Danika reviews The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta

The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta

This was my most-anticipated book of 2019, and it lived up to the hype. I knew from the time that I heard about a YA novel featuring six queer witches among the California redwood forests, I was hooked. This is such an atmospheric, encompassing read. It’s told in a way that mirrors the fantastical events: we see the story through different time periods and perspectives (Danny–the main character, The Grays–the witches, the Ravens, the Trees, the students at their high school, etc), giving a piecemeal account that advanced remarkably organically. I found that I had to let the story wash over me, without getting too bogged down with the details. 

I still get a little thrill out of seeing books that actually use the word queer in the description, so that’s always a plus, but it exceeded my expectations on the representation front. It’s no coincidence that this is the queerest YA book I’ve read since Amy Rose Capetta’s Once and Future. With a few exceptions (Anger is a Gift and Down to the Bone come to mind), I still don’t see a lot of YA (or books in general) that feature a queer friend group. To have 6 queer witches that celebrate their identities is–I hesitate to say–magical to read about. The group includes a grey ace non-binary character, a black bisexual character, a main character who identifies as queer, a character with synesthesia, a character with a limp, and a Filipino character. These characters discuss their labels and identities freely and without shame. This book includes a character casually using the phrase “femme as fuck.” Not only that, but Danny is a queer teenage girl who enjoys her sexuality. Kissing is her favourite thing to do, and she usually kisses girls. Before moving to Tempest, she spent her time finding all the girls in the school who wanted to kiss her, and kissing them. I feel like sapphic YA often shies away from explicit sexuality, while The Lost Coast celebrates sexuality/sensuality, and includes an on-the-page f/f sex scene.

I found myself partway through this book, impatient to reread it. Because there are so many central characters as well as perspective and time period shifts, I felt like I couldn’t keep track of it all the first time through. It wasn’t a problem, because this has such an eerie, dreamlike feel that this disorientation just added to the experience. Although I am Canadian, I live on the west coast, and the magical, foreboding, awe-some power of the forest described in The Lost Coast really spoke to me. By the end of the book, I did feel satisfied that I understood the crux of the plot despite my initial confusion, but I am still excited to read this again on a breezy October evening, diving into this magical and encompassing story with a better understanding of the personalities contained there.

There were a few moments that really made me stop to appreciate and process them. At one point, Danny realizes that although her mother loves her, she doesn’t understand her: “there are parts of me–maybe the best parts–that she will never see, because they’re too strange.” Despite the flack that The Well of Loneliness gets, I still find that one line from it echoes through queer lit even to the present, where the main character declares that her love–which she has been shamed and hated for–is the best thing about her. I see this in Danny, too, this confusion/shame/outrage that the qualities others may resent or want to change about us may be our best qualities, what we most have to offer to the world. Later on, Danny realizes that part of the reason that the Grays touch so much is that they recognize that people like them have been denied this in earlier times, that every kiss is also in tribute to the queer people who were not able to openly kiss the people they wanted to. Especially in the conclusion of this story, there is a real recognition of queer people through time, which I really appreciated.

This is a beautiful book that I feel like so many people have been asking for. It’s an atmospheric Fantasy story. It has diverse queer representation. It’s whimsical and has a big queer cast, all of whom have their own magical specialization. I think this deserves so much more attention. Amy Rose Capetta has really pushed queer YA forward, between this and Once and Future. I’m so glad that 2019 is bringing us the stories we’ve been craving for so many years. Please pick up this story of chosen family and finding your own magic, and spread the word, because I know so many readers have been waiting for a story just like this.

Danika reviews Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst and Paula Garner

Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst and Paula GarnerSometimes, a book so clearly communicates the emotional state of the characters that it becomes painfully familiar. It is relatable to the point that I instinctively want to distance myself from it. Starworld is one of those animals, and although its characters have very different life circumstances to my own, their loneliness and vulnerability brought me right back to being a teenager again–not something I would volunteer for!

Both Sam and Zoe are dealing with overwhelming home lives, though you might not be able to tell they have much in common judging from their school lives. Sam is determined to fly under the radar, confiding in exactly one friend and sticking to her exit plan: getting into a good university, where she can study aerospace engineering. At home, her mother’s OCD has consumed their lives. Sam has to follow a seemingly endless list of her mother’s rules, and she feels responsible for keeping her safe and pulling her out of spirals. It’s an exhausting job, and although Sam longs to escape, she also fears what will happen when she leaves.

Zoe is a social butterfly who seems to have it all together, but she keeps her home life very separate. Her brother is disabled, and now that he is a teenager, it has gotten significantly more difficult for his family to care for him. He is stronger than them, which means that his (and their) safety is at risk. Their family is torn at the prospect of having to have him cared for at a facility. It’s only complicated further by Zoe’s mother having just gone through cancer treatment. If that wasn’t enough, Zoe is secretly dealing with feelings of abandonment at being adopted.

Zoe and Sam are both hurting, and they don’t have a lot of outlets for this pain. Although they run in very different circles, when they have a few change interactions, they end up reaching out and finding comfort in their unexpected friendship. They create their own world together, which they call Starworld. It takes place between *s in text messages, like so: *hops on a dragon and takes you out into space* This reminded me of online roleplaying that I did in high school (although that was Drarry HP fanfiction), so it definitely rang true for me!

What really felt like being back in high school, though, was Sam’s crush on Zoe. She falls for her, hard. I feel like this is the first queer YA I’ve read that really captures the dizzying, overwhelming, helpless feeling of a teenage crush, especially because it addresses the sexual aspect of it. Sam loves Zoe for her personality and their friendship, but she’s also checking her out! The story doesn’t shy away from Sam’s attraction to her, which isn’t something I’ve seen much of in sapphic YA.

[spoilers, highlight to read] Sam’s unrequited crush is painful to read about. She has placed so much importance in this relationship–and Zoe has, too, but she’s not seeing it in the same way. They’re both relying on each other, and when Zoe doesn’t return Sam’s feelings, it drives a wedge between them. Maybe that was necessary for them both to grow as individuals, and maybe they needed to stop running away to Starworld and start making changes in their real lives, but it doesn’t change how hard it is to witness both of their pain and Sam’s lashing out. [end spoilers]

What can I say? This was well done, and I definitely felt for the characters, but it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable read. It made me feel like a teenager again, drowning in emotions and not having the resources to manage them. If that’s the experience you’re looking for, definitely pick this one up! But I will definitely be looking for a fluffy book with a simple, happy f/f romance coming off this read.

Danika reviews Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha cover

This is a book that I will be processing for a long time. It is beyond almost anything I’ve read before. I’m not proud to say that I have very little knowledge around ableism and disability activism, which is part of why I picked up Care Work (The other being that Bodymap, Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book of poetry, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.) This work is about disability justice: disability activism that centres queer and trans black, indigenous, and people of colour. It encourages leadership by the most impacted, people who are experts in ableism and the other interlocking oppressions that they live with every day, and who have spent years fighting a system that works against them. Disability justice sees ableism as intertwined with colonialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and all of the others ways that bodies are policed and evaluated.

I am having trouble writing this review, because there is so much here to think about. I will muddle through and share some highlights, but I definitely recommend picking this up for yourself.

Care Work is a collection of essays, and it’s packed full of ideas, ranging from theory, history, memoir, advice and tips, and more–that I have to stop frequently to digest it. Here are just a few ideas that really stopped me in my tracks and made me think:

  • Piepzna-Samarasinha refers often to her “bodymind,” which seem to relate the mind as part of the body, an integrated whole–it reminded me of The Body Is Not an Apology, which discusses how policing of the body is a commonality of many types of oppression, including ableism against neurodivergent people.
  • The concept of “crip doulas” to guide disabled people into the community and share resources and tips for navigating the system. This is such a powerful idea, and I see the echo of it in queer communities, where many people would have loved to have a queer elder to provide wisdom in navigating their new identities. This is a beautiful vision of a future where interdependence is celebrated, and community is guaranteed.
  • Care Work talks about Octavia Butler’s books as disability justice narrative, which really made me think about that story in a new light.
  • I love the idea of “prefigurative politics:” acting as if the revolution has already happened. . Spending more time building than attacking, and focusing on power and not powerlessness. I think this is a powerful idea in activism, to not spend all of our time and energy criticizing a terrible system, and instead using some of those resources to build our own networks.
  • I was intrigued by the way that parents are talked about in this text, as not being directly targeted by ableism, but being restricted by much of the same system. Disability justice includes accessibility not just for neurodivergent and disabled people, but also for parents (by making sure that child care is provided).
  • A quotation by Qwo-Li Driskill, which says that one way ableism works is that disabled people “are not even present within the imaginations of a supposedly radical future,” really stuck with me.
  • Care Work does not present a monolith of ideas or opinions. Although these are all essays by Piepzna-Samarasinha, she pulls in works and ideas from other disability justice activists, and details differences in opinions. For instance, she advocates for strong personal networks of care while also recognizing the difficulties in maintaining them, and mentions a friend of hers who explains not wanting to rely on a personal network because she doesn’t want to have to be well-liked in order to use the washroom.

Reading Care Work required me to sit with some discomfort, because it helped me to face my own ableism and try to confront that. It reminded me in how many careless, thoughtless ways I prioritize abled people and fail to consider people whose bodyminds differ from my own. When I came across a mention of the “ugly laws” and looked into them, I was appalled that I had never heard of them, which from the mid-1700s to the 1970s across the United States and other cities and countries around the world made illegal “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view.” This such an obvious and horrific injustice–to dictate which bodies are allowed to be seen in public life–that it is a profound statement to me of how much I have to learn when I didn’t know this basic, crucial piece of history. I am angry at myself for not learning this, but I am also angry that this was never taught to me in my education.

Another takeaway I have from this book is how much disability justice is fighting a world that would be better for every single person. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s love letter to femmes made me think about how everyone should live in a world where we can feel safe and valued no matter what. It made me think of Elana Dykewomon’s quotation:

Almost every womon I have ever met has a secret belief that she is just on the edge of madness, that there is some deep, crazy part within her, that she must be on guard constantly against ‘losing control’ — of her temper, of her appetite, of her sexuality, of her feelings, of her ambition, of her secret fantasies, of her mind.

It made me think of how that fear is driven by the way we treat the “mad” or “crazy.” About how Piepzna-Samarasinha refers to the “not(yet)-disabled.” I think about all the disabled and neurodivergent people who are being prevented from living their lives, through denial to care and inaccessibility and stigma. And also those people who don’t have a label for who they are, or who hide that idea even from themselves. And the people who are constantly afraid that they are “crazy” or not enough or too much, and that if they are found out they won’t be loved or valued or supported. Disability justice doesn’t have to benefit abled people to be worth supporting, of course, but I am inspired by this movement that is fighting tooth and nail to try to inch towards the future we all should be aspiring to, and am infuriated by the system that counters them at every turn.

In case it isn’t already obvious, this is a powerful, brilliant book. I can imagine it would be life-changing for so many people, and even if it isn’t directly applicable to your own experience, I highly recommend giving it a try and absorbing what you can. I’m grateful that Care Work exists, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

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.

Kelley O’Brien reviews Take Your Medicine by Hannah Carmack

I first heard of Hannah Carmack’s new book, Take Your Medicine, when I was browsing Nine Star Press’ upcoming books. The cover of Carmack’s book was gorgeous (fancy script and lovely pink roses – totally up my alley) so I took a chance and clicked on it. After reading the synopsis, my jaw dropped. Not because the description was appalling or anything, but because the main character, Al, has a condition very similar to one I also have. Al has vasovagal syncope, which I actually used to be diagnosed with. I’ve since been diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). The symptoms and treatments are essentially the same, but the triggers are different. Never in my life have I come across a character that went through the same struggle I do on a daily basis.

I began reading the book the second I got my hands on it. Not only was it incredibly validating to be able to see yourself in fiction, but it also makes you feel much less alone, like your illness matters. Only around a hundred pages, Take Your Medicine didn’t take me very long to get through and is a great way to spend a few hours of downtime.

The story is about a teenager girl named Alice Liddell, Al for short, and is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland. This isn’t the Alice in Wonderland you’re used to, but a southern gothic retelling in which Alice is black, chronically ill, and just discovering she might not be as straight as she once thought.

Beloved characters from the classic novel appear, including the Queen of Hearts who is Al’s mom and a cardiothoracic surgeon, hellbent of trying to find a cure for her sick daughter. After a chance encounter with Rabbit and Kat, Al takes to rebelling against her mom in the hopes that Rabbit and Kat, two teenage witches, might be able to help cure her. Friendship ensues and Al eventually falls for Rabbit, the quieter of the two girls. Something happens that brings realization to several of the characters, and the story wraps up.

I think the book may have benefited from being a bit longer and getting to see more of the relationship develop between Al and Rabbit. The books strengths really lie in the relationship between Al and her mother, Al’s descriptions of her illness, and the fun cast of characters. While I thought Rabbit was sweet and really liked her, I really loved Kat kind of wanted the three girls to have a polyamorous relationship together.

If you like books that features chronically ill characters (written by a chronically ill author!), southern gothic lit, sweet romances, and well-written mother-daughter relationships, then I recommend giving Take Your Medicine a try. In fact, I recommend it anyway!


Elinor reviews Saving Delaney by Keston and Andrea Ott-Dahl

saving delaney from surrogacy to unexpected family ott-dahl cover

Saving Delaney: From Surrogacy to Unexpected Family is an interesting memoir and an unusual story. Written by Keston and Andrea Ott-Dahl, it’s told from Keston’s perspective as she and her partner, Andrea, become parents to a daughter with Down syndrome. Their daughter, Delaney, was longed for–but not by them. Andrea had been a surrogate for a lesbian couple who’d tried unsuccessfully to become parents other ways. The couple, Liz and Erica, were thrilled when Andrea became pregnant through insemination. Then prenatal testing revealed that the fetus had Down syndrome and the doctor predicted the fetus also had other serious disabilities and the pregnancy would likely end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Liz and Erica made the heart-wrenching decision to terminate the pregnancy. But Andrea wouldn’t. Her research suggested that the doctor was wrong in his most dire predictions and he was using standards of typical prenatal development when he should have compared the baby using the standards of prenatal development of babies with Down syndrome. Andrea decided to keep the baby and raise it herself if Liz and Erica wouldn’t, Keston got on board, and that’s exactly what they did.

Andrea and Keston’s backgrounds make the story even more complicated. Keston is sixteen years older than Andrea and has one adult child slightly older than Andrea, and a teenage son who has all but left the house when the couple meet. Andrea has two young children and is recently out of an abusive marriage to a man. Like Andrea, Keston’s children were both conceived in relationships with men and without difficulty. They aren’t prepared for the challenges of non-intercourse conception when Andrea excitedly volunteers to be a surrogate for a couple in their extended social circle. Andrea wants to be a surrogate to help the couple, and for the money it would bring in. Secretly she’s also hoping that carrying a child for another couple would help her ease the guilt she feels over an abortion she had years earlier, when she was preparing to leave her violent husband. Keston’s struggling with the recent death of her mother and the choices she had to make at the end of her mother’s life. This takes an important role in the book, as Keston’s imagined conversations with her late mother guide her and reveal her inner feelings. Some of those feelings include hate and fear of people with disabilities.

The story is largely framed around Keston’s journey away from prejudice and toward advocacy for her daughter. It’s moving, but it’s also not the most useful or nuanced frame. Plus in her pre-Delaney days, Keston says and thinks horrible things about people with disabilities. If you pick this up, be prepared for slurs and worse. If you don’t want to slog through that, don’t force yourself. I appreciated that Keston was ultimately educated, thanks to Andrea, and that she did bring some compassion when others initially weren’t accepting. It didn’t make her early beliefs or comments easier, though.

Keston tried to tell this complex story fairly, mostly avoiding easy villains, but there are some slip ups. For one thing, some of the drama of the situation could have been avoided with a little caution, planning, and communication. Keston and Andrea don’t read the contract carefully before agreeing to surrogacy, and Keston, Andrea, Liz and Erica don’t have the tough conversations they ought to before deciding to go forward with surrogacy. Tension starts before the pregnancy too, as it takes over half a year to get pregnant, they all decide to add known sperm donors into the mix without a clear legal agreement in place, and the doctor they work with isn’t a great fit for Andrea and Keston. When Keston and Andrea decide to keep the baby and raise her without Liz and Erica, they aren’t as sensitive as they could be to Liz and Erica’s devastation, or the shock Andrea’s already leery family is experiencing. It’s occasionally tiresome to read about somewhat unnecessary complication, but the many, many bumps in the road do add intrigue to the story and keep it moving along.

I felt for Liz and Erica a lot and wished I knew more of what happened after they and the Ott-Dahls stopped speaking to each other. The doctor had painted a pretty bleak picture aside from Down syndrome, and I couldn’t imagine paying thousands of dollars for a surrogate to carry on with a pregnancy that a doctor said likely wasn’t viable. The couple had already gone through fertility treatments, cycles of hope and disappointment, and had at least one adoption fall through. It made sense to me that they weren’t as optimistic as Andrea and Keston and that they wanted to have some control over the process. Trying to add a child to your family, however you go about it, can be scary and leave you feeling powerless. From their perspective, this is not a heartwarming tale.

One thing I hated in this book–and another reason that I’m a bit hesitant to recommend it–was the way Keston wrote about Liz and Erica’s infertility. More than once Keston, Keston’s imagined mother, or Andrea says something like, “Some people aren’t meant to be parents,” or implies that the couple’s struggles to have a child means that they shouldn’t have one. It was interesting to me the way this attitude connected to Keston’s self-proclaimed prejudice around ability. The idea that some experiences aren’t “meant” for a person because that person needs assistance or their body works differently is a common theme in justifying ableism. Also, the ability to get pregnant is in no way correlated with the ability to parent and I think we all sort of know that. Still, if you’re trying to conceive or have experienced infertility, reading those comments in the memoir will be horrifying, depressing and/or rage-inducing, and you might want to steer clear.

If you aren’t dealing with that and you can roll with some harsh language and inaccurate ideas about folks with disabilities in the earlier chapters, you might like this book. It’s a unique situation and it makes you think. It is an easy read, it’s fast paced, and parts of the story are pretty moving. But think carefully before picking it up, because this book is not for everyone.