Meagan Kimberly reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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The book starts with The Story of Mary MacLane, a real-life figure in writing. It’s this book that the girls of Brookhants School for Girls center their Plain Bad Heroines Society around. But when three girls die and the book is found at both death scenes, it soon becomes a feared object. Even the women who run the school, Libbie Brookhants and Alexandra Trills, partners, have different experiences with the curse. Jumping to the modern-day, the contemporary heroines, author Merritt Emmons and actors Harper Harper and Audrey Hall, are working to bring the story of Brookhants to life.

Each generation of stories tied to Brookhants finds girls exploring their sexuality and following their desires. But it’s also a place where tragedy befalls so many of the heroines who only wanted to live freely. The horror of Brookhants embodies the curse that is the patriarchy against queer women.

Through the contemporary storyline, Danforth explores the exploitative nature of horror. The characters set out to tell the story of Brookhants and the tragic deaths, but their director, Bo, turns it into a found-footage documentary about the making of the movie. To do so, he engages in unethical behaviors and gaslighting.

Overall, the novel is never terrifying so much as it is atmospheric and creepy. It’s the epitome of Gothic horror, creating an environment that messes with the characters’ sense of reality. It makes the reader question whether or not they’re actually experiencing hauntings or if it’s all simply in their heads.

SPOILERS BEGIN

After so much build-up though with the curse of Brookhants, the yellow jackets and Orangerie events, the ending is anticlimactic. When establishing his plan to create a documentary, Bo enlisted Audrey to be his “inside woman,” telling her she’d be the only one who knew this plan. But it turned out they all knew what was happening and no one was really out of the loop. So it begged the question: Did any hauntings actually happen?

SPOILER ENDS

Among the characters, there aren’t any particularly great protagonists to root for, which is the point. The women aren’t plain bad heroines, but they’re not pillars of virtue and goodness either. They’re human, messy, capable of making good and bad decisions, and simply interesting. It’s hard not to become engrossed in their lives, even if they can be frustrating.

Danforth expertly created unlikable characters, especially with Bo and all the Hollywood types. They definitely give meaning to the phrase La La Land. Everyone in the three heroines’ circles has an agenda and openly uses and manipulates them, all for the sake of art. It’s this kind of toxic behavior that makes it easy to sympathize with Audrey, Harper and Merritt, even when they’re at their worst.

The writing is deft as Danforth switches back and forth between the timelines. The voice for each character is distinct, including the unnamed narrator. It’s even distinguished between the different timelines, the voice adapting to each era from historical to contemporary. 

8 Sapphic Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror Audio Dramas

Voracious readers love a good story, and audio dramas could be considered book adjacent. If you’re fond of audiobooks, then podcasts are the next step. Here are a few audio stories featuring sapphic characters that span across the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres, perfect for the spooky season.

Unwell, a Midwestern Gothic

Unwell logo

This creepy tale of a woman who moves back to her childhood hometown to look after her ailing mother contains paranormal activity, a cult, hauntings, ghosts and a lesbian romance. It also has a cast of quirky characters that fall into the beloved found family trope.

Within the Wires

From the team that brought you Welcome to Nightvale, this audio drama covers a different set of characters each season, but all the narratives overlap. Throughout most seasons, there are various queer characters, including bi+ and polyamorous representation. All the stories tell the history of a dystopia where the government dictates who and what makes a family.

Alice Isn’t Dead

the logo of Alice Isn't Dead

Follow the travel log of a truck driver as she crosses America in search of her wife. Along the way, she encounters strange happenings that all point toward a national conspiracy. And mixed up in it all, is her missing wife. (Editor’s note: this was also adapted into a book!)

The Strange Case of Starship Iris

The year is 2189, and Earth has just barely won a war against extraterrestrials. What comes after that is a story spanning outer space, resistance, survival, loyalties, romance and a few jokes along the way.

Adventures in New America

the logo of Adventures in New America

An Afrofuture sci-fi, buddy comedy with political satire makes this a fun and clever romp through New America. The story follows best friends IA and Simon Carr as they take on heists that become increasingly higher stakes as they try to make money for IA’s medical treatment. They become entangled with a secret cabal of terrorist vampire zombies from outer space.

Crossing Wires

Featuring queer women, nonbinary and genderqueer characters, this story has a good mix of representation. In a post-apocalyptic world, the people who have often been marginalized survive the end times and find connection, all through radio transmissions and broadcasts.

Violet Beach

logo for Violet Beach

On New Year’s Day 2018, seven teens meet at a party where they witness the sky over Maryland turn purple. They keep in touch, communicating about the strange, sci-fi happenings going on around them that become less fiction every day. There are bisexual women, lesbians, and other women-loving women characters to round out the queer cast.

Archive 81

As Dan Powell listens to the found footage of journalist Melody Pendras’ investigation into the mysterious Visser building, he quickly realizes something is amiss about his new employer. Melody’s story is a major focus of season 1 as she interviews the building’s residents and learns about the strange things that go on there.

Meagan Kimberly is a Latinx writer, poet, traveler, and reader who identifies as bisexual. She holds a B.A. in creative writing from UCF and an M.B.A. in marketing from NSU. When she’s not engaged in the aforementioned activities, she can be found yelling and crying at her TV over fictional people that break her heart. You can find her on TwitterInstagram, and Tumblr, or follow her blog here.

Her Lesbrary reviews can be found here.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger by Roxane Gay

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I posted a previous version of this review here. Trigger warnings for sexual assault and eating disorders.

Roxane Gay is an author known for her sharp and insightful thoughts on feminism and pop culture, as well as an established novelist and short fiction creator. This memoir added to her repertoire is no different.

With a book of essays dedicated to her personal body struggles, how she came to the relationship she has today with her body and herself, and a critical look at fatphobia, Hunger is brutal yet vulnerable. She makes a point early on to say that this isn’t a before and after story. This isn’t a story of triumph, of becoming overweight and fighting to lose it, and you won’t see a picture of her on the cover suddenly thin and glamorous. But this is a true story, and as I read it, I felt like it is many people’s story.

Since the first book of essays I read by her, Bad Feminist, Gay has been open about the sexual assault she endured as a child. She doesn’t shy away from it now, and in fact, goes into even more heartbreaking detail in this memoir than in Bad Feminist.

She starts her essays in this book with a look at her happy childhood and healthy family relationships, painting a picture of why she should have been a confident and strong girl, self-possessed. At least, that’s how I interpreted it, because I believe so many of us have been there. Like Gay, many of us look back on our lives and think, “Nothing happened that should have derailed my confidence or self-esteem, so why did I think so little of myself?” With simple sentence structures and plain language, Gay puts into words with such frightening honesty what it’s like in someone’s head. She doesn’t have the answers to our questions, nor to her own, but that’s not what she set out to do with Hunger.

As you read, you see her journey influenced by the terrible incidents of her past and how they shaped her relationship with food and her body. In an attempt to control what happened to her body, Gay details how she had to lose control of it in order to feel safe. She continuously explains in various chapters of the book that she ate because if she ate, she’d gain size, and if she gained size, she wouldn’t be so small and weak and easily taken over. Then again, she eats to fill the void, to satisfy the hollow left inside from the hands of callous boys who probably grew up to be abhorrent men, but no matter what she eats, it does not satisfy. It does not satiate. It just keeps leaving her hungry.

What this memoir is about goes beyond hunger of the body, though the body is the vessel we take to journey through her various desires. She hungers for food. She hungers for comfort. She hungers for safety. She hungers for warmth. She hungers to be understood. She hungers for love. In short, she is a person, like all of us. All too often the world forgets that about fat people and acts like we don’t want the same things everyone else does; like we don’t deserve those same things. Hunger is a reminder to Gay herself and to others like her, that shaping the mind is just as important as shaping the body. More importantly, it is a necessity to be kind to ourselves as much as we are kind to others. It’s alright to hunger, but don’t let it consume you.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn, illustrated by Claire Roe

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

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Madison Jackson started as an intern at The Boston Lede, fetching coffee and grabbing quotes for senior writers. But she finds herself thrust into the spotlight when Dahlia Kennedy, a prominent socialite charged with a gruesome murder, latches onto her. Madison must decide how far she’s willing to go and how much to trust Dahlia to get her shot at becoming an ace reporter.

The story starts strong, pulling the reader in with the mystery. A constant back and forth of whether or not Dahlia actually committed the murder creates a palpable tension that moves the mystery forward. But about halfway through, the push and pull without any clear evolution in sight for the characters becomes tedious. After so much buildup on the mystery, when the truth comes to light, it’s more a relief than satisfying.

While the overall plot falls flat, Dunn does capture the newsroom politics well. It’s the nature of these dynamics that define Madison’s character development throughout the story. She starts as a typical, shy intern and it seems like she’s going to make a name for herself. But the path she takes to do that leads to selfish decisions that hurt others, making her a rather unlikeable character.

Unlikeability in a character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but between her devolving character arc and the tiresome plot, it doesn’t leave much for the reader to root for. Especially because most of the characters are unlikeable. The diversity of supporting characters made the story feel real, but there was very little to like about most of them.

The artwork helps keep the story moving even after the pacing starts to fall short. Vibrant colors make every panel pop on its own. And yet it has a style that still feels very noir, keeping in line with the mystery genre.

Bury the Lede is a solid 3 stars because it did keep me entertained for the most part.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Shadow Life cover

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Kumiko, a 76-year-old widow, leaves the assisted living facility her adult daughters put her in because it just wasn’t for her. She wants to maintain whatever independence she can for as long as she can. She feels death coming for her, but it’s too soon. So, when death’s shadow tries to take her before her time, Kumiko fights back.

It’s so refreshing to see an older bisexual character. I have not come across many older characters in general, let alone queer ones, but maybe I’m not reading the right books. Regardless, Kumiko is a delightful main character. She’s quirky and saucy in a way that you can see how she charms some people and irritates others.

The story focuses mostly on Kumiko’s battle with the shadow of Death that has come to take her away. But threaded throughout you also get a glimpse of her relationship with her daughters in the present and flashbacks of her time with her husband, who died in a car accident. For anyone who’s dealt with being a caretaker of an older parent or grandparent, it’s easy to understand the daughters’ perspective, seeing how easily frustrated she is by Kumiko. But in telling the story from Kumiko’s point of view, Goto brings a lot of empathy for the parent’s point of view. Kumiko simply wants to live her life, even if she will start needing more help and supervision soon.

As Kumiko battles Death’s shadow, we get a fun cast of characters that include a surly vacuum storekeeper and her sweet neighbor that looks out for her. She is also reunited with her old flame, Alice. It’s here that the story reveals her bisexuality and it’s even revealed to her daughters. Her eldest is taken by surprise but they don’t make a big deal out of her sexuality itself, so much as the fact that she never told them. Kumiko asserts that it wasn’t something she hid, she just never talked about her past relationships.

I’m not usually captivated by black and white comics, but in this case, it works. And most of the graphic novel takes place through the panel artwork with very little dialogue. In fact, there’s one moment that stands out to convey and affirm Kumiko’s identity as a Japanese Canadian woman. There’s a panel that includes dialogue in Japanese characters and provides no translation. It’s a moment where the reader is made an outsider in the way that people marginalized by white, English-speaking cultures are usually othered. Even though I have no idea what words were spoken there, I didn’t need to. It didn’t detract from the overall story.

No spoilers for how it ends, but all in all, a bewitching tale with fun characters you feel invested in.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka cover

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Detective Roxane Weary is hired to prove a man’s innocence before his death sentence is completed for a crime he’s been claiming he didn’t commit. As she investigates what seems like an open and shut case, she starts to unravel a web of crimes that have gone undetected for decades. When another young girl goes missing, Roxane knows she has very little time to solve them all and save her client’s brother from a fate he doesn’t deserve.

Overall, this is a fast-paced story that keeps you turning the pages, wondering who is the true culprit of the crimes in question. Somewhere halfway, it goes off-road, but eventually, it leads back to the main mystery at hand. However, while it touches the surface of issues of racism and police brutality, it never delves into them. The man in prison for the murder of a white woman is a black man. Roxane briefly acknowledges the implications of how racism could have played a hand in the investigation and sentencing. But it doesn’t go beyond that, as it gets lost in her obsessive need to unravel the mystery of so many women presumed missing.

Roxane Weary is a messy and complicated character. I kept making the connection to Marvel’s Jessica Jones, a private eye with alcohol addiction who is still very good at her job. Roxane isn’t necessarily a great person, but she’s not necessarily a bad person either. In fact, she’s rather endearing in her imperfections, even if her behavior can sometimes frustrate the reader. She’s depicted as having casual relationships with men and women, but it’s never described as the stereotypical, “All bisexuals are cheaters.” She’s just a trainwreck because she hasn’t coped with the trauma of her difficult childhood and the recent loss of her father.

The Last Place You Look has a compelling mystery with an intriguing character. It’s a fair set up for a different player in the mystery-thriller genre.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

This is the second in the Tales from the Grim series. I picked it up not realizing it was the second book, so I recommend reading the first, because it felt like much of the story’s background was missing without it.

Although readers can pick up on who the characters are from the previous book without having read it, they still lack depth. Throughout the story, the strongest relationship dynamic happens between Margo and her adopted brother Luis. The rest tend to fall flat and rely on previous knowledge of the last novel.

The romance felt secondary to the plot, but that may be because it didn’t feel like there was much chemistry between the characters. Even if there had been build up in the first book, this one felt lacking in the connection that brought them together.

The politics and magic of the world were a more interesting plot. Again, it needed more development, as there wasn’t much background on Margo’s djinn heritage. It’s a world in which mixed-blood, paranormal beings are held in disdain, which could have made the story powerful as commentary on real-world issues. But it never delved far enough.

Despite its shortcomings, the novel did move at a fast pace and keep me intrigued. It’s well written and keeps you turning the pages. It shows there’s great potential for more from this world and this writer. I might go back and read book 1 to get the complete picture of these characters and their story.

Meagan Kimberly reviews You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.

The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.

As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.

The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.

She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.

It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.

I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.

[Spoiler warning]

Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee audiobook cover

Jess Tran comes from superhero parents and has an older sister with powers, but she did not inherit this gene. She decides to find her own way in a world of metahumans and superpowers and ends up at an internship working for The Mischiefs, her parents’ and the city of Andover’s nemeses. However, everything is not what it seems in the world of superpowers, heroes, and villains. With the help of her crush Abby and her friends, Jess sets out to find and reveal the truth.

One of the more refreshing aspects of the story is how Lee handles Jess’ coming out. It’s casually stated when she tells a brief story of a flashback to English class during her earlier high school years. From there, it’s simply a part of who she is and not a narrative point in which the plot revolves around.

The story deals a lot with being exceptional, and it’s weaved deftly within the world-building. In a world where metahumans were created by X29 after the Disasters, it’s easy to see why Jess feels inadequate, especially compared to her superhero parents and sister. Even though her younger brother doesn’t exhibit metahuman powers either, he’s also a child prodigy. Jess finding a way to know her value without exceptional traits makes her a protagonist to root for.

Lee’s world-building gets woven throughout the plot, which readers can appreciate. However, there are often more questions than answers to many of the details she brings up. Through Jess’s point of view, we learn about World War III, the Disasters, the creation of the North American Collective, and other similar governments around the world. But aside from a history book lesson, the reader doesn’t learn much.

An argument can be made though that this is done on purpose because it’s coming from Jess. She only knows what they’ve taught her in school, and up until now, she hadn’t questioned what she was taught. As she unfurls as a character and starts to realize the world she’s been fed is a lie, that’s when she questions the Collective, the hero/villain dichotomy, and her place in it all.

The blossoming romance between Abby and Jess is absolutely adorable. Everything from the squishy feelings of a crush to the first kiss to their comfortable jokes together creates a realistic and loveable relationship growth. There’s a scene in particular when Abby sleeps over and the tension is so well written.

Overall, a lot of plot points were obvious to the reader, though not obvious to Jess. But even so, it was a lot of fun to read. And the way it ends leaves the readers wanting more of the world, which is good because it’s the first in a series.

7 Young Adult Sapphic Books With Latinx Representation

Sapphic Latinx Young Adult Books graphic

The sapphic spectrum runs far and wide, which is why it’s important to remember to add a little diversity to your reading list. You may have missed some of these spectacular reads as your never-ending TBR pile grows.

Diamond City by Francesca FloreDiamond City and Shadow City by Francesca Flores

Two for one! The first book in the Diamond and Steel duology, Diamond City, follows Aina Solís as she becomes an assassin to survive after her parents’ murder. Diamond City is a place filled with darkness, tyranny and magic, and Aina must find a way to live in a world that wants her dead.

The sequel, Shadow City, was just released today (January 26, 2021). It continues Aina’s story as she struggles to gain control of an assassin empire after fighting her way to the top of the criminal ranks.

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida CordovaLabyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

The first in the Brooklyn Brujas trilogy follows middle sister Alex Mortiz as she quickly approaches her Death Day, a bruja’s right of passage in this magical world. Terrified of her powers and wanting to be rid of them, Alex casts a Canto with devastating consequences. She must fight her way through the magical realm of Los Lagos to rescue her family before it’s too late to save them.

The Summer of Jordi PerezThe Summer of Jordi Pérez by Amy Spalding

Abby Ives has always been satisfied with playing sidekick to others’ stories. She’s content to run her plus-size style blog as she dreams of shaking up the fashion world. But one summer, everything changes. She lands a dream internship at a local boutique and falls for fellow intern Jordi Pérez. Things can’t be so simple of course, as they develop feelings for each other as they both compete for a coveted job at the shop after the internship ends.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby RiveraJuliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Juliet Milagros Palante comes out to her mom and isn’t sure she’ll ever speak to her again. But that doesn’t stop her from leaving the Bronx to go to Portland, Oregon for an internship with her favorite author, Harlowe Brisbane.

It’s a life-changing summer for Juliet as she navigates the whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing and finds herself. A classic coming of age tale.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay MejiaWe Set the Dark on Fire and We Unleash the Merciless Storm by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Another double set! In We Set the Dark on Fire, Daniela Vargas, a student at Medio School for Girls, lives in a society that defines her place as a woman in two ways only: running a husband’s household or raising his children. But she’s living a lie, as her parents forged papers to get her into this school, and she must keep the secret as her upcoming nuptials to a politico’s son quickly approach. She has to decide if she upholds everything her parents fought for or if she will choose another path for herself.

The follow-up book, We Unleash the Merciless Storm, is Carmen Santos’ story. On the other side of Medio, the oppressed fight for their freedom. Carmen is committed to the resistance group, La Voz. So much so she’s spent years undercover, but now that her cover is blown, she must return her home to an island on the brink of civil war. Carmen must choose between breaking away from her community to save the girl she loves or embracing her full, rebel identity.

What are your favorite bi or lesbian Latina YA books? Let us know what we missed in the comments!