Danika reviews Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

 

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this one. Initially, I was really excited to pick it up! A black, biromantic, asexual main character in a YA romance? That is definitely not an intersection often explored. I was looking forward to something fun and fairly light, and initially, I thought that was what I was getting. Alice is an adorable main character. She’s still mostly closeted as asexual, but she’s done a lot of thinking about it. She’s developed a Cutie Scale, which basically measures her aesthetic attraction–not just to people, but to all kind of cute things. (Alice is obsessed with cute.)

I loved Feenie–the grouch–immediately. She hates everyone but her boyfriend (Ryan) and Alice. The three of them live together, and form a tight-knit family. Feenie has always been fiercely protective of Alice, including punching a girl in the face in high school who made fun of Alice for being asexual. She’s rough around the edges, but I was invested in their little family. And–initially–I really liked Takumi as well. He almost seemed too perfect (which they flat-out say in text). It was a promising beginning! But… little irritations started to add up.

They didn’t seem major at first. For example, Alice works at the library, but doesn’t seem to care about it or enjoy it that much. She’s constantly off in a corner with Takumi, not working. Her boss also doesn’t like being a librarian. This is a very minor point, but it was puzzling to me: librarianship is a highly competitive field that doesn’t pay well. How would people who are indifferent to it get in and keep these jobs? And then there were some weird class moments, but that’s eventually addressed (Alice keeps saying that she’s poor and her parents are rich, but that’s not really what being poor is. Alice has a safety net, even if it comes with restrictions she doesn’t want. She equates the idea of being cut off from their money as being disowned.)

Her family is also… Well, they seem realistically complicated, but I can see how Alice was constantly stressing about it. She’s the youngest sibling by decades, and everyone seems to be determined to make her decisions for her. Her mother, especially, insists that she has to go to law school or she’s throwing away her future. Every time she does anything that her mother doesn’t approve of, all of her older siblings call and text constantly to criticize her. There is love there, but it had me stressed out just reading about it.

Soon, even the aspects I was enjoying started to fizzle out (or explode). Feenie went from gruff-but-lovable to downright shitty. Feenie and Ryan are engaged, and although the three of them are theoretically a unit, Alice is often the third wheel. Which is fine, until Alice starts going off with Takumi and Feenie goes into a rage over it. Both Feenie and Ryan seem to expect Alice to constantly be available to them, though that’s not equally true of them.

Spoilers follow for the rest of this review, because I have Thoughts.

When Feenie and Alice finally discuss what’s come between them, it turns into Alice calling herself an asshole and saying she’s been selfish, which is… not what I had been seeing. Although they form a shaky truth, it didn’t feel resolved for me. Feenie stopped being a favourite and instead felt like a toxic, possessive relationship.

And speaking of relationships! I was into Takumi at first because, as stated, he seemed pretty much perfect. Which meant the ending gave me whiplash. On reflection, I realized that I felt like there was no middle to the book. Alice and Takumi get closer and closer, without any real conflict between them until the end. They basically seem to already be dating. So it was a shock to me that when Alice finally (finally) actually asks him out, he spouts off the same ignorant things that we’ve already heard from her previous ex. Takumi–who knew Alice was asexual, who had seemed supportive–says that if she really loved him, she would let him have sex with her. Which is appalling to me. Why would you ever want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to be there? I can understand him saying “I don’t think I could give up sex.” But that was terrible to read. I actually found my eyes skimming over his whole speech, because I couldn’t understand why Alice was going through this again, when it had already happened in the beginning of the book. He did later sort of take it back, but to me, the damage was done. I no longer saw it as a happily ever after, because I didn’t like Takumi anymore.

I did read a review of an earlier draft of this book that clarified some things for me. Apparently in earlier drafts, Takumi was not a saint. In fact, he was downright skeezy at points. And that explains why I felt like there was no middle to the book: originally, it was a push and pull between Takumi and Alice, with Takumi pressuring Alice into things she wasn’t comfortable with. Understandably, that was criticized, and most of that was removed, but that puts the ending in context, as well as their lack of conflict in the middle of the book.

I’m disappointed, because I was really enjoying the read for the first 3/4 of the book, even with the minor issues I had with it, but the ending left my unsatisfied. Takumi went from eerily perfect to (in my eyes) irredeemable on a dime. Alice’s relationships with her family–both by birth and chosen–were still strained. It was far from the fluffy, uplifting ending I was expecting, though I know it was supposed to be a HEA.

I know other people really enjoyed this book, and I can see why. But it left me stressed and sad, which I don’t think was the intention.

Shira Glassman reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

                         Alyssa Cole’s drawing of her characters

That Could Be Enough, the lesbian offering in the early American romance collection Hamilton’s Battalion, is everything a gentle historical f/f romance should be. Both characters, Mercy the servant/secretary and Andromeda the dressmaker, are fully fleshed out even within the novella’s small scope — it feels fully complete and I truly felt like I watched their courtship unfold even though it’s less than a hundred pages (in my Kindle app, anyway.)

The skeleton is your basic “woman has been hurt Really Badly and finally opens up to love again despite all her fears” trope, but the prose is so approachable and the characters so vividly painted that it felt completely fresh to me. When Mercy first sees Andromeda in the doorway of the house where she works, she’s affected in a soul-claiming way that I don’t often see represented in the romances I read but have definitely experienced in the presence of a gorgeous and captivating lady.

Mercy’s a poet, but she shut all of that down because of the way a previous girlfriend treated her poetry as part of a cruel, fatalistic breakup. “There’d been a time,” Cole writes, “when she’d felt beautiful things acutely.” This is someone who’s natural personality wants to appreciate and worship all the glories the world has to offer, but can we blame her for being terrified and walled-in after such treatment, and with nobody else in her life – before Andromeda – contradicting her ex’s pronunciations about the fate of queer lives? However, when she starts emerging from her shell again, the poem Cole gave her to write is truly beautiful. I’d put it in the review, but I want you to discover it for itself 😉

In this respect Cole herself is a bit like Mercy, inasmuch as she did some truly stunning things with language. For example, close to the story’s opening, Mercy accidentally wrote “Yearned” in her diary when she was too tired to stop herself. The next morning, she scratches it out, in progressive horizontal lines compared to a wall, and replaces it with “Slept.” That’s some powerful imagery right there. We feel her sense of perpetual retreat.

I also really liked the scene where Andromeda whisks Mercy away to something truly cool that the local Black community is working on, something that feels so in tune with Mercy’s own interests that there’s narration about how “seen” she feels, by Andromeda’s choice. I can relate to that a lot; being truly seen is high on my list of things that I’m hoping will get me out of my current, Mercylike frame of mind, romantically.

It does contain That Old Standard Trope where someone believes the worst and doesn’t ask for clarification, but from misunderstanding to pain to happy resolution there really aren’t that many pages and honestly I can’t say I’d have behaved any better in her place because when you’re scared of rejection, asking frankly is… difficult.

Andromeda is clever and enterprising and devoted to her community, especially to her fellow Black women, and Mercy is sweet and deserves lots of pampering and reassurance and validation after the kind of self-denial in which she’s been wallowing.

Author Alyssa Cole did her research and shows us a dainty, yet earnest portrait of what life might have been like for two relatively fortunate queer Black women in the early days of America. We queer women deserve a part in the costume drama world that dazzles many of our imaginations. So do Black women, not that I can speak for them, obviously. Cole’s plot solution/resolution is completely realistic, which makes it far more enjoyable for me because it’s easier for me, personally, to enthusiastically embrace a happy ending if it’s set up to be a plausible one.

That Could Be Enough fulfills its mission. The setup and resolution affirm that yes, while the road has never been a guaranteed red carpet, it has always been possible for WoC and those of us who are queer to have a far more decent life than the hungry eyes of non-queer white literature with its appetite for exploitative tragedy would have us believe.

Incidentally, the story does contain some bits here and there that will probably make more sense to people more familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life, but I was mostly able to piece together from context what Mercy’s inner voice was thinking about and don’t worry if they lose you anyway; they’re not key to enjoying the story itself. (He’s not even alive anymore when the story takes place.)

I don’t remember this having any of the most common triggers I usually warn for. It does have a sex scene, so if that’s your preference, enjoy!

Shira Glassman writes affirming fantasy and contemporary fiction centering mostly on queer Jewish women. Come join Queen Shulamit as she saves her country’s farms with the assistance of a dragon and a witch in The Olive Conspiracy, or hang out with Clara Ziegler as she dyes yarn to match a cute girl’s wildlife paintings in Knit One Girl Twowhoops, she just accidentally dyed the cat pink, too!


Danika reviews Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert is a quiet, thoughtful book that deftly handles complex subjects. It immediately reminded me of Radio Silenceanother YA novel that explores race, sexuality, mental health, and adolescence seamlessly. I’m grateful that we now live in a time where queer young adult books have really matured, so to speak. In the days of Annie On My Mind, just being a white teen coming out as gay was scandalous enough, nevermind having anything else going on in your life.

Now, we finally have books that even when addressing the coming out arc can have more complexity and layers. Suzette is black, bisexual, and Jewish, and those aspects of her identity all interact and affect her everyday life. I liked how it addressed the challenges of coming out even in a fairly positive environment: the embarrassment in having to announce this intimate part of yourself, the tension in seeing what people’s reactions will be, the irritation of having it involuntarily become your defining feature, the general awkwardness.

But this story isn’t about Suzette’s sexual identity. It’s about her relationship with her brother, and how they’ve recently grown apart, to her dismay. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar, and shortly after that, Suzette was sent away to boarding school. They haven’t seen each other a lot, and they aren’t sure how to go back to the closeness they once shared. It’s painful. And it only gets more complicated when they both fall for the same girl.

The blurbs for this title seem to suggest that Suzette and her brother are pitted against each other, competing for the same girl. That’s not accurate. The core of this story is Suzette and Lionel’s relationship, and Suzette wouldn’t endanger that for a crush. So there is a love triangle, but it’s not as dramatic as that would suggest.

I really enjoyed Little & LionIt has a lot of subtle aspects that make the reading experience richer, including microaggressions (whether that’s racism, ableism, biphobia, or antisemitism). For example, I loved when Suzette got frustrated at the double-standard that bi people are not able to have a crush on two people, especially of different genders, at the same time, for fear of being associated with anti-bi stereotypes. I rolled my eyes at a review on Goodreads which played into this and accused Suzette of “emotional cheating,” despite her not even being in an official relationship.

I can’t comment on the mental health representation here, because I don’t have significant knowledge of bipolar disorder, but overall I thought this was a beautiful book, and makes me feel optimistic about the of queer lit, and specifically bi & lesbian young adult books, to know that these sorts of stories are being published. It’s about time!

Whitney D.R. reviews Fetch by B.L. Wilson

I wanted to read Fetch for two reasons: Black lesbians and my most beloved enemies-to-lovers romance trope. I don’t know what it is about two people who initially can’t stand each other realizing they’re in love (despite their better judgement), but it really turns my crank. Fetch also contains another of my favorite tropes and that’s opposites attract.

Amber is a no-nonsense femme with money and power and connections. Morgan is motorcycle-riding artist on the more stud side of the spectrum, working as a doorperson at Amber’s building. So there’s the ‘haves and have nots’ and ‘type A vs. type B’ personalities. On paper at least. I found that they were two sides of the same coin; two women who both liked to push and pull and wouldn’t back down from a real fight.  

I did find it odd that until the very end, the women addressed each other by their last names. They did have pet names for each other, but the last name thing was irritatingly consistent and I wish they had been more personal with that regard. And I recognize that these women had lived and loved before meeting each other (and some even during their interactions) but I didn’t particularly want to read Morgan have sex on-page with another woman (even if it was in the past/a flashback). Call me a romance traditionalist, I guess.

I really liked their sexual chemistry.  Despite her snotty attitude, I think Amber was more of a pussycat and Morgan saw right through it and pressed all the right buttons. Amber, as afraid of loving again as she was, really needed Morgan’s dominant side. I loved that Morgan brought out Amber’s docility. Also, this my very first time reading the word ‘punanny’ in a romance book and I was taken aback at first, then tickled pink. I’m so used to seeing other go-to raunchy euphemisms for vagina, that it was kind of refreshing.

One thing I had trouble with was the time and setting.  I wondered throughout reading why the author decided to use the events of 9-11 in a romance. Morgan and Amber have both experienced grave losses in the their lives, so I guess it could be argued the two women connected the theme of losing loved ones but on a grander scale. But it just didn’t fit or make sense to me because it felt more like a thing that just happened instead of a life-changing event that affected not just New Yorkers, but everyone in America. Though, obviously, New Yorkers felt it more keenly.

The pace of the novel was weird to me. I could never tell what time or day it was. For instance, when the women were in an office building together and the towers first got hit, it was roughly 9am, but the power went out and it was pitch black. At 9am? Did the office building not have windows? Then after, when Amber went to Morgan’s apartment it was still day and they were talking about breakfast and then all of a sudden it was night and Amber slept over.  When I reached the 40% mark in the book, only a day or two has truly gone by when it felt like a week or two in the book. And the flashbacks didn’t help.

Honestly, I felt like I was skimming more than I was actually reading. Not to say that this book wasn’t well-written, but maybe I wasn’t reading this at the right time. Characters had depth and dimension, but Fetch wasn’t for me as much as I wanted to love it. But I love the chemistry between Morgan and Amber and anyone that loves the same romance trope as I do may like this a lot.

2.5 stars

Maryam reviewed Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa edited by Allyn Diesel

I just finished Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa, edited by Allyn Diesel. It is a wonderful anthology of personal essays, poetry, and photographs, each African woman telling the tale of what it is to be queer in South Africa. They range from the heartwarming – Yulinda Noortman’s description of shopping for wedding fabric with her bride-to-be, in “The Dog, The Cat, The Parrot and the Pig and Other Tales” – to the heartwrenching: Keba Sebetoane’s “Who Are You to Tell Me What I Am?”, the brief, calamitous tale of her struggle with rape and the flawed system that kept her, and so many other women, from justice. My favorite was “I Have Truly Lost a Woman I Loved”, which features the wonderful photography of Zanele Muholi – one of her photographs graces this volume’s cover – and is a loving essay to her late mother. I only wished that some of the photographs she wrote about had been included in this book. Although some of the essays may begin in a similar fashion – I was married to a man, and then… or When I was a child…, there is something in the collection that everyone should be able to appreciate, and should serve as food for thought both in terms of social justice and how we relate to other women, no matter what their place in the queer spectrum.

Anna reviews Rum Spring by Yolanda Wallace


Rum Spring, by Yolanda Wallace, was published last December by Bold Strokes Books. I have read zero of those extremely popular heterosexual Amish romances, so I have no idea how Rum Spring stacks up, but when I read the tagline of the blurb (“Love or tradition? Which path will she choose?”) I was intrigued. The title refers to “rumspringa,” the Amish tradition of having teenagers venture into the modern world for several years before they commit themselves to the church.

Rebecca Lapp has been friends with Englisher Dylan Mahoney for most of her life, getting to know the other girl despite a language barrier and the restrictions placed upon her by her rigid faith. She knows quite well that her destiny is to marry an Amish boy and spend the rest of her life in her small Pennsylvania town, despite her interest in Dylan and the outside world. Dylan has been in love with Rebecca for years, and has been waiting impatiently for the Amish girl to turn sixteen and begin her rumspringa, hoping that the long list of activities she has created for them (which has enough items to span a lifetime) will help persuade Rebecca to choose Dylan over her family and the only life she has ever known.

The conflict between Rebecca’s feelings for Dylan and her conservative upbringing feels very real, and the consequences are serious. If Rebecca is caught with Dylan, or chooses to leave the church to spend her life as an outsider, she will lose her parents, her other family members, and the religion that has shaped her entire life. Although she admits her love for Dylan to herself and consummates their relationship on her rumspringa, after Rebecca’s sister Sarah is shunned for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she believes that she must remain with her family and commit to the church to fill the void left by her sister. As Dylan struggles to accept that they must forever remain only friends, Rebecca comes to believe that she must be true to herself, no matter the consequences.

Rum Spring feels a lot like a YA novel, not just for the high school and college scenes (Rebecca and Dylan go to the prom!) but because of the themes of growth and change and “coming of age.” The few sex scenes are well and tastefully done–logical extensions of Dylan and Rebecca’s feelings for one another. Rebecca is definitely a more sympathetic character than Dylan, whose determination to woo Rebecca comes off as a bit controlling (see the aforementioned list, which does not seem to allow Rebecca a great deal of independent thought). And her life is, seemingly, less fraught; Dylan’s family is perfectly accepting of who she is, despite being Catholic. [spoiler] One of the disappointing things about Rum Spring was its relatively easy denouement, which lessened the impact of the narrative buildup with its sweetness. This kind of rose-colored glasses perspective appears elsewhere in Wallace’s narrative:

Dylan had to admit her Catholic faith didn’t have the greatest track record when it came to gays and lesbians, but she thought the tide was slowly beginning to turn. Her parish priest, for one, was incredibly understanding and accepting. Perhaps the pope would eventually share his progressive views (148).

Perhaps this is simply reflective of Dylan’s naive optimism where sociopolitical issues are concerned, but I believe it is reflective of Wallace’s overall message, which seems sweetly unrealistic. I would have preferred a bittersweet ending–in which Rebecca has lost everything she thought she needed, but gained a lasting love (which would have been the best payoff for the dilemma Wallace set up)–to one in which they are able to kiss openly in a room that contains all of their family members, both Amish and English. Apparently I am an incurable cynic. [end spoiler]

Aside from the letdown at the end, I found the book well-written and the characters interesting. If you are fascinated by the Amish and rumspringa, looking for a story of young love triumphing over obstacles, or interested in lesbian romance with strong young adult overtones, Rum Spring might be just the book for you.