“Ladies and Gentlemen: I give you the Kissing Booth Girl! Lips that beguile. Oh, I promise, the nearest thing to nuzzling an angel can be yours—today!—for a shiny round Seated Liberty I know you carry in your very pockets as I speak.” But to mechanically-inclined Beni, is the ethereal girl who fell from the sky a wish come true or false hope for life beyond the confines of the odd carnival called home. Her story—as well as tales of an order of deep-sea diving nuns caring for a sunken chapel and a high school boy asked to prom by the only dead kid he’s ever met—can be found in A.C. Wise’s newest collection of the fantastical, the weird, the queer and the poignant.
Last year I read and reviewed A.C. Wise’s The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again and I loved it. It was fun, camp, and utterly delightful. So when Wise approached me about reviewing her latest collection, The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, I agreed with alacrity, as I was keen to read more of her work. And while this collection is perhaps less exuberant than the previous one, it is a deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking set of stories, which while spanning the breadth of the speculative genre in space and time, all deal with identity and agency.
The stories debate identity, in the broadest sense of the word, as a construct — whether a societal construct, a philosophical one, or a literal one — and whether choice can ever be a part of that. In The Poet’s Child the use of language and words as essential to identity is illustrated by the loss of words and their meanings. It is only in the absence of having the words to describe themselves and the way that the main character is only the poet’s child lacking a name and pronouns, that you realise how much of our identity and being is defined by what we are called and what we call ourselves. Something that is echoed in the next story Juliet & Juliet(te). The changing of the spelling of her name signals a change in Juliet(te), but also a change in who Juliet will be. Juliet(te) makes a choice to change her name and every step on the road she travels with Juliet is shown as another choice.
Choice is also central to And If the Body Were Not the Soul, one of my favourites in this collection. Ro, Xal, and Audra all have to choose to trust one another and to respect each other’s boundaries. I loved Ro and Xal and the way Wise developed their relationship and the way they see themselves and the other. Wise also does an interesting thing with the way Xal communicates. Because they are so other, they cannot convey meaning through body language or inflection and they state tone before every utterance. I really liked how this created a sense of alienness, while at the same time making Xal one of the few in the story who communicated in a totally transparent manner.
The lack of choice and even agency plays a large role in two of my other favourites, For the Removal of Unwanted Guests and After Midnight – A Fairy Tale Noir. In the former, the protagonist Michael is confronted by a witch who decides to move in with him whether he agrees or not. The witch is there to teach Michael some life lessons and he has no choice but to learn them. What I really loved about this story is that it is as much the witch’s tale as it is Michael’s and the feeling of warmth that laced it. The question of agency is even more explicit in After Midnight, which is a retelling of Cinderella, but as you’ve never seen it before. The lack of agency here is both within the narrative as the characters have to abide by their archetypes, but it is also present without, as the reader has to let go of certain preconceptions she has as regards how the story of Cinderella is constructed and how it should play out.
The remaining two of my top five stories from this collection were A Mouse Ran Up the Clock and The Astronaut, Her Lover, the Queen of Faerie, and Their Child. A Mouse Ran Up the Clock is a fascinating, alt-historical, almost steampunk, narrative about a clockmaker and a scientist who are rounded up to work for a Nazi-parallel leader. It looks at the depth of human curiosity and thirst for discovery, but also how that can be abused and turned to unimaginable cruelty. And ultimately the sacrifice some are willing to make to save others. If the story feels starkly real despite its alt-history roots, The Astronaut, Her Lover, the Queen of Faerie, and Their Child feels far more lyrical and dreamlike. This is also due to the fact that Gin is perhaps not the most objective or reliable narrator of her and Silvie’s love story. The story kept shifting direction and I loved the ambiguous ending.
A.C. Wise’s The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories is a treasure trove, without a single disappointing story. Wise shows her range and depth with collection, displaying a versatility and craft that is wonderful. From her previous collection and the various short stories I’ve read in other publications to this latest collections, I never know what the next story is going to bring, but it is almost assured that I will like it, thanks to Wise’s style and voice. If you’ve never encountered Wise’s writing before, The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories is a great place to start. If you are familiar with her work, you know you’re in for a treat.
This book was provided for review by the author.