Carmella reviews This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

This novella was sold to me as “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love letters, but in an enemies-to-lovers time travel agents au”. I’m not normally a big fan of SFF, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pitch like that!

Red and Blue are operatives fighting on opposite sides of the time war. Both come from different post-human futures: Red is from a technologically-enhanced race (think androids) working for the Agency, and Blue from the environmentalist society (think wood elves) of Garden. Although they are non-human beings with seemingly different social constructions of gender, both use she/her pronouns.

The plot begins on a bloody battlefield. The agent Red discovers a handwritten letter marked ‘burn before reading’. What follows is a chain of coded correspondence as Red and Blue chase each other across parallel pasts and futures–different ‘threads’ of time which operatives manipulate with the aim of bringing about an eventual victory either for the Agency or Garden.

The novella is mostly told through these letters (although ‘letters’ is a loose word–messages can be hidden in anything, from the feathers on a goose to the flavour of a berry) as we see Red and Blue’s relationship develop. Are they falling in love? Are they playing one another to gain a tactical advantage? Where do their loyalties lie? What does ‘winning’ actually mean? And all the while, they are both being trailed by a mysterious Seeker.

There’s an obvious Romeo and Juliet influence going on, especially towards the end [Spoilers, highlight to read] when we get into the territory of apothecary poisons and fake-out suicides, but I can reassure you that in this case there’s a happy ending in sight. [End spoilers]

I think the Virginia/Vita comparison was also pretty apt. Red and Blue come from completely different cultures and have no fixed context (thanks to all the time travel). As Red writes in one letter, “Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent—that’s you, I think?—will find meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you.” This means they have to communicate in the abstract, in poetic language and high-fluted imagery. The resulting beautiful, lyrical prose style is one of my favourite aspects of the novella.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone do a great job of conveying the characters’ passionate emotions without it ever getting too sappy (although maybe it is a little pretentious here and there – if you’re not into purple prose this may not be one for you).

However, the abstract nature of the letters was also one of the things I found most frustrating. This may sound odd from someone who isn’t generally into SFF, but I found myself wishing there was a little more explanation of the mechanics of the world! In some ways I respect that the authors chose to focus more on the characters’ emotional journey rather than on the hard sci fi world-building–for example, I like their decision never to explain how the agents actually time travel–but at times I did find myself getting lost. I could have done with a few more concrete markers to help me follow the plot.

Even so, I did manage to enjoy the story a lot. The time loop shenanigans are great fun (although thinking too hard about them might result in some head-scratching over paradoxes) and the romance between Red and Blue is beautifully developed. And it’s always good to see diversity in SFF–a story with two queer female(ish) leads, one of whom is specified as having dark skin, is a welcome arrival.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but if you enjoy poetic writing and don’t need to know all the world-building details to enjoy a sci-fi setting, then this may be for you! Plus who doesn’t love the red/blue trope in their gay romance?

Susan reviews éclair

Éclair: A Girls’ Love Anthology That Resonates in Your Heart

éclair is ostensibly an anthology of lesbian romance manga, collecting stories whose protagonists range from primary school children learning about trust to young adults trying to juggle relationships and work. It’s got a generally high quality of art. However. There are perhaps sixteen stories included in this volume, and there’s maybe two that I would count as a functional relationship, which is a bad ratio for something advertised as romance.

Here’s a quick overview of the stories:

1) “Happiness in the Shape of a Scar” by Nio Nakatera follows a girl who tries to befriend a solitary pianist, and grows increasingly frustrated and jealous of her focus on the piano – to the point of actively fantasising about her hands being broken because of the rejection. The relationship that grows out of it is kinda sweet, but the fact that it’s rooted so thoroughly in the protagonist’s guilt and the love interest’s pain means that I’m not sold on it.

2) “Tears in the Clean Room” by Shiori Nishio is about a school girl finding out that her best friend has a girlfriend, and becoming overwhelmingly jealous. And her jealousy manifests as homophobia, the belief that her love is “purer,” and relief that her feelings were “neatly cut off without ever becoming corrupted.” Yeah, no, this wasn’t for me; I don’t know about you, but I don’t expect an explicitly queer anthology to drop a story where the protagonist is actively homophobic the entire way through. [Caution warning: homophobia]

3) “Human Emotion” by Shuninta Amano finds the protagonist – a woman is so good at everything that people have described her as inhuman and bullied her – starting to work with a woman who struggles with almost everything and decides to keep her. Like, explicitly comparing her to a pet and setting her up to fail for the protagonist’s enjoyment levels of keeping her. This was one of the relationships that I was suspicious of because of how unhealthy it was, and the way the protagonist’s mental state actually seems to be deteriorating over the course of the story. [Caution warning: bullying]

4) “Intro” by Chihiro Harumi follows a girl who immediately gets a crush on her oblivious new tutor, who happens to not notice anything that isn’t history, and decides to make her notice. If you like teacher/student romances, this is probably fine? I liked the way that the protagonist started to wonder more about the history her tutor loves as the story goes on, but on the whole it wasn’t for me. [Caution warning: teacher/student relationship]

5) “The Unemployed Woman and the High School Girl” by Kanno has an unemployed woman who gets money by being a sugar baby tying to fend off the advances of a teenage girl from a wealthy family who has a crush on her. I maybe like this one for the fact that both of the characters have someone they can be entirely honest around, and the woman is clearly trying to be a decent person despite all of her worst instincts, but I think that I like it solely because I’m not reading it as a romance, so take that under advisement. [Caution warning: adult/teen relationship]

6) “The Hairdresser” by Uta Isuki is about a girl who loves styling hair as she finally gets a chance to work on the model of her dreams: one of her classmates with long, silky hair. I think this one is quite sweet and silly, and does read as a sweet beginning to a relationship! The art is funny, and I enjoy Chika’s enthusiasm and her poses, even if I disagree with her hairstyle choices. It’s not bad!

7) “Alice in the Miniature Garden” by Sakuya Amano follows a maid responsible for tutoring an unwanted illegitimate child, and I have mixed feelings about it. When it’s being sweet about two unwanted girls choosing each other over and over again, I like it! But to get to those bits, you have to get through them both being needlessly cruel to each other, and I’m not sure I can be bothered with it.

8) “Master for 1/365” by Mekimeki has one of the few functional relationships in this book! The protagonist’s best friend volunteers to be her servant for a day and do anything she asks to make up for forgetting her birthday. It’s actually pretty cute and simple, which I appreciated after some of the other stories in this collection.

9) “Two Years and Eleven Months” by Kabocha is a melancholy story about childhood friends making a last ditch attempt to stay together after they start growing apart. It’s a quiet story with a bittersweet ending and both girls disappointing each other throughout, but it’s pretty well-told and I enjoyed how clear it was that the two of them still cared for each other even though it was hard.

10) “Game Over” by Kagekichi Tadano is about two school girls searching for a bed at the end of the world, and it manages to be equal parts atmospheric and silly. I like the way the reveal was handled, and I enjoyed how much the two girls seemed to like each other. [Caution warning: jokes about suicide]

11) “My Cute Bitch” by Izumi Kawanami was possibly one of the most frustrating stories in éclair. The protagonist moves in with a friend who likes casual sex with men, who then decides that maybe she’d like to date the protagonist! But as the love interest has no female friends, the protagonist decides that they can’t sleep together because a platonic friendship would mean a lot more. I… Have no idea why that’s in a girl’s love anthology when it seems extremely counter to that premise, but go off I guess! [Caution warning: cheating, slut-shaming]

12) “A Tale of Weeds” by Kazuno Yuikawa is the story about primary school kids I mentioned; a girl who adores her best friend starts to realise that maybe her best friend isn’t actually the nicest person when the friend starts bullying a new girl in class. It’s cute! It has characters learning about trust and friendship! I don’t necessarily understand why it’s in a romance anthology, but it is cute. [Caution warning: bullying]

13) “The Two of Us and Apples” by Taki Kitao is another sweet and goofy story; the protagonist has a crush on her best friend, who keeps asking for help learning to cook for men! The art is cute and squishy, giving everything a comedic tone that I think went well with the story and helped to show the protagonist’s frustration and fondness clearly! I think this might have been one of my favourite stories in the collection.

14) “Belle the Rabbit and the Wolf” by Hachi Itou is the only fantasy story in éclair, which makes it feel out of place. It’s a cute story about a bunny girl who owns a café helping a wolf-girl track down a delicious food that she can’t remember, and the art is lovely? The story is fine, there’s not a lot of drama? But tonally it’s very different from the other stories so I’m not sure how well it fits in.

15) “Your Jinx” by Fumiko Takada is so ridiculous that I’m honestly tempted to skip over it. A schoolgirl approaches her crush (who she has never even spoken to), to announce that she’s pregnant with the crush’s baby. I would like to stress the fact that they never even spoke before this! It’s ridiculous, the punchline is kinda gross, and if you do get a copy of éclair I’d suggest just skipping over this.

16) “My Idol” by Auri Hirao is another frustrating one. Two idols use on-stage fan service as an excuse for physical contact, which obviously ends in tears. I didn’t like this one, mainly because I didn’t see the point of it, especially not in an anthology that’s supposed to be about love?

I think the problem might be in the way that I interpreted the marketing. It’s advertised as a girl’s love anthology, which I took to mean it would be an anthology of romances, with the attendant happy endings and relationships that go with it. What I got was an anthology that didn’t seem to have a unifying theme or tone beyond having two female leads, some of which have a romance/romantic feelings and several of which don’t. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because sometimes you do need stories about unhealthy disfunctional relationships, and sometimes you do need stories about friendships between queer women! But in a manga advertised as a girl’s love anthology, I expected the stories to be similar in tone or structure or level of romance, anything, and they’re not, so I came away feeling quite disappointed.

Danika reviews A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

It’s not beautiful or brave or redemptive. It’s like a light case of mono that never goes away. I don’t want to brave. I want us to be okay.

I’m having trouble writing this review, because I feel like I’m still processing this book. A Safe Girl to Love is a collection of short stories with trans women main characters, many of whom are also lesbians/bi/queer. The stories have different voices, but for the most part, they’re written in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone. Some stories don’t have quotations marks around dialogue, which gives it a dreamlike, immersive feel. Most of these stories are realistic and gritty, but one does have a talking cat.

Although these women all live in different places and circumstances, and their everyday life varies a lot, they all deal with the daily struggle of surviving in a world that constantly questions their existence and value. Every character faces microagressions, though they’re often accompanied by more overt aggression and danger. Plett really lays out how these constant digs wear away at the protagonists, and how much it takes to just survive under that.

Because these are all women dealing with trauma and institutional discrimination, they have to find ways to cope. They are flawed, and sometimes make bad decisions. Sometimes they don’t have a lot of options to choose between. But they also endure, and they find meaning where they can.

I can’t help but compare this to Nevada by Imogen Binnie: not because they’re two of the few queer trans women books out there, but for that tone. They both reject the idea that enduring pain is noble or beautiful, or the idea that trans people have to be perfect people in order to earn the right to live. Add in the BDSM and bookstore jobs, and these two have a lot in common.

The tone made this a difficult book for me to read, emotionally speaking. Though I also feel ridiculous saying that I found it too hard to just read about these experiences, when they’re far from uncommon for trans women in their everyday lives. In hindsight, I wish I had spaced these out a little more and read something in between, so I could better absorb each individual story. I don’t want to imply that there are no spots of light or positivity, though, and those moments are all the more powerful because of it.

People at the bookstore sometimes ask why I’m still there. Because no one else wants to fucking be here. But I’m happier in my day-to-day life than I ever was before. A lot of shit’s still awful, yes, and I’m angry and negative most days, yes. But I love my job. I love my partner. (You know, most of the time.) I like our household. I do actually like how I’ve structured most of my life. I’ve started to see a future and it’s got its shit parts, but it’s also kind of really okay. Everyone else sees me as a mess, Liam included. But I don’t feel like a mess. I know what a mess feels like.

Marthese reviews Kase-san and Morning Glories by Hiromi Takashima

Kase-San and Morning Glories Vol 1

Don’t you just love when you discover new queer lit (especially mangas which are so rare!) thanks to a public library?

Kase-san and Morning Glories manga is about Yamada (despite the name) who develops a crush on Kase-san, a tomboyish track athlete from next class. Yamada is at times reminded that Kase is also a girl and is always berating herself, but she does eventually get used to it. The two develop a friendship over gardening, walking together and training, and Yamada starts to believe in herself because Kase does.

It has manga-style sexiness (panty shots and boob shots) but there is nothing explicit and in fact, I found this in the Junior section at the library! It’s actually really cute at times. The two are obviously crushing on each other and, hurray, the ending was great! The story doesn’t drag out too long, though I do love slow-burn. It’s very fluffy: I mean, Yamada has a tendency to tug at Kase’s jacket to get her attention! And the support they give each other is so healthy and cute! A highly recommended series for those that like girls loving girls (or women loving women). It actually has a plot although a generic slice of life/high school theme.

The series in general has 5 books and there is a spin-off called Kase-san and Yamada which so far has 1 book. There’s translations in English and German available and there is even an OVA available to watch! 

Bee reviews A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan

A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan

Sometimes you take a chance on a book, and it pays off in a weird, indefinable way. This is the only way I can describe my experience with A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan. Actually, it turned me into the bewildered girl the book addresses in the title. I tacked it on to a book order after reading the tagline, an impulse purchase if there ever was one, and went in to reading knowing approximately nothing. That tempting tagline? “Grace loves a woman. Annie loves a man. Violet isn’t too sure. But you will love them all…”

Although I wasn’t exactly sold on the use of ellipses, it was enough to pique my interest. It turned out to be a 75% accurate summary of the book. Bewildered Girls is told through the perspective of three women, which are revealed to be intertwined in different ways: Grace, a lesbian psychologist who is unsatisfied with her love life; Annie, a high powered lawyer who has high expectations for the men she dates; and Violet, who has a string of unsuccessful sexual encounters with men behind her, and lives with crippling anxiety which she calls “the fear”. Each woman is fairly neurotic in her own way, but it is questionable to me whether this made her relatable, or even (as promised by that tagline) loveable.

This is the sort of book that doesn’t quite have a plotline–rather, it delves into the goings on of these three women and takes the reader along with them, offering slices of three lives which turn out to be more entangled than would be initially suggested. The book is written as a series of titled scenes rather than chapters, allowing the reader to dip in and out of perspectives quickly. It keeps the pace quick and engaging, which is good because to be honest, not much happens. I don’t mean that in a bad way, whatever it may seem–I personally enjoy books that are more character studies than anything else.

What plot there is focuses on the budding relationships with each of the women’s love interests. Grace meets a woman at a party and becomes, for lack of a better word, obsessed with her. Annie starts seeing a man who somehow manages to live up to the high standards of etiquette and personal grooming which she holds those in her life to. The biggest surprise is that Violet, on a reluctant night out, meets a woman and decides to sleep with her. This is the relationship which was the most interesting to me; it has ripple effects across the other two characters’ lives, and I would argue it is the central focus of the whole book. Given that Violet is so reluctant to label her mental illness in any tangible way, it is unsurprising that dating a woman doesn’t lead to any redefinition of her sexuality. It causes more of an upset for Annie, who is Violet’s overprotective roommate and can’t get her head around her friend dating a woman when she had previously dated men.

This was just one of the behaviours that made it really difficult for me to like any of the characters. Another block, for me, included Grace patently not listening to what the woman she is dating tells her about her wants and needs. When I say that I didn’t end up loving them all, as the tagline promised, this is what I mean: I enjoyed reading about them, and I was drawn in by their character voices and entertained by their lives, but for me they were fundamentally unlikable characters. I still think it’s a triumph of sorts for a book, to be full of characters the reader doesn’t like and still be something they are glad they read. Despite the attitudes and actions of the characters which I found to be irritating, the narrative voice was smooth and sometimes whimsical, with a strong sense of personality that was fundamentally charming. I did want things to turn out for the three women, even though I didn’t think any of them were particularly good people.

It could be said that Morgan allows her women to be messy, which is something I really appreciate about A Love Story for Bewildered Girls. The characters are definitely dimensional and complicated, as are the relationships between them. It is often funny, and also often annoying, but in a way that ultimately made me want to keep reading.

Mary reviews Courting the Countess by Jenny Frame

Courting the Countess by Jenny FrameI loved Downton Abbey. Was it a classist, heteronormative, and super white show? Yes, it was trash. But it was my trash. It was the kind of show that I loved not just for my engagement with the characters, but because of what could have been. One character in particular that kept me coming back was Thomas, the gay footman. He was kind of a jerk, and it was explained away that homophobia made him a jerk, and maybe that’s something to analyze at another time – but the point is there was one single gay character in the whole show. And I, a lesbian hopelessly drawn to the historical fiction genre, was left in want.

Now, years later after Downton Abbey has ended and it’s ending for Thomas left something to be desired, I’ve now found a book that feeds my hopeless desire for a gay historical drama around a small English town: Courting the Countess by Jenny Frame.

Harry Knight is an archeology professor at Cambridge who sleeps around and avidly avoids emotional attachments, scoffing at the idea of love. When her father dies and leaves her as the Countess to Axedale Hall, she must return home to see that her grandfather’s wish of bringing it back to its former glory is fulfilled.

Annie is a single mother with a difficult past who remains positive and hopeful no matter what. When she is hired on as housekeeper for Axedale Hall, the last thing she expected was a handsome butch for the Countess. However, no matter how much she wants a happily ever after, above all else she will strive to do what’s best for her daughter, Riley.

Harry and Annie immediately have this insane chemistry that leaps off the page. Their romance was passionate as well as cute. Harry resists because of her past, which lead to many challenges and dramatic twists. Annie is determined to, as the titles says, court Harry and push down her walls. There was never a dull moment with them.

Another part I loved was how alive the town was. All the side characters felt like they could have their stories and I actually enjoyed reading about them as well as the main cast. This is important to me, because in romance stories so often the side characters are just one dimensional soundboards only there to get the two heroines together. That was not the case in this book. It really did feel like Downton Abbey in this aspect and I kept waiting to see a switch of POV to someone else.

Annie having a child was something that worried me before I started reading. Kids can be tricky characters to pull off, but Riley was just as real and vibrant as Harry and Annie. I really identified with her, having also been the nerdy kid that didn’t get along with everyone immediately. Watching her bond with Harry about archeology was sweet and added an extra layer to the story.

Overall, this was a really fun romance that I highly recommend!

Danika reviews Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan

Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan

What a great summer read. Lou is gearing up for The Best Summer Ever, and even being cast as the hot dog at her summer carnival job doesn’t break her stride. Sure, her crush is literally dating the Princess of the park, but she’s got a plan to snag this diving pirate for herself. And as for the apparent closing of the park, which has been one of the few constants in her life, she is determined to find a way to save it. When she ropes her best friend, Seeley, into fake dating her, Lou is surprised to find that her various schemes aren’t going exactly to plan…

I love this queer rom com YA. Lou is a flawed character that I couldn’t help but root for. She is determined to have control over her life: she is going to get the guy and save the park, no matter what. She can have a one-track mind and miss the obvious because of it. She’s also dealing with her fears of abandonment (her mother left when she was about ten). She makes bad decisions, but I understood why she was making them, and she (eventually) learns from them.

This turns into not just a love triangle, but a love pentagon. And the fake dating trope is a staple in fanfic for a reason! This has a slowburn element that can be infuriating, but also very compelling. I loved that there are a variety of queer characters, and also that there is complexity to even the peripheral characters. You get the sense that even if they’re not on the page much, they are living their own lives with their own narratives.

This balances well between feeling summer-y while also having some drama and angst to keep pulling you in. I highly recommend it!

Emily Joy reviews The Daylight Gate by Jeannette Winterson

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for sexual assault and pedophilia

I must first admit that I am new to Jeanette Winterson’s books. Previously, I’ve only read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and I know that she is a well-known lesbian author. Otherwise, I don’t know much. I picked up The Daylight Gate because I wanted to know more, and, as a historical fiction lover, I was drawn to this book, and hoped that it might get me started in the right direction. In the end, I think this book is more of an outlier for her works.

This review contains very mild spoilers, but I have been careful to preserve the twists as much as possible.

The Daylight Gate is a highly fictionalized account of the witch trials in Lancashire, England in 1612. Alice Nutter is a wealthy female landowner, and although no one quite knows her age, she is regarded as beautiful. She is a private person, and mysterious even for those who know her. This novella follows several characters, but ultimately it is about how two young women become involved with each other and with black magic, and how that relationship results in a dungeon full of suspected witches.

When I picked this up, I was imagining something akin to books I’ve read about the Salem witch trials⁠ — innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unfortunately finding themselves caught up on the wrong side of a rumor. The Daylight Gate is not that. It is the opposite of that. This is a book about black magic, and what happens when two young women become involved in it.

The two young women I mention were previously lovers, and their lives intertwine throughout this book, bringing many surprising twists and unexpected revelations for the reader. I honestly couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and the reader experience while figuring out the twists was one of the best things about this book.

[We] were lovers and we lived as lovers, sharing one bed and one body. I worshipped her. Where I was shy, she was bold, and where I was hesitant, she was sure. I learned life from her and I learned love from her as surely as I learned astrology and mathematics from John Dee and necromancy from Edward Kelley.

Their relationship is never perfect, and I could not bring myself to care about them as a couple even in the beginning. My apathy towards them seemed justified when one eventually turns to black magic, and in a bargain for her soul, sacrifices the other to “the Dark Gentleman”, for him to rape. So… that was a bit startling.

This rape is not the only one in the book. Rape is treated as very commonplace, and occurs or is mentioned in nearly every chapter. While I wouldn’t have minded the griminess and violence of this novella, the constant presence of rape was unsettling in a way that made the book itself unenjoyable for me. There is a young girl who is abused terribly by her family, and particularly by her brother who takes her with him when goes out to “pay for his drink”. I don’t want to talk about this at length, but it is worth noting that the man who rapes this girl most often is later revealed to be her father, which some readers may want to know before choosing to read this book.

Other aspects of this book, while disturbing, are not unbearable, and suit the genre. Horror is meant to illicit a physical response in readers, and this book definitely succeeded in that. The (nonsexual) violence and rather horrific magic made me shudder, which I think is a success in the horror genre.

There is also a general feeling of despair and inevitability throughout the narrative. It feels as though the idea of the “dark ages”, usually applied to the early Middle Ages, has instead been transported to the Renaissance. Everyone is unhappy, dirty, abused, and starving. Which, while that isn’t necessarily untrue of many people during this time period, this book seems to exaggerate in order to create a truly bleak existence. This kind of atmosphere, although it felt inaccurate, was compelling, and I read this book in one sitting.

As for the magic, it is truly thrilling and terrifying. As I stated earlier, I picked this up assuming it would be about innocent people caught in a rumor, and the beginning of this book does lead you to believe that the people involved are ultimately innocent. As the book progresses, however, the amount and shock value of the magic only grows, and definitely helps make this book a page-turner.

This book is a blend of horror and historical fiction, and if that is your cup of tea, you might enjoy it more than I did. While its good qualities do not outweigh the bad for me, it did keep my interest, and it might keep yours, as well.

Anna Marie reviews Stone Butch Blues

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

Ever since I learnt about Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg I’ve wanted to read it, but I knew it would be an intense book to read with quite a lot of violence in it, so I waited till I thought I might be slightly more ready for it. The time to read it arrived since, last year sometime, I learnt that I was a high femme (sometimes called a stone femme) and I knew then I had to pick it up because stone butches are important to me, because I wanted to learn more about lesbian history, because I wanted to read the sex scenes, because I’m lonely [stonely, if you will] and I thought it might offer me some companionship and some hope.

The book itself took me a long time to read because I started it in 2018 read a third or so and found it so triggering and upsetting I had to take a long break (there’s sexual, homophobic & police violence in it) Then in may I decided I was ready to pick it up again, this time as a physical version [I had been reading the pdf, downloadable here] and that helped me read it all the way through. I decided to just keep reading from where I had got to because I could mostly remember what had previously happened and so I sped through the last two thirds and finished the book in about 5 days, crying pretty regularly through it.

Stone Butch Blues is an iconic piece of lesbian and trans fiction. It’s about Jess, a jewish baby butch on a gender journey who is growing into herself pre-stonewall era (although it extends to post-stonewall too!). The novel follows her growing more and less into herself, in a lyrical and winding narrative. It’s an ode to the strength of gender nonconforming people, to the reality of loneliness, it’s about class war and lesbian resistance, it’s about community and healing and violence. Jess is by no means perfect, but following her through her life is such a gritty and precious experience.

The book itself was written in the nineties so it’s technically a historical fiction novel but it feels so present and alive, it’s hard to categorise it as such. It’s so full of vulnerability and rawness it’s hard to think of it not as real life. What shines through the novel is love and solidarity; a love for butchness, for femmes, for people who dont make sense or fit in, for people who are not women and are not men, for working class people, and by the end even maybe for communists (!).

I can’t synthesise this book in a way that feels entirely accurate, which is why this is more of a list than a review, but that’s because it’s such a transcendent, enthralling novel and it pulls you by the ears into the pages and holds your heart inside it’s spine long after you’ve read the last word on the last page.

Meagan Kimberly reviews “Every Exquisite Thing” by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson

Every Exquisite Thing by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson

This story is part of a collection called Ghosts of the Shadow Market, another installment that takes place in Clare’s Shadowhunter universe. For those unfamiliar with this world, the short version is this: A race of people with angel blood running through their veins, known as children of the Nephilim, keep demons at bay working as Shadowhunters. They are raised in this way of life, and their purpose is to protect the mundane world from getting taken over by evil.

Okay, now that you have a little background, let’s dive into the story proper. Warning, there be spoilers ahead!

It’s 1901 in London, and Anna Lightwood is learning how to be a Shadowhunter, along with her brother and cousins. When she’s training, she gets to wear comfortable, sensible clothing that allows her the movement a warrior needs to properly fight off demons. It’s when she’s made to wear ladies’ clothing among civilized company that she feels misplaced.

Anna spends many hours stealing her brother’s old clothes, dressing up as a dapper young woman, and pretending to dazzle the ladies in the privacy of her room, where no one knows her secret. When I say dapper, I mean, seriously, just look at that book cover!

Then one fateful day, the Inquisitor (a high-standing political position in the Shadowhunter world) visits with his daughter, Ariadne. Anna is immediately smitten, and so it seems is Ariadne. Now when Anna pretends to dance with an imaginary young lady in her room, she takes on the image of Ariadne.

Anna is more than enthusiastic and happy when Ariadne suggests they begin training together. Still, with the thrill of growing so close to her new crush, Anna worries about her family’s and society’s reaction to her true feelings: that she will never want to marry a man.

It’s never explicitly stated how Anna identifies in terms of gender. She doesn’t object to being called she, but in her imaginary dancing with Ariadne, the fantasy version of the girls tells Anna she is “the most handsome person I have ever known.” In Anna’s own make believe world, the girl she has a crush on doesn’t identify her by any specific gendered term. Readers could interpret Anna as nonbinary or genderqueer.

One night, her cousin, Matthew Fairchild, invites Anna to a night on the town, as he seeks the company of a fellow mischief maker. Anna is all too happy to don the stolen suit she sewed up to fit her and take it for a spin to a notorious club in Soho.

Never once does Matthew object to his cousin wearing men’s clothes. In fact, he even offers her one of his own ascots, as he states, “I could never let a lady go out in inferior menswear.” The acceptance of one of her peers gives Anna a confidence she’s always longed for.

During their escapades, Anna and Matthew stumble upon trouble in the form of a warlock woman named Leopolda Stain. They don’t quite know just how much trouble she is until Anna invites Ariadne out to the same club a week later, when events take a turn for the worse.

Once more in the menswear that makes her feel confident and comfortable, Anna introduces Ariadne to the London nightlife of poets, writers, and artists that her cousin had shown her. The two young ladies’ flirting gets cut short when the warlock Leopolda is found leading a demon summoning.

Anna and Ariadne are first and foremost Nephilim, so they do what they do best. They jump into action to put a stop to the danger and rescue the mundanes in the club. In the midst of their battle, Anna realizes how in love she is with Ariadne. That’s when she sustains a terrible wound and Ariadne must come to her rescue.

It’s an absolute treat getting to see two bad babes fight back to back and then take care of each other. Back in Ariadne’s bedroom, where she took Anna to recover, the girls finally have their moment of truth and share a sweet and passionate kiss that turns into an adorable scene of cuddling.

Anna leaves back home, her family none the wiser to the night’s escapades. The way Johnson and Clare describe Anna’s joy at finding someone who reciprocates her feelings is absolutely genuine. It’s that sweet and warm, fuzzy feeling of a first love that every reader of YA can appreciate. But that sweetness is short-lived, as the next day Anna returns to Ariadne’s house to find her parents have arranged a marriage for her to another: Matthew’s brother Charles.

Anna begs Ariadne to buck with tradition and societal expectations, and to be with her instead. Ariadne though feels her only choice is to marry a man she will never love, so as not to cause any ripples or bring dishonor to her family.

Though Ariadne will not see Charles again for another year and tells Anna they can share their secret happiness for that time, Anna turns away, knowing that she no longer wants to keep hiding behind the mask that society has chosen for her.

The end of the story is really what made me tear up. Upon learning the truth of Anna and Ariadne, Anna’s mother Cecily shows nothing but support and acceptance for her daughter. Cecily, it turns out, has always known that Anna had no interest in men, but she never wanted to push her daughter to speak before she was ready.

When Anna laments that she will never be allowed to marry another woman, Cecily reminds her that many marriages in their family were said to be forbidden, but that they found ways, despite what society and Shadowhunter laws expected.

Anna’s mother further shows her support in presenting Anna with a new suit designed specifically for her. She knew all along that Anna had been stealing her brother’s old suit, and decided she needed a proper men’s suit of her own. Taking courage and strength from her mother’s support, Anna takes a knife to her hair and cuts it down to a masculine style.

When she joins her family at a picnic in her new attire and hairstyle, her father, Gabriel Lightwood (a familiar face to fans of The Infernal Devices series), hints that the blue waistcoat was his idea. To the haircut, her mother simply remarks it is more sensible for battle. Her brother merely smiles his acceptance of her.

Though Anna is still heartbroken over Ariadne, she is finally free of the invisible restraints of society now that she knows she has her family’s unconditional love and acceptance. It’s this ending that makes the story of a broken heart so worthwhile. While the two female leads didn’t get to live happily ever after, Anna got something more: a newfound sense of self that won’t be shaken.

For those that only want to read this story or don’t have access to the full collection, it is available as its own ebook through Amazon.