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!)


Danika reviews The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S.L. Huang

This is a fascinating novella. It’s a dark, reversed retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” from the point of view of a human scientist who acts in an anthropological capacity studying the atargati (definitely not “mermaids”). If “dark queer retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid'” didn’t already hook you, I don’t really know what else to say.

I really liked the author chose to not only have the atargati not have gender, but to also have a nonbinary human character (who uses hir/zie prounouns), so that it wasn’t presented as an alien concept:

We did try to describe binary genders to [the atargati] once. Of course Dr. Hansen jumped in and tried to expand the conversation to sex versus gender, and to explain intersex and genderqueer people, and I tried to stop hir because I thought that would be too confusing, but it turned out that part made more sense to them than what we tried to tell them about men and women.

This also had personal appeal to me because the main character falls in love with one of the atargati (of course), and really grapples with what this means for her identity as a lesbian, especially when she had to fight so hard to claim that space in the first place:

I lost my whole identity. I had to rebuild myself brick by brick and seal a shield around myself with the label “lesbian.” I’m attracted to women. I was born that way. I’ve always been that way. If that’s not true, then my whole life, every relationship, every broken tie—it was all a lie. …

I’ve never been attracted to a human man, and still can’t conceive of such a thing. But maybe… maybe I can’t be slotted into a box either. Maybe I don’t have a definition

Have I mentioned that this is a dark retelling? And that it is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s original, and not the Disney version? I probably should have paid more attention to that, because I was disappointed by the ending. I was looking for a little more from the story: I think I was so intrigued by the world that I wanted to spend more time with it, even outside of this specific story. I wanted to know what happened after the story was over. I wanted to learn more about the atargati.

Still, this science fiction, queer, dark take on “The Little Mermaid” is compelling and memorable. You can easily finish it in one sitting, but it will stick with you long after that.


Danika reviews Biketopia edited by Elly Blue

A smart person once told me that the key to having a good life in the face of world’s uncertainty is to find something that is meaningful for you and go all-in for it. For me, that’s the real appeal of both bicycles and science fiction–no matter how grim the world looks, each other can take you to a place where you can see another perspective, explore your options, and even if they each have the potential to create as many problems they solve, at least you’ve gone somewhere in a way that feels good.

The introduction to Biketopia 

If I’m being entirely honest, I’d have to admit that my favourite part of Biketopia is the cover. That’s not a slight on the stories! It’s just that the sight of this beautiful illustration of a badass woman raising a bike above her head is arresting. Add on to that these are speculative fiction, feminist, bike-centered stories? I’m sold several times over!

There are only two blatantly queer stories in this collection, but all the stories do focus on women and their relationships with each other. The premises range, including semi-utopias, horrific dystopias, classic sci fi, as well as settings that seem all-too-possible.

The first sapphic story is “Meet Cute” by Maddy Spencer, the only comic of the collection. It is wordless, and shows our main character bringing her bike-powered bookmobile through a town. Although we obviously don’t get a big backstory, this seems like a peaceful, cooperative place, and bikes look to be the only means of transportation (other than by foot or wheelchair). When her bikemobile tips over, an adorable mechanic with an artificial (robot? magic??) arm repairs it for her, and hands her a phone number while they both blush furiously. It’s very short, but super cute.

The other queer story is “The Future of Flirtation” by Leigh Ward-Smith. Mika runs a mobile shop in a post-climate-change, water-starved world. When a 6-foot-something muscled figure strides up to her stand, she is immediately smitten, even though she has no idea the gender or even species of the person behind the mirrored helmet. She spends the story attempted to flirt with them, while bartering over a cold can of Coke.

This was a fun read, and although there weren’t many stories that were incredibly memorable, I did find the variations on “feminist bicycle science fiction” stories interesting. They definitely went in different directions. This is actually the fourth volume of the Bikes In Space series, each of which explore feminist sci fi stories about bicycling, so that sounds like your style, you should pick one up! (Probably this one. It has queer stories and a sweet cover.)

Danika reviews Meanwhile, Elsewhere edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett

This is a huge book. Metaphorically, of course: it’s a big step in queer lit that we have a collection like this now, a collection of SFF stories all by and about trans people. We’re finally moving towards having stories that neither minimize queerness nor make it our only defining feature. But actually, I’m talking about it’s physical size. It’s 447 pages, and the book is taller and wider than your average paperback: more like a textbook than a novel. Although I really enjoyed reading this, it did take me a while to get through, because its physical size makes it awkward to hold and the length was intimidating.

It was well worth the time it took me to read it, though! I was happy to see that there are plenty of sapphic stories included: in fact, at least 10 of the 25 stories has a women-loving-women main character. Although this collection is sci fi and fantasy, and trans people in general, there’s definitely a stronger presence of science fiction and trans women.

As always in an anthology, some of these were bigger hits than others, but even the stories I didn’t personally enjoy I could see other people loving. (Like “It’s Called Fashion,” which I found difficult to follow, but I can see other readers really clicking with.) The stories vary a lot in their scope and premise. Some build a complex cyberpunk world in 20 pages, while others imagine a world only slightly different than ours. One story follows someone in space quietly ruminating about microaggressions, while another follows a woman whose brain-eating amoeba communicates through dreams and grows via orgasms.

A few stories I found so fascinating that I could easily write papers about them: “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me, Laura.” by Aesling Fae attempts to reclaim Satan as a trans woman, and as the protector of trans women. Outside of context, the devil and a trans woman sounds offensive, but Fae makes it an empowering thesis. Like Carmilla the series takes the monstrous lesbian and turns her into a hero, this story does the same thing with the devil.

The other story that really made me think was “Rent, Don’t Sell” by Calvin Gimpelevich. In this world, the technology for body-swapping had been made viable, but under capitalism, it’s used for things like: swapping your body with a trainer’s so they can do your exercise for you, hiring someone to detox for you, and, of course, having sex while inhabiting someone else’s body. This has a lot of interesting discussions about identity. The side character is a trans women who swapped bodies with a trans guy, but now regrets it and wants to transition with her own body, so she’s suing to try to get it back.

Some of my other favorites were “What Cheer” by RJ Edwards, where the main character spends a couple days with her alien close, and learns appreciation for herself and her life; “After the Big One” by Cooper Lee Bombardier, where a motley crew of queer argue about discourse and privilege, but have to come together to survive disaster; and “Gamers” by Imogen Binnie, which is about Zelda and time travel and being in an unhealthy relationship with a dependent girlfriend.

I do want to mention some serious trigger warnings for transphobia, transmisogyny, violence, gore, and rape in various stories. Specifically, the one story I had a problem with is “Delicate Bodies” by Bridget Liang, in which the main character is a zombie who rapes and then kills her ex-boyfriends/crushes. I get the zombie revenge fantasy, but I was getting nauseated reading about her brutally raping multiple people, and the text seems to suggest that they deserve it. They may have been jerks, but they didn’t do anything comparable. It soured the collection some for me. I also want to mention a trigger warning for suicide in “Visions” (though that’s not one of the sapphic stories).

I highly recommend this collection to just about everyone. It’s ambitious and necessary and has some fantastic stories. (And that sapphic story abundance doesn’t hurt!)

Megan Casey reviews Addict by Matt Doyle

Popular lesbian author Lori L. Lake has an interesting essay on pseudonyms and the reasons writers choose to use them. Oddly, she fails to discuss the use of pen names in lesbian mysteries. The omission is even more unusual because “Lori L. Lake” is, in fact, itself the pseudonym of a writer of lesbian mysteries. I don’t know her reason for using a pseudonym, but a number of other lesbian writers are simply afraid to be outed as lesbians, either at work or with their families. Nikki Baker is one of these, as is current superstar Lee Winter.

Then there are other writers—like Lake—who use pseudonyms for reasons unknown: Kate Allen, Radclyffe, Jae, Rose Beecham, Ellen Hart, and on and on. I’m sure that most of these women have good reasons for using false names to write under. But think of how different the reasons must be for a man.

As far as I know, Matt Doyle, who wrote Addict, is the author’s real name. But if that is true, it puts him in a very small category. My research shows that only a few male writers of lesbian mysteries use their real names—not including initials: Charles Atkins (a prolific author with many other books), David Galloway (a supposed literary writer), Mark McNease (whose lesbian sleuth is a spinoff from his popular gay detective series), Samuel L. Steward (whose two books about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are as much literary reminiscences as they are mysteries), and Jason Halstead (another prolific author with many titles).

J.T. Langdon and R.E. Conary are also men, but as far as I know, they use their real initials and their real last names. N.H. Avenue also uses initials, but his last name is also not his real one. A pertinent question is this: how many male writers of lesbian mysteries use female pseudonyms, and why? The answer to the first is ‘I don’t know,” and I may never know. But the answer to the second is obvious. Anyone who has read more than a handful of reviews knows 1. that most readers of lesbian mysteries are not only women, but also lesbians and 2. that many—not all and maybe not even most—lesbians want to read books by lesbians about lesbians. Period. They would pass up a lesbian mystery written by a man without even reading the blurb. Truth, folks.

I happen to believe that a good writer can write about either sex. Henry James wrote Daisy MillerThe Princess Cassamassima, and What Maisie Knew.Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the Durbervilles, George Eliot wrote Silas Marner. I’m sure I don’t have to go any further because the list is endless. There is no reason why a man can’t write good lesbian fiction, but if they want to be rated based on the fiction rather than their gender, it’s probably pays to write under a female pseudonym.

Okay, let’s get to the review. Would my opinion of Addict be different if it were written by someone named Martha Doyle? Probably not, but the faults of the book are more with the story than with the characters. Like Jason Halstead’s Kat Wimple series, Addict is set in the future. Unlike Halstead’s books though, Addict doesn’t really feel like its set in the future. For one thing, his protagonist, Cassie Tam, doesn’t really like modern conveniences; she likes real blinds, for instance and normal furniture. You’ll find very little Blade Runner futureism here. The few futuristic things he mentions, like tech shifting and online addiction, are light on description. Cassie’s “protector,” a robot gargoyle named Bert, night must as well be a man or, as I have seen elsewhere, “a man substitute” whose job is to rescue Cassie. Even the modern city of New Hopeland—which I assume is meant to be something like the new city Elon Musk has envisioned creating—is given short shrift in its description. If something takes place in the future, we are going to need a lot more creation and a lot more description.

The mystery is quite a good one in theory, but on paper it seems overly—and unsatisfactorily—explicated. In other words, it’s hard to figure out what’s actually going on, even if we are told over and over. It’s the old showing instead of telling bugaboo. The author’s explanation of the mystery takes longer to tell than the denouement, and even that is dependent on our old friend, the seemingly normal person who is actually a criminally insane religious fanatic. In addition, the reasoning and execution of the crime is so convoluted that all you can do it blink and turn the page.

And I guess Cassie is a lesbian; she says she is and at the very end of the book she may even think about asking someone out. But again, she is a permutation of another of our old friends, a lesbian on the run from a bad relationship and terrified of being hurt a second time—although in this case, her old relationship is described as a good one and as far as I can tell without rereading, she wasn’t dumped by her ex. Oh well. In any case, the author is content with Cassie not having a real relationship. It is easier that way. Yet again, for lesbian readers this choice is far from satisfactory.

So regardless of the gender of the author, Addict is not something I can recommend. At less than 56,000 words, it is about 20,000 words too short. And those words could have been used to very good advantage to spruce up—and possibly eliminate—the problems.

Note: I received a review copy of this book that was kindly provided by the author in e-book form through Lesbrary.

For over 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website athttp://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan G reviews Quiet Shy by Brandon L. Summers

All Alexandria Fix wants to do is stay at home with her beautiful wife Quiet Shy, a woman from the future of an alternate reality. Unfortunately for Alex, her job continuously gets in the way of her time with her wife. Things only get worse when Alex becomes entangled in the doomsday plans of a dangerous cult.

Considering Quiet Shy is a relatively short novel, there’s a lot going on. Almost too much going on. There’s a large plot revolving around a cult wanting to bring about the end of the world, but it often seemed to get lost in the background of Alex and Quiet Shy’s relationship, as well as Alex’s frustrations with her work. There is also a subplot with Alex’s boss that ends in what I can only assume was meant to be a plot twist, but because there is so much else happening in the book it barely affected me at all. It took me a second to realize that a major piece of information had been revealed, because it came so seemingly out of the blue.

What frustrates me about all this is that because there is so much happening in this story, I couldn’t fully enjoy the sweet moments we get between Quiet Shy and Alex. There is an incredibly sweet section of the book where Alex and Quiet Shy go away on vacation together, yet all I could think of for the entire time they are away was “Do they really have time for this?” If the other aspects of the plot had been lengthened slightly, then having two or three chapters of just the girls alone on a vacation may not have felt so unnecessary and out of place. As it was, instead of basking in the domestic sweetness of Alex and Quiet Shy, I just scratched my head and wondered when they would get back to the action.

As well, most major plot points are resolved quickly and innocuously. As I already mentioned, a rather large plot twist evoked no emotion from me because there had been very little build-up and it was so sudden and, after a little bit of dialogue, never spoken of again. The cult plot is equally dealt with, and so is a strange, completely unnecessary, self-harm subplot.

Another frustration I had that could largely be attributed to the length of the story was the way that Alex spoke of Quiet Shy. All she ever seemed to have to say about her wife was that she was beautiful, sexy, gorgeous. Almost every compliment about Quiet Shy is based on physicality, and while I think it’s healthy for couples to be vocal about their attraction to each other (in fact, I think it’s necessary within a relationship), it did concern me that that was all that Alex had to say about Quiet Shy. Even when she is telling the antagonist how powerful Quiet Shy is, she prefaces it with “Not only is she incredibly sexy,” as if that’s somehow important to her statement. Perhaps if the story had been longer, Summers could have delved further into the intricacies of their relationship instead of keeping it as surface as it was.

All of that aside, I found the story unique and interesting. We weren’t bogged down by world-building, or too-long descriptions of characters and locations. The plot was original, and blended science-fiction and fantasy in a very interesting way. This was not a book that I had to force myself to finish, as I was genuinely interested in the outcome of the plots, albeit a little frustrated in how quickly everything came about.

I will give one warning about this book, however: it deals very explicitly with self-harm, both physical and mental, and overall this adds very little to the story, if anything at all. If this in any way triggers you, it would be best to give this book a pass.

Maddison reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension follows Alana Quick, a sky surgeon AKA starship mechanic, who stows away on the Tangled Axon when the crew comes in search of the services of her sister, Nova. Alana has a chronic and debilitating illness that requires expensive medication and her ship repair yard barely brings enough in to cover her expenses, so she sees the Tangled Axon as an opportunity to leave her circumstances. However, aboard the Tangled Axon, things do not go according to plan. With a wily crew led by a too-hot-to-handle captain, Alana quickly finds herself in over her head. As the story develops it becomes clear that the Tangled Axon and their client are after Nova, not her abilities.A nefarious plot is unveiled, and Alana and the crew of the Tangled Axon have to try to make it out alive.
When I first saw this book I was really excited. Queer WOC in space! What more can a girl ask for? Ascension delivered what the cover and description promise: an immersive space adventure with a lovable and diverse cast. Koyanagi’s writing draws you into Alana’s character and her role on the ship.
One of my favourite parts of the book is that Alana is allowed to make mistakes, and does she ever. Despite being 30 system-years old, I found Alana’s character to read as young and arrogant. She believes in her abilities and her decisions wholeheartedly, even if they are not well thought through. Aboard the Tangled Axon, Alana has to prove herself and her claims that she is “the best damned sky surgeon.” Her attempts to prove herself don’t always go according to plan, and her often selfish decisions backfire, but she lives with the consequences of those action and learns from her mistakes.
For some, Alana might be too introspective of a character, but for those of us who love to get into a character’s head, Koyanagi creates an interesting and well developed character.
I have seen critiques of the way the Koyanagi handles Alana’s chronic illness and pain. I don’t have chronic pain, so I don’t think that it is my place to judge, but Koyanagi writes from a place of experience as she lives with a chronic illness. I found that there were many small details in her descriptions of Alana’s experience with a chronic illness that lent believability to the story.
For me, the ending of the novel–without going into any spoilery details–was very strange. I did not see the final plot twist coming, so if you enjoy the unexpected, then you will definitely enjoy the ending.
Would I recommend Ascension? For sure! If you enjoy lesbians in space, an introspective main character, and action, Ascension is the book for you.

Megan G reviews Forget Yourself by Redfern Jon Barrett

Blondee’s world is comprised of fifty huts divided between four groups of people: least, minor, moderate, and severe. Each person is grouped based on what crime they committed in their previous life, though nobody can really know for sure what their exact crime was, as everybody comes into this world with no memories of who they previously were. The few memories people have are recorded in a book and used as rules to govern this world. The memories Blondee begins to have, however, will change the course of her world.

This is a tough book to review. It’s speculative science-fiction unlike any I’ve read before. Blondee’s world is new, both to the reader and to the characters, creating a deep sense of uncertainty throughout the novel that never fully dissipates. Every character is an amnesiac, making the world outside their prison compound a complete mystery and creating a strong sense of claustrophobia. We don’t know where we are, and we don’t know where we came from. I will admit, the eventual reveal left me scratching my head, but it also left me thinking in a way that very few dystopian novels ever have.

The issue of sexuality is just as complex as the rest of the narrative. Although Blondee’s world seems far more open-minded than our own, monogamy is still the law of the land, and when Blondee begins to shift into the world of polyamory she is quickly shunned by the rest of the compound. This is a world where everybody must act in the same way and follow the same rules, and having two lovers simply doesn’t fit with those rules. Despite the reaction of the rest of the compound, Blondee continues to date Burberry and Fredrick simultaneously, and, for a short time, this works for all three. Then, Blondee begins having memories.

The way that memory is dealt with in this book was something I found particularly intriguing. Everybody arrives into the world fully formed, but with no idea of who they are. When they do have memories, they’re vague. “If one person cheats, the other breaks up with them.” Nothing is personal or specific, and so it is believed that all memories are simply reminders of how the world works. When you’re with someone, they live with you. When you break up, you have sex once, and then one of you moves out. Things that in our world are decided based on personal preference are rules in Blondee’s world. This eventually leads to terrible consequences when Blondee remembers marriage, finds a bridal magazine, and re-introduces heteronormativy and traditional gender roles into a world that operated rather smoothly without them. This shift is one of the many social commentaries embedded within the narrative, and it may potentially be the only one that I fully grasped.

There are a few warnings you should be aware of before picking this book up. There is a decent amount of fatphobia within this book, all dealt with in a very casual way. Suicide is also a theme, and while it is not omni-present, it is rather explicit when it comes up. [major spoilers]This book also includes the death of a queer woman and of several queer men [end spoilers]. There is also explicit sexual content throughout the book, if that is something you prefer to avoid.

Overall, Forget Yourself is a tightly woven, complex story that deeply examines our society, sexuality, and the personal in contrast to the general. While I did greatly enjoy this story, I must admit that a lot of what happened in the final section went over my head, leaving me confused and a little unsatisfied. A second read might be in order, now that I (sort of) know where everything ends up.

One final note about Forget Yourself: don’t be fooled by the quick pace. This book initially seems like a light, easy, mindless read. It isn’t. It really, really isn’t.

Maddison reviews Unknown Horizons by C. J. Birch

Unknown Horizons by CJ Birch cover, showing asteroid belt

Unknown Horizons follows lieutenant Alison Ash as she boards the Persephone, a ship slated to join a generation ship on the 100 year journey to a new planet. Ash, as she prefers to be called, quickly find herself attracted to the young Captain Jordan who may return the attraction Ash feels. However, Ash’s past and her lost memories catch up with her and jeopardize the entire mission.
The characters and story were engaging and well-written. I couldn’t put the book down, but there were several peeves that this book raised for me.
Firstly, the book is written in first person present tense, which was jarring. Once reading for awhile, it no longer bothered me, but coming back to the book after a time away still resulted in being jarred. And while first person present tense is often hard to maintain, I think that C. J. Birch did it successfully and it did add some urgency to the plot that past tense may not have been able to express.
Secondly, rather than trying to catch your interest by starting at the beginning of the plot, Unknown Horizons‘s first scene is pulled directly from the climax in a flashforward. As the scene reaches it’s climax, it cuts away and starts into the plot proper, four weeks earlier. This is one of my least favourite tools, and while I have seen it many times in television, this is the first time that I have seen it in a literary context.
Thirdly, and finally, there is the fact that the book never truly reached it’s climax as the main character passes out at the climactic moment and the book ends.
This book had a huge climatic let down. I understand wanting to leave a cliff hanger, but this went way beyond that. You cannot take the pivotal moment, the moment that the entire book has been leading up to, the moment that actually started the entire book and just end it with the main character passing out. This scene started the entire book, so you would think that the story would continue past that point, but it in this case it did not.
I would still recommend Unknown Horizons as it was a quick and engaging read. But, if there will be a sequel I would wait for that to come out first.

Shira Glassman reviews “Né łe” by Darcie Little Badger (from Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time)

If I told you there was a short story where two women of color fall in love in outer space, surrounded by puppies, you’d go out and buy it right away, right? No, you’d invent a time machine and go back in time and buy it five minutes before you started reading this review. That’s how badly you want cute f/f in space WITH PUPPIES.

“Né łe” by Darcie Little Badger was my favorite story in the Indigenous LGBT SFF anthology Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time, which incidentally includes at least two other f/f pieces, so if you only read f/f it’s still very much worth it. Forty chihuahuas (and one husky!) need care when the dog stasis on the transport to Mars malfunctions and they all wake up, so the crew wakes one of the human passengers, an Apache veterinarian on her way to the Martian colony to start over after a breakup.
Since she needs to stay conscious and take care of the dogs, over the remaining months of  the voyage she grows closer with the pilot, who turns out to be not only Navajo but also another lesbian. They weather the ups and downs of space travel and astronomical doggie care together, and the protagonist has a decision to make once they reach Mars. It’s well-written and easy to follow, with–and you know this is always a priority with me with SFF–approachable worldbuilding.
The world needs truckloads more stories like this one, where not only folks in the LGBT umbrella but also marginalized ethnicities (or ability levels, or marginalized faiths) get to have fluffy and imaginative adventures in space, underwater, or in magical faraway kingdoms. Thank you for this one.