Susan reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages cover

Ellen Klage’s Passing Strange is an award-winning fabulist romance between Haskel, a cover artist for pulp magazines, and Emily, a singer in a lesbian bar, set in San Francisco during the 1939-1940 World Fair.

It’s a beautiful, weird little story, with just a tiny touch of magic, that revolves around a friendship group of queer women. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I adore narratives about queer communities, especially when they show the importance of queer friendship groups (rather than focusing on one isolated couple who never talk to any other queer people), and Passing Strange does that! It has different varieties of queer women – queer women of colour and queer white women, queer women who are married to men and queer women who are openly living together – it shows so many different ways to be queer, and I loved it for doing that. I especially enjoyed the way that that characters reacted to Mona’s – there was a really fascinating touching-on of performative queerness as equal parts freedom and prison; the people who worked at or visited Mona’s had a space where they could be openly queer, but the price of that was also being a tourist attraction for straight couples to gawk at. The depiction of communities helping each other cope with oppression, and queer people building their own families together, is great and so welcome.

I have seen some complaints that there isn’t very much of the fantasy element in the book, and it’s definitely fair; Franny is introduced as having magic very early on, and that is almost the only reference to magic until the last quarter of the book. However, I really liked the magic that we did get! It’s presented very matter-of-factly, like of course a woman could fold a map to connect two different parts of San Francisco together, why wouldn’t she be able to do that? She’s interested in studying it scientifically, but of course it’s a thing she can do. The ordinary magic of the World Fair, or of the city waking up for the night, is presented as just as magical! That’s wonderful to me.

The writing is lovely too. I found the narrative tone to be perhaps a little distant, but I thought it worked for the story it was telling and the time period it was set in – it fits the tone of lesbian pulps that I’ve read. It does shift point of view in the middle of scenes, by the way, but it doesn’t feel like head-hopping to me; it feels like the camera trick of soap operas, where someone finishes their scene and leaves, leaving the camera behind focused on someone else. I feel the style and techniques work very well for what it’s doing. And the romance! It’s a romance about the parts of someone that surprised you, because Haskel and Emily don’t quite get along on their first meeting, but watching them surprise each other and move from that awkwardness warmed my heart. However, the relationship moves very quickly – but the characters seem to be as surprised by it as I was, which make me feel better about it, and considering the events of the novel (including an abusive ex-husband coming back), I could absolutely buy the relationship moving faster in response.

My attitude to the historical aspects is mixed; one the one hand, I love the little historical details it wove in, and quite frankly drawing on pulp media is how you get me. But I have this bone-deep instinctive side-eye for any narrative where famous, real, historical people are introduced, especially if one of the main characters has slept with them. On the other hand, I really appreciated that it did go so hard into the details of the time, because it worked. It’s fascinating and detailed and really brought the story to life. (There is a fair amount of historical sexism, homophobia, and racism, so fair warning! The latter is deliberately used as a way to get money out of white people, but it’s still worth warning about.)

The ending was bittersweet even as it made me smile – it resolved remarkably little about Haskel and Emily, but the way the story reveals the significance of Helen’s actions in her framing story more than made up for it. Passing Strange was so lovely and dear to me, and I highly recommend it. Please read it and come back to be excited with me!

[Caution warnings: spousal abuse, police harassment, historical homophobia and racism, non-graphic suicide]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Link Round Up: October 28 – November 11

November Link Round Up Cover Collage

This is the Lesbrary bi-weekly feature where we take a look at all the lesbian and bi women book news and reviews happening on the rest of the internet!

Mean by Myrium Gurba   Cottonmouths by Kelly Ford   Grief Map by Sarah Hahn Campbell   The Summer of Jordi Perez   Odd One Out by Nic Stone

Autostraddle posted Queer Books Across America: Incredible Lesbian and Bisexual Novels and Memoirs Set in Every State.

BCLA LGBTQ Interest Group posted Women’s History Month: Books by LGBTQ+ Canadian Women.

LGBTQ Reads posted New Releases: November 2018.

Ylva Publishing posted When Fanfiction Writers Go Pro – Lesbian Books Inspired by Fanfiction.

“The Top 10 Ongoing Comics Queer Women Should Be Reading” was posted at Shoot the Breeze Comics.

“Oprah Winfrey Producing Film Adaptation of ‘Color Purple’ Musical” was posted at Logo.

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan   The Color Purple by Alice Walker   Compass Rose by Anna Burke cover   In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard   Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Compass Rose by Anna Burke was reviewed at Frivolous Views.

In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard was reviewed at The Lesbian Reading Room.

A Certain Loneliness by Sandra Gail Lambert was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand was reviewed at GLBT ALA Reviews.

What the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti was reviewed by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

Looking for Lorraine: The Radical and Radiant Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward was reviewed at A Bookish Bi.

In Search of Pure Lust by Lise Weil was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

This post, and all posts at the Lesbrary, have the covers linked to their Amazon pages. If you click through and buy something, I might get a small referral fee. For even  more links, check out the Lesbrary’s twitter! We’re also on FacebookGoodreadsYoutube and Tumblr.

Thank you to the Lesbrary’s Patreon supporters! Special thanks to Jacqui Plummer, FromTheDustyBookshelf, Kayla Fuentes, Muirgen258,  Mark, Sarah Neilson, Martha Hansen, Daniela Gonzalez De Anda, Amy Hanson, Bee Oder, Ellen Zemlin, Hana Chappell, and Casey Stepaniuk.

Support the Lesbrary on Patreon at $2 or more a month and be entered to win a queer women book every month!

Alexa reviews Outrun the Wind by Elizabeth Tammi

Outrun the Wind by Elizabeth Tammi

Outrun the Wind has been on my list of most anticipated releases ever since I saw that magical cover, and learned that it is a Greek mythology love story between two complicated young women. I love reading stories based on Greek mythology, but most of the ones I’ve read recently were modern retellings, so I was glad to read a more classical one.

This book did not disappoint. Outrun the Wind pulled me in from the beginning with the writing style, the story and the characters. The warrior-turned-princess, and the huntress with the prophetic gifts. And, of course, the gods, who somehow managed to be even bigger jerks than I expected. I wasn’t familiar with Atalanta’s myth before, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this book at all – while it has elements from the canon myths, it also adds several new characters and fills Atalanta’s life with people.

I loved that this story was about two young women who were both hurt by men, but they managed to stay strong, get revenge, and heal together. Of course, nothing comes easily – their relationship develops gradually from animosity to love, so if you’re into that kind of thing, you might love this book.

One thing that was really strange to me is Artemis’s behaviour at the very beginning of the book, that Atalanta herself points out. You would think that a maiden goddess who renounced men and has a group of female warriors helping her would respect female warriors more and wouldn’t see them as subordinate to their male companions. I had minor issues with Apollo’s character as well, but those are more subjective (and possibly due to me still being under the effect of The Trials of Apollo) – however, this bit with Artemis just simply didn’t make much sense to me. I also would have loved to see more gods or Greek mythical figures maybe.

All in all, I thought this book was great for a debut novel, and while it could have used some more polishing, I definitely recommend it to anyone who likes Greek myths, or just fantasy with sapphic characters. (Also, I squeed when the title of the book was mentioned.)

tw: attempted sexual assault

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.

Gail Marlene Schwartz reviews Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman

Conflict Is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman

“The fact that something could go wrong does not mean that we are in danger. It means that we are alive.”

– Conflict is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman

Just days after the American midterm election, it’s impossible to avoid the ever-growing polarization in the U.S. Author, playwright, and professor Sarah Schulman takes a new look at similar dynamics in her 2016 book, Conflict is Not Abuse, and posits that improving social ills requires differentiating conflict from abuse and responding differently. The ideas in the book are unique, persuasive, and practical, a great contribution to the peace movement. Everyone in a leadership position should read this book and strongly consider how they can implement its ideas to avoid escalation and crisis in conflict situations; it could literally help save lives and at the same time enable human beings to evolve and live with far less anxiety and fear and far more joy and peace.

Schulman draws on many sources for the book, including the theories and practices of psychologists, sociologists, novelists and poets. She is transparent about speaking from a queer and feminist perspective, and her methodology is more conversational and interactive than academic, making the ideas very accessible. She includes conversations with experts, quotes, tweets, Facebook posts, and concrete examples, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine, women in dangerous relationships, Canadian criminalization of people with HIV, and the killing of black men in the US by police. She does a great job of bringing many different thinkers and their ideas to the table, strengthening her argument and making the book all the more engaging.

The phenomenon of “overstating harm” is central to Schulman’s thesis. She says there is a very real difference between a woman who is afraid to go home because her boyfriend may kill her, based on past serious physical abuse, and a woman who is afraid to go home because she doesn’t want to face her boyfriend’s anger. People who have been in the victim role can overstate harm but so can people or institutions who actually have power. One example is the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. Actions like a Palestinian protest over land being seized has resulted in ongoing killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Because of the Holocaust, the Israeli government overstates the harm of Palestinian actions; the overstatement of harm justifies the escalation and the ongoing oppression and killing of people whose actions were reasonable to their situation and in a far less powerful position.

Overstating harm happens from distorted thinking, Schulman explains, which has two very different root causes. Somebody with supremacist ideology can easily overstate harm. A supremacist is somebody who bullies, who doesn’t self-reflect or apologize, who believes he or she is simply better than others. These are the people who rape, abuse, cover up, lie, and cause scandals. But somebody who’s been traumatized by that person can have the same distorted thinking, by projecting the traumatizing event onto a current situation.

This was a powerful thought, that some of those who feel unsafe, threatened, or victimized are suffering from exaggerated thinking which contributes to escalation. It’s certainly not part of the politics of oppression. Many on the left in North America would label this “blaming the victim.” But a huge strength of this book is Schulman’s willingness to take risks like this to point out unpopular truths and perspectives to her audience, people on the political left.

Overstating harm also means that authentic danger becomes invisible. If a police department gets repeated calls about domestic violence when the perceived danger is exaggerated, the officers are far less likely to believe there is a serious problem when it happens. Those most affected, says Schulman, are the most vulnerable among us, like refugees, people of color, and disabled people. This is an important point as it shows how a personal habit or behavior can have a high and unwanted social cost.

Schulman also argues that the technological age has made this problem substantially worse. Electronic communication lacks the tools necessary to understand and connect with another person. Most of us have experienced offending someone with a Facebook post, a Tweet, an email, or a text message. Many people on Facebook have blocked somebody or have been de-friended because of a conflict that Schulman says could have been resolved had the people been in the same room. She advocates for picking up the phone and speaking voice-to-voice instead of texting or emailing, both to simplify and humanize communication and also to avoid the real dangers of miscommunication and escalation.

Another key element of the theory is that of the “bad group” or bad family that encourages the person or group to take escalating actions, like shunning, cruelty, and unilateral control. This is similar to peer pressure, something most of us have experienced. Schulman again is speaking not from a progressive or marginalized perspective but something more distanced, seeing the way the dynamic involves everyone and how escalation leads to crises nobody wants. The left often employs those tactics, and it’s valuable to question them when people around us “support” us by suggesting we use them.

Schulman gives a great example from her own life: a favorite male writing student posted a blog about having a crush on her in the early days of blogging. Her friends, most of whom are queer feminists, encouraged her to kick the student out of her class, report the incident to the police, and file for a restraining order. She resisted the pressure and instead took different steps. She asked the university to move the student to another writing class. She called and asked him if they could meet to talk. They got together several times and both learned more about the other’s position. Schulman ends the story saying she and the student have remained friends and fans of one another’s work; both emerged from the conflict feeling complete and understanding more about one another, themselves, and how to talk through a conflict.

Schulman suggests that “good” families and communities get involved in conflicts to help avoid overstatement of harm and distorted thinking. This was, perhaps, one of the most radical ideas if the book, in an age where most people consider conflicts personal and “nobody’s business.” We’re encouraged to involve either the state (certainly people of color know this will rarely have a good ending, but Schulman helps us see that it doesn’t help any of us in the end) or a private therapist if we’re wealthy enough to afford one. But our friends and sometimes our family members are with us in our everyday life. They know us better than anyone; if they can point out distorted thinking and help us prevent escalation, this could be a very easy and efficient way to avoid crises.

One particularly powerful chapter in the book is a series of tweets posted by Schulman and her friends, many of them Palestinian human rights activists, during the summer of 2014 when the Israeli army killed more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians. The realities of the situation as it unfolded were horrific to read about, particularly since no mainstream media outlet in the West reported what was happening. When contextualized, it becomes clear that the distorted thinking Schulman talks about can so easily lead to atrocities in which losses are enormous and nobody wins.

Human conflict exists because of difference. But we are far more capable of resolving it than we think. We must start by abandoning the roles of “perpetrator” and “victim” in circumstances that don’t warrant those labels. When we recognize that we are simply “conflicted,” we see the “other” as a human being, and it’s more likely we can find a satisfactory conclusion and often learn and grow. This new way of approaching conflict can result in paradigm shifts, which means social and cultural change, something most would agree is massively needed across the globe at this precarious moment in history.

Gail Marlene Schwartz is an Abba fan, a Planet Earth activist, and the first in her family to heal anxiety through diet, exercise, and Facebook rants. Favorite lit mag credits: Lilith Magazine, The New Quarterly, Room Magazine. Favorite anthologies she’s been published in: Swelling with Pride (Caitlyn Press), Nature’s Healing Spirit (Sowing Creek Press), and How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting (TouchWood Editions). Gail lives in southern Quebec where she and her wife homeschool their son. She is currently working on her first novel. www.gailmarleneschwartz.com.

Mallory Lass reviews America by Gabby Rivera, Illustrated by Joe Quinones and Annie Wu

I only recently (in the last 18 months) got into reading comic books. Honestly, I never understood the appeal, and no one I knew read them when I was younger. But, I am so glad I started. They are a little intimidating to figure out (I still couldn’t tell you their naming/numbering system, it makes no logical sense), so when you first get going, I suggest starting with a solo series, collected issues devoted to single characters.

This review will focus on the recently completed origin story of America Chavez aka “Miss America”, written by Gabby Rivera. America is Marvel’s first Latin American LGBTQ character to have her own ongoing series. Rivera is also a queer woman of color, and their shared identity really makes America’s story shine. America previously appeared in Young Avengers and the Ultimates, among others, before landing her own story. There are 12 issues in this solo run, which have been compiled into two trade paperbacks, so I’ll discuss the series overall and then briefly both volumes in turn. Hot tip: a lot of public libraries have tons of trade paperback comics in their Teen collection, which is were I get 95% of the comics I read.

This comic doesn’t shy away from establishing America’s queer and Latinx identity. This comic is written partly in Spanish, which I found really authentic to her character, and having “Spanglish” in the book is something Rivera pushed for. I wanted to look up translations, and had fun doing it, but the plot is totally understandable even if you don’t want to spend time translating. Found family is a major theme in America’s origin story. America doesn’t have a relationship with her family, for a variety of reasons, which are revealed a little bit in Vol 1 and more in depth through Vol 2. America puts in the emotional energy required to create and maintain friendships and mentorships that serve as her found family. Getting to witness America and her friends showing up for each other again and again is where this series shines. My minor complaint is that I don’t find the villains, the Midas Corporation and La Legion, all that compelling. Though, I often find the villains in superhero stories to be boring, so maybe it’s a me thing. Exterminatrix, the main villainess is an over the top fun and sexy character, so while some of the “evil” plot lagged, it was always visually appealing. Speaking of the art, diversity is front and center. America is drawn very curvy and muscular. There are characters of all body types, races, orientations and planetary origins. In fact, America’s bff Kate Bishop, a white woman, is often the odd one out.

America Vol 1

America Vol 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez

America’s series opens with her relationship falling apart just as she is getting ready to head off to college at Sotomayor University. The first six issues feature two ex-girlfriends, one with questionable motives, and a few amazing best friends. One thing that shines through in this series is how in touch with pop culture Rivera is, and how culturally relevant she wanted this series to be. It’s America’s story, but it is also an every woman story. Struggling to adapt and adjust to young adult life is relatable and America’s superhero duties create compelling complications in her life. Based on the story arc and Rivera’s letters to readers, I think Rivera wanted young women to see America succeed and conquer obstacles in her own life and for that success to provide inspiration and hope to her readers. To know we are all fighting the bigger battles together.

America Volume 2

America Vol 2: Fast and Fuertona

This second half of her series is a beautiful origin story. Turns out, not only was America born to two queer women, her home planet was created by two goddesses. The space art in this series is a feast for your eyes. Watching America come into her own and deal with her family trauma and baggage is where this story shines. At one point we get her thoughts and she thinks “I have the right to be joyful. Despite all the sad, hard bits…” and it really resonated with me both from a queer experience mindset, but also in navigating the world we live in.

Ultimately, America will need to use all her life skills she’s been building over the series and enroll all of her friends to help her defeat the Midas Corporation. The world and character building Rivera does in the first half of the arc pays off and cements America’s place in the Marvel-verse as one of the most powerful female superheroes around.

While America’s solo run ended in April 2018, if you need more, she just joined the West Coast Avengers team in August. My only hesitancy in diving into that series is the difference between how Gabby Rivera writes America Chavez & Kate Bishop in her solo run and how Kelly Thompson who is at the helm of WCA writes them in Kate Bishop’s solo series Hawkeye. Rivera writes America with her queerness in the forefront. I feel like Thompson writes queer characters as if their queerness is the least relevant thing about them, rather than central to the way they move in the world. For me there is an experienced difference as a queer reader and it’s why #ownvoices really does matter. I still enjoy Thompson’s work (it’s very feminist), but not nearly the same way I love Rivera’s.

15 year old Mallarie Chaves wrote to Gabby Rivera about the impact the character America has had on her (her letter is reproduced at the end of Vol 2) and she specifically calls out that they look alike. Representation matters, a lot. While I think the run is clearly aimed at younger women, America’s message, never stop fighting for what you believe in, resonated with me, and I hope you are inspired to pick this comic up.

Mary Springer reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

This review contains spoilers.

Given that this was written in 1872 by a presumably heterosexual cisgender man, I was not expecting a happy ending. This is the story of a lesbian vampire preying on an innocent young woman and being killed by said young woman’s father and her father’s friends (yes, all men). This isn’t a particularly feel-good type of lesbian literature, and it’s not even particularly well written.

So, why did I read it? Well, I enjoyed the YouTube web series modern adaption of Carmilla, which does have a happy ending for the lovers and doesn’t bury the gay. So, I wanted to see where it came from and it was interesting to see how they adapted the characters. Instead of an old castle, she lives in a dorm room. The main character, Laura, had a nurse and tutor who in the YouTube series were adapted into the RA’s for her dorm.

I also wanted to be more aware and knowledgeable of literature that includes women who are attracted to other women, in relationships with women. Not only did this count towards that, but it is a somewhat well-known part of lesbian novel history (no matter how terrible it is for representation).

Those were the reasons I went into it and I wasn’t planning on getting too involved, as I was also expecting to be bored by the old writing style. However, I quickly found myself engaged and interested in the plot and the characters. I actually did enjoy the story and was hoping (despite already knowing the ending) it would turn out at least semi-okay for the characters in the end.

Overall, I’m glad I read it and would recommend it if you want to see where the Carmilla webseries comes from, or just to read an early lesbian vampire novel. However, you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t find it here.

Danika reviews Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino

Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino cover“A new magic has entered the realm of the Sidh–and its name is rock n’ roll!”
Gossamer Axe front cover blurb

I will admit that I picked this up primarily because of the cover. A woman in high fantasy/ancient Celt robes, hair billowing behind her, playing an electric guitar? Add in the cover blurb (and the promise of queer content), and I was on board. Because I bought it mostly for cover appeal–I collect lesbian pulp, so I clearly have a weakness for ridiculous covers–I didn’t rush to start reading it. Instead, I waited for a time when I felt like reading something fun and a little bit silly. Unbeknownst to me, Gossamer Axe takes its rock n’ roll Celtic fantasy premise very seriously.

Christa is a woman who grew up in ancient Ireland. She was an expert harpist, but when she attempted to learn from the Sidh–a fairy-like magical race–she and her lover got kidnapped into their unchanging realm as punishment for her hubris. Christa escaped, but she wasn’t powerful enough to bring her lover with her. Now, she bides her time in modern (80s) America, trying to improve her musical/magical prowess enough to rescue her. She finds possibility in an unlikely place, trading her harp for an electric guitar, and forming a girl band to collectively stage a final battle.

While  still think the premise sounds kitschy–Ancient Celt harpist rescues her girlfriend from a timeless dimension using the power of rock and roll!–the book is not light or silly. It deals with heavy subject matter. A lot of it. Child rape/incest, someone dying of AIDS, homophobia, racism (including slurs), misogyny, abuse–to name a few.

But it’s also about chosen family, healing, and rebirth. Christa is bi, and where/when she grew up, two women falling in love was a little unusual, but unremarkable. Only the Christians disapprove of their relationship. Although she is living in 80s America now, she carries with her the confidence and power she learned in her youth. While all the women in the novel deal with misogyny, Christa acts as a source of strength for them. A note, though: the girl band mentioned on the back cover of the novel doesn’t get together until more than 100 pages into the book. It is a bit of a slow build. They do form of the heart of the book, though. They are very different people, but they become a kind of family.

I especially appreciated the friendship between Christa and Monica, which does not begin from a very promising place. There’s a sort of unquestioning sisterhood formed here that I love, and that seems rooted in its 80s feminist context. Christa shares her beliefs with her friends, and even if they aren’t converts, they draw strength from it. Christa believes that all women are priestesses, and she uses her rituals to remind them of their own capabilities.

Despite the dark subjects covered, at its core, Gossamer Axe is about persistence and healing. Although the characters go through incredibly difficult things, they are able to survive it, and to re-emerge as new people. This was not the book I was expecting, but I enjoyed it. If you can handle the subject matter (and are okay with this being very 80s), I recommend it. I will be checking out more from this author (silly cover or no).

Mars Reviews Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Content warning for child abuse, alcoholism, incest, domestic violence, dissociation. 

This review does contain spoilers.

Tanya Marquardt was sixteen years old when she ran away from the home she shared with her mother, stepfather, and assorted siblings in the small Canadian town of Port Alberni. Her flight was strategic, timed right for when Tanya became of age and would no longer be legally bound to her parents’ whims. Her departure began an alcohol-fueled odyssey to manage high school, homelessness, and attempts to process the trauma of a childhood riddled with emotionally manipulative parents and domestic abuse. As young Tanya spirals out, crashing on couches and beds by cashing in on the sympathy of friends, the one constant in her life is a deep love of Shakespeare, and it is that thread that leads her out of the fray and on to calmer waters in her life.

This book is chiefly the honest account of the author’s life detailing a young girl’s family dysfunction and subsequent spiraling out. By fifteen, Tanya was already an alcoholic, and readers will be hard-pressed to find a scene in which she is not chain-smoking. Her unresolved trauma and rebellion against the authoritarian antagonist figure in her life, her mother, eventually leads her to just outside Vancouver, where she says she is living with her formerly abusive alcoholic father but is actually with friends exploring the big city and its underground goth and kink scenes. In these places, she finally finds a home and a tribe to call her own, and through the act of performing and belonging, she finally finds a way back to herself.

I admit that I had a hard time reading this memoir in a number of ways. As an adult, it was hard reading about the struggles young Tanya faced and the many moments where the adults in her life let her down. It was additionally challenging because as a reader, it was hard to know how to feel about the adult figures in Tanya’s life. With young Tanya, in one breath readers experience the psychological warfare her parents commit using her and her siblings as pawns for their own selfish campaigns, and in the other, adult author Tanya chimes in with a throwaway comment about how she loves her family. The result is just one out of a few cases of whiplash, as this story reads more like a history (which, to be fair, this is a memoir) rather than a clearly delineated narrative. It makes for a confusing and sometimes meandering read.

Of particular note for our readers is that while the author self-identifies as a queer performer and playwright today, aside from a passing interest in a female friend at a high school party and mentions of bisexual friends engaging in a few same-sex relationships, all romantic interests and sexual identities explored in this book are presented as heterosexual and cisgender.

Quinn Jean reviews Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough

[warning: this review references sexual harassment, bullying and victim blaming as depicted in the novel]

If you’ve ever wanted to read an intersectional feminist lesbian love story about teenage girls pulling off a political art hoax, then this is the book for you. In all seriousness, this is a brilliantly written novel about two very flawed, very likeable young women who don’t yet know all that much about themselves or each other until they cross paths at a pivotal time and end up starting a social movement in their repressed private girls’ school. Will is an artsy, middle-class, highly-politicised loner who despises being at Rosemead Grammar, while Harriet is a rich, high-achieving, athletic do-gooder who is disappointed that the school she adores so much is letting certain issues slip through the cracks. Somehow they find each other in the mess that is high school, realise they’re the perfect team and create an alter ego (Amelia Westlake) through which they can express their critique of various toxic cultures at Rosemead.

Despite their compatibility as artists and social commentators, Will and Harriet butt heads on basically everything and can’t seem to figure out why they’re so obsessed with each other. Certain friends and family act throughout as foils to Harriet and Will’s self-deceptions about each other and their own self-images and the book doesn’t hesitate to point out hypocrisies, privileges and moral corruption inherent in every area of both girls’ lives, including in well-meaning projects like Amelia Westlake. Both lead characters begin to talk frequently to themselves and others about ideas around ethics and politics, and Harriet and Will’s bond feels genuinely deepened and complicated by getting to know each other and themselves on this journey. It is relieving that neither Harriet nor Will are under any illusions about their sexuality, though, and both have been comfortably out since well before the novel’s events take place. This saves extra room in the book that might have been spent on a coming out narrative to instead be devoted to humorous arguments and unambiguous sexual tension. Additionally Will’s inner monologues as she begins to realise her feelings for Harriet are solid gold and relatable for any stubborn young woman who surprised herself by realising she’s falling in love.

Amelia Westlake largely deals quite well with sensitive issues like bullying, racism, classism, homophobia, and white privilege, and for the most part does the same with sexual harassment. However, there is a series of scenes where one character encourages another to come forward with a complaint as a way to help others. In these interactions it is implied by the other person that the victim being spoken to has a responsibility and shares culpability if another person is harassed because she has not spoken up. This verges dangerously on victim blaming. It is not clear if the author believes this is the appropriate attitude to take when advising victims. Regardless it is a concerning depiction and one to be aware of when choosing whether to read this book. Additionally though there are prominent non-white characters in the book, the cast is still almost entirely white, cisgender and abled while the text is mostly about privilege, power and politics. These are not necessarily incompatible elements but it would have been good to see more representation of marginalised peoples in a book so deeply concerned with empowerment and justice.

Rebecca reviews If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

Tamsen Parker’s If I Loved You Less is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. While I love the well-written setting, the plot and characters are underwhelming and the unconvincing romance is so slow burn that it’s practically non-existent.

Theo lives in the beautiful paradise of Hanalei Bay with her overprotective father. She spends her days running her family’s surf shop, surfing, and spending time with baker Kini who runs Queen’s Sweet Shop. Theo’s life is wonderful and she’s not interested in marrying or settling down. But, she loves playing matchmaker for others. When a new friend arrives, Theo is determined to find her a perfect match. As Theo’s scheming spirals out of control, she realizes that she’s in love with Kini and may lose her to someone else.

The setting is so vivid and beautifully written. I also love the inclusion of Kini’s bakery and the delicious Hawaiian food that is mentioned throughout. I didn’t mind having to constantly Google the names of dishes and terms because I appreciate the exposure being given to indigenous Hawaiian life. I also really appreciate the diversity. Although Theo is white, Kini is native Hawaiian and Theo’s friend Laurel is of East Asian descent.

Theo is selfish and pushy. However, I didn’t hate her because she is lively and well-meaning at times. I’m disappointed that she doesn’t grow. Although there is a turnabout at the very end, it feels unnatural because she never really attempts to change. Although I do like kind Kini, I wish she was more developed. She just seems to be there to bake and give advice to Theo. Additionally, the other characters lack personality and are completely forgettable.

The book really fails to live up to its summary. It mostly focuses on heterosexual relationships and any actual romance between Kini and Theo only happens within the last few pages. But, it is a faithful retelling of Emma. However, certain outdated plot points do not translate well. This novel also doesn’t improve on aspects of the original story that didn’t work. The plot is slow and uninteresting. There are several twists that are insufficiently resolved while the underdeveloped characters often act implausibly. Theo’s friendship with her childhood friend Austin is unrealistic. Although she hasn’t seen him in decades, she is obsessed with the old-fashioned belief that they will be best friends and get together because their fathers liked the idea of them as a couple.

The romance between Kini and Theo is unconvincing. The familial nature of their relationship is constantly reiterated as Kini often acts like a mother or an older sister to Theo. Although the age gap isn’t an issue, their supposed interest in each other is puzzling because Theo is immature while Kini is wise and reserved. They have no chemistry together. Furthermore, Theo only realizes that she is in love with Kini near the bitter end of the book. Parker rushes towards a happy ending without sufficiently building a tangible romantic connection.

Moreover, while I understand that sexuality is fluid and labels can be restrictive, readers may find certain aspects of this book problematic. The way that the book handles Theo’s sexuality and her obsession with Austin as a potential future husband can be reflective of the stereotypical belief that lesbians simply haven’t found the right man yet.

I was really disappointed with If I Loved You Less. While I love the beautiful Hawaiian setting, the plot dragged and the unconvincing romance is almost blink and you’ll miss it. The book had a lot of potential but it just misses the mark.

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