Sponsored Review: Danika reviews The Buddha of Lightning Peak by Yudron Wangmo

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Within a few chapters of starting The Buddha of Lightning Peak, I thought I understood where the story was going: Plucky teenager takes on corporation to save the environment! Having been environmentally-focused as a teenager, this was a plot that would have been just fine by me. By the midway point of the book, however, it was obvious this wouldn’t be the Disney Channel version of that narrative.

Dee is a black lesbian teenager with a lot on her plate. Her brother is in jail, her grandmother is abusive, and the place that she feels most at peace is scheduled to be bulldozed. Dee is determined to save Lightning Peak, but no one else seems to care–not even the environmental groups that would usually be the leading the fight. She doesn’t always feel like the different parts in her life meld, but she will have to draw on her family, her friends in the Gay-Straight Alliance, and the connections she’s made through a Buddhist meditation group in order to fight back. Even if that means risking her life.

As you might be able to tell, there’s a lot going on in The Buddha On Lightning Peak. On one level it can be read as a young adult environmental thriller about an activist taking on a suspiciously powerful mining company, but that ignores both the scope of the plot and the other aspects of Dee’s life. She’s also becoming serious about pursuing Buddhism as a life path and trying to incorporate that into her identity (there aren’t a lot of other black Buddhists that she knows, nevermind black Buddhist lesbian teenagers). She’s feuding with her ex, attempting to maintain a relationship with her incarcerated brother, and struggling to maintain her friendships at the same time. There is a huge cast of side characters in this book as well. Though I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the amount of names (a personal flaw of mine), I did appreciate how many side characters became well-developed over the course of the novel.

Dee is an engaging protagonist, but she’s not perfect. She is impatient and often angry, even when dealing with her closest friends. While continuing to fight a seemingly unwinnable battle to save Lightning Peak, Dee also begins, possibly unconsciously, to come to terms with her own more generalized anger. She draws on the lessons she’s learned from her Buddhist mentor in order to have more empathy and understanding for the people around her, and see things more broadly.

This definitely became more complex and had higher stakes than I was expecting. Dee becomes involved in something much bigger than she anticipated, and soon seems to be regularly putting her life at risk for her goals, which definitely kept me flipping pages.

This isn’t a perfect book, however. The major problem I had with it was the use of slang, which often felt dated and awkward to me (“Kicking it at a party”, “check it”, etc). The book is from Dee’s point of view, so it’s not just her dialogue that uses slang, but the entire narration. Even when it didn’t seem dated, seeing words like shoulda, mighta, or ’em in the narration would often throw me out of the story.  There is a lot to do with race and racism covered in this story as well, which I can’t speak to in terms of representation: I’m white, and the book is not own voices. I’d be interested to read a review by a black reader, especially a queer black reader.

I also am not Buddhist, so I also don’t have a lot of context for its representation here, but the author is a Buddhist practitioner. I got the impression that at the core of this series of books was to the representation of Buddhism, but although it was a major part of the story, it didn’t feel pedantic or preaching to me.

Despite my issues with the narration, I really enjoyed both the well-rounded characters and the nerve-wracking plot of this. Not only was there a lot of action, but events kept surprising me (mostly because everything seemed to keep going wrong). If you want a more intense take on the “plucky teen takes on evil corporation” plot, with added Buddhist subplot, I’d recommend giving this one a try.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews The Apprentice Queen by Nel Havas

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The Apprentice Queen is a story about how an ordinary person becomes a monster.

Mitti grew up in a happy, not particularly well-off family in ancient Egypt. When she was ten, she found herself suddenly whisked off into the royal court, a snake pit of deception, betrayal, and political games. She is trained by the queen herself to become an expert at maneuvering in this toxic environment. Mitti is horrified by Queen Sekma’s callousness, her willingness to sacrifice innocent people for the greater good, or even just to further her own power. But as Mitti becomes the princess Kham, she develops an aptitude for the same manipulation that she always resented in Sekma. Eventually she finds herself making an impossible choice between her beloved and the safety of both her son and the kingdom.

I found The Apprentice Queen to be a little overwhelming at first: we are plunged into this story and have to quickly find our feet. The novel also bounces back and forth in time often, usually beginning a chapter with a dramatic scene and then backing up to explain what lead up to it. I was immediately intrigued by the world of court politics, however. The intricate machinations are fascinating to read about. At its heart, this is about how Kham becomes corrupted by her environment, or at least how she is forced to make impossible choices. As a child, Mitti is horrified to realize that on some level she in enjoying this intrigue and manipulation, and I felt the same way reading it. The options are laid out so that something like sentencing a person to death for a minor offense can seem reasonable while I’m immersed the story, and it only after I’ve put the book down that I realize how reprehensible it is.

Sekma makes for a fascinating character. She is brutal, but incredibly intelligent and skilled. Relentlessly practical, she has a clear worldview and is willing to sacrifice anything in order to make the kingdom stronger. She sneers at the idea that war has “honor” over poisoning a single person in order to prevent thousands of deaths on the battlefield. Kham struggles with her own feelings towards Sekma, loathing her at most times, but growing to respect her as she struggled to fill the old queen’s shoes.

It is Kham’s relationships with the key women in her life that form the core of the emotional arc of the story. Although she is motivated by the love she has for her son, he does not demand the attention that Sekma, Nyserra, and even her sometimes lover Tasima do. I loved the rapport that Tasima and Kham had together as friends and lovers while not in the context of  a romantic relationship. It’s also always nice to have a story that integrates lesbian relationships seamlessly. This isn’t a “lesbian romance”, but it does include one.

I did feel uncomfortable about the attitudes around disability. Although I liked that Kham and her husband had a friendly relationship, most of the discussion around people with disabilities in this novel is about preventing their existence. At some point Kham contemplates what a “miserable” existence Oskhama, though we never have any indication that he is unhappy.

Aside from that, I did have some minor quibbles, including a few typos and that one of the sex scenes has one of the women say “Stop! Oh Stop!” to no response, though clearly the scene is supposed to read as consensual. Other than that, the writing is serviceable and communicates an engrossing narrative of one person’s gradual transformation into someone remarkably like the person they most detest. This conceit is captivating and so well executed that I would definitely recommend picking this up regardless of the minor flaws I found with it.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Apprentice Queen by Nel Havas

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Mitti is only ten when she’s taken from her family to be trained as an apprentice to the queen of Egypt. Her parents, having grown up in this political world and escaped it, are horrified despite the huge gain in stature for their daughter. As Mitti grows up and becomes more and more embroiled in vicious court politics, she struggles to find the balance to survive in this environment without losing herself completely.

Apprentice Queen was an interesting read for me. I was immediately intrigued by the premise, which places the main character in an excruciating position. She is basically held prisoner by Sekma, the queen, who controls the political climate of Egypt from the behind the scenes and would have Mitti killed instantly if she were to disobey or try to escape this life. Mitti has to learn these lessons on politics by heart if she is to survive, but despite being exactly the protege Sekma is looking for, she loathes the queen and the position she has put Mitti in. In order to keep herself and her loved ones safe, though, she needs to use these same tactics that she has been taught.

Sekma is a dictator and is ruthless towards anyone who stands in her way, but as Mitti is taught how to navigate the political arena and the repercussions of every possible action, I found myself accidentally getting swept up in her logic, mentally nodding along to the sentiment that of course it makes sense to assassinate one person rather than allow a civil war that would slaughter thousands of innocent people. I had to abruptly pull myself out of the story when I realized the I was getting sucked into this tangled logic trap. It really show you how people become indoctrinated into this life.

This is a setting that I know very little about–the Ancient Egyptian royal court–but I felt completely immersed in it. I’m not usually someone reads political thrillers or books that deal with court intrigue, but I was interested in the directions that the book went in terms of political maneuvering. And it was nice to see the relationships between Mitti and other women seamlessly integrated into the story, neither the entire focus of the book nor swept under the rug. Mitti’s attraction to women is a driving force in her life, but it’s not the only one. It’s nice to read a story that balances those so well, not reducing her sexuality to a single line or paragraph, but also giving us something other than a romance or coming out story.

I did also have some issues with the book, however. The writing was overall functional, but there were some awkward sentences, and it has a habit of jumping back forth in time–first describing an event, then describing the lead-up to the event, then continuing from the middle again–and although it worked sometimes, I think it was overused. At other points, large periods of time are skipped, and there were some relationships that I would have liked developed more. My biggest problem was with the conclusion. I was enjoying Apprentice Queen‘s slow build, which establishes Mitti as a character and how she changes over time, and establishes all the nuances of the final conflict. As the pages began dwindling, though, I started to worry that it was not going to wrap up satisfactorily.

[spoilers, highlight to read] And sadly, I didn’t think it did. I had understood that she was likely going to kill Nyserra, but I was left still confused by why she did it, which was the mystery I had been waiting the entire book to find out–what could drive someone to do something so monstrous? Was the answer really just “To serve as a distraction”? I didn’t get enough explanation to see why that was necessary. I also felt like the disconnect between Nyserra and Kham happened abruptly. I would have liked to see their growing tension, instead of straight from blissfully in love to saying “I hate you”.

There were other details that I appreciated, including Mitti’s surprisingly positive relationship with her husband (though I didn’t like that she later thought his life was worth less than an animal’s and like it was cruel for him to be alive, considering he always seemed happy when she saw him)  and some of the interesting side characters that populate the book. On the other hand, I hated that the first time Kham and Nyserra have sex, Nyserra repeatedly tells Kham to stop and pushes her away. That’s not romantic, that’s rape. I know it’s not meant to be, but that’s how it’s written, and I hate when sex is described in that way. [end spoilers]

Overall, Apprentice Queen is a fascinating read for its exploration of how people adapt to a political life, but it also has some flaws that detracted from the reading experience for me. If you’re intrigued, I still think it’s worth picking up and giving it a try, but I wish the ending especially was a little more of a payoff.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews All the Devils Here by Astor Penn

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If you’re like me, you have observed the dystopian/post-apocalyptic YA trend and thought “Yes, great, but where’s the lesbian version of this?” Don’t worry. It exists. All the Devils Here takes place after the worst has already happened. The majority of the population has been wiped out in a massive pandemic, everyone else is on the run, avoiding both the infected and the mysterious governmental (?) units roaming in vans–promising safety but delivering gunshots and kidnappings.

I thought it was interesting that the book starts here, with Brie already having been on the run for a while, and having adapted to this new reality. I would have expected to start at beginning of the outbreak, following her as she escapes New York, but instead we get this backstory summarized later. It shifts the focus from how this happened to the process of surviving. And that is what the narrative revolves around: not any specific goal or path, just the relentless determination to survive at almost any cost. Despite the genre, I didn’t actually find this a fast-paced book. It is short, but although Brie is a survivor and active in her perseverance, the plot revolves around things that happen to her and then her attempts to deal with it. Through no fault of her own, she is a passive agent with very little control over her life in this cutthroat landscape.

The arc of the story is not so much the plot as it is Brie’s understanding of how she has changed as a person in order to survive, and her relationship with Raven, who begins as an extremely reluctant ally and becomes a vital person in her life. There is a bit of an element of insta-love in this, but it’s more understandable in the context of a dystopian future where any human contact is unusual. I do wish that we got more from Raven as her own person as opposed to Brie’s perception of her, however. She permeates the novel in Brie’s fixation on her, but we don’t actually get to learn a lot about her. In fact, my biggest problem with this book is how Raven is described. She is referred to constantly by her (dark) skin color, which is once compared to mud. She is repeatedly described as a “wild thing” (when she’s not the “prettiest thing”). Brie makes a lot of assumptions about her based on her appearance, which considering that she knows pretty much nothing about her other than her skin color, seem pretty racist: she assumes that Raven is a “lost girl” with no relationship with her family, who left home too young. She contemplates whether Raven was a sex worker in her former life. There is absolutely no context as to why Brie is making these assumptions about her other than her appearance and the fact that she is alive and alone (which, of course, Brie–a pampered boarding school student–also is).

I found the governmental agency to be the most interesting element of the story. We know that they are taking people in vans against their will, and there are rumors of camps that are being set up, but we don’t know the motives of this organization. I couldn’t help but think that these people very well could have a cure and be trying to help survivors, but there would be no way to know this as a person hiding in the woods. Because of the lack of any source of media, these people in hazmat suits are a complete wild card. [vague spoilers, highlight to read] Even as we learn more about this group of people, they remain morally grey, which I thought was interesting. In some ways they are the villains of the piece, but they are also the only reason humanity has any hope of a “civilized” future. [end spoilers] 

I found All the Devils Here to be an interesting concept, but it wasn’t the fast-paced thrill ride I expect from this genre. I did like the examination of what it takes to be a survivor in situations like this, and how it affects a person’s perception of themselves, and I’m happy to have a queer addition to this genre, but I was looking for a little bit more from this in terms of plot. And I found Raven’s depiction disappointing. This was a mixed bag for me, but if you’re interesting in a survival story with a bit of lesbian romance thrown it, All the Devils Here is worth the read!

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Just Girls by Rachel Gold

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Just Girls is one of the new releases that I was most excited about reading, because I found the premise very interesting. It tells the story of two women in college: Tucker, an out cis lesbian, and Ella, a bisexual trans woman. The book cycles between their perspectives. When Tucker finds out that people are speculating about who the trans woman is in the dorms and being generally hateful, she angrily defends the anonymous student and spontaneously “outs” herself as trans in order to take the brunt of the hate herself. The idea of a cis person pretending to be trans for any reason could go very badly, no matter how noble the intentions (not to mention that the author is also cis), but I still wanted to see where the story would go–not to mention that lesbian fiction is severely lacking in trans women characters.

Surprisingly, though the premise should have been much more of a minefield than Gold’s previous book, Being Emily, I ended up really loving this one. Emily and Claire (her girlfriend) do make appearances in this one, but they are minor characters, and you don’t have to read the two together or in order. The two things that really struck me in this narrative were the realism and the scope of the novel. While Being Emily is narrowly focused on the experience of being trans, its successor weaves this in with other issues of sexism and being queer. It also shows a different reality than the previous book: while Emily experienced a lot of push back from her coming out, Ella had a supportive family and community. She was able to access the hormones and surgery that she needed, and she had a strong support system. That isn’t to say that it was easy for her, but it was definitely different from Emily’s experience, and I appreciated the acknowledgment that there isn’t just one trans experience.

Again, I can’t speak to how accurate the portrayal of being a trans woman is, but the depiction of the LGBTQ crowd on campus definitely rang true. The drama, the friendship, and [spoiler, highlight to read] yes, even the abuse [end spoiler] seemed to mirror the community that I participated in during university. I had to laugh at the paragraph

Tucker pulled a piece of paper out of her notebook and scrawled on it: Are Vivien and Summer still together? Yes. No. Cal was sitting next to her and she put it in front of him. He looked at it for a minute, then picked up his pen and circled both Yes and No.

Ella also has to deal with sexism on a daily basis, especially as a woman in science. She has several great moments where she reacts against these microaggressions, including when she’s questioned on her gaming prowess and says

“All my high scores are in Pretty Princess Magical Rescue Adventure,” I deadpanned back.

“Me, too,” Shen said in mock surprise.

“I bet my unicorn would own yours,” I told him.

There is also quite an array of diversity in Just Girls; I was especially glad to see that Ella is bisexual (although she doesn’t necessarily identify as such yet, the word “bisexual” is actually used in text, which shouldn’t be worth nothing but still is), and there are PoC characters, though both Ella and Tucker are white. Nico, Ella’s friend/ex is genderqueer and Ella describes per/yo (Nico changes pronouns fairly regularly) as looking, in one outfit, like an “Afro-Asian god/dess”. One of Ella love interests is Shen, who is Chinese, and his cousin Johnny, who is Chinese-American, also a significant side character. Shen is quiet and subtle, and may have come off as stereotypical if he was the only Asian character in the novel, but Johnny’s boisterous personality balances them out.

As for my original concerns with the premise, like If You Could Be Mine, I thought that it managed to navigate that minefield pretty well, but I recognize that other people might disagree. (Hang on, why do this book, If You Could Be Mine, and Adam all feature cis characters pretending to be trans? And written by cis women? That’s an alarming trend. Though this book also features a trans woman main character, of course.) I was worried about it: there is a moment where Tucker attempts to look more masculine to fit the trans persona, and at some point Ella looks at her with tears in her eyes and says she’s “so heroic”, which screams “cis saviour” to me (like “white saviour“). Another character also says that Tucker is being brave for pretending to be trans, and Tucker says that more people should do so.

At the same time, it made me think about the various protests where straight people have “played gay” as protest to anti-gay demonstrations, and this generally viewed positively. Is “playing trans” to protest anti-trans sentiment a similar action? What really changed my mind, though, is that Tucker faces consequences for this action. (More on this in the spoiler section.) And Ella acknowledges the difference between Tucker saying she’s trans and the reality for trans people, when she thinks that sure, if a cis woman tried to use the men’s room as protest they’d just be told to stop, “but what if she’d been a trans student?” As a cis person, Tucker can step away from this, at least to some degree, if she chooses to.

I really think this book has so much packed into it. As I started to write this review, I realized how much I want to say about it. If you’re curious about Just Girls and wanted to remain unspoiled, I definitely recommend giving it a try. The characters are complex, the story is compelling, and it’s packed with things to think about. Highly recommended, though I would definitely put some trigger warnings on that recommendation (transphobia, violence, rape).

Lots of the things I want to discuss happen in the latter half of the book, so spoilers below.

One of the things that I really loved about this book was how the idea of community was handled. There is an LGBTQ community, but that community isn’t necessarily safe. Ella (and Tucker, when she is “playing” trans)  is rejected by both feminist and queer community members (though they are accepted by others in that community). Nico has yos gender interrogated by LGBTQ community members. The TA in Tucker’s Gender Studies class is openly transphobic. In contrast, when she outs herself to Shen, he is completely supportive. That isn’t to say that there isn’t positive queer communities, only that Ella is able to find community in a range of places: through select queer people, cis/straight people, and even supportive strangers.

Shortly after Tucker “comes out” as trans, she is attacked because of it. It’s an odd mix, because Tucker faces the physical effects of this, but Ella deals with the personal effects of knowing that she was the person who that attack was meant for. Later, Tucker is raped by her ex-girlfriend, a woman well-respected in the Gender Studies field and part of the school’s LGBTQ community. Ella tells Tucker that since she protected Ella earlier in the semester, she would protect Tucker now.  When she goes to the administration, she doesn’t get a lot of support. Ella realizes “So she could end up having to walk to class every day on the same campus as her rapist”–which instantly reminded me of the Columbus student who is protesting her rapist’s continued presence on campus by carrying her mattress as a visual sign of the weight of her trauma.

Ella rallies support around Tucker, partly by rallying a crowd through Johnny and Shen’s gamification of a protest, and partly by coming out to said crowd and indicating that Tucker had put herself on the line in order to protect Ella. This protest as game is ingenious as a strategy, and it also is heartwarming. I found myself tearing up as I read about this group of people willing to protect victims and protest the school board’s lukewarm attention to this. Again, I was reminded of the follow-up protests in Columbia, in which other students helped to carry the mattress in solidarity. In this community, Tucker is able to feel safe as she is escorted to classes. When she finds out that Lindy’s previous girlfriend was also abused, she is able to access that rage and act on it, not to protect herself, but to protect others. Both Tucker and Ella grow a lot throughout the book, and are able to support each other to get through it. I think that is what saves it from being a “cis saviour” narrative: first, Ella is just as big a part (if not bigger) of this story than Tucker is, and second because the support is mutual, and they end up on even ground.

I do have some complaints. There are some remarks through the book that I disagree with, but I acknowledge that Ella and Tucker are not perfect, and that doesn’t mean the book supports their views. (For example, Tucker pities the plight of women in far off countries who are being oppressed, and wishes she could take them to the US to be saved. Ella, when being concerned about having sex, thinks that some people fetishize the “hermaphrodite” look.) One point that I couldn’t dismiss, though, was the ableism: Lindy’s abusive actions are chalked up to some indeterminate mental illness, as if neurotypical people cannot be abusive, or people with mental illness are more dangerous (instead of the reality, which that they’re more likely to be victims of violence and abuse). Also, when Ella meets Lindy she muses that maybe she has “high-functioning, undiagnosed Asperger’s” (which doesn’t even make any sense: how would you know whether she’d been diagnosed?) Also, as a small complaint, I’d rather that Lindy hadn’t been a plagiarist. The truth is that there are people who are well-respected in their field and who are also abusive. It seems too simple to say “Well, she was a terrible person, therefore that paper than was so acclaimed must not have actually been written by her”.

Another minor point, but I also thought the depiction of the Gender Studies class was pretty unrealistic. In one, the teacher asks how many people think sexism is over and feminism is no longer needed, and half the class raises their hands? Maybe it was the hippie left coast university I went to, but in my experience, almost no one takes Women’s Studies or Gender Studies who isn’t already feminist-leaning. People who disagree with feminism tend to have very little interest in those classes. Also, the teacher (who is supposedly trans positive) takes on an openly transphobic TA, and then doesn’t correct her while she is spouting off transphobic, ridiculous arguments to a student? And then says “I want you to learn to stand up to an opposing viewpoint on your own,” though she acknowledges that she wouldn’t expect that if it was anti-feminist criticism? Again, maybe it was just my hippie university, but I have never seen a Women’s Studies teacher do that, at least not one who’s well respected.

I do have some complaints, and I definitely think that other people could get completely different things out this book (I would love to read some reviews by trans women in comparison), but I would definitely recommend this book, if just for the sheer amount of discussions it raises. As a beginner to trans issues, I’d recommend this over Being Emily, and I think it would be a less triggering read for trans readers as well (though it does deal with transphobia, violence, and rape), because the main characters begin the novel already trans positive. I’m really glad this book is out there, and I hope it gets a lot more attention.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Very Civil Wedding by V. T. Davy

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What an interesting book. A Very Civil Wedding follows the announcement that the Princess of Wales has gotten engaged… to her girlfriend. (This is set in 2014.) Following this is the media frenzy, the backlash, and the planning involved. The book is structured in all kinds of different snippets, arranged chronologically. These includes descriptions of a meeting of politicians, a blog post by an anti-gay activist, a news bulletin, a description of the princess and her fiancee having a conversation, etc. It reads less like a novel and more like living through a few months in the future. It felt surreal to read because it was so realistic. It really feels like the mishmash of information you would get if you were actually living through this, especially as, say, a family member of the people involved.

My favourite realistic element was the description of the media, which seemed extremely accurate. The sensationalizing Daily Express headline “UNAPPROVED SPERM DONOR MEANS QUEEN WILL NOT CONSENT TO ALEX AND GRACIE’S MARRIAGE” was especially, hilariously apt. It is this realism, however, that can also make A Very Civil Wedding a tough read. There is a lot of homophobic comments in this book from detractors, ranging between the pseudo-accepting “I love homosexuals, I just don’t think they should get married” to the openly hateful. Most of it, because it is mostly major media, is closer to the beginning of that spectrum, but that is painful enough to read, especially when it echoes things you can actually hear on the news right now.

The narrative presents both pro- and anti-gay protestors, including Christians on either side of that fence. I do, perhaps naively, think that the backlash presented is more extreme than I imagine would actually happen… Or I really, really hope it is. Of course, as a story, it is obviously in favour of this couple and their marriage.

I was surprised by this book. The format is so different from anything I’ve read before, and I really think it worked well. As I’ve said, it felt hyper-realistic: more like catching up on the news than reading a fictional narrative. That did sometimes work to its detriment, because there wasn’t a really fast-paced plot to pull me along, and the constant switches of perspective and medium could slow down my reading pace. (There was this little bit of mystery in someone’s journal entries that keep appearing throughout the book without having them named, however, and I thought that was a nice touch with a good reveal.) But I don’t think it was meant to be a quick, breezy read. It almost seems like a thought experiment. And I really think that A Very Civil Wedding succeeded in what it aimed to do.

That isn’t to say there weren’t some faults. Because of all the different people you encounter, I found that names ran together (especially when they were referred to by title or first name or last name). There were a few typos. The word “transsexulity” is used a couple times a catch-all term, instead of transgender. And towards the end, especially, there is a lot of religious speeches, if you’re not into that. One thing I was most worried about was the civilian (as opposed to politician, media person, etc) homophobic protester was a Muslim woman. I still think it’s a questionable decision to make the most prominent homophobic character a Muslim (there aren’t really many other people of colour characters that I can think of), but she does get to be a three-dimensional person by the end, so there is at least that.

I would definitely recommend this book, especially if you’re interested in the Royal Family, or like the idea of the different format choice, or are from the UK (though to be fair, I’m not, so I can’t say if there are any big inaccuracies). At the same time, if you’re not able to stomach reading homophobic comments and a sort of bittersweet depiction of the progress of gay rights, this probably isn’t the book for you.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews the Courage of Outliers by Elizabeth Samit

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The Courage of Outliers by Elizabeth Samit is a collection of ten mystery short stories, all with some gay or lesbian content, usually with a lesbian protagonist. I don’t read a lot of mysteries: I tend to be terrible at spotting clues, and usually I end up not only surprised but confused by the big reveal. This is the first collection of mystery short stories that I read, so I can’t claim to be familiar with the genre. I found it to be a very different experience that a full-length mystery, because there isn’t really any space to subtly drop clues and misleads. I felt like it was impossible to figure out the culprit more than a paragraph or two before the protagonist because of this. As a result, it didn’t have that mystery feel to me, because it was less a puzzle to solve, and more of a traditional narrative, but one that features a crime. I also felt like so much information and so many characters had to be packed into a story to fulfill the mystery element that I began to find it difficult to keep track of names, though that could just be my own bad memory.

I definitely think that the biggest strength of this collection is the characters. Samit is great at quickly establishing a character’s personality in each short story, and they feel very believable and interesting. There is also a big variety of protagonists between the stories, of different ages, sexualities, races, and backgrounds. Most of the protagonists were people I wish I could spend more time with, and even though they only lasted a dozen pages or so, their lives seemed to be fully imagined.

Unfortunately, I did also have some issues with the collection. Although the characterization was strong, personally I found most of the plots not very compelling. This could be because I’m not a big mystery reader, but again, I felt like it was missing that slow reveal of clues that I relate to mysteries. Most of the time, I just wasn’t very invested in the solution to the murder, because the victims weren’t characters that I knew or cared about, and the circumstances weren’t puzzling enough to make me compelled to find out how it was done. I also did find the writing a little clunky at times, including the odd use of quotations around words that I would consider pretty well established, like ‘ex-girlfriend’ or a police ‘statement’. Although the main characters were believable, sometimes the characterization of minor characters seemed rushed, such as with this description: “Raised in a tough South Boston neighborhood, Officer Valerie Hawkins–whose daughter had committed suicide–had been briefly assigned to assist another officer in the new cyber-crimes section.” That’s a pretty big aside. Another sentence that made me do a double take: “That night, it was on the eleven o’clock News that Mercedes Vega, the ex-wife of Paul Farnsworth and former piano teacher, had been discovered robbed and fatally attacked by her daughter.” To clarify, she was discovered by her daughter, not attacked by her daughter.

There were also some questionable moments in the stories, such as the word “transvestite” being used without context, and a (non-Romani) main character describing herself as a “gypsy” because she travels a lot. One story mentions, again without any more context, that a woman has an affair with a “married man whose wife was disabled.” Also, one story involves the murder of babies born with disabilities, and another has a child with disabilities who is (or was) very violent. Combined, those don’t make for the best representation of people with disabilities. Though, there is also one protagonist who was in a psychiatric ward. Those were moments that made me uncomfortable, especially since this collection does seem to be actively trying to be diverse.

As you can tell, I was a little conflicted on this one. I would still recommend it if you are a fan of mystery/crime short stories, especially with queer characters, but there are definitely some flaws as well.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews Charity by Paulette Callen

Charity-ylva

Charity is a novel that mixes several genres. It is definitely historical fiction, set in the late 19th century in a small town in America, and it is also sort of a lesbian romance novel, but there’s definitely the element of a mystery as well. At the same time, it’s an exploration of the town of Charity, but one family in particular. It has two protagonists, Lena, a woman married to a drunk with a large and unlikeable family, and Gustie, a schoolteacher with a tragic past that keeps her constantly travelling back and forth between Charity and the nearby Red Sands reservation.

Charity was first published by Simon and Shuster in 1997, and has been republished by Ylva, with the sequel (Fervent Charity) being published by them soon. The writing is easy to read and even occasionally poetic, the characters are strong and believable, and the different plot strands are compelling. I found the cast of characters a little overwhelming at first, especially in that Will, Lena’s husband, has his whole family described, and keeping them straight is pretty important to understanding the plot. The romance was sweet, though I still wanted to know more about her love interest. I thought the mystery was very well done. I had no idea who the culprit was through the majority of the book, but when it was slowly revealed, I realized that the clues had been there the whole time. It’s a proper mystery, in that a shrewd reader could have figured it all out beforehand (I did have the vast majority pieced together before the end, but only about ten pages before the final reveal), but will still be a surprise for most people.

What was most intriguing and what I was most worried about, however, was the depiction of the Native characters in Charity. There is a tendency for romance novels (straight or queer) to fall into the habit of making Native characters mysterious, spiritual, ephemeral beings–the “noble savage” stereotype. There is also a tendency to posit Native people as being people from the past, ignoring that Native cultures and people are just as much part of the present. Setting a story (partially) about Native people in the past could play into this, I worried, though it is also an opportunity to tell some of the horrific stories of colonization that are glossed over in white Western accounts. So a big part of my critical thinking around this book was centered on the representation of Native people. I’ll have to go into a few spoilers to discuss it, but nothing too major. Oh, also, speaking of spoilers but necessary thing to discuss, trigger warnings for cutting as well as suicide in this book. Especially cutting, which is depicted positively.

Charity does tell the story of some of the horrors of colonization, including death from disease, some of the suffering in residential schools, white officials cheating Native people out of their allotments, and of course the casual racism of most of the people in Charity, including Lena. Gustie is disgusted by this treatment, but it doesn’t completely change Lena’s mind by the end of the novel–she softens, but still refuses to let a Native woman stay in her house. At some point, a group of Native men play into the “bloodthirsty” stereotypes in order to scare a white guy off, and then laugh at his ignorance for thinking that they were serious. Overall, I thought this was a decent representation, since it is realistic to present Lena that way, and I don’t believe we’re supposed to agree with her. I was more concerned about Gustie, actually. When the reservation is cheated out of their allotments, she is outraged and vows to fix it, but that sort of plays into the white savior idea: that she, as a white person, can save these Native people who of course aren’t able to save themselves. At the same time, it’s true that as a white person, Gustie did have more options available to her to help. Another part that made me uncomfortable was that she is called two-spirited by a Native character, which is a term that–at least now–is only for Native people. She also has the Deer Spirit appear to her. One character says she is trying to “play Indian.” She sadly says, “I am the wasichu [white person] for whom you will not dance” to Jordis, apparently trying to guilt her for not wanting to make her traditional dance entertainment for white people. It is the Native characters that are putting this onto Gustie, “adopting” her, but it’s also (as far as I can tell) a white author writing this. So that made me a bit uneasy, but most likely it will play out one way or another in the sequel.

Despite a few issues, I enjoyed Charity, especially the mystery plot and the characters of Gustie and Lena, and I would recommend this one if it sounds interesting to you!

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews Walking the Labyrinth by Lois Cloarec Hart

walkingthelabyrinth

Walking the Labyrinth is definitely not the typical formula for a lesbian romance novel. It begins one year after Lee’s wife dies. Lee is deeply in mourning, and has grown listless and depressed. Her family and friends stage an intervention, as her late wife requested before she died. Lee receives a letter her wife wrote at this time, and this provides the impetus for her to try to find a new purpose.

As you can guess from that synopsis, Walking the Labyrinth has a lot to do with mourning. But I appreciated that it started so far into the mourning process. Many books would have started with the immediate shock of death, but this actually provides a much better beginning. It is the turning point, where Lee is ready to change. This is mostly a slow-moving book, which works with the subject matter. I found it really easy to read, partly because it is a scenario that I haven’t read a lot about. Lee is lost after her wife’s death, and is unsure about her career and what she wants to do with her life. She goes on a journey to try to figure herself out. The inevitable romance is again introduced slowly. It seemed organic for the most part.

Another interesting thing about this book is the spirituality that pervades it. Maybe I should have guessed that a book concerned about mourning would also ruminate about the soul and afterlife, but I wasn’t expecting that. I’m not entirely sure how I personally felt about it. Lee is skeptical, but intrigued. I am not a particularly spiritual person, so I wasn’t as interested in this aspect, but I think it was presented well. If any talk about “soul journeys”, reincarnation, and so on puts you off, I wouldn’t recommend this one. But if you’re open to the discussion, you’ll probably find it at the very least an interesting viewpoint. I also appreciated reading a romance novel that focuses on women in their sixties instead of mid-twenties.

Overall, I appreciated the natural progression of this novel. It is short, and it didn’t take me very long to read, but it’s sort of a thoughtful meditation of a book. I did have a few complaints, however. One is that Lee sometimes seems to speak her thoughts out loud to herself in a way that seems much more for the reader’s benefit than a natural habit. Another is an exchange near the beginning of the book where a character states “Middle Eastern men can be pretty controlling with the women in their family.” This is not critiqued at all. In fact, Lee agrees. It’s a bizarre bit of casual racism (I mean, so can American men. And European men. And… anyone.), especially considering that there are two characters that are African (from Guinea) and the subplot around activism in Northwestern Africa seemed respectfully handled. My only other quibble is that the traditional “girl loses girl” bit seemed a tad forced, though I can understand the character’s motivation. I did enjoy this book, with those caveats in place, and I appreciate this branching out from the typical lesbian romance novel conventions.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Sponsored review: Danika reviews Carapace by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro

Carapace

I am not the one who cums. It’s her mouth. Alexia’s mouth cums inside me. Shortly before, just by a few seconds, her fingers have ejaculated within me. The electricity has traversed my skins. I have several skins. She has discovered them all and has placed them over me.

Those are the opening lines of Carapace, and from the beginning I was intrigued and disoriented. This is not a straightforward lesbian romance book. It is an abstract, poetic work. At its best, it reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s surreal, metaphorical language. I have to assume that the book reads differently in the original language, because some of the lines are clunky in a way that suggests an awkward, literal translation of a poetic turn of phrase. (For example: “The mint green place that is our mistress room lacks her physiognomy.”) There is also the occasional typo, and these factors combined can make this a difficult novel to read at times.

Still, after getting used to the style, it began to have a sort of soothing, dreamlike feel to it. Carapace reads almost as if each chapter is a journal entry: each is semi-disconnected, and some chapters are only a paragraph long. Time is not entirely linear. Sometimes it goes off on a tangent about ecoterrorism, or turtles, or newly discovered planets (all recurring topics). There are moments that veer towards magical realism, such as the “shadow” that occupies Nessa and Alexia’s home that only Alexia can see.

Though not exactly a romance, Carapace is focused on Nessa and Alexia’s relationship. It is passionate, engrossing, and definitely dysfunctional. Alexia is married to a man, and splits her time between Nessa and their child, her husband and their child, and travelling the world as she covers stories about environmentalism activism. The story is about Nessa and how she deals with Alexia and her absence. The emotion was poignant, and the poetic language helped to highlight the push-and-pull of Nessa desire and anger for Alexia. Overall, I really thought this was a beautiful book. Despite some of the issues with the translation, and that the plot circles back on itself more than it advances, I enjoyed Carapace. If you enjoy literary, poetic books that focus on emotion and language more than a strict plot, than I would recommend Carapace. I would love to hear a comparison between the original Spanish version and the English translation, because I’m sure I would have liked it even better if I could read the original. (Carapace is the “first lesbian book published in Puerto Rico.” Technically, it was written in Puerto Rico and published in Spain, but either way, I love reading lesbian books that aren’t written/set in the West, and I hope that the translation of Carapace is a sign of more to come!)

This has been a sponsored review. For more information on sponsored reviews, please check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.