Danika reviews Bearly a Lady by Cassandra Khaw

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

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

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

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


Danika reviews Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon

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I don’t read a lot of romance or erotica, but I figured that this month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I would give the genre another shot. I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this one: vampire sorority sisters? I’m in. And for the most part, this is exactly the kind of smutty, light read I was looking for. I would say this leans more to the erotica side of things, because there is usually sex every couple of pages.

Part of the reason that I enjoyed this more than I was expecting was the voice. I liked the little bits of humor thrown in to Ginger’s inner monologue, like her musing that “Maybe it was the right moment to tell Amy I was seventy-seven percent sure I was a lesbian.” I also felt like the characters were strong and compelling, including many of the side characters. I’m really looking forward to the sequel that focuses on Cleo (and Benny), because she was my favourite supporting character. There is also quite a bit of racial diversity in the supporting characters, which I appreciated, and it was interesting to see how all these different personalities dealt with the same unusual situation.

I also was somewhat unfairly influenced because I have been watching Mark Reads Fifty Shades of Grey, and that book sets a spectacularly low bar. But especially in contrast to that experience, I really liked the dynamic between Ginger and Camila. (Yes, the lesbian vampire love interest is named Camila. I appreciated the nod to the classic lesbian vampire story.) Camila is a vampire and has significantly more power and influence than Ginger, but they still manage to have what I considered a healthy relationship. There is a push and pull between them, but Ginger feels capable of setting limits and they both communicate honestly. I can definitely see what Ginger gets out of the relationship. (And despite the plethora of sex scenes, they didn’t get too repetitive.)

My only real problem with the book was the plot. For one thing, if I discovered that hell, demons, and God were all real, I would have some follow-up questions no matter how distracting by hot new vampire girlfriend was, but Ginger doesn’t seem curious at all about the details of this. The plot moves fairly slowly through most of the book, but I was enjoying being immersed in the world and in Ginger and Camila’s relationship. The end of the book, however, packs a lot into a short space, and it felt rushed to me. I would have liked to see it more evenly plotted throughout the book, but overall I really enjoyed this and will definitely be picking up the sequel.

Amanda Clay reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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This book is all about the flipside.

Two interlocking stories, Darcy Patel, YA wunderkind, whose NaNoWriMo romance has catapulted her into a whole new world, and her creation, Elizabeth Scofield, whose brush with death gave her access to the afterlife and a whole new purpose for her existence.  Told in alternating chapters, the young women’s stories unfold.  The navigation of the new, the weight of responsibility both to people and circumstances, the shock of self-discovery, and the risks of new romance. Darcy’s tale is as real as Elizabeth’s is supernatural, but both girls share more than they might realize.

Lizzie’s story is Darcy’s, the book she wrote and sold for a staggering sum.  Launched by this success, Darcy defers her college acceptance and moves to New York, throwing herself into the literary life.  It’s a dizzy ascent at first, meeting idols as equals, learning how to live and work entirely on her own.  But Darcy has luck as well as skill, and the people she meets are good and helpful, some even better than others. Fellow debut author Imogen Gray is friendly at first, but the two are drawn together and Darcy finds herself caught up in a first love she never even knew she wanted. But romance with a fellow writer has hidden challenges, especially when you both have secrets.

Lizzie’s life is much less serene.  When terrorists attack the airport lounge where she waits for a flight, Lizzie survives only by magic, phasing into the Underworld, the middle land where ghosts roam, kept alive by the memories of the living. From a beautiful young man named Yamaraj, Lizzie learns she is a psychopomp, a living guide of the dead who can pass between worlds.  With this newfound knowledge, Lizzie determines to do good, avenging the deaths of murdered children, even as she navigates the powers and politics of this new realm and the lives within it.  Lizzie learns from Yamaraj, connecting with him on many levels, but their dedication and attraction may not be enough when their world is threatened with a killer of the dead.

As I said before, this book is all about the flipside. That’s what Lizzie calls the Underworld, and it’s the perfect metaphor for the story itself.  Darcy’s tale is delightful.  The brilliant, colorful world of the living, with love, friendship, money and a dreamy career won with hard work and genuine talent. There’s  vicarious living and wish fulfillment, tempered with enough struggle, enough sacrifice, to keep it from being saccharine and unrealistic.  Her romance with Imogen blooms and flourishes, and even their setbacks aren’t too upsetting. The book is also wonderfully meta, with lots of discussion about the ups and downs of writing YA novels, of the writing life, and of the difficulty making edits and revisions on the story we are currently reading.

Lizzie’s story, on the other hand, is the world of the dead: grey and flattened, chill and draining.  Perhaps it is simply down to my taste, but the “Afterworlds” within Afterworlds didn’t work as well. The story of Lizzie’s newfound supernatural life and romance is adequate but unremarkable. I never skimmed, but I was often impatient to get past it and back to Darcy’s story.  The romance with Yamaraj seemed like it was included because there’s supposed to be romances in stories like this. Unlike Darcy and Imogen, there wasn’t much chemistry.  Lizzie doesn’t think or feel about him in romantic ways, just gets with him occasionally to make out. The world building is fairly unique, based on Hindu mythology, and Lizzie’s quest to find the killer of her mother’s childhood friend is enough plot to move the story forward. Even the climactic showdown seemed like it was there because it was time to wrap things up.  It’s not a bad story, it’s just not as good as Darcy’s story.

Ultimately, this is a book I recommend. It’s not a challenging read, but it is enjoyable, and as Imogen herself says, who doesn’t need the occasional happy ending?

Trigger warnings: terrorism, gun violence, child murder