anna marie reviews Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai is a gooey treat of a book, full of nauseating smells, intoxicating feelings and so much juicy/murky/enticing fluid. In other words it was really great, even better than The Tiger Flu (2018) in my opinion, which I read last year and enjoyed immensely too. Both novels in fact share certain preoccupations with gross bodily queerness as well as dystopian capitalist futures and clones.

Published in 2002, the novel tells a dual or even quadruple story at once. It floats out of time frames, bodies and characters but the main focal points are two protagonists. Nu Wa & her story, generally in nineteenth century China, and her experience falling in love with the salt fish girl who works at the market and Miranda, who’s growing up in the technocapitalist Pacific Northwest from 2042 onwards, and who has the pungent smell of the durian fruit constantly emanating from her whole being and whose family is trying to find a cure.

I was prepared to love the book, it had been recommended to me by a friend, and, as I said I’d already enjoyed another of Lai’s novels. From the first lines I knew I would like it–lines on the first page about loneliness and primordial sludge made me pause with wonder. I was sold; “It was a murkier sort of solitude, silent with the wet sleep of the unformed world,” writes Lai. Salt Fish Girl has this incredible, in many ways relatable, blending of a gross, pervasive sickness/smell with a sensitive, handsy queerness that vibrantly articulates something very truthful, I felt, about the experience of being a child dyke. Full of clumsy encounters and fraught yet attempting-to-be-loving relationships which the novel clung to me, and I took, much like the smell of durians following Miranda, to bringing the book with me into any room or space that I went to, whether or not I actually did any reading.

The novel is about sickness, as well as about the bizarre coupling of mutation, love and reproduction (again much like The Tiger Flu). It also has mermaids and a mythic focus and swelling that was so compelling and really quick to read. The pacing never fails to feel exciting and the dual story pulls you along so that it’s hard to put the book down, each storyline pulling you along to the next installment and on and on.

Funnily enough, the compulsion that pulled me through the book, after the first few chapters settled me into the story, is how I feel about picking up another Larissa Lai novel! I’m really looking forward to reading When Fox is a Thousand, which was her debut in 1995, and rereading The Tiger Flu when I’m next near my copy.

11 Literally Perfect Sapphic Novels

11 Literally Perfect Sapphic Novels

I don’t give out five stars on Goodreads very easily. Basically, the only times I do
are either when I can’t think of any way it could have been improved, or when they
are life-changing books for me, even if they are flawed in some way. (It’s hard for straight lit to make the cut, because I always think “Would it have been better if it were queer?” And I think you can guess my answer there.)

There are a few books, though, that I think are absolute perfection. They are thought-provoking, emotional, and told skillfully. For this post, I’ve stuck with novels and short story collections, all of which I’ve rated 5 stars on Goodreads. This was originally a video, so scroll down if you’d like to see that.

The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzieThe Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie

This book feels like the moment before a summer thunderstorm: that feeling where the air is charged, and it’s claustrophobic and humid and tense. It’s about a family that’s haunted by its past. The story alternates between the present and the family’s history, and there is some sort of trauma, an unnamed tragedy that happens in between. In the present, you’re dealing with the fallout. I loved the main character, Ava. When you see her as a child, she is this vibrant, passionate, unrestrained kid who is so alive. As an adult, she is very closed off, as if she’s been dulled over time. Part of the journey of the book is her finding her way back to her childhood self.

The queer storyline takes place in the present, when Ava finds herself surprisingly, suddenly attracted to this woman who comes to visit and stay with them. She finds herself kissing this woman the first day that she arrives, and is trying to figure out what that means, because she is married to a guy. This also has an element of fabulism, which I loved.

Check out my full review here.

Hero Worship by Rebekah MatthewsHero Worship by Rebekah Matthews

This feels like a painfully personal book for me. It’s about Valerie, who is twenty-something, and she is writing letters to her ex-girlfriend about how she still hasn’t gotten over her–even though she’s not really sure if her ex- girlfriend ever really liked her that much? Valerie has this desperation for love and attention which was uncomfortably relatable. I felt like I was flinching sympathetically every other page, but it was so realistic to that aimless twenty-something period of life. This felt like someone exposing a part of my personality that I would much rather keep hidden, but it’s so beautifully done. I really wish that I could hear more people talking about this, because it made such an impact on me.

Check out my full review here.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah WatersTipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This is my favourite book of all time. This is another personal book for me, partly because of when I read it. It was after I had a very tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship that lasted the whole four years of high school. After high school, I was trying to get over it, but was thinking that nothing was ever gonna be so intense again. Reading Tipping the Velvet helped me realize that A) that intensity is maybe not the best or most romantic thing, and B) that you can have incredible, beautiful, meaningful relationships that aren’t your first love, that aren’t incredibly dramatic, and that come from mutual support and a slow build of intimacy and trust. In fact, those relationships are infinitely more valuable and more useful to you. That is a very small part of this book, but it is what imprinted so dramatically on me. I’ve since reread it, and I still love it. Sarah Waters described this as a “lesbo-Victorian romp.” There’s a lot that happens, it does get pretty dark at parts, there’s a whole socialism and activism element, it gets pretty sexy, gets a little bit weird–it’s just a very enjoyable book to read, and it’s one that means a lot to me.

Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith by Sarah Waters

It’s not surprising to me that two books by Sarah Waters made this list, because she is my favorite author. I would say that Tipping the Velvet is my favourite book, but I think of Fingersmith as the best book that I’ve read: it is so intricately plotted. If you haven’t heard of it before, it is another lesbian historical fiction set in Victorian times. It is about a “fingersmith,” who is basically a thief, who is part of a con. She is going to play the role of a lady’s maid in order to convince this woman to marry a friend of hers, and then they’re going to split her inheritance. But after she pretends to be the lady’s maid, she falls in love with her. It is incredible, and so fascinating, but Fingersmith also dark. It talks about insane asylums in the Victorian era, which is horrifying, and there is abuse and sexual abuse and, of course, gaslighting–but that plot just completely blew me away. I’ve never read anything like it before or since.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique is a journalist in a fashion magazine, and she previously wrote for something like BuzzFeed, so she is shocked to be picked by Evelyn Hugo, an aging Hollywood starlet, to write her biography. The story alternates between their meetings, where Monique trying to figure out why she’s been tapped for this role, and Evelyn talking about her past. The title refers to the fact that Evelyn Hugo was married seven times in her life. This is kind of part of her mystique, and the question at the heart of her biography is: which one of those was your grand love, the love of your life? Spoiler: the love of her life was a woman, and so much of the story is her being closeted as bisexual in old Hollywood (as well as passing as white), and the things that she had to do to keep herself safe, to keep her relationship safe, and to keep her career. It is beautifully written. Evelyn Hugo is a fascinating character, because she is really complicated: she does a lot of morally questionable things, but I couldn’t help but be on her side most of the time. She does what she thinks she has to do to protect herself and her family. Even if that Hollywood glamour story doesn’t immediately appeal to you, I would still recommend picking this up, because it is just so impeccably written.

Check out my full review here.

The Color Purple by Alice WalkerThe Color Purple by Alice Walker

This is a classic for a reason. It is dark: it starts off with the main character getting raped as a child and later having her children taken away from her. It is brutal. But it is also hopeful. It’s about a group of women who come together and support each other. I was under the impression that had some lesbian subtext, but that’s not true: it is very openly queer. The main character is in love with a woman named Shug. They have a romantic and sexual relationship–it’s not subtext.

It closely looks at some of the greatest horrors in the world, the worst of misogyny and racism and specifically anti-black racism, and still somehow manages to have the sense of community, of hope, of belonging. It says that yes, those things are true, and they are terrible, but there are also things that are beautiful and that make life worth living. Those are the books that I find to be the most nurturing. If you can truly acknowledge the worst parts of the world and still find a way to live through it, and to have a fulfilling life, that is incredibly powerful.

Check out my full review here.

The Collection edited by Tom Leger and Riley MacleodThe Collection edited by Tom Leger and Riley Macleod

The Collection is a trans short story collection–it isn’t all sapphic stories, but almost a third of them are. Usually in an anthology like this, there’s some big ups and downs, and there are some stories that I’m not as interested in, but all of the stories in The Collection are really well-written. They are also are well-paced. Instead of feeling like excerpts from a novel, they are complete narratives in themselves, with a huge range of subject matter and protagonists. A lot of the stories in this collection do deal directly with prejudice, with microaggressions, and they can be pretty uncomfortable to read, but they are really well done.

Check out my full review here.

Lizzy & Annie by Casey PlettLizzy & Annie by Casey Plett

Lizzy & Annie by Casey Plett is actually a short story that is included in Plett’s A Safe Girl To Love, but I originally read this story in a kind of a zine-style illustrated format. It’s about two trans women in a relationship, and the way that they talk to each other and what they talk about just feels so familiar and true to life. Annie Mok’s illustrations are a beautiful addition that add a lot of depth to the story.

A Safe Girl To Love is well worth reading in its entirety, but if you can get your hands on the illustrated version of this story, I think it stands well on its own. It deals with racism, sexism, and transmisogyny. It shows the different ways that people can be supportive or oppressive: from outright harassment, to supportive, to theoretically supportive but clueless, to fetishizing. It’s a glimpse into these two characters everyday lives, and it’s one that makes me hungry for more stories like this in all media.

Check out my full review here.

Missed Her by Ivan CoyoteMissed Her by Ivan Coyote

This title stands in for basically anything by Ivan Coyote: I had a bunch of their books in my 5-star collection. I love Coyote’s writing style. When I first started reading their stories, they identified as a butch lesbian, and while they still ID as butch, they have come out as non-binary and goes by they/them pronouns.

Missed Her is my favorite of their short story collections, but honestly anything by them is amazing. I really love their kitchen table storytelling style: it really feels like you’re there with them, and they’re spinning you a yarn. They often have a rural perspective to their stories, which is really nice to see, because most queer stories come from a big city perspective, and don’t seem to acknowledge the possibility of having a happy queer life in a small town or in a rural environment. They tell the most beautiful, broken, enduring love stories. While I find their stories comforting, they also push me to be better. I can’t recommend their books highly enough.

Check out my full review here.

Falling in Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson coverFalling In Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson

This is a short story collection, and only the novella has sapphic content, but the entire book is amazing. In the introduction, Nalo Hopkinson talks about having a fractured relationship with other human beings, and trying to come back to this idea of falling in love with humanity as a whole–which I empathize with, especially right now. It’s mostly fantasy stories, and stories that just include just a bit of magic or the fantastical. Their novella is set on the Borderlands, and it is this thought-provoking look at queer communities and what happens there, and what we can accept and forgive, and what we shouldn’t. But I loved all of the stories in this collection: there’s one that’s about this gay couple who are in a BDSM relationship, but the story is just about them trying to track down their missing chicken. It’s perfection.

Check out my full review here.

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

Kissing the Witch is one of the best books with the worst covers that I’ve ever seen, which is why I am respectfully leaving the cover off of this post. It’s a collection of feminist retellings of fairy tales, most of which are also queer. They are beautifully written, and each fairy tale ties into the next one: a character from the previous fairy tale is telling the next story. I always love fairy tale retellings, especially if they are feminist or queer or both, so obviously I adored this one. Ignore the cover and pick it up anyway.

Those are my favorite sapphic novels and short story collections! Let me know in the comments which bi and lesbian novels or short story collections you think are perfection!

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Carmella reviews Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Hex is a dark, uneasy novel about poison and desire. It follows the main character Nell, a PhD candidate in biological science, who’s expelled from Columbia after her labmate dies in an accident with plant toxins. Derailed, depressed and desperate, Nell steals the killer seeds to continue the work from a grim apartment in Red Hook. While she tries to engineer an antidote, she’s also writing a series of obsessive journals dedicated to ‘you’ – Dr. Joan Kallas, the lecturer she’s in love with.

Nell and Joan are caught up in not so much a love triangle as a love hexagon: there’s Nell’s medievalist ex-boyfriend Tom; her glamorous best friend Mishti; Mishti’s boyfriend Carlo; and Joan’s creepy husband Barry. Despite its botanical backdrop, the novel spends most of its time focusing on these tangled relationships, and the webs of desire between them are just about as toxic as the seeds germinating in Nell’s apartment.

If it sounds incestuous, claustrophobic and messy – it is. There’s a sense of ‘dark academia’ in Dinerstein Knight’s portrayal of campus politics. If you enjoy novels where everyone’s brainy and unpleasant (think The Secret History or Bunny) then this is one for you.

Nell herself is a compelling character to spend time with, not despite her unpleasantness but because of it. It’s always refreshing to read female characters who are allowed to be grotty. Not showering for days? Keeping a mushy banana in your pocket? Having toenail fungus? That’s feminism! Well, maybe not, but it makes for an interesting narrator. Nell’s world view is – for lack of a better word – weird. Her ‘journals’ are studded with surprising images, odd tangents, and strange yearnings: “I wished I could carve you a pumpkin”; “I wanted immediately, with my whole self, to be your cat”; “I thought it might be pleasant to be one layer of uncolored nail polish lying in rest over your fingernails”. I loved this depiction of desire – at once so unique and yet completely familiar.

The novel interrogates the idea of desire throughout. What do the characters want for themselves? For each other? From each other? Nell doesn’t always know what she wants, but she is always wanting, so that the act of wanting almost becomes an activity in its own right. After all, what’s more important to her: Joan, or the act of wanting Joan? As Nell wonders aloud to Mishti, “Which is fuller, the longing or the union?” Whatever the answer is for Nell personally, it’s certainly the longing that makes this novel a success.

Bee reviews Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

This book had me in two words: queer. Gothic. I have long-held passions in both areas. The gothic is the realm of the outsider, the rejected, the monstrous. It lends itself to queer interpretation–and that is mostly what queer gothic is. Just interpretation. The height of gothic literature was, of course, the 18th and 19th Centuries, beginning with The Castle of Otranto and spidering out into different sub-genres and interpretations right up to the present day. There are queer interpretations of gothic literature, definitely: my favourites include Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage,” and Skin Shows by Jack Halberstam. There is obviously The Picture of Dorian Gray, but also the interpretation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as being an allegory for the closet, and the ambiguous sexuality of Dracula. The gothic is queer, inescapably. So when I saw Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology, my true reaction was to say, “oh. Finally.”

The anthology spans identities, each story offering up new characters with new queerness. A large proportion of the stories are about WLW–women who are seduced by vampires, who dance with the ghosts of their murdered wives, who kill their lovers, and fall for monsters from the deep. Sometimes these women are the ones who are monstrous, which is of course, the potential of the gothic. This is the most exciting thing for me, a feeling which is only compounded by the fact that their queerness is not what makes them monstrous. They are given power in their monstrosity.

The contributors to this anthology understand the genre to its core. There was not one story that felt amiss, each with the kind of rich and immersive prose which typifies gothic writing. I was pulled into each chilling tale easily and readily, the language acting as a kind of through-line for this diverse collection of stories. Even though each is by a different author, with a different approach to the genre, they read as part of a whole. The anthology is cohesive and interconnected, with some stories sharing similar themes and imagery in a pleasing way–the same hallmarks of the genre, used to different effect.

There are all kinds of queer women in these pages. Some of my favourites were the stories that explored the idea of a woman out of time–a woman with an identity which we might now refer to as butch, but constrained by Victorian sensibilities. There is something eminently enjoyable about a rakish and debonair Byronic hero in cravat and breeches, but oh wait! She’s a woman, and she’s here to seduce your wives. I enjoyed the troubled Kat in “Hearteater” by Eliza Temple, who has exactly the right amount of tortured soul.

And on that point–seduction. I haven’t yet mentioned one of the drawcards of the gothic, that being the simmering eroticism of all things dark and disturbed. There’s a reason why we find vampires so sexy. The authors of Unspeakable haven’t forgotten this, either. A number of the stories are filled with just the right amount of sexual tension and saucy contact. It is sometimes devilish, and always welcome. “Laguna and the Engkanto” by Katalina Watt stands out: a story with a folk tale feel which absolutely sizzles.

The stories that don’t have that note of the erotic are filled with another gothic (and queer) emotion: yearning. The sense of something lost, of a need to pierce the veil, to find some fulfilment and compromise your own goodness to do so… these are all gothic elements that are woven through the stories of Unspeakable. Remember that while the gothic is horror, it is also romance: it is heightened emotions, a deep plunge into the psyche and the human condition. “Moonlight” by Ally Kölzow is one such narrative, which left me with such a deep sadness that I am still thinking about it, days later.

It bears mentioning that a lot of these stories rely on tropes. These are, of course, conventions of the genre, and some might call them clichés. I think it is important to be reminded, however, that applying these “clichés” to queer narratives is something completely new. It is a reinvention, and it is inspired. Even though some of the stories are familiar and predictable, the expected outcome is the desired outcome: we deserve our turn with these stories, and they are all the more enjoyable for it.

This anthology is a powerhouse of an introduction to the work of some very exciting writers. Their dexterity within the genre is admirable, and made this collection an utter pleasure to read. For lovers of the gothic, it is an absolute delight. If you are unfamiliar with the genre, it is a perfect introduction (although be prepared for any further forays to be a lot more subtextual on the queer front). It was so soothing for me to be able to read within a genre so dear to my heart, and to see it full of queerness. At the risk of sounding over-the-top and extremely sappy, my devoted thanks go out to Celine Frohn and the contributing authors. They have created something truly special, which feeds the monster in us all

Meagan Kimberly reviews Gender Flytrap by Zoe Estelle Hitzel

Gender Flytrap by Zoe Estelle Hitzel

For National Poetry Month I chose to read this collection I’d picked up from Sundress Publications, an independent press. It’s a fascinating collection of poems about the interconnected nature of gender, sexuality, sex, and identity.

The poems’ forms start as stanzas and lines written in fragments, but as the speaker gains a greater sense of clarity of who they are, the images and statements become more solid. A few in between bolly back and forth between this fragmented style and coherent thoughts.

It seems as though the purpose of this structure is to literally indicate the speaker’s growing anxieties and uncertainness about their gender, sex, and identity. Hitzel shows an adept hand in using and creating structure that works perfectly in conjunction with the language and emotions of each individual poem.

While the poems’ structures vary between fragmented and complete, the word choice always creates a precise and purposeful rhythm and sound. It gives the feeling that even in the most turbulent of moments of doubt, the speaker knows for certain who they are and where they stand, somewhere beneath the insecurity and anxiety.

Hitzel delivers heartbreaking lines in the simplest language, like this one:

“the television showed what it was capable of showing
and my father heard what he was capable of hearing…”

Lines like the two above depict the common way discussions and discourse about transitioning and transgender individuals are often perceived and treated. The speaker throughout the poems often analyzes and talks about others’ perceptions about their identity, and how those perceptions affect their perceptions of themselves.

In another poem, “Dial-up Internet — Diagnosis” Hitzel delivers a gut punch of emotion that anyone who’s ever questioned their identity has felt. The speaker’s tone approaches the subject from an analytical perspective but still manages to send a shock of pain to the heart.

Hitzel excels at this juxtaposition of using a neutral tone of rationale to describe the turmoil of feelings on the subject matter. The poem “Math Problem” is another standout piece that takes an analytical eye to the topic of transitioning.

The titular poem is another standout piece in the collection as the speaker delineates all the different labels and names she’s been given. Its ending line packs so much in such a matter-of-fact statement: “I appreciate how the silence calls me nothing.”

There are so many poems to choose from with powerful lines and emotional messages. It’s easy to keep flipping from one piece to the next and savoring each word. Sometimes a second and third read is necessary to fully appreciate Hitzel’s brilliant use of language and lyricism.

Maggie reviews Folly by Maureen Brady

Folly by Maureen Brady

This month I read Folly by Maureen Brady, an extremely interesting working class lesbian book published in 1982. Folly is set in a small factory town and follows several women as they struggle to reconcile their desires for a better life with the reality of their jobs and lives. The title character, Folly, works with several area women, including her best friend and eventual lover Martha, to organize a factory strike after a woman is arrested after the death of her baby due to their lack of sick leave. Meanwhile Lenore, a recent high school drop-out, misses her girlfriend, who has gone to work on the Alaskan pipeline, and struggles to find community and meaning in her small town life. I found Folly to be incredibly engaging and self-aware, and I frankly can’t believe I haven’t heard of it spoken of it before either in a feminist/working class literature context or in a queer lit context. And as someone who grew up in a very small town – although not quite as small as Victory – a lot of the themes and internal struggles the characters faced struck very true for me, and of course it is very easy to get behind women fighting for better conditions.

One thing I really loved about Folly is that it shows multiple generations of women having relationships and discovering their sexualities in a variety of ways. Martha and Folly are middle-aged factory workers and best friends. They live next to each other, deal with all of their problems together, and constantly lean on each other for support. Folly is generally supportive and willing to live and let live at first, but it takes her a while to apply to concept of queerness to herself. When she finally does, she embraces it and works eagerly to incorporate her new knowledge about herself into her life, which was something I found personally very relatable. Meanwhile in the younger generation, Lenore works at the local butcher counter and misses her girlfriend, who is working on an Alaskan pipeline. Lenore is secure in her own sexuality, but is continually looking for some sort of community. She befriends Mary Lou, Folly’s daughter, who is going through the usual teenage growing pains but also finding she is not much interested in what the local boys want to get up to on dates. She is intrigued by Lenore’s independence, and, later, wants to know more so she can come to terms both with herself and with her mother’s changing decisions and priorities.  I really enjoyed seeing different queer women in different stages of their lives interacting in a small town setting. Despite all the hardships they go through, they find strength and growth in their relationships with each other, and it was really joyful for me to read that.

Another important thing I enjoyed about Folly is that it closely examines white women discovering their own biases and privileges. Folly doesn’t give much thought to the larger picture of things until she convinces Martha to back her up in calling for a strike. When Emily, a black factory worker, stands up with her, first for a reduced production rate, and then on the call for the strike, Folly slowly realizes how important it is to expand her worldview and be inclusive in her organizing. Throughout the book, she continues to listen to black organizers, learn from their viewpoints, and have empathy for others. Meanwhile, Lenore is lonely and makes friends with Sabrina, a server at the diner who is black. As she gets to know Sabrina, she has to become aware of and confront her own internal biases and the realities of interracial relationships in a town that is essentially segregated and has a Klan presence. The frank way the book approaches Folly’s growth in organizing and Lenore’s slow eye-opening to how she’s benefited from and lived under the town’s racism makes a powerful impact and can be summed up with how Folly explains to Mary Lou that “A lot of life is following one habit into the next. You got to stop yourself and peel your eyes open all the time if you want to see what goes on.” I really, deeply enjoyed how the book looked at this head-on, and had the characters really spend time thinking and reacting and changing.

The last important thing about Folly is that it is always pushing for a better future. Folly and Martha always have dreams for their futures, the women in the factory organize around their own needs and principals, and they are constantly seeking to learn, grow, and build relationships. Folly and Mabel don’t just trust the union’s goals – they recognize that the union rep looks a lot more like factory ownership than them, and doesn’t have their same priorities. Folly is constantly pushing for more goals and more progress, and doesn’t like the idea of compromising on what they want. Lenore could sink into her life of her job and her own little apartment and writing letters to her girlfriend, but she wants more than that and continually seeks out new community. The women of Folly are intimately aware of how to survive in the world they live in, but they want to work for more, and that’s very important to read.

In conclusion, Folly is a very enjoyable novel about working-class lesbians trying to build their own community and sticking up for themselves and their fellow workers to factory management. It deftly handles themes of labor relations, race, and sexuality while maintaining a positive and hopeful outlook. It moves between generations, is self-aware, and is, in general, a really gripping read. I definitely recommend tracking down a copy!

Marthese reviews Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

“Camille reminded herself that they had a lot of indoctrination to undo”

Not Your Average Love Spell is a not-so-average book that I discovered thanks to Netgalley, for which I am grateful. From the start, this book was one adventure after another, yet it didn’t feel rushed and was well-paced. Not Your Average Love Spell stars four main characters: Sydney – a knight, Camille – a master researcher, Rowena the Hawk – a witch and Ember – a homunculus.

This fantasy book is set in a world where the knights of the flame have been trying to capture all witches after the Witch Wars, which set people against witches. However, a new threat emerges, and Sir Robert instructs Major Sydney to make conduct with the Hawk to transport their troops in order to fight the Kells, who are dangerous because they believe other people are dreams. Sydney has Camille’s help as a master researcher. The two soon develop a fling. However, after the two are separated is when things get even more interesting.

Rowena, known as the Hawk, is a benevolent but grumpy and reclusive witch. She lives on top of a mountain with Ember, who she created and Husks. Ember is a highly energetic, curious and fiery woman who wants to go out and explore, though misses Rowena, and eventually has a ‘Rowena was right’ stage, like most youth when they grow up.

These four characters get tangled up together in all kinds of ways. Sydney and Rowena are rivals who reluctantly work together, sometimes admire each other, and for certain are too stubbornly similar to each other. Sydney and Camille were cute together, but something seemed off, and this was more evident once they found new partners that suited them better. I won’t give other dynamics away, but I liked the fact that even frenemies or new friends got time to put their heads together. I found this refreshing, because not a lot of books explore relationships in this way.

There was enough time for good character development. Characters learn to accept hard truths, to challenge themselves and their beliefs, to change their behaviours, and so on. The characters, and not just the couples, encourage each other directly and indirectly to be better. This was such a healthy way to portray relationships. This depth of characters is also shown by the fact that at first, I disliked the characters a bit (except perhaps Ember), yet as the characters developed, I couldn’t help but root for them and support them. All characters are flawed in realistic manners, such as their fears, snapping and shutting out others, and overcompensating. None of them come out as perfect from the start. The different forms of femininity and diversity of characters is definitely a plus too.

The adventures, as mentioned above, were plentiful. There are pirates and warriors, a yeti, giant spiders, a possible dragon, lizard people, and in general, a lot of tough-headed knights. The plot was definitely interesting, with a lot of twists and turns. It took me a while to realize that the Kells-plot was not concluded, but the whole overall plot was so great that I didn’t mind.

The writing was seasoned with beautiful writing and truths. The cover was lovely too! It was what first draw me to read the plot of the book so I’m grateful for that. The title is an overall hint to the character development and plot: it’s not average.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of fantasy and to those that want characters to be challenged to deconstruct what they know and learn how to live together. It’s a beautiful book!

Bee reviews Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

I’ve been reading Alison Evans’ work for a while. The main appeal for me is that they are a Melbournian author, and their YA sci-fi/fantasies always have a basis in the city and surrounding areas. I think I’ve written here before about how much that appeals to me. When their newest book, Euphoria Kids, was announced, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

Euphoria Kids is an urban fantasy that turns magic into an everyday thing for its core group of teens. Iris was grown from a seed in the ground, giving them an affinity for plants and their magical properties. They are a lonely kid, with no human friends – only the faeries that visit them in the house they live in with their two mums. That is, until they see a “new” girl on the bus one day – Babs, who was cursed by a witch and sometimes turns invisible. Babs is made of fire, and lives with her mum, who has fibromyalgia, but still practices magic. A third member is added to their group when they meet a boy who hasn’t chosen his name yet, but who also has something magic about him – what exactly is uncertain.

As is probably clear, this is a diverse group of friends. Iris is non-binary, Babs is a trans girl, and the boy is also trans. Iris’ mums are obviously lesbians, and Babs makes it clear that she is too, as well as a secondary character who works in a café which they love going to. The trio also encounter dryads and faeries – dryads who have no gender, and cannot understand why humans do; faeries who shift between as many genders as they like, as easily as they can change their appearance. I’m loath to say “It’s great representation”, because I often feel that the word “representation” is just used as a catch-all for an identity named in the story, even when that identity isn’t given justice or used naturally. However, that isn’t what Evans is doing at all. The genders of the teens are tied to the magic they learn and explore, almost like being trans is a magic in and of itself.

The writing and story are, in a word, tender. The trio of teenagers are just so sweet and wide-eyed, experiencing this magical word with wonder and care. Their friendship is fierce and loving, and the way they band together to overcome obstacles is very endearing. It is a very kind book – a book that is careful with its characters, with its reader, and with all of the people who may see themselves represented in its pages. The descriptions of magic are ethereal, and the use of plants and connection to nature is filled with all the joy of walking in a secluded forest and seeing light pouring through the trees. It is all just so gentle; the perfect book for reading under a blanket with a cup of tea (and the characters drink a lot of tea too, so you won’t be alone in that).

Something which Evans does very well is write otherworldly things in a convincing way. Of course planting a jar of herbs in the garden works as a protection spell; of course a lesbian couple can nurture a seed that turns into a child; of course a girl can light fires with her touch. Theirs is the type of writing that draws a reader in, and enfolds them in the world that has been created. It’s a book filled with comforting imagery and beautiful turns of phrase – the world of magic is easily pictured, and the use of the Australian bush is wonderful.

I am usually not much of a fantasy fan; I find it confusing at the best of times. But for me, this type of real-world magic is easy to get behind. With friendships at the core of the story, there is something to root for. The characters are all also very appealing – the adults all have magic of their own as well, and treat the three teens with love and respect. It’s just plain nice to read, honestly. While it’s a good entry-level fantasy, it’s also a very witchy story, full of enchantment. And I was enchanted, definitely. It’s a world I would gladly fall into, again and again.

Sash S reviews Don’t Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Don't Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

“Two lovers get separated on a night out in a parallel dimension. A ship that runs on memories malfunctions in the dead of space. A giant prophesised to wake from its centuries-long slumber beneath the sea.”

This graphic novel is a delightful triptych of stories, all queer, all exploring themes of love and loss in various sci-fi/fantasy settings. I pledged for this particular version in Valero-O’Connell’s recent Kickstarter and I could not be happier with such a gorgeous quality book.

Art-wise, the book is so beautiful. Each story is coloured in a different pastel shade and emphasised with well-chosen line weights and deep blue, almost black shading. The art style is soft and easy on the eyes, but with tons of visual interest as the creator quite literally draws us into three otherworldly settings. Machinery and florals alike are depicted with tons of intricate detail, making each page a work of art in its own right.

Don't Go Without Me page

The stories themselves are simple, yet well-told. The pacing is great, with the particulars of each setting slowly unfolded in a way that doesn’t leave the reader drowning in exposition. There’s also just enough left unsaid that you can’t help but let your imagination stretch out to what the rest of the world might entail – particularly so with the open-ended nature of the final story. A shout-out to “What Was Left,” previously published as a stand-alone comic, for literally bringing tears to my eyes with such a dreamy, romantic concept turned to tragedy, then acceptance, then hope. Each romance is strongly defined, each character is someone you can root for, each character dynamic is compelling and unique.

It’s hard to write too much about short stories, especially ones where half the experience is visual. But if you like graphic novels (or even if you don’t, really, give this a shot!) and you want to read more stories about queer women that are also about love and loss and mystery and community and dozens of other things, you couldn’t go wrong with this book.

Rating: *****

Bee reviews I am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale

I am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale

I often see people complaining that there is no WLW equivalent to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I’m not really sure what the complaint is about: the popularity of the books? The tone? The content? The writing? I think that what people mean when they say this is that they are looking for a book with similarly affecting prose, with a convincing romance and a kind of wistful tone. While I’m sure that everyone reading this could probably offer up five, ten, twenty books that meet the brief, the one that does it for me is I am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale. This is my personal WLW Ari and Dante – the book that makes me feel special things. To me, it is superior in every way.

I am Out With Lanterns is a companion novel to Gale’s book The Other Side of Summer. The focus is shifted from the titular Summer Jackman to her sister Wren, goth and moody and furiously bisexual. Along with Wren, there are five other teenage narrators, each giving their own voice to what it means to be young in Melbourne. Part of the reason why the book resonates so strongly with me because it is entrenched in my home town: the landmarks are real and tangible, and I can perfectly picture every scene. There is such a strong sense of place in this novel, and the characters only reflect the diversity of living in this city.

Aside from Wren, we are introduced to Adie, returning to Melbourne with her artist father after time in Europe and Tasmania. Juliet remembers Adie from their childhood together, but Adie doesn’t have the same recollections. There is also Wren’s neighbour and best friend Milo, who is autistic and also in love with Wren. Ben, a boy who mercilessly bullies Milo, is also afforded a POV. This may seem like a lot of perspectives, but the stories are deftly interwoven. The characters are connected in a web, one leading to the next, and the way they perceive each other is engrossing and believable.

A reason why this book works so well for me is that it understands what it means to be 17 and yearning for another person. Crushes in various forms play out on the page, and whether it be Milo’s interest in Wren, or Wren’s interest in Adie, the intensity of teenage feeling is given ample time and respect to develop. This is the wistfulness I mean; it is a pleasure to read YA which amplifies warm feelings about our teen years, when it is so easy to write them off as an embarrassment. This book champions the tumult of young love, in such a way that I was left looking back on my high school crushes with true fondness.

The identities of each character are also given respect and care. Whether it be Milo’s autism, Wren’s bisexuality, Juliet’s two mums, or the introduction of Hari, a lesbian, these parts are all shown to be integral to who these characters are as people: their foundations are clear, and their journeys are relatable and realistic. It is diversity which reflects the real world, and shows how important a sense of identity is to our formative years.

I am gushing, because I love this book. It is an excellent example of Oz YA, which is a small but thriving community which could always use more readers. It is beautifully told, with some gorgeous turns of phrase which truly reflect the Emily Dickinson poem referenced in the title. It is raw and real, full of complicated relationships and unrestrained feelings. If you’re looking for a YA read that will fill you up and leave you ruminating, this is a first class choice.