Susan reviews Devil’s Rock by Gerri Hill

Devil's Rock by Gerri Hill cover

Gerri Hill’s Devil’s Rock is both the beginning of a new series and the resolution of a storyline from her Hunter series (which I reviewed here at the Lesbrary: Hunter’s Way, In The Name of the Father, and Partners). Unfortunately, I don’t think I can do this review without spoiling some of the events of Partners, so please bear that in mind!

Andrea Sullivan is a small-town police officer, confident that nothing as terrible as what happened to her in LA can happen in Sedona… And then the murders begin, because a serial killer who escaped the police in Dallas is using Sedona as his dumping ground. FBI Agent Cameron Ross shows up with her own set of issues, a kitten, and a motorhome full of FBI supercomputers to help figure out where he’s going to strike next.

The story itself was interesting, and it was nice to get some closure on the case from Partners, but some of the developments specifically about the murderer I just found myself just going “No. She can be serious. WHAT.” at, because they read as soap-opera style out-of-blue tricks of convenience, rather than actually feeling organic to the plot of either book. There are parts that are tense and dramatic, but an equal number that appear to have been set up for things in the sequel (such as mentioning that the motorhome is an electrified mobile fortress, which you’d expect to be tested at some point! But alas, no.) Although, I admit, I did periodically have to check when this book was published, because the idea of having to drive a computer around – not a crime lab, or anything else that would require you to be on the scene, an actual computer – seemed like something out of the eighties.

The thing that probably bothers me MOST about this is the way that Cameron Ross treats Andrea Sullivan. It’s not just aggressive flirting or posturing, although it contains that; at one point, Sullivan says that she doesn’t want to talk about her past with Ross, so Ross not only orders an FBI background check, but taunts Sullivan with it and blames her for it in a shocking display of “well if you’d just done what I wanted, I wouldn’t have invaded your privacy.” She’s like that about their relationship too; Sullivan says she’s not interested in kissing her, but Ross refuses to accept that because obviously she knows better. And worst of all, even though Sullivan repeatedly calls her out as a bully, it’s all for naught, because the narrative consistently rewards Ross with whatever she was bullying Sullivan for! Yeah, sure, Ross apologises, but ugggh. It doesn’t help that after Ross gets the files on Sullivan, Sullivan obviously stumbles across them and reads them (because of course) and the conversation ends with her apologising for invading Ross’s privacy. I get that it could be the narrative trying to model behaviour for Ross, but it was aggravating, and made it hard to accept the romance as a happy thing.

Devil’s Rock is a fine set-up for a new series, but I didn’t enjoy most of the romance tropes it used. That outweighed the mystery aspects, so I don’t recommend it.

[Caution warning: murder, kidnapping, abuse, bullying, mentions of infidelity, mentions of sexual assault, ableist language]

Alexa reviews Soft on Soft by Em Ali

Last month, I reviewed a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who was fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss). This month, I’m reviewing a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who is fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Soft on Soft, a.k.a #FatGirlsInLove by Em Ali). Honestly, I love this trend, and I hope we’ll all have the chance to read many more diverse and positive sapphic stories like these.

Despite my comparison at the beginning, Soft on Soft by Em Ali (which I received as an ARC with a different title, #FatGirlsInLove, that appears to be a working title) is an entirely unique story. It’s a romance between two fat sapphic women: Selena, a Black demisexual model, and June, the Arab-Persian, anxious make-up artist. Thanks to the profession of the two protagonists, Soft on Soft is full of diverse bodies being celebrated, colourful descriptions, flowers, and altogether vivid mental images.

The book’s plot can mostly be summarised as Selena and June flirting, hanging out with friends, going on dates, making geeky references or working together. It is a character driven novel that is perfect for people who just want to read a cute romance and don’t mind the minimal plot – and really, the characters are worth staying for. The supporting cast has multiple nonbinary characters (with different pronouns), one of whom has depression and some really relatable remarks about mental health and therapy. Also, one parent of the main couple is bisexual, which is awesome – I very rarely see older queer characters, especially parents with adult children.

One strange thing was that the characters in this book talked in real life the way I’m used to people talking on Tumblr, and it was just a strange dissonance to see that kind of language being used in offline conversation. For this reason, some sentences seemed like they weren’t really lifelike, but I’m sure people actually talk like this and I’m just not used to it. (Also, “I’m green with enby” is a great pun I must use.)

In short, this was an adorable novel with diverse characters and colourful settings (and also, cats!). I admit I generally prefer books with a more exciting plot, but people who just want a cozy sapphic romance with fat characters will love Soft on Soft.

tw: panic attack described by POV character (chapter 8)

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.

Danika reviews The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow coverAfter hearing only good things about the Scorpion Rules duology, I was eager to pick it up. Unfortunately, I read the first book during a readathon, and reading a crushing dystopian story about war and brutality was not the best choice to read all in one sitting. It was darker than I was expecting, so I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. I was, though, interested in the ideas introduced in the book. So I took a few months break before I picked up the second book in the series, The Swan Riders, in the hopes that I would be more prepared this time.

I spend most of my time reading this book thinking This is the reading rule you seem to re-learn over and over: just because people say a book is great, doesn’t mean you, personally, will love it. I have long since realized that it doesn’t matter how high calibre the quality of a book is if it doesn’t immediately appeal to me. Still, I continued with the sequel, because I had heard it was an improvement from the last book. Perhaps I was less connected to the characters because of the break that I took between books, but I was having trouble pushing through.

I have, historically, been a fan of dystopian novels, but this one I found hard to deal with. It’s just so straightforward about the suffering experienced. The pain. The first book includes a detailed scene of torture that nauseated me. The second book describes the slow deaths of several characters, all involving increasingly close together seizures. While the first book has some semblance of an us vs. them clarity, Greta spends most of her time in The Swan Riders alongside the villain of the previous book.

By the end of the narrative, I had come around. The strength of this story is in its ideas, especially (for me) its exploration of personal identity and humanity. [spoilers for first book:] Greta is an AI now, and she begins to drift away from her humanity and empathy, assisted by Talis’s intervention. [end spoilers] It takes this idea, of an AI enforcing global peace, and shows how tangled it is. How can global peace be achieved? Can it? And what amount of sacrifice is worth it? Clearly, Talis’s strategy is not defended by Greta or the narrative, but there’s also not a tidy alternative.

As for the queer content, there is definitely no central romantic story here. In fact, Greta does not interact with Xie for the whole novel. But her presence is there, nonetheless. She is Greta’s tie to humanity, to retaining her true self. She is a memory that Greta clings to. She is, in some ways, the home that Greta spends each step of her journey longing to return to. So although she isn’t a central character, she is a very important one.

For all my ups and downs with this duology, I would still recommend it, but with some caveats: this is not a queer Canadian princess fantasy-esque story that the blurb had me prepared for. This is a dystopia that is focused on war and its casualties. It is thought-provoking, but brutal.

Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

Danika reviews The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde

The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde cover

I almost wrote this book off after the first chapter. I’m nearly 30 and not a drinker, so reading about a teenage rock star getting incredibly drunk and then getting into a car accident (her girlfriend–who had also been drinking–was driving), paparazzi then swarming the scene, is not what I would usually gravitate toward. Luckily, I pushed through and found out that this is the moment that catalyzes change in Emmy. The entire book is basically the fallout from this moment.

Emmy is the drummer in the immensely popular teen band The Brightsiders. This means that you do get to be a voyeur to a teen rock star life, but it’s not all parties and accolades. Emmy loves her fans, and she thrives off the energy of playing in front of a crowd, but she doesn’t fare well with the endless rumors and hate spread through twitter, tumblr, and gossip magazines. It doesn’t help that 2/3rds of the bands members are queer: Emmy is bisexual and semi-closeted, and Alfie is out as nonbinary. Despite that hate that might circulate in certain corners of the internet, Alfie is a heartthrob that attracts attention from all genders… including, suddenly, Emmy.

Not only is the love interest in The Brightsiders nonbinary–there is a huge queer cast. Emmy’s best friend is black, femme, and nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. The f/f couple from Queens of Geek also makes a few cameos, which was really fun. There is a focus on found family, especially because Emmy’s parents are abusive. Emmy moved out of their house and into a hotel as soon as she was financially able, but until she is 18, she still feels like they have control over her life. Her entire life they have never stopped drinking and partying, ignoring her, insulting her, and gaslighting her in turns. In her childhood, Alfie’s house was her only escape. Now, with her partying having landed her in the hospital, she worries that she is heading down the same path.

Emmy’s parents unpleasantly pop up several times through the novel, and we get to see how this upbringing would have helped to shape some of the personality traits she struggles with, like people-pleasing. Jessie, the girlfriend who drove drunk, is another unhealthy influence in her life. Her friends and loved ones can clearly see the damage that their relationship takes on Emmy, but she is quick to laugh it off or go along with Jessie’s gaslighting.

Although there is definitely an element of the rock star lifestyle here, there’s a lot of emotional work happening beneath the surface. Emmy is learning to accept and love who she is, and protect herself from the toxic people in her life. There is also such warmth from the queer community that she surrounds herself with: both her friends and her fans show what support, love, and family really is. Like Queens of Geek, I raced through this, and I look forward to her next book!

Danika reviews Stray City by Chelsey Johnson

Stray City by Chelsey Johnson cover

Wow. This was an emotional journey for me. The description promises this is warm and funny, and although it contains those things, I also found it uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing at times. I did really enjoy the story overall, and I think it had a satisfying payoff, but I do think there are some barriers to entry here.

Stray City begins in Portland in the 90s. 24-year-old Andy has found her family and community in the queer/punk/diy scene here. She came here for school, but after she came out, her Catholic Midwestern parents stopped footing the bill for tuition. Now she’s part of the activist group The Lesbian Mafia, hangs out with the lesbian band The Gold Stars, and does graphic design (mostly in the form of artsy/folksy wedding invitations) and works at an antique shop to pay the bills. She has been recently dumped, and when she sees her ex-girlfriend making out with one of Andy’s closest friends at a show, she’s grateful for any distraction she can get. That distraction comes from Ryan, a straight guy who plays drums in a local band. Andy likes talking to someone outside of her circle for once. His attention is simple. Uncomplicated. It still comes as a surprise to her, however, when in the alley out back after the show, she starts kissing him.

This is where I think Stray City will lose a lot of Lesbrary readers. This is, essentially, a story about a relationship between a lesbian and a straight guy. Unlike something like Ramona Blue, however, this isn’t about someone on a journey to a greater understanding about their orientation–or maybe it is, but it leads right back to where she started. This is something that I see a lot more in real life than I do in fiction: lesbians who have casual sex with men, even though they’re not attracted to them. Because it’s easier, or because they’re looking to get something out of sex that doesn’t require intense attraction or romantic attraction. For Andy, she’s clearly looking to be desired. She’s been hurt in her previous relationship, and it’s nice to be wanted. It even feels a little scandalous, at first, to be with a guy. And she does enjoy his company… she’s just not attracted to him.

Reading about Andrea and Ryan’s relationship made me cringe. I wanted to like Ryan, because I wanted to see what Andy saw in him, but there were definite warning signs: he really seems to see Andrea as a “challenge.” He destroys things when he’s angry. He gets itchy feet staying anywhere too long. Andy wants this uncomplicated connection with someone: an assurance of being wanted, both sexually and personally. She likes hanging out with him, playing Scrabble, talking all night. And making out is fun! But, of course, this gets very complicated. Ryan wants more from their relationship. Despite the open communication happening, despite Ryan knowing she’s a lesbian, he still holds out hope that she will fall as passionately in love with him as he is falling for her.

Andrea’s flirtation with going back into the closet is really interesting (if uncomfortable) to read about. She marvels at being able to go out (in a different town) and hold hands with him without anyone caring. Although she has kept this relationship from her friends, although it felt exciting and illicit there, she realizes that in the greater picture, it’s completely encouraged.

I feel like what follows is a spoiler, but it’s clearly outlined in the description, and it is the heart of the story, so I feel like it’s worth knowing about before you get into it!

Andrea has a powerful moment where she realizes that she is done faking anything for anyone, and she’s ready to let Ryan know exactly where they stand… and then she finds out she’s pregnant. She immediately makes an appointment with the women’s clinic to have an abortion, but now that the possibility is there, she can’t stop thinking about it. What would it be like to like to raise a kid in her found family? A kid surrounded by queer people? A kid who didn’t have to have the same rigid restrictions she had? Couldn’t that be something incredible?

Andy soon finds out, though, that some of her new, cool, queer circles have just as rigid demands as Catholocism, and being a pregnant lesbian doesn’t fit them. She has to face the judgement, and sometimes rejection, of her community. (As someone who came out as bisexual after IDing as a lesbian for a decade, I really felt this.) Meanwhile, her relationship with Ryan gets even more complicated and strained.

I thought this was a fascinating, thought-provoking and emotional story–even if it did make me want to crawl out of my own skin at times. I found it funny how nostalgic the beginning felt for me: I was not in the right decade or even country that Stray City describes, but that queer political/punk/diy/mid-20s scene has not changed much over time or distance. I also loved the descriptions of Bullet, Andy’s pitbull, and how she says that queers and pitbulls are in the same family.

I was surprised to find that the novel jumps ten years in the final third, but that section is such a breath of fresh air. All the tension built in the previous sections is released, and we get to see Andy where she really belongs, with the family that she has chosen.

I do recommend this one, but I know it’s not for everyone. Most of the book does deal with Andrea and Ryan in a sexual, semi-romantic relationship. On top of that, there is some biphobia–although I don’t think it’s endorsed by the narrative, Andy and her friends all scoff at the idea of being bisexual. If you can get through the discomfort in the middle of the narrative, I do think the pay off is worth it. I especially recommend the audiobook!

Danika reviews Heavy Vinyl, Volume 1 by Carly Usdin and Nina Vakueva

The cover of Heavy Vinyl volume one

What a fun, quick read! Chris is a teenager who has just started working at the local record store. (It’s the 90s.) All her coworkers seem impossibly cool, and she immediately starts crushing on one of them. As the cover would suggest, though, it’s not just music that this group of girls is passionate about. Chris finds herself getting initiated into a network of teen girl vigilante gangs.

A panel from Heavy Vinyl, showing two women talking in a boxing ring

It’s a little bit Empire Records, a little bit Josie and the Pussycats (the movie), with bonus vigilante, mystery-solving teen girl gang and a queer main character. This is set in the 90s, but other than working at a record store and making 90s music references, I didn’t notice that. It’s pretty idyllic: there’s no homophobia shown, and the multiple queer characters are not remarked on.

The strength and weakness of this is how cute it is. You wouldn’t think that a story about a vigilante gang would be so fluffy, but it is! It’s more Scooby Doo than anything else. They rail against the patriarchy more by defending ~girly music than with any real violence. The romance is mostly blushing and flirting–no kissing on the page, nevermind anything else–but it is stated outright, not subtextual.

The overarching plot got a little goofy for me (and invites the Josie and the Pussycats comparison), but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing! I will definitely be picking up the next volume when it comes out, but I do hope that it gets a little meatier at that point.

Quinn Jean reviews All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout The Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

[This review contains very vague spoilers (no specific plot points, though) and mentions of violence]

This exceptional short story collection, edited by Saundra Mitchell, is a sterling addition to WLW fiction. The vast majority of the seventeen stories included involve major WLW characters and without fail, every tale is breathtakingly beautiful. The historical settings range from a convent in medieval Spain, to small-town USA in the 1950s, right through to grunge-soaked Seattle in the early 1990s. Similarly, the young women included in the WLW stories vary greatly in their personalities, identities, dreams and loves. The one thing all the stories have in common is that none of the protagonists have unhappy endings. The book has successfully set out to show queer teenagers have always existed and thrived, even in the most adverse circumstances.

The heroism inherent in merely existing as a queer person is captured brilliantly in every story in All Out, with some of the stories including magic and fantasy to further heighten this theme. Leprechauns and witches–as well as peasant girls, waitresses and nuns–all show themselves to be strong, generous and brave when their circumstances would have them give up on life and love. Too often fictional portrayals of WLW in historical settings show these women to be doomed, but these stories reward their characters with happiness and promising futures. And the long past times in foreign places portrayed by the authors never feel distant given the amount of detail and nuance each story is imbued with, so that the reader is transported completely each time.

It is to the reader’s benefit not to know too much about what each story will contain, with only the promise that none end in tragedy, so there’s no need to be anxious when reading. Inevitably certain historical settings mean there are depictions of violence at times, but this is not the over-riding theme of any story, with queer love stories and self-discovery always emerging victorious.

Do not miss this book, it is a glorious expression of the love and light that has always filled WLW.

Rebecca reviews Back to the Start by Monica McCallan

Back to the Start by Monica McCallan cover

Monica McCallan’s Back to the Start is an okay read featuring the trope of rekindling first love. Although the book has a wonderful love interest and interesting plot twists, it’s bogged down with tedious writing and an unlikable protagonist.

Our protagonist is Remy who must leave San Francisco and return to Farmingdale after her grandmother dies. Although Remy only lived there briefly and hasn’t been back in twelve years, the small town left an indelible mark on her. She’s vowed to forget everything that happened there, especially Fallon, the beautiful and popular girl who broke her heart. However, their paths inevitably cross. As misunderstandings are cleared up and Remy and Fallon form a tentative friendship that blossoms into something more, Remy must decide exactly what she wants from life.

I struggled with this book. Although the plot is decent, I dislike McCallan’s writing style. Every other page is filled with phrases like “the blonde said” or “the brunette did” and it’s frustrating and boring to read. The writing is very flat and lacks emotion. I really would have liked some relevant descriptions because I struggled to picture people and places.

Remy is an unlikable, selfish, and narrow-minded protagonist. I couldn’t connect with her at all. But, she does experience some much-needed growth by the end of the book. However, I really would have liked the narrative to feature more of Remy’s change in attitude toward the town and other people. On the other hand, Fallon is the perfect love interest who is honestly too good for Remy. She’s a great and relatable character who is generous, caring, and sweet.

While the plot isn’t ground-breaking, it’s well-paced and kept my attention. There is a decent amount of tension and sweetness in the romance. I like that there isn’t an instant love reconnection between Remy and Fallon. Instead, they take time to rebuild their relationship, move past their issues and learn about each other. I particularly like the last few twists which finally allow Remy to show some growth.

Back to the Start is an okay take on the rekindling first love trope. While I love Fallon and the plot held my attention, I couldn’t fully get into this book because of McCallan’s writing and Remy’s off-putting personality. I wouldn’t read this one again. But, if you like the rekindling first love trope and well-written love interests, maybe you can give this book a go.

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Anna Marie reviews Grrrls On The Side by Carrie Pack

Grrrls On the Side by Carrie Pack cover

I was so excited to read this queer Young Adult novel, but unfortunately it was a big disappointment. Before I get into my criticism, let me explain the premise, and why I was so excited to read it. Set in 1994, Grrrls on the Side is about Tabitha, a fat white girl who feels like an outcast stumbling across a movement of Riot Grrrls nearby. As someone who loves zines and some aspects of riot grrrl, I was really intrigued by the synopsis, and I had also just read Moxie which is another Young Adult novel but this time focused on contemporary girls reaching back to riot grrrls for inspiration. Moxie was disappointing to me for various reasons, some to do with the way race was represented and also because queerness was almost completely erased from the narrative. When I remembered that Grrrls on the Side had canon queerness in it and was also about Riot Grrrl I thought it would satiate my itch for some good angry queer punk girl YA, but once again I was wrong!

Grrrls on the Side is a confusing and fluctuating story – Tabitha is very inconsistent in so many ways, leaping from one feeling, one breakup and one crush to the next, and not in a way that was believably adolescent. It was weirdly paced, intensely focused on romance in a really unlikely and often confusing way – random characters would be mentioned once as being present in a scene completely out of the blue. A lot of the characters, including Tabitha, are like light switches in terms of their emotions: one minute they are crying and the next laughing – its very hard to keep up with and enjoy. One of the threads of the novel – that being Tabitha’s sexuality – is just oversimplified: at first she has turmoil about being bi and thinks about it a lot, but as soon as she’s in another relationship, it completely disappears from her mind, except when out of the blue, one of the love interests says really biphobic things to her (which I personally found to be very frustrating and out of character for her).

There were three black girl characters in the novel, Venus, Monique and Jackie, and of those three Jackie was the only one to get more of a personality than her blackness. Venus and Monique were consistently present to draw attention to the racism not only of the Riot Grrrl movement (and especially one specific character), but also to Tabitha. A character arc of the novel is that Tabitha finally understands that she won’t ever understand what it’s like to be black, which is such a disservice to all three black characters, and the idea that Tabitha, a white girl, is the focus point of a narrative supposed to highlight how black women and girls are the ‘grrrls on the side’ is reprehensible. I just cant understand why the author would choose to sideline the black characters in a story that she was in control of creating!

On top of the stereotypical and flat representation of these three characters, there is also a Chinese American character named Cherie who doesn’t seem to register as a person of colour in the context of the group or the narrative, like her presence isn’t seen as a ‘problem’ in the way the black girls are?!

I don’t want to end this totally negatively, so here were some good aspects: Throughout the chapters the zines that some of the girls make are included, and it was always so fun and lovely to read. It really made it seem like riot grrrl, like a bunch of messy, angry, contradictory weird girls were making things and enjoying it for themselves. My favourite character was Jackie, because she was a tender butch lesbian and she was so sweet and patient. Lastly, there was a really cute moment where Tabitha met an older woman who had also been part of a women’s liberation movement, and they had a lovely connection and promised to write to each other! Intergenerational solidarity is the best!

There’s one instance of sexual assault in this and some discussion of r*pe nearer the beginning of the novel.