Danika reviews Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak

Girl Town by Carolyn NowakWhat a weird and wonderful book. This a collection of comic short stories, which differ in characters and style, but have a similar vibe of women’s complicated relationships with each other, and a general sense of unease and yearning. With beginning lines like “I have lived with Ashley and Jolene since we all got kicked out of astronaut school for being too good-looking to be sent to space,” Girl Town wastes no time in introducing you to a world that’s one step out of sync with our own, while still seeming eerily familiar.

The first story follows two neighboring houses of women who are sparring with each. One house has a bacchanalia where they ritually burn the main character’s sock dog, while she looks on, enthralled. It includes the line “Her nipples rattled against the windowsill with an odious rhythm.” Have mentioned how unapologetically strange this book is?

My favourite story is the second: “Radishes.” It follows two girls at an outdoor market. They try on clothes and explore the stalls, but while Kelly prances around the stalls, delighting in spinning around in dresses and cuddling with a tiger, Beth hangs back slightly, perpetually embarrassed. She makes fun of herself for her armpit fat, her chin, and her clumsiness. The two of them stumble on a stall with fruit and vegetables with magical properties. When Kelly accidentally duplicates herself, she wants to take her doppelganger home to mess with her parents. When Beth follows suit, she accepts a hug from her other self and begins to sob, apologizing to her.

“Diana’s Electric Tongue” follows Diana, burnt from a breakup, who finds comfort in a robot boyfriend. “The Big Burning House” is a portion of a podcast about a movie no one has seen since it was aired a few times in the 90s. The hosts speculate excitedly, as they prepare to watch a recently-found copy of the tape. “Please Sleep Over” follows two women (a couple) house sitting at one’s parents’ house. We see glimpses of their stay, but the scene that sticks out to me is them lying together in bed as one says “My parents are good. They’re really good parents. They will always support my choices.” [Panel of silence] “I just wish they didn’t think I was so stupid,” she continues, beginning to cry. Her girlfriend replies with anger, “Shut up. Parents can go to hell. My parents are ‘good’ too. They can go to hell. No one knows what you’re capable of.”

Girl Town is a surreal and affecting read. I felt off-kilter while reading it, with the odd worlds and only brief glimpses into these lives, but the emotions rang true. I read this book because my coworker put it in my hands and said “I just read this and I think you’re really like it.” Not only am I glad to have had it put in my hands, I’m also flattered to be associated with a queer weirdo feelings comic like this one.

Danika reviews Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear

Stone Mad by Karen Memory cover

This was an odd read for me. I finished the first book and enjoyed the characters and the world, but (partly because I was listening to the audiobook), I had trouble following the plot. This is the reason I don’t typically watch action movies or read action-adventures. Still, I liked it enough that I immediately picked up the sequel, and at the beginning, I was sure I would like it more than Karen Memory. First of all, Victorian spiritualists are my jam. I love hearing stories about the rise of spiritualism and the elaborate cons carried out, mostly by women. After all, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for single women to make their own money. As Karen says (I may be paraphrasing, but this is what I remember), “Men own most things, especially white men. If they didn’t want us to cheat, they should have made the game fair.”

Another fun element was the addition of the fact that although spiritualists may or may not be legit in this universe, it’s common knowledge that creatures like Tommyknockers, sasquatches, and jackalopes exist. I had already been delighted by the mention of splintercats in the first book. But what I was most focused on was Karen and Priya. This is post-HEA, and they are trying to figure out how to be with each other when they’re not just running on adrenaline, being pulled from one death-defying adventure to the next. They clash, and it becomes obvious that they have different opinions on things like rushing headlong into danger when catching a whiff of injustice. They have to adapt to each other and compromise. It was uncomfortable, and it was absolutely true to the real, messy business of being in a relationship with someone. As Stone Mad states, it not being perfect is how you know you aren’t being conned.

Unfortunately, despite the elements I liked, I was totally thrown by the plot structure this time around. Instead of losing track of how they got from one adventure to the next, this novella starts with a dramatic encounter and winds down from there, with a mudslide thrown in at the end. I literally got to the narrator reading “The End” and looked at my phone in confusion. I thought I had somehow skipped half the book. This narrative addresses their relationship and completes that arc, but everything else in the beginning–the spiritualists and murder mystery and all the questions raised–weren’t addressed again. This literally felt like half of a novel to me, which is a shame, because I think if it had either been pared down to a short story (the first part of the book) or fleshed out into a whole novel, I would have really enjoyed it.

Danika reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

If “lesbian steampunk Western” doesn’t already pique your interest, I’m not sure what else to say, but I’ll give it a try! Karen is a “seamstress” (a sex worker at bordello) in Rapid City, in the Pacific Northwest. She’s satisfied enough with her life–the girls at Hôtel Mon Cherie are a tight-knit group, and she’s saving up money to train horses–when, well, I’ll let the blurb do the talking: “Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap-a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.”

Although there is a murder mystery aspect to this, Karen Memory is much more of a fast-paced adventure, as Karen and her friends get tossed into increasingly more dangerous and daring situations. The steampunk element starts off pretty minor–it took me a long time to realize that the “sewing machine” was some sort of mechanical exoskeleton and not just a typical sewing machine–but by the end of the book, there are all sorts of wild steampunk elements that I don’t want to spoil for you.

My favourite part was the relationship between Karen and Priya. Priya is a recent Indian migrant, who was trapped in a human trafficking situation. She has escaped to the Hôtel Mon Cherie, and Karen immediately falls for her. This could fall under insta-love, I suppose, but I don’t really see the problem in being intensely attracted to someone at first and then building a relationship together, which is what happens here.

There is a diversity of side characters, including trans characters and black, indigenous, and Asian characters. They are, for the most part, well-rounded, but they are often described in ways typical of the time period. [Highlight for the particular language/slurs included:] The trans character is described as  having a “pecker under her dress,” but that it was “God’s cruel joke”, and she’s “as much a girl as any of them.” The indigenous character is described as a “red Indian” many time. The N word is included, though not said by the protagonist. There are more, similar descriptions used, but this gives you an idea. I’m honestly not quite sure what to make of that, and I’d like to read some reviews by trans, black, and indigenous reviewers to see what they think of it. I can see how it would be a response to the typical Western, by having a diverse cast, but still staying true to the time period, but I’m not sure you need to include slurs or racist descriptions to do that.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought the narrator did a fantastic job. I really got a sense of Karen’s voice. On the other hand, I have trouble following action-packed plots at the best of times, and by listening to the audiobook, I definitely dropped the thread a few times. I think I enjoyed it more by listening to it, but I probably would have understood what was happening better if I had read it. I’m sure this would be a fantastic read for fans of Westerns or steampunk books, especially if you wish they were a little less straight and white, but it wasn’t the perfect genre match for me. I prefer stories that concentrate on characters, and although I got a sense of Karen’s voice, I didn’t get to know her as a character as well as I would like.

Despite those notes, I did like it enough to immediately pick up the other book in the series, and it looks like I’m going to like Stone Mad even more: Victorian spiritualists are my jam.

Ren reviews Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

This novel was a delight. I’m a big fan of Welcome to Night Vale, and so I was over the moon to discover that creator Joseph Fink had written a book about a trucker in search of her missing-presumed-dead wife. I expected dark wit. I expected oddities galore. I expected to laugh. And while I did experience all of those things while reading this book, it quickly revealed itself to be much more than a lighthearted stroll through the Sci-Fi Woods.

Keisha Taylor is looking for her wife, Alice. Alice – as the title suggests – is not dead. She works for an organization that kills mostly-boneless creatures called Thistle Men, who hunt gleefully in the name of Terrible Freedom. Believing that the Thistle Men may use Keisha as a weapon against her, Alice leads Keisha to believe that she’s dead (for her own good, of course). Keisha is pretty mad when she figures this all out.

It’s a cliché to be sure, but the rest of the book is so good, I was able to let it slide.

Keisha meets her first Thistle Man in a diner. He attacks a man in broad daylight, takes a bite out of him, and no one – Keisha aside – seems to find this strange. When she picks up a teenage hitchhiker named Sylvia (who has own tragic backstory involving the Thistle Men), the two of them band together to unravel the mystery of the creatures and put an end to them. There is a war going on in plain sight, and only a select few can see it. Androgynous oracles watch from the corners. A shadowy woman whispers in ears and urges acts of violence. The book burns slowly and paints a nightmare of Things That Go Bump in the Night; along the way, it threads in painful themes of entitlement and unfounded hatred that send the reader’s mind sharply back into the worst parts of our present world.

This was a system of violence and laws that protected Thistle from the likes of her, five foot three, a gash down her chest, and a constant fear she wouldn’t recognize a heart attack if it came because it would feel like her panic attacks.

Keisha’s anxiety is another point of note. The story is told mostly through her perspective, and she is honest and frank about the many ways in which her anxiety affects her. She holds conversations with strangers – both dangerous and otherwise – in a manner which appears outwardly calm despite the fact that internally, she’s fighting (fighting to breathe and fighting to stay still and fighting to maintain her grip on the façade of normal). Even the bad guys can’t understand how they can look her in the eye and not see fear. And Keisha’s answer simple.

You’ve got me really wrong, Officer Whatever. I’m always afraid. Life makes me afraid. And if I’m already afraid of life, then what are you?

There are several books – many of them reviewed on this site – to which I owe a debt, because they aided in my unlearning in regards to being queer. They gave me strong, funny women in stable relationships with strong, funny women. They introduced me to the concept of chosen families. And as a child who always found it easiest to relate to fictional characters, I saw people living happy lives and realised queerness was not synonymous with limitation. An ache in my chest eased – an ache I had been carrying for so long, I had no memory of its appearance. It was liberating, and the way Keisha’s anxiety is written in this book is the closest I have come to feeling anything akin to that since.

She considered that anxiety was irrational, and listening to it was like listening to a child. It’s not that they are never right. It’s that the correct info is mixed in with a lot of imaginary things, and, like a child, anxiety can’t tell the difference between the two.

She was always afraid but she did what she needed to do.

Make me more afraid. I’m not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid.

Oftentimes the anxiety hinders her, but in this story of cannibal Thistle Men and government conspiracies and First Evils, there are times when it makes her powerful. Keisha’s anxiety is as much a part of her as her physical body, and she learns it can occasionally be used as a weapon. The ending comes and goes without Keisha’s anxiety being ‘cured,’ for which I am appreciative.

This book is full of twists and turns, and it offers monsters, action, a sprinkling of romance and a great deal of heart.

Marthese reviews Sappho’s Fables, Volume 1: Three Lesbian Fairy Tale Novellas by Elora Bishop

Sappho's Fables by Elora Bishop and Jennifer Diemer

This month I’ve finally managed to read another retelling that has been on my TBR for years! There’s the bonus that it’s three retellings not one too! Sappho’s Fables Volume 1 by the amazing Elora Bishop (aka Bridget Essex) – who writes some good fantasy – gives us three sapphic retellings of classical fairy tales with imaginative twists.

“I saw nothing by red and Neve”

Seven is a retelling of snow white. Catalina is a young new wife to a horrible man that experiments on her. She finds herself attracted to his ‘daughter’ Neve. She finds out that he has had 6 wives before, all in the search of immortality. Together, Neve and Catalina break this cycle. This story had horror elements and there was an interesting play with fairy tale elements and sayings.

“My mother is lost to the world of spells, and I am lost to the world in which terrible things happen to good people”

Braided is the retelling of Rapunzel. Gray’s mother sewed Gray’s fate as guardian of the Holity on another child – Zelda. Every day Gray goes to bring her food even though she doesn’t need it. After encountering a magical travelling fair connected with her dreams, Gray realizes she has to try to free Zelda. There were no bad guys here just people trying their best and making mistakes. A lot of casual queerness and acceptance too.

“Animals can be stopped by fear. Animals think. Ragers don’t”

Crumbs is the retelling of Hansel and Gretel. This is possibly my first ever story that I read with zombies and I actually liked it! Han and Greta live with their parents near heaps of trash where they scravage. They have to be careful of the ragers who were once human and have been infected. Their parents leave and the two decide to try to reach the metal forest, which turns out to be a city. There they are safe with Sabine and her brother Robert. Han is always sleeping and Sabine is always offering Greta food…I’m not sure I like the not-honest part but having already read another queer retelling of this story, I quite like this one.

All three stories had clear elements that identified the stories but were also fresh and new. I had many ‘ohhhhhhh’ moments when these elements such as apples, the huntsman, hair, rampions, sweets and witches were used. The retellings don’t focus only on the romance but offer a good story and the stories are short enough that can be read during one or two work breaks!

I’d recommend this book for lovers of fairy tale retellings, fantasy and imaginative tales and especially ‘Crumbs’ for newcomers to the zombie genre like me.

Megan G reviews Surface Tension by Valentine Wheeler

Surface Tension by Valentine Wheeler cover

Sarai thinks she’s found the adventure she longs for when she finds a job as a crew member of a ship. Before her adventure can end, however, a storm throws her overboard and separates her from the ship. When she awakes on the shore of her homeland, there is a week-long gap in her memory, and the ship she was on is nowhere to be seen. While searching for answers in the water, Sarai finds something she never could have imagined.

Fantasy and mythology were my bread and butter growing up, so when I saw this novella about a love story between a woman and a mermaid, I knew I had to pick it up. It’s a short, quick-paced story, with a very different take on mermaid’s than any I’ve ever read. There aren’t many characters, but they are well developed considering the length of the story, and the plot moves forward at a decent pace. It never drags, but never races. I applaud Wheeler for this, since I’ve found pacing to be the most difficult thing to nail in a novella.

The mermaid’s are fascinating, though I think a large part of that is how mysterious they are. While Sarai is with them, she learns very little about their history and their ways and, since we are in her head, we learn just as little. I have mixed feelings about this aspect. [minor spoilers] On one hand, I love that we become so immersed in the mythology of the story that, because we are humans like Sarai, we are never allowed to learn about the mysteries of the mermaid’s. On the other hand, I am not too fond of endings where many questions are left unanswered, and so found this lack of insight into mermaid culture to be frustrating. This is, of course, a purely subjective opinion though [end spoilers].

Ydri, the mermaid that kidnaps Sarai and brings her to the mermaid kingdom, is incredibly sweet and a wonderful love interest. She’s genuine and caring and does everything in her power to help Sarai both underwater and on land. If it weren’t for the fact that she literally kidnaps Sarai and forces her to remain underwater with her for about two weeks (with the promise of freedom and compensation, granted, but still), I would call theirs the perfect romance.

Sarai herself makes for a wonderful protagonist. She’s both headstrong and compassionate, and several times sets herself and her reputation aside in order to help others. It’s fun to be in her head, to hear her thoughts and experience the things she’s experiencing. She makes me want to travel back in time and live on a tiny coastal island.

My only real frustration (aside from the kidnapping aspect of the romance) is that at times the dialogue feels a bit repetitive. Ydri and Sarai seem to have the same conversation at least five or six times throughout the story, and while this is very realistic, it feels unnecessary to have to read that exact same conversation over and over again.

Overall, I enjoyed this novella. I found it original, interesting, and well-paced. Highly recommended to anybody who loves mermaids, or just love stories between women in general.

Alexa reviews Rescues and the Rhyssa by T.S. Porter

Rescues and the Rhyssa by T.S. Porter cover

Two occasional lovers with many differences team up to save three kidnapped kids. And then it gets even more complicated.

Sophi is the captain of a smuggler ship with a diverse crew, including two types of aliens, a nonbinary human, and Muslim humans as well, if I understood the cultural clues right. They are quite literally a found family, especially with the reptile-like aliens who accept Sophi into their family as a male based on her role, despite her being a human female. I absolutely LOVED the aliens we’ve seen, and the fact that we had the opportunity to see from their perspective. Both the analoids and the blatta were well-developed, unique and complex species with their own culture that is very different from humans, and seeing Sophi as a human make the effort to take part in that culture and adjust was really interesting. (No spoilers, but there was a scene pretty late in the book that showed the crucial importance of having blattas on your ship and it was amazing. I love blattas.)

And then there’s Cadan. Cadan is big, dangerous, scarred, and she doesn’t exist. She has been turned into a weapon for her King that she is endlessly loyal to: she goes where he tells him too without question. And yet, she’s far from being emotionless. We find out early on that she is actually part of the king’s family: his children are her niblings, the king is like a cousin or even a sibling, and she is devoted to all of them because she loves them. I loved to see Cadan with her blood family just as much as I loved to see Sophi with her found family. Both of these families had unique members and plenty of love and care for each other despite their differences. I also really love the idea of a transgender king where it is only casually mentioned once because otherwise it’s not a big deal to anyone. And I love the kids. Seriously, I love the kids.

And of course, there’s Cadan and Sophi together. They are very different people with different values and different goals, which causes a lot of tension in their relationship. Yet, they love each other. There are plenty of sex scenes in this book, some of which seriously made me blush, but one of my favourite scenes was the completely non-sexual yet intimate bondage scene that Sophi used to relax Cadan. I admit that sometimes I felt like there is too much tension and not enough common ground between them for this to actually work as a romantic relationship as opposed to casual sex, but the ending/epilogue was open enough that I can believe them getting to that point.

If you are looking for a F/F sci-fi story with well-developed aliens, relationship conflicts and family dynamics, this might just be for you. I know that I enjoyed it.

content warnings: kidnapping, violence, explicit sexual scenes

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

The Half-Light Makes for a Clearer View: Genevra Littlejohn reviews On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

I’m writing this from inside of a curious space. About a week ago I stood up into a cabinet and gave myself a concussion, which I then immediately exacerbated by doing Chinese lion dance in four shows for a local production of The Nutcracker. So my life for a few days was cut harshly between periods of bright light and motion, and periods of sleep. Being awake has felt like one of those dreams where I’m just a little late to everything. Being asleep has felt like falling into a well. And then Winter Storm Diego hit my part of Virginia, and everything, everything stopped. My little house in the woods got fifteen inches of snow over as many hours, and since we’re a quarter of a mile from the closest paved road, gone was every possible excuse for getting up and doing things. In previous winters over the five years I’ve lived here, this is when I would read. I’d cover the available space in the tiny living room with quilts and pillows, hunker down with some snow snacks, and only get up to find another book.

But. Concussion. Trying to sit and read a novel proved…problematic. It’s been dreamlike and odd, the quick-slow jittery passage of time, the way that things don’t seem to stick right in my memory.

And then. Somehow, by chance, I found this lyrical, poetic, beautiful treasure-box of a graphic novel.

There are a lot of things to read in the world. I could do a review here every single day for months on end and not run out of my TBR list. That’s what I’m telling myself, when I’m asking how I never heard about On A Sunbeam until now, even though it started serializing as a webcomic a couple of years ago. Named for a Belle and Sebastian song, On A Sunbeam is set in a future so far from ours that its technology is more or less unrecognizable, though people are still more or less the same. It takes place after human expansion into deep space, and after–like a bacterial bloom dying back from lack of resources–the collapse of civilizations. People traveled so far into the dark that they weren’t able to come home again, and the most distant of them have sat for generations, just barely getting by. Barely daring to hope for rescue, because who would come for them? And there are some old colonies that don’t want any contact with anyone else, like the people of The Staircase, a settlement on the edge of known space mostly mentioned in legends and ghost stories.

But all of that, all of that seems very far away from the protagonist, a young girl named Mia. Her story is split raggedly between two timelines: the one where she’s a student at a boarding school-cum-space colony, and the one a few years later where she works with a team of antiquity restorers/maybe something more to mend abandoned colonies and architecture that has long since fallen into ruin. It’s an interesting juxtaposition; the story is pulled like a rope between this girl with great potential and very few aspirations, stumbling through life, causing trouble, and the older, quieter version of herself who spends her days cleaning up after the consequences of others’ centuries-old mistakes.

The first three quarters of the comic are colored largely in shades of Payne’s Grey and in oranges. I thought at first that this was just a pretty sort of contrast in the minimalist style so popular to indie comics and webcomics these days, but about halfway through, I remembered all at once those distant high school lessons about redshift and the Doppler Effect, how speed and distance turn what you see from red to blue. The past looks different than it really is. The future can’t be seen clearly, even if we think we’re sure what is going to happen. And like the narrative, we’re pulled taut between those two points, looking forward and back but pinned to the inescapable Now.

The line weight and panel structure reminded me a lot of the early days of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1980’s Nausicaa manga. On A Sunbeam has the same sort of dreamlight vagueness to some of its figures and landscapes, a knobbly intricacy to its plants and architecture. Even the edges of the panels waver, mirage-like. Things swim into focus and out as if with the attention of the protagonist, and scenes that in a more action-oriented comic might be very close to the viewer are instead distant and hazy as with memory, as much concerned with the landscape as with the characters living in it. Because you never can clearly remember everything about your first love, can you? Even if you write it down event by event, there are always going to be things that dissolve into the dim red past. You can’t hold tightly enough to ensure that nothing escapes.

The characters have complicated relationships and love each other deeply, but all the same every one of them has stories they don’t tell the others. Every time you describe something, scientists say these days, you’re changing your memory of it. It might be that to preserve something flawlessly, it must never be spoken aloud. Or maybe it’s just about self-protection, because if you like the way she looks at you right now, why damage that fragile connection by showing her the darkest places you’ve had to walk? But, as everything has a flipside, if you don’t share anything, if you’re never truly seen, can you be sure they love you?

This review is not purposefully vague. I could give you a cold recital of events, chapter by chapter, but that would be as lifeless as a sparrow dissection, and this work deserves much better treatment than that. It has a dream’s motion to it, inexorable but winding. There’s nothing extra, nothing that could be cut away, but it doesn’t feel spare or thin. The world is never explained with any clarity (why do the spaceships all look like koi, and how do they travel so quickly? Why isn’t there a single male character? What’s the political power structure of the human universe?) and simultaneously, it’s not necessary. This is a love story, and a story about finding family in unexpected places, and it’s enough to know that all the science and history exists at all in the world. We don’t need to see it, because it’s not what we’re focusing on.

As I read, I kept being reminded of a sonnet I memorized a decade ago, Against Entropy by Mike Ford. There’s a bit in it that goes:

The universe winds down. That’s how it’s made.
But memory is everything to lose;
although some of the colors have to fade,
do not believe you’ll get the chance to choose.

There are things we get to choose, and things we don’t. We get to choose how to respond to a given situation; we don’t get to choose how others will respond. We don’t get to choose the consequences for the things we do. We don’t get to choose to make the world hold still until we’re good and ready to move forward. We don’t get to choose what we remember, and what our minds leave behind. Mia, exhausted, says “Sometimes I just wish…everything would slow down…I fuck things up, or everything turns sour, and it just rushes by me. And I’ll take a second to catch my breath… But by then it’s too late. Everything… everything is gone.” She’s young, and she’s still learning what should be held on to, and what should be let go. She is constantly deciding between wakefulness and sleep, between flying and falling. But this deftly-crafted story isn’t going to let her, or the reader, hit the ground too hard.

Final rating: Five out of five stars. I’m buying multiple copies to give as Christmas presents, because this is the most enjoyable graphic novel I’ve read all year.

CONTENT WARNINGS (spoilers!):

There is no sexual violence in this work. There is no parental abuse in this work. There is no partner-to-partner domestic abuse in this book (there are a couple of arguments, but they are not abusive, just snarly). There is no male-against-female violence in this book.
Some school bullying, both physical and emotional, but not extreme.
Death of a mentor.
Automobile accident (non-lethal).
PG-13 bloody violence (less than a video game, but against a protagonist).
Attempted lynching (unsuccessful).

Mars reviews Hocus Pocus and The All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

All her life, Poppy Dennison has known the story of the frightening and magical events that took place in Salem on Halloween night back in 1993. It’s otherwise known as the day her parents really met, or alternatively as the one time her cool Aunt Dani got kidnapped and almost eaten by witches. To be clear, the witches in this book are characters leftover from a coven that was decimated during the actual historical witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts and not modern practitioners of a particular faith, and should not be taken as such.

The three witchy Sanderson sisters, their book of spells, and the special black flame candle that legend says will raise them from the dead are all still part of the popular Halloween lore that surrounds Salem. Her parents’ part of that story is virtually unknown, and Poppy is determined to keep it that way lest her mean girl nemesis Katie Taylor finds out and makes her last two years of high school its own kind of hell.

For readers who are not familiar with the lovely classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus, have no fear because the Part I of this book is a very close retelling of the movie and sets up Part II very well, detailing Poppy’s own involvement with the Sanderson sisters. Some witches just aren’t very good at staying dead.

This was a surprising and fun read that I just couldn’t put down. With more action, adventure, and character development than I expected, we follow Poppy, her best friend and wingman Travis, her mysterious dream girl Isabella, as well as other characters both new and familiar as they race to stop a new plot hatched by the Sanderson sisters to help them achieve immortality and rain hell on earth. With their witchy powers enhanced by the rare blood moon, the stakes have never been higher (no pun intended).

Much like the original Hocus Pocus (Part I), this story is as much about family, friendship, and loyalty as it is about evil witches enslaving humans and damning their souls for their own enjoyment. Poppy makes a really relatable protagonist. Who hasn’t dealt with trying to mitigate embarrassing family history while tripping over a monster crush?

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover

The night I was born, the attending nurse turned to my mother with a weird expression on her face. She noted that I had long delicate fingernails, and already a head of black hair; that a trail of fine baby hairs ran down my spine. “In the old days, you know, they’d have said she was a werewolf.” she told my mother. Mom, exhausted, laughed it off. It became a family story to tell later on–born on Halloween night, and a werewolf to boot! “In the old days,” Mom would laugh, “they’d have drowned you.”

It didn’t become a bitter story until she disowned me for being queer. “Why can’t you just choose to be straight?” she said. “I did. Why do you feel like you have to stand out like this?” In the old days, they would have drowned me. Now I had to find a way to keep my head above the waves.

In Hal Schrieve’s YA novel Out of Salem, everyone is treading water with a secret to keep. High school freshman Z’s just found out that they’re nonbinary–just in time to get into a car wreck with their entire family from which only they emerged, battered and freshly undead. Their classmate Aysel is Muslim, in 1990’s rural Oregon where anything but Christianity is a sure way to be ostracized–and she’s a werewolf, unregistered, which could easily be a death sentence if she gets caught. Their friend Tommy is constantly being accused of being either gay or an actual fairy, and while neither of those things is true, it doesn’t matter to his abusers. Even seeming just a little bit out of the norm is enough to put a target on his back.

And things aren’t about to get any less complicated for any of them when a local doctor is found dead. The police say he was murdered by a werewolf, throwing the town into an uproar of vigilantism and abuse against the other which is easily recognizable in today’s political climate. Every metaphysical minority is living in fear. The teenagers don’t feel that they have any reliable adults to turn to, or that if they tried, they’d only endanger them, so they have to handle things on their own.

I’m writing this review very narrowly, because I feel like this book was just that good. I don’t want to spoil any part of it. It’s urban fantasy of just-a-minute-ago, the Nineties as they almost were, but it’s also YA for people who weren’t born yet in the year it takes place; it balances teenage passion neatly against the now-slightly-foreign world of our past, only slightly sideslipped into the fantastic. Before cell phones, before the panopticon of stoplight cameras, but in a world that was not less dangerous to people who stand out. There’s a constant sense of being just a moment ahead of being caught, of barely outrunning the real monsters, and one can only keep running at that speed for so long before one’s energy gives out and something has to break.

I appreciated that the characters aren’t without teenage flaws. They’re all going through real, heartrending troubles in their daily lives, but also they make some choices out of inexperience that you’d believe a fourteen-year-old might make if they felt their back was against the wall. They reach for what small happiness they can find, they trust or mistrust, and none of it feels stilted or contrived. It all just feels like survival.

I was taken a bit aback at the first use of the word “transsexual,” as it’s not a term I’ve seen in sympathetic literature for a long time now. But it was the word used in the Nineties, and so it is the term used in the book. But of course the author isn’t unaware of that:

“Z, Aysel told me you were calling yourself like, genderqueer or something these days, right?” Z was a little taken aback by the conversation. “I guess,” they said. “Yeah.” They tightened their hold on Elaine’s shoulders. “The words change a lot,” Elaine said. “Doesn’t really matter.”

What matters more than the terminology, quoth the story, is the soul behind it, and these kids are figuring things out one mistake and injury and accidental insult at a time.

I was consistently balancing between amused at the bluntness and impressed at the deftness when it came to the use of metaphor in the story. Z’s a zombie, and they’re trans; more than once I’ve heard a trans friend tell me that their friends and family keep treating them like they’d died when they came out, and some other thing was shambling around in their skin. Aysel’s lycanthropy is treated a lot like I’ve experienced queerness being handled by the religious right, as something monstrous, something that needs to be caged or electrically shocked out of a person before they can be allowed in society. It was all on-the-nose enough that I got a bit of a tension ache between my shoulderblades. I so badly wanted the protagonists to find a way to freedom and safety, but what does that look like when the entire world is arrayed against you? And which of those needs do you choose, if everyone is telling you that you have to choose one or the other?

Even while all of society is insisting that the protagonists must be like them or die, even while most of the characters don’t see any way out but to run, the narrative suggests quietly that there’s another option. That there’s another demand for the characters to make. That building a community can build safety; that refusing to back down can protect someone else; that maybe you can transform the world into something new, something that has room for you in it, if only you are brave.

Final rating, a very rare-for-me five out of five stars.

Content Warning: Discussion of graphic injury to animated dead body (painless, but explicit); homophobia (from the bullies); physical abuse (same); mild mention of anti-Muslim bigotry; fat-shaming (bullies, again, these guys are *winners*), electroshock aversion “therapy,” racism, police violence (repeatedly), off-screen but explicit police murder of civilians.