Seven years ago, the voyage of the Atargatis ended in death, tragedy, and mystery. The ones left behind, watching the footage from their conference rooms and research labs, can only do thing to avenge the death: solve the mystery.
Are there really mermaids in the Mariana’s Trench?
Will they kill us?
The horror of the mermaids was very well done, and I was genuinely on the edge of the my seat reading this at certain parts. It did a good balance of physical, external horror of there being creatures hunting down the point-of-view characters while at the same time, there was excellent psychological horror of waiting for the monsters to find them, having death all around them, and trying to come to terms with their own actions in this crisis.
This an ensemble cast with a lot of characters that get their fair share of time to tell their story, history, and version of events. Tory is a scientist whose sister died on the Atargatis and is on this voyage to try to prove mermaids are real to bring some sense of justice and peace for her loss. Olivia is the personality in front of the camera to explain the science to viewers and investors back home. There is a wide range of more characters, but it would take too space to review all of them and I would rather focus on the sapphic content.
The romance between Tory and Olivia managed to feel engaging and heartwarming while in the shadow of the ongoing fear and horror of the situation. The book is realistic in that they aren’t going to have much time to grow close and intimate in the face of death. At the same, it is believable that the shock and grief of their shared experiences would bring them closer together.
The ending was not a huge bang, which I honestly appreciated. A lot of time in science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc. there’s this feeling that there needs to be a big, huge, bombastic climax that you would have in a Hollywood blockbuster. But I don’t think that’s always necessary for a book that’s in genre fiction. And here that works so well, because the book is so scientific and gets into the nitty-gritty details of the science that is being fictionalized. That scientific foundation went hand in hand with the more toned-down ending.
I enjoy horror about 50% and thankfully this book was part of the half of the genre I liked. The ensemble cast was big, but not too big that I couldn’t become invested in their individual arcs. The world building was magnificent, and the science was clearly well researched. I also love information about the ocean, so that was another fun part for me.
Overall, I highly recommend this book for any horror and science fiction fans.
This is a thought-provoking, complex book that I’m still mulling over. The Unbroken is a military fantasy about a colonial occupation. It’s based on French on occupation of North Africa, though it’s not–of course–an exact match. There isn’t a lot of sexism in this world: women serve alongside men at all ranks in the military, and they also lead the revolution. It also doesn’t seem to have heteronormativity. There are lots of same-sex couples, and none of them are treated any differently. Don’t let that mislead you, though: this is a brutal colonialist occupation, and while there may not be a lot of sexism or homophobia, racism is a foundational piece of this narrative. The Balladairians also view religion as “uncivilized” and have banned any practice of religion, whether in Balladaire or Qazāl.
Because this is military fantasy, it’s not surprising that this is grim and violent, including hangings and discussion of rape. I sometimes struggled with this novel because of how bleak it got–but that is also an unreasonable criticism of a book about colonialism. It is multi-faceted in its depiction of the realities of colonialism, looking at it from multiple angles. The two main characters are Luca, the Balladairian princess fighting to get her rightful throne that is being occupied by her uncle, and Touraine, a conscript (or “Sand,” pejoratively) who was taken from Qazāl as a child to be made into a Balladairian soldier. They are fascinating, deeply flawed, complicated characters who have a powerful bond despite spending 95% of the story apart. Luca, of course, looks at the occupation of Qazāl from the perspective of the powerful, and she wants to restore peace to prove to her uncle that she is ready to lead. Touraine wants to be a good soldier, to rise in the ranks far enough to be respected despite being a “Sand.” Both begin on the same side of this conflict, but as the novel goes on, we also see how Qazāl citizens see this occupation, and a rebellion is planned.
The most compelling and fraught aspect of The Unbroken, to me, are these two main characters. Luca is a Balladarian (white) bisexual disabled princess–her legs were injured in an accident and she walks with a cane. She wants Balladairian rule in Qazāl to be less violent–but she has no intention of pulling Balladaire out of Qazāl. She wants peace, but as a tool to gaining power. Touraine was taken by the empire when she was young and doesn’t remember her childhood home. Her cohort is the only one made up of “Sands,” and she is fiercely loyal to them. They are in a difficult situation: they’re not Balladarian enough to be trusted by their superiors, but the Qazāl citizens don’t trust them either. They’re always on the front lines, essentially used as cannon fodder, and they have no way to escape. Touraine and the other “Sands” soldiers do have ideological differences, though: Touraine wants to be treated as an equal, assimilated into Balladarian society, while Beau and others want to be free from them. She doesn’t recognize that working hard to become a lieutenant hasn’t saved her from racist disrespect and threats, and that she won’t be able to pull herself up by her bootstraps out of systemic oppression. When they arrive in Qazāl, she hears rumors about her mother being there, but she has no desire to meet her. She thinks of the Qazāl citizens as uncivilized–she’s internalized this racism and thinks she’s “not like other Qazāli.”
At the beginning of the story, I didn’t know what to think of Luca and Touraine. They are interesting, but they’re also both on the side of the colonizers. Was I supposed to be rooting for them and their relationship? That misconception didn’t last long, though. Despite following the rules her entire life and devoting herself to protecting the empire, Touraine ends up in a situation that strips her of her rank and should have also cost her life. Luca steps in and saves her, hiring her as an assistant. This creates a complicated power dynamic between them–even more so than already existed. Touraine still isn’t free: “Luca was as much a jailer as she was a safe bunker.” She’s also disposable for Luca, who wants to use her to further her plans. Other soldiers are also resentful of Touraine’s new cushy life, while she misses them and feels like she’s lost autonomy. Over the course of working together and living in close quarters, Luca and Touraine form a complicated relationship that is mostly made left unexplained by both of them. They are drawn together and will continue to be throughout the entire book, but they don’t have a foundation there. They can’t seem to stay apart or forget about the other, but they never have an equal footing or healthy dynamic. It’s compelling, but it’s also frustrating and disappointing. Luca imagines what they could have been in different circumstances.
I really appreciated Touraine’s story arc, but it was also difficult to read. (Mild spoilers follow) She recognizes how wrong she was about Balladaire and Qazāl. She begins to turn against the power that has always treated her, the other “Sands,” and the Qazāli like dirt. Touraine evolves from trying to further her own career while protecting the “Sands” to looking out for the well-being of this occupied nation as a whole: “This looked like the losing side. It even felt like the losing side. It didn’t feel like the wrong side.” She stops trying to be the “One Good Qazāli:” “She didn’t want Balladairian respect. Not anymore.” At the same time… wow, this was hard to read. I was constantly surprised at how Clark would allow Touraine (and Luca) to make mistakes. Big mistakes. Mistakes with disastrous consequences that she had to live with. At each turn, I could understand their reasoning, but it was painful to read. Things just seemed to get worse and worse, partly because of both Luca and Touraine’s fractured loyalties and priorities. They both say they want peace in Qazāl, but they both have things they value over that (the throne, the Sands), and the choices they make to try to balance those two things tend to blow up in their faces. (Spoiler end here)
Even after writing a thousand words about this book, I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I appreciate it. I think it is a complex book the depicts the messiness and horrors of colonialism. It allows its characters to be incredibly fallible. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life consequences of their actions and of colonialism in general. But I also struggled to finish this book. The bleakness, the toxic relationship between Luca and Touraine, the gut punches of mistakes and their consequences–it wasn’t necessarily a story I wanted to come back to. And at almost 500 pages, it’s not a quick read to power through at that point. That is what it was trying to do, though, and I think it was a great accomplishment. I’m curious about where the trilogy will go, but I’m still on the fence about whether I want to return to this world again. If you want to read post-colonial/anti-colonialism fantasy, though, I highly recommend this one.
In the bookish community, there is a divide between people who are character readers versus plot readers. Character readers need to read detailed, nuanced characters, while plot readers focus on an interesting, intricate plot. For the longest time, I thought I was a character reader. I’ve read plenty of books where the plot takes a backseat to a character’s journey of self-discovery and really enjoyed them. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan made me really rethink this aspect of my reading life, and I now know that I actually do need even just a little bit of a plot in order for a book to keep my attention.
Exciting Times is the story of Ava, an Irish twentysomething who moves to Hong Kong to teach English. While she’s there, she becomes entangled with a rich, aloof, English banker named Julian and, later, a vibrant, interesting lawyer from Hong Kong named Edith. The book deals with her differing relationships with both of them, and Ava trying to figure her life out. Aside from that, there is not much of a plot. It’s definitely a character-driven book.
Even that description I just gave reveals why this book fell a little flat for me. To me, it seemed that Ava was so clearly happier with Edith, who actually cared about her and called her out on her self-sabotage. This fact made it hard to understand the choices she was making to continually go back to Julian, who was so cold to her but offered her financial security. I wish that there had been more of an external conflict that would force Ava to really confront her dilemma and choose one or the other. Without it, in my opinion, the book basically became Ava’s internal monologue, which made it drag in the middle. This story structure also made the ending feel kind of rushed. I had a hard time understanding why Ava made the choices she made.
With that, there was also plenty to like about this novel. I can’t speak to the Asian representation in this book, but to me, Edith was a very interesting and compelling character, albeit less so seeing her through Ava’s eyes. I wish we had gotten more time with her and learned more about who she is outside of her relationship with Ava. I also really enjoyed how the book played with language. Ava’s English lessons were weaved through the writing in a really unique way. The voice of the book felt very raw and honest, and that’s what kept me reading even through the parts I found a little tedious. The setting of Hong Kong was also utilized very well, in my opinion, and made the book’s imagery feel vivid and interesting.
I saw a lot of comparisons between Naoise Dolan’s and Sally Rooney’s writing when reading reviews of this book and I can understand that. For me personally, Rooney’s books worked in a way that this one didn’t quite achieve. That being said, I enjoyed Exciting Times although it wasn’t quite my cup of tea and the ending frustrated me. I am always glad to see more queer representation from Irish authors and characters, though, and would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.
Jen Silverman’s debut, We Play Ourselves, satirizes the contemporary art scene through the eyes of Cass, an embittered former drama wunderkind turned hapless millennial, as she uncovers the secrets behind an up-and-coming feminist documentary. However, behind that beautiful cover and biting wit, We Play Ourselves fails to balance criticism and nuance, and falls prey to the very structures that it pokes fun at.
After being #cancelled in the fray of a viral scandal and Off-Broadway flop, 30-something playwright Cass retreats to the sleepy suburbs of LA to stay with her friend and his on-the-rocks boyfriend. After a listless lull at the house, Cass is approached by a prominent filmmaker, Caroline, whose new project, a subversive, feminist Fight Club starring a feral pack of teenage girls, draws Cass in. After meeting the cast and starting the project, Cass begins to recognize that Caroline’s draw towards these girls crosses the line between muse and manipulator, and must reckon with her place at the heart of an exploitative art piece.
Silverman is an incredibly talented author, whose word choice is always sharp and necessary, and whose sentences string together in poignant prose. She brilliantly constructs the mindset of someone trying to rebuild themselves once they’re stripped to their most vulnerable state. Cass is an unlikable narrator: she’s catty, unempathetic and pretentious. However, your eyes are glued to her every move, and hungry for her backstory. I also found Silverman’s comparison of the limitations of artistic mediums incredibly interesting: theatre is a completely different animal than film, as this juxtaposition is made clear by the alternative perspectives in New York and Los Angeles.
We Play Ourselves takes major media buzzwords, and cultural revolutions, such as the MeToo Movement, conversations of media inclusion and representation and cancel culture, and breaks them down to their core through her sardonic wit. However, this satire can be read as tokenizing or dismissive to real life issues. For example, Cass’s nemesis, Tara-Jean Slater, is a self-proclaimed “turned asexual” after being assaulted by her uncle as a child, who then channels her trauma in a best-selling play and up-coming Netflix show, starring Cate Blanchett and Morgan Freeman as different iterations of her uncle. It’s quite obvious that Silverman is poking fun of the use of big celebrity names to sell products, but it instead comes across as acephobic and ignorant of the real trauma and mental health issues faced by CSA survivors, as Cass is “jealous” of Tara’s “selling point” as a CSA survivor.
This facetiousness is present throught the novel: Silverman pokes fun at tokenism by criticizing Caroline’s “diverse” film with only two non-white leads, but is guilty of the same crime, as no other non-white characters are present in the narrative. Caroline also fetishizes queer women, as she forces BB, the lesbian teenage girl, to fake a coming out to Cass, the only queer person on the film set, in order to garner attention from LGBT movie audiences. However, BB and Cass’s relationship is awkward and forced, contrived by BB’s crush on Cass, and the uncomfortable age gap between the two characters. The film storyline is extremely fraught with these problematic elements, and does little to reckon with them: I much preferred the New York theatre scenes to the Los Angeles film scenes, and would have preferred a narrative without the film aspect. We Play Ourselves is a narrative journey through the lens of a disillusioned young adult in the pretentious art scene, but does little to critique the issues at its core.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy
Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.
The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.
As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.
The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.
She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.
It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.
I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.
Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.
Tamsin is a 17-year-old witch who was banished from her community of witches when she was 12, for committing the worse of magical crimes. Worse, she was cursed, and now she can’t feel love unless she takes it from others. Without love, she can’t see colors, taste food, or feel warmth. When the townspeople fall ill or are in need of big magic, they come to her and offer up their love for their children or spouse in exchange, and she carefully rations that small store of emotion. Wren is a source: someone made of magic, but who can’t use it herself. She would be an incredible book for witches, but she’s kept herself hidden–her brother was killed because of the actions of a witch, and her family fears magic. After her mother died, she’s been stuck taking care of her sickly father, though what she really wants to do is go to the Witchlands and nurture her power. When a magical plague ravages the queendom (including Wren’s father), they team up to try to stop it.
This is a high fantasy story with big, world-ending stakes–but more importantly, it’s a slow burn sapphic romance. Tamsin and Wren have a perfect grouchy one/sunshine one dynamic. Tamsin is jaded, haunted by her past, and literally incapable of love or positive emotion. Wren is bubbly, naïve, and distractible; she sees magic everywhere. They seem like opposites–but in reality, they have most of the same motivations. Tamsin has a martyr complex; Wren is self-sacrificial to a fault. They both have spent their lives living it for others, only to be punished for it. Wren has tried to be the “good girl” her whole life, always making herself small; Tamsin was the star student, a rule follower. In the present day, neither of them thinks they are worthy of happiness.
Together, they have to journey to Within (aka the Witchlands) to begin their hunt for the witch responsible for the dark magic that is causing havoc–the same Within that cursed and banished Tamsin 5 years earlier. I really enjoy “quest” stories that involve a fantasy travel journey, and I loved seeing Tamsin and Wren clash as they tried to get through it together. I only wish we got a little more of their travel Within (where there’s walking cottages and all kinds of weird stuff), but I recognize that probably wouldn’t fit the pacing.
While there is a high fantasy plot here, including magical duels, family secrets, and a world in the balance, it becomes obvious that the heart of this story is the romance between Wren and Tamsin. Wren is frustrated to find herself falling for someone who a) is incapable of loving her back, b) is going to take her love for her father from her as soon as Tamsin completes her end of the deal, and c) is kind of a jerk to her. [spoilers] I loved the element of Tamsin beginning to see flashes of color in Wren. Never has “Your hair is red” been such a swoon-worthy statement. [end of spoilers] In addition to the grumpy one/sunshine one trope, there’s also a “there’s only one bed” moment! Classic.
I really enjoyed reading this romance unfold, seeing Tamsin take down some of her defenses and despite herself begin to see the world through Wren’s eyes sometimes. It’s also about complicated family dynamics and how to see people complexly, even the people closest to you. I know a lot of people will also appreciate that this is set in a world without homophobia: the prince has rejected men and women suitors, and there are same-sex couple side characters introduced with no more fanfare than M/F couples. This is an absorbing read that I can’t wait to see people fall in love with.
I’ve been on a bit of a manga kick lately, especially lesbian manga. (See my post Lesbian Manga and Yuri Manga: What’s the Difference and Where Should You Start? for more.) My latest favourite has been How Do We Relationship?, and I’m always looking for more yuri manga with adult main characters. Unfortunately, Our Teachers are Dating! was a miss for me.
This series takes place in a sort of weird alternate universe of intense yuri fans. Hayama and Terano are two teachers who have just started dating, but they act just as awkward and shy as schoolgirls on their first dates. Their coworkers ship them–in fact, Bandou (one of the other female teachers) specifically applied to be at this all-girls school to cheer on yuri couples. She spies on them. It’s creepy. Their principal is also supportive, which is nice in the sense that she’s not homophobic, but is weird that no one even mentions the complications of two coworkers dating. In fact, they’re encouraged to go on a date at school??
I should mention at this point that I was a teacher very recently (I completed training about a year and a half ago, was a substitute teacher, and then had my first class end a few months ago). So it’s likely that this affected me more than the average reader, but I was completely taken out of the story by how unprofessional and even unethical they were acting. The dating at school was already weird–talking about your dating life with students is definitely beginning to cross a line. But that wasn’t the end of it! Hayamo confides in her students that she hasn’t said I love you yet (after a month??), but she has said “I’m attracted to you.” This is already way past what you should disclose to your students, but then her students convince her to practice saying it to photos of Terano on their phones. Another teacher walks in on what looks like her confessing her love to student, which is supposed to be a comedic moment, but it completely pulled me out of the story. Again, I know a teacher is likely not the intended audience here.
Even without that weirdness, I wasn’t into this story. It’s cute, but there are a lot of issues holding it back. It was originally published in a magazine format, and it feels disjointed. It also feels… I’m not sure the best way to say this, but it feels a bit indulgent, almost like fanservice. They are both blushing and cutesy, and there are so many closeups of kissing. There is a sex scene, but more than that are just a lot of panels of tongues. I’m all for sexy yuri, in fact, one of the things I liked about How Do We Relationship? was the frank sexual content, but it didn’t work for me here. It didn’t feel like a natural part of the story as much as suddenly zooming in on kissing over and over. There’s also a scene where Terano is admonished for always asking before touching or kissing Hayama and told basically that it makes her seem less enthusiastic, which I didn’t like.
I’m going to keep looking for yuri/lesbian manga with adult characters, but I was disappointed by this one.
Zara Hossain is Here surprised me. This is a short book, and it’s written in a way that feels pared down to the essentials. When the story begins, Zara is experiencing Islamophobic harassment from the star football player at school, but she has a strong network and friends and family that supports her. This harassment escalates, though, and it takes the story in a darker and more complicated direction than I was expecting.
Zara’s family has been living in Corpus Christi for 14 years after emigrating from Pakistan. They’re still waiting for their green card application to go through, though, which has put them all in stasis for many years. Zara is graduating this year, but she can’t apply to universities until she has permanent resident status, at least not without racking up insurmountable international student tuition fees. She’s also the only Muslim going to a mostly-Catholic school, which means facing bullying, especially when her friends can’t be by her side. She tries to keep her head down and avoid drawing attention to herself.
In Social Justice club, though, she can use her voice and be her authentic self: progressive, Muslim, and proudly bisexual. (And yes, she uses the word “bisexual”! She’s also out to her supportive parents.) The club is run by a queer teacher who Zara idolizes (and has a crush on), and it’s also there that she meets Chloe, a white lesbian from a strict Catholic family looking for a place she can fit in. They quickly hit it off, and between protests, they flirt and start dating. I appreciated that they discuss a little bit about navigating white privilege in interracial relationships: Chloe is supportive, but she that doesn’t mean she immediately understands what it’s like to live as a person of color in the U.S., and she does have to learn and adapt.
Do be prepared to get hungry reading this: there is much more food on the page than I was expecting–mostly Pakistani meals. Get ready to either spend some takeout cash or try some new recipes, because there are so many dishes lovingly described that made me want to put down the book and pick up a fork.
It’s difficult to discuss this story without some mild spoilers, because an event about halfway through the book is what the entire plot hinges on. It’s also something I think you should be prepared for before reading. So I’m going to give a mild spoiler warning for the rest of the review.
Zara continues to be harassed at school by Tyler, which escalates to slurs painted on her locker, his suspension, and finally, Tyler and his friends spray-painting a racist message on their home. Zara’s mild-mannered father catches him and goes to Tyler’s father’s house to confront him, while Zara and her mother beg him to wait until morning. There, Tyler’s father shoots him, claiming self-defence and charging him with trespassing.
I wanted to mention the specifics because although the book begins with racist harassment, it’s not immediately obvious that it will involve a racist hate crime or gun violence. From that point on, Zara and her family are wholly concentrated on her father’s recovery–he is in a medically-induced coma. To make matters even worse, if he is charged with trespassing, it could jeopardize their green card status.
The rest of the story focuses on immigration and the sometimes unfathomable hurdles immigrants have to face. Zara is horrified to realize that there’s a chance that her family won’t be able to stay in the U.S. because her father was charged with trespassing–despite the fact that he was the victim of a possibly fatal hate crime. She also learns that although green card applications regularly take more than 8 years to complete, there are no protections for children who age out before their applications are finished.
Meanwhile, her mother (understandably) does not feel that her family is safe in this country anymore. Even if Zara’s father has a complete recovery, what’s preventing another racist with a gun from doing this again? She requires constant check-ins from Zara and panics when she doesn’t receive a text when Zara gets to the library. She moved her for a better life, but she no longer believes that it is.
Meanwhile, Zara is completely unmoored. The idea of either being forced or choosing to move back to Pakistan, a place she hasn’t lived since she was 3, is hard to even consider. There’s also the fact that she would be forced back into the closet, and that she might not be able to marry who she loves. That’s not even taking into account leaving her home, her friends, her family, her girlfriend… She wants somewhere that she can be her whole self in safety: a queer Muslim Pakistani woman.
I appreciated the complexity that this story brought to the subject of immigration. It discusses the wait time and challenges to completing the application process, but also the luck involved. This chance encounter could erase all her family’s years of being ideal citizens, including her father’s work as a beloved pediatrician. An author’s note explains the author’s own family’s immigration process was derailed by a clerical error, making all of their work null and void. Added to that is the layer of Zara’s family wondering: is this worth it? Do I want to be in a country where so many people don’t want me here? Even if most of the people they encounter are supportive, it just takes one armed racist or one well-connected bigot to dismantle their lives.
This is a book that doesn’t provide any easy answers. It acknowledges that these are thorny, deeply flawed choices to have to make. Zara wants to stay and fight to make things better, but her mother is tired of fighting–and both of those are fair. This is a great addition to books that start conversations about immigration in the U.S., with the added layer of being an out queer immigrant from a country that is not accepting of queer people. I highly recommend it.
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey is a western dystopian novella set in the American Southwest at a point when almost all food, gasoline, medical supplies, and other necessities have been rationed by the army, and the only books around have to be pre-approved by the government. Normally I think novellas have a tendency to fall flat for me, but I’m very intrigued by the spat of western-themed dystopian fiction that’s been put out recently, so I wanted to give it a try.
CONTENT WARNING: The story opens with a hanging. The main character, Esther, has just watched her friend Beatriz be hanged for possessing unapproved materials, and she knows she has to get out of town before a similar fate befalls her. So she hides away with the traveling Librarians, women who travel between small towns in the Southwest distributing approved books. It’s a place for women to exist without being married, and it’s away from her small town. Although initially unhappy with her presence, the Head Librarians Bet and Leda allow her to stay and set their assistant Cye to teaching her the ropes as they continue to deliver books to towns and carry out their secret mission of helping move contraband packages and people who need to leave. As Esther learns more about what it takes to be a Librarian and about her companions, it becomes clear that the Librarians are also a home to many sorts of people that would get run out of the small towns they go through, or worse, and as Esther learns more about their true mission, she’s left with more questions about herself and what she wants to do with her life.
As the main character, it is through Esther’s viewpoint that we see the Librarians, and at first I was frustrated by what seemed to be Esther’s willful obliviousness to what was right in front of her. She had had a whole relationship with Beatriz – not just an unrequited crush – and I couldn’t understand why she refused to acknowledge what was clear about the people she had fallen in with, even when they were right in front of her. But the more Esther revealed to Cye and later Amity, a fugitive that’s moving with them, the more I realized that this was a story about the trauma of having to live in fear of who you are and the consequences of being found out. A common enough theme in LGBT literature, but the rebellious queer western pastiche this was sold to me under obscured it from me to start with, and I think it is well done here in how it unfolds and how Esther herself has to realize the full extent of her trauma and how to navigate around it, especially for a novella. As things progressed, it was less the Librarian’s hidden duties that drew me on, but instead Esther’s progression of grappling with her past, present, and future.
I also thought it was interesting that Bet and Leda are present as queer elders, but it isn’t them that are Esther’s main mentors in coming into herself. Cye may mock her at first, but it is them and the outlaw Amity that end up helping Esther the most. Amity was also an interesting character to me, as an outlaw with competing streaks of deep pragmatism and compassion. I thought it was really interesting who here was most helpful to Esther and who had broader concerns than one timid girl.
As in all frontier or wilderness survival stories, I was super interested in the segments about Esther gaining the skills she needed to survive. Not only were there the expected segments about learning how to ride a horse or shoot a gun, there was a delightful segment where Esther tries her hand at learning bookbinding. What I found charming about Esther was that, even laboring under her own personal trauma and confusion, she tried hard to learn or do the practical things that life in the southwest on the road demanded.
In conclusion, Upright Women Wanted is an interesting and entertaining novella, and worth your time if you’re interested in westerns. In my opinion it succeeds better than a lot of novellas do at fleshing out interesting characters within a condensed plot, and it hits the grim but somewhat hopeful dystopia notes without hammering them too hard.
I got my hands on an advanced reader’s copy of A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, which is a dark academia, witchy, teenage boarding school sapphic romance which includes seances, a three hundred year old murder mystery, and ghosts.
After seeing about it from the author herself on Tiktok, I had to keep an eye out for it. I suspected I would enjoy it, and I really did. I will definitely pick up other work by Victoria Lee.
It was easy to read, very much a page-turner. Lee set up the suspense in the story from the very beginning, trickling out bits of information from when the main character, Felicity, had attended this spooky but elegant Dalloway boarding school in the past before having to take a year off. We get many clues and hints into what happened in the past, including a romance with the brilliant and now dead Alex, but it takes a good amount of time for it to all be explained. Meanwhile, Felicity meets Ellis, new to Dalloway but already wildly popular since she is a famous novelist, and they begin a whirlwind, intimate friendship.
I don’t want to give away much of the actual plot, moreso just a feeling for the tone of it. I looked forward to reading this and found myself making time to read, which is always a good sign that I’m enjoying the book. I enjoyed the characters, and loved how the book dealt with queerness — as just reality, not necessarily something to be deeply reckoned with or to have an existential crisis over. I loved how clever and intimate the characters were, and especially the whole tone and setting of the boarding school with witchy vibes. Highly enjoyable read.
Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance is out August 3, 2021.