Til reviews Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

the cover of Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Trigger warnings: gore, torture, death, mutilation, sexual assault, child abuse, violence, harassment… and likely others I’m forgetting. This is a relentless work.

Imagine a story that understood the true horror of the old fairy tales, the depths of yearning and human pain that crafted them, and the wonder that lets us believe, and rolled them up into a young adult novel. Stuffed it with a cream of gorgeous prose. Sprinkled in some sapphic love here, a mature conflict about class distinctions there, a smattering of werefolk. Dusted liberally with feminism that permits physical strength to exist in equal validity.

Am I trying to describe a book or win Bake Off here? Who can tell!

Into the Bloodred Woods takes characters familiar to Western audiences and introduces them in a new telling that uses the strengths of that familiarity. For example, many books with this many perspectives have a confusing start—it’s hard to keep track of all the worldbuilding and four points of view. It’s easier here because I already knew their contexts. Hans and Greta, the woodcutter’s children, are familiar enough. Except this time, they’re left alone in the woods when illness claims their loving father and stepmother.

It uses those familiar characters to tell an original story. A summary of key events would only touch on a tiny fraction of the book itself. This is, as the back-cover blurb promises, a story about a king’s son and daughter, each of whom inherits half a kingdom, and the ensuing battles, politics, conniving, and cruelty. But all of that is shaped by characters: a prince who worships automation and pain, a well-intentioned but spoiled princess who thinks she’s clever enough, a child of the forest when the town is drawing near, and a woodcutter’s daughter who wants little more than family and safety. It’s the intermingling of those characters with the machinations of the wicked prince and his hoard of gold that can be melted by blood. There’s a lot going on, which leads to a fast-paced and multi-faceted story.

One criticism I’ve seen of this book centers on Ursula, daughter of the queen from Rumpelstiltskin’s story, who wants to be queen and has high ideals, but isn’t realistic or mature about them. I would argue that’s the point. She was raised on misogyny and fairytales. Of course she’s unprepared for the real world. It’s a flaw I liked, especially in the way it caused her to interact with Sabine, her love interest. Their love never felt easy. Sabine is of the oppressed werefolk, forced to live in a slum, sleep in a cage, and fight in a ring to earn her way. Though Ursula is also a were, she sleeps in a golden cage in a palace, and has limited understanding of the world and how power feels to the truly powerless. Love never handwaves their differences: they earn their closeness. Ursula has to grow and change, to do a lot of learning—some of it bitter and much of it alone. I liked the realism of that. Sabine didn’t excuse her mistakes. Distances between them feel honest, even as they both long for closeness.

This is an intense read. I wouldn’t recommend it without warning about that. It’s brutal, it’s relentless, and no one is ever truly safe. The primary villain, Albrecht, believes he understands the world better than anyone, that his rule is justified and his attention is a gift, and this justifies any act of violation. The woods themselves respond to the narrative by becoming dangerous and reactive. It’s a powerful story; it’s a story about power. It’s a story about survival, but it’s well worth the ache, as much for the catharsis as because Brockenbough doesn’t lose sight of what’s worth surviving for.

5 out of 5 stars, would be damaged by again!

Til reviews Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee

the cover of Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Séance Tea Party begins with Lora, a lost young person somewhere between girlhood and womanhood. Growing up looms large throughout the graphic novel… as much as anything looms in this gentle, joyful, sometimes heartbreaking story. Lora feels alone with her friends moving on to things like slick magazines and text chains, while she continues to prefer imaginative play. When ghost girl Alexa joins Lora at the titular séance tea party, the two form a friendship—and maybe something more—that will ultimately bring healing to both girls and those important to them.

It’s a quick read and a sweet one. Lora is relatable as someone who doesn’t want to stop having fun but feels like her fun is no longer accepted. I saw a lot of myself in her and remembered going through the same feeling that “growing up” means growing miserable. Lora and Alexa’s friendship is adorably played. This literal ghost of the past gives Lora the confidence to do new things and reach out to others, while holding on to the things she values about her younger self.

This is a story about what we let go of and what we hold onto. The narrative never feels critical of Lora’s desire to keep her childhood joys. It’s not a cruel story. If anything, it’s about an intentional and healthful fusion of the two.

Take my commentary with a grain of salt: my visual literacy is far from the sharpest, and I likely missed a fair helping of nuance. The core story, though, is a delight.

Til reviews The Stone Child by David A. Robertson

the cover of The Stone Child

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The Stone Child is book 3 in the Misewa Saga, following foster siblings Eli and Morgan, who discover that they can travel to another dimension when they put Eli’s drawings on a wall in their foster-home’s attic. Here, in Misewa, they meet animals who wear clothes and live in villages, but sometimes face major crises with which the children can help. The series incorporates Cree words and rituals, with identity as a powerful theme for the main characters, both of whom are First Nations.

This is the first book to introduce a romantic side-plot. Since it’s a middle grade novel, I hadn’t felt that was especially lacking, but it was introduced with characteristic nuance. This time Morgan’s friend Emily is along for the adventure. The girls share a nerdy friendship centered around a mutual love of outer space adventure stories, especially Star Wars; they tease each other and generally enjoy one another’s company. This would have been a perfect portrayal of a friendship even without the romance aspect.

As for the romance itself? Adorable. It progresses slowly, with little jokes and blushes, a tiny kiss on the cheek and full stop to ask if this was okay. Morgan and Emily have a relationship built on shared interests, respect for one another, open communication, and trust. Their nascent romance never rises to the center of the story, something I consider a positive. There are life-and-death stakes in this book. Morgan is struggling with her family. Though Emily is a consistent positive in her life, she’s never a distraction from Morgan’s questions of identity and belonging. One of my biggest pet peeves in any fiction is a character losing their sense of self for a romantic partner, so I adored watching Morgan stay honest to her path, even as she invited Emily to walk with her.

I don’t recommend starting with this book. The first in the series, The Barren Grounds, is the place to start. Even before Morgan and Emily’s friendship begins to wend its way toward “something more”, the series is filled with nuance—from Morgan, an angry girl with a huge and damaged heart; to her foster-mom Katie, so eager to do right but oblivious as a white woman fostering First Nations children; to how right and wrong play out on a generational scale. It’s at times heartbreaking and at other times pure delight. And, consistently, it’s an exciting adventure.

Til reviews The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell by Kate Brauning

the cover of The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is the sort of review best begun with a caveat that I intend no ill will toward those who enjoyed the book… but maybe they’ll want to give it a miss, because I really do not like this book. In fact, I found the reading experience so thoroughly a misery that I resent myself for sticking with it—and I have a bit of resentment left over for whoever approved that misleading summary.

Ostensibly, The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell is a futuristic revenge story in which a girl seeks justice for her deceased family. That does happen—but summarizing it this way is like describing Cinderella as the story of a girl who needs new shoes. Both are technically accurate descriptions of stories focused on a girl’s romance with her prince charming. That’s not inherently a bad thing, loads of people enjoy Cinderella, but it’s dishonest.

And I don’t like Cinderella.

Or this.

I chose this book because I love a morally grey badass heroine and I was excited to see a main character from the Ozarks. There are too few dynamic country girls leading YA adventures. Learning that said country girl was pansexual was a pleasant surprise, and as I continued reading, I even looked forward to reviewing this for the Lesbrary—positively. The villain, Gabriel Gates, felt appropriate to the heroine, too: not a President or a world dictator, just a capitalist baron ruling a few counties. He was a big enough bad to matter, but a small enough one that a girl might take him down.

Quickly, the shine came off. Dinah wasn’t a badass at all. This could have worked, too, but it only served to get to what seemed like the point of the story: Dinah’s romance with Johnny. Johnny is your stereotypical dreamboat love interest. He lives in a cave—but it’s a nice cave, and he has traplines so he never goes hungry and a hot spring for warm baths; he’s a musician and luthier; he’s a talented, ethical bootlegger; he’s got connections everywhere and inexplicable devotion to Dinah. Johnny is the real main character. The most emotional conflict even occurs when his little brother is taken in by Gates and begins parroting his rhetoric. It’s not a particularly well-executed conflict; I found it predictable, probably because the book focuses (inexplicably) on Dinah.

This goes back to my Cinderella complaint. The summary only mentions Johnny in the third paragraph, so I expected some romance. I did not expect the entire plot to put itself on hold for what felt like at least half the page count. It quickly became clear that the setting and plot served the romance, at massive detriment, because the plot still tries to happen. The result is a conflict that wants to be complex but instead is rushed, a denouement that someone forgot to write, and a romance that I didn’t want to read, all spearheaded by a character who thinks her grief entitles her to other people’s lives.

Yeah. People die in Dinah’s little revolution, and she doesn’t really seem to care, and nor does the narrative. It protects the characters it deems worthy—the ones who merit page time. In a way, I respect this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a sweeter-than-bitter ending. When paired with the amount of time spent on the romance, though, it begins to seem like the author really didn’t want to write the plot.

A few positives, to end on. The sex scene was good. It was awkward and required communication, that set a good example. I appreciated the worldbuilding—things like advanced tech being available only if people have resources to afford it.

Finally, I liked the metaphor of the pears. Near the beginning of the book, Dinah looks at three buckets of pears traded to her family for access to their well. Angry, she kicks over one of the buckets. She immediately regrets this and gathers up most of the pears, but so much happens that she misses one. There’s no closure on those pears—not once her mother and brother die, kicking off the plot—except that one outlasts the rest, crushed in the road, broken but still present. And had Dinah actually been a single thing like that pear, had she ended the book broken or even scarred instead of on a happy road to everything, it would’ve been a really strong metaphor.

Trigger warnings: animal death, child death

Til reviews The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark

the cover of The Lock Eater

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The Lock-Eater tells the story of Melanie Gate, an orphan sent on an adventure with a gearling in a land of power-hungry wizards, invisible unicorns, humanoid animals, true friends, and cute seamstresses. This is a book that feels very aware of its adherence to the typical—the author definitely knows what he’s doing when he diverges from expectations. It’s clear from the beginning. Rather than happily sending away another worthless foundling, matron Mrs. Harbargain truly cares for Melanie and sends her off to become a witch’s apprentice only because she’s in a very tight situation. Even as readers embark on the journey alongside Melanie and Traveler, we see that there are good people in this world.

And what a world it is! There are generations of warfare and extortionate treaties woven into this book. There are magical beasts and the less-than-pleasant, delightfully realistic observation that living just below an aerie of gryphons means living just below an aerie’s worth of gryphon-sized poos. For all its lighthearted moments, the book has seriousness, too, including a small nation under colonial rule, the magical equivalent of a nuclear weapon, and far too many dosed cups of tea. The strongest consistent thread isn’t exploration or magic or even coming of age. It’s community. Sometimes Melanie has to solve tough problems on her own. Often she has support. Though she has a talent for magic, she’s not the only one, and she loves her friends for their talents, too. This novel pulls off “everyone’s special” so well.

So, what kind of queer representation can you expect? In my opinion, the perfect amount for a middle grade adventure. Melanie likes girls. Not only is that outright stated, she meets a seamstress who immediately takes away her powers of speech—not through magic, but a keenly relatable awkwardness! The crush is reciprocated and sweet. I don’t tend to enjoy overwhelming romances; usually, once it becomes more than ~35% of the story, it’s too much romance. That’s one of the things I like about middle grade fiction. Lock-Eater does a great job being a comfortable, supportive queer narrative that embraces the import of identity, with or without romance.

No disrespect intended to all the romance fans out there, of course!

The book also has some comments on gender and identity. They’re less centered, but undeniably present. Melanie is repeatedly judged for being a girl in a boy’s coat, but she loves its starry design and doesn’t care who it was “meant” for. She is not explicitly stated to be nonbinary, just refusing to be overly confined to societal expectations. Another character chooses a new name for herself late in the story. This is treated as extremely powerful. Her choice is honored. I’m not someone who can or would try to speak for the trans community, but as someone who has never felt entirely comfortable within gender norms, I found these little touches to be absolutely wonderful.

The Lock-Eater is a sweet adventure story about a magical world with a very human protagonist, and it isn’t afraid to explore emotional depths and darker outcomes.

Til reviews My Whole Truth by Mischa Trace

the cover of My Whole Truth

Trigger warnings: sexual assault, gore, pregnancy, abortion

My Whole Truth tells the story of Seelie, who readers meet in the aftermath of a vicious attack. She’s bleeding, scared, and teeth-gritted determined to survive. As the novel progresses, Seelie recovers physically with therapy and emotionally through support from her friends, but faces both a legal trial and harassment at school.

Because Seelie survived. And she did so by ensuring her attacker was dead.

Just as a book, this is a quick but just-okay read. It’s fast-paced with a twist or revelation around every corner. Relationships between Seelie and her friends were another positive; they felt genuine. As I read, I felt like I could see the author’s plotting, and it’s not inherently bad. Threads are introduced and resolved in a reasonable timeframe. Multiple storylines overlap—they just didn’t feel cohesive. One in particular related to drug-dealing. It took up a fair few pages, yet seemed mostly to provide context, not to impact the story itself. This proves most problematic at the conclusion: marked by dramatic yet unimpactful revelations, it felt silly.

The representation is balanced far better than the story itself. Seelie’s queerness, disability, and size all felt very organic to me. Anyone who’s ever been an awkward teenager will recognize themselves in her under-articulated crush on her best friend. Seelie’s recovery from a stab wound to the leg is slow and requires her to use mobility aids for much of the story. Reading it, the pain and frustration seem palpable. Finally, her feelings about her size are well-incorporated and feel realistic from little details like self-consciousness regarding specific body parts. People who have never been fat rarely understand just how personal it can be to hate one’s knees.

Most impressive of all, this is never a story about a queer girl or a disabled girl or a fat girl, it’s a story about Seelie. The narrative doesn’t feel the need to handhold readers. Instead, it’s very normalizing.

This was a just-okay book, but its representation is excellent. So despite the just-okay-ness, I had a good time reading it.

Til reviews Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer

Crownchasers cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer is the story of Alyssa Farshot, a space pilot and member of the Explorers’ Society who wants nothing more than to take risks, break records, and scarf down a greasy hangover cure. Her life takes a sharp turn when the uncle who raised her dies—and did I mention he’s the emperor? Now heirs to the prime families, including Alyssa, must compete in a race across the stars to find the royal seal.

The winner will lead a thousand and one planets. The loser can return to riding flame tsunamis and eating bacon-egg-and-cheese hangover sandwiches.

Let the games… begin?

Alyssa could so easily have been unbearable—I rarely enjoy reluctant heroines—but, instead, she’s clever, resourceful, and immediately twists the situation to one in which she cares about the outcome. Rather than accepting her reluctance, she changes the game by allying herself with fellow contestant and best friend Coy. This speaks volumes to Alyssa’s character. It shows her to be someone who finds and takes third options rather than letting her circumstances be dictated. It also shows her to be a heroine who won’t be dragged along. The narrator cares. So the book stays interesting.

The plot is a straightforward fetch quest, layered with conniving politicians, planetary cultures and geographies, and well-rounded secondary characters. Planets range from dull to gorgeous, hostile to hostiler. Most species are humanoid, with variations like wings and horns, or crying not tears but drops of light. The story moves quickly with snappy, sometimes hilarious prose to match, and balances background with action. For me, this is where a lot of books fall flat—the worldbuilding feels like a textbook. While I don’t recall every detail from Crownchasers, I don’t think I’m missing anything important, because the feeling was more important than the precise circumstance. Things like how unfailingly rational secondary character Setter is, or the worlds that felt exploited by the empire, that remains with me even if I can’t quote direct passages.

In addition to being a solid great read, Crownchasers is very queer-normalized. Alyssa’s sexuality is never named, not as a secret, but as unimportant. Her attraction to multiple genders goes unremarked upon. Alyssa was raised by her uncles, while Setter has two moms. Queerness simply exists. More than that, relationships are portrayed in a healthy way. One thing that especially stood out to me was Alyssa and her ex-girlfriend, Faye, are both in the crownchase. They snark a bit, but no more than they do with anyone else, and although their breakup devastated Alyssa, it happened mutually and without either trying to hurt the other. They just realized they weren’t right together and ultimately remained friends.

I’ve read this book twice—once when it first came out, and again recently as I got my hands on the sequel. Both times I read it quickly, laughed, cried, and absolutely needed to know what happened next. It’s a fast-paced adventure with a engaging narration, that normalizes queerness and questions power structures, all centered around a protagonist who’s deeply flawed but just as deeply lovable.

Til reviews Take Me Home by Lorelei Brown

the cover of Take Me Home

In Take Me Home, Keighley answers an ad offering a fake date for Thanksgiving, hoping to annoy her Conservative aunt. Thus she meets Brooke: a confident, outgoing, snarky tattoo artist to whom Keighley is immediately attracted. What starts as a single fake date escalates to enjoying one another’s company, caring for a hurt puppy, and intimacy—both physical and emotional.

I decided to give myself something of a new experience this month and try reading a romance. It’s a genre I have consistently avoided, in part due to a perceived prevalence of toxic tropes, in part because I struggle to feel engaged with the low-stakes question of whether two people will continue to date one another.

Take Me Home is a novella, with story beats hit so quickly they’re almost perfunctory. For someone not overly engaged with this sort of narrative, that was perfect. Yet, I think romance fans might enjoy this as well. Yes, the story moves quickly, but Keighley and Brooke are distinct characters with genuine chemistry and nice banter. The two bond over some casual things like dogs, and some deeper things, like their beliefs. I believed their interest in one another came from a real place.

Overall, this is an enjoyable, quick romance between two characters with genuine chemistry, with a cute puppy thrown in. Romance fans may want more—but as it’s part of a series, they’ll know where to go next. It didn’t make a convert out of me, but I found the read pleasant all the same.

Til reviews To Break a Covenant by Alison Ames

To Break a Covenant cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

To Break a Covenant is set in perpetual aftermath. The town was formed after a disaster in a nearby mine, where fires still burn and rain ash over the abandoned Moon Basin. The people of Moon Basin simply moved outside the range of the ash and formed New Basin, but they couldn’t escape the reputation, nor the supernatural evil of the mine. The story follows best friends Clem and Nina, two girls determined to leave Moon Basin, as well as their new friends Lisey and Piper.

Perhaps the book’s greatest flaw is that it never quite seems to happen. All the pieces are here–in many cases, pieces I love! Clem is not only queer but struggling with kleptomania. The problem is that this never seems to go anywhere. Clem’s kleptomania is relevant to minor scenes on two occasions. I don’t need an on-the-page romance to justify queerness, but like the kleptomania, it was so mild it felt like an informed trait. She had a crush for five minutes. It felt like a box being ticked.

The plot, too, suffers from its own absence. The book is not devoid of incidence. The girls go into the mine on multiple occasions, run away, find an oasis. People disappear. But none of it seems to matter, nor to build. It feels more like a string of loosely connected events leading to a conclusion that doesn’t fully happen.

To Break a Covenant has a lot of great pieces. The setting is eerily atmospheric. The characters have a lot of potential, and even realistic conflict. None of it ever feels fully realized, though. The main emotion I felt reading this book was boredom. While I applaud the effort, I wish the finished product were more fulfilling an experience.

Til reviews The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Trigger warnings: this book contains racism, homophobia (especially religious homophobia), and someone being outed

The Henna Wars 
by Adiba Jaigirdar is the story of Nishat, a Bangladeshi Muslim girl living in Ireland who decides to come out to her parents as a lesbian. At the same time, her school hosts a business competition. Nishat’s is one of two henna businesses, the other run by love interest Flávia and Flávia’s racist cousin. The book focuses on Nishat navigating personal and educational challenges all in the context of her culture.

At its strongest, this book is a portrayal of a Bangladeshi family living abroad. The extended family and community, the traditional practices and how Western traditions begin to mix in, and even everyday things like food all shine as a love letter to Bangladeshi experiences. Nishat’s relationship with her little sister Priti is especially complex, loving, and delightful as they share experiences as the first in their family born and raised in Ireland.

Adiba Jaigirdar is a talented writer with a way of saying simple, meaningful things in the most affective way possible. The absolute humanity of the main character and her feelings of love, hurt, and pride are real on every page. The pacing is steady. All of that combines for a very pleasant reading experience.

I had mixed feelings about Nishat as a character. She feels very real because of her flaws and it’s normal for a teenager not to fully consider how their actions impact others. I’ve seen her criticized for pettiness and that’s not what I mean—she goes to steal Flávia’s henna tubes, for example, and that was completely understandable. That’s the sort of flaw I like in a character. However, it was sometimes frustrating how much she prioritized her rivalry over relationships with people who genuinely seemed to care for and accept her, like her sister and friends. Because the narrative never rewards this, ultimately it didn’t leave me with too bad an impression, but it did create a weakness to the ending. There isn’t much in the way of consequences for Nishat’s harassers, or for Nishat herself—the plot centers on the business competition, but the book is actually about Nishat and her relationships with her family and romantic interest. For me as a reader, the lack of engagement with both the villain and the main character’s larger flaws in a character-centric piece made for a hollow conclusion.

Overall, I enjoyed this book as I read it, but its lasting impact on me was somewhat middling. It is an exceptional book about a queer brown girl with pride in herself. Just as a book, it has some flaws. But I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.