Danika reviews The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde

The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde cover

I almost wrote this book off after the first chapter. I’m nearly 30 and not a drinker, so reading about a teenage rock star getting incredibly drunk and then getting into a car accident (her girlfriend–who had also been drinking–was driving), paparazzi then swarming the scene, is not what I would usually gravitate toward. Luckily, I pushed through and found out that this is the moment that catalyzes change in Emmy. The entire book is basically the fallout from this moment.

Emmy is the drummer in the immensely popular teen band The Brightsiders. This means that you do get to be a voyeur to a teen rock star life, but it’s not all parties and accolades. Emmy loves her fans, and she thrives off the energy of playing in front of a crowd, but she doesn’t fare well with the endless rumors and hate spread through twitter, tumblr, and gossip magazines. It doesn’t help that 2/3rds of the bands members are queer: Emmy is bisexual and semi-closeted, and Alfie is out as nonbinary. Despite that hate that might circulate in certain corners of the internet, Alfie is a heartthrob that attracts attention from all genders… including, suddenly, Emmy.

Not only is the love interest in The Brightsiders nonbinary–there is a huge queer cast. Emmy’s best friend is black, femme, and nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. The f/f couple from Queens of Geek also makes a few cameos, which was really fun. There is a focus on found family, especially because Emmy’s parents are abusive. Emmy moved out of their house and into a hotel as soon as she was financially able, but until she is 18, she still feels like they have control over her life. Her entire life they have never stopped drinking and partying, ignoring her, insulting her, and gaslighting her in turns. In her childhood, Alfie’s house was her only escape. Now, with her partying having landed her in the hospital, she worries that she is heading down the same path.

Emmy’s parents unpleasantly pop up several times through the novel, and we get to see how this upbringing would have helped to shape some of the personality traits she struggles with, like people-pleasing. Jessie, the girlfriend who drove drunk, is another unhealthy influence in her life. Her friends and loved ones can clearly see the damage that their relationship takes on Emmy, but she is quick to laugh it off or go along with Jessie’s gaslighting.

Although there is definitely an element of the rock star lifestyle here, there’s a lot of emotional work happening beneath the surface. Emmy is learning to accept and love who she is, and protect herself from the toxic people in her life. There is also such warmth from the queer community that she surrounds herself with: both her friends and her fans show what support, love, and family really is. Like Queens of Geek, I raced through this, and I look forward to her next book!

Megan G reviews A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Jess Wong is the girl nobody sees, and she’s okay with that. She likes to keep to herself, and to her art. The only person close to her is her best friend, Angie Redmond. Angie sees Jess, even if it’s not the way that Jess wishes that Angie would see her. It’s enough for Jess. Until Angie starts to fall for Margot Adams, a girl from the nearby boarding school. As Angie’s relationship with Margot progresses, Jess and Angie are drawn into a world of wealth and secrets, of privilege and cruelty. A world where terrible things happen. A world where, suddenly, Angie doesn’t see Jess anymore.

This is a difficult book to review, because, despite its short length, it almost feels like two books merged into one. The first book is about a co-dependent relationship between two best friends, one of whom has a crush on the other. The second is a murder mystery. It just so happens that both books have the same characters.

The first part of the book is told from Jess’s perspective. Jess Wong is an unreliable narrator, to say the least, who paints her relationship with Angie as not only normal, but healthy. The problem is that it isn’t healthy, which I think Malinda Lo makes very clear. Every time Jess thinks about how wonderful her friendship with Angie is, Lo shows her doing something that proves it isn’t. In fact, the co-dependency between the two (but especially from Jess) can be difficult to read at times, as you can tell how much better these girls’ lives would be if the other weren’t in it.

In a way, I sort of appreciated this. I went into this book fully expecting this to be a pining, friends-to-lovers story, with a murder mystery twist. Instead, the twist is that the reader can tell full-stop that these friends should never become lovers, and in fact probably shouldn’t even be friends at all. Some of the things that Jess does when she and Angie fight are a little frightening, but Jess wants us to think that it’s totally okay. It’s realistic in its portrayal of the co-dependency found amongst many friendships, particularly teenage friendships, and like I said, I appreciate that. As well, I can look past the argument that would usually be building in my head (“There aren’t nearly as many stories about queer women as there are about straight women, so why can’t the ones about queer women be happy for once?”) because Malinda Lo has provided us with four incredible, happily-ending stories about queer women. She has proven that she believes queer women deserve happy endings. She now gets the benefit of the doubt that other authors might not.

I don’t want to say much about the second half of the book, because I don’t want to spoil any of the mystery. All I will say is that you should not read this book if you are hoping for a fantastic who-done-it. At its core, this book is about a toxic friendship, and how these types of friendships can shape who we are and the things we do.

As well, I think it’s important to mention that Jess is not only an Asian character, but she is also described as being fat. I didn’t realize she would be when I went into this story, and it was a very pleasant surprise for me. I do believe there is a little bit of internalized fatphobia, but never to the point of extreme dieting, or even considering extreme dieting. Just the typical thoughts of a woman who doesn’t quite look like the women who surround her.

Overall, I found this story intriguing and interesting, but incorrectly marketed. Although it is, in fact, a murder mystery, that is not what the novel is truly about. I will say right now that if you go into this novel just for the mystery, you will feel disappointed. This is a story about friendships and relationships, and how easy it is for them to become toxic, even when nobody is going out of their way to make them so. It explores human dynamics deeper than any of Malinda Lo’s previous works and sets itself aside as something new and unique. As that type of book, I recommend it. As a murder mystery, however, I would not.