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.

Carmella reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Set in 17th century Norway during a time of witch trials, The Mercies is Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first book for adults. It was all over book Twitter earlier this year, and the more I heard, the more excited I was to read it. Beautiful cover? Check. Witches? Check. Sapphism? Check. What more could I want from a book?

When a storm kills the fishermen of Vardø – an island town in the north of Norway – its women are left behind to fend for themselves. 20-year-old Maren must learn to take care of ‘men’s work’ such as fishing and building, while grieving for her lost father, brother, and fiance.

At the same time, King Christian IV is introducing laws against witchcraft, particularly targeting the Sámi people indigenous to the north. This leads to the appointment of Scottish witch-hunter Absolom Cornet, who installs himself in Vardø along with his new wife, Ursa, disturbing the budding matriarchy and stirring up a frenzy of superstition.

I didn’t know much about the context beforehand, but Millwood Hargrave writes so immersively about the era and politics that it’s easy enough to follow along without any prior knowledge. Domestic scenes of baking bread, cleaning the household, or visiting neighbours are all crammed with historical details which bring Vardø to life. It helps that Ursa is an outsider both to the village and to domestic work, as we can learn exposition naturally through her eyes.

When Ursa realises she’s unprepared to run a household, she engages Maren to teach her the basics. What ensues is an indescribably slow-burn romance. Now, I certainly enjoy a bit of repression in my fiction, but I have to admit that after 300 pages without a single kiss I did start to grow impatient! Instead, we get chapters upon chapters of accidental hand-brushes and lingering eye contact – which are at least very beautifully and believably written.

Alongside a sapphic romance, I was also promised witches. Instead, Millwood Hargrave writes about innocent women unjustly persecuted for showing independence, defying gender roles, or simply (as is the case for Maren’s sister-in-law) being Sámi. It wasn’t what I had expected from the blurb, but it was a sobering reminder of the true history of witch trials.

The Mercies is a story about female resistance in a patriarchal society, and about the fear felt by men in power when faced with a strong woman. However, it is not a happy ending for the women of Vardø. I don’t want to include too many spoilers, but I do want to forewarn you that [Spoilers, highlight to read:] Maren and Ursa don’t get to live happily ever after, and there is a main character death at the novel’s close [End spoilers]. It’s a depressing (although probably realistic) finale.

While the book didn’t offer the ‘OMG lesbian witches’ escapism that I was hoping for when I first picked it up, it’s a well-crafted story that brings light to women’s histories and speaks to some very modern themes.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Sexual violence, genocide, suicide, racism, torture, miscarriage.

Meagan Kimberly reviews From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

This paranormal fantasy novella follows “you,” who is Phyllis Avis Symons. She’s a young girl living in New Zealand in the early 1930s, in the years leading up to World War II. Her contentious relationship with her parents leads her to run away and fall in love with an abusive man that becomes her downfall.

It’s hard to give a concise summary, as Phyllis lives multiple lives throughout the novella. But her first life takes up the majority of the story’s space. This book can’t be discussed as a linear narrative or in terms of character relationships and development. That doesn’t mean it was a bad book. Far from it.

From A Shadow Grave is a compelling array of connected stories told through the second-person point of view, putting the reader in Phyllis’ shoes. This perspective creates a matter-of-fact tone, giving a degree of emotional distance despite the subject matter. No matter what events occur and all the bad things that happen to the main character, the point of view puts it in a voice that indicates this is just how things are.

Phyllis’ relationships with George, Aroha, and others throughout her various lives indicates she is on the bi/pan spectrum. But it’s never explicitly stated. However, she does give voice to her hesitation and fear, as she recognizes the feelings she has for women and how it’s unacceptable in the society she lives in during the 1930s.

But that “you” perspective once more creates a factual tone, showing how Phyllis presumes life is just what it is, and there’s no use getting attached or worked up about anything. It’s her defense mechanism.

One aspect that pops up throughout is her learning disability. She’s written as someone with dyslexia, but because of the time she lives in, she’s deemed a stupid girl. What really breaks the reader’s heart is how she believes that’s true and accepts that as fact and reality.

Phyllis is also described as someone living with mental health issues. One sentence, in particular, stands out: “You were born with demons in your head, an unexplainable wish to self-destruct…” It’s especially fascinating as a description as the story takes place with a paranormal aspect, so the main character deals with magical demons as well as metaphorical ones.

The paranormal powers that exist in this world are never explained. They are accepted at face value and considered a normal part of everyday life for Phyllis and Aroha. It makes the narrative structure easier to accept, as the audience never needs to be told when another life jump has been made. It just is. This is strengthened once more by the second-person point of view.

The biggest detriment to the shortness of the novella and “you” perspective was a lack of depth in secondary characters. There were scattered details hinting that Aroha is a woman of color, but it’s not obvious that she’s an indigenous woman of New Zealand, Maori, until near the end of the book.

It’s difficult to give a specific analysis of this story without spoiling it. So many of the events and relationships are tied up in the plot, and it’s a great plot to enjoy on a first read without spoilers from a review. The best summary to give is it’s a ghost story, a love story, and a series of fragments of one person living multiple lives.

Emily Joy reviews We Used To Be Friends by Amy Spalding

We Used To Be Friends by Amy Spalding

We Used To Be Friends by Amy Spalding tackles a topic that I don’t see often in fiction — friend breakups. I’ve experienced a few friend breakups, and this book hits all the right notes.

Kat and James have been best friends since kindergarten, and had what seemed like an unbreakable friendship until senior year of high school, when they slowly begin drifting apart and choosing different goals as they start thinking ahead to college. While James keeps secrets from her best friend, Kat is falling in love with another girl for the first time, and figuring out a new identity for herself.

I first heard this book when Malinda Lo gave it a shout-out on Instagram. Although I don’t often read YA contemporary, I was intrigued by this one, and particularly by the unique formatting. Told in two first person perspectives, James’ chapters start from the end of her senior year and go backwards, while Kat’s chapters start at the beginning and go forward. In the middle of the book, their timelines cross paths and the chapters are chronological for a while, but then part ways again. I had never heard of a book formatted that way, and I thought it sounded neat!

Unfortunately for me, jumping forward and backward was not as fascinating as I thought it would be, and only made me feel confused rather than intrigued. While at times it was bittersweet to have the contrast of different phases of their friendship, often the characters’ reactions to events in the story felt disjointed. When Kat reacted to things James did at the beginning of the book, I had trouble remembering what exactly had happened. When James reacted to things Kat did at the end of the book, I was confused without any points of reference. While the story itself and characters were very good, my reader experience with this book is mostly just confusion.

The formatting did impress me on one count. It didn’t give away all of the surprises, which was cleverly done. At first as I was reading, I was disappointed because I thought I knew exactly what would happen, but just enough information was given, and likewise withheld, to maintain a few surprises.

But let’s talk about what I loved. Friend breakups! They’re so difficult, everyone goes through them, but people so rarely talk about them with the gravitas they deserve. In We Used To Be Friends, the reasons for James’ and Kat’s friend breakup are varied, and I loved that, because I think they make the book relatable to a wider audience.

One of the reasons for the breakup is Kat’s new relationship with another girl. As she discovers her bisexuality and starts a new relationship, James is left feeling left out. She is not homophobic, and is supportive of Kat, but still feels left out and alone during a time when she needs her best friend. Quinn (Kat’s girlfriend) is a wonderful character. Honestly, she was my favorite in the book. Although Quinn’s character does come between the friendship of our main characters, she was never made to take the blame for it, and I was grateful for that.

Something I loved is how Kat stands up for her new identity, and makes it very clear at different points in the text that she’s bi, and what that means for her.

“I never said I was a lesbian. There are all sorts of ways to be into girls, you know.”

“I identify as bi. I like girls and boys and people who identify as both or neither, you know? But also right now I like Quinn and that’s all that matters.”

The content in this book is wonderful. And I highly recommend it. The bisexual representation is beautifully done, and I really appreciated how explicit it was. If I had read this book chronologically, and skipped around the book to read chapters in order, I think I would have thoroughly enjoyed it. But really, the only thing I didn’t like was my confusion with the formatting. So consider reading the chapters chronologically, or read it cover to cover, but whichever you choose, I think this is a fantastic book about a heartbreaking and very real topic.

Danika reviews Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Full Disclosure is about Simone, a teenager who’s been HIV positive since birth. Her dads have done their best to make sure she has the best possible life, and as long as she takes her medication every day, her day-to-day isn’t much different from her peers. The problem is not so much with symptoms or medical care, but stigma. At her last school, her peers turned on her when they found out her diagnosis, and she had to switch schools. Now, she just wants to enjoy directing the high school play and hanging out with her friends and crushing on a boy without having to think about how people would react if they knew. Which is why getting blackmail notes threatening to out her if she doesn’t stay away from her crush is particularly terrifying.

I will say up front that this has a bisexual main character, and the central romance is M/F. But even aside from the bi main character, there is queer rep aplenty: Simone has two dads, one of her best friends in an asexual lesbian, and the other best friend is also bisexual. In fact, it’s partly because Simone is surrounded by confident, out queer people in her life that she doesn’t feel like she can claim the word bisexual for herself. Sure, she has crushes on celebrity women, but that doesn’t count, right? And liking one girl isn’t enough to be able to call herself bisexual, right? An undercurrent of the story is Simone coming to terms with her sexuality, and realizing that she can claim that identity. (Also, her–almost?–ex-girlfriend is awful.)

I find this book a little difficult to describe, because on the whole, I found it a fun, absorbing, even fluffy read. Simone is passionate about musical theatre, and she is excited and intimidated to be acting as director. She is swooning over a cute guy (also involved in the production), and their romance is adorable. Simone’s friends are great–even if they have some communication issues–and so is her family. She is surrounded by support, and there is a lot of humour sprinkled throughout.

On the other hand, Full Disclosure also grapples with the stigma around HIV positivity. Simone’s dads felt that it was fitting that they adopt an HIV positive baby, after having lost so many people in their lives to HIV and AIDS. There is discussion of what living through the epidemic was like, and the extreme bigotry towards people with HIV/AIDS. Simone is being blackmailed, and she lives in fear of having people turn against her again. She doesn’t feel like she can even talk to the principal about it, because it could mean that the information could get out. Even her best friends don’t know.

There is tension between the lightheartedness of the book as a whole, and the serious underpinnings. It meshes well, though, and doesn’t feel like bouncing between emotional extremes. Instead, it portrays that HIV positive teens can have happy, fulfilling lives and also have to worry about unfair, hateful treatment. They can be carefree in most aspects of their lives, and also have to take their health very seriously.

Full Disclosure is masterful, including well-rounded characters, an adorable love story, and a protagonist who grows and matures over the course of the novel. I highly recommend this, and I can’t wait to read more from Camryn Garrett.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Names We Take by Trace Kerr

The Names We Take by Trace Kerr

The Names We Take is a young adult dystopian novel set in Spokane, Washington after an epidemic called the One Mile Cough wipes out a huge chunk of the population. Pip, the protagonist, is an intersex trans girl just trying to survive.

But a group of bounty hunters has a different idea as they seek women and children to gather for a supposed safe haven called Thistle Hill Orchard. When Pip takes charge of a girl named Iris, she must keep the child safe and do what’s best for their newfound family.

The novel moves at a good pace as the action keeps its momentum going forward while the moments of peace allow the characters and reader to breathe. Kerr is adept at unraveling details about the characters throughout the narrative without falling into info dump traps. While the character development shines, the plot development fell a bit by the wayside.

The premise is that a plague hit Spokane’s population, but the One Mile Cough disease isn’t given much page time other than to say that’s how they got into this post-apocalypse world. Its origins or spread are never detailed, and the reader doesn’t know for sure how far it hit. It’s assumed the whole United States at least, as the citizens of Spokane have been left to fend for themselves. But the narration never confirms that guess.

As Pip goes through the new world after civilization has crumbled, she faces a great deal of the same prejudice and bigotry as she did before the world ended. She gets misgendered constantly and experiences violence at the hands of men. It’s a brutal pill to swallow as she continues to assert her existence as her true self, fighting narrow-minded bigots and righteous zealots who feel they know best for her.

But Pip finds reprieve in her relationships. Whistler, a survivor of One Mile Cough with PTSD, is her protector. Iris becomes the little sister she must guide and protect. Fly is the beautiful girl she falls for in the middle of the chaos around her. The dynamics between the protagonist and supporting cast are what make this book such a fascinating read. It’s the story of the family forged when people take a stand and fight for who they are.

The most interesting development in Pip’s character is her demeanor toward Iris. It’s clear that Pip doesn’t lack compassion, but she does lack patience. Running around with a twelve-year-old girl who is prone to pouting and eye-rolling, even in the apocalypse, teaches her a great deal of patience and love.

Another delightful aspect of the novel is its inclusion of periods. Post-apocalypse stories are notorious for staying away from the subject of menstruation, but it’s a problem that should be addressed, because it’s an unavoidable fact of life for people who menstruate. Kerr doesn’t shy away from the topic and details how Pip gathers pads and teaches Iris what to do when the young girl gets her first period.

The language around Pip’s gender and sexual orientation is careful and precise. It’s explained that she was born intersex and that her parents chose male for her at birth, but when she hits puberty and gets her first period, that’s when she finds out she was born intersex. As she grows, she becomes sure she wants to be a girl and takes steps to make her body appear as her true identity.

Throughout the novel, the audience sees her struggling when she’s called a boy or questioned about her gender. She clearly still holds insecurity and body dysmorphia over her masculine appearance in many ways. But Iris accepts Pip as a girl, even if the others in Thistle Hill don’t. Pip also reveals she is bisexual when she starts developing a crush on Fly. Her feelings fill her with fear, but Fly assures her it’s okay, as does another friend at the sanctuary.

The Names We Take is set to be published by Ooligan Press in May 2020 but is available for pre-order now from the author. Be on the lookout for it!

Carmella reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

It felt like I was seeing the vibrant front cover of Girl, Woman, Other everywhere (or at least all over lesbian bookstagram), so when it won the Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was finally time to buy a copy and see what the buzz was about.

The book follows twelve loosely-connected characters, each section switching to a new point of view. It begins with Amma, a black lesbian playwright, whose production of The Last Amazon of Dahomy is about to open at the National Theatre. After so many years living as a counter-cultural socialist activist, making it into the mainstream is both a source of pride and worry for Amma – is it radical for her play about black lesbians to achieve such a platform, or is she selling out?

From Amma, we springboard off into the lives of the other characters. Most of them (but not all) are black British women. Many of them (but not all) are queer. Some of them are closely connected – there’s Amma’s headstrong daughter, Yazz; her best friend and former business partner, Dominique – and some of them are several degrees of separation away – Carole, the hotshot investment banker who’s attending opening night; Morgan, the non-binary influencer caught up in a Twitter beef with Dominique.

Normally when I read a book that switches between lots of characters I get frustrated. There are always some stories I’m more interested in hearing, and some characters I care about more than others. I was worried I would feel the same way going into this book.

But that wasn’t the case at all – each one of Evaristo’s voices was so compelling that I was engrossed immediately every time. The experience felt something like getting into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where you bounce from article to article as interesting tidbits catch your eye. Then you look up and you’ve lost six hours!

Of course, there were still favourite characters among them. I loved the determination of Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant and widowed mother who’s working hard to build a cleaning empire – and looking for love again with both women and men. But I think my favourite was Hattie, a crotchety mixed race nonagenarian who grew up in the agricultural north of England. After a lifetime of hard work on the family farm, she despairs of her lazy descendants – with the exception of Morgan, who often visits with their girlfriend to help out.

Not all of the characters are so easy to like. Dominique, for example, founds a trans-exclusionary ‘women’s’ festival. Penelope holds racist beliefs her entire life, and only starts to learn at the age of 80 that things aren’t as black and white as her parents taught her (including her own DNA). But even when you don’t agree with one of Evaristo’s characters, you’re still interested to learn more about them – and it’s a mark of wonderful writing that Evaristo can switch hats and ideologies so skilfully.

Without a unifying plot, what connects these voices are the themes of race, gender, class, and identity in general. Instead of providing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to any of these, Evaristo examines them from every angle. It feels like she’s giving a cheeky wink to anyone who wants to read a novel about a black woman’s experience as a novel about the black woman’s experience.

If I’m making it sound intellectual and literary – well, it is, but it’s also captivating. I nearly missed my stop on the tube more than once because I was too glued to the pages to pay attention to anything else. It’s not a light book – it deals with serious topics like (of course) racism, as well as abuse, rape, and addiction – but it’s very readable, and there are plenty of fun, heart-warming moments mixed in there too.

I’m glad I finally gave into the social media buzz to read this book. It was well-deserving of its Booker win, and I hope it goes on to receive even more recognition in the future.

Content warnings: racism, rape, abuse, CSA, sexism, transphobia, addiction

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

Danika reviews Bury the Lede written by Gaby Dunn and illustrated by Clare Roe & Miquel Muerto

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

This is the third book I’ve read by Gaby Dunn, all back to back (to back). There are some similarities: I Hate Everyone But You and Please Send Help… also have a bisexual intern reporter whose moral compass may be a little bit off. But while the novels have an unshakable friendship at their core, which keep them feeling light, Bury the Lede sinks into noir territory, with a protagonist willing to follow a story wherever it goes, even if it means bringing down everyone around her.

This collection immediately sets the tone with dark, sometimes off-putting colours and shading. There will often be unnerving details like jam on a butter knife that looks like blood, or splatters in the background of pages. It’s not just the tone that’s noir: the content gets pretty gory, including depictions of a mother killing and dismembering her child. We see the same murder play out multiple times as different versions are proposed.

This mystery is what drives the story: Madison attempts to interrogate a suspect and had hardly begun before Dahlia gives her a gruesome account of her guilt. Madison keeps coming back to get more details, and although she doesn’t trust Dahlia or the possible wild goose chases she keeps sending her on, Madison becomes increasingly obsessed with her. The story spirals out, encompassing politics and other, seemingly unrelated crimes. Dunn doesn’t spoon feed the reader: at times I had to stop and reread panels a few times to keep up with the information being presented, and it definitely kept me guessing.

As for the queer content, Madison is a bisexual Asian-American woman, and her love interests include a queer butch black woman and a bisexual white cop. There are f/f sex scenes on the page–and I have to add that on a recent Buffering podcast, Dunn shared that she got to give her favourite note on this page: “No, the femme is the top.” I also appreciated that Madison is chubby. She’s clearly desirable, and she also has a belly. I can’t get enough of positive fat representation in comics.

I recognize that Madison is meant to be complex, and possibly even “unlikeable.” Usually, I love an “unlikeable” female character. This time, though, it was pushed far enough that I no longer wanted to root for her. [Spoilers] She roofies a woman to get information out of her, for one thing. [End spoilers] I’m sure that this is consistent from what we’d expect from a classic noir detective: pursuing the truth no matter who it hurts or what gets in the way. But while most times I can see where a flawed character is coming from, in this case it felt like she was willing to throw absolutely everyone she knows under the bus to get a byline.

Having said that, maybe I don’t need to be able to relate to this character to still find her story compelling. I was sucked into the story, and I am curious to see what happens next. Despite having no interest in male noir detectives, I keep being drawn to similar stories with female main characters. If you’re looking for a gritty graphic novel with a femme fatale, questionable ethics, and a bisexual chubby Asian main character, Bury the Lede should be at the top of your list.

Alice Pate reviews The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde

The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde cover

Trigger Warnings: alcoholism, underage drinking, neglectful parenting, abusive relationship
Note: Not all trigger warnings are present in this review, but they are present in the book in question.

The Brightsiders has been on my to be read list for several months before I finally purchased a copy. The bright colors of the cover had really caught my eye, and turning it over to read the synopsis on the back had me practically buzzing to give it a read. The story of a bisexual teenager coming out to the world while also managing her place in the spotlight as the drummer in a teen punk band. At least, that’s what the back had me believe it was about.

Contrary to the blurb summary of the book, The Brightsiders is not about our main character, Emmy King, telling her family, friends, and thousands of fans about her sexuality. In fact, by all definitions she’s already out and proud. She has a bisexual pride flag hanging in her parents’ house and tabloids report on her relationship with another girl, Jessie, regularly.

Okay, so then what is the plot of the story if not coming out? I honestly couldn’t tell you. The first half of the book is setting up characters and making sure to tell (not show) us that this punk band, Brightsiders is just so amazing. Then nearly halfway through the book (HALF!) the author blindsides us with a romance between Emmy and another band member, Alife, the super cool genderqueer guitarist complete with sexy smirk and arms covered in ink. Emmy, and thus the book, suddenly has a fixation on all things sex that I didn’t appreciate. If the entire book had been written like that right out of the gate, it would have been less jarring.

As for writing style, this book felt clunky. There are several moments in this story where the writer will detach themselves from the plot so that they can go on long-winded lectures or tangents about homophobia, slut-shaming, or even a three-page rant about what bad kisses are like all while the main character is supposed to be experiencing the best kiss of her life. And while, yes, homophobia and bad kisses are both things that need to be corrected, these tangents feel like they would be more at home in a preachy social media post than in first-person fiction.

And then there were the characters; if you can even call them characters, I’d liken them a little closer to props. As early on as chapter two I had the feeling that all of the characters existed to stand behind Emmy and nod their heads. To tell her she never does anything wrong and to coddle her. Little did I know, it was worse than that.

Not that you would know it from the way this book is written, but there are in fact three members of the Brightsiders band, not two. Nearly every character other than Emmy is underdeveloped (more on that in a bit) but Ryan really gets the worst of it. Between Ryan, Emmy, and Alfie, Ryan has the least amount of focus on him and he even gets left out of a lot the story. He’s a tagalong to Emmy and Alfie’s story and he’s treated like a tagalong in the band too, despite being the frontman.

It’s not even worth mentioning any of the other people in this story because my biggest problem here is that the characters exist solely for representation and diversity points. These characters are given labels the second we meet them. “Asian. Bi.”, “Black. Nonbinary.” While inclusion is a wonderful thing, these labels aren’t what makes a person who they are. We the readers are not given the opportunity to properly know these characters because “white and queer” is treated as an accurate description of who someone is.

The parents are nothing more than comical villains. They are given no reason or motive to be such (poorly written) bad guys. Perhaps they were written this way to give Emmy a tragic backstory and make you feel bad for her. It doesn’t work. The conflict between the need to love her parents and be loved back and the recognition that they aren’t a healthy part of her life isn’t really shown here. They’re just bad guys meant to be hated and the author gives them no real substance.

As for Emmy herself, I don’t like her. She doesn’t have to fight for anything. Her sexuality has no repercussion on her relationships or her career. As great as the world would be if being anything other than heterosexual wouldn’t matter, it’s not realistic. And frankly, it’s offensive to all real-life LGBT+ musicians who have had to fight against discrimination and homophobia in the music industry to be heard. Very very few people will be able to love and relate to a character who doesn’t experience the same roadblocks in her life due to sexuality and gender identity as them. The author also tried to work in Emmy as an alcoholic and runs into this same issue. If you don’t know how addiction works, and you aren’t willing to put in even the most minimal amount of effort to research what it’s like, don’t do it. Emmy manages to achieve sobriety without really having to think about it or try. No struggle.

In conclusion, I’m sure there are several people who would enjoy The Brightsiders, but I am not one of them. The characters are flat cardboard cutouts of representation, the “bad guys” are poorly written so that Emmy can cancel them while everybody cheers, and the plot bounces around so much that I began to wonder why I was even reading it anymore. From the feel of this book, I’m sure the author had a blast writing it and was able to sort through their own thoughts by writing them out through the lens of the fabulously famous Emmy King, but the execution of this book was so poor, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Alice is a Texas dwelling college student with a passion for stories. She hopes to one day spread her love of literature as a middle school English teacher. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pillowfort, or read more of her personal reviews on lilacchildwrites.wordpress.com.