Til reviews Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee

the cover of Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Séance Tea Party begins with Lora, a lost young person somewhere between girlhood and womanhood. Growing up looms large throughout the graphic novel… as much as anything looms in this gentle, joyful, sometimes heartbreaking story. Lora feels alone with her friends moving on to things like slick magazines and text chains, while she continues to prefer imaginative play. When ghost girl Alexa joins Lora at the titular séance tea party, the two form a friendship—and maybe something more—that will ultimately bring healing to both girls and those important to them.

It’s a quick read and a sweet one. Lora is relatable as someone who doesn’t want to stop having fun but feels like her fun is no longer accepted. I saw a lot of myself in her and remembered going through the same feeling that “growing up” means growing miserable. Lora and Alexa’s friendship is adorably played. This literal ghost of the past gives Lora the confidence to do new things and reach out to others, while holding on to the things she values about her younger self.

This is a story about what we let go of and what we hold onto. The narrative never feels critical of Lora’s desire to keep her childhood joys. It’s not a cruel story. If anything, it’s about an intentional and healthful fusion of the two.

Take my commentary with a grain of salt: my visual literacy is far from the sharpest, and I likely missed a fair helping of nuance. The core story, though, is a delight.

Larkie reviews Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Nothing But Blackened Teeth cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Trigger warning for suicidal ideation 

A compact novella with a haunted house story, strained friendships, and a hungry ghost, I had high expectations for Nothing But Blackened Teeth. Were they met? Kind of, but overall the book fell a little flat for me.

First off, there are five leads: the main character Cat, rich white guy Philip, engaged couple Talia and Faiz, and snarky comedian Lin. They’ve rented out a haunted Heian period mansion (which, of course, is said to be haunted) for Talia and Faiz’s wedding. Most of the book focused more on their friendship dynamics and how quickly they fall apart, like…literally from the get go they’re already at each other’s throats. This trip sounds like it would have been a nightmare even without a ghost trying to keep one of them as her eternal companion. 

The creep factor started in early as well, as Cat indulges some morbid fantasies around the legends of the house, and in the beginning I really enjoyed it. Cat has a tendency to go on rambling tangents that have a bit of a darker turn, due in part to her previous struggles with her mental health, and it really adds to the setting. 

However, after the first visual appearance of the ghost, I found a lot of the scares to be a bit of a let down. The characters seem more focused on fighting each other and discussing how the narratives of horror movies usually spin out than they do on the ghost, who is perfectly happy to watch them destroy themselves rather than contribute much of anything on her own. It feels like Khaw is trying to spin the narrative on who horror movies usually treat as fodder—the queer characters, the comic relief—versus who is allowed to be the hero. But it bogs down the whole story and detracts from some of the excellent imagery and visceral horror that is there. Maybe I would have liked some of the later horror sections more if they were really allowed to shine, but the horror elements feel like they’re secondary to the somewhat forced melodrama of the characters.

Rachel reviews Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

the cover of Briefly, A Delicious Life

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Nell Stevens’s debut novel, Briefly, A Delicious Life (2022), is a stunning historical novel about a centuries-old ghost who falls in love with one of history’s most infamous writers.

The novel is told from the perspective of Blanca, a ghost who has been fourteen for hundreds of years by the time the novel begins in the 1830s. After dying in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca in 1473, Blanca spends her (after)life watching over the monastery and haunting those who harm others. When George Sand (1804-1876), a nineteenth century French author famous for both her novels and her penchant for wearing men’s clothes, arrives at the monastery with her two children and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin, for an extended stay in Mallorca, Blanca falls instantly in love with George, although George has no idea Blanca exists. The novel narrates Blanca’s desire and devotion to George, as well as George’s writerly and motherly struggles in the present and in the past. Blanca quickly becomes an unseen part of the family’s life, and the novel unfolds against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Mallorca.

Stevens is a prominent memoirist, with her memoirs Bleaker House (2017), Mrs. Gaskell and Me / The Victorian and the Romantic (2018) winning multiple awards. With Briefly, A Delicious Life, Stevens’ first attempt at fiction, she does not disappoint. This novel is full of the emotional and intellectual vigour of the best historical fiction. Stevens’ novel is poetic without being overwrought, and full of humour and delight as much as it is of sadness and female rage. Although Stevens adapts an episode in the lives of real individuals, she does so with postmodern humour, and Blanca’s perspective was unique and refreshing.

This is a novel to linger over, and it’s one that I was thinking about long after I’d finished it. With this text, Stevens promises to become one of the most prominent authors of queer historical fiction. Briefly, a Delicious Life is unlike any ghost story I’ve read before, and it is a novel of hope, renewal, and the female voice.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Sarah Waters’s or Emma Donoghue’s fiction, or of Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines.

Please add Briefly, A Delicious Life to your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

Nat reviews Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

the cover Black Water Sister

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

A suspenseful tale of vengeful ghosts, family secrets, and self discovery – it’s funny, it’s creepy, there are twists and turns, gods and spirits, and a queer main character who’s just trying to get her shit together. What more can you ask for? 

Jessamyn Teoh is the daughter of immigrant parents, freshly graduated from Harvard with no job prospects and a struggling long distance relationship with her girlfriend. If that wasn’t tough enough, Jess is preparing to return to Malaysia with her very traditional parents, pushing her even farther into the closet. In a roundabout way, this story shapes up to be a coming of age/coming out story of a late bloomer. Our main character is a self described “shut-in with no friends,” and many of her struggles are internal. This is quite fitting when much of the story is about spirits who can literally enter your body to haunt and possess you, and you can have entire conversations without saying a single word aloud. 

Despite the serious nature of bodies controlled by restless spirits and vengeful gods, while grappling with sexuality and life’s purpose, this book had me cackling the entire time. Our plucky protagonist has a dry wit and plenty of snarky commentary, and then there’s her meddlesome aunties and tiresome uncles, who are equal parts amusing and stifling. And that leads us to one of Cho’s most intriguing characters, Ah Ma, Jess’ spirit grandmother. Ah Ma is larger than life, even in death, and never shy about telling you how she really feels.  

As Jess learns of her family secrets, while keeping a few of her own, she also finds her voice and a newfound confidence, as she’s forced to face her darkest fears. While most of us haven’t literally been visited or overtaken by a dead relative’s spirit, many of us do know what it’s like to be haunted by our own private fears or struggle with the concept of home and belonging. 

While at first glance this might appear to be a straightforward supernatural suspense, and an exciting and enjoyable read (and I want to lure you in with that prospect,) also know that Cho is coming at you with a lot of serious material: sexuality, religion, racism, cultural identity, and the struggles of immigrant communities both in the US and abroad. There’s a lot to unpack and consider if you’re up for it.

As for culture, I loved experiencing Malaysia through Jess’ eyes, as she too is a visitor there. I didn’t know much about Malaysia and religions in that region, so I found myself Googling details throughout the reading, from food to dialect. Meanwhile, Jess is navigating her feelings of not belonging to any particular place, but also seeing a side of her parents that she never saw when they lived in the US. And Cho’s use of language and sentence structure throughout the novel is one of the keys to its success, further immersing us in her world. 

It’s really hard to do this story justice because there’s so much going on, but it’s never in a way that feels overwhelming. It might be better described as a journey composed of many side quests that each unlock awareness in our main character. While this isn’t a romance (or even really about Jess’ sexuality), the novel still leaves us with an optimistic ending and a feeling of closure, which in these pandemic times is very much appreciated. Absolutely one of my favorite reads in 2021! 

Content warnings: violence, attempted sexual assault, implied assault/rape

Sinclair Sexsmith reviews A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

I got my hands on an advanced reader’s copy of A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, which is a dark academia, witchy, teenage boarding school sapphic romance which includes seances, a three hundred year old murder mystery, and ghosts.

After seeing about it from the author herself on Tiktok, I had to keep an eye out for it. I suspected I would enjoy it, and I really did. I will definitely pick up other work by Victoria Lee.

It was easy to read, very much a page-turner. Lee set up the suspense in the story from the very beginning, trickling out bits of information from when the main character, Felicity, had attended this spooky but elegant Dalloway boarding school in the past before having to take a year off. We get many clues and hints into what happened in the past, including a romance with the brilliant and now dead Alex, but it takes a good amount of time for it to all be explained. Meanwhile, Felicity meets Ellis, new to Dalloway but already wildly popular since she is a famous novelist, and they begin a whirlwind, intimate friendship.

I don’t want to give away much of the actual plot, moreso just a feeling for the tone of it. I looked forward to reading this and found myself making time to read, which is always a good sign that I’m enjoying the book. I enjoyed the characters, and loved how the book dealt with queerness — as just reality, not necessarily something to be deeply reckoned with or to have an existential crisis over. I loved how clever and intimate the characters were, and especially the whole tone and setting of the boarding school with witchy vibes. Highly enjoyable read.

Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance is out August 3, 2021.

Kayla Bell reviews Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

Gothic fiction is my jam. I love the slowly building sense of dread that is the cornerstone of the genre. If I could have the job of any fictional character, it would be the creepy groundskeeper of the haunted manors in gothic ghost stories. I also (as you can imagine from me writing for this website) love queer stories. Looking back, my favorite horror and gothic books have consistently been those with queer elements. So as soon as I saw Unspeakable on the list of books up for review, I knew I had to read it. I’m happy to say that this short story collection lived up to my high expectations.

While all of the stories include gothic elements, they are all very different. The stories run the gamut from classic, historical gothic horror to modern-day shapeshifter romance. This collection is stronger for the diversity in storytelling that it holds. I loved the ones that had explicit sapphic relationships, but the ones without them were just as good, too.

One feature that really stood out to me in this collection was the setting. As I said, I love classic gothic stories. So every story that took place in an old, desolate home overlooking a grey sea made me very happy. The stories that I thought used setting to their advantage the most were “Hearteater” by Eliza Temple and “Quicksilver Prometheus” by Katie Young. Both of these stories used the grey, dark classic gothic setting to show the inner minds of their main characters. “Quicksilver Prometheus” also stood out to me because of its brilliant use of historical elements. That was definitely one of the best stories in the collection for me. Other stories that had amazing settings were “Moonlight” by Ally Kolzow and “The Moon in Glass” by Jude Reid.

Three of the other stories also stood out to me as being exceptionally good. The first was “Laguna and the Engkanto” by Katalina Watt. This sea creature horror story incorporated the culture of the Philippines to create a truly unique and horrifying tale. Watt’s writing was also featured in another one of my favorite recent anthologies, Haunted Voices. I will definitely be seeking out more of her work.

“Homesick” by Sam Hirst almost made me cry. I wasn’t expecting such a profound and beautiful love story between two ghosts. In my opinion, it also had the best opening line in the book (and maybe of any short story I’ve ever read). This one was simple, but incredibly beautiful. It will certainly stick with me.

Finally, “The White Door” by Lindsay King-Miller turned a classic story on its head and proved that gothic stories can absolutely work in a fantasy setting. I was impressed by how well this one drew on standards set by classic works in order to create something completely unique. It also had an amazing and very chilling ending.

Overall, I really loved this anthology. I can see myself rereading it at night in October, waiting for something spooky (and potentially even sapphic) to happen.

Kayla Bell is the pen name of an author, reviewer, and lover of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can catch up with her on Instagram @Kreadseverything for more book reviews and updates about her writing.

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Haunted mansions! Thunder and lightning! Brooding antiheroes! Women running down corridors wearing long white gowns! I love the tropes of Gothic literature: they’re campy, they’re spooky, they’re sexy. What more could you possibly want from a genre? Well, sapphic romance, obviously.

As it happens, the Gothic is a pretty gay genre to begin with. Its themes of buried secrets, psychological crisis, and the instability of social boundaries all lend themselves perfectly to queer narratives. Despite this, I’ve always found it difficult to find recommendations for specifically lesbian and bi women’s Gothic literature online. But, dear reader, you don’t need to share my plight: I’ve done the work for you! Here is a selection of ten great Gothic works with sapphic characters to get you started with the genre…

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu,Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

A classic of 19th century Gothic literature, Carmilla is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction. Laura and her father live in Styria in the remote Austrian countryside. When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle, they agree to take in one of its passengers, a frail girl named Carmilla. Laura and Carmilla are immediate friends, but as the relationship grows more and more intense, Laura’s health starts to decline and Carmilla’s to improve – almost as if Carmilla is sucking the life out of her host.

 

Rebecca by Daphne du MaurierRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After a holiday romance with the handsome widower Max de Winter, his new bride returns with him to his country estate. Instead of being made welcome, she soon realises that her new home is ‘haunted’ by Max’s first wife, Rebecca, whose memory is kept alive by the loyal housekeeper Mrs Danvers. As the bride realises that she doesn’t know her husband at all, she starts to wonder just what happened to Rebecca. Although this isn’t an explicitly lesbian novel, it’s a cornerstone of the Lesbian Gothic: besides the heavy implication that Mrs Danvers was in love with Rebecca, the novel is also steeped with du Maurier’s repressed feelings for women – with whom she would have affairs later in her life.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

In 1850s Louisiana, Gilda escapes slavery and finds sanctuary with two brothel-women who also happen to be vampires. After being initiated into eternal life, Gilda spends the next 200 years living through African American history (and future), searching for community and somewhere to call home. With its exploration of race, sexuality and identity, The Gilda Stories was a completely new take on vampire fiction when it was first published in 1991, and it still feels as fresh today.

Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith is the fantastic Dickensian novel behind both the BBC miniseries of the same name, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Raised amidst thieves in the slums of Victorian London, Sue Trinder is happy to help when Gentleman – a conman and family friend – calls on her with a plan. Sue will pose as a lady’s maid to help Gentleman seduce the wealthy heiress Maud Lilly. After the two are wed and Maud’s inheritance is secure, Gentleman will have her committed to an asylum and split the winnings with Sue. However, Sue grows fond of her new ‘mistress’, and things aren’t as simple as they first seemed.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four strangers – one of them the paranormal investigator Dr Montague – plan to stay at a notoriously haunted house, with the aim of discovering empirical proof of the supernatural. The four make friends quickly, and Eleanor, a fragile young woman with a history with poltergeists, is especially drawn to Theodora, who is fresh out of a quarrel with her female ‘roommate’. The group are faced with spooky occurrences that grow ever more sinister as the night progresses, until it seems that the house itself is plotting against them.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsThe Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Frannie Langton, a servant and former slave, stands accused of murdering her employers. Although she can’t remember anything that happened on that fateful night, she knows that she couldn’t have done it – because she was in love with her mistress. Slipping between a childhood on a Jamaican sugar plantation and her domestic service in Georgian London, Frannie’s defense is her life story – a story that exposes crimes far greater than a couple of murders, committed in the name of science and empire.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane HealeyThe Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

During the London Blitz, the Natural History Museum’s collection of taxidermied mammals are evacuated to the countryside, along with newly-promoted director Hetty Cartwright. Their new home is the creepy Lockwood Manor, presided over by the bullying Major Lockwood and his troubled daughter Lucy. Lucy walks the house at night and has nightmares of la diablesse – a devil-woman in white that haunts the manor. Despite Hetty’s burgeoning friendship with Lucy, her residence at Lockwood grows impossible when the animals start to move about on their own.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria MachadoIn the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Studying at the Iowa writers’ school in her late 20s, Carmen Maria Machado met ‘the woman in the dream house’ – a petite blonde Harvard grad living in a cabin in Bloomington, Indiana. What began as a passionate relationship turned sour when the woman became psychologically and physically abusive, and the ‘dream house’ became a nightmare setting. Machado recounts her own experience while also examining the history and study of abusive romantic relationships between women, in a genre-defying work that blends memoir, gothic literature, academic study, and short stories.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura CarlinThe Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

Against a backdrop of Georgian London, where the city’s poor inhabitants can disappear with no questions asked, Hester White is desperate to escape poverty. When she gets caught under the wheels of Calder Brock’s carriage, she seizes her chance to be taken in by his aristocratic family, including the fierce Rebekah Brock. Rebekah tutors her in the ways of gentility – although she seems interested in more than just Hester’s education. Then Hester receives a note telling her to leave before she gets hurt. Together, Rebekah and Hester begin to uncover a dark web of penny dreadful-worthy mystery and crime with Calder at its centre.

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

In a vast house on the cliffs of Dover, twins Miranda and Eliot are in mourning for their recently-departed mother. In the wake of the tragedy, Miranda develops the eating disorder pica – where she hungers for inedible substances like chalk, dirt and plastic – and begins to hear the voices of women trapped in the walls of the house. Then one night she vanishes, leaving behind her loved ones, including her girlfriend Ore, her father Luc, and the house itself, to tell the story.

Mary reviews A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

Ireland? Ghosts? A hot horse trainer?  What more could you ask for?!

Nora is spending her summer exploring the Irish town her grandparents hail from when she discovers her cottage is haunted by a tragic history. She falls in love with the country and the people, her cousins and new friends (and one friend that could turn into more), but her vacation soon takes a drastic turn. She’s started sleepwalking and having awful nightmares, and she won’t leave the cottage for anything or anyone.

Briana has lived in relative solitude–by choice. She works with horses, a job she’s passionate about, has a few friends, and a family she rarely visits. Ever since an accident years ago that she refuses to talk about, she hasn’t let herself grown close to anyone. All of that changes when Nora moves to town and ruffles her feathers.

I won’t lie, I wasn’t very engaged with this book for the first third. The plot took its time getting off the ground, but once it did, I was all in! The author makes sure to set the stage for what’s about to happen so that once it does, you can’t stop reading. As the paranormal happenings rise, tensions between Nora and Briana, as well as with her cousin, rise as well. The relationships you’ve spent so much time reading about developing are now at great risk, and so is Nora.

The characters felt real and interesting. Nora had a full personality with a character arc that I felt was complete by the end. The same can be said for Briana, who was a nice contrast point-of-view character to Nora as their perspectives on haunted cottage vary more and more drastically as the book goes on. Their romance was soft and a slow burn that also had its hot moments. It was nice to watch them grow closer over the course of the book.

Nora’s cousins and friends Sheila and Quinn were good side characters that felt real and added to the story. It was fun to see Nora explore her Irish roots and grow some new ones in her grandparent’s new town through Sheila and Quinn and other family members she meets along the way.

The paranormal aspect of the story was a lot better than I expected. I thought it would be more subdued, but as the ghost–or ghosts–drag Nora into their past, I was dragged along as well. It was also nicely wrapped into Irish history and I enjoyed how the setting played a character of its own.

Overall, this was a fun and enjoyable read. If you’re looking for a paranormal mystery with some subdued romance, this is the book for you!

Bee reviews Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

This book had me in two words: queer. Gothic. I have long-held passions in both areas. The gothic is the realm of the outsider, the rejected, the monstrous. It lends itself to queer interpretation–and that is mostly what queer gothic is. Just interpretation. The height of gothic literature was, of course, the 18th and 19th Centuries, beginning with The Castle of Otranto and spidering out into different sub-genres and interpretations right up to the present day. There are queer interpretations of gothic literature, definitely: my favourites include Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage,” and Skin Shows by Jack Halberstam. There is obviously The Picture of Dorian Gray, but also the interpretation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as being an allegory for the closet, and the ambiguous sexuality of Dracula. The gothic is queer, inescapably. So when I saw Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology, my true reaction was to say, “oh. Finally.”

The anthology spans identities, each story offering up new characters with new queerness. A large proportion of the stories are about WLW–women who are seduced by vampires, who dance with the ghosts of their murdered wives, who kill their lovers, and fall for monsters from the deep. Sometimes these women are the ones who are monstrous, which is of course, the potential of the gothic. This is the most exciting thing for me, a feeling which is only compounded by the fact that their queerness is not what makes them monstrous. They are given power in their monstrosity.

The contributors to this anthology understand the genre to its core. There was not one story that felt amiss, each with the kind of rich and immersive prose which typifies gothic writing. I was pulled into each chilling tale easily and readily, the language acting as a kind of through-line for this diverse collection of stories. Even though each is by a different author, with a different approach to the genre, they read as part of a whole. The anthology is cohesive and interconnected, with some stories sharing similar themes and imagery in a pleasing way–the same hallmarks of the genre, used to different effect.

There are all kinds of queer women in these pages. Some of my favourites were the stories that explored the idea of a woman out of time–a woman with an identity which we might now refer to as butch, but constrained by Victorian sensibilities. There is something eminently enjoyable about a rakish and debonair Byronic hero in cravat and breeches, but oh wait! She’s a woman, and she’s here to seduce your wives. I enjoyed the troubled Kat in “Hearteater” by Eliza Temple, who has exactly the right amount of tortured soul.

And on that point–seduction. I haven’t yet mentioned one of the drawcards of the gothic, that being the simmering eroticism of all things dark and disturbed. There’s a reason why we find vampires so sexy. The authors of Unspeakable haven’t forgotten this, either. A number of the stories are filled with just the right amount of sexual tension and saucy contact. It is sometimes devilish, and always welcome. “Laguna and the Engkanto” by Katalina Watt stands out: a story with a folk tale feel which absolutely sizzles.

The stories that don’t have that note of the erotic are filled with another gothic (and queer) emotion: yearning. The sense of something lost, of a need to pierce the veil, to find some fulfilment and compromise your own goodness to do so… these are all gothic elements that are woven through the stories of Unspeakable. Remember that while the gothic is horror, it is also romance: it is heightened emotions, a deep plunge into the psyche and the human condition. “Moonlight” by Ally Kölzow is one such narrative, which left me with such a deep sadness that I am still thinking about it, days later.

It bears mentioning that a lot of these stories rely on tropes. These are, of course, conventions of the genre, and some might call them clichés. I think it is important to be reminded, however, that applying these “clichés” to queer narratives is something completely new. It is a reinvention, and it is inspired. Even though some of the stories are familiar and predictable, the expected outcome is the desired outcome: we deserve our turn with these stories, and they are all the more enjoyable for it.

This anthology is a powerhouse of an introduction to the work of some very exciting writers. Their dexterity within the genre is admirable, and made this collection an utter pleasure to read. For lovers of the gothic, it is an absolute delight. If you are unfamiliar with the genre, it is a perfect introduction (although be prepared for any further forays to be a lot more subtextual on the queer front). It was so soothing for me to be able to read within a genre so dear to my heart, and to see it full of queerness. At the risk of sounding over-the-top and extremely sappy, my devoted thanks go out to Celine Frohn and the contributing authors. They have created something truly special, which feeds the monster in us all

Meagan Kimberly reviews From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

This paranormal fantasy novella follows “you,” who is Phyllis Avis Symons. She’s a young girl living in New Zealand in the early 1930s, in the years leading up to World War II. Her contentious relationship with her parents leads her to run away and fall in love with an abusive man that becomes her downfall.

It’s hard to give a concise summary, as Phyllis lives multiple lives throughout the novella. But her first life takes up the majority of the story’s space. This book can’t be discussed as a linear narrative or in terms of character relationships and development. That doesn’t mean it was a bad book. Far from it.

From A Shadow Grave is a compelling array of connected stories told through the second-person point of view, putting the reader in Phyllis’ shoes. This perspective creates a matter-of-fact tone, giving a degree of emotional distance despite the subject matter. No matter what events occur and all the bad things that happen to the main character, the point of view puts it in a voice that indicates this is just how things are.

Phyllis’ relationships with George, Aroha, and others throughout her various lives indicates she is on the bi/pan spectrum. But it’s never explicitly stated. However, she does give voice to her hesitation and fear, as she recognizes the feelings she has for women and how it’s unacceptable in the society she lives in during the 1930s.

But that “you” perspective once more creates a factual tone, showing how Phyllis presumes life is just what it is, and there’s no use getting attached or worked up about anything. It’s her defense mechanism.

One aspect that pops up throughout is her learning disability. She’s written as someone with dyslexia, but because of the time she lives in, she’s deemed a stupid girl. What really breaks the reader’s heart is how she believes that’s true and accepts that as fact and reality.

Phyllis is also described as someone living with mental health issues. One sentence, in particular, stands out: “You were born with demons in your head, an unexplainable wish to self-destruct…” It’s especially fascinating as a description as the story takes place with a paranormal aspect, so the main character deals with magical demons as well as metaphorical ones.

The paranormal powers that exist in this world are never explained. They are accepted at face value and considered a normal part of everyday life for Phyllis and Aroha. It makes the narrative structure easier to accept, as the audience never needs to be told when another life jump has been made. It just is. This is strengthened once more by the second-person point of view.

The biggest detriment to the shortness of the novella and “you” perspective was a lack of depth in secondary characters. There were scattered details hinting that Aroha is a woman of color, but it’s not obvious that she’s an indigenous woman of New Zealand, Maori, until near the end of the book.

It’s difficult to give a specific analysis of this story without spoiling it. So many of the events and relationships are tied up in the plot, and it’s a great plot to enjoy on a first read without spoilers from a review. The best summary to give is it’s a ghost story, a love story, and a series of fragments of one person living multiple lives.