Danika reviews Buffalo is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel

the cover of Buffalo is the New Buffalo

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This is a collection of Métis futurism stories that rejects the concept that “education is the new buffalo” and instead imagines how Métis worldviews have survived colonialism in the past and present, and how they can influence the future.

I’ll be perfectly honest and say I do not feel qualified to discuss this book, but I thought it was a fantastic and fascinating read that I want a lot more people to pick up, so I’m going to give it a try. First, some background. Indigenous futurisms is a concept inspired by Afrofuturism. As Vowell explains, they “seek to discover the impact of colonization, remove its psychological baggage, and recover ancestral traditions.”

Despite the name, it’s not just located in the future — which is to say that although some of these stories are science fiction, Indigenous futurisms (and Afrofuturism) doesn’t neatly fit into that box. This collection also includes alternative histories, for instance. It’s also necessarily political: “whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction” (Walidah Imarisha).

Vowell writes in her introduction that she recognizes Indigenous people exist across the globe, all with their own distinct stories and viewpoints, so she labels her work as specifically Métis futurist, with all the stories taking place around her home of Lac Ste. Anne.

She also discusses how the history of the science fiction genre is intertwined with colonialism, reflecting settler-colonial anxieties and posing colonialism as inevitable, that the only choice is whether to be the colonizer or the colonized.

Vowell also explains that these stories are meant to inspire action. They “invite the reader to co-constitute potentialities with [the author]” and “You don’t have to be Métis to get it! Our past was full of relationships with non-Métis, as is our present, and who knows how much more that web of relationality will expand into the future?”

One of my favourite things about this collection, and something that furthers that goal, is that the stories include footnotes and are each followed by an essay explaining Vowell’s thought process behind them: “These explorations expand this work beyond creative writing; I am ‘imagining otherwise’ in order find a way to ‘act otherwise.'” While the stories are fiction, there is a lot of research that went into many of them, and the footnotes explain which parts are based in fact and which were changed.

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t also queer. (Chelsea Vowell also identifies as queer.) At least four of the stories are sapphic, though I recognize that this is applying terms from a completely different cultural context. In several stories, it’s just mentioned in passing that the main character is attracted to women, but in others, the character’s queerness is more central to the story.

In “Buffalo Bird,” the main character and her mother are rougarou, shapeshifters who transform into powerful black mares, and that shift is usually through anger. Angelique and her mother are both criticized for not being sufficiently feminine, especially because Angelique has no interest in marrying a man. Vowell explains that these gender norms and this heterosexism have been enforced through colonialism and that they have “erased and punished fluid sexual orientations and gender identities that existed pre-Contact.”

In another, a queer Indigenous feminist collective co-parent a kid together. And then there’s one with this line, about falling for a woman who’s also a literal fox: “I swear, I’d have done anything to keep her looking at me like that, even if part of me did feel like she was thinking about eating me up. Maybe especially because of that.”

While it’s unusual enough to have a short story collection with footnotes and explanatory essays, they also play with form in different ways. One is told as an academic talk. One is the same story told three times: as hint fiction (under 25 words), microfiction (under 300 words), and then as a short story.

Many of them feel like thought experiments. In one, buffalo are returned to the plains — all at once, with herds crashing through Ikea walls. Another takes the concept of Métis as a “forgotten people” to create a culturally rooted Métis superhero who is instantly forgotten by anyone who isn’t family — and uses that to sabotage colonialist projects. In another, parents implant their children with nanites that translate all language input into Cree, making them first language Cree speakers who will keep the language alive but will also be unable to learn any other language. One story follows a world where most of the population hibernates until the world heals from its damage, with technology maintained by an Indigenous crew paid with parcels of land — and one plans to use this opportunity for revenge and to determine who wakes up.

This was a thought-provoking and engaging collection, and I really enjoyed reading the essays to see Vowell’s inspiration and intentions behind each story. Vowell is also the cohost of the podcast Métis in Space and co-founder of the Métis in Space Land Trust, which has bought back land around Lac Ste. Anne.

I highly recommend this one, and I’m eagerly anticipating whatever Chelsea Vowel writes next.

Content warnings: racism, suicide, drug use and overdose, violence

Danika reviews Slip written by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Aatmaja Pandya

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Content warning: This review contains discussion of suicide.

This is a YA graphic novel about Jade, who is preparing for her future as an artist by going to a summer art intensive. She knows this opportunity is make or break for her chances of building a portfolio, getting a college scholarship, and following her dreams. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also exciting and inspiring.

Just before she leaves, though, she gets devastating news. Her best friend, Phoebe, has attempted suicide and is now in the hospital. Phoebe and Jade have always been incredibly close, and Jade can’t even process this information. But Phoebe doesn’t want visitors and is concentrating on her own recovery, so Jade has nothing to do but go to the Art Farm, even though her art is now the farthest thing from her mind.

This is, unsurprisingly, an introspective and melancholy story. Jade is struggling to process all of her emotions: she’s sad and afraid for Phoebe, she’s angry, she feels betrayed that Phoebe didn’t tell her what she was going through, she feels guilty for her anger—and on and on. Now that she finally has this opportunity to build her portfolio, she has no inspiration for what to create. While the people around her make beautiful, thought-provoking pieces that intimidate her, she feels completely stuck.

The colour palette used is limited and muted: mostly blue, with pops of red. I think this style communicates well Jade’s state of mind: she feels disconnected and numb, and those flashes of red are the moments when she can really connect, especially with her anger.

There is a touch of fantasy or fabulism here as well. When Jade burns her drawings of Phoebe, they briefly come to life in the flames, and she can speak to her best friend to try to understand how she got here. Later, her sculptures come to life and fight back against her or run away—which, apart from making her feel like she’s hallucinating, also makes it even more difficult to complete her portfolio in time.

Meanwhile, she’s also beginning a romance with another girl at the art collective. Mary is upbeat and confident, and Jade quite abruptly finds herself kissing her. But this adds a whole new layer of confusion and guilt: how can she be happy when Phoebe is suffering? How can she be crushing on someone and flirting when her best friend is going through something so huge and awful?

This is one of those tricky books to recommend, because it’s not an upbeat or exciting read. It’s fundamentally about a teenager stumbling and raging and weeping through something really difficult. She lashes out at others. She makes bad decisions. Her journey through this is messy and nonlinear. But that’s also what makes this feel real and what made me feel for her so much.

I hope this is one that makes its way to classroom and library bookshelves, because I can imagine that a lot of teenagers especially will appreciate this honest portrayal of what it’s like to love someone who is going through a mental health crisis—the helplessness and grief and anger and every other tangled, overwhelming emotion that comes with it.

Danika reviews Melt With You by Jennifer Dugan

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This is a sapphic YA romance with an ice cream truck road trip, and if that doesn’t intrigue you, we have very different tastes in books. To be more specific, it’s a friends-to-lovers-to-enemies?-to-lovers? ice cream truck road trip sapphic YA romance.

Fallon and Chloe were best friends practically their whole lives. Their moms are best friends who own a gourmet ice cream truck together. (It’s called Love at First Bite, and all the flavours are romance movie puns.) Their moms imagined they’d be as close as sisters, but that’s not exactly how it turned out. Instead, they ended up sleeping together. But Chloe cancelled on Fallon the next day and disappeared to university, and they haven’t really spoken since.

For Fallon, it just reinforced that the night meant nothing for Chloe, and she was foolish to think otherwise. After all, Chloe’s motto is, “It’s not that deep.” When Chloe shows up in town acting like nothing happened, Fallon is pissed and wants nothing to do with her.

That’s when their moms drop the bomb that they have an important business meeting at the same time as their biggest moneymaker event of the year. They need Chloe and Fallon to work at the event, or Love at First Bites will likely go under. But that means driving the truck out there and working shoulder to shoulder for the event. It’s a nightmare for Fallon, but she can’t exactly say no. Meanwhile, Chloe seems to be using the opportunity to win Fallon back over, but she doesn’t understand why Fallon is so angry in the first place.

It’s hard to imagine a better premise for a sapphic summer read! I didn’t love this quite as much as I hoped, but I think that I might have to face that YA romances just aren’t clicking with me lately, so I think that’s a me problem. We’re firmly inside Fallon’s head for the narration, and I found her directly addressing the audience (“I know what you’re thinking, but…”) a little akward.

Also, this book is dominated by miscommunication. Fallon even addresses that she knows everyone will think they just need to talk, but she’s sure she knows what Chloe is thinking and that it’s not worth talking about. This made the middle chunk of the book drag for me, because despite road trip hijinks, the dynamic between Chloe and Fallon is stuck in this dynamic, which made it feel like there wasn’t any progression in the core story.

Still, it delivers on the promise of the description, and it was a quick, light read. If the premise appeals to you and you don’t mind a miscommunication-based plot, toss this one in your tote bag for your beach reading this summer!

Danika reviews Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life by Rowan Ellis

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It was interested to read this book at about twice its target demographic, because it made me reflect back on how I learned this sort of information when I was a teen. This is a YA nonfiction book introducing queer girls to the basics of what it means to be a queer girl (or think you might be one). My first impression after finishing it was that it didn’t offer a lot that was new, but then I realized that a) it is likely new to the queer teens reading it and b) that I guess there haven’t really been self help books specifically for queer teen girls before! It feels like that should have happened by now, but I can’t think of any.

I liked that this is a highly illustrated, colourful book with glossy pages, which I think makes it a little more accessible. Speaking of accessible, though, I did find that some elements of the design left pages hard to read, with small font or dark text against a dark background.

It’s divided into three parts: Coming Out, Doing It, and Finding Your Community. The advice overall is fairly vague: how do you know if you’re queer? No one else can tell you. Take your time. Pay attention to how you feel. These are all accurate, but I’m not sure how helpful I would have found it as a teen. For me, I learned about this stuff mostly pieced together from tumblr posts, which probably isn’t the best source, but it worked fairly well for me. I would have appreciated more practical tips, but I know it’s tricky to get into specifics on topics that are so different from person to person.

One aspect I really appreciated was that Ellis brought in several different people who represent other experiences in the queer community, including being a queer woman of colour, being trans and queer, and being disabled and queer. They have an essay each to talk about their own lives and give advice to queer teen girls, which I think is really valuable. (Unfortunately, those are the sections that are hardest to read because of the design.)

While I kept reminding myself that this is meant as an introduction, it sometimes felt like it fluctuated between providing introductory, very general advice and including things that don’t have enough context for someone encountering this concept for the first time. For instance, the Stonewall Riots are described as: “… outside a bar in New York, tensions boiled over into an uprising. Police raids at the The Stonewall Inn were nothing new, but something was different this time around.” It doesn’t explain what it means for a gay bar to have a police raid, or what the specific mistreatment was that was being protested. It goes on to name some of the people involved, then says the riots lasted for days and that they inspired Pride celebrations that continue today, but I think if this was the first I’d heard of the Stonewall Riots, I wouldn’t really get what happened to start them.

I think the concept of this book is strong, but it didn’t live up to what I wanted from it. Then again, I’m not a teen queer girl, and I am glad that a book exists specifically for their questions, even if the answers aren’t exactly what I’d like to see. It is trans-inclusive and also addresses questioning your gender, which is great! While I don’t whole-heartedly recommend it, I do think there will be teens who appreciate having access to it, so it will be a good title to stock for public and school libraries (for the librarians who order, stock, and defend queer books: you are heroes who deserve so much better).

I hope that soon there will be many more advice and self help books for queer teen girls!

Danika reviews Spear by Nicola Griffith

the cover of Spear by Nicola Griffith

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The first book I read by Nicola Griffith was Hild, a 560 page (for the first book in the trilogy) meticulously-researched historical fiction title that left me feeling like I was wandering through a dense fog of unfamiliar names and terms–and yet, it was so engaging that I couldn’t put it down. So although this is a standalone novella, I went in feeling a little bit intimidated.

That instinct wasn’t wrong: I was immediately confronted with Welsh people and place names I’ve never seen before, as well as vocabulary I’m not familiar with. This is a retelling of the Arthur legends, so if you’re more familiar with these stories (or with Welsh words!), you’ll probably be less lost than I was in that first chapter.

Still, I knew that I would be rewarded for hanging with it, and I definitely was. Reading Griffith’s books feels like an intellectual expansion for me: it’s clear how carefully she considers her words and how deeply the setting is researched. While that can feel like a barrier to get into it, it also means that there is so much depth and richness to the story, which more than makes up for me stumbling through the first chapter or so.

This follows an unnamed (at least, at first) main character raised in isolation, closely connected to nature, who disguises herself as a man and sets off to become a knight of King Artos’s court. This is a lofty goal for a girl in scavenged armor riding a bony horse, but she knows it’s her destiny. While she is assumed to be a man by most people she meets and she does sleep with women (who know she’s a woman), at first, this isn’t a major part of the story–but it only gets more queer as it goes.

She’s a fascinating character who has a synergistic relationship with nature: she has reflexes and senses that are beyond what humans are normally capable of because of it, which is what allows her to slowly make her way closer to the possibility of being one of the chosen few knights of Artos.

While I enjoyed the whole book, I thought the section that takes place at King Artos’s court is the most interesting. There, we learn about (spoiler) the Lancelot character’s relationship with both the Guinevere and Arthur characters. (end spoiler) Our main character also begins to question deeply for the first time her destiny, her upbringing, and her instincts. She enters this space feeling confident in herself, but she begins to wonder if she should feel ashamed, if she is somehow “unclean”. (Which not really about homophobia, aside from the metaphor.) There’s also an enthralling love story with a woman intertwined with her destiny.

This is one of the few books I’ve ever read that made me gasp out loud as I read it. I’m not usually an expressive reader, so that was a surprise. This novella is precisely plotted, both building up an expansive world and mythology while moving through a lean story that deserves its own spot among the most renowned Arthur legends. It feels timeless, but also has a depth that makes these people feel real and relatable.

I enjoyed reading the afterword, where the author both lays out her substantial research into the setting while also delighting in being able to create a mishmash of many different Arthur stories–with her own queer twist, of course. She describes how this is the great tradition of Arthur stories: they are all essentially fan fiction, remixing the versions that came before. Though Griffith borrows elements from many other stories, this narrative stands alone, feeling cohesive and layered, even if you (like me) don’t recognize the references or inspirations. (Oh, and I didn’t even mention the handful of gorgeous illustrations throughout!)

This is a small book that packs a big punch, and I was surprised how moved I was by the love story, considering that romance didn’t play much of a role for the first section of the book. I am definitely now on board for anything Griffith writes, and I can’t wait to explore her backlist. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just read her Writer’s Manifesto, and I’ll be off fanning my face for a bit.

Danika review Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

the cover of Burn Down, Rise Up

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I have to say, although I love the illustration of Raquel, I don’t think cover does justice to this being a horror novel. I got sports vibes from it. I didn’t notice the little monster claws/legs in the background on first viewing. But this is definitely horror, with some blood and gore, so be prepared for that going in.

This is a YA horror novel about a nightmare version of the Bronx where people are infected with mold until it consumes them, where fires burn endlessly, and where giant centipedes roam the streets and eat anyone they can catch. It’s bloody and has some serious body horror. But it’s also about the history of the Bronx, the racist policies that led to real-life horrors, and what it takes to try to rebuild when the fires still aren’t completely out.

People keep disappearing from the Bronx, and even the white teenagers who get a full police investigation aren’t found. It’s just background noise in Raquel’s life, until one day her mother goes into a coma after coming in contact with a patient covered in strange mold who then fled. Her crush, Charlize, confides in her that she saw her cousin Cisco before he disappeared, and he was covered in that same mold. If he was the one who infected Raquel’s mother, maybe finding him will be the key to helping her.

Aaron, Raquel’s best friend who also has a crush on Charlize (Awkward.), agrees to help, and the three of them try to research what happened to Cisco. Meanwhile, Raquel has started having disturbing visions and dreams, including one that leaves her with a burn on her skin. After going down some Reddit rabbit holes, they learn about the Echo game, also known as the Subway game. It involves going into the subway tunnels at exactly 3 A.M. and chanting, “We are Echobound.” The rules are strict, and it’s said that if you break them, you will never come back. Forums online are full of people’s stories of this Echo place, a nightmare version of their city.

The Echo game sounds a lot like the sort of creepypasta horror stories that get passed around Reddit and other forums, with just enough specificity to have you questioning whether they’re real or not.

Between a school assignment and the Echo research, Raquel learns about the darkest time in the Bronx’s history, which is taken to the extreme in its Echo. She learns about the racist policies that led to low income houses burning down constantly, killing many residents. She identifies the villain at the centre as the Slumlord who profited off the Bronx’s unsafe living conditions. I did feel like this got a little bit didactic at times, but I think that’s a complaint coming from being a 32-year-old reading a YA novel and not necessarily an issue with the book itself.

Charlize, Aaron, and Raquel gear up to enter the Echo to find Cisco and bring him back, but despite their research, it’s much more than they were prepared for. To find Cisco, first they’ll have to find a way to survive at all.

This is being marketed as Stranger Things meets Jordan Peele, which I think is a fair comparison: it definitely has social thriller elements, and it has the weirdness of Stranger Things, but with a little more gore. If you want an antiracist sapphic YA social thriller and can stomach some body horror, give this one a try.

Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, gun use, police brutality, discussion of cannibalism, fire injuries/burns

Danika reviews I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

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Chloe Green and Shara Wheeler have been academic rivals since Chloe arrived in this Christian small town high school with its suffocating rules and homophobic culture. But at prom, as the fight for valedictorian is almost at a close, Shara kisses Chloe and disappears. She soon realizes Shara kissed two others that night: her boyfriend, Smith, and the broody boy next boy, Rory. She’s also left a series of clues for them on how to find her.

If this sounds like the plot of a 2000s-2010s YA novel to you, Chloe agrees, who says Shara has cast herself in a John Green novel. Chloe resents Shara: she’s the golden girl of Willowgrove Christian Academy. She’s pretty and blonde and has a quarterback boyfriend, straight As, and lights up every room she walks in. She’s the principal’s daughter. She can do no wrong.

Chloe feels like the opposite, like an outcast. The only thing they have in common is their GPA. She is out as bisexual in a school where no one else is out as queer. In fact, one of her moms was the first person to come out at Willowgrove when she went there, and it hasn’t seemed to have changed much. Chloe hates this town, this school, and her classmates who seem to thrive there. Her friends are the other rejects: closeted queer kids and theater nerds.

She’s not going to let Shara swan out so easily, not when she’s so close to showing her up. She wants to prove to everyone that she is better. So she wrangles together Rory and Smith to find her. They were once best friends and now can barely speak to each other, especially now that Shara kissed both of them.

Each chapter counts down how many days since Shara left and how many days until graduation, giving the chase the tension of a clock ticking down. Also, who can resist a scavenger hunt? Chloe becomes obsessed with these letters and clues: how they reveal that Shara wasn’t the angel everyone thought she was, just as Chloe always suspected. How Chloe is cracking the code and proving herself smart enough to find Shara. In fact, she’s so obsessed that she stops paying attention to her friends, who she hasn’t told about the clues, and even her schoolwork.

When discussing sapphic characters online, there are some common labels of “disaster bisexuals” and “useless lesbians.” Somehow, the sapphic main characters in this book manage to both be useless disasters. Shara and Chloe are obsessed with each other, and anyone reading will know — even if this wasn’t a romance novel — that they’re in love with each other. But they’re so wrapped up in their rivalry and the lies they’re telling themselves that they can’t see it.

While Chloe and Shara seem to be in their own world, there’s a whole other story unravelling outside of these two characters. This story has a lot of say about growing up queer in a Christian conservative small town. Chloe can’t wait to escape (just like her mom did before her, though she came back), but others find value in this town and want to fight to make it better. Chloe also slowly starts to realize that her view of Willowgrove is limited, and it’s not as straight and cis as she assumed, even if students aren’t out.

I was intrigued by the premise of this one, with the scavenger hunt and mystery element, but it began to drag for me in the middle. I love a flawed main character, but both Chloe and Shara are sometimes insufferable, with extreme tunnel vision. Then the story changed gear, and the ending chunk pulled me back in with the emerging storylines from other characters. It was also fun to see Chloe and Shara bounce off of each other: they are both so stubborn and opinionated that their collision is intense — that is, until they realize they might want the same thing after all.

You probably don’t need my recommendation to read this: it is Casey McQuiston after all, but you have it anyway. If you want a rivals to lovers F/F scavenger hunt YA romance that steadily gets more queer as you go along, pick this one up.

Danika reviews She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick

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Do you want to read a fun and absorbing new adult F/F romance written by a wife/wife author team? Of course you do. So you can probably stop reading the review now. Go ahead and grab it.

This follows two point of view characters: Alex and Molly. Alex is a flirt who doesn’t take anything too seriously, which is why her on-again off-again girlfriend, Natalie, doesn’t trust her while she’s touring. Alex has promised to make platonic friends and stop flirting with every queer girl she sees, it will be an uphill battle to convince Natalie.

Meanwhile, Molly has had a crush on Cora since they were in high school together. Now, they’re starting at the same university, but she still can’t seem to get up the courage to ask her out. Or talk to her at all. That’s where Alex comes in, who promises to teach Molly how to get the girl. At least, she will if Molly promises to serve as a platonic friend reference at the end of this.

They quickly rub each other the wrong way, especially when Cora swoons over Alex. They have diametrically opposed personalities and are constantly bickering over the best course of action.

This has aspects of a Cyrano story: Alex is trying to get Molly together with Cora, but their relationship keeps deepening. They begin to confide in each other, perhaps because this odd arrangement allows them to be more vulnerable. Alex talks about financially supporting her alcoholic mother and how she’s worried that she won’t be able to keep her safe now that she’s not living at home.

Meanwhile, Molly’s relationship with her mom has also changed: they used to be each other’s best friends, but Molly is trying to find some independence and resents her mother for not letting her go. Molly’s mom is also a Korean adoptee who internalized a lot of racism in her upbringing, which is hard for Molly to deal with as a mixed race person.

I actually wish we had a little bit more time with both of these subplots, because there are big, thorny topics that don’t have a lot of space to be explored in this story. We only get a handful of lines devoted to either Molly’s or Alex’s moms, and the wrap-up of those plotlines feels a little abrupt.

But of course, this is a romance, and that’s where our attention is. I felt so much while reading this like I was watching a teen romantic comedy movie, including all the banter. (And yes, we get the cute rollerskating date promised by the front cover.)

This was compulsively readable. I would pick it up meaning to just read a chapter and resurface several chapters later. It’s a cute love story with some charmingly oblivious main characters who somehow don’t notice that they’re falling for each other. This is being marketed as YA, but it follows Alex and Molly as they start college

My only other complaint about this one is that I felt like it ended early. I wanted just a little bit more time with this couple. (Semi-spoiler, but not really because this is a romance: it ends immediately after they get together). I mean, they’re teenagers, so I’m not expecting to see their wedding, but I would have liked a glimpse into their more established relationship.

If you like sapphic romcoms, I definitely recommend this one.

This review was adapted from my review on the April 5th episode of All the Books.

Danika reviews Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman

the cover of Acts of Service

I think that first I have to get the thing I want, and maybe then I can figure out why I wanted it, or whether it’s good.

This was a frustrating reading experience.

The main problem I had was that the questions it raised were ones I’m invested in, and conversations I want to see more of in literature. But while there were glimmers of insight and memorable lines, ultimately it felt like these ideas meandered around in circles, eventually petering out without making any real statement.

At first, I was enthralled by this story. Eve is a messy, deeply flawed character, and we spend a lot of time inside her head as she processes. She had a girlfriend, but she feels unfulfilled. What she really wants, underneath any noble façade, is to be fucked. Preferably by a lot of people. She wants her body, which she knows meets beauty standards, to be admired. So she posts naked photos of herself on the internet, which leads to her having a tumultuous, confusing relationship with Nathan and Olivia.

She originally meets Olivia, and she’s who Eve is interested in—but then Olivia insists she needs to meet Nathan. Olivia adores Nathan, who is also her boss. Despite Eve’s reservations, she is pulled under his spell, and finds herself validated by how he treats her, how they both value sex in the same way. Even as she worries for Olivia, she can’t help but compete with her for Nathan’s attention (yes, while she keeps this from her girlfriend).

This is a deeply introspective novel, with Eve constantly questioning what she’s doing and how it fits into her supposed values—but she never seems to get much below the surface or come to any conclusions.

Most men seemed hardly to exist for me, except nebulously, as acquaintances or obstacles. And then, occasionally, in the presence of a man who exuded power, I would feel a kind of weightlessness; I could feel myself growing soft and dimpling amiably under even a light touch of his attention. This was a truth so inadmissible in my life that I insisted even to myself that it was not the case.

Early on in the novel, there were moments that felt uncomfortably as if it’s peeled part of me away as a reader, exposing a thought or feeling I’d rather not admit to, even if, oddly, I related more to Eve’s girlfriend Romi than her.

I enjoy reading about complicated, flawed female main characters, so I enjoyed this insight into Eve. She feels like she’s trying to hold back her true nature, the parts of her that are vain and petty and selfish, resulting in these thousand tiny sacrifices for some indistinct noble cause. She puts Romi on a pedestal, who “so often wanted exactly what it seemed she was supposed to want and then enjoyed it once she got it.” She values their relationship because she wants to be deserving of that or to aspire to being the kind of person Romi is—without really recognizing Romi as a complete, flawed human being in herself.

Queerness rose in my life like a faith: When I came to New York I found there were shared beliefs, shared systems, not among all queer people but among a set to whom queerness meant a specific type of ethical awareness. Here was how I would know what was good to want.

Eve spends a lot of time thinking about sexuality, and specifically the difference between being with a man and being with a woman, and honestly… I found a lot of it perplexing. For one thing, she seems to think being with only one gender is boring or means you’re not truly living, but because she’s so flawed, I’m not expecting to agree with her on a lot. But there are a few ideas that this novel returns to over and over that got under my skin.

One is the assertion that being with women is both natural—that’s who Eve is usually attracted to—and awkward. That women who date are always circling each other, waiting for someone else to make the first move. That it’s exhausting, that you’re always “wondering who will make the first move, what it means to make the first move, what it means to want something as a woman, let alone to want another girl.”

It’s a common sapphic joke that we have trouble making the first move, of course. But the idea that when dating another woman you are left wondering “what it means to want something as a woman” is puzzling to me. I admittedly haven’t dated many men, but I found it much easier and more intuitive to navigate dating women and non-binary people, personally. But this idea that it’s somehow tiring to date women is returned to several times in the book, including being echoed by Romi.

So I’m supposed to think I can’t damage myself, that things don’t hurt me, if I choose them, if I see them clearly?

Ultimately, I lost interest in this story about halfway through as it just rehashed the Olivia/Nathan/Eve dynamic, which didn’t change much throughout. Eve enjoys being dominated and then feels guilty about it, but keeps coming back to it.

I wanted more depth to the conversations about power dynamics in sex, but they never really went anywhere. While what all three of them are participating in is BDSM, Nathan is disdainful of BDSM practices like negotiations or safe words. He seems to think they ruin the fun and mystery, and that he’s above all that.

There’s also something embarrassing about watching these two women obsess over what felt like a boring character. Nathan is just a rich, arrogant white guy. He doesn’t really seem to have any other personality traits. Both Eve and Olivia seem to treat what he’s offering them as something precious and rare, but power play is not unusual. There are many, many people who will fulfill sexual desires for humiliation, domination, and power play, but with bonuses like aftercare! Conversation! Respect for you as a multifaceted human being!

The more the story went on, the more frustrated I was at these rich people acting as if their awkward sex life was somehow novel or profound or… well, not boring. Yes, it’s easy to replicate gender norms, and it can even feel natural, because you’ve been trained into it from birth. That’s not particularly insightful or interesting.

It’s not just that Nathan is an asshole, of course: they’re all meant to be messy, deeply flawed people. It’s that I don’t see the appeal in any way. The things he says are so transparent that I don’t understand why Eve—who does occasionally challenge him and does ask questions about other details—doesn’t see through them.

For example, Nathan tells Eve, “I’ve always respected what you wanted—not just respected it but intuited it, discovered it, given it to you, in fact. Isn’t that true?” But “intuiting” is not above “respecting,” it’s below it. “Intuiting” is guessing what people want and doing that. You might be right. But you could be wrong. And just because you’ve successfully guessed before doesn’t mean your intuition of someone else’s desires should be valued above what they’re stating about what they want.

I found this book so frustrating because I was invested. I was interested in what it was doing. I just felt let down by where it ended up. It had moments of insight, but those didn’t feel worth reading a whole novel about two women idolizing this insufferable guy.

This is one of those books that leaves me feeling like I must be missing something. It feels like this is a novel that has something to say about sex and gender and queerness, but I could not tell you what it is. That sexual desire doesn’t always align with politics? Well, sure. That gender norms are easy to fall into? Can’t argue with that. That we can find pleasure even in unhealthy relationships? Yep.

I just wanted something more, and I kept waiting for it to end in a way that brought meaning to the experience, but it felt more like it fizzled out. I fully accept that I may just be missing the point entirely, and if you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)