Maggie reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

I really enjoyed Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and it is on my rec shortlist when people want fantasy or YA recs. So when I walked by the sequel in stores I was incredibly excited at A) the fact that it was out and B) how amazing the cover is. The complete drama of those outfits with the understated blood splatter is everything I wanted. Black heroines looking fancy? Black heroines looking so fancy while still fighting zombies? The amazing cut of Jane’s suit and blouse and her intimidatingly direct stare? I love every single thing about it. Of course, between wanting to reread Dread Nation so I could remember every detail and library hold lists and just everything else that has happened this year, it took me longer than planned to get ahold of the audiobook, but I am so happy I finally did, and that I get to review it right after reviewing Dread Nation.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland picks up exactly where Dread Nation left off: with Jane, Kate, and a group of miscellaneous other people they’ve accumulated escaping the doomed town of Summerland ahead of a horde of zombies. In possession of a letter that says that her mother is no longer at Rose Hill plantation but is instead headed for California, Jane wants to head that way to find her, but lack of supplies and the needs of the civilians with them force them to head for the nearby town of Nicodemus. There they are reunited with past acquaintances and have to convince the people of their temporary home that the town’s defenses will not stand against the oncoming horde in a frightening echo of their time in Summerland. The ending of Nicodemus, like Summerland, is catastrophic for everyone there, and Ireland uses its demise as a point for a time jump that has both Jane and Kate trying to make new lives for themselves in California, but separated from each other and facing terrible hardship and prejudice once again. Between proper Kate struggling to find a place for herself where she feels fulfilled and vengeance-obsessed Jane making a name for herself but being unable to rest, Ireland highlights a full range of experiences and difficult choices they face as Black women trying to survive in country filled with racism, misogyny, and, of course, zombies.

The choice between love and vengeance is a pretty standard one in literature, but Ireland explores the whole spectrum of love that can drive people. From family – where Jane’s memories of her mother are part of what drives her to keep moving and her subsequent grappling with how memory doesn’t match reality – to friendship – Jane and Katherine are continually motivated by the friendship they’ve forged through shared tribulations – Jane and Kate struggle to make sense of the world where they find themselves and what they want out of life. Romance gets a full treatment too, even though it isn’t the main focus. Kate is asexual, and her musings on whether she should try to stomach getting married for the benefits it would provide for her and others, as well as her remembering how trapped she felt as a youth when she thought it was her only option, were poignant and incredibly emotional for me. Kate’s journey is about her finding what makes her thrive in life while struggling with how that doesn’t line up with society’s expectations, and I think it is an incredibly great arc to see in what is ostensibly a historical horror/thriller.

Jane, on the other hand, has to deal with the price of vengeance versus what she wants out of life outside of it. She has some brushes with romance – honestly her relationship with Callie was refreshing both in that it was queer and that she accepted its short-term nature with a foray into heartache that is quickly tempered by pragmatism, something lacking in a lot of YA – but her real motivation for much of the time is getting vengeance on Gideon, the scientist whose experiments have killed a lot of people Jane cared for and irrevocably changed her own life. Becoming a bounty hunter in order to gather information to track him down, Jane enters a brutal world and becomes equally as brutal herself to survive. Over and over again she is forced to choose pursuing vengeance at the cost of her relationships with others, and every time she chooses vengeance she can feel the toll it takes on her soul. It was refreshing to see a character who could admit to her changing attitude and frankly start to wonder if it was all worth it or what would be left after she accomplished her goal. On top of that she has to deal with how the world perceives her. While Kate has to deal with the physiological ramifications of being white passing and of being attractive to men when she is not attracted to them herself, Jane has to deal with her reputation. Her nickname – The Devil’s Bitch – manages to be both threatening and derogatory, and she is forced to be aggressive when dealing with the rest of the world and face the reactions to an aggressive Black woman who doesn’t hesitate to use violence to protect herself. Her emotional journey through grief and vengeance to something more peaceful feels entirely earned and not any sort of magic switch moment, and I felt like the ending was satisfying and was something entirely true to the growing they all did throughout the book.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland continues her fascinating story of life in a post-Civil War, post-zombie apocalypse America. I thought this continued the first book extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the characters stayed true to themselves. It would have been really easy for the vengeance quest or their constant journeying to become flat, but each character really grew and had a lot of great introspective moments. Jane and Kate’s wildly differing worldviews contrasted well, and I really enjoyed the casual queerness and asexuality rep. Whether you’re here for the zombies or for queer action women with swords, it’s a very satisfying story. I also highly recommend the audiobook version. Bahni Turpin and Jordan Cobb are amazing narrators, and I was really pulled into the story and the rotating POVs so well.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

 Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

The city didn’t care. It lay serene as they all loved and teemed and scrambled and strove.

Loud Pipes Save Lives is a thriller with a noir feel, following a New York cop, a vigilante women’s motorcycle club, and the many people tangled up in the ensuing investigation. From the beginning, I was pulled in with the writing, which reminded me of an old noir mystery: Sparr’s partner is described as a “blond, butch slab of a woman.” This isn’t exactly a mystery, though: Sparr is moved to another district to try to track down the motorcycle club that has been beating down acquitted rapists and abusers. We’re soon given the points of view of these women, though, so the reader is fully informed of what’s really happening. The real mystery–and the reason Sparr has been relocated–is to investigate the seemingly closed case of her father’s death.

There are a lot of pieces to this story, and it demands the reader keep track of a large cast and their relationships and dealings. There are political machinations, family secrets, romances, and, of course, a motorcycle gang (sorry–motorcycle club). I lost track of how many points of view we get in this story–at least seven? By the fifth point of view change in a row with no repeats, my head was spinning. On top of the POV characters, there’s just a large cast in general: I found myself having to search my ebook multiple times to remember who people were, and some characters felt like they could have been cut out with no consequence for the plot. The frequent POV shifts also made me feel less connected to the characters, because I didn’t spend much time with any one of them. Sparr seems like she should be the main character, but I didn’t feel like I really knew her. The POV shifts also lessened the suspense, because we see almost everyone’s perspective.

It’s a shame to spend so little time with them, because this a diverse, interesting cast! The motorcycle club in particular is made up of many women of different races, nationalities, and orientations, and there are multiple major characters with disabilities. They are often complex and flawed–there are no perfect people here. This adds to the noir atmosphere: there are no clear winners, and justice is murky and undefined. It doesn’t have a catharsis of the good guys beating the bad guys and everyone riding off into the sunset. Instead, we have to sit with the grey areas and complexity.

One aspect I wish we could have spent more time on is the romance between Lily Sparr and Miri. They are partners in the force, and they act just like a couple. They want to be together all the time. They go to each other for comfort. They stay at each others houses. They dance together. But they’ve never pursued anything romantic. [minor spoilers:] It turns out that they are likely both asexual–that word isn’t used, but the text is explicit that neither of them is interested in any sexual acts. [end spoilers] This makes for a sweet couple of scenes, but it is a very minor part of the book. I can actually imagine this volume being expanded into a series, so we could get more of this romance and other characters’ development. There is so much that is touched on, but it competes with the many other aspects of the story.

Ultimately, I appreciated the pieces all working together to bring this story to life. The writing was precise and included some memorable lines. There was a huge diversity in the characters, and they all had their own histories and motivations, complete with complicated relationships with others. But because each aspect was so concise, and there was so much packed in, I would have liked a little more room to explore the characters and their relationships to each other. I appreciated the story on an intellectual level, but I didn’t get a chance to fully engage on an emotional level.

I also wanted to mention quite a few trigger warnings: violence and gore (described); mentions of: rape (incest and pedophilia), cutting, miscarriage, manslaughter, incest between siblings, ableist slur, police shooting of unarmed black man, sex work slur, death of sex worker, and depiction of a mentally ill person as violent.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Danika reviews Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn BigelowLisa Jenn Bigelow’s Starting From Here broke my heart and put it back together again. It’s one of my favourite queer YA books. I’m still waiting for the fan poster that has Colby, Cam (from The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and Ari (from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe) all laying in the beds of their respective pickup trucks, looking up at the stars together. (I am not an artist. I need someone to do this for me.) When Bigelow’s Drum Roll, Please came out, I was eager to pick it up. It lived up to her first: a bisexual/questioning middle grade novel that has more to do with friendship and divorce and finding your voice than treating her orientation as an Issue.

So, of course, I jumped on her newest middle grade book: Hazel’s Theory of Evolution. This one follows a character with two moms, but we’re not in the 90s anymore: that’s not the point of this story. Hazel has just moved schools, which means that she’s been split from her best friend–her only real social safety net. At her new school, she feels isolated and weird. No else seems to understand her respect for earthworms… Her feelings are vented in her Guide to Misunderstood Creatures. Meanwhile, she’s reluctantly making new friends, including Yosh, a sarcastic guy with a mohawk who uses a wheelchair. She’s also bumped into a familiar face from her old school, who is now going by a different name and pronouns.

The biggest tension in this book, though, is that Hazel’s mom is pregnant. Again. And everyone seems determined to be cheerful and optimistic about this–despite the fact that she’s already gone through two miscarriages that were emotionally devastating for the whole family. Hazel feels trapped, unable to voice her fear and anger that she’s chosen to get pregnant again, and unwilling to confide to anyone outside of the family. In health class, she adds the names of her two miscarried siblings onto her family tree–and then erases them. Adds them again. Erases them.

Bigelow is masterful at exploring complex relationships between characters, which makes this story shine. Hazel is flawed and frustrated, making assumptions and asking awkward questions, but always from a place of caring. As her friends start to show romantic interest in others, she feels even more lost. This is the first middle grade book that I’ve seen explore the concepts of asexuality and aromanticism. Like Drum Roll, Please, Hazel is still figuring herself out, but it’s affirming just to see that possibility brought up in a middle grade.

You don’t have to decide any of those things now. Life may surprise you. But whatever happens, whatever you decide is right for you, all of those things are okay. And when I say okay I mean good. There are so many good ways to be in this world.

Alexa reviews Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss

Learning Curves is a 70-page novella with little conflict and a fluffy love story between two women at college. One of them is a Puerto Rican lesbian studying family law, and the other one is a white panromantic asexual woman with ADHD. You shouldn’t expect a huge epic plot: Learning Curves is more about everyday life, college, celebrating Christmas, a huge, loving Puerto Rican family, and two women falling in love.

I admit that I easily get bored if I’m reading a longer book with so little plot, but 70 pages was just the perfect amount to still hold my attention and let me enjoy all the little moments. I loved how overly supportive Elena’s mother was, and I loved the two women cooking and baking together, especially Puerto Rican dishes.

There were so many of these little things that I loved. Cora is bookish and loves reading about “magic, dragons and queer people”. Both women are very casual about mentioning their queer identity, and while she doesn’t elaborate, Cora also mentions how even the community itself can be hostile towards certain identities. There was also a throwaway mention of cocky-gate (controversy over one author literally trying to trademark the word “cocky” in romance novel titles), which made me laugh, although it might have been strange to people who didn’t know what it was referring to.

I did have a couple of issues, or rather some things that I found strange but weren’t necessarily bad. This novella felt like it was written from an outsider’s perspective, which isn’t automatically a problem, but I really would have appreciated more insight into the thoughts and feelings of Elena and Cora, or at least one of them. I also felt like the blurb was very misleading: while the two women go to college and meet at one of the classes they have in common, there is really not much focus on their careers, and basically no mention of either of them not having time for love like the blurb says. Moreover, I sometimes found the dialogue strange or clunky. And finally, this is a minor pet peeve, but there were a few acronyms that were never really explained and as a non-US person whose first language isn’t English, I still have genuinely no clue what they are. I could sort of guess from context, but I generally don’t want to be Googling acronyms while reading a book.

I was originally going to rate this 4 stars, but the ace rep and the way it was handled in the relationship pushed it up. I loved that Elena immediately accepted both that Cora is asexual and that she doesn’t want sex, and it wasn’t an issue for a single moment. It might not be the most “realistic”, but it was really nice to finally read a relationship between an asexual and an allosexual person where the allosexual person is the one who agrees not to have sex instead of the asexual person indulging their partner. Another thing I see a lot is that while the non-ace person agrees not to have sex, they still talk about how this is a huge sacrifice for them, which I find really guilt-trippy, but this absolutely wasn’t the case here.

I will definitely be keeping an eye out for this author’s works in the future.

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.

Danika reviews Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

 

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this one. Initially, I was really excited to pick it up! A black, biromantic, asexual main character in a YA romance? That is definitely not an intersection often explored. I was looking forward to something fun and fairly light, and initially, I thought that was what I was getting. Alice is an adorable main character. She’s still mostly closeted as asexual, but she’s done a lot of thinking about it. She’s developed a Cutie Scale, which basically measures her aesthetic attraction–not just to people, but to all kind of cute things. (Alice is obsessed with cute.)

I loved Feenie–the grouch–immediately. She hates everyone but her boyfriend (Ryan) and Alice. The three of them live together, and form a tight-knit family. Feenie has always been fiercely protective of Alice, including punching a girl in the face in high school who made fun of Alice for being asexual. She’s rough around the edges, but I was invested in their little family. And–initially–I really liked Takumi as well. He almost seemed too perfect (which they flat-out say in text). It was a promising beginning! But… little irritations started to add up.

They didn’t seem major at first. For example, Alice works at the library, but doesn’t seem to care about it or enjoy it that much. She’s constantly off in a corner with Takumi, not working. Her boss also doesn’t like being a librarian. This is a very minor point, but it was puzzling to me: librarianship is a highly competitive field that doesn’t pay well. How would people who are indifferent to it get in and keep these jobs? And then there were some weird class moments, but that’s eventually addressed (Alice keeps saying that she’s poor and her parents are rich, but that’s not really what being poor is. Alice has a safety net, even if it comes with restrictions she doesn’t want. She equates the idea of being cut off from their money as being disowned.)

Her family is also… Well, they seem realistically complicated, but I can see how Alice was constantly stressing about it. She’s the youngest sibling by decades, and everyone seems to be determined to make her decisions for her. Her mother, especially, insists that she has to go to law school or she’s throwing away her future. Every time she does anything that her mother doesn’t approve of, all of her older siblings call and text constantly to criticize her. There is love there, but it had me stressed out just reading about it.

Soon, even the aspects I was enjoying started to fizzle out (or explode). Feenie went from gruff-but-lovable to downright shitty. Feenie and Ryan are engaged, and although the three of them are theoretically a unit, Alice is often the third wheel. Which is fine, until Alice starts going off with Takumi and Feenie goes into a rage over it. Both Feenie and Ryan seem to expect Alice to constantly be available to them, though that’s not equally true of them.

Spoilers follow for the rest of this review, because I have Thoughts.

When Feenie and Alice finally discuss what’s come between them, it turns into Alice calling herself an asshole and saying she’s been selfish, which is… not what I had been seeing. Although they form a shaky truth, it didn’t feel resolved for me. Feenie stopped being a favourite and instead felt like a toxic, possessive relationship.

And speaking of relationships! I was into Takumi at first because, as stated, he seemed pretty much perfect. Which meant the ending gave me whiplash. On reflection, I realized that I felt like there was no middle to the book. Alice and Takumi get closer and closer, without any real conflict between them until the end. They basically seem to already be dating. So it was a shock to me that when Alice finally (finally) actually asks him out, he spouts off the same ignorant things that we’ve already heard from her previous ex. Takumi–who knew Alice was asexual, who had seemed supportive–says that if she really loved him, she would let him have sex with her. Which is appalling to me. Why would you ever want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to be there? I can understand him saying “I don’t think I could give up sex.” But that was terrible to read. I actually found my eyes skimming over his whole speech, because I couldn’t understand why Alice was going through this again, when it had already happened in the beginning of the book. He did later sort of take it back, but to me, the damage was done. I no longer saw it as a happily ever after, because I didn’t like Takumi anymore.

I did read a review of an earlier draft of this book that clarified some things for me. Apparently in earlier drafts, Takumi was not a saint. In fact, he was downright skeezy at points. And that explains why I felt like there was no middle to the book: originally, it was a push and pull between Takumi and Alice, with Takumi pressuring Alice into things she wasn’t comfortable with. Understandably, that was criticized, and most of that was removed, but that puts the ending in context, as well as their lack of conflict in the middle of the book.

I’m disappointed, because I was really enjoying the read for the first 3/4 of the book, even with the minor issues I had with it, but the ending left my unsatisfied. Takumi went from eerily perfect to (in my eyes) irredeemable on a dime. Alice’s relationships with her family–both by birth and chosen–were still strained. It was far from the fluffy, uplifting ending I was expecting, though I know it was supposed to be a HEA.

I know other people really enjoyed this book, and I can see why. But it left me stressed and sad, which I don’t think was the intention.

Megan G reviews Keeper of the Dawn by Dianna Gunn 

Lai has spent her entire life training to be a priestess for the gods, taking in her mother and grandmother’s steps. Yet, when her trials arrive, she finds herself rejected by the gods after a mysterious vision from her favourite goddess. Confused and lost, Lai makes the decision to leave the only home she has ever known, and venture out in search of her true fate.

Keeper of the Dawn is a novella with the plot of trilogy of novels. So much happens that if you get distracted for even a moment, you can lose your place in its chronology. Now, this allows for a quick read, but honestly, I would have preferred the story be longer. There is so much that goes unexplored that could have strengthened the story. Every aspect of the story is important, too, meaning that Gunn could not really afford to cut any of it. The problem was that, because it was a novella, a lot of what happened was condensed greatly, to the point where at times several years passed over the course of a paragraph.

The length also affected the characterization of essentially every character, but Lai, the protagonist, in particular. By the end of the story, I felt like I barely knew her outside of her devotion to her religion and her ancestry. Because of this, I found it difficult to become invested in her and in the relationships she formed, especially the romantic relationship she enters about half-way through the novel. I would have loved to learn more about Lai and about her motivations. As it is, her desires seem shallow, and I am unsure if she really felt a connection to her goddesses outside of the fact that her mother and grandmother were strongly devoted.

Something I did not realize when I began this novel is that it includes an asexual character! Which was quite a pleasant surprise, even if I’m not entirely sure if I’m comfortable with the way it was handled (before she admits her lack of desire for sex, she is questioned by her girlfriend about what “normal couples” do in bed. The use of the word “normal” to describe a sexual relationship felt a bit off for me). I would not advertise this as an asexual novel, however, as I feel that anybody reading it exclusively for asexual representation will feel let down.

Although not as developed as I would have liked, the relationship between Lai and her love interest, Tara, is quite sweet. It provides several nice scenes, and is a necessary reprieve from the action within the novella.

A few short warnings about this novel is that it isn’t explicitly racially diverse, so while technically you could assume all the characters are of different ethnicities, it is most likely that Gunn wrote them all to be white. There are non-explicit mentions of dangerous levels of homophobia, but these mentions are brief. There is also some fatphobic implications, in that there are only two characters throughout the entire novella who are described as fat, and both are villains. As well, there is quite a large amount of violence throughout.

Overall, Keeper of the Dawn was an enjoyable story. The only true complaints that I have can all be reduced to the length of the story, which was far too short for the amount of plot that Gunn included. I would still recommend it to any lovers of fantasy, though, especially those looking for fantasy with a queer female protagonist.


Marthese reviews We Awaken by Calista Lynne

 

“I went on a date in a dream with a mildly mythical figure who couldn’t possibly exist. And we were swing dancing”

We Awaken is a Fantasy Young Adult short novel about Victoria and Ashlinn. What drew me to this book was the fact that it was a fantasy young adult book about an asexual couple. There aren’t many of those around! Despite being a fantasy, it’s also mixed with contemporary.

Victoria Lindy Dinham is going through a touch time. Her father died in a car accident a year before, and her brother fell comatose in the same accident. Her mother became vacant and uncaring and Ellie, Victoria’s best friend, is too different from Victoria. Dancing is her only outlet; until she meets Ashlinn.

Ashlinn is a creator of dreams, nice dreams. She visits Victoria to tell her about her brother, who she visits a lot. During their first meeting, Ashlinn gives Victoria a carnation that her brother Reeves had passed along. The flower stays in her room once Victoria wakes up, which makes her have proof that the dream wasn’t all a fantasy.

Apart from this meeting in dreams concept and the difficult times that Victoria is going through, this book is about the exploration of sexuality in the broader sense of the term.

I have to say, it took me around 30 pages to get into the story. Even though it was fantasy, it was a type I was not used to. However, I continued as I know about the asexual element (and how few there are) and I have to say, I don’t regret pushing on.

Victoria is a teenager and Ashlinn looks like one, although she isn’t. Despite this, although at time there is immaturity in the way they approach each other, for the most part there is a certain maturity that isn’t most often found in ‘teenage’ relationships. One example is earlier on when Ashlinn tells Victoria not to romanticize self-destruction. The two protagonists support each other, even in their relationships with other people. Ashlinn also helps Victoria explore her sexuality and her boundaries.

I liked both Victoria and Ashlinn, because they grew a lot but I also liked Ellie. When we first meet her, we see how Victoria views her as her best friend which she grew apart from in light of the tragedies in her life. However, Ellie is a very supporting friend that accepts Victoria for who she is, despite not understanding clearly.

At times, the tone is quite serious and sombre. Other times, it’s funny in the way that movie tropes are; such as changing in cars. Purely classic but also something relatable that some people do at times. It’s not a happy-go-lucky story, there’s a lot of pain but somehow, the protagonists carry on like one does in life.

For the book being fantasy, it’s relatable, especially for ace readers. My hopes for books like these is that there are more; that sexuality is viewed in a more complex manner, with easiness that does not make people feel like the odd one out when it’s not present in the sexual attraction way.

Amanda Clay reviews Make Much of Me by Kayla Bashe

makemuchofme

You had me at “Jazz Age”.  Truly, in my mind, there is no more attractive time in human history than this fleeting moment between the Great War and the Great Depression. New York, London, Paris, Munich, this is the time to be a woman loving woman and dance about in your sparkly dresses, powdering each other’s knees and seeing if you can get an invite to Natalie Barney’s salon.  I’ll read just about anything set in this era, and am even more excited when I know from the outset that the story will be queer. Therefore I was thrilled to be given “Make Much of Me” and read it all in one gulp.

Four girls– Lily, Laura, Tommie and Jo– meet as new students at New York City’s River School.  Thrown together by chance, they quickly become an inseparable crew sharing their secrets, sadness, desires and dreams. Bisexual Tommie is ashamed of her poverty, but learns that her head, her heart, her talents and her humor are of immeasurable value. Asexual Jo comes from money and privilege, a life many would envy, but at a terrible price. Bold, lesbian Lily lets nothing stand between her and the life and love that she desires. And Laura, whose past is perhaps the most wretched of all, wants only to love herself and ends up finding so much more.

Loosely based on Christina Rosetti’s poem ‘The Goblin Market’, the story follows the girls from their meeting and early misadventures through more difficult trials to their ultimate joining of forces to rescue a friend and lover in need.  The engaging and diverse characters are fun to meet and grow more interesting as the story unfolds.  The book itself, however, is so brief (only 84 pages!) that the story seems rushed in places, especially the end, and some events wrap up with unrealistically neat solutions.

My chief complaint, unfortunately, brings me back to the Jazz Age.  I love historical fiction, and I love this time period in particular, and while it is clear that some research was done (musicians, film stars, all that kicky, kooky slang), the book could have used much more.  Multiplex cinemas, rolling suitcases, LGBT support clubs in elementary and middle schools, all of these glaring anachronisms drew me out of the narrative again and again.  Even the characters’ ease with sexual self-identification was a bit far-out, though I made peace with that for the sake of the story. Choosing to set a work in an historical era demands a certain amount of diligence, and the lack of these efforts mars what is otherwise a sparkling, sweet story.

Trigger warnings: physical abuse, drug abuse, sexual predators