Meagan Kimberly reviews Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Wow, No Thank You audiobook by Samantha Irby

I listened to this collection of essays on audio, in which Samantha Irby herself reads, which is how I highly recommend you consume this book. Irby brings her biting wit and raw honesty to each essay, making them feel more like confessions. But they create a lifeline to so many who feel the way she does, making readers feel more connected and less alone. And she does it all with great humor, never taking herself, or anything, too seriously.

She covers various topics, from critiquing personas and performances on social media in “Into the Gross” to how over she is of the criticism of people being addicted to their phones in “Hung-Up!” Irby has no problem calling out others who act like they’re better than the rest of the world. She understands that at the end of the day, everyone is a mess pretending to have their ish together.

“Girls Gone Mild” is by far the most relatable and funniest essay in the collection, in my opinion. She gives a hysterical rundown of a typical girls’ night out for women 30+ who can no longer handle spontaneous outings and drinking too much. Her elaborate, minute-by-minute detail of how she plans her nights out now that she’s older sounded all too familiar and had me laughing so hard I cried.

In “Late 1900s Time Capsule,” she breaks down a typical mixtape from her youth track by track, annotating how each song captivated her teen angst, pretentious thoughts and intense emotions. As she talks about including the Indigo Girls on her mixtape she declares, “What do you mean you’re surprised I ended up with a lady?” proving there is a way to joke about queerness without being offensive. She even talks about those bygone days when you really had to be sure you wanted to invest in buying a whole album, because you couldn’t just purchase a single track.

Irby doesn’t shy away from topics often considered taboo, especially for women. She freely discusses sexuality alongside romance and relationships. She even tackles the horrors of getting your period in “Hysterical!” While hilarious in its unabashed humor, it’s also a critique on how any talk that does happen around the menstrual cycle centers on white women’s bodies and experiences, thus neglecting BIPOC bodies.

In essays like “Body Negativity” and “Hollywood Summer,” she tackles issues with body image and lack of representation of fat people. Or rather, the dismal representation of fat people. Although she takes on the topic with her signature humor, it’s clear it’s a subject that cuts to the core, and anyone who’s ever lived as a fat person in this world can relate.

Overall, this essay collection will make you laugh, but also make you think. It’s smart, witty, sarcastic, and filled with tales of horror about living as an anxious individual. You can’t help but laugh alongside Irby’s commentary on everything from making a living as a writer to moving to the country from the big city.

Danika reviews Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Because this is the Lesbrary, I’ll start by saying that this is a f/m romance with a bi+ main character (and love interest).

I picked this up firstly because I really enjoyed Dugan’s previous queer YA title, Hot Dog Girl. I was also interested in the premise: two teenagers whose parents own competing comic book shops fall for each other. As the title suggests, these are ~star-crossed lovers~, but it isn’t a Romeo & Juliet retelling beyond that (at least, not as far as I could tell). It ended up being a thought-provoking read for me, one I’m still turning over in my head days after finishing it. It definitely wasn’t what I expected.

Jubilee is a cellist prodigy whose life is consumed by her music, and is currently frantically rehearsing to get a spot (and scholarship) for the summer program at Carnegie. Her music teacher and friends both demand that she takes a break and lives a little, so when she attends a comic convention, she decides to pursue a “con crush” with a guy in a Batman mask. Ridley is there to help out at his father’s booth–except that his dad usually wants nothing to do with him. Ridley is suffering from serious anxiety and depression, and is caught completely off guard when Jubillee flirts with him.

Their romance continues in text form, until Ridley tells his dad he’ll scope out the competition and report back to him in order to not get sent back to his mother’s house–and in order to live in the same town as Jubilee, who is oblivious that Ridley is also the mysterious Batman cosplayer and that he’s supposed to be spying on her for his frankly villainous father.

So that’s the premise! But what struck me about this story isn’t the machinations of the plot, but the details. Ridley is a character that I have not seen in a novel before. Top Ten by Katie Cotugno (another bi f/m romance) has a socially anxious main character, but Ridley’s thought spirals are disturbing, especially if you have any anxiety or depression yourself. He catastrophizes. He picks apart and criticizes every one of his own words and actions. It’s unnerving to be inside of his head. He also has suicide ideations, including a previous attempt. His family is abusive, from an emotionally absent mother to an openly insulting and even frightening father. He makes bad choices, but they are understandable because of how much we see into his reality. At the same time, I would warn anyone with anxiety or depression to approach this cautiously, especially because he sometimes feels like a burden to his loved ones because of his mental health struggles.

The beginning of Jubilee and Ridley’s relationship was cute: I could see how they both hit it off, with their similar senses of humour and love of fandom. (Ridley is a huge fan of Jubilee’s stepmother’s comics.) [Minor spoiler:] I was also surprised at how early on in the story Ridley came clean about his deception. I’m used to stories like this dragging on the deception, and I much prefer that Jubilee and Ridley get on the same page at a reasonable point. [end spoilers] Unfortunately, even after that, it isn’t exactly a healthy relationship. They are both good people, and I see why they’re attracted to each other, but it doesn’t work. Jubilee begins to spend much of her time trying to take care of Ridley, neglecting her own life. Ridley is dependent on her, and also feels guilty about keeping their relationship (and his family) a secret from her parents. They love each other, but it’s not making either of them very happy.

Of course, check the title again: did we really expect a riff on Romeo and Juliet to be a happy story? It’s the ending that left me thinking the most, however. [Major spoilers, highlight to read:] They don’t end up dead, but this R&J-inspired couple do have a suitable tragic and dramatic ending to their relationship. As shocking as it first felt to have Ridley steal his sister’s car (without a license) and try to drive them both out of town, it did follow from the rest of the story. Ridley is completely panicked, and feels like there’s no way out. He can’t give up Jubilee, the only good thing in his life. He can’t go back to his mother, and his father kicked him out. He is spiraling. And although Jubilee knows this is a bad idea, she loves Ridley and is afraid for him. She worries that he’ll try to kill himself if she leaves him alone during this crisis. She feels like if she can only say the right thing, go along with it just for now, she can buy enough time to save him. I understand this impulse, and I’ve been in relationships where I felt responsible for my partner’s safety, so it felt discomfiting and realistic.

The car crash also felt surprising, but makes sense. He doesn’t know how to drive! And maybe this is what needed to happen to make them both understand how serious the problem was. Surprisingly, the happy ending for this Romeo and Juliet is not being together. It’s in getting therapy. Ridley realizes that he needs help, and reaches out to his sister, who is eager to do anything that will keep him safe. He ends up going into inpatient care in a centre specializing in anxiety and depression in teens. Surprisingly, Jubilee also begins attending a support group for codependency. [End spoilers] It’s interesting to think about this in conversation with Romeo and Juliet retellings, which usually glorify an all-consuming, doomed love. Why do we keep coming back to these stories? What do we want from them? And what do they look like in the present day?

And, of course, to booked this Lesbrary review, I have to talk about the queer content. On tumblr and twitter, people often are looking for m/f romances where both characters are bi+. Jubilee doesn’t identify with a label, but she is attracted to multiple genders. She feels like an impostor because she’s only dated boys, though, so she doesn’t feel like she can say she isn’t straight. Ridley’s last relationship was an “almost boyfriend” who blackmailed him, leading to his non-fatal suicide attempt. Jubilee and Ridley aren’t the only queer characters, though. Jubilee’s best friend, Jayla, is a Black lesbian, and there is a little bit of discussion of how she is treated by the comics fandom because she’s Black, including when cosplaying white characters. Jubilee also has two moms, and her stepmom is Latinx.

Verona Comics was definitely an interesting and unexpected read. It’s one that left me thinking, and I think acts as a good counterpoint to all-consuming, unhealthy teen romances that are often glorified, especially in YA/teen movies. It isn’t one that I would recommend freely, though, because of the intense mental health issues, including a suicidal main character. If you’re able to safely put yourself in that head space, though, this is a compelling read that will definitely stick with me.

Danika reviews I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison RaskinIt’s a shame that New Adult as a genre never really took off outside of Romance, because I think there’s a demand for it. The just-after-high-school years, whether they’re spent in college/university or elsewhere, have distinct challenges. I Hate Everyone But You is set during that time, following Ava and Gen as they are just beginning university. They have been inseparable best friends for years, and they stay in contact through constant emails and text messages.

The entire novel is written in these emails and text messages, making it a modern version of an epistolary novel. It’s an interesting format: it’s an extremely quick read, and because they are so close, Ava and Gen both share their innermost thoughts while providing their own narration of what happened. There is an element of unreliable narration because we only see it through their stories, but you can usually read between the lines to figure out what “really” happened. They deal with typical issues with that stage of life: dating, sex, drugs, and figuring out their identities. This isn’t shied away from, but because it’s texts and emails, these experiences are not told in detail as much as they are just matter of fact statements. They also bring their existing baggage to this new life stage: Gen comes from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father and enabling mother, and Ava deals with intense anxiety (and possible OCD?).

If you like Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin’s online presence, like their Just Between Us youtube channel, you’ll probably like this book. Their characters very much seem to match their personalities. The strongest part of this book is the bond between Ava and Gen. They fight–in fact, they bicker almost constantly. But that’s because they are open and honest with each other. They call each other out. They ask uncomfortable questions. They aren’t afraid to be their whole flawed selves with each other–and they have a lot of flaws.

For instance, Gen comes out as queer over the course of the book, and Ava can’t seem to let go of some variation of the question “Wait, are you gay now? Why do you like this guy: aren’t you gay now?” Ava has some ignorant questions about the queer community, to Gen’s irritation, but she means well. If you don’t want to see someone struggle through their heterosexist assumptions, this might be painful to read (she also asks Gen about a trans person’s genitals at some point). Transphobia is addressed here, but it may not be given the depth and time that it deserves.

Despite all these disagreements, though–despite their anger at each other or disappointment, despite lashing out and ignoring each other at times–there is never any question of their loyalty and love for each other. They are family. They are able to process ideas and emotions with each other, to bounce off ideas and try out new labels. They know that they will still be accepted by the other, no matter what conclusions they come to.

This isn’t a story for everyone. The format itself will put some readers off, though I found it absorbing. There is less of a plot and more of an exploration of these characters and their growth (apart and together) over time. On top of the heterosexism and transphobia included (though called out), there’s also a very questionable relationship between Gen and Charlotte, a T.A. almost twice her age with a propensity for sleeping with undergrads. As for me, though, I really enjoyed spending time with these characters: I liked that they were able to share even the most messy or uninformed thoughts and feelings with each other, and I found it to be a very quick, engrossing read. I look forward to diving straight into the sequel.

Danika reviews Top Ten by Katie Cotugno

Top Ten by Katie Cotugno

I’ll get this out of the way first: Top Ten is about Gabby and Ryan: their unexpected friendship, and their constant will-they, won’t-they. It starts on the night of their graduation, when their complex friendship gains a whole other complication, and then describes the “top ten” moments of their friendship, not in chronological order. This is about the two of them, and there is a romantic component, but Gabby is bisexual, and just as much time is given to her long-term relationship with Shay, her girlfriend, as there is to the M/F relationship. (There’s not really a love triangle, and there’s no cheating, these are just relationships at different points.) So this isn’t a F/F romance (though it does include one), but it is queer.

On to the story itself. I enjoy reading about complex friendships, and Gabby and Ryan definitely have that. We see their friendship from both perspectives, and they both clearly rely on each and value each other, but there is also a lot of other things going on. Their insecurities get mapped onto the other. They don’t always know how to communicate with each other. Their conversations can go sideways and explode into serious fights–they’re so invested that can’t always get the perspective they need. They’re both insecure and are subconsciously looking for slights. And they both have their own issues: Gabby struggles with her anxiety, and Ryan keeps getting concussed playing hockey (but feels like hockey is his only possible future). Their interplay is sometimes frustrating, but relateable. They often confront each other on things no one else will bring up, but they still don’t always address the things that most need talking about.

I was a little bit worried that because the book focuses on Gabby and Ryan’s relationship, Gabby and Shay’s relationship would be seen as second-best, doomed, or trivial. Instead, we get a really cute scene of them meeting and getting together, and I did like their relationship. Although it’s not the focus of the story, they get enough space to develop a dynamic, and the difficulties that come up have nothing to do with Ryan. So I appreciated that it wasn’t as if the F/F relationship was a stepping stone to the ~important relationship. It was developed and significant in itself.

As for the structure of the story, it was interesting, but I’m not sure it really worked for me. For one thing, I already have difficulty keeping track of time, so scrambling the events made it difficult. It also made it harder to connect to the characters, because I didn’t get a great sense of their change over time. Sometimes I was actually confused, like when one chapter would refer to a previous fight, and I couldn’t remember if that was something I’d already read about or not. (Listening to this as an audiobook probably didn’t help that.) Perhaps partially because of that, although I was interested in Gabby and Ryan’s dynamic, I didn’t feel really connected to either of them individually. I was losing track of things, like the ages of Gabby’s sisters, which made scenes with them difficult to understand. the motif of Buzzfeed-style lists was mentioned a few times, but it didn’t seem like a strong enough theme to frame the whole book around. Although I liked elements of this, unfortunately I didn’t connect as much as I wanted to.

Ren reviews Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

This novel was a delight. I’m a big fan of Welcome to Night Vale, and so I was over the moon to discover that creator Joseph Fink had written a book about a trucker in search of her missing-presumed-dead wife. I expected dark wit. I expected oddities galore. I expected to laugh. And while I did experience all of those things while reading this book, it quickly revealed itself to be much more than a lighthearted stroll through the Sci-Fi Woods.

Keisha Taylor is looking for her wife, Alice. Alice – as the title suggests – is not dead. She works for an organization that kills mostly-boneless creatures called Thistle Men, who hunt gleefully in the name of Terrible Freedom. Believing that the Thistle Men may use Keisha as a weapon against her, Alice leads Keisha to believe that she’s dead (for her own good, of course). Keisha is pretty mad when she figures this all out.

It’s a cliché to be sure, but the rest of the book is so good, I was able to let it slide.

Keisha meets her first Thistle Man in a diner. He attacks a man in broad daylight, takes a bite out of him, and no one – Keisha aside – seems to find this strange. When she picks up a teenage hitchhiker named Sylvia (who has own tragic backstory involving the Thistle Men), the two of them band together to unravel the mystery of the creatures and put an end to them. There is a war going on in plain sight, and only a select few can see it. Androgynous oracles watch from the corners. A shadowy woman whispers in ears and urges acts of violence. The book burns slowly and paints a nightmare of Things That Go Bump in the Night; along the way, it threads in painful themes of entitlement and unfounded hatred that send the reader’s mind sharply back into the worst parts of our present world.

This was a system of violence and laws that protected Thistle from the likes of her, five foot three, a gash down her chest, and a constant fear she wouldn’t recognize a heart attack if it came because it would feel like her panic attacks.

Keisha’s anxiety is another point of note. The story is told mostly through her perspective, and she is honest and frank about the many ways in which her anxiety affects her. She holds conversations with strangers – both dangerous and otherwise – in a manner which appears outwardly calm despite the fact that internally, she’s fighting (fighting to breathe and fighting to stay still and fighting to maintain her grip on the façade of normal). Even the bad guys can’t understand how they can look her in the eye and not see fear. And Keisha’s answer simple.

You’ve got me really wrong, Officer Whatever. I’m always afraid. Life makes me afraid. And if I’m already afraid of life, then what are you?

There are several books – many of them reviewed on this site – to which I owe a debt, because they aided in my unlearning in regards to being queer. They gave me strong, funny women in stable relationships with strong, funny women. They introduced me to the concept of chosen families. And as a child who always found it easiest to relate to fictional characters, I saw people living happy lives and realised queerness was not synonymous with limitation. An ache in my chest eased – an ache I had been carrying for so long, I had no memory of its appearance. It was liberating, and the way Keisha’s anxiety is written in this book is the closest I have come to feeling anything akin to that since.

She considered that anxiety was irrational, and listening to it was like listening to a child. It’s not that they are never right. It’s that the correct info is mixed in with a lot of imaginary things, and, like a child, anxiety can’t tell the difference between the two.

She was always afraid but she did what she needed to do.

Make me more afraid. I’m not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid.

Oftentimes the anxiety hinders her, but in this story of cannibal Thistle Men and government conspiracies and First Evils, there are times when it makes her powerful. Keisha’s anxiety is as much a part of her as her physical body, and she learns it can occasionally be used as a weapon. The ending comes and goes without Keisha’s anxiety being ‘cured,’ for which I am appreciative.

This book is full of twists and turns, and it offers monsters, action, a sprinkling of romance and a great deal of heart.

Kelley O’Brien reviews Camp Rewind by Meghan O’Brien

I’ve been excited to read Meghan O’Brien’s Camp Rewind since I first read the synopsis last year. A book about two women of color dealing with very real and contemporary problems like social anxiety and online harassment and misogyny? Sign me right up!

Despite my excitement for the book, it somehow got pushed back due to my own real world problems. But when I found that I had a few Audible credits to use up, I grabbed the chance to listen to a good book.

It’s been a while since I’ve listen to a book because I’ve lost some of my hearing and can only listen in quiet rooms. However, I had a really great experience listening to Camp Rewind and might just give it another listen again soon.

Alice Wu and Rosa Salazar meet at the titular Camp Rewind, a camp for adults who want to unwind for the weekend. However, the heroines both have other reasons for being there. Alice has extreme social anxiety and wishes to expand her social circle, so she applies for camp at her therapist’s request. Rosa, however, just wants to forget who she is for a little while after publishing an article about a video game that some men took offence to and decided to ruin her life over. The two meet and connect right away, entering into a “what happens at camp stays at camp” sort of relationship. Soon, they must deal with feelings that weren’t supposed to happen.

I should probably warn that this book contains a lot of sex. It’s all very well-written and didn’t feel out of place to me, especially given the way O’Brien describes their connection and Alice’s desire to finally be with a woman and her finally coming out as a lesbian.

There is also a lot of pot smoking and mentions of rape threats and other threats of violence against women, though I don’t recall it going into too much detail.

Alice and Rosa fall for each other very quickly in the novel, which might be a genuine concern for some. However, it felt organic to me. They were exactly what the other needed. Not that they needed to be in a relationship to grow as people, but that they needed someone to support them and be there for them, something they each lacked in their lives.

As someone with anxiety, I can honestly say that O’Brien does a great job crafting a mentally ill character. Alice never overcomes her anxiety. It’s always still there, even when she’s pushing herself to be braver, to do things that scare her because she wants to help or to be with Rosa. The relationship doesn’t magically cure Alice of being mentally ill. She still has her bad days and is a work in progress.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is O’Brien’s feminist critique of online harassment, particularly towards women in gaming and the men who disagree with and subsequently harass them. She doesn’t get too preachy about her opinion of them. She doesn’t have to, letting it show through Rosa’s character and the growth she experiences as someone who lets herself believe she isn’t worthy of love and affection to someone that embraces it.

If you enjoy books about characters who are allowed the room to grow and develop, books about women of color who are given agency, books with delightful side characters, and books with feminist themes, I highly recommend giving Camp Rewind a shot.