Audrey reviews Maplecroft: the Borden Dispatches by Cherie Priest


Lizzie Borden took an axe, and then she killed her father and stepmother, and then she used her inheritance to buy a big house called Maplecroft. Parts one and three of that sentence happened in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the 1890s. Part two is debatable. She was acquitted.

In Cherie Priest’s world, there are strange goings on in Fall River. The Bordens knew it. Their family doctor knew it. Outside investigator Simon Wolf (who does he work for, again?) might know it. And Lizzie is determined to save the town that turned its back on her. The story is told through the main characters’ journal entries, and chapters alternate among voices.

Penguin labels this paperback original a fantasy. You might find it in horror. It’ll be in some genre section. This was my first Priest book, and it boasts the holy trinity: Lizzie, Lovecraft, and lesbians. Once Lizzie Borden meets Lovecraftian horror, there is really no going back. The actual Lizzie’s story is creepy enough, as is the actual Maplecroft. Add the words “Miskatonic University” and a full-blown relationship between Lizzie and Nance O’Neill (the actress with whom Lizzie was rumored to have had an affair), and this takes off into the stratosphere.

Priest’s Lizzie is…more physically able, perhaps, and attractive, perhaps, than Lizzie Borden historically was. This Lizzie is straightforward and capable, if a little liable to fly off the handle (sorry), and she makes a good monster fighter. This Lizzie would make a fascinating addition to, say, a new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (in print, not onscreen). She’s complemented by her older sister Emma, who’s chronically ill but mentally exceedingly sharp and fit. Emma makes a lousy monster hunter, but a great scientist. Unfortunately, it’s not quite 1900 in New England. Thus, while Lizzie fights monsters, Emma coolly assumes a male persona who carries on academic correspondence and publishes research papers in respected journals. It is this correspondence that serves as a catalyst for the adventure in this book, although the evil that comes to Fall River was already creeping in. Emma simply helped unleash it sooner.

The household is tense. Emma’s very happy with her counterfeit persona (almost excessively so–this is fascinating, but unexplored), and she disapproves of Lizzie’s romantic relationship with young actress Nance. Nance is indeed somewhat of a flibbertigibbet, which will complicate things for everyone, but her affection for Lizzie is real. And Lizzie’s love for Nance is real, too. But that’s not the primary concern here. There’s a Big Bad in town, and a Bigger Bad on the way, and we get to see what our new heroine is made of.

Chapelwood: the Borden dispatches (#2), is due in September. Lizzie’s next adventure takes her to Alabama. The setting doesn’t make my pulse race, but Priest has already done the New England thing, and she’s done it well, so why rehash? I get it. And I’ll still read the second one. Maplecroft offers a fresh take on the monster hunter concept, and more importantly, the take-away message here is this: it was terrific fun.

Audrey reviews My Real Children by Jo Walton


My Real Children is terrifically problematic in the best possible way. Patricia in 2015 is at the end of her life, relegated to a nursing home, left mostly alone by her family–but until she opens her eyes and sees the colors of the curtains and which side of the hallway the bathroom is on that day, she doesn’t know which family. Because after a certain specific point, Patricia’s life bifurcates, and she has two complete sets of memories. She’s lived two separate lives. In two separate worlds, with two separate histories (in one, JFK survived; in one, nuclear bombs have been dropped; in both, there are research bases on the moon).

Which one is real? Which one does she want to be real? Does want have anything to do with it? It’s not as simple as choosing the life in which she was happier. In one life, she had a miserable marriage to, and divorce from, Mark. They had four living children and number of babies who were stillborn. The world in general was a pretty open and accepting place, and Patricia (in this life, Trish) found a great deal of personal satisfaction in civic involvement and in enjoying the achievements of her children. Trish didn’t get the solid connection and commitment of the deep romantic love that so many people long for, but she contributed consistently to the betterment of the greater world. And it was a pretty good world.

In the other life, Patricia (Pat) found personal fulfillment in her career and in her loving relationship with Bee. They had three children, but had to be furtive about parenting, because this world moved into darker, less accepting times, and co-parenting lesbians were in constant danger of being reported to social services. Pat found great personal loves–she fell in love with Italy and found a way to make this soul-feeding appreciation the basis of her career. She found Bee, the love of a lifetime. Pat’s efforts contributed consistently to the betterment of her family’s world. The world at large–well, that wasn’t so great.

Trish’s focus was outward; Pat’s was insular. This is the most stark case of “What if it’s not all about you?” you may ever read: Patricia thinks, at one point, what if the salvation of the world comes at the expense of her own happiness? Well, what if? “What if?” is the jumping-off point of the best stories, and the most heartbreaking; and I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to work this out, trying to find crossover points, trying to make it work, but there are no easy answers. On the one hand, that makes this book great for book club meetings. Yes, you should sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of humanity! Or, no! Let humanity fend for itself, because love is a rare and beautiful thing, and when it’s found, it needs to be nurtured and cherished.

My Real Children is fascinating in a number of ways, but be warned, it will affect you. I spent the last chunk of it sobbing. (I am not the only one. Cory Doctorow apparently did the same thing, and couldn’t even face writing his review after he finished reading the book. He needed to take a breather.) One of the best things Jo Walton does with her main character is this: it’s clear that although Patricia makes a choice at one point that splits her world’s fate, both Pat and Trish behave in ways that are faithful to the core of the person Patricia. No matter what is thrown at her, the fundamental makeup of the character is the same. I loved that faith in the fundamental Patricia-ness of the main character, the vote of confidence in our basic nature being fixed, no matter the context. I also loved the “Please, we’re so past that” attitude toward homophobia in the latter part of Trish’s world’s 20th century.

What I didn’t love, because it wasn’t fun to think about, is Walton did a painfully effective job of pointing up the dangers of insularity. You don’t get to take a lifetime off. External engagement is necessary. Walton gives us extremes. Here are both sides of the spectrum: What can we do with that? Is there a balance? Unhelpfully, we get to see these stark examples, but not any ideas of how to…how to have it all. Can you? I think, yes. This is one of those books I read at the right time, while debating these things in my own life, wishing I could stay in my happy little enclave with my happy little family and my happy little job for the rest of my happy little existence.

Yeah, no. And don’t think that by being in a loving, supportive relationship you’re putting enough good karma out into the universe to let you off easy. According to My Real Children, you aren’t. So: engagement with your world, both your home world and the world at large. Get on it, please, because the universe could fall apart if you don’t get all that under control. Also, try this as a gateway drug on people who think they don’t like science fiction.

Audrey reviews Ash by Malinda Lo


Oh, wow! I’ve finally gotten to my first Malinda Lo book. It will not be the last. Ash is a retelling of Cinderella. It’s twisty, it has a fair amount of the fair folk, and it has some great love interests. It’s also one of those books I knew would already have been reviewed a couple times here. I looked at Katie Raynes’ review and appreciated her take on the story’s roots in the wild hunt, and in Lo’s vivid evocation of landscape. Laura Mandanas’ review focuses more on relationships and a little gender theory. What can I add or emphasize? I was surprised that this was a retelling of Cinderella where the prince isn’t even really a thing. He’s barely a plot device (and a sulky, sullen one at that).

One of the lovely things about this book is that it fully realizes the progression of Ash’s journey from beloved daughter to maligned stepchild. Too often, this feels rushed or glossed over, and hence unbelievable, but I could buy this. Another lovely thing is that we as readers actually get a sense of Ash’s mother as a character, and the mother is an integral character even after her death. Her influence is woven into the plot. There: The prince doesn’t matter, the dead mother does.

In this homophobia-free world, homosexuality is like being left-handed. Perfectly natural, but generally, people aren’t. Ash’s slow realization of her attraction to Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, is all the more lovely for being tinged with nothing but wonder and curiosity. Meanwhile, although the sulky human prince isn’t a contender, Ash is indeed attached to a prince. He’s a brittle, glittery Jareth who takes the word “glamorous” back to its original meaning. Old, old magic against real, young love: so there’s the excellent internal conflict against a backdrop of a fabulous world, and in living conditions that are fairly awful (though not all of the stepfamily is painted with the same broad strokes).

On a final note, the fun factor of this book was through the roof. It was tremendously enjoyable. If it’s been on your long list, maybe bump it up?

Audrey reviews Desire Lines by Jack Gantos


Desire Lines is a slim little outlier volume from Jack Gantos. He’s known for his Joey Pigza middle-grade novels and his quasi-autobiographical middle-to-teen novels, and even for his early readers starring Rotten Ralph. Desire Lines falls into the Lesser-Known Gantos bucket, which also includes Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, which is to Jack Gantos as Tideland is to Terry Gilliam. Having been unsettled by the Rumbaughs, I was apprehensive about Desire Lines, but it’s a straightforward endeavor. Powerful, but straightforward.

Walker is a high school student in Florida, kind of a loner. His personal sanctuary is a local golf course, and it has been invaded by two of his classmates, who are using the place to carry on an affair. And…they’re two female classmates. So he keeps their secret. And he shows up to watch on a regular basis, convincing himself that doing so is justifiable. He’s being respectful, and all.

Enter the preacher’s kid from the new church in town. Okay: If you have not grown up in Florida, you may not be familiar with the Bible Belt mindset that permeates much of its culture. Florida itself has a sizeable streak of weird that Gantos picks up on, but the worst parts of Florida are concentrated in this character, whose sole purpose is to conduct a witch hunt, and then move on to the next town. And Walker, who is generally a live-and-let-live (especially-if-I-can-watch) kind of guy, is somehow targeted. Do we see where this is going? There are no happy endings, there are no easy outs.

Walker falls in with a group of boys who are just awful humans, and they’re not painted as anything out of the ordinary. The classmates having the affair, Karen and Jennifer, aren’t particularly saintly or kind. They’re just high school kids. They behave thoughtlessly and speak cruelly and act selfishly. And when Walker has to make difficult decisions, under significant peer pressure, he uses the girls’ absolutely normal high school behavior to justify his ultimate choice.

The paperback I have was published in 2006, but this book’s original copyright was 1997. I would not be excited about being an out lesbian in Florida in 2015, never mind 2006, never mind 1997. As a Gantos fan, I was interested to read this book because I had no idea he’d written anything with any gay content. Walker’s clear self-analysis was not a surprise, and neither was the ugly, real and human behavior of the other boys. There really aren’t any female characters other than Karen and Jennifer. They aren’t even particularly well-developed characters. That’s not the point. It’s not about them. The book is a streamlined morality tale, a painful study of human behavior as it cuts across the ages, and it’s well done. Homosexuality is used here as a plot device only to denote Otherness and to set up a moral dilemma which can’t end without tragedy. Recommended for Gantos fans, those teaching middle-grade novels, and anyone interested in reading about how slightly introspective teenage boys navigate the development of morality. So—limited audience. But those who try it will find it a quick read that won’t be quickly forgotten.

Audrey reviews The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston


“It’s literally about corporate dragon slaying.” The book was put into my hands. Because I have sent many, many books home with this young person, I took this one home and began reading it. This is a wonderful YA fantasy/alternate history title that had great reviews and for good reason. It has an awesome premise. There have always been dragons, and the one thing they have in common with humans? Both are addicted to fossil fuels.

E.K. Johnston’s strong social message will be apparent even to the middle-school (or high-school) audience the book is targeted to. And then it becomes clear there’s not only one strong social message. Narrator Siobhan’s story is of Owen Thorskard, who is raised by his loving family–Dad Aodhan, Aunt Lottie (one of the most famous dragon slayers of all time, who had to retire early due to injury), and her wife, Aunt Hannah. There’s some overt discussion of marriage in/equality and discriminatory legislation. Allusions are made here and there throughout the book to past difficulties the couple faced. The family has moved to Trondheim so Aodhan can be its official dragon slayer, as rural Trondheim, not a bastion of manufacturing or natural resources, has long been left unprotected. (Note: The Story of Owen is set in Canada and almost everyone is very very white.)

Siobhan has a pair of happily married parents who show up occasionally to worry over her and demonstrate that they’ve done a great job raising a wonderful kid, and that they’re appropriately concerned, and they’re good parents and all that, but they’re cardboard characters. The healthy romantic relationship in the book is Lottie and Hannah’s. There are a few relationships that don’t quite get off the ground, and some that are complete non-starters. It’s a lovely thing to pick up a contemporary YA book with a high school narrator who isn’t utterly consumed by hormones.

The traditional slayer/bard relationship is dead, and Lottie and Co. think it needs to be resurrected. They scheme to enlist Siobhan, a musical prodigy, in their plan. It doesn’t take much scheming. They’re a really great family to spend time with. And she believes in their cause. Most slayers are now corporate employees with little-to-no incentive to protect rural areas, and even governments aren’t concerned with places where the money isn’t. How can this trend be reversed, and dragon slaying again become a noble tradition? Oh, we’ll do a lot for fame, or to be near it (more social commentary, but deftly done).

This is a great, well-written, wry, socially aware (environmentally and politically) book you should read if you have any interest in fantasy literature or alternate history. And if you have any younger people (or fantasy readers) on your gift lists, really, don’t pass this one up. Siobhan frequently thinks in musical terms, which works very strongly towards her already well-developed character. And the book is nicely plotted. The ending caught me completely unprepared and occasioned an out-loud reaction, partially out of plain old respect. I deeply adore Siobhan as a character, if that wasn’t clear.

I am glad to have a title to add to my mental canon of YA books that involve same-sex marriages as 1. nothing unusual and 2. not the point of the book, but that do involve a lesbian couple as an integral part of the plot as part of the strong central family unit. And initially I thought the book was handed to me by the dragon-crazy teen because “there’s a happy gay couple in it, and my librarian is gay,” but I think it was really really on the strength of the book, which is something that would not have happened even just a few years ago. This in itself makes me happy. If you work with young people and/or do readers’ advisory, go get it. It is so much cooler than I could ever make it sound.

Audrey reviews Teaching the Cat to Sit by Michelle Theall


Great title, right? It’s also literal. Poor Mittens. Michelle Theall’s memoir isn’t organized linearly, but intersperses chapters from childhood with chapters from adulthood. And as a child, she really did teach the family cat to sit. She writes poignantly of the deep loneliness that caused her to try to make the cat into something it was not, and manages somehow not to beat you over the head with maternal parallels.

Her establishing shot gives you this: a partner and a son, and iPhone contact with grandparents. Good! Also, the grandparents are due to arrive soon for the son’s baptism, which has been cancelled. Due to the priest’s sudden reconsideration of baptizing the child of gay parents. Also, the grandparents don’t know this. (Note: I use the word “gay” instead of “lesbian” because that’s what Theall uses, and she expresses dislike of the label “lesbian.”)

And then you get a snapshot of the beginning. Michelle was supposed to be Matthew; she notes that this was only the beginning of disappointing her parents. You see her as a young child in the Texas Bible Belt, learning that things she liked were inappropriate, and she herself, always, was inappropriate. Not concerned enough with femininity. Not modest. Always unacceptable and wrong. And then she was scarred by an experience that reinforced this self-perception. When she did finally begin to find herself, it was through sports, and her mother explained that not only do sports have no real value for girls in the real world, but that Theall’s ovaries would likely fall out (spoiler: they didn’t). And the rampant homophobia was so ingrained that homophobia wasn’t even a concept or a word. It was just life. Homosexuality was not a thing; it was wrong, it didn’t exist, it went against the natural order, it was against God.

Although I didn’t read this as a Christian memoir–but you could–Theall’s Catholicism, and her relationship with God, is one of the most important strands woven throughout the book. As she is fighting to have her son’s baptism rescheduled, Theall considers one of the focal points of the priest’s concern: “How do you reconcile your homosexual lifestyle with your Christian beliefs?” At that point, she thinks, she’s spent 42 years resolving that question. By then, her faith is a source of strength, not angst. (Faith. Not clergy. Faith.) Her tale of getting to that place of acceptance is powerful and filled with pain, uncertainty, lots of guilt, and some big epiphanic moments.

The religious aspect is tied in to a larger question of general identity. And this is all woven in with a third piece: Theall’s relationship with her (birth) family–particularly her mother. (In fact, separating these out makes for artificial distinctions, but is done for the sake of clarifying what you might want to keep an eye out for.) The reading group guide (included in the new paperback edition) says, “In order to be a good mother, Michelle begins to realize that she may have to be a bad daughter.” While reading this book, you will probably never be convinced that Theall feels she has any chance of being regarded as a good daughter. You will probably wonder if, now that this book has been published, Theall’s mother is still talking to her. You may cheer inwardly at the choice to publish, knowing full well what the consequences might be.

Trigger warning for sexual assault.

Audrey reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


It clocks in at literally just under 600 pages. It’s two books in one. It’s a heck of a new young adult experiment for Scott Westerfeld, whose previous YA series have done well. And they’ve all been very different–steampunk (Leviathan), dystopian (Uglies), and apocalyptic (Peeps), to name a few. (Also, he is married to Justine Larbalestier, which is neither here nor there, but her Magic or Madness trilogy is excellent.) “Afterworlds” is a doorstop of a book that takes on first love, the publishing world, the co-opting of cultures for the creation of art, the nature of ghosts, dreams, obligations, New York City, and a host of other things. It is, in a word rather than in a list, ambitious. And it mostly works. Which is great, because it’s a Commitment; I only picked it up because I was processing it for my library and noticed that one of the subject headings was Lesbians–Fiction.

Darcy’s barely a high school graduate, but back in the fall she gritted her teeth and committed herself to NaNoWriMo ( She triumphed. The novel she completed is called “Afterworlds,” and not only has she sold it, she’s managed to get a two-book contract for an obscene amount of money. And she’s moved to New York to be a writer, to do the revisions of “Afterworlds,” and to come up with the elusive second novel she’s now contractually obligated to deliver.

Darcy’s protagonist is Lizzie, and no, Darcy doesn’t pick up on the Darcy-and-Lizzie thing until well after she’s completed the novel, and once it’s pointed out, it doesn’t really go anywhere; it’s just acknowledged for the Janeites. Darcy’s tale and Lizzie’s tale (that is, Darcy’s novel) are told in alternating chapters, so quite seriously, this is two full books. There’s the story of a young girl moving to New York City to test out the possibilities of what might be a charmed life, and the story of a young girl dealing with the challenges of her own new life in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy.

One of the great things about Darcy is that she has a little sister who’s smart and plucky. Another great thing about Darcy is that she’s clueless and doesn’t know it. She’s from a Hindu family, but has written a book about a white girl who survives a terrorist attack by slipping into the spirit world, becoming a spirit guide, and falling in love with a Hindu death god. There’s some good stuff going on in the book, but the leads are a bit vanilla. Darcy wanted her protagonist to be relatable, though, and she based the death god on a Bollywood actor she thought was hot. That’s her model for love. Until she moves to New York. Until she meets Imogen.

And then New York gives her an experience she hadn’t anticipated. Darcy and Imogen are both writers, both Word Girls who appreciate language and its nuances. Their relationship isn’t entirely transparent, though. Darcy has maybe skipped class once or twice. But Imogen has a past. Emotionally, Imogen is more complex than the people Darcy’s used to. From the beginning there’s a sense of something being off-kilter, and that sense only grows until things come to a head–I was disappointed with Westerfeld’s resolution here. There’s lots of attention given to how Darcy deals with the ending of Lizzie’s story, but that ending was fine. It’s the ending of Darcy’s story that disappoints. It feels as if Westerfeld lacked the conviction to carry through the momentum he built throughout an entire novel, because the original ending perhaps didn’t test well. Maybe it’s a meta-statement on publishing?

The genre story is riproaring and page-turning. The frame story offers a little wish-fulfillment peek into YA heaven, and a mostly lovely and restrained look at the amazingness of awakening feelings, and first love, and finally understanding what everyone else has been obsessing about for years. There’s no graphic sexual content, but lots of F-bombs, which is necessary to know if you’re a YA librarian. Nobody cares about murder (there’s some of that) or terrorism (yup), but is there sex (not described)? Bad language (all over the place)?

Where this book will find its readership is up for debate. Usually, the teenage girls (or “new adults”) to whom it seems to be marketed are lots more self-aware than Darcy. Her naivete may turn them off. Adults may find this to be wish fulfillment all around. Not only does Darcy fall into her publishing contract and a lovely apartment and her first relationship, she’s in an extremely accepting community. There’s only one uncomfortable moment, when she admits that she doesn’t want to go home and tell her parents she’s dating Imogen. Imogen has to point out that not everyone has it so easy, and “Not all of us make it, you know.” This is no one’s publishing story; maybe it’s no one’s coming-out story, either.

What’s the verdict? I loved the parts about the publishing world and the beginning (and pieces of the middle) of Lizzie’s story. But there’s a lot going on here. This wouldn’t be something to recommend to someone just looking for a good lesbian romance.

Audrey reviews Get Me Through the Night by Emily Ryan


Joss, Caroline, and Izzy were best friends. At nine, Caroline was abducted. At 17, Izzy was murdered. At 31, Joss is a tough-as-nails waitress at a bar in Chewelah, Washington, and she lives across the trailer park from her mom. Joss is not given to introspection, and the joking banter she engages in at work stands in for intimacy. Despite an almost galling lack of self-knowledge, Joss has a considerable and unwieldy psychic talent, and she reads tarot cards on the side.

An old classmate, Tammy, needs a reading. Weird stuff goes down, Joss passes out, and Tammy bails. Joss is displeased. They rejoin forces, because it seems the dead may not be staying dead. Other players from Joss’s past are called in including Elena, an old high school teacher. Strange happenings abound. Soon circumstances get way beyond anything Joss, Tammy, and Elena could ever control. They call in some assistance, and the cavalry rides in in the form of a lesbian Wiccan couple from Spokane. What’s going on in Chewelah?

This is a series opener. I have been a copy editor for over a decade. And I would pick up (or download) the second title in this series when it’s released, and that’s saying something. Let’s just get this out of the way–this book desperately needed a copy editor. Particularly one with a basic grasp of homonyms.

The book is also seriously uneven, and it sketches in its background and characters in broad strokes. At the beginning this is problematic because there’s really no hook, and it’s a plot-driven novel. Some of the plotting is brilliant. There are some amazing fundamental big ideas. But some of the plotting is clunky. How much abuse and murder can one tiny town hold? But–and stop, stop, just wait–after some hitches and starts, “Get Me Through the Night” takes off. It flies along for a while really enjoyably.

Despite Joss’s initial one-dimensionality, she’s an actual character. She grows and changes. She has some severe denial going on. And while I mentioned the Wiccan couple above, they’re great characters with an established relationship, but the real Lesbrarian interest spark is with Joss, who has never really felt–or acknowledged to herself that she has felt–anything for anyone. I appreciated that her initial romantic awakening isn’t overblown. It’s well in keeping with her character. And Emily Ryan guides your series-reading eye toward where Joss might be headed next, relationship-wise.

That’s one of the big strengths of this book: it’s a great setup. Joss is a character you’ll want to follow, having spent a good bit of time enjoying her company in the first book, at least after the initial chapters. She’s in a setting where you’ll want to see what transpires, and there’s a whole lot that could transpire, both personally and in general. (An excerpt from book two is appended.) And I think the best part–and this is so tough not to give away, because it was really just a brilliant bit–is that there is a gorgeous potential setup of a great Big Bad.