Megan G reviews Pulp by Robin Talley

Pulp by Robin Talley cover

Janet Jones and Abby Zimet are two lesbian teens living in Washington DC, separated by sixty-two years. In 1955, Janet discovers lesbian pulp fiction and finds herself truly represented for the first time in her life. In 2017, Abby decides to complete her senior project on lesbian pulp fiction, becoming obsessed with one particular author: Marian Love.

This is the second Robin Talley novel I’ve read in a short period of time, and to be perfectly frank I think I am falling in love. Her writing pulls me in from the moment I open the book and has me wanting to keep turning pages deep into the night, even when I know I will regret it in the morning. Her characters are real and independent, always having unique and powerful voices.

In Pulp, Talley does a magnificent job of contrasting the difference in the lives of two lesbian teenagers living in the same city only sixty-two years apart. While Janet struggles with the constant threat of being discovered (which would effectively ruin her life as she would lose her place in college, her job, and would be cut off completely from her family), Abby struggles with an ex-girlfriend who doesn’t seem to want to get back together as much as Abby does, and her parents’ inescapable divorce.

I will be honest – at some points in the novel, I felt frustrated with Abby because of this. Janet’s problems felt so much more real and life-altering, whereas Abby continually made poor decisions because of something that most likely over 50% of the population experiences. Talley deals with Abby’s parents failing marriage and the threat of Janet’s homosexuality being exposed with similar weight, which I felt was wasn’t completely fair. Yes, the point is that even though Abby doesn’t have to deal with as much oppression regarding her being a lesbian she still has problems, but those problems feel trivial when compared to Janet’s experiences.

Still, despite my frustrations with this comparison, I did appreciate that Talley allowed Abby to be a flawed human being. She doesn’t make perfect decisions (and she often doesn’t even make good decisions), but she grows from her mistakes, she learns from her failings, and by the end of the novel it is more than clear that she is headed down a good path.

The only other thing I was a little iffy about is that, in having Abby and Janet’s stories run concurrently, there was often a fair bit of repetition. [minor spoiler] It’s clear that Janet is Marian Love, the author that Abby becomes obsessed with. Often chapters told from Janet’s perspective mirror whatever Abby has just learned about her in the present, which can feel a bit redundant [end spoiler].

Overall, I found this book to be engaging and thought-provoking. Seeing the way lesbians were treated back in the 1950’s is horrendous, but also incredibly important. Getting to contrast that with the life of a modern lesbian, who came out at fourteen and is part of a friend group where everybody is queer, feels even more important. The message of this book is clear, and vital: don’t forget where we came from, and especially don’t forget who fought for all the rights we have in the present. Some of us younger queer people (myself included) often forget how things were, and how they still are in some parts of the world. We never, never should, and this book illustrates that perfectly.

WARNINGS: homophobia, internalized homophobia, sexism, misogyny, compulsory heterosexuality, heterosexism

Marthese reviews Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen

Her Name In the Sky cover

“Her stomach hums with the familiarity of it all”

Let me start with a short disclaimer: This is not a ‘holiday’ read, but for people that want to read something angsty and somewhat deep, this may be what you are looking for. Her Name in the Sky follows Hannah, a teenage girl that goes to a Catholic school and who is in love with her best friend, Baker. Baker may love her too, but for sure it’s not going to be smooth sailing! Something happens that is a turning point in the book, in Hannah and Baker’s lives and for their friend group.

Hannah’s friend group consists of Baker, Hannah’s sister Joanie, Luke, Clay and Wally, and together they are the six-pack. They have teenage shenanigans and are overall great friends. This book is one big angsty wound that you cannot help but love. It’s full of questions that most religious people would have asked – it’s very realistic in its sadness. However, the cute moments are plentiful – both the romantic ones and the friend one: organizing small parties in their friend’s style, cleaning up together, touching shoulders and calling each other shortened named and sleeping over, all small things that are as cute in reality as in the book. In the first half of the book, there’s a lot of banter as well.

Hannah is competitive. She goes back and forth between not wanting her feelings and accepting them. She cares deeply for Baker and her friends, although she does not always show it.

Baker is kind and smart. She feels a lot of pressure and tries to do what she thinks is right. Baker, for all her ‘level-headedness’ can be a bit dramatic! Both Hannah and Baker have lashed out in the book, but this is due to them dealing with the big elements of God and society and their feelings.

Religion is a big theme in the book, which is what makes this book even more angsty for me as I come from a Roman Catholic background.

The parents in this book were wonderful. They may not understand exactly how their children feel and their wake-up-calls may have been a shock but they are supportive of their children and they love them. It’s so easy to fall to hate, as we see in this book but the parents don’t do that.

Hannah and Baker date two boys from their group. As friends the boys are great apart from certain moments which they apologize for. As romantic partners, they are problematic and selfish – especially one of them.

There is one instance in the book where Hannah deals correctly with offensive language which was meant to be a joke. I felt so proud that it was addressed! Hannah and Baker, when they are on speaking terms have a healthy relationship. Baker asks for a little drink? Hannah gives her a little; compared to other friends who offered her more. These small instances are what makes you as a reader, root for them. Both also chose to work on themselves before getting together – that is very healthy and the kind of literature that teens should be exposed to.

There’s a big time elements, the teens are at a stage where they have to move for college. Will their whole life change? Do they have to change? There’s a lot of confusion as well: who is right?

I listened to this book as an audiobook and apart from the story, the narrator is really good. She does many voices and each character is recognizable. The acting is superb; crying voices, constricted voices, gentle voices–all voices are done well! I highly suggest this as an audiobook.

Although this book is listed as YA, I doubt it is. There are some adult elements and the theme feels too heavy. However, it’s a book that teens and other ages can read for a realistic depiction of the struggle between faith and same-gender attraction and how institutions and support-systems help of hinder in this struggle. This book is not light, but it’s a great read. Get ready some tissues!

Guest Reviewer Marieke reviews Summer of Salt by Katrine Leno

[this review contains plot spoilers and discussion of rape]

The first half of this novel reads like a landscape painting and the second half reads like a murder mystery featuring an emotional climax, with a sweet but slightly underdeveloped romance sprinkled throughout. In a town on a small nondescript island, magic and salt are always in the air. Georgina Fernweh is the twin sister to Mary, and she’s the only living Fernweh whose magic has apparently not yet manifested itself. This, combined with the fact she’ll leave the island for the very first time when she turns 18 in late August, means her summer is set for the perfect coming-of-age tale.

The first half of the book mostly concerns itself with worldbuilding and character introductions. While the absence of a strict plot makes for slower pacing, it’s done gorgeously and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the life of Georgie. We get to follow the relationships and quirky behaviours of Georgie and Mary (who could not be more polar opposites), their mother, and the cook (the Fernwehs run a B&B) as they prepare for the tourist season. We meet some minor local characters, some of whom endear themselves immediately (best friend and proud aro/ace Vira) and some of whom leave a bad taste in the mouth (side-eyes Nice Guy™ Peter).

Over the course of the book a sweet romance blossoms between Georgie and Prue (one of the tourists), with some adorable hiccups: while Georgie is out (alternately using ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ to describe herself), she still needs to figure out if Prue is interested in women. Prue explains she’s only known she’s not straight for about a year and she doesn’t use a label for herself, but she’s definitely attracted to men and women. In a lovely montage of Georgie coming out to those she cares about individually, all of them accept her, but she also realises that she doesn’t know what Prue’s life off the island is like. This is the clearest indication that Prue is unfortunately underdeveloped as the main romantic interest.

At the midway point there’s a very stark shift in tone [minor spoilers moving forward] as the island discovers the murdered body of their main attraction, 300-year-old bird Arabella. Suddenly rain won’t stop pouring down, to the point that the weather becomes a character of its own. Mary is acting strangely, and most everybody suspects her of killing Arabella. Georgie teams up with Prue’s brother to prove Mary’s innocence, which makes for a budding friendship. While this half is more action-driven, it never loses the magical tone or the family focus which form the heart of the story. As the murder mystery format dictates, there is a final unveiling, and it is not a pleasant one. I’ll leave you to discover the details in the book, but [major spoiler] Peter raped Mary. [end major spoiler]. Leno treats this topic with great care. It was painful to see Mary turn completely into herself and disappear, so her choice to eventually share what happened to her becomes all the more poignant. As a result, the reader is presented with a bittersweet ending in Mary’s resolution and an open-ended conclusion for Georgie and Prue.

I wish we could have explored the various minor characters a bit more, especially Prue and Vira and the ways they care about Georgie and the island. Still, this does not take away the fact that The Summer of Salt is a lovely book with an oddball murder mystery, vibrant background characters, so many different types of female connections, a great boy & girl friendship, wlw and lesbian and aroace representation, organic integration of magic, and gorgeous worldbuilding.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com

Quinn Jean reviews The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady's Guide Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee cover

[Warning: this review contains plot spoilers and discussions of violence and bigotry depicted in the novel; namely major characters experience misogyny, racism and homophobia in 18th century European and North African settings. Also this book is a sequel to Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue so beware default spoilers for that book too].

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is the treat it is due to the three main women at the centre of the novel. Felicity Montague is a well-travelled young white noblewoman in 18th century England who is in exile from her wealthy family and desperately trying to find a school or mentor who will let her train to be a doctor. Of course her gender precludes her admittance to anywhere in the country, or even Europe, despite the fact that Felicity is fiercely committed, highly intelligent, and hardworking. She is led to team up with Sim, a mysterious young black sailor travelling with mutual friends who offers to help Felicity pursue a promising opportunity that’s in continental Europe. Sim has the tenacity to match Felicity’s and both women acknowledge and appreciate the other’s intelligence and individuality. Rounding out the trio is Felicity’s childhood friend, Johanna, a fellow white European noblewoman who loves feminine fashions and frippery as much as studying natural sciences, though her family values her only as someone to marry off. All three of these women exemplify strength, cunning, kindness, creativity and intelligence, and their burgeoning respect for each other, and subsequent friendships, are nuanced and gorgeous.

Sim is a black Muslim woman from Algiers who identifies as attracted to women while Felicity decides she doesn’t like romance with anybody, though she loves her friends passionately. Both women, but particularly the former, are important and beautiful representations in a story set in a colonial 18th century world, and both the WLW and ace/aro themes are very sensitively portrayed. No one meets a grisly end due to their sexual orientation but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of high stakes and adventure, and it’s refreshing that having the one doesn’t mean sacrificing the other. The heroines travel through no less than five or six countries in the course of the book, and have encounters with pirates, dragons, mercenaries, cannon blasts, and menstrual blood stains on ballgowns (surely more terrifying than anything else on that list). The novel consistently feels breathless and urgent while never rushing through plot points and the high stakes always feel legitimate when the women are fighting for what they want and need. The central bond between the three main characters is most of what grounds the action and provides deeper resonance than just a fun “swords-crossed, indignant damsel” sort of caper.

Petticoats is a great book because the women get to drive their own stories, both by being the focus of the book in the first place and because they take charge of their destinies within the narrative. It shouldn’t be groundbreaking that two of these women, at least, are also not straight and this side of their identities is included as an important part of their arcs, but it is. And Sim and several other characters of colour in the story, in addition to multiple disabled characters, are further very welcome evidence that period pieces have no excuse to be exclusively white, male, straight and abled when it is historically accurate and incredibly simple to include diversity. A sequel portraying more of Sim’s adventures on the high seas, with or without Felicity and Johanna, would be another stellar contribution to historical fiction about WLW.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover

The night I was born, the attending nurse turned to my mother with a weird expression on her face. She noted that I had long delicate fingernails, and already a head of black hair; that a trail of fine baby hairs ran down my spine. “In the old days, you know, they’d have said she was a werewolf.” she told my mother. Mom, exhausted, laughed it off. It became a family story to tell later on–born on Halloween night, and a werewolf to boot! “In the old days,” Mom would laugh, “they’d have drowned you.”

It didn’t become a bitter story until she disowned me for being queer. “Why can’t you just choose to be straight?” she said. “I did. Why do you feel like you have to stand out like this?” In the old days, they would have drowned me. Now I had to find a way to keep my head above the waves.

In Hal Schrieve’s YA novel Out of Salem, everyone is treading water with a secret to keep. High school freshman Z’s just found out that they’re nonbinary–just in time to get into a car wreck with their entire family from which only they emerged, battered and freshly undead. Their classmate Aysel is Muslim, in 1990’s rural Oregon where anything but Christianity is a sure way to be ostracized–and she’s a werewolf, unregistered, which could easily be a death sentence if she gets caught. Their friend Tommy is constantly being accused of being either gay or an actual fairy, and while neither of those things is true, it doesn’t matter to his abusers. Even seeming just a little bit out of the norm is enough to put a target on his back.

And things aren’t about to get any less complicated for any of them when a local doctor is found dead. The police say he was murdered by a werewolf, throwing the town into an uproar of vigilantism and abuse against the other which is easily recognizable in today’s political climate. Every metaphysical minority is living in fear. The teenagers don’t feel that they have any reliable adults to turn to, or that if they tried, they’d only endanger them, so they have to handle things on their own.

I’m writing this review very narrowly, because I feel like this book was just that good. I don’t want to spoil any part of it. It’s urban fantasy of just-a-minute-ago, the Nineties as they almost were, but it’s also YA for people who weren’t born yet in the year it takes place; it balances teenage passion neatly against the now-slightly-foreign world of our past, only slightly sideslipped into the fantastic. Before cell phones, before the panopticon of stoplight cameras, but in a world that was not less dangerous to people who stand out. There’s a constant sense of being just a moment ahead of being caught, of barely outrunning the real monsters, and one can only keep running at that speed for so long before one’s energy gives out and something has to break.

I appreciated that the characters aren’t without teenage flaws. They’re all going through real, heartrending troubles in their daily lives, but also they make some choices out of inexperience that you’d believe a fourteen-year-old might make if they felt their back was against the wall. They reach for what small happiness they can find, they trust or mistrust, and none of it feels stilted or contrived. It all just feels like survival.

I was taken a bit aback at the first use of the word “transsexual,” as it’s not a term I’ve seen in sympathetic literature for a long time now. But it was the word used in the Nineties, and so it is the term used in the book. But of course the author isn’t unaware of that:

“Z, Aysel told me you were calling yourself like, genderqueer or something these days, right?” Z was a little taken aback by the conversation. “I guess,” they said. “Yeah.” They tightened their hold on Elaine’s shoulders. “The words change a lot,” Elaine said. “Doesn’t really matter.”

What matters more than the terminology, quoth the story, is the soul behind it, and these kids are figuring things out one mistake and injury and accidental insult at a time.

I was consistently balancing between amused at the bluntness and impressed at the deftness when it came to the use of metaphor in the story. Z’s a zombie, and they’re trans; more than once I’ve heard a trans friend tell me that their friends and family keep treating them like they’d died when they came out, and some other thing was shambling around in their skin. Aysel’s lycanthropy is treated a lot like I’ve experienced queerness being handled by the religious right, as something monstrous, something that needs to be caged or electrically shocked out of a person before they can be allowed in society. It was all on-the-nose enough that I got a bit of a tension ache between my shoulderblades. I so badly wanted the protagonists to find a way to freedom and safety, but what does that look like when the entire world is arrayed against you? And which of those needs do you choose, if everyone is telling you that you have to choose one or the other?

Even while all of society is insisting that the protagonists must be like them or die, even while most of the characters don’t see any way out but to run, the narrative suggests quietly that there’s another option. That there’s another demand for the characters to make. That building a community can build safety; that refusing to back down can protect someone else; that maybe you can transform the world into something new, something that has room for you in it, if only you are brave.

Final rating, a very rare-for-me five out of five stars.

Content Warning: Discussion of graphic injury to animated dead body (painless, but explicit); homophobia (from the bullies); physical abuse (same); mild mention of anti-Muslim bigotry; fat-shaming (bullies, again, these guys are *winners*), electroshock aversion “therapy,” racism, police violence (repeatedly), off-screen but explicit police murder of civilians.

Megan G reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah feels like she’s always on the off-beat. She loves to draw but is so self-conscious she barely shows anyone her drawings, let alone allows herself to think about selling them for money. Her mother is much younger than the parents of her friends, and currently dating a man Leah thinks she is way too good for. She’s bisexual, but is uncertain about coming out to her friends, even openly-gay Simon. And, to top it all off, she’s starting to get feelings for someone she really shouldn’t – someone that could cause tensions in her friend group she really doesn’t want to cause. Sometimes it feels like the only part of her life that is on beat is her drumming.

Leah on the Offbeat is what I like to call a Sequel-But-Not-Really. It takes place in the same universe as Becky Albertalli’s debut novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda and includes the same characters. Instead of being told from Simon Spier’s perspective, however, it is told from Leah Burke’s. This is what adds the “But-Not-Really” to the Sequel, because by placing ourselves in Leah’s shoes instead of Simon’s, it feels like we’re entering an entirely different world.

One of the things I loved the most about Simon vsthe Homo Sapien Agenda was how honest and realistic Simon’s voice came through in the writing. This easily became the thing I loved the most about Leah on the Offbeat as well. I don’t know how Albertalli managed to get into such different character’s heads so perfectly, but she did it. Leah is nothing like Simon, and yet she is just as real. It never felt like I was reading a piece of fiction. Instead, it was like someone was narrating their life to me (even more-so considering I listened to this as an audiobook).

In her realism, Leah is just as frustrating as she is encouraging. The biggest thing that holds Leah back throughout the entire novel is herself. Almost every bad decision she makes is born out of a lack of self-confidence and anxiety, and is therefore self-inflicted, which can sometimes make it difficult to feel sorry for her. The good thing about this, though, is that Leah grows. She becomes more confident as the story goes on, more self-aware, and less likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the time the story ends she still has a long way to go, but she’s moving forward. It’s incredibly satisfying.

The love story is my other favourite thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much, because if you haven’t read this book yet then you deserve to experience every moment of Leah falling in love for yourself, because it’s amazing, and hilarious, and cringeworthy, and messy, and so, so, so worth it. It was more than I could have hoped for, and I hoped for a lot.

Because I read this as an audiobook, I feel the need to include a small bit of praise for Shannon Purser, the reader. I found she did an amazing job at bringing the story, and Leah in particular, to life. She had great inflection and was super clear. I highly recommend giving it a listen!

Overall, Leah on the Offbeat not only holds up to its predecessor, but I would go so far as to say surpasses it. Leah is charming, and frustrating, and kind, and obnoxious, and warm, and real. She’ll worm her way into your heart and force you to cheer for her, even when you don’t want to. She’ll throw you right back into your teenage years, for worse and then for better. She’ll remind you of what it’s like to be a young girl falling in love with a girl for the first time in all the best ways.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

Shira Glassman reviews “The Dresser and the Chambermaid” by Robin Talley

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover
I’ve been really lucky in my reading material these past few years. The blossoming of affordable queer lit on the indie book scene as eBooks and social media marketing transform how we find each other has validated my adolescent needs in the best of ways. However, once you’re finally fed, and your needs met, that’s when you notice that some of your more specific preferences are still eluding you.
That’s me with queer costume drama. Basically, thanks to a childhood drenched in the glorious excesses of operatic theater, I long for our presence in 17th and 18th century adventures. I want big skirts and glitter and palaces. But for some reason, probably thanks to Austen, Regency romance (early 19th century) completely dominates the world of historical/costume drama fiction whether the main characters be queer or not.
Frankly, I didn’t think I’d ever get my Baroque romance.
But then Robin Talley’s story, “The Dresser and the Chambermaid”, in the recently released queer YA historical anthology All Out, satisfied all my most specific, most picky, most “can I get this with a salad instead of fries?” needs all at once. I am so happy with this story, even though it’s only a short story. Let me number the reasons.
1. It takes place in the early 1700’s. As I said, we never get to play in this sandbox in our romantic reading, usually. Or any other reading, for that matter! I’ve searched on Goodreads and with few exceptions (like Escape to Pirate Island, another f/f fave rec of mine) the books set during this era tend to be about people coping with the current political situation instead of the chiefly personal ordeals that comprise much of escapist weekend reading.
This story, however, is not about that. This story is a Baroque-set story that yet manages to be about people dealing with their own lives, and not European royalty bashing each other over the heads with ideological and economic bludgeons. You know, like the eight hundred and fifty trillion Regencies! (Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the hell out of them and can rec a couple. BUT STILL.)
So what does that mean for the reader? It means you get: Baroque excess in terms of setting (glittering palaces, ballrooms filled with huge dresses you have to walk through the door sideways in, frou-frou wigs). This pleases me.
2. It stars working-class women! Yes, I know: a historical romance where BOTH leads work for a living? Amazing. Which means they are totally relatable even in this day and age, and plus, we should be supporting reading about regular people in general. Obviously I love a good princess, and this story has other cool royalty moments, too, but I like supporting this as well. It fits my values.
3. A historical romance between two women where the fact that they’re both women IS NOT PART OF THE PLOT CONFLICT AT ALL. For me, this is glorious. The plot conflict instead of is the bumpy road to better employment, and the possibility of professional jealousy. Now, it’s not set in some kind of alternate reality where Baroque England was magically Hip and With It. They’re just playing it secret and subdued like they would have if they were real. As do the other gay characters in the story, because:
4. The two leading ladies aren’t the only queer rep! There’s a gay man who’s one of the servants and he has a crush on one of the upperclass dudes, but that particular upper class dude is dating another upper class dude, and the little lesbian servant commiserates with him about it and it’s just so adorable and real and reminds me of the wlw row at my temple (yes, we have a row) and the way we all interact.
If I haven’t sold you yet, let me add that:
5. There is a ton of other f/f rep in this book from all over history and I enjoyed most of it. Dahlia Adler’s story “Molly’s Lips” is set just after Kurt Cobain died, and the girls are supporting each other through it. There is also ANOTHER Baroque-era story, this one set in colonial America involving two teenage girls who run away from their respective marriages (to dudes) to become lesbian pirates. I also loved the jazz-age one about the child actress who’s grownup now and not a movie star anymore, who meets a waitress who’s still star-struck by her even though she’s no longer a household name. And there’s great trans m/f rep as well but I’m not going to discuss that in this review for obvious reasons; I will eventually review the whole book though so stay tuned if you follow me on social media.
So: thank you, Robin Talley. I’m so glad this one little short story is a thing. To other writers: if you’re planning something like this, please keep me on your radar and let me know once it’s out!
Note to readers: because it’s from a major publisher, All Out is more likely to actually already be at your local library than some of the indie lit we usually discuss here. I am so happy for those of you who benefit from this because of parents or money that usually keep you from queer lit with happy endings.
Shira Glassman’s latest release, Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor, is a high-heat f/f romance between a superheroine and the damsel-in-distress she keeps rescuing. She has written one Baroque romance of her own, “Gifts of Spring” in Queerly Loving Vol. 1, but it’s m/f starring a trans woman mage and a Jewish acrobat, not f/f, so be aware if you read exclusively f/f.

Quinn Jean reviews The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson cover

[Please note: this novel contains occasional depictions of violence and this review mentions these in the first and final paragraphs]

Like its eponymous heroine, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza defies categorisation. Hutchinson’s novel never doubts the reader’s intelligence and jumps right into the centre of events at the start. Elena Mendoza is introduced as a sixteen-year-old bisexual Latina woman working at a Starbucks in a small town in Florida, who witnesses a teenage boy shoot her long-time crush and abruptly learns she has the power to heal people. The crush is a blue-haired artist called Freddie who unwittingly becomes part of Elena’s journey along with Elena’s best friend Fadil, a kind and thoughtful Muslim boy. Everyone who is exposed to the mystery of Elena’s healing ability offers her opinions on how to solve the puzzle and who to help with her power, while Elena is most concerned with keeping her loved ones safe and not hurting anybody, while also trying to figure out if Freddie maybe likes her too now. A side note to all these extreme events taking place early in the story is that Elena was the product of a virgin birth when her mother was a teenager, with science proving Elena was a statistical anomaly and was conceived through parthenogenesis. Elena has been bullied and stigmatised her entire life as a result of her famous history, which all leads her to question whether these otherworldly occurrences are miracles, science, coincidence, or something else entirely.

A novel with plot points this complex even just at the beginning of the narrative is bound to deal with countless themes, and Elena Mendoza does not disappoint there. The book trusts the reader to have the patience and focus to follow the various characters and story points and at various times Elena’s first-person narrations discusses the significance of religion, science, and ethics in the matters at hand. A big part of Elena’s growing bond with Freddie is the two of them debating and exploring different understandings of why Elena can heal and when and whether she should be healing people. There are times when the book comes off a bit patronizing, with Elena’s self-righteous rants about how to be a good person and treat other people fairly, but this could arguably just be intended as the character’s perspective rather than the author’s.

And despite the Big Idea monologues sometimes verging on being sanctimonious, for the most part Elena is a compelling, likeable and relatable main character who more than deserves her own young adult novel to lead. Elena herself points out that if her powers are God-given, she is an unexpected vessel as a queer woman of colour; the same is unfortunately true of YA protagonists. Similarly, the religious, big-hearted and open-minded Fadil is a wonderful foil to Elena’s sometimes pessimistic, doubtful and misanthropic tendencies. Their loving interfaith, interracial friendship as it is portrayed in the novel is as refreshing as it is rare.

Elena’s bisexuality and interest in Freddie is an important and key element of the story, without reducing either character to the role of pursuer or love-interest. The often prickly and inconsistent interactions the two girls have as a result of extreme circumstances are not romantic in any traditional sense. The way Freddie and Elena are forced to confront their preconceived ideas of the other and listen to uncomfortable truths explodes old notions of how intimacy and love are formed, and the novel and their bond are both better for it.

This novel is not exclusively young adult, or fantasy, or a queer love story, or a meditation on how to be a good person. It is all of those things and a lot more, all crammed into a relatively small amount of pages. Do note that the novel contains brief references to domestic violence and racism as well as the aforementioned gun violence. Ultimately aside from the odd preachy moment, the book is an excellent piece of writing, exploring important themes through engaging with very likeable and relatable characters.

Megan G reviews Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember

Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember cover

Located deep in the heart of Nazwimbe is a safari unlike any other. Tourists and researchers come from all around the world in hopes of catching a mere glance at the incredible creatures who roam nearby. The Harving’s, a father-daughter team hailing from Echalend, have come specifically in search of the mystical white unicorn, a creature they have spent their life studying. They are assigned to Mnemba, a sixteen-year-old tour guide who knows the safari like the back of her hand, and who has come to work for the safari after a tragedy drove her from her home. For Mr. Harving, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. For Kara Harving, this is her final chance at adventure before being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. For Mnemba, this is simply business. As their time together progresses, however, it becomes clear that this tour will be none of the above.

One of the things I most enjoyed about Unicorn Tracks was the world building. Nazwimbe is an incredible country, and it’s amazing how much Ember conveys about its customs and beliefs in this short novel. I never felt overwhelmed by the amount of information given, as it is weaved so seamlessly into the story. Not only do we learn about the culture of this fictional country and its different towns, we also meet an array of incredible creatures, all of which are mythical in our world, but roam free in the plains of Nazwimbe. Often I felt as though I could see the creatures directly before me based on Ember’s words. It was as though I was on the safari alongside Mnemba and the Harving’s.

It takes a bit of time for the plot to get moving, but once it does it pulls you in. It’s unique, and exciting, and does an incredible job of showing the character of our protagonists without ever making it feel like too much. Once things get started they advance at a steady pace, bringing you to a satisfying conclusion in a way that feels natural. Again, I felt as though I was living this adventure alongside our heroines.

In the romance, Ember tackles some heavy issues, though for the most part I feel she does so well. Mnemba and Kara come from different worlds, and their clashing cultures cause tension occasionally. They learn to work together, though, both in their adventuring, and in their private lives. Although the story takes place over a short period of time, their romance unfolds sweetly. It does feel a bit fast, and yet it also feels natural that they would feel such strong affection for each other after everything they’ve gone through.

As I mentioned, this book does deal with heavy subject matter. Warnings include rape, physical assault and violence, sexual harassment, slavery, and animal cruelty. While these issues are dealt with well for the most part, there is one moment where [spoiler alert] Kara and Mnemba are becoming intimate and Kara comes across as quite insensitive to Mnemba’s traumatic past. This moment of insensitivity is never fully dealt with, and feels odd, as she has been previously quite supportive [end spoilers].

Overall, Unicorn Tracks is a delightful novel set in a fantastic world, with a sweet romance, and an intriguing plot. If you think you will be able to handle some of the heavier issues dealt with within the story, then I highly recommend it.

Ren reviews Great by Sara Benincasa

Great by Sara Benincasa cover

TW: Suicide

Every summer, Naomi Rye leaves her home in Chicago to spend her holidays with her mother in East Hampton; a condition of her parents’ messy divorce. Her ambitious mother Anne built a multi-million-dollar cupcake empire from nothing, and now Anne climbs the ranks of the social elite with the same drive. Anne also believes that the easiest way to secure a powerful place in the inner circle of the Senator’s wife, is through their children. From a young age, Naomi is forced into playdates, dinners, charity events and everything in between, with the senator’s daughter Delilah. The summer Naomi turns seventeen, Jacinta – the mysterious summer tenant next door – throws a lavish party. She invites Naomi in the hopes that their new friendship will bring Delilah into her life in turn. Sound familiar?

This modern twist on The Great Gatsby was a delight, through and through. I may have a bit of a bias; I read Gatsby for the first time at the age of thirteen, and it has held a very special place in my heart ever since. It was the first book I read in which I hated every character, and still came through moved by the power of the prose. Gatsby taught me that a writer could fill pages with selfish, ugly people, and still create something beautiful.

Once Great came to my attention, I couldn’t not read it. However, there was some initial concern that without the prose, I would just be left with a bunch of rich people whining and making bad decisions. I mean, honestly, guys, I didn’t even make it past the first season of Gossip Girl. But man oh man, did Sara Benincasa pull it off. Her attention to detail is marvelous, and she keeps the tale from becoming stagnant with a small – but key – number of original side characters. Naomi’s parents and her hometown best friend Skags are not given large roles, but they keep things fresh and interesting.

 In that it’s a book fashioned after one known for its vapid, superficial characters, there are a few icky things to note; number one being the ‘positive’ speech about pursuing thinness and envy of people surpassing “even LA thin.” Anyone with body image-related issues or disorders may want to proceed with caution. There is also a heavy dose of homophobia from the rich folk, and Naomi herself plays the Poor Straight White Girl card on occasion – though her butch best friend is quick to call her out on the behaviour.

All in all, Great is a wonderful, true to form take on The Great Gatsby. It’s short and dark and perfectly suited for an afternoon of wallowing on the couch. Just keep in mind that it isn’t the sort of book one goes for when looking for a fluffy pick-me-up.