This is my favourite superhero story I’ve ever read. I really enjoyed Dreadnought, the first book in the series, so I was equally excited and hesitant to start the sequel. To be honest, I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the first one. Dreadnought was great in a lot of ways, but it did have some rough-around-the-edges elements, and I wasn’t sure it could maintain a whole series. I was glad to be proven wrong–in fact, I ended up enjoying Sovereign even more. (Mild spoilers for the first book from here on.)
Dreadnought dealt heavily with transmisogyny and Danny’s abusive home life. Those elements are still present in Sovereign, but not to the same extent. She’s not living with her family now and is trying to be emancipated. She’s built a support system. Instead, she’s dealing with the fallout of what she’s been through. What happens when you take an abused teenager, give her superpowers, and then reward her for beating people up? I love the way this series explores the crunchy, interesting questions of what being a superhero would actually be like, including the internal politics of the superhero community, the power imbalance between superpowered humans and everyone else, and the complex relationship between superheros and police. The background struggles are a little more subtle, which drew me in and made me think more about the invisible underpinnings of other superhero stories.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this volume also has a F/F romance! Danielle is a lesbian, and her love interest is a bisexual amputee Latina vigilante. I was rooting for them in the first book, so I was definitely happy to have my ship sail. I love their dynamic. They both respect each other as people and as superheros, and they challenge each other to be better. (In terms of representation, there’s also a genderqueer side character who has they/them pronouns!)
This is all, of course, not beginning to mention the actual plot of the book. I’m not well-read in superhero stories (comics or prose), but I was surprised by how captivated I was by the superhero vs supervillain plots of both books. These are gruesome, brutal fights that drag Danny through the mud and to the brink of endurance. Sovereign also includes torture. This story does not shrink away from the level of violence that is both inflicted and endured. I found the overarching plot fascinating, and I’m really hoping that there are more sequels to come, because I’m confident that this world and this writer can support them.
If “trans lesbian superhero YA” makes you think “queer escapist romp,” you would have the same idea as I did going into Dreadnought. And although I don’t regret picking it up based on that, I got the “escapist romp” inference entirely wrong. This is a book that deals directly with intense transphobia (especially transmisogyny) and abuse. To give you an idea, here’s a line from the first few pages (trigger warning for suicide): The dirty little secret about growing up as a boy is if you’re not any good at it, they will torture you daily until you have the good graces to kill yourself.
Danny has enough on her plate just trying to survive her abusive household while being a closeted trans teenage girl. She has ducked behind the mall to secretly paint her toenails–her only avenue of self-expression–when blue lasers explode around her: Oh. Great. A superhero fight. Just friggin’ wonderful. It turns out to be Dreadnought, the world’s most powerful superhero, locked in combat against an unknown enemy. The fight turns deadly, and Danny pulls a wounded Dreadnought to safety–but it’s too late, and Dreadnought passes his abilities on to Danny just before he dies. Danny gains access to the “lattice” behind reality. She immediately uses this to shape her body into her ideal version of herself, but this also means that she has super strength, can fly, and can influence reality in ways she’s not fully aware of.
Being a superhero doesn’t mean that she escapes the problems she had before, though. Although she relishes being in a body that other people recognize as her gender, being a cape comes with risks–and the superhero community has its own transmisogynistic assholes. This isn’t escapist utopian fun: it’s battling bigotry armed with superpowers. And although initially she feels like no one can hold her back, she quickly finds out that her father’s vitriol can still get under her skin (even though bullets can’t).
This is a catharsis fantasy. Danielle fights the bad guys both in her cape identity and in her everyday life, and it makes her victories even more triumphant. This is about pushing through unimaginable pain and conquering it, surviving, maybe even emerging stronger.
I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to the next book, but I do want to emphasize that this should come with some major trigger warnings. Danielle deals with suicidal thoughts. There is a ton of transmisogyny, including slurs. Her father is extremely verbally and emotionally abusive, and the poisonous words he uses are on the page. There were also a few notes I wasn’t sure about: the origin of superheros/villains in this book is Hitler’s Ubermensch, including a villain called Kristallnacht. Would like to hear Jewish reviewers’ thoughts on that. There was also a moment of ableism near the end (vague spoilers), where Danielle shows disgust towards someone (one of the villains) without arms and leaves them face-down on the ground. (On a more minor note, some of the dialogue did seem stilted to me, but it might be because I just don’t want to believe that people would say such heinous things, and I believe the author did mention that some of it is word-for-word what was said to her, so that’s likely just me as a reader.)
I still would recommend this book, but don’t expect a fluffy read! Also, Danny does mention that she’s a lesbian, but there isn’t a romance in this volume (though there is a ship I hope will sail in the next one!), and her sexual identity plays a pretty minor role beside her superhero and trans identities.
Grace dreams of moving to New York for college and studying music–but she’s worried that her mom, Maggie, needs her stability too much for her to leave their life in small-town Maine: for as long as she can remember, since the death of her father when she was little, her mom has made impulsive decisions, and it’s been up to Grace to clean up the mess. This summer is no different–until Grace meets Eva, and begins to realize as they fall for each other that it’s OK for her to be happy.
How to Make a Wish is an absolutely gorgeous (and heart-wrenching, in all the best ways) depiction of young, queer love, teenage friendship, and the trials and tribulations of coming of age, experiencing loss, and making difficult decisions. The novel doesn’t hit a single wrong note: every step of the way it is beautifully-written and deeply touching.
Grace’s relationship with her mother should seem familiar to anyone who has been on the receiving end of parentification: your heart aches every time Grace is forced to act like the adult in her relationship with Maggie, every time she lets Maggie’s offenses slide, and you cheer when she finds her voice and is able to stand up for herself, even as you see how painful it is for her. It’s a tragically authentic depiction of the dynamics of a screwed-up parent-child relationship, and Grace’s journey feels moving and truthful.
Authentic relationships are one of the novel’s strengths–both the difficult relationships (like the one Grace has with Maggie) and the deep, genuine ones. Grace’s relationship with her best friend Luca is one of the latter. He is a steady, comforting presence in a life full of so much unknown and unexpected. Their relationship has its ups and downs -but in both its low moments and its high moments, it feels so right and so true. Luca’s family is the solid familial presence that her own mother cannot be for her – Luca’s mother, Emmy, especially, is such an excellent example of the kind of loving, encouraging adult teenagers need in their lives.
And finally, the love story: How to Make a Wish showcases so much more than just a love story – but it’s the love story that leaves you with bated breath as it unfolds, in anticipation of every stunningly poignant moment. Grace and Eva’s burgeoning relationship helps anchor Grace’s life, and the novel. As with so much in the story, their relationship just rings so true–whether they are eating peanut butter together on the beach, pushing each other away as they clumsily try to deal with their pasts and hang-ups, or kissing in a tree after being chased by a dog.
Grace’s bisexuality is an important part of her story, and her identity is a grounding element of the novel. She refers to past boyfriends–and also to her first crush, a pool lifeguard named Natalie: she is unapologetically herself, and Luca’s unquestioning support for her is heartening. The solid foundation of her identity makes the development of her relationship with Eva all the sweeter, her own self-knowledge a lovely constant in all the upheaval of her family life, and all the unknowns of her future.
How to Make a Wish is a breathtakingly, heart-achingly beautiful YA novel–Grace’s story resonates on so many levels, and Herring Blake deftly covers so much emotional ground. This is a novel that both leaves you breathless as you whip from one emotion to the next and soothes your soul–don’t miss out.
Annameekee Hesik’s 2014 Driving Lessons is a cute and quick but also meaningful read. The novel follows teenager Abbey Brooks as she attempts to navigate her sophomore year at Gila High. Abbey’s journey is relatable, funny, and touching as she tries to get her driver’s license, survive high school, navigate the basketball court, come out to her mom, juggle friendship drama and relationship troubles as she tries to find a girlfriend. This book is a sequel and continues with characters who have already been introduced in a previous novel. I had no idea that this book was a sequel until I was already well into reading it. However, Hesik does a good job of ensuring that new readers can easily understand the characters’ history and this book can be read as a standalone.
Abbey is an extremely relatable character. But her actions can sometimes be frustrating. She is unfailing loyal to her unreliable and self-centred straight best friend, Kate, and she also has a penchant for keeping too many secrets. However, her reactions seem true to her character. The first-person narration is definitely faithful to that of a teenage girl. Abbey’s journey to fulfil her to-do list is a bumpy one filled with twists, turns, and several love interests. Things go disastrously wrong before they work out in time for a cute and happy ending which feels natural.
Although this book is definitely a Young Adult novel, its themes are applicable to readers of all ages and sexualities. Hesik examines the typical aspects associated with teenage life like sex, secret relationships, friendship troubles, and bullying. However, Hesik touches on other issues like dealing with the previous death of a parent (Abbey’s father died in a car accident and this ties in nicely with her reluctance to drive) as well as neglectful and homophobic parents. There are homophobic slurs as Abbey is bullied by classmate Nicky. However, their interactions take a surprising but organic turn (not quite what you may be thinking) as the book progresses. It is also refreshing that the characters are almost exclusively female and there is an abundance of lesbian characters with a few bisexual characters sprinkled in. However, the treatment of bisexual characters could have been handled better.
Abbey’s friends are a major part of the novel. They include ‘veteran’ you-know-who girls (cutesy code for lesbians which is somewhat endearing only because it is used so sparingly) like Tai, Mia, and Garrett (who is actually bisexual). These girls are well-written and seem very real as they support Abbey but they can also be secretive and self-serving. Abbey’s friendship with Kate is particularly relatable and the slow deterioration of their friendship is well-done. One of Abbey’s love interests, Devin, is deaf and her presence adds a nice touch of diversity to the novel. However, I would have liked to see some more characters of colour.
One of my favourite parts of this book is Abbey’s sweet and genuine relationship with her mom. Abbey’s mom is supportive while still being a very realistic parent. While Abbey’s eventual coming out is somewhat disastrous, her mom’s reaction is wonderful and it is great to read a novel where the protagonist’s mother is so openly understanding of not only her daughter’s identity but is also accommodating to her friends.
However, while many of the characters are well-crafted and memorable, there are too many of them. Therefore, there are too many side-plots that sometimes end abruptly or lack resolution. Kate’s drama with her partying and boyfriends overstays its welcome and Abbey’s mother’s return to dating are just two instances of too many plotlines in an already full book.
Annameekee Hesik’s Driving Lessons is a great and quick read. There is a lot going on in terms of plot and characters but, for the most part, Hesik handles the action well. I enjoyed this book and I look forward to more of Abbey’s adventures. If you’re looking for an easy but still meaningful read which features an almost exclusively female and lesbian cast of characters and a sweet and happy ending, you should definitely check out Driving Lessons.
Rebecca Cave is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. She is an avid but sadly not very prolific reader and writer.
It’s 1972, and while Nani may not be familiar with California, she’s a Hawaiian teenage girl, and she knows the rules of the beach. Rules like: Never cut your hair. Never go anywhere without a bathing suit. Don’t let boys see you eat. Armed with this knowledge, she’s determined to break into the line up of local beach girls and become a true honey girl. But beach girl culture is cutthroat, and it’s not so easy to earn a spot.
Rarely has historical fiction pulled me so completely into the atmosphere. This takes place entirely during the summer, right after Nani and her mother have moved to California after her father’s death. She’s struggling with his death, the move, and dealing with her (white) mother’s refusal to acknowledge her Hawaiian culture, all while trying to fit in in a whole new social scene. Honey Girl perfectly captures that feel of summer vacation sun-drenched days that seem to stretch on forever. It was fascinating to see the intricate power plays that happened between all the girls on the beach, who are competing for the attention of Rox and Claire–the rulers of the beach girls–almost as much as they compete for surfers’ attention.
Nani takes her reputation on the beach very seriously, and she calculates every word and movement to ensure that she follows the rules of the beach, which she is sure will be her ticket to success. I really liked Nani. She has a tumultuous relationship with her mother, who wants a quick route to a shiny, rich, Christian, American life. Nani wants to keep the memory of her father alive, and is determined to go back and take over his bar once she’s of age. She resents her mom, but she’s also the only family she has.
The beach has the real cast of characters, however. Rox and Claire, especially, are fascinating, but even the minor characters seem to have more going on than is explicitly written, like they’re wandering off the page to continue their own stories. Initially, I was briefly worried that I had somehow gotten confused, and that Honey Girl wasn’t a queer book. Then Nani talked about secretly looking at her uncle’s Playboys, and I stopped worrying. Still, although she acknowledges that she might be a funny kine girl (Hawaiian Pidgin for lesbian), her romance with a boy is a significant part of the story. It is not, however, the only romance she has.
Some people might be concerned about the cheating/”slutty” bisexual trope used here, but I enjoyed Rox as a character a lot, and both Nani and Rox seem to agree that in their situation, a
beard boyfriend is necessary for keeping up appearances. I wasn’t sure if Nani was bisexual or a lesbian, by the end. She doesn’t use a label, but she seems to come to a general both/and conclusion for the dichotomies in her life: Hawaiian and white, Fiji and Nigel, Mom and Jean, Hawaii and California.
I really enjoyed this one, and I am very glad that I have the sequel lined up, because I really got sucked into the atmosphere of this story.
This is a story that I still miss days after reading it. I was completely absorbed in the story, and I read most of it in one day. Jordan’s double life (disguised as a boy to join an all male capella group), the arts academy environment, and the world of a capella was all fascinating. Add to that Jordan’s struggle to fit into an elite private school on a scholarship while her family struggles to make rent, as well as an ever-more-vicious rivalry with another a capella group, and I was hooked.
I also found it interesting to read a crossdressing narrative that addresses the queer subtext. There is a long history of crossdressing in queer narratives, but usually the queer possibilities are swept under the rug as much as possible. This is a modern crossdressing story that faces them head on. Jordan isn’t trans or genderqueer, but the story acknowledges the existence of trans people, which is the first I’ve seen in this genre. Jordan borrows tips from trans websites and feels guilty about using them. When people begin to find out about her other life, they initially think that she is trans and are accepting about it, but she explains that she is cisgender.
The way crossdressing narratives usually flirt with queerness but ultimately sidestep it is by having a woman fall in love with the woman-in-disguise. The woman thinks she’s a man, so it’s not queer! Once her disguise is discarded, that romance evaporates. Meanwhile, the woman in disguise falls for a guy, but he only falls back once the disguise comes off. [mild spoilers] In some ways, Noteworthy plays into this: a girl kisses Jordan while she is Julian, and she falls for a straight guy while in disguise. The difference is that Jordan realizes through this experience that she’s bisexual. She names herself as bisexual. Unfortunately, the girl she kisses is straight, so there’s no significant F/F romance, but there’s no mistaking that Jordan is bi. [end spoilers]
The only thing that fell flat for me was that some of the members of the Sharpshooters blended together—only a few felt like fleshed out characters. (I did really love Nihal and Jordan’s relationship with him, though.) The author is obviously very familiar with a capella, so some of the details of the arrangements went over my head, but that wasn’t distracting. This was an absorbing, nuanced, and utterly enjoyable read.
There’s a certain kind of book that I find really hard to read. It’s when it has this tone–this disaffected, aimless melancholy. Radio Silence definitely has that underlying sadness, and combined with it being a 400 page book, this wasn’t the quickest read for me, but it was definitely worth it.
Radio Silence is a YA novel about Frances, who has concentrated all of her energy and attention on two things in life: getting into Cambridge, and being a fan of Universe City. Universe City is a podcast with a striking similarity to Welcome To Night Vale. When she finds out that the creator of Universe City is someone she knows, the two immediately bond over their shared interests.
I loved the focus on friendships as important, life-changing relationships. As Frances and Aled grow closer, she makes sure to clarify that “You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say—we don’t.” That doesn’t stop them from having an intense relationship, though. They connect in a way that they haven’t with other people, and they can help and hurt each other just as much as if they were in a romantic relationship.
As I said, there is a bleak atmosphere through most of the novel. Frances has built her life around her academic career, and hasn’t stopped to consider whether she actually wants what she’s been working towards. Aled is in a smiliar spot, except that he has been pressured into it by his abusive mother. (Extremely emotionally abusive–trigger warning for abuse and pet death.)
There are a lot of different relationships at play here: Aled’s estranged sister (who yelled at Frances when she tried to kiss her and then disappeared), Aled’s mother, and also his friend Daniel.
I’m not sure how to talk about this book without spoiling it, because the ending is really what made it for me. It was worth pushing through the sadness to that bit of light at the end. It shows that there is an escape from that dread that seems all-consuming. It might not mean stepping out into beams of sunlight, but there are stars in the darkness.
There is, of course, a lot of great representation as well. Frances is biracial and bisexual, and there are also gay and demisexual characters.
If you like Welcome To Night Vale, love/hate tumblr, or have a complicated relationship with universities as institutions, definitely check this one out.
Trigger Warning: this novel depicts sexual harassment of underage people by an adult, discussed in this review’s fourth paragraph.
Also spoiler warning for several important plot points in this review.
Stir-Fry is an impressive debut novel, presenting a very relatable and thoughtful protagonist in Maria while also rejecting several tropes usually found in contemporary young adult novels written in the last half century. The novel takes place at the start of 17-year-old Maria’s first semester at university in Dublin after moving from her family’s home in a small village. Maria is dissatisfied living with a conservative, dull aunt in the city and answers an ad from two women seeking a flatmate, finding herself invited to dinner with 20-something students Jael and Ruth. Jael is extroverted, directionless and equal parts obnoxious and charismatic, while Ruth is a reserved but passionate feminist activist, and Maria quickly becomes close to them both after she moves in and naively doesn’t question why Ruth and Jael would share a room and a bed.
For those readers who aren’t aware of how conservative 1980s Ireland was (and the novel never explicitly explains this), it may seem a little far-fetched that Maria wouldn’t twig that her flatmates are lesbians in a relationship, but with the context of a poor, Catholic, isolated country it is distinctly plausible. This context also indicates why Maria would never have questioned her own sexuality before. The author’s presumption of reader knowledge here might make the novel feel a little inaccessible to some audiences at first, but the excellent descriptions of life in Ireland at the time paint a picture of a place where people might be pushed to be so oblivious to their own and others’ divergent sexualities. Maria’s pedestrian conversations with her classmate Yvonne–a friend Maria knows she should have but often struggles to tolerate–provide stark contrast to the vibrant, unpredictable interactions she has with her housemates, and Maria and Ruth both show miserable but resigned commitment to visiting bland family members even when the older people’s narrow ideas about life clash with the young students’ rapidly expanding intellectual worlds. The book makes it easy to empathise with Maria’s constantly changing understandings of who she is, and of the people around her, as the novel goes on and the reader sees her experiences diversify even further.
Stir-fry often feels as fractured as memory with scenes ending at ambiguous moments and skewed indications of how much time has passed. There are frequent disjointed jumps between intense conversations on raining streets to calm lounge room scenes, and Maria seems to change and recognise so much within herself, as do Ruth and Jael, and the novel ultimately only covers three months. Almost no scene in the book ends in a definite or clear manner, with characters’ last lines often leaving the reader with more questions than answers about what they mean. The scene breaks and narrative ambiguity give Stir-fry an unconventional structure and force a different kind of reading to typical young adult coming-of-age novels where characters’ thoughts and feelings are generally more clearly stated. Analysing relationships and revelations within this text requires deep concentration and thoughtful interpretation which is unexpected and rewarding.
One major criticism of the text is that an adult character at least a decade older than Maria makes advances towards her while fully aware that Maria is still a teenager and very unsure of herself sexually and romantically. This would be somewhat redeemable if there was any sort of indication anywhere in the novel that this behaviour is wrong, but it is never implied to be anything more than misguided and insensitive. These scenes toward the last third of the book may be distressing or triggering for some readers, and are certainly a large flaw in an otherwise brave, interesting and creative work.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Jessie is a ballet dancer who pours her life into controlling her body. It must be kept slim, contained, and each muscle must be acting perfectly according to the assigned movements. Despite going home from classes having danced until her feet bled, Jessie feels her chances of becoming a professional ballerina are slipping away.
Dawn has lost control of her body. She keeps slipping into “fugues”–chunks of time where she loses conscious thought and retains no memories from. She feels an overwhelming pull towards the animalistic, her body keening for wildness. Her life, fragmented and antagonistic towards her BodyBeautifulTM mother and bitter stepfather, can’t continue this way for long. Something has to break.
Dawn and Jessie were once best friends, but they haven’t seen each other in about a decade. Their parents used to be just as close, but once relationships between the girls and between the pairs of parents crossed boundaries, the families moved apart and cut contact. When desperation on Dawn’s part gets her to reach out, the two start clumsily rebuilding a relationship together. Meanwhile, Jessie finds herself lost in a new, overwhelming, raw style of dance, and Dawn keeps returning to a bear in a cage in the woods.
Usually I wouldn’t give this much summary in a review. But I’m finding it hard to gather my own feelings about the story. I was completely immersed in it while I was reading it, and it definitely has a wild, passionate appeal to it. Both girls seem on the edge of losing control, and neither seem to know whether that would be a bad thing. Dawn’s descents into her fugues are accompanied by fragmented, poetic writing, communicating her changing thought processes. This really worked for me, and I couldn’t help rooting for Dawn even as she lashed out at everyone around her and jumped out her bedroom window to run into the woods.
I would expect Jessie’s story to pale in comparison to Dawn’s… were-bear story? But I actually ended up just as morbidly fascinated with her world of dance. She is brutally disciplined, and when she starts dancing a more interpretive style, you can feel the intensity of base, physical emotion pour off the page. I was wrapped up in both of their emotional journeys, but I had no idea where they were going to go. This is a story about, as the author note explains, being a girl in a girl’s body. It’s about the intensity of societal pressure on teen girls’ bodies. How do you tidily wrap that up?
You don’t, I suppose. I don’t know what to think of the ending, exactly. [vague spoilers] There is confirmation of the complex, queer, but not entirely defined relationship between Dawn and Jessie, but it’s unclear whether they will have any relationship in the future, or what will happen in either of their lives. [end spoilers]
This made for an intense reading experience, and I really enjoyed the use of language to convey their differing perspectives. If you’re interesting in reading about a book inspired by a Mary Oliver quote and the scrutiny placed on teen girls’ bodies, I would highly recommend this.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?