Danika reviews Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear

Stone Mad by Karen Memory cover

This was an odd read for me. I finished the first book and enjoyed the characters and the world, but (partly because I was listening to the audiobook), I had trouble following the plot. This is the reason I don’t typically watch action movies or read action-adventures. Still, I liked it enough that I immediately picked up the sequel, and at the beginning, I was sure I would like it more than Karen Memory. First of all, Victorian spiritualists are my jam. I love hearing stories about the rise of spiritualism and the elaborate cons carried out, mostly by women. After all, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for single women to make their own money. As Karen says (I may be paraphrasing, but this is what I remember), “Men own most things, especially white men. If they didn’t want us to cheat, they should have made the game fair.”

Another fun element was the addition of the fact that although spiritualists may or may not be legit in this universe, it’s common knowledge that creatures like Tommyknockers, sasquatches, and jackalopes exist. I had already been delighted by the mention of splintercats in the first book. But what I was most focused on was Karen and Priya. This is post-HEA, and they are trying to figure out how to be with each other when they’re not just running on adrenaline, being pulled from one death-defying adventure to the next. They clash, and it becomes obvious that they have different opinions on things like rushing headlong into danger when catching a whiff of injustice. They have to adapt to each other and compromise. It was uncomfortable, and it was absolutely true to the real, messy business of being in a relationship with someone. As Stone Mad states, it not being perfect is how you know you aren’t being conned.

Unfortunately, despite the elements I liked, I was totally thrown by the plot structure this time around. Instead of losing track of how they got from one adventure to the next, this novella starts with a dramatic encounter and winds down from there, with a mudslide thrown in at the end. I literally got to the narrator reading “The End” and looked at my phone in confusion. I thought I had somehow skipped half the book. This narrative addresses their relationship and completes that arc, but everything else in the beginning–the spiritualists and murder mystery and all the questions raised–weren’t addressed again. This literally felt like half of a novel to me, which is a shame, because I think if it had either been pared down to a short story (the first part of the book) or fleshed out into a whole novel, I would have really enjoyed it.

Danika reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

If “lesbian steampunk Western” doesn’t already pique your interest, I’m not sure what else to say, but I’ll give it a try! Karen is a “seamstress” (a sex worker at bordello) in Rapid City, in the Pacific Northwest. She’s satisfied enough with her life–the girls at Hôtel Mon Cherie are a tight-knit group, and she’s saving up money to train horses–when, well, I’ll let the blurb do the talking: “Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap-a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.”

Although there is a murder mystery aspect to this, Karen Memory is much more of a fast-paced adventure, as Karen and her friends get tossed into increasingly more dangerous and daring situations. The steampunk element starts off pretty minor–it took me a long time to realize that the “sewing machine” was some sort of mechanical exoskeleton and not just a typical sewing machine–but by the end of the book, there are all sorts of wild steampunk elements that I don’t want to spoil for you.

My favourite part was the relationship between Karen and Priya. Priya is a recent Indian migrant, who was trapped in a human trafficking situation. She has escaped to the Hôtel Mon Cherie, and Karen immediately falls for her. This could fall under insta-love, I suppose, but I don’t really see the problem in being intensely attracted to someone at first and then building a relationship together, which is what happens here.

There is a diversity of side characters, including trans characters and black, indigenous, and Asian characters. They are, for the most part, well-rounded, but they are often described in ways typical of the time period. [Highlight for the particular language/slurs included:] The trans character is described as  having a “pecker under her dress,” but that it was “God’s cruel joke”, and she’s “as much a girl as any of them.” The indigenous character is described as a “red Indian” many time. The N word is included, though not said by the protagonist. There are more, similar descriptions used, but this gives you an idea. I’m honestly not quite sure what to make of that, and I’d like to read some reviews by trans, black, and indigenous reviewers to see what they think of it. I can see how it would be a response to the typical Western, by having a diverse cast, but still staying true to the time period, but I’m not sure you need to include slurs or racist descriptions to do that.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought the narrator did a fantastic job. I really got a sense of Karen’s voice. On the other hand, I have trouble following action-packed plots at the best of times, and by listening to the audiobook, I definitely dropped the thread a few times. I think I enjoyed it more by listening to it, but I probably would have understood what was happening better if I had read it. I’m sure this would be a fantastic read for fans of Westerns or steampunk books, especially if you wish they were a little less straight and white, but it wasn’t the perfect genre match for me. I prefer stories that concentrate on characters, and although I got a sense of Karen’s voice, I didn’t get to know her as a character as well as I would like.

Despite those notes, I did like it enough to immediately pick up the other book in the series, and it looks like I’m going to like Stone Mad even more: Victorian spiritualists are my jam.

Danika reviews This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

I’m grateful that we are finally starting to get YA (New Adult?) books like this. Queer YA in the last few years has really grown, including having more queer people of colour represented (although there is still much more needed). This Is What It Feels Like is so different from the kind of queer YA that was coming out just 5 or so years ago. It follows three teenage girls who have just graduated from high school. A few years ago, they were inseparable, and they played in a band together. Then, Hanna’s alcoholism landed her in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Meanwhile, Dia’s boyfriend, who she was just starting to get close with, was killed in a car accident. Weeks after the funeral, Dia finds out she’s pregnant and decides to keep the baby. Hanna and Dia walk away from each other, and Jules sides with Dia. Now, their city is holding a music competition that includes a $15,000 prize, and they just might have a chance to win it–but it means getting the band back together.

Who doesn’t love a “getting the band back together” book, especially when it’s literal? Dia, Jules, and Hanna are all complex people, and the conflicts they have with each other are nuanced and understandable. Dia told Hanna that she couldn’t be around her baby because she couldn’t be trusted–but the real reason they drifted apart was because Dia was terrified to lose anyone else after Elliot died, and it’s the same reason she isn’t dating the boy she’s in love with. Hanna has been sober for over 400 days after going through rehab, but she’s lonely and feels like she can never be good enough for her parents. And Jules is caught in the middle, while she’s also trying to figure out a new relationship while carrying around the damage from her last one.

The three of them have a lot to work through, but I was relieved to see that they do talk about their problems. They air their grievances in a reasonable time frame–this isn’t one of those “Why don’t they just talk??” books where the only conflict is miscommunication. The problem is that they have a lot to work through, and it takes time, and more than just one conversation. They have to keep bumping up against these ghosts from the past and processing it again. I loved the realism of their relationships with each other, which are flawed and difficult, but also are the grounding forces in their lives.

This also has a great f/f romance (and a good m/f romance with Dia, to be fair). Jules meets her new coworker, Autumn and immediately has an all-consuming crush on her. If you’re allergic to instalove, you might not like that, but I think you’ll come around if you stick with it. Autumn has never been attracted to a girl before, so she’s working through that a little bit, but mostly they have an adorable beginning to their relationship. Unfortunately, Jules is working through her own issues: her last relationship was not great, and she’s a little too fixated on trying to have the perfect relationship with grand, romantic gestures instead of concentrating on what’s in front of her. Although they fall for each other quickly, they have to work at their relationship. (I have to share this cute line: “All she could see and feel and think was this girl and maybe she wasn’t really in love yet, but oh, maybe she was.”)

I am gratified to find a YA book with a teen mom where it isn’t the main focus of the book. My sister and my mother both had their first kids young, at 19 and 20 (which isn’t as young as Dia was). They also both went to an excellent school for pregnant teens, so that’s been something I’ve been acutely aware of since I was young. It is a very difficult and challenging thing to do, but it’s nice to see a depiction of a teen mom who is balancing raising her kid with school and being herself. Like Dia, my sister lived at home when my niece was young, and we all helped out. I liked seeing Dia able to be a young mom who still was pursuing her dreams and planning for her future.

I highly recommend this to anyone. I appreciated how layered and complex the relationships all are here, and I felt like I really got to know Hanna, Jules, and Dia. There’s also, of course, the thread of music running through, which is what they are all passionate about, so there’s another entry point into this story. Also, there’s an adorable toddler who is a fan of a dog named Waffles, so what more could you want? Of course, this whole review is for naught, because you should all be picking it up based on that gorgeous cover alone.

Danika reviews Pulp by Robin Talley

Pulp by Robin Talley cover

I have been anticipating this book for a long time. I collect lesbian pulp, and I’m fascinated by the history of this period of lesbian literature. Pulp is a YA novel from two perspectives: Abby, a modern day out and proud lesbian, and Janet, a 1950s teenager just discovering that she’s a lesbian, and what that means for her life. Both of them discover lesbian pulp at the beginning of the novel, and it inspires them and their writing, though in different ways. I had very high expectations for this, and I’m happy to say that it lived up to them.

First, I have to talk about the pulp aspect. This is something that I really nerd out about, and it’s not often that I bump into someone else as interested in lesbian pulp as I am. So I was delighted to read about Abby discovering pulp–the wonder at the over-the-top but incredible covers, the initial disdain then growing appreciation for the genre as a whole, and the fascination with how these books fit into real people’s lives, authors and readers alike. I could relate to Abby’s obsession, is what I’m saying. There are also great easter eggs, if you are a lesbian pulp fan. Not only are real pulp titles name dropped (including Satan Was a Lesbian, which I have as a canvas print in my living room!), but a ton of the characters have the last names of famous lesbian pulp authors/pen names, including Aldrich, Sloane, Hastings, and Bannon (“Bannon Press” is the publisher’s name). And no wonder: not only did Ann Bannon (author of The Beebo Brinker pulp novels) have a blurb on the front cover, she also gave notes on an early draft of this novel!

But enough about my own obsession. Into the actual story! I thought it was balanced nicely between the two perspectives. They mirror each other in some ways (both lesbians, both authors, both enamored with a particular lesbian pulp novel), but they have very different personalities and settings. In Janet’s timeline, I appreciated learning more about the Lavender Scare, particularly in Washington, DC. I had heard of it before, but seeing how it infiltrated every aspect of these people’s lives was chilling–the smallest thing could mean being outed as a “homosexual” and therefore a threat to the nation. You could lose everything, just because someone thought your haircut was too short or that your friendship was too close. You could never let your guard down. Although I liked both main characters, I was particularly drawn to the present day protagonist, Abby.

I should have known I’d like Abby, just from all the reviews that mentioned hating her. I’ve found that any female character who expresses pain is usually seen as annoying by reviewers. Abby is in a horrible sense of stasis: she’s about to graduate, but she can’t even think about college. College means change, and change means acknowledging that her family is falling apart. Abby’s parents are barely home–always travelling for work–and they’re never home at the same time. Meanwhile, Abby’s girlfriend broke up with her last summer, and although she assumed it would be short-term, they don’t seem to be getting back together. When Abby discovers lesbian pulp, she latches on to one particular novel with a happy ending, becoming obsessed with it and the author. This is the kind of love that lasts forever–and what’s the point of love that doesn’t last? Abby is in a lot of pain, and as long as her parents refuse to acknowledge what’s happening, her and her brother can’t begin to process it.

I also enjoyed a lot of the side characters in Abby’s story. She has an out lesbian teacher! (I’m about to become a teacher, so that stood out to me.) One who is knowledgeable about lesbian pulp and can advise Abby on her project revolving around that topic! Abby also has a queer group of friends, including bisexual and non-binary characters (one who uses they/them pronouns). Abby is Jewish, and there are Black and Brazilian side characters as well. And one tiny thing I liked: Abby and Linh (her ex-girlfriend) bonded over reading m/m fanfiction before they dated! That’s how me and my high school girlfriend got together!

I really appreciate this book. Lesbian pulp is something close to my heart, so I hope that this novel introduces queer teens to it, so they can discover the ridiculousness and appeal of it themselves. Personally, I loved Abby as a main character. She is hurting, so she may not always make the best decisions, but that just means that when she does finally break through–when she does begin to face the difficult changes in her life and even embrace them–it’s all the sweeter. Highly recommended!

Danika reviews We Still Demand!: Redefining Resistance in Sex and Gender Struggles edited by Patrizia Gentile, Gary Kinsman, and L. Pauline Rankin

We Still Demand edited by Patrizia Gentile

A weird thing about living in Canada is that you tend to know US history, laws, politics, etc more than you know your own. Reading We Still Demand! was a wake-up call that I actually know very little about Canadian queer history and activism, and that’s something I want to fix. Unfortunately, I had some issues with this particular text on the subject. For one thing, it is a very academic text, and it becomes dense to the point of being unreadable at several points. They do give a rough timeline of Canadian queer activism, but the focus is mostly on talking about radical vs neoliberal/homonormative/transnormative/homonationalist/human rights activism, and they seem to immediately dismiss out of hand anything that could be included in the latter category.

I will say, this is first time I’ve read anything and thought “I wish this was less radical.” Generally I am completely for radical activism. In this collection, though, it looks backwards at activism of the 70s and 80s and seems to neatly divide any work being done then as being either radical (worthwhile) or neoliberal (counterproductive). At times, this seems to require some odd mental gymnastics, such as defining 70s same-sex marriage activism as purely radical, but the same-sex marriage activism that followed as purely homonormative.

The essay that really got under my skin was about the beginning of trans activism in Canada (as an aside, this collection uses “trans*” “transman” and “transwoman,” even though it was published in 2017. Not sure why.) Instead of celebrating Raj and the work he did for trans representation, while also acknowledging the problems/limitations, this seems to drag him through the mud for not being radical enough, despite him publicly changing his stance on gay trans men (he originally posits trans men as being in opposition to butch women, so he paints all trans men as straight, but after backlash he became quite active in including gay trans men in his magazine, helping them to make connections with each other). It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to say that fighting for trans rights is homonormative or transnormative–that fighting for human rights isn’t worthwhile, because it doesn’t singlehandedly fix every problem.

Another essay acknowledges that Doug Wilson, who was fired as a teacher for being gay, lost his court case because sexual orientation wasn’t covered under the human Rights commission, but the text seems to congratulate him for walking away from teaching and entirely into activism, instead of acknowledging that fighting for rights has a place in queer activism. It also mentions a quotation from a queer rights activist that change happened because lobbying for rights laid the groundwork, but militancy of gays in streets brought results. Instead of recognizing this as two sides to the same fight, the author seems to conclude that the lobbying was pointless, or at least not very important.

There also seems to be some nostalgia about 70s and 80s activism as being back when All Queer Activism Was Radical. I would argue that the reason for that is because at the time, being out at all was radical. The liberal queers were still in the closet. Now, more people are able to participate in the discussion, because there is less danger in coming out, especially for cis white wealthy privileged gay men, so it’s not surprising that the conversation has changed. I also disagree with this strict division between radical and neoliberal activism because there is so much grey area: is fighting to repeal anti-queer laws radical, but not fighting for human rights that would prevent those laws?

Homonormativity/transnormativity also assumes that queer people can be easily absorbed by the system–that same-sex marriage did not change the institution of marriage at all. Can’t there be some space between revolution and assimilation? Isn’t it possible that same-sex marriage complicates the institution of marriage even as it reinforces other aspects? I agree that we should be fighting for big, radical change, for dismantling the system, but I also think there is merit to people trying to change it from within in the meantime. This collection seems to suggests that anything less that revolution is misguided. It made me think of the Trevor Project, which seems calls skyrocket after things like trans people being barred from the military–policy changes have real immediate effects for some people. Same-sex marriage may not have ended queer oppression, but it did change people’s lives: for the people able to see their partner in the hospital, for people able to bring their partner into the country, for kids who saw the world as a little less hostile to their existence.

All of this is not to say that I disagree with centring the most marginalized members of our community. One of the later essays describes how gay activism dropped issues of class and poverty after gay community was labelled as the “pink market” (white, middle class, cis, etc), and I do see how this plays out in ignoring the most vulnerable people in our community. I do believe that we should be prioritizing the most pressing, life-threatening issues the queer community faces, even if it’s not politically expedient (such as acknowledging that the issues of safety in sex work and the rate of murders of trans women are intertwined). I think we should be fighting on all fronts, though, and not promoting further fracturing inside the community by sorting people into Good Queer Activists and Bad Normative Activists.

I feel a little silly going into such depth in my issues with a book that very few people have even heard of, but it got me thinking! And honestly, that’s a good thing in itself. I do like exploring academic texts every once in a while as a way to stretch and test my own thinking on a topic. A few other notes that I have on this one: the introduction acknowledges that there is no indigenous perspective offered in the collection, and says that it’s a huge gap, but… I don’t feel like that’s good enough. It seems strange to me to say that an indigenous viewpoint is crucial, and then go ahead and publish your collection without one. Isn’t that your job to find that contributor?

I liked the later chapters much more than the first section. The “passing” chapter introduces the difficulty of “reading” people in the past as either trans men or butch women, and the problems that these categories suggest, as well as the ones present in the language of “passing.” I was also really interested in the chapter about dyke s/m in Canada, and how the “lesbian sex wars” debate on BDSM didn’t really exist in Canada (unlike the US), possibly because Canadian censorship of lesbian SM material could have allowed for solidarity in lesbian communities in fighting censorship. The later section also seems to be less concerned with the division between neoliberal and radical activism–for instance, the sex work chapter has a very different attitude towards police coalition than earlier chapters did.

I definitely want to explore this topic further. I want to know more about both the past and present queer activism in my own country, without just swapping in the US queer history that I know and assuming that it’s the same. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out these particular editors in the next books on the topic I pick up, because I didn’t think that their lens added to the topic.

Danika reviews Mistletoe Mishap by Siri Caldwell

I went into this fully expecting it to be lesbian Christmas erotica–which would have been fine, as a fun, quick read! Instead, Mistletoe Mishap has a lot more nuance that I expected. Viv and Kendra are married, and their sex life has fizzled out a bit. Kendra is trying to reintroduce sex to the relationship, and they begin to negotiate their physical relationship. I appreciated that this acknowledges that it’s easy to fall into a rut in a relationship, and that it can even be a bit awkward to try to regain it. Although they have been together a long time, Kendra is still insecure about whether Viv has anywhere near the same sexual drive towards her as she has towards Viv.

It’s also nice to have a romance between two women who are not teens or twenty-somethings. They’re middle-aged women, and they’re both mature, as well as being settled into their professions. They’re both scientists! And professors. It’s not discussed a lot, but there’s an undercurrent to the plot about being semi-closeted and how that affects their relationship. Through this little bet for who can make each other have the most orgasms, there are also subtle shifts in their relationship outside their sex life, including how much they hide their relationship while out in public (especially at the university they teach at).

In fact, despite the premise, I would call this more of a romance. There are sex scenes, but they aren’t as much the focus as their relationship in general is. If you’re in the mood for a short, holiday-themed read that has sex scenes, but also some nuance around negotiating an established relationship, I think this is well worth the read!


Danika reviews Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino

Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino cover“A new magic has entered the realm of the Sidh–and its name is rock n’ roll!”
Gossamer Axe front cover blurb

I will admit that I picked this up primarily because of the cover. A woman in high fantasy/ancient Celt robes, hair billowing behind her, playing an electric guitar? Add in the cover blurb (and the promise of queer content), and I was on board. Because I bought it mostly for cover appeal–I collect lesbian pulp, so I clearly have a weakness for ridiculous covers–I didn’t rush to start reading it. Instead, I waited for a time when I felt like reading something fun and a little bit silly. Unbeknownst to me, Gossamer Axe takes its rock n’ roll Celtic fantasy premise very seriously.

Christa is a woman who grew up in ancient Ireland. She was an expert harpist, but when she attempted to learn from the Sidh–a fairy-like magical race–she and her lover got kidnapped into their unchanging realm as punishment for her hubris. Christa escaped, but she wasn’t powerful enough to bring her lover with her. Now, she bides her time in modern (80s) America, trying to improve her musical/magical prowess enough to rescue her. She finds possibility in an unlikely place, trading her harp for an electric guitar, and forming a girl band to collectively stage a final battle.

While  still think the premise sounds kitschy–Ancient Celt harpist rescues her girlfriend from a timeless dimension using the power of rock and roll!–the book is not light or silly. It deals with heavy subject matter. A lot of it. Child rape/incest, someone dying of AIDS, homophobia, racism (including slurs), misogyny, abuse–to name a few.

But it’s also about chosen family, healing, and rebirth. Christa is bi, and where/when she grew up, two women falling in love was a little unusual, but unremarkable. Only the Christians disapprove of their relationship. Although she is living in 80s America now, she carries with her the confidence and power she learned in her youth. While all the women in the novel deal with misogyny, Christa acts as a source of strength for them. A note, though: the girl band mentioned on the back cover of the novel doesn’t get together until more than 100 pages into the book. It is a bit of a slow build. They do form of the heart of the book, though. They are very different people, but they become a kind of family.

I especially appreciated the friendship between Christa and Monica, which does not begin from a very promising place. There’s a sort of unquestioning sisterhood formed here that I love, and that seems rooted in its 80s feminist context. Christa shares her beliefs with her friends, and even if they aren’t converts, they draw strength from it. Christa believes that all women are priestesses, and she uses her rituals to remind them of their own capabilities.

Despite the dark subjects covered, at its core, Gossamer Axe is about persistence and healing. Although the characters go through incredibly difficult things, they are able to survive it, and to re-emerge as new people. This was not the book I was expecting, but I enjoyed it. If you can handle the subject matter (and are okay with this being very 80s), I recommend it. I will be checking out more from this author (silly cover or no).

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!