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.

Alexa reviews If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

Theo Sullivan lives on an island like paradise with her slightly overprotective father, content with how things are. The community in Hanalei is tight-knit: everyone knows everyone, outsiders rarely stay for long, and nothing can really remain a secret. Personally, the island setting and its descriptions were my favourite part of the novel, as well as the descriptions of food and sweets. I could really feel the freedom and the sense of paradise, the lazy, slow way of life, that might seem boring to some, but it’s perfectly enough for Theo. And yet, this book really wasn’t what I expected based on the blurb.

First, let me talk about our protagonist, Theo. I loved that she defined herself as queer because her identity is complicated – she mostly likes women, but she’s not against maybe being with men, and she keeps a metaphorical little gate open for one man in particular, which is eventually explored in the book.

Despite this, I found Theo an incredibly unlikeable character at first. Her personality seemed to consist of butting into everyone else’s business, and trying to influence their lives in a very invasive way. Now, an unlikeable protagonist in itself is not a problem, but in a romance, it makes it pretty difficult to root for her. Since the blurb mentioned that Theo’s meddling will eventually get her in trouble, I was waiting for the inevitable character development. I also liked that her behaviour was continuously called out, mostly by Kini but also sometimes by other characters. Although after a certain event Theo realises she messed up and genuinely tries to make up for it, I still caught her saying or doing things that made me cringe even towards the end. There was definitely some character development, but sometimes it felt like as soon as she took a step forward, she took at least a half back.

Still, what really surprised and even frustrated me wasn’t Theo’s character. It’s the fact that the whole “Theo realises she’s in love with someone just as that someone is about to get together with someone else” only happens towards the very end of the book, and it felt like it was solved really quickly. More than that, the last section of the book feels like a series of plot twists and revelations thrown together without time to really resolve any of them. When I finished the book, there were several plots with side characters that either came out of nowhere, or weren’t resolved properly, and just left me with many questions.

In the end, I enjoyed this book (or at least most of it, before the rushed ending) but not for the reasons I expected. I loved the interactions between the side characters, Theo’s friendships, her character development even if I felt it was lacking, the plot twists that surprised me (the one that made sense, at least), and the island scenery. But this wasn’t the book I expected based on the blurb, and what I expected to be the central conflict was pretty much one confession resolved in one chapter, so I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated.

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.  

Marthese reviews The Fletcher by K. Aten

The Fletcher by K Aten

‘’I have lived my life by the lead and the arrow and I respect the trees and the animals they shelter’’

I’ve been meaning to start another fantasy series and it seems like The Arrow of Artemis is going to be it. Set in a fantasy classical (Greek) world, this series follows Kyri on her journey as an Amazon! In the first heartbreaking chapter, we see Kyri leave her home and her sick father –with his blessings – to join Shana an Amazon she had rescued, in her home nation of Telequire, with some detours.

Kyri is a Fletcher, like her father and his father before him. Her arrows shoot true and had it not been for her leaving, she would have become a master Fletcher. But sexist laws in her region and her saving Shana lead her to leave to make a future and a new home.  Shana, her new Amazon-sister is always by her side, encouraging her. She makes friends and family along two Amazon nations.

Kyri is a great Fletcher and a great archer. She has lived all her life surrounded by trees and knows to read nature, which leads her to partake in many extraordinary feats … including acquiring a feline companion. Despite all this and all the people telling her how great she is and that surely Artemis is leading her, she doesn’t believe in herself. She pushes herself to be better, greater, stronger – so that she gets her Amazon feather and mask, fulfilling her promise to herself and her father.

There were some great characters in this short book (just under 200 pages). I loved the banter between many characters especially Kyri and Shana and Kyri-Shana-Coryn. I also loved that the author did not pair up Kyri with the first female (Shana) or even her first dalliance but rather allowed for Kyri to focus on herself and develop different bonds of family and friendship.

I loved Shana but now I am used to liking more secondary characters. Apart from the thieves and guards, there wasn’t a single character that I did not like in this book. Most characters, even the hard-headed ones were relatable. As Kyri and Shana reach the Telequire nation there was a slight shift between page-time with Kyri and Shana to page-time with Kyri and Ori, who is Kyri’s love interest and very important to the nation.

At first, the introduction sounded too simple and some of the language sounded too English but as I got into it, it was a truly classical experience of candle marks and rabbit furs. I also learned new things that were used in the ancient world and new survival tips thanks to this book.

This book is slow-burn, which I enjoyed. As someone on the ace spectrum I can never understand characters that get together so soon after meeting. Kyri is about to turn twenty and has no sexual experience. In the book there were Amazons that followed Artemis’ steps and it was not shameful.

Be aware that there is a lot of animal hunting in this book. I’m vegetarian but while it was sometimes graphic, I didn’t mind because it was for survival. There’s also killing in this book, but more for self-defence or protection of others. There was a great explanation about the ethics of killing people who hurt others; the killing was not done without conscious.

The Fletcher is very much the story of how Kyri got her Amazon feather and mask, but also it is the story of how she started to believe in herself and gained confidence. Kyri wanted to make it by herself and she does but her friends are there to help. The lack of a couple allowed Kyri to grow by herself first.

I recommend this book to historical fiction and fantasy lovers and those that especially love Amazons. I’d definitely keep up with this series.

Mallory Lass reviews Broken Trails by D. Jordan Redhawk

Broken Trails by D Jordan Redhawk cover

Trigger Warnings: Suicide of a minor character (occurs in the past and is recounted), and alcoholism.

Spoilers marked separately at the end.

A gripping adventure romance, set in “Big Sky Country” Alaska at the famous Iditarod dog sledding race, features a swoon worthy protagonist and a driven but out of control (at times) love interest.

Scotch Fuller is the eldest of 4 kids and winning the Iditarod is not only her dream, but her family’s life work. The Fuller family runs and operates a dog racing kennel and dog sledding tourism company. Scotch is hard working, independent, disciplined young woman. Her family is everything to her and they are her biggest cheerleaders. She has a great head on her shoulders and soft butch vibe that will make you weak in the knees.

Laney is a successful nature photographer who just finished a long assignment in Africa. She reluctantly agrees to go on a quick assignment to Alaska as a favor to her friend Ben, a magazine editor. She is physically ill equipped for the Alaskan elements and emotionally blindsided by an up and coming Iditarod star who catches her eye. Laney is dealing with personal baggage that has manifested into a drinking problem.

Scotch has an amazing rookie run to set the stage but the real adventure starts when Laney convinces the magazine (against her own better judgement) to do a series of stories about Scotch’s training for her sophomore run at the Iditarod. Ben agrees, as long as Laney trains to run the race as a rookie. Laney isn’t sure if she wants to go back to Alaska, and Scotch isn’t sure she wants the distraction of training someone. Despite Laney being a decade or so older than Scotch, they both have a lot to teach each other about life and love. The age-gap is mentioned but is not a big part of the story, nor is it a source of consternation.

I really enjoyed this book, and I am definitely not a dog person! Ever since I saw a documentary series on the Iditarod via the discovery channel over a decade ago, the sport has fascinated me. Add a lesbian romance and I was immediately drawn to it. This is a great story for someone who likes long, slow burn romances. At nearly 400 pages you really get the complete Iditarod experience from couch to finish line. Redhawk really makes you feel like you are on the sled with Scotch and Laney, sleep deprived, bitter cold hitting your face, danger at every turn.

Ultimately, I think this story is about laying yourself bare. About finding out that another person can still love you, despite scars, secrets, or shortcomings of character. That is really how Scotch and Laney stole my heart.

***Spoilers***

I am a sucker for letters, and was excited when Don gave the letter to Laney from Scotch when the race started. I was kind of disappointed it took to nearly the end to discover the contents, and given the structure of Scotch being ahead, they were only one sided.

The Tonya storyline was important to Scotch’s growth, but I felt could have been developed a little more before the reveal. It felt like she needed something to be going through, some scar to match Laney’s but it kinda felt dropped in rather than lived in.

The sex scene, the long awaited sex scene, was too short for how late in the book it came. And to fade to black when it was Scotch’s turn to be pleasured just blew the wind out of my sails. Their exchange was emotional, and their speeches at the end nearly made up for it…nearly.

Whitney D.R. reviews Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

Princess Princess Ever After cover

Princess Princess Ever After is a cute middle-grade story about two princesses who evade their royal duties, but find something greater along the way.

I have to admit, I was nervous to read this based on the cover.  I’m always leary when one of the main characters is of color and masculine-presenting (Amira), while the other main character is white and traditionally feminine looking (Sadie).  While this story involves two princesses, I thought Amira would more ‘princely’ and constantly having to save Sadie. In media, very rarely do we get to see a woman/girl of color be a damsel in distress, always having to save her white counterparts from various dangers (usually of their own making).

I needn’t have worried.  While Sadie did need to be rescued initially, she definitely held her own once she was free of her confinement.  Sadie and Amira aren’t pigeonholed into any particular (gender) roles. They show both vulnerability and toughness.  Sadie had to learn to stand up for and believe in herself and not let her magic be taken or downplayed by others. Amira realized she still had a lot to learn about herself and the world.  But together, these two princesses made a heck of team battling making battling and then making friends with different fantastical creatures and saving Sadie’s kingdom from her evil witch of a sister.

I will say that I wish there had been more about Amira’s kingdom and her background in general.  She seemed to have been from an Egyptian or South Asian-styled place with a family, but left it all behind.  That’s all readers really see and it was a bit disappointing.

There also wasn’t a lot of obvious romance between Sadie and Amira (mostly blushing and meaningful looks at each other), which isn’t surprising considering the age this book is directed to. And they spend so much time away from each other before they get their happy ending, though I understand it was so both princess could better themselves and, in Sadie’s case, her kingdom.  But readers do get a lovely wedding and happily ever after that was almost like a Disney movie.

All in all, Princess Princess Ever After was cute with great art and story.  I just wish there was a sequel or more pages that depicted Sadie and Amira’s time apart before reuniting after what seemed like years.  Middle school me would have love to have read this at that age.

3.5 stars

Quinn Jean reviews The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson cover

[Please note: this novel contains occasional depictions of violence and this review mentions these in the first and final paragraphs]

Like its eponymous heroine, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza defies categorisation. Hutchinson’s novel never doubts the reader’s intelligence and jumps right into the centre of events at the start. Elena Mendoza is introduced as a sixteen-year-old bisexual Latina woman working at a Starbucks in a small town in Florida, who witnesses a teenage boy shoot her long-time crush and abruptly learns she has the power to heal people. The crush is a blue-haired artist called Freddie who unwittingly becomes part of Elena’s journey along with Elena’s best friend Fadil, a kind and thoughtful Muslim boy. Everyone who is exposed to the mystery of Elena’s healing ability offers her opinions on how to solve the puzzle and who to help with her power, while Elena is most concerned with keeping her loved ones safe and not hurting anybody, while also trying to figure out if Freddie maybe likes her too now. A side note to all these extreme events taking place early in the story is that Elena was the product of a virgin birth when her mother was a teenager, with science proving Elena was a statistical anomaly and was conceived through parthenogenesis. Elena has been bullied and stigmatised her entire life as a result of her famous history, which all leads her to question whether these otherworldly occurrences are miracles, science, coincidence, or something else entirely.

A novel with plot points this complex even just at the beginning of the narrative is bound to deal with countless themes, and Elena Mendoza does not disappoint there. The book trusts the reader to have the patience and focus to follow the various characters and story points and at various times Elena’s first-person narrations discusses the significance of religion, science, and ethics in the matters at hand. A big part of Elena’s growing bond with Freddie is the two of them debating and exploring different understandings of why Elena can heal and when and whether she should be healing people. There are times when the book comes off a bit patronizing, with Elena’s self-righteous rants about how to be a good person and treat other people fairly, but this could arguably just be intended as the character’s perspective rather than the author’s.

And despite the Big Idea monologues sometimes verging on being sanctimonious, for the most part Elena is a compelling, likeable and relatable main character who more than deserves her own young adult novel to lead. Elena herself points out that if her powers are God-given, she is an unexpected vessel as a queer woman of colour; the same is unfortunately true of YA protagonists. Similarly, the religious, big-hearted and open-minded Fadil is a wonderful foil to Elena’s sometimes pessimistic, doubtful and misanthropic tendencies. Their loving interfaith, interracial friendship as it is portrayed in the novel is as refreshing as it is rare.

Elena’s bisexuality and interest in Freddie is an important and key element of the story, without reducing either character to the role of pursuer or love-interest. The often prickly and inconsistent interactions the two girls have as a result of extreme circumstances are not romantic in any traditional sense. The way Freddie and Elena are forced to confront their preconceived ideas of the other and listen to uncomfortable truths explodes old notions of how intimacy and love are formed, and the novel and their bond are both better for it.

This novel is not exclusively young adult, or fantasy, or a queer love story, or a meditation on how to be a good person. It is all of those things and a lot more, all crammed into a relatively small amount of pages. Do note that the novel contains brief references to domestic violence and racism as well as the aforementioned gun violence. Ultimately aside from the odd preachy moment, the book is an excellent piece of writing, exploring important themes through engaging with very likeable and relatable characters.

Megan G reviews Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember

Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember cover

Located deep in the heart of Nazwimbe is a safari unlike any other. Tourists and researchers come from all around the world in hopes of catching a mere glance at the incredible creatures who roam nearby. The Harving’s, a father-daughter team hailing from Echalend, have come specifically in search of the mystical white unicorn, a creature they have spent their life studying. They are assigned to Mnemba, a sixteen-year-old tour guide who knows the safari like the back of her hand, and who has come to work for the safari after a tragedy drove her from her home. For Mr. Harving, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. For Kara Harving, this is her final chance at adventure before being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. For Mnemba, this is simply business. As their time together progresses, however, it becomes clear that this tour will be none of the above.

One of the things I most enjoyed about Unicorn Tracks was the world building. Nazwimbe is an incredible country, and it’s amazing how much Ember conveys about its customs and beliefs in this short novel. I never felt overwhelmed by the amount of information given, as it is weaved so seamlessly into the story. Not only do we learn about the culture of this fictional country and its different towns, we also meet an array of incredible creatures, all of which are mythical in our world, but roam free in the plains of Nazwimbe. Often I felt as though I could see the creatures directly before me based on Ember’s words. It was as though I was on the safari alongside Mnemba and the Harving’s.

It takes a bit of time for the plot to get moving, but once it does it pulls you in. It’s unique, and exciting, and does an incredible job of showing the character of our protagonists without ever making it feel like too much. Once things get started they advance at a steady pace, bringing you to a satisfying conclusion in a way that feels natural. Again, I felt as though I was living this adventure alongside our heroines.

In the romance, Ember tackles some heavy issues, though for the most part I feel she does so well. Mnemba and Kara come from different worlds, and their clashing cultures cause tension occasionally. They learn to work together, though, both in their adventuring, and in their private lives. Although the story takes place over a short period of time, their romance unfolds sweetly. It does feel a bit fast, and yet it also feels natural that they would feel such strong affection for each other after everything they’ve gone through.

As I mentioned, this book does deal with heavy subject matter. Warnings include rape, physical assault and violence, sexual harassment, slavery, and animal cruelty. While these issues are dealt with well for the most part, there is one moment where [spoiler alert] Kara and Mnemba are becoming intimate and Kara comes across as quite insensitive to Mnemba’s traumatic past. This moment of insensitivity is never fully dealt with, and feels odd, as she has been previously quite supportive [end spoilers].

Overall, Unicorn Tracks is a delightful novel set in a fantastic world, with a sweet romance, and an intriguing plot. If you think you will be able to handle some of the heavier issues dealt with within the story, then I highly recommend it.

Ren reviews Great by Sara Benincasa

Great by Sara Benincasa cover

TW: Suicide

Every summer, Naomi Rye leaves her home in Chicago to spend her holidays with her mother in East Hampton; a condition of her parents’ messy divorce. Her ambitious mother Anne built a multi-million-dollar cupcake empire from nothing, and now Anne climbs the ranks of the social elite with the same drive. Anne also believes that the easiest way to secure a powerful place in the inner circle of the Senator’s wife, is through their children. From a young age, Naomi is forced into playdates, dinners, charity events and everything in between, with the senator’s daughter Delilah. The summer Naomi turns seventeen, Jacinta – the mysterious summer tenant next door – throws a lavish party. She invites Naomi in the hopes that their new friendship will bring Delilah into her life in turn. Sound familiar?

This modern twist on The Great Gatsby was a delight, through and through. I may have a bit of a bias; I read Gatsby for the first time at the age of thirteen, and it has held a very special place in my heart ever since. It was the first book I read in which I hated every character, and still came through moved by the power of the prose. Gatsby taught me that a writer could fill pages with selfish, ugly people, and still create something beautiful.

Once Great came to my attention, I couldn’t not read it. However, there was some initial concern that without the prose, I would just be left with a bunch of rich people whining and making bad decisions. I mean, honestly, guys, I didn’t even make it past the first season of Gossip Girl. But man oh man, did Sara Benincasa pull it off. Her attention to detail is marvelous, and she keeps the tale from becoming stagnant with a small – but key – number of original side characters. Naomi’s parents and her hometown best friend Skags are not given large roles, but they keep things fresh and interesting.

 In that it’s a book fashioned after one known for its vapid, superficial characters, there are a few icky things to note; number one being the ‘positive’ speech about pursuing thinness and envy of people surpassing “even LA thin.” Anyone with body image-related issues or disorders may want to proceed with caution. There is also a heavy dose of homophobia from the rich folk, and Naomi herself plays the Poor Straight White Girl card on occasion – though her butch best friend is quick to call her out on the behaviour.

All in all, Great is a wonderful, true to form take on The Great Gatsby. It’s short and dark and perfectly suited for an afternoon of wallowing on the couch. Just keep in mind that it isn’t the sort of book one goes for when looking for a fluffy pick-me-up.

Mallory Lass reviews Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant

Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant cover

A semi-autobiographical comic about what a successful queer poly love story can look like and an offering on how one might go about navigating the complicated feelings that can accompany this journey.

Hazel is our main protagonist, a cute and shy nerd who wears her heart on her sleeve. She lives in New York City and works as a comic book artist. She is home in Portland visiting her family over the holidays.

Gregor is a fellow New York City comic artist that Hazel is dating. He is also dating a girl from out of town named Rebecca, and they are set to meet in NYC while Hazel is home in Portland.

Argent is a longtime resident of Portland, experienced in the poly community and also a dominatrix that goes by the name “Hazel Hawthorne”. Argent and Hazel meet at a dance party when she first arrives home and Hazel cannot believe her good fortune.

Over four beautifully illustrated issues, we get to be voyeurs in Hazel’s life as she works through her feelings toward Gregor: jealousy, love, and confusion. Argent becomes Hazel’s guide into polyamory, consensual committed non-monogamy. Over their first date Argent asks Hazel about her boyfriend, Gregor, and also shares about her own long distance relationship of 9 years with fellow comic booker and tattoo artist, Chloe.

Hazel is also on the receiving end of a few pointed but gentle lessons from Argent, like when it’s appropriate to speak about/our someone as a sex worker in public (spoiler alert, never). Hazel figures a lot out about herself, who she wants to be, and how to navigate her romantic relationships moving forward.

This comic is a visual feast. The colors are a mix of pastels and warm oranges and it’s beautiful work you can fall into. The characters are diverse and sexy. Argent is curvy and confident and full of unique style. Other minor queer characters Argent and Hazel interact with over the course of the story are masculine of center, people of color and more.

Despite Gregor (more acurately, Hazel’s feelings about him) being a significant part of the story, the romance captured in these collected issues is focused on Hazel and Argent. I couldn’t be happier with how the story ended, and I hope you check it out. A must have for indy queer comics fans.

Check out a preview of the comic here.

A page from Sugar Town, showing Hazel seeing Argent across the room, hearts in her eyes

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.