Danielle Izzard reviews Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken by Nita Tyndall

the cover of Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken

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Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken by Nita Tyndall is a queer YA historical fiction novel—a genre that I had yet to come across, and knew I had to read as soon as it was released. I was immediately intrigued by its poetic title, as well as by the promise of a topic I wasn’t used to reading. Tyndall certainly delivered with this novel: it is well written, intricately plotted, and overall beautiful. Following strong female characters as they navigate not only personal relationships, but WWII in the heart of Germany, this was an interesting read that captured my attention from start to finish. It’s a perfect YA novel, dealing with teenagers struggling with very real issues that have been faced throughout history: identities, relationships, and emotions. It presents strong family dynamics, which strengthened its appeal, showcasing both supportive and unsupportive families, making the novel realistic and believable. Tyndall writes with beautiful imagery: poetry, jazz music, maps that the protagonist, Charlie, creates. These images and Tyndall’s descriptions of the setting makes the novel vivid, easily bringing words to life.

Despite its strengths, Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken was slightly too short for my liking. Not that short novels aren’t appealing, but in this case, it didn’t help with the progression. It was at times too fast paced, leaving me feeling breathless as I struggled to keep up with the unfolding events. The short length left little time for character development, or even introduction. Throughout reading, I wondered how the characters had come to know each other, and felt that their personalities weren’t conveyed very strongly. I didn’t feel as though I knew them by the end of the novel. I’d have traded the short length for a slower, more drawn-out story. Really, I’d have liked more time in this setting Tyndall so beautifully crafted.

A captivating YA novel that covers WWII in Germany, with queer characters and relationships, Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken is a great example of books we need more of. It’s perfect for fans of Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, and for readers of all ages.

Vic reviews The Wicked Remain (The Grimrose Girls #2) by Laura Pohl

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The Wicked Remain by Laura Pohl is the follow-up to last year’s The Grimrose Girls and exactly the conclusion this duology deserved, which is to say it was clever, full of hope, with a clear love of stories and rage at their prescribed endings. While I will try to avoid spoiling either book, The Wicked Remain continues right where the first one left off, with the girls now having to deal with the consequences of everything they did and everything they learned at the end of the last book. Along with grappling with the stakes of their relationships, new and old, romantic and familial, they also must try to save themselves (and every other girl at Grimrose) from the tragedies that await them.

When I read the first book in this duology, I knew that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t actually realize how much I liked it until I realized six months had gone by since I read it and I was still thinking about it. Book two was even better. Now, I will say I often enjoy the second book more simply because I already know I like the world and the characters, so now I’m along for the ride. It’s the difference between making new friends and spending time with your old friends. However, I also think in this case book two works better because while the first book was driven by a mystery that I didn’t find terribly shocking in its conclusion, the second book is driven by “how do we fix this?” On a personal note, I always find myself more invested in those stories than in mysteries, but I do believe character arcs are where Pohl excels, much more than in shocking mysteries. In setting up The Wicked Remain as she did, she was able to really lean into her strengths.

Everything that I loved about the first book was present in this book, but, as I said, even better. I loved reading about all of these characters again, and I loved how themselves they were all allowed to be. While the first book had to spend time on setup, this book was able to jump right in, which also meant it could dive deeper. Yuki’s descent into darkness contrasted with her desire to be loved and fear that she won’t be made for a particularly fascinating journey, and one that I can’t think of too many similar examples of, though I’m sure they must exist.  

And the relationships! The relationships introduced in the first book were explored more in depth here, and in interesting ways that I didn’t always expect (I’m looking at you, Nani and Svenja), but always loved. I am always here for gay princesses, which this duology more than delivers on, but that is not even all that I am talking about here. The friendships, both old and new, are the heart of this book, and they were just as fascinating, from the still-slightly-awkward newness of Nani’s inclusion in the group to the “I would kill and die for you” intensity of Yuki and Ella’s friendship. Even the complexities of the relationship between Ella and her stepsisters are given their due, and I loved this book all the more for it.

While this is a series about fairy tales, it takes everything so seriously, in the sense that nothing is treated as worthless. Everything matters. Everyone matters.  I won’t say much about the ending, but I thought it was the perfect end to the series. If these books had existed when I was sixteen, I would have been absolutely obsessed with them, and I know that for a fact because even now, as an adult with bookshelves full of the sapphic fantasies I craved in high school, The Grimrose Girls duology is still a favorite.

Danika reviews The Restless Dark by Erica Waters

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During October this year, I tried to pack my TBR with seasonal, Halloween-adjacent reads, and The Restless Dark looked like the perfect match. It’s a sapphic YA horror/thriller book set at a true crime podcast event where listeners compete to try to find the unrecovered bones of a serial killer. As the retreat continues, though, it begins to seem like the danger isn’t past…

Lucy only narrowly escaped being one of the Cloudkiss Killer’s victims, and she was the last person to see him alive. She’s gone on this retreat not out a love of true crime — a genre that’s profited off and sensationalized her trauma — but because she hopes to find closure. Carolina, the other point of view character, has come to try to assure herself she’s nothing like the Cloudkiss Killer, even though she may have killed her boyfriend. (Or maybe it was an accident? She can’t remember.)

Lucy and Carolina end up in a group with Maggie, a psychology student writing a paper about all the fascinating characters at this retreat. They almost immediately end up in a tense dynamic with each other: both Caroline and Maggie are interested in Lucy, but Lucy falls for Maggie. She appreciates that Maggie gives her agency, and she’s frustrated that Carolina keeps trying to protect her. She doesn’t want to feel like a victim anymore. Carolina, though, is worried that Lucy is beginning to become violent herself, and she knows how much that can destroy your psyche, because that’s what she’s going through.

This plays out at Cloudkiss Canyon, which the locals all avoid. It’s coated with an ever-present, unexplained fog, and the legend is that the fog will show you your true self, the one you fear and avoid, if you let it. There’s a dreamlike quality to their time here, and it’s unclear if something supernatural is happening or not. Carolina, especially, seems to be losing time, which is all the more worrying when it becomes obvious someone is hurting people at the retreat.

The setting and danger contribute to a tense, claustrophobic environment where everyone starts to turn on each other. They seem to be acting out of character — is it the fog affecting them, or is this who they really are?

This isn’t a mystery; I found it pretty easy to predict who was responsible for everything going wrong, but in a way, that just contributed to the tension, and I found myself compelled to keep reading just to get to the point where it all came to a head.

The Restless Dark is a moody, atmospheric story perfect for fall reading. I was completely absorbed while reading it, even if it’s not a book I found especially memorable. If you’re looking for a fall read that’s chilling without being gory, this is a great choice — and I always appreciate an F/F/F love triangle.

Til reviews The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell by Kate Brauning

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This is the sort of review best begun with a caveat that I intend no ill will toward those who enjoyed the book… but maybe they’ll want to give it a miss, because I really do not like this book. In fact, I found the reading experience so thoroughly a misery that I resent myself for sticking with it—and I have a bit of resentment left over for whoever approved that misleading summary.

Ostensibly, The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell is a futuristic revenge story in which a girl seeks justice for her deceased family. That does happen—but summarizing it this way is like describing Cinderella as the story of a girl who needs new shoes. Both are technically accurate descriptions of stories focused on a girl’s romance with her prince charming. That’s not inherently a bad thing, loads of people enjoy Cinderella, but it’s dishonest.

And I don’t like Cinderella.

Or this.

I chose this book because I love a morally grey badass heroine and I was excited to see a main character from the Ozarks. There are too few dynamic country girls leading YA adventures. Learning that said country girl was pansexual was a pleasant surprise, and as I continued reading, I even looked forward to reviewing this for the Lesbrary—positively. The villain, Gabriel Gates, felt appropriate to the heroine, too: not a President or a world dictator, just a capitalist baron ruling a few counties. He was a big enough bad to matter, but a small enough one that a girl might take him down.

Quickly, the shine came off. Dinah wasn’t a badass at all. This could have worked, too, but it only served to get to what seemed like the point of the story: Dinah’s romance with Johnny. Johnny is your stereotypical dreamboat love interest. He lives in a cave—but it’s a nice cave, and he has traplines so he never goes hungry and a hot spring for warm baths; he’s a musician and luthier; he’s a talented, ethical bootlegger; he’s got connections everywhere and inexplicable devotion to Dinah. Johnny is the real main character. The most emotional conflict even occurs when his little brother is taken in by Gates and begins parroting his rhetoric. It’s not a particularly well-executed conflict; I found it predictable, probably because the book focuses (inexplicably) on Dinah.

This goes back to my Cinderella complaint. The summary only mentions Johnny in the third paragraph, so I expected some romance. I did not expect the entire plot to put itself on hold for what felt like at least half the page count. It quickly became clear that the setting and plot served the romance, at massive detriment, because the plot still tries to happen. The result is a conflict that wants to be complex but instead is rushed, a denouement that someone forgot to write, and a romance that I didn’t want to read, all spearheaded by a character who thinks her grief entitles her to other people’s lives.

Yeah. People die in Dinah’s little revolution, and she doesn’t really seem to care, and nor does the narrative. It protects the characters it deems worthy—the ones who merit page time. In a way, I respect this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a sweeter-than-bitter ending. When paired with the amount of time spent on the romance, though, it begins to seem like the author really didn’t want to write the plot.

A few positives, to end on. The sex scene was good. It was awkward and required communication, that set a good example. I appreciated the worldbuilding—things like advanced tech being available only if people have resources to afford it.

Finally, I liked the metaphor of the pears. Near the beginning of the book, Dinah looks at three buckets of pears traded to her family for access to their well. Angry, she kicks over one of the buckets. She immediately regrets this and gathers up most of the pears, but so much happens that she misses one. There’s no closure on those pears—not once her mother and brother die, kicking off the plot—except that one outlasts the rest, crushed in the road, broken but still present. And had Dinah actually been a single thing like that pear, had she ended the book broken or even scarred instead of on a happy road to everything, it would’ve been a really strong metaphor.

Trigger warnings: animal death, child death

Danika reviews The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

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“She had never been brave–but she’d always been angry. It would have to be enough.

I picked up this Welsh dark fantasy heist novel because I was promised two things: a corgi and bisexuality. I’m happy to say that it delivered on both. And now I need more corgis in fantasy novels.

Surprisingly, it’s the corgi who makes an appearance first; Mer’s bisexuality isn’t mentioned in the text until about 100 pages in. This book is separated into three sections and has three point of view characters. Mer is a water diviner, and she’s long been on the run from the prince. She once was a weapon of his, and after her escape, she can’t stay anywhere for long. Then, a solution appears: her old handler, who was simultaneously a father figure and her captor, has left the prince (cutting off his own finger to be free of his signet) and has a plan to overthrow him. There’s a magical well that is the source of the prince’s power, and with Mer’s magic, she can stop it—along with a team of other people with specific skills. Thus begins the heist.

Their team will need muscle/an assassin, and that’s where they find Fane, the second POV character–who is also the one with a corgi. Fane made a deal with the fae as a young man to get revenge on the people who killed his family. As these deals often go, though, it turned out to be more of a curse. Now, he constantly fears accidentally killing the people around him, and he’s determined not to use his deadly power for his own gain.

Then (spoilers?), about 100 pages in, Mer’s ex-girlfriend Ifanna joins the team. She’s a thief, the daughter of two women who run the thieves’ guild. Her and Mer’s relationship ended when she turned her in to the prince’s guard. Unsurprisingly, though there’s a bit of a romantic subplot with Fane and Mer, I felt like she had more chemistry with Ifanna–or, to be more precise, I just didn’t buy the romance between Mer and Fane, even before Ifanna shows up. Sidenote: I believe this is a queernorm world, because no one comments on Mer’s bisexuality or Ifanna’s two moms.

I definitely think this will appeal to fans of Six of Crows and other heist novels, though this story is really concentrated on these three characters, not the rest of the team. I liked the twists and felt like it was well-paced, between building the team/planning and the actual heist aspect, which includes a tense sequence through caves that will soon be flooded by the incoming tide.

The mildest of spoilers, but important information for many: the dog is okay! In fact, I really feel like this book was written with the pet-lovers in mind. The corgi is just a fun, adorable companion during this fairly dark fantasy story, and he ducks out when things get dicey. (More unimportant spoilers:) Mer is mentioned feeding an abandoned dog in the first chapter. At the end, after all of the epic events that have taken place, this dog has not been forgotten. He’s rescued. This trope always gets me.

Speaking of spoilers (actual, for real spoilers, highlight to read): One weird note is that the text on the cover is actually a giant spoiler. It’s literally the twist in the climax of the story. So that’s a puzzling decision. Also, my only real complaint, other than not really buying Thane and Mer as a couple, is that Ifanna just drops off in the epilogue. Even if they didn’t end up as a throuple (always an option, authors!), I thought they’d at least stay in touch. (end of spoilers)

Though fantasy heist novels are not usually the first subgenre I gravitate towards, I really enjoyed this. The dark fairy tale tone felt like a perfect fall read, and who can resist a bisexual fantasy novel with a corgi prancing through it? Not I.

Maggie reviews Galaxy: The Prettiest Star by Jadzia Axelrod

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In Galaxy: The Prettiest Star, Taylor has a life-threatening secret. She is the Galaxy-Crowned, an alien princess hiding on Earth from the invaders that destroyed her home as a baby. Taylor’s guardian fled with her and two others to Earth, disguising themselves not only as humans, but also turning Taylor into a boy as an extra layer of misdirection. Taking their cues about normal human families from sitcoms, they settle into a small town to hide, and every year that passes Taylor grows more miserable. Not allowed to be her true self, not allowed to hang out with other kids after school lest they figure something out or be put in danger, not even allowed to grow her hair out, Taylor feels like something has got to give. Which is when she meets Kat, a new transplant from Metropolis. They click instantly, and Taylor has to decide how far she’s willing to go to be herself. Galaxy: The Prettiest Star is a beautiful trans coming of age story with a layer of superhero science fiction shellacked over top, and the result is an enjoyable yet emotional and impactful read that I deeply wish I had had access to as a teenager.

The being yourself narrative is strong within this story, and with Taylor being forced to repress not only her gender but her very species; she is trans both in her gender and in the very makeup of her being, bringing multiple layers for her to work through. Taylor the human boy plays basketball, has one bro friend, and isn’t allowed to grow his hair out or go to parties lest something give away that he’s not human. Taelyr the Galaxy-Crowned has purple skin and luxurious teal hair, discovers she loves to experiment with hair and makeup, and hangs out with her new girlfriend.

I love Kat—who among us does not wish they met a cool out-of-town girlfriend who helped us immensely with our self confidence in high school?. Kat is dismayed to find herself in a small town, but not dismayed by anything about Taylor. They share an instant connection, and when Kat states that she’s not into guys, she accepts Taelyr’s statement that she is not a guy, even before she reveals that she’s also an alien. Kat is the lifeline that Taelyr needs to grow her self-confidence because even though they’re not alike, Kat understand being herself as a conscious process. I think both adult and teen readers will appreciate both the emotional resonance and the sweetness of their romance, and watching Taelyr coming fully into herself is a fulfilling arc. It’s so significant for DC to publish a graphic novel about a trans character, and although I suspect that some may find making a trans character also a secret alien from outer space a tad heavy-handed, I’m equally certain that there will be plenty of people over the moon excited to project themselves onto a purple space princess struggling to find herself in a small-minded small town.

The other thing I really loved about this story is the artwork. It’s bright and whimsical and really sets the mood as a teen story. Taelyr’s long teal hair flows across the page as she tries on look after fashionable look, trying to find her favorite style. There’s a whole sequence where Kat’s studied second reaction after seeing Taelyr transformed is to get excited about a makeup palette she normally doesn’t get to use, and Taelyr’s party look is off the charts amazing. Kat’s green hair and stylish butch looks provide an equally fun counterpoint, and together they are a riot of teenage love and self-expression across every page and a sharp contrast to the more plebian townsfolk that reject Taelyr. Plus, Taelyr’s other constant companion is a little monitoring robot that takes the appearance of a fluffy corgi that scampers around after her, adding a little extra dash of cuteness.

In conclusion, sometimes I feel like DC’s young adult graphic novels are a little heavy-handed and simplistic but Galaxy: The Prettiest Star is gorgeous and radiates much needed trans and queer coming-of-age energy. It’s a fun story that nonetheless has an out-sized emotional impact, and the artwork is strong and sets the whole tone of the narrative. If you’re looking for trans and queer comics, I would definitely add this to your list, especially for the young adult readers in your life. It is a great read, and one that I will definitely be revisiting when I need a fun boost.

Danika reviews Doughnuts and Doom by Balazs Lorinczi

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I love silly, fluffy sapphic graphic novels. I also seek out queer witchy books to read in October. So I thought this book was going to be a slam dunk! It’s about Margot, a witch who runs a potions business out of her kitchen and starts off the story failing her spell exam to get her license. In a mood, she goes to get a donut and then throws a temper tantrum at the person behind the desk, Elena, who would rather be working on her music career. Could Elena have had better customer service? Sure. But did she deserve having the donut shop crash down around her and getting cursed? No. Now Margot has to make it right

We’ve got sapphic witches, donuts, a snake familiar, and a make-or-break concert. We’ve got two queer women whose snark turns into flirting. We’ve got a romantic broom ride together. It should have been perfect!

But the truth is, I felt like this fell a little flat. It was a cute romcom, but it felt very short, like watching one episode of a TV show instead of the full story. While I generally love a fluffy comic, I just didn’t connect to this one.

Danika reviews A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

the cover of A Scatter of Light

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As I was reading A Scatter of Light, I saw a tweet from Malinda Lo discussing how hard she’s finding summarizing this book into tropes and graphics to advertise it. I completely understand. This is a book about slowly unfolding self-discovery, the practice of making art, and the beauty of astronomy. It’s about grief and messy first love and different ways of looking at time. It’s a quiet, moving coming of age story that explores complex and difficult emotions–it’s definitely not something that can be distilled easily into a few hashtags.

A Scatter of Light follows Aria as she spends the summer between high school and university (in 2008) with her grandmother, Joan, in California. I think this is such a rich setting for YA novels, because while every summer as a young person feels like a strange, transitionary, surreal time, nothing epitomizes it more than being done high school but not yet starting the next stage of your life. This is the perfect backdrop for Aria’s story, who is in a pivotal point in understanding her own identity.

This wasn’t how Aria planned her summer. She was supposed to split the time between staying with her two best friends, Haley and Tasha, while her father is at a writing retreat and her mother (as usual) is overseas–she’s an opera singer, so she is rarely home. But then a boy posted topless photos of her on Tumblr without her permission, and she faced sexist slut-shaming backlash not only from classmates but also from her friends’ parents. That’s how she ended up spending the summer with Joan instead. And that’s when she meets Joan’s gardener, Steph.

It’s through meeting Steph (who is probably nonbinary, but is still figuring out her gender identity) that Aria realizes that she’s not straight—and also that there’s so much more to attraction that the emotionally-distanced fooling around she’s done with boys in the past.

Steph’s queer friend group immediately adopts Aria, even before she comes out to them, and she is swept into a queer community celebrating the recent defeat of Prop 8 in California: gay marriages are happening all around them. I really appreciated the queer community and friendship showcased, and I especially loved Tasha and Aria’s friendship, which feels like a breath of fresh air among all the messy, complex emotions and relationships. With these new friends, Aria attends a Dyke March and a Queer Music Festival. She falls hard for Steph. Of course, the problem is that Steph already has a girlfriend.

This is definitely a story about a messy first love and about coming out: her attraction to Steph is top of Aria’s mind this summer. But it’s also far from the only thing happening. Joan is a respected artist who Aria has always been proud to be related to. This summer, she’s helping Joan with a project related to her late grandfather’s astronomy work–Aria is going to school to pursue the same field. She finds her grandfather’s old lectures on tape and watches through them. But capable, creative, inspiring Joan is beginning to lose her memory.

The process of making art and prioritizing it in your life is also woven throughout this story. Aria begins to work on her own painting to try to sort through her emotions, with influences from Bernice Bing, a Chinese American lesbian painter, as well as Adrienne Rich’s poetry. (Aria is mixed race: her mother is Chinese American and her father is white.) Meanwhile, Steph is a musician who is deciding how much time and attention she should be putting into her own art. Aria’s mother has always made her art a priority in her life–over Aria, she feels. Aria’s father is an author struggling through years of writer’s block after a successful novel.

The motifs of astronomy, time, and art weave effortlessly through this pensive coming of age story. Despite everything going on, this is a quiet story about Aria coming to terms with herself–not just the label of being queer/bisexual/lesbian/other, but with her own emotions. A Scatter of Light captures the tumultuous, heady feeling of teenage first love: how it’s all-consuming, illogical, and often ephemeral while feeling like the most important thing in the world.

For Last Night at the Telegraph Club, there’s a brief update on the main characters, but it’s only a few pages, so don’t expect this to be too closely tied to that one!

I was 18 in 2008, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this took me back to my teenage self and my own messy first love. Despite this being a quietly unfolding story of self-discovery, I was rapt and couldn’t stop flipping the pages. If you appreciate introspective, character-driven YA, I can’t recommend this highly enough, whether or not you’ve read Last Night at the Telegraph Club.

Note: some of these content warnings are spoilers, but I know they’re also dealbreakers for some readers, so consider that before reading.

Content warnings: cheating, hospitalization, stroke, death of a loved one, grief. Content note: on page sex scenes.

Vic reviews Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

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I am still a relative newbie when it comes to horror, but Vincent Tirado’s Burn Down, Rise Up served as a fantastic entry point for me.  When Bronx high schooler Raquel’s mother falls into a coma with a mysterious illness on the same day that her crush’s cousin disappears, Raquel has no choice but to team up with her crush, Charlize, to save them both. In doing so, they learn of the deadly Echo Game, an urban legend based in the horrifying history of the city, and must put their knowledge as well as their survival skills to the test in order to make it out alive..

This book held my attention from beginning to end—I never wanted to put it down. Though it is a young adult novel, it does not hold back on the horror, the most significant being the real-life history that inspired the Echo. The Echo, we quickly learn, is born of the worst thing that happened in a particular location. The Bronx Echo, then, is filled with decaying buildings and people who are literally on fire, having lost their lives in the 1970s Bronx burning. In defining the Echo, Tirado skillfully weaves in the history of gentrification and redlining so that it feels natural and informative without simply stopping the narrative for a history lesson.

For all of the horror in this book, however, it is also brimming with love—between the individual characters, yes, but for the Bronx itself as well. That theme of community began right from the dedication, and it both raised the stakes and grounded the book in something positive, something hopeful.  When a horror story exists in something terrible, the goal is to simply survive, to get out; here, there was something to fight for, something to save.

As for the characters themselves, they shine. I would even go so far as to say Raquel might be one of my absolute favorite YA protagonists. She was clever and determined, and she felt like a real teenager with real teenage concerns on top of the life-or-death scenario she willingly enters to save the people she cares about. What I found particularly effective is that the book takes all of these parts of her seriously.  While Raquel worries about her mother and Charlize, she also reminds herself that her mother would not be happy if she woke up and found Raquel had let her grades all fall by the wayside, reinforcing the idea that she has a life outside of these dangers, that she should have a life beyond these dangers.

The relationships that drive the book are strong enough in their portrayal as to be believed. The familiar childhood crush who actually likes you back was adorable, but Charlize as a person was a lot more than simply an object of affection—a particularly impressive feat, considering she is in fact the center of a love triangle featuring both Raquel and Raquel’s best friend. As for the love triangle, it could very easily have become a distraction, but I thought it worked well enough, mostly because, again, Charlize was a strong enough character in her own right that it was easy to see why they liked her so much, but the love triangle always took a backseat to the actual threat to their lives.

My one complaint, nitpicky as it may be: the rules of the Echo seemed unclear in parts. I had to reread certain parts to see if I had misunderstood the rule or the scene, and writing this now, I am still not sure which it was. However, I want to be very clear that this was a minor detail that had no impact on the story itself or my overall enjoyment of it. Everything significant in this book is drawn so vividly that it made this one point stand out to me, but it is very likely other readers will miss it entirely.

Perhaps one of the biggest marks of success for a book is to encourage one to want to read more in its genre, which Burn Down, Rise Up has certainly achieved for me. For readers who are more familiar with horror, however, it is well worth a read on every level, from the frights of the Echo to the even more terrifying history that inspired it.

The Lesbrary Goes To Flame Con 2022 — Anna N.

Let’s see if I can keep my rhapsodizing to a minimum. Because from the moment I walked into the conference hall, there was a vibrancy in the air. Everyone I encountered during Flame Con was absolutely unabashed in their sheer fannishness, wearing their fandoms on their backpacks, jackets, and jaw-dropping cosplays.

You know you’re in for a good time when the panelists themselves are decked out in geek chic.

PT I – Marginalization, Manga, and More Sapphic Stories

I kicked off my own explorations with a presentation where literary researcher Erica Friedman enthusiastically detailed the history of yuri manga, which was a solid start to the con, because I am hard-pressed to find a single illustrator/animator this side of forty who hasn’t been influenced by or intensely devoured anime and/or manga growing up.

the cover of By Your Side

The founder of Yuricon, Friedman has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, from its early, overly stylized manifestations to the more complex, nuanced stories that have been coming out (pun intended) in recent years. You can learn more details about this interesting, niche history in Friedman’s book By Your Side: The First 100 Years of Yuri Anime and Manga, in which she traces the evolution of the genre from the 1940s to today. The book has all the academic minutiae you’d expect from a seasoned researcher, and all the delightful musings you’d expect from a seasoned fan. A dry text this is not, and if you’ve been put off by the genre for its admitted overreliance on cheesy tropes and “lesbian content without lesbian identity”, Friedman’s book will both contextualize their histories as well as offering recommendations for some of the more innovative, subversive works*.

Speaking of anime and manga, I also stopped by Kat Calamia and Phil Falco’s table in the artist show room. They are the creative team behind one of my favorite sapphic webcomics, Slice of Life. A sort of reverse-isekai**, the plot begins when picture-perfect high school cheerleader Lucy wakes up to a loud scream in the middle of the night. Panicked, she runs into her little sister Ravyn’s room and sees that the protagonist from Ravyn’s favorite anime has come through the TV screen and is now the deuteragonist of her own, less-than-picturesque lesbian identity crisis.

To give Lucy credit, she is the blonde to Yuriko’s brunette. And if that statement confuses you, read Friedman’s book! Then read Slice of Life, because you’ll have a deeper understanding of all the tropes it so entertainingly subverts.

Yuriko’s name also has an interesting historical context. To quote from the Yuricon website: “yuri is Japanese for the lily. Hence…lesbians were yurizoku (百合族), the lily tribe. This name was taken by many hentai manga and doujinshi artists, who then named their lesbian characters “Yuri” or “Yuriko,” so that it became a kind of cliche’ for the genre itself.”

a photo of Anna and one of the writers of Slice of Life, holding up Slice of Life and Dancer. They're both wearing rainbow masks.

Thankfully, progress has brought the label into the less exploitative mainstream, where it has gone on to encompass interesting manga like Donuts Under a Crescent Moon and clever pastiches like Slice of Life. During our conversation, Calamia mentioned that she is currently working on another, darker project called The Dancer, which focuses more heavily on themes of mental health and has a gorgeous limited edition cover inspired by the iconic film Perfect Blue***. When I asked about her current inspirations, she said that she wasn’t reading anything at the moment, but that she was really enjoying the Netflix show Derry Girls—which isn’t a book, but does have a bookish lesbian in the main cast!

If that sounds up your alley, so might the podcast Bitches on Comics. Book-loving hosts S.E. Fleenor and Sara Century helmed a panel featuring authors Bishakh Som (creator of Spellbound and the intriguing Apsara Engine), Danny Lore (writer for Marvel’s Champions Volume 2: Killer App and DC’s upcoming Multiversity: Teen Justice), Nadia Shammas (writer for Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin and the excellent Squire), and Tina Horn (author for the NSFW SFSX), the panel touched on how writing characters that shared one’s own marginalized identities can be “a double-edged sword”.

On the good side, it’s great that publishers are willing to back more Black voices. Danny Lore spoke about their experiences growing up with “sci-fi-fantasy [that] always evolved past and away from blackness and brownness, that these idealized cultures were…frankly, bastardized forms of what white folks thought an African-based culture would be.” Growing up with stories written from such limited perspectives led them to try “to pull from a white suburban middle class life that I had never known”, when “I am a New Yorker, my whole life…the world that I grew up in, this Black American world did not, does not exist in a lot of sci-fi.”

But their path through the industry hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. It’s been hard work, pushing back against publishers’ focus on boxing Black narratives into “trauma stories”. Lore recalls the time they were trying to pitch a manuscript set in the projects in Harlem, and being the only black person there, was subject to a lot of misguided questions about why gentrification was not a bigger theme. It was exasperating because, “I don’t want to tell stories about gentrification. I want to tell stories about people who do magic in the hood.”

Nadia Shammas has had similar experiences with good intentioned and badly informed editors. “When we were pitching Squire, which is a fantasy Middle Eastern world heavily based on the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, both of us did an enormous amount of work and put a real place in the book, Petra. But that resulted in publishers going ‘I love this, it’s so brave…do you think that people might think it’s about the real world?’ and ‘People might think it’s about Palestine and we don’t want to make a statement.’”

Which is frustrating, when “as a Palestinian, the way I view the world and therefore the world of my art is going to be painted through that lens, always.”

“The work I make is so personal, and it’s so incredible that people relate to it. But sometimes that means people will then attempt to read more into my work and put things in my mouth that aren’t there.” She acknowledges that “it’s hard to make personal, genuine work when there are outside forces including your employers, who are attempting to use that work to market broadly”.

Which raises the question of whose perspectives are seen as “broadly appealing”. As great as it is to have more inclusivity on the page, it’s important to make sure that the diversity of the characters is reflected behind the scenes, too. As Tina Horn put it, “the difference between all these fictional characters and me is that I’m the one that gets paid. Characters don’t get paid to be in the stories.”

It’s an unfortunate reality that superficial gains can obscure more deeply rooted inequities. For example, the judging panel for the Eisner Awards (the comics industry’s most prestigious award) rarely has more than one person of color. Seriously. Even as the organization makes a more concerted effort to include works by creators of color, the judges themselves are usually not.

Of course, not everyone sets out with the conscious intention of reflecting reality on the page. Sometimes, wonderful art comes from feelings that are indescribable, inarticulable only because the artist has yet to find words or images to express them. So, like Bishakh Som, they create their own.

the cover of Spellbound

“I’ve always had a lot of South Asian femmes and women in my work…it just seemed natural, right? Like, why not?” For her, creating comics was less an attempt to break out of a narrow narrative box, and more about building “a sort of gateway or portal into realizing, 50 years later, who I was.”

But that brought its own set of complications. “After coming out like that, I think the burden of representation became a little more explicit and heavy. I think people expected more explicitly trans stories, and I was like, ‘I’m here for that’, but also now I’m going to become this person who writes ‘that kind of thing’.” Not that she minds too much now, “because it’s a cushy and glamorous box” to be in.

PT II – Fanart, Aesthetics and Graphic Novel Illustration

As I like to tell anyone who will listen, comics are such a wonderful medium precisely because the images allow creators to work with metaphors that straddle the line between prose’s staticity and film’s dynamism. So I was excited to chat with Aatmaja Pandya, illustrator for the YA graphic novel Slip, to get more insight on the visual side of the creative process.

When I asked about her inspirations, she was quick to mention Jillian Tamaki. Pandya recalled her time at the New York City School of Visual Arts, where the Eisner-winning artist “basically taught me how to make comics”.

She also mentioned manga as inspiring the “energy and the youthful quality” she brings to her own work. “I think this generation of young cartoonists, or people around my age, all sort of came up in the era of Tokyopop manga…and we’re seeing the consequence of that now. I mean, the ones that I read while making Slip were all Shonen Jump manga, because they have an online app and the subscription is really affordable. So I read, like, all of One Piece.”

Which, at a staggering 1000-odd issues and counting, invited the question: how on Earth did she balance that with making comics and her day job as a high school teacher? Did teaching teens help her develop her art?

“I don’t think it’s influenced my work so much, but it reminds me every day that they are not a monolith. That every person has their own interests and I can’t predict what they’ll be interested in. So to write authentically and to write passionately is what will draw attention.”

When I mentioned her work gave a lot of respect to the depth of young people’s experiences, she thought that was a good way to put it.

“Teenagers feel really complicated feelings and they’re incredibly vulnerable and making a lot of decisions about their future but aren’t given the agency to really be able to control any of it.” She goes on to say that though young readers are not adults yet, “to at least have it acknowledged that what you’re thinking is real to you and serious to you is incredibly valuable, and that’s why I really care about making books about, like, gray areas and complicated, emotional issues for teenagers.”

When asked what comics she read when she was a teenager, Pandya mentioned her fondness for the Fruits Basket manga. “I still reread it every couple of years. But I was such a voracious reader, and we just read whatever was available. So I would read my friends’ volumes and we would all trade stuff. I was just absorbing the aesthetic of it.”

A photo of Aatmaja Pandya wearing a mask and holding a copy of Slip. The book has stickers saying Sold Out - More Tomorrow

It’s an aesthetic that is more background noise than front-and-present in Pandya’s art style. If you look for it, you’ll see echoes of it in the way certain character’s eyes indicate their emotions, or in the organization of certain panels. Overall, there’s a soft youthfulness to the art and expressions that doesn’t shy away from depicting the characters as the flawed, feeling teenagers they are. And if you end up reading Slip and enjoying Pandey’s illustrations as much as I did, you should know that she has also been contracted for a couple more YA and middle grade graphic novels. Keep your eyes and ears open for more lovely work to come!

I also grabbed a quick convo with Street Noise Books‘ design intern, Dev Kamath. Interns aren’t often front-facing, and the general public is not too aware of their influence on the finished stories, so I hope this spot will shed some light on their efforts. Dev’s passion really came through when I asked what inspired them:

“I personally really enjoy working on queer books, because those are the books I didn’t grow up seeing. And I discovered my identity a lot later because I was finally seeing people around me who were using they/them pronouns. And I was like, ‘Oh, if I saw books like that when I was younger, it would have meant a lot. So I like to do design work and illustrating work and helping other people get their voices out there. Because it’s like, everybody’s got a story to tell. But not everybody has a way to put it out there. I see my role as helping them get there. The current project I’m working on, I’m the one organizing the files and adding the text in and doing some edits to get it to where it can be published easier, so the book gets out faster so people can read it and people want to read it.” (emphasis mine)

That really gets to the heart of it all. At Flame Con, I got a look at the behind-the-scenes efforts, the communities that went into creating these stories and supporting/amplifying the voices that tell them. It’s an intricate, collaborative process, and getting even this superficial glimpse really makes one appreciate the art of it all so much more.

Comics/graphic novels were not the only art form in glorious abundance on the con floor. Painstakingly elaborate cosplays and singularly expressive fandom merch are no scarcity at a con, but this was probably the first one where I’ve so many references to What We Do In The Shadows—or so much slash fanart for sale.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters Vol 1 cover

So. Much. Slash. Fanart. And also monster girls, which was neat. What I wouldn’t give for a movie adaptation of Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters (Book 2 coming later this year!). The metaphors are powerful, and the visuals would lend themselves beautifully to the screen. If you are a fan of the lesbian vampire trope or the bisexual vampire trope or just sapphic horror in general, I strongly recommend it. The story deals with some heavy themes and might not be for everyone, but it certainly pushed boundaries in the sort of way that lends itself to timelessness. It’s a riveting exploration of beauty and relationships and the ways internalized bigotry can shape young self-concepts.

Beauty has long struggled for purchase in comics, though. The American comic imagination has historically been dominated by the ever-more muscled, hyper-masculinized aesthetics of twentieth century Marvel and DC. As exciting as the recent Sandman TV show is, the fact remains that this is (as far as I know) major motion pictures’ first foray into a comic adaptation that is not about a character whose biggest deal is punching (or wanting to punch) various sentient beings in the face with fists or bullets or various elemental beams.

Recent years have thankfully seen a shift in publication trends, though. Creators like the ones I mention above are gaining market share by writing into existence the sort of representation that was once all too scarce. It is a humanizing of the once-monstrous, a reclamation and reconstruction of an art form that has only lately begun to be widely recognized for its merits.

the cover of Galaxy the Prettiest Star

Jadzia Axelrod, the writer for DC’s new(est) sapphic teen extraterrestrial romance shares my hopes for the future of comics. “I mean, the publishing industry is glacial in its movement and the pandemic has only made it slower. I’m not sure how long that sea change will take, but I see on the horizon some projects that I am very excited about. So I’m very hopeful. But we always need more, right?”

“More” including stories that allowed LGBTQ+ people to be messy and make mistakes. “I do think there’s this pressure on queer creators to do queer stories and to also show that queer love is beautiful—which it is—but to also show it as uncomplicated, and it’s just as complicated as straight people’s. And it can be beautiful and complicated and the damaging part is not the queer part, it’s the human part.”

After making that beautifully-worded statement, she recommended Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier. It is a cute high school rom-com about two aspiring cheerleaders who are less worried about coming out and struggling more with what life looks like after the act. It’s my most recent interlibrary loan request, and I await its arrival.

And while we’re on the topic, want to know how you can support libraries in the face of increasing book challenges and bans? Simple: every check-out counts. So, even if you might not necessarily have the time to read them, check out the books about LGBTQ+ experiences, about race, about the histories your high school textbooks glossed over. Even if you are not a budget-conscious grad-student trying to stretch her savings and can afford to buy books, check out the ones you want to support, from creators you want to support. Library purchases make up a not inconsiderable portion of book sales, after all!

a photo of a stack of library graphic novels and comics (Squire, Galaxy: The Prettiest Star, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength) with a Batman mug on top
Shoutout to my local librarian,  for recognizing me and recommending Alison Bechdel’s newest work when I went in to pick up some requests. Interlibrary loan is a blessing.

By the end of the weekend, I had a bag full of business cards and an even longer TBR list than before. Attending Flame Con was a great experience that introduced me to so many new creators. It is entirely volunteer-run by fans, for fans, and the ethos of that permeated everything. From the panels to the performances, this was a place where people were able to articulate all aspects of themselves, and the wealth of creativity on display was amazingly affirming to witness. This is a passion project, and one I wholeheartedly enjoyed exploring and learning from.

———-

*Like in I’m In Love with the Villainess, which is a funny, lighthearted isekai** rom-com with a little angst, if you’re looking for more laughs.

**A manga subgenre where people from our world get pulled into fictional ones via portals or reincarnation

***Perfect Blue (1998) by Satoshi Kon, aka “Darren Aronofsky’s Pinterest Board”, as the podcast team at Progressively Horrified calls it. I need to rely less on footnotes, but this was too good a joke to leave out.