Shannon reviews Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, but the synopsis of Half Broke, a memoir written by Ginger Gaffney, peeked my interest. It’s not a story about being a lesbian. Rather, it’s a heart-warming story about a woman who loves horses and how she uses that love to change the lives of a group of convicted felons. Ginger is a lesbian, and although her sexuality doesn’t play a huge part in the overall story arc, it’s an important part of who the author is, and I’m so glad she didn’t choose to shy away from discussing it.

The story starts with a call for help. Ginger, a well-respected horse trainer, is asked to assist a group of prison inmates serving out their sentences on an alternative prison ranch in New Mexico. It seems the horses on the ranch have been exhibiting some strange and dangerous behaviors, and since no one on the ranch has much practical experiences with horses, they’re in need of professional help. Ginger, who is somewhat of an introvert, reluctantly agrees to assess the troubled horses and help out if she is able. She’s not sure what to expect when she arrives on the ranch, but it soon becomes clear she’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of both the animals and the prisoners.

The ranch is run almost exclusively by the prisoners themselves. There are numerous rules and policies that keep things running smoothly, and it takes Ginger some time to truly become comfortable in this new environment. Fortunately, her strong desire to promote healing for the horses serves as a sort of in-road for her, and she eventually comes to care deeply for a number of the prisoners and all of the horses.

This could have been a really sappy book, but Gaffney’s approach is wonderfully down-to-earth. She doesn’t paint herself as the white knight, sweeping in to save the day. Instead, she reflects on the numerous ways people and animals were able to work together, creating a better world for all involved. Her strong sense of personal responsibility toward those she works with shines through, as do her personal vulnerabilities. Her life hasn’t always been easy, and she’s quite candid about the mistakes she’s made along the way.

At its core, Half Broke is a love letter to horses and those who work tirelessly to partner with them. It’s an unflinching look at the American justice system and how it both helps and harms those who get caught up in it. Certain chapters proved painful to read, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. It was exactly the book I needed this fall.

Carolina reviews The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (Amazon Affiliate Link)

“Your characters begin to live the way you do, unrepentant. Never reduced to their queerness, only expanded by it. It infuses them in many ways, sometimes subtle, others loud.”

What does it mean to be invisible? As queer people, most of us are familiar with invisibility in many forms. For some of us, it’s being in the closet, having to deliberately conceal parts of ourselves; for others it’s a lack of representation, a blank outline where we should be in the media. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab is the fantastical and introspective journey of Addie LaRue, a bisexual immortal cursed by the devil himself to be forgotten by all who meet her, until she meets someone who finally accepts her and loves her for who she is.

I’ve always loved Schwab’s writing, from her X-men inspired Villains series, to the whimsical and enchanting A Darker Shade of Magic series. One thing that I always appreciated in her writing is the casual inclusion of queer representation; Prince Rhy Maresh makes Alucard his prince-consort in the magical Red London, and the anti-hero Victor Vale’s asexuality is a valid part of his identity.

Following the immediate publication of long-awaited The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, author V.E. Schwab came out as gay in a moving interview for Oprah Magazine. Schwab’s coming out was touching and it was refreshing to discover one of my favorite authors was queer as well. In the article, she cites the queerness of her characters as a tool to becoming comfortable in her own sexuality and skim, a theme that is echoed throughout Addie LaRue’s life, as love allows her to discover her true self and worth.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is more of a character study than a romance; although Addie does not shy away from describing her female partners in the same way as her male partners, the true core of the book is Addie’s character development. Addie begins the story in 17th century rural France, a desperate teenage girl willing to sell her soul for the chance to to escape an arranged marriage, and live openly on her own terms. Lucifer, ever cunning, gives her the freedom and immortality she longs for, but curses her to be forgotten by all who meet her, dooming her to a life of isolation and sorrow. Throughout her eternal life, she is haunted by the charismatic, seductive devil himself, and nearly loses herself to his deceit. As she grows older and wiser, she learns that although she is forgotten, she will still be remembered through the marks she leaves behind on people’s lives, history and art. When she meets Henry Strauss in 2014, they slowly fall for each other after learning they were both marked by Lucifer. With Henry’s support and encouragement, she begins to find the strength to tell her story and defeat the devil on her own terms.

The novel embodies Schwab’s familiar, haunting prose, and introduces us to a cast of unique and lovable characters, the majority of which are LGBT. Henry’s friend group feels like a love letter to gay friendship as a whole, illustrating the inside jokes and affection only a group of queer people can have for each other. I also loved following Addie through history, seeing the world change and advance around her. The use of multimedia and art as a motif was particularly moving; the art we make acts as a stark indicator of both who we were, are and will be, and the world we live in.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a microcosm of a life’s journeys and discoveries. Addie’s imperceptibility can be seen as a metaphor for being closeted; Addie sells her soul for the opportunity for freedom, and the ability to choose who to love outside of the pre-conceived notions of narrow-minded people in her small French village. Thus, Addie is erased from the forefront, a vital part of her identity disregarded and ignored, her contributions lost to the sands of time, like many queer individuals through the annals of history. Addie is isolated and cut off from anyone like her, similar to being in the closet. It isn’t until Addie meets Henry, someone else who is cursed for wanting love and acceptance on his own terms, that she is able to see herself in him and come into her own.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a moving reflection on isolation and what it truly means to be human, summing up the collective need for companionship and acceptance in a tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm for the modern age.

Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance review copy.

Trigger Warnings: Abusive relationship, suicidal ideation, depression, addiction

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

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

Don’t Go Without Me is a triptych of comics written and illustrated by Spanish-American artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell which deal with ‘love, loss, and connection.’ Valero-O’Connell is best known for her graphic novel collaboration Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me with Mariko Tamaki, a book about a teenage lesbian and her experience in a toxic relationship. Don’t Go Without Me has fantastic premises with achingly familiar emotional experiences at their core. Her art style is iconic, something that is best described as ‘dreamy.’ She also uses panels in increasingly creative ways–they almost become visual line breaks in her comic poetry. Valero-O’Connell thrives in weird worlds, where every inch of space is filled with bits of plants or sky or people, creating a holistic experience for the reader.

The first, titular story follows a lesbian couple who cross to a parallel dimension and lose each other. The main character trades stories and facts about her girlfriend, Almendra, with the magical and strange residents of this other world for clues about her location, unwittingly trading away the memories associated with Almendra. The search shows off Valero-O’Connell’s character and world building skills as the main character plunges through high class parties attended by four-eyed suit-wearing men and skeleton heads and sphinxes and more. Every background character is unique and intriguing. The art is so complex and interesting that I wanted to read the whole thing again focused solely on the illustration

“What is Left” has another strange but compelling premise. In this story, a new fuel has been developed for spaceships– memory. A human donor can power engines through the brain waves generated by memories. The story follows one of the passengers, who, after an explosion, finds herself within the memory core next to the dreamer. She watches the dreamer’s life play out with no ability to communicate, struck by the knowledge that the dreamer is likely already dead. While the pages do contain a lot of sad content, it never comes off as depressing. It always feels more like a celebration of the negative emotions rather than a pity party.

The third and final story in this book, “Con Temor, Con Ternura” involves a town on the ocean, where a giant slumbers away. No one knows exactly how it got there, why it’s there, or when it will wake. The devout followers of the giant have calculated turtle migration patterns and sea levels and have determined that the giant will wake tomorrow, though no one knows whether it will kill them all or save them. Not everyone thinks it will wake, but people prepare for it nonetheless, with a huge day of feasting and partying. This is more of an ensemble piece, but the only characters that recur is an old lesbian couple, who represent love and how we reflect on it. It’s a deeply thrilling, emotional treatise on ‘what would you do if the world was ending,’ and, of course, it made me cry.

Rosemary Valero-O’Connell proves once again that she is a master of comic storytelling, visually and textually. Almost all of her stories contain, if not explicit lesbian characters, queer themes, and they all speak to some deep emotion inside of us. This comic was originally Kickstarted and published by the comics subscription service ShortBox, and I was so excited to get my hands on it. Valero-O’Connell’s work always hits and always hits hard, and I recommend this to literally anyone. Everyone deserves to read this wonderful masterpiece.

Landice reviews Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne

Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne

I’m not quite sure how to describe my experience of reading Architects of Memory. I started to say it was “a delight” to read, but that’s not even close to accurate, because this is an incredibly heavy book. And when I say heavy, I’m talking “what if corporations really were able to colonize space and then make everyone do incredibly dangerous labor to earn their place off-world, complete with sometimes mandatory medical procedures that incur massive debt against your citizenship account” heavy. That being said, it was well written and engaging, so much so that I marathoned most of it in one day, which I generally avoid doing with books that are heavy or likely to leave me emotionally exhausted.

Architects of Memory’s pacing is relentless from the very start, and if you’re anything like me, you will likely not want to put it down for anything. I was initially disappointed in how abrupt the ending felt, but then I realized this is the first in a series, so knowing there will be additional novels negated those issues.

I won’t go into much detail about the plot so as to avoid spoilers, but I did want to note that both of our POV characters are sapphic women! Ash is canonically bisexual with relationships with both men and women referenced in the story, and our second POV character, Kate, is also into women (though her actual sexuality is never confirmed). The two of them are–surprise–in love with each other, but feel as though they cannot or should not act on their impulses for the time being. This conflict added an extra layer of tension onto an already stressful plot, but in the best way! I’m not usually a fan of extended mutual pining, which is something Architects of Memory has in spades, but I think because the romance and pining took a back seat to the story, rather than driving it, I didn’t mind (further proof that I prefer genre fiction with f/f romantic subplots to romance novels, no matter how hard I try, which… Okay, fair. I can’t deny it anymore).

TL;DR: Y’all know I love a good sapphic sci-fi novel (and if you didn’t, now you do), and Architects of Memory really knocks it out of the park! I can’t wait to read Engines of Oblivion (Book 2), and if the Goodreads release date of Feb 2021 is accurate, we thankfully won’t have to wait too long to find out what’s next for Kate, Ash, and the rest of the galaxy. (Also, if you’re itching for a more analytical review that focuses more on the plot than the f/f relationship, my wonderful friend Dom has an excellent one that you can check out on Goodreads).

Architects of Memory Description:

Millions died after the first contact. An alien weapon holds the key to redemption—or annihilation. Experience Karen Osborne’s unforgettable science fiction debut, Architects of Memory.

Terminally ill salvage pilot Ash Jackson lost everything in the war with the alien Vai, but she’ll be damned if she loses her future. Her plan: to buy, beg, or lie her way out of corporate indenture and find a cure.

When her crew salvages a genocidal weapon from a ravaged starship above a dead colony, Ash uncovers a conspiracy of corporate intrigue and betrayal that threatens to turn her into a living weapon.

Content Warnings: Graphic violence, death of a loved one, nonconsensual medical procedures, gore/body horror type stuff. I’m probably forgetting a lot of things, to be perfectly honest. Read with care!

ARC Note: Thank you to Tor Books for granting me an advance ebook copy to review via Netgalley. This in no way impacted my thoughts (especially since I plan to buy a finished copy for my shelf). All opinions are my own.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram & Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.

Sash S reviews Spellbound by Jean Copeland and Jackie D.

“Hazel Abbot spent her whole life unaware she was a witch. When a spell thrusts her great-aunt Sarah Hutchinson forward from the Salem witch trials of 1692 and lands her in Hazel’s bookstore, everything Hazel thought she knew about herself changes…”

If you want a read that’s fast-paced, fun, and filled with well-rounded and likeable characters, look no further than Spellbound, a perfect blend of paranormal action and lesbian romance.

We start directly in the middle of the action, with protagonist Raven Dare—sexy, solemn and mysterious in equal measure—doing what she does best: hunting demons. Armed with gold knives and a wit that’s just as sharp, Raven kicks butt whilst quipping about American Idol, and it’s all in a day’s work for this demon hunter with a tortured past.

In a story about time-travel, supernatural monsters and women-fearing cults, it is the characters in Spellbound that are the true heart of the novel. There are a great many interesting dynamics at play between the central cast, and as a reader, you’re immediately drawn to them. The four main women are strong in their own ways, and their interactions are alternately warm, fierce and sizzling with tension. It’s great to see them clashing with the main villains of the novel, but just as fun to see them in their downtime, and there’s plenty of both due to the novel’s excellent pacing.

Sarah is great fun; immediately likeable and not one to take her strange circumstances sitting down, she takes agency and adapts to the world she’s living in, though finding it bizarre at times. Hazel, too, takes up her new mission with an admirable courage, spurred by the attraction she feels towards Raven. Morgan is aloof, sarcastic, but caring underneath. There are two main love stories in Spellbound, and though different in tone, both are equally compelling.

My favourite thing about this book is how down to earth it is, whilst dealing with the supernatural. Vivid descriptions of car rides, plane journeys and cities build up the real world, juxtaposed with fights against demons and monsters; the authors do a great job of nailing magical realism.

To that end, too, the villains of the story are rooted in very real prejudice despite their paranormal nature: whilst the protagonists clash with banshees and hellhounds, the writers don’t shy away from the fact that the real evils of this tale are prejudice, a fear of women and their strength, and a need to subjugate others for one’s own gain. The supernatural elements of Spellbound are a great vehicle for a story that’s ultimately about overcoming these things, celebrating the strength of women and doing what’s right.

This is such a fun read, with excellent pacing, engaging romance and a realistic, compelling cast of characters.

Rating: *****

Shana reviews The Deep by Rivers Solomon 

The Deep by Rivers Solomon

The Deep is the most beautiful book that I’ve read this year. It’s a lyrical novella based on a Hugo Award-nominated science-fiction song by clipping, a hip-hop group. The Deep is a reimagined mermaid story about an underwater society descended from African women tossed overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. We learn about the culture and history of these people, the wajinru, through the eyes of Yetu, their newest Historian.

Historians are responsible for holding the memories of every wanjinru who has lived, allowing individuals to live unburdened by the trauma of their collective past, only regaining temporary knowledge of their history through a yearly magic ritual. Yetu didn’t have a choice in taking on this calling, and she is overwhelmed by the weight of so many memories. In desperation, she tries to escape her role and carve a different path, one that brings her adventure, love with a surface dwelling “two-legged” woman, and a new respect for the power of memory.

Solomon packs a lot of eloquence into this small package and makes daring choices, like having the wanjinru appear fearsome to humans, rather than seductive sirens. The Deep feels longer than its 166 pages, in a good way. I enjoyed the wanjinru’s creative perspective on gender and relationships, and the way Solomon slowly explains the mystery of how their society came to be.

The story smoothly segues between Yetu’s present and the memories she carries. I sometimes dislike time jumps, but the inventive structure of the book made them feel seamless. However, I love complex worldbuilding and I found myself wishing for more explanation of the wanjinru’s fraught interactions with surface dwellers, alluded to through mentions of shipwrecks and oil rigs. The book’s atmospheric tone is gorgeous, but it also leaves some details to the reader’s imagination. For example, we never know exactly where in human geography Yetu is living.

The book imaginatively explores the nature and purpose of memories, generational trauma, and collective healing. It is so insightful that several times I gasped out loud while reading it. I appreciated the balance between the joy and ingenuity of the wajinru, and their painful history. I love books that use alternate history as social commentary and The Deep incorporates this with a light touch. It’s a powerful book, but also an engaging story with a sympathetic heroine. The Deep is a compelling and absorbing read that would appeal to lovers of feminist science fiction, underwater fantasy epics, or stories from the African diaspora.

Shannon reviews I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee

I'll Be the One by Lyla Lee

If you’re looking for something to make you smile just as much as it makes you think, Lyla Lee’s debut I’ll Be the One is the perfect book for you. It’s categorized as young adult romance, but don’t let that put you off. I’m in my forties and I loved every second I spent with these characters.

Skye Shin has grown up knowing she wants to be a K-Pop star. She’s devoted every spare moment to practicing both her singing and dancing, and even though those around her haven’t always been as supportive of her dreams as she might like, she’s determined not to let this get her down. Sure, she’s a self-professed fat girl whose mother is constantly telling her to lose weight before taking the world by storm, painful to be sure, but if her deep love for K-Pop has taught her anything over the years, it’s that she has to believe in herself one-hundred percent, even if she’s the only one who does.

When You’re My Shining Star, a talent competition focused on K-Pop, holds auditions in her area, Skye knows she has to try out. So, she skips school and shows up for what she hopes will be her chance to totally wow the judges. Unfortunately, while her performance is one of the best she’s ever given, some of the judges aren’t eager to take a chance on Skye. Suddenly, in front of tons of other would-be contestants as well as a camera crew, Skye is forced to defend not only her lifelong dream, but the right for anyone who isn’t extremely thin to create art.

What follows is not only a behind-the-scenes look into the making of a reality TV show, but a deep and often heart-wrenching look into one young woman’s journey toward self-acceptance. Skye is a remarkable heroine, more self-assured than I could have even dreamed of being at her age, smart, resourceful, and unwilling to back down. She knows what she wants, and even when things get rough, she plows ahead, sometimes making mistakes, but always seeking the best, most fulfilling way to be who she’s meant to be, and lest she seem too good to be true, let me assure you that she’s not always sure of her identity. She considers herself bisexual, but because of her contentious relationship with her mother, she’s afraid to come out to anyone but her closest friends, and yet, her unwillingness to come out makes her feel hypocritical at times.

As the competition heats up, Skye throws herself wholeheartedly into a grueling schedule of rehearsals and performances. Plus, she’s still in school and letting her grades fall is not an option. Needless to say, she’s busier than she’s ever been, but things aren’t all work and no play for her and her fellow contestants. Fast friendships are formed, and Skye even gets a shot at first love, even if that love comes from a direction she never anticipated.

If you’re sensitive to fat-phobic commentary, I’ll Be the One might prove difficult for you to read. Skye is bombarded with anti-fat rhetoric from her mother, from the judges, and from several of the other contestants, so proceed with caution if you decide to pick this book up.

Nothing I can say can adequately convey my love for I’ll Be the One. It’s the kind of book I would have loved to read as a teenager struggling to fit into a world that didn’t always feel welcoming. Lee has created the perfect combination of lighthearted fun and introspective wisdom, making this a great book for readers both young and old.

Trigger Warning: Fat-phobia

Zoe reviews Beyond II: The Queer Post-Apocalyptic & Urban Fantasy Comic Anthology edited by Sfé R. Monster and Taneka Stotts

Beyond II: The Queer Post-Apocalyptic and Urban Fantasy Comic Anthology

Beyond II: The Queer Post-Apocalyptic & Urban Fantasy Comic Anthology edited by Sfe R. Monster and Taneka Stotts is the second of its series, following Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi & Fantasy Comic Anthology, both of which were highly successful Kickstarter projects. The preface, which never fails to make me tear up, reads “These stories are for you. You’re not alone. We’re so glad you’re with us. We’re so glad you’re here.” It sets the tone for the rest of the anthology.

The anthology includes 25 stories by 36 contributors, which range from cryptids in the sewers to strangers waiting out the acid rain in a post-apocalyptic world to a fairy on a quest to make her human lover dinner. Each story features a new artist and writer, so the styles vary significantly and there is never any sense of repeat. Each comic has a completely new take on the genre. One interprets urban fantasy as an ancient Greek Olympics with mythological creatures like minotaurs, and another represents the genre with a story about a satyr and a dryad babysitting the seven werewolf kids in the apartment below them.

What I found most valuable within this anthology is how it interrogates the apocalypse from a queer lens. We’re used to the apocalypse in our media as being a place of fear and despair, whether it be caused by zombies, nuclear explosions, or mysterious diseases. The main character’s objective is typically to survive rather than thrive. Beyond II asks, among all this wreckage and loss, where can we find the good? How do we reclaim spaces that have been denied to us? One of my favorites from the anthology, “Pilot Light” by Steve Foxe and Paul Reinwand, has a post-apocalyptic wandering hero sworn to destroy the monsters roaming the land finding her true purpose in found family at a queer-owned outpost.

The sheer diversity and ingenuity in each comic honestly made me interested in urban fantasy and post-apocalyptic stories again, where before I had tended to write them off as overdone or ineffective.

Within Sarah Stern’s story “Cuchulainn,” humans hide behind walls from ‘Bodachs,’ predatory robots. The plot revolves around a boy named Jestin who figures out how to tame one. It’s a story about sacrifice and redemption, and it ends on a bittersweet note. Though Jestin exists in a broken world, he still has room to hope and try to make it better.  Another story, “Time Will Tell” by Samantha Cox and Ria Martinez, follows a male/male couple who explore the overgrown remains of our world, and in the process rescue a baby monster. The world is undeniably wounded, possibly even dying, but the focus is on the love between the two main characters. Beyond II is the kind of book where you didn’t know how much you were missing until you read it. If you can’t tell from this review, I’m kind of obsessed with it.

Something I truly appreciate about the anthology is the casual nature of representation. The stories are undeniably queer, but they aren’t about queer struggle. It doesn’t shy away from conflict, but that conflict is never based in homophobia or transphobia. In fact, the redeeming aspects of terrible situations is queer love. It also isn’t entirely about romantic love either. The book makes a statement about the importance of queer community in both happy and tragic circumstances. It declares that queer love is something that will save us all, even when everything is going wrong, and I, for one, agree. Beyond II is one of those books that makes you feel less alone. It gives you a sense of hope as well as entertainment, especially in these times where it seems as if everything is falling apart. It’s a celebratory anthology that revitalizes two genres that have often shunned queer people.

Carmella reviews All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

Content warning: this review references sexual assault

In the first chapter of her auto-fictional novel All Men Want to Know, Nina Bouraoui (translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) writes: “I want to know who I am, what I am made of, what I can hope for; I trace the thread of my past back as far as it will take me, making my way through the mysteries that haunt me, hoping to unravel them.”

This is just what the book sets out to do, exploring the narrator’s adult sense of identity–lesbian, writer, French, Algerian–through her past. Born to a French mother and an Algerian father, Bouraoui lived in Algiers until the age of fourteen, when her family relocated to France. Through this fictionalised narrative, Bouraoui ‘unravels’ her personal history, from a sun-baked childhood idyll in an Algeria threatened by the looming civil war of the 90s, to her search for connection as an 18-year-old in the lesbian nightlife of Paris, to her mother’s own life and experiences of sexual assault.

The story is told through beautiful vignette-like chapters that flicker between time periods and locations, mixing past and present, Paris and Algiers. It’s an experimental form that risks becoming frustrating, but I found the short chapters page-turningly compelling. The lack of fixed time and location represents Bouraoui’s own feelings of belonging between places: “I can’t choose one country, one nationality, over the other, I’d feel I was betraying either my mother or my father.”

In the Algerian chapters, headed as ‘Remembering’, Bouraoui writes vividly of desert holidays with her mother and sister alongside the horror of political unrest and violence. Roadblocks, harassment, and murders intertwine with family anecdotes and capers with her childhood best friend Ali.

As an 18-year-old in Paris, Bouraoui begins frequenting a women-only nightclub, looking for love but too terrified to act upon her desires. In this intimately anonymous setting, she feels part of the gay community (“I like these two words, they don’t so much belong to me as own me”) but experiences disconnection from her new lesbian social circle (“The women I spend time with are my rivals, women I go out with, not my friends”). Away from the club scene, she also begins to write. These chapters–headed ‘Becoming’–are reminiscent of the Parisian chapters of The Well of Loneliness as well as the works of Qiu Miaojin in their haunting sense of alienation.

The final narrative strand offers an account of Bouraoui’s mother’s youth in a war-torn France and the barriers surrounding her cross-cultural marriage. These ‘Knowing’ chapters mix family oral history with omniscience – how much would the narrator have been told and how much has been imagined?

All Men Want to Know is an evocative, heartfelt novel that explores psychological questions of self, belonging and knowing. While it covers distressing topics, it’s ultimately a beautiful and hopeful account of coming of age while straddling opposing identities.

Content warnings: rape, sexual assault, suicide, racism, murder, war, addiction, homophobia, sexism

Rachel Friars reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead is the queer fairy-tale retelling we needed in 2020.

Bayron’s novel is doing amazing things for queer fiction, fantasy, and YA. If there’s anything we need more of, it’s books like this, and more from Bayron herself. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Cinderella with queer girls. I can only recall Malinda Lo’s Ash (2009), which I read as a very confused teen, and still have on my shelf to this day. Bayron’s innovative and sparkling retelling is such a joy to read.

Cinderella is Dead takes place 200 years after the death of Cinderella. Based on the palace-approved version of the fairy tale that sixteen-year-old Sophia and her friends know by heart, Cinderella married her prince and lived happily ever after—for a time. Now, as a homage to Cinderella and her story, teenage girls are forced to appear at an Annual Ball, presided over by the current king, where all eligible men in the kingdom are free to select their wives. If a girl remains unselected…they are forfeit.

The novel opens with our main character, Sophia, preparing for the ball. However, Sophia would rather not go to any ball to be paraded in front of men who would have the authority to use her as they saw fit. Instead, she would rather marry her best friend, Erin. But things are complicated—the ball is not optional, and neither is conformity. After fleeing the palace the night of the ball—much like Cinderella herself, although under very different circumstances—Sophia finds herself in Cinderella’s tomb surrounded by the story she’s always known. However, when she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella and her stepsisters, she learns that Cinderella’s story may not be so idyllic after all. What happened to the fairy godmother? Were the stepsisters actually ugly and monstrous? Sophia is determined to find the truth.

The novel is miraculous not only for its representation of queer and Black characters, but for its world, which seems to draw on both the conventions of the Cinderella story and history itself. Sophia is living in a world where queerness isn’t unheard of, but exists underground, subtly, or silently. She lives in a world where being different is unsafe, and the world around her struggles to catch up to her own bravery. In a world that demands absolute conformity, dissent comes at a steep price, and Bayron, through her characters, allows us to see the way queer people avoid that price in order to be who they are. This isn’t unheard of in centuries—or even decades—past, and is still relevant in some parts of the world today. So, even though the world of Cinderella is Dead has those elements of magic and fantasy that make the story so thrilling, there are also pieces of history that make it a important piece of queer literature.

The characters are vivid and thoughtfully presented, and each person close to Sophia presents us with a different view of queerness in a post-Cinderella world. Luke, the son of a family friend, is our window into the avenues through which people can explore their queerness, and the consequences of being discovered. Erin, by contrast, is one of the many portraits of the painful position of women—especially queer women—in this society. The fact that this story, with all of its intricacies, is structured around the story of Cinderella, makes it doubly fascinating.

One last word about the romance: Constance and Sophia are such a great pair! After a fraught dynamic with Erin, who struggles with her sexuality and society’s expectations, it’s clear that the relationship between Constance and Sophia is meant to be a vibrant alternative. Although I felt that their relationship could have used more detail in terms of the natural progression of their feelings for one another, that could just be me wanting more.

Overall, I loved this book and it was so much fun to read Bayron’s novel and to discover a world where queer girls can, quite literally, do anything. Although queer fairy-tale retellings have become more popular in recent years, we always need more, and we especially need more written by people of colour, and this one is particularly beautiful and unique.

Please visit Kalynn Bayron on her website, or on Twitter @KalynnBayron.

Content Warnings: abuse, domestic violence, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every queer novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.