A Dazzling Debut: How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler

the cover of How Far the Light Reaches

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I first learned about Sabrina Imbler (they/them) last year when my girlfriend and I traveled to Seattle to watch the UConn Women’s Basketball team compete in the Sweet 16. Whenever I travel, I like to visit a local bookstore, which is how we ended up in the gorgeous Elliott Bay Book Company, a woman and queer owned business located in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. When I asked one of the booksellers what LGBT books she recommended, she enthusiastically suggested Imbler’s gay volcano chapbook Dyke (geology) and a signed copy (Imbler’s name flanked by two cute goldfish) of How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Two gorgeous books by a queer person of color? I was elated.

Imbler is a writer and science journalist with a gift for storytelling. How Far the Light Reaches is organized into ten essays wherein Imbler masterfully weaves facts about sea creatures and phenomena with meditations on survival, identity, body image, family, relationships, and community. While the essays stand alone and can theoretically be read out of order, they have a clear throughline. As a reader who began How Far the Light Reaches with limited knowledge of marine biology, I was shocked by how many facts I retained from each essay. Imbler’s essays are crafted with care and intentionality. They don’t just state facts about each sea creature, they reflect on their essence, treating each with reverence.

In “My Mother and the Starving Octopus,” Imbler introduced readers to Graneledone boreopacifica and highlighted one of the most renowned of these purple octopuses: a mother who starved herself for 53 months (four and a half years) while she focused on the task of brooding her eggs. Imbler interspersed reflections on their mother’s sacrifices and on how Imbler learned to find their own body desirable through reveling in queer bodies.

In “Pure Life,” Imbler marveled at deep sea dwellers—vent bacteria, tube worms, and yeti crabs—which survive by using chemosynthesis for energy in the absence of sunlight.  Imbler likened hydrothermal vents in the ocean to queer spaces and communities—both representing oases providing rest, nourishment, and safety: “Life always finds a place to begin anew, and communities in need will always find one another and invent new ways to glitter, together, in the dark.”

In “Hybrids,” Imbler juxtaposed their biracial identity (half Chinese, half White) with a hybrid butterflyfish, the offspring of two different species. Imbler examined how The Question: “What are you?” is itself an act of taxonomy. They also reflected on the irony of their frustration with The Question, but also their endless curiosity about other mixed people.

In a word, How Far the Light Reaches is spectacular. The more I reflect upon it, the more I love it. I read it over the course of a few days, but Imbler’s writing is so thought-provoking, you may want to savor the book over time. I really hope Imbler will write another book, but in the meantime, you can check them out at Defector, an employee-owned sports and culture website, where they cover creatures.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, lack of consent, rape, body mutilation, racism, body image, disordered eating, and animal death/harm.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

A Cozy Queer Comic of Community: Matchmaker by Cam Marshall

the cover of Matchmaker

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This was a surprise, last-minute entry in my list of favourite reads of 2023!

I stumbled on this while researching new releases for Our Queerest Shelves, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it was by a local British Columbia author/artist! I requested it from the library knowing pretty much nothing else about it except that it was queer and looked cute. I ended up devouring it in a couple days, and I’m now mourning that it’s over.

This follows Kimmy and Mason, best friends and roommates trying to survive the early 2020s in their early twenties. Kimmy is a nonbinary/genderfluid transfem lesbian, and Mason is cis and gay. As the title suggests, Kimmy is determined to set Mason up with his first boyfriend, which is made a lot more complicated during a pandemic when Mason is high risk.

This was originally a webcomic, which is obvious from how each page is set up to be somewhat complete in itself, but there is a narrative. We follow Kimmy and Mason through dating, breakups, and accumulating a growing group of queer friends. I loved these characters so much, and I was laughing out loud at several pages. It’s just such a cute, funny, and relatable read.

Kimmy is an unforgettable character. They’re over-the-top bubbly and silly, and they radiate confidence. I really appreciated reading about a fat transfem character who is so secure in themselves. They usually use they/them pronouns, but they also experience gender fluidity and change pronouns some days.

About halfway through the book, we find out Kimmy has depression, and they have to taper off their medication to start a new kind. As they go off their depression medication, they become an almost unrecognizable numb, closed-off version of themself Mason calls “Normal Kimmy.” Their friends support them through the weeks of this until they’ve adjusted to the new medication and begin to feel like themself again, including being able to better take in what’s happening around them.

This community of queer friends was the strength of this story. Not only have Mason and Kimmy been best friends since high school, but they also make connections with other queer people, quickly growing a supportive friend group. Despite the struggles they’re dealing with in terms of employment, the pandemic, dating, capitalism, and more, that rock solid foundation made this a comforting and cozy read.

This is not a short comic: it’s 280 pages. But by the time I finished it, I was already missing spending time with these characters.

I do have one complaint, though, and I hope it’s changed in later editions, because it doesn’t fit with the range of queer identities represented positively in this story: Kimmy refers to their lack of libido from being off their medication as being asexual, including triumphantly declaring, “I’m not ace anymore!” when their sex drive returned, which isn’t great, especially because I believe that’s the only mention of asexuality in the book.

That unfortunate inclusion aside, I really enjoyed this book. You can also still read it as a webcomic!

A Fantasy of Community: Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree

the cover of Legends and Lattes

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Legends & Lattes has been reviewed at the Lesbrary before, and it’s certainly gotten a lot of praise online in general, so why do I feel the need to add my own positive review to the mix? I think it’s because the reason I loved it isn’t one I’ve seen touched on much, and it’s also why I think cozy fantasy has a particular appeal to queer readers—I adored it when I first encountered it in The Tea Dragon Society, and this series has only cemented that love.

I’m here to argue that queer cozy fantasy isn’t just about low stakes. It’s about building community, and that’s why it—like the found family trope—is so popular with queer readers.

To be clear, this series is cozy on several levels. The chapters are short and easy to read. It’s fairly low-stakes, it has a cozy setting—a coffee shop—and even the plot mirrors the home renovation TV shows so many people put on for something comforting. The romance is a gentle slow burn built on establishing trust and mutual respect. There’s a ratkin baker who invents cinnamon rolls. There’s a lot of coziness to go around.

But what I found the most cozy, comforting, and heartwarming about this book was the building of community. Viv sets out to start a coffee shop, and that’s inherently something you can’t do alone. She needs help to build and design the physical space as well as to staff it when it’s done. Because she’s starting this in a new town, she needs to build relationships in order to complete this goal.

Viv isn’t exactly the poster child for extroversion and teambuilding. She’s an orc, and that means many people are intimidated by her and associate her with violence. It doesn’t help that she was a fighter, and this is her attempt to retire from the adventuring life. She can be a little gruff, but she’s also kind. She reaches out to people, and almost despite herself, she build a community around the shop, allowing space for everyone’s talents and interests.

This is a story about finding your people. It’s found family, sure, but it’s also not just that. This is a community. Even if they’re not over for dinner every night, they have each other’s back when needed. Family is important, but I think focusing on found family can ignore the many ways we form connections with each other. A handful of essential relationships—family—in our lives is necessary, but so are the network of connections we make in other types of community. The friends who you only see a few times a year, but will always show up in an emergency. The ex-coworker who lets you know when a job possibility perfect for you opens up. The coffee shop owner who lets you host open mic nights there.

This community also allows for reinvention. Almost everyone associated with the coffee shop is exploring a role outside of what’s been assigned to them by society. Can an orc leave violence behind? Can a succubus be respected for her people skills without being reduced to “seductress”? Can a ratkin be a baker? Of course they can. Together, they’re able to support each other as they defy the expectations that have restrained them for so long.

It’s also a story about resilience and hope. The kind of hope that can have you build a business from the ground up, (spoilers, highlight to read) and run into the flames of it burning down to rescue the cappuccino machine so you can do it all over again. That hope blooms from the reciprocal generosity of true community. Being part of a network of people, all supporting each other in their own ways, allows you to have the confidence to begin again.

Human beings are meant to live in community with each other. We’re a social species. We depend on each other to survive. But consciously building these connections is something queer people are more likely to do, because we know that the family we’re born with could very well be conditional. Coming out tests all the relationships in our lives, and even if they survive, it’s hard not to be aware of how precarious they can be. I think that’s why cozy fantasy like this speaks to us so much: it reminds us that we can find family and community by reaching out to other people seeking connection. It can be messy and unconventional, but beautiful both in spite and because of that.

I did not think this cute fantasy book would have me thinking about the nature of human connection as it relates to queerness, but here we are! Whether you’re looking for a comforting read or inspiration to build community in your own life, pick this one up.

The Enthusiastic Ally to Bisexual Pipeline: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

the cover of Imogen, Obviously

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Now that I’m twice the age of many of the protagonists in Young Adult books, I have a different relationship with them. I still read YA, but I find myself feeling protective of the main characters instead of relating to them. Nothing exemplified that shift more than reading Imogen, Obviously, where I just wanted so badly to give Imogen a hug as I read it.

Imogen is a high school senior who is a very enthusiastic queer ally, even though she’s, as Imogen puts it, “hopelessly” straight. Her sister and two closest friends are all queer. She goes to every Pride Alliance meeting. Her favourite movie is But I’m a Cheerleader, and she collects editions of One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston.

Her best friend Lilli is a year ahead of her and has already found a queer friend group in university—the same school Imogen will be joining in a few months. Imogen is happy for her… even though she feels out of place. She doesn’t want to intrude, as a cis straight person.

When Lilli finally convinces her to visit, she drops a bombshell when Imogen arrives: Lilli felt insecure about not having a serious relationship with a girl before, and she lied about Imogen and her being exes. So now everyone thinks Imogen is bi, including Tessa, who gives Imogen butterflies, which is obviously just Imogen queerbaiting inside her own head.

Imogen as a character broke my heart, to be honest. She’s a people-pleasing overthinker who analyzes herself to death, twisting herself into knots until she loses sight of the very obvious. The very obvious like: she’s not straight. The very obvious like: her friend Gretchen isn’t the authority on all things queer, and can be pretty toxic when she acts like it.

In a social media graphic for the book, the author describes Imogen as having queer discourse brainworms, which is a good way to put it. She tries to educate herself about queer issues, but just ends up thinking that there’s only one right way to be queer. She doesn’t feel the same way about girls as she does in her crushes on guys, so she concludes that means she doesn’t like girls at all. Even when faced with obvious evidence to the contrary, she convinces herself that she’s just trying to be bisexual for clout and that she’s a bad person for appropriating queerness.

“Queerness recognizing queerness. It’s kind of beautiful when you think about it. I really do wish it was mine sometimes.”

Imogen longs to be part of the queer community, and while I’m sure there is some 100% straight and cis person this applies to in the world, it’s such a relatable queer experience. I was in middle school when I excitedly talked about looking forward to joining the Gay/Straight Alliance in high school, and how if I could choose, I’d be pansexual and panromantic. But, of course, I was hopelessly straight…

Gretchen was a difficult character. Some people will absolutely hate her, which I understand. But I found myself thinking that my high school self was somehow right between Imogen and Gretchen: an anxious overthinker who also was so deep in queer discourse that I thought I knew it all. Gretchen is going through some things and lashing out at other people—I hope that this is just the beginning of a journey of processing her trauma, because she’s not in a healthy place now.

I haven’t even mentioned the Tessa/Imogen romance! It is adorable. Tessa is a lesbian and Imogen (spoiler?) is bisexual. Both are Jewish. Poor Imogen takes a while to understand she’s falling for her, but it’s a fun ride, including college shenanigans with her and their friend group.

I loved reading this, even if being inside Imogen’s head could be a little too relatable at times. This is actually my first Becky Albertalli read, but I can now confirm the hype is justified. I highly recommend it to any queer person who once also thought they were hopelessly straight.

Danika reviews Red Rover by Liz Bugg and Land of Entrapment by Andi Marquette

I decided to review these in the same post because I have similar things to say about both of them.

My favourite thing about Red Rover is the queer elements. Not only is the main character a lesbian whose relationship is a side story in the novel, she also has ties to the queer community. Her best friend is a drag queen, and she looks for evidence in the queer community, including the queer clubs. She also asks for help from her ex-girlfriend. It’s nice to have a book that features queerness, not just in the individual, but in the community. In fact, I liked the descriptions of her neighborhood overall, which is unusual. I usually dislike a lot of descriptions of scenery and setting.

Although I liked most of the neighborhood description, I found some of the other descriptions a little long-winded. A pet peeve of mine in writing it when the author takes you by the hand to show you things, and this shows up sometimes in Red Rover, like explaining the emotions the protagonist is feeling when the dialogue pretty much speaks for itself.

I don’t read a lot of mystery because I tend to completely miss the hints and get lost halfway through. The plot of Red Rover kept me interested, so I never got to the point, but I predicted the “bad guy” very early on, which was a little disappointing.  I did like the plot overall, though the ending seemed fast-paced compared to the rest. I also liked the back story of Calli and her father and how it related to the plot.

Overall, I liked Red Rover, but I felt like it could have been better with some minor changes.

I liked the characters in Land of Entrapment. They were interesting and seemed really organic. The romance and friendships in the novel were complex and just seemed… natural. I really liked that.

I did have the same pet peeve crop up in this novel as in Red Rover, however: over-explaining. At some point, I remember every street and exit being named as the main character drove. This may be a flaw completely particular to me, however.

The subject matter is definitely interesting: neo Nazis. Drama! Suspense! But the plotting is a little uneven. It takes a little while to really get started. Once it does, however, Marquette seems to really know her subject matter, and the plot is engaging.

Again, this is a novel I liked overall, but there were some minor points that detracted from it.