Mo Springer reviews A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby with Mary Louisa Plummer

A Two-Spirit Journey by Ma-Nee Chacaby

Trigger Warning: This book graphic depictions of physical and sexual assault

My kokum explained that two-spirit people were once loved and respected within our communities, but times had changed and they were no longer understood or valued in the same way. When I got older, she said, I would have to figure out how to live with two spirits as an adult. She warned me I probably would experience many hard times along the way. I remember her rubbing my head and shoulders, saying, ‘I feel for you. You’re not going to have an easy life when you get older.’

Chacaby, Ma-Nee (Kindle Locations 1170-1173)

Ma-Nee was born in 1950 in Thunder Bay, Ontario in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Shortly after this she was adopted by a French couple, but she was soon found by her grandmother who acquired custody and raised her in Ombabika amongst an Ojibwa and Cree community. Growing up in Ombabika, Ma-Nee learned a great deal of her heritage and traditions from her grandmother and describes many happy memories of her time her. However, at the same time, her childhood was also characterized by the physical abuse of her mother, sexual abuse from family and strangers alike, growing up in a community plagued by alcoholism, and racism from the Canadian government.

When she was a teenager, Ma-Nee was married to an older man who abused her. She experienced alcoholism herself, homophobia, visual impairment, and many more obstacles and struggles. Through her ongoing struggles, Ma-Nee persevered and found strength in herself and her community. She became a mother not only to her own children and those in her family, but to many in the foster system. She becomes an AA sponsor, an elder of her people, and a leader in the LGBTQ+ community. This is a story that outlines the racism and prejudice experienced by a Two-Spirit Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder, and how she survived it all to then lead others through the same struggles.

I’ll be honest, this is a hard book to read, but an important one. The afterword describes how the book came to be, with Ma-Nee telling her story and Mary Louisa Plummer transcribing it. The end-result feels like a story that is being told you, as if Ma-Nee was in the room with you recounting her life. I found it very hard to put the book down, no matter how brutal the subject matter. The text comes alive through photographs of and paintings by Ma-Nee, giving us more of an immersive perspective into her life.

If you wish to learn more about two-spirit people, the experiences of Indigenous women, and the hardships faced by queer women of color, I highly recommend this book.

Mary reviews A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

Ireland? Ghosts? A hot horse trainer?  What more could you ask for?!

Nora is spending her summer exploring the Irish town her grandparents hail from when she discovers her cottage is haunted by a tragic history. She falls in love with the country and the people, her cousins and new friends (and one friend that could turn into more), but her vacation soon takes a drastic turn. She’s started sleepwalking and having awful nightmares, and she won’t leave the cottage for anything or anyone.

Briana has lived in relative solitude–by choice. She works with horses, a job she’s passionate about, has a few friends, and a family she rarely visits. Ever since an accident years ago that she refuses to talk about, she hasn’t let herself grown close to anyone. All of that changes when Nora moves to town and ruffles her feathers.

I won’t lie, I wasn’t very engaged with this book for the first third. The plot took its time getting off the ground, but once it did, I was all in! The author makes sure to set the stage for what’s about to happen so that once it does, you can’t stop reading. As the paranormal happenings rise, tensions between Nora and Briana, as well as with her cousin, rise as well. The relationships you’ve spent so much time reading about developing are now at great risk, and so is Nora.

The characters felt real and interesting. Nora had a full personality with a character arc that I felt was complete by the end. The same can be said for Briana, who was a nice contrast point-of-view character to Nora as their perspectives on haunted cottage vary more and more drastically as the book goes on. Their romance was soft and a slow burn that also had its hot moments. It was nice to watch them grow closer over the course of the book.

Nora’s cousins and friends Sheila and Quinn were good side characters that felt real and added to the story. It was fun to see Nora explore her Irish roots and grow some new ones in her grandparent’s new town through Sheila and Quinn and other family members she meets along the way.

The paranormal aspect of the story was a lot better than I expected. I thought it would be more subdued, but as the ghost–or ghosts–drag Nora into their past, I was dragged along as well. It was also nicely wrapped into Irish history and I enjoyed how the setting played a character of its own.

Overall, this was a fun and enjoyable read. If you’re looking for a paranormal mystery with some subdued romance, this is the book for you!

Mary reviews Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future and trying to figure out what it will look like. Will this blow over in a couple of months and will things steadily return to normal? Or is the future forever changed and doomed? I guess it’s nice to think that even if it is the worst-case scenario we’re heading towards, there’s still hope for the LGBTQ+ community.

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey takes place in a future southwest where society is under the control of a fascist, religious, and patriarchal regime. The protagonist, Esther watches her best friend and lover Beatriz hang for deviant behavior and having “unapproved materials”. She runs away in the back a wagon owned by a couple of librarians, planning to join their group and somehow find a way to get rid of what she believes is a horrible part of her. She wants to become what the posters proclaim them to be, upright women.

What she instead finds is an underground LGBTQ+ community, bandits, violence, many secrets, and women that are leagues better than what the posters described.

Esther is a very real character in that she has a lot of issues and internal confusion to work through. It was interesting getting to see a character work through that in real time with the story and see her gradually overcome with it the help of people around her.

The characters were just as real. There was Bet and Leda, the couple’s whose wagon she initially snuck onto. Bet is gruff and tough, but has a heart of gold and genuinely cares for everyone in her crew. Leda is just as tough, but also shows more of her compassion externally than her partner. Finally, there’s Cye, who goes by they, is an apprentice to Bet, and doesn’t initially like Esther too much, but the two of them eventually grow to like each other and more.

The world building was wonderful. Every inch of struggle that would come with such a harsh environment is included here, no short cuts taken. This really is a post-apocalyptic future where our current comforts are not to be found. The author clearly did a lot of research and this comes through beautifully.

My one complaint is that the plot felt a bit rushed. There were a few beats and character developments that could have taken more time and build up. The characters, concept, and world building is great, and I just wish the plot had taken the time to give them to time they needed.

Overall, I genuinely enjoyed this, and if you’re looking for a western story with adventure and romance, this is just for you

Mary reviews Thornfruit by Felicia Davin

Thornfruit by Felicia Davin

Alizhan has grown up in the noble house of Iriyat ha-Varensi, using her secret powers to read people’s minds. The downside of her powers is that she can touch someone or be touched without causing extreme pain to both her and the other person. It is because of this that her life has been lonely with only Iriyat for brief moments of painless touch, but the woman who rescued her from an orphanage is keeping many secrets of her own.

Besides Iriyat, Alizhan has Evreyet Umarsad. Going by Ev, she has grown up on a farm with her loving parents and taken the cart every week to the market to sell her thornfruit. Every week, the same thief steals her thornfruit, but Ev is fond of them. This thief is Alizhan, and she has no one else to turn to when she starts to unravel a complex plot involving her powers, Iriyat’s secrets, and an unknown number of innocent lives.

This was a great book! Alizhan and Ev were wonderfully real. Alizhan definitely felt like someone who grew up isolated and was completely unfamiliar with any sort of human interaction. She was adorably earnest though! Ev was equally realistic in being more down to earth and realistic, while also repressing her attraction to women. Both of them have been isolated in different ways and in finding each other they find they aren’t so alone. The two of them were engaging and watching them slowly grapple with their feelings for each other was wonderful.

The world building was probably my favorite part besides Alizhan and Ev. There are no days and nights like we have in our world, it’s day all the time and they split their time into “shifts”. Night is a whole place, called the Nightward Coast. In addition, there are waves that will wreak havoc and deadly medusas deep in the ocean.

The plot starts off as a kind of mystery and then turns into a chase mixed with a heist. It was intriguing and exciting. It’s balanced between the big picture of the political implications and the smaller day-to-day trials Alizhan and Ev have to go through such as finding money to continue their investigation.

Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I avidly look forward to reading the sequel. If you’re looking for a fun, intriguing, fantasy romance I highly suggest picking this up.

Mary Springer reviews Out of the Woods by TJ Land

Out of the Woods by TJ Land cover

Ruth and Hermana have been best friends since Ruth fished Hermana out of the river as when they were both children. Ruth lives with her older brother on the outskirts of town, outcasts on account of their long-gone parents’ choices. Hermana’s parents are also gone, and she lives with her grandmother, the local midwife. They’re best friends and experts at the wilds they live in, known to the town as savages. Their life is as predictable and as enjoyable as they make it, until they find a dead body – and it may not even be human.

I loved how authentically adolescent Ruth and Hermana were. They were teenage girls in the purest, most feral form, and I loved every bit of it. They definitely should have gone for help about the dead body way sooner, but the fact that they didn’t, that they thought they in their wholly unexperienced youth could handle such a thing, only made me like them more. They are terribly mean to several people, some who deserve it and some who don’t. But it’s realistic with how they grew up, treated as outsiders and even savages by the townsfolk. Or in one rich guy’s case for Ruth, as some beautiful savage who can be tamed and made civil for his high-class friends.

Ruth and Hermana’s also have a friends-to-lovers romance. It might be slow and not really in the spotlight of the story, but for what is there, it really shines. I definitely spent a good portion reading this cheering them on to get together already.

The side characters also had their time to shine. There’s a subplot involving this girl who is the maid at the local rich woman’s house, and her romance with the local sheriff, who’s a handsome butch. Then there’s Hermana’s grandmother, Ruth’s brother, and a whole host of other characters who have small parts but make big roles out of them for the short time we read about them.

The world building was also a lot of fun. It’s a short book, so the author doesn’t try to throw too much at it, keeping it relatively easy to understand and in tradition of most fantasy settings. But at the same time, the world has its own uniqueness in the places where it counts that makes the story come alive and be all the more engaging. I found it easy to sink in and imagine myself there.

It’s also very much a story about women their places in a patriarchal town in a patriarchal society. It was sometimes frustrating but overall interesting to see how the characters find ways to overcome the struggles they face because the men they must deal with. It was enjoyable to see the characters combat these challenges in their own ways.

I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a fun fantasy story.

Mary reviews Cinders by Cara Malone

Cinders by Cara Malone

Since she first moved to Grimm Falls, Cyn Robinson has lived in the shadow of her stepmother’s disapproval, her stepbrother’s resentment, and her father’s inability to fully accept her mother’s death. She has also lived with the unrequited love for Grimms Falls royalty, Marigold Grimm. For a long time now, Mari has been trying to prove to her father she can take over the family business on her own, without a partner.

Now a string of fires brings them together, and sparks fly in more way than one. Cyn is a firefighter determined to find the arsonist, and Marigold’s late mother’s garden is destroyed in one of the fires.

This is a modern retelling of Cinderella that put a really interesting spin on it. I love that Cyn is a firefighter, playing on the original fairy tale’s section where Cinderella gets her name from sleeping in the cinders. It also made her a more active part of the story. I also liked that they changed the evil stepsisters into one stepbrother whose evilness is explored a bit more deeply.

I like a good mystery, and this was a fun one. A few small chapters are from the arsonist’s point-of-view, which added to the tension.

The mystery also played well with the romance, and the two didn’t detract from each other. They both grew naturally and enjoyably. Cyn and Mari were believably infatuated with each other. It’s a little bit of a love-at-first-sight story, but it’s made believable by their well written chemistry and their history.

My one gripe is that the story felt a little rushed. I would have liked certain parts to take longer, to really amp up the tension.

Overall, it’s a nice short and sweet modern fairy tale with an interesting mystery. I recommend this if you’re looking for a quick read.

Mary reviews Gingerbread Hearts by Judy Underwood

Gingerbread Hearts edited by Judy Underwood

Up until recently I’ve avoided short stories. I wanted a nice, full novel to sink my teeth into and take my time with. But now I have a full-time job with a long commute and reading full novels becomes a bit more challenging. So with that, now I love short stories, which brings me to Gingerbread Hearts by a multitude of authors.

“Holiday Outing by” Alison Grey

Susanne plans to come out to her family while they’re all together for the holidays. Her sister has her back, but saying a few simple words turns out to be harder than she thought. Plus, she has to navigate each family member and their quirks throughout the night leading up to the reveal.

This was a fun little snippet. I wish I had gone on longer, it felt like the ending was only the beginning. The family was realistic and each person had their own personality that was fun to get to know.

“It’s in the Pudding” by Emma Weimann

Ida’s family has a Christmas tradition that whoever finds the almond in the pudding gets to make a wish. Ida’s wish was to let go and find love by next Christmas, not to go to the dentist when the almond disagrees with her filling. But when the dentist turns out to be someone from Ida’s past, she thinks maybe the almond wasn’t so wrong.

This was a great meet-cute that I didn’t see coming. Ida and her family, especially her friendship with her sister-in-law, had a nice and fun dynamic that was engaging to read. There were also clear sparks between her and the dentist, Theresa, that leapt off the page.

However, this story had a few fatphobic comments that were not needed or entertaining.

“Devgo” by Corinna Behrens

Rebecca has rejected and isolated herself from her friends and family, broken up with her girlfriend, and surrounded herself in her wealth and power. Now, a being both from heaven and hell, Devgo, visits her on Christmas to give her a last chance.

This was another really short one that I thought could have been expanded more. It felt like an introduction to a longer story I would really like to have read. The introduction of Devgo was interesting and believable. Rebecca was clearly a horrible person, but the author does a good job of still making her engaging as a character despite that
.
“A Magical Christmas” RJ Nolan

Erin’s ex-husband broke a promise to their kids right before Christmas, leading her girlfriend Kris to plan a surprise getaway for the family. But both Erin and Kris have things to work through and obstacles to work through together to make this Christmas theirs.

This was my favorite story! Erin and Kris, their relationship, and dynamics with the kids felt real and wonderful. I could really believe they had been together for a while, and that they had some real issues to work through. At the same time, it was still romantic and fun. I wish I could read more about them.

“The Christmas Grump” and “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” by Jae

These two stories are in the same universe with the same characters, so I put them together.
In “The Christmas Grump”, Rachel is a mall security guard during the worst time of the year to be working at a mall. Last year she has a terrible Christmas, and now she’s anything but in the holly jolly spirit. Then she meets Tyler and his single mother, who has a reason to not be in the Christmas spirit.

In “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” it’s been a year since their first Christmas together, and Rachel and Lillian are happy. But Rachel doesn’t know what to get Lillian, and she doesn’t know exactly what Lillian wants with her in the long term.

These two were my second favorite in the collection. Jae does a great job of slowly building the characters, the world and the relationships. I feel like I could have read a whole book about these people. Rachel and Lillian have a sweet and romance dynamic. Tyler is also a great child characters, which can be hard to do, especially in the length and time constraints of a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Christmas short story collection and recommend it to anyone looking for a chance to get in the holiday spirit. You can download the e-book for free directly from Ylva’ Publishing’s website.

Mary reviews The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews

The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews (affiliate link)

Princess Snow White and the Evil Queen (Harlow) have been at war for years. Harlow might have been married to Snow’s father, but he died shortly after they were married, and the two women are very similar in age. Growing up, they had something of a friendship, but that changed over time, and their paths diverged into darkness. Now, Harlow suggests a truce to the war that would require Snow to live with her and at the end of it make a choice that would change everything.

This an erotic romance novel with a twist on a classic fairy tale that was interesting and enjoyable to read. Snow is more independent in this and is out on the front lines of the war with her husband Prince Charles. What I really loved about her character, though, was her resolve to continuously be compassionate and understanding. She isn’t hardened by her dark past with Harlow or the war: she remains kind.

Harlow, on the other hand, is hardened, but understandably so. The story delves into her past: how she got her powers and to be the queen in the first place. She has many secrets that she struggles with, along with the trauma of her past. I like that the story doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of her or try to excuse her actions when they’re wrong. She has to make right what she’s done, not only for Snow, or her kingdom, but for herself.

The romance was a lot of fun and never felt like my excitement died down while reading this. It helps to know the fairy tale beforehand and come into it knowing that Snow and Harlow were at least somewhat close before the war, because things do pick up rather quickly. Having said that, I never felt like it moved too fast. I could definitely tell these two were old friends in some way, and the chemistry sparked so easily between them that their interactions felt natural.

The world building and the magic were also great. While the story changes the narrative, it still felt like a fairy tale, and without giving too much away, the way the magic mirror works was a really interesting twist.

Overall, I loved this retelling of Snow White and recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and erotic romance story.

Mary reviews Crossing the Wide Forever by Missouri Vaun

Crossing the Wide Forever by Missouri Vaun

I love historical fiction with sapphic love stories, especially set in the old west. This as niche a genre as it can get, but the heart wants what the heart wants. This time my love has brought me to Crossing the Wide Forever by Missouri Vaun.

After years of abuse and isolation on her family’s farm, Cody finally revolts against her father, disguises herself as a man and heads west to find fortune and freedom. Along the way she meets, Lillie, who has left her upper middle-class life to take up a farm her uncle left her when he passed. She also has dreams of being an artist, but she is hindered by misogyny of her society. Once they meet, they become friends, and soon grow closer than that.

This is a very pleasant and soothing friends-to-lovers story that warmed my heart. Cody and Lillie were distinct characters and their own arcs as well as their love story was engaging. The author takes her time to show Cody and Lillie slowly developing feelings for each other and finding ways to deal with that. How Cody took care of her secret was also well done and how Lillie handled it.

The author also does a good job of bringing characters and making them a meaningful part of the story, no matter how brief their encounter. Cody and Lillie make many friends on their journey, from ones they travel with, to neighbors on the farm, to people back in their home states. All of them felt real and engaging.

Another aspect I liked about the story was how antagonist wasn’t one single person, but the frontier and challenges of society. Both Cody and Lillie have to deal with several unsavory characters and circumstances, and they all felt real and interesting. This really added to the believability of the story and their characters arcs.

The world building was also very well done. Vaun clearly did a lot of research into the time period and the daily lives of those who lived in it. I felt like I was really there and reminded me of why I love this genre so much.

My one gripe is that I wanted the story to be longer. Some plot points felt a bit of rushed and I would have liked to have sit with the turmoil and challenges a bit longer. As I said, I enjoyed that the antagonist was the time period and society, but those challenges would have benefited from being more deeply explored by the characters.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story book and I recommend it to any other sapphic fans of historical fiction.

Mary reviews Hidden Truths by Jae

Hidden Truths by Jae

I loved the story of Luke and Nora in Backwards to Oregon by Jae, in which a woman in disguise as a man marries another woman in what starts as a fake relationship to help each other on the long Oregon trial, turns into a romantic, slow burn favorite of mine. You can find my review for that here. Hidden Truths is the sequel set 17 years later and focuses more on Luke and Nora’s eldest daughter Amy and her romance with newcomer to the horse ranch, Rika. Amy has grown up under the love of her parents and given much more freedom than most women in her age. She also feels an attraction to women that she struggles with but is able to keep locked down – that is until she meets Rika. Rika comes to Oregon pretending to be her her dead friend to be a mail order bride to a man who works on the farm. Along with all of that, Luke still hasn’t revealed to her two daughters that she is a woman, despite them both being old enough to keep the secret.

Hidden identity is a theme I love and here it was explored so well. Luke is hiding her gender, Rika is hiding her name and history, and Amy is hiding her sexuality. All of these conflicts and storylines weave together and build off of each other. Each character moves the other forward in their arc and development. Everyone gets a moment to shine, which I’m glad for as I was worried when I saw how big the cast is.

The romance between Amy and Rika was very engaging. I could really believe who they slowly took time to get to know each other, then to trust one another, and then to slowly fall in love. At the same time both are struggling with secrets they have from each other.

However, the romance isn’t the only plot. Luke takes some of his horses to another state to sell them and Amy is left in charge of the ranch. She has to deal with men not wanting to follow her command in an era where women were nothing more than wives.

I also really appreciated the world building and the clear expansive amount of research the author had put in. I love historical fiction and nothing can ruin a story more for me than feeling plots points and character movements are out of place for the era. At the same time, it can be just as damning to have too much exposition on the world and the time period. Jae masterfully weaves in the information with the characters and their stories.

Overall, this was a great read I recommend to anyone who likes historical fiction and/or stories with hidden identity. This is a sequel, but I think it stands very well on its own if you want to start here instead of Backwards to Oregon (but I do highly recommend that one as well).