Critical Publicity

Currently Reading: After the Eclipse, by Fran Dorricott

On Talking About Books

Recently, I was listening to an episode of the Print Run Podcast that was about the nuances that exist in talking about books, particularly the difference between writing about books for the sake of criticism versus writing about books for the sake of publicity. I spent the remainder of my drive after the episode ended thinking about my own talking about books, and considering why it is that I do what I do, and exactly what it is that I think I do, both in my personal life, and in this blog.

I have lots of qualifications that mean that I am well-suited to write literary criticism. I am a published doctoral student with a speciality in critical theory, and I spend a lot of time evaluating, peer reviewing, and producing academic writing. I am also a bookseller in a small, independent, justice-oriented bookstore in Toronto. If I’m feeling particularly self-confident, I would tell you that my marginalized identities and my social location mean that I bring a unique perspective to the books that I read.

That said, I would be lying to myself and anyone who cared to ask if I didn’t say that even when I’m providing criticism of a book, I’m ultimately doing it for the purposes of sales. It will probably damage my anti-capitalist street cred to say that, but living in a capitalist world, when I look around me and I consider what luxury purchases I want people to spend their surplus money on, and what investments I want people to make with their time? I want them to spend it on books.

A lot of that is selfish. Publishing is not a perfect industry, by any stretch – and mass market publishing is such a small part of the publishing sector as it exists in the world. But as person who has often felt isolated in the world, it’s not an exaggeration when I say that books have often been my closest friends, and there are many parts of my life that I never would have survived without them.

Reading is formative for me. It has made me who I am and continues to make me. Book sales provide some of my very limited income. And one of the only things that I have strong faith in is the ability of ideas to make the world better… so ultimately, I spend a lot of my energy trying to get the books that I think will do that into the hands of people who need them.

I’m not always sure that readers understand all of the moving parts that is the giant machine of mass market publishing. I know that I don’t fully understand it yet, and I had an even more limited grasp before I began working as a bookseller. From conception to writing to physical production to distribution to sales, there are so many links in the chain that need to remain strong for books to make it into the hands of readers.

Right now, at the shop where I work, there are some scary conversations happening. Toronto is one of the most expensive cities in Canada, so the basic costs of maintaining a storefront in this city are a challenge for any retail business, especially one with profit margins as small as bookselling has. Although my shop still maintains a storefront, we also do the vast majority of our business through school board contracts and with educators – whose budgets are getting slashed by our current provincial government. That means fewer book fairs, fewer vendor fairs, and fewer librarians, lib techs, and teacher librarians who are ordering from us.

On a more macro level, things like paper shortages and tariffs on books will impact our tiny store’s ability to get newly published titles in a timely manner, especially in comparison to places like Amazon and Indigo, who are able to order much larger quantities of books pre-sale. Because of this political climate, the amount of backorders and slow reprints that we have to manage these days is much higher than it was in the past, which makes it difficult to please educators and retail customers.

And more than ever, authors are being pressured by their economic situations and also by the publishing industry to always, always, always be focused on that elusive measure of success… the pre-order. But so often, I see huge authors – in some cases, very successful people who have won the majority of their recognition in part due to the efforts of independent booksellers – promoting their pre-sales through Amazon, or other big chain bookstores. Authors are my heroes, but it hurts my heart to see those links. Indies (and other brick and mortar stores) can take pre-orders, too!

When I review a title, I always try to offer a critical perspective. I choose diverse titles to read on purpose. I almost never read books written by allo cis het men, and I try to read as many books by underrepresented authors and with characters who embody marginalized identities as possible. No matter what I read, I try to write reviews honestly and analytically.

But when I review a title… I am always hoping that someone is going to go out and buy a book, or visit their local library and take one out. I always hope that someone is hearing about a book that they need to read, or that someone they know needs to read, when they open my blog on a Monday afternoon – or, that they’re hearing about a book that they should absolutely avoid, but in favour of something that’s going to do the job better. I don’t think that that makes my reviews less legitimate, or that it makes my perspective less valuable. Publicity for any individual book is important, but whether I review a single title well or poorly, I like to think that that is publicity for books… and for me, that is the most critical thing of all.

Review: Wilder Girls

The cover of Wilder Girls, by Rory Power.

…which brings me to my review this week. I almost don’t even need to review Wilder Girls, by Rory Power, which was released on July 9th. As I’m writing this, it currently sits at the top of the Goodreads list of top titles published this month, with over 40 000 users having added it to their “want to read” shelf. No one needs me to recommend them this book (content warnings found here), because chances are good, if it’s for you, you’ve heard about it already.

What the publicity copy on this book won’t tell you, though, is that this is a book that I needed, and that the world needs, so badly. The book is gripping. I stayed up way past my bedtime and woke up long before my dogs were hungry the next morning just to finish it. In so many ways, I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for a book like this one.

This is a YA title, but this book is straight up genre fiction. It’s definitely a horror title that stands on its own legs outside of the YA category – and for me, that’s important in and of itself, because it demonstrates the depth and breadth that YA titles encompass these days. More than that, this book is queer AF. Three are three main protagonists in this story, and all three of them are queer women. But the best thing for me? That’s not what the book is about. The book is about politics, infectious diseases, climate change, adaptation, transformation, disfiguration, trauma, coming of age, mental health, love, friendship, and ALSO… queerness.

The protagonists of Wilder Girls are complicated. The relationships that exist between them and that the characters have with themselves are morally ambiguous and messy and raw… and this book isn’t even about all that. We are finally getting books that embody those aspects of queer life and community, but also have riveting, thought-provoking, surprising plotlines. This is one of the first times that I have ever felt myself reflected in a book in an authentic, multi-faceted way, and I am deeply grateful for the weird and wonderful experience that that was.

Listen. It surprises me more than anyone that 40 000 want to read about infectious queer girls sprouting gills and fighting over food and trying to save their friends from dying, literally. But I am here for it.

If you didn’t pre-order Wilder Girls, and you think that it’s your speed, don’t sleep on it. Your local bookshop can and should hook you up, and while you’re at it, put in a request at your local library, too. Out there, there’s a teenaged me who’s going to have a very different life than I did because this book landed in their hands early on.

Starting Fresh

Currently Reading: Normal People, by Sally Rooney

One of my favourite things to do as a bookseller is to work with customers to find them the perfect book. It helps that the shop that I work in is so well-curated, because it makes the job a lot easier. I also understand that not everyone has a carefully curated indie accessible to them, and not every bookseller loves to give recs. Sometimes, in my spare time, I’ll give recs to folks in my life or online for fun, or for practice looking for something that’s outside of my wheelhouse. 

When a mutual of mine on Twitter mentioned that they had been a voracious reader as a child, but had had trouble finding books that resonated with them as an adult, I was excited to give them some recs, as they’d recently been working through a shelf purge and needed some enticing things to fill in the gaps. 

They told me:
1. They wanted to read more LGBTQ lit, but that they wanted to avoid anything that addressed trauma.
2. They enjoyed reading YA.
3. Three of their recent faves included Looking for Alaska, Roller Girl, and the Dispossessed

My Picks

My first pick was Check, Please!, by Ngozi Ukazu. This is a new YA graphic novel about sweet, queer, masculine hockey players. I picked this in part because I knew the person I was picking these books for through #DerbyTwitter, and thought that maybe another heartwarming, sports-related graphic would go over well. 

Next, I picked a charming, character-driven graphic novel. I personally read this in one sitting while selling books at a vendor table, and despite the bubblegum pink cover, it charmed the hell out of me. The book is The Prince and the Dressmaker, from Jen Wang. I gave this book bonus points for having positive non-binary trans representation, and pretty (drawings of) dresses, which is a total soft spot of mine.

Because they had mentioned the Le Guin, I also sought out a future dys/utopian hero story, and landed on Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles, even though it’s not explicitly a queer book. Later, I learned that it falls somewhat into the “bury your gays” trope – so if it’s something that a reader is particularly sensitive to, I won’t go down this road again. That said, it is a book that has strong WOC protagonists, and it is #OwnVoices. Now, you can also check out the second book in the duology, released earlier this year.

Finally, riffing on the John Green fave from above, I sought out a dramatic, queer, contemporary love story. I gave these recs a while back, and at the time I decided on Nic Stone’s newest, hadn’t been released yet. Odd One Out is a fresh take on an old story, a teenage love triangle. Unfortunately, this book has turned out to have some awkward bi-shamey content. If I were giving these recs now, I’d instead turn to a fan favourite – Red, White, and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, is a quippy, fast-paced, fluffy contemporary queer romance that I enjoyed earlier this year. One of my favourite aspects is that it also paints a picture of an alt-history United States that made my political heart yearn for better times.

Response?

Well, the person who I gave these recommendations to raved about the Prince and the Dressmaker in particular – and also read it in a single sitting. Ftw! 

If you enjoyed reading these recommendations, and would like some of your own, head on over to my contact page, and send me a message! I love giving recs and readers’ advisory, and have lots of experience from my work as a bookseller.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Spooky Books for Sunny Seasons

Currently Reading: Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi

Recent Picture Recent Releases

The cover of When Aidan Became a Brother, by Kyle Lukoff and Kaylani Juanita.

Before I dive in to the recommendations I have this week, I want to make quick reference to two recently-released picture books featuring trans characters. Both of these books came out on June 4th, and would be a great addition to any personal or classroom library. They are, When Aidan Became a Brother, by Kyle Lukoff, and illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, and It Feels Good to Be Yourself, by Theresa Thorn, and illustrated by enby artist Noah Grigni. Be sure to check these out, and if you’re able, consider ordering them through your local independent bookshop!

The cover of It Feels Good to Be Yourself, by Theresa Thorn and Noah Grigni.

New Releases to Give You Chills

I grew up on an island in the North Atlantic. My body was not built for hot weather! If you’re like me, and you are seeking some spooky stories to beat the heat this summer, or a captivating thriller to keep you enthralled on the beach, I have recommendations for you, because there are some incredible grimdark tales set to release in the summer months this year.

Spring 2019

The cover of the Wise and the Wicked, by Rebecca Podos.

There are a couple of books that came out this spring that definitely fit the bill in terms of un-put-down-able reads for a spooky summer. I’ve written about one of these already, The Wise and the Wicked, by Rebecca Podos, which came out this May, but it deserves a second mention here. This is one of my favourite reads of 2019 so far, hands down, and as a bonus, it features affirming and interesting trans representation. This YA title came out in May, and is available now.

The cover of The Van Apfel Girls are Fone, by Felicity McLean.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, by Australian author Felicity McLean, also came out this past spring. This book is described as a thriller, and although I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it that way, it is a great, suspenseful book. I’ve seen it categorized as YA, but it has great potential as a YA/adult crossover.

I got a review copy of this book through Edelweiss+, and I loved it. I picked it up in part because it was described as “quintessentially Australian”, and I’d never read an Australian title before, so I wanted to see what that meant. In the end, I could not put this book down, and I learned a lot. It made me curious to read books by other Australian authors!

Although the plotline is focused on the disappearance of three girls, the narrative centres on how we process childhood memories as a adults, and how we come to terms with childhood grief. The story is not super sad, and it’s extremely compelling. CW for missing children, cancer, and death. The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone was released in April, and is available now.

July

The cover of The Best Lies, by Sarah Lyu.

Sarah Lyu’s The Best Lies is the perfect one-sitting YA thriller for a rainy day at the cottage or sprawling on the beach. I grabbed this book from Edelweiss+ because I thought it would be fast-paced and formulaic – but wow, was I wrong. This psychological thriller gets deep fast, and I didn’t want to put it down. We know from the beginning of this book that the protagonist’s boyfriend is dead, that he was shot, and that the person who killed him is the MC’s best friend. Very quickly, we learn that nothing is as it seems for this character, an unreliable narrator, or for the reader.

This story is told in two timelines – one that begins three hours after the death of Remy’s boyfriend, and one that begins nearly a year earlier, when Remy met her best friend for the first time. As the plot of this murder mystery unfolds, the pacing and suspense both build, and readers are lead through an exploration of trauma, abuse, queerness, gun violence, and love. It’s a fantastic, if difficult read. I would recommend this book to any teen, educators interested in inclusive discussions about healthy relationships and boundaries, and adult readers alike. CW for domestic violence and obsessive behaviour. The Best Lies is available for pre-order now, and will be released on July 2nd.

The cover of Destroy All Monsters, by Sam J. Miller.

Both of my other July recommendations are books that deal with issues of mental health in a nuanced, sometimes suspenseful, and sometimes fantastical way. Both of these books reflected aspects of my own experiences in ways that kept me reading. I got an eARC of Destroy All Monsters from Edelweiss+ based on the recommendation of one of the owners of the shop where I work. Her description of this YA title really drew me in. Destroy All Monsters is by Sam J. Miller, a gay author, and is told from the perspectives of two friends, Solomon and Ash, who both experienced a traumatic event prior to the beginning of the narrative. Solomon suffers from psychosis and inhabits a rich inner world that is explored through his fantastical chapters, whereas Ash only experiences Solomon’s fantasies through the lens of her camera. The friends do not remember the trauma that they share, and this book explores their journey of discovery together.

I loved aspects of this book, but there were aspects that were disappointing. The treatment of mental illness in this book was skillful, however the ending was particularly unsatisfying for me, given the centrality and depth of the narrators’ friendship throughout the book. That said, for readers interested in exploring themes around trauma and who like fantasy worlds with awesome sky-dragons and suspenseful plotlines, this book is still a great read. This book comes out on July 2nd, and is available for pre-order now. CW for childhood trauma and sexual abuse.

The cover of Fractalistic, by Gerardo Delgadillo, which shows the image of a girl with eyes closed and hair spread above her head, as though she is floating. The background is a mixture of opaque images of stars and waves, and the cover is largely in monochromatic colours.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know already that it’s not often that I will pick up a book that’s written by an author who appears to be a cis het white man… but seriously, if that cover doesn’t draw you in, I’m not sure what will. Shoutout to Shayne Leighton, who designed this, and most of the other Parliament House Press Covers, for grabbing my interest in Fractalistic, by Gerardo Delgadillo, which I got as an eARC through NetGalley.

For me, Fractalistic did have some tell-tale signs regarding the author’s privilege. None of the feminine characters in the book had the understanding of technology that the MC’s male love interest did. The male love interest’s future was also of great concern, whereas the futures of the female characters was never discussed in seriousness. In addition, although the book featured a racially diverse cast, the Spanish used because of the Mexican setting was all translated nearly word for word, and other aspects of diversity were lacking. All of the characters in the book were cisgendered, and the multiple romantic storylines were all heterosexual.

The other aspect of this book that was disappointing was that the technology itself was not well-described. I was surprised to read that the author is himself a coder, since it felt to me as though it was written by someone without a thorough understanding of the subject matter, but obviously it was a problem of translation and not of comprehension.

Even with the books flaws, I have to say that I ate it up. It’s a YA/adult crossover, so I would recommend it to mature readers of any age. Fractalistic is an absolute fever dream, and it was a spooky pleasure to let it wash over me. What was even more of a pleasure was that the surprising conclusion of the book was emotionally satisfying and had a lot of poignant things to say about the experience of mental illness. As a reader who has experienced many symptoms of neurodivergence and mental illness throughout my life, this book felt resonant and reflective of my experiences, and it was really enjoyable to read. Fractalistic comes out on July 9th, and is available for pre-order. CW for death of a parent, psychosis, gaslighting and manipulation.

(PS, if you like Fractalistic, but you are also a fan of cozy mystery, YA romance, and publishing world intrigue? Keep your eye out for The Undoing of Thistle Tate, by Katelyn Detweiler, which comes out on July 23rd. I DNF’d this book because the tropes weren’t for me – but it’s a bit more lighthearted than Fractalistic and has a lot of similar appeal!)

August

The cover of Here There Are Monsters, By Amelinda Bérubé.

I got an eARC of the YA novel Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé through NetGalley. Although Here There Are Monsters might not have been my favourite spooky read of this year, I think it might be the perfect book to take to a beach. This book is a classic monster murder horror story. There’s nothing too heady here, and there’s a lot of really great, creepy imagery. The main character’s sister disappears in the first pages of the novel, and the rest of the story follows the MC’s quest to get her back from the monsters in the haunted wood behind their house.

Although this story is predictable and tropey, it’s well-written, and the characters are relatable. It’s a quick read, making it perfect for evoking spooky feels on a summer day. I didn’t have strong feelings about this book, but I enjoyed it. CW for violence, and off-the-page death of an animal. Here There Are Monsters drops on August 1st, and is available for pre-order now.

If you enjoyed reading these recommendations, and would like some of your own, head on over to my contact page, and send me a message! I love giving recs and readers’ advisory, and have lots of experience from my work as a bookseller.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Family-Friendly Gift Requests

Currently Reading: Soulstealers, by Jacqueline Rohrbach

Note: the links found on this page are affiliate links for Amazon.com, so if you use them to make purchases, you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link, and then search for the book you’re seeking. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

This is a slightly overdue recommendations post that I wrote much earlier this year, and I’m only just now getting around to posting. Before I get to it, I have just two little tidbits of news to share. One, I need to boost a newly-released book, by Alicia Elliott. I was honoured to have the chance to attend her Toronto release with my shop, and to have received an ARC of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground last year. I read it in one shot on a plane ride, and it’s a must-read, full stop. It’s available now.

I also wanted to share a list compiled by fellow genderqueer book blogger Corey Alexander, which is a look at books published early this year with trans and non-binary authors. It’s a fantastic list. You’ll see some of the books I’ve mentioned in this blog on it, but also a few others that I haven’t gotten to. Don’t miss out on Dragon Pearl, Squad, Once and Future, Disintegrate/Dissociate, or the Lost Coast. These are all high up on my TBR.

Prompt

Back in December, I had a friend post on Twitter that they were looking for some book recommendations for things that they could ask their somewhat conservative family for for the holidays, specifically titles that were available as Kindle eBooks. Although I didn’t get around to posting these back then, I’m hoping that this list will still be helpful to anyone who has a gift-receiving holiday coming up, since these are mostly 2018 releases.

Some of these books would also serve pretty well as a response to a question I often get in the bookshop: I have a conservative family member, and I’d like to give them something that they will read, but that will also offer them a progressive message, just a little under the radar.

Here’s what I knew:

  • Hadn’t read anything family-friendly in a while
  • Likes John Green and Harry Potter, but also adult books in similar veins
  • Likes Ivan Coyote and Andrea Gibson
  • Likes books about sexuality, gender, and feminist issues
  • Reads both fiction and non-fiction, adult and YA
  • Does not read thrillers or horror
  • Things that were off-limits included anything about kink, sex, or non-monogamy
  • Special interest in silly detective books, à la Brooklyn 99
  • These would probably be read in an ebook format

My Picks

I don’t do a lot of detective reading myself, but after reading a lot of 2018 wrap ups prior to giving these recommendations, I knew that as a silly detective rec, I was heading straight for Andrew Shaffer’s Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery, a detective story featuring past president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden as MCs. This book is described as part noir thriller, part bromance, by the publicity copy.

Whenever someone mentions John Green in their past-loved titles, I go straight for a dramatic book about a romantic relationship… which, for me, almost always means LGBTQ+ romance. Tin Man, by Sarah Winman, which is a gay relationship story that comes highly recommended by my fellow Another Story staffers, but that’s not super obvious from the publicity copy, making it a perfect under the radar rec.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou is a Book Riot dubbed Swiss Army recommendation of a sharp new release non-fiction that’s edgy in a way that might appeal to someone with some kink interests, but it’s not scary. Every time I think about this particular recommendation, it calls to mind Bill Gates’ super trippy holiday recommendations video from the end of 2018, and the syringe holiday light display! On the surface, this is a book about the tech industry, but underneath is about corporate corruption. It was featured on Book Riot’s Best of 2018 list, and is a non-violent true crime story. Another non-violent true crime that might appeal to someone who’s into over the top mystery like this reader is Kirk Wallace Johnson’s the Feather Thief, which I also added to this list.

Because this reader had mentioned Harry Potter, I also wanted to throw in some YA fantasy. Tomi Adeyemi’s debut Children of Blood and Bone is a story that draws on the author’s Nigerian roots, and has serious intersectional feminist appeal, but it’s still mainstream enough (particularly with its early movie adaptation) to be family-friendly.

Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel has a lot of sexuality writing tied up in it, also without it being blatant from the dust jacket. My shop hosted an event around this book and Darnell Moore’s No Ashes in the Fire, and I think that both books have poignant and important things to say about racialized experiences of queer life and history in North America.

Response

I was disappointed that the person who I offered these recommendations to didn’t receive any of them for the holidays! Their response to these picks was positive, and I was hoping to see them get to enjoy reading them. If you’d like to complete this experience for them (and for me!), you can visit the contact page of their website, and they’ll send you details of how you can send them one of my book picks! Remember to use one of my affiliate links in this post, if you choose to send them a gift – that way, both of us will feel your love!

If you enjoyed reading these recommendations, and would like some of your own, head on over to my contact page, and send me a message! I love giving recs and readers’ advisory, and have lots of experience from my work as a bookseller.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Spooky New YA

Currently Reading: Witchmark, by C. L. Polk

Note: the links found on this page are affiliate links for Amazon.com, so if you use them to make purchases, you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link, and then search for the book you’re seeking. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

In my life, Spooky Season isn’t just October… it’s a year-round celebration. I love spooky reads. This week, I’m going to offer up three reviews for books that all drop this month: Out of Salem, by Hal Schrieve, which hit shelves on March 5th, Other Words for Smoke, by Sarah Maria Griffin, which came out just last week, and The Devouring Gray, by Christine Lynn Herman, which is set to release on April 2nd. In this post, I’m bringing you previews of the QT zombies, witches, superpowers, monsters, haunted houses, and talking cats of your dreams. But first! A little trans lit news…

News!

I’m so pleased that this time around, I just have two quick, positive things to share. One, in a trans-affirming move, some libraries will no longer be collecting gender data on library card applications, since it became clear that the data collected was both not useful and also a barrier to access for some.

Also, for anyone who read my post on trans-affirming middle grade books, or who’ve picked up The Moon Within since it dropped recently, listen to author Aida Salazar on the Scholastic Reads podcast! If you haven’t read the book yet, make sure to grab a copy, because it’s great.

Out of Salem

A photo of a physical ARC of Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve on my bed.

Before I write anything about this title, I need to offer a little background. First, I only really discovered Urban Fantasy as a genre in its own right back at the end of 2018, when a friend asked me for some book recommendations (to be revealed in a future post!). Before I could deliver, I had a lot to learn. Since having my interest piqued, I decided to try to delve into the genre in my own reading – inspired partly by my return to PhD studies after a leave of absence, since it was really by chewing through urban fantasy YA like the Twilight series that got me through my undergrad studies.

Based on that information, my friend recommended that I try Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown for a taste of what’s going on in that genre almost a decade later. I listened to it on audio through the Libby app on a drive from Denver to Toronto, all in one sitting, and it delivered. Tropey, but complex enough to draw me in, with fantastic original worldbuilding, the spooky story kept me company all the way home.

As such, I was excited when a copy of Shrieve’s Out of Salem landed in my lap. I was hesitant, because zombies have never been my thing… but I had hesitated about Dread Nation before caving to curiosity in 2018, and I had loved that book. Since then, I’ve been educated about some of its more problematic elements, unfortunately, and in addition the author has said some pretty horrible and transphobic things on Twitter. Tread carefully. But – Out of Salem has an enby author and an enby MC… what could go wrong?

Well. I am a firm believer that there is a perfect book for every reader, and a dream reader for every book, and this one just wasn’t for me. I’ll read 100 pages of anything – that’s my rule – but after 160 or so of this one, I finally had to let it go.

I really enjoyed the first few chapters, which kept me laughing and interested, especially because of the diversity of the cast and the richness of the contemporary fantasy universe that Shrieve has built. The book tackles complex and important social issues through monstrous allegory. Impressive, considering that Shrieve is a twenty-one-year-old debut author.

Eventually, though, the zombie aspect began to wear on me. I’m neurodiverse and working on sorting out some family stuff… so maybe it was just a touch too dark for this moment in my life, but my anxiety was building hard about the MC, who seems destined to just painfully waste away over the course of book. I couldn’t handle the graphic imagery on the page of the decaying enby who I was growing to care for.

Additionally, perhaps due to my own experiences as a fat enby who has suffered at the hands of bullies, this book was just a little too edgy for me. The imagery around oppression and the violence that some of the characters experience in this gritty universe just felt harsh. The use of slurs felt gratuitous, and hit a little close to home. Considering whether I’d feel triggered and anxious carrying on to the end of this 450 page book, I finally had to put it aside.

That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend this book. It feels resonant to me, and I’m still curious what happens to the cast of characters – especially the elder lesbian bookseller witch who takes our fair MC under her wing – so if you can stomach a little more than I can? Order this book while it’s still hot off the presses, and fill me in on the ending. It dropped on March 5.

Other Words for Smoke

The cover of Other Words for Smoke, by Sarah Maria Griffin.

I received an ARC of Other Words for Smoke by from Edelweiss+. This YA haunted house story is Irish author Sarah Maria Griffin’s third book, following another YA title, Spare and Found Parts, and her memoir, Not Lost.

The blurb for this book basically gives the punch line. It’s a story primarily about six characters, a set of twins, a witch and her ward, a cat called Bobby, and and owl called James. The book takes place in the small town where Rita resides, and I have to admit, even as a Newfoundlander, the names of characters and settings in this book made a lot more sense when I looked up the author and found that she was Irish.

My favourite part of this book is how Rita’s house itself becomes sort of a seventh central character. Aspects of the house and the way it behaves really tugged at the heartstrings of mine that loved the moving staircases at Hogwarts. None of the characters in this book are as simple as they appear on the surface. The story and the development of the characters are both full of spellbinding surprises. Nothing is quite as it seems.

We know the end of the story before we know how it begins: their house burns down, and the witch and her ward are never seen again. What we get through this book is the suspenseful, labyrinthian ride through two summers preceding this dramatic event. I was drawn through this book, even with its somewhat slow pacing, because I was dying to know what happened next, and I didn’t want to pull myself out of the lush imagery of the fantastical, haunted world that Griffin creates.

Unfortunately, all of the characters in this book appear to be cisgendered, but there is great queer representation. Other Words for Smoke came out on March 12th, so you can enjoy it right away.

 The Devouring Gray

A selfie of me with green hair, holding a physical ARC of The Devouring Gray, by Christine Lynn Herman.

I was excited to receive Chrstine Lynn Herman’s the Devouring Gray as an ARC back in December 2018, just in time for my first holiday celebrations in years. It seemed fitting, since my partner and I were attempting to spookify our slightly modified Christmas-esque traditions. It is an atmospheric page-turner, and it completely drew me in as I read it over the few days of my holiday celebrations.

Herman’s debut is the first of at least two books in this universe; its sequel will drop in 2020. Its publicity copy describes it as a young adult contemporary fantasy, and compares it to the CW/Netflix show Riverdale. As a fan of the show, I was pleased to find that the comp is accurate, but based on the suspense and pacing, I would describe the genre as speculative horror (content warnings for the book can be found here). Queerbabes: this book is worth the hype. It made me feel everything. Pre-order it if you can! It comes out on April 2nd. 

There is skilful, plot-relevant queer representation in this book, despite a lack of trans or enby inclusion, and on this front, the book is #OwnVoices. I checked. Herman does a particularly noteworthy job of writing a character with a physical disability: a feminine MC who lost part of her arm, and is a practised sword fighter. Although there are romantic relationships between some of the characters, they are not the focal point of this story, which includes a rich cast of nuanced, morally ambiguous main characters. Each of the characters had their own complicated appeal for me, and they relate to one another as friends, foes, and family members. 

The most unexpected and charming aspect of this book for me was that it is written with book lovers in mind. Both library and archives are settings in this book, and characters include a corrupt rebel librarian and bibliophile MC. Gift this one to the broody Ravenclaw in your life – you won’t regret it. The Devouring Gray is available for pre-order now.

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