Skip to content

J. Z. Kelley's Blog Posts

Spoiler-Free Review: And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed (Out 7/20/21)

Cover of And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed

Genre: Science fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: Standalone

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: The Handmaid’s Tale, Maria Haskins’ “Six Dreams About the Train,” Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician,” Alyssa Wong’s “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” eco sci-fi, poetic literary speculative fiction

In a science-fiction world where only the very wealthy have funerals and everyone else is dumped into the ubiquitous filthy canals when they die, a high end courtesan comes back to life to take vengeance on her wealthy client/murderer. Jewel, the protagonist of And What Can We Offer You Tonight, is the dead girl’s friend. Having not been reanimated with a terrible purpose, Jewel’s concerns are more quotidian: meeting clients, looking after her fellow courtesans, and trying to keep from losing her job as a known associate of the vigilante dead girl haunting the city’s rich.

This is a tough novella to summarize and an even tougher one to review. It’s beautifully written. Despite being 75% run-on sentences, it never feels dense, just poetic. Jewel’s helpless, often directionless ruminating turns her world into an anxious kaleidoscope. The imagery of the courtesans’ elegant House contrasts with the crumbling city outside in a way that makes both of them seem equally alien and lovely, and Mohamed has a way of describing familiar objects like perfume that seems stranger than her futuristic technology. I wanted to highlight entire chapters.

It’s also, objectively, something that should really connect with me. I love class conflict stories and I love female characters that other reviewers call too passive or too violent or too morally impure and I love a run-on sentence. But it didn’t hook me behind the belly button the way I wanted it to, and I can’t really say why.

If I had to guess, I’d say it was probably that Jewel is very Hamlet. She wants everything and nothing. She can’t make up her mind. She acts only when her hand is forced by other, stronger willed characters. Her definite trait is her compulsion to smother her unpretty emotions in order to keep her job and her life (which is saying the same thing twice).

I don’t think this is a flaw in the writing. I mean, Hamlet. If anything, Jewel is too relatable. Her dystopian future world is too real. Like, I am living through real climate disasters and class warfare, I do not have any spare energy for lightly fictionalized versions of them.

On the other hand, reading lightly fictionalized versions of the traumas you’re surviving can be healing. I think that will be the case for a lot of people who read And What Can We Offer You Tonight. After the murders in Atlanta and this summer’s heat wave, a lot of readers are going to find catharsis in the story of a murdered sex worker who traverses a flooded city to kill her killer.

I think this novella will also appeal to a lot of readers who don’t typically like SFF. If Margaret Atwood can say The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t science fiction, then I think I’m justified in saying neither is And What Can We Offer You Tonight. Buy this book for your snobby aunt and tell her it’s Literature that happens to have some lightly futuristic technology and exactly one un-dead girl. 

Disclosure

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Neon Hemlock Press
Hardback Page Count: 80

Premee Mohamed is delightful on Twitter and on her blog, so check those out.

Preorder the book on Amazon (out July 20).

Spoiler-Free Review: The Calyx Charm by May Peterson (Out 7/13/21)

Cover of The Calyx Charm by May Peterson

Genre: Fantasy romance
Audience: Adult
Series?: Book 3 of The Sacred Dark

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: A Taste of Honey, Pet, Cemetery Boys, Ana Mardoll, Shakespeare AUs, childhood friends to lovers, hurt/comfort, cat boys, … I want to say fantasy trans and queer cultures but I’ve never read them like this

Note: I’m going to discuss abuse dynamics both in the context of The Calyx Charm and in real life.

Often, when a powerful person (employer, mentor, parent, or partner) hurts someone they are supposed to protect, their victim takes on the responsibility for covering up that harm. The dynamics of power and survival prioritize avoiding conflict and maintaining appearances over victims’ abilities to even name what has happened to us: We weren’t sexually harassed, we “were just joking around.” We weren’t abused, we were “taught the importance of discipline.” We weren’t raped, we “have regrets.”

There’s a lot to love about The Calyx Charm, May Peterson’s third entry in her dark fantasy romance series The Sacred Dark, but what I love most is that it rejects this responsibility on two levels. First, the book itself is explicit and specific in naming the abuse and oppression its characters experience. Second, both its leads are learning to say, “Yes, I used to protect you from what you’ve done to me, but no more.”

Violetta Benedetti was the Honored Child. With her twin abilities to predict the future and make anyone she focuses on invincible, she was the weapon that won her parents’ revolution and made her cruel father prince elector. Now, at seventeen, she’s escaped her abusive father’s household to try to make a life for herself, supported by a community of trans people who live on the margins of society:

The secret heartbeat of the city, the artists and crafters and storytellers and smugglers, flowed from places full of mollyqueens and androgynes and tomkings, and with queer lovers of all kinds.

Violetta’s childhood friend, Tibario Gianbellicci, is also his parents’ weapon. Shortly after Violetta’s escape, Tibario’s mother attempts to use him to kill Violetta’s father. He dies and is reborn (the way non-magical people sometimes are) as a moon-soul, an immortal teleporting shapeshifter. Also, he gets a cat tail.

After his second assassination attempt also fails, Tibario’s mother asks Violetta to prophecy what’s protecting her father. But reading the future is not a science. Instead, Violetta fortells the end of the world as they know it, in two weeks or less.

Violetta’s instinct is not to try to prevent the apocalypse, but rather to live well in the time she has left:

Mollyqueens so seldom had futures to claim. We had todays. We had the little time we could claim for ourselves.

Maybe these would be the last days of my life, and maybe they would matter the most.

What follows is partially sweet, second-chance romance between childhood friends who finally find the courage to admit they’ve always loved each other, and partially scarred, scared people convincing each other they’re allowed to ask for more. Not just an end to suffering but a long life full of love and respect and a community that shelters them.

The community that embraces Violetta and Tibario is really lovely. It’s rare for cishet women in romance novels to have genuine female friends. I can’t think of any novel in any genre where the trans woman lead has friends who are also trans women, let alone trans women who are as fleshed out and lovely as Rosalina, who runs a bar and tearoom that is a safe place for trans women and the people who love them, complete with guest rooms and medical assistance. Medical assistance made possible by her girlfriend, who smuggles tea, sugar, and hormones into the country for her.

Can the next Sacred Dark novel be about Rosalina, please?

Another thing I’ve never seen in a romance novel: Violetta is honest with Tibario about what dating is like for her as a trans woman and a rape survivor, and Tibario never once says, “Oh damn, that sucks. Fortunately, I, an unproblematic cis guy–” He actually listens to her. He admits his shortcomings. He checks in with her often.

Their relationship is just so tender and heartwarming. I don’t usually go for romances with so little conflict between the main characters, because I think they tend to lack tension, but Violetta and Tibario have so much else going that it’s hard to argue they don’t deserve one nice, safe thing in their lives.

My only qualm with The Calyx Charm is I think I should have read the previous books in The Sacred Dark prior to this one. In my defense, I didn’t look very closely at the book prior to submitting my NetGalley request. I didn’t realize it was part of a series until I started reading it.

However, most romance series I’ve encountered have been made up of interconnected standalones. That is sort of the case here, but I think the degree of world building involved made it usually hard to get into. Also, at one point, something important happens involving a side character who is a main character in a previous book, and it’s never made clear what exactly that is. I’m hoping this is also an event in the other book, and Peterson expected readers to already get it.

That clearly isn’t a huge problem, though, because I’ve already recommended the series to a friend, and I’m recommending it now to you. I intend to purchase the rest of the series as soon as I whittle down my pile of overdue library books.

Disclosure

I received a free ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Content Warnings

This is exactly the kind of book that makes content warnings so hard. Putting “rape of a child by a parent” and “a trans woman lovingly and consensually penetrating her partner” in the same list implies a kind of equivalency that is way more harmful than any of the content in this book.

Yet I know that both of those things could be triggering to readers. If I just say, “There is a lot of transmisogyny and child abuse in this book,” am I responsible for people who encounter triggers that weren’t on my list? I don’t want that either.

I don’t know the right thing to do here. If you have any specific concerns, please feel free to ask in the comments or email me (jz at jzkelley dot com), and I’ll do my best to answer.

More Info

Publisher: Carina Press
Paperback Page Count: 286

May Peterson is on Twitter. In addition to her books, she offers developmental, line, copy, and sensitivity editing via her website.

Preorder The Calyx Charm (available July 13) on Amazon..

2021 Summer Reading Bingo (with Resources!)

I initially titled this post “2021 Summer Reading Demands,” but I think that’s bad SEO.

Tori Curtis (dear friend and author of Eelgrass, who shares my passion for starting projects we don’t even intend to finish) recently complained to our group chat that the local library didn’t actually have any information about the summer reading program they advertised. We decided to make and swap Summer Reading Bingo cards, the way we have previously swapped writing prompts.

Then, I decided to make 4 more and share the collection with you. Choose your own adventure!

Summer Reading Bingo Rules

  1. No rules, just right.
  2. Yes, you can count the same book for multiple squares (but see rules 3 and 4).
  3. If you complete a row, column, or diagonal before September 22, tag me on Twitter (@jzkelleywrites) or email me (jz at jzkelley dot com) with the titles of the books you read (minimum 3), and I’ll shout you out in my wrap-up post. Include a (1) link to something you want to show off!
  4. If you complete the entire sheet before September 22, tag me on Twitter (@jzkelleywrites) or email me (jz at jzkelley dot com) with the titles of the books you read (minimum 10), and I will give you an actual, tangible prize in addition to a shoutout. Probably a gift card? TBD.
A grainy AF screencap of an Outback Steakhouse commercial with the outback logo and "NO RULES JUST RIGHT" over the image of some people eating some grainy food.

Resources and Recommendations (mostly alphabetical)

If you’re wondering, “Does X book fit Y category?” the answer is yes. Some books will fit the spirit of the category, and some books will only fit the category on a technicality. That’s fine. There are no grades. You cannot do summer reading wrong.

The goal is to expand your literary horizons and have fun. If you can only manage one of those things, let it be fun.

Here are some suggestions for the less common categories to get you started:

A 2020 debut

A book released in March 2020

  • Books released at the start of the pandemic were particularly hard hit.
  • Beneath the Rising came out March 3rd, just saying.
  • Thorn by Intisar Khanani also came out that month.
  • The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin, The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune, and The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo are on my TBR.
  • Here’s the Goodreads list

A book about books or reading

A book about food

A book about sports or athletics

A book by an author who writes/has written fanfic

  • Cassandra Clare, Seanan McGuire, Marjorie M. Liu, Marissa Meyer, E. L. James, and Anna Todd are the obvious choices.
  • Apparently, Andy Weir (The Martian) wrote Ready Player One fanfiction.
  • You could also argue that anyone who writes biblically inspired fiction or retellings of any kind is writing fanfiction.

A book of science fiction or fantasy poetry

A book recommended by a librarian or bookseller

  • Here is a tip for shy readers: While librarians and booksellers are usually happy to offer recommendations, you can also walk around your library or bookstore and look for a display with staff recommendations.

A book recommended by a stranger

A book with a person of color on the cover

A children’s or young adult book by an author of color

A children’s or young adult book by an indigenous author

A children’s or young adult book by an LGBTQIA author

A children’s or young adult book with a fat protagonist/a romance or young adult novel with a fat protagonist

A collection of personal essays published before 2000

A collection of poetry by an LGBTQIA poet

A graphic novel written or illustrated by a person of color

A historical romance novel with a protagonist of color

A horror or dark fantasy novel by an author of color

  • I’m going to read The Only Good Indians (Stephen Graham Jones), and I’m pretty sure several Silvia Moreno-Garcia books could fulfill this category.
  • Diversity in Horror Fiction has additional recommendations

A novel with a protagonist over 45

  • Read The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg (which is actually a novella, but no rules, just right).
  • Then AND ONLY THEN, you can pick one of these recommendations from Book Riot or Goodreads

A romance novel by a disabled author

  • Recommendations are not as easy to find as I expected!
  • Check out Corey’s recommendations for disability rep, then research the authors, I guess.
  • Sorry!
  • Maybe I’ll make a list myself sometime in the future.

A romance novel by a trans or nonbinary author/a romance novel with a trans or nonbinary protagonist

  • Since I link to Corey’s essays like 12 times a month, you really should read one of their books, published as Xan West.
  • The Calyx Charm by May Peterson (coming July 13) is incredible, so preorder that as well.
  • Book Riot has some additional suggestions

A romance novel by an author of color

A science fiction or fantasy novel by a disabled author

A science fiction or fantasy novel by an indigenous author

A science fiction or fantasy novel by an LGBTQ author

  • I have to plug The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg again. It’s gorgeous, it made me cry, I want everyone to read it.
  • Speaking of crying, C. L. Clark’s The Unbroken is like 90% lesbian suffering, 10% incredible world building.
  • Hey look, there’s a whole database of queer SFF!

A small press or self-published book

  • Obviously, I have to recommend Tori’s self-published debut, Eelgrass, again. It’s a lesbian selkie/mermaid fantasy about the ways in which our communities of origin can be complicit in our abuse.
  • Shira Glassman writes short, sweet, sapphic, Jewish-inspired fantasy and contemporary fiction.
  • Independent Book Review recommends 32 small press books from 2020.
  • It can be a little bit more difficult to find reliable review of self-published books, but Dear Author and Maryse’s Book Blog are both long-running book blogs that review self-published books.

A work of fiction by a disabled author

  • Check out the above recommendations for romance and SFF.
  • You can also look at Goodreads’s lists of disability books, but you’ll have to dig a bit to see if the authors are disabled or just the protagonists.

Bangsian fiction

  • A fantasy genre “in which important literary and historical personalities” interacting in the afterlife (E. F. Bleiler, Guide to Supernatural Fiction)
  • Popular titles include Bangs’s Riverworld series and The Divine Comedy
  • BestFantasyBooks.com alleges that The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is also bangsian, which–[sigh] no rules, just right. I guess.
  • Of course there’s a Goodreads shelf.

Biopunk fiction

  • A sci-fi genre that’s basically cyberpunk but focused on biotechnology rather than digital technology
  • Popular titles include Scott Westerfield’s works (Leviathan, Uglies), Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, Dawn by Octavia E. Butler, Never Let Me Go by Kazu Ishiguro, and Frankenstein.
  • Some of the Jurassic Park works are probably biopunk.
  • Here’s the Goodreads shelf.

Epistolary fiction

  • Fiction told as or including letters, text messages, emails, journal entries, etc.
  • This Is How You Lose the Time War is a good pick for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.
  • Book Riot has 100 additional suggestions.

Hopepunk fiction

  • Essentially speculative stories that present a hopeful future
  • Becky Chambers, Emily St. John Mandel, and Alexandra Rowland (who coined the term) are the big names that spring to mind. I’d argue a lot of small press/self-published trans and queer works also fit.
  • I’m going to fight the person who put The Lord of the Rings on the Goodreads Hopepunk shelf.
  • Cat Rambo has a suggested reading list.

Nonfiction by a woman of color

Nonfiction written by a disabled author

  • My pick would probably be Exile and Pride, an essay collection by Eli Clare.
  • The Festival of Literary Diversity has 4 recommendations.
  • Check out these disabled writers featured on the Disability Visibility Project.

Nonfiction written by a trans or nonbinary author

  • I’m currently loving Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price, even though it’s less sociology, more self help than I expected.
  • I like this list by the Ottawa Public Library because it isn’t exclusively “trans and nonbinary writers write about being trans and nonbinary.”

Sword and planet fiction

  • Science fantasy adventure stories set on planets that are not earth
  • Think of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter, Kenneth Bulmer, etc.
  • Also, Dune!
  • Check the content warnings first, but Skyfall by Catherine Asaro is like a proto-feminist take on the genre, kind of … Anyway, it’s a wild ride, and I’d recommend it purely on the strength of its main character’s massive, constantly described, literally golden breasts.
  • If, for some reason, you don’t want a Big Titty Gold Girlfriend, there’s a Goodreads list with other suggestions.

Need suggestions for other categories? Ask me in the comments!

Also, let me know what you’re planning to read! I always need more books for the list of things I’m definitely, totally, 100% going to read eventually.

Review: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding (Out 6/20/21)

Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: Standalone (?)

Rating: Not for me

For fans of: Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, lyrical prose, Cersei Lannister, royal family special editions of US Weekly

Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the ending of Lying with Lions. Like, right now.

Ready?

Okay.

In the last 10% of Lying with Lions, the protagonist, Agnes Ashford, and her lover/patron, Lady Helen Bryant, are confronted with a terrible choice: either sacrifice Helen’s wealth and independence, or the crimes she and Agnes committed to protect it will be revealed to the public. Agnes feels torn between her survival instinct, her loyalty to Helen, and her conscience. Every scene raises the stakes until Agnes is driven into desperate action with real consequences.

It’s a satisfying ending to Annabel Fielding’s turn-of-the-century gothic drama. Unfortunately, it also seems to belong to a different draft than the previous 90% of the novel.

Fielding’s writing is sometimes confusing (with frequent tense shifts that I hope will be caught in a final edit before it’s released on the 20th), but it’s more often beautiful, even poetic. I frequently highlighted passages I found moving or insightful:

It was a careful labour of months, to insulate herself from the pain [of her father’s death]. The art of half-forgetting. She did it so thoroughly, drawing borders of cool sensibility from dawn to dusk.

Chapter 2

[Helen’s daughter] has always been a swallow darting in and out of Agnes’ life, smiling the way every girl learns to smile if she wants to see some kindness from the world.

Chapter 6

She, Agnes, had thought once that pain is something that happens. It is like a wave, she thought, to hit you and then recede back into the depths, and if one is steadfast enough, if one is serene and solid rock in the ocean, one could weather it.

But she was wrong. Pain seeps into our bones; it changes their shapes forever. It changes the colour of our blood.

Chapter 11

Agnes and Helen are complex, often unlikable women with both agency and power. It’s clear that their lives and personalities are based on real Edwardian women. Even when they’re reckless or cruel, their actions are logical and grounded in a way I should have found compelling.

Best of all, every detail of their world is consistent and (as far as I can tell) accurate. Fielding is a history blogger, and she cites dozens of texts as sources for this novel alone. It’s clear that it was important for her to give readers a sense of what it was like to live in Edwardian England, from politics to social norms to infrastructure and even lighting.

So why didn’t this book work for me?

I think my problem was almost entirely structural. Though it’s a single novel, the plot of Lying with Lions is unusually episodic. Agnes and Helen will recognize they have a problem. Agnes will (briefly, without much emotion) contemplate the problem for a few pages, while Helen develops a solution offscreen. Agnes will execute the solution. Then, we get an equal number of pages of sightseeing or current events. Repeat for 200 pages.

This structure doesn’t allow the kind of tension that keeps me reading until 2 in the morning. Instead, I felt discouraged from worrying about the characters, because the repeated pattern of problem, contemplation, quick and tidy solution lulled me into thinking nothing truly bad could happen to Agnes or Helen. Neither Agnes nor Helen even seemed to suffer from guilt or anxiety at any point, even when their solutions have body counts.

Even the romance between Agnes and Helen suffers from this structure. There is no time for yearning. There are no tender, playful moments between the couple. There are some sex scenes, but these are really only settings for the conversations in which Helen gives Agnes instructions and Agnes reports her results.

It’s clear that Helen values Agnes’s loyalty and obedience, but that’s about it. Helen takes what she wants from Agnes, and Agnes gives it without conflict or self-doubt or even much prolonged joy, just the satisfaction of a job well done.

Again, the ending of this book is fantastic, but it’s also confusing. Agnes suddenly does mind their body count. She does care about the impact of her actions on other people. She does want to do the right thing. Not because anything happened or she had a change of heart; it’s just presented as though this is the character Agnes has been the entire time. I wish it were.

I think readers who are primarily interested in historical fiction for the details of the setting will love Lying with Lions. I also think it could be adapted into an incredible movie or mini-series. The right actors, with the right on-screen chemistry, could make the relationship between Agnes and Helen really compelling. However, readers seeking a historical lesbian romance are likely to be disappointed by the novel.

Disclaimer

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Self published
Hardback Page Count: 233

Annabel Fielding blogs about history and historical fiction at History Geek in Town. You can also find her on Twitter.

You can preorder Lying with Lions (out June 20th) on Amazon.

Review: Queerleaders by M. B. Guel

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Audience: YA
Series?: Standalone

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: But I’m a Cheerleader, Mean Girls, Glee, high school AU fanfiction, Dr. Pepper lip balm

This post contains minor spoilers for Queerleaders.

One quick aside before I never read another negative Goodreads review for a book I like ever again (ha): I wish readers showed as much grace to #OwnVoices writers as we do to (presumed) more privileged writers of similar stories.

Or maybe I just wish the readers with seemingly inexhaustible patience for privileged writers would pick up little indie queer books more often.

The Road To El Dorado gif where the characters say, "Both?" "Both?" "Both." "Both is good." (I don't know who these characters are, sorry!)

The only way I can describe this delightfully campy little novella is But I’m a Cheerleader meets Mean Girls meets Glee. If you like all of those properties, you will like this book. If the satirical homophobia of But I’m a Cheerleader and Mean Girls is too much for you, you will not like this book.

If you’re like, “That sounds great, but I’d literally rather die than listen to another Lea Michele cover,” good news! There is no audio component to this book. I don’t think any of the characters even mention a song in passing, though I could be mistaken about that.

The protagonist of Queerleaders, Mack, is a closeted lesbian in her senior year at a Catholic high school. She has a best friend who goes everywhere with her, the kind of supportive parents you really only see in teen comedies, and a crush on the head cheerleader, Veronica, who she believes is secretly much smarter and kinder than everyone gives her credit for. To prove to her friend that Veronica is a worthy love interest, Mack makes a list of Ronnie’s admirable traits.

Naturally, Veronica’s football player boyfriend finds the list and uses it to out Mack in front of everyone. Mack, who has never been kissed, vows to get revenge by stealing all of the football players’ cheerleader girlfriends.

Clea Duvall as Graham in But I'm a Cheerleader smokes a cigarette in an obnoxiously pink bed.

This is the most fanficy premise I’ve encountered in a professionally published book since Fifty Shades of Grey. I messaged it to my friends. Then I sent them a copy. Then I, in the depths of my Asian Readathon selections and desperate for something simple and sweet, checked it out of the library and stared at it every day until June 1.

Keeping in mind Corey Alexander’s very good essay on what we call fluff, I need to clarify that this book was simple and sweet for me because I have been out of high school for almost 12 years. Some of the bullying Mack experiences—particularly a scene in which someone sets her up for public humiliation, and the fallout from that—comes close enough to what I went through that I might have found it difficult if it were fresher. Then again, these scenes are brief, and Mack gets a satisfying teen romantic comedy ending shortly thereafter. Maybe I would have found it cathartic.

Aside from the premise and the sweet ending, my favorite part of Queerleaders was the romance. So many sapphic romances in YA feel like friendships with extra tragedy. Where’s the tension? Where’s the yearning? Queerleaders delivers on both passion and desire, along with a love interest unlike any I’ve seen in sapphic or straight romance before.

More Info

Publisher: Bella Books
Paperback Page Count: 148

M. B. Guel posts pictures of their adorable pets on Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying Queerleaders on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon. Also make sure to preorder their forthcoming novel Internet Famous (December 2021).

Pride Month: My Favorite Bisexual* Characters (Book Recommendations)

Spoiler warning: Minor spoilers for Six of Crows, Crooked Kingdom, King of Scars and Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo. Major spoilers for Adaptation and Inheritance by Malinda Lo.

Happy Pride Month!

This would maybe be a contentious post if strangers read my blog. In the off chance you are a stranger reading my blog, please allow me to clarify: Some of these characters do not explicitly identify as any particular sexuality. It’s possible they would choose to identify as pansexual, queer, or something else entirely.

I’m choosing to call them bi because that’s the label I’ve chosen for myself, and like all bisexuals, I’m greedy.

A waving pixel gif of a bi pride flag

Also, this isn’t a list of the best bisexual characters or characters I think provide the best representation. They’re just my favorites, in no particular order …

Nina from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse

Nina is a controversial fat character. Her initial character traits are basically: gorgeous, powerful, likes sweets, dislikes physical exertion. Listed out like that, I get why she feels like a stereotype to some readers. (The fact that she’s the only explicitly fat hero, and therefore has to stand in for all fat people doesn’t help.)

However, as a fat person who likes sweets and used to dislike physical exertion, I like her. It’s nice to see a fat character who’s allowed to enjoy food and isn’t made the butt of a joke for it. I didn’t read her as glutenous or lazy. I read her as spoiled.

Gif of Nina looking down and biting her lip

I like that Nina’s confident in her size and her sexuality. I like that she remains fat over the course of two series, even when her appearance is magically altered so she can go undercover, which would have been a convenient excuse to make her thin. I like that she’s allowed to be complicated and even unpleasant at times, and she’s still seen as desirable.

Plus, her powers are cool as hell and she gets one of the best endings in the Grishaverse.

Dolly from Jennifer R. Donohue’s Run with the Hunted series

Dolly is my girlfriend and I love her. She’s a master thief in charge of weapons and vehicles for her found-family trio of lady criminals. On the outside, she’s so tough she doesn’t even have a favorite brand of cigarettes, because then she’d be disappointed in other cigarettes, and Dolly doesn’t have the patience for that kind of weakness. On the inside, she’s the marshmallow-sweet mom friend who carries her teammates when they’re too weak to walk.

Gif of a Shiba Inu riding on the back of a tortoise
Hard on the outside, soft on the inside, just like Dolly!

I’m seriously head-over-heels for Dolly. When I write Run with the Hunted fanfiction, it’s going to be 90% loving descriptions of Dolly eating diner food, 10% descriptions of Dolly and her teammate Bristol kissing.

Reese from Adaptation by Malinda Lo

Hot take: Adaptation is superior to Ash in every way.

Am I just saying that because Reese gets to have a terrifying alien girlfriend and a sweet human boyfriend, and those are exactly my types?

Gif of two cartoon aliens dancing

ANYWAY, Reese is the opposite of Nina and Dolly, but just as controversial. A lot of readers complain she doesn’t have much of a personality. I think it’s more the case that Adaptation is a book about kissing nice human boys and scary alien girls, with a side of adventure, than a character-driven adventure novel.

I like Reese. Instead of a body count, she has a lot of normal teenage insecurities, which I found relatable as someone who was a painfully shy and insecure teenager. She isn’t insecure about her sexuality, though. When she realizes she’s attracted to both her debate partner, David, and her new friend Amber, she accepts it with the kind of nonchalance I wish were normal for more teenagers. And so do her parents! Wish fulfillment on top of wish fulfillment.

Danika Brown from Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Talia Hibbert’s Brown sisters books are my favorite contemporary romance series. Get a Life, Chloe Brown is the first and my favorite book of the series, because a difficult cat plays a prominent role, but Dani is my favorite human character in the series.

She’s a graduate student and instructor in feminist literature who desperately wants to become a tenured professor as soon as possible. She’s also (and I can only imagine how many “forced diversity” reviews Hibbert gets for this) a fat, bisexual, probably autistic, Black witch (as in the religion). Although Dani has some deep-seated romantic insecurities stemming from a bad breakup, she’s confident in her intelligence, her sex appeal, and her fundamental worth in a way that feels really refreshing and cozy to read.

I do have some qualms about the way Dani’s bisexuality is portrayed, but not because it’s unrealistic. Her love interest initially believes she’s a lesbian because “she talked about banging Janelle Monáe kind of a lot,” and … uh, yep.

Gif of Janelle Monae blowing a kiss at the camera

It’s also important to note that Talia Hibbert is a queer woman, and even though Dani’s romantic journey includes some bisexual stereotypes, the way Hibbert writes it is nuanced and compassionate. Not quite as nuanced as I’d like, maybe, but I think most bisexual readers will be satisfied.

Bi Books on My TBR

Okay, listen. Listen! I know that’s a short list and they’re all women, but I tried to come up with not-women bi characters, and everyone I could think of got buried or otherwise punished for their sexuality. Or they’re Jesper, and I already have one Leigh Bardugo character on my list.

Here, let me make it up to you. Here are eight bi books I plan to read … eventually:

A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney (Goodreads)

  • YA urban fantasy
  • Alice in Wonderland retelling featuring a cosplaying bi Black Alice who fights nightmares
  • McKinney also has a sapphic Jane Eyre retelling (!!!) called Escaping Mr. Rochester (!!!!!!) coming in 2022

One Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole (Goodreads)

  • Contemporary romance novella
  • Second-chance romance between two Black women, one of whom is the assistant to the prince of a fictional Wakanda-inspired country
  • The audiobook of A Princess in Theory, which precedes Once Ghosted, Twice Shy, has the best accents but also the sex scenes did almost kill me with their tonal dissonance

Seven Tears at High Tide by C. B. Lee (Goodreads)

  • YA fantasy
  • Bi Asian-American boy rescues a selkie boy on the Pacific coast
  • Rainbow Award Nominee for Bisexual Fantasy and Fantasy Romance (3rd place)

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust (Goodreads)

  • YA fantasy
  • Sapphic Persian-inspired Sleeping Beauty retelling featuring an Elsa-like princess whose touch is poisonous
  • I’ve seen it shelved as “creepy plants,” and I don’t know what that means yet but I’m excited

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (Goodreads)

  • Historical romance
  • Widow recruits aspiring astronomer to fulfill her husband’s legacy
  • I recently decided not to gift this to a friend because it’s long and reportedly a slow burn, but sometimes you just want to luxuriate

Let’s Call it a Doomsday by Katie Henry (Goodreads)

  • YA contemporary
  • “Ellis is scared about the end of the world; Hannah knows when it’s going to happen”
  • With an anxious LDS bi-questioning protag, probably more of a post-quarantine read

Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman (Goodreads)

  • Contemporary novella
  • Small-batch yarn dyer falls for wildlife painter
  • Supposed to be very fluffy and cute and Jewish

Who are your favorite bisexual characters?

Have you read any of the books on my TBR? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Spoiler-Free Review: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso

Cover of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Adult
Series?: Chronicles of the Bitch Queen

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: The Farseer Trilogy, The Unbroken, Ursula Le Guin, family dramas, political fantasy, strong female characters, slow burn romance, Suffering

Asian Readathon is over, and I am only reading cute, fluffy books with lots of kissing and minimal dead cats from now on. I deserve it after The Wolf of Oren-Yaro.

K. S. Villoso’s Filipino-inspired family drama-cum-epic fantasy is narrated by Queen Talyien, possibly the only Strong Female Character to say, “I can take care of myself, thanks,” and then do so. Talyien is the first female ruler of Oren-yaro. She was betrothed at first to the last end of a rival faction in order to end her country’s brutal civil war. Then her worthless garbage truck of a husband fled on their coronation day, abandoning her with their two-year-old son to rule alone.

Talyien believes (and Goodreads reviewers seem to agree) that her primary flaw is continuing to love her husband through the five years of his absence. There’s some textual evidence for this: When her husband asks Talyien to meet him in a hostile and much more powerful neighboring country, she does, and almost everyone she trusts either dies or betrays her as a result.

I disagree. I think Talyien is so strong people fail to notice what’s actually going on with her: She’s traumatized. She’s trying to live up to not only the expectations of an entire fractious nation but also the idealized image of her dead father. Yes, it would be better for her to put her hope and faith in someone (anyone) who deserves it more than her absent husband, but this is what traumatized people often do. We love people who don’t deserve it.

This isn’t a story about a dysfunctional marriage so much as it is about a dysfunctional family, all three generations of it.

It’s also a character study. Yes, there’s (so much) violence and politics and forbidden magic, but all of those things serve to propel Talyien’s journey from queen who’s always been surrounded by servants to beggar wandering the slums in a hostile country to the person she becomes at the end of the series.

I say “series” rather than book because The Wolf of Oren-Yaro feels very much like the beginning of a trilogy rather than a standalone novel. Which makes sense: It was originally self published. K. S. Villoso knew she didn’t need a publisher’s permission to continue.

However, it makes this a difficult book to review. The character arcs are incomplete. The good guys are still in danger, and even the bad guys who have died feel like they might make a comeback. Talyien has seen some of the world outside her (comparatively) sheltered life as a queen and gained some surprising insights about the people she thought she knew best, but it remains to be seen what she’ll do with those insights. There’s no resolution, merely a pause.

I wanted to hold off on writing this review at all until I finished the series, but I decided to push ahead for two reasons. One: It’s hard to post a full-series review on Goodreads and Amazon, where authors need reviews the most. Two: I don’t know when I’ll feel up to returning to Talyien’s world.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is beautifully written, but it isn’t a pretty book. There’s very little hope or light. Even the settings are ugly: dank prison cells, barred windows, and slums filled with starving children and dead cats. Talyien is rarely free from threats of rape and murder. Even in her dreams, she’s reliving childhood traumas. She does get to spend a few sweet pages with a normal, loving family, but then she’s immediately back to fighting for her life.

Here’s what I can say at this point: K. S. Villoso is a strong, genre-savvy writer. Despite the sprawling world and the shifting politics, I never felt lost. There is no glossary or cast list at the end of the book because it’s unnecessary. I never needed to flip back to remind myself who a character was or what they wanted.

And they felt real. One of the reasons I’m so reluctant to read The Issekar Falcon right now is how much I cared for Talyien. She’s a flawed, fully developed, and deeply wounded character. I want someone to come along, prove they’re worthy of her trust, and give her a hot meal and a nice long bath. I want her to learn to set boundaries and get comfortable with disappointing her father’s memory. I want her to be okay–and because she’s a flawed, fully developed, and deeply wounded character, I know that won’t happen for at least another book and three quarters.

Asian Readathon

This is my final book for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 3 (favorite genre)

K. S. Villoso is Filipino Canadian.

Content Warnings

This book is heavy. I never want to try to provide a complete list of all triggers, for fear of missing one, but I didn’t see anyone else talking about the extent of sexual violence in this book. It’s a lot.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro contains frequent and often detailed threats of rape, human trafficking, verbal descriptions of past rape, and rape on the page.

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 496

K. S. Villoso is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying The Wolf of Oren-Yaro on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Asian Readathon 2021: Final Thoughts

I love a reading challenge that introduces me to books I wouldn’t have found on my own. Usually, that means nonfiction outside the social sciences, poetry, and literary fiction, as well as science fiction and fantasy that none of my friends have read yet.

It feels like it’s good for me, even if I don’t always enjoy it. Like when my therapist makes me set a boundary.

Of the five books I read for Asian Readathon, only Thorn was originally on my TBR. The Collected Schizophrenias, A Crown of Wishes, Ayesha at Last, and The Wolf of Oren-Yaro were all new to me.

You may notice one of those books wasn’t part of my original plan.

Or my updated plan.

In my defense, I’ll Be the One really sounds like it’s set in Korea. It’s about a girl competing to become a K-Pop star. Nothing in its blurb indicates it’s actually set in LA.

Ayesha at Last was my third and final attempt to find a book not set in the US.

It’s set in Canada.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Elmo.gif

Good enough.

What I Read

Challenge 1: Read any book written by an Asian author – Thorn by Intisar Khanani

  • Dark and often painful fairytale retelling
  • Big on the found family feelings
  • Light on the romance
  • Some nuanced and redeemable villains
  • Why does every book I touch have so much sexual violence?

Challenge 2: Read any book featuring an Asian protagonist – A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

  • Hindu-inspired adventure
  • Angry girl x gentle boy
  • Yearning!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • So much beautiful, sparkling imagery
  • “Be careful what you wish for” but not frustrating

Challenge 3: Read any book written by an Asian author in your favorite genre – The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso

  • Filipino epic fantasy about toxic family relationships
  • “I can take care of myself” but she actually can
  • Meticulous and detailed world building
  • 0.5 seconds of found family before we return to our regularly scheduled suffering
  • Seriously, everything I touch turns to sexual violence

Challenge 4: Read any nonfiction book written by an Asian author – The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang

  • Disabled person, not person with a disability
  • Writing about writing about mental illness
  • Essays as conversations with dead sick people
  • Travelogue of hospitals, doctors offices, hotels, and internal landscapes
  • Shockingly, one of the lighter books I read this month

Challenge 5: Read any book written by an Asian author that’s not US-centric – Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

  • Contemporary Muslim Canadian Pride and Prejudice retelling
  • Main character’s poetry is actually good
  • Setting boundaries with difficult family members
  • Deliberately trying to make you hungry
  • Justice for Lydia

Spoiler-Free Review: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Young adult
Series?: The Star-Touched Queen Duology

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: GracelingThe Library of FatesRaybearer, enemies to lovers, high stakes fantasy games and tournaments, talking monster companions

A Crown of Wishes is lush, colorful, and delicious. It’s a fast-paced adventure with such rich sensory detail that I feel like I dreamed it, and I want to go back tonight. Plus, it manages to feel fresh and contemporary while also delivering heaps of my favorite tropes:

  • Enemies to lovers
  • Spooky animal companions
  • Found family
  • Capricious gods
  • Monsters with hearts of gold
  • Soft boys who love prickly girls
  • Healing, um … kisses

It’s the story of heirs to rival kingdoms, who have not yet met when are chosen by the Lord of Wealth to compete as partners in the Tournament of Wishes. If they can find a way into the Otherworld of magic and monsters and survive two challenges and a sacrifice, there’s still no guarantee they’ll both be allowed to leave with their lives. But for a chance at a Wish, they’ll have to risk it.

Princess Gauri is the angry girl of my dreams: “A beast. A monster. A myth. A girl. What was the difference?” She’s a princess without a country, desperate to return. To protect her people, she trained as a soldier to fight in her cruel brother’s armies, and eventually to overthrow him. However, her need to protect has made her paranoid and afraid of being vulnerable. Her coup failed, and her brother dropped her over the border in an enemy kingdom with orders for her execution.

On paper, Prince Vikram is the heir to that enemy kingdom, but his father’s council knows he is adopted and has no intention of letting him wield real power when he takes the throne. He’s a good match for Princess Gauri, first as a reluctant ally and eventually as a love interest. Despite her martial prowess, Gauri doesn’t frighten the comparatively peaceful Vikram, who accepts her initial distrust with cockiness that isn’t hiding anything.

Vikram is genuinely confident that their quest is going to make him into a true ruler. As a result, he is almost recklessly kind and trusting with the people they meet on their journey in a way Gauri can’t allow herself to be, yet.

Despite the protagonists’ tragic backstories and desperate circumstances, this is a cheerful book. It was such a relief after–you know, everything, that I almost wish it weren’t such a quick, breezy read. I’m definitely going to pick up the other books in this series as soon as I shrink my TBR pile a bit.

Asian Readathon

This is the third book I finished for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 2.

Roshani Chokshi’s mother is Filipino and her father is Indian.

More Info

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Hardback Page Count: 384

Roshani Chokshi is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying A Crown of Wishes on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

5 Personal Essays to Read if You Liked The Collected Schizophrenias

Cover of The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang

I have a migraine and no idea how to review a book like this, so I’m not going to, except to say that I liked it. A lot of disability memoirs read like the writer is an astronaut all alone in the dark void of Illness, which is probably why they appeal more to readers who don’t think of themselves as sick or disabled. The essays in The Collected Schizophrenias are all in conversation with people and communities. They feel like they were written for us.

Instead of a review, I’m going to give you a list of other personal essays I think you’d like if you liked The Collected Schizophrenias. Which is a sneaky way of saying that if you like these essays, you’ll probably like The Collected Schizophrenias.

Also, my favorite quote, which comes late enough in the book that it would probably be considered a spoiler if you could spoil people’s real lives:

Rebecca Solnit says in The Faraway Nearby, “There is a serenity in illness that takes away all the need to do and makes just being enough,” which has not been my experience. After all, prolonged and chronic illness stitches itself into life in a different way than acute illness does … The absolution from doing more and dreaming big that I experience during surgeries and hospitalization is absent during chronic illness.

The Essays

“Lyme Disease Changed My Relationship with the Outdoors” by Blair Braverman (Outdoors)

After all, until then, my health had always made sense to me. It didn’t occur to me that might change—that my ability to move and work and be outdoors, to live the life I’d built, could dissolve in a week.

“What Did My Mother the Chemist See in Betty Crocker?” by Celeste Ng (The New York Times)

Then, as an adult, I actually read the text and discovered that woven into the recipes were tidbits of advice for the 1960s homemaker: The man you marry will know the way he likes his eggs. And chances are he’ll be fussy about them. So it behooves a good wife to know how to make an egg behave in six basic ways.

“What It’s Like Having PPD As A Black Woman” by Tyrese Coleman (Buzzfeed)

When life was hard, there was no luxury to wallow. Don’t nobody have time to be depressed! There were children to feed, bodies to bathe, houses to clean. I know there are black women not so strong, but I don’t remember seeing my mother cry.

“After Years of Writing Anonymously About Fatness, I’m Telling the World Who I Am” by Your Fat Friend/Aubrey Gordon (Self)

As I wrote, my perception of the life I’d lived began to shift. I had long thought of myself as living a charmed life, and for the most part, I did. But that perception was contingent on continuing to ignore experiences that were the direct result of anti-fat bias.

“We Don’t Talk About Mental Illness In My Family” by Larissa Pham (Buzzfeed)

We speak of it in whispers, though everyone’s been treated for it at some point, Prozac and Zoloft and Lexapro all the way down the family tree, and yet here I must also admit we’re all just as apt to believe in ghosts as to believe in something like brain chemistry. What is depression, anyway, when you’ve already passed through the fire and returned?

Bonus

One of the essays in The Collected Schizophrenias, “Who Gets To Be The “Good Schizophrenic”?,” was originally published on Buzzfeed. Read it for a sample of Weijun Wang’s writing. Send it to your friends.

Then, if you haven’t already, buy the book on Bookshop.org or Amazon.