Megan G reviews Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn

Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn cover

Buried under a mountain of debt, Starla Martin is forced to say goodbye to her life in Toronto and return to her hometown of Crystal Beach. To help her with her debt, her mother offers to find her a job with her at the local library, but Starla knows that just living with her mother will already be challenging enough. Instead, she finds a job at a local campsite, “The Point”, working the overnight shift. There, she finds herself involved not only in the lives of its residents, but also in a supernatural phenomenon unlike any she’s experienced before. And yet, Starla is not afraid. In fact, she is the exact opposite.

I was instantly drawn to this book because of its setting. It’s hard enough finding Canadian stories that aren’t set in the plains, but a queer ghost story set in Eastern Ontario? Colour me intrigued. In this aspect, the story did not disappoint. Everything about this story screamed Ontario, from the crappy local bus service, to the celebration of May two-four. Even though I’ve never been to Crystal Beach, or even Fort Erie, after reading this book I feel like I have.

The protagonist, Starla, took a bit of time to get used to. This is partially because for the first few chapters of the book, all we really seem to know about her is that she lives in Toronto, dropped out of college, and has a lot of sex. Her sexual partners are described as both male and female, which led me to assume that Starla is bisexual, and having the only personal characteristic of a bisexual character be that she has many sexual partners was not a very promising start. However, as the story unfolds you learn more about Starla, who she is, why she acts the way she does, what led her to the choices she made. She goes from a two-dimensional sex-addict to a three-dimensional traumatised woman, simply trying to live her life.

As for her sexual orientation, despite seemingly being attracted to men and women, Starla is often labelled a lesbian, though never by herself or her girlfriend. This can most likely be chalked up to the story being set in the 1990’s, when knowledge of all things queer was still pretty minimal. It is made very clear that Starla feels more attracted to women than she does to men, so it is also possible that she is a lesbian who is struggling with compulsive heterosexuality based on her past, though this isn’t delved into too deeply.

This is an incredibly heavy story, with characters suffering from such things as spousal abuse, alcoholism, suicide ideation, and past physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The latter is described explicitly, as both Starla and her friend, Bobby, have experienced abuse in their past. Bobby’s past abuse is specifically relating to her identity as an Aboriginal woman, something I am happy that Dawn included and delved into. [minor spoiler] Starla’s abuse happened when she was a child, and it is implied that her mother was aware of it but did nothing [end spoiler]. As well, there is an incident near the beginning of the novel between Starla and a cab driver that does not read as consensual in the least. If any of these things trigger you, you may want to give this book a pass.

The supernatural element of the book was incredible. The ghost, Etta, is both a sympathetic and villainous entity. You feel for her, the way she was in life, and the horrible way she died, but at the same time you hate her for what she is doing to Starla and everybody around her. I adore characters who can be loved and loathed, as I find it such a tough line to walk. Dawn manages it flawlessly here.

I won’t delve too far into the love story of this book, because it’s something you need to experience by reading it to fully understand. Just know that it is perfectly crafted, and unlike any romantic plot I’ve read before.

Overall, Amber Dawn has crafted a wonderful supernatural drama, full of characters who feel so human, you’ll think they’re your friend by the end. She draws you, not only into their lives, but into their environment. By the end of the story, you will be dying to book yourself a ticket to Crystal Beach, hoping to experience even a hint of what the novel describes.

Alexa reviews Into the Mystic Volume 3 by NineStar Press

Her ghost had once told Clotho that no proper ghost story has a happy ending, because ghosts don’t end. 

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for fantasy, paranormal and fairytales, so of course I had to pick up an anthology that has nine F/F stories with paranormal elements. While the stories had the paranormal and the sapphic main characters in common, there was a great variety in paranormal creatures, writing style, and my feelings towards them as well.

Some of the stories were truly creative gems with unexpected and rarely seen ideas: the opening story, It Started Before Noon by Ava Kelly is in itself about ideas that are made into stories. The main character is a muse who grows story inspiration in a garden like flowers, but she just can’t get the romance buds right. I loved the little details, like how the different types of stories (comedy, angst, etc.) had different flowers and needed different kinds of care. Swoon by Artemis Savory had siren-like creatures acting like pirates whom I would have loved to learn more about. I loved the myth surrounding these sisters, but I still had so many questions – I would love to read a full length novel with them.

Other stories took more often used concepts or species, but still had the kind of magic that makes them an easy 5-star read. Home by K. Parr centers a wolf pack made up entirely of women, and a college student who is accepted into the pack (and the family) after getting close to the pack’s Alpha. I loved that this story had an older love interest, and I loved the description of the pack dynamics as well. The Hunt by M. Hollis is about a young vampire forever stuck as a teenager who has been adopted by a lesbian vampire couple. On her first hunt, she meets a human girl, and she finds herself wanting to meet her again. I felt like this story ended a little too soon, I would have loved to read more. And By Candlelight by Ziggy Schutz was one of my favourite stories in the anthology: I admit that I still don’t really understand the logic of it, and yet the two main characters and their relationship was so endearing that it absolutely stole my heart.

Vampires and werewolves seemed to be a popular choice for this anthology, and yet each story had some kind of unique spin on it. My Cup of O Pos by L. J. Hamlin has a disabled vampire with Ehlers-Danlos syndmore (ownvoices!) who goes out on a date with the cute human nurse from the ER who treats her with respect and compassion. This story also takes place in a world where vampires are common knowledge and there are laws about what they can and cannot do, and it uses this fictional/fantasy marginalisation to address real-life marginalisations and their intersections as well. Dance With Me by Michelle Frost is a romance between a werewolf and a vampire that left me with many burning questions about the backgrounds of the characters, wishing that there was a longer story to read.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of stories that caught me off guard and I didn’t end up enjoying them much. I am used to most non-YA lesfic I read having at least some kind of sexual content (My Cup Of O Pos has sex scenes as well, and yet I felt like I got to know the characters), but Heart’s Thaw by Bru Baker and Fire and Brine by Lis Valentine were both mostly erotica with very little plot or characterisation. While I liked the original idea in Heart’s Thaw and the twist in Fire and Brine, I felt like I barely got to know anything about the characters, other than the sex scene that takes up half of such a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this anthology and I found some true gems in it, but I do wish that the blurb or tags made the sexual content of books clearer. It was especially off-putting because most of the stories didn’t have any sex at all, so having two stories that were purely erotica just didn’t seem to fit in well with the others.

Rating: 4 stars

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.

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 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!


Alice reviews A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing by Avery Aimeson

“You won’t find anyone in this town straighter than a pretzel.”

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing is the first book in the Fool’s Crown, a supernatural/urban fantasy series. The book contains themes of domestic abuse, sexual violence, and homelessness. An enjoyable read, but without much resolution, making it a two star book.

I was drawn to this book because I was in the mood for a typical paranormal romance novel filled with cheesy tropes where I could fall into the story and forget the stress of starting a new job. This book was not quite what I was expecting, although it was wonderfully escapist. The story focus was not on romance, as the protagonist was escaping a relationship not falling into one. This really worked in the book and opened up the story, and I didn’t feel at all disappointed.

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing is about a homeless woman caught in a Supernatural city sealed of from the world of ‘Humies’. Using her skills with makeup and her acting training, our human protagonist shifts through an Identity for every day of the week to escape her abusive Witch of an ex-girlfriend. Along the way she meets a plethora of beautiful women (with shapely bodies and skin hugging clothes), including a Werewolf policewoman, a Succubus who runs the shelter for abused women, and a Vampire who always smudges her lipstick since she can’t see her own reflection.

This brings me onto one of my favourite things about the book: its humour. It is aware it’s a trope filled supernatural/urban fantasy, and the first person narrative brings a little bit of meta humour whenever she encounters a genre cliche. Lesbian puns are laced throughout the book too, leading me to giggle out loud on the bus to work a couple of times. This humour supports some heavy themes, with the main character fleeing domestic abuse, and also escaping from a horrific past. The book talks about these themes and allows you to face them without losing it’s escapist charm.

There is one ‘adult’ scene, which features reluctant/ unwanted sexual interaction. This scene made me rather uncomfortable and I felt the book came close to glamourising such situations, which was disappointing in a book that was rather sex-positive overall.

The main character, a human, is rather prejudiced against the Supernatural creatures she’s been living beside, believing none of them can be trusted as they all must just want to turn her. This can be a little annoying in places, but it makes so much sense for the character. [MILD SPOILER] Throughout the book she is led to confront these prejudices and becomes more accepting as she learns to ignore horror films from the land of humans, and instead listen to the people around her. [SPOILER ENDS]

However for all it’s examination of ‘Humie vs Supe’ suspicion and inter-supe racism, the book doesn’t look at racism as we know and see in the real world. The book even erases it, with one of the character remarking how odd it would be if humans went around calling each other by their race not their name, ignoring the fact that humans do indeed do this. Aimeson may have been trying to draw attention to the fact that this behaviour is ridiculous, but it came across more as her washing over the problem, which I take issue with in a book where there seemed to be no diversity of skin or culture.

Overall though I enjoyed this book, and it hit the spot perfectly for the WLW romp I was craving. This is a debut book–and you can see this in the writing. Over all it is very easy to read and you can fall into it quickly, however at times the story can be a little confusing. It’s biggest weakness is the end. Overall the book has a slow, light-hearted, lazy pace. Then the story escalates rather quickly–only to stop on abrupt cliffhanger. There was none of the resolution I expect from a good book, and this damaged my experience of it considerably. It sets up for what looks to be an interesting Fantasy series, I just wish more of the actual story had made it into the first book. Nevertheless as I enjoyed the humour, I am curious to see how the story progresses and will probably check out the second book when it comes out.

This story is perfect for fans of Holly Black who are after something a bit more light hearted, Pulp Fiction Stories, and fans of Urban Fantasy in general as they will love the in jokes from a narrative character who has read the genre too.

Rating: ** Shows promise, but feels unfinished.

Marthese reviews The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance edited by Melanie Gillman and Kori Michele Handwerker

other-side

“Anyway, I’m pretty sure malevolent spirits wouldn’t scrub your bathtub”

The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance is, as the name implies, a queer paranormal romance comic anthology, published in July 2016. I had donated to a crowd-funding campaign for this anthology and I’ve been meaning to read it since it arrived in my inbox.

The anthology starts with some words from Melanie Gillman on the importance of representation in literature. A little disclaimer from my end; this is not a lesbian anthology, it’s a queer anthology which represents various genders. The stories are all non-explicit and quiet romantic.

I cannot go into much detail since the stories are short by my favourite stories were “Ouija Call Center”, “Shadow’s Bae”, “Till Death” and “Yes No Maybe”. “Ouija Call Center” is about a client that uses an Ouija call center to contact someone diseased and the operator! “Shadow’s Bae” is about a monster that becomes friends with a human and they stand up for each other. “Till Death” is a cute story and critical comic about an elderly couple and ghosts that stand up for their community against gentrification. Finally, “Yes No Maybe” is a comic about a tenant who tries to contact the ghost that’s in the apartment and is really adorable.

The art in the anthology varies from piece to piece; they are all so different from each other but this helps to distinguish one story from the other. The length on the story, I believe, is just right–not too long or too short.

The anthology as a whole has a lot of diversity in its representation of gender, ethnicity, culture and age. This collection does not shy away from using different cultures and mythologies for its base and does not include just stories with young characters. Many characters were people of colour. The relationships in the different stories are usually between a human and a supernatural being. Overall, most of the stories are really fluffy and cute so be warned! Although some had a darker tint.

What I like about this anthology are two things: its general cuteness and its queerness. There is a lot of representation for people out of the gender binary spectrum. This book is like a safe space, to enjoy a story rather than who is in the story. I’d recommend this book to those interested in comic anthologies, quirky criticism, cute stories, paranormal and overall stories that go beyond gender.

Lauren reviews The Little Sisters of The Holy Vessel by Vincent Cross

the-little-sisters-cover

The Little Sisters of The Holy Vessel is a short story about an order of nuns that administer exorcisms. In particular, readers are introduced to Sister Teresa and Sister Elizabeth. The sisters have traveled to a small village to assist Father Gregory with a recent crime that he believes will require a spiritual interrogation. At first, nothing seems odd about the nuns. They are dutiful with religious and cultural etiquette. Fast-forward past the opening and Cross unveils the “worldy” side of these women, which removes the veil between the reader and the historical setting, and allows Teresa and Elizabeth to add deeper hues to the story.

Given this is a short story I can’t delve into the plot without risking spoilers. Therefore, I’ll shift to the parts of the narrative that interested and concerned me.

First off, Little Sisters is erotic, which augments the relationship between the characters, as well as the banishment of evil. The erotic is more than sexual. It exists in several layers. It’s physical and spiritual and romantic. On this same note, there is a layer of Cross’ eroticism that pestered me as the story escalated and climaxed. And it started with this sentence:

“We want the thing to smell our scent, but we don’t want our bodies to betray us.”

Sparing the details, I asked myself why is it necessary for these women to use their vessels in such a risky way? Arguably, they are asked to sacrifice their sanctity. Do their actions convey that women are powerful beyond measure? Or, is this just another instance of women “using” what God gave them to make themselves relevant in an unequal world and an attempt to maintain balance between good and evil? Which, ultimately, saves men. If the tables were turned and male clergy were responsible for the exorcism, how would the climatic event in this story change? To me, it would be much different.

There are times when the erotic can be liberating.  There are times when the sexuality and the erotic gaze are self-serving and only maintain sexist ideals. I feel that Little Sisters walks a fine line. The story is well written, but where (and if) readers teeter along this line is subjective, of course.

I would have liked for Cross to allow the nuns to address two of my lingering questions: first, who are they protecting, and second, do they feel their holy vessel is the only way?

As a reviewer, I rarely feel the need to strike an iron hammer by recommending or not recommending a read. Therefore, I’ll end as I usually do. Little Sisters is story for those who enjoy short stories and want to venture into an old world, erotic, and paranormal read featuring religious women that boldly face demons.

Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, “The Dawn of Nia.” Outside of reading and writing, she volunteers as a child advocate and enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter,www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.

Cara reviews Ex-Wives of Dracula by Georgette Kaplan

ex wives of dracula

This is one of the best lesbian vampire books I’ve ever read. While not without its flaws, it stands out for the development of its two protagonists, its prose, its humor, and its well-developed setting.

Mindy and Lucia start off by rekindling their childhood friendship on Mindy’s pizza routes, in the easy way that friendships develop when you’re that age and don’t need to make plans to spend time with people. While the characters are in high school, though, Ex-Wives of Dracula doesn’t feel at all like a young-adult book, rather more like a classic bildungsroman, colored with an adult perspective on being young. Soon, Mindy confesses that she’s been questioning if she’s gay to Lucia. Mindy’s doubts feel real. To me it’s obvious she’s into girls, but it’s exactly the same way my sexuality was a riddle to my high-school self yet so obvious in hindsight. Then, Lucia breaks up with her boyfriend. Then, Lucia kisses Mindy. Then, she gets back together with her boyfriend. Then, she gets turned into a vampire.

Lucia’s hot-and-cold, off-and-on affections should be familiar to any queer woman who’s had her heart broken by a straight girl. Lucia’s not so straight, though, and the clues are there from the start.

“I really tried with him,” Lucia said. Her voice wasn’t rattling with
emotion any more, it was just quiet. Which was even worse. “I really
thought I was a good girlfriend. I was gonna—wash his clothes and fix
him pies and shit. I would’ve done anything to be a good girlfriend.”

“You were a great girlfriend,” Mindy assured her. “He’s just an
idiot. He’s an idiot who never even got to know you well enough to
know what he’s gonna be missing. He’s gonna be big and fat at the high
school reunion, and you’re going to be super-hot and married to a
senator. He won’t even know why he let you get away.”

“I did anal!” Lucia cried to the florescent lights. “What more is a
girl supposed to do, huh?”

We learn, though, that Lucia’s ambiguity has at least as much to do with her feeling inferior to Mindy—dumber and poorer—as it does with internalized homophobia. She hurts Mindy not because she’s deliberately toying with her, but because she doesn’t know how to deal with a relationship on top of her family’s dysfunction and her own uncertainties about her future.

Mindy works out much faster that she likes girls and is more together, but she’s flawed too. When Lucia confesses that the reason she doesn’t want to drink Mindy’s blood is because she’ll lose control, Mindy convinces her otherwise, then hypocritically blames Lucia when, later in the book, she does lose control. Mindy is also certain that Lucia is wrong about something that Lucia is right about, with tragic consequences for everyone involved.

The dialog is often hilarious, and moments of humor mark the rest of the book too. It veers from the absurd, like Lucia going through Mindy’s list of bad tippers to find people to feed on, to the silly, like when Mindy disinvites Lucia to pretend to be hitting her with a hadouken, to the dark: This is why communication is so important, she said to Lucia. Imagine, thinking I had something against murderous rampages… Kaplan uses the humor well to contrast the serious and sometimes horrific elements in the rest of the novel.

Kaplan writes a lot of great descriptions, and some of the best come in the horror scenes. When Lucia confronts the vampire the first time:

He pulled. She bit. The skin gave and his blood flooded her mouth. It
wasn’t warm, it wasn’t salty. It was cold and thick, knotted like old
cough syrup. She wouldn’t release her hold on him to spit it out. She
swallowed and felt it all the way down her esophagus, cold and
heavy. It sat in the pit of her stomach like she’d eaten dry ice.

When Lucia shows up at Mindy’s house afterward:

Out in the hallway, she gasped so hard she nearly dropped the
tray. The footprints Mindy had so assiduously cleaned up, with Swiffer
mops and Resolve Spot & Stain, were still there in ghostly
form. They’d metastasized into mushrooms with long, slender stalks and
caps the size of tennis balls, with small siblings alongside them. The
patches of fungus went up the stairs. One for each step Lucia had
taken.

One of my complaints about lesbian genre literature in general is that the prose is often not good, and I love to find novels that I enjoy reading just for the writing.

Her descriptions capture suburban Texas well, and the football-obsessed high school and town surrounding reminded me of the town I lived in in high school. [Spoilers next] The idea that one of those towns would welcome a vampire, as long as he was a good football coach, is scarily plausible to me. I also liked the way that Kaplan wove real-life life horror, an adult man who obsesses over a teenaged girl and interprets her actions as romantic love, into the character of the vampire; and that when Lucia revealed vampire existence to use it against the vampire who turned her, and the rest of the novel didn’t ignore this like it never happened.

One modern vampire trope in this novel that bugs me is vampires that can cross miles in seconds, with no mention of sonic booms or problems with ground shattering beneath their feet. (I think Twilight popularized this trope, but I don’t think it originated there.) Two other flaws are spoilers.

 

 

 

Spoilers

Seb starts off as comic relief, a FunnyForeigner from Romania. This is always a fraught trope, and I have mixed feelings about how Kaplan uses it here. Later, he’s arguably StuffedInTheFridge to make Mindy surrender herself to the vampire. The reason I say “arguably” is because, at least in my interpretation of the trope, one of its key properties is the lack of agency in the character’s death. Without this, it’s too easy to call every character death an example, because a death without any impact on any character isn’t going to have an impact on the reader, either. Seb puts himself in danger to save Mindy, so he has agency in his own death. Another point is that killing off a straight male character to motivate a not-straight female character doesn’t have the same baggage as the reverse. That said, this all is enough to trouble me, so I’d call it a flaw.

I also wish the ending had shown a little more of Mindy and Lucia’s future together, to indicate that maybe a two-vampire relationship would work out and that they could find some sort of happiness together. That is, however, a quibble. There’s not much more serious commitment than what Mindy does for Lucia, after all.

 

 

Elinor reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

afterworlds

Afterworlds may be one book, but it’s also two YA novels told in alternating chapters. Half of the chapters are about Darcy Patel. At the story’s start Darcy has just graduated from high school, sold her novel Afterworlds to a major publisher (along with its yet-unwritten sequel) for six figures, and is moving to New York City to revise her manuscript and write her next book. The other half of the book is Darcy’s novel itself, a fast-paced supernatural tale as told by Lizzie, a ordinary teenager girl until she survives a terrorist attack. In the midst of the terrible slaughter around her, Lizzie wills herself to the afterworld, the alternate plane of existence for ghosts and their psychopomps spirit guides. In doing so, Lizzie becomes a psychopomp herself and her life floods with ghosts and with dangers she never imagined.

Darcy navigates New York publishing while Lizzie begins a romance with Yamaraj, a handsome fellow psychopomp. Lizzie meets Mindy, the ghost of her mother’s murdered childhood friend, who has lived in her mother’s closet for decades. Darcy falls in love for the first time with Imogen, a YA writer who is full of secrets. Lizzie sets out to solve Mindy’s murder while learning about her new powers and wrestling with the moral questions of the new realm she’s uncovered. Darcy struggles to polish her novel, find her place among her literary heroes, and have her first relationship.

This is an engaging book for YA fans. Both teenage heroines are struggling with the transition to adulthood in extraordinary circumstances. Lizzie has a host of otherworldly issues to contend with, along with trauma and survivor’s guilt. Darcy has had all her dreams come true thanks to incredible success as a first-time novelist, but wrestles with imposter syndrome, questions of cultural appropriation in fiction, and the sudden freedom of adulthood.

The weakness point for both stories, at least for me, were the romances. Yamaraj is, like plenty of teenage heart throbs, too perfect to be really interesting, though the novel ultimately addresses this smartly. Imogen is more complex but Darcy’s apparent sudden sexual awakening wasn’t fleshed out. Prior to Imogen, it seemed Darcy had never any romantic or sexual interest in anyone, though she wrote a novel with a significant romance. On the one hand, it was refreshing that Darcy was relatively unconcerned with her sexual orientation or labeling herself. She struggles to tell her family about her girlfriend, even knowing that it won’t be a big deal, but there’s no tortured coming out story. Many of the challenges in the relationship are challenges in any first relationship. On the other, it seemed like Darcy was written to be vaguely on the asexual/demisexual spectrum without actually acknowledging this. Darcy, at eighteen, had never thought about her sexuality before, and I’m tired of female characters who had no sexual fantasies or desires until the right love interest comes along. It distracted me from the beginning of the Imogen/Darcy relationship, though that relationship did evolve in interesting ways.

All and all this was a fun read. I’d recommend to young adults looking for a different take on paranormal romance, for aspiring writers (the six-figure book deal is an excellent fantasy), for YA fans, and for readers looking for unique read.

Islay reviews Raven Mask by Winter Pennington

Raven Mask is the second in Winter Pennington’s series featuring the adventures of ‘preternatural investigator’ werewolf Kassandra Lyall, and I would most certainly recommend reading the first before the second as Raven Mask picks up fairly seamlessly from where the first novel leaves off. It is, however, an enjoyable romp told with flare and good humour and scattered with a decent number of extremely intense sex scenes which should keep any lover of Sapphic fantasy fiction very happy.

The plot is fast-paced and intriguing, and if it occasionally feels somewhat disjointed it’s more than made up for by their being a juicy love scene within the first couple of chapters to wet the reader’s appetite for what’s to come. This is the first of several love scenes between Kassandra and her vampire lover Lenorre scattered throughout the novel, which all manage to be both erotic and entertaining without overcrowding the plot. It’s somewhat unfortunate that here in Britain ‘Lenore’ is actually the name of a leading brand of fabric softener and couldn’t be less vampiric sounding if it tried – but I’m prepared to forgive Pennington that given that this book was clearly written with an American audience in mind.

Kassandra Lyall is a likeable, sympathetic and frequently funny heroine, and Pennington sets her up well amongst a brace of other quirky, intriguing characters – I developed a particular soft spot for the Beta werewolf Rosalin. The cast of vampires, however, feel a little over-egged: I for one think we’ve really moved past the point where blood suckers must all be faux-Gothic cartoons who dress like bastardised Victorians and speaks with British accents. We now live in the age of True Blood and Being Human, after all, and those shows have been so successful at re-popularising vampire fiction because they resist the Anne Rice style of vamp that permeated 80s and 90s cult lit. Pennington might be a little more successful at getting me to take her vampire characters seriously if she wrote them in a style that didn’t feel so dated.

However, I can’t be completely sure she isn’t doing so with a wink and a nod anyway – her tone is characterised by a slightly tongue-in-cheek mischievousness which shows most clearly in Kassandra’s wry wit and commentary on outrageousness of the situations she gets into. Pennington can just about get away with pantomime vampires where a less skilled author wouldn’t, because her narrative voice is so appealing.

Kassandra does occasionally stray into feeling like an insert for Pennington herself, however. Not only is she a gutsy lesbian werewolf, but a Celtic pagan witch with a particular affinity with ravens. This would be fine if the fact of her being a witch had any bearing on the plot whatsoever – but it doesn’t, and left me wondering why such a detail kept being shoe-horned in. Being a Hellenic polytheist myself I wont criticise the respectful inclusion of a Pagan belief system – neo-Pagans are sorely lacking representation in any kind of popular literature – but it does feel somewhat convenient that Pennington’s blurb mentions that she too is a pagan on a Celtic path with a great fondness for ravens and crows. No author separates themselves from their characters entirely, nor should they have to, but the tongue-in-cheek style which allows Pennington to get away with her vampires is missing from her descriptions of Kassandra’s spirituality and that leaves those sections feeling a little forced and out of place. She doesn’t need to be a witch on top of everything else – there’s no benefit to the narrative – and as such Kassandra being a Celtic pagan feels self-indulgent and jars the reader somewhat.

That being said Kassandra remains an appealing narrator and Raven Mask an entertaining novel – highly recommended to anyone looking for a sexy, funny, escapist bit of fluff to bury themselves in for an afternoon.