Rachel reviews The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

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Since reading Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January last summer, I have been anxiously awaiting the publication of The Once and Future Witches. I finally got to read it over the holidays at the end of last year, and it did not disappoint!

Set in an alternate history, Harrow’s novel begins in the 1890s, in a city called New Salem, where witches have been eradicated. The early burnings of witches—presented as a genocidal project that was inevitably gendered—served to almost snuff out women’s magic from the world. Stories, traditions, and spells passed from grandmother to mother to daughter have been nearly wiped from existence. Or, in the case of some characters, these spells have simply gone underground. The Once and Future Witches merges the very real suffrage movements from the end of the nineteenth century with the fantastic, and women’s political and magical powers are interestingly blended.

The novel focuses on the Eastwood sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. Torn apart by betrayals and complex traumas, the sisters reunite in New Salem and spark a women’s/witches’ movement. However, there are dark forces that would seek to rob women of their words and ways and keep these women in their subjected position. The three sisters, along with all those women who support them, must work to overcome these forces in order to bring witching back into the world.

I loved this book. It is a fascinating product of historical/fantastical fiction that really works. Harrow is able to braid these fictional/non-fictional elements together in such a way as to truly craft an alternate history that feels very empowering for a modern reader. I adore Harrow’s writing, and have since The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but I think this book truly packs more of a punch in terms of its plot and characters. Each main character in this book is a delight to read, and they have such distinct and magnetic personalities that work so well throughout the book. Harrow has clearly done her research here both in terms of historical accuracy and fairy tale tropes. The twists never stop with this novel, and I highly recommend it.

Not to mention—it’s queer! Harrow’s lesbian characters, a pairing which includes a BIPOC woman, have that particular brand of historical lesbianism that I am unashamedly drawn to (think lots of long looks and hand touching). Harrow’s novel is an intersectional one, and she includes queer people and people of colour in this discussion of rights, oppression, and female history. I couldn’t recommend this book more, and I can’t wait to read Harrow’s next novel!

Please visit Alix E. Harrow on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Once and Future Witches on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, forced confinement, torture, kidnapping, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel, The Mercies (2020), is a vivid, sapphic, historical novel that I couldn’t bear to put down. I read this book in nearly one sitting and its dark, passionate story will likely have you doing the same.

Hargrave’s novel is starts in Finnmark, Norway, in 1617. It follows twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter as she watches a sudden storm overwhelm the male fishermen trapped on the sea. Most of the men in the village, including Maren’s brother and father, are drowned, and the women must fend for themselves in an isolated world of rock, ocean, and dangerous weather.

Three years later, when Absalom Cornet arrives, carrying with him a reputation for burning witches in Scotland and his new Norwegian wife, Ursa, tensions build in the town as Absalom sows seeds of unrest and rumours of witchcraft among the women. Was the storm a natural disaster, or the work of a curse? Meanwhile, in the lives of these independent women, Ursa encounters a new way of life, perhaps a life that involves Maren in ways neither of them ever anticipated. But Absalom sees only evil brewing in this community of women left without men to guide them, and as tensions build and violence escalates, survival becomes even more difficult.

I heard about this book because a lesbian author I follow on Twitter was reading it and couldn’t recommend it enough, so when I bought it on my ereader a few months ago, I was so excited to read it. The Mercies is a beautiful novel in terms of its wonderful poetic language that is sweeping and immersive. Some of the descriptions of the landscape are so captivating that this book really can take over your day. Hargrave’s novel is also very raw, portraying the dangerous and volatile life of this village with stunning clarity. However, it’s also incredibly dark. Based on the true story of the Vardø storm and the 1620s witch trials, the tragic violence in this book perpetrated against the women in this novel is unsettling and sometimes difficult to read, but told from Maren and Ursa’s dual perspectives, it is also a powerful story of resilience.

Maren and Ursa’s characters are two sides of the same coin—both women trapped without knowing it in a male-dominated world where their paths of marriage and family are laid out for them from birth. However, they are both pushed away from those paths and towards each other as they become alienated and isolated from those around them. Hargrave captures the chaos of suspicion and fear and the relief of finding an ally and a safe place in another person. This book was gorgeous and there really is nothing I love more than historical lesbian fiction. It’s not beautiful and glamorous, like a Sarah Waters novel, rather, it’s raw and dangerous and the peace that both women find with each other is sharply juxtaposed against an unforgiving landscape filled with dangerous accusers.

I recommend this book both for its writing and for its lesbian plot. I think my only criticism would be that it could have used a better ending, or at least one that did some of the characters more justice. Nevertheless, this novel cuts right to the heart and I couldn’t be happier that I read it.

Please visit Kiran Millwood Hargrave on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Mercies on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture, execution, domestic abuse.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Carmella reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Set in 17th century Norway during a time of witch trials, The Mercies is Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first book for adults. It was all over book Twitter earlier this year, and the more I heard, the more excited I was to read it. Beautiful cover? Check. Witches? Check. Sapphism? Check. What more could I want from a book?

When a storm kills the fishermen of Vardø – an island town in the north of Norway – its women are left behind to fend for themselves. 20-year-old Maren must learn to take care of ‘men’s work’ such as fishing and building, while grieving for her lost father, brother, and fiance.

At the same time, King Christian IV is introducing laws against witchcraft, particularly targeting the Sámi people indigenous to the north. This leads to the appointment of Scottish witch-hunter Absolom Cornet, who installs himself in Vardø along with his new wife, Ursa, disturbing the budding matriarchy and stirring up a frenzy of superstition.

I didn’t know much about the context beforehand, but Millwood Hargrave writes so immersively about the era and politics that it’s easy enough to follow along without any prior knowledge. Domestic scenes of baking bread, cleaning the household, or visiting neighbours are all crammed with historical details which bring Vardø to life. It helps that Ursa is an outsider both to the village and to domestic work, as we can learn exposition naturally through her eyes.

When Ursa realises she’s unprepared to run a household, she engages Maren to teach her the basics. What ensues is an indescribably slow-burn romance. Now, I certainly enjoy a bit of repression in my fiction, but I have to admit that after 300 pages without a single kiss I did start to grow impatient! Instead, we get chapters upon chapters of accidental hand-brushes and lingering eye contact – which are at least very beautifully and believably written.

Alongside a sapphic romance, I was also promised witches. Instead, Millwood Hargrave writes about innocent women unjustly persecuted for showing independence, defying gender roles, or simply (as is the case for Maren’s sister-in-law) being Sámi. It wasn’t what I had expected from the blurb, but it was a sobering reminder of the true history of witch trials.

The Mercies is a story about female resistance in a patriarchal society, and about the fear felt by men in power when faced with a strong woman. However, it is not a happy ending for the women of Vardø. I don’t want to include too many spoilers, but I do want to forewarn you that [Spoilers, highlight to read:] Maren and Ursa don’t get to live happily ever after, and there is a main character death at the novel’s close [End spoilers]. It’s a depressing (although probably realistic) finale.

While the book didn’t offer the ‘OMG lesbian witches’ escapism that I was hoping for when I first picked it up, it’s a well-crafted story that brings light to women’s histories and speaks to some very modern themes.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Sexual violence, genocide, suicide, racism, torture, miscarriage.

Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence

Carmella reviews The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor is an atmospheric gothic novel from debut author Jane Healey. Set during World War II in an English country house, it contains all the genre’s staples – supernatural disturbances, hidden rooms, spooky dreams, dark family secrets – along with a good helping of sapphic romance. If you’ve ever read Jane Eyre and thought “OK, but what if Jane fell in love with Bertha Mason instead?”, then this is one for you!

When the Natural History Museum’s collections are evacuated during the London Blitz, a menagerie of taxidermied mammals are sent to Lockwood Manor – along with their newly-promoted director, Hetty Cartwright. What with the manor’s imperfect storage conditions, the creepy atmosphere, the unwelcoming servants, and Major Lockwood’s sexist arrogance, Hetty would have enough trouble keeping her collection in order. But then some of the animals start to go missing.

While Hetty investigates who’s responsible for her missing charges, she grows closer to the Major’s delicate daughter, Lucy. Lucy’s mother and grandmother both passed away recently in a horrible car accident, causing Lucy’s childhood nightmares and sleepwalking to relapse. In her dreams, she wanders the house, desperately searching for a room that doesn’t exist, and remembering her mother’s warnings about la diablesse – a devil-woman in white who haunts the manor.

The romance between Hetty and Lucy is slow to build, and it’s touching to watch them slowly discover their attraction to one another. Healey is a master at ‘show don’t tell’ when it comes to her characters’ feelings.

And how could I review this without mentioning the eponymous animals? The taxidermied collection in Hetty’s care are characters in their own right: the truant panther, the faded hummingbirds, the towering polar bear. Hetty worries about them constantly, and you feel invested in their welfare too.

Then there are the human animals. Throughout the novel, Hetty compares other characters to the creatures in her care: Lucy is a cat, the housekeeper is a Rüppell’s fox, one of the maids is a chipmunk. This adds a fun flare to character descriptions, but also reflects that people can be just as beastly as animals – particularly Hetty’s host, Major Lockwood.

The Major is a wonderfully dislikable antagonist. He reminds me of gothic leading men like Rochester, Heathcliffe, or Maxim de Winter. Except that instead of asking us to believe he’s actually a romantic love interest (despite his patriarchal beliefs, violent temper, and mysteriously dead wife), Healey lets him be the villain of the piece. As someone who always wants gothic heroines to realise how awful their leading men are, I appreciate a novel that finally gives me what I’m looking for!

I’m a big fan of gothic literature, so I was delighted by Healey’s inclusion of so many classic gothic elements. If there’s a gothic trope you can think of, it’s probably in this book. Despite this, the story doesn’t feel predictable or formulaic – the tropes are thrown in more like nods to Healey’s predecessors. You can feel the influence of Jane Eyre (fun fact: Healey was named after her), Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Angela Carter, The Woman in White – and probably a load more that I’ve missed on my first reading.

If you’re a fan of gothic or historical fiction – particularly authors like Sarah Waters, Laura Purcell, and Daphne du Maurier – then I would highly recommend The Animals at Lockwood Manor. It’s a tense, claustrophobic read, full of opulent descriptions and chilling twists. The novel is published on 5 March by Mantle in the UK and 10 March by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US.

Mallory Lass reviews Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones

Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones

When I heard another book in Jones’ Alpennia Series was to come out this year, I was both excited and sad because I knew I would read it in a day or two and then the window into Alpennia would be closed again until the next in her series was released. I never dreamed I might love Floodtide more than the books that came before it. It can absolutely be read as a standalone, but some of my favorite players from the first three books make appearances and I think the experience is richer having read the others in the series as well. The timeline of Floodtide straddles part of the second and third books in the series, but from a whole new perspective. I can’t wait to go back and catch new details in those stories.

Floodtide is told in first person from Rozild “Roz” Pairmen’s point of view. A laundry maid when we first meet her, over the course of the story her role changes and evolves like water moving underfoot. I thought this was a story about Roz, but it’s actually about the city of Rotenek in the way The Wire is more about Baltimore than any of the named characters in that show. This is a testament of Jones’ storytelling abilities, to be able to weave such rich worldbuilding seamlessly around a gripping tale of a young woman bearing many secrets (some her own, some of others); having left the countryside for work, she is trying to find her place in a complex new city.

I often tell people Jones’ Alpennia Series isn’t really about romance but it is about love. She writes “found family” better than anyone I’ve read. I’m fascinated by our queer foremothers and these books have fleshed out one universe where people who love other people of the same gender not only survive but they thrive. More than that they look out for each other, and in Floodtide we find out the affinity for people like themselves, people different in notable ways, transcends race and class.

There is a line in the film Ocean’s Eight about women going unnoticed, and in Floodtide that adage is applicable to the serving class going unnoticed. I say this book is about Rotenek because Roz, being in service, can go places the high society protagonists of the earlier books in the series could never go. Roz and her merry band of friends – an unlikely bunch that includes: the daughter of the town’s dressmaker, her best friend Celeste; younger cousins of book one protagonists Barbara and Margerit, Brandal and Iulien respectively; the youngest palace prince and possible heir to the throne, Aukustin; and a riverboat woman, Liz – take the reader into the underbelly of Rotenek and flesh out the inner workings of the town. Oftentimes Roz is too young and/or too inexperienced at life to understand the trouble or danger she could be in, but that kept me on the edge of my seat and turning the page.

Even more than in the other books in the series, the fantastical elements of Alpennian society, always filling the cracks of Rotenek, are at the core of the story. There is a constant sense of adventure and hope, even when the characters are facing the bleakest of circumstances.

I can’t remember the last time I was moved to tears by a book, but Jones managed to make me full on sob with happiness, not once but twice!

This is simultaneously both a fantastic entry point to Jones’ Alpennia Series, and a wonderful compliment to the stories that came before it. As one of my favorite books of the year, I hope you’ll give it a try and fall in love with the goings on in Rotenek as much as I have.

Susan reviews Proper English by KJ Charles

Proper English by KJ Charles

KJ Charles’ Proper English is a country-house murder mystery following Patricia Merton, expert markswoman, as she attends a shooting party that is going wrong in every way it possibly can. The hosts won’t rein in their bullying son-in-law, they’ve accidentally had to host twice as many people as expected, and Pat’s old friend is ignoring his beautiful fiancée, Fenella, who Pat can’t take her eyes off. And that’s all before the murder!

(This is also a prequel to KJ Charles’ Think of England, an m/m country house mystery where Pat and Fen were first introduced, involving spies, blackmail, and betrayal!)

I enjoyed this Proper English very much! The narration is hilarious, especially when it assesses things like men, fashions for women, talking about the weather, the tropes of country-house mysteries… Pat is very sensible and practical, and seeing her respect and fall in love with Fen and see through Fen’s performance of frivolity warmed my heart. They have very different skill sets and approaches, and seeing them work together is brilliant! It helps that Fen gets to be fat and unabashedly femme, and the narrative never treats this like it’s a problem or something that she needs to change!

The mystery itself is very satisfying; there are so many subplots and sources of drama waiting to go off, and every character seems to have a secret that could be exploited by a blackmailer! And the victim is an absolutely horrible person, so it’s understandable why people might want him dead! I find it quite strange that the murder doesn’t happen until about two-thirds of the way into the book, although I can understand wanting to get the romance settled and not have to weave it around finding a man dead. The resolution is definitely worth it though, as it’s very satisfying.

In conclusion, it’s really good. If you like country-house mysteries and, like me, have been desperately hunting for queer versions of the tropes, this is the place to start.

This review is based on an ARC from the author.
Caution warnings: verbal abuse, blackmail, homophobia from a villain

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Megan G reviews The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique Grant has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime and she has no idea why. Reclusive Hollywood idol Evelyn Hugo has decided that it’s time for the world to know her story – the full, unabridged version – but she refuses to tell anybody other than Monique. Knowing this could completely change her life, Monique gratefully accepts and begins the task of recording Evelyn Hugo’s story. Still, the question lingers: why Monique? And why now?

I’d been wanting to read this book for quite some time before I finally got my hands on it, and let me just say that it was completely worth the wait.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a fictional biography of the titular Evelyn Hugo, an aging Hollywood star who rose to fame in the 1950s. Her story is both exhilarating and heartbreaking. From a far-too-young age, Evelyn is forced to make decisions that could potentially harm herself or others in an effort to remove herself from the poverty and abuse of her childhood. Her story takes us from her poverty-stricken childhood to the lap of luxury of her adulthood without missing a single untoward detail. She makes for a very ethically ambiguous protagonist, with deep, ever present flaws. She’s also a woman who has been through hell and back more than once, and who stirs up a great deal of empathy within the reader.

One of Monique’s first questions to Evelyn is, “Who was the actual love of your life?” This is apparently a popular question within Monique and Evelyn’s world, and one that Evelyn refuses to answer right away. Soon, though, it becomes clear that it was actually none of her seven husbands. You see, Evelyn Hugo is bisexual, and there was one woman she loved above anybody else throughout the course of her life.

This is the true heart of Evelyn’s life and her struggle. Her desire to be with the woman she loves mixes with her fear of being outed and losing everything she’s worked for. This fear often causes her to make frustrating decisions, ones that might be difficult to understand from a modern perspective. Still, it’s clear no matter where she is in life, who she is married to, or what she’s doing who her true love is, and how desperate she is not to lose her.

Monique, the woman writing Evelyn’s story, is just as complex – though maybe not in the drastic ways that Evelyn is. While she’s getting to know Evelyn, she also struggles with her own failed marriage (to which she has yet to receive closure) and a career that hasn’t gotten her as far as the wanted to be. While I couldn’t help but love Evelyn despite it all, Monique was easy to fall in love with. She’s relatable, flawed, and struggling in ways that most of us do. She is also written in a deeply emotive way that often had me reaching for the tissues, even in scenes that aren’t necessarily overly emotional.

While I cannot recommend this book enough, you should be warned that this book deals with a myriad of potentially triggering issues, such as emotional and physical abuse (spousal and parental), homophobia, internalized homophobia, racism, and misogyny. All of these issues are dealt with tactfully and respectfully, though, and never feel as though they have been included simply for shock value. They make sense in the context of the story and of the worlds in which Evelyn and Monique live.

I truly cannot express how deeply this book made me feel. It is a true tour de force that must be read to be fully understood. Pick this book up as soon as you can.

Susan reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages cover

Ellen Klage’s Passing Strange is an award-winning fabulist romance between Haskel, a cover artist for pulp magazines, and Emily, a singer in a lesbian bar, set in San Francisco during the 1939-1940 World Fair.

It’s a beautiful, weird little story, with just a tiny touch of magic, that revolves around a friendship group of queer women. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I adore narratives about queer communities, especially when they show the importance of queer friendship groups (rather than focusing on one isolated couple who never talk to any other queer people), and Passing Strange does that! It has different varieties of queer women – queer women of colour and queer white women, queer women who are married to men and queer women who are openly living together – it shows so many different ways to be queer, and I loved it for doing that. I especially enjoyed the way that that characters reacted to Mona’s – there was a really fascinating touching-on of performative queerness as equal parts freedom and prison; the people who worked at or visited Mona’s had a space where they could be openly queer, but the price of that was also being a tourist attraction for straight couples to gawk at. The depiction of communities helping each other cope with oppression, and queer people building their own families together, is great and so welcome.

I have seen some complaints that there isn’t very much of the fantasy element in the book, and it’s definitely fair; Franny is introduced as having magic very early on, and that is almost the only reference to magic until the last quarter of the book. However, I really liked the magic that we did get! It’s presented very matter-of-factly, like of course a woman could fold a map to connect two different parts of San Francisco together, why wouldn’t she be able to do that? She’s interested in studying it scientifically, but of course it’s a thing she can do. The ordinary magic of the World Fair, or of the city waking up for the night, is presented as just as magical! That’s wonderful to me.

The writing is lovely too. I found the narrative tone to be perhaps a little distant, but I thought it worked for the story it was telling and the time period it was set in – it fits the tone of lesbian pulps that I’ve read. It does shift point of view in the middle of scenes, by the way, but it doesn’t feel like head-hopping to me; it feels like the camera trick of soap operas, where someone finishes their scene and leaves, leaving the camera behind focused on someone else. I feel the style and techniques work very well for what it’s doing. And the romance! It’s a romance about the parts of someone that surprised you, because Haskel and Emily don’t quite get along on their first meeting, but watching them surprise each other and move from that awkwardness warmed my heart. However, the relationship moves very quickly – but the characters seem to be as surprised by it as I was, which make me feel better about it, and considering the events of the novel (including an abusive ex-husband coming back), I could absolutely buy the relationship moving faster in response.

My attitude to the historical aspects is mixed; one the one hand, I love the little historical details it wove in, and quite frankly drawing on pulp media is how you get me. But I have this bone-deep instinctive side-eye for any narrative where famous, real, historical people are introduced, especially if one of the main characters has slept with them. On the other hand, I really appreciated that it did go so hard into the details of the time, because it worked. It’s fascinating and detailed and really brought the story to life. (There is a fair amount of historical sexism, homophobia, and racism, so fair warning! The latter is deliberately used as a way to get money out of white people, but it’s still worth warning about.)

The ending was bittersweet even as it made me smile – it resolved remarkably little about Haskel and Emily, but the way the story reveals the significance of Helen’s actions in her framing story more than made up for it. Passing Strange was so lovely and dear to me, and I highly recommend it. Please read it and come back to be excited with me!

[Caution warnings: spousal abuse, police harassment, historical homophobia and racism, non-graphic suicide]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Megan G reviews Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn

Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn cover

Buried under a mountain of debt, Starla Martin is forced to say goodbye to her life in Toronto and return to her hometown of Crystal Beach. To help her with her debt, her mother offers to find her a job with her at the local library, but Starla knows that just living with her mother will already be challenging enough. Instead, she finds a job at a local campsite, “The Point”, working the overnight shift. There, she finds herself involved not only in the lives of its residents, but also in a supernatural phenomenon unlike any she’s experienced before. And yet, Starla is not afraid. In fact, she is the exact opposite.

I was instantly drawn to this book because of its setting. It’s hard enough finding Canadian stories that aren’t set in the plains, but a queer ghost story set in Eastern Ontario? Colour me intrigued. In this aspect, the story did not disappoint. Everything about this story screamed Ontario, from the crappy local bus service, to the celebration of May two-four. Even though I’ve never been to Crystal Beach, or even Fort Erie, after reading this book I feel like I have.

The protagonist, Starla, took a bit of time to get used to. This is partially because for the first few chapters of the book, all we really seem to know about her is that she lives in Toronto, dropped out of college, and has a lot of sex. Her sexual partners are described as both male and female, which led me to assume that Starla is bisexual, and having the only personal characteristic of a bisexual character be that she has many sexual partners was not a very promising start. However, as the story unfolds you learn more about Starla, who she is, why she acts the way she does, what led her to the choices she made. She goes from a two-dimensional sex-addict to a three-dimensional traumatised woman, simply trying to live her life.

As for her sexual orientation, despite seemingly being attracted to men and women, Starla is often labelled a lesbian, though never by herself or her girlfriend. This can most likely be chalked up to the story being set in the 1990’s, when knowledge of all things queer was still pretty minimal. It is made very clear that Starla feels more attracted to women than she does to men, so it is also possible that she is a lesbian who is struggling with compulsive heterosexuality based on her past, though this isn’t delved into too deeply.

This is an incredibly heavy story, with characters suffering from such things as spousal abuse, alcoholism, suicide ideation, and past physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The latter is described explicitly, as both Starla and her friend, Bobby, have experienced abuse in their past. Bobby’s past abuse is specifically relating to her identity as an Aboriginal woman, something I am happy that Dawn included and delved into. [minor spoiler] Starla’s abuse happened when she was a child, and it is implied that her mother was aware of it but did nothing [end spoiler]. As well, there is an incident near the beginning of the novel between Starla and a cab driver that does not read as consensual in the least. If any of these things trigger you, you may want to give this book a pass.

The supernatural element of the book was incredible. The ghost, Etta, is both a sympathetic and villainous entity. You feel for her, the way she was in life, and the horrible way she died, but at the same time you hate her for what she is doing to Starla and everybody around her. I adore characters who can be loved and loathed, as I find it such a tough line to walk. Dawn manages it flawlessly here.

I won’t delve too far into the love story of this book, because it’s something you need to experience by reading it to fully understand. Just know that it is perfectly crafted, and unlike any romantic plot I’ve read before.

Overall, Amber Dawn has crafted a wonderful supernatural drama, full of characters who feel so human, you’ll think they’re your friend by the end. She draws you, not only into their lives, but into their environment. By the end of the story, you will be dying to book yourself a ticket to Crystal Beach, hoping to experience even a hint of what the novel describes.