Kayla Bell reviews The Offset by Calder Szewczak

The Offset by Calder Szewczak cover

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Cards on the table, Angry Robot is one of my favorite publishers. Ever since I started getting into science fiction and fantasy, they’ve consistently published some of my favorite books. The Outside by Ada Hoffman, The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu, and Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng are all some of the best books I’ve read in the genre. So when I had the chance to read an ARC of The Offset, I jumped at the chance. Luckily, this book continued the streak of being extremely entertaining!

In the future, as climate change ravages the earth, survivors are hyper-aware of their impact on their environment. Because of this, they’ve created the ceremony of the Offset, where, to counteract new birth, one parent is selected to die. While this is happening, scientist Jac is working on using genetically engineered trees to make Greenland habitable and protected. Meanwhile, her wife Alix is dealing with their daughter Miri, who is extremely depressed and angry about being born into a dying world. Things get worse when Miri is selected to choose who dies for the Offset. She must decide between one parent, who is emotionally distant and saving the world, or her other parent, with whom she loves and has a close relationship.

This book kept me reading. In a lot of apocalyptic, dystopian fiction, I get bored by the misery and hopelessness of it all. Not so with The Offset. Don’t get me wrong, the world is extremely dark and upsetting. But the heart of this book was the difficult, complicated relationship between Miri and her mothers. I saw a lot of my climate anxiety-riddled self in Miri. This book was a science fiction version of an argument I have in my head all the time: is it truly ethical to have children knowing the problems that the world will face due to climate change? Will future generations hate us for subjecting them to the worst consequences of our and previous generations’ actions?

[This paragraph contains vague spoilers.] I wish that the book’s ending had kept up this focus on familial relationships rather than going fully into grimdark territory and being, in my opinion, unnecessarily brutal. I also didn’t fully grasp why Miri made the choice that she had made; it felt like she just chose who she did to be dramatic. Other things that bothered me about this book were how one-dimensional the anti-natalists, those who oppose reproduction of any kind, felt and some of the time skips. I found the book to be paced exceptionally well, but I did feel a little confused when the narrative would move into the characters’ memories without warning.

Other than that, as I said, I found the book to be quite entertaining. The world was rich and the authors did a great job of establishing worldbuilding. Even without a full understanding of the science, I definitely felt the importance of Jac’s work. This is a book that I would classify as part of my favorite genre of sci-fi: climate fiction (sci-fi novels that explore climate change and how humans adapt to it). I also loved, and honestly don’t see this often enough in SFF books, how casually the lesbian and nonbinary representation was handled. Queer people were just a normal part of the world. In the future, I would definitely read another book set in this same universe and hope that the two authors collaborate again. If you’re looking for a quick, dark, science fiction exploration of an interesting ethical question, pick up The Offset.

Rachel reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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A dark, haunting, gothic novel, Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (2020) is a delightfully dark queer book with a complex and fun premise that was right up my alley.

Set across two separate timelines, the first begins in 1902 Rhode Island at the Brookhants School for Girls. Two students, Flo and Clara, are known to be uncommonly devoted to one another and to a writer named Many MacLane and her book. The two girls form The Plain Bad Heroine Society based around their love of each other and the book. But when their secret meeting place in the school’s apple orchard becomes the scene of their violent and startling deaths, a series of bizarre events begin to take place on the campus—haunting the students and staff until the school shutters for good five years later.

The second timeline finds us in the present day. Merritt Emmons publishes a hugely popular book about the darkly queer history of Brookhants School. The book inspires a film adaptation that introduces the reader to a cast of main characters. These three heroines will return to Brookhants for filming, but as they do, “past and present become grimly entangled” and the haunting forces that terrorized the Brookhants Heroines from a century ago may not be quite finished with their curse.

A layered story with multiple timelines and black and white illustrations by Sara Lautman, Plain Bad Heroines is an example of the neo-Gothic at its best. I absolutely loved this book. I ordered a copy as soon as a heard about its release, and I was not disappointed. Dark and Gothic, with characters that are thoroughly compelling and mysterious. The book alternates timelines and perspectives across chapters, but I never felt lost or confused. The narrative of Danforth’s novel is a complex one—it has many clues, red herrings, and conspiracies that constantly kept me guessing. And even then, I couldn’t guess the ending. I loved Danforth’s use of symbol and metaphor, and her investment in making both of her timelines as real and vivid as possible. In addition, the narration—with a cheeky narrator who addresses the reader and draws attention to the ‘storied’ nature of the novel—was fun and exciting and helped to organize the book’s complex plot.

The best part of Plain Bad Heroines is that nearly everyone is queer. Queer people abound across both timelines and I was particularly interested in Danforth’s portrayal of the queer women. Not only does Danforth link her modern and historic queer characters with each other through their shared and haunting experiences, but she also imagines a version of queer life in the early twentieth century that has an element of realism amongst her haunting and supernatural plot.

I could not recommend this book enough for those who love queer historical fiction, horror and the Gothic, or a good and dark mystery!

Please visit Emily M. Danforth on Twitter or on her website, and put Plain Bad Heroines on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia

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

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

Shannon reviews She’s Too Pretty To Burn by Wendy Heard

She's Too Pretty to Burn by Wendy Heard

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As the weather begins to warm up here in the midwest, I find myself in serious need of books set during the warm summer months. There’s something so magical about long days spent in the sunshine, even if the characters’ daily activities aren’t ones I’d recommend. Books set in the summer just have a certain kind of hypnotic feel, and it’s exactly that feeling I was searching for when I picked up She’s Too Pretty To Burn, the latest novel by Wendy Heard. It’s a young adult thriller with charismatic characters and a swoony romance, and I devoured it in a single sitting.

Veronica is a photographer living in San Diego with her mother. When we first meet her, she’s pretty bored with life, hanging out at a party she’s not enjoying and just wishing for something exciting to happen. She loves photography, but even it isn’t providing her enough mental stimulation to fight off her feelings of boredom.

Then, she meets Mick, a complicated and beautiful young woman who seems to speak right to Veronica’s soul. The reader knows pretty early on that Mick is a troubled character, but Veronica doesn’t pick up on this for quite some time. She just knows that she’s captivated by Mick, and she becomes a little bit obsessed with photographing her, even though Mick herself hates having her picture taken.

Mick’s home life isn’t the greatest, so spending time with Veronica serves as a sort of escape for her. The two begin spending all their free time together, and it’s not long before Veronica introduces her to her good friend Nico, an activist with a passion for performance art. He’s a couple of years older than Mick and Veronica, definitely more worldly than them, and he has a plan he thinks will shake up the city in some necessary ways.

At first, Nico’s plan seems harmless enough, but as time passes and Mick falls deeper under his spell, things take a dangerous turn. Veronica, desperate to make it big as a photographer, doesn’t notice the danger Mick and Nico are putting themselves in right away. Will she figure things out in time to stop something catastrophic from happening, something with the power to affect the trajectories of all their lives?

She’s Too Pretty To Burn is pretty dark, definitely not a good fit for those looking for a story on the sweeter side of the young adult spectrum. Their are some blurred lines when it comes to consent here, and readers who are triggered by discussion of abuse might want to do additional research before picking this up.

The characters aren’t all good or all bad. Instead, they exist in that big gray area that makes them super relatable but also difficult to categorize. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite, since each is incredibly well-drawn. They all make bad decisions at times, but then, that’s a regular part of being a human being, and something I definitely want in my fiction. Perfect, cookie-cutter people aren’t all that interesting to read about.

I enjoyed watching the relationship between Mick and Veronica blossom. The author does a phenomenal job showing how complex love is, especially for teenagers who are working hard to figure their lives out. Certain scenes between the two are poignant and beautiful, while others serve to amp up the tension of the overall story.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced novel that’s dark and twisty and filled with characters who remind you of people you’d meet in the real world, you could do far worse than She’s Too Pretty To Burn. It’s probably not a book that will appeal to every reader, but it landed firmly in my wheelhouse and I’m so glad I gave it a try.

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.