Sam reviews The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

I went into A. K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name with no idea what to expect. I’d even say that I came to the novel feeling a little ungenerous, though I’m not sure I could tell you why.  But despite this, The Unspoken Name caught me in the grip of its energetic story and engrossing characters until I surprised myself by finishing it in just a few days.
The book opens on a scene many fantasy readers will recognize: our main character, Csorwe, is a teenage girl raised to be sacrificed to a god of darkness by a religious order obsessed with death. Even without knowing that The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin is the author’s favorite book, the inspiration is easy to spot. But by the time a well-spoken wizard from another world arrives to offer Csorwe a different life, I found I didn’t mind the familiarity. I already liked the characters, and I wanted to find out what happens next.

What happens next, as it turns out, is a pretty good fantasy adventure. The book primarily follows Csorwe as she grows into her own in said wizard’s service, though it occasionally jumps into the perspective of Csorwe’s easily hateable rival Tal. I feel like Tal’s chapters could be a dealbreaker for some readers, as he is an insufferable jerk, but the two play off each other well enough that I didn’t mind (it helps that Tal, like Csorwe, is very gay). In fact, all of the characters in The Unspoken Name are deeply believable, as interesting as they are consistent. I felt like I got to know them as I read, which made any cliché or familiar story beats seem only natural in context. The entire book tends to play out this way, with every semi-predictable development arriving with a satisfying inevitability all the way to the end of the novel.

The book’s setting is as believable and fun as its characters. Larkwood’s collision of fantasy worlds connected by a shattered un-world in the middle is vibrant and imaginative, and all the better for its lack of defined borders and nitty-gritty details. I actually wish that the magic of the setting (which is rather plot-critical) had the same space to breathe; it’s a bit of a personal nitpick, but I’d prefer there remained a bit more mystery to the magic system. It’s saved by just how much the characters themselves believe in it—faith is a critical aspect of magic in The Unspoken Name, and Larkwood does a tremendous job selling the emotional weight of that faith to the reader.

Of course, being the romantic sap that I am, I spent a lot of time looking forward to a lesbian love interest to show up. The wizard-in-training Qanwa Shuthmili does not disappoint when she finally makes her debut. She’s just as fascinating and enchanting to the reader as she is to Csorwe; it’s obvious what’s coming for the two of them, but just like the rest of the book, watching their relationship develop feels natural and exciting rather than trite or played-out. The fact that you can easily read Csorwe and Shuthmili as butch and fem also meant I had basically no choice but to love them.

I actually wish we got to spend more time with Shuthmili, or better yet, had a few chapters reading from her perspective. She’s well written enough that it’s not strictly necessary—her decisions and actions all make sense without hearing an internal monologue—but she’s such an obviously complex character that I can’t help but feel like we’re missing out by only seeing this love story from one side.

The novel ends with the promise of more adventures to come, and I would certainly love to see more of these characters and this world. But if it turns out this was a stand-alone work, I’d be okay with that. There’s no denying that The Unspoken Name is a fun, creative, and deeply satisfying gay fantasy book, and it’s absolutely worth reading for that alone.

Content warnings: mouth/tooth injuries

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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The book starts with The Story of Mary MacLane, a real-life figure in writing. It’s this book that the girls of Brookhants School for Girls center their Plain Bad Heroines Society around. But when three girls die and the book is found at both death scenes, it soon becomes a feared object. Even the women who run the school, Libbie Brookhants and Alexandra Trills, partners, have different experiences with the curse. Jumping to the modern-day, the contemporary heroines, author Merritt Emmons and actors Harper Harper and Audrey Hall, are working to bring the story of Brookhants to life.

Each generation of stories tied to Brookhants finds girls exploring their sexuality and following their desires. But it’s also a place where tragedy befalls so many of the heroines who only wanted to live freely. The horror of Brookhants embodies the curse that is the patriarchy against queer women.

Through the contemporary storyline, Danforth explores the exploitative nature of horror. The characters set out to tell the story of Brookhants and the tragic deaths, but their director, Bo, turns it into a found-footage documentary about the making of the movie. To do so, he engages in unethical behaviors and gaslighting.

Overall, the novel is never terrifying so much as it is atmospheric and creepy. It’s the epitome of Gothic horror, creating an environment that messes with the characters’ sense of reality. It makes the reader question whether or not they’re actually experiencing hauntings or if it’s all simply in their heads.

SPOILERS BEGIN

After so much build-up though with the curse of Brookhants, the yellow jackets and Orangerie events, the ending is anticlimactic. When establishing his plan to create a documentary, Bo enlisted Audrey to be his “inside woman,” telling her she’d be the only one who knew this plan. But it turned out they all knew what was happening and no one was really out of the loop. So it begged the question: Did any hauntings actually happen?

SPOILER ENDS

Among the characters, there aren’t any particularly great protagonists to root for, which is the point. The women aren’t plain bad heroines, but they’re not pillars of virtue and goodness either. They’re human, messy, capable of making good and bad decisions, and simply interesting. It’s hard not to become engrossed in their lives, even if they can be frustrating.

Danforth expertly created unlikable characters, especially with Bo and all the Hollywood types. They definitely give meaning to the phrase La La Land. Everyone in the three heroines’ circles has an agenda and openly uses and manipulates them, all for the sake of art. It’s this kind of toxic behavior that makes it easy to sympathize with Audrey, Harper and Merritt, even when they’re at their worst.

The writing is deft as Danforth switches back and forth between the timelines. The voice for each character is distinct, including the unnamed narrator. It’s even distinguished between the different timelines, the voice adapting to each era from historical to contemporary. 

Maggie reviews Thornfruit by Felicia Davin

the cover of Thornfruit

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Thornfruit by Felicia Davin is a delightful queer fantasy adventure with some interesting world-building twists and memorable characters. Thornfruit follows two girls, Ev and Alizhan, as they come of age in a flurry of intrigue and romantic pining. Ev helps her father take their farm produce to market, practices fighting and self-defense, and longs for adventure like those in her beloved books. One day she sees a ragged girl stealing fruit and helps her out. Alizhan was born with a magical ability and can read minds, and the merest touch of skin sends both her and the other person into a torrent of pain. She’s in service to a noble woman, one of the only people she cannot read and who doesn’t cause her pain, and who uses Alizhan to spy on her rivals. One day in the market she encounters a girl who gives her fruit and only feels friendly towards her, and the experience is so novel she spends the next ten years watching her and thinking about the encounter. A series of events concerning her mistress pulls the wool from Alizhan’s eyes, and she sees that her mistress has more sinister motives than Alizhan imagined. Alizhan flees the city with the only person she can trust to help her – the girl who has felt friendly towards her for ten years, Ev. Together, Alizhan and Ev face human trafficking of kids with abilities, corruption in the highest quarters of the city, and the depths of mutual pining when one of them can read minds.

I found the relationship between Alizhan and Ev very cute, and what drove most of my interest in this book. Ev is tough, smart, determined to do good, and very bisexual. She’s upset when the boy she’s liked since childhood tells her of his engagement to another woman, and she frequently finds other people they encounter attractive. But she likes that Alizhan came to her for help and trusts her, and she finds Alizhan cute. Alizhan, of course, can’t help knowing that Ev is attracted to her. She knows exactly how often everyone around her is thinking about sex or when they’re attracted to someone, but because she feels pain every time she is touched with bare skin, she can’t imagine feeling sexual attraction herself. Also, because she is so immersed in everyone’s minds, she’s face-blind, and so doesn’t understand what guides other people’s attraction. But she likes Ev immensely, because of how Ev feels towards her. I was really interested in both how Alizhan worked to understand how Ev and other people work, and how Ev worked to overcome her instinctive reactions to Alizhan’s gift and help her on her mission. They’re both really cute, even if they haven’t figured out exactly how they’re going to work.

The world-building also has some really interesting elements. The planet doesn’t rotate, and all life is based around that fact, and how close or far away one is from Noon, or whether you’re in a daylight or a twilight or a dark area. Davin comes up with some interesting details to sprinkle though – such as having windowless rooms in the center of buildings in Day areas for sleeping or protecting things from light, or how time is divided up. I was really into the whole idea, and I can’t wait to see it expanded on in the rest of the trilogy, as they travel from a Day city to other zones. Frankly, I would love to know more about how the world at large works, because the global economy must be fascinating, and I hope the other books explore this more.

In conclusion, Thornfruit was a great f/f fantasy read. It was exciting and had a lot to keep my interest high. I was really rooting for Ev and Alizhan as they figured out how to work together and what sort of situation they were in. I definitely recommend this for anyone who wants a fast-paced fantasy read for a cozy night!

Cath reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

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Cara can travel between parallel worlds – but only because her life has been cut short on those other worlds, by disease or turf wars or a million other things. On 372 parallel worlds in total, to be exact. But on this world, Cara’s survived, and she’s been pulled from her family’s home in the wastelands outside the glistening Wiley City to travel and retrieve the data others desperately want but cannot access themselves. She’s got it all, and if she can just keep her head down, she’ll be allowed to become a citizen soon and be free from being sent back to the slums.

At first, that’s all Cara wants to do. She does her job, flirts with her handler, visits her family and tries not to think about what it means that they’re still outside the city’s walls. But then one of her few remaining parallel counterparts turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, and when she picks up that world to travel to, her life starts to turn itself on its head.

This book starts off with a hefty dose of exposition, but I enjoyed that section a lot because it involves such things as describing how desperate people often blend traditions of various kinds, spiritual and otherwise, to grab whatever hope they can. And soon after that intro, the plot twists start coming and they don’t stop coming—I was texting friends while I read about “oh man, ANOTHER huge twist!” But for the most part, those twists didn’t feel contrived. They felt like natural progressions of the story that I just hadn’t expected, and they kept me reading and hoping for another one that would blow the world of the story open for me like the previous ones had.

However, the last quarter or so of the book starts to feel like a different sort of story—there’s still action, but it starts to feel more formulaic, if not predictable. Some portions also started to feel more like descriptions of just how Cara’s day was going, which I often enjoy, but felt very different from the twisty story that had originally grabbed me.

Even so, I really liked this book. Because it’s a parallel world story, we see the same characters crop up in different worlds, all a little different than the last. It’s very “butterfly effect,” where one event or choice changes who a person is in such a way that they’re still recognizable as themself, but different aspects of their personality have emerged, and it was very intriguing to figure out who was going to pop up next. Especially since Cara wasn’t supposed to involve herself with the people she met on parallel worlds, but kept doing so anyway.

The romance content was one of the weaker points of this book for me, though. Cara has had a crush on her handler, Dell, for years now as they’ve worked together, and she thinks Dell also likes her—but neither of them will make a move. They flirt, but at first they keep shutting each other out in ways that feel logical. When you find out why, it definitely makes more sense, but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the romance developing between the women.

The book contains much more frank depictions of substance use/abuse, as well as sex work, than you see in many other books. A number of characters are also subject to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and the sections describing all of these were more difficult to get through because their effect on Cara was very evident in the text and the difficult details were not glossed over.

Overall, The Space Between Worlds was a book that has definitely ended up on my re-reads shelf, and I’m excited to figure out whether I’ll notice the buildup to the plot twists a second time around.

Rating: 4 stars

Content Warnings: substance abuse, assault, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, violence, death

Maggie reviews Matrix by Lauren Groff

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In the backdrop of the glamorous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Matrix follows 17-year-old Marie, who is unwanted at court for her bastardy, her height and rough-hewn appearance, and her scandalous family history of women crusaders and warriors. Deeply in love (and lust) with Queen Eleanor, Marie is shocked to find herself shipped off to a dilapidated abbey in England as its new prioress, despite having no vocation. Nominally historical fiction, Matrix only vaguely concerns itself with documented historical events, rather focusing on the space women can build for themselves when they have the space to do so and the relationships they had with either other, from queer to contentious and everything in between.

The abbey Marie is consigned to is impoverished, the nuns are diminishing in number and beset by disease, and the local gentry and peasants are refusing to pay their rents and stealing abbey land. The abbess is vague and frequently lost in the depths of her own mind, the other sisters in charge are frequently cruel or inefficient, and Marie has no interest in becoming a part of the community or taking any real leadership. Instead, she frequently writes to Eleanor, letters and religious poetry, hoping that Eleanor will think fondly of her and bring her back at court. It’s only as the years pass and she realizes that Eleanor will never return her affections that Marie turns her mind to taking up the reins of abbey leadership, and once she does Marie, trained to run a noble estate, builds her abbey from a pit of disease and starvation to a bustling and powerful community of religious women and herself into a towering religious power who takes more authority on herself than the church would normally allow.

The sensuality embedded in Marie’s story is both commonplace and shocking. Early on, while Marie is still at court, we learn that she has had a sexual relationship with her maidservant Cecily – and that her regard for Eleanor isn’t purely platonic – but it’s unclear whether Marie regards these encounters are “real sex” or more along the lines of physical things that just happen since it’s presented so matter-of-factly – nothing to see here, just medieval gals being pals. This is both reinforced and complicated by her relief when, years later at the abbey, the sister in charge of the abbey infirmary invites her to come by for regular orgasms as a way of “rebalancing the humours” and categorizes it as a simple physical thing that some people need to have. Relief because she has scoured religious texts for “female sodomy” and found nothing – indicating that she has an inkling her sexual encounters would not be as acceptable to wider society but her quick acceptance of an explanation – and the continuing circle of physical relationships among the sisters – indicates that no one intends to give up such acts or feel guilt over them. Indeed, none of the conflict in the story was about the simple existence of such relationships, and it seems like the community built by the women has a strong tradition of close relationships between sisters.

Matrix is outside of my usual reads, because I don’t normally long to read about the Catholic Church, but I really enjoyed how this book blended historical figures with beautiful imagery, and how it played with the line between sensuality and practicality. It’s not a typical historical fiction book, but it is eminently readable and enjoyable. I enjoyed the idea and the slow rise of women building a base of protection and power for themselves in an area where their options were limited and without much influence. I enjoyed Marie’s slow turn from pining for Eleanor to determination and skill to take the situation she was given and make it better, and her increasing desire to make it a community by women for women, with fewer and fewer men allowed on the grounds for any reason. The resulting community is flawed and prosperous and queer and strong and rather engaging to read about. A good rec if you want a little something different in your to-read list.

Maggie reviews She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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In She Who Became the Sun, Zhu, a peasant girl in ancient China, watches as a fortune teller predicts greatness for her brother and nothingness for herself. Days later, she is the only one alive in her family, and she makes the decision to assume her brother’s identity, and thus his destiny. Zhu joins a monastery out of necessity and learns to suppress herself into her brother’s identity so that Heaven doesn’t snatch her brother’s destiny away from her. As Zhu becomes more confident, she realizes that greatness is a destiny that has to be seized and worked for. Afraid that Heaven will throw her back to nothingness if she doesn’t want hard enough, Zhu must adapt to every change in fortune and hold onto her destiny harder than anyone else around her, through politics, war, rebellion, and pain. Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel is a gripping adventure with a lot to say about destiny, fortunes, and gender identity that I found to be a great read.

“Female character must assume a male identity to have an adventure/do what they want” is not an unusual fantasy trope (the book description mentions Mulan, but honestly Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet also sprang to mind several times), but Parker-Chan takes this concept somewhat farther. Zhu is not just worried about those around her finding out that she’s not a man, she is terrified that Heaven will realize she’s not Zhu Chongba and cast her back into nothingness, and so she must totally become Zhu Chongba, and do nothing that Zhu Chongba wouldn’t do. Later, Zhu realizes that the destined greatness she senses is uniquely hers and not her brother’s, but by that point she no longer feels like a girl as she was, but nor does she feel like a man. Terms such as gender-fluid, genderqueer or nonbinary aren’t really in Zhu’s vocabulary, or the vocabulary of anyone else around her for that matter, which really leaves a lot of scope for a queer reader to project their own experiences on the character, and makes Zhu unique and interesting in the annals of disguised fantasy heroes. It also speaks to identity as a journey that can change over time. I really enjoyed Zhu’s evolving identity, and how Zhu interacted with those around her, and I felt like this book had a lot of really interesting viewpoints and nuance.

Zhu also experiences many instances where she feels an intense connection with other people. At first this makes her intensely uncomfortable – such as when she feels a connection to the Governor of Lu’s widow. Zhu promises her power if she will help Zhu in return, and the Lady accepts. Zhu feels a connection to a woman who knows they are competent and wants power, but she’s still in a place that to feel connection feels too risky, like it will call Heaven’s attention to the fact that she’s not Zhu Chongba. Her other instances of connection are rather more queer. She feels an instant connection with General Ouyang, a eunuch serving the Emperor, the instant she lays eyes on him when he’s at the Monastery, and that connection continues on as they become rival commanders. This connection makes Zhu uncomfortable both because they are on opposing sides and because Ouyang’s otherness is blatant and acknowledged. She feels if she becomes too associated with him, or if he is around her too much, her own otherness will become too apparent. There is also Ma Xiuying, a noble girl nominally engaged to one of the rebellion’s leaders. Zhu cannot understand why Ma Xiuying won’t take what she wants for herself, and why she lets others bully her. Unlike her connection of otherness with others, Zhu is drawn even closer to Ma Xiuying, and their relationship blooms into something both delightful and queer. Zhu’s connections with others serve only to highlight her otherness and queerness, and how she reacts to them changes over time as her comfort in herself changes over time. I really enjoyed these scenes of Zhu realizing a connection, they felt real and like a great foil for Zhu’s own character development.

She Who Became the Sun is a stunning queer fantasy debut full of wide, sweeping action, and intimate character development. Zhu is a nuanced, layered character, whose evolving gender presentation and identity are great to see in a mainstream release. I had a great time reading this book, and I heartily recommend it for the epic fantasy crowd. I’m looking forward to the sequel!

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.