Nat reviews My Home is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke

the cover of My Home Is On the Mountain

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If I were going to throw a book down into the middle of a fray between Romance readers and Lit Fic lovers, it would be My Home Is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke. This novel is absolute proof that you can have it all. You do NOT have to choose. You do NOT have to suffer (okay, maybe a little suffering, there’s angst aplenty, but you don’t have to endure the pain for an eternity). You, my friend, can read exceptional prose and get the HEA of your dreams. (Cue Oprah doling out Happy Endings to the readers.) 

As though it was plucked straight out of the depths of classic Southern literature, Clarke’s novel is set in Eastern Tennessee in the early 1930’s. As someone who grew up in the south and read my fair share of Southern authors, heaps of Faulkener with a side of Zora Neale Hurston, this book was right up my alley from the start. The novel focuses on the relationship between Cecilia Howison, a privileged young woman from a wealthy, influential Southern family, and Airey Fitch, a local fiddler and hard working young woman living up in the Smoky Mountains. Her family is rich in land, but otherwise destitute. Major themes in this novel include economic inequality, exploitation of the lower classes, religion (specifically Christianity), and societal expectations around gender and sexuality. 

One of the highlights of the book for me is that it plays with language and dialect in ways that any self-respecting word nerd should eat up with a spoon. Reference to regional mountain dialect and the perception of words spoken is something the author plays with throughout the book, as well as how language relates to class and education. There is so much to unpack and explore in the novel that I’ve barely mentioned the romantic entanglements of our two MCs, Cecilia and Airey. Their budding friendship is based on Cecilia’s desire to show the world that Airey Fitch is an undiscovered violin prodigy, though she maaay have some ulterior motives as she’s a bit sweet on Airey from the very start. 

As the two women explore their relationship further, we start to wade into the waters of religion (with various interpretations) and the societal pressures of the time. We see their individual world views and how they’re shaped by their beliefs in ways you may not expect. But as you might have guessed, the relationship is fraught with fear of societal repercussions and looks doomed from the start. But I’ll remind you, this is a romance. Fear not. 

One last thing to say about Clarke’s writing: this was a well researched, and I mean, really thoroughly researched novel. After reading it I went to the author’s website for her book, which details her notes chapter by chapter, with pictures and information on everything from clothing to cars. It is fascinating and I highly recommend you at least scan it a bit during reading, as it includes music as well. Airey can play just about anything on her violin, from old time standards popular in that time to Dvořák and Bach. Descriptions of Airey’s music are well executed, and if you want to listen along, some of it can be found on the website. (Be advised though, the site contains spoilers, so don’t skip ahead.) 

10/10 – Now if only someone would come along and make this into a movie! 

Danika reviews Sisters of the Vast Black and Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather

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As soon as I heard about a series that follows nuns in a living spaceship — that also has a sapphic main character — I had to pick it up.

The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are ostensibly a Catholic order, but a lot has changed. They have little connection with Earth, ever since a devastating war severed most of the power of the corrupt Earth Central Governance. In the generations since, communities have grown up under their own power in different systems.

Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, their lab-grown organic spaceship, visits those communities that want either baptisms, weddings, or to receive medical care — most of what they do has more to do with medical care than religious offerings.

The series begins slowly, introducing each of the sisters, who all have their own reasons for being aboard the ship. Not all of them are devout, and most have some sort of secret they left behind in order to start this new life. While this is a sci fi story, of course, it feels very grounded. Details like having to sift through spam on their communications array makes it feel like a realistic vision of the future.

The sapphic element comes in when we learn that Sister Gemma has fallen in love with a female engineer she met during one of their stops at a service station. Since then, they’ve been secretly exchanging letters. It’s not the gender of her love interest that’s a problem; it’s the fact that she’s broken her vow by entertaining a romantic relationship at all. This is a fairly small part of the series, but we do get to see Gemma’s journey and struggle in this decision: she loves her sisters and her work tending the ship, and she feels lost outside of that.

While most of the first book deals with the sisters’ internal lives as well as an ongoing debate about whether their ship should be allowed to mate, the action ramps up dramatically at the end, when they are pulled into a conflict that could restart the war that took so many lives — a war that one of the sisters has a horrifying connection to.

In the afterward, the author discusses how this began as a short story, which I can see. It’s definitely a narrative that has more to do with emotions and ideas than a fast-moving plot (until the end). While the second book picks up after all the action in Sisters of the Vast Black‘s conclusion, it still is fairly slow paced, especially when I was expecting it to pick up considerably.

I also unfortunately had trouble keeping track of all the characters. That’s a fault of mine as a reader with a bad memory, but I could only recognize a few of the sisters. Between that and the slow pace, these novellas took me a surprising amount of time to finish. That was made worse in the second book, which doesn’t have any chapters.

While there are interesting ideas explored in this series, I finished it feeling like it would have worked better as a short story for me: it began to drag, and I didn’t feel connected enough to the big cast (in a small amount of pages) to pull me through it. I’m sure that other readers with a better memory and a little more patience for sitting with philosophical reads will enjoy this one, though.

Maggie reviews Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix cover

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In the backdrop of the glamorous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Matrix follows 17-year-old Marie, who is unwanted at court for her bastardy, her height and rough-hewn appearance, and her scandalous family history of women crusaders and warriors. Deeply in love (and lust) with Queen Eleanor, Marie is shocked to find herself shipped off to a dilapidated abbey in England as its new prioress, despite having no vocation. Nominally historical fiction, Matrix only vaguely concerns itself with documented historical events, rather focusing on the space women can build for themselves when they have the space to do so and the relationships they had with either other, from queer to contentious and everything in between.

The abbey Marie is consigned to is impoverished, the nuns are diminishing in number and beset by disease, and the local gentry and peasants are refusing to pay their rents and stealing abbey land. The abbess is vague and frequently lost in the depths of her own mind, the other sisters in charge are frequently cruel or inefficient, and Marie has no interest in becoming a part of the community or taking any real leadership. Instead, she frequently writes to Eleanor, letters and religious poetry, hoping that Eleanor will think fondly of her and bring her back at court. It’s only as the years pass and she realizes that Eleanor will never return her affections that Marie turns her mind to taking up the reins of abbey leadership, and once she does Marie, trained to run a noble estate, builds her abbey from a pit of disease and starvation to a bustling and powerful community of religious women and herself into a towering religious power who takes more authority on herself than the church would normally allow.

The sensuality embedded in Marie’s story is both commonplace and shocking. Early on, while Marie is still at court, we learn that she has had a sexual relationship with her maidservant Cecily – and that her regard for Eleanor isn’t purely platonic – but it’s unclear whether Marie regards these encounters are “real sex” or more along the lines of physical things that just happen since it’s presented so matter-of-factly – nothing to see here, just medieval gals being pals. This is both reinforced and complicated by her relief when, years later at the abbey, the sister in charge of the abbey infirmary invites her to come by for regular orgasms as a way of “rebalancing the humours” and categorizes it as a simple physical thing that some people need to have. Relief because she has scoured religious texts for “female sodomy” and found nothing – indicating that she has an inkling her sexual encounters would not be as acceptable to wider society but her quick acceptance of an explanation – and the continuing circle of physical relationships among the sisters – indicates that no one intends to give up such acts or feel guilt over them. Indeed, none of the conflict in the story was about the simple existence of such relationships, and it seems like the community built by the women has a strong tradition of close relationships between sisters.

Matrix is outside of my usual reads, because I don’t normally long to read about the Catholic Church, but I really enjoyed how this book blended historical figures with beautiful imagery, and how it played with the line between sensuality and practicality. It’s not a typical historical fiction book, but it is eminently readable and enjoyable. I enjoyed the idea and the slow rise of women building a base of protection and power for themselves in an area where their options were limited and without much influence. I enjoyed Marie’s slow turn from pining for Eleanor to determination and skill to take the situation she was given and make it better, and her increasing desire to make it a community by women for women, with fewer and fewer men allowed on the grounds for any reason. The resulting community is flawed and prosperous and queer and strong and rather engaging to read about. A good rec if you want a little something different in your to-read list.

SPONSORED REVIEW: The Unicorn, The Mystery by Janet Mason

The Unicorn, The Mystery by Janet Mason

The Unicorn, The Mystery is a novel based on a series of seven tapestries titled “The Hunt of the Unicorn.” We follow a (genderless) unicorn through this story, while also getting the point of view of a monk who also makes an appearance in the tapestries. I want to start by saying that this doesn’t have a sapphic point of view character, though the most significant side characters are two nuns who are a couple.

I didn’t know going into this story how religious/spiritual it would be, and I’m not sure I have the background to really understand it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the author is a Unitarian Universalist lay minister who also wrote a book titled THEY, a Biblical Tale of Secret Genders. We spend most of the book inside the heads of the monk and unicorn–not just in the sense that it is from their point of view. This is a very internal novel: we spend a lot of time just following their musings on various subjects, including the unicorn speculating about the motivations of the hunters:

Maybe they wanted to please her. Maybe they wanted to refute her. Why did they really want to hunt me? What were they looking for? Did they really want to kill me — or were they looking for something in themselves and trying to kill it? Or were they just following orders and trying to impress each other? …

Perhaps the hunters are worried that they might not get their reward. Kings often promise riches that they never intend to give. Everyone knows that they are stingy and that is how they become kings. This would mean that the hounds wouldn’t get their treats. Maybe the hounds picked up their owner’s apprehensions. Hounds are so servile! …

Maybe they are glum because they have realized that kings will always be kings and hunters will always be hunters. . . Maybe the hunters look grim because they are thinking about the fact that everybody dies…

Although they have very different life circumstances, both characters’ POVs feel similar in that they both think highly of themselves and believe they have wisdom to bestow. Especially when it came to religious opining, I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to agree with them or not–although both characters believe themselves to be wise, they are flawed and inconsistent, so it was difficult for me to tell.

Because the story is based around the tapestries, time moves strangely throughout the story. The unicorn is looking at the tapestries, recalling their life, and we sometimes bounce between time periods in a small space. It’s almost as if all the action of the novel is happening at once: the unicorn is always being hunted, and it’s always free, so I didn’t get a sense of tension. I won’t mention any specifics, but the ending didn’t provide much more information than we already knew.

I also sometimes had difficulty with the asides of this story. A Gnostic poem, “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” is quoted at length through the story, sometimes for pages at a time, and I wasn’t sure the purpose of these passages (they are spoken by the unicorn, who finds them spilling from their mouth). The tapestries are also described at length. There is a lot of space devoted to Greek and Latin, including multiple passages describing the shape of each letter in a word in Greek. (I was particularly confused by the inclusion of a poem the monk wrote, which was written in Latin, but is included in English with the same formatting as if it was in Latin? “see/ a yel/low ha/ lo all a/round you/ – among humans/ you are/ a de/light!” I don’t understand.)

We do see several scenes of the nun couple, though we unfortunately do not get their point of view. As intrigued as I am by them, I felt like each scene was essentially the same: they would discuss how the church would disapprove of their relationship, and then conclude that their love is not a sin. They go through different iterations of this, but it felt like they served a purpose–to argue against the idea that being gay is sinful–more than they were characters in their own right.

I wanted to include some content warnings as well: the unicorn can smell virginity, and there is quite a bit in here about virginity as well as anti sex work ideas. There are also mentions of bestiality.

Overall, this wasn’t a perfect fit for me: it is concerned with grappling with Christian ideas about truth and morality. If that is something you are interested in, The Unicorn, The Mystery will give you a lot to consider.

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

Emily Joy reviews Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan

Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence

Growing up in a Catholic family and Catholic environment as a lesbian had its challenges. As a young girl, I thought that I would become a religious sister because the idea of living in a community of women seemed much preferable to getting married. You know, back when I thought that getting married automatically included a man. I don’t think it should come as a surprise that lesbian/bi women have been joining religious orders for centuries, finding that life with other women is better than married life with a man.

First published in 1985, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan is a nonfiction anthology with 51 accounts of lesbian nuns and ex-nuns, speaking on the topic about how their sexuality intersects with their vocations.

The success of this book has an interesting story. The Boston archdiocese contacted a news station and appealed for the cancellation of a televised interview with one of the book’s editors. The Boston Globe wrote an article about the censorship, and Lesbian Nuns almost immediately sold out of its first printing with indie lesbian publisher Naiad Press. Shortly after, Warner Books bought the rights for mass-distribution and spread the book far and wide with its second edition. In the book itself, one interviewee said:

Lesbian nuns I know are going to dance! In convents, this book will go around like hotcakes. […] Everybody will read it. Lesbian nuns will be more self-conscious about this book. I can see them dying to get hold of it, but trying not to show too much interest. […] All hell’s going to break loose. Religious communities are going to have to discuss this book. They’re going to have to respond to the reality, and they’ve never had to do that.

One of the contributors to this book might be familiar to some Lesbrary readers. Jeanne Cordova is the author of one of the first chapters, and she is also the author of Kicking the Habit: a Lesbian Nun Story and When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love & Revolution.

The other stories and authors will likely be new to readers, and I think impactful in the way they mirror each other with shared experiences and ideas. Certainly, it was impactful for me with my Catholic background. There were several times that I felt like saying, “Hey! Those are my feelings, too!” There’s so much power for me in connecting with other lesbian women from the past, both distant and not so distant.

“My pain is that I can’t share being a Lesbian with most of these women. Since my Lesbianism is a part of me, they don’t really know me. Yet, if they knew I was a Lesbian, they might know me even less, because of whatever homophobia, stereotypes, or projections they might have. Another source of pain is my Church. I’m not sure what kind of a Catholic I am. I like the Catholic traditions and my personal history. However, I cannot reconcile myself to the Church’s clericalism and sexism.”

I may not personally prefer to capitalize the “l” in lesbian or call my sexuality an ism, but this passage and others truly resonated with me as an ex-Catholic. In fact, regardless of readers’ connections with Catholicism or other religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, I think this book has something for everyone to recognize in themselves.

The book is divided into nine themed sections, including sections on “particular friends”, the relationship between being a lesbian and vows of celibacy and chastity, and women who chose to stay in their religious orders rather than leave. It’s fascinating to read each section and find such similarities and differences in these women’s stories.

There is so much to learn from this book. It is full of first-hand accounts and the personal histories from our lesbian heritage. Catholic or not, religious or not, I highly recommend picking up a copy. Although originally published through an indie publisher, this book has since been reprinted several times and is available widely for anyone interested in exploring the relationship between religion and homosexuality.

Carmella reviews We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

Samra Habib is many things: photographer, journalist, activist, writer, queer woman, Muslim, refugee, and now – with the publication of her memoir – the author of a book. The saying may be ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, but I think she has done a pretty masterful job here!

I was already familiar with Habib (as you may also be) from her existing body of work. She runs ‘Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Project’ on Tumblr, where she shares the photo portraits and stories of other queer Muslims, and writes for various media outlets such as the New York Times, Guardian, and Vice. She has a strong voice and is always interesting, thought-provoking, and creative with it – so I was naturally excited to read her memoir and learn more about what experiences have shaped her perspective.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir follows Habib’s life, starting with a childhood in Pakistan where her family faced persecution as Ahmadiyya Muslims, followed by immigration to Canada, an unwanted arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, and then finding both her identity as a queer woman and her calling as a documenter of queer Muslim experiences.

As I already said, one of Habib’s writing strengths is her voice. I always enjoy reading her articles, so I was curious to see how much a full-length book would differ from her journalism. The answer is “not much”!

She continues to write with a conversational, confessional style. Reading the memoir is like reading a really long feature article (think the Guardian’s ‘long reads’). Luckily, this is a good thing: it’s what Habib is good at. I was engaged the whole way through, enjoying both the personal aspects and the more factual bits focusing on history and culture.

That said, I did feel like there could have been a little more of the personal, as sometimes the narrative felt like it had gaps. For example, Habib’s siblings fade in and out and barely feature as characters, which feels strange in a work that talks so much about family life. But this is a memoir rather than an autobiography, so it could just be a quirk of the genre.

For me, the memoir gets to be most interesting when Habib starts to talk about her photo project. It’s compelling to hear about how it got started. Habib explains that she wanted to see Muslims represented in queer spaces, and in an accessible way that doesn’t block people with a language barrier or academic jargon.

I was also fascinated to hear more about how people like Habib and her subjects reconcile faith with their queer identities. I have read a fair deal about LGBT followers of Christianity and Judaism, but I haven’t come across much about Islam. One of the stand-out sections is Habib’s description of attending prayers at Unity Mosque, an LGBT-friendly mosque run by a gay imam. After spending so much of the memoir seeking belonging, it’s delightful to read about Habib finally feeling part of a community.

The title We Have Always Been Here is actually taken from a quote from one of Habib’s subjects, Zainab. It’s a powerful statement about asserting the right to a shared community, history, and voice for queer Muslims. But I don’t know if it’s the right title for this memoir. Going into it, I was expecting more on the history of queer Muslims, whereas the memoir is focused entirely on contemporary experience. I don’t dislike this focus, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from the title.

Still, I see why Habib wanted to use a quote taken from her photo project. This memoir is a natural extension of her existing body of work: yet another way in which she asserts that queer Muslims exist – indeed, have always existed – and deserve to have their stories heard.

Trigger warnings: CSA, abuse, arranged child marriage, attempted suicide

Megan G reviews We Love You, But You’re Going to Hell by Dr. Kim O’Reilly

We Love You, But You're Going to Hell by Dr. Kim O'Reilly

“The first place homosexual should be able to turn to is the Church. Sadly, it is often the last.”

I am deeply honoured to have been given the opportunity to read and review We Love You, But You’re Going to Hell by Dr. Kim O’Reilly. This is a very important book, one of which I believe we need many more of in this world.

This nonfiction book delves into the current crisis of Homosexuality vs Christianity. In her introduction, Dr. O’Reilly encourages people to read this book even if it is simply to strengthen their own beliefs. She clearly wants to get this book in the hands of as many people as possible and to encourage discussion. The introduction is non-confrontational, something I think is very important when dealing with issues like this. It is merely asking that people read this book with an open mind, to question both their currently held beliefs and the ideas given throughout the book. It leaves the door open for a lack of change of mind – which, when challenging people’s long-held beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, is incredibly wise.

As I was reading this, I could think of about ten people I wanted to pass it on to, friends and family alike. It covers a variety of topics, almost all of which are brought up in most debates about homosexuality. It answers questions, gives private testimony, and also analyzes scripture in a way that few likely have.

This book works as a marvelous introduction to the debate of Homosexuality vs Christianity. It encourages further study, but gives brief overviews and thoughts based on the author’s own beliefs. It would be perfect for anybody who has never challenged their own beliefs on this topic. Someone who maybe just found out a loved on is queer and is struggling with their love for them vs their love for God. Someone who wants to know more, or who wants to hear an opposing view on a strongly held belief. Personally, as somebody who has been deeply invested in this particular topic for going on a decade, I felt it a little light at parts, as though the author could have gone deeper. However, I am fully aware that I am not the target audience for this book, and that by going deeper or heavier Dr. O’Reilly may have alienated some of those who are the target audience. So, in many ways, I understand why she did it.

One thing to be aware of about this book is that it is very United States-centric. It is clearly written by an American and for Americans. Because of this, as a Canadian, there were a lot of things I was lost on, or that I felt weren’t present in my own experience growing up as a queer Christian. While this is not enough of a negative for me not to want to show this book to other non-American’s, it is something I feel I have to warn about, as in some sections the amount of American-centrism was quite jarring (at one point the author states that one member of the couple being a citizen of the United States is a requirement for being married with no follow-up specifying that this is obviously only a requirement in the United States).

There also isn’t a lot of discussion about transgender issues, or people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, or polysexual. Similar to what I said above, this could be because the author felt it would alienate the target audience to throw so much queer vocabulary at them. I am not sure. But it is something to be aware of.

My final criticism, and this is really the only one that might hold me back from giving this book to certain people, is that too often there are quotes for which no reference is provided. Almost every quote credited to “anonymous” does not have a source, and there are multiple quotes throughout the book that are not credited to any speaker and do not have a source. This lack of crediting causes these quotes to lose credibility – after all, anonymous could be the author herself for all we know. Because of this, I would be hesitant to give this book to any academically-minded Christians, or really anyone who would read this with the intention of proving it wrong. Seeing as the author is a University professor, this feels like a surprising oversight.

Despite these things, however, I still feel this is a very important book. I would recommend it not only to Christians who are unsure about their views on homosexuality, or who are looking for something to challenge them, but also to any member of the LGBT community who has felt alienated by the church. I hope that this book sparks more similar books – not just for Christians, but for people of all religions.

Marthese reviews Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen

Her Name In the Sky cover

“Her stomach hums with the familiarity of it all”

Let me start with a short disclaimer: This is not a ‘holiday’ read, but for people that want to read something angsty and somewhat deep, this may be what you are looking for. Her Name in the Sky follows Hannah, a teenage girl that goes to a Catholic school and who is in love with her best friend, Baker. Baker may love her too, but for sure it’s not going to be smooth sailing! Something happens that is a turning point in the book, in Hannah and Baker’s lives and for their friend group.

Hannah’s friend group consists of Baker, Hannah’s sister Joanie, Luke, Clay and Wally, and together they are the six-pack. They have teenage shenanigans and are overall great friends. This book is one big angsty wound that you cannot help but love. It’s full of questions that most religious people would have asked – it’s very realistic in its sadness. However, the cute moments are plentiful – both the romantic ones and the friend one: organizing small parties in their friend’s style, cleaning up together, touching shoulders and calling each other shortened named and sleeping over, all small things that are as cute in reality as in the book. In the first half of the book, there’s a lot of banter as well.

Hannah is competitive. She goes back and forth between not wanting her feelings and accepting them. She cares deeply for Baker and her friends, although she does not always show it.

Baker is kind and smart. She feels a lot of pressure and tries to do what she thinks is right. Baker, for all her ‘level-headedness’ can be a bit dramatic! Both Hannah and Baker have lashed out in the book, but this is due to them dealing with the big elements of God and society and their feelings.

Religion is a big theme in the book, which is what makes this book even more angsty for me as I come from a Roman Catholic background.

The parents in this book were wonderful. They may not understand exactly how their children feel and their wake-up-calls may have been a shock but they are supportive of their children and they love them. It’s so easy to fall to hate, as we see in this book but the parents don’t do that.

Hannah and Baker date two boys from their group. As friends the boys are great apart from certain moments which they apologize for. As romantic partners, they are problematic and selfish – especially one of them.

There is one instance in the book where Hannah deals correctly with offensive language which was meant to be a joke. I felt so proud that it was addressed! Hannah and Baker, when they are on speaking terms have a healthy relationship. Baker asks for a little drink? Hannah gives her a little; compared to other friends who offered her more. These small instances are what makes you as a reader, root for them. Both also chose to work on themselves before getting together – that is very healthy and the kind of literature that teens should be exposed to.

There’s a big time elements, the teens are at a stage where they have to move for college. Will their whole life change? Do they have to change? There’s a lot of confusion as well: who is right?

I listened to this book as an audiobook and apart from the story, the narrator is really good. She does many voices and each character is recognizable. The acting is superb; crying voices, constricted voices, gentle voices–all voices are done well! I highly suggest this as an audiobook.

Although this book is listed as YA, I doubt it is. There are some adult elements and the theme feels too heavy. However, it’s a book that teens and other ages can read for a realistic depiction of the struggle between faith and same-gender attraction and how institutions and support-systems help of hinder in this struggle. This book is not light, but it’s a great read. Get ready some tissues!

Quinn Jean reviews The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson cover

[Please note: this novel contains occasional depictions of violence and this review mentions these in the first and final paragraphs]

Like its eponymous heroine, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza defies categorisation. Hutchinson’s novel never doubts the reader’s intelligence and jumps right into the centre of events at the start. Elena Mendoza is introduced as a sixteen-year-old bisexual Latina woman working at a Starbucks in a small town in Florida, who witnesses a teenage boy shoot her long-time crush and abruptly learns she has the power to heal people. The crush is a blue-haired artist called Freddie who unwittingly becomes part of Elena’s journey along with Elena’s best friend Fadil, a kind and thoughtful Muslim boy. Everyone who is exposed to the mystery of Elena’s healing ability offers her opinions on how to solve the puzzle and who to help with her power, while Elena is most concerned with keeping her loved ones safe and not hurting anybody, while also trying to figure out if Freddie maybe likes her too now. A side note to all these extreme events taking place early in the story is that Elena was the product of a virgin birth when her mother was a teenager, with science proving Elena was a statistical anomaly and was conceived through parthenogenesis. Elena has been bullied and stigmatised her entire life as a result of her famous history, which all leads her to question whether these otherworldly occurrences are miracles, science, coincidence, or something else entirely.

A novel with plot points this complex even just at the beginning of the narrative is bound to deal with countless themes, and Elena Mendoza does not disappoint there. The book trusts the reader to have the patience and focus to follow the various characters and story points and at various times Elena’s first-person narrations discusses the significance of religion, science, and ethics in the matters at hand. A big part of Elena’s growing bond with Freddie is the two of them debating and exploring different understandings of why Elena can heal and when and whether she should be healing people. There are times when the book comes off a bit patronizing, with Elena’s self-righteous rants about how to be a good person and treat other people fairly, but this could arguably just be intended as the character’s perspective rather than the author’s.

And despite the Big Idea monologues sometimes verging on being sanctimonious, for the most part Elena is a compelling, likeable and relatable main character who more than deserves her own young adult novel to lead. Elena herself points out that if her powers are God-given, she is an unexpected vessel as a queer woman of colour; the same is unfortunately true of YA protagonists. Similarly, the religious, big-hearted and open-minded Fadil is a wonderful foil to Elena’s sometimes pessimistic, doubtful and misanthropic tendencies. Their loving interfaith, interracial friendship as it is portrayed in the novel is as refreshing as it is rare.

Elena’s bisexuality and interest in Freddie is an important and key element of the story, without reducing either character to the role of pursuer or love-interest. The often prickly and inconsistent interactions the two girls have as a result of extreme circumstances are not romantic in any traditional sense. The way Freddie and Elena are forced to confront their preconceived ideas of the other and listen to uncomfortable truths explodes old notions of how intimacy and love are formed, and the novel and their bond are both better for it.

This novel is not exclusively young adult, or fantasy, or a queer love story, or a meditation on how to be a good person. It is all of those things and a lot more, all crammed into a relatively small amount of pages. Do note that the novel contains brief references to domestic violence and racism as well as the aforementioned gun violence. Ultimately aside from the odd preachy moment, the book is an excellent piece of writing, exploring important themes through engaging with very likeable and relatable characters.

Danika reviews P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

PS I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy cover

My first introduction to P.S. I Miss You was Jen Petro-Roy’s Entertainment Weekly article, where she talks about how her book didn’t get a tour through schools, because all but one school considered it “too mature.” That’s a shame, because this middle grade book has a lot to offer. It’s an epistolary novel, told in letters from Evie to her older sister, Cilla. Cilla is 16 when she gets pregnant, and her parents have shipped her off to live with her aunt in the country until she has the baby, gives the baby up for adoption, and goes to a Catholic boarding school. Evie can’t understand why her sister would sin, or why her parents would react so badly, or why Cilla won’t write back, and she processes all of these feelings through the letters.

I’m not sure it was the intention, but I was getting stressed out reading this book. As the novel progressed, I got more nervous about why Cilla wasn’t writing back. I seriously considered skipping to the end, but settled for tearing through it instead, even reading it while walking home. Aside from my anxiety about Cilla, though, I was also invested in Evie. She is adrift, trying to figure out how her life has changed so dramatically. She oscillates between being confused, frustrated, and angry. Meanwhile, she’s starting to get closer to the new girl in school, June. June is pretty and funny… and also an atheist.

As her friendship with June develops, Evie questions her own religious beliefs. When she presses June to explain why she’s an atheist, June puts the ball back in her court. Evie begins to wonder–if being Catholic meant her parents sending Cilla away, is it really a good thing? We see her questioning through the lens of the letters, which introduces a bit of a buffer. Evie thinks there’s something different about her friendship with June–but nevermind, no, forget she wrote that last letter.

The juxtaposition between Cilla and Evie worked really well: Evie is terrified to tell her parents about her growing suspicion that she may be gay, because she’s sure they’ll send her away, just like they did when Cilla “sinned.” She begins to reconsider if she really agrees with what she’s been told sin is. Her parents are deeply flawed people, and seeing that is painful. They are human, and they’ve made mistakes. But that doesn’t mean that Evie has to follow in their footsteps.

P.S. I Miss You is a heartfelt story about developing into your own person. I can see how it’s considered controversial, because it’s all about questioning what you’ve been taught to believe unwaveringly. It validates that your feelings–even if you are only 12 or 16–are just as valid, and you deserve to have the space to explore your own possibilities. I’d recommend this for middle graders and adults alike.