A Book and Herb Review: Basil and Oregano by Melissa Capriglione

the cover of Basil and Oregano

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Basil and Oregano is a sweet, safe, very cute and inclusive graphic novel about two girls who fall in love while competing to become top student at their magical cooking school. While chock-full of softness and cuteness, the story also includes serious themes that keep the stakes high. I never exactly worried while reading the book—I knew things would turn out well—but I often wondered, because how would they?

Each main of the main girls faces challenges during the story. Basil has attended the same school for years, but must become top student in at least two quarter-finals to keep the scholarship that lets her follow her dream, knowing her dads can’t afford tuition. Oregano is a new student whose famous magic-using chef mom expects only the best. Luckily, between their budding relationship, excellent friends, and adorable plant-puppy, the girls have a strong support network.

The Aesthetics

Biggest warning: do not read this book at the start of a shift when your lunchbreak isn’t until four hours from now, because you will be looking at drool-worthy food!

I don’t have the strongest visual literacy, and often the deeper meanings of artwork are lost on me. Luckily, this graphic novel mixes a literal setting with amplified elements to tell even a reader like me the important pieces of the story. The food, as mentioned above, looks delicious. The familiars—a mix of magical and realistic, like a puppy growing a leaf of a cowlick or a kitten with dragon wings—are beyond adorable. In some ways, the art style cranks up to eleven. But it also stays safe. Even when danger looms, something stylistic assures you: it’ll be okay in the end.

The Relationship

“Relationship” is a better descriptor than “romance,” because this isn’t exclusively a romance. This is a story about two competitors with mutual crushes who become friends and how that develops into something more. It’s sweet and gentle. Anyone who does any sort of cooking knows basil and oregano get along, and these two are no exception! They work well together. They help each other through different challenges, such as family stress and educational burnout.

I appreciated the lack of relationship drama. The girls sometimes worry about each other, but resolve matters with communication and kindness. It was just what I like in a story.

At the same time, other relationships shine throughout the story. Basil and her besties, Villy and Addy, are friends and competitors at once. Her dads love her, even if they can be so embarrassing sometimes. Teachers at the magiculinary school are tough, but not without compassion for their students.

The Conflict

If I have a criticism of this book, it’s that its conflicts are resolved too tidily. That might sound both silly and expected—haven’t I been going on about how sweet and cute and gentle this book is? Well, yes, I have. But to me, the mean girl crosses a line that is just not addressed when she eavesdrops and blackmails Oregano. Oregano’s mom is cruel, and it’s sort of shrugged off with a hug. This may be more of a flaw in myself as a reader. In a way, the book does challenge me to consider that: everything has worked out well, so why can’t I be happy with that? But I do wish some of the themes that challenge characters throughout the book were less simply concluded.

That’s my perspective, though. Maybe you want to read a fluffy book with a fluffy ending. Either way, I strongly recommend Basil and Oregano. Is it perfect by the standards of a nitpicky reader? No. Is it still a five-star read? Definitely!

The Herbs

Since I brought it up, both are delightful! Basil has a lovelier taste and oregano is easier to grow.

Identity Crisis via Teleportation: Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby

Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby cover

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Content warnings: violence, death

A note: I listened to the audiobook of Star Splitter. It’s a good one, but may have led to misspellings in this review.

Let’s say you lost all memories of the past three days. You’re still you, right? You’re just you minus a few days. You’re still the same person in the same body.

But what if you weren’t?

What if a body died with those memories, but an older version of you remained—would you still be you? Would the dead body be you, and would you have died?

These sorts of questions define Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby. To explore the universe, humanity uses a sort of teleportation that uploads a person’s data and sends it lightyears in a matter of days. The person’s data is stored, and they can be re-downloaded, or updated based on their new experiences. That person might have their data uploaded, live several years, and then have the data sent home.

Before I give too many spoilers, let me just say that this is a book well worth the read for any science fiction fan. It engages consistently with deep, thematic wonderings while telling a story of space travel and disaster. It has characters a reader can easily hate one moment and sympathize with the next. If you’re on the fence about reading this book, go and do it! Don’t let my review take any surprises away!

The book is about Jessica Mathers, a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t want to cross the universe and become her parents’ research assistant. She wakes up (Before) on a ship, but her parents are delayed. The ship’s crew is less than thrilled with a sulky teen. It’ll be okay when her parents arrive, though. Right?

The book is about Jessica Mathers, a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t want to cross the universe and become her parents’ research assistant. She wakes up (After) in a crashed lander on an alien planet. There are signs someone else is here. Graves, too. Someone else is better than being alone, though. Right?

I rarely encounter a book that so thoroughly uses its genre to explore a theme. Questions of identity, experience, and loss of one’s self are personal and universal at once. The book affected me while I read it; I cared deeply for the outcome of the story and the fate of the character(s). Throughout the dual timelines, I got to know Jessica twice. I started to ask myself which was “the real” Jessica, if there was one, if both could make it, and what outcome I could possibly hope for. It was an intense read!

When it comes to men writing queer women, I’ve seen mixed results. Some are honestly pretty awful, some well-intentioned but wide of the mark. This one is a bulls-eye. The society portrayed is queer-normative, with no coming out, and an adult lesbian couple is among the supporting cast. Jessica has an unrequited crush on a girl called Avery, someone with a wicked unicorn costume, a bit of an awkward streak, and not too much ego. Jessica is just the right amount of smitten. She thinks fondly of Avery, imagines telling her the truth, jokingly names a constellation after her. Jessica is a lot of things—she needs to be, for the themes to work. She’s proud, petty, determined, loving, childish… she’s a lot. Being queer is a piece of that complex identity.

I can see how this wouldn’t appeal to some readers—not everyone enjoys sci-fi, and Jessica is a realistic character, which means sometimes she’s hard to like, though that is the point in this case. If those are not deal-breakers for you, then I strongly recommend Star Splitter.

Two Takes On Intersectional #MeToo YA Lit: What Works and What Doesn’t

Trigger warnings (apply to both books): sexual assault, grooming, minor instances of racism (mostly microaggressions)

Trigger warnings (Missing Clarissa): kidnapping, gun violence

Trigger warnings (For Girls Who Walk Through Fire): ableism, supernatural violence

This past month, I read two books that struck me as remarkably similar. Both were multiple perspective YA books that dealt with themes of sexual assault, justice, and intersectionality. While Young Adult has always had its books willing to tackle difficult and sensitive issues, these two belong to a new wave of intersectional, #MeToo-era lit that is still defining itself as a sub-genre. I will use these two titles as samples to look at what works and what doesn’t with a specifically queer perspective, but also considering each book as a whole.

Missing Clarissa cover

Missing Clarissa by Ripley Jones is a Nancy Drew story for the 21st century. It follows Cameron and Blair as they create an investigative podcast focusing on a 20-year-old disappearance from their hometown. Cam is the primary main character: big, bold, and messy, she’s all heart and impulse and is very much the driving force behind the narrative. Secondary main character Blair is thoughtful and insecure. As the two investigate Clarissa’s disappearance, they must confront personal bias and journalistic ethics.

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire by Kim DeRose is The Craft meets Promising Young Woman. It focuses on Elliott, a victim of sexual assault who forms a coven with other victims to seek revenge on their attackers. As the girls dedicate themselves to this path, they find that it takes a toll on them in return and ultimately learn that revenge and healing are two very separate things.

Let’s start with queer content. Each book features a queer POV character who comes out during the story. In Missing Clarissa, it’s Cam, who becomes awkward around her crush and usually finds some reason to walk away like the teenage disaster that she is. Their relationship is a little rushed, but it’s sweet, and it fits with this character who throws herself headfirst into everything she deems worth her while. The humor in the book hit home for me. When Cam comes out to her mom and to Blair, both reply that they kind of knew—the Megan Rapinoe wall was a pretty big clue from a girl who doesn’t like soccer!

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire by Kim DeRose cover

In For Girls Who Walk Through Fire, it’s Bea. Bea mentions once getting butterflies in her stomach around a girl, Bea later comes out to her friends, and finally Bea is given a passing mention that her family accepts her. Otherwise, we see nothing else of Bea’s queerness; we don’t see her tell her parents, experience attraction, feel represented by other queer women (perhaps because she doesn’t encounter or seek out any). “Good” representation can be subjective. However, I think both the shallowness of the representation itself and Bea’s role in the story make this feel like the author wanted to be inclusive, but didn’t take time to become understanding. Bea is not the main character—that’s Elliott. She isn’t the primary foil—that’s Madeline. It seemed like she was queer only to make a comment on the misconception that a person can be “turned” by sexual assault. This incredibly harmful misconception deserves commentary, but the inclusion here feels more like an effort to be comprehensive than genuine. If the book didn’t have that line, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I thought that was the metatextual reason Bea was gay, in the interest of the book more comprehensively commenting on girls’ experiences of sexual assault. However, Bea’s sexuality was given far less page time than Bea’s experiences as a Black girl or Chloe’s experiences as an adoptee or Elliott’s experiences in a single-parent household. It felt like, in an effort to include as broad a range as possible, the author had to leave some experiences under-developed. I wish she had chosen to represent a few experiences well rather than making this broad, albeit very well-intentioned, effort to include everyone.

This was further complicated because Bea loves Harry Potter. All things in context: loving Harry Potter isn’t a red flag in many circumstances. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire is so determinedly intersectional that centering the works of a prominently transphobic author in the queer character’s narrative makes a resonant statement. Bea’s queer, thus queerness is included; the most prominent queer character has a close, comfortable relationship to this book by an author who actively opposes trans rights. I’m not trans, but on behalf of my trans siblings, this made me uncomfortable.

Inclusivity is another matter worth considering in these books. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire wants you to know how inclusive it is. Only… is it? Yes, two of the supposed main characters are girls of color, but they’re the most underdeveloped main characters who are victims of assault first, and victims of racism second, and people… somewhere in there, I guess. The characters had little personality—and that could be okay. It’s fine to write from a single perspective. But that is not the approach this book takes. It tries to show the lives of all four girls in the coven. Because two of the four supposedly main characters are poorly developed, it feels perfunctory.

In Missing Clarissa, main character Cam is Latina and her love interest is First Nations. Though microaggressions occasionally occur and are addressed, this novel falls squarely into the category of inclusive, not representative—and I see nothing wrong with that. I believe we need books that center questions of identity and books that feature characters who are incidentally diverse, whether that is with regard to race, queerness, or any other category. Writers can include an underrepresented character without defining them by their traits rather than their personhood. Cam is impulsive, determined, well-meaning but terrible at thinking through to the consequences of her actions. She’s caring but insensitive. Bea is anxious. And Black. And gay. And there’s little else to describe about her because most of her page time is dedicated to this shallow approach to inclusivity.

When it comes to disability, too, one book is clearly more thoughtful. Cam from Missing Clarissa is ADHD-coded. Not often one to think before she acts, she often stumbles and, near the end of the book, makes a massive mistake that will have any other impulse-challenged readers like myself wincing in recognition. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire treats disability as a punishment. Literally. Many of the spells inflicted on the rapists amount to making them disabled. Again, context matters: it’s not that the boy is blind, for example, but that he is losing his basketball scholarship because he’s blind. But one instance stands out. Elliott hears about another witch whose attacker is no longer able to control his bladder and walks with a shuffle, and has a moment of essentially wishing to seek him out and laugh at him. This comes from a place of victimhood, but still stings as a disabled reader.

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire deals in dichotomies of power. The dichotomy throughout the narrative is usually between male and female—all the coven members are girls who were assaulted by boys or men. Their attackers enjoy more social and physical power in a world that centers masculinity. When their magic doles out punishments, it often renders their attackers disabled, letting the girls feel stronger. They are now experiencing the world not for which gender is centered, but for how ability is centered. If this had been handled better, the parallels acknowledged of the different social strata, I could have appreciated it. But it’s not. Instead, disability is, by implication, associated with weakness and cruelty.

I don’t mind revenge stories. I’ve watched the entire Saw series, which is a hot mess about a sadistic torturer/killer called Jigsaw who puts people in ironic traps. For Girls Who walk Through Fire could take a few notes. When Jigsaw forces a man to blind himself, it’s both horrific torture and explicitly tied to his voyeurism. When the book does it, well, yes, the boy posted revenge porn, a despicable act. But without the parallels drawn explicitly and within the context of other disabilities “inflicted”, it sends a clear message that being disabled is somehow indicative of immorality.

How do these two books discuss sexual assault? In both cases, with tact. We see the histories of the girls who walk through fire, and each is presented as traumatic and devastating. In Missing Clarissa, Cam and Blair discover that a powerful man has a history of abusing his position to prey on young women. Though they seek out the victims, they recognize what is and is not their story to tell. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire shows how assaults are confusing and horrible for those who experience them; Missing Clarissa shows how outsiders can approach the subject with respect.

Finally, I want to consider the messaging of these two books. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire is a split: half is about revenge, half is about healing. And the revenge is shown to physically poison the coven. At the same time, healing, acknowledging trauma, and coming together is shown as the right course. To me, this felt exceptionally empty, largely as a consequence of the book’s other failings. The characters being poorly developed made them difficult to identify with. Maybe this would be cathartic for victims of assault and I don’t mean to diminish that, but I can only speak for myself, and I felt no investment in these girls. Ultimately, having a character-focused ending without well-developed characters feels hollow. Not only that, the book makes sure to mention failures of the justice system, which is representative of real life… and a further problem. If the message is that seeking revenge won’t help, the justice system won’t help, but victims can find strength through their shared trauma, then the message becomes, yes, some, perhaps many, women will be assaulted, but they’ll find a way to be okay. It’s true, I suppose. But it also seems to put too much responsibility on victims. Similarly, I found it frustrating that each victim was determinedly innocent-coded. Though it acknowledges that women are blamed for their assaults, it doesn’t feature any victims who were drinking, were promiscuous, were doing anything that might earn them social blame. It felt like the narrative was afraid or unwilling to humanize those girls. To become powerful, they have to be victims—the right victims—and they must be, of course, victimized. A hollow and unsatisfying final note disguised as a victory.

Missing Clarissa has a much narrower focus, and because of that, is a much stronger book. It’s about media responsibility, as told through the story of two girl who start a podcast. And yes, one is a queer, neurodivergent Latina who needs to temper her enthusiasm. And yes, one is a shy girl who finds her voice. All of that happens along the way. Most importantly to me, Missing Clarissa knows that life is messy. It knows that people are messy. It knows that human beings can be mean and petty and that doesn’t make us evil, and sometimes, even if you were completely right and your risks found justice, you have to face the consequences of your actions. It’s a more morally complex narrative, for that, a much more satisfying one.

I hope I’ve shown here how similar yet different these two books are. I hadn’t realized I was dipping twice into this budding subgenre, and was struck by how well one book told its story and how poorly another did. Sometimes less is more; often, authors achieve better results by not trying to do everything. I’m glad I read both. But I would only recommend one, and I think you know it’s Missing Clarissa. I look forward to seeing how the story continues in its sequel!

A Pressure Cooker of a Childhood: Hiding Out by Tina Alexis Allen

the cover of Hiding Out by Tina Alexis Allen

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Usually, I review novels for this blog, ideally young adult or middle grade speculative, and that’s representative of my reading choices. This adult memoir is outside the norm for me. I can’t very well review it as an expert. So take my dabbler’s opinion with a grain of salt when I tell you I found the experience intriguing but somewhat unsatisfying. (I might say the same of life!)

Allen grew up in a Catholic family with twelve siblings, a loving but dependent mother, and a domineering, abusive father. She grew up around secrets and an almost reflexive homophobia. The environment left her vulnerable: to her brothers’ wandering hands and grooming from one of her teachers. It should have been a relief to learn that her father shared her secret and was also gay. Instead, this led to Allen being drawn even deeper into a life of drinks, drugs, and secrets.

In many ways, this is a tough read. Allen endured so much from such a young age, and as a narrator, she doesn’t always acknowledge it. That’s part of reading for an adult audience: no easy answers. I so wanted consequences for the teacher and later the basketball coach who took sexual advantage of this child. None came. It’s a strength of the book not to shy away from the uglier aspects of Allen’s experiences. Life wasn’t easy for her, and this stands as a testament to the pressure cooker of her childhood. If you hesitate over such stories, please know that Tina Alexis Allen is sober now and, by her own account, happy. These are struggles with safe endings.

The mystery of her father’s other life is a fascinating one. He runs a Catholic travel agency. So why does he have multiple secret passports? Why does he stash briefcases filled with cash? Why do foreign customs agents just wave him through?

As a reader, this is where I became frustrated. I read as an alternative to reality. I like dragons and magic and stories where the heroes win even if they had to fight and struggle and bleed for those victories, even if (especially if) they’re flawed, too. So Hiding Out was a weird choice for me. I wanted a more satisfying explanation than I got, but that lack of satisfaction—it’s the truth. Life is messy. This book reflects that.

I don’t mean to be overly critical or suggest this is a bad book. It wasn’t the right book for me. Equally valid? It might be the right book for you.

Content warnings: incest, child sexual abuse, spousal abuse, emotional abuse, drug use, grooming

Join the Henchfolk Union: Strictly No Heroics by B.L. Radley

the cover of Strictly No Heroics

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Strictly No Heroics is a YA urban fantasy novel that treats “super” as an adverb as much as a noun. It introduces a world of supers—superheroes, supervillains—who are super dangerous to normies (non-powered humans) and super helpful to the forces of gentrification. Main character Riley has simple desires: earn enough money for therapy, look out for her little sister. A normie from a normie family, she finds herself drawn into conflicts both super and ordinary when she joins Hench, the supervillain equivalent of TaskRabbit.

The queer content is great. Being queer is normal—sometimes wonderful, sometimes stressful, but never tragic. Riley deals with crushes and worries about coming out, though she knows and understands her own identity already. It’s not news to her that she’s queer—but it might be news to her friends and family. A secondary character is an older man whose husband somehow puts up with him. Their situation is unexpectedly sweet and domestic for a team leader of Henchfolk: they’re married, they banter, their twins frequently remind them about the swear jar.

This is a working person’s superhero world. This novel offers strong “average working day” vibes in a non-average setting. Look, supervillains are busy people. Who do you think picks up their coffee and cleans their labs? That’s right: the underpaid worker drones at Hench. Sometimes, work is boring and unfulfilling. It also offers extreme workdays—because sometimes you’re cleaning a villain’s lab and other times you’re helping construct his laser! This is where it gets really interesting to me. The Henchfolk are not actually evil. Some of this is explored jokingly, as when Riley is trained in anti-marksmanship, but some serves as a very clear parallel for weaponized incompetence, such as when they “can’t find” the deadly laser’s instruction manual. Finally, it introduces the real solution when Riley finds herself flirting with unionization—quite literally, as the lead organizer becomes a secondary love interest!

This is also a story about quiet, everyday love. Sometimes that love is romantic, like the feelings brewing between Riley and Sherman, her spiky, motorcycle-riding, union-touting teammate. Other times, it’s familial. That can be simple, like the love between Riley and her annoying little sister Lyssa; it can be complicated, like the love between Riley and her guardian, Lyssa’s bio-dad, Hernando. As a reader, I found it clear from the start how much Hernando loved Riley, but understood her feelings of uncertainty due to a complicated relationship with her deceased mother.

Finally, this book has excellent disability representation. Both Riley and Lyssa were left disabled by the car crash that killed their mother. Riley has PTSD and Lyssa has a prosthetic leg. It’s not uncommon for superpowered stories to treat disability as a metaphor or trait to be overcome with those powers, and I appreciated a book that wasn’t like that at all.

Strictly No Heroics is about power, family, and the inconvenience of falling in love. It’s about the devastation Superman leaves behind, the lives ruined in his wake, and the gentrifiers who see opportunities. And it’s about being a snarky, genre-wise teenager with very unfortunate crushes.

Content warnings: significant inclusion of PTSD, panic attacks; tangential inclusion of sexual assault, racism

The Complexity of Being a Queer Refugee: From Here by Luma Mufleh

the cover of From Here

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Trigger warnings for this book: suicide attempts and ideation, homophobia, violence

Like a lot of Westerners, when I hear about countries with laws against homosexuality, I respond with instinctual aversion: “What a terrible place! I hope any queer people there can leave!” I imagine impediments like the law and its enforcers, economic hardship, language barriers, internalized homophobia.

Luma Mufleh’s memoir, From Here, was humbling. It showed how correct some of my assumptions were, but also how shallow and unempathetic.

Mufleh doesn’t shy away from depicting the homophobia she experienced growing up in Jordan. She shows how it could be terrifying, violent, and isolating. She shows how it made her vulnerable in so many ways. In one anecdote, she recounts learning as a teenager that there were words for people like her.

She refuses to allow that to define either her or her country. Instead, Jordan is her home, defined by her big, loud, loving family. A recurring love for her grandmother’s kibbeh struck me right in the heart. I’m sure many readers will recognize the heart and home of cooking with an older relative. For me, it also brought up memories of my first bite of kibbeh, eaten in the open-air market in Tel Aviv from a stall I identified by picking out letters I had memorized off a postcard.

Maybe some comparable experiences predisposed me to connect with this book, but I believe it can appeal to just about anyone. Who doesn’t understand having a hopeless crush, annoying sibling, or piercing teenage dream? The intimacy of the book humanizes Jordan and Mufleh, and her choice to leave never seems easy. Instead, it’s a wrench, tragically necessary decision that severs her from her sense of safety and immeasurable love.

The book is also a portrait of a woman seeking belonging. It can be and often is heartbreaking, how lost she felt, and how much she shut herself down just to survive. It touches briefly on how little the United States is culturally sensitive to, even aware of people from the Middle East. It can also be hilarious, like her attempt to bribe a cop and mild bewilderment at heavy Boston accents.

One thing surprised me: Mufleh makes little mention of her married life. This is her own tale of identity. Though she mentions her wife and children, though she clearly adores them, they are not centered: this is Mufleh’s story of identity. Often, media portrayals of queerness seem outwardly focused—if you don’t have a girlfriend or a wife or at least a one-night stand, are you even queer? (Yes. Yes you are.) It’s a simplistic, deeply heteronormative idea that queerness exists only as action. Instead, Muflleh’s personal story of her internal queer identity depicts yearning, isolation, and belonging in a way that feel so close it must be universal.

A Cult in the Woods—Or Worse? The Wicked Unseen by Gigi Griffis

the cover of The Wicked Unseen by Gigi Griffis

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Audre doesn’t fit well in the conservative small town to which she’s moved. She’s from New York City. She’s a lesbian. She’s a determined skeptic. And she’s the daughter of an occult researcher and a mortician. So when the preacher’s daughter, Elle, disappears, suspicion falls on Audre’s family. She works to find Elle, not only to rescue her crush, but to clear her father’s name.

For a quick read, this has a surprising depth of character. Audre is in some ways a typical heroine for a YA novel: loud, determined, most always right. But added characteristics like her affinity for horror movies make her feel more fleshed out. Similarly, her friend David is a typical sidekick character, made more developed thanks to his interest in journalism. Love interest and missing girl Elle features in flashbacks, making her not just a damsel in distress but a girl grappling with larger questions of faith and belonging.

The queer content is realistic. Audre is the new girl with a crush. Elle is a local who seems to reciprocate. It’s not magical instalove, which in my opinion makes for a more satisfying story. Amid a community that sees them as evil and aberrant, these two are just normal teenagers.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this. It balances the creepy, cultish small town with the just-this-side-of-too-much sweetness of Audre’s family. (Her parents dress as Gomez and Morticia Addams for Halloween and it’s almost too adorable!) Audre and David are actually pretty terrible investigators, but the fast pace and forays into Elle’s point of view keep the book from ever feeling dull. In some ways, I wish it had engaged with its more serious themes, but overall that’s just not what this is. It’s a quick YA mystery about a girl’s disappearance and the validity of a queer teen.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, religious trauma, racism

Sapphic YA Romance in a Haunted House: The Girls Are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh

The Girls Are Never Gone cover

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The Girls Are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh is a YA supernatural horror novel. Its protagonist, Dare, is just beginning her summer internship restoring an old house and recovering from a breakup with her boyfriend. She plans to use the summer to launch a podcast about the house’s history of mysterious drownings. While investigating, she teams up with Quinn, who is possibly haunted and definitely cute. The book shines in its interpersonal and representational qualities, but sadly falls short of the mark as a genre novel.

As far as character writing, this one excels. Dare is openly bisexual and diabetic. Her diabetes clearly impacts her life day to day, and is portrayed as a challenge but not an impediment. Her relationship with Quinn, meanwhile, is mostly cute and genuine, with the two sharing sweet moments. Occasionally, conflicts between them would feel stale and forced, but that plays more into plotting issues discussed later.

It’s not only the central romance that was sweet. Dare and Quinn intern alongside Holly. Although the girls don’t always agree, they develop a nice friendship. In her investigation, Dare meets an older woman who casually mentions a wife and child, adding to a sense of queer normativity. Most of the characters in the book are women: protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters. It offers the book a sort of cozy feminism. Women can indeed be heroes and love interests, but they can also just exist on the sidelines.

Unfortunately, as a genre read, this one fell flat for me. For one thing, there were way too many past characters. It might have worked better if I’d read it as a print novel instead of listening to the audiobook, maybe seen pictures or something similar to develop them. Instead, it was a litany of dead and missing girls without much context to any of them, and I had a difficult time keeping track of which one did what when.

Also, for a spooky story, it wasn’t that spooky. This is partly because Dare is a skeptic—which is a fine trait to have, until it leads to a character who spends two-thirds of the book oblivious to something readers know from the summary. To me, it felt like nothing was happening because the main character actively ignored the plot, making for a frustrating and sometimes plodding read. At times the story even seemed to cut away from the most dramatic moments. I’m not a big fan of romance as a primary genre, so this made for a less-than-stellar reading experience for me.

Trigger warnings: murder, supernatural

Lack-of-trigger warning: nothing bad happens to the dog 🙂

A Not-So-Magic Sapphic YA Romance: Improbable Magic for Cynical Witches by Kate Scelsa

the cover of Improbable Magic for Cynical Witches

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Content warnings: homophobia (from antagonists), drug abuse (marijuana, alcohol)

My experience with Improbable Magic for Cynical Witches stems from a core misunderstanding about what this book is. The summary explains that Eleanor doesn’t believe in magic, but her life will be changed by mysterious forces, that magic will arrive. It’s tagged as ‘fantasy’ on Goodreads.

The magic is of the subtle and metaphorical variety. This is a realistic, contemporary romance. (Which is fine, if that’s what you’re into.)

It’s the story of Eleanor, a high school dropout with a broken heart and an ailing mother, and how she is drawn in by a new group of friends—and especially by Pix, a new romantic interest. As Eleanor gets more and more involved with Pix and her coven, she develops the courage to face her past.

Eleanor’s emotional struggles are portrayed realistically. When she first moved to town, she was taken in by bright, popular Chloe, who became her best friend and lover… and then got tired of her and dropped her. I can attest that it felt devastatingly realistic. Kate Scelsa deftly portrays the devastating impact of a vulnerable young person being emotionally used.

All the more serious themes are integrated artfully. Homophobic villains contrast with a loving, supportive parent, albeit one with her own struggles. Eleanor’s unhealthy pot habit is consistent. That I found particularly interesting. She smokes to deal with her unhappiness, and though it is drug abuse, it’s never treated as addiction. To me, that’s a positive: yes, Eleanor uses as an emotional support, but this is treated as an aspect of trauma rather than presented with anti-drug scaremongering.

Personally, I didn’t like this book overall. I expected real magic and I don’t enjoy realistic stories. But that’s my own bias and an issue of ambiguous language; I can recognize that the writing is nuanced and the story is tender. For fans of realistic YA romance and recovery from the mundane devastations of high school life, give it a try.

Concentrated Adorableness in a Queernorm World: The Tea Dragon Society by Kay O’Neill

the cover of The Tea Dragon Society

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The Tea Dragon Society is a short graphic novel composed of the most concentrated adorableness I have ever encountered. It centers around Greta, an outgoing, compassionate girl training to become a blacksmith—though she sees the profession as somewhat outdated. Rescuing a tea dragon brings her to tea brewers Hesekiel and Erik, and their painfully shy ward Minette, all of whom help Greta decide what truly matters.

Central to this story is the existence of tea dragons, a mix between the ethereal and a sweet but needy pet. These small creatures frolic, snuggle, and occasionally blep. They also sprout tea leaves: fur-puffed Rooibos grows them like a mane, while the languid Jasmine has leafy antlers between his large, curving ears. And don’t get me started on little Chamomile, whose floppy ears, stubby wings, and little puppy body have absolutely captured my heart. (They may keep it.)

The narrative itself is simple enough. This being a first volume, it serves largely to introduce the main characters, and as much plot as it includes is about Greta’s growing maturity. Even so, as someone who usually needs a strong plot, I enjoyed this so much I wish every individual panel came with two pages of text, just to make it last longer. This doesn’t need a plot because it knows what it is and fulfills that purpose.

As for the worldbuilding, well, the book is an exploration of gorgeousness and soft light.

Only as I’m writing this do I realize that the sapphic content is almost ambiguous—to me, Greta and Min’s relationship is clearly a romantic one, even if that romance is of the subtle sort. There are simply too many blushes, meaningful glances, and close moments to be platonic. There’s also a small kiss near the end. It’s coded in a way that would be unambiguous between a cis girl and a cis boy in other media, and for a comic that so normalizes queerness, The Tea Dragon Society seems to me to be an epically tender slow burn.

Zero content warnings here, just a strong recommend for anyone who appreciates a simple tale of nurturing, healing, family, and time.