Danika reviews Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman

When I finished Honey Girl, I was eager to dive into the sequel–mostly because I was absorbed by the setting (1972 Californian beach culture), but also because Riptide Summer promised to break the rule that “Girls don’t surf.”  I’m glad that I got see more of Nani and her life, but overall I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first book. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about this book that is different from the first book, just a few thoughts:

[Spoilers]

  • It’s not surprising that Nani’s relationship with Rox fell apart. I was rooting for them, but it was despite the obvious instability in their arrangement. It was disappointing, but not unrealistic, for them to so quickly turn on each other.
  • I felt like the characterization wasn’t as strong in this volume–Claire, for instance, is barely present, and I completely forgot her personality.
  • I did like that Nani started surfing, but it wasn’t until halfway through the book, and in secret. I would want to see more of her after the secret came out, and how she dealt with this new side of beach culture.
  • My favourite part of the whole book was Windy, the new love interest, and we barely get to see her at all! If there is another sequel that focuses on them and Nani’s new surf life, I would pick that up.
  • I wasn’t sure from the last book whether Nani was bi or gay, but despite wanting to kiss and date guys, she seems to decide that she’s a lesbian by the end, because she enjoys sex with women more. Unfortunately, this is also wrapped in a lot of biphobia: she tells Rox that she’s a lesbian, no matter what she says, and says she doesn’t want to be one of those funny kine girls who also date guys. The idea that someone can be attracted to more than one gender and that’s fine doesn’t really come up at all.

[End spoilers]

This series felt a little fractured, actually, like they were originally supposed to be one story and then were separated into two volumes. Riptide Summer didn’t seem to have its own arc; it just followed along where Honey Girl left off. I wish this had been condensed in some way, whether that was making Honey Girl and Riptide Summer one book, or skipping over a lot of Riptide Summer and getting more into the surfing plot line and the romance with Windy.

Danika reviews Sovereign (Dreadnought #2) by April Daniels

This is my favourite superhero story I’ve ever read. I really enjoyed Dreadnought, the first book in the series, so I was equally excited and hesitant to start the sequel. To be honest, I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the first one. Dreadnought was great in a lot of ways, but it did have some rough-around-the-edges elements, and I wasn’t sure it could maintain a whole series. I was glad to be proven wrong–in fact, I ended up enjoying Sovereign even more. (Mild spoilers for the first book from here on.)

Dreadnought dealt heavily with transmisogyny and Danny’s abusive home life. Those elements are still present in Sovereign, but not to the same extent. She’s not living with her family now and is trying to be emancipated. She’s built a support system. Instead, she’s dealing with the fallout of what she’s been through. What happens when you take an abused teenager, give her superpowers, and then reward her for beating people up? I love the way this series explores the crunchy, interesting questions of what being a superhero would actually be like, including the internal politics of the superhero community, the power imbalance between superpowered humans and everyone else, and the complex relationship between superheros and police. The background struggles are a little more subtle, which drew me in and made me think more about the invisible underpinnings of other superhero stories.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this volume also has a F/F romance! Danielle is a lesbian, and her love interest is a bisexual amputee Latina vigilante. I was rooting for them in the first book, so I was definitely happy to have my ship sail. I love their dynamic. They both respect each other as people and as superheros, and they challenge each other to be better. (In terms of representation, there’s also a genderqueer side character who has they/them pronouns!)

This is all, of course, not beginning to mention the actual plot of the book. I’m not well-read in superhero stories (comics or prose), but I was surprised by how captivated I was by the superhero vs supervillain plots of both books. These are gruesome, brutal fights that drag Danny through the mud and to the brink of endurance. Sovereign also includes torture. This story does not shrink away from the level of violence that is both inflicted and endured. I found the overarching plot fascinating, and I’m really hoping that there are more sequels to come, because I’m confident that this world and this writer can support them.

Danika reviews Mara by Brian Wood, Ming Doyle, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles

Mara is a comic trade about Mara, a 17 year old who’s been trained as a professional athlete since she was 4 years old. This is her whole life, and in this future world, athletes are the peak of celebrity, and Mara is at the top of it all. When a broadcast of her game reveals her manifesting super powers, though, the life that’s been set for her starts to crumble.

I have to admit, I felt conflicted about MaraWhen I was midway through, I though the ending would help me resolve my feelings, but that didn’t help. It wasn’t until I was flipping through it again and notices the very first page, which has just the text “A COMING-OF-RAGE STORY” that I began to understand what this story is doing.

Mara has had her whole life decided for her. When she was 4, she was sent to a training camp, and since then, all of her time has been dedicated to training and securing sponsorships. She has a relationship with a teammate, Ingrid, but that isn’t explored much in the narrative, other than the press speculating about it. The super powers she acquires are wide-ranging, incredibly powerful, and entirely unexplained. It is quickly obvious that she is now on a completely different plane from other humans, and she tires of the military (and society in general) trying to control her.

She’s a teenager, and she’s justifiably furious at a world that has stripped her of choice and of the people she loves. It’s interesting to see a character with super powers who becomes apathetic to the world. She’s not a villain or a hero: she’s completely disinterested in human beings. She’s not prey to their judgments anymore, and she never will be again.

This is a very quick read, and Mara’s journey has a lot of similarities to Doctor Manhattan. Also, to admit my own bias, and I’m sure the bias of most Lesbrary readers, I wanted more from the Ingrid/Mara relationship than a few pecks and everyday conversations. I didn’t get a sense of emotional closeness from them, and if they weren’t close, what was the point of the relationship at all?

It made for an interesting afternoon’s read, but I wanted more from it. It felt more like a thought experiment that anything. If this was a continuing series, I’d be interested as to how it would play out, but as a stand-alone volume, it felt weak.

Danika reviews Girl Friends: The Complete Collection 2 by Milk Morinaga

I’ve been on a bit of a manga binge lately, and one of the ones I’ve enjoyed the most is Girl Friends. The first volume was adorable and such a slow-burn romance, though there was some internalized homophobia. The second volume is more from Akko’s perspective, which made me enjoy it even more. While Mariko was agonizing over her feelings for Akko, Akko was quick to realize that she returned them and delighted to be dating her.

Instead of internalized homophobia, most of this volume dealt more with romance trope-y misunderstandings as conflict. It was nice to see them get together, and there’s really pretty minimal angst after that point. I was worried that they might dismiss their relationship as juvenile as they got closer to graduation, but the text takes them seriously as a couple. They talk about how they’re going to come out to friends and families, and how they see each other in their futures.

This was a sweet, fluffy read that completely sucked me in. I’m a little sad for it to be over! Girl Friends is definitely a series I’d recommend, especially for teenagers wanting to read a cute romance between girls in high school.

Danika reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger, as the subtitle states, a memoir of a body. It follows Roxane Gay’s journey with her body, from when she was a kid to her present day, and how the trauma in her life has played out over her body. This is dark, sometimes brutal book. It talks frankly about her rape as a child and how she has lived with that experience for the rest of her life. It talks about the way our society views fat bodies, how that fatphobia affects her in so many ways. It talks about her disordered eating, the unhealthy relationships she’s had (as well as the healthy ones). The subject matter is intense.

Despite this, I ended up finishing Hunger much more quickly than I had anticipated. Gay writes in an approachable, casual style most of the time, as if she’s having a conversation with you. The chapters are very short–often just a few pages. And her writing is so compelling. Whether she’s talking about fat acceptance as a movement or discussing her dating life, I was completely pulled in.

She includes a lot of nuanced, complicated looks at subjects she returned to repeatedly. Often, she’d write “I don’t know why ___. Or I do.” (“I don’t know how I let it get this bad. Or I do.”) Because that’s how we look at our own lives. It seems completely random, out of our control–or it’s a concrete narrative, every step leading inexorably to the next. We don’t know why we do things (but we do). She talks about how she appreciates fat activism, body positivity, and the health at every size movement, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to lose weight–that even the representation of fat bodies in these movements don’t represent people at her size and the struggles that she has with her body.

I love Roxane Gay’s writing even when I’m disagreeing with her, and I felt like Hunger was the strongest work I’ve read by her. I have enjoyed every book I’ve read by her, but I really felt affected by this one. It’s definitely not as big a focus as some of the other themes going on, but there is queer content in Hunger. Roxane Gay is bisexual, and she talks about her coming out as well as some of her relationships with women.

I rated this 5 stars, and it’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. I’d definitely recommend it, as long as you are prepared for the discussion of rape, disordered eating, and negative body image.

Danika reviews Dreadnought by April Daniels

If “trans lesbian superhero YA” makes you think “queer escapist romp,” you would have the same idea as I did going into Dreadnought. And although I don’t regret picking it up based on that, I got the “escapist romp” inference entirely wrong. This is a book that deals directly with intense transphobia (especially transmisogyny) and abuse. To give you an idea, here’s a line from the first few pages (trigger warning for suicide)The dirty little secret about growing up as a boy is if you’re not any good at it, they will torture you daily until you have the good graces to kill yourself.

Danny has enough on her plate just trying to survive her abusive household while being a closeted trans teenage girl. She has ducked behind the mall to secretly paint her toenails–her only avenue of self-expression–when blue lasers explode around her: Oh. Great. A superhero fight. Just friggin’ wonderful. It turns out to be Dreadnought, the world’s most powerful superhero, locked in combat against an unknown enemy. The fight turns deadly, and Danny pulls a wounded Dreadnought to safety–but it’s too late, and Dreadnought passes his abilities on to Danny just before he dies. Danny gains access to the “lattice” behind reality. She immediately uses this to shape her body into her ideal version of herself, but this also means that she has super strength, can fly, and can influence reality in ways she’s not fully aware of.

Being a superhero doesn’t mean that she escapes the problems she had before, though. Although she relishes being in a body that other people recognize as her gender, being a cape comes with risks–and the superhero community has its own transmisogynistic assholes. This isn’t escapist utopian fun: it’s battling bigotry armed with superpowers. And although initially she feels like no one can hold her back, she quickly finds out that her father’s vitriol can still get under her skin (even though bullets can’t).

This is a catharsis fantasy. Danielle fights the bad guys both in her cape identity and in her everyday life, and it makes her victories even more triumphant. This is about pushing through unimaginable pain and conquering it, surviving, maybe even emerging stronger.

I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to the next book, but I do want to emphasize that this should come with some major trigger warnings. Danielle deals with suicidal thoughts. There is a ton of transmisogyny, including slurs. Her father is extremely verbally and emotionally abusive, and the poisonous words he uses are on the page. There were also a few notes I wasn’t sure about: the origin of superheros/villains in this book is Hitler’s Ubermensch, including a villain called Kristallnacht. Would like to hear Jewish reviewers’ thoughts on that. There was also a moment of ableism near the end (vague spoilers), where Danielle shows disgust towards someone (one of the villains) without arms and leaves them face-down on the ground. (On a more minor note, some of the dialogue did seem stilted to me, but it might be because I just don’t want to believe that people would say such heinous things, and I believe the author did mention that some of it is word-for-word what was said to her, so that’s likely just me as a reader.)

I still would recommend this book, but don’t expect a fluffy read! Also, Danny does mention that she’s a lesbian, but there isn’t a romance in this volume (though there is a ship I hope will sail in the next one!), and her sexual identity plays a pretty minor role beside her superhero and trans identities.

Danika reviews Girl Friends: The Complete Collection 1 by Milk Morinaga

Everything I’ve read talking about yuri seems to mention Girl Friends, so I thought it was time for me to read this quintessential yuri series. And I can see how it’s the example of yuri! It’s school girls, and a lot of blushing, and the typical “girls don’t do this” heteronormativity. I read this in the omnibus, and talk about a slow burn! This is almost 500 pages, and mostly just about Mariko making a new friend, falling in love with her, and then (much later) realizing that she’s fallen in love with her.

Girl Friends is super cute: exactly what you’d expect from the title and cover, though there is the melodrama of agonizing over a crush on a girl, but that should go without saying. It is also set in high school, so it does have some nudity, talk about sex, and underage drinking. (The cotton candy cuteness made me a little shocked by the nudity, for some reason.)

Interestingly, about three quarters of the way through, we get a perspective shift. After spending so long reading about Mariko’s doomed crush on Akko, we get to see Akko’s (mostly oblivious) reaction, and perhaps see the same thing happen to her? Maybe that’s what’s going to take up the next 500 page omnibus?

This is a fun, quick, addictive reading. I was craving it between readings. I’ll definitely be continuing on with the series!

Danika reviews Citrus, Vol 1 by Saburo Uta

Generally I don’t subscribe to the idea of “guilty pleasure” reads, but yuri manga is definitely the closest that I’ve come. The ones I’ve read have been addictive, engrossing, but they leave me with the same feeling binging on junk food does. Citrus Vol 1 definitely fit into that category for me, though it did some things better than most of the other yuri I’ve read. It was a fun, sort of trashy read.

The strength is definitely the art. Especially in the first few glossy, full-color pages (the rest is in black and white), I was impressed by the attention to detail, especially in the girls’ faces. The main character is Yuzu, a loud, mischievous, and overall adorable girl who has just moved. She’s shocked by the strictness of her new school, which leaves little room for fashion or boy-chasing, her usual pursuits. She immediately comes into conflict with Mei, the student council president, who has no tolerance for her. Then, plot twist, Mei turns out to be Yuzu’s new stepsister! (One of the Goodreads reviews calls this “incest erotica,” which I think is going a little far. There are some make out scenes, and they do go on about the “sisterly love” thing more than I’d like, but they are stepsisters who have just met, and it doesn’t approach what I would call erotica.)

There is definitely some questionable consent in several scenes in this, but I think what sets Citrus apart is that there is reason for this: Mei is repeating the sexual abuse that she’s experienced. Where Yuzu is generally carefree, Mei is reserved and brooding, and we learn that she’s in a relationship with a teacher who is using her for her family connections. She has largely accepted this is her fate, but she lashes out at Yuzu because of this pain–which doesn’t excuse it, but it does explain it. They definitely don’t have the healthiest dynamic because of this, but you can really see that she’s coming from a place of pain and of self-sabotaging any relationship she might have with someone who cares about her.

This does have the heteronormativity and internalized homophobia that I’ve come to expect from yuri: lots of “that’s not what girls do” and being called a “deviant,” for example. For all its faults, though, I think the art style and the nuance to their personalities made this stand out for me. I have already requested the next two volumes from the library, so that tells you what I really think of it.

If you have yuri recommendations, especially ones without the heteronormativity and internalized homophobia, let me know!

Danika reviews Honey Girl by Lisa Freeman

It’s 1972, and while Nani may not be familiar with California, she’s a Hawaiian teenage girl, and she knows the rules of the beach. Rules like: Never cut your hair. Never go anywhere without a bathing suit. Don’t let boys see you eat. Armed with this knowledge, she’s determined to break into the line up of local beach girls and become a true honey girl. But beach girl culture is cutthroat, and it’s not so easy to earn a spot.

Rarely has historical fiction pulled me so completely into the atmosphere. This takes place entirely during the summer, right after Nani and her mother have moved to California after her father’s death. She’s struggling with his death, the move, and dealing with her (white) mother’s refusal to acknowledge her Hawaiian culture, all while trying to fit in in a whole new social scene. Honey Girl perfectly captures that feel of summer vacation sun-drenched days that seem to stretch on forever. It was fascinating to see the intricate power plays that happened between all the girls on the beach, who are competing for the attention of Rox and Claire–the rulers of the beach girls–almost as much as they compete for surfers’ attention.

Nani takes her reputation on the beach very seriously, and she calculates every word and movement to ensure that she follows the rules of the beach, which she is sure will be her ticket to success. I really liked Nani. She has a tumultuous relationship with her mother, who wants a quick route to a shiny, rich, Christian, American life. Nani wants to keep the memory of her father alive, and is determined to go back and take over his bar once she’s of age. She resents her mom, but she’s also the only family she has.

The beach has the real cast of characters, however. Rox and Claire, especially, are fascinating, but even the minor characters seem to have more going on than is explicitly written, like they’re wandering off the page to continue their own stories. Initially, I was briefly worried that I had somehow gotten confused, and that Honey Girl wasn’t a queer book. Then Nani talked about secretly looking at her uncle’s Playboys, and I stopped worrying. Still, although she acknowledges that she might be a funny kine girl (Hawaiian Pidgin for lesbian), her romance with a boy is a significant part of the story. It is not, however, the only romance she has.

[spoilers] 

Some people might be concerned about the cheating/”slutty” bisexual trope used here, but I enjoyed Rox as a character a lot, and both Nani and Rox seem to agree that in their situation, a beard boyfriend is necessary for keeping up appearances. I wasn’t sure if Nani was bisexual or a lesbian, by the end. She doesn’t use a label, but she seems to come to a general both/and conclusion for the dichotomies in her life: Hawaiian and white, Fiji and Nigel, Mom and Jean, Hawaii and California.

[end spoilers]

I really enjoyed this one, and I am very glad that I have the sequel lined up, because I really got sucked into the atmosphere of this story.

Danika reviews Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

There’s a certain kind of book that I find really hard to read. It’s when it has this tone–this disaffected, aimless melancholy. Radio Silence definitely has that underlying sadness, and combined with it being a 400 page book, this wasn’t the quickest read for me, but it was definitely worth it.

Radio Silence is a YA novel about Frances, who has concentrated all of her energy and attention on two things in life: getting into Cambridge, and being a fan of Universe City. Universe City is a podcast with a striking similarity to Welcome To Night Vale. When she finds out that the creator of Universe City is someone she knows, the two immediately bond over their shared interests.

I loved the focus on friendships as important, life-changing relationships. As Frances and Aled grow closer, she makes sure to clarify that “You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say—we don’t.” That doesn’t stop them from having an intense relationship, though. They connect in a way that they haven’t with other people, and they can help and hurt each other just as much as if they were in a romantic relationship.

As I said, there is a bleak atmosphere through most of the novel. Frances has built her life around her academic career, and hasn’t stopped to consider whether she actually wants what she’s been working towards. Aled is in a smiliar spot, except that he has been pressured into it by his abusive mother. (Extremely emotionally abusive–trigger warning for abuse and pet death.)

There are a lot of different relationships at play here: Aled’s estranged sister (who yelled at Frances when she tried to kiss her and then disappeared), Aled’s mother, and also his friend Daniel.

I’m not sure how to talk about this book without spoiling it, because the ending is really what made it for me. It was worth pushing through the sadness to that bit of light at the end. It shows that there is an escape from that dread that seems all-consuming. It might not mean stepping out into beams of sunlight, but there are stars in the darkness.

There is, of course, a lot of great representation as well. Frances is biracial and bisexual, and there are also gay and demisexual characters.

If you like Welcome To Night Vale, love/hate tumblr, or have a complicated relationship with universities as institutions, definitely check this one out.