Danika reviews Top Ten by Katie Cotugno

Top Ten by Katie Cotugno

I’ll get this out of the way first: Top Ten is about Gabby and Ryan: their unexpected friendship, and their constant will-they, won’t-they. It starts on the night of their graduation, when their complex friendship gains a whole other complication, and then describes the “top ten” moments of their friendship, not in chronological order. This is about the two of them, and there is a romantic component, but Gabby is bisexual, and just as much time is given to her long-term relationship with Shay, her girlfriend, as there is to the M/F relationship. (There’s not really a love triangle, and there’s no cheating, these are just relationships at different points.) So this isn’t a F/F romance (though it does include one), but it is queer.

On to the story itself. I enjoy reading about complex friendships, and Gabby and Ryan definitely have that. We see their friendship from both perspectives, and they both clearly rely on each and value each other, but there is also a lot of other things going on. Their insecurities get mapped onto the other. They don’t always know how to communicate with each other. Their conversations can go sideways and explode into serious fights–they’re so invested that can’t always get the perspective they need. They’re both insecure and are subconsciously looking for slights. And they both have their own issues: Gabby struggles with her anxiety, and Ryan keeps getting concussed playing hockey (but feels like hockey is his only possible future). Their interplay is sometimes frustrating, but relateable. They often confront each other on things no one else will bring up, but they still don’t always address the things that most need talking about.

I was a little bit worried that because the book focuses on Gabby and Ryan’s relationship, Gabby and Shay’s relationship would be seen as second-best, doomed, or trivial. Instead, we get a really cute scene of them meeting and getting together, and I did like their relationship. Although it’s not the focus of the story, they get enough space to develop a dynamic, and the difficulties that come up have nothing to do with Ryan. So I appreciated that it wasn’t as if the F/F relationship was a stepping stone to the ~important relationship. It was developed and significant in itself.

As for the structure of the story, it was interesting, but I’m not sure it really worked for me. For one thing, I already have difficulty keeping track of time, so scrambling the events made it difficult. It also made it harder to connect to the characters, because I didn’t get a great sense of their change over time. Sometimes I was actually confused, like when one chapter would refer to a previous fight, and I couldn’t remember if that was something I’d already read about or not. (Listening to this as an audiobook probably didn’t help that.) Perhaps partially because of that, although I was interested in Gabby and Ryan’s dynamic, I didn’t feel really connected to either of them individually. I was losing track of things, like the ages of Gabby’s sisters, which made scenes with them difficult to understand. the motif of Buzzfeed-style lists was mentioned a few times, but it didn’t seem like a strong enough theme to frame the whole book around. Although I liked elements of this, unfortunately I didn’t connect as much as I wanted to.

Mallory Lass reviews Blurred Lines by KD Williamson

Blurred Lines by KD Williamson cover

Blurred Lines is a slow burn, cops and docs contemporary romance that simmers just below the surface until you can’t stand it anymore. I found it very much worth the wait. The dialogue is funny, the plot is engaging and well thought out, and the cast of supporting male characters are highly likable.

Detective Kelli McCabe is a strong, reliable, resilient detective that was recently injured on the job. She is the glue that keeps her family together after her father died and the found family for her partner on the force when his own family wasn’t there for him. She makes you want to hold some of the water for her. At times she can be vulgar and headstrong and also stubborn, much like her love interest.

Dr. Nora Whitmore is a self assured, self protecting, thawing bisexual ice queen and I just wanted to give her a good shake and then a big hug through the entire book. She comes from a wealthy family and enjoys organic food and fine wine, but isn’t pretentious. She cares about her craft and judges people on their intellect and competency on the job and in life. She has her quirks, like keeping a Kunekune (domesticated pig) for a pet, and eating the same breakfast everyday—but in my opinion it just makes her more likable as the story unfolds.

Kelli and Nora meet at the hospital where Kelli is being treated and Nora works as the Chief of Surgery. Sparks fly, and not of the love at first site variety. Their initial barbs turn into a mutual respect and understanding. While both women’s pasts have made them emotionally stunted and commitment phobic, they can recognize their own positive qualities in one another: dedication to a job well done, intelligence, and strength under pressure. They realize they can lean on each other, and that opens up a complicated world of opportunities and fears for both of them.

The main plot revolves around a sexual harassment allegation levied against Nora, and some complicated family situations Kelli is trying to get her arms around. It was pleasantly surprising to me that the mostly male supporting cast is lovable, complex, and helps move the story along in meaningful ways. Kelli’s cadre of cops: her partner on the force Travis, her ex partner Williams, and her brother Sean, are all fleshed out in meaningful ways and I ended up rooting for all of them.

Blurred Lines features some of the most emotionally charged and revealing interactions between two characters that I can recall reading in a long time. As Kelli and Nora try to untangle their own lives and their own shit, they peel themselves back like onions and expose their most intimate thoughts. They ultimately have to decide if they want to do the work to move past their shortcomings, away from their past and toward a future together.

Marthese reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

“Something tugs in my chest. I feel strangely offbeat”

Leah on the Offbeat is the second book in the Creekwood series by Becky Albertalli and it follows Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (on which the movie ‘Love, Simon’ was based). While it may be worthwhile to read that book first it is not necessary to understand this book but it gives you more familiarity with the characters in this book. Disclaimer – the first book is not Sapphic but follows a gay teenage boy in his search for  the boy he was sending emails to, and it’s cute as cotton candy.

Leah is the protagonist on this book. She’s a badass drummer – expect some music references – who loves her body even though people expect her not to, because she’s fat. Leah is also insecure and has a tendency to pull away when things get too much. She also stands up for social justice and knows not to take shit, although she may also be too stubborn – good thing her mother is also stubborn. She is so realistic, you’ll find yourself asking ‘is this me?’

Leah is bi and she has known this for a long time. Her mother knows and is the most supportive mother ever – even is Leah may be embarrassed or find her overbearing. Her friends however, don’t know even though they for sure would be supportive seeing as there is a gay couple in their friends’ group. Once time passes, it may be hard to say something, like you missed the chance for it and this is absolutely believable. Even though you know it will be okay, coming out is scary.

Leah’s heart beats faster when Abby is around. Abby who she had been really good friends with and then avoided one on one interactions with her. However, Abby and Leah cannot afford to go to universities/colleges far away so they are both going to Georgia, which bring them closer back together. There is just one problem: Abby is her best friend’s girlfriend/ex-girlfriend!

Abby is super-sweet and talented and seems to be flirting with Leah, which confuses her.

This was a five star read. It’s similar to other books in plot but it was also very fresh. Yes there is an element of confusion – it’s YA! But the characters, especially Leah, know themselves. A lot of bi struggles were mentioned in the book which again was refreshing. The book itself will make your heart beat in a pattern of gushing, angst and comfort – a really nice composition and you just want to keep on reading. It’s easily a one sitting book.

Leah’s descriptions and her actions are also very entertaining. Like she would be me if I went to a formal event because she does something that is very laughable but realistic! As a high school story, the book ends with prom. For me, Leah was basically Belle and Abby was basically Cinderella.

This is a book I’d recommend for anyone. The only thing that I didn’t like about this book was that the term ‘hot mess’ was repeated a lot! Apart from that Albertalli really has teenage-speak down and it’s a lovely story with realistic characters and actions and while it’s a simple story, it will take you for a ride. I really wish they make a movie about it too though they have changed some things in the ‘Love, Simon’ movie already.

Danika reviews An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

About three years ago, I saw a post on tumblr from Hank Green, which read: “Remember when I said I was writing a story about a bisexual girl and a robot?” I was, of course, immediately intrigued. I’ve been following the Vlogbrothers for many years, and I’ve read almost all of John Green’s books (though they aren’t favourites of mine). I would already be interested in a book from Hank Green, but of course it having a bisexual girl main character really upped it. By the time An Absolutely Remarkable Thing came out, I had heard lots of excitement around the book, but nothing else about the queer content. Did it get written out? Did I only imagine that tumblr post?? I then began my usual research when I stumble on a book that maybe-possibly has queer women content. I’ll save you the Goodreads scrolling and assure you: yes, this book has a bisexual woman main character, and it’s not even a one-off line. Her relationship with another woman forms–I would argue–the emotional centre of the book, and frankly, it’s a little irritating that it took so much searching to confirm this.

On to the book itself! I listened to the audiobook, and I would highly recommend that process. The narrator was great. Before I say anything else, you should know that this is not a standalone book. I believe it will be a duology, but it’s definitely not the only book in this story (I wish I had known that before I reached the ending!)

If you’re a fan of Hank Green and Vlogbrothers, I would definitely say that this is worth picking up. Despite being a story about first contact and robots and a bisexual woman’s complicated relationship with her roommate/girlfriend, Hank’s voice really comes through. It’s a thoughtful book that has a lot to say about fame–internet fame in particular. April finds herself suddenly famous, and she leans into this. She makes herself a brand and has a media presence strategy. She becomes more and more invested in having her voice her, and trying to sway the general conversation. As that process continued, I became more and more uncomfortable, but never ever to say exactly where she might have crossed the line.

But if you are reading this review, you’re probably more interested about the representation. There is, understandably, some suspicion when a man is writing a queer woman character. Hank speaks to this in another tumblr post, which I recommend checking out if you have questions. I won’t deny that I went in with a more critical eye than I would from an #ownvoices author, but I don’t have any big objections to the representation.

[mild spoilers] There was a moment where I raised an eyebrow: April’s agent asks if there’s anything else they should know, anything that might come up… something that may be controversial, or secret… and April does not even think about bringing up her sexuality. When she is directly asked, she is open about it, but she doesn’t think of this as something that her agent might have to consider, which I personally felt would be pretty obvious for a queer woman.

After that, though, her agent asked: couldn’t you just be gay? You dated men, but you were gay all along? It would be easier. That seemed accurate to me. April says, “It was easier for her to sell a quirky lesbian than a quirky bi girl, so I was a quirky lesbian for her.” [end spoilers]

As for April herself, she is definitely a complicated character. She is deeply flawed, and although she acknowledges this, she’s not very apologetic about it. She can be ruthless in pursuing her goals, and callous when it comes from other people. She is insecure and pushes people away. She denies her own feelings. She is selfish and reckless. But she also has good intentions, and she feels so real and relatable. Her flaws feel personal, and her bad decisions are understandable, if not defensible. If you don’t like “unlikable” characters, you probably won’t like her. Personally, I kind of loved her.

[spoilers] The romantic relationship here is… painful. April is not a good girlfriend, though she is clearly in love. I really like her girlfriend, and I hope that April improves herself in the next book enough to be able to have a more stable and mutual relationship with her, because right now, she doesn’t seem capable of a healthy romantic relationship. [end spoilers]

I really enjoyed this! It gave me a lot to think about. Although I liked the audiobook narration, I feel like I want to reread this in a physical format just to have some time to process and think about the issues that it brings up. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Megan G reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah feels like she’s always on the off-beat. She loves to draw but is so self-conscious she barely shows anyone her drawings, let alone allows herself to think about selling them for money. Her mother is much younger than the parents of her friends, and currently dating a man Leah thinks she is way too good for. She’s bisexual, but is uncertain about coming out to her friends, even openly-gay Simon. And, to top it all off, she’s starting to get feelings for someone she really shouldn’t – someone that could cause tensions in her friend group she really doesn’t want to cause. Sometimes it feels like the only part of her life that is on beat is her drumming.

Leah on the Offbeat is what I like to call a Sequel-But-Not-Really. It takes place in the same universe as Becky Albertalli’s debut novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda and includes the same characters. Instead of being told from Simon Spier’s perspective, however, it is told from Leah Burke’s. This is what adds the “But-Not-Really” to the Sequel, because by placing ourselves in Leah’s shoes instead of Simon’s, it feels like we’re entering an entirely different world.

One of the things I loved the most about Simon vsthe Homo Sapien Agenda was how honest and realistic Simon’s voice came through in the writing. This easily became the thing I loved the most about Leah on the Offbeat as well. I don’t know how Albertalli managed to get into such different character’s heads so perfectly, but she did it. Leah is nothing like Simon, and yet she is just as real. It never felt like I was reading a piece of fiction. Instead, it was like someone was narrating their life to me (even more-so considering I listened to this as an audiobook).

In her realism, Leah is just as frustrating as she is encouraging. The biggest thing that holds Leah back throughout the entire novel is herself. Almost every bad decision she makes is born out of a lack of self-confidence and anxiety, and is therefore self-inflicted, which can sometimes make it difficult to feel sorry for her. The good thing about this, though, is that Leah grows. She becomes more confident as the story goes on, more self-aware, and less likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the time the story ends she still has a long way to go, but she’s moving forward. It’s incredibly satisfying.

The love story is my other favourite thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much, because if you haven’t read this book yet then you deserve to experience every moment of Leah falling in love for yourself, because it’s amazing, and hilarious, and cringeworthy, and messy, and so, so, so worth it. It was more than I could have hoped for, and I hoped for a lot.

Because I read this as an audiobook, I feel the need to include a small bit of praise for Shannon Purser, the reader. I found she did an amazing job at bringing the story, and Leah in particular, to life. She had great inflection and was super clear. I highly recommend giving it a listen!

Overall, Leah on the Offbeat not only holds up to its predecessor, but I would go so far as to say surpasses it. Leah is charming, and frustrating, and kind, and obnoxious, and warm, and real. She’ll worm her way into your heart and force you to cheer for her, even when you don’t want to. She’ll throw you right back into your teenage years, for worse and then for better. She’ll remind you of what it’s like to be a young girl falling in love with a girl for the first time in all the best ways.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

Alexa reviews Outrun the Wind by Elizabeth Tammi

Outrun the Wind by Elizabeth Tammi

Outrun the Wind has been on my list of most anticipated releases ever since I saw that magical cover, and learned that it is a Greek mythology love story between two complicated young women. I love reading stories based on Greek mythology, but most of the ones I’ve read recently were modern retellings, so I was glad to read a more classical one.

This book did not disappoint. Outrun the Wind pulled me in from the beginning with the writing style, the story and the characters. The warrior-turned-princess, and the huntress with the prophetic gifts. And, of course, the gods, who somehow managed to be even bigger jerks than I expected. I wasn’t familiar with Atalanta’s myth before, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this book at all – while it has elements from the canon myths, it also adds several new characters and fills Atalanta’s life with people.

I loved that this story was about two young women who were both hurt by men, but they managed to stay strong, get revenge, and heal together. Of course, nothing comes easily – their relationship develops gradually from animosity to love, so if you’re into that kind of thing, you might love this book.

One thing that was really strange to me is Artemis’s behaviour at the very beginning of the book, that Atalanta herself points out. You would think that a maiden goddess who renounced men and has a group of female warriors helping her would respect female warriors more and wouldn’t see them as subordinate to their male companions. I had minor issues with Apollo’s character as well, but those are more subjective (and possibly due to me still being under the effect of The Trials of Apollo) – however, this bit with Artemis just simply didn’t make much sense to me. I also would have loved to see more gods or Greek mythical figures maybe.

All in all, I thought this book was great for a debut novel, and while it could have used some more polishing, I definitely recommend it to anyone who likes Greek myths, or just fantasy with sapphic characters. (Also, I squeed when the title of the book was mentioned.)

tw: attempted sexual assault

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 The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow coverAfter hearing only good things about the Scorpion Rules duology, I was eager to pick it up. Unfortunately, I read the first book during a readathon, and reading a crushing dystopian story about war and brutality was not the best choice to read all in one sitting. It was darker than I was expecting, so I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. I was, though, interested in the ideas introduced in the book. So I took a few months break before I picked up the second book in the series, The Swan Riders, in the hopes that I would be more prepared this time.

I spend most of my time reading this book thinking This is the reading rule you seem to re-learn over and over: just because people say a book is great, doesn’t mean you, personally, will love it. I have long since realized that it doesn’t matter how high calibre the quality of a book is if it doesn’t immediately appeal to me. Still, I continued with the sequel, because I had heard it was an improvement from the last book. Perhaps I was less connected to the characters because of the break that I took between books, but I was having trouble pushing through.

I have, historically, been a fan of dystopian novels, but this one I found hard to deal with. It’s just so straightforward about the suffering experienced. The pain. The first book includes a detailed scene of torture that nauseated me. The second book describes the slow deaths of several characters, all involving increasingly close together seizures. While the first book has some semblance of an us vs. them clarity, Greta spends most of her time in The Swan Riders alongside the villain of the previous book.

By the end of the narrative, I had come around. The strength of this story is in its ideas, especially (for me) its exploration of personal identity and humanity. [spoilers for first book:] Greta is an AI now, and she begins to drift away from her humanity and empathy, assisted by Talis’s intervention. [end spoilers] It takes this idea, of an AI enforcing global peace, and shows how tangled it is. How can global peace be achieved? Can it? And what amount of sacrifice is worth it? Clearly, Talis’s strategy is not defended by Greta or the narrative, but there’s also not a tidy alternative.

As for the queer content, there is definitely no central romantic story here. In fact, Greta does not interact with Xie for the whole novel. But her presence is there, nonetheless. She is Greta’s tie to humanity, to retaining her true self. She is a memory that Greta clings to. She is, in some ways, the home that Greta spends each step of her journey longing to return to. So although she isn’t a central character, she is a very important one.

For all my ups and downs with this duology, I would still recommend it, but with some caveats: this is not a queer Canadian princess fantasy-esque story that the blurb had me prepared for. This is a dystopia that is focused on war and its casualties. It is thought-provoking, but brutal.

Anna Marie reviews Grrrls On The Side by Carrie Pack

Grrrls On the Side by Carrie Pack cover

I was so excited to read this queer Young Adult novel, but unfortunately it was a big disappointment. Before I get into my criticism, let me explain the premise, and why I was so excited to read it. Set in 1994, Grrrls on the Side is about Tabitha, a fat white girl who feels like an outcast stumbling across a movement of Riot Grrrls nearby. As someone who loves zines and some aspects of riot grrrl, I was really intrigued by the synopsis, and I had also just read Moxie which is another Young Adult novel but this time focused on contemporary girls reaching back to riot grrrls for inspiration. Moxie was disappointing to me for various reasons, some to do with the way race was represented and also because queerness was almost completely erased from the narrative. When I remembered that Grrrls on the Side had canon queerness in it and was also about Riot Grrrl I thought it would satiate my itch for some good angry queer punk girl YA, but once again I was wrong!

Grrrls on the Side is a confusing and fluctuating story – Tabitha is very inconsistent in so many ways, leaping from one feeling, one breakup and one crush to the next, and not in a way that was believably adolescent. It was weirdly paced, intensely focused on romance in a really unlikely and often confusing way – random characters would be mentioned once as being present in a scene completely out of the blue. A lot of the characters, including Tabitha, are like light switches in terms of their emotions: one minute they are crying and the next laughing – its very hard to keep up with and enjoy. One of the threads of the novel – that being Tabitha’s sexuality – is just oversimplified: at first she has turmoil about being bi and thinks about it a lot, but as soon as she’s in another relationship, it completely disappears from her mind, except when out of the blue, one of the love interests says really biphobic things to her (which I personally found to be very frustrating and out of character for her).

There were three black girl characters in the novel, Venus, Monique and Jackie, and of those three Jackie was the only one to get more of a personality than her blackness. Venus and Monique were consistently present to draw attention to the racism not only of the Riot Grrrl movement (and especially one specific character), but also to Tabitha. A character arc of the novel is that Tabitha finally understands that she won’t ever understand what it’s like to be black, which is such a disservice to all three black characters, and the idea that Tabitha, a white girl, is the focus point of a narrative supposed to highlight how black women and girls are the ‘grrrls on the side’ is reprehensible. I just cant understand why the author would choose to sideline the black characters in a story that she was in control of creating!

On top of the stereotypical and flat representation of these three characters, there is also a Chinese American character named Cherie who doesn’t seem to register as a person of colour in the context of the group or the narrative, like her presence isn’t seen as a ‘problem’ in the way the black girls are?!

I don’t want to end this totally negatively, so here were some good aspects: Throughout the chapters the zines that some of the girls make are included, and it was always so fun and lovely to read. It really made it seem like riot grrrl, like a bunch of messy, angry, contradictory weird girls were making things and enjoying it for themselves. My favourite character was Jackie, because she was a tender butch lesbian and she was so sweet and patient. Lastly, there was a really cute moment where Tabitha met an older woman who had also been part of a women’s liberation movement, and they had a lovely connection and promised to write to each other! Intergenerational solidarity is the best!

There’s one instance of sexual assault in this and some discussion of r*pe nearer the beginning of the novel.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murray

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murphy cover

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams is a queer Swan Lake retelling, and honestly, it just had to live up to that premise to win me over. I may not be incredibly familiar with the ballet, but I grew up watching Swan Princess constantly. Besides, queer fairy tale(-esque) retellings are one of my favourite things to read. Add to that the beautiful cover and the promise of a positive polyamorous relationship, and I was sold. So I was impressed to find that not only did this satisfy those queer fairy tale cravings, it went beyond that to create an engaging and emotionally compelling story in its own right.

When I think of a queer retelling, I expect it to stick pretty closely to the original, just massaged to include queer characters. A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams shifts the narrative dramatically, however, changing not just the trappings of the story, but the heart of it. Katya, the main character (though there are multiple POV characters), doesn’t exist in the original story. At least, as far as I have gleaned from reading the Swan Lake Wikipedia article, she would have been an anonymous background character at best with no story line of her own. Although the central plot of Swan Lake does carry over to this retelling, the tension of the story comes from Katya’s unique position in this world.

The story alternates between two points of view. They are identified by a simple, stylized illustration at the beginning of each chapter of either a swan (Katya’s chapters) or a castle (Alexis’s). I liked this little details of the design. I’ll start with discussing the queer elements of this story, because… that’s what we’re here for, right? This is a world that is completely accepting of queer people and nonbinary genders. Princen Alexis uses they/them pronouns, and no one is fazed about having a nonbinary heir to the kingdom. In fact, when they attend a ball, they are “immediately greeted by people of all genders vying for their attention.” There are other nonbinary characters who use neopronouns, such as Larde Tanis, who goes by xie. This is own voices nonbinary representation (Dax Murphy uses fey/fem/feir prounouns in feir “About the author” blurb.)

Bisexuality seems to be the norm in this world, or at least not worth remarking on. Katya, Zhen, and Alexis’s mother all show attraction to multiple genders. Alexis’s best friend and guard, Tatiana, frequently mentions her girlfriend, Inna. Alexis’s parents are in a polyamorous triad, with their mother having two partners (the Czar and Lady Natalya). While attraction to multiple genders is unremarkable in this setting, it does seem somewhat unusual to have multiple partners (though obviously not unheard of, because there doesn’t seem to be any pushback to the leaders of the country being in a triad). Alexis’s parents talk about the difficulties and negotiation that they went through to make this a healthy relationship, but it is clearly worth the effort for all three of them, and Alexis is happy to have three parents.

As I mentioned earlier, the queer and polyamorous additions are not the most dramatic changes in this retelling. We begin with Katya, who has no memory when she bumps into Ivan in the forest. He helps get her acclimated, and she stays with him. She learns magic from him. Their relationship builds slowly and turns romantic. It is against this backdrop of trust (and dependence) that the rest of the story plays out. Ivan captures Zhen–Alexis’s fiancee. Their arranged marriage is meant to unite their two kingdoms. (Although this is a fairy tale world, Alexis’s country is clearly coded as Russia, and Zhen’s is coded as China.) Ivan tells Katya that Zhen is a threat to their life together, and asks her to pretend to be captive with her, in order to gain information. Katya is shaken. This is unlike Ivan. As she observes Zhen–and sneaks away to share her findings with Ivan and beg him to explain the situation–she finds herself falling for her.

It’s this tension between Katya, Ivan, and Zhen as well as the triangle between Katya, Zhen, and Alexis that form the core of the book. Katya is torn between Zhen, this new element in her life, and Ivan, the person who she loves and trusts. She wants to believe that there must be a good reason to hold Zhen prisoner, that she must be a legitimate threat, but she also struggles to find that threat in Zhen. At first, I found it difficult to believe that Zhen would be flirting with Katya while she had been kidnapped and trapped in the woods, but Zhen addresses this directly: “Yes, we are trapped. Yes, we are waiting for someone to save us. That doesn’t mean I want to dwell on the fact!”

It’s this internal struggle between Katya’s loyalty for Ivan and her growing relationship with Zhen that really fascinates me, so I do want to discuss some spoilers. I will mark where the spoilers end. 

Initially, I felt that Katya was a passive character. Because she seems to appear out of nowhere as an adult, she can seems naive and inexperienced–quick to believe whoever she is speaking to at any moment. I found it especially hard to believe that she would so easily go along with Ivan’s plan for her to kill the “threats” at the palace. As the story continues, however, I think that shifts. After all, it is ambiguous how much agency she has at first: Ivan has been manipulating her from the beginning, hiding her from her origins, protecting himself by using her. He tells her “Say you will never leave me,” she immediately (involuntarily?) responds with “I will never leave you.”

Katya really has to struggle to accept that despite him being the only relationship she’s ever known, her introduction to love and belonging, he doesn’t deserve her loyalty. The extent of his manipulation is slowly revealed to both us as readers and Katya: not only did her use her in this instance, he has been draining the life from their forest and using her life force to bind Zhen to the lake. It’s despicable, and I’m tempted to question how he can both be this villain and be the person who supported her in the beginning of the book–but that’s not impossible. Abusers can seem loving and supportive when it suits them. They can even justify their actions to themselves that way. And Ivan certainly seems to think he can violate Katya and care for her at the same time: he claims “I loved you, Katya,” with “a mixture of devotion and sorrow in his eyes,” even when she knows the extent of what he has done to her.

An element I really liked was when Katya realizes that she doesn’t owe him an explanation for why she turned against him. It’s such an important moment, to realize that you can’t control someone else’s narrative. Ivan will likely always believe he was in the right. Katya could try to communicate with him, could pour her heart and soul out trying to get him to see how he violated her, how he betrayed her, but it would be a waste. He doesn’t deserve her energy.

Overall, I thought it was a satisfying conclusion. There’s enough loss and struggle to feel realistic, but it manages to be a happy ending anyway. I liked the nod to compersion: “An inkling of a feeling bubbled in Alexis, seeing Katya and Zhen happy, together, made them feel happy, too.” The novel leads us to think there is no way that Zhen, Katya, and Alexis can all three be happy with their situation, but the ending challenges that, showing that relationships can be built in many creative ways and still be fulfilling.

Spoilers end here!

Now I’ll address a few bits and pieces I wasn’t able to work in to the rest of the review! I liked the magic system, which seems to hang together well, and it also introduces a type of magic that I’ve never seen in a book before: nuclear magic! It’s an interesting concept, and the scenes that depict it are striking. I did have some minor issues. I didn’t entirely understand some details of the political plot (how did the son betray the Czar, for instance?), but that’s not my strength as a reader. I’m so caught up in characters that I often miss really obvious plot points. Also, the characters don’t use any contractions in dialogue, presumable to feel more fairy tale-esque, but I found it a bit awkward and distracting. Although I only noticed a handful of typos, one error I saw repeated throughout the book were numerous comma splices (“Leave that to me, I am still Czar.” and “We need to settle this dispute, it’s been too many generations.” for instance.)

Those are some very minor complaints, however, in a story I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the queer-positive fairy tale world, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was only the backdrop for a subtle story about trust, betrayal, and new possibilities. I highly recommend A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams, even if you’re not familiar with the original story!

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Tierney reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah Burke is spending her last year of high school trying to figure out where she fits in, and often feeling awkward about the fact that she marches to the beat of her own drum. She tells the story from her perspective in Leah on the Offbeat, Becky Albertalli’s not-quite-sequel to Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda (the book on which feel-good gay movie Love, Simon was based). I say not-quite-sequel because while the events in this novel follow the events in the preceding one, Leah’s point of view puts the focus on entirely different things (don’t worry, Simon and Bram are still disgustingly adorable, even as the secondary focus), and rewrites some of what we thought we understood from the previous novel in ways that are absolutely glorious.

In Leah on the Offbeat, Leah spends much of her time hanging back – from the spotlight, from taking a real shot, to avoid change and uncertainty. She loves to draw – but doesn’t think her art is good enough to actually sell her pieces, even though she needs the money. Someone has a crush on her – but she can’t figure out how she feels about it. She’s got a giant crush on someone else – but she spends time agonizing over it, even when things look promising. She’s bisexual, and is out to her single mom (and has been since middle school) – but she doesn’t feel like she can come out to her friends so soon after Simon has come out, so they don’t know about this big part of identity.

But there are also glorious moments when she steps up to the plate, like when she stands up to a friend who makes a racist comment about affirmative action being the only reason someone got into a university she was rejected from. Throughout the entire novel, Leah is an absolutely delightful character, even when you feel like yelling at her for getting in her own way and messing things up for herself with her self-consciousness and her reluctance to ever try, for fear of messing things up. It’s infuriatingly adorable (and all the more so when she finally gets over it!).

Albertalli does an awesome job in her portrayal of Leah’s bisexuality: it’s such a rock-solid part of her identity, despite her other insecurities, and is an important focus of the novel, even though she’s not out to her friends. Her pop culture references are on point, and are delightfully queer. And no spoilers, but the very queer denouement of her story feels absolutely epic – Albertalli’s writing had me rooting for this ending from very early on in the novel.

Leah on the Offbeat is a great read, and worthy of your time whether or not you’ve read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (though queer folks who have read it are sure to enjoy Leah’s take on things, and the spectacular unfolding of Leah’s own queer story!). All I can say, they better make this one into a movie too: Leah deserves her own movie, and her queer fans deserve to see this story onscreen. Fingers crossed!