Megan G reviews Grrrls on the Side by Carrie Pack

Tabitha doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere. Her ex-best friend is now her number one bully, and the only friend she has is only her friend because they smoke together and enjoy the same type of music. One night, her friend, Mike, invites her to a concert, where Tabitha is introduced to the Riot Grrrls. Soon, she finds herself with a new group of friends, an increased desire to smash the patriarchy, and some interesting new feelings for a fellow Riot Grrrl.

Before I jump into my (potentially muddled) thoughts about this book, I need to start with some Trigger Warnings for this book, because they are extensive: This book contains racism, homophobia, biphobia, fatphobia, and sexual assault. Another warning I feel is important to add is that these issues are not always dealt with in the best of ways.

Now that that is out of the way, let me start trying to unravel the range of emotions I felt while reading Grrrls on the Side.

As you can probably tell from the trigger warnings, this book deals with some heavy content. The problem is that it doesn’t often deal with it in an appropriate manner. Often, conflicts are resolved within a page or two, and the resolutions feel half-assed. Most of the time the conversations about issues like racism, homophobia, biphobia, fatphobia, and sexual assault, read more like after-school PSA specials than actual real-life conversations. It’s frustrating, because I feel like this book scratches the surface of something that could have been wonderful, but never allows its characters to go deep enough to truly get to that wonderful place.

I had a hard time being invested in the main relationship, as well. Here we have an unaware racist bisexual white girl, dating a biphobic black lesbian. Any time Jackie, Tabitha’s girlfriend, brings up issues she has with the Riot Grrrls regarding race, or issues she has with things Tabitha says that are racist, Tabitha either doesn’t accept her explanations, or tells her that she gets it while it’s obvious that she really doesn’t. [major spoiler] Tabitha only seems to fully understand the issues Jackie deals with due to the intersection of being a black lesbian after she has a conversation with a white woman, which is pretty problematic considering her girlfriend has been telling her the exact same things the entire book [end spoiler]. On the other hand, after a bout of irrational jealousy, Jackie blurts out some majorly biphobic sentiments. She immediately tries to retract them, and the issue is seemingly resolved, but it left an awful taste in my mouth. Things like that don’t just come out of your mouth when you’re angry unless you genuinely believe them. I had a really hard time rooting for these two, and in fact often wondered what they even see in each other that would make them stick through this clear lack of acceptance of integral parts of each other.

Something I feel very conflicted about is the way that the Riot Grrrls interactions are portrayed. Almost every single scene that involves more than two Riot Grrrls ends in a fight breaking out. One character, Marty, is unapologetically racist, and although she is called out on it, it’s always quickly swept under the rug. The fact that Venus, who is the usual subject of Marty’s racism, continues to stick around the Riot Grrrls despite this is pretty implausible. Racism aside, though, there is a strong amount of internalized misogyny in these patriarchy smashers. We have two instances of female relationships breaking apart because of a man (one of which I will discuss more in a moment), and I can only think of one scene in which two or more Riot Grrrls being together doesn’t end in a massive fight. These girls are meant to be friends, but that doesn’t come across through the text. In fact, more than once I found myself scratching my head and wondering why any of them even bother hanging out with each other, since they obviously dislike each other so much. I don’t know much about the original Riot Grrrls movement, but from my limited understanding, the point was to form a sisterhood. To join together against the patriarchy. I can’t even tell you a single thing that any of these girls have in common with each other. They are simply thrown together and fight.

That all being said, a part of me actually appreciated this. There seems to be a misunderstanding that being a feminist automatically assumes that you will put women’s desires first, or that your ideals will always match with your actions. The truth is that a lot feminists, even intersectional feminists, can be racist, misogynistic, homophobic, etc. Hypocrisy can run wild, and that is brought out in this book. My only issue with this is that there is no contrasting portrayal of genuine female connection. I know that Jackie and Tabitha are supposed to exemplify this, but their obvious difference in world views (see above) kind of cancels out any healthy relationship they may have. The only character who seems to be kind and open with everybody is Cherie, the sole non-white and non-black character in the novel, but she is relegated to the role of sidekick and given, at most, one important scene in the book.

The way that sexual assault was handled here was, at best, sloppy. A sexual abuse survivor sits in a room, sobbing, while two other girls debate whether the word “rape” should be used for anything other than… well, rape. Later, Tabitha is groped and forcefully kissed by a man, touting lesbophobic sentiments, and when she confronts her then-girlfriend Kate, she is rebuffed. Kate, who earlier was so concerned with how using the word “rape” for any type of unwanted attention devalues it for rape survivors, nonchalantly tells Tabitha that the man is “harmless” and that he only did it to “get back at her” (he’s an ex-boyfriend). They break up, and the issue is dropped (with a brief mention that the school has transferred the boy out of Tabitha’s classes). Kate eventually apologizes in a supremely mediocre way, and Tabitha accepts, even though this makes no sense. Then, we are informed that Tabitha’s mean ex-best friend is dating her assailant. She is rude to Tabitha when she tells her about it, so Tabitha does not inform her of what kind of man she is dating. Because this is never mentioned again, it kind of comes across as Tabitha deciding that, since Heather is mean, she deserves to be with a man like that.

Again, though, part of me does appreciate the way Kate reacts to Tabitha’s confession of assault, if nothing else because it’s real. That does happen, even coming from the most outspoken feminists. I just wish that this reality had been treated less flippantly than it is.

One of the things I did appreciate was the inclusion of the zines throughout the text. They added a lot to the plot, and added an extra sense of nostalgia and realism to the book. It was also cool to hear from character’s other than Tabitha in such a deep, personal way.

Overall, I feel like this book wanted to be more than it was. It’s clear that Pack’s intent is in the right place, but the execution falls a little flat. I wish more of the story had focused on genuinely dealing with Jackie’s biphobia and Tabitha’s racism (which, again, is shocking and continuous), instead of throwing out PSA-style conversations about random issues every now and again. Even if they had not ended up together in the end (which, really, I think would have been better for both of them), I would have felt more satisfied if I’d seen actual growth from the girls in these issues than I did watching them get a pseudo-happy ever after. It should also be mentioned that trans issues are not broached once, and the book comes across as quite ciscentric. One could justify this by claiming that it’s natural for a book set in white suburbia in the 90’s, but coming from a book that is so clearly meant to be preaching about intersectional feminism, it feels like a glaring omission.

Megan G reviews Quiet Shy by Brandon L. Summers

All Alexandria Fix wants to do is stay at home with her beautiful wife Quiet Shy, a woman from the future of an alternate reality. Unfortunately for Alex, her job continuously gets in the way of her time with her wife. Things only get worse when Alex becomes entangled in the doomsday plans of a dangerous cult.

Considering Quiet Shy is a relatively short novel, there’s a lot going on. Almost too much going on. There’s a large plot revolving around a cult wanting to bring about the end of the world, but it often seemed to get lost in the background of Alex and Quiet Shy’s relationship, as well as Alex’s frustrations with her work. There is also a subplot with Alex’s boss that ends in what I can only assume was meant to be a plot twist, but because there is so much else happening in the book it barely affected me at all. It took me a second to realize that a major piece of information had been revealed, because it came so seemingly out of the blue.

What frustrates me about all this is that because there is so much happening in this story, I couldn’t fully enjoy the sweet moments we get between Quiet Shy and Alex. There is an incredibly sweet section of the book where Alex and Quiet Shy go away on vacation together, yet all I could think of for the entire time they are away was “Do they really have time for this?” If the other aspects of the plot had been lengthened slightly, then having two or three chapters of just the girls alone on a vacation may not have felt so unnecessary and out of place. As it was, instead of basking in the domestic sweetness of Alex and Quiet Shy, I just scratched my head and wondered when they would get back to the action.

As well, most major plot points are resolved quickly and innocuously. As I already mentioned, a rather large plot twist evoked no emotion from me because there had been very little build-up and it was so sudden and, after a little bit of dialogue, never spoken of again. The cult plot is equally dealt with, and so is a strange, completely unnecessary, self-harm subplot.

Another frustration I had that could largely be attributed to the length of the story was the way that Alex spoke of Quiet Shy. All she ever seemed to have to say about her wife was that she was beautiful, sexy, gorgeous. Almost every compliment about Quiet Shy is based on physicality, and while I think it’s healthy for couples to be vocal about their attraction to each other (in fact, I think it’s necessary within a relationship), it did concern me that that was all that Alex had to say about Quiet Shy. Even when she is telling the antagonist how powerful Quiet Shy is, she prefaces it with “Not only is she incredibly sexy,” as if that’s somehow important to her statement. Perhaps if the story had been longer, Summers could have delved further into the intricacies of their relationship instead of keeping it as surface as it was.

All of that aside, I found the story unique and interesting. We weren’t bogged down by world-building, or too-long descriptions of characters and locations. The plot was original, and blended science-fiction and fantasy in a very interesting way. This was not a book that I had to force myself to finish, as I was genuinely interested in the outcome of the plots, albeit a little frustrated in how quickly everything came about.

I will give one warning about this book, however: it deals very explicitly with self-harm, both physical and mental, and overall this adds very little to the story, if anything at all. If this in any way triggers you, it would be best to give this book a pass.

Elinor reviews Bound By Love by Megan Mulry

Bound By Love is a Regency era novella about Vanessa and Nora, women who have been together for twenty years. They’ve raised Vanessa’s children from a previous marriage and built a happy life together in the English countryside. Then Nora learns that her daughter, who she believed was stillborn just before she met Vanessa, may in fact be living nearby–and that Vanessa may have known there was a possibility Nora’s daughter was alive all along.

This is such an interesting set up for a story! It starts off strong, with alternating chapters in 1810 and in 1790, when Vanessa helped rescue Nora from her abusive husband and the two women fell in love. I’m not a huge Regency person but I thought the tone was fairly on point. I liked having a long term couple at the center of the story. Megan Mulry’s imagined pansexual, kink- and poly-friendly Regency England is charming.

Unfortunately, the tension wasn’t allowed to build enough, so the emotional pay off was limited. Even very serious issues are resolved quickly and without much lingering impact. I wanted the story to dive deeper, especially when Nora meets her possible daughter. Some problems seemed tacked on, which was unnecessary considering the potential for conflict and emotion provided by the premise. I had fun reading this, but in the end it seemed more like a draft than a finished novella.

This book is the second in a series of queer Regency romances by Mulry, which include kink, poly relationships, and which all connect. The final section of this book is the lead in for the next in the series and didn’t tie into the central plot all that well. If you have been longing for queer Regency, you might like to explore the series, especially if you just want a light romp. As a stand alone book, though, this didn’t impress me too much. Hardcore f/f Regency fans might want to check it out, but you’re not missing much if you skip it. Two out of five stars.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com

Danika reviews Thirteen Hours by Meghan O’Brien

I know, I know. “What is that cover??” I can explain. (No I can’t. It’s a terrible cover.)

There’s a useful term they use on Book Riot: “genre kryptonite“. It describes those tropes that immediately make you want to pick up a book. The buzzwords that leave you helpless to add a book to your TBR. For me, one of my genre kryptonites is enclosed spaces. I’m not sure why (claustrophilia?), but any story that has characters trapped together in an enclosed space piques my interest. So when I heard about a lesbian erotica novel that had two character trapped in an elevator together for 13 hours, I knew I was going to read it eventually (even though I don’t usually gravitate towards erotica).

This book was both better and worse than I was expecting. From the first few pages, I knew I wouldn’t be rating this book highly. I knew that part of the tension of Thirteen Hours was that the two women didn’t get along before they got stuck in the elevator. What I wasn’t expecting was the instant loathing that I had for one of the main characters. Dana is working at her office when she is surprised by a stripper, who has apparently been hired by a coworker for her without her knowledge. Obviously it’s fair that Dana feels super uncomfortable and even angry about this. But she reacts by being over-the-top cruel and insulting to this woman, including saying that she’s afraid she’ll “catch something” from her.

I realize that this was supposed to be the basis of their dynamic when they get stuck in the elevator, but I was so immediately sympathetic to Laurel (the stripper) and repulsed by Dana that I couldn’t understand why Laurel was so understanding about it. She seems to think that her defending herself and reacting to Dana’s insults is just as bad as Dana’s spontaneous vitriol.

On top of not liking their romance, I found the elevator scene to be less engaging than I was expecting. It was basically just them chatting, getting to know each other. And then playing truth or dare (and, obviously, sexy shenanigans follow).

What I was surprised by, though, was the second part of the book, which shows their emerging romance. If I had read that part without reading the first couple chapters, I would have enjoyed the book as a whole a lot more. The depiction of BDSM, especially, is well done. They have clear communication and consent, and there’s a playfulness to their sexuality.

Unfortunately, the underlying disgust with sex work that permeates this book really detracts from its strong moments. Laurel does defend herself and stripping, but she does so by distancing herself from “hookers”. And despite her defense of other women who strip, she quits that job to make Dana happy.

So although I actually quite liked their relationship together post-elevator, this wouldn’t be a title I would recommend (even if it’s your genre kryptonite, too).

Alice reviews A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing by Avery Aimeson

“You won’t find anyone in this town straighter than a pretzel.”

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing is the first book in the Fool’s Crown, a supernatural/urban fantasy series. The book contains themes of domestic abuse, sexual violence, and homelessness. An enjoyable read, but without much resolution, making it a two star book.

I was drawn to this book because I was in the mood for a typical paranormal romance novel filled with cheesy tropes where I could fall into the story and forget the stress of starting a new job. This book was not quite what I was expecting, although it was wonderfully escapist. The story focus was not on romance, as the protagonist was escaping a relationship not falling into one. This really worked in the book and opened up the story, and I didn’t feel at all disappointed.

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing is about a homeless woman caught in a Supernatural city sealed of from the world of ‘Humies’. Using her skills with makeup and her acting training, our human protagonist shifts through an Identity for every day of the week to escape her abusive Witch of an ex-girlfriend. Along the way she meets a plethora of beautiful women (with shapely bodies and skin hugging clothes), including a Werewolf policewoman, a Succubus who runs the shelter for abused women, and a Vampire who always smudges her lipstick since she can’t see her own reflection.

This brings me onto one of my favourite things about the book: its humour. It is aware it’s a trope filled supernatural/urban fantasy, and the first person narrative brings a little bit of meta humour whenever she encounters a genre cliche. Lesbian puns are laced throughout the book too, leading me to giggle out loud on the bus to work a couple of times. This humour supports some heavy themes, with the main character fleeing domestic abuse, and also escaping from a horrific past. The book talks about these themes and allows you to face them without losing it’s escapist charm.

There is one ‘adult’ scene, which features reluctant/ unwanted sexual interaction. This scene made me rather uncomfortable and I felt the book came close to glamourising such situations, which was disappointing in a book that was rather sex-positive overall.

The main character, a human, is rather prejudiced against the Supernatural creatures she’s been living beside, believing none of them can be trusted as they all must just want to turn her. This can be a little annoying in places, but it makes so much sense for the character. [MILD SPOILER] Throughout the book she is led to confront these prejudices and becomes more accepting as she learns to ignore horror films from the land of humans, and instead listen to the people around her. [SPOILER ENDS]

However for all it’s examination of ‘Humie vs Supe’ suspicion and inter-supe racism, the book doesn’t look at racism as we know and see in the real world. The book even erases it, with one of the character remarking how odd it would be if humans went around calling each other by their race not their name, ignoring the fact that humans do indeed do this. Aimeson may have been trying to draw attention to the fact that this behaviour is ridiculous, but it came across more as her washing over the problem, which I take issue with in a book where there seemed to be no diversity of skin or culture.

Overall though I enjoyed this book, and it hit the spot perfectly for the WLW romp I was craving. This is a debut book–and you can see this in the writing. Over all it is very easy to read and you can fall into it quickly, however at times the story can be a little confusing. It’s biggest weakness is the end. Overall the book has a slow, light-hearted, lazy pace. Then the story escalates rather quickly–only to stop on abrupt cliffhanger. There was none of the resolution I expect from a good book, and this damaged my experience of it considerably. It sets up for what looks to be an interesting Fantasy series, I just wish more of the actual story had made it into the first book. Nevertheless as I enjoyed the humour, I am curious to see how the story progresses and will probably check out the second book when it comes out.

This story is perfect for fans of Holly Black who are after something a bit more light hearted, Pulp Fiction Stories, and fans of Urban Fantasy in general as they will love the in jokes from a narrative character who has read the genre too.

Rating: ** Shows promise, but feels unfinished.

Whitney D.R. reviews Fetch by B.L. Wilson

I wanted to read Fetch for two reasons: Black lesbians and my most beloved enemies-to-lovers romance trope. I don’t know what it is about two people who initially can’t stand each other realizing they’re in love (despite their better judgement), but it really turns my crank. Fetch also contains another of my favorite tropes and that’s opposites attract.

Amber is a no-nonsense femme with money and power and connections. Morgan is motorcycle-riding artist on the more stud side of the spectrum, working as a doorperson at Amber’s building. So there’s the ‘haves and have nots’ and ‘type A vs. type B’ personalities. On paper at least. I found that they were two sides of the same coin; two women who both liked to push and pull and wouldn’t back down from a real fight.  

I did find it odd that until the very end, the women addressed each other by their last names. They did have pet names for each other, but the last name thing was irritatingly consistent and I wish they had been more personal with that regard. And I recognize that these women had lived and loved before meeting each other (and some even during their interactions) but I didn’t particularly want to read Morgan have sex on-page with another woman (even if it was in the past/a flashback). Call me a romance traditionalist, I guess.

I really liked their sexual chemistry.  Despite her snotty attitude, I think Amber was more of a pussycat and Morgan saw right through it and pressed all the right buttons. Amber, as afraid of loving again as she was, really needed Morgan’s dominant side. I loved that Morgan brought out Amber’s docility. Also, this my very first time reading the word ‘punanny’ in a romance book and I was taken aback at first, then tickled pink. I’m so used to seeing other go-to raunchy euphemisms for vagina, that it was kind of refreshing.

One thing I had trouble with was the time and setting.  I wondered throughout reading why the author decided to use the events of 9-11 in a romance. Morgan and Amber have both experienced grave losses in the their lives, so I guess it could be argued the two women connected the theme of losing loved ones but on a grander scale. But it just didn’t fit or make sense to me because it felt more like a thing that just happened instead of a life-changing event that affected not just New Yorkers, but everyone in America. Though, obviously, New Yorkers felt it more keenly.

The pace of the novel was weird to me. I could never tell what time or day it was. For instance, when the women were in an office building together and the towers first got hit, it was roughly 9am, but the power went out and it was pitch black. At 9am? Did the office building not have windows? Then after, when Amber went to Morgan’s apartment it was still day and they were talking about breakfast and then all of a sudden it was night and Amber slept over.  When I reached the 40% mark in the book, only a day or two has truly gone by when it felt like a week or two in the book. And the flashbacks didn’t help.

Honestly, I felt like I was skimming more than I was actually reading. Not to say that this book wasn’t well-written, but maybe I wasn’t reading this at the right time. Characters had depth and dimension, but Fetch wasn’t for me as much as I wanted to love it. But I love the chemistry between Morgan and Amber and anyone that loves the same romance trope as I do may like this a lot.

2.5 stars

Whitney D.R. reviews Goslyn County by AM McKnight

goslyn-county-am-mcknight

This was a labor, and not one particularly of love.  I really wanted to read this because it was two black women, one a detective, the other an FBI agent–both lesbians– falling love as they solve a joint case.  I love a good cops/FBI crime book and then to add older Black lesbians, which is hard to find in the lesbian romance genre?  I expected to LOVE this.  SHOULD have loved this.

But this was just boring. Capitals B-O-R-I-N-G.

It was very realistic with regards to Maureen and Olivia. Two women just getting to know each other, going on dates, figure out each other’s likes and dislikes. I liked this aspect of the book a lot. Though I didn’t feel like their conversations were all that natural. I don’t know, maybe they were. It’s been awhile since I’ve progressed passed date three.   This isn’t a romance, really.  At least, it didn’t feel that way to me.  There was a crime to be solved and these two women just happen to be lesbians that start dating.  And maybe that was Knight’s intention.  Chapters go by before a first date, then a second and third, then we fast forward a month and two and they’re already in love.  What?  I needed more relationship development than that.  Especially when there was more focus on these idiot criminals than our main women.  

There wasn’t a single character that I was invested in, not even Olivia and Maureen.  There were too many points of view, too much head-hopping.  Too many players on the board, too many motivations.

I understand that Goslyn County was a crime drama, but the aspect of this plot was so dull I skimmed the majority of it.  You have a detective and an FBI agent teaming up on a case about the robbery of a crooked taxes preparation place? Snooze city.  There could have been a more exciting case.  Olivia and Maureen could’ve teamed up on a drug bust, since meth labs  were apparently so prevalent.  Or trying to catch a serial killer.  Hell, the perps could’ve committed a major heist of a bank or jewelry store and that would’ve been more exciting.  But all that for robbery and taxes when there wasn’t even a body count?  All criminals must be brought to justice, I guess, but I just couldn’t feel the “high stakes” of the chase to make me want to root for either bad guys or good guys.  

Honestly, the lack of high stakes suspense and the easy solutions were my biggest issues with reading this.

Cara reviews Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

not your sidekick

The premise of Not Your Sidekick has promise that the execution, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to. The best part of the book is the characterization of the protagonist and her love interest, but everything else falls short.

The book opens as Jess, the protagonist and first-person narrator, tests herself for superpowers in the desert near her home, then follows her home and into school to exposit the setting and to establish her relationships with her family and her two best friends. The biggest problem with this opening is that it’s boring, and to be honest, I almost gave up on the book altogether before I hit the key event that sets off the plot, midway through Chapter 3.

The relationships are boring because they’re stereotypical. Her parents are superheroes, but in other respects they’re East Asian parents who expect Jess to do well in school. She has an older sister, Claudia, who has superpowers stronger than their parents and whom Jess idolizes. She has an annoying younger brother who’s an engineering prodigy. We’re made to understand that Jess feels like the black sheep of her family, but there’s no emotional depth to it, no strong resentment, ambition, rebelliousness, alienation, or anything else you’d expect in someone who feels like a disappointment to her parents and inferior to her siblings. Likewise, her friendships feel superficial. We never learn why she’s friends with Bells or Emma or any of the emotional history that presumably binds them together. Unfortunately, this lack of emotional impact never gets better.

The world building could have saved the opening, but it’s boring too. The US, we learn, has been absorbed into the “North American Collective” and Vietnam into the “Southeast Asian Alliance.” This is unlikely at best, because countries are durable. The US has survived for 250 years, including two world wars and a civil war. Vietnam has existed in some form since around 938 CE, despite being conquered by China and France and fighting a bloody war against the US. When countries do change, it’s more common for them to fragment rather than combine. The enormous difficulty that the European Union has had in achieving even the limited amount of agreement it has and the disintegration of the Soviet Union after 1991 are instructive examples. How did these massive upheavals happen? Meanwhile, we also find out World War III took place, but nothing about who fought it, what started it, how was it fought, or who won, if anyone. Even though Jess and the other characters were born long after the war, even sixty years after World War II ended, references to specifics about it (Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pearl Harbor—these are are examples for the US, other countries have different common knowledge) are ubiquitous, even if often biased toward a particular nationalistic perspective on the conflict. The rest of the world building isn’t much better, and the lack of depth in politics and history weakens the rest of the story as well.

The best part is the midsection, which is focused on Jess’s job and her developing relationship with Abby. Jess shows more emotion here, and we learn more about how she feels about the people in her life, including her cute crush on Abby. Their interactions alternate between sweet and amusing, and I will never get tired of romances between women where homophobia plays no role at all. If the whole book had been this, it would have worked much better.

Two revelations in the midsection, that Abby is M and that Bells is Kid Chameleon were so obvious to me that it makes Jess seem dense. Maybe Lee is thinking that teenaged readers won’t make those connections as fast, but even when I was a teenager, I saw through such transparent attempts at concealment, so I’m skeptical.

The last part of the book, starting around Chapter 9, is less boring than the opening but no less problematic.

 

Spoilers

Some of the writing falls short. When we could have a climactic fight between Miss Mischief and Orion, instead we get, Mischief is brutal. She fights ruthlessly with Orion, whose superstrength damages the walls, and the entire house shakes with their battle, which is telling rather than showing if I’ve ever seen it. In an earlier fight, Claudia injects an unrestrained Abby with a syringe, even though stabbing someone, much less getting the fluid into them, is extremely difficult if they’re not cooperative and not strapped down.

These deficiencies aren’t the worst of it, though. We learn that all the heroes and villains are involved in a conspiracy where none of the fights are real, the heroes are in league with the North American Collective’s government, and the government is also intervening in foreign wars. I wasn’t surprised because, since there are no mentions of elections or other democratic systems, I’d already assumed that the North American Collective was authoritarian. Meanwhile, it’s also now imprisoning and experimenting on the villains and trying to use MonRobots for surveillance and assassination. I think Lee is trying to justify the superhero convention where conflicts between superheroes and villains don’t result in death, but none of the logic fits together here. Jess and her friends might be excused for not knowing they live under an autocratic government because they’re teenagers, but the adults would know. When villains started disappearing, the other villains would draw the obvious conclusion and the implicit bargain that keeps the conspiracy functioning would break down. Why were the other villains so passive, leaving Abby to do something? Meanwhile, even though Abby’s attempt to reveal the conspiracy becomes a major plot point, we don’t learn anything about the government, who has the power, or how it maintains control over everyone else. The heroes’ powers are not strong enough to defeat 21st-century level military technology much less 22nd-level technology, so if they’re running the government, how do they keep control? Who runs the military and the police, and why are they loyal to the heroes or whoever’s actually in charge?

Another major problem is that as the story veers into prison, human experimentation, torture, and autocratic government, the tone never changes to reflect how serious this is. Claudia depowers Abby, but how Abby feels about this is never addressed. For someone who’s had her powers for years, if not as long as she can remember, losing them would be like losing her sight or a limb. I think Lee means to convey that powers aren’t what gives a person moral value, which is true but irrelevant to what it would feel like for Abby to lose her powers. Adapting to a major disability is not easy and takes time. Claudia tells Jess, Your own person? You’re nothing but a byproduct of an experiment! … Maybe you should ask our parents what they’ve been keeping from you. I mean, they didn’t seem surprised at all when you didn’t get any powers, did they? Like they knew you wouldn’t?, but Jess never asks her parents about this, never even decides that Claudia is lying or think to herself that she doesn’t want to know the truth or any other reaction. Jess rejects Claudia’s offer to be her sidekick, but doesn’t feel anything else toward her, not even after Claudia maims Abby’s powers. Likewise, at the end of the story everything goes back to normal, even though Orion knows they broke Miss Michief out of prison and stole information from her DED. None of the adults or the teenagers express fear that the government is going to kill them or lock them up, frustration that they can’t reveal the government’s lies because they don’t have Abby’s powers, betrayal at the lies they’ve learned about, or anything else.

Along with this lack of seriousness is out-of-place humor. Orion never remembers Claudia’s name, and while Lee obviously wants this to show how little regard Orion has for Claudia, it comes off as silly and jarring in context. Orion and Claudia are such one-note villains that it’s impossible to take them seriously. Orion is a stereotype of a clueless, privileged white person, and the only motivation Claudia ever displays is a desire for power. They don’t carry the either side of the conflict.

 

Ultimately, it was the dissonance between the plot and the emotional resonance that left me unsatisfied with Not Your Sidekick, and I don’t recommend it.

Aoife reviews Training Ground by Kate Christie

training ground kate christie

I was not, unfortunately, super into this book. Training Ground is the first book in the Girls of Summer series by Kate Christie, and to be honest, it reads more like a prequel – the whole book is just backstory for book 2. She categorises TG as a ‘contemporary lesfic with a romantic arc, but not a traditional romance’, and that seems accurate for what I know about the rest of the series, but the first book falls into YA for me – it’s about queer teenagers growing up and having messy teenage romances. Also sport.

The book follows two young girls who meet ‘by chance’ at a hotel after a soccer tournament. It’s a classic YA set-up: girl meets girl, they share a mutual attraction, one has a boyfriend and secret crushes on girls, the other has a Dark Secret. No one has ever understood Jamie/Emma like Emma/Jamie understands Jamie/Emma, and they share so many interests – including a secret love of some cooking show. Over time, they become close enough for Jamie to share the story of her trauma, and they become best friends and possibly more. They are each other’s anchors, and Emma buys Jamie a bracelet with an anchor on it to prove it.

Unfortunately, the book falls into a common YA trap: Too Much Angst. Jamie has a lot of (very valid) angst surrounding her trauma, Emma has a rocky relationship with her dad and a lot of angst about liking girls as well as guys, both girls have a lot of angst about liking the other, and after becoming even closer after Tragedy strikes, the relationship falls apart. This was annoying because not only were Jamie and Emma genuinely adorable together, the disintegration of the relationship was both predictable and so easily fixable. Obviously they had to move away from each other for the storyline in the next book to work, but I feel like it didn’t have to go quite the way it did for what will obviously be a dramatic meeting and falling in love ten years after the events of Training Ground.

A lot of this book didn’t ring true with me. I’ve long accepted that while some things in life are universal, American high school isn’t one of those things, but in regards to the things I can comment on, the writing missed the mark. The dialogue, with a few surprisingly funny exceptions, didn’t seem very natural to me, and though the writing was okay, I felt that it leaned a little too heavily on clichés about teenagers. I have no idea how realistic the soccer bits are, being allergic to sports – but hey, Jamie and Emma are cute together, and I’m a big fan of Jamie’s therapist, Shoshanna.

(My biggest problem with this book – which 2003 do you know where teens vape??? It is not a 2003 I have lived in.)

Despite my review of this book, I’d consider picking up a copy of Game Time when it’s released in spring (autumn for you northern-hemisphere folk) this year, because I’m hopeful that Christie will be on firmer ground with not-teenagers. And I mean, who doesn’t want to read a romance about two pro soccer players?

TW for rape/sexual assault, homophobia and transphobia.

Julie Thompson reviews Trusting Tomorrow by PJ Trebelhorn

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This review contains spoilers.

Trusting Tomorrow opens with Logan hunkered down in her car, not quite ready to face her father’s empty house.  Having never met Logan, Brooke calls the police to check on a suspicious person parked out front of the duplex where she lives with her grandparents.  Much to her mortification, Brooke learns that the lurker is a longtime family friend and daughter of their recently deceased next-door-neighbor, John Swift.

Death, doubt, and dark family secrets influence the emotionally topsy-turvy course of events.  Logan and Brooke are almost always at loggerheads, following a well-trod path through the land of romantic fiction.  Every encounter ends up souring, no matter how well it starts off.  They are constantly bickering, second guessing, and apologizing.  Yet, Brooke and Logan find each other strangely magnetic, an instant attraction that they don’t understand and can’t pull away from.

Their contrasts are front and center from the very start of the story.  One cares for the deceased and the family and friends of the deceased; and the other cares for the living.  I enjoyed the fact that Logan is a mortician, an unusual occupation among the romances I’ve read.  As a fan of the HBO drama Six Feet Under, I enjoyed how the story explored the effects that living with death had on Logan and Jack, as well as on the surrounding community.

Logan Swift, small town mortician and self-avowed single, takes the helm of the family business, the Swift Funeral Home, following the sudden death of her father.  She runs from commitment, preferring one night stands to a long-term relationship.  No woman, aside from family and friends, has ever crossed the threshold to her apartment above the funeral parlor.  Logan doubts that any woman would be interested in her as a long-term partner if they knew what she did for a living and where she lived.  However, she’s just as wary of women who want to date morticians.

Brooke Collier, a registered nurse, is newly arrived in town to help care for her ailing grandfather.  She relocates for more than just the love of her grandparents.  Several months prior, she found herself suddenly single when Wendy, her girlfriend of three years, moved out without warning.  The bitter revelation of the reasons behind their breakup leaves Brooke wanting nothing to do with love or relationships.

Friends and family conspire to unite Logan and Brooke in happy-ever-after.  Jack Swift, Logan’s younger brother, is home for the funeral of their father.  The two siblings share a close bond in which teasing and telepathy (well, not really, but they know each other well enough to finish each other’s brain waves, sentences, and sentiments) play a large part.  As Jack strives to make peace with life’s disappointments, he seems determined to make sure Logan experiences the same kind of peace.

Brooke’s grandparents and other extended family also nudge her towards Logan at every turn.

My main concern with Trusting Tomorrow is that it’s stuck in a kind of Ground Hog’s Day repetition, with both women repeating the same choices.  After the events of the story and the protagonists’ behavior, I wasn’t convinced of the inevitability of their connection as friends and lovers.  Overall, while this novel isn’t high on my list of contemporary romances, it may satisfy readers who enjoy small town settings, close-knit families, and uncommon occupations.