Shannon reviews I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee

I'll Be the One by Lyla Lee

If you’re looking for something to make you smile just as much as it makes you think, Lyla Lee’s debut I’ll Be the One is the perfect book for you. It’s categorized as young adult romance, but don’t let that put you off. I’m in my forties and I loved every second I spent with these characters.

Skye Shin has grown up knowing she wants to be a K-Pop star. She’s devoted every spare moment to practicing both her singing and dancing, and even though those around her haven’t always been as supportive of her dreams as she might like, she’s determined not to let this get her down. Sure, she’s a self-professed fat girl whose mother is constantly telling her to lose weight before taking the world by storm, painful to be sure, but if her deep love for K-Pop has taught her anything over the years, it’s that she has to believe in herself one-hundred percent, even if she’s the only one who does.

When You’re My Shining Star, a talent competition focused on K-Pop, holds auditions in her area, Skye knows she has to try out. So, she skips school and shows up for what she hopes will be her chance to totally wow the judges. Unfortunately, while her performance is one of the best she’s ever given, some of the judges aren’t eager to take a chance on Skye. Suddenly, in front of tons of other would-be contestants as well as a camera crew, Skye is forced to defend not only her lifelong dream, but the right for anyone who isn’t extremely thin to create art.

What follows is not only a behind-the-scenes look into the making of a reality TV show, but a deep and often heart-wrenching look into one young woman’s journey toward self-acceptance. Skye is a remarkable heroine, more self-assured than I could have even dreamed of being at her age, smart, resourceful, and unwilling to back down. She knows what she wants, and even when things get rough, she plows ahead, sometimes making mistakes, but always seeking the best, most fulfilling way to be who she’s meant to be, and lest she seem too good to be true, let me assure you that she’s not always sure of her identity. She considers herself bisexual, but because of her contentious relationship with her mother, she’s afraid to come out to anyone but her closest friends, and yet, her unwillingness to come out makes her feel hypocritical at times.

As the competition heats up, Skye throws herself wholeheartedly into a grueling schedule of rehearsals and performances. Plus, she’s still in school and letting her grades fall is not an option. Needless to say, she’s busier than she’s ever been, but things aren’t all work and no play for her and her fellow contestants. Fast friendships are formed, and Skye even gets a shot at first love, even if that love comes from a direction she never anticipated.

If you’re sensitive to fat-phobic commentary, I’ll Be the One might prove difficult for you to read. Skye is bombarded with anti-fat rhetoric from her mother, from the judges, and from several of the other contestants, so proceed with caution if you decide to pick this book up.

Nothing I can say can adequately convey my love for I’ll Be the One. It’s the kind of book I would have loved to read as a teenager struggling to fit into a world that didn’t always feel welcoming. Lee has created the perfect combination of lighthearted fun and introspective wisdom, making this a great book for readers both young and old.

Trigger Warning: Fat-phobia

Danika reviews Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia HibbertThis is an F/M romance with a bisexual main character.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t read a lot of M/F romance. Truthfully, I don’t even read a lot of F/F romance–which is often surprising to people who think queer books are all romance novels. I am, however, much more likely to read an M/F romance with a bi woman main character, and when I saw that this audiobook was available through my library, I though I’d give it a shot. And I’m very glad I did, because this ended up being one of my favourite romance novels of all time. (With a male love interest! I know! It’s shocking! That’s just how good it is.)

Part of what I loved about this book was the main character. Dani Brown knows what she’s about: she is devoted to her job (teaching and researching lit), to the point that she may forget to do things like sleep or eat. She has no time for romance, and doesn’t think she’s the kind of person who does well in relationships. She doesn’t remember anniversaries. She is embarrassed by romantic gestures. What she does enjoy is sex, and she’s determined to find a fun, casual, purely sexual relationship.

Zafir is the (grouchy) security guard in the building she works at, and they chat every day. When Dani injures herself in a safety drill, Zafir sweeps her up and carries her outside. The moment goes viral, and Zafir asks Dani if they can fake date to promote his rugby charity for children. (Where he teaches about toxic masculinity and expressing your emotions and dealing with mental health issues!) Dani agrees, hoping that this can turn into a no-strings-attached arrangement–but it turns out that Zafir is a romantic, which makes things more complicated.

Here’s the thing about Dani: her full name is Danika. Which is my name. Have you ever listened to a romance audiobook with a main character who shares your name? I’m not ashamed to say I was blushing, but it is a bit of ego soothing to hear a narrator extol the brilliance and beauty of Danika. Dani is a fascinating main character, though. She and her sisters are witches, which isn’t something I’ve seen a lot in books. She’s also a compelling mix of self-confident and insecure. She thinks highly of herself, but she doesn’t believe that others would approve of her, especially in a romantic relationship. I also loved that she’s unapologetically sexual, especially as a fat woman. I was surprised how affecting it was to hear a round stomach described positively.

I didn’t plan to review this on the Lesbrary when I first started listening, but I ended up loving it so much that I had to share. I even liked Zafir! I appreciated that he’s a grouch, but also sensitive, romantic, and committed. They’re both complicated, with their own backstories–Zafir had a family tragedy and mental health crisis in his past, and has had to rebuild since. Dani has her own reasons for being insecure in relationships. They both feel like real, complex people, which makes their relationship all the more interesting.

[Spoiler, highlight to read:] I also loved that Danika doesn’t have to change to be in a relationship. She just needs someone who loves her for who she is. [end spoiler]

As for queer content, Dani states her bisexuality several times, and we do see her female ex, but it’s not a huge part of the plot. If you’re willing to take a risk on an M/F romance, though, make it this one.

Thais reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

I hadn’t been super into romance before I had Olivia Waite’s Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. I sought sapphic representation when I chose books, but I was mostly a reader of literary fiction, so understandably a lot of what I was read didn’t have a happy ending. I didn’t even realize that was something I craved, and I was so giddy when I cracked open this historical romance and found myself enthralled.

I was very eager to read the sequel, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, another regency sapphic tale. I was intrigued by Agatha in Lady’s Guide and definitely detected queer vibes coming from her, so it was no surprise when she turned out to be one of the protagonists of this book. A no-nonsense small business owner who always seemed to entangled with artists, scientists, and subversives of all kinds, Agatha was intriguing when she was introduced as a side character, but she is delightful here—grumpy and direct, but also caring and cautious when it comes to her own romantic feelings.

I also loved Penelope from her very first moments on the page, which is something I appreciate about Waite’s books. I always struggle to stick with a lesfic romance when I dislike one of the main characters. Waite always write heroines who are quirky and not necessarily traditionally likable, but they hook me completely exactly because they jump off the page as whole human beings, with flaws and unique perspectives. I loved Lucy and Catherine when I read Lady’s Guide, but I think now I love Agatha and Penelope more.

A beekeeper, Penelope comes to Agatha’s aid when the printer finds a beehive nesting inside her warehouse. After Penelope manages to carefully remove the bees and suggests placing their new home just outside Agatha’s business building, the two start corresponding.

As Agatha and Penelope started exchanging letters, I found myself nearly racing to finish the book, because I just wanted these two to be happy already. I had to read it again to appreciate some of the story beats and I’m sure I will read it one more time to swoon over the beautiful prose Waite writes, but the first time had me breathless with anticipation, and even the promise of a happy ending that comes with a romance couldn’t make me relax and slow down.

I don’t usually enjoy characters who pine for each for very long. One of the reasons I loved Lady’s Guide was that there was little wait before the main characters got together and the focus was on their burgeoning relationship and past wounds. I wasn’t sure if I would be the audience for a book that withholds the payoff for so long, since I tend to resent when there are too many misunderstandings and obstacles and people just won’t talk to each other. This book is unabashed about the pining and the silly misunderstandings. But it’s so well-done, with Penelope’s hesitation to come out and Agatha’s resentment of Penelope’s marriage and assumptions about what that means, that I was captivated.

I did miss the diversity from the first book, however. Lady’s Guide has more than one character of color and really came alive for me for painting a portrait of what Regency Britain might really have been like. Waspish Widows has several queer characters instead, which is nice, especially as Agatha and Penelope spend a lot of time supporting and conspiring with the other queers, but I still craved more diversity from the book, probably because I know Waite can deliver it and do it well. I assume Mr. Biswas is Indian, but can’t remember him being that big of a presence in the book, and that’s a pity.

I also really appreciated the side story with Queen Caroline and the real danger it brought to the characters that we cared about. I just wish the plot had been wrapped up a bit better. I felt like we heard way too much about this historical context in the beginning and then interest seemed to wane and narrow on the fictional plots that sprouted from it, but that too is sort of set aside at the end, and we only get an assurance that it was resolved by a certain character moving away. I was a bit disappointed.

The middle of the book has amazing tension due to Waite weaving so many threads exceptionally well and creating explosive confrontations. The writing is well-paced, so it propels you forward, making you want to know how it will all come to a head. So I felt a bit cheated that main antagonist in the story disappears off-page and the political tensions are resolved by people just losing interest.

Nevertheless, none of that ruined my enjoyment of the book. It’s a testament to Waite’s brilliant storytelling that even when my brain is picking on tiny things and I’m frustrated with bits and pieces, the whole narrative is still impactful and satisfying. Her character work in particular shines. All these people she creates stay in your imagination. Those characters live outside the page, leave a mark on the reader. When Catherine appeared briefly for a cameo in this book, I nearly shouted in excitement. When Mr. Frampton was mentioned, I felt nostalgic and sad that we hadn’t seen him in this book yet. And I would pay any amount of money for a book focusing on Joana Molesey and Aunt Kelmarsh, because there are so few sapphic romances between older women, and after reading Waspish Widows, I would love more.

I certainly can’t wait to go back to this mini world and see them once again, and while I know that Waite has only planned one more book for this series, I can’t help but hope she will pen many more historical sapphic books. I would certainly read them.

Thais is a Brazilian WOC queer. Her degree in Media Studies has slowly grown useless, even though she literary Majored in how to be good at social media (but can’t understand it better than twelve-year-olds) and she currently lives with her parents. She is an Editor and has too many opinions on books she should be reading for fun.

You can find her on Goodreads or Twitter (@ThaisAfonso).

JB reviews Something To Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

Hello everybody! My name is JB and I’m so excited to be here.

Who doesn’t love a good slow burn romance? The slow burn romance trope is literally my favorite trope in existence. All my favorite ships go through some sort of slow burn/mutual pining stage. Something to Talk About has a slow burn romance AND a fake dating. It feels like it was made for me, and I can tell Meryl Wilsner knows what the lesbians want. And yet this novel did not fully satisfy my itch for slow burn romance.

Something to Talk About features Jo, a mega-successful showrunner, and her assistant, Emma, and their journey from coworkers to friends to lovers. Jo is photographed making Emma laugh on a red carpet and rumors start a-going. Though the gossip threatens to interfere with both their personal and professional lives, Jo decides to not comment; she’s never before, so why start now? The novel is told from both of their perspectives, which I enjoyed because we got to see that sweet, sweet mutual pining. I enjoyed seeing both of them get flustered about each other or giving meaning to small interactions. I love how much unspoken care was already in their relationship, even before they realized they could be more than coworkers and friends. Emma and Jo know each other’s favorite foods, how they way sleep on the plane during business trips, and more.

While I enjoyed reading from their perspectives, there was not a lot of difference in their voices. I had to turn back to the beginning of a chapter more than once to remember who I was supposed to be. A major conflict happens in the middle of the novel that didn’t really make a lot of sense to me, and I almost put the book down because of it. I also thought that there were one too many real world issues trying to be addressed between the romance. Racism and sexism against Jo, sexual harassment in Hollywood, and nepotism (somehow) were either mentioned or part of the plot. It’s completely possible to experience all of these at once, but, to me, it felt out of place in a novel that markets itself as a fluffy romance.

Overall, I really did enjoy this book. I realized I enjoyed and related to these characters more than those in YA WLW romances. I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a WLW romance featuring adult women, mutual pining, and yeah, of course, slow burn romance.

Trigger warnings: racism, sexual harassment

JB (she/her) teaches junior high history by day and reads lesbian fiction by night. Her favorite genres are fantasy, speculative fiction, historical non-fiction, and memoirs. She loves all things history, RPG podcasts, and watching longform video essays with her gf. You can find her on Instagram at @readingrhythms.

Carolina reviews The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee

The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee

“What you do when no one is guiding you determines who you are.”

It seems that Avatar: the Last Airbender is the show on everyone’s minds after its addition to the Netflix lineup; this renaissance of Avatar fan culture has sparked countless memes, TikTok dances, and the announcement of a new live action adaptation of the original series. Personally, I was a huge fan of the show as a kid, and was grateful for the reintroduction to Aang’s world. The Avatar universe has recently expanded beyond the realm of the original Nickelodeon TV show, spawning the sequel TV show The Legend of Korra, the comic series that picks up after the last season of The Last Airbender, and the regrettable live action movie adaptation directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee, with the creator of Avatar Michael Dante DiMartino’s input, is the newest addition to the franchise’s lore. The Rise of Kyoshi brings us back to the origins of the no-nonsense, 7-foot-tall, bi-icon, (wo)man with the fan, Avatar Kyoshi.

After the sudden death of Avatar Kuruk, the Four Nations are left without the unifying presence of the Avatar, leaving behind a wake of shadowy coups, criminal alliances, and a powerful clan made up of Kuruk’s closest friends, led by power-hungry Earthbender Jianzhu. Jianzhu becomes desperate after scouring the Earth Kingdom in search of the new Avatar, and forgoes the ancient rituals to confirm the identity of the Avatar, after coming across a powerful Earthbending child, Yun. In the present day, after being abandoned by her bandit parents, Kyoshi works as a servant for the new Avatar-in-training, Yun, who is also her closest friend. After being invited by Yun to accompany him to a rendezvous with the Southern Water Tribe, Kyoshi notices something is amiss about Yun, Jianzhu, and her own past. After a stark betrayal from those closest to her, Kyoshi is left on the lam with her Firebender friend (and secret crush) Rangi, as they run straight into the hands of a rising criminal underbelly at the heart of the Earth Kingdom. Kyoshi hones her bending skills and contemplates the meaning of revenge with her new gang-turned-found-family as she comes into her own as the new Avatar.

The Rise of Kyoshi is a perfect first step beyond limitations of the original children’s show, as it fleshes out world-building, raises the stakes with political intrigue and war, and its cast of morally grey characters that make the reader question the motives of each person involved. This young adult novel deals with heavier topics including equity versus equality, morality versus ethicality, and the meaning of a found family.

Although you don’t necessarily need to have seen the original TV show to understand the novel, it definitely does help to understand various cameos and references. There are some great easter eggs hidden throughout the plot, including a fun appearance from the cabbage merchant. Part of The Rise of Kyoshi’s worldbuilding is subverting expectations about each of the four nations; the Fire Nation becomes the voice of reason while the people of the Southern Water Tribe are ruthless and cunning, reminding us of the real danger of stereotyping, and that injustice can be found in even the most seemingly peaceful of places.

Something I loved about the book was its fast-paced fight scenes, reminiscent of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. It was great seeing Kyoshi’s ruthless bending tactics, and seeing another side to the Avatar’s role as peacekeeper between the bending nations. On the other hand, the political intrigue scenes from Jianzhu’s perspective dragged the book’s plot, especially towards the end of the book, leaving the final act to fall flat. However, Kyoshi’s character arc brings the novel’s pace back up to speed and avoids the novel being bogged down.

The Rise of Kyoshi is the first in a new series by F.C. Yee, and the author has already promised further development of Kyoshi and Rangi’s budding romance. In this novel, Rangi is the person who keeps Kyoshi human, keeping her from sliding off the deep end, while Kyoshi’s rebelliousness inspires Rangi to shed off her mother’s strict tutelage. Rangi and Kyoshi’s relationship, bound by the words “where you go, I go,” is one of the highlights of the book, and I felt that their story was so sweet and full of fluff.

If you fell in love with the world of Avatar through The Last Airbender, and want to see yourself represented beyond Korra and Asami’s brief handhold, then pick up The Rise of Kyoshi. Kyoshi is unapologetic about who and what she is, accepting her new position as the Avatar with grace, refusing to hide her bisexuality or her poor upbringing. To quote Kyoshi herself, “if this was what being true to herself felt like, she could never go back.” For Avatar fans old and new, F.C. Yee’s The Rise of Kyoshi provides a celebration of identity at the heart of a fantastically familiar world.

Trigger Warnings: Character Death, Gaslighting, Violence, Gore

Landice reviews Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten

Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten

“I care about you, Alex. […] Part of me says you’re too good to be true, but the greater part of me says that if I give you a chance, you’ll be worth it.”

Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten is a fun new lesfic novel with sci-fi elements, available now from Regal Crest!

Normally I begin a review with my thoughts, but there’s so much to unpack in Remember Me, Synthetica that I decided to lead with the synopsis, for context.

Synopsis:

What happens when a woman loses her memory but gains a conscience?

Dr. Alexandra Turing is a roboticist whose intellect is unrivaled in the field of artificial intelligence. While science has always come easy, Alexandra struggles to understand emotional cues and responses. Driven by the legacy of her late great-uncle, she dedicates her life to the Synthetica project at her father’s company, Organic Advancement Solutions (OAS).

Her life is rebooted when she wakes from a coma six months after being struck by a car. Traumatic brain injury altered Alex’s senses, her memory, and her personality. Despite the changes, she feels reborn as she navigates her way back into her old life. Part of her new journey includes dating the alluring Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Emily St. John.

Emily is enamored with the hyper-intelligent scientist, but there are things about Alex and OAS that don’t add up. With Emily’s prompting, Alex undergoes testing that leaves her with more questions than answers. What she discovers changes more than her life, it will change the world around her.

Even with context, where to begin? Synthetica is unique in that it truly toes the line between romance and genre fiction without ever fully leaning in to one of the other. Yes, the adorable butch/femme relationship between Alex and Emily–which I couldn’t help but root for from the moment they met–gets a lot of “screentime,” but we also spend a lot of time learning about the various scientific ventures at OAS.

It’s obvious Aten put a lot of time and effort into her research into the more academic/scientific aspects of the novel, which I can definitely appreciate. Not all of the technology referenced or explained in Remember Me, Synthetica exists yet, but I couldn’t identify what exists vs. what Aten came up with herself if you paid me, which shows how seamlessly she managed to weave the science fiction elements into the story. At times the story did feel a bit weighted down by jargon, but I think the use of scientific terms was important for Alex’s characterization.

That being said, I would still be more apt to shelve Synthetica as a f/f romance than as a science fiction novel, if I had to choose between the two. I’ve begun describing Synthetica and other books in the same vein (like The Lily & The Crown by Roslyn Sinclair, which I also loved!) as “lesbian fiction novels with sci-fi themes/elements” because it feels more accurate.

In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit that I had a lot of mixed feelings about Synthetica at first. It was definitely fun to read, but I found myself annoyed by some things that I thought were strange stylistic choices on the author’s part. At about 70% in, I began to panic. I’ve enjoyed much of Aten’s past work, and it felt like Synthetica was lacking her usual spark. My worry completely evaporated not long after, when she served up a plot twist of truly epic proportions! I won’t go into detail, because this is a book I wouldn’t dare spoil for potential readers, but I will say that once the plot twist hit, all of the things I’d disliked about the novel made complete sense, and no longer bothered me.

All of that is to say, if you pick up Synthetica, keep an open mind, and read it through to the end! Everything will make sense in time, and honestly, this book had the best ‘pay off’ of any novel I’ve read in a very long time. If you enjoy romance novels that are plot driven and thought provoking, Remember Me, Synthetica might be the book for you!

Remember Me, Synthetica At A Glance:

Genre: Lesbian Romance, Sci-fi/Speculative

Themes/Tropes: Butch/Femme, Opposites Attract, Second Chances

Sapphic Rep: Butch Lesbian MC, Bisexual Femme Love Interest

Own Voices? Yes

Content Warnings (CW): Head trauma/amnesia/other medical trauma, gaslighting

ARC Note: A huge thank you to Regal Crest and K. Aten for sending me an advance copy to review! All opinions are my own.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram & Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.

Danika reviews An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

About three years ago, I saw a post on tumblr from Hank Green, which read: “Remember when I said I was writing a story about a bisexual girl and a robot?” I was, of course, immediately intrigued. I’ve been following the Vlogbrothers for many years, and I’ve read almost all of John Green’s books (though they aren’t favourites of mine). I would already be interested in a book from Hank Green, but of course it having a bisexual girl main character really upped it. By the time An Absolutely Remarkable Thing came out, I had heard lots of excitement around the book, but nothing else about the queer content. Did it get written out? Did I only imagine that tumblr post?? I then began my usual research when I stumble on a book that maybe-possibly has queer women content. I’ll save you the Goodreads scrolling and assure you: yes, this book has a bisexual woman main character, and it’s not even a one-off line. Her relationship with another woman forms–I would argue–the emotional centre of the book, and frankly, it’s a little irritating that it took so much searching to confirm this.

On to the book itself! I listened to the audiobook, and I would highly recommend that process. The narrator was great. Before I say anything else, you should know that this is not a standalone book. I believe it will be a duology, but it’s definitely not the only book in this story (I wish I had known that before I reached the ending!)

If you’re a fan of Hank Green and Vlogbrothers, I would definitely say that this is worth picking up. Despite being a story about first contact and robots and a bisexual woman’s complicated relationship with her roommate/girlfriend, Hank’s voice really comes through. It’s a thoughtful book that has a lot to say about fame–internet fame in particular. April finds herself suddenly famous, and she leans into this. She makes herself a brand and has a media presence strategy. She becomes more and more invested in having her voice her, and trying to sway the general conversation. As that process continued, I became more and more uncomfortable, but never ever to say exactly where she might have crossed the line.

But if you are reading this review, you’re probably more interested about the representation. There is, understandably, some suspicion when a man is writing a queer woman character. Hank speaks to this in another tumblr post, which I recommend checking out if you have questions. I won’t deny that I went in with a more critical eye than I would from an #ownvoices author, but I don’t have any big objections to the representation.

[mild spoilers] There was a moment where I raised an eyebrow: April’s agent asks if there’s anything else they should know, anything that might come up… something that may be controversial, or secret… and April does not even think about bringing up her sexuality. When she is directly asked, she is open about it, but she doesn’t think of this as something that her agent might have to consider, which I personally felt would be pretty obvious for a queer woman.

After that, though, her agent asked: couldn’t you just be gay? You dated men, but you were gay all along? It would be easier. That seemed accurate to me. April says, “It was easier for her to sell a quirky lesbian than a quirky bi girl, so I was a quirky lesbian for her.” [end spoilers]

As for April herself, she is definitely a complicated character. She is deeply flawed, and although she acknowledges this, she’s not very apologetic about it. She can be ruthless in pursuing her goals, and callous when it comes from other people. She is insecure and pushes people away. She denies her own feelings. She is selfish and reckless. But she also has good intentions, and she feels so real and relatable. Her flaws feel personal, and her bad decisions are understandable, if not defensible. If you don’t like “unlikable” characters, you probably won’t like her. Personally, I kind of loved her.

[spoilers] The romantic relationship here is… painful. April is not a good girlfriend, though she is clearly in love. I really like her girlfriend, and I hope that April improves herself in the next book enough to be able to have a more stable and mutual relationship with her, because right now, she doesn’t seem capable of a healthy romantic relationship. [end spoilers]

I really enjoyed this! It gave me a lot to think about. Although I liked the audiobook narration, I feel like I want to reread this in a physical format just to have some time to process and think about the issues that it brings up. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Megan G reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah feels like she’s always on the off-beat. She loves to draw but is so self-conscious she barely shows anyone her drawings, let alone allows herself to think about selling them for money. Her mother is much younger than the parents of her friends, and currently dating a man Leah thinks she is way too good for. She’s bisexual, but is uncertain about coming out to her friends, even openly-gay Simon. And, to top it all off, she’s starting to get feelings for someone she really shouldn’t – someone that could cause tensions in her friend group she really doesn’t want to cause. Sometimes it feels like the only part of her life that is on beat is her drumming.

Leah on the Offbeat is what I like to call a Sequel-But-Not-Really. It takes place in the same universe as Becky Albertalli’s debut novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda and includes the same characters. Instead of being told from Simon Spier’s perspective, however, it is told from Leah Burke’s. This is what adds the “But-Not-Really” to the Sequel, because by placing ourselves in Leah’s shoes instead of Simon’s, it feels like we’re entering an entirely different world.

One of the things I loved the most about Simon vsthe Homo Sapien Agenda was how honest and realistic Simon’s voice came through in the writing. This easily became the thing I loved the most about Leah on the Offbeat as well. I don’t know how Albertalli managed to get into such different character’s heads so perfectly, but she did it. Leah is nothing like Simon, and yet she is just as real. It never felt like I was reading a piece of fiction. Instead, it was like someone was narrating their life to me (even more-so considering I listened to this as an audiobook).

In her realism, Leah is just as frustrating as she is encouraging. The biggest thing that holds Leah back throughout the entire novel is herself. Almost every bad decision she makes is born out of a lack of self-confidence and anxiety, and is therefore self-inflicted, which can sometimes make it difficult to feel sorry for her. The good thing about this, though, is that Leah grows. She becomes more confident as the story goes on, more self-aware, and less likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the time the story ends she still has a long way to go, but she’s moving forward. It’s incredibly satisfying.

The love story is my other favourite thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much, because if you haven’t read this book yet then you deserve to experience every moment of Leah falling in love for yourself, because it’s amazing, and hilarious, and cringeworthy, and messy, and so, so, so worth it. It was more than I could have hoped for, and I hoped for a lot.

Because I read this as an audiobook, I feel the need to include a small bit of praise for Shannon Purser, the reader. I found she did an amazing job at bringing the story, and Leah in particular, to life. She had great inflection and was super clear. I highly recommend giving it a listen!

Overall, Leah on the Offbeat not only holds up to its predecessor, but I would go so far as to say surpasses it. Leah is charming, and frustrating, and kind, and obnoxious, and warm, and real. She’ll worm her way into your heart and force you to cheer for her, even when you don’t want to. She’ll throw you right back into your teenage years, for worse and then for better. She’ll remind you of what it’s like to be a young girl falling in love with a girl for the first time in all the best ways.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

Danika reviews The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow coverAfter hearing only good things about the Scorpion Rules duology, I was eager to pick it up. Unfortunately, I read the first book during a readathon, and reading a crushing dystopian story about war and brutality was not the best choice to read all in one sitting. It was darker than I was expecting, so I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. I was, though, interested in the ideas introduced in the book. So I took a few months break before I picked up the second book in the series, The Swan Riders, in the hopes that I would be more prepared this time.

I spend most of my time reading this book thinking This is the reading rule you seem to re-learn over and over: just because people say a book is great, doesn’t mean you, personally, will love it. I have long since realized that it doesn’t matter how high calibre the quality of a book is if it doesn’t immediately appeal to me. Still, I continued with the sequel, because I had heard it was an improvement from the last book. Perhaps I was less connected to the characters because of the break that I took between books, but I was having trouble pushing through.

I have, historically, been a fan of dystopian novels, but this one I found hard to deal with. It’s just so straightforward about the suffering experienced. The pain. The first book includes a detailed scene of torture that nauseated me. The second book describes the slow deaths of several characters, all involving increasingly close together seizures. While the first book has some semblance of an us vs. them clarity, Greta spends most of her time in The Swan Riders alongside the villain of the previous book.

By the end of the narrative, I had come around. The strength of this story is in its ideas, especially (for me) its exploration of personal identity and humanity. [spoilers for first book:] Greta is an AI now, and she begins to drift away from her humanity and empathy, assisted by Talis’s intervention. [end spoilers] It takes this idea, of an AI enforcing global peace, and shows how tangled it is. How can global peace be achieved? Can it? And what amount of sacrifice is worth it? Clearly, Talis’s strategy is not defended by Greta or the narrative, but there’s also not a tidy alternative.

As for the queer content, there is definitely no central romantic story here. In fact, Greta does not interact with Xie for the whole novel. But her presence is there, nonetheless. She is Greta’s tie to humanity, to retaining her true self. She is a memory that Greta clings to. She is, in some ways, the home that Greta spends each step of her journey longing to return to. So although she isn’t a central character, she is a very important one.

For all my ups and downs with this duology, I would still recommend it, but with some caveats: this is not a queer Canadian princess fantasy-esque story that the blurb had me prepared for. This is a dystopia that is focused on war and its casualties. It is thought-provoking, but brutal.

Anna Marie reviews Grrrls On The Side by Carrie Pack

Grrrls On the Side by Carrie Pack cover

I was so excited to read this queer Young Adult novel, but unfortunately it was a big disappointment. Before I get into my criticism, let me explain the premise, and why I was so excited to read it. Set in 1994, Grrrls on the Side is about Tabitha, a fat white girl who feels like an outcast stumbling across a movement of Riot Grrrls nearby. As someone who loves zines and some aspects of riot grrrl, I was really intrigued by the synopsis, and I had also just read Moxie which is another Young Adult novel but this time focused on contemporary girls reaching back to riot grrrls for inspiration. Moxie was disappointing to me for various reasons, some to do with the way race was represented and also because queerness was almost completely erased from the narrative. When I remembered that Grrrls on the Side had canon queerness in it and was also about Riot Grrrl I thought it would satiate my itch for some good angry queer punk girl YA, but once again I was wrong!

Grrrls on the Side is a confusing and fluctuating story – Tabitha is very inconsistent in so many ways, leaping from one feeling, one breakup and one crush to the next, and not in a way that was believably adolescent. It was weirdly paced, intensely focused on romance in a really unlikely and often confusing way – random characters would be mentioned once as being present in a scene completely out of the blue. A lot of the characters, including Tabitha, are like light switches in terms of their emotions: one minute they are crying and the next laughing – its very hard to keep up with and enjoy. One of the threads of the novel – that being Tabitha’s sexuality – is just oversimplified: at first she has turmoil about being bi and thinks about it a lot, but as soon as she’s in another relationship, it completely disappears from her mind, except when out of the blue, one of the love interests says really biphobic things to her (which I personally found to be very frustrating and out of character for her).

There were three black girl characters in the novel, Venus, Monique and Jackie, and of those three Jackie was the only one to get more of a personality than her blackness. Venus and Monique were consistently present to draw attention to the racism not only of the Riot Grrrl movement (and especially one specific character), but also to Tabitha. A character arc of the novel is that Tabitha finally understands that she won’t ever understand what it’s like to be black, which is such a disservice to all three black characters, and the idea that Tabitha, a white girl, is the focus point of a narrative supposed to highlight how black women and girls are the ‘grrrls on the side’ is reprehensible. I just cant understand why the author would choose to sideline the black characters in a story that she was in control of creating!

On top of the stereotypical and flat representation of these three characters, there is also a Chinese American character named Cherie who doesn’t seem to register as a person of colour in the context of the group or the narrative, like her presence isn’t seen as a ‘problem’ in the way the black girls are?!

I don’t want to end this totally negatively, so here were some good aspects: Throughout the chapters the zines that some of the girls make are included, and it was always so fun and lovely to read. It really made it seem like riot grrrl, like a bunch of messy, angry, contradictory weird girls were making things and enjoying it for themselves. My favourite character was Jackie, because she was a tender butch lesbian and she was so sweet and patient. Lastly, there was a really cute moment where Tabitha met an older woman who had also been part of a women’s liberation movement, and they had a lovely connection and promised to write to each other! Intergenerational solidarity is the best!

There’s one instance of sexual assault in this and some discussion of r*pe nearer the beginning of the novel.