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.

Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

Mars reviews We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour cover

Not to be dramatic, but we need to start this review with a common understanding stated outright: this novel is beautiful. The prose, the imagery, the point. All of it, beautiful.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour front and back cover spread

I found this short novel by completely ignoring the adage about books and their covers, and I am so glad for it. The gorgeous cover illustration depicts a girl standing on her dorm bed, arm raised, covering her eyes from an unseen sun as she stares out over a dark shore. Snow falls around her.

She faces away from us and her world is a stark contrast of pink surveying an empty blue landscape and a black sky. As she stands among her messy belongings in rumpled pajamas, everything about this girl seems lonely. What is she looking for? If we think about the usual mental association of college as a community space where privacy might well not exist, the juxtaposition is even more jarring. In this context, what does it mean that this girl stands staring out at one of the loneliest sights one can know: the empty horizon?

This cover is the perfect illustration for the story of Marin, a college freshman who is briefly entertaining Mabel, a beloved and estranged figure from a life that she used to know. From Marin’s perspective, we cover the three days over her winter break that she shares with Mabel in what sounds like the emptiest, loneliest dorm ever, and which she calls “home”. Without revealing too much, Marin is haunted by the ghost of her grandfather’s passing, and all the weight that carries for a traumatized girl who is struggling to understand who she is against the broken foundation of who she thought she was.

We were innocent enough to think that our lives were what we thought they were, that if we placed all of the facts about ourselves together they’d form an image that made sense – that looked like us when we looked in the mirror, that looked like our living rooms and our kitchens and the people who raised us – instead of revealing all the things we didn’t know (128).

We follow her flashbacks and dissociations to piece together the mystery of what has torn this girl apart and, crucially, how she can come back together again. What does it mean to go through a tragedy that destroys you? What does it mean when you are changed deeply and immutably, but still need to go on living your life like everything is normal?

In this coming-of-age novel, LaCour heartachingly captures the paradox of such an experience; one in which a unique loneliness begets an almost overwhelming internal expansiveness. While the main character Marin’s queerness is not centered in this story, it is a real and present facet of her; and if you are like me, Marin’s relatability will make you itch to give this little starfish a hug.

A side note on the illustration: while this beautiful book jacket was done by Adams Carvalho, I was originally attracted to it because I was reminded of the unique style of queer author and illustrator Tillie Walden, whose webcomic “On a Sunbeam” touched my soul, and about which I will need to dedicate a future review.

Mars reviews Seeing Red by Cara Malone

Cara Malone’s Seeing Red is like that daytime soap opera that you can’t help but watch, no matter how much the characters have you clutching your pearls and loudly shouting about foreshadowing. Everyday heroes, villains, and questionable moral situations abound in this entertaining and somehow heartwarming story.

Our main hero here is Hunter Ross, completely exhausted loving auntie extraordinaire. Hunter is the ride-or-die sister that we all wish we could have. She dropped out of nursing school two years ago to help her sister Piper support her two nephews. No matter what they do though or how many hours Hunter clocks in at the nursing home, the looming tower of bills never seems to go down. Hunter barely has time to sleep, never mind romance.

As she tries to keep Piper walking on the straight and narrow after a brush with crime that got her scamming husband Jed Wolfe thrown in jail, the universe throws the sisters a bone in the form of the Kiera Murphy, a sweet college student with a generous heart and a rich, sassy grandmother looking for a nurse as she begins to slowly lose her memory. As fate would have it, Hunter appears in their lives and is just what the doctor ordered. .But is she? With Hunter comes her family, and with Hunter’s family, there’s always something looming.

While this story has a lot going on including (but not limited to) identity theft, sororities, family, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, the author has woven together serious themes and the light-hearted warmth of new love into a sweet and sometimes sizzling story. I would say that this story is a good poolside read. It’s deals with heavy themes but doesn’t leave readers bogged down, gets dark without breaking your heart, and provides just enough mystery that it’ll be impossible to read just one chapter at a time.

Marthese reviews A Harvest of Ripe Figs by Shira Glassman

‘’Not everybody reads encyclopaedias for fun’’

A Harvest of Ripe Figs is the third book in the Mangoverse series. It takes place a bit after the epilogue in the second book. I loved this book so much I binge read it.

This book combines two genres which I love: fantasy and mystery. Shulamit and her family have settled with what happened at the end of  book two . Things are quiet, and indeed, the plot does not revolve much around Shula’s group drama! A violin/fiddle of importance gets stolen (I’m still confused about the difference between a violin and a fiddle!) and Shulamit uses her intellect and deduction skills along with some help from her family to discover what happened to it.

During the mystery, it comes out that Shula is a good interrogator (no torture involved–don’t worry) while Riv stops a lot of bullshit – which I loved. Isaac is smug but helpful and Aviva is supportive and introspective. There is a lot of gender talk and criticism of stereotypes.

I liked the down to business element. For example Riv may be attracted to Isaac but she focuses on her job first. There is no ‘but they couldn’t help themselves’ element.

The accepting diversity is what draws me to this series and in this book, there is very minor ace representation (like blink and you miss it; but I appreciated that it was there).

There is also young trans representation! Aviva sums it up perfectly ”That’s the boy who exists. Anything else is a story” and although Shula doesn’t get it at first, she is very protective of her people. Indeed, she’s a great leadership example (despite it being not a democracy). Shula has plans for giving more females more power in her city. She’s ok with sharing power.

Another thing that was super squee worthy for me was the mention of pests and tropical plants. At the moment, I’m working on a campaign for fair and sustainable tropical fruit (make fruit fair) so it’s something that I became familiar with. The pests are a real problem to our food security and farmers’ livelihoods and Shula really cares about her farmers – the backbone of Perach.

Shula is all about responsibility -whether her own of the wrongdoers responsibility. Wish the world was more like that.

The word ‘Feminism’ is actually used! Women supporting women is also another feature of the book. There was lots of body positivity – especially surrounding maternity and different sizes.

There’s also an example of a toxic relationship and an entitled ‘nice guy’ who wants to be the center of attention and expects things for his ‘sacrifices’. This is dealt with rather than ignored or condoned.

Apart from all the simply narrated but complex topics, it’s simply a fun read. There are some funny elements like the stories about Riv – which turn out pretty helpful in the end.

For me, a good mystery isn’t necessarily complex but it must be clean and rounded-up. Things that were mentioned throughout find their use in the conclusion to the mystery and so for me, while predictable it’s a good mystery.

There were many metaphors also about ripening and maturing – people developing and becoming more themselves. Of course, much food talk as well which I came to expect from this series.

What I wanted to see was Kaveh and his companion again (see I even forgot his name). They were mentioned but in passing. Would have been good if they visited or had visible correspondence at least; considering that they are family.

All in all, it’s a fun read. Fluffy-ish fantasy without too much drama. The pages just seemed to scroll by. I was already used to the world and the characters and it was an enjoyable and fun read. While it may seem an easy read, it still points critically to problems in our society and speaks about different issues.


Tierney reviews Vera’s Will by Shelley Ettinger

Veras Will by Shelley EttingerVera’s Will is a beautifully-told queer family saga, one that is by turns heart-wrenching and heartwarming, and at every moment an entrancing read. Ettinger tells the tragic story of Vera’s life, from her family’s flight from Russia after anti-Jewish violence at the turn of the 20th century to her lonely death in the 1970s, with many family tragedies and missed opportunities for love in between. Interspersed with the chapters detailing Vera’s solitary and repressed life are brief sections told from the point of view of Randy, Vera’s granddaughter, as she learns about her family’s past and makes her own way in the world. Both women are lesbians, but their lived experiences vary wildly.
The two mirrored narratives showcase two vastly different time periods. One woman lives a loveless and unhappy life, unable to live as her true self, while the other is able to live her life freely as a lesbian, overcoming the hardships she encounters along the way thanks to her own sense of self and her certainty in her own identity and values. Randy lives Vera’s “what could have been,” gay liberation come to a boil after decades of repression and unhappiness.

Ettinger deftly interweaves social critique into her narrative: she touches upon homophobia, racism, sexism, worker’s rights, and more, without the story ever feeling forced or preachy. Instead these issues come up naturally, and add to the richness and depth of the story as Ettinger faces them head-on in the novel’s plot.

A well-written cast of secondary characters (both lovable and loathsome) also enriches and deepens the story, making it feel all the more epic and engrossing.

The story is intricate and delicately balanced between the two narratives, but despite Ettinger’s skill, some plot points are left hanging. Randy’s Aunt Bud is an intriguing character whose backstory is never fully explained, and who seemingly exists only to further the plot. Aunt Bud brought Randy to her first gay bar as a child – where Randy narrowly misses crossing paths with Vera, in a strange lesbian convergence. Aunt Bud herself seems to be a lesbian, but Ettinger glosses over her narrative potential and uses her character rather clumsily. This minor flaw in the novel stands out only because the rest of the novel’s characters are so well-written: this one puzzling element does not detract from the rest of the book.

Vera and Randy’s stories in counterpoint to one another make for a beautifully bittersweet novel, one that is both melancholy and heartening – the best bits of both emotions. It’s the kind of novel you want to read in one fell swoop, despite its length: Ettinger meticulously lays bare Vera’s entire life, taking the reader on an emotional rollercoaster that is simultaneously heightened and soothed by Randy’s confrontation with her family’s past and journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

The story provokes that perfect combination of emotion and introspection. I loved Vera’s Will for its epic, multigenerational take on the lesbian coming of age story – it filled a void in queer fiction that I didn’t even know I needed, and left me hungry for more queer sagas of such far-reaching proportions.
[Trigger warning for descriptions of rape and violence.]

Danika reviews Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

I’m going to be honest, I have no idea how to review this book. I loved Bechdel’s first comic memoir, Fun Home, so I was very excited to pick up Are You My Mother? And it definitely does have some of the best elements from Fun Home: the writing is amazing, the art is beautiful, and the entire book is intricate and complex. I feel like I’d have to read this at least four times before I can really feel like I “get it” at all.

Where Fun Home used the family house as a framing device for the story, Are You My Mother? relies on psychoanalysis, dream analysis specifically. Fun Home also had literature references throughout, and Are You My Mother? does reference Virginia Woolf several times, but most of the books mentioned are psychoanalysis books. It also revolves around Bechdel’s visits with her psychiatrist(s). (This is, of course, not to mention the central theme of her relationship with her mother.)

Bechdel’s relationship with her mother is more complex than her relationship with her father, partly because they can’t just be compared based on sexuality or gender roles, and partly because Bechdel’s mother is still alive, and resists being rewritten into one narrative.

I didn’t enjoy Are You My Mother? quite as much as Fun Home because a lot of the psychoanalysis went over my head, and I enjoyed the literature references in Fun Home more than the dream analysis in Are You My Mother? That isn’t to say the Are You My Mother? isn’t fantastic, however, and I expect that I will enjoy it more after a few re-reads.

Danika reviewed Maye’s Request by Clifford Henderson

In some ways, Maye’s Request seems like a very small story. It takes place in a short period of time, maybe a week or so. It revolved around the main character’s mother, father, and aunt, with her romance taking a definite backseat. At the same time, the characters and interactions between these four are so detailed and complex, there’s a lot of depth to it.

Maye’s Request is basically a story about a love triangle. A very dramatic love triangle. The main character (Brianna, usually called Bean) is trapped between them. Her mother and father are divorced, and since the divorce, her mother and her father’s twin sister got together. Now, Bean’s mother is on her deathbed and wants to fix this unusual family before it’s too late.

The love triangle premise is what drew me in, but luckily it is not nearly as soap opera-like as it sounds. Jen and Jake, the twins, are given a full back story, from their childhood onward. Their respective relationships with Maye are also explained with enough depth and back story to make it seem quite natural.

The writing and back stories in Maye’s Request were both strong enough to support the intriguing premise. I really recommend this!

Check out Allysse’s review as well!