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.

Anna Marie reviews Girls, Visions & Everything and The Gentrification of the Mind 

The cover of Girls, Visions, and Everything as well as Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman

Over the summer I set myself the challenge of reading one Sarah Schulman book per month – my interest had been sparked because my queer platonic partner had written her dissertation on one of Schulman’s novels Girls, Visions & Everything and the dissertation was really great! I ended up reading 4, one each month of summer with a bonus one in july! The other three were After DeloresThe Gentrification of the Mind and Empathy. Here are reviews of my two favourites, both of which I gave 5 stars to.

Like I said, girls, visions & everything was the first book I read, and I read it in about two days whilst I was on holiday, by a pool soaking up the heat. My setting perfectly mirrored the books sweaty summer time atmosphere. At that time it was the dyke-iest book I had read so far in 2018 (I think it’s now been slightly eclipsed by Sarah Waters’ book tipping the velvet). The story gives us a brief glimpse into dyke-about-town, Lila, who lives in new york city and is exploring and finding new relationships and making art. It’s unapologetically queer, sexy and sharply meaningful. The prose is really beautiful, like drinking water: simple and clear. As a character, Lila has stayed with me, and the lessons she learns in the text are relatable and sweet. The book includes some moments of harassment & discussions about sexual violence.

The other five star book I read of Schulman’s was not a novel, and in fact I think it was probably the best nonfiction book i’ve ever read! It was the 2012 book the gentrification of the mind: witness to a lost imagination. The book is about the ways that gentrification was affected and accelerated by the AIDS crisis both in terms of its physical & financial affect on life in New York City, but also in how it lead to a gentrification of the mind – of art and artist practice and community space too. it’s very tragic, but it honestly blew my mind as i read it, and it really made me consider and question my role in continuing gentrification(s) and inspired me to make active choices about the art I make and the spaces I encourage and support with my presence and my money. It is focused on the US and I live in the UK, but I still found it to be pertinent and interesting to my gay life. I definitely think if you’re an artist you should read this book!!

I’m excited to read more Sarah Schulman books, especially Rat Bohemia, and her first novel The Sophie Horowitz Story. If you would like to hear my thoughts on all four of the books I read I made a video about them here.

Alexa reviews Soft on Soft by Em Ali

Last month, I reviewed a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who was fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss). This month, I’m reviewing a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who is fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Soft on Soft, a.k.a #FatGirlsInLove by Em Ali). Honestly, I love this trend, and I hope we’ll all have the chance to read many more diverse and positive sapphic stories like these.

Despite my comparison at the beginning, Soft on Soft by Em Ali (which I received as an ARC with a different title, #FatGirlsInLove, that appears to be a working title) is an entirely unique story. It’s a romance between two fat sapphic women: Selena, a Black demisexual model, and June, the Arab-Persian, anxious make-up artist. Thanks to the profession of the two protagonists, Soft on Soft is full of diverse bodies being celebrated, colourful descriptions, flowers, and altogether vivid mental images.

The book’s plot can mostly be summarised as Selena and June flirting, hanging out with friends, going on dates, making geeky references or working together. It is a character driven novel that is perfect for people who just want to read a cute romance and don’t mind the minimal plot – and really, the characters are worth staying for. The supporting cast has multiple nonbinary characters (with different pronouns), one of whom has depression and some really relatable remarks about mental health and therapy. Also, one parent of the main couple is bisexual, which is awesome – I very rarely see older queer characters, especially parents with adult children.

One strange thing was that the characters in this book talked in real life the way I’m used to people talking on Tumblr, and it was just a strange dissonance to see that kind of language being used in offline conversation. For this reason, some sentences seemed like they weren’t really lifelike, but I’m sure people actually talk like this and I’m just not used to it. (Also, “I’m green with enby” is a great pun I must use.)

In short, this was an adorable novel with diverse characters and colourful settings (and also, cats!). I admit I generally prefer books with a more exciting plot, but people who just want a cozy sapphic romance with fat characters will love Soft on Soft.

tw: panic attack described by POV character (chapter 8)

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 @greywardenblue.

Quinn Jean reviews All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout The Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

[This review contains very vague spoilers (no specific plot points, though) and mentions of violence]

This exceptional short story collection, edited by Saundra Mitchell, is a sterling addition to WLW fiction. The vast majority of the seventeen stories included involve major WLW characters and without fail, every tale is breathtakingly beautiful. The historical settings range from a convent in medieval Spain, to small-town USA in the 1950s, right through to grunge-soaked Seattle in the early 1990s. Similarly, the young women included in the WLW stories vary greatly in their personalities, identities, dreams and loves. The one thing all the stories have in common is that none of the protagonists have unhappy endings. The book has successfully set out to show queer teenagers have always existed and thrived, even in the most adverse circumstances.

The heroism inherent in merely existing as a queer person is captured brilliantly in every story in All Out, with some of the stories including magic and fantasy to further heighten this theme. Leprechauns and witches–as well as peasant girls, waitresses and nuns–all show themselves to be strong, generous and brave when their circumstances would have them give up on life and love. Too often fictional portrayals of WLW in historical settings show these women to be doomed, but these stories reward their characters with happiness and promising futures. And the long past times in foreign places portrayed by the authors never feel distant given the amount of detail and nuance each story is imbued with, so that the reader is transported completely each time.

It is to the reader’s benefit not to know too much about what each story will contain, with only the promise that none end in tragedy, so there’s no need to be anxious when reading. Inevitably certain historical settings mean there are depictions of violence at times, but this is not the over-riding theme of any story, with queer love stories and self-discovery always emerging victorious.

Do not miss this book, it is a glorious expression of the love and light that has always filled WLW.

Alexa reviews Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss

Learning Curves is a 70-page novella with little conflict and a fluffy love story between two women at college. One of them is a Puerto Rican lesbian studying family law, and the other one is a white panromantic asexual woman with ADHD. You shouldn’t expect a huge epic plot: Learning Curves is more about everyday life, college, celebrating Christmas, a huge, loving Puerto Rican family, and two women falling in love.

I admit that I easily get bored if I’m reading a longer book with so little plot, but 70 pages was just the perfect amount to still hold my attention and let me enjoy all the little moments. I loved how overly supportive Elena’s mother was, and I loved the two women cooking and baking together, especially Puerto Rican dishes.

There were so many of these little things that I loved. Cora is bookish and loves reading about “magic, dragons and queer people”. Both women are very casual about mentioning their queer identity, and while she doesn’t elaborate, Cora also mentions how even the community itself can be hostile towards certain identities. There was also a throwaway mention of cocky-gate (controversy over one author literally trying to trademark the word “cocky” in romance novel titles), which made me laugh, although it might have been strange to people who didn’t know what it was referring to.

I did have a couple of issues, or rather some things that I found strange but weren’t necessarily bad. This novella felt like it was written from an outsider’s perspective, which isn’t automatically a problem, but I really would have appreciated more insight into the thoughts and feelings of Elena and Cora, or at least one of them. I also felt like the blurb was very misleading: while the two women go to college and meet at one of the classes they have in common, there is really not much focus on their careers, and basically no mention of either of them not having time for love like the blurb says. Moreover, I sometimes found the dialogue strange or clunky. And finally, this is a minor pet peeve, but there were a few acronyms that were never really explained and as a non-US person whose first language isn’t English, I still have genuinely no clue what they are. I could sort of guess from context, but I generally don’t want to be Googling acronyms while reading a book.

I was originally going to rate this 4 stars, but the ace rep and the way it was handled in the relationship pushed it up. I loved that Elena immediately accepted both that Cora is asexual and that she doesn’t want sex, and it wasn’t an issue for a single moment. It might not be the most “realistic”, but it was really nice to finally read a relationship between an asexual and an allosexual person where the allosexual person is the one who agrees not to have sex instead of the asexual person indulging their partner. Another thing I see a lot is that while the non-ace person agrees not to have sex, they still talk about how this is a huge sacrifice for them, which I find really guilt-trippy, but this absolutely wasn’t the case here.

I will definitely be keeping an eye out for this author’s works in the future.

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 @greywardenblue.

11 Literally Perfect Sapphic Novels

Here’s another one of my recent booktube videos, this time discussing the sapphic novels and short story collections that I’ve rated 5 stars!

Books mentioned:

Support the Lesbrary on Patreon to be entered in monthly queer book giveaways!

Genevra Littlejohn reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara cover

“I’m livid every time I think about what Jimmy did to me, but you know what enrages me even more? How people started to think that he had a *right* to do what he did, and that I was the one who should be put in the pillory. That whole town needs to be burned to the ground and started over.”

“There must be some way to get justice besides that, ” Mary mused. “There must be some way for you to go home without destroying it.”

I’ve been looking forward to reading Miriam McNamara’s The Unbinding of Mary Reade since I first heard of it at the beginning of the year. “Lesbian pirates!” the advance blurb crowed. I thought that one, yes please, and on the listed publication date I hied myself to Barnes and Noble to grab it, only to be met with disappointment; it had been pushed back to June. When the new publication date hit, I was in Portland–the far opposite side of the country from where I live–and I made sure to stop in at the YA section of Powell’s to find it. But it wasn’t on the shelf, and a quizzical consultation with my smartphone told me that it had been pushed back yet again. So I finished out my vacation empty-handed, still waiting. This time, when the appointed day came around, I didn’t go to the bookstore. I got the e-book, and devoured it immediately.

The novel is the story, somewhat embellished, of the actual historical figures of Mary Reade and Anne Bonny, female pirates who lived and fought during the 1700’s. I’ll leave it to you to do the inevitable Wikipedia trawling if you want to know more about these two remarkable women’s lives, but much of what is in the novel is fairly accurate. Mary Reade was the daughter of a British woman, born out of wedlock and thereafter raised under her dead infant brother’s name. The early novel details her childhood as “Mark” Reade, a footman in the service of the actual Mark’s paternal grandmother. Mary made it to teenhood without the deception ever being discovered, and this is where the book separates somewhat from real life. In the story, Mary decides to join up as a sailor to get away from her grandmother’s service after being found out, and is eventually on a ship attacked by pirates. She’s decided already that she’d rather be a pirate than ever spend another minute having to deal with the ship’s brutal captain, but she wasn’t expecting that these pirates would already have a woman in their midst, and this one open and unabashed. Anne Bonny captures her attention as easily as the pirates capture her ship. And regardless of the early blurb, both of them are bisexual.

The story switches back and forth between two timelines: the one where Mary is growing up as a girl forced to be a boy, trying to give up her femininity entirely to preserve her future, and the one where Mary convincingly presents as male, but wishes she had Anne’s boldness. No matter what the timeline is, whether Mary is revealed or still able to pass as male, she is who she is: conflicted, hungry for a future she can shape to her own will, and desperate to escape the past. She hates having to be seen as male, though she finds that she likes feminine attention and she doesn’t know how to function without the freedom afforded to her by wearing trousers. She hates being beholden to stronger men, or to the whims of women who would destroy her if they knew her for who she is. The women are no safer to be around than the men are, though for different reasons, as they are as much a part of their society as the men, and society fights to preserve itself without changing. While it never states it outright, this book is very much about being female “the right way,” or being punished, and about how even if you do it perfectly you won’t be worth as much socially as any man. Anne and Mary’s twin desperations saturate every page. They each just want to live, without being owned by or owing anyone. Even today that can be a very difficult thing, but for a woman in the 1700’s? It’s no wonder that the real-life Mary and Anne were pirates.

While Mary is not written as trans, I was relieved to see that the book didn’t have any transphobia on the part of the sympathetic characters. There’s homophobia to spare, but only from the antagonists and society, and it was presented believably, with even some of those characters conflicted about their own prejudices. Every single character in the book, Mary and Anne not excepted, holds misogynistic views in a way I found realistic, if chilling now and again. Mary longs to be able to be “woman enough” to attract the favorable attention of a man she grew up beside, and Anne is desperate to be strong enough to have the freedom to just survive, to not starve or have to worry about her physical safety. Both of them want something outside the confines of society’s structure, both of them have been punished for performing femininity “wrongly:” Anne for her quick mouth, Mary for her masculinity.

The story is also about inevitability. About how no matter what you might do, the one thing which is inescapable is yourself, and how easy it is to turn on someone else even if they’re caught in the same trap you are. Neither woman would have been safe if they’d conformed, because no woman in that world was safe. For all that they are attracted to each other’s abilities and brightness, Anne and Mary aren’t free of the misogyny of the culture they were born into. They snipe at each other, they dare and injure each other over their differences and hiss with jealousy over their similarities. While Mary is fascinated by Anne’s willingness to seize any possible chance to get ahead, she’s disturbed by it when it’s pointed her direction. While Anne wishes that she could be as believably male as Mary, she’s stunned when Mary behaves as hurtfully as a man would, and as jealously. Mary makes it halfway around to world, just to realize that “The market was full of the people she had left behind, come here to find a new beginning. Just like her.” If you depend on others for your freedom, you will never find it. It’s only when the two of them are able to realize that to get what they long for they have to be themselves, as much as possible, that they are able to find a middle ground.

Neither of them can go home, because the home they dream of doesn’t exist and never existed. But maybe, if they decide to take it with them, they can make a home that is everything they want.

I can be pretty strict in my demands from the things I read, but this one was just enjoyable to read from the very beginning. There’s a sort of constant tension that makes it easy to sympathize with Mary’s plight. I know how their story ended in real life, but when you come down to it, any living person’s story really ends with the same sentence, and the important stuff is done before it. All I wanted, reading, was for Mary and Anne to be able to find a place for themselves to be together for a little while, the wind at their backs and smiles on their faces, and I was not disappointed.

Final rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Trigger warnings: misogyny, attempted rape, homophobia, the execution of unnamed characters for wearing women’s clothing (this era doesn’t have the concept of being transgender, so it’s impossible to tell through the main character’s eyes if these people are trans, or men in dresses), some historically-accurate violence, none of any of this glorified or salivated over by the author.