Vic reviews Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

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I am still a relative newbie when it comes to horror, but Vincent Tirado’s Burn Down, Rise Up served as a fantastic entry point for me.  When Bronx high schooler Raquel’s mother falls into a coma with a mysterious illness on the same day that her crush’s cousin disappears, Raquel has no choice but to team up with her crush, Charlize, to save them both. In doing so, they learn of the deadly Echo Game, an urban legend based in the horrifying history of the city, and must put their knowledge as well as their survival skills to the test in order to make it out alive..

This book held my attention from beginning to end—I never wanted to put it down. Though it is a young adult novel, it does not hold back on the horror, the most significant being the real-life history that inspired the Echo. The Echo, we quickly learn, is born of the worst thing that happened in a particular location. The Bronx Echo, then, is filled with decaying buildings and people who are literally on fire, having lost their lives in the 1970s Bronx burning. In defining the Echo, Tirado skillfully weaves in the history of gentrification and redlining so that it feels natural and informative without simply stopping the narrative for a history lesson.

For all of the horror in this book, however, it is also brimming with love—between the individual characters, yes, but for the Bronx itself as well. That theme of community began right from the dedication, and it both raised the stakes and grounded the book in something positive, something hopeful.  When a horror story exists in something terrible, the goal is to simply survive, to get out; here, there was something to fight for, something to save.

As for the characters themselves, they shine. I would even go so far as to say Raquel might be one of my absolute favorite YA protagonists. She was clever and determined, and she felt like a real teenager with real teenage concerns on top of the life-or-death scenario she willingly enters to save the people she cares about. What I found particularly effective is that the book takes all of these parts of her seriously.  While Raquel worries about her mother and Charlize, she also reminds herself that her mother would not be happy if she woke up and found Raquel had let her grades all fall by the wayside, reinforcing the idea that she has a life outside of these dangers, that she should have a life beyond these dangers.

The relationships that drive the book are strong enough in their portrayal as to be believed. The familiar childhood crush who actually likes you back was adorable, but Charlize as a person was a lot more than simply an object of affection—a particularly impressive feat, considering she is in fact the center of a love triangle featuring both Raquel and Raquel’s best friend. As for the love triangle, it could very easily have become a distraction, but I thought it worked well enough, mostly because, again, Charlize was a strong enough character in her own right that it was easy to see why they liked her so much, but the love triangle always took a backseat to the actual threat to their lives.

My one complaint, nitpicky as it may be: the rules of the Echo seemed unclear in parts. I had to reread certain parts to see if I had misunderstood the rule or the scene, and writing this now, I am still not sure which it was. However, I want to be very clear that this was a minor detail that had no impact on the story itself or my overall enjoyment of it. Everything significant in this book is drawn so vividly that it made this one point stand out to me, but it is very likely other readers will miss it entirely.

Perhaps one of the biggest marks of success for a book is to encourage one to want to read more in its genre, which Burn Down, Rise Up has certainly achieved for me. For readers who are more familiar with horror, however, it is well worth a read on every level, from the frights of the Echo to the even more terrifying history that inspired it.

Nat reviews Her Royal Happiness by Lola Keeley

the cover of ​​Her Royal Happiness by Lola Keeley

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If there’s a perfect time to read about the English monarchy and all its drama, well, it’s probably right now. Her Royal Happiness is low on the angst without glossing over the big ticket issues. Classism, racism, colonialism—Keeley touches on them all, without ever delving too far into serious topics, because let’s be honest, we know how to turn on the news. Bringing up serious themes in this work feels more like a placeholder or an acknowledgement—let’s put a pin in this for another time, but right now, let’s read a kissing book. 

Not that I’m a big follower of the royal family’s comings and goings, but if you’ve seen any news at all in the last several years, you probably know a thing or two about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Let’s be real, Her Royal Happiness is pretty much the queer version of them, but with a squishy royal happy ending. Princess Alice is an Olympic medalist and two tour combat pilot with medals to show for it. Her father was killed in an accident when she was young, while he was running from paparazzi. Sound familiar? Sara is Persian, a single mother raising a child on a modest income in South London. She might not be an American actress, but the tension is mirrored in the form of class differences and her family background.

Sara’s mother fled from Iran to France, but ironically, her mother is not the one who has issues with the royal family and their colonizing ways. Our main character is not a fan of royalty, and not quiet in her criticism. Keeley does a good job at showing Princess Alice being aware of some issues around racism and classism, while pointing out that she’s still been living in a bubble and has some growth ahead of her. Sara notes things along the way that our posh Princess may not have considered, including her views on war, especially from the POV of a soldier of an invading country. Again, we don’t get too deep or dark, but the author keeps us aware that it’s not all corgis and sunshine at the palace. 

Autism and the need for education tailored to different children’s strengths is another key topic of this work. But for those of you who don’t particularly like reading romances featuring children, I’ll note that one thing I really appreciated is that although some of the conflict (not to mention the meet cute and much of the motivation) is centered around the kids, the kids’ points of view don’t feature heavily and there isn’t a lot of kid-centric description. 

Overall, Keeley masters the balance between real world issues and a modern fiction fairy tale. If you need a bit of a warm blanket in the next few months, or just want a bit of a do over of current events in the multi universe, here’s a good place to find it. 

Maggie reviews This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron

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This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron is the sequel to This Poison Heart, her gothic YA fantasy filled with Black girl magic, Greek mythology, and impressive action. This book picks up directly after This Poison Heart and deals with Briseis trying to grapple with the events and betrayals of the last book. Faced with an impossible task, she must embark with her newly-found birth family, her adoptive family, and her new friends on a heroic quest that would do a Greek legend proud. Bayron continues to pull in mythology and plant lore to give Briseis’s world a rich depth and backstory, but the presence of so many adults means that Briseis is less of a star and more caught in the whirlwind of plot.

In This Poison Heart, Briseis is the star as she tries to figure out her magic and her family history by herself. Her moms are aware of her magic, and they are the ones that move them into their newly-inherited house, but the connection to Greek history, the secret of the poison garden, and the source of Briseis’s power are all things that Briseis investigated on her own or with Marie and Karter. In true YA fashion, Briseis often decides that the adults in her life don’t need to know things, because she doesn’t want to worry them—a coming of age literary tradition. In This Wicked Fate, the presence of Circe and Persephone, and the sudden awareness of Moe of just what Briseis has been grappling with, means that Briseis is no longer in charge of the action. Quite reasonably for adults, Circe and Moe and Persephone are the ones making the plans for the Absyrtus Heart, leaving Briseis to insert herself in them and keep up with events as best she can. It’s a logical progression, but I found it less fun to read.

However, This Wicked Fate offers plenty of the amazing relationships that This Poison Heart boasted of. Briseis has a great relationship with her adoptive parents, and now she has to navigate what sort of relationship she wants with her biological family. Bayron handles the issue with depth and grace, leading Briseis and Circe to gradually get to know each other and figure themselves out while dealing with the horrible situation they’re in. Her relationship with Marie also blossoms, as Marie throws herself into their quest and being Briseis’s Muscle. It’s a very sweet relationship considering they met while they were in danger. Briseis even spends time grappling with her feelings about Karter because, even though he did betray her, he was her first friend in a new town, she valued the relationship, and she is starting to see how badly his family treats him. The themes of found family, generational trauma, and love and forgiveness run deep throughout the story and make this duology a worthwhile and entertaining read.

In conclusion, this is a solid ending to the duology started in This Poison Heart. If I found the first book more fun, I found that this book was full of deep meaningful relationships, character growth, queer love, and a satisfying ending. I would encourage any fan of YA fantasy to add it to their list today.

Nat reviews Sour Grapes by Eliza Lentzski

the cover of Sour Grapes

If you’re mostly familiar with Eliza Lentzski from her Don’t Call Me Hero series (which I really loved) you’ll notice this is quite a departure from that grittier, mysterious style and more in keeping with the contemporary vibe of her more recent novels, including The Woman in 3B. Sour Grapes was an especially fun read for me, because my day job is in the wine and spirits industry, and I love it when my interests collide. Sapphic romance in a winery? Always a yes, and thank you. One of the things I really enjoyed about Sour Grapes was the attention to detail around the winemaking and even the agricultural aspect involved. A lot of the book is dedicated to discussing the craft with accuracy, so if you’re studying up on your level one Sommelier test, this might be a fun way to ingest some wine knowledge.

Speaking of studying up, June St Clare, who’s recently purchased a winery with no winemaking knowledge or even a desire to own said winery, knows absolutely nothing. But owning a winery had been her partner’s retirement plan for them — at least until her untimely, and fairly recent, death. The timing of events was something I struggled a bit with, how quickly June processed her partner’s unexpected death, or more accurately didn’t seem to process. Her partner Alex has only been gone a few months, but there’s a distinct lack of fresh grief from someone whose lover of 20 years has just suddenly died, which I think might have seemed less strange if the author had included a bit more internal dialogue. There are some indications throughout the book that their relationship was less than perfect, but June’s behavior felt more in line with someone whose spouse passed away at least a year or two before, and that detail nagged me quite a bit.

This brings us to our grumpy love interest. I love an Eeyore, and Lucia Santiago doesn’t disappoint. She was definitely my favorite character of the book, and I would have really enjoyed reading from her viewpoint as well, but then maybe that would have made her much less mysterious and brooding. Lucia is the assistant winemaker of June’s new venture, who is brilliant when it comes to viticulture and hatching amazing ideas, but severely lacking when it comes to people skills. Of course Lucia is less than thrilled to meet the clueless, new owner of the winery where her family has been working for decades behind the scenes. Her issues with the doors money can open leads to an interesting sidequest, where Lentzski uses Lucia’s character, who’s Mexican-American, to effortlessly bring attention to immigration issues, farm labor, and unions. If Jorts the cat could read, he’d be so proud!

Overall, this was a solid showing with a few scrapes here and there. The ending felt a bit rushed, almost frantic. I know a common complaint with some romance novels is that that the characters get back together too quickly after one of them does something incredibly stupid in the third act. When the “Bad Decisions” part of this book came along, the last couple of chapters kind of sped out of control. Lucia’s acceptance of June’s return felt very out of character with her brooding, better-off-alone persona, and I wish it had been fleshed out a bit more. I also didn’t love June’s constant pity parties, and by the end I almost felt that Lucia could have done better, but the heart wants what it wants! Despite the flaws in Sour Grapes, all in all it remains a fun summer read that would pair well with a Napa cab sauv.

Danika reviews Bad Things Happen Here by Rebecca Barrow

the cover of Bad Things Happen Here by Rebecca Barrow

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One of my favourite YA books is This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow, so when I saw Barrow was coming out with another sapphic YA title, I knew I had to pick it up. But while This Is What It Feels Like is a heartwarming slice-of-life story, Bad Things Happen Here is a sun-drenched murder mystery about the dark side of a postcard-perfect island getaway.

Luca lives in Parris, a wealthy island town that looks like paradise, but has a long history of mysterious deaths of young women, including Luca’s best friend, who was found dead several years ago. The inhabitants of Parris explain away these deaths with campfire stories of Parris being cursed — but really, they seem to believe, it’s just a series of unrelated coincidences. Luca, though, believes in the curse. And she feels it creeping up on her.

That feeling only intensifies when she returns home one day to find a police car outside her house. Her sister, Whitney, is the latest victim of the curse, and she appears to have been murdered. Luca can’t trust the police to find out the truth, so she’s determined to do it herself — not just for her sister’s sake, but also to try to find a way to escape facing a similar fate. As she starts digging, she finds that the rot in Parris spreads further than she could have imagined, and that everyone in her life is keeping secrets.

This is a mystery in two parts: one is the murder mystery of what happened to Whitney specifically, while the other is about what’s going on in Parris in general. I think some people will find them ending frustrating because (Vague spoilers:) one of these mysteries gets a neat, satisfying puzzle conclusion, while the other is messier. To me, though, that was a positive: I think it perfectly fit the story Barrow was trying to tell, and although it wasn’t satisfying in terms of everything slotting neatly into place, it did complete Luca’s story in a satisfying way. (End of spoilers.)

Luca is an interesting character, especially contrasted with her former friend, Jada. Luca, Jada, and Polly used to all be best friends, until Polly’s death. But while Luca doesn’t fit in on Parris because she’s fat, Black, queer, and mentally ill, she’s also very wealthy, and she is often classist towards Jada, who is from one of the few middle class families on the island. Polly and Luca even used to secretly hang out just the two of them when they didn’t want to be dragged down by Jada not having the same amount of spending money as they had. Although Jada isn’t a very prominent side character, I found this dynamic added a lot of depth: both Jada and Luca resent each other for not seeing their realities, and they’re both dismissive of each other’s grievances.

I do want to give a very big content warning for self harm for this title, speaking of Luca’s mental health. It comes up frequently throughout the novel, along with her suicide ideation.

In some ways, this is a great summer read: it is set on an island in the summer, and the rich people murder mystery has lots of reveals and drama. On the other hand, this is a dark read that’s equally about Luca’s isolation and pain. It’s also a novel about the inescapable horrors of wealth inequality and the obscene power that a tiny fraction of the population holds.

This is a very different read from This Is What It Feels Like, but it’s no less captivating, and I appreciate how Barrow weaves in broader societal issues into her novels. I also admire an author willing to subvert audience expectations, even when it might frustrate some readers, when it’s in service to the story. I’m definitely interested in what she writes next!

Vic reviews The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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I will be completely honest—I really do not care very much for The Great Gatsby. This book, however, far exceeds its source material (*gasp* sacrilege!). This is everything I want out of a retelling of a classic novel, and I am so glad I read it.

Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful tells the familiar story of The Great Gatsby through the eyes of cynical flapper Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend and Nick’s temporary love interest.  The differences are not limited to a shift in perspective, however.  Vo’s Jordan Baker, now a Vietnamese adoptee and a queer woman, leads us through a still extravagant West Egg, now full of real magic and deals with devils. There, she introduces us not only to Vo’s invented magic but also the queer and Vietnamese circles that the original novel could never have ventured into.

Jordan always struck me as the most interesting person in Gatsby, and in Vo’s hands, she is even better. Multiple times, I had to stop reading so I could tell someone else what Jordan just said. She was real and she was clever, and I loved that Vo let her be both mean and sympathetic. The characters here are all flawed, but I could understand them (sometimes more than the original), even if I could not forgive all of them.

And the magic! There are few things that excite me more than a well-conceived historical fantasy, and boy does this book deliver. I loved all of the little details that fit magic and devils into familiar history.  Mentions of fads like a single black nail, intended to suggest one had sold one’s soul, never take center stage in the novel but instead form a solid backdrop, beautifully blurring the lines of fantasy and history.  While in lesser hands, the magic could have been little more than a prop or distraction, Vo made everything feel totally natural.

No less magical was Vo’s prose. She has such a way of crafting a sentence—the word that comes to mind is delicious.  Flowing and vivid, every word creates an atmosphere as magical as the world the characters inhabit, and not a phrase was wasted.  Even if I had not loved the rest of the book as much as I did, I think it would have been worth it for the writing style alone.

Going into this book, I of course knew it was Great Gatsby with magic, from the perspective of queer, Vietnamese adoptee Jordan Baker, but I did not realize just how refreshing it would feel to actually read this until I started.  Whether or not you are a fan of the original novel, Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is a retelling so fresh it almost feels a disservice to recommend it based only on its merits as a retelling.  This beautiful book is worth reading for anyone looking for a clever historical fantasy and a compellingly flawed queer heroine.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

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Cara is a traverser in a world where travel between universes has been discovered. In most worlds, she’s dead, making her the perfect candidate for the job, as traveling to worlds where your counterpart is still alive results in your death. But the protagonist isn’t all she seems, and neither is the company and people she works for. Once she learns the truth about the business of multiverse travel, she must decide where she really belongs.

There are so many layers complementing each other, showcasing the intricacy of the issues presented. It’s a story about class divide, power, ethics, morality, capitalism, family and relationships. Every element is intertwined with one another, making Cara’s journey complex as she navigates who she really is.

The whole book is incredibly well-paced, with plot twists you never see coming and happening just at the right time. Perhaps this is because Cara is an unreliable narrator and you only ever see the world through her eyes. As she perceives her role in multiverse travel and ignores the bigger picture for much of the story, it’s hard to see what’s coming. This is what makes her such a compelling main character and the story so entrancing.

Johnson creates a dynamic duality of science and religion with the concept of traversing. During the process, traversers experience trauma that leaves them bruised, and if done too frequently with no breaks between jumps, even causes broken bones. Cara describes it as pressure as her body pushes the boundaries between worlds. She and the other traversers refer to this phenomenon as the goddess Niameh giving them a kiss. But the scientists behind traversing simply explain it through logical means, referring to physics and biology. There’s also a layer of Niameh representing beliefs other than white Christianity.

Through Cara’s backstory and memories, there are nuanced discussions of being a victim of abuse. The multiverse shows what can be if people’s circumstances are different. At the same time, it puts on display how complicated emotional ties are between abusers and their victims. It brings to mind questions like, “Can you love someone who is abusive, especially if you know the kindness they’re capable of?” and “Can you resent a kind person you know is capable of violence and abuse they haven’t committed in this world, but have in another?”

Cara’s character arc takes her from hating where she comes from, Ash, to accepting who she is and where she’s from is nothing to be ashamed of. She longed to become part of Wiley City for so long, only to find it wasn’t as bright and shiny as it appeared on the surface. To become Wiley was to accept a definition of success determined by those in authority, rather than success on her own terms.

I listened to the book on audio, narrated by Nicole Lewis, and I highly recommend it if you like listening to fiction on audio. Lewis is a charismatic narrator and brings every character to life.

Content warning: abuse

Nat reviews The Verifiers by Jane Pek

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Are you looking for a dystopian mystery in the vein of Dave Eggers’s The Circle, with a high stakes, lesbian Nancy Drew vibe and a heaping side of Person of Interest (where no gays are harmed in the making)? Then this is the book for you, my friend. Part speculative fiction and part murder mystery, Jane Pek’s The Verifiers is set in a world (or future) where matchmaking services are the most common way to find a partner, not entirely unlike current times, though their algorithms and importance in this novel’s society are more extreme. 

The data collected is even more invasive than what exists in our real world, collection that all but completely eliminates your privacy in order to best fulfill your needs. Enter our aspiring dating detective, Claudia Lin, who works for a company called Veracity, every bit as secretive as the CIA. Her job as the newest member of the team is to help make sure that the people on these ubiquitous dating apps are who they actually claim to be. 

Claudia is curious to a fault, a natural problem solver, an avid fan of detective novels, and stubborn enough to get herself into a bit of a situation when she can’t let an unsolved mystery drop. She’s young and sometimes makes questionable decisions. But while there are serious themes explored in the book, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Verifiers is a murder mystery that grows into a twisty, fun house mirror conspiracy where one can’t quite figure out who to trust. 

Pek sweetens the deal by treating you to a a smart, sarcastic underachieving protagonist, one who also happens to be queer and Asian. Additionally, there’s some complex family drama afoot and some social commentary on how technology affects our lives. More of this is explored at the end during the “big reveal,” including a look at how the creators of the technology justify their decisions in the name of providing a greater good. 

The Verifiers made me think of Zen Cho’s writing style in Black Water Sister, both in Pek’s treatment of the main character and in the flow of the novel. There are similarities in the MC’s family issues, though instead of meddling aunties, we have a dysfunctional sibling and mother relationship. There’s an overarching mystery to be solved that transforms the MC in ways that allow her to deal with issues in her private life. Both novels have a steady, page-turning flow and a solid helping of witty, amusing internal dialogue that had me snorting out loud, the same brand of snark that had me chuckling through Cho’s book. If Black Water Sister was your cuppa, you will likely enjoy this as well. 

And back to the sapphic aspect of this book, Claudia is queer (though not out to her mother), but this remains secondary to the story. We do still witness her dealing with issues in her personal life, sexuality included, as she navigates the challenges central to the book. There’s also some exploration of ethnicity and cultural identity in being an Asian American sprinkled throughout. 

This is Pek’s debut novel! And while it’s a standalone, you can’t help but notice that she’s setting you up for a sequel, perhaps even a series. (Fingers crossed that this is true.) I would happily binge watch five seasons of this on Netflix, following our plucky verifier as she solves mysteries each episode within a larger overarching conspiracy, topped off with a slow burn workplace romance. Ahem, JJ Abrams, are you listening? 

Danika reviews Buffalo is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel

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This is a collection of Métis futurism stories that rejects the concept that “education is the new buffalo” and instead imagines how Métis worldviews have survived colonialism in the past and present, and how they can influence the future.

I’ll be perfectly honest and say I do not feel qualified to discuss this book, but I thought it was a fantastic and fascinating read that I want a lot more people to pick up, so I’m going to give it a try. First, some background. Indigenous futurisms is a concept inspired by Afrofuturism. As Vowell explains, they “seek to discover the impact of colonization, remove its psychological baggage, and recover ancestral traditions.”

Despite the name, it’s not just located in the future — which is to say that although some of these stories are science fiction, Indigenous futurisms (and Afrofuturism) doesn’t neatly fit into that box. This collection also includes alternative histories, for instance. It’s also necessarily political: “whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction” (Walidah Imarisha).

Vowell writes in her introduction that she recognizes Indigenous people exist across the globe, all with their own distinct stories and viewpoints, so she labels her work as specifically Métis futurist, with all the stories taking place around her home of Lac Ste. Anne.

She also discusses how the history of the science fiction genre is intertwined with colonialism, reflecting settler-colonial anxieties and posing colonialism as inevitable, that the only choice is whether to be the colonizer or the colonized.

Vowell also explains that these stories are meant to inspire action. They “invite the reader to co-constitute potentialities with [the author]” and “You don’t have to be Métis to get it! Our past was full of relationships with non-Métis, as is our present, and who knows how much more that web of relationality will expand into the future?”

One of my favourite things about this collection, and something that furthers that goal, is that the stories include footnotes and are each followed by an essay explaining Vowell’s thought process behind them: “These explorations expand this work beyond creative writing; I am ‘imagining otherwise’ in order find a way to ‘act otherwise.'” While the stories are fiction, there is a lot of research that went into many of them, and the footnotes explain which parts are based in fact and which were changed.

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t also queer. (Chelsea Vowell also identifies as queer.) At least four of the stories are sapphic, though I recognize that this is applying terms from a completely different cultural context. In several stories, it’s just mentioned in passing that the main character is attracted to women, but in others, the character’s queerness is more central to the story.

In “Buffalo Bird,” the main character and her mother are rougarou, shapeshifters who transform into powerful black mares, and that shift is usually through anger. Angelique and her mother are both criticized for not being sufficiently feminine, especially because Angelique has no interest in marrying a man. Vowell explains that these gender norms and this heterosexism have been enforced through colonialism and that they have “erased and punished fluid sexual orientations and gender identities that existed pre-Contact.”

In another, a queer Indigenous feminist collective co-parent a kid together. And then there’s one with this line, about falling for a woman who’s also a literal fox: “I swear, I’d have done anything to keep her looking at me like that, even if part of me did feel like she was thinking about eating me up. Maybe especially because of that.”

While it’s unusual enough to have a short story collection with footnotes and explanatory essays, they also play with form in different ways. One is told as an academic talk. One is the same story told three times: as hint fiction (under 25 words), microfiction (under 300 words), and then as a short story.

Many of them feel like thought experiments. In one, buffalo are returned to the plains — all at once, with herds crashing through Ikea walls. Another takes the concept of Métis as a “forgotten people” to create a culturally rooted Métis superhero who is instantly forgotten by anyone who isn’t family — and uses that to sabotage colonialist projects. In another, parents implant their children with nanites that translate all language input into Cree, making them first language Cree speakers who will keep the language alive but will also be unable to learn any other language. One story follows a world where most of the population hibernates until the world heals from its damage, with technology maintained by an Indigenous crew paid with parcels of land — and one plans to use this opportunity for revenge and to determine who wakes up.

This was a thought-provoking and engaging collection, and I really enjoyed reading the essays to see Vowell’s inspiration and intentions behind each story. Vowell is also the cohost of the podcast Métis in Space and co-founder of the Métis in Space Land Trust, which has bought back land around Lac Ste. Anne.

I highly recommend this one, and I’m eagerly anticipating whatever Chelsea Vowel writes next.

Content warnings: racism, suicide, drug use and overdose, violence

Nat reviews Stud Like Her by Fiona Zedde

the cover of Stud Like Her by Fiona Zedde

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I actually read Stud Like Her for the first time as soon as it came out, and thought about reviewing it then, but then I thought *everyone* was going to be reviewing it because there are so few books about studs loving other studs. As I was rereading it, I realized I had actually not seen much written about it. 

While this book isn’t erotic romance, it does frequently present imagery of sex, sexual desire, and attraction. There’s a lot of pining for the body of another in great detail and sprinkled generously throughout. If that’s not your jam, this may not be the book for you. But if it is, read on!

Our tormented main character, Chance Cooper, is a stud; meaning she’s a masc of center Black lesbian, and she just so happens to be attracted to other butch women. She’s pushed aside this attraction for nearly a decade, essentially still living in the closet. Much of the book centers around her fighting the constraints of her community and having the courage to live an authentic life. 

Zedde tackles a lot of subjects that are tough to wrangle, so expect a fair amount of angst and frustration as Chance works out her issues. One of the difficult themes is internalized homophobia, with studs loving other studs being seen as “too queer” in the Black community. There’s a lot of shame assoicatied with her attraction, and discussions of being “out” not as a gay woman, but as a gay women attracted to another stud within the gay community. We see these restrictive, hetronormative rules applied to queerness, leading to the same destructive results as if Chance were simply in the closet as a lesbian. This bleeds into another theme, internalized misogyny. The rigid butch/femme structure of Chance’s community leads to toxic masculinty. There’s a lot of us vs them, femmes vs studs heteronormative attitudes that are not doing anyone any favors. 

One of the things I really liked in the book was Chance overcoming her insecurities and breaking away from destructive friendships. As with most queer stories, and in real life, found family is the thing that keeps us afloat. We often see examples of supportive and loving friendships, contrasted with  toxic and problematic family. In this case, it’s the opposite, with Chance having a supportive and loving family, but the worst ever so-called friends.  Like I said, no shortage of angst, but to see our MC come out on the other side is worth the sweat and tears. 

All that serious business aside, there are still plenty of playful moments and humor throughout. We mostly get this after meeting Garret, the young stud who Chance wants to date even though she’s terrified of what others will think. Garret the Hotness, or G-hot, is an Instagram star who gives zero foxes about what other people think of her. She’s young and idealistic and exactly the sort of polar opposite that Chance needs to course correct and finally be happy. 

Overall, consider this an angsty romance filled with self reflection, overcoming fear of rejection, and self-loathing, while exploring issues within the Black queer community. I’m on my second read of the book now, so put it on your summer reading list!