A Bisexual Historical Horror Retelling: Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste

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This is a fascinating story about the trauma inflicted on women by violent men. It’s told from the point of view of women in classic novels who were tossed to the side by literary history: Lucy from Dracula and Bertha, a.k.a. the Mad Woman in the Attic, from Jane Eyre.

Lucy and Bee enjoy their daily ritual. They spend their evenings at the local drive-in theater and then go home to clean up the decay. Meanwhile, Dracula’s ashes that Lucy keeps in various urns haunt and taunt her, trying to get her to become a monster like him. This is less a retelling and more a rewriting of classic characters.

Rochester and Dracula torture their victims, Lucy and Bee, by calling out from afar. These supernatural, ghostly hauntings act as a symbol of how it feels in reality for victims of trauma. While Lucy is a vampire, Bee is immortal for other reasons caused by Rochester. The story unfolds to show how trauma, no matter how much time passes and in whatever form it comes, lives on.

Kiste offers an interesting twist on vampire lore. Sunlight doesn’t kill them, but it does weaken them into a state of hallucination where they relive their pasts. Vampires also live in homes in a state of decay because it is caused by their own, like power within that seeps into everything they touch; they are death itself.

Like the vampire lore of Dracula, Lucy has the power to mesmerize people and put them under her control. She often does it by accident and feels shame when it occurs. She lives her life without ever feeding on humans, never taking what Dracula always tells her is hers. She constantly fights her monstrous nature, showing how trauma can turn victims into perpetrators of further pain and hurt.

When Jane appears, she is not portrayed as the heroine of her novel, but rather as a victim of Rochester’s manipulation. Although she loves Bee, Rochester still holds power over her. After decades of keeping a low profile and keeping their torturers at bay, the time comes for Lucy and Bee to face Rochester and Dracula.

For so many years, Lucy and Bee lived as companions, but they refused to talk about the horrors they went through. They never really knew each other, and the return of their tormentors forces them to be honest with each other and with themselves. It’s only once this happens they can fight Rochester and Dracula, finally facing their ghosts.

Along the way, the two villains create more victims that Lucy and Bee could not save. The men expect these women to act in their favor and do their dirty work, but the moment Lucy acknowledges their trauma, they become sisters in arms. These men constantly claim to love Lucy, Bee and all the other women they’ve used. They use love to keep excusing their behavior and manipulating their victims.

Throughout the story, Rochester and Dracula’s legacy in pop culture continues to keep Lucy and Bee out of their own narrative. But in the end, the women use that narrative to create a power of their own to defeat their enemies. Lucy and Bee regain control of their narrative and prove that although they each came from a monster, they don’t have to become one.

Perhaps the most salient flaw was the pacing. It moves so slowly that by the time you get to the action, it takes a moment to kick in and realize, “Oh yes we’ve reached the climax of this build-up.” But even so, it’s still an enthralling story. And I quite enjoyed its quiet ending.

What is “Queer Enough?”: Greedy: Notes from a Bisexual Who Wants Too Much by Jen Winston

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In their book of essays, Jen Winston (she/they) covers various topics about her bisexual experience, from the adoption of random behaviors as “bisexual culture” out of a desperation to be seen to the grief of friendships evolving when your best friend becomes a “we.”

Winston talks through internalized biphobia and not feeling queer enough to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Throughout her journey of accepting her bisexuality, they learn that it’s not just an identity, but rather a lens through which to reimagine the world. This speaks to the idea that one’s sexual orientation is about more than just sex. It’s about breaking systems that hold us down and don’t allow us to demand what we deserve.

A few essays, especially toward the end of the collection, begin to show Winston’s journey through gender identity as well. She comes to the realization that much of her identity in womanhood is performative and created based on patriarchal values. Accepting their bisexuality led to an understanding of their gender being on the nonbinary spectrum.

BEGINNING OF TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

Winston also opens up about instances of rape and sexual assault in essays like “A Girl Called Rhonda,” “The Power Dynamic” and “The Neon Sweater.” She goes into quite a bit of detail about the events, working through the question that many who experience assault do: Is this really rape? The lines of consent feel blurred in different situations because of social conditioning that tells women not to make a fuss. They even discuss how active, verbal consent isn’t nuanced enough because everybody reacts differently to different situations. Not saying no doesn’t mean it’s a yes.

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

One of the most fun essays was a piece written in the fairytale format. Winston tells the story of being attracted to emotionally unavailable men, an issue that stems from a culture of fairytales.

Overall, this is a funny, heart-wrenching and provocative collection of essays.

A Bisexual, Magical, Asian American Take on Gatsby: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, Narrated by Natalie Naudus

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In this retelling of The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker narrates the story from the perspective of a queer, Asian woman adopted by a white couple. Although she runs in elite circles with Daisy and Tom, she is treated as an exotic pet, left on the outside even when a part of their group.

Calling Jordan adopted brings up a problematic situation of white saviors. When the Bakers found her in Vietnam, they claimed she had been wandering alone. Wanting to save her from the violent environment, they simply took her back with them to Kentucky. They never even inquired about her parents’ whereabouts.

Throughout the story, Jordan encounters racism at every turn. She endures questions like, “Where are you from?” and when she answers Kentucky, it makes white people uncomfortable. Even in her own group with Daisy and Tom, Tom goes off on racist rants against Asians but tells Jordan she’s “one of the good ones.”

Jordan also encounters that feeling of Otherness amid people who look like her. As the novel unfolds, she interacts with other Asian characters who ask her the same thing: “Where are you from?” When she tells them Kentucky, there’s a disappointed reaction to her seeing herself as American. She embodies the duality of neither belonging among white Americans nor among the Asian community. As she says toward the end of the novel: “Alone I was a charming anomaly, with Kai I was a dangerous conspiracy.”

In certain ways, Jordan uses her Otherness to occupy a space not afforded to her gender at this time in history. As she is an outsider in elite white society, she is not expected to be a proper lady or behave in predefined proprieties. She takes greater freedoms that Daisy does not feel she can.

Personally, when I read The Great Gatsby in high school, I hated it. I hated all the characters and thought they were all the worst possible human beings. In this retelling through Jordan’s perspective, it’s easier to see the nuance of what makes these characters so terrible. For Daisy especially, as it’s clear throughout that Jordan is in love with her, there’s much more sympathy toward her position in a society that puts so much pressure on young, upper-class women.

All the queer subtext from the original novel gets brought to the forefront. Jordan, openly bisexual, has relationships with whoever strikes her fancy, including Nick, who is also bisexual. But Nick isn’t as open or accepting about his sexuality. Jordan tries to pull out of him his feelings for Gatsby but it makes Nick angry and she doesn’t bring it up again. Daisy and Jordan have an unspoken desire for each other that never becomes actualized.

The magic woven throughout the story brings another interesting layer to the original book. Jordan has special powers that appear to be an inheritance from her Vietnamese bloodline. She meets others like herself who have the same power, but she tries to deny this part of herself. It plays into her insecurities and how she fights against her Otherness in every way.

Where the classic novel ends with the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg looking upon Daisy’s crime, Jordan confronts the billboard and brings it to life with her magic powers to learn what they saw. She realizes what happened and reluctantly comes to Daisy’s rescue.

SPOILERS BEGIN

Vo also creates mindblowing twists with the added layer of magic. Jay Gatsby made a deal with the devil and when he fails to deliver his end of the deal, his life is taken. And in the end, Nick turns out to be a paper being of Jordan’s making with her magical powers. With all these strings that tethered her to New York gone, Jordan is finally free to go to Shanghai and find out where she really belongs.

SPOILERS END

At times the pacing is slow, but overall, it’s a compelling read that really brings the original story to another level. I listened to the audiobook, so the narrator, Natalie Naudus, brings it to life.

Content warning: racism

Meagan Kimberly reviews Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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In the second of the Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir, we follow the story of Harrow. But this isn’t the same Harrow from Gideon the Ninth. It seems like this is a Harrow from an alternate timeline and the original Harrow died. Except not really.

However, there are points where the narrative seems to jump back to referencing the previous Harrow, which makes the second-person point of view all the more confusing. There’s a distance created with the second-person perspective that leaves both main character and reader detached from Harrow.

Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure I understood what happened in this book. The varying memories and characters make it a convoluted mess that’s hard to follow. Essentially, it all comes down to a continued war waged against a revenant planet that, if I’m not mistaken, was controlled by god the Emperor the whole time.

There are so many characters that come and go, die and then turn out not to be dead, it makes it impossible to know what’s real and what isn’t. But perhaps that’s the point, as the Harrow the reader is following in this story appears to be losing her mind.

Except not really? It turns out she’s haunted by a ghost that her mind has turned into a monster called The Sleeper. Unclear who this figure is and their connection to Harrow. One of the more fun parts of the story happens when Harrow uses the power of narrative to combat her enemy. Using the old stories of heroes she grew up with, she creates a magical narrative to fight The Sleeper, literally speaking the outcome of the battle into existence.

Gideon does feature in this novel, but it’s hard to delve into her side of the story without major spoilers. But the plot twist with her character at the end does leave me so intrigued to continue reading the series. However, if the next book is just as convoluted and confusing as this one, I’m not sure I can finish it.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Make You Mine This Christmas by Lizzie Huxley-Jones

the cover of Make You Mine This Christmas

Christopher and Haf meet at a university Christmas party one night and after drunkenly kissing under the mistletoe, they’re mistaken for a couple. Rather than own up to the truth that they were simply strangers making out at a party, they go along with the idea. Haf agrees to fake date Christopher during the break with his family so as not to admit to her own family that she will be alone this holiday. Along the way, Haf meets an incredible woman at a bookstore, and oops, it turns out, it’s Christopher’s sister. Shenanigans ensue.

Haf and Christopher are absolutely delightful characters, despite what trainwrecks they both are. It’s pure bisexual chaotic energy as they go about trying to convince Christopher’s family that they’re a couple. Meanwhile, Haf is trying her damndest not to keep falling for his sister, the beautiful and intimidating Kit.

Huxley-Jones does a phenomenal job of developing Kit’s character. She is disabled and living with a chronic condition that leaves her physically exhausted and having to walk with a cane. But this never defines her entire character. She’s saucy, confident and a bit formidable, but in the best way. It’s no wonder Haf falls head over heels in love with her.

It’s easy for readers to fall in love with Haf as well. She’s a plus-size heroine who totally owns her body. It’s so refreshing to read a fat character’s story that doesn’t center on fretting over her weight. Moreover, no one around her ever makes her feel bad about her body.

Perhaps the most delightful thing about the plot is how it takes the fake dating trope and turns it into a rather sweet friendship between Haf and Christopher. It never turns into an awkward love triangle situation between her and the two siblings (which frankly I’m thankful for because that would have been too weird).

There are plenty of rom-com shenanigans to keep you laughing throughout the whole book, mixed in with heartwarming moments of friendship. There’s a particularly excellent chapter involving a baby reindeer and that’s all I’ll say about that. It’s the perfect cozy romance for the winter season and holidays.

Meagan Kimberly reviews White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

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It’s hard to summarize Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, as this is a novel less with plot and more with vibes. But to the best of my ability, a young girl, Miranda, develops an eating disorder called pica, where she eats and hungers for things that are inedible, after suffering through grief from the loss of her mother. She is haunted by the ghost of her mother, aunt, and grandmother, who call to her from the other side.

The novel reads more like one long ritual, with rhythmic language that mimics the casting of a spell. This ties into the witchcraft subject and its role in Miranda’s life. There is an interesting dynamic between the dark magic and Miranda’s eating disorder. As with all Gothic novels, it’s hard to tell what’s supernatural and what is mental illness, or how the supernatural exacerbates mental issues.

It reads like an amalgamation of memories and hallucinations, making it hard to follow the story. The jarring jumps in point of view make it difficult to tell who is speaking when one scene ends and another begins mid-thought. The switch from one narrator to another in the middle of a scene or thought reads as though there are lapses in the narrator’s memory.

Miranda has a twin brother, Eliot, who takes over the narration when her point of view shifts. Miranda’s perspective is told in the third person while Eliot’s takes place in the first person. This indicates how Miranda feels outside of herself. But there’s magical mischief afoot that suggests there may be a creature causing havoc and taking on Miranda’s image.

The narration takes a wild turn when the house becomes a narrator from time to time. It becomes an entity with a mind of its own and plays a role in Miranda’s haunting. Her family home becomes a containment vessel that holds the ghosts of Miranda’s ancestors and calls for her to become one of them.

For a time, Miranda gets away from the house and its hauntings when she leaves to attend college. This is where she meets Ore and begins a relationship with her. But the house’s call is too strong, and soon with her pica, Miranda becomes too ill to continue school, so she goes home and leaves Ore behind. It becomes a question of whether or not the house itself causes the illness and creates Miranda’s pica the way the disease took her mother as well.

There are some weird moments of incest between Miranda and Eliot, as well as Ore and her sister Tijana. Meanwhile, in the background, there’s a growing hostility toward refugees and those considered outsiders. These particular points play such a minuscule role in the overall story that it’s easy to forget they ever happened, or feel like they were random.

Oyeyemi’s book is a strange tale that would be easier to follow visually. I’d be interested to see it adapted as a television series or movie, as that would make the Gothic elements stand out so much more. Especially with how the story ends, leaving the reader questioning what actually happened.

Content warnings: eating disorder, incest

Meagan Kimberly reviews Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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Ready to cut loose from her life serving the Ninth House and a doomed future, Gideon makes plans to escape the planet, but Harrow has other plans for her. Harrow has been summoned by the Emperor to engage in a trial of necromantic skills and intellect. If either of them is to get what they want, they have to work together to discover the truth and survive it as a team.

Gideon uses her sarcastic humor as a defense mechanism to survive her servitude with the Ninth House. Throughout their lives, Harrow has made Gideon’s life a nightmare, manipulating her into getting involved with House politics. The evolution of their relationship as they become a necromancer/cavalier pairing sends them on a path to better understanding one another. Their antagonistic banter makes for a fun and funny romp of magical lesbians in space.

Gideon’s sexuality is established straightaway when she tries to bribe her superior with dirty magazines. Then, throughout the story, she grows close to Dulcinea, the Lady Septimus (of the Seventh House). While it’s absolutely clear from the get-go that Gideon is queer, it simply exists as part of who she is and is never questioned or condemned by characters around her, as it is a normal part of this world.

Muir’s world-building is intricate and complex. The story showcases necromancy magic more as a science, as well as part of the political structure of this world. Cavaliers and necromancers work together toward gaining power for their Houses, but within the events of this story, the characters start to learn their world and lives are not what they seem.

The narrative takes a turn as secrets start to come to light. The more the truth comes to light, the closer Harrow and Gideon become, pointing toward an enemies-to-lovers relationship in the works. The point where the tension breaks between them creates a satisfactory moment of letting go of the past so that they can move forward with a new kind of relationship.

I listened to this on audiobook as narrated by the animated and engaging Moira Quirk. Quirk truly brought each character to life, which helped in trying to keep track of all the different cast of characters throughout the story—although some kind of character chart/map would’ve been much appreciated.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and the ending definitely leaves you wanting to read the rest of the series.

Meagan Kimberly reviews A Lot Like Adiós by Alexis Daria

A Lot Like Adiós cover

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Gabe and Michelle had been best friends since childhood. As they grew into teenagers, their feelings took a turn toward romantic, but before they did anything about it, Gabe left.

Over 10 years later, Michelle works as a freelance marketing specialist in the Bronx and Gabe owns a gym in LA, and they haven’t had contact since he left, until now. Gabe makes a return to New York to work with Michelle on a marketing campaign to open a new branch of the gym. Emotions run high, lies become tangled and it’s time for both of them to face the past if they’re going to reach their happy ending.

This is a Latine story on every level. Sprinkled with Spanglish and Spanish throughout narration and dialogue, mentions of Puerto Rican and Mexican foods and their families being way too involved in their relationship all create a familiar environment for Latine readers. Gabe’s strained relationship with his parents is also a familiar situation that many children of immigrants can relate to and plays a central role in his character development. Throughout the novel, Gabe begins to untangle his old feelings and realize a great deal of miscommunication occurred between them.

Meanwhile, Michelle works toward untangling her relationship with work and burnout, especially as how those parts of her life act as a crutch to keep her from making meaningful relationships. As she reconnects with Gabe, she begins to let go of control and stop doubting herself and her abilities.

As the story unfolds, there are inserts of a fanfic Gabe and Michelle wrote together as teenagers called Celestial Destiny. They shared a love for a sci-fi TV show that finally gave them Latinos in space and then was canceled after only one season, a stituation too many of us are all too familiar with. But these inserts serve as a fantastical way to convey a lot of character development that Michelle and Gabe keep from one another and even themselves.

Bisexuality is dealt with subtly in this book. There’s a conversation early on between them where Michelle states, “Gabe, are you telling me we’re both bisexual?” They have a brief conversation about their past relationships regarding being bi and that’s the last you hear of it. It’s a different way for bisexuality to play a role in an f/m romance story than I’ve seen before. There’s never a big deal made about it. It’s addressed but it doesn’t make up the bulk of the plot or character development. But that doesn’t make these characters any less queer.

Within the little bit about the characters’ sexualities, however, there is more nuance given to Michelle. She speaks about dating people of different genders but never having sex with women. She doesn’t hide her sexual orientation from her family, but she doesn’t discuss her dating life with them either. It seems like she’s still getting comfortable with her bi identity.

For those who like their romance novels extra steamy, you’re in luck! A Lot Like Adiós includes lots of hot sex, dirty talk and wonderful examples of consent. Alexis Daria did a fantastic job of portraying a passionate relationship without shying away from sex, desire and pleasure, making it all guilt-free and without shame. It’s totally sex-positive,

Meagan Kimberly reviews Crossfire: A Litany for Survival by Staceyann Chin

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I had the privilege to see Staceyann Chin do a live reading at Miami Book Fair a few years ago, which is where and why I picked up this collection. Her performance was electric and captivating, and that strong voice translates well on the page.

Every piece is propulsive and rhythmic, feeling like there’s a drum beat underlying each one. A lack of punctuation in most pieces creates this movement, forcing you to read line after line after line, all in one breath until you reach the end of the poem, like in “Catalogue the Insanity,” written from start to finish without any punctuation marks, not even a period at the end.

But there are also quieter moments that slow down the rhythm, giving you a chance to breathe. Chin creates this with the use of white space around lines and stanzas, such as in the poem, Love:

“I’ve bought the bloody myth
swallowed that sucker
hairy legs and all
crawled careless into bed with a fantasy
and now I’m hopping antsy with expectation
having drawn these crooked lines
in what looked to me like sand
my uncertain frame stands
hooked
on what I have been promised by the TV
by that saccharine ache Anita Baker
moans from a mass-produced CD…”

The speaker’s language packs a punch, bringing forth fire and anger. Chin is unapologetic in her feminist rage and it energizes the reader, making you feel like burning it all down. Covering themes of sex and sexuality, rape and assault, it can be overwhelming at times. But that’s the point. Her purpose is to be loud and in your face and make it hard for you to look away.

She combines poetic imagery and metaphors with straightforward phrases that don’t mince words to create both art and rant, like in the poem Speech Delivered in Chicago at 2006 Gay Games:

“…even in friendly conversation
I have to rein in the bell hooks-ian urge
to kill motherfuckers who say stupid shit to me
all day, bitter branches of things I cannot say out loud
sprout deviant from my neck…”

Overall, this is a loud and empowering collection of poetry that is accessible to readers who often feel like they don’t understand poetry. It’s an outstanding example of how much we need more diversity and representation to give space for voices that often get drowned out by the mainstream and literary canon.

Content warnings: rape, homophobia, violence

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

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Every year the witch queen of Caldella must choose a lover from the town to sacrifice to the dark tide, saving the island and its people from annihilation. Every year another boy is taken and everyone accepts it. But when Lina’s brother is in danger of becoming the sacrifice, she can no longer sit idly by. Tomas—her crush and the only boy who ever escaped the witch queen’s sacrifice—helps her keep her brother safe, but ends up being taken again. Feeling guilty and not wanting to lose him, Lina sets out to his rescue and takes his place. Lina and the witch queen, Eva, butt heads at first, but they soon come to know each other better until they’re willing to fight for changes.

Perhaps it was the audiobook narration, but the overall story was underwhelming. The world-building and magic were the strongest aspects of the story. Magic is established straightaway as a luxury to be bought as spells and potions. It’s also shown that the dark tide is only kept at bay when the witch queen’s sacrifice is truly a sacrifice, meaning she has to love them.

The characters’ relationships never feel organic. On paper, they’re written as falling in love, with all the familiar markers of enemies to lovers. But the connection between Eva and Lina never feels authentic. Similarly, Lina’s love for Tomas is more of a crush. But this speaks to Lina’s tendency to romanticize everything. She lives in fantasy, thinking the world works as good and evil, with good prevailing and true love winning the day.

Lina’s relationship with her brother, Finley, is one of the more interesting dynamics that only touched the surface. Coming from her point of view, it seems like she and Finley fight like normal siblings. However, it’s established from the beginning that his anger was so violent that he ended up hurting her, leading to her broken ankle. Every time she thinks about the incident, she makes excuses saying she shouldn’t have made him angry and that he really loves her, but his temper gets the best of him. It’s the narrative her family has been telling her whole life, so of course, she believes that his actions are mistakes and not abuse. It’s not until Eva tells her that Finley abuses her and that she doesn’t have to accept that abuse that Lina begins to see their relationship differently.

Lina, with her head in fantasy and giving people the benefit of the doubt, plays the role of the “good girl,” while Eva, the literal witch who doesn’t allow others to disrespect her boundaries, is “evil.” These dynamics are the more intriguing storyline, but the book gets bogged down in trying to make their eventual romance the focus.

Content warning: abuse