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.

Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?

Shana reviews The Deep by Rivers Solomon 

The Deep by Rivers Solomon

The Deep is the most beautiful book that I’ve read this year. It’s a lyrical novella based on a Hugo Award-nominated science-fiction song by clipping, a hip-hop group. The Deep is a reimagined mermaid story about an underwater society descended from African women tossed overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. We learn about the culture and history of these people, the wajinru, through the eyes of Yetu, their newest Historian.

Historians are responsible for holding the memories of every wanjinru who has lived, allowing individuals to live unburdened by the trauma of their collective past, only regaining temporary knowledge of their history through a yearly magic ritual. Yetu didn’t have a choice in taking on this calling, and she is overwhelmed by the weight of so many memories. In desperation, she tries to escape her role and carve a different path, one that brings her adventure, love with a surface dwelling “two-legged” woman, and a new respect for the power of memory.

Solomon packs a lot of eloquence into this small package and makes daring choices, like having the wanjinru appear fearsome to humans, rather than seductive sirens. The Deep feels longer than its 166 pages, in a good way. I enjoyed the wanjinru’s creative perspective on gender and relationships, and the way Solomon slowly explains the mystery of how their society came to be.

The story smoothly segues between Yetu’s present and the memories she carries. I sometimes dislike time jumps, but the inventive structure of the book made them feel seamless. However, I love complex worldbuilding and I found myself wishing for more explanation of the wanjinru’s fraught interactions with surface dwellers, alluded to through mentions of shipwrecks and oil rigs. The book’s atmospheric tone is gorgeous, but it also leaves some details to the reader’s imagination. For example, we never know exactly where in human geography Yetu is living.

The book imaginatively explores the nature and purpose of memories, generational trauma, and collective healing. It is so insightful that several times I gasped out loud while reading it. I appreciated the balance between the joy and ingenuity of the wajinru, and their painful history. I love books that use alternate history as social commentary and The Deep incorporates this with a light touch. It’s a powerful book, but also an engaging story with a sympathetic heroine. The Deep is a compelling and absorbing read that would appeal to lovers of feminist science fiction, underwater fantasy epics, or stories from the African diaspora.

Danika reviews Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza

Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet GenizaKimiko Does Cancer is about about a queer, mixed-race woman getting breast cancer. This is a short book, only 106 pages, and it moves quickly: the first page is about Kimiko finding a lump above her breast, and then it moves through her diagnosis, treatment, and the aftermath. Tobimatsu explains in interviews/articles that she wanted to write this book because the mainstream narrative around cancer didn’t include her experience. She wanted other queer people with cancer to have a reference that better reflects their lives.

For one thing, she comes into this experience already skeptical of doctors, especially around sexual health. One panel shows a doctor saying, “Only women who sleep with men need Paps,” (labelled on page as “Bad medical advice”). This is something that I was also told by a doctor, after she blushed and seemed flustered when I told her my sexual experience was with AFAB people. Although she’s grateful for her medical team, she also finds it overwhelming, especially when they give different advice. She also continues to face similar microagressions: a doctor who assumes she’ll immediately want reconstructive surgery on her breast before asking her–Kimiko had been interested in exploring what a mastectomy would mean for her exploration of gender. Later, another doctor asks if she’d like both breasts enhanced as long as they’re “plumping” one.

In her article on Rethink Cancer, she explains,

I didn’t want to talk about how to recover my sense of femininity despite breast scars and menopause; I wanted to explore how losing my breasts might allow me to lean into my masculinity. I didn’t want to talk about how changing femininity could affect a hetero relationship; I wanted to talk about the implications of breast cancer on queer relationships between women.”

This genderizing of breast cancer extends outside assumptions around patients’ relationships to their breasts. In “Straight Cancer in a Queer Body” at The Polyphony, Tobimatsu explains,

Whether we know it or not, ideas around gender are frequently at the forefront of conversations about breast cancer. Little is as connected to notions of femininity as breasts, hair and fertility – all things that can be lost following a breast cancer diagnosis. Perhaps for this reason, society’s response to the disease is to throw pink ribbons, make-up tutorials and a peppy outlook at the problem. For many queers and gender non-conforming folks, this feminization of the disease is stifling…

A page from Kimiko Does Cancer showing Kimiko meeting three women in a cancer support group. They introduce themselves and then transform magic girl style into feminine fighters. "I'm Macy, Stacy, Lacy! We're survivors, fighters, warriors! We kick cancer's butt! And look good while doing it~"

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer

Not only is Kimiko uncomfortable with the whiteness and heteronormativity/gender norms, she also is alienated by how apolitical these spaces are. Kimiko considers the ethics and greater implications of each of the choices she’s making in this journey, and the structure around them. She recognizes the privilege she has to be in Canada and have the medical support she does, and the special treatment she gets as a young cancer patient. She contemplates the ethics of freezing her eggs for $7,000 when she’s not sure whether she even wants kids–or whether it’s ethical to bring kids into a climate crisis. On top of that, she feels pressure to have had some great epiphany as a cancer survivor: to have a whole new outlook on life, and no longer care about the “little things.”

Kimiko Does Cancer follows the aftereffects of her treatment as well. She has menopause induced to (hopefully) prevent cancer from recurring. This leaves her with hot flashes, which play a major role in her life. I had no idea what having hot flashes really entailed:

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer shows stages of a hot flash, including anger, raging heat, hunger, and more.

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it finds its way into the right hands. I’ll leave off with one last quotation from the author, who explains the importance of changing this narrative. She explains that vague cancer fundraisers often get more attention than specific actions needed to improve marginalized peoples’ lives. (And of course, it’s all connected: racial justice and ending poverty are inextricably linked to health.)

When we centre certain bodies and not others, it has dire consequences – black women with breast cancer get diagnosed at later stages than white women and have lower survival rates… By depoliticizing cancer, it becomes an easy cause to support. Pink ribbon campaigns offer a way to give money to an easy-to-sympathize-with-cause that doesn’t force engagement with more difficult issues like poverty or racial justice.

“Straight Cancer in a Queer Body,” The Polyphony

Danika reviews Love after the End edited by Joshua Whitehead

Love After the End edited by Joshua WhiteheadLove after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction edited by Joshua Whitehead is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories by Indigenous authors. It’s edited and introduced by Joshua Whitehead, the author of Jonny Appleseed and full-metal indigiqueer. In that introduction, Whitehead reflects on the intersection between Indigeneity and queerness: “How does queer Indigeneity upset or upend queerness? Are we queerer than queer?” He goes on to explain that originally, Love after the End was going to be a collection of dystopic stories, but they pivoted towards utopias: “For, as we know  we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present.”

The introduction alone is thought-provoking and sometimes intimidating. Whitehead brings his study of theory to this work, and some of the ideas went over my head. I appreciated being introduced to these ideas, though, and it definitely left me thinking, including his mention of “contemporary erasures and appropriations of the term Two-Spirit by settler queer cultures who idealize, mysticize, and romanticize our hi/stories in order to generate a queer genealogy for settler sexualities.” Besides, this is an anthology by and for Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people; as a white settler reader, I know I’m not going to understand every reference. The authors are from many nations across North America, and many stories include untranslated words from different Indigenous languages.

Although the introduction is academic, the stories themselves are written accessibly. They cover a lot of different topics, but many come back to the idea of space travel, and especially of evacuating a dying Earth. In one story, a portal is made that allows travel to an almost identical, uninhabited planet. The main character has a white partner who doesn’t understand the main character’s reluctance to leave, or her distrust of the supposedly peaceful government’s settlement of a “new world.” The Earth is ravaged, and left for dead by most–Indigenous communities are some of the few people who are willing to stay. Another story has the characters’ escape hinge on space travel that will use the Earth’s kinetic core energy to fuel it, leaving the planet destroyed. Each character has to decide whether they will stay or go, and what that means for their identity and relationship with place.

As I was reading Love after the End, I was reminded just how colonialist SFF often is as a genre, whether it’s about “conquering new worlds” and literally establishing colonies, or centring Medieval England in fantasy stories, or just holding up white, straight, cis, male protagonists as the heroes. This collection is such a refreshing change of perspective. These stories include a relationship with the land that isn’t common in science fiction stories. They assume a greater responsibility for protecting the Earth than I’m used to from a dystopia. The question of whether to stay on a planet that’s been destroyed by (white, wealthy) human activity is very different here than in a typical white space travel story.

“How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls” is about a “Native girl who loves other girls” writing a manual on how to survive in this post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s also an exploration of what systems would replace the white colonial system once it collapsed. She explains, “See, when the borders broke, people decided that Kinship should be our main law instead. Except the problem was that Kinship means different things to different people. And sometimes people who should see each other as kin, inawemaagan, reject each other.” She loves and respects her culture, but is also critiquing this new system of power: who is left out? She find that Two-Spirit people, including her friends, are not always respected the way they should be. She grapples with the idea of what it means to be kin, and who decides.

Many of these stories use Nation-specific language for identity, which doesn’t neatly map onto white, European categories:

“The boys made fun of Kokomis ’ shirt. They said I’m a girl and girls shouldn’t wear men’s clothes. They said I’m wrong.” Her mother crooned. She gently grasped her face. “When you were born, your Kokomis held you in his arms and he looked at me with tears running down his face because he had been waiting his whole life for another îhkwewak like him, and there you were, I gave birth to you, and I was never more grateful for anything else in my life. You are a gift, Winu. And people are often jealous of gifts that are not for them.”

Reading this collection also reminded me of what I’ve read about Indigenous survivance. Gerald Vizenor, the Anishinaabe scholar who coined the term, says: “Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry.” I recommend reading more about it, including at survivance.org. The stories in Love after the End position Indigenous people in the future, instead of the past. They frame Indigenous nations as not only subsisting, but using traditional knowledge and culture as strengths in current and future societies.

… There’s also an m/m romance story between a teenage boy and an AI who is also a cyberengineered super-intelligent rat! (In this story, same-sex relationships are accepted, but human/AI romantic relationships were the “the sort of thing that was whispered about, something that lived in the shadows.”)

I really enjoyed this collection, both as an addition to queer lit and as a much-needed collection of SFF. This is a great way to be introduced to a lot of talented authors, some of whom also contributed to Love Beyond Body Space and Time and some who are new to this collection. Usually in an anthology, I concentrate on the sapphic stories, but because Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer identities don’t neatly fit into white western categories of sexuality, I’m not going to try to separate those out. I will say that I think this collection is definitely relevant to Lesbrary readers, and it left me hungry for more Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer SFF!

Shannon reviews I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee

I'll Be the One by Lyla Lee

If you’re looking for something to make you smile just as much as it makes you think, Lyla Lee’s debut I’ll Be the One is the perfect book for you. It’s categorized as young adult romance, but don’t let that put you off. I’m in my forties and I loved every second I spent with these characters.

Skye Shin has grown up knowing she wants to be a K-Pop star. She’s devoted every spare moment to practicing both her singing and dancing, and even though those around her haven’t always been as supportive of her dreams as she might like, she’s determined not to let this get her down. Sure, she’s a self-professed fat girl whose mother is constantly telling her to lose weight before taking the world by storm, painful to be sure, but if her deep love for K-Pop has taught her anything over the years, it’s that she has to believe in herself one-hundred percent, even if she’s the only one who does.

When You’re My Shining Star, a talent competition focused on K-Pop, holds auditions in her area, Skye knows she has to try out. So, she skips school and shows up for what she hopes will be her chance to totally wow the judges. Unfortunately, while her performance is one of the best she’s ever given, some of the judges aren’t eager to take a chance on Skye. Suddenly, in front of tons of other would-be contestants as well as a camera crew, Skye is forced to defend not only her lifelong dream, but the right for anyone who isn’t extremely thin to create art.

What follows is not only a behind-the-scenes look into the making of a reality TV show, but a deep and often heart-wrenching look into one young woman’s journey toward self-acceptance. Skye is a remarkable heroine, more self-assured than I could have even dreamed of being at her age, smart, resourceful, and unwilling to back down. She knows what she wants, and even when things get rough, she plows ahead, sometimes making mistakes, but always seeking the best, most fulfilling way to be who she’s meant to be, and lest she seem too good to be true, let me assure you that she’s not always sure of her identity. She considers herself bisexual, but because of her contentious relationship with her mother, she’s afraid to come out to anyone but her closest friends, and yet, her unwillingness to come out makes her feel hypocritical at times.

As the competition heats up, Skye throws herself wholeheartedly into a grueling schedule of rehearsals and performances. Plus, she’s still in school and letting her grades fall is not an option. Needless to say, she’s busier than she’s ever been, but things aren’t all work and no play for her and her fellow contestants. Fast friendships are formed, and Skye even gets a shot at first love, even if that love comes from a direction she never anticipated.

If you’re sensitive to fat-phobic commentary, I’ll Be the One might prove difficult for you to read. Skye is bombarded with anti-fat rhetoric from her mother, from the judges, and from several of the other contestants, so proceed with caution if you decide to pick this book up.

Nothing I can say can adequately convey my love for I’ll Be the One. It’s the kind of book I would have loved to read as a teenager struggling to fit into a world that didn’t always feel welcoming. Lee has created the perfect combination of lighthearted fun and introspective wisdom, making this a great book for readers both young and old.

Trigger Warning: Fat-phobia

Danika reviews Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia HibbertThis is an F/M romance with a bisexual main character.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t read a lot of M/F romance. Truthfully, I don’t even read a lot of F/F romance–which is often surprising to people who think queer books are all romance novels. I am, however, much more likely to read an M/F romance with a bi woman main character, and when I saw that this audiobook was available through my library, I though I’d give it a shot. And I’m very glad I did, because this ended up being one of my favourite romance novels of all time. (With a male love interest! I know! It’s shocking! That’s just how good it is.)

Part of what I loved about this book was the main character. Dani Brown knows what she’s about: she is devoted to her job (teaching and researching lit), to the point that she may forget to do things like sleep or eat. She has no time for romance, and doesn’t think she’s the kind of person who does well in relationships. She doesn’t remember anniversaries. She is embarrassed by romantic gestures. What she does enjoy is sex, and she’s determined to find a fun, casual, purely sexual relationship.

Zafir is the (grouchy) security guard in the building she works at, and they chat every day. When Dani injures herself in a safety drill, Zafir sweeps her up and carries her outside. The moment goes viral, and Zafir asks Dani if they can fake date to promote his rugby charity for children. (Where he teaches about toxic masculinity and expressing your emotions and dealing with mental health issues!) Dani agrees, hoping that this can turn into a no-strings-attached arrangement–but it turns out that Zafir is a romantic, which makes things more complicated.

Here’s the thing about Dani: her full name is Danika. Which is my name. Have you ever listened to a romance audiobook with a main character who shares your name? I’m not ashamed to say I was blushing, but it is a bit of ego soothing to hear a narrator extol the brilliance and beauty of Danika. Dani is a fascinating main character, though. She and her sisters are witches, which isn’t something I’ve seen a lot in books. She’s also a compelling mix of self-confident and insecure. She thinks highly of herself, but she doesn’t believe that others would approve of her, especially in a romantic relationship. I also loved that she’s unapologetically sexual, especially as a fat woman. I was surprised how affecting it was to hear a round stomach described positively.

I didn’t plan to review this on the Lesbrary when I first started listening, but I ended up loving it so much that I had to share. I even liked Zafir! I appreciated that he’s a grouch, but also sensitive, romantic, and committed. They’re both complicated, with their own backstories–Zafir had a family tragedy and mental health crisis in his past, and has had to rebuild since. Dani has her own reasons for being insecure in relationships. They both feel like real, complex people, which makes their relationship all the more interesting.

[Spoiler, highlight to read:] I also loved that Danika doesn’t have to change to be in a relationship. She just needs someone who loves her for who she is. [end spoiler]

As for queer content, Dani states her bisexuality several times, and we do see her female ex, but it’s not a huge part of the plot. If you’re willing to take a risk on an M/F romance, though, make it this one.

Mo Springer reviews You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Liz Lighty has a lot to deal with. Her mother is dead, dad left long ago, and her brother has sickle cell. She doesn’t have wealth like the other rich kids she goes to school with and her town, and the school’s history is primarily white. When she doesn’t get the scholarship into the school of dreams, meaning she might not be able to go at all, she decides to shock everyone by running for Prom Queen to get a chance at winning the scholarship prize.

Prom is a big deal in this town, and the story really makes it clear how important it is to everyone, as well as how important it is that someone like Lighty is running. I can still picture the hall of past Prom King and Queens, all white kids in framed photos looming over the students. With that, there are characters who are very against her running, some because they are competing with her, but another because they are racist. The book doesn’t shy away from the realities of modern-day prejudice and discrimination.

The characters really shined. I love Lighty’s friends, but I especially loved her friendship with Jordan. He starts out as kind of your stock character jock who used to be friends with the nerd but then abandoned them for the cool crowd. I won’t give anything away, but Jordan’s character has the biggest surprises.

Then, of course, we have to talk about that romance. Mack is a really fun character who could have easily become a manic-pixie-dream-girl, but honestly she reminded me of some of the girls I knew as a kid (and of course had crushes on). The author does a good job of making it clear Mack is more than just the bubbly, talkative, creative girl she presents as, but has a complex story and life.

Lighty and Mack’s relationship is both cute and interesting. They are of course teenagers and going to make the mistakes and bad decisions that teenagers will make. The two of them have a lot of ups and downs that were fitting of their characters and made you want to root for them more and more with each chapter.

I did have a bit of a hard time being sold on the stakes of having to get into an elite college. I went to community college for the first two years of getting my BA, so whenever a teen story is all about how the main character has to get into the super expensive, elite college, I end up wanting to jump into the story and shake them and say, “It’ll be okay! You’ll be just fine without it!”

The stakes surrounding the prom itself and the school’s hierarchy are much more believable. I really got the sense of how unrepresented Lighty felt and the book shows how much she has to fight against, with racism and then also homophobia. On top of that, to mention she is also dealing with her brother’s sickle cell and feels like she must take care of him. Her decisions might not always have been likable, but they were believable and added to the complexity of her character.

Overall, this was a really fun and interesting read. I highly recommend you pick it up!

Arina reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Reading Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension has been long overdue for me. This sapphic Sci-Fi with a metaphysical twist is the type of read you don’t often find in the genre.

It centers on Alana, an engineer specializing in spaceship repair. She has a special connection with energy and metal, an inexplicable bond that drives her devotion.

She and her aunt Lai survive only on the pittance given to them by the sparse work arriving at their engineering station.

In their rapidly decaying planet, survival is a daily struggle that most times comes short. It is this fact, propelled by Alana’s hidden desires, that prompts her to stowaway on a ship whose crew arrives at her station looking for her sister, Nova, who is something akin to a spiritual life coach.

Told from Alana’s first-person POV, the outset of this story swiftly establishes an interesting background. Jacqueline wastes no time in capturing your attention with her setting, one that highlights the destructive consequences gentrification and a corporate-monolithic society have on minority communities.

I was immediately drawn to this discussion on lack of opportunity and accessibility (the major in the book being accessibility to healthcare, due to Alana and her aunt’s chronic illness), drawing clear parallels to our contemporary world and dissecting it, exposing its entrails for all readers to see.

In Ascension, the oppressive force is Transliminal, a corporation from another universe that has seized control of technological and medicinal advancements.

Through Alana’s chronic condition we are given a lens into the many failings of our society when it comes to the intersectionality of marginalized identities and illness.

Alana’s chronic pain does not define her, yet it is an inherent part of her. Her disorder also helps carve a clear picture of this society’s inequality, and the decisions people with a chronic illness have to face to live another day.

Alana does have some agency over her pain, frequently demonstrating a tremendous force of will and powering through it in critical situations (which eventually leads to her ceding ground to it). She expresses in equal measure the insecurities, exhaustion, and relentlessness that come with an arresting illness.

It sparked a fire in me to read a character like that, with a side that doesn’t usually make it on the cast roster, much less the main stage.

Family is the catalyst for this very much character-driven story, but I could not fully connect to their relationships.

They have a good dynamic, but trust seems to come conveniently easily between them, sometimes going against their own words. Backstories are delivered very matter-of-factly, at moments defined to make you immediately care for them.

I personally need a bit more first-hand emotional involvement but there were still exciting things about the cast I deeply enjoyed. They are a diverse cast, including disabled characters and lgbtq+ characters, who are people with real worries and connections.

Asides from the sapphic romance, there’s also a polyamorous relationship (I loved how healthy it was!), and there’s an effort to make them more than a cardboard cut-out of their identities meant to check a box.

It’s clear they come from a place of respect and this is exactly the sort of representation that elevates a story for me.

Though the beginning crafts this gripping message wrapped around a new world, many times it’s not picked apart enough. I felt I was not eased into many of the workings and concepts of this world, nor allowed to explore them. I could not prod at the worldbuilding like I love to do, instead, I had to surmise it by myself.

It was the ending that inevitably pulled me in and GOD. WHAT AN ENDING. The excitement and mystery in these final chapters fully enraptured me, delivering a plot twist that I was definitely not expecting.

All in all, there is much to like about this book and even with its slightly underdeveloped underpinnings, I found this a satisfying story that reaches further into the possibilities of the genre.

Arina first discovered stories through their grandparents, who would regale them with tales of misbehaving kangaroos and gentle untailed monkeys, igniting a spark that would spread the wildfire of their love for books. Currently, they mostly brave the wild worlds of SFF but is actually a sucker for any great journey no matter its realm. You can find them at @voyagerarina and their blog.

Danika reviews Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Papi was a man split in two,
playing a game against himself.

But the problem with that
is that in order to win, you also always lose.

Yahaira and Camino are half-sisters, but they don’t know it. Yahaira lives in New York City with her mother and father, though he goes to the Dominican Republic every summer. She has recently discovered the reason he makes this journey every year and is furious, refusing to speak to him (or let him know what’s wrong). Camino lives in the Dominican Republic and looks forward to her father’s yearly visits, especially since her mother passed away. They are both heartbroken when their father’s plane crashes and he passes away, unaware of their shared grief.

I was immediately interested in the premise of Clap When You Land. I have a big, messy family–we even discovered a long-lost aunt at one point–so I wanted to be able to read about these two characters discovering that they’re family, and figuring out how to assimilate that into their understanding of themselves.

This is my first Acevado book, and I’ve heard amazing things about them. I knew that some of her books are written in verse, but I wasn’t sure if this one was: I ended up listening to it as an audiobook, and I still wasn’t sure when the novel began. I realized that it is written in verse, but it works in spoken format, and sounds natural most of the time. There are also two narrators for the point of view characters, which I appreciated.

I loved the characters: they felt well-rounded and real, and I felt for them. Yahaira is trying to understand her life now that she knows her father has been lying to her. She had turned away from him and the values that he instilled, freezing him out before he got on the plane. She has stopped playing chess, which used to be a big part of their shared lives. She is lost afterwards, struggling to deal with the messy aftermath of death: her mother making funeral arrangements (in the Dominican Republic? In New York?), distant family members showing up at the door when the settlement money is brought up, and her teachers and classmates not knowing how to speak to her. She also has a girlfriend, who lives next door, and they have a very sweet relationship. It’s nice to see an f/f relationship that is already established and comfortable. It has flaws, but is fundamentally a source of comfort and happiness for both of them.

Camino’s everyday life is very different. She wants to be a doctor, and already has experience caring for the sick and dying as an apprentice. She is used to friends her age having children and possibly dying from it, because there isn’t adequate medical supplies and treatment. She goes to a private school paid for by her father, in the hopes of eventually going to the U.S. for university. After he passes, not only is she left orphaned, but she is incredibly vulnerable. Her school asks for tuition she doesn’t have, and she is being recruited into sex work by a man who was once paid by her father to leave her alone. Her options are running out, and she is willing to take a desperate risk to save herself.

Even the side characters are complex and interesting, even if we don’t see a lot of them. Yahaira’s mother and Camino’s aunt are mostly background characters, but we can see how their grief affects them, and the strength that it takes to continue onward and to take care of them as much as they can. This is primarily a story about grief, so it isn’t fast-moving. Instead, we stay with Yahaira and Camino as they try to process, and we sit with that discomfort.

From the premise, I knew that eventually the two half-sisters would have to meet, or at least become aware of each other, and that was the moment I was waiting for. Unfortunately, it came a lot later in than I was hoping for. They aren’t even aware of the other’s existence until the latter half of the book. I was excited to get to that point, but it felt a little bit rushed. I wanted to see the two of them establish a relationship and then see it change and mature. I wanted to see how their lives changed with each other in them.

This is a thoughtful, poignant story about grief, and I can see why Acevado is celebrated as a writer. I didn’t get the resolution I was hoping for from Yahaira and Camino’s relationship, but that’s a personal reaction, and it’s still one I would recommend.