Meagan Kimberly reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

the space between worlds audiobook cover

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Cara is a traverser in a world where travel between universes has been discovered. In most worlds, she’s dead, making her the perfect candidate for the job, as traveling to worlds where your counterpart is still alive results in your death. But the protagonist isn’t all she seems, and neither is the company and people she works for. Once she learns the truth about the business of multiverse travel, she must decide where she really belongs.

There are so many layers complementing each other, showcasing the intricacy of the issues presented. It’s a story about class divide, power, ethics, morality, capitalism, family and relationships. Every element is intertwined with one another, making Cara’s journey complex as she navigates who she really is.

The whole book is incredibly well-paced, with plot twists you never see coming and happening just at the right time. Perhaps this is because Cara is an unreliable narrator and you only ever see the world through her eyes. As she perceives her role in multiverse travel and ignores the bigger picture for much of the story, it’s hard to see what’s coming. This is what makes her such a compelling main character and the story so entrancing.

Johnson creates a dynamic duality of science and religion with the concept of traversing. During the process, traversers experience trauma that leaves them bruised, and if done too frequently with no breaks between jumps, even causes broken bones. Cara describes it as pressure as her body pushes the boundaries between worlds. She and the other traversers refer to this phenomenon as the goddess Niameh giving them a kiss. But the scientists behind traversing simply explain it through logical means, referring to physics and biology. There’s also a layer of Niameh representing beliefs other than white Christianity.

Through Cara’s backstory and memories, there are nuanced discussions of being a victim of abuse. The multiverse shows what can be if people’s circumstances are different. At the same time, it puts on display how complicated emotional ties are between abusers and their victims. It brings to mind questions like, “Can you love someone who is abusive, especially if you know the kindness they’re capable of?” and “Can you resent a kind person you know is capable of violence and abuse they haven’t committed in this world, but have in another?”

Cara’s character arc takes her from hating where she comes from, Ash, to accepting who she is and where she’s from is nothing to be ashamed of. She longed to become part of Wiley City for so long, only to find it wasn’t as bright and shiny as it appeared on the surface. To become Wiley was to accept a definition of success determined by those in authority, rather than success on her own terms.

I listened to the book on audio, narrated by Nicole Lewis, and I highly recommend it if you like listening to fiction on audio. Lewis is a charismatic narrator and brings every character to life.

Content warning: abuse

Nat reviews The Verifiers by Jane Pek

the cover of The Verifiers

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Are you looking for a dystopian mystery in the vein of Dave Eggers’s The Circle, with a high stakes, lesbian Nancy Drew vibe and a heaping side of Person of Interest (where no gays are harmed in the making)? Then this is the book for you, my friend. Part speculative fiction and part murder mystery, Jane Pek’s The Verifiers is set in a world (or future) where matchmaking services are the most common way to find a partner, not entirely unlike current times, though their algorithms and importance in this novel’s society are more extreme. 

The data collected is even more invasive than what exists in our real world, collection that all but completely eliminates your privacy in order to best fulfill your needs. Enter our aspiring dating detective, Claudia Lin, who works for a company called Veracity, every bit as secretive as the CIA. Her job as the newest member of the team is to help make sure that the people on these ubiquitous dating apps are who they actually claim to be. 

Claudia is curious to a fault, a natural problem solver, an avid fan of detective novels, and stubborn enough to get herself into a bit of a situation when she can’t let an unsolved mystery drop. She’s young and sometimes makes questionable decisions. But while there are serious themes explored in the book, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Verifiers is a murder mystery that grows into a twisty, fun house mirror conspiracy where one can’t quite figure out who to trust. 

Pek sweetens the deal by treating you to a a smart, sarcastic underachieving protagonist, one who also happens to be queer and Asian. Additionally, there’s some complex family drama afoot and some social commentary on how technology affects our lives. More of this is explored at the end during the “big reveal,” including a look at how the creators of the technology justify their decisions in the name of providing a greater good. 

The Verifiers made me think of Zen Cho’s writing style in Black Water Sister, both in Pek’s treatment of the main character and in the flow of the novel. There are similarities in the MC’s family issues, though instead of meddling aunties, we have a dysfunctional sibling and mother relationship. There’s an overarching mystery to be solved that transforms the MC in ways that allow her to deal with issues in her private life. Both novels have a steady, page-turning flow and a solid helping of witty, amusing internal dialogue that had me snorting out loud, the same brand of snark that had me chuckling through Cho’s book. If Black Water Sister was your cuppa, you will likely enjoy this as well. 

And back to the sapphic aspect of this book, Claudia is queer (though not out to her mother), but this remains secondary to the story. We do still witness her dealing with issues in her personal life, sexuality included, as she navigates the challenges central to the book. There’s also some exploration of ethnicity and cultural identity in being an Asian American sprinkled throughout. 

This is Pek’s debut novel! And while it’s a standalone, you can’t help but notice that she’s setting you up for a sequel, perhaps even a series. (Fingers crossed that this is true.) I would happily binge watch five seasons of this on Netflix, following our plucky verifier as she solves mysteries each episode within a larger overarching conspiracy, topped off with a slow burn workplace romance. Ahem, JJ Abrams, are you listening? 

Larkie reviews “The Effluent Engine” by NK Jemisin

the cover of How Long 'Til Black Future Month

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I listened to this short story as part of the audiobook How Long ’til Black Future Month, but it can be found for free online at Lightspeed Magazine.

I’ll start this review off by saying that I think NK Jemisin is an incredible writer. Her Broken Earth trilogy was dark and often painful to read, but it was such an incredible work with beautiful craft, and I’ve been wanting to read more of her work for a while, but I wasn’t ready to commit to another long series: naturally, her short stories proved to be an excellent solution. In some cases, they also acted as an exploration (and teaser) for her other books, proving that yes, I do indeed need to read all of them.

“The Effluent Engine” takes place in an alternate history New Orleans, albeit one that is not so far removed from reality. It really packs everything into a small space: spies and intrigue, chemistry and engineering, romance and revolution. The main character, Jessamine, is a Haitian agent whose mission is to find a scientist who will develop a safe way to extract methane gas from the refuse generated by rum production, so they can produce their own fuel for their dirigibles. But she isn’t the only one after such a mechanism, and she has to avoid enemy agents who want Haiti to go back to being an enslaved nation. 

This story, although short, has a deep and satisfying plot. It feels like reading a novel, because so much happens in a short space of time. There is plenty of action, but also a great sense of space and time passing. There isn’t a huge cast of characters (although with spies, scientists, and eavesdropping nuns, there are plenty!) but there’s lots of complexity to the ones we have. And most of all, this story is just plain fun to read. It’s exciting and romantic, with enough seriousness backing it up to keep the stakes high. I absolutely recommend anyone who had time to read this review to take a minute and go read the story itself.

Landice reviews Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten

Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten

“I care about you, Alex. […] Part of me says you’re too good to be true, but the greater part of me says that if I give you a chance, you’ll be worth it.”

Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten is a fun new lesfic novel with sci-fi elements, available now from Regal Crest!

Normally I begin a review with my thoughts, but there’s so much to unpack in Remember Me, Synthetica that I decided to lead with the synopsis, for context.

Synopsis:

What happens when a woman loses her memory but gains a conscience?

Dr. Alexandra Turing is a roboticist whose intellect is unrivaled in the field of artificial intelligence. While science has always come easy, Alexandra struggles to understand emotional cues and responses. Driven by the legacy of her late great-uncle, she dedicates her life to the Synthetica project at her father’s company, Organic Advancement Solutions (OAS).

Her life is rebooted when she wakes from a coma six months after being struck by a car. Traumatic brain injury altered Alex’s senses, her memory, and her personality. Despite the changes, she feels reborn as she navigates her way back into her old life. Part of her new journey includes dating the alluring Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Emily St. John.

Emily is enamored with the hyper-intelligent scientist, but there are things about Alex and OAS that don’t add up. With Emily’s prompting, Alex undergoes testing that leaves her with more questions than answers. What she discovers changes more than her life, it will change the world around her.

Even with context, where to begin? Synthetica is unique in that it truly toes the line between romance and genre fiction without ever fully leaning in to one of the other. Yes, the adorable butch/femme relationship between Alex and Emily–which I couldn’t help but root for from the moment they met–gets a lot of “screentime,” but we also spend a lot of time learning about the various scientific ventures at OAS.

It’s obvious Aten put a lot of time and effort into her research into the more academic/scientific aspects of the novel, which I can definitely appreciate. Not all of the technology referenced or explained in Remember Me, Synthetica exists yet, but I couldn’t identify what exists vs. what Aten came up with herself if you paid me, which shows how seamlessly she managed to weave the science fiction elements into the story. At times the story did feel a bit weighted down by jargon, but I think the use of scientific terms was important for Alex’s characterization.

That being said, I would still be more apt to shelve Synthetica as a f/f romance than as a science fiction novel, if I had to choose between the two. I’ve begun describing Synthetica and other books in the same vein (like The Lily & The Crown by Roslyn Sinclair, which I also loved!) as “lesbian fiction novels with sci-fi themes/elements” because it feels more accurate.

In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit that I had a lot of mixed feelings about Synthetica at first. It was definitely fun to read, but I found myself annoyed by some things that I thought were strange stylistic choices on the author’s part. At about 70% in, I began to panic. I’ve enjoyed much of Aten’s past work, and it felt like Synthetica was lacking her usual spark. My worry completely evaporated not long after, when she served up a plot twist of truly epic proportions! I won’t go into detail, because this is a book I wouldn’t dare spoil for potential readers, but I will say that once the plot twist hit, all of the things I’d disliked about the novel made complete sense, and no longer bothered me.

All of that is to say, if you pick up Synthetica, keep an open mind, and read it through to the end! Everything will make sense in time, and honestly, this book had the best ‘pay off’ of any novel I’ve read in a very long time. If you enjoy romance novels that are plot driven and thought provoking, Remember Me, Synthetica might be the book for you!

Remember Me, Synthetica At A Glance:

Genre: Lesbian Romance, Sci-fi/Speculative

Themes/Tropes: Butch/Femme, Opposites Attract, Second Chances

Sapphic Rep: Butch Lesbian MC, Bisexual Femme Love Interest

Own Voices? Yes

Content Warnings (CW): Head trauma/amnesia/other medical trauma, gaslighting

ARC Note: A huge thank you to Regal Crest and K. Aten for sending me an advance copy to review! All opinions are my own.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram & Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.

Megan G reviews Forget Yourself by Redfern Jon Barrett

Blondee’s world is comprised of fifty huts divided between four groups of people: least, minor, moderate, and severe. Each person is grouped based on what crime they committed in their previous life, though nobody can really know for sure what their exact crime was, as everybody comes into this world with no memories of who they previously were. The few memories people have are recorded in a book and used as rules to govern this world. The memories Blondee begins to have, however, will change the course of her world.

This is a tough book to review. It’s speculative science-fiction unlike any I’ve read before. Blondee’s world is new, both to the reader and to the characters, creating a deep sense of uncertainty throughout the novel that never fully dissipates. Every character is an amnesiac, making the world outside their prison compound a complete mystery and creating a strong sense of claustrophobia. We don’t know where we are, and we don’t know where we came from. I will admit, the eventual reveal left me scratching my head, but it also left me thinking in a way that very few dystopian novels ever have.

The issue of sexuality is just as complex as the rest of the narrative. Although Blondee’s world seems far more open-minded than our own, monogamy is still the law of the land, and when Blondee begins to shift into the world of polyamory she is quickly shunned by the rest of the compound. This is a world where everybody must act in the same way and follow the same rules, and having two lovers simply doesn’t fit with those rules. Despite the reaction of the rest of the compound, Blondee continues to date Burberry and Fredrick simultaneously, and, for a short time, this works for all three. Then, Blondee begins having memories.

The way that memory is dealt with in this book was something I found particularly intriguing. Everybody arrives into the world fully formed, but with no idea of who they are. When they do have memories, they’re vague. “If one person cheats, the other breaks up with them.” Nothing is personal or specific, and so it is believed that all memories are simply reminders of how the world works. When you’re with someone, they live with you. When you break up, you have sex once, and then one of you moves out. Things that in our world are decided based on personal preference are rules in Blondee’s world. This eventually leads to terrible consequences when Blondee remembers marriage, finds a bridal magazine, and re-introduces heteronormativy and traditional gender roles into a world that operated rather smoothly without them. This shift is one of the many social commentaries embedded within the narrative, and it may potentially be the only one that I fully grasped.

There are a few warnings you should be aware of before picking this book up. There is a decent amount of fatphobia within this book, all dealt with in a very casual way. Suicide is also a theme, and while it is not omni-present, it is rather explicit when it comes up. [major spoilers]This book also includes the death of a queer woman and of several queer men [end spoilers]. There is also explicit sexual content throughout the book, if that is something you prefer to avoid.

Overall, Forget Yourself is a tightly woven, complex story that deeply examines our society, sexuality, and the personal in contrast to the general. While I did greatly enjoy this story, I must admit that a lot of what happened in the final section went over my head, leaving me confused and a little unsatisfied. A second read might be in order, now that I (sort of) know where everything ends up.

One final note about Forget Yourself: don’t be fooled by the quick pace. This book initially seems like a light, easy, mindless read. It isn’t. It really, really isn’t.

Audrey reviews My Real Children by Jo Walton

myrealchildren

My Real Children is terrifically problematic in the best possible way. Patricia in 2015 is at the end of her life, relegated to a nursing home, left mostly alone by her family–but until she opens her eyes and sees the colors of the curtains and which side of the hallway the bathroom is on that day, she doesn’t know which family. Because after a certain specific point, Patricia’s life bifurcates, and she has two complete sets of memories. She’s lived two separate lives. In two separate worlds, with two separate histories (in one, JFK survived; in one, nuclear bombs have been dropped; in both, there are research bases on the moon).

Which one is real? Which one does she want to be real? Does want have anything to do with it? It’s not as simple as choosing the life in which she was happier. In one life, she had a miserable marriage to, and divorce from, Mark. They had four living children and number of babies who were stillborn. The world in general was a pretty open and accepting place, and Patricia (in this life, Trish) found a great deal of personal satisfaction in civic involvement and in enjoying the achievements of her children. Trish didn’t get the solid connection and commitment of the deep romantic love that so many people long for, but she contributed consistently to the betterment of the greater world. And it was a pretty good world.

In the other life, Patricia (Pat) found personal fulfillment in her career and in her loving relationship with Bee. They had three children, but had to be furtive about parenting, because this world moved into darker, less accepting times, and co-parenting lesbians were in constant danger of being reported to social services. Pat found great personal loves–she fell in love with Italy and found a way to make this soul-feeding appreciation the basis of her career. She found Bee, the love of a lifetime. Pat’s efforts contributed consistently to the betterment of her family’s world. The world at large–well, that wasn’t so great.

Trish’s focus was outward; Pat’s was insular. This is the most stark case of “What if it’s not all about you?” you may ever read: Patricia thinks, at one point, what if the salvation of the world comes at the expense of her own happiness? Well, what if? “What if?” is the jumping-off point of the best stories, and the most heartbreaking; and I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to work this out, trying to find crossover points, trying to make it work, but there are no easy answers. On the one hand, that makes this book great for book club meetings. Yes, you should sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of humanity! Or, no! Let humanity fend for itself, because love is a rare and beautiful thing, and when it’s found, it needs to be nurtured and cherished.

My Real Children is fascinating in a number of ways, but be warned, it will affect you. I spent the last chunk of it sobbing. (I am not the only one. Cory Doctorow apparently did the same thing, and couldn’t even face writing his review after he finished reading the book. He needed to take a breather.) One of the best things Jo Walton does with her main character is this: it’s clear that although Patricia makes a choice at one point that splits her world’s fate, both Pat and Trish behave in ways that are faithful to the core of the person Patricia. No matter what is thrown at her, the fundamental makeup of the character is the same. I loved that faith in the fundamental Patricia-ness of the main character, the vote of confidence in our basic nature being fixed, no matter the context. I also loved the “Please, we’re so past that” attitude toward homophobia in the latter part of Trish’s world’s 20th century.

What I didn’t love, because it wasn’t fun to think about, is Walton did a painfully effective job of pointing up the dangers of insularity. You don’t get to take a lifetime off. External engagement is necessary. Walton gives us extremes. Here are both sides of the spectrum: What can we do with that? Is there a balance? Unhelpfully, we get to see these stark examples, but not any ideas of how to…how to have it all. Can you? I think, yes. This is one of those books I read at the right time, while debating these things in my own life, wishing I could stay in my happy little enclave with my happy little family and my happy little job for the rest of my happy little existence.

Yeah, no. And don’t think that by being in a loving, supportive relationship you’re putting enough good karma out into the universe to let you off easy. According to My Real Children, you aren’t. So: engagement with your world, both your home world and the world at large. Get on it, please, because the universe could fall apart if you don’t get all that under control. Also, try this as a gateway drug on people who think they don’t like science fiction.

Danika reviews Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

longhidden

Long Hidden is an anthology of stories that take place between the 1400s and early 1900s, include some element of speculative fiction (mostly fantasy, some horror, a little sci fi), and are about marginalized people. This is not an all-lesbian collection, as you probably guessed, but it does include at least two lesbian stories (at least one may be subtextually lesbian), as well as two trans women stories.

I was very excited to read this book. I think it’s a collection that is far overdue, and I hope that there will be many more like it. I felt like it was a little slow to start out with, and personally enjoyed the later stories more than the beginning few, but overall it lived up to my expectations. The collection as a whole is dark, especially the first quarter or so of the book, which seemed to have every story revolve around death. I loved the different takes on “speculative fiction” covered in the stories. One of my favourite stories, Each Part Without Mercy by Meg Jayanth, dealt with people who can walk between dreams, and other people (like the main character) who can construct dreams stable enough to support these dreamwalkers. This concept was so interesting, I felt like it could be a whole novel. It made me curious to seek out the author’s other work, which is one my favourite things about anthologies. They can lead you to all sorts of new authors.

Long Hidden is also illustrated, with each story having a different style of illustration accompanying it. I loved this aspect, and though the illustrations complemented the story beautifully. (Also, that cover is gorgeous.) Take this illustration of the story “Jooni”, for example.

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Isn’t that an intriguing image to preface a story? Having the two combined makes it all the more memorable. Skimming through this collection to see my notes, I realize how much these stories stayed with me. They have such atmosphere to them, it makes them difficult to forget. On reflection, I think this is a book I would like to return to and re-read. It’s unfortunate that my least favourite stories were in the beginning, because I think they distracted me from noticing how much I enjoyed the anthology as a whole. (Not that the first stories aren’t skilled; they just weren’t as interesting to me personally.)

I did have some complaints, however. I didn’t realize before reading Long Hidden that all of the stories took place between the 1400s and 1900s. I was disappointed to not have any stories that stretch further back, though I’m hoping that another collection will do that. I was also a little disappointed about the diversity of settings. Although all the characters are marginalized, and almost all of them are people of colour, the settings are disproportionately either in North America (usually the U.S.) or Europe. North American stories took up nearly half the book, and put together, stories taking place in North America or Europe were two thirds of the stories included. Three take place in Africa, four in Asia, one in the Ottoman Empire, and one in Central America (none in South America). That isn’t to say that the stories of marginalized people in North America and Europe aren’t important, but I was hoping for more diversity there.

Now onto the lesbian stories!

“Marigolds” by L. S. Johnson is set 1774 Paris, and is about women in… essentially a brothel. Men seek out these women while they are menstruating, because they believe the women’s blood will give them power. But Mémé, the women who runs the brothel, is attempting to harness this power for political purposes–attempting to spark a revolution. Claire, the main character, is in love with one of the other women, Isabella. Claire is unsatisfied with her life in the brothel, suspicious of Mémé and what she’s willing to sacrifice to gain power, and is prepared to risk everything to be with Isabella. This was a great story, with interesting magical elements, and a solid plot. If you’re on the fence about picking this up based on how few lesbian stories there are, I’d say the quality makes up for it.

“Nine” by Kima Jones is set in 1902 Arizona, and features Tanner, a black lesbian, who runs a hotel with two other women, Jessie and Flo. They have an idyllic, though busy, life considering the time period, but for one issue. Tanner’s ex-girlfriend is extremely powerful, and has a vendetta against Tanner. Which means that her and everyone she loves are cursed. Oh, and Tanner’s ex keeps sending people to kill her and her family. The characters in this story are so believable and rich, it feels like you’ve known them for ages. This isn’t a happy story, but the characters are resilient, which leaves some room for hope. Definitely enjoyable.

So, although in some ways I wish Long Hidden was even more diverse, it’s still far beyond the uniformity seen in most anthologies. I really hope that there will be even more in this style, because this is a beautiful book, and one I would recommend to anyone. I’ll leave you with my favourite illustration (which happens to be from one of the lesbian subtext stories).

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Krait reviews Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

longhidden

Long Hidden features 27 stories, focusing on (as the editors put it) “stories from the margins of speculative history, each taking place between 1400 and the early 1900s and putting a speculative twist—an element of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the unclassifiably strange—on real past events.” The anthology features many people and women of color, trans* characters, lesbians, and stories from all over the world.

My love affair with speculative fiction started after a childhood spent devouring sci-fi and fantasy books left me with the realization that very few stories actually featured people I might know or people I could be. With that in mind, I had very high hopes going into Long Hidden and I’m pleased to say that were not in vain.

Anthologies can often be hit-or-miss when it comes to story quality, but Long Hidden is nicely consistent. A few stories – “Angela and the Scar;” “It’s War;” “Medu” – didn’t have quite as strong a narrative or quite as engrossing characters, but they still entertained. “Angela and the Scar” and “It’s War” both occur during fascinating events and encouraged me to brush up on my history, but the character arcs and the magic conceit just didn’t hook me. I found Medu’s snake-haired women to be an interesting concept and the story starts strong, but the conflict and the resolution fall flat.

It’s really only in comparison to the brightest stars of the anthology that these stories fizzle.

But oh, those stars. Meg Jayanth’s “Each Part Without Mercy” follows a dreamer with gorgeous imagery and lovely prose. “Marigolds,” from L.S. Johnson, is deliciously disturbing and tells of blood-magic in a French Revolutionary Parisian brothel. “Marigolds” left me with a few shudder-worthy images but a surprisingly uplifting ending. Jamey Hatley’s “Collected Likenesses” is thought-provoking, with fascinating magic and heart-rendingly real characters. A young black woman in 1913 Harlem struggles with dangerous memories and magic passed down from her grandmother (and even farther back). Kima Jones’ “Nine” features Tanner, a possibly genderqueer woman of color, who runs a small motel with her lovers, several other women. All escaped the remains of slavery back east, and they provide a safe stopping point in Arizona for others doing the same. And finally, several days after I’ve finished the book, I’m still thinking about “Lone Women,” by Victor LaValle. I would absolutely read a novel featuring Adelaide (the protagonist), her sister, and the community of strong single women out on the Montana frontier. There’s just enough horror and magic to put an interesting twist on the story of a frontiers-woman, and I’d love to see that story expanded.

It’s difficult to discuss some of the stories without spoiling some essential element, the hidden magic in the characters or their surroundings, so the ones I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. The plots run the gamut from romance, crises of faith, self-discovery, to overcoming the terrible odds and obstacles thrown at you by life. But all of the stories have some element of magic or fantasy or horror, and all tell the narratives of people typically ignored by fiction.

In short, I loved Long Hidden, and would absolutely read another anthology along the same theme. However, I’ll warn readers: many of these stories are dark, and not just those that feature horror elements. Violence against women, rape, violent racism, and other trigger-worthy events are touched on more than once, though never shown in detail. Not all of the stories have happy endings – but I think they’re still well worth your time.

[Editor’s note: This book was published through a kickstarter campaign, but will be available more broadly in May]