A Kind Voice from the Unkind Days of Early 2020: Care of by Ivan Coyote

the cover of Care of by Ivan Coyote

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Ivan Coyote is one of my all-time favourite authors; I love their short stories and their essay collections. I’ve gotten to see them perform several times, and it’s always an amazing experience. Which is why I was thrown when I listened to the audiobook of Rebent Sinner when it came out and… didn’t love it? I didn’t know what to think. Was it me? Or had their writing changed? So, while I went out and bought a new, still-in-hardcover copy of Care of—something I very rarely do—it sat unread on my shelves for months, because I was nervous that I wouldn’t like it, either. Luckily, I was completely wrong.

I ended up listening to the audiobook of this one, too, and as soon as I hit play, I wanted to be listening to it all the time. Ivan Coyote has such a comforting, kitchen table storyteller way of speaking. It’s soothing to listen to, while the subject matter addresses issues like transphobia.

This is a collection of letters. During the early months of the pandemic, their shows had to come to a halt, and they used that newfound time to answer emails and letters that they had been saving until they had the time to give them the attention they deserved—some had been waiting years for that response. I’ve realized lately that I love these sort of collections in audiobook: Dear Sugar and Dear Prudence are two other audiobooks I couldn’t stop listening to.

As always, Coyote is a compassionate, thoughtful voice no matter whose letter they are answering. I actually feel like I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to listen to it even when I was too distracted to pay as much attention as it deserves, so I plan on rereading/relistening to this again very soon.

Even though it’s written during the early days of the pandemic, it doesn’t feel dated. The topics being addressed are just as relevant now as they were then, and I think having a little bit of distance from 2020 helped me appreciate that aspect more; I’m not sure I could have listened to/read it during 2020, if it had been released then.

Despite my comparisons to Dear Sugar and Dear Prudence, these aren’t really letters with advice. They’re more responses with commiserations, with stories that the original letter reminded them of, and sometimes with questions or pleas for the letter writer. They’re personal, considered, and empathetic responses to all kinds of different people who have reached out to them.

If you haven’t read Ivan Coyote’s books before, this is a good place to start. And if you have, you won’t be disappointed by picking this one up, especially as an audiobook.

A Page-Turning Mess of a Queer Love Polygon: The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

the cover of The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

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If you’re looking for something fun, marathonable, the right amount of messy, and full of queer love polygon drama, then look no further than The Happy Couple. I listened to this as an audiobook (a short and snappy 5.5 hour experience) and I found myself always looking forward to my next drive or run just so I could hear what happened next. 

Celine and Luke are engaged, and their wedding date is quickly approaching, but will they go through with it? Luke is a pretty obvious serial cheater and Celine is so focused on the work of being a concert pianist that she has just ignored it. Yes, the oh so happy couple. Additional layers of drama unfold as more and more angles of their love polygon are exposed. Archie is Luke’s best man as well as Luke’s ex-lover who is definitely still in love with the groom-to-be. Celine’s ex, Maria, shows up at the engagement party and stirs the pot. Celine’s sister Phoebe knows Luke has something to hide and is convinced to get the bottom of it. And Vivian, yet another ex of Luke’s, is willing to call people on their craziness and bring some tough love to her friends in this mess.

Buckle up, folks. This cast of wild characters really brings the drama that can only be fully encapsulated by interrobangs. Luke doesn’t show up to his own engagement party?! It’s hours before the wedding and Luke needs a new shirt but who comes to switch shirts with him other than his ex-lover, Archie?! Celine’s ex is having long heart-to-hearts with Luke?! 

The Happy Couple felt like reality TV in the best way. I was immersed in this story’s twists, turns, and reveals that provided a welcome distraction when my brain needed a break from the current world. But what I loved most is that it didn’t just feel like gossip that pulls me in but at the end of the day makes me feel icky. Naoise Dolan writes her indeed flawed characters with a kindness and nuance that allowed me to see them for more than their often infuriating actions and reflect alongside them in the gray decisions they find themselves having to make. It was a delightful balance of unhinged meets kind. 

If you’re driving home for the holidays and need a book you can finish in one road trip, I highly recommend pressing play on this one!

Content warnings: toxic relationships, drug use and abuse, infidelity, suicidal thoughts

Natalie (she/her) is honestly shocked to find herself as a voracious reader these days – that certainly wasn’t the case until she discovered the amazing world of queer books! Now she’s always devouring at least one book, as long as it’s gay. She will be forever grateful for how queer characters kept her company through her own #gaypanic and now on the other side of that, she loves soaking up queer pasts, presents and futures across all genres. Find more reviews on her Bookstagram!

A Bisexual, Magical, Asian American Take on Gatsby: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, Narrated by Natalie Naudus

the audiobook cover for The Chosen and the Beautiful

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In this retelling of The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker narrates the story from the perspective of a queer, Asian woman adopted by a white couple. Although she runs in elite circles with Daisy and Tom, she is treated as an exotic pet, left on the outside even when a part of their group.

Calling Jordan adopted brings up a problematic situation of white saviors. When the Bakers found her in Vietnam, they claimed she had been wandering alone. Wanting to save her from the violent environment, they simply took her back with them to Kentucky. They never even inquired about her parents’ whereabouts.

Throughout the story, Jordan encounters racism at every turn. She endures questions like, “Where are you from?” and when she answers Kentucky, it makes white people uncomfortable. Even in her own group with Daisy and Tom, Tom goes off on racist rants against Asians but tells Jordan she’s “one of the good ones.”

Jordan also encounters that feeling of Otherness amid people who look like her. As the novel unfolds, she interacts with other Asian characters who ask her the same thing: “Where are you from?” When she tells them Kentucky, there’s a disappointed reaction to her seeing herself as American. She embodies the duality of neither belonging among white Americans nor among the Asian community. As she says toward the end of the novel: “Alone I was a charming anomaly, with Kai I was a dangerous conspiracy.”

In certain ways, Jordan uses her Otherness to occupy a space not afforded to her gender at this time in history. As she is an outsider in elite white society, she is not expected to be a proper lady or behave in predefined proprieties. She takes greater freedoms that Daisy does not feel she can.

Personally, when I read The Great Gatsby in high school, I hated it. I hated all the characters and thought they were all the worst possible human beings. In this retelling through Jordan’s perspective, it’s easier to see the nuance of what makes these characters so terrible. For Daisy especially, as it’s clear throughout that Jordan is in love with her, there’s much more sympathy toward her position in a society that puts so much pressure on young, upper-class women.

All the queer subtext from the original novel gets brought to the forefront. Jordan, openly bisexual, has relationships with whoever strikes her fancy, including Nick, who is also bisexual. But Nick isn’t as open or accepting about his sexuality. Jordan tries to pull out of him his feelings for Gatsby but it makes Nick angry and she doesn’t bring it up again. Daisy and Jordan have an unspoken desire for each other that never becomes actualized.

The magic woven throughout the story brings another interesting layer to the original book. Jordan has special powers that appear to be an inheritance from her Vietnamese bloodline. She meets others like herself who have the same power, but she tries to deny this part of herself. It plays into her insecurities and how she fights against her Otherness in every way.

Where the classic novel ends with the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg looking upon Daisy’s crime, Jordan confronts the billboard and brings it to life with her magic powers to learn what they saw. She realizes what happened and reluctantly comes to Daisy’s rescue.

SPOILERS BEGIN

Vo also creates mindblowing twists with the added layer of magic. Jay Gatsby made a deal with the devil and when he fails to deliver his end of the deal, his life is taken. And in the end, Nick turns out to be a paper being of Jordan’s making with her magical powers. With all these strings that tethered her to New York gone, Jordan is finally free to go to Shanghai and find out where she really belongs.

SPOILERS END

At times the pacing is slow, but overall, it’s a compelling read that really brings the original story to another level. I listened to the audiobook, so the narrator, Natalie Naudus, brings it to life.

Content warning: racism

Meagan Kimberly reviews Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the audiobook cover of Gideon the Ninth

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Ready to cut loose from her life serving the Ninth House and a doomed future, Gideon makes plans to escape the planet, but Harrow has other plans for her. Harrow has been summoned by the Emperor to engage in a trial of necromantic skills and intellect. If either of them is to get what they want, they have to work together to discover the truth and survive it as a team.

Gideon uses her sarcastic humor as a defense mechanism to survive her servitude with the Ninth House. Throughout their lives, Harrow has made Gideon’s life a nightmare, manipulating her into getting involved with House politics. The evolution of their relationship as they become a necromancer/cavalier pairing sends them on a path to better understanding one another. Their antagonistic banter makes for a fun and funny romp of magical lesbians in space.

Gideon’s sexuality is established straightaway when she tries to bribe her superior with dirty magazines. Then, throughout the story, she grows close to Dulcinea, the Lady Septimus (of the Seventh House). While it’s absolutely clear from the get-go that Gideon is queer, it simply exists as part of who she is and is never questioned or condemned by characters around her, as it is a normal part of this world.

Muir’s world-building is intricate and complex. The story showcases necromancy magic more as a science, as well as part of the political structure of this world. Cavaliers and necromancers work together toward gaining power for their Houses, but within the events of this story, the characters start to learn their world and lives are not what they seem.

The narrative takes a turn as secrets start to come to light. The more the truth comes to light, the closer Harrow and Gideon become, pointing toward an enemies-to-lovers relationship in the works. The point where the tension breaks between them creates a satisfactory moment of letting go of the past so that they can move forward with a new kind of relationship.

I listened to this on audiobook as narrated by the animated and engaging Moira Quirk. Quirk truly brought each character to life, which helped in trying to keep track of all the different cast of characters throughout the story—although some kind of character chart/map would’ve been much appreciated.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and the ending definitely leaves you wanting to read the rest of the series.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

the space between worlds audiobook cover

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Cara is a traverser in a world where travel between universes has been discovered. In most worlds, she’s dead, making her the perfect candidate for the job, as traveling to worlds where your counterpart is still alive results in your death. But the protagonist isn’t all she seems, and neither is the company and people she works for. Once she learns the truth about the business of multiverse travel, she must decide where she really belongs.

There are so many layers complementing each other, showcasing the intricacy of the issues presented. It’s a story about class divide, power, ethics, morality, capitalism, family and relationships. Every element is intertwined with one another, making Cara’s journey complex as she navigates who she really is.

The whole book is incredibly well-paced, with plot twists you never see coming and happening just at the right time. Perhaps this is because Cara is an unreliable narrator and you only ever see the world through her eyes. As she perceives her role in multiverse travel and ignores the bigger picture for much of the story, it’s hard to see what’s coming. This is what makes her such a compelling main character and the story so entrancing.

Johnson creates a dynamic duality of science and religion with the concept of traversing. During the process, traversers experience trauma that leaves them bruised, and if done too frequently with no breaks between jumps, even causes broken bones. Cara describes it as pressure as her body pushes the boundaries between worlds. She and the other traversers refer to this phenomenon as the goddess Niameh giving them a kiss. But the scientists behind traversing simply explain it through logical means, referring to physics and biology. There’s also a layer of Niameh representing beliefs other than white Christianity.

Through Cara’s backstory and memories, there are nuanced discussions of being a victim of abuse. The multiverse shows what can be if people’s circumstances are different. At the same time, it puts on display how complicated emotional ties are between abusers and their victims. It brings to mind questions like, “Can you love someone who is abusive, especially if you know the kindness they’re capable of?” and “Can you resent a kind person you know is capable of violence and abuse they haven’t committed in this world, but have in another?”

Cara’s character arc takes her from hating where she comes from, Ash, to accepting who she is and where she’s from is nothing to be ashamed of. She longed to become part of Wiley City for so long, only to find it wasn’t as bright and shiny as it appeared on the surface. To become Wiley was to accept a definition of success determined by those in authority, rather than success on her own terms.

I listened to the book on audio, narrated by Nicole Lewis, and I highly recommend it if you like listening to fiction on audio. Lewis is a charismatic narrator and brings every character to life.

Content warning: abuse

Mallory Lass reviews One Walk in Winter by Georgia Beers, narrated by Lori Prince

One Walk in Winter by Georgia Beers

One Walk in Winter is a workplace romance set in the fictional mountain town of Evergreen spanning three US winter holidays: Thanksgiving through New Years. There is something about a book set in a place where it snows that really gets me into that cozy winter mindset. Light on the angst and high on the heat, Beers’ latest spin on a timeless trope left me smiling for days.

Hayley Boyd Markham is a New York City girl who has been working out her grief over her mother’s passing by setting the city on fire. After a particularly expensive night out, her father informs her he’s cutting off her credit cards. In order for Hayley to earn her allowance back, she’ll need to go manage one of the Markham family resorts, the slowly declining Evergreen Resort and Spa, through the winter. The problem is, Hayley is an artist like her mother and not very interested in the family business like her father and step brothers.

Olivia Santini has worked as the Assistant Manager of the Evergreen Resort and Spa for seven years; she thinks she’s a shoo-in for the open Manager position, only to be crushed when she doesn’t get the job. More ego bruising, the new Manager doesn’t seem to have any resort management experience, and Olivia isn’t sure where she went wrong. It doesn’t help that she’s finding it really hard to maintain her grudge against Hayley, who, aside from her penchant to be late, is extremely attractive and likeable.

Olivia and Hayley have a picturesque meet cute about 3 hours before finding out Hayley is Olivia’s new boss. After the rocky second meeting, despite their obvious attraction, Hayley and Olivia take it slow, working hard to earn each others favor. Sometimes, two people just need a good push in the right direction, and that is where Angela Santini, Olivia’s mom comes into the picture. Angela is a supportive mom, and she pushes Olivia to give Hayley the benefit of the doubt. It’s just the encouragement she needs to get out of her own way.

The supporting cast and the hidden gems of the town of Evergreen are slowly revealed throughout the story. Beers’ created a town I would love to be able to go visit and friends I wish I could call my own.

Hayley has been ordered by her father to conceal her Markham identity and prove she can help turn the Evergreen around. As Hayley and Olivia become closer, Hayley’s concealed identity is no doubt going to become an issue. I was pleasantly surprised with how Beers resolved their conflict, but will it be too late for Olivia to forgive Hayley? You’ll have to give this one a read (or a listen) to find out.

Speaking of, I listened to this book on audio, and Lori Prince does a wonderful job bringing Hayley and Olivia to life. I can’t wait to listen to other books she’s narrated.

Marthese reviews Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen

Her Name In the Sky cover

“Her stomach hums with the familiarity of it all”

Let me start with a short disclaimer: This is not a ‘holiday’ read, but for people that want to read something angsty and somewhat deep, this may be what you are looking for. Her Name in the Sky follows Hannah, a teenage girl that goes to a Catholic school and who is in love with her best friend, Baker. Baker may love her too, but for sure it’s not going to be smooth sailing! Something happens that is a turning point in the book, in Hannah and Baker’s lives and for their friend group.

Hannah’s friend group consists of Baker, Hannah’s sister Joanie, Luke, Clay and Wally, and together they are the six-pack. They have teenage shenanigans and are overall great friends. This book is one big angsty wound that you cannot help but love. It’s full of questions that most religious people would have asked – it’s very realistic in its sadness. However, the cute moments are plentiful – both the romantic ones and the friend one: organizing small parties in their friend’s style, cleaning up together, touching shoulders and calling each other shortened named and sleeping over, all small things that are as cute in reality as in the book. In the first half of the book, there’s a lot of banter as well.

Hannah is competitive. She goes back and forth between not wanting her feelings and accepting them. She cares deeply for Baker and her friends, although she does not always show it.

Baker is kind and smart. She feels a lot of pressure and tries to do what she thinks is right. Baker, for all her ‘level-headedness’ can be a bit dramatic! Both Hannah and Baker have lashed out in the book, but this is due to them dealing with the big elements of God and society and their feelings.

Religion is a big theme in the book, which is what makes this book even more angsty for me as I come from a Roman Catholic background.

The parents in this book were wonderful. They may not understand exactly how their children feel and their wake-up-calls may have been a shock but they are supportive of their children and they love them. It’s so easy to fall to hate, as we see in this book but the parents don’t do that.

Hannah and Baker date two boys from their group. As friends the boys are great apart from certain moments which they apologize for. As romantic partners, they are problematic and selfish – especially one of them.

There is one instance in the book where Hannah deals correctly with offensive language which was meant to be a joke. I felt so proud that it was addressed! Hannah and Baker, when they are on speaking terms have a healthy relationship. Baker asks for a little drink? Hannah gives her a little; compared to other friends who offered her more. These small instances are what makes you as a reader, root for them. Both also chose to work on themselves before getting together – that is very healthy and the kind of literature that teens should be exposed to.

There’s a big time elements, the teens are at a stage where they have to move for college. Will their whole life change? Do they have to change? There’s a lot of confusion as well: who is right?

I listened to this book as an audiobook and apart from the story, the narrator is really good. She does many voices and each character is recognizable. The acting is superb; crying voices, constricted voices, gentle voices–all voices are done well! I highly suggest this as an audiobook.

Although this book is listed as YA, I doubt it is. There are some adult elements and the theme feels too heavy. However, it’s a book that teens and other ages can read for a realistic depiction of the struggle between faith and same-gender attraction and how institutions and support-systems help of hinder in this struggle. This book is not light, but it’s a great read. Get ready some tissues!

Marthese reviews A Royal Romance by Jenny Frame

‘’Duty and service come first’’

I have a soft-spot for queer royalty romance books. I have said it before and I stand by it. When I discovered A Royal Romance by Jenny Frame, it was an immediate add to my TBR. When I saw there was an audiobook, I took the opportunity to honour one of my New Year’s resolutions. The audiobook is narrated by Lesley Parkin, and let me just say that the voice was fantastic.

Set in the future, Frame’s A Royal Romance follows Princess Georgina (soon Queen) and Beatrice Elliot, a Republican charity worker. Georgina is the first openly gay monarch and the first woman to be first in line before her brother. The royal family were (almost) all a delight; they were so supportive of Georgina – although as head of the family, they rely a lot on her. Who will she rely on?

Beatrice and George meet after Georgina becomes Queen. On her road for coronation, George wants to support one main charity – to give them patronage and exposure. She chooses Beatrice’s charity for their great work and Bea, as the regional manager, is the only person who can take her around the country on site visits. This sets some sparks flying. They clear things enough to be able to work together, but the class and cultural divide is ever-present, and it doesn’t take much for hostility and misunderstandings and feelings of inferiority and inadequacy to take over. A lot of misconceptions have to be cleared up first.

Bea is refreshing to George. They both challenge each other to think in a different way. It’s a monarchy match, especially because George has to marry and she prefers to marry for love…she just has to convince Beatrice.

Sarah and Reg Elliot, Beatrice’s parents were also a delight. It’s the kind of family most people dream of.

The ending of the story was action packed. Some tragedy and lots of celebrations.

The world building in the book was deeply researched and it shows. I learned a lot of new things about monarchy and places. There were a lot of staff positions, creating this intricate web of people surrounding the royal family, although at times I felt there were too many people involved. There were also a lot of traditions (George is old-fashioned) and protocols (much to Beatrice’s annoyance). All this added up for the story to feel realistic.

While I enjoyed the story I felt there were some things that could have been better. There was the generic discourse of ‘gay or straight’. Moreover, despite the story being set in the 2050s, it’s still ‘man or woman’. I would like authors that acknowledge other sexual and/or romantic orientations and a diversity of genders! I also had minor problems with lack of explicit consent or delayed consent.

I also felt that their relationship moved too fast. Granted, there was a timeline and it’s not like they could afford to have privacy, but Bea’s character would have at least said something.

The narrator was great. Parkin gave different voices to each character and distinguished them from the narration voice. At times, I forgot it was just one person. My only issue was with the Belgian accent but accents are very hard to replicate. George’s voice is very poised, whereas Bea’s voice is saccharine sweet.

Despite loving royalty in books (they spice things up), I’m much more of a presidential republican but the reasons given in the book for Monarchy actually made sense and I went on the journey with Beatrice.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It entertained me during many hours on the bus. The struggle for Georgie’s and Bea’s relationship was real. I would recommend to romance lovers, monarchists or British lovers. This is a perfect beach (or cozy) read.

Marthese reviews Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

fatangie

“There’s more to you than how you look, you’re more than a package”

Fat Angie is a book that I had been meaning to read for a while because it seemed like a complex and intersectional queer read. Spoiler: it is.

Fat Angie is about Angie, a rerunning freshman in Ohio who has a lot to deal with but never seems to give up. She takes on her sister’s advice and tries to ‘follow through’. Her sister, who, after a stint as a great basketball player, joins the army and is taken hostage. Angie still has hope that her sister is alive and fights everyone that tries to mud sling her sister.

Angie is bullied but she does stand up for herself sometimes. She wants to please her mother who sends both her and her brother Wang to therapy (and is dating their therapist) but her mother is never pleased. Be warned that her behavior could be triggering to some. Despite this, I find the characters in this book to be multidimensional. The bully may have reasons, the perfect popular star may not be perfect, the main character herself makes mistakes. Most characters are hurting and they cope differently.

Then there’s KC Romance, the new girl who falls for Angie and Angie falls for who sees Angie as Angie, without the fat. KC is a complex character, who is seen as ‘alternative’ but is popular yet she has a somewhat dark past but whose mother probably is the only mentioned parent that’s a parent role model.

Angie copes with her sister’s ‘MIA’ status with two, seemingly paradoxical things: binge eating and sport (first basketball in the steps of her sister and then another sport). At the beginning of the year, it is mentioned that Angie tried to commit suicide and this became a public event. Yet, she doesn’t give up. She doesn’t fit in, she’s awkward but she takes steps to move on despite being stuck somewhat in the past, when her sister was still with them.

Angie’s and KC’s relationship is deep, connecting, sweet with a cup of drama and misunderstandings and awkwardness thrown in. It’s a mature, teenage relationship that is not perfect but supporting the individuals within it.

Be warned that this book contains some triggers: suicide attempt, self-harm, body issues, mentions of death and torture, bad parenting and bullying. Sometimes, especially with Angie’s mother and her therapist, the reader is left bubbling with anger. At the end, I think that although not justified, we see also different sides to the characters that we do not like. The character development in this book was subtle, but well executed.

I would recommend this book, which I rated as five stars, to people that want to read a queer book where the main focus isn’t the relationship (it’s still a big part though).

I listened to this book as an audiobook- my first one- thanks to the Sync Audiobooks Summer program which means that this audiobook is free to download until today (21st July 2016)! I will try to read the book in the future to compare my experience but I think that the narration was done quite well and helped to immerse me in my experience (I coloured while I listened).