Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Maggie reviews Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

When the author described Unconquerable Sun during a livestream as Alexander the Great but gender-swapped and in space, I instantly ordered a copy. Not only could I feel good about supporting an author and an independent bookstore, but a complicated queer space opera sounded like a perfect book to unplug with in an attempt to provide myself with engaging non-screen time. And so it proved to be. Fear not if you, like me, don’t know anything about Alexander the Great–I basically only know that he had an empire and had relationships with men–because while I’m sure that adds a layer of glee in for those in the know, the plot is perfectly understandable to those with no background knowledge. I was instantly drawn into the depth of world-building, the characters, and the unfolding opera of events until I found myself staying up way too late to plow through the last few chapters.

The Republic of Chaonia is currently ruled by queen-marshal Eirene, who brought Chaonia to prominence on the galactic stage through decisive military and diplomatic victories by driving the Phene and Yele out of their territory, and she is widely respected as a brilliant military leader. The book opens with her heir, Sun, winning her own debut military victory in a bid to follow in her powerful mother’s footsteps. Accompanied by her Companions–members of the other ruling houses sent to attend the queen-marshal and the heir as both a sign of cooperation and as political hostages, Sun tries to cement her own place in the line of succession, in the war to keep Chaonia free of the Phene, and in the power struggle constantly surrounding her. Throw in a royal marriage, numerous assassination attempts, and several more battles, and the action never stops. But Sun’s calm, decisive manner, and then ease with which she directions her Companions and those around her also serves to shepherd the reader through the action. It’s rich and exciting and complicated, but it’s not difficult to follow, which is a line many space operas fail to walk.

Besides having very clear and dynamic action scenes, Unconquerable Sun handily introduces a huge cast of characters and sets up some really great relationships. Besides the queen-marshal and her Companions and consorts and Princess Sun and her Companions, the Companions can also have Companions, called ce-ce’s. Less political appointment and more highly trained employees, they nevertheless help make up Sun’s inner circle. Most of Sun’s Companions are set at the beginning of the novel, but it’s the assassination of one of her favorites, along with his ce-ce, that really sets up the crux of the interpersonal dynamics. Plucked from what she thought was a solid cover identity hiding from her family in the military academy, Persephone is given a new ce-ce, Ti, and shoved into the role as her House’s Companion replacement delegate to Sun with little warning and little preparation. As brash as Sun, but less experienced and less polished in diplomacy because of it, Persephone has to figure out what’s going and how to get free of the machinations of her family on while staying alive, and Sun has to figure out how far she can trust her new Companion and her ce-ce. Sun is also dealing with her relationship with one of her other Companions, Hetty, which has been ongoing for a while and must remain hidden, because an heir or queen-marshal is not supposed to show favoritism to a Companion, and she also knows that political marriage is likely in her future. Both her and Hetty’s feelings run deep, however, and their deep and abiding love for each other rings through every interaction they have. “When Hetty smiles, the universe smiles,” Sun thinks early on, and I love to see such a complex, no-nonsense character also act so smitten. The characters are rich and complex, and they become fully fleshed out as the action unfolds around them. It really drew me in and had me invested really fast.

In conclusion, Unconquerable Sun was an intricate and engaging space opera that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who likes sci-fi. It has all of the space elements that sci-fi fans crave, while retaining the complex, character-rich action that readers who want more of a saga will love.  Its queerness is woven into the very fabric of the story, from the setup of the court, to Sun’s relationship with Hetty. And it left me wanting more. This is an exemplary beginning to what promises to be an epic series. The queer space quarantine read that we all deserve right now.

Maggie reviews Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

In these trying times, the romance stories I am drawn to most right now involve two characters taking one look at each other and going “Oh.” Enemies to lovers or any variation thereof has its place, and is a trope I do enjoy, but right now what I want is two characters just being into each other. Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon fulfills that need. It’s a cute rich girl/working girl novella featuring two black characters, one of whom is a stripper and the other of whom is still trying to get a feel for her own sexuality and style.

Alexis Chambers is a freshmen in college who is trying to figure out her identity amongst family expectations and the pressures of going off to college. Trisha “Treasure” Hamilton strips nights to make money and is going to school so she has a good career after she’s done with dancing. They first notice each other during Alexis’s sister’s bachelorette party at the club where Trisha works, and then later they find out they have a class together. The connection between them is almost instantaneous, although Alexis is shy, leaving Trisha to make the first moves. Although they come from different backgrounds, and each has their own family issues, their instant attraction is undeniable. CONTENT WARNING: There is talk of a suicide attempt in Alexis’s past. It is talked about, but there’s no graphic flashbacks or descriptions.

What I liked most about this book is how sweet they both are towards each other. Alexis is head over heels about Trisha but suffering from low self-confidence. Trisha is besotted with Alexis but dealing with her own baggage. But their sheer attraction to each other makes every milestone–from holding hands to having sex–both supercharged and incredibly sweet. It’s adorable and every page made me so happy. I also love that they are both aware of their own and each other’s issues but are determined not to push or make the other feel uncomfortable. I also love how chill Alexis is about Trisha’s stripping. It’s refreshing because it feels so natural to Alexis and Trisha is so charmed by it. It’s just good to read about characters who are unambiguously into each other.

My only complaint is that the climax felt a little contrived. It’s the most obvious roadblock to introduce to their relationship, but to introduce it, there’s a very contrived appearance by a minor character. It all felt very “well they need to have at least one (1) problem.” But honestly that’s not a terrible problem for a romance to have, and, obviously, they make up very quickly.

Maggie reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

I really enjoyed Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and it is on my rec shortlist when people want fantasy or YA recs. So when I walked by the sequel in stores I was incredibly excited at A) the fact that it was out and B) how amazing the cover is. The complete drama of those outfits with the understated blood splatter is everything I wanted. Black heroines looking fancy? Black heroines looking so fancy while still fighting zombies? The amazing cut of Jane’s suit and blouse and her intimidatingly direct stare? I love every single thing about it. Of course, between wanting to reread Dread Nation so I could remember every detail and library hold lists and just everything else that has happened this year, it took me longer than planned to get ahold of the audiobook, but I am so happy I finally did, and that I get to review it right after reviewing Dread Nation.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland picks up exactly where Dread Nation left off: with Jane, Kate, and a group of miscellaneous other people they’ve accumulated escaping the doomed town of Summerland ahead of a horde of zombies. In possession of a letter that says that her mother is no longer at Rose Hill plantation but is instead headed for California, Jane wants to head that way to find her, but lack of supplies and the needs of the civilians with them force them to head for the nearby town of Nicodemus. There they are reunited with past acquaintances and have to convince the people of their temporary home that the town’s defenses will not stand against the oncoming horde in a frightening echo of their time in Summerland. The ending of Nicodemus, like Summerland, is catastrophic for everyone there, and Ireland uses its demise as a point for a time jump that has both Jane and Kate trying to make new lives for themselves in California, but separated from each other and facing terrible hardship and prejudice once again. Between proper Kate struggling to find a place for herself where she feels fulfilled and vengeance-obsessed Jane making a name for herself but being unable to rest, Ireland highlights a full range of experiences and difficult choices they face as Black women trying to survive in country filled with racism, misogyny, and, of course, zombies.

The choice between love and vengeance is a pretty standard one in literature, but Ireland explores the whole spectrum of love that can drive people. From family – where Jane’s memories of her mother are part of what drives her to keep moving and her subsequent grappling with how memory doesn’t match reality – to friendship – Jane and Katherine are continually motivated by the friendship they’ve forged through shared tribulations – Jane and Kate struggle to make sense of the world where they find themselves and what they want out of life. Romance gets a full treatment too, even though it isn’t the main focus. Kate is asexual, and her musings on whether she should try to stomach getting married for the benefits it would provide for her and others, as well as her remembering how trapped she felt as a youth when she thought it was her only option, were poignant and incredibly emotional for me. Kate’s journey is about her finding what makes her thrive in life while struggling with how that doesn’t line up with society’s expectations, and I think it is an incredibly great arc to see in what is ostensibly a historical horror/thriller.

Jane, on the other hand, has to deal with the price of vengeance versus what she wants out of life outside of it. She has some brushes with romance – honestly her relationship with Callie was refreshing both in that it was queer and that she accepted its short-term nature with a foray into heartache that is quickly tempered by pragmatism, something lacking in a lot of YA – but her real motivation for much of the time is getting vengeance on Gideon, the scientist whose experiments have killed a lot of people Jane cared for and irrevocably changed her own life. Becoming a bounty hunter in order to gather information to track him down, Jane enters a brutal world and becomes equally as brutal herself to survive. Over and over again she is forced to choose pursuing vengeance at the cost of her relationships with others, and every time she chooses vengeance she can feel the toll it takes on her soul. It was refreshing to see a character who could admit to her changing attitude and frankly start to wonder if it was all worth it or what would be left after she accomplished her goal. On top of that she has to deal with how the world perceives her. While Kate has to deal with the physiological ramifications of being white passing and of being attractive to men when she is not attracted to them herself, Jane has to deal with her reputation. Her nickname – The Devil’s Bitch – manages to be both threatening and derogatory, and she is forced to be aggressive when dealing with the rest of the world and face the reactions to an aggressive Black woman who doesn’t hesitate to use violence to protect herself. Her emotional journey through grief and vengeance to something more peaceful feels entirely earned and not any sort of magic switch moment, and I felt like the ending was satisfying and was something entirely true to the growing they all did throughout the book.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland continues her fascinating story of life in a post-Civil War, post-zombie apocalypse America. I thought this continued the first book extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the characters stayed true to themselves. It would have been really easy for the vengeance quest or their constant journeying to become flat, but each character really grew and had a lot of great introspective moments. Jane and Kate’s wildly differing worldviews contrasted well, and I really enjoyed the casual queerness and asexuality rep. Whether you’re here for the zombies or for queer action women with swords, it’s a very satisfying story. I also highly recommend the audiobook version. Bahni Turpin and Jordan Cobb are amazing narrators, and I was really pulled into the story and the rotating POVs so well.

Maggie reviews Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is one of those rare books where an interesting concept is upheld through thorough world-building and great writing. It posits “What would happen if the zombie apocalypse happened at the end of the Civil War?” and follows through with that idea – building an amazingly detailed post-war, post-undead world and filling it with political conspiracies, combat schools, small life details, and plenty of drama.

The story follows Jane McKeene, a student at one of the most prestigious combat schools for black girls in the Baltimore area. She is training to be an attendant, a highly skilled position that is meant to protect the life and virtue of wealthy white women, but Jane has her own plans to return to the plantation where she was born, which is now being run by her mother. Before she can graduate and strike out for home, however, she is caught up in a series of events that takes her out of Baltimore and to the Kansas prairie town of Summerland. Stranded there with her fellow school-mate Katherine, Jane discovered that the torturous living conditions of Summerland cover up even worse problems coming for the inhabitants.

What I really liked most about this book was the care that was put into creating the world and the atmosphere of the book. It’s not logical to plop down zombies into the Civil War and keep everything else the same, but the author carefully layered her story with details about how life would play out, right down to acceptable skirt lengths and Jane’s utter shock at seeing real horses in Summerland. It’s the sort of world-building that I love to immerse myself in. Please, tell me more about the history of combat schools, how zombie fighting techniques evolved, and the effect of the undead on post-Civil War life. Add to that the weird cult-like atmosphere in Summerland, and you have an engaging and evolving read that really fleshes out the premise of a historical zombie apocalypse. There’s also plenty of straight-up zombie fighting included too, for a nice balance of action and plot-building. Jane is an extremely capable person who is absolutely deadly with her zombie-fighting scythes. A child of her time, she doesn’t waste time on the nostalgia of those older than her, who long to go back to the way things were before the undead rose up. Zombies and post-war politics are simply a fact of life for her, and she switches back and forth between doing what she needs to survive zombies and doing what she needs to survive white society, although her strong independent streak does get her in trouble a lot.

Another thing I liked about this book was how quietly, and normally, queerness crept into it. At first, Jane shows both that she has been involved with Jackson Keats, a local boy, and an appreciation for Mr. Redfern, a trained fighter who works for the Mayor. Later though, she reveals that she has had relationships with girls in the past, and it was, in fact, a girl who taught her how to kiss. I really enjoy that this information is revealed so casually, and that Jane herself is very casual about it. At once her sexuality is a real and explicit part of her character and not a guiding part of the plot at all. I guess that fighting zombies means that she does not have time to worry about who she wants to be with, or perhaps she came to terms with herself with her first girlfriend. Either way, Jane McKeene does what she wants, whether that’s fighting zombies or kissing girls, and it was nice to have it be such a nonissue for a historical character. Kate, on the other hand, is outwardly bossy but intensely private about her personal life. Even when she and Jane grow closer through their shared struggles, she doesn’t like to talk about her past. Finally though, she confesses to Jane that she isn’t interested in sex or marriage. This happens towards the end of the book, so there isn’t time to develop this more, but I was genuinely excited for ace rep, and I really appreciated the antagonists-to-friends arc that her and Jane went through.

I’m excited to see how Jane and Kate grow in the next book, and I’m also excited to see what society looks like as Jane and Kate move west across the frontier!

Maggie reviews The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin

The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin cover

Obviously, there has been a lot going on recently. In light of the new stresses in my, and everyone else’s, lives, what I wanted to read was some light romance as an escape. I turned to The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin, because it had been recommended to me a while ago as a very cute fantasy f/f romance. I liked it immensely. The twin influences of fantasy and romance combined for some highly enjoyable, wish-fulfilling world-building, bulldozing all potential problems to create a fantasy realm where queer romance can reign and the problems are mostly fantasy-plot related.

Princess Esofi of Rhodia has journeyed for months to get to the kingdom of Ieflaria and marry her long-time betrothed, Prince Albion. Although the betrothal was born out of political necessity – Ieflaria needs the battlemages that Rhodia trains in order to fend off escalating dragon attacks – she believes her union with Albion will be a good one based upon the long series of letters they’ve exchanged. However, upon arrival she finds out that Albion is dead. Esofi is left to marry another in the line of succession to keep her and her resources in Ieflaria. Albion’s sister, the Princess Adale, is the logical choice, but Adale never thought she would rule and rejects the violent upheaval of her life. Esofi and Adale have to build their relationship in the midst of dragon attacks, culture shock, rival heirs, and Adale’s own personal crisis.

What I enjoyed about this book was that there was a lot of traditional fantasy elements – magic, dragons, elaborate regency setups – but a strong romance sensibility made it all very soft. Princess Adale has strong feelings about being forced into the position of Crown Princess, a common enough fantasy element, but she starts to reconsider when she becomes enamored of how nice and soft Princess Esofi looks, a common romance element. Watching her become tongue-tied over her feelings is a delight. Court politics and arranged marriages are standard fare in both fantasy and romance, but this book wanted them to be a backdrop, not a real obstacle. Princess Esofi is both incredibly politically savvy and sensible about her position and also more than willing to have an emotional relationship. It was just so nice to take a break from everything happening in real life and watch a disaster princess trip and fall head over heels for a soft but extremely capable princess while also reading about dragons and magic.

What was also very nice about this book was that it was set squarely on Queer Romance and no problem was too real life to get explained away. How can they expect Princess Esofia to switch from marrying a guy to marrying a girl? Obviously Everyone is Pansexual. What about the line of succession? There’s some magic for that. A 400 page fantasy novel would explain and justify all of these things, but this is a romance first and foremost, so you don’t have to worry about it. Neither do the characters – it’s all built into their society from the ground up so they can immediately get to the romancing and the magic. A queer reader can sit back, read some inept wooing and dragon fighting, and feel warm and fuzzy for a while without any of the conflict having anything to do with queerness, which is always an experience I don’t realize I’m missing until I get into a story like this.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Queen of Ieflaria. It’s just the sort of fast-paced but incredibly soft romance I was looking for right now. If you’re at all into fantasy elements, this is a fun and feel-good read, and I’m excited to continue on to the rest of the series.

Maggie reviews Folly by Maureen Brady

Folly by Maureen Brady

This month I read Folly by Maureen Brady, an extremely interesting working class lesbian book published in 1982. Folly is set in a small factory town and follows several women as they struggle to reconcile their desires for a better life with the reality of their jobs and lives. The title character, Folly, works with several area women, including her best friend and eventual lover Martha, to organize a factory strike after a woman is arrested after the death of her baby due to their lack of sick leave. Meanwhile Lenore, a recent high school drop-out, misses her girlfriend, who has gone to work on the Alaskan pipeline, and struggles to find community and meaning in her small town life. I found Folly to be incredibly engaging and self-aware, and I frankly can’t believe I haven’t heard of it spoken of it before either in a feminist/working class literature context or in a queer lit context. And as someone who grew up in a very small town – although not quite as small as Victory – a lot of the themes and internal struggles the characters faced struck very true for me, and of course it is very easy to get behind women fighting for better conditions.

One thing I really loved about Folly is that it shows multiple generations of women having relationships and discovering their sexualities in a variety of ways. Martha and Folly are middle-aged factory workers and best friends. They live next to each other, deal with all of their problems together, and constantly lean on each other for support. Folly is generally supportive and willing to live and let live at first, but it takes her a while to apply to concept of queerness to herself. When she finally does, she embraces it and works eagerly to incorporate her new knowledge about herself into her life, which was something I found personally very relatable. Meanwhile in the younger generation, Lenore works at the local butcher counter and misses her girlfriend, who is working on an Alaskan pipeline. Lenore is secure in her own sexuality, but is continually looking for some sort of community. She befriends Mary Lou, Folly’s daughter, who is going through the usual teenage growing pains but also finding she is not much interested in what the local boys want to get up to on dates. She is intrigued by Lenore’s independence, and, later, wants to know more so she can come to terms both with herself and with her mother’s changing decisions and priorities.  I really enjoyed seeing different queer women in different stages of their lives interacting in a small town setting. Despite all the hardships they go through, they find strength and growth in their relationships with each other, and it was really joyful for me to read that.

Another important thing I enjoyed about Folly is that it closely examines white women discovering their own biases and privileges. Folly doesn’t give much thought to the larger picture of things until she convinces Martha to back her up in calling for a strike. When Emily, a black factory worker, stands up with her, first for a reduced production rate, and then on the call for the strike, Folly slowly realizes how important it is to expand her worldview and be inclusive in her organizing. Throughout the book, she continues to listen to black organizers, learn from their viewpoints, and have empathy for others. Meanwhile, Lenore is lonely and makes friends with Sabrina, a server at the diner who is black. As she gets to know Sabrina, she has to become aware of and confront her own internal biases and the realities of interracial relationships in a town that is essentially segregated and has a Klan presence. The frank way the book approaches Folly’s growth in organizing and Lenore’s slow eye-opening to how she’s benefited from and lived under the town’s racism makes a powerful impact and can be summed up with how Folly explains to Mary Lou that “A lot of life is following one habit into the next. You got to stop yourself and peel your eyes open all the time if you want to see what goes on.” I really, deeply enjoyed how the book looked at this head-on, and had the characters really spend time thinking and reacting and changing.

The last important thing about Folly is that it is always pushing for a better future. Folly and Martha always have dreams for their futures, the women in the factory organize around their own needs and principals, and they are constantly seeking to learn, grow, and build relationships. Folly and Mabel don’t just trust the union’s goals – they recognize that the union rep looks a lot more like factory ownership than them, and doesn’t have their same priorities. Folly is constantly pushing for more goals and more progress, and doesn’t like the idea of compromising on what they want. Lenore could sink into her life of her job and her own little apartment and writing letters to her girlfriend, but she wants more than that and continually seeks out new community. The women of Folly are intimately aware of how to survive in the world they live in, but they want to work for more, and that’s very important to read.

In conclusion, Folly is a very enjoyable novel about working-class lesbians trying to build their own community and sticking up for themselves and their fellow workers to factory management. It deftly handles themes of labor relations, race, and sexuality while maintaining a positive and hopeful outlook. It moves between generations, is self-aware, and is, in general, a really gripping read. I definitely recommend tracking down a copy!

Maggie reviews No Parking by Valentine Wheeler

No Parking by Valentine Wheeler

I received an ARC of No Parking by Valentine Wheeler and was instantly intrigued by the description. Older main characters, bi and ace characters, they’re snowed in together? I’ll pick that up! And No Parking delivered. I found it a delightful read that had me cackling with delight as legal shenanigans and small town drama were added to the mix.

Marianne Windmere and Rana Wahbi run neighboring businesses, but both of them think that the other’s customers are hogging their shared parking lot. When a snowstorm traps them both in the building overnight, not only do they find out there’s more to their parking problems than they thought, they both have unexpected feelings ignited. When Marianne’s subsequent investigations into just what is going on with her parking and the building her family bakery has been in for generations kicks up town secrets and drama, Marianne and Rana are left to negotiate not only the future of their businesses, but their growing feelings for each other.

One of the things that I loved best about No Parking is how cute the romance is between the two main characters while at the same time giving them both full and rich romantic histories. Marianne and Rana are both older and both are bi and had been married to men in the past. Rana is widowed and Marianne is divorced and also identifies as ace. Their romance, which starts as soon as they get snowed in together, is very sweet, full of blushing and wanting to spend time together and feeling like kids with a crush, but the story also shows them as adult characters with full lives. Marianne is working towards a more amicable relationship with her ex-husband, and we also meet one of her past relationships that causes her to consider how her life would have gone if things had gone a bit differently. Rana has dealt with her feelings about her husband’s death, and has a whole life with friends and her kids. It was very nice to read a story with a very sweet relationship that didn’t consume their whole lives and where they were mature enough to make thought-out decisions about it.

I also really enjoyed the legal and political subplot. There is something incredibly satisfying to me about see a family that thinks it can run a small town get their comeuppance, and Luke Levent definitely deserved a comeuppance. From the start, there is something slimy about Levanti, who is running for the district House of Representatives seat. He’s incredibly condescending, and from the start it is clear that he is doing something fishy with the fact that he owns part of the building with Marianne’s bakery. The whole reveal process was very dramatic and satisfying with all the plot elements you could desire. Hidden wills! Lesbian lawyers! Non-sanctioned parking signage! It was all here.

An underrated part of romance, and queer romance in particular, is building not only a fantasy relationship, but also a society that the relationship can reasonably take place in. No Parking built a small town that was an idealized version of itself, but is also well within the realm of possibility and hope for other queer women who live in small towns, and it spoke of the support networks of friends and family that are necessary in a small town. Wheeler builds a whole network of queer characters who support Marianne and Rana and who are supported in turn. Marianne’s sole employee is a black trans teen named Zeke, who Marianne gives both a job and emotional support to. Marianne also receives research help from the town’s librarian who is both trans and her ex. When, at the end of the novel, two young ladies wander through the bakery, delighted to know that there is a queer bakery in this town and wondering if they should move there, it shows not only the idea that the threat to the town’s character in the form of corrupt politics has been defeated, but that queer community and support in small towns is viable and necessary.

My only, slight, quibble is that I wish this book would be longer. Marianne would refer to events that happened when her search collided with small town politics that I wish I could have actually seen, like what was clearly a retaliatory visit from the health inspector. Sometimes I would page back when she referred to something, thinking that I had missed it. There was a lot that felt glossed over. But overall seeing all those details would be my preference, and I respect the intent of the author to try to balance the legal shenanigans with the rest of the plot and not let it overwhelm the romance.

In conclusion, I found this book fun, cute, and full of the kind of energy that I need going into 2020. Arrest your corrupt politicians, reach for your ideal relationships instead of society’s, support your community members, and patronize your local queer businesses.

Maggie reviews New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids

New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids

New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids is about apprentice tattoo artist Cassie Whiteaker coming to finish her apprenticeship at the shop of MJ Flores. MJ is initially put off by Cassie’s shyness and appearance, but takes her on because they both have the same former mentor. MJ also learns that Cassie is a cancer survivor who wants to do cover-ups of mastectomy scars. They strike a deal wherein MJ will finish Cassie’s apprenticeship and teach her how to be more assertive and stand up for herself, and Cassie will help with new business ideas for the shop, which is still struggling to find its feet after a messy breakup between MJ and her former girlfriend and business partner.

New Ink on Life had a lot of things I liked in it – tattoos, cancer survivors, quitting corporate jobs – but I felt like the relationship did not find its feet until the second half of the book, and it took me that long to feel like the main couple really worked together. From the start, MJ is overly abrasive – I have no idea how she found enough people to run her shop with like that – and Cassie seems too timid to give her a chance. It felt like there was too large of a gap between them, it made it hard to believe them clicking long enough to have their admittedly excellent sexual chemistry. It’s nice when they get along better – they even go antiquing, although that doesn’t necessarily go smoothly.

But the second half of the book does flesh out their relationship much better. Although we don’t get much insight into MJ’s old relationship and shop, we do get some backstory with her family and how it contrasts with Cassie’s backstory with her family. We also get more about Cassie’s history with cancer, and how she is coping with life after. MJ eventually softens her attitude some and becomes endearingly supportive of Cassie. The time they spend together fleshes out their relationship enough that by the last third of the book, I think they really work well together by the end, even if I can’t believe they made it long enough to get that far. Cassie does some good business plan ideas for the shop, and there’s some good contrast with how poorly MJ’s ex’s shop is run. It made me believe that Cassie really did love tattooing enough to quit her job and take an unpaid apprenticeship for it.

If you really love a dynamic of an abrasive personality being softened up by a nicer partner, maybe this book would be more for you. Or if you love any romance centered around tattooing, you should absolutely take a look. But, although I ended up enjoying it by the end, I think I’ll look in another direction for my romance reading.

Maggie reviews Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller

Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller

For reasons I can no longer remember, I was reading an article about operas when it mentioned an opera about lesbians called Patience & Sarah, which I am sort of upset I have never heard of since I have worked at two different operas. Then I looked into it more and found out it was based on a book, which in turn is based on two real women. Since I find a book a lot easier than I can summon forth an opera production, I eagerly picked up Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller, a book about two ladies in 1800s Connecticut who want to take up a life together.

The best thing about Patience & Sarah is that our protagonists take approximately half of one conversation to fall violently in love with each other. Patience is an “old maid” who lives with her brother and his wife under the strict provisions of her father’s will. Sarah has been raised as her father’s “son” since he has no sons and she is the oldest, and she has a plan to leave and get herself a farm out in central New York. Patience takes one look at this tall, awkward lumberjack woman with a half-formed plan and is immediately like “I would die to protect this precious cinnamon roll.” A sentiment echoed by many readers, I feel. They’ve barely been alone together before Patience asks Sarah to take her along when she leaves to buy a farm. They face resistance from other of their families, and Sarah goes journeying on her own for a while, (CW: there is vague and non-descriptive violence against Sarah from her father in the form of a beating), but they are both so steadfast in their growing affection for each other that they succeed in carrying out their plan and set out to buy a farm together.

Patience & Sarah has a persistent theme of journeying, both literal and emotional. Their main goal is to journey together to buy a farm. When their relationship is (temporarily) broken up by their families, over Sarah’s strenuous objections but due to Patience’s reluctant capitulation, Sarah heads off buy herself, disguised as a boy, and spends some months on the road. She takes up with a traveling salesman called Parson and learns a lot about how the world operates outside her home county. Parson also teaches her how to read. They also finally get to journey together to purchase their farm, growing even closer and figuring out how they’ll support each other when they’re on their own. Emotionally, Patience reacts to her family’s negative reaction by retreating from the relationship out of fear of community shunning. She doesn’t feel like she’s wrong to love Sarah, but she’s not sure she can bear the consequences. Her emotional journey is the slow realization of what she does and doesn’t want to live without. She flips the script upon Sarah’s return, and is the one to insist that they fight for a place where they can live their best lives, while Sarah, made cautious by the hardships she’d endured, is now more willing to settle for whatever they can get in a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. It made for a compelling plot, because I was rooting for them to figure themselves out the whole time.

The other interesting thing about this book is its exploration of queer acceptance in rural areas, gender roles, and family. Sarah was raised as her father’s son – not as a boy, but in the role a son would take. She helps him with his lumber business, dresses in men’s clothes, and is inexperienced in more traditionally feminine dress and pursuits. She has no problem setting off as a boy, has confidence in her skills at building and running a farm, and later on thinks of herself as Patience’s husband. Everyone in town looks at her as a very improper woman, and feel that Patience, who is of a higher social status, should not associate with her. Still, everyone either doesn’t or takes care not to guess at the physical nature of their relationship until they can’t anymore. Patience’s relationship with her family is equally as interesting. It seemed like her father never expected her to marry – did he guess? – and her brother Edward, while feeling like he has to act conservatively, actually helps her and supports her as much as he is able. He ends up one of their most necessary allies. It makes for an interesting picture, not just of the 1800s when it was set, but the 60s during which it was written.

In conclusion, I’m not sure how this book isn’t more talked about as an early gem of lesbian fiction. It was delightful and at times very sweet. The characters and plot were nuanced, and yet, despite the at times heavy themes of homophobia, the book kept its light and hopeful spirit. I have spent a decent amount of time in my head building out the ending and making their farm together a successful, idyllic place. I would highly recommend tracking down a copy and spending a delightful couple of hours rooting for these two precious cinnamon rolls.