Alice Pate reviews A Line In The Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Trigger Warnings: drug use, underage drinking, referenced underage sex, adult/teenager relationship

Note: Not all trigger warnings are present in this review, but they are present in the book in question.

A Line In The Dark may be marketed as a YA thriller, but I personally believe all the best parts of the story have nothing to do with the mystery.

The author, Malinda Lo, really shines in her portrayal of relationships, both romantic and platonic. Perhaps this stood out so much to me because I’m reading her book immediately after slogging through some pretty mediocre writing, but the emotions shown in her characters felt so rich, and full, and satisfying. The main character, Jessica Wong (Jess), has a secret crush on her best friend Angie. Every word in the first few chapters about this crush felt like it was pulled straight out of my own closeted high school brain. So naturally, when Angie starts seeing this other girl, Margot, who goes to a nearby boarding school in town, I could feel my own heart breaking right along with Jess’s.

But this isn’t your typical love triangle. Remember how I mentioned this book is a thriller? About halfway through the book goes from a quiet and reflective piece about the main character and her internal struggles to a drama fueled “he-said-she-said.” The death of Margot’s best friend, Ryan, has the cast of characters trying to find the culprit and pointing fingers.

While this transition was a little rocky, Lo ties in all of those beautiful emotions and relationships she’d crafted in the first half of the story to form the puzzle pieces needed to solve the mystery. The tone may have shifted pretty dramatically, but the story is still intriguing enough to reel you back in to find out whodunnit.

Ultimately, A Line In The Dark was incredibly entertaining, and at a little over 300 pages, it’s a pretty fast read. I highly recommend picking it up if you have the time.

Alice Pate reviews The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde

The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde cover

Trigger Warnings: alcoholism, underage drinking, neglectful parenting, abusive relationship
Note: Not all trigger warnings are present in this review, but they are present in the book in question.

The Brightsiders has been on my to be read list for several months before I finally purchased a copy. The bright colors of the cover had really caught my eye, and turning it over to read the synopsis on the back had me practically buzzing to give it a read. The story of a bisexual teenager coming out to the world while also managing her place in the spotlight as the drummer in a teen punk band. At least, that’s what the back had me believe it was about.

Contrary to the blurb summary of the book, The Brightsiders is not about our main character, Emmy King, telling her family, friends, and thousands of fans about her sexuality. In fact, by all definitions she’s already out and proud. She has a bisexual pride flag hanging in her parents’ house and tabloids report on her relationship with another girl, Jessie, regularly.

Okay, so then what is the plot of the story if not coming out? I honestly couldn’t tell you. The first half of the book is setting up characters and making sure to tell (not show) us that this punk band, Brightsiders is just so amazing. Then nearly halfway through the book (HALF!) the author blindsides us with a romance between Emmy and another band member, Alife, the super cool genderqueer guitarist complete with sexy smirk and arms covered in ink. Emmy, and thus the book, suddenly has a fixation on all things sex that I didn’t appreciate. If the entire book had been written like that right out of the gate, it would have been less jarring.

As for writing style, this book felt clunky. There are several moments in this story where the writer will detach themselves from the plot so that they can go on long-winded lectures or tangents about homophobia, slut-shaming, or even a three-page rant about what bad kisses are like all while the main character is supposed to be experiencing the best kiss of her life. And while, yes, homophobia and bad kisses are both things that need to be corrected, these tangents feel like they would be more at home in a preachy social media post than in first-person fiction.

And then there were the characters; if you can even call them characters, I’d liken them a little closer to props. As early on as chapter two I had the feeling that all of the characters existed to stand behind Emmy and nod their heads. To tell her she never does anything wrong and to coddle her. Little did I know, it was worse than that.

Not that you would know it from the way this book is written, but there are in fact three members of the Brightsiders band, not two. Nearly every character other than Emmy is underdeveloped (more on that in a bit) but Ryan really gets the worst of it. Between Ryan, Emmy, and Alfie, Ryan has the least amount of focus on him and he even gets left out of a lot the story. He’s a tagalong to Emmy and Alfie’s story and he’s treated like a tagalong in the band too, despite being the frontman.

It’s not even worth mentioning any of the other people in this story because my biggest problem here is that the characters exist solely for representation and diversity points. These characters are given labels the second we meet them. “Asian. Bi.”, “Black. Nonbinary.” While inclusion is a wonderful thing, these labels aren’t what makes a person who they are. We the readers are not given the opportunity to properly know these characters because “white and queer” is treated as an accurate description of who someone is.

The parents are nothing more than comical villains. They are given no reason or motive to be such (poorly written) bad guys. Perhaps they were written this way to give Emmy a tragic backstory and make you feel bad for her. It doesn’t work. The conflict between the need to love her parents and be loved back and the recognition that they aren’t a healthy part of her life isn’t really shown here. They’re just bad guys meant to be hated and the author gives them no real substance.

As for Emmy herself, I don’t like her. She doesn’t have to fight for anything. Her sexuality has no repercussion on her relationships or her career. As great as the world would be if being anything other than heterosexual wouldn’t matter, it’s not realistic. And frankly, it’s offensive to all real-life LGBT+ musicians who have had to fight against discrimination and homophobia in the music industry to be heard. Very very few people will be able to love and relate to a character who doesn’t experience the same roadblocks in her life due to sexuality and gender identity as them. The author also tried to work in Emmy as an alcoholic and runs into this same issue. If you don’t know how addiction works, and you aren’t willing to put in even the most minimal amount of effort to research what it’s like, don’t do it. Emmy manages to achieve sobriety without really having to think about it or try. No struggle.

In conclusion, I’m sure there are several people who would enjoy The Brightsiders, but I am not one of them. The characters are flat cardboard cutouts of representation, the “bad guys” are poorly written so that Emmy can cancel them while everybody cheers, and the plot bounces around so much that I began to wonder why I was even reading it anymore. From the feel of this book, I’m sure the author had a blast writing it and was able to sort through their own thoughts by writing them out through the lens of the fabulously famous Emmy King, but the execution of this book was so poor, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Alice is a Texas dwelling college student with a passion for stories. She hopes to one day spread her love of literature as a middle school English teacher. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pillowfort, or read more of her personal reviews on lilacchildwrites.wordpress.com.

Sash S. reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

“The Tox took teacher after teacher. Rules crumbling to dust and fading away, until only the barest bones were left.”

Body horror. Boarding school. Queer girls.

Wilder Girls promises a lot of cool things. Marketed as ‘a feminist Lord of the Flies’, one expects a grimdark pastiche of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, mixed with comfortingly familiar tropes of YA romance and maybe some creep-factor akin to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series or Erin Bowman’s Contagion.

Instead what happens is a mix of half-executed ideas that drift away from their potential, fizzling out and sadly getting lost.

Our story starts at the Raxter School for Girls, a boarding school on an island which is under quarantine due to a virus. The ‘Tox’ is deadly to some and not to others. Some are irreparably transformed, some cough up blood, some are taken to the infirmary and never seen again. This set-up is really cool and raises a lot of questions: What was this place like before? Why are the effects of the virus so wildly different? Who are all these teenage girls and how are they coping?

Unfortunately the backstory is never fully explained. Instead we get a feel for the loose structure of things on the island, just barely held together by the Headmistress, one other surviving teacher and the hope of an eventual cure. There’s routines of sorts and a strained peace between the different cliques of girls, dynamics that could have been compelling had the author spent just a little more time fleshing them out. Our main trio are a bundle of intense ride-or-die friendship and simmering romantic feelings, until two of them have an argument and the third goes missing.

And that’s where it all falls apart, as the novel phases out many of the things which initially made it interesting.

The main character’s internal monologue is full of stumbling, halted sentences and half-finished thoughts, a style that meshes well with some readers but may not for others. Her decisions, frustratingly, don’t always make sense. We don’t get much character development from her in the first instance and she comes across as fairly flat without an engaging narrative voice. The breaking of the trio emphasises this lack of development further; we don’t get much time to see them bouncing off one another, or invest in their relationship. As the story moves away from the school setting, we see less of the background girls who seemed so full of potential.

In short, things just… happen, without a lot of payoff.

The body horror is excellently written and one of my favourite parts of the book. There are gloriously creepy descriptions of transformed girls and strange things in the woods. There’s tension around the island and in the cliques, all built up as a ticking time bomb of female teenage fury waiting to explode into the second half of the novel. Sadly, the mystery falls flat. The author drops tantalising hints at the world outside of the Tox, but fails to deliver. The lack of resolution is disappointing, though the ending does leave room for a sequel, so maybe that itch for world-building will be scratched in the future.

There is also a secondary plot written from a different point of view which hints at hidden depths to a particular character, but again, lacking in payoff.

There’s romance, too, but it’s not the focal point of the novel. Our leads are unapologetically queer – “Even when she came out to me, it was like a weapon. ‘Queer’ she said then, as though she was daring me to disagree” – and directly address this in one of the most powerful lines in the novel. It’s great and so, so necessary to see a fiercely, unapologetically queer teenage girl in YA fiction and I fully appreciate that about Wilder Girls.

However, the romance builds, comes to fruition, clatters to a halt and subsequently isn’t mentioned again. It’s almost treated as an afterthought. The true feeling of love comes from the main character and her missing best friend, which is touching, but if you were expecting an explicit queer romance set against the backdrop of a horror story, you’re out of luck.

Wilder Girls seems to have a mixture of reviews on the extremes of those who either love it or hate it, so it’s worth checking out just to see for yourself. There are good bits, namely in the body horror and setting and raw potential, but it’s hard not to be disappointed, as as it’s certainly not the modern Lord of the Flies that was promised.

Rating: **

Danika reviews The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce edited by Angie Manfredi

The (Other) F Word edited by Angie Manfredi

This isn’t an entirely queer collection, but it refreshingly diverse. There are eleven queer contributors, which is about a third of the entries! LGBTQ Reads just put up a post that has notes from these contributors about their entries, so you can check that out if you want more details. There are also lots of indigenous authors and authors of colour, which offers a much more complex look at how being fat is experienced in different contexts by different bodies.

When I was a teenager, I read Fat!So? by Marilyn Wann, and it had a profound impact on me. It introduced me to the idea of fat positivity, and Wann exuded happiness and confidence and whimsy from the pages, which made it feel possible to accept my own body. It continues to be something I work on, but since that time, my relationship to my body has improved dramatically. I am so happy to see The (Other) F Word, because I know that this book will be able to serve that purpose for teens growing up now. And even better, this book can reach so many people because it represents a variety of perspectives.

Honestly, just the inclusion of photos of all the contributors is so nice to see even now, but it would have blown me away as a teenager. They show fat people looking proud, happy, fashionable, artistic, and confident. They are different sizes and races, with their own styles and personalities. A Korean American plus size fashion model poses sweetly in a bikini on the beach. A black fat femme journalist smiles from their professional head shot. A fat white artist and activist wearing a cat-patterned shirt smiles in her selfie. One of the things that helped me become more fat positive was following fat tumblrs and blogs, because just seeing people happy in their fat bodies is revolutionary.

I’ll be honest: this isn’t a book focused on queer content. Usually in collections like this, I will pull out the queer pieces and talk about them in depth, but although there are a lot of queer contributors, it’s usually mentioned in passing. I don’t think that’s a drawback, but it is a departure from what I usually review at the Lesbrary, so I wanted to be upfront about that.

I think this is an essential addition to any high school library, or any book collection teenagers have access to. Between the poetry, anecdotes, advice, and humour, there will be something here for anyone to connect to. This is really a book that could change lives, and I hope it gets into the hands that need it.

Mallory Lass reviews The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding

The Summer of Jordi Perez

CW: Body shaming and homophobic mother, elaboration at the end

Spoilers: Spoilers marked at the end for the first 35% of the book

I’ve been wanting to read The Summer of Jordi Parez ever since I attended a 2018 ClexaCon panel where Amy Spalding was a speaker. What jumped out at me during her panel was that her book featured a protagonist that was traversing both queerness and body image issues. Having dove head first into the world of lesfic romances in 2016, and ultimately reading so many books with conventionally beautiful protagonists, I have been seeking books with character representations closer to my lived experience.

Abby “Abbs” Ives is a plus size fashion blogger in the summer between her junior and senior year. She’s the daughter of Norah Ives of “Eat Healthy with Norah!” fame and her older sister Rachel is preoccupied with college life and her new boyfriend. Her best friend Maliah also has a new boyfriend, Trevor, and Abby feels destined to be alone. She’s just started her dream internship at a boutique clothing store, Lemonberry and has a major crush on her surprise co-intern, Jordi Perez.

Jordi Parez could be described as a misunderstood artist. She is a photographer with a penchant for wearing black, but not necessarily in a goth way, she has more of a New York artist vibe. When Abby and Jordi first meet outside the boutique for their internship, Abby doesn’t even know Jordi’s name, or that they attend the same high school. Neither of them knew there would be two interns, and they soon find out that they are fighting for one job at the end of the summer. Little does Abby know, that is the least of the complications ahead of her.

This book is written in first person from Abby’s point of view, which I mostly enjoyed. My only complaint is that she can be really self-deprecating (which other characters point out), and while I understand it does fit the character and the story Spalding is telling, I found it grating at times. My lived experience of being seventeen years old seems so far away from me now, and I didn’t always relate to Abby’s anxiety-filled daydreams, or love of fashion, but it did give me a glimpse into everything Abby was thinking or feeling and really allowed me to go on the journey with her. I felt the chaos and joy of Abby’s crush and the momentum of her relationship with Jordi as it progressed, and that was accentuated by the narrative choice Spalding made.

There are some gems of life advice in this book, and Spalding has a way of grounding all of this wisdom in casual conversation and observation which I find relatable even as an adult reader. It is definitely not preachy, and that’s a bonus. Abby’s summer is a modern coming of age journey filled with social media and text messages and also descriptions of kissing as something unknowable because it’s a thing you do. Spalding has a beautiful way with words, and all the while it still feels authentic from a seventeen year old. Some of the lines are adorably cheesy, for example: “I can’t tell the bass drum apart from my thudding heart.” The easy dialogue and great concept make this an enjoyable and quick read.

There is a fun supporting cast of characters. With Abby and Jordi’s families, their friend groups, and their Lemonberry co-workers and boss Maggie all getting space on the page, Abby’s life is dimensional and complicated. Her relationships are changing around her and that is one thing I really loved about this book. The interpersonal plantonic and familial relationships really shine, even when they are not in a positive place.

If you, like me, fell in love with Jared in the indie hit Booksmart, you’ll probably enjoy the relationship between Jax and Abby. Jax is the queer platonic friend everyone wishes they had. Abby and Jax have great banter and are building their relationship around what Jax dubs being “friends-in-law” (he’s best friends with Trevor, and Abby is best friends with Maliah who are dating) and I’m totally stealing that. If you want a story about coming into yourself, navigating evolving friend groups, familial challenges, and your first girlfriend – this is a book for you.

Content Warning (with spoilers)

The portrayal of Abby’s mother Norah is very real, but could also be really triggering for some readers. She “forgets” Abby came out as a lesbian, and fails to apologise for it. She essentially asks her to go on a diet. She plays the “why are you making our relationship so difficult” card a lot and is generally not a supportive mother to Abby. She has a skewed idea of what it means to be healthy, what healthy body acceptance looks like, and doesn’t understand how to connect with Abby in an authentic way. Based on other characters support of her I don’t think it’s a case of an unreliable narrator, or that Abby’s view of her mom is very far off from reality. Norah makes an attempt at smoothing things over, but the damage has been done and in my opinion can’t be repaired in one day by words alone, but actions over time. If you have unsupportive parents, you might want to pass on this book.

Spoilers

Abby and Jordi get together in the first third of the book, and their budding relationship is really romantic and age appropriate. I liked the way Spalding built up Abby’s crush on Jordi, and how she brought them together. Abby gets to explore the age old question of “How do you tell if a girl is into other girls?” with different characters – tl;dr attending a Tegan and Sara concert doesn’t make you gay, but it should go in the plus column. Overall, I found the pacing enjoyable and I didn’t spend the whole book waiting for the other shoe to drop or some big conflict to happen but you’ll have to read for yourself to see if Abby and Jordi can survive the summer.

Bee reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Spoiler Warning

Trigger Warnings: body horror, gore, violence

The things I heard about Wilder Girls before I picked it up:

  • Lord of the Flies-esque, but with girls
  • Body horror
  • Secrets and lies
  • Queer girls

And needless to say, I was sold. If the ethereal and captivatingly disturbing cover weren’t enough, these tidbits promised something dark and twisted that appealed to my love of the grotesque and monstrous girls in love.

Wilder Girls centres on the students of Raxter, an all-girls boarding school on an island off the coast of Maine. The school has been quarantined after an outbreak of an untraceable disease called the Tox, which manifests itself in different ways for whoever contracts it: second spines bursting through the skin, scales growing over limbs, unhealed blisters and sores which ooze and bleed without relief. In the worst cases, the Tox turns the girls feral and violent, forcing their peers to put them down like animals. The core trio of girls are Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, close-knit friends who distance themselves from the others for their own protection. Hetty is connected to Byatt like a sister, and secretly yearns for something more with Reese, which is threatened when Hetty is put on the team which collects the shipments of supplies and rations from the mainland, and becomes privy to some dark truths.

In reading Wilder Girls, I was consistently reminded of the movie Annihilation–yes, that one with Gina Rodriguez with an undercut, a tank top, and a big gun. The blending of nature and bodies, the twisted manifestations of the Tox, reminded me a lot of the visuals in the film. There are also mutant animals which threaten the girls’ lives; there is a particularly memorable scene with a disfigured bear which is a little too reminiscent of the scene from Annihilation. However, the similarities weren’t a problem for me. I loved the film and its aesthetic, especially the way it presented twisted depictions of bodies and a rawness in all its women. After watching it, I definitely wanted more. Wilder Girls gave it to me. Rory Power’s descriptions are evocative and visceral, creating that same rawness which worked so well for me in the film. Maybe these similarities are subjective, but I do think it’s a worthy comparison, especially if you were a fan of the movie. I may have to pick up the book by Jeff VanderMeer to see if the similarities are that concrete.

There are obvious differences, too. The relationships between Byatt, Hetty, and Reese are a major drawcard; they are strong and complicated, and the girls are all sharp in their own ways, making for compelling reading. The attraction between Hetty and Reese isn’t soft by any means: it’s a rough sort of yearning, with a desperation that I feel we don’t normally see in YA. It, like the rest of the book, is dark–and it’s deliciously appealing.

The ultimate answer of what the Tox is, and the involvement of a navy research base, did seem a bit rushed to me, and left me with more questions than answers. If you are looking for a book which neatly ties everything up and reveals the entire mystery to you, then this is perhaps not a good choice. But I did enjoy that as more plot points at revealed, the conspiracy deepens and the desperation heightens. One thing that can definitely be said about the characters is that none of them are perfect, and none of them are selfless. In fact, they are all selfish in their own ways, and it makes for some realistic and believable reading.

Wilder Girls, for me, is a highly recommended read. It is a violent representation of girlhood of a kind that is rare in fiction, and deserves to be celebrated. It helps that the characters are well realised and have depth, and the whole thing is grounded in female friendship. It is also served well by Power’s frank and unrelenting prose. This is a book which I feel can tempt even people who don’t usually read YA–fans of horror in general should find something to like. I for one am definitely looking forward to reading more of Power’s work in the future.

Danika reviews Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan

Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan

What a great summer read. Lou is gearing up for The Best Summer Ever, and even being cast as the hot dog at her summer carnival job doesn’t break her stride. Sure, her crush is literally dating the Princess of the park, but she’s got a plan to snag this diving pirate for herself. And as for the apparent closing of the park, which has been one of the few constants in her life, she is determined to find a way to save it. When she ropes her best friend, Seeley, into fake dating her, Lou is surprised to find that her various schemes aren’t going exactly to plan…

I love this queer rom com YA. Lou is a flawed character that I couldn’t help but root for. She is determined to have control over her life: she is going to get the guy and save the park, no matter what. She can have a one-track mind and miss the obvious because of it. She’s also dealing with her fears of abandonment (her mother left when she was about ten). She makes bad decisions, but I understood why she was making them, and she (eventually) learns from them.

This turns into not just a love triangle, but a love pentagon. And the fake dating trope is a staple in fanfic for a reason! This has a slowburn element that can be infuriating, but also very compelling. I loved that there are a variety of queer characters, and also that there is complexity to even the peripheral characters. You get the sense that even if they’re not on the page much, they are living their own lives with their own narratives.

This balances well between feeling summer-y while also having some drama and angst to keep pulling you in. I highly recommend it!

Danika reviews In the Silences by Rachel Gold

In the Silences by Rachel Gold

While Rachel Gold usually writes about gender and sexuality, In the Silences expands this by also tackling race. Although it does have a non-binary, genderfluid main character who is discovering and accepting their gender identity, it is just as much about Kaz learning about race, racism, and whiteness. While I originally was a bit worried about a book so much about race being written by a white author, as the book went on, I realized that it is much more about whiteness. Kaz’s best friend and love interest, Aisha, is black (and bisexual), and by listening to Aisha and seeking out resources, Kaz begins to realize the impact that race has in their small, mostly-white community.

Kaz and Aisha are both comic book fans, and Kaz relates to both their gender and the concept of racism by relating it to comics. The voice that whispers racist thoughts in white people’s minds is Apocalypse, a comic book villain who has brainwashed people. Kaz attempts to understand how to fight against this force, and how to help their loved ones see that it exists. Kaz lives with their mother, brother, and grandparents. Their grandmother is progressive and accepting, helping Kaz to process this information and taking their coming out in stride. Their mother and brother are a different story, though, and Kaz struggles to figure out how to get through to them.

In the Silences really explores the day-to-day of microaggressions and unrelenting racism, particularly anti-black racism. (Of course, as a white person reading a book written by a white author, I can’t speak to the authenticity of these depictions.) Kaz is the point of view character, so we see Aisha’s experiences through their eyes. Kaz is slowly awakened to the daily, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant discrimination that their best friend faces. Aisha wants to be a doctor, and at every turn she is underestimated and her intelligence is doubted. I especially liked the attention the story pays to stereotype threat, and how often Aisha is placed in impossible situations, where she must devote so much mental energy to navigating others’ racist perceptions of her, leaving her little room to do anything else.

At the same time as they are learning about race, Kaz is exploring their gender, and beginning to accept being non-binary and what that means. Aisha and Kaz are able to find commonality in their identities being erased, but they also recognize their very different experiences and work to become allies for each other. They look out for each other, and they put in the work of trying to understand each other. In one scene, Aisha has printed out pictures of black female doctors and other role models to help her feel less alone (and combat stereotype threat). At the same time, she offer Kaz examples that she has found of non-binary people and communities through history–combating Kaz’s isolation.

I feel like what Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness does for small children, In the Silences does for teens. I still haven’t found a lot of books like these two, which recognize that it is white people’s responsibility to learn about racism and fight to change it, and especially to educate each other. This is much-needed, and I hope that it finds its way into the hands of the people who need it.

Megan G reviews Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton

Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton

Megan hasn’t spoken in months. Not since that horrible day. She worries that if she starts talking, she won’t be able to stop, and there are some things she simply cannot tell anybody. Except suddenly Jasmine moves to town; kind and talkative Jasmine. And for some reason, Megan finds herself wanting to speak again.

This is one of those typical young adult books that those of us who enjoy YA eat up, and those who don’t roll their eyes at. I have to be honest, I think I would have rolled my eyes a bit if the main couple hadn’t been two girls. It’s just that type of YA book.

I mainly picked this book up because the main character’s name was Megan, and I have to admit that I did enjoy her as a protagonist for the most part. She’s obviously very internal, as she doesn’t speak, but Rushton still manages to do a good job of displaying her character through her inner thoughts and her actions. My only frustration about this is that at times her actions can feel random and quite jarring, and are never truly explained beyond the overall theme of “she’s sad and lonely.” These moments seem to be there more for the sake of drama than to truly advance Megan as a character.

Jasmine, Megan’s love interest, is very interesting and enjoyable overall, but at times falls a little flat. Again, this is a very typical young adult book, so of course the love interest at times feels like she’s there for little more than to be the love interest. Still, as far as young adult love interests go, she’s decently entertaining and at least somewhat fleshed out.

All the young adult cliché’s aside (which, honestly, are not much of a deterrent for me, especially in queer YA), the main thing that frustrated me about this book is that there is a background male character who is assumed to be gay, and bullied because of this at random intervals throughout the book. Halfway through the novel the author seems to forget about him, so the last we see of him is him running from homophobic taunts while Megan thinks to herself that she’s glad she isn’t the one being bullied for once. I’m a big fan of mlm/wlw solidarity, and that was severely lacking in this particular book. I almost rather that tiny little subplot hadn’t even been included, as it doesn’t really add anything to the story and just made me feel annoyed.

Still, overall this is a cute and charming little story with a bit of a mystery to it and a sweet wlw love story. It’s a fast read that I think any YA-loving wlw will enjoy.

Megan G reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Each year, the Demon King is presented with eight young women of the lowest caste — the Paper caste — who will serve as his concubines for a year. While some girls dream of being selected, it was never in Lei’s plans. Her family has already suffered enough at the hands of the Demon King. Despite her reluctance, however, she soon finds herself in the position of Paper Girl, ripped from her home and family, wondering how anybody could see what she is being forced to do as a privilege.

I was immediately impressed by Girls of Paper and Fire due to the inclusion of trigger warnings at the beginning of the book. The author herself warns readers that the book deals with issues of violence and sexual assault, allowing readers to decide before even starting to read if this is the book for them. I’m beyond thankful that these types of warnings are becoming more common, and seeing it at the beginning of this book made me feel sure that these topics would be handled well within the story. They were.

The world presented in this novel is incredibly original and clever. It is a perfect blend of fantasy and reality, feeling incredibly believable despite the fact that a large amount of the population of this world are literal demons. The way Ngan describes everything is incredibly vivid, too. I often felt as though I were watching a movie instead of reading a novel.

The characters are layered in the most wonderful ways. Although there are issues of internalized misogyny that play out throughout the story, they are dealt with genuinely, treating all parties as people who have value despite their flaws. Girls are not written off as merely jealous or petty — they are given reasons for the ways in which they act, as well as possibilities for redemption. It’s actually quite refreshing for a YA novel.

The protagonist, Lei, goes through an incredible amount of character development throughout the story. She’s extremely likable despite some frustrating qualities, and is very easy to root for. You want her to succeed, not simply because she’s the protagonist but because her worth shines through. She’s strong and courageous, but also weary and at times frightened. First and foremost she is human, making human choices and thinking human thoughts. Because of it, she sometimes does things that make you want to smack her, but don’t all young adult heroes do such things? Like with all the characters, it’s refreshing that she’s allowed to have flaws and make mistakes without immediately being labelled a failure or worthless by the narrative. She’s allowed to grow and learn, and it’s wonderful to experience.

I don’t want to say much about the love story because I feel it should be experienced as I did — blindly and with complete surprise. It’s not easy to see at the beginning who the love interest will be, and it was wonderful to read how it developed without knowing anything in advance. I promise, it’s worth the vagueness and mystery.

One small warning is that this is the first book in a trilogy, so of course the story is not completely finished. Still, I felt incredibly satisfied by the story told here, and am anxiously awaiting the release of the second book so that I can once again lose myself in this fantastical world and in Lei’s life. I cannot recommend this book enough.