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.

Danika reviews Fresh by Margot Wood

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I picked up Fresh when I was in a bit of a reading slump, and in the first few pages, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. It definitely has a distinct voice. It’s a first person point of view, and it sure sounds like a college freshman telling you a story–which is exactly what this is. It’s Elliot’s first year of university: how she messed it up, and how she tried to rebuild. She’s a little ridiculous, and she has lots of silly asides, including footnotes. It’s a style that will immediately turn some people off and pull others in. Once I bought in, I loved it, and I ended up reading it in two days–so much for that reading slump.

This is loosely inspired by Emma–if Emma was a bisexual girl with ADHD who went to an artsy college but is mainly interested in getting laid. Her family is wealthy, so she’s not too concerned about getting the most out of her education. She likes sex–but not commitment. Her high school relationship ended in heartbreak and humiliation, so she’s strictly casual now. The only assignment she puts any real thought into is an essay for her Sex and Intimacy class (did I mention it’s an artsy school?), where she embarks on a personal quest to sleep with a ton of people to try to find truly Good Sex–and then write about it.

A lot of people (especially on TikTok) are looking for more queer new adult books: books about the beginning years of college and/or just leaving high school, when you’re not quite a fully-fledged adult, but YA no longer reflects your experience. This definitely isn’t my experience with university, which involved still living at home and working to pay for tuition, but it’s certainly somebody’s! It’s got classic sloppy partying scenes and, as mentioned, a lot of casual hookups. Although there is a lot of talk about sex in Fresh, it’s not an erotic or steamy read. Sex is treated very matter of factly, and Elliot doesn’t give it a lot of weight.

I really enjoyed reading about a character who messes up so much. That’s where the Emma comparison comes in: she tries to set up her friend, determined that she knows what’s best for her, without realizing that her own life is very much not together. She’s afraid of intimacy and has no direction. She has no goals for her future, she’s not trying in any of her classes (and also not signing up for serious/useful classes), and she’s also not being a great friend. It doesn’t take long before it all blows up in her face.

I do want to give some clear content warning for both sexual assault and slut shaming. Elliot isn’t treating people well–she’s ghosting her hookups, and they’re not always aware that she only wants something casual–and that gets tangled up in general cultural shaming around women having casual sex (especially bisexual women). It’s clear from context that the slut shaming sentiment is wrong, but it’s not clearly defined. Similarly, while one character treats the attempted sexual assault very seriously (as does Elliot), not every character does, and it also gets mixed up with other things. I don’t think that’s a fault of the writing, necessarily, but I think readers should be aware of that going in.

Despite Elliot’s intimacy issues, there is also a romantic subplot, full of yearning, miscommunication, and a touch of the enemies to painful crush pipeline.

Overall, I thought this was such an absorbing, entertaining read, and I think it’s much-needed for new adult readers. Meanwhile, us older and wiser readers will be shaking our heads fondly at the rollercoaster of college relationships. I definitely never stopped hating the term “tender chicken,” which is used a lot in this book, and really spotlights how not erotic the descriptions of sex are, but I managed to get over that, and I’m grateful for it breaking through my reading slump. If you’re looking for a fun, silly, fast read–or queer new adult about college!–I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews I Kissed a Girl by Jennet Alexander

I Kissed a Girl by Jennet Alexander cover

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Lilah is a B-movie “scream queen,” semi-famous for her horror roles. Her latest is Scareodactyl, a cheesy dinosaur horror movie with buckets of fake blood. She’s been trained for stardom her whole life, and she’s found success in these movies–but secretly, she’s never even seen a horror movie, and she’d rather be on a historical fiction film set. Noa, on the other hand, is thrilled to be plastering fake wounds on actors. She dropped out of school to pursue union membership as a makeup artist, determined to live her dream of getting to do larger-than-life special effects horror makeup. The stakes are high, though: if she doesn’t get the hours and the recommendation, she’ll have no shot at the union (and future jobs), and she’ll have thrown away her education for nothing.

When Noa arrives at the set the first day, she’s stunned to see Lilah–the same actress who is on a poster in her bedroom. She’s a big fan, and she tries painfully hard to play it cool. Unfortunately, she manages to put her foot in her mouth the moment she sees Lilah, telling her she looks forward to hurting her. (By which she meant applying fake wounds to her.) One of my favourite touches in this is that Lilah is equally starstruck with Noa, because Noa is openly queer. To closeted bisexual Lilah, Noa is the epitome of cool. But as she also tries to keep that under wraps–especially because she mistakenly thinks Noa’s roommate is her girlfriend, she comes across as aloof (and straight).

While the cover makes this look like a Hollywood romance, I far, far prefer this art (which is part of the preorder campaign):

I Kissed a Girl Presents Scareodactyl art, showing Lilah and Noa kissing with a pterodactyl swopping down towards them

I loved the juxtaposition between the sweet romance and the cheesy, gory horror movie–and I wished that I had been played up a little more in the marketing (especially the cover). Far from a glitzy Hollywood romance, Lilah has to tread water in a tank that smells like sour milk and spends a lot of time rinsing various kinds of goo and fake blood from her hair.

I also appreciated that both of the main characters are Jewish, and they find connection with each other in that. There’s also a trans side character, and one of my favourite moments of the book was when Noa’s parents say Chrissy (the roommate) is welcome at Rosh Hashanah even if Noa doesn’t come, but to tell them how many girlfriends she’s bringing, because last time they had to run across the street to borrow chairs from the Glazers. It’s such a sweet, casual moment of acceptance (Chrissy is also queer and polyamorous).

Another aspect I thought was interesting was Lilah’s perception of herself. She has basically been raised to be an actress, so she’s very used to thinking of her body as an object–and one that she has to market successfully. She’s constantly thinking about angles and how she’s being perceived. She has a camera-ready smile and is careful to be an easy person to work with. She’s also self-conscious about her appearance, and she often shuts down when Noa compliments her looks, because she’s used to being reduced to only that.

Noa, on the other hand, has her own flaws. She’s quick to get frustrated with Lilah’s apparent insincerity, but Noa is judgmental and can be clueless about others (while Lilah is hyper aware of others’ feelings). She scoffs at Lilah reading romance novels, for instance, and understandably puts Lilah off with her judginess.

I did have some issues with the pacing. There’s a stalker subplot that felt very drawn out and awkward, and the romance plot seemed to get paused for a while and then pick up where it left off. It feels like it could have been a more tightly-plotted novella, so that there wasn’t a chunk in the middle where we’re just waiting for Noah and Lilah to get together and the stalker to be revealed.

Despite the pacing issues, I did enjoy this one overall, and I especially recommend it for readers looking for F/F Jewish romance who have exhausted the Shira Glassman back catalogue!

Meagan Kimberly reviews Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Shadow Life cover

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Kumiko, a 76-year-old widow, leaves the assisted living facility her adult daughters put her in because it just wasn’t for her. She wants to maintain whatever independence she can for as long as she can. She feels death coming for her, but it’s too soon. So, when death’s shadow tries to take her before her time, Kumiko fights back.

It’s so refreshing to see an older bisexual character. I have not come across many older characters in general, let alone queer ones, but maybe I’m not reading the right books. Regardless, Kumiko is a delightful main character. She’s quirky and saucy in a way that you can see how she charms some people and irritates others.

The story focuses mostly on Kumiko’s battle with the shadow of Death that has come to take her away. But threaded throughout you also get a glimpse of her relationship with her daughters in the present and flashbacks of her time with her husband, who died in a car accident. For anyone who’s dealt with being a caretaker of an older parent or grandparent, it’s easy to understand the daughters’ perspective, seeing how easily frustrated she is by Kumiko. But in telling the story from Kumiko’s point of view, Goto brings a lot of empathy for the parent’s point of view. Kumiko simply wants to live her life, even if she will start needing more help and supervision soon.

As Kumiko battles Death’s shadow, we get a fun cast of characters that include a surly vacuum storekeeper and her sweet neighbor that looks out for her. She is also reunited with her old flame, Alice. It’s here that the story reveals her bisexuality and it’s even revealed to her daughters. Her eldest is taken by surprise but they don’t make a big deal out of her sexuality itself, so much as the fact that she never told them. Kumiko asserts that it wasn’t something she hid, she just never talked about her past relationships.

I’m not usually captivated by black and white comics, but in this case, it works. And most of the graphic novel takes place through the panel artwork with very little dialogue. In fact, there’s one moment that stands out to convey and affirm Kumiko’s identity as a Japanese Canadian woman. There’s a panel that includes dialogue in Japanese characters and provides no translation. It’s a moment where the reader is made an outsider in the way that people marginalized by white, English-speaking cultures are usually othered. Even though I have no idea what words were spoken there, I didn’t need to. It didn’t detract from the overall story.

No spoilers for how it ends, but all in all, a bewitching tale with fun characters you feel invested in.

Marieke reviews The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett cover

This was a mildly frustrating read, and depending on what you’re looking for in your fantasy romance this may or may not be for you. In premise it’s relatively similar to Queen Of Ieflaria or Of Fire and Stars: a woman of royal heritage is expecting to marry a male royal of another country, but the person they’re expecting to marry is unexpectedly killed and in order to maintain international relations, the person next in line (female in all these instances) takes the dead relative’s place. I am an absolute sucker for this premise because there’s lots of court intrigue, a murder mystery and/or conspiracy, the sexual tension of an arranged marriage, the romance where the two characters have to start by distrusting each other for that sweet sweet enemies to lovers dynamic – it’s the whole package. Add a dash of magic (in this case that’s pearls giving magical powers harvested in the underwater city Below the ice, for trade with the country Above) and you have to work quite hard for me not to pick up what you’re putting down.

And yet that still sort of happened this time. The Winter Duke is slightly different from the two cited examples in that it is written completely from the newly crowned sister’s (Ekaterina or Ekata) perspective and it doesn’t include any chapters written from the point of view of the foreign royal (Inkar) who is suddenly forced to switch horses in the middle of the race (this is a pun because Inkar is a self-confessed Horse Girl). This leaves out valuable insight on court mechanics that the main character might not be partial to, especially as Inkar seems to be much more politically savvy than Ekata – who spent most of her life so far ignoring her murderous siblings and instead diving into scientific studies.

This tendency for ignoring obvious issues and escapism doesn’t serve Ekata well, as she still has to complete four trials in order to be officially recognised as the ruler of the country. Her modus operandi seems to be to pretty much tune out all the advice from her prime minister, completely ignore or actively antagonise her other ministers, and when it all gets to be too much, simply nope out completely by visiting the country Below and trying to figure out how the magic works. While ostentatiously this behaviour could all be the result of a healthy distrust due to her whole family being put under a sleeping curse, her motivations generally read more as panicked teenager. Which is fair! She is a teenager with good reason to be panicked! But it’s not the most intriguing character journey, in my opinion. She keeps pivoting between deciding to actually try to win the trials and set up the country with a solid rule, and then switching back to not doing anything and/or doing the wrong thing – and then never learning from any of the many mistakes she makes in the process.

The constant back and forth between those positions becomes repetitive and boring quite quickly, so the court intrigue and ‘murder’ mystery elements of the plot are not as successful for me (especially because I identified a major player in the conspiracy halfway through the book). That means it has to lean more on the fantasy and romance elements.  The worldbuilding here is super cool, with the underwater court and court Above divided by a thick layer of ice, but the magic system seems overly convoluted and confusing: we are told what it can do, but the how and why remain secret for a long time.

The romance is where the book finds most solid ground. Inkar is a very different personality from Ekata, very no-nonsense and a go-getter, while still capable of playing all the political games. Ekata is in a slightly impossible position, where marrying Inkar is not necessarily her best political play (according to most of her advisers), but to her it’s preferable to the alternative of marrying the one other character (male, and thus not ‘the right gender’ for Ekata) vying for the position of royal consort. This puts her in the position of having to walk a fine line between annoying Inkar out of the engagement while not putting herself in the position of becoming available to the Guy. This makes for a very unstable bedrock to her relationship with Inkar, which in turns makes for a fun relationship dynamic between the two where they both use each other and the connection between them to their own benefit. There’s fantastic friction, and the growing emotions between the two feel naturally paced.

The romance is by far the strongest element of this story, but it remains only one element among many, and under-utilised at that. The court Below, the court Above, the mystery surrounding the sleeping curse, the coronation trials, the rival Guy vying for the throne: there are just a few too many spinning plates to be kept in the air, so in the end there isn’t enough plot available to flesh all of them out enough to be satisfying as a whole.

Content warnings: death, confinement, violence, murder, sexism, sexual harassment, near-death experience

Maggie reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

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In The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri brings to life a kingdom in upheaval after the ascension of a new Emperor of Parijatdvipa, while meanwhile Ahiranya is an unwilling state reaching the boiling point in its quest to regain its sovereignty from said empire. Two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum are thrown together into a pressure cooker of danger, mistrust, and risky choices and have to decide how much they can rely on each other and still make it through the coming turmoil. Priya has carved out a life for herself as a maidservant where she can help street children who are afflicted with the rotting disease spreading through the land and try to forget the trauma of her past. She is assigned to be the maidservant of Malini, the new Emperor’s sister who is in disfavor for failing to sacrifice herself to his new religious fervor and has been sent into exile to die.

Isolated together with Malini’s malicious caretaker in the Hirana, the abandoned holy site of Ahiranya, Priya starts remembering more of her past as a temple child, with access to its magical secrets. As violence between the Ahiranyi resistance, led by Priya’s childhood brother Ashok, and the Empire heat up, Malini and Priya are forced to flee the Hirana before Malini can be killed or Priya forced to give up the Hirana’s magic. Along the way to get Malini to the ~other~ rebellion, led by Parijati forces determined to put Malini’s other, less murderous, brother on the throne, the two become closer as they help each other survive.

Aside from the incredibly vivid writing and world-building, the thing that really drove me through the novel was that Priya and Malini were facing intense pressure from both sides. A new ruler cracking down on simmering rebellion is a pretty standard epic adventure story feature, but the protagonists also not embracing the rebellion is relatively novel, as is the existence of an entirely separate rebellion which is still at cross purposes with the Ahiranya rebellion. Also interesting is that the main dangers to the two protagonists come from their own respective sides. While the rebels in Ahiranya wouldn’t hesitate to harm Malini, the main danger and pressure that she must deal with comes from her brothers and fellow Parijati; likewise, while the empire wouldn’t hesitate to put Priya to death if she was found to be working with the rebels, she’s not on their radar for the most part and instead has to constantly dodge her temple brother attempting to force her into helping him through violence. It really ratchets up the building intensity that they have to live in as they get to know each other.

It also means that Priya and Malini find themselves slowly navigating a budding relationship with each other while each also facing the necessity of doing what needs to be done for their respective causes…and the fact that those causes are at odds unless everyone gets very lucky. Malini wants to see a new Emperor seated. Priya wants to see no Emperor for Ahiranya. It’s a wonderfully complex situation that makes their physical feelings for each other a little bit more than simply star-crossed. Not only is the gap in their social stations vast, but the incompatibility of their overall goals looms large over them. And yet, thrown together in impossible circumstances, they continue to take risks and help each other.

The Jasmine Throne was one of those books that sucked in from the first chapter and spat me out the other side in a vortex of feelings, intense anticipation, and avid curiosity about what is coming next. If you’re looking for an epic fantasy to get lost in, this is a strong choice, and the fact that it is queer is both natural and an excellent bonus. A summer must-read, in my opinion.

Rachel reviews A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

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If you’re a fan of paranormal retellings, historical fiction, and poetic writing, S.T. Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood is the perfect read.

The novel is an innovative and refreshing retelling of Dracula, told from the perspective of one of Dracula’s three brides—infamous in the novel as the licentious, erotic, lust-filled women who attempt to seduce Johnathan Harker. A Dowry of Blood begins centuries before the events of Stoker’s original novel with Constanta, a Romany woman saved from death by a dark and mysterious stranger who compels her from the beginning. Alternately his bride and daughter, Dracula transforms Constanta, and they embark on a centuries-long life together full of love, pain, treachery, and devotion in equal measure. As the centuries wear on, two other consorts join Constanta, and the controlling and confining machinations of her beloved reach a breaking point.

Gibson’s text is a fantastic addition to the canon of Dracula adaptations. In (re)characterizing Dracula’s brides, the novel seems to also consider the famous iterations of the characters in the original novel and in film (Coppola 1992, Sommers 2004, for example). Moving beyond the events of Stoker’s novel, Gibson’s novel gives a voice to Dracula’s brides as more than sex/blood-obsessed monsters while still maintaining the quintessentially dark, gothic, and horrific aspects of a good vampire novel alongside the telltale eroticism that drives many vampire fictions. It was compelling to see the three brides as more than one moving body of vampiric desire filtered through a male perspective. Instead, each character is distinct and complex, with wants and desires controlled by a domineering controller. Another innovation on Gibson’s part is the transformation of one of the brides into a male figure—Alexi—which complicates and queers the novel in a compelling way.

One startlingly refreshing aspect of Gibson’s text is her portrait of domestic abuse through emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological manipulation. Complex and various over centuries, the story is as much about the oppressed triumphing over the oppressor as it is about vampires and supernatural horror. While Gibson keeps the character of Dracula distant from the text—aloof, cold, and threatening—she recounts the histories and secret strengths of his three brides, centering them within the narrative.

Gibson’s novel emphasises and elaborates on the queerness inherent in Stoker’s original novel. The queer dynamic between the four central characters is crucial in establishing the complex relationship each of them has with Dracula and with one another.

Please visit S.T. Gibson on Twitter and put A Dowry of Blood on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual manipulation.  

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

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.

Danika reviews Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

Rise to the Sun cover

My best friend has always been the first person I run to when it’s time to blow up my life.

I first have to admit that I have not yet read You Should See Me In a Crown, which–I mean–what am I even doing here? How can I call myself a sapphic book reviewer? Preposterous. So I’m not going to be able to compare this one to her mega popular previous title, but what I can say is that Rise to the Sun blew me away in its own right.

We’re going through a heat wave here (and air conditioners are sold out across the city, alas), and when I started the first few pages of this, I realized it was exactly what I needed to be reading: two best friends driving to a summer music festival with the volume cranked, singing at the top of their lungs. And I was right: this is a fantastic summer read, full of music, friendship, and swoon-worthy romance. But it’s also devastating.

Sometimes, in moments when a person I love criticizes my penchant to go heart-first into everything I do, I realize there’s nothing I should want to be less than a teenage girl who feels too much.

Olivia has just come off the most disastrous of a string of romantic failures. She loves to be loved, always flitting from one relationship to the next–but she’s never really herself in them, and that’s what always destroys these temporary pairings. She’s too loud and frenetic to be loved for herself, she believes, so she adapts to whatever she thinks her partner wants from her. The only one who really accepts her is her best friend, Imani, who’s always there to help pick up the pieces. So she convinces Imani to go to a music festival together to get her mind off her last breakup–despite Imani’s safety concerns and general lack of interest. She promises that this will be a best friend outing: just the two of them, no romances.

Toni has been going to this music festival every summer for years–but this is the first one without her father. He died recently from gun violence, and she is still reeling. The truth is, she didn’t see much of her father her whole life. He was always on the road with musicians, leaving Toni and her mom waiting while he kept changing the dates where he would come home. Toni is determined to be different. That’s why she is enrolled in university, starting next week. To get a dependable job and be a reliable adult. Except that the thought of showing up to class fills her with dread. She’s signed up to perform at a festival competition using her father’s logic that live music always brings answers. Maybe then, she’ll know what to do.

I’m a one-woman wrecking crew and eventually I destroy the people closest to me, especially the people I decide to love.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Toni and Olivia stumble into each other, and Olivia volunteers herself to be Toni’s needed performance partner–as long as she helps Olivia collect the Golden Apples in a scavenger hunt with a car for the prize. She also tries to pair up Imani with Toni’s best friend, because that’s even better than the best friend getaway she promised, right?

It’s no surprise that Olivia and Toni fall for each other, no matter how much they both try to resist. Toni calls herself an ice queen and Olivia is an irrepressible sunshine-y romantic, which is always a fun dynamic. There’s an “only one bed” trope moment! Meanwhile, there are madcap shenanigans chasing down the golden apples and live music experiences and dances amidst a pulsing crowd of people.

As I mentioned before, though, this isn’t just a summer romance. Gun violence is a running theme throughout the novel: how it is always a looming threat, including at big events like this music festival. For Toni, the idea is debilitating and brings on panic attacks. Olivia is trying to outrun what’s waiting for her at home: a judicial hearing. (Spoiler:) Her then-boyfriend pressured her into sending revealing photos and then posted them publicly. She’s not sure whether it’s worth facing him and the spectators or endangering his potential as a basketball star. (End spoiler.) Olivia struggles with her self esteem, and she also is not a good friend to Imani through most of the story. Both Olivia and Toni get overwhelmed by their insecurities and fears, letting bad habits flare up at the worst possible times.

This is an absorbing read that left my heart aching for Toni and Olivia (and Imani). I love how much depth there is to both characters and everyone’s interactions. This could easily have been a much simpler summer love story, and I would have enjoyed that too, but instead it felt much more messy and realistic. I appreciated Olivia’s journey to recognizing both her faults (and the damage they’ve caused) as well as her self-worth. I know I’m the last one on the Leah Johnson train, but let me just confirm what everyone’s been saying: she’s a star. I can’t wait to go back and read You Should See Me In a Crown now!

Content warnings: gun violence, death, sexual harrassment

That big love you give everyone else—you deserve to save some for yourself. You’re worth that much— worth every good thing.

Danika reviews The Secret To Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home is one of my favourite books, which will come as a surprise to absolutely no one. It’s a deeply introspective graphic memoir about books, coming out, and lesbian books. What’s not to like? While Fun Home is suffused with literature references, though, Are You My Mother? is equally concerned with psychoanalysis, which was a lot harder for me to relate to. In Bechdel’s newest graphic novel, she examines her life-long love affair with various exercise phases with references to transcendentalists and Buddhism.

There’s something comforting and familiar to me about reading an Alison Bechdel book. Her thoughtful introspection and constant ruminating about how best to live in this world feels like a mind I can relate to. While her previous graphic memoirs focused on her father and her mother, this one takes a long range look at exercise as a coping mechanism through her whole life, separated into decades. As a child, she saw an ad in a comic book that promised the “secret to superhuman strength.” It turned out to only be an inaccessible Jiu Jitsu pamphlet, but she continues to look for this secret her whole life: through running, karate, skiing, cycling, yoga, and more–always in the hopes of escaping the inevitable conclusion that she is interdependent and mortal.

Alongside this journey of physical transformation–always looking for more strength and inexhaustible endurance–Bechdel also goes on a spiritual exploration of the self. She tries to grapple with this question by looking at artists and writers through history, including Jack Kerouac, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Perhaps the appeal of these exercise regiments, though, is that she can track notable changes, while the psychological and spiritual journey feels more like one step forward and two steps back. In one striking panel, Bechdel realizes she only though she’d been dealing well with her father’s death because she hadn’t dealt with it at all; she hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything. She approaches fitness and her work with the same intensity, damaging her body and her relationships in the process.

Aside from following the fitness fads Bechdel has participated in over the years, this is primarily a story about yearning, a striving for transcendence, for finding the secret to living well. It’s about not just physical strength, but also the emotional endurance necessary to be human. It’s about looking for the secret of how to best live–so there’s no real neat conclusion possible. This is a story still in progress.

I didn’t feel the same way about The Secret To Superhuman Strength as Fun Home, but that’s an impossible hurdle to clear. I did connect more to this than Are You My Mother?, despite being as far from a fitness fan as possible. I also appreciated being to able to get a wider scope of Bechdel’s life, including how the publication of her graphic memoirs (especially Fun Home) changed her everyday reality. It’s at times painful to read, because I feel so much sympathy for her, but that just shows how effective it is.