Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks And Bones by Seanan McGuire

For any of you not familiar with Seanan McGuire’s work, she is a veritable master of remixing fairy tale tropes and patterns (and other genres too), on the same level as someone like Neil Gaiman, while of course giving it her own twist every time. In this case, the main two characters are twin sisters Jacqueline and Jillian, who later take on the names of Jack and Jill. In this review, the name used for each character is the name they used at that time in the story. I personally am not familiar with the nursery rhyme and so can say with full confidence that you don’t need to know it in order to enjoy this book, but I expect many of its strands are woven in throughout. On top of that, McGuire draws from classic horror fare, as the main chunk of the story sees the two siblings in a world ruled by a vampire and a mad scientist facing off in a personal rivalry from across the Moors. And so the stage is set.

McGuire is excellent at invoking specific visuals and scenes we are all familiar with: the castle in the marshes, Dracula’s brides, the lightning coming down from the thunderous clouds to power the scientist’s experiments in his remote and ramshackle wind mill. She manages to ensure these classic elements don’t overpower the story by providing the two main characters with a very modern world background: their parents wanted a classic son and daughter. When they ended up with two daughters, they forced the twins into extremely strict binary gender roles. This means that both sisters could just embody half of their identity, with Jillian only being allowed tomboyish behaviours and Jacqueline always being dressed in extravagant dresses she is warned stringently against dirtying – to the point of developing germophobia and mysophobia.

When they fall through a portal into the world of the Moors, they are for the very first time offered a choice on this aspect. It shouldn’t surprise the reader that they choose the opposite of their experience so far, with Jack joining Dr. Bleak as his apprentice in resurrection and Jill staying with the Master to become his eventual daughter / bride. This still feels like a choice between two strict gender roles though, and it’s hinted throughout the text that the only way for both sisters to fully become themselves is to be allowed through their own choice to embrace their whole selves rather than mashing these two sides against each other.

Another way that McGuire manages to set this work apart from more traditional pastiches and celebrations of the horror genre is by humanising the genre’s traditional background stock characters: the villagers. During her apprenticeship under Dr. Bleak, one of the creatures Jack helps to resurrect is the inn keeper’s daughter, Alexis. During her second chance at life, the two grow close and form a romantic attachment to each other.

This is an important point in Jack’s character development, as it’s a type of love she hasn’t experienced before. One character does describe the relationship between the two girls as unnatural, but it isn’t made clear what their thought process is in context: instead of low-key homophobia (mixed with the usual worries around not being able to have children – an argument swiftly put down by Jack as she refers to her resurrection skills), they could also be referring to any type of love being unnatural in their eyes, or to the fact that technically Alexis is undead. This is the only overt negative comment directed at them – Jill quietly isn’t happy about the relationship either, but that’s mostly because she feels possessive of Jack’s attentions.

Jill’s unhappiness is an important counterpoint to the relationship between Jack and Alexis, because on top of the romantic upheaval their attachment also introduces Jack to Alexis’s village life. She meets the inn keeper and his wife, as well as other shop keepers and tradespeople as she accompanies Alexis on various errands. In contrast, Jill is denied this type of socialising during her education under the Master, who instead nurtures her jealous and possessive tendencies. It is this difference in upbringing that serves as the catalyst at the end of the tale, bringing the strands together.

This story really serves as a prequel to the first book in the Wayward Children series, which I will be re-reading to see how the relationship dynamic between the two sisters develops as they are forced to rely more on each other. As it stands, I would recommend Down Among The Sticks and Bones to anyone interested in the remixing of genre tropes and gender roles within the horror / SFF genre.

Content warnings: murder, death, blood, toxic relationship, emotional abuse (most of these are the result of the story featuring a vampire)

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 Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-TrujilloWhen I initially picked up Fat Angie, I was put off by the language. At first, I thought it was outdated slang, cringingly unrealistic. As I kept reading though, I realized that it wasn’t dated, because I don’t think anyone has ever spoken like that. Instead, it has more in common with buffyisms–a kind of fictional teen speak that somehow represents teen slang without reproducing it. It makes sense, since BtVS is mentioned several times. As I kept reading, I got acclimatized to the language, though it definitely adds a distinct flavour to the text.

[trigger warning: discussion of harassment, hatred, emotional abuse, cutting, suicide] This is not a light read. Yes, the main character is referred to as “Fat Angie” the entire time. And body image is a part of what she deals with, but that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. Angie faces hatred and harassment from all sides, constantly. She is relentlessly mocked at school, sometimes also being shoved or physically bullied. Her sister was a solider in Iraq who was captured, and her hostage situation was televised. She has been missing for many months, and everyone except Angie thinks she’s dead. Unable to deal with the grief, Angie cut her wrists with the intention of killing herself. She ran out in this state during a school assembly. She is targeted for being “crazy” as well as being fat. At home, things are no better. Her brother regularly levels the worst insults and harassment at her. Her mother is negligent at best and often emotionally abusive as well. She says, “No one is ever going to love you if you stay fat.” Angie’s therapist is a font of judgement. There seems to be no break from the hell that is Angie’s life. [A note during this trigger paragraph: Angie does lose weight during the book. She doesn’t end skinny, and it doesn’t really solve her problems, but it is seen as a positive, to do be prepared if that’s triggering for you.] [end trigger warnings]

The only bright spot is when a new, cool, rebel-type girl–KC Valentine–transfers into their school and befriends Angie. She doesn’t seem to mind that Angie is hated by the rest of the school, or that she’s anxious and awkward. To Angie’s surprise, their friendship develops into a romance. But they are in a conservative town, and Angie doesn’t know if she can handle the backlash she’d get for being openly “gay-girl gay” on top of everything else dragging her down.

To be honest, I found this a little bit exhausting to read. Angie is so isolated, and she faces a wall of relentless harassment. There are small moments of connection and support–the gym teacher, Jake (Angie’s neighbour)–but they are muted and far between. Even the romance isn’t an entirely happy one. I wasn’t expecting this to be fluffy, but it far exceeded how dark I was prepared for it to be. I will be picking up the sequel as well, but I will cross my fingers that there’s a little more hope mixed in with the despair in that one.

Marthese reviews The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins

”Is there such a thing as promiscuous love, or dies it only apply to sex?”


The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins is a 500+ page book, written almost entirely in poetry form. It was such an intense read! It leaves an impression; I couldn’t help not think about it when I was not reading it. I read this book thanks to RivetedLit 25 Reads of December. They do have free Queer YA books almost every week (although with the different identities within the Queer spectrum).

This book is dark, and fast to read. The poems are in different forms that read more like prose but shorter than if it were prose. They were my type of poetry so great. I have to take time though to process so it took me a while.

This books is about ‘Ariel’ who lives with her father. For the first time, they’re sort of settled somewhere instead of going round the country on an incessant road-trip. She’s friends with Monica and Syrah – her first friends since ever. She’s actually more than friends with Monica. There’s a connection there and Monica is ever-supportive and ever-patient. Ariel doesn’t know how to feel, she’s confused. But that confusion increases when Gabe, her father’s partner’s (Zelda!) nephew comes to Sonora. She likes both Monica and Gabe and has to figure out what to do.

More than that though, this book is about Ariel’s relationship with her father – who’s probably the most despicable character ever but whom she cannot help but love because he’s been the only constant in her life. He is so abusive though! A lot of trigger warning here! Including a rape attempt. And lots of violence all around.

Soon, her mother – it was kind of predicable who that was and how she found her- comes into her life again and tells Ariel that her father has been lying to her all her life. More confusion and identity crisis ensure.

I liked how abuse was shown, in the sense it’s very realistic. Gaslighting was mentioned by name and it was shown clearly how her father did it. The value of honesty is given a lot of importance. That was refreshing as it reduced the usual teenage drama found in books. Although there was a lot of drama, nothing major was about dishonesty – at least apart from her father’s lies. Maya was very honest and open even when writing about small things, which her father had withheld from her. Zelda, although we didn’t see a lot of her, was another nice character that supported Ariel, though a bit alcoholic, which goes to show that punches don’t need to fly when someone is drunk.

I also appreciated the Spanish but like why did there have to be a direct translation right after? Footnotes could have been used. The translations were a bit out of place.

Although Gabe seemed like a really nice person (when not blood-driven) I didn’t really like his connection to Ariel. It’s like ‘boy-next-door’ connection, or maybe just teenage lust. Monica was a really enjoyable character and Ariel, I was both worried and upset with. However, I know it’s wrong to feel upset since she was groomed from a young age and couldn’t see the abuse.

Apart from Ariel and Monica there was more queer women representation.

Ellen Hopkins writes beautifully and this book is partially inspired by real events!

This is a noteworthy book but you must have stomach for it. It’s dark because these things could happen to anyone and in plain sight.

Danika reviews As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended robin talley

When I heard a YA book was coming out that was a lesbian boarding school Macbeth retelling, I was already on board before I had even heard that it was by Robin Talley, the author of one of my favourite lesbian YA books.

This isn’t a direct retelling of Macbeth, but it does cover most of the main plot points, and it delivered exactly the kind of broody atmosphere full of revenge plots that I was hoping for. There are some great nods to the original story, including the chapter titles all being lines from the play, but it also works if you haven’t read or seen the play–or if, like me, you read it years ago and have to Wikipedia the plot details. The haunted boarding school (built on a former plantation) adds to the creepy factor, pulling in a strong Southern Gothic vibe.

As I Descended immediately drops us into this atmosphere, with the main characters summoning spirits with a Ouija board. I really enjoyed this brooding story, but I was surprised when the genre started to slip slightly into horror territory. I would definitely warn anyone planning on reading it that there are triggers common to horror, including blood and violence, as well as a blurring of reality.

It’s probably silly to mention in a review of a Macbeth retelling, but this gets very dark. If you only read LGBTQ books with a happily ever after, this isn’t the book for you. These are deeply flawed people, and the relationship at the heart of Descended is an unhealthy one. Maria (read: Macbeth) and Lily (read: Lady Macbeth) obviously are devoted to each other, but Lily knows how to manipulate Maria and uses that information. Maria initially seems to be an ideal student and friend, but as soon as she begins to lose that moral high ground she can’t seem to stop slipping.

It’s enough to have a lesbian YA Macbeth retelling, but there are other elements going on in this narrative as well. Maria is Latina, and her understanding of what’s happening to her and the spirit(s?) in the school comes from her relationship with Altagracia, her childhood nanny, who taught her how to communicate with spirits. Mateo is also Latino, but he has a different understanding of the spirits at the school. Lily is desperate to overcome being seen as just “the girl with the crutches”, and is terrified of adding “lesbian” to that.

Mateo, Brandon, Lily, and Maria are all queer, so no one character has to represent all of queerkind. That way, although a Macbeth retelling has a low survival rate, this doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” situation, because a) it’s a genre that demands a high death rate and b) no one character is The Gay.

I did feel like I couldn’t quite understand why Maria changed so drastically over the course of the book, and I was surprised at the tone change from “delightfully broody” to “I’m legitimately horrified”, but those are small complaints.

I would definitely recommend this one, especially on a blustery fall evening.