SPONSORED REVIEW: Middletown by Sarah Moon

Middletown by Sarah Moon

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Eli and Anna know the routine. The cops come to the door in the middle of the night, Eli tries to look as young and adorable as possible, then Anna puts on eyeliner, grabs a beer from the fridge, and tries to sweet talk them into looking the other way about the two teenagers left alone while their mom is in the drunk tank. Soon, their mom will come home again, all apologies. Eli will forgive her immediately–though she doesn’t really buy the promises. Anna will run up to her room and slam the door. It’s not a great routine, but it is familiar.

Except that this night, something changes. Their mother has gotten her second DUI in about a month, and there’s no looking the other way. She has to go to rehab. But her being in rehab means social workers, and foster care, and splitting Eli and Anna–Peanut Butter and Banana, as they call each other–apart. They’re determined to find a way to stick together, including Anna pretending to be their aunt taking care of them. But the longer they have to keep up the act, the more it seems like their luck is about to run out.

Middletown is a YA novel from the point of view of a 13-year-old. Eli is struggling through middle school. She has to two great friends, Javi and Meena, but she doesn’t feel like she really fits in with them. Meena is gorgeous and has a picture-perfect home life. She’s also straight, and Eli has a hopeless crush on her. Javi is gay, obsessed with Drag Race, and he’s the principal’s son. They both have big, vibrant personalities, and Eli feels like she doesn’t belong with their duo. When she’s not around them, she’s bullied for being too “boyish”–and she can’t say they’re wrong. She doesn’t exactly feel like a girl or a boy. Or maybe she feels like both.

When her mom goes to rehab, she’s left with just her sister at home. Anna and Eli used to be inseparable, but Anna has changed. Once a girly soccer star, now she’s withdrawn, angry, dresses all in black, and she threw out all her soccer gear one afternoon without explanation. They need each other and they love each other–but they’re kids. Anna tries her best to take care of Eli, but they’re playing an impossible hand. They need to find money for groceries and rent, make food for themselves, keep the house livable, and not let on to anyone that they’re doing it alone. That’s not even mentioning trying to process their anger and pain at their mother’s neglect.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this story is the nuanced portrayal of addiction. Their mother hurt them, but she’s also not a villain. She’s a flawed person who also loves them deeply and has done a lot of good, courageous, and selfless things in her life. She’s just dealing with addiction. It also emphasizes that addiction is hereditary. We see the damage addiction can do, but we also see examples of recovering addicts and how that damage can be repaired or at least worked through. There are no easy answers, and people aren’t treated as disposable for struggling with addiction.

Of course, you’re reading a Lesbrary review, so there is also significant queer content here. Eli likes girls–Meena in particular–and is also questioning her gender. She’s still young and figuring herself out, so we don’t get any solid identity labels, but I imagine she will grow up to identify as non-binary. One of my favorite moments of the book is when Eli and Javi go to a production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. They both dress in drag, and it captures the magic of first encountering a queer community. It gives Eli a glimpse into an expansive future that will embrace whoever she ends up being, and I think that’s an incredible experience in any queer person’s life.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but the second half was my favorite, which involves a road trip and discovering family secrets–including more queer content. I love the complicated, resilient family portrayed here. They don’t always know what to say to each other, they can accidentally (or impulsively) hurt each other, but they love each other and try to be there for each other.

Read this one if you like: complicated, flawed, and loving families; road trips and family secrets; queer community and resilient friendships; characters questioning their gender; sneaky revenge on misogynists; or nuanced portrayals of addiction.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Meagan Kimberly reviews You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.

The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.

As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.

The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.

She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.

It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.

I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.

[Spoiler warning]

Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.

Danika reviews The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh by Molly Greeley

The Heiress by Molly Greeley

I’m not a big Pride and Prejudice fan, but for some reason, I’m drawn to P&P retellings–especially queer ones. The Heiress is a Pride and Prejudice novel: not exactly a retelling, a prequel, or a sequel, it fills in the story from one of the minor characters of the book: Anne de Bourgh. In case you forgot, Anne is Mr. Darcy’s original fiancee, and Catherine de Bourgh’s sickly daughter. In the original book, Anne doesn’t leave a strong impression. This novel gives her centre stage, and makes her a compelling and empathetic character.

Anne was a fussy baby, and she was prescribed laudanum drops to quiet her. She continued to be lethargic and delicate, and when she missed her drops, she had horrible reactions (shaking, sweating, sensory hallucinations, etc), so she stayed on these drops her whole childhood. Essentially, Anne has been drugged on opium her entire life. Any time they try to stop, she goes into withdrawal, which they interpret as her sickness getting worse. This leaves her, understandably. listless and easily overwhelmed. She’s never known anything other than this, though: at no point in her life has she been able to be clear-headed and sober for more than an hour or so at a time.

You might remember the character of her mother better. She is controlling and has very strong opinions, not allowing Anne to do anything that might strain her, like learning to play an instrument or reading novels. She is more like an object in her own life: she is often ignored or pitied by guests, and even in her twenties, her mother treats her like a small child. She mostly just watches the people around her. Although she has no agency in her day-to-day life, she is the heiress of their estate, which is extremely rare: she doesn’t have to marry to keep the land.

She loves the house and grounds–and she feels like it loves her back. She can hear it whisper to her after she’s had her drops. But she also lives under the shadow of the estate that will one day be hers. She feels incapable of managing it: she can’t even manage a conversation.

One of the only people who treats her like a human being is her governess, who tries to tell her that she is capable of more. She attempts to warn Anne about the medicine, but Anne doesn’t want to hear it, and her governess knows that pushing too hard will leave her without a job. Anne gets a crush on her, naturally, but the governess leaves and is replaced by a bland woman who acts as a puppet of her mother.

Eventually, Anne begins to internalize what the governess told her, and she realizes that the drops that she has been depending on may be the cause, not the cure, for how she feels. Impulsively, aware that her life is in danger, she dumps her medicine and flees to her cousin’s house in London, one of the few people who has ever treated her like a person. There, Anne tries to learn how to be independent, and how to fit in.

This is also where the book turns into a lesbian historical romance! It’s exactly the kind of excruciating historical lesbian slow burn you love to see. As Anne tries to fit into London society, she becomes fast friends with a woman who is a little too loud and boisterous for Victorians, but Anne can’t pull herself away from her. Eliza introduces her to novels and takes her shopping for fashionable clothing. Soon, they are spending almost all of their time together.

This is a book that fits together with Pride and Prejudice, but could also completely stand on its own. Without the references, it would still be a fascinating look at a woman who lived most of her life in a haze and the struggles of coming out of it. The last half of this book is also a beautiful, absorbing F/F romance. It manages to be both a Victorian historical novel and feature a drug addict lesbian main character with no apparent clash between those ideas!

I highly recommend this for fans of historical fiction, whether or not you are a Pride and Prejudice fan.

Quinn Jean reviews Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Reign of the Fallen cover

[this review contains minor spoilers and discusses depictions of violence and substance abuse in the novel, particularly in paragraph three]

Reign of the Fallen is a refreshing and original addition to both the fantasy and the queer YA genres, a welcome departure from more formulaic and predictable novels that populate both areas. Sarah Glenn Marsh’s protagonist is a flawed, confused, intelligent and charismatic young woman named Odessa. Her already complex and dangerous life as a mage who raises the dead becomes even more complicated when monsters and unseen enemies descend en masse into the mythical kingdom she calls home. Marsh spends much of the first third of the novel explaining the magical properties and politics of the kingdom and populating Odessa’s world with compelling supporting characters including a Princess who moonlights as an ingenious inventor, a coarse and brash but kind fellow necromancer, and a sea-faring pirate mistress who flirts with Odessa incessantly. At times this initial storytelling exposition gets slow and somewhat tedious but Odessa’s grounded and relatable first-person narration and the promise of more action and development prevents these chapters from feeling too stale.

While the book is labelled an “LGBT love story”, Odessa begins the story with a heterosexual male partner, Evander, who works with her as a necromancer; it is quite some time before there are any more than brief references to any characters’ queerness. Thankfully in this fantasy universe queerness is generally accepted without issue and Odessa herself as well as many of her friends are openly attracted to people of the same gender. But the queer overtones in the novel only really get going with the introduction of Evander’s sister Meredy about halfway through, a fiery and strong-willed beast mage. Oh, and a raging lesbian. Her presence becomes the motor behind much of the rest of the story and she prompts both Odessa and the novel to action. It is worth bearing with the more conventional beginnings of the novel, in regards to both fantasy and heterosexual norms, in order to reach the chapters that blow apart expectations and formulaic arcs. The ensuing drama is compelling and well worth the wait.

As may be expected in a novel starring a mage who raises the dead, there is quite a bit of violence in this book and much of it, while often unrealistic, is graphic. In addition, a major character becomes dependent on a substance that leads to their life unravelling and mental state rapidly deteriorating. While the substance is referred to as a “potion”, it is a clear metaphor for alcohol or mind-altering drugs, and some readers may find it distressing to see addiction depicted in such glaring detail. The novel is to be congratulated for how many bisexual, gay and lesbian characters it features, but it is disappointing that there are no trans characters where they could easily have been included also.

For the most part, Reign of the Fallen is a highly successful merging of the fantasy and queer coming-of-age genres, and the second half of the novel is a particularly fun and interesting read.

Elinor reviews How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea

howtogrowup
My wife and I are currently trying to buy a house, which is surreal, and it’s made me wonder about what it means to be–or feel like–an adult. Like magic, I found a copy of Michelle Tea’s latest memoir on that very topic. Since I’m a fan of Tea’s other writing, I picked it up. I figured that Michelle Tea is always fun and this book would likely present an interesting take on being a grown up.
How to Grow Up primarily covers Tea’s late thirties and early forties as she stumbles into adulthood. In her late thirties, Tea is sober after years of addiction, re-entering the dating world after spending 8 years in a dysfunctional relationship, sharing filthy housing with twenty-somethings in San Francisco, and dealing with the psychological, emotional, and spiritual issues. Eventually she moves to her own grown-up apartment, starts trying to get pregnant as a single person, forms a healthy relationship with a great woman, and gets married. Though she doesn’t delve much into how she made it happen, Tea has an amazing career in the literary world, something she managed to start even before she got sober. I was surprised she didn’t spend more time on this topic, since I think that having a career is a huge measure of adulthood–and something Tea has a handle on.
How to Grow Up was fun to read, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. This memoir is not linear, broken up into 15 themed essays that aren’t strictly chronological. Tea isn’t the most linear person, so this fits her personality. The downside is that she sometimes tosses out references to events or issues the reader doesn’t know about yet, or retreads the same experiences in multiple chapters.
The other odd thing about How to Grow Up is that periodically the book veers away from Tea’s interesting life and into advice dispensing. A lot of these life lessons struck me as obvious (such as “Don’t date people who sell pills in bus stations”), particularly after you read Tea’s stories. While I liked reading about Tea’s adventure in Paris after her long-term relationship ended, I didn’t need the rules about “how to break up” that preceded it. Tea is a great storyteller, but she’d make a terrible advice columnist, and her attempts to be one drag down her book.
The book didn’t explore issues as deeply as I would have liked. Though Tea looks at class, privilege, and her own background as a working class person, she also name-drops designer brands and insists that her higher power wants her to have these expensive, unethically made items. Her analysis of the contradictions that she holds boils down to, essentially, that all people have contradictory values and impulses. I don’t entirely disagree, but I also wanted more of her thoughts about these issues and less ink about Fendi bags. At times her contradictions are baffling, something that could have been intriguing if looked at more closely.
This book is reassuring, though, and I did feel better after reading How to Grow Up. Everything worked out for Michelle Tea in the end, despite all the detours and the weird choices she made. I’d recommend this book to fans of the author and to people who feel like they’re failing at being grown-ups, with the acknowledgement that the book has limitations. I’d recommend skimming or skipping the advice and lingering instead in the stories.