Maggie reviews Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is one of those rare books where an interesting concept is upheld through thorough world-building and great writing. It posits “What would happen if the zombie apocalypse happened at the end of the Civil War?” and follows through with that idea – building an amazingly detailed post-war, post-undead world and filling it with political conspiracies, combat schools, small life details, and plenty of drama.

The story follows Jane McKeene, a student at one of the most prestigious combat schools for black girls in the Baltimore area. She is training to be an attendant, a highly skilled position that is meant to protect the life and virtue of wealthy white women, but Jane has her own plans to return to the plantation where she was born, which is now being run by her mother. Before she can graduate and strike out for home, however, she is caught up in a series of events that takes her out of Baltimore and to the Kansas prairie town of Summerland. Stranded there with her fellow school-mate Katherine, Jane discovered that the torturous living conditions of Summerland cover up even worse problems coming for the inhabitants.

What I really liked most about this book was the care that was put into creating the world and the atmosphere of the book. It’s not logical to plop down zombies into the Civil War and keep everything else the same, but the author carefully layered her story with details about how life would play out, right down to acceptable skirt lengths and Jane’s utter shock at seeing real horses in Summerland. It’s the sort of world-building that I love to immerse myself in. Please, tell me more about the history of combat schools, how zombie fighting techniques evolved, and the effect of the undead on post-Civil War life. Add to that the weird cult-like atmosphere in Summerland, and you have an engaging and evolving read that really fleshes out the premise of a historical zombie apocalypse. There’s also plenty of straight-up zombie fighting included too, for a nice balance of action and plot-building. Jane is an extremely capable person who is absolutely deadly with her zombie-fighting scythes. A child of her time, she doesn’t waste time on the nostalgia of those older than her, who long to go back to the way things were before the undead rose up. Zombies and post-war politics are simply a fact of life for her, and she switches back and forth between doing what she needs to survive zombies and doing what she needs to survive white society, although her strong independent streak does get her in trouble a lot.

Another thing I liked about this book was how quietly, and normally, queerness crept into it. At first, Jane shows both that she has been involved with Jackson Keats, a local boy, and an appreciation for Mr. Redfern, a trained fighter who works for the Mayor. Later though, she reveals that she has had relationships with girls in the past, and it was, in fact, a girl who taught her how to kiss. I really enjoy that this information is revealed so casually, and that Jane herself is very casual about it. At once her sexuality is a real and explicit part of her character and not a guiding part of the plot at all. I guess that fighting zombies means that she does not have time to worry about who she wants to be with, or perhaps she came to terms with herself with her first girlfriend. Either way, Jane McKeene does what she wants, whether that’s fighting zombies or kissing girls, and it was nice to have it be such a nonissue for a historical character. Kate, on the other hand, is outwardly bossy but intensely private about her personal life. Even when she and Jane grow closer through their shared struggles, she doesn’t like to talk about her past. Finally though, she confesses to Jane that she isn’t interested in sex or marriage. This happens towards the end of the book, so there isn’t time to develop this more, but I was genuinely excited for ace rep, and I really appreciated the antagonists-to-friends arc that her and Jane went through.

I’m excited to see how Jane and Kate grow in the next book, and I’m also excited to see what society looks like as Jane and Kate move west across the frontier!

Susan reviews Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

Bingo Love by Tee Franklin cover

I’m pretty sure that I can’t discuss Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge’s Bingo Love without spoilers, because the things that naffed me off the most about it are all massive honking spoilers. It’s a second-chance romance; Mari and Hazel meet again in their sixties and decide to pick up where they left off as teenagers when their homophobic families forcibly separated them. The art is fantastic, I especially love the way that the colours are done, everyone’s looks are excellent. I liked how supportive and loving Hazel’s children were eventually, although the fact that Hazel gets homophobia from all generations of her family is upsetting. The dialogue was quite stilted, but some of the conversations – especially the ones about boundaries–were pretty good. And… That’s the most I can say about it without spoiling anyone. Abandon hope all ye who enter here and all that jazz!

Okay, so I was mostly on board with Bingo Love until it turned out to be The Notebook with queer women. (I wasn’t kidding about the spoilers!) Like, my hatred for The Notebook is as deep as the sea, so that particular reveal was hugely disappointing to me! It turned a few things that I thought were continuity errors into foreshadowing, which was good! It made the cold-open make sense, because as it was Hazel appears to hear someone begging for help after being made homeless by their homophobic family and immediately make it about how much worse queer people had it when she was a kid. No! It’s just how she launches into telling her life story to her wife with dementia. I guess queer women (and especially queer women of colour) deserve to have their own version of The Notebook, if that’s what they want? But for me, it was the tipping point where I couldn’t ignore the things that bugged me anymore.

For example: Mari and Hazel seeing each other for the first time in forty years and immediately running to kiss each other was baffling to me. They’re different people now! Surely there needed to be some build-up or getting to know the adult versions of themselves before the kissing and leaving their husbands! … Actually, I think lack of build-up is the problem for most of the book, because fifty to sixty years are whizzed over at lightspeed, which means that the relationships don’t feel like they have a solid foundation. Not to mention I’m fundamentally suspicious of Hazel’s therapist drawing a distinction between “someone who is the same gender as you” and “someone who identifies as the same gender as you,” because I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be trans-inclusive and missed, or if it’s just being transphobic.

I think what I’m saying here is that Bingo Love is flawed but could be serviceable for someone who isn’t me. The art is good, and getting to see two queer women of colour getting married with their families around them was worth the price of admission. It was just the stuff around that making me twitch.

[Caution warnings: homophobia, adultery, dementia]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence

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.

Black Bi & Lesbian Book Recommendations for Black History Month and F/F February

February is Black History Month, and I thought I’d use this time to promote some black lesbian books! (And black bisexual books, black sapphic books, black queer books, etc.) Black lesbian fiction is one of the keywords that leads a lot of people to the Lesbrary, and I can see why. A quick Google search doesn’t bring up a lot of helpful posts. The Black Lesbian Literary Collective is a fantastic resource, though, and I highly recommend checking it out.

To help add to your Black History Month TBR, here are 15 black bi and lesbian books that I love. Most are by black authors and feature black characters, but there might be a few that are just one or the other. Let me know in the comments what your favourite black lesbian fiction is, or any other black queer books you recommend!

I’m going to start out with 15 black sapphic books that I have read and loved, and then I’ll share some of the top ones on my TBR. I talked about them in my latest Book Riot video, or you can scroll down if you’d rather read my thoughts on each!

Fiction:

The Color Purple by Alice WalkerThe Color Purple by Alice Walker

This is a classic for a reason. It does have brutal subject matter, including rape and racism, but it somehow manages to have an overall message of hope and resilience. My favourite part about this book was the huge cast of diverse, complex female characters that all form a network of support with each other, finding connections across difference.

Speaking of relationships between women, the description of this book often downplays the queer content. Celie is proudly gay. She has romantic and sexual relationships with women in this book. It’s not subtext: it’s a major part of the plot.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The Summer We Got Free by Mia MckenzieThe Summer We Got Free by Mia Mckenzie

The overwhelming image I get when trying to describe The Summer We Got Free is the moments just before a summer thunderstorm: the charged anticipation, the humid heat, the claustrophobia of it. This is about a family and a house haunted by its past. In an alternating structure, we learn about Ava as a vibrant, unrestrainable child, and the closed-off and dulled person she is now. Slowly, we build up to the event that caused this shift. This is a brilliant and affecting book that should be recognized as a classic of black lesbian fiction and of literary fiction in general.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

YA and Middle Grade:

This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca BarrowThis is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

Who can resist a literal getting the band back together book? Dia, Jules, and Hanna used to be inseparable. But the band and friendship fell apart when a) Dia’s boyfriend died b) Dia discovered soon after that she was pregnant and c) Hanna’s alcoholism landed her in the hospital. Dia cuts ties with Hanna, and Jules sides with her. Now, Hanna is sober, Dia is a mom of a toddler, and there’s a Battle of the Bands that could change all of their lives, if they can mend their friendship. These are multifaceted people with complex relationships with each other. There’s also a cute F/F romance (with Jules)!

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Little and Lion by Brandy ColbertLittle & Lion by Brandy Colbert

A quiet, thoughtful book that deftly handles subjects like race, sexuality, and mental health. Suzette is black, bisexual, and Jewish, and those aspects of her identity all interact and affect her everyday life. I liked how it addressed the challenges of coming out even in a fairly positive environment: the embarrassment in having to announce this intimate part of yourself, the tension in seeing what people’s reactions will be, the irritation of having it involuntarily become your defining feature, the general awkwardness. But this story isn’t about Suzette’s sexual identity. It’s about her relationship with her brother, and how they’ve recently grown apart, to her dismay. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar, and shortly after that, Suzette was sent away to boarding school. They haven’t seen each other a lot, and they aren’t sure how to go back to the closeness they once shared. It’s painful. This is a beautiful book with a lot of depth.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda PetrusThe Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

It’s the classic story: girl meets granddaughter of pastor, girls falls in love, girls get caught and sent away to separate countries. That is only the beginning, though.

This is a book with a strong voice and focus. I appreciate that this isn’t written to pander to a white American audience–it trusts that readers will ether understand or accept being a little lost. It makes for an immersive, powerful read.

I really appreciated the skill at work here. Audre and Mabel are well-rounded characters, and I loved their relationship. Mabel pushes away the people in her life when she becomes seriously ill, and they also don’t know how to be around her. Audre is determined to keep their friendship, and she continues to show up for Mabel. They develop a stronger relationship through this. Audre is also still dealing with the rejection from her mother, and slowly becoming closer to the father that she has spent very little time with in her life.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The House You Pass On the Way by Jacqueline WoodsonThe House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson

This is a tiny (99 pages) book with a lot of layers. It’s the story of the summer when Staggerlee was fourteen, and when she felt confused and alone. It’s also the summer when she met her (estranged, adopted) cousin Trout. It’s atmospheric and emotional. Staggerlee is struggling with being small-town famous for her grandparents dying in an anti-civil rights bombing. She feels set apart for being mixed race, and is also questioning her sexuality. She is able to process a lot of this with Trout, finding ease in not yet having the answer. “Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t be gay.” This is a slow, thoughtful read.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender coverHurricane Child by Kacen Callender

A middle grade novel with a lot of complexity. It’s set on the US Virgin Islands, and Caroline is struggling with a lot: she is ostracized at school, her mother has gone missing, and as she begins to develop feelings for a new girl at school, she is met with waves of homophobia. This is a difficult and sometimes surreal book–Caroline sees spirits. This is a messy story, not in writing skill, but because it realistically depicts this overwhelming and confusing point in Caroline’s life.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Goldie Vance Volume 1Goldie Vance series by Hope Larson (Author) and Brittney Williams (illustrator)

This is an all-ages comic with a black teenage girl detective! The plot is a little more serious/political than I’d expect with something like Lumberjanes, but this is still a lot of fun.

Of course, what really made me love this is the queer content. Goldie meets Diane and is immediately enamored with this girl rocking the James Dean look. Their romance is adorable, and I look forward to seeing more of them.

(Note: Brittney Williams is the co-creator, and she does the illustrations in this first volume, but isn’t involved in the subsequent volumes.)

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Science Fiction & Fantasy:

The Salt Roads by Nalo HopkinsonThe Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

This is historical fiction following three black women in different places and times (18th century Haiti, 19th century Paris, and 4th century Egypt). All three are sometimes possessed by Elizi, a spirit.

The Salt Roads is a hugely ambitious book exploring racism throughout time, and how these women survive and fight back. It is also incredibly queer. I was assigned this in a university class, and I was pleasantly surprised to find 2 lesbian sex scenes within the first 15 pages.

This is a stunning book that made me a lifelong Nalo Hopkinson fan.

Skip my review and check out Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian’s.

Falling in Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson coverFalling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson

Did I mention being a lifelong Hopkinson fan? I’ll admit that this collection only has one sapphic story, but it is the longest story in the collection, and there are other queer stories. I was hooked  from the first sentence: I didn’t used to like people much.

“Ours Is the Prettiest” is part of the Borderlands series, which is a series of books and stories where authors share the same characters and settings. I thought this worked really well as a stand-alone. I can’t say how well it fits into the established world–in the introduction Hopkinson mentions getting complaints that her more diverse take was criticized by some readers–but I am definitely inclined to side with this story, which felt like it had more world-building informing it than even made it into the text.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlEverfair by Nisi Shawl

This is a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian Congo. It is a brilliant, dense, thought-provoking story about colonialism told from a huge variety of perspectives. This means that you get to see the story from so many angles: the well-meaning white supporters of Everfair, the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, mixed-race European Everfair inhabitants, etc.

The story spans decades, tackling politics, war, espionage, grief, love and betrayal. There are three queer women point of view characters, and the complicated, deeply flawed, compelling relationship between two of them is at the heart of this story.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

This follows a vampire from just before her change, when she is escaping from slavery, to two centuries afterwards (yes, to 2050). It is almost like a collection of short stories, each set a decade or two after the previous one. It really imagines the scope of being immortal. It also is just as much a history of racism and slavery in the United States.

I also loved how Gomez incorporated vampire mythology (about running water and connection to the earth) as well as developing a vampire moral code: Vampires are able to manipulate people’s thoughts, reading what a person needs (comfort, decisiveness, hope, etc), and leaving that with them. They also heal the wounds they cause, making it, in their opinion, an even exchange.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Better Off Red by Rebekah WeatherspoonBetter Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Another lesbian vampire book, but with a very different tone. This is an erotica (vampire sorority sisters!) I did have some issues with the plot, but overall this is a really fun, sexy story that manages to convincingly have vampires with consensual relationships.

Despite the vampire orgies, this ends up having compelling characters. I look forward to reading the next books in the series, especially because focuses on my favourite supporting character, Cleo.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Nonfiction:

Hunger by Roxane GayHunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger follows Roxane Gay’s journey with her body, from when she was a kid to her present day, and how the trauma in her life has played out over her body. It talks frankly about her rape as a child and how she has lived with that experience for the rest of her life. It talks about the way our society views fat bodies, how that fatphobia affects her in so many ways. It talks about her disordered eating, the unhealthy relationships she’s had (as well as the healthy ones).

Despite the subject matter, Gay writes in approachable style that feels like she’s having a conversation with you, making this easier to read than I was expecting. She also discussed coming out as bi, and some of her relationships with women. This is dark, sometimes brutal book, but it’s also a masterful one.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Of course, this only scratches the surface! Here are a few more on my TBR pile:

In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand  The Heart Does Not Bend by Makeda Silvera  Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Barnett  Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair  Don't Explain by Jewelle Gomez

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole  Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon    Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron  You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin  Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology edited by Barbara Smith    The Complete Works of Pat Parker    Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney

If you like what we do here at the Lesbrary, consider supporting the Lesbrary on Patreon! At $2 or more a month, you’re entered to win a queer women book every month! You can also check out the Lesbrary Amazon page for lists of all the sapphic books I recommend.

Danika reviews Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

 

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shira Glassman reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

                       Alyssa Cole’s drawing of her characters

That Could Be Enough, the lesbian offering in the early American romance collection Hamilton’s Battalion, is everything a gentle historical f/f romance should be. Both characters, Mercy the servant/secretary and Andromeda the dressmaker, are fully fleshed out even within the novella’s small scope — it feels fully complete and I truly felt like I watched their courtship unfold even though it’s less than a hundred pages (in my Kindle app, anyway.)

The skeleton is your basic “woman has been hurt Really Badly and finally opens up to love again despite all her fears” trope, but the prose is so approachable and the characters so vividly painted that it felt completely fresh to me. When Mercy first sees Andromeda in the doorway of the house where she works, she’s affected in a soul-claiming way that I don’t often see represented in the romances I read but have definitely experienced in the presence of a gorgeous and captivating lady.

Mercy’s a poet, but she shut all of that down because of the way a previous girlfriend treated her poetry as part of a cruel, fatalistic breakup. “There’d been a time,” Cole writes, “when she’d felt beautiful things acutely.” This is someone who’s natural personality wants to appreciate and worship all the glories the world has to offer, but can we blame her for being terrified and walled-in after such treatment, and with nobody else in her life – before Andromeda – contradicting her ex’s pronunciations about the fate of queer lives? However, when she starts emerging from her shell again, the poem Cole gave her to write is truly beautiful. I’d put it in the review, but I want you to discover it for itself 😉

In this respect Cole herself is a bit like Mercy, inasmuch as she did some truly stunning things with language. For example, close to the story’s opening, Mercy accidentally wrote “Yearned” in her diary when she was too tired to stop herself. The next morning, she scratches it out, in progressive horizontal lines compared to a wall, and replaces it with “Slept.” That’s some powerful imagery right there. We feel her sense of perpetual retreat.

I also really liked the scene where Andromeda whisks Mercy away to something truly cool that the local Black community is working on, something that feels so in tune with Mercy’s own interests that there’s narration about how “seen” she feels, by Andromeda’s choice. I can relate to that a lot; being truly seen is high on my list of things that I’m hoping will get me out of my current, Mercylike frame of mind, romantically.

It does contain That Old Standard Trope where someone believes the worst and doesn’t ask for clarification, but from misunderstanding to pain to happy resolution there really aren’t that many pages and honestly I can’t say I’d have behaved any better in her place because when you’re scared of rejection, asking frankly is… difficult.

Andromeda is clever and enterprising and devoted to her community, especially to her fellow Black women, and Mercy is sweet and deserves lots of pampering and reassurance and validation after the kind of self-denial in which she’s been wallowing.

Author Alyssa Cole did her research and shows us a dainty, yet earnest portrait of what life might have been like for two relatively fortunate queer Black women in the early days of America. We queer women deserve a part in the costume drama world that dazzles many of our imaginations. So do Black women, not that I can speak for them, obviously. Cole’s plot solution/resolution is completely realistic, which makes it far more enjoyable for me because it’s easier for me, personally, to enthusiastically embrace a happy ending if it’s set up to be a plausible one.

That Could Be Enough fulfills its mission. The setup and resolution affirm that yes, while the road has never been a guaranteed red carpet, it has always been possible for WoC and those of us who are queer to have a far more decent life than the hungry eyes of non-queer white literature with its appetite for exploitative tragedy would have us believe.

Incidentally, the story does contain some bits here and there that will probably make more sense to people more familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life, but I was mostly able to piece together from context what Mercy’s inner voice was thinking about and don’t worry if they lose you anyway; they’re not key to enjoying the story itself. (He’s not even alive anymore when the story takes place.)

I don’t remember this having any of the most common triggers I usually warn for. It does have a sex scene, so if that’s your preference, enjoy!

Shira Glassman writes affirming fantasy and contemporary fiction centering mostly on queer Jewish women. Come join Queen Shulamit as she saves her country’s farms with the assistance of a dragon and a witch in The Olive Conspiracy, or hang out with Clara Ziegler as she dyes yarn to match a cute girl’s wildlife paintings in Knit One Girl Twowhoops, she just accidentally dyed the cat pink, too!


Danika reviews Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert is a quiet, thoughtful book that deftly handles complex subjects. It immediately reminded me of Radio Silenceanother YA novel that explores race, sexuality, mental health, and adolescence seamlessly. I’m grateful that we now live in a time where queer young adult books have really matured, so to speak. In the days of Annie On My Mind, just being a white teen coming out as gay was scandalous enough, nevermind having anything else going on in your life.

Now, we finally have books that even when addressing the coming out arc can have more complexity and layers. Suzette is black, bisexual, and Jewish, and those aspects of her identity all interact and affect her everyday life. I liked how it addressed the challenges of coming out even in a fairly positive environment: the embarrassment in having to announce this intimate part of yourself, the tension in seeing what people’s reactions will be, the irritation of having it involuntarily become your defining feature, the general awkwardness.

But this story isn’t about Suzette’s sexual identity. It’s about her relationship with her brother, and how they’ve recently grown apart, to her dismay. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar, and shortly after that, Suzette was sent away to boarding school. They haven’t seen each other a lot, and they aren’t sure how to go back to the closeness they once shared. It’s painful. And it only gets more complicated when they both fall for the same girl.

The blurbs for this title seem to suggest that Suzette and her brother are pitted against each other, competing for the same girl. That’s not accurate. The core of this story is Suzette and Lionel’s relationship, and Suzette wouldn’t endanger that for a crush. So there is a love triangle, but it’s not as dramatic as that would suggest.

I really enjoyed Little & LionIt has a lot of subtle aspects that make the reading experience richer, including microaggressions (whether that’s racism, ableism, biphobia, or antisemitism). For example, I loved when Suzette got frustrated at the double-standard that bi people are not able to have a crush on two people, especially of different genders, at the same time, for fear of being associated with anti-bi stereotypes. I rolled my eyes at a review on Goodreads which played into this and accused Suzette of “emotional cheating,” despite her not even being in an official relationship.

I can’t comment on the mental health representation here, because I don’t have significant knowledge of bipolar disorder, but overall I thought this was a beautiful book, and makes me feel optimistic about the of queer lit, and specifically bi & lesbian young adult books, to know that these sorts of stories are being published. It’s about time!

Whitney D.R. reviews Fetch by B.L. Wilson

I wanted to read Fetch for two reasons: Black lesbians and my most beloved enemies-to-lovers romance trope. I don’t know what it is about two people who initially can’t stand each other realizing they’re in love (despite their better judgement), but it really turns my crank. Fetch also contains another of my favorite tropes and that’s opposites attract.

Amber is a no-nonsense femme with money and power and connections. Morgan is motorcycle-riding artist on the more stud side of the spectrum, working as a doorperson at Amber’s building. So there’s the ‘haves and have nots’ and ‘type A vs. type B’ personalities. On paper at least. I found that they were two sides of the same coin; two women who both liked to push and pull and wouldn’t back down from a real fight.  

I did find it odd that until the very end, the women addressed each other by their last names. They did have pet names for each other, but the last name thing was irritatingly consistent and I wish they had been more personal with that regard. And I recognize that these women had lived and loved before meeting each other (and some even during their interactions) but I didn’t particularly want to read Morgan have sex on-page with another woman (even if it was in the past/a flashback). Call me a romance traditionalist, I guess.

I really liked their sexual chemistry.  Despite her snotty attitude, I think Amber was more of a pussycat and Morgan saw right through it and pressed all the right buttons. Amber, as afraid of loving again as she was, really needed Morgan’s dominant side. I loved that Morgan brought out Amber’s docility. Also, this my very first time reading the word ‘punanny’ in a romance book and I was taken aback at first, then tickled pink. I’m so used to seeing other go-to raunchy euphemisms for vagina, that it was kind of refreshing.

One thing I had trouble with was the time and setting.  I wondered throughout reading why the author decided to use the events of 9-11 in a romance. Morgan and Amber have both experienced grave losses in the their lives, so I guess it could be argued the two women connected the theme of losing loved ones but on a grander scale. But it just didn’t fit or make sense to me because it felt more like a thing that just happened instead of a life-changing event that affected not just New Yorkers, but everyone in America. Though, obviously, New Yorkers felt it more keenly.

The pace of the novel was weird to me. I could never tell what time or day it was. For instance, when the women were in an office building together and the towers first got hit, it was roughly 9am, but the power went out and it was pitch black. At 9am? Did the office building not have windows? Then after, when Amber went to Morgan’s apartment it was still day and they were talking about breakfast and then all of a sudden it was night and Amber slept over.  When I reached the 40% mark in the book, only a day or two has truly gone by when it felt like a week or two in the book. And the flashbacks didn’t help.

Honestly, I felt like I was skimming more than I was actually reading. Not to say that this book wasn’t well-written, but maybe I wasn’t reading this at the right time. Characters had depth and dimension, but Fetch wasn’t for me as much as I wanted to love it. But I love the chemistry between Morgan and Amber and anyone that loves the same romance trope as I do may like this a lot.

2.5 stars

Maryam reviewed Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa edited by Allyn Diesel

I just finished Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa, edited by Allyn Diesel. It is a wonderful anthology of personal essays, poetry, and photographs, each African woman telling the tale of what it is to be queer in South Africa. They range from the heartwarming – Yulinda Noortman’s description of shopping for wedding fabric with her bride-to-be, in “The Dog, The Cat, The Parrot and the Pig and Other Tales” – to the heartwrenching: Keba Sebetoane’s “Who Are You to Tell Me What I Am?”, the brief, calamitous tale of her struggle with rape and the flawed system that kept her, and so many other women, from justice. My favorite was “I Have Truly Lost a Woman I Loved”, which features the wonderful photography of Zanele Muholi – one of her photographs graces this volume’s cover – and is a loving essay to her late mother. I only wished that some of the photographs she wrote about had been included in this book. Although some of the essays may begin in a similar fashion – I was married to a man, and then… or When I was a child…, there is something in the collection that everyone should be able to appreciate, and should serve as food for thought both in terms of social justice and how we relate to other women, no matter what their place in the queer spectrum.