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.

Marthese reviews Firework by Melissa Brayden

Firework by Melissa Brayden

“There were olives in her drink, she could fashion an olive branch”

It’s summer (here), which means beach reading! Granted, I live on an island and have not yet gone to swim but you get what I mean: giving romances another try. I settled on Firework by Melissa Brayden because it’s a novella and it sounded interesting.

Firework is about Lucy, a CEO of a Global Newswire and Kristin, a reporter. They meet when Kristen goes to interviews Lucy about a PR her company helped to issue, only it was more of an interrogation because that story ended up being false and the company does not fact check. Despite the bumpy start, they meet at Lucy’s favourite bar. Kristin is new in town and she starts going to the local queer bar of course.

Lucy is feminine, classy and attractive and successful. Kristen can be a bit intimidating and persistent and wants to succeed. They at first have very little in common but start to show each other their world.

Lucy and Kristen are both stubborn and both want to make each other understand, both are also lonely. Kristen just moved and Lucy’s best friend has a family (on which the novel in the series is actually based on but you can read this book without the other). They state they don’t hate each other (solid basis for a relationship!) and start to get to know each other. There is something bubbling between them and their relationship is very much based on give and take. In a way, it felt both stable and a whirlwind romance.

I liked that despite Lucy being a CEO, in her relationship she’s not controlling. In fact I would say that most of the time, it was Kristen that steered the relationship. The fact that they were different made the romance more interesting. My favourite moment was very realistic and involved a protest. Lucy cares! She’s not a cold-blooded CEO. It was cute and ‘squee’-worthy. Down with apathy!

Ignoring the work issue however, is not good. I liked that it was a very realistic work issue and that ethics were discussed. On this, I was on Kristen’s side. If you’ve read this novella, whose side where you on when the issue happened?

One thing which irritated me was at the start of the novella, when they see each other at the bar. It went from considering that Kristen is straight to ‘’so she’s a lesbian’’ with no consideration for other sexualities. Authors please take note that casual erasure is not cool.

The fact that their chemistry was ‘off the charts’ was repeated several times. I guess, since it’s a novella it’s harder to show but the repetition irked me.

If you like romance, this is a perfect summer read (especially if you’re interested in the US). For those that don’t like much romance, I found this book interesting because of the ethical issues and the activism mentioned (environmental). I could definitely relate to that part and the protest and after were definitely romantic in a caring-for-where-we-live way.

This novella is also available as an audiobook, perfect for transits and relaxing moments.

Mallory Lass reviews Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko TamakiCW: teen pregnancy & abortion, minor homophobia.

I fell in love with Tamaki’s writing in female helmed superhero comics like She-Hulk. I was over the moon to hear she had a queer graphic novel coming out, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is packed with queer representation.

Frederica “Freddy” Riley is an average high school student in Berkeley, CA and is in a relationship that reminded me of my first year of college, to the dawn of Facebook’s “it’s complicated” status. As it says on the tin, her girlfriend, Laura Dean, keeps breaking up with her.

Laura Dean is aloof and popular–actually, she might be the most popular girl in school. I would also call her a player. Our first introduction to her is Freddy walking in on her making out with another girl at a school dance. She is always dropping in on her own timeline and jetting off in a hurry without regard for anyone else. But there is just something about her Freddy can’t quit.

I find graphic novels often are an easy to read and quickly consumable format. Coming from the colorful world of comics, the black and white illustration style of this took a touch to get used to, but Valero-O’Connell’s illustrations are gorgeous and full of diverse bodies, races, and personal styles. The one complaint I have about the formatting is sometimes the dialogue bubbles are hard to track and there is a lot of directional gymnastics, which slowed me down and detracted from the story. That said, the intrigue and page turning quality came from wanting to know how Freddy was going to resolve the mess of a relationship she had with Laura.

Freddie has a fantastic squad. Eric and Buddy, friends who are also a gay couple, best friend Doodle, plus other queers like newfound friend Val, and her boss at Gertrude’s cafe make up the lovely supporting cast. I enjoyed how the story explored how relationships that have toxic elements end up having a ripple effect throughout your life, and that Freddie has the opportunity to change the course she’s headed down.

Along Freddie’s journey to resolve her relationship issues, Tamaki seamlessly works in relevant teen topics such as: consent; contraceptives; what it means to come out and the consequences queer people have faced for living life openly; teen pregnancy & abortion; and friendships as primary relationships. Tamaki integrates cell phones and texting into the story in a way that reflects reality but doesn’t seem like social commentary on technology.

The dialogue felt real and lived in, and I would have loved to find this book at 17. If you like graphic novels, and/or Tamaki’s other work I would definitely give this a read. If you know anyone under 20 who has come out or is struggle with navigating their late teens, this would make a great gift.

Danika reviews Heathen, Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

I feel like Heathen is a book that lots of people are looking for, but they don’t know it’s an option. It’s about a lesbian viking taking on the patriarchy. Norse mythology with a queer lead! That’s what made me pick this up in the first place, but I mistakenly thought this would be incidentally queer: that the main character liked women, but it wouldn’t come up much. Instead, the basis of her arc is that she was banished from her community–and meant to be killed–for kissing a girl. Instead of feeling shame, she feels outrage at a system that punishes her for this. She decides to free Brynhild, a Valkyrie who is imprisoned in fire by Odin.

That’s only the beginning, though. This is a quest to take down the patriarchy, and along the way Aydis and her allies defend other outcasts. She also runs into some talking wolves and a talking horse as well as Freyja, goddess of love. Oh, and of course, she picks a fight with the most powerful enemy you can find in Norse mythology: Odin.

I really like the art, which has muted colours and a scratchy quality that makes it more dynamic. I’m not going to be able to explain it well, so just look at the page below for an idea of the style. My only qualm, and it’s a small one, is that Aydis and many other female characters are wearing very little clothing, especially considering that this scene takes place in winter. It is own voices lesbian representation, though, so I’m not going to get too hung up on clothing choices. This is a fun, feminist take on Norse mythology, and I’m looking forward to picking up volume 2!

Page from Heathen

Danika reviews Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst and Paula Garner

Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst and Paula GarnerSometimes, a book so clearly communicates the emotional state of the characters that it becomes painfully familiar. It is relatable to the point that I instinctively want to distance myself from it. Starworld is one of those animals, and although its characters have very different life circumstances to my own, their loneliness and vulnerability brought me right back to being a teenager again–not something I would volunteer for!

Both Sam and Zoe are dealing with overwhelming home lives, though you might not be able to tell they have much in common judging from their school lives. Sam is determined to fly under the radar, confiding in exactly one friend and sticking to her exit plan: getting into a good university, where she can study aerospace engineering. At home, her mother’s OCD has consumed their lives. Sam has to follow a seemingly endless list of her mother’s rules, and she feels responsible for keeping her safe and pulling her out of spirals. It’s an exhausting job, and although Sam longs to escape, she also fears what will happen when she leaves.

Zoe is a social butterfly who seems to have it all together, but she keeps her home life very separate. Her brother is disabled, and now that he is a teenager, it has gotten significantly more difficult for his family to care for him. He is stronger than them, which means that his (and their) safety is at risk. Their family is torn at the prospect of having to have him cared for at a facility. It’s only complicated further by Zoe’s mother having just gone through cancer treatment. If that wasn’t enough, Zoe is secretly dealing with feelings of abandonment at being adopted.

Zoe and Sam are both hurting, and they don’t have a lot of outlets for this pain. Although they run in very different circles, when they have a few change interactions, they end up reaching out and finding comfort in their unexpected friendship. They create their own world together, which they call Starworld. It takes place between *s in text messages, like so: *hops on a dragon and takes you out into space* This reminded me of online roleplaying that I did in high school (although that was Drarry HP fanfiction), so it definitely rang true for me!

What really felt like being back in high school, though, was Sam’s crush on Zoe. She falls for her, hard. I feel like this is the first queer YA I’ve read that really captures the dizzying, overwhelming, helpless feeling of a teenage crush, especially because it addresses the sexual aspect of it. Sam loves Zoe for her personality and their friendship, but she’s also checking her out! The story doesn’t shy away from Sam’s attraction to her, which isn’t something I’ve seen much of in sapphic YA.

[spoilers, highlight to read] Sam’s unrequited crush is painful to read about. She has placed so much importance in this relationship–and Zoe has, too, but she’s not seeing it in the same way. They’re both relying on each other, and when Zoe doesn’t return Sam’s feelings, it drives a wedge between them. Maybe that was necessary for them both to grow as individuals, and maybe they needed to stop running away to Starworld and start making changes in their real lives, but it doesn’t change how hard it is to witness both of their pain and Sam’s lashing out. [end spoilers]

What can I say? This was well done, and I definitely felt for the characters, but it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable read. It made me feel like a teenager again, drowning in emotions and not having the resources to manage them. If that’s the experience you’re looking for, definitely pick this one up! But I will definitely be looking for a fluffy book with a simple, happy f/f romance coming off this read.

Ren reviews Tell It to the Bees by Fiona Shaw

Tell It to the Bees by Fiona Shaw

During a classic late-night spiral down an internet hole, I happened upon the trailer for the not-yet-released movie based on this book. The trailer appeared to follow the same depressing arc we accept in film as As Good As It Gets For Us, but the book was available at my local library, and the carefully-skimmed-to-avoid-spoilers review I glimpsed on Goodreads promised me a happy ending. I was still wary, but the book was a short one, and let’s be honest: a whisper of queer representation and we all start running headfirst into walls. So I picked it up and went in with the lowest of expectations – mostly just hoping I could get through it without putting it down too many times.

I have pretty specific needs when it comes to period pieces; while I certainly have exceptions, generally speaking, I don’t go out of my way to read period sagas of war or famine or heartache. I want Jane Austen. I want some bumps and misunderstandings that end in the bad guys getting what they deserve, and the good guys coming out on top.

Suffice to say, queer period pieces are usually very much not my thing.

I’ll read them/watch them for the three seconds of pleasant content – because I’m gay and I can’t help myself – but I’m always mad from the get-go because we know how these things tend to play out.

Tell It to the Bees took me wholly by surprise. Shaw is not in a hurry to tell her story, and while I’m not always in the mood to have the plot move along so slowly, the book as a whole is such a quick read, I was okay with sitting back and letting her paint her picture in her own time. Much of this book was read in the company of my girlfriend – currently a nurse, but a Zoology Major in another life – and I constantly interrupted her down-time to fact check bits of information about bees and hive mentalities as I read. There were so many interesting threads to this book, and they were woven together delicately and deliberately. This was my first introduction to Fiona Shaw, and I am now very curious to see what else she has to offer.

Jean is the town doctor. Single. A pretty big deal, for 1950s Scotland. She’s rational and a little distant, and she spends most of what little free time she has between her best friend Jim, and her bees. A fight on the schoolyard brings Charlie Weekes into her clinic; Charlie is quiet and precocious, and drawn to a honeycomb Jean keeps in her office. The two of them bond over her bees in their reserved, introverted fashions.

Charlie’s father leaves him and his mother for another woman, and Charlie – bearing his mother’s sadness on top of his own – withdraws further into himself and the world of the bees. Jean eventually invites Lydia and Charlie to dinner; from there, Jean and Lydia form a tentative connection of their own through Jean’s library.

Already, we’ve touched on a good number of my favourite tropes. We have:

  1. Single Lady Doctor Who Does Not Have Time For Townfolk Judgement
  2. Young children with old souls who notice everything
  3. Books. So many books

In the usual fashion, Jean has a male best friend. Jean and Jim grew up together. Jim proposed to her when they were young and was subsequently turned down. Because reasons. Jim marries a pleasant enough woman named Sarah, and (again, in the usual fashion), there is an underlying note of competition between these two women over who best knows the man keeping the two of them together. There are so many pure moments in this book, but the note that struck me occurs just after Jean accidentally outs herself and Lydia during a dinner party. Jean panics and leaves the room. Sarah goes after her. I – the anxious reader – pull my blanket higher in anticipation of the impending dramatic moment when Sarah gets confrontational and threatens to out her to the entire town.

Only, it doesn’t happen.

Instead, in a display of human decency that should be so basic but isn’t (and thus, still took me out at the knees), Sarah accepts it all in a moment and moves straight to comforting this woman who is really only her friend because of her husband.

Men hear things differently from women, Jean. Even Jim, who’s better than most, and knows you as well as anyone. I don’t think he heard you. At least, not as I did… I don’t really understand. But I don’t think your love is wrong, and I’ll defend you against all comers.

It was more than a queer story. There was something so delightfully normal about it that I wanted to stay in the pages forever. I’m glad that we have so many deep, hard-hitting books to choose from, but every once in a while, I just want a queer version of that Jane Austen read. I want to know that there may be some bumps and misunderstandings, but at the end of the day, the bad guys are going to get what they deserve and the good guys are going to come out on top.

Despite what Goodreads tried to tell me, I was stressed to the max while reading this book. Some characters were lovely, and others were so horrid that I was certain either Jean or Lydia had to die/move away/marry a man and pretend the affair never happened. There were tense plot points. There were moments that struck close to home and really captured the rage that can occasionally take you by surprise when you are a queer person living in a hetero world, and can’t do things like hold your partner’s hand in public without it being A Thing. But the queers live happily ever after, and I will be buying my own copy of this book.

Mallory Lass reviews Homecoming by Celeste Castro

Homecoming by Celeste Castro

CW: family trauma, homophobia, minor character deaths (remembered), alcoholism

Homecoming is like a fireworks show: it starts with a boom, but everything leads to the grand finale. This slow burn romance is full of unexpected adventure and forced self reflection for the main character, Dusty and love interest Morgan.

Destiny “Dusty” del Carmen is a successful author and activist who has made a habit of avoiding her own emotions and relationships in favor of one night stands. She has spent 15 years trying to avoid her hurtful past. When Dusty is forced by her agent to return to her home state of Idaho, an unexpected situation presents her with an opportunity for self reflection and healing.

Morgan West is self proclaimed workaholic and actual over achiever. Department Chair at Boise State, she has her hands full with work commitments and ensuring her students success. She spends her time taking care of everyone but herself, and her on again off again relationship with a colleague is hardly the relationship of her dreams.

Dusty and Morgan meet unexpectedly and then are thrust together in a high stakes crisis. This might be just the thing they need to get out of their own way.

Castro’s storytelling style offers the reader intrigue and anticipation. Dusty’s life and family history unravel slowly as the story goes along, allowing the reader to put the puzzle pieces together in a meaningful way alongside Morgan. Additionally, the reader is privy to some information before the characters themselves know it and that creates a wonderful sense of excitement. These style elements and shorter chapter structure make Homecoming a page turner.

Castro has spun together a romance full of situational tension and excitement on top of the sparking sexual chemistry. She expertly weaves in location based details that really bring the story to life and capture that small town feel.

Marthese reviews Tracker and the Spy (Dragon Horse War trilogy #2) by D. Jackson Leigh

Tracker and the Spy by D. Jackson Leigh

“Not a sparkler, a blazer”

Tracker and Spy is the second book in the Dragon Horse War Trilogy. I have to say that I liked it better than the first book, mostly because the main characters were Tan and Kyle, which I liked better as a pair than Jael and Alyssa. We still see parts of the story from the other characters’ POVs, though, and there is continuation. This review may contain some spoilers from the first book, however, I’ll keep them to a minimum.

Kyle and Tan’s first meeting is tense. Kyle, as the resident expert on the Order, is asked to infiltrate them. Her father and Simon are in two different parts of the world, and the problem is who to target first, as they are both dangerous. A lot of the first chapters, though, focus on the mating of two dragon horses which affect people too. That is, Tan isn’t exactly clear headed.

I liked that we see more of Tan: her gentleness with children and her demons, which she tries to exorcise by punishing herself. Although Tan has trust issues, she does eventually start to trust Kyle. For her hardcore persona, she could be submissive at times. It wasn’t cleared up whether this submissiveness was due to her punishing herself though… I wouldn’t like it to be. Kyle and Phyrrhos – Tan’s horse – seem to bond as well and we see why later on!

Tan and Kyle are both outsiders. They take care of each other without judgment, even when they may not necessary like each other.

I had some problems with the world building. For example, in the case of polyamoury, it was explained as only a cultural custom rather than an identity. If this series is set in the future, wouldn’t it make sense for it to be more progressive? Seeing as everything else (apart from the confusion between sex and gender) is?

Another thing that was a bit of a pet peeve was a wasted opportunity. It could be that it will happen in the third book, but originally Kyle was looking for Will, her new friend and fake fiancée, who she lost touch with during the solar train attack. There were several opportunities for them to have a reunion, not least towards the end. I’m a sucker for friendly reunions. I kept expecting it. Bonus though for Will and Michael apparently being together. I did wish to see more of Michael too. We did get to see him a bit in the first book and as a rare intersex character who is male, it would have been interesting to see more of him.

There was problematic language usage so be warned; some instances of ‘real penis’ and another where someone that has graceful lines and so couldn’t ‘be anything but female’. This kind of language use is what makes me cautious. Trans and gender minorities exclusion is not fun. Authors please take note!

There are a lot of characters so I get that there cannot be focus on everyone. I feel like we know about Raven the least. I did like when Diego, Furcho and Raven had a joking moment. These people have known each other for many lifetimes. Their team and family dynamic must be very interesting.

Needless to say that Cyrus was a misogynistic asshole also established in the first book early on…but towards the end, you understand him better. However, as Kyle said, it still does not make up for what he has done – mental health or not.

An interesting element in this series is that it is critical towards capitalism. According to Simon, who has resources = has power and so he hoards resources to make people do what he wants. The world council on the other hand, distributes resources.

There are two secondary-ish character deaths. One gets the farewell that they deserve, the other is towards the end, but it was their wish. I also like how Furcho and Nicole have a mature conversation on their future. No grand gestures without discussing it first! That was done nicely.

At the end there was a lot of page turning action. Really the question of this book is: two evils, two threats, who do you go for first?

The end had a twist. There were hints of it but things are getting interesting. The two characters from the next book are evident in this one. Toni had been a minor character in book 1, in book 2 she developed a friendship with Kyle, is Alyssa’s apprentice and has an interesting power of her own. Maya is Kyle’s younger sister and she has been taken hostage…

While I am critical of the language use and the binary elements in this book (THEY ARE NOT FUN TO READ) it is an interesting series and unfortunately, there aren’t that many fantasy series with queer women at the front so I’d recommend for anyone looking for such series.

Marthese reviews If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan“Fine, so my nipples don’t want this to happen, either”
Another sapphic modern classic down! If You Could Be Mine tells the story of Sahar. Sahar lives in Iran and is in love with Nasrin, who is more than her best friend–but being public about it will get them both killed. Nasrin gets betrothed to Reza and Sahar is trying to find a way for her and Sahar to be together.

Once, she goes to her cousin’s Ali’s party. Ali is her cool, rich cousin who is very gay and seems to manage an underground–not so hidden–empire of queer safe spaces and illegal contraband. During the party she meets Parveen, who she befriends, and from Ali she learns that Parveen is transexual (that’s what’s written in the book–I would just say trans). She starts seeing a way for her to be legally with Nasrin–but can she do it? Can she become a man when she very much feels like a woman?

Sahar is a cis lesbian, not a trans straight man. This story felt very real however. I knew someone whose parents were originally from Iran, and they would have rather she transitioned than be with a girl as a girl, even though they were not in Iran anymore. Small things, like the mention that divorce is legal, the contraband, the dress-code and curfew and how people are in private vs in public sets a realistic picture for this story.

As far as characters, I liked Ali, because while he could be quite crass and pushy, he was also caring. I liked Parveen too, and I’m glad Sahar made a friend. Most times I did not like Nasrin, but I understood her even though it felt quite unfair. Their roles of adventures and conservative were switched, at least in certain things, mid-way through the book while Sahar starts getting into Ali’s world–her world. The daring Nasrin follows conventions and the quite Sahar, breaks them.

I felt that the writing was too simplistic in the beginning. However, than I got hooked to the story and didn’t analyze it later on.

While the ending isn’t a ‘happily ever after’, there is some kind of closure and the connection between the characters will undeniably always be there. At least there’s not the kill-the-gays trope! Through their actions, the different queer characters were trying to avoid just that. It’s not safe to be yourself everywhere and while sometimes there is the option of leaving–leaving means abandoning your family, your culture and your place. It was heartbreaking but there is hope.

I’d recommend this book to anyone that likes realistic fiction and different cultures. You’d definitely need to account for angst.

Ren reviews Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

This novel was a delight. I’m a big fan of Welcome to Night Vale, and so I was over the moon to discover that creator Joseph Fink had written a book about a trucker in search of her missing-presumed-dead wife. I expected dark wit. I expected oddities galore. I expected to laugh. And while I did experience all of those things while reading this book, it quickly revealed itself to be much more than a lighthearted stroll through the Sci-Fi Woods.

Keisha Taylor is looking for her wife, Alice. Alice – as the title suggests – is not dead. She works for an organization that kills mostly-boneless creatures called Thistle Men, who hunt gleefully in the name of Terrible Freedom. Believing that the Thistle Men may use Keisha as a weapon against her, Alice leads Keisha to believe that she’s dead (for her own good, of course). Keisha is pretty mad when she figures this all out.

It’s a cliché to be sure, but the rest of the book is so good, I was able to let it slide.

Keisha meets her first Thistle Man in a diner. He attacks a man in broad daylight, takes a bite out of him, and no one – Keisha aside – seems to find this strange. When she picks up a teenage hitchhiker named Sylvia (who has own tragic backstory involving the Thistle Men), the two of them band together to unravel the mystery of the creatures and put an end to them. There is a war going on in plain sight, and only a select few can see it. Androgynous oracles watch from the corners. A shadowy woman whispers in ears and urges acts of violence. The book burns slowly and paints a nightmare of Things That Go Bump in the Night; along the way, it threads in painful themes of entitlement and unfounded hatred that send the reader’s mind sharply back into the worst parts of our present world.

This was a system of violence and laws that protected Thistle from the likes of her, five foot three, a gash down her chest, and a constant fear she wouldn’t recognize a heart attack if it came because it would feel like her panic attacks.

Keisha’s anxiety is another point of note. The story is told mostly through her perspective, and she is honest and frank about the many ways in which her anxiety affects her. She holds conversations with strangers – both dangerous and otherwise – in a manner which appears outwardly calm despite the fact that internally, she’s fighting (fighting to breathe and fighting to stay still and fighting to maintain her grip on the façade of normal). Even the bad guys can’t understand how they can look her in the eye and not see fear. And Keisha’s answer simple.

You’ve got me really wrong, Officer Whatever. I’m always afraid. Life makes me afraid. And if I’m already afraid of life, then what are you?

There are several books – many of them reviewed on this site – to which I owe a debt, because they aided in my unlearning in regards to being queer. They gave me strong, funny women in stable relationships with strong, funny women. They introduced me to the concept of chosen families. And as a child who always found it easiest to relate to fictional characters, I saw people living happy lives and realised queerness was not synonymous with limitation. An ache in my chest eased – an ache I had been carrying for so long, I had no memory of its appearance. It was liberating, and the way Keisha’s anxiety is written in this book is the closest I have come to feeling anything akin to that since.

She considered that anxiety was irrational, and listening to it was like listening to a child. It’s not that they are never right. It’s that the correct info is mixed in with a lot of imaginary things, and, like a child, anxiety can’t tell the difference between the two.

She was always afraid but she did what she needed to do.

Make me more afraid. I’m not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid.

Oftentimes the anxiety hinders her, but in this story of cannibal Thistle Men and government conspiracies and First Evils, there are times when it makes her powerful. Keisha’s anxiety is as much a part of her as her physical body, and she learns it can occasionally be used as a weapon. The ending comes and goes without Keisha’s anxiety being ‘cured,’ for which I am appreciative.

This book is full of twists and turns, and it offers monsters, action, a sprinkling of romance and a great deal of heart.