Danika reviews Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

There are some books–very rarely–that I read and form such a personal attachment to that I don’t want to share them with the world. This is one of them. I picked it up based on the fact that it was queer and had a blurb from Carmen Maria Machado; that was about all I knew about it. It turned out to be an immersive, raw, sometimes overwhelming reading experience.

Content warning: Discussion of disordered eating, self-loathing, internalized homophobia.

This follows Rachel, a twenty-something woman who is obsessed with food. She carefully counts calories and dutifully exercises to keep thin. She is ravenous. Every moment she is awake, she is thinking about food. She was raised to prize and police her body, and despite this tight control she keeps over her weight, it’s never enough for her mother. Rachel is a woman repressed. She is either bisexual or a lesbian, but she’s pushed that down most of her life. She desperately wants her mother’s approval, and she feels like her hunger is bottomless. In her mind, she has to exert this control because if it slips for a moment, she will spin out of control. She will never stop eating. She will never stop gaining weight.

During a session, her therapist asks her to do two things: 1) To go on a 90 day communication detox from her toxic mother, and 2) To sculpt her fear of gaining weight. Rachel agrees, and she uses all of the clay available to her to sculpt a fat woman. Her therapist says, “I think she’s quite lovely. And I think she’s worthy of love–more than worthy of love, actually. Don’t you think so?” Rachel storms out of the session and doesn’t return.

The next day, she goes to get her daily low-fat yogurt (no toppings, filled just to the line) and meets a new employee: a beautiful fat woman who fills her cup past the line and comps her some sprinkles. Rachel is panicked: this does not fit into her calorie plan. Instead of throwing the extra yogurt out, though, she finds herself devouring it, and coming back every day. Soon, she is falling for Miriam, and every time they are together, she finds herself veering from her controlled food plan.

The main character struggles with her repressed sexuality, her issues with food and her body, and her mother issues, and those all get tangled up in each other–which is my way of trying to tactfully give a content warning for her fantasizing sexually about a (fictional) mother/daughter relationship. She is looking for mother figures in the wrong places, desperately wanting the unconditional love she never received as a child.

This is a darkly comic book that had me highlighting and underlining on almost every page. On her first boyfriend: “I began dating him by default when one night, in his car, he put his hand on my thigh and I was too hungry and tired to deal with moving it. I ended things a few months later, when I got the energy to move it.” Her assessment of her therapist: “She was probably someone who genuinely enjoyed a nice pear.” On approval: “What I wanted most was for this certified hot person to see a hotness in me, thereby verifying, once and for all, that I was hot. It wasn’t that civilians didn’t find me attractive. But for a licensed hot person to verify me? That was the real shit.”

I found myself reading this book compulsively. I fell completely into Rachel’s worldview and couldn’t tear myself away. If you are someone who struggles with disordered eating or body image issues, this isn’t a book to pick up lightly. In a way, I was reading Rachel like Rachel was watching Miriam: as the fear and the secret dream. The idea of being so in control, contained, and thin is attractive–even though I know those thoughts are extremely unhealthy. At the same time, it was a cathartic read. Over the course of the book, Rachel goes from extreme restriction to feeling out of control to discovering something like balance. It’s a book that asks, What is your worst fear of your body? Isn’t that person worthy of love?

“Just because it feels good doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” said the rabbi.

This book had me almost in tears several times. I think that many–most?–women fear being out of control, and often feel like they’re right on the precipice of it. This story asks, What happens if you let go? If you fed that hunger until it was appeased? “What do you have to lose?” the Rabbi in her dreams asks. What is so desirable for Rachel about being thin, hungry, and alone?

Rachel has been sexual, but as an object more than a subject. She’s only ever craved being desired. With Miriam, she’s discovering desire, discovering herself as sexual agent. It’s also a celebration of fatness. The beauty and freedom of fat. And it’s a rediscovering of her body, learning to listen to what it needs and desires. This doesn’t have a romance ending, but it’s the messy, imperfect close this story needs. She doesn’t and shouldn’t get everything she wanted. But she can be kinder to herself and stop going to the hardware store for milk.

Honestly, this is just scratching the surface of Milk Fed. I haven’t even mentioned how much discussion of Judaism is here–Miriam is devout, while Rachel is lapsed and is trying to rediscover her relationship with it. And I haven’t really talked about Miriam’s character at all, or the ups and downs of their relationship. Still, I hope this review gives you some sense of the journey I went through reading this. It was a cathartic, immersive read that I will not be able to forget.

Danika reviews A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

You liked me best when I was like an oil painting; perfectly arranged and silent.

A Dowry of Blood is a queer polyamorous reimagining of Dracula’s brides. If you, like me, are already intrigued, I recommend reading this without knowing much more about it, as long as you are aware that it depicts unhealthy and abusive relationships and includes descriptions of gore. This is a meditative look at this relationship, so it’s easy for me to give away more than I mean to–the relationship doesn’t even turn into a polycule until about halfway through. In case you need more convincing, though, I will forge on ahead.

This is a M/F/F/M polycule, and each of the four characters are bisexual (or pansexual). We see this relationship through Constanta’s eyes, who was his first bride. She was dying as a casualty on a battlefield when he came in as her savior, turning her and nursing her back to health. She is overwhelmingly in love with him: “And God, how I adored you. It went beyond love, beyond devotion. I wanted to dash myself against your rocks like a wave, obliterate my old self and see what rose shining and new from the sea foam.” She also kills him within the first pages of the book. The rest of the story backtracks to say how we got there.

I should specify that the name Dracula never appears in the book. Constanta is telling this story to him, explaining what brought her to killing him, and she decides that because he took her name away–renaming her Constanta–she would similarly rob him of his name. It feels silly to talk about a book about vampires being a meditation on an abusive relationship, but it really is. Although this is fantastical, her descriptions of how she–and later, the other “brides”–are treated feels all too realistic.

He is patronizing, possessive, at times adoring or absent or cruel. Constanta learns to walk on eggshells, not speaking asking more than two questions in a row. He wants to be her only source of joy: “Vienna made you irritable as much as it made me blossom. I wouldn’t realize until later that you were irritable precisely because I was in bloom, because there were suddenly so many sources of joy in my life apart from your presence.”

Constanta was a devout Christian before being turned, and she still practices her faith, to his disdain. She also hunts despicable people, those that she believes the world will be better off without. She finds monsters who are untouchable and kills them. He believes this is petty, childish. He studies humans from a scientific distance, believing that they are superior to humans. He mocks her concern with human society. After all, they live for centuries, making each plague or war an inconvenience that they travel to escape from, but nothing to take too seriously.

Vague spoilers:

She is unhappy and confused by his mercurial affection, but she’s still captivated by him and relies on him. Their relationship changes when he manipulates her into accepting new “brides,” seemingly becoming bored with just her company. At first, it’s Magdalena: a commanding, powerful woman with political correspondents around the world. She is resentful of him bringing her into their relationship, but she can’t help but fall for Magdalena herself. At first, this arrangement works: Magdalena and Constanta keep each other company in his absences (often in bed), and he is charmed by Magdalena’s energy. Soon, though, his controlling nature saps her of her vitality, and she is left a shadow of the free, vital woman she once was.

Still, they might have continued this way for centuries more, until he adds Alexi to their mix. Alexi is a young man (“no more than nineteen”) who adds fresh life to their home–but Alexi also challenges him and refuses to accept their limitations, leading to constant stand-offs and tension. Constanta could endure her own pain, but she can’t stand to see Magdalena and Alexi suffer.

Although this is a vampire novel, complete with ample sex scenes and gory scenes, it’s just as much about Constanta reflecting on her relationship with this captivating and abusive person. She begins to see it through a different light, and she doesn’t apologize for her actions. She recognizes that they loved each other, but that they couldn’t live this way, and that all three of them were in danger if they let it continue.

If you want a bisexual polyamorous vampire novel that is also thoughtful and atmospheric, definitely pick up A Dowry of Blood.

Danika reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

I can’t resist a book with a Carmen Maria Machado blurb, so I picked this up knowing very little about it. In theory, this is about Randa Jarrar’s road trip across the U.S., inspired by Tahia Carioca’s cross-country road trip. It took place in 2016 as a way to re-engage with her country, trying to find some connection with it after the alienation of Trump’s election. I say “in theory” because this book actually has very little to do with that trip. It’s an exploration of being a fat queer Arab woman in America through vignettes of her life.

Jarrar discusses what it’s like to be a white-passing Arab woman in the U.S., including having white people expect her to agree with their racist comments. She describes being pulled over by a police officer who is sympathetic, and even trying to convince him to give her a warning–she knows she is safe, being read as white. When she goes home, she discovers that Philando Castile was pulled over that same day. She also traces the history of tropes and stereotypes about Arabs in the U.S., and how that racism has transformed over time, often enforcing contradictory ideas.

While this is a memoir, it reminded me of an essay collection meets poetry: Jarrar often writes in short paragraphs juxtaposing different topics. In the space of one page, she examines dolls from half a dozen perspectives: as playthings, as childhood punching bags, as used in therapy, as gifts, as sexualized muse by certain artists, and being treated as one. It feels like there are spaces between these ideas for the reader to fill in, to actively make those connections.

This is a book that requires a lot of trigger warnings. She includes harrowing details of her abuse, including physical abuse by her father, domestic abuse, and reproductive coercion. She was briefly infamous for a tweet that was critical of Barbara Bush after her death, reacting to her feed praising her, saying, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. Fuck outta here with your nice words.” In response, she received a barrage of hate mail, including vitriolic death threat emails that are included in this collection. She was doxed, and her critics attempted to get her fired–unsuccessfully, because she had tenure, but the university put out a statement denouncing her comments.

Jarrar is Palestinian, which informs her politics. She describes trying to visit Palestine, and the terrifying hoops she had to jump through. She spent the weeks before travel studying on exactly what to say to the Israeli border guards, whose names to use, which reasons were acceptable for visiting. She is detained by teenage Israel boys, who seem bored. They are kept for hours for seemingly no reason. Their passports are taken away. After facing a long line of bureaucratic hurdles, they can still be sent back to the U.S. for no apparent reason, unable to step foot in their home, kept out by another country.

Sexuality is fraught in Jarrar’s story, often accompanied by abuse. When she finds BDSM, it opens up new doors for her: “Until BDSM, a lot of sex felt like assault.” In this community, boundaries are respected. Everything is negotiated in advance, and nothing is taken for granted. Kink meant consent and safety, knowing exactly what to expect. Through it, she is able to reclaim sexuality, and finds empowerment both in taking control and being able to safely relinquish it.

This memoir left me with a lot to think about. Jarrar describes suffering through so much abuse in her life, and feeling trapped and powerless. She discusses racism and misogyny and how they underpin so much of American society. At the same time, there is hope here. She is also a proud fat queer Arab woman, unafraid to speak her mind. If you want a thoughtful, challenging memoir that will leave you thinking, definitely pick this one up.

My second husband did not want me to be on top. He made sounds, squirming and uncomfortable, when I was on top. He told me a year after we’d gotten together than my body crushed his. His body was smaller than my body. One afternoon, in bed, he nonchalantly told me that I needed to lose a hundred pounds. To shrink myself for him. (Conceivably) to be his equal. I would marry him, cry for years, and leave him, before I realized he did this because he could never make himself big enough–intellectually, financially, sexually–to be my equal.

Danika reviews The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

Nora was raised by her con artist mother to be many girls: whoever their mark needed her to be. When her mother falls for the criminal, abusive man she was supposed to be conning, though, Nora made a risky escape. Now, she’s been trying to live a normal life. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have that option anymore: she, her ex-boyfriend, and her girlfriend have been taken hostage by bank robbers.

I was immediately hooked by this premise. First of all, there is the awkward social situation of Nora, Wes, and Iris being trapped together: Wes walked in on them kissing and is not impressed that they’ve been keeping this a secret–they’re all supposed to be friends. Add a potentially deadly hostage situation, and you’ve got a guarantee of tension and drama. All I really needed was for this bisexual heist/con YA novel to live up to its premise, and did it ever.

When picking up a YA thriller, I wasn’t sure what to expect: some of the darkest books I’ve read have been YA, while others keep the blood off the page. This book definitely does not shy away from violence. In fact, there is a long list of serious trigger warnings attached to this. It also hits the ground running and never lets up: the bank robbery takes place on the second page of this novel. Nora is trying to find their way out of this situation, but she hasn’t told Iris about her past.

Interspersed with this tension are the stories of who Nora used to be. They don’t feel out of place or slow down the action, though: they are always relevant to what is currently happening, and the hints we get of her backstory makes me just as eager to find out about her past as reading about the hostage situation. Nora is an amalgamation of all the roles she’s had to play as a child: she doesn’t know how to be herself, and she’s not sure who she “really” is.

I also loved the supporting characters, who have been forged into this chosen family through their own trauma. Nora lives with her older sister, who she met later in life. Lee escaped from their mother, and she comes back to help Nora escape, too, when Nora is ready. Lee is also queer, though it’s not specified whether she’s bi or a lesbian. She is a badass private investigator who will do anything to protect Nora, including playing hostage negotiator.

Wes is Nora’s ex, but he’s also her closest friend, and the only one who knows her whole story. Wes is abused by his father, the mayor, and he spends most of his time with Nora and Lee. They bond over their shared experiences, and once Nora confronts his father with her own scheme to stop the violence, Wes realizes what she’s been hiding–she didn’t give that information away freely.

Nora’s girlfriend is an intensely memorable character. She loves vintage fashion, wants to be an arson investigator, and is fearless enough that she’s been banned from dares in truth or dare. She can hold her own against Nora, and they clearly adore each other–through Iris is angry that she’s been hiding things from her. She also has endometriosis, which I don’t think I’ve seen represented in a book before. A note in the back of the book explains that this is own voices representation and gives some resources.

I was completely absorbed into this story. It’s fast-paced thriller about misogyny, power, and abuse. Though Nora’s life is exceptional, she points out that misogyny and being threatened by men as a young woman is not unusual, and that it’s something she learned outside of her con artist upbringing. In fact, all of the main characters have been abused by someone with power over them. I also appreciated that therapy is openly discussed: Nora still is working through the trauma she’s gone through, but she’s made progress through therapy, and it’s how she’s able to open up–even a little.

This is one of my favourite reads in a long time. It’s one of those rare books that I was counting down the time until I would be able to read it again, and I stayed up to finish it. It’s hard to enthusiastically recommend a book that is so much about child abuse, but if you are a fan of thrillers that don’t shy away from darkness and violence, you won’t regret picking this up.

Trigger warnings: child abuse, violence, gore, murder, rape, child sexual abuse

Danika reviews Goldie Vance: The Hocus Pocus Hoax by Lilliam Rivera

Goldie Vance: The Hocus Pocus Hoax by Lilliam RiveraI already know and love the Goldie Vance comics, but now it is also a middle grade novel series! The premise is that Goldie Vance is a sixteen year old girl who works as a part-time valet, part-time detective at a resort her father manages. She is the assistant to the hotel’s detective–which is apparently a thing?–and aspires to be a full-time detective when she’s older.

It has a 1950s feel, and Goldie is the plucky heroine we expect from a girl detective, except this one is a queer girl of colour! I love the comics, so I had to see how the novel versions compare. Although the main character is 16, she appears to be a little younger, which I think matches the 1950s aesthetic and definitely makes this work as a middle grade novel. When I worked in the children’s department of my local bookstore, I often wished there were more middle grade and YA mysteries–they are very popular for around 6-8 year olds and then inexplicably disappear–so I’m glad to see this will help fill that niche.

I was a bit worried about whether the queer relationship would be included in this middle grade version of the story–the comics are all-ages, but could easily be read by teens as well. Happily, it’s actually a big part of the plot in this volume.

A conference of magicians is happening in the hotel, and the stakes are high. The intimidating owner is demanding everything goes smoothly, because if this because a repeat event, it will be very profitable. Unfortunately, three of the waiters get food poisoning, and Goldie and a few of her friends at the hotel have to fill in. Meanwhile, Goldie is trying to plan the perfect first date with Diane. Unfortunately, she’s forced to be a server that night and has to cancel, and when they reschedule, the restaurant has been reserved for a special event. Goldie invites Diane to come to some of the magician performances happening at the hotel, which she happily accepts. But that’s not the end of her first date complications: someone is sabotaging the magicians’ performances, and she has to figure out the culprit–all while the son of the celebrity magician keeps following her around and telling her how to better do her job.

Was I proud of myself for keeping up with a middle grade mystery’s clues? Yes. I’m not usually a mystery reader because I am terrible at keeping track of details, so apparently middle grade mysteries are my level. I won’t comment on the mystery structure itself, because it seems silly to critique whether a mystery for 10 year olds is sufficiently complex for a reader triple that age, but this was an entertaining read full of memorable characters.

This finishes with a short comic at the end, which was a fun surprise. We see Goldie and Diane finally get to have their date together, and it’s adorable. I do think this translates well in the novel format, and I hope the series is long-running. This is technically the second book in the series, not counting the comics, but you don’t need to have read any of the other Goldie Vance books before this one: it’s a self-contained story.

Danika reviews The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh by Molly Greeley

The Heiress by Molly Greeley

I’m not a big Pride and Prejudice fan, but for some reason, I’m drawn to P&P retellings–especially queer ones. The Heiress is a Pride and Prejudice novel: not exactly a retelling, a prequel, or a sequel, it fills in the story from one of the minor characters of the book: Anne de Bourgh. In case you forgot, Anne is Mr. Darcy’s original fiancee, and Catherine de Bourgh’s sickly daughter. In the original book, Anne doesn’t leave a strong impression. This novel gives her centre stage, and makes her a compelling and empathetic character.

Anne was a fussy baby, and she was prescribed laudanum drops to quiet her. She continued to be lethargic and delicate, and when she missed her drops, she had horrible reactions (shaking, sweating, sensory hallucinations, etc), so she stayed on these drops her whole childhood. Essentially, Anne has been drugged on opium her entire life. Any time they try to stop, she goes into withdrawal, which they interpret as her sickness getting worse. This leaves her, understandably. listless and easily overwhelmed. She’s never known anything other than this, though: at no point in her life has she been able to be clear-headed and sober for more than an hour or so at a time.

You might remember the character of her mother better. She is controlling and has very strong opinions, not allowing Anne to do anything that might strain her, like learning to play an instrument or reading novels. She is more like an object in her own life: she is often ignored or pitied by guests, and even in her twenties, her mother treats her like a small child. She mostly just watches the people around her. Although she has no agency in her day-to-day life, she is the heiress of their estate, which is extremely rare: she doesn’t have to marry to keep the land.

She loves the house and grounds–and she feels like it loves her back. She can hear it whisper to her after she’s had her drops. But she also lives under the shadow of the estate that will one day be hers. She feels incapable of managing it: she can’t even manage a conversation.

One of the only people who treats her like a human being is her governess, who tries to tell her that she is capable of more. She attempts to warn Anne about the medicine, but Anne doesn’t want to hear it, and her governess knows that pushing too hard will leave her without a job. Anne gets a crush on her, naturally, but the governess leaves and is replaced by a bland woman who acts as a puppet of her mother.

Eventually, Anne begins to internalize what the governess told her, and she realizes that the drops that she has been depending on may be the cause, not the cure, for how she feels. Impulsively, aware that her life is in danger, she dumps her medicine and flees to her cousin’s house in London, one of the few people who has ever treated her like a person. There, Anne tries to learn how to be independent, and how to fit in.

This is also where the book turns into a lesbian historical romance! It’s exactly the kind of excruciating historical lesbian slow burn you love to see. As Anne tries to fit into London society, she becomes fast friends with a woman who is a little too loud and boisterous for Victorians, but Anne can’t pull herself away from her. Eliza introduces her to novels and takes her shopping for fashionable clothing. Soon, they are spending almost all of their time together.

This is a book that fits together with Pride and Prejudice, but could also completely stand on its own. Without the references, it would still be a fascinating look at a woman who lived most of her life in a haze and the struggles of coming out of it. The last half of this book is also a beautiful, absorbing F/F romance. It manages to be both a Victorian historical novel and feature a drug addict lesbian main character with no apparent clash between those ideas!

I highly recommend this for fans of historical fiction, whether or not you are a Pride and Prejudice fan.

Danika reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I finished this book back in November, but I have frankly been intimidated to review it. This is a big, twisty, ambitious novel that I’m still processing now, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book ever since I finished the last page of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This is my favourite YA book of all time, and ever since it came out, I’ve been following Danforth online to see what would come next. At some point, she talked about two different books she was working on: one tentatively titled CELESBIANS! and one that followed a copy of The Well of Loneliness throughout time called Well, Well, Well. As the years went on, I thought those had been abandoned, but after reading this book, I can see how they got incorporated into this story.

Plain Bad Heroines is a horror story that begins in a girls’ boarding school in 1902. There, a writer named Mary MacLane is getting a cult following. MacLane was a real-life figure who published her scandalous memoirs, now titled I Await the Devil’s Coming. They are feminist, bisexual, and blasphemous. (The ARC came with a page from Danforth explaining her coming across this author, and how frustrating it is that she only heard of her recently from a footnote.) There are two girls at this school who are particular fans of MacLane, and they sneak off into the woods to read it together (and to make out, let’s be honest). One day, a relative tries to split the two of them up, and they run further into the woods to try to escape. Instead, they stumble on a sprawling wasp nest and die gruesomely. They are found with MacLane’s book beside them, and more deaths begin to be associated with this copy of the book.

More than a century later, a book has been written about this history, and it is being made into a movie, and the women involved in the production begin to feel haunted by the past. There is Merritt, the young (cranky) genius who wrote the original book; Harper Harper, the “celesbian” star of the film; and Flo, a relatively unknown actor playing Harper’s love interest. They’re all queer, and they have a complicated relationship between the three of them. Merritt is critical, Flo feels out of her depth and vulnerable, and Harper tries to keep the peace between them (and hit on them). As they’re filming, though, they encounter mysterious events on set–it’s unclear whether this haunting has continue with them, or whether it’s all part of an immersive Hollywood experience.

That is the very bare-bones description of the plot, but that’s only scratching the surface. We also get the fascinating story of the headmistress’s founding of the school and the feud between the brothers on that land that is said to have started the haunting. There are so many different stories spiraling together, and almost all of them have sapphic characters (including the headmistress and her partner). The characters are flawed and complicated; they clash with each other.

This is billed as a horror-comedy, and there definitely is wry humor included. It’s self-referential and plays with horror tropes. At the same time, it is creepy and disturbing: you’ll never look at a wasp the same way again. This book is intricate and incredibly well-crafted: I was about two chapters into it when I thought, “Oh, this is how books are supposed to be written.” Even though it bounces around in time and between characters, it all locks together and never feels out of place.

I appreciated the skill involved here, and I love that this is such a queer book absolutely brimming with sapphic characters, but I’m not sure I’d say I enjoyed reading it. It was unsettling. I also felt like I couldn’t quite penetrate through to the core of the story. What started this haunting? What does it mean? I love that there are so many queer characters, but it also means that they are the ones being targeted: why? Is it a metaphor for homophobia? That feels too pat for this story, and it doesn’t quite fit. Is even asking that question too simplifying? I’m not sure I have the skills to unpack everything this story is trying to accomplish.

This is a complicated, ambitious novel that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve put the book down.

Danika reviews This is How We Fly by Anna Meriano

This is How We Fly by Anna Meriano

I want to start by being clear that this does not have a sapphic main character, but it does have multiple sapphic side characters and subplots, which is why I’m reviewing it here.

If you still have complicated nostalgic feelings for Harry Potter, but you also want to read a book that says “Fuck TERFs” (literally–that’s a direct quote), This is How You Fly is for you. It follows Ellen, who has just graduated from high school and is trying not to think about what happens next. Her friends are excited about university, but she’s terrified. Not that her life is going that well now: she fights constantly with her stepmother, one of her best friends is pulling away from her, and she just got herself grounded for the rest of the summer.

As I said to start, Ellen is not sapphic. She does have complicated gender feelings–she’s questioning. One of her best friends, Xiumiao, is a lesbian, and she’s been struggling with an unrequited crush on their other best friend, Melissa. Xiumiao decides to distance herself from Melissa to try to get over her, and she is diving into preparing for college. Ellen feels like she’s being left behind, so when Melissa joins a quidditch team and convinces Ellen’s parents to have athletics be an exception to the grounding, Ellen throws herself into it. The team is co-ed, and there are a lot of queer players on the team. I enjoyed seeing Ellen start from scratch at this sport. She’s not athletic, but she’s determined to improve, and she finds joy in this even when she’s having difficulty keeping up.

This is a story that’s a little bit messy, which I loved. It deals with a lot. It’s a very, very loose Cinderella retelling, with quidditch instead of balls. The dynamic between her and her family is complicated and feels realistic. Ellen is also a main character I don’t see very much: she’s a feminist teenager who is passionate about social justice. She is vegan and tries to call out people for casual sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc, even if it’s her friends or family. Usually those characters are dismissed as annoying or a joke, but I (unsurprisingly) felt very sympathetic for Ellen. She doesn’t understand how her parents can dismiss injustice so easily. She’s also mixed race–half Mexican-American and half Irish-American–and constantly feels like she’s an imposter. Her stepmother is from Mexico, but her mother was born in the U.S. and passed away when Ellen was a young child. She doesn’t know how much she can claim as her heritage, and some part of her is envious of her stepmother’s more direct connection to her culture.

This is also a nerdy book, of course. There is a lot of discussion about Harry Potter, including talking about how to address JK Rowling’s transphobia in the fandom. She’s active on Tumblr, saying: “Tumblr is the lawless internet hovel where extreme fan culture meets extreme opinions and extremely pointless junk posts, and I love it to death.” I appreciated this, because I’m still on Tumblr, but I don’t know how realistic it is. Apparently in 2019, less than 1% of American teens use Tumblr. Of course, I’m sure a similar percentage play quidditch, and there’s probably more overlap there.

Although this book doesn’t have a sapphic main character, there are multiple sapphic side characters, including one that is a major subplot. I’m going back and forth on whether naming it is a spoiler, because clearly the book means it to be a surprise, but a) identity is not a spoiler and b) I definitely saw it coming several hundred pages in advance. Suffice to say that there is significant F/F content, though not with the main character. As for Ellen, I appreciated that her romances are also messy and complicated. It shows that you can be attracted to people you don’t necessarily like, and it allows Ellen to explore her feelings and attractions.

I had a great time reading this book. Multiple times, I found myself staying up hours later than I meant to because I couldn’t put it down. I highly recommend this for former or conflicted current Harry Potter fans who denounce JK Rowling’s transphobia or for anyone who is or was a loud-mouthed teenage feminists (I mean that as a sincere compliment).

SPONSORED REVIEW: The Unicorn, The Mystery by Janet Mason

The Unicorn, The Mystery by Janet Mason

The Unicorn, The Mystery is a novel based on a series of seven tapestries titled “The Hunt of the Unicorn.” We follow a (genderless) unicorn through this story, while also getting the point of view of a monk who also makes an appearance in the tapestries. I want to start by saying that this doesn’t have a sapphic point of view character, though the most significant side characters are two nuns who are a couple.

I didn’t know going into this story how religious/spiritual it would be, and I’m not sure I have the background to really understand it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the author is a Unitarian Universalist lay minister who also wrote a book titled THEY, a Biblical Tale of Secret Genders. We spend most of the book inside the heads of the monk and unicorn–not just in the sense that it is from their point of view. This is a very internal novel: we spend a lot of time just following their musings on various subjects, including the unicorn speculating about the motivations of the hunters:

Maybe they wanted to please her. Maybe they wanted to refute her. Why did they really want to hunt me? What were they looking for? Did they really want to kill me — or were they looking for something in themselves and trying to kill it? Or were they just following orders and trying to impress each other? …

Perhaps the hunters are worried that they might not get their reward. Kings often promise riches that they never intend to give. Everyone knows that they are stingy and that is how they become kings. This would mean that the hounds wouldn’t get their treats. Maybe the hounds picked up their owner’s apprehensions. Hounds are so servile! …

Maybe they are glum because they have realized that kings will always be kings and hunters will always be hunters. . . Maybe the hunters look grim because they are thinking about the fact that everybody dies…

Although they have very different life circumstances, both characters’ POVs feel similar in that they both think highly of themselves and believe they have wisdom to bestow. Especially when it came to religious opining, I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to agree with them or not–although both characters believe themselves to be wise, they are flawed and inconsistent, so it was difficult for me to tell.

Because the story is based around the tapestries, time moves strangely throughout the story. The unicorn is looking at the tapestries, recalling their life, and we sometimes bounce between time periods in a small space. It’s almost as if all the action of the novel is happening at once: the unicorn is always being hunted, and it’s always free, so I didn’t get a sense of tension. I won’t mention any specifics, but the ending didn’t provide much more information than we already knew.

I also sometimes had difficulty with the asides of this story. A Gnostic poem, “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” is quoted at length through the story, sometimes for pages at a time, and I wasn’t sure the purpose of these passages (they are spoken by the unicorn, who finds them spilling from their mouth). The tapestries are also described at length. There is a lot of space devoted to Greek and Latin, including multiple passages describing the shape of each letter in a word in Greek. (I was particularly confused by the inclusion of a poem the monk wrote, which was written in Latin, but is included in English with the same formatting as if it was in Latin? “see/ a yel/low ha/ lo all a/round you/ – among humans/ you are/ a de/light!” I don’t understand.)

We do see several scenes of the nun couple, though we unfortunately do not get their point of view. As intrigued as I am by them, I felt like each scene was essentially the same: they would discuss how the church would disapprove of their relationship, and then conclude that their love is not a sin. They go through different iterations of this, but it felt like they served a purpose–to argue against the idea that being gay is sinful–more than they were characters in their own right.

I wanted to include some content warnings as well: the unicorn can smell virginity, and there is quite a bit in here about virginity as well as anti sex work ideas. There are also mentions of bestiality.

Overall, this wasn’t a perfect fit for me: it is concerned with grappling with Christian ideas about truth and morality. If that is something you are interested in, The Unicorn, The Mystery will give you a lot to consider.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Comet’s First Christmas: The North Pole Chronicles by Delilah Night

Comet's First Christmas by Delilah Night

As we enter into the end of 2020, if you’re someone who celebrates Christmas, you’re probably having some strong emotions about it right now. Maybe you want to forget the whole holiday, because we probably can’t celebrate it the way we usually do. Or maybe you, like me, are filling your Netflix queue with holiday romances and stocking up on eggnog, because we deserve a tiny sliver of hope and happiness this year! If you are looking to dive headfirst into Christmas, Comet’s First Christmas is a great way to kick it off.

This is about Claudia, a reindeer who has just been brought in to act as Comet this Christmas season. Yes, this is about reindeer shifters. And yes, all nine of Santa’s reindeer are lesbians. As you might expect, this is a book overflowing with Christmas cheer. Everything is themed: Claudia drinks candy cane coffee, her assistant is an elf, and her phone comes equipped with a Naughty-Or-Nice app.

This overwhelming festivity reminded me more of a classic kids’ holiday movie, initially: it is an unapologetic celebration of Christmas that can verge on the tooth-achingly sweet, but is perfect for if you want to be completely immersed in the holiday. I’d love to see this series get cartoon covers in the style of Shira Glassman’s Mangoverse series, Clare Lydon’s holiday books, or even Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, because I think that would better match the mood of the this story.

The conflict is that someone is going around convincing people to not believe anymore. Claudia has to try to stop this nefarious villain before they lose any more Christmas magic! Although it sounds like a kids’ movie, this is a romance novel, which means we see 25-year-old Claudia earnestly asking other adults why they’ve stopped believing in Santa. It was a little jarring, but in this world, adults who believe do get gifts from Santa every year, so it makes sense in this context.

Did I mention that this is a romance? Of course, you’re coming to the Lesbrary not just for generic holiday cheer, so you’ll be happy to know that this includes a very sweet romance. It definitely falls into the instalove category, but it works for this very cute book. Claudia crushes on Jillian hard when they meet. Jillian is technically her assistant, but because the role of Comet changes and Jillian’s job stays the same, it didn’t feel like a power difference to me: they both seemed like equals. They made for an adorable romance, starting with clueless lesbian flirting (she’s obviously hitting on you, Claudia!) and including lots of healthy communication.

Although this is a sweet book with a pretty straightforward plot, there are a lot of details to enjoy as well. I loved seeing Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy get a shout-out (I’ve got the sequel on my bedside table right now!), and there’s a Star Trek-loving reindeer who swears in Klingon. Claudia is visiting New York for the first time, and she revels in getting the classic Christmas in New York experience, including going to Macy’s, Times Square, seeing The Nutcracker, and more. Claudia also has anxiety, which is own voices representation. She manages it with breathing exercises and other techniques, which it was nice to see included.

This is the first book in the series, so it’s not surprising that everything isn’t tied up completely, but it did feel a bit anticlimactic in terms of the overarching plot, though Claudia’s story concludes nicely. I feel like I guessed the mystery really early in the book, but I’m not sure yet if I’m right. I look forward to the next book in the series, which seems to be about Prancer–will every reindeer get their own story?

In the afterword, Delilah Night says she wrote this because “after how bruising 2020 has been, can anyone blame us for wanting something a little sweet?” This definitely fits the criteria for sweet, but be prepared: only pick this up if you’re ready for a heavy dose of Christmas cheer!