Megan G reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Each year, the Demon King is presented with eight young women of the lowest caste — the Paper caste — who will serve as his concubines for a year. While some girls dream of being selected, it was never in Lei’s plans. Her family has already suffered enough at the hands of the Demon King. Despite her reluctance, however, she soon finds herself in the position of Paper Girl, ripped from her home and family, wondering how anybody could see what she is being forced to do as a privilege.

I was immediately impressed by Girls of Paper and Fire due to the inclusion of trigger warnings at the beginning of the book. The author herself warns readers that the book deals with issues of violence and sexual assault, allowing readers to decide before even starting to read if this is the book for them. I’m beyond thankful that these types of warnings are becoming more common, and seeing it at the beginning of this book made me feel sure that these topics would be handled well within the story. They were.

The world presented in this novel is incredibly original and clever. It is a perfect blend of fantasy and reality, feeling incredibly believable despite the fact that a large amount of the population of this world are literal demons. The way Ngan describes everything is incredibly vivid, too. I often felt as though I were watching a movie instead of reading a novel.

The characters are layered in the most wonderful ways. Although there are issues of internalized misogyny that play out throughout the story, they are dealt with genuinely, treating all parties as people who have value despite their flaws. Girls are not written off as merely jealous or petty — they are given reasons for the ways in which they act, as well as possibilities for redemption. It’s actually quite refreshing for a YA novel.

The protagonist, Lei, goes through an incredible amount of character development throughout the story. She’s extremely likable despite some frustrating qualities, and is very easy to root for. You want her to succeed, not simply because she’s the protagonist but because her worth shines through. She’s strong and courageous, but also weary and at times frightened. First and foremost she is human, making human choices and thinking human thoughts. Because of it, she sometimes does things that make you want to smack her, but don’t all young adult heroes do such things? Like with all the characters, it’s refreshing that she’s allowed to have flaws and make mistakes without immediately being labelled a failure or worthless by the narrative. She’s allowed to grow and learn, and it’s wonderful to experience.

I don’t want to say much about the love story because I feel it should be experienced as I did — blindly and with complete surprise. It’s not easy to see at the beginning who the love interest will be, and it was wonderful to read how it developed without knowing anything in advance. I promise, it’s worth the vagueness and mystery.

One small warning is that this is the first book in a trilogy, so of course the story is not completely finished. Still, I felt incredibly satisfied by the story told here, and am anxiously awaiting the release of the second book so that I can once again lose myself in this fantastical world and in Lei’s life. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Jen Wilde’s Books are the Feel-Good Sapphic YA You’ve Been Searching For

Did you know I (Danika) have a booktube channel? Along with the Lesbrary, the Bi & Lesbian Literature tumblr, and Book Riot, I talk about books there, too! Apparently I can’t say enough about them. Most of my content is about queer women books, and I even have a playlist of just my sapphic book videos. Consider this video my review of Going Off Script by Jen Wilde (suffice to say, I loved it).

For exclusive videos and to be entered in monthly queer book giveaways, support the Lesbrary and this channel on Patreon! 

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Mars reviews Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi 

Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi cover

Happy Pride Month, Lesbrarians! I am swooping in from the ether to volunteer this review of Aminah Mae Safi’s much anticipated Tell Me How You Really Feel on this most auspicious month. It’s a charming read, a very well-executed story, and has been on my pre-order list for months.

Safi starts us off with a fact that stands as an overarching conflict of the book: Cheerleader Sana Khan is perfect, and there is no one who finds that more infuriating than her classmate Rachel Recht.

Rachel is a perfectionist filmmaking scholarship student on the fast-track out of her elite private school in Los Angeles to NYU’s film program, where she is going to share her vision with the world. (Accolades will follow, of course.)

Sana is an annoyingly good student on her way to Princeton, where she’ll set herself up perfectly to go on to med school and make her whole family proud (or at least that’s what she’s telling people).

Told alternatingly from Sana and Rachel’s perspectives, Tell Me How You Really Feel recounts the end of the girls’ high school experience, as they both march towards deadlines over which they have no control. For Rachel, it means she has one month to pull together a disaster film project which could jeopardize her hard-won spot at college. Rachel has had her mind made up about Sana, her self-assigned mortal enemy, since an embarrassing incident in freshman year, but after a chance accident means she’s forced to rely on her enemy for help, the film student realizes there is more to the picture than she’s been seeing. For Sana, it means possibly giving up her dream fellowship abroad that she’s secretly applied to in lieu of accepting her spot at Princeton. If she doesn’t get the fellowship by the time she loses her spot at the Ivy league, her carefully constructed house of cards will come crashing down.

This is the sweetest enemies-to-more story I’ve read in a long while, and Rachel and Sana are complicated protagonists whose growth from beginning to end had me both entertained and anticipatory. Rachel and Sana are opposites in so many ways; Rachel spews profanity, has a mean glare, and works at a diner on the other side of the tracks to make ends meet; Sana locks away her discontent with a smile, and has lived a life committed to smoothing over a complicated familial relationship between the high standards of her grandparents and the irreverent independence of her mother. Ultimately, however, they are bound by a shared hunger for more than life wants to give them, and an ambition that leaves them each taking more risks than they ever realized they could.

There are apparently some serious references to Gilmore Girls (referenced very early on in the Dedication, actually) but they all go over my head because I’ve never watched the show. If you are a Gilmore Girls fan, this will apparently be a delightful shout out. If you aren’t, I promise you this is still a lovely read that is worth your time and you won’t feel like you’re missing anything.

Marthese reviews Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

“We’re not allowed to touch any of them, no matter what they do to us”

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley was a difficult book to read, but an important one. While it is a fiction book, it is realistic; it could have happened. I found this book at the library. It hadn’t been on my radar but don’t you just love when you recognize books as being queer that’s to their covers?

Lies We Tell Ourselves is set in 1959 in Virginia during Integration and it tells the story of Sarah – one of the first few black students who are trying to integrate into a previously all white school – and Linda, the daughter of a newspaper editor who heavily influences people and is against forced integration. Sarah is one of three senior, who try to take care of their younger peers. Sarah’s sister Ruth also is one of the new students and so Sarah is constantly worrying about her.

The high school is a hostile place. Almost nowhere is safe and almost no one stands up for them. What follows from day 1 isn’t just bullying, it’s torture. Sarah thinks it won’t get better and she isn’t wrong: mostly because in public, things stay the same but in private, thanks to the classic group project, she starts to befriend (or be cordial with) Linda and her friend Judy who doesn’t mind that Sarah is black. Judy was in fact Sarah’s first connection. The development of Linda and Sarah’s relationship was realistic. It took time and they had a lot of disagreements.

Deep down, Linda knows she is wrong. Linda is trying to escape her father’s house by getting married to an older man. Despite being a public figure due to her father, even when she had not yet realized that she was wrong, Linda is compassionate. Yet, she cares very much what people say about her. Breaking down such ingrained feelings is evidently hard. The same goes for Sarah. She lets her parents dictate her life for her and to take her life back from them, it’s a long journey. The chapter titles and themes are all lies that Sarah and Linda tell themselves and the slow deconstruction of them.

Sarah and Linda both feel invisible despite being so public, no one knows who they really are. This bonds them in a way that nothing else would. They grow together and decide their own future. The romance part of the book I think was not as important as the rest of the plot but if romance were to overshadow something so harsh like integration and systematic racial hatred and discrimination, it would be a problem. Romance is not a solution, simply a by-product realisations and character development.

Every step is a struggle. The plot deals with some major triggers of violence. I found myself scared for the black students at every page that took place in school. There were some major incidences of violence, although I can safely assure that no one dies. There is also a lot of victim blaming, so beware.

It’s a difficult read but an important one. There is plenty of build-up for the relationship and issues aren’t magically resolved through attraction, which I appreciated. There is great character development, and I grew attached to the side characters as well: they were all so strong.

I’d recommend for anyone that has enough strength to read something like this. Something that didn’t necessarily happen as is, but with the possibility that the different instances did happen to people in the past and with the hard truth that some of these things still happen.

Mallory Lass reviews Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

CW: suicide, homophobia, family trauma, parental character death (remembered) and child abuse

Have you ever picked up a book and the whole time you’re reading, it feels like somehow the universe aligned and you were meant to find it, to soak in the words and glide through the pages? Well this is how Aimee Herman’s Everything Grows was for me. This young adult book is set in the early to mid 90’s and so many of the experiences and references (Audre Lorde! Bikini Kill! Adrienne Rich!) jumped off the page and reminded me I am not alone. While no queer experience is universal, queer people have a lot of shared history, and this book brought that into sharp focus. If you are a fan of found family and queer discovery and mentorship, this might be a book for you.

This book tackles heavy subject matter, but provides its own healing along the way. The main plot jumps off from the suicide of a teen boy named James; Herman explores the issues of identity, survival, and navigating life from the perspective of James’ classmate, Eleanor, which lightens the load a little bit. It is written in epistolary style, composed almost entirely of Eleanor’s letters to James, who also happened to be her school bully. It reads almost like a diary, the most intimate details of Eleanor’s developing mind laid bare and exposed for the reader to relish in.

Eleanor is 14 when we meet her, and the book takes place over her school year. This is a period of immense growth and self discovery, and we are privy to her journey in a way that made her highly relatable for me. She tries to make sense of her mother’s recent suicide attempt, the suicide of James, and typical coming of age experiences like puberty, masturbation, and sex all the while trying to make sense of her own gender and sexual identity. There are no easy answers, but if there is any single message to take away from Eleanor’s story, it’s that our voice matters. Ask questions of ourselves, of others, and listen patiently for honest answers. The answers don’t always come easily or the first time you ask.

It felt like big parts of her coming out experience were my experience and also a good chunk of her exploration of her gender identity were completely foreign to me but still relatable. Getting to read Eleanor’s thoughts as she pours them out almost daily to James made it seem as if we had been friends for years.

Everything Grows has a full cast of supporting characters who all play a role in Eleanor’s journey: her friends Dara and Aggie, Shirley (her mom), her sister and her dad, plus her mom’s lesbian friend Flor. Additionally Ms. Raimondo, her English teacher, and a trans woman she meets named Reigh, both play an important role in her road to self discovery.

The book underscores the importance queer mentors can play in young adult lives and inversely the tragic consequences for queer youth who have no one in their corner, no one to say, “Who you are is okay, is worth loving, is worth being here and taking up space.” I was lucky to have these type of mentors in my life, and I am more appreciative of it now than I’ve ever been.

Through Eleanor’s journey I was also reminded of the importance of queer people as creatives, of the artists and writers who have come before us and have laid the groundwork to help us understand ourselves and the people around us.

Ultimately this book is confirmation that the human condition is real and life is hard. But the best thing about it is Eleanor gives me hope that if we can keep working to uncover our own mysteries and help each other do the same along the way, the world will be a better place.

There is a line in the book, “…I wonder if there were more books and movies about us, would we feel less alone?” And at least for me, Herman answered that question with an affirmative ‘YES!’.

This book filled a place in my heart from my childhood that I didn’t know was missing. I hope you will open it and give it a chance to grow inside you as well.

Megan G reviews The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique Grant has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime and she has no idea why. Reclusive Hollywood idol Evelyn Hugo has decided that it’s time for the world to know her story – the full, unabridged version – but she refuses to tell anybody other than Monique. Knowing this could completely change her life, Monique gratefully accepts and begins the task of recording Evelyn Hugo’s story. Still, the question lingers: why Monique? And why now?

I’d been wanting to read this book for quite some time before I finally got my hands on it, and let me just say that it was completely worth the wait.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a fictional biography of the titular Evelyn Hugo, an aging Hollywood star who rose to fame in the 1950s. Her story is both exhilarating and heartbreaking. From a far-too-young age, Evelyn is forced to make decisions that could potentially harm herself or others in an effort to remove herself from the poverty and abuse of her childhood. Her story takes us from her poverty-stricken childhood to the lap of luxury of her adulthood without missing a single untoward detail. She makes for a very ethically ambiguous protagonist, with deep, ever present flaws. She’s also a woman who has been through hell and back more than once, and who stirs up a great deal of empathy within the reader.

One of Monique’s first questions to Evelyn is, “Who was the actual love of your life?” This is apparently a popular question within Monique and Evelyn’s world, and one that Evelyn refuses to answer right away. Soon, though, it becomes clear that it was actually none of her seven husbands. You see, Evelyn Hugo is bisexual, and there was one woman she loved above anybody else throughout the course of her life.

This is the true heart of Evelyn’s life and her struggle. Her desire to be with the woman she loves mixes with her fear of being outed and losing everything she’s worked for. This fear often causes her to make frustrating decisions, ones that might be difficult to understand from a modern perspective. Still, it’s clear no matter where she is in life, who she is married to, or what she’s doing who her true love is, and how desperate she is not to lose her.

Monique, the woman writing Evelyn’s story, is just as complex – though maybe not in the drastic ways that Evelyn is. While she’s getting to know Evelyn, she also struggles with her own failed marriage (to which she has yet to receive closure) and a career that hasn’t gotten her as far as the wanted to be. While I couldn’t help but love Evelyn despite it all, Monique was easy to fall in love with. She’s relatable, flawed, and struggling in ways that most of us do. She is also written in a deeply emotive way that often had me reaching for the tissues, even in scenes that aren’t necessarily overly emotional.

While I cannot recommend this book enough, you should be warned that this book deals with a myriad of potentially triggering issues, such as emotional and physical abuse (spousal and parental), homophobia, internalized homophobia, racism, and misogyny. All of these issues are dealt with tactfully and respectfully, though, and never feel as though they have been included simply for shock value. They make sense in the context of the story and of the worlds in which Evelyn and Monique live.

I truly cannot express how deeply this book made me feel. It is a true tour de force that must be read to be fully understood. Pick this book up as soon as you can.

Megan G reviews Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color edited by Christopher Soto

Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color edited by Christopher Soto

As soon as I came across this anthology and its haunting cover I knew I had to pick it up. As soon as I realized that the title of this anthology (and the journal it originated from) came from a quote from Gloria Anzaldúa, I knew I’d made the right choice.

The poems in this anthology cover quite literally every topic you can imagine. While this makes for quite a trigger-heavy piece of work, it also makes for incredibly raw and passionate art. Just as much anger and love spills from the page onto the reader, to the point where I often felt breathless after finishing a piece.

Poetry is, of course, deeply subjective, and relies just as much on the reader as it does on the poet. A big reason I felt these poems resonated with me were that they manage to draw the reader in and immerse them so deeply in the experience of the poem that the reader cannot help but want to invest their all into reading. After all, it’s beyond clear that each and every poet has put their everything into these poems. Reading these poems, I really felt it was necessary to respect them by doing the same.

Homophobia, transphobia, racism, police brutality, rape, murder, fatphobia, internalized racism, internalized misogyny, abuse. These are all issues dealt with within these poems, never sugar coated. They demand your attention, grip your arm and shake you until you understand the reality that the poet has faced. Because of this, I cannot recommend this anthology to anybody who may be triggered by these issues. This isn’t an anthology where you can just skip the poems you feel uncomfortable with. The poets don’t allow it.

Still, despite its heavy subject matter, I would go so far as to call Neplanta required reading for not only queer people, but anybody who will not be negatively affected by the triggers listed above. The stories told in this anthology are painful in their truth, gripping, and eye-opening. I felt different after reading it.

Too often we judge literature and poetry by our own ability to relate to the story being shared. Yet, Nepantla contains such a varied array of poets that it’s quite literally impossible to relate to every single one — and that’s kind of the point. We don’t have to see ourselves reflected in a piece of art to make it beautiful. It is beautiful because it is what it is, and even if it’s messy, or damaged, or hurt, it endures. It’s here to share it’s pain and mess with those of us who can relate and those of us who cannot, and to force us to see it’s worth despite everything the world has thrown at it. These poets deserve to be read by as many people as possible. I greatly encourage you to be one of those people.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Imagine that you are telling a science fiction story for cavemen, a hundred thousand years ago. Imagine that you’re all sat around a fire, half-covered by an outcropping of stone, hoping that tomorrow will be drier than today, and you decide you’ll tell a story about the far future. Imagine that somehow you have the gift of true sight, and you dream up a simple story about a foiled weekend lunch date in Manhattan. Something simple–two people match on Tinder, but there’s a problem with the subway, and then the taxi driver is a bit of a character but misunderstands where he’s supposed to be taking her, and she ends up walking home from the wrong restaurant, glad that she remembered to throw a pair of flats into her bag.

Where do you start? How do you guide your listener into the setting? Say, when your character has to take that taxi. Do you start by trying to explain an internal combustion engine to your listeners, who have never seen smelted metal? Do you try to describe glass as translucent as water to an audience who has never seen so much as a rough glass bead? How do you describe the setting, miles of skyscrapers and roads teeming with passerby, to someone who has never seen a man-made wall? How would you even begin to describe a smartphone, and then a dating app, to a people who have no written language, and who might only meet twenty or thirty other people their entire lives? How do you explain all this in-narrative, when any character who lives there is so accustomed to everything as to find it invisible, but it is so far beyond the understanding of your listener as to seem like magic? How do you get to actually telling the story, when the underpinnings would take a year to explain?

Yoon Ha Lee, the master who wrote Ninefox Gambit, gets around this dilemma by explaining almost nothing at all. The reader is plunged into the river of narrative facefirst, mercilessly, and had better learn to swim–because the water is picking up speed.

Ninefox Gambit is a piece of military science fiction set in a world whose cultural mores, technology, history, are all beyond our easy understanding. If it is in our own future, this book is set so far ahead as to be unrecognizable. But if the world is as opaque as a river full of silt, still the characters are as sharp as the sunlight off a fishscale. Cheris would be Asian, if she were from Earth; her hair is dark, she uses chopsticks and has a fondness for quick-pickled vegetables with her rice. These things are recognizable, comfortable touchstones for me personally in a book that is full of so much that is alien. If Cheris were a 21st-century American, she’d also be considered a lesbian; her people don’t have a word for it.

(Do you have a word for a woman whose hair is one inch longer than another woman’s? It goes unremarked-upon.)

The universe, or at least the vast number of planets under control of the empire for which Kel Cheris fights, operates under a technology that requires consent to function. Specifically, it is the calendar that requires consent, the sacred days and the unremarkable ones, the hours and the minutes. As long as the people in a system operate under the empire’s calendar, the empire’s technology works there, including its “exotics,” weapons that can fold space, or cause radiation to emit from every entrance (doorways, windows, open mouths, nostrils, pores…), or shatter its victims like cheap candy glass. This agreement is maintained through strict, society-wide adherence to calendar holidays. Not the fun kind where you might get off work early and throw a picnic, but the kind where heretics are tortured in incredibly horrific ways, and everyone gathers around the far-future-television-analogue to witness and to meditate on what they see.

(Miss viewing one of those events, and you risk being the guest of honor at the next one. It is not very difficult to do something which would see you accused of heresy. So the wheels of Empire are greased.)

Captain Kel Cheris does what she is told, largely. She cares about the people under her command, but she understands that when she decided to pledge herself to the Kel, the warrior class, she gave up her life to death, and that all those she commands had done the same.  When she sees a way to maybe win a battle that is just a little bit heretical, she goes for it–and as a result she sees her command stripped from her and her company shattered. To redeem herself, she is given the opportunity to develop a tactic for taking back the Fortress of Scattered Needles, an outpost which has been suborned by heretics. Find a way to do that, she is told, and you may regain your command and keep your life.

The problem is, there’s no straightforward way to do it. The Fortress of Scattered Needles is a nexus with an almost-impenetrable defense, and any empire general hoping to attack it will find that her own weapons will not work, due to the heresy crazing the calendar. There is one who could have done it, when he lived…the Immolation Fox, the mad traitor Shuos Jedao. He was not Kel, but he worked with the Kel; even badly injured, he took the battle of Candle Arc with eight-to-one odds. And then four battles later, he annihilated his own entire fleet, taking his opponents’ fleet with it, and shot all his prized officers in the head. He was executed, and his soul has been kept locked in stasis for the last several centuries, brought out only rarely to win unwinnable battles.

So the strategy that Kel Cheris devises is, wake up the murderer Shuos Jedao, and assign him to me. And he is so assigned–anchored to her body, that is, as a shadow who whispers in her ear and flickers in her mirror. She’s given a rank she has not earned (so that the other Kel, literally programmed to obey commands from superiors, will follow her) and given a small fleet, pointed at the enemy, and set loose. She wants to win, and she wants to survive. But Jedao does not sleep, and for all that he is dead, he is not powerless. Cheris must use his experience and military brilliance without falling prey to either herself–and she grows more and more certain that to make it through this situation, she’s going to need to understand why he did what he did, four hundred years ago.

To say this book is complicated is an understatement. It makes you work for your satisfaction, but it is never plodding or slow, and it does not get weighed down by its own backstory. The battles get ugly, the tortures inflicted on heretics are ghastly. But despite that, there are moments of real beauty, both natural and technological. And maybe more important, the book reinforces, over and over again, that the people on all sides of a battle are people. They have favorite candies and sorts of pickled cabbage, they have hobbies, dislikes, personal traditions. Cheris has a fondness for serialized dramas that anyone who’s ever been in a fandom would recognize. So it is that when Lee writes of a million dead at the battle of Candle Arc, the reader can not help but be reminded that it is not just a number. There is bravery, but not much in the way of machismo; Cheris’s own martial skill is something she is quietly proud of, but she is not given to braggadocio. Being resigned to death is not the same as longing for it; being awake is not the same as being alive. And in a war where the loss of thousands might be a skirmish, it can be difficult to tell who is the more human: one’s commanding officers, or the undead murderer murmuring in one’s own skull.

This is not a piece of traditional, hyper-masculine military SF. While there is loyalty and the love of comrades, patriotism is not held up as a moral ideal–more it is a tool, like a calendrical blade, that can be used against your enemy only in certain terrain. Not even the main character believes that might makes right, but simply that might makes, for a little while, some silence. There is respect for superiors and those more experienced, but there’s also an understanding that there are different forms of corruption, and that the longer one lives, the likelier one is to succumb to them. But this book does share one thing with so many of the others in its genre, and that’s the idea that as long as you can still fight, there is hope.

Content warnings: Torture and other violence (coldly described rather than in a fashion to titillate, but it ranges from one-on-one to starship fleet against fleet, and the weaponry used is sometimes the stuff of nightmare). Sexual assault (again, not explicit). A very great deal of character death.

FINAL SCORE: A rare five out of five stars. Technically and narratively spectacular.