Danika reviews Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie GillmanI love Melanie Gillman’s art. The use pencil crayons, and the detail is incredible. I always spend half the time reading their books just admiring landscapes. In Stage Dreams, Grace is in a stage coach, on the run. The coach is being driven through an area that’s being haunted by the Ghost Hawk, a supernatural giant hawk that swoops down on carriages and robs them! When Grace’s coach is targeted, she discovers that the Ghost Hawk is, in fact, Flor: a Latina woman who robs coaches, with her (regular-sized) pet hawk–not the story stagecoach drivers like to tell about the experience!

When the stagecoach fails to produce any worthwhile goods, Flor takes Grace instead, in the hopes of getting some ransom money from her family. Her plan falls apart when she finds out that Grace is trans and is running away from her family. Instead, the two end up hatching a plan together to pull of another heist–one that could set them both up for life.

This is a short, snappy story: I got to the end and felt like I must have skipped something, it was over so fast. Once I considered the book as a whole, though, I had to admit that it told a complete story. I just wasn’t willing for it to be over yet! My favourite part was a surprise at the end: Gillman includes endnotes that explain the historical context of many of things on the page, including their research about trans historical figures at the time. It added a lot of depth.

Although I would have liked for this to be a little longer, I really enjoyed the art, characters, and historical context. Westerns are not usually my genre, but I was sucked into this story. Definitely pick it up for a quick, engaging read with a diversity characters not often seen in this setting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danika reviews In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Trigger warning: This review discusses emotional abuse. 

I have been simultaneously excited for and dreading reading In the Dream House since I first heard of its existence. I absolutely loved Her Body and Other Parties as well as Machado’s edition of Carmillaso those put her books on my automatic must read list. This memoir, though, is about a same-sex emotionally abusive relationship: a subject I think needs to be discussed more, and is also something that gets under my skin. I knew that Machado would handle it incredibly–but I also knew that skill would carry the risk of reliving some painful moments in my own history. I was right on both counts.

Machado is an incredible writer. This is a book that experiments with the genre of memoir, explores the history of abuse between women (and its invisibility in the archive), includes a choose your own adventure section, and manages to make a recap of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode a chilling counterpart to the main narrative. In the Dream House is divided into very short sections, usually between 1-3 pages. Each examines the “dream house” (where this relationship took place) from different angles: “The Dream House as Gothic Romance,” “The Dream House as Folk Lore,” “The Dream House as Famous Last Words.” Some are vignettes from her relationship. Some are academic essays on topics like 1940s Gothic Romance movies, or queer-coded villains. I found myself taking picture after picture on my phone of these short works, wanting to refer back to them.

Although this is not a book of theory by any means, Machado weaves in the academic so that it complements the story–and also makes me, for a second, want to be back in academia. Her explorations, regardless of the topic, are fascinating. Did you know that 1946 had the highest divorce rate in the U.S.? Do you know why? Throughout the book, there are footnotes referring to the MotifIndex of Folk-Literature, a book I was confident didn’t exist (Machado used a similar technique in Carmilla), but I see now is a real, 6 volume catalogue. For example, in “Dream House as Famous Last Words,” the woman in the dream house (she never gets a name), says “We can fuck, but we can’t fall in love.” The footnote that follows refers to “Omens in love affairs.”

Of course, this is a book about abuse. It follows their relationship from its cheery promise to nightmare reality. It’s not my experience, but it still felt like someone putting words to an experience I have never been able to properly voice. Machado explores the nature of abuse in queer relationships: the tangle of feelings about “lesbian utopias” being shattered, about violence and abuse as gender-coded, about feeling the need for both of you and your relationship to be positive representation. That by naming the abuse, you will only validate homophobic people’s views. “Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.'”

For me, that really hit home. It made me think about the trap that queer people find themselves in an abusive relationship: the need to protect our abuser in order to protect the greater queer community/image. Also, the idea that our partner can’t possibly be abusive, because they are a victim. They are marginalized. In the victim/oppressor binary, someone can’t occupy both spaces, right? But I realized that it goes one step further than that, something that likely every person in an abusive relationship has felt: protecting the relationship in order to protect yourself. Because to show the abuse is to show that you were wrong. Misguided. That you misjudged the situation. You were foolish. Everyone else could see it, so how could you not? The more obvious the abuse, the more shameful it is to voice it or to attempt to escape. It’s an emotional sunk cost fallacy. Of course, this isn’t true. Victims of abuse should never be judged in this way. But it’s another way to keep people trapped.

Carmen Maria Machado is an incredible author, and I will continue to pick up anything that she ever writes. I highly recommend In the Dream House, but be prepared for an in-depth exploration of emotional abuse.

Danika reviews Of Ice and Shadows by Audrey Coulthurst

Of Ice and Shadows by Audrey CoulthurstHas it really been three years since I fell in love with Of Fire and Stars? I never had a chance against a high fantasy YA about two princesses falling for each other. I was eager to pick up the sequel, and it definitely did not disappoint. In fact, I think this second book has a stronger plot than the first one.

Mare and Denna, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, are young and in love at the beginning of this story. Their relationship is flirty and sweet. But of course, this is the second book in (hopefully) a trilogy, and they face some obstacles before their Happily Ever After. I appreciated that it didn’t feel like a contrivance to keep them apart: Denna is struggling to deal with her out-of-control magic, and Mare is afraid because of it, and wishes Denna didn’t have it–which makes Denna resentful. She has had to repress who she is her whole life, and she refuses to return to that.

So, they’re forced to part ways, and both end up doing their own side quests. While war is on the horizon, they both work to power themselves up (whether in magic, diplomacy, or fighting skills) and uncover some mysteries and conspiracies happening behind the scenes. The point of view cycles between them, and I found them both equally gripping.

I appreciated the world-building that went on here, too. Zumorda, Sonnenborne, Mynaria, and Havemont all feel like real places with deep histories and cultures. One values magical abilities as the only true show of power, one is without magic, one reviles it. Some countries worship the gods, others have abandoned them (or been abandoned by them). There are differences within countries in their beliefs, whether it’s the diverse tribes in Sonnenborne, or the Tamers, who believe that their magic comes from nature and makes them beholden to protect the land. Denna and Mare both have to learn that their education about other countries has been lacking and biased.

I started listening to the audiobook of Inkmistress, but I fell off of it. I wasn’t aware that it tied in so closely to this book: although it’s set hundreds of years before, there is a significant character that overlaps in both, and it was a shock to see them resurface! It also gives a lot of interesting background into the history of one of the countries, including the religious and magical underpinnings. Although technically you can read Of Ice and Shadows without that background, I’d recommend checking it out for the full effect. Now I want to go back and finish it to get the whole picture!

Everything I loved about Of Fire and Stars is continued in the sequel, but we get to see Denna and Mare grow and develop, the world get more fleshed out, and the plot pick up. I liked switching between both story lines, and when they converge again, the story ends with a bang. Even the minor characters are memorable. I really hope that this series gets a third book, because I want to see more from these characters and this world.

Danika reviews Color Outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna

Color Outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna

Color Outside the Lines is a YA romance anthology of interracial love stories. (I’m not sure if the LGBTQ+ stories are also all interracial.) Perhaps it was unfair of me to pick this one up: I’m not a huge romance reader, especially when it comes to straight romance stories. I’m definitely not the teen romance reader this is aimed at. As with all anthologies, some stories stuck with me more than others, but for the most part, I didn’t find this collection particularly memorable. Some stories stood out, but I often felt like stories dropped off suddenly without a satisfying conclusion, or that I didn’t get a good sense of the characters before it was over.

Most of these stories are M/F, but there are three sapphic stories included. (The ARC I received was missing at least 2 stories including Anna-Marie McLemore and Adam Silvera’s, so the final collection will likely include more queer stories.)

“Your Life Matters” by L.L. McKinney: I wasn’t sure how to feel about this one. It is about two teenage girls in a relationship. It begins with a fight: Candace, who is Black, wore a Black Lives Matter shirt to dinner at Ari’s house. Ari is white, and Ari’s dad is an “all lives matter” cop. Ari is angry that Candace “started a fight” by wearing the shirt to dinner. Mild spoilers: it turns out that Candace is also a superhero, and she ends up at the same Black Lives Matter protest as Ari’s dad. [Spoilers, highlight to read:] Despite Ari’s father almost shooting her unprovoked, Candace rescues him from what would have been a fatal situation, and from his hospital bed he reluctantly admits she might have a point. The story doesn’t let him off the hook by completely redeeming him, but Ari’s defense of him at the beginning of the story and this ending had me feeling on edge–which may have been the point.  [End of spoilers]

“Death and the Maiden” by Tara Sim: This was probably my favourite story in the collection. This is a Hades and Persephone f/f retelling–perfect for fans of Sarah Diemer’s The Dark Wife. This time it’s Parvani who goes into the underworld, though, making this not only a queer retelling but also a switch of cultural context. This is a rich, encompassing fantasy world that made me wish that it was a full novel. The relationship between Parvani and Hades is much more consensual than most depictions of this myth, and I liked how it built. Parvani also goes through a lot of growth and change. This was an exceptional story.

“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil: This story follows a Latinx girl who spontaneously decides that instead of taking the bus to school that day, she’s going to head down to Gilman Street, following in her mother’s hippie past. She is sick of her best friend’s obsession with her new (racist) boyfriend. She is instantly swept up in a stranger’s world: she bumps into a girl and gets invited to her concert, complete with a mini-makeover, where they celebrate their shared Latinx culture. Tam is immediately attracted to this girl, and they flirt and bond over the course of the night. [Spoilers] She soon loses track of the girl, though, and ends up flirting with a boy by the end of the story as well–with the recognition that her school may have more possibilities than she originally thought. [End spoilers]

Honestly, I think this collection is worth picking up just for “Death and the Maiden” if that story interests you, and I’m sure McLemore and Silvera’s contributions are great. But for all the stories averaged out, this was not a favourite of mine.

Danika reviews Bury the Lede written by Gaby Dunn and illustrated by Clare Roe & Miquel Muerto

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

This is the third book I’ve read by Gaby Dunn, all back to back (to back). There are some similarities: I Hate Everyone But You and Please Send Help… also have a bisexual intern reporter whose moral compass may be a little bit off. But while the novels have an unshakable friendship at their core, which keep them feeling light, Bury the Lede sinks into noir territory, with a protagonist willing to follow a story wherever it goes, even if it means bringing down everyone around her.

This collection immediately sets the tone with dark, sometimes off-putting colours and shading. There will often be unnerving details like jam on a butter knife that looks like blood, or splatters in the background of pages. It’s not just the tone that’s noir: the content gets pretty gory, including depictions of a mother killing and dismembering her child. We see the same murder play out multiple times as different versions are proposed.

This mystery is what drives the story: Madison attempts to interrogate a suspect and had hardly begun before Dahlia gives her a gruesome account of her guilt. Madison keeps coming back to get more details, and although she doesn’t trust Dahlia or the possible wild goose chases she keeps sending her on, Madison becomes increasingly obsessed with her. The story spirals out, encompassing politics and other, seemingly unrelated crimes. Dunn doesn’t spoon feed the reader: at times I had to stop and reread panels a few times to keep up with the information being presented, and it definitely kept me guessing.

As for the queer content, Madison is a bisexual Asian-American woman, and her love interests include a queer butch black woman and a bisexual white cop. There are f/f sex scenes on the page–and I have to add that on a recent Buffering podcast, Dunn shared that she got to give her favourite note on this page: “No, the femme is the top.” I also appreciated that Madison is chubby. She’s clearly desirable, and she also has a belly. I can’t get enough of positive fat representation in comics.

I recognize that Madison is meant to be complex, and possibly even “unlikeable.” Usually, I love an “unlikeable” female character. This time, though, it was pushed far enough that I no longer wanted to root for her. [Spoilers] She roofies a woman to get information out of her, for one thing. [End spoilers] I’m sure that this is consistent from what we’d expect from a classic noir detective: pursuing the truth no matter who it hurts or what gets in the way. But while most times I can see where a flawed character is coming from, in this case it felt like she was willing to throw absolutely everyone she knows under the bus to get a byline.

Having said that, maybe I don’t need to be able to relate to this character to still find her story compelling. I was sucked into the story, and I am curious to see what happens next. Despite having no interest in male noir detectives, I keep being drawn to similar stories with female main characters. If you’re looking for a gritty graphic novel with a femme fatale, questionable ethics, and a bisexual chubby Asian main character, Bury the Lede should be at the top of your list.

Danika reviews I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison RaskinIt’s a shame that New Adult as a genre never really took off outside of Romance, because I think there’s a demand for it. The just-after-high-school years, whether they’re spent in college/university or elsewhere, have distinct challenges. I Hate Everyone But You is set during that time, following Ava and Gen as they are just beginning university. They have been inseparable best friends for years, and they stay in contact through constant emails and text messages.

The entire novel is written in these emails and text messages, making it a modern version of an epistolary novel. It’s an interesting format: it’s an extremely quick read, and because they are so close, Ava and Gen both share their innermost thoughts while providing their own narration of what happened. There is an element of unreliable narration because we only see it through their stories, but you can usually read between the lines to figure out what “really” happened. They deal with typical issues with that stage of life: dating, sex, drugs, and figuring out their identities. This isn’t shied away from, but because it’s texts and emails, these experiences are not told in detail as much as they are just matter of fact statements. They also bring their existing baggage to this new life stage: Gen comes from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father and enabling mother, and Ava deals with intense anxiety (and possible OCD?).

If you like Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin’s online presence, like their Just Between Us youtube channel, you’ll probably like this book. Their characters very much seem to match their personalities. The strongest part of this book is the bond between Ava and Gen. They fight–in fact, they bicker almost constantly. But that’s because they are open and honest with each other. They call each other out. They ask uncomfortable questions. They aren’t afraid to be their whole flawed selves with each other–and they have a lot of flaws.

For instance, Gen comes out as queer over the course of the book, and Ava can’t seem to let go of some variation of the question “Wait, are you gay now? Why do you like this guy: aren’t you gay now?” Ava has some ignorant questions about the queer community, to Gen’s irritation, but she means well. If you don’t want to see someone struggle through their heterosexist assumptions, this might be painful to read (she also asks Gen about a trans person’s genitals at some point). Transphobia is addressed here, but it may not be given the depth and time that it deserves.

Despite all these disagreements, though–despite their anger at each other or disappointment, despite lashing out and ignoring each other at times–there is never any question of their loyalty and love for each other. They are family. They are able to process ideas and emotions with each other, to bounce off ideas and try out new labels. They know that they will still be accepted by the other, no matter what conclusions they come to.

This isn’t a story for everyone. The format itself will put some readers off, though I found it absorbing. There is less of a plot and more of an exploration of these characters and their growth (apart and together) over time. On top of the heterosexism and transphobia included (though called out), there’s also a very questionable relationship between Gen and Charlotte, a T.A. almost twice her age with a propensity for sleeping with undergrads. As for me, though, I really enjoyed spending time with these characters: I liked that they were able to share even the most messy or uninformed thoughts and feelings with each other, and I found it to be a very quick, engrossing read. I look forward to diving straight into the sequel.

Danika reviews The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce edited by Angie Manfredi

The (Other) F Word edited by Angie Manfredi

This isn’t an entirely queer collection, but it refreshingly diverse. There are eleven queer contributors, which is about a third of the entries! LGBTQ Reads just put up a post that has notes from these contributors about their entries, so you can check that out if you want more details. There are also lots of indigenous authors and authors of colour, which offers a much more complex look at how being fat is experienced in different contexts by different bodies.

When I was a teenager, I read Fat!So? by Marilyn Wann, and it had a profound impact on me. It introduced me to the idea of fat positivity, and Wann exuded happiness and confidence and whimsy from the pages, which made it feel possible to accept my own body. It continues to be something I work on, but since that time, my relationship to my body has improved dramatically. I am so happy to see The (Other) F Word, because I know that this book will be able to serve that purpose for teens growing up now. And even better, this book can reach so many people because it represents a variety of perspectives.

Honestly, just the inclusion of photos of all the contributors is so nice to see even now, but it would have blown me away as a teenager. They show fat people looking proud, happy, fashionable, artistic, and confident. They are different sizes and races, with their own styles and personalities. A Korean American plus size fashion model poses sweetly in a bikini on the beach. A black fat femme journalist smiles from their professional head shot. A fat white artist and activist wearing a cat-patterned shirt smiles in her selfie. One of the things that helped me become more fat positive was following fat tumblrs and blogs, because just seeing people happy in their fat bodies is revolutionary.

I’ll be honest: this isn’t a book focused on queer content. Usually in collections like this, I will pull out the queer pieces and talk about them in depth, but although there are a lot of queer contributors, it’s usually mentioned in passing. I don’t think that’s a drawback, but it is a departure from what I usually review at the Lesbrary, so I wanted to be upfront about that.

I think this is an essential addition to any high school library, or any book collection teenagers have access to. Between the poetry, anecdotes, advice, and humour, there will be something here for anyone to connect to. This is really a book that could change lives, and I hope it gets into the hands that need it.

Danika reviews Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

I’m pretty new to reading mystery novels, but I picked up Ellen Hart’s previous book and enjoyed it, so I thought I would give this a try. It’s part of the Jane Lawless series, which has been going since 1989! Jane is a part-time restaurateur, part-time private investigator. There is a big cast of characters, obviously growing in size as the series continues, but I found it pretty easy to jump in at this point.

I can definitely understand why cozy mysteries are popular! Reading about Jane sitting in front of a roaring fire, dog curled up her side, going over her thoughts about the case–I can see how this subgenre got its name. It was a book I wanted to read leisurely, not racing to find out the final reveal, but enjoying the ride to get there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this as much as A Whisper of Bones, and that was primarily because of the characters involved. Although there were some that carried over who I enjoyed seeing again: Cordelia, her theatrical (in every sense) best friend, and Julia, her on-again-off-again girlfriend. Jane and Julia’s relationship is flawed and intriguing; I’d like to see how it began. The new characters, though, grated on me. Jane’s brother makes an appearance, and I’m not sure if he is a regular in the series, but I didn’t connect with him, partly because he seemed almost interchangeable with one of the suspects, Eli. [spoilers: they are both ex-drug addicts with a marriage that fell/is falling apart, and they both want to be with Kit despite that clearly being a terrible idea.]

Kit was a character who grated on me. It’s not that she wasn’t believable: I’ve known toxic people like this, and I get the allure. But it’s not just one person who is so attracted to her that they don’t notice her flaws: it’s basically every guy she runs into. This is the woman who married her boyfriend’s dad while said boyfriend was in rehab. There are some definite red flags there! [spoilers: I hope we’re not supposed to be invested in Jane’s brother as a character, because I lost all respect for him when he continued to be pulled in by Kit despite overwhelming evidence that she was in the wrong.]

I think the Jane Lawless series is strong, and I will come back to it (maybe from the beginning this time), but this one felt like a weak point to me. The mystery didn’t feel like much of a puzzle, and the introduced characters were forgettable and sometimes interchangeable. Characters are a big part of what I concentrate on in a book, so that was a letdown for me.

Danika reviews The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey DragerThis is a story about storytelling, which means I was immediately invested. The Archive of Alternate Endings explores the story of Hansel and Gretel, as it plays out in the returns of Halley’s comet throughout time. From the first chapter, I was delighted by the skill at play here. Two stories, which concern different people in different time periods, wind around each other and play off one another. The first chapter felt complete in itself, a bittersweet story set during the AIDS crisis while also being about the Grimm brothers. I wasn’t sure how this would play out in novel format, but the next chapter lived up to it, following different people and times, but with enough threads that I felt sure they would twine together by the end of the book.

It turns out that Archive attempts to do many things: it’s not enough to be about storytelling as demonstrated in the tellings of Hansel and Gretel over the ages while being framed by Halley’s comet. Until very recently, something this experimental wouldn’t also be queer. At least, it wouldn’t be queer the way this book is, introducing multiple gay men protagonists in the first chapter and lesbian protagonists in the second. Only a few years ago, you might see a novel like this end up queer—they might slip that in later in the book—but it wouldn’t be right away. That would be seen as limiting your audience even further. I’m relieved to finally be in a place where books like this are published, where they aren’t limited.

As I mentioned, this attempts to be a lot of things. Each story has a pair of siblings: stand ins for Hansel and Gretel. This isn’t just a book about stories, it’s also concerned with the relationships between siblings. I ended up liking those first two chapters best, because as this story spirals, it seems to lose cohesion: it’s about not just storytelling and Hansel and Gretel and Halley’s comet and sibling relationships, but also the end of the world, the AIDS crisis, spider webs, and even mouths become recurring themes.

So many characters don’t have names, just relationships with each other, and it was only near the end that I started to understand how they fit together: I felt like I had to take notes to realize how characters like “the illustrator” and “Halley’s niece” were related. It seemed like I’d have to immediately start the book over again to have any chance of really getting it. When I read the notes at the end, I learned that this was originally several short stories published separately and reworked into a novel. For me, they don’t really cohere. I love the concept, but I didn’t feel like it was pulled it off. I lost interest as it continued. There are definite moments of brilliance, and so much potential, but I think I would have enjoyed this better if I had just read the first two short stories, or maybe if it had been packaged as a collection of related short stories instead of being advertised as a novel.

Of course, this is a demanding, ambitious book, and I fully admit that it might have just gone over my head. This may be one I have to come back to and spend more time with to fully appreciate.