Queer Smuggler-Duggery: Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco

Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco cover

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(Note: This book is a sequel but can be enjoyed without reading the previous one)

Fans of historical fiction with high-stakes hijinks and well-developed human characters with strong internal compasses can rejoice! Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco opens on the early days of organized labor and careens headlong into a riveting world of gunfights, train heists, and scheming smuggler-duggery that doesn’t let up on its deeply immersive historicism for the next 300+ pages.

The first page also features this gem of a quote “Alma Rosales is sweating through every layer of the men’s clothes she calls home”.

The main POV character is said Alama Rosales, an unrepentant, fiercely loyal bisexual who has realized that a man’s persona suits her appetites and ambitions far better than skirts ever did. She’s a former member of the Pinkertons (Women’s Division) who long ago traded in that history for a chance to reinvent herself as hardened, hardscrabble stevedore and opium smuggler “Jack Camp”. That hard-earned equilibrium is disturbed when dead bodies begin to show up in unlikely places, attracting a figure from her past with secrets Alma would rather not face, and another from the ever-encroaching future she has to, sooner or later.

As the history and progress collide in the frontier harbor she’s come to call home, Alma is forced to confront exactly how far she’s willing to go to preserve everything she’s built on the unforgiving shore of Tacoma, 1888.

Rough Trade is at times a brilliantly twisty thriller, a tightly-examined glimpse into life on the early edge of American mythmaking, and a roustabout adventure that centers the people who kept the economy going both above and below the board and the table at the turn of the twentieth century. It is grounded in those realities, and the spaces socioeconomic marginalization made for all the aching beauty and equally fraught compromises that accompanied then-outlawed queer desires. In that way, it is also a heartfelt book and an unromantic one, about the freedom that comes from connecting to people who see you for yourself, in the risks of getting lost in a persona but also everything that can be gained when a fiction allows you to reveal who you want to be so bad you can taste it in your dreams. 

There is something uncompromising about the way Carrasco’s characters exist. I appreciated how they feel lived-in, like real people saying and doing what they think will bring them closer to their desires—and whose plans must change shape when those desires do, too. Identities in Carrasco’s vision of the Wild West are adaptable, craftable, at times malleable. They serve as shields, comforts, and weapons, all with a keen understanding of how they can be used in service of their wielders’ all-pervading wants. It felt like a breath of fresh air to delve so deeply into the negotiations and nuances of this story, and I strongly recommend it to readers who enjoy rollicking, tightly-plotted adventures with strong characterization.

Who Will Enjoy This?

  • People who want queer characters that rival the most ruffianish of cads historical fiction has ever conjured
  • People who really, really miss the feeling of reading a Sherlock Holmes story for the first time and want to revisit it at book length.
  • People who want Canada to be something other than a beacon of shining enlightenment FOR ONCE, lol.
  • People who really, really enjoy morally ambiguous queers guided by their own inner compass (even if the needle is a little/lot crooked)
  • People who want a period-accurate piece on gender nonconformity and queer life.

I can’t stress that last part enough. A book with period-accurate takes on gender-nonconformity and queer desire.

Who Might Think Twice?

  • People who want more focus on sapphic steam and intimacy than whatever the dudes are doing. There’s a lot more guy on guy (or genderfluid-masc on guy) action in these pages than explicit sapphic content, fyi. Lots of sapphic yearning, but I fully understand anyone who is tired of reading about that and wants period-accurate five-chili-rating reads. You won’t find that here but for one scene. It is a delightful scene, though, and very bittersweet in context.
  • People who want HEAs for all their queer characters. Or all the characters they become emotionally invested in.
  • People who don’t like unresolved character arcs. This is actually the second book in a series, not that I knew that going in…

Content warnings: murder, violence, drug use

Nat reviews The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

the cover of The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

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Sometimes we pick up a book with certain expectations – sometimes we also discover that those expectations are way off the mark. When I set out to read The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea I knew this: it was a YA book with romance, it was gaaay, the cover was kind of cute (so pretty!), and it was a fantasy setting with mermaids and witches (obvs from the title). 

Here’s the thing, I was not emotionally prepared for what the book actually contained. I was still recovering from the turmoil of reading C.L Clark’s The Unbroken (which I highly recommend) and I needed something light to cleanse my reading palate. A pirate adventure on the high seas, perhaps! As someone who doesn’t read much YA, I thought, hey, this is probably gonna be an angsty, romantic tale with sidelong glances featuring mermaids! Magic! Fun! Haha. What I did not realize: this was going to be a dark, brooding journey about serious issues like colonialism and childhood trauma and sexual assault and one that does not shy away from depicting their brutality. That it would make me feel feelings. Sad feelings, which are right on the top of my big “No, Thanks” list right now and for all of the next decade. 

Now, after all that you might be thinking that I did not enjoy the book. Not true! I think this is a wonderful book! You just need to make sure to adjust your expectations

TLDR: Seriously, do not judge this book by its cover. AND Yes I did like the book but I’m still hella mad about everything that happened in this fictional world.

Our two young protagonists are not set up for success. Flora, who lives as Florian, is a young, Black gender bending pirate just doing his best to survive on a slaver ship called the Dove, and doing morally frowned upon things like pirates are known to do. Saddled with guilt and fiercely loyal to his only family, his brother Alfie, who, by no fault of his own, is kind of a screw up. The relationship between Alfie and Florian is depressing and complicated. In fact, every single relationship in this book is like that. 

Both of our MC’s are morally ambiguous, well meaning, gay disasters. For Florian, an orphan in constant survival mode, it’s along the lines of “I thieved and kidnapped and maybe even did a murder to survive, but it doesn’t define me. I want to be better.” For Evelyn, daughter of an elite Imperial family, it is “everything I knew about my insulated and privileged but miserable world is wrong. Am I the baddy? I want to do the right thing.” 

While Flora and Evelyn are struggling to right the wrongs of their pasts and in the world, the villains are out there just deliberately being evil. This book has no shortage of characters to despise. I’m talking no-redeeming-qualities dot com, with possible sociopathic tendencies. The murdering, rapey, sadist kind of villains who you really want to see walked off a short plank and snacked on by shark teefies. Nameless Captain, I’m looking at you. And don’t even get me started on that sneaky witch in the Floating Islands. 

There are also some dynamic foils, such as Rake, our captain’s stoic, red haired first mate. He’s our second chances man, both receiving and giving them while still allowing brutality to unfold before him. And let’s not forget the mysterious, non-binary arbiter of justice, the Pirate Supreme. 

Speaking of gender, that was one of the things I really enjoyed in the book. Flora/Florian’s exploration of gender is as complicated as you would expect, while also entangled with her identity as a pirate. How do others see Flora… or Florian? How does Flora/ian look at the world when moving between gender presentations? 

(spoilers, highlight to read) For the romance, I wasn’t convinced that our characters got a truly happy ending. I mean, sure, technically they’re together, but it was kind of weird, creepy “here’s my best offer” from the devil kind of union… romantic like, well, they didn’t die! (spoilers end) Then again, this book never really felt like a romance, more of a dark tinted fantasy with a romantic arc. 

But hey, great news, you can be extremely mad at a book and appreciate it at the same time. Like I sometimes feel about my cat, for instance. Is this book like a cat? Perhaps. It will put its paws all over your tender feelings and then knock them off the shelf, only to try and curl up in your lap hours later. This book, like a cat, is a little of a shite but we love them anyway. 

TLDR, this is a four star read to be enjoyed in the right mindset and with proper expectations. Don’t forget, kids, YA books can mess you up real good. 

Trigger warnings: violence, implied/offscreen sexual assault/rape, drug use, addiction, amputation

Danika reviews The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

The Heartbreak Bakery cover

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This is where I use the wishy-washy definition of which books the Lesbrary covers (books about a main character who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man”) so that I can talk about a book I love and think you will too, even though it’s not sapphic. This is a YA magical baking romance between an agender main character and a genderfluid love interest, which is just as good as it sounds.

This follows Syd, who works full time baking at the local queer bakery, The Proud Muffin. When Syd’s girlfriend breaks up with Syd seemingly out of nowhere, it’s crushing. Syd funnels that pain into baking, the same way Syd deals with everything. Except that it soon become apparent that everyone who eats Syd’s breakup brownies breaks up, including the owners of The Proud Muffin. Now Syd and Harley, the bakery delivery person, are on a mission to track down everyone who’s been a victim of broken-hearted brownies and find a way to fix it.

If that premise doesn’t grab you, we do not share the same taste in books! This delivered on exactly what I wanted from it–except that for some reason I thought this was an adult romance, and I’m still not quite sure why it is YA? Syd has special permission to have a full time job and complete high school classes, but I’m not sure why Syd wasn’t just out of high school for this story… but that’s a very minor complaint!

I really appreciated the reexamining of Syd and W’s relationship. At first, Syd is stunned by the “sudden” break up, but after some time to process it, realizes there were cracks in their years-long relationship for a while. W is the villain. I really enjoy Capetta’s writing, and part of that is the emotional complexity in their work. No one feels one-dimensional.

This book is so celebratory of queerness and queer community. People check Harley’s pin for their or his pronouns every day. Everyone is so accepting and kind, even in difficult moments. (And even if they express that a bit differently!) The bakery is almost entirely queer people, including an aro/ace character. There’s a polyamorous brunch! This is a bit of a spoiler, because it happens at the end, but I have to mention it any way: there’s a big gay Texas bake off! “Sure, but what makes this a bisexual babka?” It feels like a big queer hug. In fact, I was overcome with cute aggression after finishing it and had to suppress yelling and shoving it random passersby’s hands. “READ THIS! IT’S SO GOOD.”

The magic is a fabulist undercurrent, a metaphor made literal. Syd puts emotion in baking, whether intentional or not, and that’s received by the people eating it. It’s a nice way to think about sharing food. Another fun aspect was that there are recipes between chapters, both literal (like for the brownies) and more metaphorical. The fantasy aspect also means this book is part magical quest, part queer bakery romance.

I took this out from the library, but I gave it 5 stars and can’t wait to get my hands on my own copy for my collection. If you’re looking for a last-minute queer-affirming gift, this is a fantastic choice!