Cara reviews Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

not your sidekick

The premise of Not Your Sidekick has promise that the execution, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to. The best part of the book is the characterization of the protagonist and her love interest, but everything else falls short.

The book opens as Jess, the protagonist and first-person narrator, tests herself for superpowers in the desert near her home, then follows her home and into school to exposit the setting and to establish her relationships with her family and her two best friends. The biggest problem with this opening is that it’s boring, and to be honest, I almost gave up on the book altogether before I hit the key event that sets off the plot, midway through Chapter 3.

The relationships are boring because they’re stereotypical. Her parents are superheroes, but in other respects they’re East Asian parents who expect Jess to do well in school. She has an older sister, Claudia, who has superpowers stronger than their parents and whom Jess idolizes. She has an annoying younger brother who’s an engineering prodigy. We’re made to understand that Jess feels like the black sheep of her family, but there’s no emotional depth to it, no strong resentment, ambition, rebelliousness, alienation, or anything else you’d expect in someone who feels like a disappointment to her parents and inferior to her siblings. Likewise, her friendships feel superficial. We never learn why she’s friends with Bells or Emma or any of the emotional history that presumably binds them together. Unfortunately, this lack of emotional impact never gets better.

The world building could have saved the opening, but it’s boring too. The US, we learn, has been absorbed into the “North American Collective” and Vietnam into the “Southeast Asian Alliance.” This is unlikely at best, because countries are durable. The US has survived for 250 years, including two world wars and a civil war. Vietnam has existed in some form since around 938 CE, despite being conquered by China and France and fighting a bloody war against the US. When countries do change, it’s more common for them to fragment rather than combine. The enormous difficulty that the European Union has had in achieving even the limited amount of agreement it has and the disintegration of the Soviet Union after 1991 are instructive examples. How did these massive upheavals happen? Meanwhile, we also find out World War III took place, but nothing about who fought it, what started it, how was it fought, or who won, if anyone. Even though Jess and the other characters were born long after the war, even sixty years after World War II ended, references to specifics about it (Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pearl Harbor—these are are examples for the US, other countries have different common knowledge) are ubiquitous, even if often biased toward a particular nationalistic perspective on the conflict. The rest of the world building isn’t much better, and the lack of depth in politics and history weakens the rest of the story as well.

The best part is the midsection, which is focused on Jess’s job and her developing relationship with Abby. Jess shows more emotion here, and we learn more about how she feels about the people in her life, including her cute crush on Abby. Their interactions alternate between sweet and amusing, and I will never get tired of romances between women where homophobia plays no role at all. If the whole book had been this, it would have worked much better.

Two revelations in the midsection, that Abby is M and that Bells is Kid Chameleon were so obvious to me that it makes Jess seem dense. Maybe Lee is thinking that teenaged readers won’t make those connections as fast, but even when I was a teenager, I saw through such transparent attempts at concealment, so I’m skeptical.

The last part of the book, starting around Chapter 9, is less boring than the opening but no less problematic.

 

Spoilers

Some of the writing falls short. When we could have a climactic fight between Miss Mischief and Orion, instead we get, Mischief is brutal. She fights ruthlessly with Orion, whose superstrength damages the walls, and the entire house shakes with their battle, which is telling rather than showing if I’ve ever seen it. In an earlier fight, Claudia injects an unrestrained Abby with a syringe, even though stabbing someone, much less getting the fluid into them, is extremely difficult if they’re not cooperative and not strapped down.

These deficiencies aren’t the worst of it, though. We learn that all the heroes and villains are involved in a conspiracy where none of the fights are real, the heroes are in league with the North American Collective’s government, and the government is also intervening in foreign wars. I wasn’t surprised because, since there are no mentions of elections or other democratic systems, I’d already assumed that the North American Collective was authoritarian. Meanwhile, it’s also now imprisoning and experimenting on the villains and trying to use MonRobots for surveillance and assassination. I think Lee is trying to justify the superhero convention where conflicts between superheroes and villains don’t result in death, but none of the logic fits together here. Jess and her friends might be excused for not knowing they live under an autocratic government because they’re teenagers, but the adults would know. When villains started disappearing, the other villains would draw the obvious conclusion and the implicit bargain that keeps the conspiracy functioning would break down. Why were the other villains so passive, leaving Abby to do something? Meanwhile, even though Abby’s attempt to reveal the conspiracy becomes a major plot point, we don’t learn anything about the government, who has the power, or how it maintains control over everyone else. The heroes’ powers are not strong enough to defeat 21st-century level military technology much less 22nd-level technology, so if they’re running the government, how do they keep control? Who runs the military and the police, and why are they loyal to the heroes or whoever’s actually in charge?

Another major problem is that as the story veers into prison, human experimentation, torture, and autocratic government, the tone never changes to reflect how serious this is. Claudia depowers Abby, but how Abby feels about this is never addressed. For someone who’s had her powers for years, if not as long as she can remember, losing them would be like losing her sight or a limb. I think Lee means to convey that powers aren’t what gives a person moral value, which is true but irrelevant to what it would feel like for Abby to lose her powers. Adapting to a major disability is not easy and takes time. Claudia tells Jess, Your own person? You’re nothing but a byproduct of an experiment! … Maybe you should ask our parents what they’ve been keeping from you. I mean, they didn’t seem surprised at all when you didn’t get any powers, did they? Like they knew you wouldn’t?, but Jess never asks her parents about this, never even decides that Claudia is lying or think to herself that she doesn’t want to know the truth or any other reaction. Jess rejects Claudia’s offer to be her sidekick, but doesn’t feel anything else toward her, not even after Claudia maims Abby’s powers. Likewise, at the end of the story everything goes back to normal, even though Orion knows they broke Miss Michief out of prison and stole information from her DED. None of the adults or the teenagers express fear that the government is going to kill them or lock them up, frustration that they can’t reveal the government’s lies because they don’t have Abby’s powers, betrayal at the lies they’ve learned about, or anything else.

Along with this lack of seriousness is out-of-place humor. Orion never remembers Claudia’s name, and while Lee obviously wants this to show how little regard Orion has for Claudia, it comes off as silly and jarring in context. Orion and Claudia are such one-note villains that it’s impossible to take them seriously. Orion is a stereotype of a clueless, privileged white person, and the only motivation Claudia ever displays is a desire for power. They don’t carry the either side of the conflict.

 

Ultimately, it was the dissonance between the plot and the emotional resonance that left me unsatisfied with Not Your Sidekick, and I don’t recommend it.

Aoife reviews Training Ground by Kate Christie

training ground kate christie

I was not, unfortunately, super into this book. Training Ground is the first book in the Girls of Summer series by Kate Christie, and to be honest, it reads more like a prequel – the whole book is just backstory for book 2. She categorises TG as a ‘contemporary lesfic with a romantic arc, but not a traditional romance’, and that seems accurate for what I know about the rest of the series, but the first book falls into YA for me – it’s about queer teenagers growing up and having messy teenage romances. Also sport.

The book follows two young girls who meet ‘by chance’ at a hotel after a soccer tournament. It’s a classic YA set-up: girl meets girl, they share a mutual attraction, one has a boyfriend and secret crushes on girls, the other has a Dark Secret. No one has ever understood Jamie/Emma like Emma/Jamie understands Jamie/Emma, and they share so many interests – including a secret love of some cooking show. Over time, they become close enough for Jamie to share the story of her trauma, and they become best friends and possibly more. They are each other’s anchors, and Emma buys Jamie a bracelet with an anchor on it to prove it.

Unfortunately, the book falls into a common YA trap: Too Much Angst. Jamie has a lot of (very valid) angst surrounding her trauma, Emma has a rocky relationship with her dad and a lot of angst about liking girls as well as guys, both girls have a lot of angst about liking the other, and after becoming even closer after Tragedy strikes, the relationship falls apart. This was annoying because not only were Jamie and Emma genuinely adorable together, the disintegration of the relationship was both predictable and so easily fixable. Obviously they had to move away from each other for the storyline in the next book to work, but I feel like it didn’t have to go quite the way it did for what will obviously be a dramatic meeting and falling in love ten years after the events of Training Ground.

A lot of this book didn’t ring true with me. I’ve long accepted that while some things in life are universal, American high school isn’t one of those things, but in regards to the things I can comment on, the writing missed the mark. The dialogue, with a few surprisingly funny exceptions, didn’t seem very natural to me, and though the writing was okay, I felt that it leaned a little too heavily on clichés about teenagers. I have no idea how realistic the soccer bits are, being allergic to sports – but hey, Jamie and Emma are cute together, and I’m a big fan of Jamie’s therapist, Shoshanna.

(My biggest problem with this book – which 2003 do you know where teens vape??? It is not a 2003 I have lived in.)

Despite my review of this book, I’d consider picking up a copy of Game Time when it’s released in spring (autumn for you northern-hemisphere folk) this year, because I’m hopeful that Christie will be on firmer ground with not-teenagers. And I mean, who doesn’t want to read a romance about two pro soccer players?

TW for rape/sexual assault, homophobia and transphobia.

Julie Thompson reviews Trusting Tomorrow by PJ Trebelhorn

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This review contains spoilers.

Trusting Tomorrow opens with Logan hunkered down in her car, not quite ready to face her father’s empty house.  Having never met Logan, Brooke calls the police to check on a suspicious person parked out front of the duplex where she lives with her grandparents.  Much to her mortification, Brooke learns that the lurker is a longtime family friend and daughter of their recently deceased next-door-neighbor, John Swift.

Death, doubt, and dark family secrets influence the emotionally topsy-turvy course of events.  Logan and Brooke are almost always at loggerheads, following a well-trod path through the land of romantic fiction.  Every encounter ends up souring, no matter how well it starts off.  They are constantly bickering, second guessing, and apologizing.  Yet, Brooke and Logan find each other strangely magnetic, an instant attraction that they don’t understand and can’t pull away from.

Their contrasts are front and center from the very start of the story.  One cares for the deceased and the family and friends of the deceased; and the other cares for the living.  I enjoyed the fact that Logan is a mortician, an unusual occupation among the romances I’ve read.  As a fan of the HBO drama Six Feet Under, I enjoyed how the story explored the effects that living with death had on Logan and Jack, as well as on the surrounding community.

Logan Swift, small town mortician and self-avowed single, takes the helm of the family business, the Swift Funeral Home, following the sudden death of her father.  She runs from commitment, preferring one night stands to a long-term relationship.  No woman, aside from family and friends, has ever crossed the threshold to her apartment above the funeral parlor.  Logan doubts that any woman would be interested in her as a long-term partner if they knew what she did for a living and where she lived.  However, she’s just as wary of women who want to date morticians.

Brooke Collier, a registered nurse, is newly arrived in town to help care for her ailing grandfather.  She relocates for more than just the love of her grandparents.  Several months prior, she found herself suddenly single when Wendy, her girlfriend of three years, moved out without warning.  The bitter revelation of the reasons behind their breakup leaves Brooke wanting nothing to do with love or relationships.

Friends and family conspire to unite Logan and Brooke in happy-ever-after.  Jack Swift, Logan’s younger brother, is home for the funeral of their father.  The two siblings share a close bond in which teasing and telepathy (well, not really, but they know each other well enough to finish each other’s brain waves, sentences, and sentiments) play a large part.  As Jack strives to make peace with life’s disappointments, he seems determined to make sure Logan experiences the same kind of peace.

Brooke’s grandparents and other extended family also nudge her towards Logan at every turn.

My main concern with Trusting Tomorrow is that it’s stuck in a kind of Ground Hog’s Day repetition, with both women repeating the same choices.  After the events of the story and the protagonists’ behavior, I wasn’t convinced of the inevitability of their connection as friends and lovers.  Overall, while this novel isn’t high on my list of contemporary romances, it may satisfy readers who enjoy small town settings, close-knit families, and uncommon occupations.

Danika reviews The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

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I had high expectations for this book. I’ve heard really good things about Shamim Sarif, and one of my favourite lesbian movies is I Can’t Think Straight, which is based on Sarif’s novel of the same name, and is directed by her as well. I was actually so confident about this that I saved it until I really wanted a book I was sure to like. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to that for me.

I was really intrigued by the setting for this novel. I haven’t read many books that take place in South Africa during apartheid, and I definitely have never heard a story involving an Indian community in South Africa. Although this was interesting, it ended up being distracting to me. Despite the setting, apartheid is really only a subplot in the novel. Although the main characters do experience racism, they don’t face the sort of brutal treatment that black Africans in the same community do, and those characters are minor and seem undeveloped. It seems odd to set the story during this time period if you’re not going to really deal with it in a major way.

On top of that, [spoilers, highlight to read] one of the black African characters that we do get is Amina’s biological grandfather, who was a servant? worker? who raped Amina’s grandmother. Why you would include a story about a poor black man raping a more well-off non-black woman in a story that should be about antiracism is beyond me. [end spoilers] This seemed completely unnecessary, especially since there are only really two other black characters in the novel, and only one who gets a minor subplot (Jacob, Amina’s business partner).

Add to that the mentally ill character who seems to exist only to show how hard done by Miriam is for having to take care of her [spoilers] (except when she exists as a plot device to unintentionally betray her sister-in-law) [end spoilers] and I was really pulled out of the story. The (main) characters were strong, and I liked the dynamic they had, but the plot and romance were not strong enough to draw me back into the story. Finally, the weak conclusion made me a little regretful I had picked it up at all.

I will probably still give I Can’t Think Straight a try, because I loved the movie so much, and because The World Unseen is Sarif’s first novel, so hopefully her writing just improves from here.

Amanda Clay reviews Femme by Mette Bach

 

femme

Knowledge is power. Sofie, however, has always felt pretty powerless, at least when it comes to academics. She enjoys school—playing soccer and hanging out with her cute, popular boyfriend Paul. And even though she and her single mom don’t have a lot of extra money, their home is loving and stable. But now, close to graduation, she realizes that her world is changing. The time she spends with Paul isn’t what it used to be, and her mother is beginning to pressure her about the future. When Sofie gets paired with her high school’s star student Clea, she is sure this is the final straw. Until she realizes something else. Clea’s the only out lesbian at school, and once she and Sofie start working together, Sofie begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself, what she’s capable of, and what she might become. A road trip with Clea to scout potential universities kicks off an avalanche of self-discovery, one which sweeps away her old life and just about everyone in it.

I wanted to like Femme, and while I didn’t actually hate it, I was unable to muster much feeling one way or the other.  It’s a hi/lo title (high interest, low reading level) but that classification doesn’t mean that the book must be shallow and simplistic. Unfortunately, Femme is just that. Everything happens too quickly, too easily. Time zooms along. On one page it’s Christmas, on the next page it’s months later with no inkling of anything that might have occurred in the interim. Character development seems limited to a few signifiers: Clea is a good student!  Sofie is a foodie (who never really talks about food or cooks anything after declaring herself a foodie)!  Paul is handsome and popular! Along we cruise towards the predictable end of the story. Coming out stories still have their place in LGBT lit, but it is not unfair to expect more from them these days than mere self-discovery. Sofie’s story offers nothing more than that, and even the self-discovery is as insubstantial as every other aspect of the book. It seems like Sofie comes out because the author decided to write a story about a girl coming out. No stress, no struggle, just another plot point and on we go.

The world needs stories. We especially need lesbian stories, lesbian stories of butch women, women of color and size and age, stories of self-discovery and first love. We need all of this, and while Femme tries hard to deliver, ultimately I believe we can do better.

Amanda Clay reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

afterworlds

This book is all about the flipside.

Two interlocking stories, Darcy Patel, YA wunderkind, whose NaNoWriMo romance has catapulted her into a whole new world, and her creation, Elizabeth Scofield, whose brush with death gave her access to the afterlife and a whole new purpose for her existence.  Told in alternating chapters, the young women’s stories unfold.  The navigation of the new, the weight of responsibility both to people and circumstances, the shock of self-discovery, and the risks of new romance. Darcy’s tale is as real as Elizabeth’s is supernatural, but both girls share more than they might realize.

Lizzie’s story is Darcy’s, the book she wrote and sold for a staggering sum.  Launched by this success, Darcy defers her college acceptance and moves to New York, throwing herself into the literary life.  It’s a dizzy ascent at first, meeting idols as equals, learning how to live and work entirely on her own.  But Darcy has luck as well as skill, and the people she meets are good and helpful, some even better than others. Fellow debut author Imogen Gray is friendly at first, but the two are drawn together and Darcy finds herself caught up in a first love she never even knew she wanted. But romance with a fellow writer has hidden challenges, especially when you both have secrets.

Lizzie’s life is much less serene.  When terrorists attack the airport lounge where she waits for a flight, Lizzie survives only by magic, phasing into the Underworld, the middle land where ghosts roam, kept alive by the memories of the living. From a beautiful young man named Yamaraj, Lizzie learns she is a psychopomp, a living guide of the dead who can pass between worlds.  With this newfound knowledge, Lizzie determines to do good, avenging the deaths of murdered children, even as she navigates the powers and politics of this new realm and the lives within it.  Lizzie learns from Yamaraj, connecting with him on many levels, but their dedication and attraction may not be enough when their world is threatened with a killer of the dead.

As I said before, this book is all about the flipside. That’s what Lizzie calls the Underworld, and it’s the perfect metaphor for the story itself.  Darcy’s tale is delightful.  The brilliant, colorful world of the living, with love, friendship, money and a dreamy career won with hard work and genuine talent. There’s  vicarious living and wish fulfillment, tempered with enough struggle, enough sacrifice, to keep it from being saccharine and unrealistic.  Her romance with Imogen blooms and flourishes, and even their setbacks aren’t too upsetting. The book is also wonderfully meta, with lots of discussion about the ups and downs of writing YA novels, of the writing life, and of the difficulty making edits and revisions on the story we are currently reading.

Lizzie’s story, on the other hand, is the world of the dead: grey and flattened, chill and draining.  Perhaps it is simply down to my taste, but the “Afterworlds” within Afterworlds didn’t work as well. The story of Lizzie’s newfound supernatural life and romance is adequate but unremarkable. I never skimmed, but I was often impatient to get past it and back to Darcy’s story.  The romance with Yamaraj seemed like it was included because there’s supposed to be romances in stories like this. Unlike Darcy and Imogen, there wasn’t much chemistry.  Lizzie doesn’t think or feel about him in romantic ways, just gets with him occasionally to make out. The world building is fairly unique, based on Hindu mythology, and Lizzie’s quest to find the killer of her mother’s childhood friend is enough plot to move the story forward. Even the climactic showdown seemed like it was there because it was time to wrap things up.  It’s not a bad story, it’s just not as good as Darcy’s story.

Ultimately, this is a book I recommend. It’s not a challenging read, but it is enjoyable, and as Imogen herself says, who doesn’t need the occasional happy ending?

Trigger warnings: terrorism, gun violence, child murder

Danika reviews Red Rover by Liz Bugg and Land of Entrapment by Andi Marquette

I decided to review these in the same post because I have similar things to say about both of them.

My favourite thing about Red Rover is the queer elements. Not only is the main character a lesbian whose relationship is a side story in the novel, she also has ties to the queer community. Her best friend is a drag queen, and she looks for evidence in the queer community, including the queer clubs. She also asks for help from her ex-girlfriend. It’s nice to have a book that features queerness, not just in the individual, but in the community. In fact, I liked the descriptions of her neighborhood overall, which is unusual. I usually dislike a lot of descriptions of scenery and setting.

Although I liked most of the neighborhood description, I found some of the other descriptions a little long-winded. A pet peeve of mine in writing it when the author takes you by the hand to show you things, and this shows up sometimes in Red Rover, like explaining the emotions the protagonist is feeling when the dialogue pretty much speaks for itself.

I don’t read a lot of mystery because I tend to completely miss the hints and get lost halfway through. The plot of Red Rover kept me interested, so I never got to the point, but I predicted the “bad guy” very early on, which was a little disappointing.  I did like the plot overall, though the ending seemed fast-paced compared to the rest. I also liked the back story of Calli and her father and how it related to the plot.

Overall, I liked Red Rover, but I felt like it could have been better with some minor changes.

I liked the characters in Land of Entrapment. They were interesting and seemed really organic. The romance and friendships in the novel were complex and just seemed… natural. I really liked that.

I did have the same pet peeve crop up in this novel as in Red Rover, however: over-explaining. At some point, I remember every street and exit being named as the main character drove. This may be a flaw completely particular to me, however.

The subject matter is definitely interesting: neo Nazis. Drama! Suspense! But the plotting is a little uneven. It takes a little while to really get started. Once it does, however, Marquette seems to really know her subject matter, and the plot is engaging.

Again, this is a novel I liked overall, but there were some minor points that detracted from it.

Guest Lesbrarian Ami reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

We have another guest lesbrarian! Her name is Ami, and here’s her review:

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Pages:474

My rating: C

Summary: At 18, Nancy Astley is a fishmonger in coastal Whitstable, working with her sister and parents in the family oyster parlour. Smitten by male impersonator Kitty Butler, Nancy attends every show at the Canterbury Palace until the star notices her. A stunned Nancy finds herself Kitty’s companion and dresser, and sexual tension keeps the pages turning as she becomes first Kitty’s sweetheart, then her partner (“two lovely girls in trousers, instead of one!”) in a wildly successful stage act. (Summary thanks to amazon.)

Spoiler: If your looking for a book about two women whom first become friends, and later lovers, and those the two women face hardship and doubt, but at the end of the day love conquers all… This is not the book for you!

I pick up Tipping the Velvet for one reason: I wanted to read a Sarah Walter book, but I knew very well that they screw with the main characters lives.( I was a bit unsure about that since I am a normally love conquers all reader, but it’s oddly hard to find a love conquers all book that involves two women.) I did a google search of all her books and narrowed it down to two. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, because I had seen both on T.V. I ended up choosing Tipping the Velvet because I had more unanswered questions (Mind you I can’t remember what the questions were since I had seen the miniseries years before, but I remember having questions.) Of course now I want to read Fingersmith, go figure…

I want to point out that most would have given this book a higher rating than me. The plot itself draws you in. I believe I finished this book in two days; it is a really good book. I, personally–and I tried–couldn’t like Nancy. To me, her character wasn’t particular interesting. Almost all of Nancy choices in the book are selfish, if her choice somehow hurt someone else, oh well, it is all about the good of Nancy. And then when Nancy does find herself on hard times, she goes looking for those people whom she hurt to get her a hand out. I couldn’t like the main character, but I did like the book and other characters in it.

Ami’s Livejournal account is here. Please send in your own review! Just click “Guest Lesbrarians” at the top.

Have you read Tipping the Velvet, or Sarah Waters’s other works? What did you think of them?

Personally, Tipping the Velvet is my favourite book. I found the writing exquisite, and I loved the ending. But not all books are for everyone!