Carolina reviews The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

I’m ashamed to admit I have always preferred boy bands to girl groups. I was a massive One Direction fan back in the day, and still have so much love for each of the boys (especially Harry <3). However, despite my unfamiliarity with the girl group/pop genre as a whole, when I saw The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes as an option for my August Book of the Month, I knew I had to give it a try. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is an exploration of the destruction of the most famous 2000’s girl group, Gloss, as they come to terms with the death of one of their bandmates, Cassidy Holmes. We flashback between Cassidy’s perspective during the top of the group’s career in 2001, to the future as each member of Gloss–Merry, Yumi and Rose–comes to terms with their relationship to Cassidy, and to fame as a whole. Darker than the initial saccharine bubblegum evoked by the era, The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes sinks its teeth into the black heart of the music industry by exposing the unhealthy image consciousness, rampant closeting and bearding, and abuse of power by men in the media that still persists today.

I may be too young to fully appreciate the novel’s noughties nostalgia, as I recently turned 20, but I did find remnants of my childhood in Cassidy’s treasured flip phone and the celebrity gossip buzz surrounding the fictional red carpets, reminiscent of the infamous Taylor/Kanye feud and other iconic awards show moments. Albeit, I have more nostalgia for the “Britney/Brittany” episode of Glee rather than Britney Spears’s actual career, but I definitely suggest this book if you have a strong attachment to the era, as each of the fictional celebrities leap off the page and seem as they could be really stars on MTV and tabloid columns. I also recommend listening to the author’s curated 1990’s/2000’s pop playlist in the back of the book as you read for deep immersion into the years of sequined Juicy tracksuits and frosted tips.

The comfort of the time period led to an easy read (I read this 400+ page book in a day), but I had some issues with pacing and timing. The author would foreshadow something, and then immediately reveal it in the next chapter, instantly killing any sense of anticipation that could have been built up.

I loved hearing each of the girl’s perspective on fame and how the industry changed their lives, for better or for worse. Yumiko’s storyline was the most fleshed out and poignant; Yumi discusses the challenges of being a Japanese woman in the media, and her experience with racism, fetishization and cultural appropriation. Merry’s story regarding her abusive past also rang true, evoking echoes of the #MeToo movement, as the group’s abusers received their comeuppance in the modern day. However, I wish there was more of a discussion of Cassidy’s mental health from her perspective rather than those around her. I can understand that this book does focus the feelings of questioning and misunderstanding of those attempting to come to terms with a close one’s suicide, but I would’ve liked to see more of Cassidy’s mental health struggles in her own words, rather than from her friend’s speculation.

My least favorite member of Gloss was Rose, Cassidy’s love interest. I enjoyed having a morally grey sapphic female protagonist, but I felt that she was very manipulative and dismissive of each of the girl’s needs. If the author wanted me to root for Rose and Cassidy’s burgeoning romance, then it needed to be fleshed out more with more attention to Rose’s tender side, which we only receive brief glimpses of. I would have preferred the love story if Cassidy fell for Emily, her sweet and steadfast dog sitter.

I also found the discussion of Rose’s coming out as a publicity stunt and the implication that she would be celebrated and gain popularity for her coming out as problematic. So many individuals have lost their careers, their audiences, or even their lives for being brave enough to come out. I felt that it was frankly dismissive of out and proud musicians and the struggles they’ve faced; Harry Styles has taken considerable flack for his androgynous clothing choices and rejection of sexuality labels, and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! lost members of her punk community audience after coming out as a transgender lesbian. Equating the real life struggles of LGBT individuals to a simple plug for diversity and public clout is fraught and simply not true.

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is a reflection on what it means to be a woman in the music industry. We are right by Cassidy’s side as she faces homophobia from the media, gaslighting by the men in charge of her music and image, and an ever creeping sense of dread as her mental health struggles loom larger and larger. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes exposes the ugly sides of our current celebrity culture and illustrates the true tradeoff between happiness and fame.

Trigger warnings: racism, stalking, suicide, self harm, discussion of mental health, disordered eating, paranoia, bulimia, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting, substance abuse, sexual assault, rape

Sash S reviews Second Wind by Ceillie Simkiss

Second Wind by Ceillie Simkiss

No matter how old you are, there’s always a chance for romance. 

Second Wind follows Martha Appleby and Pamela Thornton, women in their seventies who reconnect on a flight to Glasgow following the death of Martha’s husband. During their trip, the two women begin to rekindle their childhood bond, support each other through difficult transitions and understand why they parted ways all those years ago.

With endearing side characters, idyllic settings and an uplifting, romantic storyline, Second Wind promises to whisk you away and, with its short page count, makes for a lovely, breezy read.

It’s incredibly refreshing to read a love story about older protagonists, and particularly queer women. The main characters brim with personality, quips, quirks and distinctly different temperaments. Martha’s relationship to her deceased husband is never dismissed or downplayed, yet it never overshadows her blossoming romance with Pamela. The two simply exist together in the same story, Martha’s story.

Second Wind is short enough that we don’t get as much background on the main characters as readers might like, outside of the flashback chapters, but there’s a lot to fill in considering their decades-long personal histories. For this reason, some readers might find it lacking, but the story itself, following these characters at this point in their lives, is an absolute delight. It’s sweet and simple, heart-achingly romantic and abundantly hopeful. The stakes are mundane but intensely real.

Not all books have to be dark and full of complicated twists and turns in order to be enjoyable. This novella is charming and refreshing in its simplicity, reminding us that you can still find love (and specifically, queer love) no matter your age.

 

Arina reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Reading Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension has been long overdue for me. This sapphic Sci-Fi with a metaphysical twist is the type of read you don’t often find in the genre.

It centers on Alana, an engineer specializing in spaceship repair. She has a special connection with energy and metal, an inexplicable bond that drives her devotion.

She and her aunt Lai survive only on the pittance given to them by the sparse work arriving at their engineering station.

In their rapidly decaying planet, survival is a daily struggle that most times comes short. It is this fact, propelled by Alana’s hidden desires, that prompts her to stowaway on a ship whose crew arrives at her station looking for her sister, Nova, who is something akin to a spiritual life coach.

Told from Alana’s first-person POV, the outset of this story swiftly establishes an interesting background. Jacqueline wastes no time in capturing your attention with her setting, one that highlights the destructive consequences gentrification and a corporate-monolithic society have on minority communities.

I was immediately drawn to this discussion on lack of opportunity and accessibility (the major in the book being accessibility to healthcare, due to Alana and her aunt’s chronic illness), drawing clear parallels to our contemporary world and dissecting it, exposing its entrails for all readers to see.

In Ascension, the oppressive force is Transliminal, a corporation from another universe that has seized control of technological and medicinal advancements.

Through Alana’s chronic condition we are given a lens into the many failings of our society when it comes to the intersectionality of marginalized identities and illness.

Alana’s chronic pain does not define her, yet it is an inherent part of her. Her disorder also helps carve a clear picture of this society’s inequality, and the decisions people with a chronic illness have to face to live another day.

Alana does have some agency over her pain, frequently demonstrating a tremendous force of will and powering through it in critical situations (which eventually leads to her ceding ground to it). She expresses in equal measure the insecurities, exhaustion, and relentlessness that come with an arresting illness.

It sparked a fire in me to read a character like that, with a side that doesn’t usually make it on the cast roster, much less the main stage.

Family is the catalyst for this very much character-driven story, but I could not fully connect to their relationships.

They have a good dynamic, but trust seems to come conveniently easily between them, sometimes going against their own words. Backstories are delivered very matter-of-factly, at moments defined to make you immediately care for them.

I personally need a bit more first-hand emotional involvement but there were still exciting things about the cast I deeply enjoyed. They are a diverse cast, including disabled characters and lgbtq+ characters, who are people with real worries and connections.

Asides from the sapphic romance, there’s also a polyamorous relationship (I loved how healthy it was!), and there’s an effort to make them more than a cardboard cut-out of their identities meant to check a box.

It’s clear they come from a place of respect and this is exactly the sort of representation that elevates a story for me.

Though the beginning crafts this gripping message wrapped around a new world, many times it’s not picked apart enough. I felt I was not eased into many of the workings and concepts of this world, nor allowed to explore them. I could not prod at the worldbuilding like I love to do, instead, I had to surmise it by myself.

It was the ending that inevitably pulled me in and GOD. WHAT AN ENDING. The excitement and mystery in these final chapters fully enraptured me, delivering a plot twist that I was definitely not expecting.

All in all, there is much to like about this book and even with its slightly underdeveloped underpinnings, I found this a satisfying story that reaches further into the possibilities of the genre.

Arina first discovered stories through their grandparents, who would regale them with tales of misbehaving kangaroos and gentle untailed monkeys, igniting a spark that would spread the wildfire of their love for books. Currently, they mostly brave the wild worlds of SFF but is actually a sucker for any great journey no matter its realm. You can find them at @voyagerarina and their blog.

Maggie reviews New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids

New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids

New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids is about apprentice tattoo artist Cassie Whiteaker coming to finish her apprenticeship at the shop of MJ Flores. MJ is initially put off by Cassie’s shyness and appearance, but takes her on because they both have the same former mentor. MJ also learns that Cassie is a cancer survivor who wants to do cover-ups of mastectomy scars. They strike a deal wherein MJ will finish Cassie’s apprenticeship and teach her how to be more assertive and stand up for herself, and Cassie will help with new business ideas for the shop, which is still struggling to find its feet after a messy breakup between MJ and her former girlfriend and business partner.

New Ink on Life had a lot of things I liked in it – tattoos, cancer survivors, quitting corporate jobs – but I felt like the relationship did not find its feet until the second half of the book, and it took me that long to feel like the main couple really worked together. From the start, MJ is overly abrasive – I have no idea how she found enough people to run her shop with like that – and Cassie seems too timid to give her a chance. It felt like there was too large of a gap between them, it made it hard to believe them clicking long enough to have their admittedly excellent sexual chemistry. It’s nice when they get along better – they even go antiquing, although that doesn’t necessarily go smoothly.

But the second half of the book does flesh out their relationship much better. Although we don’t get much insight into MJ’s old relationship and shop, we do get some backstory with her family and how it contrasts with Cassie’s backstory with her family. We also get more about Cassie’s history with cancer, and how she is coping with life after. MJ eventually softens her attitude some and becomes endearingly supportive of Cassie. The time they spend together fleshes out their relationship enough that by the last third of the book, I think they really work well together by the end, even if I can’t believe they made it long enough to get that far. Cassie does some good business plan ideas for the shop, and there’s some good contrast with how poorly MJ’s ex’s shop is run. It made me believe that Cassie really did love tattooing enough to quit her job and take an unpaid apprenticeship for it.

If you really love a dynamic of an abrasive personality being softened up by a nicer partner, maybe this book would be more for you. Or if you love any romance centered around tattooing, you should absolutely take a look. But, although I ended up enjoying it by the end, I think I’ll look in another direction for my romance reading.

Marthese reviews The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

“The Red Prince is like Joan of Arc, if God had been sensible and made her English”

At the end of last year I got interested about the story of the Nutcracker. I knew it was a ballet but I didn’t know it was a story… so naturally I looked up queer retellings. This looked like the most promising one, so it was my first read of the year.

The Prince and Her Dreamer is about Prince ‘Mattie’ Mathilde, who gets injured while fighting the rats. Her best friend and court fae Ross suggests turning her into a doll so she can heal and Mathilde agrees. Fast-forward a few decades and Clara, Ross’ relative from the human world, manages to break the spell through an act of unselfish kindness.

Now, while choosing which retelling to read, as there are a few sapphic retellings of the nutcracker, I read mixed reviews about this book. Many people were saying the book was too short (it’s a novella) and that there was a distinct lack of world-building. This is all true, however, I think it’s because it’s not a plot-driven story but a character-driven one. It assumes that people are already familiar with the story, so if you are not, look up the story first before reading this retelling.

Before we get to the good stuff, let me air out my pet peeves about this story. To me, the story around Mathilde being turned into a doll sounded unconvincing. Like, why must it be someone related to Ross? Is the magic linked to blood? Most importantly, how does a fae have human relatives? Did they used to be part of the same world? Did someone move? Even a character-driven story needs to address plot-holes.

There is also a bit of an age gap. Yes, Mathilde doesn’t age while being a doll, but she was conscious: she had a lot of time to grow and mature as a person during those two decades. Clara is 17… while being mature and headstrong, she’s young. This book, apart from being fantasy, is also historical fiction, as Clara lives during the Victorian era. I am aware that age was a different concept then, but still, this gap was never addressed. In fact, Mathilde thinks of them as about the same age.

Another plot point which was never resolved was the toy soldier. Were they wooden always or had their appearance been altered? I just did not understand.

Clara’s coming out, even though to her ‘uncle’ who she knew would accept her, felt a little fake. The language used was not something I associate with Victorian times, and I’m sure that even with all her self-awareness, it was too quick for her to unpack all her baggage, for her to be comfortable saying those words. In a way, it’s a fairytale, but it still needs to seem realistic.

Now, the things that I did like were, in brief, the characters, their relationship and altering gender-tropes.

Mathilde has a tragic background. She’s young, but she’s leading an army, and suddenly she is not able to do even that. When she comes back, most of the people around her had aged; they moved on without her, and she has both to overcome survivor’s guilt as well as find her place again among all those people who did not expect her to come back.

Clara is trying to please her family while still doing somewhat what she likes. She’s trying to compromise, and at some point, she needs to make a decision. Clara likes to read and likes her ‘uncle’ and the stories he tells her, and even though she’s too old for a doll, she really liked his present. With all her knowledge of the four realms (due to her reading her Uncle’s book over and over), Clara proves to be a great help to Mathilde.

I liked how the two characters, while drawn immediately to each other, take some time to develop a relationship (even in such a short novella). The two characters, because of circumstances, also mature separately before coming back together. I liked very much the fact that in spite of everything, Clara wanted to live life in her own terms, not because of someone else, but because of her will. There was also consent while kissing! So props to the author for that (even though it should be common practice both in reality and in fiction). I’d like to point out that there are no sex scenes in this book.

I also liked the gender-altering elements in this book. The most obvious being the ‘Prince’ title to Mathilde, a girl. The way I saw it was that a Prince was the successor of the King (or an unmarried Royal). I don’t see why in reality there should be any gender distinction to royal (or other) titles. There was also a gender-altering for a minor character, who you expect to be female but is male. That was a nice touch and plays on our assumptions.

In the end, I had mixed feelings about this retelling. There were a lot of plot holes. It felt like starting a book from the ending. We know nothing of the rats apart from what the rat king was made from. We also do not know what happened to the rats towards the end of the book. A few sentences here and there to explain the plot were definitely needed and for use, a longer book was needed. However, there were found family feels, good relationship structures and gender-bending elements.

Give it a try, especially if you already know the story and can fill in the missing information from your previous knowledge or your imagination. It’s also quite short, so you can read it in a break, but hurry up if you’re in the northern hemisphere, as it’s best read while it’s still cold.

Mallory Lass reviews Falling Into Her by Erin Zak

Falling Into Her by Erin Zak

Note: This review contains spoilers. I don’t think they are major spoilers, but integral to discussing the identity politics (or lack there of) in the book.

If you liked Just Jorie by Robin Alexander, you will probably also like this book. In my opinion, Just Jorie is a romantic comedy and this is a contemporary romance, so while they have similar themes and threads (age gap, first time wlw relationship), it is not an apples to apples comparison.

Kathryn Hawthorne has a penchant for older women, particularly unavailable “straight” ones. She works as Chicago’s hottest movie critic and is a minor celebrity. She comes from a wealthy family, but has a strained relationship with her mother and

Pam Phillips is newly a widow and is trying to find herself again after being under her husband’s thumb. She works at a high end boutique, Skin, and has a dog named Dorothy. Her best friend, Judy has been there through thick and thin for the last 12 years. When Kathryn comes into Skin looking for a present, everything in Pam’s life seems to change, especially the relationships she holds dear.

I enjoyed this romance because both Kathryn and Pam are likable, and I was rooting for both of them the whole way. They navigate their relationships with family and best friends, dealing with how their new romantic entanglement fits into their existing lives, which was very relatable to me. They deal with their conflicts primarily by having actual discussions about them with each other which is a big plus (artificially created drama which would normally be resolved by having a conversation with each other is one of my biggest romance genre pet peeves).

I want to take a moment to talk about the age gap and then the sex, especially as it relates to the age gap. The debate over “how many years does there have to be between the two love interests to count as an age gap?” rages on, and there is no bright line rule. This one is only eight years. As a lover of big age gaps, I prefer 10+ years. However, the two characters are in very different life stages, so I think the book still falls solidly into the age gap trope.

The sex is really hot. Zak is great with nuanced, sensual moments, and the interactions between the two love interests were a joy to read. Pam is older, but has zero experience making love to a woman. Frankly, Pam hasn’t enjoyed her sex life to this point. My favorite flavor of age gap trope is when the younger one is able to teach the older one something important. In this case, Zak delivers a really hot night where Kathryn gets to teach Pam some of the things she knows about pleasing women, and Pam gets to show off what a good student she is. Zak did a great job of conveying Pam’s nerves and allowing her to express those nerves and be supported. Kathryn met her where she was and the most intimate parts of their relationship are really beautifully done.

There were a few things that I found problematic and those took me out of the book. There are a few women in Kathryn’s romantic past that are described as straight women. According to Kathryn’s best friend Stephanie, she can’t help herself around straight women. Pam, having lost her husband, the only person she has ever had a relationship with, also initially identifies herself as straight. The problem I have is there doesn’t seem to be anything in between. Pam says bisexual one time, but it doesn’t stick. Further Pam doesn’t really deal with her changing identity, which is okay, it’s not the story Zak wanted to tell, but it felt breezed over. Her sister accuses her of being a lesbian, as do other characters in the book, and this piece of the story just feels like it was written in the 80s and not in 2017. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to make it seem like lesbians are trolling the world to try and convert women to being into other women. And, it is unfair to women who are struggling to find their identity (in this case late in life) to be boxed into being either straight or a lesbian. It erases their past experience and is cliche.

The main conflict is primarily an external situational conflict, and I would have liked more internal conflict from both Kathryn and Pam. Neither seemed bothered by or really addressed their age difference at all, they gloss over the fact that Kathryn has had many lovers in her life, and Pam only her ex-husband. Pam isn’t poor, but Kathryn is ultra rich, and that isn’t an issue either. Ultimately, Falling Into Her was an enjoyable read, but Zak set the characters up for more layers and complexity and then failed to deliver on those deeper emotional beats.

Marthese reviews All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

“I don’t want her to grow up with only the voices of the Fellowship and our parents in her ears… most of all, I don’t want her to grow up to be afraid of me”

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick promised to be a mix between Pretty Little Liars and People Like Us. I don’t usually like books that compare themselves to something else because surely they are not original and they are piggybacking on something else. However, from time to time, I am in the mood to revisit plots similar to other ones.

The TV show Pretty Little Liars–never read the books–was a hit, but it was also messy. All Eyes On Us has a clear plot with some surprises.

The story follows Amanda and Rosalie in alternate chapters. Amanda is the popular girl at school, who acts more mature than her age and has her life paved in front of her. What people don’t know though, is that her family is just keeping appearances of being wealthy. Amanda also knows that her boyfriend, Carter, is cheating on her. Rosalie comes from a religious family who are deeply rooted in the Fellowship of Christ denomination. She is also casually seeing Carter for her own agenda: she had previously been sent to a conversion camp and is traumatised by it. Rosalie wants to protect herself and her (cute) relationship with Paulina; she doesn’t want to lose her parents or her little sister but it feels inevitable. She never wanted to hurt anyone, but inevitable, people end up being hurt.

Both Amanda and Rosalie start receiving anonymous text–and sometimes paper–messages from Private, who wants them to humiliate Carter before his birthday, or else things will turn sour. Things do in fact turn sour. The two girls, especially Amanda, are reluctant to work together, but that too, feels inevitable.

As I mentioned, this book has a clear plot and sub-plots. It keeps you at the edge of your seat trying to see who did it because sometimes it felt too obvious and you just want to solve the mystery and see the motivation behind it.

I liked the characters in this book. They are all flawed, and the parents are all bad at parenting. It’s heart-breaking how the protagonists cannot rely on them, because their words or actions will be turned against them. There is more than one type of violence represented in the book. There’s a lot of toxic adulthood thoughts too, but in a way, both Amanda and Rosalie are growing in their own skin: one by figuring out what her identity is and one standing up for it and living her truth.

Let me say that Pau is the most supporting girlfriend ever. They are super cute together and from what I read, I like Paulina’s aesthetic too. Rosalie has several flashbacks and the trauma is deep. What she had and has to go through is horrific, and knowing that this is reality for some people, it’s just sad.

Amanda is both too much of a grown up in her actions and not a grown up at all, because she is set to live her life according to other people’s needs and expectations. At times, she is really mean, but she does eventually realise this. While Rosalie acts out because she’s scared, Amanda acts out because she’s hurting.

One thing that really surprised me was that I rarely blamed Carter. He’s not just the cheating boyfriend or the white over-privileged poor-him wealthy career-already-held-for-him star. He had a lot of expectations placed on him, ones that are toxic and are destroying his own happiness. Yes, he does act like an asshole sometimes, but so do the other characters. He acts compassionate, understanding, confused…and so many other emotions.

Of course, there is a plot twist. Thinking who was Private was too easy. The conclusion to the mystery of who did it and why was done well. Paulina and Rosalie are still the best couple.

I’d recommend this book if you like stalker mysteries, unlikely alliances between 1 gay and 1 straight character and characters growing to be more courageous.

Bee reviews The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai

The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai cover

Spoiler Warning

Trigger warnings: character death, violence, body horror, gore

I should say upfront that I don’t read much sci-fi. It’s definitely not my genre of choice, so I am unfamiliar with the conventions and the tropes, and the general methods of worldbuilding. The only reason I picked up The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai was that it won the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction this year. A hint of gay is enough to get me picking up any sort of book – and I am unbelievably glad that in this case, I did.

The Tiger Flu is set in a future overrun by its eponymous disease, forcing the population into quarantine levels, with the maligned and anarchic Saltwater City at the centre. In the outermost quarantine ring is the Grist Village, a secluded commune of women exiled from Saltwater City due to their genetic mutations: they are a society built around “doublers” – women with the ability to clone – and “starfish” – those who are able to regrow their own body parts, and so donate them to Grist women who need them. This is the home of one of our perspective characters, Kirilow Groundsel, a groom who cares for her starfish lover, Peristrophe. When an invader from Saltwater City brings the tiger flu with them, a weakened Peristrophe succumbs to the disease, sending Kirilow on a revenge quest to both kill the responsible “Salty” and find a new starfish to protect the Grist way of life.

In Saltwater City, Kora Ko helps her uncle grow potatoes for their tiny family, hoping to prolong their lives even though both her brother and uncle show signs of the tiger flu. Although the illness mostly affects men, Kora is still in danger of contracting it – and so the family decides to send her to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, also a commune of sorts in the depths of the city, where girls are taught to dance and thieve. Kora only wants her family reunited – but perhaps her brother, K2, is more dangerous to her than she thought.

Something which I appreciated greatly about Lai’s writing was that none of the worldbuilding was explanatory. In fact, very little explanation is given, and so it is mostly up to the reader to deduce what is going on and how the characters fit within this dirty, diseased world. The prose is enough for this, with everything being slightly off-kilter, enough that you come to understand what has happened to the world in this year of 2145. It was hard for me initially, it being a bit difficult to get into the sci-fi headspace, but I did find it consuming in the best of ways.

Something which I found it hard to get past was that the plot was put in motion by the death of Peristrophe; is it an example of Dead Lesbian Syndrome? On the one hand, it means that the narrative as a whole is framed by Kirilow’s love for Peristrophe – it is what haunts and drives her, and leads to almost every inciting decision she makes. On the other hand, there is something a little Willow/Tara about it all, where Kirilow’s development as a character is only kicked into gear when her lover is killed. For a lesbian literature award winner, I’ll admit that I was expecting the relationship to feature in a different way. It was startling to have Peristophe’s death hit the page so quickly, and with no real sense of justice eventuating from it.

What I did appreciate was that the women were allowed to be – and I love the opportunity to use this word – feral. In this dystopic world, the women protect themselves from corrupt and diseased men by being violent and ugly, unwashed and aggressive. The Cordova girls are frequently referred to as “stinky”, and Kora’s own scalp crawls with lice. Kirilow isn’t afraid of blood, and readily performs surgery and amputations. It’s always refreshing to read women in this way, especially when beauty and perfection are shown to be corrupt facades. I read this as a sharp assessment of womanhood under patriarchy, in a book full of sharp assessments on a number of topics.

From the sanctuary of her Grist Village, Kirilow isn’t even aware of what a man is, except for stories she has heard about how “Salties” reproduce, a relic of how society used to be. There is something a little cisnormative about this, with the Grist process of cloning – or “doubling” – still being dependent on wombs. In a world more sharply divided into men and women, I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more discussion around the multifaceted nature of gender – especially considering this is sci-fi.

All of that said, I am still grateful that I read The Tiger Flu. It is a singular book, which constructs a confronting world filled with complex characters who don’t always behave in the way you’d think. Even in the world that Larissa Lai creates, one which is harsh and at times grotesque, these characters are driven by love, in their own ways. The prose is arresting, and the world is consuming, and it is all a sort of welcome fever dream. As someone who does not read sci-fi, I am glad I read this one – and I think you will be, too.

Sheila Laroque reviews Maiden, Mother Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes by Gwen Benaway

Maiden, Mother, Crone edited by Gwen Benaway

I became aware of Gwen Benaway this fall on twitter (@GwenBenaway) with the controversy that was happening in Toronto with the public library and a hateful speaker. More of Gwen’s writing on her experiences of these events can be found here. Also, this fall she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for her work Holy Wild. While I was on the waitlist at my library for her work of poetry, I decided to pick up this collection of short fantasy stories that feature trans characters. I’m really glad I did.

I’m trying to read outside of my usual genres, and fantasy stories fit that for me. I know there are many fans of fantasy; but for me this is a new genre. Knowing that all of the stories presented here would have trans heroines and queer elements; along with other tropes of fantasy writing. In a way, this was like having a twist on a classic comfort food. I had an idea of what I was getting, but was always pleasantly surprised. Having all of these stories feature trans characters so seamlessly highlighted the ways that fantasy writing can (and should) feature more diverse characters, without breaking genre conventions. After all, is it really that far of a stretch of the imagination to think that characters wouldn’t be able to use magic to change their gender? Or to live in worlds where there are different gender conventions and acceptance of this?

My favorite stories were “Mountain God” by Gwen Benaway, “Potions and Practices” by Gwynception and “Dreamborn” by Kylie Ariel Bemis. It’s hard for me to really narrow down exactly why, because all of these stories are different. But I think I just really enjoyed the characters and getting to have short glimpses into their fantastical worlds. Much like how Love Beyond Space and Time can serve as a guide to Indigenous writers and storytellers, this book can be a good introduction for those who are seeking more trans-inclusive reading in their fantasy collections. I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more from these authors.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

Jessie Archer is an agent of Athena, a secret women’s organization that does the government’s dirty work of bringing down bad guys without the red tape. But even Athena has its rules, and Jessie is a loose cannon. When she’s fired from the only work she’s ever known, Jessie takes matters into her own hands and goes on a mission to bring down Gregory Pavlic, a Serbian politician known for human trafficking. Along the way, she falls for Paulina, the forbidden love interest and daughter of the enemy. Jessie must earn her old team’s trust and work with them to save Gregory’s victims from a grisly fate.

Jessie is a hard protagonist to like and cheer for. She’s immature and impatient, causing her to make the same mistakes over and over again. She messes up and expects immediate forgiveness as soon as she shows remorse, never allowing her loved ones the time and space they need to heal from the hurt she caused.

She also has a righteous complex that is obnoxious. Jessie falls into the “not like other girls” trap and considers such women who engage in what are considered narcissistic activities as beneath her. She also tends to lean toward a colonizer’s savior complex, which is especially poignant when she talks to her friend Hala, a woman she brought into the fold after helping her seek asylum in England when Hala was accused of being a terrorist.

Being unlikeable doesn’t make her a bad character, though. It just makes her a frustrating one. However, her inner dialogue reveals her reasons behind her actions and adds a layer of sympathy for readers to latch onto. Jessie recognizes that while Athena’s vigilante missions do good, they can’t pretend they don’t ever do bad in the process. It makes up the hero’s internal conflict throughout the novel. Jessie constantly questions how much bad Athena can do for the sake of good before they themselves become the bad guys.

The pacing and action of the story keep it moving, making the book a quick read. The fight scenes are exciting and keep the reader hooked, wondering what comes next and if the hero will escape certain death. Jessie’s computer and tech skills are also a point of appreciation. Her technical prowess makes her a formidable agent of good, as she offers both brain and brawn.

Ultimately, the action and pace are what keep the novel going. The character development and dynamics don’t delve deep enough for readers to create an attachment to the people and their conflicts. There was potential for rich relationships, but the writing only scratched the surface with Jessie and her comrades.

The most interesting character dynamic was Jessie and Paulina, as their roles created a star-crossed lovers scenario. With Jessie being on the side of good and Paulina being the daughter of the villain, it seemed like readers could tell where that relationship was going. But the twist at the end came as a surprise and made for a satisfying bit of character growth.

Aside from this relationship though, the characters felt shallow. Especially with Jessie, it felt like a great deal of the emotions and behaviors were unexplained or unearned. Most of what her character did felt out of left field.

The way Jessie’s queer identity is handled seemed odd at the end. Throughout the novel, she’s not exactly shy about the way she feels about Paulina. She’s not running around the streets yelling it at the top of her lungs, but she doesn’t run away from the bond they create either.

So in the end, when her mother, Kit, reveals that she didn’t know Jessie liked women, it was confusing. Jessie’s sexuality is never explicitly discussed between her and the other characters, so it felt like it was common knowledge and accepted. Kit’s revelation indicates otherwise though.

The best part of the book is its diverse cast of characters. Athena is made of women from various backgrounds, from British to Arabic to American and Black. Its founder is an Asian woman who reads like a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark type, using her billions and tech company to fund the espionage organization.

Overall, the premise and characters had a lot of potential, but I don’t think Sarif reached it. It is still a fun and fast read for anyone looking for an action-packed book with kick-butt ladies.