Danika reviews The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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When I heard that a queer Vietnamese American The Great Gatsby retelling was coming out, I immediately requested a review copy. I can’t resist sapphic retellings, especially literary ones. There’s one little hiccup to me reviewing this book, though: I’ve never read The Great Gatsby. I haven’t even seen a movie version. I’ve absorbed some things from popular culture and gave the Wikipedia page a glance, but don’t expect a lot of side-by-side comparisons between this and the original.

As I said, I only needed to hear the barest of elevator pitches before adding The Chosen and the Beautiful to my TBR–so I went in knowing very little about it. As Jordan describes her and Daisy floating on the ceiling of rooms, I spent the first chapter going back and forth about whether it was metaphorical or whether this was a fantasy story and I wasn’t aware. Then there were mentions of characters literally selling their souls to demons for power, and that settled that. I should have guessed, considering Vo’s previous books, The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, are also fantasy.

Still, although this is a fantasy novel, the magic is in the background for most of the story. Gatsby’s parties employ magical entertainment and decor–but that’s not dramatically different from the lavish parties he would throw without it. The book has a languid, dreamy quality. Time passes unpredictability: we are just seeing the beginning of Nick and Jordan’s relationship when she mentions how it ends. The first chapter has Jordan and Daisy gaze over her sleeping daughter, and then we see Daisy and Tom’s wedding further in the book.

Jordan is a fascinating main character. She’s adopted from Vietnam and was raised in a wealthy family. Her mother died when she was young, leaving her with a strict father. When he passes, she’s taken in by a feminist, independent aunt. Her aunt expects her to continue in the family tradition and manage the household when she passes away, not really acknowledging that Jordan’s claim to that position is challenged by the racist society they live in. Jordan has to learn how to navigate this world, spending most of her girlhood being treated as exotic by friends before they grew up and abandoned her for more respectable companions. She may seem to others to be a spoiled, overindulgent, “careless” young woman, but she’s constantly aware of not truly fitting in.

She has plenty of love affairs with men and women, and she even frequents a gay bar. In this version of the story, Nick and Gatsby have their own romantic relationship, which makes the love triangle (or square or pentagon) between Daisy, Tom, Gatsby (and Nick and Jordan) even more fraught. Nick is reluctant to acknowledge that he has any inclination towards men, but he clearly cares deeply about Gatsby and their… dalliances, even if Gatsby doesn’t take them seriously.

This is a beautiful, absorbing story with an overwhelming atmosphere of magic, indulgence, and tragedy–this time with queer and Asian American angles that add depth to the story. R.F. Kuang called this “Gatsby the way it should have been written” and the Kirkus review reads “Vo has crafted a retelling that, in many ways, surpasses the original.” This does so much more than I would have hoped for from the original. I know that if I do pick up The Great Gatsby now, it would just be to better appreciate The Chosen and the Beautiful.

Danika reviews Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

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I couldn’t tell you why I started listening to Why Fish Don’t Exist. I must have heard it recommended somewhere, because it was on my audiobook app favorites list, so I gave it a try as something that looked entertaining, but didn’t seem like it would requite my full attention. Like a podcast! I certainly didn’t realize it was queer, or that it was about mental health and the meaning of life.

I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of this one if you can, because the author is the cohost of Radiolab and cofounder of NPR’s Invisibilia, so this was a step above most audiobooks I listen to–it feels like it was made for that format. (Plus, there is an adorable audio bonus at the very end.)

This is ostensibly–at first–a biography of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist who discovered a huge chunk of the world’s known fish species. It begins with a story about Jordan, about how his life work was catalogued in glass containers containing specimens shelved in the hundreds in his office–and the earthquake that sent them tumbling down. Surrounded by hundreds of preserved fish, broken glass, and specimen labels scattered across the floor, Jordan searched the debris, found a fish and a label he recognized, and stitched it directly to the fish itself.

How does someone continue to find meaning even when chaos seems to claim everything, Miller asks. When she was a child, her scientific father told her there is no meaning in life: there’s no creator, no plan, and we are mere specks in an endless universe. As she grew up, she struggled with suicidal thoughts, and went looking for meaning that doesn’t require a belief in God. Perhaps, she reasons, Jordan has that answer. So she sets out to do a deep dive into his life, hoping that it will lead to greater understanding.

This is an impossible book to summarize, and I don’t want to spoil it for you–which isn’t something I thought I would say about a nonfiction book about fish taxonomy. It takes some twists and turns, and it is simultaneously: a biography of Jordan, a memoir of Miller’s search for meaning, a collection of trivia, and an exploration of chaos and order. Miller realizes that perhaps the urge to have neat categories for all things (and people) is something that should be pushed back on.

Miller’s queer identity isn’t the focus of most of this book, but it is an important undercurrent. This is a book about imagining the world–and your place in it–complexly, and realizing that it’s a much more weird, unpredictable, and beautiful place than you could have predicted. This is definitely one of my favourite audiobooks I’ve ever listened to.

Content warning: David Starr Jordan was a white supremacist. This is discussed later in the book.

Danika reviews Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

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This is a romcom starring a bisexual woman in a love triangle between two guy love interests, so if you’re not looking for an M/F romance, I recommend checking out another Lesbrary romance review!

This is a queer romcom that is essentially set at The Great British Bake Off, so I was immediately sold. Rosaline is a bisexual single mom whose life plan went off the rails when she dropped out of university when she unexpectedly got pregnant at 19. Now, she works at a stationary store–which is far from the doctor’s career she and her parents had expected. She adores her precocious 8-year-old (who’s obsessed with weird underwater animals), but she hates being reliant on her judgmental parents as well as constant favors from her best friend/ex-girlfriend. That’s how she ends up applying for a baking showing with a cash prize.

While this is an M/F romance with two male love interests, Rosaline’s queer identity is central to the story. The first chapter has her confronting Amelie’s teacher about biphobia, and she’s very close with her ex-girlfriend (who is now married to anther woman). Lauren stole the show a little bit for me, with sarcasm, inappropriate language, and unwavering loyalty. How can I resist a woman described like this?: “Lauren reserved the bulk of her enthusiasm and insight for her twin loves of satire and sapphism.”

Rosaline is a charming character for the most part, but she has one major flaw: she’s classist. She was raised in a wealthy family that cares deeply about status, and she’s internalized that–while resenting her parents’ judgements of her life choices. It was a little painful to read, but I knew that was her arc. At the competition, along with a cast of other characters, she meets the two competitors who form the other points of the love triangle: Alain, the suave, parent-approved guy who forages his own mint, and Harry, an electrician whose first interaction with her is being called out for calling her “love.”

Here’s the thing, and I don’t think you can call it a spoiler: we know she’s not going to end up with Alain. Any love interest whose selling point is “parent-approved” is not going to get the girl. But she is with him for the majority of the book. I understand that’s part of her emotional process–she learns about herself over the course of the novel and what she really values–but it did begin to drag a bit. I loved the (faux) Bake Off with its on-camera charm and off-camera stress, I thought the characters were engaging, and I even enjoyed most of the beats of the plot–it just lost me a bit in the middle.

I want to include a content warning for attempted sexual assault, but I think it’s worth a little more context, so spoilers in this paragraph: Alain tries to set up Rosaline and his ex-girlfriend/friend in a threesome. The ex is drunk and tries to force herself on Rosaline, who then locks herself in the bathroom until she can get a ride. I don’t think this was necessarily “problematic,” but I think I would have rather it wasn’t included. For context, within the first conversation Alain and Rosaline had, I thought, “I hope I am not supposed to like this guy.” I flipped to the back and saw he was the “parent-approved” choice and was reassured that I wasn’t. He is a judgmental dick the entire time, and I personally didn’t like that they broke up because of this extreme situation. I don’t like love triangles where one love interest ends up just being Bad–then there’s no real choice or tension. Harry was already the better choice; I don’t think Alain needed to be involved in an attempted sexual assault for Rosaline to chose Harry over him. (End of spoilers.)

As a small aside, I appreciated the healthy communication modelled during sex. Now that I think about it, Rosaline and Harry demonstrate good communication anyway, but the sex scene stood out to me. I’m not used to reading sex scenes where characters actually tell each other what feels good (and what doesn’t), or navigating the awkwardness of the first time sleeping with someone. I thought it was really well done!

If you like shows like The Great British Bake Off and the content warning isn’t a dealbreaker, I think you’ll enjoy this one. Despite having some issues with it, I definitely am looking forward to picking up the next books in this queer romcom baking competition series!

Danika reviews Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

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Lara has come back from the summer with a new look and newfound confidence. It’s paying off, because the guy she’s been obsessed with for all of high school is flirting with her! There’s just one problem: Jasmine just walked through the door. Jasmine, the girl she spent a confusing, steamy summer with. “Lara has everything she ever wanted: a tight-knit group of friends, a job that borders on cool, and Chase, the boy of her literal dreams. But if she’s finally got the guy, why can’t she stop thinking about the girl?”

This is a great story about a main character who is questioning her sexuality. She’s only ever been interested in guys, and she and Jasmine never really talked about what they were. Was it just… fun making out? Or was there something between them? When their summer ended without answers, she thought that was it. But now she facing her in the halls and there’s none of the ease there used to be–just awkwardness and miscommunication. Even when she’s with the guy she’s been pining over for years, she can’t stop thinking about her.

The timeline rotates between the past, starting with Lara and Jasmine’s meeting, and the present. Because so much of the present storyline is dealing with the tangled emotions of what happened between them, it still manages to feel suspenseful and intriguing. The tension between them in the present is intense–they’re both acting like nothing happened, but their chemistry is undeniable. (I kept thinking about “Strange” by Celeste: “From strangers to friends, Friends into lovers, And strangers again…”)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book for me was that Lara is the kind of character I usually read about in YA. She’s part of the “popular” crowd and is conventionally attractive (thin, perfect skin, and now blonde). She’s the best friend of the most popular girl in school–who can be a bit of a jerk, but also isn’t a monster. Her friends feel like real people (one runs a podcast where she investigates mundane mysteries, like who the school librarian is secretly dating), but they also feared enough that seats open up at the football game wherever they want to be.

I initially felt some resistance to Lara–do I want to really want to read about an attractive, popular teenage girl spending the summer having beach parties or by the pool? (Of course, this is ridiculous: I’m 30. It’s not like I’m relating to the teenage protagonist no matter their social status. I’m just accustomed to YA starring the misunderstood/nerdy/loser/underdog/etc character.) She pretty quickly won me over, though. Lara is trying to figure herself out–not just her sexuality, but who she is outside of her friend group or obsessive crush. That summer allowed her to try on some independence, and she isn’t ready to give it up.

I really enjoyed this book. It got me thinking about how bisexuals experience heteronormativity/compulsory heterosexuality. That’s usually only discussed in terms of lesbians, but Lara is so clearly trying to act out the image of a perfect heterosexual relationship (dating the quarterback, dreaming about being prom queen) without actually engaging with her own emotions. Is she attracted to Chase? Or is she attracted to the title of being Chase’s girlfriend?

Both Lara and Jasmine are Jewish, and there are some cute moments with them bonding over that, even though it means different things in their lives. In some ways, this was a painful read–I so wanted Jasmine and Lara to talk and face their feelings, but that would require them to be different people. The story is about Lara puzzling through her emotions and their significance, so I can’t hold that against her!

Adler so perfectly captures hormone-drunk, confusing, sun-drenched summer relationship feeling. Also, I had to laugh when when Lara talks to 1 (one) bisexual and says, “Well, I don’t have the same experience, so I must be straight.” Relatable content. If you’re looking for a great bisexual and/or questioning YA, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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“August believes in nothing except caution and a pocketknife.”

I first have to establish that I never read Red, White, and Royal Blue. I know that everyone and their sister was raving about that book, but as you probably can guess, I tend to centre women in my reading. Also, at a certain point the hype became overwhelming. So when I picked up One Last Stop, despite the author’s reputation, I was fully ready not to like it in some sort of defiant stubbornness. Instead, I am here to tell you that this author has earned the hype.

Although I read a lot of books, this is the first read in a long time that’s completely immersed me in it. It was the kind of book where you have to shake your head when you surface, because you’ve completely forgotten that the real world exists or that time has been passing.

This is about August, a twenty-something who has recently moved to New York with no plan other than switching into a new school. She has been doing this for years–switching schools, majors, and cities without ever fully unpacking or settling down. Growing up, it was just her and her mother against a hostile world. Her mother’s brother went missing in the 70s, and her mother made it her life’s mission to find out what happened to him. August’s first word was “case.” She was raised on a diet of true crime and survival strategies. She always carries a pocketknife and never goes to a second location.

At the beginning of One Last Stop, August is looking for a cheap apartment in Brooklyn. Obviously, she doesn’t have a lot of options. She decides to move in with three weirdos despite her misgivings–one is a psychic and another is building a sculpture with frog bones. I was hooked from the first page, where their roommate notice is a) taped to a garbage can and b) reads, in part: “Must be queer & trans friendly. Must not be afraid of fire or dogs. No Libras, we already have one.” (Of course, she ends up becoming fast friends with them.) I love the quirkiness of these characters that never becomes over the top or too cutesy. As for representation, August is white and bisexual (yes, this uses the word bisexual!) and there are significant POC, queer, and trans side characters. The love interest is Chinese-American and butch!

Speaking of the love interest, this is a romance, so let’s get to the heart of it. August is on her way to her first day of class when she spills coffee on her shirt on the Q train. The aforementioned cute butch, Jane, smiles at her and gives her a scarf, and August is immediately smitten–who wouldn’t be? One of my favourite parts of the book is August daydreaming about Jane assembling a bed frame. If fantasizing about cute butches putting together furniture isn’t sapphic culture, I don’t know what is.

There’s just one problem. Jane is stuck on the subway. And has been since the 70s. Now, August has to work a new case to try to figure out how to save her crush stuck in time–even if it means she’ll never see her again.

All of the reviews I’ve seen for this book talk about how cute and delightful it is, which is fair, but it’s also got some depth and darkness to it. August feels lost and isolated. It’s the story of her beginning to make connections and put down roots, and maybe lay the knife to the side sometimes. There are family secrets, betrayals, and tragedies. While this is a love letter to New York, it’s also a celebration of queerness, found family, and community. We get to see what Jane’s experience was like, growing up in the 70s as a butch punk Asian lesbian. The Stonewall Riots were not history for her. It explores queer history in New York and uplifts what queerness looks like there now–including some very memorable drag nights.

It’s also sexy and romantic. August and Jane have an almost supernatural connection. Jane has forgotten most of her life, and together they try to regain her memories, usually through recreating elements of her past. August brings her endless coffee order and snacks to try to find one that sparks a memory. They have great banter–in fact, the quippy dialogue is a strength in this novel overall. Even as they get closer, Jane’s situation pulls them apart. Even if they can find a way to reverse this situation, will Jane stay here or go back to her time? Which does she want? They have undeniable chemistry and there are some seriously steamy scenes. (Content warning for semi-public sex.)

I am fully on board the Casey McQuiston train (puns!), and I highly recommend you come along. This was a 5 star read, and one I look forward to rereading. It’s a sexy, romantic celebration of queerness and New York. Believe the hype.

One Last Stop comes out June 1st.

Kayla Bell reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Kayla Bell Reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan cover

In the bookish community, there is a divide between people who are character readers versus plot readers. Character readers need to read detailed, nuanced characters, while plot readers focus on an interesting, intricate plot. For the longest time, I thought I was a character reader. I’ve read plenty of books where the plot takes a backseat to a character’s journey of self-discovery and really enjoyed them. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan made me really rethink this aspect of my reading life, and I now know that I actually do need even just a little bit of a plot in order for a book to keep my attention.

Exciting Times is the story of Ava, an Irish twentysomething who moves to Hong Kong to teach English. While she’s there, she becomes entangled with a rich, aloof, English banker named Julian and, later, a vibrant, interesting lawyer from Hong Kong named Edith. The book deals with her differing relationships with both of them, and Ava trying to figure her life out. Aside from that, there is not much of a plot. It’s definitely a character-driven book.

Even that description I just gave reveals why this book fell a little flat for me. To me, it seemed that Ava was so clearly happier with Edith, who actually cared about her and called her out on her self-sabotage. This fact made it hard to understand the choices she was making to continually go back to Julian, who was so cold to her but offered her financial security. I wish that there had been more of an external conflict that would force Ava to really confront her dilemma and choose one or the other. Without it, in my opinion, the book basically became Ava’s internal monologue, which made it drag in the middle. This story structure also made the ending feel kind of rushed. I had a hard time understanding why Ava made the choices she made.

With that, there was also plenty to like about this novel. I can’t speak to the Asian representation in this book, but to me, Edith was a very interesting and compelling character, albeit less so seeing her through Ava’s eyes. I wish we had gotten more time with her and learned more about who she is outside of her relationship with Ava. I also really enjoyed how the book played with language. Ava’s English lessons were weaved through the writing in a really unique way. The voice of the book felt very raw and honest, and that’s what kept me reading even through the parts I found a little tedious. The setting of Hong Kong was also utilized very well, in my opinion, and made the book’s imagery feel vivid and interesting.

I saw a lot of comparisons between Naoise Dolan’s and Sally Rooney’s writing when reading reviews of this book and I can understand that. For me personally, Rooney’s books worked in a way that this one didn’t quite achieve. That being said, I enjoyed Exciting Times although it wasn’t quite my cup of tea and the ending frustrated me. I am always glad to see more queer representation from Irish authors and characters, though, and would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.

Carolina reviews We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman’s debut, We Play Ourselves, satirizes the contemporary art scene through the eyes of Cass, an embittered former drama wunderkind turned hapless millennial, as she uncovers the secrets behind an up-and-coming feminist documentary. However, behind that beautiful cover and biting wit, We Play Ourselves fails to balance criticism and nuance, and falls prey to the very structures that it pokes fun at.

After being #cancelled in the fray of a viral scandal and Off-Broadway flop, 30-something playwright Cass retreats to the sleepy suburbs of LA to stay with her friend and his on-the-rocks boyfriend. After a listless lull at the house, Cass is approached by a prominent filmmaker, Caroline, whose new project, a subversive, feminist Fight Club starring a feral pack of teenage girls, draws Cass in. After meeting the cast and starting the project, Cass begins to recognize that Caroline’s draw towards these girls crosses the line between muse and manipulator, and must reckon with her place at the heart of an exploitative art piece.

Silverman is an incredibly talented author, whose word choice is always sharp and necessary, and whose sentences string together in poignant prose. She brilliantly constructs the mindset of someone trying to rebuild themselves once they’re stripped to their most vulnerable state. Cass is an unlikable narrator: she’s catty, unempathetic and pretentious. However, your eyes are glued to her every move, and hungry for her backstory. I also found Silverman’s comparison of the limitations of artistic mediums incredibly interesting: theatre is a completely different animal than film, as this juxtaposition is made clear by the alternative perspectives in New York and Los Angeles.

We Play Ourselves takes major media buzzwords, and cultural revolutions, such as the MeToo Movement, conversations of media inclusion and representation and cancel culture, and breaks them down to their core through her sardonic wit. However, this satire can be read as tokenizing or dismissive to real life issues. For example, Cass’s nemesis, Tara-Jean Slater, is a self-proclaimed “turned asexual” after being assaulted by her uncle as a child, who then channels her trauma in a best-selling play and up-coming Netflix show, starring Cate Blanchett and Morgan Freeman as different iterations of her uncle. It’s quite obvious that Silverman is poking fun of the use of big celebrity names to sell products, but it instead comes across as acephobic and ignorant of the real trauma and mental health issues faced by CSA survivors, as Cass is “jealous” of Tara’s “selling point” as a CSA survivor.

This facetiousness is present throught the novel: Silverman pokes fun at tokenism by criticizing Caroline’s “diverse” film with only two non-white leads, but is guilty of the same crime, as no other non-white characters are present in the narrative. Caroline also fetishizes queer women, as she forces BB, the lesbian teenage girl, to fake a coming out to Cass, the only queer person on the film set, in order to garner attention from LGBT movie audiences. However, BB and Cass’s relationship is awkward and forced, contrived by BB’s crush on Cass, and the uncomfortable age gap between the two characters. The film storyline is extremely fraught with these problematic elements, and does little to reckon with them: I much preferred the New York theatre scenes to the Los Angeles film scenes, and would have preferred a narrative without the film aspect. We Play Ourselves is a narrative journey through the lens of a disillusioned young adult in the pretentious art scene, but does little to critique the issues at its core.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy

Warnings: homophobia, substance abuse, cheating, violence, racism, sexual assault, child abuse, disordered eating

Meagan Kimberly reviews You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.

The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.

As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.

The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.

She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.

It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.

I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.

[Spoiler warning]

Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.

Danika reviews Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan

Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan cover

Zara Hossain is Here surprised me. This is a short book, and it’s written in a way that feels pared down to the essentials. When the story begins, Zara is experiencing Islamophobic harassment from the star football player at school, but she has a strong network and friends and family that supports her. This harassment escalates, though, and it takes the story in a darker and more complicated direction than I was expecting.

Zara’s family has been living in Corpus Christi for 14 years after emigrating from Pakistan. They’re still waiting for their green card application to go through, though, which has put them all in stasis for many years. Zara is graduating this year, but she can’t apply to universities until she has permanent resident status, at least not without racking up insurmountable international student tuition fees. She’s also the only Muslim going to a mostly-Catholic school, which means facing bullying, especially when her friends can’t be by her side. She tries to keep her head down and avoid drawing attention to herself.

In Social Justice club, though, she can use her voice and be her authentic self: progressive, Muslim, and proudly bisexual. (And yes, she uses the word “bisexual”! She’s also out to her supportive parents.) The club is run by a queer teacher who Zara idolizes (and has a crush on), and it’s also there that she meets Chloe, a white lesbian from a strict Catholic family looking for a place she can fit in. They quickly hit it off, and between protests, they flirt and start dating. I appreciated that they discuss a little bit about navigating white privilege in interracial relationships: Chloe is supportive, but she that doesn’t mean she immediately understands what it’s like to live as a person of color in the U.S., and she does have to learn and adapt.

Do be prepared to get hungry reading this: there is much more food on the page than I was expecting–mostly Pakistani meals. Get ready to either spend some takeout cash or try some new recipes, because there are so many dishes lovingly described that made me want to put down the book and pick up a fork.

It’s difficult to discuss this story without some mild spoilers, because an event about halfway through the book is what the entire plot hinges on. It’s also something I think you should be prepared for before reading. So I’m going to give a mild spoiler warning for the rest of the review.

Zara continues to be harassed at school by Tyler, which escalates to slurs painted on her locker, his suspension, and finally, Tyler and his friends spray-painting a racist message on their home. Zara’s mild-mannered father catches him and goes to Tyler’s father’s house to confront him, while Zara and her mother beg him to wait until morning. There, Tyler’s father shoots him, claiming self-defence and charging him with trespassing.

I wanted to mention the specifics because although the book begins with racist harassment, it’s not immediately obvious that it will involve a racist hate crime or gun violence. From that point on, Zara and her family are wholly concentrated on her father’s recovery–he is in a medically-induced coma. To make matters even worse, if he is charged with trespassing, it could jeopardize their green card status.

The rest of the story focuses on immigration and the sometimes unfathomable hurdles immigrants have to face. Zara is horrified to realize that there’s a chance that her family won’t be able to stay in the U.S. because her father was charged with trespassing–despite the fact that he was the victim of a possibly fatal hate crime. She also learns that although green card applications regularly take more than 8 years to complete, there are no protections for children who age out before their applications are finished.

Meanwhile, her mother (understandably) does not feel that her family is safe in this country anymore. Even if Zara’s father has a complete recovery, what’s preventing another racist with a gun from doing this again? She requires constant check-ins from Zara and panics when she doesn’t receive a text when Zara gets to the library. She moved her for a better life, but she no longer believes that it is.

Meanwhile, Zara is completely unmoored. The idea of either being forced or choosing to move back to Pakistan, a place she hasn’t lived since she was 3, is hard to even consider. There’s also the fact that she would be forced back into the closet, and that she might not be able to marry who she loves. That’s not even taking into account leaving her home, her friends, her family, her girlfriend… She wants somewhere that she can be her whole self in safety: a queer Muslim Pakistani woman.

I appreciated the complexity that this story brought to the subject of immigration. It discusses the wait time and challenges to completing the application process, but also the luck involved. This chance encounter could erase all her family’s years of being ideal citizens, including her father’s work as a beloved pediatrician. An author’s note explains the author’s own family’s immigration process was derailed by a clerical error, making all of their work null and void. Added to that is the layer of Zara’s family wondering: is this worth it? Do I want to be in a country where so many people don’t want me here? Even if most of the people they encounter are supportive, it just takes one armed racist or one well-connected bigot to dismantle their lives.

This is a book that doesn’t provide any easy answers. It acknowledges that these are thorny, deeply flawed choices to have to make. Zara wants to stay and fight to make things better, but her mother is tired of fighting–and both of those are fair. This is a great addition to books that start conversations about immigration in the U.S., with the added layer of being an out queer immigrant from a country that is not accepting of queer people. I highly recommend it.

Sabina Khan’s Zara Hossain is Here is out April 6, 2021.

Danika reviews Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

Follow Your Arrow by Jessica VerdiAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

CeCe and her girlfriend, Silvie, are social media stars. They have about a million followers each, and they are #RelationshipGoals. Their ship name is Cevie, and their lives online and off are intertwined. CeCe’s picture-perfect crafted persona begins to fall apart, though, when bickering with her girlfriend turns into fighting–none of which is reflected on the app, of course–which turns into a break up. CeCe isn’t sure what her brand is now that she’s single. To complicate things further, CeCe is bisexual–she’s been out for years–and she’s starting to get a crush on a very offline guy. How will he react to her online life, and how will her Cevie fans react to him?

This is the second of two bi YA books I read that come out today! (Also check out my review of I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre.) I have to take this space to do a little celebration of that fact! I remember when hardly any queer YA got published in a year, never mind two traditionally published bisexual YA books in the same day. Because this is the Lesbrary, I want to make clear that this features a M/F romance with a bi woman main character.

Follow Your Arrow is a coming-of-age-on-the-internet story. CeCe is immersed with “the App,” and her sense of self is wrapped up in it. She was once an outspoken activist–her walls are covered in protest signs she carried in marches–but she has sanitized this aspect of herself online. She used to get into screaming arguments with her Conservative father, until he left them. Now, she tries to make sure that nothing she does online could result in a pile-on. When her online fanbase begins to turn on her anyways, she has to re-evaluate. I appreciate that there’s some nuance here: it’s not a scare tactic about social media or “cancel culture:” the story acknowledges positives and negatives of both.

Like I Think I Love You, I really liked how this examined bisexuality as a distinct identity: not just gay light or… spicy straight. CeCe feels like she’s not considered queer enough to have pride or have it be an important part of her identity: she has talked herself out of getting a rainbow tattoo, because she doesn’t feel that she can “claim” this, or that people would object because she’s not “queer enough.” I also appreciated that she’s primarily attracted to women. Bisexuality with a preference isn’t something I’ve seen represented in YA before, but it’s very common in real life.

This turned out to be a bit of a personal read, but to explain that, I have to wander into potential spoiler territory–but not more than what’s on the back of the book. CeCe is worried that, despite being out as bi, she will receive backlash online if she dates a guy. To be clear: I have in no way at any time been famous on the internet. But I have been famous on one tiny part of the internet, which is the lesbian books part of it–at least 5 years ago. And when I started dating a guy after IDing as a lesbian for years online, I went through a miniature version of this on tumblr. Seeing people talk about your dating life and identity online, especially in a vindictive way, is very weird and definitely gets in your head (especially if you’re already going through an identity crisis). I cannot imagine being a truly public figure, because I sure couldn’t help myself from looking at that train wreck constantly until people lost interest.

I also appreciated that the story validates CeCe’s decision to set boundaries around her relationship with her father. I was worried that the trajectory was towards CeCe making amends even though her father was hateful, both politically and personally. (Mild spoiler:) Luckily, I was wrong about that. The narrative showed that she was right to separate herself, and that it is the healthiest thing for her.

I do want to give a content warning for biphobia: Follow Your Arrow includes hateful biphobic comments that I found difficult to read, but the narrative obviously contradicts them. If you’re looking for a coming of age story that considers bisexuality as an identity and the pitfalls of growing up online, I highly recommend this one!