Alexa reviews Soft on Soft by Em Ali

Last month, I reviewed a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who was fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss). This month, I’m reviewing a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who is fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Soft on Soft, a.k.a #FatGirlsInLove by Em Ali). Honestly, I love this trend, and I hope we’ll all have the chance to read many more diverse and positive sapphic stories like these.

Despite my comparison at the beginning, Soft on Soft by Em Ali (which I received as an ARC with a different title, #FatGirlsInLove, that appears to be a working title) is an entirely unique story. It’s a romance between two fat sapphic women: Selena, a Black demisexual model, and June, the Arab-Persian, anxious make-up artist. Thanks to the profession of the two protagonists, Soft on Soft is full of diverse bodies being celebrated, colourful descriptions, flowers, and altogether vivid mental images.

The book’s plot can mostly be summarised as Selena and June flirting, hanging out with friends, going on dates, making geeky references or working together. It is a character driven novel that is perfect for people who just want to read a cute romance and don’t mind the minimal plot – and really, the characters are worth staying for. The supporting cast has multiple nonbinary characters (with different pronouns), one of whom has depression and some really relatable remarks about mental health and therapy. Also, one parent of the main couple is bisexual, which is awesome – I very rarely see older queer characters, especially parents with adult children.

One strange thing was that the characters in this book talked in real life the way I’m used to people talking on Tumblr, and it was just a strange dissonance to see that kind of language being used in offline conversation. For this reason, some sentences seemed like they weren’t really lifelike, but I’m sure people actually talk like this and I’m just not used to it. (Also, “I’m green with enby” is a great pun I must use.)

In short, this was an adorable novel with diverse characters and colourful settings (and also, cats!). I admit I generally prefer books with a more exciting plot, but people who just want a cozy sapphic romance with fat characters will love Soft on Soft.

tw: panic attack described by POV character (chapter 8)

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 Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender

Hurriance Child by Kheryn Callender cover

Hurricane Girl is unlike anything I’ve read before. I have been basking in this new wave of queer middle grade books, because that used to be unheard of. Now, it’s become its own little subgenre (though obviously we could use a lot more!) This book comes from a completely different angle than George or Star-Crossed or Drum Roll, Please do, however. The queer middle grade I’ve read up to this point has been pretty light. They’ve been reassuring in their depiction of queer life: there may be some pushback, but overall being queer is safe and accepted in these narratives. Hurricane Child is not light or gentle, and it’s not afraid to complex–even overwhelming.

Caroline is twelve years old, and one year and three months ago, her mother left her and her father. Caroline desperately wants to reunite with her, but she doesn’t know where she is. It doesn’t help that she is constantly harassed at school, both by her peers and her teacher. Until a new girl shows up who seems to offer up a new world of possibilities.

This story takes place on Water Island in the Caribbean. While Caroline is first realizing that she’s having romantic feelings for a girl, the only reference point she has is two white lesbian tourists she sees in a shop. Kalinda–her crush–quickly renounces them (within earshot) as disgusting and sinful. Hatred of queer people is visible in this narrative. But there’s more going on here than just Caroline’s missing mother and her feelings for a girl. She also sees spirits, which means she sometimes sees and speaks to people whom I wasn’t sure were physically present. Her dad is hiding his own secrets. And her mother’s storyline concludes in a messy, unexpected place.

There are a lot balls in the air here, and I wasn’t completely sure how I felt by the conclusion. It feels realistic and difficult, but also has a dreamlike element. This isn’t a book I would necessarily give so readily to a young queer kid, because it does contain multiple scenes of hatred of queer people, but I also think this would be the perfect book for the right kid. I’m glad it exists, and I’m excited to see how this little subgenre grows in the years to come.

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.

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!

Shira Glassman reviews Bliss by Fiona Zedde

Bliss by Fiona Zedde is a finding-your-place story as much as it is a love story; or you could say it’s a love story between a woman and the self she’s supposed to be or the type of life she’s supposed to be living. It’s also highly erotic, reveling in the sensuality of its characters’ bodies, but in a respectful and almost reverential way that elevates ordinary body parts to a sort of glowing, visceral divinity.

Bliss Sinclair, a Jamaican-American woman who goes by Sinclair in honor of her dead mother’s surname, has been living a fairly tropey “money can’t buy you happiness” existence as a high-powered accountant on the gazillionth floor of a fancy building. She doesn’t really have friends who mean anything to her and she tolerates her boyfriend’s affection because it’s what you do. Lesbian identity is sitting on her emotional front porch stoop playing on its phone but she hasn’t quite had the courage to open the door yet.
When she finally does get a chance to figure out that she’s really only attracted to women, she gets taken advantage of by a woman who is pushy and misleading. The inevitable happens, at which point she heads back to Jamaica for an extended vacation to see her father and meet his new wife and kid.
She quickly winds up introduced to the local lesbian community and has to learn everybody’s old drama as she’s also getting used to being around her family again. I found most of the supporting characters and the relational world Zedde sets up for this story really appealing–there’s an immense sense of interconnectedness that includes the dead characters we never get to meet in person as well. Zedde also gives us a rich, vivid, and easy to picture world of tropical plants, Jamaican food, what kinds of things there are to do in Jamaica if you’re there on vacation, and what kinds of jobs the locals do. Whiteness hovers in the background as a clueless, absent employer but is never really present on-screen.
There is a lot of sex in this book, but there are also a lot of scenes of the main character playing tourist on beaches and historic buildings, going to parties or restaurants, enjoying time with her family, etc. I just feel like if I had been counting the sex scenes I would have run out of fingers (and yes, I phrased it that way on purpose 😛 )
This is not a book that ignores the violent reality that anyone visibly queer in Jamaica may encounter, but because Zedde is writing from the inside and not from the point of view of some privileged white non queer writer, both the book’s scenes of attempted sexual violence from the hands of multiple strange men are:
1. foiled, completely and utterly
2. take up a very brief space in the narrative; they occur over the course of a page or two, are fended off, are processed emotionally with tears or a day of quiet or whatever else is necessary, and then we move on
3. they are not intended as a rejection of Jamaica. This is important. Over at WritingWithColor, we all get questions from people outside various marginalized groups trying to write about the ways that group mistreats vulnerable folks within its own LGBT community. I prefer to leave this narrative to people in the overlap of both groups, because comparing what Zedde writes to what some of these privileged writers write you can see the difference — at one point, one of the Jamaican lesbians even says “you have to love Jamaica anyway.” This is home; the food, the culture, the scenery, the history, the music. The problem is recognized but it’s not enough to drive them out and away into other places that may very well be just as physically dangerous.
I found the main character herself more appealing as a person than any of her love interests, honestly — obviously the first one was pushy beyond belief, but one on the island came on really strong as well and I had to just believe in Sinclair’s immense attraction to her being what wore down her initial “I have a broken heart and you come on super strong, meep” feelings.
Another topic about which Zedde writes much better than a privileged person trying to write about a marginalized community further marginalizing its LGBT members, is Sinclair’s father’s reaction to her lesbianism. I was stunned at how well this was pulled off because I’d never seen a character come around so realistically and so quickly. He’s upset, but a few pages later he dials it back and says that a lot of his upset is probably unfair. Can white, non-queer people trying to write about “oppressive” non-white or non-American parents please take a lesson from this book?
Anyway, aside from that issue I thought it was a great and realistic and familiar depiction of what happens when a parent who loves their child has discomfort with their choice of partner or sexuality but is trying to work around it. We don’t see too much of that in LGBT fiction; I’ve seen a lot of either ultra-acceptance (realistic for some of us, and even those who aren’t need some wish fulfillment) or ultra-disgustingness (cathartic and important to write from the inside; tragedy porn and sometimes not even written in a way that rings true, when writing from the outside.) A family that invites a girlfriend over for dinner and no horrible “I knew you’d ruin the evening!” argument happens even though one of the members feels negatively about the idea of a gay daughter is another way to be realistic, and belongs on the page. And it’s not like you as a reader are constantly made aware of his negativity, either.
Some choice quotes, so you can get a feel for the book’s snappy dialogue and evocative descriptors:
Sinclair: “Do you come downtown often?”
First girlfriend: “If you’ll let me, I’ll come at least two times today.”
Waitress: “Can I get you two anything to drink today?”
One of the main characters, about the other main character: “Some manners for her.”
Island love interest about the first girlfriend: “If she was worth half your sighs she would have been here with you on her knees apologizing for hurting you.”
Description of main character’s young stepmom: “short reddish hair that stood up around her head like a tamed flame”
Overall, the story tells itself; it flows really well and makes you want to keep reading. This isn’t the kind of book where you read a paragraph and then have to read it again because you didn’t catch what happens. In other words, Also, kudos to Zedde for using the phrase “maggot-white penis” to refer to a naked white guy in a BDSM club, because it reminded me of those posts pointing out how nobody talks about whiteness with the kind of evocative overscrutinizing detail usually afforded to darker skin in fiction.
Trigger warnings: two foiled attempts at sexual assault by multiple men in the Jamaica half of the book. The second time the women beat up the men pretty badly; it’s over quickly and you can skip the second time if you nope out for a couple of pages when they get to a place in the woods with tons of pretty tropical flowers.
Also, the first girlfriend’s behavior is borderline abusive in the sense that she puts Sinclair in situations she doesn’t want to be in and basically demands a veto as negative consent instead of asking if things are okay beforehand, and I’m talking big deal things like surprising her with orgies or kink clubs. Sometimes they are okay and sometimes they are not and Sinclair takes steps accordingly each time. Plus, she’s the kind of person who says “You’re an incredible fuck. Yet you’re so naïve. You’re like my lost childhood. My virginity.” which I know someone who had that said to them in real life and I’ve always found it super creepy (so does Sinclair.)

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

Anna reviews Roller Coaster by Karin Kallmaker

As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I’ve read pretty much everything written by Karin Kallmaker, and I am pleased to report that Roller Coaster is her best effort in years. The novel is almost twice as long as her usual work (according to her blog it’s the longest book of her career), and her deliberate approach pays off as she takes valuable time to develop her characters and build a believable scenario.

Two women, an aspiring chef and an aspiring actress, meet on a stalled roller coaster for a brief but candid exchange that changes each fundamentally. Twenty-three years later, Laura Izmani finds herself interviewing for the position of private chef for the famous stage actress Helen Baynor. Laura knows very well that Helen is the woman she met on the roller coaster, but is wary of bringing up the incident because she divulged her struggle with cocaine use at the time. Helen splits her time between New York and California, but her fierce devotion to her children–twins whose father died when they were in the womb–and money mean that she can afford the services of a personal chef to cook for them while she is out of state.

Laura has spent the intervening years roaming the globe, and is hoping to settle herself in a quiet place for a while before figuring out her next step. Her identity as the product of a Jamaican mother and a white father means that she’s acutely aware of potential outsider status, especially in the rich enclave in which Helen resides. For her part, Helen is struggling with the challenges of growing older in the public eye and finding roles so she can continue a remarkable career. She has sacrificed most personal relationships, aside from motherhood, to the pursue life on the stage.

As Laura and Helen encounter romantic challenges with other people, Kallmaker quietly but effectively sets the stage for their relationship as they live and work together in a family setting. But there are still several secrets between them–Laura continues to be reluctant about revealing their shared past–and Kallmaker makes her characters work for a satisfying conclusion. Recommended.

For a lesbian romance with a similarly driven actress as a main character, try Gun Brooke’s Course of Action.