An Anxious Nonbinary Lesbian Sheep Solves a Murder: Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything by Justine Pucella Winans

the cover of Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything

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Bianca has overwhelming anxiety, especially social anxiety, to the point that trying to have an everyday conversation is a monumental struggle. They keep a numbered list of fears, like “Fear #6: Initiating Conversation,” “#13 Beautiful People,” and “#11 Parents Discovering They’re a Raging Lesbian.” So they’re definitely not going to ask out the cute girl in their birdwatching group. Or even speak to her at all. Bianca compares themself to lesbian sheep, standing beside each other perfectly still, hoping the other makes a move.

The only person other than family she feels comfortable around is Anderson. They bonded over anime, though Anderson is too cool to admit to liking manga and anime at school.

If it was up to Bianca, they would stayed in that safe bubble forever, but while people watching with their birdwatching telescope, they witness a murder in building across the street by someone wearing a plague doctor mask. Getting up the courage to tell the police is hard enough, but when the cops dismiss them and rule the case a suicide, Bianca is now the only one who can get justice for the neighbour who used to put bird drawings on his window for them to enjoy. (The cops are useless at best in this book, and I appreciated that: it is a murder investigation that doesn’t glorify the police at all.)

This is a satirical mystery perfect for fans of Only Murders In the Building. It’s whacky and over-the-top when it comes to the murder case, but the interpersonal and self-discovery elements feel grounded. Bianca ends up convincing Anderson and Elaine (from the birding group) to help investigate, changing their dynamic and bringing them closer together.

Meanwhile, Bianca is having Gender Feelings. At first, it’s not conscious, like feeling uncomfortable in their body and enjoying being compared to a male character. As they reluctantly explore these feelings, though, they begin to experience gender euphoria by changing their gender expression, coming out to some people as nonbinary, finding nonbinary friends and community, and using they/them pronouns. This is one of the few books I’ve read with a character who identifies as a nonbinary lesbian!

This was a lot of fun, and I appreciated both the satirical murder mystery plot and the well-rounded characters.

“Perhaps the real murder investigation is the friends we make along the way.”

Trans Horror Satire with a Beating Heart: Boys Weekend by Mattie Lubchansky

the cover of Boys Weekend

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Boys Weekend a satirical horror graphic novel about Sammie, a trans feminine person who is invited to a bachelor party of an old friend as the “best man.” While there, Mattie seems to be the only one concerned about the cult sacrificing people. This was already on my TBR, and I was happily surprised to find out this one is sapphic! Sammie has a wife.

This is illustrated in a style I associate more with adult cartoons than graphic novels, but it works well for this dark comedy. Sammie is conflicted about whether to attend Adam’s bachelor party, but Adam has been fairly accepting after they came out, so they decide to take the leap. The party takes place at a sci-fi, ultra capitalist version of Las Vegas: it’s called El Campo, and on this island, anything goes. Including hunting your own clone for casual entertainment. Adam’s friends are all tech bros, and Sammie is uncomfortable with them on multiple levels: while their home is decorated with ACAB signs and pride flags, Adam’s friends are interested in strip clubs, get rich quick schemes, and everything else associated with hetero masculinity.

Even before the outright horror elements come in, this is an unsettling and upsetting environment to be in. Sammie constantly misgendered, both from strangers and friends/acquaintances who should know better. The horror plot is really just an exaggeration of the cult of masculinity that the bachelor party is so devoted to. There is some gore, but as a whole, it is focused on the satire, not being outright scary.

It’s difficult reading Sammie experience the unrelenting transmisogyny that they do, but there’s also a defiant, hopeful element to this story. It explores the complicated question of which relationships are worth holding onto after coming out—what about the friends and family who don’t get it but aren’t actively hateful? When is it time to walk away, and when is it worth reaching out and trying to repair the relationship?

Despite the horror, the micro- and macroaggressions, and the constant misgendering, this wasn’t bleak. Sammie reaches out to their wife and other queer friends throughout the story, asking for their advice and support over the phone, so even when they are surrounded by assholes, they don’t feel alone. Sammie is secure in their identity and self-worth and has support from coworkers, friends, and in their marriage.

While having lots of over-the-top elements—El Campo is something else—I actually teared up a bit at the end. The setting and plot might be cartoony, but the emotion is grounded. I recommend this both to horror fans and to those less familiar with the genre: as long as you’re okay with a few pages of gore, this is well worth the read.

Danika reviews Eat the Rich by Sarah Gailey, Pius Bak, and Roman Titov

the cover of Eat the Rich, showing a skewer with meat, an eyeball, and a finger on it

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It’s Halloween, and I know exactly which book you should read cover to cover today.

Joey is meeting her boyfriend’s family, and it’s understandably stressful. They’re wealthy; she’s not. He’s worried about trying to stay sober back there. She wants to impress them. But she’s on her way to becoming a lawyer, so she’ll be joining the elites soon. She’s up to the challenge of learning how to blend in.

It goes about as well as you’d expect at first. Joey feels judged and out of place. She becomes friends with the family’s nanny, Petal, even as Petal advises her that being seen with the help will not be good for her standing in this society. As she explains this to Joey, the baby picks up what appears to be a human jawbone on the beach and begins playing with it…

This is a short graphic novel, so I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think you can probably guess that this rich community is eating people; it’s revealed pretty quickly. The twist (mid-story spoiler) is that it’s not a secret. It’s in their contracts. You retire, and you get hunted for sport and eaten. But in the meantime, you get paid well, you get good health benefits, etc. For some people, it’s the best option on the table. That’s capitalism for you. (end of spoilers)

This an over-the-top, gruesome, funny, anti-capitalism, queer graphic novel that I enjoyed from beginning to end. In just a few pages, I completely fell for Petal, who wears a “Loud and Queer” t-shirt and assures Joey that yes, she knows how awesome she is. I think I can safely say that if you like the title and cover, you’ll love this book, and it’s such a fun one-sitting Halloween read.

Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)

Danika reviews My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris

Yes, this is a choose your own adventure romance novel! I don’t read a lot of romance, but I couldn’t resist this premise, at least once I heard that there was a path where you could turn your back on the suitors and run off with a lady instead! This was, above all, super fun. It’s Jane Austen-ish, so if you’re a fan of riffs on Austen, this is well worth picking up (though I’m not an Austen fan and I still loved it.)

I fully expected to find the F/F option and only read that storyline (see the ladies in the bottom right corner of the cover?), but I ended up enjoying it enough that I followed almost every path. Depending on which choices you make, you end up in very different situations and genres, including a Gothic Jane Eyre-esque plot line, or more of a Pride and Prejudice angle.

When I was first making my way through the book, I actually hesitated before pursuing the lady love interest. It just didn’t feel like the way this romance novel would go! It’s one thing to choose between (basically) Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester, but running off with your female friend seems unfathomable. But that’s the whole point! Imagine reading a M/F romance novel: you’re plodding along, all the love interests have been introduced, and your friend (whom you clearly have more chemistry with than the dudes) throws out that, hey, if you want, you can travel to Egypt with her instead. You reach that point in the book and sigh. Image if she had taken her up on that! Imagine if instead of heading to the drafty castle or trading quips with the asshole rich guy, you just skipped town and went on an Egyptian adventure instead! Only this time, you can!

I kind of was expecting the F/F storyline to be an easter egg that you would have to seek out, but it’s pretty obvious. In fact, the chemistry between you and your friend seems more palpable earlier in the narrative than with any of the men. It’s also interesting because while most of the paths you can take are versions of famous romances in literature, the Egyptian storyline is completely different. Search for an artifact stolen from an Egyptian museum, and encounter your lady love interest’s angry ex-girlfriend! Maybe end up in a lesbian, pirate gang! (Yes, you can do that. Definitely try to get to that point.)

One of the fun things is that because this is a romance novel, you can’t really lose. Romance conventions dictate that you have a happy ending, so it’s interesting to see how you can get away with a happy ending no matter what you do. I highly recommend backtracking and following a few different paths, just to see how different they are. I loved this bisexual, choose your own adventure, historical, satirical romance novel. It was a joy to read, even when it was M/F!