Ren reviews We Were Witches by Ariel Gore

We Were Witches by Ariel Gore cover

TW: self harm, violence against women, sexual assault

‘Beautiful’ does not even begin to encompass the captive, rhythmic style Ariel Gore possesses. I found it difficult to read quickly despite it being a relatively short work; every few pages there would be a line simple in structure but devastating in truth. I would be left raw, and was often forced to take a few minutes of sitting quietly before I could pick it up again. Reading this book was not always comfortable, but it was always very real. Her revelations discomfit, the view of an unkind world is gutting, and I am so glad to have found and read it. This will not be the last time.

It begins with Ariel at age 19, delivering Maia in a hospital in Italy. The following chapters delve into her confusion and uncertainty as she returns home for the first time in a long time, and she slowly finds her footing in a world that is not good to her. It becomes an anthem for all that is endured silently for the betterment of privileged fragile men. Reading this book, I was angry, and I was heartbroken.

Poor little male violence
You can climb my hair.

The book is made of rage. And writing when you have rage is important (as is reading about rage when it’s so similar to your own) because more often than not, that rage is turned inward. Because suffering as one’s own island is what women have been groomed to do. There are endless layers and contrasts to Ariel’s explorations as she grows from teen to young adult, and she pulls no punches in her descriptions of suffering (and betrayal after betrayal). Nothing is easy. There is prejudice and rigidity even in the broader spaces in which she tries to make a home.

Ariel goes to college, baby in tow. She studies the witch trials extensively. Outlines the trends in accusing poor, unmarried women of witchcraft and executing them. Paints a picture of women who mattered so little, the only way to find their stories is by the court records of their trials.

Very few people in power really care about other people’s sexuality. They care about money. But shaming sexuality is easier because that realm is so vulnerable. And of course if you control sexuality, that’s power that can be transmuted into more money.… my public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escape the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.

Different is dangerous. Different needs to be leashed.

College teaches Ariel lessons in taking up space. She makes a few key friends. Finds some cute girls to make out with. Her Women’s Studies professor encourages her to explore feminism, and Ariel’s automatic rejection is, ‘feminists just get abortions’. I was taken aback, but equally appreciative of Gore’s ability to be honest about her growth. Because we aren’t born good feminists, and it is hard to accept a label often thrown like an accusation when you are too young to know it should be worn like a badge of honour.

She gains confidence in her desire to be a writer because here, at this women’s college, people do not laugh at her dreams. But she also learns that the people in her new home carry their own flaws. Her intro to (White Girl) Feminism gives her creative freedom and embraces her talent, but it does not account for poverty. It advocates for queer rights, but does not care for butch representation. Ariel’s employer stages a gay wedding between two femme white girls (one hetero, the other with no interest in marriage) – rejecting a butch couple actually looking to get married – because the butch couple are too gay for the kind of press this ‘feminist magazine’ is hoping to garner.

Ariel learns that feminists can be terrible too, when they are not willing to change. When their idea of Feminism is the only Feminism.

Also, honourable mention goes to Ariel’s crush on her Women’s Studies professor. Been there, Girl.

We Were Witches reads like a novel and you want it to be a novel, because in a novel, when the writing is this good, the ending always satisfies. But when my Kindle told me I was 70% through and things were still getting worse, I wanted to cry.

Ariel gives birth to a daughter, and the doctor mutilates her without thought.

The only alive the doctor knows is crying.

She goes home to a mother who will not let her forget the ‘shame’ of being a teenage mother. She takes Maia and branches out on her own and tries to finish college, only she needs welfare assistance to do so. And the woman she tries to befriend throws her to the wolves (the wolf being the woman’s asshole husband who shouts welfare/single mother-shaming abuses at Ariel, then escalates to threats, prompting her to pack her things and leave the city). She moves to a new college. A queer friendly, women’s college.

It does not get better.

Her ex-boyfriend punches through the glass window in her door to break inside. She phones the police. The police show up and Lance charms them, painting Ariel as hysterical. She tries to file a restraining order. But ‘children need their fathers’ and suddenly the choices are share custody with Lance, or have Maia taken away.

As the book progresses, a very clear picture begins to take shape. Here, we explore the pieces:

The police refusing to believe Ariel and Lance aren’t married. Refusing to believe that Lance broke down the door and was ready to hurt her.

Passing as straight for the courts because queer mothers have their children taken away from them.

Ariel’s friend raped – at 14, by a police officer – and told her rapist has visitation rights.

A childhood friend of Ariel’s, raped during her first year of college: her push against the college for laws of consent to be clear and mandatory are made into jokes on the radio.

The witch trials have not ended. And this is as bleak a reality as it is an important one to remember. Fighting when you’re tired, when you’re exhausted – because you’re fighting your fight and the fight of queer/poor/unmarried/underrepresented people before you, even preceding the witch trials, and you were brought into this world fighting – is important. The alternative is death. This book is about intersectional feminism, motherhood, male privilege, violence, the burden of emotional labour, and the one hundred other aggressions dealt with daily to varying degrees by anyone who is not a cis-white male. Everyone needs it.

One final note, and then I promise I will stop hyping it up. I’m a sucker for reimagined fairy tales; there are some brief retellings throughout the book, but the Rapunzel retelling wrecked me. I won’t spoil it, but it wrecked me. Do not read this book until you are in a place where you are okay feeling every feeling. But please read this book.

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.

Mary Springer reviews Snow White and Her Queen by Anna Ferrara

Snow White and Her Queen by Anna Ferrara cover

Trigger Warning: the book contains scenes of suicide, rape, and assault and this review will discuss them.

This review contains spoilers.

Katherine was married to the King of the Northern Kingdom when she was thirteen. Seventeen years later, she plans to kill herself, but she is saved by a beautiful young woman. Soon she finds out this beautiful woman, only seven years younger than her, is her stepdaughter, Eirwen, also known as Snow White. What follows is a tumultuous love story and retelling of a classic fairy tale with a unique twist.

I have had a difficult time gathering my thoughts on this book. To be clear, I did enjoy reading this. However, there are several elements that I’m having a hard time reconciling with my enjoyment. Katherine married King Ferdinand when she was thirteen, a mere child. When we first are introduced to her as an adult it is through a graphic scene in which she has painful sex with Ferdinand. He is angry with her for not getting him a child after so many years of marriage. Katherine, believing him to be a good man and her to be a bad wife for not getting pregnant, then decides to kill herself in the garden. This is where she meets Eirwen. Later on, Ferdinand tells her to get a hobby, specifically hunting, and there she meets Phillip. Phillip decides he is in love with her and won’t take no for an answer. Eventually, this leads to him sexually assaulting her.

Another hard part about reading this is how the two men were supported and even enabled by those around them, men and women. Ferdinand blames Katherine for all his misdeeds, which is what causes her to be known as the Evil Queen. He has effectively isolated her from any support, including her own ladies-in-waiting who gossip about her behind her back. This is what leads to Phillips being so able to hurt Katherine, because she has no friends, no support system. This did feel believable and realistically explained the fairy tale aspect of Katherine being known as evil.

One of my biggest feelings of unease going into the book (before the assault scenes) is that this is a love story between a stepmother and stepdaughter. However, this book reassures the reader in that regard. Katherine and Eirwen are only seven years apart in age and Katherine only sees Eirwen once, on her wedding day to Ferdinand, before the beginning of the book. They are technically family by law, but do not grow up together and they do not act and are not treated as a mother and daughter. For the majority of the story, Katherine is thirty and Eirwen is twenty-two or twenty-three.

The romance felt real. From the moment Katherine meets Eirwen she is captivated by her and struggles with understanding how she, a woman, could be attracted to another woman. Eirwen has the same inner conflict. Not only did both characters feel complex but their romance developed in a believable manner.

The world building was well done. It wasn’t too complex because it didn’t need to be and I enjoyed being able to simply immerse myself in the characters. In this version, the dwarves are miners who have become hunched over or “dwarfed” from working in the mines. They are not good people in this edition, but it follows the book’s theme of patriarchy and misogyny, so I was fine with this change.

There were some choices the characters that felt too sudden. There were moments when characters would reveal motivations that I felt were not previously set up. For example, without giving too much away, Eirwen thinks about part of her plan for revenge against Ferdinand and how Katherine is involved. Her logic felt out of place because it seemed like it hadn’t been set up or foreshadowed. Later in the novel, Katherine tells Eirwen one of the things that attracted her to her in response to Eirwen’s plan for revenge. This reason for attraction felt odd because it seemed like it had been mentioned before at all.

The ending felt somewhat unsatisfying. There was so much violence perpetuated against Katherine and Eirwen that I was disappointed to see how those injustices were dealt with. However, considering the world and characters the author has built, the ending does make sense. Like I said, I’m not sure how to reconcile many elements of this book. However, I wasn’t totally disappointed in the ending and I am happy with where the characters end up.

Having said all of this and voiced many gripes I have with this story, I would recommend reading it. This book was engaging, interesting, and in many ways enjoyable. The story of Snow White is originally so intent on pitting women against each other over conventional standards of beauty and it was great to see a version in which both women get to have more character and agency. If you’re a fan of fairy tale retellings with a twist that the women actually love each other, I recommend picking up Snow White and Her Queen by Anna Ferrara.

Rebecca reviews Seeing Red: A Sapphic Fairy Tale by Cara Malone

Seeing Red is a cute and quick read with a sweet romance and really well-written characters. It’s loosely based on the fairy tale and I absolutely enjoyed this modern take with relatable characters.

Hunter has too much on her plate. She’s living with her sister, Piper and helping with the bills and her two nephews. She’s balancing a job in a care facility while also trying to keep Piper away from her jailed criminal husband, Jed Wolfe. Although things are really desperate, Hunter tries to show Piper that there’s a good life away from pulling cons. Meanwhile, wealthy college student Kiera has just moved in with her grandmother who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Kiera isn’t only taking care of her grandmother but also hiding after an embarrassing encounter at her sorority house. A chance meeting brings Kiera and Hunter together. Kiera needs help with her grandmother and Hunter becomes the old woman’s caretaker. The pay is great, Kiera’s grandmother really likes Hunter and her family, and…there’s something magical happening between Hunter and Kiera. Maybe, Hunter can finally slow down. However, Jed still has his claws in Piper and her desperation to provide for her family will have consequences for all.

The split perspective between Kiera and Hunter with an occasional chapter from Piper really works because the characters have such distinct voices. Malone deftly avoids stereotypes and creates characters that are wonderfully written and relatable. Kiera and Hunter are great protagonists who are brave, interesting, and very real. They are so well-written that I was totally invested in them individually even before their romance blossoms. However, I would have liked more development on Hunter’s history, and Jed’s presence needed to be more ominous because he doesn’t seem like that much of a threat.

The romance between Kiera and Hunter is gentle, sweet, and natural. Despite the fairy tale romance, I like that Malone avoids leaning on classic tropes. She examines real issues like manipulative relationships, financial struggles, and Alzheimer’s. There are many instances that could have been melodramatic but Malone excellently handles her plot and characters to avoid unnecessary drama.

Cara Malone’s Seeing Red is a lovely read. The characters are really well-written, the romance is cute and the happy ever after perfectly fits. If you’re looking for an adorable lesbian romance that’s loosely inspired by a fairy tale, you won’t be disappointed!

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Kelley O’Brien reviews Take Your Medicine by Hannah Carmack

I first heard of Hannah Carmack’s new book, Take Your Medicine, when I was browsing Nine Star Press’ upcoming books. The cover of Carmack’s book was gorgeous (fancy script and lovely pink roses – totally up my alley) so I took a chance and clicked on it. After reading the synopsis, my jaw dropped. Not because the description was appalling or anything, but because the main character, Al, has a condition very similar to one I also have. Al has vasovagal syncope, which I actually used to be diagnosed with. I’ve since been diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). The symptoms and treatments are essentially the same, but the triggers are different. Never in my life have I come across a character that went through the same struggle I do on a daily basis.

I began reading the book the second I got my hands on it. Not only was it incredibly validating to be able to see yourself in fiction, but it also makes you feel much less alone, like your illness matters. Only around a hundred pages, Take Your Medicine didn’t take me very long to get through and is a great way to spend a few hours of downtime.

The story is about a teenager girl named Alice Liddell, Al for short, and is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland. This isn’t the Alice in Wonderland you’re used to, but a southern gothic retelling in which Alice is black, chronically ill, and just discovering she might not be as straight as she once thought.

Beloved characters from the classic novel appear, including the Queen of Hearts who is Al’s mom and a cardiothoracic surgeon, hellbent of trying to find a cure for her sick daughter. After a chance encounter with Rabbit and Kat, Al takes to rebelling against her mom in the hopes that Rabbit and Kat, two teenage witches, might be able to help cure her. Friendship ensues and Al eventually falls for Rabbit, the quieter of the two girls. Something happens that brings realization to several of the characters, and the story wraps up.

I think the book may have benefited from being a bit longer and getting to see more of the relationship develop between Al and Rabbit. The books strengths really lie in the relationship between Al and her mother, Al’s descriptions of her illness, and the fun cast of characters. While I thought Rabbit was sweet and really liked her, I really loved Kat kind of wanted the three girls to have a polyamorous relationship together.

If you like books that features chronically ill characters (written by a chronically ill author!), southern gothic lit, sweet romances, and well-written mother-daughter relationships, then I recommend giving Take Your Medicine a try. In fact, I recommend it anyway!


Julie Thompson reviews Ripped: A Rapunzel Retelling by M. Hollis

Modern-day fairytale revisions let us see ourselves more broadly reflected. My favorite stories include rows upon rows of crowded bookshelves and women who happen to be in a pickle, but aren’t afraid to ask for help in kicking down the tower’s front door. I also love stories with more than one swashbuckling heroine.

M. Hollis’s Ripped: A Rapunzel Retelling inserts a young princess, Valentina, into derelict tower, nestled deep in the woods. Her father, a warmongering king, treats her with contempt. The death of her mother, the beloved queen, provides an easy excuse to tuck away an unwanted daughter until a suitable sale of marriage is rung up after puberty.

The story follows the fairytale format, but features modern interpersonal and social dynamics. Valentina and Agnes (you’ll meet her soon) are strong women who participate in their own stories and aren’t waiting on a knight in shining Uber/Lyft. It’s a short and sweet novelette of empowerment and love, with a wonderful complement of supporting characters and a taste of life beyond “Happily ever after”. So, get cozy by an early autumn fire with your favorite feline or gal (Gadot) Friday, and a heartwarming foray into once upon a time…

*Double your pleasure: Reading Ripped aloud enhances the experience. These kind of stories are often shared with family and/or friends at bedtime. I still enjoy being read to, whether it’s my partner and I, or with an audiobook on my work commute.


Danika reviews As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended robin talley

When I heard a YA book was coming out that was a lesbian boarding school Macbeth retelling, I was already on board before I had even heard that it was by Robin Talley, the author of one of my favourite lesbian YA books.

This isn’t a direct retelling of Macbeth, but it does cover most of the main plot points, and it delivered exactly the kind of broody atmosphere full of revenge plots that I was hoping for. There are some great nods to the original story, including the chapter titles all being lines from the play, but it also works if you haven’t read or seen the play–or if, like me, you read it years ago and have to Wikipedia the plot details. The haunted boarding school (built on a former plantation) adds to the creepy factor, pulling in a strong Southern Gothic vibe.

As I Descended immediately drops us into this atmosphere, with the main characters summoning spirits with a Ouija board. I really enjoyed this brooding story, but I was surprised when the genre started to slip slightly into horror territory. I would definitely warn anyone planning on reading it that there are triggers common to horror, including blood and violence, as well as a blurring of reality.

It’s probably silly to mention in a review of a Macbeth retelling, but this gets very dark. If you only read LGBTQ books with a happily ever after, this isn’t the book for you. These are deeply flawed people, and the relationship at the heart of Descended is an unhealthy one. Maria (read: Macbeth) and Lily (read: Lady Macbeth) obviously are devoted to each other, but Lily knows how to manipulate Maria and uses that information. Maria initially seems to be an ideal student and friend, but as soon as she begins to lose that moral high ground she can’t seem to stop slipping.

It’s enough to have a lesbian YA Macbeth retelling, but there are other elements going on in this narrative as well. Maria is Latina, and her understanding of what’s happening to her and the spirit(s?) in the school comes from her relationship with Altagracia, her childhood nanny, who taught her how to communicate with spirits. Mateo is also Latino, but he has a different understanding of the spirits at the school. Lily is desperate to overcome being seen as just “the girl with the crutches”, and is terrified of adding “lesbian” to that.

Mateo, Brandon, Lily, and Maria are all queer, so no one character has to represent all of queerkind. That way, although a Macbeth retelling has a low survival rate, this doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” situation, because a) it’s a genre that demands a high death rate and b) no one character is The Gay.

I did feel like I couldn’t quite understand why Maria changed so drastically over the course of the book, and I was surprised at the tone change from “delightfully broody” to “I’m legitimately horrified”, but those are small complaints.

I would definitely recommend this one, especially on a blustery fall evening.

Marthese reviews Adijan and Her Genie by L-J Baker

adijanandhergenie

I love queer fairytale retellings! Although I do not think this is much of a fairytale. It’s set in the Arabian Nights fantasy world and has a few elements of the folktale Aladdin, in the sense that there is a poor messenger who’s however a girl and there is a genie, who’s not really a genie.

Adijan is a messenger girl, who dreams of having her own business and is a bit too fond of drinking despite being really hard-working. She’s married to Shalimar, a very kind woman who is always happy and yet always thought of as simple, much to Adijan’s annoyance. It is evident that Adijan loves Shalimar, but she is also slave to vices and wasn’t such a good spouse. This book, full of adventure and Adijan being kicked out from countless places, follows the journey of Adijan to try and get back Shalimar from where she is being kept by her brother Hadim.

While set in an invented Arabian country, Adijan and Shalimar’s relationship is accepted and legitimate. The problem lies in wealth not in their orientation and love. Something that really bothered me was that Adijan was continuously misgendered and most times she did not correct these assumptions where from her gender expression and clothing her gender was judged.

Adijan and the ‘genie’, don’t really get on at first. However, I thought it was great that even though they did not like each other, they were respectful, using correct names, considerately describing time and place and consoling one another. They eventually come to understand and care for one another. Nonetheless, you also see two people battling their wills against each other because they both have big and fundamental dreams.

Injustices to the social system, especially in courts and wealth are addressed. It’s a book that says a lot about non-materialistic values. For someone that was looking to get rich, Adijan got that freedom and love were priceless. Privilege was understood as it was lost. For being a fun book, it also has serious themes.

I really enjoyed the characters of Zobeidé once she stopped getting on my nerves, and of Adijan’s aunt Takush who owns a ‘friendly house’ and her suitor Fakir. A bonus in this book were the insults which often contain some form of ‘camel’ to them.

I liked how Zobeidé did not forgive simply because her old tutor apologized and said he was set up to do what he did. Stripping freedom from someone is inexcusable.

This book ended on a great note. Something that was lost, even if in a land of magic, was still not magically made better and in that it was realistic. To end, you find yourself being angry at Adijan, then pitying her and then laughing at something. This book is a fast read and a true adventure.