Danika reviews The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow coverAfter hearing only good things about the Scorpion Rules duology, I was eager to pick it up. Unfortunately, I read the first book during a readathon, and reading a crushing dystopian story about war and brutality was not the best choice to read all in one sitting. It was darker than I was expecting, so I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. I was, though, interested in the ideas introduced in the book. So I took a few months break before I picked up the second book in the series, The Swan Riders, in the hopes that I would be more prepared this time.

I spend most of my time reading this book thinking This is the reading rule you seem to re-learn over and over: just because people say a book is great, doesn’t mean you, personally, will love it. I have long since realized that it doesn’t matter how high calibre the quality of a book is if it doesn’t immediately appeal to me. Still, I continued with the sequel, because I had heard it was an improvement from the last book. Perhaps I was less connected to the characters because of the break that I took between books, but I was having trouble pushing through.

I have, historically, been a fan of dystopian novels, but this one I found hard to deal with. It’s just so straightforward about the suffering experienced. The pain. The first book includes a detailed scene of torture that nauseated me. The second book describes the slow deaths of several characters, all involving increasingly close together seizures. While the first book has some semblance of an us vs. them clarity, Greta spends most of her time in The Swan Riders alongside the villain of the previous book.

By the end of the narrative, I had come around. The strength of this story is in its ideas, especially (for me) its exploration of personal identity and humanity. [spoilers for first book:] Greta is an AI now, and she begins to drift away from her humanity and empathy, assisted by Talis’s intervention. [end spoilers] It takes this idea, of an AI enforcing global peace, and shows how tangled it is. How can global peace be achieved? Can it? And what amount of sacrifice is worth it? Clearly, Talis’s strategy is not defended by Greta or the narrative, but there’s also not a tidy alternative.

As for the queer content, there is definitely no central romantic story here. In fact, Greta does not interact with Xie for the whole novel. But her presence is there, nonetheless. She is Greta’s tie to humanity, to retaining her true self. She is a memory that Greta clings to. She is, in some ways, the home that Greta spends each step of her journey longing to return to. So although she isn’t a central character, she is a very important one.

For all my ups and downs with this duology, I would still recommend it, but with some caveats: this is not a queer Canadian princess fantasy-esque story that the blurb had me prepared for. This is a dystopia that is focused on war and its casualties. It is thought-provoking, but brutal.

Danika reviews The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde

The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde cover

I almost wrote this book off after the first chapter. I’m nearly 30 and not a drinker, so reading about a teenage rock star getting incredibly drunk and then getting into a car accident (her girlfriend–who had also been drinking–was driving), paparazzi then swarming the scene, is not what I would usually gravitate toward. Luckily, I pushed through and found out that this is the moment that catalyzes change in Emmy. The entire book is basically the fallout from this moment.

Emmy is the drummer in the immensely popular teen band The Brightsiders. This means that you do get to be a voyeur to a teen rock star life, but it’s not all parties and accolades. Emmy loves her fans, and she thrives off the energy of playing in front of a crowd, but she doesn’t fare well with the endless rumors and hate spread through twitter, tumblr, and gossip magazines. It doesn’t help that 2/3rds of the bands members are queer: Emmy is bisexual and semi-closeted, and Alfie is out as nonbinary. Despite that hate that might circulate in certain corners of the internet, Alfie is a heartthrob that attracts attention from all genders… including, suddenly, Emmy.

Not only is the love interest in The Brightsiders nonbinary–there is a huge queer cast. Emmy’s best friend is black, femme, and nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. The f/f couple from Queens of Geek also makes a few cameos, which was really fun. There is a focus on found family, especially because Emmy’s parents are abusive. Emmy moved out of their house and into a hotel as soon as she was financially able, but until she is 18, she still feels like they have control over her life. Her entire life they have never stopped drinking and partying, ignoring her, insulting her, and gaslighting her in turns. In her childhood, Alfie’s house was her only escape. Now, with her partying having landed her in the hospital, she worries that she is heading down the same path.

Emmy’s parents unpleasantly pop up several times through the novel, and we get to see how this upbringing would have helped to shape some of the personality traits she struggles with, like people-pleasing. Jessie, the girlfriend who drove drunk, is another unhealthy influence in her life. Her friends and loved ones can clearly see the damage that their relationship takes on Emmy, but she is quick to laugh it off or go along with Jessie’s gaslighting.

Although there is definitely an element of the rock star lifestyle here, there’s a lot of emotional work happening beneath the surface. Emmy is learning to accept and love who she is, and protect herself from the toxic people in her life. There is also such warmth from the queer community that she surrounds herself with: both her friends and her fans show what support, love, and family really is. Like Queens of Geek, I raced through this, and I look forward to her next book!

Danika reviews Stray City by Chelsey Johnson

Stray City by Chelsey Johnson cover

Wow. This was an emotional journey for me. The description promises this is warm and funny, and although it contains those things, I also found it uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing at times. I did really enjoy the story overall, and I think it had a satisfying payoff, but I do think there are some barriers to entry here.

Stray City begins in Portland in the 90s. 24-year-old Andy has found her family and community in the queer/punk/diy scene here. She came here for school, but after she came out, her Catholic Midwestern parents stopped footing the bill for tuition. Now she’s part of the activist group The Lesbian Mafia, hangs out with the lesbian band The Gold Stars, and does graphic design (mostly in the form of artsy/folksy wedding invitations) and works at an antique shop to pay the bills. She has been recently dumped, and when she sees her ex-girlfriend making out with one of Andy’s closest friends at a show, she’s grateful for any distraction she can get. That distraction comes from Ryan, a straight guy who plays drums in a local band. Andy likes talking to someone outside of her circle for once. His attention is simple. Uncomplicated. It still comes as a surprise to her, however, when in the alley out back after the show, she starts kissing him.

This is where I think Stray City will lose a lot of Lesbrary readers. This is, essentially, a story about a relationship between a lesbian and a straight guy. Unlike something like Ramona Blue, however, this isn’t about someone on a journey to a greater understanding about their orientation–or maybe it is, but it leads right back to where she started. This is something that I see a lot more in real life than I do in fiction: lesbians who have casual sex with men, even though they’re not attracted to them. Because it’s easier, or because they’re looking to get something out of sex that doesn’t require intense attraction or romantic attraction. For Andy, she’s clearly looking to be desired. She’s been hurt in her previous relationship, and it’s nice to be wanted. It even feels a little scandalous, at first, to be with a guy. And she does enjoy his company… she’s just not attracted to him.

Reading about Andrea and Ryan’s relationship made me cringe. I wanted to like Ryan, because I wanted to see what Andy saw in him, but there were definite warning signs: he really seems to see Andrea as a “challenge.” He destroys things when he’s angry. He gets itchy feet staying anywhere too long. Andy wants this uncomplicated connection with someone: an assurance of being wanted, both sexually and personally. She likes hanging out with him, playing Scrabble, talking all night. And making out is fun! But, of course, this gets very complicated. Ryan wants more from their relationship. Despite the open communication happening, despite Ryan knowing she’s a lesbian, he still holds out hope that she will fall as passionately in love with him as he is falling for her.

Andrea’s flirtation with going back into the closet is really interesting (if uncomfortable) to read about. She marvels at being able to go out (in a different town) and hold hands with him without anyone caring. Although she has kept this relationship from her friends, although it felt exciting and illicit there, she realizes that in the greater picture, it’s completely encouraged.

I feel like what follows is a spoiler, but it’s clearly outlined in the description, and it is the heart of the story, so I feel like it’s worth knowing about before you get into it!

Andrea has a powerful moment where she realizes that she is done faking anything for anyone, and she’s ready to let Ryan know exactly where they stand… and then she finds out she’s pregnant. She immediately makes an appointment with the women’s clinic to have an abortion, but now that the possibility is there, she can’t stop thinking about it. What would it be like to like to raise a kid in her found family? A kid surrounded by queer people? A kid who didn’t have to have the same rigid restrictions she had? Couldn’t that be something incredible?

Andy soon finds out, though, that some of her new, cool, queer circles have just as rigid demands as Catholocism, and being a pregnant lesbian doesn’t fit them. She has to face the judgement, and sometimes rejection, of her community. (As someone who came out as bisexual after IDing as a lesbian for a decade, I really felt this.) Meanwhile, her relationship with Ryan gets even more complicated and strained.

I thought this was a fascinating, thought-provoking and emotional story–even if it did make me want to crawl out of my own skin at times. I found it funny how nostalgic the beginning felt for me: I was not in the right decade or even country that Stray City describes, but that queer political/punk/diy/mid-20s scene has not changed much over time or distance. I also loved the descriptions of Bullet, Andy’s pitbull, and how she says that queers and pitbulls are in the same family.

I was surprised to find that the novel jumps ten years in the final third, but that section is such a breath of fresh air. All the tension built in the previous sections is released, and we get to see Andy where she really belongs, with the family that she has chosen.

I do recommend this one, but I know it’s not for everyone. Most of the book does deal with Andrea and Ryan in a sexual, semi-romantic relationship. On top of that, there is some biphobia–although I don’t think it’s endorsed by the narrative, Andy and her friends all scoff at the idea of being bisexual. If you can get through the discomfort in the middle of the narrative, I do think the pay off is worth it. I especially recommend the audiobook!

Danika reviews Heavy Vinyl, Volume 1 by Carly Usdin and Nina Vakueva

The cover of Heavy Vinyl volume one

What a fun, quick read! Chris is a teenager who has just started working at the local record store. (It’s the 90s.) All her coworkers seem impossibly cool, and she immediately starts crushing on one of them. As the cover would suggest, though, it’s not just music that this group of girls is passionate about. Chris finds herself getting initiated into a network of teen girl vigilante gangs.

A panel from Heavy Vinyl, showing two women talking in a boxing ring

It’s a little bit Empire Records, a little bit Josie and the Pussycats (the movie), with bonus vigilante, mystery-solving teen girl gang and a queer main character. This is set in the 90s, but other than working at a record store and making 90s music references, I didn’t notice that. It’s pretty idyllic: there’s no homophobia shown, and the multiple queer characters are not remarked on.

The strength and weakness of this is how cute it is. You wouldn’t think that a story about a vigilante gang would be so fluffy, but it is! It’s more Scooby Doo than anything else. They rail against the patriarchy more by defending ~girly music than with any real violence. The romance is mostly blushing and flirting–no kissing on the page, nevermind anything else–but it is stated outright, not subtextual.

The overarching plot got a little goofy for me (and invites the Josie and the Pussycats comparison), but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing! I will definitely be picking up the next volume when it comes out, but I do hope that it gets a little meatier at that point.

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.