Mary Springer reviews The Wolf Diaries by Bridget Essex

The Wolf Diaries by Bridget Essex cover

I love this book. Preferably, I would have a better way to segue into this review, but there’s no way to better introduce it than to say, I love this book.

Jadin is a werewolf with a big heart, and when the lonely and lovely Tess (also a werewolf) asks her to be her pretend girlfriend, she can’t help by say yes. Jadin immediately falls for Tess, but Tess is unfortunately still hung up on her ex-fiance Laurie. Laurie, who doesn’t deserve such devotion from Tess, and whose wedding is the exact reason Jadin has a reason to spend time with Tess while pretending to be her girlfriend.

The first thing that really hooked me into this book was Jadin’s wonderful voice that jumped off the page and along with that her sense of humor. There were many parts where I laughed out loud at Jadin’s jokes, sometimes at her own expense and sometimes at the situations she finds herself in.

Jadin’s character really came through vividly and the same can be said for the rest of the characters. It was easy to stay engaged when I felt like I knew these people and easily care about what happened to them. Jadin clearly genuinely cared about Tess from beginning. I was surprised to find myself falling for Tess as Jadin did. This isn’t told from both their POVs, just Jadin’s. Usually I don’t like this in romance because then it’s harder to relate and engage with whomever doesn’t have a viewpoint portion in the book. However, Jadin’s narration made me feel like I knew Tess the way she did.

There were also several side characters that were just as easy to engage with. Laurie was a fantastic, believable antagonist and I had fun hating her. Mona was Tess’s best friend and had a great sense of humor as well as was a wonderful friend that helped move the plot along while also being a great addition to the cast. Finally, there’s Jadin’s mom, who was a fun and interesting hippy kind of character, as well as believable and engaging.

The romance was believable, and I found myself cheering Jadin and Tess on through the whole story. There was a good balance of physical attraction as well as genuine emotional connection.

My only complaint, and it is a small, nitpicky one, is that the werewolf element felt a bit too low key. There were parts where elements of being a werewolf were incorporated to the story. For example, smell was something Jadin picked up on and often described, which added to the character and world building. There was also a few other world building elements that were fun. However, it felt very little to what I expect when I find a book with werewolves. Again, though, it is a small complaint.

Overall, this was a great book that I highly recommend for anyone looking for a fun romance with the elements of the fake relationship and werewolves.

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.

Emily R. reviews Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

santaolivia Vividly rendered at the intersection of liminal spaces of all kinds, Santa Olivia follows the story of Loup Garron as she comes of age on the Mexican-US border.  Born to a woman and a genetically enhanced soldier, part of a military “werewolf” experiment, Loup inherits some of her father’s abilities. After being orphaned, she is taken in by what is left of the local church along with other children.  Together, they begin to address the wrongs perpetrated by the military on the townspeople. In this dystopia, a DMZ buffer zone was created and all existing towns declared military outposts. Located between countries, in a place the rest of the country was told no longer exists, this is a beautifully austere and gritty novel that delves into moral ambiguity, survival and love with both eyes wide open.

As Loup and other orphans of the town become increasingly aware of the injustices around them in what amounts to a small military dictatorship, her abilities allow them to adopt the identity of a the church’s patron saint, Santa Olivia, known for making peace in a dangerous war zone.  A counter-intuitive choice perhaps, but one that resonates beautifully against the backdrop of stark contrasts in this book. As a team, they begin to right wrongs, and dream of getting out.

Threaded throughout this narrative is the romance between Loup and Pilar.  Sweet, devoted and sensual, Carey weaves an incredibly heartening relationship into an austere landscape of a town that does, and does not, exist, with a wide variety of multi-racial characters fighting not only to survive, but to live.

So many things stand out with this wonderful book, the character development is brilliant and complex, with excellent world building that is one of Carey’s calling cards (see her Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy, set in an alternate Europe complete with sub cultures, political machinations and international policy consequences).  The liberal use of profanity throughout juxtaposes with the luscious writing in a way I can only compare to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Angela Carter’s work. The voices of moral authority in the face of despotism and corruption come from members of the Catholic Church who may or may not be in a relationship and who may or may not have ever been ordained in the first place.  As with so many aspects of this book, sources of authority are treated with extreme cynicism while the heart of the story is about individuals negotiating those systems

Carey not only builds one of the most amazing and delightful relationships between women I’ve ever read, but also takes on questions of power with the character of the physically lush Pilar.  She has access, via her appearance, to power by charming powerful men – and indeed both she and the troupe utilize it as an asset and make no bones about doing so.  It makes for an engaging application of 3rd wave feminism as these characters own their sexuality and make us of all the tools available to them. In addition to sex positivity and agency, several fraught topics are explored in intriguing ways here – including bisexuality, being multi-racial, chosen family, military control, genetic engineering and manipulation, and gender/sexual power dynamics.

This novel is also an interesting critique of the typical super-hero story.  Loup has super speed and strength, and a will to do the right thing – much like most any of your super-hero du jour.  Loup and her cohort have absolutely no privilege and throughout the story, this doesn’t particularly change – it isn’t a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American mythos narrative.  Where a more mainstream superhero character would be hyper-masculinized by an inability to feel fear, this trait is constructed as a danger for Loup.  After all, if a child can’t feel fear, how do they begin to develop survival skill around every day dangers like crossing the street?  In a highly feminist move on Carey’s part, Loup may be the muscle behind their vigilantism, but she and her friends must work as a group to protect one another and their town.

Fans of urban fantasy, dark fantasy and dystopia will likely enjoy this work – though it sits solidly in none of these sub-genres and is a very different story than Carey’s earlier work.  For fans of Angela Carter, Catherynne Valente, Seanan Mcguire (penname Mira Grant) and Margaret Atwood, you have been waiting for this genetically-engineered lesbian superhero dystopian werewolf folktale.

Emily works with teens in a library by the sea and is a recovering academic who writes, reads, and thinks mostly about fairy tales, gender, queerness and cats. When not playing minor-key Celtic tunes on her fiddle, she avidly tracks down obscure fairy tale anthologies and has a yarn storage problem for her knitting. As ever, she pursues that culinary Questing Beast, the perfect guacamole.

Islay reviews Raven Mask by Winter Pennington

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

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

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

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

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

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