Shira Glassman reviews “The Dresser and the Chambermaid” by Robin Talley

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover
I’ve been really lucky in my reading material these past few years. The blossoming of affordable queer lit on the indie book scene as eBooks and social media marketing transform how we find each other has validated my adolescent needs in the best of ways. However, once you’re finally fed, and your needs met, that’s when you notice that some of your more specific preferences are still eluding you.
That’s me with queer costume drama. Basically, thanks to a childhood drenched in the glorious excesses of operatic theater, I long for our presence in 17th and 18th century adventures. I want big skirts and glitter and palaces. But for some reason, probably thanks to Austen, Regency romance (early 19th century) completely dominates the world of historical/costume drama fiction whether the main characters be queer or not.
Frankly, I didn’t think I’d ever get my Baroque romance.
But then Robin Talley’s story, “The Dresser and the Chambermaid”, in the recently released queer YA historical anthology All Out, satisfied all my most specific, most picky, most “can I get this with a salad instead of fries?” needs all at once. I am so happy with this story, even though it’s only a short story. Let me number the reasons.
1. It takes place in the early 1700’s. As I said, we never get to play in this sandbox in our romantic reading, usually. Or any other reading, for that matter! I’ve searched on Goodreads and with few exceptions (like Escape to Pirate Island, another f/f fave rec of mine) the books set during this era tend to be about people coping with the current political situation instead of the chiefly personal ordeals that comprise much of escapist weekend reading.
This story, however, is not about that. This story is a Baroque-set story that yet manages to be about people dealing with their own lives, and not European royalty bashing each other over the heads with ideological and economic bludgeons. You know, like the eight hundred and fifty trillion Regencies! (Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the hell out of them and can rec a couple. BUT STILL.)
So what does that mean for the reader? It means you get: Baroque excess in terms of setting (glittering palaces, ballrooms filled with huge dresses you have to walk through the door sideways in, frou-frou wigs). This pleases me.
2. It stars working-class women! Yes, I know: a historical romance where BOTH leads work for a living? Amazing. Which means they are totally relatable even in this day and age, and plus, we should be supporting reading about regular people in general. Obviously I love a good princess, and this story has other cool royalty moments, too, but I like supporting this as well. It fits my values.
3. A historical romance between two women where the fact that they’re both women IS NOT PART OF THE PLOT CONFLICT AT ALL. For me, this is glorious. The plot conflict instead of is the bumpy road to better employment, and the possibility of professional jealousy. Now, it’s not set in some kind of alternate reality where Baroque England was magically Hip and With It. They’re just playing it secret and subdued like they would have if they were real. As do the other gay characters in the story, because:
4. The two leading ladies aren’t the only queer rep! There’s a gay man who’s one of the servants and he has a crush on one of the upperclass dudes, but that particular upper class dude is dating another upper class dude, and the little lesbian servant commiserates with him about it and it’s just so adorable and real and reminds me of the wlw row at my temple (yes, we have a row) and the way we all interact.
If I haven’t sold you yet, let me add that:
5. There is a ton of other f/f rep in this book from all over history and I enjoyed most of it. Dahlia Adler’s story “Molly’s Lips” is set just after Kurt Cobain died, and the girls are supporting each other through it. There is also ANOTHER Baroque-era story, this one set in colonial America involving two teenage girls who run away from their respective marriages (to dudes) to become lesbian pirates. I also loved the jazz-age one about the child actress who’s grownup now and not a movie star anymore, who meets a waitress who’s still star-struck by her even though she’s no longer a household name. And there’s great trans m/f rep as well but I’m not going to discuss that in this review for obvious reasons; I will eventually review the whole book though so stay tuned if you follow me on social media.
So: thank you, Robin Talley. I’m so glad this one little short story is a thing. To other writers: if you’re planning something like this, please keep me on your radar and let me know once it’s out!
Note to readers: because it’s from a major publisher, All Out is more likely to actually already be at your local library than some of the indie lit we usually discuss here. I am so happy for those of you who benefit from this because of parents or money that usually keep you from queer lit with happy endings.
Shira Glassman’s latest release, Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor, is a high-heat f/f romance between a superheroine and the damsel-in-distress she keeps rescuing. She has written one Baroque romance of her own, “Gifts of Spring” in Queerly Loving Vol. 1, but it’s m/f starring a trans woman mage and a Jewish acrobat, not f/f, so be aware if you read exclusively f/f.

Quinn Jean reviews The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson cover

[Please note: this novel contains occasional depictions of violence and this review mentions these in the first and final paragraphs]

Like its eponymous heroine, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza defies categorisation. Hutchinson’s novel never doubts the reader’s intelligence and jumps right into the centre of events at the start. Elena Mendoza is introduced as a sixteen-year-old bisexual Latina woman working at a Starbucks in a small town in Florida, who witnesses a teenage boy shoot her long-time crush and abruptly learns she has the power to heal people. The crush is a blue-haired artist called Freddie who unwittingly becomes part of Elena’s journey along with Elena’s best friend Fadil, a kind and thoughtful Muslim boy. Everyone who is exposed to the mystery of Elena’s healing ability offers her opinions on how to solve the puzzle and who to help with her power, while Elena is most concerned with keeping her loved ones safe and not hurting anybody, while also trying to figure out if Freddie maybe likes her too now. A side note to all these extreme events taking place early in the story is that Elena was the product of a virgin birth when her mother was a teenager, with science proving Elena was a statistical anomaly and was conceived through parthenogenesis. Elena has been bullied and stigmatised her entire life as a result of her famous history, which all leads her to question whether these otherworldly occurrences are miracles, science, coincidence, or something else entirely.

A novel with plot points this complex even just at the beginning of the narrative is bound to deal with countless themes, and Elena Mendoza does not disappoint there. The book trusts the reader to have the patience and focus to follow the various characters and story points and at various times Elena’s first-person narrations discusses the significance of religion, science, and ethics in the matters at hand. A big part of Elena’s growing bond with Freddie is the two of them debating and exploring different understandings of why Elena can heal and when and whether she should be healing people. There are times when the book comes off a bit patronizing, with Elena’s self-righteous rants about how to be a good person and treat other people fairly, but this could arguably just be intended as the character’s perspective rather than the author’s.

And despite the Big Idea monologues sometimes verging on being sanctimonious, for the most part Elena is a compelling, likeable and relatable main character who more than deserves her own young adult novel to lead. Elena herself points out that if her powers are God-given, she is an unexpected vessel as a queer woman of colour; the same is unfortunately true of YA protagonists. Similarly, the religious, big-hearted and open-minded Fadil is a wonderful foil to Elena’s sometimes pessimistic, doubtful and misanthropic tendencies. Their loving interfaith, interracial friendship as it is portrayed in the novel is as refreshing as it is rare.

Elena’s bisexuality and interest in Freddie is an important and key element of the story, without reducing either character to the role of pursuer or love-interest. The often prickly and inconsistent interactions the two girls have as a result of extreme circumstances are not romantic in any traditional sense. The way Freddie and Elena are forced to confront their preconceived ideas of the other and listen to uncomfortable truths explodes old notions of how intimacy and love are formed, and the novel and their bond are both better for it.

This novel is not exclusively young adult, or fantasy, or a queer love story, or a meditation on how to be a good person. It is all of those things and a lot more, all crammed into a relatively small amount of pages. Do note that the novel contains brief references to domestic violence and racism as well as the aforementioned gun violence. Ultimately aside from the odd preachy moment, the book is an excellent piece of writing, exploring important themes through engaging with very likeable and relatable characters.

Megan G reviews Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember

Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember cover

Located deep in the heart of Nazwimbe is a safari unlike any other. Tourists and researchers come from all around the world in hopes of catching a mere glance at the incredible creatures who roam nearby. The Harving’s, a father-daughter team hailing from Echalend, have come specifically in search of the mystical white unicorn, a creature they have spent their life studying. They are assigned to Mnemba, a sixteen-year-old tour guide who knows the safari like the back of her hand, and who has come to work for the safari after a tragedy drove her from her home. For Mr. Harving, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. For Kara Harving, this is her final chance at adventure before being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. For Mnemba, this is simply business. As their time together progresses, however, it becomes clear that this tour will be none of the above.

One of the things I most enjoyed about Unicorn Tracks was the world building. Nazwimbe is an incredible country, and it’s amazing how much Ember conveys about its customs and beliefs in this short novel. I never felt overwhelmed by the amount of information given, as it is weaved so seamlessly into the story. Not only do we learn about the culture of this fictional country and its different towns, we also meet an array of incredible creatures, all of which are mythical in our world, but roam free in the plains of Nazwimbe. Often I felt as though I could see the creatures directly before me based on Ember’s words. It was as though I was on the safari alongside Mnemba and the Harving’s.

It takes a bit of time for the plot to get moving, but once it does it pulls you in. It’s unique, and exciting, and does an incredible job of showing the character of our protagonists without ever making it feel like too much. Once things get started they advance at a steady pace, bringing you to a satisfying conclusion in a way that feels natural. Again, I felt as though I was living this adventure alongside our heroines.

In the romance, Ember tackles some heavy issues, though for the most part I feel she does so well. Mnemba and Kara come from different worlds, and their clashing cultures cause tension occasionally. They learn to work together, though, both in their adventuring, and in their private lives. Although the story takes place over a short period of time, their romance unfolds sweetly. It does feel a bit fast, and yet it also feels natural that they would feel such strong affection for each other after everything they’ve gone through.

As I mentioned, this book does deal with heavy subject matter. Warnings include rape, physical assault and violence, sexual harassment, slavery, and animal cruelty. While these issues are dealt with well for the most part, there is one moment where [spoiler alert] Kara and Mnemba are becoming intimate and Kara comes across as quite insensitive to Mnemba’s traumatic past. This moment of insensitivity is never fully dealt with, and feels odd, as she has been previously quite supportive [end spoilers].

Overall, Unicorn Tracks is a delightful novel set in a fantastic world, with a sweet romance, and an intriguing plot. If you think you will be able to handle some of the heavier issues dealt with within the story, then I highly recommend it.

Ren reviews Great by Sara Benincasa

Great by Sara Benincasa cover

TW: Suicide

Every summer, Naomi Rye leaves her home in Chicago to spend her holidays with her mother in East Hampton; a condition of her parents’ messy divorce. Her ambitious mother Anne built a multi-million-dollar cupcake empire from nothing, and now Anne climbs the ranks of the social elite with the same drive. Anne also believes that the easiest way to secure a powerful place in the inner circle of the Senator’s wife, is through their children. From a young age, Naomi is forced into playdates, dinners, charity events and everything in between, with the senator’s daughter Delilah. The summer Naomi turns seventeen, Jacinta – the mysterious summer tenant next door – throws a lavish party. She invites Naomi in the hopes that their new friendship will bring Delilah into her life in turn. Sound familiar?

This modern twist on The Great Gatsby was a delight, through and through. I may have a bit of a bias; I read Gatsby for the first time at the age of thirteen, and it has held a very special place in my heart ever since. It was the first book I read in which I hated every character, and still came through moved by the power of the prose. Gatsby taught me that a writer could fill pages with selfish, ugly people, and still create something beautiful.

Once Great came to my attention, I couldn’t not read it. However, there was some initial concern that without the prose, I would just be left with a bunch of rich people whining and making bad decisions. I mean, honestly, guys, I didn’t even make it past the first season of Gossip Girl. But man oh man, did Sara Benincasa pull it off. Her attention to detail is marvelous, and she keeps the tale from becoming stagnant with a small – but key – number of original side characters. Naomi’s parents and her hometown best friend Skags are not given large roles, but they keep things fresh and interesting.

 In that it’s a book fashioned after one known for its vapid, superficial characters, there are a few icky things to note; number one being the ‘positive’ speech about pursuing thinness and envy of people surpassing “even LA thin.” Anyone with body image-related issues or disorders may want to proceed with caution. There is also a heavy dose of homophobia from the rich folk, and Naomi herself plays the Poor Straight White Girl card on occasion – though her butch best friend is quick to call her out on the behaviour.

All in all, Great is a wonderful, true to form take on The Great Gatsby. It’s short and dark and perfectly suited for an afternoon of wallowing on the couch. Just keep in mind that it isn’t the sort of book one goes for when looking for a fluffy pick-me-up.

Marthese reviews Wish Our Hearts Away by E.J. Phillips

Wish Our Hearts Away by E.J. Phillips cover

”If nothing is right, then you have the freedom to change anything”

This week is pride week in Malta, and I’m going to share a very queer read that I enjoyed a lot. The book has a diversity of queer characters. It’s not just sapphic but has two boys (well, youth) that are fond of each other. Sometimes it’s good to get in touch with the diverse identities in our communities. It’s YA, and there is sapphic and ace (asexual) representation!

Wish our Hearts Away by E.J. Phillips is about a group of 4 teenagers–Lily, Girija, Michael and Sam–living in rural Australia. The story is told from Lily’s and Sam’s point of view, but Michael and Girija are protagonists as well. All four of them are confused and insecure, which does not help when they find a place–which they name the Grove–that grants wishes. Strange things start to happen after Lily and Michael’s Uncle Ben is discovered dead.

Lily and Michael are siblings; Sam is Michael’s best friend, but is also very close to Lily; and Girija is Lily’s best friend/crush. Lily feels lonely even surrounded by people. She finds another family in her late uncle’s old theater group, but having two families is difficult and leads to more confusion. Girija is scared of disappointing her family. Sam does not speak about being in an abusive household. Michael does not speak about what he feels and what he knows. These characters were complex and realistic and have conflicting wished which are keeping them back. It was interesting to see the dynamic of the four in the group. There are two couples, but also a childhood trio of friends. Michael and Girija are the ones people take notice of (even though they may not want it), but the story is told from Sam’s and Lily’s perspective. They all have their story and their secrets.

As supporting characters there were many family members–from unknowingly supporting and loving to neglectful and toxic to abusive and hindering to scared. There was also found family–between the four and within the theater group. The parents themselves have character development in the story. At times, I was angry with them because they were so realistically parents. It was also great to see the parents referred to by name, rather that X’s parents. Parents have identities too.

All the story elements are connected (in the words of Dirk Gently: everything is connected). The plot development was gradual and with interesting plot twists, most things I didn’t guess from before. One thing which stuck out a bit was that Girija didn’t feel so involved in the mystery. Her wishes were not being granted, or granted problematically like the others, but things were not happening to her like they were the other three. In a way she did move later, so I could justify it.

This book is indeed very queer with sapphic and ace (gay) representation! It was an emotional roller, coaster but in a way, the Grove is representative of growth and the difficulty of growing up, especially while different. This was not a coming out story, it was more of a sorting out with fantastic fantasy elements.

I wanted to see more about these characters. I love them. Michael and Sam had a connection and defended it even though they hadn’t necessarily spoken about it and the connection was different from what people usually expect. Lily and Girija needed to find themselves and be confident in who they are. The story was more about the individuals than the couples but the group was there was each other. The protagonists were wishing their hearts away, but this book had mine.

Danika reviews The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow coverAfter hearing only good things about the Scorpion Rules duology, I was eager to pick it up. Unfortunately, I read the first book during a readathon, and reading a crushing dystopian story about war and brutality was not the best choice to read all in one sitting. It was darker than I was expecting, so I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. I was, though, interested in the ideas introduced in the book. So I took a few months break before I picked up the second book in the series, The Swan Riders, in the hopes that I would be more prepared this time.

I spend most of my time reading this book thinking This is the reading rule you seem to re-learn over and over: just because people say a book is great, doesn’t mean you, personally, will love it. I have long since realized that it doesn’t matter how high calibre the quality of a book is if it doesn’t immediately appeal to me. Still, I continued with the sequel, because I had heard it was an improvement from the last book. Perhaps I was less connected to the characters because of the break that I took between books, but I was having trouble pushing through.

I have, historically, been a fan of dystopian novels, but this one I found hard to deal with. It’s just so straightforward about the suffering experienced. The pain. The first book includes a detailed scene of torture that nauseated me. The second book describes the slow deaths of several characters, all involving increasingly close together seizures. While the first book has some semblance of an us vs. them clarity, Greta spends most of her time in The Swan Riders alongside the villain of the previous book.

By the end of the narrative, I had come around. The strength of this story is in its ideas, especially (for me) its exploration of personal identity and humanity. [spoilers for first book:] Greta is an AI now, and she begins to drift away from her humanity and empathy, assisted by Talis’s intervention. [end spoilers] It takes this idea, of an AI enforcing global peace, and shows how tangled it is. How can global peace be achieved? Can it? And what amount of sacrifice is worth it? Clearly, Talis’s strategy is not defended by Greta or the narrative, but there’s also not a tidy alternative.

As for the queer content, there is definitely no central romantic story here. In fact, Greta does not interact with Xie for the whole novel. But her presence is there, nonetheless. She is Greta’s tie to humanity, to retaining her true self. She is a memory that Greta clings to. She is, in some ways, the home that Greta spends each step of her journey longing to return to. So although she isn’t a central character, she is a very important one.

For all my ups and downs with this duology, I would still recommend it, but with some caveats: this is not a queer Canadian princess fantasy-esque story that the blurb had me prepared for. This is a dystopia that is focused on war and its casualties. It is thought-provoking, but brutal.

Danika reviews The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde

The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde cover

I almost wrote this book off after the first chapter. I’m nearly 30 and not a drinker, so reading about a teenage rock star getting incredibly drunk and then getting into a car accident (her girlfriend–who had also been drinking–was driving), paparazzi then swarming the scene, is not what I would usually gravitate toward. Luckily, I pushed through and found out that this is the moment that catalyzes change in Emmy. The entire book is basically the fallout from this moment.

Emmy is the drummer in the immensely popular teen band The Brightsiders. This means that you do get to be a voyeur to a teen rock star life, but it’s not all parties and accolades. Emmy loves her fans, and she thrives off the energy of playing in front of a crowd, but she doesn’t fare well with the endless rumors and hate spread through twitter, tumblr, and gossip magazines. It doesn’t help that 2/3rds of the bands members are queer: Emmy is bisexual and semi-closeted, and Alfie is out as nonbinary. Despite that hate that might circulate in certain corners of the internet, Alfie is a heartthrob that attracts attention from all genders… including, suddenly, Emmy.

Not only is the love interest in The Brightsiders nonbinary–there is a huge queer cast. Emmy’s best friend is black, femme, and nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. The f/f couple from Queens of Geek also makes a few cameos, which was really fun. There is a focus on found family, especially because Emmy’s parents are abusive. Emmy moved out of their house and into a hotel as soon as she was financially able, but until she is 18, she still feels like they have control over her life. Her entire life they have never stopped drinking and partying, ignoring her, insulting her, and gaslighting her in turns. In her childhood, Alfie’s house was her only escape. Now, with her partying having landed her in the hospital, she worries that she is heading down the same path.

Emmy’s parents unpleasantly pop up several times through the novel, and we get to see how this upbringing would have helped to shape some of the personality traits she struggles with, like people-pleasing. Jessie, the girlfriend who drove drunk, is another unhealthy influence in her life. Her friends and loved ones can clearly see the damage that their relationship takes on Emmy, but she is quick to laugh it off or go along with Jessie’s gaslighting.

Although there is definitely an element of the rock star lifestyle here, there’s a lot of emotional work happening beneath the surface. Emmy is learning to accept and love who she is, and protect herself from the toxic people in her life. There is also such warmth from the queer community that she surrounds herself with: both her friends and her fans show what support, love, and family really is. Like Queens of Geek, I raced through this, and I look forward to her next book!

Quinn Jean reviews All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout The Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

[This review contains very vague spoilers (no specific plot points, though) and mentions of violence]

This exceptional short story collection, edited by Saundra Mitchell, is a sterling addition to WLW fiction. The vast majority of the seventeen stories included involve major WLW characters and without fail, every tale is breathtakingly beautiful. The historical settings range from a convent in medieval Spain, to small-town USA in the 1950s, right through to grunge-soaked Seattle in the early 1990s. Similarly, the young women included in the WLW stories vary greatly in their personalities, identities, dreams and loves. The one thing all the stories have in common is that none of the protagonists have unhappy endings. The book has successfully set out to show queer teenagers have always existed and thrived, even in the most adverse circumstances.

The heroism inherent in merely existing as a queer person is captured brilliantly in every story in All Out, with some of the stories including magic and fantasy to further heighten this theme. Leprechauns and witches–as well as peasant girls, waitresses and nuns–all show themselves to be strong, generous and brave when their circumstances would have them give up on life and love. Too often fictional portrayals of WLW in historical settings show these women to be doomed, but these stories reward their characters with happiness and promising futures. And the long past times in foreign places portrayed by the authors never feel distant given the amount of detail and nuance each story is imbued with, so that the reader is transported completely each time.

It is to the reader’s benefit not to know too much about what each story will contain, with only the promise that none end in tragedy, so there’s no need to be anxious when reading. Inevitably certain historical settings mean there are depictions of violence at times, but this is not the over-riding theme of any story, with queer love stories and self-discovery always emerging victorious.

Do not miss this book, it is a glorious expression of the love and light that has always filled WLW.

Anna Marie reviews Grrrls On The Side by Carrie Pack

Grrrls On the Side by Carrie Pack cover

I was so excited to read this queer Young Adult novel, but unfortunately it was a big disappointment. Before I get into my criticism, let me explain the premise, and why I was so excited to read it. Set in 1994, Grrrls on the Side is about Tabitha, a fat white girl who feels like an outcast stumbling across a movement of Riot Grrrls nearby. As someone who loves zines and some aspects of riot grrrl, I was really intrigued by the synopsis, and I had also just read Moxie which is another Young Adult novel but this time focused on contemporary girls reaching back to riot grrrls for inspiration. Moxie was disappointing to me for various reasons, some to do with the way race was represented and also because queerness was almost completely erased from the narrative. When I remembered that Grrrls on the Side had canon queerness in it and was also about Riot Grrrl I thought it would satiate my itch for some good angry queer punk girl YA, but once again I was wrong!

Grrrls on the Side is a confusing and fluctuating story – Tabitha is very inconsistent in so many ways, leaping from one feeling, one breakup and one crush to the next, and not in a way that was believably adolescent. It was weirdly paced, intensely focused on romance in a really unlikely and often confusing way – random characters would be mentioned once as being present in a scene completely out of the blue. A lot of the characters, including Tabitha, are like light switches in terms of their emotions: one minute they are crying and the next laughing – its very hard to keep up with and enjoy. One of the threads of the novel – that being Tabitha’s sexuality – is just oversimplified: at first she has turmoil about being bi and thinks about it a lot, but as soon as she’s in another relationship, it completely disappears from her mind, except when out of the blue, one of the love interests says really biphobic things to her (which I personally found to be very frustrating and out of character for her).

There were three black girl characters in the novel, Venus, Monique and Jackie, and of those three Jackie was the only one to get more of a personality than her blackness. Venus and Monique were consistently present to draw attention to the racism not only of the Riot Grrrl movement (and especially one specific character), but also to Tabitha. A character arc of the novel is that Tabitha finally understands that she won’t ever understand what it’s like to be black, which is such a disservice to all three black characters, and the idea that Tabitha, a white girl, is the focus point of a narrative supposed to highlight how black women and girls are the ‘grrrls on the side’ is reprehensible. I just cant understand why the author would choose to sideline the black characters in a story that she was in control of creating!

On top of the stereotypical and flat representation of these three characters, there is also a Chinese American character named Cherie who doesn’t seem to register as a person of colour in the context of the group or the narrative, like her presence isn’t seen as a ‘problem’ in the way the black girls are?!

I don’t want to end this totally negatively, so here were some good aspects: Throughout the chapters the zines that some of the girls make are included, and it was always so fun and lovely to read. It really made it seem like riot grrrl, like a bunch of messy, angry, contradictory weird girls were making things and enjoying it for themselves. My favourite character was Jackie, because she was a tender butch lesbian and she was so sweet and patient. Lastly, there was a really cute moment where Tabitha met an older woman who had also been part of a women’s liberation movement, and they had a lovely connection and promised to write to each other! Intergenerational solidarity is the best!

There’s one instance of sexual assault in this and some discussion of r*pe nearer the beginning of the novel.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

First things first, to get it out of the way: a delight in certain sorts of campy horror is in me at the bone-marrow level. My mother went into labor with me early, and I came squalling into the world a bit after eight PM on a Friday Halloween, under a full moon. This led to me being raised to be as passionate about the holiday as you might expect, costumes and sweet tooth included. I stand way, way too close to this subject material to be really impartial in any strong sense, and that is going to strongly color this review.

The movie Hocus Pocus was released in 1993, and starred Bette Midler, a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as the Sanderson sisters, cannibalistic, child-stealing witches hanged in the 1600s and accidentally brought back from the dead by the protagonist, Max, a kinda-mansplainy teenager. There’s pretty blonde love interest Allison, sweet but precocious younger sister Dani, and poetically-handsome youth who’s stuck for 300 years in the body of an immortal black cat, Thackery Binx (which is just so much fun to say out loud. Try it).  All the kids have to do is last out through the night, and the Sanderson sisters will return to the grave, but that’s still a lot to ask of a trio of kids when none of the adults in their lives will listen to them. Standard 1990’s movie fare, basically, and though it made a fair amount of money, it didn’t do well in the reviews.  However, its later life on television made it into a cult classic, and I’m pretty sure it’s still running on the Disney Channel every Halloween. I know that I watched my VHS copy of it so many times that it’s got a couple of permanent audio track wiggles here and there.

But while I loved the movie as a young Halloween fanatic, there are two things I identify as that weren’t at all represented in it: 1) a person of color, and 2) queer as the day is long, twice as queer on Sundays.  I have to admit that I probably sympathized more with the counter-culture witches, evil though they were, than with the milkskinned blonde girls or early colonists depicted as the protagonists.  This is all to say that when I heard that the sequel had a black lesbian in it, I made an actual, audible noise, to my cats’ consternation.

The book turned out to be two stories in one cover. First, there’s a novelization of the original movie, and while I admit I didn’t linger here, out of a hurry to get to the good stuff, I was surprised and pleased at several points.  There are things in the original that would put a frown on my face today (casual sexism being the strongest contender), and while the novelization is entirely true to the source material, it also gives us something we couldn’t have in the original: a view into the protagonist’s head, where he editorializes and makes judgments that go a long way toward smoothing out all those rough parts.  At the same time, it still maintains a very 90’s flavor, even in the incidentals, like young Dani swearing to herself that if she makes it out of this alive, she’ll never make her brother watch DuckTales with her again. So if you have the leisure, even if you too have seen the movie a hundred times over, I do recommend giving it a read.  That said, if you’ve seen the movie even once, you can skip to the sequel without missing anything important.

The sequel is unnamed, probably because if they manage to make it into a movie it would just be Hocus Pocus 2 anyway, and it starts on Halloween morning after a 25-year timeskip.  The protagonist is high school sophomore Poppy, Max and Allison’s daughter, who is feeling stifled by what she thinks of as her parents’ paranoia about the holiday. Despite growing up hearing her parents and aunt tell the story of that by now long-ago Halloween, she doesn’t believe it in any visceral fashion. Along with her best friend Travis, and Poppy’s straight-A, totally cool crush Isabella, Poppy more-or-less accidentally treads in her father’s footsteps, and brings the Sanderson Sisters back again, with a twist.  Instead of merely having to make it through the night, they have to defeat the sisters before dawn, or else spend the rest of their lives in a world given over to evil witches.

I genuinely don’t want to spoil you, here.  Usually I’d talk about trigger warnings, about violence or assault or things that threw me out of the narrative, but let’s be honest, this is a Disney novel. The things Disney does that are worth trigger warnings, it usually does by accident, and I’d spill a thousand words of digital ink on those alone.  This novel is deliciously free of such complications.

That said, it was deeper at points than I expected.  If the overarching theme of the original is that scoffing and refusing to listen to others’ concerns will land you in hot water, the second half’s theme is a lot more complex. There are a lot of callbacks to things done in the first half which still have repercussions 25 years later, and a strong understanding that this is the same world. For instance, Max left a bully in the hands of the witches on that Halloween night, and now that ex-bully is the Principal of the school where Max teaches and father of the biggest social irritation in Poppy’s life. If this book is about anything in particular but giving the reader a good time, it’s about overcoming the willful mistakes made by those who came before us, and learning to do better than they.  “You, all of you, despise me for things you believe me to have done—and yet I knew the greatest mark upon my soul was doing nothing at all,” says a character punished for another’s crimes, and that grief reverberates through the centuries until Poppy and Isabella have to learn from it.

How do we make up for what our predecessors did, without at the same time being weighed down with guilt for their crimes? How, in short, do we do better?  The book seems to suggest that the answer is twofold.  First, be willing to recognize those acts in the first place and refuse to repeat them. Accepting that something horrible did happen doesn’t mean resigning yourself to the idea that it will do so again through you.  And second is to eventually be able to allow the next generation to take over.  “What’s the value of youth?” a character chides Winnie Sanderson.  “You were meant for greater things than being young.” Pit that against the ones who want to hold power with their teeth and fingernails if necessary (“Who needs a line of succession when you’re immortal?”) and you’ve got a conflict that wouldn’t be out of place in a greater literary work.

All in all, I gobbled this book like a bag of single-serving Snickers, and I enjoyed every chomp.

Things I liked: Representation! Isabella and Poppy are queer. Isabella and Travis are both black, but really different in personality, without either of them being written in a fashion that struck me as at all stereotypical. Their differences extend even to their conflict-management techniques, with Travis stating that his mother taught him to ignore bullies, and Isabella laughing that hers believes in the power of lawsuits.

There are multiple other people of color as incidental characters who nevertheless are presented with personalities of their own, from a Latinx classmate to their teacher, Miss Chen, with her penchant for black T-shirts. I feel like it’s hinted that one of the young men in their class is interested in other boys, but that’s a squint-and-you-miss-it sort of thing that I might have been wrong about.

I appreciated that Poppy is actually able to learn from the experiences of those who went before her, and while the book necessarily starts with her making the same mistake her father did, she’s able to navigate it more deftly, thanks to being able to draw on his old stories.

I liked that even though this is a YA Disney novel, it doesn’t talk down to the reader. It’s not grimdark and hopeless, it’s not a post-apocalyptic nightmare story, it’s a popcorn novel, but it’s a very fun representation of the genre that respects its reader’s intelligence.

Things I disliked: This is another Disney story with a PoC who gets turned into an animal. I could do with fewer of those in the universe. WoC need to be able to have their faces in view for the representation to be real.  That said, since this is a book and not a movie (for now?) the problem might not be as serious as it is in visual media.

I found myself frowning over the fact that the author’s name appears nowhere on the cover.  I know that this is a thing Disney frequently has done to its creators in the past, traditionally preferring to give generic thanks to their creators instead of specific acknowledgments.  While the author’s name does show up on one single page inside, it would have been nice to see it on the cover, and in at least as big a font as the company’s, as opposed to entirely absent.

And while it’s not actually an outright dislike, it’s just a little odd to have a movie novelization for a movie that doesn’t exist.  I don’t mean that it’s odd to have a new story, but that this reads very clearly like the novel version of a script. There’s a musical interlude, for instance, with lyrics interrupting the action—I’ve never heard the music, so it comes off a little bit like the early-oughts songfic craze that so many fanfic authors were prone to indulging in. But as complaints go, that one’s really, really minor.  I have no qualms about recommending this book to more or less everyone who enjoys reading YA, and recommending it very strongly to anyone who enjoyed the original movie.

Final Verdict: A chipper, Junior Mints-flavored four stars out of five.