Mo Springer reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kaylynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

200 years ago, Cinderella died. Now, all the girls of the kingdom are forced to reenact her fairytale, forced into marrying men who mistreat them and discard of them as they please. But is there any truth in the story the system of cruelty is based on?

Sophia is in love with Erin, who wants to follow the rules to ensure good fortune for her parents and her own future. Sophia is horrified by what she sees at the ball and runs–right into Constance, whose history changes everything Sophia thought she knew. Together the two of them must find a way to end these years of suffering–but will they be able to endure it for their happiness, with each other?

This was a really good book. I love fantasy and this was an interesting world to explore, the author clearly put a lot of thought into the building of it and it shows in the narrative. I liked how this wasn’t too complicated of a system to try and understand; there’s a lot of the world that is similar to our own, which lends itself well to being a story you can relate to you.

The characters felt like they fit this world and were created by its structures and cruelty. Sophia was a great protagonist, leaping off the page from the beginning. As a reader, I was able to engage with her very well, and I was invested in her story. Her romance with Constance was also fun, there was some really good tension there, as well as with Erin. The side characters felt real and helped build the story, especially the villain and their motivations.

The plot was fast paced, and there was never a part I felt bored. I liked how character-driven the story was and the satisfying arcs that followed. The stakes felt real, as the villain was well built and established.

There were some parts that felt a bit too quick, and I would have liked some more build up and complexity to those moments in the story. Sometimes it felt like the author had a lot of scenes in mind and then patched them together after writing them up. That’s not to say those scenes were badly written or took away from the story, but overall, it felt like connection between them could have been stronger.

Having said, this was still a fully enjoyable novel and I recommend it to anyone interested in fairy tales and fantasy.

Mo Springer reviews Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Lucky is a lesbian, but in her conservative Sri Lankan family, that’s not an option. She married her gay friend Kris and they go to gay bars, have lovers, and still have the approval and conditional love of their family. When her grandmother falls and Lucky has to move back home to help take care of her, the lies become harder and more pressing. Then, Lucky’s childhood sweetheart Nisha is getting married, and Lucky wants to save her. She’s trapped in the obligations of a family that has many of its own problems–her father divorced her mother for her best friend, her sister entered an arranged marriage she didn’t want but seems happy, and her other sister ran away. Lucky wants to escape this life of duty without happiness, but how can she leave her family behind?

This was a hard story, I won’t lie. There is a lot of honesty and truth in this book, and the author doesn’t pull any punches. Lucky is miserable, and her obvious depression bleeds through the page. Having said that, it’s important to note that this is not a bad story–this is an amazing story that surrounds sad events.

Every single character is so unique and well-rounded that by the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people personally. Lucky’s mother clings to these traditions and cultural rules so desperately as a way to keep control of her life that has been destroyed by these same rules (her husband who left her is accepted in their society, but not she, the divorced woman). Her grandmother has always been very dear, and has lived an amazing life, but now puts Lucky into a panic with talk of grandchildren. Nisha wants her family to love and accept her, but she also wants to have her own life and happiness. Kris is desperate to be different from what he is, to keep up this lie as much as possible, to never let go, no matter the cost to Lucky.

A lot of these characters come across as unlikeable for good reason. Lucky’s mother is unquestioningly homophobic. At times it seems that Nisha is using Lucky more than caring about how her decisions have an affect on her. Kris, similarly, seems to be using Lucky.

Kris in particular I had a hard time giving as much empathy to as I was with the other characters. As much as I hated Lucky’s mother’s decisions, I can understand them. I felt all of her Lucky’s pain every time Nisha did something to hurt her, but I can also sympathize with where Nisha is coming from. But with Kris, at times it really felt like he just saw Lucky as a means to an end, the end being his acceptance in their community and his family. Lucky wants to lie to keep her family happy, but Kris seems to want more than that. He wants to be normal and have the social status he would have if he was straight.

Social status and community acceptance are themes for all the characters. The author does a great job of explaining the Sri Lankan culture and traditions, creating an immersive experience that also helps to inform the reader of the characters’ motivations. As much as I didn’t like what a lot of them did, I understood them and stayed engaged with their story arcs.

The writing itself is also amazingly beautiful. The exact and specific imagery that flows through the narrative pulled me so effectively the real world felt like a blur. I think I must have highlight lines on every page, it was so stunning.

This is a great book, and I do highly recommend it. It’s not a light and fluffy read, so don’t go into it expecting that, but it is fulfilling.

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!

Mo Springer reviews The Dawn of Nia by L. Cherelle

Dawn of Nia by Lauren Cherelle

This review contains minor spoilers.

Nia’s life and self have been shaped by her friendship with her mentor Pat and is grief stricken when she dies. At the funeral, she meets a mysterious woman who turns out to be none other than Pat’s estranged daughter, Deidra. Nia is left feeling confused and betrayed–why did Pat keep this secret from her, when Nia had shared everything? Her life and feelings about Pat are further complicated when she enters a relationship with Deidra. Can they weather this storm of complicated feelings surrounding a woman who was so complicated herself, and let go of past trauma?

Both Nia and Deidra are characters who have been through a lot of trauma and a lot of demons in their pasts. It was interesting to see how they deal with the challenges and obstacles that rose from this baggage. Both of them make good and bad decisions, which helped make the story and their characters more realistic and believable. Sometimes the best people make the worst decisions, and they have to deal with the consequences of that.

You didn’t get to meet Pat, Nia’s dead mentor who was so very close to her, and Deidra’s dead mother, who she was so very distant from. But you get an intimate picture of her character from both women’s perspectives and through them see what a complex person she was. Sometimes people are bad parents, but very good in other roles of life, and you get to see how Deidra and Nia both have to grapple with how each other see someone who has had such a tremendous impact on both their lives.

In L. Cherelle’s Goodreads author page, she describes this book as being about “transformative love”, which is the best way to put it (she would know, being the author). A lot of romance stories focus on the lead up, the rising tension, the hot scenes, and the will-they won’t-they. And there is a lot of that here (with some wonderfully hot scenes), but it doesn’t detract from that transformative love theme. You don’t just get to see two characters grow and develop in separate narratives. Nia and Deidra’s character arcs are tightly wound together.

Another thing I loved about this book was how realistic all the characters were, not just Nia and Deidra. There’s a large ensemble cast of characters and they each get a moment to shine and show their true colors–for better or worse. A lot of the dialogue felt very real and lifelike, as if I was a fly on the wall in the characters’ homes.

With these characters there was also an interesting exploration of sexuality and how labels function for different people. Nia describes herself as 99% of a lesbian, having a very slight attraction to men but not the desire to pursue relationships with them. Deidra describes herself as bisexual, but also later on calls herself a lesbian to indicate her monogamous, long-term relationship with Nia.

Adding more to the realistic theme of the book is how it ends. I won’t give anything away, but the way different story threads are wrapped up felt true to life while still being a satisfactory fiction element. Chapters of your life don’t always end with a bang, but sometimes with just a whisper. You don’t always get a big scene of drama: sometimes you just have a conversation in your living room and leave it at that. Having said that, this book does have some great scenes of big drama, and where it does, it always feels like it fits the characters involved and the tension that has led to that moment.

Overall, this was both an incredibly fun and fulfilling read that I highly recommend.

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.