Outlawed, by Anna North

Although biology and societal convention push Ada into it, she is really not cut out for an outlaw’s life in Outlawed, Anna North’s thought-provoking alternate history of late-nineteenth-century America. A few decades before Ada was even born, devastating influenza ripped across the country (and presumably, the rest of the world). The world left behind seems obsessed with growing the population. Women are expected to immediately start gestating as soon as the ink is dry on their marriage certificates and keep going until they die or their body gives out. Women who can’t get pregnant are viewed askance and heaven help them if anything bad happens to anyone or anything in their village. Ada’s path to outlawry begins when she fails to get pregnant and is blamed for everything.

That first chapter or so of Outlawed is very uncomfortable to read, as North throws in just about every anti-feminist trope into the narrative. Women have limited roles: mother, wife, pre-wife, post-mother. Women like Ada and her mother, who are midwives, are tolerated but barely. Ada’s first port after fleeing accusations of witchcraft is a convent of barren women. The convent is relatively safe but Ada finds it just as confining as her village, even if she’s not expected to procreate.

Outlawed starts to get good—even funny—when Ada runs away again, to Hole in the Wall. Hole in the Wall is a remote camp run by the Kid and their gang of gender non-conformists. There are some misadventures that had me smirking at Ada’s terrible luck when she tries to break the law, although that rotten luck puts her on the gang’s bad side more than once. (Ada is a lot more successful when she keeps to doctoring.) When the Kid comes up with a scheme that could set them all up for life, Ada agrees to play a part in the hopes that she might finally be able to follow her dream of studying medicine and finding out the real reason why some women can’t get pregnant. The last third or so of Outlawed follows Ada from one disaster to another as she and the gang try to pull off the Kid’s plan.

While I enjoyed a lot of the plot, there were some things that bothered me about the book as a whole. Gender weighs heavily on this book and I appreciated the community reviewers on Goodreads who pointed out where North had her finger on the scale. For example, readers noted that all of the members of the gang seemed to be assigned female at birth, which means that transwomen are erased from this version of history. The only “safe” male character is a bisexual man who was castrated before he met Ada and the rest of the gang. The more I look back at the book, the more I wish North had had a lighter touch with her handling of gender and race (Ada has some issues with White Saviorhood) and let the characters be characters, instead of mouthpieces.

Witches, by Brenda Lozano

Trigger warning for rape, anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice, and interpersonal violence.

There are so many things we don’t know about ourselves. There are medicines we take for which we don’t know the mechanism of action. There are ailments that we don’t have good treatments for or, sometimes, any treatment at all. Perhaps the most mysterious illnesses of all are the ones that afflict our psyches or, as the protagonist of Brenda Lozano’s affecting novel, The Witches, would say: sickness in our soul or our “deep waters.” Feliciana, modeled in part on real-life curandera María Sabina Magdalena García, has been healing people’s sick souls for decades through veladas, ceremonies involving the use of psychoactive mushrooms. When journalist Zoe comes to interview Feliciana after the murder of Feliciana’s transgender mentor and friend, Paloma, we see how Feliciana works her magic on maladies that no one else would consider curable.

The Witches is thoughtfully translated by Heather Cleary, who also writes a very informative introduction that I recommend to readers who aren’t familiar with curanderos or third-gender people in Mesoamerican cultures.

Feliciana and Paloma are the children of curanderos. Their family knowledge of local flora and fungi give them the ability to heal people with conditions Westerners might diagnose as alcoholism, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the years, attention from Western researchers, doctors, and (mostly) celebrities has turned her into a powerful woman who is viewed with jealousy by many people in her small Mexican village. But whatever ire is directed towards Feliciana pales in comparison to the violence faced by muxe Paloma, who we only meet through Feliciana’s memories about her mentor and friend. Just before the book opens, Paloma is murdered by a man who she accidentally infected with “a disease unborn,” which I think means HIV.

Psilocybe caerulescens, one of several psychoactive mushrooms used in Mesoamerican healing (Image via Wikicommons)

Feliciana tells her story—and Paloma’s story—to Zoe, a journalist who has reached the end of her psychological endurance. Just as Feliciana relates her life story, the curandera asks Zoe about her own life. It isn’t hard to see the parallels between Zoe and Feliciana’s lives: parents with abilities beyond the strictly mundane, sisters with histories of abuse, and pressure to “stay in their place” from society at large. The big difference between the two is that Feliciana has a deep, hopeful faith that everything wrong can be righted whereas Zoe has struggled to function and find happiness in her own life.

While Witches is primarily centered on the women’s lives, it does touch briefly on cultural appropriation, the limits of faith and healing, and the duty to one’s own happiness versus the duty to use one’s knowledge to help the community. I was glad to see these topics addressed because it enriches what is already a fascinating pair of stories. I would definitely recommend this to readers looking for a soul-deep story about hope, healing, and honesty.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Metropolis, by B.A. Shapiro

Trigger warning for brief depiction of domestic violence.

B.A. Shapiro’s Metropolis is the kind of book that reminds us that there are so many spaces and people we just brush past. Most of us don’t need to store (or hide) possessions in storage facilities. They’re usually temporary spaces. Certainly, most of us don’t need to live in storage facilities. As we travel from home to work to our third spaces and back, few of us see the homeless or the jobless or the stateless. Metropolis focuses all our attention on a Boston storage building and straight onto people who, all for their own reasons, find refuge in a place most of us wouldn’t look twice at.

Metropolis is told from the perspective of several characters and from two different time periods before and after an accident involving the Metropolis building’s elevator. It jumps straight into the aftermath by first showing us an auction attended by Zach, the former owner of the Metropolis. He is raising money for legal fees and other expenses by auctioning off the unclaimed property in the building. As the auctioneer directs the procedings, we see each unit through his eyes. We see rooms full of dog houses, the contents of a teenagers’ bedroom, a darkroom filled with undeveloped film, a lawyer’s office, and rooms that have clearly been lived in, even though the building’s not rated for that.

The story’s perspective then shifts to refocus on our other narrators months before the auction. There’s Rose, the building’s former manager, who takes extra money to rent out two (later three) of the units for people to live in. We meet Jason, previously a high flying lawyer now reduced to working any case he can get from a room in the storage facility. There’s Laurent, a gifted photographer suffering from PTSD and undiagnosed illnesses. Laurent and Marta, a Venezuelan refugee and gifted sociology graduate student, both live in the Metropolis because it offers safety and anonymity. The last narrator we meet is Liddy. Initially, she rented a unit at the facility to store her children’s belongings after their awful father shipped them off to boarding school in Switzerland. It’s Liddy’s efforts to escape her husband that bring trouble down on everyone’s head.

Readers, I was engrossed from the minute the auctioneer started opening doors to let the punters have a peek. This book scratches that itch we feel when we sense a story behind an abandoned object by telling us how they came to be there, and how they were abandoned. I don’t want to say too much because a big part of the pleasure of reading this book is learning everyone’s secrets. But I will say that each character is a marvelous study in how the pressures of money and jobs and fear and desire can push people into places they never imagined they might end up.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Dead Collections, by Isaac Fellman

Isaac Fellman’s Dead Collections held a lot of promise for me when I first read the reviews. How could I not love a book about a vampire who works as an archivist who falls in love? I adore a good love story about weirdos finding each other. The fact that it took place at least partly in an archive was just gravy. That said…this was not the right book for me. Instead, this is a book for people who want to know what it’s like to feel uneasy about one’s body, out of place in the gender binary, or distressed by not feeling attracted by the same things as everyone else.

Sol Katz has some, but not all, of what he wants out of his unlife. He works in an archive (and squats there during the day). His coworkers don’t seem to like him that much, but they tolerate his vampiric quirks. The happy status quo changes when Elsie drops the archive of Sol’s favorite TV writer in his lap. Even though Elsie is recently bereaved, she and Sol have an instant connection. The two share long calls in which they reveal their desires and fretful thoughts about themselves. Those conversations are a lot, especially when what I really wanted was vampiric archival adventures and shenanigans.

I can’t fault Dead Collections for not being what I wanted it to be. There’s at least a little of archival shenanigans sprinkled here and there for those of us who wanted more books and fewer feelings. For readers who do want feelings, Dead Collections is a delightful and unusual love story about weirdos finding their soulmate.

Quantum Girl Theory, by Erin Kate Ryan

Erin Kate Ryan’s complicated novel, Quantum Girl Theory, begins with a preface that explains the eponymous theory in a stuttering series of images that offer possible endings to a story that begins with a girl putting on a red parka. In some of the endings, she lives. In most, however, she meets a frightening death because the world is full of people looking to take advantage of those they consider weaker. Our protagonist, once a missing girl herself, unfortunately gets flashes of these endings as she drifts across America in the early 1960s trying to save at least some of them.

We don’t know much about the woman who introduces herself as Mary Garrett when she arrives in rural North Carolina town other than that she has visions of missing girls, has very little money to her name, and that that name is not her real one. She’s come to this town because there’s a reward on offer for a girl who went missing while riding her horse. That money will go a long way in 1960 if she can claim it. Mary has a lot of tricks up her clairvoyant sleeves to try and get her visions going. All she needs to do is talk the parents into letting her spend some time in the missing girls’ room, with her things. The strange thing (after a whole bunch of other strange things) is that no one seems to be trying very hard to find the missing girl. Her father is willing to let Mary try, but everyone hints or outright tells Mary to go away.

Between chapters that show Mary scrounging for room and board along with searching for the missing girl, other chapters take us into Mary’s past. At least, it seems like they do. The stuttering iterations from the preface play out in different times and places. We’re whisked to various years from the late 1940s up to the mid-1990s, and from New England to Baltimore to Utah and Arizona. These stories share some common elements. The girl Mary used to be loved another girl named Wise, until they were caught and Mary lied about even knowing Wise. Wise disappeared. Then Mary did. After that, anything and everything happens and it’s hard to tell how many missing girls are real and how many are just possibilities.

Quantum Girl Theory is an unsettling book, but I relished the questions it raised about what we choose to pay attention to and what we choose to ignore. One of the people who (reluctantly) helps Mary is Martha, a Black maid at a motel where Mary scams a place to stay, pointedly asks Mary if she ever gets visions of missing Black girls. Mary says no, in a moment that should remind every reader about how much attention is paid to missing white girls compared to every other person who disappears only to be ignored or dismissed as “probably a runaway.” Also, the way that all the missing girls’ stories blend into Mary’s got me thinking about the glut of true crime books, shows, and podcasts. Consuming all of that content can make it feel like we’re surrounded by crimes and injustice. Maybe we are. And if we can’t find the missing, maybe we—like Mary—can witness and tell their stories. If we tell their stories, even if we never really know what the ending is, they won’t be forgotten.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Paradox Hotel, by Rob Hart

It’s no surprise that, if time travel were to be invented, it would probably only be accessible by the ultra-rich. January Cole, the protagonist of Rob Hart’s outstanding novel The Paradox Hotel, has the misfortune of running security at an enterprise that offers tours of the past for wealthy, entitled people she despises. She’d quit, except that the Hotel is the only place where she can catch glimpses of her deceased girlfriend. Her grief and the behavior of the guests has pushed January to the brink of her patience…which means it’s the perfect time for the hotel to host a summit for a senator and four of the richest men in the world as they bid on the technology that makes time travel possible. And then, the dinosaurs show up.

Something is very wrong at the Paradox Hotel. It turns out that, even though there are hundreds of rich people queued up to take a trip in to the past, the Hotel isn’t turning a profit. The US government is planning to sell off the technology to recoup their investment. The four candidates all have different plans for time travel, plans that all involve breaking the cardinal run of “look but don’t touch.” But it seems that someone else has already broken that rule as each of the candidates is almost murdered before the auction can even start. Keeping people safe is infinitely more difficult when the assassin is able to bend the rules of time.

January is one of the prickliest characters I’ve ever met in fiction, at least since Lisbeth Salander. She’s a jerk to everyone, even her friends. Because we ride along with her for the entire book, we know all of the hurt January is trying to conceal. We also learn that January is trying to hide the fact that she’s come Unstuck, which means that her perception of events is out of sync with everyone else’s. This unfortunate side effect of her earlier service in the Time Enforcement Authority turns out to be a boon against a time-hopping killer. Her slips through time give her just enough hints to keep herself alive. And also catch those dinosaurs.

Perhaps the best reason to read this book is the powerful ending. I love a science fiction book that can, first, bend my mind with the plot and then, second, hit me with a beautiful, emotionally intense payoff that pulls all of those wild plot threads together to land a perfect conclusion. I don’t want to ruin it by saying anything else. So I’ll just say, if you like time travel, science fiction blended with Buddhism, and a star-crossed love story, run (don’t walk) to pick up The Paradox Hotel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The God of Lost Words, by A.J. Hackwith

With The God of Lost Words, A.J. Hackwith’s wonderful trilogy about Claire, her friends, and Hell’s library comes to a close. I’m a little sad about it, but this closing volume is a beautiful, magical send-off. Readers will definitely want to read the first two books in the series, because this one starts with the cast in the thick of plots kicked off in the earlier volumes. I kind of envy those readers. They don’t have to wait a year between each part of the series; they can swallow the trilogy whole.

In the first volume of the series, we meet Claire, the librarian of the Unwritten Wing of a massive supernatural series of libraries that collect all kinds of unpublished and unrecorded stories. For centuries, the Unwritten Wing has been tucked away in a corner of Hell. The status quo was disturbed when an exiled demon made a move to take over the library, setting off all kinds of infernal schemes that took Claire out of the Library and into different versions of the afterlife, introduced her to all sorts of amazing characters, and made her question if there is something greater to fight for than a comfortable existence in a cozy library with an endless supply of tea. (Although, how awesome would that be?)

The most important thing that Claire has discovered is the power—the real power of stories—and the thing that has caused all the fuss in the first place as various entities have scrambled for control of the library. This is what I loved most about The God of Lost Words, and the Hell’s Library series. I am a firm believer in stories. I think they are how we interpret everything, how we understand each other, and how we learn who we are. Stories are how the lost angel Remi learns to free himself of past ties and how the newly freed Hero discovers that he’s worthy of love. I feel myself starting to gush, but that’s how much I loved this conclusion to the Hell’s Library series.

If you love stories as much as I do, I strongly recommend this series. I hope that it warms your bookish soul the way it warmed mine.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

What is it about watching two characters who are into each other but won’t reveal their feelings that draws us in? When I discover that this trope is surrounded by unique characters, an intricate conspiracy, and an original magic system—as in A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske—well, that’s just catnip to me. I inhaled this book on a cool weekend day with a pair of cats and a pot of tea (and probably a dumb, happy grin on my face). This book was a joy to read.

After a very intriguing prologue, A Marvellous Light opens with Sir Robert Blyth (he prefers Robin) visiting his new office for the first time. He has no idea what his new job is or who he reports to. All he knows is that his predecessor has disappeared and that he only got the post because someone higher up on the food chain hates him. Then a very curt upper-class man, Edwin Courcey, walks into that very office and reveals that magic exists. The post, Robin is informed, is liaison between the Prime Minister and a magical ministry that regulates the sorcerous part of the country. No moss has a chance to grow on Robin before he finds himself in the middle of the sinister mystery that (we later learn) took the life of the missing man who used to have Robin’s job. At the end of his very first day in the position, Robin is slapped with a painful curse that no one in Edwin’s magical world has ever seen.

The plot whisks us off to the country (where we meet dangerous holiday entertainment and a murderous hedge maze) as Edwin tries to figure out how to remove the curse, Robin tries to find his feet in the magical world, and both of them try to figure out what the hell is going on. Best of all, we get to watch while Edwin and Robin strike sparks. Edwardian England (magical or not) is not friendly to gay men, so both of them are used to interpreting glances and touches. My heart warmed as I saw Robin work his way past Edwin’s prickles to find a sensitive, loyal lover. For Edwin’s part, he finds a partner who stops him from constantly running himself down and pushes him to innovate even more in magic.

I am so looking forward to the next books in the series.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Look to the Sun, by Emmie Mears

A city on the brink of civil war is a lousy place to start falling in love, but it turns out to be a perfect place to set a love story. In Look to the Sun, by Emmie Mears, a series of chance events in the first pages leads Beo to Rose. They share a love-at-first-sight look that comes straight out of a romance. The difference for these lovers is that a menacing, anti-LGBT+ and anti-polyamory fascist government is intent on turning the city of Sanmarian into a place where men are men, women are housewives, and there is no place whatsoever for anyone who refuses to conform. So while a civil war maybe isn’t a great place for finding the love of one’s life, it’s absolutely a great place to find the strength to fight for everyone’s right to love who they love.

Rose and Beo have one thing in common before they meet. They’ve both read a book that no one else has ever heard of. After they track each other down after their first accidental meeting, the book helps them connect. Meanwhile, the fascist government is making moves to ramp up their transformation (they call it reconditioning) of society. Anyone who stands in their way is disappeared. Propaganda and slogans of their views are daubed across the city, to entice like-minded people to their side and warn their enemies that their time is coming. Rose and Beo barely have time to understand their feelings—let alone declare them—before they also have to ask themselves how involved they want to be in the resistance.

For all the fear and violence in Look to the Sun, I found myself falling in love with the protagonists and Sanmarian. I loved seeing all the throuples and same-sex couples living together without anyone questioning the normality of it. I loved that no one faced any shame or discrimination because of their sexuality or gender expression. I also adored the way that so many different European traditions are blended together into the cities culture: Pamplona’s running of the bulls, the Mediterranean’s warm stone architecture, street food and tea, and so on. I want to go to Sanmarian (but after the revolution, of course). I just can’t say enough good things about this novel; I loved every page.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Under the Whispering Door, by T.J. Klune

T.J. Klune’s new novel, Under the Whispering Door, hit me right in the feels. This funny, beautiful, profound, slightly soppy story is just what I expect from the writer who gave us The House in the Cerulean Sea. It’s a sign of Klune’s brilliance that this book is so full of warm fuzzies considering that it’s about death and what comes after.

When we first meet him, protagonist Wallace Price is an asshole. He’s a workaholic lawyer who lives a life so efficient that it’s devoid of any hint of happiness. His sudden death from a heart attack doesn’t change anything. The hilarious roasting at his funeral doesn’t help his mood much either. Then a young woman who says she’s a reaper whisks him away to a ramshackle tea shop in the middle of nowhere and a man who calls himself a ferryman. Mei (the reaper) and Hugo (the ferryman) declare that they’re here to help Wallace transition from his new ghostly state to whatever lies in the afterlife. Wallace is having none of it.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief are a frequent theme in Under the Whispering Door. Wallace bounces back and forth between denial, anger, and some brief moments of depression eventually give way to acceptance as Wallace sheds his identity as a Scrooge-like lawyer to become an actually alright kind of guy. More than that, Wallace appears to have found his soulmate in Hugo. Too bad Wallace is dead. This not-so-little fact provides a whopping dose of pathos. The two of them are so delightful together that I started hoping that they would find a way to be together, for real. The stages of grief come back with a fury when that little dilemma suddenly gets a deadline when Hugo and Mei’s boss shows up.

Under the Whispering Tree is as close to a perfect book as I’ve ever seen. There are action scenes and hilarious moments of ghostly shenanigans to leaven the long discussions Hugo and Wallace have about life, happiness, regret, their jobs, the afterlife, mistakes, and so much more. Readers with a more traditional view of the afterlife might not enjoy this book as much as readers who are more flexible about what might happen after death. Religion is conspicuously absent from this book and I loved that Klune offers such a wide-open possibility for what happens after we shuffle off our mortal coils. And I especially love that the possibility might include a cup of tea that always tastes like home.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend to readers who are grieving.