Danika reviews Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson

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It’s hard to describe a book like Sister Mine. It would probably suffice to say it is just as surreal as the cover would suggest, but I’ll make an attempt anyways.

Makeda is a twin–originally conjoined twins–and is trying to strike out on her own. She and her sister have always been very close, but Makeda is sick of Abby’s controlling and overprotective attitude. It doesn’t help that while they are both mortal demigods, Abby has a magical gift with music, while Makeda is left with no mojo at all. She wants to make it on her own in the claypicken (human) world–but it’s not easy escaping from her supernatural family, when the unreal seems to follow her around.

There is a lot going on in this book. While it starts off following Makeda’s attempts at getting an apartment and establishing a “normal” life for herself, it quickly slides back into Fantasy. She’s being followed (hunted?) by a haint, her sister is dating the magical embodiment of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, her mother is cursed into being a sea monster, her father is temporarily human and has Alzheimer’s, and there’s something unnatural about her apartment complex. Phew.

Although there’s a ton going on in terms of gods, mojo, and the Fantasy world-building, Toronto as a setting is given just as much detail and life, which includes addressing the casual racism that Makeda deals with in the claypicken world.

Nalo Hopkinson throws you into the deep end in terms of introducing characters and lore. I wasn’t always completely sure what was going on–especially with the revelations around Abby and Makeda’s birth–but I was always immersed and fascinated. I love her writing. Everything I’ve read by her has been surreal and sometimes overwhelming, but always satisfying.

The queer aspect to Sister Mine requires a little bit of explanation that may be considered spoilers. Basically, the gods and demigods in this world don’t have a lot of qualms about sex and romance, which means that basically they’re all polyamorous and pansexual–oh, and also have sex with family. So even though Makeda in her claypicken life doesn’t seem to have any romantic or sexual interest in women (and makes a gay joke at one point?), she does have sex and date god/demigod women. Including her twin sister. To be honest, it made sense while I was reading it, and it didn’t occur to me until afterwards that it might be controversial.

If you’re looking for a surreal, immersive read, this is definitely one I would recommend.

Danika reviews Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairIt’s rare for me to pick up a book and be surprised to see it has queer representation. That’s part of being so immersed in the LGBTQ book internet: I’ve usually heard about the representation before picking it up. I picked Everfair because I was intrigued by the premise: a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian Congo. I like steampunk, but I’m even more interested in steampunk that isn’t in a European context. I was happily surprised to see that in addition to that premise, this book also has several queer women main characters!

This is an incredible and complex story. I wouldn’t pick this up as a light or quick read: it definitely took me a while to get through. Each chapter switches perspectives, and there are tons of point of view characters (I actually lost count). This means that you get to see the story from so many angles: the well-meaning white supporters of Everfair, the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, mixed-race European Everfair inhabitants, etc.

The story spans decades, tackling politics, war, espionage, grief, love and betrayal. The alternate history of the Congo was fascinating, and although the steampunk element was more subtle than I was expecting, there was so much going on that I didn’t notice. There are a lot of nuanced political machinations taking place, including negotiations between the people who helped to found Everfair and the rulers of the area who preceded the existence of Everfair.

At least three of the points of view characters are queer women, along with more minor characters. I would argue that the relationship between two of them is at the core of the book. They definitely don’t have a simple, sweet romance. It’s complex and deeply flawed, but it’s also passionate, genuine, and loyal. I didn’t always like the characters (okay, one of the characters, but I won’t spoil it for you), but I always appreciated the layered, believable relationship they built between them, which spanned continents and many years.

This is an ambitious novel, tackling difficult and multi-faceted topics (including war, colonialism, and racism). It is thoughtful and unafraid to deal with uncomfortable conversations. I highly recommend this if you’re looking to dive into a book that is far-reaching and thought-provoking.

Danika reviews Goldie Vance Vol. 1 by Hope Larson (Author) and Brittney Williams (illustrator)

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Aahh, it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book with surprise queer content. It’s such a great surprise.

Goldie Vance is an all-ages comic that has been described as Lumberjanes meets Nancy Drew, which I think is a pretty solid assessment. It also gave me hints of Veronia Mars, but that may just be because I haven’t been exposed to many girl detective characters. Goldie works at a hotel with her father, but she also attempts to act as a detective on the side.

For some reason, I kept being surprised that the main character of this is a teenager. I shouldn’t have been: she acts as a valet, so she’s clearly old enough to drive. I think it’s because teenagers are usually drawn in comics as if they were twenty-somethings, so I assumed that this teenager was a preteen.

I really love the art in this volume. The colours are vibrant, and the character designs are distinctive and engaging, and the cast is diverse. The plot lost me a for a little while, just because I was expecting it to be aimed at a younger audience and wasn’t thinking about it having any sort of political aspect.

But, of course, what stuck with me was the queer content. This is an all-ages comic with a girl who likes girls at the centre of it! She meets Diane and is immediately enamored with this girl rocking the James Dean look. It’s not subtextual. It’s not treated any differently than any other romance in the text. But I’m so unused to queer characters in a book for young people that I could hardly believe what I was reading. Was I wearing queer goggles? Was I projecting?

I’m so glad that with comics like this and Lumberjanes, and with shows like Steven Universe, we’re getting queer representation in kids’ media, too. It’s so important, both for queer kids and for making society in general more accepting. This is a really fun comic, and it would make a great gift for fans of Lumberjanes and similar comics.

Danika reviews The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

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I have to start this with my Goodreads status update from 5 pages in:

I literally cannot handle how much I like this book. I can’t get through a page without cackling or exclaiming. The art! The narration! The surreal worldbuilding! The f/f couple in the middle of it!!! The feminism! The cleverness! Like, I actually can’t handle it. I have to read it a couple pages at a time or I get overwhelmed. I don’t think this has ever happened??

I don’t think I’ve ever been so giddy from the first pages of a book. I was already hooked from the premise: a graphic novel retelling of the Arabian Nights featuring a woman who has fallen in love with her maid. Once I had it in my hands, I was stunned by the cover alone. It looks even more gorgeous in person, with the text in shining gold letters. And best of all, the two women reaching for each other: no attempt to disguise the queer content.

I’m a sucker for experiments in story telling, and I love how this book is structured. From the page layouts to the narration, the design and writing of this book perfectly fits its story, even when it deviates from the norm. A book that starts with a creation story of “In the beginning there was the world / And it was weird” is going to immediately jump in my estimation. I haven’t read the previous book, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, but this book stands on its own–while dropping enough hints that I want to pick up the earlier book to get an even richer understanding of this story.

The framing device here is that Cherry’s husband has made a bet with another man, Manfred, that he can’t seduce Cherry in 100 nights. In order to save Cherry from being forced into this arrangement, Hero (her lover and maid) tells Manfred stories over the course of these nights, with the promise that once he seduces Cherry, the stories will end. These stories are engaging in themselves, and resemble folk tales. They revolve around women, often sisters, and as those characters tell their own narratives, the nesting story structure grows.

Although there’s a timeless, folk lore feel to the story, there’s also some moments of great, clever humor thrown in, including the narrator cutting in for commentary, and Hero and Cherry using vocabulary I was not expecting! Mostly the humor is dry, feminist wit.

And, of course, there’s the romance. The unapologetic, unshakable love between Cherry and Hero. The moment that really made me trust this story was when it describes the two women getting into bed together and then cuts to after, with the narrator interjecting “No! Of course I’m not going to show what happened then! What kind of a book do you think this is?” It was setting up for a voyeuristic look into two women’s sex life, then makes a hard left and questions the reader’s expectations.

This a beautiful, epic love story that centres on two women. That fundamentally respects women and their love. This is a story that respects storytelling, that believes that stories can change the world.

This is the queer feminist mythology we deserve.

Danika reviews Ice Massacre by Tiana Warner

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Why did no one tell me about this book earlier?? Honestly, this should be much more well known. Ice Massacre is about Meela, and 18-year-old girl who has been trained to fight killer mermaids. She’s needed to defend her island, but she has qualms about being sent out to massacre the “sea demons”: she befriended one as a kid.

I was completely sucked in by this book. I can’t help but make Hunger Games comparisons: this is a story about teenagers at war, and it has some brutal violence. Each girl reacts to being in a war situation differently, some numbing themselves with drugs and others becoming vicious and unfeeling. Meela struggles to steel herself to the killing of mermaids–creatures who look eerily human–and it’s made worse by the fear that the next one she kills will be her childhood best friend.

In addition to the war with the mermaids, the girls turn on each other on the ship, splintering their ranks. The tension is high, and I ended up reading this book in a day, which is not a common occurrence for me.

The queer content of this book is understated, and it could easily be missed by someone who wasn’t looking for it, but it’s impossible to misinterpret by the end. If you’re someone who wants to get queer books in the hands of people who might not seek them out–or who aren’t able to openly read queer lit–this would make a great choice.

Ice Massacre also has a mostly indigenous cast of characters, but they are a fictional indigenous group. In the book, Eriana Kwai island seems to be an independent indigenous nation between BC and Alaska. The language is loosely based on Haida. I can’t speak to this representation, especially because the author did invent an indigenous group. I would be very interested to read a review from an indigenous reader, especially someone from the Pacific Northwest Coast.

With that caveat, I highly recommend Ice Massacre, as long as you can stomach some violence. Killer mermaids! It’s like Fox and the Hound, but with mermaids and lesbians! This deserves a much more prominent spot in queer YA and queer SFF.

Danika reviews Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

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I haven’t fallen so head over heels for a book in years. Here’s the premise: a YA fantasy book where two princesses fall in love. I mean, there’s a lot more to it. There’s court politics and betrayal and suppressed magic and warring religious factions, but that’s the hook that got to me, and I suspect it’s what will convince a lot of people to pick it up.

This is a perfect read for Tamora Pierce fans, complete with loving attention paid to the horses in the story. This uses tropes that are common in fantasy books, but you just so rarely see play out with two girls as the main characters. The story is told from the two main characters’ perspectives, and initially Mare is unimpressed with Dennaleia, so we get to see that grudging-friendship-grows-into-something-more plot, which I love. Mare may be a princess in name, but she prefers riding breeches to dresses and digging for information in seedy pubs to attending balls. Dennaleia, on the other hand, has been training to be the perfect, proper princess (then queen) her entire life.

For all the fans of Frozen who wished Elsa got a girlfriend in the end, suppressed magic is a big part of the plot in Of Fire and Stars. Dennaleia struggles to keep her fire magic hidden in a kingdom that considers magic blasphemous, but when her emotions get out of hand, things begin to go up in smoke.

Basically, this is everything I ever wanted from Disney princesses, but with added depth and maturity. (Maturity as in there is brief sexual content and swearing.) Although this is a love story, it’s just as much about the two of them trying to find out the truth about the conflict (soon turned deadly) in their kingdom, especially when Dennaleia’s husband-to-be and the rest of the political powers don’t have any interest in the opinions of two teenage princesses.

This book warmed my heart. It’s not that this is fluffy or doesn’t have conflict, but it makes me unspeakably happy to know this story is out there for queer girls, and especially one that’s published by one of the big publishing companies, which hopefully means it will be on the shelves of enough bookstore to be discoverable. Have I mentioned that I love this book? 5 stars. I’ll definitely be buying myself a finished copy, giving it away as gifts, and peddling it to strangers.

Danika reviews Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

juliettakesabreathI don’t usually buy new releases. I acquire so many books that I tend to stick to used books and the library for new acquisitions. But when the review for Juliet Takes a Breath began to pour in, I couldn’t resist! I bought it brand new and moved it to the corner of my dresser, ready to be the next book I picked up. And then it sat there for about six months.

In that time, I heard more and more of the book blogs and vlogs I follow mention Juliet, almost always positively. But somewhere along the line the hype began to have the opposite effect. What if I was one of the few that didn’t like it? And then how would I even talk about it? I wanted to like it so much that I was afraid to actually read it in case it disappointed me. It wasn’t until booktube started the #diverseathon that I decided to finally take the leap and pick it. (“Finally!” My partner said. “I  feel like I’ve been hearing about that book every day for our entire relationship!”)

As usual, my nervousness was completely unfounded. I can see why so many people fell in love with this book, and I can only agree. It may not be for everyone–its focus on feminist politics and how they intersect with race and other factors will feel unfamiliar to some readers–but I thought it did a fantastic job with that focus.

This is a coming of age story about Juliet, who’s just had her eyes opened to feminist ideals by a book titled Raging Flower: Empowering your Pussy by Empowering your Mind. She’s so blown away by this book that she writes a letter to the author and lands an internship with her. She hops on a plane and arrives in the alien world of Portland, Oregon: a very different place from the Bronx.

There are lots of things going on in this book, but what stuck with me is its recognition that people are complicated and flawed. You can have some things figured out and get other completely, devastatingly wrong. And it’s up to us to decide which people are worth sticking with despite their fuck-ups and which people are toxic for us despite the things they get right. I think that’s such an important and affirming thing to see in a book about social justice.

This also really captures the feeling of diving into feminism and social justice and just getting hit with waves of information that are counter to what you’ve been taught to believe, and the overwhelming process of trying to sift through all of these ideas and find what makes sense to you, what you’re not able to wrap your head around yet, and what’s actually hate wrapped up in the right vocabulary. There’s a lot of theory and discussion in this book, and that makes sense for what it’s addressing.

I loved this book, and I can’t wait for Gabby Rivera’s next one.

Danika reviews SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki

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I read most of SuperMutant Magic Academy when it come out in webcomic form, but I’d heard that the collected version added content to make it into a more continuous story, and it had been a while since I first read the comics. The comics themselves are just how I remember them: irreverent, funny, and just a little bit sad.

SuperMutant Magic Academy takes place at a boarding school for disaffected, superpowered teens. The stories are more high school drama than superhero comic, though. My favourite character is Frances, a guerilla artist who relishes in disturbing the comfortable and is only ever shaken by one panel where a teacher coolly observes that her art is “a little 70s”.

Although a few pages were added to give the thread of a narrative, these are mostly disconnected, featuring a large cast (including Everlasting Boy, who attempts to come to grips with immortality throughout all of time). Each page is great in itself, but they don’t really flow together, and I did find it a little tiring as a reading experience when I read big chunks at a time.

The plot that does exist surrounds Marsha, a sarcastic, often apathetic psychic student, and her best friend Wendy, a fox girl who she has hopelessly fallen for. Marsha is closeted and debates about whether to tell Wendy about her feelings. Marsha is acts superior about Wendy’s naiveté and optimism, often criticizing her about it, despite the fact that those are clearly the traits that made her fall in love with Wendy.

This isn’t a romance, and Marsha and Wendy’s friendship doesn’t take up a lot of room in the book, but it is at the heart of it. There might be a lot of supernatural elements in the story, but the experiences and characters are heart-achingly realistic–Marsha most of all.

I think that I preferred SuperMutant Magic Academy as a webcomic just because I absorbed it better page by page instead of binge reading, but I’m glad I got to read the extra content. If you’ve got a bit of a pessimistic sense of humor, you’ll love this one.

Danika reviews Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet by Philip Freeman

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I always want to know more about Sappho, but perhaps that’s a doomed quest. No matter how many books I pick up about her, the truth is, we just don’t know very much. Searching for Sappho doesn’t claim to uncover anything previously unknown about Sappho, but it is a serviceable overview of what is established about her life.

It’s not surprising that a new book about Sappho came out in the last few years. A poem of hers was discovered for the first time in 2014, and from there the clock was ticking for a truly complete collection of her poetry to come out. Searching for Sappho fits this bill, but I couldn’t help the cynical conclusion that this was the only reason it was published. (Only about half of this book is a biography of Sappho: the rest is a collection of all of her poems discovered to date.)

This book sticks to the facts of Sappho’s life (as well as telling the story of the recent discoveries), but because those are so few and far between, they’re supplemented with general facts about life in ancient Greece. This did feel a little bit like padding, but at the same time, it was really enjoyable. I didn’t pick up Searching for Sappho as a general history book, but the tidbits about things like ancient Greek medical advice had me cringing and laughing.

I did also appreciate the undercurrent of feminism throughout this book, especially since–and this may be unfair of me–it was written by a guy. There is just a brief chapter on Sappho’s love of women, but the book focuses around the sexism women faced in this society, and discourages the reader from seeing even women Sappho feuded with as being sexist caricatures.

This isn’t a revolutionary take on Sappho, but what could be? The cold reality is, we have only scraps of information about her life, and this book is a fine overview of them. As for me, I think I’ll keep hunting for the stories we tell about Sappho, because I think that what we believed about her is just as interesting a story as they life she really led.

Danika reviews As I Descended by Robin Talley

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When I heard a YA book was coming out that was a lesbian boarding school Macbeth retelling, I was already on board before I had even heard that it was by Robin Talley, the author of one of my favourite lesbian YA books.

This isn’t a direct retelling of Macbeth, but it does cover most of the main plot points, and it delivered exactly the kind of broody atmosphere full of revenge plots that I was hoping for. There are some great nods to the original story, including the chapter titles all being lines from the play, but it also works if you haven’t read or seen the play–or if, like me, you read it years ago and have to Wikipedia the plot details. The haunted boarding school (built on a former plantation) adds to the creepy factor, pulling in a strong Southern Gothic vibe.

As I Descended immediately drops us into this atmosphere, with the main characters summoning spirits with a Ouija board. I really enjoyed this brooding story, but I was surprised when the genre started to slip slightly into horror territory. I would definitely warn anyone planning on reading it that there are triggers common to horror, including blood and violence, as well as a blurring of reality.

It’s probably silly to mention in a review of a Macbeth retelling, but this gets very dark. If you only read LGBTQ books with a happily ever after, this isn’t the book for you. These are deeply flawed people, and the relationship at the heart of Descended is an unhealthy one. Maria (read: Macbeth) and Lily (read: Lady Macbeth) obviously are devoted to each other, but Lily knows how to manipulate Maria and uses that information. Maria initially seems to be an ideal student and friend, but as soon as she begins to lose that moral high ground she can’t seem to stop slipping.

It’s enough to have a lesbian YA Macbeth retelling, but there are other elements going on in this narrative as well. Maria is Latina, and her understanding of what’s happening to her and the spirit(s?) in the school comes from her relationship with Altagracia, her childhood nanny, who taught her how to communicate with spirits. Mateo is also Latino, but he has a different understanding of the spirits at the school. Lily is desperate to overcome being seen as just “the girl with the crutches”, and is terrified of adding “lesbian” to that.

Mateo, Brandon, Lily, and Maria are all queer, so no one character has to represent all of queerkind. That way, although a Macbeth retelling has a low survival rate, this doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” situation, because a) it’s a genre that demands a high death rate and b) no one character is The Gay.

I did feel like I couldn’t quite understand why Maria changed so drastically over the course of the book, and I was surprised at the tone change from “delightfully broody” to “I’m legitimately horrified”, but those are small complaints.

I would definitely recommend this one, especially on a blustery fall evening.