Credit Card Debt, Climate Change, and Magical Girls: A Magical Girl Retires by Park Seolyeon

A Magical Girl Retires cover

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I am sure you are all familiar with magical girl stories like Sailor Moon, but have you ever heard of a magical girl with credit card debt? In Park Seolyeon’s A Magical Girl Retires (translated by Anton Hur), our unnamed protagonist is 29, has lost her job during the pandemic, and is now drowning in credit card debt, with no way out that she can see. She decides to jump off Seoul’s Mapo Bridge, but is interrupted by a girl all dressed in white—Ah Roa, the magical girl of clairvoyance. Ah Roa explains to her that in this world where magical girls join a trade union and protect others, the protagonist may be the most important magical girl of all time. But as they work together to unlock her powers, the protagonist’s problems don’t go away: she still struggles with low self-esteem, has her debt, and doesn’t know how to battle the most terrifying threat the magical girls will ever face: global climate change.

A Magical Girl Retires is a fantastic original story that pays homage to the fandom of Sailor Moon while blending the realism of today’s society. The protagonist may be unnamed, but the way that Park outlines her various woes and thought processes makes her anything but a stranger. The conflicts of being in credit card debt and struggling to find a job that will pay the bills is an all-too common one, especially post-pandemic, and I admire the author for not only taking on that challenge, but thriving in showing how it can seem almost impossible to get out of it without losing all hope. At the same, the protagonist maintains a sort of wonder about the task of becoming a magical girl and unlocking her powers, which makes it a joy to read this book. 

Of course, I have to mention the sapphic subplot of A Magical Girl Retires! Ah Roa, the previously mentioned magical girl of clairvoyance, deems the protagonist as being the most important person for her to have ever found, and while the two never establish an official romantic relationship, the vibes are still here. The protagonist wonders what Ah Roa is doing and what she thought of her, and Ah Roa does at one point mention how she never wants to leave the protagonist. 

A Magical Girl Retires is translated by Anton Hur from the original Korean and clocks in at a short 176 pages. I did listen to it through the e-audiobook narrated by Shannon Tyo, and it was an enchanting experience. I have seen mention of the illustrations in various reviews and while I haven’t seen them myself, if they are anything like the narration style of Tyo or the lyrical prose of Park, then I am sure they are lovely. If you are the type of reader to enjoy endnotes, then you will love Hur’s endnote on why he translated the work and the joy he found in doing so. Trigger warnings include domestic violence, idealization of suicide, financial trauma, terrorism, and murder. 

If you enjoy urban fantasy, magical girl transformation sequences, and finding your way in this unpredictable world, you can order your copy of A Magical Girl Retires through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

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

Maggie reviews Folly by Maureen Brady

Folly by Maureen Brady

This month I read Folly by Maureen Brady, an extremely interesting working class lesbian book published in 1982. Folly is set in a small factory town and follows several women as they struggle to reconcile their desires for a better life with the reality of their jobs and lives. The title character, Folly, works with several area women, including her best friend and eventual lover Martha, to organize a factory strike after a woman is arrested after the death of her baby due to their lack of sick leave. Meanwhile Lenore, a recent high school drop-out, misses her girlfriend, who has gone to work on the Alaskan pipeline, and struggles to find community and meaning in her small town life. I found Folly to be incredibly engaging and self-aware, and I frankly can’t believe I haven’t heard of it spoken of it before either in a feminist/working class literature context or in a queer lit context. And as someone who grew up in a very small town – although not quite as small as Victory – a lot of the themes and internal struggles the characters faced struck very true for me, and of course it is very easy to get behind women fighting for better conditions.

One thing I really loved about Folly is that it shows multiple generations of women having relationships and discovering their sexualities in a variety of ways. Martha and Folly are middle-aged factory workers and best friends. They live next to each other, deal with all of their problems together, and constantly lean on each other for support. Folly is generally supportive and willing to live and let live at first, but it takes her a while to apply to concept of queerness to herself. When she finally does, she embraces it and works eagerly to incorporate her new knowledge about herself into her life, which was something I found personally very relatable. Meanwhile in the younger generation, Lenore works at the local butcher counter and misses her girlfriend, who is working on an Alaskan pipeline. Lenore is secure in her own sexuality, but is continually looking for some sort of community. She befriends Mary Lou, Folly’s daughter, who is going through the usual teenage growing pains but also finding she is not much interested in what the local boys want to get up to on dates. She is intrigued by Lenore’s independence, and, later, wants to know more so she can come to terms both with herself and with her mother’s changing decisions and priorities.  I really enjoyed seeing different queer women in different stages of their lives interacting in a small town setting. Despite all the hardships they go through, they find strength and growth in their relationships with each other, and it was really joyful for me to read that.

Another important thing I enjoyed about Folly is that it closely examines white women discovering their own biases and privileges. Folly doesn’t give much thought to the larger picture of things until she convinces Martha to back her up in calling for a strike. When Emily, a black factory worker, stands up with her, first for a reduced production rate, and then on the call for the strike, Folly slowly realizes how important it is to expand her worldview and be inclusive in her organizing. Throughout the book, she continues to listen to black organizers, learn from their viewpoints, and have empathy for others. Meanwhile, Lenore is lonely and makes friends with Sabrina, a server at the diner who is black. As she gets to know Sabrina, she has to become aware of and confront her own internal biases and the realities of interracial relationships in a town that is essentially segregated and has a Klan presence. The frank way the book approaches Folly’s growth in organizing and Lenore’s slow eye-opening to how she’s benefited from and lived under the town’s racism makes a powerful impact and can be summed up with how Folly explains to Mary Lou that “A lot of life is following one habit into the next. You got to stop yourself and peel your eyes open all the time if you want to see what goes on.” I really, deeply enjoyed how the book looked at this head-on, and had the characters really spend time thinking and reacting and changing.

The last important thing about Folly is that it is always pushing for a better future. Folly and Martha always have dreams for their futures, the women in the factory organize around their own needs and principals, and they are constantly seeking to learn, grow, and build relationships. Folly and Mabel don’t just trust the union’s goals – they recognize that the union rep looks a lot more like factory ownership than them, and doesn’t have their same priorities. Folly is constantly pushing for more goals and more progress, and doesn’t like the idea of compromising on what they want. Lenore could sink into her life of her job and her own little apartment and writing letters to her girlfriend, but she wants more than that and continually seeks out new community. The women of Folly are intimately aware of how to survive in the world they live in, but they want to work for more, and that’s very important to read.

In conclusion, Folly is a very enjoyable novel about working-class lesbians trying to build their own community and sticking up for themselves and their fellow workers to factory management. It deftly handles themes of labor relations, race, and sexuality while maintaining a positive and hopeful outlook. It moves between generations, is self-aware, and is, in general, a really gripping read. I definitely recommend tracking down a copy!

Maggie reviews Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West

Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West

I was perusing Hoopla’s queer romance section since I have been on a romance kick lately, and I came across Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West. A lesbian romance about union organizing? Set in Indiana? With a pun for a title? As a queer lady whose roots are in Indiana and whose friends have recently organized a union drive, I had to read it. It proved to be an interesting read, although the fate of the factory was, at times, more interesting to me than the fate of the main romance. Still, it was good to read a queer romance set more off the beaten path, as you will.

Hoosier Daddy features Jill “Friday” Fryman as she works in a factory in her small hometown. Conditions are rough in the factory, there’s rumors of a buyout, the annual Pork Festival is coming up and emotions are high, and in the midst of all of this a couple of “union agitators” roll into town to try to drum up interest in unionizing the factory. One of the union reps, El, catches Friday’s eye. Friday has to navigate her feelings for El, her professional life and opinions as a line supervisor at the factory who is getting dragged ever deeper into management politics, and how it all interconnects with her small town life. This book struggles a little in attempting to balance scenes of small town life, factory and union politics, and scenes of queer romance in a straight rural town, and it shows in how Friday struggles to make any sort of proactive sense of her own choices as events progress. There are some homophobic incidents, but all of Friday’s personal relationships are positive, albeit sometimes that special brand of rural supportive that is also sometimes backhandedly insulting.

I was eager to read a queer romance set in a rural setting, because, obviously, queer people do exist in rural areas but media often leaves them out. And I think Hoosier Daddy gets a lot right. Friday’s friends and family profess their brand of support for her sexuality (usually starting with some form of “it doesn’t bother me but”) while on the other hand Friday’s car is vandalized twice because of her relationship with El. It’s a rural dynamic that allows El and Friday to have a relationship where Friday can introduce El to her Grammy and friends but still means that there’s no doubt as to why the air gets let out of her tires at the bar. Other details also struck true to me, including all the descriptions of the Pork Festival, the community importance of the fish fry at the VFW, and how it’s impossible to escape meeting people who are related to someone else you know. Everyone in town being intimately aware of all the drama also feel accurate. Friday’s immersion in the community is vividly brought to life in a very vivid and familiar way, which I liked, because in that small a setting it is very hard to separate.

Which is why the plotline of whether the factory will unionize is as big of a deal as Friday and El’s romance, because the mood of the community directly effects Friday and El’s relationship. The book itself seemed strangely ambivalent on whether you should root for this unionization effort to succeed or not. The factory clearly needed to unionize. Safety regulations are routinely ignored. Friday’s boss verbally harasses her several times. What you get to eat at the cafeteria is dependent on whether the cafeteria manager likes you. Management engages in blatant union-busting rhetoric and bribery. Public opinion is constantly against the “union agitators” except for the few radicals they manage to attract right away. It all culminates in a death, which finally swings the momentum towards unionizing. But then the buyout goes through and the new management seems genuinely good while also pushing anti-union rhetoric. I was left very confused as a reader as to who the book was rooting for, since the union clearly needs to happen even while it paints new management so glowingly. I was also baffled as to why Friday couldn’t seem to maintain a consistent opinion on what was happening at her job or her relationship with regards to these changes, always reacting rather than acting.

Which leads to the purpose of this book: Friday and El’s relationship. From the get-go their chemistry is of an instant, physical sort. They end up having a lot of hot encounters (too many of them in public restrooms for my taste but still fun), but it takes them forever to have any sort of real conversation or connection. In my opinion, Friday and El make more sense as a summer fling. It would be right for them to avoid discussing their work if this was a short term affair, but if they really want to make this work long term they need to discuss professional and social boundaries and be upfront about it. It makes sense for them to continue to hook up in bathrooms if this wasn’t a relationship that was going anywhere, but if they both really felt a deeper connection – Friday has her own house or El has a hotel room right there, no bathroom stalls without doors included. I’m glad that El had the wherewithal to get herself into a place where the relationship made more sense by the end of the book, because for much of the book they felt like a floundering, although passionate, mess.

All in all, while it was refreshing to read a queer romance set in a rural area, the romance itself got lost in the setting and the plot line that consumed the whole town. Friday and El were always so caught with reacting or dealing with their surroundings that they had little time to develop their own relationship past a physical level. Plus, while there are lots of dogs appearing in this book, every single one of them has flatulence which is described in detail? Which is really an unnecessarily gross level of description that no one really needs, in my personal opinion. Overall, I had a lot more feelings about the state of the factory’s union than Friday and El’s union, but the setting puts this book at a 3/5 stars in my book. Small town girls deserve queer representation too!