Danika reviews The Girls Are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh

The Girls Are Never Gone cover

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I’m very picky when it comes to horror books, mostly because I’m a wimp and get freaked out very easily. When the weather starts to get a little chillier, though, I start to crave creepy, witchy, autumn-y books, and that’s when I start eyeing the horror section. The Girls Are Never Gone was a great choice because a) it’s sapphic b) it’s more atmospheric and creepy than all-out terrifying and c) there’s a water element to the haunting. I love haunted house books, especially The Haunting of Hill House (here’s my review of how it’s absolutely sapphic), and I’ve also been intrigued by underwater horror ever since I took an creepy deep sea museum exhibit ride as a kid. I mean, it was an elevator, but it was unsettling.

But you probably came here to read about the book. The Girls Are Never Gone is an old-fashioned haunted house story, but one with a queer disabled main character.

Dare was cohost of a popular YouTube ghost-hunting show with her boyfriend -but then he broke up with her, and now she has to start over. Her new project is a solo podcast where she investigates one story in longform. She’ll be investigating Arrington Estate, where years ago, a girl drowned in the lake on the property, and it’s been rumoured to be haunted ever since. Dare got an internship to help restore the house into a museum, and she intends to use this access to dig up the history of this place.

Dare is an interesting take on a ghost-hunter, because she’s both skeptical and hopeful about the existence of ghosts. She had to face her own mortality very young, when she realized she was dependent on medical intervention for her Type 1 diabetes (the author also has type 1 diabetes). Now, in addition to the medical equipment she keeps on hand, she also has Waffles: a not quite as useful service dog whose alerts are unreliable. She has had an interest in the afterlife for many years, and she would love to see a real ghost–but despite all of the investigations she’s done for the channel, she’s never found one. Dare looks for scientific explanations first. Still, she brings a whole collection of ghost-hunting equipment with her to the house, and she’s serious about the investigation.

There, she meets a fellow volunteer, Quinn, who also happens to the commenter who alerted her to the possible haunting–oh, and she’s a cute girl. Then there’s the third member of the volunteer team, Holly. All three of them develop an instant, easy rapport that serves as a nice contrast to the creepiness of the house.

Arrington Estate is a decrepit, falling apart house that always seems to be leaking water from the ceilings, regardless of weather. It’s beside a lake that seem more like an ocean: it has mysterious currents that make it unsafe to swim in, and it seems to be getting ominously closer to the house.

It’s a slow build, both in terms of the haunting and the slowburn romance. We first really get to know the characters, with a few weird things happening in the background with the house, like a glowing light in the middle of the lake or a glimpse of something in the mirror. It’s atmospheric, and even before anything particularly scary happens, there’s a real sense of Arrington Estate as a character with its own personality and motives.

I really enjoyed the podcast element — it reminded me of Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy (review), which is another queer YA with a bisexual main character who had a project with her ex-boyfriend and had to start over when they broke up! In both of these books, they nail the podcast excerpts: they really “sound” like podcasts–and ones I would listen to! The creepy atmosphere, on the other hand, reminded me of The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould (review), which I also really enjoyed.

I am very happy that sapphic YA horror is beginning to have enough titles to choose from! This is a perfect read for a breezy fall afternoon.

Certain things that will always mark a house’s age, things human hands can’t change or erase: echoes of laughter, late-night secrets shared, wishes made, arguments had, all absorbed into the walls. A house remembers everything it witnessed, down to its very foundation. And Arrington seems to have a particularly long memory— of what, I’m not sure yet.

Danika reviews The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould cover

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Logan has lived her life on the road with her two dads, Alejo and Brandon, as they scour the country for locations for the newest episode of their ghost-hunting TV show, ParaSpectors. She and Alejo are close and their relationship is easy, but she’s always felt distanced from Brandon, and sometimes it seems like they outright dislike each other. When Brandon goes to his and Alejo’s hometown of Snakebite, he claims it’s to scout the location for the show, but when he stays for months without explanation, Alejo and Logan follow him. There, Logan faces a small town hostile to her as an out lesbian as well as to her dads. A teenager went missing when Brandon arrived, and the town is sure he’s involved. Then more kids start turning up dead, and Logan’s not sure even she trusts her father…

This is a creepy, atmospheric YA horror/thriller about a force possessing someone in a small town and getting them to kill teenagers. For the first half of this book, I thought I knew exactly where it was going, and wow was I wrong. Most of the story slowly unfolds, only raising more questions as it goes, and then the last chunk of the book is full of revelations and twists.

While I just discussed Logan’s story in the summary, this actually has two point of view characters (plus some asides narrated by The Dark). Ashley has lived her whole life in Snakebite, and she loves it here. Her mother is the backbone of the town, and she’s determined to follow in her footsteps. She has a close-knit group of friends, and her and her boyfriend, Tristan, have an idyllic relationship–or they did, until he disappears. While everyone else seems to either accept that he’s died or they think he just skipped town, Ashley keeps up the search. When Logan arrives, the town turn against her, but Ashley and Logan find an unlikely partnership. They both want to find out what happened to Tristan–Logan, in order to prove her dad innocent, and Ashley, to find Tristan alive.

Soon, as more bodies appear–including Ashley’s friends’–they begin to suspect something supernatural is happening. Ashley gets visions of Tristan and even of past happenings in the town. Brandon and Alejo seem to be keeping secrets about their past here, and Ashley and Logan are left on their own to try to solve this mystery before more people die.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought it worked really well in that format. I liked getting immersed in the unsettling world of Snakebite, and I was happy to let the story unfurl slowly because of that. Ashley and Logan are also really interesting characters. Logan has been out for ages and is very sure of herself and immediately angry at this town for its hostility towards her queer family. She’s unafraid to start fights and has no interest in getting on anyone’s good side. Ashley, on the other hand, has always been the placating kind, trying to be the perfect daughter, girlfriend, and friend. Tristan’s disappearance forces her to assert herself, because she’s the one advocating for keeping up the search. She is confused by Logan and her growing feelings for her. It’s this exploration of compulsory heterosexuality (not named, of course) that I found fascinating.

If you’re looking for a creepy read or listen, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews Fresh by Margot Wood

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I picked up Fresh when I was in a bit of a reading slump, and in the first few pages, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. It definitely has a distinct voice. It’s a first person point of view, and it sure sounds like a college freshman telling you a story–which is exactly what this is. It’s Elliot’s first year of university: how she messed it up, and how she tried to rebuild. She’s a little ridiculous, and she has lots of silly asides, including footnotes. It’s a style that will immediately turn some people off and pull others in. Once I bought in, I loved it, and I ended up reading it in two days–so much for that reading slump.

This is loosely inspired by Emma–if Emma was a bisexual girl with ADHD who went to an artsy college but is mainly interested in getting laid. Her family is wealthy, so she’s not too concerned about getting the most out of her education. She likes sex–but not commitment. Her high school relationship ended in heartbreak and humiliation, so she’s strictly casual now. The only assignment she puts any real thought into is an essay for her Sex and Intimacy class (did I mention it’s an artsy school?), where she embarks on a personal quest to sleep with a ton of people to try to find truly Good Sex–and then write about it.

A lot of people (especially on TikTok) are looking for more queer new adult books: books about the beginning years of college and/or just leaving high school, when you’re not quite a fully-fledged adult, but YA no longer reflects your experience. This definitely isn’t my experience with university, which involved still living at home and working to pay for tuition, but it’s certainly somebody’s! It’s got classic sloppy partying scenes and, as mentioned, a lot of casual hookups. Although there is a lot of talk about sex in Fresh, it’s not an erotic or steamy read. Sex is treated very matter of factly, and Elliot doesn’t give it a lot of weight.

I really enjoyed reading about a character who messes up so much. That’s where the Emma comparison comes in: she tries to set up her friend, determined that she knows what’s best for her, without realizing that her own life is very much not together. She’s afraid of intimacy and has no direction. She has no goals for her future, she’s not trying in any of her classes (and also not signing up for serious/useful classes), and she’s also not being a great friend. It doesn’t take long before it all blows up in her face.

I do want to give some clear content warning for both sexual assault and slut shaming. Elliot isn’t treating people well–she’s ghosting her hookups, and they’re not always aware that she only wants something casual–and that gets tangled up in general cultural shaming around women having casual sex (especially bisexual women). It’s clear from context that the slut shaming sentiment is wrong, but it’s not clearly defined. Similarly, while one character treats the attempted sexual assault very seriously (as does Elliot), not every character does, and it also gets mixed up with other things. I don’t think that’s a fault of the writing, necessarily, but I think readers should be aware of that going in.

Despite Elliot’s intimacy issues, there is also a romantic subplot, full of yearning, miscommunication, and a touch of the enemies to painful crush pipeline.

Overall, I thought this was such an absorbing, entertaining read, and I think it’s much-needed for new adult readers. Meanwhile, us older and wiser readers will be shaking our heads fondly at the rollercoaster of college relationships. I definitely never stopped hating the term “tender chicken,” which is used a lot in this book, and really spotlights how not erotic the descriptions of sex are, but I managed to get over that, and I’m grateful for it breaking through my reading slump. If you’re looking for a fun, silly, fast read–or queer new adult about college!–I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews I Kissed a Girl by Jennet Alexander

I Kissed a Girl by Jennet Alexander cover

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Lilah is a B-movie “scream queen,” semi-famous for her horror roles. Her latest is Scareodactyl, a cheesy dinosaur horror movie with buckets of fake blood. She’s been trained for stardom her whole life, and she’s found success in these movies–but secretly, she’s never even seen a horror movie, and she’d rather be on a historical fiction film set. Noa, on the other hand, is thrilled to be plastering fake wounds on actors. She dropped out of school to pursue union membership as a makeup artist, determined to live her dream of getting to do larger-than-life special effects horror makeup. The stakes are high, though: if she doesn’t get the hours and the recommendation, she’ll have no shot at the union (and future jobs), and she’ll have thrown away her education for nothing.

When Noa arrives at the set the first day, she’s stunned to see Lilah–the same actress who is on a poster in her bedroom. She’s a big fan, and she tries painfully hard to play it cool. Unfortunately, she manages to put her foot in her mouth the moment she sees Lilah, telling her she looks forward to hurting her. (By which she meant applying fake wounds to her.) One of my favourite touches in this is that Lilah is equally starstruck with Noa, because Noa is openly queer. To closeted bisexual Lilah, Noa is the epitome of cool. But as she also tries to keep that under wraps–especially because she mistakenly thinks Noa’s roommate is her girlfriend, she comes across as aloof (and straight).

While the cover makes this look like a Hollywood romance, I far, far prefer this art (which is part of the preorder campaign):

I Kissed a Girl Presents Scareodactyl art, showing Lilah and Noa kissing with a pterodactyl swopping down towards them

I loved the juxtaposition between the sweet romance and the cheesy, gory horror movie–and I wished that I had been played up a little more in the marketing (especially the cover). Far from a glitzy Hollywood romance, Lilah has to tread water in a tank that smells like sour milk and spends a lot of time rinsing various kinds of goo and fake blood from her hair.

I also appreciated that both of the main characters are Jewish, and they find connection with each other in that. There’s also a trans side character, and one of my favourite moments of the book was when Noa’s parents say Chrissy (the roommate) is welcome at Rosh Hashanah even if Noa doesn’t come, but to tell them how many girlfriends she’s bringing, because last time they had to run across the street to borrow chairs from the Glazers. It’s such a sweet, casual moment of acceptance (Chrissy is also queer and polyamorous).

Another aspect I thought was interesting was Lilah’s perception of herself. She has basically been raised to be an actress, so she’s very used to thinking of her body as an object–and one that she has to market successfully. She’s constantly thinking about angles and how she’s being perceived. She has a camera-ready smile and is careful to be an easy person to work with. She’s also self-conscious about her appearance, and she often shuts down when Noa compliments her looks, because she’s used to being reduced to only that.

Noa, on the other hand, has her own flaws. She’s quick to get frustrated with Lilah’s apparent insincerity, but Noa is judgmental and can be clueless about others (while Lilah is hyper aware of others’ feelings). She scoffs at Lilah reading romance novels, for instance, and understandably puts Lilah off with her judginess.

I did have some issues with the pacing. There’s a stalker subplot that felt very drawn out and awkward, and the romance plot seemed to get paused for a while and then pick up where it left off. It feels like it could have been a more tightly-plotted novella, so that there wasn’t a chunk in the middle where we’re just waiting for Noah and Lilah to get together and the stalker to be revealed.

Despite the pacing issues, I did enjoy this one overall, and I especially recommend it for readers looking for F/F Jewish romance who have exhausted the Shira Glassman back catalogue!

Danika reviews The Secret To Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home is one of my favourite books, which will come as a surprise to absolutely no one. It’s a deeply introspective graphic memoir about books, coming out, and lesbian books. What’s not to like? While Fun Home is suffused with literature references, though, Are You My Mother? is equally concerned with psychoanalysis, which was a lot harder for me to relate to. In Bechdel’s newest graphic novel, she examines her life-long love affair with various exercise phases with references to transcendentalists and Buddhism.

There’s something comforting and familiar to me about reading an Alison Bechdel book. Her thoughtful introspection and constant ruminating about how best to live in this world feels like a mind I can relate to. While her previous graphic memoirs focused on her father and her mother, this one takes a long range look at exercise as a coping mechanism through her whole life, separated into decades. As a child, she saw an ad in a comic book that promised the “secret to superhuman strength.” It turned out to only be an inaccessible Jiu Jitsu pamphlet, but she continues to look for this secret her whole life: through running, karate, skiing, cycling, yoga, and more–always in the hopes of escaping the inevitable conclusion that she is interdependent and mortal.

Alongside this journey of physical transformation–always looking for more strength and inexhaustible endurance–Bechdel also goes on a spiritual exploration of the self. She tries to grapple with this question by looking at artists and writers through history, including Jack Kerouac, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Perhaps the appeal of these exercise regiments, though, is that she can track notable changes, while the psychological and spiritual journey feels more like one step forward and two steps back. In one striking panel, Bechdel realizes she only though she’d been dealing well with her father’s death because she hadn’t dealt with it at all; she hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything. She approaches fitness and her work with the same intensity, damaging her body and her relationships in the process.

Aside from following the fitness fads Bechdel has participated in over the years, this is primarily a story about yearning, a striving for transcendence, for finding the secret to living well. It’s about not just physical strength, but also the emotional endurance necessary to be human. It’s about looking for the secret of how to best live–so there’s no real neat conclusion possible. This is a story still in progress.

I didn’t feel the same way about The Secret To Superhuman Strength as Fun Home, but that’s an impossible hurdle to clear. I did connect more to this than Are You My Mother?, despite being as far from a fitness fan as possible. I also appreciated being to able to get a wider scope of Bechdel’s life, including how the publication of her graphic memoirs (especially Fun Home) changed her everyday reality. It’s at times painful to read, because I feel so much sympathy for her, but that just shows how effective it is.

Danika reviews The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

The Legend of Auntie Po cover

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This is a quiet, almost slice-of-life graphic novel about a 13-year-old queer Chinese American girl’s life at a logging camp. Mei is the daughter of the camp cook, and she helps out in the kitchen and spends her free time spinning yarns for the other children in camp–especially about Po Pan Yin, or Auntie Po, a Chinese American matriarchal version of Paul Bunyan. She is best friends with (and obviously has a crush on) Bee, the foreman’s daughter.

In the background, though, is the constant hum of anti-Asian racism. The Chinese workers eat separately from other workers. A sawmill that employed Chinese workers is burned down. Mei is keenly aware that she’s losing something: she no longer prays, she doesn’t know her grandparents, and her Cantonese is rusty. She is caught between traditions she feels disconnected with and an American culture that doesn’t accept her.

Auntie Po is the bridge between them: a blending of cultures and a way of adapting tradition to make it relevant. Not only does Mei tell stories about Auntie Po, she also begins to see her–especially when times get hard. Auntie Poe (and her giant water buffalo Pei Pei) become a source of hope and inspiration for her, and it’s left ambiguous whether or not she’s real.

The foreman claims that Mei and her father are like “family” to him, but Mei’s father knows better than to take him at his word, even if their daughters have grown up together. The story explores friendships across racial and financial differences in both these generations (Bee and Mei as well as their fathers’ relationship) and how fraught these can be. Mei’s father soon finds himself choosing between the man he’s called “family” and his own safety and comfort.

I enjoyed the watercolor illustrations with digital lines art style, and there are some stunning spreads. Pei Pei especially is a delight whenever he makes an appearance. This is a quick read, but there are lots of different aspects to dive into: I think this is a book that could act as a great conversation starter with young readers.

As for the queer content, Mei’s crush on Bee is obvious, and they hold hands and dream about a future together, but this isn’t a romance. It’s the kind of adoring friendship (with occasional blow-ups) you’d expect between 13-year-old girls. Not long ago, this kind of relationship in a kids’ book would likely be dismissed as a close friendship, but the author’s note makes it clear that Mei is queer, and I think we’re finally at a point where queer content doesn’t have to be spelled out to be obvious.

This is a thoughtful book about a topic of U.S. American history not often written about in middle grade books, and I highly recommend it.

Danika reviews Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object cover

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Messy bisexuals, this one’s for you. ❤️

One of my favorite things to read about is flawed main characters. Characters who make mistakes–mistakes they really knew better than to make, but they did it anyways. I can’t stand negative reviews of books based on the protagonist having flaws, which is making me want to gather this book up to my chest and defend it from those negative reviews I can see looming. Lee is lost, she’s messy, and she’s hurt people–but she’s also finding herself and trying to work her way through them, and I am firmly in her corner.

Indestructible Object takes place in the summer between high school and university. Lee is an artist from a family of artists, and she has devoted herself to a podcast she makes with her boyfriend called Artists In Love. Her picture-perfect relationship and her passion both shatter simultaneously, though, when he breaks up with her to move to another city for university. Now she’s trying to figure out what to do with herself, and in her panic, she endangers the job she loves (doing sound for a cafe) as well as any chance she had of Vincent and her getting back together.

If the lost job, failed relationship, and finished podcast weren’t bad enough, her parents are separating. They haven’t been properly together for years, but they’re finally moving into separate places, and her mom is travelling while he packs up. That’s when Lee finds three objects that make her doubt the validity of her parent’s relationship in the first place: a passport belonging to her dad that was dated months before she was born, a hidden videotape of their engagement party that can’t find a VCR to play, and a book of poems by her mother dedicated with love to another man. She decides to start another podcast trying to put together the pieces of the mystery of her parents’ marriage. Why did they get together? Was there a fatal flaw to begin with? And if so, can Lee avoid it so she can find real, lasting love?

What Lee isn’t admitting about her relationship with Vincent is that it was never perfect. In fact, she was cheating on him with Claire from the coffee shop she worked at. She’s closeted, and she’s confused by Vincent’s disinterest in sex–it’s not an excuse, but her decisions make sense, especially while she’s struggling to understand herself. I appreciated this passage, as she admits to cheating to a queer friend who tells her she’s enacting a negative stereotype:

“That’s not fair,” I say. I’m not trying to defend what I’ve done, but I also don’t think I should be expected to model ideal bisexual behavior–whatever that is–at all times. When straight people cheated, they weren’t failing the whole straight population. They were just failing one person.

This could be considered a spoiler, but I think it’s important to note that Lee also realizes that she’s polyamorous and doesn’t want to be in a monogamous relationship. (She commits to honesty in her relationships going forward, of course!) It’s still very rare to see YA tackle polyamory, so I was happy to see that! (In fact, that’s what convinced me to pick this up in the first place.) My heart hurt for when she finally realizes what she really wants out of her life and she tears up because it’s “too much to want,” an impossible dream–at least, that’s what it seems to her.

I also thought Max’s subplot, the queer friend mentioned earlier, was fascinating. He has two queer parents, one of whom is non-binary, and when he came out as gay, they were–unsurprisingly–supportive, especially of his relationship with an idyllic boyfriend. Now, though, he has experienced sexual fluidity, falling for a girl, and he has picked up a punk aesthetic from her. His parents don’t approve, and he feels rejected now that he’s an “untidy queer” instead of what he refers to as a “Love, Simon gay.” This is a complicated queer story, which I am always here for–especially because I also experienced sexual fluidity after identifying as a lesbian for a decade, and it was a rough transition.

I also really enjoyed that this story is told partly in podcast transcripts, especially because they sounded like a podcast I would listen to. Lee is trying to do an investigative podcast of her own family history, but it isn’t so easy to sum up into a coherent narrative, especially the more she delves into it. It also foregrounds Memphis as the setting, digging into the problems and appeal of this city.

I’m going to leave you with a quotation near the end of the book, so it could theoretically be considered a spoiler, but I love it, so I’m including it.

Hearts are made for this. They’re made to be battered, filled up with big feelings, emptied out again. They’re made to swell and ache and break and piece back together again.

They’re made to be used, even if everything you’re ever going to use them for ends.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Middletown by Sarah Moon

Middletown by Sarah Moon

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Eli and Anna know the routine. The cops come to the door in the middle of the night, Eli tries to look as young and adorable as possible, then Anna puts on eyeliner, grabs a beer from the fridge, and tries to sweet talk them into looking the other way about the two teenagers left alone while their mom is in the drunk tank. Soon, their mom will come home again, all apologies. Eli will forgive her immediately–though she doesn’t really buy the promises. Anna will run up to her room and slam the door. It’s not a great routine, but it is familiar.

Except that this night, something changes. Their mother has gotten her second DUI in about a month, and there’s no looking the other way. She has to go to rehab. But her being in rehab means social workers, and foster care, and splitting Eli and Anna–Peanut Butter and Banana, as they call each other–apart. They’re determined to find a way to stick together, including Anna pretending to be their aunt taking care of them. But the longer they have to keep up the act, the more it seems like their luck is about to run out.

Middletown is a YA novel from the point of view of a 13-year-old. Eli is struggling through middle school. She has to two great friends, Javi and Meena, but she doesn’t feel like she really fits in with them. Meena is gorgeous and has a picture-perfect home life. She’s also straight, and Eli has a hopeless crush on her. Javi is gay, obsessed with Drag Race, and he’s the principal’s son. They both have big, vibrant personalities, and Eli feels like she doesn’t belong with their duo. When she’s not around them, she’s bullied for being too “boyish”–and she can’t say they’re wrong. She doesn’t exactly feel like a girl or a boy. Or maybe she feels like both.

When her mom goes to rehab, she’s left with just her sister at home. Anna and Eli used to be inseparable, but Anna has changed. Once a girly soccer star, now she’s withdrawn, angry, dresses all in black, and she threw out all her soccer gear one afternoon without explanation. They need each other and they love each other–but they’re kids. Anna tries her best to take care of Eli, but they’re playing an impossible hand. They need to find money for groceries and rent, make food for themselves, keep the house livable, and not let on to anyone that they’re doing it alone. That’s not even mentioning trying to process their anger and pain at their mother’s neglect.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this story is the nuanced portrayal of addiction. Their mother hurt them, but she’s also not a villain. She’s a flawed person who also loves them deeply and has done a lot of good, courageous, and selfless things in her life. She’s just dealing with addiction. It also emphasizes that addiction is hereditary. We see the damage addiction can do, but we also see examples of recovering addicts and how that damage can be repaired or at least worked through. There are no easy answers, and people aren’t treated as disposable for struggling with addiction.

Of course, you’re reading a Lesbrary review, so there is also significant queer content here. Eli likes girls–Meena in particular–and is also questioning her gender. She’s still young and figuring herself out, so we don’t get any solid identity labels, but I imagine she will grow up to identify as non-binary. One of my favorite moments of the book is when Eli and Javi go to a production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. They both dress in drag, and it captures the magic of first encountering a queer community. It gives Eli a glimpse into an expansive future that will embrace whoever she ends up being, and I think that’s an incredible experience in any queer person’s life.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but the second half was my favorite, which involves a road trip and discovering family secrets–including more queer content. I love the complicated, resilient family portrayed here. They don’t always know what to say to each other, they can accidentally (or impulsively) hurt each other, but they love each other and try to be there for each other.

Read this one if you like: complicated, flawed, and loving families; road trips and family secrets; queer community and resilient friendships; characters questioning their gender; sneaky revenge on misogynists; or nuanced portrayals of addiction.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Danika reviews The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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When I heard that a queer Vietnamese American The Great Gatsby retelling was coming out, I immediately requested a review copy. I can’t resist sapphic retellings, especially literary ones. There’s one little hiccup to me reviewing this book, though: I’ve never read The Great Gatsby. I haven’t even seen a movie version. I’ve absorbed some things from popular culture and gave the Wikipedia page a glance, but don’t expect a lot of side-by-side comparisons between this and the original.

As I said, I only needed to hear the barest of elevator pitches before adding The Chosen and the Beautiful to my TBR–so I went in knowing very little about it. As Jordan describes her and Daisy floating on the ceiling of rooms, I spent the first chapter going back and forth about whether it was metaphorical or whether this was a fantasy story and I wasn’t aware. Then there were mentions of characters literally selling their souls to demons for power, and that settled that. I should have guessed, considering Vo’s previous books, The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, are also fantasy.

Still, although this is a fantasy novel, the magic is in the background for most of the story. Gatsby’s parties employ magical entertainment and decor–but that’s not dramatically different from the lavish parties he would throw without it. The book has a languid, dreamy quality. Time passes unpredictability: we are just seeing the beginning of Nick and Jordan’s relationship when she mentions how it ends. The first chapter has Jordan and Daisy gaze over her sleeping daughter, and then we see Daisy and Tom’s wedding further in the book.

Jordan is a fascinating main character. She’s adopted from Vietnam and was raised in a wealthy family. Her mother died when she was young, leaving her with a strict father. When he passes, she’s taken in by a feminist, independent aunt. Her aunt expects her to continue in the family tradition and manage the household when she passes away, not really acknowledging that Jordan’s claim to that position is challenged by the racist society they live in. Jordan has to learn how to navigate this world, spending most of her girlhood being treated as exotic by friends before they grew up and abandoned her for more respectable companions. She may seem to others to be a spoiled, overindulgent, “careless” young woman, but she’s constantly aware of not truly fitting in.

She has plenty of love affairs with men and women, and she even frequents a gay bar. In this version of the story, Nick and Gatsby have their own romantic relationship, which makes the love triangle (or square or pentagon) between Daisy, Tom, Gatsby (and Nick and Jordan) even more fraught. Nick is reluctant to acknowledge that he has any inclination towards men, but he clearly cares deeply about Gatsby and their… dalliances, even if Gatsby doesn’t take them seriously.

This is a beautiful, absorbing story with an overwhelming atmosphere of magic, indulgence, and tragedy–this time with queer and Asian American angles that add depth to the story. R.F. Kuang called this “Gatsby the way it should have been written” and the Kirkus review reads “Vo has crafted a retelling that, in many ways, surpasses the original.” This does so much more than I would have hoped for from the original. I know that if I do pick up The Great Gatsby now, it would just be to better appreciate The Chosen and the Beautiful.

Danika reviews The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag

The Girl from the Sea cover

Way back in 2016, I wrote a post for Book Riot called 5 Lesbian Mermaid Comics You Need to Read where I rounded up sapphic mermaid and selkie comics. There were far too few than I would like, but I was able to find a three page comic story from Molly Ostertag on tumblr about a girl who falls in love with a selkie. Obviously, I was delighted, and so imagine my surprise when I found out that the concept was made into a middle grade graphic novel! I love selkies, I love queer middle grade comics, so I needed to read it ASAP.

This follows Morgan Kwon, a 15 year old with a plan for her life. She’s going to keep her head down until she graduates, and then she’s going to become her authentic self. She just needs to wait it out. Her parents have just divorced, and her brother isn’t taking it well. She has a close group of friends, but she doesn’t feel like she can tell them her secret: that she’s queer.

When she was younger, she played with a selkie. At least, that’s what she remembers–but she’s written it off as her imagination. Then, she almost drowns and is rescued by that same selkie. The next day, Keltie appears on land in human form: something she can only do every 7 years. While they both clearly are romantically interested in each other, Morgan panics that Keltie–with her bluntness, her weird clothing, her unrestrained personality–will out her. But she doesn’t want to walk away, either, so she tries to balance these two lives.

I love the artwork here and the quiet exploration of Morgan’s character. She has to learn to be true to herself and embrace when life doesn’t go to plan–that it’s okay to let things get messy. I can’t wait to get a finished copy in all its glossy, full-colour glory!

I do want to give a clear content warning for nonconsensual outing. (Spoiler: her mom accepts her immediately.)