Larkie reviews Finna by Nino Cipri

the cover of Finna

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I first came across this book when I was looking for a Christmas gift, and even though it didn’t quite fit the gift idea that I had in mind, I knew that I had to read this book. Finna is an absurd little story that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of working a low wage corporate retail job. The plot is simple: Ava and Jules work in definitely not IKEA, and a shopper’s grandmother has wandered off into a wormhole and gotten lost in the maze of multidimensional Scandinavian furniture store hell. Their supervisor sends them after her. Also, they just broke up.

The premise is a little ridiculous, but it feels totally plausible. Of course corporate downsizing eliminated specialized teams who used to handle interdimensional recovery! When has any large corporation cared about the safety of their workers? And training naturally consists of watching a single VHS tape that was filmed decades prior, before you’re expected to just…do whatever it is the company needs you to do. Capitalism is bleak, but we live in it, and we have to play by its rules. Some people, like the manager, embrace these rules because they think that playing by the rules will get them somewhere. Others, like the main duo, are just trying to get by, and try their best to create the best out of a bad situation.

This brings me to the relationship between Ava and Jules. As readers, we come into the relationship at its worst. Ava is anxious and overbearing, constantly thinking of how things can go wrong and trying to mitigate every possible disaster. This includes managing Jules, who is adamant about being their own person, despite the soul crushing job and their difficult past. The relationship wasn’t an inherently bad one: Jules managed to ease some of Ava’s tension, while Ava was more on top of things like dishes. But Ava’s need to fix anything grated on Jules’ desire for independence, and their reluctance to open up just made her worry harder. I really appreciated how there wasn’t any blame or fault assigned to the breakup, it was just a bad thing that had happened. But we also see the good parts of their relationship, how they started as work friends with fun little injokes, the kind of bonding that only happens in work situations. Their relationship is probably the reason why they both stayed in the bad job in the first place, and it made a bad situation bearable. And sometimes, what you need to work out your problems is some quality time together to talk about your feelings, while also escaping carnivorous chair plants and fighting off creepy clones.

This book was fun, and also really heartfelt. It’s about deciding what’s really important and the kind of people you want to spend time with in your life. It’s about queer love and the many forms that can take. There’s so much packed into such a little package, and even more that I haven’t touched on here. I had a hard time putting it down, which meant it was good that it wasn’t that long, because I wouldn’t have been able to get anything done if it was any longer!

Nat reviews Plain English by Rachel Spangler

the cover of Plain English by Rachel Spangler

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Rachel Spangler is probably one of my most read authors of sapphic romance because they are so darn reliable. I’ve never been disappointed. In my mind, I often refer to Spangler as “the author who writes sports romance,” and yeah, I’m a big sucker for a feel-good sports story. But Spangler’s writing is much more diverse than that label gives them credit for, and their newest book Plain English showcases that range.

I’d already read Full English last year, the first book in the English series, which is set in the small English town of Amberwick. Plain English, the third book, features many of the same characters. (I somehow missed the release of Modern English, the second book – more on that later.) It doesn’t matter much if you read the three English books out of order, but it’s always fun to have that experience of already knowing some of the established cast. That said, from the synopsis I was generally expecting a pretty straightforward continuation but with more royalty, angst and motorcycles. 

We’re introduced to a very flawed, sometimes infuriating protagonist Lady Phillipa Anne Marion Farne-Sacksley of Mulgrave. (Titles, titles, titles, announced in my best Robert Baratheon voice.) Lady Mulgrave, whose preferred name is Pip, or also literally any name that isn’t “Lady” Mulgrave, is a bit of a playboy with a Peter Pan complex. Here for a good time, not for a long time. We meet Pip in a way that immediately showcases their gay disaster profile: while sneaking out of a one night stand’s bedroom and wrecking a vintage motorcycle in a field within the span of a couple of hours. 

Enter Claire Bailey, a financially struggling artist looking to find her way after trying to keep her head above water in London for the last decade. Claire might be a bit of a mess herself, but she’s well on her way to getting that mess sorted. Learning (mostly) from past romantic mistakes, and moving forward with a new chapter of her life. Claire unexpectedly meets Pip by way of the aforementioned embarrassing motorcycle fiasco, and she immediately catches the aristocrat’s eye. Of course Pip is exactly Claire’s type, a type that embodies some big red flag energy wrapped up in a handsome, irresistible package. Claire knows any kind of relationship will end in disaster, and that Pip has a life and a path already mapped out due to the nature of English custom and aristocracy. And thus the perfectly reasonable idea of embarking on a short term relationship with plenty of boundaries (ha!) and absolutely no complications whatsoever (haha!). 

Don’t let the cheeky, playful banter between these two fool you. Claire and Pip are some of the most raw, vulnerable characters I’ve seen on the page in romance recently. The first love scene and the communication between them as they both navigate uncharted waters was perfectly executed. I also appreciated how Claire and Pip’s close friends set aside their personal feelings and frustrations to support someone they care about in their time of need, while acknowledging that Pip still has their own issues to work out. There’s a lot of hurt/comfort happening throughout, so buckle in. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Please excuse me while I jump forward to gush a bit about Pip’s character. We see a lot of adult characters in romance processing past trauma, healing, grieving – but we don’t always get to see them in the midst of a full-fledged identity crisis. Especially one involving gender identity. This was an unexpected aspect of the book, and I cannot stress how much I loved it. There were some moments in the book, especially as Pip deals with their conservative, controlling family, that really punched me right in the feels. I want to tell you so much more about it, but it’s best to just experience it for yourself. (End spoilers.)

Back to this book existing as part of a series – one reason I might recommend checking out Full English first is to experience the growth of a particular side character who returns in Plain English. We first meet Reggie in Full English when she’s just a pup, experiencing her adorably awkward and earnest interactions with the adults who recognize something familiar in her, which is explored further in Plain English. It is precious. You will love her. 

That said, I also realized while reading the book that I’d missed the second installment in the series, Modern English, and caught up after I started writing this review to make sure I hadn’t missed anything big. If you want more of an introduction to how aristocracy works and all those stodgy English rules, then maybe you’d prefer to read all three in order. Of the three books, Plain English was hands down my favorite, but as a series, they complement each other so well that it would be a shame not to read them all.  

Nat reviews The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

the cover of The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

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Sometimes we pick up a book with certain expectations – sometimes we also discover that those expectations are way off the mark. When I set out to read The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea I knew this: it was a YA book with romance, it was gaaay, the cover was kind of cute (so pretty!), and it was a fantasy setting with mermaids and witches (obvs from the title). 

Here’s the thing, I was not emotionally prepared for what the book actually contained. I was still recovering from the turmoil of reading C.L Clark’s The Unbroken (which I highly recommend) and I needed something light to cleanse my reading palate. A pirate adventure on the high seas, perhaps! As someone who doesn’t read much YA, I thought, hey, this is probably gonna be an angsty, romantic tale with sidelong glances featuring mermaids! Magic! Fun! Haha. What I did not realize: this was going to be a dark, brooding journey about serious issues like colonialism and childhood trauma and sexual assault and one that does not shy away from depicting their brutality. That it would make me feel feelings. Sad feelings, which are right on the top of my big “No, Thanks” list right now and for all of the next decade. 

Now, after all that you might be thinking that I did not enjoy the book. Not true! I think this is a wonderful book! You just need to make sure to adjust your expectations

TLDR: Seriously, do not judge this book by its cover. AND Yes I did like the book but I’m still hella mad about everything that happened in this fictional world.

Our two young protagonists are not set up for success. Flora, who lives as Florian, is a young, Black gender bending pirate just doing his best to survive on a slaver ship called the Dove, and doing morally frowned upon things like pirates are known to do. Saddled with guilt and fiercely loyal to his only family, his brother Alfie, who, by no fault of his own, is kind of a screw up. The relationship between Alfie and Florian is depressing and complicated. In fact, every single relationship in this book is like that. 

Both of our MC’s are morally ambiguous, well meaning, gay disasters. For Florian, an orphan in constant survival mode, it’s along the lines of “I thieved and kidnapped and maybe even did a murder to survive, but it doesn’t define me. I want to be better.” For Evelyn, daughter of an elite Imperial family, it is “everything I knew about my insulated and privileged but miserable world is wrong. Am I the baddy? I want to do the right thing.” 

While Flora and Evelyn are struggling to right the wrongs of their pasts and in the world, the villains are out there just deliberately being evil. This book has no shortage of characters to despise. I’m talking no-redeeming-qualities dot com, with possible sociopathic tendencies. The murdering, rapey, sadist kind of villains who you really want to see walked off a short plank and snacked on by shark teefies. Nameless Captain, I’m looking at you. And don’t even get me started on that sneaky witch in the Floating Islands. 

There are also some dynamic foils, such as Rake, our captain’s stoic, red haired first mate. He’s our second chances man, both receiving and giving them while still allowing brutality to unfold before him. And let’s not forget the mysterious, non-binary arbiter of justice, the Pirate Supreme. 

Speaking of gender, that was one of the things I really enjoyed in the book. Flora/Florian’s exploration of gender is as complicated as you would expect, while also entangled with her identity as a pirate. How do others see Flora… or Florian? How does Flora/ian look at the world when moving between gender presentations? 

(spoilers, highlight to read) For the romance, I wasn’t convinced that our characters got a truly happy ending. I mean, sure, technically they’re together, but it was kind of weird, creepy “here’s my best offer” from the devil kind of union… romantic like, well, they didn’t die! (spoilers end) Then again, this book never really felt like a romance, more of a dark tinted fantasy with a romantic arc. 

But hey, great news, you can be extremely mad at a book and appreciate it at the same time. Like I sometimes feel about my cat, for instance. Is this book like a cat? Perhaps. It will put its paws all over your tender feelings and then knock them off the shelf, only to try and curl up in your lap hours later. This book, like a cat, is a little of a shite but we love them anyway. 

TLDR, this is a four star read to be enjoyed in the right mindset and with proper expectations. Don’t forget, kids, YA books can mess you up real good. 

Trigger warnings: violence, implied/offscreen sexual assault/rape, drug use, addiction, amputation

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murray

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murphy cover

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams is a queer Swan Lake retelling, and honestly, it just had to live up to that premise to win me over. I may not be incredibly familiar with the ballet, but I grew up watching Swan Princess constantly. Besides, queer fairy tale(-esque) retellings are one of my favourite things to read. Add to that the beautiful cover and the promise of a positive polyamorous relationship, and I was sold. So I was impressed to find that not only did this satisfy those queer fairy tale cravings, it went beyond that to create an engaging and emotionally compelling story in its own right.

When I think of a queer retelling, I expect it to stick pretty closely to the original, just massaged to include queer characters. A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams shifts the narrative dramatically, however, changing not just the trappings of the story, but the heart of it. Katya, the main character (though there are multiple POV characters), doesn’t exist in the original story. At least, as far as I have gleaned from reading the Swan Lake Wikipedia article, she would have been an anonymous background character at best with no story line of her own. Although the central plot of Swan Lake does carry over to this retelling, the tension of the story comes from Katya’s unique position in this world.

The story alternates between two points of view. They are identified by a simple, stylized illustration at the beginning of each chapter of either a swan (Katya’s chapters) or a castle (Alexis’s). I liked this little details of the design. I’ll start with discussing the queer elements of this story, because… that’s what we’re here for, right? This is a world that is completely accepting of queer people and nonbinary genders. Princen Alexis uses they/them pronouns, and no one is fazed about having a nonbinary heir to the kingdom. In fact, when they attend a ball, they are “immediately greeted by people of all genders vying for their attention.” There are other nonbinary characters who use neopronouns, such as Larde Tanis, who goes by xie. This is own voices nonbinary representation (Dax Murphy uses fey/fem/feir prounouns in feir “About the author” blurb.)

Bisexuality seems to be the norm in this world, or at least not worth remarking on. Katya, Zhen, and Alexis’s mother all show attraction to multiple genders. Alexis’s best friend and guard, Tatiana, frequently mentions her girlfriend, Inna. Alexis’s parents are in a polyamorous triad, with their mother having two partners (the Czar and Lady Natalya). While attraction to multiple genders is unremarkable in this setting, it does seem somewhat unusual to have multiple partners (though obviously not unheard of, because there doesn’t seem to be any pushback to the leaders of the country being in a triad). Alexis’s parents talk about the difficulties and negotiation that they went through to make this a healthy relationship, but it is clearly worth the effort for all three of them, and Alexis is happy to have three parents.

As I mentioned earlier, the queer and polyamorous additions are not the most dramatic changes in this retelling. We begin with Katya, who has no memory when she bumps into Ivan in the forest. He helps get her acclimated, and she stays with him. She learns magic from him. Their relationship builds slowly and turns romantic. It is against this backdrop of trust (and dependence) that the rest of the story plays out. Ivan captures Zhen–Alexis’s fiancee. Their arranged marriage is meant to unite their two kingdoms. (Although this is a fairy tale world, Alexis’s country is clearly coded as Russia, and Zhen’s is coded as China.) Ivan tells Katya that Zhen is a threat to their life together, and asks her to pretend to be captive with her, in order to gain information. Katya is shaken. This is unlike Ivan. As she observes Zhen–and sneaks away to share her findings with Ivan and beg him to explain the situation–she finds herself falling for her.

It’s this tension between Katya, Ivan, and Zhen as well as the triangle between Katya, Zhen, and Alexis that form the core of the book. Katya is torn between Zhen, this new element in her life, and Ivan, the person who she loves and trusts. She wants to believe that there must be a good reason to hold Zhen prisoner, that she must be a legitimate threat, but she also struggles to find that threat in Zhen. At first, I found it difficult to believe that Zhen would be flirting with Katya while she had been kidnapped and trapped in the woods, but Zhen addresses this directly: “Yes, we are trapped. Yes, we are waiting for someone to save us. That doesn’t mean I want to dwell on the fact!”

It’s this internal struggle between Katya’s loyalty for Ivan and her growing relationship with Zhen that really fascinates me, so I do want to discuss some spoilers. I will mark where the spoilers end. 

Initially, I felt that Katya was a passive character. Because she seems to appear out of nowhere as an adult, she can seems naive and inexperienced–quick to believe whoever she is speaking to at any moment. I found it especially hard to believe that she would so easily go along with Ivan’s plan for her to kill the “threats” at the palace. As the story continues, however, I think that shifts. After all, it is ambiguous how much agency she has at first: Ivan has been manipulating her from the beginning, hiding her from her origins, protecting himself by using her. He tells her “Say you will never leave me,” she immediately (involuntarily?) responds with “I will never leave you.”

Katya really has to struggle to accept that despite him being the only relationship she’s ever known, her introduction to love and belonging, he doesn’t deserve her loyalty. The extent of his manipulation is slowly revealed to both us as readers and Katya: not only did her use her in this instance, he has been draining the life from their forest and using her life force to bind Zhen to the lake. It’s despicable, and I’m tempted to question how he can both be this villain and be the person who supported her in the beginning of the book–but that’s not impossible. Abusers can seem loving and supportive when it suits them. They can even justify their actions to themselves that way. And Ivan certainly seems to think he can violate Katya and care for her at the same time: he claims “I loved you, Katya,” with “a mixture of devotion and sorrow in his eyes,” even when she knows the extent of what he has done to her.

An element I really liked was when Katya realizes that she doesn’t owe him an explanation for why she turned against him. It’s such an important moment, to realize that you can’t control someone else’s narrative. Ivan will likely always believe he was in the right. Katya could try to communicate with him, could pour her heart and soul out trying to get him to see how he violated her, how he betrayed her, but it would be a waste. He doesn’t deserve her energy.

Overall, I thought it was a satisfying conclusion. There’s enough loss and struggle to feel realistic, but it manages to be a happy ending anyway. I liked the nod to compersion: “An inkling of a feeling bubbled in Alexis, seeing Katya and Zhen happy, together, made them feel happy, too.” The novel leads us to think there is no way that Zhen, Katya, and Alexis can all three be happy with their situation, but the ending challenges that, showing that relationships can be built in many creative ways and still be fulfilling.

Spoilers end here!

Now I’ll address a few bits and pieces I wasn’t able to work in to the rest of the review! I liked the magic system, which seems to hang together well, and it also introduces a type of magic that I’ve never seen in a book before: nuclear magic! It’s an interesting concept, and the scenes that depict it are striking. I did have some minor issues. I didn’t entirely understand some details of the political plot (how did the son betray the Czar, for instance?), but that’s not my strength as a reader. I’m so caught up in characters that I often miss really obvious plot points. Also, the characters don’t use any contractions in dialogue, presumable to feel more fairy tale-esque, but I found it a bit awkward and distracting. Although I only noticed a handful of typos, one error I saw repeated throughout the book were numerous comma splices (“Leave that to me, I am still Czar.” and “We need to settle this dispute, it’s been too many generations.” for instance.)

Those are some very minor complaints, however, in a story I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the queer-positive fairy tale world, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was only the backdrop for a subtle story about trust, betrayal, and new possibilities. I highly recommend A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams, even if you’re not familiar with the original story!

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.