Meagan Kimberly reviews Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Waking up with amnesia in a cave and having no knowledge of who or what she is, the protagonist of Fledgling undergoes a painstakingly slow journey of discovering she is what’s called an Ina, or more popularly thought of as a vampire. She appears as a 10-year-old child but finds she’s actually 53 years old. As the story progresses, she learns more about her family, the way of the Ina, and who killed her family.

Because of her appearance as a child, Shori’s relationships with her symbionts are highly uncomfortable. More than that, she’s a Black child, which portrays how Black girls are often hypersexualized in real life. It’s also significant that although she’s Ina, she’s also a Black child, and that she is the result of experimentation, which can’t be ignored, as historically the U.S. government has experimented on Black communities.

The story unravels at an infuriating pace, but it makes sense as readers learn about what happened and about the Ina at the same time Shori does. Butler’s writing is effective in showing how frustrating and maddening it feels to have knowledge slowly come to you but no memory of how you know things.

While Shori engages in sexual relationships with both her male and female symbionts, it doesn’t seem like she particularly identifies as being on the bi/pan spectrum. On paper, it seems like it should be defined that way. But because Shori’s relationships are instinctual because of her Ina nature, it’s hard to say how much of her feelings are part of her sexuality, rather than part of her survival instincts.

Their relationships also bring up important questions about consent. When Shori finds herself needing to take over the symbiont relationship of Celia and Brook, her brothers’ former symbionts after they died, they agree to the bond. However, the chemical and hormonal responses between both Shori and the symbionts make them physically repulsed by one another and resist the transition. So, can this truly be considered consent?

The Ina culture hinges greatly on the separation of sexes between males and females being seen as men and women. The way Butler has written this society shows there’s no nuance for gender identity and what that means for the roles each individual plays in their culture. But much of what Shori learns about herself and the Ina comes from the word of Iosif, her father, meaning she must rely on the word of others around her to know how to behave. Butler shows that Shori trusts them based on instinct, so it presents the question of how much does social conditioning become encoded in one’s DNA?

There are so many layers and complex themes that Butler addresses with Fledgling. It would be impossible to hit every note in one book review. Overall, it’s a weird book with a lot to make readers uncomfortable. But if you can roll with that, then this is certainly a new take on the vampire mythos that I wish we’d had more room and time to discover. It reads like this was meant to be part of a new series, but it was the last novel Butler wrote before she died.

Trigger warnings: pedophilia

Meagan Kimberly reviews They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

the cover of They Never Learn

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Carly Schiller is finally away from her abusive family, but her freshman year at Gorman isn’t going that well either. She befriends and starts to fall for her roommate Allison Hadley and becomes close with Allison’s childhood friend Wes. But when Allison is sexually assaulted at a party and Carly insists on bringing her friend to the hospital and then taking the issue to the school, a rift begins to tear them apart. No one is treating Allison’s situation as she thinks they should, and as tensions rise, it all ends in tragedy.

Scarlett Clark is an English professor at Gorman with an unexpected pastime — murder. Scarlett finds wrongdoers, rapists and all-around creeps to target and bring to justice the way the justice system should have but failed to do. But her most recent kill brings the authorities too close, and she’s found out by her colleague, Dr. Mina Pierce, her victim’s ex-wife. It doesn’t help that there’s a palpable connection between her and Mina.

Almost all the men throughout the book represent the worst of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, so it’s easy to sympathize with Carly and Scarlett as they begin to lose control. The blatant perpetuation of rape culture from authority figures who should be protecting them is infuriating. Wes turns out to be a Nice Guy™, showcasing one of the more sinister types of male entitlement. He believes because he offers Allison and Carly friendship that they owe him a sexual and/or romantic relationship.

As stated before, almost all the men are the worst. The only men in the entire story who are decent are Scarlett’s gay, married colleagues. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the book, as the only good men are gay is a tired and stereotypical trope.

The way I pitch this book is as the meme, “I support women’s rights, but I also support women’s wrongs.” Even though Carly and Scarlett turn to violence to exact justice, it’s a visceral satisfaction that’s easy to fall into. (spoilers, highlight to read) And while you’re waiting for it all to come crashing down, the unexpected happens: a happy ending. (end of spoilers)

Fargo’s writing is fast-paced and propels the story at a compelling pace. It’s hard to put the book down as you flip back and forth between Carly’s and Scarlett’s stories to see how they converge.

Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault

Meagan Kimberly reviews Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

the audiobook cover of Something to Talk About

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner follows Jo, a famous actress, writer and showrunner in Hollywood, and her assistant Emma. When they appear at an award show together and seem incredibly intimate, rumors of their romance begin to swirl. This ignites questions of the dynamic of their relationship and pushing from their family and loved ones. Miscommunication and shenanigans ensue.

I listened to this on audiobook, narrated by Jorjeana Marie and Xe Sands. If it hadn’t been for listening to the audio, I probably would have DNFed this book, to be honest. I didn’t hate it, but I know if I’d been reading it in e-book or physical copy, I wouldn’t have plowed through it. But that’s just my personal taste.

From the way the book starts, I had high hopes for what it could accomplish, but it fell short in my opinion. It’s established early on that Emma is bisexual, out to her family and comfortable in her identity but not shouting from the rooftops, and that Jo is a lesbian only out to her best friend and parents (not even Emma knows until about halfway through the book).

In the beginning, Jo’s issues with Hollywood’s racism are addressed as she deals with comments from entertainment reporters who believe she’ll have “too soft a touch” to properly write a screenplay for the action franchise, Agent Silver, the James Bond of this world. Emma pegs it right away as racist, coded language because Jo is Asian, and Asian women are often stereotyped as soft and submissive.

Emma’s dedication to Jo and Jo knowing Emma so well is established right away. It’s clear they have a close relationship that goes beyond employer and employee; it’s a solid friendship. Truthfully, that’s what their relationship feels like throughout the entire book. The romance that eventually blooms doesn’t feel organic. It feels like it’s stemming from the pressure of the rumors and the insistence of their friends and family that they are, in fact, in love.

The relationship dynamic between Jo and Emma always feels like an intimate friendship. Even the most romantic moments feel platonic. Their friends’ and family’s teasing about their rumored dating relationship is cringe-worthy. It’s never mean-spirited, but good intentions don’t necessarily mean the behavior is appropriate.

Part of what makes the dating relationship feel forced and inorganic is the power dynamic difference. Wilsner actually addressed this pretty well throughout, showing the characters’ recognition of how Jo had influence over Emma’s career, as well as the age difference.

However, when the rumors first started spreading, Jo insisted on not making a comment because she’d never commented about her love life, and she wasn’t going to start now that the rumor was her dating a woman; it would seem homophobic. Jo’s points in not commenting about her dating life are valid and solid reasons. But the way she believes she’s right comes off as dismissive and invalidates Emma’s feelings about the situation.

It was hard to become invested in the characters’ inner lives because these characters are people who don’t let anyone see too deep into them, including the reader. Their development both as individuals and together as an eventual couple feels surface level. Even the supporting characters are often described as knowing them so well, but it’s always a statement made through exposition and rarely shown within behavior and relationship dynamics.

Overall, the story itself was entertaining, but the characters and their interactions felt like they needed something more.

Content warnings: Homophobia, biphobia, racism

Meagan Kimberly reviews Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

the cover of Perfect on Paper

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Darcy Phillips secretly runs the relationship advice service that comes from the mysterious locker 89 at her school. When Alexander Brougham discovers her secret, he enlists her help in getting his girlfriend Winona back. Everything becomes complicated when her secret gets out, including how she used the locker for selfish reasons. While Darcy prides herself on her 95% success rate, she still has a lot to learn about people, relationships, and herself.

There’s so much teen drama that could easily delve into cringe territory. But Gonzales uses great finesse to illustrate how complicated and messy emotions can get. The characters all make frustrating mistakes, but her deft writing leaves room for compassion. At every turn, she gives her characters the chance to learn and grow.

The back and forth enemies to lovers between Darcy and Brougham is absolutely delicious. Perhaps calling it enemies to lovers is a bit strong. It’s more like moderately annoyed with each other to smitten. Still, seeing each character unravel to one another with every moment they spend together does a great job portraying how hard it is for some people to let others in. These are both characters that don’t let many people see their true selves often, so to do that for each other creates a beautiful romance you can’t help but get wrapped up in.

A cast of queer side characters makes it all feel like a family within this school community. There’s Ainsley, Darcy’s sister who’s transgender; Ray, the other out bisexual in their school; Finn, Brougham’s gay best friend; and a bunch of other students and their teacher Mr. Elliott part of the Queer and Questioning (Q and Q) Club.

While Darcy spends the majority of the book doling out relationship advice, both romantic and platonic, she has a hard time seeing herself and her relationships. She puts her best friend Brooke on a pedestal and calls it love. She fails to see her own shortcomings. She jumps to conclusions about Brougham and sees what she wants to see. But throughout the whole story, you keep wanting her to get better. And she does.

Gonzales creates moments that touch on tough subjects like divorce and fighting parents, and how those relationships at home affect the people these characters become. She also weaves in confronting biphobia, both from fellow queer characters and internalized by Darcy. She begins to question her bisexuality and if she belongs to the queer community if she has feelings for a cishet boy.

There’s a lot of angst and anxiety, but always a glimpse of hope for these characters.

Trigger warning: Biphobia

Meagan Kimberly reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

the cover of Labyrinth Lost

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Alejandra Mortiz wants nothing to do with her magic, so she tries to get rid of it, resulting in catastrophe. Putting her trust in a brujo named Nova sends her on the path to nearly losing her family. She must travel to the magical realm of Los Lagos to retrieve them and set everything right. Along the way, she learns not to fear her power and instead embraces it.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this novel is the bisexual representation. Alex’s bisexuality had no influence on the outcome of events or the narrative of the story. As most young adult novels are prone to do, there was a love triangle, but it never played into a drama of having to choose one over the other, of being either-or. It was accepted and no one batted an eye at Alex’s love for her best friend Rishi. It was just as natural as her growing feelings for Nova.

While romance played a small role and was weaved throughout the plot, it never drove the story. If anything, the love for her family was the driving force behind the story. The fact that her family never questioned or made a deal out of Alex having a crush on Rishi was just such a relief to see in a YA novel. Instead, it was mainly about magic and family and the power a girl can have.

Córdova’s cultural heritage also plays a strong role in the story and characters. The Mortiz family has Ecuadorian roots and a family lineage that passes through Puerto Rico (which I greatly appreciated, being Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian myself). The underlying concept of the power of ancestry and how the dead are never truly gone resonates with many Latinx cultures as well.

However, Córdova makes the world her own by creating a magic system based in Deos and Cantos. While it’s all influenced by certain real-life cultural markers, it’s never appropriative. The magic system is also rather easy to follow. She makes it simple to understand that the use of magic always comes with a price, regardless of how it’s used.

The writing at times is clunky and doesn’t always transition flawlessly, but that doesn’t detract you from enjoying the story. It’s overall a fun and exciting start to a fantastic trilogy.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The book starts with The Story of Mary MacLane, a real-life figure in writing. It’s this book that the girls of Brookhants School for Girls center their Plain Bad Heroines Society around. But when three girls die and the book is found at both death scenes, it soon becomes a feared object. Even the women who run the school, Libbie Brookhants and Alexandra Trills, partners, have different experiences with the curse. Jumping to the modern-day, the contemporary heroines, author Merritt Emmons and actors Harper Harper and Audrey Hall, are working to bring the story of Brookhants to life.

Each generation of stories tied to Brookhants finds girls exploring their sexuality and following their desires. But it’s also a place where tragedy befalls so many of the heroines who only wanted to live freely. The horror of Brookhants embodies the curse that is the patriarchy against queer women.

Through the contemporary storyline, Danforth explores the exploitative nature of horror. The characters set out to tell the story of Brookhants and the tragic deaths, but their director, Bo, turns it into a found-footage documentary about the making of the movie. To do so, he engages in unethical behaviors and gaslighting.

Overall, the novel is never terrifying so much as it is atmospheric and creepy. It’s the epitome of Gothic horror, creating an environment that messes with the characters’ sense of reality. It makes the reader question whether or not they’re actually experiencing hauntings or if it’s all simply in their heads.

SPOILERS BEGIN

After so much build-up though with the curse of Brookhants, the yellow jackets and Orangerie events, the ending is anticlimactic. When establishing his plan to create a documentary, Bo enlisted Audrey to be his “inside woman,” telling her she’d be the only one who knew this plan. But it turned out they all knew what was happening and no one was really out of the loop. So it begged the question: Did any hauntings actually happen?

SPOILER ENDS

Among the characters, there aren’t any particularly great protagonists to root for, which is the point. The women aren’t plain bad heroines, but they’re not pillars of virtue and goodness either. They’re human, messy, capable of making good and bad decisions, and simply interesting. It’s hard not to become engrossed in their lives, even if they can be frustrating.

Danforth expertly created unlikable characters, especially with Bo and all the Hollywood types. They definitely give meaning to the phrase La La Land. Everyone in the three heroines’ circles has an agenda and openly uses and manipulates them, all for the sake of art. It’s this kind of toxic behavior that makes it easy to sympathize with Audrey, Harper and Merritt, even when they’re at their worst.

The writing is deft as Danforth switches back and forth between the timelines. The voice for each character is distinct, including the unnamed narrator. It’s even distinguished between the different timelines, the voice adapting to each era from historical to contemporary. 

8 Sapphic Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror Audio Dramas

Voracious readers love a good story, and audio dramas could be considered book adjacent. If you’re fond of audiobooks, then podcasts are the next step. Here are a few audio stories featuring sapphic characters that span across the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres, perfect for the spooky season.

Unwell, a Midwestern Gothic

Unwell logo

This creepy tale of a woman who moves back to her childhood hometown to look after her ailing mother contains paranormal activity, a cult, hauntings, ghosts and a lesbian romance. It also has a cast of quirky characters that fall into the beloved found family trope.

Within the Wires

From the team that brought you Welcome to Nightvale, this audio drama covers a different set of characters each season, but all the narratives overlap. Throughout most seasons, there are various queer characters, including bi+ and polyamorous representation. All the stories tell the history of a dystopia where the government dictates who and what makes a family.

Alice Isn’t Dead

the logo of Alice Isn't Dead

Follow the travel log of a truck driver as she crosses America in search of her wife. Along the way, she encounters strange happenings that all point toward a national conspiracy. And mixed up in it all, is her missing wife. (Editor’s note: this was also adapted into a book!)

The Strange Case of Starship Iris

The year is 2189, and Earth has just barely won a war against extraterrestrials. What comes after that is a story spanning outer space, resistance, survival, loyalties, romance and a few jokes along the way.

Adventures in New America

the logo of Adventures in New America

An Afrofuture sci-fi, buddy comedy with political satire makes this a fun and clever romp through New America. The story follows best friends IA and Simon Carr as they take on heists that become increasingly higher stakes as they try to make money for IA’s medical treatment. They become entangled with a secret cabal of terrorist vampire zombies from outer space.

Crossing Wires

Featuring queer women, nonbinary and genderqueer characters, this story has a good mix of representation. In a post-apocalyptic world, the people who have often been marginalized survive the end times and find connection, all through radio transmissions and broadcasts.

Violet Beach

logo for Violet Beach

On New Year’s Day 2018, seven teens meet at a party where they witness the sky over Maryland turn purple. They keep in touch, communicating about the strange, sci-fi happenings going on around them that become less fiction every day. There are bisexual women, lesbians, and other women-loving women characters to round out the queer cast.

Archive 81

As Dan Powell listens to the found footage of journalist Melody Pendras’ investigation into the mysterious Visser building, he quickly realizes something is amiss about his new employer. Melody’s story is a major focus of season 1 as she interviews the building’s residents and learns about the strange things that go on there.

Meagan Kimberly is a Latinx writer, poet, traveler, and reader who identifies as bisexual. She holds a B.A. in creative writing from UCF and an M.B.A. in marketing from NSU. When she’s not engaged in the aforementioned activities, she can be found yelling and crying at her TV over fictional people that break her heart. You can find her on TwitterInstagram, and Tumblr, or follow her blog here.

Her Lesbrary reviews can be found here.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger by Roxane Gay

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I posted a previous version of this review here. Trigger warnings for sexual assault and eating disorders.

Roxane Gay is an author known for her sharp and insightful thoughts on feminism and pop culture, as well as an established novelist and short fiction creator. This memoir added to her repertoire is no different.

With a book of essays dedicated to her personal body struggles, how she came to the relationship she has today with her body and herself, and a critical look at fatphobia, Hunger is brutal yet vulnerable. She makes a point early on to say that this isn’t a before and after story. This isn’t a story of triumph, of becoming overweight and fighting to lose it, and you won’t see a picture of her on the cover suddenly thin and glamorous. But this is a true story, and as I read it, I felt like it is many people’s story.

Since the first book of essays I read by her, Bad Feminist, Gay has been open about the sexual assault she endured as a child. She doesn’t shy away from it now, and in fact, goes into even more heartbreaking detail in this memoir than in Bad Feminist.

She starts her essays in this book with a look at her happy childhood and healthy family relationships, painting a picture of why she should have been a confident and strong girl, self-possessed. At least, that’s how I interpreted it, because I believe so many of us have been there. Like Gay, many of us look back on our lives and think, “Nothing happened that should have derailed my confidence or self-esteem, so why did I think so little of myself?” With simple sentence structures and plain language, Gay puts into words with such frightening honesty what it’s like in someone’s head. She doesn’t have the answers to our questions, nor to her own, but that’s not what she set out to do with Hunger.

As you read, you see her journey influenced by the terrible incidents of her past and how they shaped her relationship with food and her body. In an attempt to control what happened to her body, Gay details how she had to lose control of it in order to feel safe. She continuously explains in various chapters of the book that she ate because if she ate, she’d gain size, and if she gained size, she wouldn’t be so small and weak and easily taken over. Then again, she eats to fill the void, to satisfy the hollow left inside from the hands of callous boys who probably grew up to be abhorrent men, but no matter what she eats, it does not satisfy. It does not satiate. It just keeps leaving her hungry.

What this memoir is about goes beyond hunger of the body, though the body is the vessel we take to journey through her various desires. She hungers for food. She hungers for comfort. She hungers for safety. She hungers for warmth. She hungers to be understood. She hungers for love. In short, she is a person, like all of us. All too often the world forgets that about fat people and acts like we don’t want the same things everyone else does; like we don’t deserve those same things. Hunger is a reminder to Gay herself and to others like her, that shaping the mind is just as important as shaping the body. More importantly, it is a necessity to be kind to ourselves as much as we are kind to others. It’s alright to hunger, but don’t let it consume you.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn, illustrated by Claire Roe

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Madison Jackson started as an intern at The Boston Lede, fetching coffee and grabbing quotes for senior writers. But she finds herself thrust into the spotlight when Dahlia Kennedy, a prominent socialite charged with a gruesome murder, latches onto her. Madison must decide how far she’s willing to go and how much to trust Dahlia to get her shot at becoming an ace reporter.

The story starts strong, pulling the reader in with the mystery. A constant back and forth of whether or not Dahlia actually committed the murder creates a palpable tension that moves the mystery forward. But about halfway through, the push and pull without any clear evolution in sight for the characters becomes tedious. After so much buildup on the mystery, when the truth comes to light, it’s more a relief than satisfying.

While the overall plot falls flat, Dunn does capture the newsroom politics well. It’s the nature of these dynamics that define Madison’s character development throughout the story. She starts as a typical, shy intern and it seems like she’s going to make a name for herself. But the path she takes to do that leads to selfish decisions that hurt others, making her a rather unlikeable character.

Unlikeability in a character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but between her devolving character arc and the tiresome plot, it doesn’t leave much for the reader to root for. Especially because most of the characters are unlikeable. The diversity of supporting characters made the story feel real, but there was very little to like about most of them.

The artwork helps keep the story moving even after the pacing starts to fall short. Vibrant colors make every panel pop on its own. And yet it has a style that still feels very noir, keeping in line with the mystery genre.

Bury the Lede is a solid 3 stars because it did keep me entertained for the most part.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Shadow Life cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Kumiko, a 76-year-old widow, leaves the assisted living facility her adult daughters put her in because it just wasn’t for her. She wants to maintain whatever independence she can for as long as she can. She feels death coming for her, but it’s too soon. So, when death’s shadow tries to take her before her time, Kumiko fights back.

It’s so refreshing to see an older bisexual character. I have not come across many older characters in general, let alone queer ones, but maybe I’m not reading the right books. Regardless, Kumiko is a delightful main character. She’s quirky and saucy in a way that you can see how she charms some people and irritates others.

The story focuses mostly on Kumiko’s battle with the shadow of Death that has come to take her away. But threaded throughout you also get a glimpse of her relationship with her daughters in the present and flashbacks of her time with her husband, who died in a car accident. For anyone who’s dealt with being a caretaker of an older parent or grandparent, it’s easy to understand the daughters’ perspective, seeing how easily frustrated she is by Kumiko. But in telling the story from Kumiko’s point of view, Goto brings a lot of empathy for the parent’s point of view. Kumiko simply wants to live her life, even if she will start needing more help and supervision soon.

As Kumiko battles Death’s shadow, we get a fun cast of characters that include a surly vacuum storekeeper and her sweet neighbor that looks out for her. She is also reunited with her old flame, Alice. It’s here that the story reveals her bisexuality and it’s even revealed to her daughters. Her eldest is taken by surprise but they don’t make a big deal out of her sexuality itself, so much as the fact that she never told them. Kumiko asserts that it wasn’t something she hid, she just never talked about her past relationships.

I’m not usually captivated by black and white comics, but in this case, it works. And most of the graphic novel takes place through the panel artwork with very little dialogue. In fact, there’s one moment that stands out to convey and affirm Kumiko’s identity as a Japanese Canadian woman. There’s a panel that includes dialogue in Japanese characters and provides no translation. It’s a moment where the reader is made an outsider in the way that people marginalized by white, English-speaking cultures are usually othered. Even though I have no idea what words were spoken there, I didn’t need to. It didn’t detract from the overall story.

No spoilers for how it ends, but all in all, a bewitching tale with fun characters you feel invested in.