Danika reviews Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst and Paula Garner

Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst and Paula GarnerSometimes, a book so clearly communicates the emotional state of the characters that it becomes painfully familiar. It is relatable to the point that I instinctively want to distance myself from it. Starworld is one of those animals, and although its characters have very different life circumstances to my own, their loneliness and vulnerability brought me right back to being a teenager again–not something I would volunteer for!

Both Sam and Zoe are dealing with overwhelming home lives, though you might not be able to tell they have much in common judging from their school lives. Sam is determined to fly under the radar, confiding in exactly one friend and sticking to her exit plan: getting into a good university, where she can study aerospace engineering. At home, her mother’s OCD has consumed their lives. Sam has to follow a seemingly endless list of her mother’s rules, and she feels responsible for keeping her safe and pulling her out of spirals. It’s an exhausting job, and although Sam longs to escape, she also fears what will happen when she leaves.

Zoe is a social butterfly who seems to have it all together, but she keeps her home life very separate. Her brother is disabled, and now that he is a teenager, it has gotten significantly more difficult for his family to care for him. He is stronger than them, which means that his (and their) safety is at risk. Their family is torn at the prospect of having to have him cared for at a facility. It’s only complicated further by Zoe’s mother having just gone through cancer treatment. If that wasn’t enough, Zoe is secretly dealing with feelings of abandonment at being adopted.

Zoe and Sam are both hurting, and they don’t have a lot of outlets for this pain. Although they run in very different circles, when they have a few change interactions, they end up reaching out and finding comfort in their unexpected friendship. They create their own world together, which they call Starworld. It takes place between *s in text messages, like so: *hops on a dragon and takes you out into space* This reminded me of online roleplaying that I did in high school (although that was Drarry HP fanfiction), so it definitely rang true for me!

What really felt like being back in high school, though, was Sam’s crush on Zoe. She falls for her, hard. I feel like this is the first queer YA I’ve read that really captures the dizzying, overwhelming, helpless feeling of a teenage crush, especially because it addresses the sexual aspect of it. Sam loves Zoe for her personality and their friendship, but she’s also checking her out! The story doesn’t shy away from Sam’s attraction to her, which isn’t something I’ve seen much of in sapphic YA.

[spoilers, highlight to read] Sam’s unrequited crush is painful to read about. She has placed so much importance in this relationship–and Zoe has, too, but she’s not seeing it in the same way. They’re both relying on each other, and when Zoe doesn’t return Sam’s feelings, it drives a wedge between them. Maybe that was necessary for them both to grow as individuals, and maybe they needed to stop running away to Starworld and start making changes in their real lives, but it doesn’t change how hard it is to witness both of their pain and Sam’s lashing out. [end spoilers]

What can I say? This was well done, and I definitely felt for the characters, but it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable read. It made me feel like a teenager again, drowning in emotions and not having the resources to manage them. If that’s the experience you’re looking for, definitely pick this one up! But I will definitely be looking for a fluffy book with a simple, happy f/f romance coming off this read.

Audrey reviews Teaching the Cat to Sit by Michelle Theall

teachingthecat

Great title, right? It’s also literal. Poor Mittens. Michelle Theall’s memoir isn’t organized linearly, but intersperses chapters from childhood with chapters from adulthood. And as a child, she really did teach the family cat to sit. She writes poignantly of the deep loneliness that caused her to try to make the cat into something it was not, and manages somehow not to beat you over the head with maternal parallels.

Her establishing shot gives you this: a partner and a son, and iPhone contact with grandparents. Good! Also, the grandparents are due to arrive soon for the son’s baptism, which has been cancelled. Due to the priest’s sudden reconsideration of baptizing the child of gay parents. Also, the grandparents don’t know this. (Note: I use the word “gay” instead of “lesbian” because that’s what Theall uses, and she expresses dislike of the label “lesbian.”)

And then you get a snapshot of the beginning. Michelle was supposed to be Matthew; she notes that this was only the beginning of disappointing her parents. You see her as a young child in the Texas Bible Belt, learning that things she liked were inappropriate, and she herself, always, was inappropriate. Not concerned enough with femininity. Not modest. Always unacceptable and wrong. And then she was scarred by an experience that reinforced this self-perception. When she did finally begin to find herself, it was through sports, and her mother explained that not only do sports have no real value for girls in the real world, but that Theall’s ovaries would likely fall out (spoiler: they didn’t). And the rampant homophobia was so ingrained that homophobia wasn’t even a concept or a word. It was just life. Homosexuality was not a thing; it was wrong, it didn’t exist, it went against the natural order, it was against God.

Although I didn’t read this as a Christian memoir–but you could–Theall’s Catholicism, and her relationship with God, is one of the most important strands woven throughout the book. As she is fighting to have her son’s baptism rescheduled, Theall considers one of the focal points of the priest’s concern: “How do you reconcile your homosexual lifestyle with your Christian beliefs?” At that point, she thinks, she’s spent 42 years resolving that question. By then, her faith is a source of strength, not angst. (Faith. Not clergy. Faith.) Her tale of getting to that place of acceptance is powerful and filled with pain, uncertainty, lots of guilt, and some big epiphanic moments.

The religious aspect is tied in to a larger question of general identity. And this is all woven in with a third piece: Theall’s relationship with her (birth) family–particularly her mother. (In fact, separating these out makes for artificial distinctions, but is done for the sake of clarifying what you might want to keep an eye out for.) The reading group guide (included in the new paperback edition) says, “In order to be a good mother, Michelle begins to realize that she may have to be a bad daughter.” While reading this book, you will probably never be convinced that Theall feels she has any chance of being regarded as a good daughter. You will probably wonder if, now that this book has been published, Theall’s mother is still talking to her. You may cheer inwardly at the choice to publish, knowing full well what the consequences might be.

Trigger warning for sexual assault.