micro reviews of queer specfic & nonfiction. diversions into out-of-print annals. occasional digressions.

Review: Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses by Kristen O'Neal

Publication Date: April 27, 2021
Attributes: na fiction, novel, slice-of-life
Tags: queer protagonist and side characters, living with chronic illness, horror trope as character metaphor, dramatic comedy
Quick note: I received a copy of this book from Kristen, who's a friend, but that did not influence the content of this review.

Priya and Brigid are sick.

Both have illnesses that come on without much warning. It's painful and exhausting and embarrassing; their bodies sometimes feel beyond their control.

One has lyme disease. The other's a werewolf.

Many books, the werewolf – Brigid – might take center stage as the main POV character. She's vibrant, and witty, and has to keep tons of raw meat in her fridge to deal with the one time a month she turns into a huge hairy beast.

But Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses takes the subtler path, and it pays off. The book instead takes a slow build that starts with with the shyer Priya, an aspiring doctor home from college to deal with brain fog and aching joints. She's on the mend, but feels trapped. Her main outlet is Tumblr, and her friends there.

Priya and Brigid, her longtime internet bestie, join a Discord server that hosts a chronic illness help chat. These conversations are great fun; the ensemble's struggles are illustrated through multimedia snippets and chat logs.

When Brigid goes radio silent one weekend, Priya is genuinely worried about her friend – but she also sees the 1-hour road trip as a way to exercise some small steps of freedom.

Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses really starts to shine here. Priya discovers Brigid's wolfy secret, through a series of hilarious incidents (one involving a hapless animal control guy, who becomes a recurring and delightful character who does NOT appreciate all these weird prank calls about large dogs). Priya wants to help her friend. But more than that, she treats Brigid's mysterious problems as a way to avoid her own.

Ultimately, this is a quiet, character-driven book. There's a serious “werewolf on the loose”/chronic illness relapse incident toward the end, sure. (Cue animal control friend Spencer to the rescue, and hospital escape hijinks.) But most of the action comes from the friendship between Priya and Brigid.

The two characters grow together and clash, grappling with their feelings of frustration with their unpredictable bodies. They try to take back small freedoms and find independence and direct their lives back in the directions of their hopes. And when Brigid starts looking for ways to get rid of her werewolf transformations forever, Priya takes the danger – and the perceived rejection of chronic illness – personally.

I enjoyed the book a lot, especially in how it turns a classic horror trope – transformations as a metaphor for modern anxieties! – into a more slice-of-life character study. It also fits neatly into a genre of monster books that use ill/queer/disabled/POC characters as both the figurative and the literal. Instead of relegating said characters exclusively to the monster roles (the common form of the trope), these books allow marginalized characters humanity, but still explore and upend the ways our experiences resonate with the monster allegories.

(Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve is another notable recent example, though it's a more intense political horror than dramatic comedy.)

Also worth noting that this book falls into the more gray-area “new adult” genre, rather than strictly adult or young adult. The characters are a little older, 19-20s, and they're dealing with more adult questions like “what do I do with my life now that it's been totally derailed?” But it takes the more quick-read, quippy style and tone less common to adult novels.

In-all, this book is a darkly fun, smart read that explores some more serious themes. Definitely recommend to anyone who's looking for a character-driven, lower-stakes read with a modern setting and a speculative quirk.

More like this: I did this section in my last few reviews, but it felt kinda weird to just randomly throw loose associations out there so... I'm thinking I'll drop it and just mention those associations in the reviews!

#prepublication #reviews #books #novels #nafiction #y2021

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

Review: Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp

Publication Date: September 2020
Attributes: ya fiction, short novel, horror/thriller
Tags: TTRPGs are a little too real, trans man protag, nonbinary protag by nonbinary author, characters with disabilities, neuroatypical characters

This book was fine. For readers more interested in concept and style than character, it'll even be great.

The concept is great fun, a tropey twist on an old tale: Friends with secrets head to a cabin for the weekend. Instead of whatever they were planning on doing in most slasher films, these kids are going for a full-on LARP session. It's the last session before they all split up to go to college, and after a few brutal falling outs, things are tense. Then someone starts hunting them down, one by one, and using their secrets against them.

I love this concept, and in ways the book used it well. I'm a sucker for any subversion of the old cabin-in-the-woods premise (hello, Cabin in the Woods (2011) and Until Dawn). Especially if it's queer and trans and has a T4T romance. The prose is compulsively readable, which doesn't hurt.

And the TTRPG elements are delightfully whimsical and true-to-life. Nijkamp also writes frame chapters told as if the GM is narrating. As the book progresses, and characters come closer to their “breaking points”, the RPG-world narration collapses into the real-life game that someone is playing with their secrets. These were one of my favorite elements of the book.

Nonbinary GM Ever is still determined to give everyone a great time, complete with props and ambiance. Trans man Finn is there mostly because he has a giant crush on Ever. Autistic injured lacrosse star Maddy wants to close out the game and bridge some of the gaps that have cropped up in recent months. Middle-class, high-achieving Carter sees the weekend as one last chance to have some fun before embracing the boring business future he needs to bring in the $ and please his dad. And extremely rich and rather aloof Liva is providing the cabin for the weekend.

The character concepts are one of the biggest delights in this — it's a good cast, with lots of places to clash. And the Finn/Ever romance is cute and, as a “wait, our lives are splitting up soon” love tale, quite well handled. Almost everyone has clear motives, and they end up clashing with clarity and purpose.

But the character work from the POV-side is also one of the biggest weaknesses. Nijkamp tells their stories in alternating first-person POV chapters. Everyone has a secret that they're hiding — from each other AND the reader.

All these eighteen-year-olds are headed to a remote cabin for a weekend, and they all slowly reveal their secret hangups and hopes and fears. But the interiority of the characters never quite rings true. The narration ends up sounding all the same, even between five wildly different characters with separate motives. And it seems unbelievably overwrought for a person to actually think something like “will we reach our breaking point this weekend?”, even for a group of intense TTRPGers. All POV characters spend a lot of time reiterating those themes of breaking, even though they don't necessarily have a good reason to — especially in the book's early pages.

The murderer (not saying who) wants to use everyone's secrets to drive them to a breaking point, too. They leave creepy messages that end up mirroring the props of the game. They try to drive an addict to overdosing, a thief to cheating with stolen money in the TTRPG, a kid with low self esteem to start questioning their worth. The conceit is compelling.

But like a lot of the book, it doesn't come together. It's a lot of thematic and conceptual and structural works that works on the theoretical level, but doesn't quite end up making sense from the character motives side. We hear from the murderer early on, but there's little clue that they're Up To Something. (In that sense, it joins a long legacy of teen thrillers like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars.) The murderer's identity also feels more thematic than character-driven, even though it should have been both.

This book could perhaps have benefited from a third person limited POV perspective. The interiorities of five characters are just a lot to establish in a short novel.

I've also really loved Nijkamp's work when it depends less on the characters' interiority. The Oracle Code is a phenomenal DC YA reboot.

Despite its imperfections, I still enjoyed reading this book. It's unusual enough to read horror where queer characters [REDACTED]. I'd recommend it to others who are looking for a quick YA horror that's a low-key love letter to TTRPGs and has solid rep from multiple directions.

More like this: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler, Until Dawn, Cabin in the Woods (2011)

#backlist #reviews #books #yafiction #novels #y2020

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

Or, a review of Susanna Clarke's Piranesi, kindof

Publication Date: September 2020
Attributes: adult fiction, short novel, general fiction
Tags: The Plot Is The Myth, protagonist with amnesia, labyrinths, vaguely bisexual, fantastic travelogue

The trouble with queer specfic: It's nearly impossible to filter for it without setting some arbitrary constraints.

Both “queer” and “specfic” are two categories both wildly broad and obnoxiously debated.

Specfic itself is gigantic, covering every genre as long as the writer applies the right type of speculation. (What's the right type? Good luck getting a consistent answer on that one.) And academics have argued that queer covers everything from dyed-in-the-wool ~HoMoSeXuAlS~ to robots that look at you with a certain je ne sais quoi. The queer community tries to narrow that, but then you end up with arguments that some gay people aren't queer, and asexual people aren't queer, and... and... and....

In fiction, you end up with months-long fandom debates about, say, what it takes to queer-validate a popular media property depicting two immortal beings who don't really jive with gender but do present as men and have essentially lived as life partners for millennia. Do they have to kiss on screen? Is holding hands enough? Does a cheeky slip of an implied handhold juuuust out of viewer sights count as queer, or queerbaiting?

All of this to say, Piranesi isn't queer by a lot of definitions. Okay, yes, the main character does lovingly detail the sartorial choices of a man he repeatedly calls “handsome.” But many would say the author's refusal to use on-the-page identifiers or depict romance or mention the gender of past lovers — however plot implausible — disqualifies it from queerness.

I'm writing about it here anyway. One, because I feel like it. Two, because I'm not really interested in a “textual gate-keeping definition of queer.” Three, because I've never read a truly straight book about getting lost in a labyrinth, and I'm not going to start with this one. (A labyrinth, as with a book, is just as much about what you bring into it as it is about what's already there.)

For people who came for a proper review, I'll say this: Piranesi is a puzzle of a book, and its unraveling is a delight. The story is told in the form of journals written by a man who lives in a great labyrinth. The format is deeply relational: Instead of Julian dates, the writer marks time by important things that occur; he tells time and space from the goings of inexplicable tides and grand statues. The unnamed narrator knows the halls of the labyrinth better than he knows himself. In fact, he does not even know his own name, in the beginning.

The journey is as much about discovering the world-truth as it is discovering the narrator; the two are well-twined. As he learns more about himself, the mystery draws him to places beyond the labyrinth.

Fans of Patricia A. McKillip will enjoy a more restrained approach to a similar storytelling ethos. (I never read Clarke's beloved 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, so I can't say how that compares.)

Though there is a “plot,” and a “mystery,” and a sort of “battle” between some people who mean the narrator harm and some people who hope to help him, the book is as much meandering travelogue and fable-esque architectural digest as it is a linear narrative.

It joins a long line of delightful fiction that serves as an ode to the people who feel lured to imagined worlds. This one also follows many of my favorite pieces, which are interested more in getting lost than getting to a destination.

More like this: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, much by Patricia A. McKillip, Imaginary Prisons: Giovanni Battista Piranesi Prints

#backlist #reviews #books #novels #adultfiction #essays #y2020

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

Review: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Publication Date: May 2020
Attributes: adult fiction, novel, atmospheric horror, no gore
Tags: dark academia, bildungsroman, science is evil magic, listless bisexual protagonist, POC characters by POC author

College is “the best years of your life” — for some people. The graduates of Catherine House take that adage to a creepy extreme. Thomas' debut novel plunges into the halls of the remote liberal arts program known best for two things: its debunked research into “plasm,” aka vital energy, and the cultlike fervor and secrecy of its alumni.

Catherine House offers three years of free room, board, food, clothes, a sterling education with prestigious alumni, and anything else you'd need. All it asks in return is that you leave your old life behind — completely. The best of the best get to join the new materials program, the school's maybe-illegal continuation of its work with plasm.

Protagonist Ines finds herself depressed and adrift after a traumatic senior year of high school. Her years at Catherine House drift by out of chronology; at times it seems Ines has lost time while running from her past, and takes the reader along with her. The more time she spends at the school, the more tangled Ines and her classmates become in the secret experiments and unfortunate purpose of Catherine House. The school perhaps has more interest in curating isolated, unprotected youths than it does truly cultivating young minds.

Though the dramatic pieces follow common “dark academia” tropes, this novel is much more willing than the genre at large to grapple with the ways institutions exploit and manipulate students.

Thomas artfully captures the feeling of religious groupthink home to many an undergraduate experience — as well as the discomfort of being an outsider who hasn't quite drunk enough koolaid to buy in, but desperately wants to.

Readers might be disappointed if they're looking for an action-packed plot driven by a main character who makes galvanizing decisions. Ines' choices are often between quiet resistance quieter compliance; the crucial turning points come from others' decisions, and in Ines' emotional responses to them. Still, in Catherine House, the protagonist's reactivity and passivity are a compelling part of the story, rather than a fluke of bad design.

Ultimately, the narrative becomes about how Ines must learn to decide her future for herself, instead of merely reacting to the wants of those around her. It's a nice coming of age arc from a character perspective, established well through crisp writing and an eerie setting.

This book's strengths lie in its atmosphere: it meanders and runs up against odd borders, much like Ines herself as she searches for purpose and answers in a house seemingly designed to obscure both.

More like this: The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp, The Secret History by Donna Tartt

#backlist #reviews #books #novels #adultfiction #y2020

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

I read a lot.

This year, I'm at 130+ novels or novellas, 60+ comics or graphic novels, and 40,000 pages across mediums. (Thanks, covid, I guess.)

But I'm not reading just anything — rarely bestsellers, or whatever's trendy. I spend hours each week hunting and curating. Exactly two-thirds of my current reads center queer characters, or are written by queer authors, or both. Many of the others have something resonant and weird about them that feels queer, even if there's not exactly on-the-page gay.

And that's probably the only reason I read so much: I spent years figuring out where to find queer fiction, and now that I've found it I have a lot of catching up to do.

So, this blog is a bit of an attempt to platform some light reviews of queer speculative fiction. For those unfamiliar, that's fiction, across genres, that asks “what if?” and envisions the answers, instead of dealing in things as they are. Think the worldbreaking — apocalypses, alien invasions, secondary worlds, branching histories — and the intimate — body swaps, true names, hauntings.

I plan to prioritize new-releases with non-binary and/or trans authors and stories, but also trawl through a long backlist of queer classics.

I'm still figuring out the format. You'll probably see quick reviews of this and that, longer essays on trends and peculiarities, the occasional year-in-review post. Still working on getting consistent ARC access. I might dip across mediums into short fiction, video games, and films. (Weigh in if you'd like to see something specific.)

At any rate, seeya around.


#about #books

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.