Alice Pate reviews The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde

The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde cover

Trigger Warnings: alcoholism, underage drinking, neglectful parenting, abusive relationship
Note: Not all trigger warnings are present in this review, but they are present in the book in question.

The Brightsiders has been on my to be read list for several months before I finally purchased a copy. The bright colors of the cover had really caught my eye, and turning it over to read the synopsis on the back had me practically buzzing to give it a read. The story of a bisexual teenager coming out to the world while also managing her place in the spotlight as the drummer in a teen punk band. At least, that’s what the back had me believe it was about.

Contrary to the blurb summary of the book, The Brightsiders is not about our main character, Emmy King, telling her family, friends, and thousands of fans about her sexuality. In fact, by all definitions she’s already out and proud. She has a bisexual pride flag hanging in her parents’ house and tabloids report on her relationship with another girl, Jessie, regularly.

Okay, so then what is the plot of the story if not coming out? I honestly couldn’t tell you. The first half of the book is setting up characters and making sure to tell (not show) us that this punk band, Brightsiders is just so amazing. Then nearly halfway through the book (HALF!) the author blindsides us with a romance between Emmy and another band member, Alife, the super cool genderqueer guitarist complete with sexy smirk and arms covered in ink. Emmy, and thus the book, suddenly has a fixation on all things sex that I didn’t appreciate. If the entire book had been written like that right out of the gate, it would have been less jarring.

As for writing style, this book felt clunky. There are several moments in this story where the writer will detach themselves from the plot so that they can go on long-winded lectures or tangents about homophobia, slut-shaming, or even a three-page rant about what bad kisses are like all while the main character is supposed to be experiencing the best kiss of her life. And while, yes, homophobia and bad kisses are both things that need to be corrected, these tangents feel like they would be more at home in a preachy social media post than in first-person fiction.

And then there were the characters; if you can even call them characters, I’d liken them a little closer to props. As early on as chapter two I had the feeling that all of the characters existed to stand behind Emmy and nod their heads. To tell her she never does anything wrong and to coddle her. Little did I know, it was worse than that.

Not that you would know it from the way this book is written, but there are in fact three members of the Brightsiders band, not two. Nearly every character other than Emmy is underdeveloped (more on that in a bit) but Ryan really gets the worst of it. Between Ryan, Emmy, and Alfie, Ryan has the least amount of focus on him and he even gets left out of a lot the story. He’s a tagalong to Emmy and Alfie’s story and he’s treated like a tagalong in the band too, despite being the frontman.

It’s not even worth mentioning any of the other people in this story because my biggest problem here is that the characters exist solely for representation and diversity points. These characters are given labels the second we meet them. “Asian. Bi.”, “Black. Nonbinary.” While inclusion is a wonderful thing, these labels aren’t what makes a person who they are. We the readers are not given the opportunity to properly know these characters because “white and queer” is treated as an accurate description of who someone is.

The parents are nothing more than comical villains. They are given no reason or motive to be such (poorly written) bad guys. Perhaps they were written this way to give Emmy a tragic backstory and make you feel bad for her. It doesn’t work. The conflict between the need to love her parents and be loved back and the recognition that they aren’t a healthy part of her life isn’t really shown here. They’re just bad guys meant to be hated and the author gives them no real substance.

As for Emmy herself, I don’t like her. She doesn’t have to fight for anything. Her sexuality has no repercussion on her relationships or her career. As great as the world would be if being anything other than heterosexual wouldn’t matter, it’s not realistic. And frankly, it’s offensive to all real-life LGBT+ musicians who have had to fight against discrimination and homophobia in the music industry to be heard. Very very few people will be able to love and relate to a character who doesn’t experience the same roadblocks in her life due to sexuality and gender identity as them. The author also tried to work in Emmy as an alcoholic and runs into this same issue. If you don’t know how addiction works, and you aren’t willing to put in even the most minimal amount of effort to research what it’s like, don’t do it. Emmy manages to achieve sobriety without really having to think about it or try. No struggle.

In conclusion, I’m sure there are several people who would enjoy The Brightsiders, but I am not one of them. The characters are flat cardboard cutouts of representation, the “bad guys” are poorly written so that Emmy can cancel them while everybody cheers, and the plot bounces around so much that I began to wonder why I was even reading it anymore. From the feel of this book, I’m sure the author had a blast writing it and was able to sort through their own thoughts by writing them out through the lens of the fabulously famous Emmy King, but the execution of this book was so poor, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Alice is a Texas dwelling college student with a passion for stories. She hopes to one day spread her love of literature as a middle school English teacher. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pillowfort, or read more of her personal reviews on lilacchildwrites.wordpress.com.

Katelyn reviews Wet Moon Volume 1: Feeble Wanderings by Sophie Campbell

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I must start this review by saying that I never read graphic novels—not for any particular reason besides that I never felt drawn to any—but this one intrigued me. The cover itself looked so ethereal yet dark and gave off the same vibes as the Southern Gothic stories I loved so much as a teenager, which is funny since the series is about a group of goths in the South.

Wet Moon Volume 1 follows Cleo Lovedrop and her friends as they begin their freshman year at an art school in the fictional town of Wet Moon, Florida. There is romance, mystery, and something even more sinister just beneath the surface of this swampy town…at least I think. Even after reading through the first book three times, I’m not entirely sure what is supposed to be happening, mostly because nothing seems to be happening yet. It is clear that some of the characters are not straight though, so I do know that much.

It seems to me that Campbell meant for this book to be an introduction to the series, but it’s a hazy introduction at best. It’s clear that there are issues between certain characters (like Cleo and the mysterious guy she keeps bumping into) but it isn’t clear enough to build suspense necessary to keep me reading.

The lack of plot and clarity are part of a bigger issue: the writing. Campbell’s writing is the biggest downfall. Writers who say can a lot in a few words are hard to find, and that’s what this book needs to have the same impact that the artwork has.

However, even without much of a plot or much clarity, the book probably could have been saved with well-rounded, interesting characters. Unfortunately, the characters seem more like middle-schoolers than college kids, and none of them are very likable; when they aren’t at each other’s’ throats (they don’t seem to have healthy or even pleasant friendships) they come off as generally uncaring toward other people, or in Cleo’s case, whiny and needy. The most likable character seems to be Audrey, but she still isn’t very interesting.

Reading this book was a bit of a struggle, not just because of the writing quality, but also because the words themselves were sometimes hard to decipher. They seem to be written in Campbell’s handwriting, which means that when one character has a lot to say, the words are crammed in one giant bubble. The journal entries were especially hard to read; I found myself spending a long time trying to read  them, and then when I finally did, I was frustrated to discover that they added very little to the (almost nonexistent) plot.

The one saving grace of this book was the artwork; it is absolutely gorgeous, and all of the characters are unique and diverse in terms of race, body type, etc. My favorite panels are the ones where Cleo and Myrtle look at themselves in the mirror. In some comics, they would have been drawn to look sexually appealing, but instead they looked like real women in the privacy of their bathrooms.

I only wish Campbell had hired someone else to write the book or to work with her on it. The artwork deserves much better accompaniment.

Elinor reviews Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit by Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal

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I love reading about relationships, sex, and queer women. I especially like to read about lesbian marriage, since I’m one of the only women I know who’s married to a woman. I was incredibly excited about Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit. Written by a married lesbian couple who have been together for nearly thirty years, I thought this book would offer unique insight and be fun to read. Sadly, Lesbian Marriage was an exercise in disappointment, starting with the title. “Kit” implies something along the lines of a workbook, with activities or writing exercises to complete. I was eager to try these but other than a few lines in the three chapters of introduction, there weren’t any activities or exercises for readers. The rest of book breaks down into twelve chapters about different relationship challenges, each beginning with a story of a queer woman or couple, followed by the authors’ thoughts on the story, then a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts,” a weird illustration, and occasionally a blank page with “Notes, Scribbles, Doodles” written across the top. The authors called the advice section a “Toolkit” for reasons I didn’t understand. It turned out to be one of many things I didn’t understand about this book.

Clocking in at just 138 pages, and more than a dozen of these blank pages or tangentially related illustrations, there isn’t a lot of meat this book, and none of the topics go very deep. Chernin and Stendhal picked twelve topics to explore, with no explanation for why they selected these particular issues. Some of these, like extramarital desire or the impact of grudges on your sex life, seem pretty universal. Others, like a chapter called “The Genital Corset” (which is not as interesting as it sounds) about a woman who is mad at her partner because the partner doesn’t have orgasms with her, were overly specific. Meanwhile, topics I expected—like body image, identity, pregnancy and parenthood, disability and health issues, STIs, BDSM, non-monogamy, and past abuse and sexual assault—were either not addressed or presented in bizarre extremes. Lesbians raising children appear only in the story of a couple living in a two-bedroom house with their four adult daughters, two of the daughters’ partners, and a grandchild. None of the couples in the household had the privacy they needed, obviously, and this had a negative impact on all the couples’ sex lives, but the story was so over the top that I had trouble applying the lessons from the chapter to my own life.

In a chapter called “Butch and Femme: The Habit of Roles,” the couple discusses their difficulties around their elaborate sexual role play, but the role of power dynamics in a marriage is barely examined. Despite the chapter title, butch and femme identities are simply treated as synonyms for “top” and “bottom” respectively. As a femme this reductionism bothered me. I think the authors were using this story to make a point about getting stuck in limited roles, but conflating this with the identities of butch and femme was not helpful, and I was unclear how the couple was actually resolving the tension in their relationship.

I also didn’t understand how the authors found the couples in this book. Often the authors described these stories as being reconstructed from “listening sessions,” but never explained what a listening session is. Are they therapists writing about their patients? Are these their friends? Couples they found while researching the book? They gave no context to the couples, and sometimes didn’t even give the women names, which was confusing.

The strongest stories were about Chernin and Stendhal’s relationship, including their powerful tale of weathering Chernin’s affair with a younger woman. However, nearly every Chernin/Stendhal story describes a way their relationship either improved or works well, and most of the other couples’ stories seem to show people who are doing things wrong and struggling. It read to me as smugness from the authors, rather than real illustrations of lesbian couples who worked out challenges in their marriages.

I had trouble determining who the intended audience was supposed to be. Some chapters seemed aimed at older, long-time partners, while others seemed focused on women in new relationships deciding whether or not to commit to marriage. One chapter was about young single queer woman who was ambivalent about the concept of marriage entirely. None of it seemed aimed at a queer newlywed like me. This might explain why I heartily disagreed with some of their “Toolkit” advice. I found it irritating that they offered up prescriptions about marriage that left no room for a differing philosophy of relationships, while presenting them in a “Do” and “Don’t” list that didn’t explain why they’d come to these conclusions.

Their advice sometimes contradicted other advice they’d given. In early chapters, they tell readers to make sex a priority even if you’re busy or not feeling especially sexual. Later they present the story of a woman who wants a sexless marriage, though her wife does not, as a jumping off point for assuring the reader that it’s okay to stop having sex if that’s what you want. They offered no suggestions for the partner who didn’t want or expect a sexless marriage, or when to make sex a priority and when to embrace celibacy. Desire discrepancy is very common, and I expected them to address it with a little more consideration and creativity in a book with the words “sex survival” in the subtitle.

Their conclusions didn’t always seem to line up with the story they chose for the chapter either, with frustrating results. One of the most obvious examples of the authors missing the point of the story was a chapter about a cisgender woman who is uncomfortable that her boi partner is considering transitioning and/or having top surgery. The couple is also debating getting married, but the woman—the only half of the couple we hear from—does not want her partner to transition or identify as male. Chernin and Stendhal use this story to tell readers that marriage does not fix your relationship problems. It seemed to me that the issue wasn’t this at all, and the woman’s concern was about signing on for a marriage with someone whose self-identification and appearance might change. She was quite ignorant about trans and gender variant people too, which was putting strain on relationship with a gender variant (and possibly trans) partner. The authors could have used this story to make a broader, yet relevant, point if they’d acknowledged that one of the scary things about marriage is that you committing to someone who you know will grow and change–and that you’ll change too. You don’t get a guarantee who either of you will be in twenty years let alone what you’ll look like, which is something every married person wrestles with. Or the authors could have focused on the genuine, specific concerns around gender in a useful way. As far as I know, there isn’t a book about how to be a decent partner to someone who is gender variant and/or trans (if there is, please let me know in the comments!). A book like that is sorely needed, and this story could have been followed up with thoughtful, appropriate, and helpful advice on the subject. Instead, the authors seemed like they hadn’t read the story. Plus the woman used some transphobic language in the story that could have been edited out or responded to by the authors, but was simply glossed over. I was disturbed that the woman’s partner wasn’t given an opportunity to speak. It was a pretty raw story, and wasn’t handled with the care it warranted.

Similarly, the story in a chapter about not holding grudges featured an interracial couple from different class backgrounds. The conversation with peppered with microaggressions from the wealthier white partner, and the authors didn’t challenge these comments or discuss the impact these might be having on the relationship. Even when the woman of color called her partner out on a particularly racist comment, Chernin and Stendhal didn’t back her up, which make me lose respect for them. It was pretty clear to me from reading this story that the problem wasn’t just about holding grudges. The white woman was hurting her partner over and over and failing to acknowledge it, and it was destroying their relationship. How could the authors present themselves as experts without seeing this? Chernin and Stendhal chose these couples to write about, and chose to include problematic comments, so they should deal with what these couples said. The fact that they didn’t is troubling.

Occasionally this book has common sense advice, but you can find common sense relationship advice on Autostraddle or in the partnership chapter of The Whole Lesbian Sex Book, with more suggestions for putting it into practice. Skip Lesbian Marriage.

1/5 stars