Danika reviews 50 Queers Who Changed the World by Dan Jones, illustrated by Michele Rosenthal

50 Queers Who Changed the World by Dan Jones and Michelle Rosenthal cover

When I originally saw this small, colorful book, I briefly wondered if it was a children’s book. The format is about the same as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: one beautiful illustration, plus a one page bio. I quickly realized my mistake when I read the biographies, which includes describing someone as jumping crotch-first into the queer scene. This is a “Gift” book, or a small coffee table book. Something to flip through, not necessarily to read cover-to-cover.

I have mixed feelings about this book. The portraits are gorgeous–and in fact, they predate the book. Michele Rosenthal’s Queer Portraits in History project inspired this book (in that they are the book, with bios to pad it out). Generally I did like the style of writing, which was playful.  There seemed to be a good mix of people included. I didn’t count them, but it wasn’t obviously mostly white men, though there are definitely more white people and more gay & lesbian people represented than people of color or bi and trans people, but I think that’s expected when talking about the history of the queer community. There were inclusions of people I hadn’t heard about before, but I appreciated learning about. Like Ron Woodroof, who was diagnosed with HIV in the 80s, and in response to the FDA dragging their feet about addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis, started a smuggling ring of HIV/AIDS drugs proven effective in other countries. He crossed the Mexico border hundreds of times in disguises to bring life-saving drugs into the US.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides. Despite being named “50 Queers Who Changed the World” (a controversial title, I know, but one I love), the intro says that you don’t have to be queer to be a queer hero. Sure, but you do have to be queer to be part of the group “50 Queers,” right? Luckily, there aren’t a lot of allies included (mostly just Madonna). There are, however, queer figures that are controversial in other ways. Like Dan Savage, who has been called out in the past for saying anti-bi, anti-trans, fat-shaming, and other hurtful things. Some of the people included are (or were) hateful towards other LGBTQ groups, or even their own. Some of the time this is mentioned, sometimes not. I can understand including those people if they have had a big impact, but I do think it’s worth disclosing. They also use the term “Aids” instead of “AIDS,” which was an odd choice.

Worse than those, though, is the constant misgendering of trans people. Any time that the book is talking about a person before they came out, it uses the wrong pronouns. Deadnames are used copiously, sometimes even seeming shoehorned in when completely irrelevant to the sentence.

I definitely recommend checking out the original Queer Portraits in History project and googling any person you’re not familiar with, but I don’t think I can recommend this book. With some slight changes, this would be a delightful little gift book to have in some queer waiting room, but not with the misgendering and other issues that are present.

Danika reviews Nico & Tucker by Rachel Gold

When Being Emily by Rachel Gold was published in 2012, it was one of the first YA novels to be from the point of view of a trans girl (although it was not own voices). Similarly, Nico & Tucker is representing a segment of the LGBTQIA+ community not often seen in media: nonbinary and intersex people. Nico is both, though yo is quick to point out that those don’t always, or even usually line up. Nico is a survivor of medical trauma due to being intersex, and Tucker is a survivor of rape, and both are discussed several times in the story, so I would definitely give trigger warnings for those.

This is a sequel to Just Girls, but I think it would work as a standalone. The writing is more functional than anything else, with exposition dropped in wherever it comes up, including in dialogue. This is definitely drawn forward more by the ideas than a poetic style or fast-paced plot. One thing I got hung up on was that the major point of conflict included entirely unnecessary failure to communicate, which is a personal pet peeve of mine. If they had just talked about it, it would have been resolved so much quicker! And considering how savvy Nico is with healthy coping strategies, it was particular egregious.

The strength of the story is in its ideas. Intersex and trans experiences are centred, including a breadth of representation: Nico is not the only intersex character, the only trans character, or the only nonbinary character. This definitely seems to be trying to be an educational text, just as Being Emily was. I can’t speak to the representation, because I am neither trans nor intersex.

Of course, Nico is not the only main character. The perspective swaps between yo and Tucker. Tucker is on her own journey with its own struggles. She was recently raped by her ex-girlfriend, someone she had loved and trusted. She is struggling to cope with that, and feels like she’s alone in this experience, coming from a same-sex partner. She prides herself in being strong, and is finding it very difficult to admit that she needs help to deal with this.

She is also dealing with more of an existential problem around her own identity. “Lesbian” is a label that she identifies with strongly, but she is also attracted to Nico. Is she only attracted to Nico because she views yo as being essentially a woman? Nico also isn’t sure how to handle this, feeling that yo is being misgendered–and that fear is not unjustified. It isn’t helped by the fact that in their queer circles is another lesbian who seems to have appointed herself the gender police, and is quick to dismiss Nico’s gender as well as Tucker’s identity.

Which leads to the depiction of a queer community in Nico & Tucker. They are in university, and have built a network of other LGBTQIA+ people, often around activism. This is a lifeline for both of them at different times: Nico has people to go to who will understand when yo is talking yos medical concerns or gender. Tucker has people who she knows will support her when she is triggered and reliving her rape. This is a great source of support and strength–though it can also be a source of gossip, drama, and pain.

This story shines when Nico and Tucker are together, communicating effectively. They can discuss consent and boundaries. They support each other, and understand first hand having trauma and needing to recognize how that affects their lives.

I would love to see a review of this book by an intersex person (as well as a nonbinary reviewer), because so much of this has to deal with educating about being intersex. I do think this is an important book in LGBTQIA+ literature, and I continue to be drawn to how Rachel Gold realistically depicts queer community, and the inclusion of geeky elements in her stories (Nico & Tucker talks about cosplay a lot, and how it connects with Nico embodying yos gender). I think what I said in 2016 about My Year Zero is still how I feel today: Rachel Gold seems to be doing now what Julie Anne Peters did ten years ago: pushing LGBT representation in YA [and New Adult] forward, one book at a time, making room for even more representative and authentic stories to come.

I have also reviewed all of Rachel Gold’s previous books, so here are the links, if you’re interested: Being EmilyMy Year Zeroand Just Girls.

Danika reviews Motor Crush Vol 1 by Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr

There are plenty of good reasons to like Motor Crush. The world is intriguing: Domino races by day in motorcycle races that serve as the main source of entertainment in this society. She’s tracked by a floating camera asking for constant updates and interviews. By night, she races gangs, where there is no limits to the lengths you can go to in order to win the pot. (You can see Domino’s weapon of choice on the cover.) While others race for Crush because it boosts their engines (and apparently motorcycles can get addicted to it??), Domino needs it to live.

And Domino is a great main character. She’s a little rough around the edges and doesn’t always treat the people she loves the way they deserve, but she’s passionate, and beneath the prickly facade, you can see how vulnerable she is and how she wants to be better. She resents her adoptive father for keeping secrets about her parentage (and how she can consume a stimulant made for engines), but she hides her condition from the people who care about her.

The plot balances the high-paced motorcycle races (both gang races and official ones) where crush (the drug Domino is dependent on) is on the line and debts must be repaid with Domino’s more introspective journey, where she struggles to unearth the truth about who (and what?) she is while simultaneously reaching out and pulling away from the people who are trying to support her.

I haven’t even mentioned the art, which details a world subtly different from ours in beautiful layouts, and conveys the action and speed of the races without being cluttered and confusing. The characters are distinct and frankly gorgeous, if with very small waists.

Those are all good reasons to like this comic! But what really sold me on it was Lola.

This is unfair to queer girls, Motor Crush. #queerbooks #queercomics #lesbianbooks

A post shared by Danika Leigh Ellis (@danikasapphistry) on

Who can resist a beautiful, curvy, femme woman with hot pink hair who’s on a motorcycle? Did I mention that she’s a mechanic, too? Swoon.

             Shout out to Steven Universe for establishing this as my type

Lola is Domino’s ex-girlfriend, and it’s not hard to see why they split: Domino refuses to let Lola in, and without knowing about her dependence on crush, her lifestyle seem inexplicably reckless. Still, they clearly both deeply care about each other and do make a good team, so I hope that they are able to work through it.

Even if you don’t share my swooning for Lola’s design, there’s a lot to like about Motor Crush, and I’m really excited to see what volume 2 brings.


Danika reviews How To Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Even before this book came out, I have been hearing 100% positive things about it. Lots of people whose opinions I respect have sung its praises, and with bi & lesbian YA readers, it’s widely accepted as a favourite. But despite these glowing reviews, I was reluctant to pick it up. Why? Honestly? Because I didn’t like the cover. It looked so bland! I know that’s a silly reason, but that’s why it took so long to reach the top of my TBR stack. And in fact, it’s probably only because I read it on my phone instead of picking up the physical copy that I even made the leap then. I’m happy to say that I was utterly mistaken in putting it off, and everyone else was completely in the right. I loved this book.

This book deftly deals with grief and unhealthy/abusive family dynamics. Grace’s father died when she was young, and since then, her mother hasn’t acted much like a mom. Maggie has been dragging Grace from one boyfriend’s house to another, and Grace is used to following her into bars and pulling her out of dangerous situations. She feels like it is her responsibility to watch after Maggie.

This is a horrible situation to be in as a teenager, and Grace is obviously suppressing a lot of anger and pain. She never knows what she’s coming home to. She’s constantly scared that Maggie has gone out drinking or ended up with a questionable guy. Trying to grow up quickly and hold it together for the both of them means something has to give. I appreciated was Grace as a character because she has deep friendships and cares about people, but she also lashes out in ways that are very believable. She wants to reach out, even as she feels that making connections is meaningless, that she is trapped in this situation. It makes her a complex but relatable character.

The relationships between characters are nuanced: Grace’s best friend and his mother are a solid source of support for her, but Luca’s mother and Maggie have a strained relationship that causes Grace to try to cover up for Maggie. In the meantime, Luca and his mom have taken in Eva (Grace’s love interest), who has recently lost her mother. Maggie takes Eva under her wing, causing Grace to agonize over whether she should tell Eva the whole truth about Maggie.

That’s a lot going on, and it’s only scratching the surface. Maggie and Grace are living with Maggie’s new boyfriend, who happens to be the father of Grace’s ex-boyfriend, meaning she’s stuck in the same house as the guy who publicly posted their suggestive text conversations after they broke up. Grace desperately wants to pursue a career as a pianist–her passion–but is afraid to leave Maggie alone, and the deadline for her life-altering audition is rapidly approaching.

The heart of the story, though, is between Maggie, Grace, and Eva. Grace cherishes the relationship she forms with Eva, where she feels like she can be herself, while resenting Eva for having a more positive relationship with Maggie than she does. The push-and-pull between Grace and all the people in her life leaves her in a situation that feels unwinnable. It’s heartbreaking to see how Maggie lets Grace down, over and over. Particularly because it’s so believable. Maggie is not a cartoonish villain, but she’s a terrible mother who puts her own child in danger and doesn’t even notice.

In case it isn’t obvious, I highly recommend this. I thought it was masterfully handled, and I was completely invested in Grace and Eva–individually and as a couple. My only complaint was that I thought Grace’s ex-boyfriend, Jay, got off the hook too easily for what he did. But overall, the treatment of abuse and grief layered with a bisexual (yes, using the word bisexual) love story and accompanied with a thoughtful examination of race and art (Eva is a black ballet dancer) all came together into a five star read for me, regardless of the cover.


Danika reviews The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

I’ve got to say, with a title like “The Cybernetic Tea Shop,” I expected this to be a fun, silly, quick read. Instead, it was thoughtful and quiet, seeming to take up more space than the pages it occupied. This is set in a world where sentient, sapient robots were once mass-produced, but given the ethical problems they raised, they’re now illegal to make. Hundreds of years later, some of those original robots are still around, with questionable legal personhood and a lot of animosity aimed at them by a public who wants to forget the whole thing ever happened.

But it’s not about the sci fi world, really. That’s just backstory for Sal, who has been running a tea shop for more than 200 years, continuing after her old “master”/partner died, while facing constant harassment and even violence. She meets tech Clara when she visits the shop, and despite Clara’s wanderlust and Sal’s complicated situation, they hit it off.

Although the word isn’t used, both Sal and Clara are asexual. Clara explains that she doesn’t have sexual attraction to people, even when she has a romantic relationship with them (and Sal isn’t programmed for that):

[Sal:] “I mean, I’m not designed to be sexual. That’s to say, I can act on others, but I don’t want—”
“That’s okay. Me neither.”
“Oh, but—”
“It’s not something I need from someone else,” Clara said firmly, willing Sal to understand. It wasn’t something that needed explanation, but something that too many people had wanted one for. Love, romance; those were things she’d felt before, even if she wasn’t often inclined toward them. But she didn’t need anything from or with that person, never felt attracted to them even with the addition of love. If her body wanted something, she could spend five minutes with her hand. Another person never needed to factor into that for her.

(I include that quotation because before reading this, I saw that people referred to it as having asexual representation, but that it didn’t use the word “asexual.” I wasn’t sure whether there was just no sex on the page, or whether there was more textual rep, so I wanted to put the paragraph out there for anyone else wondering.)

I really appreciated how character-based this is. In a small amount of time, I felt like I really got to know both the character and how they complemented each other. I’m interested to read more by this author! (Especially when I found out after reading this that we live in the same small city! What a fun coincidence!)


Danika reviews The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S.L. Huang

This is a fascinating novella. It’s a dark, reversed retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” from the point of view of a human scientist who acts in an anthropological capacity studying the atargati (definitely not “mermaids”). If “dark queer retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid'” didn’t already hook you, I don’t really know what else to say.

I really liked the author chose to not only have the atargati not have gender, but to also have a nonbinary human character (who uses hir/zie prounouns), so that it wasn’t presented as an alien concept:

We did try to describe binary genders to [the atargati] once. Of course Dr. Hansen jumped in and tried to expand the conversation to sex versus gender, and to explain intersex and genderqueer people, and I tried to stop hir because I thought that would be too confusing, but it turned out that part made more sense to them than what we tried to tell them about men and women.

This also had personal appeal to me because the main character falls in love with one of the atargati (of course), and really grapples with what this means for her identity as a lesbian, especially when she had to fight so hard to claim that space in the first place:

I lost my whole identity. I had to rebuild myself brick by brick and seal a shield around myself with the label “lesbian.” I’m attracted to women. I was born that way. I’ve always been that way. If that’s not true, then my whole life, every relationship, every broken tie—it was all a lie. …

I’ve never been attracted to a human man, and still can’t conceive of such a thing. But maybe… maybe I can’t be slotted into a box either. Maybe I don’t have a definition

Have I mentioned that this is a dark retelling? And that it is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s original, and not the Disney version? I probably should have paid more attention to that, because I was disappointed by the ending. I was looking for a little more from the story: I think I was so intrigued by the world that I wanted to spend more time with it, even outside of this specific story. I wanted to know what happened after the story was over. I wanted to learn more about the atargati.

Still, this science fiction, queer, dark take on “The Little Mermaid” is compelling and memorable. You can easily finish it in one sitting, but it will stick with you long after that.


Danika reviews Lumberjanes series (Vol 1-6) by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, and Brooke A. Allen

Lumberjanes is a series that’s been on my TBR for ages. I had read the first volume, and I’ve been recommending the series, but I’ve been saving the other volumes for some unknown reason. I’ve finally corrected that error and binge read volumes 1-6! (I’m still on hold at the library for volume 7.)

You’ve probably heard about Lumberjanes before, but just in case: this is a comic that follows a group of girls at summer camp, where they get into fantastical adventures. The strongest part of the series is the dynamic between the 5 main characters. They all have different personalities, strengths, fears, priorities, etc, but they are a tightly-knit group. They support each other. And we get to see each one spotlighted at some point.

As for the queer content, it is subtle, but it’s there. Later in the series (issue #17), we find out that Jo is trans. Throughout the series, there’s a romance between Mal and Molly. It starts off pretty subtle and in the background. There’s a lot of blushing. But they get their own arc in Volume 3, where they go on a picnic date. By volume 6, they kiss. The romance is never the focus of the story, and at the beginning, it’s a little bit ambiguous, but it’s there throughout the narrative, and becomes hard to miss that they have a romantic relationship.

This is such a fun series! As an adult, it was entertaining to binge read, but I’m also really glad that this exists as an all-ages/kids’ comic. It’s fantastic to have queer, trans, and poc representation in such a successful series. This is one that you can give to pretty much any kid from–I don’t know–9 to 17? The ages of the characters are fairly ambiguous, and it’s pretty easy to read, so it appeals to a wide range. Plus, it’s a way to get that representation in the hands of kids who may not have access to it otherwise.

Danika reviews Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman

Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman cover. It shows an illustration of two women kissing and a cat playing with yarn.

I feel a little bit silly reviewing Knit One, Girl Two, because what can I say that hasn’t been said before? Especially considering that this is a novella! So consider this less of a review, and more of a reminder that this sweet little novella exists (and that you can get it for about $2!)

This is a cute, mostly fluffy story that has a wide appeal: Jewish readers, queer ladies (including bi women), and artists will all find aspects that have special interest to them. It was also nice to read about a fat love interest. This definitely felt like a “slice of life” story. It’s realistic, and as if you’re just being dropped into a short period of these people’s lives, but the characters seem to live outside the words on the page, as well.

Both the main characters are cisgender, but there is a scene that shows the queer community that they are in, and it has lots of trans minor characters. They only get a handful of lines, but it was still nice to see that.

As always in Shira Glassman books, the Florida setting is significant. Danielle is a painter, and she is inspired by Florida landscapes. Clara dyes yarn, and she collaborates with Danielle to use the colors in her paintings to design the blends in her yarn.

This isn’t entirely a traditional romance novella: there is a romance, but it’s just as much about Clara and Danielle’s art, or their relationships with their siblings, or their shared love of fandom. If you’re looking for a quick, light, but satisfying read, pick this one up!


Danika reviews The Year of the Knife by G.D. Penman

Sully has not been having a good summer. She works for IBI, the investigation bureau of the British empire, and despite the strikes against her–woman, Irish, gay–she has managed to gain some respect by being the best in the field. She may have learned from a hedge witch, but she can hold her own against any university-educated magic user. But she may officially be in over her head: every day, a new person, seemingly possessed, has been acting out public, grisly murders. That’s impossible, though: demons can’t possess living people. The body count is climbing higher, and her boss being stuck as a parrot isn’t helping any. Can she end the reign of what the killers keep calling “The Year of the Knife”?

The Year of the Knife is a grungy, gory urban fantasy. While the plot focuses on Sully attempting to solve this string of crimes, most of them gruesome mass stabbings, there are a lot of balls in the air: in this world, the British empire still rules much of the world, including New Amsterdam (which seems to be near Brooklyn), where Sully lives. There is an undercurrent of tension around this: in Ireland, for instance, hedge witches with borrowed power have attempted revolution many times, each time getting cracked down on by imperial power, which causes more resentment, fueling the next rebellion.

On top of the mystery and alternative history elements, of course, there’s the magic system. I was impressed by how complex this world is, and I appreciated that the magic system seemed to be cohesive and clearly defined: magic users have to speak spells, draw glyphs in the air, and often work out mathematical equations (if you fudge the numbers in a travel spell, you might find yourself lodged in a wall when you arrive). Whenever I’m reading about a world that has magic, I want to know that the author has thought it out. Specifically, there needs to be clear limits to magic, or else there can never be believable tension. This world comes with a magic system that makes sense to me. In case there wasn’t enough going on, there are also demons in this world, pushing through from another plane of existence. And those might not be the only dimensions at play!

While I was intrigued by the world, I had trouble connecting with the main character. I’m all for a gruff, unlikeable female character, but Sully takes it to another level. She cackles as people die under her use of magic–seeming to take pleasure in it even when the person being killed deserved, at the very least, some pity. At the same time, she can’t handle being in charge because she can’t deal with deaths of her colleagues on her conscience. She has her own resentment of the British empire, but she seems to judge other groups who speak out against it. What really got to me, though, was the multiple times when Sully mentions seeking out young, possibly underage women to have sex with. She goes to student nights at bars to take home “presumably legal” experimental college students. She wakes up with a girl and wonders if she was a teenager after all. That is not cute. Sully is nowhere near these women’s ages, and it’s skeezy at best and illegal at worst.

Sully does have a girlfriend–sort of. She has a tumultuous relationship with her ex. At one point, they were engaged, but after her girlfriend left her at the alter, things have been tense. They still sleep together occasionally, usually when her ex needs some blood. (Did I mention that she’s a vampire?) They punish each other while still not being able to let each other go. I was interested in their relationship, but it felt like there was something missing. I didn’t quite understand why they had the dynamic they did, and they seemed to quickly fall back into a loving relationship, so I didn’t feel like I really understood them as a couple.

I did have a couple of concerns, the most major of which was the racism. I understand that the idea is that with the empire still ruling most of the world, racism is even more entrenched than it is now, but having, for instance, Chinese people described as “Oriental” and an Egyptian guy as “swarthy”–while apparently all Native Americans Sully has ever known have been breathtakingly beautiful, though for some reasons they’re all deeply bigoted against vampires–pulled me out of the story. There are a lot of instances like these: casual racism scattered throughout the text. It was jarring enough for me as a white reader. I can imagine many readers of colour wouldn’t find it worth pushing through them.

My other major complaint was with the specific focus of the book. Maybe it’s the Canadian in me, but focusing on New York in this alternate timeline of continued British occupation felt like the most uninteresting take on the idea. I would have liked to see pretty much anywhere else in this world: Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and India, to name a few. [spoilers, highlight to read] Near the very end of the book, the plot ground to a halt with an extended flashback to 1775. Flashbacks during the climax of the plot are dicey at the best of times, but personally, I find the American Independence setting deeply boring. If there had been some way to incorporate this flashback into smaller ones throughout the book (if they were made vague) would have worked better for me. Even if it was condensed into a smaller amount of exposition, I would have felt less whiplash. Going from the most dramatic part of the book to the slowest section is not the best reading experience. [end spoilers]

This sure was an interesting reading experience! I will be watching to see if this is spun into a series, because the world definitely could support it.

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


Greetings From Janeland: Women Write More About Leaving Men for Women edited by Candace Walsh and Barbara Straus Lodge

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 6 years since I wrote my review of Dear John: I Love Jane. The Lesbrary was still a baby! In that review, I talk about how fascinated I was with it, namely because of it addressing sexual fluidity. In fact, the author of Sexual Fluidity wrote the foreword, and that inspired me to add it to my TBR. I wouldn’t read for 5 more years–not until I was experiencing my own sexual fluidity. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I waited that long: it was extremely helpful to read at that point in my life (review here).

Needless to say, I had some expectations starting the sequel to that pivotal book. And perhaps those expectations were a little too high. As I sad in my original review, I have a personal interest in those essays where authors address sexual fluidity: having their attractions shift over time. The majority of stories in the first book were not about that. They were about realizing that they were gay later in life, or at least coming to terms with it after having serious relationships with men. That’s even more true in Greetings From Janeland. The focus seems to have shifted to really be representing women who come out later in life. (Later than teenager, I mean.)

These are still interesting stories! They’re about how compulsory heterosexuality can cause people to live decades without owning up to their own desires and pleasure. They show the many different paths that people take to find their truths. They show the ways that their relationships with the men in their lives change: some are still close to them, and some have completely gone separate ways. Some follow up stories from the first book. For the most part, though, they follow a pattern: I was always a lesbian, but I didn’t come out until later. There are a few bisexual writers, but not a lot, and even fewer that address fluidity.

So this collection didn’t cater to my interested quite so closely, but I still think this is a great resource. The editors reference how women have written to them to say how life-changing the first book was for them. We do still have a very rigid idea of what a lesbian looks like, what a queer woman looks like, what coming out looks like. It’s good to have stories that stretch that, and show that it’s never too late to live your truth.