Quinn Jean reviews The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson cover

[Please note: this novel contains occasional depictions of violence and this review mentions these in the first and final paragraphs]

Like its eponymous heroine, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza defies categorisation. Hutchinson’s novel never doubts the reader’s intelligence and jumps right into the centre of events at the start. Elena Mendoza is introduced as a sixteen-year-old bisexual Latina woman working at a Starbucks in a small town in Florida, who witnesses a teenage boy shoot her long-time crush and abruptly learns she has the power to heal people. The crush is a blue-haired artist called Freddie who unwittingly becomes part of Elena’s journey along with Elena’s best friend Fadil, a kind and thoughtful Muslim boy. Everyone who is exposed to the mystery of Elena’s healing ability offers her opinions on how to solve the puzzle and who to help with her power, while Elena is most concerned with keeping her loved ones safe and not hurting anybody, while also trying to figure out if Freddie maybe likes her too now. A side note to all these extreme events taking place early in the story is that Elena was the product of a virgin birth when her mother was a teenager, with science proving Elena was a statistical anomaly and was conceived through parthenogenesis. Elena has been bullied and stigmatised her entire life as a result of her famous history, which all leads her to question whether these otherworldly occurrences are miracles, science, coincidence, or something else entirely.

A novel with plot points this complex even just at the beginning of the narrative is bound to deal with countless themes, and Elena Mendoza does not disappoint there. The book trusts the reader to have the patience and focus to follow the various characters and story points and at various times Elena’s first-person narrations discusses the significance of religion, science, and ethics in the matters at hand. A big part of Elena’s growing bond with Freddie is the two of them debating and exploring different understandings of why Elena can heal and when and whether she should be healing people. There are times when the book comes off a bit patronizing, with Elena’s self-righteous rants about how to be a good person and treat other people fairly, but this could arguably just be intended as the character’s perspective rather than the author’s.

And despite the Big Idea monologues sometimes verging on being sanctimonious, for the most part Elena is a compelling, likeable and relatable main character who more than deserves her own young adult novel to lead. Elena herself points out that if her powers are God-given, she is an unexpected vessel as a queer woman of colour; the same is unfortunately true of YA protagonists. Similarly, the religious, big-hearted and open-minded Fadil is a wonderful foil to Elena’s sometimes pessimistic, doubtful and misanthropic tendencies. Their loving interfaith, interracial friendship as it is portrayed in the novel is as refreshing as it is rare.

Elena’s bisexuality and interest in Freddie is an important and key element of the story, without reducing either character to the role of pursuer or love-interest. The often prickly and inconsistent interactions the two girls have as a result of extreme circumstances are not romantic in any traditional sense. The way Freddie and Elena are forced to confront their preconceived ideas of the other and listen to uncomfortable truths explodes old notions of how intimacy and love are formed, and the novel and their bond are both better for it.

This novel is not exclusively young adult, or fantasy, or a queer love story, or a meditation on how to be a good person. It is all of those things and a lot more, all crammed into a relatively small amount of pages. Do note that the novel contains brief references to domestic violence and racism as well as the aforementioned gun violence. Ultimately aside from the odd preachy moment, the book is an excellent piece of writing, exploring important themes through engaging with very likeable and relatable characters.

Quinn Jean reviews All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout The Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

[This review contains very vague spoilers (no specific plot points, though) and mentions of violence]

This exceptional short story collection, edited by Saundra Mitchell, is a sterling addition to WLW fiction. The vast majority of the seventeen stories included involve major WLW characters and without fail, every tale is breathtakingly beautiful. The historical settings range from a convent in medieval Spain, to small-town USA in the 1950s, right through to grunge-soaked Seattle in the early 1990s. Similarly, the young women included in the WLW stories vary greatly in their personalities, identities, dreams and loves. The one thing all the stories have in common is that none of the protagonists have unhappy endings. The book has successfully set out to show queer teenagers have always existed and thrived, even in the most adverse circumstances.

The heroism inherent in merely existing as a queer person is captured brilliantly in every story in All Out, with some of the stories including magic and fantasy to further heighten this theme. Leprechauns and witches–as well as peasant girls, waitresses and nuns–all show themselves to be strong, generous and brave when their circumstances would have them give up on life and love. Too often fictional portrayals of WLW in historical settings show these women to be doomed, but these stories reward their characters with happiness and promising futures. And the long past times in foreign places portrayed by the authors never feel distant given the amount of detail and nuance each story is imbued with, so that the reader is transported completely each time.

It is to the reader’s benefit not to know too much about what each story will contain, with only the promise that none end in tragedy, so there’s no need to be anxious when reading. Inevitably certain historical settings mean there are depictions of violence at times, but this is not the over-riding theme of any story, with queer love stories and self-discovery always emerging victorious.

Do not miss this book, it is a glorious expression of the love and light that has always filled WLW.

Quinn Jean reviews Taking Flight by Siera Maley

[This review contains spoilers and a brief mention in paragraph four of homophobic abuse and alcoholism in the novel.]

Taking Flight is a young adult coming-of-age novel by Siera Maley where lesbian LA-born and bred high school senior Lauren gets in trouble for skipping school and is sent to live with a middle-aged Christian youth worker David and his family in rural Georgia. When she arrives Lauren discovers she’ll be sharing a bedroom with David’s daughter Cameron, a very beautiful church-going cheerleader, and you can probably guess how Lauren feels about that.

There are a lot of things to like about Taking Flight, not least of all the tender love story at its core. The lead character has been sure of her sexuality and comfortable with it from a young age which is a pleasant contrast to many formulaic WLW YA books where the protagonist has a sudden lightbulb moment after meeting a bold new person who pushes them out of their comfort zone. Taking Flight doesn’t particularly play in to tired stereotypes about the southern USA either. And Maley doesn’t waste time doing too much boring set-up before throwing Lauren into the far more interesting fish-out-of-water premise of the novel, instead filling in gaps later as need be.

There are a lot of plot holes though, some big and some small, and Lauren as a character isn’t particularly three-dimensional, instead seeming to serve as a bland narrator that the reader can substitute themselves with. For a lot of readers this might be ideal, it just would’ve been nice for Lauren to have more hobbies, interests, quirks and motivations of her own to go with those of the other major characters, even if she had found those once she arrived in Georgia. Also Lauren’s entire family history doesn’t quite make sense; both her parents’ long Hollywood marriage after meeting as teenagers and the press’ complete disinterest in the child of an A-list actress are implausible in the twenty-first century.

To its credit the novel realistically depicts people’s varied responses to different characters coming out throughout the story, with many characters being accepting if not always enamoured of homosexuality, while one character’s aggressive reaction is one of the only potentially distressing scenes in the book. Additionally the complex feelings Lauren has towards her father due to his functional alcoholism are also handled sensitively. Ultimately the  central love story where two very different people from contrasting worlds give each other the space to express themselves and offer open-hearted support for each other’s innermost feelings and dreams is undoubtedly the most beautifully realised part of the novel and certainly what makes it worth reading.

Taking Flight gives the impression that the author wanted to offer readers a teenage gay love story that unfolded slowly, and was built on kindness and respect, and had an uplifting (excuse the pun) ending. While there are some weak spots, for the most part Maley succeeds with soaring colours (couldn’t help myself).

Quinn Jean reviews Stir-fry by Emma Donoghue

Trigger Warning: this novel depicts sexual harassment of underage people by an adult, discussed in this review’s fourth paragraph.

Also spoiler warning for several important plot points in this review.

Stir-Fry is an impressive debut novel, presenting a very relatable and thoughtful protagonist in Maria while also rejecting several tropes usually found in contemporary young adult novels written in the last half century. The novel takes place at the start of 17-year-old Maria’s first semester at university in Dublin after moving from her family’s home in a small village. Maria is dissatisfied living with a conservative, dull aunt in the city and answers an ad from two women seeking a flatmate, finding herself invited to dinner with 20-something students Jael and Ruth. Jael is extroverted, directionless and equal parts obnoxious and charismatic, while Ruth is a reserved but passionate feminist activist, and Maria quickly becomes close to them both after she moves in and naively doesn’t question why Ruth and Jael would share a room and a bed.

For those readers who aren’t aware of how conservative 1980s Ireland was (and the novel never explicitly explains this), it may seem a little far-fetched that Maria wouldn’t twig that her flatmates are lesbians in a relationship, but with the context of a poor, Catholic, isolated country it is distinctly plausible. This context also indicates why Maria would never have questioned her own sexuality before. The author’s presumption of reader knowledge here might make the novel feel a little inaccessible to some audiences at first, but the excellent descriptions of life in Ireland at the time paint a picture of a place where people might be pushed to be so oblivious to their own and others’ divergent sexualities. Maria’s pedestrian conversations with her classmate Yvonne–a friend Maria knows she should have but often struggles to tolerate–provide stark contrast to the vibrant, unpredictable interactions she has with her housemates, and Maria and Ruth both show miserable but resigned commitment to visiting bland family members even when the older people’s narrow ideas about life clash with the young students’ rapidly expanding intellectual worlds. The book makes it easy to empathise with Maria’s constantly changing understandings of who she is, and of the people around her, as the novel goes on and the reader sees her experiences diversify even further.

Stir-fry often feels as fractured as memory with scenes ending at ambiguous moments and skewed indications of how much time has passed. There are frequent disjointed jumps between intense conversations on raining streets to calm lounge room scenes, and Maria seems to change and recognise so much within herself, as do Ruth and Jael, and the novel ultimately only covers three months. Almost no scene in the book ends in a definite or clear manner, with characters’ last lines often leaving the reader with more questions than answers about what they mean. The scene breaks and narrative ambiguity give Stir-fry an unconventional structure and force a different kind of reading to typical young adult coming-of-age novels where characters’ thoughts and feelings are generally more clearly stated. Analysing relationships and revelations within this text requires deep concentration and thoughtful interpretation which is unexpected and rewarding.

One major criticism of the text is that an adult character at least a decade older than Maria makes advances towards her while fully aware that Maria is still a teenager and very unsure of herself sexually and romantically. This would be somewhat redeemable if there was any sort of indication anywhere in the novel that this behaviour is wrong, but it is never implied to be anything more than misguided and insensitive. These scenes toward the last third of the book may be distressing or triggering for some readers, and are certainly a large flaw in an otherwise brave, interesting and creative work.

Korri reviews Sister Mischief by Laura Goode

SisterMischief

Sister Mischief is a coming of age young adult novel about a group of friends who form the titular hip hop group in the predominantly white suburb of Holyhill, Minnesota. It’s narrated by wordsmith Esme, whose footnotes scattered throughout the book reveal the contents of text messages, lyrics scribbled in her notebook, and drop backstory in the form of memories the group shares on each other’s Facebook walls. The narrative is punctuated by earnest conversations during car drives where the girls weigh in on misogyny and racism in lyrics, if it is cultural appropriation for white girls in the affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities to love hip hop music, and if it is possible to reclaim the word bitch in rap music.

Each of the friends grapple with their identities and relationships over the course of the book: Esme is Jewish but without her mother around she doesn’t know what that means. She is out to her friends and when she finds herself falling for Rowie she is uncomfortable keeping their relationship under wraps. Tessa tries to balance her religious faith against the hypocritical and mean “Christians” she knows from church while Rowie, who usually likes boys, struggles with her feelings for Esme and the pressure from her Bengali family. Marce, who doesn’t understand why her best friend Esme never spends time with her any more, lets the slurs she receives because of the androgynous/masculine-of-center way she presents roll off her back. The four girls are bound together by their love of listening to, writing, and performing hip hop music.

The new Holyhill High School code of conduct bans rap music and “any apparel associated with this violence-producing culture,” which spurs the girls to form a queer-friendly group to discuss hip hop in an academic setting: 4H (Hip Hop for Heteros and Homos). The administration is not pleased with the idea. Shortly thereafter Esme and Rowie kiss while high in kiss in Rowie’s tree house. Before long the nights get darker earlier and Esme is sneaking over every night to make love to Rowie in the tree house. Rowie wants to keep their relationship quiet because the hetero/homo hip hop alliance has people questioning. When Esme says that that is exactly what the group is meant to do, Rowie points out that their classmates are less interested in lyrics and social attitudes than speculating about members’ sexual identities. Esme and Rowie’s relationship is revealed around the same time a 4H meeting is firebombed, leaving the future of each uncertain.

The author Laura Goode introduces readers to an engaging voice in Esme. She reminds me of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s witty and ambitious Alexander Hamilton: Esme writes like she’s running out of time. In her own words, she is “becoming the author of my own chaos” and she feels “like there’s so much work to do, so much time and so little all the same…. Time to create and re-create myself and everything I create.” I raced through this book and thoroughly enjoyed my time with the close-knit cast of characters.

 

Al Rosenberg reviews Shoulders by Georgia Cotrell

shoulders

Shoulders seems like a fictionalized memoir, but reads like a conversation with an old friend. Georgia Cotrell tells the tale of Bobbie Craword, innocent, personable lesbian, and her coming-of-age in the 1970’s. And then it tells of the fallout of all of her decisions in the 1980’s. At moments both heart-warming and anxiety-inducing, Shoulders is one of the most realistic portayals of developing sexuality I have come across.

This novel was published by Firebrand Books, an amazing short-lived lesbian and feminist book press in Ithaca, NY, in 1987 and only received a first printing, which is a shame. Cotrell herself is described on Goodreads as “a software developer and author from Austin, Texas. Her novel Shoulders was published in 1987.” That’s it, just the one book in one printing, which fits my theory that this book is more memoir than fiction.

What I find most refreshing about Shoulders is that it isn’t about the anxiety of figuring out that you’re gay. There’s no angsty self-doubt about being a lesbian, just acceptance that ladies are the prefered romantic interests.

Cotrell reveals Bobbie to us in short chapters, flashes in time. We are taken from her childhood to her teenage years to college in the first few pages. The innocence of childhood sexuality continues throughout her life in the form of romantic innocence. Most of the time Bobbie just doesn’t seem to know what she is doing. She lets her circumstances carry her in confusing and opposite directions throughout her life. I found myself forgiving her for quite a few betrayals and questionable decisions. Perhaps because I could see myself making the same “mistakes,” perhaps because I had grown to love her so dearly.

She meets, loves, befriends such a multitude of women. There are so, so many distinct female characters in this book. That by itself was fascinating and healing and wonderful. Early on in her life she meets Rachel, her dance instructor, who helps her learn about herself. In college she meets the kinds of energetic, life-changing women intellectual environments can offer you. And later in life she find Miriam, who changed my life just by imagining that someone like that might actually exist.

Like a conversation with a close, old friend, Cotrell frankly discusses heartbreak, sex, dildos, jobs that destroy you and work that lifts you up. But mostly she writes about women, in all ages, shapes and sizes. The end of Shoulders had me wishing Cotrell had continued to write, that Firebrand Books had continued to publish. Instead I’ll just reread Bobbie’s life one more time.

Al Rosenberg: Al is Games Section Editor of WomenWriteAboutComics.com. She loves lesbians, lesbians in literature, and the perfect mystery novel. Currently in Chicago working on her tattoo collection.