Alexa reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My rating: 3.5 stars

I’ve been obsessed with Mary Read ever since I played AC: Black Flag, and while nobody can live up to that interpretation of Mary for me, I was really excited to read a book about her and see a different take. I found that the title matches the book beautifully, because it is truly first and foremost a story of Mary, and her discovering herself and what she wants.

Mary and Anne are both bisexual women living among pirate men in different ways. They both have relationships with and long for men for most of the book, but at the same time, there is a budding attraction between the two of them that eventually wins. While I don’t think Mary is meant to be nonbinary, due to being forced to live her life as a man she had some “don’t belong to either gender” feelings that were personally relatable to me as a nonbinary person.

One thing that kind of ruined my enjoyment was that… every single men in this book is absolute trash (except for Paddy, who is golden, and Jack and Nat, who are mostly decent). But seriously, everyone other than them is a misogynistic, homophobic trash, and while this might have been realistic, it was not enjoyable to read about. Anne was abused by her husband in the past and spends the second half of the book trying to break free of him for good, while Mary experiences violence both as a woman, and as someone thought to be a gay man.

The ending dragged on a little for me. This book has very short chapters, and when I saw from the page number that I’m towards the end, I had six different chapter ends where I thought “oh, that would be a pretty cool ending sentence” and then it wasn’t. Everytime I thought this was the ending, the story just went on. In the end, I ended up really liking the /actual/ ending and how it all came full circle, but this was still a little strange.

One thing that might be interesting to people (especially people looking to fill a reading challenge prompt maybe… I’ve seen prompts like this before) is that this book has a dual timeline – there is a “present”, but there are also several flashback chapters that detail how Mary ended up where she was at the beginning of the book. Without spoiling much, I can say that I really liked how these two timelines “interacted” with each other and supported each other.

I had some mixed feelings about the book, but overall I liked it. It could have been heavier on pirate adventures, but I liked Mary’s character arc and discovering herself. Also, the cover is beautiful.

TW: physical abuse by spouse, (misdirected) homo- and transphobia, attempted sexual assault, general pirate-y things like violence and murder

Julie Thompson reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My earliest memories of pirates include Muppet Treasure Island, The Goonies, and the treasure chest at the dentist’s office. Female swashbucklers, however, did not enter my consciousness until much, much later. I lived vicariously through sanitized depictions of redeemable and charming male anti-heroes. If you want more than tired tales of Black Beard or even Calico Jack (featured, of course, in this novel as one  of Anne’s paramours), then you are in for a treat with The Unbinding of Mary Reade.

Miriam McNamara immerses readers into the so-called “Golden Age” (sometime between the mid-17th to the early 18th centuries) of piracy in the Caribbean. Based on the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, 18th century women who sailed the high seas. Much of what passed for facts on piracy in that era can be taken with a grain or two of salt (or in this case, of sand). Salacious tales of blood-thirsty, unscrupulous plundering of merchant vessels and conflicts with the Royal Navy, were intended to sell books and newspapers. How much of their lives truly happened, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. We can, however, through novels such as this one and Bloody Jack, a young adult series by LA Meyer, imagine what their lives were like and what drove them forward.

McNamara opens the story with a heart pumping action sequence as a crew of pirates led by Calico Jack take over the ship. Hidden from view, Mary “Mark” Reade beholds a fiery image of Anne Bonny, her pistol firing and wild hair flying. In that moment, it won’t be the first or the last time that Mary takes a chance on an unconventional choice.

Life in a poor London neighborhood is hand-to-mouth for Mary, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic mother. The untimely death of her brother, Mark, son of a long gone, but moneyed father, presses Mary into a role she can’t refuse. She shears her hair and attempts to pass as Mark in order to play his grandmother for financial support. McNamara’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and identity flows naturally throughout the narrative. Mary’s journey from hardscrabble city life to her eventual job aboard seafaring vessels alternates with the story’s present-day of 1719. Anne, on the other hand, takes to the seas to escape an abusive marriage and eke out freedom and fulfillment however she can.

Anne and Mary develop a strong, Thelma & Louise kind of friendship, that buoys the pair in world dominated by men. In addition to nuanced explorations of gender, we also follow Mary’s developing attractions for her childhood friend, Nat, and Anne. McNamara weaves well-placed details and develops supporting characters to bring the realities of life at sea and society (as a woman) to life. Readers familiar with their story will still find much to enjoy in this engaging drama.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the history of female pirates, check out these books:

Alexa reviews Into the Mystic Volume 3 by NineStar Press

Her ghost had once told Clotho that no proper ghost story has a happy ending, because ghosts don’t end. 

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for fantasy, paranormal and fairytales, so of course I had to pick up an anthology that has nine F/F stories with paranormal elements. While the stories had the paranormal and the sapphic main characters in common, there was a great variety in paranormal creatures, writing style, and my feelings towards them as well.

Some of the stories were truly creative gems with unexpected and rarely seen ideas: the opening story, It Started Before Noon by Ava Kelly is in itself about ideas that are made into stories. The main character is a muse who grows story inspiration in a garden like flowers, but she just can’t get the romance buds right. I loved the little details, like how the different types of stories (comedy, angst, etc.) had different flowers and needed different kinds of care. Swoon by Artemis Savory had siren-like creatures acting like pirates whom I would have loved to learn more about. I loved the myth surrounding these sisters, but I still had so many questions – I would love to read a full length novel with them.

Other stories took more often used concepts or species, but still had the kind of magic that makes them an easy 5-star read. Home by K. Parr centers a wolf pack made up entirely of women, and a college student who is accepted into the pack (and the family) after getting close to the pack’s Alpha. I loved that this story had an older love interest, and I loved the description of the pack dynamics as well. The Hunt by M. Hollis is about a young vampire forever stuck as a teenager who has been adopted by a lesbian vampire couple. On her first hunt, she meets a human girl, and she finds herself wanting to meet her again. I felt like this story ended a little too soon, I would have loved to read more. And By Candlelight by Ziggy Schutz was one of my favourite stories in the anthology: I admit that I still don’t really understand the logic of it, and yet the two main characters and their relationship was so endearing that it absolutely stole my heart.

Vampires and werewolves seemed to be a popular choice for this anthology, and yet each story had some kind of unique spin on it. My Cup of O Pos by L. J. Hamlin has a disabled vampire with Ehlers-Danlos syndmore (ownvoices!) who goes out on a date with the cute human nurse from the ER who treats her with respect and compassion. This story also takes place in a world where vampires are common knowledge and there are laws about what they can and cannot do, and it uses this fictional/fantasy marginalisation to address real-life marginalisations and their intersections as well. Dance With Me by Michelle Frost is a romance between a werewolf and a vampire that left me with many burning questions about the backgrounds of the characters, wishing that there was a longer story to read.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of stories that caught me off guard and I didn’t end up enjoying them much. I am used to most non-YA lesfic I read having at least some kind of sexual content (My Cup Of O Pos has sex scenes as well, and yet I felt like I got to know the characters), but Heart’s Thaw by Bru Baker and Fire and Brine by Lis Valentine were both mostly erotica with very little plot or characterisation. While I liked the original idea in Heart’s Thaw and the twist in Fire and Brine, I felt like I barely got to know anything about the characters, other than the sex scene that takes up half of such a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this anthology and I found some true gems in it, but I do wish that the blurb or tags made the sexual content of books clearer. It was especially off-putting because most of the stories didn’t have any sex at all, so having two stories that were purely erotica just didn’t seem to fit in well with the others.

Rating: 4 stars

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.

Danika reviews Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow is one of my favourite YA books, so of course when I heard that she had a bisexual middle grade book coming out, I was eager to pick it up. Drum, Roll Please definitely lived up to those expectations. Melly is 13, and the day before she was dropped off at Camp Rockaway, her parents told her they were getting divorced. She’s had no time to process this before she’s tossed into this new environment for 2 weeks, and even her best friend being there doesn’t seem to help, especially when Olivia is too busy hanging out with her crush to remember her. Melly may be a drum player, but she has trouble finding her own voice. One way or another, these two weeks will change that.

I loved this book. It’s such a quiet read–fittingly. It’s about music and friendship and divorce and growing up and crushes, but mostly it’s just about Melly finding herself and being true to herself. She’s someone who is used to being in the background, to following along with whatever her best friend, Olivia, wants to do. But her parents’ divorce and the atmosphere of Rockaway Camp shift things, making it difficult for her to stay passive. Melly is placed in a band, and she has to find a way to communicate with her bandmates as well as find her own voice.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Olivia is complicated and thorny. Olivia is at first clingy, until she gets a crush and spends all of her free time with him. Melly is hurt, but she also isn’t sharing anything with Olivia. She keeps telling her that she’s fine and doesn’t want to talk about it. It takes one of her bandmates, Adeline, to break Melly’s shell, so she can finally talk about how she’s feeling. I loved reading about this tiny clueless bisexual’s first foray into crushing on a girl. She gets butterflies in her stomach, and then: “I looked at her hard, trying to understand. But I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so how was I supposed to recognize it when I saw it?” Been there! The two of them are very cute, and I was happy to see Melly reaching out to develop new connections. The word bisexual isn’t used, but Melly does talk about having a long-term crush on a boy before.

I appreciated the complexity of the relationships and their dynamics. Olivia may not have been there for Melly as much as she wanted, but Melly wasn’t communicating with Olivia. Her parents may not have been fair to her to tell her just before she left, but maybe she wasn’t being fair to them, either. Melly needs to find herself and get in touch with her own emotions, but that doesn’t mean abandoning her empathy. Relationships–of all kinds–are complicated. Communication is difficult. And Drum Roll, Please doesn’t try to simplify it. We can be sympathetic from one angle and cruel from another. There aren’t easy answers.

Although I never went to a music camp (mine was theoretically a Christian camp, but that was mostly lip service to get funding), I thought Drum Roll, Please really captured the atmosphere of summer camp. Within a day, it feels completely normal, but it’s so different from the rest of your life. The activities, the atmosphere, the people–it’s as if this time exists in a bubble. Friendships tend to develop easily, and you feel like you’ve known these people much longer than a week or two. But once you leave, the memories seem unreal. Most of these people you’ll never see again, except perhaps at camp next year. Despite its ephemeral nature, that time felt formative–it definitely is in Melly’s case.

I’m so happy to see another queer middle grade book out there. This is a great addition to the genre, alongside Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee, though I feel that Drum Roll, Please is a half step up in maturity–right between middle grade and YA. I definitely recommend this, whether for a tween reader or an adult. I really got invested in Melly’s story–and who can resist that cover!

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst

Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst cover

Inkmistress is Audrey Coulthurst’s second novel, and the first of her works that I have personally read. It’s the story of a young demigod hermit, daughter of a human and a wind god, whose teacher has raised her separate from human beings in an effort to protect her from them. Asra is an herbalist who has the power to write fate into being by using her blood as ink and her lifespan as fuel.  She’s used the power only once before, inadvertently causing an ecological disaster, so it’s only out of the real fear of losing something precious to her that she uses it for a second time.  The love of her young adulthood, a human villager named Ina, is sworn a political marriage with the ruling son of another village unless unless she can gather enough of her own power to not need to marry.  In this world where every human being takes on a “manifest,” a bond with an animal which allows them to shapeshift, Ina’s lateness to develop the skill has made her vulnerable.  Longing to marry her herself, Asra writes Ina will find her manifest tomorrow, and her lack of specificity sets off a chain reaction of horrors; the village is massacred by invading bandits, and Ina takes a dragon as manifest by force, cutting herself off from the gods and dedicating herself to vengeance.  Asra has no choice but to follow her, down from the mountains she has lived in all her life, desperate to turn Ina from her horrible quest.

This book had me walking a balance beam between “Oh, I really like that!” and “Hmm, I think I would have done that differently,” which means it kept my attention until the last page.  I liked that the magic got very little explanation, and that was explained wasn’t done in a way that kicked me out of the narrative.  I very much enjoyed that the appearances of characters were described naturally, with no resorting to weird food metaphors to describe the characters of color. I appreciated that there was a sense of history to the piece, without any of the plodding common to early works of fantasy novelists; the characters were simply living their lives, navigating what eddies they had to to keep from drowning in fate, and the fact that they were in a world where the gods were very close to them didn’t matter as much as getting the harvests in, or avoiding a well-traveled road on a muddy day.

Both the protagonist and the antagonist of Inkmistress are bisexual, each of them having partners of multiple genders within the text, and it goes unremarked-upon by other characters, which is something I found comforting. In a world with dragons and shapeshifting warrior kings a person’s sexuality should be a subject of no note.  That said, there is a character who was disowned by her parents for getting pregnant without getting married first, so this world isn’t that far divorced from our own, which made the world feel familiar.

The things that I didn’t enjoy as much mainly came down to characterization.  Asra has spent her entire life on a mountaintop, separate from the village below and, after her master dies, totally alone for all the winter months. This has instilled in her a certain believable naivety and hunger for human communication, and it doesn’t seem like she ever overcomes that during the course of the novel. No matter how she is abused or manipulated for it, she does not gain worldliness.  In addition, despite the fact that she’s had it drilled into her head since infancy that her powers are dangerous, and that humans will take advantage of her to force her to use them, I’m not sure there’s a character with a speaking role who she doesn’t end up blabbing her secret to.  Predictably, this leads to her becoming a weapon for one character after another to use against their enemies. This does drive the plot, but I kept wondering how Asra thought she was going to survive, when everyone who knows her name seems to know that her blood could make them into something approaching demigods themselves.

I was most of the way through the book before I realized what it was reminding me of: there was a ghost of the same sort of driven desperation that I enjoyed in N.K. Jemisin’s “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.” That was a good surprise, since I adored that novel, and I could see something of a quieter, less-driven Yeine in Asra.   Asra accepted that she had only so much power, and due to that, that her agency was limited.  She never had enough choices, and none of the ones in front of her were good; in defter hands, that could have taken on a beautiful anxiety. As it is, the character’s constant uncertainty made her come off to me as a bit weak-willed.

Weak-willed can be kind of interesting, though, and Asra’s malleability was consistent.  While she couldn’t adhere to one frame of mind or one decision beyond “Stop Ina,” she’s that rare protagonist who is both terrible at saying no, to anyone, and generally capable of getting her own way out of her problems.  The fact that “out of a problem” means “into a worse problem” every single time just ratchets up the tension.

That said, I thought that the last few pages were a bit too pat and easy.  Asra had gone through physical, spiritual and emotional agony to come to where she was, but throughout the entire narrative she wasn’t ever able to make a choice and stick to it.  She vacillated between supporting one villain or another, walking one path or another.  Wind’s daughter that she’d thought herself to be, wind’s lover that she becomes, it seemed as if she spent the entire novel being blown this way and that, with little control of her direction.  I would have liked to see her plant her feet and make real demands of the world around her.

Final rating: ***

Genevra Littlejohn is a multiethnic, queer martial artist who lives in the woods with her partner and their two cats, baking and reading and cussing at her tomato garden.  She’s at http://fox-bright.tumblr.com, or you can find her on Facebook.

Danika reviews The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

If you’ve been looking for the queer Hunger Games (or, at least, queer Mockingjay), this is the book for you.  Do you want to read about crushing oppression and the horrors of war, but with a bisexual protagonist? The Scorpion Rules is the book for you!

This was a bad choice for a readathon. I should have seen that coming, since this is clearly a dystopia, but the premise made it seem like a Fantasy novel:

Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.

A queer Canadian princess dystopia! I was expecting a page-turner. I was expecting a YA 1984. At the beginning of the novel, I definitely was getting those Fantasy-esque sci fi vibes. Once Elián arrives on the scene though, things get darker. The group of hostages that Greta is a part of have grown up that way. They have been trained to be hostages. To follow the rules. Behave. They know the deal: just get through until they turn 18, and then they will go home, and become rulers–if they live to 18. If their parents don’t declare war. Elián has not been raised with this expectation. He is the hostage of a newly-established nation. He resists. He rebels. And he poses a threat to all of them.

This is a world that is ruled by an AI. The hostages are held captive by robot enforcers. There is a panopticon. The AI has aerial weapons. Machines don’t get tired. Which is all to say that escape is impossible. You can be shot down from the sky at any point. You will be electrocuted if you say the wrong thing, if you question the system. But Elián refuses to comply, and they are punished collectively–with increasing harshness.

This is not a light read. In fact, it becomes brutal. There is torture. The end has one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve read in a book. That was what reminded me of 1984: the ending.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned a romance to this point, and that’s because although Greta has love interests, it really isn’t a significant part of the book. I did like Greta’s relationship with Xie, because it develops from such a close friendship, but I wasn’t exactly getting warm and fuzzy feelings.

I had mixed feelings about the villain, Talis (the AI). He speaks very casually (even in his “scriptures”), which toes the line to silliness at some points–but on the other hand, it almost makes him a more sinister character because of that. He does seem human.

As you can probably tell from this review, I have mixed feelings and thoughts about this. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but that’s my own fault for not knowing what I was getting into. I am definitely interested to pick up the second book, and hopefully I will have more coherent thoughts at that point.

Whitney D.R. reviews Royally Yours by Everly James

I haven’t read much, if any, “secret royalty” romance.  I happened upon Royally Yours via social media and fell in love with the cover.  And I was even more pleasantly surprised that the black woman on the cover was the princess.  I was eager to dive into this story.

Royally Yours is a good, cheesy romance filled with cute fluff between Ellie and Melody.  Though I did feel there wasn’t as much relationship development as I would’ve liked. The two young women have a meet-cute at a farmer’s market and it’s attraction at first site.  There’s flirting and longing glances, but the budding romance feels more slow than slow burn. But when the two women finally get together? Utterly adorable.

What annoyed me most about the books was Ellie’s mishandling of finding out Melody’s secret.  Yes, Melody did technically lie about who she was, but that was more for Melody’s protection and wanting a bit of anonymity than hurting Ellie.  It’s not like Melody was dating someone else or, god forbid, some kind of international assassin. She was a young girl who wanted a bit of freedom from her overbearing life, and I didn’t understand how Ellie couldn’t understand that.

Another thing that bothered me was how Melody’s issues with her parents, her mother in particular, weren’t really resolved.  At least, not to my satisfaction. In real life, you don’t always get to have closure with people who’ve hurt you, but Melody’s mother refusing to acknowledge who Melody was and chose to love kind of soured the happily ever after ending for me.

Read this if you liked movies like The Prince & Me or the Hallmark Channel movie, A Royal Christmas.  Cheesy romance with a dash of melodrama, but with queer women.

3 Stars

Danika reviews My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris

Yes, this is a choose your own adventure romance novel! I don’t read a lot of romance, but I couldn’t resist this premise, at least once I heard that there was a path where you could turn your back on the suitors and run off with a lady instead! This was, above all, super fun. It’s Jane Austen-ish, so if you’re a fan of riffs on Austen, this is well worth picking up (though I’m not an Austen fan and I still loved it.)

I fully expected to find the F/F option and only read that storyline (see the ladies in the bottom right corner of the cover?), but I ended up enjoying it enough that I followed almost every path. Depending on which choices you make, you end up in very different situations and genres, including a Gothic Jane Eyre-esque plot line, or more of a Pride and Prejudice angle.

When I was first making my way through the book, I actually hesitated before pursuing the lady love interest. It just didn’t feel like the way this romance novel would go! It’s one thing to choose between (basically) Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester, but running off with your female friend seems unfathomable. But that’s the whole point! Imagine reading a M/F romance novel: you’re plodding along, all the love interests have been introduced, and your friend (whom you clearly have more chemistry with than the dudes) throws out that, hey, if you want, you can travel to Egypt with her instead. You reach that point in the book and sigh. Image if she had taken her up on that! Imagine if instead of heading to the drafty castle or trading quips with the asshole rich guy, you just skipped town and went on an Egyptian adventure instead! Only this time, you can!

I kind of was expecting the F/F storyline to be an easter egg that you would have to seek out, but it’s pretty obvious. In fact, the chemistry between you and your friend seems more palpable earlier in the narrative than with any of the men. It’s also interesting because while most of the paths you can take are versions of famous romances in literature, the Egyptian storyline is completely different. Search for an artifact stolen from an Egyptian museum, and encounter your lady love interest’s angry ex-girlfriend! Maybe end up in a lesbian, pirate gang! (Yes, you can do that. Definitely try to get to that point.)

One of the fun things is that because this is a romance novel, you can’t really lose. Romance conventions dictate that you have a happy ending, so it’s interesting to see how you can get away with a happy ending no matter what you do. I highly recommend backtracking and following a few different paths, just to see how different they are. I loved this bisexual, choose your own adventure, historical, satirical romance novel. It was a joy to read, even when it was M/F!


Danika reviews How To Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Even before this book came out, I have been hearing 100% positive things about it. Lots of people whose opinions I respect have sung its praises, and with bi & lesbian YA readers, it’s widely accepted as a favourite. But despite these glowing reviews, I was reluctant to pick it up. Why? Honestly? Because I didn’t like the cover. It looked so bland! I know that’s a silly reason, but that’s why it took so long to reach the top of my TBR stack. And in fact, it’s probably only because I read it on my phone instead of picking up the physical copy that I even made the leap then. I’m happy to say that I was utterly mistaken in putting it off, and everyone else was completely in the right. I loved this book.

This book deftly deals with grief and unhealthy/abusive family dynamics. Grace’s father died when she was young, and since then, her mother hasn’t acted much like a mom. Maggie has been dragging Grace from one boyfriend’s house to another, and Grace is used to following her into bars and pulling her out of dangerous situations. She feels like it is her responsibility to watch after Maggie.

This is a horrible situation to be in as a teenager, and Grace is obviously suppressing a lot of anger and pain. She never knows what she’s coming home to. She’s constantly scared that Maggie has gone out drinking or ended up with a questionable guy. Trying to grow up quickly and hold it together for the both of them means something has to give. I appreciated was Grace as a character because she has deep friendships and cares about people, but she also lashes out in ways that are very believable. She wants to reach out, even as she feels that making connections is meaningless, that she is trapped in this situation. It makes her a complex but relatable character.

The relationships between characters are nuanced: Grace’s best friend and his mother are a solid source of support for her, but Luca’s mother and Maggie have a strained relationship that causes Grace to try to cover up for Maggie. In the meantime, Luca and his mom have taken in Eva (Grace’s love interest), who has recently lost her mother. Maggie takes Eva under her wing, causing Grace to agonize over whether she should tell Eva the whole truth about Maggie.

That’s a lot going on, and it’s only scratching the surface. Maggie and Grace are living with Maggie’s new boyfriend, who happens to be the father of Grace’s ex-boyfriend, meaning she’s stuck in the same house as the guy who publicly posted their suggestive text conversations after they broke up. Grace desperately wants to pursue a career as a pianist–her passion–but is afraid to leave Maggie alone, and the deadline for her life-altering audition is rapidly approaching.

The heart of the story, though, is between Maggie, Grace, and Eva. Grace cherishes the relationship she forms with Eva, where she feels like she can be herself, while resenting Eva for having a more positive relationship with Maggie than she does. The push-and-pull between Grace and all the people in her life leaves her in a situation that feels unwinnable. It’s heartbreaking to see how Maggie lets Grace down, over and over. Particularly because it’s so believable. Maggie is not a cartoonish villain, but she’s a terrible mother who puts her own child in danger and doesn’t even notice.

In case it isn’t obvious, I highly recommend this. I thought it was masterfully handled, and I was completely invested in Grace and Eva–individually and as a couple. My only complaint was that I thought Grace’s ex-boyfriend, Jay, got off the hook too easily for what he did. But overall, the treatment of abuse and grief layered with a bisexual (yes, using the word bisexual) love story and accompanied with a thoughtful examination of race and art (Eva is a black ballet dancer) all came together into a five star read for me, regardless of the cover.


Megan G reviews Grrrls on the Side by Carrie Pack

Tabitha doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere. Her ex-best friend is now her number one bully, and the only friend she has is only her friend because they smoke together and enjoy the same type of music. One night, her friend, Mike, invites her to a concert, where Tabitha is introduced to the Riot Grrrls. Soon, she finds herself with a new group of friends, an increased desire to smash the patriarchy, and some interesting new feelings for a fellow Riot Grrrl.

Before I jump into my (potentially muddled) thoughts about this book, I need to start with some Trigger Warnings for this book, because they are extensive: This book contains racism, homophobia, biphobia, fatphobia, and sexual assault. Another warning I feel is important to add is that these issues are not always dealt with in the best of ways.

Now that that is out of the way, let me start trying to unravel the range of emotions I felt while reading Grrrls on the Side.

As you can probably tell from the trigger warnings, this book deals with some heavy content. The problem is that it doesn’t often deal with it in an appropriate manner. Often, conflicts are resolved within a page or two, and the resolutions feel half-assed. Most of the time the conversations about issues like racism, homophobia, biphobia, fatphobia, and sexual assault, read more like after-school PSA specials than actual real-life conversations. It’s frustrating, because I feel like this book scratches the surface of something that could have been wonderful, but never allows its characters to go deep enough to truly get to that wonderful place.

I had a hard time being invested in the main relationship, as well. Here we have an unaware racist bisexual white girl, dating a biphobic black lesbian. Any time Jackie, Tabitha’s girlfriend, brings up issues she has with the Riot Grrrls regarding race, or issues she has with things Tabitha says that are racist, Tabitha either doesn’t accept her explanations, or tells her that she gets it while it’s obvious that she really doesn’t. [major spoiler] Tabitha only seems to fully understand the issues Jackie deals with due to the intersection of being a black lesbian after she has a conversation with a white woman, which is pretty problematic considering her girlfriend has been telling her the exact same things the entire book [end spoiler]. On the other hand, after a bout of irrational jealousy, Jackie blurts out some majorly biphobic sentiments. She immediately tries to retract them, and the issue is seemingly resolved, but it left an awful taste in my mouth. Things like that don’t just come out of your mouth when you’re angry unless you genuinely believe them. I had a really hard time rooting for these two, and in fact often wondered what they even see in each other that would make them stick through this clear lack of acceptance of integral parts of each other.

Something I feel very conflicted about is the way that the Riot Grrrls interactions are portrayed. Almost every single scene that involves more than two Riot Grrrls ends in a fight breaking out. One character, Marty, is unapologetically racist, and although she is called out on it, it’s always quickly swept under the rug. The fact that Venus, who is the usual subject of Marty’s racism, continues to stick around the Riot Grrrls despite this is pretty implausible. Racism aside, though, there is a strong amount of internalized misogyny in these patriarchy smashers. We have two instances of female relationships breaking apart because of a man (one of which I will discuss more in a moment), and I can only think of one scene in which two or more Riot Grrrls being together doesn’t end in a massive fight. These girls are meant to be friends, but that doesn’t come across through the text. In fact, more than once I found myself scratching my head and wondering why any of them even bother hanging out with each other, since they obviously dislike each other so much. I don’t know much about the original Riot Grrrls movement, but from my limited understanding, the point was to form a sisterhood. To join together against the patriarchy. I can’t even tell you a single thing that any of these girls have in common with each other. They are simply thrown together and fight.

That all being said, a part of me actually appreciated this. There seems to be a misunderstanding that being a feminist automatically assumes that you will put women’s desires first, or that your ideals will always match with your actions. The truth is that a lot feminists, even intersectional feminists, can be racist, misogynistic, homophobic, etc. Hypocrisy can run wild, and that is brought out in this book. My only issue with this is that there is no contrasting portrayal of genuine female connection. I know that Jackie and Tabitha are supposed to exemplify this, but their obvious difference in world views (see above) kind of cancels out any healthy relationship they may have. The only character who seems to be kind and open with everybody is Cherie, the sole non-white and non-black character in the novel, but she is relegated to the role of sidekick and given, at most, one important scene in the book.

The way that sexual assault was handled here was, at best, sloppy. A sexual abuse survivor sits in a room, sobbing, while two other girls debate whether the word “rape” should be used for anything other than… well, rape. Later, Tabitha is groped and forcefully kissed by a man, touting lesbophobic sentiments, and when she confronts her then-girlfriend Kate, she is rebuffed. Kate, who earlier was so concerned with how using the word “rape” for any type of unwanted attention devalues it for rape survivors, nonchalantly tells Tabitha that the man is “harmless” and that he only did it to “get back at her” (he’s an ex-boyfriend). They break up, and the issue is dropped (with a brief mention that the school has transferred the boy out of Tabitha’s classes). Kate eventually apologizes in a supremely mediocre way, and Tabitha accepts, even though this makes no sense. Then, we are informed that Tabitha’s mean ex-best friend is dating her assailant. She is rude to Tabitha when she tells her about it, so Tabitha does not inform her of what kind of man she is dating. Because this is never mentioned again, it kind of comes across as Tabitha deciding that, since Heather is mean, she deserves to be with a man like that.

Again, though, part of me does appreciate the way Kate reacts to Tabitha’s confession of assault, if nothing else because it’s real. That does happen, even coming from the most outspoken feminists. I just wish that this reality had been treated less flippantly than it is.

One of the things I did appreciate was the inclusion of the zines throughout the text. They added a lot to the plot, and added an extra sense of nostalgia and realism to the book. It was also cool to hear from character’s other than Tabitha in such a deep, personal way.

Overall, I feel like this book wanted to be more than it was. It’s clear that Pack’s intent is in the right place, but the execution falls a little flat. I wish more of the story had focused on genuinely dealing with Jackie’s biphobia and Tabitha’s racism (which, again, is shocking and continuous), instead of throwing out PSA-style conversations about random issues every now and again. Even if they had not ended up together in the end (which, really, I think would have been better for both of them), I would have felt more satisfied if I’d seen actual growth from the girls in these issues than I did watching them get a pseudo-happy ever after. It should also be mentioned that trans issues are not broached once, and the book comes across as quite ciscentric. One could justify this by claiming that it’s natural for a book set in white suburbia in the 90’s, but coming from a book that is so clearly meant to be preaching about intersectional feminism, it feels like a glaring omission.