Hi, and welcome to August! This month we have a YA horror novel involving a deforming disease in a dystopian setting, a long mystery/romance novella anthology, and a French webcomic turned graphic novel that might be best to skip despite the adorable cover.
Title/Author: Footsteps in the Dark by S.C. Wynne, Josh Lanyon, L.B. Gregg, Dal Maclean, C.S. Poe, Meg Perry, & Z.A. Maxfield
Summary: The snick of a lock. The squeak of door hinges. The creak of a floorboard. Are those approaching steps those of a lover or an enemy?
Series/Standalone: Standalone anthology of novellas
Genre/Sub-genre: Mystery/MM Romance
Book Format: eBook
Length: 929 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: The main couples in these stories are gay, however there are other characters who identify as LGBTQ.
Violence: Some, but nothing graphic
Ratio of Sex/Plot: Heavy on the plot!
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I re-read?: YES
Entree to Murder by Nicole Kimberling
A pot of Kimchi explodes and someone is murdered during an after hours party at a local restaurant. Slightly creepy, as basement murders tend to be, this had great characters from the elderly lesbian chef and her wife to the young, impressionable youth trying to make kimchi in secret. Also, the love interest, Big Mac, was pretty lovable right from the start. The romance was slow and sweet in building while the murder mystery truly was a mystery right up until the very end. I did want a bit of an epilogue though, just to further cement the relationship, but otherwise I really enjoyed this one.
Twelve Seconds by Meg Perry
When a rocket explodes with a super secret payload on board, a man is found dead inside the mouth of an alligator not far away. I like how Greg wants to be a positive influence on Justin, but isn’t going overboard with it. This is a very emotionally positive relationship that's easy despite the conservatism they’re surrounded by. I’ve not yet read a romance or a mystery set around a rocket launch that wasn’t sci-fi, and that aspect made it a fun and interesting read. The location is almost as much a character too, and despite the alligator, there were some beautiful places mentioned I’d now like to go see. I will admit, however, I wish both of their exes had returned just to see how much they’d been left in the dust.
Reality Bites by S.C. Wynne
A man steps into the cage of a wild animal for reality TV and gets attacked. This one is a bit suspenseful, with the lives of the two main characters seemingly in constant danger. I appreciated the fact that Jax isn’t like most Hollywood types, though I wish we’d gotten to see a bit more of his other side that enjoys cooking and the outdoors. Reality TV is not my thing and the premise of Jax’s show really turned me off of his character since it had been his idea. I’m not entirely sure what Decker saw in him. This was a good murder mystery where the stakes kept rising with every attempt to kill Dax and with each body that turned up.
Blind Man’s Bluff by L.B. Gregg
A band of teachers break into an abandoned mall for a game of capture the flag before realizing that danger lurks inside. This reminded me a bit of an old fashioned Dean Koontz novel, though slightly less creepy, and with a little gay romance mixed in. The romance is overshadowed by the plot, and that’s a good thing here. I liked that it was understated and quiet because the characters said a lot without saying anything at all. I do question what they think is fun, but maybe this is a set up for a possible sequel? I guess I’m just too goody two-shoes for their initial breaking and entering and cavorting about a dangerous abandoned property without permission, especially viewing their vocation as high school teachers.
A Country for Old Men by Dal Maclean
One family has deep ties to the Lewis Chessmen, but someone will go to great lengths to get their hands on the rare pieces. Such a sad story tinged with sweetness at the end. The ending was a bit of a nice twist I wasn’t expecting in the romance department. The mystery was good and kept me turning pages. I loved the Scottish setting and the fact that the Lewis Chessmen are a real thing. I hadn’t known anything about them, but they made for an interesting mystery here! Google them for more information and pictures. There is also a glossary for Gaelic at the end, but the words and phrases were also translated right in the text in a natural way.
Pepper the Crime Lab by Z.A. Maxfield
A young man moves into his new apartment just before his neighbor is murdered, leaving the dog to bark nonstop until someone finally takes notice. I got to the end and desperately want a sequel! The mystery was good, though I might have been too caught up in the romance and the dogs that I missed an important clue or two, but I was definitely on the edge of my seat all the way through. The main couple here are adorable together, and I just really want more of them, and their dogs, and their lives. Plus, the other residents were well-rounded and fun to read about. I love the idea behind the restaurant, Factory, and I’d like to eat there if I could!
Lights. Camera. Murder. By C.S. Poe
Someone has stolen what could become a valuable script from the set of a television drama and it’s up to a PI to find out the truth before bodies start to fall. Loved this one! The Bowery is an historical drama about a gay crime boss in NYC, and I am extremely sad this does not exist in real life because I want to watch it sooo bad! The mystery had me guessing until the end and all of the characters were interesting, especially the second lead, Marion, who I would like to know more about.
Stranger in the House by Josh Lanyon
A young teacher gets the chance of a lifetime when he inherits a mansion in Canada from his Godmother, but not all is as it seems. Josh does creepy really well and this was creepy right off the bat! I also thought this story did a great job of showing just how much a young artist can pin all their hopes on one thing or person, and how that can go terribly wrong, having repercussions years later. I didn’t see the resolution to the mystery coming at all, but I’m glad it left some questions unanswered in a realistic manner. I would like a sequel, or just a coda, to see how the relationship has progressed and also to see how Miles has been handling that huge house by himself.
Title/Author: Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Summary: The Raxter School for Girls are under quarantine because of the Tox, a strange disease that infects the teachers, the students, and even the surrounding woods and its animals. As the Tox twists the girls' bodies with painful, individual deformities and their numbers dwindle, the school waits for the promised cure. When her best friend Byatt goes missing, Hetty determines to break quarantine, bringing her third friend Reese with her. Whatever horrors lay beyond mean nothing if she can bring Byatt home.
Genre/Sub-genre: YA Horror
Book Format: Paper
Length: 357 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Queer girls
Violence: The disease itself is violent, tearing the girls apart in various ways. The girls also act violently out of hunger or sickness. Trigger warnings for suicide.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: This was a delightfully creepy read! Rory Power’s writing is so evocative. I loved the Tox as a phenomenon and found myself looking forward to seeing a new manifestation of it: gills, blisters, bones, a silver hand … . I buddy-read this book with a friend who pointed out that the Tox seemed to manifest in ways that affected the person personally. Reese struggles with intimacy and in turn, her hand turns to sharp steel. This robs her of her ability to touch others and to shoot, which she once loved. I also loved seeing how Reese’s relationship with Hetty changed over the course of the book. In such a dystopian environment, the characters are what matter, and I really enjoyed everyone in this book. I just wished there was more elaboration in parts. You never really get a full understanding of Byatt’s story and there were a few things that didn’t make sense when you thought about them beyond their purpose of moving the plot forward. Overall, however, I definitely recommend this for someone looking for a new and unique YA novel.
Title/Author/Artist: Breath of Flowers 1 by Caly
Summary: Azami looks down on her friends' interest in gay manga. According to her, "the only love possible is the bond between a young girl and her soulmate!" She's shocked to discover that her crush, the handsome star of their high school basketball team, is actually a girl. When Azami learns that Gwyn likes her back, however, she realizes her attraction to Gwyn isn’t dependent on Gwyn’s gender. The two girls embark on a relationship full of the joys and growing pains of first love!
Series/Standalone: first volume of two
Genre/Sub-genre: graphic novel
Book Format: print
Length: 216 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: bisexual or lesbian. It's not really clear.
Well-written/Editor Needed: The mechanics of the writing and translation are competent, but I think an editor could have cleaned up the direction of the story a bit.
Art/Illustrations: The cover is cute, but I felt the art inside was unpolished. Interestingly, the style is clearly inspired by Japanese manga (black and white, small page size, reads from right to left) but I did a little digging and found out that this graphic novel apparently originated as a French webcomic. In all honesty, I would probably not object to the quality of the artwork in the context of an amateur webcomic, but it doesn't appear to have been touched up for print publication. It should have been.
Would I Recommend?: No. I had a lot of problems with this story. At bare minimum, it needed to address Azami's introductory homophobic outburst in order for me to feel comfortable recommending it and it never does. I’m mainly reviewing this because the description makes it sound like a cute trans romance, which it is very much not.
Personal Thoughts: Gender-bending for plot-related reasons is an old and time-honored trope in manga, and it's unfortunately very easy for that to veer straight into transphobia! I don't mean that Breath of Flowers contains explicitly transphobic descriptions or dialogue. I just find it very disturbing that the possibility that Gwyn might be trans is not even considered. The scene in which Gwyn’s gender is outed is also potentially triggering as Azami blames Gwyn for “tricking” her. The entire premise of Gwyn’s “I look like a boy but actually I’m a girl!” reveal is that she was mistaken for a boy because she plays on the boys' basketball team. She has chosen not to correct the misunderstanding for over a year and dresses like a boy because her clothes are hand-me-downs from her brother. This lacks both nuance and thought regarding the actual experience of AFAB people who present in a non-feminine way.
For better or for worse (in this case, mostly for worse), Breath of Flowers leans very hard on tropes from shoujo manga. For instance, we’ve got the obligatory love triangle in addition to the absurd premise for cross-dressing. Perhaps this is in homage to classic "girl in boy's clothing" high school manga like Hana-Kimi and Ouran High School Host Club. It's not unusual to see mistaken gender and cross-dressing played for laughs, but it's still disappointing that an ostensibly LGBT-centric series is so oblivious to the basic concepts of the gender spectrum and trans identity. There's plenty of lesbian romance manga out there. I don't feel bad saying "skip this one."