Cara reviews Under the Lights by Dahlia Adler

Under the Lights is a great light lesbian romance that’s about growing up and finding friends in unlikely places. There’s no deep trauma or life-or-death stakes here, and while there’s some light angst and the characters have real problems, the narrative never dwells on them too long or loses sight of the truth that the characters are pretty fortunate.

The story is told from the point of view of two coprotagonists, Josh Chester and Vanessa Park, both of whom are teenaged actors and minor celebrities in Hollywood. While they have a lot more money than most teenagers and some problems only celebrities do, the core conflicts are all about them figuring out what they want, notwithstanding what their parents want for them. It’s definitely YA and the sequel to a previous book of Adler’s, Daylight Falls, that features many of the same characters but different protagonists. You don’t need to have read it to read Under the Lights. (I still haven’t.)

The biggest reason I can see someone might not like this book is Josh Chester, so I’ll address him first. Josh is kind of a jerk. He intends to offend, for instance referring to Vanessa as “K-drama” for most of the book, insults everyone, and acts callous as hell. He tries to be unlikable, and I can see how some readers might find his voice to be such a turnoff that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy Vanessa’s. He’s funny, though, and his jerkiness more superficial than heartfelt. He doesn’t hurt people, and the girls he has no-strings-attached one-night stands with are every bit as interested in no-strings-attached sex with Josh Chester as he is in sex with them. I’m willing to forgive rudeness when it’s not coupled with malice, so Josh and his arc work for me.

Beyond that, I read enough lesbian romance that I’m tired of the formulas, and what I found refreshing about this novel is that it doesn’t follow them. How many lesbian romances have a het male coprotagonist who shares equal time with his female counterpart? The whole story is a beautifully-executed bait-and-switch playing on the structure of romance and YA romance in particular. In another book, Josh and Vanessa’s early relationship would be belligerent sexual tension. Because I’m reviewing this book for the Lesbrary, I’ve spoiled that part for you already: Josh and Vanessa do not end up together. You’d know the same if you read the blurb and know that “feelings unexpectedly evolve beyond friendship” means “gay.” None of the relationships in the book end up coming out the way the characters expect them to. I want more books like this.

Vanessa’s coming to terms with falling for a girl felt real to me. When she angsts, it’s less because of internalized homophobia and more because she loves acting and worries that being a double-minority in Hollywood will cost her her career and that it will give her parents another reason to dislike her. I’m long past the drama of coming out myself, but sadly I can still relate to feeling like a perpetual disappointment to one’s parents. Vanessa and her future girlfriend hurt each other some times with the all-too-accurate clumsiness of teenagers working out how relationships go.

The dialogue’s good enough to have made me laugh out loud several times when I was writing this review. I’d quote it here but outside of the context and the characters, it would lose its punch. The plot and development of the characters are well-structured and have interesting symmetry with some depth I didn’t notice on my first reading. Under the Lights is romance done well.

Danika reviews Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings by Sarah Graley

Part-time Grim Reaper. Full-time cutie.

WELL. If this isn’t one of the cutest things I’ve ever read. Becka is an art school student who is crushing hard on Kim, a gothic girl in her class. Little does she know, Kim is a part-time Grim Reaper, and instead of heading off to the pub after class with a cute girl, Becka ends up being pulled into some dangerous undead shenanigans.

This is so much fun to read. The plot is silly (they fight a bodybuilder and his army of cats!) and the art is super cute. I also found the interaction between Becka and Kim really interesting. At first, Becka is pursuing Kim, fully convinced that she, too, is Goth As Hell and that they would be perfect together. Kim at first pushes her away, but they are stuck together on this adventure, and she soon warms up. In the meantime, as Becka gets to know Kim, she is frustrated by her recklessness–the only reason she even ended up here is because Kim opened a portal in the middle of the hallway!

Kim has to grapple with the fact that her attempts to impress Becka have just put them both in danger, and that not everyone finds running from death (figuratively and literally) a fun way to spend the afternoon. Becka walks away when she feels that their relationship isn’t a healthy one for her, and Kim has to figure out whether she wants to keep going on this path. That’s mostly in the background, though, and it never gets too dramatic. It just adds a layer to this mostly fluffy and fun read!

Also, I have to mention: Becka is the most adorable main character I’ve ever seen. The hair buns! Her cute little tummy!! Honestly, I couldn’t believe how much I appreciated that there is an outline of Becka’s tummy. And I actually learned that “visible belly outline” (or VBO) is a thing! That there’s a term for! So this book made me happy not only because a) the illustrations are adorable, b) the plot is silly and fun, c) Becka and Kim are cuties together, but also d) seeing Becka–a character whose silhouette does not look entirely dissimilar to my own–depicted as cute, confident, and desirable makes me feel happier in my own clothes.

If you need a boost of cuteness in your reading life, I can’t really recommend Kim Reaper highly enough. This was one of my few 5 star ratings this year!


Danika reviews Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman

Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman cover. It shows an illustration of two women kissing and a cat playing with yarn.

I feel a little bit silly reviewing Knit One, Girl Two, because what can I say that hasn’t been said before? Especially considering that this is a novella! So consider this less of a review, and more of a reminder that this sweet little novella exists (and that you can get it for about $2!)

This is a cute, mostly fluffy story that has a wide appeal: Jewish readers, queer ladies (including bi women), and artists will all find aspects that have special interest to them. It was also nice to read about a fat love interest. This definitely felt like a “slice of life” story. It’s realistic, and as if you’re just being dropped into a short period of these people’s lives, but the characters seem to live outside the words on the page, as well.

Both the main characters are cisgender, but there is a scene that shows the queer community that they are in, and it has lots of trans minor characters. They only get a handful of lines, but it was still nice to see that.

As always in Shira Glassman books, the Florida setting is significant. Danielle is a painter, and she is inspired by Florida landscapes. Clara dyes yarn, and she collaborates with Danielle to use the colors in her paintings to design the blends in her yarn.

This isn’t entirely a traditional romance novella: there is a romance, but it’s just as much about Clara and Danielle’s art, or their relationships with their siblings, or their shared love of fandom. If you’re looking for a quick, light, but satisfying read, pick this one up!


Danika reviews Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant

I knew I would like Sugar Town from the cover alone, and from the first page, it didn’t disappoint.

This is a queer, polyamorous, BDSM fluffy love story. Hazel is in an open relationship with her boyfriend, and she bumps into Argent, a confident and kind domme, at a party. They click instantly, and Argent helps Hazel learn more about negotiating polyamorous relationships. All of the relationships are so caring and gentle.

My favourite scene was probably the BDSM scene (which is pretty tame and mostly off-panel, if it concerns you). Argent is using a whip on Hazel when Hazel says “Hang on,” and Argent immediately stops, checks in, and finds out that Hazel pulled something in her back, though she was thoroughly enjoying the scene. They cuddle and watch cooking shows instead. It’s BDSM as a completely consensual, mutual, and even kind activity for partners to enjoy together. That’s something I very rarely see.

Do I keep using the word “kind”? I can’t help it. Sugar Town is a sweet, soft story. Everyone in it treats each other with respect and caring. They check in. They talk about their feelings. Hazel is still figuring out jealousy and other aspects of polyamory, but that’s okay. They’re not simmering underneath, they’re freely discussed. They’re not perfect–Argent mentions experiencing suicidal thoughts, Hazel is self-conscious and doubts herself–but they  are supportive of each other and the rest of the people in their lives, whether they’re friends or partners.

I also loved the art style, which reinforces that warm and welcoming feel. I want to crawl inside the pages and curl up there. This is definitely one of my rare 5 star ratings: I loved every panel, and I know I will return to it when I need something hopeful to dive into for a little while. What a treat.

Danika reviews You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan

you know me well

This book is a romp. Ever since I read Boy Meets Boy, I’ve been looking for a queer women’s equivalent: a cotton candy book that, despite any issues it addresses, fills you with a sense of hope, warmth, and happiness. This book seems to do the trick quite nicely, and it’s no surprise that it’s cowritten by David Levithan himself (though I now have to seek out Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads To You, because if it’s anything like this, it’s a must-read.)

You Know Me Well is told in alternating chapters. Mark is head-over-heels for his best friend, but despite the fact that they’ve been fooling around for years, he still can’t seem to get them in the “relationship” category. Meanwhile, Kate has fallen in love with a girl she’s never met, and is terrified at the chance of actually meeting this mystical, circus traveler, dream girl. They’re both in a topsy-turvy point in their lives when they bump into each other in a bar during Pride. They’ve seen each other at school before, but after this chance meeting, they become the other’s main source of support and guidance for this pivot point in their lives.

The book unfolds in only a week or so, but it’s a week that causes them both to reconsider their lives’ trajectory. They are finding themselves, deciding their priorities, considering whether they want to be whole new people. Having someone new–someone who understands and is also not invested in them staying the same–is hugely affirming for both of them. This is a story celebrating queer friendship, and that’s what is at the heart of it. That’s what makes me want to hug this book. In addition to the main characters, there are many queer minor characters (though, sadly they are [almost?] all white, and there’s not a lot of trans representation).

If you’ve been craving a fluffy read, this one will definitely hit the spot. I think it would be perfect to give to a teenager just coming out as gay or lesbian, because it so hopeful, and it celebrates the queer community. I’m really glad that this book is out there, and I hope that it finds its way into the hands of the people who could use it most.