Mars reviews Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi 

Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi cover

Happy Pride Month, Lesbrarians! I am swooping in from the ether to volunteer this review of Aminah Mae Safi’s much anticipated Tell Me How You Really Feel on this most auspicious month. It’s a charming read, a very well-executed story, and has been on my pre-order list for months.

Safi starts us off with a fact that stands as an overarching conflict of the book: Cheerleader Sana Khan is perfect, and there is no one who finds that more infuriating than her classmate Rachel Recht.

Rachel is a perfectionist filmmaking scholarship student on the fast-track out of her elite private school in Los Angeles to NYU’s film program, where she is going to share her vision with the world. (Accolades will follow, of course.)

Sana is an annoyingly good student on her way to Princeton, where she’ll set herself up perfectly to go on to med school and make her whole family proud (or at least that’s what she’s telling people).

Told alternatingly from Sana and Rachel’s perspectives, Tell Me How You Really Feel recounts the end of the girls’ high school experience, as they both march towards deadlines over which they have no control. For Rachel, it means she has one month to pull together a disaster film project which could jeopardize her hard-won spot at college. Rachel has had her mind made up about Sana, her self-assigned mortal enemy, since an embarrassing incident in freshman year, but after a chance accident means she’s forced to rely on her enemy for help, the film student realizes there is more to the picture than she’s been seeing. For Sana, it means possibly giving up her dream fellowship abroad that she’s secretly applied to in lieu of accepting her spot at Princeton. If she doesn’t get the fellowship by the time she loses her spot at the Ivy league, her carefully constructed house of cards will come crashing down.

This is the sweetest enemies-to-more story I’ve read in a long while, and Rachel and Sana are complicated protagonists whose growth from beginning to end had me both entertained and anticipatory. Rachel and Sana are opposites in so many ways; Rachel spews profanity, has a mean glare, and works at a diner on the other side of the tracks to make ends meet; Sana locks away her discontent with a smile, and has lived a life committed to smoothing over a complicated familial relationship between the high standards of her grandparents and the irreverent independence of her mother. Ultimately, however, they are bound by a shared hunger for more than life wants to give them, and an ambition that leaves them each taking more risks than they ever realized they could.

There are apparently some serious references to Gilmore Girls (referenced very early on in the Dedication, actually) but they all go over my head because I’ve never watched the show. If you are a Gilmore Girls fan, this will apparently be a delightful shout out. If you aren’t, I promise you this is still a lovely read that is worth your time and you won’t feel like you’re missing anything.

Tierney reviews The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr

The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr cover

Published in 1997, The Necessary Hunger is one of those novels that should be on the required reading list for queer women: it so perfectly depicts its protagonist’s emotional journey, impeccably capturing the essence of adolescent passion, basketball, unrequited love, and this particular moment in time in 1980s Los Angeles.

The novel is told from Nancy’s point of view, as she looks back on her adolescence many years later: she tells the story of her coming of age in the mid-1980s as a Japanese-American star basketball player, as she navigates her feelings for Raina, an African-American star player from another school, who actually ends up as her step-sister of sorts when Nancy’s dad and Raina’s mom get together, and they all move in together.

This plot point that could take a turn for the comedic is instead conveyed beautifully and movingly: it adds such an achingly sharp edge to Nancy’s unreciprocated feelings for Raina, her longing for a person so near and yet so far from her. Raina herself is queer, and has a good-for-nothing girlfriend who she nevertheless can’t seem to quit – adding another torturous dimension to Nancy’s feelings (and putting the novel a cut above the tired “pining for a straight girl” trope). Through this specific, awkward, beautiful lens, Revoyr deftly portrays such ubiquitous teenage feelings: yearning, discomfort, infatuation, listlessness – the roller coaster of unrequited love.

Nancy, and the novel, are both so much more than just her love for Raina (though that love is certainly the source of her most intense emotions, and is the novel’s  main thread): while negotiating these feelings, she is simultaneously navigating classes, playing high school basketball as a star player on a highly-ranked team, and trying to figure out college plans, while parrying the impassioned advances of the college coaches who are courting her. The Necessary Hunger is infused with so much love that it’s contagious – the characters’ very emotions and passions become infectious, thanks to Revoyr’s skill at hitting all the right emotional notes through Nancy’s enticing and conversational first-person narrative. I know almost nothing about basketball, and don’t particularly care much for sports, but was riveted throughout the entire novel, basketball and all, because of Nancy’s passion and tone.

And Nancy’s love for her friends is just as appealing as her love for the game: her friends round out the novel as an engrossing and effervescent cast of characters, many of whom are queer themselves. Though the story is told from Nancy’s point of view, she sometimes gives brief, poignant insights into what the future holds for certain characters, since the entire novel is a look back on her adolescence from adulthood. This story is Nancy’s, but it also feels much wider than that – The Necessary Hungerarrestingly captures a specific place in time.

Through it all, there is the backdrop of the city of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and its own particular social climate. Nancy’s experience as a Japanese-American girl (and then a member of a multiracial blended family) in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, her experience as a young queer woman of color, her experience navigating race and class with basketball teams from white, well-off school districts, her experience facing the privilege afforded by a basketball scholarship that is all but certain are all confronted head-on. The Necessary Hunger showcases Nancy’s life and identity, and those of her friends and family, in a way that feels straightforward and fully realized. 

The Necessary Hunger is a queer classic. If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend going out and finding a copy as soon as you can: Nancy’s story and journey and heartache are simultaneously so specifically hers, and so beautifully universal. 

Megan Casey reviews The Wombat Strategy by Claire McNab

wombatstrategy

Kylie Kendall, newly arrived in L.A. from a small-town in Australia, is a fresh catch compared to cold-fish, Sydney-based Carol Ashton, the protagonist of McNab’s first lesbian mystery series. To expend the metaphor, The Wombat Strategy is a pretty good catch.

Kylie has grown up in Australia, working in her mother’s pub in Wollegudgerie. But when her American father dies and leaves her his 51 percent of a private investigation business in Los Angeles, California, Kylie jumps at the chance to jump ship and head for the states. Of course, having been dumped by her girlfriend for a hairdresser might have helped, too.

When the junior partner of the business politely tries to buy her out, Kylie refuses and decides that she wants to be a PI too. The fact that this junior partner, Ariana Creeling,, is a bombshell, might have helped in Kylie’s decision, too. But Ariana agrees to sponsor her and Kylie’s nationality comes in handy almost at once when a famous Australian self-help guru hires Kendall and Creeling to solve a mystery involving the disappearance of highly confidential patient records—records that might be used to blackmail certain famous clients.

The mystery is believable enough, especially with the strange Hollywood types who seem to flock to the quack doctor for therapy. Kylie proves herself to be not only smart, but able to take care of herself in dangerous situations—criminal or sexual.

Unlike the relatively lifeless Carol Ashton, Kylie brings health to these pages with her enthusiasm and her Australian euphemisms, which McNab lays on maybe a little too thick. Kylie is a quick study and catches onto the PI business in short order. Ariana is mysteriously aloof and professional, and the rest of the staff are interesting in their own ways. Fran, the office manager, is pretty, dour, and a relative of Ariana’s. Melody, the receptionist, is less at her desk than away at casting calls. There are also a few other members of the staff with their own areas of expertise.

Although I hadn’t noticed this in McNab’s Ashton series, the names she gives certain things are often excellent. The self-help guru has a system he calls “Slap slap Get on with it.” And the movie titles of a couple of filmmakers make me want to go out and watch them; I mean, if they really existed. A TV reality show has incognito angels competing with humans for viewer votes.

I like the title, too, which is a spoof on Robert Ludlum titles. Kylie is kind of like a wombat, small but determined and feisty.  I think that what sets this book—and this series—out from most lesbian mysteries is its lightheartedness and its ultimate disposability. In other words it’s a perfect novel to pick up when you can’t decide what to read.

Bottom line? Kylie is refreshing not only compared to Carol Ashton, but compared to most other lesbian sleuths as well. A good beach read that you may want to keep instead of throwing away. And here’s another thing: if you have a stack of books that is so large as to seem imposing, then the next Kylie Kendall mystery may be the one that works its way into your hand. Call this one a 3.7–closer to a 4 than to a 3. Fair dinkum.

For other reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries