Kate’s Review: “The Sawkill Girls”

38139409Book: “The Sawkill Girls” by Claire Legrand

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegan Books, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Beware of the woods and the dark, dank deep.

He’ll follow you home, and he won’t let you sleep.

Who are the Sawkill Girls?

Marion: the new girl. Awkward and plain, steady and dependable. Weighed down by tragedy and hungry for love she’s sure she’ll never find.

Zoey: the pariah. Luckless and lonely, hurting but hiding it. Aching with grief and dreaming of vanished girls. Maybe she’s broken—or maybe everyone else is.

Val: the queen bee. Gorgeous and privileged, ruthless and regal. Words like silk and eyes like knives, a heart made of secrets and a mouth full of lies.

Their stories come together on the island of Sawkill Rock, where gleaming horses graze in rolling pastures and cold waves crash against black cliffs. Where kids whisper the legend of an insidious monster at parties and around campfires.

Where girls have been disappearing for decades, stolen away by a ravenous evil no one has dared to fight… until now.

Review: YA horror is a genre that I have an affection for, even if I find myself usually wanting more from the books that I read. I keep going back because as a teenager I LOVED the horror genre, and I want today’s teen horror fans to find books that will keep them up at night, or at the very least make them look over their shoulders every once in awhile. When I first heard about “The Sawkill Girls” by Claire Legrand, the premise was one that grabbed my attention. A monster on an island snatches up girls, and the only ones who can stop it are other girls who will not be made victims? Hell to the yes, I am THERE! It became all the more of a priority when I started reading more about it, and that it’s a book that has a lot of queer representation in it. We need more queer books, we need more horror for teens, and lord knows we REALLY need more queer horror for teens. So I went in with high expectations for “The Sawkill Girls”, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say high hopes. Hopes that in some ways were meant, but in other ways not.

Female centered horror that isn’t written through the male gaze is hard to come by, but “The Sawkill Girls” does a really good job of achieving just that. Our main characters Marion, Zoey, and Val are all complex and well rounded girls with flaws and strong points, but they never feel like they’re overwrought in their personalities. The most complex, and therefore my favorite, is Val, the privileged town darling whose family has had a deal with the town monster for generations. Val knows that she has to continue the family alliances to The Collector, as it is called, but also has started questioning her fate. It becomes all the more complicated when she falls for Marion, whose sister Charlotte was recently a victim of the monster Val harbors. Val is unlikable and cruel in some ways, but tortured and conflicted in others, and while we usually see this kind of trope in male characters it’s a breath of fresh air to see it in a female one. It’s all the more satisfying because I LOVE this trope and am nowhere near sick of it, though I do agree that women are rarely put into this mold. I’m thrilled that Legrand took it and let Val embody it.

I also really enjoyed the queer representation and themes within this book. Val and Marion have a tentative and complicated (for obvious reasons) romance, but the way that it builds and evolves felt realistic for the story at hand. There were no easy answers once certain things came to light, and while they both have a lot of baggage to overcome the reader does have reason to root for them. I see that as a testament to Legrand’s characterizations of both of them. Zoey, too, has a not as commonly seen romantic angle to her story, though it’s not as much at the forefront; she has deep affection for her ex boyfriend Grayson, but as an asexual she doesn’t think that they could pursue a romantic relationship that would be satisfying to both of them. It’s only recently that we’ve started to see asexuality represented in YA fiction, and I liked that it wasn’t centered as a huge conflict in this story that Zoey would have to ‘overcome’ or compromise on.

On top of that, the female centered friendships and support systems were very much the center of this book, with Marion and Zoey coming together to try and figure out what is happening to the missing girls on the island. As they come into the various strengths and powers that they have, the message is very clear: these girls won’t be victimized, and they are going to take their fates into their own hands. Sometimes this got to be a little overwrought (we get it, three teenage girls fighting a monster when a bunch of men couldn’t get it done is good), but overall I did enjoy the girl power tenacity that was being held up.

That said, this isn’t a horror novel. I say that because “The Sawkill Girls” never really elevated to actual scary territory. Nothing really got my heart racing, and I didn’t have any moments of unease or fear as I read through. I think that it would far more easily fit into the genre of ‘dark fantasy’. It was more ‘this is scary because I am telling you it is’, when I think that it didn’t really make the full leap to terror or horror. Because of this, I ended up feeling a bit disappointed with “The Sawkill Girls”, and I couldn’t fully enjoy it for what it was. I think that teenagers who like fantasy, dark fantasy especially, will absolutely find something to like about this book. But for those teens who are looking to be scared, they will probably walk away feeling dejected that, yet again, their genre didn’t quite get the story that they wanted.

There are lots of things to like about “The Sawkill Girls”. Big thumbs up for the feminist and queer themes, but the horror aspect didn’t work as well as I had been promised it would.

Rating 6: “The Sawkill Girls” has an intriguing premise and some great feminist and queer themes, but ultimately it didn’t quite wow me the way I hoped it would.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sawkill Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lesbian/Queer Horror”, and “Asexuals In Fiction”.

Find “The Sawkill Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”

36686229Book: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Heavens to Murgatroyd! Hanna-Barbera’s very own Snagglepuss is reimagined in a brand-new series, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, by author Mark Russell (THE FLINTSTONES)!

It’s 1953. While the United States is locked in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the gay Southern playwright known as Snagglepuss is the toast of Broadway. But success has made him a target. As he plans for his next hit play, Snagglepuss becomes the focus of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And when powerful forces align to purge show business of its most subversive voices, no one is safe!

Written by Mark Russell, the critically acclaimed mastermind behind the award-winning PREZ VOL. 1 and THE FLINTSTONES, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, enters the Hanna-Barbera reimagined universe! Collects issues #1-6.

Review: A special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

Though I feel like I watched a good amount of Hanna-Barbera cartoons as a child, one character that I don’t have specific memories of is Snagglepuss. I remember him existing, and I remember a few of his quirks (like his catch phrase ‘exit, stage left!!’ and his smooth personality), but I don’t think I ever saw a full cartoon with him as the star. But even with my passing familiarity of the character, I still knew that I ABSOLUTELY needed to read “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”. It’s not exactly an obvious premise: Snagglepuss is a closeted Southern playwright in 1950s New York during the McCarthy Witch Hunts and the Lavender Scare, and finds himself and his friends targeted for their lifestyles. Is this a story I thought I’d see Snagglepuss in? No. Is it one of the best, if not the very best, graphic novels I’ve read this year. Heavens to Murgatoyd, yes.

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No longer is my go to Snagglepuss reference a throwaway “Simpsons” joke! (source)

The thing about Snagglepuss as a character is that he was written at a time where gay characters were coded into entertainment, and they were usually portrayed as villains, buffoons, or, if people were feeling progressive, tragic victims who couldn’t survive the story if they wanted to be true to themselves. Snagglepuss is fussy, dapper, has a smarmy affectation, and acts ‘flamboyant’, so it’s probably safe to assume he was coded as gay, and meant to be laughed at. So to take this character and to give him this story is a very neat deconstruction of what the character was initially, especially since this story is set within the same general time frame that Snagglepuss first was introduced to the world (if not a little before). Mark Russell, the man responsible for other DC/Hanna-Barbera edginess like his take on “The Flintstones” and “Scooby-Doo”, has given Snagglepuss a similar, dark treatment where people thought darkness couldn’t possibly be found. But darkness there is, as Snagglepuss finds himself caught up in the fear of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, with it’s head Gigi Allen setting her sights on him specifically. Through this backdrop we get to explore and examine the hypocrisy, corruption, prejudice, and rampant fear that had the American Government and people in an uproar. Snagglepuss himself is reluctant to become a symbol of rebellion; on the the contrary he’s perfectly content living his life as a success on Broadway, meeting up with his lover at the Stonewall Inn and basking in his fame as an intellectual elite. What I liked the most about him as our main character is that he is thrust into this role of rebellion, and his complicated feelings about it make him a well rounded character who has his OWN privileges that he hides behind when others can’t. He is a compelling iteration of the original character, and someone who can’t accept how bad things have gotten until it’s too late. 

Other familiar faces pop up in this story, from Hanna-Barbera stallwarts to actual players during the Red and Lavender Scares. We get cameos from the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, and the Rosenbergs, whose execution is one of the darker plot points within this book. At the end of the graphic novel Russell has put together a handy dandy set of notes on various people and moments he includes in the story, and I found that to be very helpful and thoughtful of him (I had never heard of the great Cornfield War between Khruschev and an American farmer. Look it up, it’s hilarious!). On the Hanna-Barbera end, Quick Draw McGraw and Squiddly Diddly play key roles and have their own forms of prejudice to contend with (Quick Draw being a closeted cop on the Stonewall beat and Squiddly being an immigrant), but the stand out is Huckleberry Hound. Huckleberry is Snagglepuss’s childhood best friend, and has become a well known Southern Gothic novelist whose marriage has fallen apart because of his sexuality. They are exact opposites, with Snagglepuss being flitty and carefree and Huckleberry being anxious and depressed. The way that their relationship grows and changes, and how they cope, or don’t cope, is one of the saddest aspects of this book, and the one that had me weeping openly of Hanna-Barbera characters. I never thought I’d see the day. But that just goes to show how excellent Russell is as a writer: he takes two dimensional cartoon characters and breathes life into them, redefining them and bringing relevant social concepts to life through them.

The artistic style that Mike Feehan brings to this story is also incredibly compelling. The characters look realistic, with Snagglepuss absolutely designed like a mountain lion in stature and gait, but not out of place within the real world they are mingling in. The animals are the right amount of anthropomorphized without feeling uncanny or eerie.

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(source: DC Comics)

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” feels timely because the rise of paranoia and corruption within our current administration, and the constant Othering of various groups that don’t fit into the mold that they deem as ‘true Americans’. It feels like a warning, and it makes it all the more intense and powerful of a read. But it also feels like you’re reading about familiar friends, and are learning a great deal about them that you never knew, even though they were always like this. It’s ingenious and effective, and I loved every bit of it. And it’s stories like this that make me run back to DC Comics, because this is by and large one of, if not the, best graphic novels I have read in a very long time. I have my issues with DC, but I stand by the fact that I find some of the stories they tell to be incredibly ambitious and outside the box. And, heavens to Murgatroyd, I cannot recommend “Exit Stage Left” enough.

Rating 10: This brilliant and poignant story takes a well known character and gives him depth, heart, and complexity. Snagglepuss and his friends jump off the page in a story that feels as timely as it does foreboding.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” isn’t on many specifically relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it has a place on “My Country, The Enemy”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Seafire”

378225341Book: “Seafire” by Natalie C. Parker

Publication Info: Razorbill, August 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: After her family is killed by corrupt warlord Aric Athair and his bloodthirsty army of Bullets, Caledonia Styx is left to chart her own course on the dangerous and deadly seas. She captains her ship, the Mors Navis, with a crew of girls and women just like her, whose lives have been turned upside down by Aric and his men. The crew has one misson: stay alive, and take down Aric’s armed and armored fleet.

But when Caledonia’s best friend and second-in-command just barely survives an attack thanks to help from a Bullet looking to defect, Caledonia finds herself questioning whether or not to let him join their crew. Is this boy the key to taking down Aric Athair once and for all…or will he threaten everything the women of the Mors Navis have worked for?

Review: There’s no doubt about it, this summer has been the summer of the pirates as far as my reading list as gone. It’s as if all of the authors and publisher all got together and decided that now, now was the time, just long enough for memories of the more recent “Pirates of the Caribbean” to fade away and soon enough that there is still nostalgia lingering from the very beginning. My feelings on the last several pirate-themed books have been very hit and miss, and the last was quite the miss indeed. But where “These Rebel Waves” failed, “Seafire” was there to redeem this budding genre!

Caledonia and her best friend trusted a Bullet once. And from that trust game death and destruction upon both of their families. Since then, the two women have gone on to gather together a crew of other women and a ship of their own. Together, they fight back against the Bullet’s reign of terror, and Caledonia is still looking for revenge on the boy who betrayed her. But when a Bullet ends up on their ship after saving Caledonia’s first mate, Cal is given a chance to trust again. Should she take it for the chance at new and potentially live-changing information?

So first off, thank god! A pirate story that actually has pirates and takes place on the sea! “Seafire” is just what it claims to be, as far as its action and world-building go. There are ships, a sea battles, and pirates, and all of the best type of action that one looks for in action adventure stories like these. It’s all fairly standard, but in this case, that’s a compliment.

What makes this book stand out from the rest is the cast of characters made up of the found family crew of women. The story delves into great themes such as loyalty, friendship, and of course, the love a family, be it your born family or chosen. It also explicitly deals with the challenges that family present to each other and the ways that they can let each other down, and that this applies to both born and chosen families. Each come with their own struggles, and navigating these relationships can be perilous.

Beyond these broader topics, I genuinely cared about a pretty large group of characters introduced in this book. I typically find myself only invested in the 1-2 main characters in most books, but here I found myself rooting and worrying for a much larger group. There is also good representation in this group with a solid f/f relationship between two secondary characters. But all of this investment also came with a price, since the book doesn’t shy away from the tragedies that can befall characters who regularly engage in sea battles.

As for the main characters, I mostly liked our main character, Cal. The fact that I only “mostly” liked her is also probably a point in the book’s favor, highlighting the attention given to creating a flawed, real teenage girl. Cal is by no means perfect. She is brave and determined, but all too often she makes choices based on her own personal need for revenge. She is slow to give up prejudices, but is also completely devoted to the group of women she has taken under her wing. Towards the end, I did begin to struggle more and more with her character and some of her decision-making, but I was on board enough with the rest of the story to not let myself get too bogged down in that.

There is a minor subplot of romance in the story, but I was fine with this part not taking up more time. The true relationships in this book are those built on sisterhood and friendship. As for the pacing, the book does have a slower start, but picked up quite a lot towards the end, so some patience is required when getting going. But, other than that, “Seafire” was a solid book full of badass women doing badass pirate-y things!

Rating 7: Delivers on its concept with an exciting pirate story full of strong women. The main character was at times not the most likable and it started slow, but was worth it in the end!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Seafire” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Female Ensemble Casts” and “Lady Pirates.”

Find “Seafire” at your library using WorldCat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kate’s Review: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”

36426163Book: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” by Tess Sharpe (Ed.), and Jessica Spotswood (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Harlequin Teen, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: A young adult fiction anthology of 15 stories featuring contemporary, historical, and futuristic stories featuring witchy heroines who are diverse in race, class, sexuality, religion, geography, and era.

Are you a good witch or a bad witch?

Glinda the Good Witch. Elphaba the Wicked Witch. Willow. Sabrina. Gemma Doyle. The Mayfair Witches. Ursula the Sea Witch. Morgan le Fey. The three weird sisters from Macbeth.

History tells us women accused of witchcraft were often outsiders: educated, independent, unmarried, unwilling to fall in line with traditional societal expectations.

Bold. Powerful. Rebellious.

A bruja’s traditional love spell has unexpected results. A witch’s healing hands begin to take life instead of giving it when she ignores her attraction to a fellow witch. In a terrifying future, women are captured by a cabal of men crying witchcraft and the one true witch among them must fight to free them all. In a desolate past, three orphaned sisters prophesize for a murderous king. Somewhere in the present, a teen girl just wants to kiss a boy without causing a hurricane.

From good witches to bad witches, to witches who are a bit of both, this is an anthology of diverse witchy tales from a collection of diverse, feminist authors. The collective strength of women working together—magically or mundanely–has long frightened society, to the point that women’s rights are challenged, legislated against, and denied all over the world. Toil & Trouble delves deep into the truly diverse mythology of witchcraft from many cultures and feminist points of view, to create modern and unique tales of witchery that have yet to be explored.

Review: I want to thank NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

As I’ve made abundantly clear on this blog numerous times, I am a huge fan of witches and witchcraft in my stories. Basically, if there is a witch, I want to read it. So imagine how genuinely thrilled I was when I heard about “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”, a short stories collection edited by Tess Sharpe. Not only is it a collection of witch stories, it has a feminist centered theme of witchcraft. On top of THAT, there are also DIVERSE stories involving these witches, from authors like Zoraida Córdova, Robin Talley, Brandy Colbert, and more! My goodness did the description of this book get me in a witchy mood, and make me want to break out “The Craft”/relive my 8th grade Wicca phase.

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Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of YA feminist witch fiction…. (source)

There are some really great stories in here, and I want to give them credit where credit is due. I will talk about my favorites and what it is about them that made them stand out.

(NOTE: Yes, this book originally had 16 stories in it, but after Tristina Wright was accused of sexual harassment her story was removed from the final product. My ARC had her story, but knowing that it wasn’t going to be in the final work I skipped it completely.)

“Starsong” by Tehlor Kay Mejia

A young witch named Luna has garnered a social media following because of her posts about star charts, fate, and magic. One evening she starts a conversation with a science minded girl who is very much a skeptic. As they start to chat over messages, Luna realizes that she’s starting to fall for her spirited intellectual nemesis. In terms of just sweet and calm stories, “Starsong” fit the bill. The first reason is that it feels very relatable with the social media bent that it had as it’s base. I liked the idea of a teen witch giving guidance to her followers and coming into herself in a medium she is comfortable with. And while I’m not so much into the romance genre in general, this one was super charming and didn’t feel overwrought or melodramatic as these two girls get to know each other and start to feel the first pangs of attraction. It’s just super cute, and since it’s the first story in the collection you get to ease into it with an upbeat first course.

“The Legend of Stone Mary” by Robin Talley

This one felt the most like the kind of witch story that I wanted from this collection, and it’s probably my favorite of the lot. A town has been long haunted by the urban legend of Stone Mary, a witch who was murdered a couple centuries prior and has supposedly put a curse on the town. Now there are legends and myths surrounding the gravesite of Stone Mary, a popular spot for teens to goof off at. Wendy is a descendent of Mary, and her family has long had an unspoken stigma about them because of the family line she is a part of. When she starts to start a romance with a new girl in town, she just wants to be seen as normal, but her lineage may have more of an effect on her relationship than she could have imagined. From the ghostly legend of Stone Mary to the actual real life consequences of small town small mindedness, Talley delivers a strong, somewhat bittersweet, story about what it’s like to be an outsider. The Mary legend is tragic and upsetting, and Wendy’s present day obstacles feel real and very much placed in Othering, be it because of her lineage, or because of her sexuality. There is also something of a twist that took me by surprise, and I think that it gave the story a little more depth. As someone who has memories of urban legends regarding graveyards (specifically the Black Angel in my aunt’s home of Iowa City), “The Legend of Stone Mary” was a treat in all regards.

“The One Who Stayed” by Nova Ren Suma

This is one of the darkest and saddest stories in the book (though just wait, we’ll be getting to the other one), but I didn’t expect any less from Nova Ren Suma. A coven of witches, brought together by trauma and pain, are preparing to bring in another member to their group as the same trauma is about to befall her. Suma is one of those authors who knows how to make the darkness in humanity twisted and blistering, but still present it in a bittersweet way. This story definitely has some strong implications in regards to sexual assault, so I have to give it a trigger warning, but the eeriness and the sadness is written in a flowing and haunting prose that I greatly enjoyed. While a large number of these books had very feminist roots, this one felt like a riot act towards those who do women wrong, and how victims can find their own voices and power by finding each other and coming together to support one another. This is also one of the shorter stories in the collection, though it packs a huge emotional punch that had me enthralled the entire time reading it.

“Why They Watch Us Burn” by Elizabeth May

This is the last story in the collection, and boy oh boy is it a strong note to end it on. Women accused of witchcraft are taken to a forest work camp and are made to ‘repent’ for their actions, though they are not witches, but victims of society. Shamed and silenced, abused and mistreated, a group of women come together to support, endure, and find their voices again. This story absolutely weaves together the idea of witch hunts and trials and applies it to modern social mores such as rape culture and misogyny, and it brings forth a powerful read that struck hard and hit home. Especially given the current social climate, where sexual abusers in the highest offices of Government get off without consequence and someone can be sentenced to THREE MONTHS for rape (AND STILL FEEL LIKE THE CONVICTION WAS TOO HARSH), “Why They Watch Us Burn” strikes a chord. It’s angry, it’s raw, but it’s also hopeful.

Another positive is this book is chock full of Own Voices authors and a lot of great diversity in it’s characters. Not only are a number of the witches in these stories LGBTQIA+, there is also a wide range of racial representation, with varying cultures having a huge influence on the types of witches that these characters are. The witches in our stories need not be wholly influenced by Anglo-Saxon mythology alone, and “Toil and Trouble” takes cues from all around the world.

And yet, if you take the collection’s stories as a whole, a large number of them didn’t really stand out to me. None of them were BAD, per se, but they were either a bit muddled, or a little too bland for my tastes. Some of the stories felt stilted and dragging, and with others I found my eyes glazing over (and I’ll admit it’s probably because of the high emphases on romance in those ones). So because of that, “Toil and Trouble” wasn’t the consistently satisfying collection that I expected it to be. The stories that were good were VERY good, but I wanted more of them to be as appealing to me as the four that I mentioned.

But in terms of important, diverse, and feminist anthologies, “Toil and Trouble” is absolutely noteworthy. The stories I mentioned are worth a look by themselves, and you may find more value in the ones I struggled with. And hey, Halloween isn’t too far away. This is the perfect read for the upcoming Season of the Witch.

Rating 6: While the strong stories in this collection are very strong and the representation is top notch, “Toil and Trouble” didn’t have the consistent strength across all of its tales of witches and witchery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Anthologies”, and “2018 Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy”.

Find “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “Girls Made of Snow and Glass”

32768509Book: “Girls Made of Snow and Glass” by Melissa Bashardoust

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, September 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA 2017

Book Description: At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone—has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do—and who to be—to win back the only mother she’s ever known…or else defeat her once and for all.

Review: “Snow White” fairytale re-tellings have had quite the resurgence it seems over the last few  years. And many of them, like “Girls Made of Snow and Glass,” are attempting to re-imagine this classic tale into something new and different. Not an easy feat. To add to this, this novel was also marketed as somehow connected (based on??) the smash Disney hit “Frozen,” as well. Which in turn was based on yet another fairytale, “The Snow Queen.” In all honesty, I picked this one up with a bit of trepidation, worrying that all the elements listed above, plus the fact that I knew it had LBGT elements, would combine into what could only be described as a hot mess. But I’m not to proud to admit when I’m wrong, and while I would consider this one a home run, it did manage to pull all the elements it committed to.

The story follows to young women: Mina, a young woman without a heart, who never the less seeks out love, hoping to find it in a King with a young daughter. The daughter, Lynet, is our second main character, a young woman created in the image of her own dead mother. Chapters alternate between these two main characters, and while each of their stories plays out in different manners, what’s at the heart of their struggles is the same: the meaning of family, what is love, and how they, as women, must make hard choices in order to navigate the world in which they live.

Honestly, in many ways, this book took the best advantage of the opportunities to respond to a fairytale that is completely based on woman vs. woman competition due to beauty. There is a lot to unpack there, both with the relationships formed between women, as well as the value on beauty above all else that society, and women themselves, place upon young girls.

I was honestly very surprised with the direction that this story went at different points in the book. Obviously, it was refreshing to read a version of the “evil queen” who was sympathetic, who had made tough decisions to protect herself and what she wanted, and knew that it was wrong that she is being punished for it. Lynet, too, was more than the simpering, often one dimensional princess character that is often found in these stories, and hers the romance containing LGBT elements. For all the hype around this aspect of the series, however, I did find this romance to be a bit underfed. Lynet’s story is only half of the book after all, and Mina’s romantic storyline read as more fully developed. This is unfortunate, but I applaud the author’s intentions in this aspect.

My primary criticism of the story was the writing style. Perhaps it simply wasn’t the type of writing I prefer, but at times it read as a bit middle grade and simplistic for a young adult novel. Especially for a young adult novel that was trying to do and say some big things about found families, the wide varieties and intrinsic value of loves to be found in the world, and the challenges that women face when trying to control their own lives without being punished for it. For all of these large and complicated topics, for being based on not one but two action-packed fairytales, at times I just found myself to be bored. A couple of scenes in the middle, specifically, should have jumped off the page, but somehow seemed to wilt, leaving me under enthused.

But, these criticisms aside, “Girls Made of Snow and Glass” did an excellent job of reimaging a fairytale that has almost be “reimagined” to death at this point. Just when you start to think that there isn’t much more that can be done with a story like this, an author comes along and proves you wrong. If you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, and especially if you’re looking for better representation in your fantasy fiction, check out “Girls Made of Snow and Glass” and enter the giveaway below to win a copy for yourself!

Giveaway is for an ARC of “Girls Made of Snow and Glass” and is open to U.S. entrants only. Giveaway ends on Tuesday, November 7.

Congrats to @melissadougher for winning this giveaway!

Rating 7: Fantasy fiction with a lot to say about found families and feminism. Come for the familiar, stay for the new!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Girls Made of Snow and Glass” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “LGBT Retellings of classic Fiction/Fairy Tale/Myth” and “Snow White Retellings.”

Find “Girls Made of Snow and Glass” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Now I Rise”

22817331Book: “Now I Rise” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: She has no allies. No throne. All she has is what she’s always had: herself.

After failing to secure the Wallachian throne, Lada Dracul is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her blood-strewn path. Filled with a white-hot rage, she storms the countryside with her men, accompanied by her childhood friend Bogdan, terrorizing the land. But brute force isn’t getting Lada what she wants. And thinking of Mehmed brings little comfort to her thorny heart. There’s no time to wonder whether he still thinks about her, even loves her. She left him before he could leave her.

What Lada needs is her younger brother Radu’s subtlety and skill. But Mehmed has sent him to Constantinople—and it’s no diplomatic mission. Mehmed wants control of the city, and Radu has earned an unwanted place as a double-crossing spy behind enemy lines. Radu longs for his sister’s fierce confidence—but for the first time in his life, he rejects her unexpected plea for help. Torn between loyalties to faith, to the Ottomans, and to Mehmed, he knows he owes Lada nothing. If she dies, he could never forgive himself—but if he fails in Constantinople, will Mehmed ever forgive him?

As nations fall around them, the Dracul siblings must decide: what will they sacrifice to fulfill their destinies? Empires will topple, thrones will be won…and souls will be lost.

Previously Reviewed: “And I Darken” (some spoilers!)

Review: “And I Darken” was another surprise hit from last year, so much so that it made my “Top Ten” list at the end of the year. So I was anxiously awaiting this sequel. The stakes (…pun intended?? with impaling?? get it???) have never been higher for Lada, Radu, and Mehmed. Impossible dreams are being pursued, but how much will need to be sacrificed in the attempt? And once they get what they want, was it worth the price?

The narrative is again split between Lada and Radu, however, so many of their choices revolve around their conflicting feelings towards Mehmed, their childhood friend, ruler of the nation that has held them hostage from family and country, and lover/wished for lover of both, that he almost feels like a POV character, too.

As I mentioned, this story is mostly about obsessions that have taken the place of love. Lada, Radu, and Mehmed all serve as prime examples of how letting one goal become your purpose in life can begin to rule you and lead to choices you never would have imagined. Each of their goals are impossible in different ways.

For Lada, it turns out that reclaiming her homeland isn’t as easy as she thought. Also, Mehmed’s “support” isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Lada’s story here is a tragic example of expectations vs. reality and her slow realization that she is truly alone in the world, even from those she loves best. Lada wishes to become Prince of her homeland of Wallachia, a nation that has never had a female ruler and has been willing subservient to the Ottomans for decades. She is routinely dismissed by those around her for simply being a girl, and it takes the entire book for her to realize that even those closest to her see and use her this way. And along her own path, she is forced to make choices, betray those she loves, in pursuit of this seemingly impossible goal. Terrible acts are committed all for the good of Wallachia. And what makes her story, and these books, most compelling is the morally grey area these choices always exist within. Lada does terrible things, but in a certain light, she also does incredibly good things. She betrays those around her and is betrayed herself. Routinely, she chooses Wallachia over those who love her and those who claim to love her. She pushes forward with a single-minded determination, dealing out consequences left and right, that both help and hurt her. So, too, she must deal with the fact that Mehmed and Radu are equally single-minded in their own pursuits, and those don’t always align with her own goals.

Radu’s unrequited love for Mehmed is front and center in this book. He has been shunted to the side in Mehmed’s court to serve as a “sleeper agent,” essentially. But this also results in real isolation and distance between the two. And then he is sent in to Constantinople as a spy and things go from bad to worse. The “enemy” is now humanized for him, and while he despises their strange obsession with “signs” and holy artifacts, he also grows to respect Constantine himself, and especially, the young man, Cypiran, who serves as host to Radu and his wife, Nazira. He is forced to double cross and double cross again his friends on both sides of what he is increasingly convinced is nothing more than a war of egos between Mehmed and Constantine.

While Lada, too, makes choices that are hard to read about, she’s also fighting for respect and acknowledgement for her accomplishments, a goal that I can very much understand. She’s also simply a badass character, and has some fun moments between herself and her soldiers that were even comedic. Radu…I struggled with more. His obsession with Mehmed is the epitome of unhealthy, something that Nazira (probably the most likeable and objectively “good” character there is in this book!) is quick to point out in the most strong language. His choices, while understandable for his character, routinely made me want to smack him up the backside of the head. But, all of this said, he is an intriguingly conflicted character. It’s a sign of incredible strength as an author to make a character whom I often very much disliked at the same time read as incredibly interesting and whose story I am still fully invested in.

And Mehmed. As I said, we don’t get a POV for him, but he’s so instrumental to the other two, that we are painted a fairly clear picture. And that picture is: nothing and no one matters except for Constantinople. His obsession is arguably the worst of them all. He uses Lada and Radu in truly unacceptable ways. He claims to love them both, and I believe he probably does, but by the end of this story, to me, he reads as the true villain.

The themes of this book are dark and heart-breaking. Again and again, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed choose impossible dreams over the love of family and friends. Radu abandons Lada in pursuit of Mehmed. Mehmed uses Radu’s feelings for him against him and abandons Lada in the wilderness in pursuit of Constantinople. And Lada sacrifices the goodness and softness in herself to become whom she must to be Prince of Wallachia. Poetic tragedy, conflicted characters, and a stark historic landscape that proves that no one wins when obsessions rule over love and kindness.

This isn’t an easy read, but the writing is incredibly strong, the characters are full fleshed out, and the story is like watching a slow-motion car crash that you can’t look away from. Definitely check this book out if you enjoy books that look at the darker side of history.

Rating 10: Poignant and beautiful, terrible and tragic, a must-read for historical fiction fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Now I Rise” is on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Children’s and YA with LGBT characters” and “Diverse YA Retellings.”

Find “Now I Rise” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Have Some Pride! YA Fiction with LGBTQ Themes

Pride is the time of year where members of the LGBTQ community can celebrate who they are and the communities that they are a part of, and promote civil rights and visibility for these communities. Given the recent violence in Orlando, threatened violence at other Pride events, and oppressive and discriminatory bathroom laws targeting trans people, it has become abundantly clear that Pride is still very important and necessary, and that the fight for safety and dignity has a long ways to go. Though June is the official Pride Month, Pride events happen throughout the summer. So we thought that it would be fun to give our recommendations for Young Adult literature with LGBTQ themes! Lots of great books with LGBTQ characters have come out of the YA writing community, and these are just a few of many great works.

11595276“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” by Emily M. Danforth

Cameron Post is an orphan living in rural Montana in the 1990s. Her parents were killed in a car accident at the same time that Cameron was having her first kiss with her best friend, Irene. Sent to live with her conservative Christian Aunt Ruth, Cameron does her best to fit in and hide her sexuality. That is, until she meets Coley, a spunky and chipper cowgirl. Cameron and Coley become fast friends, but when their relationship goes to a new level, Cameron is sent to a camp that is supposed to ‘cure’ gay and lesbian teens. This book is a tale of first great love, great heartbreak, and an empowering coming of age story. Filled with pathos and hope, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” will make you cry, think, and smile.

“If I Was Your Girl” by Meredith Russo 26156987

Moving to live with her father and starting a new school is a new beginning for Amanda. Small town Tennessee is very different from Atlanta, but Amanda is starting to adjust. She makes some very close girl friends, and starts to fall in love with sweet and sensitive football player Grant. But Amanda is worried, because she is trans, and is scared that if everyone found out she would be humiliated, ostracized, or much, much worse. Written by Meredith Russo, a trans woman, “If I Was Your Girl” is a story about being yourself and finding acceptance. It’s also on this list because Russo has a lot of background notes and information for trans teens and trans allies alike. Amanda’s story is one that is so very important in a time of laws like HB2.

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“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Bejamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante are as dissimilar as you can be, Ari being an angry teen who resents the life he’s living, and Dante a gentle soul with a quirky worldview. But after a chance meeting at the local swimming pool, a connection is formed and the two develop a beautiful friendship and come to more deeply understand themselves through the other’s eyes. It is also worth noting that Serena made the poor decision of bringing this book along with her when she was getting her tires changed one afternoon, and then spent the whole time sobbing into the book while trying to avoid eye contact with the very confused, 40-something year old men all sitting in the lobby with her. And Kate read it on a plane and bawled her eyes out for everyone to see while her husband pretended to not know her. It was awkward for both, but a testament to the true beauty and poignancy of this story.

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“Huntress” by Malinda Lo

The prequel to the also Malinda Lo’s also excellent novel “Ash,” “Huntress” follows the story of two teenage girls who set out on a quest to restore order to a failing world. As even this list highlights, many of YA LGBTQ stories out there take place in a real world setting, so this fantasy novel featuring a beautiful, slow-burn romance between two girls is a bit of a rarity. What’s more, Lo creates a world where the two girls’ sexuality is not a cause for them to be ostracized, which allows the author to explore other challenges for her characters and present a wholly new story.

13262783 “Every Day” by David Levithan

“A” wakes up every day in a different body and lives the life of that person. For just one day. The next “A” is someone else. Boy, girl, rich, poor, able-bodied, disabled. To survive, “A” creates a set of rules to follow to preserve sanity. Until “A” meets a teenage girl named Rhiannon and finds someone to spend every day with. Levithan takes what sounds like an absolutely bonkers premises and uses it to explore such a wide variety of world views and life styles. The fact that “A” lives life every day in a different body leaves the character’s sexuality as one that goes deeper than gender. “A” loves Rhiannon, regardless of the gender “A” currently inhabits.

These are our YA LGBTQ picks. What are some of your favorites?