Amanda Clay reviews What We Left Behind by Robin Talley


“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, 
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken…”

If only.

Toni and Gretchen have been in love from the moment they met, dancing with each other’s dates at the Junior Homecoming Dance. They don’t differ, don’t disagree, don’t want to do anything but be together. Even after they graduate,   they’ve got it figured out: Toni to Harvard, Gretchen to BU and there will only be a few subway stops between them. Then Gretchen accepts a last-minute admission to NYU and suddenly everything changes. It’s not that she doesn’t love Toni, she just needs to find out who she is, who she can be on her own. And once Toni gets to Harvard and hooks up with the Trans* group, she starts to wonder who she is as well.   It’s a year of change, a year of discovery, love and loss. Who will they be when it’s all over? What will they be to each other?

What We Left Behind is a very good read. The story of Toni and Gretchen–  their actions and reactions, thoughts and feelings–  is not one we’ve read before. All the characters, main and supporting, are so well-imagined and well-presented the reader is at once drawn in to their world; the dialogue so realistically rendered it speaks in the ear.  You want to root for the girls, for their relationship, and for the people they are realizing themselves to be. The disconnect breaks your heart even as it breaks theirs. The only criticisms I have are small~ Toni’s quest for a gender identity label can sometimes seem a bit like a list of every gender expression tumblr has to offer, and in no part of Great Britain is Guinness ‘the ultimate British drink’, but these are minor quibbles and easily overlooked in a major work.  Beautifully done.

Amanda Clay reviews About a Girl by Sarah McCarry


There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.

Tally is a girl who knows a lot about heaven. She knows a lot about a lot of things and she doesn’t care who knows it. She has her future mapped out: a degree in physics, then a career in astronomy, observing the heavens through a telescope’s lens.  Her adoptive family and her best friend Shane are behind her all the way, but the summer after graduation her life takes on a life of its own.  A night of unexpected passion with Shane is followed by excruciating silence. Disappointed and embarrassed, Tally seizes on the sudden opportunity to leave New York for Washington state in pursuit of a reclusive singer who may or may not be her father. She meets the man, but he offers no answers. Nor can anyone explain the peculiarities of the island: the crows that follow Tally around, the mysteriously hypnotic singers in the local bar, the way that Tally can’t keep ahold of her memories, why she’s even thenre. More importantly, she meets beautiful, mysterious Maddy, and before too long the two of them are wrapped up in each other as time slips away. But Maddy, like everyone on the island, like the island itself, isn’t what she seems. Learning the truth about her sets off a chain of revelations about who Tally is and where she comes from.

This book was an interesting experience, though I feel the need to preface this paragraph with a major spoilers alert. Consider yourself warned!  When I learned about this book I was eager to read it and dove into my copy, gobbling it up in just a few days.  What I did NOT know is that it was the third book in a trilogy, a trilogy called the Metamorphosis Trilogy, which when I learned that, cleared up a lot of my questions.  The story is very good—gorgeously written and full of rich, round characters. Tally is smart and funny and flawed, very relatable and easy to root for. Maddie is brooding and sexy and their whirlwind romance is both sweet and hot.  HOWEVER, I was entirely unprepared for the sudden, radical, incredibly supernatural turn the story took after Tally arrived in Washington.  As they mystery built, the little magical things didn’t seem out of place. Her forgetfulness and the chummy crow just seemed like texture for Tally’s journey. When we progressed to the hypnotic song of the bar-band sirens I frowned a bit at the overkill, so by the time Tally walks across the moon-path to visit her mom in Hades I was full on ‘What the hell is going on in this book?!” This is my fault for not doing my research on the author, but I also think that picking up an interesting title without knowing of another context is not that unusual (my copy had nothing on the cover to inform me otherwise). While I still recommend the book wholeheartedly, my opinion improved only after learning of the rest of the trilogy.

Amanda Clay reviews Femme by Mette Bach



Knowledge is power. Sofie, however, has always felt pretty powerless, at least when it comes to academics. She enjoys school—playing soccer and hanging out with her cute, popular boyfriend Paul. And even though she and her single mom don’t have a lot of extra money, their home is loving and stable. But now, close to graduation, she realizes that her world is changing. The time she spends with Paul isn’t what it used to be, and her mother is beginning to pressure her about the future. When Sofie gets paired with her high school’s star student Clea, she is sure this is the final straw. Until she realizes something else. Clea’s the only out lesbian at school, and once she and Sofie start working together, Sofie begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself, what she’s capable of, and what she might become. A road trip with Clea to scout potential universities kicks off an avalanche of self-discovery, one which sweeps away her old life and just about everyone in it.

I wanted to like Femme, and while I didn’t actually hate it, I was unable to muster much feeling one way or the other.  It’s a hi/lo title (high interest, low reading level) but that classification doesn’t mean that the book must be shallow and simplistic. Unfortunately, Femme is just that. Everything happens too quickly, too easily. Time zooms along. On one page it’s Christmas, on the next page it’s months later with no inkling of anything that might have occurred in the interim. Character development seems limited to a few signifiers: Clea is a good student!  Sofie is a foodie (who never really talks about food or cooks anything after declaring herself a foodie)!  Paul is handsome and popular! Along we cruise towards the predictable end of the story. Coming out stories still have their place in LGBT lit, but it is not unfair to expect more from them these days than mere self-discovery. Sofie’s story offers nothing more than that, and even the self-discovery is as insubstantial as every other aspect of the book. It seems like Sofie comes out because the author decided to write a story about a girl coming out. No stress, no struggle, just another plot point and on we go.

The world needs stories. We especially need lesbian stories, lesbian stories of butch women, women of color and size and age, stories of self-discovery and first love. We need all of this, and while Femme tries hard to deliver, ultimately I believe we can do better.

Amanda Clay reviews The Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi


Here’s a confession: I don’t do Jesus.  I don’t like queer books with religious themes, I don’t like books about conversion camps, I don’t like gay Christian apologist books with their interminable, inevitable scenes where one character quotes the Bible and the other character dismantles the hate with explanations of what surely this REALLY means (when actually the word ‘abomination’ is pretty clear). I think these books, these conversations, are boring and I have no sympathy for people who’ve bought into these ridiculous, misogynistic mythologies.  Having said that, Jessica Verdi’s The Summer I Wasn’t Me is still a very good book.

Lexi’s always known she likes girls. She also knows that this is information best kept to herself, especially after the death of her father and its devastating effects on her mother. So Lexi keeps her crush hidden in a secret notebook. Unfortunately she forgets to hide the notebook. When her mother finds it, all of Lexi’s secrets are exposed and she is forced to spend the summer at New Horizons, a camp that promises to cure her of these feelings.

At first it’s not too bad. Lexi really wants to change, to help reconnect with her mother, and she meets sympathetic friends among her fellow campers.  She also meets Carolyn, a beautiful girl whose sadness and struggle surpasses even Lexi’s pain. Soon she and Carolyn are involved much more deeply than camp rules allow, and keeping this new love a secret only exposes the much more sinister secrets of New Horizons. But by this time, Lexi knows that there’s nothing wrong with her, and nothing she won’t do to protect the people she cares about.

What sets this book apart from other books about queer Christians and conversion is the extreme lack of church.  I also think it is this aspect which makes the book most interesting and readable. Instead of pages of Biblical debate, we have time to get to know the characters and care about their connections and journeys and growth throughout the story.  Lexi is a good protagonist, strong and sure of herself, though vulnerable enough for sympathy and an interesting story arc. Carolyn is a worthy crush, relatably flawed,  and theirs is a romance worth rooting for.  The rest of the supporting cast is well drawn, too, from their friend Matthew, the voice of resistance, to the deeply creepy camp founder/director, whose true colors come through all too easily.  This book may not have the most groundbreaking theme, nor the most innovative storyline, but it is a good, realistic and ultimately hopeful read. Something for which we can all be thankful!

TRIGGER WARNINGS: physical abuse, religious bigotry

Amanda Clay reviews Everything Leads To You by Nina LaCour


Sometimes falling in love is easy.

Emi knows a lot about love. She loves movies, she loves her job as a set designer. She loves her brother and her best friend Charlotte. She loves L.A. and helping people and solving mysteries.  She even loves the ex who keeps breaking her heart. All these loves come together one summer when Emi and Charlotte are given the keys to a fantastic Los Angeles apartment and told to make something wonderful happen. Easier said than done, but Emi is determined and has Hollywood magic on her side.

At the estate sale of an iconic film cowboy, Emi and Charlotte find a letter from the man to the daughter he never knew and set out to track the woman down.  The daughter is gone, but the girls find a granddaughter, Ava, a tough and beautiful girl who has no idea of her glamorous roots. Emi falls hard for her, and thinks the feeling is mutual, but as all three young women begin a collaborative film project, everyone has to reevaluate her ideas about how people become who they are really meant to be.

On the surface this story is nothing. Love and romance and Hollywood and dream jobs that fall right into your lap. There are struggles and troubles and disappointments, but nothing insurmountable nor earthshaking. It’s fluffy and romantic and sweet and fun and that’s the very best part. Sometimes we just need a book about pretty girls getting together and having fabulous lives. That’s what this book delivers, delightfully, and for that reason I highly recommend it.

Amanda Clay reviews Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz


Hold on to your hats, ladies! Have I got news for you! Hannah Moskowitz’s new book Not Otherwise Specified is an actual novel about an actual bisexual woman of color. That’s right! You heard correctly! Protagonist! Bisexual! Woman of color!  And it’s a good book!  This is like seeing a unicorn riding a dragon riding a giant squid.

Etta Sinclair is a girl with problems, but knowing who she is isn’t one of them. Who she is:  smart and talented girl with an ex she still loves, a barely controlled eating disorder, a discarded dream symbolized by the toe shoes buried in her backyard, and a burning desire to get out of Nebraska. Her problems: a pack of former friends who call themselves the Disco Dykes. Ever since Etta ‘betrayed’ them by dating a guy they have made life at their exclusive prep school hell, vandalizing her locker, posting photoshopped porn onto her social media, even occasional physical attacks.  Etta tries not to let it get to her, but that isn’t always easy.

Choosing instead to focus on the future, Etta befriends Bianca, a girl from her eating disorder support group, a girl more talented and far more fragile than she.  With the encouragement of Bianca and her brother, the three new friends prepare to audition for Brentwood, a prestigious New York school for the performing arts. Will Etta have the talent and the confidence she needs to take this risk? Will Bianca have the strength of body and mind? And what if there’s only room at Brentwood for one of them?

Told in Etta’s sharp, unforgettable voice, Not Otherwise Specified is the book that has been missing from the LGBT-YA canon. Etta’s bisexuality isn’t a question, not up for debate.  Indeed she spends a good bit of the narrative making it perfectly clear that she is real and valid and owes no one an explanation nor any selfish form of loyalty.  The relationships she builds, restores and discards all come from and contribute to the whole person that she is.

The supporting characters—friends, enemies, family—are all well drawn and the Brentwood audition storyline is the perfect backdrop, offering everyone plenty of room to struggle and shine.  Find this book, read it, pass it on. You won’t be sorry.

Amanda Clay reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


This book is all about the flipside.

Two interlocking stories, Darcy Patel, YA wunderkind, whose NaNoWriMo romance has catapulted her into a whole new world, and her creation, Elizabeth Scofield, whose brush with death gave her access to the afterlife and a whole new purpose for her existence.  Told in alternating chapters, the young women’s stories unfold.  The navigation of the new, the weight of responsibility both to people and circumstances, the shock of self-discovery, and the risks of new romance. Darcy’s tale is as real as Elizabeth’s is supernatural, but both girls share more than they might realize.

Lizzie’s story is Darcy’s, the book she wrote and sold for a staggering sum.  Launched by this success, Darcy defers her college acceptance and moves to New York, throwing herself into the literary life.  It’s a dizzy ascent at first, meeting idols as equals, learning how to live and work entirely on her own.  But Darcy has luck as well as skill, and the people she meets are good and helpful, some even better than others. Fellow debut author Imogen Gray is friendly at first, but the two are drawn together and Darcy finds herself caught up in a first love she never even knew she wanted. But romance with a fellow writer has hidden challenges, especially when you both have secrets.

Lizzie’s life is much less serene.  When terrorists attack the airport lounge where she waits for a flight, Lizzie survives only by magic, phasing into the Underworld, the middle land where ghosts roam, kept alive by the memories of the living. From a beautiful young man named Yamaraj, Lizzie learns she is a psychopomp, a living guide of the dead who can pass between worlds.  With this newfound knowledge, Lizzie determines to do good, avenging the deaths of murdered children, even as she navigates the powers and politics of this new realm and the lives within it.  Lizzie learns from Yamaraj, connecting with him on many levels, but their dedication and attraction may not be enough when their world is threatened with a killer of the dead.

As I said before, this book is all about the flipside. That’s what Lizzie calls the Underworld, and it’s the perfect metaphor for the story itself.  Darcy’s tale is delightful.  The brilliant, colorful world of the living, with love, friendship, money and a dreamy career won with hard work and genuine talent. There’s  vicarious living and wish fulfillment, tempered with enough struggle, enough sacrifice, to keep it from being saccharine and unrealistic.  Her romance with Imogen blooms and flourishes, and even their setbacks aren’t too upsetting. The book is also wonderfully meta, with lots of discussion about the ups and downs of writing YA novels, of the writing life, and of the difficulty making edits and revisions on the story we are currently reading.

Lizzie’s story, on the other hand, is the world of the dead: grey and flattened, chill and draining.  Perhaps it is simply down to my taste, but the “Afterworlds” within Afterworlds didn’t work as well. The story of Lizzie’s newfound supernatural life and romance is adequate but unremarkable. I never skimmed, but I was often impatient to get past it and back to Darcy’s story.  The romance with Yamaraj seemed like it was included because there’s supposed to be romances in stories like this. Unlike Darcy and Imogen, there wasn’t much chemistry.  Lizzie doesn’t think or feel about him in romantic ways, just gets with him occasionally to make out. The world building is fairly unique, based on Hindu mythology, and Lizzie’s quest to find the killer of her mother’s childhood friend is enough plot to move the story forward. Even the climactic showdown seemed like it was there because it was time to wrap things up.  It’s not a bad story, it’s just not as good as Darcy’s story.

Ultimately, this is a book I recommend. It’s not a challenging read, but it is enjoyable, and as Imogen herself says, who doesn’t need the occasional happy ending?

Trigger warnings: terrorism, gun violence, child murder

Amanda Clay reviews Make Much of Me by Kayla Bashe


You had me at “Jazz Age”.  Truly, in my mind, there is no more attractive time in human history than this fleeting moment between the Great War and the Great Depression. New York, London, Paris, Munich, this is the time to be a woman loving woman and dance about in your sparkly dresses, powdering each other’s knees and seeing if you can get an invite to Natalie Barney’s salon.  I’ll read just about anything set in this era, and am even more excited when I know from the outset that the story will be queer. Therefore I was thrilled to be given “Make Much of Me” and read it all in one gulp.

Four girls– Lily, Laura, Tommie and Jo– meet as new students at New York City’s River School.  Thrown together by chance, they quickly become an inseparable crew sharing their secrets, sadness, desires and dreams. Bisexual Tommie is ashamed of her poverty, but learns that her head, her heart, her talents and her humor are of immeasurable value. Asexual Jo comes from money and privilege, a life many would envy, but at a terrible price. Bold, lesbian Lily lets nothing stand between her and the life and love that she desires. And Laura, whose past is perhaps the most wretched of all, wants only to love herself and ends up finding so much more.

Loosely based on Christina Rosetti’s poem ‘The Goblin Market’, the story follows the girls from their meeting and early misadventures through more difficult trials to their ultimate joining of forces to rescue a friend and lover in need.  The engaging and diverse characters are fun to meet and grow more interesting as the story unfolds.  The book itself, however, is so brief (only 84 pages!) that the story seems rushed in places, especially the end, and some events wrap up with unrealistically neat solutions.

My chief complaint, unfortunately, brings me back to the Jazz Age.  I love historical fiction, and I love this time period in particular, and while it is clear that some research was done (musicians, film stars, all that kicky, kooky slang), the book could have used much more.  Multiplex cinemas, rolling suitcases, LGBT support clubs in elementary and middle schools, all of these glaring anachronisms drew me out of the narrative again and again.  Even the characters’ ease with sexual self-identification was a bit far-out, though I made peace with that for the sake of the story. Choosing to set a work in an historical era demands a certain amount of diligence, and the lack of these efforts mars what is otherwise a sparkling, sweet story.

Trigger warnings: physical abuse, drug abuse, sexual predators