Rachel Friars reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content Warnings: abuse, domestic violence, homophobia.

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

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

Danika reviews Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Papi was a man split in two,
playing a game against himself.

But the problem with that
is that in order to win, you also always lose.

Yahaira and Camino are half-sisters, but they don’t know it. Yahaira lives in New York City with her mother and father, though he goes to the Dominican Republic every summer. She has recently discovered the reason he makes this journey every year and is furious, refusing to speak to him (or let him know what’s wrong). Camino lives in the Dominican Republic and looks forward to her father’s yearly visits, especially since her mother passed away. They are both heartbroken when their father’s plane crashes and he passes away, unaware of their shared grief.

I was immediately interested in the premise of Clap When You Land. I have a big, messy family–we even discovered a long-lost aunt at one point–so I wanted to be able to read about these two characters discovering that they’re family, and figuring out how to assimilate that into their understanding of themselves.

This is my first Acevado book, and I’ve heard amazing things about them. I knew that some of her books are written in verse, but I wasn’t sure if this one was: I ended up listening to it as an audiobook, and I still wasn’t sure when the novel began. I realized that it is written in verse, but it works in spoken format, and sounds natural most of the time. There are also two narrators for the point of view characters, which I appreciated.

I loved the characters: they felt well-rounded and real, and I felt for them. Yahaira is trying to understand her life now that she knows her father has been lying to her. She had turned away from him and the values that he instilled, freezing him out before he got on the plane. She has stopped playing chess, which used to be a big part of their shared lives. She is lost afterwards, struggling to deal with the messy aftermath of death: her mother making funeral arrangements (in the Dominican Republic? In New York?), distant family members showing up at the door when the settlement money is brought up, and her teachers and classmates not knowing how to speak to her. She also has a girlfriend, who lives next door, and they have a very sweet relationship. It’s nice to see an f/f relationship that is already established and comfortable. It has flaws, but is fundamentally a source of comfort and happiness for both of them.

Camino’s everyday life is very different. She wants to be a doctor, and already has experience caring for the sick and dying as an apprentice. She is used to friends her age having children and possibly dying from it, because there isn’t adequate medical supplies and treatment. She goes to a private school paid for by her father, in the hopes of eventually going to the U.S. for university. After he passes, not only is she left orphaned, but she is incredibly vulnerable. Her school asks for tuition she doesn’t have, and she is being recruited into sex work by a man who was once paid by her father to leave her alone. Her options are running out, and she is willing to take a desperate risk to save herself.

Even the side characters are complex and interesting, even if we don’t see a lot of them. Yahaira’s mother and Camino’s aunt are mostly background characters, but we can see how their grief affects them, and the strength that it takes to continue onward and to take care of them as much as they can. This is primarily a story about grief, so it isn’t fast-moving. Instead, we stay with Yahaira and Camino as they try to process, and we sit with that discomfort.

From the premise, I knew that eventually the two half-sisters would have to meet, or at least become aware of each other, and that was the moment I was waiting for. Unfortunately, it came a lot later in than I was hoping for. They aren’t even aware of the other’s existence until the latter half of the book. I was excited to get to that point, but it felt a little bit rushed. I wanted to see the two of them establish a relationship and then see it change and mature. I wanted to see how their lives changed with each other in them.

This is a thoughtful, poignant story about grief, and I can see why Acevado is celebrated as a writer. I didn’t get the resolution I was hoping for from Yahaira and Camino’s relationship, but that’s a personal reaction, and it’s still one I would recommend.

Mo Springer reviews The Dawn of Nia by L. Cherelle

Dawn of Nia by Lauren Cherelle

This review contains minor spoilers.

Nia’s life and self have been shaped by her friendship with her mentor Pat and is grief stricken when she dies. At the funeral, she meets a mysterious woman who turns out to be none other than Pat’s estranged daughter, Deidra. Nia is left feeling confused and betrayed–why did Pat keep this secret from her, when Nia had shared everything? Her life and feelings about Pat are further complicated when she enters a relationship with Deidra. Can they weather this storm of complicated feelings surrounding a woman who was so complicated herself, and let go of past trauma?

Both Nia and Deidra are characters who have been through a lot of trauma and a lot of demons in their pasts. It was interesting to see how they deal with the challenges and obstacles that rose from this baggage. Both of them make good and bad decisions, which helped make the story and their characters more realistic and believable. Sometimes the best people make the worst decisions, and they have to deal with the consequences of that.

You didn’t get to meet Pat, Nia’s dead mentor who was so very close to her, and Deidra’s dead mother, who she was so very distant from. But you get an intimate picture of her character from both women’s perspectives and through them see what a complex person she was. Sometimes people are bad parents, but very good in other roles of life, and you get to see how Deidra and Nia both have to grapple with how each other see someone who has had such a tremendous impact on both their lives.

In L. Cherelle’s Goodreads author page, she describes this book as being about “transformative love”, which is the best way to put it (she would know, being the author). A lot of romance stories focus on the lead up, the rising tension, the hot scenes, and the will-they won’t-they. And there is a lot of that here (with some wonderfully hot scenes), but it doesn’t detract from that transformative love theme. You don’t just get to see two characters grow and develop in separate narratives. Nia and Deidra’s character arcs are tightly wound together.

Another thing I loved about this book was how realistic all the characters were, not just Nia and Deidra. There’s a large ensemble cast of characters and they each get a moment to shine and show their true colors–for better or worse. A lot of the dialogue felt very real and lifelike, as if I was a fly on the wall in the characters’ homes.

With these characters there was also an interesting exploration of sexuality and how labels function for different people. Nia describes herself as 99% of a lesbian, having a very slight attraction to men but not the desire to pursue relationships with them. Deidra describes herself as bisexual, but also later on calls herself a lesbian to indicate her monogamous, long-term relationship with Nia.

Adding more to the realistic theme of the book is how it ends. I won’t give anything away, but the way different story threads are wrapped up felt true to life while still being a satisfactory fiction element. Chapters of your life don’t always end with a bang, but sometimes with just a whisper. You don’t always get a big scene of drama: sometimes you just have a conversation in your living room and leave it at that. Having said that, this book does have some great scenes of big drama, and where it does, it always feels like it fits the characters involved and the tension that has led to that moment.

Overall, this was both an incredibly fun and fulfilling read that I highly recommend.

Carolina reviews The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

“People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.”

In today’s world, amidst the ongoing tensions caused by the fight for racial equality, isolation from the Coronavirus, and political dissent in the aftermath of a negligent administration, it seems that humanity is more divided than ever. N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became erases those arbitrary borders, and reminds us of the power of diversity and togetherness in the face of adversity and prejudice.

Each city is born, lives and dies. Now, it is New York City’s time to shine. Five individuals, all of varying creeds, races and identities wake up as the manifestation of New York’s boroughs: Brooklyn is a Black rapper turned politician, who fits in time as a single mom alongside her never-ending work for her community; Bronca, or the Bronx, is a Native lesbian who’s not afraid to use her steel-toed boots to protect her love for art; Aislyn of Staten Island is a troubled young woman, weighing her personal worth against her family’s traditional, conservative values; Padmini of Queens is a tech-savvy, happy-go-lucky South Asian immigrant; and Manhattan, or Manny, for short, has fallen head over heels for his city, and is determined to save his love. Brooklyn, Bronca, Aislyn, Manny and Padmini must put aside their struggles to become one New York City. Their task? Defeat a Lovecraftian ‘Karen’ who uses her xenophobic tentacle monsters to infect everyday New Yorkers with contemptuous paranoia, and drive citizen against citizen. This novel is a love letter to New York City, and what it represents: community, dreams and a can-do attitude.

Personally, the characters and their relationships are what makes the novel great. N.K. Jemisin creates characters that you can root for, but also criticize for their flaws, channeling inspiration from Sense8 and Good Omens. Characters clash and connect, and must put aside differences to understand and help one another. The diversity in this book allows the characters to feel like genuine New Yorkers, evocative of the melting pot of the city. Almost every character in the novel is a person of color and/or queer, and their identities influence their borough of the city, and the fight as a whole.

Bronca, the lesbian grandmother of our dreams, is bad-ass, ambitious and impassioned, determined to take no shit and pay it no mind. Bronca is a deeply flawed individual, prone to picking fights with others as a coping mechanism. She stood her ground at Stonewall, at Act-Up, and during today’s rise of right-wing ideology, she becomes the victim of a white supremacist smear campaign over the course of the novel. It is not until she realizes those around her love her and want to help her that she is able to rally her community around her and find justice in their compassion and empathy, demonstrating the importance of queer community.

N.K. Jemisin takes H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled horror monsters, and makes them her own, utilizing the Cthulu to dramatize the insidious nature of injustice at the heart of modern society. Jemisin’s subversion of Lovecraft allows her to topple a racist institution, and build a new one in its place. Today’s bigotry is dramatized in the form of The Woman in White: a wealthy white woman who gentrifies neighborhoods and disregards those who actually call them home. Jemisin calls out modern day prejudices in all degrees, from internet doxxing, to sideways glances and microaggressions, to outright disrespect and violence.

This is one of the most unique science-fiction novels I’ve read in a long time; it feels fresh and innovative, and dissects real, harsh truths in our society. It describes not only what it means to be a marginalized New Yorker, but what it means to be an American: the desire to fit in and band together as a diverse community, but having to face discrimination at your front door. N.K. Jemisin is THE science-fiction writer to look out for, as she combines the classic hallmarks of the genre with allusions to current events, imbuing her narratives with humor and candor. So, queue up Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer and buckle up for a wild romp around New York City.

Trigger Warnings: Racism, homophobia, hate crimes, use of slurs, gaslighting, white supremacist ideology, Nazi ideology

Meagan Kimberly reviews Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Some minor spoilers toward the end!

Nicole Dennis-Benn delivers a heart wrenching gut punch with Here Comes the Sun. The story follows two sisters as they contend with the effects of colonialism in Jamaica and the intergenerational trauma caused by that violence. Their relationships with each other, their love interests, their mother, and everyone in between are informed by the lasting influence of continued colonization.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin, which I absolutely recommend. She captured the melodic cadence of Benn’s prose with incredible precision, bringing each character to life with their own unique voices. That marriage of Benn’s narrative with Turpin’s voice acting created the perfect recipe for an immersive read.

Benn deftly intertwines various themes of colorism, trauma, sex work, sexual assault, and homophobia, all through the lens of the ramifications of patriarchal, white colonialism. By focusing on the main characters’ relationships with the supporting characters, she makes it clear that none of these issues exist in a vacuum. Everything is informed by the damage done by racism and colonization.

You can’t talk about one plot or character arc without talking about the others. That’s the brilliance of Here Comes the Sun. Margot regards her younger sister Thandi as an innocent girl to protect from the cruelties their mother put her, Margot, through. Thandi wrestles with a hatred of her skin color, as she’s been taught that her darkness is ugly and undesirable.

“No one gon’ love a black girl. Not even herself.”

Thandi and Margot’s mother’s words hit hard, reflecting the scars she’s endured from the violence of white men. It’s a moment that makes you understand Dolores’ hard exterior and lack of empathy for anyone, including her daughters. But it never excuses her behavior and actions.

At the same time, both sisters resent one another. Margot resents Thandi for having opportunities she didn’t have and throwing them away, in her opinion. Thandi resents Margot for putting the pressures of success and getting out of poverty on her at the expense of her dreams and personal desires.

All the while, Margot protects Thandi from their mother’s propensity for selling her daughter into sex work. Thandi doesn’t have a clue of their mother’s cruelty until the very end, where she finally understands why her sister Margot is the way she is. But this doesn’t let Margot off the hook for the damage she inflicts.

Dennis-Benn’s narrative shines a light on how a victim can also become a victimizer. The characters are messy and complex. It makes it hard to hate any of them, but you won’t necessarily love any of them either.

Readers looking for a happy ending to a lesbian relationship will not find anything of the sort here. Margot uses Verdeen as an escape from the lack of love from her mother. But she is also willing to sacrifice Verdeen for a sense of freedom from the prison the town’s atmosphere creates for her. While Verdeen endures ostracization and violence for being the town “aberration” to stay with Margot, Margot is willing to throw her under the bus.

The best way to summarize Here Comes the Sun is messy and complex. It’s tough content, but Dennis-Benn’s writing is so adept you cannot help but race through the story.

Maggie reviews Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

In these trying times, the romance stories I am drawn to most right now involve two characters taking one look at each other and going “Oh.” Enemies to lovers or any variation thereof has its place, and is a trope I do enjoy, but right now what I want is two characters just being into each other. Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon fulfills that need. It’s a cute rich girl/working girl novella featuring two black characters, one of whom is a stripper and the other of whom is still trying to get a feel for her own sexuality and style.

Alexis Chambers is a freshmen in college who is trying to figure out her identity amongst family expectations and the pressures of going off to college. Trisha “Treasure” Hamilton strips nights to make money and is going to school so she has a good career after she’s done with dancing. They first notice each other during Alexis’s sister’s bachelorette party at the club where Trisha works, and then later they find out they have a class together. The connection between them is almost instantaneous, although Alexis is shy, leaving Trisha to make the first moves. Although they come from different backgrounds, and each has their own family issues, their instant attraction is undeniable. CONTENT WARNING: There is talk of a suicide attempt in Alexis’s past. It is talked about, but there’s no graphic flashbacks or descriptions.

What I liked most about this book is how sweet they both are towards each other. Alexis is head over heels about Trisha but suffering from low self-confidence. Trisha is besotted with Alexis but dealing with her own baggage. But their sheer attraction to each other makes every milestone–from holding hands to having sex–both supercharged and incredibly sweet. It’s adorable and every page made me so happy. I also love that they are both aware of their own and each other’s issues but are determined not to push or make the other feel uncomfortable. I also love how chill Alexis is about Trisha’s stripping. It’s refreshing because it feels so natural to Alexis and Trisha is so charmed by it. It’s just good to read about characters who are unambiguously into each other.

My only complaint is that the climax felt a little contrived. It’s the most obvious roadblock to introduce to their relationship, but to introduce it, there’s a very contrived appearance by a minor character. It all felt very “well they need to have at least one (1) problem.” But honestly that’s not a terrible problem for a romance to have, and, obviously, they make up very quickly.

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.

Maggie reviews Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is one of those rare books where an interesting concept is upheld through thorough world-building and great writing. It posits “What would happen if the zombie apocalypse happened at the end of the Civil War?” and follows through with that idea – building an amazingly detailed post-war, post-undead world and filling it with political conspiracies, combat schools, small life details, and plenty of drama.

The story follows Jane McKeene, a student at one of the most prestigious combat schools for black girls in the Baltimore area. She is training to be an attendant, a highly skilled position that is meant to protect the life and virtue of wealthy white women, but Jane has her own plans to return to the plantation where she was born, which is now being run by her mother. Before she can graduate and strike out for home, however, she is caught up in a series of events that takes her out of Baltimore and to the Kansas prairie town of Summerland. Stranded there with her fellow school-mate Katherine, Jane discovered that the torturous living conditions of Summerland cover up even worse problems coming for the inhabitants.

What I really liked most about this book was the care that was put into creating the world and the atmosphere of the book. It’s not logical to plop down zombies into the Civil War and keep everything else the same, but the author carefully layered her story with details about how life would play out, right down to acceptable skirt lengths and Jane’s utter shock at seeing real horses in Summerland. It’s the sort of world-building that I love to immerse myself in. Please, tell me more about the history of combat schools, how zombie fighting techniques evolved, and the effect of the undead on post-Civil War life. Add to that the weird cult-like atmosphere in Summerland, and you have an engaging and evolving read that really fleshes out the premise of a historical zombie apocalypse. There’s also plenty of straight-up zombie fighting included too, for a nice balance of action and plot-building. Jane is an extremely capable person who is absolutely deadly with her zombie-fighting scythes. A child of her time, she doesn’t waste time on the nostalgia of those older than her, who long to go back to the way things were before the undead rose up. Zombies and post-war politics are simply a fact of life for her, and she switches back and forth between doing what she needs to survive zombies and doing what she needs to survive white society, although her strong independent streak does get her in trouble a lot.

Another thing I liked about this book was how quietly, and normally, queerness crept into it. At first, Jane shows both that she has been involved with Jackson Keats, a local boy, and an appreciation for Mr. Redfern, a trained fighter who works for the Mayor. Later though, she reveals that she has had relationships with girls in the past, and it was, in fact, a girl who taught her how to kiss. I really enjoy that this information is revealed so casually, and that Jane herself is very casual about it. At once her sexuality is a real and explicit part of her character and not a guiding part of the plot at all. I guess that fighting zombies means that she does not have time to worry about who she wants to be with, or perhaps she came to terms with herself with her first girlfriend. Either way, Jane McKeene does what she wants, whether that’s fighting zombies or kissing girls, and it was nice to have it be such a nonissue for a historical character. Kate, on the other hand, is outwardly bossy but intensely private about her personal life. Even when she and Jane grow closer through their shared struggles, she doesn’t like to talk about her past. Finally though, she confesses to Jane that she isn’t interested in sex or marriage. This happens towards the end of the book, so there isn’t time to develop this more, but I was genuinely excited for ace rep, and I really appreciated the antagonists-to-friends arc that her and Jane went through.

I’m excited to see how Jane and Kate grow in the next book, and I’m also excited to see what society looks like as Jane and Kate move west across the frontier!

Susan reviews Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

Bingo Love by Tee Franklin cover

I’m pretty sure that I can’t discuss Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge’s Bingo Love without spoilers, because the things that naffed me off the most about it are all massive honking spoilers. It’s a second-chance romance; Mari and Hazel meet again in their sixties and decide to pick up where they left off as teenagers when their homophobic families forcibly separated them. The art is fantastic, I especially love the way that the colours are done, everyone’s looks are excellent. I liked how supportive and loving Hazel’s children were eventually, although the fact that Hazel gets homophobia from all generations of her family is upsetting. The dialogue was quite stilted, but some of the conversations – especially the ones about boundaries–were pretty good. And… That’s the most I can say about it without spoiling anyone. Abandon hope all ye who enter here and all that jazz!

Okay, so I was mostly on board with Bingo Love until it turned out to be The Notebook with queer women. (I wasn’t kidding about the spoilers!) Like, my hatred for The Notebook is as deep as the sea, so that particular reveal was hugely disappointing to me! It turned a few things that I thought were continuity errors into foreshadowing, which was good! It made the cold-open make sense, because as it was Hazel appears to hear someone begging for help after being made homeless by their homophobic family and immediately make it about how much worse queer people had it when she was a kid. No! It’s just how she launches into telling her life story to her wife with dementia. I guess queer women (and especially queer women of colour) deserve to have their own version of The Notebook, if that’s what they want? But for me, it was the tipping point where I couldn’t ignore the things that bugged me anymore.

For example: Mari and Hazel seeing each other for the first time in forty years and immediately running to kiss each other was baffling to me. They’re different people now! Surely there needed to be some build-up or getting to know the adult versions of themselves before the kissing and leaving their husbands! … Actually, I think lack of build-up is the problem for most of the book, because fifty to sixty years are whizzed over at lightspeed, which means that the relationships don’t feel like they have a solid foundation. Not to mention I’m fundamentally suspicious of Hazel’s therapist drawing a distinction between “someone who is the same gender as you” and “someone who identifies as the same gender as you,” because I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be trans-inclusive and missed, or if it’s just being transphobic.

I think what I’m saying here is that Bingo Love is flawed but could be serviceable for someone who isn’t me. The art is good, and getting to see two queer women of colour getting married with their families around them was worth the price of admission. It was just the stuff around that making me twitch.

[Caution warnings: homophobia, adultery, dementia]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence