Carmella reviews The Confession by Jessie Burton

The Confession by Jessie Burton

Elise Morceau is enjoying a winter’s walk on Hampstead Heath when a striking older woman catches her eye. It’s attraction at first sight for the pair of them. Soon Elise is being whisked away by Connie – a successful author whose book is being developed into a Hollywood film.

Does this sound like the plot to a romance novel so far? Although romance is an important part of the book, the genre’s about to turn into a mystery.

Three decades later, Rose Simmons is looking for the mother who left while she was still a baby. All her father will tell her is that Elise’s disappearance is linked to two books from the 80s.  Between her unfulfilling job and her failing relationship, Rose is ready for some intrigue. When she tracks down the author, she manages to bluff her way into a job interview using a fake identity. Now she suddenly finds herself assistant to this arthritic stranger, Constance Holden, helping her to work on a third novel after a long spell of inactivity. But how did Constance know Elise, and how will Rose get the truth out of her?

The Confession is Jessie Burton’s third novel too – and one that’s been hotly anticipated after the bestselling success of The Miniaturist and The Muse. I loved Burton’s attention to historical detail and the authentic character voices in her other books, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on The Confession to see if it lived up to them.

Just like in her previous work, the bonds between characters are Burton’s greatest strength: the rocky passion between Elise and Connie, Rose’s fizzling-out love for her boyfriend, the guarded intrigue Rose feels for Connie, and – at the centre of it all – the absent space where a mother-daughter bond should connect the two timelines. All of these are written so believably that I really felt transported into the psychologies of the characters.

Although I (of course) love a tumultuous romance between two women, the most compelling strand for me wasn’t actually the story of Elise and Connie’s relationship, but the modern-day plot where Rose tracks down Connie. I really enjoyed watching Rose trying to unpick the mystery of what happened to her mother, and the tension of whether Connie would uncover Rose’s true identity. It’s like Chekhov’s gun: you know it has to go off at some point, so you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time waiting for it to happen.

I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t enjoy the sections set in the 80s more. I think it was an issue of pacing: the start of Connie and Elise’s relationship unfolds so quickly that I didn’t feel like I’d had the chance to watch them fall in love. Because of this, I wasn’t so invested once things start to get difficult between them.

Even so, the modern day sections had enough drive behind them that I was still propelled through the book.

I also appreciated Burton’s refreshing take on writing about motherhood. Without spoiling too much of the plot, it doesn’t fall back on the tired narrative of motherhood as the ultimate fulfilment. Burton isn’t afraid to write about postpartum depression, [Spoilers:] or to show that, for some women, a happy ending is deciding not to have children at all. [End spoilers]

Burton has definitely continued the momentum of her first two novels in The Confession, and I’m excited to see where and when she’ll take us next. Hopefully she won’t follow in Connie’s footsteps and make us wait three decades for another book!

Trigger warning: abortion, child abandonment, postpartum depression

Marthese reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

“Something tugs in my chest. I feel strangely offbeat”

Leah on the Offbeat is the second book in the Creekwood series by Becky Albertalli and it follows Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (on which the movie ‘Love, Simon’ was based). While it may be worthwhile to read that book first it is not necessary to understand this book but it gives you more familiarity with the characters in this book. Disclaimer – the first book is not Sapphic but follows a gay teenage boy in his search for  the boy he was sending emails to, and it’s cute as cotton candy.

Leah is the protagonist on this book. She’s a badass drummer – expect some music references – who loves her body even though people expect her not to, because she’s fat. Leah is also insecure and has a tendency to pull away when things get too much. She also stands up for social justice and knows not to take shit, although she may also be too stubborn – good thing her mother is also stubborn. She is so realistic, you’ll find yourself asking ‘is this me?’

Leah is bi and she has known this for a long time. Her mother knows and is the most supportive mother ever – even is Leah may be embarrassed or find her overbearing. Her friends however, don’t know even though they for sure would be supportive seeing as there is a gay couple in their friends’ group. Once time passes, it may be hard to say something, like you missed the chance for it and this is absolutely believable. Even though you know it will be okay, coming out is scary.

Leah’s heart beats faster when Abby is around. Abby who she had been really good friends with and then avoided one on one interactions with her. However, Abby and Leah cannot afford to go to universities/colleges far away so they are both going to Georgia, which bring them closer back together. There is just one problem: Abby is her best friend’s girlfriend/ex-girlfriend!

Abby is super-sweet and talented and seems to be flirting with Leah, which confuses her.

This was a five star read. It’s similar to other books in plot but it was also very fresh. Yes there is an element of confusion – it’s YA! But the characters, especially Leah, know themselves. A lot of bi struggles were mentioned in the book which again was refreshing. The book itself will make your heart beat in a pattern of gushing, angst and comfort – a really nice composition and you just want to keep on reading. It’s easily a one sitting book.

Leah’s descriptions and her actions are also very entertaining. Like she would be me if I went to a formal event because she does something that is very laughable but realistic! As a high school story, the book ends with prom. For me, Leah was basically Belle and Abby was basically Cinderella.

This is a book I’d recommend for anyone. The only thing that I didn’t like about this book was that the term ‘hot mess’ was repeated a lot! Apart from that Albertalli really has teenage-speak down and it’s a lovely story with realistic characters and actions and while it’s a simple story, it will take you for a ride. I really wish they make a movie about it too though they have changed some things in the ‘Love, Simon’ movie already.

Danika reviews Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

 

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this one. Initially, I was really excited to pick it up! A black, biromantic, asexual main character in a YA romance? That is definitely not an intersection often explored. I was looking forward to something fun and fairly light, and initially, I thought that was what I was getting. Alice is an adorable main character. She’s still mostly closeted as asexual, but she’s done a lot of thinking about it. She’s developed a Cutie Scale, which basically measures her aesthetic attraction–not just to people, but to all kind of cute things. (Alice is obsessed with cute.)

I loved Feenie–the grouch–immediately. She hates everyone but her boyfriend (Ryan) and Alice. The three of them live together, and form a tight-knit family. Feenie has always been fiercely protective of Alice, including punching a girl in the face in high school who made fun of Alice for being asexual. She’s rough around the edges, but I was invested in their little family. And–initially–I really liked Takumi as well. He almost seemed too perfect (which they flat-out say in text). It was a promising beginning! But… little irritations started to add up.

They didn’t seem major at first. For example, Alice works at the library, but doesn’t seem to care about it or enjoy it that much. She’s constantly off in a corner with Takumi, not working. Her boss also doesn’t like being a librarian. This is a very minor point, but it was puzzling to me: librarianship is a highly competitive field that doesn’t pay well. How would people who are indifferent to it get in and keep these jobs? And then there were some weird class moments, but that’s eventually addressed (Alice keeps saying that she’s poor and her parents are rich, but that’s not really what being poor is. Alice has a safety net, even if it comes with restrictions she doesn’t want. She equates the idea of being cut off from their money as being disowned.)

Her family is also… Well, they seem realistically complicated, but I can see how Alice was constantly stressing about it. She’s the youngest sibling by decades, and everyone seems to be determined to make her decisions for her. Her mother, especially, insists that she has to go to law school or she’s throwing away her future. Every time she does anything that her mother doesn’t approve of, all of her older siblings call and text constantly to criticize her. There is love there, but it had me stressed out just reading about it.

Soon, even the aspects I was enjoying started to fizzle out (or explode). Feenie went from gruff-but-lovable to downright shitty. Feenie and Ryan are engaged, and although the three of them are theoretically a unit, Alice is often the third wheel. Which is fine, until Alice starts going off with Takumi and Feenie goes into a rage over it. Both Feenie and Ryan seem to expect Alice to constantly be available to them, though that’s not equally true of them.

Spoilers follow for the rest of this review, because I have Thoughts.

When Feenie and Alice finally discuss what’s come between them, it turns into Alice calling herself an asshole and saying she’s been selfish, which is… not what I had been seeing. Although they form a shaky truth, it didn’t feel resolved for me. Feenie stopped being a favourite and instead felt like a toxic, possessive relationship.

And speaking of relationships! I was into Takumi at first because, as stated, he seemed pretty much perfect. Which meant the ending gave me whiplash. On reflection, I realized that I felt like there was no middle to the book. Alice and Takumi get closer and closer, without any real conflict between them until the end. They basically seem to already be dating. So it was a shock to me that when Alice finally (finally) actually asks him out, he spouts off the same ignorant things that we’ve already heard from her previous ex. Takumi–who knew Alice was asexual, who had seemed supportive–says that if she really loved him, she would let him have sex with her. Which is appalling to me. Why would you ever want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to be there? I can understand him saying “I don’t think I could give up sex.” But that was terrible to read. I actually found my eyes skimming over his whole speech, because I couldn’t understand why Alice was going through this again, when it had already happened in the beginning of the book. He did later sort of take it back, but to me, the damage was done. I no longer saw it as a happily ever after, because I didn’t like Takumi anymore.

I did read a review of an earlier draft of this book that clarified some things for me. Apparently in earlier drafts, Takumi was not a saint. In fact, he was downright skeezy at points. And that explains why I felt like there was no middle to the book: originally, it was a push and pull between Takumi and Alice, with Takumi pressuring Alice into things she wasn’t comfortable with. Understandably, that was criticized, and most of that was removed, but that puts the ending in context, as well as their lack of conflict in the middle of the book.

I’m disappointed, because I was really enjoying the read for the first 3/4 of the book, even with the minor issues I had with it, but the ending left my unsatisfied. Takumi went from eerily perfect to (in my eyes) irredeemable on a dime. Alice’s relationships with her family–both by birth and chosen–were still strained. It was far from the fluffy, uplifting ending I was expecting, though I know it was supposed to be a HEA.

I know other people really enjoyed this book, and I can see why. But it left me stressed and sad, which I don’t think was the intention.

Danika reviews Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant

I knew I would like Sugar Town from the cover alone, and from the first page, it didn’t disappoint.

This is a queer, polyamorous, BDSM fluffy love story. Hazel is in an open relationship with her boyfriend, and she bumps into Argent, a confident and kind domme, at a party. They click instantly, and Argent helps Hazel learn more about negotiating polyamorous relationships. All of the relationships are so caring and gentle.

My favourite scene was probably the BDSM scene (which is pretty tame and mostly off-panel, if it concerns you). Argent is using a whip on Hazel when Hazel says “Hang on,” and Argent immediately stops, checks in, and finds out that Hazel pulled something in her back, though she was thoroughly enjoying the scene. They cuddle and watch cooking shows instead. It’s BDSM as a completely consensual, mutual, and even kind activity for partners to enjoy together. That’s something I very rarely see.

Do I keep using the word “kind”? I can’t help it. Sugar Town is a sweet, soft story. Everyone in it treats each other with respect and caring. They check in. They talk about their feelings. Hazel is still figuring out jealousy and other aspects of polyamory, but that’s okay. They’re not simmering underneath, they’re freely discussed. They’re not perfect–Argent mentions experiencing suicidal thoughts, Hazel is self-conscious and doubts herself–but they  are supportive of each other and the rest of the people in their lives, whether they’re friends or partners.

I also loved the art style, which reinforces that warm and welcoming feel. I want to crawl inside the pages and curl up there. This is definitely one of my rare 5 star ratings: I loved every panel, and I know I will return to it when I need something hopeful to dive into for a little while. What a treat.

Laura reviews Adaptation by Malinda Lo

Publisher’s Blurb:

Reese can’t remember anything from the time between the accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: She’s different now.

Across North America, flocks of birds hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. Fearing terrorism, the United States government grounds all flights, and millions of travelers are stranded.

Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens. Everyone knows the world will never be the same. On their drive home to San Francisco, along a stretch of empty highway at night in the middle of Nevada, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won’t tell them what happened, where they are—or how they’ve been miraculously healed.

Things become even stranger when Reese returns home. San Francisco feels like a different place with police enforcing curfew, hazmat teams collecting dead birds, and a strange presence that seems to be following her. When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction—and threatens to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret.


I have mixed feelings about Malinda Lo’s Adaptation.

On the one hand, I think the “young adult” aspects are stellar, particularly where Lo delves into sexuality. She really captures the feeling of adolescent excitement and uncertainty — and boy, can she write a kissing scene. When the bisexual protagonist is walked in on by her mother, the ensuing “coming out” discussion feels totally natural. I really appreciated how smoothly it was integrated with the rest of the plot. (Because that’s more or less how it happens in real life, right? The world doesn’t grind to a halt as you figure out your sexuality. Life — work, school, alien invasions, whatever — continues to happen.)

I also loved the realistic reactions the characters had to the (sometimes very fantastic) events unfolding around them. For example, when a national emergency strikes, Reese and David aren’t dashing about making heroic speeches — they’re worrying about the charges on their cellphones running out. Lo’s attention to detail brings this novel a long way.

Unfortunately, this dedicated effort isn’t quite enough to redeem the plot’s pitfalls. When the author treads in familiar YA territory (the sexual awakening, the love triangle, the gay best friend, the single mother, etc.), I barely notice. It’s still compelling. However, when similarly well worn sci-fi tropes (government conspiracy, Area 51, sudden unusual abilities, etc.) are trotted out on top of this, I can’t help but cringe a little.

Lo’s application of sci-fi elements feels like the heavy handed work of a student attempting to imitate the work of a genre master. It’s almost Frankenstein-y — bits and pieces of other things that are good, stitched together into something much less attractive. I don’t want to give too much away, but basically, whenever you get a hunch about anything in this story, you’re right. There’s very little subtlety to the book’s storytelling — you’re just repeatedly hit over the head with “hints” about what’s coming next. By the time your suspicions are confirmed, you aren’t even pleased to find that you were right all along. You just have a headache.

Still, I hold out hope that this book’s weaknesses will be worked out in the sequel, which will be published in September. The story ends on an intriguing cliffhanger, and depending on how the next book plays out, it could very well redeem what currently reads as weak story development. Adaptation is Lo’s first foray into science fiction, and while there are many flaws, I trust the author. I loved Ash, and I want to believe that Lo knows what she’s doing. Maybe subtlety will come in time. Maybe not. Either way, I know I’ll be reading the next book to find out.

Adaptation was also reviewed for the Lesbrary by Erica.