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.

Kayla Bell reviews Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Radiant Days cover

There aren’t many stories that can truly say they’ve done time travel in a unique way. Going back to the past or ahead to the future have already been done dozens of times. A fish out of water, or out of time, is going to make for an interesting story. But Radiant Days does time travel differently, and in a way that felt very compelling to me. 

Radiant Days takes place in two different time periods. The 1870s storyline follows French poet Arthur Rimbaud through the trials and tribulations of his youth. The other storyline takes place in the 1970s, and follows Virginia art student Merle as she develops her craft and explores the street art scene. Merle is exploring her sexuality and Arthur is trying to survive as an artist in an oppressive time. One night, somehow, they meet and connect over their shared love of art. In terms of plot, there isn’t anything too major beyond that. 

Still, I found this book really compelling. Merle’s voice feels very authentic, and I wanted to see her make it out okay despite being in a bit of a toxic relationship. I also appreciated the unique perspective of a queer woman from Appalachia. Merle’s sexuality wasn’t at the forefront of the novel, and I think that was quite refreshing. She was also trying to deal with her complex family dynamics, recovering from the abuse she grew up around, and trying to make it in the art world. At the same time, the storyline following Arthur was also entertaining and kept me reading. Hand mixes historical events with humor and fun in a way that clearly showed how much respect and admiration she had for Arthur Rimbaud. As a Young Adult book, I thought this story structure was a clever way to get young readers interested in what from another writer might be a drier historical story. 

That being said, I would have liked to have seen a bit more plot in this novel. Merle exploring the graffiti subculture of the 1970s was very interesting, but I think the story could have used a little more of a driver. Similarly, I wish that Arthur had been given a chance to develop more as a character, I found myself wanting to read more of his inner thoughts and feelings and connecting more with Merle than Arthur. It was clear that both protagonists were impacted by their meeting out of time, but I think the story could have benefitted from spending a bit more time describing the impacts on both of them. With that being said, I thought that this was an excellently paced novel that is fantastic for younger readers. 

If you know a young person that is looking for a book about the power of art and what it means to break the rules, and is interested in historical fiction, this is a great option. I found myself feeling genuinely connected to both characters by the end of the book, and I can only imagine that it would be even more powerful for a younger reader. More queer historical fiction, especially about artists, is something I definitely want to see. 

Kayla Bell reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Kayla Bell Reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan cover

In the bookish community, there is a divide between people who are character readers versus plot readers. Character readers need to read detailed, nuanced characters, while plot readers focus on an interesting, intricate plot. For the longest time, I thought I was a character reader. I’ve read plenty of books where the plot takes a backseat to a character’s journey of self-discovery and really enjoyed them. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan made me really rethink this aspect of my reading life, and I now know that I actually do need even just a little bit of a plot in order for a book to keep my attention.

Exciting Times is the story of Ava, an Irish twentysomething who moves to Hong Kong to teach English. While she’s there, she becomes entangled with a rich, aloof, English banker named Julian and, later, a vibrant, interesting lawyer from Hong Kong named Edith. The book deals with her differing relationships with both of them, and Ava trying to figure her life out. Aside from that, there is not much of a plot. It’s definitely a character-driven book.

Even that description I just gave reveals why this book fell a little flat for me. To me, it seemed that Ava was so clearly happier with Edith, who actually cared about her and called her out on her self-sabotage. This fact made it hard to understand the choices she was making to continually go back to Julian, who was so cold to her but offered her financial security. I wish that there had been more of an external conflict that would force Ava to really confront her dilemma and choose one or the other. Without it, in my opinion, the book basically became Ava’s internal monologue, which made it drag in the middle. This story structure also made the ending feel kind of rushed. I had a hard time understanding why Ava made the choices she made.

With that, there was also plenty to like about this novel. I can’t speak to the Asian representation in this book, but to me, Edith was a very interesting and compelling character, albeit less so seeing her through Ava’s eyes. I wish we had gotten more time with her and learned more about who she is outside of her relationship with Ava. I also really enjoyed how the book played with language. Ava’s English lessons were weaved through the writing in a really unique way. The voice of the book felt very raw and honest, and that’s what kept me reading even through the parts I found a little tedious. The setting of Hong Kong was also utilized very well, in my opinion, and made the book’s imagery feel vivid and interesting.

I saw a lot of comparisons between Naoise Dolan’s and Sally Rooney’s writing when reading reviews of this book and I can understand that. For me personally, Rooney’s books worked in a way that this one didn’t quite achieve. That being said, I enjoyed Exciting Times although it wasn’t quite my cup of tea and the ending frustrated me. I am always glad to see more queer representation from Irish authors and characters, though, and would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.

Kayla Bell reviews “Create My Own Perfection” by E.H. Timms

"Create My Own Perfection" by E.H. Timms

“Create My Own Perfection” is a short story by E. H. Timms that comes out at the beginning of next month. It’s a retelling of the Medusa myth that centers the wronged, titular woman and incorporates elements from other mythologies. I really enjoyed it, and I think anyone who is interested in a unique, refreshing look on the myth would too.

This is a short story and because it’s so short, I won’t go too much into detail about the plot. Here are the bare bones: our protagonist is a college student and medusa who helps her selkie friend through a tough situation. “Create My Own Perfection” is a very quick read, and I encourage you to go in without any preconceived expectations.

I absolutely love seeing asexual and aromantic representation in fiction, especially in science fiction and fantasy protagonists. Asexuality is really at the center of this narrative. For those of you who are unfamiliar with asexuality, this might be a good story to understand what the experience is like for people that are asexual and aromantic. The author turns asexuality and aromanticism into a beautiful fantasy. Reading that was quite refreshing, especially given how much hatred, exclusion, and invalidation ace and aro people face in the world.

On the other side of that same coin, this story also centered the beauty and importance of friendship. I loved this aspect of it. Why aren’t there more stories in fantasy and science fiction where friendship is treated as just as important as romance? Or every genre, for that matter? That’s another thing that makes this story unique and different. This story’s protagonist is one that would do anything for their friend and it is lovely.

Gods and goddesses reimagined as modern folk is not new, but this story also did that in a fun way. I especially liked the fashion descriptions of the different deities, that really gave me a sense of imagery and brought me into the story. Overall, the description in general is quite vivid. It made the very fast read worth the time for me and helped to reinforce the emotional aspects of the piece.

A queer retelling of Greek mythology with elements of other folklore was exactly what I needed to refresh my reading. Readers should know that the story includes aphobia/amisia, and harassment. “Create My Own Perfection” is available for preorder now.

Kayla Bell reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar 

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

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Love is an Ex-Country is part memoir, part essay collection. It touches on a variety of topics, from racism to queerness to fatphobia to Arab identity, while always keeping an engaging, almost playful tone. There are many reasons why it worked for me so well. Before I get into the review, I want to say that as a white, Christian, American that has no interest in kink I am definitely not the reviewer to understand the intricacies of this memoir. I encourage you to seek out reviewers from different backgrounds than me to get a fuller picture of this book.

The memoir is in the form of various chapters examining the author’s travels. It takes place in the summer of 2016, when Randa Jarrar decided to take a solo cross-country road trip through the United States. However, most of the book has nothing to do with the road trip, and is a series of her reflecting on past memories. This book examines the reality of living as a fat woman of color in the United States. Jarrar has experienced a lot, including being doxxed by a mob of alt-right trolls after calling out white feminism in regards to Barbara Bush’s death. I truly respect how open and honest they were about this traumatic experience, even offering examples of the vile, racist hate mail she received. This authenticity carries throughout the narrative.

The first thing that stood out to me is that Jarrar never fails to examine her positionality in the situations that they describe. They are quick to own where they lack and have privilege, and never fail to call out bigotry in the situations they describes. One example that particularly stood out to me was when they were faced with the racism and xenophobia of a white woman at a rest stop. The woman assumed Jarrar was white and spouted off stereotypes about Black people and Syrian refugees. Jarrar did not entertain the woman’s bigotry and swiftly called her out. This book was a great example of how to think about intersectionality.

Another thing I loved about this book was Randa Jarrar’s matter-of-fact writing style. It is so refreshing to read a voice that is so unapologetic in the face of so many people that want her to hate herself, as well as tumultuous world events. Reading this book inspired me to start having more of that self-acceptance in my own life. While the things she did are not always likable, she does make the reader understand her thinking. This attitude makes the writing engaging throughout. At the same time, the unflinching look at Jarrar’s life events makes the parts of the book where they describe being abused and mistreated harrowing. I do not think this is a negative, I think this actually is a strength of the memoir. However, it could be a lot for some readers to handle.

Readers should know before they pick up this book that this memoir describes instances of racism, prejudice against Arabs, misogyny, violence, fatphobia, abuse from a parent and significant other (including child sexual abuse and domestic violence), forced dieting, and eating disorder behavior. It also includes graphic descriptions of sex and BDSM and instances of interactions with the police.

Overall, this book is a great examination of one woman’s experience of the world, made up of small, seemingly disjointed narratives that piece together beautifully. If you can handle it, you might enjoy it.

Kayla Bell reviews Mistletoe by Lyn Gardner

Mistletoe by Lyn Gardner

After this dumpster fire of a year, I am very much looking forward to the holiday season. Christmas music, holiday movies, and baking are the distractions I need this year. So when I saw Mistletoe on sale on the iBooks store, I jumped at the chance to read what seemed like a sapphic Hallmark movie. The novella I read wasn’t entirely the wholesome love story I was expecting, but it was very festive and fun.

This romantic comedy starts with Santa Claus. Yes, you heard that right, Santa is a real person and so are all his elves in this novella about two grown women. Calamity strikes when one of Santa’s elves realizes that, many years ago, he missed one child’s Christmas wish. It was from a little girl named Diana who recently lost her parents and wants to find her soulmate. Diana’s an adult now, and Santa isn’t about to let anyone’s wish go unanswered. Together with an elf named Percy, the two set out to set Diana up with her soulmate Jamie. Hijinks ensue as the two women meet and fall in love.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the characters. Remember that this is basically a Christmas movie in novella form, so neither of them were super fleshed out, and that’s okay. Both of the two love interests were very distinct from one another. Diana was sweet and kind, while Jamie was bolder. Their dynamic was very interesting and they complemented each other well. It kept me reading to see how each of them would react to different situations. I also love that they actually ended up together long term. It’s always cool to see that in a queer romance. Jamie and Diana’s friends, the side characters, were also interesting in and of themselves. My personal favorite was Diana’s Aunt Brenda, who took her in after her parents passed away. For me, the characters were the strongest part of the novella, although it is worth mentioning that they were not a very diverse ensemble.

The weirdest part of the story were the jarring shifts in tone that happened throughout. It starts with a scene of Santa and his elves, so I settled in for a fantastical, wholesome romance. That’s what it was, for the most part, until the elf gets sauced and Jamie and Diana start picturing each other sexually after their kiss. Then, it’s back to Hallmark territory until a really out of nowhere scene that’s just a graphic description of Jamie masturbating. Back to PG-rated once again until two back to back erotica scenes in the epilogue. I want to make it clear that I have no problem with erotic fiction, I just thought it felt really out of place in what is otherwise a very tame Christmas fantasy romance. With this shortcoming, I also thought that the pacing was pretty off, especially for a story so short. The book goes from being day-by-day to skipping weeks and even decades at a time. I did enjoy where everyone ended up, but wish there was a little more buildup to everything that happened.

Overall, Mistletoe made me very happy because it showed that relationships between two women can be given the holiday movie treatment just like straight relationships can. Some parts did genuinely make me chuckle, and I enjoyed the dynamic between the two main love interests. I would have loved this book a lot more if the erotic scenes were cut out. Still, I would describe this book as escapist, festive, fun.

Kayla Bell reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Are you looking for a book with a diverse cast, compelling story, great worldbuilding, and disability representation? Lucky you, because you have The Labyrinth’s Archivist.

This fantastical novella stars Azulea, the newest in a long line of Archivists, the people who interview travelers and make maps of the worlds that extend out from the Archivists’ Residence. Azulea desperately wants to join her family’s vocation, but she is blind and therefore assumed to be incapable. When someone (or something) starts killing Archivists one by one, Azulea puts her mind to solving the mystery.

There were so many things I loved about this book. For starters, there was the amazing disability representation. The author, Day Al-Mohamed, is blind herself, so the representation was very authentic. I love how Azulea’s blindness was incorporated into the story, but didn’t make it seem like inspiration porn. It was also very refreshing to see disability representation in the fantasy genre, where we certainly don’t get enough of it. More than just painting Azulea as an inspirational story, the novella really dives into the challenges of being blind in a fantasy world. Physically and psychologically, Azulea must adapt to her surroundings. The Labyrinth’s Archivist is worth reading for this aspect alone.

Another part of the novella I loved was worldbuilding. The world of the Labyrinth was so detailed and intricate. Every setting was so beautifully described. I could picture every scene like a movie, which is something I love to see in a book. The world is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture, which also gave it a sense of depth and richness. The opulence of the Residence itself shines throughout the novella, and serves as a wonderful backdrop to the central mystery. The story itself reads very quickly, too. It’s like a fantasy version of an Agatha Christie novel. I flew through it. If anything, I thought it was too short.

Even given everything else, for me, the best part of this novel was the characters. Azulea is a really wonderful protagonist. She is spirited, resilient, and determined. I was happy to spend the entire novella following her. Her relationships with other characters also stood out. I loved reading the interactions between Azulea and her mother. They had a difficult, but ultimately very authentic relationship. Same with the relationship between Azulea and her grandmother. Finally, the romance was also very sweet. I wish we had gotten more of that as a plotline, because it does come up quickly towards the end of the story. Still, the engaging and complex characters made this book a real page-turner for me.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a short, refreshing, fun novella that blends fantasy and Middle Eastern culture in a beautiful way. Its characters are very interesting and drive the story forward. It involves disability representation and worldbuilding that are truly unique. Although it is short, this book is definitely worth your time.

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.

Kayla Bell reviews The Tea Machine by Gill McKnight

 The Tea Machine by Gill McKnight
I think I would have liked The Tea Machine a lot more if I had read it back in 2015, when it came out. That was the height of the Doctor Who craze (and the height of my love for the show), which clearly influenced the story of this book. However, where Doctor Who keeps its stories somewhat episodic and grounded in the real world, The Tea Machine goes off the rails and takes big swings at establishing alternate timelines.

Here’s the story: a steampunk lady in Victorian London named Millicent messes around with her inventor brother’s time machine. She ends up in an alternate timeline where the Roman Empire never fell and is instead a futuristic society. There, she meets RJ Sangfroid, a female centurion who Millicent falls for quickly. Unfortunately, RJ sacrifices her life for Millicent’s. The rest of the book is Millicent messing around with the timeline in order to get her lover back.

Overall, it’s a pretty fun story and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Like Doctor Who, it takes a very lighthearted and often absurdist tone. For the most part, that worked well for me. It would have taken me out of the story if the characters were taking the tentacle monster fighting completely seriously. Unfortunately, most of the jokes didn’t really work for me. There was an ongoing bit where Millicent’s sister-in-law Sophia continually misgenders RJ and that went on way too long, in my opinion. And in general, the jokes were just kind of based on the characters being stereotypes: Sophia and Millicent as the prim and proper Victorian ladies thrust into brutal Roman society, and RJ as the masculine, aggressive centurion. More importantly, though, the lack of depth made the love story fall flat for me. I just didn’t really connect with either Millicent or RJ. I wish that the connection between the two women had been taken more seriously and developed more. That being said, though, I really did like how the two of them ended the novel.

One thing I loved about The Tea Machine was alternate Rome. What a cool idea! It was very interesting to see how the author blended aspects of Roman culture and mythology with future technology. This would be a cool world to read more stories in, and it got me thinking of other sorts of fun alternate histories. It also didn’t shy away from highlighting the negative aspects of Roman culture, especially for the women. This kept me reading even when the structure was confusing and I lost interest in the characters.

If you’re looking for a fun, quick, romp through alternate history, The Tea Machine might be for you. It lacks depth and the characters aren’t the most developed, but it does have an interesting world. This book was honestly not my cup of tea (pun intended), I thought it was a little too superficial for my tastes. I read for character, so I found myself losing interest a lot. However, this book did feel like a fun read.

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 on Twitter @Kreadsitall for more about her writing.

Kayla Bell reviews Gingerbread Hearts: Six Lesbian Christmas Stories

Gingerbread Hearts edited by Judy Underwood

Just like last month, this month I wanted to read a cozy, sweet holiday themed book because I don’t think there are enough queer ones out there. This short story collection from 2012 was a decent addition to that list, and if you’re looking for a very fast Christmas read, this anthology might be for you.

As you can tell from the title, this anthology from lesbian fiction publisher Ylva Publishing includes six sapphic stories. All of them are pretty sweet, typical romances, and they never venture into erotica. Because there are so few stories in this anthology, I think my review would be best if I went into them individually.

The first story was my favorite; it’s about a woman trying to come out to her family at Christmas. The story was pretty funny, and the main character was very relatable. I know that coming out stories can be difficult, but I thought this one was done well. It was funny and had tension without being traumatizing or angsty. Just some chaotic Christmas fun.

Next was my least favorite of the bunch. This was about a woman who gets to make a wish after winning her family’s Christmas tradition. She wishes to find true love, and you can imagine where the story ends up after that. This story was my least favorite simply because of the amount of diet and body talk there was in this one. Even the opening scene involves body shaming and diet culture. I was happy to move on from this one.

The third story was really weird. It was like an alien spin on A Christmas Carol. In my opinion, this story was way too short to achieve what it was going for. I felt like it ended without any resolution. The science fiction angle of this one also did not fit with the cozy contemporary vibes of the other stories, as well. Overall, this one felt really out of place.

Next was a cute family story, which I enjoyed. I love seeing healthy queer relationships in fiction, especially between women. It didn’t have much of a plot, but was still nice to read. This trend continued in the last two stories, which were by the same author and followed the same two characters. These last two were my other favorites, and really brought me some holiday cheer. I thought it was an interesting and refreshing thing to do to have two stories following the same characters, with the second one taking place after a time jump. These last three stories really redeemed the book for me.

This book is less than a hundred pages, and I was able to read it in less than an hour. For the most part, the anthology is filled with realistic depictions of Christmas. I loved that almost all of these were happy stories that didn’t feature the trauma of LGBT+ characters. If I could change anything, I would definitely diversify the perspectives of these stories, because some of them did start to feel repetitive. But, like I said before, this is a very quick, cute anthology.