Danika reviews The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould cover

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Logan has lived her life on the road with her two dads, Alejo and Brandon, as they scour the country for locations for the newest episode of their ghost-hunting TV show, ParaSpectors. She and Alejo are close and their relationship is easy, but she’s always felt distanced from Brandon, and sometimes it seems like they outright dislike each other. When Brandon goes to his and Alejo’s hometown of Snakebite, he claims it’s to scout the location for the show, but when he stays for months without explanation, Alejo and Logan follow him. There, Logan faces a small town hostile to her as an out lesbian as well as to her dads. A teenager went missing when Brandon arrived, and the town is sure he’s involved. Then more kids start turning up dead, and Logan’s not sure even she trusts her father…

This is a creepy, atmospheric YA horror/thriller about a force possessing someone in a small town and getting them to kill teenagers. For the first half of this book, I thought I knew exactly where it was going, and wow was I wrong. Most of the story slowly unfolds, only raising more questions as it goes, and then the last chunk of the book is full of revelations and twists.

While I just discussed Logan’s story in the summary, this actually has two point of view characters (plus some asides narrated by The Dark). Ashley has lived her whole life in Snakebite, and she loves it here. Her mother is the backbone of the town, and she’s determined to follow in her footsteps. She has a close-knit group of friends, and her and her boyfriend, Tristan, have an idyllic relationship–or they did, until he disappears. While everyone else seems to either accept that he’s died or they think he just skipped town, Ashley keeps up the search. When Logan arrives, the town turn against her, but Ashley and Logan find an unlikely partnership. They both want to find out what happened to Tristan–Logan, in order to prove her dad innocent, and Ashley, to find Tristan alive.

Soon, as more bodies appear–including Ashley’s friends’–they begin to suspect something supernatural is happening. Ashley gets visions of Tristan and even of past happenings in the town. Brandon and Alejo seem to be keeping secrets about their past here, and Ashley and Logan are left on their own to try to solve this mystery before more people die.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought it worked really well in that format. I liked getting immersed in the unsettling world of Snakebite, and I was happy to let the story unfurl slowly because of that. Ashley and Logan are also really interesting characters. Logan has been out for ages and is very sure of herself and immediately angry at this town for its hostility towards her queer family. She’s unafraid to start fights and has no interest in getting on anyone’s good side. Ashley, on the other hand, has always been the placating kind, trying to be the perfect daughter, girlfriend, and friend. Tristan’s disappearance forces her to assert herself, because she’s the one advocating for keeping up the search. She is confused by Logan and her growing feelings for her. It’s this exploration of compulsory heterosexuality (not named, of course) that I found fascinating.

If you’re looking for a creepy read or listen, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews Fresh by Margot Wood

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I picked up Fresh when I was in a bit of a reading slump, and in the first few pages, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. It definitely has a distinct voice. It’s a first person point of view, and it sure sounds like a college freshman telling you a story–which is exactly what this is. It’s Elliot’s first year of university: how she messed it up, and how she tried to rebuild. She’s a little ridiculous, and she has lots of silly asides, including footnotes. It’s a style that will immediately turn some people off and pull others in. Once I bought in, I loved it, and I ended up reading it in two days–so much for that reading slump.

This is loosely inspired by Emma–if Emma was a bisexual girl with ADHD who went to an artsy college but is mainly interested in getting laid. Her family is wealthy, so she’s not too concerned about getting the most out of her education. She likes sex–but not commitment. Her high school relationship ended in heartbreak and humiliation, so she’s strictly casual now. The only assignment she puts any real thought into is an essay for her Sex and Intimacy class (did I mention it’s an artsy school?), where she embarks on a personal quest to sleep with a ton of people to try to find truly Good Sex–and then write about it.

A lot of people (especially on TikTok) are looking for more queer new adult books: books about the beginning years of college and/or just leaving high school, when you’re not quite a fully-fledged adult, but YA no longer reflects your experience. This definitely isn’t my experience with university, which involved still living at home and working to pay for tuition, but it’s certainly somebody’s! It’s got classic sloppy partying scenes and, as mentioned, a lot of casual hookups. Although there is a lot of talk about sex in Fresh, it’s not an erotic or steamy read. Sex is treated very matter of factly, and Elliot doesn’t give it a lot of weight.

I really enjoyed reading about a character who messes up so much. That’s where the Emma comparison comes in: she tries to set up her friend, determined that she knows what’s best for her, without realizing that her own life is very much not together. She’s afraid of intimacy and has no direction. She has no goals for her future, she’s not trying in any of her classes (and also not signing up for serious/useful classes), and she’s also not being a great friend. It doesn’t take long before it all blows up in her face.

I do want to give some clear content warning for both sexual assault and slut shaming. Elliot isn’t treating people well–she’s ghosting her hookups, and they’re not always aware that she only wants something casual–and that gets tangled up in general cultural shaming around women having casual sex (especially bisexual women). It’s clear from context that the slut shaming sentiment is wrong, but it’s not clearly defined. Similarly, while one character treats the attempted sexual assault very seriously (as does Elliot), not every character does, and it also gets mixed up with other things. I don’t think that’s a fault of the writing, necessarily, but I think readers should be aware of that going in.

Despite Elliot’s intimacy issues, there is also a romantic subplot, full of yearning, miscommunication, and a touch of the enemies to painful crush pipeline.

Overall, I thought this was such an absorbing, entertaining read, and I think it’s much-needed for new adult readers. Meanwhile, us older and wiser readers will be shaking our heads fondly at the rollercoaster of college relationships. I definitely never stopped hating the term “tender chicken,” which is used a lot in this book, and really spotlights how not erotic the descriptions of sex are, but I managed to get over that, and I’m grateful for it breaking through my reading slump. If you’re looking for a fun, silly, fast read–or queer new adult about college!–I highly recommend this one.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Shadow Life cover

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Kumiko, a 76-year-old widow, leaves the assisted living facility her adult daughters put her in because it just wasn’t for her. She wants to maintain whatever independence she can for as long as she can. She feels death coming for her, but it’s too soon. So, when death’s shadow tries to take her before her time, Kumiko fights back.

It’s so refreshing to see an older bisexual character. I have not come across many older characters in general, let alone queer ones, but maybe I’m not reading the right books. Regardless, Kumiko is a delightful main character. She’s quirky and saucy in a way that you can see how she charms some people and irritates others.

The story focuses mostly on Kumiko’s battle with the shadow of Death that has come to take her away. But threaded throughout you also get a glimpse of her relationship with her daughters in the present and flashbacks of her time with her husband, who died in a car accident. For anyone who’s dealt with being a caretaker of an older parent or grandparent, it’s easy to understand the daughters’ perspective, seeing how easily frustrated she is by Kumiko. But in telling the story from Kumiko’s point of view, Goto brings a lot of empathy for the parent’s point of view. Kumiko simply wants to live her life, even if she will start needing more help and supervision soon.

As Kumiko battles Death’s shadow, we get a fun cast of characters that include a surly vacuum storekeeper and her sweet neighbor that looks out for her. She is also reunited with her old flame, Alice. It’s here that the story reveals her bisexuality and it’s even revealed to her daughters. Her eldest is taken by surprise but they don’t make a big deal out of her sexuality itself, so much as the fact that she never told them. Kumiko asserts that it wasn’t something she hid, she just never talked about her past relationships.

I’m not usually captivated by black and white comics, but in this case, it works. And most of the graphic novel takes place through the panel artwork with very little dialogue. In fact, there’s one moment that stands out to convey and affirm Kumiko’s identity as a Japanese Canadian woman. There’s a panel that includes dialogue in Japanese characters and provides no translation. It’s a moment where the reader is made an outsider in the way that people marginalized by white, English-speaking cultures are usually othered. Even though I have no idea what words were spoken there, I didn’t need to. It didn’t detract from the overall story.

No spoilers for how it ends, but all in all, a bewitching tale with fun characters you feel invested in.

Shannon reviews Trouble Girls by Julia Lynn Rubin

Trouble Girls cover

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I’m always on the lookout for a good road trip book, especially during those hot summer months, and so, I was beyond delighted to run across Julia Lynn Rubin’s Trouble Girls, part YA thriller and part coming of age story. It features teenaged best friends who head out for a weekend camping trip and end up on the run from the law. A little over the top to be sure, but the synopsis totally hooked me.

Trixie’s life isn’t anything like she always imagined it would be. She’s seventeen, working way too many hours at a local diner, and doing her best to care for her ailing mother. She’s put most of her dreams aside to make sure her mother gets what she needs, and in a lot of ways, she’s simply going through the motions of living.

The one bright spot in her life is her friendship with Lux. Sure, Trixie would love it if she and Lux could be something more than friends, but she’s not sure if Lux would be open to that. For now, they’re best friends, and Trixie is beyond grateful for Lux’s presence in her life.

One Friday evening, Trixie and Lux decide to go camping for the weekend. It’ll give Trixie a chance to decompress, to let her hair down and be a normal teenager for once. Trixie wonders if this might be just the chance she needs to let Lux know she has a huge crush on her, but even if she doesn’t confess her true feelings, she knows they’ll have a good time just like always.

As you might imagine, things don’t go as planned. The girls decide to head into a nearby town before roughing it in the woods. Lux wants them to test out their fake ID’s, and she knows just the place to do it. Trixie isn’t nuts about the idea of spending time in a crowded club environment, but she eventually gives in. Not long after they arrive, a college student sexually assaults Lux, and Trixie stabs him in an attempt to defend her friend.

Now, Lux and Trixie are on the run. They know heading home is likely to mean jail time for Trixie, so they decide to head for California where they can start fresh. Trixie hates the thought of abandoning her mother, but she hates the thought of jail even more. She keeps telling herself she’ll eventually find a way to make sure her mom gets the care she needs, even if it takes awhile for everything to fall into place.

Trixie and Lux are not at all prepared for a life on the run. They’re not very street smart, and their good judgement is sorely lacking at times. Everything they do seems to end in greater disaster, and I found myself feeling overwhelmed on their behalf. And yet, I couldn’t look away from this book. Something about Rubin’s writing compelled me to keep turning the pages.

If you’re sensitive to descriptions of sexual assault, this may not be the book for you. Rubin doesn’t go into graphic detail about Lux’s assault, but it is one of the main forces driving the novel forward, and it’s mentioned relatively often. I thought she did a fantastic job depicting the various emotions survivors deal with on a daily basis without overdramatizing a potentially triggering situation.

My main problem with this book has to do with the ending which feels a little too ambiguous for my taste. I don’t need every single detail tied up in a tidy bow, but it’s nice to finish a book with a feeling of at least a partial resolution for the characters. Here, the author hints at what might happen to the girls, but I didn’t feel any real closure. It was almost as if she decided to leave it up to the imaginations of her readers, and that particular writing style just doesn’t work for me.

In spite of its unsatisfactory ending, there’s a lot to love about Trouble Girls. The action is practically nonstop, and I became quite invested in both Trixie and Lux. It’s a quick, diverting read, perfect for a summer afternoon on the beach or even a cool autumn night by a campfire.

Danika reviews The Secret To Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home is one of my favourite books, which will come as a surprise to absolutely no one. It’s a deeply introspective graphic memoir about books, coming out, and lesbian books. What’s not to like? While Fun Home is suffused with literature references, though, Are You My Mother? is equally concerned with psychoanalysis, which was a lot harder for me to relate to. In Bechdel’s newest graphic novel, she examines her life-long love affair with various exercise phases with references to transcendentalists and Buddhism.

There’s something comforting and familiar to me about reading an Alison Bechdel book. Her thoughtful introspection and constant ruminating about how best to live in this world feels like a mind I can relate to. While her previous graphic memoirs focused on her father and her mother, this one takes a long range look at exercise as a coping mechanism through her whole life, separated into decades. As a child, she saw an ad in a comic book that promised the “secret to superhuman strength.” It turned out to only be an inaccessible Jiu Jitsu pamphlet, but she continues to look for this secret her whole life: through running, karate, skiing, cycling, yoga, and more–always in the hopes of escaping the inevitable conclusion that she is interdependent and mortal.

Alongside this journey of physical transformation–always looking for more strength and inexhaustible endurance–Bechdel also goes on a spiritual exploration of the self. She tries to grapple with this question by looking at artists and writers through history, including Jack Kerouac, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Perhaps the appeal of these exercise regiments, though, is that she can track notable changes, while the psychological and spiritual journey feels more like one step forward and two steps back. In one striking panel, Bechdel realizes she only though she’d been dealing well with her father’s death because she hadn’t dealt with it at all; she hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything. She approaches fitness and her work with the same intensity, damaging her body and her relationships in the process.

Aside from following the fitness fads Bechdel has participated in over the years, this is primarily a story about yearning, a striving for transcendence, for finding the secret to living well. It’s about not just physical strength, but also the emotional endurance necessary to be human. It’s about looking for the secret of how to best live–so there’s no real neat conclusion possible. This is a story still in progress.

I didn’t feel the same way about The Secret To Superhuman Strength as Fun Home, but that’s an impossible hurdle to clear. I did connect more to this than Are You My Mother?, despite being as far from a fitness fan as possible. I also appreciated being to able to get a wider scope of Bechdel’s life, including how the publication of her graphic memoirs (especially Fun Home) changed her everyday reality. It’s at times painful to read, because I feel so much sympathy for her, but that just shows how effective it is.

Carolina reads The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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Buckle up, old sport! The Great Gatsby has entered the public domain, leaving the door open for any author to submit their take on Fitzgerald’s classic. A myriad of sequels, prequels and retellings of the novel have already been published in 2021, or are slated to be released in the near future. Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful dares to stand out from the other boats beating ceaselessly into the past, and charts a unique course as a trailblazing debut full of heart and originality through the eyes of The Great Gatsby’s enigmatic side character, Jordan Baker.

Amidst the glitz, glamour and gossip of the flapper scene, a magical Manhattan materializes in Nghi Vo’s debut, deftly weaving historical fiction and urban fantasy into a treatise on queer Asian American womanhood. Professional golfer and socialite Jordan Baker feels disillusioned with her peers of the upper echelon of New York society; as a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, Jordan must steel herself within a cool and collected façade to cope with her oppressive surroundings. As her friend Daisy Buchanan begins to fall for the mysterious Jay Gatsby, Jordan questions her place among her patronizing white friends as she discovers her true self and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.

Through Jordan’s perspective we lose the sugar-coating of Nick’s rose-tinted lens, exposing the true vanity and monstrosity of The Great Gatsby’s main characters. Daisy becomes an irredeemable white saviour while Gatsby’s incessant stalking and unquenchable lust for power is laid bare, offering an intriguing critique of white womanhood and masculinity. The novel acts as a character study of the intersections of identity: Jordan must reckon with each side of herself, as a woman, as a Vietnamese immigrant, and as a bisexual in the 1920’s to determine who in her life loves her for who she truly is, as microaggressions and blatant exoticism boil over the course of the novel. In this way, The Chosen and the Beautiful acts as a true retelling and re-imagining of the so-called great American novel: Jordan’s story is a reflection of the prosaic contemporary state of Americana, touching upon timeless themes such as  white fragility and model minority with candor and precision. 

The Chosen and the Beautiful is deliciously queer: Jordan refuses to hide her sexuality and regularly parties at gay speakeasies as Nick and Gatsby fall for each other, further subverting the iconic twisted love triangle of the original novel. The novel also goes further in depth into the social struggles of the 1920’s that create the context and worldbuilding for The Great Gatsby, including racism and homophobia, crossing lines that Fitzgerald steered clear of. By touching upon contemporary issues eugenics, Asian exclusion laws and early 20th century gay bar culture, the world of West Egg becomes infinitely more real and fleshed out. 

The world of The Chosen and the Beautiful is quietly imbued with magic: dandies sell their souls to the devil for a chance at wealth, performing troupes craft dragons out of  paper and ghosts and the undead walk among the living. Although I would have preferred a more concrete understanding of the magic system and a deeper exploration of the subplot regarding Jordan’s magic, I appreciated the infectious whimsy of casual magic built with beautiful prose, constructing scenes that will stick with the reader long after the book is over. 

Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance copy!

Content Warnings: racism, sexism, homophobia, internalized homophobia, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, substance abuse, alcoholism, death, cheating, abortion

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka cover

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Detective Roxane Weary is hired to prove a man’s innocence before his death sentence is completed for a crime he’s been claiming he didn’t commit. As she investigates what seems like an open and shut case, she starts to unravel a web of crimes that have gone undetected for decades. When another young girl goes missing, Roxane knows she has very little time to solve them all and save her client’s brother from a fate he doesn’t deserve.

Overall, this is a fast-paced story that keeps you turning the pages, wondering who is the true culprit of the crimes in question. Somewhere halfway, it goes off-road, but eventually, it leads back to the main mystery at hand. However, while it touches the surface of issues of racism and police brutality, it never delves into them. The man in prison for the murder of a white woman is a black man. Roxane briefly acknowledges the implications of how racism could have played a hand in the investigation and sentencing. But it doesn’t go beyond that, as it gets lost in her obsessive need to unravel the mystery of so many women presumed missing.

Roxane Weary is a messy and complicated character. I kept making the connection to Marvel’s Jessica Jones, a private eye with alcohol addiction who is still very good at her job. Roxane isn’t necessarily a great person, but she’s not necessarily a bad person either. In fact, she’s rather endearing in her imperfections, even if her behavior can sometimes frustrate the reader. She’s depicted as having casual relationships with men and women, but it’s never described as the stereotypical, “All bisexuals are cheaters.” She’s just a trainwreck because she hasn’t coped with the trauma of her difficult childhood and the recent loss of her father.

The Last Place You Look has a compelling mystery with an intriguing character. It’s a fair set up for a different player in the mystery-thriller genre.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

This is the second in the Tales from the Grim series. I picked it up not realizing it was the second book, so I recommend reading the first, because it felt like much of the story’s background was missing without it.

Although readers can pick up on who the characters are from the previous book without having read it, they still lack depth. Throughout the story, the strongest relationship dynamic happens between Margo and her adopted brother Luis. The rest tend to fall flat and rely on previous knowledge of the last novel.

The romance felt secondary to the plot, but that may be because it didn’t feel like there was much chemistry between the characters. Even if there had been build up in the first book, this one felt lacking in the connection that brought them together.

The politics and magic of the world were a more interesting plot. Again, it needed more development, as there wasn’t much background on Margo’s djinn heritage. It’s a world in which mixed-blood, paranormal beings are held in disdain, which could have made the story powerful as commentary on real-world issues. But it never delved far enough.

Despite its shortcomings, the novel did move at a fast pace and keep me intrigued. It’s well written and keeps you turning the pages. It shows there’s great potential for more from this world and this writer. I might go back and read book 1 to get the complete picture of these characters and their story.

Meagan Kimberly reviews You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.

The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.

As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.

The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.

She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.

It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.

I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.

[Spoiler warning]

Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.

Maggie reviews Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey is a western dystopian novella set in the American Southwest at a point when almost all food, gasoline, medical supplies, and other necessities have been rationed by the army, and the only books around have to be pre-approved by the government. Normally I think novellas have a tendency to fall flat for me, but I’m very intrigued by the spat of western-themed dystopian fiction that’s been put out recently, so I wanted to give it a try.

CONTENT WARNING: The story opens with a hanging. The main character, Esther, has just watched her friend Beatriz be hanged for possessing unapproved materials, and she knows she has to get out of town before a similar fate befalls her. So she hides away with the traveling Librarians, women who travel between small towns in the Southwest distributing approved books. It’s a place for women to exist without being married, and it’s away from her small town. Although initially unhappy with her presence, the Head Librarians Bet and Leda allow her to stay and set their assistant Cye to teaching her the ropes as they continue to deliver books to towns and carry out their secret mission of helping move contraband packages and people who need to leave. As Esther learns more about what it takes to be a Librarian and about her companions, it becomes clear that the Librarians are also a home to many sorts of people that would get run out of the small towns they go through, or worse, and as Esther learns more about their true mission, she’s left with more questions about herself and what she wants to do with her life.

As the main character, it is through Esther’s viewpoint that we see the Librarians, and at first I was frustrated by what seemed to be Esther’s willful obliviousness to what was right in front of her. She had had a whole relationship with Beatriz – not just an unrequited crush – and I couldn’t understand why she refused to acknowledge what was clear about the people she had fallen in with, even when they were right in front of her. But the more Esther revealed to Cye and later Amity, a fugitive that’s moving with them, the more I realized that this was a story about the trauma of having to live in fear of who you are and the consequences of being found out. A common enough theme in LGBT literature, but the rebellious queer western pastiche this was sold to me under obscured it from me to start with, and I think it is well done here in how it unfolds and how Esther herself has to realize the full extent of her trauma and how to navigate around it, especially for a novella. As things progressed, it was less the Librarian’s hidden duties that drew me on, but instead Esther’s progression of grappling with her past, present, and future.

I also thought it was interesting that Bet and Leda are present as queer elders, but it isn’t them that are Esther’s main mentors in coming into herself. Cye may mock her at first, but it is them and the outlaw Amity that end up helping Esther the most. Amity was also an interesting character to me, as an outlaw with competing streaks of deep pragmatism and compassion. I thought it was really interesting who here was most helpful to Esther and who had broader concerns than one timid girl.

As in all frontier or wilderness survival stories, I was super interested in the segments about Esther gaining the skills she needed to survive. Not only were there the expected segments about learning how to ride a horse or shoot a gun, there was a delightful segment where Esther tries her hand at learning bookbinding. What I found charming about Esther was that, even laboring under her own personal trauma and confusion, she tried hard to learn or do the practical things that life in the southwest on the road demanded.

In conclusion, Upright Women Wanted is an interesting and entertaining novella, and worth your time if you’re interested in westerns. In my opinion it succeeds better than a lot of novellas do at fleshing out interesting characters within a condensed plot, and it hits the grim but somewhat hopeful dystopia notes without hammering them too hard.