Winter’s Orbit

Two silhouettes contain stars and planetary scenes, one in cool tones and one in warm ones.

by Kristen B.

Sometimes, it’s fun to figure out why a book has its title. Often, there’s an a-ha moment while reading when I come across the phrase or the action where it all makes sense. Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell has a lot of selling points, but the title may not be one of them. Okay, okay: The main characters maybe come to understand their feelings for one another while stranded in the snowy wilderness. I’m still not a fan of the title – too cold and distant.

However, I am a huge fan of the book with all its space opera and romance fun. It was exactly the escapist fiction I needed during a recent high-stress period. Prince Kiem is the disaster of a gadfly royal who spends his life with his charities and in the tabloids, but perhaps he has hidden depths that are just too much trouble to plumb. He is instructed by The Emperor, His Grandmother, that he is to make a dynastic marriage with his recently deceased cousin’s widower, Count Jainan. While politically necessary to hold an interstellar treaty together, Kiem finds the entire idea beyond intrusive based on what he figured was a “perfect marriage” that ended in tragedy. Kiem is pretty much a good egg who gets in his own way much too frequently. Jainan is another story altogether, but we’ll get there.

Those interstellar politics are vitally important and drive the science-fictional side of the story. Kiem and Jainan’s marriage solidifies the alliance between the Iskat Empire and its planet Thea. The Iskat Empire has similar arrangements with each of the seven planets that it holds, and it must maintain those relations to have continued access to the galaxy-spanning Resolution’s technology. And, it’s time to renew the 20-year treaty with the Resolution, meaning Kiem and Jainan’s marriage isn’t just a convenience. If the Empire falls apart, the separate planets become targets for larger, toothier fish in their medium-sized galactic pond.

Jainan’s world, Thea, is not entirely convinced that being part of the Empire has any immediate benefits. While he is part of an alliance marriage, Count Jainan also has commitments to his immediate family, his larger clan, and the planet. Part of the story hinges on discovering why this immensely intelligent human (space engineer by education and avocation) has withdrawn so completely from his duties. The pattern of Jainan’s reactions and assumptions leads to some fairly ugly realizations, as his new spouse Kiem discovers that maybe the first marriage wasn’t entirely what it seemed.

As in most romances that rely on wrongly held assumptions and misunderstandings, a good conversation or two would have gone a long way to soothing some of the worst conundrums. However, personalities and various crises allow our two lovable nincompoops to stumble around each other for far too long. They eventually recognize that it’s not only their relationship that needs some sleuthing – Cousin Taam’s death looks more and more like murder, the arranged marriage isn’t being accepted by the Resolution, and something hinky is going on at a mining station in Thean orbit.

It’s a whirlwind of a book filled with handsome men, entirely competent women, and all sorts of mysterious goings-on. The secondary characters fill out the margins and spaces between Kiem and Jainan in wonderful ways. I would really enjoy a book featuring Kiem’s personal assistant, Bel, who seems to have quite a piratical background. I also appreciate this book for its rather matter-of-fact portrayal of all sorts of gender identities and love interests. Yes, the primary romance is male/male, but it’s delightful that, in some rather refreshing ways, varied gender expression is commonplace and accepted. I’m looking forward to continued adventures in Maxwell’s universe (hopefully with more appealing titles).

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).

Kings of B’more by R. Eric Thomas 

Against a summery orange background, that shows a ferris wheel and light-rail train, two young Black boys smile

by Eliana H.

R. Eric Thomas is a Baltimore-based television writer, playwright, and the bestselling author of Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America and Reclaiming Her Time: The Power of Maxine Waters. He is also the (temporary) Prudie, answering questions for the Dear Prudence column in Slate magazine through mid-summer. He is visiting in-person at the Elkridge Branch + DIY Center on Wednesday, June 15 at 6:30 pm. He will be discussing his debut young adult novel, Kings of B’more. I had the wonderful opportunity to read an advance copy, and I am so excited to share it with you.

Have you ever seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? In the popular movie from the 1980s, the title character, a high school student, skips school to take his best friend and girlfriend on a whirlwind adventure all over Chicago. When the main character of Kings of B’more, Harrison, learns that his best friend, Linus, will be moving to South Carolina in just a few days, he is inspired by the movie – which his dad has just made him watch – to plan an adventure all around Baltimore for the two of them. Despite his grand ideas and the help Harrison enlists, things (of course) don’t quite go as planned. The boys manage to have an epic day nonetheless.

Throughout the book, I was struck by the beauty of the friendship between Harrison and Linus. Author R. Eric Thomas captures a fresh, unique voice and perspective for each of them while highlighting the ways in which they complement one another. They can have entire conversations with their eyes, they see and value the truth of each other, and they show their affection in ways large and small. As two Black queer young men, they certainly face some challenges. But Harrison and Linus support one another as each discovers his own way to take on the world. I thoroughly enjoyed the language that Thomas uses, with vividly descriptive passages that bring the surroundings to life. Baltimore really becomes another character in this story, not just the setting. 

With ups and downs and so many adventures, Thomas has packed an entire coming-of-age tale into a story taking place over a single weekend. The growth each character experiences occurs in a way that is completely natural in terms of what they are going through. Harrison and Linus feel authentic and well-developed, and I was so glad to get to know them as I read. Despite a very satisfying ending, I would love to know what happens next. And I am definitely planning my next foray into Baltimore as soon as possible! 

I hope you will join us at the upcoming author event to hear more from R. Eric Thomas, ask questions, and consider purchasing a book for signing (if you want).

Eliana is a Children’s Research Specialist and Instructor at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).

Creating a safer space for LGBTQ+ students

The photograph shows an open hand holding a white ceramic heart, with a rainbow above on a dark background.

by Sarah C.

Here at HCLS, we try to make our spaces as welcoming and inclusive as possible, especially for our tweens and teens, as that age range can include a time of many changes, questions, issues, excitement, and experiences both good and bad. Do you remember middle school? Exactly, ugh! I sure do, and at age 42 I’m still slightly traumatized by some of those memories!

As June is LGBTQ+ Pride month, I’d like to touch on some things we do to create a safer space here at HCLS for our wonderful rainbow students.

Something as simple as wearing a rainbow button or bracelet, or having a “safe space” sticker on your office door can make a huge difference, especially if a student does not know you yet. It identifies you as a someone they can approach for LGBTQ+ books, ask about LGBTQ+ events and groups, or just someone who they can talk to who will listen and not judge them.

I am not subtle about my support of LGBTQ+ students. I visually identify myself as such with the above examples and am very vocal with all my students about respecting ALL people. That has been instrumental in our students feeling not just welcome here, but represented and celebrated. Our students of all ages know that some people and/or spaces are not LGBTQ+ friendly and have learned they need to be cautious. It’s not fair, but it is our reality, so please consider identifying yourself as a supportive person for them and help grow their circle of safety.

HCLS also hosts LGBTQ+ author visits, participates in community events such as HOCO Pride, assists with local SAGA/GSA school groups, helps with book clubs like the Rainbow Reads book club, and offers classes such as Make Your Own Pronoun Buttons and Let’s Talk About LGBTQ+ Issues in Education featuring Freestate Justice.

And of course, since we are a library system, we purchase and display many books written and/or illustrated by LGBTQ+ authors that feature LGBTQ+ main characters. We also have Rainbow Reading lists for adults, teens, and a new one for children! Grab a printed copy at your local branch or find other recommendations online. Check out the review of Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe on the library’s blog. The post talks about why books that represent all experiences are so vital.

Sarah is the Teens’ Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch, where she can be found geeking out over new graphic novels, spotting rainbows and drinking day-old coffee.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

A pale yellow cover features bunnies in many poses and many colors, with the title in a quirky script.

By Sahana C.

This book is cathartic. It feels like therapy, except things get way worse, more cringey, and infinitely harder to handle before the payoff hits, and all of the suffering of the previous two-thirds of the book ease into something manageable and even likable.  

I will not lie – I judged this book by its cover. There was something about the whimsical nature of the rabbits juxtaposed with the bold cursive proclaiming “everyone in this room will someday be dead” that struck me. What room? The very room I was in? I looked around the adult fiction section of the Savage Branch surreptitiously to see who was nearby. I went back up to the front desk, still holding onto the book, and thinking, “Yeah, actually, that’s true.”  

Dear Reader, obviously. This is not a new concept, that everyone, one day, dies. But sometimes, a book like this will bring this into perspective, throw a new light on something you know deep down but don’t consider very often. Emily Austin’s debut novel has moments I’m sure she would categorize as semi-autobiographical (I threw the “semi” in there for her sake, as the main character, Gilda, is truly a disaster), especially since there are moments in the book that I felt were semi-autobiographical and was alarmed at how close Gilda had gotten to my reality.  

Emily Austin was not referring to the Savage Branch when she was referencing her room. She was talking about every room Gilda, a noted hypochondriac, ever walked into. Gilda is a twenty-something lesbian and atheist, well known in the emergency room at her local hospital to the point that the janitorial staff know her by name. When we first meet her, she has just been in a car accident and broken her arm, a more physically obvious issue than the anxiety that normally brought her in for a check-up. In an attempt to get her anxiety under control, Gilda follows a flyer for free therapy to a Catholic church, where she meets Father Jeff and accidentally gets a job instead of therapy.  

From there, Gilda searches for a missing cat, deals with her younger sibling’s deteriorating mental health, tries to keep her old friends, tries to pretend like she’s Catholic, well-meaningly catfishes an old woman, and tries to solve a murder mystery that might not have involved murder, actually, all while trying to stay afloat.  

I read this on a long plane ride, which perhaps compounded the feeling of claustrophobia as Gilda kept tangling herself further and further in her web of lies. It meant that as I was reading an especially cringey section and closed the book for a moment, I couldn’t get up and go for a long walk, like I normally do. I was confined to the middle seat, stuck between two people who were fast asleep and were completely unaware of my distress, and, much like Gilda, all I could do in that moment was keep going. Keep reading and hope that somehow, something was going to get better.

Thank goodness it did, because otherwise, also like Gilda, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. This book is wholly about the existential dread that comes with being an adult and looking around to realize your general existence is not exactly what you thought it’d be, then figuring out how to cope with that anyway. 

I would like to make it very clear that I do, indeed, like this book. I want everyone to read it, despite how difficult it can be. I’ve been recommending it to everyone, describing it as “anxious queer fiction” and asking friends, “Have you ever felt completely directionless and stuck? Well. Gilda will make you feel better. Because she had it worse.” I think if we all take a moment to reflect, the way Gilda does, on the way things are going, we might not always like what we see, but at least we know that we’re not alone in our discontent.

(And if you really want to feel like you’ve got a community, look at the Goodreads reviews for this book here.)

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is available in print and eBook

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

A Warm Cup of Memories

An illustration shows a green park with two friends enjoying tea on a blanket, pettting a small tea dragon. The friends are fantasy creatures with horns, dressed in modern casual clothes like flip flops.

by Peter N.

Serene.  

The only way to describe Kate O’Neill’s series The Tea Dragon Society is that she has crafted a world that feels just like a soft warm blanket.  

In the first book we are introduced to Greta, who is learning blacksmithing from her mother. While in town she finds an injured tea dragon and returns it to Hesekiel and Erik. She’s then introduced to the world of tea dragons and Minnette, a young girl who was training to be a prophetess and inadvertently lost her memory. Through the seasons, Greta and Minnette grow closer while learning more about themselves, Hesekiel and Erik, and the power of memory.  

In the second book, which serves as a prequel, Rinn is an aspiring cook and lives deep in the woods. During a day of foraging, they meet Aedhan who has pulled a Rip Van Winkle and been asleep for 80 years. Aedhan, guardian dragon of Rinn’s village, was enchanted into sleep by a mysterious forest spirit. To atone for “disappearing” for all those years, he begins to help out around the village, getting to know its inhabitants and striking up a close friendship with Rinn. Through their friendship and the acceptance of the villagers, we learn to let go of guilt and accept what life gives you.  

In the third (and hopefully not the last) book, we once again see Greta who is trying her best to take care of her tea dragon to no avail, as well as training to become an apprentice. Minnette has also been dealing with her own demons and must learn to discover herself again. And we are treated to seeing Rinn and Aedhan again when they come to visit Hesekiel and Erik. This book is a culmination of the Tea Dragon story and teaches about grief, loss, and most of all, growth.  

A good cup of tea is comforting, familiar, and warms you from the inside out. Take it from me, these books will do the same.  

Peter is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch and collects way too many things.  

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

The image shows two characters as mirror images of one another , one in yellow shorts with no shirt and arms outstretched, the other in a blue shirt and blue rolled-up pants, clutching the gem of the pants. Both are up to mid-calf in blue-green water; the "reflected" person has a green-gold forest in the background.

By Ash B. 

When I started working here at the library, my favorite section to get acquainted with was the graphic novel section. One reason for this was the rate at which I could find LGBTQ representation; I’ve joked with friends and colleagues that sometimes I feel I have a ‘sixth sense’ for intuitively knowing whether an artist is queer based on their art style or the design of the book’s cover.  

Sometimes there are subtle clues about the book’s content, and sometimes there is something overtly LGBTQ-related about the cover, title, or summary. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (pronouns: e/em/eir) falls into the latter category on all counts. As soon as I heard the title alone, I knew I needed to read it. 

Gender Queer is a memoir, formatted as a graphic novel, that recounts Kobabe’s experiences regarding gender and sexuality throughout eir childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. At its core, it is a book that addresses what it means, in Kobabe’s personal experience, to be nonbinary, queer, and asexual. As e explains in a Washington Post op-ed, Kobabe primarily wrote this as a way of explaining eir nonbinary identity to eir parents and extended family. However, Kobabe’s story has reached much farther than that, garnering praise from readers, reviewers, and the American Library Association (ALA). 

In my opinion, as a nonbinary reader, Gender Queer is so remarkable because there is nothing else quite like it. Through a talented combination of text and illustration, Kobabe addresses complex intersections of gender and sexuality with such specificity that I was honestly blown away. Never before I had felt so seen and understood by a piece of media. One of my favorite passages addresses the struggle to achieve a balance of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gender expression when society is set on placing you on one side of the gender binary. I truly don’t have the words to fully express how meaningful this is to me… so let me share a brief anecdote instead: 

Around the time I was re-reading the book to prepare for this review, one of my (fellow nonbinary) friends texted me regarding a conflict they felt over an article of clothing they wanted to buy because they were concerned it would be read as ‘too feminine.’ Within our text conversation, I sent my friend two panels from the book.  

My friend’s response? They related so much that they started crying in the bathroom on their lunch break at work.

Representation matters. 

Even for those of us within the LGBTQ community who have come to terms with our identities, have community support, and hold privilege (whether it be whiteness, financial stability, ability, etc.) that improves our overall life outcomes – it is still hard to exist in a heteronormative society structured around the gender binary. At best, it is exhausting and invalidating, which still takes a hit to one’s mental health.  

Now imagine being a young person who lacks community support, lacks independence, and is questioning or struggling with accepting their identity. 

Books such as Gender Queer not only educate – they provide invaluable support to queer, trans, and questioning readers who need to see affirming, accurate, and nuanced representation. When we say these books can be a lifeline for readers, that’s not an empty statement; suicidality is significantly higher amongst LGBTQ youth, especially those who are trans, in comparison to their non-LGBTQ counterparts. 

Unfortunately, in the past year there has been a national surge – including in Howard County – in attempted censorship of LGBTQ books in school classrooms and media centers. Gender Queer has been one of the most controversial titles due to its frank discussion of (queer) sexuality and, to a lesser extent, gender dysphoria.  

This trend – the challenging and banning of books that contain content regarding sex, LGBTQ identity, or both – is not new. What is new is the influential role of social media and the internet, which allows far-reaching communication between book challengers and can create even more oppositional fervor towards the books that they have deemed “obscene,” “pornographic,” and so on. 

One of the problems with this overall pattern, however, is it increases divisiveness in public discourse. Parents, students, educators, librarians, and policymakers need to discuss these topics with the nuance, open-mindedness, and compassion necessary to truly educate and uplift youth. Instead, we are faced with a proliferation of outrage that doesn’t “protect” anyone – least of all LGBTQ youth. 

Some opponents are unapologetic in their homophobic and transphobic motivations, quite literally demonizing anything they hear is LGBTQ-related. (Do I need to explain further why these messages are extremely harmful to LGBTQ folks?) Other opponents claim they have no problem with queer-affirming books, but take issue with the books that contain passages regarding sex. I can understand where these folks are coming from – however, I would push back against the idea that teens need to be shielded from the type of “sexual content” that is in Gender Queer. This book isn’t meant to titillate – it is meant to inform, based on Kobabe’s own experiences of adolescence and young adulthood. 

So, before jumping to the conclusion that this book is inappropriate for high schoolers, consider Kobabe’s perspective: 

“It’s very hard to hear people say ‘This book is not appropriate to young people’ when it’s like, I was a young person for whom this book would have been not only appropriate, but so, so necessary. There are a lot of people who are questioning their gender, questioning their sexuality and having a real hard time finding honest accounts of somebody else on the same journey. There are people for whom this is vital and for whom this could maybe even be lifesaving.” 

Kobabe’s work gives language to some of the complexities that lie at the intersections of gender and sexuality. And with representation of asexuality and nonbinary genders still in short supply, Gender Queer is a much-needed addition. Mainstream narratives about LGBT people in the past few decades have often represented people who have “always known” they were transgender or “knew since they were three years old” that they were gay. But many of us do not have that experience. Many of us are in the dark about our true selves, until someone shines a light on all the possibilities of what queer existence can look like. Gender Queer has and will continue to have that positive impact on teens and adults alike.  

I hope this review will encourage you to see the value in this book for a variety of readers, LGBTQ or not. I urge you to read the book for yourself – and truly reflect on it. Print copies of Gender Queer: A Memoir can be requested to borrow here.  

Want to skip the waitlist? Your HCLS account also grants you access to the eBook version of Gender Queer on hoopla, a platform that allows titles to be streamed immediately or downloaded to devices for offline enjoyment later. For assistance with hoopla, view the tutorial on our website, visit your local branch, or reach out to us with your questions. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. This time of year, they are especially fond of reading while cuddling with their golden retriever and sipping hot cocoa or tea.

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

A woman with long dark hair embraces a man who is looking away amid leafy plants. The colors are all night-time blues and purples. Her face is pensive.

by Ash B.

[Content warning: sexual assault, PTSD, bullying, homophobia, and racism] 

“If I don’t pull apart things I actually did wrong from things that weren’t my fault, I’ll never really be able to really apologize for anything. Deciding everything is your fault is, in the end, as meaningless as deciding nothing is[…] I need to apologize for what is my fault, for what I did wrong, but not for the wrong that was done to me. 

Ciela Cristales just might be my favorite protagonist of 2021. 

The story begins with her dropping off an unconscious boy at the hospital on the night that changed her life – the night that she and this boy, whom she does not know, were both assaulted at the same summer party. She drops the boy off and intends to seal off the memories of the event as if they never happened.  

However, this proves difficult when the trauma she experienced results in the loss of the magical gift she inherited from her grandmother: the ability to sense exactly what type of pastry someone wants before they even know it themselves. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, then consider how this ability, “the most precious thing my bisabuela could ever have left me,” has passed down for generations and is part of the success of her family’s pastelería business. For Ciela, losing this magic is losing a part of herself – but it wasn’t just lost, it was taken through the cruelty of her peers. 

I’ll be honest, I was a bit hesitant to read this one because of the intensity of the storyline’s subject matter. I personally tend not to read heavy books, as they can leave a significantly negative impact on my mental health. However, I knew from reading their social media that McLemore put a lot of care into this story, purposefully including hope and healing along with an emotionally accurate representation of trauma. (McLemore themself is a survivor.) 

This information from the author, combined with my pre-existing love of their writing style, was enough to motivate me to give The Mirror Season a try… so I threw myself into reading it, and wow, did it devastate me in the best type of way. Honestly, few books have ever made me cry as much as this one did, and it provided me with some much-needed catharsis. 

Ciela is gradually forced to confront the extent of her trauma – including specific details of the event that she represses through most of the book – due to the development of her relationship with Lock, the boy who was assaulted at the same time she was. They are able to form a unique friendship due to their shared experiences of sexual violence, connecting to each other in ways that other folks might not understand; for example, making jokes out of their trauma as a coping mechanism. McLemore crafts these characters, and their world, so well and with so much care. They truly felt like living, breathing people with real, raw, messy lives that are worth learning about and empathizing with. 

Stylistically, McLemore combines elements of YA contemporary fiction with what they do best: magical realism written in lush, atmospheric prose. It’s the type of writing where the reader is left with some uncertainty regarding “is this all literally happening, or is this metaphorical?” during certain passages. For much of the book I questioned whether Ciela was perceiving some of these things as an expression of her trauma, or if real objects were legitimately turning to mirrored glass – and I believe that this uncertainty is well-suited for the representation of Ciela’s experience of reality after such a traumatic event. McLemore does not shy away from portraying the difficulties of PTSD, including nightmares and flashbacks, which can cause challenges in discerning between one’s past and present realities. 

I haven’t been through anything anywhere near what these characters have been through, but reading this book honestly helped me process my own feelings of the sexual harassment I have experienced as a queer trans person: the shame, the anger, the visceral disgust when remembering the event, the internalized victim blaming, and the sense that other people are entitled to disrespect the bodies and the personhoods of Othered individuals. In the case of Ciela, her Latina and pansexual identities create intersections in the ways she is objectified and harassed by her white, straight, cisgender peers. 

One aspect of this representation that I appreciate so much is that while this is a story about a queer person experiencing trauma, this is not a Queer Struggle story. Her struggle is not about being queer specifically. The classmates that assaulted her throw the word “lesbian” at her in a derogatory manner, but Ciela is not struggling with coming out or coming to terms with her sexuality. She is open about being pansexual (i.e., attracted to people regardless of gender) and her prior same-gender relationships, and she is accepted for it by herself, by her loved ones, and by Lock. Personally, I felt like the vibrant queer world around Ciela far outweighed the homophobia, so the overall tone of the book is queer pride, resistance, and joy. This, combined with the arc of Ciela of coming to terms with how to cope with her trauma in a healthy way, makes for an ultimately empowering story of growth and courage. I honestly could see this taking the place of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in future high school classrooms. 

So yes, this is a very emotionally challenging book, and no doubt will be highly triggering for some readers, but it is very healing. I really encourage anyone interested in this book – teens and adults alike – to give it a try, while being mindful of what you need to care for yourself. Check in with your current mental health and support system as you find the space and time to process this story in whatever way you need. I truly hope this book reaches as many readers who will benefit from it as possible. Copies of The Mirror Season can be requested through HCLS here.

For resources regarding sexual violence, visit www.rainn.org. For local support, community engagement, and more, check out HopeWorks of Howard County (formerly the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County) by visiting hopeworksofhc.org. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

The cover, in shades of pink and lavender, shows the two main characters looking at each other; Jane is on the subway, dressed in a black jacket, torn jeans, a white t-shirt and orange sneakers; August is walking alongside the subway station, wearing a white t-shirt and black jumper and boots, carrying a cup of takeaway coffee with a purse slung over her shoulder.
Book cover of One Last Stop.

by Ash B.

If you’re at all aware of contemporary LGBTQ romance fiction, then you’ve no doubt heard about Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. I’ve honestly yet to read it, but I can confirm there is no sophomore slump for McQuiston with their second novel One Last Stop. 

One Last Stop follows August, a cynical 23-year-old college student, as she adjusts to life in New York – trying out yet another college in another city – complete with quirky roommates, a job at a pancake diner that she may or may not be qualified for, and a subway route that she happens to share with the most attractive girl she’s ever seen. The aforementioned “Subway Girl” goes by the name Jane, she is equal parts kind and fierce, and… well, her existence may defy reality as we know it. 

I leave this intentionally vague for a reason: I likely would have found the book even more enjoyable if I had no idea of the plot before I started reading, given that McQuiston spends quite some time building up the mystery of who – or what – Jane actually is. Therefore, I will refrain from going into detail about the book’s premise. Honestly, if this review piques your interest in the title, then I recommend that you simply dive into the book for yourself without reading the summary! 

However, I will divulge that, in my opinion, One Last Stop is an example of speculative fiction at its most accessible, and I absolutely loved it. In a recent interview, Casey McQuiston explains how they “have always loved that genre that’s sort of one step away from sci-fi, one step away from magic or fantasy. It’s a type of romcom that I think was really popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” referencing films such as 13 Going On 30 and Freaky Friday. These are not stories typically considered sci-fi or fantasy – at least, not in the same way as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings – but they absolutely exist within the realm of speculative fiction, incorporating fantastical elements while allowing the author to set the story in an otherwise ‘normal’ contemporary world. The reader can take comfort in the familiarity of the overall setting but can be surprised, or at very least entertained, by the circumstances that arise from the speculative elements employed.  

Whereas these elements are often used for comedic potential in Hollywood movies, McQuiston is able to use them in a way that enriches One Last Stop with queer history and profound examinations about social differences between the past and present. And, of course, the situations created by the speculative elements are also well-suited for romantic tension and drama, which makes for a very engaging story.

I’ve found that a book is a particularly good read for me personally if it reminds me of other books I’ve loved, automatically encouraging my brain to go into “let’s compare these parallels!” mode while simultaneously being an enjoyable narrative on its own. One Last Stop is a perfect example of this! At the beginning, I found myself thinking of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, as both of these novels feature mystery-loving bisexual female protagonists in their early twenties, living in present-day NYC, that end up being caught in the middle of seemingly unreal circumstances. McQuiston’s lovable cast of characters, development of a queer found-family trope, and flirtation with the “star-crossed lovers” trope (but with a happy ending!) reminded me of Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. And by the end, as hidden family histories and unexpected connections between characters are revealed, I excitedly reminisced about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Other than being some of my favorite reads in the past few years, I would not think to compare any of those three titles with each other… yet they fit perfectly in comparison to One Last Stop. 

In its best moments, One Last Stop is so tenderly written that it makes me yearn for a life in New York City – and that’s saying something, considering I’m a lifelong suburbanite who’s always been more drawn to the countryside than the city. McQuiston crafts likable characters who speak realistically about life in their city, honoring both the beauty and the struggles of the world which they inhabit. Not only that, but the city itself – and certain destinations within it, such as August’s apartment and the pancake diner where she works – feel like characters too. McQuiston writes them all with such care, I couldn’t help but feel connected to them, want to visit these places, want to be friends with these people and experience life alongside them. This makes for a wonderful book to escape into, and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a feel-good read about falling in love, finding one’s community, and growing into the best version of one’s self.

One Last Stop is available to request from HCLS in print as well as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

JOUST!

This photograph shows the cover of Cosmoknights and has the 3 main characters, Cass, Pan, and Bee in the foreground. Cass and Bee are wearing their jousting armors and carrying their weapons. In the background is presumably the hand of a princess grasping their favor which is an electronic pendant carried by the princesses of each planet and is given to the winner of each joust.

For this ragtag band of space gays, liberation means beating the patriarchy at its own game.

By Peter N.

Did you know that jousting is the state sport of Maryland? Chalk this up as a fact I was surprised to learn as an adult. The sport that involves horses, lances, and two knights? What you see at the Renaissance Festival? Cool! But I digress. Jousting usually is a competition between the aforementioned two knights for the hand of a fair princess or maiden – but this book, this clever and action-packed book, takes it one step further. 

This photograph shows an intergalactic joust in progress with a jouster in the foreground wearing predominantly white armor and sporting several jet boosters and a large lance surrounded by other jousters. The king is shown on screen in the background shouting "JOUST" to begin the games.

 

Cosmoknights was a sleeper hit for me. I’m always beefing up my reader’s advisory arsenal; in the course of my usual day of helping customers find new reads and old favorites, I decided to dive into an article recommending 20 MUST-READ LGBTQ COMICS FOR TEENS AND YOUNG ADULTS, where I ran into a recommendation for this.

GAYS IN SPACE

That made me laugh. But it also got me. Hook, line, and sinker. Without giving away too much, we meet Pan, who seems to be your ordinary teenage girl helping her cooped-up friend sneak out for a night of fun. We soon find out that her friend is their planet’s princess, who is to be offered up as a prize to the knight that wins the planet’s joust competition and wants out. She needs to get away but needs help. Pan helps her escape, but at the cost of becoming the planet’s pariah. Flash forward to five years later, when she’s living a mundane life working in her father’s mechanic shop. One night, two tough types show up at their door, and one is in need of medical attention. For what exactly? And why do they seem so familiar to Pan? Pan finds her way off-planet with these two strangers and is sucked into a battle to take down the archaic competition of jousting for the “prize” of the princess. There’s more to these warriors that showed up on her doorstep than she thought!

This photograph shows the characters Bee and Cass on Pan's front porch. Cass is injured and supported heavily by Bee and they are asking for help from Pan.

I positively loved this book. There’s action, drama, mystery, and a slight Star Trek-y/steampunk-y/sci-fi vibe to it. It’s set in the future with space travel and such, but with none of the future utopia. The characters are likable, witty, and unbelievably brave with a little bit of selflessness thrown in. The art flows well and is seamless, easy to follow, and easy on the eyes. As with so many others I’ve read lately, it’s a series that IS STILL GOING – so here comes the waiting game until there are updates or another volume is published. If you’re like me and can’t wait, then the author, Hannah Templer, makes updates Tuesdays and Fridays on their website. But I’d highly recommend checking out Cosmoknights from your local Howard County Library branch and you won’t be disappointed.

Cosmoknights is also available from HCLS as an ebook via Libby/OverDrive.

Peter (he/him/his) is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch and needs to read the books he has checked out before grabbing new ones. 

The Unpopular Vote by Jasper Sanchez

The book cover shows a diverse group of teens dressed for school, one with a backpack.  The title is in bright multicolored letters of different fonts, against a pink background, with a blue check mark in the center of the "O" in the word "vote."
Book cover of The (Un)popular Vote.

by Ash B.

School may be out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hot new summer book releases that are set in school… 

If you enjoy contemporary YA fiction full of heart, humor, and drama, look no further than The (Un)popular Vote for your next summer read!

Mark Adams has grown up immersed in American politics, being the son of Graham Teagan, a prominent congressman. However, none of his new classmates realize who his father is, nor does the country realize Congressman Teagan has a son. Why? Mark is transgender, and has agreed to start at a new school and keep a low profile – as a cis-passing, straight-passing guy with no relation to Congressman Teagan – in order to maintain his father’s public image.  

However, between homophobic bullying of one of his friends and an upcoming student government election with candidates of dubious intent, Mark is spurred into action in pursuit of justice… by campaigning for student body president. Along the way, he must also navigate a burgeoning romance, unstable friendships, the disapproval of his father, and an investigative school journalist attempting to unravel his past for all the internet to see. 

This debut novel from Jasper Sanchez will appeal to teens and adults alike, especially lovers of The West Wing and The Politician, the latter being an especially fitting comparison given the precocious, serious, determined nature of the high school characters in both The Politician and The (Un)popular Vote.  

Sanchez does not shy away from having his characters show off their AP-level political and philosophical knowledge, and I will admit that many references went over my head. Nonetheless, I think the writing style makes this an accessible and engaging read. I truly struggled to put it down and always looked forward to getting a chance to read more, so I tore through it rather quickly and would happily read it again! 

The romance was even better than I expected, and I felt it was well-balanced along with the development of the student presidential campaign, Mark’s personal growth, and the rising tension between Mark and his father. Mark’s love interest was so sweet – honestly a standout character for me – and the dynamic between him and Mark was immaculate. I am always a sucker for the mutual pining trope, and Sanchez beautifully develops the bond between these two characters as they become closer while each grows as an individual. The (Un)popular Vote is both my favorite queer YA romance and my favorite trans-led novel since Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas! (Side note: our Reads of Acceptance book club will be discussing Cemetery Boys on September 20 and I’d love to see you there!)

Much like Cemetery BoysThe (Un)popular Vote is a refreshing example of a trans protagonist who has already transitioned before the first page of the book. Many mainstream representations of trans experiences, especially portrayals of trans youth, primarily deal with the questioning of one’s gender and the beginning stages of transitioning. Those stories are important, of course, but it is equally important to show trans people already living as their authentic selves.  

From the beginning, Mark is comfortable in his gender identity and is already out to himself, his parents, and his two best friends. Mark wears a packer and a binder daily, being mindful to bind safely, and this type of gender-affirming behavior is casual and normalized. His gender-related arc is not about the typical narrative of figuring himself out, or dealing with internalized transphobia, or even about coming out. Rather, and more interestingly in my opinion, it’s about the promise he made to his dad to remain ‘stealth’ in his transition; in other words, Mark is assumed to be a cisgender male by his classmates, and that’s how the situation should remain according to his father.  

And while Mark is repeatedly referred to by the wrong name and pronouns by his father – who is incredibly dismissive and toxic towards Mark – this book was ultimately a very feel-good experience as a queer, trans reader. There is no forcible outing and no transphobia from anyone within Mark’s circle (besides his dad). Mark’s friend group includes a neat variety of LGBTQ representation that felt organic, not tokenized, and these characters are nothing but supportive of each other’s identities. There are quite a few of them, and while I got a little confused at the beginning as I tried to keep track of names, I soon was able to distinguish each character from one another because they felt like individual people, not just words on a page.  

As for Mark himself, I found him to be a likeable and realistically flawed protagonist. He makes mistakes in his relationships that I found relatable and understandable, creating conflict to advance the plot and character growth without making me too frustrated at Mark. Themes regarding privilege, inequality, politics, and social change are woven throughout in a meaningful way as Mark experiences conflicting feelings regarding his own privilege, his ego, his family history, and his genuine desire to help the student body. Sanchez is also able to briefly yet poignantly integrate messages about toxic masculinity and feminism from a transmasculine perspective in a way I had yet to read in YA literature, and I very much appreciated it! 

Sanchez certainly gives weight to the issues that demand it, including instances of bigotry happening at the school in addition to Mark’s struggles with his dad. Ultimately, though, this novel is an uplifting pleasure to read, infused with plenty of queer joy, chosen family, resilience, and hope. The (Un)popular Vote is exactly the type of book I wish I had when I was in high school and am happy to read as an adult. I’m so grateful that it is available to teens today. Request a print copy today! 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.