Cara reviews Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

not your sidekick

The premise of Not Your Sidekick has promise that the execution, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to. The best part of the book is the characterization of the protagonist and her love interest, but everything else falls short.

The book opens as Jess, the protagonist and first-person narrator, tests herself for superpowers in the desert near her home, then follows her home and into school to exposit the setting and to establish her relationships with her family and her two best friends. The biggest problem with this opening is that it’s boring, and to be honest, I almost gave up on the book altogether before I hit the key event that sets off the plot, midway through Chapter 3.

The relationships are boring because they’re stereotypical. Her parents are superheroes, but in other respects they’re East Asian parents who expect Jess to do well in school. She has an older sister, Claudia, who has superpowers stronger than their parents and whom Jess idolizes. She has an annoying younger brother who’s an engineering prodigy. We’re made to understand that Jess feels like the black sheep of her family, but there’s no emotional depth to it, no strong resentment, ambition, rebelliousness, alienation, or anything else you’d expect in someone who feels like a disappointment to her parents and inferior to her siblings. Likewise, her friendships feel superficial. We never learn why she’s friends with Bells or Emma or any of the emotional history that presumably binds them together. Unfortunately, this lack of emotional impact never gets better.

The world building could have saved the opening, but it’s boring too. The US, we learn, has been absorbed into the “North American Collective” and Vietnam into the “Southeast Asian Alliance.” This is unlikely at best, because countries are durable. The US has survived for 250 years, including two world wars and a civil war. Vietnam has existed in some form since around 938 CE, despite being conquered by China and France and fighting a bloody war against the US. When countries do change, it’s more common for them to fragment rather than combine. The enormous difficulty that the European Union has had in achieving even the limited amount of agreement it has and the disintegration of the Soviet Union after 1991 are instructive examples. How did these massive upheavals happen? Meanwhile, we also find out World War III took place, but nothing about who fought it, what started it, how was it fought, or who won, if anyone. Even though Jess and the other characters were born long after the war, even sixty years after World War II ended, references to specifics about it (Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pearl Harbor—these are are examples for the US, other countries have different common knowledge) are ubiquitous, even if often biased toward a particular nationalistic perspective on the conflict. The rest of the world building isn’t much better, and the lack of depth in politics and history weakens the rest of the story as well.

The best part is the midsection, which is focused on Jess’s job and her developing relationship with Abby. Jess shows more emotion here, and we learn more about how she feels about the people in her life, including her cute crush on Abby. Their interactions alternate between sweet and amusing, and I will never get tired of romances between women where homophobia plays no role at all. If the whole book had been this, it would have worked much better.

Two revelations in the midsection, that Abby is M and that Bells is Kid Chameleon were so obvious to me that it makes Jess seem dense. Maybe Lee is thinking that teenaged readers won’t make those connections as fast, but even when I was a teenager, I saw through such transparent attempts at concealment, so I’m skeptical.

The last part of the book, starting around Chapter 9, is less boring than the opening but no less problematic.

 

Spoilers

Some of the writing falls short. When we could have a climactic fight between Miss Mischief and Orion, instead we get, Mischief is brutal. She fights ruthlessly with Orion, whose superstrength damages the walls, and the entire house shakes with their battle, which is telling rather than showing if I’ve ever seen it. In an earlier fight, Claudia injects an unrestrained Abby with a syringe, even though stabbing someone, much less getting the fluid into them, is extremely difficult if they’re not cooperative and not strapped down.

These deficiencies aren’t the worst of it, though. We learn that all the heroes and villains are involved in a conspiracy where none of the fights are real, the heroes are in league with the North American Collective’s government, and the government is also intervening in foreign wars. I wasn’t surprised because, since there are no mentions of elections or other democratic systems, I’d already assumed that the North American Collective was authoritarian. Meanwhile, it’s also now imprisoning and experimenting on the villains and trying to use MonRobots for surveillance and assassination. I think Lee is trying to justify the superhero convention where conflicts between superheroes and villains don’t result in death, but none of the logic fits together here. Jess and her friends might be excused for not knowing they live under an autocratic government because they’re teenagers, but the adults would know. When villains started disappearing, the other villains would draw the obvious conclusion and the implicit bargain that keeps the conspiracy functioning would break down. Why were the other villains so passive, leaving Abby to do something? Meanwhile, even though Abby’s attempt to reveal the conspiracy becomes a major plot point, we don’t learn anything about the government, who has the power, or how it maintains control over everyone else. The heroes’ powers are not strong enough to defeat 21st-century level military technology much less 22nd-level technology, so if they’re running the government, how do they keep control? Who runs the military and the police, and why are they loyal to the heroes or whoever’s actually in charge?

Another major problem is that as the story veers into prison, human experimentation, torture, and autocratic government, the tone never changes to reflect how serious this is. Claudia depowers Abby, but how Abby feels about this is never addressed. For someone who’s had her powers for years, if not as long as she can remember, losing them would be like losing her sight or a limb. I think Lee means to convey that powers aren’t what gives a person moral value, which is true but irrelevant to what it would feel like for Abby to lose her powers. Adapting to a major disability is not easy and takes time. Claudia tells Jess, Your own person? You’re nothing but a byproduct of an experiment! … Maybe you should ask our parents what they’ve been keeping from you. I mean, they didn’t seem surprised at all when you didn’t get any powers, did they? Like they knew you wouldn’t?, but Jess never asks her parents about this, never even decides that Claudia is lying or think to herself that she doesn’t want to know the truth or any other reaction. Jess rejects Claudia’s offer to be her sidekick, but doesn’t feel anything else toward her, not even after Claudia maims Abby’s powers. Likewise, at the end of the story everything goes back to normal, even though Orion knows they broke Miss Michief out of prison and stole information from her DED. None of the adults or the teenagers express fear that the government is going to kill them or lock them up, frustration that they can’t reveal the government’s lies because they don’t have Abby’s powers, betrayal at the lies they’ve learned about, or anything else.

Along with this lack of seriousness is out-of-place humor. Orion never remembers Claudia’s name, and while Lee obviously wants this to show how little regard Orion has for Claudia, it comes off as silly and jarring in context. Orion and Claudia are such one-note villains that it’s impossible to take them seriously. Orion is a stereotype of a clueless, privileged white person, and the only motivation Claudia ever displays is a desire for power. They don’t carry the either side of the conflict.

 

Ultimately, it was the dissonance between the plot and the emotional resonance that left me unsatisfied with Not Your Sidekick, and I don’t recommend it.

Korri reviews Sister Mischief by Laura Goode

SisterMischief

Sister Mischief is a coming of age young adult novel about a group of friends who form the titular hip hop group in the predominantly white suburb of Holyhill, Minnesota. It’s narrated by wordsmith Esme, whose footnotes scattered throughout the book reveal the contents of text messages, lyrics scribbled in her notebook, and drop backstory in the form of memories the group shares on each other’s Facebook walls. The narrative is punctuated by earnest conversations during car drives where the girls weigh in on misogyny and racism in lyrics, if it is cultural appropriation for white girls in the affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities to love hip hop music, and if it is possible to reclaim the word bitch in rap music.

Each of the friends grapple with their identities and relationships over the course of the book: Esme is Jewish but without her mother around she doesn’t know what that means. She is out to her friends and when she finds herself falling for Rowie she is uncomfortable keeping their relationship under wraps. Tessa tries to balance her religious faith against the hypocritical and mean “Christians” she knows from church while Rowie, who usually likes boys, struggles with her feelings for Esme and the pressure from her Bengali family. Marce, who doesn’t understand why her best friend Esme never spends time with her any more, lets the slurs she receives because of the androgynous/masculine-of-center way she presents roll off her back. The four girls are bound together by their love of listening to, writing, and performing hip hop music.

The new Holyhill High School code of conduct bans rap music and “any apparel associated with this violence-producing culture,” which spurs the girls to form a queer-friendly group to discuss hip hop in an academic setting: 4H (Hip Hop for Heteros and Homos). The administration is not pleased with the idea. Shortly thereafter Esme and Rowie kiss while high in kiss in Rowie’s tree house. Before long the nights get darker earlier and Esme is sneaking over every night to make love to Rowie in the tree house. Rowie wants to keep their relationship quiet because the hetero/homo hip hop alliance has people questioning. When Esme says that that is exactly what the group is meant to do, Rowie points out that their classmates are less interested in lyrics and social attitudes than speculating about members’ sexual identities. Esme and Rowie’s relationship is revealed around the same time a 4H meeting is firebombed, leaving the future of each uncertain.

The author Laura Goode introduces readers to an engaging voice in Esme. She reminds me of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s witty and ambitious Alexander Hamilton: Esme writes like she’s running out of time. In her own words, she is “becoming the author of my own chaos” and she feels “like there’s so much work to do, so much time and so little all the same…. Time to create and re-create myself and everything I create.” I raced through this book and thoroughly enjoyed my time with the close-knit cast of characters.

 

Cara reviews Ex-Wives of Dracula by Georgette Kaplan

ex wives of dracula

This is one of the best lesbian vampire books I’ve ever read. While not without its flaws, it stands out for the development of its two protagonists, its prose, its humor, and its well-developed setting.

Mindy and Lucia start off by rekindling their childhood friendship on Mindy’s pizza routes, in the easy way that friendships develop when you’re that age and don’t need to make plans to spend time with people. While the characters are in high school, though, Ex-Wives of Dracula doesn’t feel at all like a young-adult book, rather more like a classic bildungsroman, colored with an adult perspective on being young. Soon, Mindy confesses that she’s been questioning if she’s gay to Lucia. Mindy’s doubts feel real. To me it’s obvious she’s into girls, but it’s exactly the same way my sexuality was a riddle to my high-school self yet so obvious in hindsight. Then, Lucia breaks up with her boyfriend. Then, Lucia kisses Mindy. Then, she gets back together with her boyfriend. Then, she gets turned into a vampire.

Lucia’s hot-and-cold, off-and-on affections should be familiar to any queer woman who’s had her heart broken by a straight girl. Lucia’s not so straight, though, and the clues are there from the start.

“I really tried with him,” Lucia said. Her voice wasn’t rattling with
emotion any more, it was just quiet. Which was even worse. “I really
thought I was a good girlfriend. I was gonna—wash his clothes and fix
him pies and shit. I would’ve done anything to be a good girlfriend.”

“You were a great girlfriend,” Mindy assured her. “He’s just an
idiot. He’s an idiot who never even got to know you well enough to
know what he’s gonna be missing. He’s gonna be big and fat at the high
school reunion, and you’re going to be super-hot and married to a
senator. He won’t even know why he let you get away.”

“I did anal!” Lucia cried to the florescent lights. “What more is a
girl supposed to do, huh?”

We learn, though, that Lucia’s ambiguity has at least as much to do with her feeling inferior to Mindy—dumber and poorer—as it does with internalized homophobia. She hurts Mindy not because she’s deliberately toying with her, but because she doesn’t know how to deal with a relationship on top of her family’s dysfunction and her own uncertainties about her future.

Mindy works out much faster that she likes girls and is more together, but she’s flawed too. When Lucia confesses that the reason she doesn’t want to drink Mindy’s blood is because she’ll lose control, Mindy convinces her otherwise, then hypocritically blames Lucia when, later in the book, she does lose control. Mindy is also certain that Lucia is wrong about something that Lucia is right about, with tragic consequences for everyone involved.

The dialog is often hilarious, and moments of humor mark the rest of the book too. It veers from the absurd, like Lucia going through Mindy’s list of bad tippers to find people to feed on, to the silly, like when Mindy disinvites Lucia to pretend to be hitting her with a hadouken, to the dark: This is why communication is so important, she said to Lucia. Imagine, thinking I had something against murderous rampages… Kaplan uses the humor well to contrast the serious and sometimes horrific elements in the rest of the novel.

Kaplan writes a lot of great descriptions, and some of the best come in the horror scenes. When Lucia confronts the vampire the first time:

He pulled. She bit. The skin gave and his blood flooded her mouth. It
wasn’t warm, it wasn’t salty. It was cold and thick, knotted like old
cough syrup. She wouldn’t release her hold on him to spit it out. She
swallowed and felt it all the way down her esophagus, cold and
heavy. It sat in the pit of her stomach like she’d eaten dry ice.

When Lucia shows up at Mindy’s house afterward:

Out in the hallway, she gasped so hard she nearly dropped the
tray. The footprints Mindy had so assiduously cleaned up, with Swiffer
mops and Resolve Spot & Stain, were still there in ghostly
form. They’d metastasized into mushrooms with long, slender stalks and
caps the size of tennis balls, with small siblings alongside them. The
patches of fungus went up the stairs. One for each step Lucia had
taken.

One of my complaints about lesbian genre literature in general is that the prose is often not good, and I love to find novels that I enjoy reading just for the writing.

Her descriptions capture suburban Texas well, and the football-obsessed high school and town surrounding reminded me of the town I lived in in high school. [Spoilers next] The idea that one of those towns would welcome a vampire, as long as he was a good football coach, is scarily plausible to me. I also liked the way that Kaplan wove real-life life horror, an adult man who obsesses over a teenaged girl and interprets her actions as romantic love, into the character of the vampire; and that when Lucia revealed vampire existence to use it against the vampire who turned her, and the rest of the novel didn’t ignore this like it never happened.

One modern vampire trope in this novel that bugs me is vampires that can cross miles in seconds, with no mention of sonic booms or problems with ground shattering beneath their feet. (I think Twilight popularized this trope, but I don’t think it originated there.) Two other flaws are spoilers.

 

 

 

Spoilers

Seb starts off as comic relief, a FunnyForeigner from Romania. This is always a fraught trope, and I have mixed feelings about how Kaplan uses it here. Later, he’s arguably StuffedInTheFridge to make Mindy surrender herself to the vampire. The reason I say “arguably” is because, at least in my interpretation of the trope, one of its key properties is the lack of agency in the character’s death. Without this, it’s too easy to call every character death an example, because a death without any impact on any character isn’t going to have an impact on the reader, either. Seb puts himself in danger to save Mindy, so he has agency in his own death. Another point is that killing off a straight male character to motivate a not-straight female character doesn’t have the same baggage as the reverse. That said, this all is enough to trouble me, so I’d call it a flaw.

I also wish the ending had shown a little more of Mindy and Lucia’s future together, to indicate that maybe a two-vampire relationship would work out and that they could find some sort of happiness together. That is, however, a quibble. There’s not much more serious commitment than what Mindy does for Lucia, after all.