A Witchy Parent Trap: Emma and the Love Spell by Meredith Ireland

Emma and the Love Spell cover

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Emma has plans for the perfect summer, and they all involve her best friend (and crush!) Avangeline by her side. However, Avangeline reveals that her parents are getting a divorce, and her mom plans to take her with her to New Orleans! Emma decides that she will do whatever it takes to keep Avangeline here with her in Samsonville—even if it means using her secret witchy powers that she doesn’t have control over. As Emma works on honing her craft and tries to get Avangeline’s parents together through both magical and non-magical means, she learns that being different may be the most powerful thing of all.

I adored reading Emma and the Love Spell. For a deceptively simple premise, it packs a powerful punch. Emma is not only dealing with typical middle-school trials, like her best friend having to move away, but also layers that with feelings of isolation due to being the only non-white person in Samsonville and also a witch. She struggles with having to hide so many parts of herself and it is heartbreaking to read her sadness and anger at having to do so. The ending (spoiler alert) makes it all the sweeter when Emma is able to not only gain control over her powers, but also can share them with Avangeline. 

Even with these serious subthemes, Emma and the Love Spell is kept light and easy most of the time. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing as I read about Emma’s attempts to “parent trap” Avangeline’s parents, or her many opinions on Shrek Forever After. (Siri, remind me to rewatch it later.) Emma’s friendship with Avangeline is sweet and true, making the reader reminiscent of when they were a young person, excited to spend summer with their best friend. Add to that the sarcastic Persimmon the telepathic cat and the wise Oliver the talking parrot, and you have a hilarious crew ready for any supernatural hijinks!

Readlikes for Emma and the Love Spell include Summer at Squee by Andrea Wang, When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega.

If you enjoy retellings of The Parent Trap, Eva Ibbotson, and emotional climaxes, you can order your copy of Emma and the Love Spell through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

A New Take On the 20-Something F*ckup Novel: All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

All This Could Be Different cover

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I have heard only great things about this book since it came out in 2022, but I somehow didn’t actually pick it up until my queer book club chose it for this month’s pick. I vaguely remembered downloading an ARC on my ereader, so I opened that up and jumped in. I was immediately struck by two surprises: 1) I wasn’t really enjoying the book, though I had been expecting to love it, and 2) I had started this book already. I was eight percent of the way through—which is not a lot, but it means at some point I started and abandoned it. Aside from the unease of reading through highlights I couldn’t remember making, I was also beginning to have a sinking feeling that this was not going to live up to the glowing reviews I’d heard.

Sneha is not an easy main character to like in the beginning of the story. She’s freshly graduated from her program and starting a new job in a new city: Milwaukee. She doesn’t have any real connections here, and she struggles to find her footing. Her property manager lives downstairs and erupts in anger if she makes the slightest noise. Her job is demanding and unpredictable. She hooks up with women without looking for anything lasting. And throughout it, she simmers with self-loathing that periodically boils over into cruelty and judgement.

Sneha is a queer woman of colour who has a lot of internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia. She thinks hateful things about other women, people of colour, and queer people. She’s angry and judgmental, but she’s also passive. She feels constrained by being an immigrant, especially because her father was deported. She worries that any misstep will result in failure—not just her own, but also failure to live up to her parents’ dreams.

“What nobody told me when I was a very young person was that obedience, fearful toeing of every line, chasing every kind of safety, would not save you.”

At this point in the story, I was having trouble with it. It was interesting enough to keep going, but I began to think that maybe I’ve grown beyond identifying with 20-something fuckup literary fiction—a genre I loved when I was younger. I might have even DNFed it, if it weren’t for my book club. But then…it got me. Somewhere along the way, I realized I’d gotten invested in Sneha and the network of relationships she formed.

There’s such a payoff in Sneha’s character growth—not that she becomes a perfect person, but that she becomes more accepting of herself and others. And that payoff feels so powerful because she was such a mess in the beginning. So I can’t fault the book for that, and I will say it’s worth sticking with through those beginning chapters, when she is being insensitive and even cruel.

If you’re a fan of messy found family dynamics, I definitely recommend this one. All the characters are complex and flawed, but they come together to support each other. Tig is definitely the standout character of the novel: a charismatic Black nonbinary philosopher who imagines a better world and both accepts Sneha and holds her accountable.

“This is my tragedy and my great good fortune, to be the recipient of this bond, to be kept alive under its crushing warmth and weight, to be given it so freely, so much more than I have ever deserved.”

The small section of the book that takes place in India adds a lot of depth to the story, I think. Even Sneha’s mother is a complex character—maybe more so than Sneha originally gives her credit for.

I was also surprised to see how the story is structured: while most of the book takes place over a small time span, there are a few chapters that go over several years. I think some readers will find that jarring, but I appreciated seeing the bittersweet aftermath of this formative time in these characters’ lives.

I definitely recommend this as a book club book, because there is so much to pull out and discuss, from issues of classism and appropriation to it being set during the recession to Sneha’s character arc to Sneha’s relationship with Marina and a lot more. It’s definitely one I think I would appreciate even more on rereading.

You Need to Read Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

the cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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I’m embarrassed to admit I only just read this for the first time. I’ve read every other Malinda Lo book. I’ve had a copy since it first came out—in fact, I’ve owned two copies, because I also spent $100 on a signed hardcover (it was for charity, in my defense). In 2018, I read All Out, which contained a short story by Malinda Lo that would later be adapted into this book, and I said, “I’m eager to get my hands on the novel version“! I have no good reason for waiting three years to finally pick this up, but I’m happy to say that I loved it just as much as I knew I would.

If you somehow missed this bestselling, award-winning YA novel, it’s the story of a Chinese American lesbian teenager growing up in 1950s San Francisco. When she discovers the existence of a male impersonator performing at the Telegraph Club, she can’t resist the temptation, especially when a classmate says she has been there before and offers to accompany her. What follows is a bittersweet first love and coming out story that weaves in the political and social realities of the time period.

This is such an atmospheric, absorbing story. Lo does a great job of situating us in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown, and the inclusion of timeline pages show how Lily’s story plays out against bigger political events as well as her family’s history. Lily and her classmates do duck-and-cover drills in preparation of a nuclear attack. Her father is questioned for treating a supposedly communist patient. Her aunt works on technology that brings the U.S. one step closer to landing on the moon.

I couldn’t help feeling for Lily. She’s a very sympathetic main character, initially being pushed towards a prescribed path by her family and best friend. When she discovers the Telegraph Club—as well as a lesbian pulp fiction book, which she reads furtively in a corner of the drug store, she eventually is forced to choose between the future laid out for her and risking it all for a life of her own design.

Lily is some ways is naive: she starts the novel not knowing about the existence of queer people, and she questions throughout how you know that you’re in love. On the other hand, she also faces constant prejudice. As she discovers her own sexuality, she knows her family and community would judge her harshly for it. At the Telegraph Club, she’s the only Asian person—and often the only person of colour—there, and she’s tokenized by the other white queer patrons.

At one point, Lily mentions feeling split in two, like only the “good Chinese girl” is allowed through the door at her family’s house, while the queer half of her has to stay outside. This was such a powerful way to express being multiply marginalized, so rarely finding a space or community where you can be your entire authentic self. It’s heartbreaking, since Lily can’t walk away from either side of her identity.

The relationship between Kath and Lily felt realistic to first love: they’re both hesitant at first, even after it’s pretty obvious they’re both queer. They don’t know how to find the words to ask if the other person feels the same way about them. When they can’t contain their feelings anymore, it’s the kind of intense, overwhelming connection (both romantically and sexually) that you’d expect of a teen first love, but complicated by being mixed up with coming out.

Their relationship, while central to the narrative, isn’t the dynamic that stood out to me the most, though. There’s more complication and layers to Lily’s relationship with Shirley, her childhood best friend that she’s beginning to grow apart from. The two of them struggling to understand who they are to each other now, and whether they can still be friends at this point.

I appreciated the inclusion of several chapters from other points of view in previous years, including from her mother, father, and aunt. We get to see a broader look at the events that led up to Lily’s current life, including how her parents got together, how their plans to return to China were derailed, and Lily’s childhood growing up with her best friend. These chapters make the story feel bigger, almost like a family saga, even though the vast majority of the chapters are focused on Lily. They also make these side characters feel more well-rounded, which is crucial to how we interpret the ending.

(Spoilers in this paragraph) I’ve read a few different queer YA stories where teens are sent off to other family members to separate them from their partner/crush, and it’s always a traumatic experience for them. (For example, The Stars and the Darkness Between Them.) It makes sense that this is what Lily’s family would do to her, especially given the time period, but I appreciated Lo’s choice to skip over this part of her life. It allows us to end on a hopeful note, with Kath and Lily reuniting and Lily having more independence. (End of spoilers)

Maybe I put this aside for long because the hype was intense. Last Night at the Telegraph club has won some of the biggest awards YA books are eligible for, and it’s by far Lo’s most popular book—both in terms of readership and ratings. Any fears that this would fail to live up to this reception were misplaced, though: I honestly can’t think of any real flaws in this story. It is such a rich narrative that kept me immersed from beginning to end. This is a five star read and a new favourite. Whether or not you usually pick up historical fiction or YA, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Content warnings: homophobia, racism, miscarriage, underage drinking

A Lesbian Poet Teen Finds Her Voice: Kween by Vichet Chum

the cover of Kween

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Kween is a character-centric book about Soma Kear, a Cambodian teen whose life in Lowell, MA has been deeply shaken. Soma’s Ba has been deported, her Ma is in Cambodia with him, her Bridezilla sister is in charge… and Soma just wants to make sense of things. With a viral TikTok video, an upcoming poetry contest, a loyal best friend, and a (hopefully!) new girlfriend, Soma just might be able to find her voice.

The queer content in this book is nice. Truly, “nice” is the best word for it. The relationship is comfortable and easy. Soma’s parents are supportive when she comes out; though they do worry she may experience challenges outside the home, these challenges do not occur on the page. This is a safe book for a lesbian protagonist to explore her identity and feelings.

However, when that holds true for all facets of the narrative, it becomes a problem. Soma is always safe to explore her feelings. That may sound like a positive, but for me, it felt indulgent and excessive and made for a deeply frustrating reading experience. Soma wants to find her voice… but she already has her voice. She’s already facing a parent-teacher meeting for an essay she wrote a bit too loudly. Her TikTok video goes viral in the first few chapters. Her poetry is encouraged and praised and everyone believes in her.

All of that could be positive, if Soma weren’t so acutely cruel. I have never hated a main character as much as I hate Soma, maybe because I was bullied in high school and Soma is a high school bully. She’s not trying to find her voice. She’s using it. When she’s not lashing out actively at others, she’s filling the first-person narrative with complaints about the sister who uprooted her own life to help her family, the best friend who does nothing but support and cheer for her, the lonely classmate who just wants a friend. All of this seems somehow excusable to the greater narrative. She rarely faces consequences, and when she does, it all comes wrapped up in words of encouragement, reassurance, and admiration.

Again, this could be great. I love the idea of a character allowed to be messy without being condemned, but that character needs to address if they cause hurt, and Soma does. The entire book, all she cares about is herself. Of course she makes an apologetic gesture at the end, but even then, it seems to come from a sense of her own grandeur, not actually caring about anyone else. Soma is a deeply flawed, deeply flat character experiencing a narrative of encouragement and indulgence.

From a narrative standpoint, this book is unbalanced. I said earlier that the queer content is nice, and that’s true. It also feels almost perfunctory. The book lacks a central focus—it wants that focus to be the poetry contest, but it’s not. The contest is the second-act climax and has no impact on the rest of the book other than being dismissed when Soma is done having feelings about it. And that’s honestly representative of the whole book.

A well-intentioned but deeply flawed reading experience, overall.

Haunted by the Past: She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

the cover of she is a haunting

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Horror is a very broad genre, and, I am inclined to say, a particularly personal one, seeing as what scares one person may not scare another, or, on the other hand, it might scare them too much. I myself love a good haunted house, but psychological horror freaks me out in concept alone, to the point that I won’t touch a book when I see it labeled that way. Trang Thanh Tran’s She is a Haunting, I am pleased to report, is my favorite kind of horror, that particular style where it’s kind of about the ghosts, but it’s not really about the ghosts. Or rather, it is, but it’s about what the ghosts represent more than the don’t-look-behind-you scariness.

That’s not to say this book isn’t scary, of course. I personally do not tend to get scared while reading books, so I am not the best judge, but I thought the book did a good job creating a creepy atmosphere and some really unsettling images (all those bugs *shudder*). The scariest thing in this book, though, is not the ghosts themselves but the very real horrors of colonialism, as well as the impacts of it that linger through to today. While this book is aimed at teenagers, it does not shy away from those atrocities, but nor does it dwell on them, exactly.

Beyond those horrors, however, this is also the story of Jade, a closeted seventeen-year-old wrestling with a complicated family dynamic and her relationship to Vietnam as a Vietnamese American who is visiting the country for the first time. As a protagonist, I adored Jade. I thought she felt very authentically seventeen, which is to say that while she was occasionally frustrating, she was trying her best. 

I also thought all of the relationships in the book were well-drawn. Her romance with “bad girl” Florence was endearing, and their interactions made me giggle a few times. The more complex dynamics with the parents worked equally well for me, and in fact I found her mom to be a standout character for me by the end.

Regarding the ending, I will say there were one or two elements that felt on the edge of overly dramatic, but I thought the book did enough well that I didn’t really mind. Emotions were running high, after all, and real life can be overly dramatic too. Regardless, I felt the book ended on a high and, frankly, down-to-earth note that left me satisfied.

I look forward to more horror from Trang Thanh Tran, and reading more horror in general this year, because this book reminded me that it is a genre I enjoy when it is done in the particular way I most vibe with, as this one was. If you are looking for a creepy haunted house that’s grounded in both the past and the present and the ways they affect each other, I highly recommend She is a Haunting.

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

the cover of Displacement

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“And keep drawing, too. Draw what you see, what happens here. It’s important. They can scare us, but they can’t make us forget.”

In this simply illustrated yet poignant graphic novel, Kiku Hughes reimagines herself as a teenager who is pulled back in time to witness and experience the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. There, she not only discovers the truths of what life was like within these camps but also follows her late grandmother’s own experiences having her life turned upside down as her and her family are villainized and forcibly relocated by the American government. Kiku must live alongside her young grandmother and other Japanese American citizens, as she finds out about the atrocities they had to suffer and the civil liberties they had been denied, all while somehow cultivating community and learning to survive.

Touching on important themes of cultural history and generational trauma, Hughes meshes these topics seamlessly into a fascinating plot and an extremely endearing and relatable main character. Kiku reflects a lot, during her journey, on the way that marginalized people are treated within the U.S.—during the past and in modern time—but also on the way that her family’s history and experiences had such a great effect on her own life.

Throughout the story, she feels powerless because of the lack of information she has regarding her grandmother’s past and her community’s history, which makes it difficult to help those around her. She can’t tell them what is about to happen to them; she doesn’t know what the living conditions are like in the different internment camps they are sent to; she can’t warn them about the specific atrocities that await them. She is forced to undergo this displacement alongside everyone else, and her ignorance not only makes her scared but also makes her feel quite guilty for not being able to contribute more aid or comfort to those around her.

She is also confronted with this difficult-to-place, bittersweet feeling of being disconnected from her family’s culture but also acknowledging that her own habits and traditions have been so deeply impacted by it. All these moments of introspection felt like a personal call out to me and made Kiku the kind of main character to whom a lot of readers will be able to relate.

Because of my own relationship to my family’s culture and history, reading this graphic novel was an extremely personal and emotional experience. On one hand, I think a lot of people will be able to connect with this story; on the other hand, I think a lot of other people will have the opportunity to learn something new through it.

I also loved the subtle sapphic romance arc that was included. It didn’t overpower the main message of the novel, but it was a nice, comforting surprise in an otherwise heavy read. I saw it as a beautiful testament to the joy and love we humans are capable of finding, even in moments of great duress.

The illustrations were beautiful, the art style was simple but extremely effective, the characters felt very fleshed out—which is sometimes hard to do in a graphic novel, working within a limited number of panels. All the artistic choices perfectly matched the tone of the story, which is a testament to Hughes’ true talent as a creator.

Representation: sapphic, Japanese American main character

Content warnings: racism, racial slurs, colourism, sexism, hate crimes, cancer, death, grief depiction, confinement, imprisonment, war themes (World War II and Japanese internment camps)

Censorship, Expression, and Signaling in Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club

the cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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Malinda Lo’s novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) has won multiple awards and has been reviewed multiple times at the Lesbrary already, so let’s start this review somewhere different: Last Night at the Telegraph Club has been banned and/or challenged at least 34 times in 14 states. Having done a bit of research and writing about these book challenges, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the people who submit complaints to school boards and file police reports with law enforcement very rarely actually read the books that they are attempting to ban. In the post linked above, Lo provides evidence of just how easy it is to file FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests that reveal all sorts of information about the people who want to ban books that they feel do not fit a certain narrative profile.

This is why you won’t see me write much about YA here—I spend way too much time writing about these issues elsewhere. However, I wanted to write about Last Night at the Telegraph Club because, simply, I hadn’t read it yet. 2023 was not a good year, so why not end it with a book on my TBR pile that I knew would be good? And it certainly was.

One element of YA that is important to watch out for is how it serves two primary sets of readers. The first set is the group of readers whose identities most closely align with the characters and/or the subject matter. For example, in the case of Last Night, adolescents who are Asian American, immigrants, and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community are in this first set of readers (along with potentially any other adolescent from a marginalized community). When we talk about who books are for, this is the set of readers to whom we are usually referring. If I can recognize myself in some facet of Lily’s character, Last Night speaks to me and my experiences. I might, for example, be reminded of the thrill of realizing something important about myself when Lily begins to interact with Kath, or I might recognize the danger that I feel through Lily’s constant need to keep large parts of her life a secret. In other words, the reader’s experience is reflected back to them in the pages of the novel.

The second group of readers is, simply put, everyone else—and this is where we run into trouble. Why should my child, who is nothing like the characters in these books, be subjected to these books? That’s the question that I’ve heard posed so often, either in those exact words or otherwise. Their children, they argue, shouldn’t have to be confronted with what it means to call an Asian American person a term that is meant to describe objects rather than people. Their children shouldn’t be exposed to a point of view that challenges the way the “typical” white person behaves, as they are when Lily is asked if she can speak English or is repeatedly called a “China doll.” Their children, most especially, shouldn’t see “immoral” behavior go unpunished. 

Except these sorts of issues are precisely what adolescents should be reading about because, for many, novels like Last Night provide a window into an experience that isn’t their own. The parents who seek to ban books only want their children reading books that mirror a certain set of experiences, while marginalized adolescents have to look through windows into lives that don’t mirror their own. In truth, all adolescents should read both sorts of books. All adolescents need the books they read to function as windows and mirrors so that they can learn about themselves and about others. (Note: The credit for the windows/mirrors metaphor goes to Rudine Sims Bishop, who advocated for diversity in children’s literature, particularly for Black readers and authors. Here is a great resource for more on this concept.)

Again, I really enjoyed Last Night, and I wanted to say just a bit more about two things that I found particularly delightful: the discussions of butch/femme and signaling. Does anyone remember Genesis from The Real World: Boston? The first time that I ever heard the term “lipstick lesbian” was from her. A couple of years later, I learned more about the concept of “butch” from Jack Halberstam. In 2024, we know that these terms are slippery and have limited utility—perhaps they don’t even have any utility for current adolescents at all. However, for many of us who left adolescence behind long ago, femme and butch were part of the limited ways that we had to describe queerness at something resembling a mainstream level.

Lo uses the historical setting of San Francisco during the Red Scare to explore the femme/butch binary in a way that helps younger readers understand the ways in which previous generations explored queerness, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Again, even if the femme/butch binary doesn’t serve adolescents today, the historical context does because, as we know, where we came from directly influences where we are and where we are going. And, of course, who among us hasn’t at some point felt the same awkwardness and excitement that Lily feels as she is figuring all of these things out over the course of the novel?

This past fall, I taught an undergraduate seminar on young adult literature; in one of the books that we read, several characters provide nonverbal cues to signal their sexuality. The discussion that we had in class about signaling was one of my favorite discussions that we had all semester. I wish I had time to recount more of that discussion; for now, though, just imagine Last Night as a way to juxtapose mid-20th century signaling from what it looks like today. After all, all one has to do today is slap on a pride flag, get an undercut, or quote Steven Universe or The Owl House, and the people who need to know—well, they know. Compare those contemporary signals with the ways in which Lo describes the way her characters dress and wear their hair as well as the way she describes Lily’s reverence as she encounters outward expressions of queerness. 

If you haven’t read Last Night at the Telegraph Club yet, don’t wait any longer! If you have read it already, perhaps it’s time to give it a second read.

Content warning: homophobia, racial slurs, racism

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Trans Teen Finds Her Words: Just Happy to Be Here by Naomi Kanakia

the cover of Just Happy to Be Here

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Tara is the first trans girl to attend Ainsley Academy, an all-girls school. She finds it hard to fit in, especially considering that she’s also one of the few students of color. One place she does feel like she belongs is the Sibyls, an exclusive society within the school that values classical history. Tara’s passion is speeches throughout history, and she admires how the Sibyls stand behind their values and don’t seem to care what anyone else thinks about them. When she applies to join, though, she’s thrown into a controversy about who is allowed into this elite group for girls, and whether it should still exist at all.

This was an infuriating read. Tara is a young trans woman of color who seems to bounce between dealing with micro aggressions and macro aggressions; there’s almost no one she can just be herself around. Her parents are… somewhat accepting, but they often misgender her and question whether she’s sure enough about her transition to go on hormones. Tara desperately wants to be on hormones, but they live in a state where parents can have their kids taken away if they’re suspected of pushing them to transition. And because of their immigration status, they’re even more vulnerable. It’s not paranoia, either: they are reported at one point and interrogated by a state official.

Tara is used as a political pawn. Even people who are theoretically accepting just see as her as “the trans girl.” When she says anything that doesn’t match their idea of what a trans girl should be, they immediately push back against her, even when she’s just expressing her own insecurities. They seem more concerned about saying the right things than actually getting to know her. Even the trans guy at school uses her as an unwilling figurehead in his fight to take down the Sibyls for being exclusionary, ignoring that she loves the Sibyls and has no interest in dismantling the group.

Tara wants so badly to fit in, to be “ordinary”, and deals with a lot of internalized transphobia and racism. She doesn’t want to lead a charge against transphobia. She just wants to blend in.

I had to put down the book at some point because I was so full of rage on her behalf. The school administrators and teachers often have double standards for her: when it comes to benefits of being part of Ainsley Academy, Tara is technically part of the boys’ school. But when it comes to the drawbacks and discipline of students, she’s part of Ainsley. One of her teachers escalates from double standards to flat-out transphobic hate speech.

The Sibyls aren’t perfect, and in fact there are very good reasons to want to dismantle this not-so-secret society of rich women. But it is where Tara meets her first genuine friends, who treat her as an individual—including her crush, Felicity, who she gets closer and closer to. (Tara is bisexual, with a preference for women.) They’re all flawed people, and they may not always say the right thing, but they’re finally a place where Tara feels like she belongs and that people have her back—not for political reasons, but for her as a person.

Just Happy To Be Here has a long author’s note at the end with advice for trans girls, and that advice is not sugar-coated. It’s also frustrating that trans women and transfem YA is so new, and yet this author’s note feels even more urgent and dire than these books did a handful of years ago, when the first few trans YA titles were being published by mainstream presses. It’s horrific that it’s gotten even more dangerous to be a trans woman in the United States.

This was an emotionally harrowing read, full of non-stop transphobia—plus some added racism. It’s one I’m glad to have read, but I’m even more glad to be done.

Queer F/F Rom-Com for National Hispanic Heritage Month: The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School

the cover of The Lesbiana's Guide to Catholic School

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The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School had been on my reading list for way too long and I am so glad I finally opened it up to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15)! The sweet characters, nuanced coming-of-age and coming out story, and will-they-or-won’t-they first F/F romance had me hooked from the first page. 

Ever since Yamilet (Yami) was outed by her ex-best friend last year, she has been committed to acting as straight as possible: don’t hug your girlfriends too long, talk about crushes on boys—you know the drill. Her hope is that just maybe that acting will help her be straight, since she’s confident her religious mom would kick her out if she’s gay. It is both heartbreaking and endearing following Yami’s very gay thoughts as she tries oh so hard to be straight. She watches her every move, hoping they’re not too gay, and she is definitely not spending a lot of her time thinking about Bo, the only out girl (and one of the few other people of color as an adopted Chinese American) in her Catholic School.

I’m going to take a gander and guess that you don’t choose YA coming out stories for the high stakes plot. If you’re anything like me, you open up this kind of book for another sweet example of someone living into their truth and being better for it. Even if the end result of a rom-com is expected, it’s the journey to that queer happily ever after that is so fulfilling. I never get sick of honest yet positive coming out stories and this one from a queer Mexican American girl navigating Catholic school and a religious family is especially important to be told and read. 

The awkward growing up moments made me laugh out loud. The found family relationships made my heart swell. The biological family love and growth made me tear up. The very real homophobic reactions and religious trauma made me cringe. The understanding and patient romance made me swoon. And the journey of self-love and self-confidence was contagious, reminding me all over again of the freedom of getting brave enough to be you out loud. This was a beautiful read through and through—I highly recommend it!

Content warnings: racism, homophobia, immigration, suicidal ideation and hospitalization of a character

Natalie (she/her) is honestly shocked to find herself as a voracious reader these days—that certainly wasn’t the case until she discovered the amazing world of queer books! Now she’s always devouring at least one book, as long as it’s gay. She will be forever grateful for how queer characters kept her company through her own #gaypanic and now on the other side of that, she loves soaking up queer pasts, presents and futures across all genres. Find more reviews on her Bookstagram!

Sea Monsters and Lesbian Pirates: The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss by Emily Skrutskie

the covers of The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss

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The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss feel like one book that’s been split in two. And I mean that in the best way possible—one of my biggest frustrations with young adult fiction is when it doesn’t take the time to slowly and properly develop its themes, characters, narrative payoffs, and romances. The Abyss duology doesn’t fall into that “fast food” pitfall; there’s plenty to chew on here, though it’s not like the story has a slow start. Quite the opposite, in fact: though there’s quite a lot of worldbuilding setup that the first novel has to do, The Abyss Surrounds Us takes the classic science fiction approach of dropping the reader into the deep end and letting us acclimate as the story goes. A hard trick to pull off, but Skrutskie manages it while also developing a cast of delightfully intriguing characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is the Abyss duology actually about? The books take place in a near future where the Earth is mostly flooded, and sea travel is the most important means of global connection left to humanity. Naturally, this means pirates—and charmingly, it also means genetically engineered sea monsters raised and trained to defend ships from pirates. As fun as that premise sounds in theory, the execution is even better. The protagonist, Cas, raises and handles these “Reckoners,” as the big beasties are called, but finds out quickly into her first mission that the world is a lot more complicated than she may have assumed. Skrutskie does an excellent job making every character feel real and multi-dimensional—from the terrifying pirate queen Santa Elena, to the roguish pirate Swift with whom Cas has immediate and obvious chemistry, to the horrifically strong but recognizably animal Reckoners themselves.

A lot of these elements—the culture around Reckoners and pirates, the romance between Cas and Swift, the escalating conflict for control of the sea—are resolved satisfactorily enough by the end of the first book, but some of the best payoffs come in the second. In a way, it is both the Abyss duology’s greatest strength and weakness, because for some reason I just never see people talking about The Edge of the Abyss. And I don’t know why! Granted, these books can be pretty hard to find—no library system near me had any copies (though they do now carry Skrutskie’s new trilogy about men piloting spaceships—go figure).

Point is, the Abyss duology is highly underrated—and The Edge of the Abyss  is not to be slept on, especially for anyone who enjoyed The Abyss Surrounds Us. I’m not sure I could even separate them enough in my head to decide which one is better…though you do need to get to the second book to see a ship getting attacked by a giant squid. Which is a fact, I think, that speaks for itself.

Content Warning: animal injury/death

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.