grows over her own grave, and the birds that sing in the tree, and the bones in the grave below. But regardless of her form, in most versions of the story the dead mother’s influence is a tangible thing, in both the jealousy and hatred of the stepfamily, and in the deep strength and self-assurance that Cinderella is able to find for herself. She doesn’t appear in this tale, which I thought was a wasted opportunity for depth.

Unusually, Ella’s father’s influence does make an appearance, in a song that she hums to herself in the beginning. Given that most of the characters with names or speaking lines in the story are female, I thought it was meaningful that one of the only representations of masculinity was loving and gentle. Frequently in WLW fiction the male characters are boorish or cruel. It was kind of an interesting turnaround to see only the kinder side of fatherhood, while women were given as much to unkindness and manipulation as they were to sweetness.

All in all, this one’s an enjoyable afternoon read. 3.5 of 5 stars.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Transphobia and anti-trans abuse, body shaming, fat shaming, some race-specific insults and attacks (“ashy elbows” and braid pulling), kidnapping, homelessness. No sexual assault.

Ren reviews Tell It to the Bees by Fiona Shaw

Tell It to the Bees by Fiona Shaw

During a classic late-night spiral down an internet hole, I happened upon the trailer for the not-yet-released movie based on this book. The trailer appeared to follow the same depressing arc we accept in film as As Good As It Gets For Us, but the book was available at my local library, and the carefully-skimmed-to-avoid-spoilers review I glimpsed on Goodreads promised me a happy ending. I was still wary, but the book was a short one, and let’s be honest: a whisper of queer representation and we all start running headfirst into walls. So I picked it up and went in with the lowest of expectations – mostly just hoping I could get through it without putting it down too many times.

I have pretty specific needs when it comes to period pieces; while I certainly have exceptions, generally speaking, I don’t go out of my way to read period sagas of war or famine or heartache. I want Jane Austen. I want some bumps and misunderstandings that end in the bad guys getting what they deserve, and the good guys coming out on top.

Suffice to say, queer period pieces are usually very much not my thing.

I’ll read them/watch them for the three seconds of pleasant content – because I’m gay and I can’t help myself – but I’m always mad from the get-go because we know how these things tend to play out.

Tell It to the Bees took me wholly by surprise. Shaw is not in a hurry to tell her story, and while I’m not always in the mood to have the plot move along so slowly, the book as a whole is such a quick read, I was okay with sitting back and letting her paint her picture in her own time. Much of this book was read in the company of my girlfriend – currently a nurse, but a Zoology Major in another life – and I constantly interrupted her down-time to fact check bits of information about bees and hive mentalities as I read. There were so many interesting threads to this book, and they were woven together delicately and deliberately. This was my first introduction to Fiona Shaw, and I am now very curious to see what else she has to offer.

Jean is the town doctor. Single. A pretty big deal, for 1950s Scotland. She’s rational and a little distant, and she spends most of what little free time she has between her best friend Jim, and her bees. A fight on the schoolyard brings Charlie Weekes into her clinic; Charlie is quiet and precocious, and drawn to a honeycomb Jean keeps in her office. The two of them bond over her bees in their reserved, introverted fashions.

Charlie’s father leaves him and his mother for another woman, and Charlie – bearing his mother’s sadness on top of his own – withdraws further into himself and the world of the bees. Jean eventually invites Lydia and Charlie to dinner; from there, Jean and Lydia form a tentative connection of their own through Jean’s library.

Already, we’ve touched on a good number of my favourite tropes. We have:

  1. Single Lady Doctor Who Does Not Have Time For Townfolk Judgement
  2. Young children with old souls who notice everything
  3. Books. So many books

In the usual fashion, Jean has a male best friend. Jean and Jim grew up together. Jim proposed to her when they were young and was subsequently turned down. Because reasons. Jim marries a pleasant enough woman named Sarah, and (again, in the usual fashion), there is an underlying note of competition between these two women over who best knows the man keeping the two of them together. There are so many pure moments in this book, but the note that struck me occurs just after Jean accidentally outs herself and Lydia during a dinner party. Jean panics and leaves the room. Sarah goes after her. I – the anxious reader – pull my blanket higher in anticipation of the impending dramatic moment when Sarah gets confrontational and threatens to out her to the entire town.

Only, it doesn’t happen.

Instead, in a display of human decency that should be so basic but isn’t (and thus, still took me out at the knees), Sarah accepts it all in a moment and moves straight to comforting this woman who is really only her friend because of her husband.

Men hear things differently from women, Jean. Even Jim, who’s better than most, and knows you as well as anyone. I don’t think he heard you. At least, not as I did… I don’t really understand. But I don’t think your love is wrong, and I’ll defend you against all comers.

It was more than a queer story. There was something so delightfully normal about it that I wanted to stay in the pages forever. I’m glad that we have so many deep, hard-hitting books to choose from, but every once in a while, I just want a queer version of that Jane Austen read. I want to know that there may be some bumps and misunderstandings, but at the end of the day, the bad guys are going to get what they deserve and the good guys are going to come out on top.

Despite what Goodreads tried to tell me, I was stressed to the max while reading this book. Some characters were lovely, and others were so horrid that I was certain either Jean or Lydia had to die/move away/marry a man and pretend the affair never happened. There were tense plot points. There were moments that struck close to home and really captured the rage that can occasionally take you by surprise when you are a queer person living in a hetero world, and can’t do things like hold your partner’s hand in public without it being A Thing. But the queers live happily ever after, and I will be buying my own copy of this book.

Megan G reviews We Love You, But You’re Going to Hell by Dr. Kim O’Reilly

We Love You, But You're Going to Hell by Dr. Kim O'Reilly

“The first place homosexual should be able to turn to is the Church. Sadly, it is often the last.”

I am deeply honoured to have been given the opportunity to read and review We Love You, But You’re Going to Hell by Dr. Kim O’Reilly. This is a very important book, one of which I believe we need many more of in this world.

This nonfiction book delves into the current crisis of Homosexuality vs Christianity. In her introduction, Dr. O’Reilly encourages people to read this book even if it is simply to strengthen their own beliefs. She clearly wants to get this book in the hands of as many people as possible and to encourage discussion. The introduction is non-confrontational, something I think is very important when dealing with issues like this. It is merely asking that people read this book with an open mind, to question both their currently held beliefs and the ideas given throughout the book. It leaves the door open for a lack of change of mind – which, when challenging people’s long-held beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, is incredibly wise.

As I was reading this, I could think of about ten people I wanted to pass it on to, friends and family alike. It covers a variety of topics, almost all of which are brought up in most debates about homosexuality. It answers questions, gives private testimony, and also analyzes scripture in a way that few likely have.

This book works as a marvelous introduction to the debate of Homosexuality vs Christianity. It encourages further study, but gives brief overviews and thoughts based on the author’s own beliefs. It would be perfect for anybody who has never challenged their own beliefs on this topic. Someone who maybe just found out a loved on is queer and is struggling with their love for them vs their love for God. Someone who wants to know more, or who wants to hear an opposing view on a strongly held belief. Personally, as somebody who has been deeply invested in this particular topic for going on a decade, I felt it a little light at parts, as though the author could have gone deeper. However, I am fully aware that I am not the target audience for this book, and that by going deeper or heavier Dr. O’Reilly may have alienated some of those who are the target audience. So, in many ways, I understand why she did it.

One thing to be aware of about this book is that it is very United States-centric. It is clearly written by an American and for Americans. Because of this, as a Canadian, there were a lot of things I was lost on, or that I felt weren’t present in my own experience growing up as a queer Christian. While this is not enough of a negative for me not to want to show this book to other non-American’s, it is something I feel I have to warn about, as in some sections the amount of American-centrism was quite jarring (at one point the author states that one member of the couple being a citizen of the United States is a requirement for being married with no follow-up specifying that this is obviously only a requirement in the United States).

There also isn’t a lot of discussion about transgender issues, or people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, or polysexual. Similar to what I said above, this could be because the author felt it would alienate the target audience to throw so much queer vocabulary at them. I am not sure. But it is something to be aware of.

My final criticism, and this is really the only one that might hold me back from giving this book to certain people, is that too often there are quotes for which no reference is provided. Almost every quote credited to “anonymous” does not have a source, and there are multiple quotes throughout the book that are not credited to any speaker and do not have a source. This lack of crediting causes these quotes to lose credibility – after all, anonymous could be the author herself for all we know. Because of this, I would be hesitant to give this book to any academically-minded Christians, or really anyone who would read this with the intention of proving it wrong. Seeing as the author is a University professor, this feels like a surprising oversight.

Despite these things, however, I still feel this is a very important book. I would recommend it not only to Christians who are unsure about their views on homosexuality, or who are looking for something to challenge them, but also to any member of the LGBT community who has felt alienated by the church. I hope that this book sparks more similar books – not just for Christians, but for people of all religions.

Marthese reviews Seer and the Shield (Dragon Horse War #3) by D. Jackson Leigh

Seer and the Shield by D Jackson Leigh

“She wanted the guard to relax and see them as people, not just the enemy”

Seer and the Shield by D. Jackson Leigh is the third and final book in the Dragon Horse War trilogy. This book focuses on the conclusion of the story and on Toni and Maya, who was introduced in the previous book. This review will contain some spoilers for the other books in the series but I’ll keep them vague.

At the end of last book, something happened which leaves some characters in a distressing situation. Thankfully, these characters all have powers and they balance each other, because the four of them need to work together while keep the extent of their gifts secret.

Maya, who is Kyle’s sister, is a pacifist who believes that warriors harm others and are suicidal and in her opinion, they have negative gifts. Toni at first isn’t much of a warrior. He likes to keep an organized inventory and she’s more of a shield that protects but Maya still sees her as a warrior. Maya has been attracted to boys and girls in the past, but she doesn’t like that she’s attracted to Toni, until Toni continues to proves herself. These developing feelings that the two characters have are developing in the presence of an empathy… that must have been interesting.

There is a lot of adventure, this being the last book in the series. In the beginning, there is a plane crash and its aftermath. I think that survival stories, foraging and engineering things to fit the situations are always interesting because in their remote possibility, they are realistic. There is also an epic fight at the end, whose parts from it have been foreshadowed by characters – I mean, one of the protagonists in this book is a Seer. There was also a cool twist with Laine. Mama bear to the rescue.

I liked the character development of some of the characters. Toni, who thanks to the situation and her powers and Michael thanks to his relationship and also his powers, have both evolved. Michael is an intersex character and I hope that more authors choose to include marginalized identities.

We also get to see the Network in action!

While the focus is on Toni and Maya, we get a variety of POVs in this book, among which, we have the villains too! We also have some past characters, some of which were a surprise. Something happened towards the end of the second book, which is resolved, with a great price in the last book.

A pet peeve of mine during this book was when Toni and Maya used terms of endearment towards each other. I get that they are supposed to be essentially soulmates, but they still barely know each other! There was also the famous trope of villains explaining all of their plans which makes it easier to stop them.

On the other hand, a super like in this book would be that experts are consulted when needed and that professions like farmers and geologists are regarded well. This however, isn’t done to the extent of the mangoverse series, which I adored. But hey, anyone that does justice to workers has a good place in my books.

Through the adventures of this series, the characters learn something. I liked that this was the case, rather than they go about as if they were 100% right in the first place. The epilogue shows where everyone is at. I personally thought that some characters and character dynamics were underused. I would have liked if there was more team bonding and relationships – after all these warriors have spent many lifetimes together but the primary focuses were the romantic relationships and the overall plot.

This book is great for those that like romance with a hint of fantasy and adventure. For those that prefer the latter, this series is good but there are better queer fantasy series that develop on the action and team dynamics.

Mallory Lass reviews Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

CW: suicide, homophobia, family trauma, parental character death (remembered) and child abuse

Have you ever picked up a book and the whole time you’re reading, it feels like somehow the universe aligned and you were meant to find it, to soak in the words and glide through the pages? Well this is how Aimee Herman’s Everything Grows was for me. This young adult book is set in the early to mid 90’s and so many of the experiences and references (Audre Lorde! Bikini Kill! Adrienne Rich!) jumped off the page and reminded me I am not alone. While no queer experience is universal, queer people have a lot of shared history, and this book brought that into sharp focus. If you are a fan of found family and queer discovery and mentorship, this might be a book for you.

This book tackles heavy subject matter, but provides its own healing along the way. The main plot jumps off from the suicide of a teen boy named James; Herman explores the issues of identity, survival, and navigating life from the perspective of James’ classmate, Eleanor, which lightens the load a little bit. It is written in epistolary style, composed almost entirely of Eleanor’s letters to James, who also happened to be her school bully. It reads almost like a diary, the most intimate details of Eleanor’s developing mind laid bare and exposed for the reader to relish in.

Eleanor is 14 when we meet her, and the book takes place over her school year. This is a period of immense growth and self discovery, and we are privy to her journey in a way that made her highly relatable for me. She tries to make sense of her mother’s recent suicide attempt, the suicide of James, and typical coming of age experiences like puberty, masturbation, and sex all the while trying to make sense of her own gender and sexual identity. There are no easy answers, but if there is any single message to take away from Eleanor’s story, it’s that our voice matters. Ask questions of ourselves, of others, and listen patiently for honest answers. The answers don’t always come easily or the first time you ask.

It felt like big parts of her coming out experience were my experience and also a good chunk of her exploration of her gender identity were completely foreign to me but still relatable. Getting to read Eleanor’s thoughts as she pours them out almost daily to James made it seem as if we had been friends for years.

Everything Grows has a full cast of supporting characters who all play a role in Eleanor’s journey: her friends Dara and Aggie, Shirley (her mom), her sister and her dad, plus her mom’s lesbian friend Flor. Additionally Ms. Raimondo, her English teacher, and a trans woman she meets named Reigh, both play an important role in her road to self discovery.

The book underscores the importance queer mentors can play in young adult lives and inversely the tragic consequences for queer youth who have no one in their corner, no one to say, “Who you are is okay, is worth loving, is worth being here and taking up space.” I was lucky to have these type of mentors in my life, and I am more appreciative of it now than I’ve ever been.

Through Eleanor’s journey I was also reminded of the importance of queer people as creatives, of the artists and writers who have come before us and have laid the groundwork to help us understand ourselves and the people around us.

Ultimately this book is confirmation that the human condition is real and life is hard. But the best thing about it is Eleanor gives me hope that if we can keep working to uncover our own mysteries and help each other do the same along the way, the world will be a better place.

There is a line in the book, “…I wonder if there were more books and movies about us, would we feel less alone?” And at least for me, Herman answered that question with an affirmative ‘YES!’.

This book filled a place in my heart from my childhood that I didn’t know was missing. I hope you will open it and give it a chance to grow inside you as well.

Susan reviews A City Inside by Tillie Walden

A City Inside by Tillie Walden

Tillie Walden’s A City Inside is a short surreal book about a young woman growing into herself again and again.

As you’d expect from me reviewing Tillie Walden’s work, the art is beautiful; the protagonist’s various homes are especially well done, and the way that the art manages to tinge even the protagonist’s happier moments with melancholy is pleasingly visual. As with i love this part, the more surreal parts of the narrative are left for the reader to interpret as they will; the narrative is framed as someone telling the protagonist her own past and future, so the reader can take its accuracy and melancholy and hope as they will. And I did find it hopeful – even when the narrative takes the protagonist into an isolated city of herself, there is an underlying message of hope – it gifts her the hope of finding a place and a version of herself that she can live in and with, a future that she hasn’t seen yet and might not be able to, and that has value all of its own.

I found A City Inside to be a beautiful exploration of the different ways you can try for what you want (or what you think you should want), and the irreparable ways that these things sometimes contradict each other. I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Tierney reviews Real Queer America by Samantha Allen

Real Queer America by Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen’s Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States is a must-read for all LGBTQ Americans, regardless of whether they hail from or live in red states. Following the motto “Something gay every day,” Allen and her friend Billy took a road trip across the Midwest and South in summer 2017, visiting places like LGBTQ centers and gay bars from Utah to Georgia, and uncovering queer and trans stories along the way.

Allen’s travelogue is an important and necessary response to the common societal narrative of LGBTQ folks fleeing their rural small towns to big cities on either coast the minute they get the chance. Allen showcases the vibrant, resilient, interconnected LGBTQ community that exists wherever there are LGBTQ folks – and especially in places where the community has had to band together and organize to push back against political or societal adversity. Allen makes no bones about the fact that life in a big (and expensive) city like New York is absolutely not for her: her book is a love letter to the places that have shaped her into the queer, trans woman that she is today, and to all the places that hold those wondrous possibilities for others in the LGBTQ community.

The LGBTQ community Allen depicts is so much more than gay bars (though she certainly depicts some awesome ones, like the Back Door in Bloomington, Indiana, and WonderLust in Jackson, Mississippi): she tenderly paints a picture of queer gathering spaces and networks of support, and she places the people who bring these spaces and movements alive front and center. Real Queer America reads smoothly, like cruising down the highway with the wind in your hair and the open road ahead of you – you feel like you’re along for the ride with her and Billy, like you’re hearing from the folks she interviewed yourself, firsthand. Allen invites you into their world, and their struggles and triumphs become your own, all members of one big, beautiful community together.

Throughout the book, Allen pays particularly loving attention to sharing the stories of trans and gender nonconforming folks across the southern and midwestern United States, starting with her own story of the development of her identity, from attending BYU as an unhappy Mormon student furtively wearing women’s clothing, to coming out and transitioning as a graduate student at Emory, to meeting her wife-to-be on a summer research trip to the Kinsey Institute (you just can’t make up a queerer meet-cute!). Through her travels we meet trans parents and partners, business owners and politicians, activists and youth – each person richly described, and illuminated by their relationships to the places that have made them the people they are today.

Real Queer America is a gorgeous patchwork of a book, bringing together so many places in America and people in the LGBTQ community, interwoven with Allen’s thoughtful musings and memories, solid yet accessible connections to theory and statistics, zippy pop culture references, and even a center spread of road trip photos (be still my heart!). It’s the definition of a crowd-pleaser, with something for everyone – approachable and thoroughly enjoyable for anyone on the LGBTQ spectrum, no matter where they are in their own journey. Allen’s work pays tribute to the undersung backbone of queer America.

Danika reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmilla edited by Carmen Maria MachadoThe act of interacting with text—that is to say, of reading—is that of inserting one’s self into what is static and unchanging so that it might pump with fresh blood. Having read this introduction, I hope you will enter into Carmilla thusly, using your fingertips and mouth and mind to locate the lacunae where LeFanu excised pieces of Veronika’s account, the hallways haunted by the specters of truth and phantom of passion. See if you cannot perceive what exists below: the erotic relationship of two high-strung and lonely young women. The shared metropolis of their dreaming. An aborted picnic in the ruins.

This isn’t my first encounter with Carmilla. I’ve read it twice before, and, of course, seen the web series and their movie (in theatre). I have a complicated relationship with this text, which I will get into later, but suffice to say I am repulsed and attracted—just as Laura is said to be to Carmilla. So, when I found out that Carmen Maria Machado was editing and introducing an edition, I needed to get my hands on it. Machado wrote Her Body and Other Parties, which is an incredible short story collection. This review will by mostly about Machado’s edition as a distinct work, but if you’d like to read my thoughts about Carmilla in general, here is my original review.

After I received a review copy of this edition, I started to wonder how different a change in editor would really make it. I shouldn’t have underestimated Machado. Carmilla was originally published as a serial in a magazine. After that, his short stories were collected, with an added introduction which claimed that the story was gleaned from a Doctor Hesselius’s collection of letters. Machado adds another layer on top of this, claiming that the actual letters were discovered hidden in Le Fanu’s property, and that he had not only stolen this story and claimed it as his own, but had also censored it. She creates a meta narrative around the work, which leads us to imagine that Carmilla was published in a world where vampires do exist.

Through her introduction, she makes the queer subtext (already hard to deny) text. In the discovered letters, the real Laura (Veronika) describes her undisguised desire for the real Carmilla. This casts doubt on Le Fanu as a narrator, showing him as a biased perspective. He is made unimportant, an impediment to understanding the story and the character, instead of a creator. Machado’s introduction claims that she hasn’t restored the edition to the “original letters” because she hopes that more will be discovered, and also because she wanted Le Fanu to be recognized in his inadequacy and shame. What a brilliant reclamation of this story, which centres the women and their relationship. Instead of seeing a queer reading as violating the intent of the author or bringing a modern lens, it imagines the story as being previously misinterpreted through a heteronormative view. It’s brilliant.

Of course, there’s more to this book than just the introduction. There are footnotes, but they are only occasional. There are a handful of factual footnotes, mostly indicating place names that no longer exist. And then there are a precious handful of footnotes that add a whole new dimension to the text. One footnote casually relays the life story of a character who only shows up for a few pages. After Laura glances at the woods, a footnote laments, “Lonely as she was, if only Laura knew the potential friends who resided in those woods! Peddlers, mountebanks, roguish-but-decent thieves and brigands, fairies, wolpertingers…” And the ultimate footnote, of course, which simply reads: “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.” It’s so nice to have a friendly (i.e. queer) guide through this unfriendly narrative. As wonderful as it is to read a lesbian vampire story that predates Dracula, it is openly hostile to queer readers. This edition, instead, centres a queer narrative. In the introduction, she excerpts from Veronika’s discovered letters, where she says she dreams of Carmilla, of her corpse intoning “You are mine,” and follows it with “How I fear that sound: that it might be true, and that it might never be true again.” In this story, the male characters are executing Laura’s lover while claiming to be protecting her. Machado compares her to Elizabeth Báthory: monster, or victim of misogynistic smear campaign?

There are also a few beautiful and detailed illustrations by Robert Kraiza, including a sexy illustration of Carmilla and Laura’s embrace. Like Machado’s footnotes, I savored each one, but I was also greedy for more of them. One of the things that I noticed about the original story this time around was the lore. I like reading early vampire or zombie stories, because the rules and associations around them have changed over time. In Carmilla, vampires must return to their graves to sleep at least a few hours every day. (They also seem to be able to walk through walls and get into and out of their graves without disturbing the soil.) When they unearth Carmilla in her coffin, she is partially submerged in blood, which is such a creepy image that I’m surprised it hasn’t survived. I also noticed this time that Le Fanu’s text describes the vampire, after finding a suitable victim, to engage in a kind of courtship which resembles the passion of love. He says that they yearn for something like consent or sympathy. Carmilla is not treated entirely sympathetically in the original text, but this definitely leaves the door open for more generous interpretations.

Finally, I found myself ruminating about why queer people so often love monsters, villains, vampires. I think that Laura’s mix of fear and shame and attraction is such an uncomfortable reflection of some of our first experiences with queer desire—before, maybe, we even knew enough to name it. That monstrous, beautiful future that could be glimpsed in it. Laura’s feeling of being both drawn to Carmilla and feeling “something of repulsion” can easily be interpreted as compulsory heterosexuality souring desire. In fact, so heteronormative is Laura that she wonders if Carmilla could be a boy disguised—the only way she can conceive a romance. She is so undone by this queer courtship that she says “I don’t know myself when you look so and talk so.” Outside of (or alongside) compulsory heterosexuality, I started to think of Laura and Carmilla’s relationship as being a representation of toxic relationships—love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. Initially unaccountably pleasurable, fascinating, and then mixed with the horrible, resulting in Laura’s increased lassitude, melancholy, and thoughts of death. This could easily be reimagined as a canon relationship, but an unhealthy and even abusive one.

Ultimately, I keep coming back to this story for the same reason that I keep coming back to lesbian pulp. Because I think that it’s crucial to not only have a queer present and future, but also to reclaim our past. And those narratives have been hidden, and when they’re not hidden, they’re hostile. But I want to seek out every snide reference to a queer woman throughout time, and it’s for the same reason that queer people reclaim monsters and villains. Because we stare our fears in the eye and embrace them. We take the boogeyman stories about us and we invite them in. We make monsters into heroes and the heroes into monsters. We queer the story. Instead of shrinking from the terrible associations that have been put on us, we remake them and show them off. Because we are alchemists who turn shame into pride. And this is a book that knows that so intimately. Carmen Maria Machado seems to know why I read Carmilla, and created a pathway through this story that does most of the work for queer readers. This is a profoundly different experience from reading Le Fanu in isolation. Machado’s edition has made me think more deeply about this story, and has made me feel like a welcome reader to it, which is not an easy thing to do with a text that frames people like me as monsters. I will cut off this sprawling essay here, since I feel like I’m approaching the length of the novella, but I hope that if you have read Carmilla, you re-read it in this edition, and if you’ve never read it, treat yourself to this little-changed but much-improved version.

Megan G reviews The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique Grant has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime and she has no idea why. Reclusive Hollywood idol Evelyn Hugo has decided that it’s time for the world to know her story – the full, unabridged version – but she refuses to tell anybody other than Monique. Knowing this could completely change her life, Monique gratefully accepts and begins the task of recording Evelyn Hugo’s story. Still, the question lingers: why Monique? And why now?

I’d been wanting to read this book for quite some time before I finally got my hands on it, and let me just say that it was completely worth the wait.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a fictional biography of the titular Evelyn Hugo, an aging Hollywood star who rose to fame in the 1950s. Her story is both exhilarating and heartbreaking. From a far-too-young age, Evelyn is forced to make decisions that could potentially harm herself or others in an effort to remove herself from the poverty and abuse of her childhood. Her story takes us from her poverty-stricken childhood to the lap of luxury of her adulthood without missing a single untoward detail. She makes for a very ethically ambiguous protagonist, with deep, ever present flaws. She’s also a woman who has been through hell and back more than once, and who stirs up a great deal of empathy within the reader.

One of Monique’s first questions to Evelyn is, “Who was the actual love of your life?” This is apparently a popular question within Monique and Evelyn’s world, and one that Evelyn refuses to answer right away. Soon, though, it becomes clear that it was actually none of her seven husbands. You see, Evelyn Hugo is bisexual, and there was one woman she loved above anybody else throughout the course of her life.

This is the true heart of Evelyn’s life and her struggle. Her desire to be with the woman she loves mixes with her fear of being outed and losing everything she’s worked for. This fear often causes her to make frustrating decisions, ones that might be difficult to understand from a modern perspective. Still, it’s clear no matter where she is in life, who she is married to, or what she’s doing who her true love is, and how desperate she is not to lose her.

Monique, the woman writing Evelyn’s story, is just as complex – though maybe not in the drastic ways that Evelyn is. While she’s getting to know Evelyn, she also struggles with her own failed marriage (to which she has yet to receive closure) and a career that hasn’t gotten her as far as the wanted to be. While I couldn’t help but love Evelyn despite it all, Monique was easy to fall in love with. She’s relatable, flawed, and struggling in ways that most of us do. She is also written in a deeply emotive way that often had me reaching for the tissues, even in scenes that aren’t necessarily overly emotional.

While I cannot recommend this book enough, you should be warned that this book deals with a myriad of potentially triggering issues, such as emotional and physical abuse (spousal and parental), homophobia, internalized homophobia, racism, and misogyny. All of these issues are dealt with tactfully and respectfully, though, and never feel as though they have been included simply for shock value. They make sense in the context of the story and of the worlds in which Evelyn and Monique live.

I truly cannot express how deeply this book made me feel. It is a true tour de force that must be read to be fully understood. Pick this book up as soon as you can.

Danika reviews Moonstruck, Vol. 1: Magic to Brew

Moonstruck Vol 1

I adored this book when I started it. The pastel colours, the adorable art style, the world packed full of magical people of all varieties (living plants! ghosts! centaurs!), and the coffee shop setting. Then you get a f/f romance between two fat poc werewolves (Selena is Black and Julie is Latina)! It also has a nonbinary centaur character who uses they/them pronouns. I was gearing up for a five star rating.

Unfortunately, I ended up giving this one three stars, because I am conflicted about it. Although the plot pulled me through the story and I loved the aesthetics, the adorable relationship quickly devolves into something… icky. Selena is sometimes controlling and even insulting. Julie reacts with tears. They fight, multiple times, including physically (as werewolves). I fully admit that I prefer my romance fluffy and basically conflict-free, so I am bringing my own baggage into this, especially because I can feel so much empathy for Julie, who is a raw nerve of vulnerability and sensitivity.

I still want to continue with the series, because everything else was 5 stars for me, but because I was expected fluff, the downward spiral of the relationship really soured it for me. The book does address their dynamics and has some accountability, but it still didn’t seem to match the happy tone of the rest of the book. I’m interested to see if the next volume course corrects in that, or if I’ll have to accept that this one isn’t for me.