Mary reviews Gingerbread Hearts by Judy Underwood

Gingerbread Hearts edited by Judy Underwood

Up until recently I’ve avoided short stories. I wanted a nice, full novel to sink my teeth into and take my time with. But now I have a full-time job with a long commute and reading full novels becomes a bit more challenging. So with that, now I love short stories, which brings me to Gingerbread Hearts by a multitude of authors.

“Holiday Outing by” Alison Grey

Susanne plans to come out to her family while they’re all together for the holidays. Her sister has her back, but saying a few simple words turns out to be harder than she thought. Plus, she has to navigate each family member and their quirks throughout the night leading up to the reveal.

This was a fun little snippet. I wish I had gone on longer, it felt like the ending was only the beginning. The family was realistic and each person had their own personality that was fun to get to know.

“It’s in the Pudding” by Emma Weimann

Ida’s family has a Christmas tradition that whoever finds the almond in the pudding gets to make a wish. Ida’s wish was to let go and find love by next Christmas, not to go to the dentist when the almond disagrees with her filling. But when the dentist turns out to be someone from Ida’s past, she thinks maybe the almond wasn’t so wrong.

This was a great meet-cute that I didn’t see coming. Ida and her family, especially her friendship with her sister-in-law, had a nice and fun dynamic that was engaging to read. There were also clear sparks between her and the dentist, Theresa, that leapt off the page.

However, this story had a few fatphobic comments that were not needed or entertaining.

“Devgo” by Corinna Behrens

Rebecca has rejected and isolated herself from her friends and family, broken up with her girlfriend, and surrounded herself in her wealth and power. Now, a being both from heaven and hell, Devgo, visits her on Christmas to give her a last chance.

This was another really short one that I thought could have been expanded more. It felt like an introduction to a longer story I would really like to have read. The introduction of Devgo was interesting and believable. Rebecca was clearly a horrible person, but the author does a good job of still making her engaging as a character despite that
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“A Magical Christmas” RJ Nolan

Erin’s ex-husband broke a promise to their kids right before Christmas, leading her girlfriend Kris to plan a surprise getaway for the family. But both Erin and Kris have things to work through and obstacles to work through together to make this Christmas theirs.

This was my favorite story! Erin and Kris, their relationship, and dynamics with the kids felt real and wonderful. I could really believe they had been together for a while, and that they had some real issues to work through. At the same time, it was still romantic and fun. I wish I could read more about them.

“The Christmas Grump” and “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” by Jae

These two stories are in the same universe with the same characters, so I put them together.
In “The Christmas Grump”, Rachel is a mall security guard during the worst time of the year to be working at a mall. Last year she has a terrible Christmas, and now she’s anything but in the holly jolly spirit. Then she meets Tyler and his single mother, who has a reason to not be in the Christmas spirit.

In “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” it’s been a year since their first Christmas together, and Rachel and Lillian are happy. But Rachel doesn’t know what to get Lillian, and she doesn’t know exactly what Lillian wants with her in the long term.

These two were my second favorite in the collection. Jae does a great job of slowly building the characters, the world and the relationships. I feel like I could have read a whole book about these people. Rachel and Lillian have a sweet and romance dynamic. Tyler is also a great child characters, which can be hard to do, especially in the length and time constraints of a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Christmas short story collection and recommend it to anyone looking for a chance to get in the holiday spirit. You can download the e-book for free directly from Ylva’ Publishing’s website.

Sheila Laroque reviews Maiden, Mother Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes by Gwen Benaway

Maiden, Mother, Crone edited by Gwen Benaway

I became aware of Gwen Benaway this fall on twitter (@GwenBenaway) with the controversy that was happening in Toronto with the public library and a hateful speaker. More of Gwen’s writing on her experiences of these events can be found here. Also, this fall she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for her work Holy Wild. While I was on the waitlist at my library for her work of poetry, I decided to pick up this collection of short fantasy stories that feature trans characters. I’m really glad I did.

I’m trying to read outside of my usual genres, and fantasy stories fit that for me. I know there are many fans of fantasy; but for me this is a new genre. Knowing that all of the stories presented here would have trans heroines and queer elements; along with other tropes of fantasy writing. In a way, this was like having a twist on a classic comfort food. I had an idea of what I was getting, but was always pleasantly surprised. Having all of these stories feature trans characters so seamlessly highlighted the ways that fantasy writing can (and should) feature more diverse characters, without breaking genre conventions. After all, is it really that far of a stretch of the imagination to think that characters wouldn’t be able to use magic to change their gender? Or to live in worlds where there are different gender conventions and acceptance of this?

My favorite stories were “Mountain God” by Gwen Benaway, “Potions and Practices” by Gwynception and “Dreamborn” by Kylie Ariel Bemis. It’s hard for me to really narrow down exactly why, because all of these stories are different. But I think I just really enjoyed the characters and getting to have short glimpses into their fantastical worlds. Much like how Love Beyond Space and Time can serve as a guide to Indigenous writers and storytellers, this book can be a good introduction for those who are seeking more trans-inclusive reading in their fantasy collections. I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more from these authors.

Sheila Laroque reviews Love Beyond Body Space and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology edited by Hope Nicholson

Love Beyond Body Space and Time

For readers who are interested in having more Indigenous writers in their reading material, Love Beyond Body, Space & Time is a great entry point into Indigenous-centered science fiction. This collection of short stories seeks to showcase the ways that science fiction and aspects of Indigenity are not contradictions. In many science fiction tropes, the narrative of new planetary exploration or post-apocalyptic worlds can create a picture that reflects the harmful effects of colonialism. The possibilities that Indigenous peoples could be not only surviving, but thriving and loving in ways that affirm Indigenous notions of gender, sex and love is not something that is typically seen. This collection of short stories seeks to not only create space for these possibilities, but provides an introduction to what it means to be two-spirited, where the term comes from, and additional resources for further exploration. In “Returning to Ourselves: Two Spirit Futures and the now” Niigaan Sinclair outlines some of the histories that early colonists did not understand two-spirit people. In the early 1800s, the writings of more than one fur trader make note of the ways that they were perplexed by Ozawwendib, a two-spirit male who dressed “womanish”. Sinclair goes on to show the roles that two-spirit people had within different nations and communities, and how they were viewed by their own communities. The works cited for this short introduction piece is also an excellent resource to learn more about the roles of two-spirit people, queerness and Indigenous peoples before colonization.

The entire collection is an excellent guide into the writings and thoughts of other Indigenous writers. Included are stories by Richard Van Camp, Daniel Heath Justice, Cherie Dimaline and Cleo Keahna, to name a few. Each contributor has their own catalogue of materials that are well-worth the read on their own. As well, Grace L. Dillon in “Beyond the Grim Dust of what was to a radiant possibility of what could be: two-spirit survivance stories” gives an overview of the other writing that has been done within science fiction and queer writings, including two-spirit and where to get resources on other writing by Indigenous theorists.

One of my favourite stories is “Né łe!” by Darcie Little Badger. It is the story of a veterinarian, Dottie, who is Lipan Apache and on a nine month trip to Mars. The mission gets interrupted, and she gets woken up from her stasis sleep by another queer Navajo woman Cora when her vetrinary skills are needed. For me, the story had many unexpected elements that made it feel very surprising and charming. It is unexpected to see a queer Indigenous female doctor as a main character in a short story; just as much as it is to find love on a journey to Mars.

I also really enjoyed “Transitions” by Gwen Benaway. It is set in the near future, in Toronto, Ontario. It is the story of a two-spirited trans person who is near the beginning of their transition. As part of this, they enroll themselves in a new medication trial which is supposed to have better effects than hormones. However, they begin to have hallucinations and is encouraged by an Elder to use ceremony to come back to her spirit. This story is a beautiful reminder that Indigenous futurisms can be seen as the time that we are living in right now. The ancestors of our past can override what we hail as modern medical breakthroughs. As an Indigenous person who used to live in Toronto, I’m always excited when I can recognize different places and institutions that helped to shape my experience of the city.

Overall, “Love Beyond Body, Space and Time” is an accessible and thorough introduction to both science fiction and two-spirit realities for people who may not  have a great deal of experience with either. The short story formats offer a wide variety of interpretations of science fiction; as well as what it means to have experiences with both Indigenity and queerness. A short read that is well-worth checking out, I recommend this with 4 out of 5 interplanetary stars.

Sheila is a queer Métis woman, living in her home territory of Edmonton, AB, Canada. She has worked in a number of libraries across Canada, but being back in the public library has given her the space to rekindle some love with books and reading. She also co-hosts a podcast about Indigenous publishing called masinahikan iskwêwak (which is Cree for Book Women) with two other Métis librarians. The podcast can be found at https://bookwomenpodcast.ca/; and Sheila tweets at @SheilaDianeL.  

Danika reviews A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

It’s not beautiful or brave or redemptive. It’s like a light case of mono that never goes away. I don’t want to brave. I want us to be okay.

I’m having trouble writing this review, because I feel like I’m still processing this book. A Safe Girl to Love is a collection of short stories with trans women main characters, many of whom are also lesbians/bi/queer. The stories have different voices, but for the most part, they’re written in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone. Some stories don’t have quotations marks around dialogue, which gives it a dreamlike, immersive feel. Most of these stories are realistic and gritty, but one does have a talking cat.

Although these women all live in different places and circumstances, and their everyday life varies a lot, they all deal with the daily struggle of surviving in a world that constantly questions their existence and value. Every character faces microagressions, though they’re often accompanied by more overt aggression and danger. Plett really lays out how these constant digs wear away at the protagonists, and how much it takes to just survive under that.

Because these are all women dealing with trauma and institutional discrimination, they have to find ways to cope. They are flawed, and sometimes make bad decisions. Sometimes they don’t have a lot of options to choose between. But they also endure, and they find meaning where they can.

I can’t help but compare this to Nevada by Imogen Binnie: not because they’re two of the few queer trans women books out there, but for that tone. They both reject the idea that enduring pain is noble or beautiful, or the idea that trans people have to be perfect people in order to earn the right to live. Add in the BDSM and bookstore jobs, and these two have a lot in common.

The tone made this a difficult book for me to read, emotionally speaking. Though I also feel ridiculous saying that I found it too hard to just read about these experiences, when they’re far from uncommon for trans women in their everyday lives. In hindsight, I wish I had spaced these out a little more and read something in between, so I could better absorb each individual story. I don’t want to imply that there are no spots of light or positivity, though, and those moments are all the more powerful because of it.

People at the bookstore sometimes ask why I’m still there. Because no one else wants to fucking be here. But I’m happier in my day-to-day life than I ever was before. A lot of shit’s still awful, yes, and I’m angry and negative most days, yes. But I love my job. I love my partner. (You know, most of the time.) I like our household. I do actually like how I’ve structured most of my life. I’ve started to see a future and it’s got its shit parts, but it’s also kind of really okay. Everyone else sees me as a mess, Liam included. But I don’t feel like a mess. I know what a mess feels like.

Danika reviews “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh

New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

New Suns is an anthology of speculative fiction by people of colour, and it does include a few queer women short stories, but one really stood out to me: “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh. The author describes it as “A pornographic triptych of three different individuals encountering a creature part human, part bobbit worm.” This story perfectly combines two tropes that need more f/f content: human/mermaid love stories and human/monster sexuality. Any time a movie like The Shape of Water comes out, it sparks a new rehashing of the age-old question: “Why are so many people attracted to monsters?” I’m not here to answer that question, only to recognize its truth, and this is the perfect short story to explore it.

Mayang is not a mermaid: her bobbit worm-like traits, including mandibles, are too disturbing to fit our sexualized and Disneyfied vision of a classic mermaid. But she is a fantastical creature who lives in the water, who is fascinated by people, but also separate from them. Salmah and Mayang have a relationship, but there is tension there: they belong in different places. Salmah can’t reconcile this relationship with her life or future. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it is Mayang’s next, unexpected relationship that bring her more acceptance and really explores what is possible between their different lives (and bodies).

Part erotica and part revenge-against-misogynists story, with an undercurrent of the grotesque that leaves you equal parts disturbed and enthralled, this is a story I think a lot people have been looking for without knowing it.

Marthese reviews Sappho’s Fables, Volume 1: Three Lesbian Fairy Tale Novellas by Elora Bishop

Sappho's Fables by Elora Bishop and Jennifer Diemer

This month I’ve finally managed to read another retelling that has been on my TBR for years! There’s the bonus that it’s three retellings not one too! Sappho’s Fables Volume 1 by the amazing Elora Bishop (aka Bridget Essex) – who writes some good fantasy – gives us three sapphic retellings of classical fairy tales with imaginative twists.

“I saw nothing by red and Neve”

Seven is a retelling of snow white. Catalina is a young new wife to a horrible man that experiments on her. She finds herself attracted to his ‘daughter’ Neve. She finds out that he has had 6 wives before, all in the search of immortality. Together, Neve and Catalina break this cycle. This story had horror elements and there was an interesting play with fairy tale elements and sayings.

“My mother is lost to the world of spells, and I am lost to the world in which terrible things happen to good people”

Braided is the retelling of Rapunzel. Gray’s mother sewed Gray’s fate as guardian of the Holity on another child – Zelda. Every day Gray goes to bring her food even though she doesn’t need it. After encountering a magical travelling fair connected with her dreams, Gray realizes she has to try to free Zelda. There were no bad guys here just people trying their best and making mistakes. A lot of casual queerness and acceptance too.

“Animals can be stopped by fear. Animals think. Ragers don’t”

Crumbs is the retelling of Hansel and Gretel. This is possibly my first ever story that I read with zombies and I actually liked it! Han and Greta live with their parents near heaps of trash where they scravage. They have to be careful of the ragers who were once human and have been infected. Their parents leave and the two decide to try to reach the metal forest, which turns out to be a city. There they are safe with Sabine and her brother Robert. Han is always sleeping and Sabine is always offering Greta food…I’m not sure I like the not-honest part but having already read another queer retelling of this story, I quite like this one.

All three stories had clear elements that identified the stories but were also fresh and new. I had many ‘ohhhhhhh’ moments when these elements such as apples, the huntsman, hair, rampions, sweets and witches were used. The retellings don’t focus only on the romance but offer a good story and the stories are short enough that can be read during one or two work breaks!

I’d recommend this book for lovers of fairy tale retellings, fantasy and imaginative tales and especially ‘Crumbs’ for newcomers to the zombie genre like me.

Quinn Jean reviews All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout The Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

[This review contains very vague spoilers (no specific plot points, though) and mentions of violence]

This exceptional short story collection, edited by Saundra Mitchell, is a sterling addition to WLW fiction. The vast majority of the seventeen stories included involve major WLW characters and without fail, every tale is breathtakingly beautiful. The historical settings range from a convent in medieval Spain, to small-town USA in the 1950s, right through to grunge-soaked Seattle in the early 1990s. Similarly, the young women included in the WLW stories vary greatly in their personalities, identities, dreams and loves. The one thing all the stories have in common is that none of the protagonists have unhappy endings. The book has successfully set out to show queer teenagers have always existed and thrived, even in the most adverse circumstances.

The heroism inherent in merely existing as a queer person is captured brilliantly in every story in All Out, with some of the stories including magic and fantasy to further heighten this theme. Leprechauns and witches–as well as peasant girls, waitresses and nuns–all show themselves to be strong, generous and brave when their circumstances would have them give up on life and love. Too often fictional portrayals of WLW in historical settings show these women to be doomed, but these stories reward their characters with happiness and promising futures. And the long past times in foreign places portrayed by the authors never feel distant given the amount of detail and nuance each story is imbued with, so that the reader is transported completely each time.

It is to the reader’s benefit not to know too much about what each story will contain, with only the promise that none end in tragedy, so there’s no need to be anxious when reading. Inevitably certain historical settings mean there are depictions of violence at times, but this is not the over-riding theme of any story, with queer love stories and self-discovery always emerging victorious.

Do not miss this book, it is a glorious expression of the love and light that has always filled WLW.

11 Literally Perfect Sapphic Novels

Here’s another one of my recent booktube videos, this time discussing the sapphic novels and short story collections that I’ve rated 5 stars!

Books mentioned:

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Marthese reviews Gretel and “Dragon Essence” by Niamh Murphy

”She had trusted two strangers in her house, offering them food and shelter. It was nonsense not to trust her.” – Gretel: A Fairytale Retold

With GDPR the copious amounts of author newsletters were at best purgatory. The ‘please subscribe to us’ emails were really great to weed out authors that I am not so interested in reading anymore. One author’s newsletter that I kept was Niamh Murphy’s. This author sends a lot of freebies and previews, is interested in fantasy and historical fiction (she’s actually a historian!) and sends advice and tips on where and what to read. I particularly liked her newsletter of Sapphic Fairytale Retellings! Anyone subscribed to her newsletter has received the short stories I will review below!

Despite knowing of this author, I hadn’t read any of her stories before last week, but now I’m intrigued. I started by reading “Dragon Essence: A Prequel to the Dark Age Trilogy.“This was, and and still is currently, free with a newsletter subscription! I have never read a prequel before the actual series, but this particular prequel was good at introducing the world and making the readers invested in seeing more from from it. The prequel is very short and can be read during a lunch break.

The plot surrounds Andra, a Captain of the Dragon Ward. Andra’s lover, Olwen is a mage set on getting a hold on a dragon egg – which Andra is bound to protect. Olwen gets killed, and the way to bring her back to life may see Andra breaking all sorts of oaths. This was a refreshing read, though very morally dubious. Why I could understand why the characters were acting in a certain way, I didn’t feel it was 100% okay. Be forewarned, there is violence on mythical creatures and violence of the human kind. The story contained also a preview of the first book Dragon Whisper. I love queer fantasy, especially with dragons and I’m interested to see how the wizards vs druids and the humans vs dragons elements will play out. I also do not know many queer fantasy books/historical fiction books with druids.

After I finished “Dragon Essence” I felt like reading the series…only it is not yet out. So I read Gretel: A Fairytale Retold, which as you probably guessed is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel: one of my favourite childhood stories! Gretel isn’t that long and is a bit fast paced, but then again, so was the original story. Hans and Gretel are introduced while running away from wolves and fortunately they are saved by a woman who offers them lodging until Hans heals. Gretel and Hans are away from home and have been looking for work. Maeve, the woman who saved them, lives in a cottage in a fort – all on her own. Gretel and Maeve grow closer in a really sweet way (and sexy way too as it involved a first-time sex scene in the woods!), but Hans is ever suspicious of the ‘witch’. Gretel has always had Hans and Hans had always had her back…until both those things are not true anymore. This story has a happy ending for the couple! It also has one of the best concluding lines from a character that I’ve ever seen.

While short, I think this story was great. It is a fast-paced story but there was no ‘love-at-first-sight’. It also featured a realistic fracturing of a family bond and growing romantic bond. I found Maeve to be an interesting character because she’s kind and feminine but still strong, physically and mentally. I absolutely hated Hans. Perhaps if it was longer, we could have seen a nice side of him. The writing was simple but effective and emphatic. This novella is currently free!

Overall, this is an author I would look into more. Niamh Murphy also has a youtube channel where she talks about books. I enjoyed discovering this author especially because of the fantasy and  retellings with a dash of history. I look forward to discovering new authors of those genres.

Megan G reviews “Wet Nails” by Shira Glassman

Adina Greenberg is taking a small break from her life as a grad student to spend a night watching movies starring her biggest Hollywood crush: Rose Hamilton. Rose Hamilton was a star in the 1950’s, and is definitely dead. Yet, she somehow also manages to step right out of Adina’s television set and into her living room.

The words “ghost” and “erotica” are not words I would often think to put together, and yet somehow, they work perfectly in this adorable and sexy short story.

Part of this, I think, is because “Wet Nails” doesn’t read like a traditional short story. Instead of being terrified by the ghostly apparition of her dead celebrity crush, Adina seems excited and nervous. In fact, the first thing she thinks when Rose Hamilton begins to climb out of her TV is how thankful she is that she just recently showered. At no point does Adina show any fear at the situation, which, while a little odd considering the circumstances, does work to help the “erotica” side of this ghost erotica along.

Another thing, I think, is that Rose Hamilton is not a vengeful ghost, seeking retribution over the horrible things that happened to her in her life. Instead, she claims she is kept alive by her fans, and because of that can occasionally drop in to visit some of them and thank them for their dedication to her.

Something I really enjoyed about this story was Adina and Rose talking about their different experiences with bisexuality. Adina is quite open about liking women – in fact, she shows a clear preference towards women. Rose is open as well, but makes it clear that she was not that open during her life. Any romantic interactions she had with women had to be hushed up, hidden, as they could have ruined not only her career, but her life. Adina, in turn, seems fully aware of the privilege she has in being able to be out and accepted, knowing that it wasn’t always like this and, for some people, still isn’t.

I won’t get too detailed about the “erotica” aspect of this story, but I do promise that it is hot, hot, hot. And yet, somehow also manages to keep that little bit of adorable that has been sprinkled through the entire story.

Overall, “Wet Nails” is a fantastic little story that looks at the different experiences women can have with queerness (bisexuality in particular, in this story), and how despite that, they can still find common ground, even if they are from entirely different generations. They form a sweet, albeit brief friendship, which obviously turns into a little bit more in a way that works perfectly even though one of the women is a ghost. I would highly recommend this story to anybody who is looking for something both sweet and sexy. Shira Glassman will not disappoint.