Danika reviews Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Codi is in a rut. She has two best friends, Maritza and JaKory, and they’ve been doing the same things since they became friends in the 6th grade. Now she’s 17, and she’s sick of sitting in the basement and watching movies. All three of them are determined to make a change this summer, and maybe get their first kisses (Codi is a lesbian, Martiza is bi, and JaKory is gay). The only problem is that Maritza and JaKory seem to still see the shy, homebody Codi that she was as a kid, and don’t seem to believe that she can be anyone different. When Maritza calls Codi, drunk, and begs her to pick her up from a party, Codi reluctantly agrees. She doesn’t expect to run into one of the “cool kids” kissing another guy in the shadows outside. Ricky asks Codi to not tell anyone about the kiss, and she is drawn into his friend group–including Lydia, who she immediately crushes on. Now Codi is having a whole different summer, with partying, drinking, and skinny-dipping–and not telling her best friends anything about it.

I had a bit of a conflicted relationship with this book. I love that it’s a queer YA book about friendship, including having a bunch of different queer friends. I don’t think we see enough stories where queer people are friends and not just love interests. Codi’s attitude is completely understandable: she feels trapped by her best friends’ expectations of her, so she breaks out of them and doesn’t let them in. At the same time, though, Maritza and JaKory both encourage her to break out of her rut and she refuses, but then she gets angry at them for thinking that she’s in a rut.

She also judges herself for not partying, being a “real” teenager. Maybe me being a 30 year old teacher hurt my enjoyment of this book, but I was frustrated by the idea that the only right way to be a teenager is to act out a teen movie. Maybe I’m defensive because I’ve never been a drinking or partying type. This isn’t a flaw in the writing: it is acknowledged later in the book that there is no one right way to be a teenager, and that you shouldn’t feel like you have to act out some image of being a teenager.

Mostly, I just found it painful to watch Codi make these long, drawn-out mistakes. Her motivation is understandable, and it’s believable, but watching her sabotage some of her most important and long-lasting relationships wasn’t fun, especially when they could be solved with a few conversations. Codi and her friends are all complex and flawed characters, which means that they do hurt each other and make mistakes. I just didn’t find it personally enjoyable to go through chapter after chapter of Codi lying (or lying by omission) to her best friends.

My favourite part was the romance. Codi and Lydia become closer as friends, and then we see that dance around each other of not knowing if the other is interested or even if they’re straight. It felt real to me, seeing the slow, nervous progression of their relationship, including misunderstandings. Codi’s flustered reactions are all-too-relatable. They also have sweet, meaningful conversations–just the kind of exchanges I’d expect from the beginnings of a flirtation between two teenage girls. Their romance was definitely what I enjoyed the most.

The ending felt a little neat to me, especially considering how messy and drawn-out the tensions were between so many characters. There’s a bit of a time jump to explain this, but even still, I would have liked to see this honest conversation earlier so that we had more time to deal with the fallout. I understand why lots of people enjoy this one: it’s a great friendship book, it has a sweet romance, and it looks at the expectations and social pressures of being a teenager. Unfortunately, that plot element of Codi continually choosing to mislead her best friends soured the reading experience for me.

Mary Springer reviews Out of the Woods by TJ Land

Out of the Woods by TJ Land cover

Ruth and Hermana have been best friends since Ruth fished Hermana out of the river as when they were both children. Ruth lives with her older brother on the outskirts of town, outcasts on account of their long-gone parents’ choices. Hermana’s parents are also gone, and she lives with her grandmother, the local midwife. They’re best friends and experts at the wilds they live in, known to the town as savages. Their life is as predictable and as enjoyable as they make it, until they find a dead body – and it may not even be human.

I loved how authentically adolescent Ruth and Hermana were. They were teenage girls in the purest, most feral form, and I loved every bit of it. They definitely should have gone for help about the dead body way sooner, but the fact that they didn’t, that they thought they in their wholly unexperienced youth could handle such a thing, only made me like them more. They are terribly mean to several people, some who deserve it and some who don’t. But it’s realistic with how they grew up, treated as outsiders and even savages by the townsfolk. Or in one rich guy’s case for Ruth, as some beautiful savage who can be tamed and made civil for his high-class friends.

Ruth and Hermana’s also have a friends-to-lovers romance. It might be slow and not really in the spotlight of the story, but for what is there, it really shines. I definitely spent a good portion reading this cheering them on to get together already.

The side characters also had their time to shine. There’s a subplot involving this girl who is the maid at the local rich woman’s house, and her romance with the local sheriff, who’s a handsome butch. Then there’s Hermana’s grandmother, Ruth’s brother, and a whole host of other characters who have small parts but make big roles out of them for the short time we read about them.

The world building was also a lot of fun. It’s a short book, so the author doesn’t try to throw too much at it, keeping it relatively easy to understand and in tradition of most fantasy settings. But at the same time, the world has its own uniqueness in the places where it counts that makes the story come alive and be all the more engaging. I found it easy to sink in and imagine myself there.

It’s also very much a story about women their places in a patriarchal town in a patriarchal society. It was sometimes frustrating but overall interesting to see how the characters find ways to overcome the struggles they face because the men they must deal with. It was enjoyable to see the characters combat these challenges in their own ways.

I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a fun fantasy story.

Danika reviews Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution by e.E. Charlton-Trujllo

When I finished Fat Angie, I felt a bit conflicted about it. I liked the character and thought the language use was interesting, but it was so dark that I felt like I couldn’t find even a glimmer of hope. Despite the many strong elements of the novel–who can resist queer girls kissing to the theme song of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?–I finished it feeling exhausted by the emotional weight of Angie’s life. It felt like there was no area of her life the was spared from cruelty.

So when I picked up the sequel, I was wary. I wanted more from Angie’s story, but I couldn’t handle another storyline that felt so unrelentingly hopeless. I didn’t need her to have a fairy tale ending, but I wanted there to be some element of hope in her story. Luckily, Rebel Girl Revolution delivered that. Angie begins the book much the same as she started the last one. Her next year in high school is not looking much better than her last. Her main tormentor has started dating her best friend, and Angie is not buying her sudden change of character. She is seeing a better therapist, thankfully, and her relationship with her brother is slightly improved, but her mother is still The Worst, and Angie is still lonely and deeply grieving. When she defends herself from a football player attacking her, things go from bad to worse. We do see some of the progress that Angie has made, though, because instead of channeling that into self-loathing, she spontaneously reaches out to an estranged childhood friend, Jamboree, and they go on the road trip that Angie’s sister wanted to take her on.

This was just wanted I wanted from Angie’s story. It’s still difficult, and she is still in a lot of pain. She’s also angry, and she’s questioning a lot about her life, including the relationships she has. Everything is tangled, complicated, and so raw–but it feels worth it. Angie hasn’t given up. She’s gone on trip this with Jamboree, Zeke, and (oops) Darius, and all of them have multilayered relationships with each other. They fight, they mess up, they threaten to abandon each other on the side of the highway, and they have dance parties together.

Some of my favourite things to read about are complex relationships, whether romantic, familial, or friendships. I love stories that can communicate the depth of conflicting emotions you have about a person: the kind of people in your life who you can be the most angry at, but who are your most treasured connections. How toxic relationships can feel, at times, as if they’re the best things in your life, and how that can be the most dangerous part. Or the relationships that can be so much work, but that are nourishing, sustaining. Rebel Girl Revolution wrestles with the complicated connections that every character has with each other, in a way that feels very real.

Not only does Angie develop more connections, she also pushes herself to grow in the ways that matter to her. This trip is partly following her sister’s lead, but it’s also a chance for her to take control of who she wants to be. She throws herself, sometimes with intense fear, into new situations. Sometimes she gets spat back out. But sometimes, she shines. It suggests that there is a future for her, and that there are more options available to her than she imagined.

This isn’t a Disney movie ending. It’s not Angie all better, popular, or becoming prom queen. But it’s her making progress. It’s Angie feeling as if, sometimes, she’s doing okay. If you’re looking for YA that doesn’t shrink away from despair, pick up Fat Angie, for sure. But even if that seems too much for you, I definitely think this is worth the read (and I feel like it could work as a standalone?) I hope to see more from Angie in the future.

Trigger warnings: cutting, suicide ideation, parental abuse, violence, bullying/harassment, grief, PTSD, war flashbacks

Mars reviews Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen

Her Name In the Sky cover

It’s her last year of high school and Hannah Eaden is just trying to finish up her senior year with a smile before she and her tight-knit group of friends scatter across the country to go to college. While she’ll miss her little sister and her goofy boyfriend, the shy nerd with the kind smile, and the non-stereotypical quarterback, the one she’ll miss most of all is her best friend Baker, senior class president and the apple of everyone’s eye. Baker understands her; knows her quirks, has a secret dedicated playlist for her on her phone, and gets the kind of milkshake she knows Hannah likes because that’s just the kind of friend she is. With Baker being as sweet as a button, how could Hannah help but fall for her?

If I’ve made you think this story is all sunshine and rainbows and Catholic school without all of the intense moral discourse, think again. Desire versus faith, fear versus love, this story does not shy away from the dark edges of what happens when a lifetime of internalized dogma grapples with feelings that ache with honesty. While there are moments of levity as readers get to know Hannah, Baker, and their close friends (the self-declared Six-Pack), be warned that there are many moments when Quindlen goes for the jugular with your feelings.  

Late at night, after her parents and Joanie have already gone to sleep, she drives to City Park and sits in her car beneath the canopy of trees. She looks up at these trees and marvels at their existence, at how they just are what they were created to be, how they tower proudly on their wooden trunks, how they sway in the breeze and move their leaves like piano keys, and she prays that she can be like them, that she can innately grasp her existence and live it out without questioning.

Am I wrong? she asks. Just tell me if I am.

She never receives an answer.

The story is told from Hannah’s perspective, and we follow with clutched pearls as her year goes from good to worse to awful to actually surprisingly okay. There are moments when the author has your eyes racing across the page, and the characters themselves are as believable as they are compelling. Kids do reckless things, and characters act out of fear in ways that make you want to shake them (as they are wont to). The story of a deep love for a best friend slipping seamlessly into something more is as natural and timeless as gay ladies themselves.

At its essence, this story is a familiar one (my running notes were filled with #relatable) so I feel like it’s really important to state this part outright: it’s going to be okay. This is not going to be another one of Those Stories, and while the adults in this story are as flawed as grown-ups in real life, they are also just as redeeming.

Her Name in the Sky deals with a lot of fear and what I’ve been told is a lot of Catholic Guilt. This book isn’t necessarily for the light-hearted. While the author does a good job of starting us out with a playful and loving friend group, there are some really heavy moments as senior year marches on and the specter of prom draws closer. We are dealing with homosexuality in a very religious context, and the author never lets us lose sight of the fact that these characters are desperate as they grapple with reconciling their earnest faith with their desires.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you’re in the mood for a cry with a happy ending. The author also has an active tumblr which includes links to HNITS fanfiction, fan art, adorable original one-shots, and a free preview of the first three chapters.

 

Elinor reviews A Fairytale of Possibilities by Kiki Archer

British wedding planner Lauren is in the business of making dreams come true for other people. But in her own life she’s been pining over her straight best friend Rachel since they were teenaged university students together. In their eleven years of friendship, Lauren has drifted from girlfriend to girlfriend every several months while nursing her secret crush. Rachel, meanwhile, married the boyfriend she met at university, had a son and became a stay at home mom, and was widowed. It’s been two years since her husband died and Rachel decides she’s ready to get back out there–possibly with women. After so many years of fantasizing, though, making Lauren’s dreams real isn’t as easy as the fairytale she’s had in mind.

Lauren and Rachel’s friendship is full of banter and flirtation from the first pages of the novel and has the shared language of long-time friends. The pair’s conversations hooked me and are just plain fun to read. It made sense to me that Lauren didn’t want to risk a friendship that fulfilled her in so many ways by making advances she thought would be rejected. It also made sense that Rachel had more complicated feelings for her friend than she’d previously explored.

The characters shine in this book. I really appreciated that Rachel’s son Parker behaved like an actual kid. Writing children can be tough and I’ve read a few romance novels featuring single moms in which the kids are placeholders. Not so here. Parker is his own character. Plus Lauren has her own loving relationship with Parker, another thing she doesn’t want to risk. Rachel is a devoted mom doing the right things: taking her son to a grief support group, keeping him connected to her in-laws, trying to determine what’s best for him as she considers what she wants. Other highlights include Lauren’s ridiculous, but ultimately helpful, assistant Trudy, and Lauren’s absurd clients, whose relationships offer some unexpected lessons in love. Though Rachel’s pestering brother-in-law is a cartoonish antagonist and could be much more nuanced, he keeps the story moving along.

The obstacles in the way of the relationship develop, and are resolved, organically. Lauren’s competitiveness and Rachel’s conflict avoidance pop up throughout, so when these cause problems, it makes sense.  I appreciated that Rachel doesn’t have an identity crisis about her interest in women and that it’s Lauren’s idealizing that throws many a wrench in things. I also liked that Rachel’s late husband isn’t an afterthought, and he and his accidental death have an impact throughout the novel. Near the end this involves a pretty intense conversation that neither main character handles well. I thought this made sense and that a romance involving a relatively recent widow is going to have some painful moments. Also, a friendship as intertwined as Lauren and Rachel’s will have clashing perspectives and hidden fears about shared grief. It might be heavier than some readers want, though, especially because the rest of the book is quite light and at times pretty silly. I liked the angst near the end but if you don’t want that, skim this conversation and skip ahead a bit.

Overall, Archer combines great dialogue, occasional low-brow humor, and hot sex for a fun read.  This is a great easy read for lesbian romance fans.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018 and is contributor to the anthology Unspeakably Erotic, edited by D.L. King, out this month. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com