Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murray

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murphy cover

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams is a queer Swan Lake retelling, and honestly, it just had to live up to that premise to win me over. I may not be incredibly familiar with the ballet, but I grew up watching Swan Princess constantly. Besides, queer fairy tale(-esque) retellings are one of my favourite things to read. Add to that the beautiful cover and the promise of a positive polyamorous relationship, and I was sold. So I was impressed to find that not only did this satisfy those queer fairy tale cravings, it went beyond that to create an engaging and emotionally compelling story in its own right.

When I think of a queer retelling, I expect it to stick pretty closely to the original, just massaged to include queer characters. A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams shifts the narrative dramatically, however, changing not just the trappings of the story, but the heart of it. Katya, the main character (though there are multiple POV characters), doesn’t exist in the original story. At least, as far as I have gleaned from reading the Swan Lake Wikipedia article, she would have been an anonymous background character at best with no story line of her own. Although the central plot of Swan Lake does carry over to this retelling, the tension of the story comes from Katya’s unique position in this world.

The story alternates between two points of view. They are identified by a simple, stylized illustration at the beginning of each chapter of either a swan (Katya’s chapters) or a castle (Alexis’s). I liked this little details of the design. I’ll start with discussing the queer elements of this story, because… that’s what we’re here for, right? This is a world that is completely accepting of queer people and nonbinary genders. Princen Alexis uses they/them pronouns, and no one is fazed about having a nonbinary heir to the kingdom. In fact, when they attend a ball, they are “immediately greeted by people of all genders vying for their attention.” There are other nonbinary characters who use neopronouns, such as Larde Tanis, who goes by xie. This is own voices nonbinary representation (Dax Murphy uses fey/fem/feir prounouns in feir “About the author” blurb.)

Bisexuality seems to be the norm in this world, or at least not worth remarking on. Katya, Zhen, and Alexis’s mother all show attraction to multiple genders. Alexis’s best friend and guard, Tatiana, frequently mentions her girlfriend, Inna. Alexis’s parents are in a polyamorous triad, with their mother having two partners (the Czar and Lady Natalya). While attraction to multiple genders is unremarkable in this setting, it does seem somewhat unusual to have multiple partners (though obviously not unheard of, because there doesn’t seem to be any pushback to the leaders of the country being in a triad). Alexis’s parents talk about the difficulties and negotiation that they went through to make this a healthy relationship, but it is clearly worth the effort for all three of them, and Alexis is happy to have three parents.

As I mentioned earlier, the queer and polyamorous additions are not the most dramatic changes in this retelling. We begin with Katya, who has no memory when she bumps into Ivan in the forest. He helps get her acclimated, and she stays with him. She learns magic from him. Their relationship builds slowly and turns romantic. It is against this backdrop of trust (and dependence) that the rest of the story plays out. Ivan captures Zhen–Alexis’s fiancee. Their arranged marriage is meant to unite their two kingdoms. (Although this is a fairy tale world, Alexis’s country is clearly coded as Russia, and Zhen’s is coded as China.) Ivan tells Katya that Zhen is a threat to their life together, and asks her to pretend to be captive with her, in order to gain information. Katya is shaken. This is unlike Ivan. As she observes Zhen–and sneaks away to share her findings with Ivan and beg him to explain the situation–she finds herself falling for her.

It’s this tension between Katya, Ivan, and Zhen as well as the triangle between Katya, Zhen, and Alexis that form the core of the book. Katya is torn between Zhen, this new element in her life, and Ivan, the person who she loves and trusts. She wants to believe that there must be a good reason to hold Zhen prisoner, that she must be a legitimate threat, but she also struggles to find that threat in Zhen. At first, I found it difficult to believe that Zhen would be flirting with Katya while she had been kidnapped and trapped in the woods, but Zhen addresses this directly: “Yes, we are trapped. Yes, we are waiting for someone to save us. That doesn’t mean I want to dwell on the fact!”

It’s this internal struggle between Katya’s loyalty for Ivan and her growing relationship with Zhen that really fascinates me, so I do want to discuss some spoilers. I will mark where the spoilers end. 

Initially, I felt that Katya was a passive character. Because she seems to appear out of nowhere as an adult, she can seems naive and inexperienced–quick to believe whoever she is speaking to at any moment. I found it especially hard to believe that she would so easily go along with Ivan’s plan for her to kill the “threats” at the palace. As the story continues, however, I think that shifts. After all, it is ambiguous how much agency she has at first: Ivan has been manipulating her from the beginning, hiding her from her origins, protecting himself by using her. He tells her “Say you will never leave me,” she immediately (involuntarily?) responds with “I will never leave you.”

Katya really has to struggle to accept that despite him being the only relationship she’s ever known, her introduction to love and belonging, he doesn’t deserve her loyalty. The extent of his manipulation is slowly revealed to both us as readers and Katya: not only did her use her in this instance, he has been draining the life from their forest and using her life force to bind Zhen to the lake. It’s despicable, and I’m tempted to question how he can both be this villain and be the person who supported her in the beginning of the book–but that’s not impossible. Abusers can seem loving and supportive when it suits them. They can even justify their actions to themselves that way. And Ivan certainly seems to think he can violate Katya and care for her at the same time: he claims “I loved you, Katya,” with “a mixture of devotion and sorrow in his eyes,” even when she knows the extent of what he has done to her.

An element I really liked was when Katya realizes that she doesn’t owe him an explanation for why she turned against him. It’s such an important moment, to realize that you can’t control someone else’s narrative. Ivan will likely always believe he was in the right. Katya could try to communicate with him, could pour her heart and soul out trying to get him to see how he violated her, how he betrayed her, but it would be a waste. He doesn’t deserve her energy.

Overall, I thought it was a satisfying conclusion. There’s enough loss and struggle to feel realistic, but it manages to be a happy ending anyway. I liked the nod to compersion: “An inkling of a feeling bubbled in Alexis, seeing Katya and Zhen happy, together, made them feel happy, too.” The novel leads us to think there is no way that Zhen, Katya, and Alexis can all three be happy with their situation, but the ending challenges that, showing that relationships can be built in many creative ways and still be fulfilling.

Spoilers end here!

Now I’ll address a few bits and pieces I wasn’t able to work in to the rest of the review! I liked the magic system, which seems to hang together well, and it also introduces a type of magic that I’ve never seen in a book before: nuclear magic! It’s an interesting concept, and the scenes that depict it are striking. I did have some minor issues. I didn’t entirely understand some details of the political plot (how did the son betray the Czar, for instance?), but that’s not my strength as a reader. I’m so caught up in characters that I often miss really obvious plot points. Also, the characters don’t use any contractions in dialogue, presumable to feel more fairy tale-esque, but I found it a bit awkward and distracting. Although I only noticed a handful of typos, one error I saw repeated throughout the book were numerous comma splices (“Leave that to me, I am still Czar.” and “We need to settle this dispute, it’s been too many generations.” for instance.)

Those are some very minor complaints, however, in a story I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the queer-positive fairy tale world, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was only the backdrop for a subtle story about trust, betrayal, and new possibilities. I highly recommend A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams, even if you’re not familiar with the original story!

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

Danika reviews Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes is a classic lesbian book. It’s one I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, and now that I have… I’m divided. On an immediate, personal level, I enjoyed reading it. It has a lot of interesting things going on. I am also surprised that I heard about this as having lesbian subtext, when it’s really quite blatant. On the other hand, I was troubled by its depiction of race. To try to untangle my thoughts, I’ll go through these one by one.

First, the queer “subtext.” When Ruth and Idgie first meet, Idgie is 15/16 and Ruth is 21(!) Idgie is immediately smitten with her, and everyone knows it. Idigie’s mother addresses her siblings with “Your sister has a crush, and I don’t want anyone to laugh at her.” Idgie is blatantly described as being “in love,” so I don’t know how that counts as subtext, except that they don’t have sex on page. There is even a fade-to-black sex scene with Idgie and another woman. Ruth notes the moment she began to love Idgie, and they share their famous “bee charmer” moment. They raise a child together, whom people often refer to as their child, with Ruth and Idgie as a unit.

With that out of the way, I can say that although I thought Ruth and Idgie were the heart of the book, they aren’t really the main characters. The book is interestingly structured. Evelyn is a middle-aged woman going through menopause, and she is unhappy with her life. She has done everything she has been told to do in order to be a “good girl,” and now that she’s had a moment to stop and look around–now that her kids are adults–she is realizing that none of that got her anywhere. Her husband drags her into a nursing home to visit her mother-in-law, but when she sneaks off to eat a candy bar, she bumps into another elderly woman, Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny regales her with stories from the good ol’ days at the Whistle Stop Cafe. The book alternates between Evelyn and Ninny’s regular visits and Whistle Stop during the 20s-60s. Interspersed are small-town newspaper clippings.

I found Evelyn interesting, as a character. She is just beginning to discover her anger, and it comes on strong. She is angry at everyone who she feels wrongs her. She creates an alter-ego which she imagines ruling the world, and doing things like dropping a bomb on the entire Middle East. She has a lot of racist thoughts. Ninny is similarly engaging, but flawed. She helps Evelyn a lot, by providing her emotional support. She obviously is very nostalgic for the times she’s describing, and I couldn’t help but get drawn in and begin to feel that nostalgia myself. She also goes on at great length about “colored folk” and ~well-meaning~ stereotypes that she has about them, as well as some ableist comments about little people. This may be accurate for a woman who grew up in the 20s, but it doesn’t mean I want to read about it at great length and for no reason. (She makes racist comments out of nowhere.)

Because I have heard about this book in the context of a feel-good read, I wasn’t expecting it go as dark as it does. There is racist and ableist slurs, abuse, rape, murder, and even (spoiler) cannibalism. What really made me reconsider how I felt about this, though, was the racism. Obviously, if you’re talking about a town in the southern US from the 20s-60s, you’re going to talk about racism, but it goes beyond that. For one thing, one of Idgie’s friends is a member of the KKK. This is shrugged off, even though Idgie and Ruth are theoretically anti-racism (they serve black people from their cafe even when the KKK protests–but they only serve black people through the back door). Then again, Idgie uses the n-word. Worse, though, are the racist caricatures that make up the black cast. Most of them speak AAVE (phonetically spelled out), and they are devoted to Idgie. Another character is described as being “so black he had blue gums,” and that kid grows up to stab his brother 5 times in the arm. (His brother, who had lighter skin, was a model citizen.) Why include that character? In fact, Artis gets a lot of page time, and I’m not sure why.

I did enjoy the tone of the book, and aspects of it. I liked Idgie and Ruth, obviously. I did feel transported to Whistle Stop, and I mourned its dismantling. But unfortunately, I just can’t freely recommend it because of the racism that’s so blatant in the text. It’s disappointing, because the parts this book does well, I loved. It’s a shame that this wasn’t interrogated more, because I do believe the intention was to call out racism, but it unknowingly perpetuated it. As much as I can see why people loved this, from a 2018 perspective, it just hasn’t aged well.

Danika reviews When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri cover

There has been a ton of buzz around When Katie Met Cassidy. Whenever I see this much attention being given to a sapphic book, of course my ears prick up. Let’s face it, queer women books don’t usually get much press outside of a handful of specialized sites (like this one!) When I read an article by this author (“Telling Queer Love Stories with Happy Endings Is a Form of Resistance“), however, I started to get doubtful, even as I added this title to my TBR. Obviously I agree that we need happy queer stories, but reading an entire article about F/F relationships depicted in media without one mention of the genre of lesbian romance was… confusing. F/F relationships with a HEA (“happily ever after”) is the hallmark of the lesbian romance genre, which has been going strong for decades. There are several publishing companies putting out nothing but these titles. So it seemed odd to me to have this author–of the book that has been praised as a lesbian romance you need to read–seem unaware of the existence of this entire genre (or at least to not think it’s worth mentioning).

So I will admit that I was cautious approaching When Katie Met Cassidy. As I listened to the audiobook, my doubts were quickly justified. Despite the praise it’s gotten, this story did not agree with me. In case you aren’t aware, the premise is that Katie is a straight woman (whose fiance recently dumped her) who finds herself falling for Cassidy, a butch, womanizing lesbian. Now, I am all about books that explore sexual fluidity, or coming out later in life, or discovering new labels for yourself. But Katie starts off the story gratingly anti-queer. She cannot stop (mentally) commenting on Cassidy’s masculinity. She critiques her clothes and mannerisms. She immediately assumes that because Cassidy is masculine she must be a lesbian–and laments that being a lesbian would be so much easier. (Despite being shocked that Cassidy has made it so far in their profession while wearing pants instead of a skirt…)

Of course, this is a romance (though not a Romance? This definitely seems to be marketed as Fiction while also being all about the romance), so Katie is intrigued by Cassidy. When she bumps into her outside of the office, she is convinced to go to a lesbian bar with her. Katie assumes that the women there will be “angry” and hypermasculine. All the praise for this book says that it is a light and fluffy read, but I found Katie’s attitudes painful to read about in a queer romance novel. Later, when Katie visits Cassidy’s home and is snooping through her clothes (yep), she continues to be surprised by her owning “men’s clothing,” and is absolutely scandalized when she finds out Cassidy wears briefs. As in, she is so shocked that she thinks I can’t be here. I have to go home. This is too much.

Cassidy feels like a flat stereotype of a butch woman. I was reminded of this tumblr post:

Whenever I hear talk about “stereotypical butch lesbians” I have to remember that I’m operating from a totally different window here because like:

Butch lesbian stereotype written by a straight person: Cold, unaffected, detached, beer-swilling grump who looks out for herself and needs to learn tenderness.

Butch lesbian stereotype as written by a gay woman: Noble and chivalrous goofy nerd who eats chicken nuggets and candy bars, probably cries at Disney movies.

When Katie Met Cassidy is an own voices representation of a lesbian, but Cassidy is exactly that detached butch who needs to learn how to let people in. There is some odd backstory that seems to say that she was in love with her straight best friend as a teenager, and that’s why she’s never let any woman in since then? Of course, Katie–with her charmingly backwards attitudes, who keeps drunkenly asking why Cassidy is gay–is the exception.

I kept getting the impression that this was a lesbian romance from the 80s (other than the cell phones). It’s not that it was bad, it just felt like a lesbian romance that is completely disconnected from the history of lesbian romances and from modern times. The concept of bisexuality is never mentioned.Katie has been dating men her whole life, has never questioned her orientation, was just recently engaged to a man, and now is only debating whether she is gay or not (now that she’s fallen for Cassidy). She basically just looks back and thinks “Oh, I guess I was actually in love with my best friends this whole time and I didn’t know.” Which is fine! It’s fine to have a character date men and later realize she’s a lesbian. That happens! But it’s so weird to me that no one–not the whole bar of lesbians, not Experienced Lesbian Cassidy–mentions that there is an option other than gay or straight.

Ultimately, this is a book about two people falling in love, and between Katie’s prejudice and Cassidy’s flatness as a character, I just wasn’t invested in either of them. There isn’t much of a plot outside of the romance, and that relationship was soured for me–especially in an egregious bit of callousness by Katie late in the novel. It was a quick read (well, a quick listen), but I wouldn’t recommend it. Of course, plenty of people disagree! I know this has been a favourite for lots of people, so maybe check out some of those other reviews, too, if you’re on the fence. If you are one of the people who really enjoyed it, feel free to let me know why in the comments! Everyone has different reading experiences with the same book, so I’d love to see where we differed.

Danika reviews P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

PS I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy cover

My first introduction to P.S. I Miss You was Jen Petro-Roy’s Entertainment Weekly article, where she talks about how her book didn’t get a tour through schools, because all but one school considered it “too mature.” That’s a shame, because this middle grade book has a lot to offer. It’s an epistolary novel, told in letters from Evie to her older sister, Cilla. Cilla is 16 when she gets pregnant, and her parents have shipped her off to live with her aunt in the country until she has the baby, gives the baby up for adoption, and goes to a Catholic boarding school. Evie can’t understand why her sister would sin, or why her parents would react so badly, or why Cilla won’t write back, and she processes all of these feelings through the letters.

I’m not sure it was the intention, but I was getting stressed out reading this book. As the novel progressed, I got more nervous about why Cilla wasn’t writing back. I seriously considered skipping to the end, but settled for tearing through it instead, even reading it while walking home. Aside from my anxiety about Cilla, though, I was also invested in Evie. She is adrift, trying to figure out how her life has changed so dramatically. She oscillates between being confused, frustrated, and angry. Meanwhile, she’s starting to get closer to the new girl in school, June. June is pretty and funny… and also an atheist.

As her friendship with June develops, Evie questions her own religious beliefs. When she presses June to explain why she’s an atheist, June puts the ball back in her court. Evie begins to wonder–if being Catholic meant her parents sending Cilla away, is it really a good thing? We see her questioning through the lens of the letters, which introduces a bit of a buffer. Evie thinks there’s something different about her friendship with June–but nevermind, no, forget she wrote that last letter.

The juxtaposition between Cilla and Evie worked really well: Evie is terrified to tell her parents about her growing suspicion that she may be gay, because she’s sure they’ll send her away, just like they did when Cilla “sinned.” She begins to reconsider if she really agrees with what she’s been told sin is. Her parents are deeply flawed people, and seeing that is painful. They are human, and they’ve made mistakes. But that doesn’t mean that Evie has to follow in their footsteps.

P.S. I Miss You is a heartfelt story about developing into your own person. I can see how it’s considered controversial, because it’s all about questioning what you’ve been taught to believe unwaveringly. It validates that your feelings–even if you are only 12 or 16–are just as valid, and you deserve to have the space to explore your own possibilities. I’d recommend this for middle graders and adults alike.

Danika reviews As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman

Melanie Gillman is one of my favourite artists (tied with Megan Rose Gedris, who did the Lesbrary banner!), so of course I had to buy a physical copy of As the Crow Flies as soon as it was available. I had been following along with the webcomic, but reading it in a physical version, in one sitting, was a whole different experience.

I cannot express to you how beautiful these illustrations are.

Gillman uses coloured pencils in their illustrations, and I am floored by the intense detail and time put into every page. As the Crow Flies takes place at a feminist Christian summer camp, and the details of the wilderness that they’re hiking through transport you there. Putting aside the pure aesthetic value, I also loved the story and characters. Charlie is a queer brown kid who was hoping to regain her closeness with God (not necessarily the Christian conception) during this trip. Instead, she’s found out that the camp is almost entirely white (there’s an indigenous camp counselor and Charlie, and then every other person there is white). She doesn’t feel welcome, and there seems to be no way to get out of this now that she’s hiking through the woods with them.

Luckily, the finds companionship with another camper, Sydney. Sydney also feels like an outsider at camp, and later we find out that’s because she’s trans. Sydney gets the distinct impression that if the camp leader knew that, she wouldn’t be welcome at this white feminist-y retreat. Sydney and Charlie get closer by commiserating and joking, and they plot to interrupt the camp plans.

I also appreciated that the other campers start to get a little more depth later in the story. Originally, it seems like everyone fits in and belongs except for Charlie (and then Sydney). As Charlie gets more comfortable, we start to see that a lot of that is a front, and all the kids have their own insecurities and issues.

Honestly, I only have one problem with this book: it’s only volume one, and I want the second one right now. (I also wish that it indicated more obviously that this is one half of the story, because even though I knew intellectually that it wouldn’t be wrapped up in this volume, I was still surprised that I didn’t get a neat ending.) I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

Danika reviews Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender

Hurriance Child by Kheryn Callender cover

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

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

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

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

Danika reviews Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow is one of my favourite YA books, so of course when I heard that she had a bisexual middle grade book coming out, I was eager to pick it up. Drum, Roll Please definitely lived up to those expectations. Melly is 13, and the day before she was dropped off at Camp Rockaway, her parents told her they were getting divorced. She’s had no time to process this before she’s tossed into this new environment for 2 weeks, and even her best friend being there doesn’t seem to help, especially when Olivia is too busy hanging out with her crush to remember her. Melly may be a drum player, but she has trouble finding her own voice. One way or another, these two weeks will change that.

I loved this book. It’s such a quiet read–fittingly. It’s about music and friendship and divorce and growing up and crushes, but mostly it’s just about Melly finding herself and being true to herself. She’s someone who is used to being in the background, to following along with whatever her best friend, Olivia, wants to do. But her parents’ divorce and the atmosphere of Rockaway Camp shift things, making it difficult for her to stay passive. Melly is placed in a band, and she has to find a way to communicate with her bandmates as well as find her own voice.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Olivia is complicated and thorny. Olivia is at first clingy, until she gets a crush and spends all of her free time with him. Melly is hurt, but she also isn’t sharing anything with Olivia. She keeps telling her that she’s fine and doesn’t want to talk about it. It takes one of her bandmates, Adeline, to break Melly’s shell, so she can finally talk about how she’s feeling. I loved reading about this tiny clueless bisexual’s first foray into crushing on a girl. She gets butterflies in her stomach, and then: “I looked at her hard, trying to understand. But I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so how was I supposed to recognize it when I saw it?” Been there! The two of them are very cute, and I was happy to see Melly reaching out to develop new connections. The word bisexual isn’t used, but Melly does talk about having a long-term crush on a boy before.

I appreciated the complexity of the relationships and their dynamics. Olivia may not have been there for Melly as much as she wanted, but Melly wasn’t communicating with Olivia. Her parents may not have been fair to her to tell her just before she left, but maybe she wasn’t being fair to them, either. Melly needs to find herself and get in touch with her own emotions, but that doesn’t mean abandoning her empathy. Relationships–of all kinds–are complicated. Communication is difficult. And Drum Roll, Please doesn’t try to simplify it. We can be sympathetic from one angle and cruel from another. There aren’t easy answers.

Although I never went to a music camp (mine was theoretically a Christian camp, but that was mostly lip service to get funding), I thought Drum Roll, Please really captured the atmosphere of summer camp. Within a day, it feels completely normal, but it’s so different from the rest of your life. The activities, the atmosphere, the people–it’s as if this time exists in a bubble. Friendships tend to develop easily, and you feel like you’ve known these people much longer than a week or two. But once you leave, the memories seem unreal. Most of these people you’ll never see again, except perhaps at camp next year. Despite its ephemeral nature, that time felt formative–it definitely is in Melly’s case.

I’m so happy to see another queer middle grade book out there. This is a great addition to the genre, alongside Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee, though I feel that Drum Roll, Please is a half step up in maturity–right between middle grade and YA. I definitely recommend this, whether for a tween reader or an adult. I really got invested in Melly’s story–and who can resist that cover!

Danika reviews Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

 

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this one. Initially, I was really excited to pick it up! A black, biromantic, asexual main character in a YA romance? That is definitely not an intersection often explored. I was looking forward to something fun and fairly light, and initially, I thought that was what I was getting. Alice is an adorable main character. She’s still mostly closeted as asexual, but she’s done a lot of thinking about it. She’s developed a Cutie Scale, which basically measures her aesthetic attraction–not just to people, but to all kind of cute things. (Alice is obsessed with cute.)

I loved Feenie–the grouch–immediately. She hates everyone but her boyfriend (Ryan) and Alice. The three of them live together, and form a tight-knit family. Feenie has always been fiercely protective of Alice, including punching a girl in the face in high school who made fun of Alice for being asexual. She’s rough around the edges, but I was invested in their little family. And–initially–I really liked Takumi as well. He almost seemed too perfect (which they flat-out say in text). It was a promising beginning! But… little irritations started to add up.

They didn’t seem major at first. For example, Alice works at the library, but doesn’t seem to care about it or enjoy it that much. She’s constantly off in a corner with Takumi, not working. Her boss also doesn’t like being a librarian. This is a very minor point, but it was puzzling to me: librarianship is a highly competitive field that doesn’t pay well. How would people who are indifferent to it get in and keep these jobs? And then there were some weird class moments, but that’s eventually addressed (Alice keeps saying that she’s poor and her parents are rich, but that’s not really what being poor is. Alice has a safety net, even if it comes with restrictions she doesn’t want. She equates the idea of being cut off from their money as being disowned.)

Her family is also… Well, they seem realistically complicated, but I can see how Alice was constantly stressing about it. She’s the youngest sibling by decades, and everyone seems to be determined to make her decisions for her. Her mother, especially, insists that she has to go to law school or she’s throwing away her future. Every time she does anything that her mother doesn’t approve of, all of her older siblings call and text constantly to criticize her. There is love there, but it had me stressed out just reading about it.

Soon, even the aspects I was enjoying started to fizzle out (or explode). Feenie went from gruff-but-lovable to downright shitty. Feenie and Ryan are engaged, and although the three of them are theoretically a unit, Alice is often the third wheel. Which is fine, until Alice starts going off with Takumi and Feenie goes into a rage over it. Both Feenie and Ryan seem to expect Alice to constantly be available to them, though that’s not equally true of them.

Spoilers follow for the rest of this review, because I have Thoughts.

When Feenie and Alice finally discuss what’s come between them, it turns into Alice calling herself an asshole and saying she’s been selfish, which is… not what I had been seeing. Although they form a shaky truth, it didn’t feel resolved for me. Feenie stopped being a favourite and instead felt like a toxic, possessive relationship.

And speaking of relationships! I was into Takumi at first because, as stated, he seemed pretty much perfect. Which meant the ending gave me whiplash. On reflection, I realized that I felt like there was no middle to the book. Alice and Takumi get closer and closer, without any real conflict between them until the end. They basically seem to already be dating. So it was a shock to me that when Alice finally (finally) actually asks him out, he spouts off the same ignorant things that we’ve already heard from her previous ex. Takumi–who knew Alice was asexual, who had seemed supportive–says that if she really loved him, she would let him have sex with her. Which is appalling to me. Why would you ever want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to be there? I can understand him saying “I don’t think I could give up sex.” But that was terrible to read. I actually found my eyes skimming over his whole speech, because I couldn’t understand why Alice was going through this again, when it had already happened in the beginning of the book. He did later sort of take it back, but to me, the damage was done. I no longer saw it as a happily ever after, because I didn’t like Takumi anymore.

I did read a review of an earlier draft of this book that clarified some things for me. Apparently in earlier drafts, Takumi was not a saint. In fact, he was downright skeezy at points. And that explains why I felt like there was no middle to the book: originally, it was a push and pull between Takumi and Alice, with Takumi pressuring Alice into things she wasn’t comfortable with. Understandably, that was criticized, and most of that was removed, but that puts the ending in context, as well as their lack of conflict in the middle of the book.

I’m disappointed, because I was really enjoying the read for the first 3/4 of the book, even with the minor issues I had with it, but the ending left my unsatisfied. Takumi went from eerily perfect to (in my eyes) irredeemable on a dime. Alice’s relationships with her family–both by birth and chosen–were still strained. It was far from the fluffy, uplifting ending I was expecting, though I know it was supposed to be a HEA.

I know other people really enjoyed this book, and I can see why. But it left me stressed and sad, which I don’t think was the intention.

Danika reviews The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

If you’ve been looking for the queer Hunger Games (or, at least, queer Mockingjay), this is the book for you.  Do you want to read about crushing oppression and the horrors of war, but with a bisexual protagonist? The Scorpion Rules is the book for you!

This was a bad choice for a readathon. I should have seen that coming, since this is clearly a dystopia, but the premise made it seem like a Fantasy novel:

Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.

A queer Canadian princess dystopia! I was expecting a page-turner. I was expecting a YA 1984. At the beginning of the novel, I definitely was getting those Fantasy-esque sci fi vibes. Once Elián arrives on the scene though, things get darker. The group of hostages that Greta is a part of have grown up that way. They have been trained to be hostages. To follow the rules. Behave. They know the deal: just get through until they turn 18, and then they will go home, and become rulers–if they live to 18. If their parents don’t declare war. Elián has not been raised with this expectation. He is the hostage of a newly-established nation. He resists. He rebels. And he poses a threat to all of them.

This is a world that is ruled by an AI. The hostages are held captive by robot enforcers. There is a panopticon. The AI has aerial weapons. Machines don’t get tired. Which is all to say that escape is impossible. You can be shot down from the sky at any point. You will be electrocuted if you say the wrong thing, if you question the system. But Elián refuses to comply, and they are punished collectively–with increasing harshness.

This is not a light read. In fact, it becomes brutal. There is torture. The end has one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve read in a book. That was what reminded me of 1984: the ending.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned a romance to this point, and that’s because although Greta has love interests, it really isn’t a significant part of the book. I did like Greta’s relationship with Xie, because it develops from such a close friendship, but I wasn’t exactly getting warm and fuzzy feelings.

I had mixed feelings about the villain, Talis (the AI). He speaks very casually (even in his “scriptures”), which toes the line to silliness at some points–but on the other hand, it almost makes him a more sinister character because of that. He does seem human.

As you can probably tell from this review, I have mixed feelings and thoughts about this. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but that’s my own fault for not knowing what I was getting into. I am definitely interested to pick up the second book, and hopefully I will have more coherent thoughts at that point.

Danika reviews The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Pick this book up. (I know you might not read the whole review, so I’ll start with that conclusion.)

Evelyn Hugo was a movie star, someone with the kind of name recognition that Marilyn Monroe has now. But Evelyn Hugo is in her 80s now, well past retirement, and she’s finally ready to tell her whole story. She picks Monique Grant to write her biography, a little-known magazine reporter. No one is more surprised than Monique herself. The book alternates between Evelyn Hugo, reciting her story, and Monique’s perspective. Even as we are drawn into Evelyn’s narrative, a few questions loom: who was Evelyn Hugo’s great love of her life? Why did she pick Monique to write her story? And what has Evelyn done that is so bad that she expects Monique to find it unforgivable?

Monique is a likable character. She’s mixed race (her late father was black, her mother is white) and is struggling to make it in the reporting world. Though her father died when was a child, she still feels his absence deeply. She is disappointed in herself for having a “failed” marriage. She and her husband live apart, but there hasn’t been any closure there. They’re still married, and she is reluctant to leave their relationship in the past. Monique is drawn to Evelyn Hugo’s commanding presence, and she is inspired to take control of her own life, even while she feels conflicted about Evelyn as a person.

Evelyn Hugo, though, is the heart of the story. I know a lot of people describe her as morally gray and complicated, and as someone you don’t know how to feel about. But personally, I loved her. She starts off poor, in an abusive household, her mother has just died, and she’s desperate to get out. She will use any means necessary to achieve her dreams. And she does. She uses people, yes, but I really couldn’t blame her for it. She has very few options available to her, and she is constantly being manipulated herself. As a young actress in 1950s Hollywood, there wasn’t a lot of protection for her. So she fought back, always with an eye for how to protect herself and her loved ones.

And she does love, deeply. She makes her own family. Then, just as she begins to make it for herself as an unknown Latina woman in Hollywood (after she’d changed her name, dyed her hair, and stopped speaking Spanish), another roadblock pops up: she falls in love with a woman. Evelyn Hugo is bisexual–she’s very deliberate that Monique gets this label right–and the great love of her life is not one of her seven husbands. They have a tumultuous, heartbreaking love affair. Evelyn, especially, is worried about being outed. Both their careers would be over, and then what would she fall back on Evelyn is forced to make difficult decisions. I may not have always agreed with them, but I could always empathize with her. She did the best she could.

I highly recommend this, especially as an audiobook. I felt so much for Evelyn, and it made me really think about what it was like for queer women in the 1950s. Evelyn was privileged in many ways: rich, famous, white-passing–but she was also trapped. She couldn’t publicly acknowledge the love of her life without losing everything else she had built. The most authentic part of her was the one she felt she had to keep hidden. Obviously, this would appeal to anyone with an interest in old Hollywood, but in general, if you enjoy a good story and complex characters, give this a try.