Susan reviews The Price of Meat by KJ Charles

The Price of Meat by KJ Charles cover

KJ Charles’s The Price of Meat is a queer horror pastiche of penny dreadfuls, with several nods to Sweeney Todd. Johanna Oakley forces a devil’s bargain with a detective; she will spy on Sawney Reynard, a potentially murderous barber, in exchange for her lover, Arabella, being released from the asylum she’s trapped in.

If you pick this up expecting a romance, you are likely to be disappointed; the queer relationships are present and important, but definitely in the background to Johanna’s investigations and the horrors happening in Sawney Reynard’s shop. What we get is very sweet, and I enjoyed Johanna and Arabella immensely (especially when Arabella finds out what Johanna’s doing), but it’s not the absolute focus.

I think this is partly because of the style the story is written in: it feels like a penny dreadful in tone and style, and in the visceral details of the descriptions. I really liked that, and I thought it worked well for the story being told! What also worked was that Johanna is the sort of all-purpose capable protagonist I see in this type of story–confident in her own ability to shoot, fight, or disguise herself as needed–but a queer woman! I am delighted by that just on its own.

I found the historical and literary references to be interesting–the liberties that are mentioned were a real thing, although not quite in the same way, and the references to other period tales of cannibals was quite cool! And I found the medical horror to be interesting, especially for the way it wound into Johanna’s story!

I enjoyed The Price of Meat, and if you’re in the mood for a queer horror novella I think it’s worth picking up!

[Content warning: cannibalism, mentioned sexual assault and threats thereof, false imprisonment, offscreen medical abuse, medical torture and disfigurement]

Marthese reviews Gretel and “Dragon Essence” by Niamh Murphy

”She had trusted two strangers in her house, offering them food and shelter. It was nonsense not to trust her.” – Gretel: A Fairytale Retold

With GDPR the copious amounts of author newsletters were at best purgatory. The ‘please subscribe to us’ emails were really great to weed out authors that I am not so interested in reading anymore. One author’s newsletter that I kept was Niamh Murphy’s. This author sends a lot of freebies and previews, is interested in fantasy and historical fiction (she’s actually a historian!) and sends advice and tips on where and what to read. I particularly liked her newsletter of Sapphic Fairytale Retellings! Anyone subscribed to her newsletter has received the short stories I will review below!

Despite knowing of this author, I hadn’t read any of her stories before last week, but now I’m intrigued. I started by reading “Dragon Essence: A Prequel to the Dark Age Trilogy.“This was, and and still is currently, free with a newsletter subscription! I have never read a prequel before the actual series, but this particular prequel was good at introducing the world and making the readers invested in seeing more from from it. The prequel is very short and can be read during a lunch break.

The plot surrounds Andra, a Captain of the Dragon Ward. Andra’s lover, Olwen is a mage set on getting a hold on a dragon egg – which Andra is bound to protect. Olwen gets killed, and the way to bring her back to life may see Andra breaking all sorts of oaths. This was a refreshing read, though very morally dubious. Why I could understand why the characters were acting in a certain way, I didn’t feel it was 100% okay. Be forewarned, there is violence on mythical creatures and violence of the human kind. The story contained also a preview of the first book Dragon Whisper. I love queer fantasy, especially with dragons and I’m interested to see how the wizards vs druids and the humans vs dragons elements will play out. I also do not know many queer fantasy books/historical fiction books with druids.

After I finished “Dragon Essence” I felt like reading the series…only it is not yet out. So I read Gretel: A Fairytale Retold, which as you probably guessed is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel: one of my favourite childhood stories! Gretel isn’t that long and is a bit fast paced, but then again, so was the original story. Hans and Gretel are introduced while running away from wolves and fortunately they are saved by a woman who offers them lodging until Hans heals. Gretel and Hans are away from home and have been looking for work. Maeve, the woman who saved them, lives in a cottage in a fort – all on her own. Gretel and Maeve grow closer in a really sweet way (and sexy way too as it involved a first-time sex scene in the woods!), but Hans is ever suspicious of the ‘witch’. Gretel has always had Hans and Hans had always had her back…until both those things are not true anymore. This story has a happy ending for the couple! It also has one of the best concluding lines from a character that I’ve ever seen.

While short, I think this story was great. It is a fast-paced story but there was no ‘love-at-first-sight’. It also featured a realistic fracturing of a family bond and growing romantic bond. I found Maeve to be an interesting character because she’s kind and feminine but still strong, physically and mentally. I absolutely hated Hans. Perhaps if it was longer, we could have seen a nice side of him. The writing was simple but effective and emphatic. This novella is currently free!

Overall, this is an author I would look into more. Niamh Murphy also has a youtube channel where she talks about books. I enjoyed discovering this author especially because of the fantasy and  retellings with a dash of history. I look forward to discovering new authors of those genres.

Shira Glassman reviews Moon-Bright Tides by RoAnna Sylver

First of all, do I really need to say anything other than “sweet romance novella between a witch and a mermaid” in the first place? But I have lots more to say about Moon-Bright Tides by RoAnna Sylver, which rocketed to the top of my f/f fantasy recs list as soon as I read it last month.

“If you ever fear the water again, remember that I’m in it.” That was the point where I teared up and started flailing on Twitter.

It’s easy to reel me in with a fairy-tale about healing from trauma, but this one was exceptionally well done with prose that’s both well-crafted and easy to swallow, like the stew our witchy heroine leaves brewing for herself every night via the magical equivalent of a crockpot (which is just “hey, pot of stew, be warm when I get back to the dock, mmkay?”)

Sylver creates what I can only describe as a “beautiful dystopian” — this is a world where what’s gone horribly wrong is that humans, in some undescribed catastrophe, managed to destroy the moon. In its place, a lonely witch named Riven paddles out in her boat every night to call the tides.

The setup may be fanciful, but her sorrow and loneliness as she grieves for the rest of her family, lost to the sea, is familiar and real and stripped raw of any of the distance one might suppose the fantasy elements might grant. She’s also longing for a different kind of life, one she hasn’t even really identified yet at the beginning but comes to understand, in which she’s still serving others but in a different capacity.

Enter a mer, unidentified in name or gender at first, but who turns out to be female. Sylver does a good job of making mer culture seem distinctly different from humans; when Riven tries to explain that the sounds of her name doesn’t mean anything, the mer reminds her “they mean you.”

The text heavily suggests that Riven is neurodivergent, with several references to other people reacting badly to her conversation, or to her frustration with hidden rules about what questions you’re allowed to ask. In contrast, the mer, who does wind up with a human translation of her mer name over the course of the story, accepts and likes Riven’s way of thinking and speaking. Also, Riven is fat, which you can see on the cover, and this is presented as completely neutral and that kind of thing is important.

Much of what makes this story so special is hard to explain without spoilers, but we are given progressively more and more beautiful reveals to unwrap until I wept at the quote with which I began this review.

At ten thousand words, it’s possible to read it in one sitting, yet it’s also a complete and satisfying happily-ever-after.

This a good read for people who are easily freaked out by too much worldbuilding. This is one of the easiest to parse fantasy setups I have ever seen. It manages to be fresh and creative and magical while not confusing me at all. I know this sounds weird for a fellow fantasy author to say, but then again, my series is basically “what if all the things I like lived in a palace in my childhood city.” Here’s a thread about what I’m talking about. But anyway, RoAnna Sylver gets it so right, maybe partially because in the course of explaining themselves to each other, the witch and the mermaid are also letting us-the-audience in slowly at a reasonable pace.

This is also a recommended read for those looking for f/f romance that isn’t sexually explicit. (In fact, heatwise it’s probably at the level of a Disney princess movie, although I’m not sure I can say the same about some of the implied offscreen violence in the book’s past.)

Here’s a Gumroad link if you’d prefer pdf to Kindle.


Danika reviews The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

I’ve got to say, with a title like “The Cybernetic Tea Shop,” I expected this to be a fun, silly, quick read. Instead, it was thoughtful and quiet, seeming to take up more space than the pages it occupied. This is set in a world where sentient, sapient robots were once mass-produced, but given the ethical problems they raised, they’re now illegal to make. Hundreds of years later, some of those original robots are still around, with questionable legal personhood and a lot of animosity aimed at them by a public who wants to forget the whole thing ever happened.

But it’s not about the sci fi world, really. That’s just backstory for Sal, who has been running a tea shop for more than 200 years, continuing after her old “master”/partner died, while facing constant harassment and even violence. She meets tech Clara when she visits the shop, and despite Clara’s wanderlust and Sal’s complicated situation, they hit it off.

Although the word isn’t used, both Sal and Clara are asexual. Clara explains that she doesn’t have sexual attraction to people, even when she has a romantic relationship with them (and Sal isn’t programmed for that):

[Sal:] “I mean, I’m not designed to be sexual. That’s to say, I can act on others, but I don’t want—”
“That’s okay. Me neither.”
“Oh, but—”
“It’s not something I need from someone else,” Clara said firmly, willing Sal to understand. It wasn’t something that needed explanation, but something that too many people had wanted one for. Love, romance; those were things she’d felt before, even if she wasn’t often inclined toward them. But she didn’t need anything from or with that person, never felt attracted to them even with the addition of love. If her body wanted something, she could spend five minutes with her hand. Another person never needed to factor into that for her.

(I include that quotation because before reading this, I saw that people referred to it as having asexual representation, but that it didn’t use the word “asexual.” I wasn’t sure whether there was just no sex on the page, or whether there was more textual rep, so I wanted to put the paragraph out there for anyone else wondering.)

I really appreciated how character-based this is. In a small amount of time, I felt like I really got to know both the character and how they complemented each other. I’m interested to read more by this author! (Especially when I found out after reading this that we live in the same small city! What a fun coincidence!)


Susan reviews Fearless by Shira Glassman

Fearless by Shira Glassman is a short and sweet romance about a newly-out divorced woman, her crush on a music teacher at her daughter’s school, and falling back in love with music.

I quite liked this one! The story takes place over two days of rehearsals for a high-school music event, where Lana’s daughter is playing, and they get snowed into the hotel. Lana was very sweet, and the story’s depiction of her struggle to work out how to meet people as a middle-aged newly-out queer woman felt very realistic to me as a queer woman who has also struggled to find community. Plus, her kindness and obvious pride in her daughter’s accomplishments really touched me; Fearless is a story of such lovely affection, both familial and romantic, and I found it so warm and lovely.

The romance itself was slow-building in a realistic way – it’s very much about a crush and the flustering rush of feelings at the start of a new relationship! Mel is depicted as talented and kind, and it is very easy to see how Lana found her attractive! Especially because a lot of the story is spent on establishing common ground between them and talking about their shared love of music, which is something I always appreciate. But I especially liked the arc running through it of Lana coming back to music herself after twenty years; the fear and longing felt very believable, and Mel’s understanding of it despite her own confidence was really good to read.

Honestly my only complaint is that some of the descriptions of people felt a little clunky to me, but it wasn’t distractingly so, so your mileage may vary! If you want a peaceful story without much conflict, but with a well of kindness and warmth running through it, Fearless is worth checking out!

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.


Shira Glassman reviews Ripped Pages by M. Hollis

Ripped Pages is a cute addition to the thank goodness growing collection of YA where a fairy-tale princess’s happy ending is with another girl. I’ve said before that since for so many of us, fairy-tales are our first exposure to romance, whether it’s bedtime stories or Disney movies, and that means for those of us who are attracted to the same gender, these same fairy tales were the first place we learned we didn’t exist. That’s what’s so soothing about being included in fairy-tales, even when we’ve moved beyond the age where they comprise the bulk of our romantic daydreams.
The story is a Rapunzel retelling that changes several details to carve its own place in the world–instead of adhering to the original legend where a baby is stolen from loving parents, this time it’s the cruel father himself who locks his daughter away from the world (not because she’s a lesbian, but because she stood up to her father when he said awful things about her or her dead mother.) It’s got to be baffling and invalidating for children of abusive parents to see story after story where the only reason a parent was abusive was that they were the step-parent or kidnapper, when they know they’re enduring such hardship from a blood connection. Hopefully some of the folks out there like that will take comfort in Valentina’s escape.
That escape, actually, is the main focus of the story, as well as Valentina’s new life with the family of the pan-or-bi girl who rescues her. Ripped Pages‘s short length and fairy-tale narrative structure (it literally starts with “once upon a time, in a land far, far away”) mean that Agnes, the love interest, isn’t the most fleshed-out of characters, but if you go into this expecting a fairy-tale instead of a fully fleshed-out fantasy novel it’s a satisfying and complete little read.
The worldbuilding was one of my favorite things about this book. The location is never identified, but I know the author is Brazilian and the names and place-names at least to my outsider eyes seem Brazilian or at least Brazilian-adjacent. (The geography seems to be made up of multiple small countries.) On a more intimate scale, Agnes’s family life, which includes a brother with a husband, several younger siblings, and two affectionate parents, was a neat enough place to “visit” that I’d gladly go back there for a sequel.
Speaking of the treatment of queerness in Hollis’s worldbuilding, the books Valentina finds in her tower include references to women loving each other, attraction to multiple genders, nonbinary people, and asexuality, both of which appear so seamlessly and naturally that it really shows how easy it is to do that when you’re writing in a fantasy world where you literally control everything.
See here:
There were girls kissing other girls! They could kiss whoever they wanted! And some people in the book didn’t want to kiss anyone. There were even those who didn’t call themselves men or women, but something else, something entirely their own.
and then, when another character is speaking:
“I love men, women, and people who are neither or both at the same time. Why do you ask?”
See? This stuff is pretty easy, once you remember that since you control everything about your fantasy world, you don’t have to adhere to any specific period in Earth’s real history. (That being said, there are still valid reasons to include discrimination and/or erasure–for example, getting to watch characters like you vanquish your IRL foes. I’m not saying either way is right, just that Maria Hollis’s way needs to get way more airtime!)
It’s hard to do complicated in a story that’s only fifty or sixty pages, but I liked the nod to the complex emotions that go along with escaping a bad situation and then having to think about it again when towards the end of the story Valentina has to decide how to move forward with her healing. I liked the decision Hollis made about how to tie up that particular loose end.
And of course I was charmed by a reference to pitanga, also known as Suriname cherry–the casual appearance of tropical fruit in fantasy lit being a particular interest of mine.
Really, the only thing that would have improved it for me is if I had a better grip on Agnes, other than as “the spunky love interest”, but the story still works without that particular kind of depth.
There are several trigger warnings, but the author has provided all of them in the intro page: Ripped Pages contains scenes of emotional abuse, forced imprisonment, child abandonment, minor violence, and trauma recovery. Shira’s additional note: when Valentina’s mother dies in the beginning of the book, it felt realistic and familiar to me as someone who has lost a lot of family, so if that’s something that’s likely to set you off, tread lightly until Valentina is already in the tower.
Shira Glassman is the author of the fluffy queer Jewish fantasy series the Mangoverse and also light contemporary f/f romances like Knit One Girl Two. Her next release, coming this winter, is the superheroine/damsel in distress adventure Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor, which you can TBR on Goodreads here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36321936-cinnamon-blade-knife-in-shining-armor


Anna reviews The Jewel Box by Alcamia Payne

Clemmie Beaumont is a just-widowed southern belle who prefers the company of women. Pearl, a recently freed slave, is her new maid. She’s described as a sensual, “exotic” creature who has been watching Clemmie from the shadows and jumps on her first opportunity to slide a well-formed and “dextrous” [sic] toe up Clemmie’s skirts. Yes, The Jewel Box, by Alcamia Payne, is that kind of story, in which women meet and then, an hour later, are riding out toe-inspired orgasms in public. Clemmie also has a box of jewelry which could save her plantation from financial ruin if she sold the contents, but she isn’t willing to part with any of those bright baubles–mirroring the fact that she’s not willing to sell herself to a new husband, even though she’s strikingly beautiful and could have her pick of men. Instead, she and Pearl [Spoiler Alert], who by the end of the story (perhaps even the end of their first mutual sexual encounter, it’s not clear) consider themselves married, have concocted a plan to rob other members of Clemmie’s social class at fancy parties.[1]

I am sorry to report that the story (a slim 70 pages) is wildly improbable at best. The historical setting–the waning days of the Civil War–is potentially interesting. Just think, one could explore race, class, post-war economics (beyond the light treatment that drives Clemmie’s dilemma), sexuality and gender roles, and so on. However, the way characters interact, and Clemmie’s opinions, are decidedly modern. Clemmie is known to parade around her plantation in men’s clothing, believes women and men and blacks and whites should be equals, etc., but also seems unwilling to indulge her forbidden desires. She casually accepts the toe-fondling, then initially pleads innocence when Pearl offers her more intimacy. After that initial encounter, the author lets weeks pass during which, it is revealed later, they have circled each other in a dance of increasing sexual fascination. However, that build-up is tossed away in a few lines of dialogue, in favor of an encounter over Clemmie’s jewels that takes up half the story.

The overall concept–a forbidden affair between a privileged white woman and a former slave–could have been handled better in about a hundred different ways, but it was really the writing that disappointed the most. Take, for example, this sentence, which is something that Clemmie thinks idly to herself: “That hard rod beneath a man’s pants doesn’t arouse me in the least, whereas the prospect of that soft triangle of pink flesh concealing the womanly jewel makes me run like a river.” Between the flat characterizations, the strangely fast-then-slow seduction story, the constant comparison of female anatomy to jewels, and choice phrases such as “opulent breasts,” “pendant orbs,” and “formidable clitoris,” this short novella managed to drag on an epically long time.

[1] Which Pearl attends with Clemmie, even though she is a former slave. And dressed, not as a maid, but in Clemmie’s clothes. They have matching diamond nipple piercings. Er, spoiler.

Danika reviews The Voting Booth After Dark by Vanessa Libertad Garcia

This book is a little difficult to review, because it’s not a novel. It doesn’t have a plot. It’s a collection of fragments, snippets, of different people’s lives. The description calls it a collection of short stories and poems interwoven into a narrative that follows a group of addicted gay & lesbian Latino club kids destroying themselves throughout the course of the 2008 elections. It’s unclear which fragments/poems are attached to which narrator. The narrators rarely get names.  Instead, you just get a sense of the overall frustration, self-destructiveness, and even despair of the group as a whole. In that way, all their lives weave together.

I found it a little like reading scraps of people’s diaries. The context wasn’t given, nothing was explained for you (including things that seem like inside jokes), and it wasn’t always grammatically correct. It felt authentic, but it also completely lost me a couple of times. Despite the blurb, the election wasn’t given as much attention as I was expecting. It’s more of a setting and context for the stories than the focus of them. The subject matter is dark, from addiction to suicide attempts. It’s definitely not a light read.

The Voting Booth After Dark is an unusual little book (only 70 pages), but if you enjoy taking a peek into the minds of people, you should find it interesting.