Rachel reviews House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

the cover of House of Hunger

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From the author of The Year of the Witching (Penguin 2020) comes a new queer Gothic novel about blood, power, and control. House of Hunger (Penguin 2022) was enthralling until the very last page, and I still want more! 

House of Hunger is set in a world where the upper class literally feed on the blood of lower-class women they enlist into their service. Marion Shaw has been born and raised in the slums of her city, and she works as a maid to make ends meet for herself and her brother who has fallen into a drug addiction that takes him out of the world he lives in. Her life appears monotonous and dismal, dominated by tyrannical others who seek to use her for their own ends. One day, though, she sees an ad in the newspaper: someone is seeking a new bloodmaid. Although there is an enormous stigma amongst the lower classes around such a job, it is the only way Marion can hope to escape her circumstances. She applies to the position and is whisked away into a new life, leaving behind all she knows, in a matter of days.

What follows is a shocking and unfamiliar journey into the far north, where Marion is drawn into the upper classes as a bloodmaid in the House of Hunger, an infamous and ancient clan of vampiric aristocrats. Surrounded by debauchery and hedonism, Marion is quickly swept away by her new mistress, Countess Lisavet. Marion’s blood keeps Lisavet healthy, and Marion is drawn in by Lisavet’s magnetic pull, but soon she realizes that things might not be as they appear. Suddenly, bloodmaids begin to go missing, and questions begin to arise about what exactly happens once a bloodmaid has outlived her term at the House of Hunger. Eventually, it is up to Marion to uncover Lisavet’s secrets and save herself and her friends. 

When I read The Year of the Witching, I couldn’t put it down, and when House of Hunger arrived, I had high hopes it would be a similar reading experience and I was not disappointed! This novel is a fresh and exciting take on the idea of the vampire, with adaptive elements from folklore and legend that I really appreciated. The world Marion lives in is a haunting and exaggerated comment on class systems, gender roles, and exploitation. It was exciting to see Countess Elizabeth Bathory queered in the figure of Lisavet (as she arguably always should be). Marion’s character is someone we root for, and it was interesting to experience so much of this world for the first time alongside her. 

This novel definitely has the Gothic intensity I’ve come to expect from Henderson, and the plot is fast paced, engaging, and kept me guessing until the very end. I could very easily spend more time in this world and I think others could too; there is so much I still want to know about Marion’s society and many other plots to follow. 

If you’re looking for a gripping read this holiday season, House of Hunger is definitely it. I will be reading Henderson’s fiction for a long time to come! 

Please add House of Hunger to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Alexis Henderson on Twitter

Content Warnings: physical violence, gaslighting, assault. 

Rachel Friars is a 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 lesbian 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 @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Danika reviews House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

the cover of House of Hunger

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On paper, this should have been the perfect book for me to read Halloween month. I’m fascinated by the historical figure of Elizabeth Bathory, I love a (fictional) obsessive and unhealthy sapphic relationship, and this sounds like it would be a blood-soaked, sexy Gothic in the vein of A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson. Unfortunately, although I liked House of Hunger, I ended up feeling like it pulled its punches a bit, not quite living up to my expectations.

I find this a difficult book to categorize. At first, I thought it was YA: we have a 19-year-old protagonist, and the cover seemed like a YA style to me. It wasn’t until a scene mentioned snorting lines of cocaine that I realized… this definitely isn’t YA, though it does have a very readable writing style.

This is set in a fictional world that reminded me of Victorian England. Marion lives in the South, where she is barely scraping by working as a maid and caring for her angry, addicted, ill older brother. Her employer and her brother are cruel to her, she has no real friends, and she feel like she has no options. So when the opportunity arises for her to apply to be a blood maid, she takes it. She would live in the North in luxury, with enough money to pay for her brother’s treatment. Sure, it means her employers drink her blood for its health benefits, but that doesn’t seem much worse than the job she has now.

Her blood is deemed to be particularly high quality, and she is taken to the home of Countess Lisavet (the Elizabeth Bathory stand-in). There, she joins a harem of blood maids, all desperately in love with Lisavet, craving her attention. Marion falls hard, even as she struggles in this cut-throat world of wealth that’s so different than what she’s known. This is where I have some difficulties with the book: it sounds like it would be a scandalous story of orgies, drugs, and blood, but while there is the occasional unsettling and gory scene as well as brief mentions of sex, it isn’t nearly as dark as I expected. On the other hand, there are enough mentions and occasional scenes that I wouldn’t recommend this to teen readers or people sensitive to horror, which puts it in a tricky in-between spot to me.

The setting and plot were just what I wanted from it: the claustrophobia and helplessness as the blood maids slowly waste away, the passion and sudden cruelty of Lisavet, the dangerous devotion Marion has for her, the slowly-dawning realization that staying will eventually destroy her — but I didn’t connect with it as much as I expected. I felt a bit of distance from the story. This is one that I would love to see on the big screen, because I think it would be beautiful and haunting. But the audiobook didn’t really grab me.

Those are pretty minor complaints, though, so if the premise appeals to you, I still recommend picking it up. And of course, I love a good capitalism and racism commentary: the rich are literally feeding on the poor (especially poor Black women) and draining the life out of them. I think I just came in with such high expectations that even a good book fell a little bit short for me.

Vic reviews Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

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I am still a relative newbie when it comes to horror, but Vincent Tirado’s Burn Down, Rise Up served as a fantastic entry point for me.  When Bronx high schooler Raquel’s mother falls into a coma with a mysterious illness on the same day that her crush’s cousin disappears, Raquel has no choice but to team up with her crush, Charlize, to save them both. In doing so, they learn of the deadly Echo Game, an urban legend based in the horrifying history of the city, and must put their knowledge as well as their survival skills to the test in order to make it out alive..

This book held my attention from beginning to end—I never wanted to put it down. Though it is a young adult novel, it does not hold back on the horror, the most significant being the real-life history that inspired the Echo. The Echo, we quickly learn, is born of the worst thing that happened in a particular location. The Bronx Echo, then, is filled with decaying buildings and people who are literally on fire, having lost their lives in the 1970s Bronx burning. In defining the Echo, Tirado skillfully weaves in the history of gentrification and redlining so that it feels natural and informative without simply stopping the narrative for a history lesson.

For all of the horror in this book, however, it is also brimming with love—between the individual characters, yes, but for the Bronx itself as well. That theme of community began right from the dedication, and it both raised the stakes and grounded the book in something positive, something hopeful.  When a horror story exists in something terrible, the goal is to simply survive, to get out; here, there was something to fight for, something to save.

As for the characters themselves, they shine. I would even go so far as to say Raquel might be one of my absolute favorite YA protagonists. She was clever and determined, and she felt like a real teenager with real teenage concerns on top of the life-or-death scenario she willingly enters to save the people she cares about. What I found particularly effective is that the book takes all of these parts of her seriously.  While Raquel worries about her mother and Charlize, she also reminds herself that her mother would not be happy if she woke up and found Raquel had let her grades all fall by the wayside, reinforcing the idea that she has a life outside of these dangers, that she should have a life beyond these dangers.

The relationships that drive the book are strong enough in their portrayal as to be believed. The familiar childhood crush who actually likes you back was adorable, but Charlize as a person was a lot more than simply an object of affection—a particularly impressive feat, considering she is in fact the center of a love triangle featuring both Raquel and Raquel’s best friend. As for the love triangle, it could very easily have become a distraction, but I thought it worked well enough, mostly because, again, Charlize was a strong enough character in her own right that it was easy to see why they liked her so much, but the love triangle always took a backseat to the actual threat to their lives.

My one complaint, nitpicky as it may be: the rules of the Echo seemed unclear in parts. I had to reread certain parts to see if I had misunderstood the rule or the scene, and writing this now, I am still not sure which it was. However, I want to be very clear that this was a minor detail that had no impact on the story itself or my overall enjoyment of it. Everything significant in this book is drawn so vividly that it made this one point stand out to me, but it is very likely other readers will miss it entirely.

Perhaps one of the biggest marks of success for a book is to encourage one to want to read more in its genre, which Burn Down, Rise Up has certainly achieved for me. For readers who are more familiar with horror, however, it is well worth a read on every level, from the frights of the Echo to the even more terrifying history that inspired it.

Sam reviews Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago

the cover of Robins in the Night

I first read Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago shortly after it came out in 2015. The literary landscape of lesbian fantasy novels was far scarcer even seven years ago than it is today; the YA publishing engine hadn’t yet realized the market it could exploit, and stumbling upon even a halfway decent book felt like finding buried treasure. Likewise, self-publishing was picking up steam but had not yet had its heyday—while I still think that self-publishing a novel requires an admirable level of audacity, in 2015 there were far fewer people who had actually taken that leap. So when word of a self-published, lesbian retelling of Robin Hood featuring a trans protagonist started going around, I went out of my way to borrow a family member’s Kindle so I could read it.

What I found charmed and surprised me in equal measure. Robins in the Night is hard to categorize. I can’t say that it isn’t a Robin Hood retelling, but if it is, it’s in the least possible way. It’s set in a fantasy version of England, but I couldn’t tell you in what time period or really much of anything much more specific about the setting. Consistent and detailed worldbuilding isn’t very important to Robins in the Night; it’s far more interested in fun wordplay, taking the piss out of men, and girls kissing. Oh, and also snails.

The novel tells the story of Marian Snoke, who is a thief. To most people, she is nothing; that is, until she falls in with the Hooded Council, an all-women group of thieves who use their ill-gotten gains to fund a refuge for the poor and downtrodden. The plot meanders its way forward from there, jumping from character to character, idling by moments and taking small diversions, pausing for intermissions and then suddenly leaping two steps ahead.

Rereading Robins in the Night now, what really struck me was just how young it feels. Every page dances with an energy both exuberant and clumsy. The book is just so excited to be here that it can hardly keep itself focused on any one story element for long. There’s a lot of inventively creative use of language in Robins in the Night, which ranges from cute to genuinely hilarious. The romance between Marian and Jemima in particular overflows with the disbelieving awe of gay young adults falling in love for the first time. In 2015, only a few years after I came out myself, it resonated deeply with my own recent experiences. Now, it’s a reminder of what it felt like to still be in the midst of figuring yourself out and finding love after being denied it for so long.

Youthful enthusiasm isn’t without its faults, of course. There are times that Robins in the Night feels hardly edited at all. Dajo Jago did not kill any of her darlings when writing her debut novel—though I can’t say that doesn’t make up a large part of its charm. What did bother me was several dips in tone that occur throughout the book, places where something hard and violent intrudes upon the largely light-hearted narrative. Which isn’t to say that Robins in the Night can’t or shouldn’t handle topics like death, maiming, and abuse of power—indeed, bigotry and prejudice are clearly important to the author and the story. But Robins in the Night clearly wants to be a happy kind of fairy tale, and it can feel a little jarring when it decides to dip into the grimmer reaches of that genre.

But despite any clumsiness that may arise from being a new author’s self-published work, Robins in the Night is most definitely worth a read—I even think it has the potential to be at least a few people’s new favorite book. I certainly enjoyed revisiting it…although I’m still not sure what’s so important about the snails.

Content Warnings: racism, transmisogyny, implied child abuse

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Maggie reviews This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron

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This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron is the sequel to This Poison Heart, her gothic YA fantasy filled with Black girl magic, Greek mythology, and impressive action. This book picks up directly after This Poison Heart and deals with Briseis trying to grapple with the events and betrayals of the last book. Faced with an impossible task, she must embark with her newly-found birth family, her adoptive family, and her new friends on a heroic quest that would do a Greek legend proud. Bayron continues to pull in mythology and plant lore to give Briseis’s world a rich depth and backstory, but the presence of so many adults means that Briseis is less of a star and more caught in the whirlwind of plot.

In This Poison Heart, Briseis is the star as she tries to figure out her magic and her family history by herself. Her moms are aware of her magic, and they are the ones that move them into their newly-inherited house, but the connection to Greek history, the secret of the poison garden, and the source of Briseis’s power are all things that Briseis investigated on her own or with Marie and Karter. In true YA fashion, Briseis often decides that the adults in her life don’t need to know things, because she doesn’t want to worry them—a coming of age literary tradition. In This Wicked Fate, the presence of Circe and Persephone, and the sudden awareness of Moe of just what Briseis has been grappling with, means that Briseis is no longer in charge of the action. Quite reasonably for adults, Circe and Moe and Persephone are the ones making the plans for the Absyrtus Heart, leaving Briseis to insert herself in them and keep up with events as best she can. It’s a logical progression, but I found it less fun to read.

However, This Wicked Fate offers plenty of the amazing relationships that This Poison Heart boasted of. Briseis has a great relationship with her adoptive parents, and now she has to navigate what sort of relationship she wants with her biological family. Bayron handles the issue with depth and grace, leading Briseis and Circe to gradually get to know each other and figure themselves out while dealing with the horrible situation they’re in. Her relationship with Marie also blossoms, as Marie throws herself into their quest and being Briseis’s Muscle. It’s a very sweet relationship considering they met while they were in danger. Briseis even spends time grappling with her feelings about Karter because, even though he did betray her, he was her first friend in a new town, she valued the relationship, and she is starting to see how badly his family treats him. The themes of found family, generational trauma, and love and forgiveness run deep throughout the story and make this duology a worthwhile and entertaining read.

In conclusion, this is a solid ending to the duology started in This Poison Heart. If I found the first book more fun, I found that this book was full of deep meaningful relationships, character growth, queer love, and a satisfying ending. I would encourage any fan of YA fantasy to add it to their list today.

Danika reviews Bad Things Happen Here by Rebecca Barrow

the cover of Bad Things Happen Here by Rebecca Barrow

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One of my favourite YA books is This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow, so when I saw Barrow was coming out with another sapphic YA title, I knew I had to pick it up. But while This Is What It Feels Like is a heartwarming slice-of-life story, Bad Things Happen Here is a sun-drenched murder mystery about the dark side of a postcard-perfect island getaway.

Luca lives in Parris, a wealthy island town that looks like paradise, but has a long history of mysterious deaths of young women, including Luca’s best friend, who was found dead several years ago. The inhabitants of Parris explain away these deaths with campfire stories of Parris being cursed — but really, they seem to believe, it’s just a series of unrelated coincidences. Luca, though, believes in the curse. And she feels it creeping up on her.

That feeling only intensifies when she returns home one day to find a police car outside her house. Her sister, Whitney, is the latest victim of the curse, and she appears to have been murdered. Luca can’t trust the police to find out the truth, so she’s determined to do it herself — not just for her sister’s sake, but also to try to find a way to escape facing a similar fate. As she starts digging, she finds that the rot in Parris spreads further than she could have imagined, and that everyone in her life is keeping secrets.

This is a mystery in two parts: one is the murder mystery of what happened to Whitney specifically, while the other is about what’s going on in Parris in general. I think some people will find them ending frustrating because (Vague spoilers:) one of these mysteries gets a neat, satisfying puzzle conclusion, while the other is messier. To me, though, that was a positive: I think it perfectly fit the story Barrow was trying to tell, and although it wasn’t satisfying in terms of everything slotting neatly into place, it did complete Luca’s story in a satisfying way. (End of spoilers.)

Luca is an interesting character, especially contrasted with her former friend, Jada. Luca, Jada, and Polly used to all be best friends, until Polly’s death. But while Luca doesn’t fit in on Parris because she’s fat, Black, queer, and mentally ill, she’s also very wealthy, and she is often classist towards Jada, who is from one of the few middle class families on the island. Polly and Luca even used to secretly hang out just the two of them when they didn’t want to be dragged down by Jada not having the same amount of spending money as they had. Although Jada isn’t a very prominent side character, I found this dynamic added a lot of depth: both Jada and Luca resent each other for not seeing their realities, and they’re both dismissive of each other’s grievances.

I do want to give a very big content warning for self harm for this title, speaking of Luca’s mental health. It comes up frequently throughout the novel, along with her suicide ideation.

In some ways, this is a great summer read: it is set on an island in the summer, and the rich people murder mystery has lots of reveals and drama. On the other hand, this is a dark read that’s equally about Luca’s isolation and pain. It’s also a novel about the inescapable horrors of wealth inequality and the obscene power that a tiny fraction of the population holds.

This is a very different read from This Is What It Feels Like, but it’s no less captivating, and I appreciate how Barrow weaves in broader societal issues into her novels. I also admire an author willing to subvert audience expectations, even when it might frustrate some readers, when it’s in service to the story. I’m definitely interested in what she writes next!

Kelleen Reviews Three Novellas to Marathon This Summer

Caroline’s Heart by Austin Chant

the cover of Caroline’s Heart

I read Caroline’s Heart by Austin Chant for the first time this month and it blew my mind. It’s a queer trans historical western fantasy novella and it’s just so GOOD. I don’t read a lot of fantasy and I don’t read a lot of westerns, but I love a queer historical, so I jumped in with both feet. I don’t want to give too much away, but it follows a bi trans witch who’s trying to resurrect her lost lover and the bi trans cowboy who has her lover’s heart in his chest. And then, they fall in love. The stakes are so high, the world building is so precise, and the romance is so addictive. It’s tender and raw and absolutely electrifying. It’s the perfect Pride read for historical and fantasy lovers alike!

Representation: bi trans heroine, bi trans hero, bi trans author

Content warnings: death of a loved one, blood, violence

Can’t Escape Love by Alyssa Cole

the cover of Can't Escape Love

Alyssa Cole writes the most dynamic, diverse, relatable romance worlds and this little novella is no different. The fourth in her Reluctant Royals series, this novella follows Reggie, the badass CEO of the nerdy girl media empire Girls with Glasses and the video creator she used to have an internet crush on. When Reggie’s insomnia has made it impossible for her to keep working, she turns desperately to Gus, whose puzzling livestreams are the only thing that ever soothed her enough to fall asleep. And then, they fall in love. Reggie never actually names her identity on page, but she’s polysexual of some kind. She is also a wheelchair user. Both Reggie and Gus are neurodivergent and the way their brains work together is so lovely. These two understand each other better than anyone else does and they make something so beautiful together. The book is sexy and smart and nerdy and hilarious and absolutely delightful. Alyssa Cole is always a must-read, but this novella is EXCELLENT, and perfect for the second half of your Pride TBR.

Representation: queer, neurodivergent, wheelchair using Black heroine, neurodivergent, Vietnamese-American hero, queer, neurodivergent, Black author

Content warnings: roofies (off-page, mentioned), discussion of hospital stays

Wherever is Your Heart by Anita Kelly

the cover of Wherever Is Your Heart

Anita Kelly has given us a gift for us in the Moonies series, a series of novellas that center around a queer karaoke bar. This one, the third and final in the series, is sapphic and is my favorite of the lot. It’s a soft novella about blue collar soft butch lesbians in their late 40s, early 50s who are ready to settle down and fall in love and I love it with everything that I am. And then, they fall in love. I don’t really know how to describe it, but this book is about soft butches but it also feels like it IS a soft butch? Like it’s an embodiment of soft butchness in book form. It’s so tender and gentle and beautiful. The book takes place during Pride at a karaoke bar so now’s the perfect time to read it! My predominant feeling when reading an Anita Kelly book is warmth—I feel warm and safe and seen and celebrated, and what more could you want from Pride?

Representation: middle aged, plus sized, butch lesbian heroines, chronic pain, nonbinary author

Content warnings: Drunk driving, alcoholism, death of parent, weed

Sometimes, in my life existing as a twenty-something butchish queer disabled woman and experiencing different aspects of my community online and in the world, I worry that I am not cool and hip and irreverent enough. And sometimes, this makes me feel not only like I’m not connected to my community but that I have no business calling it my community. But all three of these books never fail to remind me that queer people are also silly and awkward and quiet (I’m not quiet) and soft and nerdy and dramatic and complicated, and that there is not one acceptable way to be queer.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

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

Nat reviews Stud Like Her by Fiona Zedde

the cover of Stud Like Her by Fiona Zedde

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I actually read Stud Like Her for the first time as soon as it came out, and thought about reviewing it then, but then I thought *everyone* was going to be reviewing it because there are so few books about studs loving other studs. As I was rereading it, I realized I had actually not seen much written about it. 

While this book isn’t erotic romance, it does frequently present imagery of sex, sexual desire, and attraction. There’s a lot of pining for the body of another in great detail and sprinkled generously throughout. If that’s not your jam, this may not be the book for you. But if it is, read on!

Our tormented main character, Chance Cooper, is a stud; meaning she’s a masc of center Black lesbian, and she just so happens to be attracted to other butch women. She’s pushed aside this attraction for nearly a decade, essentially still living in the closet. Much of the book centers around her fighting the constraints of her community and having the courage to live an authentic life. 

Zedde tackles a lot of subjects that are tough to wrangle, so expect a fair amount of angst and frustration as Chance works out her issues. One of the difficult themes is internalized homophobia, with studs loving other studs being seen as “too queer” in the Black community. There’s a lot of shame assoicatied with her attraction, and discussions of being “out” not as a gay woman, but as a gay women attracted to another stud within the gay community. We see these restrictive, hetronormative rules applied to queerness, leading to the same destructive results as if Chance were simply in the closet as a lesbian. This bleeds into another theme, internalized misogyny. The rigid butch/femme structure of Chance’s community leads to toxic masculinty. There’s a lot of us vs them, femmes vs studs heteronormative attitudes that are not doing anyone any favors. 

One of the things I really liked in the book was Chance overcoming her insecurities and breaking away from destructive friendships. As with most queer stories, and in real life, found family is the thing that keeps us afloat. We often see examples of supportive and loving friendships, contrasted with  toxic and problematic family. In this case, it’s the opposite, with Chance having a supportive and loving family, but the worst ever so-called friends.  Like I said, no shortage of angst, but to see our MC come out on the other side is worth the sweat and tears. 

All that serious business aside, there are still plenty of playful moments and humor throughout. We mostly get this after meeting Garret, the young stud who Chance wants to date even though she’s terrified of what others will think. Garret the Hotness, or G-hot, is an Instagram star who gives zero foxes about what other people think of her. She’s young and idealistic and exactly the sort of polar opposite that Chance needs to course correct and finally be happy. 

Overall, consider this an angsty romance filled with self reflection, overcoming fear of rejection, and self-loathing, while exploring issues within the Black queer community. I’m on my second read of the book now, so put it on your summer reading list!

Danika review Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

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I have to say, although I love the illustration of Raquel, I don’t think cover does justice to this being a horror novel. I got sports vibes from it. I didn’t notice the little monster claws/legs in the background on first viewing. But this is definitely horror, with some blood and gore, so be prepared for that going in.

This is a YA horror novel about a nightmare version of the Bronx where people are infected with mold until it consumes them, where fires burn endlessly, and where giant centipedes roam the streets and eat anyone they can catch. It’s bloody and has some serious body horror. But it’s also about the history of the Bronx, the racist policies that led to real-life horrors, and what it takes to try to rebuild when the fires still aren’t completely out.

People keep disappearing from the Bronx, and even the white teenagers who get a full police investigation aren’t found. It’s just background noise in Raquel’s life, until one day her mother goes into a coma after coming in contact with a patient covered in strange mold who then fled. Her crush, Charlize, confides in her that she saw her cousin Cisco before he disappeared, and he was covered in that same mold. If he was the one who infected Raquel’s mother, maybe finding him will be the key to helping her.

Aaron, Raquel’s best friend who also has a crush on Charlize (Awkward.), agrees to help, and the three of them try to research what happened to Cisco. Meanwhile, Raquel has started having disturbing visions and dreams, including one that leaves her with a burn on her skin. After going down some Reddit rabbit holes, they learn about the Echo game, also known as the Subway game. It involves going into the subway tunnels at exactly 3 A.M. and chanting, “We are Echobound.” The rules are strict, and it’s said that if you break them, you will never come back. Forums online are full of people’s stories of this Echo place, a nightmare version of their city.

The Echo game sounds a lot like the sort of creepypasta horror stories that get passed around Reddit and other forums, with just enough specificity to have you questioning whether they’re real or not.

Between a school assignment and the Echo research, Raquel learns about the darkest time in the Bronx’s history, which is taken to the extreme in its Echo. She learns about the racist policies that led to low income houses burning down constantly, killing many residents. She identifies the villain at the centre as the Slumlord who profited off the Bronx’s unsafe living conditions. I did feel like this got a little bit didactic at times, but I think that’s a complaint coming from being a 32-year-old reading a YA novel and not necessarily an issue with the book itself.

Charlize, Aaron, and Raquel gear up to enter the Echo to find Cisco and bring him back, but despite their research, it’s much more than they were prepared for. To find Cisco, first they’ll have to find a way to survive at all.

This is being marketed as Stranger Things meets Jordan Peele, which I think is a fair comparison: it definitely has social thriller elements, and it has the weirdness of Stranger Things, but with a little more gore. If you want an antiracist sapphic YA social thriller and can stomach some body horror, give this one a try.

Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, gun use, police brutality, discussion of cannibalism, fire injuries/burns