“Miss Jacobson’s Journey” – Jewish Regency spy-romance-adventure

Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn is a lighthearted spy romance set during the Napoleonic wars and starring an Ashkenazi Jewish hero and heroine. I am so glad I found this book and read it on Shabbat. It was a quick read, the more tense/adventurous/suspenseful parts were exciting instead of stressful, and it was fun watching a hero and heroine combat adversity first and only deal with their feelings as a side dish. Reminds me of SFF shipper fandom, where, alongside the various pairings of Cap and his various hypothetical boyfriends and girlfriends, he’s still Captain America fighting aliens and supercriminals.

Miriam has been helping her uncle with his medical research, having adventures all across Europe and making friends with every Jewish family she meets. When he dies in the middle of the war, she needs to get home to England. In order to do so against… a blockade, I guess?… she gets embroiled in a plot to deliver gold to Wellington behind enemy lines. Accompanying her are her middle-aged lady’s maid/chaperone and two Englishmen. She and her maid are there to lend credibility to their “no, we’re totally not spies!” cover, and they’re there to give the two ladies safe passage–although Miriam winds up saving them a few times (surprising nobody who knows what kind of books I recommend.)

It’s not often I get to read swashbuckling adventure where people are regularly speaking Yiddish, or talking Jewish philosophy, or having to sidestep period-appropriate antisemitic microaggressions. But this book has value beyond “hey, they’re Jewish!” — between the plot and the romance I had a good romp. I especially enjoyed the running gag with French gentile policemen insisting Yiddish was a secret code.

Two things: if the blurb seems thoroughly obvious, don’t worry; the “twist” is revealed 27 pages in so they don’t have to spend the whole book talking around each other. Also, there’s a love triangle with a “hot” gentile who starts out fairly antisemitic but gradually learns his lesson through observing how we really are up close; don’t worry about him. He gets better and still doesn’t get the girl.

Content note that this is ‘sweet’ romance with no premarital sex, but I didn’t miss it. There’s some mention of how Jewish men are supposed to pleasure their wives on Shabbat, which is true! And TW for a lot of the gentile characters coming out with antisemitic remarks, but they’re all dealt with and contradicted in-text. (My opinion on the gentile character’s reason for resenting the hero’s father: if someone owes you money and resents you for the fact that they need to pay it back, that’s almost gaslighting.)

Kudos to the author for including Sephardim in the book as well, not just Ashkenazim, since part of the book took place in and near Spain.

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Book review: polyamorous SFF about bi girls w/pink and purple hair escaping from evil fairies

Humanity is full of folktales about fairies who steal people away; Poison Kiss by Ana Mardoll is the story of what happens when some of them escape. They emerge back into “earthside” with only the faintest traces of their human memories before fairy captivity, and so cling together in healing, solidarity, and friendship. Two of them, the pink-haired MC, Rose, and her lilac-haired love interest, are bi ladies who escaped together but are afraid to truly be together because the fairies gave the MC a venom she can’t control–the book’s eponymous poison kiss. Their lives are thrown into confusion by the escape of a silver man who the fairies were using as an actual sword (the bored, sadistic fairies like to playact according to human myth and one of them decided to cosplay King Arthur.)

They both like him, and he likes both of them, and the stage seems set for the usual smoothings out of a polyamorous romance, with insecurities needing to be put down, friends smirking affectionately from the sidelines, and plenty of communication. However, the fairy pretending to be King Arthur wants his sword back, so our heroes wind up in tighter and more dangerous predicaments with each new portal that opens up into the land of their former captivity.

I think the main character will appeal to anyone who’s ever vicariously enjoyed the innocence-guilt of the Winter Soldier, but would rather spend time with a pink-haired bi girl instead of Bucky Barnes. Is Rose culpable for the way she was compelled to use her venom when she was a fairy queen’s captive? In my and the other characters’ opinions, not really, but her guilt is completely understandable and watching her work through it is cathartic and moving. Plus, her venom gives her a reason to hold a distance she longs to close, a physical manifestation of the emotional distance some people maintain in their lives when they feel they are too damaged by trauma to love.

Mardoll made some really creative and exciting choices with where to take the SFF aspects of the story, by the way. I applaud the unexpected yet logical twists in the author’s resolution. The characters were basically between a rock and a hard place and I’m thrilled as a reader to be given a way out, a third option, that made so much sense once it was in front of me but that I didn’t think of until it was presented in text, until the characters and I were propelled there by the high point of the plot.

This book actually gives me a really firm foothold on which to argue against that “pandering to diversity” accusation lobbed at so many queer-focused SFF families-of-choice narratives. I’ve always said that real life is full of folks in the LGBTQ+ umbrella clinging together in an often unfriendly or at least alienating cis hetero world, so for a story starring two bi girls to also include a m/m couple, some ace women, nonbinary characters, and a pan lady is not unrealistic at all. However, Poison Kiss’s setup introduces a second very good reason for such a cluster – what if the fairies (and Mardoll never comes out and says this, but it occurred to me in the car) specifically sought us out and took us? What if they took the ones who felt the most alienated, the most isolated, the ones who had the least support?

Anyway, that would certainly explain why so many of the escapees are in the umbrella. (Or, you could go with the alternative theory that the time in fairyland had left the captives inherently LGBTQ+ somehow, but I don’t prefer that theory because I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of this stuff being easily changed by outside influence. I begged the anesthesiologist to reassure me that going under wouldn’t turn me straight, back in 2009. Yes, please laugh at me. I’m laughing at myself. I wasn’t laughing in 2009, though.)

Also, there’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through that basically knocked me over with happy tears. I can’t tell you what it was or it won’t have the same effect on you at all, and it’ll only be meaningful to some of you. But, wow. Damn.

TW for very sci-fi violence including a villain’s severed limb and a lot of references to blood and venom. The triad is happily together and alive at the end and the book overall is very low on death of named characters.

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Venison lemon lettuce boats

So, to make this kosher you’d have to skip the pat of butter; I suppose try coconut oil? there are no pictures because oops we ate them all!

Venison lemon lettuce boats, invented by accident by Shira Glassman (or maybe Chef Aviva): naturally gluten-free

1 pound frozen venison burgers, thawed, or ground venison from your friend who goes hunting
1 heart of romaine lettuce, taken out of the bag (as many leaves as you need)
2 lemons, juiced
ground coriander
gluten-free soy sauce (aim for the aged stuff)
1 cucumber, diced
rice vinegar
Pat of butter
Sesame oil
Red pepper flakes
As much chopped garlic as you want–more is better!

Cook the rice in a rice cooker and put most of it away for later because you only need a little. You can toast the rice in a dry frying pan if you want.

Set the cucumber aside to marinate in a tiny bit of the lemon juice and a lot of the rice vinegar

Melt the pat of butter and add the sesame oil. Toss in the chopped garlic. Fry the venison burgers, chopping the meat into little pieces with a spatula as you go. Add the coriander, red pepper flakes, and after things get nice and browned, the soy sauce and the rest of the lemon juice. Cook until you see no more red. Be safe.

When the meat has nice crispy bits all over, load into the cup of a romaine leaf with rice and cucumber. Watch your guests make happy faces!

Also, the leftover grease in the pan is basically lemon fat and makes a tasty salad dressing if you want to stand there with more of the lettuce eating it like I just did.

3 large leaves full of meat, rice, and cucumber per person is a safe estimate based on a sample of the two of us.

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Fantasy lit review: LETTERS TO ZELL, fairytale princesses as wine-bar book club friends trying to fix their lives; includes f/f HEA

Letters to Zell by Camille Griep is a powerful, beautiful book using the veneer of Western European fairy-tale princesses living in a magical realm just a portal away from ours to tell a familiar, timeless story about four female friends struggling to redefine themselves, and their friendship, in the face of lives that don’t match up to “happily ever after” expectations. This is partially due to the fact that structure of the magic world is such that there are rules that, when broken, lead to a ripping in the fabric of reality.

I think that’s a great metaphor for “other people’s expectations” (and our own) carrying unnecessary weight, but it also leads to some good SFF plot and conflict. For example, one of the princesses has already suffered a romantic loss before the story even opens. The author also explores the realistic implications of the canonical elements of dysfunctional family in several of the fairy tales–stepmotherly betrayals, absent fathers, etc. This is far more nuanced, fleshed-out, and fun to read than many of those clickbait posts making fun of what if Disney princesses were real. The leading ladies in this book were compelling, three-dimensional, and sympathetic.

Let me reassure you that this is an official Shira Glassman endorsement, which means that yes, this book does include a happy f/f resolution. My sapphic sisters, you may safely proceed. Moving along: it’s also a bittersweet and powerful story because some situations aren’t salvageable, and it does go down some dark roads although by the end I embraced the entire package. I also loved how no matter how angry the friends got with each other, they still remained friends and loved each other–they could discuss I’m angry with you without breaking up the friendship. That is valuable.

The focus of the book is on platonic love, mostly between the princess leads, but there are also satisfying dips into m/f and f/f romance. I’ve seen many people looking for fantasy books where m/m and f/f relationships aren’t treated as remarkable, and this is one of those books – there is never any kind of negative reaction to the f/f subplot, or indeed literally any kind of comment about it being unusual, and some of Snow White’s dwarves are in relationships with each other (which I’m sure will make @tofeklund very happy.)

I loved the clever bits of worldbuilding, like how the portal to the “real world” is near enough to Disneyland (Cali, not FL–we’re “world”) that nobody would question people popping out of thin air in princess garb. I loved the complexities the author drew out of familiar, relatively simple stories. I loved the fact that one of the points she was making was that we aren’t getting less imaginative like a lot of technophobes seem to think–we’re getting more imaginative, with more and more variations on the old stories, and adding new ones. The princesses step out of their world into ours astonished at all the things Disneyland got “wrong” because we’ve done so many new things with the old legends! (I mean, I was definitely struck by the pointed way all four princess protagonists’ lives adhere to the storybook originals, rather than the Disney version.)

TW for a suicide metaphor that winds up being a lot less painful than real suicide because of some worldbuilding-specific magical elements that smoothed it over to a point where I, as a reader, felt soothed. I do feel like the grieving portions of the book rang true to my experiences with loss. (Also, I hope the author was being tongue in cheek when she said the cellist was the one who suggested Pachelbel’s Canon for a wedding–most cellists would rather fall out of a tree than willingly offer to play it! The cello part is the same eight notes over and over again. I’m a violinist, so I’m fine with it :P)

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Poppy Jenkins: lesbian romance with classic feel in picturesque Welsh village

One of the most demeaning effects homophobia has had on me is to try to convince me, from a young age, that we in the LGBT umbrella were cut off from the sweeter, more innocent sides of the human experience. Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton gives the f/f romance world a gift — a sensual, emotional story with modern sensibilities, pairings, and politics, but a definitely old-fashioned feeling that’s usually the sole purview of cis women being romanced by cis men.

The two-second pitch is that Poppy’s estranged childhood best friend Rosalyn comes back to the village, meaning the two of them finally have to deal with a lot of unresolved stuff. Rosalyn is incredibly sexy and exciting but also a little aggressive for Poppy’s chill, dainty village life — for example, when a local business owner tries to bully a village woman into shutting down her craft fair, Rosalyn jumps to her defense at the town meeting far more stridently than these folks are used to. She usually does the right thing, but is scary about it and often insulting, including to people and traditions Poppy cares about. She’s the hardened one whereas Poppy is the ultimate optimist.

There were many themes close to my heart in this one: how there’s often a vast gulf in the coming out experience between someone who has a lot of social support and someone who’s already disliked or unpopular for other reasons, the ins and outs of running a tiny restaurant (did I mention Poppy is a chef? This is such a Shira book), and strong cultural traditions — in this case, it’s a Welsh setting by a Welsh author. Bits of Welsh are scattered through the text, and traditions pepper the book in a way that lightly immerses you. There was a scene at Poppy’s friend’s wedding where I teared up because everyone was singing some beloved old Welsh hymn even though I’m not Welsh and didn’t know the tune, because I can identify with what that means, and was thinking of my own culture. Poppy’s non-romantic relationships also play a key role in the book — her family especially the female relatives like her sister, mother, and grandmother,  her best friend (a straight guy, and a pretty cool one!), and other women in the village.

Poppy may as well be a 21st century Anne of Green Gables or other costume drama small-town girl, full of buoyancy and enthusiasm, as well as love for her village and its people. But by making her this, the author doesn’t rob her of her sexuality, and that’s what makes this so wonderful. A woman’s sexual–not just romantic but sexual–attraction to another woman is depicted as innocent and wholesome. Do you have any idea how fucking healing that is? For Poppy to come back from college to her village with a couple of ex-girlfriends’ worth of experience under her belt and still be covered all over with the tinsel of “this character is An Innocent” is revolutionary.

Also, women’s attraction to other women is unique from person to person and Poppy’s — like Dahlia Adler’s Frankie from Out on Good Behavior — is very similar to mine (curves! softness!), so I appreciated that on a personal level as well. There’s more than one scene where she’s quietly fascinated by Rosalyn’s breasts, without being portrayed as any less cute and charming  herself for these feelings, and I can say right here and now that if I’d have had a book like this to read when I was a teenager I would have grown up happier and felt way more validated.

Warning that this is one of those books where if people actually communicated on page 20 instead of page 200, things would go a lot easier for them, but I found the setting, characters, and story so delightful that I could put up with Poppy’s occasional “don’t you know you’re in a romance novel, silly????” denseness. Just know that going in, in case it makes your decision for you. The ending is super satisfying.

Definitely check this out if you’re craving the validation that women’s love for other women is still sweet no matter how sexual it gets and still fits in a charming old British village with plenty of greenery and tea-sets, or crave  f/f pairings when you read L.M. Montgomery.

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Spirits Abroad: 15 short stories of Malaysian fantasy

Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad Malaysian and Malaysian-diaspora fantasy shorts collection brings extremely intimate and personal concepts into the sphere of fantasy fiction–like unexpected difficulty in schoolwork or performing arts after being at the top of your class, or blooming into your suppressed bisexuality. Far from being the fantasy of broad, sweeping, epic stories about clashes between dynasties or magical orders, this is the fantasy about household magic, about supernatural creatures that have the same feelings and hopes and family structures we mortals do, and about one-on-one friendships and relationships. They even enjoy the simple, hedonic pleasure of food.

Other key themes of the book’s fifteen stories include Malaysia’s multiculturalism, with Chinese traditions coexisting alongside Christianity and Islam plus all the legends and fantasy creatures that are uniquely Malaysian, and women, both mortal and supernatural, interacting with their female family members, especially across the generations. I was fascinated, incidentally, by the variety of undead within Malaysian mythology, with the type of ghost varying by gender, manner of death, etc.

Some of my favorite moments:

“The House of Aunts”, which is available to read for free here, is a sweet YA paranormal romance starring a teenage vampire who lives with all the protective, overbearing yet nurturing female relatives of her family who share her condition while posing as a living student at school. At one point in the story she won’t let the Muslim boy she has a crush on share her lunch, telling him that it’s pork. (Readers: it’s not pork.) This is just so goddamn cute and grisly at the same time that it made me smile, and also is a model way to recognize ethnoreligious diversity in a spec fic setting.

“The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life”, also available free, is about a young woman who suddenly acquires a supernatural shadow: her own self, as a teenager. Through a series of amusing or poignant moments she interacts with her old self as she travels to Japan to teach English and learn Japanese, until finally the two selves merge again and she becomes the whole person she was meant to be from the beginning. This is one of the anthology’s two stories about women who like women. The other one is:

“The Mystery of the Suet Swain”, in which a lesbian fights a demon Nice Guy. I mean all of that literally, including the demon part! The story leaves it unclear whether or not she and the “I said no to the last eleven guys who asked me out” best friend will date after the main character rescues her, but I think it’s a good story either way (and I say yes, sure, they date.)

This one is a darker moment, but there’s a part in the self-harm/self-destructive metaphor story “The Fish Bowl” where the MC is struggling with performing music she hasn’t practiced, so as a price for the magic to make her get through the piece, the titular magic fish drains blood from her in a way that shows up as four angry red streaks down her arm representing the four strings running down our fingerboards. As a violinist, this is a sharp and accurate piece of imagery. In fact when I read that line I immediately fired off a tweet to the author saying “you get us.”

There are so many other creative ideas in this book that I could go on and on — including the old favorite fantasy setting of an English boarding school but still populated by Malaysian diaspora characters, and another one where a troupe of Chinese dancers in England are secretly ghostbusters also, but hopefully by now I’ve convinced whoever’s reading this to give the book a whirl. Every once in a while I add a line to my reviews to the effect of “if you like my books, try–” and this is one of them.


I advise buying the eBook so that you can stay abreast of trigger warnings without my help, since the author has commendably included a lot of warnings and clicky-things that go to her notes and “skip this story if you don’t want to read about X” and other helpful tidbits. Obviously stay out of “House of Aunts” if cannibalism is a major squick, although I found myself craving gribenes (chicken skin fried in chicken fat) after I read it because I am, truly, a trash can. 😛
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This book was like queer Hogwarts

The Gay Teen’s Guide to Defeating a Siren: Book 1 The Seeker by Cody Wagner is what happens when you combine the plotbunnies of “What if one of those gay conversion therapy camps was scamming the parents and all the kids inside got to grow up in a secret supportive environment instead?” and “What if Hogwarts had queer students?” The similarities to the Harry Potter books jumped out at me right away — the principal is an appealing, fatherly figure who’s hiding things about magical bad guys from the students, the protagonist quickly acquires a smart, assertive female friend, and by the end of the book a paranormal Big Bad has taken precedence over stressing about tests and bullies.

There are some interesting differences, though. The Golden Trio is replaced by a Golden Quartet that isn’t all white, for one thing. There’s a main character death that I wasn’t expecting because the HP books didn’t get that dark until book four (disclaimer since I know my fellow queer girls will go there: it is not either of the MC’s two lesbian besties.) The paranormal aspect of the book is also really different from Rowling’s in that it posits the idea: what if some of the homophobes out there are being mind-controlled by evil magical forces? In other words, unlike the complete sequestering from the outside world that Rowling’s magic users adopt, this one is related directly to it. Also, this is different from Hogwarts in that the kids aren’t at a magic school–they’re at a regular school, just one for queer kids that’s lying to parents and saying it’s a cure camp–but it still felt very Hogwartsy to me.

An interesting detail that I appreciated is that, like most other YA I’ve read, the main character has to deal with the “cool kid” bullies. Even when everyone at the entire school is gay like he is. As someone who was hurt quite a bit by a “cool couple” within my queer community as a teenager this really resonated. We can be kind of awful to each other even within our marginalizations. And there’s a lot more to being accepted than marginalizations or lack thereof–there’s that intangible, elusive quality of “cool” that often has a lot to do with not expressing your interests too enthusiastically or who knows what else.

There’s a lot less romance than I’ve usually read in YA — just the faintest hints (the bullies are a couple, the protagonist does get one kiss, & you can tell who the love interest is going to be as the series moves forward) — but given the age of the kids that makes complete sense and it’s also really important that we get queer YA out there that shows queer kids making friends with each other and getting to live a queer life apart of specifically romantic and/or sexual relationships.

Something else I thought was neat about the book is that, while YA in first person often has faily statements on the part of the teenage narrator — for example, fat-shaming — this book was the first one I’d ever seen where the instant the narrator says something faily he immediately dials it back. He knows he fucked up. Like, there’s a whole paragraph of him criticizing a homophobic pastor’s appearance, and then he backpedals and acknowledges he’s being unfair to criticize the way he looks instead of who he is as a person. I am so grateful for that. There is so much gratuitous fat-shaming in YA, and even if it’s supposed to be unreliable narrator kids don’t always know that. He even follows up a comment about Nazis with admitting he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (It wasn’t antisemitic, but it was an inappropriate comparison–think Godwin’s Law–and I was so impressed that the character swallowed his own words within the same paragraph.)

It’s hard for me to know what to do with the ending emotionally because while it was a good ending, it’s also like the Harry Potter books in that now I need to wait for the next book to see where this is going. The Big Bad is still out there, but the students being protected by the school are still safe from their parents and from the outside world.

Definitely worth a read if you’re one of those people constantly grasping for “but where were we” in your Hogwarts fan-time, and love the idea of vast conspiracies of gay teachers protecting gay students from homophobic parents. There isn’t really bi representation in this book (and if there were trans kids at the school they weren’t mentioned or shown) but I didn’t catch any biphobia, either.

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