Mallory Lass reviews the Alpennia Series by Heather Rose Jones

The Alpennia Series never stopped surprising me and often put a smile on my face or pulled a laugh from my lips. The theme of “found family” runs through this series and gave me so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve also wanted to give at least one or two of the characters in each book a good shake. I will talk about each book in turn but I wanted to tell you why you should read all three (a fourth is forthcoming). You certainly can read them as stand alone novels, but Heather rewards those who read the series with little threads (both plot points and characters) dropped early on, woven without resolution, and then picked up in later books when you least expect it. The richness of the world of Alpennia, the city of Rotenek, and the characters that inhabit this fictional European place are skillfully built line by line, and by the end you can almost feel the Rotenek river breeze against your face. I am not religious at all, but I found the magical protections, steeped in ancient church rituals, gripping.

These novels are set in the early 19th century and straddle multiple genres with ease. They are historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a generous sprinkling of romance (not much sex on the page, but the intimacy shown is breathtaking). All three books in this series have a high level of intrigue and mystery at the center of the plot. The characters confront issues of class, gender, race and sexuality. Even though I’m not a big consumer of modern gossip/celebrity news, the societal happenings in Rotenek drew me in and kept me hungry for more, book after book.

Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and by the third book, the cast has grown, and there are six diverse perspectives creating a brilliant tapestry that should be enjoyed with leisure.

Minor spoilers were unavoidable as I discuss later books in the series, but its more the “what” than the “how”, which is the exciting part, so I don’t think it will ruin anything.

Daughter of Mystery

Margerit Sovitre is the goddaughter of Baron Saveze, but aside from providing her a governess, she has little contact with him. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and dreams of nothing more than getting to attend university and be a scholar. She has reached a marriageable age and is expected to be presented at society balls in hopes of attracting a suitable husband. Finding a husband is the last thing on her mind.

Barbara is the masculine of center, chivalrous, caring, breeches-wearing character of my dreams. Indeed, she is my favorite of this series. She is an orphaned child, sold into Baron Saveze’s household, and trained up into his armin. A female armin is certainly unique, but the Baron is a bit of an eccentric and he ensures Barbara is trained by the best, so her position is never questioned openly. Being the Baron’s armin shaped her into an incredibly intelligent, strong, loyal woman. She is a keen observer. Known only as Barbara, her identity and past has always been just out of reach for her and the Baron is unwilling to give her the answers she seeks.

Though protecting her charge and anticipating danger is Barbara’s job as an armin, she is frequently called on to leverage those talents to protect those closest to her and she does it with a deftness I find disarming and sexy. Margerit is whip smart, but a bit naive. She has a talent for mysteries that hasn’t been understood or acknowledged. Her determination to control her own destiny and become a scholar is certainly swoon-worthy. The Baron’s death puts these two formidable women in the same orbit, but will his means meet a happy ending, or will it backfire in an unexpected way when his nephew makes a play for the fortune? There is no clear path to freedom, but Barbara and Margerit are destined to walk it together, despite the very real danger lurking in the shadows. Barbara seeks the freedom of knowing who she is, and Margerit the freedom to chart her own course as a scholar, both things neither are in a position to expect. Discovering the mystery of Barbara’s lineage and the expanse of Margerit’s power is a fulfilling journey. Watching their shared love of scholarship grow into friendship with the potential to blossom into something more is one of many delights of this first volume. This story took a while to settle into my bones, but I kept thinking about Barbara and what was next for her and Margerit. Ultimately I wanted more and am grateful this is a series.

The Mystic Marriage (My favorite of the three)

The Mystic Marrage by Heather Rose Jones coverVicomtesse “Jeanne” de Cherdillac is a widower socialite who plays puppet master and matchmaker for Rotenek’s upper crust. She uses her status as both a French Countess and a widower to shroud her numerous flings with various younger female artists, dancers, and singers–and long ago, one notable armin. She is an original cougar, and whoa is she sultry. Her love of women is a bit of an open secret, and as long as her engagements are exclusive to the artist sector of society, her skills in social engineering are in enough demand for people to overlook who she might share her bed with.

Antuniet Chazillen flees Rotenek at the end of the first novel, after her brother’s bid for her uncle Baron Saveze’s fortune meets a perilous end, and the noble Chazillen name is in ruins. She vows to use her skills and passion as a alchemist to benefit Alpennia and restore her family name. She appears in Daughter of Mystery as a bit standoffish and maybe even a little conceited, but also she read queer for me. We share a bit of that “I will be so successful you wont care when you find out I’m queer” vibe. She puts Margerit on the path to discover the expanse of her powers, and I found her intriguing. We get to see her truly vulnerable in this book and she shines. Slowly, through pure desperation she begins forming friendships and alliances again. She seeks out Jeanne early on in hopes that she can find her a female patron for her Alchemy. Jeanne becomes the only person Antuniet feels she can rely on. Jeanne finds herself drawn in by Antuniet’s uniqueness and when she realizes she is in love with her it comes as a great surprise. Antuniet is artfully portrayed as someone who we would now define as demisexual. When Jeanne asks if she would consider a male patron Antuniet replies, “‘I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to please a man in exchange for his support.’ She left the implications hanging between them.” The tension between Jeanne’s free spirited ways and Antuniet’s reserved nature is deliciously drawn out and negotiated. The dance between them is a courtship for the ages. To work within the constraints of the language and understanding of sexuality in the early 19th century, Heather enlists some endearing metaphors to create a shared understanding of what burns between them. There is more than a little angst here, and it’s all worth it.

In exile, Antuniet discovers a lost alchemist text and hatches a plan to bestow a gift of enhanced gems on Princess Annek to strengthen her court, something valuable enough to restore her name. Unsavory parties are after that same text and maybe her and her work as well. In an effort to outrun those chasing her, she ends up back in Rotenek, a demoted noble with little more than determination to guide her forward. Her motto repeated throughout is “no way out but forward” and she embodies that at every turn and setback. She shares a milder version of Margerit’s power, but her passion lies in the science of alchemy. Will Jeanne be just the person to mend Antuniet’s relationship with Margerit and Barbara and help restore her place in society? Or, will they become the scandal of the city? Can Antuniet really pull off her great vision or will the shadows of the past make themselves known? There are many problems to work through and that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was nervous it would wrap too quickly or unbelievably, but I should have known I was in good hands. That said, as soon as I was done with this one I started the third book!

Mother of Souls

Serafina Talarico, born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome, first makes her appearance at the end of The Mystic Marriage. The wife and assistant of a Vatican archivist, who comes across Margerit’s mysteries and travels to Alpennia seeking out her tutelage for she shares some of the same powers. Her husband travels frequently in search of rare materials keeping him away for sometimes years at a time. Their marriage is more a formality than a reality, but it affords her an allowance which brings her to Alpennia. Serafina is a foreigner to Alpennia in both tongue and body. While the earlier books deal with gender, class, and sexuality issues, Serafina is the catalyst for issues of race to push to the forefront. We see her exoticized and fetishized, even by those close to her. Malice doesn’t color all of the interactions, but Heather does a beautiful job of portraying the pain of otherness. Serafina’s deepest desire is to fit in, a desire Jeanne calls an unfortunate thing to want. That wanting however, leads her to Luzie.

Luzie Valorin is an aspiring composer as well as music teacher and owner of a boarding house by necessity. She is a lonely widow and mother to two boys who attend a boarding school far away. When Serafina takes lodging at Luzie’s house, Luzie’s compositions hold a power she never imagined. Margerit recognizes the power but is skeptical of what role music might play in theological mysteries. Luzie can’t see the power she has so she is skeptical of them both, but finds herself swept up in Margerit’s circle. Jeanne having launched an aspiring violinist in the previous book is poised to launch Luzie as the first female composer of Operas in Rotenek.

While Serafina has had female lovers in the past, and knows the common thread among Margerit and most of Jeanne’s inner circle, Luzie has not been so initiated. In the early days of Serafina’s lodging they forge a connection, in part because of Luzie’s music and Serafina’s ability to see its magic, but also because they both find themselves alone and increasingly lonely. Everyone will need to come together to fight against the mystical attack being waged against Alpennia. One Margerit has been unknowingly on the trail of since her earliest mystical discoveries. Will the bond shared over music composition transport Luzie and Sarafina into something more, just as shared studies did for Barbara and Mergerit? Will they be able to protect Alpennia from outside forces or will it be another misdirection?

If you are looking for a story to spin out like a spool of yarn and then wrap you up into a knitted scarf, get started on this series. The turns of phrase and quiet moments are where Heather’s immense writing talent soars. We are lucky to be the voyeurs of these amazing women loving women of Alpennia and beyond.

Supporting characters of note:

René LeFevre, the well respected business manager of the Baron, and eventually of Barbara and Margerit, is in a romantic relationship with his male assistant, Iannipirt. He is one of Barbara’s oldest friends and serves as a confidant, accomplice, and much more to both Barbara and Margerit. He stole my heart from the beginning.

Tavit, an armin that arrives on the scene in the later half of The Mystic Marriage expresses thoughts in a few different conversations that we would likely classify as gender dysphoria today. Early 19th Century Trans rep, how rad is that?

Bonus: Check out the free short story, “Three Nights at the Opera”, a prequel to Daughter of Mystery, though I think it is more enjoyable if read afterward.

Marthese reviews Dragon Horse War: The Calling by  D. Jackson Leigh

‘’I am this animal because they need me and my warriors to protect their reign of peace’’

I made a yearly resolution to read more fantasy, especially series since those are the kind of books that I end up enjoying the most. I did some research and found this series which is centered around queer women (after I got the third book as an ARC on Netgalley…I thought it better to start from the first!). Happy Woman’s day (for yesterday!) this book series does contain some kickass and imperfect women.

The story is set in the future. After religious wars, people have recognized the Collective and most people are enlightened on the fact that they had past lives. The story follows Jael and Alyssa, however, there are some parts told from other characters’ point of view. In fact, the story starts from the antagonist’s Cyrus’ point of views and there are some parts from his views, but only a little. Most of the chapters follow Jael and Alyssa. Jael has been a warrior for the Collective in all her lives. She burns the bodies of those that die alone in order to release their soul; she also kills those that are badly-born in one life in order to have peace in another. Alyssa is a healer type and an Advocate for the Collective. Jael has some interesting abilities and Alyssa also. They are the ultimate power couple…only they do not always agree on the methods to use. This is very much a plot where one character finds light and the other darkness, in order to form gray together.

As I mentioned, some parts are told from other characters’ points of views. One of them follows Kyle, Cyrus’ daughter. Cyrus became a prophet for the One – a monotheistic god from ancient religions. He also became a preacher for capitalism in a world that distributes fairly and treats everyone equally. Kyle is very much not like him but for a while, she does not know what to do.

The main plot point is that the Natural Order formed by Cyrus is becoming too dangerous. Food and medicine is being stolen and redistributed by them in a world which is facing many natural disasters in all of its borderless territories. The Guard, which Jael is the leader on, are assessing people that have heard the Collective’s calling and training them…to become Dragon Horse warriors. Yes, the Guard have a bond with horses that come darkness, sprout wings.

This book is part of a trilogy – both the name and the plot itself show this. This is only the beginning. It does not start too fast but the end has some interesting action. I have to admit that it took until almost the end for me to become interested in what would happen.

I have been researching and discovering what makes good plots and characters and this book had all the right things in place. However, one thing really bothered me, enough for me considering quitting. This book was published in 2015, so not that long ago. To me, there were two main problems. The first is that the Guard are pureblood descendants. The Natural Order is also preaching pureblood-ness (and are racist, unlike the Guard). At least, the Guard have a reason for this, although it confused me why they should keep to ethnic couples if they all had the gene. Perhaps that will be explained later on. I admit to not knowing a lot of biology. This factor bothered me a bit but I could understand that it was a plot point not ideology pushing as the people of this Collective world, do not care much for ethnicity.

The second factor that bothered me was that the author, in my opinion, confused gender and sex. A person that is intersex but identifies more towards being male, is said to be a third gender. There was also the phrase ‘same-sex oriented’ being used which is used in today’s reality but it would be more accurate to say, especially towards one particular character, that it was same-gender oriented. I have to admit that I cringed a bit with all these happenings in the book. At one point, ‘gendered’ is used. It’s also a very binary world still…you would think that it being set in such a fair and enlightened future, that it would be otherwise.

Despite this, the world building was okay. It was interesting to see what things from today would be called then. The horses were interested and the powers as well. It was interesting to see how Jael and Alyssa changed each other. Jael is a realist and Alyssa is an idealist but they both question what needs to be done. Jael at times was a bit too aggressive and at the beginning to sexually driven (she saw Alyssa as a sort of spoil of war! That changed quick however). Alyssa was very interesting. Although she’s a first life-er and Jael has so much experience, she isn’t pushed around. Even during sex, she doesn’t just sit there but she initiates as well and is active. There isn’t a lot of sex scenes although there are a few. There was one however, where even I (somewhat asexual and I tend to skim them) thought it was very hot and different from how they are usually written.

The fact that they like each other, doesn’t resolve their problems and their incompatibility. The characters are realistic, not always likable and that’s ok. Their relationship has chemistry but I found it a bit squeaky that they had sex before discussing and that one is super-protective even though Second, another character, said that Alyssa is a grown adult who makes her own decisions. Jael especially is ethically dubious, not in the fact that she must kill people but in the way she acts.

Overall, I’m intrigued enough to continue reading the series. I would give this book 3 stars. The ending was better than the start or the middle. I want to see the characters evolve. Whoever is interested in reading the series should proceed with caution on the topics mentioned above.

Elinor reviews Summer’s Cove by Aurora Rey

This is such a pleasant romance! In this sweet novel, chef and single mom Darcy meets adorable soft butch artist Emerson at a wedding and the pair begin casually dating. Ever since the death of her parents while she was in med school, Emerson has been all about living in the moment. Darcy on the other hand has spent her entire post-college life as a devoted and responsible parent. Deciding to keep an unexpected pregnancy changed everything she imagined for her future but her eight year old son Liam is the light of her life and she wouldn’t change a thing. She keeps her dating life strictly compartmentalized so her son doesn’t have Darcy’s girlfriends flitting in and out of his life. That is, until he and Emerson meet by accident and hit it off. As Darcy’s bond with Emerson grows, so does Liam’s attachment to Emerson. What happens when a little summer fling starts turning into something more?

I really liked this novel. The obstacles seemed realistic and conflicts hinged on differing worldviews and experiences, not simple misunderstandings. All the adults acted like grown ups and talked things out for the most part, even when they didn’t handle everything perfect. Darcy might come across as a bit guarded, but as a mom I thought that was relatable. She had never shared the daily experiences of parenting with someone else and didn’t picture bringing a stepparent or other significant adult into her child’s life, so a relationship that didn’t fit that mold was challenging for her. Liam came across as a real, nerdy eight year old, which I especially enjoyed. His scenes with Emerson were very cute. This book has a nice balance of sweet and believable as well as having some pretty hot love scenes.

The whole thing was very satisfying and fun. I liked the resolution, though I thought the last few pages seemed to rush the story along a little bit and I would have preferred them as an epilogue set a few months down the road. Still, it was a delightful romance and I highly recommend it.

Summer’s Cove is the second in a series of romances set around Provincetown. I haven’t read the first book, Winter’s Harbor, which is about Darcy’s boss Alex and her wife Lia, who are also friends of Emerson. For the most part I didn’t think I was missing anything having not read the first book but I was curious about it after reading this. It might be worth reading the series in order but if you, like me, are only interested in books with lesbian moms right now, skip straight to this one. Five stars.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018 and is a contributor to the anthology Unspeakably Erotic, edited by D.L. King, and out now. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com


Marthese reviews A Harvest of Ripe Figs by Shira Glassman

‘’Not everybody reads encyclopaedias for fun’’

A Harvest of Ripe Figs is the third book in the Mangoverse series. It takes place a bit after the epilogue in the second book. I loved this book so much I binge read it.

This book combines two genres which I love: fantasy and mystery. Shulamit and her family have settled with what happened at the end of  book two . Things are quiet, and indeed, the plot does not revolve much around Shula’s group drama! A violin/fiddle of importance gets stolen (I’m still confused about the difference between a violin and a fiddle!) and Shulamit uses her intellect and deduction skills along with some help from her family to discover what happened to it.

During the mystery, it comes out that Shula is a good interrogator (no torture involved–don’t worry) while Riv stops a lot of bullshit – which I loved. Isaac is smug but helpful and Aviva is supportive and introspective. There is a lot of gender talk and criticism of stereotypes.

I liked the down to business element. For example Riv may be attracted to Isaac but she focuses on her job first. There is no ‘but they couldn’t help themselves’ element.

The accepting diversity is what draws me to this series and in this book, there is very minor ace representation (like blink and you miss it; but I appreciated that it was there).

There is also young trans representation! Aviva sums it up perfectly ”That’s the boy who exists. Anything else is a story” and although Shula doesn’t get it at first, she is very protective of her people. Indeed, she’s a great leadership example (despite it being not a democracy). Shula has plans for giving more females more power in her city. She’s ok with sharing power.

Another thing that was super squee worthy for me was the mention of pests and tropical plants. At the moment, I’m working on a campaign for fair and sustainable tropical fruit (make fruit fair) so it’s something that I became familiar with. The pests are a real problem to our food security and farmers’ livelihoods and Shula really cares about her farmers – the backbone of Perach.

Shula is all about responsibility -whether her own of the wrongdoers responsibility. Wish the world was more like that.

The word ‘Feminism’ is actually used! Women supporting women is also another feature of the book. There was lots of body positivity – especially surrounding maternity and different sizes.

There’s also an example of a toxic relationship and an entitled ‘nice guy’ who wants to be the center of attention and expects things for his ‘sacrifices’. This is dealt with rather than ignored or condoned.

Apart from all the simply narrated but complex topics, it’s simply a fun read. There are some funny elements like the stories about Riv – which turn out pretty helpful in the end.

For me, a good mystery isn’t necessarily complex but it must be clean and rounded-up. Things that were mentioned throughout find their use in the conclusion to the mystery and so for me, while predictable it’s a good mystery.

There were many metaphors also about ripening and maturing – people developing and becoming more themselves. Of course, much food talk as well which I came to expect from this series.

What I wanted to see was Kaveh and his companion again (see I even forgot his name). They were mentioned but in passing. Would have been good if they visited or had visible correspondence at least; considering that they are family.

All in all, it’s a fun read. Fluffy-ish fantasy without too much drama. The pages just seemed to scroll by. I was already used to the world and the characters and it was an enjoyable and fun read. While it may seem an easy read, it still points critically to problems in our society and speaks about different issues.


Elinor reviews Bound By Love by Megan Mulry

Bound By Love is a Regency era novella about Vanessa and Nora, women who have been together for twenty years. They’ve raised Vanessa’s children from a previous marriage and built a happy life together in the English countryside. Then Nora learns that her daughter, who she believed was stillborn just before she met Vanessa, may in fact be living nearby–and that Vanessa may have known there was a possibility Nora’s daughter was alive all along.

This is such an interesting set up for a story! It starts off strong, with alternating chapters in 1810 and in 1790, when Vanessa helped rescue Nora from her abusive husband and the two women fell in love. I’m not a huge Regency person but I thought the tone was fairly on point. I liked having a long term couple at the center of the story. Megan Mulry’s imagined pansexual, kink- and poly-friendly Regency England is charming.

Unfortunately, the tension wasn’t allowed to build enough, so the emotional pay off was limited. Even very serious issues are resolved quickly and without much lingering impact. I wanted the story to dive deeper, especially when Nora meets her possible daughter. Some problems seemed tacked on, which was unnecessary considering the potential for conflict and emotion provided by the premise. I had fun reading this, but in the end it seemed more like a draft than a finished novella.

This book is the second in a series of queer Regency romances by Mulry, which include kink, poly relationships, and which all connect. The final section of this book is the lead in for the next in the series and didn’t tie into the central plot all that well. If you have been longing for queer Regency, you might like to explore the series, especially if you just want a light romp. As a stand alone book, though, this didn’t impress me too much. Hardcore f/f Regency fans might want to check it out, but you’re not missing much if you skip it. Two out of five stars.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com

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 Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea

mermaid-in-chelsea-creek

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is yet another book I have been meaning to get into and the hype did not disappoint. This young adult fantasy book is set in Chelsea, Massachusetts and follows Sophia a teenage girl with Polish ancestry.

Sophia and her best friend Ella like to play the pass-out game because it’s the only thing to do in Chelsea. One day, when they are playing the game near the filthy creek, Sophia has a vision of a mermaid. Sophia’s mother Andrea is neglectful yet worried when Sophia admits to playing the game because she was freaking out. Something in her was coming forth. Sophia eats a lot of salt- this is a big element in the book.

At face value, this book is about Sophia coming into her powers and the people around her changing and being seen in new lights. Ella changes, people she saw often take on a new light and pigeons start to mean something nice, wonderful. On a deeper lever, this book tackles evil and sadness and the wrongness that’s in humanity- it treats elements like pollution and pain and sadness of both the oppressed and the oppressors. Humanity is caged, with seemingly no way out. This book plays on the readers understanding of these topics and offers lightness and hope. Sophia is supposed to help heal humanity from its corruption; her power allows her to see inside a person’s emotions and heal them. To heal humanity, that’s her mission.

Sophia discovers that she is a legend. She always knew she liked salt but now she understands why. Salt is an ancient preservative and measure- it makes sense to incorporate it into the story. Speaking about legends, this book beautifully incorporates different cultures and their ideas on witches. Chelsea is very multicultural.

This book also explores family dynamics: how generations can help each other or destroy one another. In Sophia’s case, it’s the latter; her mother is neglectful, her grandmother is worse. There are other positive family representations though. There’s Angel- who Sophia’s grandmother introduces as a guy but is in fact a girl- and her mother. There’s also Sophia’s lost relations which were in front of her the whole time.

This book features elements that at first you think are weird. Whoever thought that pigeons could be helpful main characters? Or mermaids making use of sea waste? All elements mash up well together. The sentences are constructed exquisitely, things like ‘She would submit to the grime, become like a feral cat wandering the heaps of trash’ offer a sense of aesthetic pleasure which Sophia, with all the awareness of her surroundings also shares with the reader. The illustrations, done in a simple style add more to the book experience.

The queer elements in this book do not focus on blatant relationships – although Angel for sure has a thing for Syrena the mermaid. Sophie is 13 but unlike Ella, she is not boy struck. She just values her friend.

I cannot wait to read the second book and see where the story goes. I definitely recommend this book to people that like fantasy, mermaids, pigeons, magic, character development and family dynamics and philosophical themes with some constructive criticism to the world that we live in.

Marthese reviews The Second Mango by Shira Glassman

secondmangocover

She also picked up a mango, and then, after thinking about it for a moment, bought a second as well.

The Second Mango is the first in the Mangoverse high-fantasy series. It felt so good to read fantasy again! Especially a book that I have been meaning to read for a while and now that the series has finished, I started. I had forgotten what the book was about, I just knew I wanted to read it so some things came as a surprise.

The series is set in a tropical setting but within a Jewish religious background which I had never read about in such a combination before. The plot follows Shulamit, a princess recently turned queen and Riv, her new appointed guard – after Riv saved her from being kidnapped after she visited a bawdy house to visit willing women. The rescue is the start of the book, so you can guess it was funny.

Queen Shulamit is skinny, of average looks and has black hair. Riv is tall and comes from the north. The two develop a friendship based on grief, trust and in my opinion, mutual book-nerdery. Riv becomes Shula’s traveling companion along with a horse that is sometimes a dragon. Riv is offered the position of head guard if Shula finds a sweetheart on their journey. Shula doesn’t know how to find other women that like women, after her ex, Aviva bailed on her so she has the idea that anyone wanting to avoid a husband would probably join a religious order… and they set off to visit these orders.

They run into adventures on the way. We see how Shula is quite the detective and intelligent and acts to save herself. Riv also has a painful past. Since it’s in the description of the book, I can reveal that Riv is actually Rivka, a woman that passes as a man for convenience. Rivka is a great warrior that fought to be the way she is. Rivka also lost her partner, the wizard Isaac. We get to see both Rivka’s and Isaac’s past and Shulamit’s and Aviva’s and I have to say, although this book is short, the four characters are developed and human.

The book subtly addresses gender identity and sexual orientation, although how gender identity is explored at one point is a bit problematic (it’s not just cross-dressing). There’s also a touch of biphobia in a comment meant to hurt but it’s not by our protagonists. I believe it also addresses the sexuality spectrum. Rivka isn’t someone that loves a lot and she only started feeling for Isaac, I believe, only after forming a connection with him. Perhaps because of the lack of ace and aro representation in literature but I believe that Rivka falls in the asexual spectrum (perhaps as a demisexual). I think there’s also a misunderstanding of what a sex drive is but, perhaps I over-analyzed. There are non-explicit sex scenes written between two women and a man and a woman that I think focus more on the emotions felt.

Although the adventures may seem as simplistic at times, they are fun and there are badass moments from our protagonists. Both Riv and Shula help each other grow and face insecurities. It’s a lovely start of a series.

I’d definitely recommend this book to fantasy lovers, people that have eclectic book tastes, people that like to see positive growing relationships and also great relationship material between a man and a woman, with it not being the main focus.

Julie Thompson reviews Go Deep (All Out Vancouver #2) by Leigh Matthews

Go Deep

(This review contains some spoilers)

Buckle up for a rocky road  of doppelgängers, hospitals, concussin’, and a ménage à wedding.  It’s heating up (literally, I am melting into the asphalt) around the Pacific Northwest and what better way to enjoy your burgeoning beach bum status than with a fun, flirty, roller coaster of a  novel? Pack your staycation bags and prepare to head up North of the border, up Canada way!

The second book in Leigh Matthew’s All Out Vancouver series threads through the adventures and lives of the first novel’s crew: Kate, Cass, Em, Hanna, and Steve. If you don’t mind slight spoilers of the first book, read on. We meet new folks: Afra, genderqueer character with a big heart for social justice, who shares a run-down apartment with Scout; Scout, a charming young queer fresh from the prairie; and Alice, a nurse from Vancouver General Hospital.

Other characters share the spotlight, such as Drew, a lawyer trying to get pregnant via artificial insemination, who also coaches the group’s queer softball team. As Matthews introduces more characters into the East Vancouver scene, she deftly alternates between storylines, skillfully merging the disparate lives that are connected like a game of six-degrees of Kevin Bacon or Alice’s chart on The L Word. New challenges arise and old problems fester.

The action starts up in Amsterdam, a few months after Kate and Cass settle in. The edges of their nascent relationship are fraying with the stresses of moving to a new country, new jobs, and most of all, the unsettled bumps in their relationship. They fall back into the same patterns, desperate for change, but unsure of how to make that happen. A change of scenery isn’t enough to help the insular couple from trapping themselves in a cycle of fight-sex-fun. It takes an emergency trip back to Vancouver to break the cycle. Both women are forced to take a long hard look at who they are together and if it’s worth all the drama and heartache. I’m unsure about how deep they’re willing to go to transform their relationship into one that is healthy and mutually satisfying. Cass is a difficult character for me to enjoy, but she manages to grow up a little bit.

Kate sums up the relationship, such as it is when the story opens: “It’s like living with a toddler, an academic, and a sex addict, and I never know which one I’ll come home to.”

Go Deep also explores also explores possibilities for couplings and families. Drew and Scout hook up, leaving the politics of tops and bottoms to the flip of a coin. Outside of the bedroom, they enjoy a relationship that does not involve the possibility of a romantic partner/co-parent, but does open the doors for other options.

Scout is one of my favorite characters. New to town after life on the prairie, Scout joins the softball team and plunges into the East Vancouver queer scene.  Scout is tough, yet sensitive; flirty and fun, yet guarded. It’s the uncertainties, contradictions, and charm that shine through and make this character fun to follow. A case of mistaken identity results in further excitement and complications.

Stability radiates outward to the group from the triad of Em, Hanna, and Steve. Even with a life-threatening illness thrown in, they not only stay afloat, but manage to juggle the drama of their less-than-balanced friends. Theirs is the novel’s romance that gives me warm fuzzies.

Em is the kind of friend we all need on our side. Someone who won’t hesitate to call us out on our crap, but is not unkind about it. I cheered when she tells Kate that something needs to change because the only stories she hears Kate tell about life with Cass taste sour.  Em makes friends wherever she finds herself. In her hospital bed, not only does she plays therapist to Kate, but connects with other patients in an important way. She is the cat herding master!

As far as the supporting characters go, they pop up to provide nudges in the action, but we don’t see them as much, yet. A little teaser of storylines to come, maybe. Matthews drops breadcrumbs about where the next installment may head as the gang pools their talents and passions together for a labor of love.

Marthese reviews Elves and Escapades by Eleanor Beresford

elvesandescapades

“you’ve grown up more than you want to admit”

Elves and Escapades is the second book in the Scholars and Sorcerers series. The book is only 136 pages and you’ll fly through it like a Pegasus (heh).

This book picks up after the events of the first one and is similar in its tender tone and adventures. It’s filled with hot-headed and strong characters and so many friendships that could serve as an example in real life!

We see more magical creatures in this book and also we learn more about some students, especially young ones with crushes on Charley and Kitty, the trouble-maker from the fifth.

We see a development to the characters as well. Rosalind, despite appearing so fragile is also very strong and takes initiative. As she says, she makes her own choices. Cecily is as supporting as ever and has Charley’s back no matter what and this is reciprocated. Esther is loyal despite being self-centered and she asks for little in return. Gladys and Frances are interesting characters for some drama. Diana, from her end, is back to causing trouble though you cannot help but feel sorry for her.

The romance happens! Of course, there were some misunderstandings but Charley and Rosalind do manage to solve them like grownups. There’s a bit of misplaced jealousy from both sides, but nothing that is triggering. At times, especially during the holidays, it feels like Charley and Rosalind are in their own tender bubble. They discover intimacy together and you see the rush of first love.

Charley and Rosalind are two gentle people, that are kind though Charley is sometimes crass and they are both powerful. Clearly, they make a good power-couple!

Towards the end, two things make an appearance, one can be guessed by the title, the other based on the previous book. The adventures seem to be escalating! The book ends with hope for the future on all fronts and it is so uncomplicated in its way that it makes you feel better. There was a scene that I think did justice to ‘virginity’. I am not that comfortable with the whole concept overall but during the end, it was clear that ‘untouched’ didn’t mean simply by a man and that was validating what the couple had (although there was no need, it was nice).

On a side-note, I like the Pegasus graphic in chapters! I think they’re cute. Also, Rosalind’s surname is Hastings and I couldn’t not imagine her as a Pretty Little Liar Hastings! These are small things that make the reading experience better.

Overall, this was a sweet read, with some spice and adventure. I would recommend reading soon after you read the first book and without much breaks as my enjoyment was diluted due to commitments and flights that wouldn’t let me continue reading it. It’s a short fantasy adventure, set in a boarding school with magical creatures and more queer characters than the main ones, so be sure to give it a read if you are into that!