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.

Mallory Lass reviews Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko TamakiCW: teen pregnancy & abortion, minor homophobia.

I fell in love with Tamaki’s writing in female helmed superhero comics like She-Hulk. I was over the moon to hear she had a queer graphic novel coming out, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is packed with queer representation.

Frederica “Freddy” Riley is an average high school student in Berkeley, CA and is in a relationship that reminded me of my first year of college, to the dawn of Facebook’s “it’s complicated” status. As it says on the tin, her girlfriend, Laura Dean, keeps breaking up with her.

Laura Dean is aloof and popular–actually, she might be the most popular girl in school. I would also call her a player. Our first introduction to her is Freddy walking in on her making out with another girl at a school dance. She is always dropping in on her own timeline and jetting off in a hurry without regard for anyone else. But there is just something about her Freddy can’t quit.

I find graphic novels often are an easy to read and quickly consumable format. Coming from the colorful world of comics, the black and white illustration style of this took a touch to get used to, but Valero-O’Connell’s illustrations are gorgeous and full of diverse bodies, races, and personal styles. The one complaint I have about the formatting is sometimes the dialogue bubbles are hard to track and there is a lot of directional gymnastics, which slowed me down and detracted from the story. That said, the intrigue and page turning quality came from wanting to know how Freddy was going to resolve the mess of a relationship she had with Laura.

Freddie has a fantastic squad. Eric and Buddy, friends who are also a gay couple, best friend Doodle, plus other queers like newfound friend Val, and her boss at Gertrude’s cafe make up the lovely supporting cast. I enjoyed how the story explored how relationships that have toxic elements end up having a ripple effect throughout your life, and that Freddie has the opportunity to change the course she’s headed down.

Along Freddie’s journey to resolve her relationship issues, Tamaki seamlessly works in relevant teen topics such as: consent; contraceptives; what it means to come out and the consequences queer people have faced for living life openly; teen pregnancy & abortion; and friendships as primary relationships. Tamaki integrates cell phones and texting into the story in a way that reflects reality but doesn’t seem like social commentary on technology.

The dialogue felt real and lived in, and I would have loved to find this book at 17. If you like graphic novels, and/or Tamaki’s other work I would definitely give this a read. If you know anyone under 20 who has come out or is struggle with navigating their late teens, this would make a great gift.

Susan reviews In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In The Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard is a post-apocalyptic post-colonisation fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Yên is a rural scholar, who offers herself up to a dragon in her mother’s place to repay her village’s debts; Vu Côn is the dragon in question, trying to fix the world that the Vanisher’s destroyed and then abandoned. Together they live in the dangerous Escher-style nightmare that is the Vanishers’ palace, trying to raise Vu Côn’s teenage children and change the nightmare that the Vanishers left this world in.

The world-building is really cool; In the Vanishers’ Palace is set on a world that was modified beyond the inhabitants’ understanding by the Vanishers, who abandoned it when they grew bored – and people are actively trying to fix it. The scale of the problems are huge, and compounded by people like the leaders of Yên’s village, who are power-hungry monsters, but people are still trying, and that is something I need right now. And for all that the story is fantasy, it has science fiction elements woven in really well – yes, Vu Côn’s palace has impossible geometry, nonsensical architecture, and death lurking in every corner, but it also has a library that can just generate books, and a distinctly scifi room for Vu Côn’s patients. Plus, the magic of In The Vanishers’ Palace is language based, and the story gives Yên space to explore what is known about magic and the ways that common understanding isn’t always right made me happy!

The story itself takes the basic premise of Beauty and the Beast and focuses on it as a story of agency and independence. Vu Côn’s arc is specifically about her learning to trust people to make their own choices and have valuable knowledge and opinions of their own, and her romance with Yên is explicitly about them negotiating the consent and power dynamics of a relationship where one person starts as a prisoner/employee of the other. Vu Côn’s children are specifically trying to figure out who they are independent of their mother, and what role they can have in this world. And Yên is explicitly finding a role for herself after the danger of her village, where those not deemed “useful” and in danger from the village leaders. I enjoy the ways that motherhood, familial duty, and folklore are also woven into this story as integral threads as well, it really worked!

In conclusion: In The Vanishers’ Palace is the queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I didn’t know I needed, and it’s excellent. Definitely recommended.

[This review is based on an ARC from the author.]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Bearly a Lady by Cassandra Khaw

I will admit, I was sold immediately when I heard “Bisexual werebear novella.” The book opens with Zelda (yes, Zelda) irritated that her transformation into a bear is continually destroying her wardrobe. She works for a fashion magazine, so she doesn’t take this lightly.

This is such a fun, light read. It’s quippy and snarky and smart, including a character calling Zelda out for deriding something as lame, and her replying by saying “You know I don’t–I’m sorry. Cultural indoctrination is a monster.” Later, when a guy on the bus makes a lewd comment, she thinks,  “Could be an uncouth backpacker, fresh from a holiday in the Pacific, and still drunk on the idea of white supremacy.” And yes, not only is this a bisexual werebear story, our werebear protagonist is also a plus-sized woman of color.

Because this barely (ha) breaks 100 pages, it keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, even if it is mostly romantic entanglements. Speaking of romance, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning in this review that the romance is mostly M/F. Zelda has several male love interests and one female love interest, but like Kushiel’s Dart, I would say that although the F/F pairing gets less “page time,” it has the most significance. If you don’t want to read about M/F romance or sex, though, you probably should skip this one. I will also note that there’s some use of fae glamor which is nonconsensual, so I would give a trigger warning for the implications of that. (It is called out in text, though.)

This was quick, fun read that definitely lived up to its premise. Between this and my previous read, River of Teeth (which is excellent and queer, but the lesbian character is a side character, and there is no F/F content), I’m really starting to fall in love with novellas!


Danika reviews Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

When Lucky and Kris first got married, they delighted at having pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. Lucky was welcomed back into her Sri Lanken-American family. Kris didn’t have to worry about getting deported after his family turned their backs on him. And if they both pocketed their wedding rings and went to gay clubs on the weekends, what was the harm? Unfortunately, if you live a lie long enough, it can start to take over.

Lucky is restless and unhappy in the in-between life she’s made for herself. She bounces between her mother’s home, where her grandmother is ill, and her apartment where she lives with her gay husband. Apart from not actually being a romantic couple, they also don’t get along that well as friends–at least, not anymore. And now the love of her life is entering into an arranged marriage, at least partially because she believes that it worked for Lucky. She’s trapped between impossible trade-offs: live a lie forever, or lose her family and culture?

Lucky has two sisters, each of whom picked a different side: one took off in the night to escape her mother’s restrictive rules about her life (marry a good Sri Lanken man, behave in the prescribed ways). The family has barely heard from her since, and never sees her. Her grandmother asks for her daily, constantly wanting to meet her great-grandaughter. As Lucky sits with her elderly grandmother as she cries for the baby she longs to hold, she can’t imagine breaking her mother and grandmother’s hearts again in this way. But Lucky’s other sister walked away from the boyfriend who adored her to enter into an arranged marriage, and despite her insistence that she’s happy, there’s a hollowness to her eyes now. Every choice is a trade off. Every life means another one left behind.

I’ll admit that although I believe this is a well-written book, and I can imagine it would be a favourite for the right reader, I didn’t find it enjoyable to read. It feels claustrophobic and stifling. The plot doesn’t move forward as much as circle tighter and tighter. Lucky can’t see a way forward. Her relationship with Nisha is painful, as Nisha pulls her close and then pushes her away as she goes through her own panic about her life. Lucky feels alone as the brown girl at the queer party and the queer (or, at least, not quite acceptably feminine) girl in her Sri Lanken community. Her mother is controlling, but she’s also vulnerable and desperately trying to hold her family together.

It feels messy and bleak as Lucky bounces between her options: abandon her family and join with the queer, rugby-playing, semi-communal household? Have a baby with Kris and double down on the fake marriage? Convince her mother to accept her as she is, while Amma weeps endlessly at the idea? There aren’t easy answers. At the same time, I did get a little frustrated at Lucky’s feeble attempts at autonomy. She makes a little money online with her art, but she makes no effort to do anything that would make her financially independent, meaning that she is reliant on her mother or Kris to survive. I felt like just getting any kind of additional income would help immensely in her having more autonomy in her life, but she didn’t pursue that at all.

This is a book that I appreciated, but didn’t exactly enjoy. I’m glad that it is out there for the right readers, but it’s not one that personally clicked with me.

Laura Mandanas reviews Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo

The first chapter of Ash by Malinda Lo stopped me in my tracks. Lo’s writing here is not the type that should be read hurriedly — speed reading here would be like sprinting through the Taj Mahal, blindfolded, and calling it sightseeing. Such a waste! No, readers will do best to advance slowly. Pause. Ponder. Resume wandering, slowly. Bask in each word of the luminous and evocative prose. This book is one worth lingering over.

Placed in a vaguely medieval secondary fantasy world, this “Cinderella” retelling follows young Aisling (“Ash”) as she comes to terms with personal tragedy and struggles to work out her place in the world. Curious, independent, and full of longing for her lost mother and the fairy world, Ash reminds me heavily of the character Saaski from The Moorchild. Like Saaski, Ash has to make a choice between two very different worlds. Unlike Saaski, Ash has no human boy companion to help her. Prince Charming does no rescuing; indeed, Ash shows very little interest in him whatsoever. But this does not mean that she is alone.

Though Ash never declares a label for her sexuality, her burgeoning relationships indicate bisexuality. (Note that as a young adult novel, there’s no explicit sex of any kind in the book.) In this world, same sex relationships are as commonplace and unremarkable as opposite sex relationships. Lo explains on her website, “In Ash’s world, there is no homosexuality or heterosexuality; there is only love. The story is about her falling in love. It’s not about her being gay.”

My favorite thing about this book is the depth and realism that Lo depicts in her inter-character relationships. Heartwarmingly full of that familiar first time awkwardness, Ash’s relationship with the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, is a pleasure to watch unfold. Conversely, her incisive relationship with the dangerous and seductive fairy Sidhean is bone-chilling… but mesmerising. Even the complicated sisterly bond Ash has with her two stepsisters — absolutely beautifully rendered.

I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I will warn you that it comes without fanfare, tacked on almost as an afterthought. It wasn’t terrible, but the big, book-long buildup had me expecting more. Luckily, there’s a prequel?

Anna reviewed I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

I Can’t Think Straight, a novel by Shamim Sarif, is a rarity among lesbian romances. It was adapted from the screenplay of Sharif’s recent film of the same name, which is unusual–generally the movies are created from the books. It also features a cast of almost exclusively non-white characters, which I found refreshing. In the interest of getting a fuller picture, I also watched the film, and I’m here to report that the book was the better of the two, thanks largely to the absence of actors

The story focuses on Tala, a young woman of Palestinian descent whose family is among Jordan’s elite. Tala makes her home primarily in London but, as the action opens, is preparing to celebrate at her fourth engagement party in Jordan. Her counterpart is Leyla, a British Indian woman and fledgling novelist who is dating Tala’s best friend in London. Both women are independent thinkers who struggle to find their place among more traditional family members. Although Leyla is antagonized by Tala’s blunt questioning of her Muslim faith at their first meeting, they soon find out that they have more in common than they might have suspected, including a predisposition toward the company of women. After a steamy overnight, Tala finds herself caught between Leyla, about whom she feels she could develop sincere feelings, and her fiancee Hani, who is perfect in almost every way–except that he’s a man. Tala must come to grips with her own feelings under pressure from an overbearing mother and the weight of cultural expectations . . . ideally before she gets married.

The coming-out tale is an old (and sometimes tired) trope in mainstream lesbian romance, but it takes on a different dimension here. I can hardly think of any coming out stories that feature not one but two non-Caucasian women, and Sarif does a good job of tying Tala and Leyla’s struggles in with the larger cultural setting. The consequences aren’t painted as dire if neither of them choose honesty, but the choice to come out and live as openly gay will definitely have an impact on the way they are perceived.

The title is an obvious pun, just as the outcome of the story is obvious once the characters are put through the necessary misery of coming out to themselves and their families. There are some nice turns of phrase in Sarif’s writing, but there are also some lines that were lifted directly from the screenplay and land somewhat awkwardly. One of the most notable things (and perhaps this derives from the screenplay adaptation as well) was the way that secondary characters were fleshed out for the reader as the narrative jumped to their points-of-view. That’s not a technique generally found in standard lesbian romance, and it helped to reveal the motivations of other players involved and affected by Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Overall an enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, read.

Guest Lesbrarian Shanna

This is a new author who has written a beautiful take on the Cinderella story, with a twist.

Ash’s mother is dead, and, following in the tradition of almost all Disney movies, epic poems, and fairy tales, her father dies soon after.  She’s left at the mercy of her stepmother, forced to clean and look after her stepsisters: all events that closely follow the original Cinderella.  Ash absorbs herself in a single book of fairy tales her mother bequeathed her, and spends all her time searching the woods for a fairy troupe that is rumored to connect people with their dead loved ones.

Wait, the good part’s coming: Ash soon becomes torn between the fairy Sidhean and his dark promises to reunite her with her mother, and Kaisa, the Queen’s Huntress.  When Kaisa and Ash meet in the woods one day, something within Ash changes.  Ash and and Kaisa fall in love in a natural and charming way.  However, Ash still must reckon with Sidhean and his claim on her.

Ash’s world:

Fans of fairy tales will enjoy the book.  I was not necessarily a fan of the unwieldy triangulated relationship between Ash, Kaisa and Sidhean, but I really loved the dark, slightly creepy, slightly sad feeling to the book.

If you’re looking for a light fantasy read, try it out.

Lo, Malinda. Ash. Little & Brown: New York, 2009. 272 pp. ISBN: 0316040096

 

Thank you to Shanna for this Guest Lesbrarian review! Check out her book blog, Fortitude and Patience.

Also see Emily’s Guest Lesbrarian review of Ash.

If you’d like to do a Guest Lesbrarian review, shoot me an email!