Danika reviews She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen

the cover of She Drives Me Crazy

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If you want a teen romcom in an F/F YA book, this is the read for you!

I’m getting caught up on 2021 reviews, and I listened to this several months ago and don’t remember a lot of details, but what more do I really need to say than that and also showing you that cover?

Scottie is struggling to get over her ex-girlfriend, Tally. They used to be on the basketball team together, but Tally transferred to a wealthier school to get on the better team. Now, she acts like she’s superior to Scottie and barely acknowledges her, even when they’re playing against each other. While Scottie is still mulling over that disastrous game, she backs up into Irene’s car. Irene is a cheerleader who has been Scottie’s nemesis (whether she knows it or not) when Irene called to have Scottie’s car towed at a party, apparently just to be a jerk.

Their moms decide that Scottie will drive Irene to school until her car is back from the shop: a solution neither of them is very happy about. Then Scottie decides that the best way to show up her ex is for Irene to pretend to date her–in return, she’ll empty her savings to pay for the damage on the car.

Yep, it’s enemies to lovers and fake dating! It is very much like a teen romcom movie: the two of them get to know each other over their music choices on the drive. They have miscommunication. They both open up about their insecurities. Scottie realizes that, despite being hung up on her toxic ex, maybe the girl she’s been looking for has been right in front of her this whole time. There’s also the “only one bed” trope. They even discuss teen romcom movies!

I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was a quick, fun listening experience! It’s cute, and the ending is cathartic and sweet.

Danika reviews A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

the cover of A Lesson in Vengeance

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I feel a little “dead dove, do not eat” about this reading experience. I went into it looking for a creepy, unsettling read and then finished feeling unnerved and unhappy about feeling that way. So while I didn’t enjoy this read as a whole, that’s down to my own choices. I also started listening to this in October, when I love reading horror and thrillers, but it expired when I was halfway through and I finished in about a month later. Likely if I hadn’t have had that gap in between, I would have enjoyed it more.

This is a dark academia YA novel about Felicity, who has come back to her exclusive/pretentious boarding school after taking a leave to take care of her mental health. Last year, her girlfriend died in a tragic accident. At the time, she’d been obsessed with Dalloway House’s history, with its murders and rumors of witchcraft. This time, she’s determined to set aside the attraction to witchcraft and concentrate on her studies.

That’s when Ellis shows up: a famous (teen) author who is writing about the Dalloway murders and pulls Felicity in to her research. Soon, she finds herself immersed in a world of magic and murder again, even as Ellis tries to prove the Dalloway “witches” were just ordinary women and that the murders could happen without magic. Felicity has more and more trouble telling reality from fiction, especially as she stops medicating for her psychotic depression (a diagnosis the author shares).

If you’re looking for sapphic dark academia, this definitely fits the brief. Dalloway House is a creepy boarding school, and the students are just the kind of pretentious academics you’d expect from the setting. They recite poetry in rooms lit by candlelight, they write their essays on typewriters and eschew cell phones, and they dress like they’re in a period piece.

Part of the reason I didn’t personally enjoy it was that I have a terrible memory and have a bit of a phobia of it becoming worse, so reading from the perspective of someone who often lost touch with reality was very unsettling. (Again, that’s not a fault of the book, but with what I brought to it.) Ellis and Felicity also have an unhealthy relationship, with Ellis being manipulative and often leading Felicity into dangerous territory for her well being, which was hard to watch, especially as Felicity seems to miss a lot of the red flags.

I don’t want to criticize the depiction of Felicity’s mental illness, because it is own voices, but I will say I was a bit confused comparing the author’s note (and her Goodreads review) with how Felicity is portrayed.

This seems to be a divisive read, but I will say many of the criticisms I’ve read are just of the premise or it being in this subgenre. This is dark academia: of course it has unlikable, pretentious, morally gray (at best) main characters. And no, you should not go to this book expecting a cute F/F romance. That’s not what it’s trying to do.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love it personally, I’d still recommend it to readers looking for a dark academic book. I also recommend reading the Lesbrary reviews from Carolina and Sinclair Sexsmith, who both really enjoyed this one, for some other perspectives!

Sam reviews Huntress by Malinda Lo

the cover of Huntress

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Winter is finally here, which means it’s perfect weather for me to re-read Huntress by Malinda Lo again. I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve read this book, but it must be close to a half-dozen—a number that stands out even for me, especially for a YA novel. Which isn’t to say anything bad about young adult literature! As a publishing category, YA is so broad that you can hardly say anything general about it at all. But, more often than not, I find that lesbian young adult novels tend to leave me feeling like there’s just not enough to really sink my teeth into. This is certainly not the case with Huntress, whose slow, detailed, and deeply emotional storytelling pays off in one of my favorite books of all time.

Huntress is the story of Taisin and Kaede, two very different young women who are tasked with saving their kingdom from a slow but devastating disruption to the natural cycles of the world. Taisin is an apprentice sage, whose studious and responsible nature sits at odds with a prodigious magical talent. Kaede, on the other hand, is proactive and down to earth; rather than striving towards an honored place in society like Taisin, she is trying to escape one. Both are well written and incredibly likeable, and almost until the end of the book it’s hard to say which, if either, is the true protagonist. Occasionally the narration will dip into the perspective of other characters for a paragraph or two, which always feels a little jarring, but otherwise the writing in Huntress is phenomenal. Though technically a prequel to Ash, knowledge of Malinda Lo’s debut novel isn’t required, as the story of Huntress is set several centuries earlier. Fans of Ash will find the Kingdom a much more overtly Asian-inspired fantasy realm than before—a welcome change that really helps Huntress come into its own as a novel.

I’ve joked before that the best fantasy books are road novels, and Huntress definitely fills that bill (although it might qualify better as an Otherworld tale in the Arthurian sense, but that’s splitting some very esoteric hairs!). The main characters spend the entire book making a long and perilous journey, and it is the act of travelling that serves as the engine for the story. The book takes its time, lingering by small details and never forgetting the quiet but meaningful moments other novels might rush past. The scenes from Huntress that stick most in my memory are curiously mundane, in the grand scheme of things; dumplings eaten in the rain, archery lessons in the predawn gray outside an inn, a humble feast for a daughter come home. Even the threats and challenges the characters face honor this attention to smaller things—on a quest to save a dying world, danger comes most often in the crossing of rivers, cliffs, and the deep woods. Huntress takes its time, and the book is far better for it.

Above all, however, Huntress is a story about love; the loves society expects us to have, the loves we choose, the ones we deny, and the loves that come unexpected and take us by surprise. The problem of love is raised in the very first chapter, where Taisin, through oracular vision, discovers that in the future she will fall in love with Kaede—a revelation that distresses her greatly, as she has striven long and hard to become a sage, who take vows of celibacy. Kaede, as a noble’s daughter, is expected to marry for politics, but she knows without question that there is no way she could marry any man. Conflicting expectations, desires, fears, and hopes make their relationship layered and interesting. Though it’s certainly no surprise that they fall for each other, the entire process is so carefully slow and naturally developed, I can hardly think of many other books that compare.

Huntress is all at once a rich fantasy novel, an enchanting fairy tale, and a compelling romance in perfect balance. If you haven’t read it yet, I can think of no recommendation I could offer so wholeheartedly and without reservation. So enjoy, keep warm, and I’ll see you again once the days turn back towards the sun.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Anke reviews Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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As we’re moving through autumn, Mooncakes is a warm cup of your favourite beverage in book form. If you are looking for a sweet, cozy and ultimately wholesome graphic novel to light up the darker season, you should turn to this adorable, modern-supernatural and intersectionally queer love story about family, belonging and taming one’s (very literal) demons. 

I’ve been in love with Mooncakes since its webcomic days on tumblr, since before it was published by Oni Press in 2019 in a revised version. Suzanne Walker, co-creator and writer of the story, has been a dear friend of mine since our shared fandom days. What’s stayed constant since then is her ability to completely ace the emotional beats of any story she chooses to tell, so naturally the same is true for Mooncakes. To match Suzanne Walker’s writing, Wendy Xu, illustrator and the other co-creator of Mooncakes, has brought the story to endearing, vibrant life and colour.

The story begins with a reunion: Chinese-American teenage witch Nova Huang, who works at her grandmothers’ café-and-magical-bookshop, encounters her childhood crush Tam Lang in the forest while investigating reports of strange goings-on one autumn night. Not only is Tam a werewolf, they are also fighting a demon designated to possess them by a creepy cult hoping to harness their little-explored but extremely powerful wolf magic. The story that unfolds features help from Nova’s grandmas Qiuli and Nechama (a married couple of Chinese-American and Jewish kickass old lady witches! Yes!), a bunch of black cats, enchanting forest spirits and emotional-support scientist Tatyana.

The sweet, uncomplicated romance between Nova and Tam, whose feelings rekindle as they collaborate to solve Tam’s demon problems, is a delight to watch. After a decade of missing each other, their budding relationship comes as a delightfully warm and sincere emotional backdrop that both heightens the stakes and adds depth to the story. Considering that the comic is rather short at 243 pages (and some bonus content), there is not much room for a complicated plot to top everything off, nor does there need to be. It’s all about the emotional and personal coming-of-age journeys of Nova and Tam, their shared affinity for magic, and how they come into their own during the events of the story. What endears the characters further to the reader is the fact that the intersectional representation that adds so much joy to the story is also intensely personal to the authors. 

In an article at Women Write About Comics, Walker describes Nova as an amalgamation between the two co-creators, explains how the story was always going to be queer, that Nova is bisexual and that Tam is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns (and it’s accepted by everyone in the story, including the creepy cultists). Nova’s hearing loss as a recurring motif of the story is treated with respect and finesse regarding characterization and worldbuilding, just as the comic as a whole expands on existing witch and werewolf lore in interesting ways. Magic, in Mooncakes, has no panacea to offer against disabilities, but they are accommodated rather than bypassed. Workarounds like nonverbal magic and an especially adapted wand let Nova practice witchcraft regardless of her hearing aids, a melding of tradition and innovation that reoccurs throughout the story and finds its echoes in other intersectional moments that always work toward the themes of family and belonging, growing roots and letting go. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Mooncakes concludes with an open but satisfying ending that should delight fanfiction writers everywhere with the potential it offers: Both Nova and Tam take steps into a self-determined adulthood, and we are assured that they will go there together. (end of spoilers)

Danika reviews The Girls Are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh

The Girls Are Never Gone cover

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I’m very picky when it comes to horror books, mostly because I’m a wimp and get freaked out very easily. When the weather starts to get a little chillier, though, I start to crave creepy, witchy, autumn-y books, and that’s when I start eyeing the horror section. The Girls Are Never Gone was a great choice because a) it’s sapphic b) it’s more atmospheric and creepy than all-out terrifying and c) there’s a water element to the haunting. I love haunted house books, especially The Haunting of Hill House (here’s my review of how it’s absolutely sapphic), and I’ve also been intrigued by underwater horror ever since I took an creepy deep sea museum exhibit ride as a kid. I mean, it was an elevator, but it was unsettling.

But you probably came here to read about the book. The Girls Are Never Gone is an old-fashioned haunted house story, but one with a queer disabled main character.

Dare was cohost of a popular YouTube ghost-hunting show with her boyfriend -but then he broke up with her, and now she has to start over. Her new project is a solo podcast where she investigates one story in longform. She’ll be investigating Arrington Estate, where years ago, a girl drowned in the lake on the property, and it’s been rumoured to be haunted ever since. Dare got an internship to help restore the house into a museum, and she intends to use this access to dig up the history of this place.

Dare is an interesting take on a ghost-hunter, because she’s both skeptical and hopeful about the existence of ghosts. She had to face her own mortality very young, when she realized she was dependent on medical intervention for her Type 1 diabetes (the author also has type 1 diabetes). Now, in addition to the medical equipment she keeps on hand, she also has Waffles: a not quite as useful service dog whose alerts are unreliable. She has had an interest in the afterlife for many years, and she would love to see a real ghost–but despite all of the investigations she’s done for the channel, she’s never found one. Dare looks for scientific explanations first. Still, she brings a whole collection of ghost-hunting equipment with her to the house, and she’s serious about the investigation.

There, she meets a fellow volunteer, Quinn, who also happens to the commenter who alerted her to the possible haunting–oh, and she’s a cute girl. Then there’s the third member of the volunteer team, Holly. All three of them develop an instant, easy rapport that serves as a nice contrast to the creepiness of the house.

Arrington Estate is a decrepit, falling apart house that always seems to be leaking water from the ceilings, regardless of weather. It’s beside a lake that seem more like an ocean: it has mysterious currents that make it unsafe to swim in, and it seems to be getting ominously closer to the house.

It’s a slow build, both in terms of the haunting and the slowburn romance. We first really get to know the characters, with a few weird things happening in the background with the house, like a glowing light in the middle of the lake or a glimpse of something in the mirror. It’s atmospheric, and even before anything particularly scary happens, there’s a real sense of Arrington Estate as a character with its own personality and motives.

I really enjoyed the podcast element — it reminded me of Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy (review), which is another queer YA with a bisexual main character who had a project with her ex-boyfriend and had to start over when they broke up! In both of these books, they nail the podcast excerpts: they really “sound” like podcasts–and ones I would listen to! The creepy atmosphere, on the other hand, reminded me of The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould (review), which I also really enjoyed.

I am very happy that sapphic YA horror is beginning to have enough titles to choose from! This is a perfect read for a breezy fall afternoon.

Certain things that will always mark a house’s age, things human hands can’t change or erase: echoes of laughter, late-night secrets shared, wishes made, arguments had, all absorbed into the walls. A house remembers everything it witnessed, down to its very foundation. And Arrington seems to have a particularly long memory— of what, I’m not sure yet.

Marieke reviews Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

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This book has been on the edges of my radar for a long time, and I’m not sure why I never got to it before now. Luckily I picked it when I was browsing through my ereader for something that might help to break my reading slump, with no idea what the book was about beyond it being a YA story. If I had known before starting that it was about schools integrating in the South during the 1960s, I probably would have skipped it, assuming something with such serious and intense subject material would be too much for me to keep going. I was very wrong about that, and hopefully I’ll be able to bear that in mind when picking future reads set during turbulent times.

This story follows Sarah and Linda, two girls starting their senior year of high school. Starting their senior 5 months late, because the governor of Virginia closed all schools in a bid to prevent them from integrating as was ordered by the Supreme Court five whole years before. When the schools are eventually forced to open and allow Black students, Sarah is one of the first Black pupils to attend. It does not go smoothly. I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen footage of the abuse Black children suffered as they walked up the path to enter their now desegregated schools, and this book does not shy away from the reality of the situation.

I found it extremely interesting to see that all of the students and their families were cherrypicked, and they were coached on how to handle this and any other situations they might find themselves in over the course of the school day and the year ahead. One of the main messages in this book is that despite all their goodwill and good intentions, the people on the outside can never understand what goes on inside the school grounds. It isn’t pleasant or pretty, and Sarah learns that in order for the whole movement to grow and move forwards, individuals will have to make personal sacrifices that are likely to go unnoticed by history.

Sarah is very good at self denial, but never loses sight of her own identity – even when she’s not sure how to define that identity. She knows she’s always had certain feelings for other girls, and she learned relatively early that those feelings are ‘sinful’ and ‘against God.’ When she has to join with Linda – a very popular white girl and daughter of the very conservative editor of the local newspaper – for a French group project, that self denial and testing of identity become very prominent. Linda is a staunch segregationist, but she’s also intelligent. She doesn’t want it to come out (and she especially doesn’t want it to come back to her father) that she’s working on a school project with a Black student, so they find a quiet space where no one will see them. While this escape from the public eye is for clearly racist reasons, it provides both Sarah and Linda with a space to speak more freely, even while they know they can’t have this kind of open discussion outside of closed doors.

It is the first time either of them can speak so freely with someone of a different ethnicity, and Linda especially is forced to reconsider some of the party lines she has been parroting all her life. As soon as someone asks her to use her mind and actually consider the implications and internal contradictions of her arguments, that starts a process within her that can’t be stopped. She carries her questioning mind into other conversations, with white peers and white figures of authority. This is not a straightforward journey, and for every step she makes forwards, she will make some kind of step backwards as well. It’s confusing for both girls, and the fact that they are both developing feelings doesn’t make matters any less confusing.

The relationship development between these two characters is the core of the book, and it is very strong and thoughtfully written. The author adds plenty of (well researched) historical background and notes, and fleshes out all main, side, and background characters well. This book makes you think a lot, about the insidious ways racism and other forms of bigotry work and interacted, with small throw away lines occasionally making you sit down and think through the various implications.

Content warnings: racism, homophobia, internalised homophobia, general bigotry, violence, physical abuse, domestic abuse, bullying, racial slurs, hate crime, religious bigotry

Danika reviews The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould cover

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Logan has lived her life on the road with her two dads, Alejo and Brandon, as they scour the country for locations for the newest episode of their ghost-hunting TV show, ParaSpectors. She and Alejo are close and their relationship is easy, but she’s always felt distanced from Brandon, and sometimes it seems like they outright dislike each other. When Brandon goes to his and Alejo’s hometown of Snakebite, he claims it’s to scout the location for the show, but when he stays for months without explanation, Alejo and Logan follow him. There, Logan faces a small town hostile to her as an out lesbian as well as to her dads. A teenager went missing when Brandon arrived, and the town is sure he’s involved. Then more kids start turning up dead, and Logan’s not sure even she trusts her father…

This is a creepy, atmospheric YA horror/thriller about a force possessing someone in a small town and getting them to kill teenagers. For the first half of this book, I thought I knew exactly where it was going, and wow was I wrong. Most of the story slowly unfolds, only raising more questions as it goes, and then the last chunk of the book is full of revelations and twists.

While I just discussed Logan’s story in the summary, this actually has two point of view characters (plus some asides narrated by The Dark). Ashley has lived her whole life in Snakebite, and she loves it here. Her mother is the backbone of the town, and she’s determined to follow in her footsteps. She has a close-knit group of friends, and her and her boyfriend, Tristan, have an idyllic relationship–or they did, until he disappears. While everyone else seems to either accept that he’s died or they think he just skipped town, Ashley keeps up the search. When Logan arrives, the town turn against her, but Ashley and Logan find an unlikely partnership. They both want to find out what happened to Tristan–Logan, in order to prove her dad innocent, and Ashley, to find Tristan alive.

Soon, as more bodies appear–including Ashley’s friends’–they begin to suspect something supernatural is happening. Ashley gets visions of Tristan and even of past happenings in the town. Brandon and Alejo seem to be keeping secrets about their past here, and Ashley and Logan are left on their own to try to solve this mystery before more people die.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought it worked really well in that format. I liked getting immersed in the unsettling world of Snakebite, and I was happy to let the story unfurl slowly because of that. Ashley and Logan are also really interesting characters. Logan has been out for ages and is very sure of herself and immediately angry at this town for its hostility towards her queer family. She’s unafraid to start fights and has no interest in getting on anyone’s good side. Ashley, on the other hand, has always been the placating kind, trying to be the perfect daughter, girlfriend, and friend. Tristan’s disappearance forces her to assert herself, because she’s the one advocating for keeping up the search. She is confused by Logan and her growing feelings for her. It’s this exploration of compulsory heterosexuality (not named, of course) that I found fascinating.

If you’re looking for a creepy read or listen, I highly recommend this one.

Shannon reviews Trouble Girls by Julia Lynn Rubin

Trouble Girls cover

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I’m always on the lookout for a good road trip book, especially during those hot summer months, and so, I was beyond delighted to run across Julia Lynn Rubin’s Trouble Girls, part YA thriller and part coming of age story. It features teenaged best friends who head out for a weekend camping trip and end up on the run from the law. A little over the top to be sure, but the synopsis totally hooked me.

Trixie’s life isn’t anything like she always imagined it would be. She’s seventeen, working way too many hours at a local diner, and doing her best to care for her ailing mother. She’s put most of her dreams aside to make sure her mother gets what she needs, and in a lot of ways, she’s simply going through the motions of living.

The one bright spot in her life is her friendship with Lux. Sure, Trixie would love it if she and Lux could be something more than friends, but she’s not sure if Lux would be open to that. For now, they’re best friends, and Trixie is beyond grateful for Lux’s presence in her life.

One Friday evening, Trixie and Lux decide to go camping for the weekend. It’ll give Trixie a chance to decompress, to let her hair down and be a normal teenager for once. Trixie wonders if this might be just the chance she needs to let Lux know she has a huge crush on her, but even if she doesn’t confess her true feelings, she knows they’ll have a good time just like always.

As you might imagine, things don’t go as planned. The girls decide to head into a nearby town before roughing it in the woods. Lux wants them to test out their fake ID’s, and she knows just the place to do it. Trixie isn’t nuts about the idea of spending time in a crowded club environment, but she eventually gives in. Not long after they arrive, a college student sexually assaults Lux, and Trixie stabs him in an attempt to defend her friend.

Now, Lux and Trixie are on the run. They know heading home is likely to mean jail time for Trixie, so they decide to head for California where they can start fresh. Trixie hates the thought of abandoning her mother, but she hates the thought of jail even more. She keeps telling herself she’ll eventually find a way to make sure her mom gets the care she needs, even if it takes awhile for everything to fall into place.

Trixie and Lux are not at all prepared for a life on the run. They’re not very street smart, and their good judgement is sorely lacking at times. Everything they do seems to end in greater disaster, and I found myself feeling overwhelmed on their behalf. And yet, I couldn’t look away from this book. Something about Rubin’s writing compelled me to keep turning the pages.

If you’re sensitive to descriptions of sexual assault, this may not be the book for you. Rubin doesn’t go into graphic detail about Lux’s assault, but it is one of the main forces driving the novel forward, and it’s mentioned relatively often. I thought she did a fantastic job depicting the various emotions survivors deal with on a daily basis without overdramatizing a potentially triggering situation.

My main problem with this book has to do with the ending which feels a little too ambiguous for my taste. I don’t need every single detail tied up in a tidy bow, but it’s nice to finish a book with a feeling of at least a partial resolution for the characters. Here, the author hints at what might happen to the girls, but I didn’t feel any real closure. It was almost as if she decided to leave it up to the imaginations of her readers, and that particular writing style just doesn’t work for me.

In spite of its unsatisfactory ending, there’s a lot to love about Trouble Girls. The action is practically nonstop, and I became quite invested in both Trixie and Lux. It’s a quick, diverting read, perfect for a summer afternoon on the beach or even a cool autumn night by a campfire.

Carolina reads The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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Buckle up, old sport! The Great Gatsby has entered the public domain, leaving the door open for any author to submit their take on Fitzgerald’s classic. A myriad of sequels, prequels and retellings of the novel have already been published in 2021, or are slated to be released in the near future. Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful dares to stand out from the other boats beating ceaselessly into the past, and charts a unique course as a trailblazing debut full of heart and originality through the eyes of The Great Gatsby’s enigmatic side character, Jordan Baker.

Amidst the glitz, glamour and gossip of the flapper scene, a magical Manhattan materializes in Nghi Vo’s debut, deftly weaving historical fiction and urban fantasy into a treatise on queer Asian American womanhood. Professional golfer and socialite Jordan Baker feels disillusioned with her peers of the upper echelon of New York society; as a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, Jordan must steel herself within a cool and collected façade to cope with her oppressive surroundings. As her friend Daisy Buchanan begins to fall for the mysterious Jay Gatsby, Jordan questions her place among her patronizing white friends as she discovers her true self and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.

Through Jordan’s perspective we lose the sugar-coating of Nick’s rose-tinted lens, exposing the true vanity and monstrosity of The Great Gatsby’s main characters. Daisy becomes an irredeemable white saviour while Gatsby’s incessant stalking and unquenchable lust for power is laid bare, offering an intriguing critique of white womanhood and masculinity. The novel acts as a character study of the intersections of identity: Jordan must reckon with each side of herself, as a woman, as a Vietnamese immigrant, and as a bisexual in the 1920’s to determine who in her life loves her for who she truly is, as microaggressions and blatant exoticism boil over the course of the novel. In this way, The Chosen and the Beautiful acts as a true retelling and re-imagining of the so-called great American novel: Jordan’s story is a reflection of the prosaic contemporary state of Americana, touching upon timeless themes such as  white fragility and model minority with candor and precision. 

The Chosen and the Beautiful is deliciously queer: Jordan refuses to hide her sexuality and regularly parties at gay speakeasies as Nick and Gatsby fall for each other, further subverting the iconic twisted love triangle of the original novel. The novel also goes further in depth into the social struggles of the 1920’s that create the context and worldbuilding for The Great Gatsby, including racism and homophobia, crossing lines that Fitzgerald steered clear of. By touching upon contemporary issues eugenics, Asian exclusion laws and early 20th century gay bar culture, the world of West Egg becomes infinitely more real and fleshed out. 

The world of The Chosen and the Beautiful is quietly imbued with magic: dandies sell their souls to the devil for a chance at wealth, performing troupes craft dragons out of  paper and ghosts and the undead walk among the living. Although I would have preferred a more concrete understanding of the magic system and a deeper exploration of the subplot regarding Jordan’s magic, I appreciated the infectious whimsy of casual magic built with beautiful prose, constructing scenes that will stick with the reader long after the book is over. 

Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance copy!

Content Warnings: racism, sexism, homophobia, internalized homophobia, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, substance abuse, alcoholism, death, cheating, abortion

Sapphic YA with Complicated Families

Sapphic YA with Complicated Families cover collage

Here’s a trope I didn’t realize I loved in a YA novel: complicated families. Whether it’s an unusual family configuration, strained parent relationships, or long-lost siblings, I love seeing queer stories that explore all the different ways biological families can look. I come from a very loving and supportive but also fairly complicated family, so this topic is close to my heart. So here are a few of my favorite YA books with complicated families!

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this one, because it was hugely popular when it came out! This is a story told in verse about two sisters: one in New York and one in the Dominican Republic. Yahaira lives in New York City with her mother and her father, and Camino only sees her father once a year, when he comes to visit the Dominican Republic–but they actually don’t know about each other until their  father dies.

This is a story about grief, but it’s also about trying to navigate those family secrets as well as finding out more about their father after he died, when they don’t have a chance to talk to him about it or understand why he kept those secrets.

This is a really beautiful story that deals with some pretty difficult subject matter. Camino, especially, is really struggling, and when her father dies, she doesn’t have that  same support and protection that she had before, and that leaves her vulnerable. One of the things I really appreciated about this book was the two main characters slowly starting to  figure out who they might be to each other. We only see the beginning of this, but it stayed with me. This is a beautiful book about the complicated forms that family can take. (Yahaira has a girlfriend, so that’s the queer content.)

You can read my full review here.

This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

This is one of my favorite YA books! It’s a literal getting the band back together story with an F/F romance subplot–who can resist that? This follows three teenagers in the summer after they graduated from high school. They used to be best friends and in a band together, but a lot of events transpired at the same time that broke them apart.

When a battle of the bands is announced, though, they have to figure out how to come back together to hopefully win a ten thousand dollar prize, which would be life-changing money for them. What broke up their friend group is that one of the main characters was struggling with alcoholism and was hospitalized. At that same time, Dia’s boyfriend died, and weeks later, she realizes she’s pregnant. So she decides she can’t stay in Hanna’s life as long as Hanna is really self-destructing and drinking so much, especially now that she is pregnant. They don’t talk to each other again until this summer that the story takes place.

What I really liked about this one is telling the story of Dia’s teen pregnancy and being a young mom. I come from a family of young mothers, and it is very difficult to be a young mom, but I also really appreciate stories that show how complicated it is and how you can still have this beautiful family that comes out of it. It’s a fairly small part of the plot, but it does show how Dia’s family came together to help her raise this child.

You can read my full review here.

How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

How To Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

This is a heart-wrenching story that is equal parts sweet romance of two girls falling in love and Grace’s difficult relationship with her mother. Eva, Grace’s love interest, has just lost her mom, and she finds comfort in conversations with Grace’s mother, Maggie. Grace feels pulled in several directions: she’s jealous that Maggie and Eva have a better relationship than Maggie and Grace, but she’s also nervous for Eva. Maggie can seem like a gregarious, generous person, but she is unreliable. Grace is the one who has to rescue her from dangerous dive bar situations. She’s the one who is pulled from house to house and Maggie moves in with short-term boyfriends.

Grace also feels like she’s at a crossroads. She dreams of being a pianist and has a crucial audition coming up that would secure her a place at a prestigious school, but she’s afraid of what would happen to her mother if she left her alone.

You can read my full review here.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert

Suzette and her brother Lionel used to be very close, but then Lionel started struggling with mental health issues and Suzette was sent away to boarding school. Suzette is bisexual and their family is Black and Jewish, so we see how those intersectionalities play out in Suzette’s life, especially when she was at boarding school, where she had a bad experience and was outed outed.

The focus of this story, though, is Suzette and Lionel trying to repair their relationship. There’s this gulf between them of that missing time–how they were both struggling when they weren’t in each other’s lives–and they’re having trouble getting back to where they were before. Some of the descriptions of this book talk about the love triangle where they are both interested in the same girl, but it isn’t really about that, and it’s not some sort of competitive love triangle. It’s much more about this sibling relationship and their complicated family, where they clearly both care a lot about each other, but are having trouble talking to each other about what’s happened, what’s changed in their family, and about how they can form a new relationship with each other.

You can read my full review here.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m danforth

I couldn’t help but talk about one of my favorite books, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This book starts with Cameron having her first kiss with a girl and at that same time, far from the ferris wheel she’s riding, her parents die in a tragic audience. When Cam finds out, those two things become connected in her mind. She is sent to live with her very conservative aunt, and she ends up being sent to a conversion camp.

This is a really difficult read in times, but it is beautifully written. I love Cam Post as a character, there’s a bunch of great funny moments, and the side characters are really strong. The complicated family is mostly Cameron trying to reconcile with her grief and with her feelings about her parents, who she never got to come out to, so she doesn’t really get closure. She feels this misplaced guilt that somehow this was a punishment for her kissing a girl, and that’s why her parents died. It’s about her learning to accept her whole self and trying to deal with her grief without punishing herself. This is my favorite YA book of all time. It’s brilliant.

You can read my full review here.

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

This is a beautiful historical YA novels set in the 1920s in the U.S. It’s about Garnet, who loves birds, but she can only express her interest in ornithology by cutting intricate silhouettes of birds; that’s the “ladylike” way that she can pursue her interests. Her mother really needs for her to get married to support them, because they don’t really have any other options. Meanwhile, Garnet falls for a flapper girl.

What makes this complicated, and I think what is the strength of the book, is that it discusses what we owe to each other and to our family: the difficulty and complexity of balancing your own individual needs and wants with the people who might be dependent on you. In most queer YA books, you get to come out and live your authentic self, and if your family is not supportive, you walk away from them. But for Garnet, she knows if she walks away from her mother, she has almost no way to support herself. Her mother would be fairly helpless living as an older single woman in 1920s America with no money and no backup. Silhouette of a Sparrow grapples with those really difficult questions about family and individuality.

You can read my full review here.

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar

Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating cover

What I really liked about this book is that it has two main characters who are both Bengali Irish teenagers, but they’re very different from each other: they have very different families, they speak different languages, they have different religions. They are both queer, but one of them is out as bisexual to her family, who is extremely accepting, and the other character has a family where she can’t really safely come out.

I think that in modern queer YA, we don’t see many families where you just don’t come out–because it’s not a good idea or because you don’t feel safe doing it. And I think it’s important to have that representation. I especially liked that because we had these two families, we saw that it wasn’t just because they were a Bengali family, that there are Bengali families who would be very accepting and others that wouldn’t be. The comparison between those two families that made it such an interesting book to read with that lens.

Another complicated family component to this is that Ishu has spent her life being fiercely competitive with her older sister. She’s even competing to be head girl (that’s how she got into this fake dating mess) to try to one-up her sister. But they begin to have a different dynamic with some distance, and a subplot of this story is them rebuilding their relationship as something more supportive.

You can read my full review here.

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

This is about Nora, who was raised by her con artist mother. She had to participate in a lot of cons and become different people in all of them. Obviously, that is already a very complicated family. She no longer has much contract with her mother, and she’s living with her older sister who helped her get out that dangerous situation. They are trying to leave that life behind them, but Nora ends up being caught up in a bank robbery and held hostage with her girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend.

This is an incredible thriller: it’s so fast-paced. Definitely check out the trigger warnings, though, because it is also one of the most brutal books I have read. It is incredibly effective, and for the purposes of this list, it really shows how difficult it is for Nora to have grown up with this mother, who did not provide a safe and loving environment for her, but who also helped inform so much of who she is, and Nora trying to detangle those. If you are okay with really difficult subject matter, including rape, murder, and gore, and if you want to read a thriller about misogyny, I highly recommend this one.

You can read my full review here.

Middletown by Sarah Moon

This is the book that inspired this post! It’s YA novel about two sisters who are trying to stay out of foster care while their mother is in rehab, and it It also has a gender questioning main character.

Not only do Eli and Anna have a difficult relationship with their mother–Eli always accepts their mother’s apologies after she comes home from the drunk tank, while Anna storms to her bedroom and slams the door–they also have a complicated relationship to each other. They used to be very close, but there’s been distance between them ever since Anna threw out all her soccer gear one night and started dressed in black with no explanation. Now, while their mother is in rehab, they have only each other. And if they’re going to avoid getting split up by foster care, they’ll have to be persistent. (Anna dresses up as their aunt and goes to Eli’s parent teacher conferences.)

Quickly, though, their plans fall apart, and in the scramble and impromptu road trip that results, they’ll learn their family is even more complicated than they imagined.

You can read my full review here.

This post was originally a video sponsored by Middletown! If you want to hear me talk about these books instead of reading it, I’ve included the original video.

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