Alexa reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover
4.5 stars

When I saw that cover and read the blurb, I was ready for an epic queer urban fantasy adventure. I mean, doesn’t that just sound badass? Two fourteen-year-olds: a nonbinary witch zombie, and a Muslim lesbian werewolf. I have read many urban fantasy books where the supernatural creatures live in secret, so I was excited to see this book went in another direction, one I’m always eager to read more of: a world where supernatural creatures live among humans and are regulated by rules and laws. It’s always interesting to see how intertwining the two worlds changes them both.

Out of Salem is unique in that regard because instead of human, the default seems to be witches, with only a small percentage of the population being nonmagicals. Werewolves, zombies, selkies, shapeshifters and other creatures are minorities that have limited rights which vary in countries or time periods, just as with real life minorities. I loved all the little details, like the ways to become a zombie, the casual mention of prophecies, or shapeshifters being able to marry any gender in certain countries.

So, for the first part of the book, I was getting what I signed up for: a really well-built and interesting urban fantasy world in the ’90s that incorporates supernatural creatures into real-world history and culture. And I loved it. Then, it gradually got a little too real for comfort. It’s as if the book was asking the question, “hey, you know what’s scarier than zombies and werewolves? Reality!”. (A little like that Doctor Who episode with the spiders and the gun-loving white guy.) As I kept reading about horrible bullies, racist rallies, police brutality and windows being broken for the owner supporting minority groups, it was difficult not to think about how many people go through all this stuff daily. Z and Aysel having to sit in class while the teacher talked about how dangerous their kind is, and Z reading a book by a guy who thinks all zombies should be killed in horrifying ways reminded me of too many similar situations I went through for being a queer person.

There are many fantasy books that use supernatural creatures as metaphors for real-life oppressed groups, while using all white and allocishet casts. What made the metaphor in Out of Salem really work for me is that while Z, Aysel and the others are persecuted for their supernatural traits, they are also minorities in real life. Z is nonbinary, Aysel is a lesbian, and major side characters include an elderly lesbian, a Black Jewish teacher, and several transgender werewolves. While the main focus isn’t on these real-life traits, they are still mentioned: the older lesbian expresses joy that Aysel is able to come out so young, Aysel draws a parallel between being a “good werewolf” and her mother being a “good Muslim”, and it is made clear that Mr. Weber is risking a lot more as a Black Jewish person than one of his more privileged colleagues might.

All in all, I consider Out of Salem a wonderfully well-written book with great world-building and characters. I loved the little group that formed by the end, and how they gradually became closer to each other. I loved that Aysel and Z gravitated towards each other not only for both being monsters, but also both being queer. I loved Z explaining their identity, how both they and their friends were kind of awkward and unsure about terms, but not malicious by any means – the way you’d expect 14-year-olds in the ’90s to be when they have few queer adults to look up to or to learn from.

My only real complaint is that I found the ending too open, and since I saw no indication of this being a first book in a series, I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t sure how I expected all the plotlines to be wrapped up neatly, but this was still a let-down.

Concent warnings: misgendering and deadnaming (mostly due to Z being closeted, not intentional transphobia), death of family members, body horror (because zombies), police brutality, some gun violence, racist rallies, bullying, suicidal thoughts

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @runtimeregan.

Alexa reviews Rescues and the Rhyssa by T.S. Porter

Rescues and the Rhyssa by T.S. Porter cover

Two occasional lovers with many differences team up to save three kidnapped kids. And then it gets even more complicated.

Sophi is the captain of a smuggler ship with a diverse crew, including two types of aliens, a nonbinary human, and Muslim humans as well, if I understood the cultural clues right. They are quite literally a found family, especially with the reptile-like aliens who accept Sophi into their family as a male based on her role, despite her being a human female. I absolutely LOVED the aliens we’ve seen, and the fact that we had the opportunity to see from their perspective. Both the analoids and the blatta were well-developed, unique and complex species with their own culture that is very different from humans, and seeing Sophi as a human make the effort to take part in that culture and adjust was really interesting. (No spoilers, but there was a scene pretty late in the book that showed the crucial importance of having blattas on your ship and it was amazing. I love blattas.)

And then there’s Cadan. Cadan is big, dangerous, scarred, and she doesn’t exist. She has been turned into a weapon for her King that she is endlessly loyal to: she goes where he tells him too without question. And yet, she’s far from being emotionless. We find out early on that she is actually part of the king’s family: his children are her niblings, the king is like a cousin or even a sibling, and she is devoted to all of them because she loves them. I loved to see Cadan with her blood family just as much as I loved to see Sophi with her found family. Both of these families had unique members and plenty of love and care for each other despite their differences. I also really love the idea of a transgender king where it is only casually mentioned once because otherwise it’s not a big deal to anyone. And I love the kids. Seriously, I love the kids.

And of course, there’s Cadan and Sophi together. They are very different people with different values and different goals, which causes a lot of tension in their relationship. Yet, they love each other. There are plenty of sex scenes in this book, some of which seriously made me blush, but one of my favourite scenes was the completely non-sexual yet intimate bondage scene that Sophi used to relax Cadan. I admit that sometimes I felt like there is too much tension and not enough common ground between them for this to actually work as a romantic relationship as opposed to casual sex, but the ending/epilogue was open enough that I can believe them getting to that point.

If you are looking for a F/F sci-fi story with well-developed aliens, relationship conflicts and family dynamics, this might just be for you. I know that I enjoyed it.

content warnings: kidnapping, violence, explicit sexual scenes

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @runtimeregan.

Marthese reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

“Something tugs in my chest. I feel strangely offbeat”

Leah on the Offbeat is the second book in the Creekwood series by Becky Albertalli and it follows Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (on which the movie ‘Love, Simon’ was based). While it may be worthwhile to read that book first it is not necessary to understand this book but it gives you more familiarity with the characters in this book. Disclaimer – the first book is not Sapphic but follows a gay teenage boy in his search for  the boy he was sending emails to, and it’s cute as cotton candy.

Leah is the protagonist on this book. She’s a badass drummer – expect some music references – who loves her body even though people expect her not to, because she’s fat. Leah is also insecure and has a tendency to pull away when things get too much. She also stands up for social justice and knows not to take shit, although she may also be too stubborn – good thing her mother is also stubborn. She is so realistic, you’ll find yourself asking ‘is this me?’

Leah is bi and she has known this for a long time. Her mother knows and is the most supportive mother ever – even is Leah may be embarrassed or find her overbearing. Her friends however, don’t know even though they for sure would be supportive seeing as there is a gay couple in their friends’ group. Once time passes, it may be hard to say something, like you missed the chance for it and this is absolutely believable. Even though you know it will be okay, coming out is scary.

Leah’s heart beats faster when Abby is around. Abby who she had been really good friends with and then avoided one on one interactions with her. However, Abby and Leah cannot afford to go to universities/colleges far away so they are both going to Georgia, which bring them closer back together. There is just one problem: Abby is her best friend’s girlfriend/ex-girlfriend!

Abby is super-sweet and talented and seems to be flirting with Leah, which confuses her.

This was a five star read. It’s similar to other books in plot but it was also very fresh. Yes there is an element of confusion – it’s YA! But the characters, especially Leah, know themselves. A lot of bi struggles were mentioned in the book which again was refreshing. The book itself will make your heart beat in a pattern of gushing, angst and comfort – a really nice composition and you just want to keep on reading. It’s easily a one sitting book.

Leah’s descriptions and her actions are also very entertaining. Like she would be me if I went to a formal event because she does something that is very laughable but realistic! As a high school story, the book ends with prom. For me, Leah was basically Belle and Abby was basically Cinderella.

This is a book I’d recommend for anyone. The only thing that I didn’t like about this book was that the term ‘hot mess’ was repeated a lot! Apart from that Albertalli really has teenage-speak down and it’s a lovely story with realistic characters and actions and while it’s a simple story, it will take you for a ride. I really wish they make a movie about it too though they have changed some things in the ‘Love, Simon’ movie already.

The Half-Light Makes for a Clearer View: Genevra Littlejohn reviews On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

I’m writing this from inside of a curious space. About a week ago I stood up into a cabinet and gave myself a concussion, which I then immediately exacerbated by doing Chinese lion dance in four shows for a local production of The Nutcracker. So my life for a few days was cut harshly between periods of bright light and motion, and periods of sleep. Being awake has felt like one of those dreams where I’m just a little late to everything. Being asleep has felt like falling into a well. And then Winter Storm Diego hit my part of Virginia, and everything, everything stopped. My little house in the woods got fifteen inches of snow over as many hours, and since we’re a quarter of a mile from the closest paved road, gone was every possible excuse for getting up and doing things. In previous winters over the five years I’ve lived here, this is when I would read. I’d cover the available space in the tiny living room with quilts and pillows, hunker down with some snow snacks, and only get up to find another book.

But. Concussion. Trying to sit and read a novel proved…problematic. It’s been dreamlike and odd, the quick-slow jittery passage of time, the way that things don’t seem to stick right in my memory.

And then. Somehow, by chance, I found this lyrical, poetic, beautiful treasure-box of a graphic novel.

There are a lot of things to read in the world. I could do a review here every single day for months on end and not run out of my TBR list. That’s what I’m telling myself, when I’m asking how I never heard about On A Sunbeam until now, even though it started serializing as a webcomic a couple of years ago. Named for a Belle and Sebastian song, On A Sunbeam is set in a future so far from ours that its technology is more or less unrecognizable, though people are still more or less the same. It takes place after human expansion into deep space, and after–like a bacterial bloom dying back from lack of resources–the collapse of civilizations. People traveled so far into the dark that they weren’t able to come home again, and the most distant of them have sat for generations, just barely getting by. Barely daring to hope for rescue, because who would come for them? And there are some old colonies that don’t want any contact with anyone else, like the people of The Staircase, a settlement on the edge of known space mostly mentioned in legends and ghost stories.

But all of that, all of that seems very far away from the protagonist, a young girl named Mia. Her story is split raggedly between two timelines: the one where she’s a student at a boarding school-cum-space colony, and the one a few years later where she works with a team of antiquity restorers/maybe something more to mend abandoned colonies and architecture that has long since fallen into ruin. It’s an interesting juxtaposition; the story is pulled like a rope between this girl with great potential and very few aspirations, stumbling through life, causing trouble, and the older, quieter version of herself who spends her days cleaning up after the consequences of others’ centuries-old mistakes.

The first three quarters of the comic are colored largely in shades of Payne’s Grey and in oranges. I thought at first that this was just a pretty sort of contrast in the minimalist style so popular to indie comics and webcomics these days, but about halfway through, I remembered all at once those distant high school lessons about redshift and the Doppler Effect, how speed and distance turn what you see from red to blue. The past looks different than it really is. The future can’t be seen clearly, even if we think we’re sure what is going to happen. And like the narrative, we’re pulled taut between those two points, looking forward and back but pinned to the inescapable Now.

The line weight and panel structure reminded me a lot of the early days of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1980’s Nausicaa manga. On A Sunbeam has the same sort of dreamlight vagueness to some of its figures and landscapes, a knobbly intricacy to its plants and architecture. Even the edges of the panels waver, mirage-like. Things swim into focus and out as if with the attention of the protagonist, and scenes that in a more action-oriented comic might be very close to the viewer are instead distant and hazy as with memory, as much concerned with the landscape as with the characters living in it. Because you never can clearly remember everything about your first love, can you? Even if you write it down event by event, there are always going to be things that dissolve into the dim red past. You can’t hold tightly enough to ensure that nothing escapes.

The characters have complicated relationships and love each other deeply, but all the same every one of them has stories they don’t tell the others. Every time you describe something, scientists say these days, you’re changing your memory of it. It might be that to preserve something flawlessly, it must never be spoken aloud. Or maybe it’s just about self-protection, because if you like the way she looks at you right now, why damage that fragile connection by showing her the darkest places you’ve had to walk? But, as everything has a flipside, if you don’t share anything, if you’re never truly seen, can you be sure they love you?

This review is not purposefully vague. I could give you a cold recital of events, chapter by chapter, but that would be as lifeless as a sparrow dissection, and this work deserves much better treatment than that. It has a dream’s motion to it, inexorable but winding. There’s nothing extra, nothing that could be cut away, but it doesn’t feel spare or thin. The world is never explained with any clarity (why do the spaceships all look like koi, and how do they travel so quickly? Why isn’t there a single male character? What’s the political power structure of the human universe?) and simultaneously, it’s not necessary. This is a love story, and a story about finding family in unexpected places, and it’s enough to know that all the science and history exists at all in the world. We don’t need to see it, because it’s not what we’re focusing on.

As I read, I kept being reminded of a sonnet I memorized a decade ago, Against Entropy by Mike Ford. There’s a bit in it that goes:

The universe winds down. That’s how it’s made.
But memory is everything to lose;
although some of the colors have to fade,
do not believe you’ll get the chance to choose.

There are things we get to choose, and things we don’t. We get to choose how to respond to a given situation; we don’t get to choose how others will respond. We don’t get to choose the consequences for the things we do. We don’t get to choose to make the world hold still until we’re good and ready to move forward. We don’t get to choose what we remember, and what our minds leave behind. Mia, exhausted, says “Sometimes I just wish…everything would slow down…I fuck things up, or everything turns sour, and it just rushes by me. And I’ll take a second to catch my breath… But by then it’s too late. Everything… everything is gone.” She’s young, and she’s still learning what should be held on to, and what should be let go. She is constantly deciding between wakefulness and sleep, between flying and falling. But this deftly-crafted story isn’t going to let her, or the reader, hit the ground too hard.

Final rating: Five out of five stars. I’m buying multiple copies to give as Christmas presents, because this is the most enjoyable graphic novel I’ve read all year.

CONTENT WARNINGS (spoilers!):

There is no sexual violence in this work. There is no parental abuse in this work. There is no partner-to-partner domestic abuse in this book (there are a couple of arguments, but they are not abusive, just snarly). There is no male-against-female violence in this book.
Some school bullying, both physical and emotional, but not extreme.
Death of a mentor.
Automobile accident (non-lethal).
PG-13 bloody violence (less than a video game, but against a protagonist).
Attempted lynching (unsuccessful).

Mars reviews Hocus Pocus and The All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

All her life, Poppy Dennison has known the story of the frightening and magical events that took place in Salem on Halloween night back in 1993. It’s otherwise known as the day her parents really met, or alternatively as the one time her cool Aunt Dani got kidnapped and almost eaten by witches. To be clear, the witches in this book are characters leftover from a coven that was decimated during the actual historical witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts and not modern practitioners of a particular faith, and should not be taken as such.

The three witchy Sanderson sisters, their book of spells, and the special black flame candle that legend says will raise them from the dead are all still part of the popular Halloween lore that surrounds Salem. Her parents’ part of that story is virtually unknown, and Poppy is determined to keep it that way lest her mean girl nemesis Katie Taylor finds out and makes her last two years of high school its own kind of hell.

For readers who are not familiar with the lovely classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus, have no fear because the Part I of this book is a very close retelling of the movie and sets up Part II very well, detailing Poppy’s own involvement with the Sanderson sisters. Some witches just aren’t very good at staying dead.

This was a surprising and fun read that I just couldn’t put down. With more action, adventure, and character development than I expected, we follow Poppy, her best friend and wingman Travis, her mysterious dream girl Isabella, as well as other characters both new and familiar as they race to stop a new plot hatched by the Sanderson sisters to help them achieve immortality and rain hell on earth. With their witchy powers enhanced by the rare blood moon, the stakes have never been higher (no pun intended).

Much like the original Hocus Pocus (Part I), this story is as much about family, friendship, and loyalty as it is about evil witches enslaving humans and damning their souls for their own enjoyment. Poppy makes a really relatable protagonist. Who hasn’t dealt with trying to mitigate embarrassing family history while tripping over a monster crush?

Quinn Jean reviews The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady's Guide Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee cover

[Warning: this review contains plot spoilers and discussions of violence and bigotry depicted in the novel; namely major characters experience misogyny, racism and homophobia in 18th century European and North African settings. Also this book is a sequel to Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue so beware default spoilers for that book too].

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is the treat it is due to the three main women at the centre of the novel. Felicity Montague is a well-travelled young white noblewoman in 18th century England who is in exile from her wealthy family and desperately trying to find a school or mentor who will let her train to be a doctor. Of course her gender precludes her admittance to anywhere in the country, or even Europe, despite the fact that Felicity is fiercely committed, highly intelligent, and hardworking. She is led to team up with Sim, a mysterious young black sailor travelling with mutual friends who offers to help Felicity pursue a promising opportunity that’s in continental Europe. Sim has the tenacity to match Felicity’s and both women acknowledge and appreciate the other’s intelligence and individuality. Rounding out the trio is Felicity’s childhood friend, Johanna, a fellow white European noblewoman who loves feminine fashions and frippery as much as studying natural sciences, though her family values her only as someone to marry off. All three of these women exemplify strength, cunning, kindness, creativity and intelligence, and their burgeoning respect for each other, and subsequent friendships, are nuanced and gorgeous.

Sim is a black Muslim woman from Algiers who identifies as attracted to women while Felicity decides she doesn’t like romance with anybody, though she loves her friends passionately. Both women, but particularly the former, are important and beautiful representations in a story set in a colonial 18th century world, and both the WLW and ace/aro themes are very sensitively portrayed. No one meets a grisly end due to their sexual orientation but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of high stakes and adventure, and it’s refreshing that having the one doesn’t mean sacrificing the other. The heroines travel through no less than five or six countries in the course of the book, and have encounters with pirates, dragons, mercenaries, cannon blasts, and menstrual blood stains on ballgowns (surely more terrifying than anything else on that list). The novel consistently feels breathless and urgent while never rushing through plot points and the high stakes always feel legitimate when the women are fighting for what they want and need. The central bond between the three main characters is most of what grounds the action and provides deeper resonance than just a fun “swords-crossed, indignant damsel” sort of caper.

Petticoats is a great book because the women get to drive their own stories, both by being the focus of the book in the first place and because they take charge of their destinies within the narrative. It shouldn’t be groundbreaking that two of these women, at least, are also not straight and this side of their identities is included as an important part of their arcs, but it is. And Sim and several other characters of colour in the story, in addition to multiple disabled characters, are further very welcome evidence that period pieces have no excuse to be exclusively white, male, straight and abled when it is historically accurate and incredibly simple to include diversity. A sequel portraying more of Sim’s adventures on the high seas, with or without Felicity and Johanna, would be another stellar contribution to historical fiction about WLW.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover

The night I was born, the attending nurse turned to my mother with a weird expression on her face. She noted that I had long delicate fingernails, and already a head of black hair; that a trail of fine baby hairs ran down my spine. “In the old days, you know, they’d have said she was a werewolf.” she told my mother. Mom, exhausted, laughed it off. It became a family story to tell later on–born on Halloween night, and a werewolf to boot! “In the old days,” Mom would laugh, “they’d have drowned you.”

It didn’t become a bitter story until she disowned me for being queer. “Why can’t you just choose to be straight?” she said. “I did. Why do you feel like you have to stand out like this?” In the old days, they would have drowned me. Now I had to find a way to keep my head above the waves.

In Hal Schrieve’s YA novel Out of Salem, everyone is treading water with a secret to keep. High school freshman Z’s just found out that they’re nonbinary–just in time to get into a car wreck with their entire family from which only they emerged, battered and freshly undead. Their classmate Aysel is Muslim, in 1990’s rural Oregon where anything but Christianity is a sure way to be ostracized–and she’s a werewolf, unregistered, which could easily be a death sentence if she gets caught. Their friend Tommy is constantly being accused of being either gay or an actual fairy, and while neither of those things is true, it doesn’t matter to his abusers. Even seeming just a little bit out of the norm is enough to put a target on his back.

And things aren’t about to get any less complicated for any of them when a local doctor is found dead. The police say he was murdered by a werewolf, throwing the town into an uproar of vigilantism and abuse against the other which is easily recognizable in today’s political climate. Every metaphysical minority is living in fear. The teenagers don’t feel that they have any reliable adults to turn to, or that if they tried, they’d only endanger them, so they have to handle things on their own.

I’m writing this review very narrowly, because I feel like this book was just that good. I don’t want to spoil any part of it. It’s urban fantasy of just-a-minute-ago, the Nineties as they almost were, but it’s also YA for people who weren’t born yet in the year it takes place; it balances teenage passion neatly against the now-slightly-foreign world of our past, only slightly sideslipped into the fantastic. Before cell phones, before the panopticon of stoplight cameras, but in a world that was not less dangerous to people who stand out. There’s a constant sense of being just a moment ahead of being caught, of barely outrunning the real monsters, and one can only keep running at that speed for so long before one’s energy gives out and something has to break.

I appreciated that the characters aren’t without teenage flaws. They’re all going through real, heartrending troubles in their daily lives, but also they make some choices out of inexperience that you’d believe a fourteen-year-old might make if they felt their back was against the wall. They reach for what small happiness they can find, they trust or mistrust, and none of it feels stilted or contrived. It all just feels like survival.

I was taken a bit aback at the first use of the word “transsexual,” as it’s not a term I’ve seen in sympathetic literature for a long time now. But it was the word used in the Nineties, and so it is the term used in the book. But of course the author isn’t unaware of that:

“Z, Aysel told me you were calling yourself like, genderqueer or something these days, right?” Z was a little taken aback by the conversation. “I guess,” they said. “Yeah.” They tightened their hold on Elaine’s shoulders. “The words change a lot,” Elaine said. “Doesn’t really matter.”

What matters more than the terminology, quoth the story, is the soul behind it, and these kids are figuring things out one mistake and injury and accidental insult at a time.

I was consistently balancing between amused at the bluntness and impressed at the deftness when it came to the use of metaphor in the story. Z’s a zombie, and they’re trans; more than once I’ve heard a trans friend tell me that their friends and family keep treating them like they’d died when they came out, and some other thing was shambling around in their skin. Aysel’s lycanthropy is treated a lot like I’ve experienced queerness being handled by the religious right, as something monstrous, something that needs to be caged or electrically shocked out of a person before they can be allowed in society. It was all on-the-nose enough that I got a bit of a tension ache between my shoulderblades. I so badly wanted the protagonists to find a way to freedom and safety, but what does that look like when the entire world is arrayed against you? And which of those needs do you choose, if everyone is telling you that you have to choose one or the other?

Even while all of society is insisting that the protagonists must be like them or die, even while most of the characters don’t see any way out but to run, the narrative suggests quietly that there’s another option. That there’s another demand for the characters to make. That building a community can build safety; that refusing to back down can protect someone else; that maybe you can transform the world into something new, something that has room for you in it, if only you are brave.

Final rating, a very rare-for-me five out of five stars.

Content Warning: Discussion of graphic injury to animated dead body (painless, but explicit); homophobia (from the bullies); physical abuse (same); mild mention of anti-Muslim bigotry; fat-shaming (bullies, again, these guys are *winners*), electroshock aversion “therapy,” racism, police violence (repeatedly), off-screen but explicit police murder of civilians.

Megan G reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah feels like she’s always on the off-beat. She loves to draw but is so self-conscious she barely shows anyone her drawings, let alone allows herself to think about selling them for money. Her mother is much younger than the parents of her friends, and currently dating a man Leah thinks she is way too good for. She’s bisexual, but is uncertain about coming out to her friends, even openly-gay Simon. And, to top it all off, she’s starting to get feelings for someone she really shouldn’t – someone that could cause tensions in her friend group she really doesn’t want to cause. Sometimes it feels like the only part of her life that is on beat is her drumming.

Leah on the Offbeat is what I like to call a Sequel-But-Not-Really. It takes place in the same universe as Becky Albertalli’s debut novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda and includes the same characters. Instead of being told from Simon Spier’s perspective, however, it is told from Leah Burke’s. This is what adds the “But-Not-Really” to the Sequel, because by placing ourselves in Leah’s shoes instead of Simon’s, it feels like we’re entering an entirely different world.

One of the things I loved the most about Simon vsthe Homo Sapien Agenda was how honest and realistic Simon’s voice came through in the writing. This easily became the thing I loved the most about Leah on the Offbeat as well. I don’t know how Albertalli managed to get into such different character’s heads so perfectly, but she did it. Leah is nothing like Simon, and yet she is just as real. It never felt like I was reading a piece of fiction. Instead, it was like someone was narrating their life to me (even more-so considering I listened to this as an audiobook).

In her realism, Leah is just as frustrating as she is encouraging. The biggest thing that holds Leah back throughout the entire novel is herself. Almost every bad decision she makes is born out of a lack of self-confidence and anxiety, and is therefore self-inflicted, which can sometimes make it difficult to feel sorry for her. The good thing about this, though, is that Leah grows. She becomes more confident as the story goes on, more self-aware, and less likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the time the story ends she still has a long way to go, but she’s moving forward. It’s incredibly satisfying.

The love story is my other favourite thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much, because if you haven’t read this book yet then you deserve to experience every moment of Leah falling in love for yourself, because it’s amazing, and hilarious, and cringeworthy, and messy, and so, so, so worth it. It was more than I could have hoped for, and I hoped for a lot.

Because I read this as an audiobook, I feel the need to include a small bit of praise for Shannon Purser, the reader. I found she did an amazing job at bringing the story, and Leah in particular, to life. She had great inflection and was super clear. I highly recommend giving it a listen!

Overall, Leah on the Offbeat not only holds up to its predecessor, but I would go so far as to say surpasses it. Leah is charming, and frustrating, and kind, and obnoxious, and warm, and real. She’ll worm her way into your heart and force you to cheer for her, even when you don’t want to. She’ll throw you right back into your teenage years, for worse and then for better. She’ll remind you of what it’s like to be a young girl falling in love with a girl for the first time in all the best ways.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

Gail Marlene Schwartz reviews Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman

Conflict Is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman

“The fact that something could go wrong does not mean that we are in danger. It means that we are alive.”

– Conflict is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman

Just days after the American midterm election, it’s impossible to avoid the ever-growing polarization in the U.S. Author, playwright, and professor Sarah Schulman takes a new look at similar dynamics in her 2016 book, Conflict is Not Abuse, and posits that improving social ills requires differentiating conflict from abuse and responding differently. The ideas in the book are unique, persuasive, and practical, a great contribution to the peace movement. Everyone in a leadership position should read this book and strongly consider how they can implement its ideas to avoid escalation and crisis in conflict situations; it could literally help save lives and at the same time enable human beings to evolve and live with far less anxiety and fear and far more joy and peace.

Schulman draws on many sources for the book, including the theories and practices of psychologists, sociologists, novelists and poets. She is transparent about speaking from a queer and feminist perspective, and her methodology is more conversational and interactive than academic, making the ideas very accessible. She includes conversations with experts, quotes, tweets, Facebook posts, and concrete examples, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine, women in dangerous relationships, Canadian criminalization of people with HIV, and the killing of black men in the US by police. She does a great job of bringing many different thinkers and their ideas to the table, strengthening her argument and making the book all the more engaging.

The phenomenon of “overstating harm” is central to Schulman’s thesis. She says there is a very real difference between a woman who is afraid to go home because her boyfriend may kill her, based on past serious physical abuse, and a woman who is afraid to go home because she doesn’t want to face her boyfriend’s anger. People who have been in the victim role can overstate harm but so can people or institutions who actually have power. One example is the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. Actions like a Palestinian protest over land being seized has resulted in ongoing killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Because of the Holocaust, the Israeli government overstates the harm of Palestinian actions; the overstatement of harm justifies the escalation and the ongoing oppression and killing of people whose actions were reasonable to their situation and in a far less powerful position.

Overstating harm happens from distorted thinking, Schulman explains, which has two very different root causes. Somebody with supremacist ideology can easily overstate harm. A supremacist is somebody who bullies, who doesn’t self-reflect or apologize, who believes he or she is simply better than others. These are the people who rape, abuse, cover up, lie, and cause scandals. But somebody who’s been traumatized by that person can have the same distorted thinking, by projecting the traumatizing event onto a current situation.

This was a powerful thought, that some of those who feel unsafe, threatened, or victimized are suffering from exaggerated thinking which contributes to escalation. It’s certainly not part of the politics of oppression. Many on the left in North America would label this “blaming the victim.” But a huge strength of this book is Schulman’s willingness to take risks like this to point out unpopular truths and perspectives to her audience, people on the political left.

Overstating harm also means that authentic danger becomes invisible. If a police department gets repeated calls about domestic violence when the perceived danger is exaggerated, the officers are far less likely to believe there is a serious problem when it happens. Those most affected, says Schulman, are the most vulnerable among us, like refugees, people of color, and disabled people. This is an important point as it shows how a personal habit or behavior can have a high and unwanted social cost.

Schulman also argues that the technological age has made this problem substantially worse. Electronic communication lacks the tools necessary to understand and connect with another person. Most of us have experienced offending someone with a Facebook post, a Tweet, an email, or a text message. Many people on Facebook have blocked somebody or have been de-friended because of a conflict that Schulman says could have been resolved had the people been in the same room. She advocates for picking up the phone and speaking voice-to-voice instead of texting or emailing, both to simplify and humanize communication and also to avoid the real dangers of miscommunication and escalation.

Another key element of the theory is that of the “bad group” or bad family that encourages the person or group to take escalating actions, like shunning, cruelty, and unilateral control. This is similar to peer pressure, something most of us have experienced. Schulman again is speaking not from a progressive or marginalized perspective but something more distanced, seeing the way the dynamic involves everyone and how escalation leads to crises nobody wants. The left often employs those tactics, and it’s valuable to question them when people around us “support” us by suggesting we use them.

Schulman gives a great example from her own life: a favorite male writing student posted a blog about having a crush on her in the early days of blogging. Her friends, most of whom are queer feminists, encouraged her to kick the student out of her class, report the incident to the police, and file for a restraining order. She resisted the pressure and instead took different steps. She asked the university to move the student to another writing class. She called and asked him if they could meet to talk. They got together several times and both learned more about the other’s position. Schulman ends the story saying she and the student have remained friends and fans of one another’s work; both emerged from the conflict feeling complete and understanding more about one another, themselves, and how to talk through a conflict.

Schulman suggests that “good” families and communities get involved in conflicts to help avoid overstatement of harm and distorted thinking. This was, perhaps, one of the most radical ideas if the book, in an age where most people consider conflicts personal and “nobody’s business.” We’re encouraged to involve either the state (certainly people of color know this will rarely have a good ending, but Schulman helps us see that it doesn’t help any of us in the end) or a private therapist if we’re wealthy enough to afford one. But our friends and sometimes our family members are with us in our everyday life. They know us better than anyone; if they can point out distorted thinking and help us prevent escalation, this could be a very easy and efficient way to avoid crises.

One particularly powerful chapter in the book is a series of tweets posted by Schulman and her friends, many of them Palestinian human rights activists, during the summer of 2014 when the Israeli army killed more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians. The realities of the situation as it unfolded were horrific to read about, particularly since no mainstream media outlet in the West reported what was happening. When contextualized, it becomes clear that the distorted thinking Schulman talks about can so easily lead to atrocities in which losses are enormous and nobody wins.

Human conflict exists because of difference. But we are far more capable of resolving it than we think. We must start by abandoning the roles of “perpetrator” and “victim” in circumstances that don’t warrant those labels. When we recognize that we are simply “conflicted,” we see the “other” as a human being, and it’s more likely we can find a satisfactory conclusion and often learn and grow. This new way of approaching conflict can result in paradigm shifts, which means social and cultural change, something most would agree is massively needed across the globe at this precarious moment in history.

Gail Marlene Schwartz is an Abba fan, a Planet Earth activist, and the first in her family to heal anxiety through diet, exercise, and Facebook rants. Favorite lit mag credits: Lilith Magazine, The New Quarterly, Room Magazine. Favorite anthologies she’s been published in: Swelling with Pride (Caitlyn Press), Nature’s Healing Spirit (Sowing Creek Press), and How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting (TouchWood Editions). Gail lives in southern Quebec where she and her wife homeschool their son. She is currently working on her first novel. www.gailmarleneschwartz.com.

Mars reviews Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jaqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Please be aware that although I’ve tried to keep it minimal, this review contains spoilers.

Alana Quick is one of the best starship surgeons the non-gentrified City of Heliodor has to offer, or she would be if only someone gave her the chance to prove herself on a real starship. Unhappily trapped in the dusty chop shop she shares with her Aunt Lai on the planet Orpim, and bankrolled by her wealthy spirit guide sister, Alana and Aunt Lai struggle to make ends meet by working on whatever ship rolls their way. The two are desperate to afford the medication that keeps the worst symptoms of their shared condition, Mel’s Disorder, at bay, even to the degree that Aunt Lai would take extra hours working a call center job for the shady Transliminal Solutions, an “outsider” business whose mysterious, advanced technology has wiped out the local ship economy. Though she loves her aunt, Alana can’t shake her thoughts of escaping into the Big Quiet, and is consumed by her dream of making it off-world.

I can’t really get more into it without spoiling some awesome twists and turns, but suffice to say that Alana doesn’t stay grounded for long. One thing I can definitively say is that Ascension is a standout amongst its peers. Compelling characters meets space opera meets a uniquely metaphysical marriage of technology and astro-spiritualism. Our main protagonist breaks the mold as a queer, disabled woman of color. Breaks the mold in a genre sense, I mean, because Koyanagi gives us a lovable and diverse cast of characters to connect with, and Alana is only one of several significant characters who is affected by a disability, although none of them are defined by it.

This book hits the mark in so many ways, so I’ll try to give an overview of those to the searching reader. Non-traditional families abound here, including a rare accurate and healthy look at a functioning polyamorous relationship. Alana’s deep and true love for starship engines has spoiled many a human relationship for her. She suffers from the same condition that my favorite Law & Order: SVU detectives do – namely that she is married to her work. She will always, always choose the rush and thrill she gets from starships, for which she has not only a passion but a deep spiritual connection. Alana is burdened with the idea that traditional romance is over for her. Or so she thinks.

Also noteworthy is the exploration and growth of the sibling relationship between Alana and her sister Nova. There are few bonds in media that I feel are as underexplored as the one between siblings. Siblings can be complicated – they can be the greatest of allies or the greatest of enemies, or both at the same time – and the potential for such complexity and nuance is a device that is slowly gaining more traction among writers and media makers. Complex and contradictory is certainly a way to understand the Quick sisters.

A few things I should mention: there are super meta breakdowns of reality and conceptual universe-hopping at some point, so please be aware if that is going to be an existential red flag. There are descriptions of the painful physical symptoms Alana experiences with her Mel’s Disorder, dissociative experiences from another character, and descriptions of violence which are not gratuitous but may also be uncomfortable for certain readers.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for anyone drawn to intergalactic adventures. As a sci-fi lover who is more than aware of how patriarchal and sexist traditional science fiction can be, I am very comfortable describing this book as not like that. If you enjoy this book, I would recommend Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as a similarly sweeping, queer space opera.