Danika reviews This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

I’m grateful that we are finally starting to get YA (New Adult?) books like this. Queer YA in the last few years has really grown, including having more queer people of colour represented (although there is still much more needed). This Is What It Feels Like is so different from the kind of queer YA that was coming out just 5 or so years ago. It follows three teenage girls who have just graduated from high school. A few years ago, they were inseparable, and they played in a band together. Then, Hanna’s alcoholism landed her in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Meanwhile, Dia’s boyfriend, who she was just starting to get close with, was killed in a car accident. Weeks after the funeral, Dia finds out she’s pregnant and decides to keep the baby. Hanna and Dia walk away from each other, and Jules sides with Dia. Now, their city is holding a music competition that includes a $15,000 prize, and they just might have a chance to win it–but it means getting the band back together.

Who doesn’t love a “getting the band back together” book, especially when it’s literal? Dia, Jules, and Hanna are all complex people, and the conflicts they have with each other are nuanced and understandable. Dia told Hanna that she couldn’t be around her baby because she couldn’t be trusted–but the real reason they drifted apart was because Dia was terrified to lose anyone else after Elliot died, and it’s the same reason she isn’t dating the boy she’s in love with. Hanna has been sober for over 400 days after going through rehab, but she’s lonely and feels like she can never be good enough for her parents. And Jules is caught in the middle, while she’s also trying to figure out a new relationship while carrying around the damage from her last one.

The three of them have a lot to work through, but I was relieved to see that they do talk about their problems. They air their grievances in a reasonable time frame–this isn’t one of those “Why don’t they just talk??” books where the only conflict is miscommunication. The problem is that they have a lot to work through, and it takes time, and more than just one conversation. They have to keep bumping up against these ghosts from the past and processing it again. I loved the realism of their relationships with each other, which are flawed and difficult, but also are the grounding forces in their lives.

This also has a great f/f romance (and a good m/f romance with Dia, to be fair). Jules meets her new coworker, Autumn and immediately has an all-consuming crush on her. If you’re allergic to instalove, you might not like that, but I think you’ll come around if you stick with it. Autumn has never been attracted to a girl before, so she’s working through that a little bit, but mostly they have an adorable beginning to their relationship. Unfortunately, Jules is working through her own issues: her last relationship was not great, and she’s a little too fixated on trying to have the perfect relationship with grand, romantic gestures instead of concentrating on what’s in front of her. Although they fall for each other quickly, they have to work at their relationship. (I have to share this cute line: “All she could see and feel and think was this girl and maybe she wasn’t really in love yet, but oh, maybe she was.”)

I am gratified to find a YA book with a teen mom where it isn’t the main focus of the book. My sister and my mother both had their first kids young, at 19 and 20 (which isn’t as young as Dia was). They also both went to an excellent school for pregnant teens, so that’s been something I’ve been acutely aware of since I was young. It is a very difficult and challenging thing to do, but it’s nice to see a depiction of a teen mom who is balancing raising her kid with school and being herself. Like Dia, my sister lived at home when my niece was young, and we all helped out. I liked seeing Dia able to be a young mom who still was pursuing her dreams and planning for her future.

I highly recommend this to anyone. I appreciated how layered and complex the relationships all are here, and I felt like I really got to know Hanna, Jules, and Dia. There’s also, of course, the thread of music running through, which is what they are all passionate about, so there’s another entry point into this story. Also, there’s an adorable toddler who is a fan of a dog named Waffles, so what more could you want? Of course, this whole review is for naught, because you should all be picking it up based on that gorgeous cover alone.

Danika reviews Pulp by Robin Talley

Pulp by Robin Talley cover

I have been anticipating this book for a long time. I collect lesbian pulp, and I’m fascinated by the history of this period of lesbian literature. Pulp is a YA novel from two perspectives: Abby, a modern day out and proud lesbian, and Janet, a 1950s teenager just discovering that she’s a lesbian, and what that means for her life. Both of them discover lesbian pulp at the beginning of the novel, and it inspires them and their writing, though in different ways. I had very high expectations for this, and I’m happy to say that it lived up to them.

First, I have to talk about the pulp aspect. This is something that I really nerd out about, and it’s not often that I bump into someone else as interested in lesbian pulp as I am. So I was delighted to read about Abby discovering pulp–the wonder at the over-the-top but incredible covers, the initial disdain then growing appreciation for the genre as a whole, and the fascination with how these books fit into real people’s lives, authors and readers alike. I could relate to Abby’s obsession, is what I’m saying. There are also great easter eggs, if you are a lesbian pulp fan. Not only are real pulp titles name dropped (including Satan Was a Lesbian, which I have as a canvas print in my living room!), but a ton of the characters have the last names of famous lesbian pulp authors/pen names, including Aldrich, Sloane, Hastings, and Bannon (“Bannon Press” is the publisher’s name). And no wonder: not only did Ann Bannon (author of The Beebo Brinker pulp novels) have a blurb on the front cover, she also gave notes on an early draft of this novel!

But enough about my own obsession. Into the actual story! I thought it was balanced nicely between the two perspectives. They mirror each other in some ways (both lesbians, both authors, both enamored with a particular lesbian pulp novel), but they have very different personalities and settings. In Janet’s timeline, I appreciated learning more about the Lavender Scare, particularly in Washington, DC. I had heard of it before, but seeing how it infiltrated every aspect of these people’s lives was chilling–the smallest thing could mean being outed as a “homosexual” and therefore a threat to the nation. You could lose everything, just because someone thought your haircut was too short or that your friendship was too close. You could never let your guard down. Although I liked both main characters, I was particularly drawn to the present day protagonist, Abby.

I should have known I’d like Abby, just from all the reviews that mentioned hating her. I’ve found that any female character who expresses pain is usually seen as annoying by reviewers. Abby is in a horrible sense of stasis: she’s about to graduate, but she can’t even think about college. College means change, and change means acknowledging that her family is falling apart. Abby’s parents are barely home–always travelling for work–and they’re never home at the same time. Meanwhile, Abby’s girlfriend broke up with her last summer, and although she assumed it would be short-term, they don’t seem to be getting back together. When Abby discovers lesbian pulp, she latches on to one particular novel with a happy ending, becoming obsessed with it and the author. This is the kind of love that lasts forever–and what’s the point of love that doesn’t last? Abby is in a lot of pain, and as long as her parents refuse to acknowledge what’s happening, her and her brother can’t begin to process it.

I also enjoyed a lot of the side characters in Abby’s story. She has an out lesbian teacher! (I’m about to become a teacher, so that stood out to me.) One who is knowledgeable about lesbian pulp and can advise Abby on her project revolving around that topic! Abby also has a queer group of friends, including bisexual and non-binary characters (one who uses they/them pronouns). Abby is Jewish, and there are Black and Brazilian side characters as well. And one tiny thing I liked: Abby and Linh (her ex-girlfriend) bonded over reading m/m fanfiction before they dated! That’s how me and my high school girlfriend got together!

I really appreciate this book. Lesbian pulp is something close to my heart, so I hope that this novel introduces queer teens to it, so they can discover the ridiculousness and appeal of it themselves. Personally, I loved Abby as a main character. She is hurting, so she may not always make the best decisions, but that just means that when she does finally break through–when she does begin to face the difficult changes in her life and even embrace them–it’s all the sweeter. Highly recommended!

Megan Casey reviews Tank Baby by Iza Moreau

Tank Baby by Iza Moreau cover

The short review is this: “Tank Baby is the first book in a marvelous new series that has the potential to, much like Nancy Drew did for past generations, capture the hearts and minds of young readers searching for a role model.” But because nothing is as simple as it sounds, here is the longer review:

Elodie Fontaine was born in Shanghai and for the first 7 years of her life, was part of her scientist mother’s secret project to see if children could learn computer code as a first language. But Elodie’s mother died before the project came to fruition and Elodie was adopted by the interracial lesbian couple Sandra Croft and Carmah Williams (who are, in fact, the main characters in Moreau’s earlier novel, The 5).

Ten years later, Elodie is a normal high school senior—a member of the tennis team and Math Club. All thoughts of her early childhood have almost disappeared when she begins to get strange messages referring to her mother’s project. Somebody wants the notes for that project and, it seems, will go to any length to get them.

Elodie is intrigued, but somewhat annoyed. The last thing she wants to do is get involved in a mystery that will take time away from her studies, her tennis, and especially her just-blossoming romance with her doubles partner, Kelli Ennis. But when she, Kelli, and their friend Margo are threatened, she has no choice, even though it means dredging up unwanted memories and shuffling through thousands of pages of code to figure out what worth the project might have to anyone.

And so he girls are off on an exciting adventure complete with an attempted kidnapping, threatening email messages and phone calls, and a mysterious death. And, of course, the budding romance. The mystery and its solution are both intricate and compelling; the romance both flirty and touching.

The allusion of Moreau’s series to Nancy Drew is subtle, barely more than a hint, but there is just enough there to imagine that the ghost of Nancy is looking down from a nearby staircase and smiling. Like Nancy, Elodie hangs out with two friends—Kelli and Margo, she drives a snazzy new sports car, solves mysteries, and is seemingly unable to swear. But that’s pretty much where the similarity ends except for the dynamic, narrative-driven cover that even has a cameo of Elodie on the spine.

While Nancy, George, and Bess are straight (although I have my suspicions about George), Elodie and her friends are all members of the Gay/Straight Alliance at their high school. Yes, there is some homophobia and yes, there is a coming-out scene, but these are side issues to this novel. Tank Baby is all about the mystery and the relationships between the friends. In other words, it is both character driven and plot driven. A nice combo.

As far as I know—and I am a long-time close observer of the subject—the projected Elodie Fontaine Mystery Series is the first-ever Young Adult mystery series featuring a lesbian sleuth. That in itself is worthy of attention. That Tank Baby is an enjoyable first foray into Elodie’s world is a promise of good things to come. Am we won’t have long to wait for the sequel. In the tradition of the original Stratemeyer syndicate that produced the bulk of juvenile series novels in the early to mid twentieth century, the first three Elodie novels will be released almost simultaneously. According to the author’s blog, the next novel is coming in March and the third in May. I like Elodie and Tank Baby a great deal; but more than that I like the idea of a YA mystery series that LGBTQ youth can call their own.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher through Lesbrary.

Another note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Marthese reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

“Something tugs in my chest. I feel strangely offbeat”

Leah on the Offbeat is the second book in the Creekwood series by Becky Albertalli and it follows Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (on which the movie ‘Love, Simon’ was based). While it may be worthwhile to read that book first it is not necessary to understand this book but it gives you more familiarity with the characters in this book. Disclaimer – the first book is not Sapphic but follows a gay teenage boy in his search for  the boy he was sending emails to, and it’s cute as cotton candy.

Leah is the protagonist on this book. She’s a badass drummer – expect some music references – who loves her body even though people expect her not to, because she’s fat. Leah is also insecure and has a tendency to pull away when things get too much. She also stands up for social justice and knows not to take shit, although she may also be too stubborn – good thing her mother is also stubborn. She is so realistic, you’ll find yourself asking ‘is this me?’

Leah is bi and she has known this for a long time. Her mother knows and is the most supportive mother ever – even is Leah may be embarrassed or find her overbearing. Her friends however, don’t know even though they for sure would be supportive seeing as there is a gay couple in their friends’ group. Once time passes, it may be hard to say something, like you missed the chance for it and this is absolutely believable. Even though you know it will be okay, coming out is scary.

Leah’s heart beats faster when Abby is around. Abby who she had been really good friends with and then avoided one on one interactions with her. However, Abby and Leah cannot afford to go to universities/colleges far away so they are both going to Georgia, which bring them closer back together. There is just one problem: Abby is her best friend’s girlfriend/ex-girlfriend!

Abby is super-sweet and talented and seems to be flirting with Leah, which confuses her.

This was a five star read. It’s similar to other books in plot but it was also very fresh. Yes there is an element of confusion – it’s YA! But the characters, especially Leah, know themselves. A lot of bi struggles were mentioned in the book which again was refreshing. The book itself will make your heart beat in a pattern of gushing, angst and comfort – a really nice composition and you just want to keep on reading. It’s easily a one sitting book.

Leah’s descriptions and her actions are also very entertaining. Like she would be me if I went to a formal event because she does something that is very laughable but realistic! As a high school story, the book ends with prom. For me, Leah was basically Belle and Abby was basically Cinderella.

This is a book I’d recommend for anyone. The only thing that I didn’t like about this book was that the term ‘hot mess’ was repeated a lot! Apart from that Albertalli really has teenage-speak down and it’s a lovely story with realistic characters and actions and while it’s a simple story, it will take you for a ride. I really wish they make a movie about it too though they have changed some things in the ‘Love, Simon’ movie already.

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

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.

Quinn Jean reviews Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough

[warning: this review references sexual harassment, bullying and victim blaming as depicted in the novel]

If you’ve ever wanted to read an intersectional feminist lesbian love story about teenage girls pulling off a political art hoax, then this is the book for you. In all seriousness, this is a brilliantly written novel about two very flawed, very likeable young women who don’t yet know all that much about themselves or each other until they cross paths at a pivotal time and end up starting a social movement in their repressed private girls’ school. Will is an artsy, middle-class, highly-politicised loner who despises being at Rosemead Grammar, while Harriet is a rich, high-achieving, athletic do-gooder who is disappointed that the school she adores so much is letting certain issues slip through the cracks. Somehow they find each other in the mess that is high school, realise they’re the perfect team and create an alter ego (Amelia Westlake) through which they can express their critique of various toxic cultures at Rosemead.

Despite their compatibility as artists and social commentators, Will and Harriet butt heads on basically everything and can’t seem to figure out why they’re so obsessed with each other. Certain friends and family act throughout as foils to Harriet and Will’s self-deceptions about each other and their own self-images and the book doesn’t hesitate to point out hypocrisies, privileges and moral corruption inherent in every area of both girls’ lives, including in well-meaning projects like Amelia Westlake. Both lead characters begin to talk frequently to themselves and others about ideas around ethics and politics, and Harriet and Will’s bond feels genuinely deepened and complicated by getting to know each other and themselves on this journey. It is relieving that neither Harriet nor Will are under any illusions about their sexuality, though, and both have been comfortably out since well before the novel’s events take place. This saves extra room in the book that might have been spent on a coming out narrative to instead be devoted to humorous arguments and unambiguous sexual tension. Additionally Will’s inner monologues as she begins to realise her feelings for Harriet are solid gold and relatable for any stubborn young woman who surprised herself by realising she’s falling in love.

Amelia Westlake largely deals quite well with sensitive issues like bullying, racism, classism, homophobia, and white privilege, and for the most part does the same with sexual harassment. However, there is a series of scenes where one character encourages another to come forward with a complaint as a way to help others. In these interactions it is implied by the other person that the victim being spoken to has a responsibility and shares culpability if another person is harassed because she has not spoken up. This verges dangerously on victim blaming. It is not clear if the author believes this is the appropriate attitude to take when advising victims. Regardless it is a concerning depiction and one to be aware of when choosing whether to read this book. Additionally though there are prominent non-white characters in the book, the cast is still almost entirely white, cisgender and abled while the text is mostly about privilege, power and politics. These are not necessarily incompatible elements but it would have been good to see more representation of marginalised peoples in a book so deeply concerned with empowerment and justice.