Danika reviews Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

What a book. What a journey. Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection that blends feminism, queerness, and fabulism into a haunting read. I have to say, when I saw this book included on queer book lists, I kept my expectations low. I was already sold on reading it (feminism & fabulism & that cover? I couldn’t resist), so I would be happy with any queer story in the collection. So it felt like an abundance of riches to keep reading and finding that almost every story had a queer woman main character! I believe there was only one story that didn’t? I especially enjoyed when in one story, the main character (a writer) is accused of writing a stereotype: the mad woman in the attic–the mad lesbian in the attic, even worse! She replies in frustration that she is writing herself–her gay, anxious self.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and although I enjoyed the experience for the most part, I think this is one I would prefer reading in a physical format. They’re thoughtful, metaphorical stories–women literally fading away and being imbued in objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, ghost stories brought to life–and they would benefit from time to linger over them, instead of being steadily rushed onward by the narrator. On the other hand, I would desperately have like to skim the SVU novella. This was a riff on Law and Order: SVU, and although I liked the concept and elements of the story, I felt as if it dragged, and it was frustrating not being able to skim or at least see when the next story started.

I can see myself coming back to these stories again and again. The first few were my favourites: “The Husband Stitch,” which retells the classic scary story about a girl with a green ribbon around her neck, while also weaving in more urban legends and spooky stories, exposing the misogyny lurking at the heart of them. “Inventory,” which is a list of the main character’s lovers throughout her life. We slowly learn what lead her to this point of meticulous documentation.

Beautifully unsettling, Her Body and Other Parties cracks open familiar stories to expose the rot beneath. If you’re a fan of magical realism or fabulism, I would highly recommend this one. It will leave you unsettled and thoughtful.

Danika reviews Biketopia edited by Elly Blue

A smart person once told me that the key to having a good life in the face of world’s uncertainty is to find something that is meaningful for you and go all-in for it. For me, that’s the real appeal of both bicycles and science fiction–no matter how grim the world looks, each other can take you to a place where you can see another perspective, explore your options, and even if they each have the potential to create as many problems they solve, at least you’ve gone somewhere in a way that feels good.

The introduction to Biketopia 

If I’m being entirely honest, I’d have to admit that my favourite part of Biketopia is the cover. That’s not a slight on the stories! It’s just that the sight of this beautiful illustration of a badass woman raising a bike above her head is arresting. Add on to that these are speculative fiction, feminist, bike-centered stories? I’m sold several times over!

There are only two blatantly queer stories in this collection, but all the stories do focus on women and their relationships with each other. The premises range, including semi-utopias, horrific dystopias, classic sci fi, as well as settings that seem all-too-possible.

The first sapphic story is “Meet Cute” by Maddy Spencer, the only comic of the collection. It is wordless, and shows our main character bringing her bike-powered bookmobile through a town. Although we obviously don’t get a big backstory, this seems like a peaceful, cooperative place, and bikes look to be the only means of transportation (other than by foot or wheelchair). When her bikemobile tips over, an adorable mechanic with an artificial (robot? magic??) arm repairs it for her, and hands her a phone number while they both blush furiously. It’s very short, but super cute.

The other queer story is “The Future of Flirtation” by Leigh Ward-Smith. Mika runs a mobile shop in a post-climate-change, water-starved world. When a 6-foot-something muscled figure strides up to her stand, she is immediately smitten, even though she has no idea the gender or even species of the person behind the mirrored helmet. She spends the story attempted to flirt with them, while bartering over a cold can of Coke.

This was a fun read, and although there weren’t many stories that were incredibly memorable, I did find the variations on “feminist bicycle science fiction” stories interesting. They definitely went in different directions. This is actually the fourth volume of the Bikes In Space series, each of which explore feminist sci fi stories about bicycling, so that sounds like your style, you should pick one up! (Probably this one. It has queer stories and a sweet cover.)

Danika reviews Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant

I knew I would like Sugar Town from the cover alone, and from the first page, it didn’t disappoint.

This is a queer, polyamorous, BDSM fluffy love story. Hazel is in an open relationship with her boyfriend, and she bumps into Argent, a confident and kind domme, at a party. They click instantly, and Argent helps Hazel learn more about negotiating polyamorous relationships. All of the relationships are so caring and gentle.

My favourite scene was probably the BDSM scene (which is pretty tame and mostly off-panel, if it concerns you). Argent is using a whip on Hazel when Hazel says “Hang on,” and Argent immediately stops, checks in, and finds out that Hazel pulled something in her back, though she was thoroughly enjoying the scene. They cuddle and watch cooking shows instead. It’s BDSM as a completely consensual, mutual, and even kind activity for partners to enjoy together. That’s something I very rarely see.

Do I keep using the word “kind”? I can’t help it. Sugar Town is a sweet, soft story. Everyone in it treats each other with respect and caring. They check in. They talk about their feelings. Hazel is still figuring out jealousy and other aspects of polyamory, but that’s okay. They’re not simmering underneath, they’re freely discussed. They’re not perfect–Argent mentions experiencing suicidal thoughts, Hazel is self-conscious and doubts herself–but they  are supportive of each other and the rest of the people in their lives, whether they’re friends or partners.

I also loved the art style, which reinforces that warm and welcoming feel. I want to crawl inside the pages and curl up there. This is definitely one of my rare 5 star ratings: I loved every panel, and I know I will return to it when I need something hopeful to dive into for a little while. What a treat.

Danika reviews Meanwhile, Elsewhere edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett

This is a huge book. Metaphorically, of course: it’s a big step in queer lit that we have a collection like this now, a collection of SFF stories all by and about trans people. We’re finally moving towards having stories that neither minimize queerness nor make it our only defining feature. But actually, I’m talking about it’s physical size. It’s 447 pages, and the book is taller and wider than your average paperback: more like a textbook than a novel. Although I really enjoyed reading this, it did take me a while to get through, because its physical size makes it awkward to hold and the length was intimidating.

It was well worth the time it took me to read it, though! I was happy to see that there are plenty of sapphic stories included: in fact, at least 10 of the 25 stories has a women-loving-women main character. Although this collection is sci fi and fantasy, and trans people in general, there’s definitely a stronger presence of science fiction and trans women.

As always in an anthology, some of these were bigger hits than others, but even the stories I didn’t personally enjoy I could see other people loving. (Like “It’s Called Fashion,” which I found difficult to follow, but I can see other readers really clicking with.) The stories vary a lot in their scope and premise. Some build a complex cyberpunk world in 20 pages, while others imagine a world only slightly different than ours. One story follows someone in space quietly ruminating about microaggressions, while another follows a woman whose brain-eating amoeba communicates through dreams and grows via orgasms.

A few stories I found so fascinating that I could easily write papers about them: “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me, Laura.” by Aesling Fae attempts to reclaim Satan as a trans woman, and as the protector of trans women. Outside of context, the devil and a trans woman sounds offensive, but Fae makes it an empowering thesis. Like Carmilla the series takes the monstrous lesbian and turns her into a hero, this story does the same thing with the devil.

The other story that really made me think was “Rent, Don’t Sell” by Calvin Gimpelevich. In this world, the technology for body-swapping had been made viable, but under capitalism, it’s used for things like: swapping your body with a trainer’s so they can do your exercise for you, hiring someone to detox for you, and, of course, having sex while inhabiting someone else’s body. This has a lot of interesting discussions about identity. The side character is a trans women who swapped bodies with a trans guy, but now regrets it and wants to transition with her own body, so she’s suing to try to get it back.

Some of my other favorites were “What Cheer” by RJ Edwards, where the main character spends a couple days with her alien close, and learns appreciation for herself and her life; “After the Big One” by Cooper Lee Bombardier, where a motley crew of queer argue about discourse and privilege, but have to come together to survive disaster; and “Gamers” by Imogen Binnie, which is about Zelda and time travel and being in an unhealthy relationship with a dependent girlfriend.

I do want to mention some serious trigger warnings for transphobia, transmisogyny, violence, gore, and rape in various stories. Specifically, the one story I had a problem with is “Delicate Bodies” by Bridget Liang, in which the main character is a zombie who rapes and then kills her ex-boyfriends/crushes. I get the zombie revenge fantasy, but I was getting nauseated reading about her brutally raping multiple people, and the text seems to suggest that they deserve it. They may have been jerks, but they didn’t do anything comparable. It soured the collection some for me. I also want to mention a trigger warning for suicide in “Visions” (though that’s not one of the sapphic stories).

I highly recommend this collection to just about everyone. It’s ambitious and necessary and has some fantastic stories. (And that sapphic story abundance doesn’t hurt!)

Danika reviews Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert is a quiet, thoughtful book that deftly handles complex subjects. It immediately reminded me of Radio Silenceanother YA novel that explores race, sexuality, mental health, and adolescence seamlessly. I’m grateful that we now live in a time where queer young adult books have really matured, so to speak. In the days of Annie On My Mind, just being a white teen coming out as gay was scandalous enough, nevermind having anything else going on in your life.

Now, we finally have books that even when addressing the coming out arc can have more complexity and layers. Suzette is black, bisexual, and Jewish, and those aspects of her identity all interact and affect her everyday life. I liked how it addressed the challenges of coming out even in a fairly positive environment: the embarrassment in having to announce this intimate part of yourself, the tension in seeing what people’s reactions will be, the irritation of having it involuntarily become your defining feature, the general awkwardness.

But this story isn’t about Suzette’s sexual identity. It’s about her relationship with her brother, and how they’ve recently grown apart, to her dismay. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar, and shortly after that, Suzette was sent away to boarding school. They haven’t seen each other a lot, and they aren’t sure how to go back to the closeness they once shared. It’s painful. And it only gets more complicated when they both fall for the same girl.

The blurbs for this title seem to suggest that Suzette and her brother are pitted against each other, competing for the same girl. That’s not accurate. The core of this story is Suzette and Lionel’s relationship, and Suzette wouldn’t endanger that for a crush. So there is a love triangle, but it’s not as dramatic as that would suggest.

I really enjoyed Little & LionIt has a lot of subtle aspects that make the reading experience richer, including microaggressions (whether that’s racism, ableism, biphobia, or antisemitism). For example, I loved when Suzette got frustrated at the double-standard that bi people are not able to have a crush on two people, especially of different genders, at the same time, for fear of being associated with anti-bi stereotypes. I rolled my eyes at a review on Goodreads which played into this and accused Suzette of “emotional cheating,” despite her not even being in an official relationship.

I can’t comment on the mental health representation here, because I don’t have significant knowledge of bipolar disorder, but overall I thought this was a beautiful book, and makes me feel optimistic about the of queer lit, and specifically bi & lesbian young adult books, to know that these sorts of stories are being published. It’s about time!

Danika reviews Bearly a Lady by Cassandra Khaw

I will admit, I was sold immediately when I heard “Bisexual werebear novella.” The book opens with Zelda (yes, Zelda) irritated that her transformation into a bear is continually destroying her wardrobe. She works for a fashion magazine, so she doesn’t take this lightly.

This is such a fun, light read. It’s quippy and snarky and smart, including a character calling Zelda out for deriding something as lame, and her replying by saying “You know I don’t–I’m sorry. Cultural indoctrination is a monster.” Later, when a guy on the bus makes a lewd comment, she thinks,  “Could be an uncouth backpacker, fresh from a holiday in the Pacific, and still drunk on the idea of white supremacy.” And yes, not only is this a bisexual werebear story, our werebear protagonist is also a plus-sized woman of color.

Because this barely (ha) breaks 100 pages, it keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, even if it is mostly romantic entanglements. Speaking of romance, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning in this review that the romance is mostly M/F. Zelda has several male love interests and one female love interest, but like Kushiel’s Dart, I would say that although the F/F pairing gets less “page time,” it has the most significance. If you don’t want to read about M/F romance or sex, though, you probably should skip this one. I will also note that there’s some use of fae glamor which is nonconsensual, so I would give a trigger warning for the implications of that. (It is called out in text, though.)

This was quick, fun read that definitely lived up to its premise. Between this and my previous read, River of Teeth (which is excellent and queer, but the lesbian character is a side character, and there is no F/F content), I’m really starting to fall in love with novellas!


Danika reviews Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

When Lucky and Kris first got married, they delighted at having pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. Lucky was welcomed back into her Sri Lanken-American family. Kris didn’t have to worry about getting deported after his family turned their backs on him. And if they both pocketed their wedding rings and went to gay clubs on the weekends, what was the harm? Unfortunately, if you live a lie long enough, it can start to take over.

Lucky is restless and unhappy in the in-between life she’s made for herself. She bounces between her mother’s home, where her grandmother is ill, and her apartment where she lives with her gay husband. Apart from not actually being a romantic couple, they also don’t get along that well as friends–at least, not anymore. And now the love of her life is entering into an arranged marriage, at least partially because she believes that it worked for Lucky. She’s trapped between impossible trade-offs: live a lie forever, or lose her family and culture?

Lucky has two sisters, each of whom picked a different side: one took off in the night to escape her mother’s restrictive rules about her life (marry a good Sri Lanken man, behave in the prescribed ways). The family has barely heard from her since, and never sees her. Her grandmother asks for her daily, constantly wanting to meet her great-grandaughter. As Lucky sits with her elderly grandmother as she cries for the baby she longs to hold, she can’t imagine breaking her mother and grandmother’s hearts again in this way. But Lucky’s other sister walked away from the boyfriend who adored her to enter into an arranged marriage, and despite her insistence that she’s happy, there’s a hollowness to her eyes now. Every choice is a trade off. Every life means another one left behind.

I’ll admit that although I believe this is a well-written book, and I can imagine it would be a favourite for the right reader, I didn’t find it enjoyable to read. It feels claustrophobic and stifling. The plot doesn’t move forward as much as circle tighter and tighter. Lucky can’t see a way forward. Her relationship with Nisha is painful, as Nisha pulls her close and then pushes her away as she goes through her own panic about her life. Lucky feels alone as the brown girl at the queer party and the queer (or, at least, not quite acceptably feminine) girl in her Sri Lanken community. Her mother is controlling, but she’s also vulnerable and desperately trying to hold her family together.

It feels messy and bleak as Lucky bounces between her options: abandon her family and join with the queer, rugby-playing, semi-communal household? Have a baby with Kris and double down on the fake marriage? Convince her mother to accept her as she is, while Amma weeps endlessly at the idea? There aren’t easy answers. At the same time, I did get a little frustrated at Lucky’s feeble attempts at autonomy. She makes a little money online with her art, but she makes no effort to do anything that would make her financially independent, meaning that she is reliant on her mother or Kris to survive. I felt like just getting any kind of additional income would help immensely in her having more autonomy in her life, but she didn’t pursue that at all.

This is a book that I appreciated, but didn’t exactly enjoy. I’m glad that it is out there for the right readers, but it’s not one that personally clicked with me.

Danika reviews Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman

When I finished Honey Girl, I was eager to dive into the sequel–mostly because I was absorbed by the setting (1972 Californian beach culture), but also because Riptide Summer promised to break the rule that “Girls don’t surf.”  I’m glad that I got see more of Nani and her life, but overall I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first book. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about this book that is different from the first book, just a few thoughts:

[Spoilers]

  • It’s not surprising that Nani’s relationship with Rox fell apart. I was rooting for them, but it was despite the obvious instability in their arrangement. It was disappointing, but not unrealistic, for them to so quickly turn on each other.
  • I felt like the characterization wasn’t as strong in this volume–Claire, for instance, is barely present, and I completely forgot her personality.
  • I did like that Nani started surfing, but it wasn’t until halfway through the book, and in secret. I would want to see more of her after the secret came out, and how she dealt with this new side of beach culture.
  • My favourite part of the whole book was Windy, the new love interest, and we barely get to see her at all! If there is another sequel that focuses on them and Nani’s new surf life, I would pick that up.
  • I wasn’t sure from the last book whether Nani was bi or gay, but despite wanting to kiss and date guys, she seems to decide that she’s a lesbian by the end, because she enjoys sex with women more. Unfortunately, this is also wrapped in a lot of biphobia: she tells Rox that she’s a lesbian, no matter what she says, and says she doesn’t want to be one of those funny kine girls who also date guys. The idea that someone can be attracted to more than one gender and that’s fine doesn’t really come up at all.

[End spoilers]

This series felt a little fractured, actually, like they were originally supposed to be one story and then were separated into two volumes. Riptide Summer didn’t seem to have its own arc; it just followed along where Honey Girl left off. I wish this had been condensed in some way, whether that was making Honey Girl and Riptide Summer one book, or skipping over a lot of Riptide Summer and getting more into the surfing plot line and the romance with Windy.

Danika reviews Sovereign (Dreadnought #2) by April Daniels

This is my favourite superhero story I’ve ever read. I really enjoyed Dreadnought, the first book in the series, so I was equally excited and hesitant to start the sequel. To be honest, I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the first one. Dreadnought was great in a lot of ways, but it did have some rough-around-the-edges elements, and I wasn’t sure it could maintain a whole series. I was glad to be proven wrong–in fact, I ended up enjoying Sovereign even more. (Mild spoilers for the first book from here on.)

Dreadnought dealt heavily with transmisogyny and Danny’s abusive home life. Those elements are still present in Sovereign, but not to the same extent. She’s not living with her family now and is trying to be emancipated. She’s built a support system. Instead, she’s dealing with the fallout of what she’s been through. What happens when you take an abused teenager, give her superpowers, and then reward her for beating people up? I love the way this series explores the crunchy, interesting questions of what being a superhero would actually be like, including the internal politics of the superhero community, the power imbalance between superpowered humans and everyone else, and the complex relationship between superheros and police. The background struggles are a little more subtle, which drew me in and made me think more about the invisible underpinnings of other superhero stories.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this volume also has a F/F romance! Danielle is a lesbian, and her love interest is a bisexual amputee Latina vigilante. I was rooting for them in the first book, so I was definitely happy to have my ship sail. I love their dynamic. They both respect each other as people and as superheros, and they challenge each other to be better. (In terms of representation, there’s also a genderqueer side character who has they/them pronouns!)

This is all, of course, not beginning to mention the actual plot of the book. I’m not well-read in superhero stories (comics or prose), but I was surprised by how captivated I was by the superhero vs supervillain plots of both books. These are gruesome, brutal fights that drag Danny through the mud and to the brink of endurance. Sovereign also includes torture. This story does not shrink away from the level of violence that is both inflicted and endured. I found the overarching plot fascinating, and I’m really hoping that there are more sequels to come, because I’m confident that this world and this writer can support them.

Danika reviews Mara by Brian Wood, Ming Doyle, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles

Mara is a comic trade about Mara, a 17 year old who’s been trained as a professional athlete since she was 4 years old. This is her whole life, and in this future world, athletes are the peak of celebrity, and Mara is at the top of it all. When a broadcast of her game reveals her manifesting super powers, though, the life that’s been set for her starts to crumble.

I have to admit, I felt conflicted about MaraWhen I was midway through, I though the ending would help me resolve my feelings, but that didn’t help. It wasn’t until I was flipping through it again and notices the very first page, which has just the text “A COMING-OF-RAGE STORY” that I began to understand what this story is doing.

Mara has had her whole life decided for her. When she was 4, she was sent to a training camp, and since then, all of her time has been dedicated to training and securing sponsorships. She has a relationship with a teammate, Ingrid, but that isn’t explored much in the narrative, other than the press speculating about it. The super powers she acquires are wide-ranging, incredibly powerful, and entirely unexplained. It is quickly obvious that she is now on a completely different plane from other humans, and she tires of the military (and society in general) trying to control her.

She’s a teenager, and she’s justifiably furious at a world that has stripped her of choice and of the people she loves. It’s interesting to see a character with super powers who becomes apathetic to the world. She’s not a villain or a hero: she’s completely disinterested in human beings. She’s not prey to their judgments anymore, and she never will be again.

This is a very quick read, and Mara’s journey has a lot of similarities to Doctor Manhattan. Also, to admit my own bias, and I’m sure the bias of most Lesbrary readers, I wanted more from the Ingrid/Mara relationship than a few pecks and everyday conversations. I didn’t get a sense of emotional closeness from them, and if they weren’t close, what was the point of the relationship at all?

It made for an interesting afternoon’s read, but I wanted more from it. It felt more like a thought experiment that anything. If this was a continuing series, I’d be interested as to how it would play out, but as a stand-alone volume, it felt weak.