Love at First Selkie: The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl From the Sea cover

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On a recent trip to Portland, my partner and I picked up The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (she/her) from Powell’s City of Books.  This gorgeous graphic novel follows Morgan Kwon, a 15-year-old young woman living with her mom and younger brother on Wilneff Island in southeastern Nova Scotia, Canada. Morgan and her family moved there from Toronto about seven years ago, when her parents were happier, her brother wasn’t angry, and she didn’t have to worry about her sexuality. Fast forward to present-day, where her dad has moved out to the city, her brother is increasingly insufferable, and she can’t wait to go to college in a city so she can finally be out.

Early in the novel, Morgan is seeking refuge from issues at home in her quiet place—the cliffs overlooking the sea—when she slips on a wet rock, hits her head, and falls into the water. As she drifts below the waves and begins to see her life flash before her eyes, she is rushed to the surface by the beautiful Keltie.  Back on solid ground and emboldened by her near-death-experience, Morgan kisses Keltie, who she is certain is a hallucination.

Only Keltie is real. She is a selkie: a creature from Celtic and Norse mythology that can change between human and seal form by removing or replacing their seal skin. A kiss from her true love (Morgan?!), has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human and walk on land. Morgan must now decide how Keltie fits into her life, if at all. 

Ostertag’s illustrations are gorgeous. She perfectly captures every character’s facial expressions and body language. Even without text, a reader would know that Keltie is carefree and earnest, that she loves Morgan plainly and without reservation. They would also know that Morgan is put together, neat, and precise, that her body is tense from keeping her family, friends, and personal life in separate boxes. 

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet and beautiful meditation on first queer love and how exhilarating and terrifying it is all at the same time. It is also a reckoning of the pressure queer people feel to compartmentalize our lives. How that pressure forces us to live double and triple lives, draining us of our precious energy and robbing us of our joy. Being our truest, most authentic selves is not always something that comes easy, but it is nowhere near the cost of hiding the best parts of ourselves.

I really enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend reading it. I love how it weaves folklore together with queer coming of age and how it addresses challenges that many queer people experience without exposition. If you enjoy this book, Ostertag (@molly_ostertag on Instagram) has written several other graphic young adult novels with queer and other diverse characters, including The Deep Dark, which is coming out on June 4, 2024.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

anna marie reviews Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai is a gooey treat of a book, full of nauseating smells, intoxicating feelings and so much juicy/murky/enticing fluid. In other words it was really great, even better than The Tiger Flu (2018) in my opinion, which I read last year and enjoyed immensely too. Both novels in fact share certain preoccupations with gross bodily queerness as well as dystopian capitalist futures and clones.

Published in 2002, the novel tells a dual or even quadruple story at once. It floats out of time frames, bodies and characters but the main focal points are two protagonists. Nu Wa & her story, generally in nineteenth century China, and her experience falling in love with the salt fish girl who works at the market and Miranda, who’s growing up in the technocapitalist Pacific Northwest from 2042 onwards, and who has the pungent smell of the durian fruit constantly emanating from her whole being and whose family is trying to find a cure.

I was prepared to love the book, it had been recommended to me by a friend, and, as I said I’d already enjoyed another of Lai’s novels. From the first lines I knew I would like it–lines on the first page about loneliness and primordial sludge made me pause with wonder. I was sold; “It was a murkier sort of solitude, silent with the wet sleep of the unformed world,” writes Lai. Salt Fish Girl has this incredible, in many ways relatable, blending of a gross, pervasive sickness/smell with a sensitive, handsy queerness that vibrantly articulates something very truthful, I felt, about the experience of being a child dyke. Full of clumsy encounters and fraught yet attempting-to-be-loving relationships which the novel clung to me, and I took, much like the smell of durians following Miranda, to bringing the book with me into any room or space that I went to, whether or not I actually did any reading.

The novel is about sickness, as well as about the bizarre coupling of mutation, love and reproduction (again much like The Tiger Flu). It also has mermaids and a mythic focus and swelling that was so compelling and really quick to read. The pacing never fails to feel exciting and the dual story pulls you along so that it’s hard to put the book down, each storyline pulling you along to the next installment and on and on.

Funnily enough, the compulsion that pulled me through the book, after the first few chapters settled me into the story, is how I feel about picking up another Larissa Lai novel! I’m really looking forward to reading When Fox is a Thousand, which was her debut in 1995, and rereading The Tiger Flu when I’m next near my copy.

Marthese reviews Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea

mermaid-in-chelsea-creek

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is yet another book I have been meaning to get into and the hype did not disappoint. This young adult fantasy book is set in Chelsea, Massachusetts and follows Sophia a teenage girl with Polish ancestry.

Sophia and her best friend Ella like to play the pass-out game because it’s the only thing to do in Chelsea. One day, when they are playing the game near the filthy creek, Sophia has a vision of a mermaid. Sophia’s mother Andrea is neglectful yet worried when Sophia admits to playing the game because she was freaking out. Something in her was coming forth. Sophia eats a lot of salt- this is a big element in the book.

At face value, this book is about Sophia coming into her powers and the people around her changing and being seen in new lights. Ella changes, people she saw often take on a new light and pigeons start to mean something nice, wonderful. On a deeper lever, this book tackles evil and sadness and the wrongness that’s in humanity- it treats elements like pollution and pain and sadness of both the oppressed and the oppressors. Humanity is caged, with seemingly no way out. This book plays on the readers understanding of these topics and offers lightness and hope. Sophia is supposed to help heal humanity from its corruption; her power allows her to see inside a person’s emotions and heal them. To heal humanity, that’s her mission.

Sophia discovers that she is a legend. She always knew she liked salt but now she understands why. Salt is an ancient preservative and measure- it makes sense to incorporate it into the story. Speaking about legends, this book beautifully incorporates different cultures and their ideas on witches. Chelsea is very multicultural.

This book also explores family dynamics: how generations can help each other or destroy one another. In Sophia’s case, it’s the latter; her mother is neglectful, her grandmother is worse. There are other positive family representations though. There’s Angel- who Sophia’s grandmother introduces as a guy but is in fact a girl- and her mother. There’s also Sophia’s lost relations which were in front of her the whole time.

This book features elements that at first you think are weird. Whoever thought that pigeons could be helpful main characters? Or mermaids making use of sea waste? All elements mash up well together. The sentences are constructed exquisitely, things like ‘She would submit to the grime, become like a feral cat wandering the heaps of trash’ offer a sense of aesthetic pleasure which Sophia, with all the awareness of her surroundings also shares with the reader. The illustrations, done in a simple style add more to the book experience.

The queer elements in this book do not focus on blatant relationships – although Angel for sure has a thing for Syrena the mermaid. Sophie is 13 but unlike Ella, she is not boy struck. She just values her friend.

I cannot wait to read the second book and see where the story goes. I definitely recommend this book to people that like fantasy, mermaids, pigeons, magic, character development and family dynamics and philosophical themes with some constructive criticism to the world that we live in.