Susan reviews Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Lia Cooper’s Essex Colony has the set up of a really cool survival horror movie: the first colony on Essex Prime went radio-silent almost a year ago. Soran Ingram, an AI whose lover was the Executive Officer of the colony, is part of the crew sent to investigate–only to discover that most of the colonists are dead, and the XO has become a sentient wolf-creature.

So what I’m saying is that if your life is missing a robot/werewolf romance in space, you’re welcome!

I found Essex Colony to be quite rushed; I was hoping for more suspense, more cat-and-mouse, more time spent on the build up of what went wrong, more pay-off for the characters who were blatantly being set up as working against the protagonists for Capitalism. There is some of that, but a lot is handled off-screen or summarised. A little disappointing for me, but it’s a very short book, so I’m assuming that there wasn’t the space for anything but the characters going from plot point to plot point, mostly stumbling across the plot rather than actively discovering it. It still works, and I was still invested in Soran and Aster getting off this planet alive, but it felt a little too straightforward.

Most of the world-building is interesting; the werewolf mythology works particularly well, and the explanation for what happened to the colonists appealed to my Doom-movie-loving heart! … I never thought I’d say this, but I was a little disappointed that it didn’t go more Doom, because having every single human turn out to be a horrific bigot at heart was disappointing. I’m also morbidly intrigued by the world-building that isn’t explained; we’re told that the Earth is dying, but also humans are referred to as Anglo-Earthers, which sounds to me like some horrific western supremacist nonsense happened before the book even started.

I liked Soran as a character; she was a lot more human and human-like than I was expecting from the blurb (this is even called out in the text, because why would anyone make a robot that they couldn’t have sex with), but I can appreciate her being exactly what she appears to be. And Aster, the XO, was fun, and it was very easy to see why Soran liked her! I would have liked to see a little more of them actually interacting, rather than meeting up, exchanging plans, and then both running off in opposite directions all the time, but I’m assuming that the space constraints of a novella didn’t allow for it.

In fact, I think most of my issues with Essex Colony could have been worked out with a little more space. The climax is quite muddled, to the point where I’m not sure what the characters were trying to achieve, but everything was definitely exploding and on fire! Like the lack of build-up, it would probably have been improved by having more room to breathe, and the ending might have felt more tidy rather than leaving most of the threads unresolved. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be the first book in a series–I didn’t see anything on the Nine Star Press website to say s –but if it isn’t, there’s a lot left unanswered, and I could see it being frustrating.

So it had some flaws, but I did enjoy Essex Colony! Sci fi/survival horror is one of those genres where I will read and watch everything I can in it, and this is a fine addition to that roster. But honestly, I might start recommending it for the sheer novelty of finding a robot/werewolf pairing outside of fandom.

[Caution warnings: bigotry, murder]

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 as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie GillmanI love Melanie Gillman’s art. The use pencil crayons, and the detail is incredible. I always spend half the time reading their books just admiring landscapes. In Stage Dreams, Grace is in a stage coach, on the run. The coach is being driven through an area that’s being haunted by the Ghost Hawk, a supernatural giant hawk that swoops down on carriages and robs them! When Grace’s coach is targeted, she discovers that the Ghost Hawk is, in fact, Flor: a Latina woman who robs coaches, with her (regular-sized) pet hawk–not the story stagecoach drivers like to tell about the experience!

When the stagecoach fails to produce any worthwhile goods, Flor takes Grace instead, in the hopes of getting some ransom money from her family. Her plan falls apart when she finds out that Grace is trans and is running away from her family. Instead, the two end up hatching a plan together to pull of another heist–one that could set them both up for life.

This is a short, snappy story: I got to the end and felt like I must have skipped something, it was over so fast. Once I considered the book as a whole, though, I had to admit that it told a complete story. I just wasn’t willing for it to be over yet! My favourite part was a surprise at the end: Gillman includes endnotes that explain the historical context of many of things on the page, including their research about trans historical figures at the time. It added a lot of depth.

Although I would have liked for this to be a little longer, I really enjoyed the art, characters, and historical context. Westerns are not usually my genre, but I was sucked into this story. Definitely pick it up for a quick, engaging read with a diversity characters not often seen in this setting.

Danika reviews Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn BigelowLisa Jenn Bigelow’s Starting From Here broke my heart and put it back together again. It’s one of my favourite queer YA books. I’m still waiting for the fan poster that has Colby, Cam (from The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and Ari (from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe) all laying in the beds of their respective pickup trucks, looking up at the stars together. (I am not an artist. I need someone to do this for me.) When Bigelow’s Drum Roll, Please came out, I was eager to pick it up. It lived up to her first: a bisexual/questioning middle grade novel that has more to do with friendship and divorce and finding your voice than treating her orientation as an Issue.

So, of course, I jumped on her newest middle grade book: Hazel’s Theory of Evolution. This one follows a character with two moms, but we’re not in the 90s anymore: that’s not the point of this story. Hazel has just moved schools, which means that she’s been split from her best friend–her only real social safety net. At her new school, she feels isolated and weird. No else seems to understand her respect for earthworms… Her feelings are vented in her Guide to Misunderstood Creatures. Meanwhile, she’s reluctantly making new friends, including Yosh, a sarcastic guy with a mohawk who uses a wheelchair. She’s also bumped into a familiar face from her old school, who is now going by a different name and pronouns.

The biggest tension in this book, though, is that Hazel’s mom is pregnant. Again. And everyone seems determined to be cheerful and optimistic about this–despite the fact that she’s already gone through two miscarriages that were emotionally devastating for the whole family. Hazel feels trapped, unable to voice her fear and anger that she’s chosen to get pregnant again, and unwilling to confide to anyone outside of the family. In health class, she adds the names of her two miscarried siblings onto her family tree–and then erases them. Adds them again. Erases them.

Bigelow is masterful at exploring complex relationships between characters, which makes this story shine. Hazel is flawed and frustrated, making assumptions and asking awkward questions, but always from a place of caring. As her friends start to show romantic interest in others, she feels even more lost. This is the first middle grade book that I’ve seen explore the concepts of asexuality and aromanticism. Like Drum Roll, Please, Hazel is still figuring herself out, but it’s affirming just to see that possibility brought up in a middle grade.

You don’t have to decide any of those things now. Life may surprise you. But whatever happens, whatever you decide is right for you, all of those things are okay. And when I say okay I mean good. There are so many good ways to be in this world.

Marthese reviews The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

“The Red Prince is like Joan of Arc, if God had been sensible and made her English”

At the end of last year I got interested about the story of the Nutcracker. I knew it was a ballet but I didn’t know it was a story… so naturally I looked up queer retellings. This looked like the most promising one, so it was my first read of the year.

The Prince and Her Dreamer is about Prince ‘Mattie’ Mathilde, who gets injured while fighting the rats. Her best friend and court fae Ross suggests turning her into a doll so she can heal and Mathilde agrees. Fast-forward a few decades and Clara, Ross’ relative from the human world, manages to break the spell through an act of unselfish kindness.

Now, while choosing which retelling to read, as there are a few sapphic retellings of the nutcracker, I read mixed reviews about this book. Many people were saying the book was too short (it’s a novella) and that there was a distinct lack of world-building. This is all true, however, I think it’s because it’s not a plot-driven story but a character-driven one. It assumes that people are already familiar with the story, so if you are not, look up the story first before reading this retelling.

Before we get to the good stuff, let me air out my pet peeves about this story. To me, the story around Mathilde being turned into a doll sounded unconvincing. Like, why must it be someone related to Ross? Is the magic linked to blood? Most importantly, how does a fae have human relatives? Did they used to be part of the same world? Did someone move? Even a character-driven story needs to address plot-holes.

There is also a bit of an age gap. Yes, Mathilde doesn’t age while being a doll, but she was conscious: she had a lot of time to grow and mature as a person during those two decades. Clara is 17… while being mature and headstrong, she’s young. This book, apart from being fantasy, is also historical fiction, as Clara lives during the Victorian era. I am aware that age was a different concept then, but still, this gap was never addressed. In fact, Mathilde thinks of them as about the same age.

Another plot point which was never resolved was the toy soldier. Were they wooden always or had their appearance been altered? I just did not understand.

Clara’s coming out, even though to her ‘uncle’ who she knew would accept her, felt a little fake. The language used was not something I associate with Victorian times, and I’m sure that even with all her self-awareness, it was too quick for her to unpack all her baggage, for her to be comfortable saying those words. In a way, it’s a fairytale, but it still needs to seem realistic.

Now, the things that I did like were, in brief, the characters, their relationship and altering gender-tropes.

Mathilde has a tragic background. She’s young, but she’s leading an army, and suddenly she is not able to do even that. When she comes back, most of the people around her had aged; they moved on without her, and she has both to overcome survivor’s guilt as well as find her place again among all those people who did not expect her to come back.

Clara is trying to please her family while still doing somewhat what she likes. She’s trying to compromise, and at some point, she needs to make a decision. Clara likes to read and likes her ‘uncle’ and the stories he tells her, and even though she’s too old for a doll, she really liked his present. With all her knowledge of the four realms (due to her reading her Uncle’s book over and over), Clara proves to be a great help to Mathilde.

I liked how the two characters, while drawn immediately to each other, take some time to develop a relationship (even in such a short novella). The two characters, because of circumstances, also mature separately before coming back together. I liked very much the fact that in spite of everything, Clara wanted to live life in her own terms, not because of someone else, but because of her will. There was also consent while kissing! So props to the author for that (even though it should be common practice both in reality and in fiction). I’d like to point out that there are no sex scenes in this book.

I also liked the gender-altering elements in this book. The most obvious being the ‘Prince’ title to Mathilde, a girl. The way I saw it was that a Prince was the successor of the King (or an unmarried Royal). I don’t see why in reality there should be any gender distinction to royal (or other) titles. There was also a gender-altering for a minor character, who you expect to be female but is male. That was a nice touch and plays on our assumptions.

In the end, I had mixed feelings about this retelling. There were a lot of plot holes. It felt like starting a book from the ending. We know nothing of the rats apart from what the rat king was made from. We also do not know what happened to the rats towards the end of the book. A few sentences here and there to explain the plot were definitely needed and for use, a longer book was needed. However, there were found family feels, good relationship structures and gender-bending elements.

Give it a try, especially if you already know the story and can fill in the missing information from your previous knowledge or your imagination. It’s also quite short, so you can read it in a break, but hurry up if you’re in the northern hemisphere, as it’s best read while it’s still cold.

Mallory Lass reviews One Walk in Winter by Georgia Beers, narrated by Lori Prince

One Walk in Winter by Georgia Beers

One Walk in Winter is a workplace romance set in the fictional mountain town of Evergreen spanning three US winter holidays: Thanksgiving through New Years. There is something about a book set in a place where it snows that really gets me into that cozy winter mindset. Light on the angst and high on the heat, Beers’ latest spin on a timeless trope left me smiling for days.

Hayley Boyd Markham is a New York City girl who has been working out her grief over her mother’s passing by setting the city on fire. After a particularly expensive night out, her father informs her he’s cutting off her credit cards. In order for Hayley to earn her allowance back, she’ll need to go manage one of the Markham family resorts, the slowly declining Evergreen Resort and Spa, through the winter. The problem is, Hayley is an artist like her mother and not very interested in the family business like her father and step brothers.

Olivia Santini has worked as the Assistant Manager of the Evergreen Resort and Spa for seven years; she thinks she’s a shoo-in for the open Manager position, only to be crushed when she doesn’t get the job. More ego bruising, the new Manager doesn’t seem to have any resort management experience, and Olivia isn’t sure where she went wrong. It doesn’t help that she’s finding it really hard to maintain her grudge against Hayley, who, aside from her penchant to be late, is extremely attractive and likeable.

Olivia and Hayley have a picturesque meet cute about 3 hours before finding out Hayley is Olivia’s new boss. After the rocky second meeting, despite their obvious attraction, Hayley and Olivia take it slow, working hard to earn each others favor. Sometimes, two people just need a good push in the right direction, and that is where Angela Santini, Olivia’s mom comes into the picture. Angela is a supportive mom, and she pushes Olivia to give Hayley the benefit of the doubt. It’s just the encouragement she needs to get out of her own way.

The supporting cast and the hidden gems of the town of Evergreen are slowly revealed throughout the story. Beers’ created a town I would love to be able to go visit and friends I wish I could call my own.

Hayley has been ordered by her father to conceal her Markham identity and prove she can help turn the Evergreen around. As Hayley and Olivia become closer, Hayley’s concealed identity is no doubt going to become an issue. I was pleasantly surprised with how Beers resolved their conflict, but will it be too late for Olivia to forgive Hayley? You’ll have to give this one a read (or a listen) to find out.

Speaking of, I listened to this book on audio, and Lori Prince does a wonderful job bringing Hayley and Olivia to life. I can’t wait to listen to other books she’s narrated.

Susan reviews On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On a Sunbeam by Tillie WaldenTillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam is a beautiful f/f science fantasy graphic novel that started life as a webcomic. The first half is split between Our Protagonist, Mia’s, present, where she’s part of a crew that restores old buildings IN SPACE, and her time at boarding school where she has a fledgling romance building with the sweet-but-unusual Grace. The second half shifts up a gear into Perilous Adventure as the crew of the Sunbeam go looking for closure.

I’ve mentioned how much I like Tillie Walden’s art before, and On a Sunbeam keeps up the tradition. I love her use of colour and space, and the way her art carries so much of the world building and storytelling. Everyone lives on tiny chunks of land in space and spaceships are fish, it’s never explained, and I am quite happy to roll with that because it looks really cool! (Please recommend me more stories where space is treated like the sea, I’m always here for them.) There is a real sense of history and age to the buildings that Mia and the Sunbeam’s crew work on, and different architecture across the galaxy. Plus, Tillie Walden’s use of limited palettes across the entire story means that it’s always clear what time you’re in and which characters you should be expecting.

I was so fond of all of the characters – they all felt realistically complicated and had tangled relationships with each other, and I love them? And they all have their own things going on, or their own secrets in their pasts, and I like that! Especially the non-binary non-verbal badass, who is an actual force of nature. (As fair warning: for the most part, everyone’s really respectful of Elliot’s pronouns and not speaking, but there is one minor character who doesn’t even try, despite how upfront Jules is about making sure people know. She does get dressed down for it, and only has maybe three scenes total, but it is a factor.)

Spoilers in the next paragraph!

There’s something so realistic in the way that Mia talks about her life after Grace – it went on as normal, and the way she talks about that is refreshing and warming. Yes, there is life after whatever dramatic events happen to you, and sometimes they are ridiculously normal and boring! And the way the story opens up in the second half is like a magic trick; the Staircase comes across as a weird space full of culture and dangers that are completely alien to everyone. A lot of it went unexplained, but I thought that worked with the style of the story itself. We get bits and pieces from Mia’s memories of Grace, and from Elliot. It’s very character focused, even in the section that’s most full of action and drama, which means that we get the pieces of information most relevant to the characters, rather than getting all of it in chunks. And the ending is so hopeful, to me. I appreciated that Mia and Grace don’t fall straight into each other’s arms; they’ve grown into different people, and now they’ve got an opportunity to work out who the other one is!

End spoilers!

And because I’m me, I would like to take a second to wail about the families in On a Sunbeam! There are families of origin, families of choice, families who love each other and drive each other up the wall and will do whatever it takes for their family! It’s delightful and sweet, even with all of the drama and peril.

Basically, I adored On A Sunbeam in all its weird space-fish glory, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

[Caution warning: bullying, misgendering]

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 as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Mary reviews Cinders by Cara Malone

Cinders by Cara Malone

Since she first moved to Grimm Falls, Cyn Robinson has lived in the shadow of her stepmother’s disapproval, her stepbrother’s resentment, and her father’s inability to fully accept her mother’s death. She has also lived with the unrequited love for Grimms Falls royalty, Marigold Grimm. For a long time now, Mari has been trying to prove to her father she can take over the family business on her own, without a partner.

Now a string of fires brings them together, and sparks fly in more way than one. Cyn is a firefighter determined to find the arsonist, and Marigold’s late mother’s garden is destroyed in one of the fires.

This is a modern retelling of Cinderella that put a really interesting spin on it. I love that Cyn is a firefighter, playing on the original fairy tale’s section where Cinderella gets her name from sleeping in the cinders. It also made her a more active part of the story. I also liked that they changed the evil stepsisters into one stepbrother whose evilness is explored a bit more deeply.

I like a good mystery, and this was a fun one. A few small chapters are from the arsonist’s point-of-view, which added to the tension.

The mystery also played well with the romance, and the two didn’t detract from each other. They both grew naturally and enjoyably. Cyn and Mari were believably infatuated with each other. It’s a little bit of a love-at-first-sight story, but it’s made believable by their well written chemistry and their history.

My one gripe is that the story felt a little rushed. I would have liked certain parts to take longer, to really amp up the tension.

Overall, it’s a nice short and sweet modern fairy tale with an interesting mystery. I recommend this if you’re looking for a quick read.

Sheila Laroque reviews Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

As I’ve said in previous reviews; I haven’t widely read a great deal of poetry. Nor do I have the lived experience of a trans person. However, reading this collection of poetry by Gwen Benaway I felt drawn into her world and stories, and I felt like I could understand a little bit better. The stories that are told within these poems are powerful and raw, and I felt like I was being taken on a journey with the author. Gwen is able to take her readers along for a ride, as she narrates her experiences as being both trans and Anishinaabe in these poems. The poems are at times grappling with difficult subject matters, but we are also left with the feeling of how difficult it must have been to live through these experiences from Gwen’s perspective.

There is an honesty within these poems that immediately draws in the reader, and while this is a relatively short book I found myself reading these quite quickly. Her discussions of the complexities that can arise when dating in a transphobic world; as well as what it is like to navigate the health care systems while being Indigenous gave me some more insight and understanding. I say ‘gave’ intentionally, because her writing is so illuminating and full of her own personal experiences and trauma that it is a gift to the reader.

Bee reviews Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

I have never been so confused as I was while reading Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. I felt exceedingly silly, like I was missing a trick (or several) about the impenetrable prose and the seemingly nonsensical character behaviour. I was expecting to be wowed, amazed, startlingly impressed by it as a work of literature. Jeanette Winterson promises, “Reading it is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass. You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work. From now on, a part of you is pearl-lined.”

I am not pearl-lined. I do not feel enlightened or changed in any way, except for the dip in my self-esteem that this book brought about. But I survived it. I may still be wondering what the heck? But I survived.

Nightwood is a lesbian fiction classic from 1936, and is set in the 20s. It weaves in and out of the lives of a group of Europeans and Americans as they navigate love in a dazzling, slightly seedy underworld in Paris. For me, the focus of the book was a woman named Robin, who is first married by a Baron, with whom she has a child. She then leaves both husband and son to wander the globe, ending up in America. In New York, she meets a woman named Nora Flood, and begins an affair with her. Robin can’t seem to still her restlessness, however; even though she and Nora return to Paris, she eventually leaves Nora for a woman named Jenny. Nora reveals that this is not the first time that Robin has strayed from her, and that loving Robin causes her great pain due to Robin’s mercurial nature.

I’m a little astounded that I understood any of this at all. Most of the book is written in lengthy soliloquies, delivered mostly by the doctor Matthew O’Connor, who secretly dresses in women’s clothes and also acts as a general confidante to all parties involved. I found myself thinking that it would be more suited to performance than to a novel. The language is often poetic, and I could appreciate it from a stylistic standpoint, but I found it difficult to access the meaning a lot of the time.

That isn’t to say that I wasn’t interested. I did become invested in Robin and Nora’s relationship, which was messy and layered and confronting. I did feel that their love was infantilised at times – Robin is said to play with toys frequently, and also gifted Nora a doll which becomes emblematic of a child within their relationship. The complexity of their relationship and how it was portrayed was an enjoyable part of the book: it is largely what compelled me to keep reading. The second to last chapter, in which Dr Matthew visits a distraught Nora and they discuss her relationship with Robin, was engaging and heart-wrenching. The problem is, I could have done without much of the commentary from the doctor.

I have done some reading around responses to the book, trying to figure out what it is that I’m missing, and they often speak of the book’s humour – something I didn’t get any of at all. I think the mystique around this book – which has been called “one of the great books of the twentieth century” by William S. Burroughs – established my expectations. I was sure that I was going to find Nightwood incredibly profound and altering. I think it was this expectation that left me feeling so inadequate as I finished. I’m sure that I’m missing something, that I lack the language and the smarts to truly understand this book.

Maybe it’s not just me. As I took my initial complaints to Instagram, Danika consoled me by suggesting that its impenetrability was what allowed the lesbian content to fly under the radar. It did make me feel a little better: at least I understood that much. In the back of my edition, there is an extract from a letter by Frank Morely to Geoffrey Faber of Faber & Faber Publishers. In it, he remarks, “the point is that there is no reporting of lesbianism, no details; the conflict is one of souls, not bodies, and if for censors’ sake there have to be any individual words cut out; the work itself wouldn’t much suffer.” It’s almost comforting to know that a book with pretty obvious lesbianism had its champions through publication, enough that they were trying to figure out how to keep the book as intact as possible.

I think as well that there are certain expectations that queer people have for so-called queer classics. We want to see ourselves, to feel a connection to the ghosts of our identities past, to hold that tangible proof that we have always existed. As such, it seems doubly disappointing when a book doesn’t live up to that image which we create. It is also hard to deal with that the book is obviously of its time: there are fleeting moments of racism, and some glaring antisemitism, both of which make it impossible to empathise with any of the characters.

The root of my struggle with Nightwood is that it felt exclusionary. I am used to lesbian fiction which invites its readers to engage and enjoy, to understand and to feel seen. It is hard to feel any of that with a book that seems to set out to distance the reader from the content. What could have been an entertaining romp through Europe, a heartbreaking portrait of a love in crisis, a farce filled with offbeat and quirky characters, turned into something isolating and stressful for me. I can usually see why a classic is a classic, but in this case, I am feeling excluded from engaging with the literary canon. It will stay with me, like Jeanette Winterson promised, but not in the way she meant.

Danika reviews In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Trigger warning: This review discusses emotional abuse. 

I have been simultaneously excited for and dreading reading In the Dream House since I first heard of its existence. I absolutely loved Her Body and Other Parties as well as Machado’s edition of Carmillaso those put her books on my automatic must read list. This memoir, though, is about a same-sex emotionally abusive relationship: a subject I think needs to be discussed more, and is also something that gets under my skin. I knew that Machado would handle it incredibly–but I also knew that skill would carry the risk of reliving some painful moments in my own history. I was right on both counts.

Machado is an incredible writer. This is a book that experiments with the genre of memoir, explores the history of abuse between women (and its invisibility in the archive), includes a choose your own adventure section, and manages to make a recap of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode a chilling counterpart to the main narrative. In the Dream House is divided into very short sections, usually between 1-3 pages. Each examines the “dream house” (where this relationship took place) from different angles: “The Dream House as Gothic Romance,” “The Dream House as Folk Lore,” “The Dream House as Famous Last Words.” Some are vignettes from her relationship. Some are academic essays on topics like 1940s Gothic Romance movies, or queer-coded villains. I found myself taking picture after picture on my phone of these short works, wanting to refer back to them.

Although this is not a book of theory by any means, Machado weaves in the academic so that it complements the story–and also makes me, for a second, want to be back in academia. Her explorations, regardless of the topic, are fascinating. Did you know that 1946 had the highest divorce rate in the U.S.? Do you know why? Throughout the book, there are footnotes referring to the MotifIndex of Folk-Literature, a book I was confident didn’t exist (Machado used a similar technique in Carmilla), but I see now is a real, 6 volume catalogue. For example, in “Dream House as Famous Last Words,” the woman in the dream house (she never gets a name), says “We can fuck, but we can’t fall in love.” The footnote that follows refers to “Omens in love affairs.”

Of course, this is a book about abuse. It follows their relationship from its cheery promise to nightmare reality. It’s not my experience, but it still felt like someone putting words to an experience I have never been able to properly voice. Machado explores the nature of abuse in queer relationships: the tangle of feelings about “lesbian utopias” being shattered, about violence and abuse as gender-coded, about feeling the need for both of you and your relationship to be positive representation. That by naming the abuse, you will only validate homophobic people’s views. “Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.'”

For me, that really hit home. It made me think about the trap that queer people find themselves in an abusive relationship: the need to protect our abuser in order to protect the greater queer community/image. Also, the idea that our partner can’t possibly be abusive, because they are a victim. They are marginalized. In the victim/oppressor binary, someone can’t occupy both spaces, right? But I realized that it goes one step further than that, something that likely every person in an abusive relationship has felt: protecting the relationship in order to protect yourself. Because to show the abuse is to show that you were wrong. Misguided. That you misjudged the situation. You were foolish. Everyone else could see it, so how could you not? The more obvious the abuse, the more shameful it is to voice it or to attempt to escape. It’s an emotional sunk cost fallacy. Of course, this isn’t true. Victims of abuse should never be judged in this way. But it’s another way to keep people trapped.

Carmen Maria Machado is an incredible author, and I will continue to pick up anything that she ever writes. I highly recommend In the Dream House, but be prepared for an in-depth exploration of emotional abuse.