Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree

Have you heard the hype yet about Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree? A gentle read for lovers of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, this warm-hearted slice-of-life story captures the magical adventure that is everyday life, while touching on identity, belonging, change, prejudice, and chosen family.

Viv is an orc who’s spent her life as a fighter. But after sampling the gnomish drink “coffee” she has a new dream: to settle down and open a coffeehouse. She gathers her savings, does her research, and then takes the terrifying leap… to civilian life. With the help of a hobgoblin craftsman and a business-savvy succubus she slowly starts to introduce a skeptical community to her new business. It’s not an easy road, and obstacles and frenemies abound, but with courage and the right support Viv has a chance at a new kind of life.

This book is delightful not only because you get to watch orcs, succubi, elves, dwarves, hobgoblins, and other assorted creatures get introduced to coffeeshop culture (including the magic of cinnamon rolls), but also because it’s so full of hope. Viv and her new friends defeat obstacles with determination, good sportsmanship, and clever thinking, without resorting to violence – though they’re also honest about the hardships they’ve faced.

A sensitively diverse book that explores what makes life fulfilling, this is recommended for the weary fantasy-lover looking for a story where people have good days and things generally work out.

 

Wash Day Diaries by Jamila Rowser & Robyn Smith

From writer Jamila Rowser and artist Robyn Smith comes Wash Day Diaries. This graphic novel follows Kim, Nisha, Davene, and Cookie, four friends in the throes of their twenties, complete with group chat drama, toxic exes, and dance parties. 

The four narratives are woven together, independent until the novel’s finale. Each character’s storyline has a different color palette and drawing style, conveying a distinct sense of mood and establishing the characters’ different personalities. 

The otherwise light-hearted and ordinary narratives profoundly rest on the ritual of Black women’s hair care. We see each of the main characters wash, comb, and style their hair, delicately depicting the intimacy that accompanies braiding one’s own hair and the hair of loved ones. 

So much of Wash Day Diaries is playful, both in its story and illustrations. Still, there is a tenderness to each woman’s story that undercuts its light-heartedness. Our main characters struggle with depression, self-esteem, relationships; their trials and tribulations are distinctly their own, but there’s an undeniable sense of comradery amongst the group of women that is easily enviable. 

Rowser and Smith’s graphic novel is whimsical, gorgeously crafted, and toe-curlingly sweet. A love letter to Black women and sisterhood, Wash Day Diaries deserves as much adoration as it gives the women on its pages.

 

25+ Years of Tegan and Sara

Like most aging people I’m starting to realize just how long my favorite artists have been around. For example the iconic band Tegan and Sara have been making music since 1995, recording on cassette tapes. If you don’t know them, Canadian twins Tegan and Sara Quin have been vitally important to building a more mainstream LGBTQ music scene. Their music has the earworm elements of pop music and an unapologetically sapphic core – and recently they’ve grown more reflective about their public image.

Their early music, starting in about 2002, quickly gained popularity in Canada and with teen listeners, featuring albums The Con and Sainthood. Both albums were generally acclaimed as their sound both matured and experimented. It was the seventh album that was perhaps the most successful, and the one I know best: Heartthrob in 2013, followed by Love You to Death in 2016. This is where their indie pop sound really hit its stride with songs like Boyfriend and Closer, featuring danceable beats mixed with melancholy feelings. Incidentally this is also where I heard I’m Not Your Hero, whose hook will forever live in my head rent-free: “I’m not their hero / but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t brave”.

This is a band that doesn’t forget its past: in 2017 their big tour and promotion was celebrating 10 years since the release of The Con (including the creation of an album of other artists’ versions called The Con X: Covers) and in 2019 they released Hey I’m Just Like You, which shares recordings of songs they initially wrote as teenagers. The influence of rock and punk bands like Nirvana, Hole, or the Smashing Pumpkins is more apparent here, and the album as a whole reads more pop-punk than their more recent compositions. In the same spirit they made an all-acoustic version of their 2004 album, So Jealous, which was released as Still Jealous in February.

But the big news of recent years was the release of High School, a memoir about their experiences coming-of-age, which was adapted into a TV series on Amazon Freevee. Viewers are offered a glimpse into a teenager’s life in the early 2000s including the pains of exploring your sexuality and deciding who you want to be. This is definitely a band for you if you’re someone into memoir, legacy, and writing your own history. They’re also politically engaged, passionate activists for causes including cancer research and LGBTQ rights.

This year they released the all-new Crybaby with a new record label. Written during the pandemic, this is the album that nearly wasn’t: originally they were recording standalone singles I Can’t Grow Up and All I Wanted, but were inspired to spin the two into a whole album — luckily for all of us that need more T&S in our lives.

If you like indie music, are a longtime fan, or want exposure to more LGBTQ music artists, definitely listen to some Tegan and Sara today.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

I recently read Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, a modern classic of YA queer fiction, originally published in 2014. Delightfully, it reads like what would happen if Alice Oseman collaborated with Terry Pratchett on Alien fanfiction- authentic teenage confusion meets a dryly humorous take on apocalyptic mayhem. And as a nice bonus, it’s set in Iowa! Whether or not it’s a loving portrait of growing up in Iowa is something you’ll have to judge for yourself…

Grasshopper Jungle is the story of Austin, his girlfriend Shann, his best friend Robby, the interconnectedness of history, and how Austin’s bisexual awakening inadvertently leads to the end of the world via giant murderous insects. Austin narrates using mostly simple, declarative sentences stating the facts, because his ultimate passion is history – how it’s reported, how it’s preserved, how it continues to impact the present. The main history he has to relate is about his town’s legacy of secret science experiments, hidden bunkers, and dangerous plagues that produce 6-foot-tall, unstoppable, carnivorous insects. But while these secrets are being uncovered and the end of humanity draws closer and closer, Austin still can’t stop thinking about sex. He’s always known his best friend Robby is gay, and he’s also always known that he loves Shann Collins. So why can’t he stop thinking about kissing Robby? Is he gay too? How can he know? And how in the world is he going to get it figured out without hurting either of the two people he loves the most?

An accurate, awkward, ultimately endearing portrayal of what being a teenage boy is like, complete with lots of sexual thoughts, angst, and uniquely profound thoughts about family, history, and heritage, this is a good read for those who like coming-of-age stories, coming-out stories, or stories of terrible events ending the world as we know it (not a typical combination, but here it really works in balance).

And good news: its sequel, Exile from Eden, is also available in Rivershare.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers

The sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built is here, and it’s just as tender and pleasant as its predecessor. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy takes Sibling Dex and the robot Mosscap on travels through towns, villages, and beautiful scenery, all to ask Mosscap’s essential question: what do humans need?

These books are the ultimate gentle read for me; it’s all calm atmosphere and descriptive detail, focused on everyday tasks mixed with meditative questions about purpose and fulfillment. We see lots of hospitality and manners, painting society as a cooperative, curious, and practical enterprise that has room for many types of people. Sibling Dex’s career as a traveling tea monk contributed to this in the last book – where tea and small comforts help all kinds of ailments – and in this book Mosscap’s tour of human society serves the same purpose, but with a focus on making connections and friendships, and the way helping others in society makes a positive atmosphere. Through Mosscap’s eyes we also see the wonder of everyday life, as the robot takes great delight in every beautiful tree and the personal possessions and trappings of everyday life. At the same time, the story makes room for weariness, rest, and feeling lost; Dex wrestles with feelings of emptiness and disconnection from their tea service, and neither Mosscap or anyone else shames them for it, choosing instead to be supportive of them whatever their emotional state.

Other scenes to warm the heart include Dex’s romance with a blue-bearded craftsman and a visit to Dex’s family farm filled with a huge number and range of loving, bickering relatives, again with positivity, inclusion, respect and acceptance as themes. If you’re looking for a utopian read where things go well and everyone works together to take care of each other – with a heaping helping of inclusion, love, and responsibility – definitely give the Monk & Robot books a read.

My Favorite Books as Taylor Swift’s New Album

Recently Taylor Swift’s new album Midnights snagged all top ten spots on the US Billboard charts, a major and unprecedented coup. On a more personal note, I’ve had at least one of the songs from the album stuck in my head on and off since I first listened to the album — and you probably have too, if you’ve listened to it. So I decided to make lemonade from lemons and tell you how my English major brain has associated songs from Midnights with different books. All the books (and very soon the album) are available for checkout from our library, so you can double-check my findings for yourself.

“So real, I’m damned if I do give a damn what people say / No deal, the 1950s shit they want for me / I just wanna stay in that lavender haze”

When I listen to Lavender Haze I hear love that pushes against expectations and conventions for what a relationship should look like, and therefore think immediately of The Love Study by Kris Ripper, which is only the first of a trilogy all about relationships outside of conventional norms, and about customizing your relationship to what works for you.

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“The burgundy on my t-shirt when you splashed your wine onto me / And how the blood rushed into my cheeks, so scarlet, it was / The mark you saw on my collarbone, the rust that grew between telephones / The lips I used to call home, so scarlet, it was maroon”

Maroon to me is about a vivid, passionate love that ended, and is remembered, as vividly as it lived. For sheer emotional power, and the strength of love and memory, this song has to be The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay FayeThis book is an unforgettable Hamlet retelling with a powerful (and, spoilers, doomed) love at its core.

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“It’s me / Hi! / I’m the problem, it’s me / At teatime / Everybody agrees / I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror / It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero”

Antihero is the song I (and many others) can’t get out of our heads — it’s catchy, self-aware, self-destructive, and self-deprecating, with paranoid fear of losing relationships and (for me anyway) a hint of glamour. What it made me think of is my favorite romance book of all time, Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (the sequel, Husband Material, works as well) because of its self-deprecating humor, self-destructive tendencies, and an unforgettableness not unlike an earworm.

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“Are we falling like / Snow at the beach / Weird but it was beautiful / Flying in a dream / Stars by the pocketful / You wanting me / Tonight / Feels impossible / But it’s comin’ down, no sound, it’s all around”

Snow on the Beach is all dreamlike, surreal vibes, with a star-crossed type romance running through it, which for me echoes the magical realism in One Last Stop by Casey McQuistonOur lovable leads in that book find themselves in a similarly bizarre situation which they end up embracing.

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“What’s a girl gonna do? A diamond’s gotta shine / Best believe I’m still bejeweled when I walk in the room / I can still make the whole place shimmer”

Now, I fully believe you’ll have a better pick for this one, but Bejeweled‘s theme of claiming your power from a repressive relationship made me think of In Deeper Waters by FT Lukens, because among other things this book is about the main character embracing his power and identity and breaking free from fear and repression, and I just love to see it.

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“Sweet like honey, karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ’cause it loves me / Flexing like a goddamn acrobat / Me and karma vibe like that”

Okay, another unconventional pick, but the smugness of Karma, waiting for the other shoe to drop, reminded me of An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten. Our elderly protagonist is similarly convinced of the justice of her actions – to very entertaining effect.

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“Everyone’s up to somethin’ / I find myself runnin’ home to your sweet nothings / Outside, they’re push and shovin’ / You’re in the kitchen hummin’ / All that you ever wanted from me was sweet nothin'”

Sweet Nothing is about finding a haven and home in someone who doesn’t burdern you with the expectations and pressure you receive everywhere else, which for me had to be The Bookseller’s Boyfriend by Heidi CullinanAlso a cautionary tale about celebrity and social media, the romance in this book is all about an overworked, overwhelmed person finding rest in another’s company.

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“So I told you none of it was accidental / And the first night that you saw me, nothing was gonna stop me / I laid the groundwork and then saw a wide smirk / On your face, you knew the entire time / You knew that I’m a mastermind / And now you’re mine”

Not exactly the same vibe, but Mastermind‘s ending, when the singer realizes that though they thought they were being subtle, they were actually transparent to their partner, reminded me of Love is for Losers by Wibke Brueggemann, in which another scheming narrator discovers the joy of being known and accepted for all your faults.

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Let us know, do you agree with my associations? Which books would you pick?

House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

If you like Dracula, Rebecca, Mexican Gothic, Plain Bad Heroines, or Priory of the Orange Tree, you’ll probably want to read House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson. This sapphic take on vampire lore is a lush, gory, hedonistic roller coaster with a dash of social commentary to boot, and it will definitely take your breath away.

Marion Shaw’s world is strictly divided — there’s North and South, haves and have-nots. She has always been strictly in the “have-nots” camp, struggling to survive in the slums of Prane, a city in the South. When she gets the chance for a different life, she jumps for it. The only people who move from South to North, from poor to rich, are the bloodmaids: young women (always young, always women) who are employed specifically so their wealthy patrons can drain and drink their blood to protect their health. In exchange, bloodmaids get generous pensions at the end of their tenure. Marion is lucky enough to be employed by the noble House of Hunger, to bleed for the Countess Lisavet, who is beautiful, enigmatic, alluring… and desperately in need of blood to prop up her failing health. Even as Marion falls hard (and bleeds hard) for her magnetic employer, she can’t deny the signs that something is wrong; household members are disappearing, the bloodmaids are becoming ill to the point of madness, and Lisavet keeps disappearing somewhere at night. If Marion doesn’t figure out what’s going on soon, she’ll lose more than a little blood in the House of Hunger.

I loved that this is a version of the vampire story that blurs the line between monster and victim — Marion is definitely no damsel in distress, and takes action for herself, even to the point of crossing moral lines where need be. Her and Lisavet’s queerness is also clear and unapologetic, refreshingly, but unfortunately the book is still not particularly sex-positive. The lush worldbuilding of the novel — while very atmospheric — is mostly about showing how decadent and corrupt the nobility is, wallowing in every kind of vice, which ends up making any sexuality in the book feel  hedonistic and distasteful, lumped in with the rampant and destructive drug use.

What is very effective about that, however, is the social commentary underlying it; the reader cannot help but come away thinking about how much wealth is wasted on these kinds of activities while workers like Marion can barely make ends meet to survive. It’s an alternate universe version of the Gilded Age, primed for unions, labor laws, and a drastic redistribution of wealth. Pair that unique premise with a tight, fast-moving plot and you’ve got yourself a deeply compelling story.

So if you like your gothic novels bloody, intricate, feminist, sensual, and fighting for basic human rights, this book is for you.

The Jane Lawless Series: Vital Lies by Ellen Hart

Published in 1993, Vital Lies is the return of Ellen Hart’s restaurateur and sleuth Jane Lawless, featuring a remote island setting, wolves (real and imaginary), an escalating pattern of pranks and sabotage, and a motley cast of suspects. Come for the Murder, She Wrote vibes, and stay for the thoughtful insights into homophobia and coexistence.

Jane’s old friend Leigh has opened up the inn of her dreams – or it would be a dream, if someone wasn’t intent on sabotaging it. There’s been broken glass in the parking lot, gruesome surprises in the guest rooms, and the kitchen has even been ransacked. Leigh is starting to show the strain, just as Jane and Cordelia arrive for a stay. Jane suspects these attacks are deeply serious, a feeling confirmed by a death in the hotel. Now it’s up to Jane to figure out the who, how, and why before anyone else dies. It’s not going to be easy, either, considering the hotel’s current head count includes Leigh’s money-strapped partner Stephen, her quirky aunts, one of whom may have a secret romance brewing, Leigh’s troubled cousin Ruthie, a father and son with skeletons in the closet and a desire to own the inn themselves, a Wiccan practitioner, and her lover Tess, a woman definitely keeping something back — not to mention the new waiter, the cook with his young son always underfoot, and the grouchy handyman. Oh, and her melodramatic best friend Cordelia, stricken with an apparently dreadful cold. Jane’s got her work cut out for her on multiple fronts, as a determined and methodical killer gets ever closer…

I’m biased in this case because Murder, She Wrote is one of my comfort TV shows, but I found this very enjoyable. It’s very plot-focused, so we don’t see a lot of Jane’s internal life (though we do get some, including more information about her late partner Christine) and it’s more like a classic Golden Era whodunit or a stage play murder mystery. At the same time, there’s also honest portrayals of life as an LGBTQ person including parental rejection AND, more importantly, queer joy. After the rampant homophobia Jane runs up against in Hallowed Murder, it’s refreshing in this case to see Jane, Cordelia, and Winifred and Tess just living their lives as lesbians unapologetically and mostly unchallenged. I’m especially glad to be reading this series because it reminds me that LGBTQ authors have always existed and have been working for positive representation for a long time.

For me it falls in the cozy genre (which I don’t like quite as much), but book 2 in the Jane Lawless series still gets my thumbs-up, and you may like it too if you’re a fan of: Murder She Wrote, country house murder mysteries, vintage LGBTQ reads, or determined amateur sleuths unearthing long-buried secrets.

The Jane Lawless Series: Hallowed Murder by Ellen Hart

After loving Devil’s Chew Toy by Rob Osler (you should read it!!) I was on the lookout for more LGBTQ mysteries, and discovered that Ellen Hart created a cult classic lesbian detective in Hallowed Murder, published 1989. Best of all, most of this series is still available through Rivershare at our local libraries.

In Hallowed Murder, we meet restaurateur Jane Lawless (and her theatrical friend Cordelia Thorne) and learn that she has started volunteering at her old college sorority, against the objections of Cordelia, who feels that Jane gives the sorority too much loyalty, considering it would have rejected her outright if it had known Jane’s sexuality. But then one of the senior students at the sorority dies suddenly, and while the police are dismissive (especially after the girl’s relationship with another woman comes out), Jane feels there’s more to the story and starts to investigate. Soon she finds herself drawn into a world of religious fanatics, blackmail, and fear, but remains determined to find out the truth.

As a longtime Agatha Christie reader I loved that this book paired a vintage tone and writing style with LGBTQ-inclusive characters. Like Christie’s work, it’s a product of its time, but in this case its time was the 1980s and 1990s, so it’s more aware of modern sensibilities and ethics. Unlike other modern cozy  mysteries, however, it doesn’t have that (apparently compulsory) formulaic storyline of the feisty heroine getting drawn into a turbulent relationship with a strong but sensitive local man or two — yawn! Instead there are slow hints of a relationship in Jane’s past that still haunts her, which is truer to Christie’s Poirot (as most recently shown in the recent Poirot films Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile by Kenneth Branagh) than to a modern cozy detective.

It’s definitely fascinating to read a work of 80s queer literature in 2022 and see how the language has changed around identity, not to mention social perception. The religious abuse and general scandal that the LGBTQ characters face in this book paints a stark picture of what it was like to be queer at that time, and remind us that some places still feature this kind of social and religious persecution toward LGBTQ people. At the same time, Hart also chooses to have one toxic character begin to realize how flawed religious ideas are, which lends the whole thing a hopeful air.

I’m excited to see where this series goes and how Jane Lawless develops as a character – if you’re looking for an inclusive cozy mystery series to try, come along with me on this journey!

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

This book is not for everyone. At 800+ pages it’s definitely a marathon, Iditarod, Great Race, good-lord-this-is-taking-a-long-time read. Not to mention that as high fantasy it’s an intricately woven, intimidatingly comprehensive tapestry of a universe — different cultures, traditions, and a number of unique characters. HOWEVER, if you can make it through, you’ll not only have the pride of finishing, but you’ll be breathless, teary-eyed, thrilled, and yearning to read it all again (but maybe not right away).

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon is the story of three very different women who are vital to the survival of all their peoples. Queen Sabran the Ninth is one of a thousand-year-line of Berenthnets who have ruled her queendom, and as such bears a lot of weight on her shoulders — especially considering it’s her bloodline that’s supposed to keep the fearsome fire-based dragon known as The Nameless One from rising again and laying waste to the world. Too bad she’s not interested in getting married and continuing that line… Ead comes from a secret society deep in the South that trains up women to be powerful warrior mages, wielding magic to keep the world safe, mostly from The Nameless One. As part of her mission, Ead has been sent to guard Queen Sabran, without ever letting her know about the existence of magic. So why does she long to get closer to her? Meanwhile, far in the East, Tane is a former peasant girl about to be made a dragon rider in the sacred tradition of the water-based dragons native to the region – if an invader from the West doesn’t mess things up for her. Along for the ride are Doctor Niclays Roos, an alchemist in exile seeking the elixir of eternal life, and Lord Arteloth Beck, friend to Sabran and Ead, sent on a deeply perilous diplomatic mission into dragon-ruled lands — not to mention various plots and intrigues against Sabran, Ead, The Nameless One, or all of the above… All these disparate threads will gradually come together in a battle of good and evil that transcends all borders of region, religion, and reason — because if our hapless heroes don’t stand together, they’ll all burn.

Lush, detailed, beautifully written and sweetly hopeful, this is a fascinating and readable fantasy journey that captures your heart with its very human protagonists. Especially delightful is the way inclusivity is built into the universe, both in terms of LGBTQ relationships and various ethnicities. While the cultural parallels being drawn are fairly obvious, it works as an alternate universe / alternate history, especially because the cultural parallels are also very well done; the religions and traditions are familiar to readers, but with their own intriguing twists.

If you like chosen family, dragons, cosmic balance, a balance of humor and heartache, and books that double as dumbbells for your arm workout, this is the book for you. Seriously, don’t be afraid to put in the time on this one; it’s a masterful epic that leaves no one behind.