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.

Danika reviews Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

This is a story that I still miss days after reading it. I was completely absorbed in the story, and I read most of it in one day. Jordan’s double life (disguised as a boy to join an all male capella group), the arts academy environment, and the world of a capella was all fascinating. Add to that Jordan’s struggle to fit into an elite private school on a scholarship while her family struggles to make rent, as well as an ever-more-vicious rivalry with another a capella group, and I was hooked.

I also found it interesting to read a crossdressing narrative that addresses the queer subtext. There is a long history of crossdressing in queer narratives, but usually the queer possibilities are swept under the rug as much as possible. This is a modern crossdressing story that faces them head on. Jordan isn’t trans or genderqueer, but the story acknowledges the existence of trans people, which is the first I’ve seen in this genre. Jordan borrows tips from trans websites and feels guilty about using them. When people begin to find out about her other life, they initially think that she is trans and are accepting about it, but she explains that she is cisgender.

The way crossdressing narratives usually flirt with queerness but ultimately sidestep it is by having a woman fall in love with the woman-in-disguise. The woman thinks she’s a man, so it’s not queer! Once her disguise is discarded, that romance evaporates. Meanwhile, the woman in disguise falls for a guy, but he only falls back once the disguise comes off. [mild spoilers] In some ways, Noteworthy plays into this: a girl kisses Jordan while she is Julian, and she falls for a straight guy while in disguise. The difference is that Jordan realizes through this experience that she’s bisexual. She names herself as bisexual. Unfortunately, the girl she kisses is straight, so there’s no significant F/F romance, but there’s no mistaking that Jordan is bi. [end spoilers]

The only thing that fell flat for me was that some of the members of the Sharpshooters blended together—only a few felt like fleshed out characters. (I did really love Nihal and Jordan’s relationship with him, though.) The author is obviously very familiar with a capella, so some of the details of the arrangements went over my head, but that wasn’t distracting. This was an absorbing, nuanced, and utterly enjoyable read.